She pulled the hem of her short nightgown down as far as it would allow, fingered a Queen Jane cigarette out of the pack, and lit it right off the gas stove. As the cigarette hung out of her mouth, she lowered the flame under her oatmeal with one hand and ran the thumb of her other across the raised crown logo on the front of the crush-proof cigarette box before dropping it into a heart-shaped metal ashtray, still dirty. Making her way, barefoot, across the small living area—filled with over six piles of books, three shoes and two cats—she managed to enter the bathroom: the only space in her apartment with a mirror.
She stood in front of the sink and, letting the hanging cigarette in her mouth remain there, broke out into a careful, wide smile. She lifted herself up on the edge of the counter and sat there, resting one foot on the toilet lid, the other up on the tank. She was too close to the mirror, what was she thinking? So she got down again. She wanted to see the full effect. She looked at herself and said, “Look, there’s no need to get so hysterical. It’s happened to me before, okay? I mean, I was just recently on the receiving end of it, like you are now. This sort of thing happens, you know. It’s not a reflection on you. Something is just missing, as it sometimes is with two people. Believe me.”
Then she paused.
“I’m the type of person, you should know this by now, who sticks to a decision once she makes it. I know I might not have demonstrated that so great with you the first time we broke up. Okay, that’s right, the first time I broke up with you, if you have to be so particular about it.” She exhaled a long train of smoke up onto the mirror. “Anyway, it’s the truth. I’m just so overwhelmed with everything. With school and everything. Yes, I suppose if I wasn’t in school, maybe. But I am, and it’s—no, no, there is no other boy. There is no other boy. That’s got nothing to do with it. Listen, I love you so much I could cry: that’s also the truth. Did you know that? I could cry. I just really need you to be my friend right now. We do well when you’re my friend.”
She drew on her cigarette again and backed up further so she was flush with the wall. “Oh yes, I know I’m making a big mistake. It’s devastating to me. Pulverizing.” She threw her head back quickly and returned it to position. “I can hardly breathe. I’m very serious about you. I tried to be careful, but some things you just can’t control. It’s the way I feel. I know it’s hard for you. It’s very hard for you. This happens to me. I become a very big deal to the boys I’m involved with. Oh, you had it your mind to marry me someday, I know. And maybe we will be married someday.”
She leaned forward and tipped her cigarette ash into the sink. “Don’t you give me that.” She gazed briefly into the mirror. “You can’t act like I owe you something because of our peculiar situation. I don’t, I’m afraid.” She paused and looked up at the ceiling. She slowly turned her head side to side, stretching her neck. “You got into this too and I can’t exactly be held accountable, you know. And with my classes and all, everything is rising—everything is just mounting, and I am just one girl. You know. I tried my best, really. That’s all that you can possibly ask of me.”
“Oh.” She leaned a little on the wall, adjusting herself away from the light switch, which had dug in at first contact. “Oh, we said—”
She glanced down and noticed a large water bug on the lid of the toilet. Using the same hand that held the cigarette, she reached for a magazine—a little underground poetry publication called The Eternal Victim—and used the corner of it to push the bug off the edge of the toilet. “We said a great many things. A great deal of things…we said a great many things.”
She took another drag and moved some hair away from her forehead with the palm of her hand. “And I really am sorry for doing this over the telephone. You must understand that it’s absolutely necessary, as I am just too fragile—too weak?—too fragile to do this in person right now. But it kills me in the worst way. Don’t cry now. You are the most wonderful boy. I wish I didn’t just need to be alone. I just do. But I really have no doubt that we can be amazing friends. I feel as if I may cry myself. Or pass out. I feel like I’m gonna cry. I can barely breathe.”
She got down off the counter then and stabbed her burning cigarette end out in the sink. She walked over to where the telephone was and flipped open her red address book. She picked the phone up and, cradling it between her ear and shoulder, dialed methodically. She stood very still for a moment before her hand shot up to the receiver and her head lifted straight.
“Professor Paulson, okay, Bill, good morning, good afternoon… I will take you up on that dinner, you scoundrel, you hound.”