This Jen could not be the girl I’d met at the water park in Arlington, Wendy’s friend. There was no way.
“So where’re you from?” I asked.
“Just outside of Arlington,” she said.
“I’m from Arlington.” Her eyes rose in hope. “But I went to school in Fort Worth,” I added, “and ended up spending most of my time there.” When I wasn’t exploring or distributing unusual lists of numbers on a computer, or writing an online role-playing game.
“Maybe we might’ve gone to school together, otherwise,” she said.
“Then we wouldn’t be meeting now,” I told her. Sitting across from me on the bed, she laughed, her knee finding mine. She began to talk, and I gave in to being happy.
We talked for three hours before we began kissing. I don’t remember what we talked about, though I do remember the kisses, like full drops of rain sprinkling from a cloudless sky.
We kissed for ten minutes before my roommate walked in.
“We need a system or something,” said Pat, understandably flummoxed.
“If you were girls, you’d have already worked one out,” she told me.
A few days later we met in her room. It was exactly the same as before, only we got around to kissing much more quickly. Also, her roommate didn’t have to walk in on us because she was there already, studying. Jen made the universal sign-language gesture for Go Away. The other girl closed her book, unsuccessfully suppressing a scowl, and began fishing for her keys.
“I should go,” I said.
She smirked beautifully. “Mind if I call you?”
“I’d like that,” I said.
I tried so hard not to think about her that the thought of her swelled to fully fill the front of my mind. Then I ran into John.
At the end of our leg of the dorm-room hallway, headed away from the elevators, a dead end save for our rarely used twelfth-floor stairwell, lived a guy named John. He was a serious party guy, though he had achieved a terrific balance of being grating and ingratiating which always got him invited to more parties, regardless of how many of them he’d already been kicked out of. The number of girls who passed through his room that year was truly staggering.
A sizable group of us were heading down to eat as he shouted at me over several heads.
“D!” he said. “I heard you had Hefty in your room this weekend!” He double thumbs-upped himself. “That’s awesome! Me, too!”
“Hefty! You, know — blonde chick?”
Suddenly, I could not process. “You mean…Jen?” Why “hefty”? It means large, and it’s also a brand of garbage bag, so I was confused. I began to stutter. “She’s not big.”
“Naw,” he said, “but you better wrap yourself in a big, black Hefty bag from the waist down if you’re going into that, know what I’m saying? I mean, you knew that, right?”
I did not know what he was saying. My breath was shallow. I flexed my fingers, curling them tightly.
Some days later, I stopped by her room. There was a new name on the door, replacing hers. The door was open, as people often left them, and Jen’s roommate was sitting in the same place as I saw her before, reading the same book.
“Sorry,” the roommate said, shaking her head. “She’s gone. She had a nervous…thing. They had to….” The girl smiled. “She’s gone away,” she finished simply.
“They didn’t tell me,” she said, and began to swing the dorm room door closed. She must’ve seen something in my face that made her stop, and sigh.
“You, though,” she said. “She really liked you. If I hear anything, I’ll let you know.”
I walked for a long while through campus, in the deep dark. Summer seemed gone — when had that happened? — and leaves were collecting along the paths.
I walked up the twelve flights of stairs, a terrific effort even with the legs of a serious dancer. It felt warm and stuffy, so much sweat running down my face, wiping drops from my cheeks, gripping the handrail to control my shuddering.
Coming out of the stairwell, the air-conditioning enveloped me as I rubbed my stinging eyes. I stood, and breathed, and became calm.
Across from me, John’s door was open. He and Lizard were asleep together in his bed.
One foot at a time, wondering if my strange sense of screaming calmness was what people meant when they talked about finally snapping, I made it back to my room.
I didn’t truly snap until a few days later, in a mid-afternoon break between classes, waiting for an elevator. I looked up at the opening doors, and the most remarkable thing happened.