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35

 

Pella wanted to go to Bartleby’s and scotch herself into a stupor, but she found herself in the middle of Grant Street with nothing between the soles of her feet and the pebbly pavement, exactly the kind of too-emphatic gesture for which she’d always been famous, at least in her own mind, and so there was nothing to do but head back to Scull Hall. The football-player bouncers would have let her in without shoes, because she was a girl, and not just any girl but Mike Schwartz’s girlfriend—ha-ha—but it would have been disgusting to walk around barefoot on those floors, slick with beer and the memory of mopped-up vomit, and it would leave her feeling worse than she already felt.

Damn that Mike Schwartz! How many nights in the past few weeks had he agreed to meet her somewhere, only to phone at the last second and say, Sorry sweetheart, honeypie, darling, noodlepuss, kiddo, dear—sorry, but Henry and I are at the gym, Henry and I are at the diamond, Henry’s feeling down, Henry and I are watching video, Henry and I are chatting, saying it just like that, saccharine and matter-of-fact and with just a smidgen of condescension, as if she were almost capable of understanding the overwhelming importance of every last scrap of Henry’s moods and needs.

And had Pella said boo about any of it? Never. Had not said, for instance, that Henry was an adult or nearly adult person who could fend for himself; nor had she said that being occasionally unable to throw a baseball from one place to another with perfect accuracy didn’t exactly qualify as tragic; nor had she said—for instance—that Henry would start throwing the ball better when he felt like throwing the ball better, and maybe everybody should just leave him alone for a while and let whatever was going to happen happen. It was amazing the way people hemmed each other in, forced each other to act in such narrowly determined ways, as if the world would end if Henry didn’t straighten himself out right now, as if a little struggle with self-doubt might not make him a better person in the long run, as if there were any reason why he shouldn’t take a break from baseball and teach himself to knit, to play the cello, to speak Gaelic—but no, God no, he had to work hard and stay focused and grind it out and keep his chin up and relax and think positive and keep plugging away, subscribe to every stupid cliché Mike or anyone else could throw at him, working and worrying until he started having panic attacks, for Christ’s sake, which wasn’t tragic either but was far from a promising sign.

Poor Henry. As if anybody cared what happened to him, a silly kid with a silly problem. Everyone’s problems were silly in the long run, silly when compared with global warming, despeciation, some birdborne or waterborne disease that was lying in wait to flatten us all, silly when compared to the brute fact of death, but Henry’s problem was just plain silly. And yet she’d wasted plenty of hours on Henry’s problem, turning it in her mind, hoping like hell it would go away, so that Mike could spend less time thinking about Henry and more time thinking about her. Because she liked him.

Or did like him, she thought as she stamped her way across the dark damp grass toward the wide mirrored windows of the library—liked him, past tense. Because why should she like him? A month since they’d met, and he still hadn’t trimmed that stupid beard. She hated beards. “I hate beards,” she spat aloud, and cuffed the skinny knotted trunk of a staked campus sapling with an open-handed slap. “Hate hate hate.” The fact that she’d run away from a man with a beard into the grip of another man with a beard proved that nothing would ever change, she would never change, and life wherever she lived it was bound to be the same unchanging shitstorm, because she was there.

Two boys sat smoking on the library steps, watching in amusement as she gave the tree angry roundhouse slaps with alternate hands. “Me next!” one of them yelled.

“No man, me! I like it rough.”

Pella turned around to flip them off. They grinned and waved. She wound up to give the tree one last cleansing whack, but she swung too hard and, instead of cuffing the trunk with her palm, her middle finger struck the knotty bark awkwardly. As she jammed the finger into her mouth, she screamed something indiscreet that ended in me.

“Yeah baby!”

“Thought you’d never ask!”

The finger was either sprained or broken. She headed toward the two boys, not really seeing them in a swarm of livid red buzzing, one wearing a knit winter cap and the other bareheaded, their backpacks laid beside them on the uppermost step. Because she was a girl they didn’t stand up to fight or to run away but just watched her dumbly, their idiot faces titillated and amazed.

“Hey,” one of them said. “It’s Schwartzy’s girlfriend.”

There was probably no right thing for them to say just then, but that was the wrong thing. She flew up the steps at an angle, spitting curses. The boys snapped up their backpacks and dashed inside the library. They laughed and bumped fists when they saw she wouldn’t follow.

She passed along the long cool concrete side of the library into the Small Quad, which was dark and cozy and void of noise. Her finger felt stiff and inarticulate. It pulsed with blood and pain. The chapel bells tolled four times, and she realized it was the middle of the night. She couldn’t have gone to Bartleby’s even if she’d tried. As she paused there in the dark, she became aware of a figure—mugger? rapist? baboon?—moving up and down in a nearby tree, making heavy-breathing noises.

“Henry? Is that you?”

Henry, startled, dropped from the tree and staggered a step backward. “Hey.”

“What are you doing?”

“Pull-ups.”

“How many can you do?”

He shrugged. “You can always do one more.”

She studied his face for some of the enormous strain Mike claimed he was under, but found none. His breathing returned to normal. He flexed his wrists absently. He had the blank-eyed look of a well-drilled Marine. Pella felt a fleeting sense of fear, as if he might assault her somehow. “Sort of like Zeno’s paradox,” she said. “I mean, with the pull-ups. If you can always do one more, how can you ever stop doing pull-ups?”

Henry shrugged. “You can’t.”

“Right. I guess that’s why you’re out here at four a.m.”

He didn’t answer. She caught herself fiddling with her sweatshirt zipper—a dangerous tic, since she wasn’t wearing anything underneath. She zipped it as high as it would go.

“What happened to your finger?” he asked.

“Nothing. I beat up a tree.”

“Do you want some ice? There’s an ice machine in the basement of my dorm.”

“That’s okay. I’ll just get some at my dad’s.”

“Okay.”

A light came on in her father’s apartment. He kept odd hours lately, waking as early as three thirty or four and heading down to his office soon after. Perhaps it was a sign of age, some kind of male menopause. Throughout Pella’s childhood he’d been a tenured professor who clung to grad-student habits, working deep into the night and then rousing himself, bleary-eyed, caffeine-deprived, his rich brown beard uncombed, to see her off to school.

She didn’t feel like getting caught coming home at dawn, disheveled and barefoot and swollen-fingered. Maybe she could sneak in while he was in the shower. “I’ll leave you to your pull-ups,” she said to Henry. “I’ve got a big day ahead of me.”

“Me too,” Henry said. As she unlocked the side entrance to Scull Hall, he jumped up, latched onto a branch, and began another set.

Her dad, already shaved and dressed, was sitting in the kitchen nook, sipping his daybreak espresso. “Pella,” he said as she entered the room, “can I talk to you for a moment?”

“No.”

“Let me rephrase that, then.” His manner was Gruff Let-Down Dad, as if this were eighth grade and she’d skipped curfew again. “Please, my darling daughter, have a seat. I’ll make more coffee.”

“I have to work in an hour,” Pella said. “I don’t have time for a heart-to-heart. Sorry.”

She filled a baggie with ice from the freezer, wrapped it in a dishtowel, applied it to her finger.

“What’s that?” said Affenlight. “Let me see.”

Pella took some pleasure, however juvenile, in holding up her middle finger toward her father. An ugly finger too—fat and blood-stiffened, with a purple bruise spreading outward from the second knuckle.

“Oh my. Sweetie. What happened?”

“Nothing. I jammed it.”

“Well, keep ice on it. Maybe you should take the day off work.”

“It’s fine.”

“Fine? Pella. Look how swollen it is. I’ll call the dining hall and tell them you won’t be in. Then we’ll go over to Student Health to get that looked at.”

“It’s too late to schedule somebody else.”

Her father’s long, uninjured, academically pristine fingers dwarfed his espresso cup. “Don’t be stubborn. You can take one day off.”

“I’m thrilled to have your permission, El Presidente. But I’d just as soon do my job, thanks.”

“Really, Pella. I applaud your work ethic, but—”

“Who asked you to applaud my work ethic?” she said too loudly. “Are you my boss?”

Her dad looked taken aback. “Well, no,” he said. “Of course not. But your health is more important than a few hours of mindless labor in the dining hall.”

Pella cringed. She wanted her presence in the dining hall to be necessary. Was that too much to ask? Mike thought her job was slumming, because of who her dad was. Her dad thought it was a show of faux independence, and that she should be practicing Latin or whatever. Neither had said so, but she could tell. Unless she was just paranoid, living in her head again, but you always lived in your head and you had to go with what you felt.

“Who cares if it’s mindless labor?” Red flares snapped behind her eyes like they had on the library steps. “What’s not mindless labor? Writing papers? Ha! But at least that’s not an embarrassment, right? I’m the president’s daughter, for God’s sake. The last thing I should be doing is scrubbing pots with a bunch of immigrants—”

“Pella—”

“Don’t Pella me.” She yanked out a chair and plunked down at the nook table. The space underneath could barely accommodate their four legs, her father’s elegant suit-clad ones and her own flabbier, less majestic pair. “So,” she said sharply, “what did you want to talk to me about?”

“It’s nothing,” Affenlight said. “It can wait.”

“Why wait?” She laid her hand on the table and rested the towel-wrapped bag of ice on top. The pain was like a fuel. “You don’t like me spending the night at Mike’s house.”

“We can talk about it later.”

“We’d rather talk about it now. Here’s my position. I’m an adult. I’ll sleep wherever I like.”

Her father looked at her. Obviously she’d already hurt his feelings, not least by implying that he was some kind of tacit racist. But the flares were still snapping behind her eyes.

“Now you give your position.”

“Pella, please—”

“I’ll start you off. You think I’m being disrespectful. You think because I’m living here and not paying rent I should be subject to the rules I was subject to as a child. You think I’m a child even though I’ve been married for four years.”

Affenlight inspected the grains at the bottom of his demitasse. The room was silent. Then the refrigerator’s hum ceased, making it more silent. “See?” Pella said. “Isn’t this fun?”

Her dad closed his long fingers around the demitasse and made it disappear, an ominous-seeming kind of parlor trick. He looked at her sadly with his deep gray eyes. “Pella,” he said. “I love you. If you want my advice, and I realize that you don’t, I’d say don’t rush to get involved with anyone. Take a little time away from men.”

“This whole campus is nothing but men.” The I love you had done its trick; the bitterness washed out of her voice. “Really fucked-up ones.”

Her dad smiled. “Guilty as charged.”

The ice was making her second and fourth fingers numb. “Mike and I broke up.”

“I’m sorry.”

“And David’s coming tomorrow. I mean today.”

“David?” Affenlight stiffened in his chair as if he’d heard an intruder.

“He claims he’s in Chicago on business. Not that I believe him. He’s never gone to Chicago on business before. But he knows I’m here and he wants to come and I told him it was a bad idea and he insisted. So he’s renting a car and driving up. Today. And then when he leaves he’ll be gone forever.”

“Okay,” Affenlight said.

“And I need your help to get through it. Okay?”

Affenlight nodded. “Of course.”

Pella pushed back her chair, picked up her melting ice bag, and kissed her father on the temple. “I’m sorry I’m so mean.”

“You’re not mean,” he said. “There’s Advil in the bathroom.”

She popped a few Advil and washed her face with one hand. She went into the guest room and undressed slowly and awkwardly, inching her sweatshirt’s sleeve past her injured digit. At least she didn’t have a T-shirt or bra to wriggle out of—that was her reward for leaving them at Mike’s house. Every cloud had a silver lining, right? She had to be up in an hour, but at least she wouldn’t have trouble falling asleep. Another silver lining.

She went to the window to pull the curtains shut. Dawn was approaching. She thought the quad was empty, but then a figure dropped from a tree branch and landed in a shallow crouch, knees splayed. It seemed hard to believe he could still be out there, but there he was. He jangled his wrists, shaking the pain or the tension out of his arms. He walked clockwise around the trunk five times, counterclockwise five more. He clapped his hands together, just once, and jumped up to grab the limb again.

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