Ingrid Nelson | What It Was Like, Our Secret World

My door has a bow on it. I did not put it there. My roommate Kaitlin, newly arrived from Wisconsin to our college on the East Coast, did. The bow is plaid. Tonight I am going to a party with my new best friend Laura. Laura is the person I will never be. In July I looked into Todd’s eyes, with his arms pulled down around my shoulders. I thought that he was trying to communicate secretly that he loved me. He was smiling. Actually I can’t remember the expression on his face. Kaitlin is sitting at her desk studying her chemistry flashcards and I’m wrapped in a towel, looking at Facebook on my laptop, lying on my bed. “Do you ever imagine your wedding?” asks Kaitlin. Laura was invited to the party by a male friend, and she’s bringing me.

“Of course not,” I tell her. That is a lie. I can’t wait till she leaves the room so I can look at myself naked in the mirror. Yesterday I texted Todd, “What’s up,” and today he answered, “Not much,” but when I texted back I got nothing.

* * *

“Sometimes I wish my legs could have fallen off,” said Laura, “so he could have carried me around forever.” This was back in September when I first met her

“Like a human backpack,” I said. We were both laughing wild pointy laugher.

“Clearly we’re both insane,” said Laura. We were talking about our old boyfriends from high school. We’re both obsessed with them, or were. I looked at Laura and thought about Todd. Todd was my old boyfriend. I still love him but no one knows. Especially not Laura. That’s my first secret. Laura gives me the kind of energy to dance the dance that skeletons dance or fight a war. It’s like hearing the magic flute. She moves like a cheetah.

“I feel like I’m capable of murder,” said Laura. I laughed. She’s like a sugar plum fair. It’s a relief to make a friend who talking to doesn’t feel like rowing a boat. That’s what it was like at orientation, in the gym, playing games where you have to remember three specific facts about someone you just met, games that are both difficult and have no point. That night Laura and I were eating dinner in the cafeteria after the class we have together, Introduction to Medieval Life, let out. My favorite thing about college is that I can choose what I eat instead of my mother.

In high school my old best friend, Marian, once called the way I wanted a perfect score on the SAT “kind of prissy.” I accumulated extracurricular activities in order to get into a top notch college. Like my book club. We read only books written in the nineteenth century by women. The only people who attended were my friends who I forced to go. I told myself that when I arrived at college I would finally make a new friend, the friend who I’ve always dreamed of. And now me and Laura, we’re friends like on TV. Laura has the type of hair that I’ve wanted since I was four, very dark underneath, but light on top. Like Mary Kate Olsen. Anyone would say that Laura is a natural blonde. In the cafeteria Laura ate a chili hotdog. I ate bitter fat free yogurt. Our college cafeteria, built in 1804, has stained glass like a cathedral. I wish I could change my name, also to Laura.

I ended up getting a perfect score on the SAT, after I took it 3 times, 2400. It’s unusual to take the SAT 3 times. Laura’s male friend is a junior and he’s studying philosophy. His name is Alex. I imagine Todd seeing me, in our important looking college library, with its shiny parquet floors and portraits in oil, reading a difficult book. It looks the exact opposite of our high school. Everyone made jokes about it being designed by an architect who also designed prisons. It smelled like nail polish remover. The jokes everyone told were boring. Todd said he liked me because I was smart, the books I read. At least that’s what I think he told me. I keep trying to remember his words exactly. This was in May, when we first started going out. I had never had a boyfriend before. And he chose me, over Marian. We’d all hang out, the three of us, but I was the one he chose. Suddenly I had Todd on my team, versus Marian.

At night I go for runs in circles around campus. The college feels like a park with guards that our parents pay for us to use to do whatever we please in. With each step I think Todd, Todd, Todd. Every time I think his name it’s like a cathedral being built. It’s like the colorful neck of a tropical bird expanding and expanding with each breath. When someone sneezed Todd didn’t say bless you, and I try not to say that either, unless I forget. I looked at the tag on Kaitlin’s bra on the first night of college, when she was in the shower. 36DD. I think that’s too big, I think that is disgusting. I feel empty in a good way.

“What are you doing tonight?” I say to Kaitlin. My second secret is that I may have another brain inside of my regular brain. Some part of me is juiceless and shriveled. It is hungry for something bad. I have always felt, deep on the inside, that I am evil.

“I have to go to the library,” she says. Kaitlin once told me that her mother is “like her best friend only closer.” My mom is like my enemy, or an alien from outer space. If I had to describe Kaitlin, the two words I would use are hearty and pragmatic. She reminds me of a boar, a father boar. She’s on the basketball team. I doubt Kaitlin has ever given a blow job. She doesn’t even have pierced ears. Once she said, holding my copy of Daniel Deronda, “Are you going to pick up? Your side of the room looks like you’re in the middle of moving.”

The morning we moved in, she unpacked from one of her suitcases a quilted bedspread, with matching desk accessories. She did it with such tender care. They are in the most lurid magenta floral pattern I have ever seen. I could not help but imagine the moment she saw them in some awful Midwestern department store. She must have been so happy to have finally found the defining objects for her new life in college, she must have actually run towards them in delight. I have no proof that this is true but I can well imagine it.

“You’re so good,” I say to her. “I’m going to a party with Laura.”

“Trust me, I’m not so good, I just have a chemistry midterm next week,” she says. I got into this college off the waitlist.

“I should be studying,” I say.

“That’s not true,” she says. “Come on, Alice, you’re so smart.” She stares at me.

“What is it,” I say.

“You look so pretty,” she says.

I watch her stand up. She’s wearing her sleeveless and shiny basketball jersey. I look at the flesh of her upper arms, studded with little red pimples. I brought a lot of books I wanted to read to college, but I haven’t read them yet. I brought them hoping it would impress Todd. I thought if I lost twenty pounds, it would impress Todd. I haven’t done that yet either. Sometimes I imagine myself, with waist-length hair, married to him, living in a castle in the forest, with a hundred dogs and a moat. That’s what I wanted when I was a kid.

Kaitlin turns around and smiles at me. She is as sturdy as a tree. “Have fun tonight,” she says, “but be careful.” If she ever comes back in after I’m in bed she makes sure to close the door behind her very quietly, as not to wake me up. The problem is that I’m in bed awake, thinking about Todd.

As soon as the door closes behind her, I’m in front of the mirror hooked onto the back of the door, my towel off, tears running down my face.

Fact: my best friend Laura is very pretty. People are always comparing her to a statue. Or a sunrise, a geode, it goes on. Her skin is as glowing and alive as the surface of a plant. Before I met her, in class, I had seen her, at orientation, and remarked upon it myself. She also has exceptionally big boobs for someone with such skinny arms. But not too big, not like Kaitlin’s. Sometimes I wish she would just fall asleep so I could touch her face. I don’t know whether I would stroke it or give it a little slap. But I do think she’s also pretty funny. Once in the mezzanine of the library when we were studying she said, “Wait, I found a really cool picture of me, look at this,” and sent it to me in a G chat. It was a picture of a pig, a gigantic mother pig, with nine piglets attached to it, by the nipples. It was so funny that I screamed. People looked at me but I didn’t care. This was in October.

“They’re drinking your milk,” I said to Laura.

“And I’m a little unhappy,” said Laura, looking at the picture. We were both laughing so hard and then we looked into each other’s eyes and laughed more. I had never had a friend that I liked so much. As she said that though, I saw a boy walk by and turn his head around, so he could look right at her. He had this dumb look in his eyes, like he was hypnotized. Her stupid beautiful face.

My phone buzzes under my leg. It is true my side of the room is a disgusting pit. The buzz is a text from Gabe, from my film studies class. When I see the message I think of the way he says my name in a voice like Daffy Duck. “So I hear we’re going to the same party tonight,” he texted. He makes me want to puke.

“Cool! I’ll see you there,” I text back.

Whenever she eats rice Laura calls it “the food so nice they named it rice,” which made me laugh at first but now gives me a headache. She eats mounds of it, fried and drenched in oil. I feel dizzy all the time. I would never eat rice in a million years. I keep thinking, maybe this time, maybe this time I check Facebook there will be a message from Todd. I think about the sound the message will make when it pops up so much that it is basically real. “Hey Alice,” the message will begin.

“Do you want to borrow this,” says Laura. We’re getting ready to go to the party in her room. Laura has a single. It’s the opposite of me and Kaitlin’s room. Everything is clean and perfectly chosen. In our room it is just Kaitlin’s terrible comforter and all the books I haven’t read. Laura’s standing in her room wearing a perfect white shirt and a perfect pair of loose jeans. We’re drinking that kind of wine with a lizard on the bottle out of mugs. Laura buys it with her fake ID at the liquor store four blocks from campus and it seems to be no big deal for her. Typical. She holds up a shapeless long sweater, like the robe a monk wears. “I think it would look really good,” she says, “with your jeggings.” She looks at my legs. I’m wearing my most clawing pants, skin tight and magenta. I always wear the most revealing clothes I can, weather permitting. It’s getting hard, now that it’s November. I know I often look grotesque but I must display myself. I’ve seen her in that dreaded sweater, the thick dark green wool makes her look like Robin Hood.  

I put on the sweater and she says, “This girl who was mean to me in high school has the same one but it looks so much better on you.” I imagine what Laura isn’t saying, that it’s impossible for anyone to be mean to someone like her. Sometimes I can’t listen to her because she’s just too pretty. It’s almost like I’m afraid of her. Hair grows on part of my face and I have to pluck it out with tweezers.

“If I had a tail what do you think it would look like?” I say.

“Bunny,” she says. “Mine?”

“Oh,” I say, “You would have the most beautiful tail in the world.”

* * *

“People say I’m as pretty as Marian is, but I feel like they only say it to be polite,” I told Todd once, in August. I said it in a silly voice. We had gone apple picking, at the beginning of the season.

Todd looked at me, and for a moment I thought he hadn’t registered what I said. “Don’t worry about it. Everyone’s attracted to everyone all the time,” he said.

“True,” I said. “Great point.” Before he said that, I had imagined him as being attracted to just me but obviously Todd was right.

“And my mom,” I said. “She always says, ‘Marian is so lovely,’ whenever Marian comes over.” I wanted to explain more. I want him to understand me because he cares about me.

“I’m sorry anything that could be interpreted as bad has ever happened to you,” Todd said.

“Thanks,” I said.

“I can’t wait to leave. I hate living here,” he said. “It’s making me feel like I’m insane. I feel like I have a headache all the time. My spine cracks every time I move my head. It’s like I can’t think.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Tell me about the hardest time you’ve ever laughed.”  He didn’t say anything. I wanted to say something like, “What if no one has ever loved me,” but instead I said, “What dog do you think I’d be if I were a dog?”

“Little baby pug,” he said. I smiled. The light flashed down through the tops of the trees. I looked up at him. It was nice to look at beautiful images. Todd laughed. I felt a kind of peace. I wonder how many more times I heard him laugh.

* * *

Last month on parent’s weekend Laura came out to dinner with us because her family is from Santa Monica and that is too far away to come from. When we all met in the lobby of our dorm Laura said, pointing at my shirt. “I can’t believe you have this too! Twins! No way!” I wondered how many people had already seen the pretty girl and the less pretty girl wearing the same shirt. Laura makes everything into a contest because she’s so pretty. T shirts, smiling, sitting on benches.  

“Way.” I said. I felt like when you are a little kid, and you’ve just seen a really scary dog, who is much bigger than you. I do not think my diet of raw cruciferous vegetables, ice chips, and plain yogurt has been working. I felt like when you look right at that dog’s teeth. I couldn’t wait till later that night, when I would be in bed and Kaitlin would be sleeping, so I could look at Todd’s Facebook profile, alone and in the dark on my phone. At dinner I ate mashed potatoes and gravy with a spoon.

“Why do you want that?” my mom said when I ordered it.

“Because I love potatoes,” I said. I looked at her across the table, with her lipstick and her scarf draped across her neck. When I was eleven my family went out to dinner with another family, the family of one of my little brother’s friends. We were all sitting there, and the father of the other family asked me what I was going to order. I said just salad. He laughed and said that’s probably best for a girl like you. I laughed too, but then he said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” At the time I felt like I had been sitting across from him alone, but later I realized that my mother had also been sitting next to me.

“Me too!” said Laura, her thin wrists cutting through another piece of meatloaf. The soft white skin on her face shone like a pearl beneath the candles.

“Laura’s great,” my mom said the next day as I said goodbye to her in the Hilton across the street from campus. “I think she’s a really good friend for you. See, she’s proof that it’s possible to learn French.” I did poorly in French in high school, despite studying every night, despite my numerous flashcards. Laura had regaled us with stories from her summer abroad in Paris at dinner. Whenever our professor, in Introduction to Medieval Life, compliments Laura I involuntarily fantasize he’s humoring her. But Laura has books in her room about the middle ages. Once I came over and she was reading one, for fun I guess. As I was about to say goodbye, my mom looked at me and said, “Are you eating enough? Your brain needs food if you want to do well on tests.”

I stared at her. “I just worry,” she said. “About you.”

* * *

The party is at the guy’s apartment, not in someone’s dorm room. Living in an apartment is sensationally grown up to me. I look around at all the furniture, Alex must have picked it all out and bought it himself. Imagine owning a sofa, a heavy object with sturdy little legs like a bull. I imagine handsome Alex gallantly carrying it. Last year I lived in my parent’s house and the furniture was there already. The apartment is in a house that looks like a regular house but crazy because college students live in it. As soon as we go in, Alex sees Laura, and immediately walks across the living room. I can feel Laura stop paying attention to me, and start paying attention to him.  

“Laura, hey,” he says. Her body reaches up to him, so naturally. Like they are both already far away in a happy future I’m not a part of. My eyes rest on his crotch, a platter for me to gaze at.  

“Hey,” he says to me, calmly reaching his hand out. “I’m Alex.” His face is tan. I can tell he is another naturally clean person like Laura.

“Hi,” I say at him. “Laura. Wait,” I say, “I mean, Alice! My name is Alice.” I look around the room. It’s filled with kids who look much older than me. They are smiling like they have no problems. I think of how Kaitlin probably listens to the flyers that get put under our door and in our mailbox that say, “Always use the buddy system.” I guess I listen to them too because they are scary. Kaitlin practices basketball so much. She is getting better every day. Underneath her fleshy arms there is muscle.

“Alice is my best friend,” says Laura. Alex turns back to her. As he does the hair on his arm brushes my face, lightly, soft as a bird’s wing.

I can feel Gabe begin to walk towards me before he actually does. I can feel him evaluating. I see him smile, the yellow film on his teeth. I look at myself in the mirror over the mantel and see the line where the makeup on my neck stops. I smile at myself, strangled.

“Hey, Alice,” he says, like Daffy Duck. I look at his sneakers. His legs look like mine did when I was a little kid and I would try on my dad’s enormous tennis shoes. “I can barely hear you over all of this din!”

“What’s up,” I say. “I have to use the bathroom.” I don’t have to use the bathroom. In August Todd sent me a Facebook message saying he didn’t want to be in a relationship anymore. I wondered how long he felt that way, secretly.

Gabe follows me and says, “Are you having fun?” He’s making this pinched face, like our cat at home makes when it uses the litter box.

“I’m having a ton of fun but I really have to pee,” I say, trying not to cry. I stand in line for the bathroom.

“Haha!” he says, standing next to me. “Oh, do you want a drink?” he says. He is truly so pathetic. What he is trying to do.

“I have to pee,” I say. “I can’t because I already have to pee.”

“You’re so eloquent in our film class,” he says. I don’t like him because he’s using those stupid words. He’s trying. It reminds me of what I do. Having to try is wretched. That’s the problem. I think of Alex’s arm hair brushing my face, the way the legs of his sofa look like legs of a bull. I imagine him carrying it. I think about kissing Todd. Todd is so perfect he isn’t a person. No, he is just a person. Without thinking about it I let out this little groan. Gabe smiles at me with one corner of his mouth in an embarrassed way, and leans in, kissing my throat. The bathroom door opens and I quickly turn around to go inside. The hot blood is thumping in my ears. I wash my neck where Gabe kissed me, trying not to mess up my makeup. I gag, thinking about his cystic acne. When I come out, Gabe is gone, thank the lord. Laura is still talking to Alex. I realize something about him, which I’ve never noticed about a guy our age before: he has chest hair. I look at them talking to each other. Alex and Laura are laughing like a duke and duchess and the person Gabe reminds me of is Richard Nixon. Laura looks up at me for a second, just as I slither out of the party alone.

* * *

At the beginning of this summer I went to the Gap my mom. I was in a changing room, peeking out the door. She was standing outside.

“I can only find it in a medium,” my mom said, holding up a shirt she wanted me to try on.

“That’s going to be too big,” I said.

“I don’t think it will. And you’ll probably gain weight at school,” she said. “Most people do, freshman year.”

I wanted to cry in silent hacking sobs, like an axe swinging at a tree trunk. My mom opened the changing room door, without asking me if it was okay to come in. Everyone waiting in line to try on clothes saw what my stomach looks like. I didn’t cry, though. I just said, “Mom!” and I slammed the door shut and the store was suddenly silent. I looked in the mirror at the fat on my stomach, on my hips and on my thighs. Then I turned around and looked at my butt, with all of its terrible stretch marks like cuts from a knife. I thought about how the lighting in that awful little room was distorting me, but then I thought, Alice, you are looking in the mirror. This is how you really look. My mom was talking to me from the other side of the door, but I wasn’t listening. I took out my phone and I scrolled through my old texts until I found one from Todd that said, “I miss you Alice, you’re my favorite person that I’ve ever met, you’re so beautiful.” That is what he sent me in May. That was how he felt, at one point. I thought Todd, you are my only friend in the world, Todd, Todd, Todd.

“What’s the matter Alice,” I could hear my mom say. “Are you okay? What’s going on?”

* * *

In the dorm, standing in the carpeted hallway, I realize I forgot my key. It’s in the room with Kaitlin, who is asleep. Kaitlin has basketball practice at six, even on Saturday mornings. It’s two in the morning now. I think of Kaitlin’s massive meaty body asleep in bed, she’s nearly six feet tall. I couldn’t knock on the door, to wake her up. Not after she’s been so nice to me. So I text Laura, “Are you still with that guy, lol?” and she texted back, “No, just got back alone. Where did you go?” I said, “Sorry but can I ask you a huge favor?” and she says, “Sure, what’s up?” and so I say, “Could I actually spend the night in your room tonight?” I add a little smiling face. She says yes.

In Laura’s room it is dark when she opens the door. It smells so good, cleaner than I could ever get my room. When I lay down on the bed it’s too narrow for us to both be on our backs, so we have to sleep with my back pressed against her stomach. I look at Laura and she’s already fallen asleep. She does a little urgent twitch, something that looks like it’s coming from a private place deep in her head. I close my eyes but I don’t sleep. It’s like I’m floating, an inch or two above the bed. I can feel my thoughts coming forwards and backwards, a line in fire being drawn back and forth. This is Todd, I think. And I’m Laura.

In the morning we are still sitting in her room and Laura says, “I wanted to talk to you about something.” I inhale sharply, like soon I won’t be able to breathe anymore. “I don’t know how to say this,” she says, “But I thought I should. In case it was important, in case it mattered. Are you okay? I mean, I’m here if you need help.”

“Of course. What do you mean?” I say.

“I used to have an eating disorder, when I was fourteen.” says Laura. I look at her feet. She doesn’t wear toenail polish because she looks like she’s just had a pedicure anyways. My feet are callused. Every time I’d have to get new shoes as a kid they’d tell me they were flat, and then they’d point me to shoes that didn’t look like anyone else’s shoes.

“I’m fine,” I say. “I’m sorry, that you had an eating disorder. I just can’t believe it. You seem so normal.”

“I just think,” says Laura. “It’s really hard to be a woman, and not have issues with food.”

“Not for me!” I say.

“What is friendship about,” says Laura, almost a little sarcastic, “if not sharing secrets.” I look at Laura’s eyes. They look wet. I think about the meat of my mealy brain. She’s crying. She hugs me for a second, but then she pulls away.

“What’s wrong?” I say.

“It’s just that,” she says, “this isn’t the way that I’d hoped you’d respond.”

Laura sneezes, but I don’t say anything. She doesn’t move or look at me. I stand up to go.

As I walk out of her room she turns away as if she doesn’t want me to see her. As she does I reach out and grab onto her ponytail. I let go so quickly she doesn’t even know I did it at all. When her door closes I stand outside in the hallway and I can hear her crying. I look at my shoulder, and it’s wet from where I hugged her, just for a second. There is a body that I want. There is a body that is the one.

* * *

In high school Marian said to me about my favorite author, George Eliot. “Isn’t that just an old British man?” smiling like her mouth was a knife.

“No, it’s a woman,” I told her. “George Eliot was a fake name. Your name is her name. Mary Ann. Marian.”

“But I hate my name,” she said. Lately I open Middlemarch but my eyes can’t even focus on the words. Even I find these books a little boring at certain parts. Sometimes I go back through my photos on Facebook, to see the ones I used to post of us, from junior year of high school. Two best friends eating soft serve ice cream cones. I put them on Facebook because I knew that boys would see them. Sometimes I would see my eyes in the mirror and they would look kind of pretty and blue; but the problem is that I would always let Marian win and she and I both knew it. In all the photos I am smiling.

When I come back from Laura’s room I write her a text, to explain everything, about my mom, Marian, and Todd. I think she would understand. That Todd had liked me at one point, but over time, I made him like me less and less, like a turned banana. That I had never had a best friend that I didn’t also feel like beating with a stick. I tell her that it means so much to me that she is concerned for me. I tell her that I love her. But once it was all out in the screen of my phone I realize that I have written it down in one long sentence, like an insane person. I delete it.

This is just one of the many things I’ve done wrong in my life, not explaining this all to her.

I go running, in a circle around campus. In August, Todd and I were laying in bed together, at my mom’s house, and he started to stand up to go home. He said, “I’ll miss you,” but I thought I heard him say, “I love you,” so I said, “I love you too.”

I do think that if someone had seen a photo of us, laying in bed together, you probably would have thought that person loves the other person though I don’t think it was true. In the Facebook message Todd sent he said, as a way of leading up to telling me he wanted to break up with me, that he walked in on his mother crying, and when he asked her why she was crying she said it was because he was growing up and going off to college, and that made him cry too. I kept thinking, as I read the message, that he would say that he loved me too, but he never did.

* * *

That night after I take a shower I open the door to our room and Kaitlin is standing there, her back to me, and she jumps off the ground, her arms above her head, moving through the air, like she’s shooting a basketball. “Kaitlin Wilde…” she whispers, that’s her last name “…She shoots! She scores!”

She does a twist in the air and then she sees me, standing in the doorway watching her. She says, “I’m sorry, I’m just practicing,” and starts giggling. Something catches my eye on one of my shoulders: one of Laura’s long strands of blonde hair. I laugh too, but really I feel sad. If I had been Kaitlin, I would have been embarrassed.

Still laughing, Kaitlin looks at me and says, “Do you know what I do? I come up with nicknames for things. In my head.” She’s hysterical now but she whispers: “The bounce bounce, that’s what I call the basketball.”



Ingrid Nelson grew up in Brooklyn and Charlottesville, Virginia. Her short stories have previously been published in Slice, The Literary Review, and Apogee Journal. One has been adapted into a short film by actress and filmmaker Sarah Ramos. She lives in New York. Follow her on twitter at @ingridabyss.

2018-01-22T12:04:51+00:00 January 17th, 2018|