Advanced Degrees

Up until this summer, I had never really been sexually promiscuous. In June, I fooled around with three boys in the summer stock of the local theatre. Also, I have managed to keep my high school flame, Boyd, racked upon tenterhooks; I still climb the old magnolia outside his bedroom window for late night rendezvous. I cast these lines into the shallow dating pool in Maycomb because I am bored, or because I am lonely but mostly, I guess because I worry about my ability to succeed on my own. It is the end of August and I am 22 years old. I graduated from college in May with a B.A. in Philosophy and because the economy is slower than a blindfolded sloth, I am unemployed, languishing in this southern backwater where job opportunities vacillate between nothing and next to it.

The locust trees are now dropping their crisp little leaves, more from drought than an early autumnal advent. I am on the deck in my father’s backyard, plotting how to make Boyd propose marriage or how to escape Maycomb forever. What I am really doing is drinking too much beer, sleeping in too late and lamenting my wretched station in life.

I finish another Michelob and successfully peel the label from the bottle in one perfect, intact piece. I lick it and apply it to my forehead. Picking up a sheet of sandpaper, I begin to vigorously scratch off the black glossy paint on the chair I bought at yard sale the day before. I don’t really have the money to spend on something like a chair and I don’t even have a place to put it. I feel productive sanding it though and I get a small thrill as I glimpse the natural wood from under a well-scoured patch. 

The chair is interesting, arresting even, with legs rounded out like a horseshoe. When I bought it, I pictured myself sitting in it. I thought of a sun-filled room, coffee cup in one hand, book in another, and I would feel complete, satisfied. I envisioned a tabby cat at my feet on a brick floor dappled in sunlight, partly covered by a tattered colorful kilim.  I do not own a kilim nor do I have a tabby cat and I certainly do not have a sun-filled room with a brick floor. Curiously, I was alone in that room, in my chair. No summer stock boys, no Boyd. The room was distinctly mine: my books, my cat, my refurbished and reupholstered horseshoe legged chair.

My father comes out onto the deck. 

“Michelle, Boyd’s on the phone.”

I know that I can’t honestly tell anyone, most especially myself, that I still want Boyd Jennings. Boyd is honest and patient, kind and perfectly suited to being a 6th grade History teacher. He wants to live in Maycomb for the rest of his life. He wants children and an annual beach vacation on the Outer Banks. He is mostly soft-spoken but can be a bit pompous when talking about the Civil War. I had entertained a thousand ways to break it all off with him but when he called in February to tell me he thought he might want to a date a girl at his own college, I could not release him. I gathered in the tether, bringing him back to me, closer than before. I wanted Boyd to want me whether or not I wanted him.

I briefly consider asking Dad to tell Boyd I’m not home but I look at his face and know that I cannot ask him to be part of my deceit. 

“Okey doke; I’ll be there in a minute.”

I put down the sandpaper and stand up to go inside, kicking over the trio of Michelob bottles at my feet. Somewhat ashamedly, I glance at my dad, prepared for a withering look or some sneer of derision, but I find him staring at my forehead. As I walk past him, he plucks the forgotten beer label off my face. I scurry into the dark air-conditioned kitchen where I become immediately and intimately familiar with my own stench.

“Hey Boyd. I’m a little busy right now; what’s up?”  I brush my damp, matted hair from my forehead.

I know the minute I hear my name this isn’t Boyd on the line. I feel nauseated and I brace myself on the kitchen counter as Matt, a college infatuation, continues speaking. Matt, all dark curls and mahogany eyes, the business major who somehow wrote the most brilliant and disturbing piece in Short Story Seminar, causing half the class to fall in love with him instantly. 

“Hey Michele. Sorry your Pops assumed I was some Boyd dude. I didn’t want to take the time to correct him. I’m on my way back down to Atlanta. My summer internship in New York just ended. I remembered you complaining about living in some hole called Maycomb. My luck, there’s only one Harmon in the book at this payphone. I’ve got a couple of hours; is there some place around here to grab an early dinner? You’re not busy or anything, right?” 

I am staring at my bare feet and notice that my toenails are still painted Dusty Rose from my graduation day. I smell rank. I see fine grains of wood dust in the golden hairs on my arms. There is dirt underneath my short, bitten fingernails. I know I am supposed to go to Shanghai Garden with Boyd and then catch the early showing of Shawshank Redemption. A small voice tells me that I should bid Matt safe travels and stick to the original plan for the evening but intrigue, lust and three Michelobs silence that reason.

“Busy in Maycomb? No such thing. I could be coerced into grabbing a bite”. 

I try to sound nonchalant but I spoke quickly, belying my eagerness. Maycomb is not exactly right off the Interstate. I allow myself to ponder why Matt came here but I know why; he came for me. The cassette stuck in the tape deck of my Jetta is one Matt mixed for me. All summer, Morrissey had crooned “It was a good lay” from Suedeheadwhile I sat in the car, sweaty thighs stuck to the seat, as I pressed rewind again, and again.

I don’t realize that I am holding my breath until my dad walks in and gives me a worried look. I put my right hand over the receiver and exhale. I flash Dad a quick smile, giving him the thumbs up. Matt, of course, is oblivious to my tumult. 

“Yeah, ok. I can just as easily hit a drive-thru but if there is some….”

“No, don’t do a drive-thru! I mean, unless you are pressed for time or something. There’s a place right on Main Street that makes pretty good burgers. You’d hate yourself if you missed out on a Brogan burger”. I sound desperate. The song in my head: It was a good lay, good lay. It was good lay, good lay.

“Brogan’s? Ten minutes.”

He doesn’t bother to ask me if that is copacetic. I hang up the phone and rush to my bedroom. I am peeling off my shirt and hopping on one leg trying to disengage myself from my filthy jeans when Dad walks in and then turns abruptly to face the hallway. 

“Oh! Sorry! I didn’t realize you’d be stripping down. I guess you’re going out? Rebecca invited us over for dinner but I told her you’d probably have a date with Boyd. Try not to crawl in too late tonight, ok?”

“Hhmmm,” I mumble back at my father. I’m not thinking about him and Rebecca, his longtime, patient girlfriend or Boyd or my curfew. My mind is on Matt. Matt leaning close into me. Matt’s cigarette dangling from his full bottom lip, a smoky basement, The Pixies wailing Gigantic. Closing my eyes, I can smell the tobacco and stale beer and can still feel an electric tingle as Matt slurred in my ear, Too bad you and me never got together. I leap into the bathroom and turn on the shower. Catching a glimpse of myself in the mirror, I am both amused and mildly horror-stricken. Well, at least I am tan, I think.

It is much later now. I have paid the check for three beers, a Cobb salad and a Brogan Burger with the works. The waiters have already pooled their tips and clocked out. The dishwashers are putting away the last pots and pans. Matt has probably gotten back into his late 80s Saab, crammed with CDs, tattered Hemingway paperbacks, his one good suit and headed down I-81. He’s going back to Atlanta and his undoubted future working for an uncle or his father’s fraternity brother.  He will most likely never write another utterly provocative and heart-rending piece of fiction. He will be an account executive or a marketing director until nepotism catapults him to his pinnacle position, establishing him as another captain of industry.

Here is how my infatuation with Matt Mason comes to its’ spectacular demise: Me, standing outside Brogan’s in a short sundress, the right strap slightly off my shoulder, my hair still damp thanks to our southern humidity. Matt, satiated from a free meal and swollen with pride from citing his accomplishments as an intern at “a notable firm”, lifts my errant dress strap, his thumb casually brushing my nipple, electrifying my fiber. 

“So, I’ve got time for a quick fuck. Your house close?”

I hear a thousand simultaneously deflating balloons, the snap of a rubber band to an exposed thigh. I am not indignant so much as I feel awakened. I don’t bother to verbally respond. I turn and run, Matt calling out my name. Each step, right, left, right, left, as Morrissey wails the ending refrain; I’m so very sickened. I am so sickened now.

I’m standing on Summit street, not quite underneath the streetlight but just out of its’ golden halo. A trickle of perspiration snakes its’ way down between my breasts. My dress clings to dampness at the base of my spine. Boyd’s light is still on. I know that if I climb the magnolia tree and rap lightly on the windowpane, he will let me in. I know Boyd will accept my apology; I was just so busy! I can’t believe I forgotLet me make it up to you. I look at my sandaled feet poised on the periphery of the circle of light on the pavement.  I don’t see Boyd come to the window but when I look back up, he has closed his blinds and only a sliver of golden light from his bedside lamp peeks out. The light winks at me, a signal telegraphing that all I need to do is climb the tree.

The cicadas screech into the thick summer air. The few stars visible in the soupy sky pulse. Maycomb, Boyd, Matt and all the other minnows in my shallow little pond are caught in the ebb; I am standing in clear water. 

A version of this story was first published in K’in in June 2021.

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