Short Story / Writers / Writing

Disease by Linda Tzoref

        “Which one do you want?” Joelle asked Karen.
        “I don’t care,” Karen said and shrugged.”
        Then I’ll take the one over here, away from the door.”
        Each bed was so narrow there was barely room enough for a thin person. The mattresses were flimsy, not much thicker than a giant piece of gauze. It was good enough, Karen thought. She hadn’t expected or needed luxury. The beds were nestled inside separate but identical pale yellow wooden boxes, which were attached to the concrete walls painted the exact same shade. Everything was painted so that it would match, or perhaps the idea was to make everything blend in, render it invisible. There was no way to rearrange any of the furniture.
        Such inflexibility bothered Karen; what if she wanted her bed under the window? No use in dwelling on it, since nothing could be done. At least she was finally away from home, which was the important thing.
        Looking around, she realized how tiny the room was. The large windows on the West side of the room overlooking the main lawn in the middle of campus were the one saving grace. You could see everyone who was down there; it was an anonymous way to keep track of peoples’ comings and goings.
         She already disliked her roommate. How the college had put them together seemed utterly random, and Karen was already wondering how she’d be able to put up with her for the entire semester. Joelle’s blown dry, highlighted hair and the large purse hanging from her forearm were reasons enough. She was a Jewish American Princess, and there wasn’t anyone on earth worse than that. Karen knew them and their ways she had been around enough of them in Hebrew school. They could make even a Jew anti-Semitic.
        “Now that we have that figured out, I’m going to unpack,” Karen said.
        “Yeah, oh, th-th-that’s a good idea. I have so much stuff and it’s probably already wrinkled. Don’t want it to wrinkle even more.” Joelle smoothed her shirt as she said this. It looked like silk. Karen winced and began unpacking. Did she have a stutter or was it just nerves?
        The small private college was located in the South Bay amidst a meticulously manicured campus. Not what Karen had in mind but she chose it based on three crucial criteria: it was far away from home, close to San Francisco and they hadn’t rejected her application. She hadn’t wanted to go to college at all but her mother panicked about such a possibility and forced her to apply. It was the only time in her life that she could remember her mother displaying any sort of concern towards her, and it was somewhat alarming. Normally Karen navigated her own way, she had never benefitted from parental guidance. So far from what she could tell, most of the kids were trust-fund babies or else had unlimited access to family income; one of the students was even a Prince from Qatar. It was rumored that the children of Ernest and Julio Gallo were also on campus.
        The inside of the dresser drawers smelled of dirt. Joelle was far more careful than Karen as she put her clothes away, gently placing them into the drawers as if they were rare and fragile objects. She had even lined them with flowered paper before unpacking. Karen scoffed at the fastidiousness of her roommate.
        “So what are you doing for dinner tonight?” Joelle inquired.
        “I don’t know. No plans.”
        “Your parents aren’t here?” She seemed genuinely surprised.
        “I’m worried that on a Saturday night when everyone’s parents are in town we won’t be able to get in anywhere.”
        “I’m sure you’ll find somewhere.”
        “You’re probably right, I bet there are a lot of good places up here.”
        “I wouldn’t know. I’m not from around here.”
        She wanted no further conversation with this Joelle Weisberg, and couldn’t wait for her to leave and go to her family dinner. It didn’t take long to finish unpacking as she had brought only one suitcase and it was stuffed mostly with books.
        “Well, see you later, okay? I’m going to meet my parents now.”
        “See you.”
        ‘Wait-maybe you’d like to come with us? Do you have any plans?”
        “Nope, no plans. That’s okay, I think I’ll just stay here and unpack.”
        The invitation felt like an afterthought to Karen. Besides, why would she want to have dinner with a bunch of strangers? She certainly wasn’t dressed for the occasion, and her hair was too wild. She leaned over her desk to peer out the window. All the freshmen were traipsing across campus with their families, laughing and talking. Was she the only one whose parents weren’t there? She yanked her leather jacket from the back of the desk chair onto her lap and fished in the pockets until she found her fake ID. There was a 7 Eleven across the street.
        Karen was relieved when classes began. At least there was finally something to do, and perhaps she’d even make some friends. Mostly she had signed up for general requirements, wanting to get them out of the way, not knowing what she wanted to major in anyway. It was boring and redundant as most of what was being taught she had already learned in fifth and sixth grade, but Karen didn’t mind not having to work hard. When the boredom became unbearable she checked out books from the library, mostly fiction. On the weekends Joelle went home to Anaheim, so Karen was practically living alone.
        One afternoon while she was walking to the library, the history teacher Mr. Winer told her that they were looking for her in the office, she had a phone call from her parents. Karen frowned; after all this time they were calling? They couldn’t be bothered to take her out here, why should she talk to them. She walked over to the main office, leaned inside while holding on to the door jamb and said “Mr. Winer told me I had a phone call and that it’s my mother. Tell her I do not wish to talk to her or my father at this time.”
        Most of her time was spent wandering the campus smoking, occasionally studying in the small library. Lunchtime perked up a bit as she sat with a few people who had become casual cafeteria friends: Laura the goody two shoes, Jason the pyromaniac, Matthew the fat guy who was always trying to save girls from their hormonally fueled woes.
        And then, it happened.
        Both Joelle and Karen had been asleep. They never locked their door nor did anyone else on their floor. The campus was small, and far from the city. When the door creaked open and the glowing stream of light found the floor, Karen woke up.
        It didn’t take much to rouse her as she was a light sleeper, startled by even the faintest noise. The dark made it nearly impossible to see who it was, and her eyes hadn’t yet adjusted to the blackness. She was having a difficult time trying to force open her sleep swollen eyes, yet managed to focus briefly on the glowing red numbers on her desk: 3:31 am.
There were muffled footsteps and in the dull hallway glow she was able to make out a tall and lithe female silhouette. She froze, hoping the person would just go away, then looked over at Joelle who was fast asleep. She squeezed her eyes shut but didn’t know what to do. If she breathed too loudly, she would draw unwanted attention to herself.
        Maybe if all sound stopped, the stranger would go away. Suddenly there was a flurry of feeling up and down her arm, as if a large insect was using the velvety stretch of flesh between the inside of her elbow and wrist as a sidewalk. The tickling continued, forcing Karen to exhale.
        “Hey!” She stage whispered. “What are you doing? Who are you?”
        Karen opened her eyes wider. A girl with tea brown skin and close-cropped curly hair was perched on the edge of the mattress. The girl’s breath was heavy and steady and smelled of sweet alcohol and cigarette smoke. Her skin still had traces of perfume despite comingling with the bitter tobacco odor. Big black eyes, vaguely almond shaped, mutely peered at her and Karen blinked, trying to get her vision back in focus.
        “I’m Gabrielle. We’ve seen each other around.”
        “We have? I don’t know you. What are you doing here? It’s the middle of the night and I was fast asleep.”
Karen felt her heart thumping against her chest like a tiny animal struggling to break free. What did this beautiful girl want? What if Joelle woke up?
         “I just wanted to come see you, that’s all.” The stranger was slurring her words. Come see me? She doesn’t even know me. Karen was puzzled but intrigued now. She was stunningly beautiful. Had this girl been watching her from afar? Why?
        Glancing downward, she now caressed Karen’s arm, but the strokes suddenly became frantic and hurried, as if someone threatened to snatch her away at any moment. The long, large hands seemed bound together at the wrists and hewn from her body, a pair of fleshy wings fluttering ceaselessly over Karen who was now half-awake and beginning to enjoy the touching. No one, especially a girl, had ever touched her like that.
        “So…. we’ll meet again. I guess I better go now, huh.”
        “Yes, you really should go. Luckily my roommate didn’t wake up.” Karen glanced over at Joelle who was snoring with her tiny mouth wide open. “I would like to go back to sleep.”
        “Okay, well, I’m in room 221, over in Brawner hall. Come over sometime.”
        “Why would I do that? We don’t know each other.”
        “Well I’d like to get to know you.” Gabrielle smiled, revealing perfect white teeth.
         “Do you even know what my name is?”
        “Of course.”
        “What is it then?”
        “Karen. Karen Cutt.”
        “How do you know my name?”
        She shrugged and smiled coyly, this time with her lips together.
        “I just do. Not gonna reveal my secrets to you. I’ve seen you before, you know, watched you walking to your room.”
        “I’ve never seen you.”
        “You will. Trust me, you will.”
        During daylight hours Karen thought about the late night visitor and wondered if it had even really happened. Maybe it was just a dream? She was now devoted to reliving the whole experience, going over every detail. There was a perverse sort of pleasure in trying to figure it all out.
        Having her very own stalker was a brand new phenomenon, and Karen thought it meant that there was someone out there who was actually thinking of her. Someone liked her. Amongst so many questions was one that lingered, however: Why me? This proved unanswerable, yet Karen persisted in wondering. She had never been very popular in school, in fact was teased mercilessly starting in junior high and it didn’t stop until her sophomore year in high school when she had finally had enough. That was the day she stood up for herself after seven years of hell.
        It added merit to her disbelief that someone like Gabrielle would be even remotely interested in her. The alcohol must’ve played a significant role, of that Karen was sure. Or maybe it had been a dare from one of her friends. Either way, she wanted to see her again but hadn’t the nerve to go to her room, even if she had been explicitly invited.
        Karen ached to have someone to talk to. The lunch crowd was only acquaintances, not people she could confide in. All she could do was hope she’d run into Gabrielle, which seemed inevitable on such a small campus. The excitement of such a possibility made her so nervous, however, she became too nauseous to eat. Over the course of a week she lost five pounds.
        On Wednesday during lunchtime Karen was sitting alone in the dining hall when she noticed Gabrielle standing in line holding a tray, craning her neck above the glass panels to see what she might choose to eat. At the cashier Gabrielle paid, then smiled when she caught Karen’s eye. Her proximity caused Karen to shyly turn away, excited and fearful that she would have to talk to her, engage in a real conversation in the bright and unforgiving daylight. The nausea, which was usually at a low simmer, was now rising. She put her fork down and slowly sipped some water. Gabrielle walked over, gripping her tray and smiling widely, exposing gleaming white teeth and small gums. Her teeth were as perfect as those girls in the toothpaste commercials. Karen looked down at her plate.
        “Well hello there. Is anyone sitting here?”
        “I don’t think so, but–”
        “Do you mind if I sit with you?”
        “I was waiting for my friend Matt.”
        “What does he look like?”
        “Dark hair, chubby. He might not even be here yet.”
        “Since he’s not, may I sit with you?”
        “I suppose so.”
        “I promise I won’t bite.”
        Karen tried to smile but was too nervous. Gabrielle set her backpack down on the floor, then slid into the plastic bucket chair. A few people were still finishing their lunch, but nearly everyone had already left for their afternoon classes.
        “I feel like I need to explain something.” Gabrielle said. “That night when I came into your room? I was pretty drunk.”
        Her face was perfect. Smooth creamy skin, not a pore or pimple in sight, and her long, thick black eyelashes curved slightly upward. It was the kind of beauty that required neither adornment nor enhancement.
        “Oh, yeah– I know.”
        “So, if I scared you, I didn’t mean to. It was the alcohol, I don’t usually do things like that.”
        “You didn’t scare me, I was just surprised. It isn’t every day that someone comes to visit you in the middle of the night.”
        Gabrielle chuckled.
        “I’ve been watching you for a while.” She smiled. “There’s something mysterious about you.”
        Karen turned bright red and looked away.
        “People—the people here aren’t very friendly, and I don’t really get along with my roommate. We’re too different, you know?” After she said this Karen wondered if she had perhaps confessed far too much.
        “You seem so unlike anyone I’ve ever known. Where are you from? You’re not from California, are you?”
        Karen shook her head for emphasis.
        “So where are you from, then?”
        “Milwaukee. It’s in Wisconsin.”
        Karen gripped her hands underneath the table so she wouldn’t be tempted to begin gnawing on her cuticles. At times she chewed them so voraciously she drew blood. As a small child it had just been her nails but come adolescence the anxiety swelled and she had graduated to biting the skin around her nails but not the nails themselves. The conversation and empty cafeteria made it seem as if no one else existed, as if the whole world had stopped and there was only she and Gabrielle. Now she had a name for the beautiful stranger. The room and Gabrielle’s face grew blurry for a moment, and she felt light headed, a little dizzy. Karen blinked hard, several times.
        “What are you doing later?” Gabrielle asked.
        “I don’t know. Homework maybe.”
        “Do you want to come over to my room?”
        “Around eight?”
        At six o’clock Karen started preparing for the visit. She had felt sick at dinner time and had stayed in her room instead, lying down. Her stomach felt like it was being wrung out like a dirty rag. In the bathroom, the cold porcelain was soothing against her cheek.
        While washing her face she leaned into the counter and looked in the mirror. It was extraordinarily puzzling as to what Gabrielle could possibly see in her. The large pores on her nose and forehead looked even larger, her coarse features coarser: thick dark eyebrows seemed too unruly, and the narrow dark brown eyes were almost beady. Everything was either too small or too big. She scrubbed her face hard and patted it dry before applying acne lotion. Make-up would help,perhaps some concealer too, a bit of lip color, black kohl around the eyes.
        Gabrielle answered the door in stonewashed blue jeans and a white button-down oxford. Karen liked the contrast between the crispness of the shirt against the softly worn denim. Even in such a casual, thrown together outfit she was effortlessly elegant.
        “Hi. Come in.”
        The ebony eyes scanned Karen’s face and body. What must she think? Karen started feeling queasy again; she seemed to be the wrong person in the wrong place. It was impossible not to notice the dazzling beauty and be intimidated by it. Gabrielle smiled then gestured for Karen to sit next to her on the floor. The room was so tiny it was the only place they could sit together other than the bed, so it was a relief to be on the floor. A small desk across from them was pushed against the wall beneath the window, cluttering the tiny space even further. On one of the beds was a stuffed Snoopy and Woodstock, and a single poster of Sade and her thick red lips. Karen found the stuffed animals childish, slightly creepy and she hoped they didn’t belong to Gabrielle.
        “So, this is my room. Not too bad, is it?”
        “It’s much neater than mine. Not so much stuff. You don’t have a roommate?”
        “I do, but she’s with her boyfriend tonight.”
        She smiled nervously and tried to think of something else to talk about. Gabrielle held her gaze longer than she was used to and it made her self-conscious. The prolonged and unwavering eye contact was disarming.
        “You’re so quiet. I want to know more about you, why don’t you tell me about yourself?”
        “There’s really not much to tell.”
        “Come on, that can’t be true. “
        “I’d much rather know more about you. Like, where are you from?”
        “Here. I grew up right here in Palo Alto.”
        “And what are you going to major in?”
        “Probably marketing.”
        Business. Karen didn’t think too highly of the subject but this might change her mind. Without any hesitation, Gabrielle reached out and started playing with Karen’s hair, twisting it around her slender fingers, examining the coarse, tight curls. Karen felt her jaw tighten.
        “Your hair is so curly and kinky. It’s pretty. I like it.”
        “I hate it. I’ve always wanted straight hair.”
        “It just seems so much easier. Plus I don’t like always standing out. At least not where my looks are concerned.”
        “That hair—so kinky. What ethnicity are you?”
        Her questions were numerous and baffling.
        “I’m Jewish.”
        “So that explains the kinky hair. It’s almost like black people’s.”
        Karen didn’t understand why Gabrielle asked such unusual questions but she was beginning to enjoy the attention. Interacting with people wasn’t one of Karen’s strengths; she was terribly shy and had never had too many friends. Before arriving in California she had resolved to herself that she’d try and make more of an effort to overcome her social ineptitude. How hard could it be? Gabrielle had stopped talking, however, and her hand had gone from playing with Karen’s hair down to her collarbone, the one on the right, the one she had broken when she was thirteen. Soon enough her hand slipped underneath Karen’s shirt and over the bra, traveled slowly down to her stomach then up again to the bony hollow between the breasts. When Gabrielle cupped Karen’s breasts she felt her lips drifting towards Gabrielle’s as if she couldn’t stop it even if she had wanted to. They began to kiss, but then Karen jerked away.
        “I have to go. I really have to go.”
        She got up and slammed the door behind her without looking back. Running down the hallway the fluorescent lights burned her eyes, but she kept on going and didn’t stop until she was in her room.
        She was conflicted. The attraction and repulsion made her weary and dizzy so she cloistered herself for a couple weeks. It didn’t last, for eventually Gabrielle’s unwavering tenacity wore her down. Karen was impressed, she had never seen such single-mindedness, nor had she ever been the object of anyone’s desire. The fact that it was a female made her fight it, but she could no longer push her away.
        Why Gabrielle was interested in her was still a complete mystery, one Karen no longer tried to solve. It was as if her entire being were infused with a miraculous new drug no one had ever heard of before, and she hoped the feeling would never disappear. She continued eating lunch on occasion with her assortment of acquaintances, none of them ever asked her about her personal life and she certainly didn’t offer anything. But more and more even the noon hour was spent with Gabrielle. Besides, what would she even say to her friends? Whatever it was that existed between them she had no name for.
Nine months now she had been out in California and still hadn’t spoken to her parents. Being with Gabrielle made it much less lonely, even if Karen didn’t tell her all the things she wanted to. For if Gabrielle really got to know her, she feared, she wouldn’t want to be around her. Revelations were useless, at least to the ones whose ears had to bear such self-indulgent confessions.
        Evenings they spent together, sometimes doing homework, sometimes just lying around. It was difficult for Karen to focus on her studies, yet she couldn’t stay away from Gabrielle. Night never arrived soon enough. During the day, especially in the middle of the hot afternoons, Karen would glance up at the clock during class, struggling to pay attention to the professor but unable to refrain from counting the hours and minutes until she could be with Gabrielle.
        After awhile, the kissing began and sometimes there was a bit more but it always terrified Karen. At around midnight she’d return to her room, longing to stay but too petrified of what it might mean to sleep naked next to a girl, or even to sleep clothed next to a girl. Gabrielle never asked her to stay, either, and so their unspoken arrangement remained.
Never did they venture out beyond the walls of Gabrielle’s dorm room, although Karen knew she had friends. While together in Gabrielle’s room they didn’t do much, mostly drank, sometimes vodka and orange juice other times whiskey and coke. Every time they saw one another, Karen still felt the jumpiness in her stomach but Gabrielle seemed so sure of herself and utterly unflappable. That in itself was simultaneously alluring and alarming. The coolness of her confidence was a balm; one that she wanted to touch and apply to herself.
        After awhile Karen stopped caring that her parents had only called once, and even Joelle ceased to annoy her. They still hardly ever saw one another since Joelle spent every weekend either with her parents or her boyfriend and when they did bump into one another there was nothing to speak about. Karen would never ever tell Joelle about her relationship with Gabrielle, besides she didn’t even know what it was or what to call it.
        Nearly twilight, and Karen was walking to the library. She needed to do research for a history paper that was due on Monday. Maybe later she’d go see Gabrielle, although studies, for once, had to come first. Good grades were not important to Karen, but she didn’t want to fail either. College was simply something to get through, like an awkward meal with your family. For the time being her plans to travel the world were at a standstill. It was something she had wanted to do since high school, and if her mother hadn’t of forced her to apply to college she might be somewhere in Asia right now.
Maybe she should mention this to Gabrielle? They could travel together. Now she was smiling, for the thought of being with her favorite person in various exotic destinations made everything else seem bearable. Almost at the door to the library she felt someone nearby, maybe even behind her.
        Startled, Karen quickly around. The accusation felt like a physical assault, someone throwing their hands around her throat and tightening them. It was a word she hadn’t heard in awhile, one that was normally assigned to man-ish gym teachers and it was one that absolutely did not apply to her. Her assailant’s face was vaguely familiar, but she didn’t have a name to go with it.
        “Are you talking to me?” Karen asked. She was so startled that she heard her own voice quivering.
        “That’s right, dyke.”
        Again, the word hit her hard like someone had punched her. She noticed that the girl was not alone; there were three others and they all drew closer, encircling her like a pack of well-groomed dogs. Karen looked into the ringleader’s eyes and noticed her accuser was wearing colored contacts, changing the black to blue, but the epicanthic fold was unmistakable. Karen had noticed these girls around campus before but always avoided them, they reminded her of the popular girls in high school. Skinny chicken legs, she thought, each and every one of them. Straight glossy hair, tanned skin, short shorts, and bony knees. Karen’s chubby knees stayed that way, even if she dieted.
        “What are you talking about? I’m not a dyke.”
        “Yeah right,” the Asian girl said, hand on hip.
        Melanie. That was her name. Suddenly it came to her.
        “None of you know me or even my name so maybe you should stop spreading rumors.”
        The girls giggled louder, a demonic female choir, and Karen ran from them as fast as she could, straight into the library’s bathroom. She was so winded from her furious sprint that she could barely breathe and couldn’t stop crying, she was gasping for air and angry with herself for letting them get to her. Why had she allowed such stupid, superficial girls hurt her so badly?
        Gabrielle would have never reacted this way. At least no one had seen the confrontation, the public humiliation hadn’t been that public. Even through her tears she could hear their tittering, over and over, a hateful soundtrack. Never before had she let such girls bother her, why now?
        She glanced in the mirror, wiped her face, blew her nose then walked back to her room. There was a small bottle of 151 stashed in her closet. She finished it by herself, hoping Joelle wouldn’t be back anytime soon since it was a weekday. Things were getting out of hand; she was spending too much time with Gabrielle. It’d have to change, starting tomorrow. Too drunk to dwell on it any longer, Karen fell asleep on top of her bed, clothes and sneakers still on.
        She simply avoided Gabrielle. She stopped going to her room in the evenings, started lunching with the motley assortment of misfits she had befriended back at the beginning of the year. They acted as if she had never left, and caught her up with all the goings on and changes that had taken place in her absence. No one asked her any questions, and she didn’t offer any information. Besides, no one would ever stick their neck out for you or have the ability to change your circumstances, so why bother wallowing in anything with indulgent chatter? She knew from her own family that her mother would never protect her from her father, that nothing would ever change and so she had left and gone as far away as possible.
        At first the pain was so great she started drinking even more than before, every night and sometimes beginning as early as five in the afternoon. Otherwise it overcame her like a tidal wave of nausea, and she was paralyzed, unable to sleep. Gabrielle tried to talk to her, and a few times even followed Karen back to her room, begging her to say something. Anything. She continued in her silence, ignoring the plea. What was there to say? All she knew was, associating with her had become dangerous. People were talking. It needed to end, whatever it was.
        She couldn’t bear it any longer. Gabrielle was following her to her room yet again.
        “Please,” Karen said, “stop following me.”
        “But you won’t talk to me. Why won’t you talk to me?”
        “I have nothing to say, I’m sorry. I-just- can’t. I’m sorry, I just can’t.”
        She ran upstairs, her backpack sloshing back and forth on her shoulders. Once inside, Karen set it down and flopped on her bed, trying desperately not to cry. Tears are for sissies. Only babies cry.
        At dinner the next evening, she sat down at a table next to the blonde chubby boy from her Sixties history class and asked him what he was doing that night. He told her he had to study but had tickets for the Grateful Dead concert that weekend, would she like to come?
        “I would love to” she said. Karen had never liked or listened to the Grateful Dead, had never had anything but disdain for hippies, yet it seemed like her best option.
        “Really? I’d like for you to go with me, but I always thought—“
        “You always thought what?”
        “I heard that you were a lesbian. I thought you were a lesbian.”
        The word came out very matter-of-factly; there was nothing pejorative yet the very sound of the sibilant syllable and the hard consonant at the end, the word itself sounded like a disease. Karen shuddered.
        “I don’t know who you heard that from but I’m not.”
        He smiled, looking relieved.

Linda Tzoref lives in Atlanta and is working on her first novel. She was born and raised in Milwaukee and has lived all over the place. She received an M.F.A. from Emerson College.


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