In May of my senior year of college, on a Thursday to be precise, I was supposed to be studying for final exams with my friend Alison. I had no interest in higher education, because this was the night of the Friends season finale—the one where Ross was going to marry Emily. I found it rude Calvin College scheduled finals around this life-changing event, but Alison, who was pre-med, insisted I come with her to the library to study.
“It’s English,” I complained, tossing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in my backpack. “I can totally make it up.”
Alison promised me gummy bears and coffee, and also, if we got three hours of studying in, we could watch Friends on our study break. I went with her.
It might have gone well, but we were sitting next to the copy machine, and everyone plus their Dutch relative needed to make five thousand copies of the Heidelberg Catechism. The noise was making me crazy.
“I can’t do this anymore,” I whispered violently to Alison, who had her nice, neat notes, index cards, and textbooks spread out on the table. She looked at me for a moment, but said nothing. I took advantage of her not knowing what to do or say about my lack of motivation and asked with a sigh, “Also? Do you think Ross will really marry Emily?”
Alison ripped a piece of paper from her notebook. I thought she was going to ball it up and throw it at me, but instead she wrote OUT OF ORDER with a green highlighter, pushed back her chair, and slammed the sign on the copy machine. Without a word, she sat back down.
“Alison Hartemink,” I said in mock horror, “that’s lying. You’re lying!” Then I rubbed my hands together and said, “I can’t wait to see what happens!”
Sure enough, student after student walked up with their textbooks and a grocery bag worth of quarters, but when they saw the sign, their heads sank, they pivoted pitifully, and they walked away, quarters jingling.
I was laughing so hard I thought I’d need CPR. But Alison, who has a poker face so solid she shouldn’t be allowed in Vegas, didn’t so much as twitch. She kept right on studying how the body worked while I tried my best to read about Frankenstein abandoning his nameless creature because he was too afraid of what he’d made. After a while, though, I’d fallen into the story, so haunted I’d forgotten about Ross and Rachel, and I no longer heard the jingling quarters in failed attempts at using the copy machine.
Alison had a way of bringing out the best in me; of saving me from myself, though she never did it in a way that made me think she was doing something heroic, or that I needed to be saved in the first place.
Several years later, I read a book to my daughters, Hadley and Harper. It’s called Auggie and Me, a sequel to Wonder. The book is divided into three parts, each told from the point of view of a character whose life intersects with August Pullman, a boy so deformed perhaps Mary Shelley would say, “Nah. Couldn’t happen. Sewing together body parts and using lightning to make a human? Sure. But not this. Not August Pullman.”
Auggie and Me opens with Julian, the bulliest bully there ever was. He is so awful to Auggie that, at times, the three of us had to put the book down and either wipe away tears or punch a pillow. Nobody was interested in what Julian had to say. I did my best, though, to read expressively and with a manner of exploration, hoping my voice wouldn’t betray me. I really didn’t want to give Julian a fair chance.
But then we learned Julian is afraid of, like, everything, and that his mother exacerbates his fear and enables him. Twenty or thirty pages in, we were still disgusted and in shock with Julian’s behavior toward Auggie, but we had a better understanding of why he acts the way he does. We were still horrified, but our horror was mixed with curiosity. It was enough to keep us reading.
When we read about how Julian learns where he got his name, the three of us swallowed a dose of empathy. He visits his grandmother in Paris, and she tells him about another boy named Julian who was crippled, and whom her class called tourteau because he moved like a crab. One day the Nazis had come into their classroom to take away all the Jewish people. Julian, the boy she made fun of along with her classmates, saved her life and eventually gave her a kiss—her first kiss.
We were swept away by this story, as is Julian, the one who terrorized Auggie. Reading it, I could almost feel the shift in him. I felt a change in us too. Though no one said a word, I believe we were all beginning to hope in Julian.
The other Julian, the one they called tourteau, died. The Nazis killed him. Hadley and Harper were devastated. “How could this happen?” they asked. They were trying to understand this kind of evil, but I couldn’t give them an explanation, just as I couldn’t give them an explanation for love, evil’s foil; both accomplish mighty feats, and both are irrational. I didn’t know how to explain either, so I gave the girls a story.
I told them about Albert Hartemink, my college-friend Alison’s grandfather. He and his brother were part of the Dutch Resistance. During the war, the Hartemink brothers hid weapons for the Allies. They also hid Jewish people and kept them protected so they wouldn’t go to concentration camps.
“They were the good guys?” Hadley asked, smiling.
“They were the good guys. There’s even a street named after them in the Netherlands.”
Harper, who’d been listening and fiddling with her fingers, asked, “Did the Hartemink boys get caught?”
“Yes. They were caught, and they were killed.”
Both Hadley and Harper gasped and hung their heads.
“So Alison doesn’t know her grandpa?” Harper’s question made all of us cry.
“Well, no,” I began, my voice shaky. “But she knows what he did, and she passed that story on to me, and I’m telling it to you now so you can know about him too.”
“He did a good thing,” Hadley said, her eyes wide to prevent tears from falling.
“He did a good thing. And while I didn’t know Mr. Hartemink, I know his grandkids, and I know his son. And knowing them, I get a sense of who he was too.”
I told them the Hartemink grandkids were kind and hilarious, studious, and mischievous in the most intelligent of ways. “To be in on a Hartemink prank is like being in on the inside of a top-secret spy mission.”
Hadley and Harper wanted to know what I meant, and I said I’d tell them when they’re older.
The three of us sat silently for a while. Auggie and Me was open on my lap, and Julian’s story had almost come to an end.
“I don’t hate Julian anymore,” Hadley said, an arm around me.
“Me either,” Harper added. “He’s not so scared anymore.”
“Do you mean he’s not so scary anymore?”
“No, Mama. I mean the whole reason he was mean to Auggie was because he was afraid. He knows more about himself now. He doesn’t seem so scared.”
Alison and I went home to watch the Friends finale, on a study break, as she promised. I rolled off the couch in shock and relief that Ross said Rachel’s name instead of Emily’s, and Alison said, “Didn’t see that coming” so dryly I couldn’t tell whether she had somehow known that was what would happen.
Then we made a pot of coffee and sat at the kitchen table to study some more. I pulled out Frankenstein, she pulled out her medical textbooks and notes, and we got to work.
I looked at the calendar on our wall. Alison had made a countdown for everyone in the house in the spare time I know she didn’t have. We all loved it, though. She was always doing things like that to motivate us to keep working.
“What are we going to be doing next year at this time?” I asked her, shaking my flip-flop until it dropped onto the floor.
“You’ll be a Mrs., living in South Bend, Indiana, and I’ll be doing my best to make it through my first year of medical school in Florida.”
“Yeah.” I turned pages looking for any notes I’d written in Frankenstein.
I wanted to ask her if she thought I’d make friends, if she thought I could be a teacher as I had been studying to be, if she thought I’d ever write. I wanted to tell her I was scared.
I wish I knew whether Albert and his granddaughter had the same deadpan sense of humor, or whether he had ridiculously neat handwriting as Alison does. I wonder if she got her basketball skills or her love of medicine from him.
My guess is you’d have to have a sense of humor—you’d have to see the world as a divine comedy—to do the work he did, and I believe that perspective was passed on to Alison.
I think about Albert Hartemink, and Julian, “tortueau.” I think of the other Julian and Auggie. I think of Alison and me and that silly copy machine; her biology notes and my Frankenstein notes. I think of Hadley and Harper and all the stories we all read and hold on to so we can know more about ourselves. So we don’t have to be so scared.