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By Lisa Pliscou
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Lisa Pliscou
All rights reserved.
I see my roommate from freshman year approaching through the Wigglesworth archway off Mass Ave. Her breasts seem larger than ever, and as she walks toward me her chest sways formidably. Left, right. Left, right.
Flooded by dread, I consider diverting left and up the steps toward Lamont, or veering a trickier right toward the language labs and slipping into the lounge where I can hide behind an Italian edition of Vogue for a few minutes. In the meantime I make my eyes go as blank as possible, trying to look preoccupied, if not totally oblivious. Contemplating Proust, perhaps. Lost to the world. Possibly stoned.
But it is too late. Jeanne has seen me, and I have no choice but to continue moving in a straight line, clutching my notebook and paperback Roget's a little more tightly to my own meager bosom.
"Buon giorno, Miranda!" Her voice as ever is vibrant and lively. "Comment ça va, chérie?"
"Hey, Jeanne." Even with my habitual slouch I'm still a good half-foot taller than she is. "How's everything?"
"Oh, I can't complain." She beams up at me through a fuzzy mass of dark erratic curls.
"Great." I nod. "So what's new?"
"Well," she says brightly, and I brace myself. "Carl and I are running the model U.N. this year, and I'm still taking jazz dance classes up at South House twice a week. Plus I'm having my thesis typed for me, which means I have to keep running every five minutes to the typist's to proofread. And of course I'm getting ready for my internship in Washington next year —"
There's something I want to do tonight, but I can't seem to recall what it is. Arching an eyebrow, I cast about in my mind for a sense of impending pleasure, discomfort, or boredom. Tracking down reserve readings for Soc Sci 33? Carrying my dirty socks down five flights of stairs to the laundry room? Hanging out in Tommy's Lunch improving my Defender score?
"— and Carl keeps begging me to spend the summer with him in Greece —"
A synapse twitches and now I remember: I'm supposed to call Dean tonight, to confirm a date hastily arranged this afternoon while his girlfriend dallied behind in the lunch line.
"— and I was going to have dinner at Adams House, but then I remembered that it's Oxfam night so there's no interhouse."
"Oxfam night?" I test myself to see if I know Dean's number by heart. 4-9-8 —
"You know, skipping a meal for world hunger. Harvard Students for Oxfam, remember?" Jeanne eyes me sternly. "The proceeds go to needy third-world children."
"Oh, yeah. Right." Suddenly I realize that I'm ravenous. The two blocks to the dining hall seem to stretch ahead like miles.
"You signed up, didn't you?"
"Well, actually —" My stomach rumbles, and I slide my notebook and Roget's down over my abdomen. "A whole bunch of us are having a picnic out by the Charles."
"At six o'clock at night?"
"Kind of romantic, don't you think?" I give her a crooked half-smile. "Want to come?"
"That's okay. I stopped over at the Lowell House tea for a quick bite."
"You're a fan of the cucumber sandwiches, aren't you?"
"What a memory you have." She laughs. "Homemade baklava, chérie. And the pâté — well, you know me and pâté."
Fat cow. "Sounds kind of boring."
"Boring?" Her breasts are still jiggling merrily. "Even the cucumber sandwiches?"
"Especially the cucumber sandwiches."
"You funny old Val Gal. Still into yogurt and granola, eh?"
4-9-8-3-7 — "What?"
"Of course you are. You're still the same old beanpole."
"Fer sure," I say amiably, wondering if she's still squeezing her pimples and leaving neat little apostrophes of pus on the bathroom mirror.
"I know there's so much to catch up on, kiddo, but there's a Democratic Club meeting over in Emerson, and I'm afraid I've got to run."
Try waddle. "Well, it was nice seeing you again."
"Why don't we get together for lunch sometime?"
"Sure. And thanks for reminding me about Oxfam."
"Pas de problème, sweetie." Flashing a sunny smile, Jeanne motors off, readjusting her enormous green backpack over her shoulder.
"Yeah, ciao," I call, making a grotesque Lucky Jim face at her briskly retreating back.
Walking down Plympton Street I come to the Crimson building, its balcony draped with a big white bedsheet spray-painted in spidery neon-orange letters: STOP APARTHEID NOW. Beneath the banner, on the steps leading into the building, six juniors from Leverett House are grasping each other's shoulders and doing precision Rockette kicks to the accompaniment of a ghetto blaster playing "Life Is a Cabaret" at full volume.
Then I pass on. This being mid-April, it's Fools Week at the Lampoon, during which newly inducted members are made to perform a number of eccentric public acts, many of which entail partial nudity and strange hats. Or, in this case, a cancan on the Crimson steps. God only knows what they do in the privacy of their own domain. I've never much liked their magazine, although I must admit I've chuckled at their literary parodies from time to time.
As usual the door to Adams House is locked. Through the grimy barred window I look at Kurt the superintendent in his office, tipped back in his chair with his feet up on the desk, reading a magazine. His steel-gray hair, parted straight down the middle of his scalp, shines dully in the brutal fluorescent light. Squinting, I see he's staring down at an old issue of Newsweek. I'd bet a sum equivalent to the proceeds from Oxfam night that there's a copy of Playboy tucked inside.
Too lazy to dig out my keys from my bag, I ring the bell and show my teeth in a huge grin. Kurt looks up from Miss April and scrutinizes me through the ironwork. Am I a terrorist bent on blowing up the Adams House library, perhaps, or a foolhardy resident of Quincy House attempting interhouse on Oxfam night? He narrows his eyes, which makes them look even smaller and flintier, and with snail-like deliberation he moves his hand the ten inches it takes to press the buzzer to let me in.
My smile widens, if such a thing is possible, and lightly I pull open the door. This of course is Kurt's retaliation for the fact that every winter, regardless of which section of Adams House I happen to be living in, I nag him ceaselessly about the inadequate heating in my room, running downstairs to pound on his office door as many as six times in one day, a record set my junior year that I believe is still unsurpassed. When Kurt is sufficiently exasperated by my shrill-voiced complaints, he calls up Buildings and Grounds to send over someone from Maintenance. When the B & G man finally arrives, he kicks the radiator a few times, scattering gray slush all over the floor, and curses the superintendent for making him leave his office on such a bitterly cold day. Nodding and waving my arms, I commiserate with him, viciously egging him on, and then he stumps downstairs to harass Kurt, who in turn refuses to give me the standard double apportionment of toilet paper, limiting my dispensation to a single roll per request. Usually I end up stealing four or five rolls at a time from the ladies' room in Mem Hall, thereby avoiding another vitriolic exchange with Kurt, who probably thinks I've stopped going to the bathroom entirely.
Humming, I stop at the C-entry mailboxes and dial the C-45 combination. There's a letter for Jessica from her parents in a fat embossed Yale University envelope, bills from the Coop, an invitation to the Spee Club's annual pajama party, a "Return in 5 Days To" envelope from my mother, and a pink form letter from the Women's Clearinghouse inviting me to a forum on Date Rape, Refreshments Provided.
We got the news about Phi Beta Kappa. Your father says it's all paternal genes, ha ha. We went deep sea fishing in Ensenada last weekend with the Taggarts. The weather was fantastic. Have you heard from Columbia yet about graduate school?
I look up from the letter, tilting my head. Very faintly, I think I hear a baby crying.
For a moment I picture my parents out on the open sea, fishing rods in one hand and long-necked Coronas in the other, laughing at one of Eddie Taggart's incessant scatological jokes. "Mr. and Mrs. Sea and Ski," I mutter, crumpling my mother's note into a little ball and tossing it into the nearest receptacle, which happens to be the exposed case of the Gold Room's grand piano.
"Two points," a voice drawls. I turn to see Jackson stretched out on the burgundy leather sofa by the fireplace, a cigarette in one pale slender hand. "Your aim's superb as always, Randa." He smiles at me through a blue veil of smoke. "But don't you think you could find a more appropriate place for your garbage?"
"My garbage?" I feel my lips curving in a sneer, yet somehow my voice is softer than I intended it to be. "I needed a trash can."
"Darling, you're an English major." He takes a drag on his cigarette and lazily exhales. "Don't you know the difference between a piano and a wastebasket?"
"Is this a trick question?" I stare back at him, envying for perhaps the thousandth time the length and impossible curl of his eyelashes.
It's well past midnight and the Advocate party is packed. For the past half-hour Molly and I have been doing go-go routines on the fireplace mantel, high above the crowd. Even though the ledge is barely a foot wide, we've managed to pull off some pretty impressive Supremes imitations, although at one point I had to grab Molly by her polka-dotted miniskirt to keep her from tumbling headlong into the dancers below. Across the room on the massive oak table Billy and Gerard are ripping up back issues of the Advocate, sprinkling the pieces on people's heads and howling with laughter.
More and more people keep jamming into the room, which by sheer dint of body heat and kinetic energy gets warmer and warmer. Although the open windows admit the chilly November air, only those at the very fringe of the crowd can feel the steamy coolness, tingling on overheated skin.
Over at the makeshift bar they've run out of mixers and are pouring gin and vodka straight up in clear plastic cups. Jackson, who as Advocate Dionysus this year is the official party-thrower, seems unconcerned; the party is another glorious success. Eyes glittering and outlined with brilliant blue kohl, he weaves his way through the crush, stopping here a moment to kiss someone in greeting, there to dance briefly with someone else before moving on, supremely at his ease. He and I haven't spoken, save for a quick kiss exchanged upon my arrival, although at one point as I stood by the fireplace talking with Anthony, our heads close together so we could be heard above the music, Jackson suddenly appeared and swung me up onto the mantel, where Molly had been doing the Pony solo to the last couple of songs.
Now we go from the Ramones right into "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and then to "Twist and Shout," the music reaching a mad crescendo as everyone jumps into the four-part harmonies, singing, sweating, swaying, sinking to the floor in an ecstatic paroxysm. The song ends and now Elvis Costello is singing "My Aim Is True." Swiftly the room quiets, becomes somehow reverent under Elvis' moody spell, and Jackson is standing before me. He holds out his arms, and I descend from the mantelpiece into his embrace, and we're dancing together, my cheek pressed tight against his familiar knobby shoulder.
Later, much later, Jackson closes the front door of the Advocate behind the last guest, turns the lock, and leads me upstairs, where he clears one of the sofas of empty beer bottles and forgotten jackets. It's nearly dawn and it's breathtakingly quiet in the room. As Jackson pulls off his shirt, I sit waiting for him on the sofa, reputedly the very same sofa on which Norman Mailer used to take his daily afternoon naps. "What's so funny?" Jackson whispers, sitting down next to me. "Nothing," I whisper back. "Nothing at all." Leaning forward, I very gently bite him on the salty skin at the base of his throat, still smiling as all thoughts of Norman Mailer swiftly vanish.
"Have I ever asked you a trick question? Miranda?"
I blink. Jackson has just executed a flawless smoke ring, which he carelessly brushes aside.
"Pay attention, darling. There's going to be a quiz afterwards."
I shudder ever so slightly, wondering if I'm imagining the sudden draft I feel snaking down my spine. "Loan me a cig?" I say, giving him my best glammie smile, a precisely calculated expression displaying equal parts of derision, spurious affability, and indifference. It is an art that I have cultivated in recent years, and which of late I have brought to something close to perfection.
Jackson frowns at me. "Since when do you smoke, Randa?"
"Everyone needs a hobby." I shrug. "What brings you to this den of sin, anyway? Waiting for Godot or something?"
"There's no interhouse tonight, you know."
"Oh?" He blows another smoke ring. "Why not?"
"Oxblood, Cowland, Starve a Steer for Christ. I forget." I raise my right foot a few inches off the floor and flex the ankle, one two, one two. My shinsplints seem to be bothering me more than usual tonight. "You know. Another one of those massive bleeding-heart gestures that gets a lot of publicity and makes everybody feel guilty for a few hours. But all it really means is that there's no interhouse." One two, one two. "Hope it doesn't interfere with your plans."
"Not really. We'll go out, I guess." He yawns. "What's wrong with your leg?"
I turn away. "Well, I'll see you around."
"D'you think I need a haircut?"
I look over my shoulder. His hair, a tawny brown, curls with artless grace over his collar. Dear god, I think unguardedly, he's Byron, he's Baudelaire.
"You look fine." I take my hand from my throat. "How's the French lit coming along these days?"
"Same as usual."
"Good." When I am at the door, he speaks again.
"Want that cig?"
"No thanks. I was only joking."
After descending the three steps into the dining hall, I pass the enormous portrait of John Quincy Adams, who somehow looks more solemn and dyspeptic than ever, and head for the checker's desk, nimbly avoiding a collision with the house chemistry tutor and one of his students. Sourly I notice that they both wear trousers that are slightly too short, which leads me to ask myself yet again why it is that chemistry majors always look like chemistry majors.
Virginia the checker waves me on into the kitchen, making a little red mark next to my name on her list. "I got you, hon." She is for the most part genial and easygoing but I have seen her on occasion break into a terrifying sprint after unauthorized diners attempting to slip out the back door carrying trays of food. Virginia never buys the sick-roommate story. "If they's so sick," she'll retort, "how come they need two servin's chicken cacciatore?"
My cynical interest in tonight's culinary aberrations notwithstanding, I pass the hot entrées and proceed directly to the chilled metal dairy tins and help myself to a bowl of yogurt. Grinning, Serge tosses me an apple and a whole-wheat roll. Next I jostle my way to the head of the line at the coffee machine. Then, following the obligatory moue of disgust, it's out of the kitchen and into the dining hall. Not unlike Scylla and Charybdis, now that I think of it, impatiently waiting for a pair of overweight sophomores to finish squeezing through the doorway in tandem.
Standing by the salad bar with my tray, I peer about in search of friendly fauna. It's the usual six o'clock scene: a blur of faces and arms and legs and teeth, the cacophony of trays and dishes and silverware clattering, shoes clicking and tapping on the polished wood floor, voices raised in banter and salutation and laughter. The house master's baby is crying again. He's propped up in his high chair at the pre-law table, where Master Ackerman holds court, flanked by two long rows of sycophants who snatch bites of food between nods. His wife sits at the foot of the table, her chin receding desperately as she attempts to shush James P. Ackerman, Jr., who waves his tiny fists about and wails with a fortitude that might come in handy during the Yale game when football season rolls around again.
I wouldn't want to be sitting at that table either, bulging as it is with articulate, neatly dressed overachievers engaging in thoughtful and well-informed conversations about important issues of the day. Dear god.
Their first word was probably "LSAT." It's not that I object so much to their sedately checkered flannel shirts, or even to their inexplicable interest in world affairs. It's the effort they display that unnerves me. The trick, I've found, is to breeze into exams, serenely whip your way through a bluebook or two, and leave forty-five minutes early; to ostentatiously skip language lab yet be able to recite your French verbs perfectly the next day; when called upon in English lit to explicate a passage from "Il Penseroso," confess that you haven't read it in years but would be happy to hazard an interpretation, and then launch into a short but brilliant exposition upon Milton's unmatched utilization of imagery and meter.
Excerpted from Higher Education by Lisa Pliscou. Copyright © 1989 Lisa Pliscou. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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