Christine lived on the south side of Berkeley on the third floor of a once-white apartment complex named Haste, for the street it was on. It was unpretentious the way all of South Berkeley was, with sun-stained walls and crooked stairs, but if you didn’t know better you’d call it ghetto like her mother’s best friend did when she showed up for a campus tour. She then went back home to tell Christine’s mother that her daughter was such a good daughter, so good, for living so humbly, so below her means, especially for the child of a man who could afford to live next to orthopedic surgeons and district attorneys on a hill as marked by Spanish-sounding streets (via this, calle that) as a lack of any actual Spanish-speaking people.
Freshman year it was Josh, then very quickly Emerys, but for different reasons. With Emerys it was the hair, perhaps only the hair. Christine had never seen hair so frothy up close. It made her want to put her whole face in it and chew. But Josh ignored her and chose Lynn, who would’ve looked like an Anime avatar had her face not been so flat and pancaked across her skull, like perhaps she was accidentally sat on as a small child. And Emerys walked her home a couple of times but ended up choosing Carmen, who had an egg shaped head, narrow on top and increasingly rounder, rounder as you got to her chin and her jowls, bottom-heavy in both figure and face, like two babushka dolls connected by a finely creased neck. At the end of the year it was Matt and Eugene, Eugene and Matt, as inseparable as they were opposite, one with a sunny disposition who liked to hit his mother (but only on occasion, he confessed, if that made it any better), the other even-tempered and respectable in an unctuous, uneasy kind of way. By year two it was Joseph Dana Bass, definitely and forever Joe. But he too, like the others, considered her with the kind of casual amusement reserved for installation art and puppies. She was interesting, sure, maybe even cute if they were in the mood and feeling generous, but she lacked something. What it was they would not say, and she could not tell, try as she did to win them over with intellect and yoga pants. But it didn’t work, not once. And then one night, a boy of a different variety appeared.
“Sorry”—Paul called out. “I was waylaid.”
Christine looked back at him. Evans Hall was straight ahead, dead except for a sparse congregation of self-declared Campus Crusaders gathering in its penthouse atrium, waiting for the worship music to start. It was where she—and now Paul—was heading. On this particular evening Evans looked turquoise, concrete or no concrete, the way that the San Bernardino mountains would look purple on special afternoons in December right before a doomed holiday party.
“I didn’t know there were degrees to being laid,” Christine said, and her tone was so ordinary that no one could tell whether she was joking or serious. She did score a perfect on the SAT, but in this case it did not help her, and no one knew about that anyway.
Paul glanced at her with his trademark neutrality as a person who enjoyed being unreadable. He hung his preemie-sized black cell phone in his front jean pockets and tucked his long hands in the back ones, his tender wrists peeking out like sharp cheekbones. His hair was dark, almost as black as Christine’s, trimmed close on both sides and blunt on top, a cut he would wear for the remainder of his life. His pointy wrists, stark hair and gray eyes made him look as unknowable as he was.
Neither of them remembers what they said or did on the 10th floor of Evans that night. Two months later the 10th floor would be closed forever, after a boy named Stars’ Pyre (not his real name, but one he preferred) jumped off its northwest corner. “To see if it was even possible to die,” he said to his online dragon role-playing buddies two days earlier. They thought he was being philosophical. He wasn’t.
The following Thursday, Campus Crusade’s weekly meetings moved back to First Presbyterian. It was there that Paul asked Christine if she liked calzones.
“Eating one is like being inside a warm bath,” she replied. She knew immediately which ones he was referring to without having to ask—Gypsy’s, of course, the ones that came in a pink donut box and made you forget that pizza ever existed. “I can’t live without them.”
“That’s a little drastic, I’d say. If you want one so badly, why are you still here?” Paul asked.
Christine was embarrassed and mad. This was not how you banter nicely. She could not tell if his question was a trap or an invitation.
“Good point,” she responded after a long pause. “Want to come?”
He smiled at last, his mouth crooked and ready. “How did you know?”
The women at First Presbyterian, Christine quickly found out, were in awe of Paul, not because they liked him with any kind of peculiarity but because he talked infrequently, and saw everything. “Well, you have really nice eyes,” Tina said to him once, right after they had finished praying. He also quoted Euclid and told everybody during a sermon that his biggest problem with God was not believing him.
She never figured out if he ever got over that.
The next week, Christine asked Paul if he danced.
“I sat through all of senior prom. Junior prom too.”
“Because you lacked a date?”
“Because I made my date dance alone.”
“In that case,” Christine persevered, “do you think it would be fun to go salsa dancing?”
He shrugged, but she knew it was a yes. He would be there.
By the time Paul showed up, half of the third floor of Haste—which coincided with a significant minority of the First Presbyterian congregation—was already there. That was not entirely unintended. Events, dates, first and last loves—these always transpired in groups, because it was routine courtesy to invite more than one person, and anyway, no one wanted to stumble upon an unplanned parenthood. Bodies and hearts required constant guarding, lest temptation ruin a good GPA or one’s status as unused, with all the original packaging intact.
Salsa lessons had only one rule: you had to switch partners every time the class learned a new move. Dancing was a mating ritual after all, with all its psychological booby traps, so in these matters it was best to keep things casual and on a rotating basis if one wanted to leave unscathed.
“Nope,” Christine announced, when a curly-haired translucent man came up to her, waiting quietly for his turn. He thought maybe she was joking, her request seemed so unfair, and she casually announced to the class that everyone in her section—she circled all the Haste-Presbyterians—would be keeping their partners; no switching for them. Curlicues moved on to a Turkish woman, nervous.
More frequent intersections were coming. Once, Sharon came along on one of their outings. Sharon, who also lived on the third floor of Haste, was an English major with a penchant for being late for everything except class, for which she was always exceptionally on time. On this particular evening, Christine didn’t give her a choice and knocked hard on her door when it was time.
Paul drove his used scarlet Benz convertible (he bought it for the women, he told her), Christine in shotgun, Sharon in the back. When they got to John Hinkel, Shakespeare in the Park was already underway, and Egeus was just disposing of Hermia. Paul asked Sharon if she was familiar with Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Sharon looked at him, offended.
“Nevermind,” he replied. “Sometimes I forget who I’m talking to.” He looked at Christine. “Hot chocolate?”
“I like my chocolate cold,” Christine said.
“That’s good, because they haven’t got any here,” he said, looking around. He added, “If you were a good date you would’ve brought cookies.”
“If I was on a date I’d be trying harder,” she replied.
“Touché,” Paul agreed.
Christine rubbed her bare arms, folding them like grasshoppers mating. Paul asked her if she needed a sweater.
“If I do, it doesn’t matter. I hate wearing clothes,” she said. The way she said it sounded too flippant to be trashy, but maybe it still was, just a little.
“You prefer to be naked?” he asked.
“I prefer to wear as little as possible.”
“I see,” he said. He took off his jacket and draped it around her shiny round shoulders. You smell like deodorant and babies, she thought, without saying it out loud. She told another boy that once on an airplane from Madrid, and he thought it weird. She kept her mouth shut.
On the ride back to Haste the conversation was sparse.
Sharon said, “Lysander’s a bit of a douche, isn’t he?”
Christine said, “I was thinking that too. They’re all a bit douchey, though. Even the fat one.”
“You mean Helena?” asked Paul.
“I mean the fat one,” Christine replied.
When Paul pulled his Benz in front of the descending parking lot of Haste, Christine proceeded to take off his jacket, first the right arm, then the left.
“Wait!” cried Sharon. “At least let me out of the car first.”
Both Christine and Paul looked back at her, curious.
“Let you out before what?” Christine asked, jacket half-on.
Sharon blinked, amused and flabbergasted. “Before you two start taking your clothes off!” It was customary that every other thing she said demanded an exclamation mark.
“First of all, only one of us is taking our clothes off,” Christine corrected, getting out of the car.
“Second of all?” asked Paul
“Oh, I forget,” she said, depositing the jacket in the still-warm seat.
One day Christine climbed a low tree on Sproul Plaza next to the library where the naked people ran through the stacks once every semester during finals week. Christine, who never climbed a thing in her life, offered herself up in bootcut jeans and a ballerina top. Somebody had to do it, and she had no interest in waiting for anyone else to volunteer, especially when first prize in a scavenger hunt was at stake. The first group back to First Pres would win nothing, but in matters of competition, prizes were for the weak or those who preferred jujubes on their cake. Christine was not one of them.
Paul snapped a photo of Christine atop the lowest branch, feet tucked awkwardly behind her ass and left arm propping her torso up for balance. They needed the evidence. He glanced at the small clear image that immediately birthed itself across the Nikon’s posterior screen. “You’re not very photogenic,” he told her, because it was true.
It took her a week to tell him that it hurt, what he said, and not in a good way. He listened, silently and blinking. Three days later he showed up to Haste #301 with a bouquet of lilies and a poem he wrote on a handmade card. She called her mother, who handed the phone to her dad. A boy gave me flowers, she told him, because it was news. A poem also, she added. Read it, her dad replied. He translated the words for her mother. They decided that Paul was just saying he was sorry. That’s too bad, she thought, but when she hung up the phone she didn’t believe them. Sorry could not be the whole story; it never was.
They became friends again, if that is what they were, if only for a week.
“We can’t be friends anymore,” Christine announced the following Thursday, as their weekly meeting at First Pres was ending. She turned and walked back to Haste, not because she did not care about Paul’s reaction to the news but because she did not want to be disappointed if he reacted badly—and in the worst case scenario, if he did not react at all. She briefly considered the possibility that she would later regret the decision to sever things with Paul before they could unfold in their natural order, and pay for her deed in the years spent wondering what could have, should have been—what would’ve become of Paul, of her, of them.
“You can’t do that,” her roommate said, when the news spread. “I did,” she informed her, as if executioners did not possess lives and loves of their own. But it was enough to make her seek a second opinion.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Edwin agreed. Edwin, who lived in #304, was one of those boys who should’ve been gay but wasn’t, and managed to spend every year in college with a different long-term girlfriend—all of whom were devastated out of their wits when their turn was up. But now he took a stark view of breaking up, even if it was a breakup without the hookup, the relationship, the making out and intrigue and inevitable remorse.
“I wouldn’t shrug it off so lightly,” he said to Christine—who did not consider what might happen in the aftermath. “If I were you I’d try to explain myself.”
So Christine went off to call Paul and asked him to come over. Everybody was waiting for him when he arrived because they had all heard the news, so the two of them took a walk down College Avenue until they reached Krober Fountain. Ugly, utilitarian Krober. Paul walked silently, untroubled. About that she was probably mistaken.
“I don’t want to like you,” she said, because it was true.
She didn’t explain why she didn’t want to like him or what she meant by “like” and why they couldn’t just be friends anyway, which is what they were, she knew, despite her most stubborn hopes. What she really wanted to say was that she was tired of wanting boys who had desires of their own, desires that resembled her but weren’t her. She didn’t want to be another runner-up in the contest for the hearts of men, who sampled widely and demanded much. But she didn’t have to, because Paul did not ask, did not protest, did not blink or sigh or stutter or breathe. He only watched her with those sharp eyes, countering the nonsense with his calm and reasonable gait.
“So please don’t call or talk or say hello,” she told him. “Unless you need something, of course.” Her tone was hopeful, like she wanted him to need something, to need her perhaps. She was trying to hold that hope in, not let it out and grow and metastasize until he was gone forever from her life.
At the end of junior year it was briefly Josh, white Josh this time, until it wasn’t. One night he was falling asleep on her lap while they were talking on the couch, her two roommates crouched up against the wall in the next room eavesdropping and praying against them, because they knew he would be bad news. A week later he went to the Castro district in San Fran on Halloween without her, and that was the end of it. He quickly turned fat the following semester and she counted Halloween one of the luckiest days of her life. By senior year it was Steven, very shortly Steven. The relationship—it was reciprocated and official this time, prompted by announcements and sweaty hand-holding and verified dates—endured three weeks to be exact, before she told him she hated video games, and he told her he wasn’t feeling it anymore. She offered to try. “It’s not going to work,” he said, not explaining how he could know the future outcomes of her efforts. Still love, even the crappy kind, can be useful sometimes.
For years, Paul would make cameos in her dreams. He sat in the last row of her lecture on consciousness, dressed in his usual all-black ensemble, as if in perpetual preparation for some awful thing happening. He did not take notes on anything she was saying, either because he did not care or because he already knew. In her dreams, a philosophy major in the first row raised his hand and announced that everything has consciousness—tables, chairs, Siri, all of it—because if they didn’t we would have a much bigger problem on our hands, like how to figure out who was conscious and who wasn’t. “Fuck,” Christine said. “Why are philosophers always going around calling a cow a spade?” Paul did not say anything, did not quote Euclid.
She severed herself from that dream, woke up next to her husband, who was the antithesis of Paul—a foreigner to nuance; fluffy and excessive. She tried writing to Paul that day, but everything she put down was self-indulgent and contrived. Couldn’t she just say, hi, how are you, it’s been a while, and leave it at that, like that one Adele song? She let the residue of the dream slip away while she became temporarily enraptured by a photographer who had taken her wedding pictures, and now her anniversary portraits. The portraits were her husband’s idea, a notion he got into his head when he saw a risqué photo of a girl climbing a truck in a sheer white shirt and rust-colored shorts. He handed her the photo late one night, just before he climbed into bed. “This is what I want,” he told her. She passed the picture to the photographer, and he drove her up a deserted canyon, down a winding private road littered with “No Trespassing” and “Smile! You’re on camera” signs. The two of them smiled as they were told, got out of their vehicle, and found themselves atop a deserted pick-up truck painted half in green, half in white, like someone who had changed their mind too late. “Say I’m beautiful,” he commanded. “I’m beautiful,” she answered, laughing. “Say his name,” the photographer asked. “Luc,” she said, meaning Paul.
Her husband loved the photos and didn’t mind that it came with a photographer six years his senior whose supremely fitted shirts testified to the kind of man that he was. But the photographer didn’t last. It ended come senior portrait time when he became involved with a girl with compliant eyes who became his spokeswoman at all the local high schools. This was good for business. Christine thought of Evans Hall and forgave the photographer for what he never did apologize for.
In a different dream Paul showed up at one of her academic parties. Academics were notoriously tolerant, as were people dreaming, so Christine did not think it strange when Paul broke through the door and infiltrated the room like the dengue. She followed him, wanting contagion. She ran up the stairs two steps at a time and found Paul standing in the attic, among the sleds she used to see during the winters in Boston. “Is it even possible to die?” he asked her. Before she could answer, he slipped out the window, a single sled in tow. She followed, and when she got to the windowsill she saw that the night sky was burning with a constellation of newborn suns.
“Stars’ Pyre,” she called, remembering the name he preferred.
© Christine Ma-Kellams
[Christine Ma-Kellams is a recipient of the 2018 Forge Fellowship]