Winters were short but harsh where I attended college, south of the Mason-Dixon. Radiators were common. Those nights I spent alone, I couldn’t sleep from the racket, the muscular gurgles and metallic coughs that sounded like a child dragging a saucer sled across the blacktop. Shrill sounds that would sometimes ping, piercing and hollow as the mating calls of whales or submarines probing the depths with sonar. The clamor seemed to originate in some distant place. It reminded me how far away I was from home.
During my first year, the dormitory in which I lived sat adjacent to the women’s residence on the outskirts of campus. The college was only recently co-ed; the first class of women would graduate in spring. Dormitories were presided over by matrons, widows or spinsters employed as surrogate mothers to those of us fresh out in the world. They checked our rooms each week for cleanliness. They taped construction-paper piglets to our doors if we were messy. They kept their own apartments, and, for most, a dormitory would be the last home they would ever know.
Mrs. Dering was matron of the women’s residence. Visiting hours were limited. To bribe my way inside, after hours, I brought her jars of corn whisky that I purchased from a local named Landis, who sold them from a shed behind his house. Mrs. Dering mixed the alcohol with Mountain Dew to create something she called a Hillbilly Highball. The concoction was vile. The cola never came close to soothing the whisky’s shocking, sterilizing burn. But somehow, sharing a drink or two with her made me feel a little less on my own. In return, she let me come and go no matter the hour. She made me promise not to get any of her girls in trouble, but it was an easy promise to keep. I only bribed my way inside to visit Sweet Jane.
Sweet Jane came to Tennessee from Florida and had never before seen snow. Her real name is not important and anyway it’s different now than it was then. I called her Sweet Jane like the Lou Reed song. She was attractive like a discount clothing store, charming as mismatched barrels of sweaters and glittered jeans stirred up to create their own sort of rummage-sale beauty. The way her hips flared; her fingerless gloves; her passion for Orson Welles—I found myself in her room often.
I was asleep on her floor the first night the heat turned on. She woke to the din of the radiator and, in her half-waking, gathered her umbrella from the closet. When I opened my eyes, I saw her rattle the umbrella against the radiator grill, calling out, “Hello? Hello down there!” She thought there was someone trapped in the basement, hammering out S.O.S. like Jeanne Moreau in The Sailor from Gibraltar.
Photographs of her boyfriend were everywhere: on the vanity mirror or propped in lacey frames on her bedside table. He attended Vanderbilt, nearby, but far enough away that he spent only every other weekend on our campus.
“I’m better,” I often told her.
He was in every way different from me. His hair was long and unkempt. He wore beaded jewelry and flashed peace signs in the pictures scattered about her room. Everywhere I looked this boy implored me, “Peace, man. Peace.” He came from some other life of hers, one I begged she turn her back on.
“It’s early,” she reminded me.
But I was impatient. I asked if she would marry him and she never said either way. I asked what the point of all this was, otherwise. We were only weeks into our first semester.
Some nights I sat with her on the bed, and some nights she rested her head against me until she fell asleep. This was my consolation. This was as intimate as we could ever be: her hair in my face and my arm tingling from the weight of her. My arms and legs would begin to shake but I feared moving them for fear of waking her, for fear of never being allowed so close to her again. Recognizing those early-morning hours as my meager compensation, because nothing else so physical passed between us, I drifted between wakefulness and sleep until the sun rose behind the practice fields and filled the trees with amber.
Fall break passed and then Thanksgiving and then our exams were finished. The boyfriend was coming to drive her home.
“I have something to give you,” I told her.
“We’ll be around,” she said. “There’s a party we’re going to.”
Late in autumn, the fog so thick the streetlamps hung like gauzy spheres, the campus was a fairyland we ascended to and then regretfully departed because our parents would miss us otherwise. On our last night before break, I carried her Christmas gift through the fog. I had glued Popsicle sticks together in a fair representation of a log cabin. I covered the roof and the surrounding yard with cotton balls and dusted them with glitter. Inside the house there might have been a fire going. It was nothing any child hadn’t made in kindergarten, but it seemed fresh, rehashed, as I hefted it up the stairs to her room. Her door was open and I could hear the music from down the hall, The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed. Inside were Sweet Jane and her patchouli-drenched lover. A fifth of Wild Turkey leaked its last few dribbles on the carpet.
“Have a seat,” she said.
I indicated the log cabin and said it was a gift. She did not reach for it but in her smile I could tell she thought it brilliant. That was her favorite word. Brilliant. I set the gift on her bed, so she would be forced to handle it when they came home that night, so she would be forced to think of me, right before.
The boyfriend was cordial and let me drink from his flask. He wore a bottle-green caftan with an embroidered neckline. It looked like a dress to me.
“Are you both going home for the holidays?” I asked.
“Home is such a relative term,” the boyfriend said. “The place where I was born—is that home? The place where I was raised? Or is it where I’m living now, or where I am this very instant, wherever I happen to be?”
“I just wondered what you did for Christmas,” I said.
“Christmas and then we’re gone,” he said. “The open road. New Year’s in New Mexico, or California. Someplace with stars.”
But I wasn’t listening. Sweet Jane wore socks and the socks had blue stripes around the toes. She was stretching her toes, absentmindedly curling them as a precursor to sleep. I wanted to cup her feet and feel the warmth of her covered toes moving in my hands. It took every restraint not to reach for her.
Soon it was time to go. It was only the three of us.
In the parking lot, she took my hand. “Do us a favor?”
“Anything,” I said.
She slid the car keys into my coat pocket. “Drive us?”
She owned a red pickup truck with silver trim and rust around the wheels. The boyfriend was already crouched in the truck bed waiting. She climbed up too.
“It’s wintertime,” I said.
“It’s autumn,” she corrected.
The boyfriend fell on top of her laughing and then she was laughing and gathering a heavy blanket she kept back there, the same one we sometimes threw across the ground when we went out to the cliffs to study. I watched her wrap it around them both and they disappeared beneath it. I climbed into the cab and shut the door.
The Stars and Bars hung in the back window. She wasn’t one of those, exactly, but she was proud of where she came from: it blocked my view of them in the rearview mirror. Popping the clutch into reverse, I stuck my head out the driver’s side window and backed into the street.
Once, in an astronomy lecture we shared, I gave Sweet Jane a piece of chewing gum. She rarely came to lecture; mostly I let her copy my notes and helped her prepare for the exams. But this particular morning she sat next to me in class. I handed her a piece of chewing gum and, because she wasn’t one to hold onto things, when in half an hour her gum was stale, she had nowhere to put it. I tore a corner from my notebook and creased it, and then I held the scrap out for her. She put her lips to the paper. I squeezed the paper around the gum. I felt her breath on the gum: a heavy, private essence. It felt, for a moment, like I held the heart of a bird—her very life. I kept the shrouded gum pinned between my forefinger and thumb until the lecture was over, until I’d walked her back to her room and after, when I found myself sharing a drink with Mrs. Dering. Until the gum grew cold and it was only artificial chicle and sugar and corn syrup again.
The matron licked her lips clean of the clear whisky. “Tisk, tisk. She has a boyfriend.”
“But I’m here,” I said. “Why can’t she see that?”
“Don’t underestimate the gravity of home,” she sighed. “It’s often fatal.”
And now the boyfriend was in the truck bed when it should have been me. It should have been him driving; me bracing myself in the corner against the rail; my aching fingers on her heels; her face in my neck; our rhythm driven by the keel of the truck’s descent.
This was along the Cumberland Valley where mountain roads plunged through darkness. Our road wound down the mountainside. I sped the truck along the woods. The fog lay thick. I couldn’t see two car lengths ahead. Bounding across sharp curves, with miles to drop were a wheel to slide in the gravel, I should have felt afraid. But all I felt was shame.
Something smacked against the truck cab. I turned on the stereo and found The Stooges, I Wanna Be Your Dog: an eight-track she had borrowed from me. I rolled down the window and screamed along with the music. At certain speeds, the wind snuffed my voice before it left my throat and pulled spit from my mouth.
We passed a 24-hour truck stop where rigs parked overnight, their engines rumbling. We passed a motel offering weekly rates. At the bottom of the mountain we came out of the fog like an airplane dropping from a cloud. A lumberyard sold manufactured homes. A billboard read See Rock City. Further on, a painted barn promised, See Seven States.
I drove until I thought they might be finished. Then I drove around some more.
The party was off-campus in a hamlet of vacation cabins. We passed beneath the archway and entered the grounds. Headlights swept over us. Someone in some other car hollered and whooped and then hooted again and vanished into the night. To my left, I watched a flashlight blaze an infinite trajectory from earth into space.
I waited a while before I climbed down from the cab. The boyfriend met me on the ground.
“I owe you one,” he winked. “After the party, we’ll give you a ride home.”
“Home,” I said. The word sounded strange, and I wasn’t sure where he meant.
Behind him, Sweet Jane was pulling on her jacket. She was both shivering and flushed, and she looked lost, as if she didn’t quite know how we’d arrived. I understood then what the matron meant about gravity. Home was something that exerted force. It would keep us in orbit as long as it could. But in the end, home was something we had to leave behind, because if we didn’t, it never let go.
“It’s snowing,” she said.
It looked as if the stars themselves were pouring down moist and heavy from the sky. I might have pointed out to her the way the snowflakes hissed and vanished against the still-warm grate of the truck grill, but I was already heading inside.