The Labyrinth

By Steven Arnett All Rights Reserved ©

Other / Thriller

Chapter 10

It was that easy. I had that feeling you get when you don’t want to hurt someone about something, but when it’s over and it turns out you didn’t, you somehow feel disappointed. You realize you don’t mean as much to someone as you thought you did, and your ego balloon bursts. I thought that she must really believe in her Indian philosophy and Thoreau after all. I couldn’t think of a thing more to say to her. After a few minutes, Heather got up and took a lantern and went outside. I heard the rain and the lantern swinging as she went out, then just the fire and the patter of rain on the roof. I went to the window, but Heather was already out of sight. I went outside. The rain wasn’t coming down as hard as I’d thought it would be, but I could smell the wetness of the pine woods. The clouds were churning, and in one corner of the sky the moon was an eerie patch of yellow behind a cloud, like a wafer dissolving.

I went back inside and started packing, feeling as rootless as a speck of dust in the air. I finished quickly, then lay back on the sofa and stared at the boards on the ceiling, wondering where Heather had gone. I wanted to say to tell her things that were just coming to me, and I wouldn’t feel right until I said them. I actually would almost have preferred a loud, bitter parting, with the sense of finality that would have come with it. I finally got up and got the last bottle of wine we had and started drinking. Then I took down Heather’s copy of the Bhagavhad-Gita, to see what consolation, or what hope, I could find in it. I read for a while but didn’t get anything out of it. It seemed so strange to me, so far removed from anything I knew or could relate to.

When I finished the wine, Heather still hadn’t come back. It was raining harder. I went to the window but could hardly see anything but rain dripping down the glass. I opened the door, but saw only fog and rain in the dark firs. I called out to her but got no answer. Closing the door, I thought about what I should do, and finally put on a raincoat and went out. I walked out as far as I could and still see the light from the cabin, circling around it. Then I walked down the path to Turner’s Pond, which I knew so well I could have followed it even without a lantern. I passed my lantern over the water, but there was no sign of her, only raindrops and the stirring of the water in the wind. I called for her again and again got no answer. The song “Raindrops” by Dee Clark came into my mind. Though I felt frustrated and was worried as hell, I really didn’t know what else I could do, so I went back to the cabin. I hated to even consider what might have happened to Heather. There was nowhere she could have gone and got out of the rain and cold, at least not without walking half the night. I paced around the cabin, looked out the windows, opened the door occasionally to look out. I felt like laughing bitterly at myself. I should have known I’d never be able to pull off leaving Heather smoothly.

Time went by excruciatingly slowly, so that the ticking of the clock seemed to slow down and almost to stop. Then the rain let up and almost ended. I remembered Heather telling me how she’d tried to commit suicide when she was fifteen, and I wondered if…then I imagined myself trying to explain to the police why I thought she’d killed herself, while they stared right through me. It seemed like I heard nothing and thought nothing for a long time, until I heard the clasp on the door and Heather came inside. She was dripping wet and shivering. But a trace of defiance and triumph was still in her eyes, and she almost seemed to be smiling.

“What are you staring at?” she said. “I was just out for a walk.”

I got a towel and handed it to her, but she held it for a moment like she didn’t know what to do with it. Then she started drying her face and her hair.

“While you change into something dry, I’ll make you some soup or hot chocolate if you want me to.”

“I really don’t give a damn what you do,” and went into the bedroom.

When she came out again, with dry clothes on, I had some vegetable soup and a glass of milk ready for her. I had them laid out on the kitchen table for her, but she just looked at them scornfully and lay down on the sofa. I went and stood by her.

“You left before I had a chance to say everything I wanted to say.”

“But I’ve heard everything I wanted to hear you say.”

“I’m not leaving here because of you. I’m leaving here because of me. I can only stay in any one place so long. Something happened to me years ago that made it impossible for me to ever settle down into a normal life. It doesn’t matter who I’m with. I really wasn’t cut out for this anyway. When you come right down to it, I’m a city boy.”

“Nice of you to tell me that now.”

We looked at each other like we were trying to stare each other down, but then the looks softened.

“It doesn’t really matter,” Heather said. “I love you, but I don’t need you or anyone else to hold me up. I can be completely on my own. In a little while, it won’t bother me that you’re not here anymore. I have a lot of other things to console me.”

“I’m glad that it’ll be that easy for you. And thanks for bringing me up here. I’m glad I learned what it’s like to live this way. I really am.”

“Now you can go tell everybody how fucked up it is.”

“You know that’s not what I meant.”

She got up and went into the bedroom. I looked over at the soup, but just left it there. I put a couple of logs on the fire and poked it to get it going better. Embers shot off to the side and ashes drifted up the chimney, and the smell of the wood burning was pleasant. I felt better. For a while I sat in front of the fire, then got out some blankets and a cushion and made myself as good a bed as I could on the sofa. I thought back on all that had happened to me since I’d left Michigan, then about things that had happened before then, little things that didn’t seem important at the time but later seemed to make all the difference, trying to account for and justify my life, trying to find some scrap of “meaning” in it. I imagined looking in a mirror and the mirror image shaking its head and then laughing, as if to taunt me, and the laughter echoing over and over. One moment I felt like laughing, another I was in free fall down a bottomless pit, another I was filled with vague wonder. Slowly I fell asleep, slowly, like the fire I could see from where I lay burned out, slowly like the sand falls in the invisible hourglass that’s turned up only once, that’s always emptying silently beside us, and which if it could make a face, would have an everlasting sardonic grin.

Ed Carey isn’t the kind of guy who could stay out of trouble very long, and he didn’t. He was one of the first guys in our school who dropped acid and he was the first I knew who ever got arrested for it. It happened about 6 months after the murder. The cops pulled him over for something, and he had enough hits of LSD in the car that he could have been a dealer, and that’s what they nailed him for. He went to prison this time, not juvenile home, and after that I didn’t see him for a year or so, although I still thought about him all the time. I really wanted to go visit him sometime or at least write him a letter, but I didn’t dare. When he did get out he didn’t come back to school. He never got a job anywhere either as far as I knew, and he didn’t hang around town very long. I only saw him a few times and only once did I actually pass by him on the street: He still acted like he didn’t know me. Then he disappeared one day and no one seemed to know where he’d gone or if he’d ever come back.

It was a good day to be back, at least until the memory came back that would always ruin everything for me. The sun was shining, and the only clouds were white and scattered and made the sky look milder than if they weren’t there at all. A light wind blew through the leaves, and you could hear birds singing in them above the footsteps and conversation of people walking on campus. Now that I was done registering for classes, I wanted to walk across the campus and try to get a feel for what it was like now.

I was on the walkway that runs along the Red Cedar River, having just come from the Intramural Building where I’d registered. The atmosphere on campus was light years different than when I’d left two years beforehand, and I’d felt it almost the first hour I was back. The students weren’t as political and as serious as they’d been before. A lot of the guys had long hair and the way people dressed was as casual as ever—the kind of formal dressing there was before the 60’s would never come back—but there was nothing political in it anymore. More students seemed happy and into their own worlds, and I hardly saw any post bills announcing rallies or speeches by radicals. For a while I didn’t see anyone I knew either, so in a way I felt like I was starting over. I watched people carefully, and finally I ran into someone I’d known well enough before that I really had to stop and talk with him, even though I pretended at first that I didn’t see him. It was Sherm Cody, who’d lived down the hall from me when I’d lived at McDonel Hall.

“Well, look who’s back,” he said. “Finally decided you couldn’t beat college life, eh?”

“Something like that.”

“You living back in McDonel?”

“Hell no. That was too much like Peyton Place. I’m living in a house.”

“I’m not living there any more either. I’m living out at the Sig Eps house. It’s one party after another out there. You wouldn’t believe our social calendar.”

“Sounds good. I’d better go now. I’ve got a hell of a lot to do today.”

“Right-o. Drop by the frat house some time and we’ll guzzle down some brews. There’s almost always some gorgeous chicks hanging around.”

“Sure, man. Take it easy.”

There was no way I’d ever stop to see him, and he probably didn’t want me to anyway. He was probably just trying to impress me. Fortunately, I didn’t see anyone else I knew before I came to my favorite spot on the river, the rapids across from the administration building. It felt funny being there again, and I smiled a little when I thought about all the time I’d spent there, thinking about whatever woman of the hour or wondering what in the hell I wanted out of life or just watching people. I sat down where I always used to sit, close to the water, and looked across the river. A broad lawn was between the administration building and the river. Several couples were sitting there, talking, and one couple kissed and then smiled at each other. A couple of guys lying with books by their side looked like they were sleeping, and a few others, men and women, were sitting alone, and I supposed they were daydreaming or nursing some secret wound. Standing, with bright, condescending looks and out of style sport coats that gave them away as being professors, were a couple of middle-aged men. A golden retriever was running around with a stick in its mouth, and a small boy was holding up a balloon and eating a candy bar.

I recalled what had happened when I’d come home. My mother and been surprised and mad, and seemed not quite sure whether she should kick me out of the house or hug me. But she made it clear that she was mad as hell about the way I’d just taken off and not let anyone know where I was while I was gone. I hadn’t written or called the whole time. “You could have been dead for all we knew,” she told me about twenty times. My father was a little easier to take. He was probably more aware than my mom was that there was nothing they could do to change me. He shook hands with me and said he was glad to have me back, but he was pretty unhappy with me, too. What made it worse was that I wasn’t really glad to be home and I wasn’t glad to see them. I had to put on an act and felt funny about it, and I couldn’t tell whether they knew I was faking it or not. The only person who seemed entirely glad to see me was my sister Connie, who hugged me like she never wanted to let me go and started crying. But I felt just as uncomfortable about that as I had about the way my parents had acted. Before I left again, though, which was after a couple of weeks, I couldn’t tell that things were much different at home than they’d been before I’d left.

I was looking across the river again when someone behind me said, “Well, hello there, stranger. What are you doing back here?” I recognized Lee Ravelli’s voice, and I turned around. “I never thought I’d see you again.”

“I decided to come back and finish up after all,” I said. She nodded her head thoughtfully. “I thought you would have been done long before this.”

“I should have. But Tony and I got divorced and I had to go back to work. He ran off with a nineteen year old barmaid,” with a faint suggestion of amusement. “I quit for a while when things were really bad at home, but now I’m back going part-time. I’ve just got a couple more classes to go. I’ve been studying for my orals, and I’m working as a legal secretary, ironically,” and she laughed, but her laugh wasn’t as robust any more. “I’m not doing so bad. I got the house and the car.”

I tried to measure how much Lee had changed. She wasn’t as boisterous as she’d been before, and seemed more thoughtful. The brassy edge that had been in her voice was gone. She looked older.

“We ought to get together some time,” she said. “We could have an interesting talk.”

“I’d like that.”

I imagined us sitting in her elegant living room, sipping on tea in china cups, talking dryly. I smiled a little, because it was so different from the way we’d been before.

“I guess I’d better run along. I’ve got some research on Donne to do over at the library. Let’s keep in touch,” though she hadn’t given me her address or phone number.

“Sure.”

I watched her walk away, and I half felt sorry for her. Some funny things we’d done together came back to me, but now they seemed tinged with sadness. Lee disappeared into the crowd, and I got up to leave.

I moved into a rambling wooden house that was dull green, on a little rise about a ten minute walk from campus. It didn’t have any character, really. It just looked tired and worn out from the dozens of students who must have lived there since the last family had moved out. The landlord didn’t make any real attempt to keep it up. The lawn was weedy and scraggly, and the only landscaping left was some scrawny cedar shrubs near the house, and a few old oak trees.

Before I moved in, I didn’t know any of the people I lived with—I’d just answered a classified ad in the Michigan State News. One other guy was living there and two women. We each had our own bedrooms but shared the rest of the place. I’d got a good impression of them when I’d come to check the place out. They’d seemed like mellow, laid back people who’d be easy to get along with. I didn’t think I’d have to worry about them getting on my nerves.

The Friday after I moved in I went to a party with Vanessa Grey and Paul Koski from the house. It was a big party in a house where music, mostly rock, played without letup, like the house was really just a big music box. People were dancing and talking, laughing and drinking beer from a keg. In other words, it was a pretty ordinary college party, except for one thing—that’s where I met Jenna McAllister.

As soon as I arrived at the party I noticed her, because she was someone you couldn’t miss. If nothing else, you had to notice her hair. It was black and fairly long, and so thick and lustrous that it seemed to have a life of its own. Almost every guy she talked to told her it was beautiful, but she turned all their compliments away with some smart remark like, “I’m actually bald. This is just a wig I picked up at K-Mart this afternoon,” or “It’s actually the nest of a bird-of-paradise.” Her skin was strikingly white in contrast to her hair, and the only part of her face that wasn’t well formed was her nose, which was somewhat too big to fit the rest of her features. But you had to be pretty picky to even notice that.

I’d noticed that she’d talked to a lot of different guys at the party, and danced with some, but that none seemed to get anywhere with her. Many were obviously trying to pick her up, and she seemed to enjoy the attention, but she kept them all at arm’s length. I got the impression she enjoyed sending them all away frustrated, like a 1972 version of Scarlett O’Hara. Finally, when she wasn’t holding court with anyone at the moment, I thought I’d try what appeared to be impossible. I’d had enough beer that I was pretty loosened up, and I was amused by the idea of the challenge. I asked her to dance.

“Sure,” she said, with a look that I thought said, Well, here’s another victim.

We danced to “Jumping Jack Flash,” and then to a couple more songs. She was a good dancer and seemed completely at ease. A couple of times we looked into each other’s eyes and smiled, but didn’t say much. Her eyes struck me more than anything else about her. Big, almond-shaped and brown, they showed pertness and self-confidence, and I imagined I saw in them a certain innocence and a love of the unexpected that all her smart remarks couldn’t erase. They shined with little stars when light fell on them, and even if your heart was made out of brick, she could have softened it up just looking into your eyes. I thought she must be intrigued by me because she danced with me longer than she had with anyone else. When a slow song came on—“Are You Ready” by Barbara Mason—I got a better chance to talk to her.

“By the way, my name is John,” I said.

“Oh yeah? That’s a unique name. You don’t hear that one very often. It’s called Ian in England, you know. My name is Jenna McAllister.”

“Jenna,” with an inquisitive look. “That’s the name of a city in Italy, isn’t it?”

“No, no, dummy. That’s Gen-o-a. I’m Jenna without the 0.”

“Oh,” drawing out the word, smiling, obviously pretending I didn’t know the difference. I could hardly believe that someone I’d just met was being such a smart ass with me. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Jenna.”

“The pleasure’s all mine.”

“You’re a pretty good dancer, you know.”

“Thanks. You’re not too bad, either. Except when you step on my feet.”

“What?” amused. “I haven’t stepped on your feet. You must be crazy or something.”

“So I’ve been told,” laughing. “I was just kiddin’ ya.”

She winked and then put her head on my shoulder. When the song ended Jenna said she wanted to sit down, so we went to sit together on a sofa. I thought I had it made with her by this time. But after we’d talked a minute, she said she wanted to get another drink and got up. On her way back, some guy stopped her to talk, and she seemed to forget me completely. She didn’t even look over at me again. I felt like a clown and thought I deserved to have everyone laugh at me for having got so smug about Jenna. By the time another song started playing, I realized I was in the same boat with all the other guys who’d tried to pick her up at the party, and that she wasn’t going to come back to me. She’d just strung me out a little longer, that’s all. I’d gone through an adolescent charade for nothing. I ended up asking Vanessa to dance.

“You seem bummed out about something,” she said as we danced.

“Oh yeah? You certainly look happy enough.”

“Paul and I just smoked another joint. I’m floating. These drunks seem funny to me. They seem like paper dolls, doing stupid things. Even your eyes don’t seem quite right to me.”

“That’s because they’re made out of glass.”

“They’re made out of grass? Well, you’d better watch it then or I’ll smoke them, then you’ll really be in trouble,” laughing.

I was beginning to think I should concentrate on Vanessa and forget about Jenna. She was definitely interesting. Her eyes were so dark they were almost black, and they had in them a vague, cool laughter, like there wasn’t anything in the world she could quite take seriously. Her hair was a perfect contrast to her eyes, a beautiful honey blonde, and fell straight to the middle of her back. Her features were voluptuous and sensual. Her lips were like overripe grapes. I had to remind myself that I didn’t want to get involved with the women at the house.

“You should have got high with us. Obviously you need it.” She put her hand on my side and tickled me. I laughed a little. “Thank me, you needed that. You were looking too serious.”

“I’m surprised you’d want to waste your time on a paper doll.”

“You aren’t a paper doll. Just the others. At least I don’t think so,” and she pinched me on the ass. “No, you’re definitely real,” laughing. “I’ve got one more joint. You want to smoke it with me?”

“I think it’s just what I need.”

“Let’s go outside.”

The sky was mostly clear, but there were a few clouds here and there, and the tail end of one made a gauzy haze over the moon. It was so much quieter outside than it was at the party, that every rustling of leaves, every footstep seemed to stand out. Vanessa lit the joint and we walked down the street.

“Where is everyone?” she said.

“Maybe everyone’s gone to the moon, like the song says.”

“I don’t see how there’d be room. Just look at how small it is.”

“I understand it gets bigger as you get closer.”

“Oh yeah?”

“I’ve also heard there’s better pot up there than there is down here. The plants are gold and they’re as big as trees are here. That’s why the moon’s gold.”

“So that’s it. I think I’ll call up NASA tomorrow and volunteer to be the first woman astronaut.”

“After you tell them how much you like to get ‘high,’ they’ll probably be glad to have you.”

“I bet they will.”

We came to a house with no lights on and sat on the lawn. For a while we didn’t talk. We passed the joint back and forth between tokes and listened to the wind, to the faint sound of party music from somewhere, to a car going by on another street. A small group of people walked by, talking merrily and passing around a bottle.

“There’s something wrong with the stars,” Vanessa said. “They’re moving very strangely. I think there’s a conspiracy going on up there!”

“You’re starting to sound like Nixon. I suppose you think all the stars are out to get you, right?”

“Aren’t they?” laughing. “It seemed like they were all going to become shooting stars and crash into the earth. That’s what I get for smoking this crazy weed.”

“Then we’re both in the same boat, or some stupid thing like that.”

“A boat on a river, with tangerine trees and marmalade skies?”

“Either that or a slow boat to the Land of Oz.”

We lay on our backs on the grass. I watched the stars, and thought of Jenna again. Vanessa turned onto her side, toward me.

“I’m glad you moved in with us,” she said. “Sometime, I’d like to sit down with you and have a long talk and find out all about you. I like to know where the people I’m living with are coming from, if you know what I mean.”

“Sure. Anytime you want,” but with a little smile like I didn’t believe we’d ever really do it.

When we got back to the party a little later, the first thing I did was look around for Jenna. When I saw that she was still there, I was relieved, even though it pissed me off to think that I was. After the way she’d given me the brush, I had no intention of talking to her again. But I’d hoped that my going off with Vanessa would pique her interest a little, that it would bother her that anyone could forget her so easily and go off with someone else, that she’d really rather have had me spend the rest of the party moping around wishing I was with her. I thought she would look at this as a small blow to her ego that had to be made right. And I was right. Before long she came over and grabbed me by the arm. I’d pretended I hadn’t seen her coming, and that I was surprised she was still there.

“Hi, John. I’m glad you came back to the party. I meant to get back to you before.” She looked at me sweetly enough to make me melt—she had a face and a smile that could show sarcasm one moment and perfect innocence the next, as suited the situation—but I still thought I could detect in her eyes the slightest trace of insincerity. “But someone practically twisted my arm and said there was something he absolutely had to tell me. Then before I knew it, you were gone.”

I almost laughed. I could hardly believe she was trying to put the blame on me.

“Well, thankfully, he was able to talk to you and America was saved.”

She smiled a little despite herself.

“A wise guy, eh? I don’t know about you.”

“Just think the worst and you’ll probably be right.”

“Do you wanna dance?”

“If you insist.”

“Eight Days a Week” was playing, so we danced fast, but the next song was “Love Can Make You Happy” by Mercy, so we put our arms around each other and danced slow.

“Where are you from, anyway?” Jenna said, seeming lost for words all of a sudden.

“Khartoum, in the Sudan,” I said.

“You look pretty funny for someone who comes from there. What happened to your accent?”

“I left it in San Francisco.”

“I thought that’s where people are supposed to leave their hearts?”

“I don’t have one, so I left my accent instead.”

“That’s a likely story.”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m an innocent farm girl from Elkton, up in the Thumb.” The Michigan Thumb, she meant.

“I’ll believe the second part of that anyway.”

“Better watch it, boy, or I’ll step on your feet.”

“Those dainty little feet couldn’t hurt me.” She lifted her foot up like she was going to smash it down hard on mine. “Just kidding, just kidding,” laughing. We went on and on like that. I felt like I was dancing with Joan Rivers or something. Most of the songs were slow now, so we were usually close together, and I was happy as a kid with a new toy.

By two o’clock or so most of the people had left the party, but four or five couples were still dancing. Clouds of cigarette smoke hung in the air and there was disconnected talk and laughter. Jenna and I sat down and talked, but in a little while the friends she’d come with wanted to go, and she decided to go with them. We went outside, stopping about half way across the lawn while her friends went on and got into their car.

“It was really nice to meet you,” she said.

“It was nice to meet you, too,” and I smiled a little because that sounded so dumb. We were silent a moment and Jenna looked inquisitive.

“Would you like to go out next Friday?” I blurted out, finally. But that didn’t sound right, because formal dating was pretty much passé then, and because next Friday seemed so far away.

“I can’t, John. I already have something going that night.”

“How about Saturday then?”

“I can’t then, either.”

I looked skeptical.

“Don’t worry. We’ll see each other again.” She opened her purse and searched through it. She found a napkin and a pen and wrote her name and phone number on it and handed it to me. “Here. Call me, OK?” I must have seemed like I needed more convincing. “Please?”

“Sure.” She took my head in her hands and kissed me. We held each other tightly. A honk and then laughter came from her friends’ car.

“Gotta go now. My friends’ll come and drag me by the hair if I don’t.”

“That I’d like to see.”

Jenna waved just before she got in the car, leaving me standing there wondering, doubting. Her elusiveness made her strangely irresistible, but I couldn’t help but wonder if it wasn’t an act, something she put on time after time just so that she could laugh at the men she kept dancing on a string. Still, she was a mystery that I knew I’d try to unravel.

When I got back to the house Vanessa was lying on the sofa with her eyes closed and her head on a cushion. Led Zeppelin’s first album was playing on the stereo. Paul and Roxanne were either in bed or still out. Sweetly and faintly the air smelled of marijuana. I stood by Vanessa and in a moment she opened her eyes and smiled at me.

“Hi, John.”

“Hi. I didn’t know whether I should say anything. I didn’t know whether you were crashing or just getting into the music.”

“I’m not entirely sure either. I’m still pretty damn high.” She sat up. “Sit down,” hitting her hand a couple of times on a sofa cushion. “How did the party end up?”

“OK.”

“I’m not sure what time I left. It couldn’t have been too long before you, though, because I’ve only smoked two joints since I got back,” with a look like she was putting me on.

“You must have just got back then.” She’d actually left at least a couple of hours before I had.

“I think I’ll cool it on the dope for the rest of the night. I’ve got a bad case of the munchies as it is. Want to go out to the kitchen with me to get something to eat?”

Getting things out of the refrigerator we got tangled up together because we were both pretty messed up, but it only made us laugh, and we still managed to get out rye bread, ham and cheese, mustard, and a bottle of wine. We stood at the counter by the sink as we made sandwiches, touching and rubbing up against each other, and joking.

When we were done eating, we went back into the living room with the bottle of wine. Vanessa put on a Jefferson Airplane album, but so low that I didn’t notice it much more than I notice the Muzak at K-Mart. We sat on the sofa. I felt good now but was getting tired.

“You know that woman you were trying to pick up at the party?” Vanessa said.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” with a sly smile.

“You know, of course, that I’m talking about Jenna McAllister.”

“Well, what if I do, so what?”

“I’ll bet you think she’s perfect for you, don’t you? Beautiful, charming, a great sense of humor. The kind you could imagine yourself making pancakes with on Sunday morning, right?”

“I don’t know. I just met her tonight, so I wasn’t really thinkin’ that far ahead.”

“Well, let me tell you, you’ll really be sorry if you get involved with her. I’ve seen at least ten guys make absolute idiots out of themselves over her, and none of them got anywhere with her.”

“How do you know how far they got with her?”

“Word got around. They talked about it. She’s very good at making a man think she’s crazy about him when she doesn’t give a damn. She really seems to enjoy it. I went to high school with her. At that party there were a bunch of us who went to the same high school. That’s how I got invited. But Jenna and I aren’t friends any more. None of the women from back home would have invited her to a party. They all hate her. The guys who live there just wanted to have the gorgeous Jenna McAllister to show off to their friends, but back in Elkton most of the guys ended up hating her as much as the girls did.”

“What could she have done that’s so bad?”

“It would take hours for me to explain. Just take my word for it. She’s got a cruel streak that runs right through her, and somehow it seems more cruel because she’s so beautiful. It’s funny, she has this angel of a roommate. A Jesus freak, of all things. Her name is even Angela,” laughing. “As in angel. Get it? It’s too much. It’s too perfect. The only thing I can figure is that no one but an angel could stand to live with her, no one but an angel wouldn’t be a threat to her.”

“I think you’re all just jealous.” I had a sudden perverse desire to rile Vanessa up.

“Hardly. But I like you. I think you’re a nice guy. I’d hate to see you get ripped off by her.”

“Let’s get a couple of things straight. First of all, I’m not a nice guy, not even close. And I think I can handle this situation just fine. Even at my tender age I have a certain amount of experience in these matters. Besides, now you’ve got me so intrigued I can’t wait to get to know Jenna better.”

Looking deeply into my eyes, Vanessa brought her hand up and stroked the side of my head, letting her hand rest on my neck.

“Maybe that won’t be necessary,” she said. Then she kissed me and we lay down on the sofa.

We kissed for a while, but that’s as far as things went. I just wasn’t that interested in her, and she didn’t seem to be in the mood to drag me into bed. We talked for a while, then went up to our rooms.

Everything that Jenna and I had said to each other I went over and over, and tried to get as clear a picture in my mind as I could of what she looked like. I wondered whether anything she’d said to me was believable. Because there was a light, almost comic touch to most of the things she’d said and because of the way she’d looked at me, I couldn’t be sure. I imagined her sitting in front of a mirror for hours practicing until she got just that look on her face so she didn’t give anything away, then smiling like she just couldn’t be more pleased with herself. But I reminded myself I didn’t want to get involved with her or with anyone else if it looked like I might be in danger of breaking my cardinal rule not to make any commitments, and it would surely be in serious danger if I got very deeply involved with Jenna McAllister. So I told myself that I’d really be better off with Vanessa, and I put Jenna out of my mind. I imagined myself in bed with Vanessa, in her bed, a fancy four-poster that seemed made for fantasy. But quickly and uneasily that fantasy ended, like one dream fades into another at night, and Jenna was on my mind again. I remembered us holding our fingertips together, looking at her hand and the three rings she had on, two of them gold and heavily inlaid with patterns and the other a jade stone set in gold, moving my eyes down her hand and arm and then up to her eyes again and how we’d laughed. But now I laughed at myself for what I thought was a foolish desire. I laughed so hard I thought I might fall out of the bed or wake up the whole house. My thoughts kept going around in circles, and I lost all track of time, until the sun came up and I finally fell asleep.

A few days later I called Jenna. I decided that the only way I’d ever get rid of the fantasy I’d weaved around her would be to see her again, when I expected to find that she was much more ordinary than I’d built her up to be. But she was never home when I called, and when I left a message with her roommate for her to call me she didn’t call back, so I became pretty disgusted. I might as well have been trying to get hold of Bridgette Bardot. I decided if she was that busy all the time I was just wasting my time, so I stopped calling. I didn’t see any way I could talk to her again short of camping out on her doorstep, and could see that trying to get anywhere with her was sheer madness. So Vanessa was right after all, I thought. Meeting Jenna had just left a bad taste in my mouth, and I felt even more isolated than usual.

Then one afternoon as I was walking home after a class I saw Jenna sitting alone in the horticultural gardens. It was an Indian summer day, after it had already been cool for a while, a day so warm that it took everyone by surprise. She was sitting with her legs crossed and her head resting on her hand reading a book. She’d picked a flower and put in her hair. I came up behind her.

“Well, if it isn’t the elusive Jenna McAllister,” I said. She turned her head around and seemed pleased to see me and not at all disconcerted.

“Fancy meeting you here. I was hoping someone interesting would come along so I’d have an excuse to quit studying.”

“Is that so.”

“All I was really doing was daydreaming anyway. It doesn’t take much to set me off. All I need, say, is a flower.” She leaned over and pretended to pick a flower and hold it in front of her. “I can imagine it’s a face, and then try to imagine what kind of face it is, a happy face or a proud face or whatever, and that can easily lead me to daydreaming about something else, and before you know it, I haven’t got a thing done,” laughing. She broke off the stem of the imaginary flower and put it in one of my button holes. “There, it looks quite good on you, and now you could dine with a king.”

“I’d rather dine with a queen.”

“Your flower doesn’t look like a happy face any more. I’ll bet it would like to go back where it was before you sat down.” She pretended to take the flower out of my buttonhole and put it back on a stalk.

“You’re crazy, you know that?”

“No crazier than the average psycho.”

I looked into Jenna’s eyes, but she was as inscrutable to me as ever, and she smiled as if she knew just what I was thinking.

“You’re a hard person to read,” I said. “I don’t have the slightest idea what you really think or feel about anything.”

I remembered just then how Heather had once said almost the same thing about me.

“Maybe you’re just not trying hard enough.”

I was about to reply to her but hesitated because I was afraid I might give away how much I’d been thinking about her, and then she said, “You want to go for a walk? I’ve sat here long enough.”

“Sure, why not? It may be the last time I ever see you.” She gave me a look that was half amused and half embarrassed.

We walked down to the Red Cedar River and then along the river back to Beal Garden. Jenna teased me, and gave me looks that seemed to indicate she was just tickled that we were together again. I wasn’t about to trust any looks or any words from her, though. We looked up at a crow cawing as it flew out of a tree, and laughed at some of the strange people who walked by us. Whenever a gust of wind came up, leaves drifted down from the trees, and when a leaf landed in Jenna’s hair, she did a funny dance until it fell out. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. I listened to every word she said, dreamed that I could be locked in a room with her forever. We were both freaks, and I thought we were perfect for each other.

When we got to Beal Garden, we sat on the grass. Jenna lay on her back and looked up at the sky and then over at me.

“If you could be a bird, what kind would you want to be?” she said.

I thought for a moment.

“An ostrich. They’re big enough to scare people, and I could bury my head in the sand when I couldn’t stand what was going on around me anymore.”

“But you’d be ugly,” laughing.

“All the better. I could scare people that much more. I’m not sure beauty is such an advantage anyway. It didn’t help the snowy egrets any.”

“Oh yeah? What happened to them?”

“They have beautiful white feathers, and almost all of them were killed so that ugly old ladies in London and Paris could have beautiful plumes to wear in their hats. They were almost extinct at one time.”

“I’d like to be a dove. No one wants to kill them. They’re beautiful and they symbolize peace. I can imagine myself as a white dove, floating peacefully high in the air, looking down at the cities and the farms, and at all the foolishness going on down below, knowing I wasn’t a part of it.

“That’s really no different than being an ostrich. It’s just a more romantic escape.”

She sat up. “Maybe it is. I’m actually much more vulnerable than you probably think. And I have plenty of escape fantasies. I can imagine myself as the sun, keeping everyone warm,” making a circle with her arms over her head, or like a hawk swooping down on my prey,” making her arms like wings and her hands like claws. She bent her body in an arc like she was going to swoop down and grabbed me by the shoulders.

“You really should be on a stage,” I said.

“You think I belong in a cage?” furrowing her brow.

“No,” laughing. “You hawks must be hard of hearing.”

“We don’t have to hear well, because we can see better than anyone else. So there.”

Jenna stood up and I did, too.

“Well, guess I’d better go now,” she said. “I’ve gotta lot to do tonight.” She looked at me thoughtfully. “Call me, OK?

I gave her a skeptical, amused look.

“I’ll try. You’re about as easy to get a hold of as Bridgette Bardot,” going back to my earlier thought.

The comparison seemed to please her.

“I like you. It’s an absolute must that we keep in touch.”

After I watched Jenna walk up the steps of the garden and out of sight, I sat down on one of the benches by the little pond. I felt half in love and half angry, and I didn’t know what to make of her. I couldn’t get her out of my mind, but I could see I was headed for big trouble if I got involved with her. All the bad signs were there. Still, if she were laying a trap for me, I knew now I was going to fall right into it, because I just couldn’t let her go.

A few days later, Jenna and I went out together to see Casablanca. But nothing really special happened. The electric sparks I expected us to generate—or should I say jennarate?—never materialized. She seemed to want to keep a certain distance between us. Jenna loved the movie, and later we laughed while we talked over a carafe of wine at The Olde Worlde Bread & Ale, but the night ended with a whimper, not a bang, and I was disappointed, at least.

Surprisingly, though, the next time I called Jenna she was home. We had a long talk, and laughed a lot, and the feeling between us, I thought, was as good as I could have hoped. But a couple of nights later when I was walking on campus I ran into Jenna with someone else. Before she saw me I saw them laughing and Jenna holding onto his arm. I started to cross the street to get away from them so that she wouldn’t see me, but she saw me before I could get away and called me over. I could tell she was embarrassed, but she tried to smooth things over by pretending that nothing about the situation was awkward. She introduced me to her date—his name was Neil Cochran—or whatever he was, and I pretended not to be upset at all, so well I that maybe she believed I really wasn’t. He was tall and strikingly handsome, and had a trim beard. He looked at least twenty-five, maybe as much as thirty, so I figured he was probably a grad student or prof. In his eyes was a look of cunning and sensuality, and I imagined that he was an expert at getting women in bed. That’s probably what he’s writing his thesis on, I thought, trying to inject some black humor into the situation. He had a cool smile and a cool manner, and looked at me in a vaguely amused way, as if he knew what the situation was between Jenna and me and was enjoying seeing me squirm. I was jealous and felt like I’d really been caught in a squeeze play, but I tried not to let it show, and after a couple of minutes of dumb, meaningless conversation, I left them. I was really bummed out, and Jenna seemed more elusive to me than ever.

It was in that mood that I walked into the house and found Vanessa doing a charcoal drawing. The drawing had a number of faces, each looking in a different direction and each expressing a different mood. Most of them showed anguish or fear, which made me think of the faces in Guernica. The scent of marijuana was in the air. Vanessa gave me a friendly look, but I looked away and went into the kitchen. I came back with a tumbler full of wine and sat on the sofa. Vanessa kept working on her drawing, and I watched carefully the smooth strokes she made with the chalk. The drawing looked almost done. A Thelonious Monk album was playing on the radio, the volume on low. In a little while Vanessa quit working and went into the kitchen to wash her hands. When she came back she rolled a joint and sat down with me. We still hadn’t spoken a word to each other. After she’d taken a toke she passed the joint to me with her legs on the sofa, so that she was looking at me in profile. I turned my head around toward her and saw in her face smugness and some amusement.

“I told you, didn’t I?” she said. “I told you but you wouldn’t listen.”

“So you were right. So what?”

She smiled.

“Stay away from her, John. If you don’t, you’ll end up moping around like this every night. You’re no match for her, you or any other guy.”

“I doubt that.”

For a moment we didn’t speak, and it was like we were trying to stare each other down.

“I didn’t really want to tell you this, but the woman you’re so infatuated with is borderline crazy. I probably know her about as well as anyone. You see, we haven’t always hated each other. When we were kids we were best friends. We were inseparable. We were the two biggest oddballs in town, and we were really the only girls in town we could relate to. Then, strangely, she turned on me. I was crazy in love with this guy—or so I thought in the extravagant way that a teenager can think they are—and she stole him away from me, then just dropped the guy like a lead balloon, or should I say like a lead zeppelin?” with a bitter smile. “Just out of nastiness, to hurt me, for no reason at all. It was just an insane thing. And when I asked her about it, the last time I ever really talked to her, she gave me the cruelest smile, the cruelest look I’ve ever seen. I’ll never forget it.

“I’m not kidding when I say she’s crazy, you know. She spent a year in a mental hospital before she started high school. Some say it was because her father raped her. She wouldn’t talk to me about it, though, and that was before our big clash. She comes from this really weird family. And they used to be even weirder, before Jenna’s mother divorced her first husband. That man she calls her father now isn’t her real father, though she never tells that to anyone. He came along after her mother kicked the first one out. Her real father was always in some kind of trouble and spent a lot of time in jail. He used to get super drunk and beat Jenna’s mother and the kids. And he was always running around with other women. He was incredibly good-looking, though. He was just about the handsomest man I’ve ever seen, even when I was just twelve years old seeing him was about enough to take my breath away. That’s where Jenna got her looks, especially her eyes and her hair. And my mother says that when he wanted to, he could charm the spots off a leopard, to use one of her quaint old expressions. In a lot of ways, she’s a mirror image of him, only much more clever and subtle.”

“What’s that say about you, that you were best friends with this supposedly insane person?”

“I was one of the strangest girls in town. But there was never really anything wrong with me. I didn’t have any conflicts that were tearing me apart. I was just naturally weird.”

I was so amazed by what she’d told me that I didn’t know what else to say. I looked away from her and just tried to take it all in. I wondered whether it was all true, or whether it was some tremendous distortion made up out of Vanessa’s hatred for Jenna.

The album stopped playing. I looked back at Vanessa and she handed me the joint again. I was starting to get a pretty good buzz.

“What’s your drawing supposed to mean?” I said. My anger was dissolving in the wine and the marijuana.

“It’s a picture of all your moods, not just the ones you show, but the ones you feel inside but are afraid to show, like when you were mad at me a little while ago.”

“I thought I showed that pretty well, actually. But I wasn’t really mad at you. I was mad at myself. It doesn’t seem to matter that much now, though.”

“We might as well just forget it then.”

Vanessa got up and put on a Dylan album and I went to the kitchen for some more wine. Then we sat back down and started smoking another joint. I felt much better now.

“I’m glad you came back when you did,” Vanessa said. “I was getting lonely. It was perfect timing.”

“It was, wasn’t it? Now we don’t have to get high alone, and when we laugh we won’t seem like such idiots.”

“Now you’re talking sense, or should I say nonsense? You heard any good jokes lately?”

“What did the horse of a different color say to the purple cow?”

“Got me.”

“Excuse me, ma’am, do you know the way to Emerald Castle?”

“Yeah?”

“I forgot the rest of it.”

She laughed weakly. “Thanks a lot. I was hoping you’d tell me something that would make me roll on the ground with laughter.”

“I’ll bet I can do that without saying a word.”

“How’s that?”

I reached over and tickled her and she laughed hard, harder than she ever would have, I suspect, if she weren’t high, and she tickled me back as I remembered Lonnie tickling me on her waterbed years before. When was I going to grow up, I wondered? Shouldn’t adults have a more sophisticated manner of becoming intimate than this? But I laughed, too, and Vanessa and I wrestled off the sofa to the middle of the floor, and kept at it until we were suddenly laughed out. We were lying on the floor. A couple of the buttons on Vanessa’s shirt had come undone.

“Now I demand to know what the purple cow replied to the horse of a different color.”

“He said, ’Excuse me, sir, but your coat of green is the silliest thing I’ve ever seen. A horse should be brown and always bow down to a cow this handsome and lean.’”

“That’s clever. And you must have just made it up.”

Vanessa put her arms around me and we kissed. She brought her hand up behind my neck and caressed it.

“You’ve practically undressed me, you know,” looking down at her half unbuttoned shirt. She wasn’t wearing a bra. “You ought to at least let me get even.” She unbuttoned my shirt all the way down.

“I’d hardly call that getting even.” I unbuttoned her shirt the rest of the way down. “Now we’re even.”

We put our arms inside each other’s shirts and kissed for a while.

“We’re going to feel awfully stupid if Paul or Roxie walks in on us like this,” Vanessa said. “Let’s take the wine and go upstairs.”

As we walked upstairs I felt like laughing at how strange it seemed, at how differently everything always turns out than you think it will. The last thing I expected when I woke up that morning was that by that night I’d end up giving up on Jenna and in bed with Vanessa.

We got undressed in violet light, and got in bed and made love. She was a great lover and we both really got into it, so for a while I was able to forget everything else. Afterward, we sat up and smoked a joint and sipped on wine.

“I had this idea I wouldn’t get involved with any of the women in the house,” I said. “That’s kind of out the window now, isn’t it?”

“That does appear to be the case,” with a sly smile. “Does it bother you?”

“Well, I was just thinking, if one of us does something the other doesn’t like, some hard feelings could develop. I’d hate to have us run into each other on the stairs and scowl or look away like we don’t know each other. It could make it real uncomfortable living here.”

“Don’t worry about that, because with me there are no strings. It’s much easier that way, because then there are no hard feelings. So if you pass me on the stairs and I look at you like the Wicked Witch of the North, it’ll probably be because I partied too hard the night before, not because I’m mad or jealous or on some trip like that.”

“I’ve heard people say that before, but they never stuck to it.”

“Just watch me.” She pulled me closer and we kissed. I still didn’t believe her, but I wasn’t going to worry about it for the moment.

“Sometimes I think I ought to put a stereo in here,” Vanessa said. “That’s the one thing the room lacks. No setting is quite complete without music.”

“You’ve watched too many movies.”

“Maybe. But I want my life to be colorful and dramatic, like a good movie. I can’t imagine myself as a housewife, drudging around howling babies and changing diapers. Living in the suburbs married to some creepy traveling salesman or dentist. I’d probably commit suicide. It would ruin me. I’m going to live the life of an artist, and make every day count.”

“Good luck.”

“How about some music?” Vanessa said. She sang, “I’m in the mood for love, simply because I’m horny. Just because my horns are up to the ceiling, I’m in the mood for love.”

“Nice tune,” I said, smiling, “but the words don’t fit very well.”

“Think my singing’s funny, eh?”

“No funnier than you do. You could hardly keep from laughing yourself.”

“Well, I guess I just wasn’t meant to be a star,” sighing. She rubbed her hand over my stomach and kissed me. “I’m really getting tired, love. I’m going to have to crash for a while.” She slid back to where she was lying down again and puffed up her pillow. She put her arms out and drew me close to her. In a little while she was asleep. Her arms were around me, but I didn’t want to be with her anymore. All I could do is think about Jenna.

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