Late in my first semester of college, my roommate, Hannah, announced she would go home that upcoming weekend. By this time, the men in my life irritated her last nerve, and her obsessive-compulsive need for cleanliness and habit of leaving passive-aggressive sticky notes around the apartment drove me batty. She couldn't study if I clicked my ink pen while reading in the next room, and she had to put the wall clocks facedown to stop their ticking when she was trying to concentrate. We decided to make it through the rest of the school year together and then find more compatible roommates.
Before class on Friday morning, Hannah sauntered over to the Coke machine by the clubhouse and pool. She returned, gushing about meeting a gorgeous friend of Matt, who lived across the breezeway from us with Mike. Gorgeous resided in Fayetteville and had formerly been the president of Matt's fraternity. Matt was a graduate student in finance and economics, and he walked to school with Hannah and me on Tuesday and Thursday mornings.
"Oh my God," she said, "I mean, gorgeous!" I had never seen or met or heard of Gorgeous.
On that same morning, Robby stopped his Jeep as he passed Rowan and me walking to class together and offered us a lift. I let him know Hannah was leaving for the weekend and thought he and I tacitly agreed to take advantage of the time alone. We didn't identify definite plans, but I expected he would be by later. At seven o'clock that evening, however, Robby was nowhere in sight, nor had I heard anything from him. By eight, still crickets from Robby's end of the apartment community when Josh from upstairs barged in sneezing, wrapped in a blanket.
"Can I hang out with you, sexy? I'm sick, and I don't want to be sick all by myself, especially if you're just chillin' at home."
"Sure, Josh. I thought you were dating that stylish black girl down the street? Where is she?"
"It's complicated, and she's working tonight."
"Okay, but Robby may come by later. You'll leave if he does?"
"If you insist," he said and fell onto the love seat. I nuked us both chicken noodle soup from a large can and turned on the TV, which did not have cable but could pick up the major networks. Josh reacted as though I were a regular Florence Nightingale.
"Have you taken anything for your cold?" I asked, looking through a medicine stash that Hannah and I kept in a drawer.
"Never mind." I shook my head.
Josh fell asleep around ten when I was beginning to get a little worried about Robby. I turned off the TV, read, in Hannah's recliner, some of The Way of All Flesh, and dozed off dreaming about Ernest Pontifex and his parents, who seemed like people at my church back home. I woke up around eleven-thirty. Knowing Hannah would throw a conniption if Josh spent the night, I gently shook him awake and sent him shuffling and sniffling upstairs.
Back at the beginning of the semester, Josh and I shared a "moment" while studying Spanish before I pushed him away, apologized for leading him on, and rushed home. He had followed me downstairs, asking, "Why not?" in front of Hannah and Rowan. I explained that I didn't want to be involved with someone who lived in my building and with whom I had classes every single day. "It isn't you," I told him.
Hannah stomped off and slammed her door behind her. Rowan said she thought I knew that Hannah had a crush on Josh, but I had missed that. And Hannah never forgave me for the whole incident.
After I woke a sick Josh and sent him home the night Robby stood me up, I tried to go to bed and to sleep. Maybe I was a little afraid of being alone. I got up and turned on all the lights and made sure the doors and windows were locked. I was just beginning to doze off when I heard a tap at my door. Assuming it was Robby, I flung open the door, wanting him to think, at least for a moment or two, that I was angry. I thought he deserved to suffer, just a little, for making me wait and worry. I wore a mid-thigh length gray nightshirt with purple three-quarter length sleeves and red nail polish on my toes, but not my contacts or glasses. I couldn't see well, but I could see enough to know the person staring back at me was not Robby.
"I'm Matt's friend," said a stranger whose form I could only make out by squinting. "Presley."
"Oh," this was Hannah's "Gorgeous." He stuck out his hand.
"We noticed all the lights on and thought you might be afraid to be alone," Matt chimed in, rounding the corner of the building. "I know you have good reasons to not want to be alone here." He was aware I had been assaulted by a neighbor. "Hannah asked me to check in on you," he said.
"That surprises me," I said with a chuckle. "Hannah probably meant she wanted you to keep an eye on me, but never mind that. I was, indeed, afraid at first, but I managed to fall asleep after turning on all the lights. Come on in. Please, have a seat while I grab some pants and put my eyes back in," I said. "What have you guys been doing tonight," I asked from the bathroom.
"We were playing pool at Tug's," Matt started. "Presley is in town for the Razorback game at War Memorial tomorrow night. It's our last game in the SEC. We play Rice."
"I know. I have tickets, too," I said, re-entering the room. My dad had given me four tickets he'd originally bought for himself. Rowan and I had made plans to attend the game with two other friends.
"What's a pretty blonde like you doing alone on a Friday night?" asked Gorgeous, holding a beer, when I popped back into the room. He had a dimple in his chin. And wavy blond hair. And bright blue eyes with thick blond eyelashes. And he smelled like the men's entrance to Dillard's.
"Honestly, I thought I had plans, but Robby appears to have stood me up."
"Who's Robby?" Presley asked.
"He's on the tennis team, right?" interrupted Matt, adding, "Gray Jeep?"
I told Matt he was correct. Further, I explained Robby and I had been dating but that Robby would be relocating back to Ohio at the end of the semester.
"Let's take a walk," suggested Presley, and we did. The three of us wandered around on the sidewalk in the chilly November night. We saw Robby's Jeep, but there were no lights on inside his apartment. "He is probably out with friends or maybe his soccer chick friend," I said.
"You don't seem too broken up about it," Presley said.
"I'm not thrilled that he didn't show when I thought we had plans, but it isn't a big deal. I've hardly seen him for the last few weeks, but he gave me a ride to class this morning. Last month, he caused me some trouble by being rude, over the phone, to my former boyfriend back home. And that kind of blew up for me."
"You must be referring to the loud banging and screaming I heard one school night around one o'clock in the morning," Matt said.
"I am sorry you have the misfortune of living in the same building with me, Matt," I laughed, embarrassed.
We reached the sparkling pool and wondered why there was still water in it when it was too cold for swimming. The autumn air smelled of fireplaces and damp leaves, and the wind began to pick up.
"Matt, are you aware that there is only one beer remaining?" Presley asked.
"I am well aware, my friend. What shall we do about that? I want it, as do you."
"If you jump into the pool with all of your clothes on, I will let you have the last beer," Presley dared.
"If you both jump in, I'll drink the last beer," I said, kidding. I had never tasted beer.
The guys looked at each other. At the count of three, they both jumped into the frigid water with their clothes and shoes on.
Shocked, I ran to grab towels, and we moved over to Matt's place. His roommate, Mike, was away skiing in Colorado for the weekend.
The guys changed into warm, dry clothes as I made myself comfortable on Matt's couch, and then Presley brought me the last beer and said, "A deal is a deal." I took a sip of the beer and made a face. "You don't even drink beer!" Presley scoffed as he took the can away from me and placed it on Matt's coffee table. Matt sat beside me on the couch, but I leaned away from him onto the arm of the sofa. Matt fell asleep, and I was beginning to doze off when Presley nudged me. "Let me walk you home."
At my door, Presley asked if he could see my tickets for the Razorback game. "Damn," he said. My seats weren't near theirs.
"Did you know that Matt's dad is the president of a bank in a little town not far from Little Rock?" I did not. "Well, that bank is throwing an after-game party at the hotel on Markham that's right across from the stadium. Matt wanted to invite you to the party, but he fell asleep before he got around to it. Come."
"I'll ask my friends. I'm not driving, so it'll kind of be up to my friends, I guess. I mean, is it okay if they come, too?"
"Yeah. Absolutely. Just show up and say you're there to see Matt. No problem."
The Razorbacks lost to Rice the next night. Harry, an avid Hogs fan, refused to attend an after-game party and sulked on the drive home. At our apartment building, Harry and Trey grumbled goodnight and slumped up to the third floor.
"Well, I'm feeling dumped," Rowan sighed as she plopped onto the loveseat inside my apartment. She was spending the night with me.
I told her about Gorgeous. Hannah had told her about him on Friday, too. Rowan said she kind of thought Matt was cute. We were contemplating heading back for the party when we saw a crowd gathering in the parking lot outside. We both hopped on our knees on the love seat to look out the window behind it. I raised the window to ask Mona and Lola from next door where everyone was heading.
"There's a party at one of the frat houses," several people yelled back at Rowan and me.
Just then, Matt and Presley climbed out of Presley's Acura, each carrying a case of beer. Presley exclaimed to the crowd, "Party right here!" pointing to my apartment. Adding "FREE BEER!"
For two dumped under-drinking-age academic scholarship girls, the night was suddenly looking up. Harry peeked out his door, and Rowan invited him to come back down and bring Trey and Josh.
Because several of us were under twenty-one, Presley put all the beer in Matt's refrigerator. A line formed of people heading to Matt's fridge and then over to my apartment. I didn't have any beer, but I enjoyed being an impromptu college party hostess, with Rowan, for the first time ever. Rowan helped herself to beer and mingled with the crowd. The life of the party, Presley drank a lot. He took a souvenir sombrero off the wall in Hannah's room and wore it around speaking Spanglish. A guy everyone called Dan the TV Man brought over a guitar and sat in the living room singing Bob Dylan songs over the noise of the crowd.
Matt and Rowan grew better acquainted as the night turned into morning, and Presley paid a lot of attention to me. I met people I'd seen all semester but had never spoken to, and everyone seemed to be having a great time wandering over to Matt's for beer and then back to my apartment to sit on the floor and enjoy life. We pulled out board games, and people sat on the floor, smoking, drinking, and arguing over Trivial Pursuit questions. When the crowd fell quiet, I noticed Presley's absence and stepped outside in the cold night air to look for him. He was standing and smoking on the sidewalk.
"You smoke?" I asked.
"Only when I drink."
"Oh." I was trying to think of something brilliant to say when he smashed his cigarette and suggested we take a seat in Matt's apartment away from the crowd and out of the November night air. Once inside, he asked me about my family and whether I'd heard from my tennis player boyfriend since he stood me up the night before.
We spoke of our families and my hometown. I told him about my brothers and some of their most famous pranks. "If you were my sister, I wouldn't want you to get mixed up with a guy like me," he said.
Wow. Was Presley thinking about getting mixed up? My heart skipped a beat or a few beats. I was utterly infatuated with Hannah's Gorgeous.
Mona and her roommate Lola walked through Matt's door, and it became immediately apparent that there was history between Presley and Mona. She'd been looking for him, she said. And then she announced that a pissed Robby was at my apartment wondering why the place was full of people drinking when I was nowhere to be found.
"Aha. I thought a party might draw out the boyfriend. Let's go see what he wants," Presley prodded.
"He is not my boyfriend, and it's nearly three. I know what he wants," I got up and led the way across the hall where we found Robby ordering everyone out with, "Okay, people, the party is over. Go home."
"Let's move the party over to Matt's," Presley suggested to people exiting my apartment. A few takers proposed a game of cards.
"Anybody got a deck of cards?" asked Presley.
"I do!" Mona was all too eager to oblige. She said she'd grab the cards while refilling her vodka and Kool-Aid.
As Mona and her roommate Lola left with Matt and Rowan, Dan the TV Man appeared from my bedroom, mumbling, "Your pillows smell like your perfume. Obsession? Is that your favorite fragrance?" Rowan cracked up. She and Hannah had recently gifted me the perfume for my nineteenth birthday, but we all shared it.
On his way out, Presley whispered, "Bluet, don't do anything you don't want to do. We have plenty of room across the hall."
Robby turned out the lights, and, taking me by the hand, sweetly requested I join him in the bedroom.
Still angry at him for standing me up the night before and not appreciating the way he ended my first college party, I said, "No, Robby. I think I'll step across the hall to play cards."
"Okay. I'll be here when you get back," Robby said. "I'm exhausted."
When I made my entrance at Matt's, Presley looked up, pleasantly surprised, and made room next to him on the couch. Playing cards, he offered to share his hand.
Mona, drunk, asked, "Hey, Presley, what do you say we go back there in Mike's room and rap? We could get to know each other a little better." Ignoring her, Presley put his arm around me, and I scooted against him.
Mona went back to Matt's room and, wobbling, headed toward his bed.
"Hey, wait, that's not... Mike's room. It's mine." Matt said, but it was too late. Mona was out cold. We considered carrying her across the hall to her own bed, but Matt decided it would be best to let her sleep it off. It was as clear as her vodka and Kool-Aid that Mona was an alcoholic, but she was a beautiful young woman. It was a shame she was so disturbed.
Back on the couch, Presley put his arm around me again, removed my shoes, and began rubbing my feet. After that, he nibbled on my ear.
"Get a room already," Rowan said.
Presley whispered, "Hey, Bluet, what do you say we go back there in Mike's room and rap? We could get to know each other a little better." With my stomach full of butterflies, I followed when he took my hand and led me back to Mike's room at four in the morning.
We climbed onto the bed together and put our heads on the pillows. Presley kissed me and then immediately sat straight up and ran his hands through his Ken-doll hair.
"I should be shot," he said.
"I don't understand."
"Matt's my best friend," he said. I still didn't know what he was getting at.
After a pause, he explained, "Matt has a crush on you. I knocked on your door last night because he'd been talking about you all evening and wanted my opinion."
"Ah," I said. "Well, Matt and Rowan seem to have taken a mutual interest in one another. When Matt and I walk to class together on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, he carries a briefcase and, if it's cloudy, an umbrella. I'm lucky to be out of my pajamas. Okay, not really. I'm not that bad. But I swear, it never occurred to me that anyone like Matt could ever have the slightest interest in someone like me."
"There's more," Presley said, gravely. "I have a girlfriend."
"Oh." I sat up, too, and decided I should get back home. "How long have you been with your girlfriend?" I asked.
Everyone from the other room was leaving. We heard Matt slide over Mona and plop onto the other side of his waterbed; Rowan went back to my apartment to crash in Hannah's room.
"This is getting way too complicated. I should go back to Robby." But Presley stopped me and pulled me back onto the bed with him.
"Don't go. Please. I won't do anything you don't want me to. Stay." He wrapped his arms around me and pulled me against him. I put my head on his chest, and we lay silently for a few minutes until we heard Matt snoring in the next room.
And then Presley changed his tune. Afraid, because I didn't know him, I asked him to stop. Refusing, he said, "You're saying that because you think we should stop, not because you want me to. I know what you want." He was right, but I expected him to stop. No one had ever not stopped when I asked. And I tried to escape.
"That's it. Hit me. Push me away. But this is exactly what you want," he said.
Later, Rowan and I began the arduous task of cleaning up cans of stale beer and cigarette ashes and butts. We each had a black trash bag in hand when Hannah arrived home, inquiring about the weekend and whether we'd met Gorgeous.
"Oh, yes, we met Gorgeous Presley. Bluet officially lost her virginity to him last night," Rowan affirmed.
"I am never going home again," Hannah said.
"I never said I was a virgin. And, besides, I doubt I'll ever see him again. He has a serious girlfriend. Let's not talk about it. Or him." Rowan and Hannah were virgins, and I considered what happened with Presley my first one-night stand.
Nick, Part 2
With school and a new job, my schedule was full during my second semester of college. I worked with a restaurant full of servers around my age, and there was no shortage of invites to do things with them after work. I introduced my friends to their friends. Suddenly, the world felt more extensive than the university and my apartment community behind it.
As Nick had recommended in our laundry night discussion, I was doing as fine a job as possible of staying away from him. That is until he stopped by one day with a change of heart. Hannah opened the door and directed him to find me studying. Books strewn all around me, I was sitting on my bed and wearing my glasses with a pencil in my mouth when he opened my bedroom door.
"You wear glasses?" he asked, taking the pencil from my mouth.
"Shut up. They need updating. What are you doing here, Mr. Bad News?"
"I can't get you out of my head, Bluet. And it appears you are between hearts to break."
"So, what does that mean, Nick?"
"I don't know, Baby. I guess we'll figure it out as we go." He touched my face.
"I think you give me too much credit in the heart-breaking arena." Showing him what I was working on, I read "How do I love thee, let me count the ways," by Elizabeth Barrett Browning to him. My assignment was to write 1200 words about the poem without following its structure. Nick pretended to listen for a few minutes and then swept my books onto the floor.
"Wait," I said.
"Why?" he pulled me close.
"You said no one had made you feel this way in years. What happened to the last person?"
"You're nosy." He sat up against my headboard, took a deep breath, and began, "I asked her to marry me, and we moved in together. My father needed me to step up and control his surveying company because he was dying of lung cancer. I had access to large amounts of cash and started running with the wrong crowd. My stepmother and I were constantly fighting over the money. Too much of it was going missing for my mounting coke habit. And then, my fiancé was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Due to the diagnosis, she changed her mind about marrying me and moved back home with her parents. My dad died, and my stepmother took over the company and kicked me out. And that's when I spiraled deep into cocaine abuse and wound up in rehab. Addiction is still a battle, and I have more work to do on myself before I can be your steady Eddy. And that is why I am bad news for a girl like you. But I would like to be a part of your life."
"Do you ever talk to your ex-fiancé?"
"No. We have friends and acquaintances in common, so I hear about her from time to time. She is unable to walk and legally blind. Since I am such a fuck-up, she probably made the right decision to put herself in the care of her parents."
"I'm sorry you went through all of that and that she suffers from a chronic illness."
"I got a promotion today," he said. "Will you accompany me to the Faded Rose? I feel like celebrating."
We went to Nick's favorite hangout over in west Little Rock. Even though he knew my age, the bartender served me wine. And Nick had me home in time to work on my paper. The next morning, he stopped by with a rose to say goodbye. He was leaving town to oversee the building of a new Walmart in Missouri.
I didn't wait around for Nick to call. During his absence, I behaved as any unattached college girl would. After work at my hostessing job, I often hung out at Tug's with friends and coworkers. And I dated other people. Nick rarely called from out of town. But my place was his first stop when he returned home. He would say he missed me, and I would let him in, happy to see him. I knew he drank too much, and I knew he smoked a lot of pot, including a joint every night to help him sleep. What I didn't realize was that he was using cocaine.