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       What Now?, p.1

           Ann Patchett
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What Now?

  A n n P a t c h e t t

  W h a t

  n o w ?

  D e s i g n e d b y C h i p K i d d


  Begin Reading 1

  Postscript 84

  Photo Credits 100

  About the Author

  Other Books by Ann Patchett




  About the Publisher

  W h a t

  n o w ?

  t o A l l a n G u r g a n u s a n d A l i c e S t o n e I l c h m a n :

  Fr i e n d s , t e a c h e r s , r o l e m o d e l s

  W h a t

  n o w ?

  If all fairy tales begin “Once upon a time,”

  then all graduation speeches begin “When I

  was sitting where you are now.” We may not

  always say it, at least not in those exact words, but it’s what graduation speakers are thinking. We look out at the sea of you and think, Isn’t there some mistake? I should still be

  sitting there. I was that young fifteen min-

  utes ago, I was that beautiful and lost. For me this feeling is compounded by the fact that

  Sarah Lawrence was my own alma mater. I


  look out at all these chairs lined up across Westlands lawn and I think, I slept on that

  lawn, I breathed that wisteria. I batted away those very same bees, or at least I batted away their progenitors. Time has a funny way of

  collapsing when you go back to a place you

  once loved. You find yourself thinking, I was kissed in that building, I climbed up that

  tree. This place hasn’t changed so terribly

  much, and so by an extension of logic I must

  not have changed much, either.

  But I have.

  That’s why I’m the graduation speaker.

  Think of me as Darwin sailing home on the

  Beagle. I went forth in the world just the way you are about to go forth, and I gathered up

  all the wondrous things I’ve seen; now I’ve

  brought them back to you. As the graduation

  speaker I’m the one with the wisdom, or at


  least that’s the assumption, but you as the graduates have something even better: you

  have youth, which, especially when you mul-

  tiply it by several hundred, is a thing so

  fulgent it all but knocks the breath out of

  those of us who are up on the stage. I’d like to tell you to appreciate your youth, to stop and admire your own health and intelligence, but

  every writer has a cliché quota and I used up mine by saying, When I was sitting where you

  are now.

  ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

  When you leave this place, as you will

  in a couple of hours, be sure to come back.

  Coming back is the thing that enables you to

  see how all the dots in your life are con-

  nected, how one decision leads you to

  another, how one twist of fate, good or bad,


  brings you to a door that later takes you to another door, which, aided by several detours—

  long hallways and unforeseen stairwells—

  eventually puts you in the place you are now.

  Every choice lays down a trail of bread

  crumbs, so that when you look behind you

  there appears to be a very clear path that

  points straight to the place where you now

  stand. But when you look ahead there isn’t a

  bread crumb in sight—there are just a few

  shrubs, a bunch of trees, a handful of skittish woodland creatures. You glance from left to

  right and find no indication of which way

  you’re supposed to go. And so you stand

  there, sniffing at the wind, looking for direc-tional clues in the growth patterns of moss,

  and you think, What now?

  ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?


  The first time I reached that particular

  impasse in my life I was in high school, and

  the burning question concerning my future

  was where I was going to college. Every day I stood at the window watching for the mailman, and as soon as he had driven safely away (for some reason I thought it was important

  to conceal my eagerness from the mailman) I


  would dart out to the box and search for the documents that would determine my fate

  amongst the grocery store coupons, utility

  bills, and promotional fliers. But not a single envelope bore my name. It seemed in those

  days the world only had one question for me,

  and it was not, How are you feeling? or What

  is the state of your soul? or What is it you

  want from life? No, the only thing anyone

  asked me back then was, Where are you going

  to college? Everywhere I went I felt as if I

  were being hounded by my own Greek cho-

  rus, and even though all those people hound-

  ing me quite possibly had good intentions

  and were genuinely interested in my future,

  after a while the questions started to feel like nothing more than a relentless interroga-tion: a dark room, a single chair, a blinding light in my eyes. “I don’t KNOW!” I wanted to 6

  scream. “I don’t KNOW where I’m going to college!” What if I didn’t get accepted anywhere? Didn’t they ever think about that?

  What if I had to live at home forever and find a job waiting tables and never got the education I needed to be a writer? If the people

  who questioned me had any notion of the

  depth and the darkness of my fears, I doubt

  they would have had the temerity to ask me

  anything at all.

  But thanks to the natural order of the

  universe, for better or for worse, everything eventually changes. One beautiful afternoon

  the mailman drove off and I ran out to the box and there it was, my entire future in one slim envelope. I ripped into it right there on the lawn and read the contents again and again

  until I had it committed to memory. I was

  going to college. In that instant everything in 7

  my world was different because I had an answer for the inevitable question. In a funny way that was even more meaningful than the

  acceptance itself. When the aunt and the

  dentist and the best friend’s mother asked

  me where I was going, I could reply with a

  level of nonchalance that made it seem there

  was never any doubt, “College? Why, I’m

  going to Sarah Lawrence.”

  ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

  Oh, I was set. My sense of time was so

  underdeveloped that four years sounded like

  a glorious eternity. I had gotten into the

  school that I wanted to go to and I would stay there and never have to worry about the

  future again. Finally I arrived on campus and lugged my suitcases up the stairs of the


  dreamy little house that was my dorm, put my toothbrush in my assigned toothbrush slot,

  and unpacked. I knew I wanted to be a writer

  and so I thought it best to make myself well-

  rounded, since that’s what a writer had to

  be. I flipped through the course catalog and

  tried to choose between marine biology

  and comparative religion and printmaking

  and economics and Shakespeare. There were

  so many possibilities that I felt dizzy—what
if I picked the wrong one? What if I missed out

  on the thing I needed the most just because I didn’t know I needed it? Back then I thought

  that a person’s education was defined by

  majors and minors, and that classes set down

  a map that would guide the rest of my life. If I took the wrong turn now would I feel the

  repercussions twenty years down the road?

  How in the world was I qualified to make the


  decisions that would shape my future? I had thought so much about getting into college

  that I didn’t ever stop to consider what col-

  lege might be like. All I wanted was to be able to hand the catalog over to my mother and

  ask her, What now?

  ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

  I was seventeen and a long way from

  home, having come to New York from Ten-

  nessee. There is no way to overstate the fact that all I was in those days was terribly, terribly lonely. I don’t even know if that particular brand of loneliness exists anymore, though I

  suspect that new kinds have sprung up to take its place. There was no e-mail, and in those

  happy, bygone days only doctors and drug

  dealers carried cell phones. There was a pay

  1 0

  phone downstairs, but it was prohibitively expensive, and anyway, there was always

  somebody parked on it, usually the beautiful

  girl from Caracas. We called her the Venezue-

  lan Princess, and she had enough money to

  talk to her family in South America for hours on end. I went back upstairs with my little

  sack of quarters and wrote as many letters as I had stamps. I wrote to my parents, my

  grandmother, and sister. I wrote to all my

  far-flung girlfriends from high school, but

  the letters couldn’t get to their destinations fast enough for my sadness to be heard. Ulti-mately this exercise proved as instructive to me as any writing class, since this is where I learned how to transfer the contents of my

  heart onto a piece of paper. Each letter

  expressed a different aspect of my circum-

  stances, as each was tailored to its particular 1 1

  reader, but none of them made me feel any better. Writing is good for many things, but

  curing loneliness isn’t one of them. From my

  room I heard the voices of the other fresh-

  men who laughed and talked as if they had all been inseparable since Montessori. There

  was a river full of life rushing right past my door and I didn’t have a single clue about how I might jump in.

  ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

  In the end I did the only thing I knew

  how to do, the thing they always taught us to do in Catholic school: I did unto others. If you want someone to be nice to you, you must be

  nice to someone else, and since I really knew only one person—my newly assigned adviser

  Chet Biscardi, who had shown me great

  1 4

  kindness in our first meeting—I decided I would bake him a batch of cookies. If it

  sounds hokey then you can rest assured that’s because I was one seriously hokey kid. I

  walked into town and carried back sacks of

  flour and sugar and eggs. I bought pans, a

  measuring cup, a spatula. Because I was on

  every level starting from scratch those cook-

  ies were destined to be the most expensive in history. I mixed up the batter in the little

  kitchen downstairs in the dorm, beat in the

  chips and buttered the pans. I set the oven for 350 and waited for it to heat up. I waited.

  After a suspiciously long time I stuck my

  hand in and then, feeling a chill, touched the racks. Two pans of raw cookie dough neatly

  arranged into balls wouldn’t have been bad

  eating but they would have made a very poor

  gift. I sat there for a minute feeling hopeless, 1 5

  but then decided I couldn’t, since the cookies were meant to cure my hopelessness. I

  picked up the sheets, fixed the bowl of extra dough beneath one arm, and went outside.

  Next door was another dorm with no doubt

  equally pathetic appliances, but across the

  street was a fine-looking house. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say it was a

  mansion. It was the kind of house one could

  be certain would have, at the very minimum,

  one working oven. I was a shy person, but at

  that moment I was on the edge. I needed a

  heating element. And so I marched ahead

  and, using one corner of a pan, knocked on

  the door.

  ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

  1 6

  Alice Ilchman often told this story

  herself, how during her first week as the new president, still waist-deep in boxes and settling into her house, she opened her front

  door to find a freshman holding two trays of

  unbaked cookies. She paused for a minute,

  wondering if this was some sort of tradition

  about which no one had informed her, and

  1 7

  then she led me back to the kitchen and told me to make myself at home, the most beautiful words that anyone had spoken to me for

  days. In the time it took the cookies to bake and cool, I met her children and played with

  her dog. And maybe because I wrote a thank-

  you note on a paper towel and left it on the

  table with some cookies, I was invited back to babysit for Alice’s daughter, Sarah, and since I proved to be a reliable babysitter, I was also asked back to serve at dinner parties, and

  then to cook at dinner parties. After all, I

  clearly knew how to cook.

  1 8

  Had I been the most cunning freshman in the history of higher education, I

  doubt I could have come up with a plan that

  would have gotten me the very thing I longed

  for, which was less an oven and more a family to take me in. I never would have had the

  words to ask for something as large as that.

  Sometimes the circumstances at hand force

  us to be braver than we actually are, and so we knock on doors and ask for assistance.

  Sometimes not having any idea where we’re

  going works out better than we could possi-

  bly have imagined.

  ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

  And sometimes, we don’t realize what

  we’ve learned until we’ve already known it for a very long time. As much as I came to love

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  Alice and her daughter and their dog, I loved that house. On the nights that I was babysitting, I would wait until Sarah fell asleep and then I would study the paintings in halls, the leaded glass windows, the heavy sweeping

  staircase that poured into the foyer, the slender servants’ staircase that climbed straight up from the kitchen. I spent a lot of time in the china closet because up until I was

  invited into that house I never knew such

  a thing existed—a dozen different sets of

  china in multiples of twelve, every cup hang-

  ing from a tiny gold hook. It was fifteen years later that I needed a mansion in which to

  stage a hostage takeover in a South American

  country, that I needed a grand piano and

  two staircases and, most importantly, a china closet for the characters of my novel to

  conduct their secret trysts, and thanks to a

  2 1

  broken oven, I had it all there, filed away in my memory.

  ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

  It was for me the start of a lesson that I

  never stop having to learn: to pay attention to the things I’ll probably never need t
o know,

  to listen carefully to the people who look as if they have nothing to teach me, to see school

  as something that goes on everywhere, all the time, not just in libraries but in parking lots, in airports, in trees. One of the greatest

  lessons of my college education came in my

  junior year when I was lost in Chicago’s

  O’Hare airport. The airports of today bear

  no resemblance to the airports of twenty

  years ago, even the ones that are still in the same buildings. I think it would be almost

  2 2

  impossible to get lost in an airport now, since you aren’t allowed to go into any area for

  which you are not specifically ticketed. There was a time when people not only walked their

  loved ones to the gate but walked them onto

  the plane and sat beside them until it was

  time to take off. It was not uncommon for

  people to wander onto the wrong flights and

  fly to the wrong cities because no one was

  very diligent about checking tickets. I can

  remember many times when the flight atten-

  dant would close up the door to the plane and say, “We’re going to Dallas” and someone

  would pop up from their seat and say, “What

  do you mean, Dallas?” Of course, this was not what had happened to me. I had gotten lost

  long before I ever made it to a plane. I was

  still trying to find the right terminal. I walked back and forth with my heavy bag, sure I was

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  going to be late. I looked at my ticket. I looked at the signs. I walked back and forth some

  more. Finally, a young man came up to me

  and asked the question that anyone who was

  watching would have known the answer to.

  “Are you lost?”

  ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?

  He was handsome, with straight, streaky blond hair and a tan. He was maybe

  five years older than my twenty-year-old

  self. He had a handful of brochures, a nice

  smile. I told him I was probably only mis-


  He looked at my ticket and confirmed

  that I was a long way away from where I

  needed to be. “I know the airport,” he said.

  “I’ll take you there.”

  “But then you’ll be late for your

  flight.” I was sorry to point this out, seeing as how I was not the kind of girl who was

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