Finalist : Terrain.org 6th Annual Contest in Fiction

 

Monica Steele was supposed to spend the summer at Roseville, working at her college’s library. Over the past three years she had broken away, grown up, and built her own life. She wasn’t supposed to go home—to her parent’s home—in California. But when her rural women’s college, which had been building strong women and sending them into the world for 108 years, announced it was closing—that it could no longer prepare women for a world that had changed so much in a century—Monica had nowhere else to go.

Her father, Jim, did the kind thing and waited until the morning after she’d returned to bring up the procedure. She was in her bedroom, kneeling on the ground in front of her suitcase.

“The timing’s right,” he said, taking a seat at her desk.

Monica pulled out a stack of t-shirts and began unfolding them on the bed. The last time he’d asked about the procedure was the summer before her freshman year at Roseville. She had told him no.

Monica gave the same answer this time, firmly, and kept unfolding.

“Just hear me out,” Jim said. “You can heal over the summer here, and no one will see you.”

By this, Jim meant no one who would enter her new, post-summer life. Wherever and whatever it would be.

He said, “I just want my amazing Monica to have opportunities in life.”

It was no easy thing, to both flatter and insult in a single sentence.

Monica closed the suitcase. “I’ve gotta go.”

She had a job interview with Robert, a family friend, at a sporting goods store.

When she walked in, he was putting a pair of sunglasses with fabric windguards onto the face of an old man.

“It’s the college drop-out,” Robert announced with a smile before giving her a hug.

“Damn kids these days,” she joked.

With the right people, Monica could make light of her situation. It didn’t discount the fact that, inside, she was thinking, Colleges aren’t supposed to shut down. Like hospitals, they should always be there when you need them.

While the old man inspected himself from all angles, Robert asked her, “Ever run a cash register?”

“My only job was at a library.”

“They have registers?”

“Scanners.”

“It’ll do.”

While Robert rang up the man’s sunglasses, Monica re-read an email on her phone.

Do you want another women’s college? Bryn Mawr is excellent. I know some administrators. You could stay with me at first.

It was from her alumni mentor, Deborah Lin, Roseville College class of ’01. They had been matched up Monica’s freshman year, through the Career Development Office, by major. Which, at the time, had been classics.

Roseville was a sisterhood, and for Monica’s first 18 years, she’d had only a brother. If another women’s college could provide this, she’d take it. As long as enough credits transferred, she’d only need one more year; a college couldn’t close mid-year, could it?

But of course Bryn Mawr wouldn’t close. It was one of the Seven Sisters. Its academics were as good as they came. It was metropolitan, which was convenient for internships. It was near fashionable stores and restaurants, which appealed to women newly on their own. It was close to mixed-gender schools, which provided feminism with a side of sexual liberation.

“Let me introduce your co-workers,” Robert said, and Monica followed him to the back.

The first thing she noticed was that they were all men. The next thing she noticed was that they were all about her age, give or take five years. This wasn’t a job that was kept; you either moved into management or you moved on. She didn’t have to go to Bryn Mawr, but she sure as hell wouldn’t stay here.

There were three of them, and they were seated at a round, wood-laminate table with bags of chips and a variety of drinks—liquids of blue and orange and ironic pink.

“I’m Monica.” Pointing at the table, she said, “Breakfast of champions?”

One guy held out a half-eaten bag of Thai chili tortilla chips. Monica took one. He took one for himself and sat back. “Scott,” he declared.

With his shoulders slung back and blond hair greased into a perfect wave, Monica recognized him as the alpha.

The tortilla chip, coated with a red powder, was spicy but she kept her eyes wide so the tears wouldn’t fall.

“Nick,” announced the next guy, although Monica would eventually learn that he spelled it Nyk. Seated, he was a head taller than the other two.

The last one pointed to his nametag. Danny.

Scott and Nyk looked about Monica’s age, but Danny was younger. He wore jeans tucked into motocross boots with a million ratchets down the calves. One boot rested on the only empty chair in the room, its black sole worn down to white along the heel’s outside. Danny had on a black t-shirt, which his hair matched too closely to be natural. The most colorful thing about him was his nametag, blue with white letters.

Scott looked at her. “Robert says your school shut down.”

“Robert is correct,” she said.

Nyk reached for a chip and, before popping it in his mouth, asked, “What do you do with a women’s studies degree?”

“I’m not majoring in women’s studies.”

He looked at her blankly. “But it’s an all-chick college.”

Was there a polite way to inform someone of their stupidity? Monica was considering her options when Scott drummed both palms on the table loudly, and then said, “Relax. He’s bullshitting you.”

Danny and Scott, even Robert—and especially Nyk—were all grinning.

Monica smiled, too, although not nearly as widely. It wasn’t that she was gullible; she had simply heard so many moronic comments about women’s colleges.

 

Back at her parent’s home, her brother was standing at the kitchen counter, eating a microwaved burrito.

After nine months away, Monica greeted him with, “The Steele Diner is now serving.”

He lifted his burrito like a toast. “Welcome home.”

“You, too.”

Her brother was two years older, and didn’t make a whole lot as an oil change mechanic. Still, he lived in his own apartment because any guy worth dating could not bring any woman worth dating back to his parents’ place. Plus, his relationship with their father was complex, and filled with conflict. Monica’s was, too, but Jim didn’t know that.

She leaned against the counter and he turned the burrito towards her. Monica took a monstrous bite.

Along with shredded beef and beans, it had jalapeños. What was it about men eating ridiculously spicy foods, foods with no other descriptors, just Spicy? What was it about men always offering these foods to Monica? Because she was one of the guys, probably.

Monica didn’t wear makeup or read women’s magazines or own a hairdryer. Although her nails were usually painted. She did it herself, for herself, although she knew it was the type of thing that men also liked. At least, that was what she’d noticed in high school, the girls putting the boys into a trance with the tapping of their fingernails on the lunch table, a coy, pleading look in their mascara-ed eyes. But those nails had been pink or red. Monica liked blues, purples, and the army green she had on now.

Her brother asked, “Hanging out with me this summer?”

“Nope. Robert gave me a job.”

There was rustling on the patio, and a minute later Jim came in, the thick, woody smell of potting soil on his gloves. “You’re working for Robert?”

“I am.”

She wondered if it made him happy. True, the job wasn’t glamorous, especially with the fluorescent lighting and unloading of trucks on Thursday mornings. But she would be surrounded by men. Without competition. Would her coworkers see her as a possible girlfriend? This, she thought, would make her father happy.

Monica went upstairs to finish unpacking.

As she carried a stack of shorts to the dresser, she caught her facial profile in the mirror. She flinched.

According to her father, it was no longer necessary to break it in order to do the work. There would only be six or seven stitches, and they would dissolve. Swelling could be managed with ice and ibuprofen.

Hats, Monica suddenly thought. She would take to wearing hats. She put the shorts in the bottom drawer and took a Lakers hat from the one above. Monica pulled it onto her head; it pressed on her ears, and they stuck out. Still, was it an improvement? Probably. At the very least, it was a visual distraction. Starting now, hats would be her thing. Trucker caps, cowgirl hats, beanies, buckets, floppies, maybe even a beret.

Monica unpinned her nametag and put it, along with her cell phone—which contained Deborah’s kind offer—on the dresser.

If she did take a chance on another women’s college, it wouldn’t be Bryn Mawr. Its women were intelligent, they thought creatively, they didn’t keep their voices down. Monica was all of these things, but she lacked Bryn Mawr’s sophistication.

Monica had chosen Roseville because it offered minors like bag piping and puppetry. It was 45 minutes from a decent coffee shop, and two hours from a real city. Like her, many students were the first in their families—women or not—to go to college. In the spring, there was a ceremonial walk to the college founder’s house, where they drank loganberry punch and jumped in the river. Her lacrosse team had bonfires in the wide-open field north of campus, where they played guitars and violins and tambourines and danced. How they danced. The school was quirky. It had been perfect for her.

 

The next morning, Robert told her hats were against dress code. She tucked it—a thick-gauge, purple knitted beanie—in her back pocket. Then she shadowed Robert at the register the first couple hours until he went to his office and she took over.

It went well. She liked talking to customers. She liked the resistance of the buttons, which was stiffer than the easy click of laptop keys. It was satisfying to find just the right place in the bag for each item. If she ever played lacrosse again, she’d use the employee discount.

At break time, Danny ran the register while Monica ate and read sports magazines in the back.

The female athletes pictured in their pages were golfers, mostly. And tennis players. They all wore visors (which Monica had never personally liked, but felt willing to give another try). Also pictured were athletes’ girlfriends and wives—pint-sized, winsome, existing to support their men. And there was a full-page car ad, a girl with a guy. The girl stood clutching the strap of her purse, her facial profile—to say nothing of the rest of her body—as perfect as a brand-new car.

Her father had first suggested the procedure in the fall of 12th grade. They were in the backyard fixing sprinklers.

As Jim unscrewed a broken sprinkler, he said, “I saw this commercial for a plastic surgeon who does this minimally invasive procedure. The before and afters are amazing.”

Monica was rummaging through a bucket of parts for a quarter-circle spray head. “Another reason to turn off the TV and work in the backyard.”

Jim held the sprinkler shaft like a beer can. “You’re going off to college soon. I thought it might be worthwhile.” He smiled.

As Monica dumped out the bucket, she realized what he was implying.

She did acknowledge that hers was bigger than most of her friends’. She had always brushed off the comments of others. That she looked cute with her head cocked down. That she should check out Autobiography of a Face. That the blending of foundation makeup shades could work miracles. How bangs would enhance her face.

When alone Monica would sometimes wonder, Am I really that bad? But the notion of surgery had never occurred to her. Until her father—to whom she felt closer than anyone else in the world—suggested it.

And then she went off to Roseville, where not one person made any reference—oblique or otherwise—to the thing her father wanted to align, surgically, with the standards of Western beauty.

Monica was skimming a baseball magazine, eating her third plum, when Scott and Nyk entered the break room. Scott threw open the refrigerator door and, with his head inside, she explained, “The Women’s Studies Department is tiny. Roseville has 30 majors.” She underhanded her plum pit into the trash. “Mine is environmental science.”

Scott re-emerged from the refrigerator with two bottles of an electrolyte drink attached to six-pack rings that he pulled off and tossed in the trash. “Yours was environmental science.”

Nyk opened the refrigerator and was swallowed up. From inside, he muffled, “Sounds like global-warming bullshit to me.”

Monica pulled the rings out of the trash. “This is what’s bullshit.” She held them up. “These kill ducks and dolphins and all sorts of amazing creatures.” She grabbed a knife from a drawer and began pulling its blade through each ring.

As she worked, Scott asked, “How do they kill?”

“I saw a turtle caught in one. His shell grew around it, into an hourglass. It pushed his stomach into his trachea, and he suffocated himself.”

Monica was shaking. She didn’t know anyone who threw these things away whole anymore.

And furthermore, her field of study wasn’t “bullshit.” There were plenty of careers to be had with it. Forest Ranger. Survival Skills Instructor. Hazardous Materials Manager. Urban Planner. Lobbyist. Journalist.

Monica just had to decide which one she wanted. It was something she’d intended to figure out her final year. Now though, with that final year looming, she hadn’t a clue what she wanted to do, or where she’d spend it to qualify her to do it.

In fact, there was quite a good back story to Monica’s major, one that Nyk and Scott never could’ve imagined in a million years. It went like this: Sabrina Treska, a meteorologist for an NBC affiliate in Omaha, was an alumna of Roseville’s Environmental Science Department. This meant that, academically, Monica was descended from a 36-24-36 TV weather girl.

Sabrina spoke on campus every year. Monica and the department’s 12 other students joked that their degree would doom them to miniskirts and 4 a.m. wakeups. Monica didn’t dislike Sabrina for wearing those clothes and that makeup. It just wasn’t for her.

Jim hadn’t pushed Monica to change from classics to environmental science. But he had, throughout her childhood, consistently exposed her to things related to the environment. Hiking. Gardening. The proper disposal of motor oil. When she finally told him of her major change, he gave a big “Yahoo!” over the phone. And despite everything, upon hearing the joy in his voice, Monica knew she’d graduate with that major. And assumed it would happen at Roseville.

Later, as Monica was wiping down the checkout counter, Danny came up and said, “They’re assholes, but they can be nice.”

“Nothing they say bothers me.”

He shook his head. “They think you’re cool.”

“Hey, I’m just here for three months,” she said, even though she couldn’t help but smile. Broadly.

 

At home, Monica dialed Beth, her roommate the past three years, asking, “What would you do?”

“Pick somewhere Roseville has an agreement with. It’ll be easier.”

Two months ago, Roseville held a fair with recruiters from other colleges to assist “displaced” students. Displaced. Like they were flood victims, or civilians caught in a civil war. A better analogy, Monica believed, was to a party reveler still going strong, feeling the beat in her ribcage, while everyone was leaving for the next club.

At the fair, Beth met a recruiter from what would become her new school. She was living in her new college’s town (Monica hadn’t the heart to ask if she’d been replaced with a new roommate), working at the cafeteria, and had joined a lacrosse team.

Monica had gone to that fair, too, and walked into the ballroom feeling optimistic. Roseville had been amazing; surely she could find somewhere else to happily call home.

Her best prospect—because of financial aid and offered majors—was Rocky Cliff University, a 15,000-student, co-educational private school in Montana. But it was a commuter school; most students lived at home or 10 miles away in town. Monica needed an education, yes. But she wanted—she so very much wanted—a community, too.

Like Roseville, Rocky Cliff was isolated. At least, that was the impression she got from the ten minutes she’d spent with the recruiter. Could she transfer there and pretend she was still at Roseville? Could she go rock scrambling by moonlight while singing “Proud Mary,” taking her turn shouldering a backpack full of whatever canned beer had been picked up on the last trip to town? Could she keep banking experiences that would stay with her, the memories of which would buoy her, decades down the line, when forced to face a new disappointing reality—something far more significant than what strangers thought of her face?

 

After closing Big Time the next week, Scott walked by the checkout counter and stated, “Earl’s Coffee Shop. Leaving in five minutes.”

Monica was in the middle of counting her drawer’s fives. She stopped. “What?”

“Come with us.”

Monica was supposed to meet some high school friends at the movies. But who knew how many awards and prestigious internships they’d announce?

She told Scott, “Okay,” and started over counting her fives, quickly.

The four of them were sitting beside an outside fire pit, four cups of coffee on the table, when Scott asked, “Why didn’t they just let men in?”

For about five minutes, there had been talk of opening Roseville to men. But it wasn’t as easy as adding two boxes—Male and Female—to the application. Even then, there was no guarantee it’d be enough.

Scott produced a bottle of Irish cream from his sweatshirt and poured a shot in his coffee. Nyk and Danny slid their cups over to get topped off. Now Monica understood why they’d asked for room for cream, but brought their cups to the table black. Quickly, Monica drank a half-inch and slid hers over, too.

“They’d have to change the name,” Nyk said. “No dude would go somewhere called Roseville.”

This was probably true. In any event, the number of applicants kept dwindling. Those who did apply were requesting more and more financial aid. The closing of Roseville affirmed what Monica had suspected about herself: there weren’t many women around like her. Until recently, it was something she’d worn proudly.

Nyk continued. “If men had their own colleges, you’d call that discriminatory. Women have them and they’re, like, these great things.”

Like anyone who’d studied at a women’s college, Monica had a prepared answer for this. “For so long, men-only was the status quo. It wasn’t a type of college, that’s what college meant, the education of men. Women’s colleges were created because people decided we were worthy of an education, too.”

Danny spoke up. “A second-rate one. At finishing schools.”

Scott, Nyk, and Monica all looked at him in mild surprise.

Monica said, “It was a start.”

Danny leaned forward. “But it’s 2015 now.”

“How do you know so much about women’s colleges?” She asked.

“My grandma went to Scripps.” And then he quickly said, “If you’re just as good as men, why enslave yourselves? It should be everyone together.” He laughed loudly. “I say this, and I have zero chance of going to college.”

His opinion was more developed than Monica ever would’ve imagined. She asked, “How old are you?”

“Sixteen.”

“And still really, really hoping puberty’s going to happen,” Nyk jumped in with, palms pressed together in mock prayer. Then he picked up his paper coffee cup and knocked it against all of theirs, as if celebrating a touchdown.

Nyk. Nyk. It was an asshole way to spell the nickname of what his parents had given him. After all, the obvious answer lay in that word: nickname. Monica thought he would’ve welcomed the traditional spelling, and its association with wounds and scars. Chicks dig scars, right?

Monica wasn’t used to this, this rough way that men and boys treated each other.

Later, when they were walking to their cars, Danny told Monica, “Don’t let people tell you what to do.”

“I never have,” she said, believing her words.

 

Driving home that night, Monica thought of all the trips she and her sisters had made to their favorite coffee shop, the eight of them crammed into Lily’s sedan and shouting the lyrics to “Cecilia,” which would be on repeat. Monica would never visit that coffee shop again. Most likely, she’d never see those women again.

Who would take her, just 45 credits from a degree? Who would want her ultra-specialized freshman core class, Societal Foundations? Who would want her 16 units of puppet arts? Who would want her profile, which stuck out too far for any sorority?

At least she hadn’t created her own major, like some of her classmates who’d combined courses from women’s studies, sociology, nutrition, and economics, and given it a name like feminist theory in the global agrarian marketplace. They were self-starting, forward-thinking women, and they would now pay a price for it.

Still, all those women had found new homes, for themselves and their education. It wouldn’t be so bad to stick around home, work, and hang out with these guys—well, at least with Danny—on nights and weekends. Maybe, if she had the procedure done, one of them would introduce her to a friend of his, who’d want to take her out.

Although she was attracted to men, Monica had never dated. There were boys in high school she’d liked, but they’d never shown interest. It was okay. She had friends. She had lacrosse. She had Saturday morning donut runs with her father. She also had that profile, but never thought it was what held her back.

The closest she’d come to a boyfriend was in tenth grade, when she’d taken a chance and worn a plaid skirt that stopped just above her knees. She and her mother were going to an art museum. They were walking from the car to the entrance when a guy rode up from behind on a BMX bike, reached up under Monica’s skirt, and grabbed her ass. And then he kept on riding, because that was all he’d wanted from her. If he’d been coming from the other direction, would he have shouted some comment about her nose? Monica didn’t know which was the worse offense.

Her father had been her first love. Then, it was Roseville. Both times, she had been broken up with.

 

At home, Monica found her mother, Deanna, on the couch, flipping through television channels.

“How are your high school friends?” Deanna asked. Looking up, she added, “Nice hat.”

Deciding to make things easy on herself, Monica answered, “Enjoying the summer before their last year of college.”

“Same as you,” Deanna said.

Deanna had a knack for not talking about uncomfortable things. Jim addressed such topics head-on. Monica didn’t know which method she preferred.

Is it?” Monica asked.

“Live at home for a while. Enroll at a community college.”

Deanna hadn’t gone to college. Monica didn’t explain that her education was too far along for lower division courses.

Did Deanna know about Jim’s offer of the procedure? Whenever he and Monica had talked about it, they’d always been alone. Had he done this to not embarrass Monica? Or to not embarrass himself?

Up in her bedroom, Monica removed her beanie and changed into flannel pants and a tank top. In the process, she looked—as best she could with just one mirror—at her profile. She turned away, and then back.

Could the doctor give her some type of reassurance that it would just be a small change? Like her father had suggested, she could stay away from people for a few weeks, and no one would know what she’d done. Well, she would want people to notice something; why else do it? Just not too drastically.

With a pair of red-handled scissors, Monica cut the section of hair over her eyes. The bangs were blunt and perhaps a little too thick to be hip, except in that ironic way. And Monica was anything but ironic. Still, she felt her appearance was now less offensive.

The procedure’s medical name referenced an animal with a large horn. Which was insulting. There were legitimate medical reasons to do it, like an obstructed airway. Or to reconstruct what had been broken in a fight or accident. Except, Monica had never brawled or suffered a disfiguring lacrosse injury. And she could breathe just fine. But, no one had to know that.

This is stupid, she thought. She had a college—a home for next year—to select. Which would determine her next few years after that. It was ridiculous to be wasting time on a question she’d already answered three years ago. And yet here she was, looking sideways in the mirror, fluffing her new bangs, wondering if Robert would give her a few days off, and just how obvious the bandaging would be.

 

At 5 a.m. on Thursday, Monica had stacked a hand truck with boxes and now stood on the loading platform of a delivery truck, descending. She caught Danny looking at her a little too long. He was sizing up the bangs, deciding. She shifted uncomfortably. These types of looks would happen—frequently—if she had the procedure. But they would only be temporary. Then, the people she’d build her new life around would only know the finished product.

With an eager smile, Danny said, “Here’s what you should do. Choose the most ‘male’ college around. Somewhere prestigious. That emphasizes science. That used to be men-only.”

As she continued her journey down, she couldn’t help but grin at his desire to help her. Except, what she wanted was another Roseville. At least, that’s what she had thought.

“Like Caltech?” She questioned.

The platform reached the asphalt. Danny stepped on with two solid thumps. Hats were forbidden, but motorcycle boots were okay?

He took the hand truck and, wheeling it off, said, “Fuck, yeah. Get admitted there, and give them a reason to notice you.”

Later, when Monica was about to leave work, she ducked into Robert’s office and asked about Danny.

“He lives with his grandmother. She was my Sunday School teacher, eons ago.”

“What’s he gonna do after graduating?”

“Probably keep working here.”

Monica wished she knew why Danny had no shot at college. Grades? Behavior? Money? His parents, and whatever type of hell they’d released on him? (For all of her parents’ shortcomings, she still had them.) His grandma, who might’ve been well-intentioned but couldn’t provide all that a child needed? His teachers, who dismissed him too quickly? Monica knew it wasn’t his intellect.

Danny was right; women’s colleges had begun as a consolation prize. But they had since been reappropriated, becoming a place where women were given the tools to create their own successful lives.

But, was that still true? In reality, had this education done nothing but provided a good time and ultimately left her disenfranchised?

Caltch was out of reach. But she could go somewhere else co-ed. Even if the college weren’t perfect, perhaps she could find her niche in a sorority. The procedure—combined with some small talk and clever jokes—could get her a bid. And from there, she could get a boyfriend. And another. From there, a ring.

Should she have the procedure done, another on her breasts, and go to the most male-dominated school she could find?

 

Monica was standing beside the sprinkler control panel when, from around the corner, Jim shouted, “On!”

She rotated the dial to the next irrigation zone and, with a whoosh!, heads popped up. Jim stood on the periphery, inspecting their angles of spray. It was a game they’d played for years. Jim was raised in a San Francisco apartment, and loved yards.

Growing up, Monica was always expected to help around the house—sprinklers, leaky toilets, oil changes—as much as her brother. She looked forward to this time with her father. He was a good teacher—hold the wrench lower for more torque; and he appreciated her—thanks to you, I don’t have to squeeze my fat fingers back there.

“Off!”

Monica turned the dial and waited while he made adjustments.

In high school, Monica sent applications to three public colleges in California, and Roseville; the former were for her parents, and the latter for herself.

“Go to the next one. On!”

Monica turned the dial.

She got in everywhere but UCLA. But the only email she cared about was Roseville’s. Monica informed her parents of her decision at the dinner table, and when Jim didn’t react, Monica spoke up.

“You disagree with my choice.”

“In-state tuition would be easier.”

“I’m getting financial aid.”

Deanna watched the conversation unfold.

“I think you’ll be homesick all the way across the country,” Jim said.

“You don’t want me anywhere I can’t find a husband.”

Jim stood up and, as he threw on his jacket, said, “Things are harder for women. They just are.” Then he got in his Subaru and drove away.

Monica and her mother finished eating and cleared the table, Deanna not saying a word.

Now, Jim was saying, “Off!”

Monica turned the dial.

If she ended up alone, Monica decided, it would be because of her father. He was the one who’d treated her the same as her brother, who’d bought her that motorcycle she wanted, who’d taught her that an opinion—especially an unpopular one—was a beautiful thing.

When he came around the corner, Monica asked, “How would you manage two separate payment plans?”

Jim looked at her for a minute, processing what she was getting at.

Monica fingered her bangs. They were a mistake. Having hair always brushing her eyelashes, reminding her, reminding her, was irritating as hell.

He asked, “Have you chosen a school?”

She shook her head.

“There’s plenty of time. Focus on the procedure for now.”

Monica’s mother had the same profile. And yet, she’d managed to marry. Her father had asked that profile to marry him. And now her father thought it should be shaved down. Had he thought of himself as an idealist, a martyr, for marrying her?

“Does it come with a guarantee?” Monica asked.

“You mean, like, money-back?”

“No.”

What Monica wanted was assurance that a new profile would give her an engaging curriculum and supportive peers. A job she didn’t yet know she wanted but in hindsight couldn’t imagine waking up every weekday without. A life-long, contented sense of belonging. A full, nourished life—with or without a husband.

“Will there still be money for tuition?” She asked.

“Sure,” Jim answered, a little too easily.

 

Monica opened her brother’s apartment door and announced, “Dad said he’d pay to fix my nose.”

He was restringing a guitar and, with a snort, asked, “Is it broken?”

“No,” she said. “It’s big. It’s too big.”

She sat down on the couch—a couch that she just now realized was missing from her parent’s living room.

He’d bypassed college and worked a forgettable job. And still, no mention was made about him getting married. Or needing cosmetic surgery. But it was different for daughters, wasn’t it?

She leaned back and laughed. “How am I going to get married? How am I going to have children? What good is a college degree and a career if I don’t have a husband and kids to make me happy?” She was beginning to like irony.

They laughed together. Monica said, “He’s an asshole.”

They laughed some more until her brother said, “Live here with me. That’d show him.”

“And have to make polite conversation with a different girl every night? No thanks.”

“You have a better plan?”

She didn’t. But she knew his offer was made more to piss off their father than to help her out.

 

That weekend, after closing Big Time, they all piled into Nyk’s car and picked up Scott’s girlfriend, Tanya, on the way to the Newport Beach jetty. She sat in his lap up front while Monica and Danny had plenty of space between themselves in the back. No; none of her co-workers would see her as a potential girlfriend. It was okay. She had a new friend. She had two more guys who were good for entertainment.

She also had a Caltech brochure that Danny had given her that afternoon, saying, “Applications due November first.” From it, Monica learned Caltech offered a major that her Roseville credits might conceivably transfer into.

Scott, Tanya, and Nyk led the hopscotch over the jetty rocks. Monica and Danny followed. Furiously, black crabs scurried across the rocks, their movements broken up by the intermittent crashing of waves.

Working this job, hanging out at places like this, with people like them, attending a nearby college, all with a new profile, wouldn’t be such a bad way to spend the next year. Like those Roseville coffee shop nights, this felt comfortable.

At the end of the jetty, Scott and Nyk were shoving sticks between rocks, with Scott saying, “I’ve caught lobsters here before.”

“It’s not lobster season,” Monica said, something she knew even without her Pacific Oceanography class.

Tanya sat higher up the jetty, her chin tucked into her sweatshirt, arms wrapped around her legs. Her shorts were tiny, their backside barely protecting her from the rocks. But, when standing, they made her legs look like daisy stems. Which any woman worth dating knew was important to any guy worth dating.

Monica sat down next to Tanya, and they did that polite-girl-mutual-smile thing. It only took a second, and then Tanya went back to watching the guys and Monica checked her email. There was one from Deborah, asking, Have you decided?

She stuck it in her sweatshirt pocket. This wasn’t a question for a night out with friends.

Farther down the jetty, Danny shouted, “Here’s one!”

Scott and Nyk stood up and leaped their way over. Nyk wrapped both arms around Danny’s torso, picked him up, turned 180 degrees, and deposited him on a rock out of the way. Then Scott and Nyk got on their stomachs, heads and arms hanging down to the hole.

“No fucking way,” Danny said, stepping forward. “I found it.”

But Nyk rose and picked Danny up and, like a robot retrieving a widget off a shelf, again put him in his place.

He did this two more times until Scott said, “Outta here, little shit.”

Danny gave a “Fuck you!” before jumping off his rock. Scott and Nyk lay back on their stomachs.

Monica would have to get used to this, this rough way of men, if she chose a co-ed school.

Danny came up from behind Monica, reached a hand into her sweatshirt’s joey pocket, and grabbed the Caltech brochure. Instinctively she flinched, and her phone fell out. She grabbed it from the edge of a boulder.

Thankful to have saved it from oblivion, Monica hardly noticed Danny scan the brochure and announce, “’Caltech. Fostering tomorrow’s innovators.’”

But after he tore off its cover, she watched him send it sailing, Frisbee-like, towards the ocean. The breeze boomeranged it around and it slapped him in the neck. Danny pulled it down and it fell to a boulder before the wind again shuttled it away.

Monica watched him read, “31 percent of students are women. 69 percent male.” He looked at her. “Monica, those are good odds.”

Like an idiot, she said, “They are.”

Danny crumpled up that page and threw it long. It landed in the trough between two waves.

Looking at the last page, he said, “Caltech regrets to inform Danny Evan Stiles that they only accept fresh-faced kids whose married parents help them with their homework before tucking them in each night with a kiss.”

He shoved it at Monica. She looked at a picture of a smiling young man with a stack of books under an arm, a clock tower in the background.

“Hot,” Monica felt compelled to say, even though she found him pretty average.

“Yeah, right,” Danny said, grabbing it back from her. “We all know you’re a lesbian.”

Scott and Nyk looked over casually, interested.

“A fucking, girl-fucking lesbian,” Danny said, jabbing a finger at her.

With everyone’s eyes on her, Monica stood up. She glanced at Tanya, who looked at her in that silent way women have of seeing another woman, having an opinion, but not speaking up.

Monica interlaced her fingers into a tight grip inside her sweatshirt pocket, bracing for the dyke jokes. Nyk would go first. He’d rattle off a few until Scott interrupted with one sucker-punch. From there, the person she’d mistaken for a friend would take over for the knockout.

Instead, the three of them turned away, already bored with her. Danny had found a particularly thick stick, and so Scott and Nyk allowed him another try at the hole.

Tanya stood up and announced, “I’m cold.” Nyk gave her the keys and she walked back down the jetty.

Monica pulled on her sweatshirt hood, blurting out, “Does this make my nose look smaller?”

They either didn’t hear her or didn’t care to answer. And so she said, even louder, “My father is the person who loves me most in this ridiculous world.”

Monica’s phone beeped. She pulled it out of her pocket. Centered on its screen was a tiny icon of a calendar and the words, “Pre-op appointment.” Then, in an even smaller, italicized font, “Tomorrow, 9 a.m.”

She pressed the phone’s top button to acknowledge the reminder, so that it wouldn’t buzz again, and tucked it back in her sweatshirt.

She sat another ten minutes, Scott, Nyk, and Danny searching between boulders, never finding a lobster.

Finally, Scott said, “Screw this.” He walked back down the jetty, calling, “Let’s go, guys.”

And Nyk and Danny, plus Monica, followed.

 

 

Michelle Panik’s stories have appeared in Alimentum, Concho River Review, and Sierra Nevada Review. She has an MFA from the University and Maryland and a BA in Writing and Art History from UC San Diego. Michelle lives on the edge of California, in Carlsbad, with her husband and their three-year-old twins. Visit her from the comfort of your very own computer at MichellePanik.com.

Image of stone jetty at sunset courtesy Shutterstock.

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