He walked along the row of seats, putting his hands on people’s shoulders and whispering in people’s ears. He’s just doing that so he can whisper in mine. It made me feel better to think this. I was the end of the row. He stopped, and put his hands on either side of my neck and began to rub. Then he leaned in and whispered, “I know you’re mad.”
“Why didn’t you come?”
He paused his massaging. “Something came up.”
I hosted a party for my fellow January Freshmen, the people who started St John’s in my cohort our Freshman Year. He didn’t show up. I actually called him, almost drunk, to ask him why that night. I don’t remember what his response was. Maybe he didn’t come because he didn’t want to lead me on. Either way, it was unacceptable to me.
I was sitting sipping the second half of a sweet, mild, watery margarita, my dress feeling too short even though it covered my knees. It was silky-satiny black, and was too large for me. He came over, his long legs moving like a cowboy in a movie’s. I half expected the jingling of spurs, for him to throw down a cowboy hat. He was too straight-laced to wear cowboy clothing, though I knew he liked Westerns. He sat down next to me, and then, before I knew what was happening, grabbed my chair and yanked it over so that our legs were touching.
“What came up?”
He turned his head toward me without looking at me, gazing at the long table and the people talking in the chairs. “I was walking someone home.”
Again, the pause, but this time shorter. He looked directly at me, bending down and talking softly like I was three and he was cleaning up a booboo on my foot. “Are you sure you want to know?” His tone had all the gentleness of someone trying to sound kind but not caring if he really was.
The words rang around in my head as though he’d shouted them in my ear while I was sleeping.
He told me the girl’s name. She wasn’t someone I had anything against, but I had long suspected they might hook up. She was into knitting and farming and worked for Buildings and Grounds. She was what you might call bad-ass. She was also beautiful in a very unconventional way, and her waist was thinner than mine, even though my sister assured me I definitely had a waist now. Not enough of one, apparently. This girl won first place for poetry in our school’s contest. My poem was in the literary magazine, but it didn’t win an award. Shaking, I stood up and yelled, “Where’s Riley? He was flirting with me the other night.” Riley was the only person who shared all my classes, was intelligent and, though bald, he exercised a lot and was quite attractive. There was a crack in my voice, like a dry sob, but there were no tears in sight. I said the Riley thing to make that man jealous, not so I Riley would hear me.
Riley, it turned out, was behind me. “Hi Alma,” he said.
Oh no. Oh no. “Hi Riley. Uh.”
Jill, who lived with my cowboy friend, hugged me and said, “He’s not dating her. They’re not a thing.” She had, however, reassured me that he didn’t like me about 4000 times that year. I still went back and checked, with Jill, with him, with others, with God, and the best answer I ever got was that he didn’t like me. It seemed to be the truth. The uglier truth was that I didn’t myself, either.