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Graduating to what?
By Nick Mancuso
The hour after commencement, Max was uneasy about the quiet on campus. Not long after the caravan of families drove away from the flapping white tent, the quad felt like a long abandoned battlefield. The shells of the destroyed city remained, but the people were long gone. A low breeze blew through the detritus of streamers and glitter in the parking lot.
The ceremony affected Max more than he’d like to admit. Even still, a little drunk and a little groggy, he knew. Crossing the stage, shaking the Provost’s hand was, to use a cliché from the very commencement address he had just sat through; “the ending of one chapter, and the opening of the next.” But what was that next chapter? Most of his friends enrolled in complicated internships in Boston and New York, or traveled abroad for service learning projects, or to graduate school. Max felt he was different. He was heading home, back to Massachusetts, to, for the first time in his life, the unknown. Embracing this foreign world in the confines of his childhood bedroom was foreign to him, the known truly becoming the unknown.
Hungover and alone, Max found himself at the door of his townhouse dorm where he lived for senior year. He left his parents in the parking lot so he could make one last pass for forgotten items. The willow tree outside the house in the green courtyard swayed in the breeze, and under the awning of the entrance, his sunglasses provided relief from the bleating sun.
His armpits were damp under the black plastic graduation robe, and his hairline was wet with sweat and itchy. He pulled the cap off his head and jammed it under his arm, pushing the plastic tablecloth-material further into the developing swamp of his underarm. In the shade of the awning, he put his sunglasses on his head, and stared at the forest green aluminum door. It had large white letters battered, faded from the elements.
He turned the handle and found it unlocked. He pushed into the house, the sound of the wind in the leaves outside rushing against the screen. Summer was at the window. The cinder block walls looked bare without the posters and decor of the past year. Though he and his friends had only lived there from September through May, the townhouse had come to feel like home. He rubbed his finger along the burned arrow on the coffee table from when Kevin left the hot iron face-down three months ago, nervous before his interview at Fidelity.
Even the furniture looked sparse and abandoned, left in skewed spots, the indents in the hard carpet from where the feet once crushed the fibers. A breeze cut through the house from the open door, and Max heard the back door slam. He stepped around the kitchen to see Stephanie standing at the back door, her bare feet sticking out from under her black graduation robe. A pair of black high heels dangled precariously from her fingers.
“I thought you might be here,” she said with a smile. She moved her round black sunglasses onto her head, revealing her big brown eyes set on either side of her freckled little nose. He was happy to see her. Even in the plastic robe, she looked good. Play it cool, he reminded himself.
“What are you doing here?” He asked, his hand on the sheet rock of the kitchen wall. The wall was cool in the summer heat. He tossed his cap to the round wooden kitchen table with a secret prayer that it not slide off onto the floor. It obeyed.
“I was looking for you. I wanted to say goodbye.”
He remembered first meeting Stephanie at another townhouse much like this one during freshman year. When they met, it was dark, and thick sheets were hung over the windows to block the campus police officers from seeing in. Inside, lasers danced on the ceiling and speakers pounded bass into the tightly packed pulsating crowd. He and Kevin followed a group of older students down to the senior townhouses on a Saturday night, trying to look like they knew where they were going, trying to look like they were cool, anything other than freshmen. He felt brave by the three beers he’d drank before they left their room that first weekend. While unpacking with his new strange roommate, they’d found the six-pack of Rolling Rock Max’s Dad hid for him in his under-bed storage bin during the move in.
They followed staggering girls in high heels down the brick steps to where the seniors, those lucky entitled few, the purveyors of cool (and booze), lived. In that humid dark party, somebody pulled him into the dancing crowd. In the darkness, he could tell she had little sparkles on her cheeks that reflected the lights. He remembered thinking how tall she was, how she met his eye level, unlike the rest of the girls who all seemed so short and stumbled on their stilettos. He followed her lead and she put his hands on her hips, and fueled by the three beers, and the sheer heat that radiated off the crowd in the tight living room, he went along with it, loving it when she rubbed herself against him.
When the song ended, in the gap between the music he introduced himself as Max, and she introduced herself as Stephanie. He couldn’t say more before the pulse started up again and she started to move again in sync with the beat. He could feel hormones coursing through his eighteen-year-old veins, he wanted to touch her, he wanted to do something, anything. She turned around and danced close to him. He could smell her smell above the sweat and stench of beer. She smelled like vanilla, like sugar. He craved that smell. It was weird, he’d later think, craving something or someone he’d never had, but sometimes, he knew, these things were chemical, inexplicable.
He swayed with her, and when she put her arms up, he kissed her on her smooth lips. She instantly explored his mouth with her tongue, a step high school had taught Max came later on, but all of this was so new, so exciting, so illegal, so sexy.
After the party was dispersed by the campus police, they walked together back up the path to the freshman dorms, where he learned she too was a freshman. She was originally from California, she said, she was still new to New England. He suddenly found himself spouting interesting things (or so he thought) about New England, native son that he was. They stopped outside her hall, and she paused for a moment, her fingers resting on the door handle.
“Well, goodnight,” she said, illuminated by the orange glow from the floodlights above.
“Do I have to leave?” he asked. Her eyes went skyward before she looked away and bit her lip.
“I guess not. My roommate won’t be back for a while.”
He followed her upstairs.
In the darkness of her room, locking the door behind him, Steph clicked on a strand of Christmas lights draped around the edge of the ceiling. She took his hands and led him to her twin bed against one wall. She pulled her shirt off over her head revealing a black bra, and started to undo his pants. He awkwardly tugged his shirt off his head, and she pulled him down onto her, her hand slipping into his unbuttoned jeans. He was instantly electrified. That touch! The feeling of skin on skin was mesmerizing. He felt himself melt into her hand, onto her lips. He would do anything, would go along with anything. There, on that little bed lit by the tiny sparkling Christmas lights, Max did things he’d only seen on the Internet.
When all was over and they lay there on the mattress pad, he asked for her number, and she obliged. They shared numbers, the screens of their cell phones illuminating the darkness in blue LED light. Her face suddenly looked concerned in the aqua translucence.
“Oh, its two o’clock, you have to go,” she said, scooting off the bed and finding her discarded bra, clipping it back on.
“Okay,” Max said, going along with it, trying to hide his inexperience at this sort of thing.
“Kara will be back any second,” she said as he found his jeans and his shirt and pulled them on. She shuffled him out the door.
“This was fun, thanks!” she whispered into the silent hallway, and closed the door. The abrupt dismissal did anything but dampen his spirits that night as he skipped down the long hallway of the dorm and down the stairs. He was the man, the coolest, barely on campus three weeks and had already had sex with a girl, and a hot one at that. If this is what college was like, he was in for a great four years, he thought.
The events of that first night didn’t repeat for some time, and Max had begun to wonder where Steph was, what classes she took, and what her major was. The seasons turned and the green of campus gave way to the screaming colors of autumn in New England when three weeks later, he saw her again. It was nighttime, at another party, at a different townhouse. It was themed around the 1980’s, girls clad in spandex, leg warmers styled and frizzed their hair. None of the boys seemed to costume themselves, and Max was thankful that he hadn’t. He also noted that the music was definitely contemporary, and was convinced that this was really just an eighties-attire-for-girls party.
Once again, in the middle of the action, Steph was there again, her head visible above the crowd of other girls, her long arms moving in the darkness, her eyes closed. He wanted to dance with her again, and go back with her to her room again. When he got up to her, she seemed pleased to see him. They danced until he couldn’t take it anymore. Her body, his, the smell of her sweat, and it wasn’t long before he hissed in her ear, "Let’s get out of here.”
Again, upstairs in her room, more desperate this time because they knew what they wanted from each other, they tore at each other’s clothes. They groaned and sweated and moaned again. When it was over and Max was in the door, he felt a warm feeling at seeing Steph laying there.
"Do this again sometime?” he asked. She let out a little laugh.
“Whenever you want.”
He put his hand on the metal knob and for a moment, and wondered if he should turn back and kiss her goodnight, a long one like in the movies, but he turned the knob and stepped from the darkened room into the fluorescent hallway.
The third time they met up was just before winter break. They were in his room this time because his roommate had gone home for the weekend. Max fell asleep afterward, Steph's sweaty skin in his sweaty arms, her warm torso against his. Some time later, she moved and he woke up.
“Hey, can I talk to you about something?” she asked. He was barely awake, but even in the darkness, she looked concerned, her eyes wide. He sat up.
“What’s up?” he yawned.
“Listen, this is great and all…”
He braced himself. Here came the end. All these good times, all of this would be over soon. She was going to end things. He sucked in a breath behind his teeth.
“…but this is just sex, right? Like, like, no catching feelings, right?”
He brushed off the brief cloud of dread he felt. He could handle this, he thought.
“Yeah, what else would it be? This is just fun," Max said.
“Good. I just don’t want to ruin a good thing, you know?” she said and reached for a shirt on the floor. She seemed a little distracted, as if she was asking the question more to reassure herself than to set the rules for them.
“I should go," she said.
“Wait, but, don’t you want to stay for a little?” he asked as she zipped her skirt by the door. She shook her head.
“Oh Maximilian, no feelings, okay? I don’t want to ruin this.”
“It’s Maxwell,” he corrected with a smirk, but the door was already closed and she was gone.
He didn’t see her again for a long while. Sure, winter break was five weeks long, but even when they returned in January, he never saw her and began to worry if she’d transferred. The first weekend back, he texted her a few times to no avail. She had vanished. Two more weeks went by, and he had worried that she thought he had feelings, that she had run away because he had somehow indicated he did. He regretted asking her to stay, that had to have been it. Maybe she’d heard his heartbeat while they lay there. Maybe she’d read his mind when his brain buzzed with affection in the afterglow.
He ran into her again, at a frat party in the Greek townhouse. She seemed genuinely happy to see him again. He pretended like he hadn’t been thinking about her, like he hadn’t texted her. After the party, she invited him back upstairs again. As she clicked the lights off, he reminded himself to play it cool.
They continued on for a long time. Sometimes, it was every weekend, always at parties and going home together at the end of the night. Sometimes, it was both nights on each weekend. Sometimes it would be two weekends or three weekends before they met up again. He started seeing her in the hallways and on campus during the school week. Always they’d say hi and wave, or she’d go for a high five, two friends, never publicly presenting their passion. As his circle of friends stretched and widened, he needed her less and less. Soon they stopped meeting up at parties and made their own plans each night, and simply met up afterward to fuck.
They evaded Valentine's Day, and each other until the week was long over. They dodged the pink balloons and roses like a disease, like catching feelings. That expression of hers was remarkably apt, as if it were a communicable disease that one could get. Max didn’t find it hard to not develop feelings. They never spent time together outside of their trysts, and even then they barely spoke, other than the occasional whispers under the sheets. They shared no mutual friends.
He was so impressed with her ability to play it cool. She was cool about the whole thing. Occasionally he would feel a wave of post coital gratitude, and for a brief moment, feel like taking to some grand gesture, like kissing her hard on the mouth, but she was so detached, so chilled about the whole thing.
They stopped for a while in sophomore year for three months while she properly dated someone named Dan, and Max wondered why he felt so strange about it. He wondered if he was jealous of Dan, or if he was just upset that what they had was potentially over. Nevertheless, when they broke up, Max and Steph resumed their trysts. On their first reunited evening, Max noticed a renewed vigor, an increased passion. He didn’t hate it.
In junior year, he met Kaitlin in Marketing 386. She was pretty and funny, and after they went on proper dates, dinners off campus, and after their first intimacy, Max awkwardly texted Steph to explain. She wrote back that she understood, and wished them well. Max and Kaitlin spent all sorts of time together, and even still when running into Steph in the hallway, she’d still wave, or high-five him. Nothing seemed to have really changed.
Weeks in, Max was astonished to find he was growing attached to Kaitlin, liked her laugh, liked talking to her, liked doing all sorts of things with her, sex aside. She was smart and driven, and some nights while she snoozed, Max tried to absorb some of her ambitious aura, and siphon off a little of her "driven-ness." He wished he had the self-confidence she did, and Max allowed himself to feel what he did for her.
It should have come as no surprise to him, when Kaitlin tearfully announced she was graduating early and heading to law school in New York. She explained that long distance while he was still in school was a bad idea, and that she wanted him to explore and have fresh new experiences.
On the first weekend back to campus for senior year, his first weekend without Kaitlin in a year, he ran into Stephanie outside the townhouses, walking to her own, books held to her chest by crossed arms. They walked and talked and laughed. He explained that he and Kaitlin had broken up, and she nodded. Message received.
That Saturday night, and then every continuing Saturday for the rest of senior year, Max and Steph met up again for another night of sex. It became regular, planned even. His roommates came to know her a little bit. When Kevin would ask about the nature of their relationship, even Max would shrug.
“It’s just sex, man.”
They’d had sex for the last time the night before commencement. While campus partied just beyond their bedroom door, he could hear a silence inside. Max felt a finality to it. Even while their lips met in the darkness and their bodies moved to the motions they learned for each other, it felt like the end. When they lay in the gasping dark after, he wondered if he should say something. He wanted to say something, to ask to stay in touch, or thank her, but he knew how that would be received. He lay next to her while she slept, breathing in that smell, feeling her warm soft skin, or her hot breath on his chest.
Somewhere around 3:00 a.m., he couldn’t stop himself, and wrapped his arms around her while she slept. He kissed her hair. She sighed and stretched in her sleep and he pulled his arms back, guilty. He tried to avoid touching her for the rest of the night, and when the booze and sex burned off, Max fell asleep, and she snuck out before dawn as she had many times before.
The hour after commencement, as Max and Steph stood in the empty townhouse, the space felt especially desolate as the summer breeze moved a creaking cabinet door, left open in one of his roommates packing haste.
“I wanted to say goodbye,” she said as she took a step towards him from the back door. He moved toward her, and they both stopped for a moment. He could feel his heart beating. Did she know about his guilty secret embrace while she slept last night?
She crossed the space to him, her robe billowing in the breeze. She reached around him with her hand unencumbered by shoes and pulled him into a one-armed hug. He took a deep breath and inhaled her smell, her strange, delicious vanilla smell, and found his eyes fluttering closed. She released him and stepped back. For a moment, he wished he’d had the audacity to kiss her then, but her words reverberated in his head, painful for this last time, “No feelings.”
“Well, bye then, it was great getting to know you,” she said with a smile, her hand on the back door handle.
"In the biblical sense of the word,” he said as she gave a little chuckle in reply. She opened the door to a gust of warm air, flicked her large round sunglasses down over her eyes, stepped out into the sunlight and swung the door closed.
For a moment in the stillness of the empty townhouse, the open cabinet creaking slightly and the sound of rustling leaves from the trees just outside, the unknown of the future fell upon him. He could feel the weight of his unknown tomorrow, the opening of the next chapter of his life and the closing of this one bearing down on him. The pressures of the world were too great, too mighty, and for a second, he felt he would shatter with a pop like a thrown beer bottle. The pressure was pounding down on his head, his temples thumped just above his ears, and he felt like pressing his hands to either side of his head and squeezing to make it stop.
But she was gone. He’d smelled her perfect vanilla smell for the last time. He’d said goodbye to her, one of the most constant elements of the last four years and she was gone. For a second, the breeze cut across his open eye, stinging and he wiped them on the harsh plastic sleeve of his robe.
"Easy Max," he reminded himself. "No feelings."
He inhaled deeply and held the breath. He walked back to the circular table covered in scratches and cuts, and picked up his cap. He felt the material under his fingers, all of this, all of the last four years had led to this, this flimsy plastic cap and gown.
He would never see her again. He knew. He sniffed one last time, and he heard his parents honk twice from the nearby row of parking spaces outside. He wiped his eyes again, set the cap back down on the table, and headed outside, to drive home into the unknown.
#Unreal #Fiction #Graduation #NewChapter #Relationships #Unknown #Unrequited
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