Orientation

 

Just off hand, the guy could not exactly remember which fraternity house he was at or who had put him on the list. He was twenty-three years old, beginning his sixth year of college and hoping to graduate soon, but that was nothing new. Neither was his present state, jammed in a corner of the packed dance floor opposite the DJ and a row of speakers, clutching a beer as warm as his breath. It was time to make his move. 

The girl had red hair and stood catty-corner to him against the wall. A freshman, he decided. Classes began tomorrow, and she looked fresh out of her parents’ station wagon. She had the girl-next-door look he found so approachable. Her friends, the crowd she had come with, were shaking it up on the dance floor, while she drank steadily, watching them mostly, occasionally laughing when they looked her way after some crazy sequence of dance pyrotechnics. They were first-years, too.

She had danced some but mostly clung to her beer by the wall where she had been approached a few times and seemed uncomfortable around a few of the fraternity brothers who moved on. She tried holding a conversation with a skinny kid, a freshman not quite as tall as she whose replies were monosyllabic. The guy eyed the boy, wondering how he had gotten on the list to get in—must’ve known someone. The kid had a bad slouch and left the party entirely after he finished his beer. Other than that, she had slow-danced once, awkwardly holding her beer behind some guy’s neck, then blowing him off afterwards. Small town girl, he guessed. They could be tough. Or easy.  She had drunk a lot, slipping away from the wall, returning with a full cup every so often. At one point she had two cups, but somehow he did not see what had happened to the second one.

Now his own cup was empty. He felt dizzy and giddy, as usual, like he could burst out laughing anytime at anything or nothing. The driving dance music fell over him like a distant rain compared to the jam session taking place in his skull. It’s time, he thought, trying to slip into the “natural” mode that usually worked so well. He threaded through the crowd toward her as the DJ began a series of slow songs.

She was out of beer, which seemed to bother her for a moment, but then she said yes, she would dance some. Her hands went lightly against his neck, and her perfume was drop dead sweet. She had that smooth, silky-soft feel of girls that drugged him every time. By the second slow song she pressed sweaty and warm against him. She began looking for her friends. A thousand drunken soldiers seemed to march out of step in his skull. He needed to make his move.

Yes, she said, but her eyes told him no, and she was scared. Girls were often scared. It seemed natural enough to him now; even the eager ones, you could see how they bluffed themselves, trying to block it out, that fear.

She had brought a jacket. They looked and found it (blue denim ordinary as he had guessed) in a closet that they got hollered at for opening. She was lucky. He told her never to bring her jacket to a fraternity house again. She nodded. Could she get a beer before they left? He told her no and explained the open container law.

They left the campus district and walked past blocks of apartment buildings. The street lights at intersections dazzled his eyes and he had to go slow, taking her by the arm. She stopped him once and said she wouldn’t be able to find her way back. He would walk her, he assured. In a few minutes, she stopped him again.

I feel sick, she told him.

You don’t have to come, he said.

Lost and chilled now, away from the crowd and heat of the fraternity, Heather did not know what she wanted. It seemed they had come a long way. The darkened windows of brick houses lining the street frightened her when they left the lighted area of town. You don’t have to come, he said, but he meant something else, she thought. He held her arm almost like her father would, a bit stiffly. His apartment was just a little ways ahead, he insisted.

She had been intimidated by the throng of beautiful girls, women, she supposed. There were so many, and they were so attractive, dressed to kill, while the boys, men, maybe, were somewhat less made up. She did not like guys who looked too primped. She had almost been able to smell the sex that would happen later that night. She could see it in the eyes of the guys who came on to her, but this one had seemed different, even though he had come up to her during a slow song. At least he had not constantly offered to get her more beer. Heather liked that he was older and thought he probably knew she was a freshman, a first year student, they called it now. She couldn’t believe herself, classes hadn’t even started yet, and here she was practically wasted the last night of orientation. When they had danced he held her close but not tight, and he smelled like soap, which was nice somehow. He had not seemed as loud or so sure of himself like the fraternity brothers who had approached her earlier. He had just felt so good against her.

She went with him, shivering, despite her jacket.

An apartment building loomed up out of the dark, and he unlocked the main door, escorting her through. The lobby was well lit, and now that she finally got a good look at him, she thought he seemed tired. In the elevator he mostly stared at the numbers of the floors lighting up in ascending order and would not quite meet her eyes. In the hall, he stumbled once on the carpet, and she began trying to come up with an excuse to leave. At his door she almost said flat out, No, but then went in. He turned on a dim lamp on an end table next to the couch. Beyond that, all she could see was the shadow of a walk-in kitchen and the coffee table.

Where are your roommates? she asked.

Out, he said.

She looked around. Do you have any beer?

No, he said. Didn’t you have enough already? Do you want some water?

No, she said. He took her to the couch and unbuttoned her blouse before kissing her. It was something he always did, but then she pushed him away, her voice quick and stumbling. She wanted water now.              

He got her a glassful, and she took a big gulp, then sipped it, hunching her shoulders together, trying to close her blouse a bit. When he leaned forward and brushed her hair back behind an ear, she brought the glass up between them and took another long drink, so he pulled away and went to use the bathroom. She filled the glass a second time before he came back out. The kitchen seemed very clean and neat, she thought, like a stage.

I need to go, too, she said, standing up and moving to the bathroom.

 

When he sat down again, he stared at her glass of water. Something was wrong, he thought, wondering where he had slipped up. She reminded him of the girl who had gotten a nosebleed when he kissed her. Now he picked up her denim jacket, crumpled it and threw it back down.

 

The first thing Heather did in the bathroom was refasten her bra, then her blouse.  The light in the tiny room was blinding, it fed her headache. Back home, if you ever got drunk you just sat around the bonfire with your girlfriends and told the boys to go to hell. But at the fraternity there had not even been a place to sit, much less reliable friends to sit with. And there were so many boys, men, she guessed, so close. (Sometime during orientation, it had been suggested that they, the entering class, should consider themselves women and men now. Of course she had not considered herself a girl, but it felt awkward calling her girlfriends, women. And were these boys truly now men?) At home she had gone out with a few boys, but these college fraternity guys were not the familiar handful she thought she could deal with, coming onto her and ignoring her in waves (she suspected she had a sort of naive look that was as attractive to some as it was a turn-off to others). And the fraternity brothers were so sure of themselves as hosts.

Most of the other girls, women, maybe, seemed more savvy than her. They moved along the edges of the crowd and on the dance floor as if they knew secrets to some game she was not sure she knew was even being played, let alone knew all the rules and opportunities or how to keep score. She could dance all right but had not wanted to try it in the sudden sea of fashion, amid the alluring looks and layered perfumes, among the good-timing guys and circling sharks. Where had she heard the phrase, meat market? She had tried not to look at it that way pressed against the wall with her beer.

When—she didn’t even know his name yet—when he came over, he had seemed a little quieter, older, and not put-on.

Dance? he asked, shrugging his shoulders as if it did not appeal to him all that much either. By the second slow song, they were tight. Her whole body, drunk and heavy like her eyes sagged and hummed against him. He held her in a way that didn’t really press. He felt so warm and good and even smelled familiar, like someone she could trust. She looked around, but her friends, or at least, the people she had known a few days and come out with, had disappeared.

Heather used the toilet, then closed the lid and sat down on top of it. She waited and hoped he would fall asleep. The thought of him going at her blouse again made her nauseous. Maybe he would have been okay, she thought, if they both weren’t so out of it. She didn’t know. She didn’t know him, and she wished she were back in her lousy little dorm room now so hard it hurt.

 

She was taking forever in the bathroom, it seemed to the guy, and he had nearly dozed off, which was probably what she was trying for, he guessed. Eventually, she came out sneaking furtive glances at him. She stayed so close to the wall he thought at any moment she might slip back into the bathroom. Her blouse was buttoned, her face blank. That first-year face. She was scared. Sometimes it was so obvious it was obnoxious.

 

Heather moved slowly toward the hallway door. She wondered what he was thinking. She did not exactly want to have to race him.

Did you fall in? he asked.

I want to go, she said. I’m sorry.

He held her with his gaze. You don’t have to stay, he said.

That line again, that guilt trick, she thought, that insinuation that ran in so many directions. She said, You don’t have to take me back.

You’re lost, he reminded her.

I’ll be okay, Heather said and sneaked a glance at the door. She would leave without her jacket if she had to—if, she worried now, she could.

 

He rubbed his eyes. He picked up her glass of water and drank half of it. She really did have pretty hair, a pretty face, he thought, and it occurred to him that not many girls had seemed all that attractive recently, though probably it had just been his mood. When the girl glanced at her denim jacket, again, on the couch beside him, he set down her water and picked up the jacket. He wanted to talk to her. He wanted to take her picture, escort her to a movie. He wanted to be seen with her, give her things he could not afford.

He wanted to take her to bed.

He looked at her jacket lying rumpled on his lap. KLHS Forever was marked on one of the sleeves. He couldn’t get over how obnoxious this seemed. It was obnoxious to come to college and still be such a girl.

 Goddamn, he thought. Let’s go, he said. She was like so many of them, more and more now—afraid to give in to what she really wanted. He gave her the jacket. She went immediately into the hall.

I’m sorry, she told him in the elevator.

He said nothing and watched the numbers of each floor light up in descending order not caring if his silence intimidated her. Enjoying it now, if anything.

 

In the street, Heather watched the guy stare at the sidewalk, and she followed blindly. The air felt cool and fresh against her face as it had when she left the fraternity, when they had walked down a street lined with rows of apartment buildings. Scents of perfume even stronger than the smell of beer, she remembered now, had spilled out the doorways and windows and poured down from balconies. Much of it still hung in the air. A gust of perfume thick and spicy had caught in her throat and almost made her cough as a group of girls, women, she corrected herself again, had walked by. They had been made up like Christmas presents, their hair, like bows, curled and tumbling loose and their tight skirts as sleek and smooth as wrapping paper, ready to be opened. Now she imagined their dresses and blouses being ripped off by the boys, men, she meant.  That was what you did with packages, wasn’t it, tear them open? She shuddered and tightened her jacket and concentrated on getting back.

 

The night was still a blur to the guy. He moved slowly, counting the cracks in the sidewalk, as the girl whose name he did not know walked an arm-length apart from him. He thought she relaxed when she finally recognized the campus district and saw a few students laughing and moving back to the dorms.

I can make it from here, she told him.

He watched the students going by in the distance and moving out of sight. He walked her to an intersection and stopped by a bench beneath a streetlight.

The area seemed deserted now and spookily lit, she thought, but she was almost back.

Happy now? he said, evenly, not loud.

Okay, she said, and then the guy pushed her and she tripped and pitched hard into a pole supporting a streetlight, the top of her head ramming steel.

 

After being released from the health clinic, Heather spent a few weeks at home, and when she returned to college, with special arrangements allowed by the university, she decided to take just a couple classes, one she had originally scheduled and a new one, a women’s studies class. For this she wrote an extra paper, a non-fiction narrative, to make up for the time she had missed. She hoped she did not mistake too many crucial details or overlook others. She titled the narrative “Orientation.” She turned it in during finals. That was all. Heather was glad to complete her first semester of college, and she looked forward to the next year.

 

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