My Donna, by Susan Greenfield

Art: Lucian Freud

“Of course I think about divorcing David. He can keep Emma. They prefer each other anyway.”  

I was exaggerating my family problems, but I doubted Donna would realize this. Ever since we met in high school, she had been hopelessly literal—too sincere to imagine that other people can’t be trusted. Plus she was ignorant about the vagaries of married life. Though she’d had a couple of boyfriends over the years, none of them ever stuck. Frankly, I wasn’t sure if Donna had ever lost her virginity.

It was a Saturday night in Washington DC, and we had just returned from an expensive Italian dinner that Donna paid for but barely consumed. Despite her life-long struggle with obesity, she never overate in public—or in front of me. Meanwhile, I had devoured an entire veal scallopini. For some reason, the less Donna ate the more compulsively I stuffed myself. Now I sipped wine in Donna’s over-furnished apartment on Wisconsin Avenue, settling into the cushions of her plush couch. Though only early April, the cherry blossoms had fallen and it was so warm Donna turned on the air conditioner.

I had left Manhattan that morning for my annual visit to DC, a ritual I’d undertaken for the past thirteen years. The routine began after my daughter Emma was born and I got severely depressed during my maternity leave. One morning when Emma wouldn’t stop shitting and screaming, I imagined hurling us both from my ninth floor bedroom window. I could hear our cracking bones, see the blood-soaked concrete and our splattered flesh on the sidewalk. That’s when I knew it was time to visit Donna. What a relief it was to sink into the blue train seat and watch Manhattan rolling backwards. What sweet satisfaction to know that for an entire weekend, I would wipe only my own ass.

This changed after Emma entered grade school, and I went back to my grueling schedule at the law firm. Night after night I missed my daughter desperately—with that sickening hunger, that bottomless longing I once reserved for men. As consolation, I took Emma with me to Washington to get some precious time with her. We read children’s history books on the train and ate hot dogs with splashing sodas. Donna, who had no siblings and thus no nieces or nephews, made a huge fuss over Emma, chaperoning us from one child-friendly attraction to another—the Washington Monument, the Air and Space Museum, the Lincoln Memorial.  

Our last visit coincided with a big pro-Choice rally I had planned to attend with Emma alone. But Donna insisted on joining us despite her strict Catholic upbringing. Under a dreary sky, the National Mall was packed with protestors in neon-colored tee shirts. “Leave my uterus alone!” Emma shouted, her ponytail bouncing, her eyes brilliant and defiant. She was twelve and a half, already developing breasts and becoming frighteningly beautiful. Donna chanted too, leaning against my daughter like a happy comrade.

In the year since then Emma had become an adolescent bitch. She barely talked to me now without some kind of expletive. Just the other week, I discovered she’d stolen a wad of cash from my underwear drawer—for the second time. “No! Please Mom! Don’t!” Emma cried when I snatched away her snazzy new cell phone, thus ending her conversation with her boyfriend from sleep-away camp. It was like I was chopping off her fingers the way she carried on. Emma promised she wouldn’t steal from me again. She promised to pay me back. When I didn’t relent, her teary eyes grew venomous. “You fucking asshole,” she said, slamming her bedroom door. Before she could reach her boyfriend on her laptop, I disconnected the Wi-Fi.

“Divorce David?” Donna sat forward in the re-finished armchair that once belonged to her father. “Are you serious?”

“Yes, I’m serious.” I put my wine glass on the coffee table, backed into a corner by my own hyperbole.

My husband is an English professor. We met during my final semester of law school. His specialty was John Milton, although lately he’d been obsessed with Virginia Woolf—and with garden-variety pornography. There were years of select magazines stashed in his old green file cabinet like rare manuscripts. At first, David simply stuffed them in his Shakespeare and Sir Philip Sidney folders. It was almost entertaining to pluck a Hustler from his Othello notes and flip past all those freakishly shaven vaginas. But a few months ago I made the mistake of checking David’s internet history. Let’s just say that by the time I was finished with his computer, my husband needed a new one.

Instead of telling any of this to Donna, I embellished upon David’s most recent tantrum. “Last weekend he was so wasted he couldn’t even hang his coat up. When I offered to help he started hurling wire hangers. ‘Are we the goddamn cleaners?’ He flung a hanger at the wall, another at the bookcase, another—” I searched for a dramatic finale—“at my eye.”

“Jeeesus,” Donna announced, shaking her head slowly. That would once have been a major league obscenity for her. Donna’s curly copper hair—always her best feature—caught the overhead light. The streaks of gray I’d noticed during our last visit had all been dyed away. With a jolt she added, “Was Emma there?”

I had momentarily forgotten my daughter. Not Donna. Earlier that morning, her face dropped with disappointment when she met my train at Union Station. “So my Emma didn’t come.” I had phoned to warn Donna that Emma was refusing to join us (which is surely what would have happened if I had invited her). Nevertheless, Donna assumed she would magically appear. She saw herself as some kind of irresistibly beloved aunt. Last fall she gave Emma an obscenely large check at her Bat Mitzvah party. “For Christ’s sake,” David said when I complained about the excess. “She just wants to be generous.”

“Emma was out. Anyway, David tends to behave when she is home.” This was largely true. Though Emma is our only child, my husband’s first marriage produced a son, who, for all kinds of reasons, was damaged goods—college dropout, drug problems, the works. More than anything, David wanted to be a good father this time around.

“That’s a relief!” Donna sat back, her flattened thighs filling the armchair.   

“Right,” I said, suddenly pissed. “Because who gives a shit if I am blinded by a wire hanger?”

“That’s not what I meant.” Donna shook her palm like a crossing guard. “It’s just you can take care of yourself. You always have. But Emma . . . Emma is so vulnerable.” Donna gazed at her slowly swirling wine. “I don’t get it. You and David seem so happy.”

The emotional oversimplification—characteristic as it was of Donna—nevertheless enraged me. I wondered, and hardly for the first time, why I had bothered to stay friends with her all these years. When Donna and I met as teenagers, the relationship had a kind of Darwinian logic. I was low on the high school hierarchy and I needed someone worse off to look down on. Donna was an outcast who was thrilled to make a friend. Shamelessly selfish as the arrangement was, I tried my best to be kind to her. I offered her entre into my nerdy social circle. She offered me the fidelity of a grateful underling.  

We had grown up in different parts of the same New York suburb. I was raised on the rich side in Pinehurst Estates; Donna lived in the flats, next to the commuter tracks that brought my father to and from Manhattan. The neighborhoods converged in the central high school, which I was never supposed to attend—my older brother went to boarding school. But after my Bat Mitzvah, my father became a cliché and started screwing the new associate at his law firm. He moved to Manhattan and divorced my mother, who got clinically depressed and gaunt and begged me not to leave her. So instead of trotting off to New England, I found myself in a brick building full of cheerleaders, potheads, a few hideously boring boys, and Donna, who had the virtue of being almost as lonely and smart as me, plus a whole lot less attractive. She was a math-science geek. I was destined to be valedictorian.  

After school, I often went home with her. Mrs. Peluso was cheerful and large, and their little warm house had a huge garden out back tended by Donna’s father who made his own wine and harvested endless tomatoes. By day, he cut lawns and trimmed hedges on my side of town; in the winter he plowed driveways. Unlike his wife, Mr. Peluso was gruff, a little scary and—I was convinced—suspicious of my influence on his daughter. But he was rarely home after school, and the few times I glimpsed his dusty truck around my neighborhood, I ran away before he saw me.  

I took a sip of wine, then placed it back on the coffee table, next to Donna’s earpiece and cell phone. Just like Emma, she had the latest model with all the fixings. “I’m in love with this technology,” she told me earlier. After our visit to the National Gallery, she had used the phone to photograph me in front of the Roman columned building.

“We seem so happy?” I was surprised by the tears behind my eyes. “I’ll try to remember that the next time David goes ape shit.”

Donna’s face softened. “I’m sorry, Ruth.” She looked as sad as she had at Emma’s non-appearance.

Right then, Donna’s cell phone rang—or, rather, erupted into an excerpt from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. She rose to answer it, patting my head before positioning the phone’s earpiece. “Hey there,” the told the caller, bumping into her black buffet as she exited the living room. The buffet’s crowded display of framed photographs (including several of me and Emma) rattled in response.

Donna’s bedroom was at the dead end of a carpeted hallway. After she closed the door, her voice rose and fell like a tuneless song. At one point, she laughed so strangely I half wanted to walk down the hall and eaves drop. Instead, I fished my old-fashioned cell phone out of my pocket and dialed our landline. Nobody picked up, so I called Emma’s cell phone (which I’d long ago returned), and then, finally David’s. He answered, whispered that he and Emma were at a movie and promised to call back.

When she returned, Donna had changed into black silk pajamas and white slippers. “Sorry that took so long.” Her right hand stroked her neck. “And sorry if I upset you before. I just think David loves you. But what do I know about marriage?”

It was the kind of self-defeating comment that I had come to rely on, the kind that made my own romantic life—with all its explosions and disappointments—still seem enviable to Donna’s. I drank some wine, felt the warm expansion in my throat, and we turned to other subjects. I told her about the laywoman’s divorce book I was writing called Lose Him and Win Big. Donna made a heroic attempt to explain the flow conditions in a power plant she was evaluating.

While she elaborated on fluid pressure and heat transfers, my thoughts drifted back to Donna’s geeky days in high school. I recalled the elastic pants she wore the first day that made the other kids mock her. I thought of the Cat Stevens and James Taylor records we endlessly replayed. I remembered the dark night senior year when Donna called to report her perfect math SAT scores, how I lay awake afterwards, worrying that she would get into the better college.

The day after graduation, Mrs. Peluso threw Donna a supper party, scheduled early to avoid conflict with the evening’s prom. It was a small gathering as the Pelusos had few relatives in America and Donna had no close friends except me. Nevertheless, Donna’s mother made so much food that the dining room table—removed to the back yard for the occasion—overflowed under the cloudy sky. Mr. Peluso’s garden was lush and luminous with its rustling trees and grapevines. Rows of vegetable plants near the tool shed shook their embryonic fruits.

I was going to Cornell, my father’s alma mater. Donna had gotten a full scholarship to Johns Hopkins. At first Mr. Peluso refused to let her go, insisting that she commute to the nearby Catholic college. He relented only after the principal and Donna’s chemistry teacher came to their house to lobby him. “They called me ‘exceptional,’” Donna boasted on the telephone. “Said my scholarship made all the teachers proud.” I had no reason to doubt her. She was a great favorite with the faculty.

My mother had been invited to the party, and she and Mrs. Peluso embraced like old friends.  

“Johns Hopkins! You must be delighted.”

“So far away!” Mrs. Peluso said. “I’ll cry without my Donna.” But she was smiling. She was astonished by her daughter.

My mother was actually happy herself. She wore a pale sleeveless dress and tan sandals that sank in the grass. Before the party she had taken me to the beauty parlor and treated us both to new hairstyles. Her hair was freshly dyed. Mine had been specially curled.

“Hey Donna, remember that high school graduation party your mother made? I ate like a pig.”  

“We drank Papa’s wine.”

“I got drunk.”

Donna nodded, fondling a large pearly button on her pajama top.

“I puked behind the tool shed so our parents wouldn’t see.” My mother was dead as was Donna’s father, but her mother still lived in the little warm house near the train tracks. She had sold the garden property, which had been razed along with a couple of nearby houses to make way for a car repair shop.   

“I held your hair back to protect it.” Indeed Donna had. The vomited sauce that splashed the weeds must have been made from Mr. Peluso’s backyard produce.    

Thanks to Donna my hair remained vomit-free and I recovered in time to attend the evening’s prom—without her. One of the hideously boring boys had improved enough over the years to tempt me with an invitation. I considered turning him down because Donna had a crush on him. But she gave me her blessing, promised she wouldn’t be upset.

“Well,” Donna said, pushing herself up from the chair, “you must be tired.” She walked to the air conditioner and turned it off. I flipped open my cell phone and saw it was nearly midnight. Donna returned to the coffee table, lifted the wine glasses in one hand, the empty bottle in the other and shuffled to the kitchen.

From where I sat I could see one leg of her black pajamas. “You want a snack before bed?”

“No thanks.”

“You sure?” Donna emerged, showcasing a big tub of strawberry ice cream. “It’s your favorite.”

“I’m still digesting that veal.” Besides, strawberry was Emma’s favorite ice cream, not mine.

Soon after, Donna led me to the narrow guestroom.  It was on the left side of the hallway that ended in her bedroom. In between was the pale green bathroom. In the guest room, everything was ivory colored—the bedding, the oval rug, even the short bookshelf with her college textbooks. Above the single bed was a framed poster of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. At the far end was a half-opened window.

In years past, Donna had always given Emma and me her queen-sized bed and slept alone in the ivory room. The new sleeping arrangement was disorienting.  Though it was perfectly sensible given Emma’s absence, I still felt sadly demoted.

 After Donna left, I unhooked my bra, flicked a stray hair off my thinning breast, and took off my shoes, socks, and jeans. For a moment I just stood there, stroking the rug with my toes, the curtains flitting like nervous dancers. From the bathroom, I heard Donna’s bedtime rituals, the faucet turning on and off, the toilet flushing. I walked over to her textbooks near the window— Introduction to Nuclear Engineering, Energy Economics and Policy, Thermodynamics, a small Bible, like a lonely dwarf, sandwiched in between them.  

It wasn’t until I put on an old tee shirt of David’s and crawled between the sheets that I realized I was nauseated. My saliva tasted sour, and the space behind my nose ached, like when my father smoked cigars while driving me in the car with a football game droning on the radio. I rolled over, rolled back, and wondered why the hell I’d eaten veal. Hadn’t I read of the evils of the dairy industry, of newborns taken from their mothers, chained in crates for weeks before being slaughtered? Didn’t I know that the calves get chronic diarrhea—that they spend their short lives covered in their own excrement?   

I watched the restless curtains, trying to think of something else. I wondered if David and Emma had returned home from the movie. I wondered if my husband was drunk. I imagined the rusty green of his file cabinet, the caked dust on our bedroom window, the hazy stench of my father’s cigars. For a half hour or so I fell into a fitful sleep. Then I bolted up, drenched in sweat, and ran straight to the toilet next door.  I reached it just as the warm chunks splattered the water, a few mouthfuls spraying the seat.

After flushing, I rested my head against the cool porcelain of the bathtub where the vomit blended into the flowery scent of body products. Eventually I turned on the light, wet some tissue paper, and wiped the sorry remains of wine and scallopini off the toilet seat. I washed my face at the sink and eyed my reflection. It was pale and gaunt. My lips had begun to pucker, as if sewed a little too tightly in place.  

It was about then I became aware of a commotion in Donna’s bedroom next door. She was murmuring and something, probably her headboard, knocked against a distant wall. Wondering whether she could possibly have a visitor, I strained to hear Donna’s words. When I couldn’t make them out, I tiptoed across the tiles and peaked out the bathroom door. A few feet away, Donna’s door was slightly ajar, her bedroom light making a misty streak.  

I stepped out on to the hallway rug and cupped my ear. I still could not decipher anything. So I dropped on all fours and began crawling towards the sound. Like a cat, I moved cautiously, low to the ground. As ridiculous as it felt I could not stop myself. Beneath my naked knees the carpet stung like sandpaper. Right before Donna’s door, I pulled back to catch my breath. Donna, still mumbling, was obviously on the telephone. Emboldened, I faced the shaft of light.

At first, it was hard to focus. Donna’s room was dimly lit, and even when I closed one eye and rotated my head for a telescopic view, each vantage yielded only a single slice of vision. I shifted, squatting with hands on knees, and adjusted my head some more. Gradually, graciously, like the jittery frames of an old movie, the flickering scene became coherent.

I was facing the side of Donna’s wooden bed, where she lay, half covered in a paisley sheet. Propped against the headboard on the right, Donna smiled coyly. Her hair was loosely gathered, a few wanton ringlets spilling down her neck. She appeared—it pained me to admit this—astonishingly beautiful. Her unbuttoned pajama top offered a partial view of her huge breasts. With one hand Donna held her cell phone. In the other was a tablespoon, of all things—the kind you use for eating soup.  

I turned my ear to the crack and finally heard her clearly.

“Me too.” The bed springs squeaked. “I can’t wait.” After a short pause Donna said, “Again? Already?” Then she gave a high-pitched laugh. “You sure you’re up for it?”

I looked back and saw her shaking with laughter. She pressed the tablespoon to her lips, as if hoping it would quiet her. Then she turned to her night table and deposited the utensil in what I now realized was the empty tub of strawberry ice cream. Almost seeing her overeat gave me a hot and temporary rush of triumph.

I returned my ear to the door. “Okay,” Donna said, elongating the “oh.” “For you I’ll do anything.” What followed was nothing like I’d ever heard from the sweet mouth of my Donna.

When I returned my eye to the door crack, she was adjusting her earpiece and microphone. Then, in one swift swish, she kicked the paisley sheet on to the floor. Lips parted, her pale skin glowing, Donna was stark naked from waist down. Her spread legs, her undulating thighs, her soft rolls of flesh suddenly reminded me of the John Donne poem David had recited after we first made love. “O my America, my Newfoundland,” he whispered dreamily before bursting into tears. He was still married to his first wife at the time.

Bringing her feet towards her buttocks, Donna raised her knees. She lifted her bottom slowly, revealing a dark stretch of pubic hair. As if playing the piano, each of her hands had its own fingering. One hand circled her pubic bone. The other fingers moved in and out between her thighs. As their rhythms intensified so did Donna’s happy cries.  Even after I turned and fled, they chased me down the hallway.

First thing the next morning, I called Amtrak and made a reservation for a morning train back home. Though no longer nauseated I couldn’t imagine trotting off to the Holocaust Museum as Donna and I had planned. I knew the photographs there would torment me and I’d seen enough for one weekend.

When I entered the kitchen and announced my imminent departure, Donna was cooking the bacon and eggs she always prepared for Emma. There were English muffins in the toaster oven. “Why?” Donna gestured with the greasy spatula. “I already reserved the tickets.” Her hair was wet and extra curly from her recent shower. Beneath her white silk bathrobe, her large damp nipples jostled.

I said that Emma had called in the middle of the night because her boyfriend broke up with her. “She couldn’t stop crying. She asked me to come home.”

“My poor Emma.” Donna turned off the stove and lay down the spatula. For a few moments the frying pan continued to crackle. “I wish she were here with us.”

“Trust me, you don’t.” I said. “Emma is awful.” And then, remembering my excuse for leaving early, I added. “She’ll probably blame me for the breakup the minute I get home.”

Donna shrugged. “Emma’s a teenager. She’s not supposed to be nice to her mother.”

“Maybe not. But it’s still heartbreaking.” They were the truest words I’d said all weekend.

But Donna wasn’t listening. She tightened the sash on her bathrobe. “I mean even we weren’t always nice as girls.”

The comment caught me off-guard and I inhaled sharply. I thought of all the ways I’d exploited Donna to survive adolescent mortification. I thought of how I let the boy she liked take me to the prom. “You were always nice to me,” I said, my throat clutching.

“Well, of course.” Donna’s big brown eyes snapped back into focus. “You were my best friend.”

The toaster oven popped open with a “ding.” Donna stood on tiptoes by the nearby cupboard, her heels arched.

As soon as she put the plates on the counter I apologized. The train was leaving in less than an hour and there was no time to eat. Anyway, I added sheepishly, I’d gotten a little sick to my stomach overnight.

“Oh no.” Donna touched my arm. “I hope you got some sleep.”  

I assured her that I had. She insisted that I take something for the train, in case I got hungry later. “How about a little egg and bacon on a muffin?” I declined, but she looked crushed.

“Okay, but hold the bacon.”   

Hours later, the train entered the capital of New Jersey. On my left was the great green steel bridge with its inimitable sign: “Trenton Makes The World Takes.” Years ago, when Emma had first learned to read, she pronounced these words with such exuberance that people in the seats around us smiled like proud parents.

After a few more stops, I retrieved the aluminum foil package with Donna’s breakfast sandwich. It was still a little warm like a stubborn piece of coal. I unwrapped the foil in my lap and took a soggy but delicious bite of egg and muffin. I was hungry and ate steadily, wiping my hands on the napkin Donna had supplied. When I finished, I put the crumpled foil and napkin in the seat pocket in front of me and removed the Amtrak magazine. I flipped through the advertisements for waterproof watches and pillows that cured snoring.

When the train sped past Metropark, about a half hour from New York City, I reached into my jeans pocket and pulled out my cell phone.

David answered the landline promptly as he often does when he’s at his desk. I told him I was coming home early because I had thrown up from food poisoning.

“Yuck,” he said sympathetically.

“I’m fine now.”

“Glad to hear it.”  

I described the portraits of the humorless Puritans Donna and I had seen at the National Gallery. David said he was grading a promising batch of freshmen essays.  

The train rumbled indifferently past a New Jersey slum.

“So,” I said impulsively, “I think Donna has a sex life.”

“Good for Donna.” David sounded remarkably matter-of-fact.

“You don’t seem surprised.”

“Why should I be? I’ve never underestimated Donna.”

“Is that a pun about her weight?”

“Come on Ruth, be nice.” David had always had a soft spot for Donna. Over the years, they mostly saw each other at major events: our wedding, my mother’s funeral, Emma’s Bat-Mitzvah, and the like. But there was one weekend long, long ago—right after David left his wife and son and moved into my apartment—that Donna stayed with us in Manhattan. It was the first time they met and David liked her immediately. “She seems innocent,” he whispered, as we lay naked, Donna sleeping down the hall on the futon couch. “In the best sense of the word—incapable of malice.” I wondered if I would ever tell David what I had seen in Donna’s bedroom, if I could conjure the audacity to lie down before him and repeat her whole performance. I wondered how much he would like that.

“So how was your date with Emma?”

“Christ what a violent movie! You would have hated it.”

“And Emma?”

“She’s suddenly a great fan of horror—must be that boyfriend’s influence.” David cleared his throat. “You know, Emma misses you—she does.”

My stomach tightened. “Did she say so?”

“No. But yesterday she wandered around the apartment looking lost.”

“You’re just flattering me.”

“Really, she looked lost. There’s a bit at the end of To the Lighthouse. I just taught it to my freshman. I forget the line exactly—wait I’ve got the book here—just let me move these student—” I heard the rustling of papers, then the sound of falling books.  “God-damnit!”   

“David?” He was swearing madly in the background. “Forget about it. You’ll tell me later.”

“Ah! Here it is!” He returned to the telephone. “It’s September in the Hebrides and World War I has devastated everything, and Cam, she’s the teenage daughter, just a little older than Emma—here’s the line—Cam looks around the dilapidated beach house—they seem so simple, the words—‘she looked around the room for someone who was not there, for Mrs. Ramsay, presumably.’” He paused, as if waiting for me to recognize the brilliance of his association.

“I haven’t read that novel since college.” Unlike Donne’s poem, I recollected nothing about it.

“Try to remember.” David spoke with quiet urgency—with that restrained passion that mesmerized me when we first met. “It was the worst war in Western history. Ten years have past. When Cam last saw the beach house she was a little girl. And now she looks around for Mrs. Ramsay. Mrs. Ramsay is gone and still Cam is looking for her.”

I made an educated guess. “Mrs. Ramsay is Cam’s mother, right?”

“Right!” My husband was pleased.

“Isn’t she dead?” Another guess.

“Right. That’s why Cam is so lost.”

“Well,” I said, trying to muster some climactic evidence of comprehension. “I am alive.” The words seemed preposterous once they left my mouth.

To my surprise, my husband simply said, “Yes. Yes, you are.” And then, as the faint signs of New York City began to emerge on the horizon, he added, “Thank God for that.”

After hanging up, I watched the scenery out the window. We passed a dizzying sweep of smoke stacks and squat, round gas tanks like giant Tylenol tablets. Any minute now, we would enter the final tunnel to New York’s Penn Station. Everything would grow dark and quiet. Then the train would jolt to a halt and the news of our arrival would boom out on the loud speaker.

I waited with something like hope for that moment—waited to stand up, follow the other passengers out the door, and make my way home.

Susan Greenfield is a Professor of English at Fordham University. Her short stories have appeared in Cimarron Review, A Room of One’s Own, Big Bridge, and Literary Mama.  Other essays and op-eds have been published in CNN Opinion, The Huffington Post, Ms. Magazine Blog, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and PBS Need to Know. She is also the author of scholarly articles and a book about mother-daughter relationships in early English novels by women.

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