Whenever Maize snuck away to see Hal Jamesley, there was always a blissful moment when she hardly recognized herself. It happened at the desk in the guidance suite where a smoked glass partition separated the secretary’s cubicle from the counselors’ offices. Maize would stop to check herself out in the partition before taking the extra five steps to loiter outside Hal’s door, not knocking, just standing there until he noticed her shifting her feet on the carpet and summoned her forward for their next conference.
There were several mirrors Maize could gaze into during the school day—in the girls’ bathroom or the girls’ locker room, in the rearview mirror of her friend Lyla’s car or the compact in her own pocket—but the smoked glass partition was her favorite. In its charcoaled and wavering reflection she was miraculously improved—slightly older and more cultivated, like Hal, with an urbane and faintly Gallic mystique she knew she didn’t have in her real life at seventeen. Her brown hair went black and her perfected skin grew luminous in the constant midnight of the thick dark glass. She looked, she thought, like a memory of herself come blazingly alive, only stranger since it was a memory that hadn’t happened yet.
Maize brushed her fingers against her cheeks or her forehead or her wavy hair whenever she stared, to verify that it was really herself she was seeing. The regular old Maize bobbed to the surface threateningly and then receded and rose again. She had to do it all extremely quickly or the guidance department secretary would glower from her computer and say, “Do you have an appointment?” startling her from her spell before she could move closer toward Hal Jamesley.
Mr. Jamesley’s office was like the portal to a more intelligent life, the vivified existence she hoped she’d have someday, although the door to it was ugly and institutional and always shut. It was beige steel with a glass-and-chicken-wire insert through which Maize could observe what he was doing and brace herself until he beckoned her. She’d noticed that when Hal Jamesley was alone he’d mostly be staring at the ceiling or the green cinder-block walls with a faint grimace, as if in a seizure of insight or indigestion. When he was with another student advisee he’d gesticulate wildly while he spoke, his face thought-tormented, twisting and re-twisting a black phone cord around his hands as if failing to lasso his own interest.
He was her college counselor, a job at which he was incompetent. He made no secret that he was unqualified for the position and that he’d been hired under duress, as a last-minute replacement for Mrs. Franc, the college counselor who’d gone on a forced sabbatical after twenty years at the job. He had no experience as a counselor—he’d be the first to tell you that—having taken a teaching degree in studio art. In his other life, after school hours, he made collages and watercolors and paintings; he’d framed one small, blurry, burnt orange rectangle and propped it on his desk corner where the other counselors would have displayed bland smiley photos of their spouses and children. His fingertips were often stained with blue or red pigment like someone with an exotic circulatory disease.
So he was probably temporary, which was fine with him. The school had been desperate. Toward the end of the burnout preceding her hasty leave, Mrs. Franc had been known to tell students that it didn’t matter how hard they worked or where they applied to college because they wouldn’t be successful or happy in the end anyway. She scoffed at the prospect of future achievements. Specifically, what she said was “What? You think you’re going to escape this whole mess-of-a-life just because you have good grades and nice manners and clean hair? Think again!” She’d said that to Maize, glaring toward her poster of Picasso’s Guernica. Parents, not Maize’s own, had started to complain.
“I’m hardly a font of knowledge about this stuff,” Mr. Jamesley had said the first time they’d met. “I mean, when I was in high school, I wrote my personal essay on why my morose poetry was going to change the world, and then I wondered why I didn’t get into Yale. I actually referred to my poems as ‘my friends.’ How lame!” He’d laughed and turned away, looking for something on his shelves.
Maize had watched him while he searched, sitting as silently as she did in all her classes. (Maize is very bright and perceptive and an excellent writer, her evaluations often said, but she’s shy and doesn’t participate enough in discussions.) She hid in the middle or the back of rooms—never up front unless forced—with her hair shielding her soft round face and her eyes bowed toward a notebook. Every now and then she pressed her fingers to the center of her full lips, as though suppressing an impulse to shout something rude. In her imagination she looked like nothing sitting there, and sounded like nothing and smelled like nothing, unlike Mr. Jamesley, who gave off a piney scent as he stalked around his office, rooting through drawers and cursing at the messy piles on his desk. “Where the hell is— I just had the damn thing in my— Yes! Finally!” he said with a gusty sigh. He handed her a thick book called Endless Alternatives for Top Students.
“Thank you, Mr. Jamesley.”
“Hal. Not Mr. Jamesley. The only Mr. Jamesley I know is my asshole of a father. Hal.”
Maize had smiled wanly at the faint crease in Hal’s forehead, estimating him to be between twenty-seven and thirty-two. Certainly not any more than that. He made it sound like he’d graduated from college in the past decade, listening to the same alternative music in his dorm that Maize had started playing in middle school. But she was clueless at guessing the ages of adults unless they were truly ancient. The last time her mother fished for a compliment by saying, “Tell me the truth, Maizie, do I look my age?” Maize surprised them both by blurting, “No, you don’t. You look a lot older.” Sometimes Maize had the brutal candor of quiet people who don’t socialize enough; she’d noticed that about herself.
During that same conversation her mother had instructed Maize to pick three forceful adjectives to describe herself (college interviewers always asked that, she said) and warned Maize that one of those words had to be ambitious as in: intelligent, creative, ambitious; sensitive, enterprising, ambitious.
“Who the hell told you that?” Hal had said to her that first day, after Maize asked him about it. He’d glanced at her and squinched his silky black eyebrows.
“I don’t remember.” Maize had darted her eyes at her jeans. “I guess—I guess a friend of a friend.”
“These days the questions are more abstract than that,” Hal had said. “Do you know what I mean by ‘abstract’? No—of course you do.” He’d tapped her student file. “Extremely impressive. Your grades and scores are killer.”
“The only problem is that you have ‘oral communication difficulties,’ according to some teachers.”
Which teachers? Probably the lazy social studies teacher who encouraged everyone to babble to fill the class time—especially the cute boys—and downgraded Maize for bad participation even though her written tests were flawless.
“Look, I can relate,” Hal had said. “I was shy at your age—I mean, I’m still shy, really. I don’t assert myself enough. To be honest.” He ran his hand through his thin dark hair and yanked it in the back, as though snapping himself to greater attention. Then he tweaked his earlobe. “Lack of confidence, which in your case is unjustified. Ludicrous. I mean—” he waved his arm at the other student folders piled on his desk and rolled his eyes—“far be it from me to say that most of these kids, including the honor students, are imbeciles, but—well, enough said. Right?”
He had invited her to come back to his office once a week—at least once a week—to practice mock interviews with him. Although Maize liked him she didn’t know if she wanted to do that. All she knew was that their initial meeting had taken longer than expected and that her best friend, Lyla, would scold her when she joined her in the hallway. “So where were you?” Lyla would say, but Maize would merely shrug.
She returned to Hal’s office the following week, during free period, and then frequently during the weeks after that. Yet they didn’t exactly talk about interviewing strategies and college admissions. They talked about the same things she talked about with Lyla: movies they’d seen, songs they’d downloaded, favorite books they’d read, and the lobotomizing vapidity of the suburbs where they lived. Or rather Hal talked and Maize mostly listened and he’d praise her for being so sensitive and mature. When she could slip away from Lyla at lunch without being noticed, she’d stop by Hal’s office with an orange that they’d split as they talked, offering each other slices and putting the pits in Hal’s Bennington College ashtray.
Sometimes if Hal was with another student when Maize appeared behind his door, he’d stop the other student in mid-sentence and tell him or her to come back another time. Once she heard Hal yell, “Enough already! Basta!” at Josh Kaufman, a ridiculously pragmatic future pre-med type who wouldn’t stop talking about his chances at Johns Hopkins; he’d been talking about that since he was twelve years old. Maize was surrounded by kids who’d been prepping for college since they were toddlers—kids who’d been trained to describe every crummy playdate and softball game and summer job as an “extracurricular activity,” who’d never really been allowed to be kids—and parents who claimed all they wanted was a good education for their children when anyone could tell that was just a line. They were like Maize’s mother—snobs who lusted after elite colleges the same way they lusted for foreign cars and expensive handbags and giant houses. Josh Kaufman jumped out of his chair and scurried past Maize into the vestibule.
Inside his office, Hal coughed out a laugh. “Oh my god—for this I get paid. I get paid to talk to these little morons,” he said to Maize. “Remind me of that. Please.” He touched her arm, then quickly withdrew his hand.
“Okay. I’m reminding you,” Maize said. A little more sternly than she’d intended. “This is your job.”
“Right,” Hal said. “Right.”
She looked at Hal for a moment. He was handsomer than she’d first thought, with his silky black eyebrows and fierce dark eyes, and the fine hair on the back of his hands, and his Adam’s apple like Ichabod Crane’s, and she sometimes tingled a bit after she left his office, where Hal slumped in his desk chair inhaling the cigarettes he wasn’t supposed to light indoors and blowing the smoke toward a tiny window screen, telling her about art between puffs. He expounded on abstract expressionism and Dutch Master paintings and postmodernism. He told her that he himself was working on a series of post–Pop Art copies—fake reproductions he called appropriations—on weekends and after school hours. He would light up Camels and she’d breathe in his secondhand smoke deeply, as if ingesting wisps of his sophistication. The buzz she felt afterward was probably just the nicotine. In any case, she didn’t tell Lyla about it.
“Sorry to bother you again,” she sometimes said when she dropped by his office unannounced.
“No—glad you’re here. Be with you in a minute, Maize.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jamesley,” she would say. She called him Mr. Jamesley in the hallway, where the secretary could overhear her, and Hal when she was behind his closed door. When she was with Lyla she referred to him as Mr. Jamesley again. She didn’t want Lyla to find out about her special meetings with Hal; she didn’t exactly know why, and she felt a little guilty since she and Lyla talked all the time—before school, during school, after school, and at night. Lyla leavened the damp humor of Maize’s house with breezy reports of her sexual escapades. Maize especially liked to speak to Lyla after meals alone with her mother, at the table where Maize’s father and ex-stepfather, Bruce, had once sat, where it was sometimes so quiet Maize could hear herself chewing. She’d grab the phone and let Lyla’s words rush over her as though washing off the residue of misery itself, which would otherwise congeal inside her like something on a dinner plate.
Lyla told her everything intimate about herself. Seemingly. But no matter how graphic Lyla was about the details of her after-school adventures (he bit my arm, we did it backwards, I blew him forever, he ate me out for days), Maize knew there must be something missing. No matter how much Lyla told and told and told, the essence of what she did remained a mystery to Maize. It was a little like the feeling she had when she stood outside Hal’s office and watched him, thinking she understood what was going on in there and inside Hal’s head, which was filled with exotic things she hadn’t learned, yet perhaps not knowing at all.
* * *
Now it was Saturday morning. Maize was going off to her first college interview—an “alumni interview” for a Vermont party school, held at the apartment of a recent graduate who lived on the other side of the county. Her mother had been firing warnings at her all through breakfast: “Don’t be yourself. Don’t be late which is typical of you. Get on the road in plenty of time in case you get lost and take a minute to fix yourself up once you get there. Your hair is always such a mess…”
It was mornings like this when Maize wished her father hadn’t died and her stepfather were still around, if only to tell her mother to lay off.
On Maize’s way out the front door her mother shouted, “Have your three words ready and remember to use ambitious!”
Maize concentrated on blocking out her mother’s voice. When her mother wasn’t looking, she rolled her eyes. The whole application process was ridiculous when you stopped to think about it for two minutes. The colleges wanted to know all kinds of irrelevant information, like your mother’s maiden name, a famous person you admired, whether you wanted to cure cancer or design toasters or dig fossils. As if you could really know for sure at seventeen or wouldn’t be smart enough to simulate different ambitions for different colleges, like a stage actor changing costumes in the wings. On her application for the school in New Hampshire, Maize planned to present herself as a nature-loving cross-country skier; for the hippie college in Oregon, as a budding social activist; as a feminist bookworm with a special interest in archaeology for the famous women’s college in Pennsylvania; and for the Big Ten university in Michigan, as a smart girl who knew how to cheer on a football team and handle herself at a frat party although she didn’t know how to do that and disliked sports.
The smaller colleges wanted to get to know you personally during a forty-five-minute face-to-face interview like the one Maize had scheduled for today. The larger universities couldn’t care less, though some of them pretended by asking you for a photograph of yourself.
Okay then, Maize thought, as she turned the steering wheel at the end of her driveway and glanced at the dashboard clock with a sigh. She was insanely ahead of schedule for this interview—two and a half hours—but it beat listening to her mother criticize her and then, between criticisms, remind her that she needed to project confidence. Her mother took Maize’s applications more seriously than Maize did, offering to hire an SAT coach and an “essay doctor” and listing dozens of colleges under the headings REACH, COMFORT, SAFETY. Today’s school fell under the category SAFETY, but you could never be safe enough for her mother, who’d been the first in her family to graduate from college and, as a result, considered herself unhappy and frustrated at a higher level than her relatives. She was hysterically vigilant, clutching Vuitton purses like body armor and never letting herself be caught in public unless she was dressed “professionally” in pressed clothes, and her pretty face was prematurely lined from the strain of all the effort. She acted as though with any misstep Maize would drop down the social ladder and drag her along with her. Suddenly their Audi would be detoured to a poor neighborhood where everybody had broken-down jalopies and cheap shoes and nobody could get out.
Her mother had been even more vigilant with her ex-husband, Bruce, whom she’d badgered for years, correcting his grammar in public and telling him to tuck in his shirttails at the dinner table and suggesting he lose weight and wear better neckties and take up a classy sport like golf, until it became clear to her that she’d never transform him into the gentleman CEO of her dreams. Bruce would remain obdurately who he was no matter how much attention her mother paid to remaking him. When her mother finally realized that, she’d kicked him out of the house.
It had come to the point that Maize could hardly go online when her mother was around. Her mother refused to let Maize file electronic applications or request information from colleges if it meant surrendering personal information besides her e-mail address. She refused to let Maize order anything off the Web with a credit card. Although she’d armed their P.C. with firewalls and spam blockers and spyware and every other kind of filtration device, she remained convinced that they were only a few clicks away from the horrors of identity theft: ruined credit, ruined reputations, ruined prospects that would take years to rectify while others ran amok with their data. Whenever her mother lectured Maize on these imminent dangers, Maize wanted to say, Do you really think your identity’s good enough to bother stealing? but she didn’t. They argued enough as it was.
Originally, Lyla was supposed to drive Maize to her interview. She was going to drop Maize off and meet up with her afterward at a secondhand store nearby, where Lyla liked to buy sleazy camisoles and teddies. But Maize’s mother exploded when she heard that plan. If Maize wanted to drive to the interview with someone like her friend Jayne—a class officer who knew Wellesley’s median SATs off the top of her head—that would be one thing. But the notion of Lyla driving Maize in her blowsy mother Bonnie’s car (a dented red convertible with a license plate that read BON BON) was unacceptable.
“You’d never get there in one piece,” her mother said. “Much less on time. God knows what would happen to you.”
Her mother made no secret of disliking and disapproving of Lyla although the two girls had been friends since third grade, the same year Lyla flashed the boys on the playground during recess and got into big trouble for it. She feared that Maize would be vacuumed up into Lyla’s world of unsavory things. She made up all sorts of excuses why Maize couldn’t come to the phone when Lyla called (Maize is in the bathroom, Maize is doing homework, Maize is indisposed) and asked her daughter if it was really necessary for the two girls to speak several times a day. Her mother knew Lyla was bright but an indifferent student. Maize once made the mistake of telling her that Lyla cut study hall, and her mother seemed to intuit all the other things Maize didn’t dare divulge: that Lyla napped during calculus; that Lyla rushed to the girls’ bathroom at the end of the school day to change from her plaid uniform into a leather miniskirt; that she caroused with older men and underage boys she’d met in chat rooms; that she was pierced and tattooed in places Maize’s mother didn’t even want to think about, much less think about adorned. She eyed Lyla suspiciously as someone whose “gallivanting” would derail Maize’s ambition and make it impossible to get it back on track.
She was partly right, Maize knew. Sometimes Lyla would cock her head at Maize when they were alone together, give her a long assessing look, and say, “You’ve got potential, you know,” and Maize would say, “Oh yeah?” It was exactly what her teachers and guidance counselors had been saying to her for years—You have such potential—only Lyla meant something different.
Maize liked to think of herself as versatile and open-minded, befriending girls as utterly different as Lyla and Jayne, each of whom thought the other freakish. (Jayne on Lyla: “A sketchy nympho.” Lyla on Jayne: “She’d wear navel rings if she could find clip-ons.”) But secretly Maize knew it was only her own wishy-washiness that made the two friendships possible. Nebulous, ambivalent, ambitious.
“What? You’re, like, actually stressing about this?” Lyla had said to her last night after dinner, when Maize admitted she was nervous about her impending interview. “A fourth-rate college in Butt Fuck, Vermont? Where the cheesehead students like to smoke up and tip over dairy cows? Come on, Maizie!”
“I suppose you could call it a safety school,” Maize said.
“For you it’s a safety school, yeah,” Lyla said. “Not for me. I’m the one who should worry.” Through the phone line, Maize could hear Lyla dragging on a Marlboro Red. “Imagine me there. Walking though the snow with the frat boys and sorority girls. Wearing mohair panties to get through the winter. Shit.”
Then Lyla rang off. She had to primp for a date with a twenty-four-year-old she’d met on the train to the city. “Catch you at the lingerie place around three tomorrow,” she reminded Maize.
“Aren’t you going to wish me luck?” Maize said.
Lyla grunted. “Aren’t you going to wish me luck?”
* * *
As Maize drove through their hometown, she wished she could call Lyla again. The insouciance Lyla had loaned her had worn off overnight. Her mother’s fears threaded into her own thoughts and tangled them. Her hand quivered on the steering wheel. She was no longer like Lyla, she was just herself again: a tall and dark-haired honor student who often got tongue-tied, whose almond eyes blinked and high forehead blushed when she had to speak in public, on her way to fail or succeed at something new. If she pulled over and used her cell phone Lyla would undoubtedly still be sleeping. It was only a few minutes before noon. On weekends Lyla was unconscious until at least two, her mouth dry, her long legs parted, her curls a lovely auburn cloud on the pillow. Maize had studied Lyla the times they’d slept over at each other’s houses, until Lyla woke with a languorous groan to say, “Oh shit, babycakes. Is it tomorrow already?”
For a moment Maize considered calling Hal Jamesley. He was probably awake by now, wearing a smock or a spattered T-shirt and working on one of his paintings. He’d given her his unlisted home number during one of their conferences, swearing her to secrecy because no other student had it but telling her she could use it in emergencies. Yet even as he wrote out the digits on a scratch pad, Maize knew she’d never have the nerve. What were her opening words supposed to be? Hi, what’s up? Do you know the weather forecast today?
In the village, Maize spotted a pack of classmates sitting on a bench outside the bakery: football players and the pert girls who hung around the boys scarfing down doughnuts the girls hardly touched. She stopped at a traffic light, looking straight through the windshield, hoping they wouldn’t notice her. Not that they did normally. She remembered that the windows of her ex-stepfather Bruce’s car were heavily tinted so she could see people but they couldn’t see her, which was, she thought, exactly the way it usually happened. She didn’t register very much for these people. For all her self-consciousness, she moved largely unnoticed through the hallways, speaking only when called on in class, and even then she mumbled. She imagined that years from now people would see her picture in the yearbook and think, Who was she again? Did I go to school with her?
On the bench outside the bakery, one of the girls threw back her head in laughter. Maize found herself looking for Bethany Campbell—the only truly pretty girl in the honors classes, and the only girl in honors who hung out with football players—before she remembered that Bethany had fractured one of her long legs in two places last weekend, during a ski trip to Aspen with her parents. Right now one of Bethany’s gorgeous legs was in traction, according to the rumors that swirled around the school, and she might have to have surgery. Maize figured she should delight in a bad thing finally happening to perfect blonde Bethany, who was rich and popular and well-rounded, and whom even the female teachers looked at dreamily.
But Maize couldn’t feel glee. She felt sorry for Bethany, whom she secretly liked as well as envied. The truth nobody wanted to admit—not the girls, at least—was that Bethany Campbell was genuinely lovely to everyone. She had a flattering personality. She wasn’t stuck up and she wasn’t competitive. She started almost every conversation with a compliment (I like your blouse, I love your earrings, you’re so good at French) and she touched people’s arms when she agreed with them. (“Right! Exactly!”) She smiled and made small talk and congratulated classmates when they got higher test scores than she herself did. You couldn’t go any further than that with Bethany (“Oops—gotta run!” she’d say before you could) but at least she made an effort. That was more than Maize could say.
The last time Maize saw Bethany they were standing next to each other on the cafeteria lunch line, and after Bethany told Maize she was looking really good (“I love your cheekbones”) she asked Maize what colleges she was applying to. As it turned out, Bethany was also applying to the same school that was interviewing Maize today. “I’m not as smart as you, so it’s kind of one of my first choices,” Bethany admitted with her usual openness. “I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t get in.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Maize answered. She meant she didn’t think it was a school worth getting at all worked up about, but Bethany interpreted it differently.
“Thanks. You’re so sweet. Oh—listen,” she said, touching Maize’s forearm. “Wouldn’t it be awesome if we both got in? It would!” She removed her hand to give a two-thumbs-up gesture.
“I guess,” Maize said. But she’d glanced down at her plate of French fries and the rubbery burgers under the heat lamp, vaguely embarrassed. In truth, she didn’t want any of her classmates to go with her to college. Not even Lyla. She wanted the chance to start completely fresh—dye her hair or throw her voice or change her entire personality and not have anybody complain, “That’s not like you,” with a look of gaping stupefaction.
“You know what, Bethany?” she heard herself saying. “Sometimes I think I’d just like to go to school in Alaska or something. Or someplace nobody else would even dream about going. You know?”
Maize had to stop herself from wincing. She felt herself blush. What did she think she was doing, talking like that on a lunch line? And to someone like Bethany Campbell, no less, whose dazzling blue eyes clouded in bemusement. They inched forward toward the cash register and retreated toward opposite ends of the cafeteria.
“I saw you over there with the Virgin Bethany. What the fuck were you talking to her about?” Lyla asked when Maize joined her at the lunch table. She was alert to any signs of defection.
“Oh.” Maize touched her hair, feeling its coarse darkness more acutely after a moment in Bethany’s soft blonde presence. She shrugged. “What would Bethany and I be talking about, Lyla? Nothing.”
* * *
The traffic light changed. Maize was clear of the village and passing a ramp to the town where Hal Jamesley lived. She made a left onto the cross-county road, following the simple directions the interviewer had e-mailed her. She studied the road signs with the intensity of an illiterate, narrowing her eyes at each of them and trying not to get distracted by the tassel swinging lazily from the rearview mirror. It was Bruce’s tassel from his high school cap and gown; he’d hung it there for good luck, as if proof of education might save Maize from bodily harm. This was his old Subaru she was driving—one of the few things he’d left behind after the divorce.
Bruce wasn’t so bad. Her mother had insisted Maize call him “Dad” rather than his real name, from the minute he’d moved in with them, but as she grew increasingly disenchanted she decided that Maize should call him Bruce again. “Stop referring to him that way. He’s not your father,” she’d said to Maize, a few weeks before she banished him from their house. “He’s not your father. Your father is dead.”
Maize and Bruce had gotten along well enough. He’d never been anything but kind to her regardless of how miserably things were going between him and her mother, helping Maize with her homework, making her lunch sandwiches, praising her compositions and art class projects as if she were a genius. He had a conspiratorial sense of humor about her mother’s craziness, shouting, “Silenzio! Silenzio!” when she nagged them both at breakfast about how sloppy they looked and raising his eyebrows behind her mother’s back. He was big and lumbering, sort of a goofball, but he had a stubborn streak despite his seemingly passive exterior. He repelled her mother’s efforts to improve him by nodding in agreement with everything she said and then doing exactly as he pleased. Recently he sent Maize a photo of himself from California with nothing but the phrase “Why Is This Man Smiling? How Are You, Babe?” on the back. She hadn’t told her mother about it.
“My stepfather used to smoke a lot of Camels, too,” she said to Hal Jamesley, the week she got the postcard. “My mother’s ex-husband, I mean. I always wanted to try one of them.” She looked at Hal plaintively, waiting for him to reply.
“I don’t want to be a bad influence on you,” he said. “You know, some sleazeball pusher.”
“It’s all right. I won’t tell.”
“It’s pathetic enough that I smoke, isn’t it?” Hal said. But he paused for a moment, staring at his desk. “Okay—here.” He pointed the open end of his pack at her.
“No. Just a puff off yours is fine,” she said.
“I tend to lip my cigarettes.” He extended it across the narrow space between them. “It’s kind of gross.”
“It’s all right,” she said, plucking the Camel from his fingers before he could say anything more. She drew on it sharply, without taking the smoke into her lungs, and exhaled a cloud quickly so she wouldn’t start coughing. “Thanks.” She smiled. “Thanks a lot.”
Now she turned on Bruce’s car radio to cut through the boredom, flipping through the stations rapidly but unable to concentrate. Overdubbed pop songs. Panicked-sounding commercials urging you to ACT IMMEDIATELY OR LOSE THIS OPPORTUNITY. Classical fugues. Talk shows hosted by reactionary zealots and condescending therapists. Christian programs that sounded almost normal in the second or two before the announcer said, “Remember that come the Rapture we are one with the Lord God Our Creator.” It reminded her of the secular philosopher her humanities teacher had made her class read recently. He’d given them a take-home exam with a passage they were supposed to agree or disagree with in an essay:
In moments of great swollen emotion—anger or joy or passion—we become someone else. Someone only dimly recognizable from who we are in normal moments, who makes our normal self seem a ghostly shadow by comparison. This fleeting and vivid persona mocks our normal self; it seems more real or more true than our normal self because of its intensity, but it is not necessarily more true or more real. Our real identity lurks somewhere between the normal self and this engorged personality; it is more fleeting, more nebulous and elusive, more frightening and more irretrievable, though we sense its phantom presence like the strange wispy images that appear to us in the ebb moments between waking and dreaming, which we ourselves conjure but do not understand.
She’d read that passage over and over in her bedroom, in the mornings and just before going to bed, and she still didn’t know how to respond although the essay was due in three days.
She turned off the radio. Fifteen more miles to go. She fidgeted thinking about the interview. What would he ask, and what would she say? According to her mother you were supposed to define yourself succinctly, pretend you weren’t clueless about yourself and living in a thwarted murk, the way air is thwarted by smog. You were supposed to be a clearheaded Valkyrie who planned to charge ahead in life no matter what, not just past high school but also college, not just past college but your first job and your second job and the next in a fury of achievement, on and on until everybody you knew was left in the dust.
Maize broke a sweat. She looked to the left and the right of the county road lined with retail establishments, comforting herself with the banal sights. A trinket shop next to a liquor store. A pancake house next to a nail salon. An oil change center abutting the ranch-style motel where Lyla had had an afternoon tryst with an older guy who was a friend of her mother’s. She’d arranged with Maize to give her a ride home. The No-Tell Motel, Lyla called it. But she had told Maize everything and now Maize remembered it, all the lurid details (the hot plate in the room, the crusty self-service coffeepot, the orange shag carpeting and the matching polyester bedspread), as if it were her own story and she had been there herself.
Maize remembered how Lyla had emerged from the corner room with the man while she waited and watched from the parking lot. The man patted Lyla on the shoulder in goodbye, as he might a niece or a business associate, and then the absurdity of it must have struck him because he hazarded hugging her right there on the gravel, while Lyla looked in Maize’s direction with a strange, uncomprehending expression, as if she suddenly didn’t recognize her. She loped toward the car and addressed Maize from a distance, as if her mind had run off with the man even though her body was now in the passenger seat. Maize had seen Lyla this way before, following her hookups; it took her an hour or two before she snapped back to herself, and then she tended to be distraught for a while.
“I mean, haven’t you ever felt like you were completely at someone’s mercy?” Lyla had asked once, when Maize commented that she was acting weird.
“No,” Maize had answered Lyla. “Not even close.”
She’d had to stop herself from grimacing. Secretly, she half agreed with her mother that Lyla took boys too seriously; it threw her into states of manic-depressive ardor and sapped her energy for other things. Desire was Lyla’s chief ambition—something that kept needing to be fulfilled, unlike other ambitions or goals. It was like applying to the same college repeatedly; just because you’d been accepted once—even early decision—didn’t mean they couldn’t turn you away the next time. You had to apply over and over and over again. What a waste of energy.
Not that Maize was immune to its debilitating suck and pull. She’d had a few dates and she’d had sex, sort of. Once with a boy who’d rubbed a long-necked beer bottle between her legs in the dark of a movie theater, during the gory battle sequence of an action movie, and once in tenth grade with a bisexual guy named Robbie from her chemistry class, who’d wanted to dry hump when they were supposed to be studying valences together. Although she might have gone all the way with Robbie, he’d softened under his corduroys before they’d had the chance. But she’d liked him anyway and began to hang out with him after school, first at her house and then at his much bigger place, where his edgy mother took a shine to Maize right away, offering her soft drinks and the food her maids had cooked, guffawing at Maize’s impersonation of their chemistry teacher, with his high squeaky voice, who complained whenever the whole class failed homework assignments he’d failed to describe clearly.
“Hah! For once you’ve brought home somebody smart! I like this kid,” Robbie’s mother had said to him right in front of Maize, and later she’d said the same thing more belligerently (“Say hi to Robbie’s friend. I like this kid.”) when she’d introduced Maize to her husband, as if ordering him to feel the same way about Maize as she did or suffer the consequences.
During their one humping session, Robbie had admitted confusion about his sexual identity to Maize; he didn’t know who he was yet. But he desperately wanted to know and stake his claim on it. As if sex didn’t erase you. As if it didn’t make you, in the act itself, like everyone else who was doing it. As if it were a special talent instead of a handicap. As if it wouldn’t hold you back if you let it.
Still, there were moments when Maize couldn’t help herself, either. She couldn’t always block men out to focus on more important things, the way she blocked out background noise while doing her homework. Attraction came up suddenly, unexpectedly, at the sight of a hunky cashier or a tall gangly postman, a nerd-boy in honors math or a sunglassed man in a passing car as she drove. Mostly she managed to keep it parallel to her life, something she could spot and dispatch by herself, something she could accelerate or pull away from slowly. But despite these efforts she occasionally caught herself leaning into the feeling, rubbing up against it the way Lyla leaned up against bars, brandishing fake IDs, until it engulfed her, made her part of itself, like an amoeba under a microscope.
Maize caught herself before succumbing to it. She wanted something to happen, but she squashed the desire whenever it reared inside her. She abandoned the hunky cashier’s aisle. She focused on the blackboard in math class instead of the nerd-boy. She stared at her bedroom desk rather than outside at the postman. She threw off the bedcovers and took a shower instead of remembering Robbie.
“Oh—I’m sorry. I guess you’ll figure it out,” was all Maize could think to say to Robbie that afternoon they’d failed to have sex, when he confessed his confusion to her. And then, flushed, with mussed hair, they’d gone back to doing their chemistry homework as if nothing had happened, and became friends. She seriously liked Robbie—he was brainy and funny and exceptionally well dressed—and if he’d stayed around longer they might have become close. Soulmates. He might have even replaced Lyla. But his parents split up and sent him away to boarding school before the end of the school year so that possibility vanished. They’d hugged each other goodbye and promised to stay in touch but they hadn’t. She was a storage unit for Robbie’s secrets, yet it meant nothing. Everybody moved on. They moved on and forgot. That’s what college was about, never looking back.
Now she neared a final traffic light. In four blocks she would make a left turn, following the interviewer’s instructions, but for now she idled. A restlessness jockeyed with the inertia the way it had when she was a child lying on the backseat and her parents were driving, their unhappiness drifting toward her like the chilled currents from the air conditioner.
Here’s the sign the interviewer told her to look for in his e-mail. Here’s the front gate with the guard station that has no guard inside it, which the interviewer joked about. She enters the interviewer’s garden apartment complex and checks her wristwatch as soon as she parks. Still two whole hours before her appointment. How is she going to pass all the time?
Within seconds the car heats up and she can barely breathe. She opens the door and stands there in the wilting sun, just stands there not knowing whether to turn left or right. She imagines she must look retarded.
She decides to check out the interviewer’s apartment complex. The buildings are brick and two-storied, with blue doors flanking a landscaped quadrangle. Teak benches line the courtyard, which has a large cement sculpture mounted at its center. A reclining figure with a human body’s shape—two arms, two legs, and a head like a child’s drawing of an adult, but no distinguishing details. She can’t tell if it’s male or female. There are no breasts, but still.
She paces the perimeter of the courtyard, reading the numbers on the doors and slowing when she gets to the interviewer’s (#7A) yet not stopping fully. She checks her watch again. She touches her blouse and glances toward the parking lot, where heat waves shimmy from the asphalt and the hoods of cars. She sighs loudly. Since this is the shady side of the courtyard, she decides to sit on one of the benches until the time is right. She swipes a dead leaf off the bench before she sits. She crosses and uncrosses her legs. A tiny red spider mite crawls onto the back of her hand and, when she tries to brush it off, it smears on her skin like dried blood. Nice. A balding man crosses the courtyard and eyes her warily on his way to the parking lot as if she’s a burglar. The sun flashes off the top of his bare head.
Last week, when she was in Hal Jamesley’s office discussing everything except college admissions, he made an observation about the balding middle-aged physics teacher who’d recently progressed from a bad comb-over to a ludicrous toupee. “That rug of his is so distracting,” Hal said. “Somebody ought to tell him. It’s like a Yorkshire terrier’s in the room taking a dump on the poor guy’s head.” Both of them fell into a paroxysm of laughter. Maize’s arm flew up and landed involuntarily on Hal’s forearm, which lay on his desktop, and though her first impulse was to yank it away she left it there, and Hal let her leave it there, saying nothing. He grinned demurely. He continued talking as though her hand wasn’t there, real and palpable, and she pretended along with him that it wasn’t there, keeping up her end of the conversation in what she hoped was a normal tone although their rhythm was thrown off. They each spoke in sharp bursts, galvanized by power surges while the other went dead, and when Hal’s soulful gaze fell on her she had to stop herself from whispering the dopey thing she said next, which was “Hair’s really funny.” It was a relief when another student announced herself with three rattling knocks on Hal’s door, giving them an excuse to separate.
“See you tomorrow?” he said when Maize grabbed her backpack and got up to leave.
She shrugged. “I guess.”
“It’s coming soon now,” he said. “Your applications. We have to get at it.”
* * *
The courtyard bench is comfortable enough. Birds chirp in the trees and a wind swells though the maples. The moment Maize allows herself to think, This is okay, and closes her eyes, a wave of fatigue sweeps over her. Her spine slackens as she tilts her head skyward, letting it rest on the seat back, and she breathes deeply. What a way to begin the college interview process! Lingering outside this guy’s apartment like a stalker! She could almost nod off. Last night she slept fitfully, jarred awake by weird dreams. Now one of them rides back to her until the random fragments of it regroup into a misshapen whole. She’d been in a foreign country detained by customs agents who suspected her of smuggling drugs inside her body. They’d thrummed their cold hands against her inner thighs, looking for packets of heroin. When they didn’t find anything they put her on an operating table and cut her up, piece by piece, fruitlessly searching for contraband until there was nothing left of her. Even when she was dead from mutilation they hovered over her with their scalpels, saying, “There must be something here,” and continued exploring. “Open the instep. Separate the kidney from the duodenum. There’s no point stopping now.”
“Hey—hi there! You trying to find somebody?” a voice suddenly shoots from across the courtyard. Maize opens her eyes and looks in the direction of the sound but sees nothing at first. Then a head pokes out a window one story above her—a male head, she can tell even from this distance, whose handsomeness flares and makes its unexpected presence even more startling. The head has a dimpled chin and full nostrils and light brown hair. When the man leans farther out the window, his shoulders look broad and square.
“Bet you’re here for an interview!” he calls.
“Oh, yes—right. I am,” Maize calls back. She stands and faces his apartment, remembering to smile, taking one step forward. “Sorry. I’m not exactly here at the right time.”
“No worries! Down in a sec!” he calls, and his head disappears. When he opens the front door at ground level he’s dressed like a surfer boy: electric blue shorts, faded yellow T-shirt, a string of puka shells circling his thick neck. His long calves are dusted with hair that’s a shade darker than his head, his chest muscles ripple under his shirt, and he flashes a horsey smile full of white teeth.
He’s a gelled version of the jocks who hang outside the bakery, around the cheerleaders, ignoring Maize so completely they make her feel like she’s made of vapor. Just her luck.
Before she can apologize for being appallingly early he says, “Steve. How’s it going?” and plants a big dry hand on her forearm. He pumps her forearm once lightly and says, “Come on up.”
She follows him up a staircase, his beefy butt winking at her through the blue cotton of his shorts.
She’s winded when she gets to his living room at the top of the stairs, partly from the climb, partly from the lingering surprise, and partly from the look of the place. There’s a red futon with a white stain at one end, and a couple of folding chairs next to a huge silver TV and sound system on metal shelves. The walls are bare except for a college pennant from Steve’s alma mater and a basketball poster of a player suspended in air during a slam dunk. Dirty sweat clothes huddle in the corner near the window. She supposes the packing trunk near the futon is supposed to be a coffee table, but she’s not sure what to make of the electric guitar that lies on top of it.
Steve catches her eyeing the guitar, which he moves onto the dirty clothes pile.
“I’m not just a computer guy,” he says. “I’m a musician, too. I play bass. See?” He picks up a framed photograph of himself from behind the pile of sweat clothes and shows it to her as proof. He’s younger in the picture and his hair is longer and wilder. “See? That’s from a gig with my old band.” Then he takes the picture back and stretches his arms over his head, flashing his solid midriff, distracting her from the slightly sheepish look on his face. “But hey—gotta pay the rent, right? You want something from the fridge? I’m getting myself a drink.”
He pads into an adjacent kitchen she can’t see and calls back to her from there. She hears the suck of a refrigerator door opening. “Let’s see: Coke, Corona, Gatorade, Heineken, club soda, Red Bull, tonic water, Bud Lite—no, scratch the tonic. It’s flat. Regular water.”
“That’s okay. I’m all right,” Maize says.
“What? Didn’t hear you.” He sticks his head out; his jaw is square and perfect and the cleanliness of the line, the incipient stubble on it, makes her sad. She could dress up and exercise and eat right for the rest of her life and she’d never have bones like that.
“Water would be great,” she says. She sits on the futon, in the center, away from the white stain, and waits. She fidgets at the sound of liquid cracking over ice. She’s nervous even though she doesn’t care about getting into this school; something hums around her like a bee that followed her inside. Maybe it’s the aftershock of being caught in the courtyard, loitering there with her mouth open and the befuddled look of a newly landed immigrant.
“Here you are,” Steve says, handing her a tall and not entirely spotless glass that has already started to sweat. He’s standing above her, his tanned bare thighs at her eye level, looking down at her.
She says, “Yes. Here I am. Thank you.”
“Sure thing.” He plops on one of the opposite chairs and a little of the liquid in his own glass sloshes out during the descent. Amber liquid. It’s beer, she thinks. This guy is drinking beer in the middle of the day during a college interview. Very professional, her mother would say with a smirk. But Lyla would say, Have a sense of humor, Maize, it’s fucking hilarious, and she’d be right. She can’t wait to tell Lyla about it later at the lingerie store.
“Yeah. So.” Steve takes a long swig of the beer, emptying about a third of the glass. “How you doing?”
“Fine. Thank you.”
“Having a fun senior year?”
“Sure, I guess,” she says. “It’s fine.”
“Had a blast my senior year. Almost as good as my senior year of college.” He puts a bare foot on the crate between them, letting his legs fall open, and she ignores the peek of white briefs under the blue shorts. “Blows my mind that it was nine years ago. Wish I could go back,” he says with a sigh.
“You do?” She can’t believe anyone would want to return to high school or remember it fondly. All she wants to do is forget about it like someone paroled after a long prison sentence.
“Oh yeah. Totally. You’d love my college. Believe me.” He smiles a timid, inward smile and stares past her out the window, as if his glorious past lies just beyond the courtyard. Then he blinks and reaches for one of the manila folders on the trunk between them. “So anyway,” he says airily, opening it. “Let’s see what we’ve got here. Gimme just a sec.”
“All right,” she says.
While he reads she considers what he said: You’d love my college. She’s noticed that third-rate colleges and party schools say things like that in their literature, emphasizing the student-teacher ratio and the picturesque campus and the social activities and whatever else helps sell the place, while first-tier schools are politely standoffish like the popular kids in school. She bets the interviewers from the good schools hedge their bets, saying things like I’m sure you’d be happy at any number of institutions. But she wouldn’t be happy at this guy’s school even if all the other colleges rejected her. It has fraternities and sororities and a physical education requirement, and graduates who hang sports posters in their living rooms. Her mother is such a fool for making her apply.
“Whoa. Tons of extracurriculars,” Steve says as he reads. “Nice. They’ll really like to see you’ve got school spirit.”
“So let’s chat about what made you apply here,” Steve says.
My mother, she nearly says. Perhaps he would laugh. Instead she says, “That’s hard to say. I don’t really know.” She shrugs for emphasis. “A lot of people say it’s a good school. I mean, it has a good reputation.”
“You’re right. It’s a cool place,” Steve says. “But I guess what I mean is, you know, what exactly made you, Bethany, apply?”
The shock hits her like a wave of cold air and makes her sit more erect. The name flies out so fast she wonders if she imagined it. “Excuse me?”
“By the way—do you go by Bethany or just Beth?” Steve says.
“Excuse me? What?” She must look even more dazed than she did in the courtyard. “I’m not Bethany.”
“Um, no.” She puts her hands on her knees, about to stand and announce herself. She leans forward a bit, staring into his blue eyes and then at his full lips. The scent of him this close—beer and some sort of woodsy cologne—drifts over and distracts her. She should be thinking about the most graceful way to explain. Instead she notices he’s beautiful, even if he’s dim. As beautiful as Bethany/Beth or even more so. Anything she could say at this point (You’ve got it wrong, there’s been a misunderstanding, I’m really mortified) will require her to admit that this mix-up is all her fault. She’ll have to explain why she was wandering in his courtyard two whole hours early, like a geek who shows up to class before anyone else and lines up her pens and pencils on the desktop. She’ll have to explain about Bethany’s skiing accident and her mother. It will be so involved—the complications of it will fall over them both like dust motes in the room—that there will be no graceful way of explaining.
She stands and says, “Sorry. Could I use your bathroom for a minute?”
“Sure thing.” Steve points left.
His towels are as unkempt as the underwear on the carpet. She turns the cold-water tap and lets it run hard while she stares ahead. She studies herself in the medicine cabinet mirror. Her face is pale, with beads breaking at her hairline. She leans into the sink and splashes her face with water, thinking this will make her more clearheaded, but it doesn’t work. Now she’s panting a little. She sits on the toilet after putting down the seat and flips the door lock next to her knees. She could just stay there. She dries herself with a green velour towel hanging on the back of the door before she realizes it’s Steve’s bathrobe. There’s the same woodsy smell (maybe it’s his soap?) and she buries her head in it for a second, taking a sniff and messing up her hair. She hears herself breathe into the cloth.
When she leaves the bathroom Steve is rotating his head in a slow full circle, with his muscular arms stretched behind him and his ropy legs flexed in front. He doesn’t stop rotating his head at her return, as if to show her how relaxed this interview will be. She allows herself to glance at his shorts and the little bulge inside them.
“Hey there,” he says. “Everything okay?”
“Yes. It’s fine,” she says. “Sorry for the wait.” As she moves toward her place on the futon, her skirt brushes against Steve’s forearm; the heat of it brands the back of her thigh. “I’m really sorry about this confusion.”
“It’s cool, Beth,” he says. “So let’s get back to that question.”
What question? “All right,” she says. She sits, looks at him and the floor between them. “But first I have something important to tell you.”
“Yeah? What’s that?”
She looks up at him now. He takes another sip from his glass and leans forward, smiling hazily at her from the beer buzz or something else. It’s the same smile she’s gotten from men at the mall a few times, before she walks away from them, secretly hoping they’ll follow her but horrified at the thought that they might. Only Steve is better-looking than the men at the mall. She has never been alone with a man this good-looking, paying such close attention to her like a student poised to take notes, as though he’ll later be tested on everything she says. She leans forward herself, and finds that she’s whispering rather than speaking normally across the narrowed distance between them.
“It’s really kind of funny,” she says.
“What?” Steve leans back a bit, chuckling once, prepared to be amused.
She counts a few of the puka shells around his neck to focus her thoughts. A wooziness sweeps over her, carrying away her need to perform or project herself. She has nothing to lose. She can just be herself.
“My mother’s the reason all this is happening,” she says.
“Uh-huh? Is that right?” Steve says. He leans back farther.
“She is. I’m not a good match for this college, to tell you the truth. It’s not one of my top choices. But it’s nice meeting you, anyway.”
“You mean you’re not interested in my school?”
“Not really, no. To tell you the truth. But there’s something important I need to clear up—”
“Don’t sweat it,” Steve says. “Your honesty’s cool, you know? I totally appreciate it.”
“No—but that’s not what I meant to say.”
“Dude, it’s cool,” Steve says.
“Oh god,” she says. “Let me start over.”
“Hey—no.” Steve picks up another file. “You know what? This makes it easier. They gave me this list of questions I’m supposed to drill you with, but you know what?” He tosses the file on the floor in a gesture of practiced-looking whimsy. “Now we can just chill. Don’t worry. It’s all good.”
He leans forward again and places his hand on her knee, making her expect a reassuring pat, but that doesn’t happen. His big hand lingers there for a second and then another. She blushes. He says, “That okay with you?”
“Yeah,” she says. “I guess. Sure. But listen—”
“Just a sec. I need a refill.” He gets up and goes to the kitchen. Again she hears the refrigerator door and the shifting of bottles. When he comes back with another beer he sits next to her on the futon instead of the chair. He takes a swig of his replacement beer and says, “So what do we have here?”
Now that she’s admitted she’s going to another college no matter what, she supposes none of what happens matters anymore. Steve puts his leg up on the crate and they pause, relaxing into this knowledge the way he relaxes into the futon.
“I don’t know what we have here. What do you think?” she says. She cocks her head quizzically and raises her eyebrows like Lyla. The sun streams into the room and strikes Steve’s leg, bleaching the hair into a radiant fringe. “Maybe I should leave now. I think I should.” She means to put her open hand on the futon, pushing herself off, but she miscalculates and her fingertips brush his hard thigh.
“No, don’t go,” Steve says. He takes her hand and lets it stay there, looking into her eyes and then at her face, her hair, breathing onto her, and she can’t tell which burns more—her face or her hand—or whether she’s blushing again. What she feels is like embarrassment, like ambition, like a traveling clot. Modest, passionate, ambitious. It’s like all those things and not like any of them at all.
He says, “Don’t go yet. I’ve got plenty of time to kill.”
“You’ve gotten a totally wrong idea of who I am.” She clasps his hand. “I—let me please explain.”
“No worries,” he says with a bright and idiotic smile. “No biggie.”
She starts laughing then. Something unbuckles inside her and she cannot stop laughing. It doubles her over and makes her eyes water—this is so ridiculous—and when she undoubles the expression on Steve’s face is fond, and the water in her eyes washes away any sharp malice or condescension. “Sorry,” she says. “Oh. I’m so sorry.” She touches the side of his face with her free hand, to show him she’s sincere and there are no hard feelings.
That is when he leans forward and kisses her.
His kiss is gentle. He meets her, draws away to smile, draws back and leaves her puckering as though teasing her. The third time he does this she lurches forward, surprising herself, and wraps her arms around his neck, locking her mouth against his and hearing herself make a noise. He withdraws again, nibbles her ear, moves to her neck and traces, with his tongue, the exposed part of her chest. She gasps when he burrows his head under the top of her blouse. She is in the moment letting this happen and simultaneously not here at all; she is thinking how strange it is that ten minutes ago this wasn’t happening and now it is; she’s doing what everyone else has talked about, what Lyla has described, I’m having sex now, but at the same time she’s watching it happen.
They are out of their clothes. Slowly he has helped her remove her blouse over her lifted arms, and unbuttoned her skirt, which he has tossed blithely next to his dirty underwear. He buries his head in the cleft between her breasts bearishly, like a hibernating animal, and unhooks her bra with his teeth as she pants and studies his broad back, his sharp shoulder blades, the perfect white moons of his buttocks flaring above his deeply tanned thighs. With one finger he pulls off her white panties and makes her yelp not only at the shock of it but the sight of his thing, hard and poking up from its nest of fur, like an animal springing out from a wood. He touches it, touches her down there with the heel of his hand, rubbing her slowly, then faster, gently, then with more pressure.
When he touches her hand again she closes her eyes and suddenly imagines it’s Hal she’s with, Hal who slides off her underwear in one smooth practiced motion and grabs a condom from under the futon like he’s done it a million times, Hal who parts her legs and moves his lips exactly as they are being moved over her body right now, right here, slowly, inexorably, over her jaw, under her chin, down her neck, to the small rectangular window of flesh that covers her windpipe, and lingering there, pressing, the way she’s daydreamed she and Hal would press each other though they never have, they never will, they wouldn’t dare, she’s run off before they’ve ever had the chance. Why hasn’t she seen it sooner than this, as she lies here with every secret part of her exposed and her emotions rearranging themselves the way muscles rearrange themselves around a wound? It’s only in this stranger’s bed that she can fleetingly admit it: she’s wanted Hal to do this from the first month, the first week, the first day.
She opens her eyes. From above Steve is looking at her with shocking vulnerability, like a hungry child begging for food. Despite his rippling muscles and stubble his face is a boy’s face, an innocent face. She could reach over and smother him or strangle him and he would let her do it, he would be powerless to stop her. She guesses this is what Lyla has been talking about: the close animal presence, as when dogs strain instinctively toward each other on the street and greet each other with a stare or a sniff before they’re yanked away again. No wonder people go crazy from it: they feel all this and then they’re yanked away again. It occurs to her that she’s lived in this estrangement all her life until this moment, unecstatic, unconsoled, unaware, and that maybe now it’s ending.
She understands he will enter her. He has been rubbing against her groin in warm-up, reconnaissance, and now he is nosing his thing around her opening, hazarding a few tentative jabs and prodding her back into self-consciousness. She is a girl lying naked on some jock playboy’s futon in broad daylight. His entering her is supposed to meld them but it does the opposite; it interrupts whatever communion she had begun to feel for an impersonal—what is the right word?—procedure. It delivers them freshly to themselves again. His thing might as well be an appliance they’re experimenting with for the first time; its meaning detaches itself from their bodies as he aims and they both stare at it, with a dim scientific wonder.
The sudden sharp pain rips to the center of her, as if there are bones inside her that Steve’s trying to stretch. Bones that will snap if he goes any farther. But he does go deeper, then deeper still, knocking the breath out of her, and it’s only worse when he withdraws. She inhales and he plunges in faster; she moves against him through the pain until it crosses over into something else, not quite pain. They move together like that, in a rocking motion, until she hears the creaking of the futon frame. Then she rolls him over so that she’s on top and she sits there on him, closing her eyes, scissoring her arms across her chest like someone in a yoga position when he bucks under her.
“Oh Beth,” he says. “Oh shit—I’m getting there.” Steve’s eyelids flutter as he finishes. Then he lies inert beneath her for a while, breathing thinly, his face gone slack as if he’s suddenly fallen asleep. She doesn’t know what to do. It’s a relief when he opens his eyes and pulls her off him and smiles. “Whew! Don’t let anybody tell you high school girls don’t know what they’re doing. You’ve got a great little career ahead of you if you want it.”
She drops the arm covering her breasts and the motion makes her shiver.
He asks her what time it is. She looks at her wristwatch (the only thing he didn’t remove) and tells him. He says, “That was great. You’re great, Beth. But we’ve only got another half hour. Tops.”
He says, “I’d invite you to stay longer, honey”—honey!—“but I’ve got another interview after this.” A mischievous grin flicks the corner of his mouth. He pauses, not sure if he should speak. “Actually, it’s with somebody else from your high school.”
She should be quiet now. Or she should tell him everything—tell him he needn’t rush her out—and apologize or laugh, hoping that her laughter bridges him to the next feeling and he will laugh, too. But instead she says, “Oh yeah? Who with?”
“May?” he says. “May something? Weird name. I forget.” He reaches for one of the folders he tossed beside the futon and opens it. “Here: Maize.”
She hears herself say, “Yes. I know her.”
He props himself up on his elbows so that his chest hair tickles her knee. Somewhere in her mouth is one of those hairs, curling around her tooth like dark floss. He says, “Oh yeah? What’s she like?”
Blonde and pretty, Maize could say. Beautiful and brilliant. Very bold and sure of herself. Athletic and pragmatic and charming. Great sense of humor. Most likely to succeed. Ambitious.
She pauses a moment, looking at the blank wall above their heads.
“I don’t know,” she says finally. “I mean, I know her. But I don’t know her well at all.”
She stands up off the futon. She puts on her clothes with her back to him; now that they’re no longer immersed in each other their nudity gives her goose bumps. She doesn’t want him to see her anymore and she doesn’t want to see him again, either, reclining there with one leg raised languidly, smoking a cigarette in a reverie and blowing the smoke toward the ceiling.
The rest happens quickly. She picks up her bag from the floor and sticks up her free hand in a rigid farewell gesture. She glances back in his direction only for a second. She’s halfway down the stairs to the front door before he realizes she’s leaving. “Hey, Bethany—Hey! Wait up!” Now he’s standing at the top of the stairs, saronged in a blue towel. She still doesn’t turn around until she gets to the bottom and puts her hand on the doorknob. She addresses one of the stair treads.
“Goodbye,” she says. “You’ve got your next interview and I’m supposed to meet someone, too. Bye.”
He inhales deeply as though he’s going to say something important, talk a lot. “Okay. You won’t?—Okay then.” He exhales. “Later.”
It takes her a moment to adjust to the sun in the courtyard. She blinks and squints, then everything comes clear again. She’s a bit sore but she walks perfectly. Swiftly. She checks her wristwatch as she nears the parking lot, still running ahead of schedule. She can already picture her own consternated face when she meets up with Lyla again at the store, and Lyla’s irritation as well, which will vanish as quickly as a baby’s tears when she displays her latest secondhand find to Maize: an ivory camisole in imitation silk, with contrasting brown straps and one small, barely visible spot near the shoulder. Lyla will smile at Maize as she approaches from a distance, ignorant of the other ways her friend is joining her and hardly listening to Maize’s lies about how well the interview went. She will raise the camisole so that it covers her face, drop it, raise it and drop it and laugh as in a game of peekaboo. At the very same moment, Maize imagines, Hal Jamesley will be at home finishing a painting or applying a fragment to a collage, grinning cautiously to himself in anticipation of their next long conference, unaware it won’t be happening again, and Steve will be sticking his head out the window toward the desolate courtyard. Steve will search not for her but for a girl named Maize, wondering what she’ll be like, whether she’ll be pretty, a blonde or a brunette, dulcet-voiced or loud. He’ll retract his head and go inside to check the clock on his kitchen wall, only to stick his head out again to scan the courtyard and the paths, the benches and the parking lot, as the sun starts falling and the wind in the trees makes them murmur an indecipherable language, like the first ghostly sounds of an arrival.
Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Sassone