Julian met her for the first time in the college laundry room. He hoped she didn’t notice that next to him, clearly in his possession, was a package of fabric softener. He had a book of stories by Ernest Hemingway, and he placed the book on top of the fabric softener, to balance the picture out.
Mia sorted her clothes at her feet. There was a colors pile and a whites pile, and Julian thrust his face into his book so she wouldn’t think he was staring at her laundry. Periodically, though, he glanced up at Mia herself, who was even more beautiful than he remembered. She was wearing blue jeans and a gray v-neck T-shirt, and her hair was up in a bun.
“I think you know my friend Carter,” he said.
Mia nodded. “Carter’s great.”
“The very best,” Julian said. Then, wanting to make sure Mia didn’t take this literally ––– he, Julian, after all, was the very best ––– he mentioned Carter’s girlfriend, Pilar.
A black bra strap stuck out from under Mia’s T-shirt, and she fingered it idly, then brushed a wisp of hair from in front of her face.
“I saw you at this party,” Julian said. “You were dancing the Rumba.”
Mia laughed. “I used to dance in high school.”
“Are you Cuban?”
“You can’t be both?”
“I guess you can.” Mia peered through the window at her rotating clothes, giving the washer a baleful look as if her laundry disappointed her. “I was even religious briefly.”
“An Orthodox Jew, if you can imagine that.” She grabbed hold of a T-shirt and held it up to him, showing him the nametape sewn into the collar. “There I am,” she said. “Mia Mendelsohn.”
“Are you related to Felix Mendelssohn?” Julian asked.
“The composer?” Mia laughed. “I can’t even keep a tune. In Hebrew school, I had to sing in the Passover pageant and the teacher told me just to mouth the words.”
“The Passover pageant?”
“It’s like the Christmas pageant but with the Ten Plagues. I was a locust.”
“A singing locust,” Julian said.
“A lip-synching locust,” said Mia. She had forgotten almost all her Hebrew, she told Julian. When she was small, her mother used to clean out her ears with a washcloth and tell her what she found inside. French toast. Marmalade. Cauliflower. Roast beef. That was where her Hebrew was, beneath the archaeological layers of her. “In Hebrew my name means Who is God? So I guess that makes me a born agnostic.”
“You know what my name means in Welsh?”
“He travels heavily amongst the goats.”
“It does not!”
“I come from a family of Welsh goat herders.”
“If you go back far enough.” Julian’s great grandfather had been born in Wales, but Julian himself had never been to Wales and what experience he’d had with goats was limited to a visit to the Bronx Children’s Zoo where he’d grabbed the Billy goat’s leg and refused to release it. “My parents were born here. So were my grandparents. My father’s just a regular American money launderer.”
“Your father’s a criminal?”
“Not technically.” In high school, Julian had had a classmate whose father was rumored to be an actual gangster. Now, that was the kind of criminal father he would have liked to have. “My father and I argue all the time.”
“Ronald Reagan, the Equal Rights Amendment, that sort of thing. My father says the ERA would have led to coed bathrooms.”
“Would it have?”
“I’m not sure.” He paused. “Do you think the ERA would have led to coed bathrooms?”
“I don’t know.”
“Me, either.” Now he felt foolish. “I mean, who cares about coed bathrooms?”
“My father’s insane,” he said.
“Everyone is,” said Mia. And now, as they stared at the laundry in the dryer, as they watched their clothes flip over themselves, they listed what was insane at Graymont, starting with the laundry itself, the dearth of washers and dryers and the number of quarters you needed to do the wash, and soon they had alighted on the cafeteria food, the sloppy Joes served every Sunday night in Commons, the tortuous lines for the salad bar. Then they moved on to the library and the gym, the reserve stacks at Macmillan, where you weren’t admitted, so you had to wait for the librarian to get your book (“I mean it’s a library,” Julian said. “Don’t they understand the meaning of browse?”), the wait for the nautilus machines and the Byzantine process to sign up for them, and now, circuitously but inexorably, they had wound their way back to the laundry: did it really have to be so laborious?
Suddenly, though, Mia had switched course. She was talking about the ways good fortune shone on them, how they were at Graymont, a fine college, and their parents were paying for their education. There were people starving in Ethiopia, or holed up in the Nicaraguan hills. What were the odds of their being alive in the first place, because when her parents got together, in that act of love, what were the chances she’d be the result of that? “Oh, god,” she said, “is that not the most banal thing you’ve ever heard? That things could have been different?”
“Well, they could have been.”
“Do you think it’s the laundry?”
“You and me here in the basement and there’s no air? Maybe it does something to your brain cells.”
“Still, it’s important to remember how big the world is. There are cities in China with over a million people that you and I haven’t even heard of.”
“I was never good at geography,” Julian admitted.
“Even if you were.” Mia removed her clothes from the dryer. She was standing next to Julian now, folding her T-shirts and jeans. She pointed at his book. “Tell me about Hemingway.”
“You haven’t read him?”
So Julian told her about the metaphor of the tip of the iceberg. According to Hemingway, the tip of the iceberg implied the whole iceberg; what you left out was as important as what you left in. “Less is more,” he said.
“Is it?” Mia was sitting on the washer, smiling at him ––– a flirtatious smile, Julian thought, or maybe he was just imagining it. Perhaps she was right about the air in the laundry room; maybe it did something to your brain cells.
Mia drove so fast it was astonishing she’d made it to college; Julian couldn’t believe she was still alive. Drive faster, he thought, even as he held onto the plastic handle above his seat.
Mia said, “You know how they tell you to accelerate into turns? Well, I just accelerate into everything.”
They were driving into Boston, where Mia’s grandparents had lived when they were alive. She loved Boston, Mia told him, though mostly she loved it because she’d loved it as a girl; she saw the city through a child’s eyes.
They drove through old mining villages, past junkyards and parking lots. A single tube sock clung to the limb of a tree; a woman’s pink camisole dangled from a clothesline. In the middle of a field stood an abandoned school bus; on the outside, in graffiti, were the words STANLEY FUCKED DONNA GOOD. Soon came the signs of encroaching industry, trucks rumbling past them, the Worcester skyline ahead.
“So this is what I do,” Mia said. “I drive.”
“Anywhere. I came to college to get away from things, and now that I’m here I’m getting away some more.” She looked up at him. “And what do you do?”
“I drive with you.”
All around Boston, everywhere they walked, it seemed to Julian they were surrounded by park rangers, some giving tours, some just walking the streets the way he and Mia were. Mia walked the way she drove: fast. He was having trouble keeping up with her.
They stopped at Kings Chapel Burial Ground, where John Davenport and John Winthrop were buried. At the Granary, where they went next, you could see the tombstones through the metal gratings. John Hancock was buried there, as were Paul Revere, Samuel Adams, and Benjamin Franklin’s parents and siblings.
“Are you taking me on a tour of colonial cemeteries?”
“Why not?” Mia said. She was reading a plaque. “Mother Goose is buried here.”
“You mean she’s real?”Julian had thought Mother Goose was a cartoon character.
“She was a writer,” Mia said sunnily, “just like you.”
In the North End, on the corner of Hanover and Parmenter streets, stood a cluster of wooden arrows. Roma. Milano. Venezia. Capris. Genoa. Julian and Mia stopped into a specialty store where Italian women sliced ham for the customers and filled jars with Sicilian olives.
Then they were back across town, to the Public Gardens, where Make Way for Ducklings was set. A row of bronze ducks lined the walkway. There was a pond in the middle of the gardens, and a bridge above it where two boys in Puma sweatshirts were playing tag. A chocolate Labrador trotted across the bridge, wearing a red bandanna around its neck. Trees grew out of an island at the center of the pond, and on the periphery stood a statue of George Washington on a horse. A man was reading Make Way for Ducklings to his daughter.
“Life imitates art,” Mia said.
It was lunchtime, so they went across the street to pick up sandwiches, turkey for Julian, roast beef for Mia, and between bites Julian told Mia that he’d been reading about supertasters. It was an actual scientific category, he explained. Supertasters were different from other people. Their tongues were denser; they had more taste buds. “Say you like Brussels sprouts,” he said.
“And I don’t. But when we eat Brussels sprouts, are we eating the same thing and just responding differently, or are our taste buds actually registering something different?”
“Is that a philosophical question?”
“I think so.”
But before she could answer him, he had moved from philosophy to English usage. He was listing the idioms he used to get wrong. He’d said no holes barred instead of no holds barred and deep-seeded instead of deep-seated. “It’s home in on,” he said, “not hone in on. Like a homing pigeon.” Why, he wanted to know, was it the whole nine yards and not the whole ten yards? It took ten yards to get a first down. Or have your cake and eat it, too. It was no trick, he said, to have your cake and eat it. The real trick was in reverse, to eat your cake and still have it. That was what the idiom should have been: to eat your cake and have it, too.
“Or long in the tooth,” Mia said. “What does that mean?”
“But why? Do our teeth get longer as we age? Are we destined to become beavers?”
They walked through Beacon Hill, Mia’s grandparents’ old neighborhood; Mia was taking him to see their house. Her grandparents were on her mind, she said; they always were when she came to Boston.
“There are lots of antique stores here,” he said.
“This neighborhood used to be old-money,” Mia explained. “Now it’s porcelain frogs and wooden dachshunds.”
“Were your grandparents old-money?”
She shook her head. “They weren’t new money, either. But they got by.”
They passed another antique store, and a pub, a pizza place, a post office, a leather shop, and now, off Charles Street, on Pinckney, on Revere, they were winding their way through the neighborhood, along the silent residential streets. A light went on in a living room, then flickered off. A Jaguar pulled out of a driveway, the sound of its engine hushed, guttural, and low. In a garden out back, two girls in slippers were walking a rabbit on a leash. The mansions stood sentinel on the hill, winking at them in the depleting sunlight.
“There it is,” she said.
“My grandparents’ house.”
“It’s nothing special. It’s a house. It’s got a roof and floors, some plumbing.”
“It looks nice,” he said, but then he felt bad because all he could see were a few shuttered windows and he didn’t wish to sound insincere.
“An old woman lives there now,” Mia said. “You know what I think? They should make a law that after a person dies their house should remain empty for a while. Let it lie fallow. Come,” she said, “I’m being macabre.” She took him by the sleeve and they walked off.
They strolled on Newbury Street and Boylston and Newbury again, past Newbury Comics and the department stores and the Boston Public Library, heading west toward Kenmore Square and Fenway Park and, beyond that, Boston University. Commonwealth Avenue was like a European boulevard, with high-domed buildings and wide promenades. As they walked along it, rain started to fall, lightly at first but then harder. They were getting poured on now ––– they had neither the inclination nor the will to seek cover ––– they ran and ran, past Gloucester and Hereford, kicking up puddles as they went, their sneakers sloppy and rain-drenched, the canvas sticking to their socks. They crossed Massachusetts Avenue and now, on the corner, they bent over like sprinters catching their breath.
Mia’s hair was matted to her forehead; it stuck in clumps against her neck. A drop of rain rolled down her chin, and Julian brushed it off with the sleeve of his windbreaker.
They drove home soaked, as if someone had thrown them fully clothed into Boston Harbor. When they stopped at the turnpike to get their ticket, Mia twisted the water from her hair. As she drove on, Julian fell asleep to the rhythm of the car, his nose, his whole face, pressed against the window.
“Let’s go out to dinner,” she said. She told him she knew of a good place to eat, elegant but not too elegant; she hated restaurants where the waiter pulled out your seat for you. Julian agreed; fancy restaurants made him uncomfortable.
They ordered a bottle of wine and quickly dispatched it. Julian felt a warming come across his face. He liked wine, though he knew nothing about it. Textures and aromas, nutty wines, fruity wines, which wines should be drunk with which foods: all this meant nothing to him. He didn’t want to know about wine; he just wanted to drink it. He had an image of himself standing barefoot in some vineyard where his only job was to trample the grapes. His fingers and toes were purple ––– his whole body was ––– and Mia was with him; she was there to trample, too. “Tell me something about you.”
She laughed. “Are we getting to know each other?” She took a sip of her wine, and when she put down her glass the imprint of her lips was on the rim, an exact mold of her mouth. “I like watching you,” she said.
“Tell me something else.”
“I want to kiss you.” She rested her hands next to her plate. Her forearms were tawny, bare, and slender, but also with a firmness to them, a heft of tendon. A single white candle sat between them, the wax dripping to the table.
“Do you always kiss your dates?”
“If I want to,” she said. “If they want to kiss me back.”
He leaned across the table and so did she, their bodies hovering above their pasta bowls and the tiny saucer of olive oil with red pepper flakes swimming in it.
“You’re a very handsome man.”
“Why? No one’s ever told you you’re handsome before?”
“No one’s ever called me a man.” Her fingers were touching his, lightly, lightly, and his fingers were touching hers back.
BACK AT THE DORMS
At the dorms, Julian asked his roommate to vacate for the night. “I need privacy,” he said.
“But I live here.”
“Not technically. In fact.”
“Then think of it as one of my peremptories.”
“What are those?”
It was like jury duty, Julian explained. The lawyers could dismiss a certain number of jurors without giving any reason.
Was it possible for a person to exist without sleep? According to The Guinness Book of World Records, the longest anyone had gone without sleep was twenty-one days. Laboratory mice died when deprived of sleep, yet when an autopsy was performed the cause of death couldn’t be determined. Apparently the mice had died from lack of sleep, but you couldn’t see it clinically.
Their first week together, Julian and Mia stopped sleeping. They were coasting on adrenaline, Mia said.
“On libido,” said Julian.
Banished from his room that first night, Julian’s roommate hadn’t come back the second or the third. Mia felt bad for Julian’s roommate, but not so bad, she told Julian, as to want him to return. She and Julian were alone, and they made love where they wanted to, in Julian’s bedroom, in the common room; they even made love on Julian’s roommate’s beanbag chair. To be nineteen and making love wherever you wished: this, Julian thought, was how a person should live. Mia was sprawled naked next to him, peaceful, recumbent on the beanbag chair, her eyes half-closed, her hair touching his; the vinyl felt cool along his neck. The dorm was quiet, and above them he could hear a mosquito buzzing against a bare lightbulb. There was a candle on the shelf, and he got up and lit it. He lay next to Mia in the hollow imprint his body had left. She started to drift off.
“You can’t fall sleep,” he said. “It’s against the rules.”
“I’m cold,” she murmured. She took a blanket and spread it over them. She turned on the TV where a kung fu movie was playing, and they watched it idly for a few minutes, then muted the sound and read to each other from books they chose randomly off the bookshelves. Julian read to Mia from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Mia read to Julian from Freud’s Totem and Taboo and Thirteen Days by Robert Kennedy. They even took turns reading about photosynthesis and the Krebs Cycle from Julian’s roommate’s biology textbook.
Mia kissed Julian. She kissed his toes, his knees, his elbows. She kissed the tiny tuft of hair above his butt. It was 4:30 in the morning and they hadn’t slept the night before. You got to the point when you were so tired you couldn’t make a decision. You couldn’t stay awake and you couldn’t go to sleep. Before long, you were starting to hallucinate.
Finally they fell asleep, and when they awoke the next morning Julian said, “Thomas Jefferson was in my dream last night. He was my student. I was Thomas Jefferson’s professor.”
Mia looked at him dubiously.
“Jefferson came in to complain about his grade. I’d given him a B-plus on The Declaration of Independence.”
“That’s exactly what he said. He wanted at least an A-minus.”
“Thomas Jefferson!” Mia said. “You have very arrogant dreams.” She placed her foot behind Julian and pushed him over her leg so he tumbled backward to the floor. As he fell, his legs kicked up and his testicles did, too. “Be careful,” she said. “I was on the wrestling team in high school.”
“Field hockey,” she said. “Close enough.”
“Come,” he said. “Let’s shower.”
She stepped into the stall and raised her face to the water, holding her hair in a fist behind her head. He took her by the shoulders and drew her close to him, feeling the press of her nose against his face.
Afterward, in class, he missed her already and he’d only just seen her. And when he saw her again she said she’d missed him, too. She loved everything about him, she said: the tiny dimple on his right elbow, the way his hair was so straight coming down over his forehead, all of it dark brown it was almost black except for a little patch of blond above the left ear. “I’m one-two-hundredth albino,” he told her. She loved his toenails, she said, how they curled back on themselves, and the way in his sleep he wrapped her hair around his fingers. That was how she liked waking up in the morning, with her hair twirled taut around him.
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 304 pages
- Publisher: Vintage
- ISBN-10: 030727716X
- ISBN-13: 9780307277169