by Gabriela Barerra
The summer before I started college I worked at a firm called Baker Engineering and Risk Consultants. I remember my exit interview to be unorthodox, uncomfortable, different.
Michael, who wasn’t the boss but did all of her work anyway,
sat me down to talk about college. Specifically,
college for women and the 14-day rule. The 14-day rule or how
men, upperclassman, would normally “go”
for women in the first two weeks of school. Freshman girls, he said, caught up in their new free life were “at risk.”
Michael told me that I looked very unassuming. He told me to stop doing that.
10 days in to my new free life, the priest who administered my floor had us all meet in the common room.
He sat in front of the window, framed by the Potomac’s setting sun. I can’t say I remember all of what he said—I got distracted a few minutes into his speech. Stacked on the third shelf over his right shoulder was an odd shaped stranger. Curious, innocuous. An Ouija board peered at me from between Parcheesi and the
Game of Life.
I looked at the Father and then to the board and then back to him again and I wondered if a priest would purposefully put a tool of literal demonic summoning on a floor dedicated to living well.
By the time I decided not to bring it up, all that was left of him was a floating head supported by a thin slip of snow-white collar. His black button up had disappeared into the darkened sky, and the board was cast in shadow.
In my second week I attended the first ever information session for a new politics program on campus. The spectre of my mother, having told me to “make connections,” pushed me to talk to one of the coordinators after the event. A boy, tall, with taller hair, also needed to ask a question. Afterwards, we left in the same direction, chatting about something while I thought about needing to get to class. Right before our paths parted, he asked me for my phone number, and right after I entered class, he texted me and said I wanted to study with him. I agreed. I really needed to catch up on readings.
In one of those half-open group study rooms in the HFSC study building, me and the tall-haired boy sat down to work. We chatted, and when we fell silent to do our homework, I thought, uncertain, that maybe it was awk- wardfor me but not for him. At some point, I suppose he decided that the silence had stretched out for too long, and interrupted my work with the inexplicable sound of clinking glass.
A wine bottle.
A totally full, still yet unopened wine bottle,
complete with two glasses that had appeared from the previously submerged depths of his backpack. In broad sight. In HFSC.
At some point he said something and I could only nod because wow he just straight-up brought a bottle of wine to a study session and I couldn’t quite hear anything over the ridiculousness of it all.
So this boy pours two glasses and hands one to me and I wonder
how I’m supposed to do my homework while I’m holding a glass of wine in an HFSC study room. (On a Tuesday.)
But then something else happens.
And I don’t really know how to feel.
Because no boy has ever started touching me on the inside of my thigh.
So really the wine becomes pointless because I wasn’t enjoying this boy touching me (palm on thigh, curling inwards) and that I wanted this stranger to stop.
I wish I could say that I stopped him there.
But for some reason I didn’t think I could
so he kept saying soft words and I kept sitting there until suddenly his hand started traveling somewhere that wasn’t just my thigh and that made me spring out of my seat in a wine-colored terror.
He said more words after that but
I can’t say I remember any of them.
My own profuse apologies the only thing loud enough to drown out the embarrassed blood rush in my ears. And more hands from him, long fingers over my arm to ask me to stay, the frantic
stuffing of papers into my backpack and the rush of tears because once I left the room and realized I’d left something behind but couldn’t remember what.
When I got back to my dorm I tried to call my mom on a dead phone, my charger still plugged in an outlet on the other side of campus.
On Day 62 I felt like I could go to my first party. Somewhere in a house on 37th street, I filled my cup with plain orange juice and my friend, who had extended the invitation, toasted with me with her tool-shed drink.
I was nearing the end of my orange juice when I saw him, standing motionless in the middle of the noise. My friend — well she had noticed, too. Stumbling from the dance floor, arms windmilling wild onto my shoulders, she pulled me in close and drew my attention to the figure. She said something to me, a mere Day 62 friend, in a surge of words she could not keep from escaping. When she was done she leaned heavily against me, quiet, as if realizing what had been revealed: this terrible secret of her shame that wasn’t hers to bear. Stricken, I didn’t know what to do, left feeling cold from the bile of those truths.
It took me 8 more days to figure out how to pull it off. 10 after that to make it happen. Double-edge questions to various religious figures, the internet, and then a series of texts to reconnect with him (honestly too easy) and apologize for freak- ing out lol I totally didn’t mean to leave you in HFSC and an ask to meet up for coffee. Another three days after that for a follow-up invite. The perfect autumn time when the stranger from the common room could step into the space of believ- able actability. A final text to say let’s test this thing I found and my making sure that we met somewhere over a bunch of dead bodies because breaking the rules sometimes is the only way we can win.
at the cemetery
with an old friend tucked under my arm,
still peering, still silent,
and when I saw him jump the fence and ungainly
slide down the short slope, I knew he had no idea what was about to happen.
(Ouija board rules dictate two primary warnings. Don’t use the board alone (check), and don’t use it in a graveyard (decidedly uncheck). Something about accidental possession, or whatever.)
See, the thing is, people like him don’t have demons. They don’t think themselves wrong or capable of harm. He walks over people like he walks over the dead: careless: oblivious. That’s why I knew when I purposefully skewed the rules of the board that it would be him taken and not me. Because I was less afraid of what might come out of the board than I was of people like him. Because I already had my demons. I already had things that had settled under my skin.
It’s your turn, dickwad.