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Fiction

We’ll Be Alone

Kate Doyle

Her professor is sorry Meg hates it here, but Meg says, Oh, it’s fine. It is, in the sense that she’s handling it: She’s come to ask for a recommendation to transfer. When her letter came last April, her parents poured champagne, and Meg felt accomplished, pleased, only passingly hesitant. Now, most days, after her one p.m. English class, she gets into bed and does not wake up until after the room is steeped in darkness.



When her father called last night, the ring of the phone pulled her up from a dream of vast oceany sadness, whose details slipped from her like water. She tried to make her voice sound alert as she answered. At one point in their conversation, he said to her, gently, You just have to just calm your emotions, and you will be fine there. Meg stayed quiet. She did not say, Please don’t tell me how I’ll be.



In high school she was studious, she was responsible, she was fine, and now it’s like something warm and animating is drained from her. In the fall she took long showers to avoid her roommate, cheerful Laura Heller, obviously thriving: always off to intramural tennis, to a cappella, to play rehearsal. Meg slept whole afternoons, sliding through blurry dreams. She filled out paperwork to move to a single room. In December her parents picked her up, and with the dean’s approval she wrote final papers from the family room. She’s recuperating, she heard her mother say to someone on the phone, as if this were a cold. How are you, said her father, and she pretended not to hear, raised the volume on the television.



It’s February now, a new semester. Her professor’s windows frame an expanse of vacant, snowy quad. Sometimes the weather is all Meg can say to articulate any of this: It’s so cold here, she’ll say. Last week her mother mailed her a new, warmer coat. Today Meg unsealed it from the box, laid it out across the bed.



Now she zips the coat up to her chin as her professor promises a copy of her letter by email next week. I hope you find the thing you’re looking for, he says as she is standing up to leave. Meg makes a grateful, noncommittal sound, aware she radiates embarrassment as she goes. Moments later, in the hall, trying to dig her phone out of her bag, she walks into someone getting off the elevator.



The girl wears a blue wool coat; she has unruly, pretty hair. Sorry, she says, though it wasn’t precisely her fault, and they revolve around each other in a performance of improved carefulness—Meg laughing forcefully, too brightly. The other girl grasps her arm as if to navigate, then lets go. When Meg looks up, she expects to see her retreating down the hall, but instead she’s still there, paused, half-smiling, the clarity of her interest unsettling. The closing door slips between them, but even so Meg steps back—an impulse that feels close to self-defense. Any time she reflects on it later (minutes, years) she won’t be able to decide: Was this good instinct, a kind of intuition? Or just regular, unsubstantiated, stupid fear?



A much later girlfriend, the one Meg nearly marries, will say the moment sort of torments her. Let’s keep it need to know with exes, Sara will say, laughing in a way that’s maybe supposed to sound causal. I don’t like knowing how you and Jenny met. Meg and Sara have been together only a month at this point, but Sara’s dread of anything intruding, even a memory, will feel familiar; it will remind Meg of the year she applied to transfer, and of Jenny, and her pulse will quicken. You should tell me about meeting me instead, how great that was, Sara is saying in that same half-joking tone, reaching to refill their wineglasses. Meg is looking out the window behind Sara, where the light in the dusk sky is beginning to turn. What are you looking at? says Sara, and she smiles, looks over her shoulder.



With Sara it was a birthday party in Fort Greene, the summer Meg moved to Brooklyn from uptown. Sara in a pink dress, leaning on the bar. Wait, you two don’t know each other? says the host, putting her hand to her forehead, like this is an unfathomable oversight. And Sara says—eyebrows raised—We don’t. With Jenny it was the elevator in the English Department, the winter of freshman year. And as Sara sets the wine bottle back on the table, Meg will seem to hear Jenny, tempting Meg for her attention: You should tell me about meeting me instead, how great that was.



By the time the letter of recommendation to transfer appears in her inbox, Meg will have seen the elevator girl three times. First there in the English Department: the sorry, their physical proximity, the door like a film transition as it slid across the girl’s face. The next time forty minutes later down in the foyer, where Meg could not afterward explain precisely why she sat down and stayed there, reading, until the point when this girl reemerged: crossing the empty foyer, talking on her cell phone, not noticing Meg. Opening one of the front doors, closing it, gone.



(I did see you actually, Jenny will admit, some weeks later. She’ll say, I was being cool. I had smiled like such a weirdo upstairs, then I did it again when I saw you there, so—I just put my head down and got out. It was my sister on the phone. She said, “What’s happening, you sound weird.”)



Everywhere on campus, all week, Meg looks. It isn’t the elevator girl buying coffee in the student center, nor her swiping into a West Campus dorm—though Meg detours in both cases to be certain. Then, over the weekend, her old roommate Laura Heller throws a party. The text reads: Maybe you would want to come? Meg’s mother is always saying, Maybe you’d feel better if you spent more time with people; all evidence to the contrary, Meg retains the hope it could be true. Wearing the new coat, she is marginally warmer than she’s been in weeks, making her way to the party under falling tufts of snow, crossing the total silence of the long, empty quad. Up the steps, inside, the party is dim, full of chatter, with a warm-body smell like the beach at low tide. She almost turns and leaves. Instead she pours a drink and looks around for anyone she knows here, in this room with its low sloping ceilings, its old windows thickly paned, its familiar but differently arranged decorations—this room that Laura Heller moved to after Meg moved out.



Improbably, Meg’s eyes light on the elevator girl, surfacing from the shadowy far side of the room. She wears a short skirt, green sweater, and severe, lovely eye shadow (which in time, Jenny will dispute—I would not ever, she’ll say, her laughter alarmed, incredulous, I’d look ridiculous, but Meg will say, No, no, you looked good, I loved it). Meg takes a long, steadying sip, and her legs feel strange and soft. She is a new drinker this semester, has only very recently abandoned her resolve never, ever to be someone who drinks, and so the alcohol gets to her fast, and the memory of what’s said here will always be blurry. (Jenny will always insist it was Meg who spoke first, who said—but this always seems so unlikely—Hello, it’s you. Whereas Meg remembers saying a half sentence, then deciding not to finish it. Feeling herself flush and warm. Wanting to be close to and far from the elevator girl.)



In the year they stay together, Jenny will always be riffing on it. Hello, it’s you, she’ll say when she lets Meg into her room, or she’ll pick up the phone saying, Meg, it’s you! Meg says, Jenny, that doesn’t sound like me at all. Mostly it’s a joke, a flirtation tense with affection, with controversy. Something to laugh about, spar about, something to stake claims on: their origin story. Then one night it won’t be funny—I know what I heard, Jenny will say, reaching to close the door as they leave Meg’s room, and Meg’s enjoyment will dissolve. You must not even know me, she’ll say in the ensuing argument—crying indulgently, sitting in the dorm stairwell. Confusingly bereft, her head in her hands, rain pounding on the skylight several stories up. Jenny will sit beside her and move her hand in gentle circles on Meg’s back. What the fuck, she’ll say. Of course I do.



But Meg remembers this part clearly: Jenny explaining she’s in a play with Laura Heller. Meg says, How is the play? and Jenny says, Oh God, so bad, but it’s too late to quit. They’d be stuck if I left now. Believe me, I’ve considered it. They take a pair of shots. They sit together on the sill of Laura Heller’s window, which has a cold draft sifting under it. Meg can recall condemning, not discreetly, Laura’s taste in general—I hated that poster, when we were roommates, she says over the music, into this girl’s ear, pointing.



They kiss—Jenny, who hasn’t even yet told Meg her name, making the move to push one hand up the side of Meg’s neck and jaw and into her hair. Meg leans back against the window so the girl can move in closer, and the cold glass through her shirt is excruciating on her shoulder blades, the knots of her spine.



Her hands in this girl’s lovely hair. The girl’s hand moving down Meg’s forearm, then her waist and her leg, as they kiss for the length of a song, then another, then part of a third until the girl pulls back, and says—trying not to smile, maybe, her shirt sort of askew and so close Meg admires the dark eye shadow—Want to go to my room? I live upstairs.




She holds out her hand, a joke, as if to shake hello. I’m Jenny. Then she raises her eyebrows: So? And actually, Meg does want to go—but also she wants to stay where they are. Significance floods her, and briefly, with satisfaction, she imagines the cold from outside enveloping the room, their breath in clouds, ice forming in Jenny’s hair, a preservation.



Lately any time Meg calls home and says, Everything is different, I can’t take it, her father tells her, Life is change. Her mother says, You’ll be all right. Now Meg is shivering, agitated by this sense she has so often lately that something essential is leaching out of her, everything the loss of something else. Come here, she wants to tell this girl. Stay here. Instead she nods more or less normally: Yes. And she takes the girl’s hand for the joke, small and warm.



While the elevator girl—Jenny—hunts for her purse on the shadowy far side of the room, Meg hovers by the door, shifts her weight from one foot to the other. Jenny is telling a handful of friends that she’s leaving. She pushes her unruly hair behind her ear, adjusts a barrette, looks pointedly over her shoulder. So now all the friends’ eyes move to Meg, by the door. She tries to shift her own gaze casually to her phone. Tries not to signal Laura Heller is the only person she knows here, opts to suppress the question of whether she is doing something stupid. A text from her father resolves on the screen: Good night.



Out in the hall then. Their paired, padding footsteps on dimly lit stairs. Sorry for my dumb friends back there, Jenny’s saying. They kiss more on the landing, Jenny’s hand just touching Meg at the side of her face, the cinder block wall on Meg’s back, then Jenny’s, and now Jenny is fixing her hair again, unlocking her door, making a small performance of this, like they’re in some old movie: Won’t you come in?




The door swings open; it’s dark inside. Jenny shakes her hand free from the sleeve of her coat, reaches her fingers to flip the light switch. (But actually that’s Meg’s coat she’s wearing, which seems premature, and what’s more they never went outside on this night, only upstairs to the fifth floor. So this part is misordered, transplanted? This part is another time. On another night entirely, Jenny is saying, in that same old-Hollywood voice, Get in here, would you? Taking Meg by the wrist, drawing her closer.)



But this part Meg remembers, this is clear: a tentative snow in the half-lit dark outside the window. She remembers lifting Jenny’s shirt over her head, Jenny saying something and laughing. Jenny’s snaky ribs, this nervous closeness. Later, the streetlight seeping in through fogged glass over Jenny’s small form. Her tangled long hair, taking over the pillow like a weed.



Meg likes, as they fade into sleeping, the intimacy of all this hair—so close to her face it’s practically up her nose. Likes the square of light on Jenny’s cheekbone from outside, and her sleep-muttering, the sharp certain tossing of her head thrown back on the pillow. The seethe and clank of the dorm radiator, and the footsteps and low voices, brief laughing and shushing of roommates in the common area. The line of gold light under the door, and then how it goes away.



In the dark, both of them breathing. All night as they turn in their sleep, knocking around together like two small boats. This bed will never be enough room for them, it will always be uncomfortable, but Meg loves it entirely, possessed by a nostalgia that infects her straightaway. Cold through the drafty window. Pink-patterned sheets. One pillow shared between them, until they go and buy a second one some weeks later—which, even this early, Meg will feel is sort of poisoning the way things had once been. Jenny tossing and turning: this thing she has about which sides of herself she can and cannot sleep on, and why, why not. Meg’s thing about hating to sleep by the wall, her insistence on the possibility of extrication. She has a memory of Jenny in her worn out high school track shirt, sometime later this semester, out of bed with a towel on her arm saying, We could literally move my bed, if you hate your side so much. Meg says sleepily into the new pillow, But I don’t want to move your bed.



In New York, five years later, Sara’s bed will be objectively better. Warmer, more spacious, of course. Meg will sometimes joke, Remember college? Remember twin beds? And Sara will laugh and say, I really try to forget. The first summer they’re together, in Brooklyn, the year that both of them are twenty-five, they forge a kind of ritual from the awful heat of Sara’s room: drinking cold wine with a whirring box fan pointed toward them, stretched out on this bed with its nest of too many pillows. No, don’t throw them away, Meg will say, when Sara tries to prune a few, I like them all, and Sara will laugh and say, You never want anything to go. Most nights Sara’s dog will sleep between them. They wake up in the night and laugh and feel irritated and push the dog’s sleeping weight around the bed. On several bleary mornings, they make a joke of shaking their fists at the dog together: Stop being difficult, you jerk. Stay still, stay.




Here is where they take each other’s clothes off. Here is where they lie checking email on their phones, feet touching. Here is where they go to sleep seething, any time they fight. Here is where they face each other one late-summer night, Sara’s roommates’ video games blaring sounds of carnage and loss and game over just past the closed bedroom door, a warm wind moving swiftly in the window. The dog resettles his chin on Meg’s bare ankle, as Sara fixes a loose piece of Meg’s hair with her fingers and says, half-kidding: You and I would have three kids, obviously. Two would be predictable and honestly dull. Meg laughs and moves her hand along Sara’s wrist. She feels, exquisitely, hope.



The rush of air from the box fan reminds her of the drafty window in Jenny’s room. This summer when she first meets Sara, Meg looks up Jenny Evert on the internet—a habit she thought she’d broken but which seems, again, to beckon, to wrap its hand around her wrist. Come here. Jenny Evert has moved to Austin, Texas; she does marketing for a community arts nonprofit. It could be that she’s dating the woman in this photo, whose arm is around Jenny’s waist. To look at this picture makes Meg feel vaguely ill, time overtaking her in a nauseous wave. Then she imagines what if Sara walked in now, and the itchiness of guilt overtakes her. Please stop talking about all these stupid things, she remembers Jenny telling her on the phone once—just after Meg transferred to Columbia, when they were taking the bus back and forth on weekends. In the memory Jenny says, I worry about you, like you’ll never enjoy your actual life. You never let anything go. Even now Meg can still replay each word, subtly accusatory, quietly furious, like a curse being placed: You never stop dwelling on all your old stuff.




And this is going to sound bad, but whatever—I don’t want to not enjoy my life, because of the way that you are. I don’t want you dragging me down.




From the beginning, they fight—it’s embarrassing, shocking. They argue in public, or else alone in one of their rooms: draining, circular conversations, discordant and cruel, slipping beyond their control. Don’t be so stupid, Jenny will tell her sometimes, pacing like a provoked animal. All her life Meg will be ashamed to remember the mutual, ready animosity—beginning so early, even the first morning after the first night, both of them sleepy, warm, Jenny reaching her hand to untwist the sheet where it’s caught around Meg’s shoulder and saying with a kind of hesitation in her voice, I’ve sort of been imagining running into you all week. And then something unclasps, and Meg finds she can’t contain this panic, billowing. I don’t want you to imagine me, she says, I’m a real person, I have a whole life. You only just met me. Jenny takes her hand back. Her hair is messy around her face; she looks injured. Of course, she says, I know—but Meg is seized by a fretful compulsion to say well this was nice but she’s going to leave. She starts to sit up but can’t quite free herself from the sheets. Jenny says, Hey, I was being romantic. Meg says, wresting her own foot from a tangle of blankets, Look maybe you won’t understand this, but I don’t want you to act some special way. Let’s not be people who pretend.




I’m going to go shower, says Jenny. I don’t really know what we’re talking about.




Sun through the window over the place where Jenny slept. Meg reaches for her coat draped over the desk chair, for her phone in the pocket (warning, low battery), where she finds in her inbox an email from her professor with, see attached, her letter. She waits for the sound of the tap coming on in the bathroom before she opens the attachment, in which she is praised especially for her passionate responses to assigned readings. This is a commendation so mysteriously saddening that she turns off her phone without reading anything more. By the time Jenny comes back, Meg has both her hands over her face. Hey, says Jenny then, softening—wrapped in a towel, her hair wet. She sits down on the edge of the bed, puts her arm around Meg’s shoulder.



That night Meg is in the library, methodically entering full name, date of birth, address into application forms, when Jenny texts. Come over? Or I’ll come to you? Meg logs out. She calls home while she walks, because she was supposed to call this weekend. Tonight the calm certainty in her father’s voice bothers her strangely as she picks her way over the snowbanks of the hushed campus moonscape. Anyway, I should get back to these applications, she says, and waves her ID to test if it can swipe her into Jenny’s building.



Help, no card access! You have to come get me.

Hello it’s you! I’m coming.




Good night, says her dad. Take care. Waiting for Jenny to open the door, Meg thinks of what her mother said, all but sternly, just a few weeks earlier: If you’re this unhappy, I think something has to change. The two of them in her mother’s closet, familiar smelling, with its wool sweaters, its folded pants, its green ceramic dish of loose change and jewelry. Looking for extra, warmer socks Meg can take back with her, because of the cold. Her mother reaches a hand to search around a high shelf. There’s no reason to stay anywhere that feels this bad to you, she’s saying. Meg looks down at her own feet on the floor of her mother’s closet and feels a familiar sensation of illogical hope that sometimes comes to her, fluttering up through dread—a passing belief in the potential for some shift or transformation. She runs her finger along the lip of the ceramic bowl. She says: When do you know for sure it’s too late for things to get better? When do you know that you just have to move on?




The night she and Jenny have their most truly brutal fight, she’ll remember that question, after hours of argument at Meg’s apartment near Columbia—her roommate at the library, the two of them liberated to storm around, to cry, to call each other names. Eventually they’re quiet, exhausted, finally stalled, Jenny silent and still on the edge of the bed, Meg lying on the floor looking up at the ceiling. How can you know if something is fundamentally bad, she says finally, versus only currently? How do you know if something is temporary, or if it’s the way it will always be? Jenny will deflate back into the heap of Meg’s unmade bed. She’ll seem to think about that, seem to linger on the brink of some response—but she will not, in the end, say anything, and the two of them will lie in silence as the evening deepens into blue, and all the traffic in the street keeps up its clamor.



Agitated, through the hours of this argument, Meg has pulled and pulled and pulled at a loose thread in her sleeve, so much it gets unraveled around her wrist. Eventually Jenny gets up from the bed and says she’s going to take a walk, she wants to be alone, and she’s closing the door behind her before Meg realizes in a wave of pure, giddy, furious irritation: She’ll certainly have to throw this sweater away. It would be gratifying, she considers, to burn the sweater on the fire escape. To shred it with scissors. To consign it fatally to the kitchen trash. Instead, alone with the quiet clicking of her radiator, she sits up and lifts the sweater over her head. Carefully, she folds it into a plastic bag, so she won’t forget to take it somewhere to be donated or recycled or whatever. But then it’s like fuck it, and she takes the scissors and does cut up the whole, soft pouch—surgically, over the trash, an experiment in destructiveness that leaves her crying so much her face aches, crying so much she imagines what if Jenny could hear her from the street. Afterward, she falls asleep on her bed, its mass of sheets, one lamp still on. Jenny comes back later, asks her, Do you want a shirt? But Meg pretends that she’s still sleeping, twists her face away. Jenny lies down, turns off the light, and puts her hand on Meg’s back.



It’s when Meg is following Jenny to her dorm room the second time ever, in the weird glowy light of the dorm stairwell, that it occurs to her to say something about transferring. Not yet though, she decides—pleasurably woozy, back in this girl’s company. Smoothing her fingers along the blue metal banister, feeling her face warm in the new heat of indoors. It would be premature.



But then they spend the next—was it five nights? Five—together. Three at Jenny’s, one at hers, Jenny’s again. We could make a bad habit of this, Meg is saying, unwinding her scarf, as Jenny lets her in the third or fourth time. Or else the best habit ever, Jenny is saying, and kissing her, as Meg is slipping her hands, still trailing the scarf, around the back of Jenny’s neck.



The sixth night she lies she has an assignment: I really shouldn’t. I have to write this paper. At her desk as she drafts the personal essay for her applications, she can see the snow that crowns the hill outside her window turn gold, then lavender, then bleak gray, until the rural darkness blots it out—all but one eerie swathe of glow from the nearest campus blue-light box. I am looking for opportunities to feel better. Backspace, be warmer. Backspace, be serious, pursue my education in an urban setting. She closes her phone in her desk while she works. It rings once, a muted trill: her father, the voicemail says, when she checks eventually. Just saying hi and he’ll try again tomorrow. And here is a text from Jenny, waiting: I want to play this cooler than I am, but I wish you were here.




Somewhere, in the sinuous walkways of the dark campus, happy laughter rings. The text scares her; she doesn’t know why. Curled on her side on the bed, she deletes it.



The next day, in the dining hall, she doesn’t answer her mother’s call. Not the day after that, either, walking back from French, though the phone rings literally in her hand as she’s texting Tonight?—her gloves precarious where she’s wedged them between her arm and ribs so she can type. To her mother, she writes, Can’t talk but I’m fine, I’ll call soon. In the morning her father calls, but she’s in Jenny’s kitchen and doesn’t answer that, either: Jenny barefoot in running shorts and her old cross country sweatshirt, cold light from the window illumining her jaw and hair, measuring out coffee grounds with a spoon. I can’t wait for this coffee, she’s saying. A roommate emerges, wincing, and greets Jenny in a low voice, before she notices Meg and adds, with an effortful summoning of interest, Hi. Meg starts to respond, but with a movement of her hand the roommate insinuates she’s hungover and doesn’t wish to converse. She carries herself to the shower, snaps the bathroom door shut behind her so curtly that Jenny brandishes the spoon after Dana—or was it Ellen? Well, one of them. In a low voice, she says, Rude. Next year: a single room. Think of it. We’ll be alone.




She says it again: Alone. Does this suggestive, amazing thing with her eyebrows that makes Meg burst out laughing, and decide not to mention she has no plans to be here next year.



Jenny will always be making this sort of remark: next year and after we graduate and someday. One night, walking together to Meg’s room, Jenny behind her as they move along an icy bit of narrow sidewalk, snow encroaching from each side, Jenny says, Sometime we should live together, and then it won’t always be like, do I even have clothes I can wear tomorrow? Meg laughs softly: You can wear my clothes. Jenny says, That would be sort of cute. Okay, I like that idea.



Sara says, Hang on, and looks up from the fridge. She says, Seriously? Because it makes no sense, Meg and Jenny, barely knowing each other a month and talking like that. Meg says, setting the last dish to dry in the rack, wringing out a sponge to wipe down Sara’s counter: I know—sometimes I feel like I must be remembering things out of order. But I think we were just super young? Things move fast and you’re an idiot.




Sara says, No, I mean like are you actually telling me this? I mean what was this—six years ago? Meg says, Oh, and it feels like there’s some explanation to make, but her mouth can’t find it. Let me do that, says Sara, and it’s vicious somehow, the way she takes the sponge. The drag of her short fingernails over Meg’s wet palms.



In the play, Jenny is wonderful. On a little folding chair, in the dark black box theater, Meg is thrilled, small shivers course her spine, she wraps her arms around herself. She feels gripped with possibility, she regrets having come here with Dana and Ellen and Ellen’s boyfriend—the three of them in chairs to her left, their intermittent and distracting whispers. She wishes she’d come tomorrow, had come alone. She misses an essential plot point of one scene, just imagining this other way it could have been. She twists her hands together in her lap. Distracted, afterward, she forgets her gloves under her chair.



And she hates having to greet Jenny in the company of others, having to share her. She can’t speak: Jenny, striking in her stage makeup, is buoyant, is joyful, is embracing her friends, some of whom Meg recognizes. She’s wearing the green wool cardigan, hair gathered up at the back of her neck, and someone’s given her a bunch of daisies in green tissue and clear plastic, which she has in her arms as if holding a baby. Laura Heller materializes. Meg tries to summon something of her performance—You were so good, she tries, and Laura’s thanks are effusive. She points at Jenny’s lipstick on Meg’s cheek: You guys are cute.




Years from now, Meg will run into Laura Heller at a party in Brooklyn. They will be happy to see one another, will entirely enjoy catching up. Eventually Laura will say, as she opens another beer for each of them, I always felt responsible for you and Jenny Evert meeting, and she will look faintly proud of herself, and Meg will be surprised by the savageness of her own reply, and the way it makes Laura’s face go blank, humiliated: You absolutely weren’t.



After the play there is a basically torturous group dinner that Laura has organized, at the BYOB sushi place off campus. We don’t have to go, says Jenny, putting on her coat, though plainly she intends to. At the restaurant everyone seems to be friends with everyone: roommates, castmates, roommates of castmates, everyone Jenny knows, it feels like, talking over one other, passing huge cheap bottles of wine down the table.



So it isn’t until afterward that Meg gets Jenny alone long enough to say anything. And this was the I love you: on College Avenue, outside the sushi place. Cars easing by, their lights catching the shimmer of heaped curbside snowbanks. Still in the crook of Jenny’s arm, these daises in paper and cellophane, the plastic crinkled between Jenny and Meg’s two coats. Meg’s bare hands in Jenny’s hair, and Jenny, joking: So not, ultimately, such a terrible night for you?




Later, Jenny’s falling-asleep breath is even along Meg’s collarbone; she seems asleep, but then I love you she says again, and moves her hair out of her face, settles herself closer, touches her forehead to Meg’s shoulder. Meg stares fixedly into the shadowed form of the daisies bunched together in their cup—visible over Jenny’s head, as if an outgrowth of the hair.



A slant of streetlight through the window falls over Jenny’s nose and the daisies in their drinking glass and makes, through the water, a murky amoeba of faint light on the surface of the desk. Meg has an impulse to ask who the flowers are from, but doesn’t. Long after Jenny really does fall asleep, Meg wonders in the dark, considers in turn every person she saw tonight. Certain possibilities upset her. Jenny? she says quietly, but Jenny doesn’t stir.



Meg moves her face away from Jenny’s hair so she can breathe. Wants a glass of water but can’t get up, because she’s next to the stupid wall. The thing is, Jenny says to her in the dining hall the next morning, or maybe the one after—some morning this week, anyway, plunging her fork into the soft yolk of her poached egg—I don’t know why you have to ask me that way. So suspicious. Like I could ask you why you didn’t bring me flowers. But I didn’t ask you that, you know?




Then someone they know passes by their table, and Jenny brightens to hide what’s going on. Waves.



Meg is home for a weekend. Her father is making pasta, her mother setting the table, when Meg asks, When are you supposed to ignore what you’re afraid of, and when are you supposed to pay attention? In general, she’s been wondering, Is it better to ask a question if you’re afraid you know the answer—better to get what you fear out in the open? Or should you leave it alone and hope the thought will go away—hope it won’t persist, becoming more complex, obsessive, tangled, confused? What exactly is it that’s concerning you? her dad asks, and he starts adding capers to the sauce, angling the small glass jar. Meg’s sitting on the counter and wants to explain her state of mind, but can’t exactly. She kicks her heels against the loose door of the lower cabinet. Careful, says her mother.



At some point she realizes she shouldn’t wait any longer to tell them. Outside the library, pacing the gridded, neat courtyard, tucking her face down into her scarf, she calls home. It’s snowing again, of course—the afternoon daylight flat and strange through low clouds. How nice, says her mother. You sound better. Will we meet her when we pick you up at spring break? Why don’t we all go to lunch? Below, down the hill to the quad, Meg can see the knitting and unknitting lines of other students: crawling here and there, to class, from class, library, dining hall, gym. After she hangs up, on her way to Jenny’s room, taking the stairs down the long hill—cradling her bag close, because this wet snow is coming down hard now—she already misses the time before she told them anything. When Jenny was only hers.



This is a confusing sensation that makes her feel so stupid. She shakes her head, as if it might be possible to the disperse the feeling, but it seems only to squeeze her more tightly. And here is Jenny walking toward her: head bent. Her hair starred with caught bits of snow. They’re inside before Jenny notices anything: Oh no, she says finally, What is it, what’s wrong? On the vestibule floor, slush from their boots is already resolving into melty puddles, some of the snow in Jenny’s hair changed to shiny dabs of water. Meg says, I don’t know, I don’t know. She frees one of her hands from its glove and holds on for one moment to Jenny’s hand, then reaches up to wipe her own eyes with her fist, so tears smear along the skin of her hand.



Upstairs, in Jenny’s room, they hang their coats, scarves, gloves to dry on the desk chair, on the radiator, by spare hangers from dresser drawers. They put their boots together to dry on a towel. In the bed, they lie close: Jenny on her back, hair damp, reading this long book she has to finish for a seminar tomorrow. She has her book in one hand and the other arm around Meg, who’s curled on her side, French workbook open on the quilt to her assigned conjugations. She takes her pen and draws little swirls and jags, pulses in the margin. The radiator clucks, then sighs. Meg says, finally, Do your parents know about me? And she can feel Jenny shift then, her breath on Meg’s hair and the back of her neck. Um yes, says Jenny, and Meg can feel her smile. Later that night, in the common room kitchen, Meg will tell her about transferring. Jenny will clench a hand around her glass so hard the water she’s drinking will shiver in its cup, and Meg will stand instinctively. Stop, she’ll say, Just wait, but Jenny is already talking, voice ragged, rising, insistent, changed, like someone else, like not Jenny at all, she says, So many people want to go to school here. Do you know that people want to go to school here? She says, Honestly. What is actually wrong with you?




Sara will ask Meg to meet her parents when they have only been dating a few weeks. The two of them drinking Bloody Marys on an overcast Sunday, some brunch place in Crown Heights. Meg will say something about remembering to call her parents, and Sara will swirl her ice with her celery and say, hey speaking of parents, why doesn’t Meg come out to New Jersey next weekend?



Jesus, Meg will say, unexpectedly saddened. As if something is ending too soon. Later, she’ll be unable to decide if Sara’s behavior in this instance shows her to have solid instincts or betrays a fundamental recklessness. What if we hadn’t worked out, Meg will ask through a mouthful of toothpaste, however many months later. Brushing her teeth, wearing a borrowed sweater of Sara’s, coming to stand in the doorway to her room. We might still not work out, says Sara, sitting on the bed, stroking the dog’s forehead so its eyes wink closed. I just thought it would make you happy to be asked. Behind her in the window, the afternoon light is bright and clear, and Meg knows what Sara wants to hear: Of course we’ll work out. Actually, she wants to hear it too. But before either of them can say anything, Sara’s roommate comes home. Hey hey, he says pleasantly, and as he hangs up his bike helmet on the hook by the door, it seems easier to say nothing. Meg looks away from Sara, out the window again.



When Ellen comes home, Meg is disappointed. She and Jenny have been curled around each other on the couch. Earlier they started a movie but, You’re missing the whole thing said Jenny when she noticed Meg looking out the window, looking at the snow as it fell. Half-amused, Jenny paused the television, and now they’re just talking, watching the snow. Then Ellen is interrupting in the doorway, stomping slush from her boots, stripping away wet layers, going on about how oh, she loves this movie. What were they watching, even? Usually Meg can summon up old details, but in this case she doesn’t have it. Nothing but an onscreen image, paused: some landscape, rugged. Impossible to place.



We have homework, Jenny lies to Ellen, before they retreat to Jenny’s room, close the door, fall on the bed laughing and shushing each other—which is why, in joking despair, Jenny says, But homework! as Meg is reaching for her. Maybe for you, says Meg, kissing Jenny’s face, her neck, moving the edge of her shirt to reach her collarbone: I’m on my way out. No consequences.




She means it as a joke, but Jenny presses her forehead to Meg’s shoulder and stays there, very still. Months later, she’ll look at the acceptance letters lined up on Meg’s desk with feral anger—like she could kill them with her teeth, the perfect envelopes.



They try staying together. Her parents say, For a place you really hated, you’re still spending so much time there. When she and Jenny break up, Meg figures it will be a sort of trial thing. An experiment of some protracted agony, involving regular check-in phone calls. Later an agreement to stop texting, so they can give each other space. Then maybe Jenny taking the bus down to Columbia, where they will find that time apart has eased their problems. Just imagining it floods Meg with warmth. But this, actually, will be the last time they ever see each other: Jenny, not crying, hails a taxi on Amsterdam. Her right hand raised in the air, one early morning.



Sara’s parents live near the beach. On the bright fall day Meg goes to meet them, the dog comes too. Meg walks with Sara and her parents by the water and lets the dog off leash—they watch it run the scalloping shoreline, muscles roiling. Sara’s mother takes Meg by the arm so they can walk together. She says, We’re so happy to be meeting you. After the beach Meg and Sara will sit in the sun, on the cold brick terrace next to the house. They’ll clean sand from the dog’s feet while it stands, sun-warm, alert to something down the beach. They’ll stay together with the towel rumpled on their laps and let the dog run to the fence, where it glowers at a distant point in the trees, some far-off movement. The wind whips up around them, Meg takes Sara’s hand to move her closer. Her hand is small and warm; they lean their heads together. The cold wind makes Meg shiver, and she imagines what if they stayed this way, very still in low dusk light, like something dipped in amber. She wants to say, Stay here. The dog comes over then, nudges its head on Sara’s lap, gives a longing grumble. I’m extremely cold, says Meg at last, and Sara laughs her beautiful, porous laugh. She wraps her arm around Meg’s shoulder. Be warm, she says. Okay? Be warm. The dog lets out a short, demanding sound, as, memorably, Sara tips her face up to the sun.

 

About the author

Kate Doyle was a 2021 A Public Space Writing Fellow. Her debut story collection, I Meant It Once, was recently published by Algonquin.


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