Which would you rather have, good food or good sex? says my freshman crush. The question takes me off guard. At eighteen I’m pretty sure I’m the only virgin in the crowded room, all of us swilling cheap beer and high on stink weed. When it’s my turn I say good food. I catch the knowing glances, even between my two best girlfriends, and pretend I don’t. I want to sink into the concrete floor of the Brutalist dorm we call home and die a slow smelly death.
I discover my crush is gay and we become close. He helps me get ready for a third date with an offbeat guy at school, studying on the GI bill. Years older than I am. We end up at the rambling off-campus farmhouse he shares with three others in their late twenties. He and I share a bed and he drinks half a bottle of vodka as he tells me Viet Nam war stories, which sound like bad movies to me. I am stunned into silence by his trauma and my ignorance. We don’t have sex. He spoons me and notes that he can’t, he’s too drunk and melancholy. He downs fistfuls of vitamins before we finally fall asleep; he’s an alcoholic health nut. Too damaged to damage me. In the morning at breakfast with his housemates, I eat cold cereal and dodge eye contact. I feel all of the self-consciousness I’d have felt if things had gone differently and leave as soon as I can.
Still ignominiously intact, I leave for my summer job as a camp tennis instructor. I’ve been seeing someone casually, a motorcycle-riding philosophy major. Two weeks into camp he calls and says he wants to take me away for my weekend off. I know what this means. I catch a ride with another counselor going to the general store in town, and when they’re distracted by the magazine stand (civilization!), I head over to the Ladies’ Department and paw through the nightgowns. That night I unwrap my brown paper-wrapped purchase. It’s a floor-length, high-necked, long-sleeved white cotton thing that feels like burlap. I cancel the weekend the next day.
Four days later I call my parents and ask them to come get me. They drive up immediately, and several hours later, I’m under a quilt in my childhood bedroom, where I stay for a long time, missing meals and listening to The Carpenters. When I emerge, no one asks me any questions. Instead, I am treated gently, as though in recovery from some shapeless Victorian illness. I’m happy to be home.
Carolyn R. Russell’s latest novel is In the Fullness of Time, a dystopian thriller published by Vine Leaves Press in 2020. Her poetry, essays, and short stories have been featured in numerous publications, including The Boston Globe, 3rd Wednesday, Litro, Reflex Press, Club Plum Literary Journal, Daikaijuzine, Orca, A Literary Journal, Bridge Eight, and New World Writing Quarterly. Her new collection of cross-genre flash will be published by Vine Leaves Press in October of 2023. Carolyn lives on and writes from Boston’s North Shore.