“O Solitude!” Janet muttered to herself, taking notes with her right hand and turning the page with her left hand. “If I must with thee dwell Let it not be among the jumbled heap Of murky buildings—”
The phone rang.
Sighing, she finished her sentence, set down the pen, stretched her hands, and picked up the phone. “Mom?”
“How did you know it was me?”
“Thomas is at work, and you’re the only other person who calls me on the telephone.”
“Your friends never call you?”
“Danny, Molly, and Tina all write. Nobody else has any interest anymore.” The latter was mostly because Nick and all the others had gone back under their hill, or wherever it was they went. Her mother knew perfectly well that Molly and Tina were too far away to call more than a couple of times a year; Tina was in Baltimore at med school, complaining a lot (though Janet was sure she would make a perfectly good doctor), and Molly was in some dank but beautiful part of Oregon, blissfully studying her tide pools.
Janet sighed. “I’m trying to finish this book by tomorrow night. What is it, Mom?” She glanced over at the window, trying to gauge what time of day it was. Late evening, she decided, considering the time of year. Thomas would be on his way home soon, and he would be stopping to pick up the baby. There couldn’t be much of an emergency.
“I’m sorry, dear, it’s just that he’s refusing to eat the cookies I’ve made, and I’m afraid he’s sick,” her mother said fretfully. “None of my children ever refused.”
Janet couldn’t help smiling with fond amusement. “Mom, I told you, he’s in a picky phase. I’m sure I was very picky when I was two. They’re probably just the wrong shade of brown or something. Anyway,” she added, sharpening her tone, “he’s going to have dinner very soon, so you shouldn’t be feeding him cookies anyway.”
Her mother sighed, but Janet could tell she was persuaded. “All right. Can I send some home with Thomas, then?”
“Please do,” said Janet. “I will certainly never refuse to eat your cookies. Now can I go back to my book?”
“Of course. I’ll see you this weekend.” They said goodbye and hung up. Janet turned back to her book, cast her eyes about on the page to find her spot again, and returned to her note-taking.
After far too little time, the door to their apartment opened, and incessant demands for Mama carried even through the bedroom door. Well, she could never say no to her son. She thrust her notebook into the book to mark her page and came out.
Michael, carried in his father’s arms, shrieked with delight and reached for her. She smiled and took him, giving Thomas a kiss before settling Michael’s weight firmly against her hip. “Hello, my darling boy,” she said to her son. “I hear Grandma offered you a cookie and you didn’t want it.”
He shook his head firmly. “They were a bad color.”
“Well, all right then.” She looked up and smiled at Thomas. “And how was your day?”
“Dull,” Thomas said, shedding his coat and hat onto a chair. “Too many meetings with accountants and salespeople. I say the first thing we do, let’s kill all the accountants.”
“You always say that,” Janet remarked, following him into the kitchen.
“Well, I mean it.” He opened the refrigerator and frowned at its contents. “What do you want for dinner, Michael?”
“Spaghetti,” he said promptly. He always asked for spaghetti.
“Spaghetti with zucchini?” Thomas asked hopefully.
“Yuck!” Michael cried, shaking his head for emphasis.
Thomas gave Janet a sly grin. “That sounded more like yes than no. Let’s have it with zucchini.” He picked up some zucchini and waved it at the baby.
“No no no!” Michael cried.
Janet kissed his forehead and winked at Thomas. “Daddy’s just teasing you. No zucchini.” They both knew that meant Thomas would shred it and hide it in the sauce. They had to have some way to get some vegetables into Michael.
“Well,” said Thomas, pretending to put the zucchini back and pulling out a can of tomato sauce, “how is the thesis coming, Janet?”
“Awful,” Janet said crossly, her mood instantly souring as her mind was recalled to her work. “I’m beginning to think there is no way to come up with a unified theory of Keats’ work. It’s as if he was two different people.”
“Maybe he is,” said Thomas. Janet raised her eyebrows at him. “What?” He wagged a packet of spaghetti at her. “You know very well that all kinds of things are possible. Stranger things have happened.”
“That’s true,” she said reluctantly. She had, after all, spent most of her college career dating a fairy, and if it hadn’t been for Michael—or rather, her pregnancy with him—Thomas would be dead now. “But I can’t exactly put that in my thesis.”
“No, I suppose not.” Thomas filled the pot with water. Over the sound, he asked, “So what is that book you were working on about?”
“I’m still working on it. And it’s about the use of the nightingale as a symbol for poetry. It’s not just Keats, but it’s mostly Keats. I honestly don’t know how they got a whole book out of that topic, so hopefully it will help me.”
“What are you talking about, Mama?” Michael finally asked.
She shook her head at him and tweaked his nose. “I have no idea. Want to go play with Legos?”
“Yeah!” He wriggled, and she let him down off her hip. He ran off into the living room, and she stopped to give Thomas another kiss before walking back out to play with her son.
“And so,” Thomas was saying in a soft voice, “the Norwegian prince came and found them, and because he was a prince, the people said it was okay if he ruled the kingdom. He ruled wisely and well, and everybody lived happily ever after.”
Janet put a hand over her mouth to smother her laughter. Michael appeared to have gone to sleep, and if she woke him now it would be hours before he was willing to get back into bed. Also, there was half a cookie still in her mouth, and she didn’t want to spill crumbs on the floor.
Thomas looked up, gave her a wicked grin, and pulled the blankets over their son’s shoulders. Then he crept out of the room, shut the door softly, and put his arms around her waist. “Everybody who was alive lived happily ever after,” he told her.
“After being written about by Shakespeare? I doubt it. Though,” she said, considering, “I suppose Fortinbras didn’t know most of them, and Horatio certainly seems to have a strong character. He ought to be able to handle things.” She shook her head. “But far more importantly, why are you telling our son bowdlerized versions of Hamlet?”
“It’s not bowdlerized,” he said primly. “I left in all the bloody parts. I couldn’t get him to pay attention otherwise. It’s just… simplified.”
“Did you leave in all the antic disposition?” she asked, smothering her smirk in his chest.
“If I had not, Robin would have appeared just to castigate me, and I did really want Michael to go to sleep. Which he has.” Thomas lifted one hand to smooth her hair. “Now the grownups get some alone time.”
“It sure must be Almost the highest bliss of human-kind, When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee,” Janet mused. She sighed reluctantly.“Oh, my head’s full of nothing but Keats. I really ought to get back to that book.”
“You have all year to write your thesis,” he said. “Anyway, I’m confident that if anyone can figure out a unified theory of Keats, it’s you, my love. Then you’ll publish it, and you’ll be famous, and all the PhD programs will throw money at you, and I’ll be able to retire in wealth and comfort and spend all day playing with our children.”
She looked up at him, mouth twisting into a wry smile. “Children?”
“You can take a break between the Master’s and the PhD.” He bent to capture her smile with a kiss, which had probably been his motive in making her look up all along, and she finally allowed him to lead her into the bedroom.
The next morning, Janet had to admit that she felt rested and refreshed, and was more than capable of taking Michael to her parents’ house and tackling a classful of dull, puzzled undergraduates. She steadfastly refused to believe she had ever been as dense as they were, particularly about Shakespeare (which was what she was teaching, or rather teacher-assistanting), though Thomas said she would hear a different story if she ever spoke to her old professors. Still, she managed to lead a fruitful discussion of Much Ado About Nothing, remind them about their short papers due the next week, and escape to the library.
In another hour and a half she had a class with an absurdly pedantic teacher, who would repeat again and again everything he’d said except the one thing Janet found interesting; now was her time to herself. She pulled her notes and the nightingale book out of her backpack and began to read, aided by a tall window that permitted the slanting autumn light to land directly on her desk.
“O Solitude!,” she found herself muttering, as she turned a page, “if I must with thee dwell, Let it not be among the jumbled heap Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep — Nature’s observatory — whence the dell…” She stopped short, laughed at herself, and said out loud, “Oh, those Romantics. There’s nothing more beautiful than a library.” She sat tapping her pen for a moment, trying to come up with a Keats poem that was more appropriate to her actual situation.
She smiled, and, addressing herself to her notes as though Keats himself could hear her, said, “Souls of poets dead and gone, What Elysium have ye known, Happy field or mossy cavern, Choicer than the Mermaid Tavern?”
There; now her mind was clearer. She began to write again.