MOONSTRUCK WAS PLAYING AT THE JANUS AND EVERYWHERE YOU WENT, PEOPLE WERE FALLING IN LOVE. Even the trees were wooing each other, pulling pink blossoms out of their branches like billets-doux. I was in love myself. I’d never been away from home before, and I felt the freedom in my bones and in my breath. Nothing could satiate me. I’d stay up all night talking with new friends in coffee shops, then fill entire notebooks during classes with names like “Chance and Necessity.” On weekends there was live music and keg parties and tea at the Housemaster’s residence. You could walk up to classmates lounging on the grass, introduce yourself, and ask them their thoughts on the afterlife. You could devote entire afternoons to dreamscapes of your own invention. I’d never realized how full of light the world could be.
A few times a week, I used to eat lunch by the river. I had a favorite bench near the old boathouse. There was a man with a supermarket cart who lived down there. He smelled like bread and sweat and old newspaper. You never know how people end up like that. One day I was planning a picnic for myself, and I decided I’d bring him a sandwich, too. I couldn’t decide what to get him. Maybe a warm meatball sub with extra melted parmesan? Or a toasted Reuben with sauerkraut and hot mustard? I settled on a creation called The Works, with pepperoni, salami, turkey, olive loaf, Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomato, mayo, and a fat deli pickle.
I was so happy to be a gift-bearer that I threw the bag away and carried the sandwich in my hands. It was wrapped in white butcher’s paper and had a satisfying heft. The day was perfect; the sky was beach-glass blue. A feeling of anticipation skidded across my skin like a current. But when I reached his usual spot beside the abandoned boathouse, the man wasn’t there. It’s hard to explain how disappointed I felt; instead of the regret of a thwarted whim, it was as if something I’d cherished my whole life had been stolen from me. Before I left, I poked my head inside the boathouse. There he was, slack-jawed on the floor, surrounded by empty cans and bird droppings and napkin dispensers. He was dead.
I felt as if I should do something, but I didn’t know what. Maybe go back to my dorm room and call the police. But I still had his sandwich. I wanted to give it to him, as an offering. In my philosophy class I’d read about someone who left a pork pie on Wittgenstein’s grave, and leaving this man The Works seemed fitting somehow. I stepped closer, delicately, as if I were trespassing, and lifted his hand. He sat bolt upright and grabbed my wrist.
“What is it?” he said.
I jumped; I almost screamed. “It’s nothing,” I said. “It’s me.”
The afternoon light filtered dimly through the slats in the walls, but nonetheless, he seemed to recognize me. He sat blinking at my face, still clutching my wrist.
“The girl,” he said.
“I brought you a sandwich,” I said, holding it out. Up close, he was younger than I’d expected; his beard was reddish-brown, and his forehead was smooth. I had a feeling he was harmless; I suppose he’d seemed harmless to me all along, or I wouldn’t have come. A grimy cooler sat in the corner, and it smelled as if he might have been using it as a toilet.
He ignored the sandwich and looked away. “I’m not really like this,” he said, letting go of my arm.
I smiled. “I know you’re not,” I said.
Upon hearing this, he examined me more carefully. His eyes were small and deep-set; they looked like the kind of eyes that should have had glasses in front of them. I saw something in them then that was so familiar yet so out of place in that squalid shack that I didn’t recognize it at first. It was a look I was accustomed to seeing in the eyes of the soccer player from Hawthorne, Kentucky, at the Bow & Arrow at three in the morning; it was an expression that used to enliven the features of the math major from Lowell House after I let him beat me at pool.
“Love me,” the man said.
I laughed. “I’m not sure that’s what you need.”
“Please,” he said, his voice quiet. “I haven’t loved someone in so long.”
I believed him. I thought of myself as liberated, and open-minded, and I had been with different kinds of people. That was part of my freedom, my awakening. I had learned to use my body as a gift. But there was a line I wouldn’t cross, and it was miles away from that boathouse. Which he must have known.
“Then just let me look at you,” he said, and I thought, well, what would be the harm in that? It was dark in the boathouse, cooler than it had been outside. In a way, it was like being underwater. I remember thinking to myself: This isn’t my real life.
I began to unbutton my shirt. The man’s gaze was grateful, humble. It wasn’t greedy. Perhaps he didn’t know what to do; while I undid my button-fly, he continued to stare at my face. I wished I’d been wearing some nice lingerie, the green silk set or the pretty beige bra with red roses on it. Instead I had on a plain, utilitarian bra—my everyday bra. I unhooked it, feeling as insubstantial as air. I stood before him in my white cotton underwear, my arms at my sides. That’s the thing, oddly, that I remember most: the feeling of my arms just hanging there. Beneath us, above us, I could hear the faint murmuring of the river. The river was all around us; we were enwombed.
I knew something was wrong before it registered what it was. The man’s chest was heaving. I panicked and grabbed my shirt—I was worried he was having some sort of attack. Then I realized. He was crying.
“Because I was different, I thought maybe I was from another world,” he said. His face was contorted with tears. He covered it with his hand, his fingers splayed, sobbing.
“Maybe you are,” I said. “Maybe we all are.”
I put my clothes back on quickly, slipping my feet into my jeans, catching a toe on the rip in one knee. My philosophy class would be starting in ten minutes. My friends and I considered ourselves to be rookie intellectuals. We wanted to figure things out for ourselves, to be daring and adventurous, not to live by anyone else’s rules or morals. But I knew, even then, that I would never tell anyone what I’d done.
The semester wound down uneventfully. I declared a major, then switched, then switched again. I didn’t know what I wanted; I couldn’t tell what life was really about—deep down, under the cerulean surface. Looking back, I see that year as the calm before the storm. The following year would bring the massacre in Tiananmen Square, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of Apartheid. The genuine acts of courage and defiance were yet to come. For the rest of that semester, I stared out a lot of windows, and read books on the damp grass, and played Ultimate Frisbee with my friends.
I spent a lot of time outdoors. But I never ate lunch by the boathouse again. Yet I never forgot the man. I thought of him every time I saw the first broken buds of spring, or smelled old newspaper, or heard the plaintive song of the river rise up from the banks, through the gated courtyard, under the door, and into my room.
Alethea Black was born in Boston and graduated from Harvard in 1991. Her first short story was published in 2007, and since then her work has appeared in numerous magazines, including The Kenyon Review, The Antioch Review, and Narrative; has won first place in competitions judged by Joan Silber and ZZ Packer; and has been cited as distinguished in The Best American Short Stories. She was awarded the 2008 Arts & Letters Prize. Her debut collection of short stories, I Knew You’d Be Lovely, is forthcoming from Broadway Books (Random House) on June 7, 2011 – which also happens to be her birthday.
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