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Mara is a Georgetown sophomore like I am. She’s from a small town near Kittery, Maine, and I happily suspect Catholicism in her family when she tells me that she has four sisters back home.
I start showing up at her row house each afternoon. One day we sit on the couch and listen to an album by Joan Armatrading (whom Mara worships). Mara taps the scabs on my jaw.
“Where’d you get those?”
“Knife fight,” I say.
She rolls her eyes.
“Lightsaber fight,” I say.
“Come on …”
“One night last summer I broke into someone’s mansion.
“There was a guard dog Doberman and he lunged at my face. He was out for blood.”
She laughs her murmuring laugh and I want it never to stop. Her laugh makes me gutsy. It short-circuits my shyness.
“And who lived in this mansion?” says Mara.
“A girl.” I bump her knee with mine. “This amazing girl I just had to get to.”
She’s sharing her row house with five girlfriends. It feels like back home.
On an October Saturday, Mara and her housemates throw a party. I arrive in my poncho. There are sixty revelers crowded into a living room meant for twenty. The Housemartins blare from the stereo, and Mara and some others teach me the drinking game Zoom Schwartz Profigliano. It’s a weird blast of a game, where keeping or breaking eye contact with people makes you drink or not drink … but mostly drink. Mara matches me shot for shot with the Jose Cuervo and by midnight, she and I are plastered and making out in the kitchen.
“Hold up a second,” she says.
Leaning back against the counter, she removes her T-shirt and bra and stands topless before me. There are foodstuffs on the counter behind her, so what I see from left to right is: jar of flour, jar of sugar, Mara’s naked breast, Mara’s other naked breast, bottle of olive oil, box of Froot Loops.
Are you my wife? I think, looking at Mara. Are you?
She murmurs her laugh and we kiss again. Minutes later we’ve abandoned the party and we’re in her upstairs bedroom. We climb onto the upper level of her bunk bed and fool around, holding things at third base. But a week later, on a night after a black-tie ball, she and I are naked in my Copley dorm room bed. I lie on top of her and keep my face buried in her neck as my body finds its way inside hers.
She grips me close. I crush my hips into hers and kiss her neck and come seconds later. We roll away from each other, both panting slightly.
“Okay,” she says. “Okay.” She has her back to me.
I wonder whether she was a virgin, too. The waterfall length of her hair fascinates me and I pet it. When it falls to one side, I see a scar at the back base of her neck. The scar has three small bands of raised skin like ridges on a washboard. I run my fingers over these ridges and try to make a joke.
“Help,” I make my fingers say out loud. “I’m a ship caught in these river rapids. Somebody help.”
Mara doesn’t laugh.
“I’m sorry,” I whisper, removing my hand. “What gave you that scar?”
“I don’t know you well enough to tell you yet.”
I go into my bathroom and sit trembling on the toilet.
Wait, I think. What? We can fuck, but I can’t ask about scars? Not fair!
I’m confused, flushed drunk with longing for her, and afraid. I decide that intercourse with her was a one-time thing, a mistake, a sin that will never happen again.
I don’t see her for four days, but I think of her constantly. On the fourth night, I go drinking with Mason at an underground pub, The Tombs. We have good fake ID.
“You gonna visit her on the way home?” Mason asks.
“Dude, you know you want to see her.”
I drain my mug of Rolling Rock. David, I think, you’re on a path toward solitude, toward God. You don’t need distraction from that.
Mason laughs. “You’re totally going to her place.”
“Fuck off, Mace.”
We split a pitcher of Sam Adams and then it’s two in the morning, and I’m weaving alone down the O Street sidewalk, or sidewalks, since there appear to be three of them. When I get to Mara’s row house, her front door has been blown open by wind, which she told me happens sometimes. I chivalrously step inside and close the door behind me, because what if some drunk guy saw it open and just wandered in?
“Hello?” I call.
There’s no answer, and this saddens me. I miss Mara. I have to tell her something vital, though I can’t recall what. When I crawl into bed with her, I’ll remember.
I fumble up the stairs and pause on the landing. There’s one bedroom on the left, another on the right. I enter the latter, knowing that the top bunk in the far right corner holds Mara. I stand squinting in the dark at her bed, trying to make out her shape or the shape of her stuffed-animal toucan, Gabriel Puffalump. Her upper bunk looks higher than it did when we hooked up in it last week.
I cross the room and start climbing up to her. There are dresses and clothes hangers in my way as I climb, and I swat them aside. The hangers clatter.
A female voice gasps in the dark below. “Oh my God, who’s there?”
I arrive on Mara’s bunk. She’s not there and neither is Gabriel Puffalump. Instead there are textbooks and women’s hats. In a rush I throw these off the bunk, worried that Mara is trapped beneath them. The textbooks slap the floor below.
“What the fuck?” cries the same female voice. The voice isn’t Mara’s. “Who’s there? What the fuck!”
“Where’s Mara?” I finish clearing books off and lie down and close my eyes. The bunk feels hard, like a plain wooden slat, and it’s thinner across than I remember, and there’s no mattress, no blankets, no comfort.
“Mara,” I wail.
“Wait … Dave?!” The female voice turns accusatory. “Dave Schickler?”
“Mara’s not here,” I moan.
“Of course she isn’t! You’re on the top shelf of my closet, you fucking idiot!”
The slat gives way under me. I fall through clothes hangers and hit the floor. Lights come on. I’m at the feet of Mara’s housemate Melanie. She’s standing in a long green nightshirt with her hands on her hips. There are textbooks and hats everywhere.
“You’re in the wrong room. And you just scaled my closet. Are you on drugs?”
Mara comes in from the hall, from the direction of her bedroom, the one I thought I’d entered. She looks sleepy and beautiful.
My back is killing me. Mara lets me pass out in her bunk beside her.
The next day Melanie tells the whole campus about my closet climbing and I get mercilessly mocked. I vow to straighten up and fly right and be the kind of college student my father was. I try to put Mara from my mind, to crack down and study.
As a School of Foreign Service student, I’m learning German and taking required classes in diplomacy and economics. But these classes bore me. The only class jazzing me is sophomore honors English. We’re reading King Lear, which I love.
It’s elemental and urgent. When I read about Lear sprinting out alone into a dark wilderness to face the truth there, it feels like a sign.
So I start going to Father Prince’s late Masses again. Each of his sermons is like a pail of cold water to my face. One night he talks about a time in his past during which he felt very self-satisfied.
“My classes and Masses were standing-room-only,” he gasps. “Students hung on my words. They’d begun to see me as blessed and prophetic. And I’d begun to agree with them.”
All of us in the pews laugh.
“Then one night I had a dream. I was teaching a class when the door blew open. Through the door I could see an immense darkness that all but poured into the room. I stopped teaching and stared into it, afraid.”
None of us is laughing now.
“From out of the dark I heard a booming voice. Like a trumpet blast and a growl all at once. It said, ‘Michael Prince … Michael Prince … The Bottom would like a word with you.’ ”
The flesh on my arms prickles.
“That voice was God’s, I’m certain of it,” says the priest. “He was calling me out on my pride, urging me back to humility. But He was also revealing a frightening name for Himself. The Bottom. The Bottom.”
This sermon hijacks my heart. I go about thinking of it nonstop. I know in my gut that the darkness that spoke to Father Prince was my darkness, the darkness of the path. And I know that the darkness, the Bottom, wants a word with me, too. God wants me to join a seminary, to pull a wild King Lear–like move and take Holy Orders.
I want to talk about this with Father Prince, but I’m scared to. I pace around on Copley Lawn one night, scuffing through fallen yellow leaves. Mason finds me.
“Hey, fuckface. What’re you stressing out about tonight?” I don’t answer. I’ve never told him about the Priesthood Ache, but he’s practically a mind reader.
“Schick, we’ve both got to go study abroad next year. Especially you.”
“Why especially me?”
“So we can get you away from these goddamn Jesuits. Enough of this Catholic bullshit. You really believe that you’re eating God’s body during Communion?”
I say that I think so. I say that it might be a mystical body, but it’s real.
“Then you know what that makes you, Schick? A motherfucking cannibal!” Mason brays his wild laugh, but he’s not kidding. “If this Catholic crap is so important, how come you’re screwing Mara every other minute? Not that you shouldn’t be.”
I have no answer. I’m guilty as charged. Mara and I can’t stay away from each other. We meet each night in the library. When we get hungry we quit studying and walk to a nearby deli to buy pasta and Paul Newman’s red sauce and we go back to her row house and eat.
Afterward in her bunk bed we ravage each other. There’s no moan that she makes that I don’t carry down inside me. I’m falling for everything about her. After sex we lie naked, listening to music.
One night she puts on The Alarm’s “Walk Forever by My Side.”
“Really listen.” She pets my face. “It’s my favorite song.”
I have my head resting on her abdomen, by her ribs. There’s a scent to her skin here that I can’t get enough of, a smell that’s floral and lightly spicy. I want no man ever to have smelled it before me, just like I want Mara not to be agnostic, which she has said that she is.
“Why’s it your favorite song?”
“It got me through a hard time.”
“What hard time?”
She just goes on stroking my jawline.
“Where are you spending Thanksgiving?” I ask.
“Shhh. Just listen.”
I can’t see her face. There’s nothing in the darkness but her body and mine and the warm white sheets. Her hair crackles with static electricity when I touch it. I graze my fingers over the back of her neck now, feeling her river-rapids scar. She still hasn’t said how she got it.
“I love you,” I say suddenly.
Her fingertips stop on my face.
“I love you, Mara. Please don’t be mad that I’m saying it. I can’t help it. I’m in love with you.”
I get my head beside hers on the pillow and look at her. She gazes back with panic in her eyes and each second that she doesn’t say it back to me is torture.
“David, please. I’m not ready for … just listen to the song.”
* * *
Parents’ Weekend arrives in November. My parents drive down from Rochester. I stand at the campus gates on a Friday, waiting. When their maroon Buick pulls onto 37th Street, I see my mother’s face through the windshield and she sees me and I imagine that she just knows.
“Jack!” I hear her cry. “Look at him! Oh God, I can see it … He’s fucked somebody! Noooooo!!”
Of course she’s really just smiling at me and waving as my father parks along the curb. I wave back.
As far as my parents know, Mara is just someone I’ve taken out a few times. Telling my mother what I’ve done with Mara would make my face explode. But looking through the windshield at my father, I want to tell him the truth. I’ve never kept crucial things from him. I’ve always felt like it would be unmanly, and maybe I feel that way because he’s the strongest, most manly person I know. And the strongest thing about him is his love for my mom.
It is storybook strong, their love. Growing up, I saw it each night when my father got home from work. After removing his coat he would pull my mother to him. Closing his eyes he’d hold her tight and groan, sometimes for minutes, and I could hear in those groans his letting go of the world, of everything outside him and her. He occasionally threw in hammy growls to make us kids laugh if we were watching, but I knew that those groans came from his soul, and that those embraces recharged him.
That’s marriage, I thought, watching. If I ever have a wife, that’s what I’ll have.
Now as I stand at the gates and watch my parents walk toward me, I’m wondering, Will I groan like that for you, Mara? Will you Walk Forever by My Side?
I take my parents to my dorm room. While my mother gets on the phone to make us dinner reservations, I play for my father the Joan Armatrading song “The Weakness in Me.” It’s on a mix Mara made me and I’m trying to drop hints to my father about the new path my romantic life has taken, a path full of, if not weakness, then helplessness on my part.
“It’s a powerful ballad, huh, Dad? She’s having a hard time choosing whether to take a certain lover.”
My father looks confused. “Who is having a hard time?”
“The speaker of the song,” I say.
“Why do you call the speaker ‘she’?”
“I guess because Joan Armatrading is a woman.”
He frowns. “Who is Joan Armatrading?”
“The woman singing the song.”
“I think you mean John Armatrading.”
“Um, her name is Joan,” I say. “This is on a mix tape, so I can’t show you her picture on the album, but—”
“That is a man singing,” my father says.
“She has a deep voice,” I say, “but she’s definitely—”
“David.” My father uses his end-of-discussion tone. “That. Is a man. Singing.”
Hints are not working.
So I decide to tell my father the flat-out truth about Mara and me. I wait till I’m home in Rochester for Thanksgiving. One night when he and I are in the house alone, I go into the living room where he’s watching television. I turn off the TV and face him. My palms are shaking.
He’s lying on the couch, but when he sees my expression, he sits up. “David, what’s wrong?”
“Dad.” I swallow. “Dad …” I stop talking. It seems like enough that I’ve affirmed who he is in relation to me.
“David, for God’s sake, what?”
“I’ve been sleeping with Mara. Having sex with her.”
He looks surprised and mad and worried for me all at once, the way he did the night I barreled his Pontiac into a telephone pole. “David, we’re Catholic! Catholics stay chaste until they’re married!”
“I … I know that, I just—”
“Oh, son, we’ve got to get you to a priest.”
I want to talk to you, I think.
“You need absolution.”
I look at his feet, three sizes bigger than mine. He wants to send me off to a rote sacrament, but I want to explain about Mara, and her laugh, and the smell of the skin over her ribs.
“All right, Dad,” I agree.
I go to confession that weekend and receive absolution from Father Harris, a priest our family knows. He’s short and quiet and known for having a gift of healing, and I ask him why people shouldn’t have intercourse before marriage. Father Harris blinks his peaceful eyes. He’s pissing me off because he lives on some island of calm thousands of miles away from me and the rest of us.
“Because it is not God’s will for us,” he says.
I nod vaguely, thinking of Mara’s slender thighs, planning the kisses that I’ll give those thighs soon.
“All right, Father,” I say.
I get back to Georgetown two nights later. There’s a welcome-back card from Mara taped to the outside of my dorm room door. I rip the envelope off and open the card to read a sentence written in Mara’s cursive, a sentence that I hoped for during all the dance recitals and water ballet concerts I ever attended.
I love you, David.
I shout out loud and sprint to Mara’s row house two blocks away. When I come clattering through the door, she’s standing there, waiting for me.
“You wrote I love you.” I’m still panting.
She blushes. “It took me forever to write that down.”
“You love me?”
She nods. I start toward her, but she holds up a hand to stop me. “It was cancer.”
“What was cancer?”
“I had leukemia at the end of high school. I didn’t know it for a while, but then I started passing out everywhere. One time I blacked out at school and fell down some stairs and cut the back of my neck open, and that’s how I got my scar. When I went to the hospital for stitches, they ran tests and found the cancer.” She is blurting all this out quietly, quickly. “And I couldn’t tell you where I was going for Thanksgiving because I went to the town I grew up in back in New Hampshire to be in a protest and I didn’t know how you’d feel about that. Our house back then was by a toxic waste site — none of our parents knew what it was — and lots of neighborhood kids got sick. Then it happened to me. So I went with my mom and sisters over Thanksgiving, because we think that’s where my leukemia came from and we want that place shut down. We did a picket protest and got on the news. And I’m sorry it took me so long to say I love you, and I’m sorry if my rapids scar is gross for you to have to see. I’m sorry if touching it is … is gross.”
I’m frozen in place with panic. “It’s gone?” I’m pleading more than asking. “The cancer, it’ s —”
“It’s in remission,” she says.
I should’ve been there. I should’ve been there in the hospital with her, and at the protest. It cuts me like shattered glass in my stomach that I wasn’t there.
“If you ever say that you’re gross again …” I’m unable to finish the threat. “I love you,” she says.
I say that I love her. Then she kisses me and we go up to her room.