Friday night, party time at Indiana University, and I'm holed up in the psych lab with Freud--my assigned goose in an experiment we're doing in my Psych 101 class. I know. What about rats? Or guinea pigs. That's what I figured Psych 101 would be about. But I had to get this weird professor who has a thing for the territorial behavior of geese, which as far as I can tell is to try to kill anyone who gets near them. Hardly endearing: Freud hisses every time he sees me. Right now he's staring at me with his beady little red eyes, like why don't you just leave me alone? But I can't help feel-ing sorry for a fellow living being caught in the wrong place, so even though he doesn't seem to like me all that much, I've taken to hanging out at the lab, where I just sit by his cage and keep him company. I read, or write in my journal--complaints, mostly, about how much I hate college, and nostalgic crap about better days. But I keep a lab book open beside me, and if the door opens and someone comes in, I put it on top of my journal, so it looks like I'm taking down data. It's better than hanging out alone in my dorm room. Or worse, hanging out not-alone in my dorm room with my roommate, Tiffany, and her boyfriend, Matt, where I am constantly reminded of my own boyfriendless, virginal state.
Which leads, every time, to thinking about Josh Morgan-- never a good thing to do. What's he doing right now? Who's he with? Did he see me coming up the hall toward the elevator in Ballantine Hall the other day, or did he just turn and head for the stairs because he was tired of waiting for it to come? What if, somehow, we'd ended up on the elevator together, by mistake? Would he have said something? Would I have?
Give it up, I tell myself. It's over. Ha. Like it ever was.
Which is how I've justified just not mentioning to Tiffany that Josh happens to be a pledge in Matt's fraternity. God. Just the thought of her in possession of that piece of information makes me go la, la, la, la. la, la, la, la, la, la inside my head.
"Six days till Mom comes to get me next weekend," I say to Freud. "One hundred forty-four hours--give or take a few--and I'll be at home, in my own room."
As if he cares.
I stay till nine, when I'm sure Tiff and Matt will have gone out for pizza--or whatever it is they do when they're not making out in our room. The dorm is dead, just us dateless wonders and a few geeks who like staying in to study on Friday night. I close the door behind me and climb up to the top bunk. Actually, it's kind of nice lying there in the dark. The smell of home on my pillow. Strains of all the different kinds of music people are listening to blending to make their own strange song.
I'm done with Freud, I tell myself. It's ridiculous to have a relationship with a goose. It's a good thing that Thursday will be the wrap-up of our experiment. He'll be sent out to the country, where he can terrorize cows and pigs for a change. I won't have to feel responsible for him anymore.
Then Thursday comes and, leaving class, I overhear Professor Harmon tell someone they're going to kill all the geese we used in the experiment. The geese are wrecked, he says. They can't be used in the same experiment again.
Even if I hadn't spent all those lonely evenings in Freud's company, I think I'd be freaked out. I mean, Jeez. It's one thing to annoy a bunch of geese so some college students can learn something they could just as easily have learned by reading a book. But to kill them because they can't be used for the same experiment again? That's not right.
So I wait until everyone's gone and go up to him. "You have to kill them?" I ask.
"Yes," he says, slipping his lecture notes into his back-pack.
"That's terrible," I say. "Can't you take them to a farm, or something like that?"
"Nobody wants geese," he says. "They're mean, as we have just so aptly proven."
"But what will you do? I mean, how do you kill them? And then what?"
"Lethal injection." He hoists his pack over his shoulder. "Then we incinerate them. But if you want your goose, Miss Hammond, you're welcome to it. If you can take it now."
Freud squawks plaintively. Now, suddenly, he wants to be my friend.
I could take him to the canal near our house in Indianapolis, I think. There are plenty of mean geese there already; he'd feel right at home. I could take him when Mom picks me up tomorrow. The tricky part would be explaining my plan to her in the split second between the time she sees the goose and the time she goes ballistic.
"Miss Hammond? I have a student waiting in my office."
"Could I borrow a cage?" I ask. "I'll bring it back Monday morning. I promise."
He nods wearily.
"Okay, then. I'll take him."
I'm too embarrassed to get on the bus with Freud, so I lug the cage across campus. It's the end of October, a beautiful day, leaves drifting down, fluorescent against the blue sky, but I shuffle along, head down, praying I won't run into anyone I know--especially not Josh and that Heather-type blond girl I've seen him with lately. On a campus with thousands of people on it, you'd think the odds of my even catching a glimpse of him would be pretty low; but I see him all the time. Not that he sees me all that often. I've got some kind of radar where he's concerned and usually manage to take a quick turn down an alternate path or step into a class-room building before I come into his view. When necessary, I skulk into the woods, like a spy. Carrying Freud, though, this could be difficult, and I am deeply relieved to get to the dorm without having to resort to such tactics.
I sneak up the back stairs, sprint for my room. The door's locked, which probably means Matt's there. So I knock before opening it and, sure enough, there's the usual clunk: Matt leaping from bed to chair.
"It's me, Emma. I forgot my key."
"Coming," Tiffany warbles.
Waiting for her to get decent, I remind myself that although Tiffany's a ditz and we have zip in common, she is truly nice. A perky, small-town girl, her idea of paradise is to drive up to Indianapolis and spend the whole day at Cas-tleton Mall, shopping at The Limited and stocking up on cheery little items at the Hallmark store: cute knickknacks and posters with those floaty, pastel, lightbulb-looking fig-ures spouting words to live by like "Today Is the First Day of the Rest of Your Life."
Her side of our room is full of that shit, which makes for a kind of schizophrenic environment. On my side there's a framed photo of the meadow outside our ski house in Michigan just after a snowstorm, and a glass dish of Petoskey stones I collected on countless beach walks at Sleeping Bear Dunes. There's a Harley-Davidson poster with a picture of a Sturgis just like my dad's, and a Steamboat Springs poster with a girl riding horseback in the snow, a pair of skis balanced on one shoulder. And this other, incredible poster I bought at the Metropolitan Museum when I went to visit my sister, Julie, in New York. It's of this gorgeous, built sculptor whose marble figure of a woman is coming to life. It kills me, that painting. The sculptor's muscles, the marble woman pinking beneath his fingers. The day I got to school, I unrolled it to put it up. Tiffany took one look at it and said, "Whoa! He is buff!"
Now she opens the door, one hand smoothing her disheveled hair. At the sight of the goose, she gives a little scream and both hands fly to her mouth to stifle it.
"It's my psych goose, Freud--" I begin.
Tiffany pulls me inside and closes the door. "Emma, we're not supposed to have animals in here. It's against the rules."
"He's not an animal. He's poultry," I say.
"Anyway, I have no choice," I go on. "If I hadn't taken him today, they were going to kill him. But don't worry. I'm going home tomorrow and I'm taking him with me. If we get busted before then, I'll say I kept him here against your wishes. Okay?"
Tiff rolls her eyes, but doesn't argue. She's used to my weirdness by now. Plus, she can hardly complain if I have a guest in our room for one night when she and Matt have it to themselves for a love-fest nearly every weekend. In fact, it's her idea to put the cage in the closet with her afghan over it, which makes Freud fall asleep and stay asleep till morning.
When I wake up, I realize I should feed him. But what do geese eat? All I know is that when Mom took Jules and me to feed the ducks along the canal when we were little, we fed them breadcrumbs. So I go down to the cafeteria and get some nasty white bread, which I ball up into bite-size pieces. Then I fill his water dish, put the afghan over the cage again, and head for class, hoping he'll go unde-tected until it's time for me to leave. My plan is to be waiting for Mom in the dorm lobby, the cage out of sight, so I can explain about Freud before she actually sees him.
But a half-hour earlier than I expect her, I hear a knock on my door. When I open it, both she and Dad are stand-ing there. They might be college students themselves, dressed the way they are, in Levi's and jeans jackets. Dad's got on a Harley baseball cap. Mom's blond hair is short and spiky, and she's wearing a tie-dye T-shirt with a big peace sign on it.
Their expressions are quite parental, however.
Okay, the room smells a little ripe. Freud isn't house-trained. And he gives one of his nasty squawks when he sees them, then hisses.
"Emma," Mom says. That's all. But it's a tone of voice I know from my childhood.
try to explain. "It's my psych goose. They're going to kill all the other geese we used in the experiment. My God, they give them some lethal injection, like prisoners on death row! Then they incinerate them."
"Who?" Dad says. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"My psych professor," I say. "He told us they were going to kill the geese. The others could be dead right this second, for all I know."
Mom sits down on Tiffany's desk chair, as far away from Freud as she can get.
"I'm not planning on keeping him," I say. "Do you think I'm totally out of my mind?"
"I have a perfectly logical plan. I'm going to take him to live down on the canal. We're giving him a ride, that's all."
"Emma, it smells terrible," Mom says.
Dad says, "Look. The goddamn thing is shitting even as we speak. We're going to put it in the car with us?"
"An hour," I say. "And we can crack the windows, okay? What do you want me to do, take him back over to the lab and let him be murdered?"
He opens his mouth to say yes, then closes it. He shakes his head, picks up my duffel bag, and starts down the hallway. Mom picks up the laundry basket full of dirty clothes, and follows him. I hoist my pack on my shoulder, pick up Freud's cage, and join the parade.
"Behave," I mutter. "I got your ass off death row."
"Awwwk," he says, and waggles his snaky red tongue.
It's a quiet ride home. When we finally get there, I go inside only long enough to dump my stuff in my room; then I walk down the street toward the canal, carrying Freud in his cage. There's an old hollowed-out tree I have in mind, a place near where Mom used to take Jules and me to feed the ducks when we were little. We stayed clear of it then, because the geese that lived in it squawked and pecked at anyone who came too close.
I approach cautiously, opening the door of Freud's cage and setting it down at a distance from the tree, which turns out to be a good idea because the two geese standing near the hollowed-out tree aren't about to cut Freud any slack for being one of their own species. They stand perfectly still and stare at him menacingly with their ugly little red eyes. He stares back--then in a sudden move that scares the crap out of me, flies out of the cage toward them, squawking and hissing.
I pick up the cage, back away. "You guys work it out," I say. I get halfway down the block, extremely grateful for having brought this absurd episode of my life to a close, and then glance back to see that Freud is waddling after me. I try again. And again. Each time, he follows me home, squawking like a wronged child.
If Josh was with me, we'd think this was hilarious--that is, the Josh I used to know. We'd think up some wild scenario about liberating the goose, like when we convinced his little cousin, who he babysat for sometimes, that her goldfish Mary Anne was only sick, not dead, and if we brought it to the canal and let it go its mom would find it and make it better. I can still see the three of us walking up the street, Josh carrying the fishbowl with the dead fish floating on the surface of the water. "Tell her goodbye, nice knowing you," he said to Allison, when we got to the bridge.
Alone, all I can think to do is put Freud back in the cage, drive him a mile or so up the canal path, and abandon him there instead. At home, I retire to my room pleading exhaustion, and collapse on my bed. Through the window, I can see the swing Dad made and hung from the maple tree before I was born. I can see the playhouse Mom bought for Jules and me when she got her first teaching job. She put up blue-and-white-checked wallpaper inside, made calico curtains for the windows, and bought us two little wicker chairs. We never played house in it, though. We used it for secret projects and reading, or we gave plays, using the little front porch as a stage. Sometimes we played Nancy Drew in it, solving neigh-borhood mysteries. Jules, of course, was always Nancy Drew. I was Beth, George, Ned Nickerson, Hannah Gruen--or a criminal, whichever Jules decided. Later, when Jules aban-doned me for high school, I made the playhouse into Wonder Woman's lair. I'd sit out there for hours at a time, all alone, wearing the red patent leather go-go boots Mom had found at a garage sale and a pair of Dad's old yellow terry cloth wrist-bands, my lasso at the ready, patiently waiting for the forces of evil to appear so that I could lay them flat.
Now it seems to me that I have no hope of controlling anything. A dangerous, counterproductive thought, which I allow to spiral into a big fat pity party of one, until Mom looks in to ask if I want to go out to dinner with them.
"No, thanks," I say. "I'll just have a frozen pizza or something. I've got a paper on The Canterbury Tales due Wednesday, and I don't even have a first draft."
She looks skeptical, but doesn't press me.
As soon as I hear the door close behind them, I go back to Mom's studio and just stand there in the dark, breathing in the sharp scents of paint and turpentine, mixed with the scent of dried roses wafting up from the glass bowl of pot-pourri that sits on a table--and also some indefinable scent, which is us, our house, our belongings. It's my favorite place in our house. A long, narrow room, its inner brick wall was once the house's outer perimeter, its two entries once windows onto the backyard. It was added on when I was two, as a family room; but I have only the vaguest memories of the time before Mom made it her own. It's perfect as a painter's studio: nearly all windows, most with a northern exposure. In one corner, there's a desk always piled high with school work, and above it a big bulletin board covered with draw-ings, postcards, buttons, quotes--mostly things that her high school art students have given her over the years. In the other corner, there's a couch and an easy chair; a cozy space for sketching, reading, or dreaming.
I don't even turn on a light, just sink into the couch and close my eyes, wishing I could stay here in this place where everything is so familiar. Not go back to school, not go anyplace.
What I really want is to be my six-year-old self, col-oring quietly in this corner while Mom works. To show her my picture when we're both through, to have her total attention while I tell her the story of what it's about and feel the warmth of her delight in what I made.
Or to be fourteen again, bursting into the studio after raiding the kitchen with Josh, both of us flopping onto the couch where I sit now, making Mom laugh with some story about what happened at school or at cross-country practice.
"Imagine yourself on a modern pilgrimage," is the topic of the paper I actually do have to write. "To what sacred place would you travel?" the assignment sheet asks. "Why? With whom? What might you experience along the way? What relic might you bring back? How might the experi-ence change you?"
It would be dorky and way too revealing to write about a pilgrimage to my own childhood, though it's the pilgrimage I'd most like to make--Mom, Dad, and Jules traveling with me. We'd stop at the places and moments we loved, all the sad, confused layers of myself peeling away like onion skin until my own small, true self was revealed. That's what I would carry back with me, if I could: the person I was before I even knew Josh Morgan. I'd let her tell me what I should do about--everything.
Instead, I think up something clever about myself as a New-Age Wife of Bath. It's boring, though. My eyes keep closing. Then suddenly it's morning. Somehow I've ended up in my own bed, and there's Dad standing in the door-way of my room, glowering.
"Emma," he says. "That goddamn goose is back. It was in the driveway when I went out to get the paper a few minutes ago. You'd better get up and do something about it."