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Tobias Wolff
From The Night in Question
(Knopf, 1996)


Smorgasbord

"A prep school in March is like a ship in the doldrums." Our history master said this, as if to himself, while we were waiting for the bell to ring after class. He stood by the window and tapped the glass with his ring in a dreamy, abstracted way meant to make us think he'd forgotten we were there. We were supposed to get the impression that when we weren't around he turned into someone interesting, someone witty and profound, who uttered impromptu bon mots and had a poetic vision of life.

The bell rang.

I went to lunch. The dining hall was almost empty, because it was a free weekend and most of the boys had gone to New York, or home, or to their friends' homes, as soon as their last class let out. About the only ones left were foreigners and scholarship students like me and a few other untouchables of various stripes. The school had laid on a nice lunch for us, cheese souffle, but the portions were small and I went back to my room still hungry. I was always hungry.

Sleety rain fell past my window. The snow on the quad looked grimy; it had melted above the underground heating pipes, exposing long brown lines of mud.



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  • I couldn't get to work. On the next floor down someone kept playing "Mack the Knife." That one song incessantly repeating itself made the dorm seem not just empty but abandoned, as if those who had left were never coming back. I cleaned my room, then tried to read. I looked out the window. I sat down at my desk and studied the new picture my girlfriend had sent me, unable to imagine her from it; I had to close my eyes to do that, and then I could see her, her solemn eyes and the heavy white breasts she would gravely let me hold sometimes, but not kiss. Not yet, anyway. But I had a promise. That summer, as soon as I got home, we were going to become lovers. "Become lovers." That was what she'd said, very deliberately, listening to the words as she spoke them. All year I had repeated them to myself to take the edge off my loneliness and the fits of lust that made me want to scream and drive my fists through walls. We were going to become lovers that summer, and we were going to be lovers all through college, true to each other even if we ended up thousands of miles apart again, and after college we were going to marry and join the Peace Corps and do something together that would help people. This was our plan. Back in September, the night before I left for school, we wrote it all down along with a lot of other specifics concerning our future: number of children (6), their names, the kinds of dogs we would own, a sketch of our perfect house. We sealed the paper in a bottle and buried it in her backyard. On our golden anniversary we'd dig it up and show it to our children and grandchildren to prove that dreams can come true.

    I was writing her a letter when Crosley came to my room. Crosley was a science whiz. He won the science prize every year and spent his summers working as an intern in different laboratories. He was also a fanatical weight lifter. His arms were so knotty he had to hold them out from his sides as he walked, as if he was carrying buckets. Even his features seemed muscular. His face had a permanent flush. Crosley lived down the hall by himself in one of the only singles in the school. He was said to be a thief; that supposedly was the reason he'd ended up without a roommate. I didn't know if it was true, and I tried to avoid forming an opinion on the matter, but whenever we passed each other I felt embarrassed and looked away.

    Crosley leaned in the door and asked me how things were.

    I said okay.

    He stepped inside and gazed around the room, tilting, his head to read my roommate's pennants and the titles of our books. I was uneasy. I said, "So what can I do for you?" not meaning to sound as cold as I did but not exactly regretting it either.

    He caught my tone and smiled. It was the kind of smile you put on when you pass a group of people you suspect are talking about you. It was his usual expression.

    He said, "You know García, right?"

    "García? Sure. I think so."

    "You know him," Crosley said. "He runs around with Hidalgo and those guys. He's the tall one."

    "Sure," I said. "I know who García is."

    "Well, his stepmother is in New York for a fashion show or something, and she's going to drive up and take him out to dinner tonight. She told him to bring along some friends. You want to come?"

    "What about Hidalgo and the rest of them?"

    "They're at some kind of polo deal in Maryland. Buying horses. Or ponies, I guess it would be."

    The notion of someone my age buying ponies to play a game with was so unexpected that I couldn't quite take it in. "Jesus," I said.

    Crosley said, "How about it. You want to come?"

    I'd never even spoken to García. He was the nephew of a famous dictator, and all his friends were nephews and cousins of other dictators. They lived as they pleased here. Most of them kept cars a few blocks from the campus, though that was completely against the rules. They were cocky and prankish and charming. They moved everywhere in a body, sunglasses pushed up on their heads and jackets slung over their shoulders, twittering all at once like birds, chinga this and chinga that. The headmaster was completely buffaloed. After Christmas vacation a bunch of them came down with gonorrhea, and all he did was call them in and advise them that they should not be in too great a hurry to lose their innocence. It became a school joke. All you had to do was say the word "innocence" and everyone would crack up.

    "I don't know," I said.

    "Come on," Crosley said.

    "But I don't even know the guy."

    "So what? I don't either."

    "Then why did he ask you?"

    "I was sitting next to him at lunch."

    "Terrific," I said. "That explains you. What about me? How come he asked me?"

    "He didn't. He told me to bring someone else."

    "What, just anybody? Just whoever happened to present himself to your attention?"

    Crosley shrugged.

    "Sounds great," I said. "Sounds like a recipe for a really memorable evening."

    "You got something better to do?" Crosley asked.

    "No," I said.


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    Copyright © 1996 by Tobias Wolff. All rights reserved.