Authors: Laura Moriarty
That evening, Marley Gould, wearing piglet slippers and a long, ruffled nightgown, was camped out on the big orange couch that faced the elevators in the seventh-floor lobby. I was on a quick study break, headed downstairs to get a soda; but when I saw the back of Marley’s long braid, I slowed. I felt bad for Marley. She was from a town in western Kansas that had a slightly smaller population than our dorm. She seemed much younger than the other freshmen on my floor. Her roommate was in a sorority and never around. I knew she read out in the lobby because she was lonely.
She looked up with such a happy, hopeful expression that when the elevator doors opened behind me, I didn’t move.
“Okay! Just doing some reading!” She showed me the cover of her book: a princess, in full princess garb, was holding a sword to a dragon’s throat. She glanced at my walkie-talkie. “You’re on duty?”
I nodded. Two black girls—I didn’t know their names—emerged from the women’s wing, laughing hard into their hands. One of them smiled at me and then at Marley, but they kept moving, running into the waiting elevator just before the doors closed.
“It’s finally getting colder out, huh?” Marley pulled her braid in front of her shoulder, and then just under her nose, as if she were sniffing the tip. “And the buses were running late all day. Did you notice? I have to get better shoes. I have these great boots back home, but I didn’t bring them up yet, because it was so warm at Thanksgiving, and now it’s cold. So my dad said he would send them, but…”
Trying to smile, I watched her lips move. I fought the urge to look at my watch. I had physiology lab the next morning, and before I went to it, I had to be able to diagram the central nervous system and digestive tract of a dog shark. And Tim was coming over at eleven.
You can be kind,
my mother had often said to both me and Elise.
Nothing else you girls accomplish really matters if you don’t know how to look out for other people.
When I was in grade school, she had methods of tracking my social ethics. She was always the room mother, coming to school with cupcakes or inviting herself along on field trips on which she would
me on the bus to sit next to the kid no one else wanted to sit with.
Just say hello and be friendly,
she would say.
It only takes a minute.
Marley was looking at me now, waiting. She had asked me a question.
“What?” I shook my head. “Sorry.”
“I said, ‘Do you want to come to the spring band concert this year?’ I know it’s a little early, but I can give you the date if you want to mark your calendar.”
“Yes!” I said. “Yes! I would like to go!” I had to go. There was no way out. Marley played the French horn, and at the beginning of the year, she’d told me she would be playing with the marching band before the first football game, and it was clear from the way she’d looked at me that she wanted me—or someone, anyone—to come see her. I’d said I would. But then I slept late at Tim’s, and I had a test the following Monday, and it was raining, and I didn’t want to go—so I did a terrible thing: I stayed in, studied all day, and then told Marley that I’d spent the day shivering in the stands, clapping and cheering her on. “You were great!” I told her, maybe too enthusiastic. She’d known I was lying. I was sure of it.
“I wish I were doing the holiday concert.” Marley pulled her blanket up around her shoulders. “You have to be selected for that, and most freshmen don’t get it. But Christmas music is my favorite. My mom played the piano for every music group in our town, so we always went to a bunch of holiday concerts. I always liked them, even when the music was bad.” She sighed. “And then we’d all come home and drink hot chocolate.”
I pressed the elevator button. Marley would be fine. She had her happy, intact, childhood home complete with Christmas carols and hot chocolate. I didn’t want to talk to her anymore.
“Well, it’s almost time for finals,” I said. I checked the lights above the elevator doors. “And then the big winter break, not long after that. You’ll get to be home for a while.”
“Right.” She pulled a large bag of Cheetos out from under the blanket. “Hey, do you want to watch
with me? It’s on in ten minutes. I’ll make popcorn.”
“I’ve got to study,” I said. “Sorry.”
This was the way it went with Marley. We ended each conversation with her asking for time I didn’t have. She was never the one who was busy, never the one who had too much to do. I knew from experience that if I looked at her now, she would be staring at the floor, her brow furrowed, as if I’d just said something mean. So until the elevator came, I stared at the beige brick wall by the doors, where someone had written “I WAS HERE” in black Magic Marker.
My mother was wrong: It did not take just a minute to be kind. It usually took much longer, and I had things I needed to do. My mother would no doubt have sat down with Marley all evening, trying to cheer her up. But she had never passed organic chemistry. Her whole life, at least up until she met the Roofer, had pretty much been spent looking out for others, and not getting much else done.
“I’m getting you a space heater for Christmas.” Tim inched back toward the center of my bed. He was almost a foot taller than I was. My top sheet and comforter didn’t quite cover both of us, and his knees were cold against my toes. I moved my fingertips over the soft hair of his chest, his heartbeat still strong beneath it.
I hadn’t expected he would stay over. He had to be up and on the road early—he had to be in Chicago by late afternoon to pick up other relatives who were flying in. Plus, of course, he hated the dorm. I glanced at the ceiling. My upstairs neighbor had been playing the same reggae song for the last hour, the steady drumbeat vibrating the exposed water pipes over my bed.
“I can stay for a while,” he said, turning toward me. “I’ll stay until you fall asleep.” He followed my eyes to the leaning pyramid of books and notebooks on my desk. “But you’re not going to sleep, are you?”
I shook my head. I would start working again as soon as he left, and maybe finish up with the dog sharks by two. That would give me almost four hours to sleep. Jimmy and Haylie’s flight left at eight; they were picking me up in front of the dorm at six.
“My lab prep is taking me longer than I thought.” I sighed, rubbing my eyes. “Because I’m stupid.” I looked away, embarrassed. I hadn’t meant to say that last part out loud.
He poked my shoulder. “Don’t say that.”
I yawned and waved my hands at him. I didn’t want to talk about it.
“Veronica, you’re smart. You’re completely smart.”
“No, I’m not.” I pulled the sheet up, tucking it around me. I could feel him watching me, studying my face. I shrugged. “Not the way Gretchen is. I study twice as hard as she does, and she gets better grades.”
He looked away, apparently considering the matter. I held my breath. Tim was usually both nice and honest. But in situations when he had to choose, he tended to go with honest.
“I wouldn’t say you weren’t quick,” he said.
“Okay. Great. Thanks.” I wanted to change the subject. I didn’t want to be so pathetic, the pathetic girlfriend, whining about being dumb. I smiled. “You’re right. I just got started late. There was a noise complaint on the fourth floor, and I had to go deal with that.” I looked back down. In truth, the noise complaint had taken about two minutes to deal with. Even my conversation with Marley hadn’t taken too much time. What had taken so much time was the fact that every time I tried to read a paragraph in my physiology book, I ended up thinking about something else—usually about how bad my grades were going to be that semester.
“Yeah.” He sat up straight, scratching his neck. “This job does take up a lot of your time, doesn’t it?” He suddenly looked very serious, and though my room was cold, the tips of his ears were pink. “I’ve actually been thinking about that.” He cleared his throat. “I was thinking how nice it would be, for you and for me, if you didn’t have to do this job next year.”
I waited, my eyes moving over his shoulders, his hand resting on the sheet.
“You know Rudy graduates this year. He’s going to move out.”
Before he could finish, I was shaking my head. “I can’t move in with you,” I said. “I can’t pay that kind of rent.” It was true. I would have to apply to be an RA my senior year as well. The last time I saw my father, he’d asked me twice if I was on schedule to graduate, and what kind of financial aid I thought I might get for medical school.
“Right.” Tim sat up so the sheet fell over him. He looked a little Roman, wearing a toga. “The thing is, you wouldn’t have to. You know I got that scholarship. And I’m working at my dad’s office this summer, and he…Let’s just say he’s happy about the scholarship, and he’s making things easy on me. I’ll have enough to pay for that apartment myself. Or we could move into a different one. I could pay for the bills, everything.”
I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to mislead him. But I was so flattered that he’d asked. I wanted to just stay in this moment, his invitation, the romance of it, hanging in the air.
“Okay,” he said. “It would be nice if you said something now.”
My eyes moved around my dorm room, at the bare linoleum, the blank walls, the vibrating pipes overhead.
“I mean, otherwise, you’re going to have to keep this job until you graduate, right?” He looked a little pained. “You’re going to be living in the dorm your senior year.”
I nodded, picturing his apartment, with its pretty wood floors and the balcony off each bedroom. One of the balconies was big. I could make a terrace garden. The kitchen was small, but it would be wonderful to get to cook for myself, to cook nice meals with Tim, and to not have to walk across a parking lot every time I wanted to eat. I would never have to see the dining hall again. I would never have to eat off another orange tray.
Someone knocked at my door.
“Hello?” I turned back to the door, checking to make sure it was chained.
“It’s me. Marley.”
“Do you…do you need something?”
“I just wanted to get your opinion on something. I wasn’t sure about this shirt.”
Tim’s eyes moved from the door back to me. He looked as if he were about to say something that might make me laugh. I leaned forward, away from him. “Uh, can I tell you tomorrow? I’m sort of…I’m in bed.”
“Oh. Sure. Sorry. I didn’t think that…” Her voice was already growing fainter. “Sorry.”
Tim smiled. I smiled back.
“What?” he asked. “Is it the living together thing?”
“No. No, I just…you know.” I knew what I had to say, and how to say it. I just didn’t want to. He looked so happy. “I have to think about, what if…something happens?”
His eyebrows lowered. He moved his hand through my hair. He really had no idea what I meant.
“What if we break up?” I whispered, as if a lower volume might soften the words. “And then what do I do? I wouldn’t have this job anymore. Where would I live?”
His hand moved away from my hair. “I don’t think we’re going to break up. Do you?”
“I don’t know.”
We stared at each other. I had just blurted it out. It seemed such an obvious answer. Of course I didn’t know. He didn’t know. Neither of us could possibly know. But he looked hurt.
“I don’t mean that I think we’re going to. Or that I want to,” I added quickly. “I just mean that, if I give up this job, that’s kind of…it for me.”
He appeared to be taking in this information. He rubbed his chin and squinted at the cinder-block wall. “It’s ridiculous,” he said slowly, his eyes moving over the water pipes. “It’s ridiculous that they don’t let you control the heat in each room. I wonder if there’s a way to sort of…rig up a separate thermostat.”
His brain really did work like this. There had been many times when, in the middle of a conversation about, say, our relationship or my feelings, he would be suddenly distracted by some question about a building’s circuitry or heating and cooling system. It was like a tic he couldn’t help. Still, in this instance, I was pretty sure he was acting. He was changing the subject to give me some time, to remove any immediate pressure.
And then, because it seemed so simple, so logical, and, more than anything, so true, I said, “I’d like to live with you.”
My cell phone beeped on my desk. We both looked at it.
“You going to get that?”
I shook my head. “But I don’t know. Not about the phone, I mean. I mean about moving in. I need to think. I just need time to think.”
“Sure. Yeah. Of course.” He leaned over and kissed my forehead. “When do you have to reapply for this for next year?”
“January.” My cell phone had stopped beeping. Above us, the reggae song ended, then started again.
I woke in darkness, my comforter pulled over my head. I turned on the lamp beside my bed and saw it was quarter past two. I had a Post-it note stuck to my cheek.
Beside the word “you,” he’d drawn a cartoon rabbit who looked just a little bit like me, in a neurotic, stressed out kind of way. I stood up and set it carefully on my desk, propped up against my calculator so I would be able to see it. My physiology book was open to the same page I had been looking at before Tim came over, but the dog shark diagram seemed completely unfamiliar, the words swimming together before my eyes. I had to sleep. I would learn about dog sharks in the morning, either before or after the drive to the airport. There would be time. There would have to be time.
I had started back to bed when I remembered that someone had called earlier. I sat on my bed and thumbed in my security code.
“Hey, it’s your big sister. I know it’s late there. Sorry. Are you in bed?”
There was a pause.
“Forget it. I don’t need to know. Listen, I want to know if you’ve talked to Mom lately. I just called her, and she sounded weird. Even for her. She was talking about changing her name to Natalie Wood. Maybe she was kidding. But she didn’t sound like she was kidding. Veronica, she sounded kind of…crazy. I’m worried she’s having some kind of breakdown.”
I yawned and moved the phone to my other ear. My sister was a little behind the times. My mother had been having some kind of breakdown for the last year. It was nice that Elise had finally realized this all the way out in San Diego.
“I don’t know any of her new neighbors. So. I’m hoping you can at least call her. But I wish you could go see her. I know you don’t have a car. But…I don’t know. Something is going on, Veronica. I’ve never heard her like this. Okay. Call me. Call me back tonight. I’ll be up.”
I set my phone down and crossed the room to my bed, turning off the lamp. It was too late to call California, or too early, whatever. And I was tired. I had enough in my life to worry about without having to wake my mother up only to affirm that she was still unhappy, still full of regret, still unsure of what to do with herself. The truth was, she was all of these things because of very bad decisions she’d made. As my father said, she was lying down in the bed she’d made. And so, steeled against her and very sleepy, I lay down in my own.