It was the kind of brunch where you find out that your favorite student died six years ago in a car accident.
Karen was a colleague from the private school near Annapolis where I had been on the English faculty for two years between my graduate degrees. I had sophomore World Literature – a vague and somewhat ambitious title for a class that tried to cover everything from The Pillow Book to The Alchemist. We read a lot of excerpts. I also had two sections of junior American Literature – which was in reality only U.S. literature, a much more achievable goal.
My boss was a sonofabitch who yelled at his faculty and frequently belittled me, so in 1999 I jumped at the chance to move to North Carolina and get a doctorate. I say that as though the English department at Chapel Hill went out and recruited me when the painful truth is that I applied to twenty graduate schools and was accepted at three. For the rest of the school year, I listened to James Taylor’s “Going to Carolina” in my car on the long drive from my apartment in Virginia to Annapolis.
That was back in the old days when you had to email people if you wanted to stay in touch with them. It was five years before Gmail would be born, the Pleistocene age when email accounts were tied to things like work or school. In those days, saying goodbye to students really meant saying goodbye. While I would keep up with friends on the faculty, it didn’t feel right to impose staying in touch on my students unless they initiated first. No one did. I wrote a college recommendation for anyone who asked and gave the stack to the guidance department before I left. I had served my purpose.
A decade later, all this Facebook shit happened and there I was, in touch with all the high school peers I never liked much the first time around and the people I was sure I’d done theater with in college but whose faces I couldn’t quite place. Somehow, I ended up Friends with a number of students and teachers I had known at the Severn School.
In that decade, my husband and I had moved a lot, having babies in Philadelphia, London, and Los Angeles and picking up a cat in New Jersey before landing in Boston. It was a homecoming for me. I grew up outside of Boston, and many of my high school classmates still live in the area, as do college friends, blogging friends, and assorted nephews of my mother-in-law’s colleagues with whom we must get together because we have so much in common. There are only so many lunches I can do, only so many weekend get-togethers with families that also have kids. Karen made the cut because she kept asking.
That’s how we ended up at the Deluxe Train Station Diner, Karen eating eggs Benedict and me ordering a spinach, avocado, and mushroom omelet – salad instead of potatoes – and trying to catch up on thirteen years of our lives. Jobs, spouses, cities, my kids. I had moved on to the toast when I said to her, “I loved the class you advised.”
“I’m still in touch with most of them,” she offered.
Thus began the portion of the program during which I asked what everyone was up to and found out that not only was this one moving to Geneva, but he was getting married, and not only was that one living in Texas, but she had three kids and taught Kindergarten, despite dire predictions that had floated around the faculty room that she’d become a Republican and go into finance.
That’s how we eventually got to Dan.
Francis Scott Key Fitzgerald was born on September 24, 1896, in St. Paul, Minnesota. This much you can learn by Googling him. You can also learn that he fell head over heels for the beautiful Zelda Sayre when he was stationed in Alabama, that Zelda went nuts and had to be committed to an asylum, and that they had one daughter, Scottie. What you don’t need to Google him to learn is that he was an alcoholic. Everyone knows that part.
Here’s what you remember from studying The Great Gatsby in high school: East Egg and West Egg, the big eyes on the billboard, Gatsby’s fabulous parties, and the color motif. Maybe something about the butler’s nose. If you actually read the book, you may also remember Jordan leaving the top open on the borrowed car, but no one actually reads the book anymore, do they? There’s got to be an app for that.
You also probably vaguely recollect that Fitzgerald died young, at the age of 44, to be precise. I Googled that.
Dan returns to me as a series of images. Dan as a sophomore, bounding into my tiny classroom, tie askew and white button-down untucked, exclaiming my name and tumbling out important news with his words tripping over each other. Also, Dan with his hand raised, bouncing out of his seat like Horshack in Welcome Back, Kotter. Dan, bent intently over his work, legs moving and head bobbing to the rhythm of his mind. Dan smiling – exuberance and mischief with a dash of double-dog-dare-ya.
And, of course, Dan chewing things. I’d get test papers with the corners missing, because in the depth of his focus, Dan had torn off bits of the pages and stuffed them in his mouth. Once, during an end-of-year exam, Dan chewed through a bottle of breath drops. A hundred students had to finish their exam to the overpowering stench of spearmint. As a junior, Dan sat in the corner of my new, much larger classroom, near the bulletin board, chewing on the tacks. No matter how many times I told him to stop, he couldn’t. I’d be helping a student identify a direct object, and when I turned back around, Dan would have something in his mouth. “Dan?” He’d look up, completely innocent, and then realize that once again he had a tack in his mouth. Sheepishly, he’d pull it out and kind of wipe it off before sticking it back in the board. Zach Schneider, a mild-mannered, deeply thoughtful boy with a hockey obsession and a patient sense of humor, sat next to Dan. One day, I realized all the tacks were missing. “Dan, where are the tacks?” “Ms. Siegel, I swear, it wasn’t me,” Dan protested. Next to him, Zach smiled, a slow and twinkling grin that moved right up his face straight through to his eyes. He had quietly removed all the tacks as a preventative measure. Eventually, the boys just switched seats, Zach stationing his steadiness between Dan’s energy and certain doom. It was safer that way. Facebook tells me that Zach grew up to be a doctor. Karen tells me that Dan never got a chance to grow up.
The Great Gatsby features a car accident as its climax, a fact that many people know only from their Cliff’s Notes. After the showdown in New York over their affair, Daisy and Gatsby leave. Gatsby allows her to drive his big yellow car, and she plows over her husband’s current mistress on the way home.
If you actually read The Great Gatsby, you’ll remember the description of Mabel Wilson in the aftermath of the accident: “her left breast was swinging loose like a flap and there was no need to listen for the heart underneath.” It’s a hard image to forget, and it struck the students in my junior year English class forcefully.
That’s what happens in a car accident. That’s what comes of living fast and throwing big parties and driving big yellow cars that draw the eye and impress people. Someone ends up on the road, destroyed.
That’s what happened to Fitzgerald and Zelda. She cracked up and he drank hard, eventually destroying his body and dying of a heart attack. He’s buried in Maryland, and while I was teaching at Severn, I visited his grave. His epitaph is the last line of The Great Gatsby: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
The big project of third term junior year was to research and read works by an American author. I suggested authors when students had a hard time deciding: Octavia Butler, John Irving, Zora Neale Hurston, and the like. For Dan, I suggested Tom Robbins, covering myself with the caveat that he needed parental permission to read the books. Nothing gets a seventeen-year-old boy engaged like needing parental permission.
For a month, teachers complained to me in the faculty room that they had caught Dan reading Tom Robbins under his desk when he was supposed to be figuring out equations or conjugating verbs in some other language. They also found him reading tidbits to his classmates, all of them a little breathless with the slightly risqué content. The R-rated bits weren’t why I suggested Robbins, though, nor were they what really engaged Dan. I knew Robbins would speak to Dan for the same reason that kid amused the hell out of me: sheer energy.
Robbins’s writing is alive. His sentences jump, his images pop, and his words bounce off the page. His writing is smart, funny, and irreverent. Reading Robbins is like reading a cup of strong coffee on No-Doze, which is sort of what being around Dan usually felt like.
I don’t know whether it was the Robbins or whether it was just time for Dan to bloom, but around this time Dan exploded into English student greatness. At the beginning of his sophomore year, he had bubbled over with so many thoughts that he had fleshed nothing out. For all his playfulness, however, Dan worked hard in school, and over two years’ time, he’d learned to organize his thoughts. Now, his ideas were arranged and developed rather than tossed scattershot around the page, and it was clear he was smart. I often saved grading his papers for last, not only because they were good, but because they had the same vibrancy I found in Robbins’ work, in Dan himself.
Or maybe it was the Gatsby that did it to him. Fitzgerald has been known to have that effect on people. Day after day, Dan’s hand shot up with another image, another symbol, or another example of the eyes or the colors that pervade the book. We had come together as a class, that’s what teachers say to describe the thing that happens in the early spring, the magic of all the students vibrating at the same speed, feeding off one another’s energy to ferret out motifs and dig out examples from the text to support one another’s ideas. Dan was irrepressible, Zach was insightful, and the class as a whole was kicking ass and taking names.
We were all young and alive, tearing at a great book with both hands, coming away with chunks of words dripping out between our teeth.
The Great Gatsby is lousy with taxis. Nick takes them home, sees them in the city, and hears them outside his house. It makes sense; for a boy from Minnesota, taxis epitomize New York City. Sprinkle them throughout the book and you get the flavor of people coming and going, living out a fast, fleeting, borrowed existence for the moment they get to be on earth. It’s a typical Fitzgerald move.
The morning after Myrtle Wilson dies, Nick – who came home in a taxi hours before – can’t sleep, most likely because he’s just seen five people’s lives torn apart. “Toward dawn I heard a taxi go up Gatsby’s drive and immediately I jumped out of bed and began to dress—I felt that I had something to tell him, something to warn him about and morning would be too late” (155). And by the morning, it would have been, because by then Myrtle’s husband will already have shot Gatsby in his own swimming pool. Just one more victim of loving too much.
You get a sense reading Gatsby that driving is a job best left to the professionals. When amateurs do it, they leave borrowed cars out in the rain or run over mistresses.
On the second-to-last page, the dénouement if you will, Nick, who has spent an entire book turning Gatsby’s tale into a story about him, explains that there’s a cab he now avoids: “One of the taxi drivers in the village never took a fare past the entrance gate without stopping for a minute and pointing inside; perhaps it was he who drove Daisy and Gatsby over to East Egg the night of the accident and perhaps he had made a story about it all his own” (188). You couldn’t blame him if he did. It’s hard to be a cabbie, spending your life carrying around the dregs of other people’s tragedies.
Delighted though I was to leave the bad boss and the pretentious school where kids drove cars that cost more than my year’s salary—it’s a cliché but it’s true—I was sad to leave those juniors. Of course, the year would have ended anyway, I wouldn’t have taught them the next year, and in a year they would have left me to go off to Bates or Franklin & Marshall. It’s the tragedy of teaching, this living on borrowed time. You build up a class just to watch them go off and live out their lives, leaving you with your student debt, a pitiful retirement plan, and an underlined copy of The Scarlet Letter.
Near the end of my time at Severn, I grew sentimental. I was just whipping the sophomores into shape and I wouldn’t have the chance to see them develop into young adults. I was leaving friends on the faculty. What would happen to the birds who had built a nest in my classroom’s air conditioning unit? I said goodbyes once, twice, another time—tried to avoid people I had parted with more than once so we didn’t have to say “Hello,” necessitating yet another farewell.
“Do you know what Dorothy says to the Scarecrow at the end of The Wizard of Oz?” I asked Dan.
He looked up from chewing on his pen cap. “No.”
“Find out,” I smiled.
I don’t know if he ever looked it up, but Dorothy tells the scarecrow: “I think I’m going to miss you most of all.”
“It was about six years ago,” Karen told me. “Soon after he graduated college. He was out with some friends. They took a cab home, and then Dan drove a friend back to his car. He took a turn too fast. You know how he always loved cars.”
Dan, sitting in the corner of the room, chewing tacks.
“I know you were close to him.”
Dan, clandestinely reading Tom Robbins.
“I went down for the funeral. Most of the class was there.”
Dan, hand in the air, unable to stay in his seat.
“Everyone loved that kid.”
Dan’s final project, ten astute, excited pages on symbolism in Tom Robbins.
Karen and I talked about Dan for a few minutes. I told her about the exploded breath drops, and I told her how my middle child, Benjamin, sometimes reminds me of Dan, with his buzzing energy and insatiable need to chew things. Then we fell silent. “Go ahead and feed the meter,” I told her.
“Are you sure?”
“I’m OK. Go ahead.” I sat alone in the huge booth at the Deluxe Train Station Diner, looking at half a slice of uneaten toast and a few crusts.
Dan, wrapped around a telephone pole.
“You’re a rotten driver,” Nick tells Jordan after they start dating.
Other people are careful, she responds. “They’ll keep out of my way. It takes two to make an accident.” It turns out Jordan had it wrong. It does not, in fact, take two to make an accident. All it takes is one person, a telephone pole, some trees, and a fence.
After lunch with Karen, I stopped by the grocery store to get some cold cuts for Benjamin’s lunch on Friday. Then I picked up my daughter from preschool, prepared dinner, and packed up the boys’ swimming bags. My sons got out of school at 3:00, and I gave them snacks in the car as we drove to the JCC for their lessons. We came home to the flurry of wet swimsuits, lunch boxes, and dinner. It wasn’t until after the three Bs – bath, books, and bed – that I could sit down at the computer and Google Dan’s accident.
I found one obituary and a single newspaper article. An entire life gone, and it barely made a dimple in the Internet. Dan died before everyone had a blog and then no one did. I sat at my desk, surrounded by camp enrollment forms and drafts of manuscripts, rejiggering search terms in hopes of finding something more, but there was nothing.
The accident was six years ago, on September 24—Fitzgerald’s birthday. The parallels came unbidden, crowding in on me. My go-to response was to organize it, make sense of this kid dying. I was trying to turn it poetic that his mother had gone through the last six years childless. Does it matter, though, that Dan died 110 years to the day after Fitzgerald was born? Any other day would have been someone’s birthday, too. There would have been some way to find the significance, to drip symbolism on the fact that he made that one stupid, stupid mistake.
The date did explain why no one had told me. By then, I had moved to London and had just had my second baby. I was nursing Benjamin and living five hours ahead of old colleagues on the East Coast. I’d been out of the school long enough that no one thought to send me an email. Not that the last six years would have been any different if I had known.
Two years after Dan’s accident, I had a third child on September 23. My birthday is on the 25th, so Fitzgerald’s birthday is the day between us. Did it mean something that Dan died on the day between my birthday and what would become my daughter’s? Or that Dan died so soon after the birth of the son who would remind me of him?
As readers, we have to forgive Nick Carraway, not for being an unreliable narrator – aren’t they all? – but for what he did to Gatsby’s story. We don’t ever get to know Gatsby, really, because in the end, it’s Nick’s story about how he experienced Gatsby’s demise. We forgive him because what he does is so recognizable.
We’re all like Nick Carraway, stealing someone else’s tragedy and making it our own.
Emily Rosenbaum holds a doctorate from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her writing has appeared in publications such as Kveller, The New York Times, Ms., Bitch, and Brain, Child. More of her writing can be found at http://emilyrosenbaum.com