I met Agnes at a party and she took me home. I liked her immediately—too-short blonde bangs, the delicate way her fingertips held her beer cup by the rim, her ability to laugh without smiling.
She lived in the smallest room in an ancient house on College Avenue. Her bed, a mattress and box spring without a headboard, was neatly made up. She had a bedspread that was a celestial tapestry, suns and moons and stars against a purple-blue back drop. She lit a candle that smelled like petroleum and vanilla. She had a strip of condoms in her nightstand drawer.
After, we pulled our clothes back on, but not our shoes, and padded downstairs to the communal kitchen. At 3 a.m. on a Saturday, the house full of student residents and people, like me, who were just visiting, was eerily quiet. An ancient pendant lamp, over the card table and mismatched folding chairs that served as their dinette, created a yellow halo of light. In it, Agnes made us sandwiches—bologna and mustard on Wonder Bread. She sliced up an apple, golden delicious, from the bowl on the counter. It was sweet and mealy on my tongue.
I had never had a 3 a.m. like this. I felt out of place, like I’d stepped out of my life and snuck into someone else’s. It was uneasy and freeing and I told her that I didn’t want to leave.
“Then stay,” she said.
I spent every pocket of her free time and mine with Agnes, outside of my classes—Introduction to Ethics, Precalculus, American Legal History, because I was still entertaining going to law school. Her classes seemed less regimented, more erratic. She spoke to me in halting Japanese. I knew she was studying Thoreau because of the battered copy of Walden on her nightstand, yellow USED stickers on the spine because it had been bought and rebought from the campus bookstore dozens of times. I started hanging around the backdoor of the Brown Bag, a student-run diner in the basement of Cooley Hall, where Agnes served hummus and bussed tables as part of her work study. When she got off work, she always smelled like frying and vegetable soup and sweat, with the lingering of the Kool she smoked while on her break. When she noticed me leaning in, to take in the sour smell of her, she punched my arm and told me I was gross.
I lived in Cooley, a double with Brett, whom the university paired me with our freshman year. Though Agnes and I spent most of our time, and all of our nights, in the ancient house on College Avenue, I had Agnes stay with me the weekend Brett went back to Trenton for his high school’s homecoming.
I snuck Agnes onto the all-male floor. She was amused by my top bunk, my mini fridge, my computer that, she said, cost more than her Brown Bag wages for the entire semester. She smoked her cigarettes out of the window and laughed when I blocked the gap under the door into the hallway with a towel. She unselfconsciously darted up to fourth to use the all-female floor showers, my toiletries basket full of Irish Spring soap and Suave over her arm. She sat cross-legged on the carpet remnant on the floor and ate the peanut butter and jelly sandwiches I made. I’d remembered how she always bisected her bologna sandwiches into triangles and had done the same.
“Peanut butter?” she asked, peeling the slices of sprouted-grain bread apart.
“Well, almond butter. And marmalade,” I said. Suddenly embarrassed.
I also had a container of organic whole milk. A bag of clementine oranges. A box of Froot Loops, which is the only junk food my mother included when she brought me groceries.
Agnes closed her sandwich and took a bite. “It’s good,” she said, her voice almond butter thick. “Thank you.”
She plucked one of the clementines from the red mesh bag, tore into it with her thumb nail, and peeled the skin away in one piece. But then she concentrated, plucking any errant bits of stringy albedo away, before handing me a segment or eating one herself.
I liked the way she looked, bent over her task, her thin legs drowning in the fabric of my pajama pants. I liked the way she ate her sandwiches, starting in the middle and working her way to the crust. I liked the way I could tell when she was thinking more than she said out loud. And I felt better.
On nights when the ancient house on College Avenue was buzzing, floods of people in and out, Agnes liked to crawl out her window, sit on the slope of roof that served as a ledge. I sat with her, shingles rough under my jeans, and tried not to look past my feet, the metal edge of the gutter and the twenty foot drop beyond. Agnes sucked her Kools slowly, tip glowing red and lighting her face warmly. She didn’t ask me if I wanted one. She never had. The music coming from her phone sounded faraway.
“What band is this?” I asked. I often didn’t know.
“Sloan,” she said. She turned up the volume and moved the phone closer to me. A whiny male voice was singing about someone being underwhelmed.
“Never heard of them.”
“A ’90s band my mom likes,” she said. She ashed her cigarette delicately into the gutter.
I thought about my parents—my mother’s CD collection with Wham! and Journey and The Bangles. My father’s secret stash of Joy Division vinyl he didn’t know I knew about.
“How old’s your mom?” I asked.
“She was two years younger than we are when she had me,” Agnes said. “I ruined her life.”
She snuffed out her cigarette, grinding it with finality into the shingle next to her before tossing the butt over the edge of the roof.
“I am the mistake sex education warned us about.”
Even though I couldn’t see her, the light from the candle she kept burning in her room too weak to penetrate the night, I could hear the bitter smile in her voice.
I didn’t tell her, then, about my old parents. Their years of trying. The cost of in vitro fertilization. Ashamed by the deliberate nature of my birth. The fact that, every year on my birthday, my mother still writes “Miracle Boy” on my cake in icing—next to Elmo, next to trucks, next to an Xbox controller done in frosting, next to the blue flowers she chose when I told her, last year, that I was too old to have cartoon characters or toys on my birthday cake.
My dates with Agnes were inexpensive, loitering affairs. Nursing free coffees from her Brown Bag coworkers on Thursdays when singer-songwriters and folk duos played to an uninterested crowd. Agnes watched them, entranced. Like they weren’t terrible. Like they were worthy of our attention.
One night, we broke into and explored the construction site of the new dorm going up on north campus. The skeleton of the building all metal and concrete, lit only by the security lights that had already been installed, waiting to fulfill their purpose of guiding students home. While I watched, Agnes scrambled up, walked out onto one of the I-beams. A dark shape with a terrifying expanse of air between the soles of her shoes and the concrete floor. A silhouette of grace that I couldn’t follow. She catwalked across, nimble, arms loose at her side and unneeded for balance. I know she looked down at me, watching her from the ground, but I couldn’t tell what expression she wore.
One night, her housemates bought a bunch of jack-o-lantern pumpkins and tried to make pumpkin pie from them. The result was a greasy, stringy mess that no one would eat but made the ground floor of the ancient house on College Avenue smell like home.
I tried, once, to take Agnes to Chez Vous, the most expensive restaurant on campus. She came to the door wearing ripped up jeans, stained chuck taylors, an army surplus jacket. She told me my khakis were dumb, and we spent the night in her room, eating orange sherbet from the carton and not talking.
The weekend before Halloween, we decided to explore the cemetery just off campus. Rumor had it that it was older than the college, the sprawling mass of grave markers and twisted trees fenced in when construction started. The newest headstones had already been there for more than a century, the names inscribed matching the names on university buildings and streets: Cooley, Baldwin, Baker, Thompson.
An assortment of Agnes’s housemates came, too. Some I knew—Choi, who had the room under Agnes and enjoyed loud sex with his girlfriend. Sam, whose room down the hall always had acrid-sweet smoke seeping from around the doorjamb. Others I might have met before, coming or going from the ancient house on College Avenue, but I couldn’t be sure. The night was too dark and strange for certainty.
Despite the cold, Agnes and I had stopped for Icees. I’d made her laugh by putting a little of each flavor into my cup, but the resulting concoction of mango, coke, blue raspberry, and cherry was making my stomach uncomfortable. As a group, we looked for the oldest headstones we could find. The moon was mostly hidden, but I could see its bloated light where the clouds were thinnest, and Agnes glowed—pale hands and face, a white jean jacket that looked like an antique.
Soon, she put her hand in mine and we peeled off from her friends. Her hand was warm and dry, squeezed mine faintly, and I got excited. We didn’t speak, the night soon swallowing her housemates’ chatter. We filled the space left with the crunch and scrape of our shoes through the fallen leaves. Looking for a quiet place where we could be alone for a while, shielded, and expose bits of our anatomy to the elements.
But what we found instead was a group of men drinking under a weathered stone monument that might have once been an angel, its features ravaged by time and vandalism. We didn’t have the chance to back quietly away, and the four of them stood, faced us. They were gigantic. All arms and legs, shoulders that blotted out the sky. I stopped breathing, hoping it would keep my Icee from coming back up.
I don’t remember what they said. Maybe something like, “Lookie what we have here” or “I have something you can hold, sweetheart” or “Leave your boy and be with a man.” Or maybe they didn’t say any of those things. Maybe that’s just the order, the organization of events, that my brain created after the fact.
But I do remember Agnes’s response. She threw what was left of her Icee at the nearest monster. Her voice strong and clear when she told him, “Go fuck yourself.”
I remember dropping Agnes’s hand.
I remember someone calling her a bitch.
I remember the way her body moved when the one she threw the Icee at back-handed her across the face.
I don’t remember who came up to me but I do remember being hit in the stomach. The sensation like a surprise, doubling over, all the air forced out of my lungs. I went down, could feel a kick to the top of my head that made my ears ring. I lay with my face pressed to the ground, gulping dank air that made my abdomen ache. Not knowing what else they’d do to me. Or to Agnes.
Then one of them said, “C’mon” and every part of me went cold. But when the sound of their feet over leaves seemed to be retreating, the relief that flooded through me was swift and terrible, tears leaking out that I let fall down my nose to soak into the cemetery ground.
I heard Agnes stir but I didn’t move. She crawled over to where I lay, touched my arm, asked, “You okay?”
“No,” I said into the ground.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, and I had a hard time discerning her tone. I realized, finally, that she was concerned—not bored, not nonplussed, not amused, not dismissive. None of the faces of Agnes I knew, and it made me angry.
“What’s wrong with you?” I said. I sat up, winced, the place where I was hit in the stomach already aching like a bruise.
Even in the dim light, I could see where Agnes took the blow, her lip cut by her own teeth, already puffy and oozing blood. “I’m fine,” she said.
“What the hell were you thinking, picking a fight with those guys?” I got slowly to my feet, feeling like I could only give my words the weight they needed if I was standing.
“That’s not what happened,” Agnes said, getting to her feet, too.
“Yes it was!” All of the relief I’d felt was burning away. The anger was making me sweat. “We’re lucky they just pushed us down. They could have beaten the shit out of us. Or done worse. To you.” By the time I finished, I was shouting.
In response, Agnes raised a hand to wipe away the blood that had dribbled down her chin. The stain on the cuff of her white jacket looked like an accusation.
“A little advice. You let people like that walk all over you now, they’ll be doing it for the rest of your life.” Her voice calm. Patronizing.
“Whatever.” It was the only response I had.
“Whatever,” she echoed. Her face betrayed nothing.
I turned and walked away—not back towards Agnes’ housemates. And not in the direction our attackers took. The direction I chose led me through the cemetery, away from campus and town, and I spent a lot of the night finding my way back home.
I didn’t see Agnes again. My friends said I was better off. They called her “crazy” and “a bitch.” My roommate Brett said I was lucky to have gotten away with just a bruised abdomen, four dots like knuckle prints under my belly button that bloomed purple red and faded to green and yellow.
I let my friends say what they wanted and didn’t tell them the truth. That it wasn’t the trouble that kept me away from Agnes. It was the way she’d lifted her hand to wipe away the blood from her fat lip. Like it wasn’t the first time she’d had to do it. Like it wouldn’t be the last.
Cover Art by Sydney Westenskow