We drove in the sunshine along the New York State Thruway, the sky bright blue, puffy white picture-book clouds rising above the low long ridges distant from the road. The wide river came in and out of sight below the road where it climbed, mill towns down in the river valley, cows above us outside barns in muddy pastures. Closer to the river again we passed a row of three Victorian houses connected by telephone lines.
We came down quickly in traffic toward the Hudson, the city of Albany opening behind us downstream as we crossed the bridge. Then we climbed up to the eastern flats, the Catskills rising like smoke in the distance, finding the tollbooth ahead. The land changed as we passed into Massachusetts, the road along the lowland, climbing upward through wooded mountains in long steady angles.
We pulled up behind the old Deke House with the light of early afternoon coming over the hemlocks. My room was at the end of a short hallway on the second floor leading to treated pine steps out the back of the house.
“Well, let’s get you settled,” my dad said as he opened a door, reaching to gather my coats from the back seat. I opened the tailgate. My dad carried my guitar up to my room.
My father sat down in the car.
“I’ll miss you, Dad,” I said.
“I’ll miss you, too,” he said quietly, turning as if looking in the rear view mirror. He turned forward. The car began to roll, crunching the gravel.
I watched the car drift slowly away down the hill, and then it disappeared around the bend of the hemlock hedge.
I climbed the wooden fire escape stairs to the hall. I looked out the window of my room. I went up the hall to find the bathroom. The open balcony above the main stairwell had been closed in with safety glass. I gave it a tentative kick with the heel of my sneaker.
I took a walk through town and up toward the quad. I saw her from a long distance as she bounded up the stairs of the little hall near Frost Library. She came out, white registration packet in her hand, slipping quickly back down the steps.
Needles had fallen along the edges of the grass. I came to the quadrangle. I sat on a bench in front of the library. I watched a sparrow hop about beneath a yew bush, looking around, tiny little cones lying here and there.
I went back to the house on the hill and to my room in the back. It seemed more and more like a cell. I rummaged through my small collection of albums, and took out the Deutsche Grammophon Beethoven record and put it on the turntable, turning on the guitar amplifier that I used for a speaker. I put the plug from the turntable into the amp, then picked up the needle and put it over the record. The record began to spin. I put it the needle down at the beginning, The Overture to Coriollon. The Ninth was next. Down the hallway at the back of the house no one cared how loud I played it, and I gave the music the healthy respect it deserved, even if it was in mono rather than stereo.
A small piece of paper from my course registration packet, a blank form by which to arrange a course schedule sat on my desk. You wrote in the courses carefully in their respective meeting times, Monday-Wednesday-Friday, Tuesday-Thursday, the hour-long classes, the ones that went longer. Mine was blank and I had intended at first to throw it away. But now I looked at it. At the top you wrote your name in, then next to it your class, in case you forget or if you lost it and didn’t know what to do with yourself until some kind person found it and returned it to you.
“Fuck you, you assholes,” I wrote in the first line. “Leave me alone,” I wrote in the next blank. I made up what I would be doing in the different time slots. “Pissing.” Yes, that sounded like a good way to start on Monday. Followed by an hour of “Shitting.” Why not. How about “Rolling in Vomit and Broken Glass.” That would be good later in the week, in the Tuesday-Thursday eleven thirty to one slot. “Jerking off,” yes, that would find a place. Fridays would be devoted to “Rye Whiskey,” followed off by “Vomit’ then “Death.”
I taped it to the outside of my door, and went back in, closing the door behind me. There were some blanks still, which I could fill in as I thought of them. I had a poster of Andrew Wyeth painting, Distant Thunder, a woman lying in the grass, a dog nearby, a couple of pine trees beyond at the top of the meadow, a basket of blueberries in the foreground. It went kind of with a vision I had. In the woods, or in a meadow, far from a town, you can be yourself. You can be gentle and calm. Wyeth painted the grass and the trees and the light upon them with such care. It was like being outside. I put it up on the wall above the little bed.
The next afternoon I went to the music building. I went upstairs and found a free practice room. I couldn’t play much, but I liked the piano, the way all the notes were laid out there in front of you, all equal. I plunked a few keys with a finger, listening. I put my hands down full, resting them across, then the little bit of Chopin’s Funeral March I’d figured out, theme and interlude.
“And at the end of the performance of the great final symphony the conductor of the orchestra turned the dark maestro to face the audience of the concert, as Beethoven could not hear and knew not of their admiring applause,” I murmured to myself, picking out a few notes of Ode to Joy. “And the composer beheld them standing now, beaming with the irrepressible joy his music had brought to their hearts.”
Browning, a soccer player from my freshman dorm, stood down in the lobby, looking at a bulletin board of departmental course offerings. We passed through the glass doors out into the light and the air was warm again after being inside the dark building.
I saw her as I raised my head and looked forward into the sun. She stood facing me, turned from the conversation she was having with a balding kid of exaggerated good posture, also a sophomore. Her eyes followed me as I looked into her face, holding me in her sight as I came forward. She stood where the two sidewalk paths met, directly before me. I felt the closeness of our bodies. I felt how I was taller than she was. She looked down, and then looked up at me again, blinking. I came forward. She watched me coming toward her, looking slightly to her side as I drew closer.
I came up to her, passing beside her. “Hey, Jerkpot,” I said, my voice stiff, tightened, my eyes straightforward. I slowly lifted my notebook and hit her lightly on the side of arm below the shoulder. She stood there, waiting for something. And then she was behind me.
We were at the dining hall when Browning looked over at me.
“’Hey, Jerkpot,’ where did you come up with that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Rebel Without a Cause, I guess.” We went in through the line.
“I brought her flowers at the end of last year,” I said. I put the top of the bun down on my chicken puck sandwich. I thought now of how she had looked up at me, all of her, standing there.
“He’s deaf. Don’t you get it? He’s deaf! Look, will you. Deaf.”
She was sitting in one of the deep plush chairs in the lobby of the old library, one leg folded over the other. I came forward and sat down in the chair next to hers. The chairs were at an angle.
“How was your summer?”
“Okay,” she said. She sat in her chair protected by the arms, sunken into the cushions. A small notebook sat closed on her lap.
”Did you work?”
“I was a receptionist.” She raised her sight and looked over the carpeted room, white columns rising to the ceiling two floors above us.
“Did you like it?”
“You sit in an office and greet people.” She looked down at her folder.
“I bet you’re good at it,” I said.
“It’s not much of a challenge,” she said, rolling her eyes privately, not looking over at me.
“And your parents, how are they?”
“They’re fine,” she said, her voice rising.
She looked back down.
“My Dad had an accident on his bicycle, but he’s okay,” she added, her eyes looking left and right without looking up. She raised one arm up on the arm of the chair. I looked down at the stripes of her French sailor’s shirt.
“Oh, I’m sorry. ”
“I think he hit his head, though he said he didn’t. He was acting strange for a little while, but with him it’s hard to tell.”
“It must be hard riding in a city, with all the traffic.”
“This was when we were out in the country.”
“Yes. He went off the road somehow.”
“Into a ditch,” she said.
“I’m sorry. I used to bike a lot myself.”
“He watches television. Basketball, football, baseball. That seems to amuse him.”
“My brother likes to watch sports on TV.”
I took a look at her, as she was looking down at the folder on her lap.
“I wrecked Dad’s car going around a corner. For awhile we had this crappy Volare.”
She didn’t say anything, but let out a smirk.
“Did you pick your courses out yet?” I said.
“No, I’m still trying to figure that out.”
“Let me know if you need any help.”
“Okay,” she said.
Her hair had grown in. The front doors opened and a boy and a girl, both juniors, came in, laughing over something. Her eyes turned toward them.
“Are you unpacked yet?”
“Yeah, I’m almost done. Just putting up my posters.”
She looked back down at the cover of her notebook. There was a slip of folded paper jutting out slightly, and she opened the cover slightly to put the paper back straight.
I stood and walked away.
Mom was yelling at my father. “You’re a failure.” Dad never raised his voice. He just sat there in the kitchen and took it while my brother and I sat in the television room watching Gilligan’s Island. My brother could tune it out, his head propped up on a pillow from a mattress on the floor.
I couldn’t take it anymore so I went down the stairs the cellar and took the garden whip from against the bare plywood wall. I had been through a few of them, braking their blades off, making a path from the backyard down to the stream, cutting through the little weed trees beneath the old apple trees. Rooting them out one by one would be too hard. I went down into the woods and whacked away at a path I had made some progress with. The snap weeds came up easy. The little trees were wet and green and it took time to cut through. I could hear Mom raising her voice still, and I could smell the laundry from the dryer vent behind the kitchen. I went and sat down on the moist dirt by the stream, where there was a small waterfall.
That evening I went to the meeting at the Chapel for prospective thesis writers, in the office of the chairman of the English Department. I opened the door. Twicknam, the chair of the department, sat on the top of his desk holding the edge of it with both hands as he leaned forward. He watched me come in and his eyebrows flared up as he looked me up and down.
He tossed his head back and looked down before him. Five students sat at the front of the room, taking turns about what they had all done over the summer, looked up at him eagerly when he spoke. His chin extended out over them, tipped with a beard, the bare skin of his head sun-tanned like the rest of his face.
“Well,” he said, breathing in and then exhaling, “here we are. Let’s get started.” He leaned back, supported by his arms.
“Ugh,” I said to Whacko when we walked out of the door on the quadrangle side of the Chapel after the meeting was over. The humidity had vanished in the breeze, and a hollow moan passed through the branches high above us.
“Like we were a bunch of chimpanzees.”
Whacko laughed, inhaling each time.
“The advisee will bring his work into the advisor... the advisor will read the work... then offer critique. The advisee will then write more and bring it back... and then both will breathe together in and out as if anything either of them has said has the slightest importance toward anything that goes on in the world. Jesus, Whacko. You almost want to kick him in the teeth.”
“Jeez,” said Whacko, laughing, slightly distant.
We walked across the quadrangle, a light warm wind picking through the leaves at our feet. “I want to write about Joyce,” he said, peering ahead nervously through his horn-rimmed glasses. We walked on a little bit toward the library. I liked the smell of leaves that time of year. I said I was going to walk home. I went back and pulled out In Our Time and read about Horton’s Bay.
I had a few beers and later I called her. Her roommate answered. There was the sound of a hand coming over the speaker end, like listening into a seashell, muffling out all but the edges of giggling in the distance. Then she came to the phone.
“Hello, this is Jessica,” she said confidently, with a slight inflection to act surprised, wondering who was calling her.
“So what are you doing tonight?”
There was a pause, as if others were listening.
“Just catching up with my roommates,” she said, returning from something that had momentarily distracted her.
“I bet there’s a lot to catch up on.”
“So what are you going to do with yourself when you leave?”
“I’m going to be a novelist,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, pleasantly cool.
“And what do you want to be when you grow up?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “Perhaps a sociologist. But they don’t make any money.”
“As long as you’re happy,” I said.
“I’m selfish though. Honestly, it’s the way I am. Once I went trick-or-treating with this girl in our building, and I convinced her to give me all her candy. A few years later she punched me on the arm. ‘That wasn’t fair,’ she said.”
“We’re all selfish.”
“You’ve picked a lonely profession. I guess that makes sense.”
“I guess,” I said. “Who knows? I just want to be honest.”
“Well, I must go now,” she said, her voice turning breezy and higher, as if a lighter matter had been placed before her.
The next day I went to the first class of Deviancy, in the auditorium of the music building. I came down the aisle to a row not far from the front, and shimmied in to the middle of the row. I was sitting there quietly minding my own business when I saw her coming down the row, followed by some Scandinavian-looking kid. She came up the row toward me. She drew her skirt behind her and sat down, one empty chair away. She turned partly toward me, looking down in front of her as if to say, “oh, what a surprise.” She settled herself in her seat and assumed a silence, as if listening for something, waiting.
“What a nice red sweater,” I said, not looking over at her.
“Oh,” she said. “What was that you said?”
“I said, what a nice red sweater.”
“Oh,” she said, looking down into her shoulder bag, containing a smile, something passing through her body.
“You look nice in it,” I said, quietly, slouched low in my chair.
She sat down low in her seat, just as I had. She kept from looking over me, but for a quick glance, in that way people who are understood to be sitting next to you don’t look over at you. She blushed slightly. I looked over at her and she had pressed her lips together, looking about in front of her without looking up above the row of seats before us.
I turned toward her, looking at the way her hair fell, the length, the color of it, having imagined it all summer until no longer being certain of what it looked like. I looked forward again. I felt her perk up, flexing her lower back just slightly, her knees up against the back of the red plush chair in front of her.
At the end of class I let her go down the aisle ahead of me, off with the sophomore kid she had come with, leaving me behind. I walked out of the music building to the walkway that led to the dining hall.
After dinner, I walked up through the quadrangle to the Chapel. The doors were open and I walked in and sat down in one of the pews. The lights were off. My eyes adjusted to the dark so I could make out the bearded faces of the oil paintings hung along the walls.
I put my arm along the top of the pew, stretched out. I couldn’t study any more. I don’t know what had happened. I couldn’t write papers. I didn’t know if I was going to make it through the year. I liked going to class still. I went to the library still, but it felt better to do something else, like go for a walk on some street I didn’t know about. But I had walked all the streets of the town, late at night, and there wasn’t anything new. There was a dog now and then who followed you for a while, recognizing something about you.
I didn’t know how to pray, but I leaned over and put my hands together. I prayed for my mom and my dad. I prayed for the house. I prayed for myself. But again my thoughts turned to her, and I prayed that the best thing, the very best thing that could happen to her would happen.
I left by the front door of the Chapel. I sat down on the grass slope high above the road, my forearms wrapped around my knees, looking down at the solitary cars rolling by. You heard the sound of the tires on the road surface above the motor.
It was summertime and I was in the car with my mom, sitting in the back seat on the raised cushion. We were riding into town. I looked up at the hillside, the bricks shining golden through the swaying leaves of the trees up above. The sun hit the white steeple in the middle of everything. “Mom, Is that where Dad teaches?”
“No,” my mom said. “That’s the college. Your father teaches at the university.”
“What’s the difference?”
My mom laughed. “Well, that’s where you get to go if you’re very smart and very lucky. People of privilege send their sons there.”
And I looked up at the hill as the hillside swung past outside the open window of the Volvo station wagon, a funny yellow building up on top of a round, then lower a solemn wide building with big pillars across a dipping lawn. I looked at my mom as she drove, looking forward at the street from behind her sunglasses
“I had a date once with a fellow who went to Amherst College,” my mom said. “But then he forgot about me, I guess.”
We went to go pick up my dad. We parked in a parking lot and went down some stairs and then up a hallway, the walls tiled yellow. I looked up at my dad and he looked down at me and smiled and what fine light hair he had on his head. Then I was very tired.
The light was golden like morning again as we passed by the hill again. And I wondered, how, really, do people learn, and what do they learn, and I knew it was a very fine thing to learn, and that I myself knew how to learn, and that one day, I would step up to such a place and begin, in earnest, my own voyage. It was not yet the time, though, as I sat in the back of the car, and I put my hand on the door of the car, as if to hold it, as it would support me my whole life. One day I would learn, and then I would teach, without fear of teaching, just like my Dad, standing tall in his suit in the morning, as I peeked from the closet.
A week went by and I called her. Her roommate Laura answered the phone. Then she came to the phone.
She let out a long sigh.
“Hello,” she said, as if with an effort.
“Look, why don’t we meet for lunch tomorrow at the dining hall,” she spoke quickly, having calculated something. “We need to talk. I don’t think you understand. You see...”
“No, that’s okay,” I said, before she could go on. “I don’t get up very early.”
There was a pause on the other end of the line.
“I never say anything anyway,” I said. My voice had become low and scratchy.
“I’m just not the right one for you,” she stated with confidence.
“Yeah,” I said, my voice cracking, turning hollow right in the middle of it. I didn’t have control over that. “I’ll find the right girl someday.”
There was another pause on the end of the line.
“See ya,” I said. It came out hoarsely, whispered.
“Bye,” she said, gently. The line was still connected.
“Bye,” I said, and hung up the phone. And again, I knew what I had known all along, with her and with respect to everything else, that it wasn’t just me, or some silliness, but a very real way I felt about something, something that was very sweet to hold on to, even if it was just some silly dream.
I went out and drank beer to get drunk at the usual Friday night house party. I looked on from a wall in a hallway as people floated past, catching up from the summer. New faces, blurs of conversations passed me by. I returned the plastic cup to my lips. Later I went up and watched two blond freshman girls, dancing a Grateful Dead dance together. They were cute, in a stocky way, and I drank from my beer cup, looking away, but following their happiness. I went up and said hi to them but they were busy, smiling at me but not saying anything. People will drive you to drink, just being around them.
I made it home by myself.
I woke up in my bed with a very dry mouth. The sun was shining fully into the yard outside the window. I cracked the stiff window open. It was warm again. I pulled on jeans and cowboy boots and walked slowly down to the dining hall, squinting and grumpy, the light powering down, the grass translucent green.
The dining hall was quiet, about to close. A chubby kid came in behind me. He looked up at me with his bulldog jowls, his eyebrows raised. I saw her come in behind the kid, picking up a tray from the stack, turning and putting the tray on the aluminum rails, facing forward, her hand on the tray.
“How’s it going,” I muttered to the kid behind me. The kid looked up. I got a plate of scrambled eggs, some bacon.
I tried not to look at her. I came out and placed my tray down on the shelf before the salad bar. I went looking for grape juice, over in the dining hall, East, on the other side of the entryway. I came back. She had vanished. I sat down and ate alone. I had thought she would stay. I could barely move anyway.
I walked back home, showered, shaved and put on a white cotton button up shirt, and preppy plaid wide-bottom slacks. I wanted to get a birthday card for my dad. I felt better now. It was good to walk into town, away from the college.
I walked down the main street to a gift shop before the gas station. I was looking through the Gary Larson Far Side cards, at one with a Lone Ranger theme, when I saw her browsing at the front counter. She came close by me. I let a judicious amount of time pass before I said anything.
“Hey,” I said quietly, so as to not disturb her, glancing briefly at her then looking down.
She looked down at the silver jewelry in the display case, smiling before something.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Oh, fine,” I said, smoothed over. I looked down and scratched the back of my neck. “My posters keep falling off the wall with all this humidity. I guess I need to find something that sticks them on a little bit better,” I said.
“Yes,” she said, laughing lightly, not looking up at me but aside at something in the shop.
I went back to the card section. She came over toward me, browsing.
“My Dad’s birthday’s coming up,” I said, picking out the card I looked at before and opening it up again.
“Oh,” she said, and smiled.
I lingered a little longer, putting the card back, poking around in the corner to stay longer. I looked back over at her. She was looking down at frilly open blouses, the same private smile on her face. She held one out on its hanger, pulling it slightly away from the circular rack it was on, smiling at it.
I went up to the counter and paid for the card. I looked back around to see where she was, but I didn’t see her. She had disappeared. I left.
I walked up through town up to the main intersection, the Common before me, the college beyond it, the town hall below to the left. I passed under the oak trees and sat down on the steps of the town hall. It was warm, the sun on my shoulders, and I sat back. I watched for her to come by. Twenty minutes, thirty, passed and she did not come by. I got up finally, and walked back up the hill.
It was one of those summer days we were back visiting and I went with my mom to the new store down by the gas station. It was a hippy kind of store, incense, candles, a whirling electric weaving implement that looked like a small helicopter. I stood behind my mom, as she moved about. Then we were outside and met my dad and we walked around behind the gas station and the little row of shops and there was a cemetery. We walked through the grass and there were a few trees on a hill and some hemlock bushes. We walked up the hill and then we were standing by a little fence, a small family plot. My mom and dad looked down upon it, and each read aloud what it said on it. Recalled, it said on the little stone. Funny finding something like it behind the row of shops.
I went to Deviancy on Tuesday. I sat by myself and did not see her. “Uhm, Uhmm…” the professor vocalized, his chin held up to project over the auditorium of the music building, the pipes of an organ rising behind him brightly lit. “A society has its way of controlling individual behavior. It creates deviants… umm… separating them from its ranks,” he called over the crowd seated in their plush red theater chairs. I took a few notes.
Later on I went and talked to Prescott in his office. I needed an advisor for my thesis.
“No, I’m not a Hemingway man. You should probably go to Carlson, I would think,” Prescott said, his voice dry, looking away.
I went by Carlson’s office on Friday, during his office hours. He had been assigned to me as my advisor when Duchamp went on sabbatical the year before. I stood in the dim light of the hallway, outside his door, hearing him talking. Finally I knocked.
“Yes. Come in,” I heard through the door.
I poked my head in.
“Let me call you back,” he said. “Yes. Fine. Bye,” he said, putting the receiver back on the black rotary phone, smiling to himself, then leaning back with his hands folded behind his head. I looked around the books in the office and sat down in the chair before his desk. He looked up at me. His face had changed.
“Well, I’m interested in doing a thesis on Hemingway, the boundary in his works between fiction and non-fiction.”
Carlson moved his seat back slightly. He looked down at a small space like a strike zone before him. Wearing jeans and a cotton turtleneck, he looked as if Robert Redford had dressed him.
“Who’s going to be your thesis advisor?”
“Well, maybe yous, I was thinkin’,” I said quietly.
“Mees?” the man said, grinning plastically, his lower lip out, his eyebrow raised and cocked in cleverness. “Well…” His eyes shifted left and then right.
“I uh, found your American Lit class very interesting.”
“I remember you had trouble writing papers.” Carlson leaned back and reached a hand around to the back of his head, raising his political chin.
I didn’t say anything. I felt tired. I looked along the row of the neatly kept bookshelf behind him. I had written a good paper about a Hemingway story, “The End of Something.” Yes, it was two weeks late, but I put a lot into it, because I cared a lot about the subject, everything about it. He had sent me a note back then about ‘rapidly developing academic trouble.’ Didn’t make one comment on the paper. I got it back, nothing on it. Then I got my grade through the mail.
I looked at him. “I got one in a bit late.”
“Sure,” he said calmly.
“Okay, thanks a lot.”
“So we’ll see some writing from you?” He brought his reading half-glasses up to his nose, took a quick glance at matters on his desk, then looked straight at me.
“Yes, you will.”
“Okay,” he said, leaning forward, pulling his chair back to the desk.
“Thank you, sir,” I said.
I stood and opened the door. An African-American girl had been waiting outside. I nodded to her. I stepped aside and she moved quickly and happily into the room. “Hello, Jock,” she said. “I haven’t seen you in awhile!” He stood up from his desk to hug her. I walked up the hallway, hearing the door close behind me. I sat down on the bench outside of Duchamp’s office. Strange when people move on from your life.
Duchamp. The old man had hand-picked me as one of his two advisees when I came to college. I got the impression it was for a little piece I’d written about sitting by the old reservoir at the bottom of the road, how it was my little Walden Pond full of strange flying creatures. He raised me, he made me, that first year, the first semester, and then, strangely as he’d come, he let me go. It was as if he were saying, that I had to learn things on my own, that one day I would write in the sweet intellectual way of a Chekhov, very graciously, and with a tender eye toward humanity, but that he could only give me some raw material of a basic tool of making a moment something full, seen with open eyes and heart, the rest I would have to do myself through living. It had been a silent agreement between us. He would never say, here, here is some useful shortcut. He had perfect faith I would slowly take my time at it, and come upon it when I was ready, through patience, the only thing you really need to be a great writer, and a certain enjoyment over craft and talking to myself every day in the form of writing in a notepad whatever came to mind. It was as if he were subtly telling me that all I wanted to do would one day be graceful and easy, and that the ability had come to pass by being there all along, nurtured, in a way. And now he was sort of smiling at my beginning to learn things that he managed to keep himself free from, for he too was allowed, through his own way of being a great writer, not the perfect creature of modern institutional academic habit. While the exercise I was about to commence upon, while entirely futile, would be a form of a beginning.
The next Friday my brother called and told me he was coming out from Boston. He was coming out by bus with Deb, who had come out to visit him in Boston. Deb was going to Mount Holyoke.
“What time does your bus get in?”
“Around ten thirty I think.”
“You want me to come pick you up down in Springfield?” I offered.
“That’d be great.”
“I think I can borrow someone’s car.”
The next day there was a pep gathering to mark the beginning of the sports season. I poured beer at the outdoor fundraiser for the baseball team. A cute freshman that reminded me of the Princess came up to the table in her running outfit, but I could not persuade her to have a beer. I had a few myself and kept going 'til dinner.
I went home and took a nap. I woke three hours later. My mouth was dry. I looked at the clock.
It was quarter of ten.
I got the car keys from Hereford over at Love House, and went to the dirt lot below the house for the station wagon. The bus was getting into Springfield at ten, or was it getting into Amherst? No, Springfield. I was going to be late.
I saw a bus coming up the long hill as I drove out of town to get on the highway to Springfield. I got to Springfield, forty minutes later. There was no bus. I drove back to Amherst. The road was dark, not a car on it. Suddenly, road construction signs and orange arrows stood in the middle of the road in front of me. I swerved the wheel, getting through them on luck. My mouth was dry after that.
It was late by the time I finally got to the party, which was spread between the two big and elegant fraternity houses situated on the corner looking over the Common and up at the College. It was Homecoming weekend.
I walked in through the front door of PsiU. I saw her standing in the foyer. She turned her back and her friends stood around her expectantly. I looked at her back, her hair falling on her shoulders. The group paused, waiting for something to happen. One of her roommates, with curly blond hair, stood close by her side.
I passed by her, out the door, on my mission. I headed over the ChiPsi. The band was playing well, the room swaying as the bass played the sliding part and the singer started singing the opening to Take A Walk On The Wild Side. I found my brother by the side of the dance floor with Deb.
“Hey Jamie, where you been?”
“When did you guys get here?”
“Oh, I thought you said you were getting into Springfield at ten. I drove all the way down there.”
“No, we were getting into Amherst at ten.”
“I got confused.”
It had gotten too late and I had been distracted. I had wanted to dance with her. I had known that as soon as I heard the band. It would have been perfect. And I had fucked it up.
That night I lay on my side in bed, staring at the wall. I lay there. I tried praying. After a long time I fell to sleep.
The next night after dinner--it was getting dark out earlier—I saw her leaving the dining hall. I walked with her down to her dorm.
“Do you like Deviancy?”
“It’s okay. Do you?”
“Well, I think it’s good. The gay alumni they had the other day, they seemed pretty normal, just like you and me, really.”
“I think you would like going to gay bars. There are a lot down in The City,” she pronounced, chin in the air, her book bag over her shoulder.
We were at her door now. I stopped. “Oh,” I said, flatly.
“You should go to one sometime,” she said. She stood by the door, tossing her head back to look away, bringing her heels together.
I looked up at her for a moment. “Yeah,” I said.
She looked off to the side.
“Good night,” I said turning and walking away up the hill without looking back.
Three days later it was Halloween. I put on my dungaree jacket, Levi's and my cowboy boots. It was as close as I could get to Cool Hand Luke, escaping from prison. I went into town to the liquor store near the town hall looking for a prop, something appropriate for an escapee. I saw a bottle on the lower shelf. “Grapefruit Mist,” the label said. I was tired of the Thunderbird I stashed in the pitchy evergreen yew bushes in front of the library in a paper bag. I went up to the counter.
“What’s up for Halloween?” The guy had a beard.
“Oh, going to a party on campus. I’m Cool Hand Luke, in case you couldn’t tell.”
“I see,” the man said, smiling.
I took the paper bag wrapped bottle in hand by the neck. “Thanks,” I said, nodding to him.
“How ‘bout some eggs,” the man called after me as I left.
“Oh, no thanks. I ate fifty just yesterday,” I called back, grinning as I pushed the door open into the warm leaf-strewn night.
The main campus party that night was at the AD house, overlooking the Common, not far away from the store and the town hall. I walked to her dorm, opened the door, climbed the stairs to the top floor and knocked on the door.
The door opened. She was standing there.
“Trick or treat,” I said.
“Hi,” she said nonchalantly.
“Hello, Princess,” I said, my voice coming out husky in a way I did not try for, as if seeing her for the first time. I bit my lip, and looked down at the floor, not ready to take her in all at once.
“What should I call you?” she said, a little softer, calmer than I might have expected. She looked down, leaning back against the wall, her hips out slightly, her legs out straight, her feet balanced on her slippers.
“Cool Hand Luke. Couldn’t you tell? Got my bottle of Grapefruit Mist.”
She looked puzzled.
“Didn’t you ever see that movie? This guy keeps escaping from prison. There’s this funny opening scene where he’s cutting the tops off of parking meters. That’s what got him into trouble in the first place. You wonder why he did it. Maybe he just felt the need to break out.”
She looked forward for a moment, near the level of my chest. She kept the magazine in her hand, the door open. She was leaning on it with her back not letting it shut. She focused on something close before her, holding it close by looking down.
“Aren’t you going out tonight?”
“No.” She drew it out a little bit.
A small troop of girls dressed like elves came up onto the landing and knocked on the door across the hall. “Trick or treat,” they yelled, not in unison, giggling as they clamored in. I looked at the Princess, smiling. She rolled her eyes.
“Halloween is for kids, don’t you know.”
“Oh, well, I guess it is. You have a magazine to read. What is it?”
She was reluctant to show me. I lifted it so I could see the cover.
“Just a magazine.”
It was a woman’s fashion magazine.
“And you learn something from reading them?”
“Well, yes.” She opened the magazine and held it before her. “Here’s an article about how the sun triggers your body clock. Seeing the sun speeds up the body’s production of certain chemicals called neurotransmitters. Serotonin, for example, which helps you feel happy.” She looked back down into her Cosmopolitan.
“Oh, yeah, I knew that,” I said.
She looked up at me for a second, to check on something, to ask for something. I stood there before her, my lower lip beneath my front teeth, wanting to sway or move my shoulders.
“I like reading those magazines, too,” I said softly. “Maybe you could read some to me. I like the photography.”
“You have a party to go to, don’t you?”
“Yeah, why don’t you come? You can be a fashion model or something.”
And then something quietly vibrated between us and I felt that gentle feeling of something incredibly good.
The door across the hallway opened and the elves came back out, giggling again. The kid who opened the door was a football player, an Aryan type, his head standing back on his strengthened neck. The kid noticed the Princess and I standing there with the door open. The kid stood there watching us, his neck helping him see straight.
“You could let the door close, you know. You might get tired holding it open.”
I shot the football kid a glance across the hall. He stood there with his perfect tight skin. I pulled out my bottle, and looked at the kid.
“Here, would you like some?”
“No, thanks,” the kid said. He got the point, though it was taking him awhile.
She leaned back against the wall, holding the door open still. She looked down, as if the magazine were open still.
“Grapefruit Mist,” I said to her, imitating Bill Murray’s groundskeeper from Caddyshack. “Very fine, very fine stuff, indeed.”
“You run along to your party.”
Finally the doorway across the hall closed. I stepped back a step and looked away for a moment. “Well, I’m not going to go 'til you kiss me,” I said.
I stood and turned my head to the side, holding out my cheek.
“Jamie, I don’t feel that way about you,” she said quickly, becoming serious.
I looked down at her for a moment. “Well, then don’t ever look at me ever again,” I said softly.
“I... I don’t look at you.”
“Good. Then don’t.”
I turned toward the door.
“Bye,” she said, withdrawing.
“You win, you little bastard,” I thought, looking at the doorway across the hall, going back down the steps and out of the dorm.
The bottle was almost empty by the time I got to the party.
“Sorry, no townies allowed,” the kid checking ID at the door said.
I ignored him and came in over the transom. A brunette girl looked at me, a smile breaking out across her face. “Don’t you know him?” she said, slightly under her breath to the kid. The kid was shrugging without interest in anything as I walked past him into the noise of the party.
It was perfect, being taken for a townie. Just what Cool Hand Luke would have liked.
I grabbed a white plastic cup of beer and stood in the hallway. People passed by me in the hall without stopping, thrilled by the ingenuity of their own costumes. Robin stood on the staircase, two sophomore girls excited about standing below him. Taking a beer from the keg in the bathroom, a chubby redhead girl asked me who I was.
“No, you’re not,” she said. “I don’t know who he is, anyway.”
Friday I was walking to Deviancy class from the dining hall when she walked past me.
“Hi,” she said, pleasantly.
“Hi,” I said, letting her go on ahead.
“What you got going on this weekend?”
“My roommates are such busybodies,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“They’re throwing a party this weekend. It will probably be loud and I won’t get any work done.”
“Oh,” I said. I let her go on ahead. I didn’t feel like walking that fast in my cowboy boots.
After dinner Saturday night, Kareem and Mark dragged me along to a party at Smith. I made the mistake of running into them in the dining hall. They wanted to be wild and crazy guys, so naturally they picked me. The party was a big affair. The girls in the house knew they were quite popular. A guy in a blue blazer went by with a pipe in his teeth. “Dartmouth,” I heard him say to girl in a white evening gown wearing a pearl necklace and her head leaned back and she laughed along with him. I drank a couple gin and tonics by myself in a corner. I danced with a fat girl. Then I ran.
I took the bus back by myself. I felt relieved to be going back in to Amherst. I stood in the aisle holding on to the bar above. The bus was crowded, turned to a jocular mood. I watched some UMass guys on the bus. One of them, standing in the aisle in front of me, was saying something about his mother.
“Your mother’s a dirty, dirty girl,” I said, using an expression I’d heard from my brother and his friends. I grinned at him, just to let him know I was kidding. The bus swung up now to the Amherst stop in front of the old library.
“Hey, come down and party with us. Come on, man,” a short kid with dark curly hair said.
“Yeah, come on,” another voice behind me said.
I was just about to get off the bus. I was almost to the door. I stood looking down the steps now. “Come on, man. It’s going to be a great party.” I looked back and they were smiling at each other. One nodded to me. What the hell. I sat back down.
The bus went down through town to the university. The bus came to the stop and we all got out. I began telling one of the quieter guys how my mother had gone to UMass, how my father had taught there awhile ago. We were walking to the high rise where the party was.
“You better get out of here,” the kid said to me when no one could hear us.
“They want to beat the crap out of you, man. Just get out of here.”
It dawned on me in an uncomfortable cold-blooded kind of way. I found myself walking quickly, looking back. Now my feet were very heavy. It was going to be a long walk back, and no busses. I was plodding onward past a row of fraternity houses. An old Toyota pulled up beside me. The guy rolled down the window.
“You want a ride up to town? I’m going that way,” the guy called, leaning forward holding the steering wheel. He looked at me through the open window, his mustache turned up expectantly.
He looked peaceable enough. I was dead tired.
“Where are you going?”
“Just up to four corners, to the College. Is that out of your way.”
“No.” The guy was looking at me now. He had glasses on, a plain look to him.
“I just like to drive around sometimes.”
The guy looked over at me.
“Can I suck your cock?”
“Can I give you head?”
“Uh, no. No, thanks, man,” I said, looking forward, my arm stiffening against the car door. I felt for the handle without looking down. The car was moving along still.
“Are you sure? I’m very good at it. I know what to do,” the guy said calmly. Just something to bring up.
“Really, I’m sure.”
We came through the traffic light in the center of town. He kept it on through the light at the four corners, then past the turn.
“You missed the turn. Would you mind stopping?”
He drove on. “Okay. I’ll turn here.”
He turned to the right at the street that led to the gates of the football field.
“You sure you don’t want to drive around a while?”
“No. This is fine right here.”
“But your turn is back there. Let me take you up there.”
“Thanks, but I’ll be all right,” I said, having already opened the door and gotten one foot out. He stopped the car.
I got out. I shut the door and walked quickly up a little street without looking back. It was cold out. I got to the main street. I crossed it and then I was on the lawn before the old library, feeling I was safe again.
I caught the tail end of a party at New Dorm. I was talking to a guy in my class, a wrestler. I saw her come up and stand just off my shoulder, looking over my shoulder. I was about to turn to her, but just then she turned and walked away. She went toward the dance floor, and I danced with a plain-faced girl from my class, working my way over to the Princess. When I looked for her she was gone.
I saw her as I was coming out of the dining hall. She was up ahead of me on the sidewalk, so I jogged up to her. “Go get her,” Beaver, one of the guys in my class said.
“Hi,” she said, looking forward, hiding a smile.
“What’ch you been up to?”
We came down the aisle and she stopped at an empty row and I followed her down it ten seats in. This far in nobody would bother us. We sat down next to each other, without a seat in between. We both put our knees up against the row in front of us. We took our notebooks out. It was nice, perhaps even nicer to have her to my left. Something was better when she was right next to me. She took her breath in and let it flow back out.
She sniffed at the sleeve of her light flannel shirt. “My roommates sprayed me with perfume,” she said.
“I like yours better,” I said, quietly, leaning slightly toward her.
“I don’t wear perfume.” She looked down.
“Oh.” I bit my lip.
She opened her notebook and drew a face in along the margin of a page, a beautiful round feminine face. It hit like a punch, but in a nice way, right into me. I drew a face of my own in the margins of my blue-covered notebook. My hand moved before I could think and the face I drew was a boy’s with big eyes, looking upward in loneliness. She looked down at her drawing. I peeked at it. It was quite good. Just then she scratched out her drawing. I didn’t like mine so I scratched it out. Our shoulders were close, and then touching.
“That woman up there in front, she has an interesting face,” she said, looking ahead at the stage.
I looked over at her sitting next to me, seeing that she was looking down toward the panel of speakers. I could only make them out as blurs.
“I can’t see. I don’t have my glasses with me. What does she look like?”
“Well, she’s... It’s her features. It’s hard to describe,” she said, looking back down at the notebook propped on her knees for a moment.
She was looking still, amused with something, making a study through one of her many talents.
“The kind of face that would launch a thousand ships,” I asked.
“No-oh.” She paused for a moment.
“I wish you could see her. She does have interesting features.”
“Oh. Well, that’s nice you noticed.”
Then there was an enjoyable moment of awkwardness, and we looked for something else to talk about. We beamed our little talents out over the room to see what we could come up with, sitting together now, not needing to look over at each other.
“Botany,” she said, drawing the word out with a slightly rising lilt, offering a sudden pronouncement. “What a stereotypically boring subject to teach,” she said grandly, her chin raised gaily, in a musically British way. She looked forward over the room, a slight smile coming to the corners of her lips.
“Well, I think he’s pretty cool,” I said quietly. I looked down at the back of the chair before me.
It seemed to make her warm. Her lashes flickered. She sat still, surrounded by a sphere of gossipy chatter.
I remember when my father took me and a friend to see a movie they were playing up at the college. It had begun to snow out. He left and then Buzzy and I found out they’d cancelled the movie because of the coming storm. Buzzy’s mom came and gave us a ride in a 4-wheel drive and when we turned onto Reservoir I saw our car by the side of the road, slid into the ditch. It was a long way to Ernst Road, and when we got up the hill, we were in the woods and then I saw my dad’s footprints. Patiently walking all the way up in the snow. On and on, up the long road. The silence of the snowy woods, and the only show I’d ever seen from him, his quiet footsteps in the snow—you could still see them, even as powder covered them, as the woods hung over the road, keeping the wind away. One after another, up the hill.
Professor Lindsey plodded slowly up on the stage. He cleared his voice, his head moving up and down just slightly, like a bird in some sort of ritual. “Mmm, mmm,” his voice sounded. He raised his hand above his head. “People,” he called. The crowd quieted as soon as momentum allowed.
“We’re going to talk about AIDS today,” he said, and I heard him breathing us all in through his nose.
“Let’s go through the ways you can be infected with the virus that causes AIDS,” I heard a from the panel man say. He read off a long list. There was quiet laughter in the room, dispelling anxiety.
“I don’t see what’s so funny,” I said under my breath.
“Yes, I don’t either,” she said.
The crowd drew conservative and silent.
“Can a man contract AIDS from a woman through vaginal intercourse?” asked a pimply-faced kid behind us, dark curly hair sticking out from under his Jamaican knit cap.
“Good question.” The panel at the front talked back and forth, as a communal blush hovered in the auditorium.
I raised my hand. Professor Lindsey looked over the crowd, and said, “in the middle there, on the side.”
“Yeah, I had a question,” I said, feeling my voice carrying well. “How should we think of AIDS? Is it one particular isolated disease, or is it something big, a large family of diseases, maybe just one breed of that?”
There was off-microphone mumbling, with the panel members looking at each other.
“Uh-hrrm,” said a man, clearing his voice quietly, having been picked to respond. “Well, we won’t know for a long time from now, where AIDS fits in, what sort of thing it is exactly, what sort of mutation it came from. We won’t know for a long time.”
“Thanks.” I nodded, and relaxed back in my seat.
The hour came to a close. The Princess and I walked up the aisle and left together. Then we were outside, under pines and sun, a wind far above us for birds sailing with a tip of wings across a rich blue sky.
“There was this restaurant in France where you could get anything you wanted, all the cuisine of the world,” she said, a gaiety in her stride. She looked proud in her outfit.
“Like, could you get Hungarian Goulash if you wanted?”
“Yes,” she said after a moment. “Exactly.”
“And where is this place?”
“My parents took me to Europe when I was young.”
“My parents took us to Ireland when I was a little kid,” I said when she had finished. “Lousy French fries, invariably. You’d think with all those potatoes.”
She laughed, lightly and easily, as people do outdoors. We came to the entrance of the dining hall ramp walking side-by-side. Then I saw Bill Richards standing directly in front of me, blocking me. I watched her continue on, now at the foot of the ramp.
Bill grabbed my hand and shook it like LaGuardia.
“Hello, Senator, how are you?”
“I’m good,” I said, breaking away. “I’ll catch you later, Bill.”
I came up the ramp, through the doors after her. I saw her standing looking back at me, questioning my next movement. There was a distance between us now. I remembered I had a meeting with Carlson that I had not prepared for yet. I went to the men’s room off to the left. When I came out she wasn’t there anymore.
I walked briskly up to the Chapel. I sat down in the study lounge, looking through the notebook with the phrases carefully written out. And I thought of the expectant, half-irritated impatient look from what I saw from her without my glasses.
At the appointed time, I poked my head into Carlson’s office. “Let’s go get a cup of coffee at Fayerweather,” he said.
We walked down past the library to the lower quadrangle. “My idea of a nightmare, coming down here for a cup of coffee just after they’ve closed,” Carlson said as we went in through the cafeteria line.
“Just like getting to the liquor store five after ten,” I said.
We sat down with our coffee at a table near a window. He pulled out the paper I’d handed him a week before, placing it before him on the table and reacquainting himself as he brought the cup to his lips.
“Your writing has improved since sophomore year,” he said.
“That’s actually the same paper I handed in two years ago,” I said.
He waited a moment. “I hope we’ll see more from you,” he said. “Soon.”
I looked him over for a moment, as he read from the first page again.
“So, you want to write about Hemingway the journalist. There’s that selection of his pieces, By-Line Ernest Hemingway. You should look that up.”
“It’s a particular kind of journalism I was thinking about. Journalism about the guy’s own life. The food he’s eating, his reactions, his experiences as he has them.”
“Aren’t all writers journalists by that definition?”
“I suppose they are. Hemingway more so. The further he goes into the stuff of everyday, the more he has a story. He always finds a story, a novel even, just in plain life. It’s like he’s trying to run in one direction, telling only the raw truth, away from fiction, away from making things up, and he finds the story. And he’s wise enough, I guess, to leave in the things that only matter to the story.”
Carlson sipped from his coffee again, watched someone walk past behind my back then fixed his eyes back on me, as if trying not to roll them. He focused now.
“Is that a radical concept of literature,” I said, shrugging. “It’s not so odd. Hemingway, he treats every little detail like something sacred.”
We sat silently.
“Maybe that’s ultimately a religious observation, that each detail of life has meaning, that in each little thing you can read the story, like Christ knew there was a donkey waiting to take him into Jerusalem. For Ernest Hemingway, the story is right in front of him, like the story of the two bullfighters when he goes back to Spain for the last time, an old man going back to the place of his vigor… It just goes on and on.”
“What are you going to write about for our conversation here?”
“The way he writes about the textual details, life as a text, the objects, the people, the scenes, all the incidental that has meaning ultimately.”
“As long as you’re discussing the writing… We don’t need so much of the higher truth… That’s not our job here.”
I was thinking about the Princess, the way she looked at me, saying there should be another beat after meeting and sitting together in Deviancy class. I’d seen it without my glasses, blurry. I felt it, how there was another vibration out there, another back and forth, one that would lead to another one, and then another. I swallowed now, and there was something stuck in my throat. All we needed was just to meet in some easy way that was not intimidating and things would find their own way. I felt it now over the whole front of my body, the connection, the magnetic draw.
Life comes at you in waves, vibrating, when it is real, when you are alive to something. That power is why one has to take a nap sometimes, all of it coming through you, running through every atom in your body.
I looked back at Carlson now, selfish, typical, self-concerned, a kind of black hole, and I sat there, thinking of my girl and how I had missed something. For what?
I wished I was laying on my side, next to her with my am over her, as the world spun slowly with us at the very center of it all.
My father came out later that afternoon and we drove up to Maine. We stayed up at a motel on the spit of land leading out to Bailey’s Island, about to close for the season. We ate quietly at a seafood restaurant. I had a piece of fish. The car windows were fogged with the cold when we came out.
The Red Sox were playing in the Championship Series for the American League Title. We watched the last innings of the game on the television in the room.
“Let’s go down to the water,” my dad said.
We drove back up the road to the Giant’s Staircase, not passing a single car. We walked down the step-like stone formation to the edge of the water. I followed him in the moonlight, watching his heavy woolen outer shirt descend through the low scrub pines, his hair catching the silver of the stars. The pines stuck up at us, their arms swaying quietly, almost silently in the wind, and I couldn’t see anything below us through them in the dark, just hearing the surf somewhere below.
Boom, the surf came in, then sloshing in rocky throats, then hissing back out, the land having taken just the exact energy of it out so that it would come back.
Then the land came to an end, laid bare, the granite strata tilted upward, the path ending on a large horizontal slab. The sea down below us came rushing on with each wave, swirling through all the cracks it could reach, covering the lower flat rock, pouring back out, sweeping back in again differently. The stars were brilliant in the clear sky, the Milky Way stretching all the way across the black. I had never seen as many.
“Magnificent,” my dad said.
“You want to hold on to them all.”
The waves came in, the surf rolling unstoppable into the cove below us, the sea foam curling over the black rocks then hissing back out with a strange quiet. It was late at night, just the two of us standing there underneath all the laid-out wisdom of the stars. The rocky point dropped down at an angle to meet the agile sea.
We drove back to the motel, the silent pines towering darkly above the winding road that rose and fell, twisted and turned. Then the road was flat and the bark of the trunks shone in the light of the headlamps, as if each were caught by surprise.
The motel was silent when we pulled in off the road, the lot before the low building empty except for one Ford pick-up truck. Dad put the key in and the door creaked open. In bed I pulled the thin blanket over me. I felt very tired, but I wanted to talk with her. I lay there what seemed a long time, as I was cold still, and then I guess I fell asleep.
On the way back down the coast before we stopped at a gift shop in York. I picked out a small red stuffed lobster doll. We had lobster rolls from a shack at the end of a walkway above a salt marsh, the sea in the distance beyond the grasses. Then we got on the highway, as if to undo it all almost, all the piney quiet and the sea air further and further behind us on smaller roads.
It was a warm sunny Sunday afternoon when we got back. A slender freshman girl smiled at us perkily from across the intersection of four corners at the middle of town. We sat down for an early dinner by a window on the main drag. He ordered in French, without batting an eye. I felt impatient as we ate.
I regretted I had been so when my father was back on road heading home. He had difficulty with the glare driving at night.
I called her up from the black campus phone on the wall outside my room that night.
“This phone has a very long cord and I can go down the back steps and walk around outside.”
“Oh,” she said.
“Oh, hi, Mr. Squirrel. Good to see you.”
There was a pause on her end of the line. “Go inside,” she said.
“Okay. I was up in Maine with my dad.”
“I got...” I started to say.
“I have to go,” she said. “Bye,” she said before I could continue.
“Okay. Bye,” I said quietly.
She had hung up the receiver. I stood there, outside the door.
I was about to send her the cute furry red little lobster doll through the campus mail. I wanted to. I went back in to my room and it sat there beneath the light on my desk and I began to feel sore. She had shut something off, that next vibration due, when I had offered again after suffering to start it again for so long in a way she didn’t know. And so I had to go back to suffering, in hopes of a little touch of a finger that said it was okay. “It wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t my fault,” I wanted to say, but then maybe it was, and what did I have to do with a dry ponderous thesis anyway.
The next weekend it was Parent’s Weekend and my father was coming out again. I took the janitor’s mop bucket and filled it with ice and put a bottle of Wild Turkey down in it, carrying it with me to the party at AD. An Asian girl stayed the night in my room. She asked me in the morning if I had a condom, but I didn’t and so we didn’t do anything. I didn’t feel like it anyway.
My dad and I went to lunch down at the Parent’s Luncheon in the new gym, folding tables laid out with table clothes. We got our plates. I looked around over the heads of people. The room was bright and murmuring noisily. We walked around carefully a little bit, and ended up sitting with a girl named Hope who called my name out when we were right in front of her table. She was from Tennessee. Her father was a minister, but plain-clothes and very laid-back, and with a good chuckle. The girl knew I wanted to be a writer some day. I looked around. I did not see any sign of the Princess.
We drove down to South Amherst to visit with old family friends the Gregorians. I watched the two Siamese chase their tails in circles. I was looking out the sliding glass doors over the garden when I decided that I was going to be sick. I got up and went slowly to the bathroom and threw up quietly into the toilet. They looked up at me when I came back into the sitting room.
“Are you okay?” Mrs. Gregorian asked.
“I had to throw up,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Something must have disagreed with you,” my father said.
“Too much poison from last night.”
We walked down by the football game, then drove into Northampton for a look around. When we got back to my room there was a poster still in plastic rolled up in front of my door. There wasn’t any note attached. I picked it up and took it out of its plastic. It was a life-sized poster of James Dean, the cigarette-holding pose from Rebel Without A Cause. There were adhesive tabs stuck on each corner, and while I noticed them I did not pay particular attention to them. I thought it was the girl I had spent the night with who had brought it. She knew I liked James Dean.
We were going up to the Deerfield Inn to meet Martinez and Bill Richards and their parents. There was something hard-nosed, businesslike about Bill’s academic mother and father. They looked around as if they would have preferred another table. Martinez’s old man, sitting in the dim light, hardly looked at his son. I felt sorry for involving my father, who seemed uncharacteristically puzzled, disappointment in his face, boredom in his reactions, and I thought maybe he had something to say about who or what sort of situation we should be dining in. Something was missing, I thought. We should have been somewhere else. And I had failed, having gone along with something agreeably rather than planning anything out carefully as I should have, so as to introduce my special old father to someone special to me.
There was a party back at the house and I was watching as the Red Sox lost, which didn’t make me too happy either. By that point I was feeling pretty goddamn irritated. I went upstairs, changed, came down and then I was talking to two tall girls, juniors who seemed odd and interesting and attractive all at the same time. I was talking some talk with them when I saw Jessica Dorfmann in profile in the main hallway as I came down the stairs. Later on, Rick, her math tutor, came up to me.
“So did you see who’s here?”
“Yeah, I saw who’s here.”
“She said she’s a bit tipsy,” Rick said.
“Oh, that’s nice.” I thought for a moment how I wanted to show her my room. I wanted to play guitar for her. Give her the lobster doll in my room. “I thought Miss Morality didn’t like to drink.” The irritations, the out-of-place and not-at-the-right-time quality of everything, seemed to be increasing by the moment, such that I almost ran out. And most of all, I felt mad at her for hanging up on me, like she shouldn’t have done that and so I was mad at her and couldn’t speak to her.
On one side of the room I saw her standing there. I looked at the two tall junior girls standing near me, looking me over. “No, she’s not here except as some sort of trick,” I thought. I was talking again now with the two girls. I took them both out on the dance floor. I saw the Princess standing by the opening to the dance floor, looking over at me. She looked slender and vulnerable, and I ignored her. I let her stand there, and I couldn’t see the apology in her quiet glance over at me as she stood there alone, her hands behind her back holding the door frame.
By now the beer buzz was kicking in. I decided I liked the dark haired one of the tall girls. She’d taken care of birds of prey the summer before. I walked her back to her dorm and we went together up to her room. She lit a candle. After awhile she pulled me back up to her. “I broke my back once,” she whispered to me. “I think there was some nerve damage.”
I woke up in her room. She was asleep still. I went to the dining hall early. I felt like hell.
It might have occurred to me as I ate my breakfast, sipped my coffee there by the window, looking out at the rain, a cold one, that was pouring down. The Princess had come to my door, even with her parents, laying the poster down on the floor, having carefully put four stickers on the back, one at each corner, so the poster wouldn’t fall. And then she had come to the house where I lived, far away from campus, up on a hill, on Parent’s Weekend, and I had fucked it all up.
I saw the Princess at the next Deviancy class. It was frigidly cold out. We were getting our papers back. The professor stood up on the stage. “The newspaper accounts have created a deviant, um, um,” he grunted with nasal proclamation, raising his beak.
I heard her name called to come get her paper. I could see over the crowd, the cold look on her face. She turned away as she went back to her seat.
I carried my books back from the library and headed down to Thursday Night Tap at AD. The snow angled down beneath the street lamps, covering the higher parts of the common. My hiking boots crunched softly on the snow. I came up the steps and past the pillars.
There was a card game down in the taproom. I took my beer and went back up to the parlor, the steady powdery stream outside the windows. The fireplace was empty. “Two dozen other stupid reasons,” I sang with the English Beat song playing on a boombox, “Why we should suffer for this…”
I got my Dad’s old cashmere overcoat from the sofa and went back outside into the snow. I stood at the crossroads beneath the traffic lights. The glittering powder lay clean across the road. I walked up past the library. I stood in the middle of the quad, the snowflakes falling wet and silent down through the oaks, the lights of the freshman dorms warm and quiet. I walked down the field to the Social Dorms.
The Princess’s dorm stood at the edge of the woods, her suite three floors up. Her room faced out over the railroad tracks. I’d been by once in the fall. I’d stood in the common room and then she turned and walked down the steps without saying anything. I stood there, and then I left.
I launched a snowball up to the dark window on the third floor. It went up through the clean air. The whole backside of the building was dark. The snowball hit the wall above the window, disintegrating silently against the brick. I tossed another one just a little wide. The third one landed on the window with a light whunk. I threw another one, and then another.
I saw the shade being pulled down. “That’s no fun,” I said to myself. I went in through the basement door and up the stairs. I knocked on the door of the suite. The door opened a crack. A boyish little girl stood looking up at me, her dirty blond hair short, her brown eyes like shiny little buttons.
“Cops are after me,” I said hoarsely. “You gotta’ hide me.” I let my eyes run over the floor on both sides of where we were standing. I looked beyond her through the opening in the door. The light was on in the main room.
“The cops aren’t after you,” she said slowly, not taking her eyes away, a smile peeking out. She looked at me very straight, studying me.
“They’re not?” I said, ducking my head down slightly.
“Are you sure?” I twitched. I looked down into her eyes.
“Yes, I’m sure,” she said.
“Positive,” she pronounced. Her little chin made a pleasant little nod.
“Um, okay.” I let my brow drop. I looked a little bit behind me, over my shoulder. She kept her easy hold on the edge of the door, letting it swing just slightly.
I gave her a quick wink, turned and bounded off, down the steps out the front, back outside. The snow blanketed the grass. I walked across it rather than staying on the path. It was cold and I had a ways to walk now. I was hungry all of a sudden. I was happily numb to the cold, and I felt like singing.
I called the Princess the next day from the library in the afternoon. Her roommate answered, and then she came to the phone.
“Hello?” she said.
“Was that you last night?” she demanded abruptly.
“That was you!” she yelled, her voice suddenly high and sharp. “We thought some crazy man was attacking us!”
My stomach sank.
“But I was just throwing...”
“That wasn’t even my window!”
“It’s Laura’s. Do you know how long you stood there?”
“No, not exactly.”
“You stood out there for fifteen minutes without stopping. Fifteen… minutes.”
“That’s an exaggeration,” I said.
“We were ready to call the Police.”
“Oh, come on,” I said, quietly.
“We were going to call the Police!”
“I’m not some axe-murderer,” I said.
“Why do you do such things anyway?” she shouted, cutting me off.
“I just wanted to talk to you.” I’d been outplayed, yet again.
“You must never speak to me ever again, do you hear me?” she said, loudly and with paced evenness.
“Okay,” I said.
“Hi, and hi back,” she went on, rapidly, “in the dining hall, if we run into each other, but that’s it. Only if we can’t avoid it.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Do you understand?” she said, not losing momentum.
“Yeah,” my voice cracked. “Hi, hi.”
“You’re going to leave me alone,” she said, her voice rising again.
“Right,” I said.
“How can I tell you so you’ll understand?”
“Okay. I understand.”
She didn’t say anything.
“Bye,” she declared, as if she would hold me to it.
I put the phone down and went back to the desk. I sat down, looking out the window. The snow of the night held on the shaded sides of houses and yards. I sat there for an hour or so. Maybe there was some poem about snow on the dark side of houses, on the side that doesn’t get the sun, and how it feels neglected and the snow is white, as if to cheer up that part of things. I was looking down at the roof of one of the Dickinson houses far in the distance in a grove of pines. “Ahh, that’s it. ‘Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed. To comprehend a nectar requirest sorest need.’”
That night, I sat with my tray in front of me toward the back of the dining room, picking at my mashed potatoes and gravy. She came out of the line with her tray, wearing a fatigue jacket. Her hair shone, full-bodied and straight. She lingered by the salad bar. She looked over at the back table where I was sitting. I looked down at my plate again. My eyes hurt. It was like all year I had just wanted one person to be nice to me, one person to defend me, understand me, and there were many voices going on in the room but no one was saying anything that could bring me comfort. She seemed to shine in the dim light, and I felt her motion as I looked away and hid under my brow.
When I left she was standing in the foyer between the door and me. Two girls talking to each other moved into my way. I swung right and the Princess stepped sideways with her long legs into my path, drawing herself up tall, blocking me. She had her head down, a playful look rising across her face. I felt the presence of her body, upright as she drew a breath in. I stepped toward her, moving faster now, not looking up. I went past her. Her eyes turned to study me. But I could not look up, or betray something far too personal. Maybe that was why she was torturing me, to see when I’d break.
A space to the side of her opened. I slipped around her to the door, seeing it before me. I pushed against it. The dark bulk swung open and then it shut behind me and the noise of inside, all the busy murmuring about nothing, endless, was gone, and I was standing by some overgrown yew bushes. I shoved my hands deep in my pockets and walked up the silent street, holding my dad’s overcoat about me. I walked and walked and then I was at the bottom of the hill and still had to go up it. I stopped and stood there, looked up for a moment. I turned around and looked back, and then I went up the hill and didn’t want to go out the rest of the night. I played my guitar.
There was a special dinner that week, a certain collection of dorms invited along with faculty advisors. The Deme Dinner, as it was called, the first of its kind, was an attempt on the part of college administration to adjust campus social life in the wake of the passing of fraternities. I found my way to the line that had formed at the entrance. My thesis advisor Professor Carlson stood right in front of me. I was too tired to avoid him.
“Mr. Tarnowski,” the man said, turning halfway around stiffly. “I’ve been meaning to talk with you. You haven’t handed in any work since we talked.”
“No, sir, I haven’t.”
“The hour is getting late. We need to see some writing from you.”
“I’m working on it,” I said.
“The ball is in your court now,” Carlson said, looking straight from under his brow up at me, standing still, as if he were trying not to shake his head at me. He turned and moved on toward a group of African American students, leaning forward to receive an embrace from a short girl with braces.
I stood there, and somehow from behind me I felt some gentle vibe of someone getting how I might have felt, some appreciation of my being defenseless but standing my ground in some form of bravery. I took a glance back over my shoulder. The Princess stood there, looking down at the shined floor. Her roommate, a silk scarf tied around her white turtleneck, looked straightly at me for a moment, clearly, as if to check on something. I turned back around forward. “Well, here I am,” I thought.
I stepped through the doorway into Annex itself, the tables spread with white table clothes. An ice sculptor of a swan glistened on the main table in front, rising above decorative cabbages placed on green felt, below which, on silvery trays, sat large wedges and blocks and rounds of hard cheeses, yellow and white, like buildings of a tiny city.
I passed the swan and made my way across the room. Gould and Rosenstern, roommates from sophomore year, called from a front table on the far side of the room. “Come sit with us,” Rosenstern said. “Dove’s coming.”
I sat along the wall facing away from the podium, set up in front of the salad bar.
“What all this about,” Gould said, leaning against Rosenstern.
“This is our new social life,” Rosenstern said.
“What’s the podium for?” Gould asked.
“We’re going to get up and tell everyone about the time we changed the lettering on the sign at the movie theater on Route Nine. ‘The Doof’s Penis.’”
Dove sat down.
“You should have brought that rooster.” They had planted one in someone’s room once.
Far ahead of me, four tables away, I saw her sit down. I ducked my head down slightly, and pressed my lips together, turning away and then I looked back. She sat opposite, facing me with no one seated in between. I looked back down at my silverware, unfolding the napkin in my lap. The Dean of Students, his hair combed over, rose to the podium, looking up into the air. She looked up. No one had come to sit in between.
I put my left hand out on the table, let it rest there, open and gentle, full of touch and a strange energy coming out of it. I let my fingers spread out, my palm against the table, then rising again, so alive and balanced a thing, such a miracle of dexterity, blood running through it.
“Amherst thrives on its one to one relationships,” the Dean began.
The Dean looked out over us, as if turning a page. He welcomed Cormorant, Professor of American History, to the podium. The Dean fixed the microphone for him with a focused grin, the sound of the bending gooseneck creaking over the P.A. system.
I leaned forward, looking down at the table again, listening to the little old man’s high voice carry. I bit my lip.
Student workers, dressed in white pressed shirts and black slacks, delivered salads to the tables.
“De Tocqueville observed an America where an interesting experiment was taking place. He observed people of all classes together, rubbing elbows, nobleman and commoner. He got a big kick out of it.” A server placed a salad before her. The little white-haired man raised his voice again, strands of his white hair about to fall back down across his forehead. “The clever Frenchman had a great interest in this new land and he wished the best for it,” he said firmly, looking out over his audience. “Amongst his principle worries--and the one that bothered him most, with prescience quite particular to his commentary--was the foresight of a tyranny of the majority.”
I thought of how she had come to sit there. It was probably a coincidence, just a free table in a quiet corner of the room. I kept turning back to watch to the historian, strands of his white hair about to fall back down across his forehead but staying somehow in line.
“De Tocqueville diagnosed the matters of our situation long before we could have even imagined such a threat,” the little man pronounced, his chin raised in a mighty way. “Other nations, as we well know, have had their struggles with the social infirmities that come with a political system conceived in the ideal. Upon the heels of Marxist principles, came the Soviet Totalitarianism that flourished so terribly under Joseph Stalin. The intellectual, the artist, the dissenter, disappeared.”
I looked back at her again. She had turned to her friend sitting across from her, her hands placed in her lap. The girl sitting next to her turned to her and they made eye contact without saying anything.
“The good news is that thanks to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers, Democracy in American has been healthy so far,” piped the little old man, a strand of white hair sticking up. The Dean rose instantly and shook hands with the historian.
“Past his bedtime,” Gould said, leaning over to me, and I nodded, smiling.
Salad plates were cleared.
Then the dinner plates were brought forward. Dinner arrived at our table, chicken breast, stuffed with wild rice and mushroom, parsley and a slice of orange on a leaf of curly lettuce as a garnish. “Not bad,” Dove said, grinning.
“They must want more money out of us,” Gould said. I watched her look down, her knife and fork in her hands. She put the fork to her mouth. I bit my lip.
Duchamp came to the podium.
I looked down at the table. She looked down at the table before her. I looked down obediently at my plate for a moment, then back at her as she turned toward Duchamp. Then she looked down again.
“The scene is wintertime and Ivan, the middle of the Karamazov brothers, a questioning atheist of the rationalist sort--you know the type--has beaten a drunken peasant unlucky enough to fall into his path…”
Ivan came back and picked up the peasant and took him to an inn. And then schoolboys were throwing rocks at each other. Then something about this youngest brother Alyosha, and precocious child named Kolya.
I looked down at the table again, the candles lit, and the two of us, facing each other, as if we were at the same table. I put my hand on the table and imagined her hand being there.
“Alyosha, has brought the schoolboys together.” Our plates were clean now and the room was silent. “They have all gathered at the boy’s bedside. The dog jumps up on the bed, licking him in the face. ‘Zutchka,’ the boy cries. At the deathbed, the schoolboys standing…”
The candlelight flickered and I felt her sitting there.
“The simple ‘Hurrah for Karamazov,’ from the boys, at the end,” the man said, his voice thickening, “brings us a moment. Our participation is equal to our presence. The boys are thinking of their own achievement, and yet they are also to enjoy a sense of displacement, of visitation. And we can imagine, the young man who has seen this terrible drama unfold so painfully in his family, with all parties asking and deserving sympathy, Dimitri brought to the same recognition by a stranger placing a pillow under him as he sleeps in the courtroom, we can imagine this young man, inhabiting, as if from a distance, a freedom from the illusion of self. And for a moment being able to pass it to his little flock, his fellows, seeing it in them. That is one moment of education. Alyosha is awake, an artist, for his work, and the schoolboys are with him there, in this quiet scene that comes at the end of this long, strange mystery, that brings it all together.”
I watched him turn his head away. There was silence and then applause. He stood for a moment and then his tall figure slipped away in long strides. Dessert was served. There was more clicking of silverware and plates, jokes back and forth, and smiles over coffee and tea. The lights went up.
I stood up at the drink dispensers at the front and poured myself a glass of milk. The Princess came forward, her friends imitating her expression as they followed in her footsteps. I turned and faced her as she came forward. She went past me, looking off in the distance like there was a horizon.
Maybe I was about to say something. Maybe I was just about to say hi. But I let her go past me. I held the short bubbleglass in my hand. I walked slowly to the coat racks. I heard a bit of laughter far up ahead.
I was the poet of the town. No one knew it. Maybe they thought I was even the idiot, but that was okay. You didn’t have to go and announce it anyway. It was just something you had in your soul. That was where words came from anyway. Maybe it was from your mom showing you Emily Dickinson’s grave, behind a shop on the main strip. What mattered was that you cared enough to lose yourself and become other people. And that was the only way, because it protected you from things you couldn’t take anyway, all that didn’t mean anything.
Duchamp knew it somehow, if he wasn’t an active poet himself. He’d passed that on, knowing he’d help one come to be, if that was all he ever did. There were simply physic laws regarding poets. You just needed someone to be as he was meant to be, just letting him be, as he would be. That was a fine thing to learn, and maybe you couldn’t learn it until you were completely defeated, so as to lose some part of yourself.
Maybe it’s a hard thing for another to see in someone, as if then one too is called upon to be.
I took the bus home for Thanksgiving break. There was a dim light above my head, blackness outside the windows, the steady roar of the motor underneath calling out for something in the empty air.
My mom picked me up at the bus station. I saw her waiting outside as the bus rolled up to the curb. She looked around expectantly, shifting her feet as looked up then sideways over at the front of the bus. She couldn’t see me through the tinted window. I looked down and saw her looking toward the door, her sweet poetic lonesomeness, her bright energy, her short lithe frame of endurance. I wanted to cry almost, but I picked my bag up from the seat of the dead-aired bus interior and walked toward the front when it was my turn, toward the low glowing dashboard lights, then turning to go down the runway of the stairs. I went out and she saw me and her hair was short above her face and no one so pure as my mom.
She had an excited smile about her that she had dearly earned. She’d probably been close to giving up, would be a guess of mine. She had found a collection of letters in the rare book room of the Syracuse University Library. Bright and awake, she told me a little bit about them and a little of what they meant about women’s literacy.
“That’s wonderful,” I said. I drove up the dark road, smiling and happy and there would be a sandwich and good sleep there even as it was. Tinkerbell would be there.
My poor sweet beautiful mom, brave little thing, and no one to take care of her, just me and her driving up the road, the night city barren and cold, our jackets on in the car, the heater on, on to the apartment where she lived.
My brother came from Boston and on Thanksgiving Day we went to zoo. We walked past the lions, lounging behind glass in their quarters, the mix of tiny monkeys in their own little habitat, green and warm, next to the chimps. The gorilla sat stooped over, licking up vomit on the cement ground before him. The elephants were outside. The day was mild and one of them kept swinging his hindquarters back and forth, developing a ponderous erection, feeling his oats, his own rhythm in the low winter sun. We had a good chuckle and the elephant kept swaying. “Good for you, Mr. Elephant,” my brother’s look seem to say and I smiled up at him again.
We took the circuitous walk past the wolf pen, the deer hiding in the woods, the bobcats, and the bear, stirring out of his cave, bent over at something. I watched each animal carefully, pondering their limbs, the motions with which they conducted their animal business. I watched the wolf trot on light paws back and forth, back and forth very patiently along the steel bar and chain link fence, looking for a way out, looking for a way out. Each time he came to the end of the fence he turned around in the same automatic way, turning his neck with the same rhythm each time, his legs following underneath him, springing on his paws, like slowly beating a drum.
At the end of the vacation I took the bus back to Amherst, practicing telling the story of the little cowboy and his invisible friend the bear. I looked out the tinted windows at the rolling thruway landscape. I wasn’t good at telling stories, and I wanted to tell her the story. I called her the next day, after I got back. I wanted to tell her the story of the little cowboy and the big bear and the ending I’d made up for them. It seemed like time for a fresh start.
“Hi,” she said, curtly when she answered the phone.
“How was your break?”
There was a pause on her end.
“I missed the shit out of you,” I said, relieved to hear her voice again. It seemed to express a little bit of how I felt, like I was a tree full of water about to be tapped.
“You missed the shit out of me,” she said, slowly, word by word.
“Yes.” It was one of those things you can’t control. I was full of monkeys and bears and wolves and elephants and all sorts of creatures that wanted to call out.
“Oh,” she said, backing away from the phone, holding it out at arm’s length by the sound of it. I could hear her anger, at the inappropriateness that was me.
“Look, I know that’s not a good way to put it, but it’s true.”
“How could you say such a thing?” she shouted. “God.”
“That’s not how I meant to say...”
“No! That’s not what anyone would say,” she said bitterly, enunciating each word like a small blow upon a hand.
“I guess not.”
“Why can’t you just be normal? I’m not interested in you. Can’t you get it? Why do you keep bothering me?”
“Uh, I... I thought you were just being difficult.”
“Oh!” Her voice backed away again from the phone. “You admit it! You thought I was just being difficult,” she said loudly, adding another huff, before coming back to hit again.
“I was just being honest.”
“You’re a sadomasochist! That’s what you are, a sadomasochist.”
There was a pause, while more wind gathered in her sails to find another tack.
“I approve of everything you do,” I said, not far above a whisper.
She didn’t say anything.
“I’m just trying to be myself. I know I sound crazy sometimes. I can’t help it.”
She held the line, in remarkable silence and stillness.
“They were just white. No color,” I said. Maybe she’d been about to say something, but that held her off, remembering the box of roses I’d brought her before.
“I approve of everything you do. Even this.”
Silence came over the phone.
“I’d do anything for you,” I said, feeling a strange depth to my voice like I had a cold. I hadn’t meant to say it. I didn’t want it to be fake or too early. It had come out. “You’re like my hero, or something.”
Then she didn’t say anything again.
And then I said, “Oh, forget it,” as if something were catching up to me. I tried to think of something else to say, but then I said, “Bye,” the air flowing out of me.
And she said, “bye.” Gently, as then it had ended. In a way that sounded understanding.
Then I put the phone back on the hook gently and went back into my room and lay back on the bed without any lights on, just laying there, thinking about everything, as people do sometimes.
Close to the end, I took a walk down by the football field. I came back up the hill. The grass was hard on the bare terraced grass slope. I found myself standing in front of the Chapel, the bright white pillars lit by raised floodlights. Voices sang from within, reverberating off the bricks of the two old dorm buildings to each side.
A small sign on the door announced the Vespers Concert. I came up the flight of worn stone steps hearing the music and the singing came down toward me. I slipped quietly past an older couple into a spot in the corner in the last pew. I hadn’t shaved. I didn’t have my glasses on. I kept my army jacket on.
The figures on stage were singing, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem,” the music swelling over the crowd, faces shining in the bright light. “Lamb of God,” the voices sang, crossing over each other, fugue-like.
Then people were standing, moving forward. I went out the back door, ahead of the older couple. I turned and stood at the bottom of the steps. They passed without looking at me. I walked down toward the dining hall. The crowd was talking out front of the Chapel, everyone smiling.
I found Gould and Rosenstern in Annex, sitting at a front table. I was chewing on my salad when she sat down with her friends at the table next to ours.
“How’s your novel coming?” Gould said aloud so they could hear it.
“Oh, I’ve put it on the shelf for awhile. Letting it marinate I guess.” I cut a Swedish meatball in half with the side of my fork.
I walked back to my room and started packing for Christmas break. I called her from the black phone on the wall outside my door.
“Hello.” It was the roommate.
“Hi, may I speak to Jessica please.”
“One moment,” she said.
“Hello?” It was her voice, high and clear.
“Hi, it’s Jamie.”
“Oh, hi,” she said.
“Uhm, I just wanted to wish you a Merry Christmas,” I said. My voice was a whole lot rougher than I had planned. Maybe I was getting a cold.
“Thank you,” she said happily. “Merry Christmas to you, too.”
“Thanks,” I said, my voice about to crack. “Well, I mean it.”
“Yes,” she said.
I turned from the phone on the wall outside my door to look out the open door. Just then big light flakes of snow began twirling down before the dark hemlocks behind the house.
“Oh, look,” I said. “It’s starting to snow out.”
“Is it? How nice,” she said.
“Well,” I said, my voice getting rough again, “okay. I’ll let you go.”
I put the phone back down and looked out at the open doorway into the darkness. The snow had stopped.
I took the bus home for Christmas break. Christmas Eve, after we read Dylan Thomas aloud, It’s a Wonderful Life came on.
“Discouraged,” my brother said, repeating what the angel said about George Bailey’s predicament. “That’s so perfect.”
I watched George Bailey go down to the bar. I watched him talking into the back of his hand as he drank, wiping his mouth. I had to crouch at the foot of my mom’s bed to watch.
Then later on George Bailey was back on the bridge and the snow starts falling again. I filled up.
Later we all went to bed. I lay down on my stomach under the blankets and hugged the pillow in my arms, resting my head on it, pretending, wishing it were her.
When I woke on Christmas morning the tree had fallen slightly to the side. Mom and I fixed it, retying the fishing line that held it in place. I mumbled something.
“Don’t swear. It’s Christmas,” my mom said. My brother was still sleeping.
The plastic we had put up on the windows was holding well enough, the winter light out on the street opaque through it.
I went for a drive up to the old road after the holiday visits were over. I stopped by the low snowbank cut by the plow at the top of the first rise, at the bottom of the road, the road narrowing beyond as it climbed into the woods. I got out and stood and looked over the frozen reservoir. I went down and through the opening along the concrete dam. Ice had caught the bent cattail husks. I walked out on the ice, shuffling my feet forward across a dusting of snow.
I lay down on my back on the ice. I looked up at the sky, gray from end to end, moving onward, unchanging.
There had been a great blue heron that came in the summertime to the reservoir. I’d get up early in the morning and bicycle down the road with my father’s camera to try to capture it on film. I’d wait patiently by the edge of a grassy point, the blue-bodied dragonflies buzzing in and out over the bank as the sun grew warm, the water beginning to smell awake in its own dark green algae way. The bird would appear suddenly, taking off low over the green water, its wings beating by some slow prehistoric method of flight. I snapped once or twice a few hasty pictures of the bird from a distance against the sky, coming in over the trees at the far end of the water, a few of it taking to flight from the cove, but the photos never did justice to the bird or to the way it flew or to the color of its feather. We wondered what a bird like that was doing so far north, but there it was each summer, standing on long legs atop of the dam. I never got a good picture of it, but it was enough that it came to our little reservoir.
We’d see the heron from the car, my mom and I. If she saw it by herself, she always told me about it later.
When I got back I walked up to the Chapel to look at the list, a piece of paper on the bulletin board of the department chair, names typed out in two columns. A list. One was a girl who wouldn’t kiss me when I stood in her doorway one night. The quiet guy doing Kerouac had grown a beard. Never had a lot to say. I’d never seen him drink a beer once. My name wasn’t on the list.
I stepped out the door and looked over the quadrangle. The cold air was thick, heavy like water.
I went to the library to write the Princess a letter, just to get things straightened out in my own head as much as anything else. I worked on it in the afternoon at the library, looking out the window now and then, ‘til it was dark out. I was standing in line in the dining hall minding my own business when I saw her come up the spiral staircase with two of her girlfriends.
“Oh, fuck,” I said, under my breath, but it came out loud enough, lip-readable.
She stood still for a second at the top of the stairs, looking down at the floor, so that her friends would lead. The two girlfriends led her away behind me toward the middle of the three upstairs dining halls.
“What the hell is she doing back,” I said to myself.
“Hey, I got Green Hills of Africa for you.”
I turned around. Junior guy from Ohio, long hair. Good kid. Peale.
“I got it in my bag. Out in the hall.”
It took a moment to register. I looked at him.
So I left the line and followed the kid with long hair back down the hall, passing the line where she was standing.
She stood there at the end of the line, her head down.
I followed the guy to the shelves in the entryway. Peale reached into his bag and pulled out a green-covered paperback.
“Thanks a lot, man,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s supposed to have some good parts about writing. Yeah, the dude liked hunting,” Peale said, smiling, shifting his weight to his other foot and brushing his long hair back to the side of his head.
“You can keep it man, I don’t need it,” Peale said.
“No, I’ll just... I’ll be done with it by the end of the month.”
“No, keep it.”
I nodded. “Thanks,” I said.
I passed by her again as I walked back to the line. She looked down at her feet as I came by.
Later that week I went by the Office of Career Counseling. She was sitting at the end of a big table in the room of brochures. I came in and sat down in the open chair next to her. I looked around the room at the different people there, Jones, with his hair wet from lacrosse practice in his puffy down coat.
“Hi,” she said, looking forward at the papers before her.
“What are you doing back?”
“I thought I’d look for some summer internships. Do something beneficial in the world,” the Princess said, lifting her voice a tone above her normal register.
I looked over, craning slightly down at her collection of folders and stapled papers. “Uh-huh.”
She wrote something down carefully in her wire-bound notebook.
I glanced over the table, at the papers, folders and pamphlets before everyone. “I thought I was going to be working on my thesis but they cut me,” I said.
She looked down at her stack of folders, eyes open slightly wider.
I shrugged. “Oh well. Wasn’t cut out for it, I guess.”
She looked down, closer to herself.
“So, what are these organizations you’re looking at?”
“Many are in Washington. Nonprofits,” she said.
I turned away from her and looked around the room. She looked down, engaged in her papers. “This one is dedicated to the elimination of nuclear weapons.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s cool.”
I scratched my head. I had it in my mind that I was going to go home and write something.
“Uh, I got to get going,” I said.
“Okay,” she said, tilting her head just slightly away from me, gently.
I stood and walked out of the room. I stopped to glance at a newspaper, and some guy I knew came up to talk to me about banking jobs. A quiet poetic girl from my class came out and patted me on the side of my arm below my shoulder. “See you later, Jamie,” she said, her look strangely full, quite unlike herself, I thought.
I got back to my room. I was going to write like Ernest Hemingway. I pulled out a piece of paper. I ended up not writing anything.
The next week of the January term I went to a hockey game. I kept warm in my walks by wearing layers, a sweater, Ike jacket, a barn coat on top. I came in to the arena and sat down next to Vincent. She was sitting up a row to my right.
“So what do the lines mean?” Vincent asked. “I’ve never understood that.”
“You can’t put your player across that front line toward the goalie there before the puck crosses it. That way you can’t have someone up waiting by the goalie before the puck even gets up there. And if you’re back defending, you can’t shoot the puck all the way back across the three lines, just to get rid of it. That’s called icing.”
“It lets you get reorganized, I guess. The referee brings the puck back all the way and there’s a face off.” I had my hands in my pockets, leaning comfortably back against the bench row behind.
“What’s a face off? It sounds bad.”
“The man with the stripes gets everyone to stand still and drops the puck into play. You know, when the two guys slap at the puck with their sticks?”
“Yes, I’ve seen that. How do you know all this?”
“This is what they do in my hometown on a Saturday night.”
Vincent got up and left. I glanced over at her, her face bathed in the light reflected off the ice as she looked out over the scene.
I slid up one bench, now on the same bench where she was sitting, with no one in between. She had an open look on her face as she looked out over the ice as the lines were changed, a willingness to smile. She turned to her friend Daria, leaning agreeably over to her, not saying anything, looking down then up.
I sat for another moment with my hands beside me resting on the bench. I got ready to slide over toward her across the empty space.
Three underclassmen came along. I hadn’t see them coming until they were climbing up the bleacher rows toward the open space between us. They were freshmen.
“There’s a party down at B-Dorm,” I said, loud enough so she would hear. The final buzzer sounded. She got up quickly and left, disappearing through the crowd in the brightly lit foyer.
I went down to B-Dorm. My buddies. I didn’t have anything to say. I looked out the window and saw her walking across the icy field below the art museum with the two tall sophomores from the basketball team. They walked across the slope thirty yards away to the entrance to the dorm just up the hill, the old chemistry building. The guys swaggered forward, hands in their lettermen jackets. She lagged behind slightly. She looked down as she followed them in. I looked at my watch. It was past one.
Walking home along a back street I stopped. The moon was in the sky behind a light wisp of silver cloud hanging above the town. Both of us were alone, one of each of us, everyone else having gone to bed, but for a few stars.
The next day I went to the dining hall for lunch and then afterward to the mailroom, walking slowly, letting the heels of my cowboy boots scrape along. I heard a scraping noise behind me. I glanced over my shoulder. She was walking up the path with Bobbi, scraping the ground with the souls of her shoes, hunched over, head down, moving slowly, hands deep in her pockets, as if imitating a depressed person.
They came up past me in a hurry. “Going to Casino?” I asked them, perking up suddenly in a Cockney accent like Marty Feldman. She walked with her friend, not answering. She turned to her friend, a shorter pretty redhead, asking her in a confiding way leaning close to her.
“Are you going?” she asked the redhead, aloofly, as if Casino were something disagreeable. “Are you,” the redhead asked her. Then her answer was muffled, gone in the distance they had put between us and the thickness of coats.
Casino Night, I took my time getting ready. I putzed around in my room. I didn’t really feel like going for a while, but then I got dressed. I kept my glasses on.
The room was crowded, steam on the windows, warm, almost prickly. Everyone had arrived already, packing into the room, and my appearance, at eleven must have been one of the last. I had a glass of champagne. Tables covered by white table clothes had been set up about the room offering various games of chance. Klein, the guru of Diplomacy, was dealing black jack, surrounded by his fans. Gurnsey, the popular philosophy professor, who attended toga parties, held court over the crowd gathered, eager to laugh, at the plastic roulette wheel table. Girls sat around at gaming tables and bingo, their dates charmed.
There was a large vertical wheel with numbers on it to be called. I came past a table with a woman student wearing a tight sequined outfit. I kept my eyes up to her face, and so she caught my attention.
“Don’t you want to play?” she asked. “It’s for a good cause.”
“No. Got a gambling problem. Runs in the family.”
She looked at me. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
“I suppose.” I didn’t feel like stopping and talking to anyone. That always seems to interfere with my natural thoughts. I hurt all over anyway, and nothing could really change that, except for one thing.
I stood quietly at the back of the room surveying the crowd. I saw her across on the other side of the room, standing in between tables. She was wearing a plain white blouse. She had a glass of champagne in her hand.
She was with a long-faced long-nosed boy I’d seen her with before.
Hersh came up to me.
“Hey, Jamie, I’m sorry I missed your birthday.”
“You didn’t miss much. I went to see Blue Velvet by myself. Fell asleep in the movie theater.” I raised my glass. “Cheers.” I was a bit ashamed about spending my birthday alone. It had been a shitty night, the worst kind of freezing rain, pouring sleet. I’d seen her in the dining hall at a big round table. I was thinking about saying something to her, but then Bill Richards corralled me, and then I got a ride back up the hill, and all alone in my room on my birthday in January wasn’t any fun either.
Hersh looked around. “So is ‘The Queen’ here?” That’s what they'd called her at her school in the City, Hersh had explained to me, knowing some acquaintances. I didn’t know who it said more about. I couldn’t imagine anyone really calling her that but as a protest against her crown. But maybe she had an imperious way of making you feel like you were the one doing something wrong, never herself.
“I brought a cigar,” he said, surveying the outer edge of turning events. “She’s with that guy again,” said Hersh, looking across the room, rolling his eyes.
She lofted a cork back over her shoulder into the crowd, putting her arm down quickly, facing forward. She laughed gaily.
Her two friends came toward me on their circuit of the room. I reached out for the balloon strings attached to the back of a nearby chair, pulling the balloons toward me just as they came by. I let the balloons go and they passed me. They stood nearby and then they moved on.
The night went on, and I drank champagne, a bit thirsty but relaxed, perfectly under control on my side of the room, but for the occasional pang of loneliness when I saw a couple.
Then the lights came up. I walked back to the hall to get my coat. Two big guys stood drinking vodka straight from the bottle by the coats. “Here,” the close one said, “take a swig.”
“Thanks, man,” I said, handing the bottle on to the second one, a heavy kid with a crew cut, wiping my lips with the side of my hand.
She and the boy came by and she sat at the edge of the table just across the hallway, the kid standing. He sat down next to her, hunched forward, silent, then saying something. She looked forward as the kid spoke to her. The football players handed me the bottle again so I took another swig. She sat, swinging her feet back and forth, listening for some particular note.
I stood outside of the dining hall watching from a distance as the kid walked her down the sidewalk.
The bulletin board hung next to the open door. I stepped back from the wall as I looked at the listings. H. Kermit Strong had served as Acting President my freshman year. He’d been here as long as anyone.
“Hello,” the old man said, turning, his eyebrows raised, his cheeks ruddy. “What’s going on?” he said, a twinkle of a wink in his eye, a gentle grin.
“Oh, just out wandering, I guess.” I shrugged my shoulders and looked down and couldn’t help smiling.
“Hmmm,” he said. He moved one piece of paper over onto a neat stack, the next one before him. “Wandering. That’s good,” he said, distracted for a moment, waiting for a beat of energy to come through the Universe as it would. “Good way to enter into the dream of the novel. Essential part of reading, to keep free from distractions.” He found what he was looking for apparently, and raised a sheet of paper closer to his eyes. “What else can you do? We read all these books, but we don’t learn much about the people who write them.”
“No, not much I guess,” I said, my hands in my pockets, agreeing.
He looked down over the desk, arms propped on his knuckles, his silver hair combed back over his head, dark on the sides, his brows dark.
There were two wooden armchairs before the desk. He turned toward one, and we both sat down.
“Some people who graduate here become writers, of different sorts. Some work for ad agencies, some for television. You have to pay your bills.” He folded his hand together, tightening his brow. “I kept in touch with one fellow who was writing dialogue for stag films,” he said, leaning forward. “But that would ruin you.”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “I bet it’s hard to get by in New York.”
The old man leaned forward again, bringing his hand to the cuff of his turtleneck. Out in the darkness, the wind caught a clump of snow hanging on a branch somewhere above, the crystals dissolving away in the light of the window.
“Tolstoy wanted to do himself in before he discovered what he wanted out of life. For a while he was afraid to go out of the house with a shotgun. Dante climbs out of the dark forest back into the light. These guys had to write. They had to go through a feeling of futility.” He leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head, stretching his back. “Think of Odysseus. Twenty years of war, adventure, temptations, the bizarre, hostile world one travels in. Protecting your artistic self when there’s no immediate pay-off, that’s the bravest thing there is. Bravest thing you can do.”
“But having to write, that’s like admitting you’re some sort of cripple, isn’t it?”
“No. It’s simply seizing a form of expression that one naturally gravitates to. It might feel like a losing battle, maybe, but you have to fight it. Got no choice. That’s how it is. There’s no other way to do it.” He looked at me.
I nodded to him.
“You just have to be working on something. Then it will figure itself out.” He leaned back in his chair. “So don’t ever let ‘em mess with your swing.” He leaned forward and I took it to be time to go.
I saw myself out and went up the hall and up the narrow stone steps to the first floor, past the shadowed doorframes toward the exit light.
I walked out into the cold, down the hill, across the road. The air was thin, extending to the stars, the same empty stuff and nighttime. I crossed the old footbridge over the railroad tracks. I walked up the sandy road through the woods, ruts in the icy pine needles, to the observatory, leaving the lights of the street behind. The trees closed in on me pitch black, and then I was at the edge of the clearing. I edged forward into the darkness, the bulk of the observatory glowering before me. I walked across the open field, the pasture grass bent down by a crust of snow.
I found my way down the pasture and through the hedge at the low end of the field into the classical garden, boxwood hedgerows arranged by pebbled paths. I stepped along the hedge to a bench in the middle of a rectangle, not far from the sleeping mansion. A Grecian statue of a woman stood at the end. I liked to look at her face. I’d look at her and ask her questions and she’d try to tell me something behind her stone expression. She had been covered with a wooden box.
I brushed the stone bench off and sat down. I wanted to bring her down here one night. It would be warm then and we would sit there in the night under the stars far away from campus pretending it was our garden. We’d sit there on the bench together and finally we’d talk. We’d talk and she would see how I wasn’t crazy and how I believed in myself, how I believed in time and work.
I sat there on the bench, my hands along the front edge, leaning forward. I closed my eyes.
I didn’t know it took bravery. I didn’t know what bravery was. I was just doing what I thought was the right thing to do, the thing the books and all the learning called you to do. I was just being myself, what I had always been, who I always was, who I always would be.
Then I was walking toward the path down through the hedge to the road. I looked back, the vapor of the house lifting away in the cold from a side pipe. I made it through the gap in the hedge to the sidewalk. I stood underneath the row of old beech trees. The road lay bare, frozen, particles of ice twirling in tiny currents along the surface. And maybe some of us are just meant to be like that, swirling along, over a road somewhere that doesn’t mean anything, just loneliness in the night.
The sun got a little stronger, the days a bit longer. I needed Carlson, my advisor, to sign off on my choices for classes my final semester. It came down to the last day to turn the form in to the Registrar’s Office. Carlson had his office hours on Fridays from one to two. I walked up to the Chapel at one thirty, the form tucked in under my belt. I came to the door just as he had come out of the Chapel, a tall fine blond woman like a sailing ship following in his wake. He did not look at me as he passed.
“Mr. Carlson, I wondered if you look this over for me,” I said, halted in my tracks.
Carlson stopped and turned toward me. I reached under my sweater and pulled out the form, holding it out for him. He took the form, a large index card, into his hand and gave it a quick look through his reading glasses. He didn’t say anything.
“Here’s a pen,” I said.
The woman froze. I looked up to her face again, to find her eyes, and she looked straight at me. I looked down at my sleeve. A thread was coming undone and I tucked it in underneath with my palm. She stood perfectly still, except for a slight turn of her head, as her eyes kept focus on me.
Carlson glanced through the form.
“Thanks,” I said.
The woman looked down, her cheekbone touched by a strand of hair that she brushed away with a light smile. She cast her eyes down, and they walked off down the hill together, resuming their inaudible conversation. He leaned in toward her slightly, saying something.
I put the form back under my sweater, and turned without looking back, stepping up to the door and entering the hallway. I walked up to the bathroom with the old fixtures, a quiet place with a smoked window. I washed my hands and stood in front of the mirror looking at my face staring back at me.
Then I was ready. I walked down to the Registrar’s Office in the old library. There was a line. I came closer to the desk. Then the woman at the computer took my form. She looked down at the green screen and clicked a few things on the keypad. “Okay,” she said, smiling quickly up at me.
I turned. The Princess stood in line about ten people behind. As I went past her in the narrow passage I moved my elbow out the slightest inch, brushing her arm. She was looking down too, just as I was, wearing her overcoat, just like I was. Her arm met the touch of mine, an elbow gently against her upper arm, just for a moment as I passed.
The Princess entered the dining hall just as I was about to leave after lunch. I was putting my dad’s old cashmere overcoat on, careful of one of the sleeve linings. She came past the television room and turned to the cafeteria line. She unbuttoned the new red overcoat she had since Christmas break. Tossing her hair back, she slipped her arms from her coat, about to place it on a hook. The rack with a row of hooks stood between us.
My arms still stuck out straight, I went stiff all over, hands out straight, fingers parted. I watched her and my legs became stiff like the rest of me, heavy and unbending. I moved forward, my feet coming down with the massive crashing sounds I made with puffed cheeks.
I moved slowly toward her. My monstrous eyes stared straight. She stood where she was, hanging her coat up on the right hook, eyes forward. She tossed her head back, straightening her hair flat behind her.
I moved forward, stiff, slow and menacing. “RRRRGH,” I roared softly from deep down in my throat. I flailed my stiff cement arms around clumsily. She stood there.
She didn’t moved. I had my arms out straight, webbed iron hands at the ready, the final space between us.
The monster stopped in his tracks. He pondered his monster direction. Monster thoughts went through his mind. The monster looked around with his beady eyes for a moment, pondering his situation. The monster roared tentatively at her.
“Are you a monster?” she asked, without raising her voice.
I roared quietly one more time, in the affirmative. I lowered my arms. The monster stood deflated in his tracks. “Urrrr,” he released, looking down at the ground.
Then I was standing there mutely before her, a big sad idiot. “Um, yeah,” I said softly.
She turned, narrowing her eyes, moving on now, tossing her head back slightly with a hint of a smile. She stepped forward slowly, pushing off.
I moved away into the foyer. Kareem jumped up from the couch in the television lounge.
“Hey, Warren Beatty, we’re having a party tonight.”
“You’re going to come, right?”
“Sure. Later on.”
Around midnight I came up to the dormitory building down by the railroad tracks, pulling the glass door open. It was her building. The party was up on her floor. I did not expect her to be there, even if the party was across the hall. She might as well be out of town. I could hear the party above me. Sophomores, having a beer party, music being played in one of the four social rooms, the door kept open. I came up to the top of the stairs.
I heard the small titter of a small crowd. A few heads turned with merry faces, Kareem, the host, a groomed smile, his slick black hair combed back. He came forward. “Hello, my friend.” I shook his hand. “I’m glad you could make it.”
“Thanks.” I looked around for a cup.
“Are you drunk?”
“We’re out of beer.”
I looked at him. I looked over at the keg in the trashcan.
A skinny kid came up to us, on the verge of jumping up and down.
“The keg is kicked,” the kid shouted in a high voice, twirling around. “The keg is kicked! No more beer.” His eyes looked off over my shoulder.
“No more beer! The fucking keg is kicked,” he sang, beginning to jump up and down. “Don’t you understand?” he yelled, leaning his head back.
“No one talks to a senior that way,” I said.
The music from the portable boom box stereo stopped. I stepped forward and the crowd parted. I walked out and down the steps. I was halfway down the first flight when I heard them singing above.
“Jessica Dorfmann’s boyfriend, Jessica Dorfmann’s boyfriend...”
More voices joined in unison, laughing out loud.
“Jessica Dorfmann’s boyfriend,” they sang, louder now, leaning out over the balcony. “Jessica Dorfmann’s boyfriend.”
I went down the stairs without looking back, across the next landing, down each step to the bottom. I pushed the door open, one of those glass ones in a stainless steel frame with a light steel bar across it, the kind you find on store fronts.
I stepped out into the cold and walked away.
I had tried to call her several times from the library on three separate afternoons roughly the same time. Each time the Princess’s roommate Laura answered, and each time I got the same story, no, she was not there. Okay, thanks, thanks a lot. I didn’t think she’d be at the party.
I watched the band set up.
“Let’s go have a glass of scotch,” Martinez said.
“Okay,” I said. I didn’t really feel like drinking, but what the hell, I followed Martinez up the grand staircase. He had a room up on the second floor at the front of the house.
“Here,” Martinez said, handing me a short neat glass of good scotch. Martinez leaned back. We were drinking from the crystal tumblers his old man the doctor had given him. His eyes darted around, checking on the pile of books.
“So how’s your thesis going?”
“It’s going pretty good. It’s a lot of work. Pshoo.” He told me I looked like Joyce again. The thesis was something he wanted to do. He wanted to write plays. He had been pre-med the first two years.
We went downstairs and stood by the mantle of the fireplace in the ballroom of the house. The band was playing, getting warmed up.
I saw the Princess come in the room with her girlfriend, the Greek one. They came and stood at the other end of the mantle. I didn’t even look at her. I picked up my glass and took a sip.
“Would you like another? Let’s go back upstairs,” Martinez said.
“No, I’m fine.” I looked at the band playing. “I’ll probably just go get a beer.”
I handed the glass back to Martinez.
“I’m going to go do a little bit more work,” Martinez said, and went back upstairs.
I went down to the basement where the tap was. I walked back through the plywood-paneled hallway to the stairs the beer in my hand, taking a sip off it so it wouldn’t spill. I went and stood against the wall of the front hallway, the double doors to the ballroom to my right, the front door and windows opposite.
Vincent came in the front door and saw me standing there. He stood against the wall next to me.
“I’m going to go get a beer. You want one?”
“Nah, no thanks. I got one.”
He came back later and stood along the wall with me. I didn’t have much to say.
He leaned against me and I put my arm over his shoulder.
“Are you doing alright?” he asked.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” I watched them come and go. I could hear the music fine. I felt far away.
Two young girls came out of the ballroom. I guessed they came from Smith. One, a short girl, with bobbed hair, looked over at us standing there. She leaned over to her friend.
“Oh my god, look at those two gay guys over there hugging each other,” the one said, trying to be quiet.
I laughed out loud and smiled, looking at them. The one was embarrassed and walked past us. The girl looked very young. She had not expected to be noticed. I watched them walk quickly away. I thought about going to catch them and take them out dancing, but I didn’t feel like it.
The Princess came out and stood with her girlfriend near the front door. The kid she was with at Casino Night had just come in. He took his coat off, throwing it over the top of a chair. Then they were all laughing over some introductory joke and the kid was enjoying her company. It was nice to watch, after all.
I could not miss seeing them. I saw how gay she was, how charmed the kid was. She was drinking something from a cup, bringing it up to her lips, smiling over it. She appeared quite happy, talkative, smiling broadly, convivially laughing. I warmed up to it. I couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but I saw the kid’s delight now that he was accepted into her presence in public. I looked away.
The band was playing well, moving on to familiar songs. She walked by with her entourage through the double doors of the ballroom. “Fine with me,” I thought as she walked past, showing herself in profile, as if she were watching me out of the very corners of her eyes. I felt there was some sort of interest with which she watched me.
The kid had passed by me. All he knew was that he was going to the dance floor with her.
Bill Richards arrived. He had been studying. “Come on, Jamie,” he said in imitation of a geology professor, “let’s go examine the dance floor.”
We crossed through the double doors into the ballroom, the music louder. The band was playing mellower music now, a decent rendition of the Modern English song that everyone liked to sing along with.
“I’ll stop the world and melt with you,” the crowd half-shouted atonally, along with the band. Then the band did the quiet part. I was standing toward the back.
Then the band went into an Elvis Costello.
“Allison, my aim is... true,” the crowd sang along with the guitar player. I thought how it was nice music to dance to if you had a girl.
I heard something indistinctly from somewhere on the dance floor, half-noticing it.
“Hey,” I felt Bill poking me. “Did you see that?”
“No, what’d I miss?” I said, leaning forward to hear Bill, so I could hear him.
“She was dancing with that skinny kid and then all of a sudden she’s gone.”
I looked around. She was gone. The kid was gone.
I listened to the band for a little while longer. Then I left the dance floor and walked back out into the hall. The Princess was nowhere to be seen.
I walked past the front door. It was a cold night out. I went downstairs for another beer. I was drinking through the top foam—the kid at the tap was a bit rude, I thought--when I saw the kid pacing around in the corner of the basement. He was frantic about something, going over some sort of conversation, wringing his hands, throwing them up in the air, pulling at his hair almost.
I had never been like that. I walked away, leaving the kid down in the basement.
I walked up the steps and stood by the door, just inside the ballroom, sipping my beer contentedly. It tasted good. The band had stopped, and the lights had come up.
The kid was paying for it now. The kid was down in the basement still, blaming himself. Maybe she did that to a lot of people, being a princess and all.
I wondered why I hadn’t had another beer earlier. I saw the Greek girlfriend of hers looking at me. She stood her ground.
I went downstairs for another beer and the kid was still there, pacing.
The next day I went and sat in the library after brunch. I was looking out the window, an open notebook in front of me, when Peter came by.
“What are you doing, Beastie?”
“I’m going to take out Phantom of the Opera. You want to watch it?”
“Yeah, the original.”
“When are you going to watch it?”
“In about an hour or so.”
“Maybe. I’d like to.”
“Okay. If you want to just come by later.”
“I’m going to write for awhile, I think.”
Peter looked at me for a moment.
“Yeah, I’m going to try to get some work done.”
“Alright. I’ll catch you later.”
“I’ll be done before dinner.”
Peter walked back to the doors leading out to the mezzanine above the lobby, carpeted orange.
I sat there awhile, looking down from time to time at the blank page before me. “The original,” I said to myself.
I gathered my papers and walked out to the mezzanine, then down the stairs, past the reading room with the lounge chairs out through the magnetic detector by the front desk and out the doors, down the steps. The quad lay before me.
I went into town to find her Valentine card at the store where I had found the birthday card for my father. I found this Gary Larson card with a warthog in the picture, warthogs at a party. Two lady warthogs are seated at a table, a guy warthog in a Hawaiian shirt standing, looking over at them. “Oh, if it isn’t God’s gift to warthogs,” one of the lady warthogs says to the other, rolling her eyes, the guy warthog doing his best to look suave.
I put a line through the greeting, “Happy Birthday, you party animal.” I wrote in “Happy Valentine’s Day” above the line I crossed out. I addressed it to her college post office box, and dropped it in the mail slot in the mailroom after lunch the next day. She would get it by Valentine’s Day.
Valentine’s Day came. I went to the mailroom after lunch. I opened my box. There was a card in it. I pulled it out, along with some college announcements. It was from my mother.
That night I sat down with Gould and Rosenstern at dinner. The Princess’s friends came and sat down at the next table. Each time I glanced over another seemed to be looking at me.
I called her later in the week.
Friday night after dinner I walked down the hill to her dorm, opening the glass door and walking up to the third floor. I knocked on the outer door to the main room, but no one answered so I opened the door and walked in across the room. Steps lead down to a landing, four rooms off the landing, two on each side, the bathroom straight ahead.
“Hello-oh,” I said, knocking on her door, and after a moment and some indistinguishable noises she came, opening the door. She looked up at me. She came out, slipping past him into the bathroom, not saying anything. “Hi,” I said, after her.
She went to the sink and raised some water to her face. I turned the water on in the other sink, the one closest to the door, and bent down with my head at the tap to take a quick drink of water. She was not saying anything, and ducked toward the stall, then came around me back toward her room. I let her go forward and then I followed after her. She was flushed.
“I’m sorry, were you taking a nap?”
She stood facing me in the doorway of her room, the door close to her, so that I could not see into the room.
“I was just seeing what you were up to tonight. Nothing, yet, I guess.”
“Why do you come here?” she said, awake now. “We never go out on dates or anything. We never go to movies together or to dinner,” she said calmly, tossing her head back slightly and looking back.
She held the door. She pulled the door closer to her.
“Well that’s ‘cause you’d say no.”
“Well, yeah,” she said, quickly. “Of course. You keep at it anyway.”
“Just ‘cause you analyzed me once,” I said.
She was about to say something.
“There’s nothing about me you wouldn’t like,” I said. I stepped back off a foot, seeing now the full-length mirror off to the side by the steps to the common room.
Something quieted her, and she stood in the doorway, letting it open just a little more, slightly. She looked into my eyes, remembering something.
She raised a scoffing sound as she let what I said register.
“Except personal,” I said looking at her.
She stood there, looking down for a moment, relaxed, if she could have been.
“Well, have a good night,” I said. I climbed the stairs, crossed the social room without looking back, opened the door and left.
I walked into town, bought a six pack of cheap can beer at Russell’s on Main Street and went back up to the house. It was too early for the parties to start. No one was around except Rich, the resident counselor, sitting in front of the television.
I sat down on the couch next to him and cracked open a beer.
“I went by this girl’s dorm room tonight. You know her, the one from Valentine Hall last year I was telling you about.”
“Dorfmann, yeah. Well, anyway, I went up there.”
“‘We never go out,’ she says, like ‘get it through your thick head that I don’t like you one bit.’ Christ.”
The counselor was friendly, but not any good for anything. He looked at me through his round wire-framed glasses, distant from such problems.
“We had a stream running behind my house. The clearest water. It came down through our woods, from the hills above. We’d listen to it through the open windows in the summer when we went to sleep. There was a swamp my brother and I played in. You couldn’t swim in it, but it was nice. Frogs croaking.”
I went down to the party at Chi Phi and planted myself at the end of the bar down in the basement drinking beer. When I got up to pee a stocky woman with short hair, a fine arts major, stood before me in the hallway. “You’re the talk of the party,” she said, smiling at me.
“Oh. How so?” I mumbled.
“All these girls downstairs were talking about you.”
“What?” I said.
“I don’t know, some sophomore girls, I think. Down in the hallway.”
I looked away. “What sort of things?”
“They were saying, ‘Aww, Jamie,’ and things like that.”
“They must have been joking... making fun of me or something.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
I saw two of them, but they didn’t look over at me so I went through the dark hallway to the narrow stairway back up to the dance floor. But then I thought how another of them seemed to look at me out of the darkness as I went up the hallway from the taproom to find the staircase leading up to the central entrance hall of the house. I had missed the look in the darkness, moving forward, but now it partly registered, even though I could only ignore it and just go my own way.
That week I was coming out of the dining hall. I had my arms in my overcoat, straightening it over my shoulders.
“How are you doing?” the fine arts major with the short hair and a face staring at something beyond you said.
“Oh I’m fine, thanks,” I said, trying to smile, coming up with one, nodding to her. I didn’t feel like talking. Behind me I heard a different female voice say, “no, you’re not.”
I turned around behind me as I pushed the door open. A tall young woman, a junior, stood at the desk where they checked your ID so that you could go in and eat. She was looking down at the students raising money for their humor newspaper. She could not help smiling at her own cleverness. She looked away still, as if to offer me something impersonally. I looked back at her for a moment.
I walked away down the ramp, hatless into the cold, the brightness on the melted-down snow of the open yard before the hall.
The next weekend I went to a party down at TD. Barbara Dean stood alone against a wall by the dance floor. She looked a gypsy. I liked the coldness of the look on her face, the absence of expression as she looked back at me, under no illusion. I had a few beers already. We talked for a little while above the music, and then she did not move away. We went downstairs. I had another beer. She lit a cigarette.
“Do you want to go dance?”
“Sure.” She took a puff and put out the cigarette.
We had not danced long when she said it was getting late. “Would you walk me home?”
We went the back way up the quiet street. “I have to pee.” I went to pee by the last house, in the yard, behind some trees. A light went on above the side door of the house, and then a pot-bellied bearded man opened the screen door and peered out from the side porch.
“Could you could please be quiet.” We had been giggling about something, and the connection had already been made and there was nothing to get in its way now.
“And please go to the bathroom somewhere else.”
“Yes, I will. Sorry.”
I gathered myself up.
We walked away taking a right and coming around the low quiet garage. “Sorry about that. I was afraid he was going to call the cops when the light went on, but he was cool about it.”
We came to her house. She lived up on the third floor of the Chi Psi house. “You’re a few doors down from Vincent.”
“Yes, he lives right there.”
“Nice view from his room. I was checking it out.”
We came to her door and she opened it without any questions.
“Would you like a glass of wine?”
She went behind a batik curtain and came back with a glass of red wine. “Fancy. Thanks a lot.”
There was one light on in the room, underneath a tie-dyed bandanna. She lit three candles.
“Do you like Roxy Music?”
“I love Roxy Music.”
She went to a stereo and put in a CD. The first notes came into the dimly lit room flickering with candlelight. She was sitting on the futon.
“Avalon,” I said.
“Yes. Come over here.”
Then we did not waste anytime. And then it was over too soon and I was very tired and I slept.
It was light when I woke, a feeling of electric fuzziness in my head. I reached for my pants. She sat up in bed, pulling the covers up over her high breasts.
“God, I feel like hell,” I said, pulling my pants up.
“There’s some juice in the fridge.”
“That would be good.”
She put a tee shirt on, got up and reached for the small refrigerator, pouring orange juice in a plastic beer cup.
I drank the juice, sitting down in the chair by her desk. I put my shoes on. I stood and turned toward the window.
“Let me check out your view.”
She sat silently, leaning back against the wall behind her bed, her arm draped over toward her side of the bed.
“Well, I gotta go. Probably back to bed.”
“Get some Gatorade.”
“Good idea. How do you feel?”
“Not so bad.
“Well,” I said, finding my coat by the door. “It was nice hanging out with you,” I said at the door, then opening it.
She looked back, though I didn’t really look at her. I did not know what to give her.
No one was in the hall.
It was a sunny day, and I squinted, coming out the side door, looking at my watch to see if I could catch brunch at the dining hall. It was too early. I walked down to the Common and across it to the sidewalk, past the Presbyterian church with the grand old Cadsura tree--my father explained how it had been one of the first in America, brought over as a seedling from Japan--around the town hall and up the hill. It was already there, the guilt.
I went to dining hall at noon. I came out of the line. Bob, Spike, Peter and Stanley were sitting around.
“What’d you do last night?”
“Had sex with Barbara Dean,” I said lowly.
“Arright! Good for you man.”
“Eh,” I said shrugging off the pat on the back.
“Why, eh?” said Stanley.
“I just don’t feel so good about it.”
“Why not? Got some ginchie-ginchie.”
“I don’t know. No, I’m not sorry. Just that...”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s good for you.”
“I guess so.”
I looked down at the burger now that I had dressed it and put the bun back on. I picked up a french fry, eating it. I touched my napkin with my fingertips.
“Maybe it’s just that I feel like hell. Red wine.”
“Oh, you were drinking wine?”
“Well, of course I was pretty drunk. Had a whiskey at happy hour, then beer. Then wine up in her room. Never mixes.”
They all looked at me. I put my hand on my soda glass.
“Bestial One. Beastie Boy.”
“I just get so goddamn lonely, not having a girl. Then I finally can’t take it any longer and I pounce.”
They all laughed at the image.
I looked down at my plate before me and took a tentative bite from the cheeseburger, chewing it carefully before swallowing it. I took a sip of Coke and then I knew I could burp and that it wouldn’t all come back up again.
There were warm days, and then it was cool again. The phone on the wall outside my door rang.
“Hey. What’s going on?”
“Oh, not much, I guess.”
“I need you to do me a favor.”
“I need you to go buy some flowers.”
“And then if you could bring them up to Deb up at Mount Holyoke for me.”
“Good. Do you have fifty bucks lying around?”
“Yeah,” I said, somewhat proudly, though it wasn’t much.
“I’ll send you a check for fifty bucks.”
“What kind of flowers should I get?”
“Just go down to the florists and tell him, I don’t know, a Spring Mix or something and tell him how much you’re spending.”
“Just tell him fifty bucks worth.”
“Yeah, basically. Call him up, and then the next day he’ll have them ready for you.”
“Okay, so you want me to do this when?”
“How about... Saturday, in the afternoon.”
“All right. Yeah, I can just take the bus up.”
“Right. And she lives in Canter Hall. You’ll have to ring at the front desk.”
“The front desk.”
“Yes, you go there and she’ll come down.”
“What if she’s not there?”
“She’ll be there. And if not, you can just leave them and they’ll get to her.”
“Cool. Thanks a lot.”
“So how are things going?”
“Ahhh. All right I guess.”
“You been getting laid at all?”
“Maybe some chick up at Holyoke will see you carrying flowers...”
“And take pity on me.”
“It’ll make them think you got a girlfriend...”
“Which makes you all the more attractive to them,” my brother said, slowly.
“Ah,” I said. “I see how it’s played.” I knew that already.
The next afternoon I walked down into town to the florists. The clerk reached into the cooler for the bundle. The flowers were wrapped in light paper shaped like a flattened cone. It was a good-sized package, light to carry. I walked back with the bundle of flowers and sat on the steps in front of the old library waiting for the campus bus that went by Hampshire and then up the hill to Mount Holyoke. I felt proud of myself. The bus came. I looked out the windows as the bus drove south, stopping at Hampshire College, then up the hill.
Deb came running to the door, as if she had been waiting for me. She looked at the flowers. She was with one of her girlfriends. “These are from your man in Boston,” I said, delivering my line.
“Oh thank you.”
“My pleasure.” I stood there for a moment.
“Thanks again,” Deb said quickly with a prepared smile. “Bye.”
I waited for the bus, watching a few of the Holyoke girls walk up the street, one of them very pretty by the looks of her as she walked away. The bus came--it was sunnier out now--and I got on the bus and the bus rolled away along the bare trees lining the avenue, making a throaty sound underneath the seats. The fairways of the golf course, surprising patches of green, lay separated by stands of pine and fingers of shrunken snow.
Now the bus pulled up the long hill that the college sat up on, taking the right to pull up before the old library. I walked down to the corner in an aimless mood. I was near the stop sign when I saw her coming toward me on the sidewalk across the street. She was walking back from town in her thoughtful way, her ankle rolling her right foot out. Then I knew it was her, seeing the long legs, the way they came into her hips, the demure prettiness of her face even at a distance. I moved so that the stop sign fell in the direct line between us.
There was something about seeing her calves, her feet in light thin shoes like slippers, that made me think of home somewhere, somewhere close, or maybe far off, like a distant light in the sky as it clears after a thunderstorm at dusk in the fall, right as darkness moves in. Her legs made me feel soft and calm, warm inside.
The Princess stopped at the opposite corner and looked before crossing the crosswalk. She checked up the street for traffic coming from Northampton. Then she was gliding across the street and then on the sidewalk. She turned to walk down along the road in the direction of the dining hall. I fell in beside her, walking on the muddy grass between the sidewalk and the snow piles.
“Hey, Pal,” I said gently in a high bird-like voice, cracked slightly in the way a voice is that hasn’t said anything in some time. I was relaxed. Whatever.
I had to look down to avoid the muddier spots.
There was a second or two before she responded, biding her time for the moment. There was a white paper bag in her hand. She was just on the verge of smiling. Her head was tilted to the side away from him, as if she were considering whether or not to taste something placed before her.
“Why don’t you walk on the sidewalk. You’ll ruin your shoes.”
“Oh, thanks.” I looked down at my loafers.
I moved on to the sidewalk proudly beside her. Her smile broadened just slightly.
“How are your classes?”
She allowed another smile, looking ahead.
“What are you taking?”
“An English class, a sociology class, history and an art history.”
“What English class?”
“An English class,” she said loftily. “They’re all the same.”
“Oh,” I said, grinning.
“How are your roommates?” I said, taking a breath in.
“Oh, they’re fine.” Another sort of expression came to her face. “They’re territorial sometimes,” she said quietly.
“Laura is sick. I went into town to get her something.”
“No, just something to make her feel better.”
“Well, that’s very nice of you to take care of your roommates,” I said. “Does she have the flu?”
“Just a head cold.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “Yeah. That’s going around.”
We walked along a bit. The sun was out in full now.
“How are your parents?” I asked.
“They’re fine. They went skiing for the first time, up in Vermont.”
“Hot dog! That’s awesome.”
I walked in step with her, looking over at her. She looked about, the pine boughs swaying lightly in the gentle breeze, at the slope of the land below the art museum.
She bit her lip. I caught a glance at her long golden hair, so close, seeing it’s complexity in the light. I looked down at the silver slippers on her feet.
“I like your slippers,” I said.
“Are you daring to make fun of my silver slippers,” she said, her voice rising in a chiding way.
“No, they’re kind of special.”
We were getting closer to her dorm. She reached into the paper pharmacy bag and pulled out a white stuffed rabbit, clean, plump and immaculate.
“Awwww,” I said, looking down at it, at the way she held it happily. “Wittle Bunny Wabbit,” I said happily, seeing her holding it.
She held the stuffed animal like a baby, smiling in her own radiant way. We were at the door now. I stopped. She stopped and turned to me.
“Are you gonna go see Jungle Book?” I asked, looking down, imitating Bashful. The movie was playing that weekend on campus.
“Walt Disney?” she said, incredulously.
“Well, I’m gonna go see it,” I said.
I watched her open the door. She didn’t say anything. There was a curious expression on her face.
She turned toward the door and then looked back at me. I stood there for a moment, watching her go up to the landing.
I felt so good I went to the library and read from a Hemingway biography, filled with the notion of the great positive force Hemingway’s writing had brought to humanity. I made jottings and mental notes about my project, feeling I had made great progress. I was deep into it when Gould came up to my table. We walked down to the dining hall.
I saw her coming up the hill with two of her girlfriends. I felt reassured by our walk together. I let them pass and go on ahead into the dining hall.
I ate dinner with Gould and lingered around long enough in the foyer 'til she came back with two of her roommates. The sick one, the watchdog, was not joining them tonight. She walked slowly out of the hall down the ramp. I watched her red-coated figure depart into the darkness. I did not worry about it, the chemistry of elation still flowing.
The next day a heavy sleet fell over the entire valley, the sound rustling everywhere, from the ground upward, from the heights of black oaks. It fell on my bare head as I walked down from the hill for brunch. I went to the line at the middle dining hall, West.
The Princess was working behind the line serving scrambled eggs from a stainless bin with a big spoon. I came down the line, sliding my tray along. She turned away as I came in front of her. She stepped away from the line toward the big sink and the radio on the shelf, where a student was washing a large pot. She stood there with her back turned, not doing anything. The full-time woman took up the egg-serving spoon.
I took my plate and put it back down on my tray. I went out and sat down with Vincent. He had taken my picture for the yearbook.
“The Tears are playing down at UMass tonight,” he said.
“They’ve got that song about the rain, right?” I said, testing the potatoes with my fork.
“It’ll be good. It’s a Sunday. What’s there to do on Sunday?”
“Oh, come on.”
I ate my eggs. The movie was playing one final night.
“I’m going to go get a banana,” I said.
I walked toward the second door of the room where the food was served. I could hear the radio behind the line near the back shelves playing the opening riff of My Girl. I picked a coffee cup up from the rack. I went to the fruit bowl and found a suitable banana. She was back at the serving line. I started to open my mouth to say hi to her. She had already turned away.
I stood there for a moment. I felt people turn toward me. She glanced at the wall behind me, her chin raised, staring past me. I stood, looking for something to hold onto, some prop to grab, the melodic voices rising in harmony, “my girl, my girl, my girl, talkin’ ‘bout, my gir-irl…”
I walked out into the hall again, and sat back down at the table, agreeing to go to the concert that night.
Leaving, I took my coat from the hook of the rack, putting it on automatically, and stepping out through the heavy door out on to the sidewalk along the Belchertown Road. The wet sleet had picked up, humming with a steady throb beyond the cold edges of the door, driving down on the ice-covered ground. I stepped down to the crosswalk and stopped. I stood there, bareheaded, the top of my head getting soaked, letting it all come down on me. The sleet fell on my face, on my shoulders, soaking my heavy overcoat. I stood there, frozen. I heard a car pass by, seeing its tires, its form slipping along beyond the curb.
I turned to glance back at the windows. I could not see past the reflections with the angle of the gray light. Melted droplets dripped down from my brow.
That night after dinner I stood in the TV lounge, smoking a cigarette.
Vincent came up to me.
“Come on, let’s go to the concert.”
I saw her as she walked by. She lingered at a distance, and I stood there smoking the cigarette, turned away from her.
“Yeah, okay,” I said.
We drove down through the rain to the University in a small Toyota.
The concert hall was a dark unfinished concrete room. Few, in fact, had turned out. The band went through their set, obligatorily, looking forward, dulled by life on the road away from England. My ears rang with echoed blurs by the end of the first songs. Finally they played their pop hit. The lead singer pissed his pants.
Monday night I went into the library. The new issue of National Geographic would be out in the magazine room in the front of the library to the right behind glass doors and past the low lounge reading chairs. The Princess was sitting there with a book on her lap. Two of her girlfriends sat with her. Right before her chair there was a padded stool. I sat down on it before her. “What’ch you reading?” I asked quietly.
She stood up without saying anything, holding a thick book in her hands as if she were about to slam it down on the ground.
“You don’t have to get up,” I said. I stood up. In a single motion I turned away from her, toward the magazine rack. I reached with one hand, deftly removing the new issue of the National Geographic, its cover shining, trimmed with a pleasing yellow, from the shelf. I turned away and walked back out past the row of reading chairs that looked out on the quad.
I went back through the glass doors and sat down at the round table just outside them, adjacent to the shelves with the newly published books upon them, the circulation desk and the metal detector by the door across from me on the other side of the orange carpet. I held the magazine in my hands.
Soon afterward her roommate Laura came out. She stood by the glass doors, studying me. I looked at the pictures in an article about wolves.
The Geographic’s new issue held hints about what my life was going to be like. I’d grow up one day and be a mountain climber in the Himalayas or traveling along somewhere by truck or by train, somewhere far away, about to discover something. I was done with it after a few minutes. I closed it, putting it down on the round table rather than putting it back on the shelf. I went up the carpeted steps to the second floor.