by MARK ARTURO
With distressing clarity, I recall the first time I saw her. Blonde hair was tied back unceremoniously, a glut of premeds shuffled back and forth to obstruct my view. A TA named Avad tapped on her bony shoulder and said, “I hope you’re feeling better. I didn’t think you were going to make it.”
My sophomore year of college had dissipated all the excitement of the previous spring. My new residence was further from the center of campus, yet I felt no escape. My favorite freshman, Amil, was rooming with a goofy CS major named Sanja who was planning a startup that allowed you to watch other people using their computers; they called such invasions “veeping.” Amil was also slowly dating every Jewish woman in the junior class.
As a consequence, I was left to my other friends, with whom I alternately felt a great kinship and, intermittently, disappointment. One was a lanky homosexual whose boyfriend was so glorious looking he could not be spoken to without laborious pauses. After awhile, it was obvious our interests had largely diverged and we had only Iris Murdoch in common.
My other roommate was the scion of a wealthy and influential family who unsurprisingly was about as self-aware as a horned toad. He was dating a girl from a local junior college who looked like a shaved weasel and laughed at all the correct times. Last year, I heard she became a gastroenterologist.
I would not say I felt alone; rather I simply felt apart. I only went to the dining hall at odd times: after lunch, or before the dinner rush, so that I could eat alone and read as I had done since I was a boy.
It was there I saw her doing the same, eating by herself. I have always been a complete expert at knowing exactly how to observe someone without them knowing. I was doing so, but she was onto me in mere more moments, and I felt exposed.
Information about any one undergraduate was not hard to come by. My friend Audrey spent most of her free time, in between extensive conferences on the ills of various disadvantaged people, collecting such information in the carrels of the library.
In that prosaic place there was always a disturbing tendency for people to share adderall and complain about the hours they spent in the place complaining about the hours they spent in the place. Extracting gossip from Audrey was never tedious, since her charisma was nearly contagious, her judgments were sharp, and her sexuality was so broadly appealing it could never be precisely honed in on, just appreciated from afar like a Vermeer.
Audrey’s roommate was a prickly pear named Lauren who wore a thick winter coat even on the cusp of summer. The trouble with obtaining information from either of them was that it was just as likely to make it back to the source before you made use of it yourself.
Once I had tried the opposite tact, signaling a lack of lack interest in their wide knowledge, and that had turned out just as badly for me. I believe the woman I ended up offending now clerks for a justice in the court of appeals.
I devised a better, finer strategy. I swore Audrey to secrecy and pretended like I was going to cry. Probably the vow meant nothing, but it was better than giving her a license to deal.
My remote dining companion’s name was Kay, and she was from Montana or Idaho, most probably the latter. Can you imagine? Audrey told me faux-breathlessly. Kay had been dating a guy expelled from school for hacking into the school’s advisor program and switching some assignments around, for what reason Audrey did not know. He still lived on campus but they were very definitely no longer together. I tried to swallow this bitter pill and I knew Sanja would have all the information I required about such a person.
Braving the small room he and my friend Amil shared was ever a pain. It smelled of pot and semen, not actually a terrible smell, but never an expected one. The two of them were constantly on their personal computer, and it could never be said they did not practice what they preached. They exclusively listened to remixes of familiar electronic songs, and were willing to explain at any given moment why the guys in Justice were the finest musicians ever to live among mortals.
I heard the rest of the story from Kay herself. They had actually come to school together, against her parents’ wishes. From what she hinted at, the attraction was mostly animal, and she subtly suggested she had never been with anyone else, although I never knew if that were truly the case.
Kay’s roommate was the daughter of a fairly prominent New England politician, and the girl never went to class, preferring to smoke opium and watch reruns of Adventure Time. As it happened, she was a very talented artist and I judged her far less harshly than Kay did. I think she is married with two kids now.
Kay and this grizzly beacon of sexuality – even I had to admit he was sort of beautiful, in a wild way – had not broken up over this scandal. Instead he had been cheating on her with the daughter of a diplomat. Even though this did not really bother her for no reason I could fathom, apparently her boyfriend’s guilt had corrupted what still existed between them. He works for the Obama administration now.
Still, I would not approach Kay at the square tables that held whatever counted as food in this institution. I rarely lingered at the library either, too fearful Audrey would ask me for developments in the case, since I could offer her none.
But the next semester we had a class together. The world was in a better mood; everyone carried a blanket around with them as if a picnic or bath was right around any corner. Irony was employed just as often, but without the jaded aplomb it was accompanied by that previous winter. Churls were absorbed by crowds and campus was taken over by an aromatic, pervasive mien reminiscent of Rome before the fall.
Before Kay had only been a vision of the season, like a clump of snow that might disappear on a wet afternoon. Now I saw she truly had no idea of herself or what she was, and I myself grew cold towards her at that realization, since I believe every thinking person should be possessed of the knowledge of how others view them.
First frost encourages carnivores and scavengers alike, any repulsion is sure to attract the finest of nature’s creatures. We are all animals, but some of us have been educated out of our ignorance more precisely than others.
The professor, squat and Jewish like a thumb, saw through me in a very pleasant way, and we shared a common view the comedies are really tragedies, and vice versa. We both hated Falstaff without being able to explain why. It was a small seminar, and I recall the other students well. They took to the material the same way I did, and I cannot watch the ghastly ending of Twelfth Night without thinking of us all there.
A few weeks into the term, Kay began to ask me questions about class and the assignments. The comedies of Shakespeare were probably my best subject. My professor had a border collie named Margarine who sat peaceably in the back of our class. Sometimes I would walk her, since my professor had a bad knee and the happy dog was in her prime. Kay eventually came with me at his request, and I start with anger thinking of his matchmaking.
We spoke of her illness eventually, a yearlong struggle with lymphoma that she had not fully recovered from. She survived, she said, but she was not as she was before her illness, although I noticed nothing of this in all the time I knew her. She speculated at length whether that had been the reason the bearded boy had cheated on her, and shocked me by asking what I thought. My first reaction was one of sympathy or empathy. I have always confused the two, but I hardened myself against that, because no woman desires a therapist, and confusing pity with sexual attraction is a childish act.
Instead I said that I thought someone who cheated was likely to do so when the occasion offered it, and that malice or forethought rarely entered into the equation. At that she laughed.
It seemed like we both liked the idea of being friends, and I am far from ashamed to admit I needed one. I dismissed thoughts of possessing her, but only for a time, the way a pig does not know the hunger for finer meals when he consumes his slop.
Kay always called me on such lazy metaphors. She did not yet consider herself a writer, but she loathed cliche as if she were. Quickly I found out she was a bit more knowledgeable of her charms than I had thought. When she drank, she became an exaggerated version of her considered self, until one night she asked me, in a winning way, why I never touched her.
I suppose I blushed at that, but my skin rarely admits such imperfections on a surface level. There is no good way to answer that question – it was evident to everyone how much time we spent together, and just as clear to my friends that I wanted her. Every time I saw Audrey that spring she would get this mischievous look in her eyes and whimper, “Whyyyy not?”
So I told Kay there was no reason, but isn’t it better to be friends? She pretended to agree for a moment, and then was on me. Have you ever held the earth, the soil? It is much the same.
I thought I knew sex, had comprehended its performative aspects. The difference between desire in general and desire for one such as Kay is the difference between the moon and the earth, and I have already told you she was the earth and not the sky. It is one thing to know that a single person, a particular animal is able to please another by putting mouth to cock, or thigh to face, or mingling among each other’s clothes and smells. But that is a movement towards intimacy, not the thing itself. The performance aspect so sweetly evaporated, like the discarding of a layer that had always been there, invisible to the eye. What took over then I have never been able to name or recreate except in art.
I don’t know what Kay is doing now. The border collie died a few years ago. My professor still teaches, half as many classes as he did. Audrey is the chief of a hospital’s geriatric unit, her roommate works for Goldman Sachs. Recovered from his death, Jesus walked the earth. The common thread in all of these epilogues is that we never fully know what will become of those we loved.
Mark Arturo is the senior contributor to This Recording. He is a writer living in Brooklyn. He last wrote in these pages about the other life besides this one. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.
Paintings by Theora Hamblett.
“I Put A Spell On You” – Alice Smith (mp3)
“Sinnerman” – Gregory Porter (mp3)