“ Waiting sucks.”
The voice was male and came from behind my right shoulder. I was so startled by the sound of another’s voice rising above the undemanding Top 40 soundtrack, I nearly spazzed myself off my barstool.
The voice tried again, this time with an awkward paraphrase.
“It sucks, you know, to wait.”
To have confirmed the source of the voice would have required me to turn away from the bar. I was the only one seated there, so I knew the voice was directed at me. And yet confirming this fact wasn’t something I was particularly inclined to do. There was a swift movement, followed by a fresh whiff of citrus, sweat, and testosterone. The voice had taken the empty stool to my right.
“I hate being the first to show up anywhere,” he continued, so sure of his hypothesis. “You feel like such a jackass.”
The shift from first to second person was reflexive and unintentional. This is how his kind talk. To confirm, I refocused my attention away from my drink to his face. I was unsurprised by what I saw: a white, early-twentysomething male with a pair of mirrored aviator sunglasses resting on top of his head. His light brown hair was mussed in a calculated way that required far more product than neglect. He was broad-shouldered in his I’m-so-secure-about-my- masculinity-that-I-can-wear-pink Lacoste polo. A popped collar brushed against his ruddy rugby-player cheeks. Without looking down, I knew he had flip-flops on his feet.
It could’ve been worse. Plenty of guys renounce Dude’s scruffy preppy aesthetic and take to the sidewalks of this town wearing gaudy madras shorts, striped button-downs, and pastel sweaters knotted around their shoulders, like illustrations straight out of the first edition of The Wasp Handbook. Earlier today on the way to the bar, I spotted a yachting, lockjawed specimen wearing green twill trousers (a corny word, but the only one that fits) with tiny ducks embroidered all over them. Tiny ducks. Unironically. I almost pointed and shrieked, which is something I hadn’t done since first grade when I got smacked in the back of the head for screeching at a man with a cantaloupe goiter in the frozen-foods aisle of the Pineville SuperFoodtown.
Dude wasn’t hot. He wasn’t not. As with most guys of his privileged station and prep school pedigree, Dude was put together well—blandsome —which is all he needs to get laid on a regular basis. He was inspecting me inspecting him, a bemused expression on his face. He lifted himself up ever-so-slightly on his faded denim haunches, a gesture that indicated that he’d give me only a few more seconds before writing me off as embittered, boyfriended, or otherwise impenetrable.
“Hmm,” I murmured. Then I sipped my drink and tried not to wince as the whiskey scarred my windpipe.
Dude settled back onto his stool. My indifference intrigued him, as all romantic impediments do. It’s been scientifically proven. The harder the conquest, the more you want it. It’s called frustration- attraction. (I don’t think it’s unfair for me to pipe in with this parenthetical: Frustration-attraction explains a lot when it comes to you and me.)
“So, you know, when we noticed you”—he thrust his carefully disheveled hairstyle toward a table in the corner, where three identically dressed dudes of varied races were pretending to drink beers instead of watching us—“we figured that one of us should come over and keep you company until your friends arrive.” The fact that his friends were still sitting over there, instead of cockblocking him over here, suggested that money had exchanged hands before Dude made his approach.
“Twenty says I’ll get her number.”
“Dude, you are so owned.”
“Hmm,” I said again.
“So where are they?” he asked. “Your friends?”
It wasn’t an unreasonable question. I was, after all, a female sitting conspicuously alone in a college bar, drinking whiskey on a Saturday barely past one in the afternoon. Girls who look like me don’t drink whiskey by themselves in bars barely past one in the afternoon. Granted, it wasn’t the kind of dingy dive bar that ruins reputations, but a respectable Princeton institution that serves classic pub fare along with whatever is on tap. It’s proudly decorated with orange-and-black paraphernalia and even sells a poster- sized version of a mural depicting Brooke Shields sitting in a booth across from Einstein, Toni Morrison, and other less instantly recognizable local luminary. Parents still bursting with pride were dining in the back room with their sons and daughters— freshmen and freshmeat who also arrived early for the pre-Orientation programming— enjoying one last lunch as a family before leaving their children alone to embark on their miraculous college journeys.
“My friends aren’t here,” I said. “Just me.”
My first cryptic yet intelligibly human response made him break out into a smile. His teeth, it almost goes without saying, were thermonuclear white.
“I’m Dave,” he said, extending a gentlemanly hand. “And you are . . . ?”
“I’m Jenn,” I lied. “With two n’s.”
“Two n’s?” Dude was emboldened by two multisyllabic replies in
a row. “And how do you defend this blatant overuse of unnecessary consonants?”
Dude thought very highly of himself, and he considered this comment to be charming as all hell. As a female, I didn’t have to play along in the same way. Just sitting there, seemingly agog at his patrician charms and in possession of a functional vagina, really, was the only participation required on my end. And yet I couldn’t stop myself.
“I need two n’s,” Jenn-with-Two-N’s continued in this facetious, flirtatious vein. “Because one’s naughty and the other’s . . .”
“Nice?” he offered.
Dude laughed really, really hard. He thought I was being ironic, which I was. But he was unaware of the full extent of this parody playing out before him. Ours was a multilayered mockery of a conversation, one occurring within a set of quotations within quotations within quotations. I was tired of having these types of conversations. I had a relationship with a philosophy major at Columbia that existed entirely within multiple sets of quotations.
“Why haven’t I seen you around here before?”
“I don’t go to Princeton,” said Jenn-with-Two-N’s.
“I didn’t think so,” Dude said. “By the time you’re a senior, you feel like you know everyone even if you don’t.”
“Maybe it’s because you all look alike,” I replied, gesturing my glass toward the corner table. “That is, in your racially diverse way.”
This also made him laugh. “I should be offended.”
“But you’re not.”
“No,” he said. “Because it’s true.”
I finished my drink in one long gulp. It was starting to burn less. Jessica Darling is a puker. But Jenn-with-Two-N’s could handle her liquor. Dude lifted his finger to alert the bartender that we’d like another round. He was drinking Stella Artois.
“So you don’t go here,” he said.
“Work here? Live here?”
“No,” I said. “And no.”
“So if you don’t mind me asking,” Dude said, cracking his knuckles in such a way that required him to flex his lats, delts, and pecs, “what are you doing here?”
“I . . . don’t . . . know.” Each word a mystery unto itself.
Dude smiled because he thought I was joking. But it was a tight smile, one that betrayed his concern that I might be a bit of a nutcase, a drunken one-night stand not worth the psychotic hangover. He asked a question designed to get a better sense of what he was dealing with.
“So what do you do?”
“Breathe,” I blurted in a bad German accent. “Eat. Fuck. Shit. Not necessarily in zat order.”
I was quoting my landlord, Ursula, but Dude didn’t know that. He looked over a muscular shoulder to the boys in the corner, perhaps wondering how he was going to get out of this bet but still save face.
“ ‘What do you do?’ is the first question people in the States ask when they meet someone,” I said. “No one asks that question in Europe. It’s considered rude. Over there, people don’t want to be defined by their jobs. Over here, it’s the only way most people define themselves. I’m an i-banker. I’m a corporate lawyer. I’m in real estate.”
Dude’s eyes glazed over, and not with booze. How could I ever expect this future titan of industry to understand?
“I’m in publishing.”
It took a moment for Dude to realize that I wasn’t speaking in faux first person anymore and that I had just informed him that I, Jenn- with-Two-N’s, work in publishing.
“Oh. Like books?” Dude asked.
“Well, it’s really more of a journal than a magazine,” I said. “I’m sure you’ve never heard of it.”
“What? You think I don’t read? You think I’m illiterate? I do go to Princeton, you know.”
“I had no idea,” I said dryly.
I also had no idea why I was still talking to Dude in this manner. Maybe it was because Dude was encouraging my antics by nodding his head vigorously, as if this whole conversation made perfect sense. Drunk is the universal language, the dipsomaniacal Esperanto, so he totally, totally got everything I was saying.
“So listen,” Dude said, all business, all pleasure, all the time. “Since you’re not waiting for anyone, maybe you’d like to join us.”
“I don’t think so,” I announced as I stood up, smoothing out the wrinkles in my butter-colored Bermuda shorts with my palms. “I have to go break up with my boyfriend now.”
Dude laughed harder than all his other laughs combined. He slapped his forehead in laughter, which sent his sunglasses falling to the floor. More laughter rang out from the corner table.
“Why are you laughing?”
“The way you said it,” he replied as he not-so-stealthily gave my legs a once-over. “ ‘I have to go break up with my boyfriend now.’ ”
“I didn’t think I was going to say it,” I said, almost to myself. “It just came out.”
“I have that devastating impact on the ladies,” Dude boasted, pretending to mock his own sexiness.
I really hadn’t intended for Dude to be the first to know. It only took a nanosecond for my mind to catch up to my mouth, but it was a nanosecond too late. It was a relief, in a way. Putting feelings into words makes them so. Once words are spoken (or written . . .) they take on a greater significance. With this slip, I suddenly felt that readiness I’d been missing all morning. It wasn’t liquid courage, it was the real thing: I’m here to break up with Marcus. That’s why I’m here.
I considered what could have happened next, if I wanted to.
I thought about lifting myself up on my tiptoes and leaning into Dude’s face. I thought about breathing in his sweet-and-sour scent of citrus shaving cream and perspiration. I thought about his mouth opening to say something unnecessary and mine clamping over his to shut him up. I thought about a mushy kiss with a mealy banana mouthfeel.
Making out with Dude could’ve been a harbinger of all the horrible hook-ups to come. It could’ve proven that I wasn’t looking to get involved with someone else right now, I was just looking to get out of the involvement I was already in. But I didn’t need to kiss Dude to confirm this truth. Kissing Dude is something I might have done when I was in college (okay, something I did do in college), but I knew better now. So instead of making out with Dude, I made my exit.
“Wait! Where you going? Can I get your number?” His cell was out and ready.
I walked away to the sound of Dude’s halfhearted protests, leaving him behind to pay up for one piece of ass he shouldn’t have wagered on.
I teetered out of the dark bar and was assaulted by the sunlight.
It should be dark right now, I thought to myself. It should be midnight and not . . . 1:39 p.m. Your first meeting had ended at one p.m. You had another meeting at three-thirty. I had one hour and fifty-one minutes left.
Official Orientation begins next week, and classes another week after that. But you were so eager to get everything you could out of your Princeton experience, you arrived early for the Frosh Trip, one week of hiking, kayaking, tent-pupping, and bonding with hundreds of other first-year students in the wilds of the tri-state area. You assured me that Outdoor Action is a very popular program, and I still can’t help but wonder if its attractiveness to the majority of the eighteen- year-old attendees has something to do with its prurient sex-in-the- wilderness connotations.
I had no trouble finding your dorm because as undeniable luck would have it, you were assigned to Blair Hall—the oldest Collegiate Gothic dorm on campus and the most iconic. With its stone facade, imposing four-corner turrets, and famed archway, it looks like nothing less than a castle. It was impossible for me to miss, even in my somewhat inebriated state. When we’d moved you in earlier that morning, it struck me as absurd that students would actually live there, yet appropriate that one of them was you.
I was drawn to the noise of a volleyball game in progress on a stretch of sand near the castle that served as the campus beach. I envisioned row after row of nubile bodies in bikinis, as if this were a junior college in Fort Lauderdale and not one of the most esteemed and difficult-to-get-into universities in the world. As I made my meandering approach, I spotted you with ball in hand in the serving position—an impressive figure stretching several inches taller than any other player on the court. You were shirtless, as you often were since returning from the desert, and your lean, sinewy muscles were shiny with sweat. You’re the rarest of redheads, unfreckled, with skin that turns red first, then browns in the sun. Your ropy dreads had grown past your shoulders and bounced along with your every move.
And then there was the Beard.
You had all but given up on shaving, and the result was a (forgive me) scuzzy, neck-to-nose beard/sideburns combo. At its best, the Beard was sort of bohemian and Ginsbergian. But it more closely resembled that which is usually seen on the faces of crazy homeless men or even crazier Islamic fundamentalists, or lately, the batshit crazy Mel Gibson. When it got too mangy and unmanageable, even for you, the Beard was attacked with a pair of cuticle scissors. A weed whacker would’ve been more efficient. The Beard was, without question, aesthetically unappealing and hygienically unsound, two factors that distinguished it from the very deliberate and totally played-out hipster beards that plagued Lower Manhattan and certain Brooklyn neighborhoods in the mid-00s.
From the Hardcover edition.