They were having a beer at the campus pub because it was, by a few paces, the nearest place that served. Jill got up from the table. Robin thought he saw Levi, silhouetted by the window, watch her go. Levi maybe raised his eyebrows at Robin, then he definitely made a circle with the thumb and index finger of his left hand and slid the index finger of his right hand into the circle and out again. Levi meant, Are you guys fucking? Robin was glad Levi hadn’t spoken the question; Robin didn’t know what word he liked for sex—other than maybe “sex”—but “fucking,” Levi’s preferred term, was not it.
Robin held up his right hand and made a circle of his thumb and index.
Levi pointed at Robin, then held his pointing finger sideways, his eyebrows still raised it seemed.
“I have no idea what’s going on,” Robin said.
“Are you guys schtupping?”
Robin turned towards the bathrooms to make sure Jill wasn’t on her way back to the table. “That’s the hope.”
“But not yet?”
“No. Not yet.”
Levi nodded and looked off to the side like maybe he was doing a calculation. When Jill got back, Levi asked her a series of questions. Where is your all-time favourite illegal swimming hole? When T.P.ing someone’s house, how many rolls of toilet paper is too many? What’s the best bathroom graffiti you ever saw? Was it a drawing or a phrase? When egging someone’s house, how many eggs are too many? What album is the best for fucking to?
Jill didn’t know how to answer any of the questions and Levi didn’t know how to stop. No one ordered another round when the waitress came to offer it.
While Jill wrestled on her leather jacket, Levi maybe mouthed the word, “Sorry,” to Robin. Robin nodded, grimaced and looked down.
Robin and Jill talked about The Viennese Actionists as they rode a rattling streetcar to Jill’s place, a large semi-detached home in a neighbourhood with an overwhelming population of unfortunate people. Less fortunate people. Drunks and drug addicts. Needy. Robin never knew how to refer to these people in a way that conveyed respect rather than fear.
Jill had four roommates, all students at the university. Two boys and two girls. Kay and Taylor were the girls. Kay, a business student, was a bulimic and a flirt who had posters of Motörhead, The Misfits and Madonna up around her room. Taylor was studying midwifery. Marlon and Jack were the guys. Marlon was studying journalism and his beautiful voice, fine face and keen interest in current events suggested a pretty likely future in television. Jack had attended alternative schools, lived in group homes and had problems with drugs and drinking until he started training and eventually working at a boxing gym. He was a philosophy major. All four of them were home.
“Jill?” Jack called.
Three other voices called out Hey, Hi, Hello.
“Robin’s here too.”
All four said, Hi, Hey, How’s it going? and What’s up? to Robin.
Once Jill got her twelve-hole Doc Martins off, Robin followed her to the big double doors into the living room.
Jack was passing behind Marlon, a bottle of massage oil in his hand. Marlon was holding a pair of scissors and standing over Kay who was wearing terrycloth short shorts and wrapped in a towel. Taylor was sitting against the front of the couch, her head hanging loose, the narrow straps of her white tank top pushed off her shoulders. “What’s up, guys?” Jill asked.
“Well,” Jack said as he sat on the couch, his legs on either side of Taylor’s shoulders, “Taylor’s had a hard day and I’m trying to help her relax without alcohol.” He started to massage her head. She mmmoaned.
Kay pulled the towel tighter around her shoulders. Marlon picked up a brush and ran it through Kay’s hair. “And Kay needs a haircut, but doesn’t want to spend sixty dollars at her hairdresser. If I make it worse, though, I’ll pay the sixty dollars for her and she can go get it fixed.”
“Marlon says he used to cut hair,” Kay explained.
“I had a girlfriend who was turned on by it.”
“He must be good,” Taylor said.
Kay and Taylor laughed.
“Thanks Taylor, but it was a kink. I’m sure you know. No matter who cut her hair, it made her hot.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Taylor said.
Marlon held Kay’s head with the tips of his fingers and with his free hand he gently ran the brush through her hair.
The bottle made a wet, flatulent noise as Jack squeezed oil onto his hand.
Without lifting her chin from where it rested on her chest, Taylor said, “You know, during a birth midwives use olive oil to help the vulva stretch.”
“I thought you were going to tell us about all the shit again,” Jack said.
“Why don’t you join us?” Marlon asked Robin and Jill.
Robin was relieved when Jill said, “Thanks, but I think we just want to be alone. No offence.”
“I’m hurt,” Taylor said.
“Me too,” Kay said.
Rubbing the oil into his hands, Jack asked, “Not actually, though, right?”
“Not actually, what?” Marlon asked.
“Like, no one’s actually hurt?”
“Of course not,” Marlon said.
“No,” Kay said.
“No,” Taylor said.
“Okay, good.” Jack stopped rubbing his oiled hands and started massaging Taylor’s bare shoulders.
“We’d love to get to know you better, Robin.” Marlon smiled his news anchor smile.
“Me too,” Robin said. “I mean, I’d like to get to know you guys better.”
“You feel like you know yourself well enough, I guess,” Jack said.
“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” Robin replied.
Everyone laughed. Jill grabbed Robin’s elbow. “’Kay,” she said. “See you guys.” They turned and walked up the stairs.
The dark at the top of the stairs was surprisingly absolute for a house in the city. The only light was what managed to reflect up from the living room. Jill kissed Robin halfway down the hallway, pressing her body against his. She held his hand as they walked up a second flight of stairs to her third floor bedroom. She turned on the bedside light. On Photography and The Bell Jar were at the top of her pile of books. A Raggedy Anne doll slouched against Jill’s CD player.
Robin sat down on the edge of her bed because that was the only place to sit. “Look, I’m really sorry about Levi. He can be an ass hole.”
With her back turned to Robin, Jill unzipped her black hoodie.
“He can be funny, too, I swear.”
“I’ll give him another chance.”
“That’s good because”
“he’s my best— Holy shit . . .”
Her chemise was yellowed from the previous owner, or from its time at Goodwill maybe, but the message that it sent was still clear. Jill wiggled her shoulders to slip out of her hoodie. Robin lay back awkwardly then got up on his elbows. Jill held his gaze and walked towards him. With her toes, she nudged Robin’s feet apart, then stepped between his spread knees. Robin was frozen, feeling his shoulders burn and the blood rush between his legs. Jill brushed Robin’s thigh with her fingertips, then ran her hand along the waistline of her Levi’s. Robin swallowed. “Unbutton my pants,” Jill said.
“What’s that?” Robin asked.
“Unbutton my pants.”
Robin unbuttoned Jill’s pants and slid them down her hips. Her panties were, well, decorative enough to be worthy of the name panties.
Once Jill had stepped free of her jeans, she pushed Robin back onto the bed and fumbled with the buckle of the belt his father had handed down to him. Robin didn’t know it then, but removing each other’s pants would become part of their ritual.
Afterwards, though, after that first time, after Robin had finished and apologized, after Jill stopped him desperately working away at trying to get her off, after Jill apologized for not coming and Robin apologized again, after Robin removed and tied off the condom then held it up like a dead fish and asked Jill where to put it, after they lay there for a while marveling at each other’s warm, moving, flawed bodies and listening to the sounds drifting up from downstairs wondering if downstairs anyone had heard any sounds from upstairs, Robin apologized again for Levi.
“Don’t worry about it,” Jill said.
“He’s normally pretty funny.”
“He was probably pretty funny tonight, I just was getting impatient.”
Robin smiled and air burst involuntarily from his mouth, a sort of delighted laugh that he stifled because laughter in this situation could be tragically misinterpreted.
“Sorry. I wasn’t laughing at you. I just— I mean, you really had this planned?”
“When’s the last time you saw me wearing a skimpy top to Claude’s Theory and Praxis class?”
Now Robin could laugh.
Jill laughed too.
Robin squeezed Jill tight and pressed his face into her shoulder. “Thanks.”
Jill rearranged herself so she could look Robin in the eye. “Oh, you’re welcome.” She smiled, her teeth and eyes slightly less vague shapes than the rest of her features. “Thank you, too.”
“My pleasure. Maybe only mine.”
“No, mine too. But let’s try it again sometime.”
They did try it again once more before falling asleep.
The next morning they ate cereal and drank orange juice and coffee in the sun-blasted kitchen of Jill’s house. Robin was worried Jack or Marlon, Kay or Taylor might interrupt his happy morning. They took second cups of coffee up to Jill’s room. Robin watched Jill change. They decided to spend the day together, but didn’t plan anything beyond heading to Robin’s apartment so he, too, could get fresh clothes.
They talked about Carolee Schneemann and Wes Anderson on the subway. At Robin’s place they showered together, then wrapped themselves in towels and ran tiptoed and giggling to Robin’s basement bedroom where, to Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s Ease on Down the Road, they got to know the look and touch of each other in whatever daylight made it through the small window above Robin’s bed. While they were eating a stir-fry Robin made with vegetables he could salvage from his fridge, Robin’s roommate Stephen came home from a shift at Second Cup.
“Steve,” Robin said standing, “this is Jill.”
“Hi Jill,” Steve said.
Jill smiled easily. “Nice to meet you Steve.”
“There’s some stir-fry,” Robin offered.
“I ate.” Stephen rubbed his eyes. “Look, I gotta go to bed. I’m sorry. Nice to meet you. Jill was it?”
Jill and Robin walked to a nearby park, sat on the swings and talked about their families. Who were their allies, who their enemies. Robin’s father, a doctor who recently prescribed Robin sleeping pills from the Valium family that helped Robin get through a really rough patch precipitated by a difficult production at school and, Robin doesn’t mention, a catastrophic break-up. Jill’s aunt, a childless psychologist whose feminism and socialism and encouragement had made Jill the first member of her immediate family to go to university. “She ever get you good drugs?” Robin asked. He’d only taken one and a half of the sleeping pills.
“I think that’s psychiatrists.”
“That prescribe drugs. Psychologists can’t.”
“I’m pretty sure.”
They were back at Robin’s place, sitting at opposite ends of Robin’s couch—the couch, Robin explained, that had been in his parent’s house, then his mother’s house, for as long as he could remember; the couch that Robin’s mother was going to throw out, but Robin was determined to one day have reupholstered because why throw out a perfectly good couch—when the doorbell rang.
It was Levi. “Hey man. I’m glad you’re home.” He wanted to apologize.
“Hey Levi,” Jill called from the living room.
Robin invited Levi in.
Toronto, Dec. 2015-Jan. 2016
Emoji sequence: Reuben McLaughlin, brilliant writer, editor and friend; publisher of Pilot
Story: Lee Sheppard, other publisher of Pilot
Part II available here.