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The Education of Elisabeth Eckleman

Party With Kat

Elisabeth Eckleman just left home, and has a lot of difficult decisions ahead of her. In this installment, Elisabeth goes to a party with her roommate and meets a new somebody. You decide what happens next.

In our last installment, Elisabeth couldn’t decide whether to go to a party with her roommate Kat or see her ex-boyfriend Brad. You voted for her to go to the party with Kat. Let’s see what happens...

 

By the end of our phone call, my conversation with Brad has become as confusing as Absurdist Theater.

Him: I want to know what you want to do.

Me: But I want to know what you want to do.

Him: But what I want is for you to tell me what you want.

Me: But I want what you want.

Him: See, that’s exactly what I don’t want.

Eventually, I tell him not to come over. The words spill out of my mouth like a suggestion, like something that needed a thought bubble and a series of question marks.

Brad takes a deep breath. “If that’s what you want.”

For the sake of our phone bill, I keep my mouth shut.

I leave the bathroom. When I get back to my room, the whole place stinks like musk on fire.

“Are you burning incense?” I ask Kat, covering my nose.

“It’s a Gaia cone. Good for digestion.”

I want to throw up. Jesus, I want a Diet Coke.

I go downstairs to the vending machine and sit on the front steps, shotgunning a D.C. so fast I don’t even burp.

Here is something I haven’t told you: I drink a lot of Diet Coke. Maybe 15 a day. OK, 20. I started drinking them in middle school, when I was on this insane diet, and I guess I never stopped, so that now it’s just something I have to do—when I’m bored or angry or nervous—the way Brad might have a cigarette. I can’t drink regular Coke because it makes me gag, which Brad says is plain unnatural. He also says scientists once discovered Diet Coke can be used as an effective spermicide.

“Oh, really?” I said, grabbing his Marlboro Light. “Scientists once discovered that cigarettes KILL YOU.”

I’m sure he had a clever response, but I don’t remember it now.

The thing was, Brad pissed me off sometimes. Also, I need another Diet Coke.

I stop by the supply store and pick up a six-pack. You know, for insurance.

 

That night, Kat and I eat in the dorm cafeteria. How is it that my father spent $5,000 on my meal ticket and all I can find to eat is a pepperoni pizza and french fries? Kat’s got it even worse, because she’s a vegetarian. She orders a cheeseburger without the meat and two slices of key lime pie.

“What’s the party we’re going to tonight?” I ask.

“It’s a drama thing,” she says, dipping her meatless burger in ranch dressing.

“So what should I wear?”

Kat laughs, and a little fleck of bread flies onto the table. “Clothes.”

I wipe up the bread, but she doesn’t seem to notice.

Back in our dorm room, I straighten my hair with a flat iron while Kat lies on her bed, flipping through what appears to be a soft-core porn magazine. “Tell me about Brad,” she says.

“Well, he’s very smart.” Brad scored a 1520 on his SAT, but I decide not to tell her that.

“Is he, like, totally cute?” Again with the funny voices.

“Sure,” I say, because what else can you say? I’ve never been certain that Brad is cute—at least, not in the conventional sense. Cute boys belonged to cheerleaders and drill-team lieutenants. I wanted someone of substance, someone who swept academic awards ceremonies. Of course, it was nice that he was thin, and had cool, floppy kind of hair. But he had acne on his chest and, when he smiled, his teeth looked awful big.

“Is he good in bed?”

“He is,” I say. Actually, we’d had sex twice, and both times were a disaster. The last time was two weeks ago, right after he broke up with me, and we weren’t halfway through before he burst into tears and walked off by himself to smoke. I laid there in the park wearing nothing but his black hoodie for like 20 minutes before he returned.

“Well, you may have the perfect man,” Kat says. “Congratulations.” For once, she sounds sincere.

 

We don’t get to the party till 10 o’clock, and I’m already stifling yawns when Kat parks her old blue Volkswagen outside a house with a collapsed cement porch.

“You can drive standard, right?” she asks, grabbing a plastic baggie out of her glove compartment.

“Sure.” Brad taught me how to drive his Jetta once. Only I don’t quite know how to shift, or stop, or slow down. I can drive in one gear really well, though.

“Where should I put this?” I ask, downing the last of my Diet Coke.

“Just leave it in the car,” she says, and I nestle it inside a mountain of empty cigarette boxes and newspapers.

“You’ll be fine,” Kat says out of nowhere, and kisses me hard on the cheek. She smells of onions and lavender. “Just stick with me.”

Almost as soon as we walk inside, Kat wanders off with what is either a small woman or a midget. I go to the bathroom to fix my makeup. It’s something to do.

Have you ever noticed how you look different in mirrors? Like, Brad’s house had this one mirror that made me look so beautiful. I’m not, really—my face is splotchy, and too chubby, and my eyes are close together. Sometimes, when I scrunch my face, I look a little like a shar-pei. But I couldn’t stop staring at myself in that mirror—I wanted to carry it around with me, make everyone see me that way.

“What if everyone already saw you like that?” my mother once asked.

Mom always said stupid things like that. It’s because she’s a schoolteacher.

A knock on the door. “Where’d you go?” It’s Kat. “I want you to meet someone.”

The someone turns out to be her friend Dorothy, the smallest non-midget I have ever seen. She’s like an anime cartoon with a Southern accent.

“Want some?” she asks, extending a joint.

“I’m allergic.”

She looks at me funny.

“To the weed,” I explain.

Dorothy Malone comes from Little Rock. Her father died in the war last year when his plane mysteriously went down over U.S.-occupied territory, after which Dorothy’s mom became a spokesperson for the war. For months, Dorothy and her mother were invited to fancy dinners and speeches where the president would actually point them out and ask them to stand while everyone applauded their sacrifice. Right before college, though, Dorothy started to sour on the whole thing, and at one appearance, when the president asked them to stand, she gave the crowd the finger and started yelling, “You’re all sheep!”

“That is so hot,” Kat says, her eyes alight.

Dorothy says it again, louder this time. “You’re all sheep!” Honestly, with that accent, it sounded like she said “cheap.”

“So what happened?” Kat asks, smoothing Dorothy’s hair.

“Nazi bastards kicked me out,” Dorothy replies. “But they took it easy on me. I pretended to be retarded.”

“Brilliant,” Kat says, biting on Dorothy’s knuckles.

Drama kids. You just can’t compete.

I wander into the kitchen, where a group of boys are slouching around the countertop, smoking and ashing into empty beer cans.

“You’re not even taking into consideration the entirety of the French New Wave,” says a white guy with dreadlocks and a rainbow knit cap.

“Uh-oh,” says the guy beside him, “Quentin’s been reading ahead in the textbook.”

“Shut up, Wesley,” he shoots back. “You think Magnolia’s a good film.”

“No, I think Magnolia’s a brilliant film.”

“Jesus Christ,” another guy says. “It always comes back to Magnolia.”

The cluttered sink practically reeks of salmonella. Bored, I roll up my sleeves and start washing the dishes. It’s like a reflex from childhood; my mom always told me to leave a place in better shape than when I arrived.

“Whoa, whoa, you don’t need to do that,” says Wesley, coming across the room and placing his hand on my shoulder. He has shaggy brown hair that hangs in his eyes. I can’t help but notice his lips—full, flush, perfectly heart-shaped. My face prickles a bit, as if I’m blushing. “Seriously. We run a progressive household here.”

“Progress is slow,” I tell him, dumping out a soggy cereal bowl full of beer.

He grabs my wet hand. “Lemme get you a drink.”

“Okay,” I say, wiping my hands. “Can I get a Diet Coke?”

“Damn, I don’t have any Diet Coke.” Wesley has the kind of blue eyes that cut straight through a person. You know the type? “How about a beer?”

I hate beer. “OK.”

 

Wesley is a third-year film major in what he calls the “seven-year plan.” He shares this house with a rotating cast of second- and third-years, mostly drama and film geeks who sit around the living room arguing about Playstation and postmodernism.

“I’m studying liberal arts,” I say. And then quickly: “I’m not sure what I want to do.”

We sit on the back porch, sipping our beers, the smoke from his cigarette curling into the sky like a sigh. I kick my flip-flops onto the lawn.

“You don’t drink, do you?” Wes asks, smirking.

“Sure I do,” taking a swig. “I got an MIP once.”

“OK,” he says, nodding. “I believe you.”

“Seriously. I get wasted.”

“OK, I believe you,” he says, nudging me playfully.

Really, I don’t hate beer. And, unlike other girls I’ve known, I actually like the taste. My problem with beer is just the way Brad gets when he drinks it—slurry, inarticulate, volatile. I’ve never understood why someone so brilliant wanted to incapacitate themselves like that.

“I don’t drink much,” Wes says, scooching closer.

“That’s good,” I say, before noticing that I’d said it.

“I prefer hallucinogens.”

“Right.”

“It’s better for creativity.”

“Right.”

I listen to the crickets in the yard. A high, reedy burble.

“You have cute feet,” he says, stooping to cup my heel.

“Thanks,” I say. “My pinky toe’s messed up.” I try to hide it, but little toes don’t really bend.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” he asks.

I stare hard at his fingertips, tracing the arc of my foot. “No.”

“That’s good,” he says, a smile half-cocked on his lips.

OK, here is the deal: I love Brad, and I don’t see how that is ever going to change. I’ve probably said all sorts of terrible things about Brad that make you think he’s an asshole, but he’s not. I mean, he’s a National Merit Scholar. But it was his idea to break up, his idea to have new experiences, to grow and all that nonsense. And while Wesley is not exactly the ideal guy—he probably does too many drugs, and sleeps with lots of women, and he even liked that film Magnolia that made no sense whatsoever—he is awful cute. I’m serious. I wish I could show you the way he’s looking at me right now. All blue eyes and possibility.

“Come on,” he says, grabbing my hand. “I wanna show you something in my bedroom.”

I follow him, swinging my shoes in my hand as I go.

 

Kat tackles me as soon as I get inside. “Elisabeth, I need to talk to you. I need to go home.”

“Right now?” I ask, watching Wesley disappear down the hall. Inside, I feel a tiny flicker of relief.

“I’m sort of fucked up,” Kat says. She overturns her woven purse and all the contents spill onto the floor.

“Kat, what the hell are you doing? Where’s Dorothy?”

“Some guy,” Kat says, bracing herself against the wall.

“I’m sorry?” I ask, picking up her tampons and putting them back in her purse. What’s this, a vibrator?

“I said she went home with some guy.”

I glance up at Kat. She looks so sad and lost. “I’m sorry, Kat.”

“Fuck it. Find my keys.” She rubs her front teeth with her fingers. “Drive me home.”

“What’s going on?” Wesley asks, coming back into the kitchen. “You’re not leaving, are you?”

“Well, she’s sick,” I say.

“She just needs to sleep it off,” says Wesley, grabbing two more beers out of the fridge. “You guys can crash here.”

“I wanna go home,” Kat says, slinging an arm around me and nuzzling her face on my shoulder. “This place smells funny.”

It’s weird, but I feel more connected to Kat right now than I have all day. Suddenly, I don’t feel so fragile, like such an infant in the world. Maybe it’s because I know I have control over what happens. Maybe it’s because Kat’s drooling on my neck.

Should Elisabeth leave the party and drive Kat home or stay at the party and let Kat sleep on the couch?