In the car on the way down to ECU for my freshman year, my mother reaches over from the driver’s seat and gently tugs the cord of my earbud. When I look up she hands me a plastic yellow dial of birth control and says, “Please make smart decisions.” Dad’s down the interstate behind us, following in the Subaru, the backseat stuffed with a jigsaw puzzle arrangement of my things.
“Don’t patronize, Chelsea. I don’t care what anyone says, men do not like easy women. Don’t open your legs for every charmer who’s smart enough to pay for dinner and open the car door.”
“Please, who even opens car doors? This isn’t Happy Days.”
“I’m not that old. Smart enough to make you a cocktail and tell you how killer your legs look in your skirt. You get my point.”
“Sure.” I make a game of trying to count the blur of concrete highway dividers after I slide the packet of pills into my purse. When I say thank you, I try to hide my excitement over not having to worry anymore about condoms.
My mother is not one to belabor a point, but now that I’m leaving home, there’s a lot she’s forgotten to tell me. “Just be sure that you’re seeing things for what they really are. You don’t give anything away for free.”
“And we don’t need to mention this to your father, obviously.”
Whenever my mother talks about my dad, she makes a point of saying how good he is. Your father is a nice man, and I’m lucky to have found such an easy husband. But she never looks at either one of us when she says this, as if part of her still needs convincing. As if she sort of regrets it.
Michel is the first boy I ever loved. The first I let see me naked. A dancer. We were fifteen, and I was ready for the girls I sat with at lunch to quit calling me a late bloomer. His family had moved from France when he was a toddler, and they had a second home in Chambery that he and his parents talked about taking me to once school let out for the summer.
Most mornings I would find him sitting Indian style on the stone ledge outside of Crestview High’s main entrance, his canvas dance bag slung over one shoulder, a cigarette tucked behind his ear. He’d walk me inside to my locker, slip a note against my palm or brush his lips behind my ear, and I’d spend the next hour and a half absentmindedly fingering that spot during English while trying to give at least half of my attention back to the critical reading of Beowulf. His notes were only ever a line or two: Ton baiser me fait fondre, or Je t’adore, fille douce, and I’d hide my phone in my lap to look up the translation before the end of class.
After dismissal, I’d linger in the performing arts hall to steal a kiss before his practice started, eager for the blood rush I’d get each time I heard the click of the studio door, an unfamiliar urgency. Before he turned the corner and I could see his face, I was sure the violent hammer of my heart would snap my ribs. His ballet shoes were silent against the linoleum, and when he practiced in tights, the nylon would stretch taut against his legs, defining every muscle.
After opening night of the winter performance, we sat in the school parking lot in his mom’s minivan—the same minivan I’d lost my virginity in a month earlier.
“You did great,” I said. “I loved the spins.”
“They’re called pirouettes.”
“I mean, obvi.”
Michel reached for the handful of recital programs resting in my lap—mementoes I’d swiped from the usher—and picked at the blue and gold ribbons that bound the booklets together. He tossed the loose pages onto the dashboard and tied single knots up and down the length of each string. I wondered if he was nervous, why we weren’t making out. Mom expected me home soon. Then he showed me his handiwork between the pinched thumb and index finger of each hand. “Your arm, mon cherie.”
I held up my wrist. He pulled back the sleeve of my sweater and tied the bracelets, four in all. When he was finished, he kissed the thin skin of my wrist where the branching blue-green of my veins was barely visible. His lips lingered over my pulse. I wondered if he could feel it quicken and pulled away.
“It meant a lot to have you here tonight,” he said.
I lifted his chin with a finger to bring his mouth to mine, dizzy with my hunger for him. “I’d never miss it.”
I couldn’t take off the bracelets without cutting them, so I wore them all the time. At volleyball practice. In the shower. While I slept. When Mr. Banum was monologuing about Roman Imperialism, I’d count and recount the knots, then count them backward, anything to pass the time until lunch. There was a part of me that liked it—being owned.
The end came during spring break, over the phone. Six-and-a-half months together and it took less than ten minutes to undo the entire thing, to take it all back.
“I really like you,” he said, “a lot. But we aren’t going to get married or anything, so what’s the point of having a long relationship?”
“Actually, I think the whole point is that we like each other.”
“But if we both know it’s going to end, why bother?”
Anger prickled and fanned across my chest and throat, and I jumped up from where I sat on my bed, wishing he was there to see it—how much fight I still had in me. I raised my voice. “Then what’s the point of dating anyone, ever? You’re being kind of stupid.”
“Maybe. But that’s how I feel. Look, I’ve got to go, my mom’s calling.”
That night during dinner I burst into tears when my dad handed me the ceramic dish of julienne potatoes. When I choked out an explanation, he said, “Oh, the ballerina?” He took the bowl back out of my hands and spooned a heap of potatoes onto my plate. “Don’t worry. Kid’s a fag anyway.”
My mother cleared her throat. “We’re civilized people, William. We don’t use that word at the dinner table.”
My dad touched his large hand to my shoulder, gentler than I was expecting, and said, “You’re too good for him anyway.”
Before I could slip upstairs to sulk in peace, my mother took me aside in the living room. I slammed myself down on the high-backed couch and told her that I wasn’t going back to school. I’d hire a private tutor or go to summer school or drop out. I didn’t care.
My mother slid a bony arm around me and pulled me toward her until our hips were touching, like our legs had suddenly fused—twinned Siamese. She smelled like the pork roast we’d eaten for dinner. “It is silly to keep yourself from having feelings for someone just because they might end.”
I scowled. “Tell him that.”
“I also want you to know that he’s right.”
“Whatever,” I hissed. “Dad is basically like the only person you even dated in high school. You don’t know.”
She squeezed me, hard, more of a warning than a comfort. “That’s exactly how I know.”
I left the bracelets on for the rest of the year in protest. I wore them until one week in summer when the ribbons finally split, worn out. I thought I’d feel freer then, like that tether between us no longer existed, but all I really felt was a strange emptiness on my wrist, the skin aching for where the weight of something once was.
Kati is my roommate. She smiles at everyone like they are the nicest person she’s ever met, and she’s smart too, a Bio major. She wears her dark hair straight and loose, and it’s forever long so that even when she throws on yoga pants she looks like she’s between takes for a Garnier Fructis commercial.
Kati and I meet Sam on the first day of Comp Lit, sitting in the front row with three sparkly robot barrettes in her blonde pixie. While we’re supposed to be finishing a freewrite on any summer reading we didn’t do from the screens of our smartphones, she’s sketching a picture of the kid who’s fallen asleep in the seat next to her. From one row behind, Kati and I take turns flicking tiny, balled-up scraps of paper into the hood of his sweatshirt. Then it’s the three of us.
Five weeks into the semester, I hear that Jorell, the basketball player from the end of the hall who is a total panty-dropper and who has spent almost every day flirting with me between classes, has started dating an Alpha Delta girl. A junior. “I don’t even care,” I tell Kati and Sam while we get ready to go out that night. “It’s just that we had this whole conversation not even a week ago about how stupid it is to come to college and start dating someone right away.”
“He’s stupid. Wear this, it’ll make your tits look crazy good,” Sam says and hands me a shimmery purple dress from Kati’s closet. Rooming with her is like living in the America’s Next Top Model house. Tyra would love her.
“Come on,” Kati runs the flat iron over her hair and soothes, “we’ll go out and meet thirty other hot guys and you can forget all about him.”
It won’t take long before we’re going out in sweatpants and T-shirts we’ve distressed on the floor of Sam’s room, before we stop giving a shit about who might be there to impress and instead leave our hair thrown up in messy buns, our make-up light or sloppy or nonexistent. But on this Thursday, we dress up in our shortest dresses and tallest heels and go to Madigan’s, a bar a few blocks from campus. Inside it’s loud and sweaty and crowded, but we sweet-talk a couple of guys into sharing their table with us. I turn to Kati and point to the bar. The counter is made of a smoky glass that’s lit from behind by a row of tiny white lights, and the vinyl cushions on the stools alternate in six bright colors so that together they made a rainbow. In the darkened room, the bar stands out like a beacon, something to help us find our way.
While the guys order us a round of shots, Sam pushes her foot against the table and leans back until she’s balancing her chair on two legs. “Dude in the Volcom hoodie’s kind of giving me a girl boner,” she says. Tonight her barrettes are orange with giant stars on the ends, to match the spirals on her dress.
“All yours,” I tell her. I give her an exaggerated up and down. “And look at you. How could he resist?”
She shakes her head and smiles in a super cute way that shows off how one of her top front teeth slightly overlaps the other.
Later, while Sam lets Hot Guy in Random Turquoise Sweatshirt practice his best lines on her, Kati and I cram ourselves into the claustrophobic bathroom. She has a boyfriend, Marcus, who goes to college somewhere in Virginia, but she knows all the right things to say to get the guys to buy us drinks. I call to her from the narrow stall, “Melanie loves Eddie’s dick. It says so right here.”
“Good to know.”
“Who writes this shit?” I imagine that on the other side of the door Kati is looking in the mirror and brushing her hair. I remember my mother telling me once that things mean more when they’re written down—a kind of pressure that unsettles me. But when I ask Kati for a pen, she says, “Don’t have one. I can barely fit a lip gloss in this purse.”
If I wrote out a list of the things I’ve done so far this year that would disappoint my mother, it would look like this:
1.When Kati’s boyfriend came to visit for fall break and she was stuck in class, I left my clean laundry folded in a pile on my bed and came back from the shower in only a sky blue towel to let Marcus get a good, long look.
2.For most of this semester, I’ve been having sex with this guy I met in Intro to Philosophy. He’s married, and there’s a good joke there, I know. To be fair, the first time we did it I had no idea, because who the fuck at college has a wife?
3.After the Delta Gamma party with the ice luge right before Halloween, I let some rando named Emilio take me back to his dorm so he and his roommate could take turns. They said I was a dime, the most banging piece of ass they’d seen on campus, and it doesn’t make something any less nice to hear even when you know it’s a lie.
And there are others, of course. I like it best when we’re still strangers, still negotiating some kind of fluidity between our bodies. It’s that tension that gets me going—trying not to be clumsy, to learn what burns him up.
Here was the first after Michel: Once my parents finished moving me into the freshman dorm, it took me exactly twenty-four hours to meet a guy I could mostly stand: Chase Huckson. He told me he was here on a lacrosse scholarship, but when I pressed he admitted it was only for partial funding. What I cared more about was that he had great arms, that he was funny without really knowing it.
That weekend we walked across campus together to a Sigma Phi party for welcome week. The most beautiful Hispanic girl I’ve ever seen—a dead ringer for Selena Gomez in Spring Breakers, stood behind a table in a pink-sequined bikini top pouring red liquid into plastic cups from a giant water cooler. She yelled, “Holy shit, I love your shoes!” when she handed me my drink. In skinny jeans and a tank top, I suddenly felt awkwardly unglamorous. But Chase wasn’t looking at the Selena doppelgänger. He hooked a finger through one of my belt loops and led me away from the door.
I stood with him near the bottom of the stairs while he tried to tell me a story about his high school lacrosse team winning a regional tournament. I could only hear every third or fourth word over the thumping of the bass from the next room.
When I saw that his lips were no longer moving, I glanced down at my purple Chucks. “Oh. Cool,” I yelled. Then we raced to see who could empty their cup first.
After the party, in his room, Chase and I kissed for an eternity, and I started to think for sure that he wasn’t going to pull the trigger. Finally, he cupped the back of my head with one hand and tipped me onto the bed. As he ran his fingers through my red-brown hair, I hoped it would splay across his pillow like I was a mermaid or one of Homer’s Sirens.
“Your hair is so soft,” he said.
He leaned down until our cheeks were touching. When he kissed me, it tasted like fruit punch. He stopped and looked at me funny once our clothes were off, his head cocked to the side like someone’s floppy golden retriever, like for a second he’d forgotten what we were doing. “Are you sure this is okay?”
“You’re sure you’re sure?”
He was being really nice. I nodded again and closed my eyes so I wouldn’t have to look at the Sports Illustrated poster he’d taped to the ceiling.
The first time Henry and I fuck is at his apartment a few days before Thanksgiving break. We’re in the same study group for Diasporic Communities. He turns on Coldplay, the volume low, and neatly folds his khakis after he steps out of them. Then he turns off almost all of the lights. I roll my eyes and think that Sam, who’s braver than I am, would have already laughed this kid out of his own apartment. Actually, Sam never would have come back with him in the first place. But Henry is the only other Anthro major I’ve met this semester, and he has interesting things to say about what we’re reading in class. It also doesn’t hurt that he has his own room—there are a lot of things two bodies can do with this much space.
He sits down next to me on the edge of the mattress in his boxers and a T-shirt, and I wait for my eyes to adjust. I unhook my bra and slide the straps over my shoulders slowly, leaning back on both arms so he can see everything I have to offer.
He licks his lips, and his voice cracks once, sharply. “I really like you.”
I sit up and make myself smile. “Look, you don’t have to say that for a hookup. I mean, I’m already in your bed. It’s cool.”
“But I’m not just saying it, Chels. I do like you. I’ve liked you since the first week of class.”
I lean in and kiss him immediately so he’ll stop talking. He keeps it simple: missionary, with his undershirt on. I want to say something to him about it, tell him to loosen up a little, but I can’t say that, of course. Except then I can’t stop thinking about it, can’t stop picturing myself there, lying beneath him and scolding from the darkness, Henry, loosen up a little. I try to shut it up in my lungs, but the laughter comes anyway, and once it starts, there’s no turning it off.
He keeps going for a while and then pulls out of me into a kneel. He’s starting to get soft. “What’s the matter?” he asks, but I’m gasping for air. When it subsides, I press my lips together, feeling guilty. What can I tell him? I reach for his face with my hand and say, “Sometimes I get nervous. Come back, it’s freezing,” and he does.
Sam has a few killer pieces from her fall-semester portfolio on display at the freshman art showcase, and this is where I meet Blake. When we’ve finished walking through the exhibit, Kati volunteers to make us margaritas, and Blake tags along.
“Your collages were so freaking good,” I tell Sam as I wiggle out of my puffy coat once we reach our hall. “Really fierce.”
She bares her teeth and growls.
“Exactly like that.”
“You’re going to be famous for sure,” Kati tells her, grabbing the bottle of margarita mix the plastic drawer where we’ve stashed crackers and microwave mac and cheese. She motions for me to throw her the shaker sitting on my desk.
“Wow, you ladies have a whole little operation going on here.” Blake crosses his arms in front of his chest, and I let my eyes linger on the tight sleeve of the black American Apparel polo that half-covers his bicep. He’s pretty jacked for an art major.
Kati flashes her model smile. “We think of everything.”
Sam pops half-melted ice cubes from the tiny plastic trays and asks Blake all the right questions about his sculptures. Her work is better than his, no contest, but she’s generous. I climb the ladder to the top bunk and sit cross-legged, trying to remember whether or not I have history homework due tomorrow morning.
“There’s supposed to be a great exhibit at the art museum in Raleigh. We should drive out there next weekend or something and check it out,” Sam says, her cheeks flushed. I’ve never seen her act twitchy around guys before—usually she plays it confident and dismissive, drawing them right to her with a quiet power they never see coming.
“Yeah,” Blake shrugs, taking a cup from Kati. “That’d be cool. Maybe we’ll get extra credit.” He turns to where I’m sitting. “Keeping lookout?”
I notice how perfect his hair is. “I have a good vantage point from this spot.” I pat the empty space next to me. “Come on up. The view of our bedroom’s amazing.”
He leans in close when he climbs over me to sit down, and I don’t pull away. I catch the citrus scent of his cologne; he smells incredible. “I even brought gifts.” He hands me the cup and brushes his fingers against mine. Then he tells us, “I can count all of the clips in Sam’s hair from up here.” His deep voice booms from so far off the ground, and I startle at the sudden power.
“How many?” Kati asks, shaking the mixer.
“Put your head down, Saminator,” he calls. He counts them out loud, and when he gets to eight, the last one, we all cheer. Sam blushes and grins into her cup.
Kati puts on some crappy techno mix that Marcus sent her, and Sam starts talking about the influence of Eastern religion on clay pottery or whatever they’re learning about in Art History.
“I know who I’m sitting next to for all our exams,” Blake says. It’s possible that he’s winked at me, but I choose to ignore it. What I can’t ignore is that when he smiles it’s with his entire face—his cheeks, his eyes, they all light in a way that recasts him as wide open. He tucks my pillow under his shoulder and stretches out, facing me. I start to wonder what he looks like without the shirt, how hard I could make him without even touching. He points to the book I’ve left flipped open on top of the blanket.
Walking back from a house party last week, I stopped for a few minutes at the entrance of our building to kiss a scruffy guy who had kindly shared his joint with me. As I turned to leave, he pulled the book from his back pocket and pressed it into my hands. “Borrow this,” he said. Inside, I found his number but no name scrawled inside the front cover. I could only guess that he’d been carrying that shit around all night, waiting for his chance.
Now I pick it up, trying to appear nonchalant, which for me means that I glance repeatedly at the ceiling while I talk, our conversation a prayer. “You know, metaphysics, theory of relativity, sometimes I get off on super nerdy stuff.” I like the book, but I’m overselling. Still, he’s buying.
He shimmies closer, laughing as if we’re best friends. “Ah,” he says, “smart and pretty. A double threat.”
We all sit around for another hour, drinking and talking, until Kati looks at Sam and mouths let’s go, nodding toward the door. Sam drums her fingers against the desk, waiting for something, but Kati gives her that sideways look and leads her out of our room by her wrist.
Blake gets me pretty worked up before we even start, my skin already buzzed electric from our drinks, but then he’s moving too fast for me to really enjoy it. When his breathing shifts into a pant, I push my face into his shoulder and think, please, not yet. I’m so close, but then there’s a final shudder, his gasping release, and he lowers himself so he’s pressed against my body, no longer moving. He rests his mouth next to my ear and exhales, “You are something else.” I want to languor in that compliment—I know how good I am—but I can feel the ache from stopping so suddenly begin to pulse between my legs, and I close my eyes and make myself as still as possible.
For days, Sam refuses to talk to me. Even Kati busies herself whenever we’re both in our room. The only thing I can think to do is call my mother. I explain what happened while I walk to get a coffee after English, which Kati and Sam have both pointedly skipped. When I’m finished she asks, “Was it worth it?”
“Are you asking if the sex was good?”
“I’m asking if your little tryst outweighed the consequence.” Each word is clipped, an exercise in self-control. I’m too annoyed in the moment, but later I’ll wonder if what was snaking through in that struggle to keep a measured tone wasn’t disappointment but jealousy.
“Well, Sam still isn’t even talking to me, so I guess no, it wasn’t.”
“Then that’s what you should tell her.”
“Mom, you’re not listening. She’s not speaking to me.”
“She doesn’t have to talk to you for you to say that.”
I sigh as loudly as I can into the phone and give in. “Fine.” I hang up without saying goodbye.
I skip my next class and bring bagels and lemonade back to the room, where I know Kati and Sam will be in my absence. I find them sitting on the floor, and they both stop talking when I walk in.
I know that if I let this silence hang unbroken, its weight will press against my breastbone until my chest caves beneath my jacket, until I suffocate. I set down the paper bag between them and take a step back. “Apology bagels,” I explain. The words coil tightly at the roof of my mouth and exit as barely a whisper. I clear my throat and try again. “Because nothing says I’m sorry, I fucked up better than carbs.” When I get nothing, I add, “There’s cream cheese and juice too.”
Sam stares straight ahead. “I’m not really hungry.”
“Look, I know I’m a jerk,” I tell the side of her face, “and I’m sorry for hurting you. I’ll basically die if we aren’t friends anymore, so I’m going to bring you breakfast forever until you forgive me.” I’m starting to sweat, thinking there’s a real chance that there might not be anything left for me to recover. I smile half-heartedly, bittersweet. “I will literally fill this entire room with bagels.”
For a long, awkward minute neither of them say anything. I can’t look at them, so I set my gaze on Kati’s closet door, which we’ve spent the semester covering with Sam’s weird doodles, Marcus’s letters to Kati, pictures of the three of us at a football game and dressed up for Halloween and on a random afternoon when Sam’s dad surprised her by calling and asking how he could order a pizza and have it sent to her room.
Eventually, Sam shakes her head and says, “Okay. Forgiven. But I’m almost out of meal plans, so you have to bring me breakfast for the rest of the week anyway.”
“And you’re banned from talking to any of the guys at my art shows. Forever.”
“I really am sorry.”
“It doesn’t matter. He was totally into you anyway.”
“He doesn’t know what he’s missing,” I tell her, and I mean it.
“No,” Sam says, “no he doesn’t.”
Kati rummages through the paper bag in front of her and hands Sam a sesame bagel. She motions for me to sit.
“Was he at least a good lay?” Sam asks.
“Are you just saying that?”
“No, seriously. Not impressed.” I nestle in cross-legged until our knees touch.
Sam meets my eye for the first time and then she almost smiles. “Well, then you got what you deserved.”
And then without warning—in the way these types of things sometimes sneak up on us before we have time to prepare—it’s different. Right as we’re getting comfortable in our new routines after winter break, I meet Clay. Over several tall Stella Artois at Madigan’s, late in the afternoon before the bar is packed with familiar faces slightly fattened with winter, I learn that Clay is six years out of college, with a career job in web development and his own townhouse—a grown up. When I say something that impresses him, like that I’ve read everything Gabriel Garcia Marquez has ever written or that I listen religiously to NPR, his mouth turns up with a whisper of a smile that brings a rise of color to my face.
We talk until the scatter of noise surrounds us and we’re left shouting and shrugging our regret over the words we can no longer decipher. To make up for it, in the weeks that follow, we go on real dates to places around Greensboro that I’d never thought to notice, hours-long events that require careful outfit planning and that don’t take place in the campus cafeteria or involve a drinking game.
When we’re out it feels like we’ll never stop having things to say to each other, like every conversation ends too soon. After sex, we stay up all night with a bottle of Shiraz that cost half as much as my weekly meal card and talk and talk, and he makes me feel a new type of nervous, caught without my usual cache of witty comebacks or sexy teases that I hope he’ll find himself thinking about throughout the day after I’ve gone.
On a warm day in March, after a long lunch at Starlight Cafe, he drives us back to his townhouse in the winter car. “For motorcycle-shy passengers,” he had explained on our second date. We barely make it inside before he’s shoving a helmet into my hands. “It’s time,” he says. He almost sings it.
“Yes. You can’t know you hate it because you’ve never tried it, and I promise you won’t hate it.”
“I won’t be able to hate it if I’m crushed underneath someone’s back tire.”
He puts both hands on the small of my back and pulls me to him. He’s tall and solid, and I like the way he can wrap me inside of him. He kisses me like I’m the only girl he’s ever wanted to kiss, though I know surely this can’t be true. “Walk outside with me.”
We kneel down in parking lot in front of his townhouse for almost an hour, and I give Clay all of the attention and eager student charm that my professors can never quite tease out of me. He names each part, explains the mechanics, patiently talks me through the engineering before he ever even turns the ignition.
Finally, he sits me up on his bike, a black BMW K 1300 S. He makes me repeat the name until I have it memorized. His hands linger at my waist, then drift to the top of my thighs, and he puts his mouth right up against my ear and talks low: “Passenger steers the bike.” And then he shows me how.
As we coast out of the parking lot and into his neighborhood, I grind my teeth to keep myself from shouting for him to stop. Beneath his too-big leather jacket, my heart shudders. I’m too hot, light-headed, and I wonder what will happen if I faint, if somehow he’ll be able to miraculously catch me before my body collides with the ground.
We idle at the entrance of his subdivision before turning out onto the main road. Last chance. He looks at me over his shoulder and raises the plastic shield of his helmet. He smiles at me big, and wrinkles gather like the folds of a skirt at the corners of his eyes, marbled green and brown—a map I’m still learning to read. He has to shout so I can hear him over the engine. Four cylinders. I’ve paid close attention. “I’m really glad we’re doing this.”
I force myself to give him a thumbs up.
“Squeeze my arm if you want to slow down,” he instructs, flipping the guard back into place, but there’s no way.
Then it begins. After that first turn onto the street, I let my mind go somewhere else. I fold my body against Clay’s, my chest flush against his back. I’m surprised by the force of the air splitting around our bodies, then surprised by how good it feels. As we pick up speed, the warm throttle of the bike vibrates between my legs. Everything seems close—the grassy median, the traffic signs, the other cars, but most of all the road—the black pavement rushing right below us like something we’ve made ourselves only for the bike, for this single ride. I want to tell him this, but I like that we can’t speak, that there’s only the language of our touching.
When we stop, all I can think is too soon. I pull off my helmet and shake out my hair, hoping the afternoon sun will catch the auburn exactly right and shimmer, the kind of detail that might burn into his mind so deeply that he’ll never, ever forget it.
“How’d you like it?”
“That was crazy,” I say, still catching my breath, then, “amazing.”
He grins, his eyes shining. No guy has looked at me like that before—so genuinely happy. “You have a good instinct for it.”
He leads me by the hand upstairs to the bedroom. He kisses my face, my neck, and then unzips the heavy jacket and pulls it off my shoulders so his lips can trace my collarbone. Then he undresses the rest of me. He spends as much time learning my body as I’ve spent learning his bike. When I come, I’m picturing the two of us perfectly balanced on the seat, perched together as a single rider.
Later that evening he opens a bottle of merlot, and we boil pasta and peel shrimp for scampi. My bangs keep falling into my eyes, and I push them back awkwardly with a forearm. My hands are gritty and wet, and I lean against the sink, watching him, trying to think of something to say that will remind him I’m more than a silly nineteen-year-old girl. When he glances over at me, I’m ready with this: “You know, there’s a certain humility to being on the bike, riding eighty miles an hour with nothing to keep everything from ending any second.”
He smiles the kind of smile that someone makes when they’ve been told a delicious secret. “Absolutely.” He throws the last of the shrimp into the strainer and washes his hands. “And we were going a lot faster than eighty.”
“Sometimes it’s okay to leave a person in the dark.” I bite down softly on my tongue.
“You’ve got a lot of heart. Most women won’t even get on the bike. You rode really well today.” He pauses for a moment, and then shakes his head. “You’re a lot of fun.” He holds up his glass. “To your first ride.”
The truth: It’s easy being with him. I thought that after the first month, and then the second, and then in the weeks that followed, this would change. But it’s started to feel nice to no longer be a stranger to someone. On his couch or in his bed, sweat drying our skin tacky, our limbs still hooked around each other like touching is a fix we’re always chasing but can never quite reach, Clay will sometimes kisses me and then stare and say, sort of bewildered, “You disarm me,” or “It’s so funny to me how you came along right when I was least expecting you.”
When I’m stuck in my nine AM anthro class on evolution and culture, or hanging over my bunk, quizzing Sam for her Northern Baroque Art exam, I catch myself daydreaming about the back of the bike, his body a solid anchor beneath my hands.
I start suggesting dinners and day-trips out of town. I find routes to restaurants that are forty-five minutes or an hour away, as far out as Wilson or Goldsboro, drives that I know will have the hardest, sharpest turns on the exit ramps coming off US-264. I seek out the stomach-dropping rush that comes from leaning down into a turn, from the few terrifying seconds when I’m unsure if the physics will work, when I wonder if this will be the time that we dip the bike toward the ground, accelerate, and then continue falling into the pavement, crashing in a tangle of burned flesh and bent machine. During our rides, at the rush of speed and controlled tipping of the bike, I lean my body toward the asphalt, willing the Earth to pull me into it, to take what I’m giving.
I look forward to any moment on the bike that scares me enough to make me dig my fingertips into Clay’s side like the claws of some vicious animal seeking blood or squeeze my knees hard against the metal beneath my seat until I’ve rubbed the skin raw. Whenever I get on the bike, I ache for it, the same way he must ache for it. And that’s when I understand. I have to let him go.
Another truth: I can’t compete. When I finally see it, my veins pulse a quiet, aching fury that spreads as a reminder: How did I ever think I could be dangerous enough? When I tell him this, that it’s over, we’re sitting out on the back patio he built stone by stone from a rectangle of dirt—those careful hands. A breeze has picked up, the kind that means the temperature will drop soon, that rain is coming, that by nightfall it will be too cold for the tank top I’m wearing.
I take his hand in mine and run my thumb over the knuckle of each finger, feeling for the little knots of bone. He frowns and listens carefully while I speak. He looks thoughtful, like there’s more for him to weigh in this moment than he is able. “I’m not sure I understand. I feel,” he meets my eye but can’t hold it there. “I feel so god damn much for you,” he says to the left of me. Then, defeated, “I’d really like for us to be friends.”
I wait, trying to find a clue in the topography of his eyes. But if there’s something there, I can’t read it. “I don’t think I need any more friends.”
“Well,” he pulls away. “Well,” he says again, and then he looks around, like he’s trying to find something else to do now with his hands. He settles on pressing them against the glass of the storm door. “Okay then.” He keeps scrunching up his nose, as if the inside of his face itches.
After I gather my things and he drives me back to campus—in the winter car, not on the bike—I hesitate, panic rising in me as something violent, consuming. When I’m with him I feel like whatever emptiness is inside of me has been filled, but I shake away the thought. A trick. I don’t want to find out what things might be like after that feeling is gone. He pulls up outside of my building and gets out of the car, and we stand in front of each other, waiting. The air around us is heavy with the storm rolling in from the coast, but I want to pretend the weather is ours, that the air is holding onto something for us, thick with the threat of rain and all of the things we feel but are no longer able to say.
When I hug Clay goodbye, he catches me before I can break away, holding me against him for beautiful, excruciating moment. I pull back first, the chance to change my mind dissolving. He says, softly, “You’re a tour de force,” but it isn’t enough.
For weeks after it’s over, I ride around with Kati and Sam in Sam’s beat up Cherokee, and every time I hear the thunder of a bike somewhere down the road, every night when a lone headlight approaches from behind, the muscles in my legs unravel and my stomach twists with that familiar loneliness.
“Do you miss him?” Kati sometimes asks, peeking around from the passenger seat to where I’m sitting behind her.
“Yeah, actually.” I yell over the radio, “A lot.”
I start to get skinny. I don’t think about eating because I can hardly think of anything but him. Almost before I realize it, I’ve dropped from 121 to 114 to 109 to 104. After that it’s a test of will, a distraction, and I’m on the scale four times chasing double digits, just to see if I can. I barely pass my anthro final and I take an incomplete in government, but I get all the way down to 100.5 in the last week before we go home for summer break.
When I call home, I lie to Mom about the breakup. I don’t want to answer the nine million questions or listen to the inevitable lecture, or worse, hear her voice soften into something resembling sympathy, to know that she’s carrying some part of my hurt as her own burden, a lesson I didn’t learn well enough. I tell her that everything’s fine, that we’re taking it slow, and she reminds me wistfully, for the four hundredth time, “You know, I think it would have been better if your father and I had met in college,” until I can finally change the subject. “I’m excited to come home for the summer,” I offer, even though it’s mostly untrue.
“It’ll be nice to have another girl at the house again,” she says. Then she sighs a little overdramatically. “You know how your father can be.”
I don’t, but I agree anyway.
“We miss you here. We get lonely when you’re gone,” even though what I think she really means is I get lonely.
In line to get coffee before our last final, Kati jams a couple of fingers into my side and says, “You aren’t eating enough.”
I nod and narrow my eyes, hoping to feign seriousness and concern. “I know. I’m working on it.”
She frowns. “You’re starting to look a little gaunt.”
I pinch the skin of my forearm to keep from smiling. Gaunt. I’ve worked hard for that.
Skinny is like this: A cube of cheese. Pretzel sticks in fives. Ice water. A salad with no dressing. Peppermints. Ice water. Carrot sticks. The tiniest spoonful of low-fat ice cream. Jell-O. Sugar-free popsicles. One half of an apple. A single slice of turkey. Ice water. Ice water. Ice water.
To celebrate the last weekend of our freshman year and the fab new apartment we’ll be coming back to in the fall, Kati, Sam, and I go to Madigan’s. I know that Clay won’t be there, though it’d be a lie to say some part of me doesn’t hope, but he’s given up all our usual haunts.
We dance and take shots and make up ridiculous alter egos for each other, and every time guys we don’t want to talk to get too pushy, we hold hands or tongue kiss until they get the point and disappear. But at the end of the night, my blood humming from our Alabama Slammers, I let one of these guys take me home. I’m not entirely sure he remembers my name, and I’m too embarrassed to ask for his again. He’s wearing a cowboy hat that I think looks pretty awesome, and even though I can’t really picture Clay as a cowboy, for some reason this is all it takes to find myself thinking of him, of the way he’d reach for me in the dark as if without me there he’d drift away.
Kati makes a face when I grab my purse from the little round cocktail table we’re using as base. “Don’t go, we’re supposed to be having girls’ night.” Her hair cascades around her shoulders in ringed curls—she really is easily the prettiest girl in the whole place.
“We’re spending every minute of the weekend together!” I shout over the music.
“Still not girls’ night.”
“We can do lunch tomorrow too. We’ve been having girls’ night all night.” I leave a lipstick print on her cheek. “Love you. See you in the morning.”
She crosses her arms and gives me the classic Kati pout, and I laugh until she finally rolls her eyes and laughs too.
As I get into the cowboy’s car, I allow myself to wonder for one brief moment if I might have been wrong about Clay. Maybe I never knew what he needed at all. And maybe I never could have been whatever that was, but I didn’t even try. On the ride back to the guy’s apartment, I stare out the window and watch the side of the road for glimpses in the darkness beyond the glass. I force myself to think of other things, to stop lingering over what’s finished and have a good time. But I can’t push away the feeling that I’m going to tread the water of my uncertainty until I finally slip below the surface and drown.
The cowboy’s apartment is dirty. Clothes and dishes and empty PBR cans and stacks of magazines and mail are piled everywhere. “Not usually this much of a slob,” he offers, clearing papers and a plastic cup and a few crumpled shirts from his couch. Liar.
I step over a set of free weights in the middle of the floor. “What year did you say you were?”
“Oh, well, I haven’t really been to class in a couple of months. Or I guess about a year now actually.” When I say nothing, he continues. “My parents are still throwing down for this place, though, so it’s pretty chill.”
“They must be so proud.”
In the bright light of his kitchen and without his cowboy hat, I see that his hair is thinning at the crown. He isn’t as attractive as I thought he was at the bar, but he seems harmless, and I’m already here.
“Want a beer?” He pulls a German bock from the fridge. The dark amber is thick and bitter, and I set it down after a single pull. I think about asking for a glass of water but don’t. I push the cowboy up against the counter and kiss him, slipping my tongue around his mouth like I’m searching for something I lost years ago and that he’s been hiding from me, right here, this entire time.
He puts his hands on my chest, above my breasts, and kisses me back. The drinks from Madigan’s are making us both move a little slowly.
“Let’s go to your room.”
He gropes for his bottle. “Sure.” He wants me desperately. I can see it in his eyes, can tell by the way he clutches at my naked body the minute I step out of my skirt.
Actually, that’s a lie. I’ve just always wanted a man to be desperate with want for me. The cowboy doesn’t grab me and hold me to him but instead walks beside me toward his unmade bed, the way a Collie might herd cattle to the pen.
He’s clumsy and distracted, and he kisses me like it’s a chore he has to finish before he’s allowed out of the house for something more fun. He doesn’t waste much time before he’s guiding my head down to his zipper. That makes me the one who’s desperate, I guess.
He leans back and closes his eyes, really settling in. He keeps creeping his hand to the back of my head until I bat it away. No matter where I put my mouth or how I move my body, I can’t get him to make any noise, like he doesn’t care that he’s here or if he even finishes. I hate him for not giving a shit, for not bothering at all, for not asking me a single question about what I like or how I think; I hate him for not having a name worth remembering, and I want to hurt him, want to do something so that days from now he won’t already be forgetting me.
I bite down on the soft skin above his hipbone, hard, and shut my eyes tightly. I hear the sharp intake of his breath as I clamp down my teeth and pull until I can feel myself tearing the skin right off the bone, can feel the fat and gristle hanging from between my glistening lips, but when I open my eyes the spot is just red—I haven’t even broken the skin.
He shifts his weight underneath me and all I want then is to get it over with. I go as deep as I can without gagging, and finally he gives a little moan, thrusting his hips sloppily to drive himself deeper into my face. His voice parts the quiet, “Swallow, little slut.” I know that I should stop, that it’s long past the time to go, but I nod and keep going—permission he wasn’t asking for.
When he’s ready, he seizes and empties himself into my mouth, a wet, salty heat that spreads down the back of my throat. I look up, his half-closed eyes focused on something behind me. I want to tell him that I have interesting things to say, that my fucking name is Chelsea, that I think I’ve been in love and even deserved it. But the room is suddenly too cold and dark, and I look around for my clothes so I can get the hell out of there and call Kati to come pick me up. From the unmade bed, the cowboy twists his mouth into a sick little smile as he pulls up his jeans. “There’s my girl,” he says. “A true believer.”