Gillian at Seventeen
Gillian is 17. The season is fall. Gusty, breezy, chilly, wonderful October, her birth month. In fact, it was just two days ago that she turned 17. A thing that had seemed momentous to her. Until about an hour ago. An hour ago, when she reached her favorite carrel in the university’s classical library and found a book and stole it and didn’t quite get to meet a young man.
She had arrived at the library in a cheerful mood, glad to be out of the wind, but feeling fresh and ready to work. Her bag of books and papers banged comfortably against her hip. She was still glowing inwardly at the pleasure of being 17 and one step closer to 18. When she’d be legally of age. Could vote, join the military, order a drink of alcohol. Not that she had been wishing to do any of those things. Well, maybe have a drink. Vote, perhaps. Even that. - Well, she reminded herself, it was a gift of responsibility. Not one wrapped in pretty paper and tied with an elaborate bow. Not that she got any of those. She sighed but refused to be cast down by anything or any one.
As she walked up the long marble steps, she began wrangling her long scarf from around her neck. When she entered, she took her usual path through the open area at the front of the library, nodding hello to the young librarian, Brian, who was seated behind the tall oaken counter doing paperwork - and thinking, good, as he was not one to question why some book or text or folio was important to her and what her purpose was for it - and then continuing on her way, winding past the several long reading tables with their assortment of silent readers and thence to the back of that large cavernous room. At its side, there was a long aisle next to the rows of locked stacks that she took to reach the 8 study carrels lining the back wall. She loved these small cubbies, each fitted with desk and desk lamp, reserved just for student use. Though a lot of the students didn’t use them. Only the nerds. The ones needing a quiet place for serious study that offered books and other library resources immediately to hand. Or the ones who were shy and felt unwanted in the noisier communal study rooms offered by the dorms. Or who just wanted to be out - out of classrooms, out of tutorials and mentoring sessions and, chiefly, out of the dormitory environment - where you could feel very isolated, alone in your room. She guessed she was a mix of all The Outsiders, as she thought of them.
She arrived at her favorite carrel, almost at the end of the row, having finally managed the one-handed unwrapping of her scarf. Most carrels this far back were rarely used and this one never. Always waiting just for her. The desk, a kind of honey-colored wood, was fitted with a comfortable study chair, one that swiveled and rocked. Both great aids to thinking. Whipping the scarf free, she upended her book bag onto the desk while reaching for the desk lamp switch. Only after it was lit and she was done hooking her scarf on chair back and was in the act of shrugging out of her coat did she see that a book had been left on the carrel’s usually empty desktop. It was nearly covered by her own books and papers, yet somehow attracted her eye.
She pushed aside her own things and plucked it up and then worried she might have done it damage, for it looked either hard-used or quite aged. A slim book, slender, and bound with cloth or leather covered boards, it had little weight in her hands. When she turned it towards the light, she could see the title, tooled into the cover board, and just make out the faded amber and gold lettering that spelled a single word, Gilgamesh. She fluttered the small book’s pages, trying to scan its contents, curious to understand the subject matter. The title word held no meaning for her. A fine dust arose that smelled of must and something aromatic, like the small shop, Tossed Treasures, that carried used odd and other kind of books, folios, texts and papers - many of them hard to find or out of print, and all of them pricey. The dust caused a brief sneezing spasm, and she quickly stifled it by pressing her other arm to her nose, knowing that in a Library the golden rule is Silence.
She glanced around while finishing with the removal of her coat, wondering if the person who’d left the book had left any other traces. Or perhaps was at the carrel behind her, the very last one of the carrels that she had consciously chosen not to use it herself. First because it was backed into the corner and second because she felt protected somehow by its empty presence at her own back. As with hers, it had never before appeared to have been used. But now, turning towards it, she saw on its desk a few books and some folders filled with what appeared to be parchment or velum pages, all having the same look as the book she had just picked up and now again held in her hands.
She’d had time only to see this much when she became aware of a young man hurrying towards her, then directly at her, before reaching to push past her in haste, murmuring something about ‘sorry for my rudeness,’ stopping at the last carrel and hastily gathering the materials from the desk, tumbling them all into a small satchel he carried. Then, saying, ‘s’cuse me,’ firmly enough to forestall anything she might have wanted to ask or say, he was pushing past and around her and setting off back down the narrow aisle, walking quickly yet quietly. And even so, his footsteps echoed dully in the silence.
There stood Gillian, looking first at the papers and books tumbled free on her desk, safe and familiar in the pool of light that came from the small desk lamp, then at the small book still in her hand, unfamiliar, the word ‘unsafe’ occurring to her, and finally back at the empty carrel behind her. She turned and tilted her head the better to listen for the young man’s footsteps fading off in the distance, further and further away. She sank into her desk chair, but for only a moment. Rising again swiftly, she gathered her things into her book bag, first placing the small book between two larger books to protect it, then shrugging back into her coat, wrapping the long scarf rapidly twice about her neck. Taking up her book bag, she switched off the desk lamp and set off back out of the library.
Once outside and down the library’s long steps, free of it all, she made her way to her dorm, walking the few blocks on auto pilot, stepping quickly in and through chattering students who were coming and going or lingering in small groups on the street and then on the stairways in the dorm. She was stunned at her action. She had kept the small book. She still had it with her. On her way out of the library she had stopped long enough to inquire from Brian about the young man, asking for his name and about the word, Gilgamesh, saying she’d seen it on a book the young man had. Brian said that while he could call up material for her on what he called The Gilgamesh Epic, he could not give out information about the fellow as it would be breaking library rules. She was frustrated as she turned away, barely managing to say a civil good night. Even then it had scared her to think she was breaking the biggest library rule of all. Removing library material she not checked out. She only admitted seeing the book, not having it. Stealing was what she was doing. Which frightened but also somehow elated her.
At last she was in the hall leading to her own door and she stepped into her room as into a refuge. She felt muddled and excited, both. She dropped her things summarily on the floor and herself onto the bed. Time, she thought, to take inventory. And to calm down. Collecting herself, she began with simplest things first.
One: She is different and always has been. She learned early to keep her way of seeing and being in the world to herself, as it invariably upset or confused other young people, even initiating a kind of fight of flight reaction. Contrarily, adults, apart from her Gran, just never saw her. Check
Two: She is very young to have entered college as a sophomore straight from boarding school. This just is a fact. One she is well aware of but has not thought a bad thing. Check
Three: She deserves to be at University, young or not. She is simply very bright, always has been beyond her own age in understanding, having a kind of ageless attitude toward and even wisdom about the things of life. At least, that’s what Gran said and Gran was to be trusted. Check
Four: Other girl students consider her a child prodigy - untrue and unfair as she is just very smart. None the less, the child prodigy thing has made the other girls steer clear of her, almost as if she has some defect or fault they alone are able to detect. Which continues to sting. Check
Five: She had hoped to find friendship here. Check
Six: She has not. Check
Seven: She has felt very much alone. Check
Now the narrative, said her inner voice, and Gillian sighed, sat up, took off her shoes and laid back down. Hers is a singleton room. Small and cramped, located at the very end of the hall on this the second of three floors of dorm rooms. The building in which she lives is an old five story narrow brick structure called The South Dorm. It is co-ed, but dorm room floors are single sex only. All the girls on this floor except Gillian have one or even two roommates. The resulting laughter and chatter is a constant reminder that she is different. But she has adapted to it. To it all. What else is there to do, faced with implacable reality?
Her fine Bose radio/CD player, Bossy by name, is her oldest friend. It’s soft green digital numbers tell her the time or the broadcast station number or the selection playing on a CD. One of its two remote controls has been stuck on the bed post, right where her hand can always find it, and the other sits beside Bossy on Decker, her desk. Bossy shines out in the dark of the room, making a reassuring presence in the middle of the night. It is named Bossy because for seven years now, every morning, it wakes her. And that’s bossy even if Gillian herself programed the alarm time for her to be awakened.
Yes, she names the things with which she lives. To her, each has a degree of living presence and she treats them accordingly. Together, they make up her family. Her narrow bed, for instance, with its sunken springs and mattress, she’s named Hammock. And despite its deficits, Hammock embraces her warmly, kindly, when at last her studying time is over and she finally crawls in to sleep. Her pillows, she has two. Her own, Mazie, named so because of the wondrous mazes she often finds her dreams to be, and Harriet, the college-provided pillow, that tends to be - well, hard. Difficult. Therefore, Mazie goes beneath her head, and Harriet is used as a kind of back-stop, set firmly against Gillian’s back when she settles to go to sleep, always turned inward to face the wall against which Hammock stands. Harriet’s role being to keep Gillian from rolling over and out onto the floor. Gillian’s sleeping body has not yet adjusted to Hammock’s extreme narrowness. At Stonington Hall, the boarding school where Gillian went at age 10 following Gran’s death, and where she lived for the following 6 years, doing both summer and regular terms so she has arrived at university fully accredited to sophomore status - yes, well, her bed at Stonington Hall was twice the width of Hammock. Not Hammock’s fault.
Hammock stands four-square and squat and has a desk built into its end-posts. Decker, by name, is the desk. Gillian suspicions Hammock originally to have been a double decker or bunk bed and had been cut in half at some point. No doubt to make use of the other half in some other end-of-the-corridor cubby of a room. Gillian has had neither the gumption nor the curiosity to go exploring for Hammock’s other half. Decker is named in honor of Gillian’s suspicions. The small goose-neck lamp that stands on Decker is from her childhood. Given its long graceful neck, it can either shine on desk work or swivel to shine on whatever Gillian is reading when she lies at the foot of Hammock, her head propped up on her heavy quilt. The lamp's name is, of course, Goose. Her quilt is quite simply called, "Q."
The room is called Room. Gillian sees no reason to romance this small space. Room is longer than wide, but only enough to accommodate Hammock, Decker and Strait. Strait being the desk chair. There is just enough room between Decker and Strait so Gillian can slide her legs in to sit. The name Strait honors this situation. Not Strait’s fault. Immediately behind Gillian as she sits at Decker is the room’s only window, named, appropriately enough, Windy. On her very first day here, Gillian managed, by standing on Strait and using a combination of leverage and force, to bring Windy down far enough to let in a constant draft of fresh air. A necessity, as the small room is otherwise incredibly stuffy.
Added to that, directly across from Hammock, standing against the outside wall, between the door and a tall, narrow dresser, called Sir as it has a very military look, stands a small but very noisy iron radiator. Lionel by name. The heat went on on the first day of October. It comes up at 6 AM and it stays to stay on until 11 PM, every single day. When the heat first comes up, Lionel makes an assortment of bangings and thumps and then settles to an occasional hissing. He throws off a constant and massive amount of heat, becoming radiantly hot. Burning hot. Gillian has a red bar on the outside of her left hand to prove it. She got burned before she learned to give him proper respect, always stepping carefully and being sure-footed when the heat is on and she has occasion to pass by him.
At night, after 11 PM, Lionel stands gurgling and cooling and eventually goes stone cold. Before the next morning Room gets very cold. Not Room’s fault. Oh, as to the name Lionel. “Up their noses water goeses, that’s what makes them bad.” That’s a quote from a poem in a book called, A Thousand Best Poems for Children.” When Gillian was little, her Gran used to read to her from it, and that poem, Radiator Lions, became an all time favorite of hers. It’s about a little boy whose mother would not let him keep a dog or polliwog or rabbit for a pet, so he had Radiator Lions. Thus Lionel. Her name for the small fierce radiator with whom she now lives. He’s never been bad. It’s just that when water goes up his nose, Lionel does get red-hot. Not Lionel’s fault.
For Gillian, these inanimate personalities make up a family. Something she never had, except for her Gran. Her parents died when Gillian was 8 months old. A miracle, Gran always said, that Gillian was alive. She’d had sniffles, so Gran had kept her that morning while her parents went to take ‘a short hop’. Her father was a show pilot and it was his small plane. No one knew what went wrong. Except the plane crashed and both her parents both were killed.
After Gran died, Gillian lived at Stonington Boarding School, where she had been a loner and left, studiously, alone. And now she is at university where it’s pretty much the same thing. But that’s all right. Her life has been all right. She has accommodated it and it has accommodated her, and she had felt secure in it, if lonely. Until about an hour ago. When a human intruded on her. A lad. And not a boy-boy. A young-man lad. Along with that small book, which almost tingled in her hands. Which she has now ... liberated. Her mind stalled at the word ‘stolen.’
But before she can think further, Mazie works her magic and Gillian, of a sudden, is fast asleep. There she is, lying fully clothed, unfed, uncovered and still quite unsettled. Yet, in her dreams, Gillian Redfern is a confident personage. Her intensive study of the myths of Gilgamesh has brought her international recognition. Her academic work - published papers, books and treatises - is all required reading for students in her area of study. Fine academic positions at fine institutions of higher learning are hers to accept or reject. New offers keep coming. She has been asked to speak at international conferences, at graduations, and at the opening or acquisitions of specialized institutions or materials devoted to the study of Gilgamesh legends. Gillian’s reputation is firmly established. She is known world-wide as an intellectual, a woman of letters, a learned person, even an authority, certainly an expert. The little book has been kept close by her, a secret, and her talisman. Predictor of this great fame.
When Gillian wakened, she was cold and stiff, had a numb shoulder, a wretched taste in her mouth, was starved and muddled beyond belief. Hammock had not been able to embrace her. Decker and Strait stood empty of her books and papers. Which, she realized with another stab of guilt, she had simply abandoned the night before, dropping the book bag to the floor and leaving it. Windy is letting whistling cold wind wash across her. Lionel has just begun his huffing and puffing. And Gillian feels appalled at what she has done. And even more appalled at what she had been dreaming. How could she prosper in her dreams from a theft?
Way before first class, a freshly bathed, fully scrubbed, dressed, and very abashed Gillian was on her way to the same library she had fled last night. She doubted it was open, but determined to keep vigil until the first employee appeared. When she would immediately return the small book, make a full confession, and take whatever punishment would be meted out. She had not touched the little book again, holding it somehow to blame. An irrational and rather cowardly moral stance. But it helped, because Gran had been laughing at her ever since she’d awakened. Laughing and quoting her version of that old saw about beauty. Although, beauty was something Gran never mentioned. Gillian believed it to be because she possessed none. Gran knew even then Gillian was a girl to pass unremarked until she reached womanhood, when she would become one of those women of whom all men remark. And desire. But that was for later. As a child, Gillian simply kept getting smarter with every year. Gran said over and over again to her, ‘Clever is as clever does, Missy. A good and true heart always beats a clever mind. Hands down.’ Remembering this, Gillian felt awash with embarrassment and chagrin. Even worse, was Gran laughing at her! ‘High horses make for great falls,’ Gillian heard, and bowed her head in hot shame.
It was windy on the library steps and Gillian hugged herself, pulling the tails of her long scarf around her shoulders and rocking a bit, trying to get warmth into her bones. In her book bag there was but one item - the slender volume entitled, ‘Gilgamesh.’ She wished Time would speed up so this could quickly be over and done with. It was only after a minute or so that she became aware of someone standing on the step beside her. When she looked up, startling into an awkward rise so as to stand herself, she found herself face to face with the young man of last night. The young man who had left that small volume on her carrel’s desk. And who had pushed past her both coming and going, not bothering to speak. Now, there he stood, staring at her as she was staring at him. And he was - well, he was handsome. Very. Quite striking. And they were staring at each other as if caught.
The rest, as is said, is history. Classic He-and-She-ism. The lightning struck, the cymbals clashed, the thunder boomed, the roses bloomed, the pulses raced, the hearts thumped. And Love fell all over them. Romance took control. Time stopped. This is a story both he and she would tell all down their thankfully long and healthy years. Oh, they didn’t stay together. She was much too young to be capable of more than helpless puppy love, chaste and heart-rending. And he was much too ambitious for something as ephemeral as Love. Except as it lived in Gilgamesh mythology. Nor was he fit really to take care of a young inexperienced heart such as Gillian’s. Indeed, he had little familiarity with his own. But he did adore Gillian and so did her no harm.
They parted as friends some months later. Both recognizing at the same time that the bloom was off the calla lily, the mold had set into the bread, the bees were making no honey, the soda had gone flat. In other words, it was over. But they each remembered the other, always. With that certain kind of secret smile reserved for Love, whatever its fate or falterings. When it strikes as hard as it did on that early October morning, it leaves an impress. It left them each with a true fondness for the other. And for their younger selves.
The small volume had gone back to the young man that very morning. He had laughed and hugged her. But only after first carefully packing the book away in his satchel. Then hand in hand they had gone, that early blustery October day, to where the flower markets were. Because that is where a small eatery is always open at dawn for flower market workers. And that is where they sat and talked the morning away. But they said little of consequence, no matter how smart they were. Lover’s think they talk of earth-shattering things. But it’s mostly pheromones talking.
It was he who went on to become the noted and renown scholar, specializing in Gilgamesh mythology. Ever a confirmed bachelor. Lost in his research and writings. Extremely satisfied with a life lived among students and peers in the Halls of Academe. Recognized internationally, his work required study for students following in his path, grand jobs in grand institutions of learning his to accept or reject, the acclaim as a world-renown expert, an authority, his. All his.
While Gillian went on to become a beautiful woman who owned a small flower shop and married the man who grew the flowers she sold. Such a simple ending to such a promising story. But Gillian was a most happy woman. Well fulfilled by her family of two sons and two daughters and her heart’s companion, her husband. She named her small flower shop, Gilgamesh. But she never explained it. Either to those who recognized the name or to those who didn’t. Her husband knew. Of course he did. And to any who carped, he rejoined that his wife had passion, wit, magic, and joy to spare. What mattered a secret, or even two?
And so. One successful scholar. One successful marriage. And yes, Gillian continued to name the things she lived among. Her husband was amused and tickled by this, her children first delighted, then embarrassed as they reached and navigated their teens, but, finally, with age, delighted once more.
And that - as has also been said many and many a time - is that.
by Dorothy Aldis
George lives in an apartment and
His mother will not let
Him keep a dog or polliwog
Or rabbit for a pet.
So he has Radiator ‘Lions.
(The parlor is the zoo.)
They love to fight but will not bite
Unless he tells them to.
And days when it is very cold
And he can't go outdoors
They glower and they lower and they
Crouch upon all fours
And roar most awful roarings and
Gurgle loud and mad.
Up their noses water goeses —
That's what makes them bad.
But he loves Radiator 'Lions!
He's glad, although they're wild,
He hasn't dogs and polliwogs
Like any other child!