Comparative Literature

by Con Chapman

"Do you remember the time I asked you if you wanted to go for a dip?” Roberta's father asked as they pulled into the country club parking lot.

“Yes, Daddy,” Roberta replied with annoyance. Her father had recounted the story many times over the years, sometimes in front of dinner guests and others outside the family.

“I thought you were going to bawl your eyes out when we drove past the Dairy Queen,” he said with the same mouth-wide smile as always. “You thought I meant one of those chocolate-dipped cones!”

This was her father's way of suggesting that she needed to watch her weight, and it only made things worse. It irritated her, and when she got upset she wanted chocolate and a cola drink, which she wasn't supposed to have. He'd be out on the golf course, however, and she'd be sitting by the pool. All she had to do was wait until he walked down to the pro shop, then she could order whatever she wanted through the little service window that opened into The 19th Hole, where the men gathered for drinks and to watch golf tournaments on TV. She was mentally embarrassed that she still felt she had to sneak around her parents at the age of twenty-four.

“Who are you playing with today?” she asked, trying to change the subject.

“Skip Frazier and Ed Muller and Clyde Boul,” her father said as he cruised up and down the lines of parked cars, trying to find the space closest to the club house.

“Can you drop me off if you're going to park far away?” she asked plaintively.

“Oh, the walk will do you good,” her father said. His thoughts were hard to budge off the appearance of his only daughter, unmarried and headed back to graduate school five hundred miles north “when there was a perfectly good state school an hour's drive away!” as her mother had told her when she got her bachelor's degree. She had shared this story with the thesis supervisor for her first master's degree, and they had laughed at the naivete that people outside academia were capable of.

“I don't want to get all hot and sweaty,” she said.

“Take a dip in the pool,” her father said, then realizing he'd missed an opportunity to kid her some more, added “Just like way back when!”

She watched as her father began to glide uncertainly into a parking space that his big car could barely fit into. “Let me get out here so I don't have to squeeze myself out the door.”

“It's not that tight.”

“Yes it is, and your driving's starting to scare me.”

“Oh, hush,” her father said, but he relented and stopped to let her out before he parked. “If you'd lay off the ice cream it wouldn't be a problem,” he cracked as she closed the door.

She straightened her sun hat, which she had knocked askew when she bumped her head on the car's door frame, and put on her sunglasses. She had a cover-up on over the swimming suit her mother had brought back from Hawaii for her. It was a loud floral print and struck her as dowdy, not something she would have bought, but she wouldn't see anyone but her parents' friends at the club. It wasn't that she didn't care what they thought; they would probably think it was fashionable, smart. She would blend right in.

She waited for her father, whose gait had slowed noticeably since she'd left for her final semester the previous winter. He now had a tray full of pills to take every morning, whose dispensation was handled by her mother. “I don't know what your father's going to do if I go first,” she had said to Roberta one afternoon as they sat in the living room, looking out the picture window, waiting for him to return from his plant. “His mind is going. He's going to fall into one of those vats on the shop floor, I just know it.”

“We should be done around four,” her father said as she turned to enter the pool. “I'll be in The 19th Hole if you're looking for me. Call your mother if you want to go home sooner than that.”

“Okay,” she said, glad to be rid of him but sorry that she felt that way.

She smiled at the ladies at poolside, some under umbrellas, others sunning themselves on chaise chairs.

“Is your mother coming out today, Roberta?” one of them asked.

“No, she's taking a nap.”

“She should come out and nap with us—we're pretty lazy,” one of the women said cheerfully, causing the others to laugh.

“She likes her air conditioning,” Roberta said, then sat down on a lounge chair and turned it towards the sun as if she was interested in tanning, but in fact so that she wouldn't have to join in the conversation.

She applied some lotion to her face, arms and legs and opened up her book, The Nose by Gogol. She would be starting over, getting a second master's in comparative literature in the fall, this time with an emphasis on Russians versus French. She read French well enough but no Russian; she'd have to spend a lot of time in language lab picking it up, and she knew that it got harder the older she got. In her mind, she resolved the problem by comforting herself with the thought that she could get by as she'd always done—by reading translations.

A mother with two young boys came into the pool area; there, she thought, goes my solitude. The boys ran, then walked to the diving board when their mother told them to slow down; they began a bombardment of jumps into the water designed to produce the biggest splash. She turned her chair a quarter hour to the right so that she was facing the highway, the women on her right, the boys to her left.

She closed her eyes; Gogol was too absurd for her tastes, and Dostoevsky too depressing. She had enjoyed the Chekhov and Pushkin she'd read thus far that summer, and decided she would try to come up with a thesis comparing one of them to, maybe Proust or de Maupassant, French writers she liked. She wasn't sure there were any real similarities between either of the Russians and the French, but she didn't care. She was good at going to school; it helped her pass the time, and gave her an excuse for not settling down in her home town.

No, summers were enough, more than enough to spend back where she'd grown up. Every year there were fewer friends to spend time with. One by one they were marrying and she would be the third wheel in their houses. She was now down to just two, one of whom had to drive twenty miles to see her mother in a nursing home several times each week, while the other was working long hours in her father's law office on Ohio Street downtown. It had been a lonely three months; maybe she would try staying in Chicago next summer, she thought, but she would miss the amenities that her parents provided—the pool, the car, the free meals.

After a while she got in the pool up to her armpits and walked around to cool off; she didn't want to mess up her hair by swimming, even though she had no plans for the night. As she moved slowly around the shallow end she remembered how she's been kissed by a boy for the first time—underwater—at the same spot nearly twenty years before. The boy was a year older but was in her first kindergarten class; Roberta had started ahead of schedule because she was bored at home and her mother concluded she was gifted.

She had gone all the way through high school with the boy and although he would say “hi” if they were walking down an otherwise-empty hallway towards each other, he otherwise didn't acknowledge her presence. She had been “cute”—not pretty—back then, she thought; but then nearly all young children merited that rather shabby aesthetic accolade, she reminded herself.

She got out, toweled off and laid down to sun some more. She put on her headphones and played some music to drown out the noise of the boys and was soon asleep, dreaming of a long, cool corridor, marble and wood. She was with other young people she didn't know. An older man—tweed jacket, tortoise shell glasses—was talking as they toured a building, explaining things. It struck her as strange; orientation week hadn't been this nice in college or at the university in Iowa she'd graduated from last year. And then it occurred to her; it was better because the institution was better, and she'd be with better students, and the professors would be better. She felt a sense of warmth, even though she could see snow out the windows on the open spaces in the middle of a Chicago winter.

She woke up with a snort. Apparently she'd been snoring. She looked over at the women, who were still chatting, oblivious to her. The boys were talking loudly to their mother from the diving board, who had apparently told them to get out for awhile. She swallowed; her mouth was parched, her lips dry. She decided to get a drink at the refreshment window.

She walked past the women, who were busy with their own conversation and didn't speak to her, out the gate and over to the clubhouse. Because she was still in her suit she wasn't allowed in the men's bar, and so would have to order through the window, as she had when she was little. As she climbed the stairs leading up to the refreshment window she thought of what an effort it had been for her to make this same trip when she was a little girl; three steps up, then she had to crawl up on a wooden ledge in order to reach the window. She would ring the little buzzer, one of the bartenders would open the window, and she would order a Coca-Cola and a Milky Way, giving her parents' membership number if the bartender was new and didn't know her.

The bartender saw her and slid the window up before she had a chance to buzz him. “What can I get you, Ms. Cain?”

“I'll have a large Diet Coke, please.”

“You want anything to eat?”

She thought for a moment. She looked at her watch and realized she'd been outside for over three hours; it was three-thirty, her father wouldn't be ready to go for another hour and a half. “I'll have an order of fries, too.”


The bartender handed her the drink and she was waiting while the fries cooked, standing with her back to the window, when she heard her father's voice inside, talking to another man at the bar.

“How's the family?” the other man asked.

“Oh, you know Marge is fine, Roberta's home for the summer?”

“What's she up to?”

“Just got her master's.”

“That's great. So she'll be off the payroll soon?”

“Nope—she's decided to go back for another.”

“Another year?”

“No—another masters.”

Roberta moved a bit to her left so that stood behind a wall, invisible to those inside, but could still hear.

“What's she going for this time?” the other man asked.

“The same thing.”

There was silence for a moment; Roberta held her breath, waiting for the other man to pick up the conversation again.

“And what was that?” he asked.

“Comparative literature.”

“Oh. So is it like a doctor goin' back for a specialty?” the man asked with what sounded to Roberta like sincere diplomacy.

“I don't think so, but I don't know,” her father said. “I think she enjoyed it so much she wants another. Sort of like a chocolate éclair.”

The two men laughed heartily at the joke, then finished their drinks and headed to the locker room. “We'll see ya, George,” she heard her father say to the bartender as they walked off.

She felt warm, as if she had prickly heat, but composed herself and walked back down to the pool area. As she passed the table of women one called out cheerfully “Looks like you got some sun today!”

“I needed a little color,” she said over a gulping sensation in her throat. “I'll be cooped up in the library all winter.”

“It's good for you, I don't care what they say,” another woman said as she examined the handful of cards she'd been dealt.

Roberta set the fries down on a side table next to her chair and inhaled deeply. She took a swig of her drink, let her cover-up slide off her arms, stood up, took off her sunglasses, walked over to the pool, and dove in.