My father is a beacon to me. I want to be like him. His life, before I was born, feels mysterious and magical. He was a ballet dancer in New York. He had another wife before my mother, a wife who is glamorous in my imagination. A wife who was a great deal older than he, whom no one ever talks about.
He encourages me to dance. I start taking ballet when I am eleven. They mention how my posture changes, my walking improves, after this. After I start taking ballet classes.
Father is the treasurer of the Ballet School. The head of the school -- my teacher, Esther Brooks -- and he are very good friends. I think he is in love with her. I look at her tight little breasts and the way she ties her black cardigan sweater across them to accentuate them and her waist, over her leotard. I never see her husband. I know she has one, but he is never around. Mother doesn’t’ have breasts like this – hers are long and floppy. Father picks me up from ballet school. I am such a dutiful daughter. I am so devoted to the idea of ballet that I come to watch a class when I have a cold and can’t actually take class.
But there are limits. When I am fifteen I hear about a dance camp in Colorado. I suggest to him that I want to go. He discourages me. He says there will be all sorts of people there. Homosexuals, for instance. He doesn’t think I should go. Needless to say, I don’t.
There are always limits. He encourages me to dance. I learn square dancing long before I begin to learn ballet. But he watches me one night, square dancing in the school gym. Afterwards he admonishes me: “Don’t ever let the boys know you know more than they do!” I gasp inwardly. But I learn my lesson.
I learn my lesson so well. I go to the same college he went to, Harvard. I go there because he did. Because he loved it there. I don’t love it there. When he went there, after his stifling boarding school life at St. Paul’s, Harvard was the definition of freedom. He could go into Boston on the subway as late as he wanted. He simply loved it.
My mother says I can do what I want. “You’re free, white, and 21,” said with a wink but meant as a truth.
At Harvard I can’t do what I want. Girls must be girls. I can’t ride the subway late at night. Too dangerous. I can’t stay out past eleven without writing where I am going in the dormitory sign-out book. The dorm parents – whom I never see – are responsible for us. It is the beginning of the so-called sexual revolution, and there are regulations in the dorm as to how far the door must be open if we are entertaining a male caller in our room.
It all becomes about sex. I lose my virginity at the end of my freshman year. Begin my first real sexual relationship the next fall. Fighting the limits my father has set for me, the limits on my desire. But doing it clandestinely. Signing out to false places so that I can sleep with my boyfriends.
And as for classes, I don’t speak. It’s almost as though I have been thrown back a generation or two – to the Victorian era -- just by being at Harvard. Girls should be seen and not heard. I become mute. Don’t ever let the boys know you know more than they do. The letter of the law. I don’t let on. I keep my smarts to myself, only letting the teachers know, through the tortured but brilliant papers I write. Love letters to the teachers. I still have these essays, mute testaments to the miserable years I spent at that college – the college that really should be nameless from here on in -- filled with my querulous passion.
I study Russian at that college. I write a senior thesis on three little-known Soviet children’s authors. No one can read these writers but me -- none of my friends. The perfection my father has ordained for me has by this time become a solitary cell. But I don’t blame him.