By Margaret Karmazin
As soon as she's out the door from her four o'clock Freshman English, she heads to the lavatory, the one at the far end of the hall where nobody goes. She doesn't think she's seen anyone in there the whole semester. There are three stalls with old fashioned wood doors and brass locks. The floor is covered in small white octagon shaped tiles. The room echoes.
She opens the door at the end by a window, which is partly inside the stall. It has a high wide ledge, a good place to lay her stuff. After she locks the door, she stashes her books there, then opens her backpack and fishes around until she finds it -- her razor blade, which is one of those little plastic things, a neon orange half circle with a slide button. When she pushes on it, the blade pops out.
Anxiety is filling her chest by the time it pops, but just seeing it out there gives her a small sense of relief. Her hands shake as she pulls down her pants and sits on the toilet so she can get at her thigh. She's already decided on this spot, had it chosen at the beginning of English class. Now she leans over, blocking out pretty much what light there is and presses the blade into the flesh. Just pressing it makes her catch her throat with anticipated relief.
There is a micro-second of nothing as the blade slices into the milky skin, then sharply as in when you stub your toe, the sting comes clear and pure. Garnet blood jewels dot the edges of the newly formed ravine and are swept away by a brimming little lake which soon overflows its banks to make a rivulet down her thigh. She leans back and fills her chest with air, amazingly good air considering where she is. She sucks it in deep. For the first time in days, she knows she is alive and maybe has a right to be. The smarting pain, the full lungs, her neck elongated as her head tilts back --yes.
Afterwards, as she is cleaning the blood off with wads of toilet paper and applying a band aide, she feels disgust. And under that, she is scared.
Michael is waiting for her outside the building. Little Michael, short and squat. The only thing he has going for him is his coloring which is rich. Olive skin, thick black hair and eyebrows -- intense. Other than that, he isn't much to look at. Susan is taller. They are quite a contrast: she blonde and pale, bony and lanky; he thick, heavy, dark. She is a ghost, she observes; he is in bloom. Life teems in his eyes, his gestures, his every move. Sometimes spittle flies out of his mouth, he is so rapt he forgets to swallow. Susan forgets to swallow sometimes too but not for the same reasons.
She is aware that Michael believes he is her guardian angel. She knows he is known for his tenacity, for what he believes is his ability to heal people. "What's up?" She says in her usual dry tone.
He is busting out of his seams with enthusiasm. "They're having a meeting over in Ryder Hall. About helping the Afghanistan women. And children too. Organizing a drive to collect clothes and money. Wanna go?"
No, she doesn't want to go. What for? The usual drivel, all the flushed-cheeked do-gooders from happy families with love to spare. They depress her. No, that's not quite it; more like they bore her.
"I don't think so," she says. "Marcy and I are going to Carter's."
The look on his face says volumes. "Why do you hang with those people, Suzette? They're all weirdos and creeps. Druggies. Losers."
He insists on calling her Suzette half the time, a joke from their French class only he is into.
"My name is Susan," she says.
"Suzette, you need to get out of yourself. Do something different!"
She manages to get away from him and finds Marcy standing, pissed off and sullen, outside the student union where they had agreed to meet.
"You're ten minutes late! You know I absolutely hate that," says Marcy, her long dark eyebrows knitted together. "People who are late are egomaniacs getting off on exerting their power over others. Like, it blows up your self image to make others stand around and wait."
"You're so negative," says Susan as they begin to walk in the direction of Carter's off campus apartment.
"Life is negative," retorts Marcy.
"That's so obvious, it's redundant to point out," says Susan.
"Carter got some diet pills," says Marcy, tossing her shaggy head. "Those old fashioned things our mothers took."
"You don't ask Carter how he does anything. What are you, nuts? He has Ecstasy too."
Susan smiles like a death's head. "Sounds like a good evening coming up. I can use a good evening."
There was a pause during which Susan's eyes slide sideways and catch the edge of a new cut on Marcy's arm. On the soft peach skin above the wrist. Marcy evidently likes to take the chance that somebody could see what she does. Susan is more careful. The only thing she has to fear is going to
the doctor but so far she has managed to avoid it. The last time she went was in high school and he had simply stuck the stethoscope inside of her shirt.
"You still hanging with that gorkathon, Michael-what's-his-name?"
Susan's face is impassive. "Sometimes, so what?"
"Definitely not your type," snickers Marcy.
"Maybe that's a blessing," says Susan.
"And those associates of his, liberal peaceniks and herbivores. Their rhetoric makes me want to regurgitate every meal I've ever eaten."
"Not all of them fit that category," says Susan. "Some of them are just regular old retired guys looking for something to do. Soup kitchens, packing up stuff to send overseas, it makes them feel life is worth living,
"Well, if it's worth it, I'd rather not have to hear the bullshit."
"What do you mean by bullshit?"
"I mean about all the pain. The world is packed with pain. Why wallow in it?" Marcy's face is oddly innocent.
"I think he is trying to lesson some of that pain."
Marcy snorts. "A drop in the ocean, Susan. An atom in the entire universe. That's the effect of all his effort."
Susan doesn't feel like giving Marcy the satisfaction that she may be right so she says nothing. Anyway, they have arrived at Carter's building.
He lives on the top floor of a house owned by a widower who is visiting his sister in Arizona. They climb the outside stairs and rap on the door at the top. No one answers, so they let themselves in.
The place is a mess. Susan isn't surprised; it seems to be the general decor of every college boy she knows, including Michael. Empty pizza boxes litter the floor and ashtrays overflow on the mottled coffee table. The place has not been cleaned for weeks, maybe months.
Carter appears in the hallway. "Hey, we're in here," he says. Then he disappears.
"Let's go," says Marcy. Susan is silent and follows her.
The next morning, Michael pounds on Susan's door, yelling, "Suzette!" at the top of his lungs. As she claws her way out of a dead sleep, she remembers her mother describing how things were in her day, how men weren't permitted in women's dorms and Susan desperately wishes things were still like that.
"What?" she yells with as much threat as she can muster.
"Hey, Susan," he yells back as he wriggles the door knob. "I could use your help!"
It's Saturday and he knows she has no classes. "Damn," she mutters as she lunges out of bed, banging her hip against the corner of the desk. "Goddamn it!" Enraged and sick, she flings open the door. "I'm going to hurl," she manages to explain before lurching towards the desk to grab the trash can.
Michael watches as she unloads. It doesn't appear to faze him. "You really push yourself to the limit, don't you?" he says, then moves on to his purpose for being there. As if he is not watching a girl who looks like something out of Edgar Allan Poe retching disgustingly into an already overflowing receptacle. The smell of vomit permeates the room.
"Listen, Suzette, I've got a problem. "One of the guys, Matt, has this 'Little Brother' he's been watching over and well, the kid -- his name is Louis -- didn't show up at the center like he was supposed to and so Matt goes over there and what's going on? The kid's screwed up mother is a crack addict. She pissed off her boyfriend and he goes and knifes her. They took her off to Wycomb General, the police took the boyfriend and everyone leaves the kids alone at home."
Susan sobers up eighty percent. Still holding the trash can, she says quite forcefully, "I am not looking after some fucked up kid. Don't even ask. I've got a paper due. And I'm sick."
Michael often appears not to have normal hearing. "I didn't say anything about Louis. Matt's taking Louis home with him. He's a day student, lives in town. It's the teenage girl I need help with."
Susan sets down the trash can and grabs a hunk of Kleenex which she uses to wipe her mouth and T-shirt. "I need a shower," she says. "And I'm not taking care of any kids!" She brushes past him to gather some clothes and her bathroom gear, then whips out the door towards the lavatory.
Michael knots up the vomit-filled trash bag and follows her, entering the lavatory behind her. He stashes the bag in the trash receptacle.
"Do you mind?" Susan says. "Men aren't allowed in here." Although there are no exact rules that she knows of.
Michael leans against one of the sinks. "It's a coed dorm," he says. "No one's around anyway. Go ahead, I can wait."
As the blessed hot water hits her face, she wonders if he's crazy. Her head is pounding and she's having trouble focusing properly. If she looks at something, her eyes want to stay there and not move on to anything else. She has to pull them off what ever she is staring at. It was the fourth time she has taken that stuff. Anything Carter gets is the best and he isn't afraid to charge full price for it either. No favors for friends except that he'll let you do it at his place for a while. Not all night. She understands he is taking a chance by doing that. She can't remember if anything else happened though. There seems to be this just out-of-reach picture of Marcy with her clothes off but Susan can't bring it fully to mind. Had Susan too been naked? Her clothes were all on when she woke up this morning in her own bed; maybe she was missing a bracelet but that wasn't unusual. She wasn't quite sure how she got back to her dorm except she thought that some guy drove her.
She decides not to dwell on this and to just enjoy the delicious water blasting her head and body. Her mind seems to be clearing somewhat and her stomach is now showing signs of serious hunger. It's a shock when Michael calls out, because she has actually forgotten he's there.
Annoyed, she turns down the water. "What?"
"See, the thing is," he says, "this girl is fourteen. She's gotta be real depressed. I mean she just sort of sits there. The social workers are on short supply and are handling this apartment fire on the other side of town. Nine kids to place. They'll be back for these two tonight but in the meantime I need some help."
"I hate kids," Susan says as meanly as she can, then turns the water back up. She yells, "Go ask the herbivores!"
"The herbivores?" yells Michael, not understanding. "What are you talking about?"
Exasperated, Susan turns the water down again. "Michael, what do you want me to do? I don't know anything about kids. I'm a math major."
"Susan, I need you," he says.
He's like one of those relentless monsters in B-grade movies, thinks Susan. They keep coming at you even though you shoot them and topple electric towers over them.
She hurries up and steps out wrapped in her towel, not thinking of Michael as a man, not caring what he sees. Immediately, his eyes move to the cuts on her legs and she realizes she has made a mistake in being so casual with him. Especially when she sees the expression on his face, one of unmistakable compassion.
She experiences terror that he is going to ask what they are. Will he know that she inflicts them herself? He's a psych major; he might know about cutting. Time seems to stop while her mind races, searching for a good lie to give as an answer. Her sister has a mean cat, something. If he were to ask her outright why she cut herself, she would not know how to answer. It's just something she has done since she was sixteen when her mother left. When she somehow went dead inside. When quite by accident, she discovered that substituting one pain for another, one that she can control, can give relief, whether true or false. The only other person who knows about her is Marcy.
Surprisingly, Michael says nothing about the cuts. For a moment, he appears to struggle with himself, then, for some reason, decides to be silent on the matter. Oddly, he continues with his begging, as if he had seen nothing. "I'm just asking this one favor, Susan. I know you and Marcy think we're a bunch of idiots down there and that might be true, but I am what I am. All I want is one day of your time. Just stay with the girl until the social worker comes for her. I've got my hands full otherwise."
She is trembling from the close call. Damn. She can hardly think of anything but that and agrees to his request just to get him out of there. So she can pull herself together and come up with a believable story if he ever does ask about it. Maybe if he never does, that will be worse yet.
"All right, whatever. Where do I have to go?" She has her towel wrapped around her like a sarong and her lank, pale hair hangs in wet strings over her shoulders.
"I'll wait for you and take you to her," he says. She knows he knows that if he trusted her to show on her own, she'd back out.
She sighs. "All right. I'll just be a minute. And I need something to eat."
"No problem," he says and produces a breakfast sandwich from his jacket pocket. He's covered all the bases and left her no escape.
The girl is sleeping on a vinyl covered couch in one of the meeting rooms on the second floor of the student union. The noise from the others in the room who are manning phones for some reason Susan doesn't know and doesn't care to ask about, doesn't seem to bother the girl. Feeling utterly at sea, Susan stands looking down at her. Michael has already left.
Her name is Teena. Alone with her, Susan feels her heart thudding. Deep asleep, Teena is oblivious to all this intense observation.
She appears to be a racial mix -- black, white, Hispanic. Her hair has been bleached to a dried-out mass of rusty brown frizz and her eyebrows plucked to a skinny line. She has the color of skin -- a dull tan, that doesn't match the dyed hair. The combination gives her a low class look. Susan thinks the girl would be much more attractive with what is probably her natural dark brown hair. Then she realizes she is thinking like a mother and shrugs it off.
Teena stirs, opens her eyes, sees Susan staring and bolts up. "What the fuck you doin?" she says. The words are tough but the voice trembles.
Embarrassed, Susan struggles for words. Her head is still aching; she forgot to pop a Motrin. "Um, nothing. I was just...uh, Michael told me to stay with you until-"
The girl broke in. "'Til what? Oh, you mean...oh, I get it. They're gonna put me somewhere. Some dump for the night. I know what they do. You're supposed to babysit me." She stood up. "I don't need nobody watchin' me. I can take care of myself. Hey, where's LJ? What'd they do with LJ?"
"Who's LJ?" Susan asks. All she wants in the world is to be back in her room in bed, sleeping off this persistent fuzz in her head.
"My little brother, who you think? What'd they do with him?"
"I thought his name was Louis. His 'Big Brother' has him. I'm supposed to stay with you."
"Shit," says Teena. She sits back down and crosses her arms over her flat little chest. She has a wiry, athletic body.
Susan, cursing Michael in her head, says, "Listen. You want to go get something to eat? There's a good hamburger place a block from here. Real good hot fries. Want some?"
Teena sulks before answering. "All right." The girl scowls as she stands up. She is wearing low slung pants and a cut off T-shirt that shows off her hard midriff. For a second, the shirt rides up her back as she reaches for her jacket and Susan sees strange white scars like little moons on Teena's walnut skin.
They seat themselves in a booth and the waitress sets down water glasses and hands them giant, red, laminated menus.
"Order anything you want within reason," says Susan as she roots in her bag for Motrin. "I mean my purse isn't up to lobster or anything." Once she gets the pill down, she instantly feels more comfortable. Although not comfortable with Teena.
Teena is oddly passive with the waitress who practically has to pull the order out of her. Susan says, "A blue cheese hamburger with hot fries and a Diet Coke," then slams her menu shut. As soon as the waitress is gone, she faces the girl.
"Are you okay? I mean with what happened and all?"
Teena avoids eye contact. She stares out the window.
"Are we going to sit here not talking?" asks Susan. "I mean I have a whole lotta things to do, one of which is write a paper for bio chem. What's the point of two people sitting here for nothing?" She can feel the Motrin going to work. Her head is beginning to clear at the smell of cooking food. With the clearing comes an unwelcome flash memory of being on a bed at Carter's with some guy she can't place. With him all over her, hurting her arm where he's leaning on it while he fumbles between her legs. She feels nauseous before a wave of rage rushes over her.
"What's wrong with you?" asks Teena, looking into Susan's face for the first time. "You look weird."
"Nothing," says Susan, shivering. "You didn't answer my question."
"You mean how am I? Whaddayou think? I live in a shit hole."
"I mean about your mother being hurt and all."
The girl's eyes grow cold. Not that they were warm to start with. "She asked for it. She's not exactly a nice person, if you know what I mean."
"I don't know what you mean. Why don't you tell me."
The waitress sits their plates in front of them. In spite of the conversation, the food brings a cozy warmth with it. Both of them dig in.
With her mouth full, Teena says, "He had every reason to stab her."
Susan searches Teena's face. The little moon scars come to her mind. "You like your mother's boyfriend then?"
Teena shrugs but Susan sees that she does. "He's okay," she says.
"Why did he have reason to stab your mother?" The hot fries are perfect. They warm Susan's insides as they slide down. With each bite she feels strengthened, as if the food is a healing elixir. But while her body begins to feel normal, her mind is growing uneasily alive. Two movies are running simultaneously: Teena's and Carter's.
Teena takes her time chewing her cheese steak, and swallows. "She shot up again. She promised she wouldn't. She's promised him a million times. Took all the money he'd saved too. He was trying to get a car. She's a mean bitch. I hate her. I hope she dies."
Susan stops chewing and takes a long swig of her Diet Coke. "Is your mother mean to you?"
Teena looks down at her food and doesn't answer.
"Does she hurt you?" asks Susan.
The girl won't look up.
Susan knows then who put the moons on Teena's back. For a moment, she stops eating as the realization sinks into her.
They finish the meal and decide to see a movie, then walk to Susan's dorm where Teena watches TV while Susan works on her paper. It's after six o'clock when Susan realizes she had better get Teena to the student union where the social worker is scheduled to pick her up.
The girl is sullen as they prepare to go. "Can't I stay with you? You said you don't have a roommate."
"You can't stay in the dorm unless you pay for it," says Susan, knowing this is a lame answer. And not even true.
"Just until she gets out of the hospital," Teena says with obvious dread.
Susan decides to take a dangerous leap. "You tell the social worker about those scars on your back and you won't have to stay with her anymore."
There is the kind of silence that resembles a black hole in space.
"You hear me?" says Susan, her heart pounding.
Teena does not answer. Instead, she charges out the door, clearly enraged.
In the hall, she puffs herself up and half screams, "You keep the fuck out of my business! You hear me, bitch?"
Susan experiences a strange leap in consciousness. Instead of hearing Teena's words, she listens to the girl's soul.
"I hear you," she says and oddly, Teena seems to know that Susan does for the girl is suddenly calm.
Before Susan leaves her with Michael at the student union, she says to her, "Just think about it."
Teena does not show any reaction.
Michael is beaming at Susan. "Thank you, Suzette, I really appreciate this." He is clearly gloating.
He thinks, Susan knows, that he has proven something to her. Not willing to give him satisfaction, she falls into her habitual sulky mode and says, "I've got stuff to do, so I can't hang with you."
He lets her go, still smiling.
Back at the dorm, she does not immediately work on the paper, but sits on her bed staring at the wall, which is covered in posters she does not see. Her vision passes through the wall and into the mystery of people hurting each other. And themselves.