Reading Henry James in the Suburbs

On the day Helen starts at the university as a transferring junior—after five years of community college—she wakes up extra early to apply a new set of press-on fingernails in pale pink. She let her daughter pick the color the night before at Walmart. After filing and gluing for nearly an hour, she carefully dresses in slacks and a white blouse with a paisley vest cleverly attached. Helen bought herself a couple of nice outfits with her student-loan check, and a new curling iron that curled her hair so tightly she wants to rewash it. But she must get on the road. It’s a fifty-mile drive to the university, though it may as well be five hundred, with how nervous she feels. Her husband, Jesse, assured her again this morning, before he left dark and early for work, that she can’t possibly get lost on the highway because it’s a straight shot, mostly through rice fields, and there are the mountains on either side to keep her oriented. Both she and her husband were born and raised in small towns far away from this large Northern California valley where they now rent a house. But Jesse’s years in the air force made him brave, or at least good with directions. Marriage and motherhood have turned Helen into a chicken shit. Not that she was ever very brave. She is determined to be so now.

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