Amanda Keefe was a young woman of few talents, but one of those talents happened to be getting off before her alarm went off.
She lay in bed, steadying her rapid breathing, and staring vacantly up at the popcorn ceiling. Less than a minute later, at exactly 6:30 AM, the tell-tale beep!beep!beeps shook her from her afterglow, and she slid out of bed. After turning her stuffed cat back around, she slippered her feet, bathrobed her torso, and shuffled out to the hallway.
The bathroom was empty for once. It still smelled like equal parts Colin’s designer cologne, her father’s dandruff shampoo, and mildew. She wrinkled her nose as she shut the door, wishing she had her own bathroom with plenty of counter space for her things. As it stood, her store-brand shampoo lay on the floor. Colin probably knocked it over in his haste to get out of the bathroom.
Her shower was only lukewarm, even on the hottest setting. That was her punishment for being the last to get out of bed. Her mother, wisely, showered at night. But a middling temperature shower felt soothing to the open wounds on her thighs, where hot water would have agitated them. As part of her ritual, Amanda gently scrubbed the dried blood from her legs with her mother’s bar of lavender soap and watched flecks of it disappear down the rusty drain. She was done when the water ran cold.
After combing her damp hair, Amanda returned to her bedroom to get dressed. Her outfits were the same as they were every day — a white short-sleeve blouse, a pair of black dress slacks, and black flats. Over her right wrist, she slid on wide, elastic bracelet. Today, just because it was Friday, she tied a pink scarf around her neck. Mya would notice. Mya wore bright cardigans, kitten heels, and wore bows in her hair when the tenured professors above her wore sweaters and khakis. Amanda felt comfortable somewhere in between.
Before leaving her room, Amanda kissed her fingers and touched Bobo’s raggedy head. His glassy eyes stared back at her.
The kitchen smelled like burned toast, black coffee, and strips of turkey bacon. The latter was her mother’s doing, but the toast and coffee were certainly her father’s. Norman Keefe’s food preparation skills ended at pressing reheat on the microwave. That was better than Colin, however; their mother still poured milk on his cereal for him. Amanda, at least, could boil water and stir in Ramen noodles.
Her mother was at the sink, scrubbing the frying pan with steel wool and some dish soap when Amanda walked into the room. A plate of food had been arranged for her at her place against the wall.
The clock on the wall, the one above the stove, read 6:55. Amanda blinked at it.
Her father noticed her first. “Mornin’, Panda,” he said, his gruff voice groggy. “Sleep well?”
“Sure did,” she said, patting his shoulder as she slipped behind his chair. “Is there any coffee?”
“Saved you the last cup,” Colin said around bites of his bacon. “Some toast, too.”
“Did you want anything else, sweetie?” Janice Keefe asked, bringing the coffee carafe over to the table. “Any jam?”
“I’m good, Ma,” she said, politely biting into a slice of toast. The dry edges were rough in her mouth.
“You’re well,” Colin corrected, smirking. “Weren’t you an English major?”
Amanda rolled her eyes and gave him a playful shove.
“Is today the last day of the semester?” their mother wondered, returning to the sink and rolling up her sleeves. “Or is that next week?”
“Hmm-mm. Week after next — after Thanksgiving.” Amanda looked over at Colin hunching over his food. “Some classes are ending earlier, though.”
“Lot of papers to grade?” The steel wool made a scrat-scrat-scrat sound on the metal pan.
“Yeah. Couple dozen.”
“Colin, when are your exams?”
Amanda’s brother didn’t answer until he had bitten, chewed, and swallowed his last crust of toast. “I told you, Ma — not until after Thanksgiving.” Norman Keefe shot him a look over the top of his eyeglasses. “The same week ‘Manda gives her exams.”
“Are you going to need a ride this afternoon?” she asked, quickly changing the subject.
He shrugged. “Maybe.”
“Could you let me know before five?”
“Please?” She raised her eyebrows at him, communicating a non-verbal warning.
Colin took a swig of coffee and slammed the cup down on the table. “Before five it is.” He raised his hands in defeat and leaned back. “Sorry.”
“Don’t lean in the chairs,” their father instructed.
The drive to Battle Creek State University would take between eleven and sixteen minutes; Amanda had been there as early as 7:27 and as late as 7:32. Try as she did to get there at exactly 7:30, timeliness had eluded her. Colin wanted to be dropped off somewhere different almost every day. Some mornings, he wanted to go to the gym. When it was warmer, he told her to drop him off by Davis Hall where he could spend the day with friends in the dorms. Today, he unbuckled his seatbelt and got out of the car at the second-to-the-last red light. He then trotted across the street, and slipped into an awaiting Prelude. Amanda squinted, but could not make out the driver of the car.
Mya’s car, a blue Malibu, parked in the same spot, right by the International Department sign, every day. Amanda pulled her red Civic right beside it.
A frigid wind picked up as she walked from the parking lot to the building. Shivering, she clutched her pink wool coat around her neck.
In the 1950’s, the International Department was Nokes High School. When the school shut down sometime between I Love Lucy’s cancellation and Sputnik’s launch, the college sprouted up around it. The two-storey high school started off as the College of Business, but became the home for international students in the 1984 when the college started to enroll more than just Big Ten fail-outs. The building was too small to hold as many classes as it had — in fact, only a handful of professors had set-up shop inside the building; most walked from their offices to teach their classes. Amanda had the lucky distinction of only being an adjunct. Her office was one of three tables pushed together right in the center of the department.
The clock above the mural outside the office read 7:29. Amanda blinked at it when she walked by.
“G’mornin’, Amanda,” Mya Lopez greeted, looking up and over the reception desk. In her matching turquoise sweater and polka-dot dress, she looked like she should be pledging a sorority rather than answering phones. “Cold out there, isn’t it?”
“Same ol’, same ol’,” Amanda agreed, unbuttoning her coat to reveal her scarf. “I hear it’s going to snow this weekend.”
“That’s what I heard — oooh, I love that scarf!” Mya beamed. “Is it new?”
“This? Yeah — I bought it just before Halloween. Only now got to wear it.”
“It’s lovely. Pink is a good color on you.”
Amanda realized she was standing there, grinning, and caught herself. “Oh, is Dr. Maynard booked today?”
Mya looked at her calendar. “As far as I know, yeah.” She paused. “Oh wait — have you and Kiley…?”
With a shrug, Amanda said, “He still hasn’t given us an answer.”
“Gosh. Hope he does soon.” Mya gave her a sympathetic look. “I’d hate to see you both go.”
Amanda, crossed her mittened fingers. “We’ll see.”
Amanda’s first class was at eight o’clock. The clock on her computer said 7:43 when she left the office.
The hallway down to room 122 was crowded, more so than usual. She mentally chalked that up to it being the weekend before Thanksgiving and its related flurry of activity. Her classroom, however, was only half-full when she walked in at 7:45 (she caught a glimpse at the clock in the hall and blinked at it in return). She gave her six bored-looking classmates a thoughtful smile, though none of them returned it.
“If you have any questions that you want to ask me before class…” she started, not knowing how to finish. She raised her arms in a timid shrug. “I can help.”
One student raised his hand and asked her to clarify dependent and independent clauses. Another student, who clearly had the same confusion, listened in closely as she explained.
At 8 o’clock, Amanda began class with nine students. She collected their in-class essays on semicolon usage at 8:50. Then, having nothing more to teach them that day, Amanda let them go early.
As nine o’clock neared, Amanda’s fingers began to twitch. It was too early. Ten o’clock was her next de-stressing. She had a schedule and she liked to stick to it. Ten o’clock, the bathrooms were empty because students were in class. It was the perfect time, sandwiched between her prep hour and her next lecture with the remedial students.
On her way back to the office, Raj Said passed her in the hallway.
He was going the opposite way, going toward his stats class: books tucked under one arm, backpack on his shoulders. When he noticed her, he raised his free arm in a wave to greet her.
“Good morning, Amanda.”
She caught her breath. He spoke her name so kindly. With such precision. She lifted her head and let her eyes travel up his chest and neck to his face. His eyes.
“Morning, Raj,” she replied. “How are you this morning?”
“I’m well, thank you.” He slowed and turned, talking to her as he walked. “Ready for this weekend, that’s for sure.” He grinned and his teeth shone back at her. “You coming from class?”
“Yeah — gotta rush.” Her next class wasn’t until eleven o’clock.
“Ah, no prob. Talk to you later, then.”
“Sure thing.” She gave him one quick smile before nodding and heading off. As she rounded the corner to the department office, she shut her eyes quickly and whispered the words Sorry, Jesus.
The twitch in her fingers became a little sharper.
It wasn’t so much a twitch as it was a tic. When they felt compelled, her fingers drew tiny, invisible circles: on surfaces, on objects, in thin air. It was a very familiar pattern, and Amanda could conceal it when she pressed her fingers against her thighs. Today, her legs were too sore. She would have to seek other ways of hiding this tic. Or release it.
But it wasn’t ten o’clock yet. It was 9:03.
Amanda looked at Maynard’s office door as she entered the department. Still locked, still dark. He was supposed to be there three — no, four — minutes ago. His first class was at ten, his second at eleven. Then he took an hour for lunch. Then he had his one o’clock class, followed by his two o’clock. Then office hours until four…
“I can tell him you want to see him when he gets in,” Mya suggested, noticing her staring at the office.
“What? N-no. It’s fine.” Amanda, feeling stupid, moved toward her desk in the middle of the office. “I’ll pop by when he gets in. No rush.”
She sought for something to occupy the long minutes until Maynard walked in. She smoothed the Manila file of graded essays. She opened it. She took the paper essays out, shuffled them, straightened them, then sat them back down. She picked them up and pretended to look over them again. The minutes ticked by, slow as water torture. Her fingers absently traced little circles on her desk.
The door to the department office opened at 9:23. Amanda looked up from her fake reading, but saw only Kiley walking in — frizzy brown hair tousled, cup of coffee in one hand. As she sat down, she flipped her huge, grasshopper-eyed sunglasses onto her head.
“Goddamn,” she muttered, pulling her chair out. “I so don’t want to be here today.”
Amanda smiled. “Long night?” she asked, folding her hands. It concealed her twitching fingers.
“Last night was singles’ night at the Community Center,” she explained, wincing when she banged her knee on the desk drawer. “Met some real assholes. Then me and my girlfriends went out for drinks to bitch about them.” She laughed, coughed, then cringed. “Ugh…this headache…”
“Did you go to Southfield?”
“God no. I’m not driving that far for any singles night.”
“There’s a Community Center in Battle Creek?” Amanda asked, puzzled. There was a synagogue, but she didn’t know where that was. The only two religious-themed buildings that she was familiar with were St. Luke’s and Heaven’s Way Baptist out of an old VFW hall. She went to the former regularly and the latter for consignment shopping with her mother. And to drop off cakes at the annual bake sale.
“We went to Jackson,” Kiley said. “I’d never try to meet guys here. Don’t shit where you eat.” She chuckled again — lightly this time. “Hey, you should come with us next time, ‘Manda — they’ll be all over you!” She winked. “Shiksha goddess.”
Amanda forced a smiled. “Um…I don’t know. Can I?”
“Of course. It’s not just Jewish people who go single’s night. Lots of recent U of M grads go. I think they’re all hoping to score a doctor or lawyer.” She rolled her eyes, then winced again. “No offence.”
“None taken.” Her fingers crawled. Her Catholic parents would be ecstatic if she met a nice Jewish boy.
The door opened again, and Dr. Alan Maynard entered the department. Amanda’s eyes followed him as he walked over to reception, asked Mya a question, then made way for his office. He looked silly wearing a stocking cap on his head.
The clock read nine thirty-four.
“I’ll be right back,” she told Kiley absently as she rose to her feet. She heard her heart pounding louder in her chest with each step she took.
The clock read nine thirty-five.
Maynard stood at his desk — his back turned to her, removing his coat. Amanda watched him for a moment, absorbing. Mya and Kiley took turns commenting on his attractiveness, so she knew she was supposed to be attracted to him. He had all the right features: tall, sandy-blond hair, high cheekbones, and wore sweater vests. She had heard Kiley, Mya, and even Melanie (who was the only lesbian Amanda knew) mention something about how good-looking he was. Amanda agreed, but only out of pressure. Dr. Maynard had nice hair, broad shoulders, and a lantern jaw; add fifteen years and she could have mistaken him for her father.
“Yes, Amanda?” he asked, catching her looking. “Can I help you with something?”
Startled, she cleared her throat. “Um…yeah. Sorry. I was just…I was just wondering if you needed anything from records. I had to run over to the admin building later on to sign off on some financial aid forms and thought maybe you might need me to pick up any…” She stammered, realizing her sentence had gone on for too long. “…Anything while I was there.”
He frowned. “When are you going?”
“Just before my next class.” He raised his eyebrows in a silent question, so she clarified. “Uh, eleven. O’clock.”
“Yeah. Tell Sondra that I’ll have the drop forms she’s been asking about. They’ve been on my desk for days.”
He said nothing more and the room went silent.
“Anything else?” he prompted, impatient.
Amanda straightened. “Oh…yeah, did…” She was stammering again, and hated herself. “Did you happen to know when you’ll know what classes we’ll be teaching next semester? If any? I mean, I know I–”
“Amanda, I’ve told you twice now that we don’t decide the budget for next semester. The meeting is going to happen sometime after Thanksgiving, just before commencements.”
“Yeah, I know, it’s just that…that’s not a lot of time to give us if we need to find new jobs…”
“I understand, but I don’t make these decisions. When I know more, I’ll let you and Kiley know, ok?”
He got condescending when he was rushed.
“Ok,” Amanda said carefully. She felt her shoulders rising defensively. “Sorry…sir.”
“Amanda,” he corrected.
She looked at him.
“Call me Alan, ok?” He smiled and a mouthful of gleaming white teeth flashed back at her.
She left the room squeezing her fingers into her fists.
Kiley, who had been grading her own papers, raised an eyebrow as Amanda sat down. “What did he say?” she whispered. “We going to have jobs next semester or what?”
Amanda dragged her fingers against the fabric of her pants to quell the itch. The sting on her thighs reminded her not to do that again. “Nothing yet,” she muttered, slipping into her seat. An IM window on her monitor popped up, distracting her. “He’ll let us know.”
Kiley, she of many rolling eyes, rolled her eyes again. “Budget cuts in a terrible economy. I guess I’m going back to hooking.”
Though it was a joke — and a oft repeated one at that — Amanda didn’t laugh.
Except for their initial exchange on Singlelist, George IM’d her rather than emailed. She didn’t know why; she didn’t bother to ask. Maybe he liked the immediacy of IM over the vagueness of email. She certainly replied to people faster when she knew they were waiting right there for an answer.
She opened the IM window. In that awful, 14-point red Comic Sans font waited not one but two new messages from him. The first asked her very sweetly — almost cloyingly so — if they were still meeting that night. The second, posted twenty seconds after the first, read: i’ll be wearing the suit and fedora you asked about. what’ll i get to see you in? He followed that up with a suggestive winking string of characters.
Amanda felt like blushing just reading the words. She had never seen anyone wear a fedora unless it was on television. She wasn’t even sure she knew what a fedora looked like. Men typically didn’t wear hats anymore — especially not to sports bars in Jackson; at least George would be easy to pick out amongst the throng of jersey-wearing Redwings fans.
The keys were loud when she clicked: Little black dress.
He responded almost immediately.
lots of ladies wear lbds….what elsell you be wearing?
She pictured her closet: a small alcove in her tiny bedroom stocked with her work clothes, some jeans, and a few sweaters. On the floor, next to her broken Casio keyboard, sat a pair of red suede pumps. They were a few years old and the fabric had worn around the toes due to weather. But they were noticeable.
Her stomach churned as she typed: red fuck-me heels.
She closed the window with a single mouse-click. Curiously, George did not respond.
Amanda stood up, saying a mental sorry-prayer when she did. Her father swore sometimes. Colin did all the time. Her mother cursed once, when she slammed her thumb in the car door. Only Colin used that word.
“I’m heading off to records,” she announced to Kiley. “Do you need me to drop anything off for you?”
Kiley shook her head and looked back down at her papers. “No, but tell Mya to get me some better coffee as you go by,” she instructed. Then loudly, “It tastes like cat urine.”
“I heard that,” Mya replied, frowning from over her own computer monitor. “I don’t buy it, I just make it. And get it yourself!”
“If you got paid a dollar more an hour you’d do it,” Kiley muttered.
“I heard that too!”
Amanda’s fingers itched. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
She looked at the clock. Nine fifty-eight. Right on time.
Technically, Amanda’s 10am de-stressing was her second de-stressing of the day. She timed that, too. Her record was two-and-a-half minutes. The longest was eight. Usually she’d have to wait for talkative international students to leave, or taper off until they did. No one had ever said anything about her ten o’clock break. No one said anything about her two o’clock break, either — except for Melanie who thought she was sick that one time during flu season.
At eleven o’clock, Amanda went to her second class after dropping paperwork off at records. Only four students were absent from that one.
A woman stood at reception — elbows on the counter, talking to Mya — when Amanda finished teaching (the clock above reception read 12:03). Amanda could spot Melanie from a mile away: leopard print flats, chandelier earrings, jet-black hair in a pixie cut mohawk, and blood-red leggings. Opening the office doors, Amanda had difficulty not wrinkling her nose at the scent of cheap, dollar store perfume.
“Ah, Amanda,” Melanie drawled, her accent like hot molasses over buttered biscuits. “Perhaps you wanna go in on a bet Mya and me are having.”
“Mya says we ain’t gonna work next Wednesday. I say we are.”
Amanda paused. “I thought we weren’t.”
“Yeah, but I think Maynard might pull us in anyways.”
“He won’t,” Mya insisted, her brow furrowing. “I’ve got his calendar. He’s going to Chicago for Thanksgiving.”
“What the hell for? Plenty of snow here.”
“His mother’s from Chicago,” Amanda said, before quickly adding, “I overheard him talking to Dr. Williams about it.”
“Don’t mean he ain’t gonna make us work.” Melanie picked up her briefcase. “Anywho, I gotta get ready for my Speech class.” Melanie, a lecturer, had a Master’s degree, biweekly paycheck and a ten-month contract to teach communications at BCSU.
But like Kiley and Amanda, she didn’t have her own office. Melanie moved toward their island of desks. Amanda looked at Mya, who was frowning and shaking her head.
“And to think the thing separating her from us,” she muttered, “is a Master’s degree.”
Her instant messenger was alight in its own window when Amanda sat down at her desk. Cautiously, she looked at the desks on either side of hers: Melanie was on the phone, and Kiley was teaching her class. Amanda enlarged the window.
want to run the rules by me again?
Amanda hesitated. She spread her second class’ essays out on her desk and ran her fingers over the top one. She stared at the title, not bothering to read it but wanting to appear busy. Next to her, Melanie gabbed loudly into the receiver, the conversation less than work-related.
“Now I’m fixin’ to fly out to Atlanta on Tuesday. If I can’t, I will drive there to see you. Just don’t — Mama…Mama! I gotta get back to work! Yeah, I know — he’s mad, but what do I do? I cain’t please no one.”
Amanda held her breath. I told you them already.
The reply followed shortly thereafter.
i didnt write them down. one more time. promise i wont forget.
“Ok…ok…lemme talk to Daddy a minute. Then I gotta go.”
Amanda typed carefully and with purpose:
Ok. Fine. Five things.
-One, no kissing..
-Two, don’t touch my legs.
-Three, address me as “Lily,” and nothing else.
-Four, when you approach me, stick to the script: “Are you drinking alone tonight?” Don’t use any coarse language, don’t proposition me. I’ll tell you when I’m ready.
-Five, when I leave, do not follow me. Don’t say goodbye, don’t try to start a conversation. Just leave.
Got all that?
Amanda audibly jumped, and Melanie laughed. “Sorry, hon. Didn’t mean for you to freak out like that.”
“No, no,” she said, the blush hot in her cheeks. She subtly closed the window. “I was…just lost in thought.”
Melanie raised an eyebrow. “Your lips move when you type,” she pointed out. “Aw, man — I’m sorry! You’re beet-red right now!”
Amanda felt like her heart might explode. “I’m…just…”
“It’s ok, ‘Manda.” Melanie lowered her voice. “You gotta guy you’re talkin’ to?”
She thought for a moment. The exact truth would not fly. “Kind of,” she admitted, glancing at the minimized window blinking on her desktop. “My parents don’t have the internet at home.”
“Shit — really? Why?”
“My dad is…well, they’re both weird.” She held her breath, releasing it only when Melanie laughed in understanding. “As soon as I can afford my own place, I won’t have to IM at work.”
“S’ok. I won’t tell no one.” Melanie picked up an accordion file and got up. “And I think Maynard knows about the internet as much as your parents do.”
Amanda chuckled, and Melanie left — the woman had an odd way of pronouncing his name. Maynurrrrd.
She was alone, finally. Mya was at her desk, looking at the clock (12:11) and probably waiting for her lunch break. Maynard was gone, too. Dr. Williams was in her office with the door closed. The other professors that made up the International Department were either in class, out to lunch, or had their doors pulled as well. Done looking around, Amanda turned back to her monitor.
that all sounds good. see you tonight, sweetness.
She closed the window. Her fingers were tingling again.
At one o’clock, Mya shoved her purse under her arm and ran out to lunch. Amanda could rely on her, and only her, to be as precise as she was at that time.
Destressing before lunch could be tricky. Anything longer than ten minutes and she didn’t get enough time to eat. Amanda could keep it to around four minutes when the bathroom traffic was good; the full ten when it was bad. Occasionally there weren’t enough unoccupied sinks to wash her hands afterward, and she would have to trek back to the office with her own musky scent on her fingers. There was a giant pump of hand sanitizer on Mya’s desk, but if there were people around…Amanda just preferred to get in and out of the bathroom in five minutes.
That day, Amanda destressed in less than a minute. And all of the bathroom sinks were open. The hand soap smelled like butterscotch.
As she rounded the corner out of the bathroom, she slammed right into Nadir Rameshareddy. His chest like tightened steel rammed into her own and knocked her to the floor.
She landed hard on her rear end, igniting a fresh sting of pain in her thighs. She hissed, her hands pressing against the pain.
Nadir, his eyes flashing down at her, snarled, “Cunt.”
An arm came out of nowhere and shoved him against the brick wall with a thud. Nadir gurgled, his attack just as much a surprise to him as it was to Amanda.
“Watch your mouth,” Raj seethed, his weight pressing into Nadir as the latter tried to wiggle free. “I had better not hear you call anyone that again, do you hear me?”
Nadir glared at him, his mouth in a horrid grimace.
“You ok, Amanda?” Raj asked, still staring.
She touched her legs. “Yes,” she said, her cheeks once again on fire. A small crowd had gathered to stare at the kerfuffle, and she lowered her head. “I’m fine.”
“Good.” Raj took a step back and released his student. Nadir, indignant, brushed off his khaki shorts. “Now get to class, you chump.”
Nadir muttered something and, without so much as giving Amanda a second look, stalked off. Raj, trying to give her a warm smile, reached down to help her up. She shook her head and got to her feet by herself.
“Oh damn, I should have made him apologize to you,” Raj said. “He’s a jerk to everyone. But that was uncalled for.”
“I didn’t mean to run into him,” Amanda said lamely. The words sounded juvenile in her mind and she prickled. “It was an accident.”
“I saw it,” he assured her. “If he bothers you again, let me know.”
“Thanks. I think I’ve got it though.”
She didn’t wait for him to go on. She just gripped her purse tighter and made her way for the exit.
The time on the clock was 1:06.
“Ugh, fuck this shit,” Kiley whined, stretching. “I’m booking early. It’s Friday and I’m not saying in this town past 6. Is Maynard gone yet?”
At her desk, Mya shook her head. “He’s been in there with that student for the past half-an-hour,” she said, picking at her nail polish. “It must be about her grade.”
“We taking separate cars, then?”
“Nah, I’ll drive to your place. Then we can go in your car.”
“You owe me gas money, girl.” Kiley turned to Amanda. “Hey, you wanna go to K’zoo tonight with us, ‘Manda? Drinks and dinner, and possibly some guys…?”
Melanie snickered. Amanda ignored it and talked over her.
“Nah, I can’t. I promised my mom I’d stay for dinner tonight.” When Kiley narrowed her eyes, Amanda followed up with, “But next time, ‘k?”
“Ok.” Kiley looked over her shoulder at the closed office door. With a shrug, she stood and picked up her purse. “Oh, fuck it. C’mon, Mya. He ain’t comin’ out.”
Mya and Kiley were gone in a matter of minutes (4:48), leaving just Melanie beside her. When they were both alone, she turned off her computer monitor and starting putting things away. “You’re gonna see that guy tonight, huh?”
“Who…? Oh. Yeah.” Amanda shrugged. “It’s not serious or anything. Just a date.”
“Jackson,” she admitted. “I didn’t want to lie to them, I just didn’t want to make a big deal of it.”
“Eh, don’t worry about it. I won’t say anything.” She grinned and slung her bag over her shoulder. “Hey, y’all gonna have jobs next semester or what?”
“I don’t know. Dr. Maynard said he won’t know until after Thanksgiving.”
Melanie scoffed. “Stringing you both along, that one. Ah well. What are you gonna do if you don’t?”
Amanda thought for a moment. “I have no idea.”
For a moment, Melanie looked at her with pity. Pity only someone with a contract to work ten months out of the year could give. “Have a good weekend, ‘Manda.”
“‘Bye, Melanie. You too.”
Amanda was gathering up her things when her phone buzzed. Colin had texted, asking her to swing by the campus gym to pick him up. As she stood, looking at her phone, Alan Maynard’s door opened. He and the young girl, no older than twenty, walked out — mid-conversation and without looking at her — and left the department office together.
Colin opened the car door and his sweaty stench came wafting in along with the cold. Amanda wrinkled her nose and gave him a playful shove when he plopped in.
“You bring the gym home with you every time you use it,” she remarked, pulling out of the parking lot.
“It’s the smell of activity,” he replied. “How was your day?”
“Not bad. My boss is a pervert, my students are indifferent to everything. Yours?”
“Not bad. I’m getting a C in business calc and maybe a B in accounting. At least, that’s what I’m telling our parents.” He tossed his backpack behind his seat. “Wait, why is your boss a pervert?”
“I saw him leave with some Alpha Kap. And that was after he had been in his office alone with her for nearly an hour.”
“So? Profs have meetings with students all the time.”
“This is Alan Maynard we’re talking about.”
“Oh right. The pussy hound.” Amanda gave him a look, and Colin smiled. “You know, you could apply for that other lecturer position,” he suggested.
“Heh. No. Need a Master’s.”
“Well, look for a job somewhere that isn’t the college.”
“If anywhere else was hiring, I would.” She stopped at a red light. “I gotta get out of this town, I guess.”
“Where’d you go? Chicago? New York?” He grinned. “Los Angeles?”
She laughed. “God, no. Maybe Lansing.”
“Seriously? This country is full of better cities and you want to go to Lansing?”
“It’s not far and I could afford it.” She paused, dreamily considering. “Keep your dreams small and you might achieve them.” It was easy to be this frank and honest with her younger brother. Often, Amanda felt they were on the same wave length about everything, even if their personalities were at opposite ends of the spectrum. Amanda was quiet and shy; Colin was loud and boisterous. Physically they resembled each other, but only in the way siblings could — Amanda had inherited their father’s wide-set ears and fair complexion; her brother inherited his height and forceful personality. Their mother had bequeathed them both her eyes and hair color (though the streaks of red came from their father), but her reserved nature went entirely to Amanda. In fact, when Janice and Colin Keefe were in the same room, it was nearly impossible to tell that the latter came from the former.
“By the way,” Amanda added. “I’m going to need the car tonight.”
“Well shit. Where are you going?”
“See a friend.”
“Who are you, Ma?”
Colin shuddered and chuckled. “Forget I asked.”
Breakfast was the last thing she smelled when she left, and dinner was the first thing she smelled when she came home. The aroma of shepherd’s pie warmed Amanda even as she walked up from the driveway to the front door. Colin pushed ahead and flung open the door. “Ma!” he shouted, tearing off his coat. “Hope you haven’t served dinner yet!”
“It’s on the table,” Janice Keefe called from the kitchen. “You two wash up — don’t let it get cold!”
Amanda glanced at the clock (5:26) on the mantel and blinked.
“Smelled it from the driveway,” Colin called back, tossing his backpack onto the couch. “Smells as good as grandma’s!”
With a chuckle, Amanda peeled out of her coat and hung it on the hook by the door. Her parents were in the kitchen — her mother pouring milk into plastic cups and her father, still in his work uniform, flipping through the company newsletter. He was frowning and his nose was red. Knowing he was unhappy, Amanda gave him a quick kiss on the top of his head and sunk into her seat.
“Unions,” he said, looking at her once over his newsletter. “Got them at that school of yours yet?”
Amanda picked up her fork. The pie stared back at her from her plate. The steam rose and stung her eyes. “Teachers union, yeah,” she said, before changing the subject. “Did I get any mail today, Ma?”
Janice shook her head. Her father continued. “Be happy you don’t, Panda. These bastards are suckin’ us dry every goddamn day.”
“Language, Norman,” Janice scolded, settling into her own chair.
“God forbid people have protection against horrible working conditions and low wages,” Colin sneered, bursting into the room with his sweatshirt off and his hair wild.
“Oh, that’s how it started out,” Norman went on, folding the newsletter and tossing it onto the microwave. “Now look at it. We can’t afford to pay their outrageous wages and meet their outrageous demands, so we’ve got to lay people off. And we’re laying off the good people, too. The ones that want to work.”
“Who would they be, Pop?” Colin slathered a piece of bread with butter. “Oh, you mean black people?”
Norman glared at his son. “Watch it, boy,” he warned. “I don’t like what you’re accusing me of.”
“Furthermore, what power do unions have anyway? People like you took away their collective bargaining rights a long time ago.”
“People like me?”
“This is good, Ma,” Amanda interrupted, blowing on a morsel of shepherd’s pie. “I love it.”
Janice Keefe gave her a grateful smile, and both father and son shut up.
“How was work today, sweetie?” her mother asked when enough time had passed. “Did you get your schedule for next semester yet?”
Amanda thought for a moment. Colin’s eyes, like two lasers, burned holes in her neck. “Not yet,” she said. “But Dr. Maynard said he was positive Kiley and I would both get classes. He was sure.” She looked down and flushed, sending up another sorry-prayer for her lies.
“Is Kiley the…” Her father grasped for words — words that were inoffensive and proved Colin’s insinuations wrong. “The…” He gave up and rubbed the back of his hand.
Amanda took another bite of dinner. “Mm…Mya’s Hispanic,” she clarified.
“That the secretary?”
“Well, that’s good,” her mother interrupted. “What about that lecturer job? Have you brought that up to anyone yet?”
“You need a Master’s degree for that.”
“Doesn’t hurt to apply, though.”
“How many graduate students do you think applied for that job when it was announced?” Colin said, giving Amanda a sidelong look. “Probably all of them.”
Her mother, embarrassed, shrugged. “Oh. Well then.” She stirred her pie thoughtfully, then added, “Are you two all set to go to your grandmother’s house on Wednesday?”
Colin made a face as he took a swig of milk. “I forgot about that.”
Norman frowned at him. “You don’t like visiting your grandmother? Maybe you should tell her that and break her poor heart.”
“I hate going to St. Joe’s for any reason. It ain’t Grandma’s fault.”
“Again, tell her that.”
“Grandma should move.”
“Who else is going to be there?” Amanda asked, her fingers rubbing the rim of her glass.
“Mm, not sure. Your aunt Katie can’t make it up from Florida.” Janice Keefe regarded her daughter with a frosty look. “Why? Does it matter?”
Colin replied for her: “All that crazy under one roof? Why don’t you just throw us both in boiling water and tell us to swim?”
Amanda kicked her brother under the table. He kicked her back.
“You live under our roof, you obey our rules,” Norman Keefe warned, his dark eyes moving between his two children. “And we’re going to your grandmother’s for Thanksgiving. Don’t want to? Don’t live in this house.”
The table went silent for a few minutes. Only the sounds of silverware clinking against ceramic plates and the occasional slurp from a glass (Colin) filled the air. Their mother, never comfortable with such silence, broke it at the last second.
“So what are you two doing tonight?” she asked, pushing her half-eaten plate away. “Staying in? Going out? Anyone coming over?”
“I’m staying in tonight,” Colin said, stretching. “And before you ask, no I don’t want to watch anything on any twenty-four hour news channel. I’m going to study for my final and fall asleep listening to loud, obnoxious house music.” He yawned. “Or, I’ll just fall asleep and die of boredom.”
Norman rolled his eyes. “Keep it down, whatever you do.”
“What about you, Panda?” Janice asked. “I was thinking of watching something on Netflix tonight. Wanna join me?”
Amanda pushed her finished plate aside and took a long sip of milk. The cold irritated the burn on the roof of her mouth. “Can we watch something tomorrow night, Ma? I’m actually going out tonight.”
Her parents looked up, both surprised. Colin hid a smile.
“You…with whom?” Norman demanded.
“I’m meeting some friends. In Jackson.” She took another sip.
“Anyone we know?” Janice, in her politeness, forgot that Amanda wasn’t fifteen anymore.
“The ladies from work. We’re just going out for drinks. Well, they’re drinking. I’m not.”
“What time will you be home?” Colin asked slyly.
“Before midnight.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Don’t worry — you’ll have the car back by tomorrow.”
“These doors get locked at 1am,” Norman insisted. “I expect you’ll be home and not in any state then?”
“Of course not,” Amanda assured. “No shenanigans. I swear it.”
“Well, be careful.” Janice advised. “Late on a Friday night? In Jackson? I don’t know if I like that.”
“We’re not going anywhere bad, Ma. I promise.”
The clock above the stove read 5:48.
She held the dress up to her shoulders. It looked lovely on the store mannequin, but on her it looked strange, like a little girl playing dressup. It hugged her stomach and bosom a little too comfortably, the hem fell right above her knees, the sleeves three-quarter length. The last time she wore it was to a career fair her sophomore year, but then it was beneath a heavy coat and her feet were in fuzzy snow boots. Amanda’s knees shook as she slipped it over her head.
She had very little in the way of accessories: a cross necklace that her grandmother bought for her sixteenth birthday and a pair of fake pearl clip-on earrings. She also had only a few makeup supplies to play with: some mascara, a bit of lip gloss, and some blush — the blush was far too dark on her skin. But it was a vast improvement than nothing at all. After blotting her lips, she slid her bracelet onto her right wrist.
The red pumps were last. She teetered around in them, testing them, before she got her balance.
Amanda took one last look at herself in the mirror over her door. Before leaving, she grabbed a bulky cardigan from a pile of laundry and threw it over her shoulders.
Her mother and father, both sitting in front of a rerun of some police procedural, noticed her change of attire and remarked in different ways.
“Don’t you look pretty!” her mother exclaimed. “Where’d you get those shoes?”
“Where are you going in that?” her father remarked.
“Meijer’s.” Embarrassed, Amanda threw her coat over her shoulders. “I won’t be home too late,” she promised. “If you’re not up when I get back, I’ll see you in the morning.”
Her father sounded like he was going to protest, but she slipped out the front door before she could hear it.
The drive to Jackson (which took an hour in good traffic, a bit more than an hour in bad) took forty-five minutes. Around the fifteen minute mark, right when Friday night sports traffic started to build up, a familiar tension returned to her. Seven-thirty was her fourth destressing of the day, and as often as she considered it she had no desire to destress while driving. She pictured her car, totaled and smoking having crashed headlong into the guardrail, being pulled apart by paramedics to pry her mangled corpse from it just after noticing her hand stuck up under her skirt.
She laughed aloud and the dark absurdity. But it didn’t stop her right leg from jiggling the entire drive.
Running ten minutes late (she looked at the car radio clock just before shutting off the engine), Amanda pulled into the parking lot of the Swamp Foot.
A sports bar with an appropriate name, the Swamp Foot smelled like equal parts athlete’s fungus and chicken wings. Even from the outside, Amanda knew this wasn’t a place she would ordinarily go. Granted, she wouldn’t go to any bar if given the chance. But George insisted. He said it was the halfway point between their towns and she may feel safer if they met in neutral territory. She thought it was sweet that he, a man she had never met before, was looking out for her. Thus, she agreed to meet him here.
Thankfully, the Swamp Foot wasn’t as packed as she expected. There was the usual be-jerseyed demographic of men between the ages of 18 and 35 at the bar, drinking Miller Genuine Draft and staring at the flat-screen above the bored-looking bartender. The tables were empty at least, and upon entering, Amanda made for the one furthest from the entrance. She wanted to be in eyeshot of the exit, but a safe distance from any onlookers. Before sitting down, she slid out of her coat and cardigan and tossed them on the chair next to her.
The bartender lifted his chin at her. She mouthed a single word — water — at him, and he nodded.
A quick scan of the Swamp Foot dining room told her there was no one with a fedora in the place. The clock on the wall, beneath the mural of Steve Yzerman, Gordy Howe, and Sparky Anderson, read 8:13 — not only had she been running late, but George had been as well. It dawned on her, as she tapped on the tabletop, that she didn’t know what George looked like. She pictured a tall man, dressed in a three-piece business suit and carrying a leather attache case at his side. She pictured a man who lived in Ann Arbor but had a cabin in Grayling. He wore plaid shorts on the weekends and played golf after church. He knew the difference between a neat drink and a drink on the rocks, but never drank before five o’clock on weekdays. He–
Though he wore a suit, George was hardly the man she pictured. He was hardly anything, really — below average height and skinny, with wide glasses and hollow cheeks. Atop his head, perched crookedly, sat a pointed fedora. He smiled at her, and the lines in his face told her he was at least twenty-five or thirty years her senior. For the longest second of her life, Amanda stared at him and wished the earth would open up and swallow her.
George didn’t pick up on her apprehension. He lowered his voice and breathed, “Can I buy you a drink?”
The bartender appeared and sat a wet glass of water in front of her. He noticed this odd man hovering above her and cleared his throat. “Anything else I can get you, sweetie?” he asked.
“No thank you,” Amanda countered. “We’re fine.”
The bartender raised an eyebrow. He didn’t believe her, but he didn’t press the issue. He left without asking George if he wanted anything.
“Um,” he stammered, suddenly remembering. “Are you drinking alone tonight?”
Amanda sighed. “That was one,” she muttered.
He bit his bottom lip. “Sorry,” he whispered. “I forgot.”
“No, actually,” she replied, loudly repeating her memorized lines. “I’m waiting on my date. He was supposed to be here twenty minutes ago.”
George, still standing, paused. His eyes rolled around, searching for the proper response. “Shit…uh…” He blinked. “Oh! I mean, I can’t believe anyone would stand someone like you up.”
“He didn’t stand me up,” she replied, her fingers drumming on the table. Beneath the table, her left leg jiggled restlessly. “He’s just late.”
“His loss,” George said, sliding into the chair opposite her. “He doesn’t know what he’s missing.” He grinned and folded his hands.
“Stick to your lines,” Amanda demanded, her breath catching in her chest. “It’s–”
“I know. Um…I guess he didn’t…I mean…I guess he…”
Amanda crushed a napkin in her fist. “‘I guess he didn’t realize–’”
“I guess he didn’t realize how late he was going to be,” he finished. He smiled, proud of himself. He extended his hand. “My name is George.”
Amanda took it. His palm was hot and clammy at the same time. She winced at what that might mean. “I’m Lily.”
“You smell like one,” he improvised, leaning forward. He gave her a look that made her stomach turn. “I bet your cunt tastes like hot honey.”
She choked back a gasp. “That’s not what I wrote,” she said.
“I know,” he murmured. “I like my version better.”
“You promised me–”
“I know what I promised. But that was before I saw you.” He stopped smiling. “And now all I want to do is bend you over this table and fuck you sore. If we were the only ones in here, I think you’d let me.”
Amanda clenched her stomach muscles tight. If she hadn’t, she may have thrown up all over the table. And him.
She reached over to the glass of water to take a sip. He grabbed her hand to stop her, blighting her.
“It’s nice to meet you, Lily. What does your boyfriend do?”
He released her.
Her eyes lingered on her glass. It took her a long time before she could meet his eyes.
“He’s a psychology professor,” she recited.
The subway tile on the bathroom wall was cool against the sweaty palms of her hands and forearms. Refreshing even. Amanda tried to concentrate on that feeling as George fumbled with himself behind her.
“One minute,” he begged, breathlessly jerking himself off as she froze, bent over the toilet in the women’s bathroom. “It’s nerves. Just…nerves.”
She shut her eyes and tried to picture someone else. Someone tall. Muscular. Handsome. Someone whose cock didn’t flop half-mast and useless against her thigh. At least when it was erect, she could tell he was well endowed; not that she tried to look, however.
“There!” he announced gleefully, his hands encircling her hips. “I got it! I got it! One sec…”
Amanda arched her back and moaned as he entered her. When he did, he made a sound that sounded like a cat hacking up a hairball. On the third thrust (she was counting), she felt his hands moving down to her legs and she balked.
“Not my legs,” she hissed over her shoulder. She released the wall long enough to bring his hands back up to her waist. “There. Keep them there.”
No sooner did the words come out did he start losing his erection again. “Fuck,” he cursed, withdrawing. “I swear to Christ this is the first time this has happened.”
“It’s fine,” she retorted. “I don’t care. Just hurry up and get it over with.” She bent over again and stared at the chipped enamel on the toilet tank.
George pressed himself against her buttocks and moved his hands up to her clothed breasts. She tried to squirm out of that grasp, but her discomfort only aroused him. One more time he sprang to life and one more time he tried fucking her. On the third thrust she locked her knees together. The build-up resumed.
“Why don’t you want your legs touched?” he asked, his breath hot on the back of her head. Where his hands drew a path, her skin burned.
“Do as I say,” she instructed, gritting her teeth and reaching behind to clench his bony hip, “and pull out when you’re done. Don’t get anything on my dress.”
“Wait…what?” George’s hands moved lower again. She felt his fingers on her thighs.
Amanda stiffened. “I said–”
He suddenly pulled out of her for a third and final time. Amanda, knowing but not seeing, pulled herself as close to the wall and as far away from George as possible. When she turned around, he was buckled over with his hands over his groin. He looked up at her, cheeks flushed, and eyes apologetic.
“Sorry,” he muttered.
Amanda felt like jammed pistol. With a groan of frustrated rage, she gave George a shove toward the door. He protested, but she somehow got the door open and forced him out of the bathroom. She stayed inside and locked the door again.
Alone now, she leaned against the door and licked her fingers.
It was over in less than a minute. The stress ripped from her loins as she came hard against her hand. At once, her body felt warm and comforted. Silent. Still. The paroxysms faded as her heart slowed in her ears.
After pulling her underwear up and skirt down, Amanda washed her hands and smoothed her hair. Her mascara had smeared under her right eye and her lip gloss was on her teeth. With a splash of water, she took care of both. She also wiped a trace of him off her left buttock with a paper towel. Then she left.
George was at her table when she came to get her coat. He stood when he saw her and immediately began apologizing. “This doesn’t happen ever,” he kept saying. “I swear.”
He didn’t specify whether he meant the lack of a consistent erection or his premature ejaculation. Amanda did not care either way; she grabbed her coat and purse from the chair and made for the exit. The bartender watched her, but she ignored him too.
To her horror, George followed her. “Hey!” he called as she quickened her pace on the sidewalk. “Hey! Lily! Wait, what’s your real name? Wait! Please! Just for a second!”
The more he begged, the more Amanda felt her chest swelling with disgust.
“Can we see each other again?” he said, catching up with her. He may have been older by a number of years, but what he lacked in substance he made up for in persistance. “I’ll stick to the script this time. I promise.”
“I gave you five rules,” she told him, nearly running. The freezing temperatures did nothing to slow her down. “And you broke four of them.”
“Hey, at least I didn’t try to kiss you.”
She wrapped her coat around her. “Go away. Leave me alone. Don’t ever try to contact me again.”
“What? Why? Because I–”
“I said, leave me alone!” She wanted to swear at him. Sometimes swearing shocked people enough into stopping whatever they were doing. But not George. He kept following her, doggedly tagging along beside her.
He stopped tailing her somewhere between a Lincoln Continental and a Ford Explorer. This one time, she was grateful she left the car unlocked. She flung herself inside and started the ignition, leaving it no time to warm up or put on her seatbelt. George, standing at the parking lot entrance, watched her car peel out of the slush and turn onto the street. He continued watching her as she drove away.
When he disappeared in her rearview mirror, Amanda released her breath. Her heart was slamming against her ribs, her stomach was flip-flopping, and she was sure she left her cardigan back at the Swamp Foot.
But the trembling was gone. At least.
Amanda only glanced at the clock above the mantel. It was after 9:30, but it didn’t matter what time it was. Her day was over. Fatigue gripped her.
Colin sat on the couch; one hand around a beer, the other around the remote. He raised his head and nodded at her as she kicked off her shoes and hung her coat on the hook.
“How was your date?” he asked. “You’re home well before midnight, so I assume all went well.”
“Oh, hush.” She sighed and rubbed the small of her back. Bending awkwardly put a crick in it. “Where’s mom and dad?”
“Bed. Dad got tired, Ma wanted to read. She wanted you to say good night when you came in.”
Amanda shook her head. “I’ll see them both in the morning.” With a sigh, she fell into the couch next to him and pulled her legs up under her. “What are you watching?”
“Ehh. Who the fuck knows?” She thumped his knee and he winced. “Ouch! Sorry! I meant, ‘who the fuck knows, ma’am.’”
She elbowed him in the ribs and made a face. “Potty-mouth!”
He turned the volume down and took a drink from the can. “Seriously. How was your night?”
She shrugged. “It could have been worse, I guess. Yours?”
“I was home with our parents. I think mine was worse.”
With a forced smile she looked at the tv. A man and woman, on a show she had never seen, started kissing. Passionately. Then groping. When Amanda began fidgeting, Colin wordlessly changed the channel to something less graphic.
“Everything ok?” he asked, his jovial tone softening.
“Yeah. Good as ever.”
“Your date not go well?”
“It wasn’t a date.”
“Think you’ll ever have one?”
Amanda thought for a long moment. “I don’t know. I’m not ready.”
“Don’t force yourself into anything you’re not ready for, Salamander. You’ll just stress yourself out more.”
She smiled. His eyes were kind, honest. Caring. She clamped her hand down over his and gave it a squeeze. “Mind your own business,” she teased.
He stopped smiling and turned back to the program. Two kids, both wearing red sweaters, were running around a playground. Laughing. Playing tag. Pushing each other on an old swing. A minute passed before Colin’s fingers squeezed hers.
She rested her head on his shoulder.
“…through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
Amanda crossed herself. The act felt familiar and comforting. She rose from the edge of the bed and turned the covers down.
She didn’t crawl in right away. Instead, she pulled a neatly folded hand-towel out from under her her pillow. The terry cloth was blue but splotched with purple stains. She laid it on her bed, taking great care to unfold it and spread it over her crisp pink bed sheets. When it was flat enough for her liking, she sat down on it.
She turned Bobo around to face the wall.
On her nightstand was her middle school pencil box. It was crusted with graphite marks, but there weren’t any pencils inside any more. Amanda opened the box and withdrew another small cloth — a faded pink wash rag with frayed edges. Unfolding this revealed her stash of three Xacto knives: a number one, a number two, and a number three. Amanda slid the number two out and sat the rest aside.
She pulled up her nightgown and felt the still-fresh wounds from last night on her outer thigh. Beneath them were rows of numerous scars. Some big and deep, but the rest tiny and incidental. Under the pads of her fingers, they all felt raised and ugly. Her arms were unscathed, except for one scar at the base of her right wrist, under the wide, elastic junk jewelry bracelet. It was short and unassuming, and could be easily mistaken for an accident. Though she kept it covered, she answered any questions about it with a vague, “Hurt it riding my bike when I was twelve.” No one was any the wiser.
But her legs were complex roadmaps of battle wounds.
Gripping the number two in her left hand, Amanda brought her nightgown up to her hip. The motion triggered an old memory, and for a second she couldn’t remember where she was. Blinking, Amanda brought the blade down to the unblemished skin between two, whisper-thin scars.
She didn’t like to think of the Xacto knife as cutting her; she thought of it as licking her. And when they licked her, it left scarlet trails down her flesh to soak into the old hand towel beneath her.
Pain was as comforting and familiar as crossing herself.
There was a bloody liturgy behind it. Amanda capped her blade and slipped it back into its cloth enclosure. Gently, she returned the cloth to the pencil box and put the pencil box back on her night stand. Before straightening, she grabbed two tissues from the Kleenex box.
Sometimes the bleeding stopped quickly; other times it went on for a while. Her cuts from last night were red around the edges. Enflamed. Irritated.
Amanda pulled the hand towel out from under her and folded it, returning it a second later to its spot under her bed. Then she dropped her used tissues on the floor. She could get those in the morning.
Before falling asleep, she set her alarm clock.