She was in the habit of walking straight to his door when she came back from class in the afternoon. When he was there, she would usually go in and ask him if he wanted to take a nap with her. Today she found him sitting in a chair playing his electric guitar without the amplifier, so softly that no one in her room across the hall could have heard him. His hair swayed back and forth in time with the tapping of his foot until she put her hands on his shoulders and bent down to kiss the top of his head.
“I thought you might be home,” he said. “In fact, I thought you might be asleep. I was trying to be so quiet.”
“I am asleep, I’m so tired,” she said, nestling her face into the back of his collar. “I just wanted to say ‘hi’ and then lie down before dinner.”
“Wait,” he said. “Look on my desk before you go.”
She walked to his bedroom door and saw six pieces of paper fanned out slightly in the middle of his desk. Printed at the top of the first page was “Fulbright Scholarship, Institute of International Education, U.S. Student Program Application.” She gripped both sides of the door frame and looked down at her feet as she began softly kicking at the floorboards in time with the music.
“Gee, Graham, when did you decide to do this?”
“It came in the mail today,” he said without losing his place in the song. “I couldn’t resist sending away for it. My lit professors think I have an excellent chance of getting one.”
“But what about the band… I mean when did you start thinking…” She turned back to the living room. “On second thought, wait and tell me at dinner. I’m going to go lie down.”
From her room, the tapping of his foot was just barely audible, and hearing it was like trying to touch him from the opposite side of an abyss. When she closed her eyes, she wanted to be lying in the same old four-poster bed she had dreamed of. She wanted Graham to be there, but he would be staring up at the ceiling as he had started to do during their naps when he thought she was asleep. And just this one last time, she wanted the baby to be sleeping in the center between them. She lay down beside them, curling her body around the baby, her hand on Graham’s shoulder. “If you have to leave us, Graham, I’ll understand. I’d let you go right now. As a matter of fact, I wish you’d leave and take this baby with you. Because I have to get on with things. I have to be able to figure out what I’m going to do when I’m alone again after graduation, when you’re off on your Fulbright forgetting me and I have a worthless goddamn BA in philosophy. I have to start thinking about these things some time very soon or I’m screwed.” She had never imagined that he looked at her with anything but love in his eyes, but this time she let him roll toward her and look coldly into her face. “You said it yourself, Graham, I’m too smart for this.”
This was her fantasy, and she controlled every move that he made. She choreographed every twitch of his facial muscles as he took the pillow from behind his head and gently laid it over the baby. Then she had him take the pillow from behind her own head, never letting go of her eyes, and push it down over her face so that she could finally sleep a dreamless sleep.
The last thing she was aware of, partially deaf and comfortably paralyzed as she always was before she fell asleep, was Graham standing at the end of the couch. She couldn’t so much as lift her head, so she just stared at him. I’m going to dinner, she thought he said, but his mouth was making only the shapes of the words, not the sounds.
Selina woke up alone one Sunday in December. Graham had left early to prepare for a voice lesson that had been rescheduled from the previous week aand wouldn’t be back until after lunch. She got out of bed and put on the sweatpants that were lying on the floor in front of her. Hearing her roommate Sarah typing in her bedroom, they seemed to be the only two people in the suite, so Selina slid into Sarah’s room and sat on the bed.
“What’s up?” Sarah said as she continued typing.
Selina flopped over on her back. “I think I might be pregnant, Sarah.”
Sarah slid around in her chair and drew one knee up to her chin. “I thought you guys were using something?”
“We are, but… I don’t know.” She grabbed a handful of her sweatshirt and tugged at it, making a tent over her belly.
Sarah shook her head. “Selina, use your brain. You’re not pregnant, you’re just looking for a distraction from the momentous void that’s lying out there waiting for us in six months.” She paused to think and seemed to be sucking on her knee as a child might do absentmindedly for comfort. “Do you and Graham ever talk about what you two are going to do after graduation?”
“No, and it doesn’t matter,” Selina said. She pulled herself upright with a great effort, as though she were already seven or eight months pregnant. “I don’t care what I do. If Graham wants me along, I’ll do whatever he does. I know that sounds horrible, but that’s all I can say. I think he wants to take a year off, maybe get a band together, and then if that doesn’t work out, apply to graduate schools.” Somethng came up from her stomach that soured her mouth. “I don’t know, maybe I made up the part about the band. He doesn’t take it all that seriously. I still want to get a pregnancy test, though. Can I borrow your car to go get one?”
“I think they have them at the drugstore on the corner, don’t they?”
“They’re all out, I already checked,” Selina lied. “Please. I’ll buy you half a tank of gas.”
Sarah shrugged and dug into the pockets of a pair of pants at the foot of her bed. “Don’t park it in a handicapped spot like Joan did, okay?” she said and tossed Selina the keys.
In her room, Selina put on a bra under her sweatshirt and started to change into her jeans. She was looking forward to the chance to drive away from the campus and wondered if she could pick Graham up as he was walking home from the music department. He is so good, she thought. He will deal with this just fine. When they were married, she decided, she would stop wearing old T-shirts to bed and wear nightgowns. She imagined herself in a thin white cotton gown, sheer where it draped over her pregnant belly. Then she remembered what he had said to her at Thanksgiving and muttered to herself, “I can’t believe I’m doing this.”
She didn’t know why she had told Sarah she was pregnant because she knew it wasn’t true. She didn’t know why she was ready to lie to Graham about it, either, because she didn’t believe she needed to be pregnant for him to marry her. It was just that in her dreams she willed herself to be married to him and pregnant with his baby, while in her real life she couldn’t seem to will herself to stop dreaming. The fantasy had become more familiar, and certainly more welcome, than the prospects of her own life, and the details of it were too comforting to give up. She knew, for instance, exactly what their bedroom would be like if they were married. Late at night when she lay with him in her darkened dorm room, she could actually feel her hand skimming the carved bedpost of an antique four-poster bed.
She tried to force herself out of the fantasy by thinking about how absolutely unpregnant she was. She remembered a time when her tenth grade biology class gathered around a lab table to observe a 21-week-old fetus preserved in an enormous jar of formaldehyde. Most of it features were well formed, and she had wondered if it looked like its parents. Her teacher had refused to tell her where it had come from. If she ever thought she was having a miscarriage, she knew she would be sickened to death by the memory of what she’d seen in the jar. She would be lying on their cool bathroom tile with her head on Graham’s knees, listening to his breathing heavy and irregular because he would be crying, thinking of the jar and knowing that there was nothing she could do to keep the fetus inside her. He would squeeze her hand and say, “What can I do? What do you want me to do?”
Why don’t you just shoot me, she thought. You said it: I’m too intelligent to be doing this. She dropped the car keys on the floor and fell back on her bed.
They stayed on campus together over the week school was out for the Thanksgiving holiday. Their roommates were all gone, and they lived together in his dorm suite, making love every morning, afternoon, and night in his bed. They ate out breakfast and lunch, but in the evenings they let themselves into the student kitchen in the basement of the dorm to make dinner. Because the basement was so eerily quiet, they felt like they were going to a bomb shelter, and Graham started bringing a radio to keep them company. He caught up on reading from his Milton and Frost classes as Selina fixed their meals, turning down the radio sometimes to ask if she needed his help. They ate just one meal on Thanksgiving Day, some sliced turkey they bought at a deli the day before and a loaf pan of instant boxed stuffing that Selina garnished with canned cashews. While they were in the kitchen that day they made love twice, one time with her sitting on the counter and the other as she straddled him on a chair, her bare legs warmed by the oven as it was browning the pan of stuffing. With Graham’s approval, she kept on a stained terrycloth apron she had found in the basement as she imagined some young housewife would wear it, using it to coyly cover their sex.
On Sunday night before classes resumed, he sensed something was wrong as she took some biscuits out of the oven, and he stood and held her while their dinner got cold on the plates someone had pilfered from the dining hall. She crushed the fabric of his shirt in her fist and pressed it to her nose. “I loved this week. I could do this Suzy Homemaker thing with you for a long time, Graham, and I honestly believe that’s all it would take for me to be happy.”
“Don’t say that,” he said quietly. She felt is unshaven cheek moving against her hair as he spoke. “You’re too intelligent to believe something like that.”
She had tried to explain it to her mother in the phone call they’d had the night she’d met Graham. But her mother had misinterpreted what Selina was describing to be some hormonal thing.
“Could it be from what they call ‘pheromones’ these days?” her mother said. “You have so many roommates. Or maybe it’s something you inherited from me. I’ve always been consumed with dread, but my doctor says I need more exercise.”
Selina had then groaned and said, “Hey, Mom, are you trying to tell me that I can’t concentrate on choosing a career path right now because my body is making me so crazy that I can’t think straight?”
“It’s something to consider,” her mother said. “When I was your age, all I could think about was getting married and having babies. That was my only career path.”
“Funny,” Graham said in response to what Selina had just been saying. “Teaching’s the one thing I think I would really like to do. A full professorship in literature with tenure would be nice someday. But if it never happened, I’d always have rock and roll to fall back on, wouldn’t you think?”
“Yeah,” she sighed. “Sounds like graduate school for you.” She tossed the rest of the uneaten crust onto the empty pizza pan. “Unless you just like to perform in front of crowds. In that case, you really ought to just stick with the guitar.”
After dinner, as they walked past the building that housed the inelegant biology department, they ran out of things to say again, and Graham leaned over to give her the entry for the heading First Kiss.
The First ‘I Love You’ came not so much as a murmur but as more of a projectile after she pleaded with him, kissing him on her bed, “Graham, just say it. I know you want to, and if you say it, I can say it, too.” He said it, possibly with more conviction than he had meant to, and she raised up over him as he was washed down onto his back with the torrent of emotion that poured out around him. “God, look at what you’ve done to me, Selina,” he said looking up at her. It was one o’clock in the morning, and everything he said came out in a hoarse, almost falsetto, whisper. “I’m in love with you. I don’t ever want to leave you, I want to be with you for as long as I can.”
Of course, Selina had one other heading on her blackboard that had been discreetly left out of the bride’s book. It was called First Time We Made Love. “Let me touch you down here,” Graham said one night as his hand moved lightly over her hip. They were both naked from the waist up, lying with her back to his front like two spoons in a silverware drawer, and as he whispered to her his fingers traced along the top band of her panties. “Just with my hand. I want to make you come.” She arched her back and dropped her shoulder onto his chest. Then she reached down to guide his hand until he had the rhythm she wanted. In a few minutes, she finished pushing his underwear off with her foot and sat on top of him, feeling his fingers lace together in the small of her back as she tucked him inside of herself. For some reason, she began thinking words in her mother’s voice. Before she knew it, she was close to whispering in his ear, Oh God, Graham, I want your baby. At that moment, getting pregnant was an impossibility since she was on the pill, but still she begged God, please get me pregnant, please let him be the father of my baby. She could have gone on like that for hours, but she knew that he was probably wishing that she would come.
After they had sex, her anxiety about graduation disappeared for a while, and for the first time, she welcomed her own thoughts about the future, even coaxed along little visions in her imagination of what their life together would be like. She saw them traveling a great deal, touring with Graham’s rock band once he became famous, their baby or small child constantly beside them. Everytime she thought of the baby boy they would have, she liked to imagine what it would feel like to nurse him. Graham would be there, helping her keep her long hair out of the baby’s face as he drew up close to her breast, just as she would keep Graham’s hair out of his hands and mouth afterward when Graham cuddled their son.
When ever they both had reading to do, they saved it for the last thing before going to sleep so they could crawl into bed together and read in each other’s arms. On this particular night, Light in August was resting just below the hollow of her neck, propped open in his hand.
“Graham, I’m going to sleep,” she said, studying the ceiling. She had been re-reading Frege’s Foundations of Arithmetic, and she was dead tired.
“Mmm… okay, I’m almost done,” he said. He moved his eyes from the page just long enough to give her a light peck on the cheek.
She closed her eyes and let her thoughts go wherever they wanted to. Even the mathematician cannot create things at will, Frege said. He can only discover what is there and give it a name. When she imagined these scenes from her future with Graham, she felt like she was discovering all the possible pathways from which she would choose one to be her life. This is why I came to this school, she decided. My fate, to meet Graham. So much for “How We Met and Married,” she thought. Most of the blackboard was already full.
Tonight, she imagined that someday they would be on an airplane, the lights lowered for night and the air conditioning turned up to make the hypnotic white noise that would induce everyone on the plane to sleep. They would sit with their son, four years old in this episode of her fantasy, in the seat between them. Graham’s hair would spread like a silk shawl over his shoulder, and she would let her eye drift down his arm to his wedding ring, his hand resting on the hip of their small son, asleep and nestled at his father’s side. The image made her ache. She rolled toward him and started to bring her knees up to her chest, but there was no room left between them in the twin bed. It’s just so simple, Graham, she thought. It’s so beautiful and elegant and simple that it hurts.
“Okay, I know, I know,” he said laughing. ‘I take the hint and I’m putting down the book.” Her knees were digging into his hip. He tossed the paperback onto her desk and turned out the light.
to be continued.
Every step along the course of romance boiled down to a line in a book Selina had once seen years ago. The book was a bridal shower gift to her cousin, an album to be filled in as a keepsake by the bride, and the page that had caught Selina’s eye was headed “Our Courtship: How We Met and Married.” The subheadings, First Date, First Kiss, First Murmured ‘I Love You’, were all etched in her head on what she envisioned as a large blackboard, with fist-sized smudges of chalk beneath each phrase from her earlier erasures. Her First Date with the guy from across the hall (his name was Graham) was the dinner he bought her the following weekend at an ivy-covered pizza parlor where she felt so at home she could have camped out in one of its booths.
When Selina had gone back into the hall that first evening after calling her mother, his door was still open. She saw him through the doorway sitting with his back to her on an old couch that sagged under his weight. Some of his hair, which she could see now was more of a chestnut color, was tossed over the ragged back of the couch, and he was reading from a book propped open on one knee.
“Could I come in?” she asked from the hall.
“Please do,” he said turning slightly to her. “My name is Graham, by the way.” He leaned forward a little, like he was going to stand up, and she shifter her weight onto the balls of her feet.
“Oh, yes. Hi. I’m Selina.” His face was still white and smooth, even in the better light. He was wearing jeans and a button-down shirt made of faded blue ticking that reminded her of an old feather pillow. He was holding a worn paperback copy of The Wasteland and Other Poems upside-down in the hand that was dangling over his knee while he looked at her, patiently waiting for her to step into his room.
Three days later, they had finished eating and pushed their plates to the side when, during the first inevitable awkward pause in their conversation, she found him looking at her like that again. Then Graham slid his hand across the table to barely touch the tip of her left middle finger, and he asked her about the two thin silver rings she wore on that hand. One had been given to her by her grandmother, she said, and the other she had bought for herself. She studied the calloused ends of his fingers.
“Do you ever sing, too, or do you just play the guitar?” she asked. His hand was still half an inch from hers.
He seemed mildly embarrassed. “You know, since I waited that day for all of my roommates to leave, I stupidly pictured myself playing in complete privacy. But I guess the whole dorm must have heard me.” He smiled down at the table and said, “I do sing, but never in the room. Not even if I think I’m there alone.” He looked over to see how amusing she found the whole thing. Selina smiled back. Her fingers, which she hadn’t moved in several minutes, had gone numb. “I take voice lessons from time to time in the music department, so I have access to the practice rooms. They’ve started to frown on anyone accompanying himself on the electric guitar in there, though.”
“I guess using the shower for that would be out of the question, then,” she said. He laughed and she leaned forward to examine her own hand, still laid flat on the table.
“But seriously, do you think you’ll do anything with it? Professionally, I mean. I thought you sounded pretty good.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Hopefully, I’m not dumb enough to try. Hopefully.” He leaned back against the seat. “What about you? What are you planning to do with your philosophy degree?”
“Mathematical philosophy degree,” she corrected him. “My senior essay has to be approved by both departments.” She pulled her plate back in front of her and began breaking off pieces of leftover pizza crust. “Well… I’ve considered law school, but I’m not really that kind of person. You know… Driven and ambitious.”
He drew his head toward the back of the booth. “Writing a math paper must be very strange,” he said.
“It’s more about logic than math, really,” she said. “My papers are always very short, just a couple of pages. A good, tight proof in logic is described as ‘elegant.’ Isn’t that a lovely expression? You could never say tat anything about history or biology was elegant.”
“I suppose not,” he laughed. He pulled back his hand slowly to the edge of the table and let it drop into his lap.
She popped a piece of crust in her mouth and spoke around it. “I know one thing though. I don’t think I’d make a very good college professor, which would be the other way to go. Speaking in front of crowds makes me extremely nervous.” Usually, Selina avoided conversations about anything post-graduation. When she thought about leaving college, she felt a physical pressure from the inside pushing out, as though there were a quantity of blood in her greater than the capacity of her veins and arteries, and she was afraid that before long she would explode.
Selina recognized the onset of sleep as the intermittent deafness she was experiencing. For example, she could no longer hear the guy playing his excessively loud electric guitar in the dorm suite across the hall, but she could still feel the vibration of it. She could see her room turn to fuzzy pixels of gray light and then to nothing.
Sometime later she woke up, and the sound of the guitar penetrated her foggy head again. The only light in the room was that of a street lamp that had come on outside her window while she was asleep. She picked up the telephone and untangled its extra-long cord until she could reach the hallway with it because she intended to use it as a prop.
She rapped hard on his door with her knuckles which stung them badly, but she didn’t want to announce herself with the usual pounding of fists. She wanted to be kinder than the time she’d complained about the stereo because since she’d complained the guys were playing it louder than ever. The guitar stopped abruptly, and she heard three quick steps before the door opened into the other room with such force that a little of her hair was sucked forward onto her face.
“Yes?” he said. He was not the one she had expected. She knew three of the guys who lived there by sight, although she had only met the one who consistently played the stereo at top volume at 2:15 every afternoon, one of her favorite nap times. But she had never seen this one before. His face was soft and pale, framed by dark straight hair trimmed bluntly below the shoulders. Looking into the poorly lit hallway made his eyes large. That is a wonderful face, she thought, and I’m standing here in the fluorescent light with creases on my cheek from the couch cushions.
Selina had the base of the phone in one hand and the receiver in the other. “I’m really sorry to bother you,” she said, sounding politely rehearsed, “But I’ve got to call my mother, and with you playing so loud, I can’t even hear the dial tone.”
That was how they met. That was how Selina, in the middle of what should have been her pre-professional senior year panic, was able to carry herself serenely for a few months above the ocean of dread that would have otherwise drowned her. For that brief, sweet time, she kept herself in purposeful denial of the corporate recruiters who were already raiding the campus, of what her roommates wore to their job interviews, of flyers and table tents announcing career seminars. During that time, she never once considered typing her resume. All because she met a guy. That and the fact that she could sleep through almost anything, even the most oppressive anxiety.