When I arrived at the building listed on my schedule, the door was locked, and I was the only person there. This early, the campus was quiet as a mountain, and the ground was wet. A fog swaddled every tree in milky, humid air. I decided to sit on the grass to wait. The day was darker than the last few, cloudier, and I thought that maybe, as I was sitting there, it would start to rain. Where I was from, Utah, rain was rare. Here in Pennsylvania, the downpours came and went like fruit flies—negligible, but regular. It made me think of summer camp, that mugginess. And all the rest of it: the cramped rooms like cabins, with their long, narrow beds; pancakes and cereal in the dining hall; woods of oaks and beech and maples. Or that was how I imagined it. I’d never gone to camp, but it seemed like everyone else on my dorm’s floor had. They talked about it—who had gone where and if anybody’s school friends had been someone else’s camp friends—after we exhausted the easiest conversations, the places we were from and our majors. I stretched my legs out in front of me, and leaned back on my hands. I closed my eyes and lifted my face and inhaled deeply. At home, the air would smell like creosote if it was going to rain.
“You’re in the wrong place,” said a voice behind me, and I turned.
Sun glinted against metal; for a second the girl looked silver. She had a piercing in her eyebrow and one in her nose, hoops down her ears like a spring. She was wearing a black dress, black tights, a black sweater, and kept pulling at the neck of the sweater, like she was trying to unstick the material from her skin. Clothes that didn’t make sense in the summer. She looked like she was wearing the costume of an outraged person. I squinted up at her.
“That door doesn’t work,” she said, motioning impatiently. “The open one’s on the other side. Are you in the Patterns class? You’re really early.”
I started to stand and opened my mouth to say something, but I must have stood up too quickly, because I felt lightheaded. Suddenly the edges of my sight were darkening, my knees gave up on holding up my body, and I felt all my muscles turn limp and soft as clams.
Then I was lying on a bed in the health center, and a nurse was standing over me, handing me a paper cup of water. I raised myself to a sitting position, and tried to reorient myself.
“What a way to start the first day of classes,” the nurse said, leaning close to look at my pupils. “It’s the humidity. Have you eaten today?”
She handed me a granola bar, which was chocolate chip, and sticky. It didn’t taste bad. As I chewed, the nurse flipped through her papers.
“Natalie Bell,” she said, reading my file. “From Utah. Lucky thing we got you in today. I wanted to check your family medical history, but it looks like we didn’t get the form back from you at orientation.”
I nodded, feigning weakness, and drank from the water cup she gave me. The rim of the cup was waxy, and left a chalky taste on my lips. We were in a large room, sectioned off from the other beds by a blue curtain with a diamond print. Next to me was a metal rolling table with a jar of tongue depressors, a second jar with cotton balls, and a third with what looked like small green airplanes.
“Erasers,” the nurse said, noticing me staring. “My husband’s a pilot. Do you want one?”
She picked an airplane out of the jar and handed it to me. The eraser stayed in my lap while the nurse took my temperature and blood pressure, and I kept my eyes fixed on it, thinking about how flying here, just last week, had been only my second time on a plane. Meanwhile the blood pressure cuff squeezed my arm like a violent hand. When the cuff released its pressure, the nurse wrote something down on her clipboard. She glanced at me periodically, pausing to tap her pen. I wondered if I was free to go.
“We’ll want your medical history form back by Friday. It’ll be a hold on your account if it’s late,” she said, finally pulling back the dividing curtain, and motioning me through it. “Your friend’s outside, waiting.”
When I walked into the waiting room, the girl was slumped in one of the chairs. She stood up quickly when she saw me, suddenly coming to attention. “You looked like you were dead,” she said when we were outside.
Her name was Sidney, and she had been assigned to be my peer mentor. She should have been at orientation, Sidney said, but she had arrived late. She should have emailed me, but my advisor had told her we had a class together, so she figured she’d just wait. I should have received a letter about it, Sidney said, and then I remembered. The school had enrolled me in a program for first-generation college students, a stipulation of my scholarship that I had skimmed over and then dismissed into the folder that held my acceptance and information letters. What right had they, I had thought, angrily. What right to think I couldn’t handle myself. I had hoped to ignore the program away.
“We’re supposed to meet once a month,” Sidney said, and grimaced.
The grimace was too much; it wasn’t like I was any more eager to force a conversation with a stranger. It was fine by me if we never spoke again, I said, and started walking away.
“No, wait,” she called, and caught up to me, her backpack slapping against her back. “It’s not you, it’s a matter of principle. I take issue with the mandatory part of mandatory community service.”
I slowed my walking slightly.
“So we’re both in Patterns in Nature,” Sidney tried again.
There was no point in going back to class. Instead, we went to the dining hall, where Sidney and I both took plates of pancakes and doused them in syrup. I was hungrier than I thought, and I added some eggs and bacon to my plate. Now the room was louder, the tables filling up with students trying to blink the sleep away from their eyes, some alternating eating with penciling their way through calculus problems or hunching over a book they held on their laps. Some were still wearing pajamas. Sidney pointed her fork at a boy sitting three tables away from us.
“See him? He went to school with me. You want to hear a story?”
“So we dated for a couple months. Not exclusively or anything, but I guess we didn’t specify. Anyway, he found out that I was messing around with his friend. A day later, he got into my room at night and left a rabbit head in my bed. Like, he killed a rabbit and cut off its head and put it in my bed. Like that horse scene in The Godfather. Thank god we didn’t have stables. Obviously he was expelled.”
Her face expressionless, Sidney poured creamer into her coffee, and I stared at the boy she was pointing to. He had a heavy build, and his brown hair was cut in uneven little tufts around a round head. One eyelid drooped down lower than the other, ugly in a way that could make a person mean. He was talking with a group of others, and said something that made them laugh.
“I think he’s normal now,” Sidney said, watching along with me. “His parents sent him to some fancy treatment center.”
“How did the school know?” I asked.
“How did the school know he put a rabbit head in your bed?”
“It was boarding school.”
“Oh,” I said. “I didn’t go to boarding school. Or camp.”
Sidney bit into a forkful of pancakes and nodded. “I went once. Would not recommend.”
Because a last minute deferment by the girl assigned to live with me meant I didn’t have a roommate, Sidney started coming to my room after classes. She brought her Latin textbook and did her translations lying on her stomach on my bed. I read a novel at my desk, but had trouble concentrating. When I turned a page, I glanced at Sidney. In high school, I had had people I could point to as friends; there were the people I talked to in between classes, the ones I sat with at lunch. But they never went to my house, and I never went to theirs, and when we graduated high school we fell out of touch easily. Sidney was like a specimen, a new rule to study, a bent law of physics. I watched her lean over her Ovid, her weight on her elbows, moving her pencil slowly and meticulously forward as she composed her translation. Despite how she said she felt about community service, Sidney took her duties seriously. When she needed a break from Latin, she nagged me about the health center.
“It’s just a phone call,” she said. “I don’t get it. Just call your parents and fill out the form.”
“Just a mom. Not parents.”
“Okay, so call her.”
“We’re not in touch.”
Sidney turned her head and propped it up on one hand, suddenly interested. “Why? Did she lock you in a dark closet when you were little? Were you one of those feral children?”
“Don’t be stupid.”
“We just don’t have a lot in common. It’s hard to explain.”
Sidney pursed her lips like this wasn’t good enough, and returned to her translation. But a few minutes later, she asked, “What if I call her?” her head rising again like a watered plant. She was pathologically relentless. I started to protest, then stopped myself. Was resistance worth the effort? My muscles slackened. I handed her my phone, and Sidney started dialing, while I sat and watched with my knees to my chest from my wooden chair.
We didn’t have to wait long before my mother answered. Sidney settled herself in the center of my bed, and tuned her voice a pitch friendlier. Sidney, she said, Natalie’s friend; Sidney, yes, that was correct. After a few minutes, she said goodbye and handed me back the phone, looking pleased with herself.
“High blood pressure. And your mom has a cataract, so there’s that surgery coming up. I don’t know if you have to write that in. Just don’t forget the form, okay? All my hard work and effort and whatever.” She looked down at her homework, flipped a couple pages back in her textbook to check something. Then she slid her notebook paper into the book and closed it with a soft thud. “You want to go see a movie at the union tonight?” she said. “I don’t know what they’re playing, but I want to just stare at something that’s not a book. Too much Latin.” She picked her bag up off the floor and struggled to fit her book inside. After some rearranging, she managed to wedge it in between two other textbooks.
I didn’t know what cataract surgery was until I looked it up after Sidney left. A cataract, I read, was the clouding of an eye’s lens. Vision blurred, bright lights increased their glare. During surgery, the surgeon replaced the faulty lens with a fake one. My mother had never mentioned that her eyesight was worsening. I couldn’t stop thinking about that. It was like a leaf unrolled, a new room in a building, like her body had unfolded out into a new geometric dimension.
I looked out my window. Rain was pelting the glass lightly, and down on the quad a girl was taking careful step after careful step on what looked like a bungee cord tied low between two trees. She lost her footing and stepped onto the ground again, and someone else took her place. A group of people sat around them, some talking and some eating, waiting to take their turns. I thought I recognized one from my poetry class, a boy who carried a briefcase and wore a tie to every lecture, but he was too far away to know for sure. Water drops turned to rivulets that streaked down the windowpane, obscuring the view, muddying colors and shapes. My room was growing darker; I got up and turned on a lamp.
When I sat back down at my desk, I picked up my phone and turned it over a few times in my hand. Despite myself, I thought about calling again. And then, shutting down all thought, I just did it, I dialed my mother’s phone number.
“Natalie?” she asked, answering.
The voice was startling. Bodiless and distant, but I was rushed back home, to our stucco-walled apartment, to my mother pacing in the living room, to her standing at the door, jingling her keys, lost in thought. The last time we spoke, I was sitting on the sofa waiting for a taxi because, at the last minute, my mother decided she wouldn’t drive me to the airport. She came out of her bedroom and said, wasn’t I lucky, look at me all ready to better myself. Did I think I never had to come home again? The door slammed. A mass of words caught in my throat and stayed lodged there.
She asked, “How is school?” A pause. “Are you healthy?”
Fine, I said. Yes.
We kept talking. What did we say? Nothing about how I’d left none of my possessions in her apartment, how I hadn’t given her my school’s mailing address. My mother told me that she’d found ants in the kitchen, that she’d called pest control. I said that my college looked like a park. In my science class, we were talking about sixfold symmetry, and in poetry class, we were reading—but she interrupted me, and told me she got lost when driving to the optometrist’s office.
“They won’t release me if I don’t have someone drive me home from the hospital,” she said. “Stupid. Who am I supposed to ask?”
I felt my silence turn over in my stomach like a sickness.
Though my classmates had parents who went to college, maybe generations of graduations behind them, though these people in my classes had relatives who were resources they could turn to and were probably inundated with almost more advice than they could handle, though they were paying for college the real way instead of with hefty financial aid, though all of this might intimidate me, I should remember that I was not inferior to them. That was what Debra, my academic advisor, said. Another stipulation of my scholarship was visiting her office once a week so she could check up on my grades. That was because, statistically, students like me failed a lot of classes and had astronomically higher dropout rates. Debra’s words, again.
Debra wasn’t terrible. Her bulletin board was decorated with photos of her kids and their crayon drawings. I liked the drawings, their bright colors and illogic, and usually I stared at them while she talked, admiring purple zebras floating in white space while Debra gave me advice. Which also wasn’t always terrible. Debra was the one who suggested taking Patterns in Nature, popular with the humanities people as the easiest science class you could take. Sidney had enrolled because she didn’t have the time for anything more rigorous, she told me as though she needed to explain herself. I liked the class, and not just because it was easy. Our last reading had been something about the cruelty of nature, and a short digression about unicellular organisms had stuck with me. They were the only life forms we knew of that could see the world in its pure, unfiltered state, but the irony was that they had no idea.
“Because everything we see—we humans— is really our mind’s translation,” I told Debra.
“Uh-huh,” she said. “So everything’s going well? Turning papers in on time? Passing tests?”
I picked a thread out of my sleeve, embarrassed. “Yeah.”
“What about socializing? Are you making friends?”
She looked at me like I was purposefully misunderstanding the question. “Who else?”
“My friendships are few and deep,” I deadpanned.
Debra looked down at my file.
“Sweetie, you need to start interacting with our resources more. We’re trying to build a community here. We need everyone. I want you to go to the community service event this weekend at Wesley Field, okay?”
On my walk back to my dorm, I dug my phone out of my backpack and called my mother. “It’s Natalie,” I said when she answered.
The eye surgery was on Friday, she told me. It was officially scheduled. She wasn’t allowed to eat anything before the procedure—the anesthesia—and she would have to spend a few hours at the hospital under observation.
“I have to call the daycare to take a sick day,” she said.
I heard metal clanging on metal. She was cooking.
I asked, “Did you know everything we see is our mind’s translation?”
She said she was making noodles with sauce from a jar. “It’s still too hot to cook much else. How’s the weather over there?”
Debra was early, already sitting outside on a stone bench with two Starbucks cups at seven a.m. She was dressed in her regular office clothes, but with sneakers. She stood up when she saw me, brushing off dirt clinging to her black dress. She held out one of the cups.
“You okay with milk in your coffee?”
I took the cup and my stomach did a surprised little flip. “Thanks Debra. This is really nice.” I opened the lid and breathed in the sweet milky smell.
The field was a twenty-minute walk from the edge of campus. Debra and I took a dirt path through the maples, and when the woods opened up again, we were standing in front of a potato field, where twenty or so people were crouched on the ground, digging up potatoes and dropping them in buckets, then dumping the buckets into wheelbarrows that stood at the ends of the rows. At the end of the day, the coordinators would donate the potatoes to a food bank. Debra took a drink of coffee, leaning forward so it wouldn’t drip on her, then touched the corners of her mouth with the back of her hand.
“The coordinator’s the one in the overalls,” she said, pointing to a man standing by a pick-up truck at the other end of the field. “I’d go ask him how it’s done.”
“I think I get it,” I said.
“Oh, that’s right, Natalie. Of course.”
I looked at her confused, trying to figure out what she meant, and she looked back until something clicked behind her expression and the edges of her cheeks turned red. “No, I’m sorry honey, never mind. I’m thinking of someone else. I get the files mixed up sometimes.”
Debra didn’t need more convincing. She took another slurp of coffee, then glanced back towards the woods. “Well, I’ll leave you here,” she said. “What a nice walk to start off the morning.” She offered to take my empty cup, and then she walked back the way we came.
Kneeling down and pushing my bare hands into the soil felt surprisingly satisfying. Dirt pushed underneath my nails, caked into the creases of my palms. The potatoes were hard and round, the size of walnuts, and they smelled like wet earth. When my bucket was full, I carried it to a wheelbarrow and emptied it. The other volunteers were bent over their rows, some wearing knit hats, the bareheaded ones turned against the wind, pushing hair out of their faces. One boy’s head moved fitfully as he dug, his tufts of hair brown as dirt, and I thought the head looked familiar, and then I recognized him. The rabbit boy. For a moment, I watched him, trying to imagine him in Sidney’s story, trying to see the menace.
After the two hours of digging, there was a mound of potatoes spilling over the pickup truck’s bed, and we started to clean up. I was walking a wheelbarrow to where we were collecting them, and then the rabbit boy was next to me, pushing his wheelbarrow in unison with mine.
“You know my friend Sidney,” he said, his drooping eye on me.
“Yeah, I know her.” And then, cautiously, “She told me about you.” I searched his face for a reaction, but, like Sidney’s did so often, it stayed blank.
He asked, “What group are you a part of? I’m here for class. I’m Thomas.” We shook hands, and then we were interrupted by a ringing.
“Sorry,” I said, stopping to reach into my pocket for my phone, and turning away. Instead of leaving me alone, Thomas remained beside me, abandoning his wheelbarrow when I left mine stranded by the field. The truck was driving away now, the coordinators were collecting buckets, the last straggling volunteers were leaving the field. Thomas walked with his hands in his pockets while I turned my phone’s sound off.
“Not important?” he asked, when I put the phone back into my pocket.
“It was my mom.” I paused. “She’s getting surgery.”
“And here you are, ignoring your poor sick mom’s phone calls,” he said, walking a little ahead of me so he could face me. “You must feel guilty. Do you feel guilty, Natalie? It’s Natalie, right?”
I stopped and looked back at him. He kept holding my gaze, unfazed. That was the thing about these people, I thought then. The ones who wore button-down shirts to class, who already knew each other from their webs of family and institutional connections. The ones with preparatory school educations, who’d performed Shakespeare plays as kids, who’d had private writing tutors and Singapore math after-school sessions. The advisors, placing me in a context of statistics instead of looking at my specific situation, my actual grades. These people assumed they knew everything, you included. They asked you intimate questions, out of nowhere, like they were determined to distinguish themselves from small talk and normal conversation, to stand out, to be interestingly irregular. Did I feel guilty? For not being there? I did, yes, and I hadn’t realized it until then, so I guess the question was illuminating. But it was illuminating in a second way too, flaming up the audacity of everybody trying to explain me. Or themselves. To—I cringed at this word—understand. What can we understand? I told Sidney I had talked to Thomas and, a week later, she told me they were sleeping together.
I saw them through the glass of the laundry room door, standing facing each other, Sidney with her hands on Thomas’s chest, Thomas leaning back against a washing machine. Loitering behind the door, I thought about whether it might be better to walk back down those three flights of stairs I’d climbed, lugging up my laundry bag. But then the door opened, and the person leaving held the door open for me expectantly, so I had no choice but to pick my laundry bag off the floor and keep walking. The door clicked shut. Inside, the machines shook softly and the air vibrated.
“Hey there,” Thomas said when he saw me, and Sidney turned around and smiled widely. Thomas put his hands around her waist. They stood like that as we talked, as I piled my laundry in the machine next to theirs, separating the whites from the colors, dropping the piles into separate machines. I noticed that Sidney wasn’t wearing black, but a red knitted sweater.
“Doing laundry?” Sidney asked, the way people ask when trying hard to make conversation, and that’s when I knew for sure that things had changed. They had changed last weekend, when I asked her what was going on with Thomas exactly, how they started talking again, what was the deal with dating—were they dating? — someone like that. Like what, she’d asked, defensively. Like the way she had explained him. Her face hardened, she asked if I’d even ever had sex, and I said of course I had, but that was a lie, when I was growing up my mother would say she didn’t want me to get pregnant by some low-life like my dad, she called me a slut if I even mentioned a boy’s name, obviously she didn’t let me date. Sidney called me a liar. She said, you can’t talk about things you don’t understand.
I poured a capful of detergent over my clothes, slid quarters into the slots, and turned on the two machines. Thomas and Sidney watched. “I’m washing my winter clothes,” I said, like I needed to justify the amount.
“It’s getting colder,” Thomas said, his tone the same as Sidney’s, polite.
I’d hoped Thomas would be the one to leave the laundry room first, but Sidney said she had some reading to finish for a paper. A paper about the Cycladic people, she said. Thomas offered to wait around to move their clothes to the dryer, and then it was just the two of us. We moved to the sofa. I opened my anthology, and Thomas sat on the floor and spread math homework out on the low table. We worked in silence with the machines rumbling around us.
After a while, Thomas looked up as though he’d just had a thought. He focused his uneven eyes on me until I looked up. When I did, I stared. I couldn’t take my attention off that eyelid that drooped so strangely. “How’s your mom doing?” he asked. “Didn’t she get surgery?”
“Eye surgery, yeah. She’s good.” I put my book down.
Thomas followed this movement. “Is that for class?” he asked.
He got to his feet, then sat on the sofa next to me. He asked what I was reading, and I flipped the open book over and traced a finger down the page, resting it where I’d left off, rereading to remind myself. This close, Thomas smelled like stale bread, or beer. He moved his hand over my wrist and I looked at it lying there like it was a dead appendage, just a palm and a wrist and fingers, severed from intention.
“Cold,” he said.
I didn’t answer.
“What did Sidney tell you about me?” he asked.
“She told me you were a psychopath who beheaded a rabbit and put it in her bed. Is that what you mean?”
He nodded slowly, and I smelled bread again. “Do you believe her?”
“Why wouldn’t I?”
“She’s hard to pin down,” he said. “Don’t believe everything she says.”
“Why should I believe you?”
He shrugged. “Don’t. Why should you?”
His thumb moved back and forth on my forearm like he was trying to rub off dirt. For a minute, I watched this, feeling like I ought to be considering something, making a decision, but my mind couldn’t wrap itself around anything. I got up, and felt his eyes on my back. The laundry machines were still working. Ten minutes, they said when I checked. I picked up my bottle of detergent, then walked back to the sofa where Thomas was still sitting. I felt him keep watching me as I picked up my backpack and left.
I saw Sidney less and less. I knew that this was natural, this aligned with my understanding of a planet rotating from night into day, seasonal crops and tides, my mother’s moods unpredictably changing. I had known a neighbor when I was growing up whose daughter would disappear for days, and there would be talk of missing person posters, a police car outside the apartment building, a terse panic before the daughter turned up again, saying she’d been with her boyfriend, or with a friend, saying she just needed to get away. At least I knew where Sidney was, where she went. She stopped coming to my dorm, but I still sat next to her in class, and whenever I saw her on campus, wearing her black clothes and a backpack, I waved. That went on for a while. It went on until it ended. I started seeing Sidney even less, then not at all, not even in class for a couple weeks. I texted her once and she didn’t answer. Well, that’s the way it goes, I thought, okay. I continued to call my mother. Her eyes were fine, the surgery had had its intended effects. For three weeks, she wasn’t supposed to tilt her head downward, and she slept with a patch over her right eye so she wouldn’t accidentally touch it. Once she got soap in the eye and it grew puffy and inflamed, but that was alright too, eventually.
Though my grades were good, though I went to workshops and events when they were mandatory, Debra said that I was not adjusting. She logged onto her computer, saying there were a few more volunteer events she wanted me to attend. I sat across the desk from her, deflated. I wanted to explain that isolation wasn’t what she thought it was. I was tired of wanting to explain. Why keep fighting? I thought.
“I hate these people,” I said.
Debra shifted her attention from her computer monitor to me, looking concerned. “What people?”
“The people here. The people at this school.”
“Natalie, you’re not seeing the bigger picture.”
“No, you’re not seeing the bigger picture’s details.”
She stretched apart her hands like there was an accordion between them. “The bigger picture is your future.”
When I didn’t answer, Debra creased her forehead deeply, looking old for the first time, I thought, and tired, maybe more tired than I felt. She asked, “Where is this coming from?”
“I don’t want to come here anymore. I don’t have to be here for you to check my grades.”
Debra was deliberating, trying to find the correct thing to say. She gave in. If I didn’t want to, I didn’t have to see her again.
It was outside the same building that I’d first met Sidney that I found out she had left. The leaves on the trees were yellow and brown and red, and they fell from the sky like shot crows, wide and dead, bigger than my hand. I was paying attention because our Patterns assignment was to find some leaves and dissect them. Dissect was open to interpretation. Someone was tracing the word’s history and parsing out how it had changed. The science majors were making slides and using microscopes. A group of people gathered on the meadow, raking leaves into heaps, then arranging the heaps into a maze. Someone was pointing a video camera at them. Arts and crafts, I thought, watching from the building’s steps.
The door behind me opened, and one of my classmates emerged, a boy who sat in the back and never raised his hand. His skin and hair were nearly the same glaring white, an almost unreal pale. He paused beside me to watch what I was looking at.
“What are they doing?” he asked.
“Their project. I don’t know.”
He continued watching them for a few seconds, then turned to look at me more closely. “Were you at the potato harvest?” he asked. “I recognize you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I was there.”
“You were that girl, Sidney’s friend.”
“Is she gone for good? Or just a leave of absence?”
“What?” I asked.
He turned to face me. Didn’t I know? I didn’t.
The boy had lived on Sidney’s floor, and over the weekend, he said, Sidney’s room had been emptied. There had been something weird with the boyfriend, some rumors, some shouting he’d heard. Sidney’s roommate said that Sidney had called her parents, told them she was coming home, and left in the middle of the night, driving all the way to—well, wherever she lived. A few states away. The boy didn’t know where Sidney had come from. I didn’t know either, I realized. I didn’t know she’d had a car, I didn’t know why she’d left.
My next class wasn’t for a couple of hours, so I sat down on the steps, breathing in the cooling damp-leaf air. The pale boy had invited me to come to the next environmental society meeting, and I had said maybe, but I was only being polite, I was too tired to go, going wasn’t under consideration. The group and their videographer finished their project, or a part of it, and were taking the brick path back toward the center of campus. I leaned my head against the stone edge of the stairs. An hour passed, a wind came. The maze of leaves levitated, quivering, then fell back to earth. Leaf by rasping leaf, the project blew away. I pulled my wool sweater tighter around my chest, still thinking about how little I knew about Sidney. I wondered about Thomas. I thought about how what we see is nothing but a cloudy, weak translation.
After eating dinner, I walked back to my dorm and thought about texting Sidney. Instead, I dialed my mother’s phone number. It was dark outside, raining lightly, and I could hear voices in the dorm hall, shouting across the rooms about umbrellas and the night’s plans. I sat on the floor by my window, where it was quietest but cold, and pressed the phone to my ear. My mother told me it was finally cool enough to turn off the air conditioning. She asked if I had warm clothes.
“Those can get expensive,” she said. “It’s cold over there.”
“It’s not so bad.”
“It’ll snow. You’re not used to that.”
“I’ll get used to it.”
“You know,” she said, “You know, in Wisconsin, it snowed half the year. Do you remember me taking you back there? To see your grandparents?”
“I remember you telling me about it, but I don’t remember the trip.”
“No, of course you don’t, you were too young. Just a baby. They’re still all there, you know, your grandparents. In graves now, but they’re there. I think about going back sometimes, you know? I don’t know why I never got the hang of it here. What am I doing here, Natalie? I mean, not everyone needs people all the time, but everyone needs somebody. A body. I mean, everyone can find somebody.”
She was talking fast, the way she did before getting hysterical. The conversation was accelerating and I didn’t know how to stop it, I was too far away, and even close by, even across a dinner table, I had been helpless. I tucked my knees against my chest and pressed my eyes shut until they hurt.
“You know, I’m alone here,” my mother said.
Across the phone line, I felt distance slacken. I said, “That’s normal,” and wondered if I meant it. I think I did, then, and it was a brief warmth, this closeness, like blowing on icy hands.