aspirations

Princeton, in the summer, smelled of nothing, and although Ifemelu liked the tranquil greenness of the many trees, the clean streets and stately homes, the delicately overpriced shops, and the quiet, abiding air of earned grace, it was this, the lack of a smell, that most appealed to her, perhaps because the other American cities she knew well had all smelled distinctly. Philadelphia had the musty scent of history. New Haven smelled of neglect. Baltimore smelled of brine, and Brooklyn of sun-warmed garbage. But Princeton had no smell. She liked taking deep breaths here. She liked watching the locals who drove with pointed courtesy and parked their latest-model cars outside the organic grocery store on Nassau Street or outside the sushi restaurants or outside the icecream shop that had fifty different flavors including red pepper or outside the post office where effusive staff bounded out to greet them at the entrance. She liked the campus, grave with knowledge, the Gothic buildings with their vine-laced walls, and the way everything transformed, in the half-light of night, into a ghostly scene. She liked, most of all, that in this place of affluent ease, she could pretend to be someone else, someone specially admitted into a hallowed American club, someone adorned with certainty. Brian, redundant, would have time to write his novel, the great chronicle novel of the Northern working class. Brian would be forced, by redundancy, to confront the knowledge that time was not what he needed, Brian would turn sour. Already he had become unreasonable: later, he would, like everyone else, become sour. He also tried to write the great pedestrian realistic working-class novel of the 1970s and 1980s, but he had moved to London, married a middle-class wife, and acquired too good an education to write what he wanted, as he wanted. They did not know then, were not to know for many years, were never fully to understand what it was that held them together — a sense of being on the margins of English life, perhaps, a sense of being outsiders, looking in from a cold street through a lighted window into a warm lit room that later might prove to be their own? She laid claim to the past—her version of the past—aggressively, as if retrieving misdirected mail. So this was where she came from. This all belonged to her, her birthright, like a pair of pearl earrings or a post office bond. X marks the spot, and Irie put an X on everything she found, collecting bits and pieces (birth certificates, maps, army reports, news articles) and storing them under the sofa, so that as if by osmosis the richness of them would pass through the fabric while she was sleeping and seep right into her. Often you see old men in the corner of dark pubs, discussing and gesticulating, using beer mugs and salt cellars to represent long-dead people and far-off places. At that moment they display a vitality missing in every other area of their lives. They light up. Unpacking a full story onto the table—here is a Churchill-fork, over there is a Czechoslovakia-napkin, here we find the accumulation of German troops represented by a collection of cold peas—they are reborn. In a flash it came to her: of course she’d known something had been wrong with her daughter, these past few days. Something not-right. Since Sunday. Since the telephone call. A mother always knows, can’t not know. But Corinne had been so busy, hadn’t gotten around to investigating. And hadn’t she always been proud she wasn’t the kind of mother to “investigate”—on principle. I want my children to trust me. To think of me as an equal. So Corinne was a new mother: slightly touched by new-mother craziness. She hoped to dignify herself by commenting sagely to the doctor (always, you want to impress them: men of authority) about “the sucking reflex”—“the bonding instinct”—and similar clinical-anthropological phenomena. She wanted to impress this man she hardly knew, she’d been a college student after all, even if she was only at Fredonia State, and she’d dropped out between her junior and senior years to get married. His thoughts and the thoughts of others were constantly on what he would achieve, on what he would become, in a pleasantly anticipated future, while the present lay just at hand, all the riches of the world ignored and untouched. It was scarcely Michael's fault. I could see that his clever childhood had been a grooming, an anticipation, for the future use of his many talents, and he had fallen into the habit of tomorrow which in a man of thirty-three shows a rosy promise beginning to wither and arouses pity rather than admiration. Everything is always comparative in another country. Crooks are crookeder, grass is greener, heights are higher, words are wordier, pleasures are more pleasurable, death is deader, life is livelier, dogs are doggier, fortune is more fortunate, vaults more vaulted, distance is further, water more watery, blue is bluer, grey is greyer, fame more famous, continuance more continuing, consumers more consumed, reality more real, fantasy more fantastic, adjustments more adjusted, fires more fiery, chaos more chaotic... I mean to say... Menton is a city of innumerable retirement dreams quietly being wrecked by reality. The lizard ideal of sun and warmth, the human ideal of unlimited leisure, of unbroken views of ocean, sky, mountains, trees, make Menton a promised paradise for all when reaching their troisième âge they try to follow the tradition of stopping suddenly their pursuits of twenty, thirty, forty years. He understood that she'd spent the day wondering why she hadn't had happiness like this, Jesus Christ why had she made all the wrong decisions, these stupid teenagers getting married knew how to have a beautiful and humble wedding by this Alaskan river, goddamnit, why did she make it all so difficult when it could be so simple? This was the march of civilization. First there is barbarism, no schools at all, all learning done at home, chaotically if at all. Then there is civil society, democracy, the right to free schooling for every child. Close on the heels of the right to free education is the right to pull these children out of the free schools and put them in private-schools—we have a right to pay for what is provided for free! And this is followed, inevitably and petulantly, by the right to pull them from school altogether to do it yourself at home, everything coming full circle. Twenty-two years of struggle for what—your child sits inside at an Ikea table staring into a screen while outside the sky changes, the sun rises and falls, hawks float like zeppelins. This was the common criminal pursuit of all contemporary humankind. Give my child an Ikea desk and twelve hours a day of sedentary typing. This will mean success for me, them, our family, our lineage. She would not pursue this. She would not subject her children to this. They would not seek these specious things, no. It was only about making them loved in a moment in the sun. The crime of the ponytail ladies was that they were always in a hurry, in a hurry to exercise, in a hurry to pick up their children from capoeira, in a hurry to examine the scores from the school's Mandarin-immersion program, in a hurry to buy micro-greens at the new ivy-covered organic grocery, one of a newly dominant national chain begun by a libertarian megalomaniac, a store where the food had been curated, in which the women in their ponytails rushed quickly through, smiling viciously when their carts' paths were momentarily waylaid. I dream of other roads, in other lands. Of another  home. Would I were lying stretched out in my comfortable bed, just wasting painlessly away, keeping up my strength with arrowroot and calves-foot jelly, till in the end you wouldn’t see me under the blankets any more than a board. Suppose I do get up? Will I ever get down? Oh let me just flop down flat on the road like a big flat jelly out of a bowl and never move again! A great big slop thick with grit and dust and flies, they would have to scoop me up with a shovel. She knew it had been the fifteenth because she had arrived in Washington on the fifteenth of August and given herself a month to find a house and put Catherine into school and get the raise that meant she was no longer a provisional hire (there again a survivor, there again that single-minded efficiency), and at the moment her father called she had just made a note to ask about the raise. She looked at me and walked out of the room. I heard the shower running across the hall and I realized I’d done it all wrong. I should have brought up the subject standing in the doorway while she was watching TV. Then I could have been the one who walks out of the room. I noticed how people played at being executives while actually holding executive positions... You maintain a shifting distance between yourself and your job. There’s a sort of self-conscious space, a  sense of formal play that is a sort of arrested panic, and maybe you show it in a forced gesture or a ritual clearing of the throat... but it’s not that you’re pretending to be someone else. You’re pretending to be exactly who you are. Famous people don’t want to be told that you have a quality in common with them. It makes them think there’s something crawling in their clothes.
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