He’s unpacking from his beaten up Audi, removing boxes labeled ELECTRONICS and HARDWARE in scratchy marker pen. I light a cigarette and with a dull flicker of detached boredom I study his appalling taste in clothes, his pale blue eyes, his strawberry blond hair. If he’s representative of the student demographic here then I’ve picked the wrong college.
Later, in the doorway of my box-shaped room, he reappears. My music is distracting him from reading, he says in a clipped tone. The book of Ecclesiastes, he adds. His sinuses sound blocked, like an invisible force is pinching his nostrils. I shrug and offer to turn it down.
“Want to come to a Christian meet and greet later? Expect hot cocoa and even hotter discussions!”
“Not really my thing.” I glance up and see he’s grinning. “Wait, you were kidding?”
My laugh echoes down the tinny, bleach-drenched hallway.
“Warren. And I thought I was the only one with that view.”
I turn and stare at the window decorated in bird shit.
“Yes, it’s really quite something.”
I cycle across campus in the rain. My long scarf trails to the ground, it grows sodden and streaked with mud. After class I sit in cafes. Darkness approaches quickly, the winter sun setting increasingly early, and I move from cappuccinos to wine. An uneasy malaise sets in, a sinking sense of dread. I’m procrastinating, waiting for the adrenaline of a deadline before I attempt an essay. My flaws seem more apparent at college, as though a mirror follows me, fascinated by my ennui, by how slovenly I can be when left to my own devices.
Maybe he was bulled in school. He would be an easy playground target, I decide. He wears short jeans that flap at the ankles and mustard yellow Dr. Martens. His small silver-framed glasses, grossly unfashionable, give him the air of an aspiring accountant. A shopping spree proves futile. Warren’s inherently nerdy aura clings stubbornly. A lime green fleece can’t be shaken off as easily as I imagined.
In this competitive petri dish environment, this small bubble that bows sycophantically to academia, Warren is in his element. He lives in a world of superlatives: the smartest, the wittiest, the best. While others drink and make regrettable hook up decisions he reads beneath the steady buzz of fluorescent lights. He studies until a lady with gray hair tied carefully into a neat bun taps his shoulder, telling him the library is closing and he packs his books reluctantly. He majors in biology. After this he’ll attend medical school, then complete his residency. He’ll marry another doctor and they’ll have adorably geeky kids, he tells me in a rare moment of intimacy.
“What made you choose this detergent?” he asks.
“It’s on offer.”
“I saw a commercial for it?”
“When you pop a pill for a headache listed side effects might include dizziness or shortness of breath, but companies never list what it could induce you to do. You might be more prone to buying products of a certain dimension or color. My point is…”
“We’re becoming robots?”
“We, and by we I mean society, are being nudged into pre-programmed decisions.”
I pour myself another glass of wine and yawn. Warren points out my teeth are crimson-tinged but he knows a product that can fix that.
“And the listed side effect?”
“Complete lack of bladder control and an overwhelming desire to sleep with me.”
“My memory is the worst,” I moan after leaving my gym bag in lectures.
“It’s a muscle. You can train it to do anything.”
Later I’m writing about the influence of Chaucer on contemporary literature. I’m sitting cross-legged, surrounded by low-hanging clouds of smoke. Cigarette stubs lie idly in coffee mugs. Clumps of hair are nestled in my hairbrush, collecting like mothballs for months. Warren bursts in. His nose wrinkles in distaste. His dorm is immaculate, clothes and groceries piled in neat stacks in their assigned spaces.
“I can improve your memory.”
His Dr. Martens step into view. Reports about geriatrics cured of senile dementia drop into my lap. I want to hit him. Instead I throw a cigarette stub. He shrieks and runs out.
“It’s not fair.”
Warren has been given a bad grade. He speaks of the injustice, how little his professor knows. Expletives escape his lips in rapid succession.
“Welcome to the club,” I respond without sympathy. “For once you understand mediocrity.”
Dr. Almássy moved to America when he was three. His parents are Hungarian. He returns to his country of birth for weddings and Christenings of distant family members and has the odd sensation of an animal that’s escaped a zoo and should be returned immediately. His relief, at cloud height, when he peers down at Logan International Airport is palpable. He is an introvert, happiest in his lab peering through a microscope. He forces himself into a gregarious mood when social situations require it with a painful awareness of acting. He enjoys hiking. He makes a mean pavlova. He lives with his partner, Gregory.
A bath is running. He’s listening to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Dr. Almássy answers the door in a crisp white towel. A glass of wine rests in his left hand, the first of the evening. His small frame is pushed with a brute force he’s unprepared for. The Malbec goes flying. It sprays the living room wall and police initially mistake these marks for blood. Glass shatters on the floor, the same parquet hardwood floor his head is slammed against repeatedly. He thinks vaguely of Gregory, upstate for his niece’s first piano recital. Right now Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.14 in C-sharp minor is being performed by the adorably inexpert, uneven fingers of a seven year old. As he loses consciousness he is injected with taurine and glucuronolactone, chemicals mentioned in a paper he graded last week.
Gregory visits. He says the same as others: I should return to college, I shouldn’t this ruin my career prospects. It is magnanimous of him to care. I explain I have carved out a new life. I cover human-interest stories for a local paper, a cat caught up a tree on a bad day, the opening of a hospital wing on a better one. I write menial things that bored housewives read, chirpy stories that little old ladies dressed in too much maroon discuss as they wait for their hyperactive grandchildren to arrive. The questionable highlight of my day is when Terry, an unattractive man working at the local grocery store, makes jokes that might be considered flirting.
Gregory and I have never met before. We have read about each other in articles, many articles. The media leapt on this story; broadcasts, nationals, newswires, the coverage was overwhelming, ubiquitous. Warren was found sobbing three blocks away from Dr. Almássy’s apartment, his car motionless despite a green light. He confessed immediately. His lawyer pleaded mental illness but it proved unnecessary. Warren committed suicide before the trial began.
Gregory stares at me pleadingly, as though I can turn the insanity of this situation into something neat, digestible. I think about Warren’s view that certain consumer products are tainted to influence our purchasing decisions. Was that conversation a clear sign he was deranged?
“There was the time I saw some porn poking out from beneath his bed. It was a surprise. He seemed too intelligent to drool over photos of big-breasted blonds sucking dick.”
It was the wrong thing to say. I should articulate something meaningful or reassuring, or nothing at all. We sit in silence. I study my hands.
“I never saw it coming. I’m sorry. I didn’t.”
“It’s okay,” he says finally. “I don’t know what I was hoping for by tracking you down.”
I turn the heating on. The sun, if anywhere, feels very far away. We stare at each, beyond grief, beyond comprehension in the gathering dusk, and then wordlessly he stands up and walks away.
BIO: Hannah Sloane lives in New York and is currently at work on her first novel. More of her writing can be found at www.hannahsloanewrites.com