“A Challenge You Have Overcome,” by Allegra Goodman

Audio: Allegra Goodman reads.

They were a family of long marriages. You might sleep in separate bedrooms and wash dishes in a fury. You might find a moldy peach in the refrigerator and leave it on the counter for three days as evidence in some private trial—but you would never leave. Dan and Melanie had been married for thirty years. Steve and Andrea were coming up on twenty-five. Andrea felt a certain vindication about this anniversary because she had married in, and her own parents had split when she was young.

Steve’s mother, Jeanne, used to ask Andrea, in a melancholy way, “How is your mother?” and then, after a long pause, “How is your father?” Clearly, divorce was hereditary, and Andrea a carrier. Real Rubinsteins had the marriage gene—except for Aunt Sylvia and Cousin Richard, who was Sylvia’s son, so there you go.

And yet, despite Andrea’s unfortunate heritage, she and Steve remained married. Were they happy? Yes, of course. They were at least as happy as everybody else. And why was happiness the criterion, anyway? They had endured health scares, teen-agers, money problems. They were struggling even now, because they had spent their professional lives in educational publishing. Steve hated what was left of his job, and Andrea had lost hers altogether. Nevertheless, Steve kept schlepping to the city, where he worked in a new open-plan office and was allowed no shelves, no files, just one drawer. Andrea now toiled in the finished basement as a private college counsellor. And together they kept paying their bills, their taxes, their older son’s tuition, and their interest-only mortgage. Jeanne would have approved if she had lived. This was a woman who praised a shirt: it wears like iron. Who lay on her deathbed refusing to accept that she was dying. As a couple, Steve and Andrea had staying power—a virtue Jeanne had prized more than youth, beauty, joy. And why not? Youth ended, beauty faded, and where was joy when you needed it?

Joy was not the word that came to mind when Andrea remembered her late mother-in-law. Toward the end of her life, Jeanne lost patience with everyone, but particularly with her grandsons Zach and Nate. Their high-school teams meant nothing to her. Their classes, friends, activities did not register. In her delirious last days, Jeanne kept asking Andrea why her sons did not read. Why they did not talk. “They do talk,” Andrea protested, and Jeanne said, “But why can’t they carry on a conversation?” The last time Jeanne saw the boys, she spoke obsessively of music, and kept asking Nate, “What do you play?” She could not comprehend his answer—soccer.

No, Jeanne had not been sympathetic, and yet Andrea appreciated her, now that she was gone. Was it pity? Was it distance? Was it knowing that Jeanne could no longer hurt her? Or was it that Andrea’s own work required such extraordinary tact? Counselling students and consoling parents, Andrea looked back in awe at Jeanne’s breathtaking honesty.

“I don’t think there’s enough of you in this essay,” Andrea told a girl named Lizzie, but she knew what Jeanne would have said. Oh, I disagree. The less said, the better.

“I think she’ll have good options,” Andrea reassured Lizzie’s mother on the phone, but she could hear Jeanne. With that transcript?

At night, when Andrea heard Steve’s heavy footsteps, she ascended the stairs. “Hello,” she said, by which she meant how was your day?

“Hi,” Steve answered, which meant don’t ask.

“Did you find the other clicker?” The garage-door opener was broken.

Steve stared at her as though he had never heard of a clicker, or a garage. “Are we having dinner? Or is everyone just fending for themselves?”

Andrea said, “You know what? I’m not even going to answer that.”

Steve opened the fridge and gazed inside. Finally, he took out the remains of Nate’s birthday cake and cut himself an enormous slice. You don’t need that.

It was strange, hearing your mother-in-law like a Greek chorus, in the kitchen. Weird, tragic, gothic, which didn’t match their sixties split-level, but there she was.

There had been a time when Jeanne regularly brought Andrea to tears. Then Steve would say, The truth is, my mom is a good person, but she has no filter. And Andrea would say, She hates me. And Steve would say, No! How could anybody hate you? These were their actual conversations. Now Andrea stood in the kitchen doorway, and Jeanne hovered at her shoulder. Bad habit, guilty pleasure, good without a filter.

Meanwhile, Steve ate the cake, with its thick slab of buttercream. “Where’s Nate?”

Andrea glanced down at the tiled entryway. His cleats were lying by the door, but his sneakers were missing, which meant he was with Mackenzie, his girlfriend. And what were they doing? Not college applications. Yes, while Andrea built spreadsheets and schedules with some of Nate’s classmates, he rejected such prosaic methods. He had joy to spare, and very little sense of time. His parents worried, disapproved, and envied him.

“Wasn’t he supposed to be here after practice?” Steve said.

“I don’t know. I’ve been working.”

“Well, so have I.” Steve carried his plate to the kitchen counter. (No one but Andrea ever opened the dishwasher.) “You should talk to him.”

“I tried!”

Steve could have answered this. He could have said, Why are you shouting? But he was beyond bickering. He sank down on the couch in the living room and closed his eyes, because if exhaustion were a competition he would win. Andrea got to set her own hours, while he sifted ashes nine to six at Hillier-Nelson, where scarcely anyone remained and Steve awaited termination. He was the working dead, his projects cancelled, his assistant fired. He had nothing left—not even survivor’s guilt. At one time, he had acquired books. “Composition Across the Curriculum.” “Writing for Everyone.” As a senior editor, he had shepherded each manuscript to publication. Now he thought only of his severance package. No, that wasn’t true. He mourned his house—once proud, once famous—merging, swelling, and then collapsing like a dying star, retrenching to the backlist, selling dead authors, then giving up entirely on print editions.

Eyes closing, he dreamed lightly of new titles. “Research Across the Universe.” “Writing Without Readers.” He saw paper and black print and poetry, his first love, the yellow wood he had forsaken.

The room chilled; the windy night rushed in. Steve started up. “Nate.”

“What?” His son was already bounding up the stairs. He was always bounding, jumping, hair flopping in his face.

“What day is it?”

“Thursday,” Nate said.

“No, tell me the date.”

“October.”

“It’s October the eleventh,” Steve informed his son.

“O.K.” Nate smiled, gracious and a little condescending, as if to say, I’m not gonna argue.

“So, when are you going to work with Mom on applications?” Nate didn’t answer, because, of course, he had no intention of working with his mom on anything. Other people paid good money for her services. Parents and students testified to Andrea’s insight, her compassionate approach. No way did Nate want any part of that. He didn’t know he needed an edge. He had good grades, great scores, and he was a pretty decent athlete, but he had won no prizes; nobody was scouting him. Obviously, he needed all the help that he could get. “Just use your common sense,” Steve said. Unfortunately, Nate did not have any. He was applying to Brown on November 1st, and he had not started his essays—or so he said. Secretly, Steve hoped his son was going it alone, crafting a brilliant piece of writing. Nate cultivated a careless look, but he was more thoughtful than he appeared. This was what Steve had always told his own mother.

Jeanne never disputed the point. She just said, “He should play an instrument.” As a violinist, Jeanne saw music as a sign of character as well as competence. Steve had labored at the piano all his childhood, practicing alone, then with his brother, who had it even worse, sawing his small, gloomy cello. Beethoven should have been their birthright, except that they had no talent or motivation. It was a great day when their father announced that they could stop, indeed that they should stop playing, for the good of everyone around them. Jeanne had never entirely forgiven him for that, just as her sons had never entirely forgiven her for forcing lessons on them all those years. Steve refused to repeat the experiment, and his sons grew up happy to a fault. Zach was now at Rutgers, mostly playing rugby. Nate, who really was quite bright, was gliding through the end of high school, last-minuting every assignment.

“You have to start,” Andrea told Nate the next morning. “You have to put some time in. You can’t just close your eyes and say, ‘I’m gonna get into Brown.’ ”

“You have an in-house college counsellor,” Steve added, but Nate was rushing, gathering his stuff for school. Notebook, laptop, graphing calculator.

When Andrea said, “You’re just leaving your bowl on the table?,” he clattered cereal bowl and spoon into the sink. “Don’t break it!” she snapped as he ran down the stairs and out the door.

Then Steve told Andrea, “You don’t have to yell.”

She said, “That wasn’t me. It was your mother.”

Andrea had to make a conscious effort to block Jeanne’s voice, because she could not speak that way. She was not so old, or so angry, or so bitter. Nevertheless, Jeanne tempted her.

A student named Jonah came to her that afternoon, and at one point he said, “I’m not going to get in anywhere.”

Andrea whipped off her reading glasses. “We will build a list of schools that are right for you!” Of course there was a school for everybody, even the worst student. There was absolutely a college out there. A lid for every pot, Jeanne whispered.

Too cynical. Too true. This is not who I am, Andrea told her mother-in-law. I never even liked you. Yes, I know, she heard Jeanne answer. Sometimes Andrea hummed to drown Jeanne out, but it was difficult. She felt haunted, although she did not believe in ghosts. Jeanne said, I don’t, either.

On November 1st, Andrea made a supreme effort. When she saw Steve digging into the leftover Halloween candy, she did not say a thing. When Nate skipped school to write his application, she did not say, Oh, now you’re trying to do it all on the last day? Her clients had already submitted. They had completed the process a week ago. Meanwhile, her son holed up in his room.

Andrea stood outside his door and begged to help—but he would not relent. Hours passed, and she could hear Nate typing. Half a day, and she worked down in her office. Leave him alone, she told herself. No more pleading or berating. All she did was slip her Essay Guidelines under Nate’s door. This was a two-page handout that included TOPICS TO AVOID:

1. Death of pet
2. Divorce of parents
3. Sports injury
4. Drugs, alcohol, mental health, cancer
5. Challenge you have overcome, if it’s one of the above

Actually, Andrea steered her students away from writing about challenges of any kind. Asian, Jewish, and just plain white, her kids had real troubles, but they were not homeless, stateless, or first-gen anything. They had not walked across Sudan to freedom, or escaped the killing fields, or lived as refugees. Some had parents or grandparents who had done these things. Nate’s own grandfather had been a Holocaust survivor who had rebuilt his life, working his way through college and then law school—but, to state the obvious, Zeyde was not the one applying. (Andrea’s sixth topic to avoid was “Impressive relatives.”) Demographically, a kid like Nate just couldn’t win. All he could do was write with wit, humility, and self-knowledge, and hope that someone would take a second look at him.

At dinnertime, Nate emerged to refuel in the kitchen. He toasted two bagels and smothered them with cream cheese, which melted through the holes.

“How are you doing?” Andrea asked, as he licked his fingers. “Do you want me to look?”

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