“Turner’s Comedy”

by Martin Bremer (2015)

The pistol lies across the desk from me—out of reach, but pointing straight at my chest.

Halogen lamps flood the interrogation room—I can almost feel my innards incinerate as the brightness forces its way through my retina—every crevice, every wrinkle of me, laid bare, out in the open—illuminated. I’m trying to sit straight and still, but someone turned up the AC and I can’t help curling up and shivering violently. The smell of red wine from the stain on my cocktail dress invades my nostrils—the wet spot where it spilled clings to my waist and crotch, revealing my figure underneath and intensifying the cold. Only the rasping sound of pages turning and the officer’s quasi-asphyxiating breathing while he leafs through the police report register over the humming of the AC.

“Mr. Turner,” the officer begins leisurely, “do you have any idea of what they’ll do to people like you in jail?”

I was sitting at the bar alone when Harry came up to me. He was the first one to man up and take a chance—he said hello, asked if he could sit with me, and offered me his hand. I must have gripped more firmly than he did—most of his strength had deserted him sometime between drinks seven and eight.

The bar was packed with men. Cocky seniors and juniors, most of them. A few in grad school—Harry included. You could tell none of them had ever been with a real woman. They’d either peacock around or just stare at my legs when they thought I wasn’t looking. I was about to leave when Harry walked over and introduced himself.

“Linda Turner,” I said.

“Pleased to meet you,” he smiled back and took a swig of his J&B.

His hands had something very delicate about them—the way they seemed to caress the air when they went for his glass. They were kind hands.

I finished my drink and let him order me another one.

“Are you trying to get me drunk, Harry?” I flirted.

“Oh good, you’ve done this before.”

I smiled at him.

He spun around on his stool and leaned back against the bar. For a moment, he observed the people there with a sincere, composed intensity.

“Do you ever get the impression—looking at people in places like this—that they’re just… well, children?”

I turned to look at them. Sexual innuendo, vulgarity, drunkenness—some invisible force transplanting their states of mind into a primitive, instinctual mode. There was an aura of innocent confusion surrounding those disillusioned by the night—as if, for a momentary lapse of belief, they recognized the alienness in their identity, the ritual became obscene, imposed by an ancestral nature. Tomorrow, they’d be back to denying. Tomorrow, they’d be back to their usual, faithful selves.

“Yes—yes, I do.”

His eyes were the palest shade of blue, barely short of emitting light of their own. That whiteness completely subsumed the tiny black dots in their middle. There was something relentless in those eyes—if you looked straight into them, you’d feel like you’d seen a crushing void, the whole cold and empty universe, staring back at you. But beyond that vastness hid a purity overwhelmed. That tinge of blue—bursting out of a profound core, travelling unfathomable distances, and revealing itself pleadingly in those oceans of nothing.

Before long we were in my apartment sharing the last glassful of wine I had in my cupboard. He was moving over on the couch, undressing me already with his eyes when I put my hand on his cheek. That last moment, that last instant before everything changes, before you surrender all control over yourself and step out of reality hoping to see the true meaning of anything, however fleetingly—that moment… and all I could see were those two blank and endless pits promising me absolute silence. I pulled him closer and kissed him.

Clothes slid off in the haste of young lovers who fear the reawakening of their innocence from its temporary slumber. Bodies moved in the half-light and our kiss went almost unbroken until both of us were completely naked. I was over him, closing in. He was breathing very heavily now and letting his gaze run over me—slowly.

I braced myself.

He jolted and I restrained him. He let out an unintelligible string of sounds—the alcohol had affected him more than I realized. I tried to calm him and eventually got him to lean back. The bewilderment in his eyes gave way to orders from his body to either lie still or risk losing consciousness. His eyes filled with water.

I gradually released him and began stroking his hair as he sobbed with incandescent suns locked behind his eyelids. Softly I slid down his torso, leaving a trail of kisses on my way…

“Mr. Turner?”

I look up.

The name-pin on the officer’s tan sleeveless shirt reads ‘P.O. Perry’. He’s middle-aged, overweight, and apparently immune to the cold. His glistening bald head looks as if it’s melting under the room’s bright lights. His hands, also drenched in sweat, lie on his lap covering his groin region. The folder with the report in it lies on the desk now, visibly crumpled where he had grasped it. His face is red. A discrete but persistent twitch grabs a hold of his lips. His eyes, previously avoiding me and glued to the desk in front of him, now rest hungrily on my implants.

He turns away with a jerk of the neck when he sees he’s been caught peeking. After sliding his hands even closer to his groin and shifting his eyes around over the desk for a second, Officer Perry stands up abruptly. He grabs the folder to cover up the noticeable bulge below his belt. There’s not enough space in the room to pace, so the policeman just turns around and faces the exit in the corner.

“It’s too bad you’re only a witness. I’d love to send your sodomite ass to county,” he utters in a frenzy, grinding his teeth. “It’d be only fair, since you’re the one who caused all this horseshit.”

“Excuse me? How is any of this my—” before I can finish, he darts towards me and slams his open palms on the desk.

“Don’t talk back to me, you filthy freak!”

He slaps me across the face, knocking me out of my chair.

I hit the floor of the apartment. The blue in Harry’s eyes was gone—they were blazing, fueled by a rage I had never seen in them before. Fists clenched—the infinity in his stare, now filled with hate.

His flat mate had returned three days early without any notice, cutting short our secret rendezvous. Half-naked as I was, paralysis grabbed a hold of me—the flat mate’s stare alternating between the contradicting volumes in my briefs and bra. In this perplexed state, not much of a fight was put up against Harry pushing him out the front door again. Harry swung around—then came the blow.

The flat mate was banging on the door now, asking what the hell was going on. We could hear keys jingling outside and a fumbling noise from the lock. Harry pulled me up by the arm. “Get the fuck out. Now!” He was half-whispering between his teeth, but his voice lacked none of the menace of bellowing commands.

            “My stuff—

Fuck your stuff! Just fucking leave!” He dragged me to the backdoor in the laundry room, muttering, “Just look what you’ve done to me,” only stopping to pick up a random pair of jeans and a white t-shirt from the hamper. A second later I was outside in my underwear with a small heap of dirty clothes at my feet.

            The sunlight outside was ravaging. The contour of things was losing sharpness. Everything was blending together—fusing with the background wherever the light hit. Not a tree cast a shadow. Around the corner, a concrete saw screeched against the pavement. I noticed a couple of red spots on my t-shirt. My nose was bleeding. A metallic taste inundated the inside of my mouth. A chilling wind crashed on me from behind. It spun me around and I was blinded by a glare from a window pane. The shriek of the concrete saw raised in pitch and loudness. I clasped my ears and shut my eyes. The blood was pouring out in a thin stream, dripping from my upper lip. Its smell overwhelmed me.

            I ran into the subway station. The platform was deserted. I was finally shielded there—under the dim, flickering lighting—from the obliterating sun outside. Suddenly, the ground started to shake, a mechanical growl rose from the bowels of the city, and a murderous flash emerged from around the corner. A torrent of people spewed onto the platform and knocked me over. Somehow, I managed to crawl my way into the train, where I sat on the floor and pressed my face against my knees.

I tried to hide my bleeding, unshaven face the best I could from the other subway commuters—a woman’s breasts and a man’s two-day beard on the same body proved to be too much of a paradox for them. The sight elicited a wide range of reactions from the subway audience—from indignation and disgust through to panic and confusion. Harry’s flat mate had reacted essentially the same way as he walked in on us. At least now I was fully dressed.

            I didn’t turn the lights on in my apartment. I just buried my face in the couch and finally let the overdue tears out. I clutched a nearby blanket and curled up as tightly as I could, trying to contain the pain that threatened to spread my limbs apart and pull at them until they were ripped off, leaving only that aberration of mixed parts and my sodomite ass.

The pain in my jaw and nose where Harry’s punch hit me made my head throb. Those kind hands had hurt my body, but the guilt and shame on his face had left a scar on my heart. I began wondering if his hands were that kind after all; if what I took to be a charming personality all those months ago wasn’t just a technique he perfected; if I had really seen or just imagined the drop of blue in the shade of his eyes.

But nothing had changed—no, the world has been this bleak place all along. We irradiate hope and see only how it bounces back at us—a mere projection of wishful living. The hope decayed for me that day and revealed a barren planet. Radioactive hope.

All we create is an illusion. Nothing means anything outside the ego. Life does not deal in matters of worth. In this, I find my liberation—I finally find darkness. Exhilaration floods all my senses—fuses them together. Ecstasy. A sexual, creative energy engulfs and elevates me to a transcendent state. No sound pierces my ears. No scent invades my nostrils. No taste fills my mouth. I have no boundaries. No light blinds me now.

“You piece of shit.”

My eyes are closed. The air in the interrogation room is warmer now. I’m not trembling anymore.

I feel a strange sense of peace wash over me—the bald, little man cannot hurt me anymore. He’s a victim—his very identity rests on phantasmal tenets. The order he fights for is shattered. I am the aggressor, not him.

LOOK AT ME!”

I open my eyes to find the report folder open on the desk, covered with photos of the victim’s face—pure gore. Beyond the report, the pistol still lies where it was.

Curious thing, a pistol.

“I’m so glad you forgive me—darling. Such a relief. So much so that my bladder is trying to get a piece of the action, if you know what I mean—I’ll be right back.”

He left me at our table with his steak vanished from his plate and my cannoli untouched on mine. I had my hands on my lap and my gaze on the cannoli. If I had looked up and seen someone staring at me, I would’ve bawled.

“Are you alright, miss?” a voice asked, startling me.

“Yes—yes, I’m fine,” I said, straightening the cutlery beside my plate, flattening a crease on the tablecloth.

“Is that guy being disrespectful to you?” the man pointed at the restrooms. “Girl like you doesn’t have to take that, you know.” He sat down in Harry’s seat—smirk on his face.

“What’s the idea, pal? Get the hell out of my chair!” Harry said, marching back from the toilet.

“The lady and I—are having a conversation. Why don’t you go take a hike, huh? Go get yourself some apple juice or something, okay?”

“That’s it.”

Harry grabbed the intruder by the jacket and lifted him out of his chair. A little commotion ensued—people were looking. The maître d’ excused himself from a table across the restaurant and strutted our way. I got up to try to calm Harry. The other guy pouched his lip, nostrils flaring, brow curved—conflict was imminent. I put myself between the men and a split second before the maître d’ reached us, the man threw a punch at Harry.

He missed him, but thumped his shoulder against my face. My heels slipped. My left ankle twisted inwards. I lost my balance, tried to grab the table for support, but grasped only the tablecloth, taking a wine glass with it, and spilling it on my lap. I fell on the floor, flat on my back, and my hair came off.

For a moment, people had to adjust to the absurdity that had just invaded reality. The maître d’ was in shock. The intruder looked down at me, saw my face—makeup, earrings, and scruffy, short hair—and eventually recognized the meaning of the wet lump on my groin. Harry was eyeing the wig with an expression of sheer panic.

Next came the laugh. Hysteric in pitch, maniacal in volume.

“Are you serious!? Alright, man. You can have… this,” the man said, gesturing at me. “What a fucking faggot.”

The man had taken a lot of blows before we could finally restrain Harry. After that, there was a broken nose and a pool of blood where that bastard fell.

“You fucking disgust me, you hear?”

Nothing new will ever be created again. Freedom doesn’t mean anything when all you’re free to do is to follow the rules. We are all slaves.

“Someone should rape you—that’s what you deserve.”

People are oblivious to their shackles—wristwatches, ties, jewelry. There is no more personal expression. The more we see ourselves as unique, the more we’re glorifying meaninglessness. Our narcissism keeps humanity tame.

“I pray to God that your kind never be accepted.”

The pistol glistens on the desk. I break a sweat. My mouth is watering. The barrel almost pulsates. A current of blissful energy races across my entire body. The trigger twitches. My breathing accelerates. The pressure rises. I gasp.

“YOU ARE THE BLIGHT THAT PREYS ON HUMANITY!”

The pistol goes o—

Martin Bremer was born in São Paulo, Brazil, where he lived for 19 years before moving to Heidelberg, Germany, where he’s currently in his seventh semester as an English major. He’s been at UConn for over a semester now, as an exchange student.

“Morning on Cathedral Parkway”

by Lillie Gardner (2015)

Waking up after being awake all night from sweating under your blankets and out of your blankets and leaning against the wall to cry and cough, with your loose shirt slipping off my shoulders, with too much of the moonlight bouncing off the cold cars in the parking lot below and shining through the cloth of your cheap one-panel curtain to keep me awake. We came home late, after the others had left and I had too much to drink so we pretended you would take me home, but we both knew you were taking me home. As usual, we wanted each other without really wanting each other. On the subway we didn’t talk but I giggled and you stood next to me smiling with your hand in my back pocket because everybody on the subway is a stranger. And we came in and I collapsed onto your bed and you collapsed onto me and I let my mind slip away and let myself want it and not care about anything, not even about how you flirted with the nineteen-year-old girl at the bar all night. My friend, our friend—an innocent. Heart still intact, a small halo glowing over her smile. The chilly night and the heated little room and the sweaty sheets and the smell of naked bodies consume us both and then as suddenly as it starts it ends. You lie on your back, beckon me to sleep on your shoulder, but I roll over and away, prefer to be alone. You sleep.

And I think about him, of course I think about him. I sit up against the moonlit wall with my legs in the hot sheets and I think about him, and I think about the warm October night in the little apartment in Brooklyn, in another set of sweaty sheets, with the little black cat slinking between us, when he turned over to face me in the dark and he looked to me with fear in his eyes like a little kid looking to a mother and he asked me, “How do we know we’re making the right decision?” And my heart broke, and it breaks again when I think about it. How certain I was, and how badly I wanted it to be mutual, painless, easy, obvious. And it was mutual, sort of, but it wasn’t painless, easy, or obvious. It was me, blindly jumping into an abyss. And him, looking at me with confusion sweating out of the pores on his tensed forehead. “I guess so, yeah. I guess so.” And the next morning I sat at the kitchen table and the steam from the teakettle was rising frantically into the air, the pressure furiously pushing it out into the open, and I stared at it billowing in a mad rush to the ceiling while he stared at the floor and tears streamed down his face, endlessly. I didn’t cry.

But now I’m awake at four in the morning, cold and coughing against the wall of a strange bare apartment that has recently become familiar, and now I’m crying. And you’re lying in front of me—you, unavailable but there, just like me—and you’re asleep but you care. Your eyes squint open tiredly, a hand reaches out to my leg. You whisper: “Hey, what’s up. What’s up. Tell me what’s up.” I don’t say anything. I’m sick and cold and coughing and crying, silently and slowly, and you know what’s up. “Come here, get under the blankets, you’ll catch a cold,” you say, and close your eyes. Three nights ago when this happened, I’d apologized. You had sat up and said, “It’s okay, it’s normal. I still miss Her sometimes, too. It takes time.” You’d stared out the window at the cars in the parking lot, or maybe only at the moonlit haze lingering in the delicate spaces between. “A lot of time.”

I think of fighting in the parking lot at the lodge at the Grand Canyon; yelling at each other, drunk, in a friend’s Midtown studio; screaming on the icy front steps after an expensive New Year’s Eve in Saint Paul; throwing my heavy wallet at the wall of our tiny Brooklyn apartment (“I’m afraid of you, you know? You’re scaring me.”); being called a bitch; watching his face transform into hate, meanness; feeling my face transform into hate, meanness. Screaming into a pillow and wanting to punch walls, just like during the divorce when I was nine years old, when I couldn’t understand things the way they were, couldn’t express something I needed to express—overcome by frustration, clutching a plastic rosary from Catholic school in my hand under the sheets, crushing it in my fist: “Why are You letting this happen?”

I think, too, of his warm skin and the way the curly black hair above his ears gets sweaty when he’s worked up about something. I think about our walks together, our talks of ambitions, joking about our future kids, naming them, holding hands, hugging him around the waist, around the neck—his neck always tense, me always needing to know. His soft voice, his corny sense of humor (“I was born in a corn field!”), his naïveté. My naïveté. Eating teriyaki stir-fry together on the cheap IKEA futon that the cat had scratched up and watching reruns of Seinfeld. Talking like we’d always have each other. Always having each other. Promising we’d always have each other, just to keep having something.

I wake up drenched, hot and cold at the same time. Your heavy arm is around me and I lift it off. I splash water on my tired face and comb through my newly short hair with my fingers but it still sticks out in every direction. Back in your bed you open your eyes to see me getting dressed, putting my coat on, my boots. “See you later,” I say. “Yep,” you say. You smile from your pillow, then you go back to sleep. Last night, and many recent nights, you had wanted me. And being wanted is a new feeling to me, something naturally without emotional complication, with no committing or sacrificing required—purity, an honest physicality: the usefulness of needing to be used. But don’t compare, don’t compare, quietly descend the stairs. But they creak loudly and a dog barks viciously in the neighboring apartment, confirming that I exist, that I can be heard.

That this is where I am.

The crisp air outside is a fresh burst of something. It’s Saturday morning and people are out. A woman pushes a baby in a stroller, and shortly after, two laughing kids and a nanny cross my path. Can the people see me? I wonder. Is it obvious? Can they tell that I am wandering, lost? I feel naked, exposed, emanating a strobe-lit cloud of disorientation from my being. Yesterday’s faded makeup. Sunken, tear-dried eyes. I still smell like you, a man whose buried essence of brokenness and need is pungent in the sheen of sex and sweat on my body—and yet, a man who is merely there, who is merely a crutch in need of a crutch himself; but is not an entire life. Can they see that I’ve put a stop to an entire life? A clear and comfortable path firmly closed, and for what reason? I walk forward with effort, like I’ve just lost a limb, and like everybody can see that I’m completely lopsided, that I’m not used to it yet, that I have not yet learned how to carry myself with this new emptiness. And it feels like everybody is staring, and everybody is whispering: How precious, how broken. But nobody looks, and nobody asks, and nobody offers a helping arm. And I want to scream, cry out, hit something: I’m here! But my silent scream falls unheard onto the hard pavement. The air stabs my lungs like cold shards of glass. A tear slips down my cheek. I walk to 110th Street and turn to begin the trek uphill to the subway station, alongside the Cathedral.

The Cathedral is huge, ominous in the mist. Something out of medieval times, taking up an entire block with its awesome power, formidably out of place in the middle of New York City, where everything is tiny and pressed together and explosive. It scares me. Spacious, reaching up to the endless gray sky above. Endless emptiness. It knows me. It feels the imprint of my crushed plastic rosary. I try not to look at it as I walk by the stone retaining walls that support the hill it sits upon. I try to bury the guilt deep in the pit of my stomach—guilt for everything—for him, for you, for myself, for the brokenness of it all, for the lost pieces. Years of guilt. Years of feeling responsible, still feeling responsible for never being good enough, for never knowing, for pretending to know, for hurting myself, for hating myself. I hide it, numb myself. Breathing the fresh air around me, the changing of this season for a colder one, the people carrying coffees and wearing earmuffs—going places—the strollers, the whole day ahead.

Lillie Gardner is a writer and classical pianist currently pursuing her Doctor of Musical Arts degree at UConn. A lover of Lucy van Pelt and Bette Davis, her biggest inspirations in life are bulldogs, fire hydrants, and gin.

“Glorious”

by Amy Martin (2015)

Glimpses of his dreams pass by his eyes in the calm solitude of the waiting window. It’s one thing in Sean’s life that he wants slow and still and calm. One of few. He always seems in a rush. In a way, he is; in a way no one but James has ever been able to describe. Even James can’t explain him in words. James uses art that is enchanting. Sean’s constant movement blurs the edges of James’ sketches, and the movement is tangible. That art, that inherent magical quality when putting charcoal to paper- it is something Sean has only ever known James to posses. It is beyond his words. It is perfection. It is glorious. Sean hardly thinks he’s seen anything quite so breathtaking. He jokes that it’s because he is the subject of these creative endeavors, but he can hardly lie to himself.

Now he sits patiently, cold leaching into him from the unsealed cracks around the edges of the glass pane, he waits for the other thing he wants slow and still and calm. James enters. Sean can sense him, and his stomach does that odd flip he hasn’t yet accustomed himself to. He wants to hear the quiet voice say “Sean?” half a question, half an announcement of his presence. Instead, James simply crosses the room to him, standing silently beside him as the view into the swirling snowy darkness changes.

James doesn’t say the view is beautiful, or picturesque, or magical, or any of the sappy things that Sean suspects he’s thinking. Sean suspects James would love to sketch this scene; he is no doubt imagining how much black he’d need to cover the canvas, how to make the pinprick flakes of white swirl in a whorl that swallows you in the same way he makes Sean move. Sean guesses James isn’t quite sure himself how he makes his art come alive, that it’s simply a natural talent that surprises James as much as it amazes others. Sean has no reason to think this, but he guesses from the way James will stare blankly at a canvas or his sketchpad for full minutes, stops work and simply gazes, before becoming once more absorbed. Sean has always wondered if there is anything else in the world that can absorb James the way creating art does. He hasn’t yet found anything that does.

James shifts beside him, and Sean finally tears his gaze from the mesmerizing snowfall, tears his brain from its racing commentary, his senses from drinking in the presence of the man he knows too well yet not enough. He grins, and looks into the dark-soft eyes that have accompanied him through six years of friendship. James’ smile is broad, James the artist, James the quiet one, James whose innate happiness most people cannot see. But Sean has always seen it, and he will until the day that inner brightness fades.

Somehow, Sean knows James isn’t thinking about drawing or painting or art or the view out the cold glass, because that smile is for Sean, and no one else can see it. James’s eyes are subject to that goofy grin when they adore him in that moment. Sean lifts a hand from his lap, the crinkle of plastic too harsh between his fingers and real as is any noise in these moments with James he tells himself every day mean nothing.

“Cracker?” he offers, and it is the first word spoken between them and the sign for them both that this is just going to be another normal, casual, friendly encounter, and once again they won’t address the sparking fire that has been lit by their smiles. Sean doesn’t know James is slightly crestfallen, this time as well as every other; James himself refuses to acknowledge the slight lurch in his gut as he reaches out to take a salty delight from the proffered package.

He holds the foodstuff delicately, nibbling at the corner, and Sean laughs uproariously as is his custom when seeing James behave overly politely. To enhance the disparity between their eating methods, Sean shoves his fist into the plastic sack and, still chuckling, shoves a handful of crackers into his gaping mouth. He chews with his mouth open, too. James grins. The humor of this friendship is infectious. Even if no one but Sean sees it, James’s secret smile is never more satisfied than when they’re together.

Sean shrugs his legs off the window ledge, kicking his heels against the wall and staring at James, who no longer has a cracker to conceal his unrefined glee. It wouldn’t have had much chance, in any case.

After a moment, not a second too soon, Sean leaps off the windowsill, eyes sliding past James into their living room, where he spins in a dramatic circle before falling back onto the couch. It’s not long before he’s rifling through James’s things, James sitting in the armchair beside, ignoring the constant commentating Sean has running about the half-concealed personal belongings he’s sifted through a million times before. James is unconcerned, an empty page in front of him being filled with darkness by his nimble fingers. He’s recognized by now that he’d waived his right to privacy when he’d accepted Sean as his friend, even more so when they’d become roommates. He learned on the first day he’d ever met Sean that nothing would ever be safe from his sticky fingers and prying eyes. Prying, in Sean’ case, simply translated to curious. Or bored. Or, even, very occasionally, suspicious. But, it was always a good-natured suspicion, and James had never since kept anything he didn’t want Sean to see.

This was why he was confident as Sean rambled on about the state of his underwear, the hideous porn that Roger had slipped to him, and even James’ handwriting on business documents and meeting notes. James smiled and laughed and let his eyes wander to survey Sean discreetly, only to return them instantly to his fresh drawing when Sean held up a new object for inspection. Sean fell silent for the first time in ten minutes, and for the first time fear crept into his veins. As the waves of sound rolled away, James’s ears pricked and he froze, waiting for the moment when Sean would rip James’ attention from the sketchbook and demand an explanation behind the acquisition of some new addition to James’ belongings. It didn’t come. Slowly, James raised his eyes to examine Sean. A page of James’ notes was clutched in Sean’s hand. There were doodles in the margins partially concealed by Sean’s fingertips. Sean’s eyes had gone blank as he gazed down at the paper. James tried to surreptitiously sneak the page from his friend’s hands, but Sean drew back to life, and held it tighter to himself. Before James got the chance to ask what was wrong, Sean pulled a fresh stack of paper from a pile beside him on the coffee table and covered the offending document, launching quickly into a new rant on the CEO and how he was an enormous greasy jerk. James let it pass. He returned to his charcoal drawing, but kept an eye on where Sean placed that pile of parchments, keeping track of where he moved it six different times. He wanted to know what Sean had seen that had made him so uncharacteristically silent and distant.

Sean was cold, colder than he’d been at the windowpane even though he had a warm comforter bunched up around his waist and James’s long legs stretching out across the sofa beside him. In fact, James’s closeness had made him warm in a way he refused to acknowledge, but the chill in his brain and his chest had not been touched. Office meetings were ridiculously boring, notoriously so- had James spaced out so much that he’d not realized what he’d doodled? The picture of the man, from waist up and shirtless, on the side of the page was unmistakably the same as the image Sean faced in the mirror each morning. James must have done the doodle from memory, which begged the question- how much did James stare at him half-naked? So, alright, he was shirtless quite often at the gym or parties or swimming in the summer, or hell just wandering around their apartment- but that didn’t give James an excuse to remember the lines of his body so well.

Surely, this was a fluke. James had never drawn anything like this before, at least not that Sean had managed to get his hands on. Either James’s imagination had gone haywire while listening to the boss’s droning, a real possibility, or he’d been concealing immoral feelings for his best friend for an undetermined length of time. Sean hoped to God it was the first.

After he’d scattered James’ possessions everywhere, Sean retired to the kitchen for a beer. Since the tense moment with his notes, everything had been normal, or at least he thought it had. The camaraderie and easy routine the two of them had had only skipped a beat, then Sean had been back to cracking jokes and leaving the both of them laughing. Still, as soon as Sean had left the room James picked up his things and carefully replaced them into piles around his briefcase. On the pretext of organizing them, James hurriedly rifled through the stack that contained that particular page of his notes. Despite their near-instantaneous return to friendly banter, James was curious what had caused Sean’s momentary lack of composure. He had not yet located the correct page when Sean returned, holding out a beer for him, his hair tousled messily in his usual fashion. Sean’s eyes were drawn to James at once, and suddenly James felt guilty for prying, although the notes he was shuffling through were his own. For a moment, Sean stared at him with an expression that James had never seen before. It left him feeling raw and thoroughly examined. Sean raised the beer to his mouth and disappeared towards the kitchen once more. James was struck still for a moment, then returned to his task as quickly as he could.

Eventually, he found it in the stack. He scanned the doodles that filled the sides of the page until his eyes found it and fixated. His brain took a few seconds to process the drawing, and in that time his jaw dropped open. When his brain caught up, he quickly scanned the room, relieved to see that he was still alone. He slid the paper out of the stack and into his pocket, and hurriedly replaced the pile on the table where Sean had found it. He finished organizing the last of his belongings, and walked into the kitchen.

Sean didn’t look at James as he leaned against the edge of the counter. It wasn’t really awkward, just silent for a few minutes until Sean announced he was going to bed, and disappeared into the other room.

James heaved a deep breath, finished his beer, and decided that retiring was probably a good idea. After shutting the door to his room behind him, he pulled the paper from his pocket, his charcoal stained fingerprints smearing the edges of the page. The drawing of Sean was left intact. James didn’t remember drawing it. The boss’ lecture had been droning on, and he’d spent the lesson staring at Sean’ head. His face was in profile to James, and he could see himself idly scratching out the lines of his nose, the familiar angles of his face, but he’d thought that then he’d dozed off. James tried to confront himself honestly. What were his feelings for Sean? At this point, no matter what they were, Sean deserved to know the truth.

Sean, who had been raised devoutly Irish Catholic.

Sean, whose Dad had disowned his Uncle Matthew when he’d come out to the family.

Sean, whose priest had had such a kind face and such gentle fingers when they’d lain themselves across his arms while he’d said his prayers.

Sean, who’d been such a disappointment to his father.

Sean, who’d discovered that kissing Sadie Brown after the Christmas Party was not half as exciting to him as being close to James.

Sean, who was even now curled in a ball against his bedroom door, clutching at his rosary and chanting, repressing the tears leaking from the corners of his eyes.

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum…

***

Amy Martin is a senior studying abroad in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is an Environmental Writing individualized major and an Ecology and Evolutionary Biology minor. She loves dogs, travel, and food.

“Cold Water”

by Catherine Hires (2015)

Nia was still sleeping when I woke up. She was snoring loudly as I crawled my way down the rickety ladder that supported my lofted bed. I walked past her bed, her open mouth smushed ungracefully against her pillow, and made my way into the kitchen. I turned on the sink, pulled the hair out of my face and stuck my mouth in the stream of cool water that poured out from it. Rubbing my eyes, I walked over to the wide double windows of the living room and opened them. It was sunny for late September, and the chill of the breeze made the hairs on my arms stand up as it wafted through the screens. I was still in my going-out clothes from the night before, a black tank top and a pair of short-but-not-like-slutty-short shorts. There was black soot on my knuckles where I had rubbed my eyes from the mascara I had forgotten to take off.

I ambled towards the bathroom. The muscles in my calves and thighs were sore and tense, like I had been driving all night. I plopped down on the toilet seat and focused on my toes for a few seconds before I noticed the blood in my underwear. Blood in underwear is not foreign territory for any woman; it’s usually more annoying than it is upsetting. You’ve either lost a pair of underwear or you have to spend a good seven minutes at the sink scrubbing them in cold water. The blood in my underwear was less alarming to me than the clumps of almost-black mulch that were also gathered there. I could smell them from where I stared down at them, the smell of grass and woods. The longer I stared, the more I smelled: cigarette smoke, muddy petrichor and wet pavement, twinged with subtle notes of iron and cheap beer. I staggered off the toilet seat and looked at myself in the mirror. The eye makeup I had smudged clouded around my eyes like black-brown bruises. I leaned into the sink and got close to the mirror, running my ring finger along my bottom eyelid to wipe away what little waterproof eyeliner I could.

I looked down my legs for bruises, but I wasn’t really searching for evidence. I was as pale as I was the day before, remarkably markless. My quietly aching legs remembered the previous night before my brain and hands did, even as I stood at the sink scrubbing my underwear with the useless coconut-lime hand soap we kept there. The water made my knuckles almost numb as the black stains on them washed away. I let myself believe that the cold was why my hands were shaking for a full minute before I gave up on the stain and turned the water on in the shower.

I got into the shower with the intention of cleaning myself, but I just sat in the bottom of the tub while I waited for the hot water to turn cold and then warm again. The water intensified the smells in my hair, which had been matted with dirt and cinnamon whiskey. I let the foulness float away with the steam as I tried to cobble together some image of the night before that didn’t frighten me. Moments drifted in and out of my mind and melted together like the water pelting and rolling off my body, which looked even paler in against the navy shower curtain.

I could remember everything to a point, but I couldn’t locate that point. The images were crisp when I closed my eyes, but blurred when I tried to string them together. My whole head, heavy with the post-drunken stupor that I was pretty well used to, felt vaguely disconnected from my neck. I remembered taking jello-shots, but the plastic flavor in my mouth tasted alien to me. I could remember avoiding someone, I could remember Taylor backing her car into a dumpster on the way out, and I could remember that I had forgotten my mostly empty bottle of cinnamon whiskey in the back of her car. I could remember kissing in the cold darkness and saying no and a hand over my mouth and again across my left wrist and cackling hysterically as he tried to put my shorts back onto me while I lay in the dirt. Sitting there in the shower, I laughed a little when I remembered that he tried to put my pants back on, and how bad a job he did of it.

By the time I got out of the shower, I had given myself a thorough, meticulous, mostly frantic scrub. Toweling off under the fluorescent bathroom lights, I felt less clean than I felt raw and red, like all my skin had been under the sticky part of a Band-Aid I had just ripped off. The tremor had left my hands and some tears had unwillingly made their way down the shower drain. The ache in my legs had crept its way up into my brain and I imagined it lining my skull, thick and black like the sludge you see on pictures of smokers’ lungs. My fingertips felt unfamiliar as I walked them over my flesh, trying to remember where the pieces of myself fit.

I walked out of the bathroom wrapped in my big orange towel. Nia, who was now awake but still sprawled out in her bed, with her laptop on her belly, said, “Girl, you need to take shorter showers. How was that party last night?”

“The party was pretty shit, actually,” I answered, getting dressed in the corner.

“You got back pretty late last night for a shitty party,” she replied, not looking up from her computer screen.

“Yeah, well, Taylor may or may not have backed her car into a dumpster on the way out.”

Nia snorted. “Are you serious?” she asked, looking up and patting the Bantu knots on her head disbelief. “How many people were in the car?”

“Eight.”

“Damn,” she laughed. “Is her car alright?”

“Yeah, believe it or not it looks completely unscathed.”

“Lucky,” she said. “But where was this party again?”

“Willyoaks Apartments.”

“And what was shitty about the party?”

“Um,” I started. “Well, I didn’t really know the guys who were throwing it, you know? Also this weird fat guy was following me around all night and it was creepy.”

“Oh-kay. Why was he following you around? No offense, but you were wearing that huge flannel when you went out.”

“Well, there was a Star Wars poster in the apartment and I made a joke about it, and it was like this guy had never spoken to a female who had seen a Star Wars movie before, and so he followed me around all night trying to get me wasted.”

“Ew. Sexually repressed over-attachable dorks are the worst. And he was fat?”

“Yeah, pretty fat. Kinda like a shiny, sweaty fat dude.” Nia squinted and stuck her tongue out. It was astonishingly pink against the brown button of her face. I laughed a little. “I’m going to get breakfast with Haley and them. You wanna come?”

“Look at me,” Nia replied. She was covered in blankets and propped up by at least five pillows. “I am not moving. Go.”

“Ok,” I laughed quietly, walking away. It was strange, but I was surprised by how easily I was able to pretend that it was a completely normal Saturday morning. The nagging pains in my thighs were my walking reminder that it was not a normal Saturday morning. Still, it was easy to fool Nia, and, waiting outside my on-campus apartment building to join a gaggle of brunch-craving college girls, I hoped that eventually I would find it just as easy to fool myself.

I was watching Haley apply a mildly disturbing amount of cream cheese to her bagel while I listened to her and Britney argue about the events of the night.

“You did not make out with Brian and Claire at the same time, Britney. Nope. No.” Haley was saying, flatly, her voice low and cloying and her eyebrow cocked defiantly.

“Actually, she kinda did,” Rachel interjected, taking a bite of sausage as she gesticulated. “I saw it. Still not convinced it was a good decision though.”

“It was a good decision!” Britney said, with a flourish of her small hands. “We have gotten over all of our past grievances.” She ran her hand through her electric pink hair. “Besides, it’s whatever, so.”

“That’s a really strange way of solving problems with your ex and his girlfriend.” Haley laughed. “You’re a stone cold slut.”

“Baby I know it!” Britney joked.

“I am getting more tea,” I said, getting up. I had been sitting there for fifteen minutes listening to them prattle about nothing. I had thought that listening to them talk about nothing would be comforting in its simple single-mindedness, but after a while, annoyance broke through my private catatonia. The low hum of the dining hall was mainly composed of people talking about nothing. I felt mildly guilty about judging them harshly, but at the same time I was looking for anything to be even remotely angry about. I wasn’t going to give myself the room to think about my situation, at least not outside the walls of my small bathroom.

“I need more OJ,” Haley said, rising. She walked in step with me. “So,” she asked.

“So?”

“So did you have sex with that guy.” Her eyebrows were raised to match her playful smirk.

“Kinda yeah,” I sighed. I was trying my best to look aloof and nonchalant as I refilled my mug with hot water.

“Dude, quit walking around like a zombie,” she said. “Regretting sex is like one of the main parts of being…” she paused, looking up for the right word. “One of the main things about being a part of our generation.” She laughed. “Besides, if you don’t regret it, you probably aren’t doing it right.”

“That’s healthy,” I said dryly, following her to the juice counter.

“I went on a run this morning while you were sleeping. Don’t tell me what’s healthy,” she grinned at me.

“Fuck you.”

“Shut up, bitch,” she replied. I rested my forehead on her shoulder while she refilled her cup.

In bed that night, I spent the majority of my time attempting to sink into my mattress. I couldn’t sleep for Nia’s snoring, but my mind was buzzing like a fly around a piece of meat. I thought that if I could build a wall around myself, somehow white out the memories I didn’t want, I could keep from rotting. I didn’t want to talk about it. I didn’t want invite that insincere “talking is healing” attitude from anyone I knew. Lying there, face close to the ceiling, I thought about what it meant to be a victim. I couldn’t be a victim if I refused to allow that night to exist in my mind. It couldn’t have been a crime if I wanted it, so I convinced myself that I wanted it. It took almost no effort to drop into the lie, to deny myself the thoughts I didn’t want to be thinking. I decided my brain was a malleable thing, to be sculpted and molded into the shape that I found most comfortable. I decided that my memory was an uncertain mechanism, and that the truth was not important as long as I avoided it.

I thought about Haley, about a time we lay outside with our stomachs in the grass and she told me about coming home from a party with Rachel a year before and ordering chicken from the fried chicken place their friend worked at. They were drunk, and invited their friend, who was just off his shift, to eat with them. They fell asleep as soon as they started eating. Rachel had woken up an hour later to his raping her. Haley hadn’t woken up. I remembered looking at her, the blank expression on her face as she whispered it to me. With her eyebrows knitted in a hard line and her thin lips pursed tightly in a subtle downturn, I could tell that she was trying really hard to wear a face that said, “It happens.” I knew in that moment how much she blamed herself, the deep down kind of blame you press into your stomach, the blame that hurts more to hide than to admit.

Haley had watched me be led away by the hand at that party. I let myself believe that if she ever learned what happened, she’d blame herself again. I let myself believe that forgetting was a way of protecting her from guilt she shouldn’t have to bear. It was a convenience that, in protecting her, I was protecting myself. I dreamed a million reasons to keep everything inside, not a single one of them was the fear that was slithering into my heart – that I was weak, and that my body was not mine.

“Is this skirt too short?” I asked.

Rachel looked down the length of her long nose and crinkled her lips. “It’s Friday. There is no such thing as too short.” I rolled my eyes. “You know what to do,” she said. “Just wear whatever you feel comfortable in.” Her voice was low and lightly sing-songy.

“I think I’m just gonna pop on that sweater, to be honest.”

“Do it up. Everyone else is dressing cute, though.”

“Well,” I stammered, “I guess I can be like the aloof, too-cool-to-dress-up-for-this-party one. I can wear my beanie or something.” I walked back into her room to retrieve my sweater and leggings.

“Whatever you want girl,” she replied, going back to staring at her face in the magnifying light-up mirror she had placed on her kitchen table. She was putting the finishing touches on her eyebrows. “Ugh, I need to pluck these soon. Anyway what’s up with you and Peter? You still texting him?”

“Naw,” I called out to her from around the corner.

“What’s going on with that,” she asked indifferently, still focused on her eyebrows. “He’s cute and I thought you really liked him.”

“Well,” I said, walking out and sitting on her couch.

“Well?”

“Eh, he’s kinda effeminate.”

“Go on.”

“I dunno, I guess I didn’t really notice it until we got lunch Wednesday. We sat outside and he was flinching away from a bee and it was really…” I paused. “Like the movements he was making? They were so girly, I don’t know, it was so childish. I was super turned off.”

“So you’re abandoning a perfectly sane, guitar-playing cutie because he’s afraid of bees?” She turned to look at me with playful indignance.

“I mean, I don’t know,” I said, rolling my head around my neck. “It’s just getting kinda meh, you know?”

“What about it is ‘meh,’ exactly?” Rachel asked, raising her perfectly symmetrical eyebrows and resting her chin on her hand.

I looked up at the ceiling. “I’m going to sound like an asshole,” I sighed.

“What is it?”

“He,” I paused. “Honestly he just has too many… I don’t know, feelings?” She squinted her eyes a little. “I mean, he is too sensitive. He feels a lotta ways about a lotta things.” I paused and looked at her without really looking at her. “I think I’d like him more if he cared about me less.”

“Well, shit,” she snorted. “That’s a fucked up way to think about relationships.”

“You got that right,” I replied flatly, chuckling.

“Well, on the bright side, it’s fine that you aren’t into it anymore because Ragdha wanted me to, like, figure out about whether you were in, like, a thing with him? Because she likes him. And I was all like ‘Shit, girl, I can just ask her for you.’”

“Ragdha?”

“Yeah, actually.”

“That’s random. I didn’t even know they knew each other.”

“They both live in South, so.”

“Oh ok,” I said. “Well then, yeah, just tell her that she has permission to embark or whatever.”

“Will do.”

“Their kids are gonna have huge noses.”

“Shut your bitch mouth about huge noses,” Rachel said, wide-eyed with a barely straight face. We were cracking up by the time Haley, Britney, and Taylor waltzed in the front door of the apartment carrying several brown paper bags filled with various varieties of liquor.

“On a scale of like one to ten, how ready are you guys?” Haley asked, plopping down on the purple folding butterfly lounge in the living room.

“Eight,” Rachel replied.

“Well,” Taylor began, pushing her glasses a little up her nose, “I’d prefer it if we left sooner than later, because I have a lot of homework to do.” She put her hands in the pockets of her puffy vest and leaned against the island separating the kitchen and the living room. “I don’t mind driving you guys, but yeah, please get ready a bit quicker.”

“Taylor,” Britney groaned. “Don’t do your homework. Come out with us.”

“Is that what you’re wearing?” Haley asked me.

“I dunno, I wanna be careful with my car after what happened the other day,” Taylor said to Britney. “Plus I’ll come out tomorrow for the birthday party in Coogan.” Britney groaned again and walked into Haley’s room, which was adjacent to Rachel’s.

“Yeah,” I said to Haley. “You feelin a particular kinda way about that?”

“You are not allowed to wear leggings and oversized sweaters in my presence anymore.”

“So who is driving us back?” I asked, ignoring her. “I do not want to walk back from Carriage Apartments, thank you very much.”

“Britney’s probably going to drive Aiden’s car back,” Taylor said.

“What, he still hasn’t had his license unrevoked?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“And she’s not drinking?” I asked her. Taylor shrugged.

“She’s probably just smoking,” Haley interjected. “Oh and we couldn’t find the honey whiskey you wanted so we just got the like normal version.”

“Cool.”

“Did you get my strawberritas?” Rachel asked.

“Yeah,” Britney said, coming back out with a deep purple pair of lips.

“The tall boys?” Rachel asked.

“Yeah,” Britney repeated, fingering her pink hair laxidasically. “Are we leaving soon?”

“Yes,” Taylor said.

“Does Mackenzie want to come out with us?” Britney asked me. “I like her.”

“Not tonight, she’s been training for this marathon and it’s on Sunday, so she’s actually probs asleep right now,” I answered. “Where’s Kara?”

“She has frat stuff,” Haley said. “Where are Ben and Jake?” She put her feet up on the coffee table.

“Bar,” Britney said. “Jake’s gonna be around later though.”

“Is he gonna drive again?” Taylor asked. Rachel got up from the mirror and went into her room. “He does that too much. We should, like, talk to him about that. It’s not safe.”

“It’s hard to stop him,” Britney said, rolling her eyes. “He hides his keys on purpose so he can find them when he’s drunk. At least he drives a big truck though.”

“What about him driving a big truck makes it better?” I asked her.

“It’s safer for him,” Britney replied, face twisting. “But whatever other car involved is probably going to be toast. So I’m not sure if it’s really better –”

“Let’s leave now,” Rachel said, interrupting Britney as she walked out of her room wearing a black chiffon shirt tucked into a tube skirt.

“We should all take a shots first,” Haley said.

“Yes,” Rachel agreed. “Grab the shot glasses?” she asked me. I got them down from the cabinet.

“What are we drinking?”

“Check the freezer.”

“Is Pineapple Burnett’s ok?” I asked, pulling it out from the freezer.

“Ugh, freshman year all over again,” Haley said, taking the bottle out of my hands and pouring it out into eight glasses.

“What are you drinking to?” Taylor asked despondently.

“9/11,” Haley said.

“Never forget,” Rachel and Britney sang in unison.

“Jesus Christ,” I said. We clinked and downed two shots each of the dirt-cheap vodka, making a small but noticeable effort not to grimace.

“Who’s got the backpack?” Haley asked, wiping her mouth. Britney raised her hand, shouldering it. “Put the Burnett’s in the backpack. Just in case.”

“Let’s go and make good choices,” Rachel said sarcastically with a raised fist, leading the way out the door.

I had been watching Taylor for five minutes before I remembered that she had decided to come out with us. She was talking to a boy with freckles about the fact that they both had freckles.

“What’s Taylor talking about to that guy?” Haley asked me. I remembered that she was standing next to me. I swiveled my eyes around to her.

“I think they’re talking about freckles.”

“Can’t have that.”

“Nope.” She clinked her can of Red Dog against my bottle of Evan Williams, which I clutched by the neck, and we walked over to her.

“Taylor, let’s go downstairs,” Haley said.

“I’m in the middle of a conversation,” she replied from underneath droopy eyelids. The boy with the freckles was just standing there with a vaguely annoyed look on his face.

“Where are Rachel and Britney?” I asked.

“I think they’re downstairs,” Haley said.

“Taylor, do you wanna help me find Rachel and Britney?” I asked her lightly.

Taylor scrunched up her golden freckled face and pushed a wisp of golden-brown hair back behind her glasses. “Yeah ok fine. But can we come back up here after we’ve found them? I like being outside,” she said lazily. “I like the light show.”

The light show was actually pretty impressive for a house party. Purple and green lasers shot out from the outdoor DJ’s table. It was surrounded by a throng of young people who were either grinding against each other or standing completely still, aside from the bobbing of their heads. In orbit around them were the groups of girls looking for that one friend who got away, the freshmen looking for cigarettes to bum, and the beardy dudes too high to handle the lasers. The peeing and puking people were in the woods that surrounded the property.

How has this not been shut down by the cops yet, I reflected.

“Fuck if I know,” Haley said.

“Shit, I said that out loud?” I asked her. She looked at me with her eyebrow raised. “You need to finish that,” I said, pointing to her beer.

“You are correct, sir,” she said, bringing it to her mouth.

“Are we going downstairs or what?” Taylor asked, her chin dug down into her neck petulantly.

“Give her a minute,” I said.

“Let’s go,” Haley said after a minute, handing me the can of Red Dog, which I handed back to Taylor. The three of us, in a single file line, made our way past the football-player-sized bouncer and down into the basement. Haley was in front of me, and Taylor was behind me holding my hand. We snaked our way down the narrow wooden stairs and into the humid lair, where yet another DJ, now with pink and blue lasers, illuminated the stone walls and the undulating mass of people swaying to a bass so loud I could feel my lungs vibrate in my chest. Haley burrowed an impossible path through the crowd of young drunks, which was so tight it might as well have been one rippling organism of sweat and steam and flesh. We found Britney and Rachel in the back corner of the basement, eyes closed and heads dipping in and out of time with the cacophony of electronica. We formed a little cell around them.

“Sup,” Haley said.

“What?” Rachel replied, eyes squinting.

“SUP?”

“Dancin” Rachel replied dreamily.

“What?”

“DANCIN.”

“HOW ARE YOU DOING?” I asked Britney.

“PRETTY GOOD, YOURSELF?”

“CAN’T COMPLAIN. THIS MUSIC IS TOO LOUD.” Taylor handed me the can of Red Dog.

“I KNOW,” Britney said. “HOW IS IT OUTSIDE?”

“NOT BAD, THEY FINALLY GOT THE LASERS WORKING.” I kicked a few empty cans away from my feet to make room for the empty can of Red Dog I placed on the floor.

“WE SHOULD GO UP THERE, I WANT TO SMOKE. RACHEL, DO YOU WANT TO GO OUTSIDE AND SMOKE WITH ME?”

“That is a great idea,” Rachel said, swaying with her eyes closed.

“WHAT?” I said.

“GREAT IDEA,” Rachel said. “LET’S WAIT UNTIL THE BASS DROPS THOUGH.” She slung her head down started throwing it back with her shoulders, her long black hair dancing over her face and beneath her chin.

“THE FUCK IS TAYLOR,” Haley asked me. I turned around. It took me a second to register that she was still behind me, only a few feet away and kissing the freckled boy against the wall. He had apparently followed us down into the basement.

“HELP,” I said to Haley and Britney, pointing at Taylor. Haley rolled her eyes and peeled Taylor off the boy the way a child peels a slug off a rock. She grabbed giggling Taylor by the shoulders led her over to where Rachel was still waiting for the bass.

Britney walked over to the boy. “HEY MAN,” she began diplomatically, “SO THAT GIRL HAS A BOYFRIEND AND SHE ISN’T GOING TO GO HOME WITH YOU. SO FUCK OFF, YEAH?”

He put both his hands up in a gesture of surrender. “GET OUT OF MY FACE, SHE DIDN’T SAY SHE HAD A BOYFRIEND.”

“I’M NOT IN YOUR FACE, BRO. JUST DO ME A FAVOR AND FUCK THE FUCK OFF, OKAY?” Britney said.

“PLEASE,” I added from behind her.

“BITCHES,” the boy said, inching away, staying close to the wall.

“SWEET OBSERVATION, WATSON,” Britney yelled back at him as she turned away, waving a disproving hand in his direction.

“LET’S GO UPSTAIRS,” Rachel said.

“DID THE BASS DROP?” I asked.

“YES,” Haley said. “YOU MISSED IT.”

“I WANNA SMOKE, LET’S GO UPSTAIRS,” Rachel said again.

“WHERE DID THAT GUY GO?” Taylor asked, pouting.

“LET’S GO OUTSIDE,” I said, grabbing her hand. Britney led the pack this time, then Rachel, Haley, and Taylor, with me bringing up the rear. We again worked our way through the swelling horde of uncoordinated bodies and past the bouncer, who was demanding money from a group of boys who insisted that they should be able to get into the basement for free because they brought three girls with them. Girls always get in for free, and occasionally a guy can get in for free if he comes with a group of about five girls. Usually, though, they had to pay to get into the basement, even if they were out of the free beer they handed out in red solo cups on a first-come-first-serve basis.

We migrated to the periphery of the outdoor crowd, which was considerably quieter. “So where’s that guy?” Taylor asked, once we stopped moving.

“I’m sorry but he had a girlfriend,” Haley said.

“Ugh really?” Taylor asked. “Where’s the Burnett’s?”

“She is too drunk,” I said to Haley.

“What?” Taylor asked, turning to me.

“I said you are too drunk.”

“Shut up, I am not drunk,” Taylor said unconvincingly. “Is the Burnett’s in the backpack?”

“Stop drinking,” Haley ordered.

“Let’s smoke, but gimme a minute, I have to pee,” Rachel said to Britney, turning away from our group and towards the bushes. She almost tripped after a few steps. “Shit!” she said.

“You okay over there, chief?” Britney said.

“Come here,” she said to all of us. A girl in a black sparkly dress that was too short for her was sprawled out belly-up on the grass. Her eyes were closed.

“Shit, turn her on her side,” Britney said, kneeling down to do it herself.

“Honey, honey,” Rachel cooed, bending over to help. “Honey, wake up honey.”

“Where are her friends?” Haley asked, spinning around to look.

“I’m going inside to get her some water,” Britney said. “Take the backpack,” she commanded, thrusting it at me. The girl’s eyes opened a little. She opened her mouth and let out loud, pitiful gargle.

“Shit, she’s too fucked up.” Haley said, bending over.

“I think she’s cross faded,” Rachel agreed.

“I’m looking up the sober rides number,” I said, whipping out my phone.

“Honey, honey,” Rachel cooed again, holding the girl’s head in her lap. “Honey, where do you live, huh? Can you tell me where you live?” The girl groaned miserably and dry heaved. “Let it out if you need to, honey. Breathe.” Britney came back with two red cups filled with water, followed by two blonde girls with glazed, frightened eyes.

“Found the friends,” Britney said dismissively. She handed one of the water cups to Taylor, who was sitting on the ground a little away from us. “How she doin?”

“Shit,” Haley said. She turned to the girls. “The fuck is wrong with you two?”

“Are you freshmen?” I asked.

“Yeah,” one of them said with a flip of her hair.

“We were inside trying –” the other one began sheepishly.

“I don’t give a fuck what you trying to do inside that house,” Rachel said from where she kneeled in the grass. Her eyes had lost their glassiness almost entirely. “Did you even look at her? She’s dying here and you left her. Stupid bitches could have gotten your friend killed.”

“But –”

“Should we call an ambulance?” Britney suggested as she lightly patted the girl’s face to get her awake enough to drink the water.

“Please don’t call an ambulance!” the sheepish friend begged. “The cops would come and shut down the whole party.”

“Wow,” Rachel said, incredulous. “I really, really hope you get left in the dirt some day by your friends because they’re more worried about the well-being of a frat party than you.” Her eyes were sharp and accusing.

“I can see her pupils, she’ll be ok if she drinks water and eats,” Britney said.

“Where does she live?” I asked the girls. They looked at me like I was an alien. “I’m about to text a sober ride. Where does she live?”

“Northwest,” one of them answered.

“Do you have any idea what could have happened to her out here?” Rachel asked them.

“He’ll be here in 5 minutes,” I said, looking up from my phone.

“And you two are getting in that car with her,” Haley growled.

“She could have vomited on herself and suffocated,” Rachel continued. “She could have been kicked or stepped on. Or worse. Do you know what some people do to girls they find passed out from drinking?” Rachel’s voice cracked, but she kept on going. “If you don’t know, you can probably guess.” The girls blanched, and balked at her.

“You are getting in that car with her, and you are going to Northwest—”

“But I don’t live in Northwest,” one of them started.

“I wasn’t asking where you live. You are going to carry her to Northwest, and watch her all night to make sure she doesn’t puke blood.” Haley stared at them coldly.

“If she pukes blood, definitely call an ambulance,” I said.

Britney had gotten the girl to stir a little, and held the cup up to her mouth so she could drink some of the water. “How you doin over there, Taylor?” she called.

“I’m good,” Taylor replied, between gulps of water.

“Don’t drink that too fast, ok girl?”

“Mhmmm, don’t worry about me.”

My phone started buzzing. “The guy is here.” I picked up the call. Rachel and Britney hoisted the girl up between them, but she couldn’t stand on her own. Her thin knees knocked together spastically, and her feet couldn’t properly find the ground.

“What kind of car are we looking for?” Rachel asked me.

“A green Honda Civic,” I replied, my ear still to the phone. We walked together from the backyard down the long gravel driveway, Rachel and Britney carrying the sick girl. I followed with Taylor clamped to my arm, and behind me the two blondes staggered out of fear more than inebriation. Haley followed them, staring at the backs of their heads like some sort of large jungle cat waiting for its prey to make a wrong twitch. The light from the backyard cast long purple-green shadows down the length of the path. Watching that girl get carried made the woods on the other side of the house feel a little farther away.

When we got to the car, Britney loaded the freshmen into the backseat while Rachel leaned in the front window. She gave the driver an extra ten dollars to make sure he watched all three of them enter one of the buildings in Northwest Quad.

“Well that ruined my entire night,” Rachel sighed, sitting down on one of the large boulders in the house’s front yard. We watched the car pull out of the driveway, and then congregated around her. Taylor plonked down next to her on the rock, resting her head on Rachel’s shoulder.

“That was unbelievable,” Britney said. “Like, I’m a professional bitch, but those girls were cold.”

“I hope that girl finds better friends,” Taylor said sleepily.

“Do you guys wanna go back to the apartment?” Haley asked.

“Yeah,” Rachel and I said, almost at the same time.

“We should watch that documentary about Sea World and how they torture the killer whales,” Britney suggested, gathering her pink hair up into a neat bun.

“Blackfish?” Rachel asked.

“Yeah, that’s the one,” Britney said.

“Are you good to drive?” Haley asked her.

“Yeah, I didn’t drink any more than those two shots, and that was at ten, so.”

“Ok then,” I said.

“Yeah, it’s kinda getting chilly anyway.” Haley rubbed her hands over her bare arms.

“Gee, maybe you should have, I don’t know, worn a sweater,” I said to her.

“Fuck off, ho,” she laughed tiredly.

“Yeah, you just keep on standing there shivering, Miss I’m-Gonna-Wear-A-See-Through-Tank-Top-In-Early-October.” We piled into Taylor’s tiny red sedan and Britney drove us home. Once we got there, we threw the throw pillows on their couch onto the floor, crowded onto it, and covered ourselves in fuzzy blankets. We were moved by the plight of the killer whales about as much as we were moved by the plight of the fainted freshman girl.

I went out every weekend with the same girls, more or less. It wasn’t an accident that, most nights, we drank too much. I drank too much, and I did it on purpose. It was one of the many ways I spoon-fed myself the notion that I wasn’t damaged in some way. The memories of that night in September faded, except in the tiny moments where anyone tried to touch me suddenly. I would analyze my habit of flinching, dismiss it as melodrama, and chastise my body for a movement that I knew was fully involuntary. If I could swig and stumble and dance and giggle, there was no way I could be anything other than completely healthy. I told myself that I was young, and growing up. It’s surprisingly easy to rationalize irrational behavior when you’re the one behaving irrationally.

I stopped running and kept on drinking. If it wasn’t a weekend, I was staying up all night needlessly agonizing over work I knew I could take care of the next day. ‘Work hard, play hard’ became a habitual justification for my refusal to sleep. It only took a few months for the muscle I had to melt into fat. It was as if my brain were digesting all the best parts of my body to fuel the machine I had constructed to excuse my lifestyle. I lay awake in bed at night feeling the muscles in my legs and arms slowly decay, listening to all my hard places turn soft. My bones were corroding, turning brittle. I wasn’t regaining control, which is what I thought was happening with every responsibly sleepless weeknight and every fun weekend I wasn’t actually able to remember. I was throwing myself against the wall to see what would stick.

“Hey, what are you doing right now?” My roommate Mackenzie was standing in the small hallway that connected her room to me and Nia’s room. I was lying out on the living room couch, doing nothing.

“Nothing, really,” I said lazily.

“Wanna do facemasks with me?” Mackenzie was a short woman whose skin was good enough that she didn’t really need a facemask to improve it. Her curly hair was swept up into a floppy knot on the top of her head.

“Shit yeah,” I replied, getting up. We debated about the ratio between cinnamon and honey as we mixed them together in a small glass bowl and microwaved it. The mixture looked like chocolate, and it was grainy as we smeared it onto our faces. It was our homemade ritual for eliminating pimples, and for talking about things we had difficulty just bringing up with each other.

“I look like I legitimately have poo on my face,” she said with a low, good-natured chuckle as we stood next to each other in the bathroom, staring at our clumpy-brown-covered faces.

“You’re not wrong,” I replied. We moseyed into the living room and sat down across from each other at our small, square, university-provided kitchen table.

“You know what happened today?” she asked, carefully resting her not-masked chin on her hand.

“No, what?”

“I made a police statement today about Alex.”

“What? Really?”

“Yep.”

“Why? What happened?”

“So, I mean, you know about how he works with me at the burrito bar in the Union.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, I’ve been pretty good about scheduling my shifts to make sure we never see each other, especially after that time two weeks ago where he like followed me out of the Union and tried to, like, get me to go on the bus with him, and I had to call Nia to come pick me up.” She paused to wipe up a drip of cinnamon-honey off the fake wooden veneer of the table. “And then he started – wait, so have I told you about the facebook messages he’s been sending me?”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, so today he starts like spam texting me all the same kind of stuff, like, ‘I can’t believe you are so cold,’ and ‘You are making a huge mistake, we’re meant to be together,’ that sort of thing.”

“It’s so weird that he would even say stuff like that,” I interjected. “Like, you made your intentions clear from the beginning. And I think you let him down pretty softly. And what, you were dating for all of, like, two weeks?”

“Yeah, and I agree with, like, all of that,” she said, wanting to continue her story. “Still, I felt pretty bad about how he felt about it, you know?” She sighed heavily. “At least, I felt bad until the stuff he pulled today.”

“Ugh,” I groaned.

“Yeah. Anyway, he is text-bombing me all the same old shit, and I’m not replying because I know I would only write something nice, and I don’t want to, like, string him along or anything. But then the texts started getting really weird and kinda scary,” she said, as her eyes widened in exasperation.

“Lemme see,” I said. She pulled her phone out of her pocket and opened the messages as she slid her chair next to me. There was a string of texts on the screen from Alex, who seemed pretty vanilla the few times I had met him. “Shit,” I muttered, scrolling through the strange and threatening things he had written.

“‘You’ll regret leaving me, wanna guess how I know? It’s because I know where you live,’” Mackenzie solemnly quoted as she looked down at the screen over my shoulder. “That one was my favorite.” A bit of the brown facemask dripped from her nose onto my t-shirt.

“This is some of the creepiest shit I have ever read,” I said, shaking my head and handing her back her phone. “He actually wrote, ‘I know where you live.’ He actually wrote that. How can someone write that, and not realize what they’re writing?”

“I don’t know,” she said, sitting back in her chair. “I really have no idea how I could have been with someone so crazy without realizing it right off the bat.”

“It happens,” I said. “People hide their crazy.”

“True,” Mackenzie nodded, frowning.

“So you went to the police?” I asked.

“Yeah. Well, no, I called them, and they sent an officer over here this afternoon,” Mackenzie said. “I was really nervous, but, like, I didn’t want to screw around.”

“Damn. So what’s the deal with that?”

“Oh, so I just told this cop everything that happened, and I like showed him the texts, and he said that because Alex hadn’t actually done anything yet, they couldn’t give him a restraining order or anything. But they said that if he ever does anything to me, or anyone else, they have this on record,” she said, leaning forward and spreading her fingers out on the table.

“Well that’s good, at least,” I replied. “I wish they could do more.”

“Yeah, well.”

“Sucks.”

“I guess,” Mackenzie said. “But the cop was surprisingly nice about it.”

“Like, I think it has to do with all the girls suing the university about police ignoring rape reports,” I replied. “All the cops are supposed to be like extra attentive to us now.”

“Yeah, that’s probably true,” she said. “But, like, this cop was so supportive, you know? Like the complete opposite of the asshole-campus-cop stereotype.” She paused for a minute, looking up at the ceiling. “I actually, really, feel like I have someone watching my back.”

“That’s nice,” I said.

“Yeah, it is,” she sighed tiredly. “Still worried about seeing Alex in the middle of campus or something. Like, what am I supposed to do if I run into him in line at Wilbur’s or something?” She put her chin back in her hands. “Plus, the really scary thing is that, when he graduates, I think he’s trying to join like the FBI or something. Can you imagine someone like him in a position of power like that?” She shook her head from where her elbows sat on the table. “It’s not something I ever considered until now. Freaks me out.”

“Damn,” I said. I swiped my finger along my jawline to catch any drips of facemask. “That’s fucked up.”

“I know,” she said with a heavy sigh. She turned her head to look at me. “But anyway what’d you do today?”

“The usual.”

“You still having trouble sleeping?”

“Kinda yeah.”

“You should drink sleepytime tea more.”

“Yeah, that’ll help,” I said flatly.

“Really, though,” she said, smiling. “You need to time your sleep waves right.”

“I guess,” I sighed. “But I mean, I just have so much stuff to do, maybe it’s kinda a good thing to be kind of an insomniac,” I said.

“You realize how crazy that sounds?” Mackenzie snorted.

I rolled my eyes. “Well, yeah, but.”

“But what?”

“I dunno, I have like weird-ass, not enjoyable dreams.”

“Wanna talk about it?” She looked at me sympathetically, with her eyebrows raised and her lips tucked into a neat, commiserating line.

“Not particularly, no,” I replied. “We should rinse these off before we get too tingly,” I said, pointing to my face.

“I’m excited to go out with you guys tonight!” Mackenzie said, grinning, putting her hands into the pockets of her cropped leather jacket. “I’m psyched to wear these.” She gestured down with her elbows, towards her new black suede sneaker-wedges. “They make me taller but I don’t think anyone will notice that it’s the shoes, you know?” She was standing with me in front of the large floor-length mirrors that were the sliding doors to my closet.

“You sure you don’t wanna come with us, Nia?” I said, looking over to her. She was sitting on the edge of her bed, watching us in her pajamas.

“No, I gotta Skype date with Dave,” she said with a sly smile on her face. “Plus ima finish that bottle of moscato.” She pushed her greasy glasses up on her face. “But where are you guys going?”

“I think Celeron,” I said, poking at a red blemish on my cheek.

“Okay well text me when you’re on your way back,” she said, leaning to rest her back on the wall. “Also, quit touching it! You’re going to make it redder.”

“Shut up, Mom,” I replied, smirking. “You ready to go?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Mackenzie answered.

“Ok, let’s go then,” I said, grabbing my jacket off the back of my chair. “See you later, Nia, tell Dave we said hi!”

“I will,” Nia said, opening her computer as we walked out of the bedroom. We waltzed into the kitchen, grabbed our drinks out of the fridge, and made our way out of our building.

“I can’t drink too much tonight,” Mackenzie said as we walked down the concrete path to Haley and Rachel’s building on the other side of our small apartment complex. “You’re a tank, but I’m a lightweight.”

“I’m not a tank. Rachel, Haley, and Britney are tanks. I’m like a moped.”

“No, you’re a tank. Rachel, Haley, Britney – they’re like nuclear missiles,” Mackenzie chuckled. We opened the door to Haley and Rachel’s building, which was propped open with a rock to prevent the auto-lock, and climbed the steps to the third floor. Their door was never locked, so we walked right in. We entered to a loud roar of approval from couch.

“Hello, my pretties!” Britney purred, rolling her eyes up to us with a dreamy grin as we walked over to where she sat cross-legged on the ground.

“Hi, Britney!” Mackenzie said. She was beaming. “Did you just re-dye your hair? It looks super pink!” She sat down and started chattering away with Britney. I walked over to where Rachel and Haley were sitting on the couch, passing a bottle of Cinnerator between them.

“So when are we leaving?” I asked, leaning against the armrest.

“Soon, we’re just waiting for Taylor and Kara to get picked up by Jake,” Rachel answered.

“Also we decided we’re going to Willy,” Haley said disinterestedly. “Brian and Gabe and them are having Beer Olympics, so.”

“I thought they were having a Tour de Franzia?” Rachel asked.

“Who cares? We’ll win either way,” Haley declared, with flat confidence.

“Wait, we’re going to Willyoaks?” In that moment, it would be unfair to say that my skin began to crawl. It was more like every inch of skin on my body desperately cried out to be peeled off in red, raw ribbons, one by one, meticulously, devoutly, and cruelly.

“Yeah.”

“I thought we were going to Celeron?”

“Well, that was the plan,” Haley continued, as Rachel fiddled with the black plastic cap to the bottle she held between her thighs. “But, think about it – Beer Olympics means free beer, and when we win, Gabe said there was a prize.”

“It’s probably just going to be more alcohol,” Rachel laughed.

“Mmmm, just one step closer to debilitating alcoholism,” Haley guffawed.

“But really though!” Rachel exclaimed. “Gabe and Brian’s parents are both loaded, so whatever they got for that prize is probably like really nice shit, like the good shit.”

“I’m gonna get some water.” I walked into the kitchen, got a purple plastic glass out of the cabinet, and filled it with lukewarm tap water. I held it up to my mouth and poured it down my throat. My other hand was gripping onto the edge of the sink. I felt like my knees might go out from under me, or the bones in my ankles might turn into sand. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I just knew that the not knowing was somehow worse than every hard landing I had ever taken after a clumsy tumble, and worse than any of the gurgling bile that had ever unwillingly passed my lips.

I went with them out of some terrible combination of morbid curiosity, fear, and masochism. We stuffed ourselves into Jake’s burgundy truck, which was cluttered with sports equipment on the inside. Mackenzie, Taylor and I were willingly shoved into the trunk, between the folding soccer goals and the miscellaneous gymnastic padding, and had to wait to be let out after we got to Brian and Gabe’s apartment in the Willyoaks Complex. It looked so close to the way it did before – the trees, thick and dense, leaning in on the poorly-lit backyards, the faded green siding surrounded by mulch and sandy gravel, the rust breaking through the white paint on the twisted metal stoop railings – everything had remained exactly the way I had forgotten it. The only perceptible difference was the leaflessness of the trees. The massive sameness of it all almost knocked the wind out of me as I attempted to climb out the back of Jake’s truck; when I had to grab hold of Mackenzie’s shoulder to steady myself, I pretended I had caught my foot on one of his hockey sticks.

“We are here to own the Beer Olympics!” Britney, a few steps ahead of everyone else, took it upon herself to announce our arrival.

“She is high out of her mind,” Mackenzie said quietly to me, giggling with wide eyes and a goofy expression. The leaves under our feet whined with every step we took. Nobody had bothered to rake.

The apartment wasn’t quite filled to the gills when I walked in. There was a pong table in the living room, while in the kitchen, another game had begun on what looked to be the main dining table. It was already slick with the beer and water that had sloshed over the edges of cups. There were girls in jeans and girls in bodycon dresses. All the boys seemed to be wearing flannel. The walls weren’t damp yet with the smell of body odor, but they probably would be within the hour.

Mackenzie took one step into the apartment, and immediately turned around and walked back outside onto the stoop. I didn’t realize that she wasn’t next to me for about a minute, and when I followed her, she was standing on the concrete with both hands on the railing.

“Mackenzie, what’s wrong?” I asked. Her normally breezy face was stony, and it was the only thing about her that didn’t look a little shaky, though she might have been shivering. It was a cold night.

“I just saw Alex’s brother in there, playing pong,” she said hurriedly. “It means he’s probably in there. I want to leave. Now.”

“How can you be sure? I like almost never partied with my older brother when he was here –”

“They are super close,” she said, turning around. “I don’t want to be a pain or a downer or anything.” Her eyebrows turned down in an expression somewhere between disappointment and agitation. “I can leave myself, call a ride or something. Dan can probably pick me up. You can stay here, it’s ok. I just can’t be in this house.”

Rachel stuck her head out the doorway, which I had left open behind me. When she saw us, she walked out to join us. “Hey, is everything alright?”

“No,” I said. Mackenzie sighed. “Mackenzie’s stalker’s brother’s in there, and she’s worried that he’s in there, too.”

“The brother or the stalker?” Rachel squinted.

“The stalker,” Mackenzie said flatly.

“What’s his name?”

“Alex.”

“Alex what?”

“Alex Todd.”

“I don’t know him,” Rachel said. “But I can go ask Gabe if he’s here. Gabe knows everyone in this house, he doesn’t like to just have randos over. And if he’s here, we can show him the door,” she said triumphantly, with a big-arms gesture.

“I’m not sure I’m about that plan,” Mackenzie replied.

“Okay, but I’m doing it anyway,” Rachel said in a high-pitched voice that was more affected than her naturally warm one. “But don’t wait out here on the stoop. It’s the beginning of December, you’ll get hypothermia.”

“I’m sorry, but I’d prefer not to go into that house,” Mackenzie said firmly. Rachel grabbed her hand lightly, and tried to lead her into the apartment. When Mackenzie didn’t move, she turned around.

“You can wait for me in the bathroom, I’ll kick whoever’s in there out,” she said. She tugged again on Mackenzie’s arm, and smiled back at her coaxingly. “Really! And if you want to leave, we can call you a ride from inside where it isn’t like freezing, now come on!” She tugged again, and Mackenzie followed her inside reluctantly. We walked up the stairs to the thankfully empty bathroom. Britney saw us and latched.

“What’s going on?” she asked, looking at Mackenzie’s resigned face with stoned but sincere concern.

“Britney, wait with Mackenzie here please,” Rachel said. She turned to me. “Help me look for Gabe?”

“Okay,” I said, looking back at Mackenzie, hoping she wasn’t angry with me. She looked less angry than she did stoic and panicked, her body rigid and her eyes wide open in wariness. Britney was rubbing her shoulder. I followed Rachel down the stairs, and when she turned around I realized Haley was behind me.

“Turns out it was actually a Tour de Franzia,” she said matter-of-factly.

“So how intense is this stalker situation?” Rachel asked, ignoring her.

“What stalker situation?” Haley asked.

“Mackenzie has a stalker who might be here and she’s freaking out,” Rachel said.

“But justifiably so,” I added to Haley, who nodded.

“Yeah, that’s what I meant,” Rachel said to me. “Like how intense is the situation right now?”

“Pretty intense,” I answered. “He like sent her threatening text messages and she issued a police statement last week.”

“Shit,” Rachel said. “That’s pretty intense.”

“Yeah,” Haley agreed. “Intense.”

“Ok, cool,” Rachel began, “but if the stalker isn’t here then it’s nbd right? Like no harm no foul?”

“Naw,” I said. “Mackenzie’s probs gonna be freaked out for the rest of the night. I bet she’s calling our friend Dan right now to come pick us up.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Us?” Haley interjected.

“Yeah, I’m probably gonna go with her, to be honest,” I said.

Rachel let out an exasperated exhale. “Why? Do you really need to go with her?”

“Yeah, she’s probably gonna wanna talk and stuff,” I said.

“We need you for the Tour de Franzia team,” Haley said flatly.

“Okay okay, how about we start the Tour de Franzia, we win the Tour de Franzia in five minutes,” Rachel said as Haley was nodding, “and then we all go home and watch my Planet Earth DVDs?”

“Can we like not watch a nature documentary?” Haley asked impudently.

“No, I think I’ll head out with her,” I said. They looked at me from beneath doubtful eyebrows. “No, really. What if one of you had a completely understandable creepy-stalker panic attack?”

“Okay, okay,” Rachel said. “Fine, but how bout this – what if we start the Tour, and then you slap the bag for like 30 seconds before leaving? Maybe longer?”

“Girl,” I began, “I cannot slap the bag when it’s in the box. I also can’t slap the bag when it’s basically completely full.”

Haley nodded. “Plus, Britney is really like the only one who can slap the bag without getting wine all over herself.”

“Then what are we gonna do?”

“You have Taylor!” I said.

“Taylor cannot drink more than like three drinks without falling over, you know this,” Haley said.

“Jake?”

“No co-ed teams allowed,” Rachel yapped.

“Ohmygod you guys,” I said, spreading my arms in frustration. “Are you really giving me this much shit for trying to leave right now?”

They were quiet for a moment. “Yeah, we are,” Haley said.

“Mhm,” Rachel said.

“Jesus!” I squawked.

“Fine, fine,” Rachel resigned. “Begone. But you get none of whatever the prize is.”

“I’m willing to part with it,” I said.

“Also, if Taylor has liver failure, it’s your fault,” Haley added.

“I’ll take full responsibility.”

“We’re still brunching tomorrow though, right?” Rachel asked.

“Totally,” I said, walking up the stairs and past the long line forming in front of the bathroom to retrieve Mackenzie. Britney was still with her. “You call Dan yet?” Mackenzie nodded. “How long til he gets here?”

“He’s probably like five minutes away at this point,” she responded.

“Cool, he’s the best.”

“You’re coming with me?” Mackenzie asked.

“Duh I’m coming with you,” I replied. “I’m not really feeling this, anyway.”

“What’s going on with the Tour de Franzia then?” Britney asked from the background.

“Yeah what’s going on with you? You look like shit,” Mackenzie said worriedly. “Like look at yourself, and put some cold water on your face or something.”

I turned and looked into the bathroom mirror. I did look like shit. My face was shiny and pallid, and my lips were dry and cracked. Some of my hair was sticking to my face and neck, and the rest of it straggled around my head in wild wisps. I must have rubbed my eye without thinking about it, because my mascara was smudged down my right lower eyelid. I licked my finger and started trying to rub away the black stains. I suddenly became aware of how sweaty the backs of my knees were.

“You guys should go outside and wait for your friend,” Britney said. She gave Mackenzie’s bicep a supportive squeeze with her hand, and hugged me. “Later.”

We tore down the steps and back onto the dark stoop to wait for Dan.

“I’m sorry about making you leave the party,” Mackenzie said as Dan pulled up in his dilapidated Jeep Wrangler.

“Never be sorry, girl,” I said. “Hey, I think I dropped my phone over there when we were running around looking for Alex,” I lied, gesturing towards the backyard.

“Shit,” Mackenzie muttered.

“Yeah,” I said. “But I think I know where it is. So get in the car, and wait for me for like five minutes, yeah?”

“Word,” Mackenzie said, walking over to the car. I turned around to enter the backyard, not knowing what I would find there, and not knowing what I was actually looking for.

I made my way around the corner of the apartment. The spindly branches of trees cast thin shadows against the faded yellow bulb above the back patio, which was dotted with bearded young men moving cigarettes between their mouths and the hips they rested their hands on. I wove my way through their small, smoky clusters, from one end of the backyard to the other, and rounded the far corner of the house.

The light didn’t make it to this crook of the side yard, and the grubby unkempt bushes were swallowing the small strip of grass along the wall of the house. There was about a foot of mulch between the slightly exposed concrete foundation and where the grass began. It looked almost black in the shadows, as did the withered leaves that littered the ground. The noises made me feel like I was walking on a giant sheet of paper that I could fall through at any moment, into some nameless chasm I would never be able to climb out of. The air was bitingly cold and it stung in my dry throat, but I let it pierce deep into my lungs. I was amazed that I didn’t stop breathing.

I didn’t see a reflection of myself lying in the dirt as I stood there, motionless, staring at the deep black ground. I only saw ground.

Dan was quiet as he drove us home in his Jeep. He was Mackenzie’s best friend, and his quietness was one of the many things I appreciated about him. She was still a little disconcerted about seeing Alex’s brother, but the color was returning to her face. I couldn’t feel the color in mine.

When we got back to our apartment and got out of Dan’s car, Mackenzie leaned in his window and said, “Thanks, Dan. Really appreciate you giving us a ride back.”

“It’s no problem,” he replied calmly.

“But really, Dan,” I chimed in, crossing my arms and leaning my head into the window next to Mackenzie’s. “We know you have work tomorrow, so thanks for getting up to get us.”

“Aww, shut up,” Dan said, smiling. “But yeah I’m waking up at five tomorrow, and I need to go back to sleep, so I’ll see you guys later.” We walked into our building as he drove away. When we got into our apartment, we put our mostly undepleted drink concoctions back into the fridge. The door to my room was closed.

“Nia is probably still talking to Dave,” I said. “Jeez, I hate it when she sexiles me for a Skype date. It’s one thing if he’s here in person. But a Skype date.” I shook my head. Mackenzie sat down on the couch, and began to take off her high-heeled sneakers.

“That’s true,” she said. “But we didn’t text her that we were coming back, so.”

“Yeah, I guess. Can I use your bathroom?”

“Sure,” she said, throwing one shoe across the living room and beginning on the other. I ambled into her bathroom and turned on the sink. I wadded up a piece of toilet paper, wet it, and tried to wipe off my eye makeup. I only ended up smudging it more, and getting it into my eyes.

“Want some eye makeup remover?” Mackenzie asked, from where she stood leaning in the bathroom doorway.

“Shit,” I muttered, jumping. “I didn’t even notice you were standing there.”

“Here,” she said, moving past me a little, going to the cabinet above the toilet. She handed me a little blue bottle.

“Thanks,” I said, opening it up and pouring some onto my little crumple of paper.

“So what’s up with you?” Mackenzie asked, returning to her place in the doorway.

“Waddya mean?” I replied, leaning closer to the mirror.

“I mean, you were acting really weird at that party,” she said low, soft voice. “Like, I was acting weird but I know why I was acting weird.” She paused. “But you were freaking out a little too.”

“No I wasn’t.”

“Yeah you were.”

“In what way was I the one freaking out there? You were hiding in a bathroom,” I snapped.

“Well,” she began, smiling indignantly, “you were talking the whole time like one octave above where you normally talk. And you were sweating a lot. And you were breathing all weird when we were in the trunk of Jake’s car.” She tilted her head and looked at me. “You were freaking out, kinda worse than I was.”

The eye makeup remover was actually working really well. The tissue was loaded with the inky black that had surrounded my eye. I leaned down to pull more paper for my other eye. “I should really invest in a bottle of this stuff,” I muttered.

“Don’t change the subject,” she said lightly. “What’s your deal?”

I didn’t answer her. I kept rubbing my eyelids with the toilet paper. “It’s funny,” I said. “I don’t even wear that much eye makeup. I feel like it always gets everywhere.”

“Well, that happens when you rub your eyes a lot.” Her lips were curled into a disproving button.

I sighed and looked over to her. “What do you want me to say?” I put my hands down on the grey, fake marble sink countertop. She kept staring at me. “Fine, I fucked a random guy there once and I didn’t feel like running into him again.”

She furrowed her brows in consternation. “Really?” She bowed her lips into a confused frown. “You could have just said that, no need for all the, like, secrecy.” She walked away into her room, and then walked back. “Wait, was that the one guy when you fucked him outside a few months ago?” She was squinting her eyes, trying to remember.

“Yeah,” I groaned. “I don’t really like thinking about it.”

“Oh, ok then,” she said, walking away. I could hear the padding of her steps in her room stop suddenly as she turned around to come back again. “But wait,” she said, shaking her head. “Sorry, but if you just like fucked him it wouldn’t be a big deal. Random sex isn’t the end of the world. That’s a thing you said to me, by the way,” she said dryly. “What’s the actual deal?”

I closed my eyes and hung my head down limply. I sighed and looked up at the bluish light in the ceiling, and then back at her. “I need to pee,” I said. “Please vacate the bathroom momentarily.” She shrugged as I closed the door gently.

She spoke to me through the closed door. “You’re doing that high-pitched voice thing again,” she said loudly. I didn’t reply. “Whatever,” she said. I listened to her walk into her bedroom. I flushed the toilet and washed my hands, then threw some cold water onto my face for good measure. I walked out into the living room and sat down at our table. I started scrolling through Snapchats on my phone when Mackenzie walked out. She moved past me and grabbed a clear glass from our cabinet.

“You want some water?” she asked, turning on the tap.

“Actually, yeah, thanks,” I said, not looking up from my phone. She got another glass down and filled it, too. She brought the two of them over to the table and sat across from me.

“I think I can kinda like hear Nia through my wall,” she said with a grimace. I looked up at her and matched her grimace. We both laughed a little.

“God, I hate that,” I said.

“Sorry I was giving you a hard time,” she said. “I guess I’m still freaked out a little about Alex.”

“It’s cool,” I said, taking a sip of water. “Don’t worry about it.”

“But,” Mackenzie started, “I do want you to feel like you can tell me stuff, you know.” She paused. “Like, you can be honest with me.”

“I know,” I sighed. “But, I dunno.”

“What?”

“I don’t really buy that whole ‘talk about things to feel better about them’ philosophy. It’s kinda bullshit.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Well, I mean.” I paused for a second and looked at the white piece of wall directly above Mackenzie’s head. “Why talk about shit that’s already happened? Like, it already happened.” Mackenzie squinted at me a little. “I guess I mean that it’s pointless to bring up old crap again, because all it’s going to do is make you feel crappy. Why relive things when you can just let it be?”

“Well, you’re already feeling crappy,” Mackenzie pointed out, gathering her curly hair into a floppy topknot.

“I guess,” I replied.

“So what happened?” She was looking at me intently.

“You’re asking like you haven’t already guessed,” I said dryly. I glared at her for a long, hard moment. I realized I was grinding my teeth as I tried to avoid getting angry with her.

“Still,” she urged calmly. “How’d it happen?”

I shrugged and looked down at my hands on the table, which were clasped kindergarten-style. I clenched and unclenched my jaw. I cleared my throat and said nothing.

“That’s fine,” she said, leaning back in her chair. “We don’t need to do this right now.”

“No,” I said. I took a deep breath. “I was talking to this guy – well what happened was that this fat guy was following me around all night and he was really creeping me out, but he kept on pouring me shots and I figured it was free alcohol so I kept on drinking it.” I paused and took a gulp of water. “But then he kept pawing at my shoulder and I wanted to sort of escape him?” Mackenzie closed her eyes and nodded. “So me and Haley went outside into the backyard but there was like nobody there, except these two guys who were just sorta like sitting on lawn chairs. And we started talking to them. And then. Well, you know.”

“Yeah?” Mackenzie asked.

“Yeah.” I said.

“But wait, so like –”

“He like led me away kinda? Haley was making out with the other one so she didn’t really notice.” I paused and looked down at the table.

“Shit,” Mackenzie said.

“Shit,” I agreed.

“So does Haley even know?” she asked, resting her chin on her hand.

“No, I haven’t really told anyone, obviously,” I replied. I looked up at her. Her mouth was slightly open and her eyes were shiny. She looked more ready to cry than I did.

“So why didn’t you do anything?” she asked. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean –”

“No, it’s ok,” I said, making sure my voice was even. “I didn’t really realize what was happening until it was already happening, you know?” She nodded. “Plus at that point I was probably like nine or ten shots deep, plus whatever we pregamed.” I paused for a second. “I guess I probably could have kneed him or something. But he kinda had my arms, and he dragged me down a little so I couldn’t really move my legs without falling down. But that didn’t really matter after I fell down.”

“And this all happened outside?”

“Yeah, like on the side of the house or apartment or whatever.”

“That’s,” she said.

“Yeah,” I replied. We sat there for a minute in silence, drinking our water. She looked a little pale, a little stunned. I’m not sure how I looked. I didn’t feel any different. I thought saying it might be something like believing it, but I was so numb – it was like everything I saw was in my periphery, even if it was directly in front of me.

“Do you feel like a weight has been lifted?” Mackenzie finally asked, with a dry voice a small smile.

“No,” I said. I could feel my lips curling upwards as I exhaled bitterly. “Still feel crappy.” I looked at her after a minute. “The funny thing is, afterwards, he tried to put my pants back on – like my shorts. Anyway, he actually tried. I was lying there on the ground laughing at him. I mean, I wasn’t really laughing, I was kinda cackling? I can’t remember a lot but I can remember the look on his face. He was so bewildered,” I sniggered. “I’m pretty sure I scared the shit out of him.” Mackenzie was balking at me. “And he did such a shitty job,” I continued, snickering. “There was like dirt and mulch all in my underwear the next morning, and I was almost more upset about how messy he was than the fact that he kinda –”

“I’ll go get you a wet towel,” Mackenzie interrupted hurriedly, getting up and briskly walking to her bathroom. I became aware of how insane I must have looked, sitting there red faced and body rocking with resentful crackling laughter. I wiped the wetness off my cheek with my palm as Mackenzie came back out with a bleach-spotted burgundy washcloth, damp with cold water. I took off my glasses and rested my face into the cool dark wet of the cloth. I inhaled deeply. It smelled like clean laundry.

“I’m sorry,” I said, after a few minutes of sitting there. “I don’t kn—”

Mackenzie put her hand up to quiet me. She was standing over me, with one hand on her hip. Her lips were wrinkled, like she was trying to not burst into tears. “Don’t apologize,” she said, shaking her head. “Don’t apologize. I get it.”

“Thanks,” I said, handing her the washcloth back.

“Fuck everything,” she breathed.

“No,” I replied. “Let’s not.”

I’m not sure which is more reasonable: to expect to be safe, or to assume a constant state of danger. I’m not sure which one I chose then, or which one I would choose now. I don’t think it’s a choice I really want to have to make. I haven’t lived long enough or gotten to know the world enough to trust myself with judgments about women and men and our difference or sameness. Retrospect hasn’t helped me put anything into perspective; it’s only given me better ways of asking questions that I can’t know the answers to. In retrospect, I probably should have known better than to trust a coyote-built smoking man with scraggly facial hair. In retrospect, I probably should not have had that much to drink. In retrospect, it shouldn’t have happened. I don’t know what I was thinking – I wasn’t thinking. It is shockingly easy to not-think. When I think about it, I find it shocking how many of the people I love are either on autopilot or set to self-destruct.

I haven’t stopped drinking. I’m afraid that if I cut myself off completely and find myself needing it, it’ll mean that I can’t exist without it. I don’t like the idea of needing anything to exist, but I like the idea of finding out even less. Every ghost I give up is replaced by another one, and I haven’t decided if it means that I’m young or if it means that I’m alive. Either way, I’m a bad exorcist.

Sometimes I feel like a strong gust of wind could shatter me, and sometimes I feel like the petrified pit at the center of an overripe peach that nobody wants to pick out of the fruit basket. I haven’t learned how to control my wild alternation. I haven’t learned how to bend without breaking. I’ve gotten pretty good at lying, though, particularly to myself, though I’m trying harder not to.

I’m most afraid of the fault lines I have discovered all over my body. I’m afraid that if anyone strays too close to me, the cracks and fissures under my skin will cleave open and I’ll swallow someone whole.

Katie Hires is an eighth semester graduating Senior studying English, Human Rights,and Political Science. She’s the president of two student organizations at UConn: Poetic Release, the spoken word poetry club, and TEDxUConn, which hosts TED conferences here in Storrs. Because of this, she is usually running around campus like a crazy person in a stress-frenzy. Besides being constantly busy, she enjoys cooking and eating pasta, watching HBO television shows, and taking appallingly long showers.