After Leslie checks the hour on her phone for the billionth time, making her signature sound of disapproval, I admit to myself that he is not coming. “I guess we’re going to have to squeeze it all in your truck,” I say. She looks at me piteously. “I think it’ll fit.” I lift myself from the curb to start loading boxes. “At least all the big stuff is already over there?”
“I honestly cannot figure out why you waste your time with him.”
I smile. My friend Leslie, the psychology major (“With a minor in women’s studies with a concentration in twentieth century feminism,” she insists on adding, like it doesn’t make it worse), she thinks I have daddy issues. This, she says, explains everything about the not-so-relationship I’m in with Nick. I tell her I love my dad and, sorry to disappoint, but he never abused me physically or emotionally. No, unfortunately, I’ve got no excuse for dealing with Nick’s bullshit on a regular basis.
I sit in the passenger seat, feeling hot and tired from the heavy lifting. My pea plant rests on my lap, the ceramic pot is cold. Leslie snaps her cell phone shut and turns on the radio. She fixes her hair and examines her teeth. She’s the prissiest feminist lesbian I’ve ever met, but I try not to stereotype. “Thanks for storing my stuff,” I say, feeling bad I hadn’t remembered to do so until now.
“No problem,” she says. “I still say you should have moved in with me.” Despite the fact I don’t think I could handle living with her anyway, sharing rent at Leslie’s place would’ve been two hundred dollars more than what I’m paying for my own apartment. This type of thing doesn’t occur to Leslie.
It takes way too long to get all my stuff inside. I check my phone a dozen times. No calls. No surprise. Leslie flips her shiny straight hair over her shoulder and gives me a hug. “I’ll see you. Don’t call him.” I roll my eyes and she leaves. My living room houses nothing but boxes and my ugly couch. I don’t want to unpack. I don’t even want to be here anymore. I’m kind of over Boston right now.
Maybe a month into my freshman year at Ellery College my friend Morgan and I found ourselves at a shitty local show, bored and barely buzzing on cheap beer. She was in the bathroom and I waited nearby, wishing I could smoke inside even though I was supposed to be quitting. I took a sip from Morgan’s bottle just as Nick walked up to me for the first time. He just stood there and, honestly, it was kind of irritating. So I snapped, “What?” Without a word he buried his hands in my black hair, which was probably enormous and frizzy by that point. “Who the fuck are you?”
“This is fantastic,” he told me. “Is it yours?” Dumbstruck and my mind too fuzzy to retort, I could only blink at him. He continued, “Black girls have the best hair. Don’t do anything to it.”
It’d been a rough adjustment coming from Atlanta to go to Ellery. The school was small and elite, and there were maybe twelve other black people, all of whom wore sweater-vests. I’m exaggerating of course, but it seemed that way at the time. Being amongst the hipster sect of the white liberal arts kids, though, proved to be the ultimate in bizarre new experiences. I kind of got automatic cred for being brown. It is immediately assumed I’m into underground hip hop, and they seem to think points are earned by quoting Cornell West when I’m just like, “Who?” just to annoy them.
“Nick!” Morgan screamed, finally returning from the bathroom like seven years later. He let go of my hair to wrap his arms around her. “You know Angela?”
“We were getting acquainted,” he told her, to which I just snorted.
“Can we leave?” I asked, handing Morgan her beer.
“You guys should come back to my place. A bunch of us were about to leave anyway,” Nick said. I didn’t even protest because I knew it wouldn’t work. That’s how I ended up at his apartment, standing in his kitchen with him while the others did something involving a lot of screaming and laughing in the living room. He apologized for touching my hair and I was feeling sociable enough by that point to accept. I learned he was a Boston native and also an Ellery student. Our school is populated by those who are either very rich or very smart, with some straddling the two. I wondered which he was. Nick told me he was a history major and it made me laugh for some reason. He looked horrified upon learning I was choosing to study chemistry. “Why?” he asked, sounding genuinely perplexed.
“Ever since I read about Albert Hoffman discovering LSD, I’ve wanted to be a pharmacologist,” I replied, completely truthfully. He looked at me pretty intently, and a grin slowly spread across his face. I would come to find this irresistible.
“Do you want to light up?” he asked, and I did. It’s a pretty lame story, but that’s how it started. We hung out a lot and hooked up so much that people began to assume we were together, though Nick quickly denied this whenever asked. Regardless, the idea sort of stuck and we’re kind of a pair in everyone’s mind.
None of this would be a problem if he weren’t such an asshole, though. As it is, people like Leslie see me as being neglected and hurt by an emotionally abusive boyfriend. If I argue that he’s not even my boyfriend, just some guy I mess around with, then it looks even worse. I suffer his witty (the three-fifths of a person joke at Jason’s party) and not so witty (“Your hair is extra nappy today,” he greeted me once) racist jokes. I tolerate his bursts of rage during heated conversations and arguments. I shrug when he breaks plans, like helping me move in today. All of this, and I can’t even say why. I know it’s not love or anything.
I kick a box labeled “things I might throw away” and decide I’m going to go find Nick. I don’t know why, or what I’ll say, but I have the entire bike ride to ponder it. Riding a bike allows me to tune out slightly more than a car ride would. My friends here think I do it to be cute or go green, but my real friends know I swore off driving after my third accident my senior year.
My apartment isn’t too far from the Basement, the place where Nick and I met. He works there booking shows, and he swears he’s going to drop out of school and work there forever. He practically lives there, so it’s where I go looking. People are hanging in the parking lot even though the place is closed. That’s how it always is. I test the door and it’s open, so I go in and knock on the door of the closet sized office. There is no response, so I just enter. Nick is standing at the desk, listening to a message on the phone and transcribing the words in his serial killer handwriting onto a yellow flyer. He looks up and smiles briefly. I work on keeping my gaze hard. “Hey!” he says after hanging up, entirely too happy. “I don’t know why you’re here, but I’m glad. Could you help me…” he trails off as his eyes travel down my body.
He laughs. “What are you wearing?” I frown and examine myself. Shorts, t-shirt, and my impulse buy suspenders.
“These?” I ask, pulling the suspenders. He’s standing close, in front of me, and he smirks.
“No. These,” he replies, hooking his fingers slightly under the hem of my shorts. I don’t know who he thinks he is. “They’re sort of slutty,” he laughs.
“They’re shorts,” I groan. “Fuck off.”
“What? I like them. It practically looks like you’ve got an ass now.” I can’t stop myself from making Leslie’s disapproval noise, or rolling my eyes. But I can’t bring myself to be angry or storm out either. “I need your help, since you’re here.” He either misses or ignores my pointed look upon that statement. “Bonnie didn’t come today and there is so much shit we need to get done.” His cell rings and he groans. “Please,” he asks, and gives me a quick kiss. “I’ll owe you forever,” he mumbles against my mouth.
He takes the call and exits the office. I follow, lamely, and wait for him to finish. I notice the board listing upcoming shows has a few passed dates on it, so I gesture to it with the eraser. Nick looks at me and nods distractedly, and I begin erasing. “Okay, I’ll call you back,” he ends the call, glancing at me again. His eyes widen. “What are you doing? Stop!” I drop the eraser. “God. Stupid.” He thrusts a folded piece of paper into my hand. “Just…do what’s on this list, and nothing else. Jesus. I’ll be right back.”
I watch him leave, my eyebrow raised and a look of disgust on my face. Who the fuck does he think he is? I rip the list in two and go into the office. I’m feeling angry, like I want to break something in lieu of his nose. I search the messy desk, pushing aside papers and soda cans, and a CD labeled “That one cover band that does electro-metal Beatles.” Just as I let out a squeal of frustration, I find a set of keys. The keys that open the sound booth, bar storage room, and office. Knowing the spare set is likely with the absent Bonnie, I smile and make my exit, taking care to lock the door. The note I leave says, “Suck it.” I spin the keys on my finger as I check that the other doors are locked, unable to stop myself from whistling. As I’m leaving I see Jay, who works in the bar, erasing the very same white board Nick bit my head off about. “Sup,” he says, a lazy smile on his sweet face. He is the only dreadlocked white guy I cannot hate.
“Hey. I’m leaving, so I’ll talk to you later. But when Nick comes back? Tell him if he wants to find me I’ll be at my apartment, if he even remembers where it is. But I may not let him in.”
Jay shrugs and I exit, hopping on my bike and pedaling away. My heart is beating absurdly fast. It’s such small, petty revenge, but more than I’ve ever cared to enact before. I enter my apartment, breathing heavily, and plop down on my brown, soft couch, pressing my face into the cushion. I try to channel Leslie and think about how this is for the best. I don’t need a guy around. Maybe I’ll buy a vibrator finally. I’ll have time to take up painting or something. I’ll adopt a kitten. Junior year starts when the summer is over, and I’ve got Physical Chemistry. This just provides extra study time. I’m positive it’s his fault I made a B- in Calculus III.
I could go back to Atlanta. Stay away from white guys. Transfer to Spelman and learn to be a strong black woman or something. My phone buzzes in my bag, but I don’t move. My breathing is finally steady when the thunderous pounding starts at my door. I know it’s Nick. I sit up quickly, panicking a little before I decide what to do. With my face set in a look I hope conveys contempt, I open the door. He’s about to yell, I assume, and I salute him with my middle finger, slamming the door shut. His foot is in the way and he yelps in pain, using the space to push his way in.
“Bitch!” he screams. I’m not sure if he means the keys or the foot. He steps toward me quickly, fist held in a way that makes me instinctively recoil and block my face. He stops and his face softens immediately. “Wow. Jesus, Angie. You thought I was going to hit you?” He seems hurt. I’m still scared.
We’re quiet and still for a while. I take in his face, his mouth pink and full unadorned by his usual smirk. Nick bites his lip a little and I notice his one tooth that’s slightly crooked. It’s somehow fitting and perfect on him. His eyes, a lighter brown than my own, are fixed on me. I shake my head pretty hard, my hair a bouncing curly mess, and exhale a large puff of carbon dioxide. He tentatively steps towards me and I don’t move, so he grabs my hand and pulls me over to the ugly couch. He sits, bringing me down to sit on his lap, facing him. “I wasn’t going to hit you. I wouldn’t do that. You know that.” I nod, pushing back his own dark curls from his pale forehead. “I’m sorry I scared you,” he says. He’s got one hand on my back and the other plays with my hair.
“You were supposed to help me move in,” I blurt out stupidly. He looks confused.
“Is that why you took the keys?” He’s got his hands on my waist now. I shake my head.
“I did that because you were being a dick.” He looks up at me, the same grin that started this all back on his face.
“You’re right,” Nick says. “I’m sorry. I mean it.” I pointedly say nothing. He moves his hands down to rest on my thighs. They feel cold, but I shiver for another reason. “Forgive me?”
I look down at him, frowning slightly, from my false position of power. I think about how even when we’re on top, women still aren’t in control. We’re still sitting in someone’s lap and we’re still getting fucked. His thumb draws circles on my inner thigh. He pouts, playing along, but he knows he’s going to win. We both know I’m going to give in and kiss him, but maybe only I know how angry that makes me. The Leslies of the world sigh in disappointment when I dip my head to press my lips to his. He pulls back and grins. “I’ll help you unpack.” We kiss again and I annoy myself when I let a moan escape. He pulls me down so I’m lying on the cushions, and positions himself on top of me. He knows he won. The suspenders are pushed off my shoulders and he smiles sweetly at me before popping the button on my shorts and running his hand up my shirt. I close my eyes and give in. That’s just how it goes.