Laura Ortega

Laura Ortega

I’m sitting in one of
the classes inside the English department building on the south campus of NYU.
It’s late morning, but that doesn’t prevent many stifled yawns. Most are
slumped and generally unkempt, including me, but attentive in that
pseudo-intellectual, undergraduate way. I’m not sure how I’m going to manage
tuition this semester, much less stomach the antics of frat boys and sorority
princesses. The smell of draft beer still stems from the pores of the guy
sitting next to me.

British poetry, and
we’re in the latter end of the semester. The professor wants to create a
graduate aura, so we are sitting on desks arranged in semi-circle. “We are all
scholars and equals,” and that sort of nonsense. Each has a stack of books
piled on our desk, the “Used” stickers, in various colors, sizes, and
conditions, boldly face their consumers as a symbol of subculture. Our graying,
still hot professor is propped on top of his desk, facing the class. He strokes
his chin in thought like a parody of his profession. Looking at each of us in
turn, he drums his fingers against the open page of Keats: Collected Poems
and Letters
.

“Why do you think Keats
wrote women as agents of destruction?”

The class avoids making
eye contact with him. Many delve back into the text in search of a witty
response.

Professor Abel prompts
further.

“Take into
consideration the last assigned poem, La Belle Dame sans Merci, for
instance. Look at the way she seduced the knight, then rendered him a ghost.”

Blake, the
quintessential quiet kid in the corner, musters up the courage.

“Well, I’m not sure,
but—“

“Don’t qualify your
answer, Blake, just give it.” Abel is anything but coddling.

Blake exhales
nervously, visibly regretting his self-imposed martyrdom.

“I think Fanny Brawne
made him that way.”

The class reacts with
ill-concealed dissent. The girl across from me visibly rolls her eyes and
scoffs. But Abel seems interested.

“I see. So you think
Fanny Brawne was to blame for Keats’s misogynistic tendencies?”

Blake scrambles to
re-direct his inadequacy.

“Not directly, no. And
certainly not intentionally. I just think that—maybe—Keats couldn’t handle his
feelings for her. You know, sleeping in the next room and not being able to
touch her. It must’ve been unbelievably frustrating.”

Some students lean back
to consider this.

At the penultimate word
his gaze shifts momentarily to Cam, sitting next to him, and then back to his
laptop screen.

Cam was short for
Cameron. She was the prototypical college boy’s wet dream. Thick strawberry
blond hair that cascaded in artful waves against her chest. Actually enjoyed Monday
night football and quipped with the best of them who the next draft pick should
be. Snorted white lines like a genuine cocaine cowgirl. In short, a girl that
practically patented the effortless cool.

Cam bites her lip as
she looks at Blake. He sees her and swallows hard. Then she looks at Abel with
a smirk plastered to her face.

“Personally, I think he
was tripping off all that laudanum.”

Class laughs on cue.

Abel betrays a smile
while shaking his head.

“Alright, alright. Ever
since Mark and Courtney gave that presentation on Keats’s unfortunate affair
with opiate derivatives, the general consensus has been that he wrote
everything on a bad trip.”

Several in the class
guffaw.

Mark quips, “You got
that right,” then directs his response to Abel.

“Well, doc, it does
explain a lot. C’mon. Ode on Indolence? It’s like reading a
junkie’s journal. If they were awake long enough to write, that is.”

Again the class erupts
into gratuitous laughter. What a mindless herd, I think. Meanwhile
I am writing feverishly in my notebook, transcribing some lines from the ode by
memory, whispering as I write: “how is it shadows, that I knew ye not? How
came ye muffled in so hush a masque?…benumb’d my eyes; my pulse grew less and
less…” 
It’s always been a strange habit with me—whispering to myself.
I’m startled out of my audible transcriptions when Abel calls on me.

“And you, Margot? What
are your thoughts?”

He raises an eyebrow,
expressly looking in the direction of my notebook. I stifle a gasp and try to
wet the inside of my mouth but my tongue is suddenly parched. Stupidly, I look
to both directions for an escape route, or maybe as a silent plea for someone
to jump to my rescue. No such luck. I purse my lips and look down at my
writing, which doesn’t help at all.

“I—uh, think whatever
Keats had inside of him was more powerful than any drug.”

Bullshit, but the class
sobers. Though some roll their eyes. Just then, Abel gets a phone call. He
looks briefly at his phone, fully intending to ignore it, but a wave of fearful
recognition passes over his features and he pales.

“Sorry everyone. I’ve,
uh, really got to take this.”

He goes outside to take
the call. The door latch is broken and allows to overhear his conversation, but
no one is interested. Something compels me to listen in, but the whispering
between Mark and Cam forecloses any possibility of eavesdropping on Abel.

“So, you going
tonight?” says Mark.

“Depends.”

Mark presses.

“On?”

Cam whispers something
muffled in Mark’s ear. As soon as she is finished, Mark abruptly leans away
from her, voice rising.

“Oh, no. Not that. You
said we wouldn’t have to anymore.”

Some ears, including
mine, perk up like Meer cats.

“Keep your goddamn
voice down!” Cam hisses.

Mark looks at her in
consternation. Cam looks to her sides, but everyone is back in discussion about
the odes and acid trips. Everyone except me, who is ostensibly trying to bore a
hole in the middle of my desk. She returns to meet Mark’s gaze and furrows her
eyebrows. She takes the notebook off his desk and I’m able to glean her large,
slanted, hurried letters: “It won’t be someone you know this time.” She passes
it to Mark. Mark reads and studies her. She rolls her eyes, takes back the
notebook, and adds: “Promise.” Mark chews at his bottom lip. Cam narrows her
eyes, frustrated with his hesitation. In her large, confident penmanship, she
adds: “You’re acting like someone who has a choice.” Mark looks up at her in
undisguised dread and she just arches her eyebrows. Finally, looking down at
his desk, he nods. The chatter from the class, previously reduced to the
background, presently seems to rise.

The guy a few desks
down nods eagerly.

“Mine’s was a bad trip.
I thought the piss on the floors of the club restroom was sodium hydroxide.
It’s like it had a mind of its own, coming to melt my flesh. I ran out of there
so fast I didn’t even have time to zip up my pants.” He chuckled. “My boys
thought I had gotten some.”

The girl next to him
looked confused.

“What the hell is
sodium hydroxide? An acid or something?”

“Actually it’s a base.
Saw it on a show once. Mix it up with some water and throw it on a corpse. In a
few minutes, all you’ll have is something resembling horseshit, and smelling
worse. Totally unidentifiable.”

Something compels me to
look at Cam at that moment. My intuition is rewarded.

She raises an eyebrow
at Mark, evidently interested. He looks back at her uneasily. My mind started
to unravel the knots of possibility that brief exchange just tied. What was she
involved in? Whatever it was, it was enough to emasculate Mark’s frat boy
pretenses, so it must’ve been heavy. I needed some air. I ripped out and
crumpled a page from my notebook and shuffled out of my seat. As I do, I get
that prescient feeling that someone’s gaze is on me. I look back quickly, and
see it’s Cam. Only she doesn’t turn away as most people would, she merely
smirks at my discovery. My face burns as I find my way back to my desk.

Abel re-enters the
class, looking at his watch.

“All right, everyone,
it’s that time. I know you’re devastated,” he adds in mock regret. “Make sure
you finish the Odes and a reflection paper on one of your choosing by next
class.”

The class files out.
Some hang back for predictable extracurricular planning. As I debate whether I
should ask Abel a nagging question about one of the Odes, everyone has shuffled
out and I decide to leave it for an email. Emails are my preferred method of
contact with people that are much smarter than me; it makes me feel less inadequate
since I can deliberate on my diction for a quarter of an hour before hitting
send. As the door closes behind me I realize that I’m actually the second last
to go. Cam is still in there. For once, I sing praises to the University
Commission that opts for board member kickbacks instead of fixing the
facilities. I squint to see through the sliver in the door frame.

Cam bends over to pick
up something that she probably knocked over in the first place. The neckline on
her airy tank is, of course, low enough to reveal her snug fitting pink bra.
She purrs in faux innocuousness.

“How long do you want
that paper, again?”

Abel is making himself
busy with the papers sticking out of his tattered books, but the bra was not
lost on him.

“As long as an
effective argument calls for.”

Cam turns up the smug
factor as only she can.

“Well, you know how
pithy I can be—”

Abel seems amused but
wary. “Go on! Don’t show up with a paragraph or I’ll drop you from the course.”

“Sure thing, Doc,” Cam
says, grinning. As she squeezes past the desk where Abel is standing, she
intentionally brushes her breasts along his back.

“Oops. ‘Scuse me.”

Cam is the kind of
predator you can’t help but watch, enraptured. Abel goes rigid but says
nothing. The last thing I see as Cam walks in my direction is Abel furrowing
his eyebrows and smoothing his paisley tie in an effort to recompose himself. I
turn the corner just as Cam pushes the door open and slinks out in her glorious
“fuck-me” stride. I am still reeling with my bewilderment when she stops
abruptly, about fifty paces from me, and turns in my direction. She looks
directly at me, but I cannot read her usually transparent expression. I am
rooted to the spot. She walks toward me in an uncharacteristically neutral
gait. Standing in front of me now, she studies my features at leisure.

“Listen, I was
wondering – do you have something in mind for the group project on Keats? Like,
are you working with someone yet?”

There is detectable
condescension in the tone of this last question, which is meant more as a
formality than anything else. I bristle a bit.

“No, but I was thinking
I would just ask him if it’s okay to work alone. It tends to be better for
everyone that way.”

Cam waves off the
rejection like a winged pestilence.

“Oh c’mon! I never see
you talking to anyone. It’d be good for you. Plus, I haven’t read so much as a
sonnet all semester.”

“Keats didn’t write
sonnets.”

“You’re missing the
point, Margot. The point is, we can help each other out.”

I consider a
not-so-subtle reply, like walking away, but then I remember her earlier
conversation with Mark.

“Fine. Where and when?”

“Coffee shop on the
south side of campus. Noon tomorrow.”

I nod and turn to go.
Her voice stops me again.

“By the way, me and
Mark…we’re heading over to Clap tonight…you know, the place in Williamsburg…”

She spoke slowly,
making sure I’d get all the details. Had she noticed me reading their notes?

“Can you can make it?”

The more dignified part
of me that wants to say no, fails miserably.

“Sure.”

As soon as I give in to
her, she disengages.

“See you tonight. Say
my name at the door,” she adds, already halfway down the hall. She disappears
behind a corner and all at once, I hear the gaggling of people all around me.
Had they been there this whole time?

***

I’m mildly dolled-up,
at the club in Williamsburg. I’ve gotten past the bouncers and I spot Cam.
She’s wearing a silver sequin top, cropped right below the bust, along with
tight black jeans. Just like after class, she somehow catches me looking at her
and turns to face me. She waves me over with her erotically charged smile.
Anything but reassuring, it feels like she’s going to eat you alive. The music
is pounding, a combination of indie punk and techno. Wall to wall–it’s crammed.
I have to squeeze through a series of gaping guys and girls who reluctantly
move aside for me. The club has a kind of Shoreditch hipster vibe to it, where
everyone exhibits the kind of modern sprezzatura that allows
you to wear a $40 skinny tie and still appear indifferent. Treading leisurely
down the dim hallway like she’s in her house, Cam indicates a space for me
right by Mark. He looks at me and smiles in a way he’s never done before. Must
be the alcohol. Cam stops by some people lounging on the adjacent couch with a
few bottles of gin on ice in the center table. A couple of them are smoking
menthols and have a sleepy disposition towards everything. Two newbies are
looking antsy, watching the writhing crowd below spilling drinks while
attempting to dance. They are both wearing, with only the slightest variation,
The Bandage Black Dress—the one so short and stretchy it hardly allows one to
dance but gets the right kind of male attention, which, in their cases, clearly
takes precedence over comfort. Their heels, in keeping with their dresses, can
best be described as impossible. Cam smiles wanly at the sight of them as she
sits down between them. They are surprised by this intrusion, but Mark quickly
introduces them.

“Girls, this is Cam.
She tends to pop in out of nowhere.”

As he says so, he gives
Cam a knowing smile and a wink before returning to his drink and
self-deference. He ostensibly leaves their names out of the introduction. The
girls are now smiling up at Cam, not even noticing the omission.

“You girls smell great,
like vodka and bubble gum. What are you wearing?”

Girl One seems all too
eager in what is apparently her area of expertise.

“Something by Vera
Wang. “Princess,” I think it is?”

A look passes between
Cam and me, and just like that, we’re confidants—at least for the time being.
Cam sidles over to me and whispers in my ear, “Figures.” Her warm breath makes
my follicles stand in alert. How can she do that? Then, returning her attention
to the girls with faux delight, she says, “You wanna dance?” Girl One nods
maniacally and Girl Two exclaims, “Oh-my-God, we’ve been dying to get out
there!”

Cam rises indolently,
grabbing my hand as she does so. The girls are already teetering down the steps
like drunken flamingos. The four of us enter the fray of thrashing bodies,
dodging bouncing behinds and flailing arms to find an adequate space.

Cam starts dancing with
the girls to some fast rhythm, gyrating and pumping, sandwiched in between
them, when a well-dressed young man approaches. Just as he does, the song
transitions to a slower beat. His hair is closely cropped and light brown eyes
twinkle in sharp contrast to his dark olive skin. His friends are already there
to take care of the two girls, and me, though I less-than-politely decline. He
asks Cam with his eyes, and encircles her waist. She makes her body pliable to
his as they start dancing. I remain close and listen in.

“I hate to go for the
obvious, but what’s your name?”

He means to purr in her
ear, but with the music so loud it’s more like a scream.

“Isabella,” Cam lies
smoothly.

“Don’t you want to know
mine?”

Cam laughs blithely.
“Sure. Why not?”

He seems to enjoy her
irreverence. “Arihant.”

Cam looks genuinely
interested, for once. “Is that Hindi? What does it mean?”

Arihant matches her
earlier laughter. “Now look who’s predictable?”

Cam playfully narrows
her eyes at him.

Arihant smiles and
presses her closer. “One who has killed his enemies.”

Cam raises her
eyebrows. Then, catching me off guard once again, she leans over and whispers,
“We’ll see,” to me as if I’d been part of the conversation all along. What was
she playing at? How did I turn into her unlikely ally?

“Did you say
something?” Arihant asks her.

Cam smiles
reassuringly. “No, nothing.”

She looks over to the
two girls and sees they are in consensually binding positions similar to her
own. Smiling again, she glances at her friends on the couch and catches Mark’s
eye. He has been looking at her the entire time. She gives him an almost
imperceptible nod, which he returns. He doesn’t seem to notice that I am privy
to the whole exchange, or else doesn’t care. Taking a small baggy from his
pocket, he slips it into one of the mixed drinks on the table. The powder turns
the liquid a blackberry red for a few seconds, before returning to its original
color. The song starts coming to a close. Cam grabs Arihant’s face and slowly
kisses him, just enough to leave prospects dangling. As the kiss progresses,
slowly, the last third of “Tricksy” by Lark is amplified.

“Come. Have a drink
with us.” She includes me in this proposition by tenderly tucking a loose
strand of hair behind my ear. Arihant looks at both of us appreciatively and
nods his assent. She leads us by the hand to the table where Mark is. When she
arrives, she ducks down and whispers into Mark’s ear.

“I’m Isabella tonight.
We got ourselves a live one.”

Mark laughs.

Immediately I notice
the change in Mark as he introduces himself to Arihant. He is playing the
colorfully gay friend.

“You two were quite the
item on the dance floor.” He stops to cross his legs and then remembers
something. “Oh my God, I just had this brought out, (indicating a drink) but as
you can see, I’m already done for!” He laughs and slaps Cam’s thigh for
emphasis. “Ahh-ree-hant,” he over-stresses every syllable, “Do me the honor.
You do like G&T’s, don’t you?”

“Not my first choice,
but a close second. Thanks.”

Arihant takes the drink
and raises it in cheers, taking a generous gulp. Cam and Mark smile at one
another knowingly, then Cam includes me in their web with a long-lashed wink.

She knew I
couldn’t—didn’t want to—stop her.

Before long, Arihant
was slurring every other word and nodding off. Cam nodded at me and Mark, and
stood. Mark flanked Arihant at his right, propping him up under his arm. I
followed suit on the left side. We follow Cam to a private room behind the red
floodlit bar. To everyone, it must appear like we’re graciously helping our
debauched friend. The room is lined with royal purple velvet from top to
bottom, accented with brushed gold baseboards and crown molding. Mark and I
deposit Arihant on a single armchair with leather pincushions resembling
Morpheus’s from The Matrix. From the shadows, a group of five men
in tailored suits emerge. They approach Arihant, who by now is catatonic and
slumped over the armrest. One man, the eldest, nods at Cam and hands her a
briefcase. She returns the gesture and the men carry Arihant out of the room,
leaving the three of us alone.

“Cam, what are they
going to do—“ I begin.

She shushes me gently,
placing her forefinger on my lip. She opens the briefcase, and I quickly
estimate about twenty stacks of crisp Euros inside. I recognize the image of
the Baroque arches on each note; one hundred.

I stifle a gasp, but my
breathing quickens at the sight.

Cam grabs four stacks
and hands them over to Mark. He takes them, stuffs them inside his blazer, and
gives her a quick kiss on the mouth before taking off. Cam says nothing and
divides another four stacks from the lot.

“Cam—“ I start again.

Before I know it, she
stuffs her hand, along with the money, down the front of my jeans. She pushes
me to the wall and I feel the soft velvet against my neck and the pressure of
the money on my lower abdomen. Her thumb latches onto my panties and stretches
them up, making it unbearable. Her lips graze against mine as she speaks.

“Are you in, or out?”

She continues to stroke
her thumb against me, waiting.

“In,” I whisper,
closing my eyes.

Fall tuition: Check.