Every one of us was looking for a story. It might be small: a glimpse in the mirror, a breakfast plate smashing on the floor of the dining room. Then there were the larger stories, almost always about love.
One morning in early June, Dan and I walked away from the campus on a smooth loop of asphalt. We moved through heavy, wet summer air into a brief tangle of woods. At the pond, I grabbed two tiny frogs and handed one to him. Like a pact, I thought. "Here, take it," I said.
"My dad's got an illustrious career. It kills me that I can't tell you more."
I liked him from the start. His eyes were trusting; he was trustworthy. I wanted to hear what he was about to tell me, guilty that I had nothing to offer him in return. I knew if I kept my mouth shut and simply walked alongside, he would eventually say the things he seemed desperate to let loose.
"He's a surgeon." As he said it, he gave his frog a little push, and it jumped from his hand. "I guess I can tell you this much: he likes to use his tools outside the operating theater as well as inside it."
I kept my flinch internal, and smiled without showing my teeth. There was silence between us as we stepped from the woods and continued along the dirt path, exposed now to mid-morning light. Crows cawed deep throaty sounds, circling overhead. The day was turning ostentatiously bright.
At a slant, I sized Dan up. His Adam's apple bobbed, holding down secrets. His voice skipped around the lower range of a baritone, soothing. His story was not.
"Oh, shit," he said. "It has to do with their sexual practices."
I wondered whether the mere revelation of family secrets was itself sexual. If so, we were on the brink of a kind of infidelity. I'll admit: it was stirring.
By the pond, the last of the bullfrogs croaked out their double-bass notes. Dan took a deep breath. "All my life, I heard their lovemaking coupled with her crying. Only last year she told me about the practice. He performs small surgeries on her skin as they fuck."
I kept my eyes in the distance, shocked that people did such things, but even more so that he'd told me. "That does make a good story," I said. He stared at my breasts beneath my loose linen shirt. Then I saw him take my point.
"Right," he said, as he watched the crows fly overhead and thought about his parents' sexual life. Random illegible scratches, or more? Did the cuts add up to words? Were my thoughts a form of theft? There was always the possibility, I told myself, that all your words, every act, could be returned to you in a version more acutely recognizable than even your own image in the mirror.
I bent over and urged my tiny frog off my palm. As we walked, Dan's hand brushed mine, and for the briefest moment our fingers met and grasped.
A couple of weeks later, when I went home to my husband, I didn't mention the walk with the frogs. But he gained from it, as he would gain from everything that happened to me (and not to me) during the two years I flew several thousand miles, summer and winter, between home and graduate school.
That first spring, it rained a lot. We kept umbrellas in our bags, along with our notebooks and breath mints. At the end of each lecture, you could hear the ping of all the strong-smelling tin boxes as they opened. The campus buildings' floors were filthy, covered in old leaves and crusty mud. We wiped our soles across the wet grass but our shoes kept bringing in dirt.
Between rain showers, the sun was bright and hot. After the morning lectures, we sat around in Adirondack chairs or on blue and pink polyester blankets we had filched from storage cabinets. Sometimes we had a noontime beer. If we were doing laundry and had it timed right, the clothes were usually dry by then.
Leaving the laundry room in a hurry one day, I nearly ran into William, another student. I let drop my clean clothes, T-shirts and jeans, cotton socks, underwear, flesh-colored bras, all of it. William smiled, apologizing, then turned away, hiding his own dirty laundry in his arms. I gathered my clothes from the floor.
That night, he and Sally would begin their affair. I didn't know it then, but within days I'd be covering for them, not quite a go-between.
For several mornings, I was exactly where they needed me to be. Sally would slip out of William's car, and we'd go along together as if taking a morning walk. William would drive around to the parking lot. I'd remind her to put something over her neck—he'd colored it with bites.
One day, before walking onto the path that led to our dorm, I showed her a dead chipmunk I'd already passed, bright red blood at its mouth.
"But that's not a chipmunk," she said. "It's a squirrel." She thought it was amusing that I didn't know the difference; it seemed to augur a period when all sorts of things would be confused. It was a confusion I courted—happy, for a while, to be wandering around in someone else's story.
For the summer solstice, some of the students arranged a pagan rite. We walked through a maze of lanterns and smoked pot afterward, looking skyward for stars, then glancing around for fireflies. We brought in the morning eating Chex Mix and dried cranberries, vanilla wafers and licorice Allsorts.
Sally came back the morning after that with hair stringy around her face. She looked spent. The night before, I'd had to tell the others she wasn't feeling well. She'd instructed me to do so, though people knew I was lying.
Dan, for one, saw through everything.
As a group, we dazzled one another with our brilliance. Each day's public reading or lecture, another seduction. How could it not feel as if we were fucking in public, fully clothed? We were euphoric as we fingered the world, let loose our ravenous minds.
One winter afternoon, Dan and I walked into an old building on campus and crept through it like children, opening closed doors and examining the contents of bathroom shelves, of closets hidden beneath stairs. Dan had to pee, and I dared him to piss in the bathroom on the top floor—a room with ancient rusty appliances, a room no one had used in years. He refused, and eventually our giddiness turned back on itself.
Some days we seemed like siblings, jealousy our primary shared emotion. Other days we were a little in love. Both of us knew how any feeling that passed between us would eventually make its way home—to his wife, to my husband.
Leaving the building, we paused briefly to make sure the massive wooden door was almost shut. Outside, snow was falling. He took my hand, and for a few minutes we walked in the white, touching.
I sometimes fear that I'll never make it again to a snowy clime—the exquisite bliss of cold.
Chewing on the World
There were days on campus, snowy or streaked with sunlight, when I felt I was chewing on a big chunk of the world, and the world, in turn, had the whole of me right in its mouth.
Sally was different: she kept talking about injecting drugs. I told her: "It's not what you shoot into the vein but simply opening it, letting blood flow."
Not much of interest starts in the imagination. It's too indiscriminate. It bubbles up in sympathy with all that's real.
A walk in the snow with a friend who tells you he fears his marriage is in tatters. The snow's blue-whiteness. The sun coming up over the mountains, lighting up icicles until they separate and fall with a startling crash. The footsteps left behind.
One morning, we found trails of pink-and-white Good & Plenty sprinkled across the campus. A day later, it was multicolored Sweet Tarts. I've always loved candy. Seeing it on the ground, I couldn't help wondering what trail was being marked, what new seduction enacted.
Grad school had made us think we could decipher marks of almost any kind.
You come upon moments of perfect porousness. The flow of you and not-you.
Writing It Out
To write your best, you need to be in a state of arousal.
He came to my room past midnight, and before he said anything, I said no.
He asked: "But don't you feel it?"
There were no mirrors in that room; I didn't stop looking at him the whole time.
"Of course I do. But it's there because of the people we love at home," I said, choosing to say because of rather than despite.
It was winter. The floors were wet with melted snow from our boots. Something from Verdi played very quietly on my laptop; then it switched to something contemporary, Jay-Z or Eminem. We could have been struggling to stay atop that narrow bed beside the open window, icy air sweeping through.
There's something exhilarating in being able to assert: this, definitively, and not this.
Then again, you can always write it out differently the next morning.
Against the Night
Desire that leaves you throbbing, unable to utter a sound.
The morning Sally and I followed a trail of red hot candies from her door all the way to the dining hall, we saw William walking along a parallel path with one of the first-year students.
After that, Sally couldn't stop biting the skin around her nails. She heard the sound of her heart beating, she said, all through the night. Her skin broke out in a rash.
"I'm allergic to myself!" It was the first time I'd seen her cry.
I left presents outside her door: a tiny Etch A Sketch, an awful shade of pink lipstick, every single flavor of Jelly Bellies. When she didn't respond, I left chicken soup. Black tea. The other half of the sleeping pill she'd lent me.
Before graduating, I gave things away: my gray bathrobe, blue rubber thongs, hair dryer. I kept the magnets I'd played like awkward music—they soothed my nerves—and a half-bottle of Dewar's.
Flying east, I made the magnets jump and join in odd combinations. Sometimes, I found myself in tears. When the plane touched down, my husband was there, still waiting.
I've kept most of the stories to myself. My husband has an idea things got wild sometimes, but knows better than to ask.
Since the end of grad school, the spirit of that time has passed between us many times, in intriguing ways. Does the substance ever really matter?
Copyright © Anne Germanacos 2008.