My roommate Ella’s mother had left her with three noteworthy things: a photo album with pictures from her own childhood and college years, a locket she bought from a street vendor in New York, and a copy of The Bell Jar that bore the inscription “To Marie, All My Love, Hank.” Ella’s mom had died of a fast-acting cancer, not from sticking her head in the oven like Sylvia Plath; if that had been the case, the copy of The Bell Jar would have seemed a lot more macabre
Ella Hart and I were assigned to each other freshman year, based on our common major in German. I learned about the three things from her mother on the night we first got drunk together. We sat cross-legged on our rug and worked methodically through a twelve-pack bought for us by a junior from down the hall.
“I don’t remember her, really.” Ella told me, opening another can of beer as she spoke. “There’s one memory I have of being held by a woman who smelled like soap, but I don’t know, I might’ve invented it. Memory is tricky. But if it’s real, then that was her. My dad didn’t marry my step-mom till I was seven.”
“Wow. That’s so sad.”
Ella shrugged. “Nah. It’s just my life.”
Her life sounded impossibly exotic. My own mother was of the overbearing variety, who called to make sure I had my umbrella when she saw it was raining, despite the fact that I now lived over 100 miles south of her. As I finished my last beer and reclined onto the rug into something between sleeping and passing out, envy settled into my chest.
At first I just wished I were Ella. Her father and step-mother called weekly at 2 p.m. on Sundays, put money in her bank account, occasionally mailed her German novels they thought she would enjoy (which neither of us were able to understand), and otherwise stayed out of her life. My mom called to wake me up to make sure I’d go to class, coaxed me to come home every other weekend, and complained to me about my father.
But by second semester Ella’s allure had faded. She left the blinds shut all day, chewed with her mouth open, never wanted to go to parties, and refused to try out for lacrosse with me. What I really wanted, I realized, was not to be like Ella but to be like her mother.
I flipped through her photo album on the rare occasions that Ella left the dorm room. Her mom was small and dark-haired, with pointy features like an elf and a grin that showed her top and bottom rows of teeth. In the college photos she had Farrah Fawcett hair and big earrings. I couldn’t imagine her staying in on Friday nights to watch DVDs or leaving mostly empty pizza boxes on her desk for weeks at a time. She looked vivacious, captivating, like the sort of woman that men would fall hard for. Men like Hank, who had given her the copy of The Bell Jar. Ella’s father’s name was Michael.
Neither I nor Ella was likely to be described as captivating. My hair was thin and straight, always greasy by the end of the day, and my ample thighs and stomach and boobs were decidedly un-elflike. Ella was short and dark-haired like her mom, but, I noticed with undeniable satisfaction, getting wider every minute. She had started inviting fellow German majors over to study. Both German and Ella annoyed me to a degree that would’ve shocked me in September. Lacrosse practice became a welcome opportunity to avoid both.
By the end of spring semester, I was spending my free time with the lacrosse girls, who, while generally not full of romantic backstories, liked to have fun and also liked me. Ella was signing up to move to a special house where they only spoke German. Both of us were dreading going home for the summer.
“My mom is going to drive me nuts.” I said. “She’s already talking about making me help her organize some big garage sale.”
“Well, I’m going to be so bored.” Ella said. “My dad and step-mom are going to Europe for all of July, and they work all the time anyway. At least they have cable.”
I entertained one more brief fantasy of having Ella’s mom as my own, only still alive, and traveling through Europe with her. I’d meet hot European men and be full of stories for the lacrosse girls in the fall. But I let it go. Ella wasn’t seeing her mom, either. She may have given Ella those three important things, but she was still gone, and Ella’s summer would suck just as much as my own.
“Maybe you could drive up in July and visit me, or something.” I said, in a strange surge of affection.
“Yeah.” Ella nodded. “Maybe.”
Then the surge retreated, and left just me and Ella. “Well,” I said, “let me know.” I heaved my laundry bag over my shoulder and left the room.
Elizabeth Holden teaches physics at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. She has previously been published in the literary magazines Fiction 365, Stirring, Tryst, Midwest Literary Magazine and The Blinking Cursor. She lives in Madison, WI with her boyfriend and two adorable retired racing greyhounds. She loves oolong tea, electronic music, and reading as much as possible.