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Another 'A' for Elizabeth and a 'C' for Me

April 03, 1987|SARAH C. O'DOWD | O'Dowd , who lives in Riverside, R.I., is a psychology professor at the Community College of Rhode Island. and

Nobody's perfect. Like most people, I mutter this comforting cliche whenever my souffle falls or I forget to turn off the car lights and return to find a stone-dead battery. The only problem is, I suspect it's not really true. You see, there's Elizabeth.

Elizabeth was my college roommate. She majored in math. It suited her. I can see her now, seated at her desk, producing flawless calculus homework while I frittered away the pleasant spring evenings on bridge games, movie dates and other lesser pursuits.

I could set my watch by Elizabeth's activities. When it was time to get up, she got up. When it was time to eat, she ate. When it was time to go to bed--well, you get the idea. No all-night sessions typing last-minute term papers, either. Elizabeth's papers were always written two weeks before the deadline, and they always got A's.

As we headed for class in the morning, Elizabeth would say, "It's going to rain. You'd better take your raincoat." Casting one eye at the cloudless blue sky and one eye at poor Elizabeth, with her ridiculous umbrella and galoshes, I would sneer and set out jauntily on my raincoatless journey. Later in the afternoon, after sloshing back to the dorm through flooded streets, I would find Elizabeth sitting dryly at her desk, grinding out the day's math problems.

"Never mind," I comforted myself. "Elizabeth is so dull that no man will ever want to marry her" (the worst fate my 1950s imagination could conjure up). But it was not to be. With perfect timing, Elizabeth married an M.B.A. from the Harvard Business School right after graduation and the two of them began successful parallel careers, he as a corporate executive, she as a computer programmer. Then they produced a perfect family, two boys and a girl.

Elizabeth never missed a beat. She kept programming right up to the moment they wheeled her into the delivery room, and took her babies to work so she could nurse them without leaving her desk. (Do I need to add that Elizabeth's babies never cried?)

As the children grew up, I was kept well informed of their model childhoods through long, newsy Christmas letters. The year my son swung his baseball bat a little too enthusiastically and knocked out his best friend's (permanent) front teeth, Elizabeth's son composed a charming operetta, winning a national music contest.

The year my son declared he hated school and wanted to drop out so he could join a punk-rock band, Elizabeth's was elected president of his high school class and won a full scholarship to Harvard.

One year I couldn't bring myself to open Elizabeth's Christmas letter for six months. On a sunny June day I finally took a Valium and opened the letter--and immediately wished I hadn't. That year Elizabeth had bought a 200-year-old house and restored it in her spare time. A favorite room in the house was the ballroom, where she and her husband held dances for their entire community every Saturday night.

Skeptics, upon hearing the story of Elizabeth, inevitably challenge it with "Where's the proof?" A single anecdote usually suffices to convince them of Elizabeth's perfect life. This apple-pie family visited me once when their children were small. My living-room floor was cluttered with kids' toys, as usual. While the adults chatted and my children squabbled, Elizabeth's tots set to work like good little elves and cheerfully repaired my children's broken toys.

But in spite of the evidence, I still cling to a faint hope that my favorite excuse, "Nobody's perfect," may be true after all. I don't wish Elizabeth any major harm, but it would be gratifying to learn that one of her children had not been elected class president, or that her husband is getting paunchy, or that Elizabeth herself has a few gray hairs among her naturally curly auburn tresses. I fantasize someday asking Elizabeth the secret of her perfect life; why, in a world of pot-smoking teens and midlife crises, she never once lost her umbrella, and why none of her children needed braces.

I'll never ask her, though. Elizabeth wouldn't understand the question.

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