After that, I rarely spoke to Shannon or Mary and they rarely spoke to me, except to remind me to do my share of the chores, which I never did. The apartment looked fine to me. So what if there were rotting peaches in the fridge and dirty dishes in the sink? So what if the smell slapped you in the face when you came through the door? To my mind if the stench was bearable, the house was clean, and I extended this philosophy to my person. I never used soap except when I showered, usually once or twice a week, and sometimes I didn’t use it even then. When I left the bathroom in the morning, I marched right past the hallway sink where Shannon and Mary always—always—washed their hands. I saw their raised eyebrows and thought of Grandma-over-in-town. Frivolous, I told myself. I don’t pee on my hands.
The atmosphere in the apartment was tense. Shannon looked at me like I was a rabid dog, and I did nothing to reassure her.
MY BANK ACCOUNT DECREASED steadily. I had been worried that I might not pass my classes, but a month into the semester, after I’d paid tuition and rent and bought food and books, I began to think that even if I did pass I wouldn’t be coming back to school for one obvious reason: I couldn’t afford it. I looked up the requirements for a scholarship online. A full-tuition waiver would require a near-perfect GPA.
I was only a month into the semester, but even so I knew a scholarship was comically out of reach. American history was getting easier, but only in that I was no longer failing the quizzes outright. I was doing well in music theory, but I struggled in English. My teacher said I had a knack for writing but that my language was oddly formal and stilted. I didn’t tell her that I’d learned to read and write by reading only the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and speeches by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young.
The real trouble, however, was Western Civ. To me, the lectures were gibberish, probably because for most of January, I thought Europe was a country, not a continent, so very little of what the professor said made sense. And after the Holocaust incident, I wasn’t about to ask for clarification.
Even so, it was my favorite class, because of Vanessa. We sat together for every lecture. I liked her because she seemed like the same kind of Mormon I was: she wore high-necked, loose-fitting clothing, and she’d told me that she never drank Coke or did homework on Sunday. She was the only person I’d met at the university who didn’t seem like a gentile.
In February, the professor announced that instead of a single midterm he would be giving monthly exams, the first of which would be the following week. I didn’t know how to prepare. There wasn’t a textbook for the class, just the picture book of paintings and a few CDs of classical compositions. I listened to the music while flipping through the paintings. I made a vague effort to remember who had painted or composed what, but I didn’t memorize spelling. The ACT was the only exam I’d ever taken, and it had been multiple choice, so I assumed all exams were multiple choice.
The morning of the exam, the professor instructed everyone to take out their blue books. I barely had time to wonder what a blue book was before everyone produced one from their bags. The motion was fluid, synchronized, as if they had practiced it. I was the only dancer on the stage who seemed to have missed rehearsal. I asked Vanessa if she had a spare, and she did. I opened it, expecting a multiple-choice exam, but it was blank.
The windows were shuttered; the projector flickered on, displaying a painting. We had sixty seconds to write the work’s title and the artist’s full name. My mind produced only a dull buzz. This continued through several questions: I sat completely still, giving no answers at all.
A Caravaggio flickered onto the screen—Judith Beheading Holofernes. I stared at the image, that of a young girl calmly drawing a sword toward her body, pulling the blade through a man’s neck as she might have pulled a string through cheese. I’d beheaded chickens with Dad, clutching their scabby legs while he raised the ax and brought it down with a loud thwack, then tightening my grip, holding on with all I had, when the chicken convulsed with death, scattering feathers and spattering my jeans with blood. Remembering the chickens, I wondered at the plausibility of Caravaggio’s scene: no one had that look on their face—that tranquil, disinterested expression—when taking off something’s head.
I knew the painting was by Caravaggio but I remembered only the surname and even that I couldn’t spell. I was certain the title was Judith Beheading Someone but could not have produced Holofernes even if it had been my neck behind the blade.
Thirty seconds left. Perhaps I could score a few points if I could just get something—anything—on the page, so I sounded out the name phonetically: “Carevajio.” That didn’t look right. One of the letters was doubled up, I remembered, so I scratched that out and wrote “Carrevagio.” Wrong again. I auditioned different spellings, each worse than the last. Twenty seconds.
Next to me, Vanessa was scribbling steadily. Of course she was. She belonged here. Her handwriting was neat, and I could read what she’d written: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. And next to it, in equally pristine print, Judith Beheading Holofernes. Ten seconds. I copied the text, not including Caravaggio’s full name because, in a selective display of integrity, I decided that would be cheating. The projector flashed to the next slide.
I glanced at Vanessa’s paper a few more times during the exam but it was hopeless. I couldn’t copy her essays, and I lacked the factual and stylistic know-how to compose my own. In the absence of skill or knowledge, I must have scribbled down whatever occurred to me. I don’t recall whether we were asked to evaluate Judith Beheading Holofernes, but if we were I’m sure I would have given my impressions: that the calm on the girl’s face didn’t sit well with my experience slaughtering chickens. Dressed in the right language this might have made a fantastic answer—something about the woman’s serenity standing in powerful counterpoint to the general realism of the piece. But I doubt the professor was much impressed by my observation that, “When you chop a chicken’s head off, you shouldn’t smile because you might get blood and feathers in your mouth.”
The exam ended. The shutters were opened. I walked outside and stood in the winter chill, gazing up at the pinnacles of the Wasatch Mountains. I wanted to stay. The mountains were as unfamiliar and menacing as ever, but I wanted to stay.
I waited a week for the exam results, and twice during that time I dreamed of Shawn, of finding him lifeless on the asphalt, of turning his body and seeing his face alight in crimson. Suspended between fear of the past and fear of the future, I recorded the dream in my journal. Then, without any explanation, as if the connection between the two were obvious, I wrote, I don’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to get a decent education as a child.
The results were handed back a few days later. I had failed.
ONE WINTER, WHEN I was very young, Luke found a great horned owl in the pasture, unconscious and half frozen. It was the color of soot, and seemed as big as me to my child eyes. Luke carried it into the house, where we marveled at its soft plumage and pitiless talons. I remember stroking its striped feathers, so smooth they were waterlike, as my father held its limp body. I knew that if it were conscious, I would never get this close. I was in defiance of nature just by touching it.
Its feathers were soaked in blood. A thorn had lanced its wing. “I’m not a vet,” Mother said. “I treat people.” But she removed the thorn and cleaned the wound. Dad said the wing would take weeks to mend, and that the owl would wake up long before then. Finding itself trapped, surrounded by predators, it would beat itself to death trying to get free. It was wild, he said, and in the wild that wound was fatal.
We laid the owl on the linoleum by the back door and, when it awoke, told Mother to stay out of the kitchen. Mother said hell would freeze over before she surrendered her kitchen to an owl, then marched in and began slamming pots to make breakfast. The owl flopped about pathetically, its talons scratching the door, bashing its head in a panic. We cried, and Mother retreated. Two hours later Dad had blocked off half the kitchen with plywood sheets. The owl convalesced there for several weeks. We trapped mice to feed it, but sometimes it didn’t eat them, and we couldn’t clear away the carcasses. The smell of death was strong and foul, a punch to the gut.
The owl grew restless. When it began to refuse food, we opened the back door and let it escape. It wasn’t fully healed, but Dad said its chances were better with the mountain than with us. It didn’t belong. It couldn’t be taught to belong.
I WANTED TO TELL SOMEONE I’d failed the exam, but something stopped me from calling Tyler. It might have been shame. Or it might have been that Tyler was preparing to be a father. He’d met his wife, Stefanie, at Purdue, and they’d married quickly. She didn’t know anything about our family. To me, it felt as though he preferred his new life—his new family—to his old one.
I called home. Dad answered. Mother was delivering a baby, which she was doing more and more now the migraines had stopped.
“When will Mother be home?” I said.
“Don’t know,” said Dad. “Might as well ask the Lord as me, as He’s the one deciding.” He chuckled, then asked, “How’s school?”
Dad and I hadn’t spoken since he’d screamed at me about the VCR. I could tell he was trying to be supportive, but I didn’t think I could admit to him that I was failing. I wanted to tell him it was going well. So easy, I imagined myself saying.
“Not great,” I said instead. “I had no idea it would be this hard.”
The line was silent, and I imagined Dad’s stern face hardening. I waited for the jab I imagined he was preparing, but instead a quiet voice said, “It’ll be okay, honey.”
“It won’t,” I said. “There will be no scholarship. I’m not even going to pass.” My voice was shaky now.
“If there’s no scholarship, there’s no scholarship,” he said. “Maybe I can help with the money. We’ll figure it out. Just be happy, okay?”
“Okay,” I said.
“Come on home if you need.”
I hung up, not sure what I’d just heard. I knew it wouldn’t last, that the next time we spoke everything would be different, the tenderness of this moment forgotten, the endless struggle between us again in the foreground. But tonight he wanted to help. And that was something.
IN MARCH, THERE WAS ANOTHER exam in Western Civ. This time I made flash cards. I spent hours memorizing odd spellings, many of them French (France, I now understood, was a part of Europe). Jacques-Louis David and François Boucher: I couldn’t say them but I could spell them.
My lecture notes were nonsensical, so I asked Vanessa if I could look at hers. She looked at me skeptically, and for a moment I wondered if she’d noticed me cheating off her exam. She said she wouldn’t give me her notes but that we could study together, so after class I followed her to her dorm room. We sat on the floor with our legs crossed and our notebooks open in front of us.
I tried to read from my notes but the sentences were incomplete, scrambled. “Don’t worry about your notes,” Vanessa said. “They aren’t as important as the textbook.”
“What textbook?” I said.
“The textbook,” Vanessa said. She laughed as if I were being funny. I tensed because I wasn’t.
“I don’t have a textbook,” I said.
“Sure you do!” She held up the thick picture book I’d used to memorize titles and artists.
“Oh that,” I said. “I looked at that.”
“You looked at it? You didn’t read it?”
I stared at her. I didn’t understand. This was a class on music and art. We’d been given CDs with music to listen to, and a book with pictures of art to look at. It hadn’t occurred to me to read the art book any more than it had to read the CDs.
“I thought we were just supposed to look at the pictures.” This sounded stupid when said aloud.
“So when the syllabus assigned pages fifty through eighty-five, you didn’t think you had to read anything?”
“I looked at the pictures,” I said again. It sounded worse the second time.
Vanessa began thumbing through the book, which suddenly looked very much like a textbook.
“That’s your problem then,” she said. “You have to read the textbook.” As she said this, her voice lilted with sarcasm, as if this blunder, after everything else—after joking about the Holocaust and glancing at her test—was too much and she was done with me. She said it was time for me to go; she had to study for another class. I picked up my notebook and left.
“Read the textbook” turned out to be excellent advice. On the next exam I scored a B, and by the end of the semester I was pulling A’s. It was a miracle and I interpreted it as such. I continued to study until two or three A.M. each night, believing it was the price I had to pay to earn God’s support. I did well in my history class, better in English, and best of all in music theory. A full-tuition scholarship was unlikely, but I could maybe get half.
During the final lecture in Western Civ, the professor announced that so many students had failed the first exam, he’d decided to drop it altogether. And poof. My failing grade was gone. I wanted to punch the air, give Vanessa a high five. Then I remembered that she didn’t sit with me anymore.