The psychic held Lydia’s palm aloft, tracing the lines with black nails. Months ago, Lydia would have called bullshit and gone back through the haze of colored curtains and incense to Newbury Street. But when she’d first come here in September, as part of a project for her social psych class, she’d had to write everything down. And almost everything Ms. Neptune—honestly, what an inane name—had predicted had come true.
Still, today, Lydia wanted answers, and she wasn’t getting them. That wasn’t the way it worked. She glared as hard as she could into Ms. Neptune’s bright blue-gray eyes, her thinly whiskered chin, sitting across from her in a room lit by fake candles, stocked full of old books and glittering trinkets. Does Bill know about Danny? Answer me, you old nutcase! He’d acted oddly the other night, even for Bill; not meeting her eyes, asking twice, as if to confirm, that she’d been at the library with Helen earlier. When they’d kissed goodnight he’d pressed her against the rock wall outside the dorm so her skin went cold. His hand slipped under the waistband of her underwear.
“What’s the matter?” It was as if he hadn’t heard her. “Find someone new?”
“I told you, not yet.” She kissed his cheek, pulling on his wrist. “Bill?”
“I know, I know!” he’d muttered, and slunk away. “I’ll see you tomorrow. “ The door to his truck slammed.
Ms. Neptune put Lydia’s hand down gently, as if it were made of glass. She pointed to the deck of cards with a dirty fingernail.
“So, there are these two men,” Lydia said hesitantly to the woman, who frowned at her.
“No questions, Dear,” Ms. Neptune said, her voice tinged with a faint British accent. “You’ll spoil it.”
“Sorry. But you said last time that-”
“Cut the cards,” Ms. Neptune said, lighting a thin white cigarette and exhaling.
Mostly inconclusive, was how Lydia described this visit in her journal. She doodled flowers and stars along the margins as she nursed her second scotch and water, laying on her stomach in the bottom bunk. She felt a little silly about the last few months, how obsessed she’d become with the planets, with her sign—Gemini—even with reading her horoscope every morning. Helen was probably right when she called it a joke, a waste of money. Yet, something had changed over the last few months, hadn’t it? Almost as if someone, or something out there, was guiding her? Maybe it was just wishful thinking. Maybe she was turning into a nutcase herself.
“Jeez, you sure drink a lot,” said Helen from the top bunk.
“Thanks mom,” said Lydia, curling her feet under the quilt her mother had packed her.
“I mean, I thought I was bad.”
“Stuff it,” said Lydia, holding up her middle finger emphatically. Helen, on her back, couldn’t see anyway.
“Going out tonight?”
“After more scotch?”
Lydia took a loud sip, to make a point. So what, Helen? She was in college. And she had her reasons, reasons that she doubted any of these other girls, in their pleated skirts and curled hair, could fathom. Plus, Helen hadn’t found a date since Lydia met her on a muggy day September. She spent most nights complaining about some boy named Bobby who’d broken her heart in high school.
“Joanne says it’s weird you won’t even tell us his name.”
“Joanne is a bitch,” said Lydia.
“True,” admitted Helen. “But I’m your roommate, Lyd.”
Lydia closed her journal and let it drop to the floor. She rolled on her back and pressed her feet against the bottom bunk, slowly adding pressure until that the wooden slats creaked and the mattress tilted up.
“Stop!” Helen protested.
“There are two of them,” Lydia said. “Two handsome men.”
“Liar,” Helen said. “You’re just a big dumb liar.”
“Just for that, I’m not telling you either of their names.”
There was a boxing match on television. The stool felt unsteady. In the corner, two men in wrinkled suits argued over a game of darts.
“How about another, kid?” said Danny, but it wasn’t really a question. She waited while the bartender filled her glass and dropped one ice cube in.
“I’d like two this time.”
He dropped in another. It had a dark spot in it.
“I meant two fingers,” Lydia said.
Danny grimaced, unrolling another dollar from his wad. “She gets what she wants, this one,” he said, shrugging. The bartender, an old man with pale lips and a towel over his shoulder, winked.
They’d first met on campus; Lydia was cutting class because she was, frankly, bored, and also because her horoscope had informed her that it was ‘acceptable to change her normal routine this week.’ Last week, the recommendation was to ‘change something about her appearance,’ so, after much thought, Helen helped dye her hair blonde.
Danny had been leaning against his police car, arms crossed, eyes hidden behind gold aviator sunglasses.
“Evening, Miss,” he said, tipping his cap.
“Good evening,” she said, zipping her coat against the autumn air. In the distance, two boys exited the front doors of the Quad, laughing and jostling each other. The sky looked extra blue, the grass extra green, against the red brick building.
“Leaving early?” he said. Lydia couldn’t see his face too well in the dimness of sunset, but his voice was weathered and polite, not like the boys across the lawn who were now tossing a ball back and forth and looking over at them, who screeched and wailed and pounded their chests at parties, who drank from buckets of beer and high-fived loudly while called each other names like “Pounder” and “Animal.”
“Places to go,” she said.
“Where’s that?” he said.
“My roommate and I are going to the Plough and Stars tonight. Over on Mass. Ave,” Lydia said. She had no idea what Helen was doing tonight.
He pushed off the car and walked over. “That’s funny, I was heading there too,” he said, and stuck out his hand.
“Danny,” he said, “That ain’t your natural hair color, is it?
Lydia peered sideways at Danny as he gulped his beer empty, lit a smoke. A Scorpio, he ran the risk of “masking his darkness with humor,” which didn’t so much scare Lydia as pique her interest. His ruddy Irish cheeks swelled when he drank, his hair was wilted and stuck to his forehead, and his teeth were yellowed from coffee and tobacco. But he still had a way about him, slight as it was; she’d seen the way other women looked at him. He’d probably been a catch when he was younger, when he wasn’t saddled with a wife he’d confessed he didn’t love, and two little girls he’d “kill a man over.”
Lydia would not tell Helen about the nature of these nights, because as ‘evolved’ as Helen was with her small wooden box of condoms, her refusal to shave her legs, her women’s liberation talk that sometimes kept Lydia awake; this was different. Besides, Lydia didn’t know how to describe why sitting here, far from the dorm and the sticky floors of the frat houses, Danny’s heavy hand in her lap, made her feel something close to happiness.
“Ready, kid?” Danny said. The back of his hand rubbed her breast.
“Maybe just one more from our friend here,” Lydia said, waving at the bartender coyly, as if she were a queen. “What’s your name?”
“She’s a hot ticket, ain’t she, Sam?” said Danny. “A real lady.”
The street was littered with old, dirty snow. The coldness of the December night brought with it the illusion of clarity, and suddenly, Danny’s face looked pale and sickly in the yellow streetlight. “I’m right down there,” he said, jingling his keys and stumbling a little. “Close this time.”
“OK,” Lydia said, shivering. She put out her hand.
“Close for my little baby,” he said again, trotting eagerly. “Now where the fuck is it?” His accent grew more pronounced when he drank. ‘Fuck’ sounded closer to ‘Fook.’
It felt different inside the police car. The leather seats made everything feel and sound muffled, and a thick glass plate separated them from the back seat. “In case there’s a psycho back there,” Danny had boasted.
Lydia watched snow flutter and collect on the windshield. He hadn’t put on the wipers. “I didn’t know it was going to snow tonight,” she said.
“About a foot,” he said. “You didn’t hear?” He was already loosening his belt, unbuttoning his shirt. He flicked the siren on. The wail startled her.
“Stop that,” she said.
“Who’s gonna say something? The cops?”
“Someone will see. Stop it this instant, or-”
“Just a joke, Kid,” he said, pulling over. “This’ll do for tonight.”
Danny pulled over and turned the key off. It was suddenly dark. His breath was hot in her ear and Lydia felt, just for a second, as though she were going to be sick. “I might need some air,” she said.
Danny locked the doors. “You’ll be fine,” he said. “Take a deep breath.”
He took her hand and put it on his penis.
“Oh Baby,” he said, leaning back. “I really need this.”
“Why?” Lydia said, trying to stay afloat. She’d had too much. Everything was swirling at the edges. The snow blew sideways now, beating against the windshield.
“Can you put the headlights on?”
“The snow is pretty. I want to see it.”
“You’re cute.” Danny reached behind her neck and pressed her head down. “I’ll show you later.”
His body smelled of soap and sweat, better than usual. Lydia wondered cloudily if he showered for her, if his wife noticed. Sharon? Shelly? She moved her head up and down and used her tongue the way she’d heard men liked and wondered where Helen was tonight.
Danny groaned suddenly and squeezed the back of her neck. “Enough,” he said. Lydia sat up. Drool dripped from her mouth. She tried to wipe it. He grabbed her
Lydia wriggled out of her panties, tucking them in her purse right before he lifted her on top of him, pulling her long skirt up. Her head smacked the roof. Danny bit her neck. She thought of Bill, trying to get his hands into her pants, a strange thing to think about as Danny shoved himself inside of her. He moved her hips up and down, faster and faster, until his hands were around her neck, tighter and tighter, tighter, until she beat at his hands with her own palms, and finally everything went black and loose, and somewhere, far away, she heard a man scream.
Bill picked her up the next night at 7pm sharp. Helen, wearing only a long shirt, watched, fascinated, from their second story window as he came around the side of his shiny Chevy truck to open the door.
“Nice, huh?” He looked as though he wasn’t sure if he should hug her, or kiss her. He settled for rubbing his hand on the roof. “I washed her this morning. Just for you.”
“Looks good,” Lydia said. “Does she have a name?”
“A name? Nah. What happened to your forehead?”
“Sleepwalking,” Lydia said. “Bumped my head.” The second she said it, her face grew hot. It was a stupid lie, and even worse, she’d told Helen this morning she’d tripped and whacked her head in the bathroom’s dirty shower—which was, after all, unusually slippery. Helen had seemed satisfied. Bill didn’t.
“Did that girl just whistle?” Bill said, pointing up to Helen.
“I bet she did,” Lydia said, turning and waving. “That’s Helen.”
Bill was a Virgo; she’d asked on their first date. He pleasantly entertained her thoughts on signs and the universe, keeping his eyes lined up with hers as they sipped white wine on the porch of his friend’s off–campus house. But he didn’t seem “methodical” and “precise” and “exacting,” as she’d read. He drove a pick-up and liked to work with his hands out on Nantucket, where he was from. Lydia got the sense that his family had money, but he didn’t flaunt it. They’d been out for hamburgers once, walked along the yellow grass and muddy snow of the Charles River three times, and hadn’t slept together yet. Bill was older—a junior—and he’d already admitted to her that he’d had a crush on her ever since he spotted her in his Astronomy class, “between naps,” he joked. She didn’t tell him that she’d been fantasizing about sleeping with the professor.
Bill didn’t seem too preoccupied with his grades, like most of the students, and Lydia decided that perhaps, like her, someone had helped him get into Harvard. For Lydia, it was uncle Tom, her father’s brother. Lydia’s mother had thought the idea of going to such a school was preposterous. She didn’t think Lydia needed to go to college at all—after all, she hadn’t, and she had a lovely life, didn’t she? Instead, she should find a husband, start a family. But Lydia’s father had turned up as an unlikely champion of her desire to go, if not to Harvard; somewhere. Anywhere. Lydia had fallen asleep many nights last year to the sounds of them fighting over it; strangely comforting to surrender to. She pictured herself stuck between her parents, a rock wall they were forced to heave things over. Then, she’d gotten in, and her father said told her mother the “case was closed.” Then he’d taken a long walk by himself. It was one of the only times Lydia saw her mother drink.
In the years that had passed since everything happened with Peter, Lydia’ s father had spoken to her even less. He sometimes acknowledged her with long, baleful looks, as if trying to decide something.
“What?” she said once. “Do you have a question for me?”
He looked away, biting his cheeks.
“Why are you always looking at me like that?”
“Lydia! Don’t speak to your father that way!” her mother had said.
Lydia knew that Peter, who’d moved to Chicago, had called the house. First, sparingly, then more frequently, sometimes drunk enough to ask to speak to his old friend’s daughter. To speak to her. Really? Once, Lydia had lifted the receiver in the sitting room, and a tremor ran through her when she heard his voice.
“Al, what I’m saying is that-”
“Don’t call here again. I mean it, Pete,” said her father, her father snapped. “If you do I’ll call the cops.”
He slammed the phone down so hard the casing broke, and Lydia’s mother ran into the room, demanding to know what happened. Lydia listened, motionless at the top of the stairs, then, when she couldn’t stand it anymore, she closed the door to her room, and began touching herself.
Tonight, Lydia wore a white strapless dress she found in a boutique on Beacon Street. She still wasn’t sure of the way it hugged her hips. They were going to a fancy restaurant called Devlin’s, right downtown, and Bill put his hand over hers as they crossed the bridge from Cambridge to Boston.
“You look very beautiful,” he said. “I’m a lucky man, aren’t I? And would you look at those colors?”
His hand pointed out over the water, shiny with the blues and pinks of a winter sunset, as he rattled on about his roommates and the English class he loved and the geology class that he hated, and the party they could go to afterwards—only if they wanted, only if she was up to it. He also kept looking at her forehead, at the small lump and the scratch. Every time he did, Lydia felt her armpits grow wetter.
Bill valeted the car and they walked through a revolving door into a restaurant lobby, where stuffy, older people were stacked against the walls, stony-faced, checking their watches. Bill whispered into the ear of the hostess in the sparkly red dress while Lydia fumbled her way to the bar. One woman, in an elaborate red hat, glared disapprovingly at her. “Excuse me,” she said airily.
Lydia wasn’t sure if it was her bare shoulders, or the cut on her head, or both; because the woman couldn’t know that Helen and her had each had three nips of whiskey before she left. They’d been laughing about something Bobby had once said, buzzed, laying in Helen’s bed, and Helen had absently been running her cold feet against Lydia’s legs. Lydia’s had leaned her head on Helen’s shoulder and brushed her lips against her skin, which smelled like baby powder, when Helen stood up abruptly. “I hear a truck outside,” she said. “Does he have a truck?”
“It’ll just be a few minutes,” Bill said, taking her arm and pulling her gently from the bar. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s alright. I had a good spot-”
“Bill, c’mon. Let’s have a drink.”
But his face turned pink as he pulled at her.
“Wait. I want a drink. To start our romantic dinner right.” Lydia smiled bashfully and touched his clean-shaven face. “Could you get me one, Hon?”
“We’ll have wine with dinner. Come with me. I want to show you something.”
Lydia followed him down a long hallways and past the bathrooms, her heart ticking faster. “I need to use the women’s room,” she said. “I’ll just-”
“In a second,” he said. “Don’t you ever just listen?”
A right turn and a left turn and a dark hallway that smelled of fish and garbage and Bill yanked open a cement door and stepped aside.
“Here we are.” And he shoved her out.
She stumbled down a cement step. Above her, between skyscrapers and city lights, a few lonely stars twinkled in a charcoal sky. For a second, Lydia thought he meant to have them look at the stars, and she was almost touched. But there wasn’t much to see. Next to them, a sagging dumpster.
“Was that a rat?” she said.
“My uncle owns this place, I told you that right?” said Bill, wiping his face with a red handkerchief. His voice had gone cold.
“I don’t think you did. Don’t we need to get to our table?” Lydia felt ill suddenly. Hungover and ill and tired. Maybe she’d just go home. Wine would help; it always did. Sometimes, the pills Helen took, the little yellow ones.
Bill took her by the shoulders. Lydia? I like you,” he said. “A lot.”
“I…like you as well,” she said.
“But you don’t!” he cried. His voice rose an octave. “You don’t, do you? And we haven’t even…” Bill kneaded his face with his hands desperately.
“Bill, we’ve only just met, but…”
“My uncle owns this place,” he said. “My mother’s brother.”
“OK,” Lydia said. Bill’s nostrils were closing and opening quickly. She watched them with amusement. Her stomach rumbled. She wondered what was on the menu. “Let’s go inside? It smells-”
“Do you know what my other uncle does?” he said.
“I’m getting tired,” she said. “And I’d like a drink.”
“He’s a cop,” he said, and stepped away from her, turning his back. “He’s a fucking cop.”
The force of the blow sent her back against the door, but she didn’t fall. Instead, she pressed her chest against it, watching the colors spread and spin and finally die out. Lydia didn’t turn around. There was no doorknob to turn, so she just waited, her forehead touching the door, her arms extended. Stars exploding, planets turning to dust. The professor with the long dark beard and the kind eyes reaching out to see if she was alright.
“It doesn’t hurt,” she thought. “How strange.”
Bill was upon her then, cradling her body, kissing her neck. I’m sorry, he said. I’m sorry, so sorry, but I had to I had to I had to I had to. Slowly, she let herself be turned around.
His face was back to normal. Not joyful, but lighter. He examined her face, kissed the cut from the night before, and then the new bruise. Twice.
“You’ll never see him again,” he said. “Right?”
“Right,” Lydia said.
“Say, I promise.”
“You have me now,” he said, and he smiled broadly. “OK? And I’ll never do that again.”
“Alright,” she whispered. There was rust on the front of her dress from the door.
“How about that drink?” He kissed her cheek again and again, his mustache rough against her cheek.
“Alright,” she said.
But Lydia lingered for a moment, tilting her sore neck, trying to find the stars. Where were they? She wasn’t sure why, but it seemed to matter. But before she could find them; the squeak of the door. Bill’s hand on the small of her back.
“Let’s go,” he whispered. “Lydia, they’re ready for us.”