“How’d you sleep?” Diesel asked the morning after move-in.
In the hall, her backpack swung from her bare shoulder and her hair was out and so long I thought of Rapunzel.
“Fine,” I lied.
Steve had decorated his side of the room with boring posters of trees, haystacks, and waterfalls, and one black and white photo of him, his parents, and a girl, which I took to be his sister. He’d banged the hammer into the wall until close to midnight then snored. I’d never slept with anyone in my room before except for my cousin Lila, who was six years younger than me, and I’d pictured Diesel all night on the other side of the wall in see-through pajamas next to a muscular dude.
Somehow, Diesel did not seem to feel my unease. She joked and chatted and asked me what classes I was taking, if I was homesick yet. When I answered in clipped sentences and rushed away, she hooked her index in the hem of my t-shirt and said, “You’re so antsy.”
I probably should have told her about the gap then, how she was supposed to be on the other side of the Grand Canyon, dancing with other faceless girls. That yes I was homesick. I should have showed her the scars too, the new one in the stupid shape of a check mark. Instead, I shoved her away so shocked at her finger on my shirt.
“FYI. I’m not an athlete,” I said, as if the word athlete was the secret code for playa not player, or the guy who dated hot chicks. Then I kept on moving.
That afternoon, after classes, I attended a Christian meet up. I was considering doing something in the church because then I’d have a reason not to date. Not to hook up. Also, I’d have a place to repent or vent, depending on the day. I want to be a priest. I tested the words on a few guys in my chem class, but even as I said it I chuckled. Aside from the pretty chapel where they’d set the meeting up, the great snack layout, the buttery popcorn and fizzy soda, I didn’t belong there. I wasn’t huge on organized religion and two guys, one with a beard and the other bald, were discussing homosexuality, how this group was open to everything, which was great, but then one of them massaged my shoulder and asked what faith I’d grown up in, if I wanted to smoke later. I grabbed a handful of popcorn and ran out. Maybe, I’d focus on pre-med, I thought as I walked back to the dorms. Pretend to be too busy to have a girlfriend.
I’d just made it up to my room and was lying on my bed when Diesel poked her head in the door.
“Can I talk to you?” she said.
I was exhausted, her behavior incomprehensible. I kept waiting for her to say that all this was a joke, that she didn’t usually hang with dopey guys like me, but Diesel hopped on the end of my bed and sat Indian style again, her legs directly on top of mine. I grew statue still, looked at the tops of my feet, and thought we might ignite.
“Should I join a co-op?” she said.
I vaguely knew about co-ops, sort of in the same way I knew about North Korea and its unrest.
“My friend, Delle, wants me to. But I don’t know. So much cooking.”
From the corner of my eyes, I glimpsed Diesel, how she reclined her head on the wall. Her hair was out, nearly down to her waist, the color of smoked topaz. She seemed genuinely concerned and also completely comfortable sitting near/on me, as if we were family. I should have told her to get the hell off but I kept on staring at my feet and kept on feeling the warmth and smoothness of her legs against my shins.
“I don’t know a lot about that stuff,” I said, feeling like a moron.
Diesel looked me straight in the eyes. Hers were hazel. I blinked, thinking I might go blind.
“I just wanna take part in things, you know? Connect. What are you joining?” she said.
I nearly replied the Christian group but then something inside me stirred. “I think club cross country. Might be good to exercise.”
Club cross country?
I’d never run a day in my life. I collected stones and read about faults in my spare time. Sometimes, I skipped down my parents’ street when the mood struck me.
“Maybe I should too,” she said. “We could try it out together.”
I wondered if college was a different planet, if girls went by foreign rules here, why she didn’t understand by now that I was a loner, why she didn’t pick up on the gap like all other girls always had. Diesel pulled her phone out and scrolled through pages for a while. Someone called her. She giggled, said a series of uh huh, LOL, and got it, then she gave me the time and dates of the first run.
At once, I imagined us in shorts and neon sneakers at the starting line, our shoulders close and I just lay there, feeling this scorching heat radiating from my kneecaps to my ankles. Diesel jumped up from the bed, lifted her hair up, twisted it in a high bun, right there in front of me, and stuck a pen in it.
“Len?” she said. “How many girls have you slept with?”
This was my chance to explain but instead I said, “I’m not even going there.” The Grand Canyon blossomed in front of my eyes, the red of the iron oxide, the bands of erosion, the river ribboning its way down in the valley. I grabbed hold of the piece of jasper in my pocket.
“It’s cool,” she said. “Either way.”
As she moved, the hem of her t-shirt dangerously rose. I glimpsed the band of her skin above her waist, grew dizzy, and faced the wall. A few hours later and before Steve came back, I cut again.