Read Higher Education Online

Authors: Lisa Pliscou

Higher Education

Praise for
Higher Education

“Pliscou has managed here to bring to life a particular segment of a generation, with all its vapidities and flaws and spoilage, and yet has never stooped to any kind of dime-store nihilism about them or their world.… Plus some of the funniest dialogue I've read in a long time—both painfully real and funny, which is quite an authorial coup.” —David Foster Wallace

“In a neat trick, this amusing, breezy novel about a Harvard senior manages to convey the typical concerns of a college student.… A deft coming-of-age story.” —
Booklist

“Lisa Pliscou's sharp, funny, moving novel is a reminder that the most important lessons never take place in a classroom. This is an honest look at the beginning of life without a net, and it rings true on every page.” —Amy Garvey, author of
Cold Kiss

“Pliscou's dialogue, which makes up the bulk of the novel, is eerily perfect. She seems to have the things uniquely odd and endearing about college students—their carefully orchestrated combinations of intelligence and ignorance, jadedness and naiveté, passion and indifference—wholly within her understanding. It makes her writing seem less like a book and more like a story told among friends about a shared experience.” —
The Bowdoin Orient

“A brilliant time capsule from the 80s,
Higher Education
takes readers on breakneck tour through ten days in the vertiginous life of a Harvard senior, Miranda Walker, and the result is hilarious, whip-smart, and maybe just a little bit sad. It's a perfect depiction of the end of college, when life feels like a sinking ship. Luckily for us, Miranda isn't going down quietly.” —Tara Altebrando, author of
Dreamland Social Club
and
Roomies

“An engaging first novel that summons up the feel of campus life … An effective evocation of time and place by a promising, natural talent.” —
Kirkus Reviews

“I nothing less than love this book. Lisa Pliscou knows maybe everything about private dialogues, and about students—cagey, self-effacing, demure, compulsive, secretly honest. No other author could be so smooth with such complicated, authentic characters. She is a wit, a thrilling intellect, a pleasure.” —Mary Robison, author of
One DOA, One on the Way
and
Tell Me

“The author exactly captures the malaise, the suppressed anxiety about the future and the contrary enjoyment of life that characterize the contemporary collegian.” —
Publishers Weekly

“A highly energetic and original voice in fiction.… Most of the protagonists are too clever for their own good, too witty, too beautiful, too invulnerable to a world they haven't yet encountered. Miranda Walker may have the slickest veneer of all, but the beauty of Lisa Pliscou's first novel is that she sees that perfect image crack. This is the story of a generation that knows more about posturing than about living, by a writer who is acute enough to see the difference.… She has an ear, and she has a vision.” —
Loot

“Wonderful … I don't know when I have enjoyed a book more. I expected it to be bright and sharp and funny, but it far exceeded my expectations. Pliscou's characters walk off the pages—even the minor ones—and Miranda is an absolute tour de force.” —Betsy Byars

Higher Education

A Novel

Lisa Pliscou

Contents

Dedication

1. Wednesday

2. Thursday

3. Friday

4. Saturday

5. Sunday

6. Monday

7. Tuesday

8. Wednesday

9. Thursday

10. Friday

Afterword

About the Author

Acknowledgments

For Richard Marius

In memorium

Cambridge, Massachusetts
Spring 1982

1

WEDNESDAY

Dear god.

I see my roommate from freshman year approaching through the Wigglesworth archway off Mass Ave. Her breasts seem larger than ever, and as she walks toward me her chest sways formidably. Left, right. Left, right.

Flooded by dread, I consider diverting left and up the steps toward Lamont, or veering a trickier right toward the language labs and slipping into the lounge where I can hide behind an Italian edition of
Vogue
for a few minutes. In the meantime I make my eyes go as blank as possible, trying to look preoccupied, if not totally oblivious. Contemplating Proust, perhaps. Lost to the world. Possibly stoned.

But it is too late. Jeanne has seen me, and I have no choice but to continue moving in a straight line, clutching my notebook and paperback Roget's a little more tightly to my own meager bosom.


Buon giorno
, Miranda!” Her voice as ever is vibrant and lively. “
Comment ça va, chérie
?”

“Hey, Jeanne.” Even with my habitual slouch I'm still a good half-foot taller than she is. “How's everything?”

“Oh, I can't complain.” She beams up at me through a fuzzy mass of dark erratic curls.

“Great.” I nod. “So what's new?”

“Well,” she says brightly, and I brace myself. “Carl and I are running the model U.N. this year, and I'm still taking jazz dance classes up at South House twice a week. Plus I'm having my thesis typed for me, which means I have to keep running every five minutes to the typist's to proofread. And of course I'm getting ready for my internship in Washington next year—”

There's something I want to do tonight, but I can't seem to recall what it is. Arching an eyebrow, I cast about in my mind for a sense of impending pleasure, discomfort, or boredom. Tracking down reserve readings for Soc Sci 33? Carrying my dirty socks down five flights of stairs to the laundry room? Hanging out in Tommy's Lunch improving my Defender score?

“—and Carl keeps begging me to spend the summer with him in Greece—”

A synapse twitches and now I remember: I'm supposed to call Dean tonight, to confirm a date hastily arranged this afternoon while his girlfriend dallied behind in the lunch line.

“—and I was going to have dinner at Adams House, but then I remembered that it's Oxfam night so there's no interhouse.”

“Oxfam night?” I test myself to see if I know Dean's number by heart.
4-9-8—

“You know, skipping a meal for world hunger. Harvard Students for Oxfam, remember?” Jeanne eyes me sternly. “The proceeds go to needy third-world children.”

“Oh, yeah. Right.” Suddenly I realize that I'm ravenous. The two blocks to the dining hall seem to stretch ahead like miles.

“You signed up, didn't you?”

“Well, actually—” My stomach rumbles, and I slide my notebook and Roget's down over my abdomen. “A whole bunch of us are having a picnic out by the Charles.”

“At six o'clock at night?”

“Kind of romantic, don't you think?” I give her a crooked half-smile. “Want to come?”

“That's okay. I stopped over at the Lowell House tea for a quick bite.”

“You're a fan of the cucumber sandwiches, aren't you?”

“What a memory you have.” She laughs. “Homemade baklava,
chérie
. And the pâté—well, you know me and pâté.”

Fat cow
. “Sounds kind of boring.”

“Boring?” Her breasts are still jiggling merrily. “Even the cucumber sandwiches?”

“Especially the cucumber sandwiches.”

“You funny old Val Gal. Still into yogurt and granola, eh?”

4-9-8-3-7—
“What?”

“Of course you are. You're still the same old beanpole.”

“Fer sure,” I say amiably, wondering if she's still squeezing her pimples and leaving neat little apostrophes of pus on the bathroom mirror.

“I know there's so much to catch up on, kiddo, but there's a Democratic Club meeting over in Emerson, and I'm afraid I've got to run.”

Try waddle
. “Well, it was nice seeing you again.”

“Why don't we get together for lunch sometime?”

“Sure. And thanks for reminding me about Oxfam.”


Pas de problème
, sweetie.” Flashing a sunny smile, Jeanne motors off, readjusting her enormous green backpack over her shoulder.

“Yeah,
ciao
,” I call, making a grotesque Lucky Jim face at her briskly retreating back.

Walking down Plympton Street I come to the
Crimson
building, its balcony draped with a big white bedsheet spray-painted in spidery neon-orange letters:
STOP APARTHEID NOW
. Beneath the banner, on the steps leading into the building, six juniors from Leverett House are grasping each other's shoulders and doing precision Rockette kicks to the accompaniment of a ghetto blaster playing “Life Is a Cabaret” at full volume.

Then I pass on. This being mid-April, it's Fools Week at the Lampoon, during which newly inducted members are made to perform a number of eccentric public acts, many of which entail partial nudity and strange hats. Or, in this case, a cancan on the Crimson steps. God only knows what they do in the privacy of their own domain. I've never much liked their magazine, although I must admit I've chuckled at their literary parodies from time to time.

As usual the door to Adams House is locked. Through the grimy barred window I look at Kurt the superintendent in his office, tipped back in his chair with his feet up on the desk, reading a magazine. His steel-gray hair, parted straight down the middle of his scalp, shines dully in the brutal fluorescent light. Squinting, I see he's staring down at an old issue of
Newsweek
. I'd bet a sum equivalent to the proceeds from Oxfam night that there's a copy of
Playboy
tucked inside.

Too lazy to dig out my keys from my bag, I ring the bell and show my teeth in a huge grin. Kurt looks up from Miss April and scrutinizes me through the ironwork. Am I a terrorist bent on blowing up the Adams House library, perhaps, or a foolhardy resident of Quincy House attempting interhouse on Oxfam night? He narrows his eyes, which makes them look even smaller and flintier, and with snail-like deliberation he moves his hand the ten inches it takes to press the buzzer to let me in.

My smile widens, if such a thing is possible, and lightly I pull open the door. This of course is Kurt's retaliation for the fact that every winter, regardless of which section of Adams House I happen to be living in, I nag him ceaselessly about the inadequate heating in my room, running downstairs to pound on his office door as many as six times in one day, a record set my junior year that I believe is still unsurpassed. When Kurt is sufficiently exasperated by my shrill-voiced complaints, he calls up Buildings and Grounds to send over someone from Maintenance. When the B & G man finally arrives, he kicks the radiator a few times, scattering gray slush all over the floor, and curses the superintendent for making him leave his office on such a bitterly cold day. Nodding and waving my arms, I commiserate with him, viciously egging him on, and then he stumps downstairs to harass Kurt, who in turn refuses to give me the standard double apportionment of toilet paper, limiting my dispensation to a single roll per request. Usually I end up stealing four or five rolls at a time from the ladies' room in Mem Hall, thereby avoiding another vitriolic exchange with Kurt, who probably thinks I've stopped going to the bathroom entirely.

Humming, I stop at the C-entry mailboxes and dial the C-45 combination. There's a letter for Jessica from her parents in a fat embossed Yale University envelope, bills from the Coop, an invitation to the Spee Club's annual pajama party, a “Return in 5 Days To” envelope from my mother, and a pink form letter from the Women's Clearinghouse inviting me to a forum on Date Rape, Refreshments Provided.

Dear Mira,

We got the news about Phi Beta Kappa. Your father says it's all paternal genes, ha ha. We went deep sea fishing in Ensenada last weekend with the Taggarts. The weather was fantastic. Have you heard from Columbia yet about graduate school?

I look up from the letter, tilting my head. Very faintly, I think I hear a baby crying.

For a moment I picture my parents out on the open sea, fishing rods in one hand and long-necked Coronas in the other, laughing at one of Eddie Taggart's incessant scatological jokes. “Mr. and Mrs. Sea and Ski,” I mutter, crumpling my mother's note into a little ball and tossing it into the nearest receptacle, which happens to be the exposed case of the Gold Room's grand piano.

“Two points,” a voice drawls. I turn to see Jackson stretched out on the burgundy leather sofa by the fireplace, a cigarette in one pale slender hand. “Your aim's superb as always, Randa.” He smiles at me through a blue veil of smoke. “But don't you think you could find a more appropriate place for your garbage?”

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