Issue 225, Summer 2018
Claire’s roommates threw her out on November third, for falling behind on rent and hogging the Xbox. During the next three weeks, she lived in other people’s houses. She missed the Xbox, but couch surfing was like a game. She had to not smell like coke-sweat or wipe her nose all the time in front of her hosts, and she had to figure out the magic words that would make them let her stay. At her aunt’s house, she praised a samovar. Ding-ding, x 3 nights. At her friend Abby’s mom’s house, she praised a sword, and held it, at the invitation of its owner, Abby’s mom’s boyfriend, a former Naval Academy instructor, and slipped it back into its wall-mounted case, resting the blade and pommel in the felt slot. Ding-ding, x 2 nights. In Abby’s mom’s boyfriend’s gap-toothed son’s house, she praised the smell of cows as the first snow of winter fell through sunlight and country music played on the stereo. Doo-da-la-ding, x 4 nights. In Abby’s bed, she and Abby had sex, and Abby said, “Why won’t you look at me,” but she couldn’t make prolonged eye contact with Abby. x 1 night. In Abby’s mom’s boyfriend’s gap-toothed son’s ex-wife’s house, she told the ex-wife about the gap-toothed son’s girlfriend, shared two lines with the ex-wife, watched her clean the living room, and held the ladder so she could wipe down the candle-flame-shaped light bulbs in the chandelier. x 2 nights. The cocaine made it even more like a game because when she found a place to sleep she didn’t really sleep. She dozed two or three hours and bolted upright. She wanted to stay in bed and also to get up and break things, but she never did anything, just lay there half awake until the sun rose, her alarm went off, and it was time to go to work. By mid-November, she was a master of the whole routine, she felt no fear. But then pilgrim hats and turkeys appeared in the windows of the stores, and the game froze.
The week of Thanksgiving there were no more places to crash, because everybody she knew was either traveling or hosting. Scottish Inns, the Rodeway, and the Granby Motel were all full. Even no-pics Puffton Village bedrooms on Craigslist were priced to take advantage of the holiday. Abby, who always let her stay in a pinch, had been turned against her by puritanical friends who considered her a bad influence. Claire was the only person Abby had ever done coke with, and Abby’s nerd mafia of beautiful, frightening Jewish and Armenian girls had freaked out about how Abby kept showing up at the bio lab spilling coffee and grinding her jaw.
Tuesday morning, Claire left one of the last cheap Airbnbs downtown and worked a six-hour shift at Dunkin’, where the tiles in the bathroom were large and brown, with wet tracks left by boots and sneakers. After work, she walked to the public library. The bathroom off the children’s zone had a lockable door and a diaper-changing station, where you could cut a line vigorously without having to worry about some of it spilling off the side, which could happen when you used the top of a toilet-seat-cover dispenser. The walls were pale orange, with a framed drawing of nineteenth-century animals absorbed in books. The changing station’s yellow foldout surface was shaped like a baby, with stubby arms and legs. A private bathroom, like this one, was a safe place for flatulence. That was one of her physical reactions to coke—it was possible that the coke she bought and sold was partly baby laxative—and the farting always started psychosomatically, after she’d poured some coke onto a surface but before she’d actually snorted any. She fretted a rail from a clump with her debit card, dead center of the baby, and when she did the rail it burned. Her right nasal passage felt exactly as if it had been stung by a bee.
She liked the corroded upper cone of her right nasal passage. It was trusty, like an old truck. And besides, this month, for some reason, her left nasal passage was ornery and sensitive. While she waited for the numbness, it was hard not to blow her nose, because when she was feeling the level of discomfort she now felt, she wanted to expel some mucus into a tissue and glimpse with her own eyes some sign of what the medical situation might be, to know for a fact that there was no crust, glob, or other blood event up there where the cone gave onto tunnels she couldn’t see. But if she blew her nose before her right nasal passage went numb, the pain would get worse.
Here was the numbness. She blew her nose and checked the Kleenex: the usual red spiders bathed in clear froth. Grateful that there was no bad news in the Kleenex, she did the trampoline. “The trampoline” was Abby’s term for the repetitive motion Claire made when she was happy: while doing knee bends, she clapped her fingers against her thumbs as if playing castanets. Claire was an eighth autistic, by her own estimate, the way some people were an eighth black or an eighth straight, and whatever eighth you were, that shit was going to come out in how you moved when you were pleased with yourself. She’d done the trampoline all her life—and she wasn’t the only one, she’d seen Scripps National Spelling Bee finalists do it on YouTube—but coke could bring it on. She bounced as she cleaned the baby-shaped table with her finger, rubbing her gums with the leftovers her finger collected. Then a woman with a baby knocked and said hello—she could hear the baby screaming on the other side of the door—and she had to leave the bathroom.
She abandoned the library, which, at this time in the afternoon, was liable to fill with kids any minute, and walked out into the damp air, her sneakers squishing on the slush-covered flagstone path that bisected the library’s front lawn. The late-November wind blew into her face, and the freezing feeling in her raw, unnumbed left nostril reminded her of a frigid morning last week, when Abby had walked outside, high, with her hair wet, and studied it, amazed, totally stupid, as it iced over and stiffened. What a cum laude moment. She had a brain, Abby—she was one of the top bio majors in the honors program—and she needed somebody like Claire, somebody more grounded in the real world. But it wasn’t just Abby’s science-genius retardation Claire loved, it was her head shaped like Tweety Bird’s, her sandy hair combed back from her pale forehead, the thin blue veins on her temples, the acne around her mouth. Her nose was even curved like Tweety Bird’s beak. That one time Abby had let Claire go down on her for fifteen minutes, that was the closest Claire had ever come to finding a grand purpose in life, forcing Abby’s face to go a hundred percent brainless. And fate was conspiring to bring them together because Thanksgiving had made Claire need to stay with Abby like never before. It was urgent now that Abby ignore her bitter, unexciting friends and acknowledge the insane and undeniable vibe that she and Claire had together. Claire was in the midst of an all-important revelation: Abby was the love of her life. She would present herself to Abby, bedraggled but proud, and the vibe would fill the air and Abby would be moved and turned on and take her in, to stay in her off-campus apartment, eventually for good. And Claire would make a speech at their wedding about how she knew how strong Abby was, how generous, when, during a hard time in her life, Abby had seen through the superficialities and put up with her. She would gaze across the crowd, point to Abby’s mother, and say, You have raised a daughter who is brave and good, and Abby’s mother would cry.
Best to approach Abby in person, about needing a place to stay, because the way to get Abby to hang out, historically, was to wave coke in front of her face. She looked on her phone to see if Abby had left any clues as to whether she was going to go anywhere or do anything specific today. And in fact, as it turned out, Abby had posted on Facebook that she was feeling fucked-up and depressed about the election, and that she hoped to see a lot of people at the Pride Alliance meeting at five.
The Pride Alliance meeting was happening at the Stonewall Center, in Crampton Hall. It was just for students, but Claire was a former student, and student aged. Claire killed a couple hours at Share Coffee, drinking a hot chocolate and a mocha, doing a follow-up bump in a stall, playing Warcraft on her laptop in the corner, trying to be quiet on the headset, still getting looks, and then bent her steps toward the university she’d once attended, the wide, rectangular towers with their fronts and backs vested in red brick, their sides bare concrete. Why had Massachusetts made its biggest college look like public housing? Wasn’t a college the opposite of a public-housing project?
It wasn’t really winter yet. Still, a tree dripped a finger of cold water down her neck as she walked beneath it, following the bike path to campus. To stay in the high, she thought of the Xbox games she missed. She liked the Zelda rip-offs, like Darksiders, because they moved fast and because she felt bad for the heroes and heroines. They were always in a kill-or-die situation, and you saw their backs, their little hard-working buttocks, the soles of their boots as they ran.
She reached the Southwest Residential Area, where she swerved to avoid the stubborn patches of ice on the salted paths. It was the weirdest thing about the university: anyone could just saunter on in. She’d been to Boston, to visit a friend who’d run away there, and at Harvard it was the same deal. You could cross Harvard Yard, lie on it. How did anyone at Harvard know it wasn’t full of people like her? How did the students feel safe with the gates open, and no one asking what she was doing, why she was there?
Crampton Hall was a long, four-story brick rectangle with yellow iron lozenges set in the railings as decorative accents. Claire walked into the Stonewall Center’s classroom precisely on time. A rainbow flag was pinned to the wall, and beside it hung a photo of gender-nonconforming people marching five abreast down a street in New York. The chairs were fitted with small desks and had wheels. Students sat at them and propelled them into a circle by walking their legs across the brick-colored carpet, or pushing against the carpet with both legs at the same time, a kind of rowing. The rowers got into it, rolled their hips, made the desks glide.
Abby hurried in late, sandwiched between two of her most narrow-minded and virginal-seeming friends. They were two of the friends Abby had named when she gave Claire a list of people who considered Claire bad news, counting them off on her fingers. They were looking directly at Claire with no expression, like that was supposed to frighten her or something. Claire admitted to herself that she found even the most awkward of the brain-girls who constituted Abby’s social circle attractive. These two were both strong looking, with thick legs and wide torsos, outfitted in pastel-colored winter clothing, like the posse that follows around a rapper. They were both wearing headbands! She laughed and crossed her legs, because she, Claire, was such a pointed contrast, merry and lithe, her eyes probably twinkling. She tried to twinkle them at Abby. Abby was wearing a gray hoodie that said pioneer valley light opera on it. She was pretending that Claire wasn’t there, that her friends weren’t gazing at Claire with consternation. She was sitting up straight with her hands on her knees and her chin in the air. To avoid meeting Claire’s eyes, she was studying the drop ceiling. The other students, oblivious to the war Claire was waging against Abby’s bodyguards, slumped in their chairs and clasped their hands behind their heads. Others sat cross-legged with their arms folded. One of the bodyguards stopped looking at Claire long enough to rub lotion on her hands. The other took a picture of the wind-whipped trees outside, pretending the trees were pretty, making awed sounds.
Elizabeth from Saugus started the meeting by saying that this was the first place she’d felt comfortable crying since Trump was elected. She put her face in her hands and sobbed. Daniela from Mattapan said that the joke among her friends was to bet on which one of them was going to get deported. Josh from Sterling had been called a faggot by kids on his street for the first time. Frank from East Longmeadow read aloud a Snapchat message from a kid he’d known in high school that said, “Now you will have to stop cocksucking or die.” Jasmine from Chicopee said that her friend’s little brother had chased a Muslim girl. Pauline from Lee said that the most important thing, in this nightmare situation, was for this community right here to stick together.