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The Education of Elisabeth Eckleman

Mother, Jugs, and Lone Star Beer

Elisabeth Eckleman just left home, and has a lot of difficult decisions ahead of her. In this installment, Elisabeth tries to figure out why her mom calls six times a day. You decide what happens next.

In the last installment, Elisabeth had to choose between going to a bar with Kat and India and finally answering a call from her mom, who had been calling all day. You voted for her to... give some love to Mom.

 

“You guys go ahead,” I say, plopping myself back down on the steps. “I have to study anyway.” Test next week, Western Civ. Blah.

Kat rolls her eyes. “Once again: Moral superiority prevails.” She pinches India on her butt, and they climb into the car. “Don’t wait up for us!” She blows me a kiss as the car pulls out. Geez, I kinda thought they’d put up some kind of a fight.

I flick open the phone. “Hi, Mom.”

This never fails to startle her. “How did you know it was me?”

“The phone tells me,” I say. “Also, you called six times.”

“Huh. Did the phone tell you that too?”

My mom has a relationship with technology that’s something akin to the one she had with my father, circa 1995. It is a constant, baffling source of frustration. It makes her throw pots and pans. And while marital counseling eased tensions at the Eckleman household, no such luck with technology. A cell phone bought “for emergencies” has never actually been used. Last year she got a flat and walked two blocks in pumps to find a pay phone. “What’s going on, Mom?”

“Nothing, honey.”

See, she does this. “OK. Then why did you call six times?”

“Oh, I didn’t want to bother you with a message.” Mom has a way of sliding into conversation like she’s easing her way into a cold pool. “We have some mail for you.”

“Fantastic.”

“I thought I might put it in a manila folder and send it to you.”

“Fine.”

“Have you thought about coming home for Thanksgiving?”

Thanksgiving is, like, a month away. Jesus, I could be at a bar right now.

“Maybe Bradley could drive you home,” she continues. “We could help pay for gas.”

I bury my head in my hands. “Mom? Do you need something?”

She’s silent for so long I start to think we’ve been disconnected. “I just wanted to hear your voice, sweetie.”

Another silence. “Well?”

“I’m sorry I bothered you.”

“You didn’t bother me.” But the way I say it makes the lie even more obvious.

“I just miss you is all. I’m proud of you.”

“But I didn’t do anything!” At this point, I’m yelling. It’s ridiculous to argue with her about this—I know, I know. But seriously: What is she proud of? That I’m at a state school? That I’m failing? That I’m four cheese pizzas away from the freshman 15?

I hang up with Mom and immediately feel miserable for the way I talked to her. Why do I do that? The woman loves me more than anyone, and it just makes me wanna throttle her.

“Boo-ya-sha-ka, respeck.” It’s Chad. He puts out his fist, and I thump it without even looking up. “Why dis bangin’ honey be chillin’ by her lonesome?”

“I hate my stupid life,” I mutter.

“Huh.” He drops the Ali G accent. “Wanna order a pizza?”

“God, yes.”

 

Chad and Kevin’s dorm room is covered in movie posters: The original Star Wars print, Jack Nicholson’s crazed mug from The Shining, a theater lobby promotional cut-out of Napoleon Dynamite. “Most people don’t realize they give those away,” he says, opening a beer. “I missed a quiz to pick it up, but who else has something this sweeeet?”

He hands the bottle to me and I take a sip. Lone Star. Not bad.

Chad flops into a bean bag and tugs his Jimmy Eat World T-shirt back over his pot belly. “Kevin’s in Houston this week visiting his girlfriend.”

I almost do a spit-take. “Kevin has a girlfriend?”

“I know—weird, huh? They met online. Of course, who doesn’t?” He reaches over to flick on a halogen lamp. “I mean, I don’t. Have a girlfriend, that is. Do you? I mean, have a boyfriend?”

My face feels warmer, like he turned up the heat. “Me? No.” I take a big sip. “Not really.” I look around the room: Spider-Man comic books, Simpsons action figures, a bowl encrusted with refried beans, a string of condoms hanging from the curtain.

“Do you wanna play Grand Theft Auto or something?”

“Umm, OK.”

It’s three beers later, and I’m starving. Chad beats me senseless at the stupid game (again) and when the pizza arrives, I dive into it with both hands.

“I like a woman who can eat,” says Chad, hugging a pillow over his belly.

“I like a man who orders large pizzas,” I say with my mouthful. Shit. I’m kinda drunk.

“Wait, we’re missing something.” He goes to the mini-fridge and pulls out a bottle.

“Oh my God, I love you!” Exactly what I needed: ranch dressing.

He laughs, and I notice his dimples for the first time. “I like you, Elisabeth,” he says, taking a seat closer to me on the floor.

I wipe a glob of sauce off the corner of my mouth with the back of my hand. “Thanks.” My stomach starts feeling fluttery.

“No, I mean, I really like you.”

I nod, frozen. “OK.”

He leans in closer. “Can I kiss you?”

I say the first thing that pops to mind. “Can I finish this slice?”

“Oh, sure. No problem.” He takes the last sip of his beer and looks away. “Do you want another drink?”

I nod, folding up the pizza and stuffing the rest in my mouth. He sits back down beside me with two beers and shoves the empty box out of the way.

“Are you ready?” he asks.

I hold up one finger. This pizza is really chewy. I wipe off my mouth with a napkin and crumple it up. “Now I’m ready.”

When our lips meet, Chad takes such a giant inhale through his nose it almost startles me. His lips are soft and he kisses gently, not like Brad, whose tongue was like a giant probe in my mouth. Before this moment, I have kissed three guys in my life, which is such a pathetic number. The first one hardly counted anyway, since it happened in the parking lot of a Denny’s coming home from German camp and his mom caught us and made us ride home at opposite ends of the van. But as I lie back on the floor and Chad puts his weight on top of me, all I can think of is: Number four! Finally! Also, that his button-fly is digging like crazy into my hip.

“Would you be more comfortable on the bed?” he asks. “Or the bean bag?”

“Sure, the bed’s fine.”

Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me that this might end in, you know, sex. And I’m trying to figure out now what I think about that, because I think so many things about it. Chad’s a sweet guy, but I don’t really like-him like-him. At the same time, I do love the way he’s looking at me right now, all soft sighs and gratitude. I know I probably shouldn’t have sex with someone I don’t love. I’ve only had sex twice in my entire life. But then again, all I can think of right now is: Number three, finally! Number three!

“You’re so beautiful,” he says, which makes me feel a little silly, like I’m on Dawson’s Creek. He lifts off my shirt and starts fumbling with the hook of my bra. He gets one latch but keeps fiddling with the other. “D’oh!” he says, running his hands through his hair. “Sorry, I’m not terribly smooth.”

“That’s all right. I am.” I unhook it and let the bra slide to the floor.

 

Oh. My. God.

What time is it?

Am I naked?

DID I HAVE SEX WITH CHAD?

He snores softly beside me, one arm flopped over my side. Blech, his arm is hairy. There’s a thin crust of drool around his mouth. I stare at the top bunk above me, trying to figure out how to escape.

Finally, I slip out from underneath him and leave a note to call me later. Kat’s not home yet (thankfully), and I fall asleep planning what I’m going to tell her tomorrow. “Kat, you’ll be proud of me.” No: “Kat, you’re starting to rub off.” But I wake up the next morning, and she’s still not home.

Around 10 a.m., she staggers in, her hair a frizzy tangle, the left strap of her tank top drooping off her shoulder.

“Where’d you sleep last night?” I ask.

“Sleep’s not the word for it, sweet cheeks.” She goes to the sink and brushes her teeth. “I thought about lying to you about this, because it’s going to freak you out, but what’s the point? India and I got really drunk, did some coke and had a threesome with Geoff.” She spits a wad of toothpaste in the sink. “Do you think I’m disgusting?”

“No. I think you’re... ambitious.”

“It’s quite possible that I’m going completely insane.” She flops on the bed and drapes her arm across her eyes. “So what did the good girl do last night? Study and go to bed early?

“Pretty much, yeah.”

 

On Tuesday, Raj hosts a study session for our upcoming Mark Burnett test. He lives right off campus in a cute one-bedroom apartment filled with musty books and antique globes. He’s covered the dining table with cheeses and wine. It’s so adorably civilized.

“One thing you must ask yourself about these reality-show pioneers is, why are so many English?” He sits in an armchair facing the three of us who showed. “What is it about the foreigner, specifically the British foreigner, that so fiercely penetrates the American cultural consciousness?”

The guy beside me wearing a backward baseball cap raises his hand. “Do you have any Budweiser?”

Raj gives me a knowing look, and I offer a sympathetic shrug. “I regret the answer is ‘no,’” he says. “Another question: Shall we commence watching The Apprentice box set?”

“Oh, tight,” says the guy. “Hells yeah.”

“Ladies and gentleman, he is the one they call The Donald.”

I like listening to Raj. He makes pretty sentences. After the session, I linger a little longer than everyone else. And I am flattered that, as I finish my glass of wine, he decides to tell me his thoughts on the 2003 season, Survivor: Pearl Islands.

 

On Saturday, Chad leaves a message on my cell phone, and I really mean to return it but somehow forget. Then Sunday, he stops by in the afternoon, but I panic and pretend I’m not here. And then Monday, I guess, well, I don’t know what happens Monday. It’s not that I’m trying to blow him off. It’s more like I just want to avoid him.

“Hey, Elisabeth.” Voicemail message, Tuesday afternoon. “Just seeing if you might like to split a pizza sometime.” Silence. “That’s not a double-entendre. But it kind of sounded like a creepy double-entendre, didn’t it? Well, I guess you’re not going to answer that question. Or I won’t hear you answer. Anyway, call me. Or stop by. By the way, this is Chad.”

On Wednesday after class, I go by his dorm room. Kevin answers. “Hey! Elisabeth! Great to see you! I think I’m going to watch TV in India’s room now. Bye, guys!”

Chad’s playing Halo II when I come in. He’s not exactly handsome, but there is something boyishly cute about him, the curls of blond hair, the pudge of his belly. He pauses his game and comes over to greet me (to kiss me?), but we end up in an awkward half-hug.

He sits on the bed. “About the other night.” He takes my hand. His palms are sweaty. “I hope that’s not something you regret.”

“Oh, no, not at all,” I say. “It was just sort of unexpected.”

“Yeah, it was fast. I apologize about that.”

“You don’t need to apologize.” I make a gesture that requires taking my hand back. “The other night was fun.”

“It was? I mean, it was fun for me. I’m glad to hear it was fun for you, too.”

“Fun” is not exactly the right word. The actual act of sex has never been much fun for me, never been much more than a lot of heavy breathing and thrusting, a kind of horizontal aerobics. And though all the parrying and the undressing and the kissing that proceeds it is fun—at least, it was with him, because it was all so sudden and exciting—I always find myself somewhere in the middle of sex, kind of wishing I were somewhere else. Like taking a bath, or shopping.

“I’ve been thinking I’ve never taken you on a proper date,” says Chad. “There’s this little Italian place I know around the corner. Papa John’s. Would you do me the honors?”

I am 10 pounds heavier than when I arrived at college. I have started wearing sweatpants as a kind of uniform. For the past two weeks, I haven’t even bothered with makeup. I can’t imagine what Chad likes about me, what he sees in me. Though I’m not exactly attracted to him, it feels awfully nice to be wanted, to be taken care of. And while I always thought the man I dated in college would be sophisticated, and handsome, and mature, practically the polar opposite of Chad, maybe I was being too unrealistic. Maybe I just need to lower my expectations. Maybe I just—

At that moment, my mom calls. For the first time in weeks, I actually feel like talking.

Should Elisabeth go on a date with Chad and try to start a relationship or let Chad down easy and try to stay friends?