This happened in April, near the end of our freshman year, in 1981, on a very warm, very sunny Thursday, one of those astonishing days when the sky over Lake Michigan widens ten times bigger, throbs a thousand times bluer. Dramas eddy all around--couples split up or accidentally create babies no one wants or shriek regretful words or whisper them under their breath. The thing is, you don't know this. You remember only your own drama, though you won't recognize it as such until later.
He wore a blue shirt--nothing special, something vaguely denim with white buttons that were more lustrous than regular white buttons. Faded, milky blue, soft to the touch. Well, I didn't know it was soft because I couldn't touch it, not even the sleeve, not even that way girls might laugh too long at a dumb joke, that laugh the excuse to seize the guy's arm. Flirting 101.
But I wasn't allowed to do that with him, with my best friend's boyfriend.
We were skipping our one o'clocks, the three of us, heading to the strip of campus beach along Lake Michigan. He juggled two ratty lawn chairs; I carried the blanket. I would end up on the blanket--he and Jess would take the chairs. That's how it would be. I should have gone to class. There was a quiz--I'd already missed two or three quizzes or four. I would have to absolutely ace the final. I shouldn't have liked that pressure, but it was interesting, that tinge of excitement.
We complimented the day as if we had planned the weather ourselves: spring in Chicago had never been so warm, the sky never this blue. We talked as we set up the chairs, the blanket, the bottle of once-icy vodka lemonade, sweaty now in its paper bag. We talked as if no one in the history of the world had ever had such a conversation, such thoughts, as if we weren't surrounded by dozens of students cutting one o'clocks, pulling out icy vodka bottles.
That's what I miss if I think about Jess, that way she believed I was special.
"Take the chair," Tommy said.
"I'm fine down here," I said, sprawling across the blanket, automatically stroking the frayed corner that had been at my cheek when this blanket covered my childhood bed back in Iowa.
"Don't be ridiculous," he said. "The chair is better." He plopped next to me.
"Yes." From above, Jess's voice bumped in. "The chair is better. Don't be ridiculous."
He sat close. The shadow of one blue sleeve skimmed my bare arm. Neither of us moved, not even to breathe. The water seemed far away, though a quick run and you'd plunge in. The lake would be frigid this time of year. No swimming.
I had to breathe, so I turned toward Jess, who adjusted her sunglasses against the glare. She wore a black bikini bottom. Her legs weren't well-shaved, so a band of goose bumps rose along each shin. There was a bikini top, but over it she wore a lavender tee with cut sleeves and a torn neckline; her shirt also looked impossibly soft. And expensive. If I owned that shirt, I wouldn't have had the heart to slash it up. I had watched her go at it with a big pair of cheap scissors; "What if you don't like it when you're done?" I had asked. "I'll buy another," she said, "and give this one to you." But she liked it fine. The color was good on her. She knew it. She cinched the waist in a side knot, unknotted it, knotted it again.
"Loose," I recommended from the blanket.
"You're right," she agreed, letting the shirt hang free. She looked like a picture in a magazine, an ad that makes you want to be there, makes you believe the product totally would be the thing to transform your life.
I had on elastic-banded gym shorts and a discolored, high school mascot T-shirt that had shrunk. The thing I did was not wear a bra. My breasts were small enough that I could do that easily and comfortably, almost casually, but also the thing was that this tiny T-shirt was pale blue, virtually faded white. It was how to get attention.
But he was staring straight out at the water, not at me, not at Jess. His mirrored sunglasses reflected the unruffled lake and the empty sky. Near us: a noisy, frat boy Frisbee game with profuse arguments. Gaggles of sorority girls flat on their backs, absorbing sunlight, impervious to the proximity of the uncaught Frisbee, the tornadoes of kicked-up sand, the sky, the day, aware only of the glow of their serene radiance. A couple plunked next to bikes tangled in the sand, alternating bites of a sandwich, first him, then her, distracting me with the inefficiency of their eating. People were all around, the sun was all around. A guy with a beard flopped on the bare sand reading a thick paperback, but I couldn't see the title. I was thinking that if I could, I might feel less alone, though also maybe more.
I usually felt alone. Maybe he did too, that guy rhythmically shaking sand from the pages of his book, and this ache might be something we shared. I couldn't tell.
Jess lived next door in the dorm. We had met back on the first day. I was the only girl in the dorm she could stand, she said later, the only person who understood her. She wasn't that hard to understand, I didn't think, but I understood not to tell her that.
Jess said, "Someone sit in this chair, please." She laughed, but she was dead serious, so I stood up then sat in the lawn chair next to hers; both were the kind with frayed nylon webbing scratching your thighs. The flimsy aluminum legs shifted--balanced for one unsteady, precarious second-- and then I broke through, the whole thing collapsing me awkwardly onto the messy sand. A wide scrape gashed my elbow, stung sharply.
"Oh my god!" I exclaimed, struggling to disentangle from the aluminum bars. My face seethed red-hot. It was the kind of thing that happened only to me, never to her, sitting all high and mighty on her perch. She had to have known--though rationally that wasn't possible, and she was working not to laugh at my wretched embarrassment. Grains of sand clung to the pulp of the scrape, and I rubbed to brush myself clean, grinding sand deeper into my skin. Tetanus, I thought, pushing my hand harder, like scrubbing a dirty pot, infection, lockjaw, rabies, leprosy, Black Death, the plague.
"You knew!" I accused.
She shook her head. "I swear no."
Tommy half-rolled across the blanket and extended one hand so I could grab it and break free of the wreckage. I wanted his skin pressing mine, but not like this, in pity, so the sensation of his firm grasp was nothing. "You're OK," he said, telling, not asking.
"Back to the blanket for me," I said. "I know my place." Patches of sand clung to my bare limbs, and I felt itchy and filthy and doltish, punished for skipping my quiz, for wanting Tommy's skin on mine. But I didn't sit; I kept standing, reluctant to scatter sand on the blanket. Now I was the one towering over the two of them. I had become conscious of body language from a book assigned in my women's studies class. I refused to step aside on the sidewalk when a guy headed straight at me. Often they didn't move so we collided, reeling onto the grass. I relished that my stubbornness messed us both up. They never bothered with sorry, so me neither.
"Where'd you get these crappy chairs from?" Jess asked Tommy.
He shrugged. "The garage." He rented garage space for his car off-campus because he didn't want to park a Porsche outside. He was a senior, and the car had been a gift from his dad the quarter he got all A's. Jess told me he paid a grad student to write two papers and a take-home final for him, that was how the A's showed up. She also said he said that his father wouldn't care if he found that out, that his dad just wanted to brag to people his kid got 4.0, that his kid earned a Porsche 924 turbo. And that his father would have bought the car anyway, but he decided to prove he could get the grades. It was definitely twisted, but also admirable, the vastness of the charade. The car was no good for Chicago winters, but it was the only Porsche 924 turbo on campus, so that was the important thing. We'd driven to the beach in Jess's car, because there were three of us, plus the chairs. She didn't stress about parking on the street. Freshmen weren't allowed cars so she couldn't use the lots and she racked up parking tickets that she sent to her father who sent them to his friend who sent them to his friend, the alderman. Or something like that, where in the end the tickets disappeared.
Jess said, "Well, let's just enjoy the day anyway."
"I am," Tommy said, resuming his stare.
"What do you keep looking at?" Jess asked. "I hate when I can't see what you're thinking. Those power-trip, hide-your-eyes sunglasses."
That seemed like my cue, either to distract them from the day's hundredth silly squabble or to let them go at it in privacy, so I chose the latter and ambled down to the water's edge, rubbing at the sand stuck to my skin as I walked. It was only a lake, not an ocean, but I'd never seen the ocean, so this was fine. I was wearing flip-flops, but with water that freezing, I didn't want to get close, so I stopped at the wet sand line. Right then I was the only one standing near the water, and I tried to imagine that I appeared interesting or possibly even mysterious as I posed; I imagined that someone might pause to wonder who I was and what weighty, consequential thoughts I was considering; that the person wondering--this man--might be older, a professor between classes, or a whippety jogger on the sidewalk beyond, distracted from the sweaty torture of running, catching sight of me at water's edge as if I had risen from the sea. It was all silly, but no one needed to know my thoughts unless I told them, which I never did.
There was a slight fishiness to the air; dead alewives, which I had learned were shiny, silver fish, thin but as long as a ruler, that washed up dead along the lakeshore every spring. I knew this because my poetry workshop was overrun by student poems lamenting the cruel cycle of life and the ephemeral nature of nature as symbolized by alewives. The professor rolled his eyes when the word was uttered, surely signaling a folder of insufferable alewife poems sitting on top of a cabinet, the typed pages chortled over during tweedy faculty meetings. I refused to offer commentary on alewife poems, hoping my silence made me seem dignified and impossible to please, like our professor. I would probably flunk this class because I hadn't turned in my own poems for discussion, sensing immediately that they were juvenile and loathing their lack of sophistication, loathing myself for being unable to write anything better. But the professor liked me and had scribbled a note offering to review my poems privately, during office hours, and I pondered what that invitation might mean or imply, understanding it might mean or imply little.
Bam or wham or zoom or whoosh: the point being that I was roughly scooped from behind with persistent hands groping my waist and bare legs, fingers pressing and sliding inside my shirt, onto my naked skin, edging to my breast but stopping shy, then swooping for a feel, a squeeze, another, hands pawing, fingernails scratching; my flesh prickled and tense, abruptly alert in a way I hadn't known possible; whoops and cries like boys playing Indian warriors; beery breath panting across my face, along my neck; the slippery slick of someone's sweat; and I was being carried--or hauled or pulled or yanked or really all of those things, dragged, towed, heaved--into the lake by the pack of bare-chested boys who moments ago had been playing Frisbee, who had evidently grown bored and had seen me not as mysterious or alluring but simply as vulnerable prey, and I was plunged into Lake Michigan, getting "laked." Jess shrieked my name, and ice water hit, ramrodding through me, up my nose, over my eyes; my breath knocked senseless into bubbles and burbles; sand gritty on my knees and the heels of both hands. The world tumbled and twisted, was dark and wrong. I lifted my anchor of a head, forcing it backward, startled this scrap of instinct took hold, if that's what it was, and I surfaced to splashes and hoots and a curtain of water falling away. Hair flailing, and icy, icy, icy cold inhabiting me, coating me like new skin, the tiny, rhythmic clicks of my teeth absurdly loud in my head, my shirt clinging to my breasts, my nipples hard and tight and aware, water streaming down my body, which shook from cold, from fear, the sand squishy and murky and unknown under my toes, one flip-flop floating out of reach, the other simply lost--all of this under the pretty April sunshine, in front of everyone, like grade school recess, the boys high-fiving, shaking themselves like puppies, whooping off the water's chill and whacking shoulders and chests. One or two cautiously glanced back without eye contact, assuring themselves I hadn't drowned.
Was this what it's like to be chosen? I remember thinking, the cold confusing my brain, to be Cinderella, stunned as the shoe slides on, and Jess shrieked my name over and over; she was up out of the chair, clutching Tommy's arm, waving at me, and I was shaking as I hurried up the beach to where she stood, running now, grateful for her, for the childhood blanket I had swiped over Christmas break, grateful that it waited for me with its frayed corner, tattered edges, and splotchy bloodstain from my first period, grateful to wrap myself in it and be invisible, and I reached Jess, and she said, "We're going to get married!"
I stood for a moment--freezing, wet, bare, and exposed, naked every way except physically--I might as well have ripped off the sopping T-shirt--and what Jess was saying seemed to make perfect sense--though it didn't--because everything with her made perfect sense because she made it make sense, and so I said, "Wow. Congratulations," thinking I should hug her but also that I shouldn't because I smelled like dead fish. I swallowed down a gritty bad taste, then kept talking, "That's so great. I can't believe it," babbling conventionally; words looped out of me, what a great couple they were, how exciting this was, even as my mind thought this was a crazy plan, even as my eyes watched him watching my chest, my hard nipples an invitation, my body, maybe even my thoughts, as good as naked. His eyes widened and flickered, then drilled into my chest, and I saw the sunglasses half-buried in the sand at Jess's feet. Another battle won, and this one too: she would get the coveted flashy diamond, as enormous as a twenty-five-cent gumball machine ring, that gaudy, but real. I imagined what I would say to her about how pretty it was. I imagined those words in my voice, how pretty her ring was, her wedding dress, her condo on Lakeshore Drive, her matching Porsche, how pretty her life was turning out to be. She would be modest but unsurprised. Her life could have only this pretty outcome. Did I not know that? Of course I did. We both understood she wasn't me.
I arched my back, as if needing to stretch, but I didn't need to stretch. He slid his arm off Jess and bent down for the blanket, flapping it lightly, sending a cloud of sand fluttering free--"Careful," Jess fussed--and he handed the blanket to me so I could wrap up in it, cover myself. Our eyes locked, our fingertips brushed, and the cold coating my skin splintered, as if transformed into hard, glittering shards of ice.
He found me in the library that night, which wasn't exactly hard because I always studied in the carrels in the Asian collection. I couldn't read Chinese characters, so the books around me weren't distracting, and I liked the isolation of this underused section of the library and its long-settled silence. A footstep across the green carpet rattled like an earthquake. The Asian studies students hunched like parentheses over their pages, terrified of accidental eye contact. The hush was tense, fraught.
I suspected this is where it would be with Tommy--or with someone--the poetry professor, someone else, anyone. Even as I revered this quiet, I wanted it destroyed, which I couldn't explain. Also I knew about a single-use, staff-only bathroom with a snap-lock inside tucked in a cranny off a short corridor. Someone had shown me once. Actually, Jess had shown me last fall when she'd popped up to tempt me away from my books during midterms, demanding I join her for a Tab and M&M break, and she waved at the door with a careless motion and said, "That's where I gave Chris Roy a hand-job that one time," and I nodded, trying to remember who Chris Roy was, thinking maybe he was from Hawaii, the one who Jess said always popped a Tic-Tac before going down on her; "not after, which I guess is a compliment?"
So I was in the middle of writing a generically pleasant critique of a dense poem about Saturn's rings for poetry workshop when I felt that tickle of someone watching, and I looked up at Tommy leaning against the wall across from my study carrel. He held a thick book with his finger marking the place and said, "Jess said you would know what the fuck this poem is about. She said you write poems."
"Not anymore," I said. "But let me see."
He sidled over, positioned the book on the table between us, and spread the pages to Walt Whitman, "Song of Myself." A sharp, piney scent floated off his skin: Polo by Ralph Lauren. It smelled better on him than it did on everyone else. "It's so fucking long," he said. "What does it mean?" He snapped his head back, thrusting a hank of hair out of his eyes. On the pages were underlines and checkmarks, crosshatches and notations lining the margins in red ink, in curvy feminine handwriting.
"Are those your notes?" I asked.
"I buy books used when I can," he said. "Praying someone smart had them first." He didn't hesitate--as I would--to announce such a thing about himself.
Yes, I bought used books, too, but because they were cheaper. Most scribbled-in notations seemed dumb to me, with the wrong things highlighted. A Keynesian approach when my teacher favored Austrian economics. A die-hard feminist reading the novella my hundred-years-old white-man teacher assigned.
"I can't explain this whole poem to you," I said.
"Jess said you could. She told me to come find you."
His face was too beautiful, with Irish skin, crisp blue eyes, long lashes, a tiny checkmark of a scar nestled under the perfect bend of one cheekbone, Kennedy teeth. That dark hair, tousled like he'd done it in a mirror before coming up here. Not that he had. But I guessed that he enjoyed the effect, the ripples he created. Later, I learned to recognize his style of arrogance immediately; later, I sniffed it out like a southern hunting dog, but here, now, it was something I couldn't yet identify, something alluring and mysterious, something that seemed the exact thing I thought I wanted. Then, there in the library--or at a party or during office hours or traipsing across campus--I believed it was the sex I wanted, wanting the man, any man, a man to collapse onto my naked body and say my name, to speak it sweetly, or whisper it all gravel and rough, or at least, maybe, to think it. That.
But really what I wanted, what I wanted really was this exact arrogance Tommy had lucked into. Only I didn't know then that I could acquire it for myself. All my life I had seen it only in men. And in Jess, of course.
"Jess told you to come find me?" I said.
He repeated, "Jess told me to come find you."
My breath fell out of me, hearing that a second time, understanding it, and my head went feathery. Someone a carrel over shushed us, and we dropped into whispers.
"She told me where you study, that it's easy to find you alone up here with the chink books."
"Asian books," I softly corrected.
"Asian books," he repeated. "I know. I pick up bad habits from my dad. Can't help it." A sly smile, as if he wished I would call him "naughty boy" and promise to spank him. He possessed that kind of simple mind. But a killer car. And that innate, from-the-crib, careless, easy, arrogant confidence he had been born into. I would never have that, pieces effortlessly locking into place, like loaded dice never coming up seven unless what you wanted was seven. I couldn't fathom. It was the way Jess had asked me on the way home from the beach, "Why aren't you angry at what happened? At those guys?" and from deep inside my blanket I had shrugged. I didn't get angry. Anger seemed to me inefficient, a churn of emotion with no movement. Being angry wouldn't make me un-wet or uncold. "I would be furious," Jess had continued, "I would want to kill someone." I asked, "Who? Which one of them would you want to kill?" and she laughed, though I hadn't intended to be funny, and said, "All of them, of course." After it happened, one of the boys had sauntered over and popped the top off a bottle of Michelob that he held out, and said, "You're OK?" and when I nodded, he said, "I wanted to stop them." Jess said, "Get out of here, you fucking pig," and she grabbed the bottle, tilting it so a cascade of beer hissed into the sand at her feet. There was a lot of foam, which seemed dramatic. Tommy was off hauling the trashed lawn chair to the garbage can, which is probably why the frat boy thought it was safe to approach. He seemed shaken by Jess's fury but recovered, spiraling two fingers at his temples and announcing, "You're crazy," before slinking back to his herd, all of them chattering like monkeys, kicking sand over cigarette butts and bottle caps, taking turns spinning the Frisbee on one finger, shirts on, packing up. Jess said, "You have to be more angry," and she seemed angry saying it. I couldn't fathom any of the right things: I would have drunk the beer, I would have told the guy I was fine, as long as the scrape on my elbow didn't get infected from lake water. I would have laughed saying that, so he'd get I was joking. I would've told him my name if he asked.
Now I said to Tommy, "Did you read the poem?"
"It doesn't matter," he said. "I don't get poems. My mind won't work that way."
"Then why are you taking a lit class?"
He gave his head one sharp shake. "Guess I could switch to pass-fail. I'm a sinking ship. In over my head on this, on all of it." His face pinched, the sly smile switched to a disconcerting, tender grimace that I didn't like: "My dad wants me to be a lawyer. I'm joining his firm. I mean, after I get into a law school. Wait-list at three, and rejections from nine. It's a drag." "It's too late for pass-fail," I said. "The deadline was last week." I knew because I had marked it on my desk calendar. I watched the day close in, then pass by, like a roar fading out behind me. "I missed it too. So I'm just as screwed."
"Not you," he said. "You're smart. You know how to get by."
It made me uncomfortable when anyone talked about what I was like. They were always wrong. So I said, "Do you want to be a lawyer?"
"Of course not," he said. "But there's nothing else I can do." He fidgeted and windmilled his arms, suddenly nervous. He looked like a bug skewered on a pin, dying with a needle through its thorax, a colorful butterfly, sure, but one of a thousand, not a rare species, not anything exotic at all. I looked away, down at the words written in my spiral notebook. My handwriting used too many loops. I wondered if Jess knew he didn't want to be a lawyer. This was back when being a lawyer seemed like a big deal. Back when if you weren't pre-med or pre-MBA, you were at least pre-law.
I said, "Chances are the poem is about sex or death. That's what they're always about, that's what professors say. So say that and you'll be fine."
He laughed. Another "shush." It was a super-academic school; people cared about their grades more than anything else, even getting drunk or stoned.
"Maybe we should go where we can talk for real," he said. Of course he knew how to make it sound natural, like hey, why not? Not sleazy.
"I know a place." I stood up and got walking. He would follow. I should have walked without looking back, the way Jess would, but after a moment, I looked back. He was a few steps behind, trailing his fingertips loosely along the spines of books on the shelves. He looked like a stranger; he was a stranger. I wondered if he was thinking about all those law schools that didn't want him or about his dad; I wondered if he wondered what I was thinking and knew he wasn't. Good, I thought, good. This was why Jess knew "never look back"; the blank randomness of his face made me pity him.
I let him catch up to me and when he did, I glanced away and pointed to the scuffed white door: "In there." I wanted my voice to sound confident. It did. He nodded, turned and ducked slightly--not so I wouldn't see him, not so I wouldn't pity him. But so he wouldn't see me, my face. Good, I tried to think again, good.
Afterward, he told me that Jess said blow jobs were totally disgusting. You're the one marrying her, I thought, but I corrected myself inside my head: You're the one engaged to her, because I knew it wouldn't work between them, and not because of this. But I said, "Really? I never thought that at all."
Also, he left his poetry book at the study carrel, still open to Whitman. I shut the cover. Norton Anthology of American Poetry. Thick and expensive, even used. I considered lugging it home, stacking it on my dorm dresser like a sad little trophy. Or maybe leaving it jammed between two "chink books," to be found years from now by a zealous work-study student culling the shelves, or found never, poetry abandoned to the Asian section, pages of someone forgotten's red handwriting. But then I realized, finally, that he had left the book on purpose so I would bring it by his apartment, later, or another time, or eventually. Or probably so I would show it to Jess.
Which I didn't, neither of those things.
That night I balanced the book on top of the trash can on my way out, late, as the main library closed, when everyone with still more homework funneled down to the twenty-four hour reserve room or pushed out onto the dark campus, into the dark night, the waves of Lake Michigan a distant growl, all of us pressing home to our dorms, walking with our brains raging like infernos, lit by all we had learned.
Finally, finally, I had learned who I was angry with. Finally, I knew how to punish that bad girl.
Leslie Pietrzyk's book of short stories, This Angel On My Chest, won the 2015 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and is forthcoming from the University of Pittsburgh Press in fall 2015. She is the author of two novels, Pears On A Willow Tree (Harper, 2011) and A Year And A Day (Harper Perennial, 2005).