This time, don’t blow off your roommate Cassie when she asks you to go out. Tell her that, yes, you’d love to join in on the night’s festivities at the local bar, Frank’s. She will pause, then peer into your face to make sure you’re not messing with her. Smile. Shake your head in a way that conveys the frustration you’ve felt lately, due to the past four nights you’ve spent until 2 a.m. in the library; all your friends assumed you were working on your thesis paper, but actually you were hiding away amongst the musty bookshelves in a feeble attempt to find some peace of mind. Thoughts of the past weekend kept surfacing while you meandered through the Rare Books and Manuscripts section. You will need a different kind of distraction to push away those memories. When she asks you if you’re sure, explain to her that you’ve come to the realization that you’re the most boring 21-year-old on campus, and you’re ready for that to change. She will grin gleefully and say, “All right, then,” before proceeding to your closet to pick out your outfit.
Fight the urge to sigh when she declares that—after sifting through your gray cardigans and the two skirts you own that go all the way down to your knees—you have nothing good to wear. She will return from her own closet with a teal satin blouse and tight black skirt. Roll your eyes only when she bends down to pick up her four-inch heels that she claims you can squeeze your toes into. Without asking permission, she will open your underwear drawer and take out the one black push-up bra you bought at Victoria’s Secret, but had never found an occasion to wear. She will command, “Change into this little number right here. You’re probably wearing that hideous tan one from Kohl’s, right? I can’t believe you spent money on that thing. You should’ve just stolen it.”
Resist saying, “Actually, the one I’m wearing’s from K-Mart,” because that won’t help your cause. She will look at you, arms crossed and foot tapping. Feign shyness and ask her to step outside your bedroom. Close the door behind her, then whip off your jeans and T-shirt and don the new clothes quickly. Catch sight of the bruise blossoming against your pale back in the reflection of your floor-length mirror before wrenching yourself away. Ignore the sudden tilt of your heartbeat as your mind falls back to Saturday, when he had thrust you against his bedpost after you had said you wanted to leave. Step toward the mirror only after the skirt and blouse are safely zipped and buttoned. Let your breath escape through your pursed lips after you realize the skirt’s length covers the bruises on your thighs. Sit on your bed and groan as you force your feet into the shoes, then open the door and let Cassie ooh and ahh as you twirl and pose for her benefit. She will insist on making you a drink before she does your makeup and hair. After arguing with her that you’re not thirteen years old and can do your makeup yourself, accept defeat and take a swig of the apple-flavored concoction that she mixed together on top of her mini fridge while she gathers her Sephora makeup kit and brushes.
Distraction: You need this distraction. Let your mind memorize this mantra when she accidentally pokes your eye with the eye shadow brush because she had started drinking an hour before you, and oops, she’s feeling it already. Gently take the mascara brush from her, joking that red eyes won’t match the teal shirt. Apply the mascara until your lashes almost touch your eyebrows. Inform Cassie that you read somewhere that men in ancient Egypt used to style their eyelashes more than the women. “Oh, you boring history major, you,” she’ll say. “I’m just glad you’re going out and not burying your head in one of your textbooks for once. However, if you come across any men who seem to be as concerned with their lashes as the ancient Egyptians at the bar, stop dancing with them immediately and go find yourself a real man.” Nod as she sprays something that smells like strawberries in your hair before subjecting your limp tresses to the curling iron. Keep sipping your drink.
Another drink later, remember to grab your clutch and throw your keys and ID inside before the two of you stumble down the hallway. Allow yourself to feel a little powerful with the click-clack of your heels against the floor. Power: You thought he had taken that away from you that night as soon as he had shut the door in your face and whispered, “Never trust the quiet ones. You girls are always the freaks.” The adrenaline hadn’t been enough for your thin arms to wrestle against his in an attempt to free yourself, and your voice had swallowed itself, so you hadn’t been able to scream. All your strength had been purged on a guttural “Please” that had only seemed to incite him further.
Distraction. Don’t give up on this distraction. Be grateful that the liquor has flooded your face with color because you can feel the blood sinking away. Let the memory sink away too. This night will not be like those spent in the library, the nights that saw you gasping for breath as your tears clutched your lungs and crawled their way up your throat. You had tried to avoid anyone, everyone, but had it worked? Only a few days have passed, but you have realized today that you need to do something different, or else your mind will scream its way into insanity. Lying in bed hadn’t helped because the creak of the bedsprings mimicked his groan. The glow of your laptop late at night had reminded you of the streetlight that had filtered through the window and blanketed his pillow. When you had sat on your favorite bench, you had twitched every time a car passed, wondering if it were his silver Honda Civic rounding the corner. All these attempts at making it better had failed. Tonight will be different, because everything will be new to you: the scene, the people, the drunken carelessness of it all. This time, you will find a few moments of peace.
You need this distraction. The cold air hits your body as your dorm’s front door closes behind you. Shiver against the pre-spring chill as you move onto the sidewalk, then see Cassie blindly follow. “You need to look both ways,” you’ll yell at her. “Do you wanna die just ’cause you’re too drunk to remember a simple lesson from preschool?”
She will laugh. “Death will take me when he’s ready, not me! I can act a little reckless.” Understand that you’ll have to order a double as soon as possible in order to get on her level.
After walking the quarter-mile to Frank’s, open your clutch to fish out your ID. Hide your mild surprise when Cassie kisses the burly bouncer on the cheek and tells him, “It’s OK. She’s with me.” He will nod and wave you along, so flash him a smile.
Step inside the bar and let the heat reeking of beer and sweaty bodies overwhelm you for a moment. The house music that you heard from a block away will pulsate through your skull. Survey your surroundings: wooden booths filled with college students swaying and giggling; a few guys holding beer bottles lightly against their chests, standing and nodding at four girls dancing on what seems to be designated the dance floor; a jukebox in the corner that is clearly just for show. It will remind you of that one bar you had gone to six months ago when you still talked to your old friends—what was it called? The Whiskered Cat. The name had more pizzazz than Frank’s, but the atmosphere had been the same. You will be able to handle this. Go to the bar to get your drink.
Don’t let the jostling bodies that refuse to make room for you upset your usually mild temper. In fact, relish the impersonal contact that means you no harm. A girl may crush your toe when she takes a step backward and laughs too hard at a boy’s joke. A taller guy may elbow your shoulder when he turns around from the bar to hand his buddy a drink. The pain will feel…good. A dim, buried part of you will crave more; don’t allow it. After finally getting the bartender’s attention, pay for your drink and push off toward the direction you think Cassie headed. Suck at your drink through the narrow black straw.
Cassie will have found a booth containing two of her friends who are drunker than you. Go through the necessary introductions. Try not to laugh when you hear their names are Tiffany and Buffy. Buffy will give you a hard look and say, “Before you ask, no, I don’t have a stake in my jacket to fend off any vampires.” Lie and say you never cared much for sci-fi shows. Her expression will transform into a smile. She’ll tap her plastic cup against yours to cheers; drink heartily. Ask her what her major is. She’ll tell you it’s Business, but she really wants to be a veterinarian. Feign interest when she begins to rant about her love for animals and how she donates to that charity you see commercials for all the time with Sarah McLachlan’s sappy music playing in the background and the large puppy-dog eyes staring into the viewers’ souls. Tell Buffy that commercial gets to you sometimes and you wish you could donate. She will stop her rant, glower, and insist that you can donate; it’s not that much. Resist asking her if she’s on the rocks with Angel again.
Gulp the remainder of your second drink and notice a girl in the next booth who is crying over her lost cell phone. Apparently it’s late enough for the waterworks to start. You don’t need to be near this sadness, however temporary and shallow it may be. Get up and tell Cassie and her friends that you’ll be back after getting another drink. On your way to the bar, a hand will tug gently on your shoulder. You’ll flinch and turn around in a rush, holding your fists in a pathetic effort to protect yourself. See the boy from your Medieval European History class standing there, perplexed, his hands up as if he were caught stealing something. Breathe. Apologize. Murmur an excuse: “I’m stressed about our final project” will work. He’ll grin and say, “So, you remember I’m in your class. Cool.” He’ll introduce himself as Ryan. You hadn’t known his name because he is one of the jocks who sits in the back of the classroom and never contributes to class discussion. Blurt out that he looks like a Nick for some reason. Instead of being confused, he’ll laugh and say, “Well, Nick Swisher is one of my all-time favorite baseball players, so I’ll take that as a compliment.” Nod and pretend you know what he’s talking about.
He will put his hand on your shoulder, but this time its heat will comfort you. You vaguely assess that the alcohol is doing strange things to you. You’ll begin to wonder why you’ve never noticed how blue his eyes are.
“How come I’ve never seen you here before?” he’ll ask.
“I’ve never been here before,” you’ll tell him.
“Are you serious?”
“Yup. I’m being quite frank.” Ignore the fact that he doesn’t pick up on your pun when he asks if he can buy you a drink. Smile appreciatively at the offer, but turn it down. “I told my roommate I’d be right back. She’s over in a booth somewhere.”
“C’mon,” he’ll say, “it’s just one drink, and I’d like to get to know you better.”
“There’s really not much for me to tell.”
He’ll move toward you a step. “We can talk about Medieval Europe, then. That’s good bar conversation, right? Talking about the millions who died from the bubonic plague is always fun over a beer.”
You’ll smile. “Pandemics are my favorite conversational topics, actually. How did you know?”
He’ll return the grin. “That must be why you never come to Frank’s. Not enough guys here know the draw of the Black Death. I only learned recently from Dr. McDougal. It’s how he gets all the chicks.”
Laugh as you imagine your pot-bellied, white-haired history professor surrounded by fawning girls. Ryan will move in a little more closely, caressing your arm nearly imperceptibly. “So…how ’bout that drink?” he’ll ask. Distraction. You need this distraction. Say OK and let him lead you to the bar.
He’ll order you a vodka cranberry. Take the drink and follow him to the outside patio. Push past the smokers to a private corner where the music’s faded cadence wafts over you with the chilly breeze. Your ears will ring. He’ll ask you your favorite British monarch to continue the history theme. You’ll reply with Richard I, then ask him the same question. “That’s easy,” he’ll say. “Good ol’ Edward the First, because who doesn’t like a man whose nickname was Longshanks?” You’ll giggle at his history humor and start to feel at ease. Ask Ryan about himself. Find yourself lulled into the soothing rhythm of his voice as he explains his love for baseball and how he’s come to terms with not knowing exactly what he wants after graduation.
“I mean, I know I don’t wanna be a teacher,” he’ll explain. “And that’s all I’m asked when I tell people I’m a history major. They always say, ‘So, what grade you gonna teach?’ I’m sick of it.”
“I get that a lot too,” you’ll say, “except I’m OK with it because I do wanna be a teacher. Maybe a professor. Then I can go on sabbatical every once in a while and visit ancient Greek ruins or something.”
“Sounds really cool. That’s nice you know what you’re gonna do.”
“It’s hard to know what you want.”
He’ll look at you and say, “Sometimes.” You will feel yourself blush.
After you finish your drinks, he will ask you to dance. You will lace your fingers between his before realizing that you’re smiling and nodding. You’ll like that he asks your permission. Lead him to the crowded dance floor and sway a bit when he twirls you into him effortlessly. Your hips will know what to do. His fingers will rest on them for a song, then they’ll begin to creep up past your belt, making contact with your bare stomach. They will feel like those menacing hands from Saturday night. Your throat constricts. Your heart lurches forward. You will need air. Mouthfuls and mouthfuls of air.
Part your way through the sea of dancing bodies and run to the patio. Ignore the smokers’ confused looks as you rush to the furthest picnic table. Ryan will follow.
“Are you OK?” he’ll ask.
Dig your nails into the table’s splintering wood. “I’m not feeling well.”
“Oh. We can get out of here. Let me walk you back to your room.” He sits next to you.
The offer makes your jaw tighten. “No, you should leave.”
“Listen, I can help—”
“Leave, or else I’m gonna throw up all over you,” you’ll warn. Ryan will sit back a bit. “I’m feeling it coming up now. Go!”
He will shrug in defeat, mumble, “Whatever,” and turn back into the bar. Focus on the hole in the middle of the table where an umbrella should be.
After a few minutes, a couple will infiltrate your lonely corner. They will graze each other’s sides with their fingertips, grin into their glazed eyes, and stumble toward the patio wall, holding hands. This will be your cue to leave. Don’t even bother looking for Cassie; you know she’ll be on the dance floor with whatever guy she’ll end up bringing back to the room. Hurry through the bar and out the door. Before crossing the street, notice another couple standing on the opposite corner, underneath the streetlight. The boy will usher the girl into an embrace, then dance with her a little clumsily, still holding her against his chest. She will lift her head and laugh into the air. Wish with your entire being that you could leave this sidewalk and float away with that laugh, past all the students stumbling out of house parties, away from the misty windshields of the cars sitting in the street, beyond the dark windows of houses whose secrets will be kept another night.
Kate Harner is from Connecticut. She is currently attending graduate school at Clemson University in South Carolina. She loves dogs and moon bounces.