All this was familiar: the dull linoleum floor; the years of dust in the corners; the motes in the air. On a window high in the opposite wall someone had pasted a white paper bird, wings spread. Beyond the bird a cumulous cloud drifted past. Moments later, another appeared and followed the first. All morning she would look up through the window and see another cloud in the procession.
She sat at the old wood table, its edges and corners worn, with her inquisitors around it; herself, and the five of them. From her left, Bruckner, Cornish, Lemieux, Montalvo, and Warner. They were in alphabetical order, probably a coincidence. She knew them all. She knew, approximately, what they would ask, most of it irrelevant. Bruckner would pose preening questions, and pass her if she took him seriously. Warner, the only woman, and a feminist, would pass her. Lemieux, her adviser, not quite tenured yet, would do what he could to help her, but without rocking anyone's boat. Cornish and Montalvo were going to be difficult.
The questions were a way for her examiners to show that they were prepared, and to know that she had prepared, though by now she was the authority on the economics and politics of coffee in Central America. They expected her to take this procedure seriously. They were a club, and this was her entrance exam, a ritual, and her Quaker upbringing had left her unable to understand ritual.
Her stomach fluttered. She never did well when nervous. The only way she'd ever found to stay calm was to over-prepare. She hadn't studied enough.
Bruckner opened: "It seems to me that you've concentrated more on the politics of coffee here than the economics. You refer to Moore and his notion of a 'bourgeois revolution', which seems neo-Marxist, or, really, revisionist. But the title of your work implies that the subject is coffee as a force for egalitarianism. Have you considered Torres-Rivas' idea that the Isthmian elites are both agricultural and industrial?"
Was there a question somewhere in that question? "Yes. I quote Torres-Rivas on page -- " Ada flipped through the copy in front of her, "Page eighty-three. I agree with him. I quoted Moore because -- I quoted him because I think he's right. There are elites. Torres-Rivas is right, too." Bad answer, because as muddled as the question, and incomplete to boot . Worse, the expression on Bruckner's face revealed that he felt shown up: he'd missed the reference to Torres-Rivas. Strike one.
Lemieux tried to smooth things over with a question of elaboration, asking her to explain the difference between Moore and Torres-Rivas. When she botched the answer again, he changed tack: "How does the fluctuation in coffee prices affect the relations between the elite and the small growers?"
Ada suppressed a sigh. This would be a long morning. A morning when, as usual, she had skipped breakfast, but should have eaten, knowing that lunch would be late. Now she needed to go to the bathroom, too, but it was too soon to ask. None of them had ever been pregnant, and they wouldn't understand the brevity between her trips to the ladies'. Best to hold it a while.
Her answers improved as the questioning continued. She was finally getting her focus, maybe even enough to make up for her early mistakes. Cornish asked only one question, an easy one. Montalvo grilled her without mercy. And Bruckner recovered with several more show-off questions. Ada thought she might actually squeak by. Around mid-day they asked her to wait outside for a little while. "A little while" turned out to be an hour, so the decision was going to be close.
They called her in and suggested that she revise a few sections of the dissertation. "It wouldn't take much effort", Lemieux said. "You're very close to having a defensible work. We've written down our suggestions. A few months more -- "
She said, "No, thank you." One Ph.D. was enough. Ostentation wasn't her style. "I don't think I can finish it before the baby comes, and then I'll be busy." She wished she had a camera for the expression on Warner's face.
Montalvo cleared his throat and opened his mouth, then shut it again. He glanced at Lemieux, who was carefully looking at nothing. Ada smiled at Warner, whose face went blank.
When no one spoke, and seemed inclined not to, she stood, and turned, and walked out. She was relieved not to have to defend her decision to quit, in addition to defending that silly dissertation. In the hall she laughed. It was over, and she didn't have to work on that nonsense any more. What a waste of time and effort. She didn't care: she didn't have to meet anyone's expectations, not even her own. She'd done with this.
She wanted to dance down the hall singing nonsense. This was a new experience, interesting, even. She'd never quit before. What had possessed her to go through this Saharan slog a second time? Boredom, lack of imagination, force of habit, or simply nothing better to do?
Lemieux caught up to her on the steps outside. "You embarrassed me. Not to mention yourself. Are you throwing all your work away?"
"Yes. I have something else to do. I'm through with school."
"Well, then," he said. "You forgot this. You might as well keep it. As a souvenir." He handed her the dissertation. "I don't blame you. I was tempted to do the same when I defended mine."
"Thank you. You've been very kind to me. I'm sorry to have disappointed you." She was relieved; she hadn't expected him to give her up so easily.
"You were a great student, but I knew your heart wasn't in it. I expected you to quit sooner."
The drive home, at least the part through the Flint Hills, was a delight. She was tempted to stop the car, get out, and walk the hills, but they were burning off the prairie. Her first doctorate had been on native prairie grasses. The research had been fun. The difference between that effort and this second one was like the difference between a story and a magic trick: one was simple enjoyment; with the other, her pleasure was spoiled by the knowledge of fakery.
Owen wasn't home when she arrived, and she couldn't locate him by phone. He was probably at a site, wrestling with the never-ending problems of his building projects, or else at a meeting with a client. She headed for Sarah's and watched her friend take photographs for two hours. It was boring and calming.
"There," Sarah said when her last appointment had gone. "Would you like some coffee?"
"That's funny. No. Not today."
"What happened? Did you pass?"
"I wasn't prepared."
"How do you feel?"
"Complicated. I'm not sure what to tell Owen. He so wanted me to get that second doctorate. But I never cared. It doesn't bother me that I failed, it bothers me that it doesn't bother me. I don't know what to do next."
"Take it easy. Get ready for the baby."
"I've never taken it easy. I don't know how. But there's no time for a job. It wouldn't be honest to take one, then quit. Besides, I'm showing. If I apply anywhere, they'll say 'We found a more qualified candidate'."
"Than you?" Sarah snorted, then patted Ada's belly. "Do you know the sex yet?"
"No. Owen wants a boy, but I want to be surprised. If he knows the sex, he's hiding it. But he's good at hiding things."
"Why did you marry him, anyway?"
Ada raised a brow, thinking that Sarah's past was showing. She'd have to dig out the story of Sarah and Owen someday, though she knew that doing so would be to let her curiosity get the better of her common sense. "I wanted children. He was the only candidate. Marriage is like a business deal. You trade what you have for what they want, and vice versa. Owen's a very good negotiator and he wore me down. I was tired and alone and lonely and he wore me down. It looked like the best deal, the only deal I was going to get."
"That doesn't sound like you."
"No? I wanted children. I don't believe in that single-motherhood nonsense. What was I to do? Then I didn't think I could get pregnant. I've been trying for years." She glanced sideways at her friend. "I went off the pill but I never told him. Isn't that terrible? To conceal such a thing? But he agreed to the children, and then he tried to back out. Or at least procrastinate. Then it took years to conceive. I tried measuring my temperature, having sex in strange positions. Nothing worked."
"Does he want the child?"
"Oh, yes. He has the strangest obsession about carrying on the family name. I've never understood it. But the child will be good for him. For us. I think it will make our marriage stronger. Otherwise, he'll start spending all his time at work again, and then have another affair. He knows how to love, he needs to love, but he forgets, unless it's right in front of him. The child will be there, reminding him."
"Are you happy?"
"Happy?" She hesitated. "I never think about that. I suppose I should be. I have a house, a family." She rested her hand on her stomach. "Food and clothing. I'm very grateful. Happiness? I don't know... I do know that you get from people what you give them. Owen loved me so much I had to love him in return. We have a bond. Things we've shared through the years. Domesticity. A hearth. Shared hearts."
"Come on. I'll buy you some new clothes. Clothes for after the baby comes. Something so you can look forward to having your body back again. Then we can go to that new restaurant. The Japanese place."
"What about... We rent some trashy movies eat pizza and make fun of the dialog."
"Impostor. What have you done with my friend Ada?"
"You found me out. I'm doppelganger Ada." She shrugged with her face. "I don't feel like going anywhere. What did you say? 'Take it easy'?"
Sarah picked up her keys. "I'll go get the movies."
"I'll order the pizza." Ada picked up the phone. She would leave a message for her husband, too, so he wouldn't worry.
"What kind of movies?"
"Blaxploitation," Ada said, "and a bad Japanese science fiction movie."
"You do surprise me. Really. I think you're adapting."
"It's high time. I've been trying for years. Even longer than
trying for the baby."