Now I’ll Tell You Everything
1 THE U OF M
The day I left for college, Lester borrowed a pickup for all my stuff.
“Anything that can’t fit in the back can’t go, Al,” he said.
“I’ve got to take my beanbag chair. That’s a must,” I declared, jumping down off the back end and wiping my hands on my cutoffs.
“Take it! Take it!” Dad said. “Just promise you’ll leave it there.”
We joke that while some kids suck their thumbs all through childhood and others hang on to a blanket, I’ve kept my old beanbag chair as a sort of mother substitute, a lap to cuddle in when things get tough. Mom died when I was in kindergarten, and I’ve had that beanbag chair almost as long. I’m even too big for it now, but I could always use it as a hassock, I figured.
All morning Elizabeth, Pamela, and I had been carrying things out to the truck. Gwen’s brothers had helped her move the day before, and Liz would leave for Bennington the next day. I was taking some stuff to my dorm at the U of Maryland and was lucky Liz and Pam were still around to see me off. We were standing out on the driveway in our shorts and T-shirts, studying the mountain of junk in the pickup, trying to think of anything I might have forgotten.
“Ironing board?” said Elizabeth. She’s the gorgeous one, with creamy skin, thick dark eyelashes, and long, almost black hair.
“Nobody uses an ironing board at college, Liz!” said Pamela. “You just fold up a towel on the floor and iron on that, if you iron at all.”
A gnat blew directly in front of Pam’s eyes, and she tried to smash it between her hands. Sweat dripped off her face and onto the front of her purple tee. We were all perspiring like crazy.
“Toaster?” said Elizabeth. “What will you do if you crave a grilled cheese sandwich at midnight and everything’s closed?”
“Are you kidding?” Pamela exclaimed. “All you need is your iron. You put cheese between two slices of bread, wrap it in foil, and press down on it with a hot iron.” She lifted her blond hair off the nape of her neck, as though even talking about ironing made her miserable.
“Your ingenuity is amazing,” I said. “Next you’ll tell us an iron can broil a steak and bake a potato. Can it help me with my homework? Hand me that box, Liz, and let’s see if we can’t squeeze it in beside my suitcase.”
I’ve known Elizabeth Price and Pamela Jones forever, it seems. Well, since sixth grade, anyway. Pamela, a natural blonde, slim and talented, is going to a theater arts school in New York and is letting her short hair grow out so she can play more parts. Elizabeth’s been admitted to Bennington in Vermont, and I’m going to Lester’s alma mater, which is only about a half hour from our house. Like, I’m the adventurous one. Gwen’s going there too—premed.
I think Dad believes I’ve grown up so close to him and Lester that I’m afraid to get too far away. So he insisted I live on campus, which is fine with me. It’s about time he and Sylvia had the house to themselves. They’ve only been married three years.
“Oh, God!” I said. “Sheets and towels! I didn’t pack any at all!”
Pamela looked at the stuff we still had to squeeze in. “We made a mistake. We should have stuffed clothes in your mini-fridge and wastebasket before we put them on the truck. There’s all that empty space inside.” We collapsed on the front steps and took a break.
“I can’t believe I have to go through this all by myself tomorrow,” Elizabeth said.
“What about me? My dorm room’s half the size of yours, and I’ll have to keep most of my stuff under my bed. I’m still not through sorting.” Pamela groaned. She was already looking like an actress. She had plucked her eyebrows into thin crescents over her eyes and wore black mascara and eyeliner. A lot.
We gazed wearily out over the yard and across the street,
where Elizabeth’s big white house sat handsomely on its manicured lot.
“I remember when you first moved here from Takoma Park,” Elizabeth said. “Mom and I were sitting out on the porch watching you guys carry things in.”
“And you were wearing matching skirts,” I told her.
“Skirts!” She turned and looked at me. “We were? You remember?”
“You looked so perfect to me, and I was so envious. The perfect mother and daughter, sitting there reading a magazine together. . . .”
“Don’t remind me,” Elizabeth said quickly. Perfect is like poison in her vocabulary now, she’s trying so hard not to be.
“We’ve been through a lot together,” said Pamela, and sighed. Then she asked, “If you could look into the future and see what was happening at some particular age, which age would you pick?”
“Thirty. I’d pick thirty,” said Elizabeth. “I figure that whatever I’m doing then will more or less dictate how the rest of my life is going to turn out.”
“I’d choose a year from now, to see if I was going back to New York,” said Pamela. “If you don’t have talent, they don’t encourage you to return.” Both Pamela and Elizabeth looked at me.
“I’m not sure I’d want to know,” I told them.
“Because I’d probably pick age sixty or something, to see if I’d still be alive. And what if I wasn’t?”
“Don’t be morbid,” said Pamela, and then, looking for a brighter note, “What’s the latest from Patrick?”
“He’s finished work on that book for his professor and is starting his year of study abroad. Loves Barcelona. Says he’d love to live there someday,” I told them. The way I said it made it sound as though Patrick was just any guy, not the boyfriend I’d had almost continuously since sixth grade.
“I don’t know how you stand it, Alice,” Liz said, putting into words what, I’ll admit, I’d wondered about myself.
“I don’t know either, but—as Patrick says—the sooner it’s over, the sooner he’ll be back in the States.” It was oppressively humid, and I thrust my lower lip out and blew, trying to fan my face. But it didn’t help.
The front door opened behind us, and my brother came back out. Les got his MA from Maryland last December and just found out he’d been hired as the assistant director of a conference center in the mountains of West Virginia, where corporations hold retreats and sales conferences and couples come to get in touch with their inner selves. He starts September first. Dad always wondered what Les would do with a philosophy degree.
“I told you I was going to sit on a mountaintop so people could come to me and ask the meaning of life,” he joked.
Now he was standing beside us in shorts and sandals, staring at the pickup truck, which seemed to list to one side.
“Say, Al, you really travel light!” he said. “Sure you don’t want to take the piano, too?” His dark brown hair matched his eyes, which always, always seemed to be hiding a smile.
Elizabeth and Pamela gave him their immediate attention. Lester’s single at the moment, and they’ve had crushes on him since they were eleven. All of my friends love Lester.
“Aren’t you just the teeniest bit sad to see your sister off?” Elizabeth asked, in a voice she reserves only for Les.
“Been wanting to boot her out since the day she was born,” Lester said. “Hey, I’m getting rid of all three of you, come to think of it. At last!”
“When are you going to get married, Les?” Pamela asked. “Or are you going to stay a bachelor all your life?”
“Oh . . . maybe twenty, thirty years from now I’ll think about it,” he said. And then, “Sylvia’s got lunch ready, Al. And then we’d better get going.”
I sniffed under one arm. “Oh, gross. I’ve got to have a shower first.”
“How about you, Liz? Pamela? Want some lunch?” Lester said.
“Can’t. I’m getting a manicure in twenty minutes,” said Pamela. “Liz is coming with me, and we need to clean up.”
“Well, let’s get a move on,” Lester said, and went back inside.
Elizabeth, who was sitting between Pamela and me, put one arm around each of us. “Do you remember what we promised once? That we’d always get together like this, no matter how old we got, and share our secrets?”
Pamela was grinning. “You mean, tell each other when we lost our virginity.” One of the hundred silly things we’d said. Pamela had already lost hers, so the rest was up to Liz and me.
Elizabeth gave our shoulders an exasperated shake. “You know what I mean. I just hope we’re always like this. They say you make your closest friends in college, but I don’t see how anyone could be closer than we are.”
“There’s always texting,” Pamela said.
“It’s not the same,” said Elizabeth.
“So if we can’t actually get together, we’ll make it a conference call,” I suggested, knowing I’d better get inside.
We jokingly sealed it by placing our hands on top of each other’s, the way kids do in grade school.
“Till Thanksgiving, then,” I said.
“Or Christmas,” said Pamela.
“Or even spring break,” I added.
“Sisters forever,” said Elizabeth. And because she was so serious and solemn about it, we laughed.
* * *
Sylvia had lunch ready when I went inside—chicken salad with pineapple and almonds, my favorite. Dad gave me a bear hug before we even sat down. He had the look of a bear too, sort of pudgy and cuddly, his head slightly balding on top.
“Well, honey, it may be a while before you’re here at the table again,” he said.
“Probably all of one week,” said Lester. “Wait till she tastes the food at the U. She’ll be home every weekend, I’ll bet.”
“College food is mostly carbohydrates, as I remember,” said Sylvia. “Potatoes, pasta, beans, bread . . .” She was all in coral today—light sweater, pants, loafers. As always, my stepmom
looked stunning. “Come home whenever you want a good pot roast.”
“When will we see you again, Les?” Dad asked.
“Oh, I’ll be back from time to time,” Lester said. “But I’d think you two would enjoy some privacy for yourselves.”
Dad put one hand on Sylvia’s shoulder. “We manage,” he said.
* * *
I had to put my sheets and towels on my seat in the pickup and sit on them. It was the only space left, and my head almost touched the ceiling. I already had a box of books under my feet.
“I’ll bet Dad and Sylvia are secretly glad to see me go,” I told Les as we backed down the drive and watched them waving to us from the porch. “Do you realize they’ve hardly been alone since they married?”
“Yep. He’s never had the chance to chase her around the table naked,” Les said.
I gave him my most sardonic look. “Yeah? Is that what married people do?”
“How do I know? I’ve never been married.”
“Do you remember when you were dating Marilyn Rawley, and for your birthday she said she’d cook your favorite meal in the costume of your choice?” We both started to smile.
“And I chose surf and turf, with Marilyn dressed in high leather boots and a leopard-skin bikini,” Les said, and we laughed.
“Did you ever chase her around the table naked?” I asked.
“Hey! She had on a bikini, didn’t she?”
As more and more of my neighborhood disappeared behind us, I wasn’t sure if I was feeling nervousness or excitement. I guess I’d call it nervous excitement. But just when I thought I was being cool about heading for college, I heard myself say, “Sylvia says Dad’s afraid I’ll become ‘sexually active’ at Maryland.”
“Good old Dad,” said Les. “Well . . .” He paused. “You know what to do, don’t you?”
“What’s this? A facts-of-life-before-I-go-off-to-college talk?” I said.
“Hey, you brought it up.”
“If I have any urgent questions, I’ll call you,” I joked. Then, “Everyone makes sex sound so dangerous.”
“It’s dangerous, all right. It’s dynamite!” said Lester, and grinned. It’s hard to have a serious conversation with my brother, but I had myself to blame.
“The voice of experience,” I commented.
“Not nearly enough,” he sighed.
* * *
The first week at Maryland, it was hard to take it all in. Like a whole city, with everyone around my own age, and a smörgåsbord of activities to choose from. I wanted a bite of everything. The bulletin boards were crammed with invitations from sororities and fraternities, notices about movies and lectures, announcements of student trips abroad—all inviting me to join something, protect something, attend something, discuss or support or audition. There were even fliers taped up in the restrooms:
ACTORS NEEDED FOR CROWD SCENE IN ’50S FILM! HIV TESTING IN PRIVATE! OKTOBERFEST IN GERMANY! REBUILD HOUSES IN HAITI! HOW WILL YOU VOTE ON IMMIGRATION? JOIN THE DEBATE ON GLOBAL WARMING!
I wanted to try them all! Of course, as I discovered when I asked about it, you had to have a passport and enough money for airfare to attend Oktoberfest in Germany or even to build houses in Haiti. But you could pile in a car of students driving to a protest somewhere, and there was no one to stop you. Your parents wouldn’t even know you’d been gone. If you wanted to skip three days of school to be part of a crowd scene in a local movie, your professors didn’t take roll. You might miss an important handout and really screw up an assignment by missing classes, but that was up to you. The freedom was both heady and terrifying.
Every time I passed Testudo, the huge bronze turtle in front of McKeldin Library, I made a habit of rubbing its nose, just for fun. The book we received at orientation said it was supposed to bring good luck on tests, but then an upperclassman saw me do it, and she said you rubbed it if you didn’t want to graduate a virgin. And someone else told me she’d heard that if a virgin ever graduated from Maryland, the thousand-pound sculpture would fly. Which is why it’s still there, I guess.
I made up my mind I’d do at least one new thing a week: a foreign-language film, a debate on same-sex marriage, a talk by our congressperson, helping students register to vote. I thought I was busy in high school working on The Edge, but it couldn’t
compare with this. It seemed as though someone had turned a dial and my whole life had sped up a notch.
As for my dorm room, however, the only way to describe it was “semi-hideous.” The cinder block walls had a fresh coat of yellow paint, but it still looked as stark as a women’s prison. The mattresses sagged a little, and the sea-green drapes were missing some hooks. That’s why people bring so much stuff from home, I realized. You have to cover every square inch of space with your own things to make it seem remotely livable, and Amber and I did a pretty good job of making it livable, though the stuff we added was mostly mine.
I brought the rug and a green comforter for my bed; a lamp, bulletin board, and mini-fridge, and a funny poster—a take-off on the famous painting American Gothic with dogs’ heads taking the place of the farmer and his wife. Amber contributed some throw pillows, a second lamp, and enough pictures of her boyfriend to cover one wall. These were good for a start. We figured we’d be adding other stuff as the year went on.
Before I’d met Amber Russell, I’d already seen her tattoos in Facebook photos—the dove on her ankle, the angel on her thigh, and the butterfly on her midsection—and they were cool. But once we shared the same room, I discovered pretty quickly what I didn’t like about her: She seemed to migrate all over the place.
By day two her cosmetics and lotions had crowded mine on the bathroom shelf, her books were strewn everywhere, and her clothes pushed mine into a corner of the closet, where they
cowered, begging me to rescue them. When she kicked off her shoes (which she invariably wore without socks, so they smelled), they always seemed to land over by my bed, and I was forever stumbling over them. She was like an oil slick that kept taking over more and more of the surface space, and there was no way to contain her.
She wasn’t all that careful about personal hygiene, either. She’d drop used tampons in the wastebasket without even wrapping them up; she let sweat-soaked T-shirts hang in the closet for days on end without washing them, till I hated to even open the door to our room. And she showered only when she felt like it.
But the maddening thing was, her boyfriend was always hanging around, usually as sloppy as she was.
Tolerance, I told myself. Different people have different priorities, that’s all. Hygiene wasn’t high on Amber’s list.
* * *
Gwen and I got together whenever we could. There was a large house off campus—a gift to the university—where premed students could live at half the usual rate, so Gwen, understandably, chose to stay there, which was a bit of a bummer for me—we would have been such good roommates.
“So how goes it?” she asked one Friday a few weeks into school, when we’d managed to meet for dinner at a Burmese restaurant in town.
“I love my classes,” I told her, “but—God! Amber’s a slob! She smells! Our room stinks. I can’t stand going in there at night.”
“Huh! Mine’s the exact opposite. She even wipes off the toilet seat after she uses it!” Gwen said.
“Amber doesn’t even use toilet paper when she pees!” I complained. “You ask how I know that? She pees with the door open.”
Gwen burst into laughter. “You only have to put up with her for a year. Next fall you can choose someone different. Of course, you could get someone worse.”
“Impossible,” I said. Through the window, I watched a guy in a corduroy jacket cross the parking lot and come inside. He paid for an order at the cash register and took it out to a girl in a waiting Toyota. I concentrated on Gwen again. She’d recently had her eyebrows shaped, two beautiful black curves extending out toward her temples, against her mocha brown skin.
“Your mistake was not saying something right away,” she told me. “You’ve let it go this long; she probably figures you’re okay with it. You’ve got to talk to her.”
I sighed. “You know I hate confrontation.”
“Then you’ve got to decide which you hate more: talking to her about it or slob city.”
“What are you going to specialize in, Doctor? Psychiatry?” I asked.
Gwen ate another bite of her lemongrass beef and pointed to the last piece of my roti pancake. When I shoved it in her direction, she ate that, too, still thoughtful. “I don’t know. Pediatrics, I think. Or maybe Ob/Gyn. Remember what they told us when we were hospital volunteers? That there’s only one happy ward
in a hospital, and that’s the maternity ward? What do you hear from Patrick?”
“I’m trying to follow your train of thought here,” I said, and we laughed. “He’s having a blast. He e-mailed me about all the different people in his classes—a guy who’s climbed Mount Kilimanjaro twice; a girl who’s joining the Peace Corps; a guy who pays his way through college by fishing; an artist; a priest . . . He gets to meet all these fascinating people, and I get Amber.”
“So plan to visit him over spring break or something.”
“Don’t think I haven’t considered it,” I told her. “I’ve even priced airline tickets. But that’s months and months away. I’ll probably seem pretty boring compared to all his friends there.”
“He’s coming back to you, remember,” Gwen said.
“That’s one thing to be happy about,” I agreed.
* * *
When I got up the next morning, there was a wet towel on the bathroom floor, along with Amber’s underwear, and a washcloth in the sink. A bottle of shampoo lay on its side on the shelf, and a thin puddle of slippery goo oozed across the shelf, surrounding my makeup. Arrrghhhh! Enough!
I whirled around and marched back into our room. Amber had thrown off her covers and was engaged in a giant stretch. Her T-shirt was bunched up around her waist, and the butterfly tattoo on her midsection seemed to spread its wings as she moved.
“Amber, your stuff’s taking over that whole shelf in the bathroom,” I said. “I’d really appreciate it if you’d clean it up.”
She opened her eyes and squinted at me. “Just push it to one side. I won’t care.”
“Well, I care. And it’s also annoying to keep stumbling over your shoes and things.”
“O-kay!” she said, yawning. “Don’t have a spaz.”
There! I told myself. That wasn’t so hard. It was possible to assert myself without a shouting match.
When I got home from classes that day, the towel was back on the rack and Amber’s underwear was gone, but the shampoo bottle was still on its side, and pink liquid was now dripping off the edge of the shelf. I capped it, cleaned up the mess, and wiped off my cosmetics.
Things were a little better after that. For a week, anyway. Then I noticed she was using my deodorant stick.
“Hey, Amber, that’s mine,” I said.
“Oh. Do you care?”
“Well . . . sure! I mean, it’ll be used up twice as fast, and I’m paying for it.”
“I’ll buy the next stick,” she said.
* * *
I think it was that night that I woke up around two or three to a rattling sound, and my first thought was that Amber had locked herself out and was trying to wake me up. I lifted my head and listened.
It was a steady, rhythmical, squeaking sound, and then I realized that Amber had her boyfriend in bed. I didn’t know if I was more angry, surprised, or embarrassed.
“Oh, you’re so good . . . you’re so good,” Jerry’s voice kept murmuring.
Little breathy moans from Amber. Her bed frame rattled louder as it knocked against the wall.
I didn’t turn on the light, but I got up and went to the bathroom, slamming the door behind me. I heard the guy swear.
After I’d flushed the toilet, I went back to bed. I could hear the two of them whispering in the darkness, so I put my pillow over one ear and went back to sleep.
In the morning Jerry was gone, but he’d left his socks behind. Amber came out of the bathroom, brushing her teeth. She had on a wrinkled sleep-shirt with SURF CITY written on the front. She wasn’t smiling.
“Thanks for nothing, Alice. You could at least have waited,” she said.
I was sitting on the edge of the bed and stared at her. “Excuse me?”
“Jerry was pretty pissed off at you. You were banging around at the critical moment, and he lost it.”
I knew exactly what Jerry had lost, but I said, “If he’s looking for his socks, they’re under your bed.”
“You know what I mean,” Amber said. “Let’s have a little consideration.”
I couldn’t believe it. “Are you serious? I’m wakened at three in the morning by you and Jerry, and I’m the inconsiderate one?”
She simply went back in the bathroom, and this time she closed the door.
I called home.
“I can’t stand it, Dad!” I said. “I shouldn’t have to put up with this!”
“Then don’t. Talk to your resident adviser and see what the rules are. Are men allowed in women’s rooms?”
“Huh?” I said. “This is the twenty-first century, Dad! Of course they are! But we’re supposed to show consideration. Amber claims I didn’t show her any when I interrupted them.”
“Well, honey, I’m here if you need help with life-or-death decisions, but I think this falls in the solve-it-yourself category,” Dad said.
One thing about Amber, she didn’t hold a grudge. She went right on as though nothing had happened. I hid my shampoo and deodorant, and she even asked if I had any. I lied and said no, and she washed her hair with hand soap.
I was facing a huge assignment due on Monday and knew I had to work on it all weekend. On Saturday afternoon, though, Amber decided to do her laundry—the first time I’d actually seen her do any at all. Jerry came by, and they started stripping down her side of the room—sheets, towels, shirts—stuffing everything in a pillowcase to take to the washing machines in the basement. I headed for the library with a stack of books.
I worked right through dinner, stopping only long enough to get a tuna wrap and a bag of chips, but by nine that night, I’d had it. My eyes could scarcely focus and my head throbbed. I knew I had a full day of writing ahead of me on Sunday and wanted only to go to bed and sleep.
When I got back to our room, Amber was sitting at her desk, painting her toenails, one foot propped on our wastebasket. We talked a little about exams and grade points, and then I undressed in the bathroom, pulled on my pajamas, and got into bed.
My pillow had a dirty-hair smell that wasn’t mine, and I could almost bet that Amber had borrowed my pillow. I was too tired to start an argument, though, so I turned it over and stretched out.
My foot touched something between the sheets, however, and suddenly I sat up, threw off the covers, and saw a rolled-up condom at the foot of my bed, along with Amber’s underwear.
I leaped out of bed.
“Look!” I shouted, pointing.
Amber turned. “Oh! Sorry!” she said. She stuck another wad of cotton between her toes and padded over to retrieve the condom.
“This is my bed!” I yelled. “What were you thinking?”
“Well, my sheets were in the wash, and Jerry doesn’t like to do it on a bare mattress,” she said. She shrugged. “You were gone, so . . .”
“It’s my bed!” I screamed again.
I think I went a little insane. I pulled off my sheets and flung them on the floor. Then I grabbed Amber’s underwear and tossed it out the window. I picked up her shoes, which were on my side of the room, and threw them against the wall. I scooped
up everything of Amber’s that had migrated over to my section and dumped them on her bed.
Amber left and didn’t come back that night, or the next or the next. Gwen heard she’d moved into Jerry’s room. I wondered what his roommate thought of that! Every so often, she’d come back to get some more clothes or drop something off, but we didn’t talk much. And that was fine with me.