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Midmorning in mid-October, in the middle of the campus, Chandra stopped in the center of the crisscrossing sidewalks. She pulled the phone from her handbag and pretended to be texting someone; she smiled down at the screen as if someone had texted her back. She felt other students brushing past her on the walkway, but didn’t look up at their faces.
She had left her dorm room fully intending to go to class, even though she wasn’t prepared. Today in Gender Perspectives they were supposed to be discussing sex slaves in third world nations, a series of articles based on the real-life stories of young women who were prisoners in brothels forced to do disgusting things or be brutally punished. Chandra hadn’t gotten the reading done, but she could still go to class, and when it was her turn to speak, she could say it was horrible, she couldn’t believe that such things were happening to young, helpless girls in this day and age, and how could she be wrong? It was horrible. She couldn’t believe it. If she read the articles, Chandra figured she would probably feel exactly the same way as she felt now anyway. She wasn’t afraid to go to class. The professor was nice. If she could tell that Chandra hadn’t done the reading, she wouldn’t embarrass Chandra in front of everyone. She might ask in a concerned voice to speak to Chandra after class, though, and Chandra could tell her that she was a little behind because she’d had the flu.
Chandra had spent the last two days in her dorm room, pretending to have it. Not that she really needed to put on a show. Her roommate, Jillian, didn’t care. They were not enemies, but they were not friends. Between her boyfriend and her sorority, Jillian rarely slept in the room and used it mostly for the closet space. When Chandra had heard the key in the door on Monday morning, she pulled the sheet up to her neck and mumbled that she wasn’t feeling well. Jillian wrinkled her nose and opened the window between their beds to let the germs out. Chandra had spent the day watching YouTube videos on her laptop. She had an open bag of animal crackers in her desk drawer, with seventeen crackers left inside, and she ate four at a time, every three hours, and threw the leftover one, a walrus, out of the window into the night sky.
On Tuesday, she had the same bad feeling that made her stay in her dorm room. Not sick, but not regular—a feeling like something bad was happening and she just didn’t know exactly what it was yet.
This morning, Wednesday, Chandra had awoken with fresh resolve. Enough already. Up and at ’em, as her mother used to screech through her bedroom door. She made her way to the dorm bathroom down the hallway. After seven weeks at college, it still felt funny to Chandra to wear shower shoes, which were highly recommended to avoid fungus. She always carried an extra towel with her and hung one on the hook outside the showers and kept one wrapped around her body until she was inside the stall. When she let the towel drop and she was standing there in only her shower shoes, she thought sometimes of those porn girls, naked but still wearing high heels.
This morning she had taken her time, even though she knew there were people waiting for their turn. She closed her eyes and turned her face up to the showerhead and let her hands rest on the sharp knobs of her hip bones, which were her favorite part of her body. She would go to class today, and tomorrow, and then all she had on Friday was math lab. Hump day. That’s what her dad had always called Wednesday. And the torture chamber was what he always used to call his job. Oh, boo hoo hoo! Chandra could remember how her mother used to mock him when they’d fight at night before the divorce. You have to talk on the phone and write claims and report to a boss! Poor you! Too bad you can’t get work at a plastics factory and breathe toxic chemicals all day and die in your fifties! Because that was how Chandra’s grandfather whom she never met—her mom’s dad—had died. From lung cancer, even though he never smoked; they all knew it was the plastic fumes. And she’d started to cry a little, not about her grandfather she never met, but at the memory of her dad’s voice saying, It’s over-the-hump day, Sweetie Peetie. Can we do it? Can we make it over?
Now the walkways were clearing, everyone delivering themselves to their 9:50 classes, and Chandra should have been in side Auerbach Hall, but she remained in the middle of the intersecting sidewalks. She was wearing her hair tied back with a paisley scarf and her brown boots and black leggings and a long corduroy shirt over a purple knit turtleneck. She looked fine. She should go to class. She looked fine.
The campus was still. The red brick buildings, the bright yellow treetops shimmering in a crisp breeze. Maybe, she thought, she should get a coffee at the student union. And a banana, maybe. She hadn’t eaten yesterday except for some peanuts from the vending machine. She could have a banana, and maybe a Pop-Tart with the crusts cut off.
She hated to go to the cafeteria, but she could do it. She could go in there and get a coffee and a Pop-Tart. She was looking toward the union at the end of the walkway, and suddenly someone was standing under the big maple tree next to the building. A guy. A tall guy wearing a peacoat. Where did he come from? He seemed to be standing very straight on purpose. Was he looking at her? It seemed like he was looking at her! Chandra held her phone to her ear and tossed back her head and tapped the toe of her boot on the walkway and laughed, and even though she knew the guy was too far away to hear, she said out loud, “Seriously? Listen, I gotta call you later.” Then she dropped the phone into her handbag and walked with purpose on the walkway to the left, toward the union, keeping her eyes on the building, not allowing herself a glance at the tree or the guy standing under it, but then she did glance, and he was gone. Disappeared. She stopped and looked around, but didn’t see him walking away in any direction—not toward the library, not toward Dana Hall. She turned in a slow circle.
She jerked her shoulders, taking a breath—more of a stupid-sounding hiccup, actually. With three more steps toward the union, she could see his body lying flat on the ground like a corpse beneath the tree. He propped himself up, one elbow at a time. His reddish-brown hair stuck up on one side; crumbled pieces of brown leaves clung to his coat sleeves. Was he smiling at her? His lips were curled up a little, anyway. Chandra’s stomach twisted. “Sorry, like, were you,” she mumbled, pushing a piece of hair into her scarf, “were you saying something?”
“I said hi.”
He had a patch of acne on one side of his jaw, and his Adam’s apple looked weird, like a big walnut inserted for no good reason under the skin of his neck. His eyebrows were bristly, but his eyes underneath them were okay. Greenish-brownish. Looking up at her. She said, “Hi.”
“You want to see something?”
Chandra didn’t answer, but she didn’t keep walking either.
He said, “You have to come closer to the tree to see what I’m talking about.” He pointed up at something in the branches of the maple. “From underneath.”
Three students came out of the union. One of them was saying Shit! Shit! in a gleeful voice. Chandra looked over her shoulder at them, long enough to see them huddle together as one of the girls cupped her hands to help the boy get his cigarette lit in the breeze. Chandra looked back at the guy under the tree. He was sitting up normally now, cross-legged, and so she sat down next to him, with a couple of feet or so between them. “What?” She looked up into the branches, where he’d been pointing. “What were you looking at?”
“I’m looking at a particular leaf, the one on the smaller branch that’s attached to the largest branch, right there—” He pointed above their heads. “The one that’s completely red, the deepest red compared to the ones around it. Do you see the one I’m talking about?”
Chandra craned her neck. The maple leaves were mostly lemon yellow, some tinged orange, their tips transitioning to scarlet. A few mostly red. She tried to spot the guy’s perfect red leaf among the foliage. “I see it,” she lied.
“I’m watching it until it falls.”
“Because. I believe it will be worthy of seeing.”
“Hmmm.” Chandra saw the three students walking away, their laughter fading. The guy stretched out on the ground again, his hands behind his head, and Chandra extended her legs and leaned back on her elbows. Above her, sunlight illuminated the bright leaves; they trembled like chandelier crystals. She said, “I’m supposed to be in class.”
“We’re all supposed to be somewhere. But I can choose to see one red maple leaf come to the end of its life. To see the moment it releases from its branch.”
“We see only what we look at. To look is an act of choice.”
Chandra let her arms splay, relaxed her head on the ground, gazing up at the canopy of golden-plum. “I guess.”
“Have you read Berger? Ways of Seeing?”
“I take it you have.”
He made a noise, a sort of grunting sound. “I sound like an asshole?”
Without moving her head, Chandra shifted her eyes. His face was a couple of feet away from hers on the ground. “Maybe.” She pretended to laugh a little, so he would know she was kidding. He smiled, and Chandra felt suddenly aware of her knees. Why was she wearing leggings? What had made her think this morning that she looked good in leggings? Her knees were too knobby for leggings. They stuck out like knots in the middle of her thighs and calves, like that big bulge on the tree branch over her head where another branch must have broken off in a storm or something.
“Ahhh!” The guy’s mouth gaped, his eyes suddenly widening. His face flushed so the acne on his jaw didn’t look so noticeable. He quickly rolled and lifted from the ground into a crouching position on his knees. “Did you see it? Did you?”
“I did,” Chandra lied again. “I saw it.”
He smiled, a big smile showing his teeth, which were large and straight, and Chandra wanted to ask him if he had a retainer from his orthodontist that he still wore to bed at night like she did. She said, “I was going to get a coffee.”
He pulled up the sleeve of his leafy jacket. There was a watch on his wrist, the kind with hands and Roman numbers, which made Chandra wonder. Who wore a watch? He said, “Let’s wait ten minutes. At eleven we can get early lunch.”
We. She felt the veins in her neck start to pulse, the way they did when she got nervous. She took out her phone and scrolled Facebook. She clicked on a video link of someone feeding a doll-sized baby bottle to a squirrel in a blanket. She said, “Wanna see something?”
He held up his arms in an X, shaking his head. “I gave it up.”
“Technology. Personal technology, that is. I understand that the cafeteria we’re waiting to eat in is powered by technology. But you know—my cell phone. My laptop. Even my iPod. That was the hardest, actually. Because I love my music. So much.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m unplugged. I disconnected myself from cyberspace and all the gadgets. It’s an experiment, right? To see what I discover about myself, living, you know. Without the texts, tweets, sound bites, Instagrams, everything constantly separating us from the life that’s happening for real right in front of us. Around us. I’m going to write about it.”
Chandra nodded. “Steinmetz gave us that same extra credit, but his was just for cell phones. We were supposed to not use them for a weekend and keep a journal about it. Some people were going to do it, but then he said you actually had to give him your phone for the weekend. He was going to lock them in his desk. So nobody did it.”
The guy’s mouth twisted to one side. “This isn’t extra credit.”
He looked at his watch again. “You should come with me. After our lunch. Did you know that you’re allowed to listen to the rehearsals in Jaffrey Hall? The music students are practicing for the parent weekend concerts, and we can just walk into the auditorium today at 1:10 and listen. I went yesterday for classical. Chamber groups playing Bach concertos. Amazing. When was the last time you actually felt the vibration of a cello’s strings?”
He stood up, and so did Chandra. He was at least a foot taller than she was. Between the flaps of his coat she could see his gray sweater underneath. He was thin, but not too thin. She could see some extra flesh at his stomach, which she liked. Chandra liked to be much thinner than any guy she was standing near. It made her feel larger somehow, or stronger or something, rather than smaller. Which made no sense, but, she thought, maybe was kind of interesting. Maybe she could put that in the paper she was supposed to be writing for Professor Steinmetz.
He’d begged her not to write about anorexia when they turned in their issue proposals. He was on the young side for an English professor. He wore jeans and sneakers and denim shirts. He was popular with students for the way he’d get all worked up in class. Once he dropped to his knees and begged them to care about a short story by someone named Junot. His forehead would get red where his hair was receding, and Chandra had heard other girls laughing about it after class, but in the way you laugh at someone you think is cute. Not another eating disorder paper! He pleaded with her, pretending to be desperate, clutching his hands by his chest. And not the effect of the media on self-esteem! She asked Steinmetz why that was a bad topic, and he said it wasn’t a bad topic, but he’d read so many student essays about it in the last three years that if he got one more, he might break down and start weeping in his office.
The guy was pointing at the iPhone in Chandra’s hand. “Try giving it up for just one day—not even a whole day, just till later this afternoon. Just try it.”
“I could turn it off for a while, I guess.” She didn’t turn it off, but she slipped it away, into its spot in the interior pocket of her bag.
He shook his head. “No. It’s not the same. You have to be actually separated from it or it doesn’t work. Trust me.” He looked past her shoulder to the entrance of the union, took a few running steps to it, and returned with a flier he’d ripped off the notice board. “Come on! Give me your phone!”
“So you don’t have Steinmetz for comp, right?”
“I had him last year for freshman lit.” He rolled his eyes. “What a self call.”
When Chandra couldn’t think of another topic, Steinmetz had told her that if she had to write about anorexia, she’d better make it unique to her own life and relevant to her own generation, or she’d be responsible for making an aneurysm burst inside his skull. But maybe she could write about giving up her cell phone instead, like this guy. Even though she already missed the extra credit, she could probably still write her paper about it. She was supposed to have a rough draft done already and she hadn’t even started. As she reached into her bag and handed over her iPhone and watched the guy fold the orange flier around it, she was already forming sentences in her head. I wrapped my phone in a flier for an Alpha Phi Halloween costume contest and placed it in a hole in a big tree, like that character in To Kill a Mockingbird.
The guy covered her phone in the tree’s hollow with fallen leaves. She said, “What if someone steals it?”
“Look! It’s perfectly camouflaged. No one would ever, ever notice it there.” He grinned at her. She felt her heart race, like she was being talked into something dangerous.
If she came back to the tree later and her phone was gone, she’d have to email her mom and get a replacement on their Verizon insurance. They’d had to do that once before, when Chandra left her phone at her dad’s apartment, but he said it wasn’t there. Chandra’s mother had wanted to go over and help her look, but her dad’s girlfriend, Melanie, wouldn’t allow it. It was Melanie’s apartment, technically, so she had the right.
“What’s your name, anyway?”
She followed Eli into the cafeteria. There were a few students at the long tables in the dining room, but the food stations were mostly empty. A cafeteria worker in a paper hat was clearing out the pastry case, and another was stocking the salad bar, getting ready for the lunch wave. Eli moved in long strides to the Grill. Chandra stood a few feet behind him as he ordered a double cheeseburger.
“The grill’s gotta heat up,” said the bleary-eyed student worker in a stained chef hat. He was separating a stack of frozen patties with a metal spatula. He wore those clear plastic gloves, but Chandra saw him wipe his nose with his gloves on and then start poking at the raw hamburger with the same fingers. She held her empty plastic tray in front of her chest like a shield.
Eli told the grill guy that he’d be back for the burger and pushed his tray along the metal counter to the Chicken Basket, where he ordered nuggets and fries, and to Pizza & Pasta, where he heated up two slices of pepperoni in the serve-yourself microwave. Chandra got a cup of black coffee at the Starbucks counter and a packet of blueberry Pop-Tarts at Toast & Bagels. She peeled apart the foil wrapper and placed one of the Pop-Tarts in a toaster and waited, glancing over at Eli, who’d returned to the grill for his double burger. He waved at her, and she felt herself smile. She hoped her smile didn’t look stupid—too big, maybe, or too small.
They met up at the long counter that led to the cash registers. There was no line at all yet. Chandra wondered why she hadn’t figured this out on her own, instead of always fighting the lunch crowd after classes let out at 12:10.
“This is like Disney World,” she told Eli. “You have to know all the off times.”
“Disney World.” Eli repeated the word flatly.
“My mom had a book, like a guide book thing, that told you when to go to the rides and restaurants and stuff at the times when most other people wouldn’t. So you didn’t have to wait so long . . .”
She let her voice trail off and turned her face away, began pushing her tray toward the register. Why was she talking about Disney World? God. Why did she have to be so weird? Her neck was red, she knew it, she could feel it getting hotter, and even though she was wearing a turtleneck the redness probably showed on that part of her skin between her throat and her jaw.
“Hey.” Eli bumped the edge of his tray against hers, then hooked his finger around its edge. “That’s all you’re getting?”
“I told you. I was just going for coffee in the first place.”
“Well, put your stuff on my tray, then. That’s not enough to waste a swipe on.”
She watched as he balanced his pizza on top of his fries and cookies on top of the burger’s bun, making room for Chandra’s coffee and Pop-Tart. He slid her empty tray out of the way, and she walked beside him to the register, where he discussed with the cashier whether it should be two swipes or three swipes on his meal card; Eli said the pizza was a side dish, but the cashier said it counted as a meal.
Eli shrugged. “Whatever.”
Chandra walked with him to the condiment counter. “It’s barely midterm. You’re going to run out of swipes.”
“I’m not worried about it.”
He squirted ribbons of ketchup over his chicken and fries; Chandra stirred Equal in her coffee. They sat across from each other at a table by the window with a view of the quad. If she craned her neck, she could see the tree where her phone was hidden, under the leaves in the hollow space of the trunk. What was she doing? She should go out there and get her phone while the quad was still quiet, before classes switched again. Put it back in her bag where it belonged.
Her mom had bought her this bag at Urban Outfitters before college, the same day they shopped for bedding and dorm supplies at Target and Bed, Bath, and Beyond. What if her mom was texting her right now? What if, Chandra wondered, something suddenly happened, like what if her dad had a heart attack out of the blue and her mom didn’t want to go to the hospital and sit beside Melanie in the waiting room and wanted Chandra to go in her place?
She knew the chance of something happening the moment you randomly think of it happening was probably like zero. Thinking of it probably made it even less than zero, because when things happened it was never when you thought of them. Someone could be texting her about something right now, though, that she would never ever think of in a million years just sitting here thinking about different things.
If she had her phone she would know for sure that nothing was happening. She should go get her phone out of that tree.
“So you have the kind of family,” Eli said, “that goes to Disney World together. One of those families?” Beneath his curly hair she could see his forehead wrinkle.
“Not really.” She stabbed at her Pop-Tart with the cafeteria fork. “We only went once. When I was eleven.”
Eli hunched over his tray, feeding himself with both hands, pizza rolled in one fist, his burger in the other.
“We’re not rich,” Chandra said, “if that’s what you mean.”
Eli hurried to chew and swallow, wiped at his mouth. “That’s not what I meant. It’s not the money thing. It’s more about these premade experiences society wants you to have, you know? It’s like, Oh boy, the Magic Kingdom! Prepackaged family fun.”
“It’s easy, I guess, for the parents. If you can pay for it.”
“Exactly! That’s exactly it!” Eli’s spine straightened and he tilted forward across the table, like a drawbridge lowering. His swampy green eyes blinked slowly and reopened, focusing in on her face, a sudden zoom lens. Chandra tried to remain still, instead of looking away. She’d read that advice in Seventeen a long time ago and still remembered it. Eye contact, the article had said—don’t underestimate it! No one had looked at her like this, Chandra realized, since she’d arrived at college. Looked closely at her face. Except maybe a couple of her professors, like Steinmetz. Chandra’s mother used to stare at her now and then, sizing her up, making her lift up her shirt sometimes to check her rib cage, or inspecting her front teeth to make sure they weren’t shifting in their gums after how much they’d paid the orthodontist.
Steinmetz. Chandra tried writing a sentence in her head again: Without my phone I took the time to really look into the eyes of my friends while I was talking to them instead of constantly checking my screen. She hoped she could remember it later when she got to the writing lab. What time was it? She reached by instinct for her bag, then drew her hand back. There was still time, probably, to knock out a couple pages of a draft before her 2:05 comp class. Even if they were terrible, at least Steinmetz would give her points for making an effort.
“People,” said Eli, “want to buy premade experiences because it’s easier. Safer, maybe. I think my parents sent me to camp for every vacation of my whole life. Computer camp, rock-climbing camp, video game–design camp, et cetera, and that’s the same thing, right? You pay for it, and somebody has figured out every step of the way for you in advance, and you just follow along and you’re expected to love it. And if you don’t love it, then what’s wrong with you, right?”
Without thinking Chandra picked up a piece of Pop-Tart, and now it was in her mouth, the dry crumbs mixing with a bit of moist filling on her tongue, and she wanted to spit it out on her napkin, but Eli was still looking right at her. She chewed, and her stomach talked to her the way it did, yelling at her, and she took another piece from her plate. “You’re supposed to appreciate everything,” she said.
“So true! Even if you didn’t choose any of it. And college is the same exact thing, right? Pay your money and they give you a program and tell you what to think and what classes to take and you join a fraternity and they tell you what parties to go to. You can get all the way through your college experience, as they call it, without having one actually authentic experience of your own.”
Suddenly, the quad’s walkways began to fill from four directions, like faucets turning on, students streaming from the buildings. Classes were changing.
“My mom would kill me,” Chandra said, “if she knew I skipped class this morning. She told me that skipping just one college class is like flushing $500 down the toilet, when you figure how much you’re paying for tuition each semester.”
“Can you put a price, though, on an hour of time? Time from your actual life?”
“My mom can. She totally guilts me about it. Just last week she texted me: Better not be wasting grandpa’s money.”
“That’s way aggressive.”
“That’s what’s paying my tuition. A lot of people got cancer from the factory where he worked. My grandfather. This was a long time ago, like twenty years or something. Some lawyers started a big lawsuit with all of them, a class action thing. It took a really long time. My grandpa died, and it still was going on, and then finally they ended up winning. My mom was his only family, so she got the money—my grandpa’s lawsuit money—and she saved it. And that’s what’s paying my tuition. Which she likes to remind me.”
She felt a pain blossom inside, deep between her stomach and lungs, thinking about what she would say to her mom when the college mailed home her midterm grades next week. Her mom had made Chandra sign the FERPA agreement that let the school disclose her student information. She had a right to know Chandra’s grades, her mom had pointed out, if she was the one paying for them.
Eli was still watching her. Listening to her. She felt herself starting to blush and couldn’t stop herself from looking away, out the window. She noticed a girl walking by, someone decent looking, who had the same bag as she did from Urban Outfitters, which made Chandra feel sort of good for a moment. Like she knew how to choose things in an okay way. If someone saw her through the window sitting here at the table with Eli, she thought, that would be okay. She imagined for a minute that her roommate might walk by and notice her and ask her about it later and Chandra would have something to say. Oh, that guy? He keeps asking me out on weird dates, like to jazz concerts and stuff. But he’s kind of interesting. I have coffee and stuff with him sometimes.
Eli pushed his tray toward her side of the table. “Have a nugget. I ordered too many.” There were four ovals of chicken left on the tray, dried ketchup spotted on their greasy tan coating. “Go on. You look like you need to eat.”
This guy, Chandra thought—Eli—he was attracted to her. Wasn’t he? She picked up one of the greasy chicken pieces and brought it to her lips and waited for a few moments before wrapping it in one of her crumpled napkins.
He pushed back his chair, lifting his arms, palms upturned toward the window. “The day is ours!”
She followed him outside, where a spiral of colored leaves swirled in a sudden wind.
“Do you miss it?”
For a minute she thought he was reading her mind because she was thinking about her old house on Riley Road, where she lived when she was little. Autumn was her dad’s favorite season. He liked the leaves. He hated shoveling the driveway in the winter, couldn’t stand mowing the lawn in the heat of summer, but for some reason he always liked raking in the fall. He’d build these huge piles, orange and red, right under her swing set and give her pushes while she pumped herself high enough to let go and jump. He’d cover her under the dry crackling leaves, making her disappear. Pretend to start walking away. Hey, do I hear a squirrel? And she’d wait, wiggling just a little, waiting for him to reach in and grab her and pull her out.
“Leave it. You can live without it.” Eli tugged on the sleeve of her shirt, and she realized they were standing by the tree where her phone was hidden. “Live being the key word.”
Chandra looped a strand of her hair around her finger, twirled it for a minute before tucking it behind her ear. That was another sign that Chandra had read about that was supposed to hold a guy’s attention without words—touching your own hair.
“Let’s go over to Jaffrey. The jazz groups are probably starting now.”
“You don’t like jazz? Maybe you should try it. You might be surprised.”
“I didn’t say I didn’t like it.” Her voice came out with an edge, and she saw the way he noticed it. His head drew back a little, his eyebrows lifting.
“I’m tired of sitting,” Chandra said, and realized that this was actually true. “That’s all college is, mostly. Sitting around and listening to things.”
Eli’s lips parted. She’d surprised him; she could tell.
“If I’m skipping class again,” she said, her voice still louder than usual, “I want to do something. I don’t want to sit around.”
He looked at the watch under his coat sleeve, then grinned. “I know something we can do. Come on!”
He reached out his hand behind him, and Chandra took it, felt the momentum of his larger body pulling hers along. How long had it been since she’d held a guy’s hand? She remembered for the second time today that trip to Disney World with her parents when she was eleven, how they’d walked through Fantasyland with the three of them holding hands, Chandra in the middle, her parents lifting her feet off the ground to a sing-song rhythm on every third step—one two three!—and Chandra knew she was too old for it but she didn’t care.
Eli was leading them forward, past the library and the computer lab, all the way to the sports complex. They practically jogged past the recreation center, and through the glare on the wide front windows Chandra could see students on the treadmills. She tossed her head back and mimed an uproarious laugh, a silent one so Eli wouldn’t notice, to let them know, if any of them recognized her dashing by, that she was on her way to doing something unpredictable and hilarious.
When they turned the corner of the building, Eli slowed up and they walked together to a large red door. “This is where the athletes work out,” Eli said, pushing it open. She followed him inside to a gray-carpeted lobby with framed team pictures hung in neat lines on the tan brick walls. Smiling faces, bodies in matching red and white uniforms, posed in gymnasiums or fields or courts. The air smelled like a sweet medicine; fluorescent lights hummed overhead. Something she couldn’t see was making a steady ticking noise. “Are we supposed to be in here?”
He grinned at her. “This’ll be good. I haven’t done this for a long time.” She followed him down a short hallway to another door, also painted red.
“What? What are we doing?” She whispered, because Eli’s voice was hushed too, like they were in the library.
“I was friends last year with this kid on the lacrosse team. He got put on probation, so they moved him out of the athlete dorm into Warner on my floor. We used to do this sometimes.”
Eli pressed a series of numbers on the keypad above the doorknob; the small circle on the pad flickered green. “Yes.” Eli opened the door, stepped forward, and gestured like a magician. “Voila!”
She entered a small, darkened room with tiled walls and two small swimming pools, side by side. Eli shut the door behind her. There was a long bench against one wall; on the opposite wall, a freezer and a shelf with stacked towels and a large rolling hamper on wheels. Directly across from Chandra and Eli was a double door made of glass, which led to an adjacent room, also dark, with shadowed shapes of exercise machines.
“Where is everyone?” she whispered. The room felt warm, the air heavy with moisture. “What are we doing here?”
“Welcome to our private spa!” Eli tossed his jacket on the bench. “It’s all ours till 2:00. Or 1:45, to be on the safe side. That’s when the teams start afternoon practice and the injured guys, or the guys with physical therapy routines, come in here to work with the trainers. But from 10:45 to 1:45, this room is always locked. Unused. Shame to let it go to waste, right?”
He sat down and kicked off his Sperrys, peeled off his socks. He said, “All the athletes have their classes scheduled between 9:25 and 1:30. Then they have afternoon practice, and then dinner and study hall, and then night practice. Like clockwork. My lacrosse friend had to write down everything he did every day and every night while he was banned from the team to prove himself, and then have it signed every week by the team manager.”
“Didn’t he just make stuff up?”
“Of course he did. And then he would feel guilty and cry sometimes. Actually cry. He told me he felt like a piece of shit for being dishonest and breaking the honor code, like he was in the fucking Navy SEALS or something. And I was like, Dude, you play lacrosse. For a second-rate conference. Get over yourself.” He pulled off his long-sleeved shirt. He got up from the bench and padded in his bare feet around the pool. With just his T-shirt on, his biceps looked weaker than she’d imagined.
“People,” said Chandra, “are so full of themselves.”
“That’s right.” He pointed at her across the water. “You get it. You know that, Chandra? You so get it.”
She was still standing there with her Urban Outfitters bag over her shoulder, sweating in her corduroy shirt. Suddenly, he reached toward the wall, and Chandra covered her eyes, expecting sudden brightness from a light switch, but instead a churning noise started, like a big engine. It was the water in one of the pools, violently bubbling. The smell of chlorine lifted, making her eyes water. Eli pulled off his T-shirt and unzipped his jeans.
“Stop!” Chandra covered her stinging eyes.
“Oh, come on. Your underwear is just like a swimsuit. It’s just the same as swimming in our swimsuits.”
“What if someone comes in?”
“If someone starts to press the combination on the locked door, we’ll hear it and run out the glass door. And if someone comes in the trainers’ room from the other side, we’ll see them before they see us and run out the other way.”
He was wearing boxers. Chandra watched as he sat down by the edge of the pool and lowered both feet in the water. “Aahhh!” He pushed himself off the edge with a splash, standing now in the pool up to his waist, his arms lifted like chicken wings. “And besides,” he said, “what if someone did come in and find us? I mean, what’s the worst thing that would happen? They’d tell us to leave? We’d get a warning?”
It was dark, Chandra thought. But not so dark that he wouldn’t see her body. Could she actually do this? She placed her bag on the bench and took off her shirt. Even though she was wearing a turtleneck underneath it, she felt her heart start to race. She could feel his eyes on her back.
“You said you wanted to do something. Get in. Come on.”
She balanced on one leg and pulled off her right boot and then the left. She took off her socks. The mats under her feet felt rough and prickly. She curled her arches and moved around the pool toward the shelf of towels with slow, quick steps, like one of those old-time Chinese girls with foot binding that her professor in Gender Perspectives had told them about. She wrapped a towel around her body and tried to figure out if she could take off her turtleneck and leggings and make it to the whirlpool without dropping the towel until she was completely submerged in the dark water.
“Come on. You’re wasting time.”
The silliness had disappeared from Eli’s voice. He sounded annoyed. Pinching the towel at her breastbone with one hand, Chandra pushed at the elastic band of her leggings with the other, trying to wriggle them off her hips.
She heard him suck in a breath of air and then splash underwater, saw the dark shape of him coiling into a mass on the bottom. Quickly she pulled off her turtleneck and covered up again with the towel. He rose up from the bubbling water with a grunt, shaking his head, flinging drops that hit her bare forearms. She pulled her feet free from her leggings and walked to the metal ladder on the far side of the pool, holding on to it with one hand, keeping her towel secure with the other; she felt with her feet for the textured steps leading down the pool’s wall, and then the slippery bottom as she lowered in. Hot water from a jet spray pelted her back. The towel swirled up and she held it like a cape at her neck; it floated behind her shoulders as she folded her arms over her stomach, squatting in the pool up to her neck.
Eli’s head bobbed above the surface a few feet away. The darkness of the room made his face look older, Chandra thought—handsome, kind of, with his hair slicked back. His eyes looked deeper in the steamy air, which she hoped was making her own face look better, too, more mysterious maybe, and if her mascara was running, hopefully it wouldn’t show. The churning water swirled around Chandra like a force field, protecting her body from scrutiny. Eli was moving toward her now. This was happening. If he kissed her, Chandra decided, she would kiss him back. She was doing it. Finally, she was having a college experience.
“I’m so bad, letting you talk me into this,” she said, hoping her voice sounded flirty and mocking in a fun way. “This is the third day I’m missing classes. I’m so behind.”
“That’s nothing.” Eli laughed, low and abrupt.
She felt his toe slide against her toe underwater. He said, “This is my fifth week.”
“What do you mean?”
He grinned, his teeth glinting in the dark. “I haven’t been to classes for five weeks.”
She felt the space between their bodies in the water get smaller as he moved closer, the pressure of the waves against her stomach building. “But . . .”
“I had it figured out by the second week. That I was going to live by my own rules for a change, you know? Relinquish the façade.”
“Can you do that? Just not go to your classes for that long? Haven’t they said anything to you?”
“Oh, I’m sure my student email account is full of dire warnings from my professors, at least the ones who bother to take attendance. But, as you know, I’m not reading them. Or anything else online. Because I’m choosing to spend my time actually living my life.”
“I didn’t know you could do that. Just never go to your classes.”
“I’m doing it.” His white teeth flashed.
“But for how long?” Chandra felt a twist of anxiety in her chest.
Eli grunted. “A couple more weeks, probably. The midterm grades will all be submitted by next week, and then the week after that they’ll probably come get me out of the dorm. And that’ll be it.”
“They’ll make you leave?”
“I’m already on academic probation from last year. So yeah. They’ll undoubtedly request my departure.” This time his laugh was louder and seemed to echo off the slippery walls.
“Then you’ll go home?”
She saw his shoulders shrug, above and below the water’s surface.
“Where do your parents live?” she asked.
His body was so close to hers in the whirlpool. If she lifted her hand, her fingers would touch his chest. “I’m not going there,” he whispered, and it sounded to Chandra like he was about to cry.
“Eli,” she said, “I’ll help you. You can stay in my dorm. They won’t know where to look for you.”
“I’ll disappear.” He sucked in a breath. “Poof!”
With a sudden whoosh he dunked himself under the water, and then his long legs and one of his knees, or maybe both of them, were pressing against her legs and his hands were on her waist, his thumbs on either side of her belly button and his fingertips on her back, and where was her towel? Her towel was gone, she realized, both frightened and glad, and Eli’s head was above hers now, he was gulping at the air, and she leaned back in his hands, arching her neck, the crown of her head touching the water. She let her hands reach up to his shoulders and looked into his eyes.
“Chandra,” he said.
His hands loosened their grip on her waist; she felt the support slip away and had to plant the balls of her feet on the bottom of the pool to keep herself from falling backwards into the water.
“Chandra, your bones. Jesus.”
She pushed off with her feet and flailed with her arms, moving in slow motion through the water away from him. Her towel, where was her towel? She spotted it swirling in a jet stream near the metal ladder and lunged for it.
“God, Chandra, chill out. I just, you know . . . It’s kind of shocking—”
“Shut up!” She managed to pull herself out of the pool; the rushing of the whirlpool engine seemed to be right inside her head now.
She grabbed at her boots and bag and her big corduroy shirt by the bench, but then as she ran around to the other side of the pool and tried to pick up her turtleneck and leggings, she lost her grip on the towel again and it dropped to the floor. She started to cry, and she could picture herself standing there like a hunchback, cradling her load. She couldn’t bear to turn around to look at Eli, watching her from the pool. She could feel her bare back and her soaking panties clinging to her ass in the horrible invisible air.
“It’s sad,” Eli said. “What this fucked-up society does to people.”
“Don’t say anything!” She pushed against the glass door and ran to one of the treadmills in the physical therapy room, crouched on the other side of it, and waited for a couple minutes, afraid that he would follow her. But he didn’t.
She struggled to pull her leggings on over her wet skin, then her two shirts and her boots. She raked her fingers through her tangled hair. She found her way to a different doorway on the other side of the room, back to the lobby, past the rows of team pictures, all those smiling athletes posing with the Hawk mascot, its cartoonish beak and red wings. Who was the person hidden in that bird costume? Chandra wondered.
As she stepped outside into the October air, the wind wrapped itself around her wet scalp like an icy tourniquet. She held her Urban Outfitters bag against the side of her body and began marching across the campus, headed toward the student union. Had she muted her phone before she let Eli hide it in that hole in the big tree? She couldn’t remember! What if someone had texted her, what if her mother had called, and someone walking by heard her Rihanna ringtone—yellow diamonds—and found it there. By now maybe Professor Steinmetz had sent her an email about missing class again. To voice his concern. That’s how he would say it, or something like that.
Maybe she could write her paper for him about money. She didn’t want to write anymore about giving up her cell phone; she had nothing to say about that topic. She wished she were smart enough to write an essay about money, about how money could make you hate someone, like the way she guessed Eli hated his parents, like the way her father hated her mother for not giving him her lawsuit money to buy a Sonic burger franchise, which would have been the whole solution to his whole life, or at least that was what he believed. He would have screwed it up, her mother had told her, guaranteed, and then where would that have left Chandra, and her college education, and her future wedding, God willing? But Chandra didn’t know. She didn’t know where that would have left her, or where she was left now.
She started walking faster. The union was still far away, and she wanted to be there. She wanted to start running, but that would look so weird, wouldn’t it? She was wearing her boots, the ones with high heels. People didn’t run in high-heeled boots. But still, she could feel herself picking up her feet between each quickening step.
She used to run all the time. She missed running. Maybe she could write her paper for Professor Steinmetz about running. It was during that horrible summer when she’d started running, the summer when she was fourteen, after her parents had sold the house and moved into their separate apartments in different towns. She would start at her mother’s apartment in Vernon and walk all the way to their old house in Woodlen, on Riley Mountain Road. It was a yellow Cape Cod with a slate-blue door and matching shutters. It took her two hours and twenty minutes. When she got there, she would stand by the mailbox for a few minutes. Sometimes, if no one was around, she would walk onto the front yard and stand there. She didn’t know who had bought the house. Her parents never told her, and it seemed somehow too embarrassing to ask them. Shameful, for some reason. When she stood on the front lawn, a trespasser, sometimes she would feel her heart start thumping. She would count to ten, or twenty, or sometimes fifty, and then step back to the street.
And then she would run home. She could slow way down on the upward hills, but she had to keep lifting her feet. If she didn’t run home, she told herself, then she couldn’t go back. It would be the last time.
That’s how it started, Chandra thought. At some point during the summer, Melanie commented on how good Chandra was looking. Chandra remembered the day that Melanie seemed to notice her in a new way, surveying her with a lifted eyebrow. Lean, Melanie had said. Lean and fit, not sloppy like so many teenage girls with their belly shirts and pudgy thighs and boobs bouncing around. When school started at the end of August, Chandra had to stop her journeys to the old house, but she found other ways to test herself. She kept going and going.
Right now, all she wanted was her phone back. As she made it past the computer lab, the union came into view, and there was the tree in the distance, its golden leaves glowing in afternoon sunlight. She could feel her fingers twitching in anticipation. She wanted it back so badly. She would text someone, anyone, just to hear it buzz, just to feel it trembling there in the palm of her hand.
About the Author
Leslie Johnson’s fiction has been broadcast on NPR and published in journals such as Glimmer Train, Natural Bridge, Third Coast, Threepenny Review, Chattahoochee Review, Cimarron Review, and others. She lives in Connecticut, where she teaches at the University of Hartford.