Orientation

Emily Hoffman

1.

Texting her bestie Mel, who’s at the Leawood Park pool in a silver bikini that blinds the lifeguard on duty, Lexie nearly bumps into a pyramid of Krups coffee makers, the ones you can never use your Bed Bath and Beyond coupons on. She’s thumbing breaking news—a bedspread for their dorm room. It’s a huge deal—the first time she can do this kind of thing without getting shot down by her mom, unlike the time she wanted to redo her room in fringe, feathers, beads, and three shades of mauve after watching Moulin Rouge in choir. And she won’t have to buy because she clutched her mother’s arm and said “momma” in that sweetly manipulative voice girls never outgrow. Not like Mel’s going to reply, though. She goes to the pool to eye-flirt across the water with this super-young-looking guy who shows up practically every day with a toddler he watches splash around on the shallow-end steps. Mel’s invented no less than a dozen Lifetime movie background stories for him, tragic widower her personal favorite. Right in the aisle choked by a clearance cart of As Seen on TV Slap Chops and Bacon Waves, Lex instagrams a canted angle selfie with the bedspread’s plastic pouch nuzzled against her cheek, her lips puckered in a smooch that is both comic and erotic. Watch out Corbin Hall—T-23 days!! #LexAppeal

The bedspread’s a colorful jumble of orange and fuchsia flowers—stemless, cartoonish and over-sized—against a white background. “You know that’ll show everything, right?” Mel snarks the day they move in, after the moms have left.

“Like what?”

“Like everything, dumb ass.” She’s smoothing out her own bedspread that’s the color of peacock feathers.

“Whatever.”She flips Mel the bird. Mel beans her with a stuffed Hello Kitty, and they claw at each other, laughing and screeching for mercy the way they’ve done since preschool until an RA comes busting in cause she thinks they’re murdering each other on the very first day.

2.

Mel, as always, is right. The bedspread. Shows. Everything.

It shows a streak of lime highlighter from a futile PSYCH 103 all-nighter.

It shows a smear of sauce from the pizza she binges through when Cole “Come-hang-at-Campus-Ministries-tonight” Parrish breaks up with her for no reason in a nauseating email, spelling unfortunately with 2 l’s and no e.

It shows a singed areole from the week she spends leaning out the window smoking cigarettes like the smoldering femme fatales she studied in Intro to Film.

It shows a faint gray shadow of beer bong vomit, the result of a weekend when she has tolling pangs of homesickness she chooses to ignore. She’s afraid that with her dad’s stuff now in his sad divorced-man condo and lots of hers gone too, the house will feel like a moldering tomb and mom will try too hard to seem happy. Or, worse, she really will seem happy.

3.

It shows a splotch of milk-bleached coffee from when Ben, this guy she kept meeting outside her biology lecture in Budig Hall, crashes onto the mattress and announces he has “one hundred percent opted out of technology.” He has a deadbeat chic look going on: holey t-shirt, ratty cardigan, slouchy jeans, scuffed work boots, hair that looks like it’s been styled with an electric mixer set on high. “You should try it sometime. Go off the grid.” His eyes flick down, away from her face, and Lex realizes she’s been fondling her iPhone. She sets it on the desk. Ben laughs and promises he wasn’t trying to call her out or anything.

She moves over to the bed where he’s sprawled out, sits on the edge, her posture etiquette-book straight, waiting for his hand to touch her wrist so she can ease back into him. She waits and thinks about how she looks exactly like what she is: a girl from an elm-shaded subdivision with a vaguely aristocratic, British-sounding name (Effingham Woods) who got a thrill out of wearing long white gloves for the Junior League cotillion and has a new iPhone with a blinged-out case. She blames all this for the nuclear winter’s worth of silence they’re suspended in. At last his fingers graze her hair, and they’re lying on their backs, legs almost overlapping so they’ll both fit, sharing her pillow. She tells him about the dumb, random things she and Mel did as kids (example: using cherry Kool-Aid to dye a Barbie’s hair) and he tells her about Tom, a friend she used to see him with back in September, forehead to forehead, sharing a clandestine cigarette against Budig’s limestone façade. He really doesn’t tell her anything about Tom except that he’s cool and generous with cigarettes and that they took a road trip out West last spring break.

4.

On Thursdays, biology lab gets out at four o’clock, and rather than ride the bus with the driver who blasts AC/DC from a boom box straight back to the dorm, she climbs the steep, narrow stairs outside Mallott Hall up to Budig and skims along the sidewalk to the Union so she can meet Ben in its deserted dining area. They get a table against the windows and sit long enough to hear the campanile bells chime five. They share a Coke and compare the colors of the leaves this week to last. For those that remain anchored to the trees on the hill that slopes into the football stadium, the golds have dulled, the reds receded into the less livid shade of kidney beans. “Still warm colors, though,” she says because that’s been a topic of discussion in film class. She and Ben sink into what feels like a thrillingly intimate silence that is, once in a while, corrupted by the distant clatter of the last lunch trays being rinsed of their gunk and stacked atop one another. Ben is always quieter than Lex expects. That’s how guys are, though. He fixes his eyes on an unknowable point far beyond the stadium and the art museum and the half-stripped trees. What triggers it Lex never knows, but he eventually “reboots” (her ironic, private term) and deposits ticklish kisses in her eyebrows. It’s her cue to itemize the stupid and hilarious things from class. Any pause a beat too long is his chance to rhapsodize about his dream of living “away from all this crap” in the scorched wilderness of Grand County, Utah, amongst the ancient rock formations.

They leave at dusk. He goes one way, down the hill toward the apartment on Massachusetts Street she has not seen, and she skims away toward the dorm, just barely fortified by an intricate, but tentative kiss a jerk on a bike heckles as he coasts by.  

At the first whiff of scorched popcorn on the second floor, the swoony girl reverie that propelled her along the sidewalks and across Eleventh Street without looking twice vaporizes. She squares the corner of the hallway and almost plows into Mel in a full-on “baby-wait-for-me-cause-I’ll-be-back-when-the-war’s-over” clinch outside their door with a guy holding his glasses so he can completely smoosh his face into hers.

“You’re pool guy.” He’s nerd handsome, and Lex would recognize him anywhere.

“Yeah, but not a grief-stricken widower. Unfortunately.” Mel so would tell him about that. “Just a grad student hanging with my nephew for the summer.”

“Cool to meet you, but I’ve got a test—” Lex doesn’t, for once, actually have a test, but there’s something so casual and comfortable, so obscenely spousal about the way they’re holding hands that makes continuing the dumb getting-to-know-you talk intolerable.

Lex only half slams the door. It’s a calibrated gesture meant to distinguish roiling, inarticulate irritation from rage.

“Bitch move,” Mel says when she comes in.

“You’re supposed to tell me stuff.”

 “What do you want to know? If we’re having seismic, mind-bending sex?”

“Are you?” Lex traces around the coffee stain with her fingernail.

“You’ve sure spilled your guts about that skeevey guy I see you with.”

“He’s really smart.” She could show Mel the back cover of her comp notebook where he drew, from memory, a segmented cross-section of a rock formation illustrating 300 million years of evolving sediment in his sacred section of Utah.

“I heard he was your basic frat house d-bag last year.” She has commandeered the voice Lex’s mother uses when she has especially incendiary Facebook gossip to tell her aunt about someone they went to high school with back in the day. “Something major went down at Kappa Sig last spring and freaked everyone out, but nobody talks about it. There was like this social media rapture.”

“You just love ruining stuff I like.” It isn’t true, but it feels true for now.

            Neither of them speaks again until, at 1:53 a.m., from the depths of the sea-deep darkness between their beds, Mel’s voice, thin and pleading, swims across to her. He’s a total poser, Lex. For real.

5.

The bedspread shows something, what might be an intimate something. It could be evidence of the next morning when Lex trudges off alone to Budig Hall (Mel sneaks out early to catch the bus in a blatant violation of their normal routine), and glides in with thoughts of polypeptide chains and covalent bonds only to impulsively ask Ben if he’ll skip with her.

She lets him finish what she wouldn’t let Tate Connors start on prom night because, back then, she knew if she did, there would be some epic tell, like maybe that eyebrow twitch daddy got during family poker nights before the divorce last winter. Her mother would read it in an instant. God, the thought of some after-the-fact, on-the-fly sex-ed lecture from her mom! She’d have had to admit that Mel’s sister gave her the crash course, had gotten right up in her grill to say, “It’s not going to be like one of you guys’s moronic Nicholas Sparks novels.” So with what she thought was cool elegance she had swept back her blown-out Kate Middleton hair and said no to Tate Connors. He did not take it well. “The fuck did we get this room for then?” he’d said just before zipping his pants and stalking out.

Today, they assume their usual positions on her bed, and Ben, in his shy mumble, asks what’s up. Lex shrugs.

“Since when do you skip class?”

“How do you know I don’t?”

“Because,” he says, centering her necklace, an oversized cursive L on a silver chain, against her throat. “You make showing up for a nine o’clock biology lecture seem like the greatest thing ever.”

“Am I that big of a dork?”

“So what? You’ll be the amazingest nurse. Better than ones I had.”

 The morning is a sullen preview of winter, and, while they talk, a ribbon of wind threads through the corner of the dorm window that won’t completely close. Pretend we’re in Tahiti. That’s the plan. Mel’s bed: the incandescent sea. The cheap torchiere lamp: a glittering Polynesian sun. The butterscotch carpet square covering the nasty dust-coated floor: an unwalked beach. Their coats and jeans and sweaters: cast across the room in favor of their underwear “bathing suits.” What starts as a slapstick tangling of limbs to stay warm and sustain the fantasy becomes something else, something with an avalanche’s reckless momentum.

 “Hold up a sec,” Ben says. Their naked bodies are so tightly braided together her eyes can’t sync up with his. “I’m not just into— Whatever feels right, whoever feels right, you know?” He touches the soft skin inside her thigh.

“Yeah, no, I get it.” And she pretends she does because nonchalance feels worldly and mature. However, it’s not the kind of oblique revelation she wants to unpack—to use a favorite word of Ivan, her film TA—right now.

As the flip-flops of the floor’s late risers smack toward the bathroom and Lex and Ben begin divvying up their clothes, she says, “Someone told me you were a Kappa Sig.”

“My dad’s fault. A legacy thing, but I got the hell out.”

No she breaks out with what she’s been hoping to say all morning: “I want to try it—going off the grid.”

6.

A crocheted grandma afghan is slopped to one side of a scuzzy mattress plunked in the middle of Ben’s apartment, a half-renovated space above Meatless Mondays, a vegan café downtown. It could be a trendy loft, but it’s all exposed ductwork, old wires, creaky floorboards, and haphazard drywall, and a toilet and clawfoot tub cowering behind a faded Holly Hobbie sheet. She wants to text Mel how ghetto it is, but, to keep her honest, her phone is back in the dorm on her bed.

They spend the day drinking warm beer from a stash hidden under the all-time Mt. Everest of dirty clothes, feeding on tabouli from downstairs, and testing the limits of their bodies on the mattress. They marvel at the luminance of their skin in the shuddering light of old Christmas candles.

Sleep is impossible because all of her cells—all the little parts she dutifully labels on tests—are roaring, jacked up on a wild cocktail of adrenaline and amazement. Just the fact that Ben’s conked out beside her floors her. She puts her thin pillow over her face and counts back from ten, then inhales very poised breaths. Ben has tacked an enormous foldout map of Utah to the wall. The lights from Massachusetts Street make its white surface shine like the glow from a UFO meant to woo dumbstruck earthlings. Lex goes to the map, examines it with squinted eyes. Grand County is a gaping, empty rectangle that makes her shiver and turn away. 

She shuffles to the card table piled with the sort of junk hawked for a dime at a garage sale: a hotplate, an Old Milwaukee bottle opener, a transistor radio with a vinyl strap. She feels inside a chipped pottery crock. Her fingers meet the blue ribbing of a limp Zip-lock bag with barely enough in it for a single joint, not that Lex is an expert because she’s only ever taken one stunted hit. Underneath there’s an unfilled prescription for something called Citalopram. The prescription camouflages a phone almost identical to hers. There are no textbooks, not even Chemistry: Unlocking the World, the one some people in Ben’s class lugged in to the lecture hall next to hers. There are no workbooks or notebooks here or anywhere other than the single subject Mead, its pages rippled and stained sepia by a coffee spill, he always carries under his arm. Its pages crackle as she opens it. Not a word’s been written inside.

 “What’re you doing?” He’s squinting at her and checking the nearest beer bottle to see if there’s at least one decent swig left.

“You’re not in school.” Her voice takes a funny turn she hadn’t intended, which makes it seem as if she’s confessing a superficial but unpleasant truth, like she’s spotted a rogue chunk of spinach between his teeth.

“Turns out it’s not my thing.” He enrolled this semester to try the free counseling at the health center, which he calls “guilt-tripping bullshit.” He flings himself back against the mattress. “Then they sent me to a shrink, a pretentious dick who got off on hearing about botched suicides.”

You?”

“Not lately. Just once. I wasn’t that in to it. I suck at tying knots.” He gulps down air from a bottle he emptied hours ago. “I liked seeing you, the way you get into it, powering through your flashcards like a fiend, putting those pink tabs in your book, so, yeah, I kept showing up.”

 “You take this, though?” She holds the prescription up by one corner.

“Not anymore.” He lights a cigarette, and his face, haggard and eerily aged, blooms in the brief, swollen flame from his lighter. “I’m okay. Don’t worry.”

Saturday, it rains and rivulets wriggle down the tall windowpanes, distorting everyone on the sidewalk below into Slinky curves. Lex and Ben brainstorm secrets for them as they pass: klepto, nose picker, sexter, germophobe, boob job, Keeping Up With the Kardashians watcher. “What’s the most useless thing you know?” he asks as they’re running out of irreverent vices.

“How to waltz. Definitely,” she says. “No. Correction. Folding napkins.”

“I know all the words to Neil Diamond’s greatest hits. Thanks to my grandma.” He belts out a verse of “Cherry Cherry” with his eyes closed. It is funny, exaggerated like bad karaoke but too earnest for her to laugh at. “Alzheimer’s is shit.” He breathes a warm circle onto the window then swipes it away with his sleeve. “‘Song Sung Blue? Never forgot a word. Me? She thought I was my cousin Anne.”

There are times, like now, when Lex wants to touch him, but instinct tells her she shouldn’t dare.

Whispering, half of a conversation from behind the Holly Hobbie sheet, shocks her awake that night. Her parents used to be all smiles and “how was your day” and wait to have hissing confrontations in the kitchen like this until after she went upstairs. They punctuated every accusation with the other’s name. Keith. Joanne. Keith. Joanne. Lex, her body rigid, listens like she’s waiting to hear an intruder’s next step.

He’s a bastard, yeah. But he’s my dad, and I thought I should try— Why can’t you get that?… I don’t cash his checks. I don’t. Why do you always think I’m lying to you?… Have there been others? You know there were. Brenda, the Chi-O during pledge week. Jennifer in high school… No. Just you… I’m not the reason we don’t— You made the rules after, and then my dad… Lex thinks about checking the pottery crock, but there’s no point. Instead, she stretches across the mattress to touch his boot. Its lace is thin and frayed from being pulled too tight. She licks a finger and presses it to the boot’s toe. A gray oval of grit transfers to her skin. I can’t help it. I like her. So, yeah, I guess I am. Everybody is. It’s been proven. You know that, right? Tom has a complexion as pale as her mother’s wedding china and blazing red hair. It’s his scrambled voice leaking from the phone. She presses her dirtied thumb into the narrow channel between her breasts and rocks it back and forth like she’s being printed at a police station. … I don’t know why I called. If I knew, I’d tell you. I said I don’t know. It was dumb. I’m dumb… Don’t. You can’t. She’s here. I don’t want you to. Because I want her here… I’m hanging up. I’m hanging up. I’m hanging up.

Ben plunges down beside her and bundles her in close to his chest. He starts whispering again and, at first, she wonders if he’s really talking to her. “Remember the first week of class? The girl in the blue plaid hijab? She was lost but too scared to say. You went up to her and smiled and asked if you could help. And she smiled and held on to your arm while you pointed down the hall.” Lexie doesn’t remember the hijab being plaid, and she doesn’t understand why he’s telling her this, so she starts crafting naïve and impossible promises, which she knows are naïve and impossible. And by the way he breathes maybe into her ear again and again, he knows it too. She’ll go with him to Utah. They could go tomorrow or Monday. Any time. She has money from graduation and babysitting and filing paperwork in the admissions office a few hours a week…

7.

On Wednesday, Lex and Mel call a truce because they have to find one outside source—book only please!—for a comp essay due tomorrow and neither of them get the Library of Congress system or want to venture up to the library’s creepy half floors or ride the cage elevators alone. They link arms and scurry along like twelve year olds waiting to be freaked out on a trip through a West Bottoms haunted house. While Mel runs a finger along dusty hardback spines whispering a call number like a witch’s spell, Lex spies legs three rows ahead. In the jagged chink of space between the books and the top of the shelf she makes out two denim-clad pairs, locked together. The stacks are notorious for kinky stuff like this. To get Mel’s attention she coughs, but Mel’s kneeling on the on the floor with a book at her feet, flipping between the table of contents and index. Lex scrunches down to peer through the chink below. She knows those beer-crusted boots and that sound. A belt coming unbuckled. She creeps to the end of the row and leans around the side of a blue metal study carrel. A spark of red hair makes her reel back. She scrambles for the stairs, shaking off Mel, demanding she not follow, ignoring the a-holes taking blurred video of her, the psycho girl tearing past the circulation desk, not caring she’ll be docked a ton of points for turning in her essay late.

8.

She is about to heave her backpack from her shoulder to the bed when late November sun overtakes a stretch of cirrus and beams onto the bedspread. The whole semester is there, a cipher only she can decode. She lies down, expecting tears and Ultra Lash streaks on the bedspread like the first calligraphy sweeps of Chinese characters because she’s practically failing a class. Because, in her bubbly fourth-grade print, she took the loser’s way out and wrote Ben a lame note with lots of vapid tripe about love and being happy that wasn’t fit for the back of a yearbook, left it on a bunched corner of the afghan, and snuck out while he soaked in the bathtub. Because the day after tomorrow is her nineteenth birthday (surprise!) and her mother’s blowing in for spa pedicures and a birthday lunch downtown.

The crying—a great convulsing jag—will come later, on her birthday.

She will put on her cute leopard-print sweater and black skinny jeans, straighten her hair, and poke in earrings, the little sweet sixteen pearl studs. While her mother’s in the bathroom, she’ll play along with their waiter who’s certain he saw her at the Bottleneck last Thursday. As they wait for the hot, frothing water to cover their feet at the salon, her mother will reach across the arm of her chair to brush aside Lex’s bangs. A charm from her bracelet will graze Lex’s nose, and her mother will say, “Is this the same girl who was such a bundle of nerves when I brought her to orientation?” Daddy will call to sing to her in his low, warm voice, just as mom turns back from a fluttery wave and recedes down the dorm hall. Slumping onto the bed, Lex will say it’s been a super day. He will expound on his plans for his weekend visit, and she will try to reposition Jemima Puddle Duck, Hello Kitty, and her ragged Sea World penguin over the messes she’s made and wish she had brought more stuffed animals. Oh, she’d had a ton of them! Kermit. Snoopy. Another Snoopy. Piglet. Baxter, the teddy bear from Meemaw. A pink Easter bunny with a plush carrot sewn to its paw… But they have gone to live in a cinched up Hefty bag down in the basement by the Christmas tree.

After she hangs up and scrolls through seventeen new posts to her wall (Happy b-day! #LexAppeal 4-Evah, girl!), she will be staring up at the white eye the torchiere lamp casts on the ceiling, and that is when the tide will come in. Because suddenly it will be too exhausting to pretend.

 

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