BY TOM LAKIN
Down through the darkened campus they come, a young man and woman, hands clasped, arms slung together, pale ghosts wheeling unsteadily through the school’s famous quad. From a third-story dormitory window, a lone freshman watches them advance across the broad gray lawn, his eyes dark nicks in a thin face. Later, during the fallout, the Judicial Board hearings and threatened lawsuits and the dense thicket of pointed fingers, he will be asked to remember what he saw, what he heard, will be told to comb his memories of this night—Who said what? How did they look? How did it sound?—but fail altogether to summon anything more than a vague recollection of what he sees now, pinching open the plastic shades in his cramped bedroom on the first Saturday night of freshman year, a sour homesick ache in his belly and the wooden desk chair growing stiff and painful beneath him, while he watches two classmates weave along the narrow asphalt path toward the dorm, their footfalls stark and clumsy as they stumble past stately oaks and buildings of ivied brick, past the stone chapel and the war memorial and the rust-colored library overhung with swaying pines, past the gymnasium and the glass-walled science center, shuttered for the weekend, its roof glinting like obsidian beneath the cloud-striped black sky, and spill now out into the parking lot of the student union, fewer than fifty yards from the dorm, laughing now, flirting, the watcher notices with a pang, the girl teasing the large brown-haired boy, stealing his black baseball cap with a playful yank, slipping from his grasp and flitting ahead, her form spectral in the slick dark, head thrown back and the hem of her pleated skirt describing a loose arc above her knees as the boy lumbers after her with startling quickness (the quickness of an athlete, the watcher thinks, a kind of buried grace that belies his bulk and seeps through his drunken stagger), impressive really that he can summon it even now, in a heavy coat and work boots on a cold September night, a sharp edge to the wind and darkness pressing down and their voices bell-clear now among the sounds of night—cricket song, muffled rustlings, the strange singing of the wind—as at last they arrive arm in arm at the entrance to the redbrick dorm, a damp musty thing, a relic of the sixties and the school’s last great construction wave, its linoleum tiles webbed and cracked now and the thin carpets lining the hallways sour-smelling and spongy beneath their feet, low ceilings and flickering lights and out front a pile of crumpled plastic cups, remnants of a party, the watcher knows, evidence of fun being had without him, the kind of fun these two are having now and will continue inside, in a bedroom just like his, atop the same foam mattress on the same rickety steel frame, the boy’s Hawthorne sweatshirt wrapped reptilianly around the doorknob, maybe, and the girl prone and naked in bed, her blonde hair fanned out on the pillow, two freshmen on the first weekend of college living a life he cannot imagine, cannot even begin to comprehend, as here he sits, head in hands, listening as their feet slap up the linoleum stairs and come heavily down the hallway, his hallway, their voices muffled through the heavy wooden door but still faintly audible, laughs, mostly, and a few unintelligible shouts, faint staccato bursts that sound (the watcher realizes with a small shudder) unsettlingly like No, though they could also be Yo or Whoa, or even Let’s Go, he reasons, rising and creeping closer to the noise, and yet as he pauses there in his sock feet, bleary eyes aimed at the scrawl of woodgrain on the door and an ear cocked in the direction of the hall, a vision, long-buried and until now never more than half-reclaimed, begins to materialize in his mind, a remarkably clear summoning of an evening in the seventh grade, huge high moon, the sky a smooth pinpricked veil, and he, the pubescent watcher, pale and spindly like a winter tree, standing alone in the corner of a humid middle school gymnasium while all around him rose the frenzied howls of his classmates, those inconceivable few who had come to that night’s harvest-themed dance not to fidget unseen in the corner, flop sweat darkening the waistband of white cotton briefs, but rather to dance, to dance and twirl and howl and even to touch, it appeared, to drape downy arms around corded necks and press together damp lean bodies, to sway laughing beneath the splintered purple light of a disco ball and occasionally even to (and this the young watcher could hardly bring himself to believe) slip athletic hands—astoundingly, unimaginably—into the taut back pockets of plumply occupied blue jeans, the hands remaining there while the jean’s occupants not only didn’t wheel away and holler for one of the teachers planted regimentally around the gym floor’s border but instead laughed—laughed!—and threw back ringletted heads, not furious at all but delighted, ecstatic, their eyes closed and mouths ajar and their small conelike breasts appearing incredibly to squash against the chests of the boys, all this the watcher beheld from his damp dark corner of the gym, arms hugging his body, toes curled in his small white sneakers, until finally, after a couple clammy hours of this, something in him snapped—he recalls it now in his dorm room as a literal snapping, some kind of gut tendon coming loose inside him and springing like a window shade back up into the area of his throat—and suddenly he found he couldn’t take it anymore, his utter failure in the face of all this unjoined fun, and so, in a kind of moist trance, he stepped from his bleacher shadow and made for the center of the parquet floor where a bright gaggle of girls danced fragrantly on a scowling portrait of the school’s pirate mascot, their arched pale throats giving off their own soft light, and one of the gathered girls—Kimmy Jibsen, golden-haired eminence of the seventh grade, whose father was a dentist in town and had a gleaming white mustache and a reputation for being especially liberal with the novocaine—working a particularly alluring hip-swirl move that caused her half-buttoned harvestish flannel shirt to flick open at the waist and reveal a small seam of pancake-brown belly, which drew the young watcher to her almost involuntarily, and compelled him to offer (along with a chivalrous bow picked up from after-school Arthurian movies) his still-tranced hand, a hand that trembled only a little, a hand that, stunningly, nearly lethally for the watcher, Kimmy Jibsen then turned a grinning face from her bright-smelling group of friends and actually reached for, to take in her own, his delicate, gummed-up hand, presumably to guide toward and then place firmly on her (he wistfully imagined) warm damp waist, a fact that remains utterly incomprehensible to him, even now, in the brown half-light of the dorm, but then—and here’s where the vision curdles and becomes a repressible thing—at the same time their two small grasping hands, painted with strobing disco light, were at last poised to meet, there came from the hazy place behind Kimmy’s slender left shoulder a kind of detonation in the form of Billy Bennett, sinewy, backwards-capped, bounding for them with his easy quarterback’s saunter, his face a wild mask of glee, hooting, positively screeching, his incredulity that this loser would even think about—would so much as allow himself in his quietest private moments even to consider—that Kimmy Jibsen would want to dance with him, Kimmy Jibsen!, the Kimmy Jibsen (who the watcher out of one nearly tearing eye could see was regarding him with a combination of tenderness and fright, her small hand still hanging open at her side), Bennett chortling by this point, elated at the absurdity of the scene before him, while to his rear a crowd of preteens began to gather at the edges of the mascot circle, their eyes wide and their untargeted relief manifesting as curling little smirks, and the young watcher frozen in the middle of it all, standing as if spotlit, faced in this moment for not the first time with a kind of ultimatum—reach once again for the willing hand of Kimmy Jibsen and thus banish, perhaps forever, at least within the fortified muscle of his mind, the world’s Billy Bennetts, or whirl and flee—and of course he whirled, and fled, and went lurching from the mob of churning onlookers for the lighted gymnasium lobby and beyond it the chilled fluorescent safety of the boys’ bathroom, where he pitched into a stall and drove home the latch and sunk his khakis onto the coverless toilet seat and wept, truly wept, great heaving sobs that wracked his tiny frame, tears darkening his khakis’ knees and pooling on the toes of his white sneakers as he wondered whether that right there had been the worst moment of his life, the very lowest of life’s lows, but no, oh no, not by a long shot would the Kimmy Jibsen thing wind up as even the worst moment of the night, certainly not, for right then in the bathroom there appeared Billy Bennett and three hooligan friends, bashing flat palms against the stall door and calling out in laughing voices for the little faggot to come on out, one redheaded boy peering over the door’s steel horizon and Bennett himself supine on the gray tiled floor looking up, a grin on his slim face, and his arm reaching for the squirming sneakered foot of the watcher, catching it, yanking at the laces, gathering them into his hand and using them to pull the stunned boy from his toilet perch onto the floor and then sliding himself (Bennett) under the stall door and springing up and wrenching open the door and admitting his three ballcapped friends who huddled then in a little clot and taunted the watcher from what seemed like very high overhead, a teary kaleidoscope of snickering faces, shouting down at him a punctuated racket of hard sound—What are you doing in here, fag? You jerking off? Guys, I think he’s jerking off! You have a boner, don’t you? I bet you have a tiny boner in your gay little khakis. Pull it out, fag, come on, show it to us—and reaching then for the zipper of his khakis, and yanking it down, Bennett on top of him doing the real work, getting frustrated and abandoning the zipper and going for the khakis’ waistband and snatching them down, along with the white cotton briefs, to reveal a terribly white hairless crotch, crosshatched with little impressions from the briefs’ elastic, and at its pale center the penis in question, pink and snailish and soft, lying on a hairless expanse of moon-white thigh, the watcher seeing all this through the eyes of the other boys, seeing his sickly bright-lit penis and understanding even then that its present condition could not be unseen, not by him and certainly not by the boys, soundless in their delight, who would carry it like a token from that soggy bathroom floor (where they left him then, khakis around his ankles, bare bottom pasted to the tile) all through their years together, wielding it silently, an unspoken but acknowledged weapon capable of incredible harm, Bennett himself hardly ever naming it plainly but rather alluding to it through passing hallway chuckles and the occasional lunchroom goose, the seat of the watcher’s khakis poked lewdly from behind and the poke accompanied inevitably by a devilish Bennett grin, a cockeyed up-curled leer that has trailed him since like a specter and which he sees even now, the watcher does, projected on the black dome of his closed eyelids, while back in the dorm room the vision at last dissolves and he finds himself once again in his sock feet on the sticky linoleum floor, body still, breath slow, hands slick as they were on that long-ago adolescent night and his ears pricked for the fractured sounds of the two classmates who arrive now with a muted flurry at his end of the narrow and yellow-lit hallway, and though he cups and presses an ear to the pocked and pitted door and listens, really listens, the watcher can hear little of the wood-muffled noise, and the snatches that do drift under the well-latched door are soft and indefinite and vague: the slap of the girl’s boots, maybe; the boy’s voice, a low hard bark.
But what’s this he hears now, rising like smoke into the room: tensed whispers, a scrap of glittering scream, or just the usual sounds of drunken romance underway? It’s impossible to tell.
The watcher cracks the door, but too late. Already they’ve disappeared into the room across the hall. No voices now, just the throb of speakers and a rich, warm scent of perfume. He considers knocking but decides against it. He cranes his head out into the fragrant air and looks up and down the hallway, but the floor is deserted. Outside a nearby room, a plastic trash can spills its contents into the hall: crumpled paper, foil wrappers, a tumble of crushed beer cans. No bar of light seeps from beneath the communal bathroom door. The watcher is about to close his own door when he sees a black ballcap, looped on the silver door handle across the hall, swaying softly from its thin cloth strap.
Months later, when asked to recall this night, to summon in hopeless detail its sounds and sights, his sense of it, the contours of its truth, the watcher will see only this old black hat, its torn brim and scripted logo, the way it swings from the handle of the door. He will envision this hat and turn it over in his mind and fit it, finally, snugly and rear-facing, on the imagined head of his crewcutted classmate. He will be asked, the watcher will—by the Judicial Board president, by the provost, by Hawthorne’s stern patrician dean, finally by the girl herself, who will peer out from beneath half-brushed blonde bangs (looking, though he will never consciously recognize it, quite a bit like Kimmy Jibsen) and plead for him to remember, to have heard and to summon, there, in the wood-paneled, long-tabled room that will serve as their adjudication chambers, her cries of Don’t Stop No, her slick-booted struggle, the precise sound of her screams—he will be asked, again and again, in voices low and high, soft and strained, whether he saw or heard anything, anything at all that could serve conclusively as evidence of what transpired between these two classmates on the first Saturday night of freshman year, and though the watcher does not know it yet, here in the damp dorm-room dark, though he is aware neither of its very real presence nor its great and devastating power, it is in him already: the seed of what he will say.
He retreats to his bed and throws open the window, breathes deeply: the smell of wet leaves and torn pine bark. A lunatic chill in the air. Velvet blackness closing in overhead. He lies back, thinks of home. Sleep comes to him like an intruder; fitfully, he gives over to its blank unhurried sway.
Tom Lakin is a graduate of Emerson College’s MFA program, where he was a full-tuition fellow. His fiction has appeared in or is forthcoming from Pleiades, Pembroke Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Lunch Ticket, and Noble/Gas Quarterly. He is the recipient of the 2018 G.B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction, and was a finalist in Narrative’s 2014 Story Contest. He lives with his wife, daughter, and Boston terrier in Boston’s South End.
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