This Love Story Will Self-Destruct
EVE AN ASYLUM IN MORNINGSIDE HEIGHTS
It was senior year. We were having a party. The theme was trash.
In preparation, we decorated our suite with black garbage bags and blinking Christmas lights. The letters T-R-A-S-H hung from the ceiling.
We were all looking to make something happen that night. Each of us felt like something big was right there. And it didn’t matter how many times we’d been disappointed in the past, how many times we’d dressed up and then fallen into bed hours later, with zero to show for the night but a faint dizziness, an imminent headache, a morning of recovery. We were resilient enough to bounce back. We didn’t even have to think about it. As the sun went down, a greater power took hold of us. It pushed us to close books, to shake off the haze from our afternoon naps, to get dressed, plan, send messages out into the ether, and hope, with a little luck, to get a few back.
It was the power of possibility, that feeling of boundless potential that occurs late in the afternoon in New York, when the
sun goes down and all the windows in all the buildings look asleep; before darkness rolls over the city like one long sheet and the lights come on. It could terrify me, all that vastness just waiting to be filled. But not that night. That night, I was ready for it. Lights on, Manhattan! I thought, clapping my hands together, standing at the window of our suite, as if I alone had the power to bring light to all those tiny square boxes out there. The illusion of control was tempting. I am not afraid of you, you had to say to yourself, when you looked out at the city. I am not fucking scared of you, you had to say. And you had to really believe it, or you were toast.
I lived with three other girls in a four-bedroom suite in East Campus, a dorm between 117th and 118th Streets that housed most of Columbia’s upperclassmen. From the window of our suite, I could see the whole campus, the Hudson River in the distance, the chemical pink clouds descending into the granite dome of Low Library. In our world, Low was the Pantheon, and beyond Low, there were only buildings—mysterious, anonymous buildings. We had a panoramic view of the city that stretched from nearly one wall to the other and yet went largely disregarded. Everything that mattered seemed to happen within the walls of Suite 1603. Every now and then, we did peer out at the rest of the universe. We liked to pretend, sometimes, from our high-up fortress in Morningside Heights, that we were running this town.
I’d invited Jesse Prescott to the party, a guy from my Poetry and Place in the Modern Landscape class with whom I’d been flirting for months. “Happily Ever After.” That was the title of the poem that I’d read out loud to him—well, to my entire class, actually. Yes, that’s right. I read it out loud. To people. With ears. It was still haunting me. Luckily, it wasn’t my first time. I’d done
this to myself hundreds of times before, over the past few years of writing classes at this establishment. I’d learned to persevere. There are survival mechanisms that kick in, in a situation like that. I am not afraid of you, you had to say to yourself, before you started reading. I am not fucking scared of you.
I was stunned that he wanted to talk to me afterward, that he still wanted to talk to me, even after hearing that overly emotional drivel:
And then, she sees everything with a stunningly harsh clarity,
the kind of clarity that makes reality seem hopeless,
which makes you wish for an entirely new reality,
something with reliably brighter thoughts.
She wonders if everything in the world is fleeting.
The seduction of expectation crashes.
Reality throws her into a strange, unpossessed place of which she has no bearing.
Everything seems as far beyond her grasp as the yellow lights,
spinning and dashing behind the man . . .
“I liked it,” he said, when called upon by Professor Rosario to offer his thoughts, and those words were enough to earn him one invitation to our trash party. As a self-protective measure, I told myself countless times that he might not come. Yet somehow, his presence had become critical. In the days before the party, when I thought of it, everything inside me jumped. I looked down at myself, thinking, How did you get to this place?
But before anything could happen, he would have to actually
show up that night, to the sixteenth floor of East Campus, a dorm that used to be an insane asylum, and in many ways still was.
“It’s party time! It’s party time! Tell everyone it’s party time!” my suitemate Scarlett sang. “I want to meet someone tonight who will crush me. And then I want to break his heart. And then I want to fight to win him back. And then I want him to break my heart. And then I want to burn all his possessions to the ground!”
I laughed. “That’s quite an agenda,” I said to her as she balanced herself against the wall in our living room with one hand, sliding on black, shiny, five-inch heels with the other. They looked much nobler on her feet than they did in their usual position—cradled in her hands at the end of the night as she stumbled home barefoot.
Farther down the hall, I could hear the sound of a phone beeping. The noise reverberated, echoing deeply throughout the entire suite. Within a few seconds, there was the faint sound of my suitemates discussing it.
“It’s from a 917 number.”
“Ugh, but the voice mail is only thirty seconds long. It can’t be important. He’s obviously bailing.”
“How do you know?”
“It’s only thirty seconds long! What can he say in thirty seconds that isn’t him bailing? And why else would he call this late? If he were coming, he would have called earlier. And he wouldn’t have left a message.”
“Just check it! Just call the number back! Why are you being so negative?”
“I’m going to! I just want to wait a few minutes! I need to think about it. I can’t just call.”
Suite 1603 was a frenzy of emotions. Basically, it was a place for emotions to go on spring break. Like, when they wanted to run wild and really enjoy themselves and not be contained by things like logic and good judgment. Those downers.
And this was especially true before a party. Clothes went flying. Anxieties ran rampant. By the time the first guests arrived, I was somewhat surprised to be still standing.
I heard the sound of my name being called. “Eve!” I walked toward it, down the stairs from our living room to a hallway leading to several bedrooms. I went to my suitemate Maya’s room, slowly, warily. One never knew, with Maya.
I stood at the doorframe.
“I have a question for you, Evelyn J. Porter, MD, PhD,” she said.
I smiled. “Just Eve. No J. And barely going to graduate with my bachelor’s.”
“I was trying to make you sound more official. I broke up with Todd,” she said, and then, before I had the chance to respond, “Do you think I’m a selfish person?”
I paused before I answered. Maya was the most volatile of my friends. A beautiful Indian girl who wore Converse sneakers and oversize black-rimmed glasses, she was known to ask for advice, all sweetness and soft-spoken, and then explode at you if she didn’t like what you said.
“What?” she said. “I really want to know what you think. Give me your most honest opinion.” Her big brown eyes appeared to be quivering. She was intimidating, this one-hundred-pound girl sitting in front of me on a purple comforter, next to a framed picture of an ice-cream cone.
“I don’t think you’re selfish,” I said. “Not any more so than anyone else.”
“So do you think he’ll call?”
“Well, if you broke up with him . . .”
“You don’t think he’ll call?” she snapped, her eyes zeroing in on me. I stared at her blankly.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean . . .” She was turning on me. Abandon all honesty and placate! PLACATE!
“I’m sure he’ll call in a few days,” I amended quickly.
She sighed. “I wish I had a test to study for.” She stood up and walked over to her closet. Tests were Maya’s version of therapy. She was one of the few people for whom being in the library all night studying provided a profound sense of well-being.
“There will be another test,” I said, trying for comforting.
“Maybe I need to just sleep with someone else. . . . The theme for the night is trash.”
“That’s true,” I said. “That would be very trashy of you!” Her face lit up. We started to laugh.
“Thank God we didn’t pick a theme like the age of innocence,” she said. “Can you imagine how hard that would be for us to pull off?”
“We’d still be able to have the party,” I said. “We just wouldn’t be able to attend.”
We knew from experience that when choosing a theme for a party, it was best not to be too specific. We didn’t want to get hemmed in by thematic restrictions. Those were for amateurs. We were sophisticated city girls. We knew what we were doing. We had bags full of lingerie from the ninety-nine-cent store, this magical place on Amsterdam Avenue where you could buy a year’s worth of toilet paper, an assortment of vaguely religious lamps, and clothes perfect for theme parties but likely meant
for prostitutes. At the store, we dug into cardboard boxes full of clothing, but it wasn’t long before we got distracted by other items and decided that yes, four large potted plants, taller than we were, would be a smart purchase. They would provide ambiance for the party. “It’ll be like a jungle!” one of the girls insisted. After some searching, I ended up with a black lace dress that was see-through but not totally see-through. So, tasteful. And since it was the classiest of the prostitute costumes, my friends declared, “Park Avenue trash!” That’s what I would be.
For the next few hours, my suitemates came to me with fistfuls of necklaces—long strands of fake pearls, fake diamond chokers.
“Why?” I yelled.
“Because you’ll under-accessorize otherwise, if we don’t help you.”
“ ‘Park Avenue trash’ is about collecting as much material wealth as possible and putting it into one ensemble. It requires attention to quantifiable possessions.”
“You can’t just wear a black dress and call it a day.”
Our other suitemate, Kate, came into Maya’s room and sat down on her bed. “Do I look under-accessorized?” I asked her. I put a few of the necklaces on and held the rest in my hands.
“It looks like a jewelry store threw up on you,” she said.
Kate was half Czech, half Chinese, and somehow managed to possess the prettiest features from both ethnicities. She had skin that was perpetually tan, visible cheekbones, dimples. Her eyes and hair were the same shade of perfect chestnut. Kate never bothered to use these occasions to put on a crazy outfit that just so happened to flaunt how pretty she was. She didn’t need to. On Halloween, when everyone else wore slutty angel and fairy ensembles, Kate dressed up as the Unabomber.
At eight o’clock, the delivery guy from Hamilton Deli arrived—we could throw a stone from our window and hit Hamilton Deli, but that didn’t stop us from ordering—with a crate full of orange juice, tonic water, ginger ale. We set up a “bar” in the corner, which was really just a desk covered in a black garbage bag, with red plastic cups stacked in a tall cylinder, bottles of tequila and gin, a half-gone bottle of vodka from our freezer, and the mixers from the deli. We placed the four plants we’d bought from the ninety-nine-cent store in the corners of the room and lit them up with the Christmas lights. When we were finished, we looked around.
“It looks so cracked out!” Maya said, giddy. In our suite, that was about the best thing you could say—that something was cracked out. It was most commonly applied to moments that combined alcohol, drugs, and nonsensical actions. For example, when, after a big night out, someone went on an instant-soup shopping spree at Duane Reade, or painted the bathroom doors, or started spraying people with a fire hose. “He was so cracked out!” we’d say, relishing the moment. College! We embraced it.
I made my first drink of the night and sat with Kate on my bed as our suitemates ran through the room in various outfits, occasionally stopping to ask things like: “Do you think Xanax and alcohol is a bad idea or a bad idea in a good way?” One of us would inevitably say no to something, but we didn’t try very hard. We knew that nothing we said made any difference.
Suddenly, Maya burst in, looking like she had just received the best news of her life. Scarlett was standing behind her. I thought she was about to tell us she’d been accepted to med school, but instead, she said, “Scarlett found a plastic bag full of white powder in the back of a taxi!”
We looked at her, confused.
“What should we do about it?” she said, her arms stretched out to us, her palms turned up toward the ceiling.
“Let’s snort it!” Scarlett shrieked.
“Are you insane?” Kate replied. “It could be anything! It could be laundry detergent.”
“It won’t kill us.”
“Actually, it could kill us,” Kate said.
It wasn’t what you’d expect from two girls who were premed. Maya wanted to be a surgeon, often citing her prowess at fixing a stuck zipper five minutes before a party as proof of her qualification. Scarlett wanted to be an emergency room doctor, because being a surgeon required choosing one area of the body to work on and she wanted to be able to fix any problem at any time, rather than be so specialized. Needless to say, it behooved everyone to talk to each one, separately, regarding her medical aspirations. Kate, the constant voice of reason, was applying to work in finance but only the type of finance that required traveling regularly to Buenos Aires, which made her sound like a floozy until she started firing off facts about the South American markets.
By eleven, we were dressed to kill, amped up on either cocaine or laundry detergent, and looking around at an empty suite. Scarlett, wearing what appeared to be a one-piece bathing suit from the fifties and giant heels, went out to walk the halls.
“Are you guys coming to our party?” she said to the guys on our floor, who received this question silently but then followed her back to our suite, as if possessed. With our new friends in tow, my suitemates insisted on shots. I finished the first easily and then started on the second, after which I immediately felt the rush of alcohol hitting my bloodstream. By the third, I felt sick. They were going by too fast. I already needed a break, but
still I was lifting the glass from the kitchen table, watching the shots go by. It wasn’t so bad. People did this all the time!
“Is that guy from your writing class coming tonight?” Maya asked. “What’s the deal with you guys anyway?”
“No deal,” I said. I pushed away my shot glass, until it was removed from sight. Maya handed me a wedge of lime and I sunk my teeth into it. “We walk together after class.”
“You walk together?”
Sadly, that was the most accurate description I could muster. We walked from class to the pizza place, from class to Duane Reade. I’ll admit that I invented scenarios to throw us together, but so did he. We basically took each other on errands. At one point, I accompanied him to the computer lab so that I could watch him send an e-mail. Our conversations drew all my attention. I only wanted the walks to be longer. The campus was designed so that anything you needed was within a few blocks, which was doing me a great disservice. I stood at the counter of Duane Reade and talked to him about Reese’s Pieces versus M&M’s, but could only do it for so long. I was fixated on making him like me, but it was also clear that I was succeeding, and without much effort. Each time, just before we were supposed to part ways, one of us would come up with a reason to continue walking. He’d touch my wrist as we stood on the partition between the two parts of Broadway. “I think I need a coffee,” he’d say, after he’d slowed to a stop and smiled. “Oh, of course,” I’d say, relieved. “I could use one too.” And then we’d start walking again, each of us pretending not to understand what the other was doing.
“So you walk together? That’s it?” she questioned, still at a loss.
I was about to respond, but Kate waved Maya’s incredulity off. “Don’t listen to her,” she said. “They’re in love.”
I laughed. “How is it that we’re in love?”
“Okay, so,” she said, preparing for a recitation of the facts. “They make goofy expressions at each other in class. The guy comes up to her when class is over and makes up some ridiculous excuse to hang out like, ‘Uhhh, uhhh, my roommate and I ran out of Skittles yesterday so do you want to, uhhh, go to CVS with me and then um help me carry the bag back to my room?’ ”
“Well, this is exciting!” Maya said.
“It’s nothing,” I told her. “And there are a few potential problems.”
“Yes.” Kate stood up straighter and took on a serious, professor-like tone. “From his poems, we have discerned that he may be mentally unstable, but he’s a musician, so that’s probably standard.”
I had told Kate about the song lyrics he recited in class, about a poem that he wrote entitled “O Captain! My Captain!” “The title alone,” I’d said to her admiringly. The fact that it had been used before didn’t ruin it for me in the slightest. From what I could decipher, it was about someone laboring under pressure to move his life in a certain direction. Graduation was looming, two months away. The real world was no place for an aspiring musician. I read between the lines, as our writing class wore collective looks of concern. At first, he seemed to be explaining what it would feel like to catch yourself on fire while wearing a perfectly tailored suit. Then, there was something about going home for Thanksgiving and getting buried alive by his parents and a psychotic dog. So there were some red flags. But, of course, instead of getting scared off like a normal person, I found him insightful. Okay, intriguing, at the very least. I sat there, mesmerized, interested in his words, and what it all meant.
“A mentally unstable musician? That is so your type!” Maya said optimistically. “He fits in perfectly with your history.”
It seemed to amuse my friends that I had this whole other circle that they were not allowed to be a part of, and it was true, I suppose, that when I hung out with people from my writing classes, I didn’t want them to come along. They would refer to them as “artsy,” and maybe they were, but they were also just glamorous to me, pursuing things that were almost impossible to carry on after college, in the real world. These people stayed up late to work on projects with no specific purpose other than that they loved to do it, and how could they possibly not? It was foreign to me. I grew up in the Bronx with a father who installed windows for a living and a mother who forbade me from watching the Muppets as a child because they were, in her opinion, a bunch of troublemakers.
In college, I was this walking, talking well of feelings. All you had to do was press gently, and there was a tenderness inside of me, a prickly feeling. Just press slightly, and everything would come spilling out uncontrollably. There were no parameters, no telling what I might write or say, or how long I might be feeling it. Writing classes were both this wonderful and dangerous opportunity for me to tap into that place, to be a ball of emotions without judgment. Okay, with some judgment. But it wasn’t like the people around me were saying, “Don’t have feelings.” God knows, they had feelings. They were mostly saying things like “Could you have feelings but in a less confusing, more narrative-driven, punchier-dialogue type of way?”
“He does fit in perfectly!” Kate agreed with Maya. “Let’s see . . . there was the playwright with the high school sweetheart down in Florida.”
“I just thought that he should see other things!” I yelled. “Plus, I didn’t know his girlfriend in Florida was a cheerleader. I would have given up more easily. I can’t fight that.”
“And then there was the photographer who was addicted to cocaine,” Maya added.
“Only on the weekends!”
Kate rolled her eyes. “Then there was that reclusive drummer guy who lived on our floor freshman year and never left his room and wore exclusively white T-shirts with holes in them. He was very sexy though. I’ll give you that. Ugh, those T-shirts. Remember when he got drunk and ripped his door out of its socket and replaced it with caution tape?”
“At least he was being honest!”
“What we’re saying is that this particular guy fits right in. You’ve never dated someone normal.”
I glared at them. “What is normal?”
“Ugh, you sound just like them,” Kate said.
“You know what’s funny about Eve?” Maya turned to Kate and spoke as if I weren’t in the room. “If you saw her walking down the street, you’d think, Totally normal person—wouldn’t you?”
“Totally.” Kate nodded profusely.
“Maybe you’d be like, Oh, she’s pretty! But that’s about it. She’s got her straight brown hair, she’s average height, those little turquoise earrings. . . . But then she puts on the slightest bit of eyeliner and starts talking about her feelings. . . . And it’s like, oh, she’s a freak.”
“A freak?” I exclaimed.
“And that’s why you like them.”
“The other freaks,” Kate clarified. I put my hands on my hips and made a drawn-out huffing noise. They laughed. Yes, come one, come all, to see the girl with the sad parental situation and the stepfather who bought us a lava lamp and an Animal House poster to increase the “cool” factor in our suite.
“But! You also look normal and wear normal clothes and like to eat frozen yogurt and watch Project Runway, which is why you’re friends with us.”
“Used to be friends with you,” I added.
Maya’s eyes widened. “So is it going to be one of those situations where you go to see his band and he stares at you as he’s playing and then you have this moment where you realize that Oh my god, this song is about me? And then you go to see him after the show and there are all these bitches everywhere vying for his attention but you’re like, Move over, ladies, that shit was about me.”
I started to laugh. “You are about one romantic comedy away from losing your fucking mind.”
“Answer the question!” she said, like a judge on daytime television.
“We haven’t been on a single date yet, so I can’t foresee that situation at the moment . . . but the night is young.” I smiled.
Once we stopped staring at the door, people began showing up, funneling in by twos and threes, like very strangely dressed moths to a flame. One of us made sure to always be behind the bar, doling out drinks with a minimum level of concentration. Everyone who entered appeared to be in a daze—as they took in the plants, the blinking lights, the trash bags. They entered into a suite that looked like a cross between a really fun jungle and a dark alleyway filled with garbage.
After the first round of cocktails and conversation permeated the crowd, people started to sway to the music, obligingly at first, then with more dedication. My job was to arrange the playlist for the night. I had decided on all jungle-related songs, because of the potted plants we’d purchased, but once I got through “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Jungle Love,” my options
became more limited than anticipated. So I purchased a few songs from an album called Sounds of the Jungle. Birds chirping. Rain trickling. Crickets. It was either going to go over very well at this party or very badly. Time would tell.
My suitemates and I got together for another shot, excluding all others. This was the party within the party, and it was just for us.
“To bad decisions!” Maya cried, and then the clinking of glasses.
I pretended not to look for Jesse, but I did. My spirits began to drop as I met people I’d met a thousand times before. I started to get nervous that this would be like every other night—no new arrivals, the same faces and voices we’d been socializing with for years, but in weird clothes. I pictured myself hours earlier—putting on the black lace dress, a furtive glance in the mirror, my insides bubbling away. Right then, I was asking for trouble. It happens the same way every time. Why do you do this to yourself?
As the party went on, I noticed myself sinking into a sadness that wasn’t comfortable. Some guy wearing a T-shirt with a piece of masking tape attached to it knocked into me and spilled my drink. Worse than the vodka pooling around my ankles was that I would have to talk to him.
“Hey,” he said. “Sorry about that.”
“It’s okay,” I said, irrationally annoyed. “Nice to meet you.”
“Actually, we’ve met,” he said. “I’m Ben. Julian’s roommate.”
“Oh yeah.” I nodded, pretending to have just come to the realization. I stared at the words on his chest, TACOMA NARROWS BRIDGE, written on masking tape with a Sharpie. He was tall with light features, fair skin, almost but not quite blond hair.
He looked down at them, following my eyes. “It’s a bridge
that collapsed . . . so it’s trash,” he said, looking for my approval. “I’m in the engineering school,” he said, by way of explanation. “I don’t know. I tried.” He shrugged. “I’ve actually been to all your parties.”
“Really? Cool.” It wasn’t cool. It was the least cool thing I’d heard all night. And was I supposed to laugh at that bridge joke?
“They’re always fun. What was the one . . . with all the red martinis?”
I looked at him like I wasn’t sure, even though I was.
“Valentine’s Day!” he said.
“And you guys served only red drinks, right?”
“Yeah.” I nodded slowly. “We did.”
It wasn’t that there was anything wrong with this guy. It was just that he was yet another acquaintance I’d been bumping into for years—outside the library, by the elevators, in Hamilton Deli—hello, good-bye, should I keep walking or do I have to stop this time? I wanted something more that night. My hostility was zeroing in on this awkward social obligation obstacle. Where was Jesse?
“Okay, well, I’m going to go get another drink,” I said. Another drink. That was always a decent exit strategy. Not good per se, because everyone knew what you were doing, but decent. I turned away and went to the kitchen, where my friends were drunk and talking in low voices. I pretended to listen. I would deny this vehemently to anyone who asked, but I was agonizingly aware of every person who was in my vicinity. I was staring at the door, lingering in conversations without looking directly at the person I was talking to.
There was no question that I would know it, the second he walked in. And when he finally did, I spotted him before I even
knew what I was looking at. We made eye contact across the room, exchanged smiles. He dodged bodies left and right. Relief was coursing through me as he got closer.
“You came,” I said, trying not to sound surprised.
“Of course!” he replied.
I explained my outfit, that “trash” was the theme, as if he couldn’t see that on his own, and then told him that this would not be my personal choice, under other circumstances. All intelligent thoughts had spilled out of my brain at this point.
“You look good,” he said. “You should wear that to class.” He smiled and pushed his dark, almost black hair out of his green eyes. His hair was messy, stood up in places, and flopped down across his forehead. He wasn’t wearing the glasses that he wore in class.
“Um . . .” I laughed.
We talked a bit about the other kids in our class. He kept remembering lines from their poems, and every few minutes he would bring up something else, in amused disbelief. I stopped craning my neck toward the door and looked up at him, stood closer, laughed at everything he said, my eyes bright. I asked him questions, touched his arm whenever he said something funny. I was being fun!
At some point, Maya came over and required my attention. Jesse and I lost each other in the crowd. I went to the kitchen with Maya and attempted to defuse whatever was bothering her. She showed me an empty bottle of freezer-burned vodka, a hysterical look on her face. We searched the kitchen until we found espresso vodka that somebody must have brought. It was in a pyramid-shaped bottle and lit up neon green when we picked it up from the counter. We lifted it and put it back down several times, thrilled by our finding. “The enchanted vodka bottle!” we
decided to call it, for marketing purposes. We started pouring it directly into people’s mouths. It was too exquisite for a glass, we told them, too prized to spare a drop. As soon as I had some myself, I became hyper immediately, laughing and smiling so widely that I felt it in my eyes. I had an insatiable need to socialize, and started babbling to strangers about their outfits, the party decor, a weird thing that happened to me in a dream once.
I kept checking on Jesse, spotting him in various positions across the room. At one point, I saw him standing a few feet away from a blond girl who had her hair tied back in a loose ponytail. He looked over at her a few times, briefly, discreetly. She noticed him as well, appeared all smiles, nodding at him and laughing with her friends. She was wearing a black halter top that she’d fashioned out of a garbage bag. Pretty and resourceful! Damn it, the cards were stacked against me. It was cropped and tied together with a string at the neck. I examined her face, as if trying to make sense of it. She was looking at her friends, but also somehow at Jesse. Then, she turned. They knew each other. I watched him lightly grab the back of her neck and cup his hand right around the spot beneath her ponytail. He mouthed something at her that I couldn’t decipher. She whispered in his ear. There was some kind of understanding exchanged, though I had no way of knowing. Oh, so there were others. Of course there were others. This party was rife with options. Girls were there for him, for whatever reason.
I kept shuffling things around in the kitchen, pretending to be very busy—more booze, back and forth to the freezer, moving a stack of cups, tossing a bag of chips. I talked to Maya. Minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted him with another girl—this one not trying to hide it. Her face lit up as he touched her hoop earring, ran his finger along the large gold circle. She
was emitting a glow that conventional wisdom would lead anyone to believe she was the happiest person in history. She flicked her wrist against his stomach, sipped from her plastic cup, and looked at the ground with a kind of intensity. My eyes darted back to him again. I like this man very much. He was even better than before, as he put his hand on her arm and smiled. No danger with this one, of him wanting to form—to begin forming—some future “how we met” story. Just specifically for this night, he is perfect, all things considered.
Eventually, I could sense Jesse staring at me from across the room. What is happening? Is it my turn? He whispered into the ear of the guy next to him, and something about the way his eyes stayed locked on me as he talked gave me the distinct feeling that he was talking about me. I had a sudden idea. The guy next to him was a friend of Kate’s. I made my way through the crowd until I located her.
“Can you go find out what Jesse just said?” I said to her, my voice unusually loud.
“Right now?” she replied, carelessly.
“Yes! Right now.”
The second that Jesse and his friend separated, I hustled Kate along. I stood away, allowed her to do the talking. After they were done whispering, she looked at me and then grabbed my arm. We walked to the other side of the room.
“He said, and I quote, ‘See that chick? I want to suck her brains out.’ ” She wrinkled her nose, as if grossed out by the words as she said them.
“What?” I said, stunned.
“He wants to suck your brains out.”
“You mean ‘fuck’?”
“ ‘Fuck’ would make more sense. Less zombielike.”
“Oh,” she said. “Yeah. Fuck. Probably.”
The whole party seemed to come to a pause. At that moment, all my ideas, all the games that I had played with myself about how this night might go, promptly went to shit. I turned serious, all of a sudden. “He said that?”
She nodded, disinterested. I had the wrong audience. While Kate was good for a down-to-earth assessment, my other friends were better for blindingly supporting something for no sensible reason.
“Are you sure?” I said.
“Yes,” she said, irritated. “I thought you said he was a poetry major.”
I smiled. “That is poetry.”
I was in that state of intoxication where you become very direct, very to the point. You tell people how you feel. You grab things that you want. There was more dancing now, a crowd in the middle of the room, circles of girls leaning into one another closely, bursts of male laugher. As I made my way across the room, I could feel something rising higher in my throat, making me tremble a little. I met Jesse’s gaze as I walked toward him. It was one of those rare moments of understanding. Eventually, I’d feel tightness inside of me, an abrupt rigidity, an inability to move further. But for now, I could enjoy myself.
“Can I see your room?” he said to me as soon as I was within shouting distance.
“Absolutely,” I replied, and then slipped in front of him. I walked toward the staircase that went down to our bedrooms, knowing that he was following me.
My bedroom was a menacing shade of dark red, the result of a painting expedition with my suitemates in which we painted all
the rooms different colors, each more brutal than the next, not providing for the fact of hangovers. I often thought of repainting it in the middle of the night, like I couldn’t sleep there a single second longer. I lay in bed thinking about whether red walls were enough of a reason to have a nervous breakdown. I fell back asleep trying to decide. I didn’t decorate the room otherwise. Room decor in college was all about what you hung on the walls, and I could never find the right poster to attach to my identity. At the store, faced with five to ten images—a girl with an umbrella, the Brooklyn Bridge, Central Park in the fall—I crumbled under the pressure. Instead, I relied on the bed being the centerpiece, my white sheets with tiny pink hearts on them. The sheets were for me to look at, in case I ever felt like I was living in hard times.
In our house growing up, my mother bought cheap furniture and spent her allotted money on soft sheets. She insisted that all that mattered was having a nice bed. Each year in college, as I went about setting up my dorm room, I imagined her walking into my new room, looking around at the bare, paint-chipped walls, the cold floors, and that dreaded blue mattress, the tag wrinkled and the stuffing jutting out in places. She’d cheerily insist, “Let’s make up the bed!” She’d unpack freshly ironed lavender and pale green sheets, and by the time she’d finished fluffing the last pillow, things would be looking up.
Jesse walked around my room, examining everything. Meanwhile, I was sitting on my bed, trying to gather myself. I was feeling my heart beat, a prickly sensation on my skin, the bitter taste in my mouth. It was the result of having him in my room, plus whatever espresso vodka could do to a person. He leaned over my desk, scribbled something on a piece of paper. He took the paper and taped it to the wall above my bed. I looked up. It had the words WALDEN POND on it.
“Walden Pond?” I asked.
“It’s a joke,” he said.
“A very English major–y joke.”
“You don’t get it?”
“I hate to admit this, but I’ve never actually read Walden.”
He gave me a surprised look.
“What? Is that bad?” I cringed.
“Kind of! It’s a classic. It’s about simplicity. Blank walls. You’re a very straightforward person. I like that about you.”
“Excuse me,” I yelled, jamming my fists into the bed. “I am complex.”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” he said, looking me up and down. “These walls are very blank for someone who wants to write about music. Where is your Rolling Stones poster?”
I should have said: I want to write about music not because of any one band or song but because music transformed situations and people and molecules inside of you. Instead, there was a brief silence and I said nothing.
“Thanks for coming to my party!” I said finally, with an enthusiasm that wasn’t natural. Thanks for coming to my party? What are you, eleven?
He looked at me curiously. “I was happy to come.”
More quiet filled the room, as he continued to look around.
“Nice hat,” Jesse said, pointing to the green-and-pink shower cap that lay on top of my bookshelf. I got off the bed to grab it, but he snatched it before I could, examining it with firm concentration. I sat back down, defeated. My friends had been trying to get rid of that shower cap for years, often sneaking into my room and hiding it under tissue paper in a bag they knew I intended to throw away. It was impossible to hide anything around here.
“It’s cool, it’s cool,” he said. “Very Martha Washington.”
“Thank you very much,” I said, with a smile. “That’s just what I was going for.”
“Can I confess something?” he asked.
“Okay . . . ,” I said, a caution in my voice. I stared at the square of carpet between my feet, which appeared to be moving. My eyes were playing tricks on me. The thread of the carpet was like quicksand, sinking further and further down into a single point. It happens the same way every time. Just for the night? It’s never that simple. This could really end badly. This could really end very badly. Why are you setting yourself up? What are you even doing here? Why did you invite him? So that you could sit here and let someone disappoint you? Good job! Go ahead! By all means! Get all excited and then thud. It’ll be over.
“I really like having class with you,” he said.
“You do?” I looked up at him.
“Yes,” he said, laughing. “Why? Is that surprising? You look like I just told you that your dog died.”
“I don’t know!” I said quickly.
He reached for my hand and pulled me up. I stood next to him as he wrapped his arm around my waist and turned toward my bookshelf. He asked if I wanted to read something with him. I stood there for a few seconds.
“I think I’m going to be sick,” I said meekly, stepping away from him and covering my mouth with my hand.
“From the alcohol?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “From that suggestion.”
I stared at the bookshelf and started to smile. I had him. He laughed.
“You’re such a nerd,” he said.
“I’m a nerd? You’re the one making Walden references and suggesting that we read together.”
“It was a romantic gesture.”
“I don’t like romantic gestures, typically.”
“Oh, please. Yes you do,” he said, rolling his eyes. “Don’t tell me you’re some sort of exception. I won’t buy it for a second.”
“I don’t. I really don’t.”
He immediately lifted me off the floor and then placed me down onto the bed, his body hovering on top of mine, his face inches away. He was waiting for me to look at him. I knew that, but I don’t give in easily. So I darted my eyes everywhere but up. I will not look. I will not look. I looked. He leaned down and kissed me. Gone. My head was spinning. The room was shifting out of focus.
There was a loud knock at the door.
“You guys!” I heard Kate yell and Maya laugh. Then, I tilted my head back and saw Kate’s hand reach across the doorframe and turn off the lights. She slammed the door closed and held it shut.
“We’ll leave you alone once we hear the sound of you guys fucking!” she yelled.
“Your friends are out of control,” he said.
Neither of us went to turn on the lights, and for a few minutes, we kissed in the dark. Then he got up, and I heard him walking toward the door. Is he trying to open it? Is he leaving? He locked it.
The sound of the lock prompted something within me. I sat up, shifted my dress so that it went farther down my legs. He came over to me and I tried to settle down. He began removing the necklaces I was wearing, one by one. I could feel his fingertips against my neck. When he was finished, his arms tightened around me.
“What is this thing that you’re wearing?”
“I thought you liked it.”
“It’s not very you,” he said.
“Thank God,” I said, smiling. “I need a break from that girl.”
I saw him reach into his pocket, the flash of his phone next to me. Then, suddenly, the light came closer to my dress.
“What are you doing?” I said. He groaned.
“Nothing,” he replied, and then the light disappeared. “Shit. I have to go.”
“What?” I immediately thought of repeating the news to my suitemates, with a gust of emotion. He just left!
“I have something that I have to do,” he said.
“Okay . . .”
“Don’t get insulted. Let’s just say I make deliveries, but it’s the type of thing where when someone wants what I have to offer, I have to be available to bring it to them, at all hours, even if I’d rather be . . . doing something else.”
“Do you mean . . . What do you . . . How did you . . . What?”
“Pick a question, darlin’.”
I managed to spit one out. I had a feeling he was talking about drugs and the distribution thereof, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask. I didn’t want confirmation, so I talked around the subject. “How did you get into this?”
“No.” He laughed.
“Same reason I work at the library. I need the money. I’m a poor kid from Nebraska and I’m about to become an even poorer struggling musician. Whatever. Boring story. You’ve heard it all before. I’m sure you can figure it out.”
Oh, how he overestimated me. I hadn’t the foggiest clue what
he was talking about. I watched him get ready to leave and then stood at the doorframe with him, prepared to say good-bye. I pictured myself rejoining the party upstairs until everyone left, coming back downstairs and peeling off my dress, going back upstairs and eating a bowl of cereal to sober up. But then, we started kissing again. He broke away. “Where am I going?” he said.
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t want to leave you,” he said. “Can I interest you in a walk across campus?”
I smiled. “Is this another one of your romantic gestures?”
“Okay, then I’ll go. But if you say one thing about the moonlight, I’m leaving.”
The night started to go by quickly after that. I remember asking him to pick out a coat for me because I couldn’t go outside in just my dress. “Which one of these coats looks like it’s ready for a night on the town?” I said.
“You have a personification problem,” he replied. “But probably this one.”
I ended up in the hallway, carrying my polka-dotted raincoat. We were upstairs, telling my suitemates that we’d be right back. On my way out the door, I looked back over my shoulder and saw Maya in the corner of the room, moping. “Give me a second,” I said to Jesse. I went to her.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I’m sad about Todd,” she said to me, turning her bottom lip over.
“Okay. You need to get your mind off this. Just hook up with someone else,” I said, in my infinite wisdom. “How about that guy?”
“That one.” I pointed to the guy with the bridge name on his T-shirt, the one who I’d seen at a hundred other parties and whose presence had irritated me earlier. He now seemed utterly harmless. In fact, I was feeling magnanimous—I was about to do this guy a favor.
“Because he’s cute, and who cares?” I gave her a long look.
“Okay, fine,” she said. I grabbed her by the arm and dragged her over to him, made a quick introduction, and then fled, leaving the two of them midsentence.
Once outside, with the fresh air blowing in my face, I felt like I could breathe again. I wasn’t totally aware of where we were going, but I didn’t care. When we got to the steps of Low Library, they were empty. Everyone was at the bars on Broadway. We had the whole place to ourselves. I flew down the steps, going faster and faster. Whenever my suitemates and I crossed campus at night, we always ran down the steps of Low as fast as we could, our hearts pumping with adrenaline and alcohol.
I stopped at the bottom of the stairs. Jesse held my hand as my body sprang forward, almost falling, laughing. He yanked me back to standing. “You’re a mess,” he said, shaking his head. When we got to the cobblestone path that bisected the campus, he dropped my hand.
“I love this campus at night,” he said, looking around. “Without all the people.”
At night, the campus did have an adventurous, romantic feel to it. It was just the northern edge of Manhattan, but it felt like
a modern-day Athens. This enclave of lofty institutions—a theological seminary, a music college, the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine, Grant’s Tomb—and Columbia was the center point, an elevated plateau.
“What’s wrong with all the people?” I said.
“Everything.” He shuddered.
“Don’t you see how people walk around here? Like they’re in the darkest state of their lives, like they’re so terribly burdened?”
“And I’m just here to help them have a good time.”
I didn’t say anything in response. All I could think was: he sure doesn’t look like a drug dealer, with his preppy clothes, tortoise-rimmed glasses and button-down shirts. There was innocence to Jesse, to the way he raised his eyebrows in class whenever somebody said something of interest to him, the way he ordered a scone at the coffee shop and then looked at it curiously and said, “Call this a scone all you want, it seems very muffin-like to me.” But then there was this.
“Hey,” he said, with restraint in his voice. “Can I ask you a question?” He touched my wrist, and we stopped walking.
“Okay . . .”
“That poem you wrote? Was that about your mother?” His eyes were looking so acutely into mine that I almost felt like I didn’t have to say anything.
He knew. Of course he knew. Who was I kidding? It happened senior year of high school, but everyone here knew. I was the girl whose mother died on September Eleventh. Most people didn’t bring it up directly. Most people simply assumed that I’d rather not talk about it, that I was okay with being silently deserving
of their kindness and left it at that. They didn’t want to get into it. They treated me like a bomb that might explode at any moment. It was too sad, too impossible to confront fully, so why mention it at all?
“My mother died when I was ten,” he said. “That’s why I’m asking. I know it’s none of my business, but . . . I guess I’m always looking for someone to talk about it with, as lame as that is.” He started walking again, vaguely shaking his head at the ground.
I stood there for a few seconds and then ran to catch up to him. I grabbed hold of his hand. He sort of smiled, but there was weight to his expression, an understanding. I felt a thrilling sensation in my chest. There is something so damn attractive to me about someone who has been in pain. It makes that person seem strong and capable of handling all the shit that life can throw at you. When my sympathy kicks in, so does my fantasy that I and I alone can take care of and repair this person. Somehow, I feel uniquely qualified to do this. Other girls don’t know. They don’t understand. I know. I get it. I want someone who’s been tossed around a bit, who has made mistakes and paid the consequences. They just seem more qualified for the job. Basically, I have no desire to be the first thing that messes up someone’s life. Give me someone who has suffered, like really suffered, and then it’ll be easy for them to deal with me. They’ll say “Her? Oh, dating her is nothing, compared to a funeral.”
We kept walking. All that could be heard was the gentle sound of running water from two fountains on the steps of the library. No noise from the rest of the city was permitted to creep in. The only light was emanating from lampposts dotting the campus. They lit up the columns in front of every austere building, the flagpole with its pale blue banner waving.
The wind picked up. We were leaning against each other for
support. I was feeling like something significant was about to happen, or maybe I’d walk back to my suite alone, stop and get pizza along the way. Anything was possible.
We passed a sculpture of Alexander Hamilton, the facade of the library, with its arcade of columns, the names of writers and philosophers etched onto it—Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, Voltaire. In the silhouette of famous names, collegiate life had its own traditions, oddities, mischief. Yes, along with the greatest thinkers of history, there I was. In the middle of a drug deal. Maybe.
“So you don’t like anyone here on this whole campus, huh?” I said, giving him a light shove. He fell dramatically to the side.
“I like you,” Jesse said, and then turned to me. “Clearly.”
“You’re only saying that because you want to sleep with me.”
“That is one hundred percent my motivation in saying that.” I couldn’t tell if he was being sincere.
“I knew it!”
“Get out of here.”
“I wish I could.”
“I bet you do,” he said. “Hey, the musician and the music writer. That’s pretty cute, huh?”
There was a lot of nonsense flying around. We walked until we got to 114th Street, a tree-lined row of town houses. I could see taxis shooting up and down Broadway, the backbone of the area—where bars, dusty stationery stores, understocked pharmacies, upscale and dilapidated eateries lined up next to one another, where books and cheap prints were sold on the street along with socks and electronic gadgets ten years past their prime.
I could see a group of people lighting cigarettes outside a dorm on the corner. They were sitting on the sidewalk, but I
could hear laughter and see the shadow of their forms. Morningside Heights was an assortment of oddballs—a middle-aged man with newspapers in his pockets, an older lady with a brush stuck midway through her hair. You had to be nice to these people, despite their quirks, because it was nearly impossible to distinguish the run-of-the-mill eccentric who lived in the neighborhood from the—surprise!—it’s your philosophy professor.
“Wait here,” he said, standing in front of one of the town houses. He put his hands on my shoulders. “Don’t move from right here, okay?”
I watched as he ascended the stairs. When he got to the top, he stopped and looked back at me from the arched doorway. He rolled his eyes. Go! I mouthed. Hurry up! The house was dark, save for the three windows on the third floor, which were lit up. I tried to get into the moment. It was exciting! It was dangerous! I was the lookout!
But I was scared. To calm down, I told myself, You can always walk away. But then, what would happen if he got caught? I imagined going to class on Monday without him there and had an intense reaction to that notion, like I’d be alone, without a friend in the world.
I walked up to the house, examined the plaque next to the door: SIGMA DELTA TAU. I peered in the window, but there was nothing to see but an empty gray garbage can. On the street behind me, a guy walked by, on the phone. His voice was loud, but then disappeared as he continued on down the street. All I heard was “She was so fucking wasted that she . . .”
As I stood there, I watched the wind rearrange a stack of empty pizza boxes and shuffle along a copy of Herodotus with the cover ripped off. I didn’t know what was going on up there. I
could have said, in a jokey manner, “So what are we delivering? Pot? Coke? LSD?” But I didn’t. I guess I still wanted the whole thing to exist in vague, amorphous terms. I was already mentally cutting this part of my evening from the picture, stitching together the party scene with whatever would happen between us after he came down those stairs.
Twenty minutes went by. I kept waiting, getting increasingly agitated. A car passed and someone popped their head out of the window and yelled something at me, and I was so startled that it might be the police that I almost threw up. I started to tie up my hair and almost went to lean over the garbage can on the corner. Suddenly, I stood up straight. A bad feeling crept over me. All the fear and alcohol in my system was affecting me, catching up to me now that he was no longer there to distract me from it. I looked up at the windows on the third floor, reassuring myself with the idea that Jesse was watching me. But the longer I stood there, the more I started to panic. I felt like I was falling. I took as much breath into my lungs as I could and exhaled. The square of sidewalk that I stood on no longer felt secure. The world was starting to spin and slip away. I looked around, scanning for something, anything, to ground me. I looked up at the windows, but I could see nothing.
It happens the same way every time. You obsess and fixate over it, but then you realize that you have to let go eventually, so why not now? It’s time to let it go. Invite him to the party, be cool about it, what’s the worst that can happen? You get hurt. That’s the worst. What’s the big deal? Plus, there are a lot of worse things out there. Think about all those things. Feel better about yourself. Be a little bit tougher than you really are. Confidence breeds confidence. Believe in yourself. Release it!
You let it go. Of course you let it go. It takes guts, but you have
guts. You tell him you’ll be his girlfriend; you say “I love you too”; you invite him to the party. You breathe. You walk away. You’re tempted to analyze his response, but no, that will only make things worse. Keep walking. Make a clean break. It’s too late now anyway. You commence waiting for the results, waiting to make some progress. You’ve done the hard part, and now he determines whether you get to move forward. It’s entirely out of your control. Relax, people say. There’s nothing more you can do.
This is wrong. There is something more that you can do. There is something more that you will do. You will worry. It’s something you’re familiar with, from life. It’s not like, Oh, worrying? What is that? Is that what I’m doing right now? I’m not familiar. No, you’ve done this before. It’s something of a side profession for you.
At first, there is this feeling of vulnerability. You want to take it back, to crawl into a hiding spot, to hug yourself into a tight enough ball that it disappears. But then you settle into it, you adjust, you decide, I’m the type of person who can do this. I’ve moved on. I’m not some damaged girl. My father left and my mother died, so I’ll always be fucked-up about relationships? No thank you. I’m the type of person who moves on. I’m the type of person who is out there. And once you settle into it, it’s kind of like a drug. You think, What else can I do? What else might he want to know? I bet he’d be interested in this or that story. You tell the stories to yourself first, correct the grammar, improve the dialogue, save it all for use at a later date. The high has kind of a manic quality to it. It’s as if your mind might spin away from you. Your imagination is running faster than you can keep up with. So you start to get cautious. You realize you’re paving the way for disappointment. You think that if things go too well, you will cross the street and get hit by a truck. To keep your head down, you change gears; you start anticipating the worst, which puts you
in a somewhat gloomy state. But it’s a relief, really. What were you doing before? You have to protect yourself! But then after a while, you realize that you’re too down. You can only keep up this doomsday approach for so long. You meander back into cautious optimism because you have no control anyway, so what’s the point of feeling bad all the time?
Eventually, the ball drops. He wasn’t what you thought he was. And the fact that the ball drops is kind of hilarious to you. Well, not the fact itself. What’s hilarious is that you thought that it wouldn’t. You actually threw that thing up into the air and expected it to stay there, or maybe come down a little, but certainly it would not thud on the floor. No. Never. For the ball to drop would so fly in the face of the fundamentals of physics. HA.
And then, it is as if someone took all those exciting moments and flipped them around. The same ache that had you soaring now has you in despair. There’s a fair amount of tears, body hunched over and shaking, head in hands, palms pressed hard against your forehead tears. It’s all coming back to you in short, gasping breaths, the kind that pushes your insides further in, that turns your inhales into short puffs. Every single time you have felt good about this in recent memory is coming back to you, and you feel the reverse side of it. The exact amount of pleasure is now pain. But it’s worse now because the pleasure was spread out over time, thinly distributed, whereas the pain is happening all at once, crashing down on you like a heavy rainstorm. You’re choking on the words that you told yourself, those ridiculous words that you told yourself, how you said, Keep going, you’re doing so well! You’re finally over it! It’s all turned to poison. It’s rotting before your eyes, and there is absolutely no way to reverse it. That’s how final and penetrating the damage is going to be. Attempting to reverse it doesn’t even occur to you.
I looked up at the town house. The lights on the third floor clicked off. I waited for several minutes but heard nothing.
Where is he? Will he be okay?
Anything was possible.