At a quarter to five I pulled up to the professor’s lawn where, a decade prior, I had urinated onto the hedge. The sun had nearly set; the clouds hung low and close like doves huddled against the cold. I recognized the house immediately: Sandstone brick kitty-corner from the donut shop where old men smoked at Formica four-tops, eating their donuts in picked-off bites, the sloughed flakes of glaze littering the tiny styrofoam plates and the expanses of plastic tray beyond.
I’d driven up from Des Moines, where that morning I’d given a presentation. The head of an e-learning company — a friend of my boss — wanted someone to speak on the merits of a new CMS, and my boss was busy that day. Carry-on in tow, I marveled at the compressed intricacy of the Des Moines International Airport: enclosed walkways shielding passengers from hail as they ventured from Parking to Departures, the lonely Tap Room’s eternal sportscasts, its high-backed stools yet unmarred by accident, incident — rare flares of human outrage. I can’t say much about the presentation. I arrived promptly at nine, set my luggage where the admin instructed. The assembled guests nodded as I walked them through the WYSIWYG text-creation page, described the features available for a nominal charge — add-ons, sure, but they made everything worth it. Afterward, at the far side of the conference room, the friend approached me.
“Great job,” he said, fingers heavy on my forearm. “Just stellar.”
Sweat percolated my no-iron blouse, further still through the strictures of my suit. I smiled — plastic little thing — and thanked him, refusing to break eye contact. His blue eyes carried the look of penned livestock finally freed to the ventilated tractor trailer. A year later, LinkedIn would notify me of his would-be work anniversary, though by then he’d hung himself from the sugar maple just outside his kitchen window.
Des Moines to Galesburg should be a four-hour drive, but I made it in three, gunning the straightaways, taking the curves with care. The truncated cornstalks held powder in their frost-cured leaves; the rows between caught the breath of light about to turn. Once, this had been my country. These days, I rarely made it back. Odd-yeared Christmases, even Thanksgivings, the occasional wedding, though most of my unmarried friends had forsworn the convention, in jest or in earnest.
The professor’s house was unlit as I parked, the donut shop shuttered for the evening. Around, front rooms hummed with blue light, the throttled energy of post-work repose. Senior year, winter, I’d befriended a frat boy: Colin. I hadn’t been asked to the snowflake formal. This was no surprise, but I took the absent invite as a reason to act on my defiance. As the couples danced, gyrating in passion, I clambered in through the living-room window in my turtleneck and Sorels. Only Colin noticed. Bemused by my entrance, he handed over a red cup and asked if I’d like to dance.
Not really, I’d said, or maybe not until I finish this. We stood and sipped, swayed and sipped, nodding along to the fuzzed-out bass. We withheld judgment of the more motor-challenged inebriates.
He wasn’t my type, but I didn’t have a type then — those standards had yet to be written. When I think on it now, I lament that I didn’t exalt in that limbo of true discovery. Imagine, taking a person on their own word and a simple first impression! Into the spring, we enacted a tepid flirtation: late-night breadsticks at the student union, pool in the games room, Eek-a-Mouse vinyl in the smoke-fogged attic, our t-shirted backs flat to the bare boards. Once, a halfhearted game of one-on-one at the soccer field, its ice crust just recently thawed. My smoker’s lungs seized as I struggled not just to keep up, but to create the illusion of effortlessness. Colin politely looked away.
Then, graduation nearing, a kegger. Wear your halter top, he joked. Deferent, amending: Or really, wear anything you like. I rallied to doll up a modicum — nothing lavish, just two swipes of lipstick, a few extra upstrokes of mascara, zirconia studs borrowed from my roommate’s bureau. In the mirror, I saw a safer, smaller version of myself. My roommate offered to walk me over the lawn to the frat house, but I was set on going it alone, comforted by the thought of my silhouette — lean and anonymous, scarcely more than a shadow — cresting the rise between his place and mine.
Inside, the bass vibrated my sternum. Girls giggled as they lifted their shirts for punch: a flourish. Colin and I staked out the center of the floor, red-lit and hemmed by imagined periphery, and shimmied. Droplets eked from our palms and temples.
When the keg ran dry we set out on foot.
It started as a joke, both of us too tipsy to drive. We’d walk to the nearest quik-stop with beer, problem solved. But the quik-stop was closed, and the one beyond that. We kept to the lit side of Henderson, confident that the next block would reveal the latest of the late-night bodegas. Two miles in, Colin challenged me to a race. Seriously? I asked, drawing out the consonants, but he was already off, footsoles slapping the wet pavement, big dumb moon our only observer. I let myself unspool, hair rushing back from my face and quads burning. My cheeks pinked with the cold. Each gulp of air, enormous and desperate, brought with it the knowledge that this night was it. A front-door kiss would have happened by now, the brush of hair from my face after a taco-bar dinner. A predawn adventure was no shoddy consolation.
The all-night grocery wouldn’t sell us beer. From her checkstand, Velma gave us the look we deserved, didn’t offer a bag for the greeting card we’d picked up in Floral. On the bench out front, we sat thigh to thigh, wondering about what to write in it. A few ideas shimmered and popped. Nothing stuck, until we struck on a stanza of Wright that had charmed us during Dr. Brighton’s Wednesday seminar.
… crashing terribly against each other’s bodies, Colin said, coiling the final s.
Dr. Brighton’s seminar was my favorite. It was everyone’s favorite. The second-floor classroom, radiator a-rattle, was out of a movie. Seats no more than hard varnished wood, but that made you want to outsit everyone just to show your tough. Windows warped with age, wind erosion. When Dr. Brighton read the words of the muted dead masters, calling into the moted, sunlit calm, you felt what those writers must have felt: anguish to rend heart from chest, to cleave chamber from chamber. Joy to flood and flatten you.
I took back my pen. Oh, to hear the meaty thud of near-men colliding. Who lives around here? I wondered, eyes fixed on the void of empty lot.
Dunno, Colin said, similarly glazed.
We headed off in the return direction, taking the street behind the Hy-Vee for a change of scene. It’s surprising, the lack of nighttime action. House after house had its face closed off to the dark. What possibility lay in those dormant rooms, hidden hours — I relished in the thought of it.
Hey, look! Colin said, ending a dull stretch of ramblers. Dr. Brighton’s place.
I don’t know how he knew or if he did for sure, but I acted with trust. Fitting, a fortress of yellow brick for our magisterial instructor. I couldn’t picture Brighton futzing with the colored lights, laying the fir boughs gently along the planter box’s ledge. These were the doing of the wife, I supposed, like most things tedious and decorative. The front yard’s snow sloped unbroken.
I wonder if he’s home, Colin said, starting up the drive. I didn’t see as he tucked the card between the front doors, as he rearranged the envelope to sit right-side up, but I heard the storm door latch and drew my own conclusions. Instead, I studied the scrollwork — a detail plucked straight from a fairytale — framing the upstairs window. How would I have turned out if I’d grown up in a room with scrollwork? I wondered. Better, likely. Someone acneless and full of grace, someone who sends thank-you notes on time. Not someone who traversed the length of town between midnight and dawn, who let crushes pass her by, simple as traffic. Not as someone who’d do what I was about to.
The need had peaked while I stared at that upstairs window. In urgency, I leapt onto the front lawn and wiggled off my jeans there before the cultivated hedge. Suffering the first blow of frigid air, I released. Urine hissed onto the snow’s crust, steam rising up from around my underparts and vanishing into a mist. The tiny shame I had too dissipated — this was no act of disrespect, but one of human relief. I watched Colin watch me, parsed the look that came over his face: shock first, then discomfort and awe in equal helpings. My pants still around my ankles, Colin approached. He positioned himself beside me, unzipped, and relieved himself parallel to my mark. The streams would be there in the morning — fainter, doubtless, but unmistakably human. There, he said in a tone I haven’t since made heads or tails of. What’s done is done.
Dr. Brighton’s picture window is framed by green brocade curtains, which are tied back with ropy golden cords culminating in tassels soft as hair. I noticed this as the living room light came on. The professor’s wife, herself a doctor, stepped to look out onto the early evening lawn, baby balanced on her hip. Their second, I thought of the baby, or, by this point, their third. The wife’s face floated warm and dimpled in the dim light, her lips moving in a kind explanation of what lay beyond the borders of the room. Lost, she might say, L-O-S-T. It means you don’t know where you are, but if you trace your steps, you can find your way back to where you came from.
Originally from the Midwest, Kate Garklavs lives and works in Portland, OR. Her work has appeared in Juked, Tammy, Matchbook, and Two Serious Ladies, among other places. She earned her MFA from UMass Amherst.