Books, purses, three empty bottles of Diet Coke, and the remains of a large pizza littered the card table that had been set up near the open window. Outdoors, green May was flourishing. Scented with lilac and wet grass, it was lively with walking traffic on the paths that crisscrossed the quadrangle from the Gothic library, to the glassy, modern science building, to the old redbrick museum, and beyond.
"Commencement. It's more like a conclusion, a funeral."
Startled, the two others turned toward Amanda. This doleful remark did not fit her. She was eager; her bright, blooming face in its frame of wavy, caramel-colored hair was always optimistic; she sparkled. Among these three young women, she was the one who would most attract attention.
True, there were some who would prefer the calm, classic elegance of Cecile. It was she who now said more cheerfully, "It's the beginning of something else, Amanda."
"For you, it is. You must be the only person in the graduating class who's getting married this summer."
"I know. Isn't it ridiculous? I feel like my own grandmother. In her day, for Heaven's sake, you were expected to do just that. 'A ring by spring,' they used to say." Cecile's pink smile made fun of herself. "But we've waited four years for him to get through architecture in New York, and that's long enough. We haven't seen each other since February vacation, when I went east, and I can't wait." With a sigh of contentment, she added, "I'm sure if it weren't for all this, I would be terribly sad about leaving here." "Ave atque vale,"
Amanda asked, "What's that?"
" 'Hail and farewell.' It's Latin."
"Why on earth anybody should want to fill her head with that dead stuff, and spend the rest of her life teaching it to people who'll never use it except to teach it to more people who'll never use it, I don't know!"
"Surely not the rest of her life," Cecile protested.
"Why not? I happen to enjoy it," Norma said. "Anyway, I'm the family oddball. Always was."
Norma was plain, short of stature, and too broad of face. Yet, because that face with its keen roving eyes was so extraordinarily alert and intelligent, many a person, seeing her for the first time, had felt a kind of shock.
"You are not an oddball," Amanda said firmly.
"Oh, yes. Even my brother, who really loves me, really, really does even he says I am because I'd rather read than eat. Anyhow, enough of me. Have you decided, Amanda? Are you staying up here or going back south for good?"
"I don't know. I can't seem to make up my mind. One thing makes me mad, though. Nobody ever told me that a B.A. means almost nothing anymore, not my kind of a B.A., anyway. If I knew something definite, the way you know Latin, for instance, I could walk right into a teaching job, at least at a private school like yours where you don't absolutely have to have a degree in education. As it is, without graduate school, I don't see what there is for me." Amanda sighed. "So I might as well flip a coin. Spend the summer scorching here in the Missouri drought, or else cross the Mississippi and sweat in the soggy heat at home while I look for some kind of a job, though God knows what."
Cecile reminded her, "No matter what you decide, you'll have to come back up here for my wedding. You've got to be a bridesmaid. I'm paying the airfare and buying the dress, so no argument about it."
"Come stay for a couple of weeks with me," Norma urged. "I've a hunch that might help you solve your problem, if you know what I mean."
"No, I don't know what you mean." Amanda had a way of discarding at will, or else retaining, her native accent. Now, widening her eyes with puzzled innocence, she recrossed the Mississippi. "What d'y'all mean?"
Norma laughed. "You know perfectly well what. My brother Larry is more than a little bit crazy about you. He thinks you're absolutely beautiful."
"Well, so she is," Cecile said stoutly.
"Your brother Larry doesn't know a thing about me. I've been in your house only twice, for two weeks each time. What can you tell about a person in those few days?"
"You can tell plenty," Cecile declared, still stoutly. "Why, Peter and I both knew after the first three days, right here on this campus. Peter Mack, the senior, and Cecile Newman, the freshman! It was all unheard of, and still we both knew, no matter what anybody said."
Amanda studied her fingernails. Shell pink ovals with white tips in the French style, they were beautifully cared for by herself. She was thinking of Larry's latest letter that had come yesterday. By now, if she had saved all the letters, she would have more than a dozen of them, but she had not saved them. Thoughtful and quite correct, they were also far too frank and effusive. To be admired is one thing, but this was so sudden as to be absurd. And yet, here was Cecile with her tale of three days.
Obviously Amanda was thinking, Cecile saw, so she changed the subject. "Weren't we going to have somebody take our picture downstairs in front of the house before we leave?" she asked.
Norma said quickly, "Yes, but not today, and not a full-length picture. I need to press a long skirt first."
Automatically the two friends glanced at, and as quickly away from, Norma's legs. Shapeless and thick, the ankles measured the same as the knees. Held together, they were almost as wide as somebody's small waist. These legs were the bane of Norma's existence, bane being poison; in a way, they had poisoned her life or she had allowed them to do so. In elementary school, the boys called me "piano legs," until Larry, my brother, was old enough to beat them up for doing it.
"I have no time now, anyway," Amanda said. "Sundale's Coffee Shop awaits me," she mocked. "Will you be stopping at Sundale's later, either of you?"
"You're sure we don't bother you when one of us comes in?" Cecile asked gently.
"No, why should you? Come and admire me in my baby blue uniform."
"All right. If I can get through some more of this packing, I will. But just look."
The small space, cramped to start with, was jammed with possessions. Cecile's and Norma's rooms-or cubicles-were heaped with clothing and books, all seemingly flung at random on the beds. More books were stacked in boxes on the floor. Luggage waited to be filled; it was fine luggage, leather and tweed, Amanda saw, estimating its cost.
"Oh, well, I'll save some eclairs for you," she said. "If you don't come, I'll bring them back and put them in the refrigerator."
"Suddenly I feel so sorry for her," Cecile exclaimed when the door had closed. "She never seemed to be the kind of person you'd feel sorry for. In all the time we've known her, she never once complained about anything. Today is the first time."
"She's been wearing a mask all the time, haven't you realized that?"
Excerpted from Looking Back by Belva Plain. Copyright © 2002 by Belva Plain. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.