The Afterlife

In those days we gathered in the parlor for the mail. The postman stuffed mailboxes without speaking to us, and our hearts either rose or fell. Later the payphone in the hallway would ring, and one of the girls would answer. You could hear her from your bed. Hello? Oh hey. Sometimes the phone would ring and ring, and I’d go answer. It was him again. His crusty voice betrayed his age.

How’s my girl today?

Men circled the college in their cars alone, slowly driving. We were like candy, we were like drugs, we were the pink of their dreams. Five hundred single girls sleeping in little rooms, windows open to the fresh air.

My girl, my man said, tell me what you’ve been up to.

I never meant to talk to him so much or even learn his name. But in those days we didn’t know what we didn’t know. On weeknights after the sun went down, we withdrew into our rooms. The hall phone rang, someone answered. Another call came, and another, always someone answering. It was our only phone. I waited my turn. As the night went on and the air fell silent and finally I heard the lone searching call, I picked up.

Tell me what you’ve been up to, he’d go, and I’d say something like doing my nails. So tell me what that looks like, and I’d describe my bed. Because he liked to hear about my bed. I do everything on my bed, I told him, I read and do homework and drink hot chocolate and make sandwiches and sketch in my sketchbook on my bed. Now I’m doing my nails on my bed, so I’ve got these little scissors and a new bottle of polish called Hot Kimono, and if I’m not careful it’ll tip and ruin my bedspread. My bedspread? White with little roses, just like you imagine.

Ruby, he’d say. My made-up name. I need to meet you.

That you cannot do, I’d say, and I’d hear his cheek rub against the receiver. But you can call me tomorrow.

In those days some girls cried about not having a boyfriend, while some dropped out of college when they got one. Then there were the girls who were in love with each other. They lived in Horton Hall. I didn’t know any of them, but when I passed beneath their windows it gave me something to think about.

My man said, tell me about the girls, and I’d tell him about the lesbians. Just to see what he’d say. I’d describe girls holding hands in the dark. Really, he’d say, holding hands? But then I’d tell him it’s nothing, it’s just friendship. Sometimes girls just want to get close to each other. Oh yeah, he’d say, and his voice would drift away. I pictured him in a dingy kitchen with a buzzing refrigerator; I had him in a chair at his kitchen table with a Formica top, his spotted hands clutching a coffee mug. A widower, retired, with no one to talk to but me.

And whose hand do you hold, he’d ask. No one’s, I’d tell him. And no one is fine with me.

Not everybody is a link in a chain.

In those days you could keep to yourself and no one would ask any questions, especially if you weren’t pretty. If you weren’t pretty, who cared what you did in your life? In high school I invented an out-of-town lover named Marshall Smith: I was in a long-distance relationship. I bought a cheap silver ring and wore it on my thumb, a gift from Marshall. Sometimes I loved him, and sometimes I didn’t, and we’d break up. I’d leave his ring on my dresser, thinking I might play the field, but no one ever asked for my number. I’d catch couples kissing in the hall between classes, and my mind would race. Not my heart, mind you, my mind.

Occasionally my cousin Avery would come over to my house to get the scoop about girls. What did I know about Leslie Hofmeyer? Would she put out? How about Andrea Malone? You could say Avery and I had a unique friendship. When we were kids we’d play fort, but when we got older we’d play around. His idea, not mine. It was an innocent thing. Once he told me he’d figured out a way to turn his body inside out. He stood in the doorway of the bathroom and unzipped his pants. He grinned. Do you want to see? I can do it, but I have to warn you, it gets bloody.

After high school he joined the navy. I got accepted to St. Mary’s and became surrounded by girls. The two down the hall who were like kittens. The ones who’d go out, then come back with hickeys. The one who liked to vacuum. And then the one named Byon, I swear she was actually a boy.

What are the girls up to, my man loved to ask. I stood in the dim, empty hall and thought how to answer. What was Byon doing, what was Shayna doing, with that hickey on her throat? I told him what he wanted to hear: we’re all getting ready for bed.

I slept to the sound of bubbles in an aquarium, dreaming those floating dreams that wake you right before you hit the ground. In her bed on the other side of the room, my roommate dreamed of a boy named Philip. He’d finally asked her out. Now she packed every Friday and hit the highway, and on Sundays she returned with dry leaves buried in her sweater—they’d had picnics in the woods. So I dreamed of a thicket of trees, and whoever joined me there was always gone the moment I opened my eyes. On the phone my man would say, tell me about your dreams, and I’d make things up. I dreamed I was on a horse, I dreamed I drowned, I dreamed I lost all my teeth. He’d say, let me see you, please.

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