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The Second Annual Fiction Issue

College Town

This story was written in 1982. It is an early version of a story called "Family," that was written for my first collection, titled Bad Behavior, but got cut; it is also an early version of a story called "Orchid" that was published in my second...

Illustrations by Milano Chow This story was written in 1982. It is an early version of a story called “Family,” that was written for my first collection, titled Bad Behavior, but got cut; it is also an early version of a story called “Orchid” that was published in my second collection, titled Because They Wanted To. When I say it was an early version, I mean that “College Town” features characters that I kept coming back to, seeing them at different stages of their lives. By the time “Orchid” got written, it was 1996, and one of the characters, Patrick, had become a pharmacologist, a failed actor, and a very lonely man haunted by his crazy sister. But in “College Town,” he was still beautiful, strangely pure, and surrounded by people questing for experience, including his sister, Dolores.  “College Town” was never published until now. I never tried to publish it because I thought it was too light, too silly. The only reason it is being published now is that when I moved last month I discovered it in a box of old papers along with a bunch of other old unpublished stories. When I read most of them, it was obvious why they were never published; they were awful. But when I read “College Town,” I felt a twinge of regret—it seemed to me that it was in some ways actually better than “Orchid,” the story that was published, its lightness and quickness truer to life. It was great good luck that Amie from Vice called right then, and I fired it out to her. Janet did not look good in a scarf. Her face was fleshy, her nose had a bulby tip, and her forehead was low. Her skin was coarse and heavy for a woman under thirty, and the tension in her face was such that a quick glance gave the impression that she was grinding her teeth, although she was not. She was attractive anyway because of her expressive, thick-lashed eyes and full mouth. When her hair was worn long, it was thick enough to draw attention from the fleshiness of her face so that her eyes and mouth were more striking. Thus, it was not a good idea to pull her hair back with a scarf. Janet knew this. She hated wearing the scarf, but she’d recently pulled huge chunks of her hair out, and her head looked so weird that a scarf was necessary. She couldn’t remember now why it had ever been satisfying to pull her hair out, or even how it had felt, although you’d think it would hurt. She’d actually kept the torn hair in a little box until the sight of it sickened her one day. When she was in public, she was sometimes torn between the fear that the scarf had slipped and part of her head was showing, and the urge to take it off and see what people did. Although of course she knew they’d only stare when they thought she wasn’t looking. She sat in the Oasis Café, before the picture window, next to a box of over-watered, crowded plants. She came to the Oasis every morning, sat down, and waited like a brute for coffee. She’d never had trouble getting it before. Now when Janet raised her hand, the waitress looked at her and looked away. Janet knew the waitress. Her name was Teresa. She was a young, ungainly woman whose stomach seemed to be leading her around. She had a funny way of holding her forearms out in front of her at the waist, elbows bent, large hands dangling like flippers. Janet knew that she had a snotty boyfriend, that she’d just graduated from the School of Public Health, and that she wanted to open an abortion clinic. She barely knew Janet, and had no reason to dislike her. Janet glared at Teresa. It didn’t work. She got two antidepressants from her bag and put them on the table so the waitress could see she needed something to swallow medicine with. Teresa sailed by imperiously, a full pot of coffee in her, non-acknowledging Janet’s “Excuse me” with an aggressive “whap” of her hip against the table—causing Janet’s antidepressants to roll off onto the floor. As Janet bent to pick them up, Teresa ran back and yelled, “Are you ready?” Janet jerked up too quickly, dropped the pills, then had to reach for them again. She laughed nervously as she emerged from under the table a second time. “Are you ready to order?” asked Teresa. “Hello,” said Janet. Teresa stood there silently, one large hand dangling. “I’d like a black coffee with—” “What?” snapped Teresa. “I said I’d like a black coffee with an apricot roll.” “We don’t have any more rolls.” “All right. Just coffee.” When Teresa poured the coffee, she spilled some on Janet’s mulberry-colored gloves and didn’t say she was sorry. A few minutes later, Janet saw her traveling across the floor with a little plate of apricot rolls for another table, dangling hand wagging. Everyone else in the restaurant continued to smoke cigarettes, eat, and talk as if nothing had happened. Janet began to feel depressed. Teresa’s friend Lindsay walked into the restaurant. Teresa cried, “Linnnnn!” as if she hadn’t seen Lindsay for months; they kissed and touched each other’s arms. Teresa had incredibly thick, dark arm-hair. She remembered a girl from high school who, because of her thick body hair, shaved her arms. It had looked awful. Teresa and Lindsay walked to the counter with their arms around each other. They stood there giggling and whispering. Lindsay was a small, pretty girl who wanted to be a writer. She wore a black leather jacket and large black sunglasses. She came to the Oasis almost every day. She could sit there all day talking about how depressed she was to the various friends and acquaintances who would occupy the empty place beside her as the day went on. Janet despised Lindsay for wearing ridiculous sunglasses and for letting her father support her. This, although Janet’s father had supported her until he went bankrupt. Teresa and Lindsay turned to lean against the counter and stared at Janet. They looked right at her, whispering and giggling. Janet tried to think about how one of them was ugly and the other stupid. It didn’t help. Under their eyes she felt swollen and ugly at her little table in the sun. At least they were young and had boyfriends to get depressed about. She was an overweight 29-year-old in stretch pants and a scarf that hid her debased head, mentally ill and unable to have orgasms, not even with herself, sitting in a college town with nothing to do but run around the Phys. Ed. Building. She felt like the kind of retarded person that’s smart enough to know she’s retarded. Teresa and Lindsay looked and giggled; Janet swelled until she felt like a giantess barely able to hold the delicate little cup and utensils in her horrible fingers. She no longer wanted to run around the track after her coffee. She drove back home, got in bed, and lay there while the sun gamboled over her body like a happy dog. She thought, This wouldn’t be happening to me if Allan hadn’t dumped me. She turned her head and her eyeballs took a rolling tour of the room. It had bright yellow wallpaper and plants in it. Baby pictures of her and her brother Daniel hung on the walls, Daniel looking dark and tiny and very solemn for a three-year-old. She had lots of pretty things; lacy lamp-shades, linen dust covers, vases, and literature on the bookshelves. It would’ve been nice if someone else had lived in it. When her father came to visit her in the mental hospital, right after Allan had dumped her, she’d said, “Daddy, I want you to beat me.” He’d turned away and licked his lips like a nervous dog. Janet didn’t see why he should balk at that; he’d been beating her mother for years, although it was true that it had never been a physical beating. She lived in a communal house with her younger brother, Daniel, his girlfriend, Lily, and Mark, a twenty-one-year-old philosophy student. Daniel was a drummer in a local band that actually made a living, and Lily was a journalism student. They were supposed to buy food together, but Janet didn’t like what Daniel and Lily bought and nobody liked what Mark ate. They were supposed to split the bills four ways, but somehow bills only got paid after Daniel received a shut-off notice; then it took him months to collect from the others. The kitchen table was always covered with months’ worth of bills, as well as papers scrawled with phone messages, cigarettes, ashtrays, pencils, and fruit, especially blackening bananas pulled apart from their bunch and ranging all through the mess in singular curves. Janet had never lived like this before. She’d never wanted to. But when Daniel came to visit her in the mental hospital, he said she could move in with him when he found a house, that he would take care of her. His large, petal-shaped eyes were full of concern and puzzlement, and she was seized with a need to be near her brother, even though they did not get along, mostly because his gentle nature made her want to bully him. Janet liked Lily. Lily was a very pretty, very unpopular girl with a strange light-headed demeanor. She was very thin, and gave the impression that she walked on her toes. She had very black shoulder-length hair, narrow gray eyes, and a thin, severe mouth. She shied away from people, softly and indifferently as a cat. She had grown up in a foster home and had lived on her own since she was seventeen. Except for Janet, she had no friends in Ann Arbor. She actually had enemies; Daniel’s female friends were appalled when he first started to go out with her. Janet was surprised to find herself associating with outcasts at such a late time in life. On weekends, Daniel and Lily would sit around the kitchen for hours into the morning, cutting slices of rye bread for toast. After toast they’d have tea and soft-boiled eggs, which Lily served in tiny porcelain egg cups with roses on them. Daniel would always finish his breakfast by peeling an orange or a grapefruit until every bit of white rind had been picked off it, and meticulously stripping the membrane off of each section with the very edges of his teeth before eating it. “You look like a kitten when you do that,” said Lily. “A kitten playing with something.” “He is a kitten,” said Janet scornfully. “Wash my dishes, slave,” said Daniel. Since Janet couldn’t stand the idea of work yet, Daniel paid her rent. Because of this he tried to push her around a little. “Slave? The dishes.” He stretched his long neck out and grinned like a donkey. “Give me some money, goon. I need cigarettes and medicine.” “I gave you twenty dollars yesterday.” “I need twenty more at least, fool.” But she was as touched by his beauty as anyone. He was tall, but girlishly slim and narrow-built, with the sensitive, angular face of a greyhound, a face heightened piercingly by large, transparent eyes and a full, emotional lower lip. When he played the drums, he sat straight and earnest behind the set, his eyebrows furrowed, listening terribly hard to something only he could hear, and hitting with thrilling fierceness that seemed to come from the center of his small chest. Girls loved him, which was why they were outraged to see him with a creep like Lily. He twisted his pliant neck to one side, shifted his slender hips, and dug into his pocket. He handed Janet ten dollars. She snatched it and stuck it in her pocket. Mark lumbered into the room and, without turning his head, flickered his flat gray eyes at the three of them. He was a tall boy with wide, heavy hips and long, inept fingers that were so stiff they seemed stuck together. His coarse hair stood up on his head and grew every which way, giving his pale face a shocked expression. He went to the counter and began preparing his breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, toast, and mint jelly. “Bernie Gahan called me last night,” said Janet. “You know, from high school?” “I remember,” said Daniel. “He was sort of a geek, wasn’t he?” “Who’s he?” asked Lily, smearing slabs of butter over her hot toast. “That guy I saw just before I went into the hospital. That store clerk, the one who fucked me in the ass.” “I can’t believe some of the things I hear in this house,” said Mark. He violently mixed his eggs around in their frying pan. “He’s crazy,” said Janet. “The next morning he had a fit when I put my coffee cup on his Village Voice. He said it proved how sick I was.” “Why did you go out with him?” asked Lily. Janet shrugged. “I don’t know. He was cool in high school, but now he’s getting fat.” “He was never cool,” said Daniel. Lily looked at Janet over her toast, munching solemnly. Janet could tell she wanted to hear more about Bernie Gahan. “When he dropped me off at home he put his finger on my nose and said, ‘Catch ya later, kid!’ God. I mean, I’m not a kid.” “It’s too bad for you that you’re not,” said Mark. “The prognosis would be a lot better.” He sat on the edge of a chair with his feet together and quickly began to eat his fried eggs. His long white hands were so flat and stiff that Janet marveled at his dexterity with the fork. In midbite he pushed a full ashtray across the table. “I think it’s the ultimate hypocrisy, Dan, for a vegetarian to smoke.” “Squeedle-de-bop,” said Daniel. He tipped his head back and blew a mouthful of smoke at the ceiling. “Don’t give me that. You may be a great drummer but you’re a slob.” “And you’re a grandmother,” said Janet. “A sexually frustrated grandmother.” “Just because sex isn’t the be-all and end-all, Janet.” “If you ever had it, it would be the end-all,” said Lily. “Why don’t you try to seduce me, Janet? Just try. I’ll hurt your feelings.” “The only thing you’d hurt is your reputation—wait, do you have one?” “I could really hurt you, Janet.” Janet doubted it. It would’ve made her feel better if she thought he could, but she knew he couldn’t. She pushed through the papers and breakfast dishes and found her plastic bag of dried prunes. She picked through the prunes to find a soft one. “I saw your friend again,” she said to Mark. “Who?” “The one that’s going bald. The one that walks like a dinosaur.” She found a prune and began eating it. “Was she mean to you again?” asked Lily. Janet nodded. “Yes. She was mean to me.” “I’m sorry,” said Mark. “I don’t know why she does that.” “She’s a bitch,” said Janet. “Maybe she knows Allan and he told her something about me.” “Do you sit in the Oasis and put on your false nails?” asked Daniel. He tipped his chair back until it stood on its hind legs. His t-shirt slid up and exposed his stomach, which he scratched. “No. I don’t put them on that early. Why?” “A waitress might think they were disgusting. I wouldn’t want to sit next to them. The glue stinks.” The next time she went into the Oasis, she brought a box of Dragon Lady fingernails, and two bottles of red polish. After she got her coffee and rolls, with the usual trouble, she took out the box and laid the flesh-colored spears on the table so Teresa would notice them and wonder what the hell was going on. She got the glue and began working, periodically stopping to hold the claws up to dry. Teresa didn’t notice, but the guy at the next table did. “I didn’t know anybody wore those things anymore,” he said. “I do,” trilled Janet in a hideously affected voice. “I’m naked without them.” Lily told her that she sometimes sounded like Blanche DuBois. She held up her taloned hands to her face and leered daintily. “Oh, Dragon Lady,” he said, “have mercy.” His friend laughed and scratched his beard. I am a sexually potent woman, thought Janet. Even if I am partially bald. During one of their last fights, Allan had said, “There’s no love in you because there’s no sex in you. Sex is light and fertility and life and communication! You only have this… pornography and submission and blackness and death! You’re like a faggot!” “You ass-wipe,” she muttered. She couldn’t help it if fertility didn’t interest her in the abstract. It did interest her in the real. “Do you want to have children?” she asked the man next to her. “Yeah, one day. Why?” “Because I like to hear people say they want children. That’s what would make me happy, I think, to have children. My roommate is beautiful and she’s not interested in having children.” “Your roommate is an idiot, that’s why.” Sasha thumped against Janet’s table. She was a fat girl, and her fat was like the fur of a Persian cat. Her eyes were arrogantly flat and brown-gold, rimmed with black kohl. She wore a purple skirt with a gold hem and long green stockings with ducks on them. She was one of the Lily-hating group of Daniel’s friends. “How are you, darling?” she said. “Bothering somebody. How are you?” “I’m eating. I’m going from house to house eating my brains out. Now I’m here to get some home fries off the cook. It’s the first day I’ve eaten in two weeks and I’m going to make the most of it.” “Where’s George?” “I don’t know, getting chemotherapy.” She sneered in an affected way that Janet found nonetheless exciting. “I don’t know where the hell he is and I’m tired of people asking me. That’s all I hear everywhere I go; is she the one who’s having an affair with George Hammond? Are they still together? Are there any home fries, Eddie baby? With catsup and mayonnaise? Come sit by me and let me play with the hair on your chest. Only don’t talk to me about George Hammond. I don’t have any place to live. I lost my job at the art school and I couldn’t pay my rent. I’d come stay with you except for your creepy roommate.” “Lily’s not so creepy. You’d like her if you actually knew her.” “Is it true she bangs her head on the wall?” “She might.” “Do you know what she said to me the last time I saw her? She was talking to John Francis about how, when she was fourteen, she used to want plastic surgery to change her lips and her eyebrows and she turned to me and said, ‘If you could get plastic surgery, what would you have done?’ Jesus Christ!” “She didn’t mean you should get plastic surgery.” “What are you doing to your nails?” “Nothing.” “Oh, here’s my home fries, thanks honey. Open your shirt. See you, Janet. My life’s in a shambles.” Janet drank her coffee with even more sobriety. Everybody wanted to be depressed. But your depression was supposed to be funny too, and that was what had proved too much for Janet. Sasha was sitting at the counter now, fondling the thin blond cook through his faded shirt, and skillfully nipping up mayonnaise- and catsup-drenched fries, three fries at a time with her pinkie extended. She was yelling about George Hammond. What would happen to Sasha? She almost had a degree in Russian, specializing in literature, and then she dropped out. Since then she had been mulling around Ann Arbor in garish skirts and boots, sitting in bars and cafés gossiping all day. Janet was almost the same way, except that the degree she almost had was in History, and that she just sat in bars and cafes, rather than gossiping in them. Teresa coursed by like a shark, her low forehead predominant as a snout. Janet felt impotent detestation. Teresa saw the false fingernails, now standing out from Janet’s hands like evil thoughts. Janet stared at her nails, like a sea blob heaved up on a hot beach, dimly realizing that its soft, flat flippers won’t help it walk back into the water. Teresa sneered and began scribbling in her little gray pad. She ripped off Janet’s check and threw it at her, mumbling something about needing more table space. Was strength the ability to make someone leave a restaurant, mostly because they couldn’t bear to be in your presence anymore? Was it being big and loud and going to a bar with other big loud people and making more noise than anyone else there? Insulting someone? People insulted Lily often and though she pretended not to be affected, Janet knew she was hurt by it. But she couldn’t stop them from doing it. Did that mean she was weak? On the other hand, Janet sometimes pushed Daniel around and all he did was say, “Janet!” But he was a successful musician and she was a flop. She sweated wonderfully as she ran around the gym. Every day there were lots of other people sweating around the track with her, in headbands and sweatsuits. They were all trying to be strong. The day before, in the checkout line at Kresge’s, Janet had overheard a girl with pounds of wavy blond hair and bulging calf muscles say to her friend, “And I’m getting up every day and running!” like it was best thing ever. Anyone would do anything to be stronger. In the gym next to the track, college students took karate classes. Little teenaged girls padded out of the dressing rooms in their white karate uniforms, some of them wearing small gold chains and nail polish. She could hear the instructor yelling at them. “Everyone wants to have control!” he shouted. “And to have control you have to fight for it, work for it!” Lily and Daniel were obsessed with working. Whenever you asked Lily how she was, she would either say that she was good, she’d been very productive, or that she was awful, she’d been so unproductive. All night they would sit at the kitchen table eating toast and working on their projects. Lily had her work for school and her articles for local papers and magazines, and Daniel had his music to write. Lily worked with her long legs drawn up under her and her shoulders in a curl; Daniel sat on his tailbone, his legs spread and his cotton shirt open, his head hanging from his neck like a heavy flower. After she ran, she stopped by Majik Market to shoplift several eyeliner pencils and a box of peanut brittle. Then she went home to share the candy with Lily. They sat at the kitchen table and ate big slabs of it out of the open box. “People have told me that my sexuality is death-oriented,” said Janet, crunching her mouthful of candy. “People have nutty ideas about sex,” said Lily. “How long have you been having sex?” “Twelve years.” “If your sexuality was death-oriented, you’d be dead by now.” She was picking through the candy; it looked funny to see her serious face bent over it. “Well, they didn’t mean literal death. They meant death in the abstract.” “There’s no such thing as death in the abstract. You’re dead or you’re not.” Lily’s hand dove into the box and emerged with a nut-encrusted chunk. “You can’t have a facsimile of death.” She leaned back in her chair like Daniel and popped the candy into her mouth. She sucked on it, her face slowly becoming tranquil. “How do you know that if you don’t know what death is like?” Janet ran her tongue over her molars and found them coated with gnawed candy. Janet often wanted to die, even though she didn’t know what it was like either. Allan used to tell her about the recurring nightmares he had, in which his father humiliated him sexually. He said it was the same thing as dreaming about death. Janet thought that if to be humiliated was to be dead, she would be decomposed beyond recognition. But she was crazily alive, stuffed with blood and muscles, going to the bathroom regularly, having conversations. If she were dead, her blood wouldn’t suffer the pain of struggling to sing while life’s constant attack made it hurt to move in her veins at all. Why couldn’t people be nice? Why did you go into a restaurant and get attacked by a bitch who hated you for no reason? Why did Allan’s friends, when they saw her, look at her with that vague leer and the concern they thought they should have for a disturbed older woman, the expression that felt like a razor across her face? Allan’s friends were young and loud, their bodies hideously forceful in the occupation of space. Even though he was in art school, most of them were law students, always apparently happy and grabbing. Just the sight of them, with their rough, healthy skin and big legs and heavy, porous head hair, made her feel horrible, especially when one of them cornered her and tried to be nice. Sometimes she encouraged it, and she was always sorry later. She remembered a time she met one of them at a student party. She and Allan had broken up a few days before. She was fairly drunk and slumped on a couch with a few kids whom she could not remember except as a mass of t-shirts and long hair. She was staring at a group of people stomping their way through a dance in the middle of the room. Harvey approached her and shouted through the music that he wanted to walk her home. She chattered to him all the way to her apartment, some grim inner monitor manipulating her shrill babble to impress him with her normality, her happiness. She told him about her projects, her courses at school. He made his voice go gentle, he touched her elbow, put a hand on her shoulder. They sat on her front-porch steps, watching ants run in and out of their grainy little nest in the crack of the second step. He was very careful with the way he talked to her; he wanted to show that he respected her. He talked about books and art. He asked her, “But seriously, what is your favorite Faulkner novel?” Allan had said, “I don’t like people who feel sorry for themselves. In the past I have had the patience of Job with weak and neurotic women. But not anymore.” But he was neurotic, he was weak. Once when they were arguing she said, “And everyone in the art department hates you,” even though she had no idea if that were true. They were sitting on her front porch in the dark of night; she could not see his reaction, but she could feel it: He withdrew into himself and almost began to quiver with emotion. For a moment, she thought he would cry. She said, “Not all of them. Just a few.” And he said, “Who? Who are they?” And still he held her and said, “I want you to be a strong woman. I know you can be. I want you to be productive.” He held her and she talked about her adulterous, alcoholic father as if he were a character on TV. “He ruined my mother financially and mentally. I don’t even know where he is now. Somewhere in South America trying to set up a tropical fish business and fucking some fat eighteen-year-old who’s in the Peace Corps. He’s been through five failed businesses in the last eight years. He ruins everything he touches. Everybody said my mother was crazy when she went after him with the scissors. But I didn’t think so.” Her mother was putting her life back together, even though she was murderously unhappy. Right after Janet got out of the hospital, her mother invited her over for sandwiches cut up into four pieces. Her mother sat on the very edge of the couch and Janet sat on the edge of a chair with the sandwiches on a table between them. Her mother gripped her cream cheese and olive nut morsel like she had tweezers for hands. “The problem is that I just never asked, ‘What about me?’” she said furiously. “And now it’s time for me. Me!” Janet had pitied her terribly. But her mother was tough in her way. She ran her travel business and went to a yoga club and was even having an affair. She was strong, even if her face looked as if it were a mask held in place with staples. Janet lay in the dark of her room and said, “And now it’s time for me! Me!” She said it as vehemently as she could, but she knew she had nothing but the dozens of eyebrow pencils and nail polish and face cream she’d stolen and piled up on her dresser. Lily and Daniel were having a fight. Janet looked on with interest, although there wasn’t much to watch. They were only eating breakfast, but they were doing it furiously. “You don’t have to pretend that anything’s normal,” said Lily. “I’m not.” Daniel held up his slice of rye bread and spread it with apple butter evenly and meticulously. Lily was angry at Daniel for not telling off his friends who were mean to her. Maybe they would break up and then Lily and Janet could spend more time at the bar talking about how awful men were. Lily got up in the middle of eating her soft-boiled egg and began sweeping the floor like a robot. “This place is fucking filthy,” she said. It was. Lily had already swept up a huge pile of dirt and dust and papers and food, and she hadn’t even come close to finishing. “You don’t have to act like we’re living in a nuthouse,” said Daniel. “We are.” Lily threw the broom on the floor and went back to her egg, which sat in its rose cup. “It’s not surprising that your friends treat me like shit when it’s obvious you don’t have any respect for me. You let them do it. If I had friends who called me up and invited me to parties and wouldn’t invite you, I wouldn’t go. I wouldn’t treat you like that.” “You could’ve gone.” “I wasn’t invited. You and Janet were. She’s always nasty to me anyway. You saw how she was last week.” Daniel put down his bread, picked up the knife and began re-smoothing the apple butter. “I saw how you were too. You didn’t extend yourself at all.” “Whenever I say anything she ignores me or pretends to misunderstand. I’m tired of your dumb friends anyway, especially that dumb bitch Sasha. I’m tired of hearing these middle-class bitches who’ve never worked in their life, whose parents pay their rent and buy them college degrees, sit around and talk about how depressed they are. I don’t have any parents and I don’t have any friends and I’ve had to work for everything I ever got, which hasn’t been much.” She was yelling now. Daniel’s eyes had become very soft. What a mess I live in, thought Janet. Isn’t it interesting, even though she could be talking about me. Mark walked into the room with his hair on end and his shoulders knit together, his eyes flickering at Lily. “Oh God,” spat Lily. She grabbed her egg cup, tossed the egg in the garbage, and left the room. “It’s so horrible living with two people who are involved in a relationship,” hissed Mark at Janet. “Especially when one of them is mentally ill.” He raised his voice. “Who threw the broom on the floor?” The bar was full of familiar, attractive people; plates of cheese sat on several tables, and plants hung above all heads. Janet had been coming here almost every night. No waitresses were mean to her here. Lily was disappointingly calm, though, and only half-interested in talking about how awful men were. “I know we had to break up eventually,” she said. “I just wish it wasn’t about something as stupid as this. It just got to the point that I couldn’t tolerate it anymore. I mean the way his friends act toward me.” She wasn’t showing anger at all. Her voice was flat, her expression blank. Janet wondered if Lily looked that way because it was her nature or if the outside world had been so painful for her that she couldn’t stand to be in it fully. She looked at Lily’s long, slender fingers against the iced glass of her drink and felt touched by her vulnerability. Why should people dislike her? “It’s really shitty,” said Janet. “I don’t know why it’s happening.” Her passivity made Janet feel a little contemptuous. She ordered another drink. “It’s a small town. People like to gossip and you’re a natural subject because you’re different.” “How am I different?” Janet sighed and looked at the ceiling, both hands on her drink. The question stirred memories of answering a professor’s questions and loving the sound of her intelligent voice. “Because on one hand you seem completely unaware of people, completely self-contained and happy to be that way. And then you’ll suddenly be so open and needy. I think the abrupt contrast worries people. And they can be aggressive with you because you’re actually gentle. Even if you don’t talk that way.” Lily didn’t answer but Janet thought she looked pleased with the explanation. “I’m sort of glad you’re dumping Daniel. I know he’s my brother and everything, but it’s about time somebody dumped him. He’s been picking up and putting down girls for years. It’s sickening.” Lily shrugged. “He’s told me all about what a heartbreaker he is. I guess it means I’m supposed to be the one to bring him down.” “You should. It would do him good.” “I don’t see how it would do him good.” “Because it would teach him something about life. He’s never been hurt before in that way. He thinks everything’s so easy and that he’s never been hurt because he’s so smart.” “Being hurt doesn’t teach anybody anything,” said Lily. “It doesn’t help. It just feels bad.” She nipped up a piece of cheese and munched. “Although there is the Jesus stuff,” she said through her cheese. “Suffering and redemption, suffering and purity.” “That’s not what I’m talking about,” said Janet. “What are you talking about?” Janet sighed abruptly; her eyes went ceilingward. “Morally, in the Christian sense, strength isn’t necessarily a good thing. You’re supposed to turn the other cheek, be sacrificed, you know? But I think that kind of meekness is weak, and when you think about it, weakness is really… evil in a way. It’s like being connected with the ugly things in the world. You’re the clubfooted straggler endangering the herd. You make people depressed and sentimental.” “Did you vote for Reagan? That’s his whole thing, he’s for strength. People despised Carter for being weak.” “No. No, no. I didn’t vote for anybody, I’m not talking about anything political. I don’t mean you should despise people for being weak, if it’s a kind of weakness they can’t help. But when they’re weak on purpose, it’s another thing. When they don’t even try. When they let people hurt them and don’t fight back. It’s gross. It’s letting down the whole human race.” “Oh. I think I see what you mean.” Lily looked out the window for a minute. “It’s funny. When Reagan won, I was secretly relieved. Even though I hate him. Secretly, some part of me must feel like he’s right. Even though I think Carter is the better one.” She turned to face Janet. “Tell me again why you think I should dump Daniel.” “Well, to… to make him see that he could be weak and damaged like anybody else.” Lily smiled. “That would just make Daniel stronger.” “Think so?” “Some people are like that. Daniel is like that. The more he was hurt, the stronger he’d get. It’s like Ann Landers says: ‘The same heat that melts butter tempers steel.’” “If it’s that way, maybe you really should dump him.” Lily made a face. “The thing is, I don’t want to hurt his feelings.” She played with the wheat crackers on their plate. “I wonder how many other people feel that way about Reagan? Even if they hated him?” Janet had begun to work on her history papers so she could graduate. There was only three weeks left to get them done, and she hadn’t even started her research, so she had to get up very early in the morning. She went to the Oasis before many people had a chance to get there and start gossiping. She smoked and drank coffee and read about socialism in England. It was wonderful to be constructive. No wonder Lily clung to it so. Janet wondered if it would change her appearance the way masturbating had. After Lily and Daniel broke up, she masturbated for the first time in six months. People kept telling her how relaxed she looked all of a sudden. Lily said her “energy” had changed. Maybe doing her history papers would have an even greater effect. At night she went to the bar and saw Sasha and her friends. Sasha looked fat and tragic, her eyes bitterly flat and smeared with kohl. Janet told her about the papers. “Good girl!” said Sasha. “I never did my papers. Is it true that Lily and Daniel broke up?” “For a few days now. I think they might get back together, though. They’re being very seductive at breakfast.” Janet was surprised when Sasha didn’t say anything nasty. She just started telling about how she’d gotten kicked out of her best friend’s apartment after a fight, and how she had to stay with George Hammond as a result. “Of course, he’ll probably kick me out as soon as he gets tired of me. He loves me most when I start talking about moving to Chicago.” Lindsay walked in wearing her little black leather jacket. Her large, heavy brown eyes looked smug and almost crossed under her tortoiseshell glasses, and her little nose was in the air. “Sasha!” she cried, advancing toward them. “Hi, you look great.” “Being an outcast is very becoming. I hear you’re going to New York.” “Yeah, I’m going to become a disc jockey. I know people there who can get me connected. At least I hope they can. Hi Janet.” “Oh, you’ll do great. You’re the kind of person who’s successful.” “I can just hear her on the radio in New York,” said Sasha after Lindsay had left. “Have you heard her show? It’s called No Feelings and she reads her poetry on it. All this stuff about splinters of night reaming her eyes. She’s retarded. She’ll probably get a great job in New York. Every pretentious asshole I know went to New York and got a job in film or publishing.” “I’m an asshole and I don’t have a job in film or publishing.” “That’s because you’re not pretentious. You wouldn’t even be an asshole except you can’t get out of Ann Arbor. And who am I to talk? I’ve been trying to get out for years.” “I’m going to get out soon,” said Janet. Janet rolled her car windows down as she drove home, so she could feel the spring air and look at the little residential houses. She drove her car up onto the lawn and almost over the tulips. She heard herself thunder across the porch like an ogre. She knew that Lily and Daniel had gotten back together as soon as she walked in the door. She heard their voices coming out of the kitchen in low, intimate sounds, and when she put her head around the corner, she saw them sitting in their papers. On the table were little dishes with pieces of toast on them and an open package of butter with a knife still in it. She turned and padded away. She went upstairs and threw her books and papers on the floor. She got into the bed and lay there, swollen and drunk. She reviewed the situation: Her hair was growing out so well it was almost okay to take the scarf off. She was working on her papers. She was masturbating and having orgasms. Lily was right. Ann Landers was right. She was one of those people who just got stronger and stronger, no matter what you did. Her strength was like the steel structure of a bombed-out building, stripped but imperious and stern. She couldn’t feel anything inside herself now but flat metallic strength.