When my mother caught me rummaging in her nightstand, she said, You must never look in there again. She said, Certain things are private. Do you know what private means? I did, but I told her I didn’t, which was maybe my version of what private meant. When something is private, she said, it belongs only to you. From then on, I understood my mother to be private, in how she kept herself to herself, and in how, in my mind, she belonged only to me. I really thought I was entitled to her, to the most intimate parts of her, which seemed to be in that drawer: photos, a Bible, stacks of letters held together with rubber bands, a diary. None of it helped me. Most of it probably wrecked me. But sometimes, that’s how you know something is working. The world may have been destroyed by a flood—but that doesn’t mean we don’t still need the rain.
The thing about college is the bodies. They are everywhere. I feel like we were all sent to one place to figure out how to be in one, what to do with the fact of them, and how close and how far to move them in relation to one another. I try to imagine what we might look like from space, clustered and worrying, how we would probably only be discernible in clumps, the solitary ones not registering on the infrared screen or whatever the technology is. I’ve been in some rooms that reek of desperation, that rapey cologne smell of boys sitting around marinating their impulses, their collective ideas about girls like some weird psychic orgy. Those are the rooms, the parties, you run away from. Or to, depending, I guess.
I want to tell you about how many boys I’ve laid under (3) and how each of them felt the same. I want you to come here and wash my sheets and tell me the truth about my clothes, about the people I’ve met. I want you to see me working in the dining hall. I want you to come with me to my classes, comment on my professors, on what they’re making me read. None of this will happen, I know. It wouldn’t happen even if you were another mother. But being the mother you are, it’s not just impractical. It’s impossible. You are not available. You don’t want to be summoned.
There is that picture Dad took on my first day—the last day I saw you—where I’m standing outside the student center, the place they told us would be “command central” or whatever, where we’d be spending all of our time outside of class, checking our mailboxes and praying for packages, or playing fucking PINBALL, or getting quarters for the laundry, or watching movies, or just generally loitering around with our backpacks, being coeds. I never go in there. My roommate, Surprise, whom you guys didn’t get to meet because you left too early—that’s actually her name, by the way, because she was supposed to be a boy but came out a girl—checks my mail for me. In the picture I am squinting and doing that ugly thing with my jaw. I seem to be saying, “1993, what else you got?” Dad took that picture and must have developed the roll because the next week I got it in the mail with a note that said “First day memento, Love Dad.” It’s funny how a picture of me reminds me only of you.
I thought it was odd that he sent it to me, tried to imagine him putting it in an envelope and addressing it—looking up my address, carefully copying it down—and I couldn’t, at least not without feeling sad and sorry for him, the same way I’ve felt watching baggers at the supermarket handling eggs with great care. I guess it was that feeling that prompted me to call him to say thanks. Thanks, too, for the book of stamps he included with the photo. And it was when I asked to speak to you that I knew you were gone.
Anyway, I’ve never had a pen pal, but this seems as good a time as any to try it out. I’m good at remembering details and I have a lot of time to record them. Though “pen pal” suggests a back-and-forth that’s impossible here. Lucky me, then. Now I have unlimited space to talk about my favorite subject besides you: me!!!
It’s late afternoon and I’m on my way to English, wondering if I should skip it, trying to remember how many I’ve skipped. I see the boy from my philosophy class coming toward me. I have an unbridled desire for him that wearies me and takes up, it seems, a lot of my time. My face feels out of control. I concentrate on my shoes, the six-eye Doc Martens I bought with the money I’d saved babysitting the horrible Nolans, and remember my mother’s arched eyebrows when she saw them (“Those?”). I study the ground right before each shoe hits it.
I keep walking. He slows down a little as if to chat, and I move faster. I want to turn around so badly that walking feels like pushing through the heaviest revolving door in the world, but I keep going. I don’t trust myself around him. When I get to the humanities building, I stop.
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This boy, this thing of beauty—I call him Tea Rose. I’m convinced we share a brain. During our first philosophy class, our professor asked us for some examples of philosophical ideas in everyday life. Fortune cookies, someone said. “To be or not to be,” another person offered (but couldn’t name the play it came from). Tea Rose raised his hand. “If a tree falls in the forest,” he said. I’d been thinking the exact same thing. How did he know? Now we have to write a paper on one of the following topics: the theory of forms, Cartesian dualism, the Zeitgeist, or Kant’s categorical imperative. What I want to write about instead is physicalized loneliness, my dead brother Simon, waiting as a form of punishment and/or prayer.
I want Tea Rose. OK? Just be prepared to hear a lot about him. Last night I wandered around campus in your long coat with a half-empty Coke, looking for him, looking for booze. I knew where a couple off-campus parties were, so I went to one. Surprise was there, excited. She just really likes college. Her eyes were a little drunk and she put her arm around my waist to “introduce me to people” but she was still mostly her tidy self. I broke away after a few minutes and found a bottle of whiskey in the kitchen. Most people were hovering around the keg. I poured whiskey into my half-empty Coke can and put the bottle back. What did Dad used to say? If you see the glass as half empty, just fill it? I was always puzzled by that whole scenario. Whether it’s half empty or half full, it’s still only half of whatever you might want it to be. Anyway, I thought for a second that Tea Rose was at the party but it was some other tall boy. The disappointment of this was enough to make me want to leave, so I headed back toward campus, keeping my head down.
I always hear Simon when I’m alone at night. “What the fuck are you walking around by yourself for? Do you have the mace I gave you? How are you going to defend yourself, Agnes?” When did he first give me mace? Do you remember? I think it was the Christmas that I was eight. Ten years ago now. And he’s been gone for less than three—the three longest, shortest years.
I have to write a philosophy paper. If you wrote me back, I’d just turn in your letter.
I get a B+ on my paper. There are red checkmarks and plus signs in the margins, a couple “!”s. The note at the end says, A fascinating essay, though gravely lacking in source material and proper citations. I’m eager to see what you could do with more research. There’s fifteen minutes left of class and I’m upset that Tea Rose isn’t here today. His paper is sitting on the corner of the professor’s desk along with the other absentees’. I’m thinking about how I can get it for him, deliver it later, when a tall blond girl raises her hand and says she lives in his dorm.
“I think he’s sick today,” she says, smiling sweetly. “I’ll bring it to him.” She looks like one of those women in commercials for feminine products. I picture her itchy and rash-ridden and try to calm down. I leave class to go to the bathroom and stare at my face for a while. I decide against going back to class and head to work early instead.
That night, I’m in line at the coffee shop, getting one of those coffee milk things everyone here is obsessed with, along with one of the bright pink strawberry muffins I’m obsessed with, when I feel a change in the air, followed by the tinny clatter of music issuing from somewhere very close to me.
“Hey. Nice dinner.” His voice is loud and deliberate, his headphones neon yellow, their cord rising out of the pocket of his olive-green barn jacket. I take him in entirely, his cheeks flushed with cold, his slightly rumpled hair, the torn canvas of his sneakers. To hide my panic and excitement, I try to concentrate on paying and probably look like I don’t know how to add up money.
“Do you want a bag for this?”
I shake my head and put the stuff in the pockets of my big coat. I stand there while Tea Rose pays for his small coffee.
“Don’t you work at the dining hall?”
“So can’t you get better food? Like, secret food?” He is still too loud. We move to the side.
“It doesn’t really work like that. Usually we eat before whatever meal we’re working, so I’m not very hungry, and afterward I don’t always like eating what I’ve been around for three hours.”
“Ah.” He puts his headphones around his neck. There is suddenly no sound between us. “Hey, do you know Nirvana?” He says it like we are at a party and he is our—mine and Nirvana’s—mutual friend.
“Um, yeah. Doesn’t everyone?”
He rolls his eyes. “I don’t mean like, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ I mean their early stuff.”
How could he know I had an older brother once who knew everything there was to know about music? “You mean like ‘Bleach’?”
Tea Rose lights up. “Yeah, yes. Totally. That’s exactly what I was just listening to. It’s fucking brilliant. Do you want to sit somewhere?” He looks around for a table.
“I have to go, actually. I need to get some reading done. And call my dad. And do some laundry.” I don’t know why I’m doing this. What I want is to stay with him more than anything in the world.
“Wow. One excuse and two alternates. Impressive.”
I think if I kissed Tea Rose, I would definitely keep my eyes open. I’m convinced that if I loiter too long in his presence, I will reach out and start rubbing his face. It reminds me of the polished minerals I used to covet from the gift shop of the museum of natural history. Agate. Calcite.
“I’ll see you in class.”
He raises his cup a little, as if to toast. “Okay. That’s a big coat you’ve got there.”
“Thanks,” I say, before realizing he isn’t necessarily complimenting me. “I mean, it’s my mother’s.” Now I’m practically mumbling. “I like to be prepared. You have no idea the stuff I can keep in here.”
Tea Rose laughs, an easy sound. “Maybe we can get together and listen to Nirvana sometime. Or, you know, talk about coats.”
I don’t tell him that I don’t really care about music anymore. But I would listen to whatever he wanted. Then I do feel extra grateful for my coat, which feels like it’s actually keeping my heart, now spinning as wildly as a piñata after the first hit, inside my body.
Excerpted with permission from Motherest © 2017 by Kristen Iskandrian. Published by Twelve, an imprint of Hachette Book Group.