Authors: Lawrence Block
It was hard to get back into the rhythm of studying, especially in that she had never learned the rhythm properly to begin with. She did everything as systematically as she possibly could, inventing little helps for herself, making list after list and schedule after schedule, working her way down each list and sticking to each schedule as well as she could without killing herself.
Every morning the alarm rang at a quarter after seven; every morning she was out of bed the minute it rang. She would wash and brush her teeth and dress as if she were on her way to a fire. Then she would be off to the caf for a fast breakfast and two or three cups of coffee to get her mind in working shape.
When she had an hour or more between classes she spent it at the library. She managed to be doing something academic almost every minute of the day, and once she started one particular assignment she didn’t stop until she had finished it. This was tough when the assignment in question was too far over her head, but after the first week and a half she was generally able to understand what was happening in each of her classes and to get by.
As she finished the second cup of after-dinner coffee she thought about that meeting with Jim Patterson on the way to the caf. It hadn’t been the first time somebody had asked her, politely or more directly, to spread her legs and oblige him. But she had stuck to her guns so far and the propositions were steadily fewer and farther between. While she would probably never completely live down the reputation she had built up with such zest, at least not while she remained at Clifton, it wasn’t as much of a handicap as she had thought it was. She would make it—if she kept working hard enough.
After dinner, after the tray was on the conveyor belt and the food being attacked by the various enzymes that attacked food, she headed back to her room. There was plenty of work on the agenda for that night—a book to be read, a paper to be written, a Spanish quiz to be prepared for. She climbed the stairs and hurried to her room, anxious to get going, anxious to bury herself in her work and get as much done as possible.
Ruth was there, seated at her desk with a book open before her.
“There was a letter for you,” she said. “In your intramural mailbox. I picked it up for you.”
“Where is it?”
“I put it on your desk.”
She walked over to her desk and found the letter on top of her blotter. It was in a white envelope with the college letterhead and crest in the upper left-hand corner. She tore open the envelope, wondering what it was all about, and took out the letter.
She read it through once.
Then she read it through a second time.
Then a third time.
Then she said
in a small stricken voice and handed the sheet of paper to her roommate. Then, unable to stand any more, she fell headlong on her bed. She did not cry; she could not have cried if she had wanted to. Nor did she say anything more. She merely lay on the bed, unable to breathe, unable to think, unable to feel anything but the overwhelming shock of the letter.
Ruth took the letter from her and sat down with it. This is what it said:
Dear Miss Shepard:
I regret that it is my duty to inform you that, at a recent meeting of the Student Personnel Committee, it was the committee’s decision that you be requested to withdraw for the coming year. Withdrawal rather than expulsion will keep your record clean, as it were, and will facilitate your continuing at another college if you should choose to do so.
If it is your decision to withdraw from Clifton, I hope you’ll let me know within the next several days. If you should wish to discuss any aspects of the decision of the committee with me I will be available in my office Monday through Friday from 8:30 to 5 for the duration of the term.
Dean of Students
That was all.
“Not now, Ruth. I have to get this book read in time for class tomorrow, and I have to grind out a paper and then there’s a good fifty words of Spanish vocabulary that—”
“—I have to memorize. And after that—”
She closed her eyes and stopped talking, still lying face down on the bed, still numb and still unable to understand fully what had just happened to her.
“Linda, you can go and talk to him. When he finds out what you’ve been doing for the past three weeks, when he tells the committee that you’re working now and that you’re going to get through your courses—”
“It’s no use, Ruth.”
There was a dead note of finality in her voice.
“You’ve got to talk to him, honey.”
She sat up on the edge of the bed, her face composed now and perfectly calm. “I’ll talk to him,” she said dully. “But it’s not going to work. I can tell. He’s going to tell me that it’s just no use, as it were, and that he wishes me the best possible luck in whatever field of endeavor I eventually choose, as it were, and if I’m ever passing through the town of Clifton between 8:30 and 5 Monday through Friday—”
“The old bastard!”
“It’s not his fault. I just got this new-leaf project a few months too late, that’s all.” She hauled herself to her feet, her face set, her eyes determined.
“What are you going to do now?”
“I told you,” she said levelly. “I have a book to read and a paper to write and a good fifty words of Spanish to learn. I might as well get to work on them now.”
Dean Maples was in his office the following afternoon.
Dean Maples was sympathetic.
Dean Maples was understanding.
Dean Maples was sorry.
“I’m very sorry,” he said. “I’d like very much to tell you that there was a possibility that the committee might reconsider your case, but I’m afraid it’s impossible. As you know, you failed to pass a single course in the entire first term. Since then we’ve learned from your professors that your attendance has been sporadic to say the least and that you’re expected to fail again.”
“But I’m going to pass those courses,” she explained. “I’ve been working for three weeks now, Dr. Maples. And I’m sure I’ll pass.”
“It doesn’t seem very likely.”
“Give me a chance—if I don’t pass them all I’ll withdraw. Isn’t that fair?”
He puffed at his pipe and looked long and thoughtfully at the inkstand in one corner of his desk. Then, his eyes still fixed on the inkstand, he said: “It’s not just your grades, Miss Shepard. There are reports of your personal conduct that … uh … that influenced our decision.”
As it were
, she thought.
“That’s changed, too.”
Dean Maples closed his eyes for a moment. Then he opened them but kept them turned toward the inkstand. It was a fairly common-looking inkstand and Linda couldn’t understand what was so fascinating about it. She wondered if the old man was afraid he’d blush if he looked her full in the face.
“I’m terribly sorry,” he said. “I’m afraid the situation is impossible, Miss Shepard. I’d recommend that you consider transferring elsewhere, or plan to spend a year out of school with the option of reapplying to Clifton after a year’s leave. Quite a few students have done that and have profited by it.”
“I see,” she said. She didn’t see especially but the dean had paused for breath and she felt that she had to say something.
But now there was nothing much more to say.
“I’m going to pass those courses,” she told him. “You don’t believe me, but I’m going to pass those courses. Even if I can’t come back.”
“Well,” he said. “I certainly hope you do, but—”
“Not so that I can transfer,” she finished. “Not so that I can come back here.”
“Why then?” he asked, temporarily derailed.
“If you have to ask,” she said gently, “you’ll never know.”
She kept working, knowing that she would have to withdraw at the end of the term anyway, knowing that the work she was doing wouldn’t keep her in school and wouldn’t really do much of anything for her. But she had to prove to herself that she could do it, had to keep her head above water and wind up with her courses passed. Proving her point to Dean Maples was secondary; proving it to herself meant a lot more to her for the time being.
Besides, as it turned out it was easier to keep going than to stop. It was like the line in
about being so far steeped in blood that to go on is easier than to return. She was in the study habit now for better or for worse. It was normal to go to classes, normal to read and write, normal to spend all her waking hours at her desk. Learning was becoming an end in itself, strangely enough, and she was actually beginning to enjoy the whole thing.
It was ironic, she thought. Now that there was no more opportunity for her to go on with her work, now she was getting a kick out of it. If only she had approached the whole problem that way from the beginning! She was just starting to realize how different the whole thing might have been. If she had worked on her schoolwork while she was with Don, if a secondary interest in the academic part of school had kept her busy when she wasn’t with him, then she might have had a chance to keep him. If she hadn’t been so damned possessive because he was all she had, then he might not have been quite so anxious to get her off his neck. Well, whatever had happened had happened. There was no sense crying over spilled milk … or over a fractured maidenhead, for that matter.
Read and study and sleep.
Sleep and study and eat.
Eat and read and sleep.
That was about all she did, right up to the week of exams, right up to the last and hardest week of the term.
Just read and study and eat.
And sleep with Joe Gunsway.
It started one afternoon when Joe gave her a ring on the phone. It seemed he had learned what she was doing and wanted to give her a hand if she ever needed any help with anything. Of course there was nothing that she needed from him. She knew this and she knew that he knew it as well. It was just his way of saying that he was there, still in love with her, still ready to help her in any way he could, still anxious to be with her and to love her.
Her first reaction was one of revulsion. Why couldn’t the dope just leave her alone? Didn’t he know when he wasn’t wanted?
Then the feeling changed. He was, certainly, a nice guy. As nice a guy as she had ever known. And he liked her as a person, and he wanted to see her.
Why shouldn’t she see him?
She picked a time when she could afford a break for an hour or two. It was early evening—she could get her studying done after he brought her back, and her mind would be probably keener and more alert if she took a two-hour breathing spell first.
Once she had made up her mind to see him it was not hard to get the ball rolling. She managed to bump into him “accidentally” in the caf that evening. They talked; she suggested that they go for a ride for a little while. She didn’t have to push him into it—he was anxious to see her and glad that she wanted to see him.
When they were in the car she didn’t tell him to park and he didn’t consciously seek out a lover’s lane type of situation. His car was getting fairly low on gas and he felt more like talking than driving, and it wasn’t long before the car was parked in a relatively private spot on a relatively lonely road. Because the sky was still light and because neither of them had planned on anything of the sort, it didn’t seem like a necking situation.
She found herself talking to Joe, talking easily and readily. She told him everything—from her arrival at Clifton right up to the present. He listened to most of it without saying a word, and just having him to talk to made everything a lot easier for her.
Thinking back on it, she couldn’t tell what made him decide to kiss her or what made her let him kiss her. It just happened, One moment they were sitting together in the front seat of the car and the next moment she was nestled in his arms with her mouth to his. It was a gentle kiss, not sexual at all, but one kiss led to another and one thing led to another and …
The funny thing, she thought afterwards, was that she didn’t really want him sexually and he certainly wasn’t trying to seduce her. If anything it was the other way around. He kept wanting to stop, to avoid taking advantage of her, but she wouldn’t let him stop.
The experience itself was neither the passionate love she had enjoyed with Don or the frantic sex she had experienced with all of the others. It was, instead, more an act of friendship than anything else. She knew that he wanted her, wanted her perhaps more than he wanted anything else in the world. She knew also that he would never have her because she would never love him. Giving herself to him was a small way of thanking him for his love without returning it.
They made love in the back seat of his car. While she couldn’t say for certain, she was fairly sure that he hadn’t had much experience in the past. He was awkward and unsure of himself, but the warm feelings she had for him more than made up for any slight incompetence on his part.
They made love quickly and when it was over she felt neither frustrated nor satisfied. She was somewhere in the middle between the two extremes, not guilty over what she had just finished doing and not entirely pleased with herself either.
Naturally it served to make him love her more than ever. But, after they had gotten dressed again and had returned to the front seat of the car, she could tell that he knew where he stood now, that some element of his love for her had undergone a metamorphosis of one sort or another. He would not be calling her on the phone now any more; he would not be grabbing her arm or chasing her around campus. Nor would he spend his time pining away for her in some dark room. Eventually, when he met a girl who was right for him, he would be able to forget her and concentrate on the new girl.
That was the way she wanted it.
It was the way both of them wanted it.
As he drove back to campus, one hand on the wheel and the other draped over the back of the seat, she sat close to him without touching him. And she felt close to him, too. She knew that he was as good a person as she was ever likely to know, and she realized that knowing him had done her a lot of good.