Every Wednesday, I?m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I?ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one?s a prequel to the third story in the collection, ?Smear the Queer?, originally published in Barrelhouse.
My second semester at Pitt, I was denied entrance into Honors O Chem owing to what I was told in a postcard sent by campus mail was insufficient academic performance during the fall semester, but in my heart I knew it was out of a failure of nerve. No, I hadn?t taken certain gen-eds scheduled by my adviser seriously enough, writing in EngComp but never bothering to revise a paper about Dick Butkus?s movie roles that garnered me the first (but not last) C of my academic career. But on top of this, I told myself the afternoon after I got the news, standing in too light a jacket on the Cathedral Lawn under a skeletal tree frosted in fresh snow, I hadn?t pushed. I hadn?t made myself undismissable. I had shown my adviser the A I received in Chem 100 and drawn his attention to the honors courses I took in high school, and after he suggested I meet with the head of the University Honors College, a brusque sandy blond man with a face one size larger than his head could normally bear whom everyone seemed affectionately to call just ?Doc?, I did and I got him to smile, and he said to me, I?ll always remember, ?You?re really going places, Jim.? As we shook hands at the end of the conversation he?d reached up with his left hand and gave my shoulder a soft squeeze, not far from an embrace, I thought, and I kept my eyes looking in his eyes until he soon looked away.
There was, the postcard read, an appeals process, but that afternoon I couldn?t imagine undergoing it. Maybe I was full of spite, or maybe I was only cold. As I said I?d underjacketed that morning, and the winter wind was spilling in and running up along my ribs, and my body kept seizing itself to find extra warmth. The Lawn was still, a thick quilt of snow running all the way south to Forbes Avenue, cut across here and there by the stitching of other people?s footprints. Behind me the traffic chugged on Fifth, and in the quiet that fell between redlights I heard nothing but the softened air of a city in midwinter. I wanted to hear it more, so I walked inward on the lawn toward Heinz Chapel, my brogans doing a less spectacular job of keeping my feet dry than I?d hoped, thinking I?d still be visible from here. I was the one Z-axis in a Cartesian plane save for the trees, the chapel, and the Cathedral of Learning, which rose from the lawn like a tombstone.
The guy was late. He was twenty minutes late. I?d begun in my head a countdown from twenty-two, before I?d walk away from the Lawn and return to my dorm room and go back to bed having not put my life on a different, darker course, but right when I got to six on the countdown I saw a tall, thin body with a burst of red hair walk in from my left. It stopped at an intersection of walkways, facing me. It raised a hand in a wave, and I waved back. The red hair tilted away from me, toward the Cathedral, and the guy, if in fact it was the guy, walked away. I followed always, owing to the steady pace he kept, at a distance and soon I was in a stall in the back of the men?s room on the ground floor.
?You bring the money?? he whispered
?Lisa said you?d give me a deal?? I whispered. ?This is my first time.?
?Forty dollars,? he said. ?Normally it?s fifty.?
His bright hair had to be visible over the stall?s partitions. We were, I?d hoped, alone in there. I heard nothing but a faucet?s drips plinking off the room?s dirty tiles.
?Why are we in here?? I asked.
?You want to get thrown out of school??
I could appreciate his discretion. I unwalleted two twenties and held them up in the air between us. He looked at me, then at them, and then the money was gone.
?Start slow,? he said. ?Two at most, if it?s your first time.?
Then he brought out the plastic bag I?d just paid for, and without a word I took it and shoved it into my underwear, because things fell out of pockets all the time.
The guy raised an eyebrow. ?Anything else you need?? he asked, smiling. Then he put his hand on my shoulder
I was back in my room in minutes. What I needed, I wanted to tell him, was to get into Honors O Chem, and barring that I needed to know what had happened to the candidacy I?d been led to believe was beyond eligible. I needed also to know why at least once a week after I shut the lights out I was finding myself lying in the darkness of my room and sobbing, quietly enough for Brad, my snoring roommate, not to hear, but hard enough for it to hurt, my stomach cramped and heaving, my pillow soaked with tears and spittle. I was not, historically, a crier. I would be, I?d always promised myself, a comprehender, but that night in my room, Brad gone on some wrestling tournament across the state, I reneged on the deal, slitting open the windows that flanked our bunkbeds for the frozen air to seep in, and undressing myself only after I?d turned out the lights. I slipped naked into the bed and took with a plastic PITT ORIENTATION WEEKEND 1979 cup of water three of the pills I?d purchased, and in no time at all the world I found myself stuck inside got reduced to one color, one note that if I could find it on the piano would lie way down on the left end of the keyboard.
I was cold and I stayed cold the whole weekend. Why, I wonder, did I become a scientist? My parents never pressured me to be anything, and all my brothers make money for a living. I heard once, or I read somewhere that our ambitions come from the newest part of the brain, the part of it that sits right above our eyebrows, as though they were the captain of the starship that steers us. I?ve pretended more than once that I could be such a captain, setting always an optimal course, but I?ve rarely been able to rise to a challenge. I?ve been, instead, a tester, a man directed by the wills of other men. It has over time taken me places. I?m good, I?d like to think, at swabbing a deck.
You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.