“Hey, if you want to go to the dining hall with me, get some clothes on. I’m starving.” I plunk my books on my desk by the window.
“Yeah, yeah, you and your middle class hang-ups.” Emily disappears into her bedroom on the left. “Just us tonight, “she shouts. “Gretchen is still in the metalsmithing studio.”
I notice a box by Gretchen’s door to the right. “Another care package from Mama Strauss?”
Emily laughs. “Probably more braunschweiger, that awful liverwurst.”
I sniff the package. “And more snickerdoodles.”
I’ve already been to Gretchen’s home in Buffalo. Her parents are extremely Lutheran. Both sets of grandparents straight from Germany. Her dad plays the organ at their church, and every Saturday morning, they clean the house from top to bottom listening to Bach or Wagner. Gretchen shared a basket of family photos. I loved the one of her dad as a boy petting his cow in Iowa. I haven’t been to Emily’s house yet, but I know she’s from Greenwich, as in Connecticut.
Once seated in Kimmel Dining Hall, Emily whispers across the table, “See that guy over there with the ponytail? Isn’t he cute?”
I turn from my chicken parmesan and limp broccoli. “He’s okay.”
Emily busies herself with flubbery cubes of cherry Jello. “Oh, my God, he’s coming over.”
I turn around and there he is smiling.
“Mind if I sit down?”
Emily moves over one chair. “Not at all.”
Before we can start a conversation, a naked guy runs through the dining hall.
“Wow.” Mr. Ponytail grins. “That’s the second streaker I’ve seen today.”
Emily brightens. “One dashed through printmaking yesterday. Where was yours?”
He breezed through WAER while I was playing “Under the Boardwalk.”
“You’re a DJ?” Emily sighs.
“At the SU station.”
I take a sip of milk. “So which version of that song? The Stones or The Drifters?
“I like the Drifter’s version better, genuine R&B, not a British Invasion remake. But ‘Time is on My Side’ is a great cut from that second Stones album.”
Mr. Ponytail leans across the table. “My name is Clive.”
Emily turns. “I’m Emily and this is Ann.”
I continue, “Wasn’t Ben E. King in the Drifters before ‘Stand by Me’ ? Man, that ostinato beat, the soaring strings! Maybe corny, but that song melts my heart.”
“I’ll play it for you next time I’m at the station.”
We leave the cafeteria a trio and wander towards M street. Clive offers to buy a pitcher of beer at the pizza place. We slide into a red vinyl booth and chat more about music, at least me and Clive, but I feel like a fake. My opinions are my own, but most of what I know about rock and roll, jazz, the Blues is really from my boyfriend, Neil. I say boyfriend. We haven’t broken up yet, but I didn’t see him much during Christmas break. After a season on the other side of the ocean, we’re strangers. Besides, coming home, I was five hours off my foreign sleep cycle. He’d plan a date, but I’d fall asleep before dinner. Then wide awake at 3:00AM. I read Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast in those silent, separate, somehow sacred hours, midway from midnight to dawn, trying to re-adjust to Eastern Standard Time as if I was an ex-pat from my own life.
“It’s funny,” I tell Clive, putting my elbows on the sticky table, “I felt so anti- American when I left, Vietnam and all, but I couldn’t wait to get back to the land of central heating and hot showers. A Scottish B&B hostess sent me to bed with a hot water bottle as if I was sick. When I got to my freezing room, I realized it was my only warmth for the night. In my London flat I shared a bathroom with the whole building – unheated—two floors down. You had to feed twenty-five pence into a slot below the water heater as if you were taking a bath in an over-sized pinball machine.”
Clive laughs and refills my plastic cup.
I am a motor mouth. So many stories, so many thoughts I need to voice to understand. “England almost made me a vegetarian after seeing pigs and chickens hung by their necks in the butcher shop windows.”
“Well, meat is from dead animals.” Emily pipes in.
“But in America, you can’t identity it.” I take another sip of beer. “That’s the beauty of chicken parmesan.”
Clive laughs out loud. “The beauty of cafeteria chicken parmesan.”
“Ugh, so artificial!” I see the way Emily is looking at me and Clive. I wasn’t the one who thought the guy with the ponytail was cute, but he’s getting cuter all the time.
When Clive walks us both home, we’re all a little tipsy. Emily invites him upstairs. I go into the bathroom next to Gretchen’s closed door. When I come out, Emily’s door is shut. No Clive. I pull my curtain and go to bed not exactly sure what happened.
I awake in the last, lonely hours before sunrise. A creak. Footsteps. The apartment door opens. I peek out my curtain, and silhouetted in the light from the outer corridor, is Clive. I think he looks my way before the latch clicks, and all is dark once again.
The next evening in the dining hall, I spy Clive in the far corner, his ponytail facing away from us. Two streakers interrupt our almost silent meal before I dump my trash in the barrel.
The guy sitting across from Clive puts his tray alongside mine in the dirty dish window, and whispers, “I’m Clive’s roommate. He wants to ask you out.”
I look back at Emily and Gretchen.The skin between my eyebrows clenches. “Did he make love to my roommate last night?”
“He’s really, really sorry. You’re the one who knocked his socks off.”
Conscience and ego battle for supremacy. “I don’t know.”
When I get back to the table, Gretchen says, “Who was that?”
Emily doesn’t skip a beat. “He was sitting with the guy I slept with last night. It’s not like you don’t already know.” She looks at me. “So what did he want?”
I spit it out, “Clive wants to go out with me.”
“Clive is the last-night guy?” Gretchen turns to Emily.
Emily shrugs. “No big deal.” Then turns towards me, “Don’t let your hang-ups hold you back.”
Friday night Clive picks me up in his VW bug. I don’t know anybody else on campus that has a car. He says when the weather improves we’ll drive to Skaneateles and go horseback riding and sailing. For our first date he takes me to The Orange, a college bar. While we disco dance to “The Pusher Man,” he mentions his dad is a movie producer, a real live movie producer, and his mom is a model. Walking back to his car, he picks up a flattened bottle cap to an Orange Crush soda and places it in my palm. “Now you’re my Orange Crush.”
During spring break Emily invites me to Greenwich for the weekend. She picks me up at the bus station, and we zoom along narrow tree-lined roads until her secluded English Tudor mansion appears. Her mom and dad must be Lord and Lady Giroux. We park in a cluttered garage and go in through the kitchen.
At the sink is a dark-skinned woman in a white maid’s uniform. “Hello, Miss Emily.”
"Hi Rosa, this is my friend, Ann.”
I put out my hand, but Emily rushes us through an adjacent family room and into a grand foyer with a parquet floor. She points straight across. “That’s my dad’s office.”
I see bookcases, a large desk and leather club chairs.
Emily takes my suitcase. “I’ll show you the rest later. Let’s go up to my room.”
We enter a large, sunny bedroom with pink and blue wallpaper, ruffled curtains, white carpeting, and Early American antiques. Opposite a canopy bed is a private bath with blue tile, white towels, and untouched bars of soap like a hotel. The only thing that looks like Emily is a table in the corner made out of an electric cable spool. Emily locks the door, and removes the few books that cover its hollow core. Reaching inside, she pulls out a baggie of white powder.
“We’re taking this to the party tonight.” She licks her pinkie and dips it inside the bag. “Want some?”
I shake my head, no. “Isn’t that an obvious hiding place?”
She puts the first cocaine I’ve ever seen back under the books. “Nobody comes in here but Rosa, and who’s she gonna tell?”
We lounge on Emily’s bed until a disembodied voice says, “Sweetie, time to come down for dinner.”
“I guess there’s no more delaying it.” Emily speaks into what I thought was a thermostat. “Down in a minute, Mother.”
Emily leads me to the end of the foyer. On one side is a living room with a cathedral ceiling. On the other a grand dining room. At a long table, carefully laid for four, is a man who reminds me of Perry Mason. A small woman in a beige linen suit sits opposite.
Rosa serves roast beef, mashed potatoes, petite peas, and a Waldorf salad. The silence is shrill. Small bits of conversation, like flotsam and jetsam, are caught in the rip tide of her father’s opinion. In the half hour it takes to eat this meal, I swear he grows bigger. Her mother shrinks, her pinched face as pale as drift wood. By dessert, I’m almost ready to run out of the room and snort cocaine.
Emily speeds her mom’s Volvo to a small brick house in the dark. We enter a living room focused on a round coffee table topped by a round mirror covered in four straight lines of coke. As fast as one squadron is snorted, another lands. With a look, Emily invites me to join her, but my gut says this is a line you don’t cross. There are no introductions to her friends. In fact the faces change. No one stays for long. I’m back in the Volvo before I know it with Emily no longer raw, but calm. She drives back to the Tudor mansion, and in the morning, I gladly take the bus home.
Before vacation is over, Clive and I take the ferry to Nantucket, our plan to find jobs and spend the summer in love by the sea. Clive gets a position as a waiter. I’ll be renting bicycles.
On the way home, Clive invites me to his house in Stamford, not far from Greenwich. His mother greets me, her face slathered in Vaseline. When she retires to her boudoir, Clive leaves too, saying, “I’ll be back in an hour or two. I’m helping my dad with his next movie.”
He still hasn’t returned when I hear a pebble clink against his bedroom window. I open the sash. A pretty young woman says she’s Clive’s ex-girlfriend. I let her into the kitchen where she adds she too has a summer job on Nantucket.
I sit back in the chrome and glass dinette chair. “Does Clive know this?”
“I came to tell him.”
I look over the half wall into the sunken family room. The air is suddenly thin. No solid ground. I feel myself dropping like a stone.
I should have known it was coming. When we get back to school, Clive says, “Wouldn’t it be great if we could see other people.”
I smile. “Sure.” Such a sugar-coated statement. At first I don’t realize I’ve swallowed the bitter pill of a break-up.
And so that summer after my junior semester abroad, instead of renting bicycles by the sea, I worked with Gretchen in downtown Syracuse at Coyne Industrial Laundry.
I often wonder if Emily Giroux is still alive, that girl who bared herself in my living room, trying to weave something beautiful, who gave herself away to a stranger. Was she like those streakers, desperate for someone, anyone, perhaps her father most of all, to notice her, to stand by her, to love her for who she really was, unadorned? At the time, I thought her behavior extreme, the streakers ridiculous.
But was she any more innocent or evil than I? How eagerly I imbibed the bubbly, evanescent syrup of infatuation, looking for all the right things in all the wrong places, not able, not wanting, to see things for what they were. How long did I keep that bottle cap as evidence of true love? Don’t we all want to see ourselves mirrored in stardust?
When my Orange Crush evaporated, I had not yet tasted Jesus, The Bread of Life. I did not yet know what it was to be clothed in His righteousness. I was not yet an ex-patriot of this world that strips us of our dignity and leaves us naked.