Society spends a lot of effort belittling kids who delay having sex. We say it's about personal choice because we're liberal, and then let MTV dictate.
Come be one of us at Wesleyan.
I was twelve and knew. He'd slapped me twice, but I wasn't crying from that. I wasn't even crying from the pain. I was crying because I was going to die.
My parents, the nurse at the hospital and the policewoman were the only ones with whom I ever talked about it. The officer was nice, but they never caught the man. I was glad, as I'd have had to talk some more.
It's a long time not to talk.
Some of my classmates went to places like Ohio State or Purdue, but Wesleyan was right for me. Smaller classes; Dad researched the statistics. Safer, my Mom's prod. Both true, but from the perspective of a 20-year-old, also more fun. Hayes Hall was definitely the place to live, not in some snotty sorority. We did stuff as dormies, made popcorn, bought a six-pack one time. A half-can was enough to give me a hangover, sort of a headache, anyway. People who think Wesleyan's pretty straight can think that, if they wish.
Junior year was when I'd have to decide between English and History. Or even a double major if I chose enough classes that counted both ways. Maybe I'd go to graduate school in American Literature, but if I did that, wouldn't it be smart to have the background in American History? Keep thinking ahead.
The problem with Liberal Arts, of course, is that it's liberal. Science, for example: a full year of something. In my opinion, a semester of Intro to Astronomy, followed by, say, Intro to Environmental Awareness is "Liberal". But something both 101 and 102? Punishment.
The survivable sequence was Chemistry. I'd aced it in high school and everybody said that Chem 101 was the same material, balancing chemical equations and learning to use graduated cylinders. 101 would bring back what I'd learned in high school and I'd be more-or-less set for 102. I'd memorize my notes, of course, and probably hardly jeopardize my grade-point. But who really cares about valences?
I probably should have knocked off science my Freshman year, but what Freshman thinks ahead? It's, where's the bookstore?
Plan of Study: Chem 101, Fall Semester. Chem 102, Spring. Science requirement, goodbye.
But the first 101 lecture made me realize how old I was. I'd just come from "Writing in Postmodern World". Really interesting and there were Seniors taking it too! I'd hardly known an author in the reading list, and I read a lot! Postmodern would be so much fun!
Then this! Almost everybody in the Chemistry lecture was an underclassperson. (Not "underclassman". Wesleyan women are not "men". Am I already a postmodern writer? Maybe not, as I see I said "Freshman" a couple of paragraphs earlier. )
The smirks of fellow note-takers when the professor defined "chemistry" dispelled my hope of academic advantage. Half these kids were probably just out of AP class last year. I wrote down the definition, "the branch of natural science dealing with the composition of substances, their properties and reactions." She'd probably ask it in a test.
At least the text appeared to emphasize current issues. Global warming, reproductive health in Africa and aquaculture merited mention in the first chapter. No electrons, though they'd be coming. When I thumbed up to the diagram of Nitrogen doing different things with Oxygen, it looked sort of familiar.
Lab was once per week. The first order of business was safety: Safety glasses; Reagent labels; Never suck a pipette; How to light a Bunsen burner; Excess chemicals don't go down the drain. Maybe I should have tried Astronomy, I wondered? Telescopes are pretty safe and a lot less boring.
Only at the end of the session were we told to pair up for locker assignment.
I looked around for a girl, realizing too late that the candidates were vaporizing. By the time I'd figured out that much, it was down to me and a guy in a red and white Wesleyan sweatshirt. Why would anybody wear one to class? He was still looking around the room.
Well, it's just once a week, I figured. "Need a partner?"
When he looked at me, I saw it. It's not something most people catch, because they don't know. It's your flash of relief when you realize that you're not totally alone. You got chosen, at least this time. If you're not alone a lot of the time, you wouldn't know it. It's not about being where nobody else is. It's about even if they're there.
"Sure. I mean if you need one."
"Why not?" It wasn't as if we had much choice. "I'm JoAnne." Being a Junior made me a little more socially adept.
"I'm Arthur," sticking out his hand as probably his parents instructed him. "At least I had this stuff last year," he added, "You?"
"Three years ago and never thought of it since," I admitted as we headed toward an open bench.
"No sweat. So how come you're in here," acknowledging my seniority.
"English major," seeing no reason to note that it might be History too.
"Pre-med," he confessed. "My Dad's a doctor."
"Cool." My dad sells Ford tractors, but I didn't say it.
"I guess," his halfhearted response, then changing the subject. "Know Barbara Kingsolver?"
He read her? "Absolutely. You wouldn't want to study American Literature if you just had to study Washington Irving."
"I sorta feel like she's writing about me, in my head, I mean." He paused, probably remembering that I was in English. "But maybe I missed some stuff."
"Prof. Gillespie uses her in Creative Writing. You see how her characters make each other real."
"But my dad's a doctor," explained my Lab partner as we practiced titration for the instructor check-off. He looked around. "You got a calculator? We can figure out how much of this stuff we'll use and just write that many milliliters in our books. Not exactly, just close."
Arthur seemed sort of like whom you'd want for a Lab partner.
"I bought one for this class. It says it does exponents," I was pleased to reveal. I wasn't that sure Chemistry used exponents, but it didn't cost any more.
My acquaintance indicated his sweatshirt. "Need my lab coat so I don't mess it up. Graduation present, free from this place for doing early admission."
Maybe once a week in Lab would be enough, I realized. A Junior wouldn't in a million years admit she'd done early admissions.
The semester chugged along, Chemistry Lab being a manageable part: "Formula of a Metal Oxide", "An Equilibrium Constant", "LeChatelier's Principle". Not that I understood LeChatelier, but I'm pretty good at reading. Chemistry was just a requirement, nothing related to my life.
But maybe I liked Lab just a little bit. Lab was where we'd do something more than take notes and balance electrons and protons. Lab was where we'd see things happen.
"Partners" was how the instructor named us, not our doing. All it meant was that we did a job together. But Arthur's being there was a thing I came to appreciate. Doing something together is more than doing nothing alone, if that makes sense. Arthur and I were good partners, taking our turns measuring and note-taking, adjusting the flame, washing our glassware. Despite his insight into fabrication of believable results, we always did the whole experiment to make sure we had the technique. We'd always wear our safety glasses.
And maybe he didn't mind my presence. Sometimes it's just nice to have someplace to go, knowing that somebody's counting on you to do your half.
Once Arthur brought two brownies. We might get hungry "waiting for the precipitate." Why was that so funny? His mom had sent the brownies by mail, a mom-type thing. I ate mine, even if it was a bit dry, and told him we could maybe brew herbal tea in a beaker. But we didn't want to jeopardize our grade, the instructor being serious about glassware.
One time we were recording temperatures to see if energy was being released ("Exothermic", the answer to a certain quiz question) and I ended up with Arthur's pen, one of those ballpoints that make you want to doodle.
"How 'bout you keep it and write a story about Chemistry someday."
Anyway, I kept the pen. Nobody had ever just given me their pen before. Birthday presents, sure, but not their good pen. ("Nobody" and "their" are grammatically incongruent, according to Prof. Stewart, but an acceptable alternative to "his or her". Want a fun assignment? Inclusive Hemingway! I got a 94.)
I put the pen in the inner pocket of my backpack where I'd not lose it. How'd anybody write a story about Chemistry? Na plus Cl makes salt.
"Thanks," I replied, rather pleased. "So here, you keep my yellow highlighter, then." I couldn't think of why he'd need it, but suddenly I wanted him to have something of mine.
He didn't ask why, just seemed pleased as well.
We were converting a carbonate to a chloride, according to the handout, when Arthur and I bumped, an accident on both our parts, me leaning to get the flask, him reaching for the stirring rod. It couldn't have been more than a second.
But it didn't take the second for me to jerk away, so quickly, in fact, that I nearly spilled the solution.
It took Arthur more than the second to register my reflex. By the time he linked having accidentally bumped my breast and its consequence, I was appallingly embarrassed. JoAnne once more the fool!
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize..." he volunteered.
"My fault. I wasn't..." interrupting to erase the moment. "I don't think I spilled any," I assured, maybe just assuring myself that it was already behind me.
Arthur started to say something more, then tried to get me to smile. "They wouldn't want a klutz like me mixing up the formula for a Plutonium bomb."
He must think I'm a real jerk!
Leaving Lab, though, I guess I felt I owed Arthur something. It wasn't his fault. "Sorry about that, me being weird."
"It's not weird to want your space. Everybody does."
I thought about it. My space?
He must have guessed what I was thinking. He could have just done the easy thing and not helped me put on my backpack, me being apparently big into some kind of personal space fixation.
But I guess he saw the strap was twisted.
Wesleyan's not that big a campus, but it's big enough to fade to where people who see you didn't really see you. But when someone sees you every week, you get seen more often.
I'd be climbing the steps to Appleton Hall and down would race Arthur. "Hi, JoAnne," rushing onward to wherever Freshmen rush to. They don't know to work out efficient schedules.
Or in the Library. There would be Arthur laden with atlases. "Hey, JoAnne. I'm parked up by the fire exit. Plenty of space if you want to spread out." I'd follow and we might share little more than, "Gotta go. See you," when the time came.
Or in Chemistry lecture. Arthur liked sitting up towards the left. We'd even sit side-by-side so I could check his notes for the +'s and -'s on the ions. I'd had lectures in that hall before, but sat wherever, not by a partner.
Sometimes I'd get to Appleton a little too early and be on the steps. "Hey, Arthur. Fire's that-a way!"
The thing about Wesleyan is that it can sort of work out to see somebody a few times per week.
It was heading into the corridor after lecture that Arthur noted the looming midterm. We might want to drill each other on at least the inevitable vocabulary.
I guess it was all the hype about "inclusiveness" that sparked my suggestion that we study in the Women's Center. It's probably the most comfortable lounge on campus. I'd go there a lot and almost decided one time that maybe I could talk to someone about when I was twelve. But all the posters were about more important issues.
Arthur balked, but I told him it was "Women's Center" in its name, but it's about removing boundaries. None of the women in the inner sanctum had nerve enough to expel us. Maybe they thought he was a journalism student. Actually, I kind of liked knowing they were pissed off, that maybe we'd interrupted a discussion of menopause, or whatever. I didn't tell Arthur, though.
They invented this place to empower girls like me, so they love to say. And here I am getting empowered by waltzing a guy right into their Goddess study area! I hoped Arthur didn't mind pictures of women giving birth. He says he's going to be a doctor.
We ran through the vocabulary until we knew the definitions cold. Me, literally; Arthur, conceptually. Having assured one another that we were first-class chemists by midterm criteria, at least, we pulled ourselves up to go.
But Arthur wanted to add something. "I'm really glad we're Lab partners, JoAnne. It's kinda fun sometimes, even." Did the Georgia O'Keefe posters empower him too? I wouldn't think so.
Well, shoot, Arthur, I thought, it's kind of fun for me, too. But so what? I countered. We're just Lab partners. It's good to know with whom you'll be working, that he knows what the experiment's about and does his share at cleanup. It just made good sense.
But my voice outpaced my analysis. "Arthur, that's so sweet!" Why did I say that? Sure, he's a nice person, but why'd he be sweet? To me, anyway?
But, damn it! (And I never swear like that, but I know that's exactly how it flashed through my brain.) It was sweet what he said and he is sweet and it's OK to know it.
But where do you go after you admit to someone that he's sweet.
When he helped with my backpack, I know I protracted that extra instant when his hand was between the strap and my shoulder. My space.
I suppose most real dating starts out seeing enough of someone to decide to make it more deliberate. In my case, though, Dating 101 (what we called it in the dorm) was more of a theoretical issue. I hadn't done much lab-work, so to speak, unless you count Methodist Youth Fellowship outings. In high school, I'd always been super busy with things like Yearbook to even notice that the Prom was coming.
At Wesleyan, there was always lots to do around the dorm on weekends. Maybe some of us would go out to a movie. Maybe we'd order a pizza. Once we even had a sleepover in the hallway, which makes no sense, which was why it was so fun.
Besides, I was two years older than Arthur. Besides, I was really busy with my reading lists. Besides, I probably knew so much about Barbara Kingsolver that I'd bore him to death. Juniors don't date Freshmen.
So when Arthur asked me if I wanted to watch the women's volleyball game, I said, "Yes" before he got to "game". I should have at least asked whom we were playing, but I'd already accepted.
Maybe he'd figured I'd be busy or something, or at least have some convoluted response, because the brevity of my acceptance left him with no more follow-up than a sheepish grin.
Probably that's how I looked, too, except it probably wasn't sheepish.
Wesleyan's the "Battling Bishops". Tall girls diving for saves are Bishops? It's possible one or two of them will become Bishops in the United Methodist Church (almost obligatory, to make up for historical imbalance, they argue), but basically it's a bad name.
We won, even!
And every girl on my floor knew that I got asked out and did things like giving me high-fives in the hallway and nobody cared if he was a Freshman.
The walk to the football stadium (Homecoming against league-leading Wabash, pure animals) was how Wesleyan recruits. Fall skies, yellow and orange and red foliage, fans toting picnic baskets, the marching band's drums. Come be one of us at Wesleyan!
It was just two idle hands, Arthur's left and my right, that found each other. Come be one of us at Wesleyan!
It was the long pass, half the length of the field, that got the Battling Bishops on our feet. Thousands of eyes watched the ball loft into the hands of the receiver already behind Wabash's defense.
I grabbed Arthur's arm in the frenzy of promised victory.
The band was blasting when I realized how tightly I was holding. Ten times, no twenty, more than when we'd bumped doing the experiment. I guess he knew. He didn't mind, anyway, still cheering about the Hail Mary. (You can't say Methodists aren't ecumenical. We'll use whatever theology gets us across the goal line.)
I stayed like that all the way through the extra point.
Wesleyan's about excellence in education, not necks bigger than hat size. We scored decisively, just not as many times.
Walking back, we again held hands, but I didn't take his arm, not having a touchdown for context. You can't just take the arm of a guy, though with the briskness of autumn, maybe you could.
We promised to meet at the Library tomorrow, but not for Chemistry. We agreed that we had that under control. It's easier to study if somebody else is studying hard too. That's what I said, anyway, but wasn't sure what I needed to study.
That night I put my arm against me the way Arthur's had been. I can't really claim I fooled my body, that I didn't know it was my own arm against the side of my breast, but something happened that wasn't only me.
The Women's Center bookshelf says that some victims have difficulty with orgasm in their adulthood. Something got stolen. Me, though, I could masturbate maybe even too easily. It hardly took more than just two fingers. I suppose it wasn't too healthy, but I didn't really care. It wasn't the penis that the man made me watch. What I envisioned making love to me wasn't like his at all. His was forgotten for a few minutes.
Thinking about Arthur, his arm against my breast, was different yet. Nobody was making me naked, making me watch. Arthur and I were jumping together, cheering.
When I came, Arthur and I weren't even nude together. I was just holding his arm while autumn leaves whirl-winded around us with every convulsion.
Every girl in Hayes was happy that I had a boyfriend. Maybe I said earlier that sorority girls are sort of snots sometimes? Not all of them, just some. Well, dorm girls are really nice! Arthur said that it was so embarrassing how he'd be walking across campus and some girl he hardly recognized would call out, "Hey, Arthur." But I knew he liked it.
I've no idea at all what the guys in Arthur's dorm thought, but I suppose they figured that an older girl would probably really put out. Guys think more that way.
But I didn't do anything I shouldn't. I let Arthur kiss me when he'd drop me back at Hayes and I'd let him kiss me behind the Library. There was a bench there and I could kiss him back better.
I didn't mind if we touched when we walked. You just take their arm. Some girls say to go without your bra so he'll know you like it, but I never did that. He knew anyway.
When we hugged, wherever he touched was fine. Even if I were sitting on his lap in the dark and he'd have his arms around my chest, it was OK. We were hugging.
But I just didn't want Arthur reaching for me. The man had reached and I'd just stood there.
After a few deflections (which left me uncomfortable, too), Arthur realized where my space started. He accepted it, but he wasn't dumb. "Dumb" means "stupid", right? He wasn't stupid. But he also wasn't dumb the way I was, where "dumb" means "silent". Partners sometimes just ask.
"You got hurt, right?" He didn't seem sure of how to ask, but at least he tried.
"I guess." Sometimes a partner knows what's being queried.
"Well it doesn't change anything, but it makes me sad, too."
"Who says I'm sad? You don't even know." We were just Lab partners, I made myself remember. And it wasn't like I went around looking glum all the time.
"No, but I guess I care."
Nobody had ever really cared except for my folks and the policewoman.
"It was a long time ago, anyway," I concluded, looking for my pack.
But I started to cry. Right there in front of somebody.
It wasn't what the man had done that I most remembered, though everything he'd done I could list. Those memories were film from the eyeholes of an empty statue.