At midnight there was a knock on our door, and though our hallmates often knocked at this hour and a lot of ordinary stories have begun this way, we felt this time was different. It was a girl, a small one in what looked like an extra-large hooded sweatshirt—that was all we noticed at first. Long hair, maybe we noticed that as well. “Get her in here,” hissed my roommate Skip from the back wall. He was sitting at the edge of the bed, tense. “Move, damn you,” he urged quietly, “and shut the door behind you.”
Girls weren’t supposed to be in our dorm. It was that kind of college. Anyway, something was the matter with her.
“Did someone hurt you?” Skip asked. He was very tense, like I said, excited to have a girl in the room. “Are you sure nobody touched you?” She shook her head again. “Or not touched but maybe you were in some jerk’s room and he didn’t outright meddle with you, but said or implied some things?” Skip seemed disappointed the girl had not been exposed to a dark side of the dormitory we had not been aware of. “Well, then,” he said, “what are you doing here?”
“I’m Rebecca,” she said softly. She had a beautiful voice, I’ll give her that. I should give her something now to balance everything else I’ll have to say about her, when I get around to her dark side.
“This is our room,” Skip countered.
“It’s against college regulations,” Rebecca said with an evil little smile. Had I been aware of all that smile contained, and all the chaos and suffering she would soon bring upon our dormitory, well, of course I would have done something more than sit there quietly while she flirted with my friend, though I know it doesn’t help much to go back and imagine different versions of the past—you must report things exactly as they happened.
My roommate grabbed her shoulders and said firmly, “We could get written up for this.”
He looked pretty pissed, so Rebecca said, “You want I should leave?”
Skip said there was no reason to do anything hasty. Then he checked the dresser drawer where we kept the drinks and asked if I’d go pick up some more drinks from the guy who bought for us, not being old enough to purchase ourselves? When I got back with some tequila and a jug of Silver Raccoon there was a black shoelace tied around the doorknob, deformed at points and overall quite bedraggled, as though Skip had ripped it in the heat of the moment from an old pair of gym shoes. Obviously, I couldn’t go in. I listened at the door. Yes, like I thought. It sounded like they were almost finished. Nobody was in the hallway. So I kept listening until they finished and then slipped off to say hello to some of my other friends, since I possessed plenty of those, not just Skip.
That was how Skip and Rebecca started going out. “What does that even mean,” I asked him later, “going out?”
“It means,” my best friend said slowly, “that we have feelings for each other and, on occasion, will go out and spend time together publicly—” he was playing a video game and it was a crucial barrage or something because he started mashing the controller, a bit of his tongue became visible, and he didn’t speak again until that part had been cleared. “Uh,” he resumed, “right, so we go out and do various things while we wait to see how the relationship develops.” He put the controller down and gave me a disgusted look. “I thought everyone knew what going out meant.”
“No,” I lied and went back to my homework. “I never heard it before.”
I could feel him staring at me. Skip had these big eyes, easily inflamed blues that were always waiting to see if you were going to test him. “I’m on scholarship,” he liked to remind us. “Where I come from, we can’t afford a fancy place like this. They need to bring a certain amount of guys like me in every year to toughen the place up.”
Everything, so far, has been meant to show you that Skip is resourceful and pleased to have a classy girl like Rebecca on his arm. To an extent that’s true, but it’s not the whole story. Like I mentioned earlier, there was something else to Rebecca—a dark side.
“You’ve already used that card,” Skip told me.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“When we moved in here, you said the dormitory seemed pretty ideal, the guys were all friendly, the premises clean and well-maintained and so on, remember? But you still couldn’t shake the feeling the dormitory had a dark side. You woke me up a few times in the middle of the night, remember,” my best friend went on, “and convinced me to search around in the basement and whatnot. Well, I indulged you then. Why? My theory is you have to give everybody a chance to play their cards. But when they’re out of cards, they’re out of the game.”
I didn’t know quite what my roommate meant by that. “So nothing else can ever have a dark side?”
We agreed to drop the subject, or one of us received a phone call and had to leave suddenly, I don’t remember. However, the subject did come up again. I think it was after class one day. We were walking together. I kind of want to describe Skip a little more, his martial carriage or maybe the tilt of his shoulders and the way he stole forward on the balls of his feet, or how he always kept his head down and shot quick glances to see if he was being followed. I would love to describe the weather that day, sunny enough that many of the girls were in shorts, but Skip and I weren’t wasting any time on that. We had somewhere to be, an appointment. Being best friends, we scheduled our appointments together if possible. But all I really remember that day is the bushes, what it felt like to get pushed from behind and end up in the bushes.
I looked up at Skip. “Why’d you do that?”
“I didn’t do anything.”
I blinked, looked around. “Then who did?”
He shrugged. “I don’t like the way you’ve been talking about Rebecca. Our neighbors told me what you’ve been saying.”
I never should have confided in those neighbors; I knew it in the moment and couldn’t stop myself. I barely knew them. All those months living next to one another, and all we’d done was nod hello. Maybe you have felt like this too, like it was finally your chance to be as intimate as you could with another party that remained just beyond arm’s reach, only to realize later that neither party had any lasting feelings for the other.
“I might have expressed my concerns, and on top of that made some inquiries about her,” I admitted.
“What did Rebecca ever do to you?”
Which brings us to what I could never tell Skip about. She showed up one day when he wasn’t there. She said that her room in her own dorm was currently packed full of drunk girls and would I mind, since she had been up all night studying for an exam, if she took a nap? Here? Now, as I said, Skip wasn’t around. She knew Skip’s schedule. She knew he wouldn’t be around. If she knew that, it follows that she would know that I would unmistakably be around. She wasn’t supposed to be in the male dormitory anyway! And there she was, lying in Skip’s bed. For hours she lay there unmoving, her ass pointed in my direction.
“Why are you telling me this?” Skip asked.
I didn’t want to say anything. But I felt I owed it to him. “You should have seen her,” I told him. “The way she did it. I mean how she positioned herself.” We were not on our way to appointments but on our way back to the dorm, come to think of it, and now that the fog has lifted I remember grabbing a piece of paper and pencil and thinking that I might draw her lying there, a sketch that conformed mostly to reality. I was a shitty artist so put the paper away without drawing anything and explained that I never wanted to reveal any of this, but it had been eating me up inside.
“Show me,” Skip asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Show me how she did it.” He got off his bed, gestured at it. “Lie down. Like she did.” He sat down on my bed, where I had been at the time. “Now show me,” he instructed.
During the demonstration I must have fallen asleep. I guess that’s to be expected since that’s exactly what Rebecca did. Or was I only pretending to be asleep and was in fact waiting, like Rebecca, for that moment when another body merges into mine? In any event, Skip was gone when I woke up. Safe to assume he went to have it out with Rebecca, I thought, but no, I discovered soon enough that they did not have it out. Somehow they ended up closer than before.
What really bothered me was how nice Skip was suddenly acting to me. He was the kind of guy who never smiled for pictures, who tried to look indifferent or like he’d already let you take a bunch of pictures of him and this was the last one he’d permit, but sometimes I’d catch him staring at me across the room with this large plastered smile while I did my homework. Beyond these awkward and overly polite exchanges in our room, we never saw one another. It’s important for best friends to spend a lot of time together, but Rebecca was getting in the way of that. She must have told him to be nice to me so I wouldn’t suspect anything.
Something else that happened was we stopped wrestling. If you’ve been to college, then you know what it’s like to get drunk and wrestle on the floor with your roommate over the littlest things, meaningless disputes, like what the capital of some random country is. It’s part of the college experience, and in our room you had to let Skip win, for Skip was the type of guy who stopped laughing at some point and hardened above you, suddenly red-faced and deadly serious, like he would rather die than lose to anyone at anything.
They broke up a month later, maybe two months later. “What happened with Rebecca?” I asked.
He shrugged and said he didn’t want to talk about it. Usually when he drank he sat facing the door so if any of our friends dropped by he could say hello and raise his drink to greet them, but that night he sat facing the closet. I had the feeling that if I ventured to the closet for my coat he would not let me have it, so that’s why I kept to my bed on the other side of the room, waiting, waiting—there was a feeling in the air that night, or maybe it was a distant hum like a zipper being dragged across someone else’s property and opening a gateway for Skip and me. That probably sounds far-fetched, but it’s the best way I can think to describe what actually happened at 3 a.m.
We didn’t talk about what carried us out of bed, the nature of the force. I don’t know how many times we walked around the dormitory before we noticed, in a spot nobody was likely to notice, the open window to the laundry room, a half-sized window so basement-level rooms can get a little fresh air. Only, it didn’t lead to the laundry room. After we scooted inside we kept going, wandering around down there. We had no idea this part of the dormitory existed. There were some stairs and corridors, but they looked like standard dormitory extensions, whereas the room at the end did not. “What’s this supposed to be?” Skip asked me.
“Looks like words, some kind of message.” I leaned closer so I could read what had been gouged into the walls of the room. We were inside the room now, that’s probably obvious, but it’s hard to report what went through my mind when I examined the deep scratches in the concrete, because all I could imagine was this guy from a horror movie we watched the other night. It was the movie with the guy who loses his job at the amusement park. I was thinking of the part right after he gets fired, where he goes into the computer room—I don’t know if amusement parks really have computer rooms, but they did in the movie—and gives all the coasters permission to bypass their safety checks. And what happened after he piled so many people into the little containers even though there weren’t enough seatbelts, all the children on their parents’ laps, and how by the end of the movie it seemed like the entire amusement park had snarled together like those sculptures at the modern art museum, and how obviously the directors had done that on purpose, because they wanted to trick you into finding it beautiful—that was how I felt when I looked at the mutilated walls. “Wait,” I said, staring hard at the wall. “Maybe I can make out one word. Rebecca.”
I only said that to make Skip feel better. In a wilderness of slashes like that you could see anything you wanted to see.
“I’ll be damned,” Skip whispered, eyeing the wall. “Rebecca.”
“You see it too?”
He nodded and said he was not surprised to find her down here. The room was carpeted with broken bottle glass, which could be heard crunching as we walked around. What an awful place, lying here below us all the while, simmering. For years we went down there at 3 a.m. when we couldn’t sleep. It stopped being about Rebecca after a while and became about us. As you can see, Rebecca’s part in this story has been reduced as much as possible, because we stopped pretending her name had ever been part of the ugly lines that snaked across the walls and seemed to burrow beneath the shattered glass and moldy carpet. What happened eventually is that we cleaned the place up, repainted the walls and so on. We talked to each other when we worked, about our dreams and where we would end up when college was finished. We never told anyone else about it. This, we decided, should be ours alone.
The main point is that after graduation we drifted apart. We didn’t see each other for twenty years. I’m a dentist, so it would have been perfect if Skip was a new patient and I encountered him strapped into the dental chair, but it wasn’t like that. He was a sales rep for an industrial manufacturer. They had recently branched into dental equipment. He was trying to sell me new dental chairs, even though I had the flagship model from a brand name—Fuchigami—and he was peddling a budget EZDENT line. I only brought up the basement once. Well, actually, the first time he pretended not to hear me, so I brought it up again. He shook his head and said he didn’t know what I was talking about, though everything else in this story he admits is true.