The college was historically a safe school. Over the years, its campus had spread and now covered most of the conservative town. The school wasn’t known for anything in particular and boasted no famous alums, but students kept alive a number of campus myths – that the statues came to life whenever the campus green was deserted, that a girl from an ‘opposite world’ lived among them in secret, and that Crestwood Lake was polluted and the fish inside were poisonous.
Sarah first saw David at freshman orientation, and wanted to say something. She nervously folded her orientation packet. She didn’t feel well. ‘Where did all these people come from?’ she blurted out. The other students seemed diseased. They were completing a ropes course. They were revealing things about themselves too easily. ‘Hartford, Connecticut,’ said the girl next to her. David examined Sarah. She wore her dark hair pinned up with bobby pins. She appeared lovable. He said nothing.
During the first week of school, David let Sarah cut in front of him in line at the cafeteria, and they quickly became friends. Sarah hung out exclusively with David and his roommate Colin. They didn’t have a car, but they went on epic walking adventures. Sarah would study for six hours straight (she was pre-med and struggling) so the three of them could do karaoke at a Chinese buffet on the highway.
One euphoric night they dared each other to swim in Crestwood Lake. Drunk from their incredible group dynamic, they stripped to their underwear. Sarah waded in while the boys dove off the little dock. They emerged laughing, and Sarah shyly noted the outline of their penises in their wet, clinging boxers.
Sarah couldn’t tell if David was attracted to her. One day, waiting in Health Services, she took a moronic magazine quiz to find out. ‘You should just ask him,’ said Georgie, Sarah’s roommate. She had thin hair and a blunt manner. A flimsy bond was growing between them. They had the promising beginnings of a few inside jokes.
Georgie had her own set of friends, and more than once Sarah came back to the room to find them all playing UNO, or something equally inexplicable. Occasionally, Sarah would reach her door and see a bra hanging from the doorknob – their signal. Sarah would wait in the common room, fuming, until some disheveled boy scurried out of their room.
‘Just ask him out,’ Georgie said.
‘I don’t want to make things weird,’ Sarah said.
‘Things are already weird. Didn’t he give you a cardboard flower?’
‘It was from an assignment,’ Sarah said, glowing.
Georgie felt a wave of annoyance and opened her science book to conceal it.
‘What should I wear?’ Sarah asked. Georgie feigned disinterest. She pretended to study. She was afraid that if Sarah and David dated, Sarah would practically move in with him and Georgie would be left alone in their glum room, going crazy, talking to herself. The same exact thing had happened to her at the pre-college program at Bard.
Sarah found David’s door open. Colin was adding seasoning to a bowl of dry noodles. He was a simple boy from Florida, gracelessly floating in his own toxic thoughts. His soft, white cheeks reminded Sarah of pillows. Colin had the poster with the Pink Floyd albums painted on girls’ backs, though he didn’t actually like Pink Floyd. He was obsessed with skiing because it made him feel ‘atmospheric’.
‘I’m about to make both of you vomit,’ Colin said. The three of them crowded around Colin’s old PC and spent an hour watching Internet videos. They gave Sarah the good chair, David’s leather desk chair. Ever since the lake incident, Colin eyed her in a sexual way that both disgusted and encouraged her. She shuddered when she imagined sleeping with him, but she kept imagining it.
‘What if you could download weed?’ he asked. David’s eyes met Sarah’s. David was used to smarter friends, but there was something primal and human about his roommate, David thought.
Sarah showed them a strange Indian music video her high school friends had found hysterical, and David and his roommate smiled faintly. In the video, the Indian pop star’s hat was superimposed on top of his head, and the hat danced of its own accord. Sarah laughed quietly. Then Colin took them to a site Sarah had never heard of and clicked on a link. At first, she couldn’t make out what was happening. The image slowly came into focus. Something wiggled out of a crocodile’s asshole, a giraffe’s long black tongue. The video froze.
‘This dorm’s Internet sucks my dick,’ Colin whined.
The video started up again. The black tongue writhed. David asked Sarah if she wanted to take a walk.
The two of them strolled around campus bumping into each other in a friendly, testing way. Sarah was glad people saw them together. When they passed other couples, Sarah couldn’t help but smile at them. They walked to the waterfall that was the college’s logo. It was David’s favorite spot on campus. He looked at Sarah and thought about kissing her.
‘What an overrated waterfall!’ Sarah exclaimed. Geese passed overhead honking. David said nothing. They walked to the Science Department quad and Sarah made jokes about the personalities of the buildings. ‘That one is Seymore,’ she said. She wasn’t used to making such confusing jokes. Desperate to keep David from getting bored, she showed him her fake limp.
When they reached his dorm, Sarah told him she liked him, and at first he grinned, but then he slowly let go of her hand. ‘What is it?’ she asked.
Tentatively, David revealed that he had a crush on the girl from an opposite world. Sarah laughed. ‘That person doesn’t exist,’ she said, and walked miserably back to her dorm.
Some students thought they had seen Opposite Worlds Girl, but their stories were never conclusive. Someone claimed to have made out with her at a party, and was sure she wasn’t human. She was supposedly an awkward size. David insisted he’d seen her drinking from the campus fountain one night. He had been on his way back from a party when he saw a girl crouched on the cold stone, wet hair stuck to her face.
David had swayed, feeling each of the four beers he’d drank. The girl squinted at him, making no attempt to conceal her disappointment. ‘What year are you?’ David asked her.
The girl wiped her mouth with her sleeve. A dark coat obscured her body as she walked past him. David followed her. He couldn’t remember a time he’d been so brazen. When the girl turned to scowl at him, he felt a mixture of shame and excitement. For weeks David fantasized about her. She seemed like the heroine in a videogame, like she had a pet hawk, or could turn people to stone.
David and Colin sat in their dorm room, distracting themselves from homework. ‘Did you tell Sarah yet?’ Colin asked.
‘Yeah. She’s awesome and stuff. I just want someone more exciting.’ David wanted his first time to be momentous. Fantasy novels had inflated his expectations. He didn’t totally believe in fairies, but he found aliens very sexual – ‘a third gender’, he had argued in one of his Humanities classes.
‘You’re crazy,’ Colin said. ‘Drunk virgins are always seeing things. You probably imagined that girl.’
David felt dizzy. It had been a mistake to confide in him.
Sarah wrote angry, sad things in the margins of a highly recommended book she was struggling through, then went to petworld to distract herself. Dogs licked the cold metal of their cages. Fish swam around dragging long, feathery poops behind them. The canaries ruthlessly pecked their little bells. ‘What are you hunting?’ a husky petworld employee asked. Sarah shrugged. She walked into the back room and looked in the lonely glass aquariums. Each aquarium held a bunch of leaves and a fake log. Sarah stared like she was doing a Magic Eye puzzle until she saw the concealed animal in each one. Two lizards with needle noses clung desperately to thin branches. Waves of guilt traveled through her. What kind of guilt? she wondered.
Suddenly, she was a turtle-owner. Her turtle had the jiggly chin of an old man and a sickly odor that neither Sarah nor Georgie acknowledged. The turtle had a black face with yellow marks and a weird, baggy piece of skin connecting it to its shell. ‘I’m nice, aren’t I?’ Sarah asked it. The turtle was completely awake and indifferent. Sarah fed it berries and insects. Occasionally, an insect escaped and flew wildly around the room while Sarah watched it with a sinking feeling.
Sarah was dismayed to see David smoking outside the mailroom. To her, cigarettes were useless. All smokers had a death wish, and walked towards death slowly, in a quandary of pretension. Sarah told Georgie that she felt no attraction towards him whatsoever. Georgie had long ago grown tired of talking about David, and gave cold, limiting responses. ‘But look what he gave me!’ Sarah cried. David had given her a tiny origami turtle and Sarah could not interpret the gesture. How had word traveled that she’d gotten a turtle? The turtle stretched its neck out of its shell and made Sarah sadder.
On Halloween, Sarah went to a dorm room party with Georgie and some of her friends. All the furniture had been piled in the common room, and the air was thick with manufactured fog. Several students were dressed as Opposite Worlds Girl. No two costumes were alike. They were all ludicrous. ‘It’s just people too lazy to come up with a real costume,’ Sarah said.
‘What?’ said Georgie over the loud music. Several people were dancing and Sarah admired them. She danced furiously for five minutes, then became tired.
‘What are you supposed to be?’ a boy asked. Sarah was wearing all red.
‘Lipstick,’ she said. He stared at her.
Sarah walked through a clump of people to get back to Georgie. Georgie had to explain to her why this was fun. ‘It’s not, like, real life,’ she said, holding hands with a boy Sarah had never noticed before.
‘Beer?’ offered one of Georgie’s friends.
‘No thanks,’ Sarah said and felt the gaze of the group fall on her.
‘What are you supposed to be?’ one of the girls asked.
‘Lipstick,’ Sarah said.
Sarah holed up in the library studying, sneaking Easy Snacks, hoping David’s architecture classes were impossibly hard. She loved David. She hated David. She swung back and forth, stunned by the tedium of this. David is a very beautiful being, she thought. Sarah imagined David kissing her and telling her he’d been joking. She imagined his bare chest pressed against hers. She checked to make sure the door to her cubicle was locked, then lowered herself to the ground and lay on her back. Bits of Doritos and scraps of paper clung to the fibers of the scratchy carpet. Sarah slid her hand down her underwear. She began to rub herself convincingly, but then thought about her turtle. Sarah stopped, confused. She touched herself again and imagined the turtle’s wrinkly neck. How stupid, she thought. She tried to put it out of her head, but the turtle had ruined it. She lay there defeated.
Emails from her high school friends about their college adventures made Sarah self-conscious of her quiet first semester. Her pre-med classes were interesting, but Sarah’s fascination with the body distracted her. When her teacher spoke about veins and bones and muscles, Sarah stiffened, realizing that these things were inside her. She had always liked the idea of being a doctor. Doctors got paid and had obvious morals. They were clean and calm. People always needed them. And a woman doctor was even better. A woman doctor was automatically sexy. She had glasses and composure. Patients confided in her, and she was discreet, telling only her best friends.
It was just another daydream to Sarah. She was squeamish. Many of Sarah’s classmates had lost someone close to them, and this loss propelled them onward to cure things, to help people, to study all hours of the night. Eventually she’d have to switch majors, but a sense of belonging kept her with the other pre-meds – especially skinny Aggie with the ready laugh, the ice prince Jon Connor and a large, hilarious genius they called Frup, who Sarah liked to partner with in Lab.
David expected a response after the origami turtle, but never heard from Sarah. His roommate said he’d seen her running, all in red, away from the Denswell Dorm Halloween party. Somehow, in just a couple of weeks, Sarah had become someone from long ago. David was lonely. His mother kept writing him letters in longhand (she could not grasp email), and David read them in perturbed silence. To his chagrin he read, You’ve gone away a boy, and now you’re a man. The more David jerked off to Opposite Worlds Girl, the more he knew she didn’t really exist.
Georgie fell in love with a small, ugly boy and moved permanently into his off-campus housing, using Sarah’s dorm room as storage space for her lesser clothes and books. Before Georgie had gotten a boyfriend, Sarah hadn’t thought her capable of something so big. But really the boyfriend was rather small, she reminded herself.
Alone in the room, Sarah surprised herself by speaking aloud, urging herself through the day. Thanksgiving break was coming up and Sarah needed someone to take care of the turtle. Georgie was going to be away. So were Frup and the other pre-med people. She lay on her bed, unable to think of one person who would do her the favor.
Around this time, Opposite Worlds Girl began posting on the campus website as ‘The Pip’. The student bulletin board was typically littered with promotional band videos and apartment listings. The Pip wrote that everyone was enormous and terrible. She said she could improve people, but didn’t feel like it. She sounded bedraggled.
Sarah woke up sensing someone in the room. She was so scared she couldn’t move. It was excruciating. For nearly an hour she lay motionless. She wanted to shriek but couldn’t generate the air. How could someone have gotten into her room? Finally she sat up to face the person, and saw it was just the turtle on its back, waving its claws.
Sarah ate cereal that morning, but didn’t taste it. She wandered around her room aimlessly picking up clothes and papers. She tapped the glass of the tank and the turtle’s head ducked inside his shell. She tapped again, louder. The tank smelled like a bus toilet. Sarah felt a dissatisfaction so total and overwhelming that she threw herself on Georgie’s bare mattress. The cheap vinyl cover stuck to her. She felt hidden from all life and wonder. She tried to give in to the feeling and accept it, but a wild energy flared in her stomach. She decided to sleep with David’s roommate. The idea bounced in her mind, then like a squatter, settled in her crumbling house of thoughts.
Sarah left her dorm in her tightest clothes. Outside, students clustered in small groups, leaning against the concrete columns damp with last night’s rain, sitting on benches, debating The Pip’s posts, applying make-up while looking into compact mirrors, stretching, smoking, laughing in a way Sarah could easily distinguish as flirting. Jon Connor, the pre-med beauty, was reading under a tree. Sarah walked quickly in the other direction.
She checked David’s room, but no one was there. She checked the common room and saw Bart Simpson’s face had been drawn over a porn star’s breasts. Sarah lingered at the poster, waiting for it to deter her, but it didn’t. She left the dorm and scanned the kids in the quad – none were David’s roommate. Georgie’s friend Randy stopped her. ‘I can’t watch your turtle, Sarah, sorry.’
‘No problem!’ Sarah said, itching to leave. Randy stood looking at Sarah’s outfit.
‘I’m going home after all,’ Randy explained. The cold stung Sarah’s ears. Across the field, a bold voice sang the first few bars of an Elton John song, then erupted into laughter. She needed to sleep with David’s roommate. She told Randy she was running late and waved bye.
Moving methodically through campus, Sarah recalled the few times she’d had sex, how disappointing and ordinary it had been. She had expected it would feel more dramatic, like being absorbed by a giant ball, or murdered with pleasure. ‘Sarah!’ Frup called from his third-story dorm window, but Sarah pretended not to hear.
She finally found Colin in the cafeteria. For a second, she forgot why she was looking for him. He was wearing a shirt that said ‘Just Smoke It’. He was holding a stack of mini cereal boxes so tall he needed his chin to keep them balanced.
‘Do you want to sleep with me?’ Sarah asked.
‘Sure,’ he said.
He came over with twelve beers he’d gotten from his R.A. and a bag of peanuts from a vending machine. ‘Nice turtle,’ he said. Sarah looked out her window at the sad, bloated sky. Happy shouts floated in from the quad.
Colin sat on Georgie’s bare mattress. ‘No, this one,’ Sarah pointed. He nodded and moved to Sarah’s unmade bed. With real interest he studied the photographs of Sarah’s high school friends taped to her wall. The room filled with a lo-fi version of the Mexican Hat Dance, and she was disconcerted to see it was his phone ringing. She turned on the TV as a reflex. Instantly TV people started talking and laughing in a way that made Sarah recoil. She lowered the volume until their voices were a soothing layer of sound, like a party happening on the other side of the world.
She sat beside him and he kissed her suddenly. It wasn’t bad kissing and she let herself fall into it. He took off his pants. Sarah took off her shirt with the same nonchalance. He began a systematic kissing of her entire body. His elbow brushed against one of the photos on her wall, the one of her friends in theatrical poses in the supermarket. Sarah watched as the photo fell between the bed and the wall while David’s roommate caressed her breasts with mindless fervor.
When she reached her hand into his underwear, again she felt the turtle. She forced herself to rub Colin’s penis, but found herself staring at the tank. The turtle was so awake. The turtle slowly chewed air. Colin moaned, then muttered something that sounded suspiciously like ‘let’s make love’.
For a few minutes, he struggled with the condom she gave him. It was one of three she had taken from Health Services at the beginning of the semester. Only taking one had seemed sad, as if her having sex was very unlikely. Two seemed too timid, what if one broke, then she’d have to use her last one . . .
At first it was terrible. Sarah envisioned the rest of her life as a constant coping. Where would she live? There were no livable cities. They changed positions and Colin was behind her. She watched the lively TV faces before glancing away. One of his hands squeezed her breast and the other moved confidently between her legs. She didn’t want him to stop. The bed was trembling. She remembered Colin emerging from the lake, the outline of his penis through his Miami Dolphins boxers. She turned her head to kiss him and he kissed her excitedly. ‘Oh shit,’ she said and lost herself in a powerful orgasm. She held herself up until Colin came too, and then collapsed on her stomach. Fuck you, she thought to the turtle.
In bed, Colin and Sarah talked about nothing of great value, but there was such a glaze of good feeling that everything charmed her. David seemed outdated to her, like what she had imagined a boyfriend would be when she was a little girl.
The next day, The Pip announced that she would make a public appearance after Thanksgiving break. Every student received an email. Sarah immediately deleted hers. David sat mesmerized in front of his screen. The Dean of the College drafted a response, but was urged by his wife not to send it.
Sarah packed frantically for break. She dumped a heap of turtle food and the rest of her bottled water into the tank. For the first time all year, she vacuumed. In the airport shuttle, kids from school spoke of The Pip’s announcement. A girl debunked the whole thing as ‘someone’s stupid performance art midterm’. Sarah wordlessly agreed.
Upon her arrival, Sarah was treated like a refugee by her parents. They piled food on her plate and gave her new clothes. She surrendered to her family’s daily routine. Her little brother had taken many of her possessions for his own, but Sarah found she didn’t mind. She saw her pre-college self as badly naive, but couldn’t understand what, if anything, had changed. Her parents had allowed her to leave, and from this she felt private and apart. She could become a drug addict or a prostitute and they wouldn’t know. She could convert to a cult, enlist in the army – yet they calmly asked her about her roommate, her classes, and told Sarah of the small news in their town.
She went out to dinner with her high school friends, most of whom had put on weight. The restaurant they chose used to be Sarah’s favorite, but now it embarrassed her. It was a bar-and-grill chain that served crushed potato chips in the salads. Sarah picked at a mozzarella popper and her friends teased her. ‘Not healthy enough for Doctor Sarah?’ her friend Ethan asked, dipping his finger in ranch sauce. Later, Sarah checked her email and saw Colin had forwarded her an email titled ‘Mutated Thanksgiving Children’. She found herself laughing.
When she got back to her dorm, the turtle was staring at her. Sarah realized guiltily that she’d been hoping it was dead. She bought expensive turtle food from Whole Foods to alleviate her guilt. Two days later, the turtle died. Sarah threw it in the trash. She had no roommate to judge her. The next morning, she awoke with a clear head. She bought sand at Michael’s and turned the tank into a Japanese rock garden.
Sarah continued hanging out with Colin. He stopped smoking weed to apply for a lifeguard job and seemed more dimensional to her, or maybe it was just the sex (as Frup theorized). However it happened, Colin’s eyes were kind, his face was goofily handsome, and Sarah felt relaxed around him.
On the day scheduled for Opposite Worlds Girl’s appearance, the students filled Franklin Auditorium, which had hosted countless theater productions, but had since been condemned. Sarah initially declined Colin’s invitation, but she couldn’t resist a glimpse of the girl whose very reputation had excited David more than her actual self. She followed Colin, forsaking Lab.
Inside, the air was damp and heavy. The lobby was littered with construction equipment and cinder blocks. Dusty remnants of an ancient machine sat in shadows. The students filed into the auditorium and stared at a chandelier surrounded by ceiling cracks. The walls of the cavernous room were covered with sheets. Sarah looked at the faint patterning on their edges and saw that it was mold. Even if there was a girl from another world, Sarah thought, she wouldn’t be interested in David.
The student body chattered noisily. The room was filled to capacity. People stood in the aisles with their coats and bags at their feet. Couples sat holding hands. A few teachers huddled conspicuously near the doorways. Someone was eating a burrito and the smell wafted across the room. Everyone was still catching up with each other from break. The auditorium held a festive feeling – the triumph of days off.
There was a mirror and a cotton ball lying on the center of the stage. The students were restless. Some had gotten up to leave, but now waited at the doorway, reluctant to miss out. A drip of water fell from the ceiling and hit the mirror. ‘It is her,’ David said softly. Someone laughed. The cotton ball darted excitedly in the water’s stream and expanded. ‘What is this shit?’ Jon Connor said.
The Pip appeared from behind a curtain. She was wearing a torn campus sweatshirt. Her frizzy hair had been forced into a number of overstuffed braids. She cleared her throat. ‘The world is the most important thing,’ she announced. There was feedback from the mic and people groaned. She paced the stage. ‘I’ve seen her before,’ Sarah said, shocked.
‘Where’s David?’ Colin asked, grinning. Sarah searched the crowd for him, remembering where she had seen the girl – alone in the cafeteria, eating something goopy.
‘Is there going to be a q and a?’ a boy asked. Everyone around him laughed. Sarah felt an exhilarating and ominous feeling. Was this girl going to make a fool of herself or perform an act of terror?
‘She’s just a foreign exchange student,’ one girl said to another, and David wanted to shush her.
Onstage, The Pip paced. ‘My temper,’ she said, ‘is volatile and uneven.’ Her words were barely audible over the din of the students. Georgie’s boyfriend let off a firecracker and suddenly Campus Security guards swarmed the room, ordering everyone to evacuate. Some students sat stubbornly while others climbed over them. A thick trail of smoke hovered in the air. Students stood as if to leave, but ignored Campus Security and stayed.
The smoke alarm went off in high, piercing blasts. People covered their ears and laughed and screamed and rushed into the aisles. Frup stepped on a boy’s foot and the boy screeched in pain. Teachers and students clogged the hallway. Campus Security guards were swept along with the crowd, but violently struggled in the opposite direction.
Colin held onto Sarah’s hand and she pulled him outside the building. The cool air hit them with relief. People milled around, talking loudly like they had just been to a concert. No one knew what to make of The Pip, but it didn’t matter. Fall semester felt finished, though there was still a week of exams left. Wind blew papers and plastic bottles around them. Sarah saw Georgie and they ran towards each other, hugging for the first time.
There were a number of students caught in the hallway, and many others lingered in their seats, bearing the alarm, waiting for something more. The Pip coolly examined what was left of the audience. The students stared back in wonder. They’d never been to an assembly like this. Not only had it not been planned by adults, but it very likely hadn’t been planned at all. The Pip jumped off the edge of the stage. She hesitated for a moment, then pointed her long arm at David.
They ran through woods thick with birch trees. The Pip moved quickly and effortlessly through the brambles and tree limbs. David realized how out of shape he was. Once they were deeper into the woods, she pushed him into a pile of dead leaves. He allowed her to kiss him, greatly underestimating her strength. The sky darkened and The Pip lit a small fire. She performed a brief ritual in the flickering light. Before David was sure what he thought about it, she had tied him to a tree. She took an animalistic interest in his body, disregarding his pain threshold. In the hour to follow, David realized his life was precious to him – that he liked it better than any friend.
‘Our communion is over,’ she told him afterward. ‘I got to know you on a very deep level. Now I am bored.’ Then she left him to the grainy insanity of the woods. It took him a while to untie himself, and the whole time he was terrified someone would see him, naked and bleeding. David found his way back to campus so filled with fear and embarrassment that he considered surrendering himself to Health Services, but instead hid out in his dorm room. His penis was sore, but the marks didn’t scar. They faded without medical attention.
David missed his architecture exams and eventually transferred to a different school. Though his time with The Pip wasn’t something he wanted to repeat, every sexual experience thereafter lacked energy. He had girls tie him up, or they did it outside – in graveyards and alleys – but it didn’t move him. Sex without her would always be predictable and quaint. He often thought of Sarah, but there was no going back. The Pip had been revealed and David hadn’t shied away. He’d followed the mystery to its queer, cinching end.
Photograph © Zephyr Liu