The moment I met up with them the night before sailing I knew I was back in a horribly familiar place. From various parts of the country we had come to the Henry Hudson Hotel over by the West Side highway across from the ships’ berths from where a Holland-American Line student ship would depart the next day for Europe. A half dozen boys and girls were already there, congregating in one of the anonymous carpeted bedrooms, and the scene was dominated by this burly guy Bruce from Akron, Ohio who did all the talking. No chance for me to get a word in, hard as it was to speak at all, and I thought I might never connect with any of the girls there – the sad, puppy-like blonde from California, the olive skinned, sharp featured girl from New Jersey, the firm pug nosed girl from Boston, the intelligent New York girl who said her father was a state supreme court judge. Bruce never stopped talking. Saying the obvious. There we are, he said. Here we are, he said. Now you look very ready, he said. And the girls watched him, and the other boys, who seemed small and retiring, did too. A running commentary as if we are all part of nothing more than his own story. Annoying and frightening for he seemed to have power here. Like the ones who used to make fun of me before it became clear to me and the world that I was bright and that a pretty girl could love me.
Out of the blue Bruce started making fun of me, for I hesitated to speak and that seemed to tell him I was an enclosed intellectual. He leapt on my not being able to speak by asking why I was so afraid, asking it a way that did not require an answer.
Why was I here? The previous summer while in Europe with the family I had had this idea they all scoffed at that I would become a poet and live in Paris. I had been able to so clearly see myself in a small basement restaurant such as I so far knew only in fiction, a warm dark place with red and white checkered table clothes, glowing candles with cheerful congealed wax down the sides, me and a warm dark girl in black leaning in over the table, forehead to forehead, she making love close up with her eyes as we talked in shared intensity about something. Monet? Keats? Socialism?
And there I had been with this fantasy last summer while on the one hand in Paris and on the other back in the family. Which had opened up new worlds but also made it seem to me that I could never get safely beyond the family’s version of my life. In this past year in boarding school, I had in a world beyond the family, and my victories in school had been confirmed by my surpring popularity in summer in the White mountains. But back in the family everything else in my life could seem flimsy.
And then our Southern grandmother had offered Peter and me new trips to Europe. There was this outfit called the Experiment in International Living, based in Putney Vermont, that was popular with parents in our Connecticut town. It set up groups of young people for summers aboard to live in foreign families. Most of the groups were for college students, but they had this one group for just graduated secondary school seniors. Not for Paris. Rather for Holland, which I knew mainly from sappy children’s stories about blonde kids in wooden shoes, sexless little blonde girls in dumpy cloth hats. Hans Brinker and his silver skates. Funny little dog pulling little carts. But I jumped at the chance to board a ship again and leave an old life behind. Though I also thought that just maybe what I really wanted was back up to the White Mountains – despite this pull to sail away from whatever it was that bound me.