In college I had a roommate named Cornelia Ball, whose friends--screwballs and a sprinkling of the pre-eminent, called her Corny. She slept with most of them in our bedroom, including the novelist Nelson Algren, who'd slept with Simone De Beauvoir. I was mulling over this connection as I watched their silhouettes humping.
Picture this, way back in 1963: Corny smoking marijuana, downing Tequilas for breakfast and, occasionally sober: Writing short stories. She'd won a big award the year before (which is how famous men found their way to her bed.) Her prize story was called "The Lovely, Lovely, Shining, Dancing Sun", a lyrical title. I skimmed it once, quickly. I remember one scene: the heroine takes lots of aspirin with milk before going to bed, trying to stave off a hang-over. And then she pops some more.
Corny and I didn't live together long. She left the day I scared us both-- my screams echoing off our eighth story window, hollering that she get the hell out .
I wouldn't know Corny Ball now if I passed her on the street-- because she never looked at me. She looked down at her long brown hair tossed across her face, a face she saved for men. Maybe she didn't like me, was scared of me, or anti-semitic; who knows? I certainly didn't, not at that age. Around her I felt I knew nothing at all, not about sex nor drugs, and certainly: not about writing.
Actually, I had written stories, stealthy and silent as Corny and Algren in our shared bedroom. I was only a kid. A flashlight lay sideways on my desk, after bedtime. It fills the dark room with strange shadows. I wrote in round looping letters with sharpened pencils on a yellow-lined pad. They were love stories. I had a favorite scene I usually slipped in. I changed the girl's name but always she has a huge crush on a boy who hardly notices her. Then a car runs over her legs. The guy, who for reasons obscure to me now, was always named "Steve", jumps to save her. They say "I love you" all the way to the hospital.
Funny how you remember only details from stories you've read, heard or written--your own or others'.
Decades after college, I can't imagine Corny Ball alive. She crossed over to life in the fast lane before the rest of us even coined that phrase. Once I helped her move a desk from her parents' brownstone in Greenwich Village to our apartment on the Upper West Side. As we went to retrieve it, I looked around. Her family's house seemed abundant, wealthy but messy. Now I'd say "old money Wasp" but back then I never thought in such categories. Then, I judged people only by the way they made me feel.
Corny had one boyfriend from Yale. Whenever he came to visit, he spent hours locked in our bathroom. Then they'd sit in the living room, never exchanging a word. The Friday when John Kennedy was murdered, Corny headed straight for New Haven. Back in New York, she told me they never once discussed the assassination. "You didn't watch the funeral?" I asked, amazed. She shook her head, looking down at our linoleum kitchen floor, stirring her drink. She didn't seem to think it was too important. She and her guy had other things on their minds.
No one in the world thought anything mattered more than gaping at TV for days after Kennedy's murder. I think that's when I began disliking her. I was nineteen when Kennedy was murdered, and like so many, that event changed everything for me. I began reading the news for the first time since fourth grade. I felt I had things in common with everyone on the street: a shared world, for starters. After the assassination, November 23, 1963, that's when the "sixties" really took off.
But Corny didn't need any new events. She was already full up. Though I detested her indifference then, also her self-absorption; I wouldn't now. Now I'd draw her out, ask questions, be kinder. Aging has these benefits, though I think even Corny sensed she was no candidate for a long life. I don't blame myself for that negativity, I just wouldn't lead with that now.
My fourth grade teacher disliked me. I "talked too much in class" and "paid too much attention to my neighbor's business"-- behaviors that earned a check on your report card (meaning your parents should wake up; a check was a serious warning about a child’s character.) Mrs. Haggerty always gave me, and only me, two checks for these bad behaviors.
"Two checks" my mother would hiss, digging her long red nails into my skinny arms. "And just what, young lady, did you do to merit this honor?" She'd scowl. Still digging tight, she'd start in about "big trouble," what I was in for, with or without those checks, for as long as I could remember.
One morning I collected all my many stories, each one stapled together. I placed a large note on top. It said "Life is Peachy Keen" and then I drew little hearts all around the edges. It was early spring. The first purple flowers were peering out of the ground as I skipped to school. I don't remember exactly how you think about things when you're only ten, but I do remember that morning walk, and then later that afternoon.
I handed the stories over, knowing Mrs. Haggerty would like me now. She'd know I was special, not that silly girl who talked too much and paid too much attention to the other kid’s 'business.' Now she'd know who I really was: a girl who wrote wonderful stories.
I came home from school. My mother is racing off to an "emergency" appointment, backing her car fast down our small driveway. The daylight lasts longer than a few weeks back. I sit on my front stoop with my best friend Lizzie; we’re blowing bubbles. We like the warmth, the daylight, that we can stay outside till dinner.
Next, my mother is pulling into that narrow driveway and walking towards us. "We're going to have a very serious talk, right this minute, young lady " she said to me while glaring at Lizzie, who was already half-way home. My mother had a way.
Now we are inside. My mother's dark green curtains drown out the last of the day's light. "You, young lady, are in for a rude awakening" she begins. (What I had been in for as long as I remembered ) I just had a meeting with Mrs. Haggerty."
That was the last I ever saw of those yellow lined pages, neatly stapled. "You want to write" my mother continued, "You'll write all right. Every week." Then she shoved a rolled-up shiny magazine at me. It was like a punch. "You'll give Mrs. Haggerty a summary each week" she said, as I unfurled the Newsweek. "That should get your mind off...(my mother was so furious she couldn't find her word)... "that nonsense" she finally spurted.
I wrote my weekly reports on spring Sunday afternoons. I wrote about crop rotations on farms in Kansas. I wrote about how many times Harold Stassen had run for President, about the votes in the new General Assembly at the United Nations. I made the words huge to fill up the four pages. It wasn't writing. It certainly wasn't my writing. Though later in life --curiously enough--I became a journalist and, with immense effort did regain my writing voice, I never wrote fiction again, not untill one novel last year.
I loved Corny's title: "The Lovely, Lovely, Shining, Dancing Sun." I guess I punished her for writing, just as my mother and Mrs. Haggerty (whose kids ended up in hospitals for the insane) punished me.
My mother died while still young. Fifty-seven. Before she did, we walked together every day. She had grown thin. Her grey skin was hanging off her recently so athletic arms. During one walk, a week before her death, she asked what she had done wrong as a mother. I told her that she had tried to kill off the thing I really cared about. That she had killed that something in me that was really something.
Even though she was so sick, she was able to listen, and she cried. We stopped walking so she could catch her breath. She needed to lean on me; she was all bone. After she could breathe again we moved on as she was thinking out loud about why she had punished me so often: for writing, for having so many friends, for laughing.
When I write now, it's not at all like when I was ten. I didn't even know writing was called writing then. I just couldn't fall asleep until I penciled out a story on yellow pages lit by a secret flashlight way past my bedtime-- every night.
I guess I was jealous of Corny Hall, her sex, her freedom and her writing, exactly what my mother said she felt towards me. I guess I felt diminished being close to someone so wild and free.
But of course, Corny wasn't free. She was terribly sad. Probably desperate. These many years later, I wish I'd sat and read her stories all the way through. But that would require another scene entirely: my mother, Mrs. Haggerty and me in a different narrative, opposite conversations during that long ago Spring afternoon:
My mother pulls back into the driveway, waving at Lizzie and me. She exits her car, and huddles close to us, sitting on the front stoop. As she sits down with us, she shakes her head. "That Mrs. Haggerty!" she begins, "She doesn't understand kids at all.” Then musing out loud, she mumbles, “Your father and I will have to find you another school--maybe that music and art school in the city."
She takes my stories out of her brown alligator bag and hands them carefully back to me. I hold onto the yellow lined pages, confused but safe. When people visit, my parents tell them, proudly, that I write the way other people dream.
Then, in college , when I find a weirdo roommate, I'm curious, not furious. After a few months I tell her calmly that I can't bear these guys schtupping her in our bedroom, but also that I think she writes like an angel.
Before she leaves, Cornie and I read our stories aloud to each other. She trusts me, looks me straight in the eye. We even hug as I help her pack.