I'll Stay, page 7
“R?” Brenda tilted her head, confused.
“That spells . . .” Lee grimaced. “Five floor? Okay, that makes no sense.”
Everyone burst out laughing and started talking. We were okay now, looser, not so worried about what others were thinking. Lee kept shaking her head and laughing, too, but she’d pulled it off. She’d managed to not look like a suck-up or a jerk. And yet as I watched her laughing, arms still dangling at her sides, she seemed so genuine. This made her all the more appealing.
Over the next two months I saw little of Lee. And I began to question my decision to come here. My roommate was a drunk, my classes were fairly easy, and most people I met were friendly but not very interesting. Was I homesick? Maybe. My parents had promised to visit but canceled when my mother got an offer to speak in London. They hadn’t rescheduled. Most days I went to class and the library and didn’t return to the dorm until dinner. Afterward, I’d brave my room.
One late October morning, my roommate said she was going home for the weekend, and I decided to come back to the dorm early, to enjoy my room for once. I walked up the back stairs, opened the door and ran into Lee, who was sitting on the floor, a book open on her lap and her legs extended across the carpet.
“Hey!” She smiled. “I keep looking for you but you’re never around.”
I’d seen her in the cafeteria, walking to class, and once at a fraternity party, but she was always surrounded by a group of people. How had she made so many friends already? Of course later I’d realize that one reason people were attracted to her was because she was so unattainable—she didn’t let anyone get too close. But I didn’t know that at the time. I was just happy that she’d noticed me.
“I’ve been around.” I squeezed my backpack strap. “Why are you out here?”
Lee nodded toward her door. “My roommate is busy. Know what I mean? And I need to study.”
She lifted her textbook to show me. Psychology 101. I had the same textbook but Lee must have been in a different section because I hadn’t seen her in mine. Of course, two hundred people also took my class. “Me, too. I’m Monday, Wednesday, Friday.”
She nodded. “Tuesday, Thursday.”
Down the hall two girls came out of a room and yelled hello to Lee before walking away. I shifted my feet. I wanted to keep talking. “Are you a psych major?”
“No, a psych minor. My aunt said I should take psychology to understand people. I’m a film studies major. I’m going to make films.” She said this with no hesitation, no self-consciousness, and I felt instantly intrigued.
“I’m a psych minor, too.” I hadn’t yet decided on a major or a minor, although standing there, I thought, why not? I liked my psych class enough.
“You’re the only other psych minor I’ve met! Everyone seems to be studying business or education.” She leaned forward. “Why do you suppose that is?”
I shrugged. “Maybe the world needs a lot of business people? And teachers?”
She nodded. “Yes, it needs a lot of film studies majors, too.”
We laughed. I had this feeling that she was going to do exactly as she said and be a big success. Despite her ambition, she seemed surprisingly earnest. Which surprised me. Most ambitious people I knew back home were sort of jerks.
“What films do you like?”
“All kinds,” she said. “I like documentaries because I think it’s important to be truthful about history. But sometimes they’re hard to find on TV and we don’t have theaters in my hometown. I have to drive almost an hour to the closest one. And they only show big, commercial films. I like them, too, I guess. Probably my favorite last year was The Deer Hunter.”
Back against the wall, I slid until I sat on the floor in front of her. The hall was warm, and I felt the heat on my cheeks and back of my neck. The Deer Hunter was about three friends, taken prisoner during the Vietnam War and forced to play Russian roulette with their captors. It was good yet disturbing.
It was also a movie about which my parents had talked nonstop. My mother, who was approached several times about making Listen, Before You Go into a movie, was never happy with the screenplay drafts she’d written. And my dad didn’t think our country was ready for an “honest representation of that travesty perpetuated by our perverse government.” So when this movie and Coming Home, another gritty, Vietnam-related movie, came out last year, they felt blindsided. For months they refused to see either one. When they finally did, they complained. About everything.
“Yeah, it was good,” I said finally.
“Okay, what just happened?” she asked. “You were thinking about something before you answered.”
I raised my eyebrows, surprised that she noticed. “Ah, nothing.”
“That’s such a lie! I saw it on your face. What were you thinking?”
I laughed. No one had ever called me out on this. Should I tell her? But this was months before I’d explain my mother to her and at that moment no one knew I was her daughter. I wanted to keep it that way.
I changed the subject. “What did you like about that movie?”
“Okay, I get it. You’re not going to tell me what you were thinking.” But she slowly smiled. “So. Three guys are best friends, grow up in the same town, know the same people, go to the same schools. Yet they all react differently to what happened. Why? I think it’s because people experience things in their families that other people don’t know about. These things make us who we are. And that’s why, despite being friends, they all reacted differently.”
Down the hall, the elevator opened and a group of girls waved and walked into the lounge. Music blasted from a nearby room and behind Lee’s door people argued. In the months I’d been here, I’d talked about my favorite music, what I was thinking about majoring in, and where I came from. Not once had I talked to anyone about anything deeper than that. Had I ever talked like this?
“Where did you grow up?” I asked.
“Up north, near Fort Wayne.” She crossed her legs and leaned forward again. “But after I graduate, I’m going east, to New York.”
I smiled. “I’m from Boston.”
“Brookline. You said that on the first day. I heard you after the meeting.”
I kept smiling. I liked that she’d paid attention and remembered.
“I know about Brookline because that’s where John F. Kennedy was born.” She took a sip from a can of Diet Dr Pepper.
Was she a history buff like my dad? “How do you know that?”
“I love to read about people who’ve done amazing things. Over the summer I was thinking about presidents, and when you said Brookline I remembered that that was where Kennedy was born. Although I’m not sure he did anything truly amazing.”
President Kennedy always seemed incredible to me. “Who would you say has done something truly amazing?”
The arguing in her room grew louder although I couldn’t make out the words. Lee was so focused that I didn’t know if she heard it. “I like to think about people who’ve saved others, like Mother Teresa. Or Darwin, who changed how we think. And people like Beethoven, who went deaf, are incredible, too. Can you imagine losing the sense most important to your gift? It’d be like a filmmaker going blind.”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek and thought about my mother. When Listen was published, reviewers had many reactions—some called her Salinger’s heir apparent, especially since her main character shared more in common with Holden’s little sister than just a name. Others called her the “Mother of Minimalism” because she’d helped usher in a new type of writing: sparse words, psychologically distant, more reader involvement. My mother was proud of this although she didn’t like it when Logan, my brother, turned it around and called her Minimal Mother.
“Would you consider any writers amazing people?” I held my breath.
“Maybe. But probably not.” She took her fingers through her long black hair. “I want to do a documentary on an amazing person. That’s what I’m going to do.”
“Oh, my God! You’re such an asshole!” Lee’s roommate stood in the doorway, her face red and raw and her eyes wild. “Just get out of here!”
He picked up his things and hobbled down the hall. As he pushed open the door to the stairway, he turned and yelled, “Fuck you, Debby.” Then he was gone.
Debby burst into tears and dropped to the carpet. I’d seen her around the floor but I didn’t know her. Still, I felt sorry for her. I had a feeling that this was more than just a fight. I glanced at Lee, who was staring at me, eyes wide with fear.
“Hey, what happened?” I made my voice soft and low.
Her head was between her knees and her hands over her head. The pink polish on her nails was chipped, and she’d drawn little smiley faces on the tops of her hands with a black marker. She sobbed between gasping breaths.
“Tell us,” I said. “It might feel better to talk.”
Lee looked at Debby, then at me again.
“We’ve been together since junior year in high school!” Debby kept her head buried in her knees. “And then we come here and he tells me that he doesn’t want to go out anymore. He wants to see other people! I’m so mad!”
“Listen,” I said. “I know this girl from back home. The same thing happened when she went to college. Two months later, her boyfriend came back. It’s hard to stay together in a new place like this. But it doesn’t mean it’s forever.”
Debby wiped her face across her sleeve. She’d stopped sobbing although tears still rolled down her cheeks.
“You feel awful, don’t you?” I asked. “Like your heart is breaking.”
“Yes,” she wailed. “Yes!”
“It’s going to be okay,” I said. “After a while. You’ll see.”
She buried her head again.
The door to their room was open. The far side bed was unmade and on top a hot pink comforter, polka dot sheets and pillows tangled in a small pile. The desk was crowded with pictures, books, and notebooks. The other bed, nearest the door, was neatly made, a thin, faded gray blanket on top, a small pillow at the end. The walls and desk were empty. I couldn’t imagine that Lee’s bed was the one with the hot pink comforter. Later I’d realize that Lee’s side of the room was empty because she didn’t have any money to fill it with things.
“Oh, no!” Debby hurried into the room and lifted a backpack off the pile on her bed. “John forgot his backpack!” She slid into her shoes, ran to the stairwell door, threw it open, and charged down the stairs. The door slammed behind her.
“Wow,” I said. “Poor thing.”
“You were amazing with her,” Lee said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone be so good with anyone like that. How did you know what to say?”
“I don’t know. It just feels natural.” In high school I was everyone’s confidant. But I liked that she noticed. I liked that she thought I was good at something. I remembered that feeling very clearly.
Inside Donuts Delite, Ducky was paying the girl behind the counter. I shivered and rammed my hands into my sweatshirt pocket. I was so cold and my head, from lack of sleep, ached and screamed at me. I looked in the car window but still Lee slept. I’d thought a lot over the years about how Lee and I met. Sometimes I wondered if we’d have become so close had I not been so intrigued with her confidence or if she’d not seen how I was able to talk to Debby. But other times I thought it was just inevitable. We’d have found each other, eventually.
When Lee and I parted that day after talking in the dorm hall, I went back to my room, but I couldn’t stop thinking about our conversation.
Lee didn’t appear to need anything. I’d always thought of myself as not needing anything, either, but that day I had the distinct sense that something was missing. I was happy for the first time since arriving at school. Lee had made me think. And I remembered suddenly feeling as if I’d finally found something even though I hadn’t realized that I’d been looking for anything.
Perhaps I had been looking for a friend. A best friend.
Oh, God, what was going to happen to us now?
“Finally!” Ducky said as she bounded across the parking lot toward me. “We got two jelly donuts for Mom Tolliver and chocolate glazed for us.”
“And a coffee,” Sarah said, coming up behind her.
“Good,” I said. “Thanks.”
We glanced at the car but none of us moved toward it.
“Okay, we got our story straight?” Sarah asked. Ducky and I nodded.
“I feel so sorry for her,” Ducky said. “What’s going to happen to her now?”
“Let’s go,” I said. And then we got into the car and drove to the house.
Spring was late to Bloomington and the last weeks in March were gray and cold. The buds on the trees, which had started to unfurl before we left for break, seemed to hesitate as if unsure whether it was safe to come out. Rain fell nearly every day for two weeks. Then, with only a few weeks left before graduation, the skies cleared and the temperature and humidity soared. In the afternoons we camped out on the sundeck, working on our tans, burning off hangovers. At night we drank in air-conditioned bars, then stumbled home in the early morning hours.
Senior Week, five days of parties, the Little 500 bike race, and events before finals began, was almost here. The baseball team was having a losing season and Ben was in a bad mood. And my mother called one morning—on the house phone in the mailroom because she couldn’t remember my room phone number—to ask me where have I been and why in the world haven’t I called?
I was suffering an epic hangover but felt every inch of my body jerk to attention when I heard her voice. She rarely called and I hadn’t realized that she’d paid much attention to when I called her, either (the last time was Sunday, five days ago, at four thirty in the afternoon). What did she want?
“I’ve been here and the library. Studying.” I cringed with my lie and chastised myself for not calling her. But, no. I did call. I haven’t done anything wrong. Have I?
“I haven’t talked to you in the longest time.” Her voice was mildly agitated.
“I called you on Sunday. Remember? You’d just gotten home from your talk with the Harvard undergraduates. At the English department?”
My God, she talked for two hours, she’d said. Just the thought of speaking that long, and to Harvard students, no less, made me shudder. No way could I do that. I rubbed my forehead. My headache was worse by the minute.
“Damn! I can’t get the microwave door to open! Why won’t it open? Everything is going to pot. I can’t count on anything!” Her voice was much louder and more agitated. And then something crashed on the counter or the floor.
“Was that the microwave?” I squeezed the receiver. It had been a long time since I’d heard this level of panic in her voice. “Where’s Dad?”
“He went out, hours ago!”
I rubbed my forehead again. My brain felt thick and waterlogged—how many beers did I drink last night?—and then suddenly I realized that she wouldn’t call simply to complain about the microwave. “Did something happen?”
“Not one review has come in yet. Not one!”
“What am I supposed to do? How can they expect me to wait like this?”
I licked my parched lips. She was talking about reviews of her new novel. But why worry? People loved her other novel. People loved her. Why would this one be any different? I felt a flutter of panic start down my legs. I thought about how afraid I used to be of the dark and reached over and flipped the switch. Light flooded the mailroom but it didn’t make me feel better.
I knew what to say, now that it was clear what was wrong. But I was so tired. “Everything’s slow in publishing. You know that. I’m sure the reviews wil
“You can’t be sure.” Her voice shook; she was about to cry.
“It’s a great book.” I had no idea whether her new book was great or not. I’d always begged off reading it when she’d asked. “Everything will be okay.”
“But how can you know that?”
“You’re a great writer. How many times have I told you that? Don’t worry.”
She sighed loudly. “You don’t know if it’s great because you won’t read it.”
Years ago I’d read part of a different novel she’d begun. But when I gingerly offered a few suggestions, she dismissed each one with a swiftness that left me feeling like an idiot. Because she’d been right. No way was I going through that again. Now the fatigue felt crushing and I blurted, “I’m in the middle of finals!”
“Oh, I know.” She sighed. But her voice was beginning to break. I was helping.
“Remember how long it took to get the reviews for Listen?” I asked, feeling a bit more energized. “And you know your editor. As soon as she gets a review, she’ll send it to you. Don’t jump to conclusions. You have so many fans who love you.”
“I suppose you’re right.” She sighed again but I heard the release in her voice. I’d pulled her out of her hole. And although I felt grateful that this time it hadn’t taken long, I felt worse. Her lack of confidence was baffling.
She cleared her throat. “And I’m sorry to say that we have another problem. I have to be in Denver the night before graduation. It’ll be tight.”
I felt a whiplash sensation with the sudden change of direction. Did this mean she wasn’t upset anymore about the lack of reviews?
Graduation. I swallowed, a slow burn starting across my chest and into my throat. I wanted her here. I didn’t want her here. Would she be charming? Difficult? That I didn’t know and would have to manage it (was that what I did?) made me lose my balance. Or maybe it was my hangover. I cradled the receiver between my chin and shoulder and held the counter with both hands. I was shaky, my brain fuzzy, as if someone had stuffed cotton balls in the depths of my ears. I was so saturated with alcohol that I wondered, briefly, if I’d blow up if someone lit a match next to me.