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The Education of Elisabeth Eckleman

Haunted Halloween

It’s Elisabeth Eckleman’s first year of college, and she has a lot of tough choices to make. In this installment, Elisabeth takes her T.A., Raj, to a costume party, where he refuses to dance. You decide what happens next.

In the last installment, Elisabeth had to choose between going to the Halloween party with Chad, her semi-boyfriend from down the hall, and asking Raj, the T.A. she has a crush on. You voted for her to... ask Raj.

 

Ever since I asked Raj to the Halloween party, I’ve been dreading breaking it to Chad. I practiced a zillion lies, a zillion lame excuses, but in the end, I opt for the truth. “I can’t go with you on Friday,” I say, tugging at a string dangling from the hem of my sweater. I keep trying to yank it off, but it won’t stop unraveling.

“All right.” Chad just stares at me. I search his eyes for some wound or anger—that would make it easier, somehow—but his face is blank. “Wanna tell me why?”

Because I flinch sometimes when you touch me. Because I don’t miss you when you’re gone. Because I keep thinking if you were just a little different, a little something more, if you were just someone else, then everything would be all right. “I’m going with my T.A. His name is Raj.”

He laughs. “Have a great fucking time.”

He slams the door in my face, which is suddenly hot with tears. “Thanks,” I whisper. “You too.”

 

To me, the most frightening thing about Halloween is finding a costume. I never feel clever enough, or sexy enough, or original enough. I don’t mind dressing up, but can’t we just have, like, assigned uniforms?

“You’re from a small town, right?” Kat says. “Dress like a cowgirl.”

“That’s boring,” I say.

“OK, then be the cow.”

“Why, because I’m fat?”

She throws up her hands. “I’m not brainstorming with you anymore.”

Kat already has her costume together; it’s the most horrifying thing ever. She’s a pregnant prom queen who stuffs her baby in the bathroom trash can.

“That’s not funny,” I tell her. “It’s, like, sick in the brain.”

She throws her head back. “Wha-ha-ha,” she cackles. “Veddy scary, no?”

It is scary. Especially since she’s scheduled her “very special procedure”—or VSP, as she insists on calling it—for two weeks from today. And all she can do is crack disgusting jokes about the whole thing.

“Why isn’t there an abortion gift registry?” she asks out of nowhere one day. “Pregnant women register for gifts, which is ridiculous because they’re already happy plus they get the stupid baby. Meanwhile, I’m ashamed and scared. Where’s my fucking burp cloth?”

I lay my textbook face-down in my lap. “Kat, do you want to actually talk about what’s going on?”

She considers this and shakes her head. “No, I just wanna make inappropriate jokes.”

I sigh and go back to my book. “Fine. But don’t expect me to laugh.”

 

After wracking my brain trying to come up with a costume, I decide to dress like a cowgirl. Kat “borrows” a pair of boots and a vest from the drama department and fills two water pistols with vodka. She already owns spurs and a cowboy hat. (Don’t ask.)

When Raj picks me up, he’s dressed like Donald Trump, in a black suit and a hideous wig. He keeps saying, in his slight Indian accent, “You’re fired.” Like when he asks: “Which way do we turn here?” And I say, “I’m not sure.” He responds, “No? You’re fired.”

I try to laugh each time, but my lips start to hurt after a while.

When we get to the party, the first person I recognize is Chad, dancing alone in his Napoleon Dynamite suit. I wave at him, but he just nods and turns away. Not long after that I spy Kat, in her crooked tiara and blood-spattered pink taffeta dress. Even if she didn’t look so bizarre, the girl practically arrives with two arrows pointing above her head.

“What up, motherfuckers?” she shrieks when she sees us. She’s dancing with Geoff (no costume, the bastard). They smell like old bongwater. She gives me a big, sloppy hug and starts dragging Raj onto the dance floor, but he yanks away his arm.

“Oh no, no, I don’t dance,” Raj sputters. And then, as if to cover up his knee-jerk reaction he points at her and adds, “So you’re fired!”

Kat laughs far too long at that joke. Just what he doesn’t need—positive reinforcement.

Raj and I go outside on the balcony, where he lights up a cigarette and leans on the railing. “I never understood dancing,” he says. “I never understood the human need to embarrass oneself.” He takes a long drag and lets out a smoke ring. “Maybe it’s why I’m so fascinated by reality television, why I stay with that class even though the professor is such a prick. You know, whenever I watch these shows, I just can’t stop wondering—who are these people? Why aren’t they ashamed of what they’re doing?”

Out of the corner of my eye, I see Chad staring at us through the window. Poor guy. I do feel bad for him. “You think those people inside should be ashamed of dancing?” I ask.

He peers inside and nods. “With their talent? Yes.”

He crushes out a cigarette. He has long, elegant hands, and I can’t help thinking what they’d feel like all over me. “What if I asked you to dance?” I ask.

He raises one eyebrow. “I would tell you to wait till the end of the semester,” he says. “You know... it would give me time to practice my steps.”

I smile at that. “Want a drink?” I ask, squirting one of my water pistols into my mouth and cringing a bit at the strength.

He shakes his head. “I don’t like what alcohol does to me.”

“You’re a control freak,” I say, squirting another shot in my mouth.

“No I’m not,” he says, as a blush deepens his brown skin. “You’re fired!”

This time, I don’t laugh. “Raj, the Donald Trump thing needs to go.”

He pulls off his wig and musses his short, shiny black hair. “Fine,” he says. “I’m fired!”

I roll my eyes and squirt him in the forehead with the pistol. What a hopeless nerd.

By the time we go back inside, India has joined Kat and Geoff on the dancefloor. She’s dressed like some kind of Japanese anime character, in a silver lamé micromini and knee-high black boots. It’s a totally foxy outfit, which makes me hate her more than I already do. As Geoff watches, stoned and droopy-lidded, she and Kat start to grind on each other. A few moments later, they’re making out. A circle of gaping men forms around them until it’s practically a mob scene.

“What’s that?” asks Raj, draping one arm around my shoulder after he returns from the bathroom.

I squirt another shot of Vodka in my mouth. “I only wish I knew.”

 

A little after 2 a.m., Raj drives me to a dingy all-night diner, where I gorge on Diet Coke and pancakes. We eat in silence, tired and awkwardly exposed under the harsh fluorescent lights. “How’s your mom?” he asks finally.

For a moment it shocks me; nobody’s asked for days. I don’t like talking about my mom. It’s almost like an embarrassing secret. Whenever someone mentions her, I feel almost busted. “She’s all right,” I say, but my eyes start to burn as soon as I say it, and I narrow them to slits, as if I could turn off my tears like a faucet.

Raj looks away and sips his coffee. “I’m glad to hear it.”

Maybe it’s the gentleness of his voice, maybe it’s the fact that his own mom died, but I suddenly want to talk to him. “That’s a lie, actually,” I say, pouring syrup on my pancakes. “She’s actually pretty bad.” The plate blurs beneath me but I keep pouring. By the time I stop, my plate is threatening to overflow. “The thing that bothers me is all these scenarios that keep churning in my head,” I say. “I keep thinking if I could be there, maybe it would be different. If I’d been paying attention, maybe we could have caught it earlier.” This is how I’ve always been, as long as I can remember. When Brad broke up with me, all I could think about was if I just lost weight, if I were a little more beautiful, if there could have been some shift in the trajectory, none of this pain would be happening.

“You can’t think that way,” he says.

I smile. “But I do.”

He takes my hand across the table. “But you can’t.”

“OK,” I say. But I do.

 

Kat checks her watch as soon as I walk in. I check mine too. It’s 3:30 am. “So how long did you make out with Teach?” she asks. “And does he get an A?”

“We didn’t make out,” I say. I’m surprised to find her so lucid. With Kat, I always half-expect to discover her in a dark corner somewhere, smashed to bits.

“He’s pretty yummy,” she says. “Nice ass.”

I’m so not in the mood for this. “Kat—” I begin.

She smiles and flutters her eyes. “Yes, lover?”

“Cut it out, all right?” I yank off my boots and throw them, a little too hard, into the closet. “Why do you have to be such a freak? Why can’t you be a normal person and just talk to me about what you’re going through?”

She shrugs and clicks off the light. “Probably the same reason you can’t talk to me about what you’re going through.” She pulls the covers over her and turns toward the wall. “There’s a message from your dad on the voicemail.”

I sit in the dark for a while after that. I keep thinking I’m going to cry, but nothing ever comes.

 

In Monday morning’s Reality Television class, I’m indulging in a reverie involving Raj’s hands undressing me when I’m startled by the sound of my own name. “Elisabeth Eckleman,” says the professor, “please see me after class.”

My heart leaps into my throat: For weeks, I’ve been wondering how someone might tell me my mother had died. A distant relative would show up at the door of a classroom. A friendly nurse would hand me a cell phone, her hand shaking. I dread those moments, and anticipate them constantly, and yet I never thought it would come like this—casually, after sitting through a lecture. Then again, what else could it be?

“Your T.A. is Raj Kalyani,” says the professor after I’ve followed him back to his office. “Is that correct?”

What he tells me is not what I feared, and yet, it leaves me speechless: He received an email that I went out with Raj and drank illegally in his presence, that I have some kind of romantic relationship with him. “You may not know this, Ms. Eckleman, but all our T.A.s have been expressly counseled that they are not to fraternize with their students. This is, in fact, not the first time Mr. Kalyani has been involved in such an indiscretion.” He paces a while, letting all of this sink in. “I don’t blame you,” he continues. “But I do need your cooperation. I need you to speak to the board about Mr. Kalyani.” He peers at me from above the rims of his glasses. “I’ve noticed a rather suspicious increase in your grades in this class, by the way. To refuse to cooperate might come with serious consequences for you.”

I’m completely dumbfounded. What I can’t figure out is who would write that kind of email? Who would care? My mind flips through the night, searching for someone, anyone... Oh, Christ. The name comes to me like a slap on the head:

Chad.

Should Elisabeth agree to cooperate and speak to the board or decline cooperation and face the consequences?