You see Daniel in the coffee shop in this tiny Southern town, when he is old enough to know better and you are young enough not, and so it starts. You are smoking menthols, liner rimming your eyes like a fresh bruise, and he serves you espresso in a delicate cup, the saucer no larger than a child’s fist. He asks you to the only bar in town after he gets off from work and sneaks you past the bouncer. You linger over whiskey. That night, when he is moving over you, your temperature rising, he kisses, then slaps, your face. The sting lasts for days.
You are acquainted with violence—the blur, the sway, the inevitable silence. Your first boyfriend once attacked you with a broken mirror, and you remember the cuts that swelled and shrank like worms inching across your body. You made no excuses and wore your scars. Each time you see them now, you think of mysterious weather patterns – glass hail, razor snow, rain so sharp it could split trees.
He looks creepy, she says as she waits for her coffee. Kind of old.
Yes, you say, he does. You look and look at him from a distance, as the steam from the espresso machine rises toward the ceiling, clouding his glasses, but he never looks your way.
Daniel calls you that night, and you meet him in the same bar. The alcohol starts seeping into your system, and you stumble into the bathroom, the one with the red tub. You are washing your hands when you see the doorknob turn. He walks in and closes the door behind him.
Shhh, he says, and lifts up your skirt. You brace your hands on the sink and watch your reflection, the way the mirror shakes and shakes, then stops with a shudder.
You know you shouldn’t call him, but you want to desperately. It has been three days and you have heard nothing from him. You have started to call him several times but stopped yourself.
You move through your classes and the small college campus as if through a fog, like the one that envelops this mountaintop town each night. He is all you can think about, often against your will, it seems. When he finally calls, you try to give him the cold shoulder, but know, eventually, that you will give in. You can’t imagine not.
You see how easily he could consume you, as though he might eat you whole. You start spending every night with him, in his tiny apartment, though when the two of you are out in public together, Daniel never touches you. Only when you are alone does he reach out to you, brushing the hair off the nape of your neck, stretching his arm around your waist. It is this private affection you begin to crave in ordinary moments. You can be reading Renaissance poetry, you can be walking through the woods to the stone-clad library, and suddenly your mind slips and there you are, hands empty of whatever it is you wanted to hold.
Your father’s research was left stacked by the computer for years. You tried to move it once, but your mother pounced on it, replaced it. The wild numbers and theorems remained there, like a sleeping bear.
You know how things will progress, in that they won’t. Daniel continues to keep you secreted away, as though he might be ashamed of people seeing the two of you together. Stephanie, your friend from English class, calls you repeatedly, but you rarely call her back. You find your appetite decreasing, maybe from all the coffee and cigarettes you consume, maybe from pacing your dorm room each night for hours, maybe from not knowing how long it will take until you get out on your own, for once in your life.
Surely you are still dreaming as Stephanie and the economics-major boyfriend walk into the room, look around, and lay down beside you. The boy kisses you deeply as the girl unbuttons your pants. You tell them to stop, but you are too tired to push them away, as much as you want to. As your clothes are removed, and as the moonlight continues to drift through the room’s lone window, you wish for more alcohol, or for more strength. You hope the dream will stop so you can wake up from this stupor.
You wake at the house the next morning naked, blood dried between your legs, alone. Light streams through the window, but somehow it does not touch your aching body. You throw your clothes on and drive home, running a stop sign on the way. You stumble into your dorm room, where you stay, still fully clothed, until the room grows dark again and you finally fall asleep.
You do not know what to call events. All the well-meaning talks by various university officials at the beginning of the school year never covered anything like this. Should you call the police? Should you go to the hospital? You imagine trying to explain what happened, blush, and then start to sob. Your crying does not stop even when you step into the shower and turn on the water. You cannot get clean.
You see that Daniel has left a voicemail, and you return his call. You try to tell him what happened. He seems jealous.
If you weren’t sleeping around so much, this wouldn’t have happened, he says.
But you haven’t been. Goddamn, you have stayed faithful, for reasons unknown even to you. Has he? You hang up the phone and stare at your hamper, where last night’s clothes sit unwashed. You want to leave them alone, but instead you take them to the laundry room and watch them toss and turn in the spin cycle. The churning, thumping motion seems more violent than normal, but no one else seems to notice.
You haven’t seen Daniel in days. You have started to call him several times, but you still cannot get his words out of your head. You realize that soon it will Thanksgiving, and you’ll have to journey home to visit your mother. You cannot imagine telling her what happened. She has always supported you in the past, but this? What possibly could have prepared her for anything like this?
Yes, you tell her, everything is fine.
She looks at you, then says nothing. She knows you’re lying, you can tell. You wonder what your father would have said, and then you shudder.
You tell her everything. You don’t know why you have chosen this poor woman to confess what you feel are apparent sins. If you hadn’t been drinking, if you weren’t already feeling vulnerable—you have done nothing wrong, but still you view what happened as some kind of transgression on your part. When you finally pause to catch your breath, she writes down the name and number of one of the deans and hands it to you. She tells you to report what happened, to remember everything. Haven’t you heard that line before somewhere in a book? Perhaps the sympathy you are feeling from your professor is something merely half-realized, already written and now re-told. Walking back to your dorm room from the English building, through the dense fog that has surrounded the campus, the dean’s number in your hand, you wonder if you should call, if doing so will make you yet another number, another statistic.
You will not let what happened affect your school work any more than it already has, even though you can feel people staring at you wherever you go. You are sure everyone knows what happened; nothing gets lost on a campus so small. You still attend English class with Stephanie, though you have moved to the back row of the classroom, next to a window, where it is coldest.
You call Daniel and leave him a voicemail. You don’t expect him to call you back, but he does, saying he’s worried. After the past few weeks, he says, he wanted to apologize for what he said. You’re not a whore, he tells you, as though you had been hanging on his every word, which, of course, you have been doing all along.
You recall the first memory of your father, of the two of you walking at the zoo on a humid Southern day. He always walked slightly ahead of you, whether to lead the way or keep his distance, you never have been able to figure out. He would occasionally look back at you to make sure you kept up to him. He bought you a balloon and an ice cream, which promptly fell off its cone on your first lick. He picked you up, wiped away your tears with his wrinkled handkerchief, and placed you back on the sidewalk. You cannot remember his face, younger then, but you remember how safe you felt, sticky with sweat and fallen ice cream and the salt of your tears on monogrammed linen.
That memory comes to mind each time you slink in late to English class, to study groups for your impending final exams. The cold has set into this small town, tucked into the mountains, and despite your layering and hiding and copious amount of strong espresso, you cannot shake it. You can be wrapped up each night, under flannel sheets and down duvets, and the memory of your father—the balmy weather, the faint taste of vanilla ice cream, the strength of his seemingly thin arms—rushes to you, leaving you breathless and full of a pervading sadness.
You see Daniel in the coffee shop every day you go in for your latest espresso concoction, but he avoids eye contact. One day, you see one of the cashiers slide her arm around his waist, and he leans in to peck her on the cheek. You turn away, coffee in hand, and return to the bitter cold outside, silent. Despite the snow that has begun to fall, you feel suddenly warm, flushed with heat and oddly hollow.
The semester is over, and you return home to your mother. She wants to know what happened to your grades. You passed all your classes, but barely.
It was a difficult few months, you tell her one night after dinner.
You could have called more often, she says. You know I would have helped you however I could.
I’ll do better, you say. This was just a blip.
She seems satisfied with your answer. She kisses your forehead and clears the table.
You lay in bed that night, staring out your window, to the playhouse you built with your father many summers ago. You will never understand how a man so brilliant could possibly have fathered a child like you. All the possibilities, all the numbers, all the promising statistics pointed to a child with more promise, more vigor. You begin to cry but stop yourself short.
You sit up and start digging through your purse, in search of tissues, when you pull out the dean’s phone number, written in your English professor’s blocky handwriting. Should you throw it away?
Yes, no—you cannot decide. Yes. A definite yes. You dial the number and wait for the tone. It is late, and you know no one will be there to take your call. The machine picks up, and you hold your breath as the message plays. Your hands shake and your teeth begin to chatter, though it is warm in your childhood bedroom, underneath your checkered quilt. You do not know what to say, you do not know if you have the strength to tell anyone what has happened, you do not know if anyone will believe you or take pity on you or offer you any kind of resolution or validation or even a sliver of shining, brilliant hope.
The message is over.
You begin to speak.