The Biographical College

Mary Grimm

Thought experiments. The voyage taken without moving. The stillness of something that is both horror and joy. All these things we undertook, Portia and I. A child sitting in the middle of a field (or possibly a forest)—that was the kind of thing we worked on. The child would be in the future, which made it difficult to monitor. (It was not a symbolic child, don’t think that.) No modern languages: Latin was taught by a very old nun whose name was Sister Dolora (Sister Sadness, Sister Sorrow). Translation was not the point—rather, the Latin words were treated as a kind of music. And then there was the lab where some of us worked on sentient furniture.

When I was a student, I sat always in the middle of the classroom. Toward the back but not all the way in the back. Portia Lyde and Monica were in my cohort, and Monica was as good as I at Latin. I think she might be dead now. Latin is a dead language, and we, having learned it, are dying too in our times.

Portia and I bonded on the field trip to Italy to study St. Cecelia’s preserved and inviolate body. This was in Rome, in the Trastevere, and we behaved as students do, sneaking out to drink and meet inappropriate sexual partners. St. Cecelia’s remains were the constant of our days. Portia was in the group that was responsible for Cecelia’s biome biography—the close examination of her microbes and bacteria. My group worked on a novel with her body as the protagonist, a preserved body that coincidentally solved crimes, predominantly murders. I was intimidated by my group members and Portia despised hers, so we teamed up, determined to outdo each other in our jaded attitudes and strategic daring.

Our chaperone was Miss Rinker—we were all afraid of her before we left on the trip. By the time we got back we were still afraid, but the fear was tempered with a sort of affection, the kind of affection one has for a virulent disease that is in the process of waning, that feeling of lassitude and stasis just before the pink of health returns. “Girls,” she would say, “we’re always on the brink of fatality. We’re all sitting at the devil’s tea table.” On the plane home, she passed out pink wafers layered with inexpressibly sweet icing, and made sure we each ate one, to seal the experience of our field trip, and to bind our souls to her forever.

Really though, this is a story about Portia Lyde, or it ought to be. She was my best friend at the College, although I never knew her well. She had dedicated herself from an early age to the idea of mystery, and so kept the facts of her life and herself very close. When she had been in the College only five months, she won an award at a special assembly for embodying most purely the spirit and intentions of the College. It was said that she had made her parents hire a hypnotist when she was eight to put a lock on her brain, so that she might not inadvertently reveal anything. Everything that we knew about her we made up ourselves, and this is why, I think, we loved her so much.

Portia and I were roommates; we sat together in the cafeteria. You never knew who she would be when she came downstairs for a meal. Sometimes she took on the aspect and costume of a prominent historical or political figure, and would speak in their voice, giving appropriate facts and epigrams. But she liked to have fun with it, too—none of us still living will have forgotten when she appeared among us as one of the faculty (unnamed, but we all knew it was Miss Rinker), and all evening made characteristic pronouncements, saying things like, “Jesus didn’t try to do it all himself—he delegated,” and, “We shouldn’t have eaten so much. But that’s what it’s all about, right?” until we laughed ourselves sick.

Now when I look back on those times, I can hardly believe how carefree we were. Of course, there were the hours of studying, the pain of having been removed from our families. The occasionally disgusting food (when the Unconventional Food Sources program took over the kitchen). The surprise middle of the night pop quizzes. But there was plenty of time for lying in the sun to read a forbidden book, late night talks in our pajamas about the best way to fake a normal life, long walks in the dense and impenetrable forest that separated us from the rest of the world.

The height of our relationship (although I didn’t know it at the time) was during the semester-long Interdisciplinary Amnesia Project in our last year. We were divided into teams of three and randomly assigned memory profiles. Some of us were supposed to have amnesia, some to be pretending to have amnesia, and some to be mentally unimpaired. The idea was to produce a coherent history for the imaginary town we were living in on the basis of team memories, and then to convince others of the rightness of our construct. Immediately, Portia and I decided that our third member was useless. I don’t remember her name, but she was the girl who rinsed her laundry with lemon juice. Portia and I became expert at dodging her, and then at the end, we presented her with our meticulously done history of the town. We were prepared to blackmail her to go along with it, but she declared that she loved it and us. (It took forever to get rid of her after the amnesia project was over.)

So it was that that spring, Portia and I spent long hours together, hiding in the bell tower or behind the tangled berry netting in the Unconventional Food Sources shed. I liked best when the weather was fine enough to go to the far end of the meadow at the edge of the forest, where we could lie on our stomachs, hidden in the long grass. Under our noses were the ants and insects of the soil, going about their normal lives, each movement imbued with purpose. We were too large for them to see, it seemed. Sometimes Portia or I would put a finger down to obstruct an ant transporting a crumb, and we never failed to be entranced by their lack of confusion, how they treated this giant fleshy obstacle with aplomb, hurrying over it or around it with hardly (it seemed) a thought. Portia made me feel, in those sunny days, as if I too were capable of a mysterious life, as if I might go out into the world and shine (as I knew she would). She liked to have me braid her hair (which was long and dark) with flowers from the meadow, and if there was enough time, she would do the same for me. I’ve never forgotten the feeling of pleasant isolation, lying with the sky over us, lifting ourselves sometimes so that our eyes were level with the tops of the grasses, looking down the long slope of the meadow to the school where the other girls went back and forth on their tracks, fulfilling their individual destinies. Portia told me that I was the funniest person she knew, which I took as a compliment.

I thought that Portia and I would always know each other, that we would keep in touch even when we took what the College had instilled in us and went out into the unfathomable world where we would dedicate ourselves to upholding the standards of the College while we maintained our smoothly acceptable exteriors, performing our roles as job holders, shoppers, partners in committed relationships, consumers of media, etc. But I think now that Portia never believed this. On one of our last nights together, we were swimming in the limited infinity pool, floating on the water in the semi darkness. We had been to a lecture on the sexual orientations of the saints earlier, and then had participated in the daily mystery experience, which involved an interactive performance, an old Slavic man who was digging a hole while being interrogated by a small boy (child of one of the maintenance people) and his imaginary friend. It was boring, but the boy was very sweet. Monica made some laughably inept interventions, I remember. Portia had been brilliant in the deconstruction of this assignment, and she had been telling me her methods.

We were swimming in our underwear, and I remember that Portia’s underpants were high-waisted and modest. Her bra was an admirably supportive underwire. Leaves floated on the surface of the water and the moon had arisen, looking like an old cheese, yellow and veined. “Do you remember when we killed her?” Portia said to me.

I understood that this was meant to be symbolic, of course, but I wracked my head in vain for the key to unlock her meaning. And as I tried, bringing to bear all the convoluted and contradictory maxims we had been taught, Portia waited patiently, her face serene and inviolate. The little wavelets of the pool pushed us apart as I struggled. Who or what was the metaphorical she? How should I interpret “killed?”

I thought for a moment that a real dead person was required, and that perhaps I’d have to produce her myself, and then kill her. Or maybe it was me? I was the symbolically dead person, or should be. Would my metaphorically dead body remain inviolate, like St. Cecelia’s, lying lonely in her marble coffin all these centuries? My whole self said no, and again, no.

Portia’s smile was seraphic and cruel. “Do you remember?” she said. “I know you do.”

Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection), both by Random House. Currently, she is working on a dystopian novel about oldsters. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University. Twitter: @mcagrimm. Photo credit Joel Hauserman.

Photo credit: Sidneiensis on Visual hunt / CC BY

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