by Steven J. Frank

He wasn’t quite sure when his watch had become dislodged, or where it might be. But that would be as good an excuse as any. He’d go back later, maybe tomorrow, knock on her door and explain. Then she couldn’t possibly tell him to get lost.

The morning air was lush and it made him drunk. His coat was too heavy, his shirt felt grubby, and his crotch stung like a salted war wound. The smell of her room lingered under his nose. He knew exactly where he was, which way he needed to walk. The streets were unfamiliar but recalled; he’d memorized them as he’d driven her home along them two nights before. So far he’d only missed one class. A miracle. She never liked to miss class, she’d told him.

Avoiding injury was becoming an effort. Sprays of swollen cherry and magnolia buds crazed the sunlight. The worn brick sidewalk, already slick with late-March mud, upwelled around every tree. She tried not to miss class, she’d said, because her father liked to ask questions. He told her the last time he’d heard his own father’s voice was before they reassigned him to the Gulf the previous summer. Both of them had gone on and on like that for who knew how long, talking ridiculous, he described the blind roar of night maneuvers at the Johnson airbase, she tried to mimic the look on her father’s face the afternoon he discovered her in bed with a glass of wine, a Laura Esquivel novel and no clothes. Her eyes seized his when he spoke, as if his every word were precious and yet completely beside the point–no more than prelude. Her eyes seemed to know something he didn’t.

And, later, the rest of her–rangy and glorious, the pale dormroom light spread across her like the last moments of sunset on a beach.

His shoe slapped against the toe of the curb rising above the brick sidewalk, nearly pitching him into the street. Idiot, he cursed silently. No one ever stopped at that stop sign. He could have been killed. And what if? How would she react to news of his poor flattened carcass? With devastation? Or secret relief? He’d left because he didn’t want to look like a wuss, asking if he might stay. But also because of something he sensed–a departure time wordlessly announced, mutually understood. If he hurried now, didn’t kill himself, he might just make it to his next class.

He stopped dead. No notebook. No problem set, no answers, no clue. What was he thinking?

–Hi Daddy.

Thinking about that conversation was what. He couldn’t get it out of his head. As if she’d been expecting the call.

He was supposed to be in college so he could make something of himself and possibly deserve the long-term attentions of someone desirable. Someone with a full-time father on active duty. He was quite sure he was supposed to be in college and going to classes and studying something. There were classroom buildings just a block away up the hill. He’d met her in one of them. But he felt somehow disoriented, like a visitor, not part of the day-to-day. People would be wondering about him by now. Maybe he would never see her again because it had happened so fast, and he knew how things that sizzle also tend to sputter. He could picture her sympathetic frown, the furtive glance up and down the hall, the door closing.

At least two of his roommates had no classes until afternoon. If he went back now to get his notebook, one of them would say he looked like shit, and with raised eyebrows tell him, but maybe a good kind of shit and smack his knee at his wit. And when he said nothing the other would push back his glasses and say oh, do forgive, we are too coarse and vulgar to learn of your amours. And the envy and unanswered curiosity would sharpen an edge into their voices.

He’d felt a sullen terror watching her speak with her father. She had no regional accent but her old man was supposedly this big-shot judge in Birmingham. Tried to talk with his daughter about Breughel and Bosch, but her clipped responses gave her away.

–Yes, she finally answered, drawing out the word with a conspiratorial smile, eyes downcast. Then she stared at him. Suddenly he felt scandalous. He wanted to drape something over her.

–A little, I guess. Taller.

Trying to reconstruct the other end of the conversation: Does he look like me?

–Oh, I would imagine so.

Is he a good catch? Of upstanding character? A Godfearing Christian? Lily white like me?

Is he irresponsible? Does he trip over curbs and forget his notebooks and alienate his roommates and drive a faded black Escort with one wheel in the grave …

–No, I expect he’ll drive me to dinner somewhere.

The car. Where had he left the car?

Across the street from her dorm was where he’d left it, he realized at once. He couldn’t go all the way back at this point. He’d miss still another class. Besides, someone would see him and tell her what an idiot he was. He’d just leave it there, along with his watch and his pride, and hope the car thieves were more discriminating.

–Actually, that’s where we went last night.

Then,

–No, Daddy, no pizza for us. (Crossed fingers, clenched-eyed shrug.)

No, daddy, no pizza for at least another twenty minutes, she might have said. They’d just ordered. The man was evil in his recollections of youthful abandon and its rituals.

–Still your daughter, remember.

That’s what I’m afraid of. (Together they stifled a laugh.)

Ahead of him was the parking lot of the building that contained the room that would host the class he, as a good catch of upstanding character, should be attending. People threaded through the double doors from the left and the right. All carried notebooks. Their voices silenced by distance, they moved in a processional that seemed somehow manufactured, television with a broken volume control. The building was broad with sandstone panels beneath the windows. They caught the sun like mirrors. He found a lawn bench between a pair of stringy acacias, sat down and studied the tableau with a hand shielding one eye from the glare.

He couldn’t remember exactly what she’d told him about that Laura Esquivel book but it had struck him as remarkably clever, well worth the effort to recall exactly. And the distracted expression she reflexively got when her hair fell in front of one of her eyes, the right one, and she had to pull it back behind her ear. A detail he would have to commit to memory if she decided to dump him. He was laying down now, face warm against the sun, the air indolent. Through the red veiny sky of his eyelids he imagined figures flinging themselves through entrance doors, one after the other, mechanical in pursuit of their destinations.

He didn’t know why he felt so unanchored and removed. As his mind began to quiet, he decided maybe he had no solid evidence he’d be dumped after all–even though he wasn’t always responsible, not Godfearing, not even a Christian, certainly not unusually tall. She herself was not free of flaw. Not with morning breath that could launch an F-16. He was immobile, savoring the ecstatic disconnect, soaring in the wonder of no place to go.