Just Like That, rFishc Literary Journal, January 2012
He'd stolen the slip from her house six months ago. Now it was tucked into the dark cavern of his underwear drawer. Black silk, less than a yard of fabric, crumpled into a ball… Hart pictured it and squirmed, trying to ignore the nausea creeping into his throat.
His longing was hard to describe. When the slip was in his hands, he traveled to the place of before, a place of lofty happiness, where Francesca lay naked on his bed, gazing at him lovingly, and there wasn't anyone else. Just the two of them again. Last week, Father O'Brien described Redemption with one magnificent gesture: he held out his bony hand and snapped his fingers. Click. Just like that, life was changed. Hart was mesmerized; it was exactly how he felt when the slip was in his hands.
But for now he'd have to wait. Just past eight o'clock at night, the dorm at his boarding school fidgeted with life: doors swished open, slammed shut; muffled voices—was that the football game on the radio?—and the steady beat of music vibrated through the wall next to his bed. A loud slam, another voice, and air whistled beneath his closed door. The rising tide of restlessness always came at the onset of winter as sixty-four guys, packed onto the floor, entered the first phase of cabin fever. Hart envisioned the girls' dorms across the quad as much more subdued.
A bird-like scream outside his door. Sully, of course. He'd been making that strange sound lately—crawgh! crawgh!—out of the blue, for no reason at all. The guys laughed, shook their heads; that was Sully. Hart found the outbursts gratifying. They released the perpetual tightness in his lungs, reminded him to breathe.
Crawgh! Crawgh! Crawgh! Sully's eruptions continued as he wandered the hallway. "I've seen the Lord, and he sure is pretty!" he shouted to everyone and no one. Don't come in here, Hart thought. Don't. Don't.
His prayer was answered. Three minutes later, it was his roommate, Andy, who came in. Returning from the shower, he had a blue towel wrapped around him. "Jesus," he said. "It's fucking freezing." Droplets of water slipped along his thin arms as he shivered, quickly dressed. "Already down to thirty degrees. Fuck."
Hart lay on his bed twisting his hands. All kinds of images of Francesca flooded his brain—things they hadn't actually done, but in his imagination were obstinately clear. Outside the room, the thump and slap of the soccer ball being kicked down the hallway enhanced his visions; he grew hard again. Then reality intruded: "Score!" someone shouted. "You piece of shit!" the response.
Andy combed his hair in clean lines. Still, the cowlick popped up at the back of his head, arching into the air like a feather in a cap. He glanced at Hart, slung out on his bed.
"What's up, buddy?" Andy asked. "You get in a fight with what's-her-name?"
Hart smiled. He'd dated five different girls last year, and now, the autumn of his senior year, was into his sixth. Andy had begun calling them what's-her-name as shorthand; he couldn't keep track of them.
"No problems," Hart said. "None at all."
Andy's eyes found Hart's face and held. No problems, none at all was a euphemism for getting laid decently and regularly.
"That's not what I meant," Andy said.
Hart shifted beneath his roommate's expression of concern. Andy didn’t know a thing about Francesca, but he knew more than enough about Alison, Kelly, and the other ones, and that seemed wrong to Hart now, as if his closest friend didn't know him at all. Under the guise of nonchalance and sexual promiscuity, Hart had fooled everyone. He'd wanted to keep Francesca close, but was there anything left to keep?
Six months ago, a humid spring afternoon, he'd visited Francesca at her house. It was a Friday. Hart made sure to tell her that he was meeting his girlfriend later and couldn't stay long.
"Oh," she said, face calm, unreadable.
"What are you doing tonight?" he asked, challenging her. He was annoyed he'd gotten no reaction from the girlfriend comment; he felt nervous, which pissed him off, and on top of that, he'd heard she was with some football player now, a guy named Brett Reynolds.
"I'm going to the Father Daugther Dinner Dance at school," she said. "But my dad won't be there." She pushed her hair back from her face—which meant she was embarrassed. "I'm not sure what to wear," she said.
"Did you invite your dad?" Hart asked.
She shook her head, eyes on the tall glass of Sprite sweating droplets onto the Formica counter.
"Why not?" he asked, although he knew the answer. Her parents had divorced when she was six, and Francesca hardly saw her father. She received checks for Christmas and her birthdays; it took days for him to return her calls.
"My father wouldn't come," she said.
"Your father's an idiot," he said gruffly, and quickly moved the conversation into other territory, asking her about friends, classes, teachers, plans for the summer. His words came easily enough, but he felt a burning itch beneath his skin, a desire to say other things that he felt incapable of saying.
"Are you all right?" she asked. Francesca was the only one who could read him.
Tell me you still love me, he thought. He said, "I'm fine."
Her sparkling green eyes remained on his face for a full five seconds. "What is it?" she asked.
"Nothing," he said. "I've got to go to the bathroom." He bolted from the kitchen, charged up the stairs, to her bedroom, yanked open the top drawer of her bureau—he couldn't leave empty handed, he just couldn't—and swiped the slip. He wished she'd catch him so he'd have to tell her, but she'd remained cross-legged at the counter, texting some friend. Francesca had always trusted him, but now, with the creamy feel of her negligee wedged within the waist of his jeans, he felt nauseous. At least he had something to keep. A small victory.
Only ten more minutes before Andy left the room—it was so close. Ten minutes, six thousand seconds. If he could just hold on—
The door flew open, and Sully's huge bulk filled the doorway. As usual, he wasn't wearing a shirt, anxious to demonstrate his over-large, perfectly cut muscles, the envy of every guy on the hall. He'd recently bleached his hair, and the top of his head appeared to have been dipped in bright yellow paint. Still, no one would dare call him a fag. "Greetings, comrades." He perked his pec muscles in rhythm with the words. "Bong hits in my room."
Sully. The guy had bribed the resident advisor with dime bags, so when Sully hosted his nightly gatherings—even with girls past curfew—their devoted RA looked the other way. But Sully could get away with anything. His parents, Ken and Barbie in human form, had met at the Academy, and now donated thousands to the school every year. Hart thought that if anyone could snap his fingers and achieve happiness, it was Sully. He could get anything he wanted. Click. Just like that.
"No bong hits tonight," Andy said. "Library."
Sully turned on him. "I wasn't talking to you, you irrelevant piece of shit." His dark eyes flashed. " I didn't even see you, you're so fucking irrelevant. In fact, you're so irrelevant I don't even know your fucking name!"
"It was only a chemistry test," Andy said, smiling in Sully's face. Sully, the irritatingly talented football star, defied all stereotypes by infiltrating AP Chemistry, AP History, and Honors English. Hart thought the least Andy could do was beat his test score—announced by Father Collins in his quest to inspire better grades through humiliation and peer pressure. Andy had scored a 97; Sully, 96.
"Only a test? Fuck you." Sully glanced at Hart, pointed down the hallway—"Bong hits. My lair. Move your ass"—then swept out of the room. The guy was light on his feet for 250 pounds, and because of it, regularly danced his way into the end zone amidst campus-wide cheering frenzies and the climaxing sighs of coaches.
Andy said, "I'm going to crucify him in English too." He turned to Hart. "Come to the library with me. You've got that history paper—"
Andy shrugged. "Should have known better than to ask." He slung his book bag's thick strap over his shoulder, tottering as he stood—the thing must have weighed forty pounds. Now he'd stagger through the freezing cold to study? Hart couldn't understand it.
"My mom got me this fucking book bag for my birthday," Andy said. "All I wanted was an iPod." He approached the door, cowlick bouncing with each step. "If I don't get into Princeton, I think she'll commit suicide."
The door closed. Thank God. No Sully, no Andy. He could still hear Sully's squawks at the far end of the hall, but after weeks of experience, Hart knew that Mr. Supersize Me would recede into his cave and anesthetize himself for the night. He rushed to his bureau—finally! finally!—and drew the slip out. The silk gleamed like a pool of dark water. He raised it to his face, inhaled. All he got was the floral scent of laundry detergent.
They'd been fifteen years old, making out on the hardwood floor of his bedroom. It was his idea to lie on the other side of the bed to conceal themselves—they were supposed to be studying, and what if his mother came in? Then Francesca pulled away. "Hart, I have to tell you something."
Her hand rested against the back of his neck, not pressing, just warm. He looked into her eyes.
"I love you," she said.
Surprised, he mumbled quickly, "I love you too," needing to disengage from the moment, and returned to kissing her. But he felt something pull at him, something strong and sharp, and he stopped. "I love you too," he said again, wanting to make sure she heard him. The sharpness in his gut disappeared. He felt real, sure of himself. He did love her. She rubbed the tips of her fingers up the back of his neck, into his hairline, and now he was sitting on his bed, slip in his hands, remembering how she had touched him, and he wasn't clear about anything. He didn't feel much for the other girls he'd been with, and he didn't know why; they were all nice enough, smart enough, good-looking enough. Can you rub your hand up the back of my neck? he'd asked one of them. Even guided her how to do it. But it wasn't the same.
How could he have known Francesca would be different? He'd had no experience with anyone else. And the promise of other girls—the enticing flicker of eyelashes, the jiggling breasts within cashmere, the manicured nails that he imagined digging into his skin—it had all seemed so utterly convincing. He'd been with Francesca until the spring of tenth grade, they lost their virginity to each other, and then he broke up with her. Idiot. Six months later, he'd arrived at the Academy. By the middle of his junior year, he began calling her.
"We're still friends, right?" he'd asked.
"Of course we're friends," she'd said.
Hart breathed in the scent of the slip again. Nothing. Of course we're friends. He'd wanted her to say more than that. But she wouldn't. Of course she wouldn't. He instinctively blinked back his tears even though no one could see him. He always forgot this part, the pain that circled inside his chest and squeezed whenever he held the slip in his hands. I'm going to burn this fucking thing, he thought. But he always told himself that, and instead, would tuck the slip back into his underwear drawer and call Francesca from his cell. They talked a lot of nothing, but the sound of her voice reassured him. Sometimes, he could make her laugh.
"Welcome to my world!"
Sully, still shirtless, stretched out his arms in the doorway. Hart jumped from the bed. But there was nowhere to go. His breath came in gasps.
Sully dropped his arms. "What the fuck are you doing?"
Forgot to lock the door, you fucking idiot. "Not much," Hart said. He quickly sat back down, balling the slip between his hands in an attempt to hide it.
Sully pointed to it. "What's that?"
"Nothing, my ass. " He shut the door behind him, snapped the lock, and stood with his back against the door, blocking Hart from escape. "Where'd you get that from?"
Hart shifted. "It's a girl's I used to know."
"Give me that," Sully said.
"That thing in your hands. Give it to me."
Sully descended upon him, cigarette breath hot in Hart's face—the guy smokes and he's still the big football star, Hart thought, resisting Sully's bruising grip on his arms. The bed hit the back of his legs, and he fell; Sully snatched the slip from his hands. Hart sat up, blood slamming in his ears. He would never live this down. Never. "What the fuck, Sully?"
Sully was seated on Andy's bed, rolling the slip over and over in his hands. "Whose is it?" Light flashed off the silk as it were a river.
"You're a fucking piece of shit."
"Is she here at the Academy?"
"No. Now get out of my room."
"Why do you have it? Are you some kind of freak?"
Hart glared at him.
"Have you got make-up too?" Sully said. "Is that part of it?" He grimaced as if the image of a cross-dresser pained him. Hart didn't move.
"Say something!" Sully said. "Or I'll fucking strangle you with this thing."
"You can't do shit to me."
Sully said slowly, "If you don't tell me, I'll take it." Enunciating every word, he bared his white, white teeth. The thought of the slip—Francesca's slip—being taken from him and kept by this asshole made Hart shudder.
"It's mine," he said.
"Does she know you're into her?"
"I broke things off," Hart said. "Thought I could get the same thing from someone else."
Sully caught it. Hart should have known he would. "Someone else?"
"Her best friend." There, he'd said it. The part he thought he'd never talk about, the part that made his face burn, even two years later. Kissing that girl, and finding the taste of her mouth wrong. Calling her on the phone, the sound of her voice wrong. Those fingernails digging into his back, all wrong, all very, very wrong. "We went out for a few months, " Hart said. "I thought it would get better. But it never did."
"You fucked up," Sully said and threw the slip back at Hart. "There's always other girls." He leaned back on the bed, folded his hands behind his thick neck. "What's the chick's name?"
Hart sighed. He was too tired to fight and he was too tired to lie. "Francesca." Even with the slip in his hands, the fact that she wasn't his girlfriend became startlingly apparent, and he blinked back the sting in his eyes. Francesca had loved him, and he'd smashed it to bits.
Sully studied him. "Listen, do you want me to talk to her for you?"
Hart found himself smiling. Sully, the preppy mobster-slash-matchmaker, showing up on Francesca's doorstep? He'd pay good money to see that. "No, that's all right."
"I'm president of the Debate Club," Sully said quickly. "You know that, right? I've even kicked Father Connolly's ass in argument. Not once, twice." He held out two fingers so that Hart could count them. "I'm sure I could—"
"It's all right." The thought of Sully hustling a deal with Francesca on his behalf was ridiculous but heartwarming. "Thanks."
"All right, you pain in the ass." Sully slapped his knees and stood. "Now that we've wasted ten minutes bullshitting over some girl's underwear, it's high time we embark upon our much-awaited bong hit."
Some girl's underwear. Hart's mind spun, turned in on itself. That's all the slip was. He'd been holding onto it, wishing things had turned out differently, pining like a fool.
Sully was waiting.
"Bong hits, absolutely," Hart said, standing. "But only if you put your fucking shirt on."
"Request granted," Sully said. He unlocked the door, and howled into the hallway, "I've seen the Lord, and He sure is pretty! Crawgh! Crawgh!"
Hart's breath loosened in his chest. He followed Sully, already sauntering down the hallway, and forgot all about the slip, out in the open on his bed.