Gymkhana | Fiction | Chicago Reader

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Gymkhana

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In college right away I learned the best way to hit on a guy is to hold his hand if you know him at all. It's that easy. Pick one, walk beside him as he cuts across the overly kept grass of the broad, open campus or the wide sweep of psychedelic mushrooms on the football field, and wrap your arm through his. This'll make him nervous but he won't want to show it. Act like the hand holding, the arm wrap, is normal, because it's not far-off anyway. Ask him a question, and look into his eyes when he answers. Laugh when you can. He'll follow you anywhere.

I figured this out on the same day I was snorting coke with my new roommate, Kyra. I was bumped up a grade in high school, the youngest one in college, and worst of all a virgin getting older by the minute. I didn't want Kyra to know about the virgin part but then told her myself right after that first cool trickle numbed the back of my throat.

She said, "Get rid of it," meaning the virginity. She was looking down, cutting lines in a way I'd never be able to, fast and sure. She was sitting on the window ledge in her underwear. Kyra told me the first day that people shouldn't wear clothes. Without clothes, she said, nobody would get as fat. "Who could stand to eat when they saw sweat in the creases of their own fat stomach?" Kyra's stomach was flat and tan. She had a long torso. Her hips were low and narrow. The only job she'd ever held, she said, was training polo ponies. I worked out at the gym and ran, but only had an ordinary skinny-girl's shape, a stomach when I sat, arms like spaghetti.

Kyra told me her father was a corporate lawyer, a friend of B.F. Skinner, and her mother volunteered building houses. She was red-haired and freckled and Ralph Lauren.

A picture of Kyra with a famous football player, taken on a nude beach and torn from a Spanish newspaper, fell from a notebook as she continued her unpacking. She reached for it and stuck it to our mirror with chewing gum.

She said, "I freebased with an old man in the back of the bus coming up here. Can you believe it? This old dude."

I barely knew what she meant. I only said, "What's up for tonight?" and threw myself across my bed, shaking the hair out of my eyes.

She looked at me without answering. Then, back to chopping lines, she said, "Don't be such a kitten."

Craig was tall, and that's something I like. He had wide shoulders and was a swimmer. He was in somebody's room, I don't know whose, where they were mixing margaritas, and when Kyra and I got there they'd run out of ice. Craig picked up a plastic pitcher stolen from Student Services and said, "No worries." The plan was to break into the closed cafeteria, where an ice machine spit a constant supply of cubes.

Kyra, who'd seen me looking, put a finger to my ribs and mouthed the words, "Go with him."

I whispered, "What if we get caught? I'd get kicked out of school."

She said, "You're ten thousand in debt, and it's only the first week. You think they'll kick you out for stealing ice?"

Because I knew he was a swimmer but didn't know much else, as we cut down the hall and outside I said, "What do you swim?"

He said, "Relay, mostly. Sometimes dive."

I said, "I run the 880, in the spring."

The ground was a rough mix of slopes and sinkholes you wouldn't know to look for. We were cutting cross-country, not following the trail, walking in wet grass. I'd kicked my shoes off in the room. A light rain fell like glitter. I wrapped my arm through Craig's and he looked surprised--a nervousness around his mouth, his eyes on me--but he didn't seem to mind and didn't pull his arm away. At the Student Center we could get in the building as far as the mailboxes but not to the cafeteria. The main doors were chained. There were people still in the back, working. I heard their voices, a radio on, the spray of water, and metal pans hitting together.

We walked around the building looking for a back door and found a row of narrow windows open to let out the heat. Inside, equipment was running, the conveyor belt carrying dishes and trays through steam for sterilization. The windows were on the first floor but the ground sloped down.

I said, "Give me a step. I'll get in." I brushed off one of my damp and dirty bare feet.

Craig folded his fingers together and I stepped on his hand. Once I got ahold of the window, he kept one hand under my foot and put the other on my shin, lifting me. I put a foot on his shoulder, his arched back, feeling bone and muscle under my toes. I'd jumped harder hurdles with less incentive hundreds of times, scraping the inside of my thigh, catching my ankle. The windows opened into the kitchen, the dishwashers were working around the corner.

It was easier than would have seemed possible to walk alongside the steel tables, behind the giant walk-in, and out into the cafeteria to fill the pitcher. The dishwashers had their radio on loud. I tried to climb back out the window with the plastic pitcher in my teeth, but started to gag and had to drop the pitcher straight down to Craig instead.

He caught it with only a little ice bouncing out the top, the beauty of team sports. I stepped onto his shoulders, then to his hand, still holding part of my weight by clinging to the window frame.

We headed back, and I wrapped my arm through his again. Craig looked down at me, his face close to mine but above, and said, "I have rum in my room."

I said, "I do too. And whiskey." It wasn't my whiskey but Kyra's. She said rum was for high school, for pouring into soda and sneaking into hockey games when you're hoping for a fight. Rum was to whiskey what speed was to cocaine, meaning last year and not good enough now.

We reached Craig's dorm first. In his building, the beds were set up with one across the far end of the room and a second alongside the door. I said, "Which one's yours?"

When he pointed, I sat down. There was no place else to sit besides on one bed or the other unless you were going to sit on top of one of the tall, built-in dressers, leaning against the mirror with your feet dangling, the way Kyra and I did. He pulled a bottle of Bacardi from his closet and put ice in a plastic cup. He said, "That's all I've got."

I didn't care about the rum. I could've used another line of coke, though. I put my glass on the floor and pulled Craig by one arm. I said, "Did that hurt your shoulder, when I stood on it?" I wouldn't want to fuck up his relay. I put my hand where earlier I'd had my foot. I put a second hand on the round ring of chew that was wearing through his jeans where a wallet could've been. Craig's breath was sharp with alcohol, his lips chapped.

Sex was quick, a tumble on the narrow bed, a condom in a drawer and me glad for that, since I hadn't thought about that part. I was only thinking how ready I was to move past the virgin stage, to not have to worry again about accidentally telling people what I hadn't already done. And then Craig's thighs were pushing against my thighs. His swimmer's back was under my hands, my shorts off but my clothes mostly still on. He pushed himself inside of me. I could hardly feel my own body, could feel only pressure, and sweat on my skin. When it was over, I saw blood on the condom he threw in the trash. There was a small patch of blood the shape of Africa on his sheets.

One hurdle over, the goal met.

Craig's crowded room smelled like bong water and dirty laundry. There was sand in his bed. I climbed over him, put my shorts back on, and said, "I need to find Kyra. She'll be looking for me." I was thinking we might snort another line. I picked up the pitcher full of ice not yet melted. I waited with one hand on the door handle while Craig pulled on his jeans and tucked in his T-shirt and slipped his feet back into his Birkenstocks.

The party had grown huge and moved into the lounge. They'd been making drinks without the ice, the margaritas long forgotten. The music was loud and the lights were off and everybody had cigarettes glowing orange around the room. Craig walked ahead of me and somebody said, "My man!" and slapped him on the back. I walked the other way, cutting through the crowd--I didn't need to hold his hand all night.

I saw one of the freshmen I'd met before, a guy named Dave, and said, "Where's Kyra?"

He shrugged and yelled back, over the music, "Haven't seen her."

Out a narrow window I saw the glow of more cigarettes, a cluster of people, and the white flame of one candle burning where the ground sloped down behind the building.

I went out and Kyra was there, sitting on a cement retaining wall. There were other people I didn't know sitting on the wall and on a blanket in the damp grass, drinking wine out of a bottle. Kyra's eyes were half closed and cat-angled.

She said, "So, score?"

When I didn't say anything but only laughed and looked away, she said, "Hey, how was it?"

The wine drinkers were looking at me too. I ignored them and sat close to Kyra on the wall and said as quietly as seemed reasonable, talking to her alone, "Nothing to write home about." I could still feel the ghost of Craig's weight against mine. I needed a shower. I looked at my leg below my shorts, thinking there might be blood or spewy or sweat dripping, but there was only a scratch from the window I'd hurdled.

Kyra laughed. She said, "It doesn't have to be anything the first time." She said, "Let's get out of here. Let's get a cab and go downtown, see this city."

I said, "I left my shoes inside," and gestured with my head toward the party we could see through the window, hear loud in the air. My shoes were back in the first room.

When we went in, there was a group of about five guys standing in a half circle in the overly lit hall outside the door of the dorm's dark lounge. Another was sitting on the floor, his head in his hands.

We walked up and they stepped toward us, the half circle closing in.

One said, "We'd like to know where you've been."

Kyra, at my elbow, laughed and said, "Go ahead, tell 'em where you've been, kitten."

I said, "Fuck that." It was my business. I still had to think about where I'd been, and was saving the thinking part for later, for being sober and back on the ground again.

Another guy said, "No, really. There's weed missing."

Kyra said, "You probably smoked it and forgot."

He said, "We noticed you've been coming and going, disappearing somewhere. We thought maybe you had it."

I was two steps behind, sobering slowly but not paying the right kind of attention. I couldn't tell how serious they were. I said, "There's got to be enough pot on this campus for everybody."

Another one said, "Not our pot, and not for you. And it was a fair amount."

Kyra, the corporate lawyer's daughter, said, "You better justify your accusations before you go throwing words around."

The guy on the floor lifted his head from his hands and said, "Fuck you, bitch."

That's all it took. Kyra was a whirlwind of polo-pony muscle, fighting a way I'd never seen a woman fight, the way she cut lines, fast and sure. I stepped back. I said, "Jesus!"

The guy on the floor couldn't get up, couldn't crab-walk away from her. Either he or Kyra kicked a plastic cup and beer splattered over the wall, the cup rattling loud. A guy passing by raised his glass and said, "Ho ho!" as though this were something to see. Another jumped in, grabbing Kyra, ducking her fists and elbows, trying to pull her away.

I'd been watching like I was watching TV for what had probably only been seconds but felt longer. I said, "Kyra, let's go. Forget it." I stepped in too, reaching low, trying to pry the matted tangle of Kyra and the frat boys apart. Kyra wasn't seeing me but just swinging blind until more than one of us was able to lock our arms around her and pull her off. Then the guys let go but I held on, my arms around her shoulders, steering her out, not caring about getting my shoes that were only old and worn sandals anyway.

Kyra yelled back, over my shoulder, half turning in my arms, "You better think who you're calling 'bitch.' You better be on your feet next time, motherfucker."

She could've gotten away from me easily, pushed me aside and gone back fighting. Instead she quit struggling and walked. I think she was glad to have me pulling her out of there. She said, "He wouldn't talk to a man that way. He wouldn't sit on the floor and make accusations. I had to wake him up."

I said, "Well, you did that."

She had a goose egg on her cheekbone starting to swell, and it set off her narrow nose, her Spanish-beach freckles, making me wish for a goose egg on my cheek too. Her eyes were closer to closed than ever. When I let go of her shoulders, she stayed by my side and quit clenching and unclenching her fists but instead linked her arm in mine, holding my hand, acting like the hand holding was normal. My feet were cold and sore, my thighs sweaty. I could hear the voices from the party like one solid sound now, like music.

When I looked back I saw Craig in the light of a side room using his swimmer's muscles, his wide shoulders, to heft a pony keg high over the heads of his fellow frat boys. His face was flushed. He looked warm and sweet and stoned, embedded in the party we'd never be asked back to.

Kyra said, "So, what else is up? Still want to head downtown?" and she looked right at me and she laughed.

Then I was nervous, but in a good way--nerves making my step light and stomach floaty. I said, "Sure," but had to look away when I said it, to the dark of the sprawling lawn. I didn't want Kyra to recognize so quickly what I was just starting to learn: she was the kind of animal I'd follow anywhere.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tae Won Yu.

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