No small grievance was the fact that Jennifer Harris, my steady through medical school, came from a family living so close to Washington, D. C., where we were learning about medicine at George Washington University. A more deranged family could only be found in a play by Albee or O’Neill. To this day, I have never known a woman so beautiful and beguiling, so pure and seemingly innocent as Jennifer Harris. Golden as the sun at noon, her hair fell in waves past her shoulders. In her face, one perceived the architecture of a deity with the beneficent smile of a wistful saint. Finally, there were those lucent, cornsilk blue eyes, the eyes that Eve stared Adam down with, that paralyzed me every time she looked my way. It was the only time that I have ever fallen in love at first sight. And yet, years later, I failed her. Our lockers being side by side, there was no way to avoid her, but it was months before I gathered the courage to ask her to see a movie with me. When I asked her, I couldn’t believe she wasn’t someone else’s. I was amazed that she didn’t belong to someone else. But for as much as I loved her, I could see her irreproachable grace and goodness slowly unravel the more I got to know her.
After four interminable years in medical school, we were finally set to graduate. My very last rotation was in neurology and I chose to do it overseas, at the Adelaide Hospital in Dublin. After easily the five most enjoyable weeks of my career in medical school came the time to fly back to Washington and collect my diploma. Having left her rotation early, Jennifer was there to pick me up at Dulles. After exiting the Aer Lingus 747 flight from Dublin that landed in the early afternoon at Dulles, I paged Jenny at GWU Hospital. Not quite two hours later, she picked me up in her coach, an old, dilapidated Chevy sedan, which she had only weeks before liberated from the police department’s impoundment for unpaid parking tickets. That was Jennifer, too, the absent-minded, irresponsible creature who would so often forget when we planned to meet somewhere. And there was no accounting for it.
In Olney, a Maryland suburb of the capital, resided her parents, her younger sister and brother. To me, the proximity to her tribe was all too close; in fact, it was like trench warfare back in the First World War. Her father had been an alcoholic, though he seldom got drunk now that his children were all out of high school. Amid tears and Kleenex late one night, Jennifer all but confessed that he molested her when she was still a child. She wouldn’t go further than that. She never told me straight out. However, in what questions she didn’t answer me, she all but admitted it. Then there was her mother, who always seemed cold to me in her interactions with Jennifer, but still cared for her enough to hate me because she felt I wasn’t good enough for her. According to Jenny, the crystal lithium tablets she took for her bipolar disorder took some of the edge off her tantrums. I knew I was the cause of many of them. Dotty Harris, in addition to being a very unhappy and disagreeable woman, was the second alcoholic in the family, always with a glass of wine in her hand, and to complete the picture, was manic-depressive. The sister thought little of me, like her mother, and the brother, the youngest of the siblings, living in a fraternity at the University of Maryland, was well on his way to being the third dipsomaniac in the Harris brood.
Departing Dulles, we searched for the nearest motel in Arlington to satisfy our carnal desires, as her roommate was home studying for her own finals at GWU. Of moments of ecstasy in my life, that afternoon was one. Then suddenly, shortly after six, Jennifer bolted for her clothes which were hanging on a chair. “Oh, my god, I forgot that my parents are expecting us for dinner.” Her smile melted like sandcastle at the beach. They invited Ruth, Jennifer’s best friend in the med school class and her boyfriend. Dinner, as Dotty Harris, planned it, was at seven.
“Call you mom and tell her you’re running late.” In the rush hour traffic, we were a good two hours away from Jennifer’s house in Olney.
Outside, pinched in by the commuters, it was raining, with dark, spongy thunderheads that lit up like camera light bulbs every few minutes from the lightning. When we could speed up, I could feel the Chevy wanting to fishtail on the glistening asphalt. Jenny was too cheap to pay for new tires with the proper tread.
When we arrived at the Harris House, it was shortly after eight. Ken, her father, greeted us at the door.
“I’m sorry we’re late,” Jenny said. I echoed her in her apologies.
“We’re just happy you managed to make it tonight. Tom, how are you?” The old man was always friendly with me, unlike his wife. Whenever I saw him, I tried to keep my vision of him molesting Jennifer from emerging. Despite what he had done to her, she still adored her dad.
We greeted Ruth, and her boyfriend Ron, who was a graduate student in something like history at GWU. Only Dotty remained sitting at the end of the dinner table. “So you finally made it, did you, Jennifer?” The Harris’s didn’t wait for dinner for us, and had reached desert by the time we arrived. “I’ve got your plates warming in the oven.” Without a further word, she stood, went through the kitchen door, bearing two plates of pot roast, baked potatoes, and a side of vegetables. I had a salad for you, as well, but you’re too late for it now.” I took my place sitting between Ruth and Ken, while Jennifer sat down beside Dotty and Ron. At a brisk pace I ate what Dotty had cooked, answering all their questions about Ireland. The whole time, Dotty looked like a matriarch who wanted desperately to have a cigarette, but didn’t feel it was proper to light up. When Jenny and I finished our plates, Dotty removed them and brought out our desert: two pieces of cheese cake. Everything had been tense and awkward since we had arrived and Ruth and Ron found an excuse to leave not long after Jennifer and I had finished our dinner. They didn’t wait for us to finish eating our cheesecake. When they left, I noticed it was still raining.
Kenny brought out what was left of the pot of coffee and poured a cup for Jenny and me. Ruth and Ron had no more than pulled out of the driveway and into D.C. before Dotty got ugly. “How did you ever get into medical school?” Dotty asked her daughter.
“What?” replied Jenny.
“For once, you could be on time.”
“I said I was sorry.”
“And you think that makes up for it? You’ve been a true fuck-up all your life”
“Dotty…” intoned Ken.
“No, I’d like to know. I feel I have earned the right to question. Just how did you ever make it into medical school. It’s obvious that you and Bill were too busy fucking in some dark room, and that’s why you’re so late. You’re nothing but a slut. A fucking slut.”
“Dotty,” said Ken.
“A slut. Tell me, Jennifer, did you have to sleep with any professors to get the grades you needed to get into medical school. I assume that fucking is your best asset?”
“Dotty if you don’t shut up, and shut up right now, I’m going to belt you,” said Ken.
“And I wonder why it is you’re always making excuses for her, Ken? Is there something I should know about your confederacy?”
Good for you. Hit her. Hit her. It was the only time in my life that I felt violence due a woman.
By now, Jenny was silently crying, the teardrops dropping from her eyes, dampening the dinner cloth that had a small stain of red from the strawberry cheesecake she’d wiped her mouth with. I sat through all this just stunned. Never had I seen a parent turn on their offspring like this; nor had I ever imagined one with so much damned up rage.
I finally weighed in. “I think it would be best if Jenny and I left now. Thank you for the wonderful dinner.” Ken showed us to the door. The rain was pouring and lightning was still sparking up the capital as far as we could see it.
I assumed the duty of driving back to the city. We drove in silence, every few minutes punctuated by a sob emanating from Jenny.
By Joseph Dylan