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The Education of Elisabeth Eckleman

Date Unknown

Elisabeth Eckleman just left home, and has a lot of difficult decisions ahead of her. In this installment, Elisabeth questions how she feels about Chad, but then the unthinkable happens. You decide what happens next.

In the last installment, after a rather unexpected one-night stand, Elisabeth had to decide whether or not to start dating Chad—the cute, but pudgy, movie-quoting neighbor down the hall. You voted for her to... take a chance with Chad.

 

So let’s go over this real quick. The pros of Chad: Nice, sweet, very kind. Wait—aren’t those the same words? OK, let’s try this again: wants to date me, decent kisser, loves pizza, lives close, very nice. Shit, that word again. The cons of Chad: immature, maybe a bit invested in Hollywood and Halo II. (But maybe I would grow to find that charming, the way I learned to love Brad’s hostile addiction to right-wing radio.) Also, I’m not 100 percent attracted to Chad. More like 34 percent, with growth potential. So do I want to go on a date with him? To Papa John’s?

“I have a coupon for free pepperoni rolls,” he says.

“Let’s go.”

It’s a 15-minute walk down a noisy strip of campus stores and coffee shops. We stop in at his favorite arcade, where the guy behind the counter greets him by name. I’ve always found arcade games, like playing actual sports, humiliating and joyless, an expensive way to underscore my deficiencies. But maybe I wasn’t trying the right ones—it turns out I have a particular talent for that zombie-killing game. I blast the living shit out of those motherfuckers.

“Now I know who to call when the zombies attack,” says Chad, loading in more quarters. I start to pull out a dollar bill, and he puts his hand up. “No, no, my lady. This special evening is on me.”

We leave after a few more games (kapow! I win!) and walk the rest of the way to dinner. His swinging hand keeps bumping into mine. Neither of us does anything about it.

At Papa John’s, we load up on pepperoni pizza and pepperoni rolls. “What’s the difference between these two things?” asks Chad, folding his slice in half to eat it.

“Presentation, I suppose.” I inspect my roll before popping it in my mouth. “Presentation and dough.”

Chad smiles. He has a piece of oregano in his teeth. “I have a question.” He clears his throat. “I know it’s not exactly smooth but as you know I have no smoothness whatsoever, so I just have to put it out there. OK. Are you ready?”

I swallow a large wad of cheese.

“Would you be my girlfriend?”

This strikes me as incredibly sweet. “Yeah,” I say, reaching for his knee underneath the booth. “Yeah, I will.”

 

That night, I’m awakened by the ring of my cell phone.

“Hey, baby.” (It’s Brad.) “Hey, baby, what are you up to?” (And his voice is slurred with bourbon.)

“I’m sleeping. It’s four in the morning.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, baby. Did I wake you?”

Whenever Brad’s drunk, he calls everyone “baby,” like he’s some 80-year-old jazz musician. I always found it patronizing, his way of cementing our power dynamic. “What do you want?”

“I was thinking maybe we could hang out. I won’t be an asshole, I promise. I really need to see you. Please.”

Ten minutes later, Brad staggers into the dorm courtyard, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. “You look great,” he says, squeezing my arms. “Have you lost weight?”

“I’ve gained 10 pounds, and I’m wearing pajamas. Where’s Ariel?”

“She’s pissed at me,” he says, trying to light the cigarette from the wrong end. “She’s always pissed at me. Fuck Ariel.”

I shrug, hoping to conceal my glee at this particular piece of Schadenfreude, and turn his cigarette around for him. He smiles gratefully and lumbers toward me, putting both hands on my sides, almost like he’s going to knock me down. His mouth searches for my lips greedily, sloppily. “Cut it out!” I say, wresting myself away.

“I’m sorry, baby. I’m sorry,” he says, backing up.

When we were together, Brad pulled stuff like that every time he drank—a full-body tackle, sexy as a golden retriever. I hated it, hated his ethanol smell, hated his droopy eyelids. But I have to admit I kind of enjoy it now. Maybe it’s Chad, maybe it’s Ariel. Maybe it’s that, for the first time in my relationship with Brad, I’m the one who has the power.

“God, Elisabeth, I don’t want to be an asshole,” he says, running his hands through his hair. His voice is so weak and pathetic. “I never wanted to be an asshole to you. I love you, baby.”

I want to ask him, if that’s true, why he broke up with me. Why he started dating someone else. Why he left me alone, heartbroken and bleeding for months. Instead of any of that, though, I say: “I know. I love you, too.”

“Are you dating anyone else?” he asks.

And his eyes look so sad and needy that... “No. No, of course not.”

He grabs my hand by the fingertips and brings them to his lips. “Good.”

 

On Friday at Project FAITH, Jo assigns Ariel and me to help bathe the older girls and get them to bed on time. It isn’t easy. Keisha and Shanetra are two fistfuls of seven-year-old attitude and volume. When Ariel suggests they leave the bathtub, Keisha spits back, “It’s time you leave the bathroom, girl.” Ariel and I look at each other and shrug. Seven years ago, Keisha and her twin sister Shanetra were abandoned at the hospital by their crack-addicted prostitute mother. It’s easy to understand a little lip.

Ariel pulls me aside. “Hey, I’ve been wanting to talk to you about something,” she says. “It’s about Brad.”

I haven’t seen Brad since the other night in the courtyard, but I’ve been thinking about him ever since. I can’t shake the way he looked at me—so full of longing and need. Every night before I go to bed, I make sure my cell phone is within easy reach. I know better than this, yes. I know better, but I still do it. “No problem. What is it?”

“Do you think Brad has a drinking problem?”

Whoa: Unexpected. “I never really thought of it.” I mean, I’ve always known Brad drinks a lot, that he once smashed his Volvo into the side of a tree. I know he slurs a lot when he talks, that he throws up sometimes. Where I come from, it seems like everybody does that. “Why do you ask?”

Ariel’s ivory face reddens. Her tone is uncharacteristically timid. “Nothing. I don’t, I shouldn’t, I’ll tell you some other time.” She tucks a lock of golden hair behind one ear. “The way he talks about you, I know how much he respects you and I... I thought it might help if you spoke with him.”

Whenever I imagine Ariel and Brad talking about me, I see them laughing, making fun of me. The way I cry so often, the way I dress, the heaviness of my thighs, all my provincial naiveté. It never occurred to me they might speak of me fondly. I feel flooded with a certain warmth for Ariel, like she’s maybe my friend too. “OK, I will.”

Keisha and Shanetra towel themselves off and climb into their nightgowns, our signal to return to work.

“Shanetra, do you want me to do your hair now?” I ask, grabbing a bottle of relaxer. The other day Jo taught me how to relax an afro, and it’s kind of amazing. I might start using this stuff on myself.

“Uh-uh,” says Shanetra, looking me up and down. “I want the pretty lady to do it.”

“Shanetra!” Ariel scolds. “Elisabeth is pretty.”

My stomach flip-flops. I want to set this girl on fire.

“She ain’t pretty like you,” says Shanetra. “When I grow up, I wanna be pretty like you.”

“You’re beautiful now,” says Ariel, taking the relaxer from my hands and yanking Shanetra hard toward the couch. “And so is Elisabeth.”

Brad was right: Fuck Ariel. I swear.

 

Kat is in front of the computer again when I get home. “Are you dating Chad?!?” she bursts out before I can even slip off my shoes.

“No!” I say defensively.

“Yes, you are. You so totally are. It says so right here.”

“OK, I am dating Chad. Kind of. What are you reading? Geoff’s stupid blog again?”

Kat starts jumping up and down and clapping like a little kid. “You’re da-ting Cha-ad! You’re da-ting Cha-ad!”

“And you’re screwing the entire floor. So what’s the big deal?”

Kat stops in her tracks and takes her seat again. “I was just trying to have a little fun at your expense. I don’t see why you have to be so touchy.”

I flop onto the bed. God, this mattress is hard. “What if it’s a mistake? Dating Chad?”

“Do you like him? Do you have fun with him? Does he make you smile?”

I groan a yes.

“I swear, Elisabeth, you’re the only person I know who could actually get upset about somebody wanting to date you. It’s ridonculous.” Kat doesn’t say “ridiculous”; she says “ridonculous.” This has never been explained to me.

“I just don’t want to hurt him,” I say, pulling my teddy bear to my chest.

Kat stares hard at me. “Well, good.”

Two days ago, Kat found out Geoff and India have been carrying on behind her back. She pretends not to care, but every time I see her, she’s reading Geoff’s blog again. I want to comfort her somehow, but she refuses to speak about it. She keeps saying she’s looking up recipes online.

“By the way, your dad called,” Kat says. “He says he needs to talk to you.”

“That’s weird.” My dad never calls. My dad’s the guy who makes a cameo appearance at the end of the phone conversation to ask about the state of my computer. I wasn’t even sure my dad had my number, to be honest.

I dial the old, familiar key pattern. “Dad?”

He sighs. I know that sigh. It’s the sigh of illness and debt, the sigh of funerals in our future. “We need to talk about your mom.”

“What about Mom?” But already, in my gut, I know.

 

Tears are streaming down my face by the time I reach his door. Mascara runs down my wet cheeks, and I can’t stop pacing. I knock, but there’s no response. Knock again. Nothing, dammit. I start calling on my cell phone when the door answers.

“She’s sick again,” I say, collapsing into his arms. And it’s nice that, with him, it’s all I have to say.

“Shh,” he says, smoothing my hair. My head fills with his scents—the faint bleach sting of his undershirt, the lingering dryer sheets, the soapy perfume of his deodorant. “Shh, baby.”

Two years ago, when Brad and I first got together, my mother had her first brain tumor. She was driving me to school when she collapsed at the wheel and we rolled, at a fairly brisk 15 miles an hour, into a ditch. I came out with cuts and bruises; she came out with a tumor the size of a pea lodged near the base of her brain. Later, when we could joke about all this, my mom always said we were lucky to be in one of those goddamn school zones. Forty miles an hour, and we’d have been roadkill.

I never worried my mother would die, and, sure enough, she never did. After a year of chemicals and doctor visits, the beeping machines disappeared from the living room, and other than the bottles of medication that lay beside her lipstick and eyeshadow in the bathroom drawers, it never occurred to me. I try not to think about it. I’m sure you’d do the same. But I carried the thought of the tumor’s return like a sliver of glass in my stomach, quietly slicing me to ribbons.

Brad hands me an undershirt to blow my nose, and without blinking, I take it. “She kept calling me,” I mutter. “She kept calling me for weeks, and I never picked up the stupid phone. I wouldn’t even speak to her.”

Brad pops open a beer and hands it to me. The fizz is cold and comforting. “You couldn’t have known,” he says.

But I should have. And it makes me want to scratch off all my skin.

“How bad is it?” he asks.

I shake my head. “I don’t know. Bad.”

“Listen, I’ll drive you home as soon as you need to go.”

“Forget it. I’ll get a flight this weekend.”

“No, let me go with you,” he says, pulling me back to him. I breathe him in deeply. I have missed this so much. “I want to see her too.”

My mother has always loved Brad. She calls him The Professor, because he always wore this one jacket to debate tournaments, a nerdy tweed with leather elbow patches. And although she always tells me I will find someone better, there is something sad in the way she says it. Like she isn’t so sure. Like, secretly, she always wanted him for a son.

He lifts my chin and swipes a finger under each eye. Gently, he pulls me toward his lips. I think about my mother, about Chad, about Ariel, about us.

Should Elisabeth let Brad drive her home to visit her mother, even if it means betraying Chad or go on her own—without Brad?