Around midnight, they left the smoky bar and walked to the bank of the narrow, toad-green river that ran through town. The air was thick and yellow, with wide pitchforks of lightning that flashed over the water. Clouds moved over the full moon, concealing and then illuminating.
"The weather is changing," she said. They were walking with four full inches of space between them.
"How can you tell?" he asked. The two stopped at the swell beneath which the grass dropped away to become soft river bed.
"I can feel it. Here. In my throat." She touched the hollow in her neck with two fingers. He reached out and stroked the same spot with one of his. Then he moved forward and kissed her there. Which produced in Ruthie an odd, distant feeling as if she were sinking away from him, into the water, leaving the bulk of solid earth behind.
He whispered, his mouth hot on her ear. At first, she only felt her blood, flooding the veins under her skin. Then she heard the words.
"You want my WHAT?" Ruthie was standing close enough to see his face even in the periods of darkness. She watched his muscles tighten under the faint mask of baby whiskers on his cheeks.
"Your underwear." He muttered, but she understood perfectly this time. Fraternity initiation, he said desperately—he had to bring a pair of panties, pretty ones from someone about her size, to the initiation ceremony on Friday. "They have to be ... you know," his head dipped lower. "Uh, recently worn. So the other guys know I didn't just go to the store and buy a pair myself."
Ruthie imagined a ceremony. A room full of boys in Polo shirts and blond crewcuts passing a pair of lacy briefs from one to the next so each brother could lift them to his nose and sniff delicately, making sure they were used. She didn't say anything, just sat up straight, smoothed shreds of hair behind her shoulders with one hand and started fingering the buttons of her sweater back through their holes with the other. The boy stared out at the dark river and threw a few clods of dirt toward it, but they fell short, just dissolving back into the grass instead of making a satisfying 'plunk' as they hit the water.
"I swear I am not making this up." The boy sucked in a breathful of stagnant river wind. He reached out, pulled Ruthie to him, eased her back onto the grass, and kissed her for a long time. His mouth worked gently, opening and closing across her face, the roughness around his lips lightly scratching her skin. She breathed in his warm, spicy male smell.
"I am not making this up," he said again, stroking her hair.
She was having a hard time getting out of her pants. She couldn't figure out how she usually did this: Did she simply lift one foot while standing on the other?
"You need any help?" the boy called through the door, which was propped open just a crack. One round, brown eye peered at her from the margin. Ruthie could feel it tracking her, making her body dance with funny little jerks and hops as her underwear dropped down to the floor.
They had walked back to the bar, after the riverbank, because he told her she was the kind of girl who required liquor in order to shed her underwear. Ruthie had been this sort of girl for such a short time, she felt it was prudent to take his advice. He found her a place to sit, at a tilted wooden table wedged behind the old pinball machine at the back door. When he came back from the bar, he was carrying a tray with four shot glasses of tequila, an assortment of lime wedges, and a shaker half-full of salt.
The boy showed her how to smear lime juice and salt together on the crook of her hand and suck it off after the shot. He held her hand firmly in his and used it for his own lime juice and salt. His tongue was hot and rough, like a cat's.
Ruthie drank the tequila, her first shot, and then a second. The sharp taste made her mouth sting unpleasantly, and her thoughts were getting fuzzy, moving stilted across the screen in her mind like dreams or memories, even though they were really happening at the time.
Now she watched her white panties flutter onto the linty gray carpet of her dormitory floor. They moved like a gentle bird. Then her door was creaking open. "I'm coming in," he announced in a voice that came from low in his throat. Thick and mellow. He shimmied drunkenly in the doorway, watching Ruthie, who pulled her sweater down as far as it would go past her hips.
Carefully, she bent her knees and crouched to retrieve her underwear from the floor. She could feel the air coming in an unfamiliar front, rising up between her legs. Folding the plain white women's briefs neatly, she handed them to the boy. Solemnly, he tucked them into the breast pocket of his jacket where the elastic-bound edge stuck up, a soft triangle like the silk handkerchief in an Italian suit.
Speaking softly, he moved closer to her with his hands outstretched. "I really appreciate this, you know." When he reached around her, Ruthie thought he would try stealing underneath her sweater where her bare skin was waiting, flushed. But instead, he pulled her close to him and hugged her, swaying from foot to foot and occasionally kissing the top of her head. The clothes she wore rose with every movement and a beautiful anxiety shivered through Ruthie as she felt her body from the waist down becoming exposed. "When I pledge next month, I'll be thinking of you."
Her face buried in his chest, Ruthie did not dare pull away to look at him. She had never, in her memory, been this close to anyone. (When her mother said goodbye at the gates of the university, she had grasped the fleshy upper parts of Ruthie's arms and squeezed, in lieu of a hug.) At eighteen, Ruthie had never had a boyfriend. Never, before tonight, kissed anyone with an open mouth. She ran her fingers up and down the middle of the boy's back and thought about ripping his shirt off, making the buttons pop off and fly, the way people did on television.
"You know," he pulled away from her abruptly and for a second, Ruthie's throat closed. "I want to give you something in payment to, uh, remember me by."
Cocking his head toward his shoulder, the boy unpinned the diamond stud he wore in his left ear. At first, Ruthie was sorry. It had been one of the first things she had noticed about him: the way the stone glittered through his scattered waves of dark hair. "Here." He wiped the stem of the earring between his thumb and forefinger. Then he stuck the butterfly hook on the back and held it out to her, letting it drop when she extended her hand.
Ruthie took the earring out of her own left ear and put in the diamond stud. She looked up at him, waiting for him to move her somewhere. The bed. The floor.
"Do you mind if I leave now?" he asked. His voice cracked with liquor and fatigue. Her stomach tightened and dropped like a stone, but Ruthie shook her head. "I mean, it's a long drive back to Northwestern in the morning. And I'd like to remember you like this. Anyway." He leaned down to kiss her on the cheek, once.
Ruthie saw them the next morning, when she walked down the steps of the old brick dormitory. It was Sunday, and the streets were quiet. It had stopped raining, but the air was soggy and close, the sky a sickening beige tea-color with grains of something dark hanging over the river. At the curb, spent water seeped into a sewer drain through a filter of beer cans, condom wrappers, and a clump of sodden, once-white cloth.
She stepped down and poked with the toe of her shoe. She crouched and picked up the underpants carefully, using a pen from her backpack. They were hers, they had to be. The same brand, same style, same size. The same little rip in the seam at the hip where she always tore the tags out because they scratched her skin. She lifted them within inches of her face and smelled an odor like fresh blood, wind, and seawater. But there were no red stains, just a shiny smear of something gelatinous.
Ruthie held them, waving on the end of the pen like a flag, for a few minutes more. Then she dropped them on the damp cement. She rose and walked through campus streets that were foggy and deserted, canopied by wet trees.
They had looked ridiculous lying there in the rain. Embarrassingly plain and soiled, as if she had wet them, disgraced herself, and run away. She walked faster and the roof of her mouth burned with a mustardy taste.
She fingered the earring, still pierced through her lobe. A crust had formed on the back of her ear, under the stone, and she flaked it off roughly. Ruthie imagined the boy with trays of dime-store earrings, selecting a new one to use on someone else he would deceive into believing she was important, alluring, memorable to him.
In the car, on the ride back to Northwestern after the weekend, she could see his mouth opening and closing with the telling ... her legs were fleshy and ugly, her elastic in her underwear was damp with sweat, her skin had a dark, meaty odor.
Or perhaps there was no car, no fraternity, no trip from Northwestern to scavenge for initiation. She looked around her, expecting for a moment to see him on the street. Laughing at her even now.
Ruthie's body hung around her like something dead. No one was out, and the rain had begun again, thickening the air. She stopped walking, closed her eyes, let her head fall back and began to turn in slow circles. Now she could breathe more easily, and the feeling of weightiness had lifted. Slightly. It was never her he wanted. But the shred of clothing. A prop to conjure up someone more attractive, more lovable. More deserving.
A cool wind sifted through her hands and legs, and Ruthie quit spinning. She stood. Swaying.
Suddenly, she wheeled around and began walking back. Using her hand this time, she picked up the sorry-looking mass of cloth and carried it, between her thumb and forefinger, to her dormitory. She took the elevator to the sixth floor and exited, leading with the underwear out in front. In the laundry room, there was a sign hanging above the washer addressed "Dear Dorm-Mates," asking that no one use the machines before ten o'clock on the weekends. It was signed, "Your Friends, Dee Dee and Corinne." Ruthie checked her watch: 8:47.
She let the underwear fall to the floor with a wet smack and waited a few minutes, but nausea had begun like an itch in her throat. She felt as if she were full of warm gravy, and could wait no longer. She opened the metal top of the washer and pushed the hot-water button on the back panel. While the washer filled, she got the box of detergent from her shelf and poured in a full cup. She watched as the crystals swam and dissolved and erupted in clear, fat bubbles on the surface of the water. Clean and untouched.
A pounding had begun on the wall opposite the machines, and the muffled noise of someone alternately saying the word 'bitch' and retching delicately in a series of small coughs. Using two hands, Ruthie pulled the back off the stud in her ear, removed the earring, and placed it on her shelf behind a bottle of bleach. Her earlobe throbbed and she touched it, then looked at her fingers and saw one spot of bright, red blood.
Ruthie bent and wiped the blood on the wet, crumpled underwear. Behind her, the washer jerked, paused, and began to rock. She picked up the pants and dropped them into the mouth of the machine, then watched while they writhed through churning, soap-slick water, loose bits of gray coming detached and floating away, whiteness returning as the pants folded and danced to a rhythm as predictable and strong as her own heartbeat.