A gorgeous literary debut about second chances, New England Book Festival prize winner The Rest of Us is an indelible love story that explores the legacy of an affair between a young student and her older professor.
As a college student, Terry fell madly and destructively in love with Rhinehart, her famous poetry professor—a relationship from which she never fully recovered. Now, fifteen years later, she is single, still living in the New York City walk-up she moved into after college, and languishing as a photographer’s assistant, having long since abandoned her own art. When she stumbles on Rhinehart’s obituary online, complete with litany of his many accomplishments, she finds herself taking stock of the ways she has not lived up to her youthful expectations—and surprisingly distraught at the thought of never seeing him again.
And then, a few weeks later, she bumps into Rhinehart himself: very much alive, married, and Christmas shopping at Bloomingdale’s. What ensues is an intense and beautiful friendship, an unexpected second act that inspires Terry to come to terms with the consequences of their past and the depth of her own aspirations—and to begin to grow again, as an artist and a woman.
A captivating read to the last page, The Rest of Us explores those nagging questions that haunt us when we think of who we are, and who we might have been—a love letter to New York City and the struggles of its artists, and a sharp and stirring novel of the heart from a “promising new voice in fiction” (The Daily Beast).
|Publisher:||Simon & Schuster|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.70(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Jessica Lott is the author of The Rest of Us and Osin, which won Low Fidelity Press’s Novella Award. She has an MA in creative writing from Boston University and an MA in English literature from Washington University in St. Louis. She writes for Art21, and her art reviews have appeared in Frieze and New York Arts. She lives in New York City.
Read an Excerpt
The Rest of Us
From The New York Times:
Rudolf N. Rhinehart, Pulitzer Prize–Winning Writer, Dies at 56
Rudolf N. Rhinehart, a noted cultural critic, literary scholar and poet, was the author of six books of poetry, including the acclaimed “Midnight, Spring,” published in 1999 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. “Midnight, Spring,” which the New York Review of Books praised for “creating an entirely new idiomatic register,” was widely lauded, claiming numerous international prizes and achieving a level of commercial success rare for a book of poetry. A profile on Mr. Rhinehart for The New York Times Magazine in 1999 attributed the book’s bestseller status to its “finding portals of transcendence in the unceasing repetition of our daily lives.”
Mr. Rhinehart described his own working life as “alternating periods of grandiosity and self-sabotage.” Although a prolific poet throughout the 1980s and ’90s, he stopped writing poetry in the late 1990s, and was later known for his nonfiction and essays. He was a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, Harper’s, and the Atlantic, and was the editor of seven poetry anthologies, and four critical volumes. The recipient of many literary awards and fellowships, Mr. Rhinehart was a member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. He held honorary degrees from seven universities, as well as a Chair in Poetry at Columbia University.
Mr. Rhinehart is survived by his wife, Laura Constable, and two stepdaughters, Cindy Mithins of Asheville, N.C., and Annabelle Mithins Ross of Durham, N.H. About his early life, little is known. Born in Ukraine, he immigrated to the United States with his mother at the age of five . . .
It was the beginning of November. Exactly fifteen years ago, I’d been nineteen, and in my junior year of college in upstate New York. I drove a rattling Nissan and wore the same pair of maroon corduroys every day—they were split in the left knee, and in the cold, the wind would slip in and deaden the skin. I sort of liked the sensation, but Rhinehart feared frostbite, and bought me thermals I refused to wear, and a bright green beret that he styled perched on the back of my head. I pulled it down, like the droopy cap of a straw mushroom, so that it covered my ears. My ears were a source of embarrassment to me, the way the tips protruded from between the strands of hair, which was a nice brown and long but too straight. I mostly wore it up with bobby pins that dislodged and were scattered around the house, he said, “like feathers from a rare bird. They let me know where you’ve been.”
“You keep it too neat here. Otherwise you wouldn’t notice.” Except when he was writing, the only mess was stacks of newspapers and journals, the occasional used coffee cup, or jelly jars stained red in the bottom from wine—the living room of the house he rented for the duration of his time as a visiting writer at my college. This was what he had chosen—an old house with creaking doors and a bathroom under the staircase. He’d brought some of his furniture, striped low-back couches and an enormous featherbed that he’d dragged his library into, so that we often kicked books onto the floor when making love. He was working on the collection of poetry that would win him the Pulitzer, through miserable fits of self-doubt and manic intensity that made life even more exciting for me than it already was.
I’d met him at an artist lecture in town that summer, two months before he’d started his appointment at the school. We’d started talking about our mothers, both of whom had died when we were young. Slightly embarrassed, he’d revealed that he’d just attended a séance in Manhattan, and described the cramped, overheated room into which his mother didn’t appear. I reached into my pocket and showed him pebbles that my mother had collected from the beach near our house. It was bizarre and superstitious but sometimes, if I was feeling nervous, I’d carry them around, knowing she had once touched them. She had died when I was three. Unlike other people, Rhinehart didn’t assume that because I couldn’t remember her, I didn’t miss her.
Afterwards, I knew he was someone I wanted to be around. If I hadn’t been in the grip of some sort of magical thinking, I would have recognized that he was in his forties, nearing the height of his career, and a professor. I would have been intimidated, rightly. I would never have had the guts to pursue him. I told myself, I’ll just try and get to know him better. But it wasn’t as easy as all that. It took me weeks to distinguish myself from the other young people milling around town that summer. We did become friends, but by then I felt we should be together and said so. He had discovered that I was a college student and was reluctant.
I plowed ahead, too confident in the connection between us to be dissuaded, and in the end I was right. Once he’d overcome his own objections, we’d moved very quickly from dating, to falling in love, to being in a relationship. He was continually amazed by how visual I was—it made his powers of observation “crude by comparison.” When he’d said this, I’d been crouched down on his floor, studying a spiderweb spun between two storm windows, and the shadow it cast. I was a photographer, or an aspiring one. That fall, I was often at his house, shooting—the slim white birches just beyond the porch, sun on the floor, Rhinehart’s fingers gripping a pen, the blond stubble on his face. I had almost too many ideas. In the morning, I’d disappear on my bike to take pictures in the woods, returning to a large, silent afternoon indoors, steam hissing up from the radiators. We’d sit on opposite ends of the couch, Rhinehart crossing out lines in a yellow memo pad, while I sketched future projects, and the fickle sun moved back and forth in the doorway. Occasionally, when he wasn’t looking, I’d watch him. I had been excruciatingly happy. For months, I walked around with a foolish smile on my face. Everywhere, even in the bathroom.
• • •
The obituary had appeared online, and I printed it out to show Hallie. She’d been my roommate throughout college and after, when we first moved to Manhattan. I still lived in the apartment we had shared for years.
She was already waiting for me in a café on Jane Street. “What’s the big mystery?” I took the obituary out of my purse and passed it to her.
“No way.” Both of us stared at his photo. He was in profile, looking at someone out of the frame and smiling. “When was the last time you saw him? College?”
I nodded. Rhinehart and I had been together less than a year. He took a job at Columbia University the fall I was a senior and moved to the city. After I graduated, I moved here, too, but we’d never met.
I watched her read, her lip pinched between her fingers, her floating green irises like planets. Next to hers, my face had always seemed plain—like a farm girl’s I used to think when feeling down. We’d grown up together on the North Fork of Long Island, but while my father had greenhouses, hers worked in Manhattan. She had spent overnights in the city, knew how to make us sexy ripped T-shirts, and sneak on the Orient Point ferry without paying.
She put the paper down. “How are you taking this?”
After the shock of it, I was depressed. Also incredibly disillusioned. “I was so sure we would see each other again. I can’t believe how wrong I was.” But then again, I’d been wrong about other things. My future as an artist. I’d basically stopped shooting, if you didn’t count my job at Marty’s portrait studio. I hadn’t even noticed until about a year ago. Where had all that time gone? It was as if New York had swallowed it, along with my twenties. I’d revolved through possible solutions—sketch out some ideas, take a class at the ICP, buy a new camera. Instead I agonized and then did nothing. How effortless making my own work used to be. That’s what I remembered of that time. That and what it had felt like to be lying on Rhinehart’s bed, shirtless, in my corduroys, giggling.
Hallie was revisiting my relationship history. She’d often said she couldn’t understand why anyone would bother to get married. Until she had her own lavish wedding and bought a house out in New Jersey with her husband, Adán, last year. Now she was bent on converting me.
After ticking through a list that included my boxing instructor, several bartenders, as well as a guy I’d made cupcakes for, slept with, and never heard from again, she concluded, “You haven’t had a serious relationship since Rhinehart.”
“You left out Lawrence. We dated for over a year.” We’d even discussed living together, and in a roundabout way, marriage. I was white and he was African American and some people, including his parents, were convinced the relationship would fail because of this. It was not something we were ever actively concerned with. We were fixated on other, more pressing differences—such as our career ambitions, or his law-school-trained style of argumentation that used to make me flounder around in a self-incriminating way, or how each of us felt about living in New Jersey.
“I knew that wasn’t going anywhere,” Hallie said. “You were too much like pals.” Maybe she was right. I hadn’t felt the same type of passion, that soul-bearing intimacy that I’d felt with Rhinehart. Towards the end, I was also beginning to feel some pressure. He had wanted reasonable things, things that most women my age wanted—children, a nice home in the suburbs. I wanted to want those things, too. But I didn’t. Instead I began to feel claustrophobic.
“Terry, you’re coming up on thirty-five. Not a good age to be single.”
I wanted to point out that statistically, in New York, I was likely in the majority, but Hallie had developed a theory. “I think this entire time, in some subconscious way, you’ve been comparing men to Rhinehart.”
“But I haven’t even been thinking about him. Until recently.”
“I said subconscious. You need to have a little ceremony. Write down what you would have said to him if he were alive, a goodbye speech to the relationship, and then bury the piece of paper.”
What would I say? How there existed a time that whenever I saw him, I’d want to touch him affectionately, encouragingly squeeze his arm. That even though he was older than me, I felt that protectiveness. That I still remembered the sweetness of being with him. I hadn’t even been invited to the service. If I did memorialize Rhinehart, I would have to perform some private, self-serving ritual in front of my apartment building. I imagined myself dressed in black, trying to bury a piece of paper with my feelings on it in that strip of dirt between the sidewalk and a tree.
• • •
But then, two days later, for the first time in a couple of years, I got out my old Minolta and two rolls of black-and-white film and took the train up to 116th, Columbia University, and stood outside the gates, where I used to linger, hoping to run into him. The camera felt heavy and foreign in my hands. The light fading, I shot the route I had walked, ending up at the bookstore. The bar where I’d once sat and had a beer, looking hopefully out the window, longing to see him, or for a future in which I no longer cared about him as much as I did.
• • •
The second part of Hallie’s advice entailed buying new clothes, and then, Internet dating, which I didn’t plan on doing. But I thought she might be right about the shopping, and a couple of weeks later, on impulse, I decided to go into the Bloomingdale’s in SoHo. Once inside, I remembered why I avoided department stores, especially in late November, their atmosphere of repressed panic and desperation, the overheated crush of people and sale signs and mirrored lights and the heavy, artificial odor that hung over all of it. As a teenager, I would spend several agonizing hours circling the racks clutching the Christmas money my father had pressed into my hand before dropping me off, saying “treat yourself.” I longed for a mother the most then, for her to prevent me from making the mistakes I always made, buying something overpriced and too trendy, so that when it went out of fashion two months later, I’d have to lie to my father when he asked why I wasn’t wearing “the pretty new top.”
After scanning the floor and checking out the price tags, I decided to try my luck elsewhere. I was in the cosmetics department, headed for the doors, when I saw Rhinehart. He was standing in front of the Estée Lauder counter.
My entire body began trembling. I recognized him instinctively, the way I know desire or fear or my own face when passing a mirror. And he looked exactly as I expected him to look, but older than he had been in the obituary photo. His hair had gone completely white and he’d grown a short, academic-looking beard. I was hallucinating. I’d been far more affected by his death than I was able to admit. I willed him to vanish. But he didn’t, and I stood there gaping. When he started to move off, I followed, targeting his wide back, taking in details. His coat was cashmere, expensive. He was carrying three bags, one was awkwardly shaped like it contained electronics. I circled around a counter to get a better angle, but he kept himself half-turned away, as a celebrity would.
I had moved in close enough to smell him, even in this olfactorily confusing place. He wore the same aftershave. Reaching out, I grabbed him as he approached the escalator.
He turned, squinting slightly, and looked at me.
“Tatie!” He dropped the bags and pulled me towards him, kissing me on the face. “How are you!”
I returned the embrace, shyly at first, and then with force. I clung to him for an embarrassing length of time. And then, out of nowhere, I started sobbing. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. As if with other ears, I heard myself—I sounded like a large drowning mammal. I was wetting the front of his coat, hauling in my breath, conscious of him rubbing the back of my head in a soothing, concerned way. A woman came up and asked if I was all right. “I think I’ve just surprised her,” Rhinehart said. “It’s what she does sometimes. When startled.”
I laughed and began apologizing, trying to disentangle myself. I was fishing around in my pockets for a tissue. Rhinehart was peering into my face, holding it in both his hands so that I couldn’t clean it.
In my defense, I said, “I thought you were dead! I read it . . .”
“I know—it was released by mistake. The paper called it a technical error, by which they mean human. They write these things in advance. But it was pulled the same day. You didn’t see the correction?”
I shook my head, and he said, “Are you all right?”
I nodded, and he let go of me, smiling. “It feels good to know I was mourned.”
Someone bumped me from behind. The bustling shoppers, who had parted to give us space for our scene, had closed back in. He said, “This time of year is awful. My wife makes me participate.”
I sucked in my breath at the mention of her. “I read you and Laura married.” And then, “I didn’t realize you’d kept in contact.”
“We struck up a friendship after I moved here. She was on the board of an arts foundation I was doing work for.”
I bristled in defense of my old self who had been roaming the city looking for him, never imagining he was out dating.
He’d taken my hand in his, turning it palm up, palm down. “And what about you? Not married?”
I shook my head.
“But you’re with someone, I imagine.”
I smiled, but didn’t answer. Rhinehart was squeezing my hand and looking at me intently. “It’s so good to see you. It’s been too many years. Why don’t you come to dinner at our house? We can catch up.”
“That would be nice.” I was starting to get my bearings again. “Are all these gifts for your wife?”
He looked down at the bags forgotten near his leg. “No, no. Some other things. Speakers. Clothes for one of my stepdaughters. She lives in New Hampshire and says she misses wearing city things.” He dug around in his pockets. “Let’s do it on Saturday. Are you free?”
“I believe so.” We exchanged numbers, Rhinehart inputting mine into his BlackBerry, while I scribbled his down on a scrap of paper. He was professing how providential our meeting was.
I had drained my conversational well and suddenly felt shy. “It was definitely unexpected.” We hugged again, and I detached quicker this time. I could feel him watching me as I walked away.
• • •
All the way up Broadway, I strode along, my coat open, chest to the wind, as if it were summer. Elated. He was alive! We’d seen each other again after all! It wasn’t until much later, anticipating this dinner, that I began to feel idiotic for making such a scene. I hadn’t even admitted I was single, afraid of how I already looked, sobbing, walking around by myself, as if I’d been mourning not Rhinehart’s death but our breakup all these years. I was also starting to remember things. For example, it hadn’t been fifteen years since we’d spoken. I’d called him when I first arrived in the city to see if he’d like to meet up again, maybe for coffee? He hadn’t returned my call, and I’d been devastated. But I must have gotten over it because I’d written him a letter after I’d heard he’d won the Pulitzer. I was so genuinely pleased to hear the news—I remembered when he was writing those poems! How he struggled!—the letter overflowed with good feeling, run-at-the-mouth honesty, and nostalgia. I parlayed my congratulations into a discussion about our relationship, the force of attraction that I’d found so intense those years ago. I had wanted so badly to be with him, even when we were sitting next to each other it wasn’t enough, having sex wasn’t close enough. I kept that memory-laced letter in my purse for three agonizing days. Instead of throwing it out, as I should have, I’d addressed it in care of his publisher, since I had no idea where he lived, and dropped it in the mail.
I received no response. Instead, a few weeks later, nosing around online, I read about his marriage to Laura. The news was old, but I was so humiliated, it seemed as if the wedding had taken place that morning, right after my letter had arrived. I searched for photos, gasping every time I found one—there they were, standing close, at formal events, fund-raisers. Laura had bright blue eyes, round as marbles and slightly too close together, so that if they were on a dog, you’d think it was a biter. She’d been a condescending and vaguely menacing presence during the time Rhinehart and I were together, and it burned me to know she was with him—this man I had believed was so much like me.
I had met her towards the end of my time with Rhinehart, when a fissure had begun to appear in our relationship. He’d been pressuring me to attend these weekly faculty parties with him, as he thought it would be good for us to “mix,” as he said, not thinking there was anything suspiciously sexual about the term. I didn’t want to. Even though the college turned a blind eye to the relationship, either because he was a visiting professor or because our association dated back to before he’d begun teaching there, it still made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to go to a party and awkwardly try and socialize with my other professors. What I wanted was more time alone with Rhinehart. And for him to come over to 31 Maple Street, Apt. B, the second story of a rickety frame house that I shared with Hallie and three other girls, and have dinner. He said that our apartment—with its half-finished projects from our scrap art class, including a ball of rusty nails and underwear sewn over a chicken-wire frame, our schoolbooks, flip-flops, and full ashtrays everywhere, the Easy Rider poster taped over a hole in the plaster, this comfortable, relaxed mess, where I felt most at home—intimidated him. He also said it fascinated him. So I tried to work both angles, describing the environment in alluring detail, while concealing what went on there. Our idea of a good time was taking bong hits and pulling out the batik things or inviting some of the neighborhood guys over to play drug dealer, a largely silent game that involved winking. I swore my roommates went to other colleges, even though Gertie was in a lecture of his that semester and would return home with detailed accounts of his behavior every Wednesday afternoon at four. Rhinehart was a popular topic of speculation at my house, and they had been harassing me for months to invite him so that they could surround him like the maenads, picking him over with intrusive questions and revealing embarrassing things about me. I wanted Rhinehart to see my life without him, which might add to my mystique, but I didn’t necessarily want him interacting with my roommates. I was waiting for a school break, when the house was empty, to enact my romantic dinner. I had been waiting, it felt like, for a very long time.
We had made a pact, Rhinehart and me, that we would begin trading Thursday night plans. The faculty parties always seemed to happen on Thursday nights, but so did Battle of the Bands at the Chickenbone bar downtown—a date night event I’d been lobbying for for weeks, as it was also something I frequently did without him. He pulled the first Thursday, so I went along to this party, and right in the door, Rhinehart introduced me to a professor in the archaeology department, Dora, a thin-lipped woman with cat eyeglasses in her twenties, too, although late twenties. I was taking an archaeology class that semester and we’d been shown slides of the excavation work she’d done at the Mut Temple Precinct in Egypt. I asked her about the Sakhmet statue she’d reconstructed, how she’d managed to tip it upright without cracking it, and she was walking me through the process—the stone mason packing the statue in sand to protect it from the drill’s vibration, inserting the steel rods, the tense process of lifting it, injecting epoxy into the cracks, and finally coating it with a protective glaze tinted the color of sandstone.
Most of Rhinehart’s friends never knew how to behave with me. They were either embarrassingly girlish, or cold and haughty, probing me with questions without revealing any personal information. Dora was different, and I was incredibly grateful. In fact, the more animated our conversation became, the more I began spinning a fantasy future for us as friends. I liked her eyes. They were a deep and sympathetic brown, and she held a steady gaze. Mine flickered all over the place when I spoke, out of shyness and this pervasive belief I had that they emitted vulnerability.
She excused herself, and I drifted over to the fireplace, looking for another conversational circle to join. Rhinehart was nowhere in sight. Dora came back into the room, talking to another professor, and I hesitantly approached them. I heard her say, “She’s sweet, you know, but I teach all day—I don’t want to do it at a party.”
Locked in the bathroom, I sat on the edge of the toilet seat, trying not to cry, cursing Rhinehart. And then, as if from my own thoughts, I heard him. He had a deep, sonorous voice that carried well. He had wanted to be a Shakespearean actor once and had even auditioned for a company. He was talking about how I disliked morning radio shows. Out of nearly a year’s worth of material to describe me with, he was highlighting this trivial comment I’d made in the car on the way over.
A woman said, “Well, they are obnoxious.”
Kneeling on the tile, I squinted through a large colonial-reproduction keyhole. I made out the red skirt of his colleague’s wife, Laura, who was supposedly in the middle of a divorce. I’d complimented her on the skirt when I first arrived.
“But that’s not the only reason,” Rhinehart insisted. “It’s because the jockeys are always nasty to the callers. She’s right. Every morning people subject themselves to all sorts of humiliations for our enjoyment. There’s something perverse in it.”
Laura laughed. “If that’s what she thinks cruelty is, she won’t get very far.” And then, I parsed this sentence in a lower, more flirtatious register. “I suppose you like these little lambs you can corrupt.”
There was a pause, while my face flamed. “She’s a remarkable young woman,” Rhinehart said. “Hardly a lamb.”
“You know what I mean. Some people would say you’re afraid of a woman who’s your intellectual equal.”
“People say all sorts of things. For my own sanity, I ignore them.”
And that was it! He hadn’t leapt to my defense—told her I was brilliant, talented, an artist. All the things he told me in private! I stood up, the bumpy grouting imprinted on my shins, and stalked out of the bathroom into an empty hallway. Rhinehart was alone in the kitchen, making himself another whiskey and soda. I whispered fiercely in his ear, “I’m going home.” He’d driven. The car keys were in the front pocket of his pants.
Smiling, he gave me a squeeze. “Oh there you are. I’d wondered where you’d disappeared to.” He looked into my puffy eyes. “Oh, no.”
“I want to go home,” I said.
Tight-lipped, I crossed my arms over my chest, my favorite soft light blue sweater. Passing my reflection in the hall mirror earlier, with the two spots of color on my cheeks, I’d felt a part of this chilly spring night—of new, untouched things, like the sticky little buds on the forsythia bush that I’d pinched on my way into the house.
A beaded gold necklace reached down to my stomach, and Rhinehart extracted it from beneath my folded arms and rolled it between his fingers, saying, “Did I mention how incredibly beautiful you look tonight?”
“No.” My lip trembled threateningly. “But you said I wasn’t your intellectual equal. Although not to my face.”
I expected him to be ashamed, to beg my forgiveness. Instead he said, “Here, let me mix you a gin and tonic, even though it’s a little early in the season. And don’t worry, no one will say anything.” He knew I didn’t like to drink in public because I was afraid someone would ask me if I was underage.
“If you can’t drive me, if your friends prevent you—” My chin was quaking now. “Then give me the keys and I’ll go home by myself.”
He was touching my wrist, his fingers cool and slightly damp from the glass. “Just tell me what really happened. Not what you imagined happened. I don’t even believe I’m capable of thinking you’re not my equal.”
“I can’t tell you here,” I whispered, “because you talk too loud, and you’ll make a scene.”
“You didn’t get groped did you? Then we’ll leave.” One of the Classics professors was a lech. He wouldn’t make eye contact with you on campus, but he’d run his hand down your ass in the café, while pretending to reach for the silverware. He felt free to do this to me, and not to the other students, because I was dating Rhinehart.
I shook my head.
“Then what’s got you?” He narrowed his eyes. “Or are you just creating a little smoke because you saw me talking to Dora?”
“No! I didn’t see that.” I was miserable. “Dora’s meaner than she looks. She’s a smiling hound.”
“What?” Rhinehart said.
“ ‘A hound crouched low and smiling,’ ” I quoted. Rhinehart had given me a signed edition of e. e. cummings poetry for my birthday, which I loved, even though he said cummings seemed to have been awarded Poet Laureate of the dormitory.
He snuck a look at her through the doorway. “You have the most unusual comparisons.”
“Thanks for setting us up,” I added, nastily. “And I’m serious about leaving. I’ll drive. You’re too drunk. I’ve been insulted.” I reached in his pocket for the keys. “And one of the people insulting me was you.”
I could tell he was angry, but he put down his glass and gestured towards the bedroom where our coats were. We had to walk single-file down the claustrophobic hallway. Over his shoulder, Rhinehart said, “This was a cocktail party. It was supposed to be fun.”
I never went to cocktail parties. My friends had parties with a keg outdoors in the dark where it didn’t matter what you did or said, or were wearing, and where you didn’t have to be so fucking careful all the time. You could just relax. My father never had them, with snobbish friends bad-mouthing our country’s foreign aid policies, and throwing around the term “Jesus freaks.” While my mother was still alive, as my father told it, they had quiet dinners at home. They had friends over for coffee and to play cards. He helped her make Christmas ornaments to sell at the church’s harvest fair. My mother’s always sold out first.
This nearly brought up the tears again. “It isn’t fun, and these people are a lot older than me,” I hissed.
“Well, so am I.”
“I’ll wait for you outside,” I said.
I went out the front door, with its pretentious beveled glass, not bothering to say goodbye to anyone. On the driveway’s hard, ringing blacktop, I waited for Rhinehart. Above me, the vast sky was as still as a painting, streaked with hopeful tailings of daylight. Where I stood by the locked car, it was already night. My hurt hardened into resentment.
After what seemed like half an hour, Rhinehart stepped out of the house, a burst of music and laughter behind him. I saw how unappealing I must be, standing alone in the dark, angrily clutching my handbag, shaking with anger and frustration. I was twenty and felt like an embittered woman twice my age.
Once we were safe in the car, I told him what I’d overheard Laura say. “Is that all?” he said. “You should have emerged from your hiding spot and started a conversation. You missed an opportunity to correct her.” I shook my head. I hadn’t told him the full story, about what Dora had said, as her comment seemed to highlight the real flaw in me—that no matter how I pretended, I was just too young. I didn’t belong there, and Rhinehart should have known I’d be uncomfortable and not pressured me to come.
• • •
Over the phone, I related the Bloomingdale’s encounter to Hallie, who’d deliberately misunderstood me, thinking I had experienced an “otherworldly vision.” Even after I corrected her, she leaned heavily on its mystical aspects, and her role in prophetically guiding me to the store.
“It’s New York,” I said. “People bump into each other.”
“But right after we had a conversation about it?”
“Maybe I was more alert to seeing him. We’d probably passed each other before, and I just hadn’t noticed.” Now it seemed strange that I’d never managed to run into him all those months when I’d been trying to.
She wanted a full account, which she kept interrupting. “Tatie? He still calls you that dog’s name?”
“It was the name of an old lady on his street, growing up. You were the one who claimed to know a dog with that name.” When I came to the crying part, I hedged, reducing it to a few tears. It still met with disapproving silence.
“You cry too much,” she took the opportunity to tell me. “Too bad I wasn’t there. He always liked me. He told me I had the facial structure of a 1940s screen star.”
I remembered that. Afterwards, every time he was in a room, she’d walk in with her head tipped down, eyes wide open in feigned surprise. Then she’d sit on the edge of a chair, light a cigarette, and discuss me as if I were her younger sister.
As if hitting on a brilliant idea, she said, “You should bring me to this dinner! I’ll protect you from getting too sentimental.”
Besides the awkwardness of bringing her, instead of a proper date, the entire idea was bad—she would immediately get Rhinehart embroiled in a discussion about the past, and then, being thoroughly entertained by the idea of subterfuge, she’d embroider an outlandish career history for me, have me photographing the Queen or in Afghanistan in the trenches with my camera, when I’d merely asked that she downplay the fact that I was working in a portrait studio, which Rhinehart, who could only see greatness in the people he’d marked for great things, probably wouldn’t care about anyway.
What People are Saying About This
"Jessica Lott’s debut is a heartbreaking work of staggering insights written in admirably crystalline prose. An intelligently-rendered May-September story of love, longing, and obsession, The Rest of Us recalls both Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal and Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding, but with a compassion, a point of view, and an attention to detail that are all Lott’s own.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Check out the full review at Kritters Ramblings A different take on the college student dates college professor, in that most of this story occurs many years after the college student has graduated and made a life of her own in New York City. Through some interesting circumstances she runs into said professor and drama ensues.
Jessica Lott’s novel, The Rest of Us, is a work of literary brilliance. The way she describes a New York apartment makes you feel like you’re standing right next to her in the room, seeing, smelling, and hearing all that she does. The way she explains why the protagonist Terry has given her heart over to her poetry professor, Rhinehart, makes you believe in their connection and root for their love to survive the odds of a May-September affair. Halfway through the book, I paused to contemplate if I’d gotten it wrong—if this was actually a memoir, not a novel. I had to check the cover again. That is how authentic the writing is. In just a few sentences, Lott simultaneously reveals an insight into Terry’s personality, Rhinehart’s personality, the relationship between Terry and Rhinehart, and Terry’s physical appearance: “I drove a rattling Nissan and wore the same pair of maroon corduroys every day—they were split in the left knee, and in the cold, the wind would slip in and deaden the skin. I sort of liked the sensation, but Rhinehart feared frostbite, and bought me thermals I refused to wear, and a bright green beret that he styled perched on the back of my head. I pulled it down, like a droopy cap of a straw mushroom, so that it covered my ears. My ears were a source of embarrassment to me, the way the tips protruded from between the strands of hair, which was a nice brown and long but too straight.” At first, Terry is more enamored with Rhinehart than he is of her. Of her obsession, she says, “Our relationship bled all over my life.” But later that changed. “When he looked at me his eyes were full of love, and I was shocked to see myself as he did, as beautiful.” For me, the tragedy in this love story was not in the final ending, but in how Terry handled it on a spiritual level. She tries Buddha chanting. She tries calling out to God, but when she receives no reply, she gets mad at God. It never occurs to her that after she has ignored God all her adult life that He might not owe her an instant miracle. The spiritual darkness is overwhelming, tragic. There is one sentence that mentions she was brought up in the Presbyterian church. Since she is desperate, why wouldn’t she at least have tried Christianity? There are so many great churches in New York, such as the Brooklyn Tabernacle (she has an apartment in Brooklyn) that are full of spiritual life where people find the “peace that passes all understanding.” Why didn’t her spiritual journey take her to such a place? I would have liked a bittersweet ending, an ending with a light in the darkness. But of course, it is author’s choice. The story ends in darkness on the deepest level. Nevertheless, as a work of literary brilliance, I have to rate it 5 stars.
I liked it. I got pulled in even though I wasn't a biggest fan of the main characters. Terry reminded me of a friend that I had who always compared current boyfriends/relationships to a previous relationship. She had also stalled with her career sort of stuck not really knowing what direction she wanted to go. I found myself not liking Rhinehart from the beginning. In my opinion he was selfish and didn't really give Terry as much of himself as he should. He was more of a me person. Even towards the end I didn't care for him. I did start off liking Terry but as her relationship progressed with Rhinehart found myself not liking her as much silently hoping she would forget him. Terry's determination to get her photography career to where she wanted showed off her more independent confident side. I think is what made me like her the most. A well written book that kept me engaged until the end.