It is past midnight. A cramp in my left calf doesn’t go away when I press my foot against the bed frame. The flannel sheets pull in opposite directions.
The light from my phone’s broken screen is harsh against the darkness of the room. The fractures in the glass make it hard to read from; in some places words overlap and divide, turning sentences into gibberish.
Instead of doing my coursework, I’ve been watching a television show about young women in their twenties. One of the actors is handsome in an unusual way. He went to Juilliard, and met his real-life wife there. I google both of their names.
The page loads. There are pictures of them on the red carpet. She wears a long sparkling dress. Her shoulders are narrow—how you would expect a famous person to have narrow shoulders. He wears a tuxedo the color of his dark hair. They look nice together. The print underneath says that they don’t use social media, but there’s a selfie anyway.
The light from the dorm hallway comes in under the bedroom door. It draws a neat yellow line on the opposing wall, where my roommate sleeps soundly below a paisley print bedset. Andrea’s voice floats in. She is talking to Rachel about her trip to the mountains this weekend. There was fresh powder. They skied a lot, and then snuck into a local hotel to soak in the hot tub. There was cider when they got back to the lodge. It was fun.
The light goes out, and their doors close one after another. There is quiet. I wait a moment before untangling my blankets and getting out of bed. The hallway is dark.
Inside the bathroom, the light is a permanent, florescent white. Small cubbies line the walls, filled with floral hair products and scented lotions — lavender, jasmine, honeysuckle. My bag is already unzipped; my toothbrush is still damp from use. At the bottom, I find the Nyquil. The two large turquoise pills look like gummy candy. I swallow them without water.
I turn off the light when I leave. The hallway is dark again. I return to my room.
At home, when I can’t sleep, I move into my mother’s large bed and curl up next to her. She wears soft, cotton pajamas.
The alarm goes off before eleven. The haze of Nyquil is heavy on my eyelids. It’s cold and snowing outside. Everyone keeps saying it will get colder.
On my way to the library, the snow blows into my face. My neck aches from looking so hard at my feet. The earbuds my mom sent me for Hanukah are metal and they make the inside of my ears cold. I forgive her because she’s from Los Angeles and doesn’t know any better.
I listen to Natalie Merchant’s song, San Andreas Fault. I’ve seen the real San Andreas in California. One weekend, my mom took off work so we could see the famous fault line. The ground is ripped apart on a seam that is almost invisible, except for the long perpendicular fence that marks its displacement. The torn landscape is eerie. But, my mom thinks it’s beautiful, and I believe her.
Posters line the main corridor of the library. A research position, a political protest, a fundraising campaign, guitar lessons. I find a spot by the window in the back. The tables and chairs are all made of the same dollhouse pine. They match the dorm furniture.
For my freshman seminar, I’m supposed to write a paper about globalization. I sit and try to think about Trade and Law. Nothing comes out, so I go to the cafe.
The students look busy at their circular tables. One girl talks about her summer internship at a Wall Street bank. A boy in a polo shirt waits in line holding a textbook titled Premed World: Your Journey toward Medical School. When he looks over, I check my phone.
The cafe sells turkey and pickle sandwiches. The ladies who work here are chatty. They have Boston accents and large middles. The woman behind the counter hands me my coffee and sandwich. I smile because she is smiling.
Angie comes through the doors while I stir cream into the cup.
She wears tailored clothes in dark colors with names like ebony, indigo, and claret; they all look expensive. People call her stylish.
We met in the globalization seminar. She’s the leader of a student organization that builds toilets in India. We mostly talk about that. She never mentions her parents.
We sit down at a circular table. She puts her phone on the table next to my cracked screen. Hers looks new. While she talks, I return mine to my pocket.
She talks about her classes. They’re hard, and she’s stressed out because our teacher won’t give her an extension on the globalization paper even though she’s leaving for India before the deadline and needs to train the other volunteers, who are very passionate but obviously under-qualified and need her constant guidance. I nod at the right moments.
Eventually, she leaves the cafe. I sit and eat the second half of my sandwich, watching the snow fall outside.
When I call my mom in the evenings, we talk about California and all the things we are going to do when I get back. We fantasize bicycling up the coast, going to the farmer’s market, and reading in bed together. We laugh at the same jokes, even over the phone.
Last time, she said we shouldn’t talk so much. She recalled the San Andreas Fault, and reminded me it was beautiful, and I tried to believe her.
The sky outside the cafe is getting darker. I pull out my books on Trade and Law.
I look up. There’s a boy standing next to my circular table. He greets me as if we know each other. I stand up because he’s standing. The shape of his nose is confusing, yet pleasant. I stare at it.
“I see you here a lot,” he comments. It seems like a question, but it’s not, so I don’t answer. I imagine that in an alternative universe people communicate by touching elbows.
“What are you thinking so hard about?” he asks.
The room stills. I should tell him that I’m thinking about Trade and Law, and an internship at the state house.
“I was thinking about your nose,” I say and wait for him to recoil in confusion.
He pauses, and then laughs. The light in the cafe is warmer. Outside, the snow slows.
“I’m Jewish. Don’t tell anyone,” he says in a mock whisper, lifting his index finger to his lips.
I want to tell him that I am also Jewish, and my mom and I celebrated Hanukah last week over Skype. She sent me these metal earbuds that make my ears hurt because it never gets this cold in California, or this dark. It never gets this dark.
But I don’t say anything. Students move around us. One girl types quickly on her keyboard. The boy keeps looking at me.
The silence makes me nervous. I take one last look at this nice boy.
“I should go,” I say.
He looks disappointed. Maybe it’s relief.
“Same time next week?” he asks, smiling.
It’s a joke. So, I smile and nod.
On my way back to the dorm, it starts to snow.
As an adolescent, Emma’s literary palette contained a strange alchemy of the Gossip Girl series and Young Adult holocaust novels. Schooled in both the horrors of petty teen drama and mass genocide, Emma developed a grave understanding of social norms. She didn’t take a writing class until her last semester of college, where she produced the first version of this piece. Emma recently moved to Portland because once, she had a layover at PDX International Airport where she ate a Salmon fillet while looking out at a clear blue sky listening to the jazz pianist in Concourse D. She swore she’d be back. Now, after many months of rain, she isn’t sure she likes all of it, but hailing from another coffee and climbing gym-obsessed city (San Francisco), at least it is familiar. For the time being (until the snow melts), she’ll be working as a bilingual bicycle safety instructor and exploring criminal justice alternatives. Soon, she’ll pick up all her belongings and head off to the deep river canyons of Utah, Idaho and Southern Oregon, for another rafting season. As they say, when the water flows, the river calls.