VOX CLAMANTIS IN DESERTO

ELLE (Australia) - - Contents - WORDS BY CUR­TIS SIT­TEN­FELD

A tale of com­ing of age and be­trayal, by Cur­tis Sit­ten­feld.

I’D SEEN RAE SULLIVAN

around cam­pus, but it wasn’t un­til early Fe­bru­ary of our fresh­man year that I de­cided I wanted to be like her. This re­al­i­sa­tion hap­pened at Dart­mouth’s post of­fice, on a Tues­day morn­ing, when I was in line be­hind her; I was there to buy stamps and she was send­ing a pack­age. It was a lit­tle after 9am, a quiet hour, and as the only per­son work­ing helped the stu­dents in front of us, I had plenty of time to scru­ti­nise the pack­age in Rae’s arms: a card­board box ad­dressed to a per­son named Noah Bishop.

Though the rest of Noah Bishop’s ad­dress was ob­scured by the an­gle at which Rae was hold­ing the box, I could see that her hand­writ­ing was jagged in a cool way — it was un­fem­i­nine — and she’d dec­o­rated the bor­ders of the box with pat­terns rem­i­nis­cent of an In­dian ta­pes­try and the rest of it with er­ratic hearts drawn in black and ma­roon Sharpie. The hearts seemed to me un­abashedly fem­i­nine; also, of course, they im­plied that Rae, whose name I hadn’t known un­til read­ing the re­turn ad­dress in the box’s cor­ner, was send­ing the pack­age to her boyfriend for Valen­tine’s Day. At that time, the thing I most wished for was a boyfriend. I’d been aim­ing, un­suc­cess­fully, for a Dart­mouth boyfriend, but it seemed even more ro­man­tic to have one some­where else — it im­plied yearn­ing and pas­sion­ate re­unions. I was 19 and a vir­gin, and hadn’t so much as kissed any­one since ar­riv­ing on cam­pus five months be­fore.

Rae was a lit­tle taller than I was, wear­ing cor­duroy pants, Birken­stock clogs, and a North Face coat that, when she turned after pay­ing, fell open in such a way that it re­vealed a grey hooded sweat­shirt with the word Ex­eter across it in ma­roon. I couldn’t ac­tu­ally see all the let­ters of Ex­eter, but I’d been at Dart­mouth long enough to recog­nise the name of a fancy board­ing school, even if I was from Des Moines. Over her wavy brown hair, Rae wore a black skull­cap.

If you went fea­ture by fea­ture, I don’t think any­one would have said she and I par­tic­u­larly re­sem­bled each other, but there was some­thing recog­nis­able about her to me, some sim­i­lar­ity. Our builds were about the same, our hair the same length, our clothes com­pa­ra­ble in their im­pli­ca­tion of not ex­actly mak­ing an ef­fort, though this was 1994, when al­most ev­ery­one was mak­ing less of an ef­fort. But Rae’s way of not mak­ing an ef­fort fash­ion-wise was, like her

hand­writ­ing, far cooler than mine; mine stemmed more from con­fu­sion than in­dif­fer­ence and re­sulted in a wardrobe of unironic colour­ful sweaters and bleached jeans that were loose but ta­pered.

I didn’t speak to Rae in the post of­fice. But that night, after I took off my sweater — it was a cot­ton crew­neck with al­ter­nat­ing squares of turquoise, or­ange and black — I never put it back on. I re­solved that in the fu­ture, I’d wear only solids.

In the au­tumn term of the fol­low­ing year, Rae and I ended up in the same English sem­i­nar. I knew from hav­ing looked her up in the fresh­man book — a for­est-green pa­per­back book­let filled with black-and-white head shots, with full names and home ad­dresses listed un­der­neath — that she was my year and was from Manch­ester, New Hamp­shire. When all of us in the sem­i­nar went around the room and in­tro­duced our­selves, she said she was an English ma­jor. I was pre-med, re­ferred to at Dart­mouth as pre-health. Al­though things still weren’t great for me so­cially, I liked my classes, both the sciences and the hu­man­i­ties, and my grades were good. Partly be­cause I’d been a dili­gent stu­dent in high school and my work habits were in­grained and partly be­cause I didn’t know what else to do with my­self, I stud­ied a lot.

As a fresh­man, I’d been as­signed a sin­gle room, which was un­usual but not un­heard of. For me, it had been dis­as­trous. In the new set­ting of col­lege, I didn’t know how to in­te­grate my­self with other peo­ple. I had spent a tremen­dous amount of high school, even while I was study­ing, think­ing about how badly I wanted to go to Dart­mouth and about the boyfriends I’d have there. I hadn’t re­alised how much time I’d de­voted to my imag­i­nary, longed-for life at Dart­mouth un­til I ar­rived at Dart­mouth and found that by achiev­ing my goal I had lost my pri­mary means of en­ter­tain­ing my­self and feel­ing op­ti­mistic. My fa­ther, who was a rheuma­tol­o­gist, had him­self grad­u­ated from Dart­mouth in the early ’70s, and my fam­ily had driven from Iowa to at­tend his tenth re­union when I was eight, where­upon I had de­vel­oped a decade-long fix­a­tion with the school that was al­most ro­man­tic in its in­ten­sity.

When I started col­lege, my fa­ther had been the one to ac­com­pany me to cam­pus — this time we flew, chang­ing planes in Chicago — and prior to classes, I’d at­tended a fresh­man ori­en­ta­tion camp­ing trip in the White Moun­tains. The night after the trip ended, sev­eral girls on my hall as­sem­bled by the stair­well to walk to a fra­ter­nity party; it was a mi­nor tri­umph that I’d man­aged to at­tach my­self to this group. As we de­scended the steps, the girl in front, a very pretty blonde ten­nis player from Wash­ing­ton, D.C., named Annabel, called over her shoul­der, “I heard they call this the GFU party.” She paused, then added mer­rily, “Short for Get Fucked Up.”

There were eight or nine girls in the group, and I was bring­ing up the rear. When I froze, I’m sure no-one no­ticed. I stood there while they de­scended an­other flight, and then I re­turned to my room and lay on my bed and lis­tened to a Garth Brooks CD (my fa­ther and I had at­tended two of his con­certs to­gether) and even­tu­ally pulled out the MCAT study guide I some­times looked at be­fore bed; it was a 500 page pa­per­back, and some­thing about it was very com­fort­ing to me. The girls did, ap­par­ently, no­tice my ab­sence even­tu­ally, be­cause the next day one of them said, “Where did you go last night? We all were won­der­ing!” I said I’d felt sick, which in a way I had. For my en­tire fresh­man year, I didn’t set foot in a fra­ter­nity house or, for that mat­ter, a soror­ity house.

Over the sum­mer, in Des Moines, I spent morn­ings babysit­ting for a fam­ily with two lit­tle boys and af­ter­noons vol­un­teer­ing at the hos­pi­tal where my fa­ther worked. On my bed­side ta­ble I kept a list of con­crete things I could do to im­prove my life at Dart­mouth, which in­cluded:

- Once a week if some­one seems nice and ap­proach­able ask if they want to go out for pizza at EBA’S - At least say hi to but try to also smile at peo­ple I pass - Join the de­bate team? Back on cam­pus, I lived in a sin­gle again, and as I pulled sheets over the twin mat­tress for the first time, I won­dered, but not op­ti­misti­cally, if this was the bed where I’d lose my vir­gin­ity.

As it hap­pened, I didn’t join the de­bate team, and I didn’t ex­e­cute my EBA’S pizza ini­tia­tive be­cause, after the very first English sem­i­nar, I was leav­ing the class­room in San­born House when a fe­male voice be­hind me said, “What a douchebag.” There was a boy walk­ing not with but par­al­lel to me, about five feet away, and we made con­fused eye con­tact, un­sure if the com­ment was ad­dressed to ei­ther or both of us.

When I looked over my shoul­der, I saw that the speaker was Rae Sullivan. In a dis­grun­tled but chummy tone, as if we’d pre­vi­ously had many sim­i­lar con­ver­sa­tions, she added, “I heard he was full of him­self, but his ar­ro­gance ex­ceeded my wildest ex­pec­ta­tions.” She was re­fer­ring, I as­sumed, to the sem­i­nar in­struc­tor. Al­though it was a lit­er­a­ture class, he had started by telling us he was a poet and spent 15 min­utes de­scrib­ing his work. He’d called it lan­guage po­etry, a term I had never heard. But I hadn’t been both­ered by the per­sonal di­gres­sion; I’d found it im­pres­sive.

“I read one of his po­ems, and it’s lit­er­ally about hav­ing anal sex with his wife,” Rae was say­ing. “And I’ve seen her, and she’s a to­tal cow.”

I said, “I’m tak­ing the class to ful­fil the English re­quire­ment.” This was as close as I could get to dis­parag­ing a pro­fes­sor.

The boy, who had in­tro­duced him­self in class as Isaac, said, “I found the po­ems in his first book de­riv­a­tive of Ash­bery.”

Rae looked be­tween Isaac and me, in­tensely, for a few sec­onds, as if mak­ing a de­ci­sion, then said, “Do you guys want to go smoke a joint?”

After Rae and Isaac and I be­came best friends, it oc­curred to me only oc­ca­sion­ally to won­der whom we were re­plac­ing. Who had been Rae’s pre­vi­ous best friends? I some­how knew that her fresh­man room­mate had been a girl named Sally Alexan­der, but she and Sally didn’t seem to hang out any­more. Much like my fresh­man-year neigh­bour Annabel, she of the GFU party, Sally was blonde and very pretty; on the Dart­mouth cam­pus, there was a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of blonde and very pretty girls, so­cially adept girls, some­times grace­fully anorexic or anorexic-ish girls. I’d ob­served sev­eral who ate no fat, ever; for break­fast, they had a bagel,

“AFTER RAE AND ISAAC AND I BE­CAME BEST FRIENDS, IT OC­CURRED TO ME TO WON­DER WHOM WE WERE RE­PLAC­ING”

for lunch, a bagel and salad with­out dress­ing, and for din­ner a bagel, salad with­out dress­ing, and frozen yo­gurt. Not that I wit­nessed it, but they ap­par­ently drank a lot of beer; as a fresh­man, I had found the term “boot and rally” so an­thro­po­log­i­cally in­ter­est­ing that I’d shared it with my par­ents, thereby dis­turb­ing my mother. I had a strong sense that, among these poised, preppy, win­somely eat­ing-dis­or­dered girls, I couldn’t com­pete for male at­ten­tion; faced with the en­tice­ments of such crea­tures, what boy would want my dowdy Iowan vir­gin­ity?

Like me, Rae avoided fra­ter­nity par­ties, which at Dart­mouth in 1994 meant avoid­ing par­ties. Un­ex­pect­edly, she too had a sin­gle — hers was in Allen House — and in the evening, after din­ner, she liked to sit on her bed, roll and smoke a joint, and watch a VHS tape of Ed­ward Scis­sorhands on her TV. I’d usu­ally leave just be­fore the part of the movie when the house­wife tried to se­duce Ed­ward, be­cause it stressed me out on be­half of both Ed­ward and the house­wife. We were of­ten joined by Isaac, who had grown up in At­lanta and whom I in­tu­itively un­der­stood to be gay and clos­eted. He was short, slim, black haired and ex­cel­lent at par­tic­i­pat­ing in long, an­a­lyt­i­cal dis­cus­sions of Rae’s two favourite top­ics, which were her re­la­tion­ship with her boyfriend and peo­ple on the Dart­mouth cam­pus she hated. In ret­ro­spect, I re­alise that I learned a lot from Isaac about the art of con­ver­sa­tion — ask­ing spe­cific fol­low-up ques­tions, of­fer­ing nonsy­co­phan­tic com­pli­ments (syco­phan­tic never seemed sin­cere), and show­ing pa­tience in the face of repet­i­tive sub­ject mat­ter. Un­like me, Isaac did share Rae’s joints; I’d tried a few times, felt like pos­si­bly I was smok­ing wrong and def­i­nitely I was reap­ing no clear ben­e­fit, wor­ried about the short- and long-term im­pacts on my mem­ory, and de­clined from that point on, which nei­ther of them seemed to mind.

One sur­pris­ing dis­cov­ery I made in the first week of my friend­ship with Rae was that her boyfriend — Noah Bishop, re­cip­i­ent of the Valen­tine’s Day care pack­age — was younger than she was. He was a ju­nior at Ex­eter, which meant that she had be­gun dat­ing him when she was a board­ing school se­nior and he was a fresh­man. Al­though Rae re­vealed this fact with­out fan­fare or em­bar­rass­ment, I found it so jar­ring that that night, when Isaac and I left her room at the same time, I said out­side her dorm, “Do you think it’s weird that she’s three years older than Noah?”

“Ob­vi­ously, the norms of high school im­ply yes,” Isaac said. “But it wouldn’t be weird if their gen­ders were re­versed. And it wouldn’t be that weird if they were a mar­ried cou­ple, and she was 53 and he was 50.”

I took this in as we walked. Isaac was so much more ar­tic­u­late than I was that I might have found him in­tim­i­dat­ing, if not for the fact that he was nice; though he’d make damn­ing ob­ser­va­tions about peo­ple, he seemed to be sim­ply stat­ing facts rather than rel­ish­ing their weak­nesses. I said, “Did you go to pub­lic or pri­vate school?” “Pub­lic.” “Me too,” I said. “And I pic­ture board­ing schools be­ing very, like...” I couldn’t find the word. “Con­form­ist?” he asked. “Yeah. Which would have made them go­ing out even weirder.” We kept walk­ing — it was get­ting dark, and I felt the par­tic­u­lar long­ing of an Ivy League cam­pus at dusk and wished I were walk­ing with a boyfriend of my own in­stead of with Isaac — and I added, “Al­though Noah is re­ally cute.” In­deed, in the pho­to­graphs Rae had shown us, Noah was al­most un­bear­ably hand­some, in ex­actly the way I wanted him to be: curly brown hair and full lips and a tiny sil­ver hoop in his left ear. Ap­par­ently his fam­ily lived in a huge house in Mar­ble­head, Mas­sachusetts, his par­ents dis­liked Rae, and he played ice hockey and the gui­tar. And he had lost his vir­gin­ity to Rae, though she had lost hers to the son of a friend of her mum’s.

If I was of­fer­ing Isaac an op­por­tu­nity to for­mally re­veal his gay­ness, he de­clined it. He laughed and said, “I bet Noah him­self agrees with you.”

As the weeks passed, Rae be­came in­creas­ingly con­cerned that Noah was hook­ing up with a girl in his class whose name I se­cretly loved: Cle­men­tine Meri­wether. In mid-oc­to­ber, Rae de­cided to pay Noah a visit, which would en­tail tak­ing the hour-and-a-half bus ride from Hanover to Manch­ester, then bor­row­ing her mother’s car to make the 45-minute drive to Ex­eter. She in­vited both Isaac and me to go with her and stay at her mother’s house for the week­end; Isaac said he couldn’t, but I ac­cepted.

The night be­fore we left, Rae had cramps and asked if I’d pick up din­ner for her. As I was leav­ing the din­ing hall, car­ry­ing a tray with two plates of steam­ing lasagna and two gob­lets of vanilla pud­ding, I pushed open the door to the out­side with my back and when I turned around, I was face-to-face with Rae’s fresh­man room­mate, Sally Alexan­der. Sally, who was ac­com­pa­nied by an­other girl, glanced at the tray and said, in a voice that was more friendly than snotty, though the sen­ti­ment seemed snotty, “You’re hun­gry!” “It’s not just for me,” I said. “It’s for Rae, too.” Sally’s eyes nar­rowed. “Are you friends with her?” “Yeah,” I said, and though I felt a swelling of pride, it was short-lived. “You don’t find her an­noy­ing?” Sally said. Taken aback, I sim­ply said, “No.” Sally shrugged. “She’s so self-cen­tred, but I think it’s be­cause she’s an only child.”

Rae’s mother’s boyfriend picked us up at the bus sta­tion in Manch­ester, after Rae had placed three calls to her mother on a pay phone, and he was 50 min­utes late and seemed ir­ri­tated by our

ar­rival. At her mother’s house, which was one storey, very small, and brown shin­gled, he let us off with­out com­ing in, then drove on to the of­fice build­ing where he ap­par­ently worked nights on the jan­i­to­rial staff. Rae’s mother was a pri­vate-duty nurse and wasn’t yet fin­ished with her shift. When she did come home, a lit­tle after six, wear­ing pale pink scrubs, she hugged Rae, then hugged me too, and said how beau­ti­ful my eyes were (I’m brown-eyed, and this was a com­pli­ment I had never re­ceived). She added that she could tell I was an old soul, then asked where I was from and how I liked Dart­mouth. She had a thick New Hamp­shire ac­cent, and both she and the house smelled like cig­a­rette smoke, though the house was gen­er­ally clean and tidy. We were in Rae’s mother’s pres­ence for no more than 10 min­utes be­fore Rae asked her for the car keys.

With an ex­pres­sion of good-na­tured dis­ap­point­ment, Rae’s mother said, “She can’t stay away from that boy, can she?” She made me miss my own par­ents, and it oc­curred to me to stay there while Rae went to see Noah. I was hun­gry, and I en­vi­sioned eat­ing, say, chicken pot pie with Rae’s mother, then per­haps watch­ing Fam­ily Mat­ters or Un­solved Mys­ter­ies to­gether be­fore go­ing to bed at 10pm. But this would be a redux of GFU night, which had set me back God only knew how many months. Thus, re­luc­tantly, I joined Rae in her mother’s Honda Civic.

The car was a man­ual, and I could feel how my ear­lier self would have been im­pressed by Rae’s ca­sual abil­ity to drive it, see­ing her pos­ses­sion of a skill I lacked as in keep­ing with her gen­eral aura of cool­ness. But there was more and more ev­i­dence — start­ing with the dis­cov­ery that she was dat­ing some­one younger, then re­in­forced by Sally’s com­ments out­side the din­ing hall — that I’d in­vented my orig­i­nal idea of Rae, that re­ally, the only per­son who perceived Rae as cool at all was me. And she hadn’t pre­tended; I had mis­con­strued. I also, of course, hadn’t un­der­stood un­til see­ing her mother’s house that Rae didn’t come from a rich fam­ily. Her board­ing-school de­gree and her New Eng­lan­dishly hip­pie clothes had con­fused me, be­cause I was eas­ily con­fused. I re­alised that, pre­sum­ably, by Rae’s stan­dards if not by my own, I came from a rich fam­ily; after all, I had taken out no col­lege loans and was re­ceiv­ing no fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance. The decor of my par­ents’ house in Des Moines wasn’t that dif­fer­ent from the decor of Rae’s mother’s house — wall-to-wall car­pet, faded so­fas and chairs, shiny wal­nut ta­bles — but my par­ents’ house was much big­ger.

Rae slipped a cas­sette into the dash­board tape deck be­fore back­ing out of the drive­way, and the Indigo Girls’ song “Jok­ing” erupted into the car; when it ended, she said, “Can you rewind it?” At her re­quest, I did this so many times as we drove east on 101 that I soon knew pre­cisely how long to hold down the but­ton in or­der to get back to the song’s start. “Jok­ing” was on an al­bum I’d heard in Rae’s room, and though I wasn’t cer­tain what made this song a per­sonal an­them for her — it started with in­tense gui­tar strum­ming — I un­der­stood the im­pulse be­hind it, the crav­ing.

We’d been driv­ing for 20 min­utes when Rae slapped her right hand against the steer­ing wheel and said, “Fuck!” I glanced across the front seat. “I for­got the pot,” Rae said. “And Noah re­minded me, like, three times.”

I did not feel op­ti­mistic about Rae’s re­union with Noah, or about my own abil­ity to com­fort her if the re­union was un­suc­cess­ful. “Do you want to turn back?”

She thought for a few sec­onds, then said, “There’s not time. He has choir prac­tice at eight.” Hot, pot-smok­ing Noah Bishop was in the choir? I had been in­trigued by the prospect of vis­it­ing an elite board­ing school, but I couldn’t see much as we ar­rived un­der dark­ness at what seemed to be the back side of a vast con­crete gym. A boy in a down vest, a plaid flan­nel shirt, khaki pants and sneak­ers was stand­ing with his back to the gym, un­der a light, and Rae un­rolled her win­dow and wolf-whis­tled at him. “Do you have it?” he asked. “Fuck you,” she said out the win­dow. “That’s not how you greet me.”

She parked in an oth­er­wise empty lot, and we both climbed from the car. Grat­i­fy­ingly, Noah Bishop was even hand­somer than he looked in pho­to­graphs. She ap­proached him, placed both hands on his shoul­ders, and kissed him on the mouth. When she pulled away, she said, “That’s how you greet me.” He ges­tured to­ward me. “Who’s that?” “My friend Dana,” Rae said. Noah nod­ded once and said, “Yo, my friend Dana.” I knew that when Noah ejac­u­lated, he made a whim­per­ing noise, like a baby; that when Rae gave him hand jobs, he liked her to use Jer­gens lo­tion; that the first woman he’d ever mas­tur­bated to had been Kelly Le­brock, after he saw the movie Weird Sci­ence; and that his fa­ther had been in­ves­ti­gated by the SEC and found in­no­cent of wrong­do­ing, though Noah him­self sus­pected that his fa­ther was guilty. I also knew that some­times Rae knelt on the floor of her Dart­mouth dorm room, clasped her hands to­gether, and, ad­dress­ing the phone on her desk, said, “Call me, Noah. Just please fuck­ing call me right now.” “Hi,” I said. “Did you get the key?” Rae asked Noah, and he said, “Yeah. Did you get the weed?” “There were com­pli­ca­tions,” she said. I cleared my throat. “Is town that way? Maybe I’ll go eat din­ner. I should be back by, what, 8, Rae? Or 8:15?” “Sure,” she said, and I could tell she was barely pay­ing at­ten­tion. Even though I made a cou­ple of wrong turns, I reached the town of Ex­eter within 15 min­utes and kept walk­ing un­til I found a place where I could buy a meat­ball sub and a Diet Coke. A hand­ful of kids who looked like stu­dents came in, and I re­minded my­self that the un­ease I felt about eat­ing alone at Dart­mouth was ir­rel­e­vant here. When I fin­ished, I walked along Wa­ter Street, not en­tirely sure what to do. I had no idea, of course, that of all the feel­ings of my youth that would pass, it was this one, of an abun­dance of time so great as to rou­tinely be un­fil­l­able, that would van­ish with the least cer­e­mony.

“THERE WAS MORE AND MORE EV­I­DENCE THAT I’D IN­VENTED MY ORIG­I­NAL IDEA OF RAE… SHE HADN’T PRE­TENDED; I’D MIS­CON­STRUED”

The stores, most of which were closed, were brick, with awnings or quaint wooden signs out­side. I en­tered a phar­macy. When I found my­self in the “fam­ily plan­ning” aisle, I de­cided, just as an ex­per­i­ment, to buy a pack of con­doms. Would I plau­si­bly seem to the cashier like a per­son who was hav­ing sex? The wide ar­ray — lu­bri­cated and ribbed and ul­tra-thin — be­wil­dered me, so I went with what was cheap­est. I also picked up a bag of Twiz­zlers and some lip balm, for cam­ou­flage. My heart was beat­ing quickly as I waited to pay, but when it was my turn, the cashier seemed as un­in­ter­ested in me as Noah had. By then, it was al­most 8pm, so I walked back to the gym swing­ing the plas­tic bag with my pur­chases in it. At first, I thought my tim­ing was per­fect, be­cause as I ap­proached the gym, Rae was pulling the Honda out of its park­ing space. Then I re­alised she was pulling out alarm­ingly quickly; her tyres squealed in a way I had rarely heard in real life. When the front of the car was pointed to­ward the road, she revved the gas and al­most ran me over as she sped past. “Rae!” I yelled. “Rae!”

But the car didn’t stop, and its tail­lights had soon dis­ap­peared. “I guess you’re screwed,” some­one said, and I turned and saw that Noah stood about 10 me­tres away, smirk­ing. I walked to­ward him. “Where’s she go­ing?” He shrugged. “Is she com­ing back?” “Hard to say.” “Did she say she was go­ing to find me?” He shook his head. “Sorry.” “Did you guys have a fight?” This was a nosier ques­tion than I’d have asked un­der nor­mal cir­cum­stances, es­pe­cially of a good­look­ing guy, but he was still in high school. Plus, Rae was or had been his girl­friend, and she wasn’t pret­tier than I was. And then I un­der­stood, with a weird rev­e­la­tory kind of in­ter­nal kick, what had drawn me to Rae in the post of­fice. Since ar­riv­ing at Dart­mouth, I’d felt my own lack of pret­ti­ness as a hum­ming, low-level fail­ure. I wasn’t sin­gu­larly unattrac­tive, my ex­is­tence wasn’t a crime. But I also wasn’t, in an en­vi­ron­ment of youth and af­flu­ence, ful­fill­ing my part of the so­cial con­tract — the thing it mat­tered the most if I was, I wasn’t. And yet Rae wasn’t re­ally ful­fill­ing it, ei­ther; Rae wasn’t beau­ti­ful or blonde or thin or charm­ing, and she didn’t seem apolo­getic. Even hav­ing lost some of my orig­i­nal re­spect for her, I still en­vied her con­fi­dence.

Noah said, “She’s pissed be­cause I didn’t want to fuck her.” I blinked, then said, “Why not?” Did I think there was use­ful in­for­ma­tion to be gleaned here, sex­ual or ro­man­tic lessons, or was I al­ready schem­ing? Look­ing back, I’m still not sure. Shrug­ging again, he said, “She’s on the rag.” He grinned as he added, “I told her she could still blow me.”

I hes­i­tated, and my heart abruptly be­gan to pound at dou­ble or triple time. But I spoke slowly. I said, “I’m not on the rag.” Al­though this wasn’t a lo­cu­tion I gen­er­ally used, there was much about the mo­ment that was out of char­ac­ter. If I’d been hop­ing that some trans­port­ing lust would seize both of us, I would have been dis­ap­pointed. The ex­pres­sion on Noah’s face was a sur­prised and faintly amused sort of cu­rios­ity, as if he was won­der­ing if I’d farted. He raised his eye­brows and said, “Yeah?” We were, at that point, only about a me­tre apart. “Yeah,” I said. I didn’t know what to do next, and I thought of turn­ing and sprint­ing away. But I again re­called the GFU night, my fail­ure of nerve. Pre­sum­ably, I needed to touch him, but how? The two times in Des Moines when I’d kissed boys, they’d both ini­ti­ated it. The most log­i­cal place to make con­tact with Noah seemed to be the crotch of his pants, but that was too ag­gres­sive even for the per­son I was pre­tend­ing to be. And kiss­ing him seemed lo­gis­ti­cally com­pli­cated — he was well over six feet, sig­nif­i­cantly taller than I was, and I won­dered how Rae had made it look easy.

From some­where far away, I heard bells ring­ing — the eight o’clock bells, fol­lowed by the dis­tant, cheer­ful-sound­ing, in­ter­mit­tent shouts and cries of teenagers. In­stead of hav­ing sex with me, was Noah about to de­part for choir prac­tice? With both my arms, I reached for his right hand, brought it to my chest, and held it against my left breast, on top of my navy blue sweater. This, ap­par­ently, was all I needed to do. There were a few sec­onds when I thought he was pulling his hand away, which he was, but be­fore my hu­mil­i­a­tion could be fully ac­ti­vated, he slid the hand back un­der my sweater and T-shirt, over my bra, and be­fore long he’d slipped his thumb be­neath the bra. Then he did kiss me. In spite of his hand­some­ness, I re­mained com­pletely unaroused. My lack of arousal did not, how­ever, pre­vent me from say­ing, after a minute or two, “Is there some­where we can go?”

He grabbed my hand and led me in­side an un­locked door of the gym and through a cor­ri­dor. Out­side an­other door, this one ma­roon, he looked in ei­ther di­rec­tion down the hall be­fore pulling a key from his pocket. The room was win­dow­less and con­tained soc­cer balls in vast net bags, bats, stacks of or­ange traf­fic cones and other kinds of ath­letic equip­ment. There wasn’t much open space on the pol­ished con­crete floor, but there was enough for a girl who was five foot four to lie down and for a boy who was a foot taller to lie on top of her. We used one of the con­doms I’d just bought at the phar­macy — had any con­dom pur­chased out­side the heat of pas­sion ever been used so ef­fi­ciently? — and the whole en­counter lasted less than 10 min­utes, maybe closer to five. None of it was phys­i­cally en­joy­able for me, ex­cept when he held my hand to lead me in­side the gym; that had been the kind of thing I’d pic­tured a boyfriend do­ing. About 30 sec­onds after com­ing (as ad­ver­tised, he did so with a whim­per), he said, “I need to go to choir prac­tice,” and he rose up off me. We’d both kept our shirts on and hadn’t en­tirely re­moved our pants. We re­fas­tened them, and I smoothed my hair. He opened the door care­fully, looked into the hall­way, then mo­tioned for me to fol­low him. Out­side the door, he locked it, glanced at me, smirked, and said, “See you around.” Then he headed in one di­rec­tion and, re­trac­ing our route in from the park­ing lot, I headed in the other.

After col­lege, I was a re­search as­sis­tant in a lab in Bos­ton for two years be­fore at­tend­ing med­i­cal school at Johns Hop­kins. I matched to my first-choice res­i­dency, which was at the Uni­ver­sity of Iowa, and I was a year into it when I re­ceived a phone call from Isaac.

“IF I’D BEEN HOP­ING THAT SOME TRANS­PORT­ING LUST WOULD SEIZE BOTH OF US, I WOULD HAVE BEEN DIS­AP­POINTED”

I later learned that he had called in­for­ma­tion in Des Moines to get my par­ents’ phone num­ber, then asked my mother for my num­ber. He was driv­ing cross-coun­try be­cause he was about to start an English PHD pro­gram at Berke­ley and wanted to know if I’d like to have din­ner when he passed through Iowa City the fol­low­ing week. I was work­ing 24-hour shifts, so we met in­stead for break­fast, at a diner. From the minute I en­tered the restau­rant and saw him sit­ting in the booth — when we made eye con­tact, he smiled, waved and stood – I un­der­stood that Isaac was not gay. My heart thud­ded as we hugged, though I felt more ex­cited than ner­vous. I was by then al­most 30, and I’d had a few boyfriends and a few ad­di­tional sex­ual part­ners, but I’d never be­fore been able to tell for cer­tain that some­one else was as happy to be in my pres­ence as I was to be in his.

In med­i­cal school, I’d stud­ied by relis­ten­ing to first- and sec­ondyear class lec­tures on tape, and I would speed up the lec­tures, mak­ing the pro­fes­sors sound like car­toon chip­munks, in or­der to get through them as fast as pos­si­ble. In the diner, I wished I could in­crease the speed of my con­ver­sa­tion with Isaac, not be­cause I wanted to get it over with but be­cause I wanted both of us to cram in the max­i­mum amount of words be­fore I started my shift, be­cause I felt we had such an enor­mous amount to say to each other.

The great luck of my en­tire life is that 12 years have passed since Isaac and I had break­fast, and I still feel that way. We live out­side Colum­bus, Ohio, where he is an English pro­fes­sor and I prac­tise in­ter­nal medicine at a clinic that serves unin­sured im­mi­grants. We have a daugh­ter who is now 10 and a son who’s seven. When we can, we like to go for fam­ily walks after din­ner in our sub­ur­ban neigh­bour­hood; of­ten our chil­dren dart ahead of us, or dis­cuss their own mat­ters with each other, and when Isaac and I chat about our days, or the news, or movies we prob­a­bly won’t end up see­ing, I am filled with grat­i­tude at the as­ton­ish­ing fact of be­ing mar­ried to some­one I en­joy talk­ing to, some­one with whom I can’t imag­ine ever run­ning out of things to say.

Isaac claims that he al­ways had a crush on me and that was the rea­son he hung out in Rae’s room, even though he never much liked her. When I told Isaac that I’d be­lieved he was gay, he was amused and asked why, and when I tried to pin­point it, the best I could come up with was that he’d used gel in his hair, he’d but­toned the top but­ton of his shirts, and I hadn’t been un­com­fort­able around him. He was amused by all of this, too.

It would be easy for me to be hor­ri­fied by who I was more than 20 years ago, how ig­no­rant, but I don’t see what pur­pose it would serve. I’m re­lieved to have aged out of that vis­ceral sense that my pri­mary obli­ga­tion is to be pretty, re­lieved to work at a job that al­lows me to feel use­ful. Did I used to think be­ing pretty was my pri­mary obli­ga­tion be­cause I was in some way delu­sional? Or was it that I’d ab­sorbed the mes­sages I was meant to ab­sorb with the same dili­gence with which I stud­ied? As the mother of a daugh­ter, I hope she won’t judge her­self as harshly as I judged my­self, but her per­son­al­ity is so un­like mine — she is bois­ter­ous and out­spo­ken — that I’m not in­or­di­nately con­cerned.

Isaac, as I didn’t know back in col­lege, was also a vir­gin when I met him. It was in sopho­more spring that he got to­gether with his first girl­friend, which is to say he had sex after I did but, I trust, more thor­oughly. Pre­sum­ably, the cam­pus of Dart­mouth in the early ’90s — like col­lege cam­puses in ev­ery decade, like towns and cities ev­ery­where — was home to many other vir­gins, av­er­age-look­ing girls and boys and also grown-ups afraid that they were too ugly to be loved, con­vinced that this pri­vate shame was theirs alone.

I had thought that ex­tract­ing my­self from my friend­ship with Rae would be tricky, that she’d re­sist, but it wasn’t and she didn’t. That night at Ex­eter, I waited in the park­ing lot for more than an hour — be­cause I was amazed by the im­pli­ca­tions of my non-vir­gin sta­tus and be­cause I had Twiz­zlers to eat, I wasn’t bored — and fi­nally the Honda Civic reap­peared. When I climbed in, Rae ex­pressed no con­tri­tion about aban­don­ing me, and we lis­tened many more times to the song “Jok­ing”. I won­dered if Noah would ever tell her what had hap­pened, and if she’d con­front, or even phys­i­cally ac­cost, me, but of course he had no more in­cen­tive to re­veal any­thing than I did. I sus­pect that they weren’t in touch much longer. All sopho­mores at Dart­mouth stayed on cam­pus and took classes for the sum­mer, and it was at some point in July or Au­gust that I re­alised it had been a long while since I’d laid eyes on Rae, even from a dis­tance. The only con­ver­sa­tion I re­mem­ber hav­ing with Isaac at Dart­mouth after my trip to Manch­ester was when I ran into him that sum­mer out­side Baker­berry Li­brary and he con­firmed that Rae had dropped out.

These days, Isaac and I al­most never talk about Rae, though she crosses my mind with reg­u­lar­ity; I’m far more trou­bled that she prob­a­bly didn’t earn a de­gree from Dart­mouth than that I had sex with her boyfriend. I’ve found no trace of her on­line, and in this void, I’ve cre­ated a bi­og­ra­phy: she works in pub­lic re­la­tions for a large and mildly ne­far­i­ous cor­po­ra­tion. She’s tough and pow­er­ful and makes a lot of money. She never wanted chil­dren and lives in a swanky apart­ment in a big city with her good-look­ing and (I can’t re­sist) slightly younger boyfriend. If you were to men­tion Isaac or me, she wouldn’t know who we were, but, upon con­sid­er­a­tion, she’d ac­knowl­edge that our names sounded vaguely fa­mil­iar. E Taken from You Think It, I’ll Say It by Cur­tis Sit­ten­feld ($29.99, Dou­ble­day)

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