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Chapter One: Quarters
Sitting cross-legged on the orange industrial carpet, I pulled my blouse over my head. I was seventeen (eighteen in two months). And it was my first night in the dorms. I’d been invited to play Quarters, a drinking game. And Quarters had evolved into Strip Quarters. It had only been a few hours since my parents had dropped me off, had helped me bring boxes into the room and tearily hugged me goodbye, and there I sat on the floor of a dorm room with three people I’d just met, drunk and wearing only my bra and underwear.
This was the culture of dorm life, a life we created together. Yet somehow it felt like we didn’t create it—that it existed before we arrived. We knew that playing a drinking game our first night was the thing to do. It would initiate us into this new life, it would mark our belonging. The university would be a place we lived and partied, and occasionally went to class. It was September 1981. The 70’s were categorically over with the election of Ronald Reagan and the assassination of John Lennon. A movie star as President made perfect sense to us, even those of us who hated him. Most of us who bothered to think about politics considered Carter weak and ineffectual. The Iranian hostages had been released when Reagan was inaugurated, the waning days of our last year in high school. We were powering forward into college with a new decade before us.
The semester hadn’t yet begun so we had a few days of freedom, a few days to rattle around in the half-empty dorm, parentless for the first time in our lives. The industrial quality of the dorms had surprised me. I’d lived my whole life in a comfortable suburban house with wall-to-wall carpeting, redwood decks and a swimming pool. Here were beige walls painted so inadequately that bare spots alternated with hardened paint globs. From what I’d seen so far, each boxy, pragmatic room was exactly the same as the next, holding two single beds with Denny’s-orange bolsters, two identical desks, and two closets. The air smelled like hotel deodorizer, a smell that simultaneously attracted and repelled me with its resonance of dirt and exotic travel.
My roommate’s side of the room was bare. She had yet to move in. As I hung up my clothes on wire hangers, I wondered what she would be like, where she’d be from, what she’d look like. I hoped for someone I could immediately befriend, a girl who at night, as we lay in the room like devoted sisters, would swap deep secrets with me.
She’d sweep into the room, all energy and openness, immediately recognizing our soul-connection that would last our whole lives. We’d never forget these times, our college years. I knew this idiotic Anne of Green Gables fantasy was immature, yet I relished its whimsy, only to be interrupted by a guy with blond hair and an AC/DC tee-shirt appearing in my doorway, inviting me next door.
I went, and now there were four of us: the guy who initiated the game, Dan Wasserman, known as Goat, who was short and skinny with a spray of a mustache; his roommate, Billy Doan, who was so tall and lanky he reminded me of the Tallest Man in the Guinness Book of World Records, with an Ichabod Crane Adam’s apple; and Liz Chan, who lived on the second floor and had Dorothy Hamill hair and an eye twitch.
I’d played Quarters in high school so I was familiar with the rules. There’s a cup filled with beer, wine, whiskey, vodka—whatever’s around. You place the cup on a table, but if you’re sitting on the floor, an album cover or textbook works. You take a quarter and bounce it on the hard surface, hoping it will spring into the glass. If it doesn’t, you must drink. If the quarter falls into the glass, you can choose anyone in the group to drink. You must point to that person with your elbow. If in drunken forgetfulness you point with your finger instead of your elbow, you must drink instead.
Strip Quarters, I soon learned, follows all of these rules, except that the person who drinks must also remove a piece of clothing.
When it came time to remove my shirt, I watched Goat’s eyes. He was wearing only his Dining Coupon book. He’d had the coupon book in his pocket and said it counted as a separate item of clothing and placed it on himself like a fig leaf. Billy was very good at the game and had lost only one sock. Liz was also down to her bra and underwear, and her eye twitch seemed to be getting worse. I didn’t notice a change of expression on anyone’s face when I removed my shirt and drank my shot of whiskey. Maybe they were all too drunk. Maybe I was too. I had the point-of-no-return feeling—complete freedom.
I’d felt an inkling of this sense of freedom, along with a piercing anxiety, as I’d ridden that morning in the back seat of my parents’ car. Even though it was a familiar drive, it hadn’t felt that way. The one-hour drive was different this time—I was going away to college. I was going away to college in the city where I’d gone mall shopping with friends throughout high school. I was going away to college in the city where I’d seen stage shows with my dad and mom—Peter Pan, The Sound of Music, Annie Get Your Gun.
“Norma, tell me again the classes you’re taking,” Dad had said, glancing at me in the rearview mirror then fixing his eyes back on the road. Mom was sleeping, her strawberry blonde hair fanned out on the headrest.
Dad knew what the classes were—we’d sat down together with the school catalogue to create my schedule. He just wanted to have a conversation, I knew, one that centered on all the possibilities that lay before me. My dad liked to futurize. So much was possible in the future. That was how I always knew him: planning, arranging, controlling, balancing the pros and cons, underscoring the bottom line. Safety and security were the goals. I could see as he asked me about my classes that he was getting vicarious pleasure imagining me taking notes in class, organizing my binder, highlighting passages in my textbooks with a yellow highlighter.
When we’d reached the San Francisco/Sacramento junction, I felt something in me contract. I had insisted on going to college in Sacramento, this brown, flat town that systematically flared up with unbearable heat. I had insisted because of Jack, who had introduced himself to me at an outdoor concert by offering me a glass of strawberry wine in a real glass, when everyone around us drank from paper cups or beer bongs. Jack, who regularly took the trip from Sacramento to my foothill town of Auburn to pick me up on Friday or Saturday nights in his blue sports car, the car whose dashboard crevices he cleaned with Q-tips. He took me on picnics, serving me soft cheese and green grapes. He took me on day trips to Tahoe and taught me how to play Blackjack; I thought it was a sign of his sophistication that I was never ID’d in the casinos or bars we visited. We had sex every place we could—in the bucket seats of his car, in Folsom Lake holding onto an inner tube, in the supply closet of the hospital where he worked as an orderly, in my parents’ bed when they were away for the weekend.
For my birthday that year, my parents had surprised me with an acceptance letter to U.C. San Diego, my dad’s alma mater. They’d forged my signature on the university application. Wouldn’t it be great to live near the ocean and be near my sister, Mary, and her husband Hal? Wasn’t it fantastic that I was accepted into the U.C. system, which had more prestige than a state university? I knew they were trying to get me away from Jack. I’d been stubborn, unmoved.
Late that night, I’d called Jack from the princess phone next to my bed in my dark room. My father’s snores rose from downstairs through the vent. It had been almost a month since I’d talked to Jack, and at least two months since I’d seen him. But as always when I called him, he stopped whatever he was doing—sleeping, watching TV, perhaps making love to someone else—and talked to me. When I told Jack about U.C. San Diego, about what my parents had done and how I’d insisted on coming to Sacramento, he said exactly what I hoped he would: “I’m glad you’ll be nearby, Babe.” I snuggled in my sheets and let the “Babe” reverberate. We didn’t see each other much, true. But perhaps he still loved me, I thought.
The Strip Quarters game continued, languidly. We all seemed to be moving in slow motion, our exuberant inebriation worn thin. The air in the room was stuffy and thick. At some point, Liz stumbled out of the room, clutching her clothes to her chest. And now Goat lay on his bed, passed out. Just Billy and I continued. Billy had a surprising and slow spate of misses, while I’d had a succession of drunken luck. So while I sat on the orange carpet turn after turn in my bra and underwear, he had begun to lose his clothes. His other sock, his pants, his shirt. Now he wore only his striped blue and white boxers.
Billy’s long, lanky body had a paper clip quality to it, the way he sat on his heels and bent over the album cover, aiming his quarter. His Adam’s apple pulsed. Carefully, strategically, he threw down the quarter. It bounced into the glass. He smiled at me, sweetly it seemed, a smile that for the first time communicated something—perhaps that he not only approved of me but liked me. I liked guys to like me, whether I liked them or not. In my altered state, it seemed I did like Billy, but I was more focused on his desire for me.
Up until that moment he’d been perfectly restrained, not staring at my body even though I sat in front of him in my bra and underwear. He didn’t even ask me about myself and told me little about himself except that he was from Modesto and was thinking of majoring in Mechanical Engineering. We were mostly silent, except for the times we’d sporadically sing to the songs on the radio. I sang more than he did, and he sometimes got the lyrics wrong.
As he sat, smiling, pointing his elbow at me, with the clear knowledge that now I’d have to remove my bra or underwear, he said, “You don’t have to.”
I took the glass and gulped a mouthful of whiskey, which by this point tasted even less like a nonentity than water. We’d turned out the overhead light long ago and left a desk lamp illuminating the room, the orange carpet creating a campfire-like glow.
“Really, you don’t have to,” he said again, as I reached around to unhook my bra. Unsure if he was expressing respect or regret, I paused, not unhooking it, as he stood, unfolding his body, lurching a little. His boxers bulged, betraying him, evaporating any concern I might have that he didn’t want me. It was oddly poignant, and embarrassing, how men’s bodies gave them away. I felt a little sorry for them. The strength and authority they were compelled to project seemed to be overcompensation for the fact that their sexual organs were in such a vulnerable position, hanging on the outside of their bodies like fruit on a tree.
Billy took a step to the corner of the room. His short dark hair exposed his defenseless neck, making him look like a gangly boy who’d just had a haircut. He turned off the stereo and then knelt down, his back to me, and I heard the snap of some latches. When he turned around, he held a guitar in his hands.
He lowered himself next to me and sat cross-legged, his bony knee grazing my thigh. As he tuned the guitar, he asked me what song I might like to hear. I closed my eyes to try to think of a song, but everything began spinning, so I opened them again.
“Do you know any John Denver?” I asked. A John Denver song seemed apt for the campfire ambiance of the room.
“God no,” he said. “How about this?”
And he began the familiar opening of Stairway to Heaven—so familiar because I’d heard it for four years as the last song at my high school dances. Billy’s Adam’s apple slid up and down as he played. We sang the opening lines about a lady buying a stairway to heaven.
Goat made a noise and turned over on his bed.
Soon we got to the weird lyrics that almost no one knows. Billy stopped singing, but I continued,
If there’s a bustle in your hedgerow, don’t be alarmed now.
It’s just a spring clean for the May Queen.
I expected him to be impressed that I knew those lyrics, even while drunk. But he didn’t say a word, just finished the song, set down the guitar and pulled me over onto his bed.
We didn’t have much undressing to do, and I suddenly saw that I’d been wrong. When he’d stood to get the guitar, Billy’s body hadn’t been divulging his excitement. He hadn’t been turned on then. But now he was, and I’d never seen a penis that size. I’d wanted sex as much as he appeared to, but now I wasn’t so sure.
Goat’s breathing was making a gurgling noise. Billy reached over and clicked off the desk lamp. A faint white glow eked through the window from the adjacent parking lot. Lying down, I was woozy. The bed felt like a car driving slowly down a rutted road.
Billy and I kissed. The kiss felt funny, as though his teeth were pressing awkwardly into my lips. I adjusted my position to try to kiss him from another angle, but the kissing still felt strange. I buried my face in his shoulder and kissed his neck to stop him from kissing my mouth. He seemed fine with that, moving his hands over me. I began to think that maybe it would be okay after all, that I wouldn’t feel his huge size any differently from any other.
He bumped his head against the wall.
“Are you okay?” I whispered.
“Yes,” he said, scooting down. In the weak light I could see that his legs jutted off the bed.
He kissed me on the mouth again, and I felt that same strange pressure on my lips. Again I went for his neck.
“No hickeys,” he whispered.
“Okay,” I whispered back.
That was when he moved on top of me, cautiously, slowly, like a cat prowling in the backyard. The pressure was not unlike his awkward kisses. He pressed on, very carefully, little by little. In spite of my earlier moment of optimism, it felt like we weren’t anything close to a fit, like what he was trying to do was not anatomically possible.
“Hey, um, Billy,” I said.
“I’m not sure this is going to work,” I said.
“Do you want me to stop?” he asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“I can go slower.”
“Maybe faster is better.”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Oh, okay, you should know.”
“Just tell me if you want me to stop.”
He persisted, slowly. I wrapped my arms around his back, feeling the notches of his vertebrae. His skin was soaked in sweat.
“Almost there?” I asked.
“No, only about a quarter of the way.”
“Really, that’s all?”
“Yeah. You want me to stop?” he asked again. He leaned his head back at an angle to crack his neck. His throat glistened wet. He turned his head in the other direction, cracking his neck again like an athlete preparing to take his position.
“Do you want me to stop?”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
I tried to adjust my body to help him in some way, but I couldn’t move. It seemed there were colors in the dark air, sparks of red and green. Something about this moment, imbued in alcohol, felt like the dentist—the numb of Novocain and the vaguely pleasing pinch of cardboard as you bite down on the x-ray film. The minute you don’t think you can bite down anymore, the technician says release.
I needed another update.
“What about now?” I asked.
“Maybe a third.”
Disappointed but in need of relief, I said, “I think that might have to be it.”
Little by little he disengaged from me then relaxed his arms and released his body down to the bed. And then he began to snore. I lay my hand on his shoulder, and he didn’t flinch. In the dark, I could see the outline of his lanky limbs.
I felt myself drifting off, my head spinning, but was jerked from the edge of sleep by an upsurge of nausea. I jumped from the bed, tripping over my shoes, wrestling with my pants and shirt, trying to drag them as quickly as I could onto my body. Stumbling out of the room I was blinded by the brightly-lit hall. If I recalled correctly, the bathroom was to the right. With my eyes half closed, I limped down the hall and pushed open the swinging door, ran into a stall and knelt before a toilet. As sick as I was, I was grateful for that toilet, for the privacy of the stall. The tiny floor tiles dug into my knees.
With my stomach emptied, I pulled myself up, exhausted, and went to the sink to splash cold water on my face. This was far from the first time I’d been sick from drinking. My senior year had been filled with similar episodes, my friends and me puking out car windows, behind bushes at the canyon river beach, in each other’s family bathrooms during sleep-overs. We hated getting sick and tried ways to get around it: drinking a cup of water in between every alcoholic drink, downing four aspirin before bed, drinking only one type of booze the whole night. Rarely did these tactics work. We knew that the only way to avoid getting sick was to drink less, which proved impossible.
As I lifted my head from the sink, in the mirror I saw a speck of something—maybe a shoe?—underneath the stall in the far corner. My face and hair dripping wet, I peered under the stall. Two shoes, attached to a body, lay on the tile floor—a guy’s body in sneakers, jeans and a gray sweatshirt. His dark hair covered his face. I nudged his foot with mine and he yanked his foot away, curling his knees up to his chest. I couldn’t tell if his movement conveyed irritation, or was merely an involuntary response.
“Are you okay?” I asked, feeling bad for the poor guy.
“Yeah,” he said.
I stood there for a minute or two, the ping of dripping water echoing in my head. He didn’t move. My body was weak. I had to leave, to go to my bed, or I’d be joining him on the floor.
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