One day, Susie joins the group at a beer parlor. Elaine judges Susie for her makeup and tight clothing and decides Susie is probably too stupid to get into university.
Once Elaine starts ignoring Cordelia, Cordelia flounders, highlighting that she relied on Elaine’s presence for support. Cordelia appears to have a constant need to assert herself, both in the way she talks constantly and in the way she asks Elaine for feedback. While the feedback question is ostensibly a joke, that Cordelia repeats it suggests that she may, on a certain level, require a true answer. Elaine’s answer, “Nothing,” creates distance between them because it’s both an insult and a refusal to support Cordelia. When Elaine visits Cordelia, Cordelia appears to have lost control over her life completely, failing school again and gaining weight. Her small rebellion of manipulating her tutor works as an opportunity for her to create agency in her life by defying her parents. In this light, Cordelia brings up their past as a way to reconnect with Elaine and reestablish her identity. Although Elaine clearly assumes only the worst could come out of a conversation, Cordelia goes out of her way to approach their past as benignly as possible. Cordelia starts discussing their past with a moment where she felt low, the cabbage incident, broaching the topic with a spirit of openness and vulnerability that Elaine rejects.
Elaine’s lunch with Jon demonstrates Elaine's lack of emotional distance from her past. Up to this point, Elaine’s technique of distancing herself has been bound up in numbness and death, but with Jon, it allows her to gain perspective as she can look back on her relationship with him with fondness. Elaine’s calm with Jon contrasts to her general anxiety over Cordelia, which suggests that even though both relationships took place in Toronto, Elaine feels more distant from the pain in her relationship with Jon. Elaine and Jon have had to co-parent Sarah together, which clearly has led to Elaine processing her feelings. We don’t yet know the stakes of the hospital incident, but it clearly doesn’t cause Elaine the same visceral nausea she feels in the sections when Cordelia brings up the past. Because Elaine never processed her ravine trauma and she never allowed Cordelia to discuss their past with her, Elaine has no emotional distance from that trauma. Without emotional distance, being in Toronto makes her feel the same way she felt as a child. Therefore, Elaine’s cultivated numbness is incomplete because she has blocked her feelings instead of processing them and has not allowed herself to gain any emotional distance.
Elaine based her painting Falling Women on the strange assertion that men are a force of nature rather than actual people. Elaine doesn’t appear to believe this axiom literally, but rather it’s a guiding principle to how she behaves around men and women. This conclusion acts as an extension of the society versus nature binary that Elaine learned in childhood: if men align with nature, perhaps they actually are a part of nature. Elaine believes women hurt others intentionally, and therefore, her university classmates make her anxious because she can’t trust them. However, she believes men act according to their nature, just as Stephen does as he pleases and just as the boys in elementary school acted freely. Therefore, in Elaine’s mind, men only cause harm by accident, when their natural way of being becomes hurtful. Elaine’s understanding of men as inherently open and not conniving offers an alternate explanation for her ability to find emotional distance with Jon and recover from that relationship’s trauma. Although both Elaine and Jon hurt each other, Elaine believes she couldn’t expect anything better from Jon. She therefore has no need to hold Jon to account in order to forgive him.
Through these chapters, Elaine once again discovers that aligning herself with men over women offers her tremendous social capital. Ironically, Marjorie and Babs are the only professional artists in the class, but because they are older women who produce commercial art, the men in the class consider them ridiculous, calling them “lady painters.” The phrase “lady painter” clearly uses “lady” as an insult instead of a descriptor, much in the same way the hint of anything feminine, such as a sister, could get a boy teased on the playground. While we know Elaine becomes a great painter, Elaine is currently an amateur, less skilled than Babs and Marjorie. However, the men in her class suggest she could have the coveted title of “painter,” free from feminine associations, because they like her. Young and presumably attractive, Elaine allows the boys to use her to drink where they like without complaint and to speak crude things about other women without causing offense, allowing them to behave in an unguarded fashion. This pattern recalls Elaine’s silent phone calls with boys because, again, Elaine silently becomes nothing. Elaine gets to be an exception to how the men view other women because she makes no demands on them.