Ephemera

The Biological Sciences Library is the ideal place to work on a quiet Sunday afternoon. With many hours still ahead of her, she languishes at her desk reading The Lover by Marguerite Duras. Glassy-eyed, she gets up infrequently to shelve periodicals and to maintain some semblance of order in the stacks. The self-sufficient regulars pass through the space like sensitive ghosts reluctant to pop her perfect serenity. Occasionally, she complains of being stifled, of her cavernous loathing for all things scientific. But the job is a good fit for her true temperament. She enjoys the solitude. This absence of all that is.

At noon, she arches her back and stretches her limbs. Finding herself alone, she grabs her wallet and locks up, propping the soft, worn cardboard sign against the glass doors—WILL BE BACK SOON. But she doesn’t hurry. Casting her gaze into the tree canopy, she follows its shade down to the university cafe to avoid melting in the sunny, humid heat. 

Speaking to no one in particular, she orders a banana-nut muffin and, despite the weather, a freshly brewed cup of French roast. She sweetens her coffee with several packets of raw sugar and mixes in a splash of gray, non-fat milk. With her hands full, she slowly navigates the hill back. Instinctively, she turns around a few times to look behind her. She notices a portly, dark haired man in the distance and feels something like relief. She can appreciate his loud shirt, colorful shorts and striped knee sock combo. She thinks in solidarity: The man is screaming without making a sound. 

To escape the oppressive sunshine, she turns left into the cave-like opening of the library’s underground passageway, walking briskly to the freight elevator that will lift her into the lobby. She pushes the call button with her elbow and waits in the soothing, gray darkness. Her stomach growls like an impatient beast. She nearly salivates. And then the man is upon her. 

*

What is happening, she wonders. First, she feels the cool whirl of swift movement followed by thick indelicate fingers fondling her left breast. She gasps, seeing out of the corner of her eye that the man is pleased. Her voice catches in her throat and the man, pushing his stubby legs to their limit, disappears as suddenly as he had arrived. 

She looks down at her hands and is relieved to find that everything is still intact. Her wallet. Her coffee. Her muffin. It occurs to her that she has endured worse. The elevator doors part and she hesitates, scanning the interior before stepping inside. 

*

Her shift ends. She realizes with horror that she never reopened the library. Exasperated, she lacerates herself: You stupid shit. You dumb fuck. She has spent hours trembling at the information desk, completely shut down to her surroundings. The library bears the evidence of her sloth. Moving quickly, she throws out her untouched muffin and coffee, now oily and disgusting. She clutches her books and belongings to her chest, a crude armor. As usual, Jacques is waiting for her outside. He looks put out and pleased simultaneously, rising to his feet to greet her. For the hundredth time, she wishes he would accept her offer of friendship. His shadow inches over her as she stoops to deadbolt the door. Against her better judgement, because she needs an ally, she tells him what happened: A man followed me, grabbed my breast, then ran away. His large massively jawed face mocks her intensity with a little smile. Is this funny? She asserts that she needs her space. His thick lips set into a grim line. She can see he is taking it personally. 

*

The next day arrives. Beneath the Humanities bridge, she tells Death Metal Chris the news. He flies into a rage shouting, “Point him out to me! I’ll KILL him! I WILL KILL HIM!” His delicate half-Japanese features morph hideously as he pounds the table with his fists. She is taken aback by the outsized intensity of his reaction. Never before has she been privy to his passionate irrational side. His sardonic satanic rings now read as foretokens of an explosive temper. She checks her impulse to leave, and immediately regrets it. She has been spotted. Jacques walks over, his habitual bounce a bit subdued. He glances sideways at Chris as if he were a cricket. He reports that he told Professor Fairey what happened and that she said, “Well, I hope she doesn’t take it out on you.” Bespectacled Jacques, mother-loving son of a philandering indie film maker, bares his gap teeth in what amounts to a nervous smile. She is so fucking sick of Jacques. 

*

She goes to class but finds it difficult to concentrate on Althusser. Her notes are non sequiturs in minuscule print scattered across the page. She chain smokes by herself at the cafe, watching her banana nut muffin and coffee go bad in the heat. With her head down, she ignores familiar faces to discourage conversation until Nick, clueless Casanova and recent graduate-turned-campus-bus-driver, casually pulls up a chair. He asks her, “What’s up?” A beat. Then, “What’s wrong?” She shakes her head—No. But his pleading surprises her: “Come on…. Tell me…. Please?” Whiny and juvenile, vulnerable and possibly genuine. Shrugging her shoulders, she spills her story, sticking to the facts, not caring what he will think or do. He glances at her chest, saying, “That sucks.” Then he looks away.

*

She lights another Export A and smokes it down to the filter. He bums one and pensively does the same. The silence grows ponderous as he begins to bite his nails, which appear to be bacterial and uncommonly soft. Putting away her cigarettes, she prepares to take her leave when he makes eye contact. He has the answer. A report must be filed with the campus police. Like an overgrown boy scout, he will escort her to the station. It has been decided and suddenly, she feels relieved, almost elated to have a goal, a high-minded mission. For the moment, Nick is her savior. Even the air feels divinely charged with his kinetic energy. He has a jaunty walk and, although he hardly acknowledges her, his buoyancy is infectious.  He greets those they pass with a quick nod, a playful poke, a flirtatious smile or wink. When she falls behind, he assumes the burden of her cumbersome leather book bag. And at their destination, under a violet cascade of blooming wisteria, he opens the door for her like a gentleman.

*

Inside, the space is aggressively air-conditioned and unnervingly quiet. She rings the call bell and feels somewhat bullied by the assertive salmon-colored formica and the dusty plastic ferns flanking her sides. A few minutes are spent before a tumid Korean policeman emerges from the office’s deserted depths. She disregards the vapor of disappointment that settles between them, skips the niceties, and gets to the point. Despite the tightly controlled emotion in her voice, he doesn’t take her seriously. In a patronizing tone, reserved specifically for young females of his own kind, he asks, “Did you yell for help?” Then, “Always yell for help. Remember that next time.” He dismisses her with a solemn and final nod. There are no papers to sign, no documents to be filed. She wonders bitterly: What exactly was the point? Nick shrugs his shoulders at the conundrum, obviously miffed. But something significant has happened here. In spite of Jacques’ sanctimonious denunciations of his womanizing, Nick has treated her with compassion. She imagines, at his core, the germinating seed of decency. 

*

The days pass without her participation. On the surface, she seems as serene as ever, floating untouched through time and space, her face a marvel of emotionless composure, but a roiling parasitic darkness lies within. She is distracted and paranoid, reacting with an introverted violence to bold colors and stocky silhouettes in the distance. She reminds herself of a deranged and feral beast, maniacally vigilant and fine-tuned to lurking threats. She feels herself watched even when she isn’t.

*

As finals approach, she is resigned to dropping all of her classes until Death Metal Chris advises her to ask for emergency extensions. Dr. Wilcox, professor of her critical theory class, is most sympathetic and tells her to get counseling. He then goes out of his way to ask her how she is doing every time he sees her. His ancient eyes, so direct and searching. This raw regard is unsettling to both of them and soon he pretends not to see her anymore. It is a relief to be ignored, a comfort so familiar and satisfying that it registers on a cellular level. But it is a quandary affecting indifference in return. Her disclosure, she realizes, is an opening, a weeping wound. Why did she give away so much when less would have sufficed? In her delirium, she has allowed the pervert to insinuate himself into every aspect of her life. To contain his poisonous seepage, she halfheartedly writes the required essay. Dr. Wilcox generously gives her a B. He hands the paper back and vacates his office without a glance or whisper of acknowledgement.

*

Inside the Women’s Resource Center, an attractive older femme listens intently to her story. When she is finished, her eyes well up but she does not allow herself to do what might feel good or natural. Pressure builds to unload even more, to lock eyes with this kind woman and tell her everything. Her darkest experience exhumes itself, a rising corpse. She relives the struggle, in particular, the wild abandon with which she had fought, and the staggering pain at her temple before blacking out. She remembers mad shivering and the taste of blood before her eyes came into focus. Her body, ravaged and changed, no longer familiar or living. He had whispered, “I didn’t know it was your first time.” And then, dismissively, “You’re nothing but a little thing.” His words still make her flinch and bring up a knot of bile into her throat, which she swallows. She had never told. She had simply put the trauma away and enclosed herself. What would be the point of her disclosure now, so many years removed? She imagines herself weakened from the release. Descending as she does from beleaguered stoics, it is not within her upbringing to fall apart in front of strangers. She is given a hug, which she accepts with the guarded but aching gratitude of a love-starved orphan. She learns a fact—she has been the victim of sexual battery. Somehow, this terminology validates her suffering. She clings defensively to this evocative load-bearing phrase. She learns another fact—she has survived the violation.

*

At the Biological Sciences Library, she dutifully tells her co-workers about the assault. She imagines a sisterhood among these women. Akiko, the Librarian’s Assistant, covers her mouth and giggles. Recognizing her F.O.B. faux pas, Akiko offers her a Skittle from a large twist-tied bag hidden inside her desk drawer as a kind of apology. She refers to the colorful pellets as her “drugs” and cheerfully maligns her “addiction.” More one-sided laughter ensues. Annie, the older and wiser librarian, thinks twice before using the freight elevator in the afternoon. This marks the extent of their concern.

*

The New U publishes a front page article about a rash of recent peeping tom incidents. Death Metal Chris hands her the newspaper. Several sorority girls reported being watched while taking showers at the gym and in their dorms. In each sequential account, the pervert seemed to observe from a closer, more obvious vantage point. Pausing here, she understands that he had been working up his nerve to act, that his desire for potency was not sated by their screams but through quiet suffering. She reads the description of his height, weight, coloring and age. She thinks: No kidding! With her cigarette, she carefully burns out the eyes in the expertly rendered sketch of his nondescript yet menacing middle-aged face. She laughs wickedly at her creation. Chris casts her a scathing look, making her feel as though she has gone too far. In her gut, she knows the truth—it is not nearly far enough.

*

With an air of defiant detachment, she begins to meet Nick for coffee. Together, they ignore the obtrusive stares that turn their flirtatious rendezvous into an act of licentiousness. She revels in her rebellion, smoking more than ever and feeling herself expand under such caustic scrutiny. Jacques watches from a distance and glares at her with the intense and misplaced hostility of a jilted lover. She avoids him and is grateful to be free of his constant presence at her side, elated to so thoroughly nix his delusions of “basically being a couple.” Later, Jacques comes to campus with a large black tattoo of the female gender symbol emblazoned upon his forearm. He explains, “I am into women.” He repeats, “I like women.” She feels strongly that the opposite is true.

*

On the last day of school, Jacques sits with his nemesis at the cafe. She spots them from a distance and intuits with a sigh the rising tension between their bodies. Jacques speaks, wagging his forefinger and bouncing in his seat. Nick looks resentful, chastised, and struggles to shrug it all off amiably. Reversing her direction, her mind races at the thought of them discussing her. She admonishes herself to accept the outcome, to carry on without pique or venom. Her pace slowed by disappointment, she feels a hand upon her elbow. Nick stands before her, a blond disheveled god in dirty faded denim. He smiles, quickly mentioning his car troubles and asks for a favor—a ride to his house in Laguna Beach. She smiles back and is happy to comply.

*

He lives high up in the hills with his bandmates in a damp two-story tree house overlooking the canyon. Inside, the furnishings are beige, second-hand sparse with cigarette burns. No one is home. He gives her the grand tour and in his bedroom, she gives herself over to their purpose. After two years of celibacy, it is satisfying to fuck. He is selfish and spoiled in the sack, but she has never known anything else. What strikes her is the novelty of wanting him physically, of being aroused by his baseness and simplicity. She feels for the first time that she is in control.

*

He effectively erases the pervert’s touch.

*

Nick introduces her to his coterie of self-styled sophisticates. First, there is Mitch, who wears severed sleeves as headbands to keep his blond dreads in place. He refers to her as “the Buddha-babe” and tells her not to be offended. When he invites her into their rehearsal space, it is considered to be a good sign. Next is the more transient than hippie English couple, whose names she forgets immediately. They volunteer to score heroin in Santa Ana on a regular basis. Everyone is so grateful; they ignore that the bags look tampered with. Finally, there is Andreas, a wealthy European playboy who wears crested blazers and holds himself aloof. Unlike the others, he has a true talent for the piano and must decide if he will go to Juilliard in the fall. He frequently kisses her on the cheek, on the neck, and jokes that he would like a turn with her when Nick and she are through. She blanks her face so no one can read her. She is not surprised—their songs are derivative of the tritest kind of pop.

*

Summer is whiled away in a euphoric hot knife haze. It is the glue, until it isn’t.

*

In the winter, Nick’s parents buy him a condo located a few blocks from the university. She moves in and begins to clean on a somewhat regular basis. He parties without respite, ogling a buxom neighbor woman and watching Married… with Children. She learns to cook. They forget to eat. At his insistence, she drives him up to L.A. to hear Julianna Hatfield whine about her sister. Using his college radio connections to get backstage, he acts too young for his newly acquired girth, matching the singer’s mousy punk sweetness with his Aryan boy scout charm. It’s embarrassing—how badly he wants to defile little Julianna. 

*

On a whim, he buys a Ruger revolver; she buys a Glock 19 semi-automatic. They immerse themselves in gun culture, basking in their own audacity and cleverness as freaks. For her, shooting begins as a novelty that ends in self-reproach. She is a terrible shot, lacking as she is in upper body strength. This does not play well with her feminist ideals, the right for women to bear arms and protect themselves from perverts. The .22 is the only caliber she can handle with any accuracy but Nick fails to notice. He is seldom sober, bursting into song at the range, slurring the words he knows before retreating into silence. On his boombox, Pavement provides the soundtrack to his insular musings.

*

They stay up for three rainy days in March with members of the Misery Loves Company dance troupe. As a collective, they end up at a party in Middle Earth graduate housing. It is a dull, cramped affair. She knows no one and notices at dawn that she is the only woman left. With her arms and legs crossed, her torso folded over, she wants to disappear when Japanese pornography appears on the television. Staged outtakes of school girls plucked from dirt roads by brazen-faced men in chauffeured American cars. Nick startles at the sight of a perfect half-moon ass. It becomes clear to her that he does not comprehend. The inherent coercion. The silenced fear. The repetitious, workaday rape. Her ears begin to ring. The owner of the video wonders out loud, “I can’t tell. Are they into it or not?” She sighs. She clarifies: No. This one is not. No. This one is. Yes. This one is not…. But no one is listening.

*

Their summer nights are tedious. For the first time, she critically registers Nick’s gelatinous middle and finds it to be more off-putting than endearing. She rejects him sexually, no longer needing this short burst of undivided attention. She finds herself repelled by his yeasty odors, his sweaty bloated face. Why this sudden shift, she wonders, but she pushes him away with certainty. Without hesitation, he uses his strength and girth against her, making her gasp in disbelief. Her pragmatic inner voice makes her cringe even as she listens: Just get through it. It never takes long. He belches into her hair and passes out cold before coming. She weeps. She curses and struggles for many minutes to get out from under his prodigious weight. She spends herself pounding at his larded back, wanting to sever his spine. Exhausted, she pants, until eventually, she too begins to dream… 

…She looks younger than she had anticipated. Abstracted and pensive but still appealing, in a guarded inimical way. She understands herself to be temporary; her body, ephemeral. She embraces this truth and remains a passive watcher to her own experiences, which accumulate, lying dormant inside her organs. And when she pauses to think, it frightens her, what lies hidden deep within her marrow.

*

Before she leaves, she writes Nick a note—It’s not me, it’s you.

*

On her way to work, she sips black coffee while walking through the park. She follows Ring Road, stopping occasionally to observe the expansive green-on-green tableau—eucalyptus, ficus, sycamore, and oak. It is windy and cold for September as freshmen scurry across the grass to their classes. In the distance, she recognizes Chris in his death metal regalia and grins like a lunatic until she notices the new Slayer t-shirt, designer ripped jeans, and pristine motorcycle boots. A wannabe, an expensive approximation of the original. In fact, Chris graduated with her a year ago, somehow moving on with his life, leaving her behind. None of her core group remain and it dawns on her that she and Nick had been the older “married” couple, playing house and still working at the university. Halting mid-stride, she quickly does the math. She has spent sixteen months giving herself the finger. It takes minutes to exhume—she is angry. Bitter. Sick.

*

It is midnight at the library and she has called campus security for an escort. A milky white fog shrouds her view of the courtyard and the park beyond. For an indeterminate length of time, she is absorbed by its passive progression, a silent and nebulous beast. Yawning, she switches off the gooseneck desk lamp and throws Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer into the trash.  Her shift has passed in quiet solitude, a lonely vigil. She sits and waits and attends to her heart. It fibrillates and flutters, a faulty piece of machinery. She inhales deeply, and monitors her breath. In… and then out…. In… and then out…. But nothing can keep her from wanting to bolt. Campus security has never been this late before and she wonders: What’s the worst that can happen? Optimism rides through her veins. She anticipates eating a cheese quesadilla and watching M*A*S*H reruns before bed. Standing up, she decides that she is done marking time. She puts on her peacoat, takes one last look at the dusty collection of bound periodicals, and locks up.

*

Outside, she walks confidently into the cloud and is subsumed by its bleached out, unknowable expanse. Saturated air dampens her measured enthusiasm. Lost and without her bearings, she laughs out loud at her own absurdity. Dropping her bag to the ground, she lights a cigarette and pulls hard on the filter, taking into her lungs a smoldering breath. She exhales a plume of smoke that intensifies and complicates the haze in which she stands. Crushing the butt underfoot, she corrects herself: Optimism is an opiate that makes her obtuse. Hurling her lighter into the fog, she listens for it to make a sound upon impact. She recites her mantra: You stupid shit. You dumb fuck.

 


Susie Hu has spent most of her life behind the Orange Curtain but recently studied with Richard Bausch in the Chapman Community Writer’s Workshop and feels a little better about being an OC local. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and hopes to make her Brooklyn College MFA useful. This is her first time being published.

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