READ LOCAL First is the world’s most extensive library of Utah-related poets and writers. This November, we introduce Andrew Grace. Grace, originally from the port city of Duluth, Minnesota, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon. He is now an Advisor of Fine Arts students at the University of Utah. His short fiction has appeared in Fterota Logia and Bowery Gothic. Grace is currently seeking representation for his first young adult/science fiction novel. After College, which we present to you today, received Honorable Mention in the 2021 Utah Original Writing Competition. Grace lives happily with his wife and two cats (D’Artagnan and Muriel) in the Sugar House area.
Can someone’s haircut tell you when their life fell apart? Aaron thought so. From Penelope’s short, fading platinum waves, he guessed six months. At their tips, he could see the remnants of what was once a more pronounced indigo. Her naturally brown roots were impossible to miss and the whole tri-colored palette sang a tune of fading glory. Of course, Aaron knew his own unkempt mop was at least two inches too long and curling at the back of his neck in a way that his mother charitably described as “unflattering” when he was fifteen. It could only be called “ghastly” at twenty-five. If Penelope’s plans fell through six months ago, Aaron’s disappeared from beneath his feet three years earlier. He’d been in free fall ever since.
Aaron didn’t actually need a three-point analysis of Penelope’s hair to know things weren’t going as planned. Her presence at a kitschy café in Duluth, Minnesota made that clear. The café shared a storefront with a souvenir shop, and it was disconcerting to see someone like Penelope Wright-Smith sitting at a wobbly oak table next to a display of novelty shot glasses, bells, and magnets.
At the University of Chicago, Aaron and Penelope took several creative writing classes together. He remembered her tendency to workshop dense, lyrical pieces of postmodern prose. He envied her command over the language but felt it was misapplied in service of meandering attempts to pass off the inscrutable as subversive. One time, feeling a little giddy after making love with Claire before class, Aaron said as much out loud.
He could still envision Penelope’s response. When Aaron, with his brain still in a haze, used the word “misapplied,” Penelope set down her furious pen, closed her eyes, and exhaled. After three seconds, she lifted her pen again and pushed back her bark brown hair. Several of their classmates offered the popular defenses of postmodern nonsense, and Penelope smiled through them without taking notes.
Three weeks later, Penelope’s submission made Aaron weep. In the beautiful language unique to her world, she told a note-perfect story of two girls struggling with the inevitable end of their friendship as they entered high school. Everyone in the workshop believed it was autobiographical and called it “really meaningful” or “heartfelt,” but when Claire asked him why he was crying, Aaron said, “Because I’ll never be good enough.”
When they hugged on graduation day, Penelope said, “Thanks for all the advice.” Aaron replied, “Thanks for all the stories.” Neither of them expected to see the other again.
But when she looked up from the wobbly oak table, Penelope recognized Aaron immediately. Three years, fifteen pounds, and a bad haircut evidently hadn’t rendered him unrecognizable. Half of him wished it had.
“Aaron Mueller,” she declared without any hesitation.
“Penelope Wright-Smith,” he replied with a bit of showmanship as if they were playing a game about identifying things.
Penelope stood up, bumping the wobbly table and splashing some of her coffee in the process. She stepped forward and opened her arms. He felt awkward stooping to embrace the petite daughter of the Wright-Smiths. He had only hugged his tall Swedish mother since Claire left him, and before then, he grew accustomed to the way Claire’s lofty Norwegian frame pressed against his body.
“It’s been a long time,” she announced, “since I clasped such a friend, such a comrade-in-arms.”
“No problem,” Aaron said, “it’s, uh, great to see you safe again, comrade.”
“Please,” Penelope said after a moment of silence, “let me entreat you to join me for a cup of java so that you can sit across this wobbly table from me and attempt to discover why I’m here in the frozen wastes of the North.”
Aaron didn’t remark that it was mid-August and at least eighty degrees out. He did say, “Cool, I’ll be right back with some of that java,” before turning his back to Penelope and surreptitiously scanning the contents of his billfold.
When he returned to the table, he was carrying eight ounces of black coffee in a handmade ceramic mug that shared a color scheme with Penelope’s hair.
Penelope allowed her mug to clink lightly against Aaron’s.
“To the Premier’s good health.”
They each took a sip of their coffees and, with mugs hovering in front of their chins, gave each other small, stupid smiles.
“So,” Aaron said after his second sip, “which politburo’s house did you rob to get yourself assigned to this outpost?”
“Oh, I requested the transfer. It’s my only hope for advancement. The capital’s so full of parasites now I doubt there are any houses left to rob.”
Aaron was proud of himself for remembering the term “politburo” but felt like he was losing the thread on whatever game they were playing. He looked at Penelope. She was still smiling a small, stupid smile. It bordered on a grin. She was wearing a green and gold wrap skirt with a large paisley print and what looked to Aaron to be four or five tank tops in a variety of colors. The outermost shirt was a deep, deep burgundy, but he saw hints of yellow, taupe, and navy blue among the thin overlapping straps. Her sandals were also a strappy affair, with leather weaves rising several inches above her ankles. The whole outfit looked like it was acquired at a street fair for sixteen dollars, but it made Aaron self-conscious about his Target khakis and the untucked white button-up shirt he’d been wearing whenever he bothered to venture out that summer.
“Oh?” he inquired, “And how, pray tell, do you plan to advance out here? Start a war in Canada and distinguish yourself in battle?”
Penelope let out a single quick laugh behind her coffee cup.
“Let’s call that Plan B. Plan A involves incentivizing the locals to double or treble production next quarter.”
Her smile shifted into a challenging smirk. She felt like she’d given him enough information, but Aaron wasn’t so sure. He couldn’t imagine the Penelope Wright-Smith of the San Diego Wright-Smiths sitting in an office, brainstorming ways to increase ore production or system analyses or widget manufacturing.
He returned her grin. “So, you’re going back to school, comrade?”
Penelope laughed again and slapped the wobbly table. Aaron was astonished that it didn’t collapse into rubble beneath her palm.
Penelope, Aaron discovered, would be pursuing her MFA in creative writing at University of Minnesota – Duluth. Aaron did his best to congratulate her on getting accepted into grad school, but his brain couldn’t shake the knowledge that UMD was a subpar choice for anyone who didn’t grow up next to it and practically a death sentence for any writer whose plans didn’t include at least one “wilderness memoir.” Perhaps the most damning evidence against the program was that, even as his own secret stack of rejections grew deeper, he never considered applying to it. And his writing featured no shortage of loons and pine trees and waves on great lakes.
Yet, despite the apparent step down from their undergraduate workshops at an internationally esteemed institution, Penelope spoke with glee about her excitement at returning to school. When she mentioned attending classes again and writing stories for an audience, something twisted inside of Aaron. He felt it in the empty space above his sternum.
He was so preoccupied with the feeling that he almost ignored Penelope’s exclamation about how thrilled she was to get not only accepted but also offered a teaching fellowship that came with a tuition waiver and eight thousand a year, even though she sent in her application late.
And there it is, Aaron thought, the missed deadline, the haircut, the souvenir shop coffee; they are all of a piece. He remembered playing Dungeons and Dragons with some high school friends in the weeks after Claire left him. Everything about it – the table banter, the adventure, the rules disputes – was a pale imitation of the riotous evenings they enjoyed four years earlier. Still, it was the only time in that first year without her that Aaron felt comfortable in his own skin – the only time he understood what was expected of him or what to expect of himself.
Eight thousand a year and a tuition waiver to a fourth-tier program so far off the literary map you needed a deep space probe to find it may be a terrible way forward, but there were worse ways back.
“So, what are you doing here?” Aaron asked, waving at a rack of postcards and a shelf with teddy bears wearing t-shirts.
She lifted an iPad from the bag nestled between her left foot and the café wall.
“Free wifi,” she said, “I need to find some place to live in two weeks. You?”
“I need to buy a terrible gift.”
“A dear friend is getting married tomorrow and I want to make sure he never regrets leaving town.”
Penelope furrowed her brow, or at least she tried to. Compared to the Scandinavian hordes that occupied the region, her eyebrows were too thin to furrow effectively.
“Wait,” she said, setting down her empty mug, “are you from here?”
“Indeed, I am one of your underperforming locals, comrade. Born over there and raised over there.”
Penelope pressed her fingers against her forehead as she squeezed her eyelids tight.
“Of course,” she said, “the lake, the loons, the ennui of the bachelor farmer. It really was all personal and heartfelt for you.”
Aaron shrugged, “There were never any farmers, bachelor or otherwise.”
“This is fantastic!”
Aaron demurred. He was not convinced that his place of birth, his continued residency there, or the absence of farmers from his fiction belonged in anyone’s fantasy. Penelope ignored his mumbled ramblings and asked if he knew anyone who needed a roommate.
Aaron thought for a moment. He looked out the window next to the wobbly table. He saw a swarm of tourists blotting out Lake Avenue. Mothers and fathers with genderless children in bright t-shirts. Young couples looking away from each other and pointing at things. There was even a trio of thirty-something men walking in step side-by-side. He was convinced they were on their way to buy Duluth Packs from the company store down the block. He ran his left hand over the back of his neck and felt the incipient curls in his hair.
“I do,” he said.
“You got a haircut.”
“It was getting pretty frightening up there.”
“You should’ve told me, comrade. I can cut hair. Save yourself thirty bucks.”
“Good to know,” Aaron said, though the trainee at the University Barber only charged him six. He tipped two and kept his change for bus fare.
Penelope and Aaron were standing in front of the apartment in Central Hillside that he once shared with a good friend who was now the loving husband of a woman named Micah and the proud owner of a t-shirt that said “You don’t have to be crazy to live here, but it helps” below a picture of a man covered in snow. The two new roommates spent an hour unloading boxes, lamps, miscellaneous goods, and an old chest of drawers with chipped corners. After a few minutes of pushing, pulling, scraping, and adjusting, they deposited the chest against a wall in Penelope’s room.
The young woman sat on the twin bed she inherited with the room. She was only wearing one tank top today. It was army green with wide straps. She wore it above a pair of dark khaki shorts. It might have been a practical outfit for unloading boxes if she hadn’t been wearing open-toed sandals and dangly gold earrings. She’d changed her hair as well. The vestiges of indigo were gone, and she tamed its choppy waves by pulling everything into a short, spiky ponytail.
She patted the bare mattress.
“Tell me more about this old friend of yours. Think I should bleach this thing or just burn it with fire?”
Aaron smiled. “I can assure you no one has done anything unsavory in this apartment since we hoisted the Jolly Roger and seized it from some Swedish fops in Twenty Thirteen.”
“Not a soul. Jeremy spent half the time he ostensibly lived here visiting Micah in St. Louis. Her boss was less accommodating. Hell, the bed’s hardly been slept in.”
Aaron hovered near the bedroom door as he spoke. The late August sun was still strong enough to make him sweat through the t-shirt he bought from a local brewery three years earlier, when he still thought he was just visiting home for a while before moving on. The dust from the boxes was clearly visible in the rays of light beaming through the ground-level windows, and it left him feeling uncomfortably grimy.
He volunteered to fetch some celebratory beers. On his way through the living room, he paused to turn on the air conditioner. It was a window unit that sat at eye level in the basement apartment. Aaron stood in front of the fan and let it propel frosty air into his face. His pores contracted. The sweat on his brow dissipated. He returned with two bottles of Bell’s Two-Hearted to find Penelope sitting in the living room amidst a pile of boxes. Aaron handed her a bottle before slumping to the floor on the other side of the boxes.
Penelope took a swig from her bottle. After an appreciative glance at the label, she set it on one of the boxes to her right. Then, she grasped two corners of the box in front of her.
“There’s a bottle of whiskey in one of these, but I made sure to forget which one. So, we’ll just have to unpack them all.”
“What kind of whiskey?”
“That’s your response? What kind of whiskey?”
“I just want to know how much I should drink before we find it.”
“Well,” she said, cutting through the packing tape on the box in front of her. “I could afford it.”
Aaron returned to the kitchen for two more bottles of beer and a cheap steak knife. Two hours later, five beer bottles and half the boxes were empty. Only the faintest sunlight lingered, and the apartment felt comfortably cool beneath the whirr of the air conditioner. Penelope’s belongings were arranged in loose piles throughout the living room and kitchen. Each item they unboxed supported Aaron’s initial analysis of his new roommate’s hair. Something unspooled within the last year.
There was an intriguing disjuncture between the quality of her belongings from box to box. In one box, there was a set of cast iron pots and pans from Le Creuset. In the next box, he found three troll dolls, a dozen battered composition books, and a barely functioning radio alarm clock. Other boxes contained faded tees and sweatshirts with tattered sleeves. And still more boxes revealed plush new towels and crisp sheets that used their thread counts as a selling point.
“Ah ha!” Penelope cried, hoisting a bottle of brown liquor into the air. Peering into the rest of the box, she added, “Well, that makes sense.”
As he stood up to fetch glasses for the whiskey, Aaron caught a glimpse of Penelope tucking something from the box under a pile of thrift store dresses. He smiled to himself. He felt they were seven years too old for secrets. By the time he returned from the kitchen, Aaron was no longer concerned about the hastily concealed object. He suspected it was a vibrator.
While they emptied boxes and drank cheap whiskey, the roommates discussed all the unimportant things from the last three years. Penelope had been a waitress in Los Angeles and spent two months in Spain on her parents’ dime. To practice her Spanish, she said. She’d written some stuff, but nothing that sparked.
“I need that push, you know? The one that transmogrifies a story you want to read into one other people want to read too.”
Aaron had written five hundred words on the uncanny beauty of loons for a lifestyle magazine stocked by the resorts on the North Shore. He was pretty sure that even he didn’t want to read it, but he used the forty-dollar commission to pay a parking ticket back when he still owned a car. He explained that he tended bar for a while but couldn’t pass up the reliable hours and health benefits offered by his current position as a data entry clerk. He was still on-call as a sub at the pub and could usually get a pint for free if the server on deck recognized him. He always paid for the second though, so he never had more than one.
“I’ll take you there tomorrow. We can celebrate your arrival with a night on the town. We’ll throw caution to the wind and party all the way from Third Street to Eighth.”
Aaron paused for a moment and looked into Penelope’s incredulous expression. He shrugged.
“It’s not a very big town, and there’s really only two bars that I like. Plus, I’ll still have to work on Wednesday.”
Penelope indulged him with a vibrant whiskey giggle.
In the morning, Aaron felt a dull malaise beneath the roof of his skull. It was less of a hangover than a whiskey-induced cry for coffee – coffee that he could afford thanks to the two-hundred-and-seventy dollar check he received to cover Penelope’s half of the rent. He studied the empty side of the bed for a minute. Although the twin mattress was too small for them, Claire slept there with him for almost two weeks after he first moved in. He never adjusted to sleeping on the whole mattress by himself. Reluctant legs slipped over the side of the bed, and reluctant feet shuffled toward the door. Remembering his new roommate, Aaron paused to find a pair of flannel pajama pants that Claire’s mother gave him for Christmas before they graduated. He clicked off the standing fan in the doorway that blew in cool air from the living room.
Penelope, he discovered, had circumvented any need for a fan by falling asleep on the ancient tweed couch right below the air conditioner. She was wearing another wide-strapped tank top – white this time – accompanied by a pair of white sleep shorts. There was a golden knit afghan crumpled around her ankles, and Aaron suppressed a flitting impulse to pull it over her shoulders. Her face was pressed against the back of the couch, exposing the low-cut back of her top.
She had a tattoo between her spine and left shoulder blade. To Aaron, it looked like a bonsai tree inside a circle, as if it were growing in a snow globe. On the floor next to the couch, he noticed an object that part of his brain recognized as the mysterious, concealed item from the night before. Stepping a bit closer, he saw it was some kind of photo album. Another one of Penelope’s composition books was tucked inside it. He took a step forward. Then, he turned around, went into the bathroom, showered, shaved, and got ready for work.
That night, a small crowd gathered at the Irish brewpub on Third where Aaron sometimes pulled pints in place of old colleagues too hungover to stand their shifts. It wasn’t the usual crowd of middle-aged men enjoying a few rounds after work or soccer. Instead, two dozen young men and women in skinny jeans and seasonally inappropriate knit caps gathered to support a local fiddler as she made her paying debut. Aaron felt uncomfortable in any crowd and doubly so in a crowd of his peers. But a cursory scan didn’t reveal anyone who might remember him from high school, and the festive atmosphere lent a nice note to Penelope’s welcome.
For her part, Penelope seemed delighted by the whole affair – the rustic brewpub in the alternately crumbling and renovated downtown, the tap list with names inspired by life on the North Shore, names like Never-Ending Portage Porter or Three Sisters Saison, and what passed for hipster stylings in Northern Minnesota. She threw on one of her thrift store dresses before they left. Its retro cut and bright pattern stood out against the sea of drab t-shirts. Aaron was, of course, back in his khakis and white button-up.
When they reached the bar, a server he didn’t recognize demanded to see their IDs. While Aaron fumbled with his wallet, Penelope passed her driver’s license over. The bartender twisted the plastic, examining it from all angles.
“California, ay? What brings you to Duluth Ms. Wright-Smith-Roberts?”
Aaron twisted his neck to catch Penelope’s expression.
“It’s just Wright-Smith now, and I’m here for school.”
Her lips were smiling, but her eyes looked straight through her inquisitor. The bartender took her order without any follow-up questions. Aaron paid for their beers and followed Penelope to a booth under one of the front windows, away from the fiddler’s crowd at the far end of the pub. He watched as Penelope took a long drink from the glass and set it down. She maintained her blank-eyed smile as she stared over the glass. When Aaron met her gaze, she continued to look forward as tears gathered at the corners of her lashes.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she whispered.
“I wouldn’t ask.”
“I was married.”
“So I gathered.”
“It didn’t go well.”
Aaron didn’t say anything.
“I wasn’t abused or anything,” Penelope added in a single rushed breath while Aaron sipped his beer.
“That’s good.” He was looking at her again, trying to ascertain his role in their conversation. Pretending to be a party-climbing Soviet politburo was like floating down a gentle river compared to this.
“It was a dumb mistake,” she said, “a dumb mistake we let go to far. Gods, I should’ve just told you. Now you’ll tiptoe around like I’m made of snowflakes until you can’t take it anymore. I should just . . .”
She choked down the rest of her sentiment with half of her beer. She pushed the glass to the center of the table and met Aaron’s gaze again. Her eyes were clear again, waiting.
“Claire tried to break up with me six times during our last semester at the U. Pretty much once a week between midterms and graduation. She would say ‘I just don’t see how this can work’ and I would say ‘I love you’ and ‘we’ll make it work’ and ‘look how far we’ve come’ and she would say . . .”
Aaron stopped. The sound of a fiddle flowed from the back of the room. It hushed the chatter around them and drowned out the clinking of glasses. It poured into them like a ghost in fog. The melody was simple, but it had an undeniably Gaelic tinge. Aaron imagined a procession of forest creatures entering a glade with somber meins. They were there to mourn the latest beauty laid low. They all knew their roles by now. They were waiting for the emissary. The spirit guide. The crescendo was long and slow, like going over a waterfall by inches. And when the applause broke out among the fiddler’s friends and family–and the inattentive regulars too–the roommates realized their beers were empty and neither of them had said anything for several minutes.
Penelope stood, collected both glasses, and declared she would get the next round.
By mid-October, routine settled upon the Mueller and Wright-Smith living situation. Aaron worked everyday while Penelope taught her two sections of first-year composition or attended her seminar on the American Pastoral. In the afternoons, she would wander downtown through the cafes and bars and overstuffed stores of needless things. Sometimes, she would stop by the office where Aaron took information from sheets of paper no one wanted to look at and typed it into a database no one would look at. When he came through the frosted glass door embossed with the words “Duluth Data Solutions, L.L.C.,” she would hand him a cup of coffee and he would say thanks. They would walk around the block and she would tell him about the locations in town that proved fruitful for her writing and the ones with bad vibes.
Twice a week, Penelope attended workshops. On those nights, Aaron would prepare one of the dishes he knew – burritos, spaghetti, or roasted fish – and eat with his roommate as they discussed the literary foibles of her classmates. Other nights, they sat together on the ancient couch and streamed T.V. shows from Netflix. They would eat whatever Penelope felt like making and watch shows like Scrubs or Friends or The West Wing, the shows they missed when their lives were full of other people.
Once, they ate dinner with Aaron’s parents. They asked Penelope how she was adjusting to the weather in Minnesota. When she said it was a bit colder than she was used to, they tried to send her home with armfuls of old coats and scarves and hats and gloves. She demurred as best she could, but accepted an old winter coat in UMD Bulldogs colors and a pair of gloves that were too small for Sandra Mueller. Aaron looked hard at the gloves but didn’t say anything. His parents sent him home with a box of books he’d left in the garage. Later, they expressed so much pleasure about Aaron bringing “such a nice young woman (and attractive too, not that that matters)” to dinner that he claimed she was too busy with homework to come again during every conversation they had for the next month.
And then one night, Penelope fell asleep on Aaron’s shoulder. She awoke twenty minutes later when the triumphant notes of The West Wing’s closing score blasted through the speakers they plugged into her laptop for their viewings. Her feet were tucked under her butt and her left hand had placed itself on Aaron’s left arm while she slept. When the horns and strings began to stir her thinking parts, she pressed herself further into the warm body next to her. Then, she opened her eyes. Aaron was looking straight down into her pupils. His eyes were wary but his mouth was full of mirth. When she met his gaze, he chuckled twice and patted her on the head with his right hand.
“Shit,” she said.
She sat up and pushed her hair back. It was almost entirely its natural tree-bark brown again. She pulled her knees to her chest before glancing at Aaron. He was leaning forward to close the window before the next episode started. With Penelope’s help, he’d kept his hair short. It looked best in the evening when the accumulated grease of the day tamed its flyaways and gave it some texture. As he fixated on the computer, Penelope could see how clear his eyes were and follow the smooth ridge of his nose.
“Was that really weird?” She asked.
Aaron looked back at her and shrugged. “You fell asleep.”
He turned back to the computer and finished shutting it off. When he closed the lid, he asked without turning back, “Is it weird that I didn’t wake you up?”
She shook her head just enough to wave the locks of hair cascading forward.
“It’s considerate. . . I needed the sleep.”
Any fears the roommates harbored that this moment would alter their congenial dynamic proved toothless. They continued to share coffees and dinners and beers, along with their days and evenings. Penelope would fall asleep against Aaron’s arm again, and Aaron would sometimes drift off with his head against the top of the couch. On Halloween, they attended a party hosted by one of Penelope’s classmates. Under a string of lights covered in plastic ghosts, Aaron was introduced as the roommate from her fiction workshop in Chicago. Thus anointed as a member of the tribe, he was free to discuss writing and then literature and then his favorite comics. No one asked him what it was like to live with Penelope Wright-Smith or why Claire dumped him. And after three beers, he remembered how much he’d enjoyed college. And for a moment, he watched Penelope animate a story for two women he assumed were fellow writers. She wiggled her fingers through the air as she described a magical vista in the Basque countryside. Her face was flushed. Her eyes sparkled. Her audience was transported. The beguiling spell of her sensuous descriptions alone kept them too enchanted to pull out their phones and book tickets that instant.
By the time the story reached its conclusion with a somber meditation on the train ride back to Madrid, Penelope’s audience had expanded to encompass most of the room. There were questions. There were answers. There were favorable if misguided comparisons to Hemingway. Someone refilled wine glasses. Then, someone remarked on the time and the roommates joined the general exodus into the first hint of Duluth’s November chill.
“I really like it here,” Penelope said in spirits elevated by alcohol and the flattering attention of her peers. They were walking in the middle of an empty street, and she punctuated her proclamation by swinging her short arms out as wide as they would go. She immediately retracted them, crossing them over her torso and rubbing her arms.
“Shit!” she cried. “It’s cold. I take it all back. Everything is terrible here.”
“Everything?” Aaron asked, pointing straight up with an outstretched arm. Penelope followed the line of his finger until she was staring into a spectacular sky overstuffed with stars.
“Okay,” she said, “not everything.”
“My classmates are pretty nice,” she added.
“Indeed, but they have terrible taste in comics. Who’s still dismissing superheroes like Waid and Morrison don’t exist?”
“Yeah. They’re sweet but they’re simple. There’s nothing even faintly reminiscent of Hemingway in my stories.”
“That was weird. Maybe it’s their only point of reference for a story set in Spain.”
Penelope laughed. “Maybe it’s their only point of reference for stories that don’t revolve around lakes or loons or bachelor farmers, now of course, tending organic urban gardens and romancing the local pot supplier.”
“No, that’s just what I suggested after I read a third story that focused on a young man who worked the fields, stood up to Monsanto, walked along the lonely highways, and yearned for the soft touch of the city man’s ill-used wife.”
“And will you be bucking the lonely country road trend on Wednesday with a tale of intrigue set in the politically fraught world of fiery Basque rebels?”
“Actually,” Penelope replied, “I’ll be workshopping the first chapter of my novel.”
“The one you won’t talk about.”
“The very same.”
“Then I’m sure it will be a hit.”
That Wednesday, Aaron had dinner with his parents. He sat in the same chair he occupied as a child, even though the relocation of his older sister to Milwaukee gave him a choice of seats. He preferred his seat to the left of the window. He could study the yard or the side of the garage or the neighbor’s hedges when his father started his most recent tirade against corporate malfeasance, or when he didn’t want his mother to catch his eye and ask him again about Penelope and whether or not Penelope was making any new friends among her classmates. “Friends” was drawn out with an ambiguous air, and Aaron was tempted to respond, “No mom, my roommate hasn’t started fucking anyone new yet, but I’ll let her know you asked.” Instead, he quipped to his father that corporate malfeasance of one sort or another kept them all employed. He assured his mother that the fish was delicious. And he inquired into the health and well-being of his surviving grandparents. And, “oh,” had they heard anything from Janet lately?
Ten minutes before nine, he excused himself by noting that he borrowed Penelope’s car and needed to pick her up from workshop. He placed his dishes in the dishwasher and put on his winter coat but didn’t zip it. When he opened the side door, his mother called from the dining room, “Say hello to Penny for us and tell her she needs to come over again.”
He pulled the car into the loop outside the library where he expected to find her. He cut the engine and sat for a few minutes listening to whatever obscure track the college station was spinning. The DJ came back on to explain in the most charisma-free voice Aaron ever heard how much he loved that recent single from Team Sparkle Shine. Aaron clicked off the radio, checked his phone for texts, and parked the car in the adjacent lot. He sent a message to Penelope but saw nothing in response. He didn’t know exactly where her class was held, but he had been to a poetry reading once in high school and figured it would be in the same building.
He checked his phone again. Still no messages. A gust of freezing air filled the car as he stepped through the door. Winter was in a hurry to arrive. Aaron recalled the previous autumn when it stayed in the fifties through most of November and didn’t snow until after Christmas. Every day from late August through Thanksgiving felt like it was taunting him. Everyone was outside, and he had nowhere to go. For three weeks straight in that humid and bewildering September, he spent every evening lying on top of his comforter pretending to read. He couldn’t even listen to music. It was too energetic, too present, too indicative that he was still alive. When Jeremy got back from St. Louis, he took one look at Aaron and told him they were going out.
Aaron found the Humanities building on the far side of the library. A fluorescent bulb inside an ancient and yellowing plastic shell illuminated the entrance. The door was locked.
He stepped away from the building and started to circle around it to the left. Maybe he could find a room with its lights still on. Instead, as he scanned the windows on the second and third stories, he almost tripped over someone smoking fifteen feet from the building’s East exit. He recognized the smoker from the party the other night. She was one of the women listening to Penelope’s story so attentively from its beginning. He thought her name was Karen.
“Hey, you’re Wright-Smith’s roomie, right? Aaron maybe?”
She stuck out her free hand.
“Yeah,” he said, shaking her hand, “Karen?”
“Corinne,” she corrected.
She shrugged. “You looking for your roomie?”
“I’m supposed to pick her up.”
“We got done a while ago. I think she was headed for the bathroom. I can get you inside.”
Aaron glanced at his phone. Still nothing. “Thanks. That’d be great.”
Corinne swiped her wallet over a matte black pad next to the door. Aaron saw a small green light flash and heard the door click.
“Listen,” Corinne said, “things didn’t . . . things didn’t go that great tonight. But, I mean, it’s still early. We all think – I mean, most of us – we think there’s a lot of potential.”
“I’ll let her know.”
Aaron stepped into the shadowy hallway and listened for the clank of the door closing behind him. Then, he set out in search of a women’s bathroom. He found Penelope first. She was sitting on the floor between a water fountain and some trash cans. Her legs were stretched out in front of her and her phone was in her lap. Pinched between the wall and the floor, Penelope’s thrift store dress looked less like an ironic homage to the Sixties and more like something salvaged from the River Thames. Her knit red stockings were ill-suited for school floors and finally looked like something a person wore to be warm rather than charming.
“Hey,” he said in a voice like a mausoleum.
“Hey,” she replied with half a sob.
He was still three feet away, standing over her. He tilted his head to the left and the right as if it could help him make eye contact. But her eyes were fixed on her lap. The makeup around them was smudged. After a moment, it sunk in that she wore makeup for the occasion.
“Come on,” he said, remembering Jeremy’s bespectacled silhouette in his doorway, “We’re going out.”
“Will there be people there?”
It was nine thirty on a Wednesday in November.
“Not a soul,” he promised.
As they drove across the east end of town toward the lake, Penelope kept the side of her head against the passenger window. Her cheeks were more pale than usual, and her eyes had sunk an inch into her skull. Every couple of minutes, she sniffled and wiped the bottom of her nose with her sweater. Despite the chill, she was holding her coat in her lap. Neither of them said a word.
Aaron drove down the hill in silence, turned onto London Road in silence, and veered off the road onto Brighton Beach Boulevard in silence. He drove along the boulevard slowly, searching the rocky shoreline for the right spot. Penelope tilted her face toward the expanse of Lake Superior and watched its uneven ripples reach toward the horizon. The overcast sky left the immense waters tar black, except where its shallow waves crested white.
“We’re here,” Aaron announced.
He stepped back into the night. He left the driver’s side door wide open and rested his arms on the roof of the car until Penelope dragged herself outside as well. When he noticed her coat on the passenger’s seat, he shrugged his off and tossed it into the car as well.
“You’re not going to make me swim in there, are you?”
“I can assure you I’m not suicidal.”
“So, what are we doing here?”
“We’re skipping stones.”
“I assume you’ve heard of it.”
“Sure. Though, where I come from, the beaches are made of sand.”
“Sand’s okay as a thing in your toes, but it sucks for skipping. What you really want is a nice flat rock, half a centimeter thick, that fits right into the curve of your index finger and your thumb.”
Penelope looked out at the dark glob of a beach that held a million indistinguishable stones.
“How are you supposed to find them?”
“It’s half the fun.”
The roommates began to look over the rocks at their feet for acceptable skipping stones. They were hesitant at first. Aaron would use his phone as a flashlight every couple of minutes to inspect a candidate before tossing it aside or adding it to the pile he was collecting on one of the flatter boulders. Eventually, they grew less discerning, grabbing rocks that were too thick or looked like triangles. They would be experiments.
With a sizeable pile of stones between them, Aaron offered two instructions: “You want to keep your arm low and make the toss from about hip level. Then, you want to give it just a little bit of spin. Too much and it will careen into the lake horizontally. Too little and it will dive right in without any bounces.”
He demonstrated by tossing one of the well-inspected stones from the pile. It skipped off the surface of the lake twice, each time leaping another yard into the water. Penelope managed one skip with her first stone and two with her second, but her third stone veered to the left as she released it and was swallowed by the waves.
“They hated my chapter.”
“I heard it has potential.”
“That’s how you say you hate something in workshop.”
Aaron didn’t disagree.
“That’s why you’re upset?” He asked.
“So, it’s something someone said?”
Penelope tossed another stone straight into the lake. Aaron watched her face. She kept her eyes looking straight ahead, but her jaw seemed to move as she worked through responses. He looked back at the lake and skipped a rock like a flat egg six times across its surface and into the darkness. Penelope’s next stone bounced four times before plopping into one of the higher waves.
“They didn’t believe the relationship. They hated the characters.”
She threw stones with greater force as she spoke.
“Cold.” Plop. “Privileged.” Plop. “Reckless.” Plop. “Unrelatable.” Plop. “And lacking in any real chemistry, emotional or otherwise.”
Her last stone skipped and skipped and skipped. She watched in silence. Even after she couldn’t see it any more, she thought she heard a few more faint “plips” as it headed west.
“And you felt they were talking about you and the former Mr. Wright-Smith-Roberts?” Aaron asked after two more minutes of silence.
“I should have known better,” Penelope said. There were tears in her eyes but she pushed them out of her voice. “It’s not like it’s really autobiographical or anything, but I thought if I could draw some inspiration from this big, dumb thing in my life, then it wouldn’t seem so big or so dumb. Or so much like my life.”
Aaron weighed one of the larger stones in his hand.
“The problem isn’t with your characters,” he said, “or your subject matter or your inspiration. The problem is with your audience.”
“You weren’t there.” The tears crept back into her voice.
“I’ve met them. And I’ve read your writing.”
He lobbed the rock overhand into the lake. It was too heavy for skipping.
“Do you remember,” he asked, “what Professor Haines said about Hemingway versus Fitzgerald?”
Penelope lobbed a rock into the lake near the ripples still emanating from Aaron’s.
“I remember telling him that reducing American prose to a pissing contest between Hemingway fans and Fitzgerald fans was a disservice to the contributions of Alcott, Gilman, Cather, and Wharton.”
Aaron smiled, “I remember that too.”
The lake rippled against the rock outcropping that projected them seven or eight feet from the rest of the shoreline. The air developed a deeper bite. Aaron rubbed his hands together, and Penelope wrapped her arms around herself.
“So?” she said, “you think the problem is that my classmates are a bunch of sexist assholes?”
“Probably,” Aaron replied, “but that’s not really my point. My point is that you’re trying to write about beauty for an audience that doesn’t believe in it. I mean, I get that I wasn’t there, but I can guess they looked straight through your presentation to focus on what happened. So, they ask ‘why should we like these characters?’ or ‘why should we care about their relationship?’ as if the fact that it’s beautiful isn’t reason enough.”
“It was beautiful. It was so beautiful to be in love. Beautiful enough to ignore everything else. For a while anyway.”
Penelope turned toward Aaron. The wind was picking up, and the gentle ripples in the lake were growing into small waves that splashed inches from their feet. Penelope’s hair was finally long enough for her to feel comfortable letting it down, and now it was blowing around her face.
“What happened to you and Claire? When I met her – I never saw a girl so smitten.”
“Evidently, I was better at being a college boyfriend than an adult.”
“Maybe it was for the best. I mean . . .”
She stopped short of saying it out loud, but she tilted her head up and her chin out to say “you could’ve been like me.”
Aaron turned toward her and said, “I know what you mean, but . . .”
He turned back to the lake and tossed one of the remaining stones into it without raising his hand above his waist. It sank into the water just a few feet away.
“She’s married now,” he said, “Since last August.”
They continued to watch the growing waves in silence. More and more ice-cold splashes reached their shoes, and the wind cut through their sweaters like a lover’s indifference. Somewhere farther up the shore a loon cried its melancholy ululating call. It too had been left behind.
“I had to cut my favorite part from the loon piece. I only got five hundred words, so I cut the part where I explained that loons guide the spirits of forest creatures through the Nether Realms to The Valley of Tranquil Repose.”
“You should have cut everything else,” Penelope replied. Then, she lifted her head for what felt like the first time all night and added, “They’re not really picky though. I’m sure they’ll guide the spirits of anything beautiful – forest creatures, stuffed animals, relationships . . .”
She leaned into Aaron’s side, and he put an arm around her to keep them warm. They waited together for the loon to call again.
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