"Wait," Jodie said. "You had his phone, and you didn't do anything with it? Like, keep it? Or throw it in a puddle of water?"
"It's... His phone," Elle said. "I'm not gonna do something like that."
Jodie gave her a sidelong glance. "Aren't you supposed to be some sort of major bitch or something?"
"What's that got to do with anything?"
"Oh, nothing, nothing," said Jodie. "It's just that, you were awful kind to him. For a major bitch. Dude, if I'd had his phone, I would've sent out individually-hand-crafted text messages to everyone in his contact list, saying, 'I cheated on my girlfriend and I have a tiny dick,' before I ever let him see it again."
"Wish I had," Elle grunted.
There wasn't much else to say. Elle had gone over the encounter—in depth—with Nicole and David already; and now she was wrapping up a similar walkthrough with Jodie. In the meanwhile, she had gone with her new roommate-to-be to the rental office and signed a number of forms pertaining to their apartment for next year. It was, by and large, similar to the one Elle shared with Nicole now, with one difference: while, in her current apartment, the two bedrooms faced each other across a narrow hall, this new one Jodie had found had each bedroom on either side of the living room. Elle wished she lived in such a place now.
"Now, remember, Elle," Jodie told her as they drove home. "You're single now. You can see that in one of two ways. The first way is to say, 'I'm all alone now, I'm incomplete, nobody loves me, boohoo.' The second is to say, 'I'm free, I can do whatever I want, nobody has any claim on me anymore, woohoo!' So tell me, kid: Which way do you suppose sanity lies?"
David had said much the same, and Nicole. "It's hard to face being alone sometimes, but you have to remember that God has a plan for you," was how Nicole had put it. "He has wonderful things in store for you, and that means that even the pain you're going through now will eventually lead you to happiness."
"Thank you," said Elle, trying to stay positive, "that means a lot." But when Nicole was gone, Elle rolled her eyes, and David gave a quiet chuckle.
"Is she like that all the time?" Elle asked him.
"No, actually, not often at all. ...Which, really, is about the only thing that makes it bearable. I mean, it's kinda cute..."
"...But kinda not," she finished. "At least... At least there's one thing I don't have to deal with."
"All the stupid little things Tom would do that annoyed me."
Unfortunately, there weren't many of them. And, unfortunately, there were a lot of things he had done right that she still missed.
"I guess that's my challenge," she said. "The, umm. The thing God wants me to learn, if you wanna use Nicole's language."
"What's your challenge?" David asked.
"To learn to be single again."
"And yours is... What? To become a Christian?"
David gave her a look which expressed clearly his opinion of that idea.
"Or," she said, "to learn to stand up for yourself."
"I don't see a need to borrow trouble," David said.
Elle rolled her eyes. "So instead of telling her the truth—that you don't plan to let her remodel you—you're just going to lead her on?"
"It's not like that," he said.
"Oh good," she said, "I was under the impression that you were going to lie about your intentions to her. Kind of like you did to me, right after you slept with me."
She knew he was offended, but he didn't admit it; that wasn't his way. "Danielle, I'm not hanging around just because I'm lazy. I'm hanging in because I think Lena is worth fighting for. I mean, maybe I'll change. Maybe she will." That was a reasonable-enough possibility, Elle had to admit. "And as to us, neither of us were being particularly rational during those moments. You know that. We broke up for stupid reasons."
"What, wanting to make sure that you would do well by me was stupid?" said Elle. "Davey, I wasn't just going to sleep with anybody. For me, that was as binding as marriage. My intention was to only ever have sex with one person ever—you. But I wasn't going to even do that unless I was sure." It was, she realized, the first time they had ever spoken about the circumstances of their break-up.
David blinked. "Well, I... I didn't know any of that, Elle."
"I'm pretty sure I told you," she said.
"No, not really. I mean, yeah, you mentioned stuff that was similar to it. You talked around it. But you never put it together for me."
She grimaced. "Well, what's done is done."
"Yeah, but now a lot more things make a lot more sense to me," he said. "Thank you, Nellie."
"Glad to have enlightened you," she grumbled.
Obviously, some of her life went on as usual. She still had her friends—Nicole, David, Jodie—and she still had classwork to do. As the specter of graduation began to loom ever closer, her homework assignments became ever more complex; but, at the same time, the quality of the art got better and better. They were starting to partner up with 3D modelers sometimes, with the modelers rigging the meshes and the graphic artists applying textures; once they got an assignment that required her to do cel-shading on her art, and it reminded her of Tom's art style. That was the problem: no matter how much life went on as usual, some of it, inevitably, still tugged on the loose ends of what she had lost.
She would see something interesting on Facebook or the news and think, Tom would be interested in that, I should... Oh. She would eat something and remember that she had eaten it before in his company. She would pass by a building where he was having a class and have to look away. Even just putting on a top that he had liked would bring back unwelcome memories.
She wanted to be over with this. Not only was it painful, but there was the specter of her last major break-up hanging over her. She was almost a senior in college, the end was in sight; this was not the time to crack up and go catatonic for five months again. It was such a grinding fear that she almost couldn't say it out loud; if she did, after all, it might come true. What had caused her to check out like that? Were the same forces at work in her life now? She wasn't sure; after all, she hardly had any empirical way to test it. And Tom had become pretty well embedded in her life over the last few years. Rarely a day went by that she didn't see him or hear from him. Sometimes he'd come over just to hang out or to get homework done; more often than not, she would go to his house to do the same. Sometimes they would make love; sometimes they wouldn't. His presence had been comfortable, like old broken-in clothes. There wasn't much of her life he didn't touch.
And yet, even as she sat in nervous dread, waiting for the moment where she would break down and zone out, it never happened. It never happened, and gradually she began to wonder if, perhaps, it wouldn't.
Tom had become a part of her life, sure; but David had not been "part of her life" so much as "all of it." Even after three years, she and Tom had nowhere near the rapport that she and David had once had; still had, in fact. There were things she didn't tell Tom—not many of them, but some. When she had broken up with David, it had been hard to conceive of... well, life. What did she have without him? But with Tom, there was still a future. She could live without him. And she would.
Still: between her newly-diminished social life and the amount of time David spent in Nicole's bedroom, she had a lot more time for homework than she'd ever had before.
When she got home for the summer, her parents had all sorts of exclamations over her report card. "Honey, what on earth happened? Your last quarter's grades were incredibly better than the rest of the year!"
Danielle blinked at them. "I didn't realize that going from B's to A's was 'incredibly better.' "
"Well, you have to admit it's an improvement, Nellie," her father said. "Grades have never particularly been your concern."
That much was true; she knew she could get A's if she wanted, but didn't think it was worth the trouble; she'd always been satisfied with those B's. "Well, I hope I haven't set a new precedent with you guys. I still am."
"Are you?" said her mother, holding up the report card. "This would seem to suggest differently."
"Well, I... Needed the distraction," said Danielle.
"From what?" said her mother.
"You never call," her father said, with just a trace of irony. "We hardly know what's happening in your life anymore."
So she explained—what choice did she have? She didn't particularly want to; she knew they would freak out, worrying that she would have another collapse and ruin yet another year of school. And thus she was surprised when they expressed no such sentiment.
"Have you thought about forgiving him?" her mother asked.
"Wha... Who?" said Danielle. "Tom? Why would I do that?"
"Well, from the way you talk about him, you had something pretty special going on," her mother said.
"Yeah, but... How could I ever trust him again?" Danielle said. "I mean, every time a girl called him, every time he mentioned someone, I'd wonder..."
"I think that if he'd told the truth from the beginning, he might have a better chance, Bonnie," her father said. "But the way he handled it... Well, no one could blame Nellie for wanting to end it."
"Why, do you think I should get back together with him?" Danielle said.
"Not hardly," said her mother. "And I wanted to make sure you didn't either."
"...You could've just asked," said Danielle.
Liz and Amy had returned for the summer, of course, and to Dani's surprise Heidi Stimson called her, wanting to get back in touch. David, though, was nowhere to be seen; he had decided to take an internship in Redwood Valley. Though he talked about the work experience, Dani knew it had more to do with being only 15 minutes away from Nicole over the summer, instead of the three hours' transit (one way) he'd have to suffer if he came home. How Nicole's parents would take it, Danielle had no idea. She knew David and Nicole were smart enough to be discreet; she also knew that there were aspects of their relationship that were visible to the naked eye, and that Mr. and Mrs. Smith would probably not appreciate seeing those things. It all depended on them, in the end. Had David even met Nicole's parents? He was taking a pretty big risk, as far as Dani was concerned.
Her friends were all properly sympathetic over Dani's break-up; Liz and Amy had met Tom over the course of the last two summers, and appreciated what she had given up. Amy had news as well: a new ring on her finger, courtesy of a man named James she had met early in the school year. She was not as appreciative of Danielle's reaction, though. "Jeez, Dani, don't you think I would have liked to?"
"Liked to what?" Dani said. "Tell me? I can't believe you got engaged—"
"—promised, whatever—and didn't tell me!"
Amy gave a sigh. "Dani, when's the last time we talked?"
"What, before today?" Dani said. "Umm, it was... Well, it... I guess... At the end of last summer?"
"And what about when I called you during the school year?" said Amy.
"I... You didn't... ...Did you call me during the school year?"
"No," Amy said, "I didn't, because I knew you wouldn't answer. You don't pick up the phone—"
"I'm busy a lot," Dani said.
"—you don't check your messages," Amy said.
"Well..." said Danielle. A lot of them were from her parents, whom she didn't necessarily want to talk to. "Anyone who's—" She stopped herself. She had been going to say, Anyone who's important can reach me in person. "I hate talking on the phone."
"You never answer my e-mails," said Heidi.
"Oh, I never check my e-mail," said Dani.
"Or my Facebook messages," said Heidi. "And I know Carmen's posted stuff on your Wall that you never answered."
"Let's face it, Danielle," Amy said. "You're a hard person to get in touch with. If they can't get you face-to-face, you just ignore them."
"And for all that you hate using the phone, you sure didn't mind calling us to say hi," said Heidi.
"Tom's gone, and David's gone," Amy said. "So now you turn to us. But the moment they're back, we're flushed out the window."
"Thrown down the toilet," Heidi agreed.
Dani looked at their faces: stern, though not angry. She felt an immense wave of guilt. "Then why are... Then why are you here? I mean, I don't deserve... Not after the way I've treated you. Why are you wasting time with me?"
"Because we're your friends." It was the first time Liz had spoken up all day. "Because we're your friends, whether you like it or not. Whether we like it or not. And that means that, when you call, we answer. Just as we always have."
Dani looked at Liz. Once her friend had been vibrant and beautiful, with perfect chestnut hair and a serenity in her eyes. Now she looked like she wasn't getting enough sleep at night; her hair fell in hanks around her face, her skin was clammy and there were bags under her eyes. She looked haunted. By what? And that was another nail of pain. If she were Liz's friend, shouldn't she know already?
Something was eminently wrong in Liz's life; what, Dani didn't know, but she could tell it was there. And yet here she was, supporting Dani.
"Maybe it's time that I start answering too," she said. "When you call. Maybe it's time that I started answering."
"Only you can answer that," Amy said. It was a challenge, and Dani knew it—a challenge issued by her friends.
And she'd be damned if she was going to fail them.
And so that was how she spent the summer: meeting old friends for the first time.
Amy had met James Rockwell through an Art History class. He was not the kind of man she normally looked at: he lacked the effortless good looks, the cocksure confidence, the deadpan snark. But they were assigned to the same discussion group, and the more she learned about him, the more she realized that he simply wasn't flaunting anything. There was a top-notch mind under that unassuming exterior, with wits to match; he had a way of phrasing even the most pointed or incisive of comments that made them completely non-inflammatory. He was kinder than any of her other boyfriends had been; and (Amy proclaimed) the sex was better than she'd ever thought possible from someone so inoffensive. "The two are related," Liz told her. "Sometimes the man's pleasure and the woman's pleasure are mutually exclusive goals. So which would you rather have, a man who puts your pleasure first, or his?"
"And you're serious about him?" Heidi asked.
"Well, I'd hardly have this if I didn't," said Amy, flashing the ring again.
"I know, but, just... It's fast. This time last year you'd never heard of him, and now you're thinking of spending the rest of your life with him?"
"It was fast," Amy agreed. "But I don't think it was unwise. I mean, nothing's official; we both agree on that. And besides... I do wanna spend the rest of my life with him. He's... Like..."
"He's a keeper," said Liz.
"I used to feel that way about Tom," said Dani. "And the thing was, aside from the, you know, disturbingly-convincing-liar part, he really was. Sometimes you just... Know."
"Yeah," said Amy.
"Yeah," said Liz.
"Oh?" said Heidi.
Heidi was, of course, single; she was, in her own way, a lot like Amy's new beau: quiet, unassuming, having no real interest in going out of her way to attract men. As far as she was concerned, if she just kept being herself, she'd be able to weed out the people who weren't right for her, leaving only the eligible bachelors in contention. Dani wasn't sure this was an accurate assumption... And, ultimately, neither did Heidi. "The thing is... The only boys who ever ask me out are... you know. The nerds. The really cave-chested, slack-jawed..."
"Huge glasses," said Dani.
"No social skills," Amy said.
"Acne like crazy," said Liz.
"Yeah," said Heidi. "And... Well, I mean, nothing's wrong with them, but..."
"But, something's wrong with them," Dani finished.
"You want someone more well-adjusted than that," Liz said.
"Well..." said Heidi. "Wouldn't you? But the thing is, they aren't... None of them come to me. They're all..."
"Dating cheerleaders?" said Dani.
"That might be a little out of your league," Amy said.
"No, not like that," said Heidi, "I know that's impossible. But I want... I want someone normal. Someone like Tom. Disturbingly-convincing-liar part notwithstanding. Or like your guy, Amy. Someone who's gonna treat me right."
"Well... Those aren't exactly a dime a dozen right now," said Amy. "Most guys just aren't thinking that way at this point in their lives. They just wanna..."
"They put their pleasure first," said Liz. "Thinking with their dicks."
"And to a certain extent, that's just how men are," said Dani, "no matter how old they are."
"Which is why I'm so happy to get my grubby little claws in James," said Amy with an evil grin.
"Well, I'm sure he's duly compensated," said Liz. She had not smiled once, to Dani's knowledge.
"And that's another thing," said Heidi. "I don't wanna put out. I don't think I should have to buy a man's love with my body."
"You don't," said Dani, at the same time that Amy said, "You do." They looked at each other for a moment in amusement.
"Okay, bad news first," said Heidi, pointing to Amy.
"Hon, boys want you to put out," said Amy. "Whether you like it or not. That's just how they're wired. ...Well, hell, it's how we're wired. Sex is coded into our DNA—I mean, it's how the species reproduces."
"Well, still," said Heidi, crossing her arms. "I want a boy who doesn't want sex."
"Doesn't exist," said Dani. "Stop looking. What you really want, Heidi, is a boy who wants sex, but is okay with not getting what he wants."
"I want someone who's like me," Heidi maintained, "in that he doesn't want sex."
"You do," Amy said, "you just don't know it yet. Because you've never been with somebody you really loved."
God, Nicole was so much easier to handle than this, Dani thought. "Which actually brings us right to my point. You don't buy his love with your body."
"Darn right I don't," said Heidi.
"You're not buying anything. You're giving him something—a gift—out of your love for him."
Heidi gave her a skeptical look.
"Like Amy said," Dani said. "You've never... I mean, you were dating Max Cheng, and since then it's just been others like him, you said." Heidi nodded. "And these are people you're not really... Excited about. You could take them or leave them." Heidi nodded. "Well, it's different when you're really into someone. You can't wait to spend time with them, you want to talk to them all the time... You want to make them happy."
"And you want to... Get naked and do the nasty with them," said Heidi, still skeptical.
"It doesn't seem nasty when you really want to," said Dani.
"No, that's not true," said Amy. "It does seem nasty. And that just makes you want to do it more."
"You'll see," said Dani. "When you've met the right man, you'll see."
"Well..." said Heidi. "How do I do that? I mean, at this rate I'm not gonna find out one way or the other."
God, Nicole was so much easier than this, Dani thought again. Nicole had had an instinctive understanding of all of this: that it wasn't enough to just be yourself, that she would need to present herself well too; that sex could be a positive experience. She wondered if Nicole's parents did it for fun. She wondered if Nicole was aware of them doing it for fun. For all their overbearing Christianism, Mr. and Mrs. Smith had seemed like the kind of people who knew how to take joy in life. Maybe they were more well-adjusted than Dani expected of them.
"Okay," Amy was saying. "Heidi, take a look at yourself. What do you see?"
Heidi looked down at herself and then gave a shrug. "Umm. I see me. Why?"
"Okay, let me rephrase that," said Amy. "Heidi, take a look at yourself. What do you see that you aren't using?"
"I thought we'd been over that," said Heidi in an irritated voice.
"Heidi, advertising matters," said Dani. "It's not enough to be an interesting person; you also have to seem like one."
"Oh, so it's all about looks again," Heidi snorted.
"Yes, it is," said Amy. "Not entirely about looks, but at least somewhat. Heidi, tell me truthfully: if you were asked out by someone who was nice, polite, well-read and really, really ugly, would you accept?"
Heidi said nothing. Liz took a look at Heidi's face and said, "And I see that this isn't a hypothetical question for you."
"Heidi, if you're going to judge people on their looks, you shouldn't be surprised that people will judge you the same way," Amy said.
"Well, I'm just screwed then," Heidi grumped, "because I don't have any looks."
"Bullshit," Amy said. "And besides, even if you didn't, it wouldn't matter. As the whore told the bashful sailor, 'It's not how much you got, hon; it's all in how you use it.' "
"Meaning what?" Heidi said.
"Meaning that, even if you don't have much in the way of looks, you can still accent more what you do have," said Dani.
"If you stood up straight and stopped being so stoop-shouldered," Amy said, "it'd fix your posture. You'd feel taller, and your boobs would look bigger. You could take better care of your hair, instead of letting it get all dull and split-endy. You could wear different clothes than boring T-shirts and jeans. Something a little more revealing, or at least that would accentuate your curves."
"I don't think I'd feel comfortable wearing something like that," Heidi said.
"You can learn," Amy said. "Attractiveness is a state of mind."
And that was their project for Heidi that summer: teaching her to have more confidence in herself. As Dani could have guessed, it was not an easy task. To Heidi, being attractive and confident was a foreign state, one she should not trespass on. At the mall, she turned down suggestion after suggestion; the first time Amy suggested shorts, Heidi nearly turned and ran. (And, after seeing the unshaved state of Heidi's legs, Dani understood why. Fortunately the situation was salvageable; Heidi had long since surrendered to the fact that eventually she would have to shave her legs.)
Though Dani was the one notorious for having been fashionable and well-dressed, it was Amy who took the lead in this project, and Amy whose fashion sense proved decisive. It was Amy who, perhaps even more than Heidi herself, seemed committed to reforming her friend into someone more attractive. Dani was impressed; she had never seen Amy be so... Nurturing. After all, this was Amy: for all that they needled Dani about her selfishness, Amy was the real epitome; she just hid it better. Perhaps college had mellowed her. Or maybe James.
It took a lot of the summer to convince Heidi to try coming out in public in her new clothes, with her new attitude; in fact, it was at the everyone's-going-back-to-school party, organized by Danielle in late August, at which she first managed. "But... I'll feel weird," she protested, and Amy just nodded. "That's the whole point. These clothes should make you feel different about yourself. Different in a good way; different in a way that lets you be a different person."
"I don't wanna be someone I'm not," Heidi said.
"And you're not gonna be," Amy promised. "What you are going to be is you."
Heidi eyed the clothes laid out on the bed. "I dress like that?"
"Do you?" Amy returned.
"Well..." said Heidi, clearly reluctant. "I could..."
"Exactly," said Amy. "You could. Now, obviously, you haven't before, but that doesn't mean you can't, it just means you haven't. Today, you will. We're not making a new person. We're just taking the old person and looking at her from a different angle."
"We-elllll..." said Heidi. "...Okay."
Heidi had been trying the new shampoos and conditioners for a while; the clothes did the rest. They were by no means revealing, but the cut of the blouse wasn't just a hole for her neck anymore, and her new jeans were form-fitting, though not hardly as tight as they could have been. Heidi looked at herself in the mirror and said, "...Wow."
"Exactly," said Amy.
And it worked. Though the party was at her house, Dani had insisted that all four of them were throwing it jointly; as such, the guest list was a conglomeration of friends, acquaintances and strangers. There were old people from high school; older people from junior high or even grade school whom she hadn't seen in a long time; even some new college acquaintances, friends of Amy's or Liz's who happened to live in the area. Some of their faces—Marina Forkish, Randy Hillinger, Andrew Metz—she knew how to read; others were opaque to her. But the fact that Heidi was suddenly worthy of male attention was unmistakable. That was not to say she dominated the whole party or anything; not hardly. But people who had never looked at her twice were suddenly paying attention. And Heidi basked in it.
"Wow," said Dani to Amy.
"Yep," said Amy, smugly satisfied. "You know, sometimes I even amaze myself."
"Can you do me next?" said Dani. "...Actually, can you do Liz next."
"I can do makeovers," said Amy. "I can't do miracles." But Dani knew that the constant pain in Liz's eyes was a worry to both of them.
Liz had always been an expert at steering conversations; whenever the talk veered towards some dangerous or painful subject, she could always come up with a way to segue into something else. For many years Dani had been the beneficiary of this talent, as Liz used it to avert talk about David. But now Liz was using it to defend herself; whenever anyone tried to ask her about her life, or even steer conversation in that direction, Liz pushed things away.
Dani, once again, failed in the friendship department; she decided that, if Liz wanted to keep those things secret, she should be allowed to keep them secret, and that she (Danielle) would not pry. It never occurred to her that Liz might want to confront her issues in private, much the way Dani herself had always preferred to. So when Liz called her up one night and said, "Listen, can I come over and talk," Dani was completely blindsided. "Why would you need to do that?" she asked—a little irritated, since she had been trying to get Liz to talk for weeks, but been deflected again and again. Here she had gone to all the trouble of expressing concern for Liz, only to be brushed aside—and now Liz was begging for sympathy? And of course Liz had to spell out for her. At which point Dani covered her face with a hand and said, "Wow, how do I expect to get through college with a brain like this," and agreed that Liz should swing by immediately.
"So," Dani said to her, "are we finally going to get to the bottom of all this?"
"Well, I've been wanting to tell you for weeks," Liz retorted. "But somebody hasn't been asking the right questions."
"Oh yes I have," Dani said. "In public, sure, but asking. Just because you didn't want to tell me, doesn't mean I didn't ask."
Liz was silent for a moment. Then she said, "Wow, how do I expect to get through college with a brain like this. I've been beating you up in my head for not being a good friend, when the whole time..."
"It doesn't matter," Dani said. "You're my friend. Whether you like it or not. Whether I like it or not. And that means, when you call, I answer."
"Yeah, but shouldn't that go both ways?"
"It didn't at the beginning of the summer," said Dani. "There, we're even. And it doesn't matter anyway; we're friends. We have more important things to talk about than who owes who. Now, do you wanna keep beating yourself up needlessly, or would you like to talk about some of those important things?"
For the first time in a while—maybe all summer—Dani saw Liz smile. "When my friend asks, I answer."
And so Liz sat down and told her about life at the University of San Francisco.
The school was small, with only about 8,500 students, which to Liz was part of the problem: everywhere she went, Martin was there, or someone who knew him, or someone she'd met through him. Sometimes she felt as though he were following her.
Martin, from all that she heard, was doing well. Coming to college had been a brilliant idea for him; or perhaps coming to USF had done the trick. Whatever the case, he had managed to sleep his way through what seemed like half the college before deciding he'd had enough. Thereafter he'd managed to hook up with a girl who was everything Liz was not: supremely popular, a high achiever, perfect GPA, perfect teeth, perfect complexion, perfect chestnut hair, effortlessly voluptuous in a way Liz, a small-breasted size 6, simply could not compete with. (Liz was even thinner than Danielle.) Liz saw them at meals occasionally, or between classes. Her name was Wanda, and she and Martin seemed to be in their own little world together. There were wedding bells and a brood of kids in their future, Liz predicted.
The climate didn't help. Liz described San Francisco weather as monotonous, rarely changing throughout the year—low fifties in January, low sixties in June, and only four summer months without rain (during which Liz had come home anyway). "I'm a tropical person; every day I just feel cold." Her roommate, a fairly heavy-set woman who hailed from Seattle, didn't help; Suzanne liked the windows open, the lights off and the air conditioning going full blast. "I came in after Christmas break once and she had the room down to about forty degrees. And of course I was like, 'Girl, we're done with that,' and she was... She's such a nice person. I felt really bad."
Liz wasn't making friends; maybe she wasn't open-minded or free-spirited enough, but everyone seemed weird to her, too weird to be approachable. "And it's not like there aren't more conservative people around, either," she said, "it's that... God, I dunno. I mean, it's a Jesuit institution, right? Well, it seems to me like everyone's either religious-weird or liberalist-weird, and nobody's, like... Normal." Mostly it was liberalist-weird. Liz had assumed she wouldn't be fazed by the sight of two men kissing in public—or two women, one of whom was Suzanne—but she was, and it made her ashamed of herself. Why should it be any different? And why couldn't she get over it?
"It, umm..." said Dani. "It sounds like maybe USF isn't the right place for you."
"God, you're telling me," Liz said.
"Well... Why not transfer? Why not just, you know, leave? And go somewhere else?"
"Well," said Liz. "Here we get into a little issue called 'scholarships.' " One of the main reasons Liz and Martin had chosen USF was that both of them had gotten full rides there. For Martin, that was more of a convenience than anything else; but Mr. Lewiston had been laid off in the cutbacks last Christmas, and now he was working at a convenience store, the only place that would hire him. Liz's mom was still employed... Part time, as a substitute teacher. Without a substantial scholarship, there were not a lot of places Liz could go. And whether she was looking in the wrong places or asking the wrong questions or simply making a mistake by admitting that she already had a scholarship at USF, not a lot of people were offering. She was stuck.
"I... I can make it, I guess," she said. "I mean. It's just one more year."
"You can," Dani agreed, "it's not that long."
"But sometimes... I mean, I dunno. I dunno. I'd have my degree, yeah, but... Look at the economy. Look at the country. America's over, you know? Nothing can save us now, we're just gone down the tubes. I mean... What's the point? Why should I bother spending this time and wasting this money getting a degree and... I mean, it's not gonna mean anything. Nobody's gonna hire me. Nobody's hiring anything. I'm a Communications major, for heaven's sake, I have a liberal arts degree. My career path is, 'Do you want want fries with that?'. My only hope is to find someone who'll, you know, marry me, and support me out of college. But..." She gave a bitter gesture. "Fucked that up. Flew the coop.
"I dunno, you know? Sometimes I just wanna... Just crawl into bed and not come out again. There's no point; it's hopeless. What do I have to look forward to? Another year of freezing my butt off because I have a supermodel's figure, only nobody actually wants a supermodel. Don't have any friends, can't make any friends. Nobody asks me out. It's pointless."
"Err..." said Dani. "Yes, you have said that."
"Well, it keeps being true," said Liz. "God, I dunno. It just feels so... Hopeless."
"Yes, about that," Dani said. "I'm not sure I like hearing that."
Liz snorted. "Then just ignore me. God only knows everyone else is. All this shit with Heidi. She's too stupid to see what she's got right in front of her, which is her own body, and yet everyone's spending all their time clucking over her. God, if my problems were that easy."
Dani went to Liz's side and put her arm around her. "I'm not ignoring you. I'm listening."
Liz turned a scornful look on her. "Ooh, fancy. And what, precisely, do you hear, O Listening One?"
"Well..." said Dani . "That's the question, isn't it. And what I hear... I don't like."
Liz snorted again. "Join the club. Like anybody likes what I think."
"That's not what I meant," said Dani. "What I mean is... I don't like that you feel that way."
Liz gave her nothing but a styptic blink.
"There's someone I want you to talk to," Dani said. "I don't have her card, but I'll give you her number."
"Unless it's a bachelor millionaire, I'm not interested," Liz said.
"No," said Danielle, "you aren't. You aren't interested in much, are you?"
Liz said nothing.
"How often do you to go to classes? What are your grades like? The fact that you still have your scholarship is a good sign, but you're finding it harder and harder to care—aren't you? You look at your homework and you just don't care—don't you? And how often do you do your laundry? Or get enough to eat?"
Liz said nothing, but there was a shift of doubt behind her eyes.
"Liz... Do you remember when I just... Disappeared?" Dani said. "When I checked out of my life for five months and just left everything and everyone hanging?"
"What about it," said Liz.
"...You are about to do the same," Dani said.
Liz said nothing.
"The person I want you to talk to is Katrina Stanton, my therapist. She helped me."
"Why can't you help me," Liz said. "You've been in the same place I am now."
"Doesn't mean I know how to get anyone out again," Dani said. "Katrina does. And maybe she can help you from getting there in the first place. Maybe she can help stop you from waking up in the hospital and having no idea how you got there."
Liz shook her head. "I'm not screwed-up. I don't need my head shrunk."
"No, you're not screwed up," Dani said. "You never were. You're just... You're a normal person, facing difficult times."
"Normal people don't need shrinks," Liz said.
"Normal people get in over their heads," Dani said. "Normal people need advice. Normal people need shoulders to lean on, and ears to listen to them. Normal people need friends."
"Like you," Liz said. "You're my friend, Dani. You're listening to me. What can your therapist do that you can't?"
"Give you good advice," Danielle said, "and tell you how to get better."
"And you can't?" Liz said. "What did you do? What did you do to stop being out of it?"
"I don't know," said Dani. "That's the thing. I talked to Katrina's husband and realized that I was done giving up. How I decided that, and why... I don't know. I can't tell you how to do it."
Liz snorted, tugging free of Dani's arm. "You're no help."
"Exactly," said Danielle. "How would you like to talk to someone who is?"
And so Danielle called the Stantons. Ned was pleasantly surprised to hear from her, and no, he wasn't offended that Danielle would rather speak to his wife, and yes, Katrina did have some open spots this week, would Danielle like to make an appointment? She was startled at how much she liked hearing Ned's voice. She hadn't gone to see them since graduating high school, but now she wondered if perhaps she should have, just to catch up. Ned had called it, the very first time he met her: hired or otherwise, she still thought of the Stantons as friends.
Katrina called her back later that night, and they spent a few minutes happily catching up before they got down to the chase. "Your friend's hesitation is, well, pretty normal to us; we get it all the time. So, with your permission, we'd like to try something a little unorthodox. Why don't you both come in—you and your friend Liz—and you and I can have a session with her in the room. That will help her see that there's nothing to be afraid of."
"That sounds like a good idea," Danielle said.
"The only thing you should probably realize is that it's not quite the same with someone else in the room. There may be things you feel... Uncomfortable talking about."
"Not with Liz," said Danielle. She gave a wry laugh: "Besides, there isn't much we'd talk about that I haven't told her already."
And so for their first session in years, there was a silent shadow: Liz. She had done her best to tidy up, but three years of growing neglect were hard to erase. She was wearing a floppy beret over her lank hair and her shirt had a few stains on it. Danielle wondered if she had looked that bad when Katrina first met her.
Most of the session was spent just talking and catching up: it had been years since she'd last heard from the Stantons, or they from her. There was plenty to hear about in regards to their daughter Emma—now out of college and in the workforce—and they didn't know Tom Gilmore even existed, much less the love between David and Nicole, or the bizarre advent of Jodie Wycroft in her life. But eventually—probably to keep things from devolving into a reminiscence session—Katrina brought the discussion round to more weighty matters. "Have you had a chance to think about why you broke up with Tom?" she asked.
"Well... I mean, he was cheating on me," said Danielle.
"From what I understand, he doesn't think he was, from his perspective," said Katrina.
"And lying to me," Danielle said.
"That's... harder to gainsay," said Katrina. "But... Danielle, you've said yourself that you aren't sure it was the right decision."
"To break up with him? Yeah, I... I dunno. I mean... I'm lonely. But... Even more than that, I mean... All the stuff that he said. You know? About... About the difference between love and sex."
"Yes," said Katrina. "What did you think about that?"
"You know... I'm not sure," said Danielle. "The... I mean, he's kind of right—you know? People can engage in sex without feeling love."
"And do," Katrina said.
"But... I mean... What if I don't want there to be a difference?" said Danielle. "I don't... I don't think I really want to be... What, just. You know. Doing it indiscriminately. —Well, maybe not indiscriminately. But with someone I don't have any particular feelings for. But... If I feel that way... I mean, what Tom said..." She fell silent, wrestling with her thoughts.
"Yes?" said Katrina.
"I... I mean, that's a true thing. You know? That love and sex are different and completely separate things. And... I think it's important to accept what is true. ...And plus, it's, like... Progressive, you know?"
"But... I don't wanna live that way," said Danielle. "I mean... I did that, you know? I was with Weston, just the once. And, just... Just even thinking about... Being intimate with him. You know. Being naked with him, and having his... His, umm... Being under him with his—"
"Yes, I think I understand," said Katrina with a dry smile. "You didn't like the idea, I take it."
Danielle shook her head. "Not hardly. It skeeved me out." (It still did, a little.) "Does that make me... A bad person? Like, a... Is there a difference between love and sex?" It came out a little more plaintively than she intended.
Katrina was silent for a long moment.
"Well..." she said finally. "I can only speak for myself. But, in my experience, yes, there is a difference between love and sex. It's possible to love someone without having sex with them—as you did, with David. And... It's possible to have sex with someone without loving them... As happened to me."
Danielle felt a spinning sensation under her. "What happened?"
Liz spoke up for the first time. "You were raped."
Katrina gave Liz a wan smile. "You're very observant, Elizabeth. Yes, while I was in college, I was raped. And, obviously, it's a very different experience than making love, or even casual sex.
"Danielle, what I think is that it does not make you a bad person to prefer that love and sex be connected. Obviously I have biased reasons for that, but my experience has been that love makes sex better, and vice versa." She gave a brittle smile. "Of course, my experience has been that love is the only thing that makes sex possible. But that's neither here nor there.
"As to whether it makes you a bad person to want to live one way but actually live another... Well, to be honest, Danielle, that's up to you. From what I hear, you've been exposed to this particular value, and you don't like it. There's nothing wrong with that. But it conflicts with your personal opinion of yourself: you feel that, as an open-minded and sexually-liberated woman, you should embrace this value. Am I right?"
"That, in the end, is kind of just how life works," said Katrina. "We find out our hypocrisy as time goes on. Sometimes we don't actually want what we thought we did. So now it's up to you. Do you want to continue believing you are that person... Or do you want to make some alterations?"
The answer to that was obvious, of course; being sexually progressive didn't necessarily mean doing something she felt was stupid. But even as she thought about it, she wondered how it might be if she was being asked to give up a belief that was much more important to her. "This could be really hard, couldn't it?"
"It could be very difficult," said Katrina. "In fact, some people just can't do it. Not everyone is able to face a hard truth."
"Which is what therapy's for," said Danielle.
"Which is what therapy is for," Katrina agreed.
As they drove home, Liz said, "I'm surprised you felt like you could talk to her about those things."
"About what things?"
"Well, about... Everything," said Liz. "I mean, that's what you talked to her about: your classes, your career, where you think it's going; Tom, where you thought that was going. That you wanted to marry him. The stuff about sex. Even the... Even the stuff about whether you're a good person." Liz grimaced. "I mean, I wouldn't say that to someone I could be sure was my friend."
"But I am sure," Danielle said. "That's the thing, Lizzie. I am sure. They've been my friends since junior year. I trust them."
"Friends whose friendship you buy," Liz said.
"Well, good friends can be thin on the ground sometimes," Danielle said. "You of all people know that, Liz. Are you gonna turn new ones down just because you have to spend money on them?"
Liz said nothing. But four days later she called to say that she had set up an appointment with the Stantons.
Danielle was pleased, of course; Liz needed the advice, and (even more than that) she needed the friendship. But this was only a temporary solution; come September, she'd be shipping back to San Francisco. And who would she talk to then? Heck, would she even continue to talk to the Stantons now? On that topic Danielle actually wasn't too concerned; Ned's easy humor and Katrina's unwavering sympathy should win Liz over. But there was still the future to think about. And Danielle wanted Liz to have one.
But eventually the summer came to an end—as it always did—and Liz was out of her worry zone. Now Danielle's concerns centered around getting her stuff out of storage, moving it in the beat-up little sedan her parents had bought her in high school, and settling back into the daily grind. And getting used to being called 'Elle' again, since that was what everyone knew her as up at Richardson.
Her studies were getting ever more complicated. The quality of required work had gone up, but so had the quantity, with major assignments (or so she had once thought of them) now due seemingly every week. And she had decided to experiment this year and play around with three-dimensional modeling. Her education revolved primarily around texturing, around the images that were overlaid on a wireframe to make it look like more than polygons; someone else did the meshes. This created obvious communication issues: even when real-time lighting or mapping was at play (which it sometimes was), her textures needed to depict the natural features and color variances and self-shadowing of a surface, like the wrinkles of a sleeve or the shadows caused by the lines on a face. What if the mesher she was working with decided to make those frown lines half an inch further together than she had?—hers would look like they were drawn on by makeup, instead of matching the actual geometry of the face. By this point, they ought to be past these sorts of miscommunications, and sometimes they were. But wouldn't it be easier if she just made her own models?
(Or so she figured. Just three classes in and she discovered how hard it was going to be. She was having trouble with just 500 polygons; models from Pixar movies had poly counts in the millions. She kept at it, but she knew it would be a very long time before she was ready to work in the movies.)
Life with Jodie was very different than what she was used to. Jodie was loud—and not just in a volume sense. (And not just when she was entertaining men either, though she certainly was that.) Her things got everywhere; she wasn't as neat as Nicole was. She didn't mind leaving the lights on, or the TV, or the fan; she tossed doors open, slammed them closed, clattered around the sink when she washed dishes. It wasn't that she was messy, at least not entirely; it was more that she didn't see any reason to be polite. Jodie Wycroft had nothing to hide. It was refreshing, in its way... But annoying as well, when she woke up to her roommate's in-the-throes-of-sex moans for the third time in two weeks. Nicole would have been mortified to make that much noise.
Jodie seemed to have a new boy every week, and she admitted cheerfully that she wasn't seeing any of them regularly; it was just for fun. "What can I say? I don't want to be tied down, but I've got an itch I want scratched. And you know as well as I that toys and fingers only go so far. I want it scratched; they want to scratch it. Nobody's being hurt, everyone's consenting. Where's the harm?"
"So you believe in what Tom said. About... About love and sex being different."
"And you don't?" said Jodie with a laugh. "Elle, you're not that provincial."
"No, I mean... You, umm. You wanna live by it. You want, in your life, love and sex to be separate things."
"Well," said Jodie, "I think we all want love eventually. And preferably love with sex in the end. But it's also a question of what you can get right now. Hon, nobody loves me." She said it without sentiment, as if it were just a fact. "That's just the way life is right now. Nobody's gonna love me any time soon; I'm fat, I'm loud, I'm obnoxious, and I don't have any plans to change. But just because I can't get love doesn't mean I can't get sex." She gave a snort of laughter. "Guys want rail-thin models for relationships, but when it comes to fucking, they don't want some skin-and-bones beartrap under them, they want someone like me under them, who has curves and an ass and tits that don't disappear when I lie down. So maybe I can't get anyone to ask me out, but I'm still sexy."
"Oh, thanks," said Elle. "What am I, a skeleton?"
"Girl, you're a B cup," said Jodie. "Me, I've got D's. But that means we're just two halves of what men think women should look like. They want my tits on your body."
Elle looked down at herself, and then at Jodie. "Like that's ever gonna happen. Do they know anything about how women put on weight?"
"Not hardly," said Jodie. "They probably think that when they put on weight, their dick gets bigger."
"So what you're saying," said Elle, "is that even if I wanted to be sexy and snag a guy's attention with my bod—which I don't—it wouldn't work."
Jodie snorted again. "Girl, you have no idea how men's minds work, do you? Well, hanging out with David all the time, no wonder. Elle, all you gotta do is just plant the idea in their minds. Flash a little bit of titty, let 'em know you're interested. Hormones and alcohol will do the rest. Guys'll fuck anything if you push their buttons in the right way."
Elle wasn't entirely sure this was true. Surely David had his standards; surely he wouldn't go just indiscriminately sticking his willie into any girl who offered herself! But the same could not be said about Tom, that much she knew for certain; and she had a hunch that Weston would eagerly jump on any woman who offered herself. And David... Well, David was exceptional. Maybe what Jodie said was true.
"So, hon... You got an itch you want scratched? You can find someone who'll scratch it," said Jodie, "same as me. And what's to feel guilty about? Everyone's just having fun, right?—no harm done. Which doesn't mean you should, you know, be indiscriminate or something; make him use a condom at the very least. That's just common sense. And, preferably, make sure you've both been tested for STDs. But if it's not hurting anybody, it isn't bad. And trust me—" She gave Elle a wolfish grin. "—if you do it right, it's gonna be the opposite of hurt."
Elle tried not to think about it. She certainly had enough to think about, with classes, apartment maintenance and (occasionally) running into Jodie's latest fuck buddy. They were a wide variety of the male species: tall, short; pudgy, lean; clean-cut, unkempt; be-freckled, be-spectacled, or not; and every shade of hair, eyes and skin imaginable. Evidently Jodie was not particularly discriminate—with the sole caveat that she rarely seemed to pick the same fellow twice. Only every month or so would she see a face she recognized (or thought she did).
One of them was actually in her Comparative Religions class, though it wasn't until his repeat performance that Danielle made the connection. His name was Erik Wilkins and he wasn't much to look at: a haystack of flyaway yellow hair; a craggy, acne-scarred face often dusted with five'o'clock shadow; the sort of scarecrow frame most people grew out of in high school. There was little to recommend him to the eye, and there was a strange deadness about his demeanor; he spoke little, laughed less, and never seemed to blink. But he recognized her: wasn't she Jodie's new roommate, hadn't he seen her around? And once they got to talking he was nice enough. He was quite a bit older than her despite being a junior, a political science major on his second degree, and was thinking about law school after he graduated. For all his creepiness, there was something safe about him, as if the only things that ever made it out into the world past those lizard eyes were the ones he had already decided were harmless.
"How did you meet Jodie, anyhow," she asked him.
He shrugged. "We shared a class last year. There was a group project. We hung out, and talked, afterwards, and... Well, off we went."
"Wow," said Elle. "She must, umm... She must have a lot of group projects."
"What?" said Erik. "—Oh, you mean with all the men she meets. No, it's not like that at all. She's... There are ways to meet people. Casually. If that's what you want."
"She must've gone through most of the school by now," said Elle. "I'm surprised she doesn't bring more people back twice."
"Well... She's picky. And I'm..." He shrugged. "I'm good in bed."
She gave him a brittle smile. "I'm sure you are."
"If you'd like to find out first-hand, we can arrange something..." he said. Suddenly she was reminded of how creepy he could be.
"Oh, umm, no," she said. "No thank you. I..."
"I don't just say that to everyone, you know," he said. His lack of blinking gave him an air of intensity. "Truthfully, you're not really my type. But you're a nice girl, and you're Jodie's friend. Aside from her, I don't have any outlets available, and if you were in the same boat..."
"No, I, I appreciate the offer," she said. "And... I'm flattered. But you're not my type either, and... That's not my thing."
But nevertheless she couldn't keep her mind from him. The idea of having an option—any option—floating just out of reach... It was hard to deny her hormones. Sure, Jodie made a fair amount of noise, but it seemed to have occurred to her—belatedly—that there was someone else in the apartment, and she was quieter of late; especially as the quarter wound on and people started having less free time. And Jodie was easier to deal with; while Nicole and David had made a lot less sound together, each little bit of it speared to the heart. She knew what each little gasp and cry meant for Nicole—and, for that matter, a lot of what each grunt and moan meant for David. Sometimes she had felt like she was in the room with them, whether she liked to be or not.
She rarely saw them nowadays. The apartment she had shared with Nicole—assuming Nicole hadn't found somewhere else to live, which she might have—was way on the other side of campus, and their classes had never been in the same building anyway. Now, instead of walking ten minutes to get to the cafeteria, she was walking two minutes to get to the grocery store; not only was she learning to cook, this kept her from having to run into anybody. She couldn't help wondering how the two of them were doing, though. She wanted them to be happy and wished she could be happy for them, but some wounds were just still too raw. Only now could she admit how betrayed she felt—by Nicole, for going out with him? By David, for asking her out? By Nicole, for agreeing? She didn't know. It wasn't worth thinking about.
Still, Jodie was right: fingers, and the rather loud and shoddy vibrator she'd bought for herself when she came to college, were no substitute for the real thing.
And that was how, one day in November, she found herself staring at her phone and the person she was about to call. I can't believe I'm doing this, I can't believe... "Hello, Erik?"
"Hi, umm... Umm. I know it's late, and, I'm sorry, but..."
There was a silence. "Yes?" said Erik. She imagined his unblinking gaze. She imagined that furious concentration between her thighs, lips and tongue there, driving her into ecstasy.
"I've... I've got an itch I need scratched. And I was wondering if..."
"Well, I had a paper I needed to get done..."
"Oh." She wondered how pathetic it was that she felt disappointment. She shouldn't be doing this in the first place! ...Right?
"But... I'm sure it can wait for an hour or so. Shall I swing by?"
"Great," she said. "That would be great."
She closed the phone and steeled herself. He's coming. He's coming to... Well, to make me come. And I'm going to enjoy it. I've dug this pit for myself, the least I can do is enjoy it.
The least I can do is enjoy it...
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