Joanna PearsonFiction / Number 96
The last time Katie had talked to Colin Reynolds had been in the spring of 2000 in a sad little rental house with a banana-colored refrigerator, sparse lighting, and abundant water bugs. They’d ended up there on the west end of town after a party. Their conversation—brief, inconsequential yet overinflated—had been a prelude. Soon thereafter, they’d been making out on a bristly orange couch while Mazzy Star played in the background—not his choice, but hers. Everyone knew what you were up to when you put on Mazzy Star, which wasn’t new or cool or particularly interesting even back then, but definitely communicated a certain willingness, a certain agenda. When Katie thought of it now, the scene was like one from a bad movie, but a bad movie you treasure and keep going back to watch, guiltily. Colin had been part of a group who signaled their appeal by dressing as if they’d grabbed items of clothing at random while blindfolded in a thrift store—somehow, they all looked amazing—and who traded socialist zines and recordings of Tuvan throat singing. Katie, with her sweatshirts from The Gap, her Keds, her toothy, obvious smile, had admired them: all that style and insouciance, the way they walked across campus grimacing, nodding under their headphones, elbows at odd angles like marionettes. Colin had an air about him, even then, like he was on the verge of generating something monumental.
In short, she’d felt lucky to be with him that night. Also, Colin had had a girlfriend. The girlfriend was beautiful and interesting, which, by the transitive property, suggested that Katie herself might also be beautiful and interesting—and wasn’t this the deepest longing at the heart of all other longing? The whole thing had seemed startling and rare, like a glimpse of a meteor traveling through a dark sky, until Colin’s housemate had arrived home early from his shift at the college radio station, interrupting them.
She might have missed the article completely if Rand hadn’t left the new issue of The New Yorker out on their kitchen table by his cereal bowl. Thank god it wasn’t a whole feature-length article, just a review, but still—The New Yorker! “Colin Reynold’s Dreamy-Eyed Dystopia” was the title, and there was a tiny photo insert of him, so unchanged that Katie almost couldn’t bear to look at it.
“It’s your boyfriend,” Rand said, his voice gentle and yet mocking in a way only Rand could achieve. “You gonna try and catch up with him tonight?”
Katie sighed, picking up Rand’s cereal bowl and putting it in the sink. Rand was her roommate. She was too old to have roommates. She was too old to be picking up other people’s cereal bowls. She was too old to be seeing shows in clubs. Katie swiped a cloth across the counter. Her life at this point could be reduced to a series of mundane actions, rote tasks out of which she strung together her days—what a depressing way to think. But in truth, she was boring. Sure, she could churn out a few nice sentences on whatever new restaurant had sprung up, or opine briefly on the latest controversy involving a local politician. She was a hack, a solid hack. But she wasn’t interesting. Something inside her had been turned off. She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d read a book, or felt deeply moved by a song. The number one most interesting fact about her was that she had once slept with the now-famous Colin Reynolds. That was it. She wasn’t a complainer. But the lack of anything else notable was sad when she stopped to think about it.
Katie hadn’t heard from Colin in years, not since he’d sent a single-emoji reply to an article she’d forwarded him on a whim in 2010. But a few weeks ago, when she’d emailed him, he’d responded.
She opened the cabinet, pulling out a new filter and placing it into the coffee maker.
“I’m going. What time are you finishing up today?” Katie asked over her shoulder. Her cheeks were a little warm so she didn’t want to look at Rand. “Wanna come?”
“Nah, I’m closing. Go on without me.”
With that, Rand was out the door, leaving Katie alone to wait for the coffee to brew. There were three of them: Rand, Katie, and Laura. Housemates. The arrangement had begun a few years ago, when they were still young enough for it to seem temporary, an amusing pitstop on the joyride to somewhere more grown-up and official. Laura had finally found a boyfriend and so had recently made herself scarce, although occasionally Katie found piles of her laundry strewn along the hallway, like cairns. Sometimes in the wee hours, stumbling down the darkened hallway to the bathroom they all shared, in the thrall of a half-remembered dream, Katie could still imagine that she was headed somewhere else, somewhere else entirely.
When she opened her email again, however, and saw there were no new messages, the hopeful buoyancy within her plummeted.
Katie had sent her last message to Colin two weeks ago. Citizens of modernity checked their email within that span of time. Maybe Colin, as a musician, was not a citizen of modernity. Maybe, his life being constantly thrilling, he’d already forgotten their recent exchange.
She was forgettable, after all. Pleasantly so, like inoffensive background music in a shopping mall. She’d retained her big, overly honest smile. Disarming, Rand had called it once. Homey. Her looks were like Fourth of July picnic food—who could find fault with that? Katie had spent her whole life looking friendly, which made people want to talk to her, and which was ultimately wearisome. And being described as friendly was really a mixed compliment at best. Even back in college when she’d been interested in creative pursuits, had desperately wanted to appear brooding or mysterious, filled with deep and impenetrable knowledge, she’d looked cheery and capable, like a rosy-cheeked ranchhand.
I’m guessing you’re surprised to hear from me. It’s been a while! Congrats on all the recent success! You guys are huge! You’re, like, the one legit famous person I know now! ☺ Anyways, I was planning to try and catch the show when you’re in town and was just going to see if you wanted to grab a coffee or a drink and catch up before or after? Gonna write up a little something on the show!
To her surprise, he’d actually replied the very next day.
You were always such a dear friend to me. I’ve actually been wanting to speak with you. Let’s definitely meet up. I’ll be in touch closer to when I’m in town.
She’d responded to this message with a speed and openness that must have been off-putting.
Oh, Colin, you don’t know how good it is to hear from you! Yes, you were a good friend to me, too. I always felt that, even though we weren’t as close in the end . . . Yes, please let me know what works for you! I’m shamelessly available! ☺
She’d meant for this response to sound tossed-off, light, funny-at-her-own-expense—which was the brand of humor she did best—but rereading her messages, the obvious desperation pained her, all that forced cheerfulness. She was like an airline stewardess handing out pretzel packets. She was a fool. She’d read in another article that Colin was dating a rising star on the art scene, a winsome pixie with blonde bangs and vintage lace shirtsleeves who made tiny, elaborate cross-stitch scenes depicting famous atrocities—Jonestown and the Tate murders and the like. Her work was now on display in the Whitney, had been lauded at the Venice Biennale. The girlfriend was at least ten years younger. It was slightly nauseating.
She filled her travel mug and paused at the window. A blue heron flew to the drainage ditch behind their house. The heron settled on its stalk-like legs with an awkward grace and seemed to look at her. She’d seen blue herons out there before on occasion, and they always seemed like lucky omens.
As if right on cue, her phone buzzed with a text message. Colin would still have her number, wouldn’t he? A hard, painful bubble was rising in her throat. She picked the phone up and read:
Meet me at Perla’s when you can. I’ve got some dirt on Colin.
The bubble in her throat burst with a painful sensation. The text was from Deb, her friend, her former co-worker at the alt-weekly where Katie still worked.
The heron lifted off with a great ungainly flap from the ditch. It looked like a thing that should not be capable of flight, and yet it flew. Katie wanted to wave to it, but instead, she put on her jacket and walked out the door.
• • •
Katie had first met Colin in a creative writing class. Of course that’s where they’d met. Katie had erred on the side of earnestness; Colin, obscurity.
“You write like my dad,” Colin had told her after one of their early workshops.
“Is that a compliment?” she’d asked, studying this silent, dark-eyed boy.
“My dad’s a youth pastor.”
“Oh,” Katie had answered, and then she’d laughed to disarm the situation. That was her—allowing someone to insult her and then attempting to put that person at ease.
“The kids are really into my dad. He makes an impression.”
Colin had fallen in step alongside her as they walked out from the English building, a blunt, ugly structure that sat on the otherwise picturesque campus like a stubbed toe. It had been autumn, their third semester, and Katie was still worrying over things such as: how to drink alcohol, how to talk to people, how to be in the world. So much, she was realizing, depended upon the face you chose to present. College provided an opportunity for reinvention, but what if there was nothing to reinvent? What if you were simply the same, toothy good-natured girl with a melancholy soul and a jean jacket that you’d been in eighth grade?
They were crunching over leaves as they walked now, the afternoon cool and golden. Katie had a moment of fleeting awareness that this would be a day, a moment, for which she would someday feel nostalgia. My college days. It was like what she’d seen in college catalogues, students walking together, talking over ideas.
“You write the way people talk in my dreams,” Katie offered. “It seems like I understand, but . . .” She trailed off, drawing the shape of a child’s cloud with her hand.
He stopped and turned to her. She stopped too, a terrible heat spreading from her throat to her ears.
“I don’t mean it like that,” she said. “It’s beautiful, the way you write. I just don’t always get it right away.” He was studying her, those big, dark eyes. He was wearing suspenders, which looked quirky and ironic on him, rather than old-mannish. He had a perfect nose and a mouth that was full and lush and almost feminine.
Colin laughed, a dry little sophisticated laugh, and Katie had felt a wave of relief.
“You’re funny,” he said. “I like you. You’re delightfully obtuse.”
She must have made a face because he put his hand on her arm then.
“No, no. I mean, it’s winning, really. Refreshing.”
There were shouts and laughter in the smaller quad ahead of them: a group of students in oversized flannels playing hacky sack. He accidentally brushed against her, and Katie’s palm tensed and then relaxed against his. For a moment, she thought he might hold her hand.
And then, there was Thea. Katie would always remember the first time she met her because the dislike was so instantaneous and pure. Thea wore baggy jeans and a spaghetti strap tanktop with an unbuttoned men’s shirt over top, along with purple Doc Martens, all as per the dictates of fashion at that era. But Thea’s face was timeless. Her smile was sudden and radiant, like lightning.
“Baby!” she yelped, leaping into Colin’s arms.
It was like Katie was no longer there. She’d been subsumed into the background—an oak, an academic building, a blade of grass under the hacky-sackers’ feet. For a long, sun-dazed moment Katie had just stood there, silent, while Thea kissed Colin. She’d been waiting, she supposed, for an introduction until it became clear that none was forthcoming.
“Who are you anyway?” Thea finally asked, pulling away from Colin and straightening the strap from her tank top.
“Nobody,” Katie had answered, which of course, she’d realized just in that very moment, was the absolute truth.
She and Colin, Colin and nobody. She felt herself rendered blank and genderless around him—a stopgap, a sounding board, a faceless body in the room.
And yet, they continued to find themselves near one another afterwards. This was the beginning of, well, if not a friendship exactly, a regular acquaintanceship. They seemed always to have at least one class together each semester. And even if they didn’t exactly pair well in the traditional sense, Katie liked to imagine that they were artfully mismatched, like two disconnected objects somehow delightful in their proximity: a feather and an antique spoon, a marble chess piece and a kettle, a geode and an empty jar. Something other than a moody heartthrob and a wide-eyed nobody.
• • •
When Katie arrived at Perla’s, Deb was sitting outside at one of the picnic benches thumbing through her phone, an empty coffee mug and a crumb-covered plate on the table. Deb was scraggly and buck-toothed and charming, always pulling her sagging pants back up her narrow hips. She smelled like cedar and Old Bay and had the louche air of an off-duty Blackbeard. Deb rose and stretched when she saw Katie.
“K T!” she said, putting her phone down. “Looking good, kid!”
Katie allowed Deb to hug her and took a seat.
“Can I get you something?” Deb asked.
Katie shook her head.
A cluster of girls with backpacks passed by. Summer school. Still, Perla’s was much less crowded than it was during the academic year. She and Deb were townies now. It felt like they’d known each forever. Once upon a time, ages ago, in a different millennium, Deb had had a crush on Katie, and sometimes, in her moments of deepest loneliness, Katie imagined the relief she might have now had she only been able to reciprocate.
“You’re not gonna fuckin’ believe it,” Deb said, her eyes crinkling with light and intensity Katie hadn’t seen in ages. She was leaning in close now, gesturing for Katie to lean in close to her too. “You’re finally gonna get your revenge.”
“Against whom,” Deb said, laughing. “You’re a fuckin’ editor now, kid.” She lifted her coffee cup as if to take a sip, but there was no coffee left, and so the heavy mug just clacked against her teeth. Deb sipped the air as if this fact didn’t register. Even though she was only one year older than Katie, she had a way of speaking to Katie as if she were still a bright-cheeked schoolgirl. “Colin, that’s who. That dickwad. For the shitty way he treated you and the way you’ve been mooning over him all these years.”
“I haven’t,” Katie offered, but her voice was weak tea. A passing truck created a momentary breeze, ruffling the hair on the back of her neck, but it was already too hot. She felt alive now, alert to the possibility that Colin might show up here too. Famous people still drank coffee. This had been a haunt of his.
Colin hadn’t really treated her shittily—or at least, no more shittily than any other nineteen or twenty-year-old guy might. They’d hooked up once. It had meant more to her than to him. When his girlfriend Thea had heard about it, he’d let Katie take the fall. Cut off contact completely. It was but one of the many vibrant humiliations of youth. What could you expect from anyone at that age?
“K T, come on, darlin’,” Deb continued. “You can lie to yourself, but not to me. And don’t take my word for it. Look.” She leaned across the table so that she spoke right into Katie’s face. “He’s a fuckin’ creep. Bona fide.”
She lifted her cell phone which had been facedown on the table so that Katie could see the email.
“#Metoo is coming for you, motherfucker,” Deb said, pulling the phone back before Katie could even read it.
“My god. What’d they say he did? Rape someone?”
Deb thrust her phone forward again.
“Read the email.”
“Wait, hold on,” she said. “Who sent this?”
“Anonymous,” Deb said. She paused for a beat, looking thoughtful. “Still thought I was music editor at The Standard.” Deb had left, or been let go, depending on the person you asked, to pursue her own ventures, which Katie understood to mean dabbling in cannabis cultivars, drinking too much, and attempting to launch a failed kratom bar in the Outer Banks. Now she did some freelance grant-writing and tended bar at one of the fancier restaurants, which apparently paid better than The Standard anyway.
Katie laughed, a hooting, delirious laugh to cover that fact that she couldn’t actually find words, couldn’t actually find her breath. This was worthless. An empty smear.
“Useless,” she finally said. “I’d be accused of libel.”
Deb sat back, crossing her arms across her chest. She shook her head.
“You were always blinded by that guy,” she said. “There’s a phone number. Call it.”
She passed a sticky note to Katie. Katie stared at it.
“So you’re not coming tonight,” she said.
Deb had already stood, smoothing her pants.
“To watch you butter him up like a dinner roll? God, no.” She turned to leave. “Before you write your puff piece at least call and check this out.”
Deb was gone then, leaving Katie there with the sound of summer traffic up the main street and the rustle and murmur of people walking outside with their cappuccinos and laptops. A man passed by, and for a moment, Katie mistook him for Colin—the same build, the same color hair—but then he turned, and she saw he had a beakish nose and two pinched little eyes. He was so close to beautiful that she almost pitied him, until she remembered that he was a man, and therefore it mattered not nearly so much if he were beautiful or not. Colin’s looks were always superfluous to something else—an assuredness that Katie admired and envied. The world, as he lived in it, was his.
“What would you wish for?” Colin had asked her once during their college days. “If you could do anything by the time you’re twenty-five?” They’d been lying on their backs on the burled gray carpet of Katie’s sophomore apartment floor, their sock feet tracing patterns on the moldering wall. Occasionally, Katie’s toes would brush against his, a moment shocking in its intimacy. Surely this was not allowed. Surely, were Thea to walk in and see their sock feet dancing on the wall, her face would register profound dismay. These conversations, this connection—it all must mean something.
“I don’t know,” Katie had said, glad that they were watching their own feet. Had he seen her face, he might have read what her wish was. “What about you?”
“I want to make something lasting. Something beautiful and true,” he said, and then he’d turned to her and smiled so radiantly that she’d wanted to dissolve right then and there.
“Me too,” she’d said. And she’d managed to summon so much enthusiasm that it almost seemed as if she meant it, but even then Katie had known, if she were honest with herself, that she truly was not in possession of such audacity. Her respect and awe were such that she would have been content to be an acolyte alone, to rest in beauty’s presence, its nearness both a pleasure and a necessity, a blaze against which she might cup and warm her hands.
Not long after this, she had lingered in their classroom, stalling while Colin asked something to their intermediate poetry professor, an ancient and widely beloved woman with half-moon glasses and a white bun atop her head. They’d been discussing a poem, a poem by Yeats, one of her favorites. The light of evening, Lissadell, great windows open to the south, two girls in silk kimonos, both beautiful, one a gazelle . . .
“I love that,” Katie had offered breathily. It was a feeling like intoxication, what certain sounds could do to her back then. “Just those lines alone.”
They’d turned to her then, both the professor and Colin, and she’d felt it: the nakedness of her own admiration, like a kind of raw desire. She’d blushed.
“You, my darling, are a true reader,” their professor had said. “You have a reader’s soul.” She’d smiled at Katie then, and so had Colin, and for a brief moment, she’d felt understood by them, appreciated, like a spotlight had fallen on her and her alone.
But then their professor had turned to Colin and spoken to him seriously. “Appreciate that. Readers like Katie are few and far between. They are the ones for whom we write.”
Colin looked long at the professor, like he was taking a silent vow, finally opening himself to a truth he’d long suspected. It was like watching someone else propose to the person you loved.
Katie could not tolerate it—the sharp prick of shame, the prop to which she’d been reduced. She’d hurried out of the classroom then, unable to explain what had upset her when she’d run into Deb at the library later.
“We disagreed about Yeats,” she’d finally said. “It was stupid.”
Deb, confident and wry even then, had rolled her eyes.
“Dude was a grandiose asshole.”
• • •
Avoiding the offices of The Standard, Katie meandered through town wearing her headphones, listening to both of Colin’s albums. This was the perk and the privilege of her long tenure at the paper: what she did not make in money, she made up for in flexibility, in the ability to let time drip slow as lakewater off her fingertips one moment and then pull an all-nighter to meet a deadline in another. It was a hot, muggy late afternoon, the air chowder-thick. No one passed by on the bike path along the railroad tracks. People everywhere were indoors, safe in the dull bliss of air conditioning. Katie’s tanktop stuck to her back, sweat dripping into her eyes.
She played one of Colin’s earliest songs a second time, a breakthrough track chosen by Pitchfork as one of the best of the year. She’d been rereading old posts on Stereogum earlier, trying to see Colin from outside herself. The truth was she didn’t entirely understand the appeal of Colin’s music; it had a distant, overheard quality, like laughter from another room, something nice to fall asleep to. It reminded her of when she’d seen Low with him in college—lugubrious and long, a show Katie had felt she ought to like more than she actually liked. She’d always preferred things that were more upbeat, if one could consider Elliott Smith upbeat. She’d been so sad when he had died. By that point, she and Colin were no longer communicating.
“Not a true genius,” Colin had said of Elliott Smith, early in the course of their friendship. “Good, but not great. If he weren’t so sad, he’d probably just make straight-up pop music.”
This had been a game with them: good versus great. So many people that Katie admired, artists whom she might have elected to greatness were not deemed worthy by Colin. Those who made the cut had some indefinable quality she could never quite comprehend. Thomas Mann, yes, Baudelaire, no. Aretha Franklin, yes, Etta James, not quite. Keats, yes, Shelley, no.
Yeats must have made the cut: Colin’s second album was called Strike a Match and Blow.
Reaching into her bag for a lip balm, she found the paper on which Deb had written the phone number. Katie stared at it, noting the comforting familiarity of Deb’s handwriting, staring until the numbers swam, turning strange and meaningless.
On an impulse, she pulled out her phone and dialed, moving to a patch of shade under an awning.
It rang three times before a woman’s voice answered.
The voice was familiar.
“Who is this?”
“Who is this?”
“I got your number from an email. About Colin Reynolds. My name is Katie.”
The person on the other end exhaled.
“Katie. This is Thea.”
After all these years, all of her carefully nurtured hatred, Thea’s voice sounded thoughtful and not unkind. Sorry. Thea’s voice sounded sorry.
“You must already know what I’m about to tell you,” Thea said carefully. “It was an open secret. Lord knows what he tries to get away with now.”
Katie listened to what Thea said, closing her eyes in the triangle of shade. Drops of sweat gathered at her hairline and slid down her nose. Bitter, Katie whispered to herself, and it was balm. Vitriolic, spurned, hateful. She thought these words, but did not dare interrupt while Thea talked.
“I just don’t know,” Katie finally said when Thea had concluded, and then she clicked to end the phone call. There. She’d done her duty. Now she felt a little dehydrated, faint.
A cluster of children were licking cones of Hawaiian shaved ice near the car wash on the corner. A little boy, his tongue blue, waved at her, and she felt strangely abashed.
Surely Colin would email her back, suggesting some meeting time or place before the show. Or did he expect her simply to wait for him until after his show, along with all the other fangirls, barely out of adolescence? She and Colin were old friends. She was not a groupie, not a lurker. No. The prospect of crowding in with a bunch of long-limbed, self-serious twenty-one-year-olds sylphs in Buddy Holly glasses was unthinkable.
She started back down the block toward the club where Colin would be playing, passing for the third time now the tour van parked in front. Colin’s van, certainly. Was he inside? And if so, what would he be doing? Writing songs? Eating a turkey sandwich? Facetiming his pixie girlfriend?
“Katie? Katie Thompson?”
She froze as if struck by a physical object. She could not move. Pausing the music on her phone, she pulled her earbuds out and turned to look.
The man watching her was indeed Colin Reynolds. He stood, leaning against the side of the tour van, dressed in a dark shirt and jeans, ordinary clothing that belied his extraordinariness. A hank of hair fell over his eyes, and he moved towards her, through the shimmering summer heat like a swimmer moving through murky water. Like a mirage. All of Thea’s poisonous words instantly dissolved, and it was the year 2000 again. Katie could not help herself. She threw up her arm and waved.
Katie waved like a drowning person. It was a full body wave, so dire and uncool that a couple passing on the sidewalk exchanged amused little eyerolls. But she didn’t care. She didn’t care because Colin was walking toward her.
There was a note of pleased disbelief in his voice, and this gratified her. Up close, he looked almost exactly the same, but there were little lines around his eyes, a few silver hairs at his temples.
“Colin!” she said, her voice gone girlish and artificial, the sort of voice she couldn’t help but fall into when she’d read her poetry out loud as an undergrad.
“I’ve really been wanting to see you,” he said, and then, with the tiniest frown, the flicker of some almost imperceptible dissatisfaction passing over his face. “Katie Thompson. After all these years.”
Then, he was hugging her, and whatever she thought she might have read on his face had vanished, and they were smiling at one another, and she was following him up the steps into his van.
• • •
In the days immediately after she’d slept with Colin, Katie traveled through the world enveloped in a soft haze. Her roommate at the time had noticed the faint marks along her neck and commented. Katie found the word hickey repulsive, too reminiscent of her guffawing classmates back at the rural high school she’d fled. Love bites, she thought instead, studying herself in the mirror. Her eyes were serious, staring back at her in the dim bathroom with the drippy sink. Her mouth, her whole body, had a bruised feeling that seemed somehow precious and wonderful to her for days. Wasn’t this how it worked? You made the suggestion of yourself and were wanted, then left glazed and tattered in the aftermath. She seemed different now—more potent, imbued with something profound.
Katie had wanted to contact Colin over the weekend—this had been, of course, before the days of texting—but she hadn’t wanted to ruin anything with her eagerness. Besides, his actions had communicated everything: the two of them on the orange couch, the tick of the wall clock like a blind chaperone, fade into you sung like a hymn of such solemnity you just couldn’t stand it.
And so it punctured something small and hopeful within her the following Monday when Colin didn’t speak to her in their creative writing class. He hurried into the classroom at the last possible moment, eyes downcast. When she tried to catch his glance, he seemed caught up in something else, distracted by a faint shape only he could discern on the ceiling. Ordinarily, they tended to catch one another’s eyes throughout the workshop, sending carefully timed looks when other students offered stock feedback. I liked the way this flowed, or The speaker was really relatable.
It was almost like there was something out the window, beyond where the ground staff were applying fresh mulch in the quad, something that only Colin could see, that only Colin knew would soon arrive.
And then it did.
The door burst open midway through the workshop, at the point in that April afternoon when people had begun to feel a sleepy sort of malaise with the pleasant lull of the professor’s voice after Benny Tallberg had read his villanelle aloud, the soft rustle of shuffled papers.
Katie could still remember what Thea wore that day: chunky sandals with rugged heels, a scoop neck shirt with a denim skirt, hoop earrings, pigtails braided into two loops. She was crying terrific tears, and the overall effect, this clash of fashion and desperation, gave the impression of a wayward Delia’s model who’d witnessed a terrible traffic accident.
“You,” she snarled. “You.”
Her face was snotted, and she spoke between huge sniffles. Everyone in the classroom was visibly alarmed. Katie braced herself against her chair, ready for hellfire and damnation. Waving one accusatory finger, Thea approached Colin.
“You,” she said. “How could you? You asshole.”
Of all the people in the room, only Colin looked perfectly calm. He’d folded his hands neatly atop one another on his desk and stared back at Thea evenly. She stopped in front of his desk, her arms fallen limp at her sides, a gesture of futility. She stood before him, awaiting some rebuttal. But Colin, holding her gaze, said nothing. The seconds moved, slow and viscous, like mercury in a glass.
Thea turned, as if seeing Katie for the first time, and her rage seemed to renew itself.
“Stay away from him,” she said. Her voice was a harsh whisper now, and Katie could see the cords of her throat pulled taut like the throat of a much older woman. “Stay the hell away from him.”
And with that, Thea left the room, and it was like whatever slow-pouring moment that had held them finally broke.
“Let’s take five,” the professor said, and if Katie was not mistaken, there was dismay and mild irritation in her voice, but also, far worse, pity.
The implication of this horrible confrontation in the classroom was clear. Everyone knew that Colin had a girlfriend, which made Katie the loser, throwing herself at someone unattainable.
Thankfully, it was almost the end of the semester. Katie skipped the final two class meetings, although she did still turn in her portfolio to the professor. She earned, to her further shame, an A, an A presumably born out of pity.
Katie dropped her English major after this. The thought of turning up in classes again with people who’d seen this confrontation, of being carefully ignored by Colin, was unbearable. Her credits transferred to the school of journalism.
The one or two times she passed Colin after that, they exchanged nods of acknowledgement, like soldiers on opposite sides of a demilitarized zone. There was no discussion of that moment in the classroom, or of stories or poems or music or anything else.
If Katie ever spotted Thea on campus, she either fled or hid.
All these years since, Katie had nurtured a special hatred of Thea, an enmity that resulted in occasional Internet stalking. Thea was married now, working in PR in Atlanta, sleek and glossy and hateable in a different way. And why not hate her? She had stolen something from Katie—something that Thea herself probably never valued, probably never even understood.
• • •
“Make yourself comfortable,” Colin said to Katie, throwing aside a stained hoodie and an empty Dr. Pepper bottle to make room for her on a bench seat inside the van. “Can I get you something to drink?”
If Katie didn’t know better, she would say he seemed nervous. She could see a bluish vein in his temple, and then there was the uncertain way he kept swallowing, and the overall jitteriness of his movements. Gone was the old swagger she remembered.
Her throat was dry, and so she accepted a bottle of water, twisting the cap off and fumbling it immediately to the floor. He shrugged, and so she left it there. The van was filthy. There were clothes strewn everywhere, empty bags of chips and granola bar wrappers, a grayish pair of crew socks lying on a seat next to a blue plastic toothbrush. The whole place smelled of male sweat and hot sauce and cigarettes.
“I was hoping to hear back from you,” she said.
He turned away from her, fumbling with a safety pin that had been lying on the window ledge.
“Yeah, sorry. It’s been a weird time.”
He looked at her, square in the face. The light from the window was strong and unflattering. He looked weary and unspecial, ordinary.
“I’m excited to see the show . . . write something up. I’m still at The Standard, you know? And I like it. It’s pretty great. Not the poetry we dreamed of,” she chuckled here, and God, she sounded idiotic and nervous, prattling on while he watched her. “But it’s writing, and it’s a job, and I like it.”
“Listen,” he said, and he touched her hand very softly, with a kind of deference, it seemed. “I wanted to talk to you about something. It wasn’t that big of a deal. We were kids. I mean, I don’t want to sound defensive, but Thea—you remember Thea? She’s trying to make it a thing.”
She frowned at him.
“The way things were back then. You know—guys. Like we could sometimes get a little ahead of ourselves?”
Something registered, and Katie stiffened. The way her wrist had throbbed afterwards, a thing she’d written off as a byproduct of his enthusiasm. The way it had hurt sharply when she’d peed, a sort of knife-torn feeling she’d carried within herself for days, feeling grave and adult. But these were picky details. Why bring them up now? It was like studying a lovely face too closely. You could ruin it, focusing on all the tiny hairs and pores and blemishes.
“So I wanted to apologize . . . if I, I don’t know, made you uncomfortable in any way.”
She studied him, an anxious thrum rising in her ears.
“It’s just . . . I finally have this girl, Sheila, and I’m crazy about her. And my music—I’m making what I want to make. People want to listen. I’ve got a lot to lose.”
Katie couldn’t respond. A carefully curated scene that she’d returned to time and time again in her mind was slowly reconfiguring, each element taking on a different cast. The sad little rental house with its banana-colored refrigerator and water bugs and orange couch. The clock on the wall ticked in accusation now, the hideous couch abraiding the bare skin of her lower back, and Colin’s hands clutching the meat of her thighs, relentless, too insistent. Her own voice wait, what are you doing, stop melting into the Mazzy Star she’d selected because she had wanted this, right? She’d wanted this very thing. She’d wanted to see it through. Colin had put the song on repeat, and now it played back in her recollection like a taunt.
“I’m sorry. You probably haven’t even thought about this in years. I just mean, God, if I was pushy or whatever. I’m sorry. Fuck. It was a different time, right?”
The van was sweltering. She looked to see if there was a window she could open, but there was not. She had a looping sensation in her head, like she might pass out if she didn’t get fresh air soon.
She got up and grabbed hold of the door handle.
“Wait. Katie. You’re not . . . I’m sorry. We were dumb kids. Please.”
“No,” she said. “Stop saying that. That’s not how it was.”
His hand clamped down on her shoulder, but she shook him off and jerked the door open.
He called to her, but she ran. The sun was much lower, but it was still hot, and the late afternoon air tore like a sheet of steaming fabric as she ran through it. She ran back across town and along the railroad track and, stumbling, down the scrappy embankment behind one of the new developments until she found herself at the bank of the creek. It was a drainage ditch, really. The very ditch where she’d seen the blue heron that same morning. There was a trickle of putrid water and empty beer cans, colorful bits of trash like the conclusion of a party. She sank onto her haunches, pulling out her phone and keying in her passcode onto the screen to unlock it.
It was growing late. Almost evening. Colin and his bandmates would be setting up soon, doing soundcheck, popping bottles of beer with the guys who were playing as opener. The light of evening, Lissadell, great windows opened to the south. She let the phone rest against her cheek for a moment, but then clicked it back to sleep, returning it to her pocket.
A squirrel scrambled up the opposite bank, and Katie found herself waiting for the blue heron to return, like a long-kept promise coming to fruition. But there was nothing, only the squirrel, and a tiny gray bird chirruping behind a clump of dry brush.
The light of evening fell slant-wise now through the trees, and depending on how she looked at the drainage ditch, the underbrush, the trees at precisely that moment, it was all either humdrum or utterly wild and vivid and lovely.
The little bird flitted off, and it was quiet.
With a breath, she could burn it all down.
Joanna Pearson’s collection of short stories, Every Human Love, was published in May by Acre Books. Her stories have appeared in Best of the Net, Best Small Fictions, The Cincinnati Review, Colorado Review, Copper Nickel, Ecotone, Kenyon Review online, as well as others, and have been noted as distinguished stories in The Best American Short Stories 2018 and 2015.Natural Reserve Area Beauguillot, Sainte-Marie-du-Mont, France by Thomas Boulay