Vassar Student Review

Vassar Student Review

Spring

Maria was sitting on Roy’s bed, watching Roy strip apart a USB wire. He cut off part of the top and then separated the black and red lines from the white and green. Maria told him not to get electrocuted.

“It’s not plugged in,” Roy said.

“Oh.”

Roy and Maria used to go to school together. They had not seen each other since graduation eight months ago, until Roy ran into Maria at the Finest Deli on Bleecker Street buying a pack of gum and asked her if she was on spring break.

“This week and next,” Maria told him.

“Me too. We should get together sometime.”

“Okay, sure. Maybe.”

Maria did not know what Roy meant by “get together,” but it entailed cutting open USB wires in his bedroom and eating plantain chips out of a greasy yellow bag. She had only been to Roy’s house once before, at a party in tenth grade when she still had braces. She had thrown up in the bathroom. She hoped Roy didn’t remember that.

“Have I ever had you over before?” Roy asked.

Maria shook her head in relief. “No. We didn’t hang out much in high school.”

“Why didn’t we?”

“I don’t know.” Maria had always liked Roy. They had been lab partners in biology, Roy always turned everything in on time. And, when Geraldine Wesley told the entire class that Maria had girl-on-girl pornography on her computer, Roy told Geraldine to fuck off, which was nice.

Roy’s phone rang. He picked it up. “I’ve got to go answer the door,” he said to Maria.

“Who’s here?” Maria asked.

“Couple of my buddies from college. You’ll like them, they’re cool.”

“Are they going to like me?”

Roy laughed and left the room. Maria looked out the window, which faced a brick building with a silver awning in front of it. Maria wondered how many times Roy had looked out this window and wished he could tear the building out of the ground so he could see the sky.

Roy returned with three or four boys. They were all wearing sweatpants and talking very loudly.

One of the boys pointed to Maria. “Who’s this?”

“That’s Maria.” Roy said. Maria waved and then immediately regretted it. The boy sauntered over to the bed and sat down next to her.

“It’s really nice to meet you.”

“Brian, she’s a fucking lesbian,” Roy said. The other boys giggled.

“You’re a lesbian?” The first boy, apparently Brian, asked. Maria nodded. “You got a girlfriend or something?”

“Her name is Mica.”

“Mica and Maria. That’s nice,” Brian said. “Has a nice ring to it.”

“Thanks,” Maria said.

“I think it’s the double Ms.”

“Right.”

“Is she in the city? You could invite her over,” Roy said.

“No, she lives in Connecticut,” Maria paused. “I think she’s cheating on me.” Maria had never said it out loud before, but she had been suspecting for a while. Mica was very secretive about her text messages. Maria would never go through her phone, she was not that type of person. But she wanted to.

“She’s cheating on you?” Roy asked.

“Yeah. I mean, probably.”

“You should break up with her,” he said.

Maria shrugged. “We’ll split before summer anyway.”

“You shouldn’t stay with someone who’s cheating on you,” Roy said.

 

Maria was not going to break up with Mica, even though she knew that was what she was supposed to do. Maria never understood all the weird rules about fidelity; like when her mom divorced her dad after she found out he was sleeping with his assistant. Maria knew that her dad still loved her mom, even if he also loved Dorothy O’Reilly. Mica still wanted to be with Maria, even though she was kissing other girls. If she didn’t, Mica would dump her. That was enough.

One of the boys who was not Brian said, “let’s smoke.” Maria wondered if she was going to learn the names of the other boys, or if she was going to have to tell them apart by their t-shirt colors.

“We have to wire it,” Roy said.

“You’re kidding,” green shirt said. “You got one?”

Roy nodded to the USB wire on the floor.

“Let’s do it,” blue shirt said. Roy took a cartridge out of his pocket and stuck the black wire through the hole in the bottom. He pressed the red wire to the outside. The cartridge began heating up between his fingers.

“You smoke?” Roy asked Maria. Maria did not.

“Yes,” she said. Roy waved her over. She squat down next to him and he raised the mouthpiece to her lips. She breathed in and immediately started coughing.

“Didn’t you used to play the flute?” Roy asked, readjusting the wires.

“I don’t really do that anymore,” Maria said. Roy asked why not. “I tried out for the orchestra earlier this year, but I didn’t make the cut.”

“So that’s just it, then?”

“Pretty much.”

“That sucks. I thought you were good.”

Maria thought she was good, too. She had been playing the flute since she was eleven years old. She had a private tutor. She performed at local events and even got paid sometimes.

“Why do you ask about the flute?” Maria asked.

Roy said, “I was just thinking about school. You seem different now.”

“What do you mean?”

“Maybe different is the wrong word. You seem more comfortable with yourself. It’s a good thing.” Maria did not think she had changed at all since the beginning of college, except that she now owned a tube of lipstick and stopped wearing velcro shoes.

Maria could feel herself getting, presumably, high. She sat down on the ground and closed her eyes. The group of boys started discussing who would win in a fight, one modern-day tank or the entire Roman army.

“Definitely the tank,” one of them said.

“The entire Roman army. Do you know how many people that is?”

“It doesn’t matter. It’s a tank. It can just shoot them down.”

“How many people are in the tank?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters.”

“Why?”

“Because if there’s only one, the Roman army could totally take him down. I mean, there’d be casualties, but they’d eventually win.”

“I don’t believe you.”

Maria was thinking about the last time she and Mica had seen each other. It was the final day of midterms. The two of them were watching a nature documentary in Mica’s room. Squid babies were hatching from a cluster of eggs, and Maria said they looked like those oozy yogurt tubes at the organic supermarket.

“It would be so much easier if we just laid eggs,” Mica said. “Do you want kids?”

“I don’t know,” Maria said. “I don’t really think about that kind of stuff.” Mica asked her what she meant. “The future. It’s hard to keep track of everything in my brain. I have to do it in small doses. I can only think about, like, next week.”

“You’ve never thought about yourself with a family?”

“I guess not.” Maria thought for a moment. “If I get married, and my wife wants kids, then I’d want them, too.”

“Only if your wife wants kids,” Mica repeated.

“I think so, yeah.”

Maria wasn’t sure how the conversation got sidetracked. Mica told Maria that she shouldn’t make major life decisions based on pleasing other people. “You’ve got to stop overanalyzing everything,” Maria said.

“It’s in my blood,” Mica insisted. Mica’s father was a psychoanalyst and her mother was a psychiatrist. Mica went on a lot of psychology tangents, particularly about Maria. She would suggest that Maria’s participation in class discussions was in overcompensation of patriarchal societal standards; that Maria’s awkwardness around public displays of affection was because her parents got divorced before she hit puberty; that Maria’s preference for pencils over pens meant she was afraid of making mistakes. Maria found these theories stupid.

“Do you want kids?” Maria asked.

“Yes. At least four,” Mica said. She pressed the spacebar on her laptop to pause the documentary. “I guess you and I could never get married. I mean, I’d never want to pressure you into having kids.”

Maria thought it was obvious that the two of them would never be married.

“You’ve never pictured us married?” Mica asked.

“You’re the first girlfriend I’ve ever had. It’s not very realistic to think we’d be together forever.”

“It could happen,” Mica said. “What are we even doing here if we’re not going to stay together?”

“Having experiences,” Maria said. “We’re young. That’s what we’re supposed to do.” Maria unpaused the documentary. A couple of minutes passed in silence. “I love you,” Maria said, kissing Mica on the cheek. Mica did not say it back.

 

Roy was shaking Maria awake. Maria opened her eyes. The room was empty. “Where’d your friends go?”

Roy said they left a little while ago. “You fell asleep.”

“Sorry.”

“Nothing to apologize for,” Roy said. “Do you want a popsicle?”

Roy and Maria went into the kitchen. Roy’s mother was putting dishes into the dishwasher.

“Mom, this is Maria,” Roy said. He opened the freezer. “We have strawberry, lime, and grape.”

“Lime, please,” Maria said. “Do you want any help with that?” She asked Roy’s mother.

“I’m almost done,” Roy’s mother said. She popped a detergent pod into the latched container and slammed the door shut. The dishwasher started with a growl.

“Mom, Maria’s the one who played the flute at graduation,” Roy said.

“Oh my god, you did a wonderful job,” Roy’s mother smiled. “I cried.”

“Really?” Maria asked.

“And mom never cries at stuff. That’s how you know it was good,” Roy said. Maria didn’t know what to say. She bit into her popsicle.

Roy’s mother left to watch television in the living room. Roy leaned against the refrigerator and studied Maria for a moment. He asked if she was still high.

“What? No. I mean, I don’t think so.”

“You’re staring into space.”

Maria laughed. “I do that sometimes.”

“What are you thinking about?” Roy asked. Maria suddenly started crying. “Jesus,” he said, pulling her into an embrace. “Shit. Are you okay?”

“I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s happening to me.”

“Stop saying sorry,” Roy said, patting Maria’s head. Maria shook him away and wiped her face with the back of her hand.

“I’m fine. That was weird. I’m sorry,” she said. Tears were still leaking out of the corners of her eyes.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“I’m okay.” Maria took the last bite of her popsicle, wincing as the cold sank into her gums. She wasn’t sure what she was doing in Roy’s apartment. Roy had texted her earlier this morning to ask if she was free. She didn’t think Roy would follow through with the whole “let’s hang out sometime” shtick. She assumed he was only being polite. “We really weren’t friends in high school,” Maria said.

“No, we weren’t.” Roy agreed.

“I almost didn’t come today,” she admitted. On the subway ride uptown, Maria felt anxious, like she was going to the doctor’s office for a shot. Once she passed seventieth street, she wanted to turn back.

“Why did you?”

Maria looked up at Roy. “I don’t know. Why’d you invite me?”

“I don’t know,” Roy said. They looked at each other in silence for a moment. “I feel like we’re similar people. And I don’t feel similar to most people.”

“You don’t?”

“I don’t. I have a hard time getting close to people.”

Maria frowned. “You have so many friends, though. I mean, what about all those guys that were just here? Brian and the others?”

“I love those guys, they’re great. But I don’t think we have very much in common. We experience the world super differently. It doesn’t make them wrong or right, or me wrong or right—but it’s isolating.”

“I also have a hard time getting close to people,” Maria said. She patted Roy’s arm. “I think that’s why I’m not going to break up with Mica. I was so surprised that someone could love me. I don’t want to let it go, in case it never happens again.”

“Someone will love you again,” Roy said. “Do you want some water?”

“Sure,” Maria nodded. “I didn’t mean to sound all pathetic just then.” Roy took two cups out of the pantry and stuck them under the faucet. Maria liked the sound the faucet made, like she was being shushed. “I meant that I don’t feel real a lot of the time. I see kids my age living their lives, and it’s like everything they do is unreachable for me.”

Roy handed Maria her cup of water. “What do you mean?”

“Like going out, having friends, relationships. I never thought that stuff would happen to me—not that I didn’t want it—but because I felt like kind of a background character.” She sipped her water.

“I think I know what you mean,” Roy said. “I definitely know what you mean.”

“Do you think you’re depressed?” Maria asked.

“Yeah.”

“Me too.”

They sat quietly for a minute. Then Roy asked, “how did you meet Mica?”

“Mutual friend,” Maria said. The day they met, they were eating dinner in the dining hall with a big group of freshmen crowded at one table. Maria had never met anyone as smart as Mica before. She was so confident in everything she said. She talked in elaborate sentences and dropped fancy words like slang, as if she had a built-in thesaurus in her brain. Mica was always debating, always quoting some renowned, underground journalist or ancient theory or Sigmund Freud, and Maria liked that about her at first. It was funny to Maria, how admiration can become disgust—she thought of Mica now as a know-it- all, someone who cannot ever let things simply be, but must search for the deeper meaning. Sometimes there is no deeper meaning, Maria thought.

“She didn’t tell me she loved me the last time we saw each other,” Maria said. “I said that I loved her, and she was just quiet.”

“Yikes,” Roy mumbled.

“I don’t even know if I love her,” Maria confessed. “Isn’t that weird?” It was something Maria had been turning over in her mind for the entirety of spring break. Her relationship with Mica had been very by-the-book. Like they were crossing things off of a checklist. They kissed goodnight on their first date, exchanged flowers on Valentine’s day, added a one-month anniversary reminder to their respective google calendars. They bought wine with fake IDs and kicked out their roommates to have sex. When it came time to say I love you, Maria thought nothing of it. Of course, she must feel it. It was a no-brainer.

“You need to break up with her,” Roy said.

“I know,” Maria said. “I don’t want to talk about Mica anymore.”

“Okay.”

And so the two of them stood there in the kitchen, not saying anything. They could hear the noise of the television seeping through the bottom of the door of the living room. Maria knew that she and Roy wouldn’t speak once they both went back to school. So did Roy. But maybe when the summer comes, they both thought to themselves, they could see each other again. Maria threw her popsicle stick in the garbage can and wished everything was as simple as it was right in this moment.

 

Dead Body

There wasn’t much to do in the town Ellen grew up in, but every couple of months the more popular church hosted a ten-buck per-head community square-dance. Weirdly, they always garnered an impressive turnout, especially among the teenagers, who would publicly make out until a supervising nun would remind them to leave room for Jesus. Ellen’s father Perry would take Ellen, and the two of them would dance together until their cheeks turned red from sweating. When Ellen returned home for the first time in years to watch Perry die, she found she couldn’t stop thinking about the square-dances. Her checkered dresses were still in her childhood closet, zipped in plastic.  

Perry’s death was a long time coming. He had been struggling with his health for over a decade.  Even so, it wasn’t until six days after Ellen’s arrival that he finally did die. Which meant Ellen had to endure six days of her stepmother’s rice pudding; six days where Ellen ignored the incoming condolence cards and watched cable television and avoided the slippery kisses of her Aunty Tram, who had her heart set on inheriting the gold clock in the living room.  

Ellen had flown in with her husband and her daughter. It was her daughter’s first time on a plane.  She cried the entire time. Ellen hadn’t noticed. “I guess we made some new enemies today,” her husband  joked. Ellen asked, “why’s that?”  

Perry was situated in his bed, the plumpest pillows in the house cushioning his head. Ellen’s husband talked to him a lot: how his granddaughter’s first word was “baseball,” which neither him nor  Ellen understood, because they did not care at all for the sport; how Ellen recently got promoted to an assistant manager position; how they were thinking of taking a trip to Florida in the spring. Perry, barely  conscious, nodded along politely. Ellen watched.  

“It’s good that you’re here,” Ellen’s stepmother, Sara, told Ellen. “He’s so happy to be around  you.”  

“Yeah. I mean, obviously I want to be here for him.”  

Sara was in charge of the funeral arrangements. She had been married to Perry for twenty years.  She fed him his pills every morning with a glass of pulpy orange juice. She gave him two scoops of  vanilla ice cream over strawberries every night. Once he couldn’t walk anymore, she pushed his wheelchair around the yard, so he’d breathe in the fresh, wet air. Once he couldn’t see anymore, she read him books about hunting and the Revolutionary war.  

“I’m sure you’ll want to say some things at the service,” Sara said. “Do you have something  prepared?”  

Ellen had tried to write on the plane. She wasn’t satisfied with anything she put on paper, it all sounded stale and generic. “Yeah, I can say a few things,” she told Sara. Sara moved to embrace Ellen, but Ellen’s daughter started crying for a diaper change. Ellen was really glad to have her daughter there, she was a great distraction. Whenever the conversation got tense, Ellen would ask if anyone wanted to hold the baby. There was always someone who wanted to hold the baby. “Let me go take care of that,”  Ellen told Sara, ducking her outstretched arms.  

On the fifth day of their visit, Ellen’s husband found Ellen smoking pot in the bathtub. “This is what it was like,” Ellen giggled. “All of my childhood was sneaking around like this. I feel like nothing’s changed.” Ellen’s husband sighed and told her to open the window wider.  

Ellen did have a lot of rules growing up. She always sensed it was because of how she looked.  Ellen was what Aunty Tram called an early bloomer. She got her period in the fourth grade. When Perry found the pads in her room, he punched a hole in the dining room wall. He gave her a nine p.m. curfew and threw out all the tank tops she owned. She was not allowed to be friends with any boys. One time, Perry caught her kissing Tyler M. in the library parking lot. He gave her a black eye. When Ellen was fifteen, she knelt beside her bed at night and prayed that her father would die. She asked God to send some horrible disaster, like a tornado or house fire. “I don’t want him to suffer,” she whispered, “but I want him gone.”  

Perry died in front of Ellen, as she held his hand and counted prayer beads over and over again  between her forefinger and thumb. Once he was really dead, Ellen tore the rosary apart and all the beads  fell onto the floor. Perry’s favorite reverend, who burped often and smelled like sawdust, massaged Ellen’s shoulders, mumbling “child, my dear child,” until she got so annoyed she excused herself to the bathroom.  

Sara placed calls to distant relatives. Several flower baskets arrived at the house; Ellen left them in a cluster by the coat rack. There was the mourning brunch, with mimosas and eggs cooked sunny-side  up; a couple of people who Ellen didn’t know very well cried. At the wake, Ellen was given time alone  with Perry. She bowed down to the open casket, but she couldn’t touch the body. Ellen was supposed to touch the body. She was supposed to be tender and vulnerable, she was certainly supposed to be crying. But Perry was covered in makeup. The morticians put makeup on all the dead bodies so they don’t look dead. Perry looked like a wax figure. Ellen had this awful memory of being in a wax museum as a kid. Once she remembered it, she couldn’t get it out of her head. So she closed her eyes and waited a respectable amount of time and then she got up and left the chapel.  

The morning of the funeral, Ellen and her husband were brushing their teeth together when Ellen’s husband said, “I know you didn’t have an easy relationship with your father.”  “Why do you say that?” Ellen asked, her mouth foaming with toothpaste. “Just based on the few things you’ve mentioned to me,” he replied. “I’m not going to pretend like I understand or anything. But if you want to talk about it, you know I’m here.”  

“My dad and I had a fine relationship,” Ellen insisted.  

Ellen’s husband shrugged. “I haven’t bought the tickets home yet. So if you want to stay for a couple more days, by all means, take the time you need.”  

“No, we should get home. I’ve got to get back to work—”  

“I’m sure they’d understand you needing more time off,” he interrupted. “I don’t want to stay here.”  

Ellen’s husband’s father was a good man. He spoke carefully, cooked meatloaf and hand-kneaded biscuits for reunion dinners; he wore t-shirts on the weekends. Ellen had never seen her father in a t-shirt. Even when he died, he was wearing a freshly-steamed button-down.  

“Do you want to practice the eulogy?” Ellen’s husband asked. “I could be like a test-audience.” Ellen had still not written anything down. “You know, I’m not sure I’m going to talk.”   “You’re kidding,” Ellen’s husband spit his toothpaste into the sink. “What are you talking about?  You told Sara you’d give the fucking eulogy. You can’t just blow that off.”  

“I just don’t think I’d do a very good job,” Ellen said. Ellen’s husband kissed her on the cheek.  “Ellen, whatever you have prepared—you’re a great writer. You’ll do a great job.” He wiped his wet hands on a towel. “Talk about those square-dances Perry took you to. I always liked hearing those stories.”  

“My father was my hero. He taught me everything I know—discipline, loyalty.” Ellen was drunk in the church and everyone was listening. Her husband was sitting in the front pew with their daughter, a tense smile stretched across his face. Aunty Tram was rolling her eyes. “I owe all of my success to him.”  

Ellen had not intended on getting drunk today. In fact, she had insisted on driving her husband and her daughter to the service. In fact, Ellen would say she was only barely drunk. “I’m only barely drunk,” she whispered into the pulpit’s microphone.  

“Baby,” Ellen’s husband said. “Do you want to sit down?” Ellen shook her head. The movement threw her off balance and she stumbled, grabbing the pulpit for stability.  

“I mention loyalty because Dad was as devoted as could be. Sara, I’ll never know why he picked  you. His other girlfriends were much skinnier, and it took you a month to learn my name. But it doesn’t matter. When you two got married, he gave everything up for you. He really loved you.” 

An hour ago, Ellen was panicking about her speech. Pacing around her old bedroom, she drank from a silver flask Perry had given to her for her 21st birthday. “My little girl is all grown up,” he had said. “Give your old man a hug, won’t you?”  

Ellen was no longer panicking. She was completely calm. She thought she might be the calmest she had ever been in all her life, standing in front of these people. “And I mention discipline because that was Dad’s way. I’d get so mad at him for all the rules I had. He was so protective of me. But I know now that it was his way of loving me.”  

“Baby, I really think you should sit down,” Ellen’s husband tried again. 

Ellen persisted: “I’m not sure if Dad ever wanted kids—especially not a daughter. But he did his best raising me. All on his own, too. He taught me how to shoot a gun, stuck me in tennis lessons, paid my college tuition. I don’t want to sit down, I want to tell you a story.”  

Ellen actually hated the church square-dances. She hated dressing up in the awkward dresses that  would poof out around her knees. She hated the songs they played—volunteer violinists and fiddlers who  swore they could’ve made it big if only they’d gotten out of this town. She hated the people there and the  cheese smell that lingered in the humid air.  

“Dad used to take me to these dances. It was like our father-daughter thing,” Ellen began.  More than anything, she hated dancing with Perry.  

  “It was the only thing to do on a Friday night. All the other girls my age went with their dates. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to have a boyfriend.”  

More than anything, she hated the way Perry gripped her waist when they danced. How he held fiercely onto her hand, so she couldn’t run away. How he pressed against her when the music slowed  down. “You know I’ll never hurt you,” he would mutter into her ear.  

She started resisting. She had too much homework to go out. She had a headache. She twisted her ankle falling off her bike. Perry never bought it. “I knew this day would come, when you got too cool for your own dad,” he’d say. “I already bought the tickets, so I guess that’s twenty fucking dollars down the drain.” They would fight.  

“I’m sure everyone thought I was lame, dancing with my dad,” Ellen said. Perry always got his way. He’d yell until his face turned purple. He’d throw things—cups, flower  vases, the cordless phone which broke into four pieces when it hit the wall. He’d tighten his hand around  Ellen’s neck until she saw stars in the corners of her eyes.  

Perry was dead now and Ellen was standing in front of a mass of people who loved him for his sense of humor and intelligence and dignity and honest work. Who only had fond memories of him. Who were sad he was gone, instead of relieved. She took a deep breath. “He was a good guy, my dad. And I guess that’s all I have to say.” 

 

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