“A stunning debut novel.” (Popsugar)
“More than a thriller—it examines the demands inherent in meaningful relationships and just how much one is willing to sacrifice for the sake of true friendship.” (The Big Thrill)
"A good first novel, and one assumes that Lee will only get better with time." (Booklist)
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Though seven years have passed since that night, my mind retains a perfect image of Cyn as she fell away from me into the churning black water. Only a moment before, we’d been together, her thin hand in mine as we raced into the dark ocean, fleeing the strange men who had charged out of the jungle and onto our beach. I didn’t know them. I only knew that we were two young women alone in the night, messed up beyond reason on mushrooms and rum.
I pulled her to her feet, and we ran, her pink flip-flops tripping her up until she kicked them loose. We ran silently, breathing fast like foxes. If the full moon hadn’t been there to illuminate our escape into the surf, we might have vanished unseen. But the men spotted us and began shouting. Geysers of water exploded up into our faces as we pounded through the shallows, but that was okay. We were together, and we were getting away. I looked back at Cyn. Her eyes were full of wild panic, one breast barely contained within her disheveled bikini top as I dragged her with me into deeper water.
“Glo, wait,” she’d pleaded, and I had, pausing for what felt like an eternity as the waves crashed against our naked thighs, knocking us off balance. Over her shoulder, I saw the men on the beach stooping to unlace their boots, and I knew they were coming in after us.
I took Cyn’s wrist and pulled, and for a few steps, she followed. As the water reached my ribs, I felt Cyn’s hand jerk free from my grip. I spun around, my feet barely touching the sand as a strong wave passed through us. Cyn faced me, near motionless. The panic had evaporated from her perfect features, and she was serene, otherworldly, resigned. I shrieked at her to give me her hand, to come with me, but it was like reasoning with a sleepwalker. Her expression didn’t change as she withdrew from my reaching fingers, slipping backward into dark water. I saw the splashes of white foam as two men entered the water, and I screamed her name again and again.
“Go. Get help,” she said. And that was all. Her decision was made. I turned away, back out to sea, and kicked deep into the immense darkness, my mind reeling in shock at what my body was doing. I was leaving her alone, in that messed-up state, with those men. With each kick, I felt my heart rip itself to shreds, but I couldn’t go back. It was too late now, and anyway, I had my orders.
I watched from the safety of deep water as they seized her and dragged her screaming off the beach and into the depths of the jungle. That was the last I saw of her.
By the time Cyn Williams was officially declared dead, her name had become a sick joke. By remaining alive, I had the privilege of remaining obscure, the shadowy, red-haired best friend, hurried in and out of police stations by Jonathan Grant, my United States attorney, or as I thought of him, Mr. Nocomment, Esq. Yet it was perfectly true that I had no comment for the reporters that assailed us first in Costa Rica and then tenfold in Miami. I had done my best to explain to the baffled local police, then the federales, then the more important federales with nicer suits, that Cyn was lost, that I didn’t know what had happened to her. I didn’t deny the obvious—that in the chaos, disoriented by narcotics and fear, I panicked and left her alone. I lost her on that island off the coast of Costa Rica, and unless someone found her soon, she wasn’t coming back.
By the time the second night after my rescue had fallen, I knew she was dead. She was a lucky person, and so smart, and brave, too, but that wasn’t enough to keep her from vanishing off the face of the planet. They were still out searching for her, but the instant I heard her whisper inside my head, I knew it was all pointless. She was gone.
The first time she spoke to me was in the municipal police station in San Jose. I was nursing my sixth cup of bitter coffee while I waited for another detective to arrive to take my statement. Grant was sitting across the table from me, exchanging peevish barbs with his ex-wife on the phone, while I examined the scores of deep red scrapes that crosshatched my legs. I was aching to scratch the insect bites that peppered my feet and ankles, but I didn’t want to amplify my feral charm by openly bleeding in front of the next cop. In my efforts to resist, I must have sighed loudly, or groaned, because when I looked up, Grant was staring at my ravaged legs with a faraway look in his eye.
Another upstanding member for your fan club, Glo.
I began to laugh. Grant’s eyes found my face, and he frowned. He had lost any real interest in me after the fifth or so interview, when it became clear that I was tapped out of salacious details re: crazy coed’s last night in the jungle. No fresh leads meant fewer opportunities to address the cameras, which he’d already done a half-dozen times over the thirty-six hours or so we’d been acquainted, pausing to delicately blot the shine from his brow before stepping in front of the lights. His frown deepened, and I laughed harder.
She’s cracked, he must have thought.
God, yes, let me crack, I wished.
Babe, you already have.
I gasped for breath, my laughter swinging toward the uncontrollable. My lawyer rose to his feet, his brow ropy with confusion. I could almost sense Cyn laughing with me, and it struck me like a huge wall of icy water that she who had been so real, so huge a presence in my life, was truly gone. The sobs swam up on me then, hijacking my laughter and transforming it into horrible convulsions that tore at my sides. I hadn’t cried since they released me from the hospital the day before, and now there was no stopping it. My stomach lurched, and in between gasps, I vomited a shiny pool of coffee across the tabletop.
My lawyer narrowly rescued his briefcase from the table, disgust contorting his face. When it became clear that I would not be regaining my composure, he steered me through the police station hallways, pausing to stick his big, square finger in the face of an officer who objected to my abrupt departure.
“This is a United States citizen,” he’d sneered, shaking my shoulder, as I was the citizen in question. “We will continue to cooperate with your investigation but—” I tuned out. Whatever was happening didn’t really concern me. In embarrassingly little time, I’d grown accustomed to everything being completely beyond my control. I was merely the body that sat and waited, followed people down hallways, and answered the same series of questions by rote. In the vacuum that opened up where my free will used to be, my thoughts circled endlessly on one topic: Where was she?
“Come on,” Grant said, and the next thing I knew, I was perp-walking through the reporters on the street and diving into a taxi that ferried us through the labyrinth of fading colonial streets to our hotel. In the elevator up to my room, he pressed a couple of pills into my palm and told me to take them. He left me at my door, reminding me to lock it from the inside. I swallowed the mystery pills and collapsed across the bed.
Before sleep took me, I heard her whisper: Lights out, lovely.
The next afternoon, three days after Cyn disappeared, the Costa Ricans released me without charge. Grant was very pleased. My questionable recall of the night of Cyn’s disappearance hadn’t made me seem particularly innocent, nor did the fact that I obviously, openly, blamed myself for everything. But there was no body. No clear motive. A dearth of hard evidence exonerated me but did nothing to clear up the mystery of where my best friend had gone.
On the flight back home, I experienced an entirely new level of emotional emptiness. Somewhere beneath my feet, Cyn’s purple backpack was flying along with me, waiting to be “returned to her parents,” while on the television, twenty inches from my nose, she was alive again. I took one look at her face, that magnetic smile frozen forever in time, and I had to turn it off. But there was worse ahead.
At the airport in Miami, I experienced firsthand the “Cynty mania” that had taken over the nation. I hurried through the terminal, hidden behind dark sunglasses and my formerly lucky green ball cap, praying not to be recognized. Images of Cyn and me together had plowed across the television airwaves like an unstoppable freight train. If I had at times resented how she outshone me in life, it was a mercy that she continued to do so in death. Walking quickly across the glossy airport tile, I attracted no curious glances.
Heading down the escalator, I spotted a teenager ascending the opposite direction wearing a T-shirt that nearly made my mind implode. FIND CYNTY! the tee shouted in four-inch bubble letters. My eyes swept below the text to behold Cyn, smiling up at me in cutoff jeans and a tight flannel shirt, her blond hair glowing. I had taken that picture of Cyn, posing cheekily in her thrift-store-sourced Daisy Dukes Halloween costume, and there it was, ripped from the Internet, silk-screened onto a novelty tee and purchased for $9.99 by some dipshit who knew nothing about Cyn. As he floated past, the kid sensed hostility radiating from behind my dark lenses and dashed a quick glance in my direction. Zero recognition. He looked away, untouched by my fury.
Don’t be such a hater. It’s a helluva photo.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that it could have been worse. Many of the photos that had been released of Cyn were not nearly so innocent. What began as a shocking, college-girl-missing-abroad story became a tabloid gold mine as the press dug deeper into “Cynty’s” background and discovered her sideline job as a lingerie model and dancer at a seedy adult store. As each passing hour unearthed some ripe scandal, Cyn’s fame mushroomed. The news outlets breathlessly implied that her jobs were somehow connected to her disappearance, which they weren’t, or that since she was so obviously a person of low moral character, she deserved what happened. That they never discovered the true scope of Cyn’s secrets was a private joy to me.
Beside me, my lawyer cursed under his breath, and I glanced up to see a scrum of reporters and cameramen staking out the airport’s exit. I felt my heart begin to pound. This was always the worst part.
“Hopefully this is the last run, champ,” he murmured, shrugging his shoulders like a prizefighter trying to get loose. I doubt my parents had considered it when hiring him, but Grant was tall and had an impressive wingspan—useful qualities for clearing a path. I took a breath, pulled my hat lower, and followed him into the churning sea of flashbulbs and microphones. Immediately we stalled. A blinding flash exploded into my face, and I felt someone claw at my elbow. Grant stiff-armed one photographer away, but we were already surrounded three-deep. I felt my throat close up as bodies pressed tight around us, questions hammering down upon me. Time slowed to a terrible blur as I struggled to breathe. Grant bellowed something, and a pair of cops appeared to muscle me out of the crush. I glimpsed the revolving doors and the sunlight beyond, and I willed myself to hold it together for just two more minutes. No reactions for the photos. Sure as hell no tears. If I was a walking wound of a human being, that was my secret. I’d be damned if I betrayed one hint of emotion to the people who had so thoroughly savaged my dead friend.
It helped to know that on the other side of that mess, my parents were waiting for me. They’d take me home and try to make things better. They wouldn’t ask me to talk about it, but I’d catch the worried glances exchanged over my head and sense the anxious vibration of their unasked questions. I’d tell them I was okay, that I didn’t need to talk to anyone. Then night after night, safe and loved in a warm bed, I’d lie awake. Cyn’s voice faded to silence, but our last moments in the water remained, cycling through my mind in a never-ending loop. I perpetually reached the same useless conclusion: things had happened too quickly for thinking. I simply reacted, and so did Cyn. We both made our choices, and that was why I was sleepless, guilt-ridden, and alive, and she was dead. I rechoreographed our last act, crafting ways in which we might have both made it back. If only I had done X, or If she had done Y and not Z. At the end of every reimagination session, at first light, I would absolve myself. It wasn’t my fault. It was our fault.
Like hell it was.|Love Her Madly
I hadn’t pegged Cyn as a natural ally. When I first saw her, in the dismal cafeteria as we, the new freshman class, settled in for orientation, I thought, Oh great, they’ve got those here. She was blond, lithe, and seemingly absorbed in a paperback, as if unaware that her physical charms were rendering the rest of the females in our group of transfers and latecomers altogether invisible.
I should explain that this was not truly my first day at college. That had happened the previous fall, in what felt to me like another life. My aborted semester was staged at the State University, a massive campus-tropolis with ten thousand freshmen; a handful too many to goad into shy eye contact or stilted small talk through “sharing games.” Tiny U, with a raging hippie ethos and an enrollment of nine hundred students, had the time to ensure that everyone got very well acquainted.
It was a damp January morning in Florida, and there weren’t quite enough chairs. I took a seat on the all-weather carpet by a wall where I could scope everyone out on the literal down low. The aging air-conditioning unit above me rattled, straining to circulate the humid air, and from behind the closed swinging doors that led to the kitchen, a radio was blasting bachata.
Other than the Barbie-looking blonde, my fellow students were a motley bunch. The college attracted what could politely be called the misfit element: neo-hippies, homos, kids with fancy ideas and terrible posture, the narco-curious, the fantasy role-players, a handful of goths (their requisite black garb a sign of extreme dedication in the tropical heat) and me.
Why the hell was I there? Probably because the school seemed the polar opposite of what I’d experienced during my semester at Big U. I had felt so overlooked and invisible in my stadium-seating-only courses that, after the first couple of months, I simply stopped showing up. My grades tanked, naturally, but with some finagling involving the school psychologist, I managed to withdraw before my abysmal grades permanently screwed my chances of keeping my swimming scholarship. But Tiny U didn’t care about sports. Their bag was molding eccentric, bookish high achievers into the next generation’s nutty professors. My near-perfect grades and test scores were enough for them to grant me their own scholarship, and my crack-up at Big U seemed to further endear me to my admissions officer. She patted my knee and told me she thought I’d fit in nicely.
I sure hoped so. My social life at Big U had been pathetic. I’d been tossed into a tiny “suite” with three other girls. My roommates were nice enough, but proximity breeds contempt, and it quickly became apparent that I was the lone onion in a tight can of maraschino cherries. It was mostly my fault. Sheila, Mel, and Christina were polite to my face, but I knew that they hated me for stubbornly defying the open-door policy they’d enacted on our single bathroom. Maybe it was because I was an only child, but I couldn’t tolerate someone evacuating their blackheads two feet from me while I showered. They found this impossibly rude, unaware that my watery respites were the only thing keeping me sane. I slowly earned their resentment and, eventually, their ostracism. The bright side was, they weren’t my type anyway.
It certainly didn’t help my mental state that as my world was collapsing, I decided to quit swimming. I’d been competitive in freestyle all throughout high school, passing countless hours watching the dark blue tile of the lane marker whiz by beneath me. Kick, flip, repeat. I was fast, scrappy, and I hated to lose. I’d never considered myself to be a capital “A” Athlete, but I felt right in the water. It felt natural, even the skintight suits with shoulder straps that left red grooves in my skin and the goggles that gifted me with dark rims around my eye sockets for hours after practice.
I lived for the euphoric high I got at moments when everything went right in the pool. I felt superhuman, as if I had some special ability to knife through the water and meld my limbs into the exact planes that would get me to the wall just a little faster than the next girl. Of course, I loved to win. Not because some other chick was losing, necessarily, but because I’d asked something of my body, and it usually found a way to deliver. Sad as it might sound, my relationship with my heart, lungs, and fast-twitch muscles was probably one of the most rewarding of my early life. I was good to them, and they rarely let me down.
Every afternoon and every other morning throughout high school, I would dutifully wrestle my mass of frizzy red curls into a ponytail, then snap the whole package under a swim cap, wincing through the inevitable tug of latex against delicate skin. I’d tiptoe across the chilly tile of the locker room, rinse in the shower, and emerge into the humid terrarium of the pool room. That the only Olympic-size lap pool in our Florida town was indoors was a dark irony to me. While my classmates were golden brown from their weekends at the beach, I, who spent hours in the water, was pallid. While most girls smelled of vanilla and orange blossom, I reeked of chlorine and Irish Spring soap.
By the time the summer between junior and senior years rolled around, I was beginning to think about quitting. I still loved competitions and was winning at meets, but I was bored out of my mind by the repetitive grind of practice. Then, like the mystical granting of a wish I hadn’t made, Coach Mike appeared on the scene, and everything changed.
A collegiate-level women’s coach from the frozen north, Coach Mike brought with him a wife and one-year-old daughter. He was a straight-up Adonis: sandy blond hair, fabulous muscles, eyes the color of the ocean, amazing yet hard-won smile. He quickly became my all-encompassing everything, and by trying to please him every goddamn day, I became a very, very fast swimmer. It could have stayed a crush, but his wife was struggling with postpartum depression, and there I was, adoring young person, ready and willing to be his secret keeper and confidant. I pursued him as stealthily as I could, finding countless reasons to steal a few chaste minutes alone with him. When I won the meet that guaranteed my scholarship, he took me out to celebrate. Back in his car, fueled by celebratory drinks, he touched me for the first time, and I could not fathom a greater happiness.
I graduated, and we continued to meet up and fool around for the remainder of the summer, spending languid, sweaty evenings pawing and licking in the semi-privacy of isolated parking lots. I never thought of myself as a home-wrecker, but rather as his misplaced intended, his star-crossed lover, his water babe. He seemed vastly more sophisticated than the high school boys I knew. He would listen to me when I talked, for one thing, and he repeatedly told me I was beautiful. He whispered rapturous compliments into my hair about the merits of my long legs, my heart-shaped lips, and even found good things to say about my nearly nonexistent breasts. I believed every word of it, hungry as I was for his approval. He’d move the car seat into the trunk to make space and give me this smile that melted away my thoughts of everything but the anticipation of his hands on my skin.
Despite our many lusty sessions, and even though I repeatedly told him I wanted to, we never had full-on sex. I wonder now if he feared I’d try to trap him with yet another baby. I was so obsessed with him at the time, it might have crossed my mind. He dropped hints that he’d leave his wife. He said she was crazy, and that he wished he could start all over with me. I was too blind to see that the little girl was the one who really had his heart. The end came when I went up to Big U. He stopped returning my calls, changed his number, disappeared. He was my first love, and he dumped me without a word of explanation. I tried not to let it get to me, and I reserved my crying time for the shower, which led to some long showers, which in turn, engendered the ire of my suite mates.
I could have told those girls what was up. I could have confessed my heartbreak and fallen into their arms, smearing snail trails of grief mucus all over their Big U sweatshirts. I don’t doubt that they would have been kind to me and happy to listen. But I liked my misery complete and my depression abject, so I kept my mouth shut and my eyes glued to the calendar, counting the days until fall break would come and I could go see Mike in person.
When that day finally came, I drove directly to the pool to find him. Instead of finding Mike, I ran into Ms. Johnson, my old JV coach, who, while giving me a look that telegraphed exactly how little she thought of me and my trampy ways, breezily told me he was gone. He wasn’t working at the school, and as a matter of fact, she’d heard he’d taken the wife and moved back north. So, heartbroken and misanthropic, I returned to my cramped, lonely suite, my pointless classes, and my nonexistent social life. Alarmingly, I had even lost all desire to step foot in the pool. I knew my scholarship depended on it, but I just couldn’t force myself to care. I essentially shut down.
In truth, my epic failure as a student, and probably as a person, at Big U terrified me. It shocked me that I could surrender to apathy so easily, shaking off my dreams like slipping off a robe. It would have felt less alien to me if I’d picked up a heroin habit and became singularly devoted to my fix, because at least then there’d be something I wanted. Instead, I was bafflingly devoted to nothing. Under a bizarre haze of alien nihilism, I, the swimmer, was drowning.
I guess this is to say that the morning of orientation, the life preserver of my second-chance school was wedged so tightly around my chest that I wondered how I could breathe. I was feeling so hopeful that things would turn out better that it made me a little nauseated. Steeling my nervous gut against the discordant odors of ammonia and grilled cheese sandwiches drifting in from the kitchen, I told myself life was about to improve.
I was on the lookout for any evidence that my feeling was correct when an upperclassman girl switched on a microphone and began to rehash a bunch of stuff that I’d already read in the handbook. I spent the time surreptitiously searching for potential future friends. No one immediately jumped out at me, but considering my limited experience in that area, I didn’t have much to go on.
I should clarify that it’s not like I never had any friends. As a kid, I had playmates and did time in uniform on a few inglorious soccer squads. What I loved most, though, was dodging the asphalt-boiling summer days in the air-conditioned twilight of the local roller rink. In that glossy-floored paradise of Top 40 hits and snow cones, I felt at ease. I remember gleeful hours playing tag in my purple skates with the other girls. I went to all their birthday parties, invariably hosted at the rink and all serving the same rainbow-frosted ice cream cake. I even fostered an intense best-friend-forevership with another skating redhead before her family moved away to Georgia and we never saw each other again. I didn’t see any signs of pariahdom ahead, but it was on its way.
Puberty struck with catastrophic vengeance. My bony frame erupted in fatty bulges, my skin went radioactive, and my hair morphed from soft strawberry blond waves to a hellish carroty bush. My mom put me in swimming classes to try to spare me the humiliation of being a pudgy, pimply ginger, and I realized that underwater, no one can hear you scream. My former friends morphed into shallow, vicious gorgons, consumed by their status in the junior high food chain. The skating rink parties of the past were now meaningless, as was every other pleasant or otherwise human encounter we’d ever shared. It wasn’t just that our friendships were so quickly forgotten, it was that those girls seemed to suddenly hate me with such shocking purity that I spent countless hours wondering what I’d done wrong.
Obviously, my appearance made me a target. I did as my mother suggested, and pretended not to hear the mean jokes or nasty commentary. That worked great. Soon, I was feigning deafness seven hours a day (band class excluded), and I wised up to the fact that accepting the torment with a smile wasn’t going to do shit for me in the merciless world of preteen girls. Instead, I aspired to master the special art of disappearing in plain sight. I cherished the days that no one spoke to me, and then I’d go to swim practice.
Girls from swimming helped fill the social vacuum that I’d earned with my celebrated awkwardness. Almost interchangeably quiet and sensitive, these girls and I would sleep over at each others’ houses, bake brownies, and engage in speculative conversations about boys, but no friendships ever stuck. The faces would simply change by the season, without any of us feeling bad about it. By high school, my swim friends had become my competition, not only in swimming but also for boys, status, and presumably, the opportunity to mate and further our genetic codes.
By sixteen, my junior high pudge and acne had melted away like a half-remembered nightmare. I’d grown tall and lean, and my features had arranged themselves in a way that still verged on the elfin, but attractive elfin. I knew this only because a girl on the team let it slip that her older brother referred to me as Tinkerbell. It was great to no longer be at the very bottom of the social totem pole, but as far as the cliques went, I was over it. I had stopped seeking out friends and demurred from most chummy overtures. I expected the worst, and besides, with high school more than halfway over, there seemed little point in forging new bonds. I had books, and TV, and enough acquaintances that I didn’t feel like a total outcast, and while I was in the protective cushion of my home, that had been good enough. This time around, I knew I needed to find some people to call my own, or I’d be lost, lonely, or dead.
My future classmates began to stir, and I tuned in again to what the orientation leader was saying. She was copy-paper pale, with blueberry-colored dreadlocks, a nose piercing, and a wide smile that she wielded relentlessly. She began chirping that it was time to have fun and get acquainted through a really exciting exercise.
The essence was, she would play music, and we would all walk around, saying our names aloud to anyone we happened to make eye contact with. Then, when she stopped the music, we would partner up with the closest person to us, and we’d receive further instruction.
The music started, and it was perfectly awkward. I got to my feet and began circling with the others. We all felt stupid, so with a few exceptions, we were all smiling. I spoke my own name, dusty classic that it is, so often that it began to sound alien to me. When the music finally stopped, I was facing a wall. Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and I spun around. It was the perfect blond girl.
“Howdy, partner,” she said, flashing me a smile.
The speakers screeched to life, and Dreadlocks’ voice boomed across the sound system like a detonation. We all flinched and covered our ears. “Whoops,” Dreadlocks said, her voice reduced to a tolerable volume. I glanced at the blonde, her face a portrait of sarcastic bemusement.
She was even prettier up close, unlike some blond girls who can sell the package at a distance but flatten and fade upon closer inspection. She had cool blue eyes spaced evenly under pale eyebrows that seemed arched in perpetual contemplation of a private joke. Her nose was small and slightly pert in the Nordic supermodel vein and buttressed on either side by high cheekbones. When she smiled, dimples and even white teeth appeared, completing the circuit of devastation. She was so naturally stunning that I didn’t even feel jealous.
“Now everyone sit down across from your partner, join hands, and close your eyes.”
The room filled with awkward murmurs. Blondie and I exchanged eye rolls.
“Now we do the traditional orientation séance, I guess,” she murmured as we joined hands. Embarrassed by the intimacy of touching a stranger, I clamped my eyes closed.
“Now everyone share something about yourself with your partner.”
Suddenly I had the distinct feeling that she was leaning in close to me, and I heard her whisper in my ear, “Oh, your hands, they’re so . . . baby soft. Do you . . . exfoooliaaate?”
My eyes snapped open. She shot me a really lecherous leer and began circling the top of my hand with her thumb. She licked her lips and shifted her eyebrows almost imperceptibly. I realized she was putting me on. Game on, weirdo, I thought.
I dropped my head back and rolled my eyes around in mock ecstasy and moaned loud enough for a few surrounding parties to hear, following up with a strangled, “Oh yes!”
I opened one eye. Blondie looked startled, but her face quickly cracked into a smile, and she loosed a low, throaty chuckle.
“It’s not funny. Why would you laugh at that? We’re supposed to be sharing!” I stage-whispered, attempting outrage. Her face turned red, and she laughed harder. When she released my hands and shoved me, I broke. We tittered like hysterical preteens, rocking back and forth breathlessly, attracting stares.
Our mirth was just receding when Dreadlocks announced that we’d begin again and find new partners. As the music started to play, I got up, wiping my hands on my jeans with a show of disgust.
“Pervert,” I spat.
She nodded appreciatively, brushing a smudge of dampened liner from beneath her eyelashes. “I’ll be seeing you around, missy.”
I proceeded to meet a few other unremarkable students, including an uncomfortable sit-down with my new roommate, Annie. We’d already met that morning as my dad was helping me move in. She’d appeared as a large, quiet shadow in the doorway, and as I was under my desk trying to jerry-rig an electrical hookup, I didn’t notice her there until I heard my father say, “Oh, hello. You must be Ann.”
We knew this crucial bit of information because I’d received a letter from the school with Annie’s contact information, just in case we wanted to get to know each other before the semester started. It seemed that mutually, we did not. After my dad left and we were alone, I attempted to build a conversational bridge (progress!) while watching her thumbtack photo collages above her bed. She nailed, with particular wistfulness, a smaller, framed collage that featured only photos of Annie with a tiny fella (Thomas, I would soon learn) who looked like a miniature Clark Kent. In one image, taken at prom, he sits on her lap.
Anyway, it was soon established that we shared virtually no interests, be they political, academic, or arts and leisure. Our conversational fount slowed to a polite, if meager, drip and stayed there, permanently. I foresaw Annie as a quiet and sufficiently amiable cell mate, and one unlikely to invade my shower time to test-run eye shadow. I’ll say it: I was satisfied with the match.
As for the blonde, I ran into her again that evening in the quad. She was sitting on a bench, surrounded by several students, smoking a cigarette.
“Hey, you! Ginger!” she called out when she saw me.
I pretended to look around like I didn’t understand. When I pointed to myself in mock confusion, she laughed, which I suppose was my goal.
“Yeah, you. What’s your name?”
“Like an angel,” came a voice from the grass. I looked down and saw a guy with a great shock of spiky hair and a delicate build smiling up at me.
“She’s no angel,” Blondie quipped. “My name’s Cyn.”
“How appropriate,” I responded.
She grinned. “Short for Cynthia.”
Cyn laughed. “I’ve always wanted to befriend a redhead.”
“Well, in truth, earlier today I was sure I wouldn’t like you because you’re so very blond.”
“That’s discrimination,” she protested. This topic was rapidly debated by the assembled group, while Cyn sat smoking, already their queen. She studied me from her bench. “Do you always dislike people on sight?”
I laughed, because it was true.
“I’m trying to improve,” I offered. “And you’ve already helped me so much because, although you are very blond, you seem utterly shameless, and I’m looking for a mentor.”
She clapped with delight and made space for me on the bench next to her. “Have a seat, my child.”
The evening hours passed easily as other new students drifted in and out of the orbit of Cyn’s bench. Eventually Cyn looked at her watch and announced that she had to finish unpacking or risk sleeping on the naked rubber mat that served as our dorm beds. As she left, another student quickly took her space, but the magical hour was over. I left soon after.