THE LIVING ROOM
They met on Orientation Day. After she registered in the dormitory lobby, the resident adviser took Mischa up to her assigned room to meet Martha, her roommate for freshman year. Most of Martha's belongings were already unpacked.Her family had left New Haven early that morning and they were in Boston by afternoon. Martha's mother wore a lime green headband over her Doris Day-like hair and capri pants embroidered with pink tulips. She was the picture of New England preppydom. She laughed nervously as she rearranged objects and returned them to their original spot, only to find another object to pick up and do the same. Martha's father wore a blinding white golf shirt with a country club logo on it. Though he had a ready grin, his bright blue eyes were sharp and mean. At two in the afternoon, he already had a heavy stench of scotch about him.
After three months together, Martha and Mischa had an unspoken understanding that they would share a room and no more. Martha's side was dotted with various sizes of teddy bears wearing sweaters with college logos, while Mischa's side was adorned with fifteen or more Post-it reminders placed on the wall next to her bed, in no particular order. Everything about them-their housekeeping habits, choice of music, majors, clothes-predetermined the conclusion that they would be friendly, but not friends.
Sitting on her bed, unable to think of what to do next, Mischa could only hope that Martha would return soon.The lock turned and a finger flicked on the light switch next to the door.
"Mischa? What are you doing, sitting in the dark?"
"Curtis tried to kill himself."
Martha's jaw dropped. "Isn't that the guy you dated? The weird one on the first floor?"
"With a razor across his wrists," Mischa replied, emotionless. It was a simple statement of fact. Martha's eyebrows furrowed as she tried to think of what to say next.
Okay, so he was...is...odd. Weird is too strong a word. Sounds a little too pejorative. Then again, I'm weird and I accept it. Okay, so Martha's not completely off base, he was weird...is weird...is...is. Curtis liked jazz. He liked Billie Holiday but still knew the lyrics to every Cole Porter song that Ella Fitzgerald had ever sung, and that impressed Mischa. He loved black-and-white movies. He could quote every line from It Happened One Night. Like some nervous tic, he made a point of quoting a line from that movie in every conversation. In the middle of a sentence he would change his tone, which signaled that the It Happened demon had taken possession and a movie reference was imminent. He even gave her a script of the movie that he had typed in high school. He thought that Mischa could learn the lines and they could parry back and forth. Curtis wanted to play Clark Gable to her Claudette Colbert. Okay, so maybe he was weird.
Curtis talked a lot about his friend from high school. He showed Mischa photographs of the two of them together. Curtis's favorite was the one of them dressed in vintage tennis garb holding wooden tennis rackets. She often wondered how Curtis and he had survived high school without getting beaten up. In the back of her mind she wondered if Curtis was gay, but had not yet come out, or perhaps was unaware of it himself.
They both loved Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, and Oscar Peterson. Who else could she talk to? Everyone else listened to other music. She felt like a fish out of water at college, but she was accustomed to being out of water. She thought he was comfortable, too. He never had to study much before exams and could write first-class papers in hours. He was-he is, he is-funny, too. Dark humor, very quick-witted, with word play and puns, that's how he spoke.
"Mischa. Come back to earth. Mischa, look at me." Martha stood in front of her while Mischa sat on the edge of the bed. "Who found him? Did you find him?"
"What? Me? Oh. No. His roommate did, Daniel. He came in and told me this morning. He went to the hospital with him. I don't know. I don't really know." She would never have imagined Daniel, so soft-spoken, slamming a door. His rage had been directed completely at her. Why me?
"So what are you going to do?" Martha asked.
"I thought of curling up in a fetal position in the corner."
"OKAY." Martha raised her eyebrows with concern and bewilderment. "Well, um, when did this happen?"
"This morning. His roommate told me around noon or something."
"It's past nine. Have you been sitting here, in the dark, all this time? What are you going to do?" Martha asked.
"Perhaps I'll move to the corner."
"Um...well." Martha never really "got" sarcasm, and after a while Mischa had stopped using it with her. She thought that one-sided sarcasm was cruel. Tonight she did not have the concentration to tailor her speech.
Like a commando on a mission, Martha went into action. She took a Diet Cherry Coke from the refrigerator and handed it to her. She made Mischa a ham and American cheese sandwich smothered with mayonnaise. Martha sliced the sandwich diagonally on her neon blue cutting board on top of the retro refrigerator, the color of a 1950s pink Cadillac. Had she put it in a Ziploc plastic bag, it would have been Mischa's childhood dream realized. In elementary school, Mischa always wanted that type of sandwich made on flat, unnaturally white Wonder Bread, just like the other kids. She hated her deformed sandwiches, made with homemade bread that her mother baked every Wednesday. Martha handed the sandwich to her on a plastic plate covered with bright yellow daisies.
"Eat something," Martha ordered.
They sat in silence and Mischa could hear her drink fizzing inside the can. She was stunned by Martha's kindness and obeyed her order by taking timid bites and chewing carefully.
"I'm going to Sigma Chi tonight. You are coming along," Martha announced. "You've got to take your mind off this. I don't want to come back to find blood on the sheets."
Wait a minute, was that dark humor? Is Martha being sarcastic?
"Martha, no, I couldn't."
True, there's no protocol for dealing with an ex-boyfriend's suicide attempt, but going to a party just doesn't seem right.
"Listen, Mischa, I'm not asking you. I'm telling you. I'm going to take a shower. We're leaving in a half hour, and you're coming."
Martha charged out the door in her purple silk kimono robe with her red Snoopy beach towel. When she returned, the smell of her peach shampoo filled the room. Martha went through her drawers and surveyed her closet while Mischa watched admiringly from her bed. Mischa's clothes were jumbled together, with no order to them, but Martha's organization was so clear that even Mischa knew what item of clothing Martha was going to get before she took it out. Ah, she's going into the sweater drawer. Martha took out her thin powder blue sweater with the deep scoop neckline and wriggled into it. The sweater shouted, "Look at these!" whenever it was accompanied by a push-up bra.
You know, I've never understood the desire to show cleavage. Then again, I've never had cleavage. How can I be such a catty bitch? I've got to stop it.
Martha squeezed the remaining water from her hair with the towel and threw it on the bed. "Well, Mischa, it's all over the dorm. Girls were chatting in the bathroom, trying to get the four-one-one on what happened."
"What?" asked Mischa.
"Information about the incident. Curtis. You. Get with it! Wake up!"
"Oh gosh, Martha, please, really, I can't leave this room." She curled up behind her pillow, against the wall.
"Look, Mischa, the resident adviser found me. The Dipshit told me if I don't stay with you, then, according to college regulations, she will have to stay with you. You need to be accompanied tonight."
"But I wasn't the one who tried to commit suicide!"
"You were 'peripherally involved', is what the Dipshit said. They are taking it seriously. So you and Daniel both have to be accompanied tonight. Unless you come with me, you'll be stuck with her, in this room, until I get back from the party. You choose. Me or her?"
"Not the Dipshit," Mischa said glumly.
"Okay then, get ready. I can style your hair, once I'm done with mine." With that, she pressed the button and the overpowering volume of the blow-dryer allowed Mischa to be free of conversation for a few minutes. When Martha was done, she came over to Mischa with a brush. "Turn around and face the wall so I can brush your hair in back." Mischa obeyed and shifted herself. "You know, I really love your long hair. That must come from your mother. She's Spanish, isn't she?"
"Oh yeah, right, Chile. Well, I'll never find a conditioner that will make my hair glow like yours."
Martha found a tangle, and softly pulled at the strands of hair with her fingers until they came loose and she could continue brushing.
"So, Mischa, is your dad from Chile as well?"
"No, he's American, Irish American."
"That explains those green eyes. I thought Spanish people had brown eyes. Hey, I've got a green cashmere sweater. I can lend it to you tonight. It would look really nice on you, and would make your eyes stand out."
"Thanks, Martha. I'll just stay as I am."
This kindness was a side of Martha that Mischa had never seen. While Martha brushed her hair, it occurred to Mischa that perhaps they had bonded during those three months they had been living together. That must be why I was waiting for her to return. Maybe Martha was nice all along, but she didn't fit my idea of a friend. Maybe I knew that I didn't fit Martha's idea of a friend. Maybe I'm just a pretentious bitch who shouldn't judge people by first impressions. There might have been truth to all three, but the last one lingered longest in Mischa's mind.
"There you are." Martha put the brush down and smoothed Mischa's long black hair with a few strokes of her hand. "Okay, you're done. Let's get out of here. My sorority sisters will meet us at the frat house."
There was a palpable curiosity in the hallway. Mischa could feel it as she passed people standing in the doorways of their rooms or letting her by as she followed Martha. She wasn't the siren they had expected-the type worthy of making a young man desperate to end his life. Consequently, in the instinctive judgment of a crowd, she merited only second glances, not stares.
When they arrived at fraternity row, there was a mass of humanity outside the brick houses with five-foot Greek letters painted on their roofs and smaller ones nailed on signs on their sides: Sigma, Epsilon, Alpha, Kappa. Greek letters were prevalent in the crowd, printed on sweatshirts, huge plastic beer cups, and baseball caps, up and down the half mile of houses that comprised fraternity row. They passed four of them and came to the designated spot which, with the exception of the three Greek letters that signified its particular fraternity, seemed no different from all the other houses.
A concentration of people surrounded each beer keg and jostled to get to them. Huge colored plastic cups stood in tidy towers on folding tables or littered on the lawn. Mischa could smell the beer. It was on the grass, on people's clothes, on their breath. Guys and girls leaned against porch railings. There was laughing, shouting, giggling, and guffawing. Laughing frat boys, with beer spilling from jumbo plastic cups, had their arms around stumbling girls.
Even in my wildest "misfit fits in" fantasies I have never, ever wanted to be part of this world. I don't want to be with these people. My mother would be appalled if she knew I was here.
On the porch Mischa saw a bounty of potato chips, Doritos, and pretzels, and an array of iced, cake, sprinkled, and glazed doughnuts. She looked in the box and saw that the cold weather had cracked the icing. She stood by the Krispy Kreme doughnuts and alternated soft, sweet bites with salty Doritos. After two Coca-Colas, she was on a caffeine high, and in her own non-alcoholic way, felt she could finally join the party.
She stepped into the fraternity house, pushing and being pushed as people entered and exited. Going through the crowd, an occasional piercing blast of cheap perfume tickled Mischa's nose, but the overwhelming smell was a stew of stale beer, cigarettes, and sweat. The interior was a testosterone celebration, a guy's world. The walls were an homage to pubescence, a collection of souvenir rock concert posters taped on the walls alongside posters of supermodels in lingerie. Plastic blow-up girls in bikinis dangled from the high ceiling, and at the center, two of them, reached over pillows that also hung from the ceiling. Their fingers reached across and barely touched in one frat-boy's 3-D version of the Sistine Chapel.
I can't believe it, but I think I'd actually like to meet the guy who thought that up.
There were two lava lamps on mismatched side tables. The random surfaces were littered with copies of TV Guide, men's magazines, sports magazines, and rock fanzines. A few plastic palm trees dotted the archways, with Styrofoam tropical fruits still attached, resident remnants of a previous theme party. Dartboards graced one door and a basketball net was nailed to another. In the dining room, a pool table was in the center, surrounded by a few shabby chairs.
All the furniture was ripped and mismatched, evidence of its origins, from sidewalks in suburbia where people had deposited the pieces for garbage collection. They were treated like treasures, and the frat brothers who carried them in were greeted like triumphant hunters as they hauled in their captured prey of sofas and tables and chairs.
The furniture had been pushed against the living room walls and a sophisticated stereo system blasted music at such a volume that a person had decide where to stand based on whether his or her eardrums could take the sound. Martha was on the improvised dance floor with her sorority sisters, balancing their beer cups while they danced and sipped. Fifty or more girls and guys were crammed together while they gyrated and flung their arms to the beat. Heads whirled and hips swiveled.
I think I'd rather see It Happened One Night for the ninth time.
"Come on! Mischa! Dance! It's Madonna!" Martha yelled.
"I LOVE MADONNA!" one of her sorority sisters shouted. The other two strutted their stuff, much to the delight of leering frat boys.
Why am I here? Why am I here?
"Where am I?" Mischa said. She saw Curtis's roommate at the foot of the bed and Martha sitting at her side. "What happened?"
"Mischa, you had a seizure. My sorority sisters and I took you out of the party. Don't worry. People just thought you were drunk. It was pretty funny. Right before the seizure you were dancing like a go-go girl."
"There's a chance that it could have just been the convulsions," Mischa said, hoping her modesty was intact.
"Whatever it was, the guys were looking. If you had started stripping they probably would have started putting dollar bills-"
"Shut the hell up, Martha!"
"Anyway, my sisters caught you when you fell. People thought you were drunk or drugged. The seizure was really quick. Some of the frat guys helped us carry you down the road. No problem."
Mischa looked over to the other bed in the room. It was stripped of the mattress and sheets. She smelled disinfectant. She saw Curtis's vintage movie poster of It Happened One Night and his tweed coat hanging on an oak clothes hanger from a hook. This is his room. I'm in his room!
"Why am I in here? What the hell am I doing here? Get me out of here!"
"Steady, girlfriend. We couldn't lift you up the stairs. Curtis's room is on the first floor and Daniel was here."
"Get me out of here!"
Daniel glared at Mischa from his desk.
"Get me away from here!" Mischa shouted. Then, in a stern voice and emphasizing each word, she demanded, "I...SAID...GET...ME...OUT...OF...HERE!"
Martha, calmly and equally determined, replied, "No, Mischa. We're waiting for the school medics. Don't worry, I'll tell them you have epilepsy."
Mischa was quieted by her surprise and her voice became politely quizzical. "How did you know? I was waiting to tell you."
"I was forewarned by the college. They wrote a letter asking me if I was comfortable having a roommate with a disability. The Dipshit told me, too. By the way, I'm not completely stupid. I saw your pills on the desk and they didn't look like birth control."
Disability? It's just epilepsy. It's just my seizures. I'm disabled? She had never really considered that before. Martha said it without hesitation; it was as if she had called Mischa's hair black.
The school medics came in and asked her questions for nearly an hour, all the while taking her blood pressure and temperature, examining her pupils, and doing a breathalyzer. They filled in their forms, took her name and Social Security number, and whatever else she was conscious enough to provide. They reinforced the requirement that Mischa would have to be accompanied for the entire night, and Martha assured them that she would stay with her. The girls finally went to their own room.
Martha and Mischa had an unspoken rule: they didn't play their music when the other was in the room. That first day of college, when they moved in and arranged their music, they saw the tapes on their shelves and knew it had to be that way. But tonight, Mischa didn't ask Martha; she just put the tape in the stereo at a low volume-Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Cole Porter Songbook. Martha changed into her aquamarine flannel pajamas with jumping purple cows. She fluffed her pillows, and took a book off the shelf and a Diet Cherry Coke from her pink fridge. Mischa didn't bother to change. She curled under the covers. She could still smell the beer and cigarette smoke on her clothes. Mischa rubbed her fingers, they had a thin film of stickiness leftover from the doughnuts. She stared a few inches in front of her at the white cinder-block wall until she fell asleep.
On Tuesday, Mischa came into the common room to find a first aid on epilepsy pamphlet on the announcement board. She wanted to smack the Dipshit across the face. There were smiley faces all over the pamphlet. Editorial remarks sliced through her thoughts as she read it.
FIRST AID for EPILEPSY
Epilepsy is a condition producing seizures. A seizure occurs when a surge of electrical activity affects part or all of the brain. A seizure can range from a momentary disruption of the senses, to short periods of unconsciousness (staring spells or fainting), to severe convulsions. When a person has two or more unprovoked seizures, he or she is considered to have epilepsy. Currently there is no cure for epilepsy, but there is something you can do about a seizure. Please read through and share with others.
SEIZURE FIRST AID
If you are with someone who has a convulsive seizure, you should try to:
1. Stay calm and remain with the person.
Yeah, try telling them that when someone is writhing on the ground like a demon possessed.
2. Time the seizure.
Uh, I don't think so. Getting out a stopwatch is not a first thought.
3. Protect the person from injury-remove any hard objects that are near the person.
True, this might be helpful. She could have had a lot of fewer bruises if someone had done that. She'd prefer to have someone do that than get out a stopwatch.
4. Place something soft under the head and loosen any tight clothing at the neck.
But this contradicts the first rule of first aid with seizures: let them have a seizure and don't touch them. But hell, if someone could have found a pillow for me, I would have accepted it if I could. Probably would have saved me from a few headaches.
5. Gently roll the person onto his/her side as soon as it is possible to do so and firmly push the angle of the jaw forward to assist with breathing. If breathing seems difficult, check the mouth to make sure that food or dentures are not blocking the airway.
So, how do you do this when the person is convulsing violently?
6. Establish communication with the person so you know he/she has regained consciousness.
I think that's common sense.
7. Reassure the person and minimize embarrassment during recovery.
Embarrassment? I'm unconscious; I have no idea what I did. What do they mean? Why should I feel embarrassed?
8. Stay with the person until he/she recovers; this may range from five to twenty minutes.
Make that one to two hours or more.
WHAT NOT TO DO:
Do not put anything in the person's mouth or between the teeth.
Agreed. Why is it that people think they have to put a spoon in a person's mouth? Where did that myth begin?
Do not restrain the person unless he/she is in danger.
Do not give pills, food, or drink until recovery is complete.
Mischa had an intense desire to scrawl all over the pamphlet. She would have put the "Do Not" section first. She would have cut the "embarrassment" commentary. She didn't understand where that had come from. She wanted to tell people herself, not have some goddamn pamphlet announce it on the dormitory announcements board. Mischa ripped it off.
The next day, Mischa felt guilty for having gone to a party on the eve of an ex-boyfriend's suicide attempt. She gave herself the excuse that there was no protocol for such a situation. She felt obliged to inquire about Curtis's health. It seemed like a mature response. She decided to visit his roommate, Daniel. As she stood at the door, for a minute she reconsidered and stepped back, but then moved forward and knocked.
Curtis opened the door. He wore an unforgiving short-sleeve shirt that allowed the white strip bandages wrapped around his wrists to be on full display. She wished that he had worn long sleeves so that she did not have to see them.
"Uh, hi, uh, Curtis. Uh. I was wondering how you were and was going to ask Daniel, but, well, it looks like you're, uh, here. I didn't expect you to be back just yet. I was just checking in, I...uh...guess." She stared at his bandages.
"I heard you had a seizure here." He spoke in a monotone. His eyes were emotionless gray stones.
"Well, uh, not exactly. You see, they brought me here after the seizure. Well, it looks like your room saw a lot of action that day. Ha-ha." That was probably inappropriate. She regretted the dark humor, but he brightened and laughed. She smiled with relief and wondered how long she could keep him happy. "When I woke up, Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable were looking down at me."
"There are worse things to have staring you in the face."
"Curtis, did you know that I have epilepsy?"
"Yes, you told me the first day we walked to class together. Did you know I suffer from clinical depression?" he asked.
"You never told me, but I could tell you had a screw loose." Oops. He didn't laugh. Maybe that remark was less than appropriate. I should change the topic of conversation. Maybe we could go somewhere else. "So, Curtis, uh, would you like to grab some lunch with me?"
"Sure." He picked up his keys and they walked outside. They didn't look at each other, focusing instead on the dry leaves that twisted down the street ahead of them.
"Why not? The first person to ever say 'I love you' drops me a few weeks later. Why not, Mischa?"
What could she say? Her ideas of romance came from movies from the thirties and forties. That night, when he took her in his arms, under a tree in the moonlight, she said what she thought people were supposed to say in those scenes.
"Mischa, you should be careful throwing around words like that."
They walked into the university canteen. A wave of warmth and the smell of frying fat greeted them at the door. People from their dorm were seated at a nearby table. As they passed, the group went noticeably quiet. Mischa and Curtis picked up their plastic trays and studied the food set out on glass shelves. She slid her tray down the metal rails and walked along, selecting plates and bowls of chocolate pudding, lemon meringue pie, and green Jell-O. A mug of coffee and ice water topped off her selection. They took the first table they could find. As they set down their trays she could not avoid staring at his wrists. There was no need for discretion; she felt they had already crossed that line.
"How do they feel?" she asked.
Curtis looked down as if he were examining cuff links. "Not too bad. I can't type very well. Daniel is going to help me. I dictate and he types the paper. It's a good setup. I get a typist and a copy editor."
"I could do that, too." She was desperate to make any gesture of atonement.
"I don't think so." He forked mashed potatoes into his mouth.
"Okay, Curtis." Mischa searched her head for something to fill the silence. "Daniel was pretty furious at me that day."
"I don't blame him. You deserved it."
She took the punch. Why fight a guy with slit wrists?
"So, Curtis, have you seen It Happened One Night since you returned from the...uh..."
"We've got to get you out of that It Happened hole. There are loads of other movies from that time. Why not try Arsenic and Old Lace? It was also directed by Frank Capra. I think he made it about ten years later. South Pacific and Arsenic and Old Lace are my favorite movies."
"Isn't South Pacific a musical?"
"Yes, and what's wrong with that? Don't knock it. You should see South Pacific. It's much deeper than you think. The plot revolves around interracial relationships and the setting is World War II. There's a lot more to it than a baritone singing 'Some Enchanted Evening.' Rodgers and Hammerstein, 1949, way, way ahead of its time."
Curtis picked up his knife and a frisson of fear sped through her as she followed its path with her eyes. He gracefully scooped butter from the small plastic tub and spread it smoothly across the roll he had ripped open. Mischa took a deep breath to relax. As she tried to recapture her train of thought, she hoped her hesitation had gone unnoticed.
"Back to Arsenic, it's hilarious. I told you, it's in black-and-white, just like It Happened One Night. You see, Cary Grant goes to visit his two aunts, charming old ladies who rent a room in their house and select lodgers with certain traits: lonely and depressed men." Maybe this isn't the movie to discuss. She hesitated. Curtis looked to her. I'm too far along.
"Go ahead." He seemed to want to assure her that he had not taken offense.
"You see, the aunts decide to poison the old men with arsenic, mixed with elderberry wine, to free them from their misery. They have three nephews: a crazy schizophrenic that lives with them, Cary Grant, and a third one, who comes in later in the story. They ask their crazy nephew, who thinks he's Theodore Roosevelt, to dig the graves. They tell him that the corpses are malaria victims who were working on the Panama Canal. The best part is watching Cary Grant as he discovers a dead body and gradually realizes his aunts' twisted moral code that justifies their 'good deeds.' The aunts are sweet and gentle throughout the movie. They act without a hint of malice or guilt, but with complete goodwill. Despite all of Grant's questions and delicately phrased accusations of first degree murder, they are calm and dismissive. They explain that their work is merely charity, and suggest that Grant forget he even saw the corpse in a trunk in the living room. Meanwhile, they go about their business of frosting a cake and tidying up the house. The contradictions are overwhelming for Grant, who is constantly trying to reassure himself that he's right, that he is not the crazy one. You can see it in all of Grant's facial movements and body language. He's really a comic genius, it's just that-"
Curtis interrupted, "But, Mischa, they are burying the bodies in the basement, not calling the funeral home to take them away, so there is an element of deceit, which implies guilt."
"Not really. I think they justify the burials with an ethic of tidying up a mess and not making a fuss for others. Well, then again, maybe you're right." She was happy they had found a topic of conversation that did not involve their feelings.
"Okay, so anyway," Mischa continued, "Cary Grant's lost brother, the third nephew, shows up at the aunts' house. He is a murderer on the loose, traveling with a cohort and looking for a hideout. The unassuming abode offers the perfect spot. They also come to realize what the aunts are doing. When the third nephew and his cohort count the graves in the basement and compare them to the number of their murder victims, the aunts are up by one. It has a lot of slapstick and it's such a great mix. The movie revolves around Cary Grant's face. He is so dapper and handsome that I think people forget how great he was at slapstick, and-"
"I liked him in The Philadelphia Story," Curtis observed coolly.
"Yeah, I can see why. He had a bit of that Clark Gable personality from It Happened, that sort of rapid-fire response that you like so much."
"In that story, Katharine Hepburn was a little like you." He took another bit of butter and moved his knife toward the roll.
"How is that?" Mischa's voice flirted. She was flattered.
"She tells Jimmy Stewart that she loves him while she's drunk and walking in the moonlight. The next day she drops him."
"I don't drink."
He just wants use me as a punching bag. I hate passive aggression. She wanted to stand up, shout at him and leave. Aggressive aggression is so much healthier. Why don't you try it, Curtis! It gets it out of your damn system! Passive-aggressive people fester and simmer and then explode. They go postal with machine guns, or razors across their wrists! Okay, Curtis, so you want to speak passive-aggressive. Okay, damn it, I'm not fluent, but I can get by. Mischa paused in thought to calm herself. Speak slowly. Passive aggression is fifty percent tone and fifty percent content. Keep it nonchalant.
"So, Curtis, why didn't you do it in a bath? I've heard that if you slit your wrists in a warm bath you don't really feel the pain and the blood flows out faster."
"I didn't want to make a mess." He shoved another forkful of mashed potatoes into his mouth and swallowed. "Anyway, we only have showers. Why would I want to re-create a scene from Psycho? You know I don't like Hitchcock. Back to you, Mischa, how many times have you said 'I love you'?"
He's so goddamn sublime. He's a master. She sipped the lukewarm coffee to calm herself.
"One time. Only once."
"Why me, Mischa?"
"Why are you asking me?" She gave up on politeness. Her voice made it clear that she was annoyed and wanted to end the conversation. She gave him an irritated look and returned to her coffee. She was ready to leave.
Curtis slammed his fist down with his wrist facing Mischa. The plates rattled and clinked in fear and Mischa shuddered. She could see a round brown stain showing through the gauze. The people at the tables surrounding them looked over. Curtis glared and they averted their eyes.
"Mischa, let's think about that one. I am asking why you said something, and then retracted it, which prompted me to make a decision to end my life, which was halted by the actions of a well-meaning but interventionist roommate. The least you can do is answer my question. I want to know. Why me? And why did you drop me? Looking at the circumstances, I think I deserve an answer."
Mischa studied her green Jell-O. It refracted the light, and the spoon behind it was larger for it. I don't really like green Jell-O. Red Jell-O is best. Green Jell-O tastes a little too much like a fifth grade chemical experiment, but it does handle light interestingly. She could see the faint diagonal scratches left by the knife that had cut the Jell-O into cubes before these were placed in the stark white little bowl. She took another sip of coffee. I forgot the milk. This is bitter. It's watery, too. She didn't want to look at him. She didn't want to shrug helplessly. It's true, he deserves an answer. Her thoughts had barely congealed, but Mischa knew she had to speak before she lost the courage.
"Why you? I don't really know, Curtis. I never dated anyone before. I'm not accustomed to being with someone. I don't know what to do with a boyfriend. I thought that was what a girl said to a boy when they walked in the moonlight. I promise it was complete naivete. I realize that I was stupid. Why did I break up with you? I think it was instinct. After a few weeks together I could tell that you were an emotional whirlpool." His eyes were angry and tense. "Curtis, I have my own issues, my own survival to consider. I don't have the energy to save you. I would have drowned in you."
When she stopped, he looked at her thoughtfully and his stare softened. "At least you're honest," he observed.
Is this the setup for another punch?
Mischa did not look at him as she spoke. Her eyes shifted to different objects on the table: the clean fork next to the mashed potatoes, the empty plastic containers of butter, and the uneaten cubes of green Jell-O. She peered at him slyly from the corner of her eye and wondered what he would do next. She decided that she would not fight back. She would let him have the last word.
"True. I don't delude myself." She looked into her mug to see how much coffee was left. Another thought locked away in her head suddenly escaped. "Sometimes it's a good thing, sometimes it's a bad thing, because I end up questioning myself, constantly."
"Something like Cary Grant?"
"Yeah, I never thought of that. Maybe that explains why that movie appeals to me. It's funny and dark, with a moral twist."
"That describes you entirely, Mischa."
He smiled for a moment and returned to his meal. He finished his plate in silence and she sipped the last drops of stone-cold coffee. They said good-bye at the entrance to the canteen. Mischa returned to the dorm and he walked the other way.
I probably shouldn't have said that thing about a warm bath.