They worked together at the college newspaper. She had thought he was kind of freaky at first, he was so short and spindly and bearded, and his fingernails were always longer than they should have been. When he laughed, it was like a tremendous wheeze, and even after knowing him for months, she always felt the thrill of panic when she heard that high-pitched, asphyxiated squeal, as though his boyishly concave chest was about to explode and leave all four quarters of his heart bleeding in an old pizza box. He smoked cigarettes. He was from Queens. He answered his telephone “yellow!” She worried on occasion that he compelled some latent anti-Semitism in her.
But they became friends. He was so insanely funny. And after many Thursday midnights at the paper, turning passive voice into active voice, manipulating subjects into objects into subjects, how could they not have become friends? He was obsessed with ping-pong and constellations (“Have you seen Orion’s Belt? Really seen it?”) and he loved Mahler’s Fifth. She sometimes had discussions about theory or form with other boys, boys from English class who would invite her to go see Bergman films with them, and afterwards when they lingered outside her dorm in frozen shoes, talk about how much they hated mainstream American cinema. Sometimes she let them up, sometimes she didn’t.
But with him she just talked.
“Would you rather get shot by a firing squad or get the guillotine?” she might ask.
“What would I be in for?”
“Mmmm … stealing a mirror from Versailles.”
“Could I be a guerilla?” he would ask.
“Well in France, I’d have to say the guillotine.”
“Trendy,” he would say and drink half of his eighth cup of coffee in one sip.
“So what about in Spain?”
“If I were a guerilla, the firing squad — hand me that edit, will you? — actually, the firing squad no matter what.”
She would laugh and maybe eat a potato chip from the counter by the copy desk. “Okay then, what about on Mars?”
“On Mars, I’d take the guillotine.”
“Are you sure? What if you were Spanish?”
“No gravity, lady.”
Once she saw him at a party. She knew her ex-boyfriend was going to be there, so she wore her tightest jeans and reddest lipstick and her most f**k-this-f**king-s**t white v-neck shirt. She was pleasantly, sexily drunk and she walked out into the courtyard with a cigarette dangling loosely from her red lips. The moon was full and covered in fog so that the light seemed to spill out into the sky like a raw and breaking egg. She walked by her ex-boyfriend without acknowledging him, instead talking to her roommate and laughing her loudest, most girlishly happy laugh. And he was there too, her friend from the newspaper, smoking in the courtyard with two friends, their cigarette embers like tiny red eyes, flitting and blinking in the disseminated light.
“Jonathan!” she called out (that was his name, Jonathan). “I never see you out!”
“Sophie! That must be heart-breaking for you.”
“It is!” Her roommate handed her a screwdriver and she took a sip. She grimaced at the taste of vodka and took another sip. “Hey Jonathan,” she said, “we should be friends.”
He smiled and put out his cigarette with the sole of his brown shoe. (He never wore sneakers.) “I thought we already were friends,” he said.
“Oh good,” she said and she winked at him as her roommate pulled her back into the sweltering center of the crowd.
Then, in the spring, after he had stopped editing the section (he was a senior and seniors always stopped before graduation), he called her to catch up. They met late at night at the only restaurant that stayed open late on weeknights. It was a greasy diner run by a Greek family that offered gyros and spanikopita along with the usual eggs any style and tuna melts. She ended up sitting there for two hours with him, making fun of the people at the paper and making fun of people in general. She told him about the car accident she had been in over spring break and the stretcher she had been strapped into and the ambulance and about how it had taken her almost the whole two weeks to recuperate.
“I didn’t realize you were so laid up,” he said.
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“It sounds pretty bad.”
“I still had a lot of Percoset left over from getting my wisdom teeth out,” she said.
“Which accounts for the recovery and the accident?”
“Ha ha, no, I wasn’t driving.”
“Well I’m glad you’re all right,” he said.
The waiter came over to the booth where they were sitting and told them the diner was closing. It was 2 a.m. They gathered their jackets and scarves and left. The waiter had just pulled down the metal grating when she realized that she had left her wallet inside with the key to her room.
“It’s okay,” she said. “My roommate will probably be there.”
“No,” he said. “We need to get that for you.”
He reached between the metal bars and knocked on the window but the waiter shook his big brown head no. He pointed toward the booth, but the waiter didn’t look. The waiter just shook his head.
“It’s okay,” she said.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “you knock really politely and get the guy’s attention, just get him to open the metal thing and then as soon as he’s opened the door, I’ll run in and get your wallet.”
“Why would he open if for me?”
“He’ll do it,” he said.
He hid against the brick wall and she put on her best damsel-in-distress face and the waiter looked annoyed but finally opened the gate and then opened the door a crack so that he could hear her.
“I left my wallet in there, could I just get in for a moment?”
“I am closed. Tomorrow you can come back to get your purse.”
Just then Jonathan yelled out and lunged at the door, plunging by the waiter into the diner. The startled waiter turned around, but by the time he gathered his bearings and ran to the booth, Jonathan had the bag and had climbed underneath the table and was shimmying toward the door.
“Run!” he said. And she ran and a few paces later he was running with her. “Turn here! Don’t stop running!”
They ran all the way back to her dorm and they stood there, laughing with the hysterical glee that only criminality brings, out of breath and hot from the exercise, shivering in the thirty-degree temperature of the night.
“Guess neither of us will be going there for a while,” he said.
“When you were under the table, I thought I was going to scream! I thought he was going to get you!”
“Naw. You gotta have faith.”
His cheeks were red and his beard looked better-groomed than usual. Jonathan was a great appreciator of women. He loved his mother very much.
“I do have faith, I have faith,” she said.
“Sophie?” came a voice. It was Jack, one of the basketball players who lived down the hall.
“Jack — oh my God — you’ve got to hear this,” Sophie said. “I left my wallet — and then they wouldn’t let us back in — and then Jonathan just went nuts!”
“Slipping and sliding all over the place, the guy was like ‘huh?'” She laughed and finally stopped laughing. “Do you guys know each other?”
“Hello, I’m Jonathan.”
“Both of your names are rooted in the name John. Very Kennedy of you.”
“My name’s just Jack.”
Jonathan shrugged apologetically. “Just Jonathan.”
“Well,” she said.
“Do you have your wallet now?” Jack asked.
“So come on in.”
“Okay, yeah, okay. What a night. Goodnight, Jonathan. This was fun.”
“Good day,” he said.
She walked towards the dorm with Jack, still giddy from the excitement. He opened the door for her and she made a joke about how chivalrous he was and felt his bicep with a look of ironic awe.
A few days later, Jonathan left a message on her cell phone saying that they should get together again, “Somewhere we won’t have to flee, or where they don’t care if we do … like Taco Bell.”
She laughed, but did not have a chance to call him back. She was busy with an article about the romantic lives of the players on the men’s basketball team. It was actually a pretty funny piece. Jack said that he liked “Bohemian girls,” which he clarified after publication to mean “girls with big boobs.” Jack’s freshman year roommate was on the newspaper too and the day the article came out, he started jokingly claiming that Jack and Sophie were dating. He even hung a computer generated marriage picture of the two of them by the copy desk, scribbling underneath it: “journalistic integrity, much?”
The article came out on Friday, and on Saturday, she got the e-mail.
She had been meaning to call Jonathan, so she was happy when she saw his name in the inbox of her e-mail account. His e-mail had no subject, but she clicked on it before reading the message from the English department registrar and the proclamation of gossip from one of her roommates. She began to read.
Reading through the paper, came across your article. I can’t say it surprises me to see a hack piece of trash in that paper, but for you to purposely poison the last issue I worked on is beyond base. Journalistic integrity, much? Did you not think I’d find out? Did you simply not care what I’d think? You’re barely a human. What kind of intellectual fraud are you? Hideous piker, vampire-floozy, gonif. Real sleazy.
Stole my heart, then stole my dignity (half-joke on the former — always had a feeling that you’d prove to be a joke). So let’s finish it this way — you see me on the street, I’m not even a stranger. I never thought I knew you, and I’m now very glad I never got the chance.
She read it again to see if it was a joke. Hideous piker, vampire-floozy, gonif. What was a gonif? What was a piker? Really, what was a floozy? What was this e-mail? Could he possibly be referring to the article about the basketball players? She suddenly felt the same hysterical uncontrollability from the night at the diner rising in her throat, surging up like a sharp balloon. She knew the e-mail was not a joke.
She read the e-mail once more and walked into the common room of her dorm, looking for someone to explain the meaning of this e-mail, looking for someone who could say with a definitive air, “This makes sense.” No one was there and she sat back down at her desk.
You’re barely a human. So he was in love with her.
What kind of intellectual fraud are you? So he wanted to f**k her.
She started to laugh, not because it was funny but because laughter was one of the options. She remembered the day her sixth grade social studies teacher, who was butch as all hell, had introduced her to her girlfriend, an older woman with short cropped hair and dressed in a floral jumper. She had not known that the woman was a lesbian until that moment and she remembered the horror, really the shame, the kick in the stomach of why, why is she implicating me in this? Does she think I’m like her, because I’m not like her. I’m not like any of them. I always had a feeling you’d prove to be a joke. Maybe she was like him.
Sophie clicked to reply, but the blank screen seemed to hypnotize her and she sat there in its sinister glow for an hour before going out and getting wasted. She ended up at a party with one of the basketball players she had interviewed, a tall blonde boy with a girlfriend back in Indiana. He was serving beer from the keg and she took a cup and wedged her thin frame in next to him.
“I can’t tell you how many girls have complained to me about your girlfriend,” she said.
He smiled his mouth full of white teeth. “Oh yeah?”
“She must be quite a girl.”
She put her hand behind his head and ran her fingers through his soft hair. “I’m going to kiss you,” she said. And she kissed him just as he was opening his mouth to say something. Stole my heart, then stole my soul.
She went halfway to his room, passionately clawing at his clothes and then stopped, moved away and left him on the landing of his stairwell.
“Hey,” he said.
“You’re drunk,” she said. “Katie’s more than okay.”
Then she went home and fell asleep in the drunken dizzied way of falling into an endless black pit, twirling around and around and around like Alice in Wonderland. It was warmer outside and raining but the heat was still on full blast in her room. She dreamed that she was ugly and woke up in a cold sweat. I always knew you were a joke.
It rained all weekend and Sophie did not reply to Jonathan’s e-mail. She stayed in her room. It was beginning to feel like a tropical rainforest in there.
On Monday, she saw him on the street and he did not look at her. She had planned to say hi in a situation like that, but when it came down to it, she tried to catch his eye and he wouldn’t look at her and then he was gone.
On Wednesday, she went to her regular classes and then in the afternoon, she remembered a lecture she had wanted to attend, a lecture by a visiting professor someone had interviewed for the newspaper. The lecture hall had two doors and she was late so she tried to go in the back one. But just as she was about the turn the knob, she saw his slouching figure among the desks. She had seen a dozen doubles of him that afternoon, but this was the real thing. Not even a stranger.
She snuck in the front door and did not look up. She slid into an empty desk ten rows ahead of him and she thought she could feel his eyes on her, like two angry red lasers slicing and rearranging her skin through her thin cashmere sweater.
The lecturer was one of those female academics who try to make her subject more interesting by rolling her r’s and talking a disproportionate amount about desire.
“We’ll look for instance,” she was saying, “at the passage in which Ichabod Crane has just arrived at Van Tassel’s house and he is so overwhelmed by desire for Katrina that everything seems sensual to him.”
Sophie shifted in her seat as the professor turned to the page she was looking for.
“Page 8 for those following along. Hm hmm. ‘On all sides he beheld vast stores of apples, some hanging in oppressive opulence on the trees, some gathered into baskets and barrels for the market, others heaped up in rich piles for the cider-press …”
The language did not seem to be particularly remarkable, but the professor’s dewy voice made everything sound erotic and Sophie felt her chair getting more and more uncomfortable. She brushed a stray bit of hair out of her eyes as though she was acting in a play, as though in this play her character was a twenty-year old girl in a lecture hall.
“Further on he beheld great fields of Indian corn, with its golden ears peeping from their leafy coverlets, and holding out the promise of cakes and hasty puddings; and the yellow pumpkins lying beneath them, turning up their fair round bellies to the sun, and giving ample prospects of the most luxurious of pies…”
The room seemed to get smaller and smaller as the professor read and the sun seemed to stream in like ice through the closed windows so that soon she and he were the only people in that enormous lecture hall (she did not turn around and look), just she in the front at an awkward left-handed desk and he 10 rows behind, wheezing, salivating, becoming erect each time she wrote a letter in her open notebook or let her right hand dangle her pen between her two fingers like a cigarette. And the e-mail hung over them like a giant invisible tapestry, weighing down the rafters, pulling up the floorboards. She crossed her legs and then uncrossed them. She tried to stay still, but she could not.
“…breathing the odor of the bee-hive, and as he beheld them, soft anticipations stole over his mind of dainty slap-jacks…”
As though she was doing it for him, as though she was torturing him. She crossed her arms in front of her. She uncrossed them and leaned up on her elbows.
That morning she had gotten up an hour before she usually did and looked through her closet to find something that would make her look impervious, make her look irresistible. She had put on eyeliner and mascara and she had looked at herself in the mirror and played the radio as loud as it would go.
She pulled her ankles together so that the outer limits of her body formed a slim rectangle. Maybe she wanted to torture him. She thought of seducing him at some party and the way people would say it was so wrong, thought of watching his quiet cow eyes soften from hatred to forgiveness to cold desire. Her cheeks started to get hot even though the hair on her forearms stood up straight. She felt the weight of anticipation in the joints of her fingers. She thought of standing somewhere and watching him sink, watching the slack curves of his body thicken and heave, thought of how she would watch him and feel the surge he must have felt when he pressed send on his e-mail, watching her voice as it struck him and drew blood.
“…well buttered and garnished with honey and treacle, by the delicate little dimpled hand of Katrina Van Tassel.”
She thought of his shoulders bare and quivering, his mouth like rubber.
Just then the professor stopped speaking and Sophie heard the low rattle of applause. The lecture was over. She gathered up her notebook and her pen and slipped her arms into the sleeves of her jacket. She stood up and turned back to look at him, even though she knew it was a mistake. She turned to look at the seat where he had been sitting and it was empty. He was gone. All that was there was a folding desk and the vague imprint of a body upon the red seat cushion.
It was the most maddening thing she had ever seen, that empty chair. It made all the beige desks and backpacks and ambling students blur into the red carpet, that empty chair.
A week later, the last issue of the paper came out and then they had finals and then the semester ended. Sophie put her things into boxes and did not stay past the day of her last exam. Graduation festivities depressed her. Instead she got on an airplane and watched all the green mountains and blue rivers and brown fields get smaller and smaller as she rose into the thinning air.
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