I like to sit on the edge of the windowsill in my kitchen and see how far I can rock. It's a pretty good drop. I hold my cup of tea so my splattered body will look terribly accidental and romantic. Herbal cranberry tea, Pittsburgh Playhouse coffee mug.
I get dressed most days and have managed to get into a good college with only minimal cheating on the SATs. I have my own place, finally free of my father, free to do what I please then sleep in afterwards. But I never sleep. Never do anything useful.
When the other students went home to their families over mid-semester break, I spent the weekend sorting books on my shelf. I sorted them by setting: Hemingway in Africa, Hawking in his wheelchair. When characters traveled from here to there, I sorted according to here. No one got away.
But it was wasted work because what stands out in my apartment is the smell of trash overflowing in the paper bag, trash that includes plates and bowls, so long unwashed it was finally easier to toss them out than to chisel off the food. I've been reusing the Biggie Size Coke cup from Wendy's for so long the wax is cracking off the rim. And the only chair in the kitchen is occupied by a stack of term papers, term papers that haven't been assigned and aren't due anywhere. I wrote them anyway.
Tonight I skipped dinner, walked outside, and lay face down in the dirt and ivy. I lay there until I didn't care about the leaf that tickled my leg or the ant that climbed onto my nose and then slid off. All I needed was the gravestone.
What gets a person to stand up again when they really don't want to? For me it was the cold. And habit. With nowhere better to go, I brushed off the dirt and went to my evening class.
My classes are going all right. I spend most of my Dynamics and Equilibria class seeing if I can get old Charon, my professor, to work up an erection. He's a tough grader, and the students fret about the test results before he arrives for class. When Charon enters the room, he is edgy, and the students eye the stack of papers in his hands. But I look right at him and he slows and loses his thought. He watches my feet slip in and out of my shoes under the desk, and he strokes his peppered beard. Then I see the poke in his pants. I have his attention now, I'm sure of it.
After class, I trudge home along the twisty road through Schenley Park. The moment I push through the door, I drop my keys, backpack, and unopened credit card offers on the carpet. I jerk the chain of the ceiling fan on high. Then I lie on my back, feet on the radiator, and chew the nails off my right hand so I don't gouge myself. I slip my fingers down my jeans, peel back the underwear, and watch the ceiling fan until I'd swear it's spinning faster.
I lock my knees, focus my eyes on the fan, and my body starts shaking, ears are ringing, and then . . . my father. I'm a child again and see him with a child's eyes, see him coming into my room. I smell his Ban Roll-On, his hair formula. I stare past him, just as I did then. All the sensation leaves my body, and I hang between worlds, no orgasm, no sleep.
Maybe I'll get lucky and see the fan come loose from the ceiling and drop onto my face.
I made a big stink about moving out, how I wouldn't visit during breaks, I was free. But it's like my father is living here with me, still keeping me from sleep.
I add water to the pan on the stove. It's filled with soggy potpourri, which I reheat to cover up the smell of my apartment. I turn on the electric burner and stir until the mold dissolves. I don't know how long I've been stirring, but the water has boiled off and the potpourri is crackling at the bottom of the pot. This is as close as I get to sleep, just passing time until I am in class with Charon again.
At his next class, he grades our quizzes on chemical kinetics. There is no sound but Charon's pen grazing his desk by the window. The night sky is backed by that last bit of pink that hangs on the pollution. Charon finally stands. He approaches each student, and without a word, hands back the marked-up papers. He gives my quiz a long look before he delivers it. The "A" bores me, but the note at the top is intriguing: "Nearly perfect, but does that mean we can't learn anything from each other?"
Class ends, and I wave my quiz at Charon as I leave. Cutting across campus, I feel the penny I keep in my coat pocket, flip it back and forth between my fingers, and then pop it in my mouth. I love the way a penny tastes, its surprise coating, sometimes a faint taste of ketchup or tar or laundry soap before the copper center. This one tastes like Prell shampoo, with bits of grit stuck to it. The grit slides off quickly in my mouth, and I try to feel the coin's lettering with my tongue, Lincoln's face, the columns of his memorial.
On nights my father left my room late, I'd listen for him to start the shower to wash away the evidence. I'd sneak into his room and look under the bed where he kept a shoebox full of pennies. That and an empty wristwatch box filled with my teeth, as I lost them, each taped and marked by the order they fell out. Every time he stole from me, I stole from him, one penny. My collection grew.
I keep them in my new home now, in an empty bottle of Prell shampoo, on the floor of the shower stall. Sometimes I take them out and count them. I pour them onto the bathroom floor, hearing the chinks and echoes, and imagine my father is in the shower. I line them up along the base of the sink, they wrap all the way around, only one not fitting, one too many. I think of that extra penny as the last time my father did me, when I was old enough to stop him and I didn't.
The road through the park is just ahead, black as a tunnel where the trees bow over the road. I enter the dark. Hooded students hurry by like shades. We make no contact. There is a bike lane, but I walk just outside it, where the cars fly through the turns. I wonder what the smack of a car will feel like. Sometimes I get giggly about faceless men jumping out of their cars and bludgeoning me.
Charon is in one of these passing cars, the slow one with a leak. He's passed me twice already. Third time, I hear the chugging of his motor from behind. I turn my head, raising an eyebrow into the glow of his headlights. Straightaway, his blinker flashes. The car veers to the shoulder and waits there, dripping as I approach.
From a distance, his MG Midget looks like a British roller skate, sky blue, almost inviting. Up close, it's rusted chrome, fenders full of holes. I feel the heat from the hood, but inside is drafty, the vents on the passenger side covered with duct tape, edges curling. I climb in, sit on the dry and cracking leather, a split in the seat catching the fabric of my skirt.
Charon doesn't speak. Only I do, and I point up the hill. He guns the little engine, swerves back into traffic, face and hands glowing green from the lights on the dashboard.
The ashtray in his car is open and packed to the top with coins. I roll my penny behind my teeth, let the sour of the metal spread across my tongue. I revel in his attention. I've lured him here.
Charon pulls in front of my apartment building.
He'd come in if I asked and probably if I didn't, if I only paused, the door ajar. For a moment, I consider letting him in, letting it be my decision for once, watching him fumble with his pants.
He shuts off the engine and looks at me expectantly. I look right back and show him nothing. He reaches across the seat, over my backpack, and puts his hand close to the fabric of my skirt. His hand looks cold, drained of blood. He brushes my skirt with only his pinky.
I roll the penny under my tongue and then back to the roof of my mouth again. His whole hand is on my skirt.
I smile in his direction, mouth closed, and the edge of the penny pokes out between my lips. I take his hand with both of mine, pull it toward my mouth, slowly turning it so the palm touches my lips. I spit out the penny.
As I open the door, it gives a good creak, and I get that quick rush as I grab my bag. I half-expect him to snag the strap and pull me back into the car, but he's not moving, just wiping his hand dry on his pant's leg.
"Thanks for the ride," I say.
And I mean it. I watch the side of his face as I shut the door. He doesn't look so green from here, more like a professor who's had a weird night. I step over a puddle onto the curb and watch him drive off. My hand is in my pocket, jingling the keys. I head for the door, knowing I'll finally sleep.