Read Higher Education Online

Authors: Lisa Pliscou

Higher Education (6 page)

“Wouldn't you like to know.”

“Not really.”

“Why? Is there something you'd like to hide?”

“Why would I have anything to hide?”

“Just trying to keep you on your toes, Randa.”

“I still wouldn't be tall enough, would I?”

His smile fades a little. “What's that supposed to mean?”

“Nothing.”

“Christ, I hate it when you're cryptic.”

“Maybe you should have been an archeology major.” Swiftly I turn away.

John shoots me a look as I sit down. “Just window-shopping?”

“Shut up.” Jessica points her fork at him. “I'm about to tell a joke.”

“Oh, no,” moans Clark. “Please don't.”

“Shut up.” Jessica thrusts her fork in his direction. “I know I have problems with my delivery—”

“Delivery?” I say.

“Oh, Christ. I'm sorry.” She lowers the fork.

“I couldn't resist.”

Clark looks back and forth between us. “Am I missing something, girls?”

“Didn't I just tell you to shut up?” This time Jessica reaches for her butter knife.

He leans back in his chair. “How about that joke, eh?”

Jessica rolls her eyes. “The only reason I'm going to tell this joke is because it's really too good to keep to myself.”

“I know that one.” Roald waves his arms. “There's a Jew, a Catholic, and a black guy, see—”

“Roald, will you be quiet, please?” Jessica fingers her butter knife.

“Sure.”

“Good. Is everyone ready?”

No one says a word. I hear a cup dropping in the kitchen.

“Okay. Why did the elephant fall out of the tree?”

The silence drags out for a few more seconds.

“To get to the other side.”

“Ninety-three.”

Roald is waving his arms again. “Oh, about ten inches.”

Jessica looks triumphantly around the table. “Because he was dead.”

“Dead!” I give an appreciative yelp of laughter.

The others, however, are quiet. Roald slurps his coffee, frowning into his cup.

I laugh again. “Dead.”

John raises his hand. “Jessica?”

“What?”

“I'll be brief.” He lowers his hand. “I wish you'd kept your joke to yourself.”

“Who asked you?” she snaps.

“Come on, gang. Just a minute here,” I intervene. “What Jessica told is a riddle, not a joke. So let's have some cooler heads prevail, okay?”

“Riddles, jokes,” John says impatiently. “Don't be so damn technical, Miranda. It's still stupid.”

“You think so?” I notice that he's got little glutinous particles of cereal stuck between his teeth.

“It doesn't make sense,” complains Roald. “How did the elephant get up in the tree in the first place?”

I blink at him. “He was born there.”

“Oh, I see.” He nods.

“Miranda?” Stephanie Kandel is standing by the table with her tray. “Hi, sorry to bother you—”

“No bother,” John interrupts. “Have a seat.”

“No, I really can't.” She glances at him and then back at me. “Uh, I missed English C this week and I was wondering if you got the assignment?”

I watch her flip her long, rather lank brown hair off her shoulder. She's always pleasant to me, and is doubtless one of the nicest, brightest sophomores in the house. Tipping my chair back, I ponder why it is I don't seem to like her very much.

“Miranda?”

“Yeah?”

“He gave us an assignment, didn't he?”

“Yep.” I look up at her. “After he finished taking attendance.”

Her brows crinkle. “He's taking attendance now?”

“I guess. He was muttering something about the final grade being based on class attendance.”

“Oh, no.”

“But listen, you know how he is. He's always muttering about this or that. I'm sure he didn't mean it.”

“Oh, I hope so.”

“You know, it's like him saying he's going to penalize people for having long brown hair.”

“He said that?”

“No, no, no. I just meant that it's exactly the kind of thing he would do.”

“Oh, no.” She fingers the ends of her hair.

“Anyway.” It looks to me like she's got about a million split ends. “Weren't you asking me something about the assignment?”

“Uh, yes.” Now her fingers play over an inflamed-looking pimple at the corner of her mouth. “Was I assigned to read one of my stories for next week?”

“Nope. Guess you lucked out this time.”

“Oh, okay. Great. Thanks.”

“Come on, Steph, pull up a seat.” Clark smiles at her. “Plenty of room.” He smashes his chair up against Roald's.

“Ow,” Roald says faintly.

“Thanks, but I'm with somebody. Thanks again, Miranda.”

John stares at her as she walks toward the sunny tables down by the windows. “Cute girl.”

Jessica looks at me. “The great Oz has spoken.”

“Oh, not in a flashy way, like Miranda here.” John points at me with a grubby forefinger. “Or in a more understated way, like Jessica, but in a—in a—”

“I think it's time to go back to Kansas.” Jessica stands up. “Let's go, Dorothy.”

“Okay.” Hastily I swallow three spoonfuls of yogurt and stand up too. “I'm ready.”

“So long, boys,” Jessica says, waving her silverware at them. “Try not to fall out of any trees today.”

“Thanks for the advice.” John rips a jelly doughnut in two.

As Jessica and I near the end of the dining hall, Roald gives a sudden bray of laughter. “Dead!”

“Sad, isn't it,” she murmurs. “And to think he scored sixteen hundred on his SATs.”

“Yes, but I hear his father still had to pay off the admissions office.”

When we reach the foyer Jessica touches my arm. “Listen. About the test. I'll be in the history library all afternoon.”

“Okay.”

“History library, got it?”

“That's H as in hangman, right?”

“Jesus, Miranda.”

“Jessica?”

“What?”

“I think you're going to be late for your ten o'clock class.”

She checks her wristwatch. “Oh, shit.”

“Have fun.”

“Call me.”

“Bye.” I wave and head for the stairs.

I try telephoning Michael to see if he wants to go to the Coop with me, but there's no answer. I lean back against the sofa and something crackles familiarly at the base of my spine. It's my little note from this morning. Stifling a yawn, I cross my legs and squint down at my spidery handwriting. It seems that there are only two options open to me this morning: I can either go to OCS-OCL or I can do my laundry.

“Hmm,” I say aloud. I
could
go outside and make the ten-minute trek to the Career Services building. There, crowded on all sides by every known species of job hunter, internship seeker, med-school applicant, potential fellowship nominee, and other equally unsavory types, I'd sooner or later end up in an ill-lit corner sifting through a stack of outdated job listings, too overwhelmed to even think of trying to approach one of the ostentatiously harried counselors, most of whom are austerely dressed Wheaton College graduates with tight chignons, who in the past have been less responsive to my courteous little questions such as
How do I select an appropriate grad school
? or
Where's the bathroom
? Now, folding my arms under my head and staring up at the ceiling, I remind myself that one outdated job listing is pretty much indistinguishable from any other outdated job listing.

Then again, I could carry about a hundred pounds of laundry up and down the narrow Adams House stairwells, hoping to god I don't meet anybody in transit. And of course there's the matter of quarters and detergent, of which I have neither.

“Hmm,” I say again, peering at my list. Then I crush it into a tiny ball and pitch it into the fireplace. Sighing, I kick off my sneakers, plump up the end cushion, make the appropriate mental adjustment to my schedule, and curl up on the sofa.

Angela is late. Closing my Roget's, I mull over the words
generate, propagate
, and
procreate
, poking at the remaining half of my blueberry muffin until finally it's reduced to a drab, distinctly unappealing little pile of crumbs.

Making a face, I wipe my fingers on a napkin and push my plate away. Within seconds the waitress arrives to take the plate and pour more coffee into my cup. “Thanks,” I say with a polite little smile. She ignores me and I watch her whisk off in her brown apron, coffeepot held like a truncheon. Then I look back down at my notebook, contemplating some lines that came to me this afternoon while I was running.

“Hi, am I late?” Angela sits down in a cataclysm of jacket, beret, shoulder bag, books, and an enormous canvas tote. “I'll have a bran muffin, please,” she says to the waitress, who's already pouring her a cup of coffee. “Toasted. Extra butter.”

Then Angela turns to me, her lip gloss shimmering in an anticipatory smile. “Wanda, did you know that bran muffins have fewer calories?”

“Fewer calories than what?”

“Than the other kinds.”

“Ah.” Suppressing a sigh, I try to remember exactly how she fell into this little habit of addressing me as Wanda.

“Listen, I stopped in at Ann Taylor on my way over and they had these discount coupons for John Dellaria. Wouldn't it be fun if we hennaed our hair?”

“No thanks. I'm not the redhead type.”

“No, no. I don't mean the red henna. There's this neutral henna that just enhances your own natural color. Want to?”

“I think I'll pass.”

“How about a pedicure? I'm getting one done tomorrow morning.”

“Well, I can't say I'm not tempted, but—”

“And then there's a sale at J. August we could go to afterwards.”

“I'd love to, sweetie, really, but—” I sit with chin in hand, wondering why it is that she keeps pressuring me into these little get-togethers. Beyond the fact that we both live in Adams House, our sole mutual interest seems to be a certain attachment to the Coop's cosmetic counter. I sip at my coffee and look at the clock hanging on the wall in the smoking section. “But I'm way behind on my work.”

“This place has eyelash tinting too.” Angela leans forward. “I thought we could get our lashes tinted at the same time we were getting our pedicures done.”

“Forget it. They'd probably clip my eyelashes and tint my toenails.”

“Oh Wanda.” Her face droops. “I just thought it would be so much fun for us to do together.”

“I know, but look, sweetie, is this a study session or what? Get out your nudie photos of B. F. Skinner and let's get cracking.”

“Wanda,” she says reproachfully. Clucking, she sorts among the books and papers contained in her various impedimenta. Eventually she extracts a single textbook and places it on the table in front of her. As she's uncapping a yellow highlighter her muffin arrives. “Oh god.” She pushes the book aside and reaches for her plate.

I curve over my notebook, my right hand meditatively twisting a spiral of hair between my fingers.
Genesis, fertility, proliferation …

A spray of brown crumbs scatters on the page. “Hey.”

“Oh, sorry, Wanda.” With the pads of her fingers Angela plucks up the crumbs, which leave behind little amebalike grease stains. She smiles, sucking on a forefinger. “Delicious.”

“Your teeth are rotting, even as we speak.”

“God, you're morbid. What have you been writing?” She pulls my notebook toward her. “I'll bet it's really depressing.”

“I really don't—”

She pushes my hand away and bends her head over the page. “You're always so secretive about your work, Wanda.” She reads my half-dozen lines, mouthing the words to herself, and then she closes the notebook and returns it to me.

“Oh, Wanda.”

“It's just a little something I'm throwing together for poetry class. D'you think it's literary enough?”

“Well, I—I mean, it really is kind of morbid.”

“Morbid? Me?” I fold my arms over my chest.

“It's just that—” She hesitates, then leans forward. “I guess the part about not sleeping really hit home.”

“Oh?”

“I haven't been sleeping well lately.” Her breasts lie on the table in two neat cashmere-encased spheres. “I haven't been sleeping well at all.”

“I'm sorry to hear it.”

“And I'm tired all the time.”

“Maybe you should go to UHS.”

“Wanda, can I tell you something?”

“Sure.”

She fidgets with her pearls. “It's about Philip.”

Oh shit
. “What about him?”

“Well, you know we've been having some problems lately.”

“Sure, but almost everybody has problems.” I take a big swallow of coffee. “I'll bet even B. F. Skinner has a problem every once in a while.”

“I know, but—”

I'm trying as surreptitiously as I can to signal our waitress for a check. “But what?”

“Well, it's about our sex life.”

“Oh?”
Please look. Please turn and look at me right now. Yoo hoo. Check, please
.

“Well.” Angela takes a deep breath, which makes her chest appear to miraculously inflate on the tabletop. “Last night we're making love, right? The usual stuff. And then he starts saying. ‘Please come, please come.' Over and over again.” She's capping and uncapping her highlighter pen, click-click, click-click. “It was so horrible, Wanda. I didn't know what to do. The more he kept saying it, the worse it all got. So finally—well, I—” Now her voice sinks to a whisper. “I faked it.”

“Oh?”

“Then he starts asking me all these questions again, after I told him a million times they embarrass me. No, he's got to get his little checklist out and find his favorite Cross pen. Do I like it this way, would I prefer it if he did it that way, should we try it in weird positions I know he got from some awful book somewhere. I swear I just wanted to scream.” Click-click, click-click. “I haven't had a good night's sleep in days.” Click-click, click-click.

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