The ninth short from my collection Middle of Nowhere is up. In “Holding in the Dark Room,” a collegiate baseball jock experiences an unrequited love affair with a suicidal photographer that proves disastrous.
HOLDING IN THE DARK ROOM
I HAD RESERVATIONS ABOUT SPENDING EVEN TWO DAYS IN THE COLD. Five years in Gainesville only taught me how to get a kick-ass tan and hit three kegs before two in the morning. Julianne was different; she never took in the sun or parties and maintained her New England personality until the very end. She’d go down to Daytona Beach in her Red Sox cap to watch the waves, but never cared to jump in. I met her freshman year on April Fool’s Day. She was greasing a banister in the English Department office with Vaseline. I, of course, slipped and fell hard.
Pamela snaps a picture of me as I get off the plane in Portland. She looks like an emaciated Eskimo, wearing a fur coat with the hood pulled tightly around her face. I don’t have the funds for the flight and a hotel room, so I’m forced to stay with her. Both of us thought we were the one who knew Julianne best. Both of us were wrong.
“How was your flight, Campbell?” she asks, refusing to look me in the eye. Hugging her is like hugging your sick aunt. I pat her on the back in a lame attempt to comfort her.
“What’d you take a picture for?” I ask, without ever saying hello.
“Evidence,” she says, as her face slides back inside her hood like a mole burrowing into the ground.
Julianne took pictures of me all the time but never wanted the favor returned. She carried a camera around her neck like a valuable necklace and captured moments without ever really being a part of them. I touched her twice in the dark room. The first time was at the tail end of freshman year. We were surrounded by developing pictures of me in various states of drunken stupors. The red light beamed into my face as I fondled her breasts and circled my thumb around her nipple. She wouldn’t let me kiss her; I could only hold her.
She told me she once dreamt of being naked in a hot air balloon. The wind beat against her body and she felt as if she had been born again. The sun became a layer of clothing as it explored her body. When she was about to reach out and touch a cloud, the balloon burst, sinking slowly at first until it spiraled down. She said I watched her falling from below and that I screamed but she was smiling. She waved to me and was still waving as she hit the ground.
Pamela’s house smells like hamsters. It is small and has too much cluttered furniture. We walk in and sit across from each other like we’re about to arm wrestle. She emerges from her coat and leaves it soggy on the couch. She is so thin that she’s non-existent: protruding bones and hollow cheeks. The windows are open and the sharp tips of her face are outlined in a pinkish hue. I know she is thinking about how much she dislikes me.
“I don’t have much food,” she says. “I don’t keep much, so I can’t offer anything.”
She slides her gloves off. Her fingers are reed thin and almost pale enough to be see-through.
“That’s fine. I ate on the plane.”
“First class?” she asks, as if she doesn’t approve.
“No, I save first class for vacations. This isn’t exactly that.”
I try to make my voice drop in octaves but I never quite recovered from puberty. I know it sounds like I am nervous. Pamela makes me nervous.
“How’ve you been doing?” I ask, fidgeting with a little wooden elephant on her table.
“Campbell, don’t try and charm me,” she says, taking the elephant from my hands and putting it on the side table out of reach.
“What are you talking about?”
She opens her purse and takes out her camera, scrolling through the pictures until she finds the one of me in the airport. I look like I’m about to murder someone.
“It’s obvious how pleased you were to see me. You were always so threatened.”
She puts the camera back in her purse. Her transparent fingers pick at her crew cut. She rubs the back of her neck for comfort.
“Whatever, Pamela, I’m not here for you.”
“Julianne may have fallen for your wise ass bullshit and frat boy appeal because she was basically a child at times, but it was mostly out of pity.”
“Pity for what?”
“Pity because she knew that wasted tailgating, nameless bimbos, and a good tan would be your glory years. She always said you’d be lost once school ended.”
“Did you plan out that speech in the airport?”
“Can you prove me wrong?”
“Bitch,” I say, meaning only to think it, but sometimes my mouth and brain don’t work together correctly.
She rises, gathers her coat, and clings to it for a moment. I want her to cry, to show any emotion, to make me feel something as well. My hands are numb as she passes me a thin pillow from the closet.
“I’m headed to bed, Campbell, please, please don’t make tomorrow anymore difficult than it already is.”
Her fingers are cold to the touch as she hands me the pillow. I mean to tell her thanks for putting me up, but I don’t want to give her any type of satisfaction. I want her miserable attitude to remain so I don’t feel like the lousiest one on the planet. I have no idea what Jules ever saw in her.
I’d never met anyone like Jules. She didn’t pretend to be alarmingly happy like all the other girls at the University of Florida with their bubbly, airbrushed personalities. She wasn’t interested in sororities or fitting in. Throughout sophomore year, she became my go-to girl, the one I could actually converse with beyond just a lay. The fact that she kept it platonic excited me. I hoped that maybe one day I’d finally get through to her, and she’d let me show her what she’d been missing.
I’d often see her in Tigert Hall under a large tree with her nose in a book of Emily Dickinson poems. She’d be dressed with her signature Sox cap covering her long mane of hair and a long-sleeved, flowered dress, despite having a body that most girls would kill for. Her ice blue eyes would catch sight of me boasting to some bronzed girl, stoned under the eternal sun. She’d take out her antique camera and snap pictures to show me later how stupid I looked and how fake my expressions were. The fact that I had vapid groupies who ate up my bullshit meant that I’d never be challenged in life until I’d leave.
“I’d marry Gatorville if I could,” I’d tell her, or something else along those lines after she’d whip out any freshly developed evidence of all of the different ways I was an asshole. I couldn’t put my finger on what drew me to her, but I found myself avoiding late night booty calls throughout the rest of sophomore year, and even once, turning up at her first floor window at Yulee Hall, drunk off Natty Ice and Yager bombs, reciting poetry I never bothered to read before with a flattened tulip between my lips.
She slept beneath a tree
Remembered but by me
I touched her cradle mute
With a tulip
She lay curled up in her bed, the sleeves of her long-sleeved shirt covering her wrists and soggy from wiping away tears. I climbed inside and let the tulip drop on her pillow. I’d never cared to read anything but the Sunday comics and the sports pages, but I felt like someone different that night: smarter, more accomplished, with a purpose.
“Were you crying?” I asked, lifting up her Sox hat to expose her sadness.
“Always,” she said, frowning like she’d been punched in the gut.
The booze caused me to sway in place. I could barely focus on her hazy image.
“I admire you,” she said, her voice just a whisper. “I don’t know how to be happy like you. Sometimes I just know how to be less sad.”
“Aww, Jules, what’s this nonsense? C’mon.”
I puffed out my cheeks and paced around her room duck-footed and quacking.
“Like that kid in Sociology. Right? Like a duck. Quack, quack. Ha ha.”
She lowered her sleeves. Seeing her arms for the first time, all bandaged and gnarly, made my heart ache. I sat on the floor, too drunk to respond, and stared as she unraveled them, scarred from wrist to elbow.
“Don’t ask me why,” she said, a warning, bearing her teeth and showing her fangs under the dim halogen glow of the room.
She swallowed hard.
“It’s the only thing I know how to do well.”
“Quack,” I sighed, unsure whether I had spoken out loud.
I stayed in Gatorville that summer rather than going to Tampa to get bossed around by my parents. I waited tables and spent all my free time at the beach, a group of us rolling and wasted until dawn, sun-buzzed and sleepwalking through the day. I convinced myself I didn’t care about Jules while she was back home in Maine, but seeing her return in September, all freckled and lovely, made me instantly forget every other girl from that summer. She didn’t have her Sox cap covering her big, golden hair and her ratty dresses had been chucked as well. She hugged me and we talked over each other: my job, the poems she read, the night I got stung by a jellyfish and needed to be pissed on, her cat that died, and then the name Pamela.
She met Pamela in a Dickinson class she took at U. of Maine and had convinced her to transfer down to Florida. They spent the summer immersed in poetry, enjoying their alienation from the rest of the world. That night, Pamela came to dinner with us, and from then on, I barely saw Jules without her. They talked about poets I never heard of and were convinced that as teachers they could make a change. I should’ve been glad to see Jules so happy, but I acted hostile, poking fun at their excitement and bringing out the obnoxious jerk in me.
“Slow down,” Jules said, indicating the empty glasses surrounding me. Pamela just frowned.
“You used to be able to take a joke,” I said, with too many vodka crans rumbling in my belly.
“You’re acting like more of an asshole than usual,” she responded, once Pamela had excused herself to go to the bathroom.
“I wanted to be with you tonight, just you, like catch up and shit. You look amazing.”
“Thanks,” she said, picking at a piece of wilted lettuce on her plate.
“So what are you doing? Like, who is this girl?”
Pamela returned and slid her chair close to Jules, their fingers touching. She lorded their caress over me, a condescending grin on her beady little face.
“I think we’re going to call it a night,” Pamela said, nodding at Jules. “We should do this again sometime, Campbell.” She gripped Jules’ hand, and I knew that things would never be the same. I’d only get Jules in snippets from now on. I pictured myself sitting outside her dorm room late night as folksy music and moans warbled through the crack. It made me feel like punching a wall.
When I woke up the next morning nauseous, I did punch a wall, and it hurt like hell.
The next time I touched Jules was winter. She wore a wool grey sweater and showed me some new prints in her dark room. Pictures of an introspective Pamela throughout campus that she took for an upcoming show she hoped to present to a gallery. I hadn’t been alone with her since the first day back from summer. I made a move to grab her ass, catching her off guard and knocking a picture to the floor that hadn’t exposed properly. She tossed her hair out of her eyes and bent down to pick it up. I stood behind her wanting nothing more than my dick inside her.
“Don’t ever touch me like that again,” she hissed, hanging the picture back up to dry and refusing to look at me.
“I think you’re afraid.”
She turned towards me, smug and superior.
“You liked me because I was your mess, Campbell, but I’m not, I’m really trying. I don’t exist just so you can feel better about your shitty existence.”
“That was cold.”
“Yeah, well suck it up. You’ll never have this, Campbell. You will never have all of me.”
I thought that she might slap me, but she remained cool. She gathered up her finished prints and slid past me before stopping at the door.
“You try this again and I’ll never speak to you. Watch and see how heartless I can be. I’m a parasite.”
She opened the door and the light from the hallway beamed in. We’d be copasetic again weeks later, but our relationship had changed. We saw the ugly truths in each other and couldn’t make excuses anymore. She’d only come to me if she had a fight with Pamela; a random knock on my door never produced a happy Jules. I got her if her meds weren’t working, or she bombed a test, or she hated the way she looked and needed someone to bow down to her. And I did each time. Throughout junior and senior year, the University of Florida became populated with fifteen thousand Juliannes. I’d close my eyes when I’d be with some other girl and imagine that lion’s mane of hair and a Red Sox hat beneath me. I’d see her and Pamela walking through the quad with arms linked, but once we reached senior year, Jules looked tired and worn out. She visited less and was nonsensical when she did.
“I hate being alone,” she said, our last night before finals week after getting sloppy from some Boones wine. Pamela was finishing up her thesis and had been spending long hours at the library while Jules lapsed with hers on slant rhyme in Emily Dickinson’s poetry and had become needier than ever.
I thought of the string of girls I had on speed dial and grinned at her, saying that I also hated to be alone.
“But I hate being with people, too,” she said.
“Yeah, I can see you hate being with Pamela so much. All night you’ve whined about her being at the library.”
“No, I do,” she said, twisting the sleeves around her wrists. Her eyes were wide and spacey. “I hate being with her, I hate being with you. You both are repugnant to me.”
“Fuck you, where is this coming from?”
“Everyone makes me sick. You’re all just there so I don’t have to think about myself. You’re just a distraction, Campbell.”
I clutched the bottle of Boones wine. Her smile was inhuman.
“You really mean that?”
She nodded, unashamed, almost proud.
“I’m the cruelest person I know, and one day, you all won’t be enough. Poof.”
She pouted her lips and slinked up close to me. I was leaning against my bed as she hovered, barefooted and paler than any other Floridian.
“I should let you fuck me once,” she said, her lips closer to mine than ever before. “But I like you yearning. I like you thinking about me. You’ll remember the memories of what could’ve been more than if it actually happened. That’s what keeps me going. Honest.”
I reached out to grab the back of her head but she recoiled and crawled away, wobbling but content, tearing up but still smiling. That was the last time I saw her.
I wake up and Pamela is buttering toast. I have a crick in my neck from last night on her couch and barely slept. She nibbles the toast as a cloudy morning filters through the dark blinds. I can tell she hasn’t slept either. We mumble hellos, and the small talk I make is worse than an uncomfortable silence would’ve been.
Me: It’s gonna rain, huh?
Her: Yeah, I think so.
Me: Rain a lot up here?
Her: Yeah…no…I guess.
Me: What time are we leaving?
Her: A half hour or so. I’d like to be early.
The morning doesn’t do well for Pamela. The bags under her eyes are the only color on her face. I want an explanation from her. I want to understand why I bothered to care for someone who never cared back.
“There’s bread in the toaster, butter on the table,” she says. She sweeps up her crumbs and leaves the kitchen.
“Thank you,” I say, but she had already left.
I don’t like coffins because I don’t like closure. I’d want to be cremated and tossed into the waves or something cliché like that. The coffin is silver and shiny like a new Cadillac. I know her mother and father spent hours fretting over the perfect final resting place and the cucumber sandwiches they’ll have catered at the wake afterwards for the show of people that I never once heard Jules mention.
I hate funerals because you have to put on a sad face. I’m not sad at this moment. I felt sad before, and I know I will be sad later, but I’m all right now. It’s weird how that can happen. The Maine day is cool, and I’m chilly in my suit. I shake the hands of her parents, unable to look them in the eye as they thank me for coming and say they’ve heard a lot about me, the good-looking baseball player from Florida. I mumble “yeah,” even though I’d quit the team after sophomore year. Was that how Jules had summed me up?
I see Pamela hanging back from the coffin all by herself. She’s eating her tears and no one seems to care. They walk past her with their own sorrows as if she’s not really there. Once the coffin gets lowered to the ground, I go up to her.
“I feel like it’s my fault,” she says. “That I wasn’t perceptive enough.”
“It’s not,” I say, because there is nothing else to say.
“Oh, that’s nothing. It’s a way of shutting me up. I watched her disintegrate, and I was too scared to say anything. But you were never invested in her like I was. She always just existed on the periphery for you.”
“I’m not competing with you,” I say, gazing down at my shiny black shoes sinking in the muddy grass.
“Why are you even here? You haven’t spoken to her since college. You have no idea what this last year has been like.”
She pushes past me. Her walk picks up to a run before she disappears behind a tree. Why was I really here?
The gathering after the funeral at Jules’ house is the worst possible thing in existence. I feel death and my own mortality around me in shed tears and reminiscences. I realize I have no story about Julianne that doesn’t foreshadow what wound up happening. I slip away from a morbid cousin and find Pamela staring at a plate of whitefish salad. She’s holding a piece of paper, shivering.
“I don’t need to justify why I’m here,” I say.
“What are you talking about?” she replies, gripping the paper, her face flushed.
“You asked me why I was here.”
“She never loved you, Campbell. As much as you though you could change her, you couldn’t, and neither could I, and that’s why we’re all here now because we fucking let her slip away.”
She opens up the piece of paper and looks down fondly.
“What is that?”
I notice Jules’ handwriting and make a grab for it.
“Jules wrote on it? What does it say?”
She tries to push past me but I hold onto her arm. We do an awkward dance in front of all the relatives as she attempts to wiggle out of my grasp. I’m pulling the slip of paper out of her fingers, ready to claw her eyes out for it.
“It was by her side when I found her,” Pamela says, letting go of the slip of paper and disappearing into a dark room at the end of the hall. I open the note, and recognize a Dickinson poem I’d heard Jules recite before.
She died – this was the way she died
And when her breath was done
Took up her simple wardrobe
And started for the sun.
Her little figure at the gate
The Angels must have spied,
Since I could never find her
Upon the mortal side.
I crumple up the note into my pocket. I head down the hallway and turn into the room where Pamela had disappeared. There are no windows and it’s dark but light enough to be able to see her outline, sobbing in the corner. I close the door and shut off all voices from outside of the room. I reach out and take her in my arms, her nose leaking against my sleeve. It’s not a hug like when I arrived at the airport; this one has life to it. She embraces me like I am Jules, and I touch her in the same way. We are pretending because we have no other choice. In the darkness, our faces fumble towards one another and our lips touch. The cold weather melts away, and I’m with Jules on the beach. I feel her tongue for the first and last time, soft and delicate, as it rolls around in my mouth and she tastes like I always needed her to. We pull apart, and I exhale her name one last time. The door opens letting the hall light in. I’m left alone, my body warm and at peace with the realization that I didn’t want to coast through life anymore, or ever go back to Gatorville.
Its sticky sauna had lost any charm it once held.