At a banquet hosted by Ladies’ Day magazine, Esther sits with the other girls beside the empty place-setting prepared for Doreen, who is, as usual, skipping events to spend time with Lenny. Each place is set with a favor: a compact mirror, a painted frame around “a silver hole.” Esther explains that eating rich food is her favorite thing in the world and that she stays skinny no matter what she eats. Having grown up poor, she is awestruck by the wealth of beautiful, expensive food at Ladies Day. Esther proceeds to methodically consume an immense amount of caviar, crabmeat-stuffed avocados, and chicken, not worrying about her table manners because she’s discovered, from witnessing a famous poet eating salad with his hands, that “if you do something incorrect at table with a certain arrogance…you can get away with it…[everyone] will think you are original and very witty.”
Esther’s description of the mirror as “a silver hole” suggests the mirror is a place in which to lose oneself, as Esther lost (and will continue to lose) herself when she failed to recognize her mirrored reflection. Esther’s ability to eat as much as she wants without gaining weight subtly emphasizes the divide between her mind (which wants and enjoys the taste of rich foods) and her body (which doesn’t seem to be affected by the foods her mind desires). The poet’s behavior suggests a way for Esther to act outside of the rigid expectations of female etiquette behavior: act with confidence and others might just “think you are original.”
Betsy sits on Esther’s other side and Esther asks her about the fur-show the rest of the girls had gone to before lunch. Esther feels sorry for herself: she hadn’t gotten to go because Jay Cee had called her into her office. She doesn’t tell Betsy that she hadn’t really been planning to go to the show when Jay Cee had called, that she’d been lying in bed planning to spend the day lying in the park, rejecting both the other girls’ scheduled activities and Doreen’s invitation to go to Coney Island. She had “wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I should any more…Then I wondered why I couldn’t go the whole way doing what I shouldn’t, the way Doreen did, and this made me even sadder and more tired.”
Esther’s behavior shows her increasing alienation from society’s expectations for her and from her old expectations for herself. Esther’s new self is passive—neither a deliberate rule-breaker nor a deliberate rule-follower. She seems to fade into her environment, wanting to lie down and avoid activity.
When Esther arrived in her office, Jay Cee had asked Esther what she wanted to do after college. Esther recalls, “’I don’t really know,’ I heard myself say. I felt a deep shock…the minute I said it, I knew it was true.” Jay Cee had pressed Esther to learn more languages to make herself more hire-able, and had told Esther about the previous contest winner whose hard work at the magazine earned her a job at Time. Esther had told Jay Cee she’d try to learn German in her last year at college, knowing all along that she had no room in her schedule.
Jay Cee embodies the high-achieving ambition that Esther, once so devoted to academic excellence and prize-winning, used to share. In fact, Esther’s abandonment of Jay Cee’s value system is so new that she barely recognizes it: she is surprised by her own answer to Jay Cee’s question. Until recently, she would have answered the question with a long list of well-plotted career aspirations.
Esther had flashed back to a memory of getting out of a required college course in chemistry, which she hated because, in it, “all the perfectly good words like gold and silver and cobalt…were shortened to ugly abbreviations.” She had aced a botany course because she loved drawing diagrams of the plant specimens.” Botany “seemed so real.” Esther convinced her dean to let her audit the chemistry course, arguing she would just get an A anyway and that she needed room to take an extra literature course. Because Esther was a straight-A student and a favorite of the dean, her plan was approved. Mr. Manzi, the chemistry teacher, beamed at her the whole term, thinking Esther was sitting in the back writing notes out of a sheer love of learning chemistry, when all along she was actually writing poems.
Esther’s relationship to her science courses reflects the theme of Mind vs. Body. Esther’s dislike for chemistry and physics is, in a sense, a dislike of the gap between mind and body. Chemistry and physics render physical materials (bodies) into abstract notations and theories. Esther prefers botany, where bodies get treated as the concrete material entities they are and aren’t jettisoned into abstractions.