Copyrighted by Joel Selmeier 11/3/2022
Usually, men do not have a steely, “I’m tired of this,” well-practiced, No on the tips of their tongues, no matter how good looking they are, because they can sit alone at a bar all week without a woman trying to buy them a drink, so they do not get much practice. Although it does happen. Like one-time when Jim was sitting in Meadowbrook Pizza, a small, worn, cement block tavern in Anderson, Indiana, that happens to have the most highly rated pizza in the region even though it is more smokey tavern than pizza parlor. The men around the bar all appeared to be over seventy. The sign on the bathroom door said, “If you have to poop, go home. Don’t clog the toilet.” Jim was at the last high table before the bar, by himself with his back to the entrance. The door clanged whenever someone entered, but he never looked to see who it was unless they crossed into his view on the way to the bar. So, he didn’t see anyone sit at the tables behind him.
He was finishing a hoagie when Michelle, the short, sweet-voiced, middle-aged waitress wearing, as usual, silver riveted denim, came to him, having a delightful time relaying the message, and said, “The woman over there would like to buy you a drink.” When he turned to see who it was, the woman smiled and took a drag on her cigarette, which was legal in taverns in Indiana. He smiled back and held up a finger to indicate he would be right over. She nodded. As he took his last bites and put money on the table for his bill, he was thinking that she probably thought he was older than he was. He was too young to be in this place. This had been a favorite haunt of his, now former, first real girlfriend, Julie, who was a senior. He was a freshman and not yet twenty-one, but apparently people assumed he was older when he was with her. Here at the end of his freshman year he had come for one last visit. He carried his Coke to the woman behind him.
She was a few years older too. Her name was Deb. She worked an hour away in Indianapolis but had wanted to get away for a day or two.
“So, you came here?”
Looking at him wryly, she said, “I heard about their pizza.”
With her cigarette in one hand and playing with the lighter with her other hand, she said, “You don’t smoke, do you?” and started blowing her smoke away from him.
“Students at Anderson University,” he muttered, “could get expelled for tobacco or alcohol.” The student manual specifically specified “on campus or on streets contiguous to campus,” and that was three miles away, but still… Deb knew “where no one would see whatever you might smoke or drink.” The conversation continued without his acknowledging her having said that. Seeing that he was not going to drink she did not touch hers again. With hair and makeup better than a teacher would have, perfect red fingernails but about the same attire, he guessed she had gotten a two-year vocational degree and then a job with some responsibility. She was out in the working world where, he could tell, she had picked up social skills he did not have. She put out her unfinished cigarette trying to meet him on his level. Julie had said he didn’t have a level anyone could get to “you live so much in your head” when she was breaking up with him.
Fortunately, he had an out. Deb was a nice person. She was a good person to talk to and he did not want to be unkind, but he had a prior commitment and when he made a commitment, he kept it, even when it had been made only to himself. Earlier he had decided that evening he would listen to a guest speaker on campus who had come to say that miracles are true whether or not they violate the laws of nature because God made those laws, and he did not make them apply to himself. God purposely violated those laws so that we would know it was him performing those miracles. So, they could be cited as proof of his existence even if only one person saw them.”
She said, “People buy that?”
“He has sold many books.”
“You believe it?”
“It’s not the first time I heard it argued, but it’s still an argument.”
“Why are you going?”
He was a student and was going to give yet another lecturer another opportunity to try. Rising from his seat at twenty to eight he finished the last gulp of his Coke saying it was a ten-minute drive back to campus. Did she want to come hear the lecture? All she did was look at him. So, without using the word either, she was the one saying No. Even at a time like this time he did not get to start using that word. He shrugged and walked away.
Michelle stopped by the table to see if Deb needed anything else. “I was hoping you’d get somewhere with him.”
“How can anyone that smart be so clueless?”
“He used to come here with a woman. Ever since he just looks sad.”
Picking her cigarette back up, Deb said, “I thought I might have been able to cheer him up.”
“I was hoping you would too.”
Picking up her lighter and lighting it, she said, “Guys that innocent get in trouble just because they don’t see it’s about to land in their laps.”
“He’s the nicest guy. He remembers my name and talks to me and tips well.”
“Perhaps offering to buy him a drink was so overt he saw it coming. Perhaps if I hadn’t been smoking and instead asked if he could help me with something, like fix something in my car…”
“One time he stood here and talked to me while watching to see how I make the pizzas.”
“He’s that lonely?”
When he arrived at the lecture hall, he knew that inside the people around him would smell cigarette smoke on him. That made him reflect on whether going in was wise, but he had had this problem with Julie too. One of the reasons he chose this college was to get away from all the alcohol and tobacco and other stimulants that so preoccupied so many people. And then he spent most of the last year with Julie who was as preoccupied as you could be with such things. He went into the lecture thinking, “At least they are not going to smell perfume on me this time.”
This was before cellphones and computers, a time when evangelists could be counted on to arrive once in a while wherever you might be, without your going to hear one of them lecture, as two did a few months later, a few weeks into the fall term, when Jim and Emma were in Mocha Joe’s in the student center studying. It was only by happenstance that they were near each other. Each had noticed the other but had not met, and might never have spoken, if not for the evangelists who sat down next to Jim to try to lead him to their particular brand of Jesus. They told him that if everyone just loved everyone else more and more it would end war and crime and rape, etc.
Emma wondered if this kind of thing happened often at college. She did not know what she would have done if they had chosen her for their pitch. She dropped all pretense of studying and sat watching to see how Jim handled it. Both evangelists were wearing cheap slacks and ironed shirts. One did all the talking and repeatedly held out his hands as though he were about to grasp a basketball. The other appeared to be in training, listening and learning how to bring people into their fold while leaning on his elbows on his knees quietly. After the first one had droned on for a while, Jim finally said, “Is love a function of time?”
“What do you mean?”
“To love someone more you need to spend more time with them.”
“Yes. Of course.”
“And isn’t man a finite being?”
“Here on earth?”
“We have only so many hours here on earth, right?”
“So, then there is a limited amount of time here on earth in which to love everyone. So, the more people we spread our time over, the more shallow that love will be because there is only so much time.”
It was clear the guy did not agree but had no words to counter this. The guy who was in training was looking at Jim nodding slightly in agreement. When they left Emma said, “You sure put him away.”
“He didn’t know what to do, other than flee.”
“I don’t think they study here. Why would you come to a religious college to find people to preach to? He’s probably going back to whoever is training him to ask what to say next time. People like that never understand when they are wrong. Eventually he will get so he will change the subject when he is shown to be wrong and raise a different point. When you put that point away, he will raise another and then another and then another until he is out of points that have not been put away, and then circle back to the original one and state it as though it still were a valid thing to say.”
“I’ve been through that.”
“I haven’t learned not get drawn into it. I end up trying to come up with a completely new response each time they circle back and repeat the same question. It puts me in the position of running out of new answers instead of just saying, ‘You didn’t hear me the first time? You need me to repeat it? Is your memory that short? Your argument is bullshit and you are wrong. Go away’.”
“Are you a philosophy major?” asked Emma.
“Biology because we don’t have Geology.”
“We don’t have Geology?”
Dropping her tone sarcastically Emma offered, “Strata millions of years old might compromise someone’s faith.”
“I could argue against that.”
“You argue a lot?”
“I can be drawn into one. Even about love apparently.”
Jim turned to look directly at her. “A couple who have been married fifty years and have hardly spoken in twenty-five but know in the bottom of their hearts they are the only ones for each other – how much more complicated than that does love need to be?”
“That’s really sweet.”
“People staying together is fundamental to making society stable, isn’t it?”
“Isn’t the theme here that faith does that?”
“Faith hasn’t made my weekends stable.”
She laughed saying, “Yeah, really.”
Looking away he said, “I did feel that once though.”
“A stable weekend?”
“Seeing a person, someone you might have known for a long time, without ever before having realized how important they were to you, and in that moment all the surrounding mayhem became peripheral. Apparently, all it takes is seeing the right person to make my weekend stable.”
“Very nice. Where is she now?”
“Um.” Jim hesitated, “It was a friend… A guy.”
“No. Not like that. Nothing gay about it.”
“You’d have to keep that quiet here.”
“Oh, Jesus. Once someone thinks that . . . what does it take to get them off that idea?”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
“He is just a friend.”
“Did you ever hug him?”
“No, no, no. It’s not like that.”
“Are we in an argument now?”
“Look, if right now you said you wanted to get naked with me, I would thank my lucky stars. But if he said that, I would tell him that we need to find him a woman… or whatever.”
“This is the first time in my life that such an overt come-on made me think, ‘Yeah. Okay. Let’s get naked.’ You’re really good at this.” He sat looking at her silently. “Now you have nothing to say?”
“I am not aware of ever before having said anything that had that effect. I’m trying to figure out how to do it again.”
She laughed again, “I would not have expected you’d ever have a moment when you didn’t know what to say.”
“This moment is one I have not experienced before – an attractive woman I don’t know saying, ‘Okay. Let’s get naked’.”
“And you are trying to figure out how to do that again?”
“Absolutely. But I cannot imagine what words could do that again.”
“I’ll bet you’ve had that effect on women before but just didn’t know it. Maybe even without words.”
“I believe in not using words, whenever possible. But all we study is words. At this moment I’m reading Chaucer’s portrayal of religion as a corrupting force. And they teach that here but don’t teach geology? Although it is words we need when two religious fanatics arrive. But if you can communicate without words . . . that can be so much better.”
She said, “Maybe that’s what I will need. If it turns out they don’t teach evolution in biology maybe my response should not be in words.”
“I believe they do teach it here.”
“I believe that science is viewed as just a different way of looking at reality.”
“Then why don’t we have geology?”
“I’ll bet Chaucer has nothing to say about that either.”
Changing gears she said, “Why does anyone study him?”
“He was the first to write stories in English. Everything started with him.”
“Mark Twain started that, didn’t he?”
“Ha ha. Right.”
“What year are you?”
“Freshman. You?” she asked.
“Sophomore. So, two weeks into your first year, how are things going?”
“My first day I set my luggage down in my room, closed the door, and yelled Yahoo. No parents. No sharing a bathroom with siblings. No one staring at a watch waiting for me to get home Friday night. It’s the best time of my life so far.”
“Chaucer did have something to say about that. ’Welcome to the New World. God save you, if it is right that he should do so. . .’ His way of saying, ‘I did that too last year’ and made friends the very first day.”
She said, “You make friends in five minutes here.”
“No one told me that.”
“It’s one of the best things about college, isn’t it?”
“That and being able to stay out as late as you want. Some Friday I want to stay awake until Sunday. Get back just in time for chapel.”
“Well, not awake awake. I mean, I don’t know. Just out. It’s a thought. I don’t know.”
In another hour he would think about how easily she and he fell into long conversations. Not everyone could go there with him. He asked, “Which dorm are you in?”
“So, we’re neighbors,” she said.
“The Smartin Courtyard Wars.” Freshman never understood what this was about until it happened. Her residence hall and his shared a courtyard. This was a campus with a peace pole and a peace and conflict transformation center. Yet, when two different residence halls shared a courtyard, control of it was not shared by having three people chosen from each hall sit together on a board to make decisions peacefully. Instead, they fought for it each year. Whichever house won got control it for the next year. The war consisted of games like Capture the Flag and a water balloon fight, competitions that might have been dominated by taller, stronger guys except that to even things out the women were the ones who got to choose when the events would take place. They chose times like when the largest guys would be at football practice.
Since they still were talking when it was time for dinner, they walked to the cafeteria and continued talking while eating. But it was a weeknight. He needed to read Chaucer. She had homework too. They walked together until their paths diverged and agreed they must talk again.
A few days later he was eating alone in the cafeteria thinking about Jeremiah 17:9, Old Testament stuff, when she sat down with him. He liked her initiative and tried to think of a quote to express that, but the moment passed before he thought of one. After that, on his half unconscious list of things to do, was find a quote in case one ever was needed again. A couple of days later he was waiting in line for lunch when she put her arms around him from behind in a hug and whispered, “I thought the people behind you wouldn’t get upset when I cut in line if I did it with a hug.”
It had not been long enough for him to have come up with anything more subtle, but it was so over the top he thought it might work better anyway and said, “Your arrival has saved me from suffering shipwreck and perishing in the waves.”
She laughed, “Is that a quote from someone?”
“Of course. Rewritten and out of context, but of course.”
He liked hanging with her. They got in the habit of looking for each other. When either of them went to the library or Mocha Joe’s or chapel, they looked for and started finding each other. He was away that weekend. He had promised his father he would go home to help cover the pool for winter. While he was gone, she wondered if he had a girlfriend back home. Monday, when he was back in town, he was in line when she cut in with that hug from behind again. He wondered if she did that with other guys when he was gone for the weekend.
The next weekend, on a Sunday, during weekend Open House hours, Emma delivered to Jim’s room a plate of brownies that she had just baked. His roommate, Don, was there and said that Jim wasn’t back from IU yet, but he would be sometime that day. She saw behind him in the room Jim’s plaster naked lady and wanted to come in to look at it. Don ushered the way.
“Where did he get it?” she asked.
“His sister gave it to him. For graduation.”
“From high school?”
“That’s funny.” The bottom three feet were like a pedestal from an ancient Greek sculpture. The top three feet were a modern woman from the thighs up, apparently cast from a real one, with a modern hairdo. “This was in his room all last year?”
“And no one from the university said anything?
“Oh, they said things. But he can talk.”
“I have experienced that.” Running her hand up its back she said, “It’s so realistic. I guess I know how the breasts got shiny. It’s had lots of visitors?”
“Wouldn’t fondling breasts be a public display of affection even if she’s plaster?”
“Part of what Jim said is that because you can’t see it from the sidewalk it’s not public.”
“Has he got a real one of these at IU?”
“He tells me he goes there for the library.”
It was late Sunday night when Jim returned and found the brownies. Too late, he thought, to call her. He thought he would thank her Monday when he saw her someplace on campus. But their paths did not cross. Then, on Tuesday when Jim was not in his room, Emma knocked at his door again. Don answered. She had arrived with two friends and some fabric. They had come to sew a bikini on the naked lady. Since there were no Open House hours during the week Don asked, “Did the RA give permission?”
“Your RA laughed.” So, Don laughed. Emma said, “Afterall, we’re just trying to cover the public display of naked woman.”
Don sat, half doing homework’ while watching as the three women cut cloth, sewed it together, and fit the plaster lady with a bikini made out of old tee shirt material. This took a couple of hours because they did not have much experience sewing, were making a bikini for the first time, and were not in a hurry. Don got almost no homework done but had a pleasant evening with their giggling.
When relaying the saga to Jim, Don mentioned that one of the two women with Emma, the one named Missy, might be too short for Jim but was hot enough to cast in plaster. Not built like the cast one, but quite cute. She probably was not much taller than 5 feet and Jim was over 6 feet. So, if Jim was not interested in her, Don was.
Jim went to a payphone and called Emma.
“This is Jim.”
“Yeah. Hi, Jim.”
“Well, first for the brownies. They were great. But also, for donating free clothes to a homeless chick.”
“Oh. Ha ha.”
“That was you, right?”
“Us. Three of us.”
“Well, the naked chick is cooler now than she was before.”
“It’s got a story now.”
“Three inept sewers . . . “
“That is half of what is amusing.”
“A Raggedy Ann bikini obviously homemade by people with a sense of humor.”
“Raggedy Ann was a cute, innocent, little doll made a certain way.”
“But of rags, right?”
“I don’t think you could call this Raggedy Ann.”
“Okay. Not rags.”
“We used one of Missy’s old tie-died tee shirts.”
“Okay then. Expertly designed and sewn by a crack team of funny people.”
“Ha, ha. Right.”
Jim said, “Either way, I owe you.”
“Oh? What do you owe me?”
“All three of you. You gave me a bikini. How about I give you three a pizza?”
They decided to do it the next night, Wednesday night. He said, “I’ll pick you up.”
Jim’s parents had bought him a car telling him he studied too much. They wanted him to have some fun while he was in college and not just drive to bigger libraries, but to take a date into Indianapolis and do something fun. This was as close as he had gotten to that – driving his three dates out for Pizza. On the way, he asked if they had been to the Lemon Drop yet. They had not. It was the oldest restaurant in Anderson. It was built in the 50s and still had the same décor. If you wanted to eat like your grandparents and get a phosphate or an onion burger, you could do it in the very place they could have, which seemed like something they thought everyone should do once before leaving Anderson.
It was a clean, low, flat roofed, cement block building painted a yellow that was nearly fluorescent. Inside it had old wood paneling on the walls and ceiling with a model train running around the perimeter just below the ceiling on cheap white, wire shelving. While the two other seamstresses, Missy and Hailey, were deciding to split a banana split Perry Como was playing on the juke box. When they finally were eating it, Missy said that she wanted a statue like the plaster chick, but of a guy.
Hailey said, “I’d like to see which part of that becomes shiny.” Emma wasn’t sure girls would do that.
Missy said, “I’d make it shiny myself” and laughed. She was the most vocal one, partly because she said things that tended not to lead to anyone else saying anything, so then she spoke again. “I might have to make a bikini for it just to get homework done.”
Hailey said, “A bikini on a guy?”
“Works for me,” said Missy. “But I’m visually oriented.”
Hailey said that even Speedos are gross. Jim and Emma looked toward each other, but not directly at each other, feeling out how each other felt about being present for this conversation. But a while later they were making comments too as the discussion came around to the idea of the three making bikinis for themselves now that they had done a practice one. Missy asked Jim if he could drive them to water to try them out.
Jim said, “Absolutely.” Emma laughed.
Hailey said, “Where would we change?”
Jim said, “I have a tent.”
“Where do you have a tent?” asked Emma.
“In my trunk.”
“What do you have a tent for?”
Missy and Hailey listened to every word Jim and Emma said to each other for any clues about what might be going on between them. This was a question pointing directly at whether there were other women in his life.
“There are times when I travel to other universities because inter-library loans take too long. When books arrive, the references are to other books we don’t have and they have to be ordered too. It takes forever. So I drive to a larger library where the next source mentioned in a footnote is also in that library. Especially when that source mentions another source and you might go five or six books deep to get to the original source. But then the library closes at midnight, and you are miles away. But you have a tent.”
Missy said, “You need to get out more.” Everyone laughed. That relieved the tension over the possible purpose they worried the tent might have. “Is there a pond or a river around here where you have gone swimming?”
Missy said, “Okay. He’s got a car and a tent and knows where water is. We could make bikinis and help him get out more.”
Hailey said, “We should make one for him too?”
Missy said, “Of course.”
Jim said, “I’m not wearing a bikini.”
Missy said, “Awe. Come on,” but eventually gave in and said, “Okay. It wouldn’t be a bikini.”
He said he would be leery of wearing anything these three might make.
Hailey said, “If we went to a normal university, I’d say we just need enough beer.” And so, the conversation continued, two days later, on Friday as they were driving while still sewing what they had not had time to finish before leaving. Hailey said, “If there were not a tent in which to do the fittings…”
Missy said, “Fitting couldn’t be done in a car.”
Emma was beginning to wonder why she wasn’t wondering what she had gotten herself into. Jim just was confused. Emma wasn’t because this was happening with him. He was confused because this was happening with her. How was he supposed to react with other women? The other day, in the parking lot after the Lemon Drop, they thanked him with a triple hug. Emma was the only one tall enough to hug him from behind, and had done that before, so she did that again while the other two hugged him from in front. His arms had been around the ones in front. Was that okay? What else could he do? What should he do now? Should he feign no interest in even looking at them when they appeared in their rag bikinis? He had awakened the night before dreaming about this. If the bikini on the plaster chick was any indication, wow.
He was putting up the five-person tent while they still were sewing.
Missy said, “This is such a cool place.”
He said, “The water is quiet here. I thought you’d prefer that to trying out your handiwork in the rapids I normally might have stopped by.”
Emma said, “You normally stop by rapids that are not near a library?”
“We were freshman getting away from campus.”
“Is that why you have such a big tent?”
“It was the family tent when I was a kid. No one was using it anymore.”
He also had a cotton sleeping bag, from when he was a kid, that he spread out inside of it like a carpet for when they would be barefooted doing their fittings. After lots of giggling, when they came out of the tent, he looked at each one only long enough to compliment their artistry and then looked only into their eyes when not looking away in order not to leer. But, oh my.
Missy said, “It’s your turn.”
He said, “Oh no.”
“We made yours first.”
“I just… don’t know… “
“You have to at least try it on.”
Missy and Hailey were doing all the talking. They took him by the hands to drag him to the tent. He looked at Emma who showed no reaction. He didn’t know what the right thing to do was. But he didn’t make them have to drag too hard. So, they were able to drag and push him into the tent.
“It is right there laid out for you.”
He said, “It looks like a loin cloth.”
Missy said, “Would you rather have a speedo?”
Hailey said, “We think we made it long enough.”
He wanted to say that length wasn’t the only problem as they left him alone in the tent when Missy said, “And it doesn’t appear as though you brought any other clothes so if you wear your jockey shorts under that in the water then you won’t have any dry to wear when you get out of the water.” Hailey giggled. He wondered how Missy knew he was wearing jockey shorts. Was she that tuned in? To make it so that this tee shirt material he was wrapping around himself did not let his interest in them be so apparent, he concentrated on remembering what it felt like to dive into icy water. The shock of that clears your mind and every muscle in your body contracts. Which thought worked and he could step outside with the three of them appraising what they had created for him without drawing a guffaw.
Emma asked if there was a way to get to the water without walking through mud and weeds. Missy and Hailey watched intently as he picked her up and carried her into the water until it was hip deep for him, which would be waist deep for her, set her down, and called out to the other two. “Any problem for you with walking through some mud?”
They hadn’t seen any sign of anything going on between Emma and him, so Missy said, “Are you kidding? We want to be carried too.”
This, he knew, could be dangerous. He walked back through the mud with Missy and Hailey both staring straight at the loin cloth they had made, now that it was wet, without any inhibition about doing that even though Emma was watching them watch. He had been expecting to pick them up one at a time, but they already had the triple hug experience, and both wrapped themselves around him at the same time, one on each side. One advantage of this was each of them having one leg wrapped around his front in a way that would help to keep him decent, although it did result in contact that Emma also watched. He hoped his face gave no indication of how he felt about it.
The mud crowned barely over the top of his feet when he had walked through it alone. Carrying Emma, it was over the top of his feet. Carrying these two his one foot went deep enough to have to work to pull it out which, of course, pushed the other further in. It was not a graceful entrance to the water. But even in water up to his waist, they didn’t let go. They clung to him. He didn’t know if it was because they didn’t swim well or were afraid it might still be muddy out there, which it wasn’t, or because their legs had turned him on and there was no doubt about that in the tangle of their legs wrapped around him under water. He looked at Emma, half shrugged and slowly waded deeper. She gave no indication of how she felt about their clinging. He kept worrying he might be doing something wrong. He asked her, “How is your suit holding up to the water?”
“As long as I’m standing up straight and not moving too much it is working out okay. Theirs do not seem to be working out as well.”
“Then I’ll just keep looking at you.” Of course, what he could feel with their unlined, clinging suits soaking wet was about the same as if they were naked. Under their squirming legs his suit was about the same for them. And this water was not cold enough. So, he waded deeper while worrying about what Emma was thinking.
This last summer, when her parents had wanted her to start earning money, she had gotten a job as a lifeguard at a pool. She was tan, but the handmade suit did not match the tan lines of her guard bikini. What she was worried about was whether that looked unattractive to Jim. She and he had not been on a date. She didn’t know how to feel about Hailey’s and Missy’s giggling and conversation with Jim. It caused his mind to become cloudy, like it is when guys no longer are thinking with their brains. Emma could see that but didn’t know what it was okay for her to care about. She asked, “When you stopped here before…”
“Just once at this spot.”
“And slept here…“
“Hardly slept at all.”
“Male and female freshmen?”
Missy said, “You can spend the night here?”
Hailey said, “That would be so cool.”
Missy said, “Could we?”
Jim said to Emma, “Would this be the time you wanted to stay out all night?”
“Is it staying out when you’re camping? When you’re camping you’ve just gone to a different place to sleep. Is that staying out?”
“Waking up surrounded by trees and water is good.”
“You don’t have coffee, do you?”
Emma said, “Nooo. How do you heat it?”
Missy said, “Would we build a fire?”
Jim said, “I have a Coleman stove.”
Emma said, “In your trunk?”
“And dehydrated scrambled eggs. And cereal. And powdered milk. And water. How do you think I get through weekends at faraway libraries.” Watching him with Missy and Hailey, Emma wasn’t sure she should believe he visited only libraries.
Missy said, “This is so cool.”
Hailey said, “I never met anyone so prepared in my whole life.”
It was interesting to Jim that it all revolved around Emma. The other two appeared to dive into things also without thinking with their brains. Except their brains did appear to be fully engaged when watching for what was going on between him and Emma.
Emma asked, “How many sleeping bags do you have?”
“Blankets. There might be four in the trunk. It varies.”
Missy said, “Oh great.”
Hailey said, “Let’s do it.”
Emma started to walk to shore. Jim said, “Don’t. Let me carry you.” Missy and Hailey froze paying attention to that. There did not appear to be anything between them, but there were these things. Jim said to her, “There is no point in any of us taking muddy feet into the tent.” Was it really just keeping mud out of the tent, they wondered? He slid out from between them so he could pick up Emma. He carried her to the car, sat her on the hood of it while he took a floor mat out of the car, leaving her on the car while he walked to the tent and set it at the entrance like a Welcome mat. Then he gathered dorm towels from inside the car, handed them to her, and then picked her up and then set her down on the Welcome mat.
She said, “You’ve done this before.”
“With my mom and my sister.”
Emma almost asked, “You can carry your Mom?” but knew, whether in three words or three paragraphs, he would have an answer. So why continually make him feel doubted.
When he waded back into the water Missy and Hailey immediately sidled up to him putting their arms around him getting ready to be carried again.
Hailey said, “This is so cool.”
Missy said, “I could stay like this a long time.”
Hailey laid her head on his shoulder and said, “Me too.”
As they climbed onto him, his body wanted to be more than just entwined in their legs and he stood still for a moment thinking, “Somewhere is a forty-year-old guy dreaming about this. I am in the dream. And I have no idea what to do.” With Emma in the tent and probably not able to see, Hailey wrapped herself around him tighter and kissed him on the neck. Any portions of his brain that still had been functioning ceased. Without trying to avoid any of the contact that now was happening, he slowly turned around and began moving toward shore. Emma stuck her head out of the tent. He slowed down to keep covered enough by water. Emma withdrew and they continued out of the water to the tent where Missy said, “Look. It’s the floor mat from the car. How cool is that?”
As he walked back into the water to get his own mud off Emma reappeared and handed Missy and Hailey towels. After scraping off the mud, he looked for a way to get out of the water without getting muddy again, which turned out to be a branch further along the shore that was low enough to reach and climb into a tree to get to dry ground.
It had been dusk when they arrived. Out on the road there had been no need for headlights, although others might have turned them on. But once driving back through the trees anyone else would have. He did not want his eyes to have to adjust to the darkness when they arrived, so he didn’t.
When they had gotten out of the car it was dark, but you still could see to walk. But now, this much later, it was darker than that. Inside the tent it was totally dark. From inside of it, Missy handed out his dorm towel and said, “We are wearing ours to sleep in.” On the mat he dried off and wrapped his around himself, wrung out the loincloth, draped it over the point of a tent pole and stepped into the dark tent blindly.
One step in, unable to see anything, and rather than step on someone, he got down on all fours. He discovered someone to the right and then someone to the left and so crawled up the middle until he bumped into someone lying perpendicularly to the other two. She said, “Hi.” It was Emma. All there was room for him to do was roll onto his back with his head barely touching Emma’s hip. He wasn’t sure that was okay. She was under a blanket and touched his hair briefly saying, “There were only three blankets.”
“I’m fine in the towel.” Did she know where everyone else was lying? Whoever was on his left threw some of her blanket across him. Shortly the same thing came from the other side. Could Emma see this? Missy turned out to be on his left and put her head on his shoulder from under the blanket they now were sharing. Hailey had never had a guy do anything but welcome contact with her and so was comfortable approximating the posture she used when being carried to the water. She slid a bent knee across his thigh. He did not know what to do. Did Emma even know he was lying between the other two? No one moved for a while. Emma was so still he thought she must be asleep. Eventually Hailey rolled closer. He felt her hand on his stomach. She felt his stomach tighten in response which she took as a positive response, but still laid still for a long time thinking – a pause long enough for a sleep-deprived college student like Jim to doze off.
He didn’t know how long he had been asleep when he realized Hailey’s hand was wrapped around… Oh, my god. He inhaled deeply. To Hailey that sounded like joy, which it was, but also alarm. He thought he shouldn’t make that inhaling sound again lest he wake someone. He did not know what to do. It was amazing, being in a veritable three-person hug. Missy’s head was on his chest facing what was happening. She could be watching. Hailey started moving her hand up and down. He put his hand on her wrist to stop the movement. They stayed like that for a moment. He didn’t want to hurt her feelings. He didn’t want her to feel rejected. Actually, he didn’t want to stop her, but how much trouble was this going to cause? He wondered at what point he should have said No before this. Missy was watching and she was friends with Emma. Emma would hear about this. He lifted Hailey’s hand away and held it in his hand in the kindest way he could. Hailey, confused, waited for a long time to see what he was going to do with her hand, until he fell back to sleep wondering why life is so confusing.
When it started to get light, everyone was nearly where they had been the last time he was awake. He twisted his head to try to see where Emma was but could not see her face. He slipped from under the covers, found his clothes, took them outside and put them on.
A couple of days later he was in his dorm room when Missy arrived at his door poised to knock but heard a different door opening down the hall and walked on. Missy was not a shy person, but still she stood in a stairwell for a while thinking before returning to knock on Jim’s door. When Jim opened it, she could see that Don was there and asked Jim if they could go for a walk. Outside, when they got to where no one was within earshot, she stopped and put her arms around him holding her face to his chest and said, “I really liked holding you like this in your tent.”
“It was nice.”
“It gave me a lot to think about.”
“It didn’t give you anything to think about?”
He was worried she might be about to tell him that she told Emma about Hailey that night. “It’s all I’ve been thinking about. What have you been thinking?”
“I had no idea I could feel that way. What were you feeling?”
He said, “So wrapped up in warmth and affection.”
“I felt something like that too.”
“You were okay with there being only one of me but several of you?”
“More than okay. Frankly, shocked.”
“I watched Hailey.”
“I was worried about that. I’m sorry.”
“No. It was… it was… sooo good. That is what I keep thinking about. It was better than doing something like that myself. Does that seem wrong?”
“You’re a watcher?”
“I’m not sure. I want to find out. Would you help me?”
“How? Three of us in the tent again?”
“No. No. Someone else.”
“What do you mean?”
“I talked to Suzy about this. Do you know Suzy?”
“I don’t think so.”
“She knows who you are. I was talking about this in general and asked if she would let me watch her with someone. It seemed weird to her. And she asked what guy would ever do this. I asked if she knew who you were. Her eyes opened up and she said, ‘He’d let us?’ I said I didn’t know but I could ask. And she said that if you would let us, she was in.”
He was not meaning to say Yes when he did what guys habitually do, which is to solve any problem a damsel may have, and said, “It couldn’t be with someone here. We could get kicked out.” He only hypothetically was following a scenario he had not thought he had accepted. But, of course, it was received as though he had accepted. Missy said, “We could go to another campus where it would not generate gossip around us here.”
“I read that Picasso did that.”
“Not exactly this. Someone wrote that he had a woman in his life who brought young girls to him. I don’t know if it is true, but I read it.”
“So, like, the same way I asked Suzy, and she was willing, we would go to a mixer someplace and I could see if I could find anyone else who was willing? Like Picasso?” Only now did he realize he had not only had not said No. He had made a commitment, and thought Oh, my God… She hugged him saying, “Thank you. You are so understanding.” He was thinking he was in someone else’s dream again, but here in his reality he just was confused. Her hug was so nice. It was nice having her feel that he accepted her for who she was. Helping her felt like it was the thing he was designed to do. But this particular kind of help might not mesh with the gears with which he was built. There were so many ways this could go wrong.
Friday night, at a mixer at Marian University, a Catholic school, an hour away, with a student body composed mostly of female students, Missy said she didn’t know where to start. He pointed at someone and said, “How about her?”
“Of course, you should pick. I didn’t think of that. Okay.”
He hadn’t thought of that either. She presented a problem and reflexively he slayed the dragon again. Once again this was moving forward without his having thought to say No. A hundred people were standing in a circle around a dancing area in which not many were dancing. Missy did not know how to start but wandered into the vicinity of the woman in question. After a few minutes she turned to Jim and shrugged that she did not know what to do, then stepped out on the dance floor and danced by herself in front of the woman. When the song ended, she took a spot next to the woman and said, “Do guys ask us to dance here ever?”
“Not very often.”
“Didn’t think so. I came here with a guy.”
“Why aren’t you with him?”
“Okay. This is going to sound bizarre to you, but I brought him here because I want to try something. Last week I witnessed something that makes me think I might like watching people have sex more than having it myself.”
“I’ve heard of that.”
“So, I asked him if he would let me watch someone give him a hand job.”
“I know. Bizarre. But he is such a nice guy. He doesn’t know how to say No.”
“Are you asking me if I would let you watch me give some guy a hand job?”
“See that tall guy over there?”
“He’s my friend.”
“You too, if you’re interested.”
“I know. . . “
“No no. I wasn’t saying No. Just . . Holy shit.”
“Neither of us have ever done this before and we’re both saying ‘Holy shit’ too.”
“Holy shit. So, like, what? We’d get in a car, and he’d take off his pants?”
“I don’t know. We don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t have anything worked out. . . Maybe we should just go for a walk.”
“A walk. You’d be there too?”
“How else could I watch?”
“I just want to be sure I’m not going to get hit over the head and dragged into the bushes.”
“Oh, God no. This whole thing was my idea. I talked him into it.”
“I never heard of anything like this before in my life.”
“Me either. . . Should we just go say Hi to him?”
“Go and say Hi? Okay. But you’ll tell him we’re just saying Hi and then maybe going for a walk.”
She followed Missy to him and felt embarrassed by the time they got there.
Missy said, “This is Jim.”
She said, “Hi, Jim.”
Jim said, “Hi. What’s your name?”
“I’m Missy. I told her we might just go for a walk.”
Jim said, “A walk. Yeah. That might feel less weird than what it feels like right now.”
Ruth said, “Exactly what I’m feeling.”
“Are you from here?” he asked.
“Maybe you should point the way.”
She led them along a shrubbery lined walk that took them away from the music and the people to where there were mown lawns and quiet. He was looking for a bench to sit on. Missy was looking for dry grass they could lie on and led them off the path to the other side of some shrubs and said, “Could we sit here?”
Jim said, “This is still awkward.”
“It is,” responded Ruth.
“We’re just sitting down,” Missy quietly reassured.
Ruth said, “Just sitting. Okay.”
“It is too awkward for anything but sitting,” quipped Jim.
Missy quietly continued, “Nothing has to happen.”
Jim said, “We came to this campus because at our campus we could get kicked out for even talking about something like this.”
Ruth wondered, “What campus is that?”
Ruth asked, “They don’t have sororities or fraternities there, do they?”
“No,” said Jim. They have residence halls that are like that, but it’s much more conservative than that. But it’s good training. For the rest of our lives, we need to be able to be strict about some things or you can mess up your life.”
“Things like this?”
“Yeah,” said Jim. “This might not happen tonight. And if it does, it might become only something we talk about in the future but never do again. But Missy needs to find out something and we might be able to help her in a way we couldn’t at Anderson.”
“So, you came here.”
“Even here. It might just be too awkward. How do people do things like this?”
Ruth offered, “Maybe that’s the main thing you are learning.”
He leaned over propping his head up on his hand. “All I can hope is that learning how to invite someone to this will have applications beyond things like this.”
Missy said, “I just wanted to find out if watching works for me better than doing it myself. But how do you ask someone in a way that isn’t awkward?”
To Ruth he said, “What if I laid down looking up at the sky? What if you leaned over looking into my eyes?”
He did. She did. Missy watched. He said to Ruth, “This is enough. Your hair hanging around your face while I get to look directly at your eyes, which I hadn’t done yet because it felt too forward.”
“Yesterday, knowing we were going to attempt this, and not thinking we’d even get this far, fear and bashfulness being what they are, I found myself wondering how mail-order brides got through their first night. But I guess the main difference is that, in that case, they both knew that this was forever. And that would be different.”
“I don’t know. But this was proposed as one quick… um…”
“We don’t know it’s only one time though, do we? It might be the only time with an audience, but after that, we don’t know.”
“Do you like an audience?”
“I have no need for an audience. Missy and I were in a somewhat crowded tent in which there were not enough blankets to go around. I was lying between two women who had blankets who tried to keep me warm. Then somewhere in the night Missy watched as the other woman reached out to me while I was asleep. Missy watched. Just watched. It was friendly and warm and surprising. For all of us.”
Chit chat continued with chuckles and smiles. Ruth relaxed until she was mostly lying on Jim. He said, “If this is all we do this evening, talking like this, this is enough.” There was a pause. He continued, “I didn’t mean ‘enough’ like we definitely won’t do this again.”
Ruth said, “We might?”
“We will. I promise.”
“How would that happen?”
Confused about what he might have just promised he said, “I’d call you.”
“You don’t have my number.”
“Then our future is in your hands.”
Missy said, “Can we have your number?”
“Okay.” She reached into her front jeans pocket while lying on him, which was attention-getting for both of them. “What can I write on?”
Missy said, “Write it on him.”
Ruth said, “On him.”
Missy slid over to them. “Here. Where his belt is.”
Ruth chuckled, “Of course. Where his belt is.”
Missy said, “Seems appropriate.”
Missy unbuckled his belt and slid his jeans a few inches, uncovering space for a phone number. “Is that a felt tip?”
Ruth said, “Yes.”
“Oh, hell. Write it big. But where no one will see it.” Missy unzipped and slid his jeans down far enough to uncover his hip bones. He raised his knees in the air. “No. Let’s go bigger than that.”
Jim asked, “Wait. What?”
Missy said, “Not you. Ruth with the felt tip,” and slid his jeans till the bunched-up material ran into his raised thighs, his raised thighs stopping anything sliding further horizontally. Ruth wrote her phone number. Missy said, “You’re going to sign it, aren’t you?” Ruth started to reach above the number. “No,” said Missy. “Under it. Like normal.” And pulled the back of his jeans beyond his butt so that the bunched-up part could slide vertically a couple of inches up his thighs. The “No” word was forming in his thoughts.
Ruth asked Jim, “Doesn’t writing on you tickle?”
Missy said, “Nothing tickles a guy who is turned on.”
Ruth said, “This is a turn-on?”
Missy said, “Look. Can’t you tell?”
“Right.” Ruth signed her name large enough to fill the space available. Missy said, “Are you wearing enough lipstick to leave a lipstick impression?
Ruth said, “I don’t know.”
Missy said, “Try it. Right here.” And put her finger on a spot guaranteed to make the contact she wanted between the side of Ruth’s face and what was obvious under the jeans.
Now Jim’s gears mashed and he sat up, still not using the word No, and said, “Can we pause right here?”
Ruth said, “Yes. Yes. Give me a moment. I’ll be right back,” and ran away.
Missy said, “You work and you plan and you try to give a woman what she wants and next thing you know she’s running off into the night. If this turns out to be bathroom break, I’m going to croak.” Jim was putting himself back together. Missy said, “You are so good at this. And we are such a good team. The way you put her at ease was amazing. All I had to do was show her what to do. No wonder Emma pays so much attention to you.”
“Emma pays so much attention to me?”
“How can you guys be so dumb?”
The flash of an unrecognized commitment rose in his mind as Ruth returned with her friend Angela. Still sitting on the grass, he was buckling his belt as they practically attacked him. Angela pulled off her top, knelt down putting her arms around Jim’s head, cradling it against her breasts while saying to Missy, “Thanks for turning Ruth on to this. She said she did not know that teamwork would turn her on so much. I tried talking her into this last year without thinking of that pitch. All I said is one of us needs to control him like this while the other. . .”
Ruth was unbuckling and unzipping Jim as he interrupted saying, “Wait. Hold on. I get to say something about this.”
Ruth said, “No. You don’t.”
Missy laughed and loved what she was watching. Jim put his hands on Ruth’s hands stopping her. Angela leaned him backwards into the grass to subdue him. Jim said, “You don’t need me. You are better without me.”
Missy said, “What could be better?”
Jim broke free, sat up and said, “Instead of trying to talk some unknown woman into going with some guy she’s never seen before, the three of you can grab any guy. What guy is going to say No? Other than me.”
Missy said, “Oh, my God. He’s right.”
Jim said, “You don’t need me.”
Ruth said, “Aww. I’d really gotten to wanting to get my hands on you.”
Missy said, “But he’s right.”
Angela said, “He is. Why mess with someone who doesn’t want us? We can go back in there and choose almost anyone and get someone who does.”
He said, “Where’s a pay phone?”
When Emma answered, he said, “You’re in your room on a Friday night?”
She said, “Yeah. Really. And you’re with Missy, right?”
“No. I mean, I was but, no.”
“What do you mean?”
“You want to get a pizza?”
“With you and Missy?”
“Missy made some new friends. She couldn’t be happier. She found out she really likes helping people. She accidentally did a good deed. She helped someone discover her passion.”
“No. No. Teamwork.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“If she calls, tell her I’ll come back and get her if she needs a ride.”
“You’re still at Marian?”
“And she’s there?”
“Somewhere here. Yeah. We didn’t discuss how she was going to get home. Or even if she’s going home.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“Remember when I talked about seeing someone and realizing everything else was peripheral?”
“I guess. Yeah. I remember.”
“Apparently that can happen just by looking at everyone else.”
“I really have no idea what you are talking about.”
“It’s like saying No to everyone else makes you a de facto Yes. Which I guess is the worst way it could be expressed.”
“You are making no sense.”
“Is that my normal?”
“It’s a good thing your hot. Anyone else might have hung up by now. I’m weak.”
“Weak enough for pizza?”
“It will take me an hour to get there.”
“I thought you were going to be busy with her.”
“I didn’t like the thought of you sitting in your dorm room thinking I was busy with her. I didn’t know what I was doing here. So, I’m coming there. Okay?”
“Okay.” When he got there, she said, “With anyone else I’d ask for clarification, but I don’t want to get you started talking again.” She may not have been clear about what he was saying, but it felt like he had come home. “Could we communicate non-verbally.”
“That was a word.”
He put his arms out for a hug and asked, “From in front this time?”
Wrapping her arms around him she said, “Just shut up.” It would be while before the word Love entered his vocabulary. But it would arrive as quietly as that No.