Brett’s lighter flickered in the still darkness of his dorm room. Underneath white sheets I lay beside him, our bodies propped up with pillows stacked against the narrow bed frame. The bong water rolled. Lifting up the bowl, he inhaled quickly, filling his lungs to capacity, and after several seconds, breathed out a long trail of smoke into a large Vornado fan, propped up on the bed, and aimed at the partially opened window nearby. Smoke drifted out into the cool night air. Brett passed his travel-size bong to me.
We had the room to ourselves. Brett’s roommate was out of town for an away game (along with most of the dormitory) in support of our school’s football team, the Northeastern Apaches. I wish I had gone to the game.
I concentrated on smoking while Brett stretched his arms up lazily into the air, bringing one arm casually around my small, pale body. Brett was a third-year history major. I was a freshman — my major still undecided. We met at a dormitory rager: the first of many ragers expected throughout the fall semester. I found out later that Brett had been invited by some friends, and one girl in particular who he wanted to impress, but over the course of the evening he humiliated himself in front of the girl and was consequently separated from his friends, and much to his bitter annoyance, found himself alone with crowds of irritating freshman. He paused in one room to jeer at the utter incompetence of freshman in general, but he noticed me sitting alone on a couch. I was watching the bizarre hijinks of my undergraduate friends attempting a keg stand while simultaneously smoking from a hookah. Brett sat down beside me and pointed out the gross absurdity of what they were doing. He made me laugh. I thought he was cute. He invited me back to his dorm room with the gracious offer of smoking in peace.
While I hit the bong, Brett breathed in and out steadily as if practicing a strenuous yoga routine. He ran his hands through his thick, curly, black hair and stared blankly into the darkness.
I exhaled and lay back. I loosed my long, bleached blond hair from its tight hairband. I rested my head against his arm. Despite my best efforts to stay calm and relaxed, my mind soon filled with overwhelming anxiety for my face. I wondered if the thick smoke would clog my pores, unfairly resulting in more break-outs. I thought angrily about how other people smoked without these vile concerns. My uncooperative skin, which neither responded to treatments, repeated cleansing or any number of failed remedies, clung to me like a cruel curse. I covered my scars and blemishes with heavy make-up, and no one noticed at me — except Brett.
Brett shifted from side to side and ran his hands through his hair over and over again. Apparently unable to still his mind, Brett seemed to brood over some past, unresolved, monstrous failure. We both rested uneasily in silence. After some time, Brett spoke:
“She’s probably forgotten me,” he muttered softly. I ignored his comment out of a reckless desire to continue smoking and a desperate need to forget my insignificant life. I passed the bong back to him, but he waved it away.
“It’s cashed,” I explained in my low, husky voice.
“Oh…” he said, almost annoyed. “Here, Maddy.” He handed me a zip-lock bag from his nightstand. “Pack it if you want,” he said dismissively.
“Alright,” I said, and with some difficulty began packing the bowl in the pitch-black room.
“Well…” Brett said to himself after some time, as though he alone existed in the space we shared. “She’s probably sleeping with someone else I imagine…” The effort of this last statement appeared to physically hurt him, wrenching out some admission that he hoped would remain eternally unspoken.
“Like an immense shadow…Like an immense shadow,” Brett repeated, as though it was a profound religious incantation. “I think about her; I think about her; I think about her, and she returns to me again, and again, and again.”
I flicked Brett’s spare lighter. It glowed red and orange in the oppressive black room; I lit the bowl, inhaled and passed the bong back to Brett.
“She follows me around like an immense shadow,” Brett insisted. His bleak, despairing voice swirled around the room, filling the air like thick smoke. He hit the bong and his body sunk lower into the supporting pillows and folds of the sheets.
For me, the room seemed to take on added layers and dimensions, as though I existed in one space listening to Brett, both transcending and lying beneath his voice, draped under heavy blankets, sinking down, deeper and lower into a confused, chaotic purgatory.
Brett continued: “I saw her every day in the locker banks…I could have spoken to her at any time…I had four years. Four years, can you imagine?” he asked no one in particular and laughed hollowly. The bong rested in his hands. I eyed it expectantly.
“I remember one day I came out of the bathroom, and you know…there she was…as though she was waiting for me. Do you know what I did? I turned around…and went back into the bathroom.” He laughed scornfully and raised his hands to his face, letting out a deep groan of exhaustion and defeat. He balled his hands into fists, as though he wanted to beat himself to a bloody pulp.
I examined my nails in the dark.
“One time, we were in history class together,” Brett intoned lifelessly. “I sat next to her…Do you know what I said?” He paused, eagerly awaiting my response.
I laid back on the bed and looked up at the ceiling, no longer really listening, but wondering curiously if distinct, rainbow and iridescent patterns were forming on the black mass of ceiling tiles above me.
Brett eyed me critically.
“I’m so high…” I explained. “I’m seeing colours…” I pointed innocently up at the ceiling.
Brett laughed disdainfully. “There’s nothing there…What? Is this your first-time smoking?”
I blushed in confusion and fell silent. Brett was right. This was my first time, and the room and my body seemed indistinct and disordered.
“Maddy, don’t mess with me when I’m high,” he warned.
“Anyways,” he persisted irritably, “I asked her what she got on her quiz. She responded, and I said, ‘Great.’ That’s all I said. ‘Great.’ It’s hard to fathom, it really is…how far I was beneath her.”
Brett suddenly looked down and realized the bong rested in his lap.
“What? How long has this been here?” he asked, genuinely amused. He flicked his lighter and took another hit before passing it back to me. I took it and hit it immediately.
“She was on another level,” said Brett thoughtfully, “tan, athletic, tall, dark brown hair, she sat with…well, another class of beauty. She was a class of beauty all to herself — wonderful…indescribable…unrivalled…un-equaled — ” Brett stopped, as if realizing how repulsive his monologue had become. “Well…we all desire beauty, don’t we? he offered weakly.
I was only aware of my immense desire to eat something unhealthy. I couldn’t quite tell if I was hungry or not, but I desperately wracked my brain trying to come up with a solution to this major food crisis, and I left Brett’s question to float pathetically up in the air.
Brett quickly answered himself, “It doesn’t matter anyways,” he said decisively. “I could never measure up. I could never climb the insurmountable heights of knowing her. Do you know why?”
I said nothing. I shifted uneasily beneath Brett’s arm, beginning to sweat profusely underneath the heavy blankets. I tore them off and felt a chill from the cold fall air drifting in through the opened window. I flung the sheets back on. My mouth felt dry. The room seemed to spin wildly off axis. I was losing track of time.
“I am not attractive enough,” said Brett, his voice trembling with agitation. “Some of us like to think we give people a fair appraisal and see inner beauty — it’s all lip-service. We always desire outward beauty, wherever we can find it…even if we have to settle for less.” After Brett finished making his point, he raked his fingers across his smooth, unblemished face, as though he wanted to systematically peel off his flesh.
An electric current of disgust coiled up inside me. Passing back and forth from consciousness to incoherent, cluttered reminders of Brett’s methodical contempt and abuse, I managed to grasp hold of the idea that I must leave his room and grab my clothes. But I still did nothing. I remained paralyzed and disoriented, caught in the tangled layer of an altered mind and pitiful lethargy.
“Graduation came and went,” said Brett, his voice beginning to rise and fill with inconsolable rage. “I never talked to her. I let her go. I let her drift out of my life. That’s just like me. I was dead then. I’m dead now. It doesn’t matter anyways,” he said pausing, searching for a final point to add. “She was a superficial materialist,” he added contemptuously.
I shuddered. Part of me was alert, but the other part kept drifting in and out of the here and now. All of my movements felt slow and heavy. I heard the rapid, unsteady breathing of Brett beside me, inhaling and exhaling, as he traveled in time, back and forth, back and forth, despising and loving the girl of his dreams: this awe-inspiring, monstrous shadow of a girl who I was so far beneath.
Brett turned to me abruptly. I trembled. “You know,” he said slowly, “you almost remind me of her.” I heard desperation and pleading in his hard, brutal voice. In horror I realized my mistake; I screwed my eyes shut, hoping to gather my fractured senses. Brett breathed in shallow and irregular heaving breaths; he covered me with his body and began enveloping me in thick, suffocating darkness. Desperately, I took my nails and dragged them across his face. Brett roared in pain and swore violently; I shoved him off and crawled over him, knocking the bong over and spilling water all over his sheets. I fell off his bed and onto the floor — now crawling on all fours, searching frantically for my clothes in the dark. Brett grabbed my arm.
“You’re ruining my high!” Brett shouted.
I tried to jerk my arm away, but Brett held me fast.
“Let go of me!” I screamed.
Brett only laughed. “No one can hear you,” he said, leering spitefully and dragging me closer. While Brett wrenched on my left arm, I reached with my free arm for the fan near the corner of the bed. I managed to grasp the handle and immediately swung it as hard as I could in Brett’s direction. The fan connected with his face. Brett let go. I stood over him, gripped the fan with both hands, and smashed it into Brett’s soft, clean face again, and again, and again. Blood spurted from Brett’s shattered nose. I cracked his front teeth, opened a gaping wound on his forehead, and kept pounding until I reduced his face to a mangled bloody pulp. Pools of blood stained the white sheets beneath him and caked my hands. Brett stopped moving. I dropped the bloody fan and screamed inside.
With my entire body shaking uncontrollably, I pulled my clothes on as quickly as humanly possible and quietly left the room.