Even though we only had a week before finals, I spent Monday afternoon reading “Song of Myself.” I’d wanted to go to the last two pseudovisions, but Ben needed his car. I was no longer looking for clues in the poem so much as I was looking for Margo herself. I’d made it about halfway through “Song of Myself” this time when I stumbled into another section that I found myself reading and rereading.
“I think I will do nothing for a long time but listen,” Whitman writes. And then for two pages, he’s just hearing: hearing a steam whistle, hearing people’s voices, hearing an opera. He sits on the grass and lets the sound pour through him. And this is what I was trying to do, too, I guess: to listen to all the little sounds of her, because before any of it could make sense, it had to be heard. For so long, I hadn’t really heard Margo — I’d seen her screaming and thought her laughing — that now I figured it was my job. To try, even at this great remove, to hear the opera of her.
If I couldn’t hear Margo, I could at least listen to what she once heard, so I downloaded the album of Woody Guthrie covers. I sat at the computer, my eyes closed, elbows against the desk, and listened to a voice singing in a minor key. I tried to hear, inside a song I’d never heard before, the voice I had trouble remembering after twelve days.
I was still listening — but now to another of her favorites, Bob Dylan — when my mom got home. “Dad’s gonna be late,” she said through the closed door. “I thought I might make turkey burgers?”
“Sounds good,” I answered, and then closed my eyes again and listened to the music. I didn’t sit up again until Dad called me for dinner an album and a half later.
At dinner, Mom and Dad were talking about politics in the Middle East. Even though they completely agreed with each other, they still managed to yell about it, saying that so-and-so was a liar, and so-and-so was a liar and a thief, and that the lot of them should resign. I focused on the turkey burger, which was excellent, dripping with ketchup and smothered with grilled onions.
“Okay, enough,” my mom said after a while. “Quentin, how was your day?”
“Fine,” I said. “Getting ready for finals, I guess.”
“I can’t believe this is your last week of classes,” Dad said. “It really does just seem like yesterday. .”
“It does,” Mom said. A voice in my head was like: WARNING NOSTALGIA ALERT WARNING WARNING WARNING. Great people, my parents, but prone to bouts of crippling sentimentality.
“We’re just very proud of you,” she said. “But, God, we’ll miss you next fall.”
“Yeah, well, don’t speak too soon. I could still fail English.”
My mom laughed, and then said, “Oh, guess who I saw at the YMCA yesterday? Betty Parson. She said Chuck was going to the University of Georgia next fall. I was pleased for him; he’s always struggled.”
“He’s an asshole,” I said.
“Well,” my dad said, “he was a bully. And his behavior was deplorable.” This was typical of my parents: in their minds, no one was just an asshole. There was always something wrong with people other than just sucking: they had socialization disorders, or borderline personality syndrome, or whatever.
My mom picked up the thread. “But Chuck has learning difficulties. He has all kinds of problems — just like anyone. I know it’s impossible for you to see peers this way, but when you’re older, you start to see them — the bad kids and the good kids and all kids — as people. They’re just people, who deserve to be cared for. Varying degrees of sick, varying degrees of neurotic, varying degrees of self-actualized. But you know, I always liked Betty, and I always had hopes for Chuck. So it’s good that he’s going to college, don’t you think?”
“Honestly, Mom, I don’t really care about him one way or another.” But I did think, if everyone is such a person, how come Mom and Dad still hated all the politicians in Israel and Palestine? They didn’t talk about them like they were people.
My dad finished chewing something and then put his fork down and looked at me. “The longer I do my job,” he said, “the more I realize that humans lack good mirrors. It’s so hard for anyone to show us how we look, and so hard for us to show anyone how we feel.”
“That is really lovely,” my mom said. I liked that they liked each other. “But isn’t it also that on some fundamental level we find it difficult to understand that other people are human beings in the same way that we are? We idealize them as gods or dismiss them as animals.”
“True. Consciousness makes for poor windows, too. I don’t think I’d ever thought about it quite that way.”
I was sitting back. I was listening. And I was hearing something about her and about windows and mirrors. Chuck Parson was a person. Like me. Margo Roth Spiegelman was a person, too. And I had never quite thought of her that way, not really; it was a failure of all my previous imaginings. All along — not only since she left, but for a decade before — I had been imagining her without listening, without knowing that she made as poor a window as I did. And so I could not imagine her as a person who could feel fear, who could feel isolated in a roomful of people, who could be shy about her record collection because it was too personal to share. Someone who might read travel books to escape having to live in the town that so many people escape to. Someone who — because no one thought she was a person — had no one to really talk to.
And all at once I knew how Margo Roth Spiegelman felt when she wasn’t being Margo Roth Spiegelman: she felt empty. She felt the unscaleable wall surrounding her. I thought of her asleep on the carpet with only that jagged sliver of sky above her. Maybe Margo felt comfortable there because Margo the person lived like that all the time: in an abandoned room with blocked-out windows, the only light pouring in through holes in the roof. Yes . The fundamental mistake I had always made — and that she had, in fairness, always led me to make — was this: Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl.