Chapter Three


Chapter Three
                The Necessity could be stiflingly crowded at times of peak attendance on the weekend, but on Sunday night, as usual, it was quite comfortable, with a relaxed atmosphere apparent in the way small groups of students stayed clustered around their tables and the hum of general conversation was so localized that the sound of the movie playing in the back room of the bar could be heard distinctly, if not quite crisply, by people entering the establishment. The bar was in the front room on the right hand side, televisions mounted on the wall at either end of it, while five tables graced the left side of the room; tonight two of the tables were empty, a rarity even on a Sunday night. At the end of the bar, the walls jutted out slightly to accommodate the bathrooms, then opened into a back room so large it had often been compared to a cave. Fifteen or so tables filled the room, and booth seating lined the walls on both sides of the room. The far wall was taken up entirely by a movie screen, a screen that was almost always in use, this evening not excepted. Three tables had been pushed together in the middle of the room to form one large table, and a mixed group of a dozen men and women were conspicuously boisterous, although not obstreperously so, sitting at it, outnumbering the combined population at all of the other tables.

                As Steve crossed the threshold of the back room, he noted this last fact silently and with pleasure. The Sunday Night Philosophy Club, named after a facetious remark of Darrin’s made the previous fall, was in full session, and he was carrying two pitchers of beer for general consumption. His own gin and tonic was on the table, but it had been his turn to buy, and he cheerfully did so, especially since he knew he was one of the few, this late in the semester, who was not hurting financially. Attendance was high, he smiled, a full dozen on the last Sunday of April, three weeks before graduation, ten days before classes ended. As he sat the pitchers down on the table, he surveyed the table again. He was sitting on the right end of the table, with Randy to his right and Jim Chandler to his left. Bill was next to Randy, then Claudio Marcello and Pete Sherman, then Pete’s girlfriend Michelle Benning. At the opposite end of the table from him sat Mary Ellen, with Kerry on her left, then Julie Morgan, Darrin, and Jerry. A fairly representative grouping, and so far a peaceful one. Darrin and Mary Ellen had not spoken to one another, and Steve had long ago noticed that the presence of the rather taciturn Pete tended to dampen any possible trouble before it started.
                Steve set the pitchers down at each end of the table, and watched Randy fill his glass as he eased back into his seat. He watched Randy raise his glass in the air and say reverently, “May we be Wild Again.”
                Julie heard him, and asked of no one in particular, “Why did he just say that?”
                Mary Ellen answered first. “Wild Again is the name of a horse.”
                “So?” Recognition dawned. “Oh, that horse.”
                While Steve would talk about racing for hours with those who were interested, he had long been resigned to the fact that when he was at school, those interested were a small group—Keith, Jerry, and Valerie usually, with Jim Sullivan and Jim Chandler occasionally showing a small degree of understanding. But he couldn’t help the smile that lit up his face, because the race in question, the first running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, was unquestionably the highlight of a rather successful handicapping career to date.

                He had grasped very early after his initial exposure to horse racing and those who bet on them that if he ever hoped to make the sport his avocation, knowing how to wager his money was more important than what horse to bet it on. By the time he had graduated high school, he had learned that place and show bets were losing propositions; by the time he had finished his freshman year of college he had learned that he could not bet every race heavily and expect to make money. He had spent time around those for whom gambling on horses was a profession, and he had initially been skeptical when they informed him that they made their living on the occasional large hit. But during his junior year, he realized that almost all of his lifetime profit, which was a fairly substantial number, was the result of his winnings on only three races, and no longer questioned the dictum. He had accepted that when at OTB or the actual racetrack, he was not disciplined enough to not bet on a race, but if he did not feel strongly about any one horse’s chances, he only bet five or ten dollars. If he was convinced that a horse was going to win, he had bet as much as twenty-five hundred dollars on a single race before. There were also times when he wasn’t sure that the horse he liked was going to win, but the odds were so attractive that he bet heavily knowing that the rewards could be astronomical. And he had also learned to apply some of his athletic background to handicapping—there were times when he was top of his game and every race seemed to unfold the way he envisioned it, and there were times he couldn’t pick his nose. He had learned to ride a hot streak into the ground.

                The day of the Breeders’ Cup had found him in the middle of a hot streak; he had been making the five-minute drive to OTB daily for two weeks because he had been cashing tickets almost every time he bet. The day before, he had hit a daily double for over four hundred dollars and an exacta for over two hundred. He had been aware of the Breeders’ Cup for weeks; everyone who followed horse racing had been. And as the fields for the seven races took shape, he began to sense the possibility of a killing in the making. The showpiece race was the Classic, a mile-and-a-quarter event that was being consciously touted as the closest thing to a championship race as the sport had to offer. This particular year, one four-year-old horse, Slew O’Gold, had dominated the sport, going undefeated and stamping himself as by far the best of his generation. He was going to be the odds-on favorite in the race on merit. But because the race offered a purse of three million dollars, he was going to have to earn the money; six opponents were going to test him. And then, early during the week of the race, word reached the press that Slew O”Gold had a foot injury and would be running the race with a bar shoe on.

                Steve could still feel the jolt of electricity he had experienced when he read the article. Bar shoe; he could not recall any race when a horse wearing a bar shoe had won, and long ago he had thrown any horse out of his wagering plans who was racing so equipped. This was not an ordinary horse, he realized, but the best horse in the world, and as such might still win the race, anyway. But it meant that the chances of the rest of the field suddenly looked a lot better, and he began to closely study the past performances of the other horses entered. There were only two other horses that could possibly win, he thought. Gate Dancer had shown a great deal of ability all year, winning the Preakness and stamping himself as a horse of quality, so much so that he was likely to be the second choice. Steve, however, had grown weary of Gate Dancer’s “sniffing”, as he termed them, tendencies; Gate Dancer was a horse that, for whatever reasons, had a great deal of difficulty passing other horses, preferring to hang on their neck and match strides. This type of horse was a money-burner; for every time their jockey timed their moves correctly and the horse put himself in front in spite of his natural inclination, there were five times that the horse never got past the one or ones it was chasing.

                The other horse was Wild Again. Wild Again had a different running style then either Gate Dancer or Slew O’Gold; invariably, he went immediately to the lead. Steve always preferred to bet on front-runners; he explained to Valerie quite succinctly that “the only bad thing that can happen to you when you’re in front is that someone catches you.” Although Wild Again’s record was not terribly impressive overall, he did have a number of things in his favor. He had already won two major stakes races during the year from the front; one of those races had been his prior race; the other two horses in the race that preferred to run on or near the lead had shown absolutely no ability to run one-and-a-quarter miles; and in Steve’s words, “he either fires or he doesn’t,” meaning that it would be clear long before the wire whether Wild Again had a chance to win or not. Steve didn’t believe for a moment that Wild Again was the best horse in the race; he freely admitted that to his floormates that morning. But his true odds of winning were much lower than the 20:1 that was posted in the morning paper. By time the race went off, Wild Again was 30:1. Steve had bet a hundred dollars of his own money on Wild Again, and persuaded the majority of Cellar Dwellers to make at least small bets on the horse, as well.

                Steve knew that the horse had a chance from the outset; he fought for the lead, finally got it on the backstretch,  and led around the track until the far turn. The fractions had been very fast, though, and when Slew O’Gold had made a move to challenge on the far turn, Steve thought Wild Again was through. But turning for home, it became clear that Wild Again wasn’t giving up, and also that Slew O’Gold didn’t have top gear. Then Gate Dancer had loomed up quickly on the far outside, but that horse’s innate defects kicked in and the three horses charged as a triumvirate through the length of the stretch. Wild Again had never relinquished the lead, and crossed the wire a head in front of the others, but Steve’s stomach turned as the race ended, even as the casual bettors in the Basement starting whooping with delight; he was sure that Wild Again was going to be disqualified, because he had clearly bore out into Slew O’Gold next into him more than once during the torrid stretch run. The inquiry sign had flashed immediately after the race, and the television commentators clearly believed that Wild Again was going to be taken down, as well. He and Keith had sat quietly in chairs, morose, wondering how they were going to explain to the celebrants around them that hadn’t really won thousands of dollars, despite what they had just seen on their television screen.

                Then the miracle happened; Gate Dancer was dropped from second place to third for bumping into Slew O’Gold, but Wild Again, incredibly, was allowed to stand as the winner. Six months later, Steve again felt the adrenaline rush he had felt when the number flashing on the tote board at Hollywood Park on his television that afternoon suddenly stopped flashing, and the word “Official” appeared. Then and only then did he and Jerry and Keith exchange whoops and handshakes. Steve had won over six thousand dollars on the race, and that was on top of an already profitable day. He had run out the back door and onto the lawn screaming incoherently, then dropped to his knees and yelled, “I am king of the world!” at the top of his lungs. And for the remainder of that day, he was certainly king of the college town.

                Anybody who went to Smoking Joe’s that evening would never forget the experience, nor would they ever forget Steve’s name and face. He and several Cellar Dwellers had arrived at around six o’clock, and everyone who walked in the door for the next eight hours received a slip of paper. Steve had arranged with the owner when he arrived—after showing the man a very large roll of one hundred dollar bills—so that those slips of paper were good for a free drink, with the cost going on Steve’s tab. Over a thousand people eventually entered the establishment that evening; Steve ended up with a bill of just over two thousand five hundred dollars, which the owner generously reduced to two thousand two hundred dollars even because of the size of the crowd that evening, most of whom had stayed. Steve had also managed to alert the bar personnel as to who was a Cellar Dweller and a Frazier Basement resident; they drank free for the entire evening, which cost Steve an additional four hundred dollars. Steve had gained a certain amount of notoriety for the incident, especially from school officials, and the fallout nearly cost Keith his RA position, as he was seen as a very willing abettor to a scene the college administration found distasteful. Steve and Keith both had been called into a dean’s office the following week, but Steve had rather insistently maintained that since he had been off-campus, it was absolutely no business of the school administration how he spent his money, nor was it their business how he obtained his money, as long as he had not committed any crimes, which he had not. They had, to their displeasure, been forced to drop the matter.

                Steve actually was puzzled that Julie had forgotten, however briefly, that day’s events and its fallout; he certainly recalled Julie being one of those that had enjoyed a free night out that evening. But Steve had long ago noticed that Julie’s memory was not terribly impressive, at least by his own elephantine standards, and it was certainly possible that Julie had enjoyed his generosity without fully knowing why it was occurring. Valerie had told him many times that as hard as she tried to be fair to Julie, and take into account a very fractured life to that point, she had been more or less forced to come to the conclusion that Julie was the “biggest slut” she had ever seen and that “nothing else interests her.” He remembered Valerie saying just a few days ago. “She actually says she wants to have sex with one thousand different men during her college years.”

                He became aware that Jim and Randy were looking at him. He asked hopefully, “Did you say something?”
                Jim laughed heartily. His small frame and scholarly look made him appear to be a kid entering junior high, but his mind was first-rate and his wit razor-sharp; he was the only freshman on the floor, but had fit right in from his first day of school. Steve enjoyed Jim’s company immensely, as did virtually every one else in the Basement. “I was just wondering what you were smiling about. Randy insisted you had to be remembering some particularly good sex.”
                “Not hardly. Just remembering that day. Actually, I was just now remembering something Valerie said about someone at this table.”
                This time, Randy laughed. “Must be one of the girls, because Doug isn’t here.”
                Jim scowled. “English is not a laughing matter, for anybody.”
                Steve cracked a smile. “You’re not relishing being his roommate next year?” Steve knew that Doug had asked Jim to room with him.
                Jim clenched his jaw. “Can you frigging believe I agreed to that?”
                Randy looked at Jim in disbelief. “What the fuck is the matter with you?”
                As Steve began to laugh uproariously, Jim shrugged. “I honestly thought ‘better the evil I know.’ I had no idea of how squirrelly he actually was until he went to Happy Hour with us Friday and tried to be my friend.”
                Randy grunted. “You were surprised?”
                Jim waved his hand in Steve’s direction. “Well, Steve said he was a squirrel, but not a real asshole, so I figured what the hell. But I never knew one person could be so annoying.”
                Steve quieted momentarily. “If it makes you feel better, he’s not normally quite that bad. He had a couple of beers in him that afternoon.”
                “I could see he was pretty drunk. He had to have had more than a couple.”
                “Don’t bet on it.” Steve laughed again. “I’ve seen him get shit-faced in a half-hour in the Necessity, sharing one pitcher.”
                Randy nodded toward Jim. “Almost as candy ass as you are, Chandler.”
                Jim took the gibe as it was intended, in jest. “I’ve only lost it once this year, and that was way back in October. I’ve even learned how to function with a hangover that would cripple a horse. I think I’ve done well for someone whose first time drunk was less than a calendar year ago.”
                Steve agreed. “Considering beer breath could get you drunk last September, I’d say you’ve come pretty far.”
                Jim grimaced. “I hate going home. Especially with the drinking age going up later this year. It’ll be years before I can drink at home.”
                “I’m surprised you can drink so easily here,” Randy commented.
                “You think you’re the only one who can come up with a good fake ID?”
                Randy paused for a moment. “I’m legal, so what are you talking about?”
                “Come on. You think it’s a secret that you did your girlfriend’s ID? She told everybody she said hello to the last time she was here what a good job you did. And it was.”
                Randy put his finger to his lips. “I don’t advertise. I’ve had enough trouble with the administration around here. If I got caught messing with ID cards, I’d be on the next bus home.”
                Steve grinned. “If you advertised, you might be able to get a car.”
                Randy grimaced again; his girlfriend had totaled his car during spring break.  “That’s a painful subject.”
                Jim started laughing. “You mean you’re not overcome with gratitude because the love of your life miraculously emerged unscathed?”
                “Fuck no,” Randy mumbled, flipping off the others when they laughed louder. “It’s a lot easier to get a new girlfriend than it is to get a new car.” He eyed the other end of the table. “Especially here.”
                Jim also glanced down the table at Julie. “How many does she have to go?”, he asked; the fact that Julie had had sex with a very large number of Cellar Dwellers had  been a source of general amusement for weeks.
                “I think she’s done twelve or thirteen now.” Randy looked at Steve. “Let’s make this easier—who hasn't she been with? You, Mike, Jerry, Lyle, Keith, Shit for Brains—“
“She did him in September,” Jim said dismissively; “Shit For Brains” was the derisive—and universally used, among the Cellar Dwellers-- nickname for Jim’s current roommate, Ed Kozcinski.
“I stand corrected. There’s James, Eric, the guy who never leaves his room, and—I think that’s it. That’s what—eight, right? So that makes the count fourteen.”
                Steve looked distressed. “You forgot Doug. If he had fucked her, we’d never hear the end of it.”
                Jim added, “And Pickle.”
                “No, she got Pickle two Fridays ago. I don’t even think he knew what happened.” Randy looked bemused. “The first time he goes to Happy Hour all year, and he gets laid.”
                “I’ll bet he was back this week.”
                “First one of us out the door Friday,” Steve cracked.
                “Probably the first he’s ever had,” Randy commented.
                “Doesn’t he have a girlfriend home?”
                Jim frowned. “Have you ever seen her?”
                “No.”
                “He had her up here the weekend you went to Valerie’s. I honestly don’t think she’s entirely human or female. She makes Doug English’s creature look like Stevie Nicks.”
                Randy started giggling. “Creature. That’s funny.”
                Jim nodded. “I’ve only been laid three times this year. I know I’m not the most desirable guy on this campus, far from it. But I will not go to bed with some girl that I don’t dare open my eyes with.” He swigged from his glass before resuming. “English cannot truly believe that that is a desirable woman. He can’t be in that much denial.”
                “He is,” both Randy and Steve agreed. Steve added, “He has hinted to me on occasion that I must be jealous of him.
                Jim looked astonished. “You’re kidding, right?”
                “No, I am not.”
                “What the fuck kind of lunatic is he?” As the others giggled, his voice rose. “I’m not kidding. These are the kind of guys who snap one day and wipe out a small army before they blow their own brains out. I can’t believe I’m rooming with this guy next year.”
                “Not all insane people are violent,” Steve said with a grin. “I’m telling you, he’s harmless. Sad and demented, but harmless.”
                “Blind, too, apparently.” Jim shook his head. “He didn’t really say that, did he?”
                “He hasn’t come right out and said it, no. He has said things to the effect that Valerie’s nice enough and all that, but she’s not in—what is her name? I haven’t called her anything but ‘Woof’ for months —the same league as her.” Steve drained his gin and tonic as he spied Pete preparing to leave the table. Wordlessly, he put a five-dollar bill in Pete’s outstretched hand as he walked by. “Thank you, ma’am,” he smiled.
                Pete laughed over his shoulder, “Guess what I’ll do for twenty.”
                “I’ll do it for ten,” Randy said.
                “Come see me later,” Pete said loudly as he kept walking.
                Jim shook his head. “You know, when my father asked me what was the biggest change for me at college, you know what I told him?”
                “Several things come to mind,” Steve smiled.
                Randy grinned. “Let me guess—women cultivating slutty reputations.”
                Jim paused a moment. “Yeah, that’s different, too, now that I think about it. But the amount of homo innuendo that goes on around here. You never hear that kind of talk in high school.”
                “Maybe in yours,” Randy sniffed. “Par for the course in mine.”
                “Well, there wasn’t here until this year,” Steve answered after thinking. “Lyle and Pete are always joking about that stuff. Must be something about southwest New York. Too many dairy farms.”
                Steve related a story about the time he had taken two friends who were from Long Island during his sophomore year to a concert in Buffalo; one of them had insisted that the animals he spied out the window could not be cows because “cows were black and white.”
                The others laughed. Jim sipped his beer before saying, “That was difficult to get used to, too. The way Long Island people think we all have cow shit on our boots and piss off the back porch.”
                Steve smirked. “My father’s family still all live in Brooklyn and Queens. I remember trying to explain to my cousin Johnny that it was not possible to go to Buffalo from where I live and be back in time for lunch. He has no idea of the distances involved up here.”
                Jim giggled. “If he had a plane, maybe.”
                Randy didn’t find it funny. “I live an hour and fifteen minutes from Times Square,” he said, “and people from Long Island, most of who live farther from Manhattan than I do, think I’m some sort of inbred yokel. I hate that.”
                Steve nodded. “You’re right, they do. Although I don’t really consider Manhattan New York. I have family that have lived all their lives in Brooklyn and Queens that have been in Manhattan maybe twice.”
                Jim added, “Jerry told me that until he was twenty years old, he had only gone into Manhattan three times in his life.”
                Steve agreed. “The only time I actually spent any real time there before last summer was on a sixth grade class field trip.”
                “What did you do last summer?”
                “I went to a couple of clubs—fancy bars, really—to see bands play.”
                Jim nodded. “The first time I ever went into a bar was a couple of years ago to see Billy Idol.”
                “In Buffalo?” Steve was incredulous. When Jim nodded, Steve said excitedly, “Would you believe I was there that night?”
                “No kidding.”
                “Yeah. I actually thought he was pretty good. I wish more big-time guys would play smaller venues more often. Makes it a better experience.”
                Randy waved his hand. “Whatever,” he said, bored; he was not a big fan of any music, much less of the more esoteric New Wave artists that Steve and Jim were. He suddenly brightened. “That band that plays that one song you were playing the other day, though—that one I’d like to see.”
                “Which song?”
                “About the dead people.”
                “What are you talking about?”
                “I think he means ‘People Who Died’,’” Jim said.
                “Oh.” Steve paused for a moment. “I have no idea what Jim Carroll is up to these days. That song is about five years old.”
                “Isn’t he more a poet than a singer?”
                “I guess.” Steve’s face darkened for a moment. “There’s a whole bunch of that New York City ‘urban poet’ bullshit genre. Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Jim Carroll—all the same type. Some of it I like, and some of it is just pretentious crap.”
                Jim laughed. “Not crazy about Radio Ethiopia, were you?”
                Steve grimaced. “No, not at all.”
                Randy looked puzzled. “Radio Ethiopia? That have anything to do with Band Aid and all that?”
                Steve laughed. “No. Radio Ethiopia was an alleged song by Patti Smith. It was about eight minutes long, and it sounded like something Yoko Ono would have done. It was just terrible.
                Jim nodded his assent. “It was that.” He moved his glass a couple of inches. “Although I think Lou Reed would not be pleased being grouped with her. That one live album you have of his, he made fun of Radio Ethiopia.”
                Steve shook his head. “Lou Reed’s the most pretentious of all of them. He’s got about four different live albums, and they have the same six songs. Just with different bands.” He accepted a glass from the returning Pete. “They’re all Dylan wannabes anyway.”
                Jim nodded. “I’m starting to agree with you. That reminds me…”
                “Just as long as you give it to me before school’s done.” Steve anticipated Jim’s remark; Jim had borrowed most of Steve’s Bob Dylan records, to make tapes, over the past few months.
                Randy looked at Steve. “That’s another guy I can’t understand what the attraction is. I’ve heard you guys talk about how good he is, and you may be right, but I just can’t listen to his voice.”
                “Your loss.” Steve was smiling, but his words were almost harsh. “Sometimes you have to look past things. I agree he isn’t the easiest on the ear, but he’s really not awful.”
                Jim laughed. “He is, but you get used to it.”
                Randy shrugged. “That may be. But then I’m a shallow bastard. Or so Karen tells me every chance she gets.” He drained his glass in one long gulp, then belched loudly. “The only thing about me that isn’t shallow seems to be my stomach.”
                “You are getting pudgy there,” Steve said unsympathetically. “It would probably be better that you had no money on your meal card.”
                “Thanks again for that,” Randy nodded. “I really appreciate it.”
                “No problem.”
                Jim looked at Steve. “So have you figured out who’s going to win the Derby yet?”
                Steve looked at the TV screen for a moment before answering. “I know who I am going to bet on, which is what I think you’re asking.”
                “Another huge payday in the offing?”
                “I don’t think so. But he ought to pay at least seven bucks, which makes it worthwhile.”
                Randy paused a moment. “That’s five-to-two odds, right?” Seeing Steve nod, he grinned. “I’m learning something around here, anyway. I doubt my mom’s going to much like what I’ve been learning, but it hasn’t been a complete waste of time.”
                Jim said, “Then he isn’t going to be favored, is he?”
                Steve shrugged. “I think Chief’s Crown is going to be the favorite. He’s a decent horse, but I just don’t think he’s better than my horse.”
                “And who is your horse?”
                “Spend a Buck.”
                “I think I heard of him.”
                “Well, I’ve talked about him a few times. I really think he’s going to run away and hide from this bunch.”
                Randy had absorbed enough horse racing over the year to comment, “He the only speed horse?”
                “Not the only one, but I think he’s just better than the rest of them.”
                “Now I know why I’ve heard of him,” Jim said suddenly. “The guy in the Buffalo paper wrote a column about him the other day. Said he hasn’t been running in the major races, and so it’s hard to tell how good he really is. Or isn’t.” He smiled. “The writer was rather skeptical, if I remember right.”
                “The writer has a point,” Steve admitted. “He’s been running in New Jersey, and it’s not exactly a traditional path to glory, Garden State Park.” He laughed. “It may be after this year, though.”
                “And what makes you sure he’s better than the rest of them?”
                “His last race.”
                Randy chimed in. “What about it?”
                Steve considered his response. “I read something not long ago about something called ‘signature significance.’ What it means, basically, that it is possible for an athlete of any kind to demonstrate his quality in a single performance, even though usually a cumulative record is the normal standard by which we judge them. Does that make sense?”
                “Yeah,” Jim said.
                “No,” smiled Randy.
                “OK, Randy, let me put it to you this way, in a sport you’re familiar with. You like the Red Sox, right?”
                “Yes.”
                “Last summer, Roger Clemens struck out 15 guys in one game and didn’t walk anybody. Even though Roger Clemens is twenty-one years old and has been in the major leagues for a few months, you can tell that Roger Clemens is a quality pitcher, a real good pitcher, simply by that one game.”
                “And why is that?”
                “Why do we know that? Because a pitcher who isn’t real good never has a game that good. Never. A guy like— let’s say Bruce Kison-- is never going to have a game like that in his career. Those kind of games are only pitched by good pitchers. And it is possible to say, even at this stage of his career, that Roger Clemens is a very good pitcher, one of the best in the game. A million things may happen to him between now and the Hall of Fame, but at least he has a chance to get there.”
                “And what does this have to do with this horse?”
                “The last race Spend A Buck ran was at a distance of one-and-one-eighth miles. The world record for that distance is one minute, forty-five and two-fifths seconds, set by Secretariat, a horse that even cavemen have heard of, a horse that is the standard, at this point in time, by which all other horses are measured. The average stakes win at that distance—and stakes races are contested by the best horses—is usually won with a time around a minute forty-eight, occasionally as low as one forty-seven, and on a very few occasions in one-forty-six and change.” Steve paused to sip his drink. “In his last race, Spend A Buck ran a mile-and-an-eighth in one forty-five and four-fifths seconds. I’ve seen two horses run under one forty-six in my entire life, Secretariat and Seattle Slew. That race, in and of itself, is evidence that Spend A Buck is an exceptional horse. Those two are two of the best horses of all time”
                “So you’re saying he’s almost as good as Secretariat?”
                Steve shrugged. “Not yet. Secretariat put together quite a record, and this was just one race. But what I am saying is that Spend A Buck has demonstrated that he has a chance to put together his own resume that wouldn’t look ridiculous next to Secretariat’s. None of the other horses that are going to be running in the Derby have shown the slightest indication that they have even an itty-bitty chance to be ranked among the all-time great horses. Spend A Buck has, and he’s not even going to be favored. I will be betting on him, most likely heavily.”
                Jim nodded. “That makes sense to me. What did you call it? Signature significance?”
                “Yeah.”
                “I’ll have to remember that.”
                Randy refilled his glass. “What does Keith think?”
                “In the matter of horses, what I tell him to.” Steve grinned as the others laughed. “Seriously, Keith’s not bad at handicapping, but sometimes he bets based on the last thing he’s read or heard. He keeps telling me that Chief’s Crown keeps winning, so he must be really good.” Steve’s facial expression spoke volumes about his opinion of that proposition.
                “And you don’t think he is?”
                “I’ll agree that it’s a good sign that he keeps winning, because it shows me that he has some quality to him. But he’s not beating anybody, and he isn’t really impressing anybody while winning these races.”
                “What do you mean, he isn’t beating anybody?”
                “I mean the horses he has been beating are slow and nondescript. I agree that none of Spend A Buck’s opponents are going to win Eclipse Awards, but at least Spend A Buck has been doing it very quickly and impressively.” Steve paused for a moment. “Look, I don’t know if Spend A Buck is the next great horse. But I don’t know that he isn’t, either. I can’t say that about Chief’s Crown. He’s a good horse, but not one for the ages. And considering that he’s going to be even money or at most six-to-five Saturday, I would take a shot against him no matter what.”
                “So are we talking Wild Again money here?”
                “No.” Steve took a sip of his drink. “Spend A Buck will be second or at most third choice, paying seven dollars or so. It’s a long enough price to make it worthwhile, but not enough to make my year.” He grinned. “That one will have to wait for the summer.”

                A few minutes later, Jerry took advantage of Jim’s needing to relieve himself to ease into the seat next to Steve. “I couldn’t help but overhear your little seminar a few minutes ago,” he muttered, his normal accent made murkier by the cold he was—in poor humor—nursing. “You don’t think Eternal Prince has a shot?”
                Steve scowled. “No, I don’t. Your Noo Yawk prejudice is affecting your judgement.”
                “What do you mean?”
                “I mean that you think because he won the Gotham and the Wood, he must be good, because he did it in New York. He’s been beating donkeys, and he’s been all alone on the lead. That ain’t going to happen in the Derby.”
                “What makes you so sure?”
                “I’m always sure. Except when I’m not.” Steve grinned. “But Spend A Buck has sprinter’s speed. He’ll be in front by the first turn, you watch. And besides,” he added derisively, “can you imagine Butch Lenzini in the winner’s circle in Louisville? With a former claimer, no less?” He shook his head. “The horse racing gods are odd, but not that odd.”
                “I thought you liked Lenzini.”
                “I do. He’s the kind of trainer that makes you money on a regular basis. But he is not the type of trainer that wins Kentucky Derbies. He got a Preakness given to him three years ago, and he’s used up all his luck for the rest of his life.”
                “And who’s training Spend A Buck?” Jerry sounded derisive now. “At least everyone’s heard of Lenzini.”
                “Cam Gambolatti has done all the right things with this horse so far,” Steve said with assurance. “He’s unknown, true, but he’s also young. I don’t know if he’s up to the task; I don’t know that he isn’t. I guess we will see.”
                Jerry eyed his friend coldly. “I wish I could be so confident, so sure of myself, like you are.”
                “I’ve worked hard to be this way.”
                “I’m being sarcastic, you arrogant little prick.” They both laughed loudly; Jerry had used the description of Steve that amused him the most. “How the fuck do you get your head through the doorway here?”
                “With difficulty.” Steve nodded his head regally. “If that is all, you are dismissed.”
                “Fuck off.”
                “Fuck you, too,” Jim said, sliding into the chair formerly occupied by Jerry. “It isn’t like I wasn’t sitting there or anything.”
                Randy, who had been talking to the person seated on the other side of him, rejoined this conversation. “I heard that ‘arrogant little prick’ comment. What did you want?”
                “He was referring to me, Randy,” Steve said.
                “No.” Randy feigned surprise. “I’ve been known to catch some shit on that account, too.”
                “This year, you’ve learned from a master,” Jerry said with a grin. “I thought I had an attitude problem, until I started coming to college here. Christ, I found out I’m actually friendly.
                Jim offered. “That would explain the ‘Fuck off’ comment, right?”
                Everyone within earshot laughed. Randy added, “And you’re even friendlier when you’ve got snot pouring out your nose like you’re a fire hydrant in July.”
                “Is that why I can’t get laid tonight?”
                Steve jumped in. “That, and the fact that your face looks like you’ve been rubbing sandpaper on it.”
                Jim chimed in. “And that your breath could knock a buzzard off a shit wagon.”
                Jerry extended his middle finger to the group. “All right already. If this is what my friends say…” He nodded toward the other end of the table. “And if that’s all I’m missing, I’m not missing anything.”
                “Getting on your nerves, are they?”
                “You could say that.” He suddenly smiled. “I feel like walking over there and just farting right in Mary Ellen’s face. Do you think they’d leave?”
                “Clear it with Darrin first,” Randy said conspiratorially. “Rumor has it the Black Widow is looking to ensnare him again.”
                Jerry looked disgusted. “Do you remember who his roommate is? Trust me, that’s one place he isn’t going to visit again.” He stared at Randy. “Actually, the rumor I’ve heard is that you’ve been sniffing around that rotten piece of meat.”
                Randy looked hurt. “Me? I’m a married man.”
                Steve started laughing. “You son of a bitch. Is that why you were so chatty with her at Happy Hour?”
                “No, it wasn’t . And I wouldn’t, not with her.” He looked at his friends pleadingly. “All I did was talk with her. We were flirting a little, but I’m not crazy. Nor hard up.”
                Jerry caught Steve’s eye and winked before opening his mouth. “I don’t know if I believe you. I overheard her by the bathrooms telling Julie that you’re the reason she decided to come out tonight.”
                Randy didn’t take the bait. “Well, if I am, it’s funny she hasn’t spoken to me since we sat down.”
                “She’s just biding her time.”
                “Wasting it, then. It isn’t going to happen.”
                Jim was eyeing Mary Ellen as if for the first time. “I know all the stories,” he now said, “and I’m not looking for trouble. But I’ll bet it would be all right just once.”
                Jerry looked disdainful. “Well, for you, I guess getting laid by anyone would be OK.”
                Jim scoffed. “Look who’s talking. At least I’m only a freshman; I have a chance to get to double digits before I graduate. You couldn’t get there now if you went out with a fistful of fifties every night between now and graduation.”
                Jerry giggled. “No, there isn’t. But that’s mostly by choice.”
                Jim smiled. “You’re sure about that?”
                Randy laughed. “Delusion is the first stage of dementia, isn’t it?” He looked amazed. “I actually retained something from a class! I might be getting the hang of this student thing finally.”
                As Jim and Jerry continued to banter, Steve said softly to Randy, “Are you in trouble again?”
                “Grade-wise?” Randy refilled his glass, emptying the pitcher. “Whose turn is it?”
                “Mine,” Jim said, grabbing the empty and looking down at the other end of the table. “Jesus, they’re empty, too. Didn’t Pete just come back?” He shook his head, but stood up and walked down to take the empty pitcher. “What horse piss have we been drinking, anyway?”
                Pete called out, “Stroh’s.”
                Randy turned back to Steve and lowered his voice. “It’s dicey right now. I should get a B in Humanities—surprise, surprise—and I think that’s going to save my ass, because this psychology course is harder than hell and I doubt I’ll get higher than a C, and that biology class I’m taking for core I’ll be lucky to pass.”
                “B in Humanities? Maybe you’re taking the wrong major.”
                Randy shook his head. “I like psychology. It’s just this one course that’s a bitch, and it didn’t help that I fucked up the first test this semester so badly—I’ve been digging out of that hole ever since.” He leaned back in his chair. “One reason I wanted to come out tonight is that I doubt I’ll be able to come out again until the weekend. I’ve got a couple of papers due this week, and I can’t afford to fuck around with them. “
                Steve glanced around the table. “I’d guess that’s true of most of us here. Why else would Pete and Michelle be here on a Sunday night? I don’t think he’s been here since Super Bowl night.”
                Randy nodded. “He hasn’t been. He was saying that when you were up at the bar before.” He smiled. “Then there are the derelicts like us, who haven’t missed a meeting all year.”
                Steve started chortling. “Maybe we could start a new fraternity. Drunks Against Mad Mothers. DAMM.”
                Randy began to bellow with laughter. “That’s funny.” Still grinning, he looked around the table. “A little late in the year to start something, but that’s definitely an idea for next year.” He sobered. “Of course, the only one of us that’s still going to be here that’s worth drinking with will be Claudio. And Chandler, if he grows a tolerance between now and then.”
                “I don’t think you give him enough credit. Compared to last September, look how badly we’ve managed to corrupt him. His parents probably don’t even recognize him.”
                Jim, waiting at the other end of the table for money to go to the bar, turned in Steve’s direction. “If you’re going to talk about me, at least wait until I can’t hear you.” He grinned. “I like the DAMM idea. I like it a lot.”
                Steve sipped his drink. “Just make sure my name’s on the letterhead.”
                Jerry turned towards them now, too. “What a legacy you’re leaving. The Sunday Night Philosophy Club and an organization that will piss off every decent element in this town.” Jerry shook his head. “I’m jealous. All you have to do now is sire a bastard on someone before you graduate.”
                “Where the hell did that come from?”
                Jerry started giggling. “While you two were huddling, Jim and I were trying to figure out who’s going to be the one who breaks Kerry’s cherry.—“
                 “That appeals to the poet in me,” Randy cracked.
                “Anyhow, we decided that she’s not going to bestow the honor on some poor slob like us. No, it would have to be someone special. Someone either really good or really bad. Either someone closer to heaven than she is or someone whom her virginity is going to redeem.” Jerry leaned in closer to emphasize the point. “The first type doesn’t exist around here. But as for the really bad boy—it’s got to be you.”
                “Are you high?” Steve was incredulous. “First of all, let’s assume that I was even available. Then—“
                “But that’s what makes it so good.” Jim sat back down, pitchers in hand, and took up the conversation. “The fact that you’re more or less engaged to one of her best friends only increases the bad boy potential here. See, she’s got to fall completely off the cliff concerning this. It can’t be an ordinary, I-got-drunk-and-look-what-was-sleeping-next-to-me-when-I-woke-up kind of deals. No, not with her. No, it’s got to be a sin for the ages. Not only with someone who is totally her opposite, but who belongs to her best friend, too.”
                Steve stared at first Jim, then Jerry. “You guys are high, aren’t you?”
                “Hell, no. It makes perfect sense.”
                “It makes no sense!” Steve was now shouting. “That makes no sense at all!”
                Randy joined in the laughter. “I don’t know. It’s getting quite the rise out of you. Must be something to it.”
                Steve calmed a little. “This is how guys get into trouble. Stupid conversations like this that some nitwit hears and takes it upon herself to bring back to the girlfriend. The next thing I know, I’m playing 20 Questions.”
                “I notice you said ‘herself,’” Jerry noted. “I’m glad you’re beginning to share my—what’s that word that begins with M?”
                Jim offered, “Misogynistic?”
                “Yeah, that. Those views. Does this mean that everything is not hunky-dory in the world of Steve and Valerie?”
                Steve stared at Jerry for a minute. “You’re going to be a hell of a PR man. You just made something up, and now you’ve almost got me thinking that there might be something to it.”
                “Isn’t there?”
                “I’m very happy with my girlfriend. Even if she weren’t my girlfriend, her friend still wouldn’t consider the idea. And even if she did, I wouldn’t.” He looked around the table. “Do you guys really think that the guy that finally gets with her isn’t going to have to marry her? Because if he doesn’t, she’s going to follow him around like an ankle-biter dog until he dies.”
                “I’m glad you said that,” Randy smiled, “because I was beginning to believe you had turned into a nice guy or something.”
                “I have my faults,” Steve said, “but being a pussy hound isn’t one of them.”
                “You’re telling me,” Randy said a little stridently, “that if you knew Kerry wanted to fuck you, you would say no.”
                “I would say no.”
                Jerry nodded. “He would say no.”
                “I don’t believe that.” Randy slapped the table. “I don’t believe that at all.”
                “Why would I?” Steve sounded almost pleading. “Really, why would I? The woman I sleep with regularly is just as attractive as that one. Why would I take a chance on fucking up the best thing that’s ever happened to me for the sake of something that will take five minutes if I’m lucky? Especially with someone who’s never done it before. You think she’s going to be into it, when it finally happens? She’s either going to be scared out of her mind or plastered or both.” He stared at Randy. “You’re one of my best friends, Randy, but you drive me nuts sometimes. There’s more to life than firing rockets. Even Bill is beginning to see that.”
                “Is he?” Randy looked smug. “It didn’t look that way the other night. He was all over that Dawn chick.”
                “Yeah, but in the end he went home, didn’t he?”
                Randy swirled his beer. “Only a matter of time, my friend, only a matter of time.”
                Jim said, in measured tones, “I think he really means it, Randy. But like he said, he’s already having sex regularly with a quality of woman very few of us stiffs—pun intended—can even dream of being with. I want to know, if you weren’t with Valerie, would you do it?”
                “With Kerry?” Steve laughed. “Probably,” he admitted. “Just to say I did.”
                “Even if she would be the ankle-biter type, huh?”
                “I think I could deal with it.” He shrugged. “But if Kerry was willing to sleep with guys, than she wouldn’t be Kerry. And I really think that the fact that she’s doesn’t play the game makes her seem more beautiful than she is.”
                Jerry nodded. “I agree with you. But then, I saw her first thing in the morning in Daytona, after an evening of heavy vomiting.” He drank a healthy swallow. “Definitely a different perspective.”
                “I’ll bet she wasn’t ugly,” Randy countered stubbornly. “I can’t imagine her being hideous.”
                “She really wasn’t,” Steve agreed. “But then I saw her while she was actually vomiting. That was a picture I won’t soon forget, I’ll tell you.”
                “I’m curious,” Jim asked, “have you ever seen Valerie toss?”
                Steve nodded. “Three times. That isn’t pretty, either. Especially when one of the times was the time I saw Kerry puking.” He laughed. “And Mary Ellen and Donna Kroger, too.”
                Randy grinned. “That must have been the infamous Party Ship, correct?”
                Steve and Jerry laughed. “Yes, it was,” Steve answered. “Whoever came up with that concept was one evil son of a bitch. Six hours on a boat, with absolutely nothing to do but drink.”
                “Heavily,” Jerry added. “It was so bad I almost threw up at the end.”
                “And we all know how much pride you take in not throwing up,” Jim said, rolling his eyes.
                “And what’s wrong with that?” Randy feigned indignation. “I haven’t thrown up this year.”
                Three voices answered in unison, “Yeah, we know.” Jim giggled. “You’re not in the clear yet, sonny boy. There’s still some drinking to do here. And I know the last night we’re all together is going to be one sick evening.” Three heads turned in Steve’s direction.
                “What are you all looking at me for?” Steve started to smile. “What I am supposed to do?”
                “I don’t know that you’re supposed to do anything,” Jim grinned. “Just that these sort of things seem to happen in your vicinity frequently.”
                “And those things are all my doing, right? The fact that I hang around with all of you has nothing to do with it?”
                “That has something to do with it, but it seems that the common denominator in every really sick night we’ve had has been your presence.”
                Jerry laughed loudly. “Look who you have ensnared into your web this year. You’ve basically ruined the careers of not one, not two, but three RA’s. You’ve taken a peach-fuzzed freshman like Jim over here and turned him into a drunk in good standing. You took one of the sweetest girls on this campus and turned her into one of us.” He looked at Randy. “I know I’m right about this. If anybody converts the Virgin Kerry over there, it’s going to be him.”
                Randy eyed Steve approvingly. “You sure you haven’t got a 666 tattoo somewhere on your body?”
                Steve was getting tired of this turn of the conversation. “Yeah, right under my zipper,” he muttered. “Want to see? Or should I say, see again?”
                Randy smiled exaggeratedly and lisped, “It’s my time of my month, sweetheart. Try me in a couple of days.”
               
                An hour later, the group had shrunk by four—Claudio, Pete, Michelle, and Jim had departed. Steve noted, when temporarily left alone at his end of the table, that Darrin and Mary Ellen were now sitting next to each other and talking civilly. He saw Kerry walking toward the table somewhat unsteadily, saw her glance at her roommate, then saw her ease into the chair next to him. “Don’t even tell me,” she muttered, her words distinct yet discernibly slurred.
                “I don’t know,” he said softly, grinning. “I just noticed them myself.”
                “She just got OK with Sully again. She spent a month begging to be forgiven, and then when it comes, she’s right back to this crap.” Kerry shook her head. “Sometimes I can’t wait for this semester to end.” She looked up at Steve. “Darrin’s graduating, isn’t he?”
                “Yeah. I think he’s going to take one course in the summer, but he’s getting a diploma.”
                “Good.” Kerry reached for her glass, and filled it from the pitcher in front of her. Randy returned, eyed Steve curiously, but sat in the seat opposite Kerry instead of asking her to relinquish the one he had been sitting in. “What brings you down to the slums?”, he asked genially.
                “Disgust,” she muttered.
                Steve burst out laughing. “That may be the first time we’ve ever been considered a refuge from something disgusting. Usually we inspire disgust.”
                Kerry shook her head. “Your reputations are overblown.” She took a long gulp; Randy’s eyes widened. “Most of you are tolerable. Some of you I’ve even grown to half-like.” Although she was looking at Steve, she addressed Randy. “Dream on,” she grinned, turning to him. “It isn’t going to happen tonight, and certainly not ever with you.”
                “What are you talking about?”
                “You think I didn’t hear all of you talking earlier?” She started laughing as Randy began, even in the dim light, to visibly blush. She turned to Steve. “Ankle biter, huh?” She shrugged. “I’ve been called worse.”
                Steve felt a momentary pang of discomfort, trying to recall all that he said, and wondering if he had said anything really hurtful. “Perhaps it wasn’t the most tactful thing to say,” he admitted. “I’m sorry if it hurt your feelings.”
                “It’s all right.” She smiled. “I know I’ve been a trial for you, too. You only have to deal with me for another couple of weeks.”
                “A trial?”
                “Let’s not beat around the bush, shall we?” Kerry took another drink. “I couldn’t stand you for months. I thought you were a drunken oaf, a boor, a jerk. I learned differently. I don’t know if we’re friends. I don’t know if I even like you. But I’d be lying if I said you were a drunken oaf—I’ve seen enough to know differently. And I’ve seen that unlike most of the guys around here, you are very good to your girlfriend, who happens to be one of my best friends. Even when she’s not right in front of you. And I have to respect you for that.”
                Steve maintained his equilibrium. “Thank you,” he said. “For what it’s worth, I’ve also came to the conclusion that even though I wouldn’t choose to spend my free time around you, you have a lot of good qualities. Whatever man you decide is worthy of you is going to get a real bargain.”
                “I’ll take that as a compliment.” She eyed Bill, Julie, and Jerry warily as they returned to the table, and fell silent as they arranged themselves in the middle of the table. Steve was aware that she seemed to want to say something more, but was reluctant to with Randy sitting there. He stayed quiet, as well, and after five minutes or so of idle chatter, Randy got up to leave the table. He began to speak to Julie; Kerry turned back to Steve. “Do you really like him?”
                “Yes. I take it you don’t.”
                Kerry paused for a moment. “Most of the time—when he’s sober—he’s all right. Put a few drinks in him, and he turns into a satyr.”
                Steve was surprised she used that word, and commented, “I didn’t know you were so conversant with mythology.”
                “Yeah, well, when you’re not running around trying to have sex all the time, you find other uses for your time.”
                “Do I detect a hint of bitterness there?”
                “Not at all.” She smiled without mirth. “Sometimes you act like you’re the only one who reads around here. You’re not, you know.”
                “Touché.” He eyed her with curiosity. “If you don’t mind my asking, why are you seeking my company out?”
                She looked down. “Well, sometimes you’ve just had enough. And that time has come tonight, in more ways than one.”
                Steve’s eyes met hers. “All righty then. You have my attention.”
                “On the one hand, I’m tired of the circus you’re witnessing at the other end of this table. Way tired, more tired than you can imagine. Do you know what it’s like to be so sick of your best friend, your roommate, that you absolutely despise the sight of her?” She shook her head. “Mary Ellen doesn’t know it yet—actually, you don’t, either. So I’ll let you know something. Tomorrow, Valerie is going to ask you if she can sleep over. The reason is that I want to sleep in her room. Just one night. Just one night away from Mary Ellen and all that comes with her. Maybe that will send a message that thousands and thousands of words, from everybody else and in the last week or so from me, so far haven’t.” Kerry took a long swallow. “I remember just a month ago, I would have—did—defend Mary Ellen against anyone who talked bad about her. But it’s like she’s completely lost her mind over this. She’s messing up her entire life. And for what?”
                Steve was somewhat surprised, but not stunned. It had to be difficult, especially one with the code of conduct that Kerry followed, for anyone to deal with the chaos that had followed Mary Ellen like a puppy for weeks. He looked at Kerry, whose head was dropping; she’s getting hammered, he thought. Aloud, he said, “I’m not going to touch that one. And you said there was more than one hand.”
                She looked up, and he was shocked to see her eyes were moist. “When you guys were talking about me earlier, did you really think I couldn’t hear you?”
                Steve wasn’t sure what approach he should take, and ended up opting for blunt honesty. “Yes, we thought you couldn’t hear us.”
                “I’m sick of being talked about like I’m some sort of freak.” The eyes quickly hardened. “Most if not all of these clowns are going to get married some day, and believe me, they’re going to want their wives to be like me.” She grimaced, nodded her head toward Julie and Mary Ellen. “They’re going to be somebody’s mother some day. Would you like to explain to your kids what you were like in college? ‘Yes, honey, I slept with hundreds of men a year. Yes, son, your father loved me dearly, and I repaid him by sleeping around on him.’” She looked at Steve with a pleading look. “You get it. I know you do, because I see you just about every day, because I do see Valerie every day. You treat her like you love her, even if you say you’re not sure if you do. I see you not make your doofus roommate’s life a living hell, even though you could, as obnoxious as he is. I’ve seen you make an effort to make your floor a place where even the oddballs and geeks can feel a part of it.” Her eyes moistened again. “That’s why, when I heard you say those things tonight, it hurt. I really thought, ‘God, not him, too.’ I really expected better than you than to play to the vulgar crowd.”
                His first thought was to argue with her, to say that he himself hadn’t said anything that bad. But he looked at her, and decided that arguing was not the right move. “I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings,” he heard himself say. “You’re right; you deserve better than that.”
                “Thank you.” She locked eyes with him. “The jerks and the dummies around here, I expect it from. You—I know you’re better than that. And I’m not made of stone. There are times when my faith in the way I live my life wavers.” She laughed. “I see stuff like Mary Ellen and Sully, and Julie, and even someone like Nadine, and I’m sure that I’m doing the right thing with my life.” Her face darkened. “But I get tired of every single guy I’ve ever been with deciding that having sex is more important to them than being with me. And when I see relationships that work—like you and Valerie or Mike Himmler and Cheryl—I get jealous. I mean, the two of you have sex, and you can’t tell me that you guys are doing something wrong or sinful. I mean, you guys love each other, and it sure seems to me that the fact that you guys have sex makes the relationship complete, rather than demeans or cheapens it. And I wonder about that. Is it me that’s wrong about this? Is it me that’s killing my chances to find someone by making unreasonable demands on guys?”
                Steve interrupted. “Kerry, you are who you are. It’s obvious that you believe what you believe because you’re convinced that it’s right.” He leaned forward. “Putting aside for the moment whether it really is a sin or not, it’s clear as day to me that if you ever did give up your virginity, you would be racked by guilt almost immediately afterward, and whatever guy you were with at the time would pay the price. So for you, I think the way you go is the right way, and you just haven’t found the right guy yet. You’re twenty-one years old, and you’re beautiful. You’ll find somebody.”
                “That’s what everyone says.” Kerry’s look indicated she wasn’t buying into the concept. “You’re right that I would probably feel guilty, but I might get over it.” She looked at him. “Thank you for apologizing; it makes me feel better about you and about me. I just want to ask you one question.”
                I may regret this, he thought, but—“Go ahead.”
                Kerry set down her glass. “If Valerie was like me, and insisted on waiting until marriage for you guys to have sex—would you have waited for her?”
                Steve thought about a flippant answer, but something in her earnestness, something in the way she was staring at him, made him pause. He had indeed wondered about this very question, more than once. “Well, I’ll be honest,” he began. “I know it’s not a good answer, but I really don’t know. I know I was willing to wait a long time, and I know I didn’t pressure her. As I’m sure you know,” he suddenly smiled, “I didn’t have to wait all that long. I would like to think the answer is yes. But frankly, I’m glad I didn’t have to find out.”
                Kerry muttered something under her breath; Steve decided not to press for clarification, because she obviously was not waiting for a response from him. She drained her glass and filled it again; he had never seen her drink much out on the town, and certainly not on an evening before a full class day. “Drinking a little heavily tonight, aren’t we?”
                She nodded. “Sometimes, it just seems like the correct thing to do. I am not going to go back home and listen to her crap yet again, and getting bombed is the best way to insure I don’t have to hear it. And if I’m hungover tomorrow, I won’t have to hear it then, either.”
                “Boy, you need a serious break, don’t you?”
                She lifted her head and met his gaze again. “Going home is even worse. She not only is from the same town, but she lives across the street. I cannot get away from her, not unless I want to risk a complete break of the friendship. I’m not sure I want to do that. I do know I need a break.” She took another good-sized swallow. “And having a boyfriend would provide one. But it’s been scumbags on parade lately.” She smiled blankly. “Or send in the clowns, whichever you prefer. Sometimes I think all the good ones are taken.”
                Briefly, Steve’s mind flashed back to the conversation he had just been having, and he gulped. She saw it, and he knew she saw it, and he was momentarily discomfited. “You just haven’t found yours yet,”
He repeated.
                “Probably won’t in this pit of slime,” she muttered. She looked at him. “I heard what they were saying about me before, you know. I’m not attracted to bad boys—not at all. So don’t be flattering yourself. I saw you for two years before you even knew Valerie, and I never said hello to you, did I?”
                Steve gave a snort of laughter; this sort of discourse with Kerry was more familiar to him. “I think you’re forgetting that that little scenario wasn’t my idea. I didn’t say hello to you for two years, either.”
                “So we agree neither one of us would touch the other with a ten-foot pole that belongs to someone else.” She suddenly flashed the Brilliant Smile. “Except I seem to recall you hearing saying that you would just to say you did it…”
                “Is there a point to this?” Steve was getting testy. “What is it you want me to say?”
                “I don’t know.” Kerry stared toward the door. “I’m picking on you, I know. But you’ve found your Sleeping Beauty, your Snow White. I’m still waiting for my Prince Charming, and it isn’t getting any easier.” She looked wistful. “I never thought it would be this hard. I know I shouldn’t complain, because I don’t lack for attention. But every single one turns out to be a jerk, a hypocrite, or a closet rapist. There has to be a decent guy somewhere. Doesn’t there?”
                Steve nodded; he could understand her frustration. For the third time, he said, “Kerry; you just haven’t found him yet. And you may not find him here. With three times as many girls as men around here, it’s a pig’s paradise. Most guys, if you let them, will play the one-night-stand game, and around here, it’s real easy to do that.” He looked appreciatively at her. “As pretty as you are, Kerry, there’s no shortage of girls who are in your league looks-wise who have mattresses strapped to their back. Christ, you see the traffic that goes through Valerie’s room, and Nadine certainly could be choosy if she wanted to be.”
                “Yeah.” Kerry looked thoughtful; Steve noticed that she didn’t object to his using the word “Christ,” as she normally did. “I know I’m doing the right thing. I just get tired of being let down.”
                “Maybe you’re looking in the wrong places.”
                “Maybe.”
                “I mean, we’ve agreed that I hold no appeal for you. But who would have thought I would have had any for Valerie?” He looked at her earnestly. “Perhaps you could dare to say hello sometime—to someone else.”
                Kerry nodded. “I’ve thought about that, too, more than once. Who would have thought that you were actually a decent guy?” She snorted. “Don’t let your head get swelled. There are still aspects of you that need a lot of work. In my humble opinion, of course.”
                “Of course.” Steve thought about responding in kind, but decided not to, in essence, kick her when she was down. “So maybe you ought to start drawing outside the lines a little.”
                Kerry gave a short laugh. “Easy to say. Hard to do.”
                “Why is it so hard?”
                “Well, you have to have something to work with. And unfortunately, I seem to be attracted to superficial stuff—neatly dressed, nice manner of speaking, clean-shaven, all that.”
                “You’re telling me you never see a guy that doesn’t fit that mold and say, ‘Hey, he isn’t bad looking,’ or ‘Hey, he’s got nice eyes’ or ‘He’s really funny’ or something?”
                “Listen to you.”’ Kerry flashed the Brilliant Smile again. “Mr. Pierce-the-Soul eyes. She doesn’t talk about it near as much anymore. You know why?”
                Steve was laughing, knowing she was referring to Valerie’s stated reason for initially finding him attractive. “Why?”
                “Because after a while, every time she started to say it, Nadine would stick her fingers down her throat.”
                “She never told me that.” Steve was giggling along with Kerry.
                “That’s one of your good points, you know—that you can laugh about stuff concerning you. Pretty rare, as a matter of fact.” She grew serious for a moment. “As much as everything else about him makes my skin crawl, I’ve noticed that about Bill, too, that he can laugh at himself.”
                Steve nodded. “Yeah, that’s true. I know Pam likes that about him.” As long as the honest compliments were flowing freely, he decided to add his own contribution. “And I have to say that many people who share your belief system so strongly have absolutely no sense of humor. You’re not like that.”
                “Well, thank you.” Kerry held his gaze for a moment. “I’ll take what I can get right now.”
                “I mean it. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I love your company, because that would be overdoing it. But out of all Valerie’s friends, I can truthfully say that you’re the only one I like better now than when I first started going out with her.”
                “I’ll take that as a compliment, too.” She suddenly frowned. “Don’t you like Nadine?”
                “I like her. But she’s got a selfish streak, a capability of being mean, that I don’t like. When she’s raging, she’s heartless—doesn’t care what she says or who’s in the way. That’s something I can do without.”
                Kerry nodded. “I know what you mean. Nadine tries to kid around about it, but it’s a problem. Some people just think it’s immaturity, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it turns out to be some sort of mental health issue.”
                “Well, I don’t think she’s ready for the rubber room just yet.”
                Kerry shook her head. “Why does everybody assume that everybody with a possible mental health problem is crazy? Things like clinical depression, manic-depressive syndrome, schizophrenia—they’re disorders, treatable problems.”
                Steve shook his head. “With all due respect, I think that’s way overblown. My father says that the world started going to hell in a handbasket when all this psycho-babble bullshit started becoming accepted in the larger world, and sometimes I think he’s right.”
                “Are you trying to say there’s no such thing as mental illness?”
                “No.” Steve set down the glass he had been raising to his lips. “But I would think you, of everybody here, would subscribe to the notion that people need to be held accountable for their actions, and not hide behind, ‘Oh, I’m mentally ill” when they cross the lines of behavioral norms.”
                Kerry stared at him for a few moments. “I’m not in the mood for this argument at the moment, but I will say this much. I do believe in accountability—I don’t know if I’ve ever heard anyone use that word before, but that’s exactly what I believe in. But at the same time, what I believe in needs to be tempered with compassion and mercy, or else it would be meaningless. And mental illness is a real thing—people do get successfully treated and live so-called normal lives. Would you deny them that chance because you don’t like, as you call it, ‘psycho-babble?’”
                “I agree that some people are legitimately mentally ill. I also think far, far too many people use it as an excuse to justify bad behavior, and use it to wiggle out of the consequences of their actions. And that is something that I totally abhor.”
                She smiled. “You totally what?”
                “Abhor. Hate, strongly dislike with every fiber of my being.”
                “I know what the word means. I wasn’t sure that’s what you said.” She smiled wanly. “You really ought to understand that other people around here are familiar with the English language.”
                He laughed. “That was pretty cold. Didn’t know you had it in you.”
                She paused before saying, “I really ought to tell you off, but I know you’re only kidding.”
                “To a degree.” He laughed. “The point remains valid. I’m not crazy—no pun intended—about Valerie’s interest in psychology. I really think it does more harm than good.”
                “Anything does more harm than good when it’s misused. People who use mental illness as a crutch would find something to else to use if that one wasn’t available.” She filled her glass again. “Believe me, I’m more tired than you of people trying to weasel out of the consequences of their actions.” She shook her head. “Jesus taught us to be compassionate and forgiving, but it’s hard work sometimes.”
                “Ain’t it?” Steve glanced curiously at Kerry. In all the time they had known each other, they hadn’t spoken seriously, apart from one discussion on the trip down to Daytona, for more than five minutes. Valerie had often told him that he and Kerry had some very startling similarities of interest, and he was beginning to understand what she was talking about. “I do notice that you always manage to do the work, though.”
                “I try. And not always. I seriously doubt that I’ll be feeling compassionate and forgiving toward Terry Talbot anytime soon, for example.”
                “Valerie told me you guys broke up last weekend, but she didn’t tell me any details.”
                “That’s because I didn’t give her any.” She grimaced. “I’ve had to deal with some sticky situations before, because of the way I am. But this was new.”
                “Dare I ask?”
                She looked at him detachedly. “If I ask you not to tell anyone, will you?”
                Steve sighed. “Let me say a couple of things. One, I’m not sure I want to know something that you apparently haven’t even told Valerie about—actually, I am sure I don’t want to know something you haven’t told Valerie. So please, don’t tell me.”
                She looked at him. “I guess I am drunk. I see what you mean. Fair enough.” She tilted her head a little. “What was the second thing you were going to say?”
                He paused. “If you have to ask someone to keep a secret, chances are it’s a futile question.”
                “Why, aren’t you trustworthy? You can’t keep a secret?”
                “Actually, I probably keep secrets better than anyone I know, precisely because I am trustworthy. But the people who have told me things in confidence haven’t had to extract oaths of secrecy from me. They know better.”
                Kerry nodded. “That’s why I was considering telling you. Valerie has said, for a long time, that anything she’s ever told you that wasn’t for everyone’s ears has stayed with you.”
                “Well, if it’s something that deep, I probably would keep it in confidence. My big issue is why you haven’t told Valerie. It isn’t like she has a big mouth.”
                “Because I wasn’t ready to talk about it.”
                “So if she was here…”
                Kerry sighed. “Just forget it.”
                “I can guess, you know.” He leaned closer to her. “Guys like Cement Head are, unfortunately, very thick on the ground around here. If I had to guess, I would say that the All-American boy decided that he was going to take your virginity whether you wanted to give it to him or not, and you had a hell of a time getting away.”
                Kerry smiled without humor. “Something like that.”
                “Well, I was standing in the Union the other day getting a cheeseburger, and I overheard Cement Head telling one of his Cro-Magnon buddies that he found out you were a dyke.” He laughed. “Then he sees that I’m standing behind him, and he looks to me for some sort of confirmation. I said to him, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’” He shook his head. “He actually expects people to believe it. That’s what I find amazing.”
                “He’s lucky to be walking around. I should have pulled the thing right off.”
                Steve started laughing loudly. “I’m sorry. I’m just getting some strange pictures from that.”
                Kerry looked slightly sheepish. “Listen, I may be a virgin, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lived my life in a bubble.”
                Steve had listened to Valerie on this subject, and he knew Valerie had discussed it with Mary Ellen and others, and also with Kerry. There were enough variations in what he had heard to whet his curiosity. “I suppose not,” he said delicately,
                Kerry cupped her hand under her chin and challenged him. “Getting more strange pictures?”
                He smiled without mirth. “Umm… yeah, I guess I am.”
                She giggled. “Wow, I’ve put Steve Rizzo off-balance. Score one for me.”
                He grinned. “So out with it. Just between you, me, and Valerie.”
                She glared at him, not liking the tone of gleeful sarcasm. “I haven’t had sex, it’s true. But I’ve done some things.”
                Steve considered pressing her, but in the end, he chickened out. “I have to tell you that I know some of what you’ve told—“ he paused, considering what to say—“others.”
                “How interesting.” Kerry’s tone sounded flat and frozen. “Nice to know that my friends keep secrets so well.”
                “Before you flip out, Valerie is not the only possible source.”
                “But the most logical one.”
                He sighed. “She confirmed something I was told by someone else. She did not volunteer information, and I haven’t said anything to anybody other than her about what I heard.” He snorted. “Although, to be truthful, I haven’t had to. Some of your other so-called friends haven’t been at all discreet.”
                She thought about it for a moment. “There’s a chance you might be telling me the truth. I can’t say I’ve ever heard you lie before, I know Valerie doesn’t gossip, and I know you’re not a typical guy that way, either.” She smiled. “Even if it was her that told you, I think I can forgive her some pillow talk, as long as it stays between the two of you. But I would like to know how you found out.”
                “Who’s one of my best, if not my best, friends?”
                “Jerry.”
                “Or?”
                “Darrin.” Kerry’s eyes flashed with anger. “My roommate told him, who told all of you. Didn’t she?”
                “Close enough.”
                She shook her head. “I could tell you some things.” Her voice trailed off. “No, but why would I do that? It isn’t worth it, and it isn’t like any of these pinheads matter.”
                Steve laughed. “Pinheads?”
                “You taught me that one. You played that Ramones song about seventy times on the way home from Daytona.”
                “I suppose I did.” Steve had rebelled against the selection of music on the bus down to Florida, and had won, after threatening to destroy a Lionel Ritchie tape that had been played from New Jersey to South Carolina, the right to play some of his music on the return trip. He had, to the disgust of most of the other riders, played punk/New Wave bands for nearly ten consecutive hours. He smiled at the memory. “If I ever hear ‘Three Times a Lady’ again, I am going to immediately vomit.”
                She giggled. “D-U-M-B, everyone’s accusing me,” quoting the song “Pinhead.” She shook her head, smiling. “Anyhow, returning to the subject—“
                “You.” Steve had the sudden thought that this was by far the most he had ever heard Kerry talk about things other than herself.
                “Me.” She grinned. “ As I was saying, months ago, it seems, he’s lucky I didn’t pull it off.” She shook her head. “I went to the bathroom, and when I come back in the room, he’s standing around the corner of the room stark naked, with an erection. ‘It’s now or never,’ he says. I told him, “Get the fuck out.’”
                “You dropped the f-word?”
                “I don’t make a habit of swearing, but there are times that it’s the only appropriate response.”
                “I have never heard you say that word.”
                “Hang around our floor more. You will.”
                “How much more do you want me to hang around your floor?”
                She snorted. “Until this week, we hardly saw you this month.” She laughed. “I just gotten used to sleeping without hearing you snoring through the walls. If you want to hear me swear, wake up while I’m cursing you out for snoring so loud.”
                “Yeah, well, I can’t help that. Nadine doesn’t complain as bad as you and Mary Ellen do.”
                “Not to your face.”
                “What I don’t hear, I can’t get mad about.”
                Kerry smirked. “Your girlfriend is really good to you, shielding you from all the crap you deserve—on that account, anyway.” She rolled her eyes. “She keeps telling us that there’s only three weeks left, and that she’s going to try to spend more time at your place—which she’s done, except for this last week.”
                Steve frowned. “My wonderful human being of a roommate insisted he had to study all night two nights this week. I got suspicious after the first night; the notebook he supposedly had to cram from hadn’t been moved from his desk. So the second night, I had Jerry and Darrin watch him. The weasel went to bed at eleven o’clock, just like he always does. There isn’t going to be a third time.”
                Kerry smiled. “You were in Frazier three times this week. What was the third?”
                Steve grinned wolfishly. “I forgot what it was like to hit my head on the ceiling when I was having sex.”
                Kerry was nonplussed. “I know for a fact that whenever you guys do it in her room, she’s on top.” She laughed at the look of surprise on his face. “I guess you think guys are the only ones who talk?”
                He shook his head. “I knew better than that. It’s just that—“
                “I keep telling you—I’m not a wallflower. I get included in all the talks. I know more about you and how you are in bed than anybody else in this college who’s never went to bed with you—me and Nadine.” She grinned wickedly. “Remember that the next time you piss me off.”
                “I haven’t pissed you off since we came back from Florida.” He stroked his chin. “I may have forgotten how.”
                “Don’t even go there.” Her face tightened. “For what it’s worth, I am glad you don’t treat me with undisguised contempt anymore. With ninety-nine percent of the people here, I wouldn’t care—heck, with most of them, I’d wear it as a badge of honor. But aside from the fact that you’re the boyfriend of one of my best friends—which would make things a difficult situation—“
                “Witness your roommate.”
                “Witness my roommate.” She smiled. “But even aside from that, whatever you may or may not be, you’re not the average ass around here. You have good qualities, and—“ She grew discomfited as he stared at her, his grin getting wider by the second. “Don’t let your head swell,” she muttered. “You ought to learn how to take a compliment.”
                He was cracking up. “I haven’t said a word!”
                “You haven’t had to.” She started to get up.
                He reached for her arm. “Wait a minute.” She paused. “I do appreciate what you’re saying. And—ditto. I don’t want to be you, and I don’t want to be with you. But you are a very good person in your own way, and worth being friends with—in her own right.”
                She nodded in the direction of the bathroom. “I have to go. Those words you just said—“
                “Yes?”
                “Don’t lay it on too thick. You’re an hour removed from the ankle-biter comment.”

                He watched her walk away, without retorting. Jerry, from a couple of seats away, nodded at him. “What the hell was that all about?”
                He began to sing, “She aches….just like a woman.”
                Jerry began to laugh. “But does she make love?”
                “Somebody is going to find out, very soon, I’ll bet.”
                Randy, tuning in to the conversation, was confused, and said so.
                Steve quietly clued him in. “Lyrics from a Bob Dylan song. And,” he turned to Jerry, “she breaks just like a little girl. That’s what that was about.”



                Valerie, as she had been doing for eight months, climbed uncomfortably up into the upper bunk bed, pulling back the covers before she melted into the mattress. She was very tired; she had spent most of the weekend writing a paper for one of her speech com classes, about the effect of television on politics worldwide. Her own country’s history in this area had been somewhat familiar to her—from the Nixon/Kennedy debates down to the early concession speech of Jimmy Carter. She had been totally in the dark about television’s effect in other countries, and while writing it, she had convinced herself that in that area at least, the rest of the world was better off than Americans were. She had gotten better at typing over the past two years, but still was not comfortable doing it, and it had taken her ten hours to complete the twenty-plus pages, with bibliography. She had had cause several times to recall Steve’s telling her that the smartest thing he had ever done was to take a typing class as a high school senior; one reason Steve led the social life he did was the fact that he could type, without an undue number of mistakes, almost forty words a minute. The paper she had just struggled with would have taken him about two-and-a-half hours, at most.

                He wasn’t the best typist she knew. Nadine had been hanging out in her bed reading for the last hour because the paper she had been working on had been completed in the early evening. Nadine was another who had taken typing classes, and she was so good at it that her back-up career plan was stenography. As soon as Valerie was settled under the covers, Nadine reached over to the nightstand and turned up the three-way bulb a notch. “You want me to shut this off?”
                “Yeah,” Valerie said, suppressing a yawn.
                Nadine turned the switch again, and the room was plunged into darkness. “And so ends another fun-filled day,” she said sarcastically.
                “Well, I guess it’s the point of being in college, isn’t it?”
                “So they tell me.” Nadine was not enthusiastic. “Tell me something, now that you’re not stressing major-league.”
                “I wasn’t stressing.”
                “Oh, no? You looked like a baby trying to figure out how to crawl all day long.”
                “I guess I was just concentrating. I didn’t really feel stressed.”
                “OK, have it your way. Now that your paper is done—is that better?”
                Valerie smiled. “Yes, lots better.”
                “Great. Now that that has been settled.” After a pause, “I forgot what I wanted to ask you.”
                “Couldn’t have been that important, then.”
                “I think it was. Oh, yeah. Do you think you could ask Steve if he would take me to my parents’ house on Tuesday during the afternoon? My mother said the school sent me a form that I’ve got to have if I’m going to intern this summer at the TV station, and you know the mail takes three days for stuff to get here.”
                “When does the TV station have to have it?”
                “They don’t need it; the head of the department here does.”
                “You could ask.” Valerie silently thought that there was no reason that Nadine’s mother couldn’t mail it, or even drive it herself—Nadine’s home was closer than hers to campus--, but she also knew that Steve would probably do it, and she never minded him helping her friends out if he could—it created a reservoir of goodwill that might come in handy someday.
                “Well, I just wanted to run it by you first. He is your boyfriend, and regulations ought to be followed.”
                “I appreciate it, but you know it isn’t necessary. If I can’t trust my roommate and my boyfriend together, then I’m in a lot of trouble.”
                “I wasn’t sweating the answer, but I wanted to do the right thing. Thank you for trusting me, though. With some of the people around here, that kind of trust would be misplaced. And some think,” she giggled, “that it would be foolish to trust me.
                “I hear you. I’m sure I have nothing to worry about from you. As for the others, three more weeks of animals in heat, and then back to the normal world for a couple of months.”
                “Animals in heat.” Valerie could almost hear Nadine grinning. “We see drinking bouts and hair-combing for mating rituals.”
                “One thing we learned in class this semester was how much of human behavior has its roots in the animal kingdom. A lot of so-called ‘male’ things can be explained as the human equivalent of animal mating practices.”
                “I knew there was a reason guys were so damn possessive.”
                “Are you being serious?”
                “Yes. Why wouldn’t I be? I mean, we’ve all seen women not get along, but usually there’s a better reason than a lot of the shit guys figuratively butt heads over.” She giggled. “Actually, I wish guys would actually do that, don’t you?”
                Valerie laughed as well. “Butt heads? Yeah. I can just see it now. Two guys take off from a standing start and—boom!”
                “Ooooh, my fucking head,” Nadine moaned in a passable imitation of a male voice.  “Or better yet, have them strap on antlers. Or maybe make them do silly dances in silly clothes. Wait a minute, wasn’t that Saturday Night Fever?” she almost snorted, as Valerie began to helplessly dissolve in laughter.
                “OK, enough silliness,” Valerie said wearily, after they both laughed for some time. “I knew there was a reason I came to college.”
                Nadine laughed again. “Yes,  college is a human mating ritual.”
                “In the Divide the other night, no one would argue with that. “
                Nadine grunted. “I’ve been here for two years, and I swear to God, that was the worst meat market feeling I’ve ever had here.”
                Almost involuntarily, Valerie rubbed her hand on her right nipple. “I think I had my nipples and my ass pinched and grabbed more that night than all the rest of the year combined.”
                “I hate when Brockport comes slumming to our town. Those guys are animals.”
                Valerie nodded. “I recognized two of them that I went to high school with. “ She gave a short laugh. “One was definitely not happy when Steve came back from the bathroom and I introduced them.”
                There was a short pause before Nadine spoke. “Did you think there was going to be a fight? I’ve never seen Steve even come close to fighting.”
                Valerie chose her words carefully. “No, it wasn’t really like that. You know, I’ve never seen him come close, either. But I don’t think I want to.”
                “Why?”
                “Do you know John Zalinsky?
                “That’s the guy who used to be on his floor a couple of years ago, right? The good-looking guy from Utica?"
                “That’s him. Cheryl told me once that she saw Steve prowling the lounge in Yates for hours trying to get upstairs, and it took eight guys to keep him at bay. I asked John about it the next time I saw him, and he said some guy got pissed off by something Steve said and tried to get even by dumping water on Steve’s bed. He said finally Sully and Mary Reed had to tell him he was going to get in a lot of trouble if he beat the guy up, and it was still another hour before he calmed down enough to let it go.”        
“I would be pissed off, too.”
                “And Jerry told me that Steve was on the phone with the phone company a few months ago, and he was getting angrier and angrier, and when they put him on hold one too many times,  he just very casually and quietly tore the phone book in half. Not the Rochester one, but the local one. But that’s still pretty damn hard to do.”
                “Somehow, I’m not surprised. He’s got that look about him that when he does get mad, he gets really mad.”
                Valerie remembered the conversation she and Steve had had at her parents’ house . “He told me his nickname in high school was ‘ Sandman,’ because on a football field, he put people to sleep.”
“’The Sandman’, Nadine mused. “That’s kind of cool, actually. Maybe I’ll call him that the next time I see him.”
                Valerie considered. “I don’t think he’d like it too much. As far as he’s concerned, that was a long time ago.”
                “And beauty has tamed the beast, right?” Nadine laughed. “It’s amazing how sensitive some guys get when you remind them of things they once did or were. But let a girl change or move past a mistake, and people treat it like it’s a tattoo.”
                Valerie groaned silently; here we go again, she thought. “Are we going to rehash this whole double standard on sex again? I love you to death, Nadine, but I really don’t want to go there tonight.”
                “I wasn’t going to,” Nadine said defensively, then added, with a giggle, “maybe just a little. But seriously, do you think Mary Ellen would catch as much shit as she does if she were male?”
                “The problem with Mary Ellen—as if you needed to be reminded—is that she’s fucking around on her boyfriend, not that she’s having sex with a number of men.”
                “True. But Randy Bloch does it, and nobody bats an eye.”
                “I wouldn’t say that.” Valerie paused, choosing her words carefully. “It’s true that no one ostracizes him, or harps on it, but I think that’s more because that’s the type of people his friends are. I wouldn’t say that many of them approve.”
                “It seems like a few of them do.”
                “To a few of them, you’re right, it’s no big deal.” Valerie thought for a moment. “But guys like Andrew and Mike LaSorda are younger, and they’re Neanderthals. That explains why they don’t have girlfriends, doesn’t it?”
                “Andrew is creepy.”
                Valerie frowned. “Frankly, I think that if he’s given an opportunity, Andrew would be a rapist.” She shook her head. “I hate to say this, but I really hope he gets caught selling his dope.”
                Nadine agreed. “If he keeps going the way he is, someone will turn him in, sure as shit.” She chortled, “Maybe I will. I’d rest easier.”
                Valerie had just had a rather impassioned discussion on this very subject with Steve two days before. “One thing I will agree with you about is that compared to people like Andrew, Mary Ellen and Sully are harmless. Yet no one does anything about Andrew.”
                Nadine lightly kicked the bed over her. “That’s because he’s got something people want. Tell me the truth. Have you ever done anything besides pot now? I know what the answer was a few months ago, but…”
                Valerie stared at the ceiling. “I snorted coke a couple of times. It’s a nice high, but it makes my nose feel like I cannonballed into the deep end too many times without nose plugs, so I try not to grow too fond of it. Steve asked me one night if I had any desire to do mushrooms, but I said no.”
                “Did he?”
                “No, that was why he was asking. He said he’d try it again if I did it with him.”
                “What about acid?”
                “No.”
                “I tried acid the last time I was home. Didn’t like it.” Nadine laughed. “Actually, I haven’t found anything I’ve liked other than drinking. I think I’ll stick with that.”
                Valerie agreed. “I don’t even like pot that much. I’ll say this for Andrew; the stuff he gets is better than the stuff Darrin had.”
                “Is that all Andrew deals in?”
                “I guess he’s been into cocaine lately. And Steve said he was raving about some new kind of cocaine—crack, I think he said it was. Like free-base, only small rocks or something. I didn’t pay much attention. Like I said, it isn’t my thing.
                “Ever free-base?”
                “No. I have no desire to be Richard Pryor.” She smiled. “That rhymed. I’m telling you, I’m getting good at this.”
                “Hanging around Steve too much.” Nadine was one of the few who knew that Steve had dabbled in poetry and song writing, having been part of one late-night discussion in Daytona, and she never hid the fact that she found his writing, while good, somewhat verbose and pretentious. “Maybe you can be the female Bob Dylan.”
                “No, thanks. I have no ear for music.”
                “Neither does Bob Dylan.”
                “That’s not true. Even though his voice isn’t so good, a lot of his songs are musically well-done.”
                “I don’t want to argue with you, but I disagree.” Nadine sniffed. “I’d rather listen to Bob Dylan than that punk/New Wave shit we were subjected to on the ride home from Daytona, though.”
                Valerie had grown to like much of Steve’s more eclectic musical tastes, and said so. “Besides, there are those who feel the same way about having to listen to Madonna and the Commodores for hours at a time.”
                “Most people like Madonna and the Commodores. Who the hell ever heard of the Ramones or the Damned?”
                They had had this argument before, and Valerie didn’t want to renew it now, not after midnight. So she simply said, “To each their own, I guess.”
                Nadine said quietly, with a mischievous tone, “I love it when I’m right.”
                Valerie heard her, and quickly responded, “No one said you were right. I’m just choosing not to argue with you.”
                “Because I’m right.”
                Valerie leaned her head over the edge of the bed and peered into the lower bunk. “You are asking for a response. You realize this?”
                “What kind of response?”
                “Well, since Doug English is being such a weasel lately—even worse than usual—Steve was considering asking to stay over here much of next week.”
                Nadine, despite the darkness, visibly paled. “You can’t do that. His snoring has gotten even worse the last few weeks.” Her voice strengthened. “He needs to see a doctor, because something really isn’t right.”
                “I guess he did once, and the doctor said to stop drinking and smoking. I don’t think he even told him about snorting coke on occasion.”
                Nadine laughed. “Like that’s going to happen.”
                “Not anytime soon, I’m afraid.”
                “He might stop smoking; I’ve heard him say he wished he didn’t.”
                Valerie nodded in the dark. “I think we all say that. But the first thing he does as soon as he takes a sip—actually, as soon as he orders at the bar—is light a cigarette. And then he’s off.”
                “How much are you smoking these days?”
                Valerie considered. “Honestly, over a pack a day. Probably about 25 cigarettes. And you?”
                Nadine sounded proud. “I’ve cut down to maybe ten. A pack lasts two days or so now.” She coughed, then resumed. “I’ve found doing work at the library helps. If no one else is doing it, I don’t think about it.”
                “I know what you mean. I can hang out with Kerry for a week, and never light up. Mary Ellen comes along, and suddenly I have to have one.”
                “Mary Ellen, huh? Couldn’t be Steve, right?”
                “Or Steve.” She yawned. “Of course, he doesn’t care how much he smokes because he can buy all he wants, unlike the rest of us mere mortals.”
                “How much of his money is his money, and how much is his family’s?”
                Valerie paused before answering. She knew that Nadine liked Steve, but she also knew that one reason why was that Nadine came from a family in which money was not a problem, and Nadine was always impressed by others with money. “All of what you see him with is his. But his family’s certainly not lacking it, either.”
                “I thought so. His father’s not really Mafia, is he?”
                “I’ve never met the man. But the impression I get is that he’s not a card-carrying member, no.”
                “Do they get cards?” Nadine started laughing. “That would be funny, if they did.”
                Valerie hoped Nadine was being facetious. ‘I think there are other means by which they identify themselves,” she finally replied.
                “For real, I wonder how they do know each other.”
                Valerie suppressed a groan before answering. “It’s like a club, Nadine; the people who are already part of it let you join. Of course they all know each other.” She rolled on her side. “God, it isn’t a fraternity. You don’t get T-shirts with your name on the back for joining.” Honestly, she thought, for someone she knew wasn’t stupid, Nadine could be really dense at times.
                “I guess not. I never really thought about it before.”
                “And so, to answer the question you really want to ask, his father has a legitimate business—some sort of tire and auto repair shop. And it does quite well.”
                “You’re sure it’s all legitimate.”
                “As far as I know, it is.”
                “Are you ever going to meet his parents?”
                “They’re coming here for graduation.” Valerie shifted her weight again. “And he’s told me that the weekend of the Belmont, he would like me to come to Welland the day before and stay the day after. So the long wait is going to be over before long.”
                “Aren’t you dying to go?”
                “Yeah, I have to say I am.” Valerie sighed. “I’m starting to have a picture of what I would like my life to be like when I grow up.” She giggled. “I’d like to know whether I’m going to like my in-laws or not.”
                “Still think he’s the one, huh?”
                “Yeah, I do. Why wouldn’t I?”
                “No reason. I envy you, that’s all. And I have to say that out of all the people together I know, you two are the ones I have the least amount of trouble seeing as old people together. Well, except for that guy Mike on his floor and his girlfriend.”
                Valerie laughed. “I’ll take that as a good thing.”
                “It is.” There was no sort of levity in Nadine’s voice. “When the two of you first got together, I didn’t really know what to think. From the beginning, I thought he was a good guy—but I also thought he was some sort of party animal nut job that you’d eventually part with. Then I began to see that he really was a lot deeper than that. I mean, he parties, but he’s a lot more than that. Then I could see you falling for him, and now I look at him and you together and I get jealous.” She gave a short laugh. “Not jealous; jealous is the wrong word. I guess it makes me sad, that I don’t have that kind of guy in my life.”
                “You will. You’re not even twenty years old yet. It will happen.”
                “Well, I’m only nineteen for another two weeks. And you just turned twenty three months ago; it isn’t like you’ve got so much more experience than I do.”
                Valerie really didn’t know what to say. Neutrally, she repeated, “It will happen, Nadine. Just be patient.”
                “I know, I know. I look at virtually everyone else, though, and I’m glad I haven’t fallen in love with anyone.”
                “You’ve been in love before.”
                “So have you.”
                “Not like this.” Valerie leaned over to look down at Nadine. “I thought I was last year, with Tony. But in retrospect, it was so unhealthy it wasn’t funny. I bought into his bullshit, and it hurt when I discovered the truth. That’s all that was.”
                “Yeah, but you thought you were in love, which is the same as actually being in it. I think so, anyway.”
                “At the time, I guess. But I’ll never make that mistake again.”
                Nadine laughed again. “Hopefully, that’s the point of making mistakes—learning from them. I’ve made a lot of them, but one I’m never going to make again is to mistake sexual compatibility for love.”
                “No,” Valerie agreed, rolling her eyes as she laid back down, “that’s one you’re not going to make again.” She decided to put a toe into waters she wasn’t sure were warm. “Speaking of sexual compatibility, you’ve been on quite the roll the last few months. Do you plan on continuing at this pace when school’s done?”
                “Why don’t you just say I’ve been fucking a lot of guys this semester?”
                “I didn’t say a lot. But more than the first year and a half we’ve been here.”
                “Spoken like a true friend.” Nadine clucked. “Do you believe that Mary Ellen actually was going to write me up for not having an overnight guest sign a pass? I had to remind her that I know Sully’s been here four times this month, and that I know she slept with that guy in his room over in Huron last weekend.”
                “The night Sully thought she went home.”
                “The night Sully thought she went home.” Nadine cackled. “I think Mary Ellen is going to be sorry she asked to be the RA on this floor next year.”
                “The other night, Mary Reed really tore into her after the Quad Council meeting at Yates. Mary Ellen gave Keith some shit about leaving the Basement doors unlocked in Yates in front of the Residence Coordinator, and Keith caught all sorts of flak. Mary told her that knife cuts both ways, and also told her that if she had any reason to notice Mary Ellen before graduation, Mary was going to tell the RC every rumor she had ever heard about Mary Ellen.”
                “I doubt the RC would have that much time on his hands.”
                “She was complaining about it this afternoon, too. I just said that she ought to be thankful Mary gave her a warning. Mary—and Keith, for that matter—are going to be gone in three weeks. Mary could have just given her up, at absolutely no cost to herself.”
                “Let me ask you something. Do you like Keith?”
                Valerie paused for a moment. “Yeah, I guess I do. I can see why people wouldn’t, though. He still thinks and acts like a high school jock in a lot of ways. But he and Steve get along real good, and he’s never said or done anything that would make me mad at him.”
                “Why do he and Steve get along? Steve’s not really a jock-type, at least not now, and he’s not exactly the kind of guy most RA’s would want on their floor.”
                “Steve doesn’t pick on people or think he’s God’s gift to earth, but he very much was a jock all his life, and he’s comfortable around jocks—he and my brother got along great. And Steve and Keith share one interest that few people around here can be bothered with.”
                “Horse racing.”
                Valerie nodded. “Yeah. Keith is from Toronto, and he’s been going to Woodbine for years and years. He and Steve are always going up to OTB together.”
                “Wood-what?”
                “Woodbine. It’s the racetrack in Toronto—actually, in a suburb, if I remember what he said right. But Keith grew up about five minutes away, I guess, and he’s gone there since grade school. So he and Steve can hang out for hours talking about horse racing. And hockey, too. Steve loves hockey.”
                “It’s probably good for him, having someone here to talk to that actually knows what he’s talking about.” She shook her head. “He loses me when he starts talking about stuff like ‘speed duels’ and stuff like that.” Nadine tapped the upper mattress with her foot. “You seem to have stayed interested somehow, though.”
                Valerie considered for a moment. “It is interesting. I’ll never have the level of knowledge he does, but I love listening to him analyze a race before it’s run. It’s like listening to a really good professor. What’s even better,” she laughed, “is being there when he and Keith disagree on a race. They both sound so logical, they’re both so sure they’re right, and I have yet to see either one change their mind yet.”
                “Well, after he won all that money right after you guys got together, I started to at least try to understand it. When you win that much, it isn’t like hitting a lottery ticket. He knew exactly what he was doing.”
                “That was probably his finest moment,” Valerie agreed, smiling at the memory. “He got my attention that day, too. The thing no one remembers is that he was having a pretty good day before that race. He and Keith were running up to OTB after every race, and I think he won four or five out of seven races that day. If I remember right, the horse that won the race before that one paid something like a hundred dollars, and he had bet ten dollars on it.”
                “Just imagine,” Nadine mused. “You’ll probably get to go to Saratoga this summer.”
                “It’s funny you mention that. My father said something like that to him, and he said he hates it there. Everything is horribly expensive, from the track hot dogs to the parking to the hotels, and he says he’s never left there with more money than he got there with.” She stared at the ceiling. “I’m sure he will take me to a racetrack besides Finger Lakes this summer, but I doubt it will be Saratoga.”
                “Which one does he like best?”
                “Belmont, by far. He loves the track, he loves the place, and he says it is big enough to be comfortable. Even on Belmont Day, he says it’s still not really crowded. Keith says Woodbine is really nice, too. I know he invited Steve up there this summer, and I’ll bet he ends up going.”
                “What did he do around here before Keith came? The only other guy I know that even pays attention to him is Jerry, and I know they didn’t hang out last year.”
                “One of his friends from Garibaldi was here the past few years—Dan something-or-other, I can’t remember. Dan was the one who got Steve into racing when they were high school—well, his father started him into it, but Dan is his age and they hung out from the ninth grade on.  Steve told me Dan is in OTB every single day, which is one reason why Dan isn’t here anymore.”
                “Failed out, huh?”
                “Well, he guess he was right on the edge. Steve said Dan was managing when Dan was in Yates, because Steve and Dan’s girlfriend were around to at least get him to do the minimum. But he moved uptown at the beginning of the year, and he didn’t even wait for the end of the semester before leaving.”
                “Was carrying that old 0.0 after midterms?”
                “Close enough. I guess his father had to declare bankruptcy in October, but I would assume that the semester was already paid for.” Valerie leaned over the edge again. “I think you know who he is. He’s about six-six, wears real owlish glasses half the time, and had a shaved head most of last year.”
                “You know him?”
                “I never talked to him, and I guess he left here right after Steve and I got together. But I definitely remember seeing him in the Divide a few times last year, now that I know who his girlfriend and John Zalinsky are. And I know you went to the Salt Shaker more than I did, and I guess he used to hang there all the time.”
                Recognition dawned. “Oh, yeah.” Nadine had gone to the Salt Shaker five or six times during her freshman year. She had known who Steve was long before Valerie had because of it, and it was through that memory that she placed Dan. “He’s hard to miss, actually. I’d be surprised if he’s only six-six. And I thought he was  ugly.”
                Valerie giggled. “Chloe McKenzie doesn’t think so.”
                Nadine nodded. “Yeah, I know. I used to see them together there, and I just assumed that he had a foot-long dick or something, because there was no other way to explain that. She’s kind of cute.”
                Valerie giggled again. “You have a one-track mind, you know that?”
                “And most of the time, I’m very happy about it.” Nadine grew serious again. “Chloe McKenzie actually cornered me a couple of Happy Hours ago. I forgot to tell you about it. She wanted to know how you and Steve were doing. I said you guys certainly seem all right to me, and she said she was glad, because she thought he was really busted up after Yvette. I asked her why she didn’t talk to you or him about it. She said she never sees either of you except from a distance.” Nadine shook her head. “She was drunk out of her mind.”
                “I wonder whether she’s feeling guilty,” Valerie said, more amused than angry. “I don’t know if she’s supposedly still going out with Dan, but I can tell you she hasn’t lacked for company a lot of evenings.”
                “She was chasing Darrin one night, I thought. But she ended up talking with some Aretheusas, and Darrin went to Joe’s.”
                “Is she an Aretheusa now, too?”
                “No way. For one thing, I think she’s graduating. For another, I can’t see her pledging.”
                Valerie paused. This was a subject she was loath to get into with her roommate. Valerie had never been warm to the idea of joining a sorority, and it had completely lost its appeal after she starting going out with Steve. She didn’t like the implied attitude of superiority that the very idea of sororities embodied, and those attitudes had been doubly reinforced both by Steve (who felt, even more strongly, the same way) and by her experience with the Yates Basement, who were more fraternal than any fraternity largely because everyone (more or less) was accepted without reservation for who they were and what they brought to the group. Jim Chandler, for example, was one of the wittiest people Valerie knew, and a thoroughly nice person for good measure, yet she knew he would not have been accepted for pledging by any of the fraternities on campus simply because he looked, at first glance, to be about fifteen years old. Even someone like Doug English was tolerated and certainly not ignored by the rest of the Basement; he still ate with everyone else at the dining hall, watched football with everyone else, even played cards if he wanted to. Valerie knew the Basement was the exception rather than the rule, but she also knew that part of the Cellar Dweller identity was its openness—if you lived there, you were part of the group. Many who didn’t live on the floor but whom enjoyed the company—herself and Cheryl most obviously, but also guys from the upper floors of Yates who simply liked hanging out downstairs—were treated by everyone exactly as if they were Cellar Dwellers. That sort of camaraderie and fellowship could not stand up to any sort of formal membership guidelines that Greek societies employed as part of their essential identity.
                But Valerie also knew that Nadine did not share her sentiments, far from them. Nadine had seriously considering pledging the Aretheusas the previous fall, but for a variety of reasons had backed out at the last moment, and spent a good portion of the past eight months regretting that decision. Nadine had several acquaintances among that sorority, all of whom were still actively recruiting her, and Valerie felt it was a foregone conclusion that Nadine was going to pledge in the autumn. Valerie was nearly as certain that once she was a member of the sorority, Nadine would move into the sorority house at the first opportunity; Valerie had already assessed potential new roommates in a half-hearted way, even though that possibility was eight months in the future. Nadine and Valerie had gotten into a couple of rather spirited discussions on the subject of fraternal organizations, and they had served only to harden Nadine’s resolve to pledge. Not for the first time, she wondered about Nadine’s psyche, why it was so important to her to not only belong somewhere, but why she needed to feel better than others around her. She didn’t like the answers she got, which was why she preferred to dwell on other subjects.

                She chose the more neutral subject of Chloe McKenzie. “I’ve talked with her a few times, but Steve was always there except for one time in the library. She’s very nice, she really is. Did you know that library science was a major here?”
                “I didn’t when I got here, but I do now. I always wondered how you got to be a librarian. I didn’t know you had to go to school for it.”
                “I guess you do. That’s her major.”
                “She’s going to be a librarian?” Nadine whistled. “What was that movie about seven, eight years ago about the teacher who cruised the bars?’
                Valerie thought for a moment. “Looking For Mr. Goodbar?”
                “Yeah. That’s the first thing that went through my head.”
                Valerie suppressed the urge to tell Nadine that as far as she could see, Nadine hadn’t been behaving a whole lot differently. “I saw that movie once. I didn’t like it.”
                “You and Steve haven’t been to the movies in a long time.”
                Valerie smiled. “I know. He has a hell of a time sitting still for two hours. Unless it’s a really great movie, he doesn’t like to go. That’s why the VCR was invented, he says.”
                Nadine laughed. “He’s got a point. There isn’t a pause button in the theater.”
                Valerie smiled, too. “True.” She thought for a moment. “Although if he’s into a movie, he can sit there for a long time. The last movie we saw was Amadeus, and he didn’t move for three hours.”
                “I remember you guys telling me how good that was. Although who would’ve thought a movie about Mozart would be interesting?”
                “It was.” Valerie’s mind suddenly flashed back to a conversation she had been a part of in Daytona; she recalled Jerry saying rather viciously that Nadine would be a perfect television anchor personality, because she had zero interest in the past, none in the future, and only cared about the present in the sense of how it affected her. Valerie recalled when they had gone to the movie; Nadine had had only the vaguest idea of who Mozart was. “There’s a lot of great stories out there. A lot of times, the stories you see on the news for a minute or two have great stories behind them.”
                Nadine sniffed. “That’s the reporter’s job. Me, I read the news.”
                “You’re really not interested in the news-gathering part of television news at all, are you?”
                “No.” Nadine shifted her weight. “So far, it hasn’t been an issue. To me, it seems nosy, like interfering in people’s lives.”
                Valerie could hardly believe her ears. “Yet you’ll read whatever someone else comes up with on the air.”
                “That’s the job description. I get on the air because I look good and sound good, and I read what’s given to me. And it’s going to be a lucrative career.”
                “You’re pretty cynical for someone who’s still a teenager.”
                “I’d rather call it taking advantage of my gifts, and of the way the world is. In a perfect world, looks wouldn’t matter as much, but it ain’t a perfect world, is it? I don’t want to get to be forty years old and say I missed my chance to set myself up for life.”
                Valerie considered this. A couple of days ago, Steve had been speaking on this subject; some college football player had left school for the pros long before graduation. Valerie had commented that it didn’t seem right, and Steve had defended the player. “If a regular college student does everything he’s supposed to do,” he had said, “and everything breaks right for him, he’ll get a good job that will pay him maybe a million dollars over the next fifteen to twenty years. Chances are he won’t get that good of a job, either. This guy is getting several million dollars over the next few years for doing something he’ll be able to do for the next ten years—if he’s lucky—of his life. Why should he have to wait three more years to make that money? And who knows what would happen in that time—look at me, to take a worst case example. And this is not a typical college kid; this is a kid who’s been dirt poor, who probably can barely read and do math. It would take four years of college for him to get where you and I were when we got to college. He’ll never get a chance to make this kind of money again.” Valerie had seen the logic of his argument. Now she was hearing it again, albeit from someone whose life was vastly different than that of a rural Mississippi black kid. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “It just sounds so—cheap, like you’re shallow.”
                “Well, I’m not shallow. Just realistic.”
                “Well, I see your point. I guess what’s bothering me is the implication that you’re just in it for the money.”
                With some people, Nadine would have answered furiously, but she took the comment in the spirit it was offered. “Well, in that sense, maybe it is cynical. It’s not just about the money; I want to do this for a living because I do like it. But I don’t see the issue about maximizing my earning ability.”
                “I don’t think that was the issue. The issue was whether you wanted to be a reporter or a talking head.”
                Again, Nadine did not take offense at a comment that she probably would have been angry over from virtually anyone else. “If I looked like Melissa Baldwin, then I would be more interested in the reporting side of this medium, because this opportunity wouldn’t be open to me. And if I looked like Doug English’s girlfriend, I would have to be a print reporter or a producer, because there is no way someone as visually unpleasant as that is ever going to get air time.” Nadine lightly kicked the bed. “The entire field is cynical, not me. And you benefit from it, too. I know you’re not as comfortable in front of a camera as I am. But why do you think the people at the college TV station are still interested in working with you? If you were less attractive, you would have gotten one chance, tops. Am I right?”
                Valerie admitted she was. “I didn’t say,” she continued, “that I didn’t benefit. I was trying to say that some of us get a chance to really make a difference, and you don’t seem to want to aim so high.”
                “I guess I don’t,” Nadine said pensively. “That’s not me. I just want to be comfortable, have a nice family and house in the suburbs, and live a happy life. I don’t want to change the world.”
                “Well, we all want that, I think.”’ Valerie laughed. “Maybe more Catholicism has seeped into my brain than I thought. It just seems somehow not right to settle for much less than we’re capable of.”
                Nadine smirked. “You mean a sin.”
                “Well—I guess. I mean, if you’ve got the ability, you probably should use it.”
                “Ideally, yes. And who knows, strange things might happen once I get in a position to make a difference. But did you ever hear that old saying, ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?’ It’s kind of the same principle. I’d be a fool—and you would, too—if I didn’t take advantage of my advantages. And my looks are one advantage.”
                Valerie couldn’t resist. “Of course they are. But having looks is only part of it, and you know it. It’s what an attractive women does with them that we’re really talking about.”
                An edge of testiness entered Nadine’s voice. “So, basically, what you’re saying is that I’m fucking my way onto the air.”
                “No, I’m not saying that. But it’s an option—for any woman looking to get ahead. I just hope that isn’t your Plan A.” Valerie tensed, waiting to see if the transformation into “instant bitch” was imminent.
                Nadine replied with equanimity, “I don’t think it is. I know what some people say about me—no, not you, but others around here. It’s the same crap you always hear concerning women. Have I slept with a couple of guys who are involved with the same things I am? Yes, I have. One side of the issue is ‘She’s fucking that guy to get air time.’ But there’s another side to the issue, too. I’ve never believed that opposites attract; everybody I’ve ever been with, I’ve had a lot of common interests with. Who the hell am I supposed to be attracted to, some Poindexter physics major who’s never watched a cartoon in his life? One of these brainless hockey players? No, chances are I am going to be attracted to someone who has the same interests I do. Did it blossom into a relationship? No, it didn’t. Does that make me unique around her—I had sex with someone that I thought was cute, but decided I didn’t want a second helping? I don’t think so.”
                “No, it doesn’t.” Valerie admitted that Nadine was right, even if she thought her roommate was disseminating a bit; she knew, after two years, that Nadine did use sex as a tool to further her aims. But she decided not to stoke the fire. “And I think you’re right—there’s way too much crap, not only around here, but in the world in general. It’s better in college than it was in high school, but it’s still here.”
                Nadine agreed. “I know I was not the only one who lost my virginity in my high school in the tenth grade, but you’d have thought so judging from the way everyone talked about me.”
                Valerie nodded. “It was a good thing that I had two brothers still in high school. Daniel and David made sure talk was kept to a minimum. But I still didn’t appreciate the fact that after going with a guy for six months and finally having sex, the whole world knew about it within two days.”
                “And it probably wasn’t even good.”
                “You got that right.” Valerie smiled without humor. Her first sexual experience had been quick and messy, and it had been all over school within 48 hours. It took almost a year for the next time to occur, and then it was, if not alcohol-induced, certainly alcohol-enhanced. “If there’s something I have an issue with you about, it’s the notion that casual sex can be enjoyable.” She laughed before Nadine could reply. “The only person I’ve ever liked sex with is Steve, so I’m not sure such a thing is possible.”
                Nadine laughed, as well. “It is. Maybe it’s a different mindset. I don’t think you feel lust like I do.”
                “I think that’s because you’ve had enjoyable casual sexual encounters. I never have.”
                “Chicken and the egg thing, isn’t it?” Nadine laughed. “I don’t know. All I know is that it’s good to be me right now.”
                “What if something happens?”
                “Like what?”
                “Well, there’s the usual suspects—rape—“
                “Never happen. Not to me, not here, anyway.”
                Valerie thought about arguing with her, but this wasn’t the first time she had bumped up against Nadine’s tendency to think of herself as bulletproof. She pressed on. “What if you got pregnant?”
                “That’s what both of us take those little pills every morning for, isn’t it?”
                “It’s still possible, you know.”
                “I’ll deal with it then.”
                “What about herpes? That—“
                “You know, for all the talk we’ve heard about that in the last couple of years, I can’t say I know a single person who’s caught it. Can you?”
                Valerie paused. “I do, but I can’t tell you, because I was sworn to secrecy.”
                “Oh, come on. Like you can’t trust me.”
                “It isn’t that I don’t trust you, it’s that I don’t want to break my own promise.”
                “Well, give me a hint, then.” Nadine sucked in her breath. “Not Steve.”
                “No, not Steve. Someone on that floor, though. And that’s as much as I’m going to say.”
                Nadine badgered Valerie for a couple of minutes, but Valerie held firm, and Nadine moved on. “Well, that will give me something interesting to do the next time I run into some Cellar Dwellers, anyway.”
                “And now,” Valerie concluded, “apparently even regular people can get AIDS.”
                Nadine snorted with disgust. “I don’t know any people who shoot drugs, I don’t know any hemophiliacs, I don’t know anyone from Haiti, and I don’t know any bisexuals. I wouldn’t say I’m at risk.”
                Again, Valerie debated whether to attempt to puncture the wall of denial. “Yeah, but the next person you sleep with may not be so discriminating.”
                “Give me more credit than that. I’m not Julie; I don’t go out at night intending to get fucked, and I don’t start getting desperate at one o’clock if it hasn’t happened. I do come home alone most nights, as you are well aware of.”
                “I know that. I just don’t want to see anything happen to you.”
                “That makes two of us.” Nadine laughed loudly. “I’m touched by your concerns, I really am. But nothing’s going to happen to me.”
                I hope not, Valerie thought. Aloud, she said, “Speaking of Julie, Lucy was telling me Julie missed her period a few days ago. She was all in a tizzy until this morning, It was just late.”
                “I know. She came to Mary Ellen for advice.”
                “And Mary Ellen told you?”
                “Well, Julie didn’t actually say it was for Mary Ellen’s ears only. Or so Mary Ellen said.”
                Valerie pondered for a moment. “Still, that’s not a good thing for an RA to be doing.”
                Nadine nodded. “I agree with you. That’s why I didn’t say anything when she told me.” She shifted her weight. “Is it me, or is Mary Ellen getting completely out of control?”
                “It isn’t you,” Valerie said tartly. “Kerry’s even getting sick of her, and I never thought I’d see that. I really think the best thing that could happen to her is if Sully tells her it’s over. Everybody can just move on then.”
                Nadine snorted again. “He’s eaten a lot of shit already. He won’t dump her.”
                “Everybody’s got a breaking point. He just hasn’t reached his yet.”
                “Yeah, she has to fuck the person he dislikes most in this world with him in the room for that to happen.” Her disgust was apparent. “I thought women who put up with ungodly shit from men were the worst, but a guy that’s whipped to this extent is even worse.”
                Valerie said quietly, “Neither is pretty to watch. But I almost feel sorry for him. He’s been here four years, he’s going to graduate with honors, he’s been an RA for three of those years and by all accounts done that job very well—and it’s all ending like this.”
                “It’s his own fault. I personally don’t think a whole lot of him, but if he had broke up with her when he found out about her and Darrin, I’m sure he could have been going out with someone by now. He’s just a laughingstock now.”
                Valerie smiled. “I agree; he is. It’s sad to see, when someone throws away all the respect they’ve accumulated over years in a matter of weeks.”
                “Over someone like her.”
                “That’s a little harsh, don’t you think? I mean, she’s still our friend.”
                Nadine paused for a moment. “I suppose she is. I glad the end of the year is coming, though. I’m finding it harder and harder to deal with her. And what do you mean, all the respect he’s accumulated? From who?”
                “There’s a good number of people in Yates who respect him.”
                “Everyone I know hates him, or at the least doesn’t like him.”
                “One, not everyone, and two, you can respect someone without liking them. Sully does a good job for an RA; he’s had three different floors in one of the most difficult dorms at this school, and he’s really had only one big blow-up in that time. He’s got something going for him.”
                Nadine nodded in the dark. “I guess. Well, as I said, he’s a laughingstock now. I almost feel sorry for him.”
                “Well, he did have his chance, and he took her back. That keeps me from feeling too sentimental about it."
                “Let me ask you something.”
                “Go ahead.”
                “What if you should find yourself in the Mary Ellen situation next year?”
                Valerie stared up at the ceiling. “I’m not going to.”
                “You can’t see the future.”
                “I can see that part of it just fine. I’m not interested in playing that game, and I think we just established a few minutes ago that I don’t seem to have the lust button in my brain.”
                “Now. What if you’re out next year, and some transfer student that you’ve never seen before just affects you that way?”
                “I don’t think it’s going to happen, Nadine.”
                “Why? Are you too good to fall victim to the same pressures as all of us?”
                Valerie ignored the accusatory tone, and answered levelly. “I’m not too good for anything, Nadine. But—how can I explain this without sounding—when you’re really into somebody, it’s like he’s the only person in the world that you think of in that way. Or maybe thinking isn’t exactly right, but certainly it would never get past a thought stage.”
                “You’re sure about that?”
                “Nadine,” Valerie said tiredly, “what you’re describing would be a choice, a conscious decision to cheat on Steve. Even if such a ‘lustful’ thought should go through my head, as you term it, it still would take a lot more before it actually got down to sex with this guy. It’s the lot more that isn’t going to happen. Do you see what I mean?”
                “Yes, I see what you mean. But suppose you’re drunk?”
                “You’ve seen me drunk. What am I like?”
                “You’re all over Steve, usually. Much more than normal. So if Steve’s not there—“
                “It’s because it’s Steve, Nadine. The stuff that I feel that I normally hold in check, for whatever reasons, a little better when I’m sober gets lessened when I drink, and my affection shows more. If you’ve noticed, I also get more upset with other guys easier when I drink. Doug English has learned to tread very carefully, for example, when he knows I’ve been drinking.”
                Nadine refused to be convinced. “We will see next year, won’t we?”
                Valerie decided to not let that pass. “Or maybe you’ll meet someone you actually love, as opposed to lusting over.”
                “Well.” Nadine’s tone was suddenly much colder. “Is that what my problem is?”
                “You’ve been looking for an argument all night. Do you really want to get into this?”
                After a long pause, Nadine answered, quietly, “No, not really. I’ll apologize for what I said; I wasn’t trying to say that I think you’re bullshitting. But I think you’re being a little bit stubborn by insisting it won’t happen.”
                “I’ll apologize for what I said, too. But I can’t conceive of it happening. I really can’t.”
                “Does that go both ways?”
                “What do you mean, both ways?”
                “Do you think he’s that in love with you, that he won’t cheat on you?”
                Valerie sighed. “Yes, I do. Yeah, I know you’d think I’d say that no matter what, but every little bit of evidence I have says that he's very loyal to those he’s with. Every single person that knew him when he was going out with this Yvette that is still at this place says he never messed around on her, and never gave any signals that he wanted to. I don’t know anybody that was around him in high school, but I don’t imagine he was too much different. I know he’s never gave me any reason at all to doubt his faithfulness since we’ve been together.” She paused. “There’s no reason to even think it would be an issue.”
                “But you don’t know that.”
                “If you have to wait until you know something like that, then you’re never going to move past a certain level. There comes a point where you have to trust not only him, but also your own instincts. If you can’t believe that you’ve fallen in love with someone who’s worthy of that love, then you have a pretty low opinion of yourself.” Valerie gave a short laugh. “There have been times, I admit, where I’ve wondered about that, but mostly, I trust myself and I trust him.”
                Nadine nodded. “I remember not too long ago you were saying pretty much the same thing to Mary Ellen. If I remember right, this was before he even half-admitted that he loves you. Even though we all know he does.” She sighed theatrically. “I don’t know if I can ever have that kind of blind faith in someone else. I really don’t.”
                “It’s not blind faith, Nadine. We’ve been going out for almost nine months.”
 “There’s two ways of looking at that. Nine months at college, I’ll admit, is not quite like nine months in high school or nine months of dating in the real world. But it’s still only nine months.”
                “That’s a valid point. But it isn’t like we’re getting married next week, either. I guess I’m saying that I feel good enough about him to want to take it to ‘real world’ level, as you call it.” She shifted her weight. “Sometimes I feel like it would be easier if he was just a typical guy. But he isn’t. And you all can see that. We don’t go through things like Mary Ellen and Sully, or even someone like Lucy Connors and whatever-his-name-is. It’s scary sometimes, but we really don’t fight.”
                “That will change,” Nadine said forcefully.
                “Possibly.”
                “No, it will. I just hope you’re singing the same song of praise after you guys do have a blowout about something.”
                “There’s no way to know until that happens.”
                “When you guys do have a fight, what do you think it will be about?”
                “I don’t know. How am I supposed to know that?”
                “There’s got to be something that you know pisses him off that you also know you’re capable of doing.”
                Valerie paused for a moment. “If there is one thing that bothers him immensely, it’s people who are habitually late. I’m usually pretty good about things like that, but then I’ve always been here, too. The one thing I can imagine without too much trouble is if for some reason I say I’m going to call him at a certain time and I call late. That would make him upset.”
                “Yeah, I’ve heard his little riff on that.” Nadine’s tone indicated that she didn’t share his views, and the words indicated that she had been the target of said riff more than once, as indeed she had. “That’s the first thing that came to my mind, too. And if that happens, I’ll bet money the jealousy starts real quick afterwards."
                Valerie suddenly realized that she needed to terminate the conversation; for whatever motives, Nadine was intent on sowing doubts in Valerie’s mind concerning her boyfriend. Some of it was well intentioned, and some of it probably wasn’t—but in any case, Valerie was tired, and Valerie was tired of defending both Steve and her love for him. “Well, we’ll see how much is in your wallet when it happens,” she said abruptly. “I’m ready to go to sleep. Good night.”

                But it wasn’t fated to be a good night. Long after Valerie could hear Nadine softly snoring, she lay staring at the ceiling. She found herself thinking over all that had been discussed, and ruefully had to admit that Nadine had succeeded in at least plowing the soil, if not in actually sowing seeds of doubt. Valerie was not fearful of anything in particular that Steve might do; it was just fear of the unknown, fear of the uncharted waters that lay ahead. Knowing exactly what it was did not make the fear any less real.

                She had listened at the muffled sounds coming through the wall when Mary Ellen and Kerry had returned home, and had managed to overhear Kerry tell Mary Ellen that Steve had not told her anything new concerning Darrin, Sully, or anything else remotely concerning Mary Ellen. Valerie had smiled; Steve remained true to character even in her absence. She knew she had judged him correctly, that he was everything he seemed to be, and that she was making the right choice in trusting him so completely, in believing that he ought to be an integral part of her future. And yet there was the nagging sense that she was missing something, that there was some aspect to him that she was blind to. She could recall Kerry telling Mary Ellen that a woman had to find only one exception to the rule, and yet logic told her that chances were she had not found the exception so early in her life. But was it logic, or Nadine and Mary Ellen and all the rest of the naysayers, those that had no idea of what made a relationship good, those that did not trust because they could not be trusted? What was the truth? Was it even knowable?

                “I will drive myself crazy,” she thought miserably, and yet could not get out of the cycle of her thoughts. She thought back to Nadine’s mocking tone when the fact that she had not ever really fought with Steve was reviewed, and had to admit that the idea scared her more than she let on. She knew that he was normally not an angry person, and that he normally vented what anger he did feel a bit at a time, usually in sharp sarcasm or verbal savagery. But what about a situation that, for whatever reason, was not normal? Was the reason he drank so heavily precisely because he was burying feelings he could not vent? Would his drinking get worse if he was separated from her?

                The thought struck her forcefully, and she knew she had reached a basic, ground level source of fear. His drinking was a matter of some concern for her, but one reason why she had not been more worried, to date, was the fact that she had been around him; she sensed that her presence had been somewhat of a brake on his drinking. He had told her that he usually didn’t drink as much when he was home in Welland because he usually had to drive, and she believed that he had been truthful about it. But she also sensed that his drinking had ratcheted up a few notches since the last time he had lived home for a great length of time, and he had never been separated from someone he loved before. She could easily imagine his drinking spiraling out of control in her absence, especially if post-collegiate life proved to be more of an adjustment than he anticipated. And, she had to admit, she had small but real doubts that his fidelity would suffer if his drinking increased. She also knew he didn’t feel he was overly attractive, She knew that she found him attractive, and she also knew she wasn’t the only woman who thought he was. If he was drunk and a woman came on to him, would he succumb? Would he tell her if he did? She had heard him speak with disdain concerning his uncles’ philandering, but she also knew that many people eventually practiced what they claimed to despise. What if that turned out to be the case with Steve?

                And why was she doing this to herself? She took a couple of deep breaths, and said in a whisper that this was all in her head, that all the evidence pointed to the fact that even if he had trouble saying he was in love with her, he acted like he was. Recently, he had been talking about why John Zalinsky and his girlfriend—fiancée-- of long standing had broken up, and he had said, “She cracked up. She was hearing things that weren’t said, seeing things that he didn’t do, and was making those delusions the basis of her actions.” Valerie had remarked that sounded harsh, and he had replied, “He told her he wasn’t doing something, and she just said, ‘Yes, you are, and because you are, I’ve been doing this,’ and on she went from there. You can call it what you want, but to me, that’s crazy. It’s like being mad at me for something I said or did in a dream you had.”

                She shook her head. This is an example of what he was talking about, she felt, and she needed to wade through it, to see it for what it was and overcome it. For at least the thousandth time since they had been together, she reviewed his positives, and the process took a considerable amount of time. So much so, in fact, that she desperately wanted to be with him when she concluded. That wouldn’t do, she thought; for one, it was only two o’clock, and he probably wasn’t back, but also because one reason why their relationship worked as well as it did was precisely because they allowed each other some space, some down time away from each other that reaffirmed their individual identities. She thought about some couples she knew where this was not the case; she remembered her initial confusion when Jerry had referred to “Repeat” one day, until it became clear that Jerry was talking about Michelle Benning—and the fact he never saw her without Pete in the vicinity. There were times, like tonight, that she selfishly wished Steve had not gone his own way but had been with her, but there were also times when she was happy to be without him—temporarily, but she had maintained her own identity without question. And in the end, she thought this was the main issue that Nadine had with her; Nadine had never figured out to be her own person within a relationship, and had instead alternately smothered her boyfriends and chafed at the unrelenting attention.

                She smiled as she recalled a quote she had read in a magazine one day while waiting for a prescription to be filled—“the trouble with dishonest people is not that they can’t be believed, but that they can’t bring themselves to believe anyone else.” That, she supposed, was even truer concerning trust and love. Nadine, and to an even greater extent Mary Ellen, could not believe that her relationship with Steve was as good as it was, because it was beyond their realm of experience—because they had never had a relationship that worked, she wasn’t having one, either.

                And she giggled as she remembered Steve saying, in response to a question about their future posed by someone (while she was sitting there), knowing that Valerie was a pretty good cook, even if she didn’t get much of a chance to use her skills now, “You marry a good cook. The sex will wear off, but you’ll always be hungry.” It was a throwaway line, but it also was an expression of truth. She could honestly say that while he was happy that she was so attractive, that perhaps it was a major reason why he had pursued the relationship in the beginning, she knew that his feelings for her went beyond looks now. If she suffered some disfiguring accident and lost her looks, she really didn’t believe he would leave her. And that was something that she felt no other woman she knew, except possibly Cheryl, could say.

                She found herself wondering what he was doing now. She looked at the clock, and knew he had made it back to Yates; probably passed out by now. Another aspect of his drinking that had become worrisome was that he had seemed to lose the capacity to fall asleep without the aid of alcohol. He had admitted that she had a point, but as usual, deferred a solution to “when I’m out of here.” She hadn’t seen him at all today, and that was the first time that had happened since the return from spring break. She had been busy with schoolwork, and he had written, he had told her on the phone, a paper and typed it up in the space of a few hours in the afternoon. Classes were a distant memory; he had several papers due in the few days of classes left, and a couple of exams. He had told her, quite seriously, that he had attended his last actual college class. He was even planning, at this point, to not go out on Wednesday night; if he stuck to that resolution, it would be the first Wednesday he had not gone out since she knew him.

                She smiled, recalling Steve and Darrin’s interplay in the local Rite-Aid in the winter. The three of them had gone there for various reasons, and as they stood in the checkout line, with some older woman from the town in front of them, Darrin nudged Steve and asked him what day it was. Told Wednesday, Darrin had shrugged and said, seriously, “Wednesday. Another weekend is here already.” The look on the woman’s face had been priceless.  Darrin enjoyed shocking the locals with irreverent comments; he had almost gotten in a fight with an irate husband over something he had said to a pregnant woman, although she had forgotten the details. Darrin had not been cracking many jokes lately, she mused, and for that I suppose I can blame Mary Ellen, if I wanted to. But she shook off those thoughts. Darrin was graduating, too, and was planning on relocating to the Dallas area in the fall. He had plenty on his mind.
Graduation. It loomed over all their lives, she supposed, but for Steve and Darrin and several of the others, it was an inescapable shadow, the metaphorical turning point in their lives given flesh and bones and looming in the immediate foreground. They were all reacting in differing manners, from the unconcerned attitude of Mike and Cheryl to the near-terror she knew Jerry was feeling. And although he didn’t say so, she felt Steve was scared of it, as well. She had asked him about it, and he gone into a lengthy dissertation about the difference between not wanting something to occur and being scared of it; she felt he believed it, but also felt he was in denial about being frightened. While he didn’t trumpet his lack of fear like many Neanderthal types she had known, she knew that he usually didn’t feel fear hardly, if at all. But this, his future staring him in the face, scared him—she was sure of it. And in a number of ways, his fear was expressing itself—the drinking most obviously, but in others, too, including an increased tendency to spend time with her. He had been wistful when she had told him it just wasn’t possible to come out tonight; he had said to her that he hoped it was the last time they wouldn’t be spending the night with each other until the end of the school year. She hoped so, too; she realized with a start that one reason she was having trouble sleeping was that she had grown very accustomed to his presence in the bed. Not tonight, she thought sadly. 
                Her thoughts drifted to the nebulous future that suddenly was looming larger on the horizon, like a mountain becoming clearer and nearer as an early morning fog was lifting. She had grown very comfortable with having him at most a three-minute walk away, and knew she didn’t relish the prospect of him being a three-hour drive away most of the time. Sleeping alone was just one of a myriad of things she was going to have to readjust to. She shuddered involuntarily as she thought of the prospect of the renewed attention she was sure to draw in town next fall—they had been together long enough that any regular sampler of the local nightlife knew she was spoken for, and most nights out now passed without unwelcome attention paid to her, even if he wasn’t with her on that particular evening. She sadly thought that her sources of everyday intellectual stimulation were leaving—not only Steve, but people like Cheryl and Jerry, as well; with the exception of Kerry and (on some subjects) Nadine, anyone in her current circles who was capable of conversation on anything more than a superficial or banal level would not be returning in the fall. On a practical level, it was dawning on her how much of her daily routine he actually was a part of—not just the major relationship pieces, but simple things like going to the University Union for a cheeseburger at nine o’clock on a Monday evening when no weight-conscious compatriot on her own floor was willing to accompany her. He was there in a thousand and one ways that he would not be there again, after the passage of a few weeks. She knew it had to happen, that the life they had been leading was only a snapshot of a time and place that they could not stay frozen in. But, as her eyes suddenly brimmed with tears, she was going to mourn its passing.

                As was he. Her concerns a few minutes ago about his drinking suddenly evaporated; she knew that he was feeling all that she was, with the added burden of, essentially, the end of his childhood loaded on his shoulders. It was small wonder he was seeking escape so ardently and frequently.

                And suddenly, a comment he had made a couple of weeks ago at her parents’ house made more sense. The two of them and Daniel had been puttering around the house on Saturday morning, and Daniel had commented that none of the family had managed to make it to church on the previous evening, Good Friday. Valerie had said, lightly, something to the effect that it was no skin off their back, and Steve had immediately understood the pun on the traditional accounts of the events of Good Friday. With a very pale smile, he had looked in her direction, and she had been struck by his eyes; it was as if for a fraction of a second, all the trepidation and fear that resided inside him was on display.  He casually said that Good Friday “must have been a relief” for Jesus. Daniel had looked at Steve awkwardly, and Steve, catching the look, had quietly asked, “What part of this whole story is termed ‘The Agony?’”

Her father had entered the kitchen then—erupted was a better term; her father, especially in front of unfamiliar faces, never acted or spoke without the intention of proving his position at the head of his family—and the conversation had never been returned to; indeed, she had forgotten about it until this very moment. Recognition dawned on her, and a wave of empathetic feeling swept through her as she grasped what he had been saying that night and how he must still be feeling. “The Agony” had been in the Garden of Gethsemene on Holy Thursday, thinking about what was to come.

                And no matter how many times he drank from it, the cup was not going to pass.