I’d met Amber
during my first week of college, thank God. In bliss to have shaken the gory caul
of my cold home and almost-as-cold high school, yet also a five-foot-six walking thing of turmoil, I was frightened of my new surroundings.
I’d wanted to matriculate and was surprised that my father agreed and paid for me to take classes one hour away at a small university. He and I never really talked, though, so I was generally surprised by anything he might assent to in my favor. Nothing was spelled out clearly in that household for me. It was only after something happened that Michelle might go off. My father never said anything against her. Or prevented her temper from taking control of her head. As I grew up, I learned he was as scared of her as I was. And even more weak than I ever wanted to admit.
She’d never said a word against me leaving, and I assumed a silent parade was traveling through her mind. One with big red-devil floats and majorettes wielding scimitars instead of batons. She’d wanted me gone since the first several months of their marriage. No big thing. I’d wished the same.
The first night I slept in my dorm room, I awoke from a dream in which I was ice-skating, and blood began seeping through the cold rink, leaving a two-inch thick red mess to glide through. People screamed that dead bodies were stuffed in the pipes below the rink, and I woke up to the sound of four freshmen chattering outside my dorm room window.
“Oh, Gaaaawd I want some chicken fingers!” A girl exclaimed. Odd to hear in the dark at 2 a.m.
“Gaaaaawd, ya’ll!” she repeated, even louder. “Let’s get some chicken fingers!”
Luckily someone else yelled out of their window at her to shut up.
I looked up towards the top bunk, where my one-eared roommate lay, snoring softly.
The first thing she said to when I met her four days before was, “I lost it to a lawn mower. Freak accident when I was eight.” Wanted to get things out of the way.
Her name was Wanda, and she’d hoped I would be black. That was one of her comments not too far after her first revelation. She was black, and although the first impression was one of hostility, I soon realized it was because she felt as uncomfortable as I was in our new environment. After all, here we were, expected to make something of ourselves for our future dead-end 9-to-5 careers. Not much was expected of me, I assumed, but I imagined it would mean something special to my mother.
Wanda and I got along okay, though our differences kept us from becoming true “buds.” She thought I was freakishly quiet. I was, and if possible I was even more so in my classes. I glided through them like a ghost with a back pack, listening intently to the professors—40 percent of the time. The rest I spent thinking about Jack or staring at the back of other students’ heads, trying to figure out what they might be thinking. If it were anything pleasant or normal or happy.
On my third day of History 101, I sat thinking about everything except Machiavelli, of which the teacher droned on about. My thoughts of course were primarily of Jack, whom by that time was someone I would see off and on, an obsession of sorts from the crummy summer job I’d handled while at home. I re-lived the day before I headed off to live in the dorms, when Jack and I drank beer all night in a park that was closed. The memory of his voice hit my head like musky, romantic sandpaper, and I remembered the wet grass we sat on hurt my back side but smelled like hickory and Lake Certane, where my mom used to take me when I was little. Jack said I was smart to go to college, then fucked me on a wooden bench a yard away from our row of beer bottles. Aroma of hopps and sweat mingled with the noise of night creatures. Purplish sky. That color I adore. Jack’s gleaming car parked nearby. I wanted to steal it.
My mind flipped back to the hum of the history building’s air conditioner and the raucous light of my class. My gaze returned to the professor. Mrs. Corcell. She was tall, thin, with wispy brown hair and a nasal voice. She appeared so stern and couth while commanding the black board… I began to wonder as to how she acted outside of class. Surely she wasn’t so school-marmish. I wondered if she drank—a lot—to the point of vomiting. Or perhaps she sipped a glass of merlot every night, grading papers before she hit the sack. What if she was a coke-buyer from Jack and his buds? You know, just to shake up the mundane days of repeating the same lessons incessantly. I wouldn’t judge. I wondered if she went wild when she had sex, or if she had stern, serious orgasms. I wondered if her moans sounded as nasal as her voice.
I felt a pair of eyes on me while my mind meandered ruthlessly, and suddenly I felt a little embarrassed. Looked to my left. Blonde hair. Big lips. The kind most girls hate. Yet, there was an unkempt look about her—certainly not a sorority gal. She looked at me as if she knew me. I must have had a look of sheer fear on my face. She smiled, wrote hurriedly on a sheet of blue paper. Lifted it in my direction. You live in my dorm. Oh. I wrote quickly. Oh. She smiled again. What’s your name?
That was the first time Amber and I spoke. The second time was one evening when I happened to get stuck outside of my dorm room, waiting for Wanda to finish up with her boyfriend. I sat in the hallway, undecided on what to do. Go to the tv room? Too depressing at that moment. The thought of happy strangers watching the prime-time line-up was not something I felt like I could enjoy. I had a headache, and I desperately wanted to rest. Eventually, I lay down on the pea-green-carpeted hallway.
Voice above me. Hadn’t heard footsteps. Blonde hair hiding a face. I mumbled, “Naked man and woman in there,” and pointed towards my door.
“Ahh, I understand. You’re welcome to come in my room and hang out if you like.”
“Thanks,” I said, rising from the dirty floor. One side of my face felt like a deflated balloon from being smushed on the ground for twenty minutes. I then realized it was the girl from my history class. She resided four doors down from me in a private room. Walking in, I found a well-decorated, brightly colored room with posters and pictures covering virtually every inch of wall space available. There was a range of subjects represented, from impressionist paintings to cultural icons to family and nature photographs. The vibrant variety of pictures gave me a sense of comfort. Most noticeable, however, was an extremely large jade Buddha sitting on the floor between the bed and the little fridge.
“Are you Buddhist?” I asked her.
“I’ve read about it, though I wouldn’t call myself a follower,” she said in a small, yet distinct voice. She lit up a clove cigarette and offered me one. I declined. “He’s just so cool. How often are fat people worshipped, you know?”
I laughed. Reached over to touch the hard smooth belly of the Buddha. “My mother used to read about this religion, among others. She was actually a history teacher.”
“Was? She no longer is?”
Amber nodded. The cruel fluorescent dorm lighting made her appear as though she had dark circles under her eyes. Or accentuated the half-moon bruises actually present. “My mother owned a small chain of consignment stores,” she said. “Before she died.”
At that moment I realized she and I had something connecting us, and I knew that finally I found someone I could become close to. Being as quiet as I was most of my life, I had yet to meet anyone else I could really talk to about my loss, or anything else. Amber and I talked for five hours that night. She was originally from Florida, but lived most of her life in Virginia before choosing a college extremely far away from her widowed father. She didn’t hate him. She just couldn’t stand the town, the people anymore. She was interested in photography, and showed me pictures she’d taken of sunsets, horses and insects. Black and whites of ocean water, coriander, ginger root. Her favorite photo was a sepia-colored print of two ants climbing a wooden clog.
“It was my clog,” she said. “I’d left them outside for weeks after having this immediate urge to run around barefoot in the rain. I laughed, because it made me think of the saying ‘You should walk a mile in so-and-so’s shoes.’ Two ants, trying to walk in someone else’s shoes.”
Her father saw her shooting the photo and thought she was nuts. He saw the photo developed and encouraged her to pursue photography as a career.
I told her I had no idea what I was interested in. I liked to write, and I liked to watch people. We both hated tomatoes and loved pickles. We both adored old movies and thought Grace Kelly was the bee’s knees in To Catch a Thief. Neither of us could see ourselves married, but we often daydreamed about it. And that evening, we both had a craving for pineapple pizza at midnight.
We began to study together and once a week had classic-movie marathons, eating nothing but whipped cream and pixie sticks while mooning over Marlon Brando. We spent so much time together I almost forgot about Jack, who at that point had very little involvement in my life anyway. However, she and I had yet to learn about each other’s masochistic tendencies during the first month of school.
It would not be long before mid terms, when hers would be the first to tip-toe in.
I knocked on her lavender-colored door the following day at noon, worried I might have come too early. We’d spoken briefly the night before and she was looking forward to seeing me, but we had never set a precise time and I knew she tended to sleep late. Listening through the door, however, I could hear the sound of violin music playing from within. She was awake.
She answered the door in flowing black pajama pants and grey t-shirt. Her hair had grown longer, and her eyes still held the painful beauty they always had since I’d known her. This was the first time I’d seen her in five months.
“Hey, girl.” She said in a soft voice. I smiled in relief, leaned over to her lanky frame and gave her big hug. Sometimes, my fears would get the better of me and I worried that I might never see Amber again. She looked okay—I had yet to notice any new inflictions as I walked through the door, studying her quietly. I knew she was doing the same to me. I knew she noticed my burn. As she closed the door behind us, she stopped me from moving further into the room by grabbing the injured arm. Her grip softened quickly but she held on still, her hand soft like flour rubbing against my face. Her large green eyes gazed at the wound briefly, then she looked up at me. Her emotions were already flooding into my own, and I closed my eyes just so I wouldn’t have to stare into her galvanizing ones at that moment.
“When did it happen, Slade? Tell me right now.”
“About a month ago,” I whispered.
“And you didn’t even call me?”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t want to bother you. I know you’ve been busy lately—“
“Oh shut up!” she said quietly. Pulled on my arm. Touched the wound.
“I ran out of Frosted Flakes.”
“Slade, what the fuck happened?”
She pulled me down towards the ground, and we sat on the floor by the front door. I gazed about the living room, noticing how sparse it still was. A glass dining room table. A stereo on the floor playing the harsh hard rock of a group I could not discern. A wicker rocking chair; stacks of books on both sides.
“I just, had an attack. It wasn’t me. It had been so long, but…something just got to me that night. I was sick of Jack, sick of everyone. I hated working at the library. I hated all those bitches I was working with. They all thought I was crazy. I’m no good at meeting people, you know that. I’d just had enough that night. I don’t even remember that much of what happened. That’s why I’m out in Monroe with Jack right now.”
Amber snorted and leaned her head against the door. She pointed her burned index finger to her nose and rolled her eyes.
“I think that is the last place you should be, Slade. I think you know that. Jack is not helping you worth a shit. He’s a fucking sociopath.”
Silence. She nodded and then guided me over to the dining room table, and back onto the floor again. The table held a mess of photos and papers, a project she was currently working on. Amber picked up an opened packet of instant hot chocolate and began digging out of it with her fingers. She liked to eat with her hands, and one of her favorite snacks was powdered hot chocolate.
“I’ve been doing pretty well,” she said between licking her fingers. “A few close calls. I talked to my Dad for a while about it, and he said he’d pay for it if I just went to a counselor at least once, just to see if I thought it could help. Dr. Pully. That was her name. She didn’t do shit for me.”
“Well how many times did you visit her?” I was a bit envious of her going. I couldn’t afford it of course, and there was no way in hell I was going to try to discuss my problems with my father. He just wouldn’t be able to conceive of it.
“I went three times.”
“But aren’t you supposed to go for a little while before you can make any real progress?”
I glanced at some of the photos on the table. Most consisted of children on a playground. One photo was of a young girl clothed in pastel pink standing by a bright, sunflower yellow slide, her face tipped up to the camera, smiling. A smile of innocence. Long brown hair decorating one of the purest moments of youth. Before the world kicked in the door.
“I guess,” Amber sighed. She put the packet down and pulled her hair back. “But I thought she was kind of a bitch. She doesn’t know me or my problems. She’ll never know me or understand me.”
“Not if you don’t let her.”
She smirked at me. “Listen to us,” she laughed. “We can tell each other exactly what the other needs to hear, but we never listen to our own advice.” Amber paused, then stopped smiling.
She offered me a drink. I had a very strong screwdriver and she downed two vodkas on the rocks while we talked there on the floor for almost an hour. She told me some of her photography horror stories and I told her about the place Jack and I were living in, about my dog Chagall. We laughed about some of the fonder memories we had in college. Eventually we got quiet and she poured me another drink. She had another as well. I hadn’t eaten anything that day and my low tolerance was already knocking a bit numbly on my skin.
“I had a dream about you the other night,” Amber said. She was lying on the floor near the stereo, now much louder than before. “We were both thirty years old, and still living in the college dorm.” I giggled. Put one hand over my eyes. “We were both really rich, though. I don’t know what kind of jobs we had, but we had stashed money behind a desk. Suddenly, it became night time and we both ran outside into the quad, where a bunch of people were dancing. It was some sort of party, where everyone wore bright red. You and I were wearing blue jeans, so I turned to you to tell you we should go in and change, and you had a balloon in your hands. You threw it at me and water burst all over me. Then the whole party became this big water balloon fight, and it was fun. Next thing I knew I was running, cold and wet, through the hallway back to the dorm room. But when I reached the room, I found it on fire. Someone yelled down the hall that I started it. I screamed that it wasn’t me. I found you again outside, and then suddenly we were watching this monk outside torch himself. The pain of seeing that happened was awful. Then I woke up.”
I didn’t say anything, just stared across the room at Amber’s still, frail body on the floor. The music was almost drowning out her story, but I was able to hear it. The scent of the apartment was a conglomeration of incense, clove cigarettes and some unnamable aroma clinging only to Amber and her habitat. A peachy musk. It reminded me of her dorm room in college. I could envision her lying on the floor of her room as she was just then, spouting off dates she had to memorize for History class, telling me about the first time she smoked pot, crying as she related the night she learned her mother had died. I instantly wanted to crawl over to her, touch her. Feel the flour of her skin.
“Remember that time I took a bunch of photos of you?” she asked, staring up at the ceiling. “Do you want to see them?”
I traveled into her bedroom where she kept a large crate crammed full of her work. The royal blue covers on her bed were unmade, and a large mirror lay oddly next to the bed. Like it had fallen there and was yet to get placed back onto the wall. She pulled out manila file after manila file, searching. Eventually she came across one that read “Slade” and opened it. At first I was embarrassed to see all these pictures of me, mostly black and white, me sitting in her dorm room, lying in bed, always looking sad. It bothered me to see myself in such a light, because it forced me to look at myself from the outside, like another person might. Depression girl. The more I looked though, the more I realized they weren’t that bad. Amber had that gift for making anything look interesting through a lens. In many of the shots, I thought I actually looked pretty.
“Don’t be embarrassed,” she said, reading my mind. “I’ve shown a couple of these to clients, and they were really impressed.”
“I can’t believe you’ve shown these to people,” I mumbled, flipping through them again.
“Look at this one,” she pointed to a shot of me doing homework at my desk. The light from the window cast an aura around my figure on the chair, making it appear almost supernatural. Very impressive. I just wished it wasn’t actually me in the photo.
“I wish I had your gift,” I said, handing the picture gingerly back to Amber. She looked down at the photo again quietly. Said nothing.
I stayed for another couple hours, and we talked as if we hadn’t seen each other in years. She had an appointment that evening at six, so we said our goodbyes and she promised to come out to where Jack and I were living soon. Regardless of how Jack would feel about it, she was important to me. I needed her friendship then, more than ever. I hadn’t called on her that horrible night a month before, simply because I knew it would upset her terribly. I realized this notion was just foolish though. She, more than anyone, could be a salve to my burn. During the past few months and all their brimming chaos, I’d almost forgotten the extreme importance of our friendship, and I did not want to forget anymore.
Jack may have saved me once from myself, but Amber saved me every day. We were chiseling at our own bodies, but she had the camera fixed on all the action. The prints proved some of this place and parts of this whole living thing were beautiful.
A portion of a novel I've written.