by Shannon Perri
Two months into the fall semester, Caroline found herself at her first real college party, not counting the horrifying fraternity bash a girl in her freshman seminar had begged her to attend. This party, with its twenty or so guests sipping wine and passing around cheese on white plates, was exactly the type of sophisticated gathering she’d hoped college life would bring. A spread of peppered crackers, olives, and hummus decorated the repurposed wood table, and a thick topographical map of Southeast Asia hung on the wall. Any moment, a film screening would begin.
Caroline’s roommate, Katie, had suggested she come along. Katie was dating Dhruv, her TA and a biology PhD student. Dhruv was the subject of the documentary, made by the host of the party, Parker Sims. She’d met him once, briefly. A few weeks ago, she and Katie had run into Parker and Dhruv at the student coffee shop attached to the library, though she doubted he’d remember. The boys were walking out with to-go cappuccinos just as they entered. Parker had two checked-out DVDs tucked under his arm—Chinatown and Annie Hall. She’d never seen either.
A loud clinking sound startled her. Caroline turned toward the noise and saw Parker was standing near the television, dinging a spoon against his wine glass.
“Hey everyone, thanks for coming,” he said.
“Where do I go?” she whispered to Katie, who was sitting on Dhruv’s lap on the loveseat. Caroline was somehow the only one still standing.
“I don’t know,” Katie said in a hushed voice. “Figure it out.”
Everyone was watching her, waiting. Caroline tugged on her short gray dress and plopped down on the hardwood floor, tucking her legs beneath her knees. Parker smiled and tossed her a pillow. He was unquestionably handsome, with shaggy blonde hair and large brown eyes. She felt herself blush, though thankfully no one seemed to notice. All eyes had returned forward.
“It means the world to me that y’all are all here,” Parker said. “Dhruv’s been so great to let us stalk him with cameras, and we hope for more footage after our trip to Kolkata, to make this thing complete.”
He was a skilled speaker, cool and confident. Caroline wasn’t sure, but it seemed like his gaze lingered on her a bit longer than on others. She tried to act aloof, but she could feel the corners of her mouth turning up. She’d always been one to smile too easily. It was on her list of things to do: learn to control her facial movements.
“But, basically, Dhruv’s our muse while we explore what it’s like to straddle two cultures, to have a postnational existence. In his case, the shock he experiences is completely different than what his parents, as immigrants, deal with. His shock is his own family. His shock is being pulled between a country he’s never lived in, and home. The questions we hope to raise include Where does he belong? Where do any of us belong?”
Parker stared at her directly, without a doubt, and nodded. She bit the inside of her cheeks to keep her expression neutral. Perhaps he did remember her from the library. She honestly had all but forgotten about him, though when Katie invited her a few days ago and had casually mentioned that he was single, she’d felt a flutter in her chest and downloaded Annie Hall to her computer.
“But enough of me talking. We hope what we have so far will mean something to you, and we look forward to hearing your thoughts. So, without further ado, allow me to present Orientation, starring Dhruv, the best fucking Indian-American dude I know.”
The room ruptured into applause and then quieted as the television began to flicker. The first scene opened with a close-up shot of Dhruv smoking marijuana out of a blue glass pipe in his gym shorts. He then answered a phone call from his mother and spoke to her in another language. After he hung up, he looked straight at the camera and rolled his eyes. A voice that sounded like Parker’s said Meet Dhruv Mitra, my best friend. The other guests cheered at this line, so Caroline did, too, though she wished she could see a translation of what the mother had said. The film continued for ten more minutes, following Dhruv to a basketball court and showing him smoking more and ignoring his family’s calls. At the end, he returned home and attended a backyard yoga class led by his father for fellow Bengali transplants.
Once the film was over, the audience clapped and everyone stood. Caroline picked up the pillow, and unsure where to put it, held it by her side.
“Dhruv, baby,” Katie said. “I’m so proud of y’all.”
“Did I look like an asshole?”
“No way,” she said. She then wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the cheek.
“I need food,” Dhruv said. “I haven’t eaten all day.”
The couple then headed the buffet. Caroline set the pillow on the now empty loveseat, and followed.
As they made their plates and filled their glasses, Parker walked up and playfully punched Dhruv in the shoulder. Dhruv let out a fake scream and began to laugh.
“Is that the thanks I get?” he said, in jest. “Listen, Caroline, I want you to meet my bud, Parker. He’s okay I guess.”
“Hi,” Parker said. “You know, I think we’ve actually met.”
“Oh?” she said.
“Parker, it was totally rad,” Katie squealed, her bracelets jingling as she clasped her hands together. “You guys killed it.”
His shoulders dropped. He’d been nervous, which made him all the more endearing.
“I, uh, like your earrings, are those turquoise?” Parker reached forward, his fingers grazing Caroline’s neck, and lifted the dangling end of an earring toward his face. She welcomed the momentary relief of the weight gone from her earlobe.
Before she could properly respond, a large fly buzzed between them and sunk into the goop of hummus on Dhruv’s plate. The chalky beige mass entrapped the fly like quicksand.
“Oh, gross. Let me throw that out for you,” Caroline said, grabbing Dhruv’s plate. “I’ll get you a new one. You deserve star treatment.”
She was speaking too quickly, suddenly anxious next to Parker, who was a head taller than her and probably two heads smarter.
“Won’t it die, then?” Dhruv said, snatching the plate back.
“The fly?” Caroline asked.
“I would hope so.”
“Can’t we take it outside?” Katie said. “I mean, what did the fly do to us? Who are we to kill the fly?”
“Seriously?” Caroline said. She didn’t mean to speak so loudly, but she’d almost finished her glass of wine, and in Parker’s presence her cognition had turned slippery. She had no idea what he was thinking. Probably that she seemed so uncultured—so ignorant. She wanted to prove that she was smart. She was tempted to shout that she was a liberal—she didn’t even eat meat! Back at home in her small town of Moore, Oklahoma, she was always considered the radical. Pulling at her tight dress, she tried to develop a sharp response, but her thoughts and ability to organize them kept swimming away from her.
“I guess I feel like human actions, like creating so much trash and waste and all, lead to an excess of flies,” Caroline said. “Like we foster the breeding grounds for their overpopulation, so killing a few here and there is just a small effort in trying to maintain the balance, to get back to the natural order of flies. You know?”
“The natural order of flies,” Parker repeated. “That’s good.”
Katie and Dhruv frowned and took the plate with the fly still glued to it outside.
“More wine?” Parker offered.
Surely the bug was already dead.
“Please,” she said, tipping her empty glass forward. She was fairly certain she’d just done the intellectual equivalent of shooting herself in the foot. She looked around the room, which had somehow grown more packed. The blankness of the white ceiling calmed her.
“So, did you totally hate the film, or, what’d you think?”
“Are you kidding?” she said, eager to change the subject. “That moment when Dhruv does yoga with his dad, around all of those other Indian people. So powerful. It brings the piece full circle.”
“It made me wonder if going home at Thanksgiving will be challenging. I mean, not that my life is anything like Dhruv’s.”
A woman with a gold silk scarf around her head and hooped earrings turned toward their conversation. Caroline took a big gulp of her wine. She felt as if she were on trial for a crime she didn’t understand.
“We want to tap into the universal, so that’s great to hear,” Parker said. “Really great. And not everyone gets that. I mean, in the end we’re all just trying to figure our shit out, who we really are, what’s important, you know? Which is probably impossible to ever do, but—”
“It’s true,” Caroline said. “We’re all a bunch of lost causes bumbling in the wind.”
She took another sip. She hoped her words made sense outside of her head. Thank God the woman with the headscarf had moved away.
“Yeah, exactly, which, oddly, I think is what has the power to bring us together,” he said. “Anyways, what is it that you study?”
“Um, well, I’m not sure yet.”
“Nice. The humanities are a strong foundation. I studied history in undergrad, and it’s served me well.”
“She’s in the liberal arts honors program you know,” Katie said, rejoining the pair to refill her glass. “One of only ten first-years.”
Caroline felt relieved. Katie wouldn’t brag on her if she were truly upset about the fly.
“Well damn, I didn’t realize I was in the presence of a genius,” Parker said. “Actually, I take that back. There were signs.”
“I think they mixed my application with someone else’s,” Caroline said, laughing.
“No, no, no,” he said, grinning back. “You’re a girl who stands out.”
She wished she could bend down and touch the swirls and knots in the wood floor. Parker was proving to be a guy she wouldn’t mind getting to know.
“By the way, I think you’d be a rad anthropologist,” he said. “Seriously. We need more female scientists out there.”
“She’s an Okie—that’s what they call themselves—people from Oklahoma,” Katie said. “But she’s obviously still super smart and open-minded and all that. Caroline, I’m going back out for a smoke, you want to join?”
Both Parker and Katie looked at her. Parker’s eyes seemed to be begging her to stay. She tried to guess how old he was. Twenty-four? Twenty-five?
“I, I’m okay, thanks.”
“Suit yourself,” Katie said before walking out.
“So, Oklahoma,” Parker said. “What’s that like?”
“Oh God,” Caroline replied. “Hellish. A never-ending strip of Sonics and churches.”
“Ha. Trust me, most places are no better.”
“You’re probably right.”
A moment later, a loud crashing sound reverberated through the apartment. Someone had accidentally backed into a glass-framed Citizen Kane poster, which then fell and shattered.
“Oh no,” Parker said. “I better go deal with that, but listen, don’t leave without saying goodbye, alright?”
“Okay,” she said, allowing herself to smile. “I won’t.”
At a little past 1:00 a.m., Caroline was near dozing off on the couch, her head on Katie’s shoulder. Dhruv and Parker were sitting at the kitchen table, discussing the film’s next steps.
“C’mon,” Katie whined. “I love you Parker, but you need to kick us out. I’m dying.”
“I guess she’s right,” Dhruv said. “We should let you go.”
Caroline stood up and smoothed down her dress. All the other guests had gone.
“You know how to throw a party,” she said to Parker in the doorway. His fingers curled around his belt loops, and he rocked back on his heels. She was hoping he’d ask for her number. She even thought about giving it to him herself, but she wasn’t that brazen. “Sorry we’re leaving you with such a mess.”
His brown eyes widened. He seemed surprisingly alert.
“Actually—I hope this isn’t too forward—but, I was going to see if you wanted to stay a little longer and keep me company while I clean?”
At first she felt a rush of excitement—he liked her!—but then she felt a bit uncertain. It was already so late. One minute ago she’d been near asleep. She looked down at the parking lot three stories below and then at Katie, who shrugged.
“It’s up to you,” she said. “But I think you should stay.”
Katie often urged her to make more out of her college experience, to take more risks.
“I mean, just if you want to,” Parker said, waving his hands in front of his body, his palms facing her. “No pressure.”
She thought of the first time she made love, when she was sixteen with her high school boyfriend, Levi. They’d waited over a year, and it had all been planned, taking place in his friend’s basement when the friend’s family was out of town. Throughout the following six months together, she had sex with Levi twenty-three times. He’d been a virgin, too. When they made love, it was gentle and tender, though somewhat artless. He was always worried about hurting her, even though she swore to him he wasn’t. Levi graduated a year before her, and they attempted long-distance, but broke it off after a few weeks, just as everyone predicted. She’d never been with anyone else.
“Um. Okay. Yeah. I can stay for a bit.”
“Yay!” Katie said, clapping. “I was so hoping you guys would hit it off. Parker you’ll take her home later, right? We only brought one car.”
“No problem,” Parker said. “Whenever she’s ready.”
“Later, man,” Dhruv said.
“You two be good,” Katie winked. “Text me.”
The door shut, and Caroline stood facing Parker, her toes tapping in her sandals. Any lingering tiredness she felt before was gone.
“Where do you keep the trash bags?” she asked as she set her clutch purse on the entry table.
“That can wait, I feel like I barely got to talk to you tonight,” Parker said, running his hand down her arm. Her skin tingled in response.
“You had a lot of people here. Lots of fans.”
“Ha, well, you’re the one I wanted to talk to.”
He guided her to his worn leather couch. Smoothing down her hair, she tried to appear nonchalant, but she felt as if her stomach was a spinning wheel, cycling faster and faster.
“What you said about the flies, it really got me thinking,” he said, resting his hand on her knee. His palm was damp.
“Oh yeah?” A stirring sensation pulsed between her legs. She should have shaved her legs that morning, she should have painted her nails.
“Yeah. Because I mean, I get what you’re saying. We’ve led to their overpopulation. And at first I agreed with your logic. We shouldn’t feel bad killing an overpopulated species, especially when they are buzzing around our food—what we put in our own bodies—you know?”
His large eyes gazed deep into hers. She tried to maintain eye contact but had to look away every few seconds to break the intensity. He was probably going to kiss her soon.
“But now I’m questioning—does that give us the right? I mean, what if another species said the same about us? Oh, we overpopulated humans, so let’s just swat to death the surplus, it’s our right. That’s Nazi-like. Or, God, have you read Kakfa’s Metamorphosis?”
“It’s on my list.” If only she could erase her idiot fly commentary from earlier in the night.
“Anyway, I think a girl with a brain is sexy,” he said, bunching up her hair in his fist. “I think you’re really sexy, Caroline.”
His pink lips were inches from hers. She could feel his hot breath on her face.
“What do you think of me—do you think I’m sexy?”
“Well, then we should do something about it.”
He placed his hand on the side of Caroline’s face and pulled her toward him. His lips were moist and plump. As they began to kiss, his boldness surprised her. Within seconds, she was lying on the couch, his warm body on top of hers. He pulled down the top of her dress so that it bunched around her waist. His pressing weight sunk her deeper into the sofa, and the cool leather rubbed against her back. She could feel his erection through his khaki shorts. Its presence relieved her, an affirmation that she was doing something correctly. He reached his hands under her back and unclipped her strapless bra.
“Your breasts are incredible,” he said. “So soft, yet full.”
She felt her cheeks redden. Luckily, Parker had flipped off the lights.
Caroline needed to decide, and quickly, just how far she wanted this to go. She tried to tell herself to relax and enjoy the novelty of hooking up with a man she barely knew. And besides, this wasn’t just some idiot frat boy drunk on cheap beer that tasted like gasoline. Parker knew what he was doing—he was smooth and smart, yet kind, not to mention gorgeous—and Katie was right. This was what college was about: thrilling new experiences, an education.
“I think we should move this to the bedroom,” Parker said, breathing heavily.
Caroline hesitated. She didn’t know if agreeing to “move this to the bedroom” meant she was guaranteeing more than she wanted to. She could sense the overwhelming alertness and desire in her own body for things to move to the bedroom, but everything was happening so fast. She cursed herself for starting to wonder if Parker would stick around after he finished his program. He only had a semester left. The question of what her parents would think of him entered her mind, against her will. She hated herself for making these leaps. She wasn’t even sure if she wanted a boyfriend.
“Come on,” he whispered. “It’ll be more comfortable.”
She sat up and began to collect her sandals and bra.
“Just leave it,” he said. He bit her bare shoulder as he steered her into his room.
Caroline made a pact with herself that she’d allow this to go anywhere except all the way. She felt wild, yet she liked holding something back. The decision made her breathe more easily. She just had to be cool about it.
Parker pulled her onto his bed, a mattress pushed against the corner neatly made with a plaid quilt and navy pillows. A wood desk and an overflowing bookshelf were pressed against the opposite wall. She could smell the lingering scent of recently burned incense and made out the dim lines of a Baraka film poster on the wall. The rest of his room was bare.
Her body moved in rhythm with Parker’s. She was learning his kissing pattern and found pleasure in knowing when she should put her tongue in his mouth and when she could expect his. He seemed so large and sophisticated as he knowingly wrapped his arms around her waist and moved his mouth toward her breasts. She knew she needed to come out and state that she didn’t want to have sex, but she wasn’t sure how to do so without being completely uncouth.
“Let me get this off,” he said, tugging her dress down her legs, though it would have come off much easier if he had pulled it over her head. One of the straps got stuck around her foot, which momentarily mortified her. He laughed at himself and gently removed the strap from her ankle. For a fleeting instant, she questioned her decision to stay.
“My God. You have an insane body.”
It hit her fast that she was completely naked, while he was fully clothed. She was embarrassed that she didn’t have underwear on. She hoped he didn’t think it meant she was easy or expected this to happen. She thought about clarifying that Katie had recommended she not wear any to avoid a panty line, but she held back. She wanted to seem mature, worthy of Parker. She wondered how many women he’d been with, if this was a big deal for him or just an every weekend thing. Did he really think she had an insane body, or was this just a line? She didn’t know if he expected her to undress him. She had no idea where to start.
“You should take your shirt off, too,” she said, attempting to be assertive.
“Your wish is my command.”
The goofiness of his response made her laugh. In the end, he's just a guy, she tried to remind herself. She recalled how considerate he’d been earlier in the night, throwing her that pillow. He lifted his shirt off and motioned for her to take off his shorts. She unbuckled his belt and tugged them down. He then removed his boxers and began kissing the lower part of her stomach, working up to her mouth. Naked, his sweat rubbed between their skins.
“Here we are, two lost causes bumbling in the wind,” he whispered, slipping his fingers inside of her. “You’re adorable, you know.”
She didn’t like that, his reciting those ridiculous words back to her, especially during such an intimate moment.
“Wait,” she blurted. She put her hands on his shoulders to create a small barrier. Her body began to lightly tremor.
“Listen, I’m cool with whatever, except, I’m not ready to, you know, have sex,” she said. “Is that okay?”
“Shit—wait. Are you a virgin or something?” He sat up and raked his hands through his wavy hair.
“What? No. No. I just don’t want to go all the way tonight,” she said as she leaned in to kiss his neck. She wanted the conversation to be over. “But we can still have a good time, right?”
“Yeah, of course,” he said. “Let me know if you change your mind, though. I think it’d be amazing.”
A pang of guilt weighed on her for a beat—she hoped he didn’t regret asking her to stay—but she then decided she’d try to make the night as fun as possible, within its limits. With the rules established, she felt braver and tried to surprise Parker by biting his lip and pulling him closer. As she moved in, her cool, stone earrings slapped against her cheeks. The smell of incense and skin made her dizzy. None of this felt real. She lifted her hips as he pulled her toward his mouth. She closed her eyes as she tried to enjoy his attention. He then began kissing up her body, landing his lips on her collarbone.
At that moment, something felt very different. Her body stiffened. She was pretty sure more than just his fingers were inside of her now. He was situated right above her, as if paused in the top part of a push-up. She looked down to see his penis was indeed halfway in. Were they now having sex? Had she now had sex with two people? What did this mean? She didn’t know how to tell him to stop. Part of her wanted to say fuck it and let it happen, but she just couldn’t.
“Hey—not that, remember?”
“Sorry,” he said. “It just slipped in. You’re so wet.”
She was humiliated and wanted to leave, but she had no car. Plus, what would she say? Instead, she kissed him, unsure when the hooking up would end. She had forgotten to worry about this—how he would expect to get off. She had no idea what was typical in this situation. Levi was always cool if she wanted to stop before he finished—it was never a thing. She didn’t want to go down on Parker. Not now. She reached her hand down to touch him more intimately. Maybe she should be touching him more?
Parker then pinned her body back and kissed her hard and pushed his lower hips toward hers. His slick penis slid back and forth on the lowest part of her stomach.
“You’re so hot with just those earrings on. You wore them for me, didn’t you?”
She wanted to get up and leave. Instead, she laid there as if she were a doll, as if the night were pretend. He wrapped his arms behind her and she arched her back reflexively, causing his penis to slide into her, completely this time.
Shocked, her body flashed hot, then cold. A sickness grew in the back of her throat and she felt the wine from earlier rise in her stomach, near to her mouth. There was no turning back, and if she had to put a number on it, she knew this meant she had now had sex with two people, whether they continued or not. He persisted, and she didn’t say anything. In an attempt to get through the inevitable, she commanded her body to respond to his patterned movements. Yet, the best she could do was bury her face into his shoulder. What the hell had she thought? She should have known that this was what was expected when she agreed to stay. Why was she acting like such a dumb baby? Like sex was even a big deal? She tried as best she could to let go and enjoy, but all she could do was stare at the motionless ceiling fan, hoping he’d finish quickly.
“God, you feel insane,” he said. “I’m going to come soon. It’d be so hot if we came together.”
“Yeah,” she said, faintly.
“Are you on the pill?”
“I started it three weeks ago. I’m not sure if it’s effective yet.”
“It’ll be fine,” he said, his movements quickening. Seconds later, he let out a loud sigh and collapsed on top of her. Caroline released a short, terse scream she hoped he’d accept as an orgasm. Parker curled his body around hers, like a shell, and gently kissed her hair. His fingers skimmed up and down her arm. With each of his touches she felt calmed. She needed to chill out. To fucking relax. Maybe the sex was just meant to happen. Maybe they’d remember how he just had to have her. Earlier in the night, she’d fantasized about how she and Katie could go visit the boys in India. They could all go see the Taj Mahal.
Yet, she could barely make herself breathe at a normal speed. She was freezing, and Parker’s leftover sweat clung to her like ice. She thought of Levi and life back home. Although he was clumsy, she missed his patience.
“Man, we both came really hard,” Parker said. “That was incredible.”
“Yeah,” Caroline said.
“Want to take a shower?”
Together they walked naked into the bathroom, which quickly steamed up from the hot water. Before stepping in, she took off her earrings and set them on the white bathroom counter. She’d never showered with a guy, but in her stunned state she felt numb to the new experience.
“So I don’t know if you could tell,” he said. “But I was really drawing on French New Wave for the film. Obviously we aren’t in the sixties anymore, but I’m confident the movement isn’t over. Or maybe it’s coming back. In fact, I’m writing my thesis on that—the New New Wave movement.”
Caroline nodded as he continued. She could feel his semen drip out of her, rolling down her inner thigh. With Levi they’d always used condoms.
“That’s why it’s essential we shoot on location and actually go to Kolkata,” he said. “Godard’s films are practically documentaries themselves. I admit I’m not to his level yet, but honestly what we both try to capture, it’s not that different, you know?”
Even under the hot water, she had goose bumps. Parker looked like a giant. After the shower he toweled her wet skin dry and offered her a T-shirt. She crawled into the oversized tee and borrowed a comb to brush out her wet hair. Staring in the half-fogged up mirror, she looked more like an eleven-year-old than an eighteen-year-old. She wanted to go back in time. She remembered wearing her dad’s oversized shirts at home and getting into bed freshly bathed, the smell of conditioned hair her last memory before sleep.
“You’re so beautiful,” Parker said.
She looked back at him, and he kissed her lightly. Maybe everything was fine. Maybe she was only freaked out by all the newness, the adultness of the night. In the end, she just wanted it to matter. Katie had once told her that having sex with your second person was, in a way, a bigger deal than your first. You would no longer associate sex with just one person.
“C’mon,” he said. “I’m exhausted.”
Hand in hand, Caroline followed Parker back to the bedroom, where they slid into a tangled sleep.
It was still dark outside when Caroline woke to her matted, damp hair sticking to the back of her neck. She felt awful—her body wouldn’t stop shaking, yet at the same time her limbs felt stiff and clunky, as if they didn’t belong to her. She turned to see Parker sleeping. His bedside lamp was still on, illuminating the sandy color of his eyelashes. She should have never let the sex happen, but there was nothing she could do about it now. She wanted to force him awake, to demand reassurance that she was special. She lightly pressed her thumb to the top of his hand. To her surprise, his hand twitched and then squeezed her finger in response. Dreamlike, without speaking, he then lifted her T-shirt and slipped inside of her. She was relieved he wanted her again. Tears filled her eyes, so she kept them closed. As their bodies moved naturally into each other’s, she felt soothed and thought, maybe everything is going to be okay.
Photograph by Maria Eklund. Image courtesy of Creative Commons and used with license.