She had to choose.
Against the pane, snow as fine as flour eddied and corkscrewed in the wind raging above Bloomington, and on the other side, Adara stood in briefs and a bra, hands behind her head, fingers teasing snarls from her shower-wet hair. The storm was mindless in its bluster, its yearning to be somewhere else – upwind, downwind, left, right – and then chasing the opposite. It would all melt soon enough anyway.
Inside, “All I Want for Christmas” was jangling its way down the hall, but the door to Adara’s single, shut and locked, muffled it to shaking tinsel and cloying melody. Lazing in the steam were all the after-shower aromas of a girl’s dorm: flowered shampoo, Nutella and the plasticine sweetness of rice cakes, body crèmes that smell the way “All I Want for Christmas” sounds, a hint of overripe banana, the scent of a woman’s skin and rising from it snowy puffs of the baby powder Adara had just palmed into her neck. Bracing her forearms against the window, staring down into the deserted quad, she recalled the fairy tales and wondered what a boy would see, looking up at her – the coronation of the queen, the virgin sacrificed on the mountaintop, the princess who would sleep in the cave for a thousand years to cure the plague. People needed to be saved, she thought, even if they didn’t know it.
It was the solstice, and the sky was trying on one gray suit after another, each darker than the last. But Finals were done: Physics, Inorganic Chemistry, Virology, Immunology, Spanish. Five tests, five days, seventeen hours of sleep. She’d done so well throughout the semester that only some neurological meltdown during an exam would have unseated her from the Dean’s List, but every day since the previous Saturday she’d risen to a silent dorm and a viscous unlit sky, risen and sighed and made tea and sat sipping on her futon, reading her Bible and releasing sleepy thoughts into the pages of her prayer journal. Then an apple or a leopard-spotted banana chewed while racing through each Bible-thick stack of flash cards. Then an hour of running or swimming at the gym, lunch at the dining hall, textbook review, dinner at the dining hall, a mutually concerned phone conversation with her mother, unnecessary study groups and practice tests she’d written herself, before the Sandman tracked her down on the futon, a flashcard clutched like a love letter in her hand.
She yawned. The double-paned windows were liquid cold against her forearms and waves of goose bumps were shuddering across her skin, but she knew if she pushed herself up, she’d have to decide what to do next. Her ride back home to South Bend couldn’t leave until Sunday morning, which had meant 36 more hours in Bloomington, sleeping and re-reading Emma and watching a pile of movies in the dorm lounge – a sweet, fleecy, edgeless day and a half. But last night after her study group, a lacrosse boy named Tanner delayed her with chitchat until the others faded to a set of wet squeaks on unseen library stairs, then he mentioned an end-of-semester blowout he was throwing with his “posse” off-campus. She’d said maybe, too tired for certainty, and Tanner left glum. But she really had meant maybe.
Adara Love had attended exactly zero college parties in her five semesters, unless you included the occasional birthday event for girls on her floor, thirty awkward minutes that began with a peppy and off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” and ended when the last of the six or seven underclassmen departed for homework, MySpace, boyfriends. The parties she knew were her parents’ Christmas Eve get-togethers, families from church playing euchre, eating seven-layer dip, sipping fingers of Cold Duck in Dixie Cups meant for mouthwash.
It wasn’t just that college parties seemed sleazy – she was busy, she told herself: every day of every semester was jigsawed together with homework, MCAT prep, church, tutoring at the homeless center on Saturday mornings, and half-hour blocks in the piano rooms whenever she could find the time. But as addicting as the control was, she knew she could study less. Considering the party, she wondered what she was afraid of: That she’d be mocked? That she would be found out and called a hypocrite? That she’d like it? The slog to the party would be cold, and her bed was beckoning, but hours and days and months of aloneness were droning in the back of the skull, along with the ache for a different sort of contact. Rocking her heels into the plush throw rug, she pushed herself from the window.
She would need an outfit. Probably make-up. Shoes: unquestionably. She was the only girl she knew whose hang-up clothes fit her modular furniture’s 5’ rack: three pastel church blouses; long skirts and trousers two by two in black and khaki; two identical pairs of Levi’s; one three years lighter than the other; one puffy down coat; one bright red track jacket from high school cross-country; one navy sweater vest. At least she’d shaved her legs in the shower – in the winter, her legs concealed by pants, she’d sometimes go days without a razor touching her skin. She slipped on her robe and shower shoes, then walked toward the end of the hall, jotting a mental list of girls whose clothes might fit – volleyball players, the bulimic, a tramp whose father used to play for the Pacers – but none were home.
Tall, tall, tall, with no hips and legs up to here, Adara could think of no one else. But then up blossomed an image of Heidi Altbahn, from Munich via next door, who looked like something from a Nazi propaganda poster, with pounds of buttermilk hair and the permanent lustrous glow of great and goodly Teutonic health. She was almost never in her room, and when she was, it seemed like it was only for sex, crazed screaming sex that sounded like the Spanish Inquisition, which made Adara some combination of 1) sad for Heidi; 2) sad for herself; 3) angry at the boys who were taking advantage of what Adara was sure was the girl’s homesickness; 4) jealous; and 5) annoyed by the fact that it made studying basically impossible.
She rapped on the darkened room’s door, paused for a beat, bit her lip, turned the handle, and pushed it inches across the high-pile carpet. Inside she heard grunting and a strained male voice: “Stop twisting out from under me.” Pale purple light pulsed against the walls. A girl’s voice giggled. A pair of bodies lay face-to-face, arms locked together. Another burst from the strobing black light and Adara’s brain caught up with her eyes: Heidi’s roommate Vu was having a thumb war with a tiny bald boy whose ear was studded with a fake diamond the size of a chiclet.
“Who is she?” asked the boy.
“You’re here,” said Vu, looking up through her cat’s eye glasses.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean …” said Adara
“Can we touch you? Will you burn us?” asked the boy.
“Adara, you’re glowing,” said Vu. Their thumbs were still going at it, like tired dogs feinting at the end of a yard fight.
“I was just – ”
“You’re glowing like an angel.”
“I think it’s the black light,” said Adara.
“Are we going to die?” asked the boy.
“You look so tall.”
“That’s because you’re on the ground,” said Adara.
“Your fingers are like icicles.”
“I was wondering …” asked Adara.
“Maybe she’s the ghost of Christmas past,” said the boy. “Are you giving us a chance to change our selfish lives?”
Adara flipped the switch, painting the air with a yellowy domestic softness.
“Ouch,” said the boy.
“Do you know where Heidi is?”
“Somewhere else,” said Vu, sobering. Horizontal, thought Adara.
“Heidi has huge –”
“Shut up, Willard,” said Vu, letting go of his hand as they shambled up. She was wearing fatigues and her usual red beret over her black bowl cut.
“I need to borrow Heidi’s clothes.”
“Once I walked in on her with a man who had a giant bird carved into my back,” said Willard. “It was like the Discovery Channel. The German girl threw a book at my head. It was Man’s Search for Meaning.”
“I need to borrow Heidi’s clothes.”
“Are you going to impersonate her?” asked Vu. Adara didn’t know the little Vietnamese girl well, but she was infamous on the floor for her scathing snark. Her current spaceyness was a cautionary tale against psychoactive experiments.
“Heidi scares me,” said Willard. “Are you a four? A two? You’re scary tall, it’s hard to tell.”
“I’m going to a party and I don’t have any clothes and I need to borrow some for the night.”
“Oh,” said Vu, bringing her hands together. “Like Cinderella.”
“I know tons about fashion,” said Willard. “I’m a textiles and design major.” He began appraising her. A wifebeater drooped from his bony shoulders and his wingtips were spray-painted yellow. “What I’m seeing is thirty-three twenty-four thirty-two?” he asked.
“Willard, I have a mission for you,” said Adara, pressing her hands together. “I need bobby pins, spearmint gum, a deck of Uno cards, and a bag of walnuts.”
“Oh. Well. Okay. I am a textiles and design major.” He perked for a moment, grinning vulnerably. His finger wormed through the air and hovered near her skin. “We could dress you in fire. We could make you a fiery snow queen of fire. Maybe Vu –”
“Willard, this is a man’s job.” Adara’s eyes grabbed his. “If you can’t do it, nobody can.”
Sighing, pulling on a parka, he muddled out. As the door was pulled shut over the luxurious carpet in a way she felt more than heard, as it clicked shut, as the clip of Willard’s wingtips faded on their way down the hall from castanets to the plink of a dripping faucet in another room, Adara exhaled, ran a hand through her wet curls, and loosened the belt of her bathrobe. “I think we have an Uno deck,” said Vu. “I love Uno. It’s the only game I can still play after I take E.”
“So, Heidi’s clothes.”
It wasn’t hard to guess which side of the dorm was Heidi’s and which was Vu’s. On the right, a collection of tiny Chuck Taylors in every color imaginable; a world map in which every nation had been resized in proportion to its GDP; Skittles and candy necklaces and snorkeling masks scattered across a desk along with coffee-stained French novels and copies of The Guardian; on the left, half a dozen gyro wrappers; a life-sized cardboard cutout of Sting, currently wearing against the season a seaman’s cap and fleece vest; a hand-carved pair of giant Nutcrackers; and a rat’s nest of black lace bras, thongs, garters, and other underwear Adara couldn’t even identify. She drifted toward this side, toward the wheeled rack of clothes parked behind Heidi’s lofted bed. An urge seized her to scoop a bra from the pile and check the size.
Adara wouldn’t call her family poor – she and her brothers were always clothed and clean, warm and well-fed – but Heidi’s clothes were a revelation. Turtleneck sweaters as soft as baby hair; gypsy skirts and pencil skirts and asymmetrical lizard skin skirts; a leather trench coat that felt like frosting; jeans as glossy and subtly colored as a blueberry; a mandarin-collared minidress that must have fit Heidi like the casing on a sausage. And the shoes: shimmering Dorothy heels, fur-lined moccasins laced to the knee, meter-high black boots polished so bright they looked metallic.
“I think her dad was a Nazi,” said Vu, picking up the jackboots.
Adara finished loosening her robe’s belt and let it fall to the floor.
“Whoa. Your body is like magazine people body. Are you wearing astronaut underwear?”
Adara pictured Neil Armstrong in his BVDs. “Are you making fun?”
“You could use your underwear for a parachute,” said Vu, reaching for the elastic band of her silver briefs.
“O-kay,” said Adara, shifting her hips away from Vu’s hand in a slow hula. “What kind of underwear do you wear?”
Vu began unbuttoning her fatigues.
“No, no, don’t do that. I’ll take your word for it.”
“I buy tiny underwears,” said Vu. “That’s what Willard likes.”
“Oh, honey …”
“I hope Willard isn’t gay. He doesn’t have any sexy pictures of sexy women on his walls … try on this,” she added, giggling, unhooking the lizard skin skirt’s hangar. After unzipping the skirt, Adara pulled it on and tugged the zipper up. With a rush, it fell back down.
“It fell,” said Vu.
Other skirts were tried, other skirts found wanting. “It would have been nice,” said Adara, staring into the green-black scales.
“Wait, what about this?” asked Vu, reaching for a hanger impacted between the leather trench coat and a sequined dress. The sweater she yanked out was long and dawn grey.
“That’s nice, but what I need is a skirt.”
“It’s not a sweater, it’s a sweater dress.”
“It’s a dress? They make dresses like that?”
She pulled it over her head. It smelled like skin and powdered sugar and the sort of amber perfume advertised by naked women with indeterminate liquid dripping from their lips. It poured over Adara’s shoulders and back like melted ice cream. On Heidi it would have been clingy, trashy, spending so much of itself on her curves it would have stopped barely lower than an actual sweater. On Adara it hung straight as a sheet on a clothesline.
“What about shoes?” asked Adara, settling herself atop the gyro wrappers atop Heidi’s desk and drawing stockings up her legs.
“Jackboots,” said Vu, holding them up like a pair of bagged pheasants.
“Those heels are crazy.”
“They smell like conquest,” said Vu, burrowing her head into one of them. “You don’t know anything about make-up,” she added, popping up and banging on Adara’s shoulders with fists the size of ice cream scoops. “You need make-up. You look like a nun.”
She left and returned with pencils, tiny platinum pucks, skinny tubes, lipstick cylinders that looked just like her father’s shotgun shells.
“So,” said Vu. “Do you want the twenty-dollar whore, or the fifty-dollar whore?”
“Maybe I should stick with nun.”
“No,” said Vu. “Nuns are evil.” With a pencil she attacked Adara’s face, which felt as though it were being taxidermied. After fifteen minutes, Vu stepped back, squinted through her specs and smiled. “You look … smoky,” she said, just as the door opened and Willard hopped in, bearing bags. He was silent, staring at her as though she were a 3D puzzle that would eventually resolve into a recognizable image. “You look like the volcano queen.” Snowflakes had collected upon his patina of hair.
Not remembering what she’d wanted, he seemed to have bought everything, including a pale pink daisy he pulled from a cone of tissue paper.
“Thanks,” said Adara.
“You never give me flowers,” said Vu.
That made Adara sad. Boys should give their girls flowers, yes. She felt the tug to arbitrate, but then she caught sight of herself in Heidi’s giant gilt mirror and walked closer. Her face was all eyes and lips, and while the make-up was too heavy – the lipstick was sin red, the rims of her eyes were black as a chimney-sweep’s, and the curve of the kohl made her look like Nefertiti – the person she saw hummed with the sort of power she’d always tried to dampen in herself.
“Take the trench coat,” said Vu, starting at the daisy. “You don’t want to die on the walk.”
“Thanks,” said Adara, nodding, waving, leaving. In the stilettos, she clicked down the hall like a crab on cement, and after two teetering near-falls onto the gritty tile, she decided she’d have to take it slow. Heels were crazy.
The wall clock opposite the elevator read 8:44, but it always ran three minutes fast. Tanner’d said the party started at nine, that the house was at the corner of Swain and Second, a white two-storey with aCape Codporch and a widow’s walk. With downy blond hair that waved lazily as it hung about his face, Tanner was like a cocky puppy, charming even in his misbehavior. He smiled by default, chaired social and philanthropic committees, talked about his daily protein intake, and while he wasn’t tall, years of lacrosse had sharpened his muscles, and his tapered forearms were crisscrossed with veins and arteries. He always looked ready to jump and grab onto something. Although Adara studied harder, she thought he would get into better med schools.
The elevator dinged happily. It would be polite to bring something, and alcohol would be expected. She approached the glass doors, and although it looked like a vampy sashay, the roll of her hips was actually an attempt to keep herself from keeling to port or starboard. Outside a front of flakes barreled toward the dorm like one of those huge synchronized dances during the opening ceremony of the Olympics. She had to lean into it before it cracked open, the cold wind racing indecently up her dress, playing voodoo on her still-damp ringlets, tightening her skin so quickly it made her scalp ache.
But while her ears were already thickening to rubber and her face hurt and the muscles of her back were involuntarily contracted, winter reminded her of her father. As a child, every Friday from Labor Day through Thanksgiving the two of them would watch her brothers’ football games at the fields near their house, and the snowiest games were most memorable. Pete Love explained to her the stunt and the safety blitz, the wishbone, the wildcat. All of this whispered into her ear under the cold bristles of a moustache, a physical memory summoned by the bits of flake no bigger than dander stowing away upon her mascara’d eyelashes. Her brothers – Moses, Enoch, and Gideon – were linemen rooted in the three-point stance so close to the ball they could smell its leather. Her father’s advice was never trust a football player who didn’t start every play with a hand on the ground. He had been a lineman too, and during timeouts he recounted the travails of separated shoulders and heatstroke, bleeding eyes and frostbite. He rhapsodized on the charge and tug and thrust of bodies, the whole northern clash of muscle and will. Adara listened as rapt as if she had never heard words before as he poured peppermint schnapps into their thermos of cocoa. Adara’s mother didn’t attend because the continual pummeling by and of her boys turned her stomach to vinegar, as she liked to say. Being a Pentecostal, she quietly disapproved of alcohol, and as such, Pete rarely imbibed in the house, saving his drinking for the occasional party and his sons’ games.
Adara liked the schnapps ‘n’ cocoa too. She remembered often drifting off against her father’s shoulder during halftime, and by game’s end the action was a flipbook of abstract expressionism. After Adara greeted her brothers with a minty grin, they’d all walk the five blocks home, the brothers fighting over the chocolaty thermos dregs while taking turns carrying a passed-out Adara, who now remembered her drunkest moments as some of her happiest. Adara now understood her more or less unconscious body was the punch line of a group joke on their Puritan mother. However, Adara had since become more like her, realizing that not all jokes end well.
Since the campus sidewalks were heated and ice free, she could cloudgaze as she baby-stepped: the sky was flat and low, a pale pinkish grey, and with a tank of corn snow beneath, it looked like an undercooked and oversalted pork tenderloin. She sniffed at the nightsnow, more mineraly than rain, which only makes things smell more like themselves, mouldering bark, turning dirt to mud, a sweetness laced with rot. But if rain is a memento mori, snow is a crystalline snapshot of a world that might escape time. At night with day scents sleeping the stoniness of snow predominates – it’s a frigid sauna, the H2O solid instead of gaseous, lingering in the way rain can’t. It’s the closest anyone will ever get to being amphibious.
The sidewalks had been empty, but as Adara’s eyes fell earthward, a hillock of colorless garments labored ahead against the battery of wind, obstructing her way. Nearing she could see it was a woman wrapped in shawls and scarves like a Bedouin, nothing but face and complicated arrangements of cloth. As she approached, the oily dreck of sweat, skin, and unwashed hair was intensified by the odor of clothes even longer unwashed. Adara’s mind was a slideshow of gangrene and dry-rot and flesh-eating bacteria. She stopped. The wind was shushing her. The smell of nightsnow was gone.
“I hurt,” said the woman.
Adara set her hand somewhere near the woman’s shoulder. The fabric was stiff and raspy with dirt. “Where do you hurt?”
“Nothing don’t hurt.”
“Don’t you think you should go to a hospital?” Adara toed closer, trying not to breathe through her nose.
“What I need ain’t in medicine. Need a present for my grandbaby.”
“For Christmas,” replied the woman, shifting forward, canting her bulk against Adara, pluffing into her nostrils the smell of rancid Fritos, moldy chili. Adara’s stomach was agitating what little was in her stomach, and her mind was hectoring her to flee, but she did neither.
“What’s his name?”
“Jemmy. He six.”
Some guests would already be wiping their shoes on theCape Codporch’s welcome mat, rapping on the door. Adara imagined a large brass knocker, a hearth, punchbowls of steaming cider.
“Is there somewhere you need to be getting to, ma’am?”
“There’s that mall, a toy store in that mall. Jemmy, he wants a sword. He got a good grandma.”
“Yes, yes he does.” As she said it, a suggestion alit on Adara like a shy bird: kiss the woman on the forehead. The thought was compelled with no obvious reasoning, but with great force. Her face was a broken trellis of wrinkles and cracked skin. Bending, Adara kissed her forehead, feeling flaky grime, beaded with sweat Adara did not wipe from her lips even when she rose again to her full height. The woman gummed her lips, removed a glove, and touched her forehead.
“Could I help with buying Jemmy’s present?”
“Don’t need to do that. Just tired, that’s all.”
Adara stepped back and pulled her wallet from purse. In it were a twenty and a five, and while she didn’t know if five was enough for booze, it wasn’t enough for a sword. She pulled out the twenty. “Here,” she said, tucking it into the woman’s hand.
“What’s your name? Want to be able to say on the note it’s from me and from you both.”
“Adara. Where’s that name from?”
“It came to my father in a dream.”
“I’m going to go buy my grandbaby a sword. I’m going to tell him it’s from grandma and Adara.”
“Okay,” said Adara, almost sad to see her go. “Oh, wait,” she added, turning, extracting the Gideon she always kept in her purse. “Would you like my Bible?”
The woman’s smile was broad enough to show a few teeth the color of wet chalk. “No need. I’ve been acquainted with the Word for as long as I’ve been.”
As the woman turned and lurched away, Adara ghosted a prayer for her success through the pirouetting gusts. Watching her disappear into the night, Adara shivered, her back rippling with chills, and closed her eyes, rememberingCartagena, trying to relive the heat. The sun releasing warmth like a showerhead. Coffee as black as asphalt, and asphalt as hot as coffee.
Rounding a corner, red neon glowed from a concrete building, tinting the snow pink. The sign came into view: HOOSIER SPIRIT. The parking lot was pocked with potholes, trashed with gravel and hunks of asphalt moated in ice. She stepped off the sidewalk into the slosh, her arms rising like something from Fiddler on the Roof. Her heels wobbling over the mess of snow and stone, she accelerated to avoid pitching to one side or the other. The front door was twenty feet away, fifteen, but then a piece of asphalt crumbled underfoot, and she skittered on the gravel, sliding feet first as though about to steal home. Powerless, imagined what a greasy puddle of slush would do to Heidi’s sweater dress, but her arms swung up involuntarily, and she managed to hook an arm around the side mirror of a parked truck. With no help from her frictionless feet, she grunted, strained, and hauled herself up. Miraculously both mirror and dress seemed to be intact. Entering, she felt her pulse pounding behind her ears.
Warm as a grandmother’s oven, the store’s fragrance was the dustiness of crates and cardboard, the avuncular scent of unlit cigars. Under the hiss overeager heaters, sweating businessmen unsheathed themselves of topcoats and scarves as boys with messy hair hoisted 24-packs onto their shoulders. To Adara’s disappointment, none of the six-packs were less than seven dollars, and she wished she had an ATM card, which had never been necessary because her student ID acted as a debit card on campus. In the corner the radiator hissed like a balloon that was always dying but would never actually die.
Her muscles slackening in the heat like pasta in boiling water, she examined the wine aisle, then the hard alcohol, but they seemed to mock her single, weak bill. She felt doomed to an ungracious empty-handedness, until behind the checkout counter she spotted scores of small plastic bottles, including peppermint schnapps with wrappers colored like barber’s poles. Loitering at the register was a cashier – orange dreadlocks, faunish facial hair, Pearl Jam T-shirt.
“Happy Hanukah,” he said.
“Oh right, is it Hanukah?” she asked. “Are you Jewish?”
“I – I – I don’t know. No. Not Jewish. Joke. I – uh – don’t know. Christmas. Merry Christmas.” He smiled.
“Merry Christmas to you, too.” She liked saying Merry Christmas.
“So, what’s your poison?”
“Poison? Oh, right. How much is one of those little bottles of peppermint schnapps?”
He plucked it from the shelf. “Four dollars and forty-nine cents.”
“Awesome. I’ll take one of those.”
“Righteous,” he said, punching keys on the register. “That’ll be five dollars and twenty-seven cents.”
“What?” she said. Without thinking about it, she started tapping her canines together – right, left, left, right. “All I have is five.”
“There’s an alcohol tax,” he said, wincing. Then he started shaking his head, as though fighting a brain freeze. “Wait, wait. Who cares? I don’t know care. You don’t care.”
She shook her head.
“I’m not letting the man get in the way here. What would Santa do? Santa wouldn’t care. You know, you just don’t need to worry about it at all,” he said, taking the five-dollar bill and handing her the schnapps.
“Thanks,” she said. “I’ll come back and pay –”
“No, you won’t,” he said. “No, I mean, not that. I mean, you don’t need to. You could if you wanted to, but you totally don’t need to at all. It is completely, completely … covered.”
“Okay. Thanks. Really,” she said smiling, turning to exit.
As she was pushing the door open, he said, “Are you doing anything tonight?”
There were few ways to respond delicately to this, and like most people, Adara always seemed to find the perfect riposte hours too late. But there, then, she knew all at once exactly what to do: she pressed her fingers to her lips and blew the nice skinny dreadlocked boy a kiss, then strode into the thrashing wind before he could do anything about it. “Let us be lovers,” she whispered to no one. “We’ll marry our fortunes together.”
Stamping toward theCape Cod, excited because she did not know what would happen next, her blood was ricocheting from her aorta to the tips of her fingers and back. Because the rest of the time, she did know what would happen: three more semesters of lonesome overwork, a month of MCAT hell next spring, four years of med school, yet lonesomer overwork without even the institutionalized human contact of dorm life. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to go where she’d always wanted to go, wasn’t sure if she wanted to be the person she’d always been told she should be, wasn’t sure she had a choice in either anymore.
With her mother on the phone she tried to be perky, reporting high test scores and Sunday sermons, but even then Linda sometimes asked her if she wouldn’t maybe like to come home for a long weekend or two, bake strudel and take a load off and cozy up with a evening’s worth of Fred and Ginger flicks. But Adara always resisted, fearing the retreat would be permanent, fearing as much as a lame marriage the thought of being one of those sad thirtysomething women at church who worked at the library and still lived with their parents.
As a devout college girl far from home, the social options were either the sort of worldly party she’d thus far avoided but was about to attend, and the various Christian alternatives: InterVarsity, Campus Crusade, and others, each filled with the sort of people Adara desperately hoped she was not. She’d tried the Christian groups at the start of her freshman year, when she had yet to build up a tolerance to loneliness, and they’d been found wanting. Adara hoped she was not the one who had been found wanting. She attended their Thursday night meetings, sang the lyrics to the sappy songs they projected onto a wall, listened as boys in plaid button-downs fumbled through brief talks elucidating – or more accurately, not elucidating – various New Testament passages. She brought rhubarb pie to the get-togethers they called socials, played Guesstures and Mafia, watched PG movies sitting five to a sofa in dorm basements. She even dragged herself every Tuesday morning to the women’s Bible study/ accountability group, but the conversations quickly devolved from Pauline exegesis to Platonic chitchat about the plaid-shirted boys. There are fates worse than death, and it quickly became clear to Adara that spending ninety minutes with Christian girls was one of them. As for the boys, Adara was all for earnestness, but their humor was yuk-yuk Howdy Doody nonirony, blithely preadolescent in a way that was as creepy as grown women who played with dolls. Since the boys were incapable of flirtation, they channeled their libido through lingering side-hugs and a suspect amount of incidental body contact. They had been found wanting, which was to say, she wanted more – a fun beyond board games, friends who didn’t think negative emotions were sinful, boys who knew what happened in the movies after the lingering kiss faded to black.
But now she was fording the slop of a street called Swain, trying not to teeter as she ascended the porch stairs of a whiteCape Cod, strangely quiet for a college party. She knocked. Waited. Knocked again.
What flung open the door to the entryway was a turtlish boy with pale hair Brilliantined into a severe side part, Buddy Holly glasses and a Christmas cardigan, each side of which portrayed a red-nosed reindeer in profile smooching its mirror image. The two antlered kissers merged at the nose, a quarter-sized red button.
“Hi,” said Adara.
“Rather tarted up for a Jehovah’s Witness, aren’t we?” he asked in a flouncing British accent. She felt bad for him. He’d probably never been invited to many parties either and decided to go all out, only to be tacitly exiled to the position of doorman by cooler party-goers in their slit skirts and complexly faded jeans. She would make a point to chat later, after she found Tanner.
“Um, no, Tanner invited me.”
“Tanner is the least interesting person I know. I’ve met Dalmatians with more intellectual curiosity.” His hand, mittened in something – a cloth moose antler – was rolling at her ensemble. “That is clever,” he said, pointing at her. “Almost too clever,” slipping the jacket off her shoulders without asking. “It’s like anti-irony. It’s like an irony of irony. And does that mean it’s not ironic, or that it’s more ironic? I have no idea. But it’s superb.”
“What’s your name?” she asked.
“Neville,” he said. “But if you wish, you may call me The Admiral. Or Stephens. Or Professor X. I rather like that.”
Baffled, trying to reground herself: “How do you know Tanner?”
“His room is next to mine. All he does is sit-ups and poor acoustic covers of Journey. I have, indeed, stopped believing.”
His words were resistors dampening the electric thrumming of her muscles and nerves; she was clenching what she knew from Anatomy were her orbiculares oculi, against rising tears. She didn’t want the person she’d come to see to be the sort of person who did sit-ups and played bad Journey covers.
“Oh, hell,” Neville said, wincing. “Sometimes I’m just a prick.” He patted her shoulder. The cold had fogged his glasses to the point where she could no longer tell what color his eyes were.
“See here,” he continued. “You have no idea what you’re about to enter here, but let me say this: you look as good as you hoped you would.” He ushered her inside, and she went from tromping to clicking, which she liked, and in the warmth of the front hall, her back muscles relaxed like a Twizzler coming undone. In the living room she could not yet see, Bing Crosby was dreaming of a white Christmas.
“Thanks. I tried.” But she had no idea what he was talking about as he kipped away with Heidi’s coat … until she stepped from the hall into the living room, where fifty people were sitting and standing and foxtrotting poorly, and all of them, all of them, dear Lord Jesus Christ, all of them were wearing Christmas sweaters. Each one a wonderment of godawful grandmotherly kitsch. Those who saw her didn’t know how to react. After some moments, their looks settled into pity. Tanner spotted her, but not soon enough. He scuffed toward her in wingtips, in a sweater stamped with a snowman smoking a corncob pipe.
“Hey, Adara. You look … when I said Christmas sweater, that’s not quite what –”
“You didn’t say Christmas sweater.”
He squeezed his eyes to wrinkles, clenched his hands into balls and began pounding his temples. “Idiot. Stupid. Fuck – sorry. I know you’re not big into swearing. But sorry also, about, the not telling you thing. The forgetting thing, I mean.”
She wanted to stomp his feet shoes with her jackboots, but she said: “No, don’t worry about –”
“That dress is hot. And those boots? It’s like an S&M thing going on.” The British boy traipsed back into the room, smirked, and mouthed: Journey cover.
“What the hell are you talking about?” She found her finger stabbing his pipe-smoking snowman. “Do you think stupid dirty jokes are helping you out here? Are you trying to make me feel worse? Are you trying to make me leave?”
“Hey, hey. Okay. Why don’t we get some eggnog?”
She followed, resisting the urge to slap the back of hisLabradorhead. At home, her mother was decorating the tree, listening to Bing Crosby, and if Adara had been there, she would’ve been humming along.
“So,” she said, breathing, “you live here?” It was a nice house: oak floors that shone like oil, high ceilings wearing a selvage of rococo crown moulding, Mission furniture, wood-framed Remington prints, all dusted in diffuse yellow light from the torchés and table lamps.
“Yeah, me and some of the lacrosse posse. Plus Zane, who’s a rock star, andNev, who sings for the band. Nev’s funny-looking little guy who got your coat.”
In the kitchen four girls were hunched over an island and its bowl of red and green peanut M&Ms, all of them in ugly sweaters and Mary Janes they’d undoubtedly toss out tomorrow, not even setting them in the Salvation Army donation bins outside every dorm.
“But Ringo would be so sweet,” said a girl with a brutal red pageboy cut. “He’d make you breakfast in bed.”
“Lay-dies,” said Tanner, walking past them to the pitchers of eggnog on the counter. He poured a pair of glasses. “Homemade,” he said.
“It’s full of roofies,” said one of the girls. “He’s going to rape you.”
“Shut up, whore,” said Tanner. He turned back to Adara. “No roofies. Just right.”
It tasted like custard pie, coating her mouth and tongue and throat on the way down.
“I’d do George,” said one of the girls.
All she’d had since lunch was a banana. She finished her glass and poured another. It was like an electric blanket for her stomach.
“There are lots of calories in that,” said Tanner. “You might want to tone it down …”
“George has crooked teeth.”
“Jesus probably had crooked teeth.”
“Jesus probably didn’t have teeth.”
“Are you saying you’d do Jesus?”
Tanner, turning toward them: “Hey guys, Adara’s into Jesus, so cut the sacrilege.” He grinned at her. “Heathens.”
“I’m sure Jesus would have something to say about that outfit,” said Prince Valiant girl.
“Didn’t Jesus hang out with prostitutes?” Tanner asked, by way of defense. In sotto voce, to Adara: “Sorry about this. I’m sure I can find a Christmas sweater for you.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“Let me give you the grand tour.”
“Any guy who wrote ‘Yesterday’ can fuck me six ways from Sunday.”
“TANNER!” someone shouted from a distant room. “Where’s the Scrabble board?”
He turned to her and sighed. “Be right back. Just show yourself around. I’ll catch up.”
The music droning from the hall could’ve been the soundtrack to the dreams of suicidal robots; as she jiggled open door at the end of the hallway, an overripe earthiness rolled out of darkness cut only by the golden parallelogram of her entrance, spotlighting a boy as he was about to inhale a messy cigarette.
“Pain,” said the boy. “Oh Gaad.” A few chuckles from gray-brown forms Adara was just beginning to distinguish. “Close it.”
“Sorry,” she said, stepping inside and shutting the door behind her, stabbing someone’s foot with her heel in the process. “Sorry.”
“Here,” said a girl’s voice, accompanied by a series of pats on taut leather. Adara followed the noises, her hands swimming in front of her, until one was finally grasped and she turned and sat.
“Gotcha,” whispered the same girl’s voice.
“Thanks. What’s going on?”
“Kid A with Grade-A,” said the girl.
The music was somehow both repetitive and random, childlike and menacing. The girl who guided her to the couch took the cigarette. Small and Gypsy-featured, her nails were chewed to the quick, and sprouting from her eyes were false lashes as long as a comb’s teeth and gilt so heavily they glowed gold above the lit cigarette. She took a long puff. “Goddamn I love it,” she said, exhaling, handing it to Adara.
“I’m springing for you. Take it.”
“No, I’m all right.”
The Gypsy girl clucked and inhaled again. Her eyelashes quivered. But instead of releasing the smoke, she slipped her other hand behind Adara’s neck and pulled her head down, pressed their mouths together, opened her lips inside Adara’s, and blew. Smoke tingled on her tongue and gums, sugary and harsh at the same time, but the girl’s lips were soft as gummy bears, and as Adara swallowed and hacked, as the girl let her go and dimpled and passed the cigarette, she felt vertigo, heart-thumps, helium ballooning inside her head, aching forearms and hands too weak to squeeze.
Then a boy hooted. The contours of the room and its bodies snapped clear. And for the first time since leaving her dorm, she was warm. She didn’t know if she enjoyed what the girl had done – if she had, it was a woozier pleasure than any she’d ever felt. She felt the other girl’s lipstick on her lips. It wasn’t a kiss, she reassured herself. It took two people wanting it to make a kiss.
Adara warily stretched her legs, settling Heidi’s boots onto a coffee table. Her heels were grateful. “Was it as good for you as it was for me?” asked the girl, dimpling again. The room’s smoke was so thick it had turned the air to liquid. Letting her head fall to the left, Adara looked at the Gypsy girl and decided she was pretty: if a lesbian was going to make a pass at her, it was better if she was a pretty lesbian.
Then, as though emerging from underwater, she heard the lyrics for the first time.
The big fish eat the little ones
Not my problem, give me some
You can try the best you can
You can try the best you can,
The best you can is good enough.
She didn’t know how to take that. The music she loved – Patsy Cline, the Temptations, the Beatles before they got crazy and went to India, Hank One, Elvis, U2 before they got weird and self-referential and now once again – wore its heart on its sleeve. She’d never understood why you’d listen to music that made you bluer than already were. Music should make you feel better. The best you could was good enough.
“Adara Love? ADARA LOVE!” Starting so violently Adara almost kicked someone in the head. That corner was still the matte black of a construction paper witch’s hat, but the boy’s voice was familiar. In her mind a banner unfurled over the entrance to her church in South Bend: Adara Love seen inhaling marijuana, kissing girl at profligate college party. He stood and galumphed toward her, the room chuffing and groaning. “Adara.”
She rustled herself up, head buoyed on the ceiling, feet iron on the floor. “Hey, there, you,” she said as the sack-bodied boy caught his foot on the leg of a side table.
“Oh Gaad,” he said, falling. The floor-sitters rolled away just as he impacted. He grunted, smiling up at her, his grin hopscotching along Adara’s neural pathways until it found its avatar in her mental storehouse. She couldn’t remember his real name, just that everyone had called him “The Glug” behind his back. He scrambled up. The room was growing restless, and seemed about ready to spit them out.
“Let’s talk in the hall,” she said.
While exiting, he said: “I don’t know if you remember –”
“Oh, of course.”
“Stanley Michael Glugzinsky,” he said, extending a hand that felt like a raw hamburger as she shook it.
“Good to see you again, Stan. How were, uh, Finals for you?”
He was heavy the last time she had seen him, and now he was heavier still, with a head as square as a mason’s dream and a heavy man’s curly, unkempt brown hair. “Yeah,” he said, “taking a little time off, working a little. Probably start up again next fall. Change of direction, pick up another minor, maybe.”
“Oh, okay. Good.” Instead of an ugly Christmas sweater, he was wearing a T-shirt silk-screened with a burro piñata and beneath it, the caption “I’d Hit That.” His smile was so broad it looked painful. “So, uh, who’s here you know, besides me? If I’d had your digits, I totally would have called you. Are you on the MySpace?”
“No. Tanner invited me. We’re in pre-med physics.”
“Oh.” His smile sagged for a moment, before tugging itself back up. “Let me show you around. It’s a righteous place.”
“Who do you know here?”
“Neville.” The noises of his fat-tongued shoes on the hardwood sounded gastrointestinal. “We’re D and D buddies. We roll together most Sundays.”
“Oh. Okay.” They were back in the kitchen. One of the girls was at the stove, stirring a pot of cocoa.
“John was an amphetamine hound.”
“They all were.”
“I’ve heard he’d go on jackhammering for hours,” said the girl with the blunt pageboy.
“Jackhammering for hours?” asked Tanner, stepping into the kitchen from the living room, breezing past the girls at the island. “Who’s calling for me?” His permanently tan cheeks glowed pink. Adara smelled beer on his wet lips. “Stanley,” he said, nodding. “How do you know the lovely Miss Love?”
“I know Adara from the way back,” said Stan. “When we were little we did the Christmas pageant together. She was Mary. I think I was a rock.”
“– but Paul’s so smug. He’s that guy who laughs at you when he first sees you naked.”
Tanner took Adara’s hand, and she did not let go. The chocolate simmering on the stove made saliva pool under her tongue.
“Bye Stan,” said Adara as Tanner led her to the living room, where half a dozen kids were taking pictures of themselves with their cellphones while holding Scrabble tiles or patting their lips inquisitively. Behind the sofa, a few couples were trying to foxtrot as “Fly Me to the Moon” ended and “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” began. “Look,” said Tanner, squeezing her hand, scanning the dancers, “I don’t really know, I mean, how to, but –”
“I’d love to.”
Smiling his puppy smile, his right hand spread across her lower back, his left took hers, and he began shifting his weight from side to side in the ponderous two-step of every wedding slow dance. “Wait,” she said. “Let me show you. It’s a square, and to start your left foot goes forward and my right foot goes back.” She manhandled him into the box step. Slooooow … sloooooow … quick quick, sloooooow … ”
He smelled like woodsy cologne, and Bengay, which was reassuring. During high school, Adara’s brothers always smelled like Bengay. His hand on her lower back was warm through the thin fabric of Heidi’s sweater. He stared at his feet, but he remembered. His steps and rhythm were right. His head ratcheted up to reveal the smile of the naturally athletic as their bodies learn new things. The muscles of his shoulders were large and round, like tropical fruit.
“What’s your family do for Christmas?” he asked.
“We listen to Bing Crosby, and play Scrabble, but not as a joke.”
“Do you like it?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes I like it.”
The doorbell rang. “Neville!” shouted Tanner past her ear. “NE-VILLE.” It rang again. “Sorry,” he said. “I should get this. Right back,” he added, sliding his hand down off her back, a little too far down. He somersaulted over the sofa, landed in front of the coffee table, leapt over it and the Scrabble players, and nailed his dismount a few feet from the front door. A couple of the girl Scrabble players clapped while a couple of boys took pictures of them clapping on their camera phones. Tanner opened the door, letting the wind slither into the room, and raised both fists over his head.
Everyone shouted, and even the girls arguing about the Beatles peeked in. Adara guessed he wouldn’t be right back, and followed the rest of the crowd outside, where Tanner and three other compact blonde boys carried a 5’ ice sculpture of a snowman up the stairs, grunting, arms swelling from the strain, and set atop at cube of cinderblocks. Hugging herself, Adara gritted her teeth to keep from chattering.
“We could’ve used this guy when we were battling that ice warlock last Saturday,” Stan said to Neville, giving the snowman a shoulder rub. Tanner ducked back into the house as the other three fist-bumped each other.
“God it’s cold,” the girl with the awful orange pageboy said to Adara. “Aren’t you freezing?” she asked, pointing at the miles of leg covered only in hose. “You must really want to fuck Tanner,” she added, before trotting away.
A sweet-as-Splenda rendition of “Little Drummer Boy” was wafting outside, but the girl’s words had spilled vinegar all over it. She did not want to have sex with Tanner, and she was about to follow the girl to tell her so, but then liquid-smooth silk was slipping over her shoulders, and leathering was filling her nostrils.
“It’s an amazing coat,” said Tanner, easing his hand behind her neck and lifting her hair over the collar.
She wheeled and felt the tails waft behind her.
“Thanks,” she said, as Neville took up a bottle of vodka, and brandishing it, declaimed in a stage-voice: “As brevity is the soul of wit, I will refrain from referencing Mythraic cults, Valhalla, Henry Eight, Edgar Allen Poe, or Judy Garland. Instead, I will say only this: Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.” Tanner’s hand had roosted on Adara’s shoulder. “Who goes first?” Neville asked.
Involuntarily, Adara found herself saying, “I’m game,” before she could consider what exactly she was volunteering for. Tanner’s attention, the Gypsy girl’s maybe-advances, and the evil pageboy girl’s meanness had left her frazzled. Something needed to be broken. Stan’s face slackened like a rubber mask that had lost its plasticity from overuse.
“Great,” said Tanner. “I’ll do the pour.”
The snowman wore a birthday hat, a scarf, a smug grin. Its spherical nose was identical to its buttons, the last of which was bored through with dime-sized hole, the end of a tunnel that snaked up the snowman’s body until its source in the apex of his hat. The strongest thing Adara ever drank was the communion wine they served once a month at church, to commemorate Jesus’ death.
“Ten bucks she gags giving Jack Frost a blowjob,” said the girl with the ugly pageboy cut.
“All right,” said Tanner. “I’ll pour slow. Just raise your hand when you want me to stop.” She knelt in front of what she told herself was just a very large, very elaborate straw. The cement porch burned cold into her knees. She licked hers lips before they touched the lowest button. “Just raise your hand when you want to stop,” she heard Tanner say. With seconds, a rill was slinking onto her tongue, viscous, syrupy. And cold, so cold, colder than any water could ever be. It scalded her throat and she coughed but didn’t raise her hand, even as it painted her esophagus in fire and burst blazing into her stomach. After what felt like forty-five seconds but was probably only five, the hoots and cheers began; after ten she could no longer feel her tongue; after fifteen she felt vapors rising into her head as though Bengay had been rubbed along the inside of her skull. Boots clopped up the steps and for a moment she thought it might be the police, and since she felt like she about to be sucked into the sky, she raised a hand, but the rivulet remained steady. She heard a woman’s voice say Adara, is that you? with the vowel-bending of a German accent. Almost gagging, she raised both hands, and after a last sluicing, the button ran dry. She pushed herself to her feet and her world sloshed from side to side.
At the top of the steps was a sort of dark yeti, with mane and beard and many-zippered jacket all black as oil, and at his side was Heidi, gloriously healthy and imperial in a poncho as red as a holly berry, her blonde hair alive in the wind, so bright it burned.
Her head thrumming like a centrifuge, Adara waited for Heidi to tear her ensemble apart, knowing no fairy godmother would save her from the magisterial German girl. The secret hung between them like a storm cloud, dark and sparking, but Heidi’s eyes were benign when she said: “You look smashing” and squeezed her shoulder, pecking her on the cheek. Distantly, it seemed, the lacrosse boys were hooting and calling her name.
“This is Zane,” said Heidi, gesturing toward him with a sort of brisk formality, as though he were her business partner and not her lover. His height alone would have made him a basketball star in high school, but he looked like the type who instead read French novels and set fire to sheds and deflowered girls. His black hair was chaos, his beard looked like it had been assembled by absentminded birds, and his eyes were the color of the bags beneath them, the color of a grape popsicle. Adara didn’t know eyes came in that color. Clopping over, he sniffed at her hair, snorting through long nostrils. “You smell delicious,” he said. “Baby powder.”
“And your make-up, it is quite elegant,” said Heidi.
“It was Vu.”
“Ah.” The porch snow was so dry the partygoers’ steps sounded like grinding glass.
Just then Adara noticed Tanner was standing by, cradling the vodka. “I know. Compared to usual, it’s like amazing.” Heidi pursed her lips at this faux pas, but Tanner kept bending the note until it sounded the way he wanted: “Most girls, they wear too much make-up, so it’s cool you don’t usually, you know, wear it, because now it makes you seem that much more beautiful. You’re like a flower that only blooms once a year.” He grinned.
“You’re a silver-tongued whore,” Zane said to him, neither a critique nor a compliment. Adara’s dimples caved. She had liked the compliment. “Where’s the High Life?” Zane asked, searching past them into the house.
Gripping the vodka, Tanner sprung onto Neville’s chair and said, “Who’s next?”
Neville strode toward Adara and smiled with the officiousness of an IOC president. “Bravo,” he said, shaking her hand with his, covering both with his moose-antler mittens. “Bravo indeed. The wise men celebrated the Savior with gold, frankincense and myrrh. We do the same with Svedka.”
“Nev,” said Zane, pirouetting in the doorway, “what are your thoughts on the Magi? Were they pilgrims? Necromancers? Madmen?”
“Royalist spies, free jazz saxophonists, fevered disco dancers.”
Swiveling her head from one to the other did not help Adara parse this interchange. “Do you think you maybe could maybe help me get some food?” she whispered to Heidi. “I could eat a goat, and I’m a little woozy.”
“Is the hummus you made in the refrigerator?” Heidi asked Zane. He nodded, then added, “What I’m wondering is this: three foreign dignitaries bring your adopted a trio of fabulously valuable gifts, and yet you keep up the carpentry biz? In Podunk Nazareth? Connect the dots for me here, Nev.”
“Maybe they had to leave everything behind when they fled to Egypt,” said Adara.
Zane whipped a finger to the end of his nose while the index finger of his other hand pointed at her. “Bango,” he said. “Case closed.”
The kitchen’s fridge was clean for a boy house – “That is Neville’s doing” clucked Heidi – but offered only a unopened can of water chestnuts, the bowl of hummus, and three Chinese throwing stars.
“We had to hide them from Stan,” said Zane. “He has this whole ninja complex thing.”
“He owns throwing stars?” asked Adara, whose head felt like an iron bar in a room full of magnets.
“No, Blake does,” said Zane, pulling out the bowl.
“For Blake, they are decorative,” said Heidi, massaging an eyebrow as thin and pale as a two-day-old moon.
“Correct,” said Zane. “Somehow Stan found them at the last party and killed a neighbor’s cat.”
“All I remember of Stan from way back is him drinking a gallon of milk at a youth group party on a dare. Whole milk.”
“I know we have some pita here somewhere,” said Zane, rifling through a cabinet until he found the bag.
“Did he … vomit?” asked Heidi.
“No. But after he finished drinking it, he spread-eagled on the floor and didn’t get up for three hours.”
“On a dare?” asked Zane, offering her the bag. “No money?”
“I think there’s something to be gleaned from Stan’s character there.”
“It might be stale,” Heidi warned, stripping off the plastic wrap, tearing open the bag of pita, scooping up the hummus.
“They way she eats, this one,” said Zane, in a very good Jewish mother voice.
The hummus began sponging the booze, and as soon as Zane left to fetch beer, Adara swiveled toward Heidi, tugged at the sweater dress and said “I’m shho shhorry.”
She swallowed the plug of pita, then repeated, “I’m so sorry for borrowing your clothes without asking. I just –”
Heidi waved this away. “No,” she said, “I’m glad the clothes are receiving use.”
Adara glanced down at Heidi’s pomegranate shawl. “I guess you didn’t get the ugly Christmas sweater memo, either.”
“Oh no,” said Heidi, holding her gaze. “I did.”
Adara chewed on the stiff pita, nodding.
“The dress looks exquisite on you,” said Heidi.
“Thank you,” Adara said, lowering her eyes, feeling somehow more incriminated by Heidi’s generosity.
“You’re so svelte, like a giraffe. This body of mine,” she added, swiping a pita across the surface of the hummus and then sighing and throwing it down in disgust.
“A giraffe’s all neck and bones. You’re like, like a woman,” Adara replied, examining Heidi’s chest. “You’re what, a thirty-eight D – wait, wait, totally inappropriate, sorry … Don’t answer that. I’d like to blame it on the vodka, but it’s just me being a nosy little gnome.”
“Forty-two DD,” said Heidi. “And I hate it.”
“Back pain, always the back pain. I can’t go running. No camisoles. No tanktops.”
“I’d say you’re doing all right in the clothing department.”
“My hips are too wide. My thighs, they touch.”
“Most people’s thighs touch. Hips, hips would be nice.”
Zane was thomping toward them, shouldering a case of High Life with a crewcut of snow. Setting it on the island, he said, “Wait, is this the part of the show where the two cute girls complain about their bodies? Because if it is I’d rather listen to the lacrosse team get blasted and talk about their pubic grooming.”
Censure usually cowed Adara, but the vodka had coated her brain in fuck-all, so instead of apologizing, she said, “You’re a boy. Your body isn’t like our bodies.”
“And for that, I am very grateful. He stared down at himself, fingers probing his beard. “I wouldn’t want to have sex with me.”
Adara chuckled, Heidi rolled her eyes, and Zane shrugged, tipped back his High Life. “My sister has food issues. Pretty girls shouldn’t complain about their bodies.”
“I do not complain,” said Heidi. “I am talking about genetics, wishing mine were not so much my mother’s.”
“Your mother’s foxy,” said Zane, winking.
In the living room Stan was saying how he knew Adara from way the hell back.
“Her mom’s a Habsburg,” said Zane, filling a glass of water from the tap. “The Holy Roman Empire people.”
Zane set the glass in front of Adara. “Thank you,” she said, then took a long drink. “I could use this.”
“I know,” he said. Adara blushed. She wasn’t used to being taken care of.
“Very distant cousin,” said Heidi, filliping snow off the great cube of beer.
“I knew about all this stuff way before we met,” said Zane, his eyes flicking between the two girls, incandescent. “Renaissance history, freshman year. The War of Spanish Succession, the Habsburg jaw, all that jazz. I could do a whole History Channel special on the Hanseatic League.”
“Habsburg jaw?” asked Adara.
Zane’s second beer opened with a cush, and he said, “Ever want to scare yourself sometime, check out Charles Dos of Spain. Guy looks like the unholy byproduct of a witch and a carnie. Huge schnoz, chin like a plow. You know whenever court portraitists can’t produce a flattering likeness of you, you must be horrifying. Underbite so bad he couldn’t chew.”
“Cousin many times removed,” said Heidi. “Not the best the family’s genes produced.”
“Fortunately the bloodline was diluted by the time it got to you,” he said. “You have a very nice jaw.” She did have a nice jaw – defined but rounded. Adara’d always thought her own chin was a bit too sharp, plow-like.
Heidi smiled. “Hanseatic League,” she murmured, while Zane began removing his battered jacket as carefully as if it were made of paper, not heavy leather. He was a strange boy, cocksure but self-revealing. He was stately, despite his disheveledness, but behind his banter hid some sadness, Adara thought. The arms he was pulling from the jacket were tapestried with tattoos, but they were not the usual barbwire, big cats, and buxom women: there were skinny birds, typewriters, pinked clouds, reindeer. Meeting the sleeves at the wrist were hands long as Rachmaninoff’s and pale as primer against the Super-8 vividness of his tattoos’ blues and greens.
Catching herself staring, Adara was about to speak, when he said, “So, who are you?” Some voice in her told her to say Christian, but they’d just met, so instead, she said, “Just another lonely pre-med major laboring in the salt mines.” She pulled a cold beer from the box and cracked it open. “Smells like South Bend,” she said. “Ethanol.”
Zane smiled, sniffing at the rim of his second empty. “I mean, as a cheap beer connoisseur, I’d say the Bend smells more like Old Milwaukee, but I won’t quibble.”
“Where did you grow up?”
“What is it called?” asked Heidi. “Leprechaun Hills?”
Heidi smiled, easing in beside him on the other side of the island. “The tree moss is carved to make it look like monkeys hanging from the branches.”
“Hanging monkey moss?”
In his face, Zane was battling that particularly American shame: embarrassment at riches. “My dad was big into topiary a couple years ago.”
“Five bathrooms,” said Heidi.
“How many brothers and sisters do you have?” Adara asked.
“One,” said Heidi.
“So there are six bathrooms for four people?”
“Three,” smiled Heidi.
“Mom isn’t around anymore,” said Zane.
“Oh, sorry,” said Adara. She pecked at her pita crust.
“Your family has a coat of arms,” said Zane. “Your dad runs Goldman Sachs’s Munich office. You guys have a villa in Abiza and a condo in Bali.”
“They’re beautiful, and we use them.”
“Your dad’s girlfriend certainly does.”
Adara thought if someone said this to her, and it had been true, she would have cried, but Heidi only pursed her lips. “And her supposedly gay assistant who kept looking at my décolletage. She’s Rumanian,” she added. “She’s twenty-six. When we visited Papa a year ago, she would prance from one room to the other room in her underclothing, offering Zane shoulder massages.”
“She’d heard of the band,” said Zane, neither bragging nor apologizing. “She said she’d been to our Aachen show. She had our album on her iPod. She showed me.”
“While she was in her bra.”
Adara knew it’d be blasé to say, You’re in a band?, so, after another hearty draught, she asked: “What are your band’s influences?”
He nodded, winced, bobbed his head from side to side, stared at the ceiling, then finally he shook his head, sighed and said, “We make American music.”
“And it’s amazing,” said Heidi, taking his hand, leaning in closer to Adara. “Really. I hate everything. And I love it.”
Adara smiled. She liked American music.
“Zane is majoring in music theory. He plays twelve-tone cello pieces for fun.” Just then Heidi’s purse sprung to life with the leitmotif from “Ride of the Valkyries” and she pulled a slick cellphone from the slick leather, so black it looked wet.
“Hallo, Mutter,” she said. “Nein, nein, das ist eine feine Zeit. Was ist die Frage? Haben Sie schon weinen?” Her large incisors dug into her lower lip, her eyes cranking themselves to slits, her voice box constricted. “Nein, nein, es ist in Ordnung. Bitte nicht sagen, bitte.” She stood up, raised a trembling hand to the other two, and clipped out of the kitchen and down the hall. Adara took a long sip of beer, pretending to study an IU Lacrosse calendar magneted to the fridge.
“What time is it in London?” Zane asked, his eyes trailing Heidi. “Anke drunk-dials a lot. Tells Heidi she’s lonely. Then Heidi comes to bed crying. It’s not fair for her, but I guess it wasn’t fair her dad abandoned Anke either.”
“And your family’s … ?”
“My mom took off a couple years ago. Pretty clean break. It’s easier for me than for Heidi.” Adara couldn’t imagine going for two days without speaking with her mother.
“It’s harder for my sister,” he continued. “She’s sixteen. A whole lot of sixteen.” He sighed, then rattled his head from side to side as though trying to dislodge the long-crusted thoughts. He pointed a long, guitar-callused finger at Adara. “Why am I piling this on you?” His teeth were large and slightly crooked and very white. “You came here to have fun. Fun!” he shouted, raising his fists. “There is no reason for us not to be happy.”
But, of course, this wasn’t true.
“All right,” he said, popping off the stool, slipping on his jacket, pawing through kitchen drawers until he found a thermos, then pouring some of the stove’s hot chocolate into it. “I need nicotine, and you need to check out the view from the widow’s walk.”
Up one set of stairs and then another, until Adara found herself with a boy she didn’t know in a small cube skinned in glass, skirted by a narrow porch and a wrought-iron railing. The wind was smearing snow against the panes. They stared silently into the storm, and she could feel alcohol shimmering down her veins.
“I need heat,” he said, and she was disappointed, until he removed a pack of cigarettes from his jacket, opened the glass door and stepped out. Wondering what Heidi would think of them alone together, Adara followed into the manic wind and after she pulled the thermos from under his arm, he removed a revolver-shaped lighter from his jacket.
“You feeling lucky, punk?” she said, gravelling her voice down to Eastwood’s emery baritone.
Smiling, he rapped her stomach, which she tightened for no reason she would admit. “No stove door. I suppose it wouldn’t fit so well under Heidi’s jacket. ” She blanched and he grinned. After explaining he had an embarrassingly thorough knowledge of his girlfriend’s wardrobe, he poked the Marlboro into his mouth, then tried flipping the lighter to life, but the mistral swept in from all sides, quenching the flame after every ignition.
“Wait,” she said, and cupped her hands around his mouth. He gave a one-finger salute and tried again; flame engulfed the tip, mangling it to crinkled orange-black ash.
“Thanks,” he said.
“I’m not good at most things, but I got a little common sense.”
“You’re more self-deprecating than most pretty girls. I don’t if I like that or not.”
“I don’t know if I care that you like it or not.”
A ghost of smoke emerged from his broad mouth before the wind tore it apart. Leaning over the rail, something hard pressed against her ribs. “Oh,” she said, pulling out her bottle of schnapps. “Better than a stove door.”
“Do you often carry schnapps around?” he asked, setting a hand on her shoulder. “This first step is admitting you have a problem.
“A gift for the hosts,” she said, pouring the schnapps into a cup of cocoa, stirring it with her pinkie, then licking the mixture off. It tasted like a distilled peppermint patty. Her eyelids snapped into her sockets like two rolls of flypaper.
He sipped and coughed and squeaked, “A little strong, sister.”
She took the cup from him and drank the rest and hung it upside-down on one of the railing’s spears and crossed her arms around her ribs, rubbing her fingers along the leather less for warmth than the pleasure of its kittenish softness. “And I think it’s good things for girls to be self-deprefating – desperating – deprecating.” Her tongue had bloated, numbed, a drugged slug.
He inhaled and splashed cocoa into the cup. “All I know is that most people make fun of themselves to beat other people to the punch.” She stared at him, imagining Heidi. Their kids would be gorgeous, with skin the color of sugar and eyes like jewels.
Her coils hovered in an updraft as she watched the branches joust from their unsteady trunks. Her usual urge to paddle a conversation forward had subsided. She wanted to say something true.
From the porch someone shouted, “Drink that snowman’s guts,” and an errant snowball flew from an unseen hand past its intended target, plopping wetly against a car. The sky was glowing like a computer monitor in a dark room and the wind was shushing the downstairs drinkers parentally. Curtains of snow fell below them then burst up again, scattering against the trees.
“It’s so fucking beautiful,” she said.
He stared past her, crossing their lines of sight, and on the fuzzy edge of her peripheral vision, she thought she saw him smile. “Whatsoever is true, whatsoever is good, whatsoever is fucking beautiful,” he said.
She opened her mouth and stuck out her tongue like a child at the doctor’s. In the boots, her toes felt vised by ice. Without her help this time, he lit his second cigarette.
“You won’t be able to coach your kids’ pee-wee soccer if you keep smoking those.”
He coughed out a nebula of smoke. “Kids? Let’s not jump the gun.”
“You’ve got to start somewhere,” she said, pulling it from his mouth and tossing it over the railing.
He said “Hey that was my last …” but before he could finish the wind caught the cigarette and held it nearly still for a moment, as though deciding what to do with it, then tossed it high over the railing. Zane plucked it from the air and returned it to his mouth. “Looks like God’s on my side,” he said.
“God doesn’t like you smoking either.”
“God has bigger fish to fry.”
“God isn’t a joke.”
“No, he isn’t, Adara Love. Ahem,” he added, raising a finger. “‘A man can no more diminish God’s glory by refusing to worship Him than a lunatic can put out the sun by scribbling the word “darkness” on the walls of his cell.’ That’s C.S. Lewis.”
“You’re a Christian?” she asked, picking up the thermos cup he’d set on the walk.
“You sound surprised.”
“I am surprised,” she said, hiding her mouth behind the cup.
“Because I’m drinking beer at a party? Because I’m not wearing a plaid button-down?”
She wanted to say: Because you have sex, and you’re not married, but she thought it sounded prudish.
He continued: “I’m not saying I’m happy about it. If you believe in God, it seems to me you’ve got to think at least one of three things: he’s cruel; he’s incompetent; or he just spaces out for centuries.”
Adara dismissed this unoriginal critique by motor-boating her lips. This was not her first theodical rodeo. “You sound an awful lot like an atheist to me. That’s what they always say, blaming God because the world isn’t perfect.”
“Darlin,” he said, wrapping her thin upper arm in his fingers, “I’d love not to believe in God. I’d love to let the universe ride on a past of pure cosmic chance and a future of benign secular humanism, but I can’t. I feel him everywhere. He’s the sun I see through the bars of the cell. I know God is real, and it hurts.”
She turned to face him, startled: she was ninety percent sure God was real, but he certainly wasn’t her shadow. She bristled at the irony, at God’s careless division of gifts: what she wanted was belief, what he wanted was doubt.
She had never liked talking about her faith, at least not when it was hard. “God loves you,” she said, hoping it was true for Zane, for her, for the world.
“I agree,” he said, dropping his hand from her arm, taking a drag.
“So then what’s the problem?”
“Look at me,” he said. “Every need I’ve ever had has been met, and most of my wants. I have a mostly functioning body, a mostly functioning car, a mostly functioning band. And Heidi – have you seen her? Have you talked to her? Unless there’s a lot about dormlife I don’t know, you haven’t slept with her.”
“I wouldn’t kick her out of bed.”
He laughed. “I get to have Heidi. Do I think God loves me. Hell yeah I do.” Into Adara’s mind flashed an picture of Heidi and Zane in a slick groaning cat’s cradle of appendages: Adara now had a face, a body, for the generic man she’d heard through the walls having sex with Heidi – the man she had tried not to imagine, the man who made Heidi moan in German, the man whose words and grunts made her own cheeks burn as she tried to study the properties of cadmium oxides, so much noise that on more than one occasion, Adara had fled her room with sweat on the back of her neck, letting herself simmer down in the dorm lounge to the laugh track of sitcom reruns.
“To whom much has been given, much will be expected,” she said. But she knew this was insufficient. She was reading a line from a script, a script that happened to be the Bible.
“That’s why I’m fucked,” he said. “Case in point,” he added, waving his cigarette hand in the air. “Rio, first of my two senior years. Study abroad. Booze, rainforests, and what might delicately be called an open-minded sexual culture. Classes are a joke and Portuguese is getting good and I’m jamming every night with this psychdelic Afro-Cuban collective. Then it’s May and we got one week left, and one of my flatmates who’s always volunteering at these orphanages asks me – again – if I want to go. I say sure but right before we get inside he says the kids have leprosy. And I freak out but he tells me it’s a myth leprosy’s contagious, and so I meet all these tiny kids missing parts of their faces, plus some of them had legs or arms amputated, hobbling around on crutches or pulling themselves across the floor. I thought I was going to lose my lunch, so my buddy Steve and I went into the kitchen and started cutting up fruit for the kids’ snacks. But so all the kids followed us in there, and there’s no AC and they were all talking at once and crowding us, and I just lost it all and hurled in the sink.”
“And then I felt like the worst human being in the world. And it was even more awful because all the kids were falling over each other to get me a towel to wipe my mouth or to get me a glass of water. I remember this little girl who had no legs crawling across the dirty kitchen tile and pulling herself up on a chair and grabbing a towel from a cabinet and then waving it in the air so I’d pick her towel to wipe the vomit off my mouth with.”
“Did you pick hers?”
“Yeah. But I must have wiped my mouth five times with five different towels.”
In the wind, she could feel her ears turning as hard and as red as holly berries, her cheeks burning from within.
“So we cut up the apples and bananas and give it to the kids and then we read little kid stories to them in Portuguese, then after a while we take off, and we hug all the kids, and they tell us how much they love us, and then we leave. Then that night I went out and blew a hundred bucks at a churrascaria on steak and lamb and cachaça.”
Taken together, the five most expensive meals Adara’d ever eaten hadn’t cost that much.
“I spent all this past summer doing mission work, volunteering in Cartagena. I think about it a lot.”
“Did it make you miserable?”
“When I could, I spent my nights in the orphanage with the drugs babies. Most of them couldn’t sleep for more than half an hour before they’d wake up screaming. It was awful. So I’d sit with the nurses in these rocking chairs in the nursery until another baby woke up and then I’d set myself back down in the chair and cradle it and tell it Bible stories in Spanish or just sometimes say Jesus’ name over and over, praying for them.” It had been in those moments, in the half-dark, murmuring to herself, that she had been almost certain that God was real, that it was his love she felt for those little Juans and Veronicas.
“Did that make them better?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” said Zane, “if Peter and John could say ‘In the name of Jesus of Nazareth, rise and walk,’ and some crippled guy starts leaping around, don’t you think we should be able to pray for crack babies and re-hardwire their neurocircuitry?”
“What?” It was surprising enough that he was a Christian, but she’d never met anybody who actually believed in faith healing, not really.
“You don’t think Peter and John really healed somebody?”
“No, I think they did. I just don’t think you can,” she added, sounding harsher than she intended.
While still staring down at the street, he gave her a light shove in response, but she wasn’t expecting it and in the heels she slipped and fell hard onto her hip, cocoa slopping onto the railing.
“Shit,” he said, squatting in his boots and taking her wrists in his hands. “Sorry about that.” Without strain he pulled to her feet, then dusted the snow off Heidi’s coat. His hands were cold. He smelled like roses.
“It’s fine,” she said, pressing her hand against her side. “I was just being snarky. Maybe you can heal people. I’d like to think that.”
“Those babies in Cartagena were lucky, having you to hold them.”
“Not any luckier than those kids with leprosy. Lots of those drug babies die young, and lots of the ones that survive have mental disabilities.”
“That’s not what I meant,” he whispered so delicately for a moment Adara wasn’t sure he’d said it at all, wasn’t sure even if he had that it would was anything more than a generic complement. Since starting college, she had swaddled her heart with enough romantic padding that boys who weren’t Christian bounced away, but he wasn’t bouncing.
She wanted to touch him – nothing sexual, she told herself, just take his arm, lean into his black leather for balance, for support, to stand for a moment with a boy who wasn’t stupid and wasn’t awkward and wasn’t a jerk, to stand and watch the storm before he returned to find Heidi and she returned to find Tanner, who wasn’t stupid and wasn’t awkward and she hoped wasn’t a jerk. But then a bitter heat started snarling inside of her, and almost involuntarily she said, “I don’t feel very good.” This was why people said not to drink on an empty stomach.
“Oh,” he said. “Let me help. I should have known better.”
She was warm descending the steep stairs, her arm slung around his back. He was mentioning water, Wheaties, pillows. As they reached the landing below the second flight of stairs, the railing began shaking from the bass line of music she couldn’t hear yet, until they reached the kitchen, where Zane guided her onto one of the empty barstools. In the adjacent living room, whose speakers were now bellowing a techno remix, the couches had been cleared, lights dimmed, and dozens of people were dancing to a man telling them that they were all made of stars. Despite her nausea, Adara trundled herself over to the doorway while Zane looked for cereal. At the far end of the room a machine was wheezing fog into the air, which was starting to smell like burnt fruit. In the corner, a young man who appeared to be a Tibetan monk was drinking a Coke, talking to Stan. Zane’s boots thumped and rattled behind her.
“Breakfast of champions,” he said.
“Vodka?” she asked, turning toward him and the orange box in his hands.
He smiled and she began crunching the brown squares. “Not too fast,” he said.
“Who’s the monk?”
“Neville’s the president of the international student union. The monk texted to ask him what was going on tonight, so Neville invited him over.” The monk smiled over at her as the girl with the hideous Crush-colored hair shambled into with another girl, who was saying, “Why don’t we do it in the road? That’s a damn good question.”
The girl with the orange hair said, “I’ve always thought Paul was kinky,” before noticing Adara. She smirked. “Well, well, what’s happened to you?”
Some part of Adara wanted to recede with a shrug and a mournful mouthful of Wheaties, but instead she stood, rising a head and more above the girl, then bent herself until her face was in the girl’s ear, so close she could see three piercings in her upper cartilage, smell herbal conditioner. Revenge pooled with saliva under her tongue as she whispered: “None of the Beatles would’ve slept with you … because you’re not pretty.”
The girl’s ear pinked as Adara’s face hovered back, and in the space of a card being flipped, the girl pressed her thumb into the bump at the bridge of her nose, swept the underside of her tongue over her lower teeth, and pressed her lips together. “You’re a bad person,” she told Adara.
It was Adara’s turn to flush as the redhead wandered back into the living room. Zane’s eyebrows were approaching his hairline. “I’ve seen Siobhan not tear up with a waiter’s corkscrew stuck halfway into her thigh. What the hell did you just say?”
Adara had never before said anything so perfectly terrible, so terribly perfect. But before she could reply, Heidi appeared in the doorway red-eyed, her shoulders rising inches at a breath, her hands white blocks clutching her cellphone. Zane pulled her up into himself, and her head fit perfectly in the hollow formed by his chin and neck and chest. Heidi sobbed, they swayed, and Adara tried not to think about how long it had been since she’d been held, really held, held like that. She stepped back, leaning into the fridge.
In the living room, a man was caterwauling that a seven-nation army couldn’t hold him back, and the kids were jouncing in time with the slutty blues, shaking their hips, mouthing the words. For the first time Adara considered the possibility that the dancing kids and the others like them throughout the world pressed their bodies together not because they wanted their dancing to simulate sex without the messiness of STDs and abortions and the next morning’s bitter psychic aftertaste, but rather because sometimes you just needed someone to touch you.
Zane said, “Your mother would be just as unhappy no matter what, even if you were there with her. There’d still be the histrionics.”
Heidi wrestled out of his arms. “What? She was on the roof of her flat. Her toes were over the edge.”
“I just don’t want her to use you.”
“Histrionics? Suddenly this problem with emotion? Am I histrionical? Are you going to leave me for some fifty-kilo model?” Adara slunk back.
“It’s a power play,” he said, manacling her wrists in his hands. “She just wants to make you sad.”
Halfway to the hall, Adara was ready to check out when she found herself pulling her own 55-kilo body as erect as it would go and then saying without any forethought: “Zane, you need to lay off.” He spun on a bootheel and Heidi peered around him quizzically. Jolted by adrenaline, Adara stepped forward and steadied her hip against the island: “Stop trying to solve everything. We don’t need your diagnosis right now.”
One of his hands was worming its way through his hair, while the other was far above his head, opening and closing a high cabinet door, opening it and closing it, opening it and closing it. Adara tried again: “All I’m saying is that the relationship mothers have with their daughters is special.” At home, her own mother was almost certainly in bed, her nightly dose of Scripture consumed, a damp washcloth over her eyes.
Heidi added, “I don’t tell you that your father is unstable, so do not be telling me –”
“Okay, I’m done,” he said, slamming the high cabinet shut. “I have a low tolerance for flagellation.” Heidi shrunk to let him pass.
“Sorry,” Adara said to Heidi, testing to see if she could stand on her own. “I made that worse.”
“He always wins our fights. He always wins everything.” She reached for a green M&M lying atop the island, but her hand collapsed and she flicked it into the sink. Adara was making a bow of her back, trying to relieve the pressure on her insides. Insides. She laughed. A few months out from the MCAT, the shape and composition of the jejunum, ileum, and duodenum were tattooed into her memory, and yet she still thought of them all as her insides.
“What is it?” asked Heidi. “Laughing would be nice, now.”
“Sometimes I still feel like a kid trying to be a grown-up.”
“I know I’m a grown-up, and I don’t like it.” The orchid white skin of her wrists had purpled from Zane’s squeezing.
“What’s your mom like?” asked Adara, tossing back another handful of Wheaties.
“Vain,” said Heidi. “Extravagant. Traditional. Affectionate. Her favorite color is red,” she concluded, brushing her knuckles over her vermillion poncho. “What about yours?”
“I’ve always been partial to green.”
“No,” Heidi said, “your mother, what is she like?”
“Quiet. Long-suffering. She bakes a lot of pie.”
“Do you want to find Tanner?” Heidi asked, standing.
“I don’t know. Not really. Maybe I do.”
They slid into the living room, where the music told them love would tear them apart. Near the hall, Stan was talking with the young Buddhist monk, who Adara now noticed was wearing canvas high tops that matched the henna of his robe. “It was midnight, and he was still wearing the wraparounds?” said Stan.
“He called me a blessing. He pressed his hands together and bowed. He mentioned The Troubles.”
Despite the queasiness, Adara couldn’t resist. “Bono?”
“What is up?” Stan said.
“Apparently you didn’t get the ugly Christmas sweater memo, either,” Adara said to the monk, yanking at the burlappy orange sleeve of his robe, before Heidi pulled her hand back.
“No, no,” said the monk. “Please, tug away.”
“This is Adara and Heidi,” said Stan. “Adara and I go way back.”
“I’m Kunjo,” the monk said, raising his voice above the music. “But back to Bono. This was Boston, October. Tibetan benefit dinner. And I had an advanced investment strategies test the next afternoon.”
“You’re English is really good,” Adara said, trying to be heard without shouting.
“I grew up outside Chicago.”
“How did you find Bono?” she asked.
“Bono found me. We got into Boston at midnight. All I want to do is watch MTV until I fall asleep, and I’m drifting off to a Shakira video when I get a call from the front desk. The concierge is telling me Bono saw us in the lobby and wondered if he could come up to my room. So I say sure, then two minutes later, there he is, bowing and nodding and saying I’m a blessing. Stubble, shades, cross necklace. Then without warning, he just hugs me and tells me he feels the pain of my bondage. He hugged me for like forty-five seconds. Then he started talking about Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela. He compared communism to apartheid. He pronounced ‘apartheid’ like he was sneezing. All this while he’s still hugging me. Then he tells me about this time in 1990 when he was sitting on the rubble of the Berlin Wall and this small East German girl toddled up and handed him a daisy. He said they found a bicycle and rode through the city together on it, the girl sitting on the handlebars and Bono pumping along. Then he mentioned Desmond Tutu again. I told him I thought Zooropa was an underrated album, and he just looked at me like I was an alien, so I told him I went to IU, that I was a finance major. Then all he shifted into capitalist mode and told me his financial planner was advising him to shift a substantial portion of his investments into BRIC funds, and then he asks if I know what BRIC stands for, and I say yes, Brazil Russia India China, and he says China is really booming and that we should get in on the ground floor, and I just stared at him for a minute because I couldn’t tell if he was kidding. But there was zero irony. But still – China. He was recommending that I, a Tibetan monk, invest heavily in the Chinese stock market. Then after I didn’t say anything, he noticed the Shakira video and mentioned how excited he was about the growing popularity of Latin music in America, and then he told me how he met Shakira at Christopher Walken’s house. And I just couldn’t take it anymore.”
“So what did you do?” asked Adara. If he hadn’t been a monk, she would’ve thought he was pulling their leg.
“I asked him if I could lead him in a night prayer. Buddhists don’t have night prayers, but I thought, this could be fun, so I take hold of Bono’s hands while Shakira’s humping a table on the TV, and I start praying, and I invoke just everybody – Jesus, Allah, Yahweh, Buddha, Confucius, then just to test him I mention Zoroaster and L. Ron Hubbard, and he didn’t even flinch. He just kept nodding and squeezing my hands. Then I prayed for world peace and Third World debt relief and AIDS relief in Africa, and an end to the American embargo of Cuba and an end to the genocide in Darfur and the Congo, and for the victims of the tsunami in Asia, and then to cap it, I asked whoever the hell it was we were praying to bless the sales of U2’s new album, which I mentioned in the prayer included a song entitled ‘Yahweh,’ which I said seemed both very true and deeply felt but also prescient and of the moment. And by that point he was crying, and then hugged me again for a while, and that was just a barrel of fun, and he told me he too had grown up in a divided country and blubbered a little about Belfast before he finally left. As I was going to sleep, I thought to myself Why couldn’t it have been a U2 video and Shakira who wanted to touch me?”
“Meditate on that one awhile,” said Adara, who wondered if her mother would’ve thought Kunjo was going to hell. She wished she wasn’t wondering the same thing.
He laughed. “So you ladies are of the Jesus persuasion?” Adara raised her hand and bobbed her head, while Heidi said, “I would like to think that if God exists, he and I have made a sort of non-aggression treaty.”
“Don’t you miss believing in a God who’s a person?” Adara asked the monk. She gestured at the Christmas tree in the corner of the room. “You know, the stable, the manger, the wise men, the shepherds. A God who’s not just an idea.”
He didn’t appear to be expecting that, but soon his face’s surprise melted into a sort of warm forbearance. Adara hadn’t meant to offend, but she felt some tug to correct people who she knew were obviously wrong. If someone else had the truth, she thought, wouldn’t I want to know?
“The Buddha was a person,” said Heidi. Kunjo rolled his palms toward Adara. “I know they’ve told you we don’t believe in anything, that we think the world is evil and we’re trying to escape. But I don’t believe in nothing. I believe in everything. Jesus is great, and if that’s how you immerse yourself more in the world, if that gives you peace and makes you a better human being, wonderful.” He raised a finger. “But it’s that wanting you’ve got to watch out for. People chase after so much silliness, and that only brings pain.” The finger tapped her on the shoulder. “But to quote the honorary Buddhist Bob Dylan, ‘She’s got everything she needs.’ What you’re looking for isn’t outside, it’s inside.”
“Whoa,” said Stan, “that could be on a bumper stick.”
As much as the monk’s words made sense, Adara wanted to tell him that different ways of thinking weren’t equally valid, even if the consequences were good, wanted as politely as possible to explain that some things were true and some weren’t, but her insides were starting to burble angrily. “I’d love to keep talking,” she said, “but I’ve got to go lay down.”
“Lovely meeting you,” said Kunjo, waving as Heidi led Adara down the hall. “I hope you all thrive.”
“Zane’s room,” said Heidi as they neared a door at the end of the hall. All she could hear of the music now was the bass, which was squeezing a blood vessel in her brain in time with the beat. Behind the door she heard a woman’s voice saying, “Maybe the underwear drawer. Isn’t that where you always keep things?”
And then a man’s voice: “I’ll check under the bed.”
Heidi’s breath quickened. Ahead of Adara she stormed the room just as the woman’s voice said, “This snow better be worth – ”
The first thing Adara saw was Tanner, foreshortened, facing away from the door, head rooting under the bed, butt tight against his boxers, which were covered in exploding hearts, with a cartoonish little Ka-Boom! caption inside each, and along the band, repeating itself like a stock ticker, the word HEARTBREAKER. Heidi swatted at the light, and the warm incandescence revealed the Gypsy girl sitting topless on the bed. Her nipples were pierced with gold bars. Adara looked between the girl and Tanner. It looked as though someone had taken an ice cream scoop and carved a trench down the center of Tanner’s back. Adara swallowed hard and thought heartbreaker was about right. The Gypsy girl gasped as Tanner removed his head from under the bed just in time for Heidi to grab him by the hair and yank him to his feet. He howled, hands flailing behind his head, and without a word, Heidi pushed him aside and turned her eyes to the Gypsy girl. Adara hadn’t noticed the leather belt nesting on top of the crotch of her underwear, the tip passed through the heavy buckle. The girl began to push herself up, but before she could Heidi grabbed the belt and hurled it across the room, then started slapping the girl, who tried to cover her breasts and head at the same time. The whole scene was so shocking it took a moment for everything to register.
“Come on, Heidi”: Tanner’s words snapped her aware, and she put a hand on Heidi’s shoulder, tugging her back. The fierce German woman turned, crying. “It’s okay,” Adara said, guiding her backward as Tanner stared at the floor. A few blotches of lip-gloss were smeared on the larger circles of his chest, the smaller circles of his abs. She wondered if the girl had given him a blowjob. Fast, too fast, the girl’s ribcage rose and fell, the bones pressed out against her dark skin. She was thinner than Adara, but not prettier, Adara didn’t think. Tanner looked only at Heidi when he said, by way of explanation, “We were just trying to, uh, find cards. Poker, we were going –”
“Get out,” Heidi said, not meeting his eyes. The Gypsy girl rose, almost hyperventilating, her eye starting to swell. Grabbing his jeans and her bra from the bed, Tanner glanced at the Gypsy girl then said, “Jesus, Heidi.” Whimpering, the girl circled past, not trying to cover herself any longer.
“Whore,” said Heidi as she passed. Tanner handed the girl her bra. They shuffled out of the room, not touching, staring at the flooring as though there were secret messages of comfort carved into it.
Heidi sat cross-legged on the bed, pulling off her boots. The facts of what she’d just witnessed were rolling around Adara’s head, looking for theories into which they might drop. Two things were for sure. Tanner had very nice muscles, and he was never going to invite her to a party again.
“Those are nice,” said Adara, settling next to Heidi on the duvet and stroking the carbuncled rows of what looked like uncut black gems. She was trying not to be afraid of Heidi, who was staring into the corner at Zane’s desk. “What are they made of?”
“They’re beautiful,” she said, rubbing the knobs.
“What were –”
“Sorry,” said Adara, turning her attention to the room, which was large and high-ceilinged, its walls the red of desert sunsets. The floor was bare but for Heidi’s boots and a pair of ugly Christmas sweaters, one medium-sized and one quite small. A bay window bulged into the storm and beside it a pair of electric guitars watched the room like old men unimpressed by their presence. Bookshelves packed with thick titles lined the opposite wall, adjacent to a futon and a desk cleared but for a happy white laptop and a carved wooden bust of an unsmiling African man. No posters broke up the bloody vastness, only a small framed painting of the Nativity. Adara wondered if hitting someone were much worse than telling a person she wasn’t pretty.
“It was drugs, wasn’t it?”
“Possession of heroin is a Class C felony in the state of Indiana, punishable with up to three years in prison even for a first offense. I looked it up. Crane, Zane’s bassist, he used to deal and got caught when he was nineteen. Nine months, and only because his father spent top money for the best narcotics lawyer in Chicago. Now he can’t get a decent job.”
“I think I thought Tanner kind of liked me.”
“Would you have had sex with him?”
“I don’t think so. But maybe I would’ve let him kiss me.”
“Take off your boots.”
“Oh,” said Adara, starting, “is Zane particular about his comforter?”
“No,” chuckled Heidi, letting her head fall to the side so that it was only inches from Adara’s. Even with streaked makeup and tiny purple hammocks under her eyes, Heidi was beautiful in a way that would not soon fade. “There’s just no reason to torture your feet anymore. The boy you were trying to impress is probably fucking that ratty little tramp with the pierced nipples. How gauche.”
Adara still wanted to pick at the moment of violence, but Ride of the Valkyries ended that. Heidi sighed and found her phone and pressed a button and moaned “Hallo mutter,” then rocked herself to her feet and walked to the door. Before she left she pointed at the futon and mouthed Rest.
With a sigh Adara rolled off the bed and fell onto the futon. As she rolled onto her side, she wondered whether she would’ve come to the party if she’d known what was going to happen. She pulled a blanket from under the futon and pillowed it beneath her. It smelled like Zane.
Her sleep was cracked sometime later by the creak of the door opening. Bending low, so that Adara could smell the lilies of her perfume, Heidi kissed her on the forehead and said, “Gute Nacht, liebes Kind. Mögen Sie schlafen mit den Engeln.” Loose waves of blonde brushed over her face. It was a blessing, but as she fell backwards into unconsciousness, as Heidi pulled the red shawl over her head and draped it over Adara’s body, she remembered a long-forgotten sermon in which the pastor had said “blessing” was derived from an Old English word meaning “to wound.”
The next thing she knew, a cowboy was clopping through her dream. Her eyes half-opened to darkness and a dark man hunched over the desk, palming the top of the wooden bust. He twisted the top of the head off then settled into the desk chair and removed his black jacket and shirt. But something was missing, and he scanned the room impatiently. The snowlight glowed on his pale slim back with its plate-sized tattoo of a pelican stabbing its breast with its beak. Beautiful. Across the room the duvet was rising and falling with Heidi’s breathing. Zane found the belt in the corner, lassoed his arm with the loop and pulled it tight. He picked a syringe from the desk and removed the cap with his teeth. From years of candystriping Adara knew what came next – the needle probing then plunging, the thumb’s slow and steady depression – but the reaction was nothing she could have prepared for. His aspiration sounded like a wounded bird, like a pearl-diver gasping upon emerging into the world of airy light. Reanimated, he pulled out the syringe, dropped it chittering to the floor. Under the covers Heidi groaned and shoved off the comforter.
“Zane, what?” Raking her hair back from her eyes, she surveyed him. “Oh, no.”
Humming, he swayed in place, his arms billowing in the air like the tentacles of a squid.
“Go sleep on the futon.” Adara pulled Heidi’s poncho up over her eyes as Zane veered over and sat her feet.
“Appears occupied,” he said.
“Gott,” hissed Heidi. “That’s the American girl. Adara. She’s sleeping. Come to bed.”
Adara felt him lurch up and clomp away. “Hey cutie.” The headboard slammed against the wall with what Adara guessed was his belly flop. “Fancy seeing you here.”
Adara heard Heidi groan, heard kissing that sounded like rude eating. Adara couldn’t help herself, peeking out from under Heidi’s poncho. Dark underclothes were flying to the floor. “She can hear us.”
His head was moving down her body. “She’s asleep.”
“Ouch.” Her hands were in his hair. “Ouch, stop biting.” Heidi began making noises that were not unhappy noises, noises that increased in frequency and pitch and volume. Adara’s blood was pounding, and not just in fear – her skin was tingling, her face feverish. She craned her neck to watch Zane flip Heidi over with one arm, her bottom large and dimpled and very white. Heidi huffed, “Sie Bastard, sie Bastard, ich liebe dich.” Despite herself, Adara tried to see his penis, but with his back turned, she wasn’t able. Yet while she couldn’t see it, couldn’t feel it, she could hear it, or at least heard Heidi feel it, the German girl keening, a wail as much pain as pleasure. They were yoked on their knees like a pair of Ss stuck together. Zane was growling, powerful, one hand pulling Heidi’s hair back by the pale roots. Heidi wouldn’t have been able to stop him even if she’d wanted to.
Adara’s hand slid down her stomach, down Heidi’s dress, wondering what it felt like, wondering what would happen if she stood up and stumbled toward the bed, where Heidi was whimpering, her voice cracking, fist clamped to the bedpost for support. Adara closed her eyes for a moment, and on her eyelids burned an image of herself bound and blindfolded. She opened her eyes with a shake of the head, chastising herself for the thought. Shame was firing down onto her, and she wanted to flee, but her eyes were so sandy, her feet so cramped, the futon so soft. She considered all she’d said and done that night, and more incriminating, all she’d thought and felt. It was hard not to think that she’d failed some test.
As sleep streamed into her head, an image appeared, blocking the bed. It was the woman she’d met on the sidewalk, the woman she’d kissed. She was rooted before her, but transformed. She was glorious, her rags replaced with a fuller white tunic, her back unhunched, straightened to perfection, her face still wrinkly but glowing, grimy no more but instead so clean Adara could see a lipstick imprint – her lipstick imprint – on the woman’s forehead. In her hand the woman held a sword, no child’s gray plastic plaything, no, a glittering broadsword long as a broom handle, its silver handle June-bright. And then the woman bowed her head, still smiling, and drove the sword into the ground. Flame flowered upon the blade and guard and handle, flickering and warm, and the final thought Adara had before the end of that first night was how much very much it looked like a cross.