After Sean flunked his first college history test, a girl from his discussion section said, "Sean, why don't we study together? Wednesday night? You can read my notes?" Asking him, like that. "Sure," he had said, although he didn't see what good would come of it.
Wednesday night, though, he was glad to have a place to go. During the first week of school his roommate, Roger, had attracted girls like metal filings to a magnet and, after a busy few days, had sorted through the collection, finally selecting a "girlfriend" from the lot. Since Sean didn't know the criteria of the search, he couldn't see the reason for Roger's final selection, except that this girl was distinguished from the rest by her never-ending wardrobe of well-beaten denim. To Sean she seemed floppy and faded, frankly forgettable, but maybe Roger had chosen her for that; that, and a certain boneless quality. On this Wednesday night, like every other, she wafted into their cinder-block room and melted as easily as putty into Roger's lap.
"Later," Sean said, but of course, Roger and the girlfriend were not exactly listening.
Sean cut across campus at a fast clip, ducking the few frisbees that seemed attracted to his head. Finally, Sean reached the girl's door. Her name was crayoned on a construction paper cut-out of a pink balloon. Just beside it, with a bit of tape, swung a yellow balloon bearing the roommate's name. He wondered about the mind of the faceless dorm counselor who must have cut dozens of such pastel shapes before these freshmen arrived. After a second, Sean knocked.
The girl opened the door. "Hey," Sean said, and a few different voices answered him back. The girl laughed. From the top bunk, behind her, waved the roommate, and two guys. Sean waved back. The trio drooped back to their pillows, and the bunk bed shook as they snuggled in.
Beside him, the girl whispered, "The three of them met in class last week, and now they share books." She rolled her eyes. "They read everything together. Page by page." She must have read Sean's face. "I don't know what else they share," the girl said, as if answering a direct question. "I try to stay out of the room. A lot."
Sean laughed nervously. He felt distracted but he looked away from that curious top bunk and took a closer look at this girl. He almost didn't recognize her. Her hair was freshly washed, loose, sweet-smelling and shiny. He had expected her to look the way she did each Tuesday and Thursday morning—a pale-faced girl with dirty hair who used silly scraps of material to hold that long hair back. Sometimes, when he should have been listening to the lecture, he had wondered about this girl. He had figured that she got up late and didn't have time to wash and blow dry her hair, and so she used bright pink kerchiefs, and once, what looked like half of a navy blue knee-sock, in some misguided attempt to dress her dirty hair up. It didn't work, but who was he to talk. So far, he only did his laundry when his roommate threw it at him, piece by piece.
"Well," he said.
"Well." The girl smiled at him. He smiled back.
"Let's get right to it, then," the girl said. Sean agreed. They sat down together on the bottom bunk. He held her notebook on his lap and started reading. "We are in the same class, right?"
The girl laughed, like that was some great big joke.
Shifting his knees, Sean tried to get comfortable. He was practically doubled over, even though sitting up straight he wouldn't have hit his head. But it just felt so close, cave-like. A red tapestry hung behind him on the cement wall. Above them, the girl's roommate and the two guys shifted positions, and murmured simultaneously. Some noise in the hall made Sean jump. The girl had left the door open, and various people walked by, poked their heads in, waved, or averted their eyes. Dorms were so weird like that. Doors always open and dozens of free shows going on inside.
The girl moved closer to him to point out a scribble already highlighted in hot pink. Sweet-smelling, wasn't she, and that soft yellow sweat shirt, never sweated in, but comfortable, wouldn't it be very comfortable inside that shirt, Sean thought, who cares that she doesn't know me, and that I don't know her, who cares about things like that, when they, these girls, don't they smell so nice, and look so nice, fuzzy-edged, and sweet-smelling, and probably so smooth.
"'The three tenets of democracy, fashioned from the American Revolution, helped galvanize the French peasants into...'"
"Did you copy this from the book?" Sean asked.
"No," the girl said. "Professor Dombrowsky said this in class. Remember?" As proof she pointed to a pink paragraph on her notebook page.
"I think I overslept that day." There was something wrong. Her or him? He had expected to do well in college; everyone expected it. His parents, teachers, friends; his old girlfriend, too. But something was welling up within him lately, something strange that blocked all thought. He couldn't talk to anyone about it; not his parents, certainly, who would be disappointed to find that their tuition dollars had not somehow supplied their only son with all the answers they knew he lacked. More than once his mother had said (to his father rather than Sean), "Wait till college. He'll find himself then." Sean had heard this so often that when he came to college he had honestly expected to find his new self sitting on the foot of the extra-long twin bed. Imagine his surprise when instead, he seemed to be losing pieces of his own old self all over campus.
His old girlfriend, too, was now too "old," too over, to talk to. She was younger actually, by two years, and her early letters to him were filled with all the claustrophobic details of a high school junior's life. As the weeks passed, those letters became longer, the world within them more distant, and Sean wondered whether she was trying to end things with him through devotion to Clarissa Dunleavy's short lime green skirt and Tim and Erica's latest ("longest!") hallway kiss. Sean had answered her long letters with short, then shorter ones. And finally: from her, a ten page typed letter detailing homecoming weekend; from him, a postcard of the library under repair, with "Wish you were here!" on the reverse side. Then silence.
He knew he had really killed their relationship in the ice cream shop in the town center, on the day he left home. Why had he chosen to meet her there, on a Saturday afternoon, too, when the place was crawling with Little Leaguers, dusty soccer players and those old men who only ordered coffee, but had arrived early enough to stake the tables for two hours at a time? Sean and his girlfriend had to lean against a corner near the faulty bubbler; cold water occasionally splashed them. When Sean drove her home and pulled into the driveway, the car seemed to transform into the dance floor in the school gym, in that moment after one song has ended and before another has begun. Sean pressed his lips briefly to his girlfriend's lips, as her mother watched from the front steps, and Sean wondered where he had been, where he was going, and how on earth he'd ever get there.
And now, here was this girl, this girl from history staring at him, the way his old girlfriend sometimes had, with expectations he didn't know how to fulfill. He felt that thudding again in his chest.
"Do you mind if I borrow this notebook for ten minutes?" he finally said. "I'll just run over to the library, copy some stuff and run right back. Okay?"
She had nodded, her eyes all big, light blue and black, wet, and God, it was good to get out of that room, to jump down the stairs and onto the mud, to run with the late fall air greeting his face and his nose. Wide-open space, and moist night-air, and him running with the notebook tucked under one arm like a truck-flattened football. Sean was all the way to the copy machine before he realized he didn't have any change.
"Did you sleep with her, or something?" Roger whispered. They were in the mammoth cafeteria, standing in line for second helpings.
"Who?" Sean asked, although of course he knew that the answer would be "no," regardless.
"That one. There's a girl, right over there, see her? She's staring at us with an evil eye." Roger clapped Sean on the shoulder with his tray. "Shit! Maybe it's me! Is she staring at me? Was I with her?"
People in line were beginning to look. "Man, you're a pig," Sean said. He reached the counter and ordered. "She's staring at me," Sean finally said. "I studied with her."
"You studied with her. Just the roast beef, please." Roger looked Sean in the eye. "That's it? Studying? Huh."
"I wasn't into her," Sean explained, but he didn't know exactly what he meant by that.
"I mean, she's not bad," Roger said.
They wandered together to the salad bar. Sean's head ached. He added this girl to his list of worries. Getting to know her had been like studying; he had meant to do it, but somehow time had passed, opportunity had passed and soon, desire with it. What caused a headache, anyway? Moving back to his table, Sean imagined that extra thinking and worrying had forced his head to develop a new, possibly fatal, pulse.
That pulse throbbed particularly fast on a Tuesday in November. At the end of lecture Professor Dombrowsky stood at the auditorium doorway, returning their second exam. Sean stood in the cluster of students, hoping he'd done all right. He knew he could pass this test, and any other if he wanted to. But that was the problem: since arriving on campus, he didn't want anything much.
He picked up his blue book, flipped to the back. "I don't know how a revolution could be executed by a non-thinking mob, as you assert in Essay Three. If no one was thinking, how could there be any movement?"
He's never lived on campus, Sean thought, but he kept reading. "You are failing this class. Please try to salvage your grade by writing an extra credit paper." The comment scrawled on, and a tutoring referral slip sat stapled to the back blue cover.
Sean followed the red arrows to the appointed place: the cavernous library basement. There, in the distance, he saw a guy. His head was bent, and he sat cross-legged on the folding metal chair, reading a book in his lap. One arm rested dubiously on the rickety card table beside him. Above his head another red arrow, underneath it the scribbled message, "Tutor."
He must have felt Sean's stare. He looked up quickly from his book, glanced above his head to the arrow. "That's me," he yelled out, almost apologetic.
Sean walked toward him, past the rows of gray shelving, empty of books. The room looked about as gray and empty as the inside of his head felt, lately.
"Referral?" the tutor asked.
Sean fished through his knapsack. He found it then raised his head, and that's when he recognized the guy. One of the guys from the balloon-room, one of the guys who shared books. Wordless, Sean handed over the slip.
"First time?" the tutor asked, with no hint of recognition.
"Yes," Sean said, and his voice caught in his throat.
"Have a seat," the tutor said. He patted the folding chair right beside him.
The tutor told Sean to write and then watched as Sean struggled with each sentence. Soon the tutor leaned toward him, and pressed against Sean's arm. "It's ink in that pen," he said, with obvious pleasure, "not your own blood."
Sean studied his pen, and then the paper. The last sentence in his draft did betray something drastic: it trailed away into a straight line—like a heart monitor, unplugged.
"Bathroom break," the tutor said, and he winked. He stood and walked away.
That's when Sean noticed them. The guy's jeans were patched in the back with pajama scraps, bits of boxer shorts and one whole handkerchief, all the patches webbed together in a dizzying way. Sean's eyes moved away from the patches, and down, to the deep knee creases in the jeans and back up to the patchwork that receded as the tutor walked away.
As soon as the tutor took the far away corner, Sean rifled through his own splayed papers until, underneath, he found the tutor's notebook. "Daniel," read the blue ink on the inside cover.
"Daniel." He whispered it. The one word, aloud, seemed to calm the pulse that raced inside his head. He sat quietly until Daniel returned and sat back down. Sean studied him. Sean liked the look of that long nose, and the way his pale hair was tangled at the left side. He wished he could learn just one thing, in college: how a person would have to sleep, to get his hair knotted, like that.