English Lesson:A Memoir by Elizabeth Strout

(Chris Felstead - Gallery Stock)
By Elizabeth Strout

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The Red Rob Inn had lost its power. Outside, great blasts of snow had been swirling for hours. Inside, the piano player was playing jazzed-up show tunes. Candles in jars were lined up on top of the baby grand. In the quivering of this candlelight, his face was discernible, and the brown hair that fell to his shoulders, and also his quick smile that made him -- along with his energetic playing -- enormously popular with the skiers who came to Vermont. His name was Peter. He was my boyfriend. I was 19 years old. He was 24.

Peter was sort of a celebrity among the snow lovers. There had been one evening when a man, singing along at the piano during cocktail hour, had turned to me and said: "Don't stand in this fellow's way. He's a talented man. Don't tie him down."

"Oh, I won't," I said. "Of course not. No, no, I won't." I felt chastised.

After that, I sat farther away. But it was hard; I was in love. This was 1975 -- when women around the country were struggling for equal pay and equal rights -- but the only thing I wanted was to get married to Peter and have children, and somehow be an actress and a writer along the way. Friends said: "But you're only 19! How can you think about marriage?" Nineteen seemed old enough to me.

The manager of the inn was cautiously nice to me, politely indicating that I wasn't to interfere with Peter's evenings, which meant I was not to sit by the piano or in any way discourage customers who might be laughing with Peter, paying for drinks and having a good time. I was grateful to the manager for letting me visit at all. I was not a person who wanted to do anything wrong, and visiting my boyfriend was, on some level, in my young mind "wrong." It was unimaginable to me what my parents would do if they knew I was spending the weekend there, and I felt a certain level of panic from the beginning to the end of my visits.

On the night of the storm, the manager had opened the adjoining room, a place used for weddings or meetings, and it had a bar, as well. People sat on the tall stools, talking in the darkness and listening to the piano playing and the singing through the doorway. I sat there that night, so as to not interfere with Peter.

"Where are you from?" asked a man sitting next to me. He had an English accent. I could barely see him.

"Maine," I said, stirring my drink, "but I know where you're from."

His name was Philip, and he told me he was studying philosophy at Oxford, having already taken an undergraduate degree in English literature. He was in the States visiting, and he was curious to see the New England snows.

"Well, you're seeing them," I said. Adding: "The piano player's my boyfriend. I go to college in Maine, but I come to visit him on weekends when I can. I'm studying theater, and one of my professors lives in the south of England in the summer."

"The south of England is quite lovely," said this English Philip fellow.

In the semidarkness, I nodded. I was used to nodding. I was used to being agreeable. And I was used to talking, fast, as though any silence that fell was my responsibility. Certainly that night I did not know, or understand, the source of the deep anxiety that rode along beside me like a revved-up motorboat, even as I laughed and talked and waited to be with Peter alone. But I knew this: I was lying to my parents.

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