The wind pushed a red plastic cup in circles at the middle of the crosswalk–advancing left to right, retreating right to left.
“The worst part is he has a girlfriend,” Karen overheard. “I bet she doesn’t know what he’s been doing since she graduated. And no one wants to tell her. It’s weird–he’s not just watching random girls, but her friends too.”
It was appealing to listen to the gossiping blonde girl and her curly-haired friend, but the swirling cup somehow seemed worth watching instead. In junior high she’d seen something similar, something with a man-made object surrendering itself to the force of air. In a movie. That movie she didn’t understand–American Beauty? Yes. The scene when the strangely deep boy next- door shows the girl a video of a plastic bag, gale-ridden and tumbling along a sidewalk. He says it is the most beautiful thing he has ever filmed. She tried to imagine that the Solo cup, whirling in the path ahead of her, was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
But it wasn’t. She couldn’t recall why the boy next-door thought that plastic bag was so beautiful. The only scenes she remembered were the bag looping through the wind and Kevin Spacey jerking off in the shower.
The girls in front took the same left that she was to make. As they turned, the blonde’s shifting hair revealed a thick scar, visible just below her neck and likely reaching down her spine. Lining the wound’s pink center was grayed, flaked skin–probably a relic from the girl’s warfare with scoliosis, but reminiscent of a long strip of seared tuna. Only someone who had spinal surgery could have such a vertically perfect scar.
Like Kris. Karen once went fishing with a girl named Kris, who had scoliosis–not that the ailment defined her identity, but she had talked about her orthopedic doctor visits a lot. And Kris had a new dachshund puppy they brought with them named Cinnamon-Sweet, though Kris pronounced it “Sthinnamon-Sthweet,” which was why her parents also paid for a speech pathologist. She and Karen only play-dated throughout elementary school. By twelfth grade, the girl was rid of her speech impediment, sitting with the Harry Potter fans at lunch, and had finally gotten her surgery. When they put on bathing suits to swim in gym class during the last weeks of high school, Karen could see the mark leftover, seared and extended along the middle of Kris’s back.
Until sixth grade, the school nurse checked their backs annually in her office. Each September, Karen lined up with the other girls in their one pieces and bent over, waiting. By the time the nurse got to her, she was terrified her body was hiding a twisted spine beneath her carefree childhood. It was after the check-up in second grade when Kris asked excitedly “do you have sthcoliosthith? ’Cuz I do!”
No, Karen never had that problem. She knew for sure because she was also checked every summer at sleep-away camp by the physical trainer. At these appointments, she never stood fearfully waiting and didn’t even care about the results. The trainer was not like the school nurse, who would stand at a distance with a clipboard and examine her. The trainer would entertain her with jokes and sometimes slide his finger down the trench of her back. She’d leave her one-piece at home and wear a bikini in its place, hoping to impress him with her gradual puberty. If she passed the test–and she always did–the trainer would exclaim “perfect poise!”
He never said anything else to convey that she passed the test. Not an “everything looks fine” or a “congratulations, you’re clear!” Once he pronounced in his odd way she didn’t have scoliosis, their affair was over. He’d send her into the summer, handing her a yellow receipt of poise.
College was just like sleep-away camp, or she and her friends had been treating it like that since their first year. Sleeping away from parents, sleeping away the alcohol and weed, sleeping in lectures, sleeping with people. No parents–just parents paying for kids to do what they want. She’d done what she wanted for two years, but knew binge hook-ups and drinking were not the reasons that universities existed, even though that was all she desired during her first college years. What would yesterday’s academics think? What had she done?
If it were not so damn abnormal for young people to only graduate high school, then she would never have tried higher learning. Classes and papers never turned her on–only the parties kept her on campus. She would have been happy staying home. She felt ridiculous, being at school, along with so many other students who just shouldn’t be students.
Karen’s roommate, Grace, passed by on her way to night class.
“Ni hao,” Grace said.
“Ni hao,” Karen answered. They laughed.
Grace halted, about to stop and talk, but Karen controlled her by continuing to go home. Grace’s only choice was to continue her walk to class.
Karen wondered how different she would be if she was born in a foreign country or lived in a different century. It was hard to see herself speaking fluently in an exotic language, even Spanish, or growing up in any other culture besides twenty-first century America. If Grace’s “ni hao” followed with other Chinese words, and suddenly they were wearing kimonos and living in pagodas, would Grace be different? Did her Chinese heritage make her voice better suited for the rounded syllables of Mandarin over the “Dudes” and “What ups” of English? Would she say the Chinese version of “like” all of the time?
Would the blonde and her friend transform into perfect English ladies if they lived in eighteenth century London? Would they wear skirts and petticoats, walk around with frilled umbrellas, linking arms with men, and still gossip? Would they wonder whether their future husbands would earn 5,000 pounds or 10,000 pounds? Would they be determined to marry for love? Would the blonde’s scoliosis go untreated and her spine grow into deformity, making her only fit for servitude, the nunnery, or attic life?
They all were, by chance, living right then. Any of them could as easily have ended up in China or England, Italy, Brazil, South Africa–B.C., A.D., the Roman Empire, the Bubonic Plague, the French Revolution, the Roaring 1920s, Hiroshima, the Cold War, the 2090s. Any place, any era. They would all be themselves and different. Their lives in this generation, of club culture and college degrees, were determined by chance.
In her room, she stood just to appreciate standing. In five minutes, she needed to start studying–a ten-page paper and test on five chapters of Organizational Behavior due soon. Two weeks before, she’d sobbed on the floor of the shower about this class. Now the deadlines were near and she’d still delayed. It was beginning to be impossible to fulfill her New Year’s resolution to get serious. Getting serious was a broad term for her goals, which included losing weight, doing better in school, drinking less, smoking less, shopping less, growing up.
As she pulled her bag from her shoulder, a car alarm began echoing from the parking lot. She listened to the wretched BEEP-BEEP-BEEPs that she knew were not coming from her car. She never set the alarm–but if other people were sitting in their rooms, working and thinking the same thing as her, the car could be going all night.
Karen went to the window. All of the cars looked the same–shining under the lot lights, and stable, making no indication of panic. She searched for herself in the window’s reflection. Through it, she saw Nolan about to tap the pane with his fingers.
“Oh,” she said, and waved, peering both at his and her appearance in the dark glass. His face layered hers. Their lips moved, let me in. Karen left her room without answering his gestures with any of her own. He was wrecking her evening plans to finish homework. He was so reckless.
Nolan’s heavy backpack made him look like an anxious middle school student.
“I have forbidden things in here,” he said as they both walked into Karen’s room.
She wished he didn’t.
“Yeah. I’ve got bud and brews,” he said, unzipping his bag.
Nolan was faithful, physically, to his girlfriend from home, though Karen and he danced together at bars and hung on each other at parties–her drinking boyfriend. They spoke openly about their attraction to each other, musing on the wrongness of their pseudo-relationship. They suppressed their desires on Friday and Saturday nights because Nolan was forbidden.
“Hey, I came here to celebrate,” he said, smoothing his hat and turning it sideways.
A dandy–he was a dandy, translated from the Victorian era. He didn’t need a top hat, a cane, or a puffy shirt to be one. Sideways hats and popped collars and brand logos–that defined today’s dandyism.
“You’re celebrating because I’m failing my test tomorrow?” Karen asked.
“Why would you fail it?”
“Because I’m trying to study right now, and you expect me to get faded with you,” she said.
“No, you won’t fail if you just take a hit and have a few beers. It’ll zen you out.”
“Look, I’ve just been trying to get serious with school lately. I want to bring my GPA up and try harder.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t drink,” he said. “You need to enjoy yourself.”
“Okay, but maybe not the night before a test. What do you expect from me?”
“You won’t fail–” he said, and didn’t continue saying. Karen wished he wouldn’t take out the beer.
“Why are you being so persistent? And why are you here on a Monday night? We usually just hang out on weekends like this.”
Though his mouth gave no hint, she saw his forehead soften with relief.
“You don’t know,” he said. “I guess I knew you didn’t.”
She waited for him to tell her what she didn’t know. But he just took a beer can and pulled its tab. Shit. That sound signaled a wild night ahead, a time to forget about schoolwork and what was forbidden.
Karen associated him with being wasted–she only could endure him if they were wasted. They would open up and say how they felt, flirt and hold hands, and stop worrying that they were only consummating their relationship in their thoughts. They’d been pretending for two years.
“You didn’t know,” he said. “But we can kiss now.”
She’d thought he and his girlfriend were okay.
“You love her, though,” Karen said.
“But, what happened?”
“We’re on a break.”
Nolan must have scripted this in his head–and for how long?
“So now I’m supposed to just–” she asked, skeptically, excitedly, disappointedly.
“If you want.”
He held out a can and she shoved it away.
“Come on,” he said. “We need poison sometimes.”
For two years, she wanted this freedom with him. And for two years, she kept repeating she’d be content if they could just have one night without being concerned about crossing lines. Drink with me, and we’ll be together. But he didn’t want forever. He needed one night, just like she said she needed. She wanted to be his mistress. Still, Karen wondered why he didn’t love her. If he loved her, he wouldn’t plan to still have the other girl. They wouldn’t just be on a break.
Karen opened a beer. It’d been two years.
“Open your window so we can let the smoke clear,” he said, searching through his bag.
She closed the lights too. Her reserve, her mind, her clothing, evaporated.
They stumbled to the bed.
“I’m so messed up,” he said.
“I’m freezing,” said Karen.
“Well close the window, then. We’re done with the bud.”
Nude, she walked across the room, wondering if he was watching her bare silhouette in the dark. She moved to shut the window. In its reflection, she looked for her body.
She found a guy instead, facing her in a hooded sweatshirt, his forehead nearly smudging the window pane. He looked into her eyes through the glass.
Karen turned and screamed.
“What the fuck? What happened?” Nolan asked from her bed.
She hugged herself, covering her torso, and stared at the wall.
“Some sick fuck was looking through my window.”
“Are you serious?”
“Well is he still there?”
“I don’t know, why don’t you come check,” she said. “I already fucking found him.”
“Just come back here,” he said.
“I’m not moving until we call security.”
“We can’t do that.”
He was sitting up now.
“Because we both smell like weed, Karen. And we’ve got beer cans all over this room,” he said. “If he’s already gone then we don’t need to call security.”
“Then go after him and beat the shit out of him,” she said. “A peeping tom, a fucking peeping tom. How long has he been looking through my window?”
“Hell no. I’m not going anywhere. Just come back over here. He’s gone. We can call security later or something.”
Karen leaned on the wall. Nolan wasn’t going to save her tonight. He wasn’t going to find the guy who had violated their privacy. He wasn’t going to call security because of some stupid pot.
Was it a guy like that, a guy beginning his criminality by looking through windows, who became Jack-the-Ripper? The English ladies weren’t safe. Maybe catching him would scare him out of the weird desires his body housed. No, he would do it again. This guy was bold. At least he was doing some kind of activity.
Nolan just laid there. He beckoned by patting her bed–antsy and spineless. He must not care whether she thought he was brave, because he knew, without actually knowing, she’d still be with him despite his cowardice. She knew she’d still continue their night, because it had been two years.
So, she thought, this is why chivalry is dead.
Stephanie Grossman’s hometown is Suffern, New York. She was educated at Marist College with a BA in English literature and writing and a minor in business (just in case). She currently works as a freelance creative writer with a day job at a publishing house in New York City. She wishes she had a dog to include in her author bio. www.anxietyofauthorship.wordpress.com
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