Photograph by Megan Johnson
by Robert Wexelblatt
It means middle, center. It means a circle around the world. It is also the name of a town in Mississippi near the Alabama line, which is where her mother’s family were from; she said, “my mama’s people.” Cute, isn’t it? Meridian could switch on the accent whenever she wanted; it rarely erupted all by itself, even when she was angry. “It’s Southern to call people by two names, in case you didn’t know, the second usually being that of somebody in the family—dead or alive, doesn’t matter.”
Her full name was Meridian Louise MacAllister and she was clear about what she wanted me to call her, which was Meridian. “Don’t you ever call me Merry-- and don’t even think Merry Lou. I’d sooner you called me Merde and that’s French for shit. I had a cousin called me that once, but he didn’t know French. He didn’t know a lot of things.”
Issue #12 soundtrack: Sisters "Glue"
Meridian more or less moved into my one-bedroom hole the week before Memorial Day. I say more or less because she kept paying her half of the rent on the sublet she was supposed to be sharing with Monica, another college girl, and made sure I didn’t forget it. I met the roommate only once, on the same night I met Meridian. I liked Monica. She did some card tricks and told us about going to “magic camp” when she was little. “Girls don’t usually do magic,” she said. “No,” cracked Meridian, “we get sawed in half.” Monica smiled politely. “There were about a hundred boys and only three girls and one of them got homesick and left early.” I suppose Monica was used to being on her own, used to people taking off. Or maybe she had a boyfriend waiting for Meridian to move out so he could move in and Meridian was looking for some provisional place to land. For all I know that could have been the plan.
I’d just dropped out of college, Framingham State, not the pricey place Monica and Meridian graced with their presence. I lasted two semesters. But even with a scholarship it was expensive and, anyway, I’d been in school all my life and felt like I’d had about enough. My brother Frank got me a job working construction-- good job, no roofing, and paid under the table. Then I got myself the cheap apartment in Allston and figured I’d found the future, or at least an early draft of it.
My friend Terry and I met Monica and Meridian on a Tuesday night in a sports bar. Terry, a big Celtics fan, was into the playoffs; I was more interested in Meridian. It was one of those sudden things, at least on my side—you know, first you’re hit by this hurricane wind, then everything stops and gravity seizes you. People never rise in love; they fall.
She was suspicious at first and kept a karate chop away from my elbow. Meridian wasn’t easy, not in any sense at all. Monica was actually more forthcoming, paired off with Terry, who couldn’t take his eyes off the fourteen TV monitors. But when I debriefed him later he was vague. He was pretty sure Monica told him one of them was a sophomore and the other a junior, that she had some sort of job for the summer that she seemed excited about; he said he thought they were sharing an apartment. I later learned that they’d only met a couple weeks earlier, when Monica saw Meridian’s flyer on a bulletin board advertising for a roommate. Technically, it was Meridian’s apartment that she abandoned to Monica in order to move in with me which felt significant. Monica had just gotten an internship, unpaid, with an advertising agency. I remember her as a kind of ad herself: T-shirt and tight jeans with labels on the outside, Abercrombie, Christin Michaels. Meridian wore Lee boot jeans and her top was white and had the demure frills over her breasts. But it was her face I couldn’t stop looking at. She made me think of a commercial I’d seen for a health plan. A middle-aged doctor has this little girl up on the examination table. She’s got big eyes and a sweet mouth and curly hair; her legs dangle down adorably. Meridian had the same serious, anxious, irresistible look. The little girl looks up at the big doctor. “Am I all right?” she asks in this tiny voice and the doctor pauses, leans toward her in his white coat, breaks into a kindly smile, and says, “You’re. . . perfect.”
As I came though the door I could hear Meridian singing along to Sparklz’s “But When?” It was her favorite of the week. She was stretched out on the couch in cut-off jeans, barefoot—her hillbilly look. She had on my long-sleeve T-shirt, the gray one with nothing written on it. The sleeves came down over her hands, except for the fingertips.
Say I’m not just your rib,
Say you believe in girls’ lib,
Or was that all a fib?
You promise me a crib,
But when? But when?
“Tough day,” I reported. Meridian nodded but went on singing and I couldn’t tell if she heard me, if she were singing through me or to me.
All those sweet things you said,
They just mess with my head,
Said you want to get wed,
At least when we’re in bed.
But when? But when?
I picked up her feet, sat down on the couch, and lay her legs across my lap. “What’d you do today?”
“Library. You could use a shower.”
Meridian was doing what she called independent research. It wasn’t for a course or even for credit which, she said, made it pure.
The previous summer she had bopped around Greece and Italy, then spent August at home. I gathered that her parents were wealthy Republicans and profoundly alarmed by their younger daughter, who hadn’t turned out at all like their satisfactory older one.
“A whole month is way too long,” she said of her previous August in Valdosta, Georgia. “I told them no more than a week this year-- two, tops. Hey, want to come?”
She didn’t sound serious, so I said, “Think I’ll pass.”
Meridian didn’t offer coherent narratives; I had to piece things together over the first couple of weeks. When I wasn’t working or we weren’t eating, we were in bed, inventing sex. When we did talk she asked me complicated questions and demanded long answers. My questions were answered with a sentence, a phrase. For example, when I asked about her sister, she just said, “Vivian Marie? Married.” She stuffed a lot into that last word.
The one thing she was forthcoming about was her research project.
“I got the idea in philosophy class.”
“What was it, ethics?”
She shrugged. “Introduction to the Fundamentals of Basics 101. Anyway, the professor commented on what was obvious, that, except for him, we were all female. Some of the girls gave a little cheer-- ‘yea, girl power’-- but he said, ‘Do you really want to be married to a guy who can’t get a joke about Plato?’”
I patted her thigh and asked for a joke.
“About Plato?” she said seriously.
“Doesn’t have to be.”
“Okay. Here’s a philosophical joke. Guy’s driving his pickup down a country road. This woman’s driving toward him, just coming over a hill. As she draws up next to him she rolls down her window and yells Pig! So he hollers back, Bitch! Then he drives over the rise and on the other side there’s this huge hog in the middle of the road. Guy swerves into a tree and is killed.”
“Not about Plato, is it?”
“It’s about language, semantics, floating signifiers.”
I let that float significantly a bit before observing with what I thought was a philosophical tone, “It’s also about not understanding, isn’t it?”
She blinked at me fetchingly. “Bingo,” she said with genuine surprise then pulled herself up and gave me a kiss. Good boy. A+.
I’d suggested a Sunday picnic. I’d bought sub sandwiches, sodas, and watermelon and spread a blanket in the weedy little yard behind the building.
“Tell me more about your project.”
“I decided I’m going to include photographs.”
“Portraits of the guys, of course. The ones I’m going to interview who aren’t in college, like you.”
“I’m part of your project?”
She smiled radiantly. “Sure. The main part.”
I twitched my nose like a guinea pig; I grunted like a hog in the middle of a road.
“Did you know the best schools have had male affirmative action for at least a decade?”
“Male affirmative action?”
“Lower entrance credentials. The want to keep the ratio up. I found an article.”
“Pretty straightforward, actually. They found that if the ratio gets above 60/40 the best women just stop coming. If they didn’t do anything it’d be over 70, probably way above. Don’t you think it’s a problem?”
“What? The affirmative action?”
“No. The absence of men.”
“We’re not absent.”
“Educated ones are.”
“We’re somewhere else.”
“I think that’s a problem.”
“Worried about all those ungotten jokes?”
It was a hot day for June. I’d been painting a triple-decker. Meridian was waiting for me on the steps. I gave her a kiss on the cheek, which she presented for that purpose. She held a book of matches and pulled one off.
“Don’t play with matches,” I said automatically.
“Look at this,” she said. “Really look.”
She struck the match and held it up to my face.
I blew it out when I thought it was going to burn her fingers. I liked those fingers.
She struck another one.
“Watch more closely this time.”
“For metaphor,” she said. “Hey. That’s almost a palindrome.”
The match burned down and again I blew it out.
“I wrote a poem today,” she said.
“Good. That’s good.”
“Maybe. Want to see it? I want to show it to you.” She grabbed my hand and led me up the stairs.
The paper was on the table. She handed it to me and then watched me reading it, watched me more closely than I’d watched her flaming metaphor.
By abrasion lit
to flare in glory,
greedy for air with
which to declare
a nature that is
to burn itself up
and spare nothing of
its rare and fragile
life, a concise prayer
there in my bare hand
which takes care with fire,
that is aware of
risks too vast to bear,
where extinction waits.
While it burns I stare.
I handed the paper back.
“Well?” she asked.
Meridian’s poem startled me. I began to feel a little of what I imagined her Republican southern parents might have and I knew I’d better be careful.
“It’s intense,” I said. “In fact, it’s about intensity, isn’t it? And all those rhymes—they make it even more intense.” I was going great guns. Then I slipped up. “But remember, I dropped out of college, so what do I know?”
“Shut up,” she said and gave me a shove.
“You’re the match, aren’t you?”
She smirked at me and folded the paper in quarters. “Keep it,” she said. “And take a shower. You reek.”
Under the spray I had a last thought. “If you’re the match, am I the one watching it burn? Or are you both?”
“Basta, caro,” she whispered in my ear and set about scouring paint off my neck.
There was no way to keep Meridian a secret, not with her interviewing every friend of mine she could nag me into serving up. I didn’t conceal how much I disliked it.
“You aren’t jealous, are you?” she’d said, feigning surprise, as though jealousy were rare as winning lottery tickets, as if it were something people only felt in operas. Then she gave out this teenaged giggle. In fact, she was right tickled.
Anyway, I knew Terry would tell my brother sooner rather than later, so I told him first. The question was whether he would tell our parents. It had been tough enough getting them to accept my dropping out of school and finding my own place-- actually, accepting wasn’t what they did at all, especially my mother. You always knew where you stood with her. With Meridian it was mostly the opposite.
We were both loved by our parents and loved them back and yet were hiding out from them, clearing a defensive corridor around ourselves. Maybe it made a bond. But the Republicans of Valdosta were, after all, a thousand miles away in Dixie, while my folks were barely two miles off, in Hyde Park. I had to see them. For my mother in particular Sunday dinner with Frank and me was like Mass. Even if I had wanted to bring Meridian with me, which I certainly didn’t, she’d made the issue moot the day she moved in.
“No parents. Okay? Agreed?”
She was unloading a carton of books at the time. I picked each one. Emily Dickinson’s poems and four bigger ones: Daniel Deronda, A Raw Youth, Sentimental Education, Tender Is the Night, and Tropic of Capricorn. A whopping lot of words.
“My summer reading,” she explained. “I know, not cool. But I like classics and I’ve already read the famous ones, Middlemarch and Crime and Punishment, Bovary, Gatsby.”
“You trying to impress me?”
“What? Oh, don’t be ridiculous.”
It was then that she said the thing about no parents. It felt a little like an escape clause was being tacked on to an unwritten contract.
She was fine with my going to Hyde Park on Sundays. She said she’d entertain herself, go for walks and read her books. There was the river, the Public Gardens.
Frank was decent. He didn’t even ask to visit. But he let me know how he felt when he drove me home after dinner that first Sunday.
“Look, why are you with this girl?” he asked. “I mean apart from the obvious.”
I tried a lame joke. “For the not obvious, I guess.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
He turned away, as if addressing somebody hanging on to the door. “College girls,” he said.
Frank had had an unfortunate experience. “Look, just because you--”
“Hold it right there,” he warned.
“So, what is it? Summer thing?”
“I don’t know. You’re not going to tell, are you?”
“Why would I do that? You’ve got plenty enough on me, kid. Don’t worry. I’m happy for you. Job, apartment, college girl. No, really. I mean it. World’s your oyster.”
“But... well, Terry says she’s a little strange.”
I was going to say something about the reliability of Terry’s judgments then thought better of it. “Meridian’s... unusual,” I allowed.
We stopped for a light. Frank turned to me and raised a finger. “Meridian, eh? You just be careful, all right.”
He punched my shoulder. “Ain’t no emotional condoms, kid. Summer’s over she goes back to class; you don’t. Just keep that in mind.”
When I got home Meridian was all excited about a passage in her Henry Miller book.
“Listen to this,” she said. It was about this big old desk he’d gotten out of his father’s tailor shop, full of pigeon holes, weighing a ton, and wrangled it into his place in Brooklyn. “‘I had to fight a tough battle to install it there, but I insisted that it be there in the midmost midst of the shebang. It was like putting a mastodon in the center of a dentist’s office.’”
“Nice,” I ventured. “Midmost midst.”
“It’s fucking beautiful.”
“Writing’s important to you, isn’t it?”
She gave me a closed-off, superior look. “You aware how you always stick 'isn’t it' at the end of things you say to me?”
She nodded and bent down to retie her shoelaces, something she sometimes did when she didn’t want to look me in the eye. “All the time. It reveals insecurity.”
“Because I’m an uneducated male?”
She didn’t look up. “It’s possible.”
“Maybe it’s you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, drop it.”
Now she looked at me and grinned. “You mean I’m looking for my mastodon? For this enormous, midmost thing? This anchor?”
“I want to interview Frank. Please, may I?”
She growled at me and flounced into the bedroom.
Frank was off limits, but I did let her talk to Terry.
“It was kinda weird” was all he’d say about the experience. Saying it instead of she-- that was Terry being sensitive.
I’m sure it was weird. Talking to Meridian could be like walking on little pieces of ice in the Arctic Ocean. She didn’t bother with transitions; you could never tell what was coming next. Poems, statistics, mastodons, matches. She’d get mad and then she’d get sentimental; she’d climb all over me and then shut completely down. You couldn’t tell what was coming so you didn’t know where you stood.
In June she started growing herbs on the window sill and trying fancy recipes out of big cook books she got from the library. I bought her a set of pots and an apron which I had gift-wrapped.
She tore open the wrapping paper. “An apron?” she said, half pleased and half not.
“It’s getting hot. I think that’s all you should wear. Just the apron.”
I suppose she was feeling both sporty and domestic. She took off her clothes and tried it on.
I found an open envelope by the bed. It was addressed to Meridian Louise MacAllister at her sublet and the postmark was Valdosta, GA 31602. The Republicans. What could Valdosta be like?
“They send me money,” Meridian said when I asked about the letter, “and pleas to come home. It’s a tad contradictory.”
“Why the pleas?”
“They’re terrified I’ll become a Yankee. Can you borrow a car for Sunday? I want to go to Plum Island.”
Frank loaned me his old red Corolla. On the way up I tried to get her to talk about why she was going to school in New England. And it worked; evidently she liked talking in cars.
“I made cheerleader. Any idea what that means in Georgia?”
“Big deal here, too.”
“Not like in Valdosta, believe me.”
“So, what happened?”
“I was into it. Everything I was supposed to be into. The hair, the nails, the gossip, the getting thrown in the air, even the football and being a Baptist.”
“And then one day I wasn’t.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I don’t know. Just came over me. I mean it felt sudden but it must have been building.”
“I don’t follow.”
“I started thinking of the girls who’d graduated a year, two years ahead of me. Most of them were already married. Half were pregnant. One was divorced for God’s sake. And everybody thought that was just fine. I needed to get out. Look homeward, angel. Maybe it was all the reading.”
“I read Dostoyevsky and Faulkner and Hemingway the way other girls read trash. Funny thing is I did it for exactly the same reason, in the same spirit. Escapism. I read good books in a bad way, but I knew they were good and not boring. I really had to get out of there before I got pregnant.”
“So there were boyfriends.”
“Oh, that was another thing. The boys.”
“Did they go to college?”
“Every last one of them. But only to join fraternities and drink and screw around.”
“So that’s the... South?”
“Pretty much. Valdosta’s upper crust anyway. Look over here. My back get sunburnt?”
On the way home the car overheated. Meridian thought that was just hilarious.
July began badly then got much worse. On the Fourth we went to the Esplanade for the Pops and the fireworks. Meridian caught a summer cold.
“It was that jerk who sneezed on me. You know what this means, don’t you?”
“Nyquil and no sex. I’m not going to make you sick too.”
It was a bad cold, with a cough. She stayed in bed reading for three days while a Bermuda high suffused Boston with air she described as coming “straight from the mouth of a Houston used-car salesman.” She was miserable and liked reminding me of it.
As soon as Meridian was on her feet again, she started badgering me to line up more interviews. I arranged for her to see Spence then Harry. They were both between jobs and met her at a Starbucks, or so she said when I got home. Tony would only see her at night and he suggested an Irish bar in Brighton. I had a bad feeling. She left at eight and didn’t get back until three.
“Did you sleep with him?”
She laughed. “Sleep?”
“Merry Lou,” I said slowly, nauseated.
“Fuck you. Your friend Tony’s an asshole. Jesus, he loves Ayn Rand.”
I left, walked all over the Back Bay, had an early breakfast and went straight to the work site on Marlborough Street. I decided she’d be gone when I got home, that she’d move back in with Monica. But she was there, sleeping. And that’s what she mostly did for the next week—slept and cried and apologized. She hardly ate; I hardly spoke.
“What is it with you?” I finally asked.
“Can’t you tell? I’m depressed. Styron called it darkness visible. Am I visible? Can you even see me?”
“There you are.”
“But can you see me because I’m visible, or am I visible because you see me?”
The next night she was hysterical and went on about slitting her wrists “in the Roman style,” and I called a cab and took her to St. Elizabeth’s. They kept her overnight and the next day they called me to come and get her. A nurse gave me a little card with the name of a shrink. What scared me wasn’t so much the referral as that they gave it to me.
When Meridian’s parents came for her I didn’t know how to behave, even though I was the one who phoned them. That had been hard enough but seeing them was worse. The MacAllisters were both shatteringly polite to me, though her mother’s eyes were always tearing up. “Oh, Merry Lou,” she keened when she saw her daughter curled up in a chair. The father was a big red-headed man, but his voice was softer than old tomatoes. “Thank you, thank you for taking care of her,” he said and grasped my hand like he might just crush it.
She had been drowning all along, I guess. Hate and love were all mixed up, self with self and thing with thing. I just couldn’t see it until the packaging wore off.
I bought Styron’s little book, the one she mentioned. It’s shot but full of horrors like this: ...I began to conceive that my mind itself was like one of those outmoded small-town telephone exchanges, being gradually inundated by flood waters; one by one, the normal circuits began to drown...
She had cried out to me that last night. “Help me. I’ve fallen down an oubliette and it’s got these stainless steel sides.”
When I phoned Valdosta they asked me not to. When I wrote my letters were returned.
I went back to school in September and signed up for two English courses. I also registered for Introduction to Philosophy in which I was the only male.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published essays, stories, and poems in a wide variety of journals, two story collections, titled Life in the Temperate Zone and The Decline of Our Neighborhood, and a book of essays titled Professors at Play. His recent novel, Zublinka Among Women, won the Indie Book Awards First Prize for Fiction.
Megan Johnson is a 20 year-old part-time photographer living near Seattle. She is planning on going back to school this winter to continue working towards a bachelor's degree in classical studies and art history. Her portfolio can be viewed at megan-johnson.com.
Sisters is a NYC-based lo-fi/noise-pop duo with Aaron Pfannebecker on vocals and guitar and Matt Conboy drums and keys. The band will release their debut record Ghost Fits on September 28. For more info, visit Sisters' Myspace profile.