The Little Women

A Novel

Katharine Weber

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

The Little Women
ONE
The Dark Day
 
 
Joanna and Amy left home in the fall of their older sister Meg's junior year at Yale. Meg had already gone ahead to New Haven three days earlier in her car--the family's old green Subaru wagon, which had been her Warren Prep graduation present (along with a trip to France). There would have been no room for Joanna and Amy had they wanted to drive up with her. The car was crammed to capacity with boxes and duffel bags and computers, Amy's music stand (she played the flute), and also her art supplies, including the drafting table, the base of which took up an annoying amount of cargo space. Their three bicycles had been awkwardly tied onto the roof rack with the assistance of Mike the doorman, whose helpful intentions were as genuine as his knot-making skills were poor.
Meg had gone ahead, she said, because she needed those days to get started organizing the apartment, and also because of some confusion with her class schedule that required a meeting with her dean. Meg had driven away in the loaded old Subaru with a certain belief that she could not have survived being with her family for even one more hour. She never liked analyzing and speculating about emotions, her own or anyone else's. A very reluctant passer of judgments, Meg did on occasion discover that she was deeplydisappointed by some person or turn of events. At such times she grieved horribly and felt burdened by the gravity of her conclusions.
Although she had a reputation, both within the family and among her friends, as a good listener, Meg really had no idea of what compelled people to confide in her as they did. Too much information about other people's feelings bothered her tremendously. What often struck people as wonderfully receptive and sympathetic listening on Meg's part was, in actuality, inadequately conveyed distress, which she endured only until sufficient evasive chat could diffuse an overly intimate atmosphere.
Joanna and Amy, on the other hand, at almost seventeen and just fifteen, always loved a good dissection. They relished their rages. This had always been true, and was not merely a consequence of their being a bit younger. These differences in temperament had long created a bond between the two younger Green sisters just as it caused some distance between them and Meg. From the days of earliest school-yard controversies, Joanna and Amy had believed with all their hearts in rehashings, begrudgeries, tattletalings, and creative vengeance.
One particular Halloween, the school year had gotten off to a particularly rocky start for Amy and Joanna. Their parents, Janet and Lou, concerned about unattractively pugnacious inclinations, had hoped to make a point by creating a mock, and mocking, family crest for the two littlest Green sisters. Amy and Joanna, in third and fourth grade at the time, were then gripped by an extreme Arthurian legend obsession, and they were utterly thrilled with the fancy nature of the ironic emblem that adorned the cardboard shields they carried to accessorize their matching aluminum foil suits of armor.
Meg went that year as a Hershey's Kiss, a typically diplomatic solution that provided both a material link with her sisters' costumes--each of the three outfits required some six hundred feet of heavy-duty Reynolds aluminum foil--and a conceptual distance as an unassertive piece of chocolate.
The twin mock family crests--designed by Lou, executed by Janet with great care, and, regrettably, taken with happy oblivious literalness by Amy and Joanna--showed a multi-armed, sword-and-dagger-wielding griffin perched over a small green house, with the motto emblazoned in carefully lettered mock Olde English: "NEVER FORGIVE, NEVER FORGET." Joanna still had hers all these years later, tacked to her closet door.
It would not have been possible for Meg to nourish with her sisters' kind of devotion the terrible disappointment she now felt toward her parents. In the past few days, Amy and Joanna had become so savage that they could say anything and hurt anyone while seeming to enjoy it, while Meg had just become quieter and sadder.
Meg was not an indifferent person, and was in fact made sad very easily by many things. Certain heartwarming television commercials for office products made her cry. (Their mother, a woman given to characterizing pronouncements about matters large and small, always said Meg had a soft heart that melted like butter in the sun.) A glimpse of a beggar on the street could be Meg's undoing for the rest of the afternoon. She had been known to empty her wallet for a homeless--or allegedly homeless--person on numerous and not always well-timed occasions. "Meg went out with the grocery money and no blindfold" was Green family code for those nights when scrambled eggs or take-out food was on the menu as the consequence of a Meg encounter with some convincingly pathetic soul somewhere en route to shopping errands. One suspiciously robust and persistently present character, who sat perpetually on a stoop on their block with his dog beside a ragged cardboard sign claiming late-stage AIDS infection and homelessness, had been so successful in extracting grocery money from Meg over recent months that everyone in the family had come to think of him as "Meg's miracle bum."
 
 
Their mother had an affair and they found out.
By the time they found out--a careless matter of a single incriminating e-mail--it had already ended. Who was he? He was Philip Hart, a graduate student in his twenties for whose dissertation--concerning obsession in the late novels of Henry James--Janet had been the adviser. That it was Philip Hart was especially shocking to Meg, Joanna, and Amy, as he was one of Janet's cultivated collection of devoted, bright NYU graduate students, who, on countless nights, were invited to be part of the famously delicious and stimulating Green family dinners. Phil had struck them as so sweet and gentle and soft-spoken when he first came into their orbit the previous winter, so sensitive and funny, that the Green sisters had debated for weeks the question of his sexual orientation.
Henry Jamesish in his own ambiguities though he may have been (it was a small and bitter irony that the nature of his personal sexual desires should ever have been in doubt, let alone the object of now retrospectively mortifyingly detailed speculation on numerous occasions within earshot of their mother), he was a dear boy, the three sisters agreed, and Amy in particular had developed a small crush on him that had lasted many months. It was especially unfortunate that it was she who found the damning evidence on the computer in the study.
Home after an exhausting day of working as an arts and crafts counselor for six-year-olds in a summer program at the YMCA, she had merely been checking e-mail and then rummaging the family computer in an idle, mindless fashion. What she found was a beseeching message from Philip Hart begging their mother, his "little fuckbird"--yes, their own darling mother, a.k.a. Janet Green! Somebody's little fuckbird!--the very same woman who had nourished them in so many ways, soothing their fevered brows with those same cool, slender fingers which had, apparently "inflamed the very core of" Philip Hart every time she "caressed"his "John Thomas"--not to break off with him because they were, after all, "in ecstatic cahoots" as no other man and woman had ever been at any previous time in history. He could not stop thinking, he further declared, about certain mutually experienced "midnight implosions"; to hell with everything and everyone else, they were meant to be together.
 
 
When Meg and Joanna arrived home from their summer jobs a short while later, they were stunned by the irrefutable meaning of what Amy showed them.
"It's got to be part of something he's writing," Joanna said unconvincingly even to herself, grasping at this flimsiest of explanatory straws, after her first reading over Amy's shoulder. "Aren't these mostly some kind of literary references?"
"I don't think you're right, Jo-Jo," Meg whispered sadly, from Amy's other side. Her hand rested soothingly on the back of Amy's neck. "This is addressed to her. It's an e-mail. It's not a big quotation from something, and there's nothing here that sounds like Henry James, either. Except for the long sentences. There might be some literary references we don't get, sure, but this is something personal to Janet from Phil Hart."
"How can this be happening to us?" Amy wailed. "Are Janet and Lou getting divorced? I can't stand it! I hate Philip Hart! I hate him! I want him to die! Him and his fucking bow ties. What if he has AIDS? What if Janet dies? Then if Lou dies we would be orphans! This is like something on television! I don't want to be part of an after-school special."
"Philip Hart was the one getting the after-school specials, apparently," Joanna said bitterly, now having reread the damning message three times. There really was no other explanation she could imagine. "Did she answer this? Is there a reply here?" She reached over Amy's shoulder and jabbed at the computer mouse,searching for sent messages or others from "phart@nyu.edu." (Philip Hart's unfortunate elision would have provoked much mirth under other circumstances.)
"Nothing. No sent messages from her at all. Just all of yours, Amy. Here's one of mine. Meg, Meg, mine, Amy again. No, nothing else of hers. Nothing else in the inbox. She either used her office computer or she's deleted anything else on this one that was to or from him, I guess, except for this one message, and it's dated, what, three days ago. Tuesday. What were we doing on Tuesday? So, wait, where did it go? It's not in the inbox. Where did you find it, Ames?"
"In the trash," Amy said sadly. "There were three things in the trash, and they were all Janet's, but the other two were just regular NYU things." Joanna relinquished the mouse and Amy clicked open the trash folder. "See, here they are. Blah blah the meeting, blah blah the committee."
"Oh, honey, you were so bored you were reading Janet's old NYU e-mails in the trash?" Joanna said. "We have to get you more good books. Did you finish those Maugham short stories?"
"Yeah, whatever," Amy agreed. "It is totally pathetic. I had started to practice my flute piece, but it was just too hot and my fingers felt like sausages. I don't really know why I did it, I wasn't thinking about anything, you know? Don't you ever just click around for no reason? Sort of zoning out, you know? Like reading a homework assignment from fifth grade when you find it in an old backpack, or like really, really reading all the insane personal ads in the back of Janet's New York Review of Books? Anyway, the trash doesn't automatically empty every time you shut down the way it used to. Daddy told us at dinner, remember, last week, the night you burned the couscous, Meg, you know, when Janet's nonverbal Swedish student--with the braids, you know, the one in the beautiful blue striped shirt--the night she was here?"
"The D. H. Lawrence girl, yes, so, whatever, and I wasn't theone who turned the heat up, someone else did, but what's your point?" Meg replied impatiently.
"Yes, so, that was the night Lou talked about the article he had read in some journal. Whosis, Astrid, Estrid, Pippi Longstocking, what was her name? Anyway, she had accidentally trashed a chapter of her thesis? Remember she was talking with Janet about that? And that was when Lou said he had changed the settings on both computers in the apartment plus all of our notebooks so the trash isn't automatically deleted anymore, because he read about some scientific laboratory where they save every day's actual trash in different wastebaskets for a week in case someone throws away an important equation on a scrap of paper or something. So I deleted the trash like maybe four days ago, because it was full of junk spam like all those 'Enlarge your penis now!' e-mails, and now we have to do it manually--"
"Whatever, and I think her name was Astrid, but who the fuck cares?" Meg interrupted, having studied every word of the horrible message all the way through once again while Amy was rambling. "The trashed yet not-trashed message is here and we're reading it. We get the picture." She gave a small shudder and took a little step back from the desk, closing her eyes for a moment, needing physical distance from what she couldn't help but read over and over.
"What are we going to do?" Joanna said. There was silence. "You guys? Hello? We have a major crisis here? We need a plan? Like, what the hell are we going to do?" They stared at one another for a long moment.
"Meg, you first," Amy whispered, sucking on one of her knuckles.
"Nothing, maybe?" Meg suggested tentatively. She mentally calculated how many days remained of her summer internship at the literary agency, which she loved. Almost three weeks to go before she could escape back to New Haven.
"PhilHartPhilHartPhil, heart-fill, hurtful," Amy murmured in the way she had of playing with words, often without even realizing she was doing it aloud. "FuckPhil. KillPhil."
"You mean just act like we don't know?" Joanna said dubiously. She couldn't imagine this strategy working for an hour. How would they face their mother at dinner in a little while? And every day after that?
"Don't you think that's an option at least, Jo-Jo?" Meg, the voice of reason.
"We have to tell Lou," Amy interrupted. "Oh my God." She turned to each of her sisters. Tears streaked her cheeks. She thumped her hands against the sides of her own head in anguish. "Oh my God. God. God. God. He'll want to kill himself. We can't tell him."
"Do you think maybe he already knows?" Joanna wondered, leaning forward to take Amy's hands in her own and gently pull them down. She perched on the corner of the desk and swung a foot against Amy's chair, rocking Amy slightly with each movement. She felt oddly detached and rational, not like her usual firecracker self at all, more like a scientist in a laboratory gazing at a microscopic specimen in contemplation of an experiment gone awry. "Lou knows Janet a lot better than we do, after all. And anyway, he's not just going to do something crazy."
"How do you know?" Amy moaned. "She's been doing something crazy! Who would have thought Janet could do something like this? Maybe they're both having affairs, I don't know! And you don't know either, Jo-Jo, even though you think you're such an expert on everybody in this insane family."
"Look, maybe it really does have some other meaning," Meg said, attempting to start from scratch all over again. She hugged herself for a moment as if warding off a chill. "We don't really have any way to know what it means. We just can't be certain, no matter what it looks like."
"But I do think I know what it means," Amy said in a muffledvoice, having put her head down on her arms as she began to weep in earnest, her eyes squeezed tight shut. "You're just saying that because you don't want to admit the truth. Neither of you do. Don't you get it? What else could it possibly mean? Nothing else."
"I don't know," Meg said in a sorrowful tone, starting to rub the back of Amy's neck in a familiar, Janet-like gesture, which Amy shrugged away. "I really just don't know. But you can't be certain."
"Well, there's one person who does know exactly what it means. So let's ask her," Joanna said grimly.
 
 
The dark day got worse. All three of them were further shocked, though they would not have known that could have been a possibility, when they confronted Janet moments after she came jauntily in the door from the gym, with groceries for their dinner. They launched their fusillade of accusations while she was still putting things away in the kitchen. They attacked her in the direct and forthright style in which they were accustomed to communicating with their mother. She did not falter or slow down even a little as they uttered their accusations and demands for explanation while she put the groceries away, folded the brown paper bags with her usual orderly efficiency, and stowed them in a cupboard.
The moment her daughters fell silent, she turned to face them with her arms folded, and, standing there in their formerly jolly kitchen, leaning against the marvelous big soapstone sink they had salvaged from the town dump while on a Vermont camping. trip three summers before, she told them in a very quiet, matter-of-fact way, in a manner tinged with an unfamiliar and unconsoling coldness they had never experienced in her before, that it was a private matter, something that did not concern them, something personal that had now concluded, a matter of finished businesswith which she and Lou had already dealt. And then their mother, this perfect stranger who answered to the name Janet Green--among other names--folded the last grocery bag and went off to take a shower.
 
 
Reader's note: I don't think it's fair that you're not letting her speak for herself Janet should have a voice in this novel, after all, given that the three sisters are reacting to her behavior. Why can't she explain herself here? MG
Reader's note: I think it's just fine the way it is. I like it that she isn't given any dialogue. Why do you always have to make sure everything is fair? AG
Author's note: Consequent to the transgression that set this story in motion, the character of the mother has been deliberately deprived of dialogue.
 
 
Hurt and angry, furious, really, that she had not, as they each wished, offered some marvelously reasonable explanation that would have undone the devastation, the three of them next stormed down the hallway to Lou in his workshop, where family law forbade afternoon interruption except in the event of dire emergency.
They found him at his computer, fiddling with the prototype software for what would, in a matter of months as it turned out, be another of his extraordinarily successful inventions, "The Cliqk."1 His ingenious Couch Potato,2 a hand-held, potato-shaped device that offered sage advice "for people too cheap and lazy to go to a shrink," had still not reached what would be its peak of success inthe following year. In its first few months it had already attracted a great deal of attention and had earned Lou an astonishing sum of money.
They were undivertable, though he tried at first to banter and enlist them in brainstorming some of the applications for this new electronic toy.
"Come on, girls, you're always so imaginative at this stage. We're going to have some fun with this one. Click your clique? Click to connect? Connect with a click? Get a kick from a click? No, too Cole Porter. Come on, what do you think?"
But they weren't buying.
"Lou, we're here to talk about Janet and Philip Hart. Nothing else," Amy told him coldly, her arms folded across her chest. "Stop trying to distract us." Her sisters, who flanked her in matching poses, agreed.
"Okay," Lou sighed. He squared his shoulders and tilted his head from side to side in a habitual gesture he had of unkinking his neck after long hours at his desk. Joanna thought she had never seen him look so tired. He swiveled around to face them. "I am so sorry we are having this conversation. You can't imagine. I feel terrible about your being aware at all that this has happened. But it's over and done with. I'm just not going to tell you whatever it is you three could possibly want to hear. It's been resolved. I assure you that nothing has changed. Why can't you just accept that?"
His daughters scowled at him as one.
"How can you say nothing has changed?" Amy said angrily.
"How can you say it's resolved?" Joanna challenged. "That's impossible."
"You just have to talk to us," Meg implored. "She won't give us anything and we need to know more about this. You just have to tell us."
Lou sighed again. "So who's going to speak for the tribunal? Regan? Goneril? Or is it Cordelia?"
 
 
Reader's note: I think you should be consistent. Why does the father get to speak when the mother doesn't? MG
Reader's note: Yes, I would prefer the consistency of keeping them both quiet. And who cares about the details of the Couch Potato or the Cliqk? And this is supposed to be a novel, not just the story of our screwed-up family. Why are you putting in so many real facts from our lives, or details that are so close to the reality that it makes almost no difference that you've changed it a little? You're just slowing the story down. AG
Author's note: It is regrettable that these intrusions will serve to slow the story down far more than any discursive descriptions that have been deliberately crafted in order to illuminate elements of the characters' personalities and histories that pertain to the narrative.
Reader's note: But these discursive descriptions are boring! AG
Reader's note: She's doing this and you get to make your point even though she isn't going to change anything, no matter what she said about being responsive to our comments. You know she doesn't have to change things we don't like. A deal's a deal. MG
Author's note: Indeed.
 
 
Harshly confronted, an immediate response having been demanded, Lou would only wearily confirm that yes, he knew about this business with Philip Hart, had known for a while, but would really prefer that they drop the matter, and no, he wasn't going to "do" anything about it. The important thing was that it was over. There was nothing more to discuss. He was sorry they knew about it. He was sorry about the whole thing, but it was now over.
"Lou? Daddy?" Amy said tremulously. "How can you let her do this to us?"
"This isn't about 'us,' girls, it's something private," their father began, "and I really don't think--"
Meg burst out, "How can you say there isn't an 'us'! What else is there but us! Doesn't our family mean anything to you?"
"Are you willing to let her just destroy everything? Don't you care about what she's done to our family?" shrieked Joanna. "Why aren't you angry at her?"
"How long was this going on?" Amy asked plaintively. "How do you even know it's really over? Why do you trust--"
"Stop. Stop it, you three. You must stop right now." Lou raised his hands as if to ward off blows, and Amy stopped in midsentence. He was definitely upset, Joanna thought with a mixture of satisfaction and guilt. He had seemed about to say something, but now he fell silent.
The silence lengthened, punctuated only by the squeak of their father's chair turning very slightly as he looked into their faces, first Amy's, then Joanna's, then Meg's. Amy glared at him. Then she turned away, and tilted her head in a clenched sort of determined way as if she were trying to read the titles on the spines of the books in the overstuffed bookcases that lined two sides of his workshop. Joanna looked away into the middle distance of Lou's bulletin board, on which she saw, haphazardly thumbtacked among his sketches and notes, several curling snapshots of all three sisters and their mother, photographs of family moments. Her eyes rested on a washed-out snapshot of the three sisters on the couch with their old Airedale, Soames, who had tried to look dignified in a Santa's helper hat. The wonderful Green family. Beside them were two funny examples of Amy's hilarious caricatures (Meg on the telephone, Janet cooking), and, not yet framed, the abstracted geometric watercolor of the view out their living room window that Amy had presented to Lou for Father's Day.
Meg couldn't look directly at her father at all. Instead of meeting his eye, she tried very hard to look at the corner of Lou's eyeglasses. She studied the tiny pattern of screws that held the frame together, making domino patterns and unmaking them, focusingon maintaining sufficient distance to suppress the bitter sob welling up like a thick bubble somewhere deep inside her chest.
Louis Green, inventor of what would soon be the country's most popular problem-solving device, just sat helplessly in his old swivel chair and gazed at each of his three daughters sadly, unable to provide sufficient comfort and reassurance.
"Are you okay, Lou?" Meg whispered. "I'm sorry for what I said. It's just that you--"
"Fuck it," Amy interrupted. "He is so completely whipped. This is just pathetic." She turned on her heel (truly, that is exactly what she did, with a little flounce that would have been comical had it not been such a serious moment) and she stamped away to her room.
Their father swiveled abruptly away from Meg and Joanna to face his desk. If they weren't going to help him brainstorm about the new device, he said over his shoulder in a falsely ordinary tone, then he really had no more time for conversation at the moment. He dismissed them then, clicking open a document on his computer before beginning to type rapidly on his keyboard, as if acting out a parody of a man engrossed in his work, the way he might perform precisely such an action for one of their Sunday night after-dinner family charades marathons.
"What are you doing?" Meg said in disbelief. "This is an incredibly important moment in our family!" Lou kept typing, his face averted from theirs. It was a desperate bluff, Joanna thought, furious at his retreat into his own woundedness which he thought he had to conceal from his daughters at all costs.
"I don't believe this," Joanna said with a flinty voice she had never heard herself use before, addressing the back of his head. "Mr. Ultra-Rational Computer Man doesn't have another moment to interface with his family today." How nasty could she be? It was horrifying yet strangely thrilling to hear herself speak to her father this way. It felt exactly like the dreams Joanna sometimes had about smashing windowpanes--a forbidden act she would resistuntil she just couldn't any longer, and then in her dream she would break one after another in a confusing flood of rage and ecstasy.
"Hey, Lou," she megaphoned unpleasantly to the back of his shirt collar, as if from a great distance, "Send me an e-mail sometime, okay? If your work isn't too intense, I mean. That's J Green at fuckedupfamily dot com. But don't bother if you're too busy. Come on, Meg." She turned away, feeling her viciousness expanding sharply, blossoming like a bleeding wound. She felt freakish, not knowing where she would stop.
"Lou? Daddy?" Meg, the last to give up, stood in his doorway for another moment. He gave a little, not-now shake of his head without looking up, and then she, too, fled.
THE LITTLE WOMEN. Copyright © 2003 by Katharine Weber. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.