09 January 2008

The door

Posted in honor of my eldest child, who is filling in line after blank line, crafting personal essays, imagining herself on a campus, becoming. And in honor of a friend, whose first-ever spring break is beckoning. While my initial instinct in writing this was to capture specificity for remembrance's sake, I find myself wondering if there is any universality within its lines. And thus...I blog.

The door is painted a gloomy forest green, reminiscent of the ancient, heavy pines that hem in the Bowdoin College campus. At eye level, he has posted a sign, a scrap of wood on which he’s burned deliberate words with his blowtorch. “OFFICE OF THE REV,” it says. And underneath that: “Come in and sin.” For an Irish-Catholic freshman girl, this is too laden with irony to even contemplate. Best not to think about it.

And so, as her foot scrapes across the threshold, she doesn’t. Nessa wonders why this mysterious junior has befriended her. He is a biochemistry major, an obvious genius, though he is far too much of a partier to be a true science geek. Also, he’s got a mess of curly red-brown hair which never looks as though it’s been combed (she will learn that it is, in fact, combed diligently each morning after his mandatory wake-up shower…it just springs into disarray as soon as the air starts to dry it). She is not impressed with the hair, at first. She likes Peter Frampton-esque, Rex Smith-y hair, that tumbling-onto-the-shoulders thing. David’s seems too unruly for her lust. It’s only later that she begins to covet its hidden swerves and swirls, lose her fingers in it, adore its nonconformity.

David dabbles in mind-alteration with serious intent. He needs to know; he is a scientist. She avoids such loss of control as seriously, having watched friends and family members melt into uselessness with substance intake. She does, however, drink. Prodigiously. After a party, as she lays in her miserably flat dorm bed, she’s prone to bouts of the spins that make her gleefully giddy. (Silently, of course--it’s a creepy, unwelcoming dorm, after all.) David is the first person who will ever hear her giggling after the party’s over. He’ll sling an arm around her neck and take the joyride with her.

But first, he needs to let her know that he’s interested. And being David, he’s not quite certain that he is. Inscrutability is his hallmark in this fraternity he lives in, and he even finds himself inscrutable on occasion. Oddest of all, he’s fashioned a bedroom out of a storage room down in the basement...right alongside the bar. Easier that way, staying up till all hours and just drifting a few feet over to your bedroom. A number of times since he set up the Office of the Rev, he’s been accompanied by a random woman as he heads for the bed. Now he squints at this, well, inscrutable freshman and wonders if she’ll be next. Nessa has long brown hair, an essential trait for Dave. She smiles all the time, but not in a vapid way--it’s a never-ending string of in-jokes that you just want to be in on. That’s the first thing that’s drawn him in. Oh, and she has a noteworthy ass, which sways in hipster Levi’s.

Here’s what he’s heard about her in the two months since she joined his co-ed fraternity: there’s a boyfriend back home, but it’s pretty much over. Someone in the house says she’s slept around a lot since arriving at Bowdoin. Dave’s studied Nessa these past few weeks, and he doubts it. She definitely was dating another freshman there for awhile--Dave saw her get into his massive ’69 Chevy one Friday evening, and then there was that house party when he saw them dance for hours. At one point they were back to back, swaying in time, heads tossed back with abandon. That made Dave wonder if maybe the rumors were true. But no, she’s Catholic, he heard her say that. He knows the M.O. of the shiksa, and usually it’s never more than pretend, dance floor come-ons. But he wants a try at that move, oh yes. He knows Nessa is more than a tease because he’s talked to her. She’s a storyteller and a deep listener. Not a typical freshman...an old soul.

Here’s what she’s heard about him in the two months since she joined his co-ed fraternity: Dave is a freak. He’s weird and even somewhat dangerous, prone to laboratory explosions and electrical mishaps. This does not jibe with the persona she’s encountered, like that one night when she was upset about Mike, the back-to-back-dancing freshman who had dumped her twice in one month. Broody from rejection, Nessa found Dave lolling around after a party had dissipated, watching TV. He was buzzed nearly beyond recognition, but he listened avidly to what she was saying. And he reassured her, at length. In two months of Bowdoin life, there’s been very little comforting that was delivered as sincerely as that. Also, Nessa knows that David has a cat, a fluffed-out beige male coon cat who comes and goes as he pleases. Malthus, his name is--his fur looks wild, but his eyes are deep. He reminds Nessa completely of his owner, and she’s equally endeared when she thinks of either one of them. No, she can’t believe that a single guy who owns a cat can be all bad, or even half-bad. Nessa thinks David is very sweet, and only a little scary.

And now she’s in his room. Just visiting. She’s asked to see his LP collection, because she’s heard a lot of his music during basement parties--when Dave’s stereo serves as the house sound system. The records are stored in crates at a right angle to his bed. She pulls a few square albums out of the row, and backs up a little--boom, sitting on the bed. A quick glance at the sidetable to her left reveals three things:

—an electric-blanket controller
—a fetal pig in a jar
—a contact lens case

She tries really hard to piece together meaning from these items, but it’s not cohering. Hmmmm. Nessa peruses the albums, flips them one by one. Definitely wants to tape Men at Work and the Police. He recommends the Moody Blues and the Dead. She’ll think about it. She hands him the LPs and picks up the fetal pig, peers into the jar.

“It’s like some kind of weird snow globe,” Nessa says absently. And if you swish the jar just a little, the well-preserved miniature pig swirls around. She stops moving the jar and looks intently at the specimen as it slows. She’s not a scientist, but she is absolutely fascinated by science. The pig’s snout is tiny and perfect, its back rounded as if in slumber--the suggestion of a spine under the skin. And there’s a delicate curlicue of a tail. “Wow,” Nessa says aloud, not meaning to.

She never asks him where this pig came from, and at no point does she ever find it strange that he sees fit to display the pig right next to his bed.

A week elapses. The College is heading into the restlessness of Thanksgiving: students anticipating a quick shot of home life while dreading winter and exams, and drinking more to combat the onset of dark, dark evenings. On one such ink-black night, a Monday, Nessa has wandered over to the fraternity. Schoolwork languishes in a pile on the edge of her desk, and true to form, Nessa is studiously avoiding it. She has vowed that she will not make party nights out of ordinary weekdays, but her college career will, in fact, be marked by her propensity to fashion a party as if twirling a paper wand in a cotton-candy machine. One flick of the wrist--instant festivity.

There is no festivity at Alpha Delta Phi on this doldrums Monday. Nessa sighs as she spots upperclassmen sprawled at tables, on sofas, by the fireplace, actually working. Pencils are poised above books, and eyes are narrowed in concentration. Bah. She makes her way into the TV room, where an uninteresting program flickers on the screen. Parks herself on a couch, because this is better than facing the workload and the dormitory.

A commercial interrupts the police drama, and she sits bolt upright. Pizza. A slice being pulled from a pie, fresh from the oven, cheese stringing. There are a handful of people in this room all facing the screen, and to none of them in particular she says, “Man, I haven’t had good pizza since I left New York.”

David rises and swivels to look at her, which startles her--she didn’t even know he was there. He’s sitting closer to the TV than she. “We’ll go in a little while, then, after I finish this assignment.”

Nessa reels a little but covers it. Instead of “Huh?” she says, “Okay.” She wonders what the others in the room think of his bold statement. No one has noticed.

True to his word, in a half-hour Dave slams shut a book and stands up, turning to face her. “Shall we?”

“W-where?” she manages, standing up slowly.

“Pizza Hut,” he states firmly.

They have to bundle into puffy jackets, for the weather has turned the final corner into stark winter. Somehow this shared activity in the front hallway takes the date-like sheen off the event, and Nessa relaxes. They head out into the night, away from the driveway...she realizes they will be walking. And a long walk it is from the center of town to the outskirts strip where Pizza Hut’s logo looms. They converse as they walk, in a manner that suggests they already know the basics about each other--which they do not, in any way. But Dave seems to believe they’ve crested some hurdle of getting-to-know-you, and Nessa never has trouble speaking openly.

Her hands are jammed into threadbare flannel pockets, craving warmth. He gestures with his hands as he talks--they are sheathed in practical, dense gloves. She finds herself coveting them, envying his seasoned understanding of what a Maine college student should expect on a night like this. A hat wouldn’t have been a bad idea, either. The occasional rush of frigid wind sings in her ears.

Dave has led her to the train tracks, which meander towards the busy drag on the way out of town. Sometimes they balance on the steely rails, then they step along the wooden ties. It feels childlike, though the total darkness belies that notion.

Dave’s steps slow momentarily, and Nessa comes to a stop, wondering. She can’t see his face, really, just the blocky shadow of his outline.

“Do you want to wear my gloves?”

“Yes,” she breathes. They are beyond warm, and her hands slip in with room to spare. “Thank you--I was so cold.”

“I know.”

Ahead of them, setting the sky aglow, are neon signs and streetlights of the main drag. It’s an epic sight, making the whole walk feel like an expedition.

Nessa did not know it was possible to close a Pizza Hut. They sit for three hours in the warm-smelling, deserted restaurant, hands almost touching as they gesture across the red-checked tablecloth. They talk about childhood and ambitions and siblings and trivia. Dave is smiling in an open-hearted way; Nessa feels as though she’s passed through some portal of his persona. She is amazed by what she finds: a companion. Dave is not so amazed, because he meant to connect with her. But he is impressed that his plan has worked so well. In fact, it’s morphed from, well, a come-on, to a bonding of kindred spirits.

After walking back to campus through sleepy intown streets, Nessa and Dave spend the night together. In a computer lab. As if testing her, he has brought her back here while he finishes a problem set. She will do anything to sustain this feeling of contentment, so as he pecks at the chunky keyboard, she sits alongside like an eager Yoko. Illuminated formulas march across a black screen. If she stares, it becomes a monotone Light-Brite pattern. That’s as much meaning as she could ever derive from the advanced math he’s studying, anyway. Above them, buzzing fluorescent tubes betray the hour: 2 a.m. She has never been in this room before, and she will never be in it again.

He walks her home at 4:30--just a little ways across the quad. The air has thickened with a cold fog, and they’re both shivery as she unlocks the door to her room.

It’s a double, actually; her roommate claimed the inner room (more privacy) and Nessa has her bed and a sofa here in the outer room. Anne’s door is closed, which is the most privacy Nessa can get. She leads Dave to the sofa, and they sit next to each other awkwardly, as if it were a porch swing. They speak in phrases, with long silences between them.

“So glad we went for pizza.” Him.

“Can’t believe it’s almost Thanksgiving.” Her.

His hand nudges hers gently, clasps it.

“I’m glad you asked me, um, to go out tonight.” Her, again.

“I am, too.”

Longer silence.

“Would it be all right if--can I kiss you?” Suddenly, he is unsure of himself.

She leans towards him, completing this role-shift, and as she nears, says, “Yes. I...yes.” It’s the most innocent first kiss either one of them has ever had. Still, they manage to make it last for a long time, savoring.

In exhaustion, they gradually recline together on the sofa, fully clothed, warming each other, giggling. This is how Anne finds them at 6:30 a.m., and her face registers disgust as she tracks through Nessa’s room in her slippers and robe, clutching a bucket of toiletries. The outer door slams, and Nessa and Dave giggle more, an in-joke they haven’t even voiced. She reaches up and touches the curve of Dave’s face, then finds his hair, tangling in the curls. A gray dawn begins to limn her things: the bed with its rainbow-striped comforter, her shoes alongside it, the pile of books teetering on the desk. Nessa knows, right now, that she will never need to stay in this room again.

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