The bedeviling notion that his new roommates would be in any position to mock him was instantly dispelled when Matt pushed open the door of Room 403. There at the end of a dim corridor, two figures stood silhouetted against a bright white wall: one large and broad-chested, his crossed arms fanning open now for a grand fool’s wave, the other lumpish, painfully hunched, even from this distance visibly a noncontender. Matt moved closer, tennis sneakers smacking on the waxed wooden floor, eyes adjusting from the fluorescence of the dorm’s outer hall. The big guy was actually wearing—dear God!—that purple freebie WELCOME NYU CLASS OF 1999 T-shirt they were giving away downstairs, a pair of khakis, puffy running sneakers, and a sublimely cheerful hick’s grin. The smaller one, idol-still, was dressed in a brown button-down that hung over graying black jeans, his feet encased in orthopedicky black shoes, his pale head protruding like a mushroom. From the vector of his glasses, he seemed to be staring at the back of the first guy’s head, an embarrassing, dreamy smile on his soft lips.
For a moment—ah, blessed moment, like hanging upside down on a swing while the whole blue-sky world spins, dizzyingly far below—Matt’s stomach somersaulted, and everything warm and kind in him went gushing toward these two strangers. To think that as late as an hour ago, skimming above the steel-blue Hudson on the George Washington Bridge, he’d still been earnestly praying for a reprieve from this Dwight Smeethman of Somewhere, Minnesota, and Joshua Cohn of Brooklyn, that some miracle could blind them from whatever chink there might be in his untried social armor. Please! These two? How innocent, helpless, like puppies trying to lick your hand from the gurney, where in minutes someone would come put them to sleep—or at least so the big hick seemed, waving manically, irrepressibly happy. Well. Clearly, fate was throwing the first pitch here underhand, a giant, innocuous softball. Shifting the cardboard box pressed to his chest and surreptitiously wiping a hand free of clamminess for his practiced high-five, Matt stepped up.
Then, without warning, a series of small accidents happened.
Really, Matt had timed it expertly—just at the right moment raising his hand to meet that of the sandy-haired guy lunging forward—yet what he came crashing down on was the kid’s forearm. A short struggle ensued as Matt’s hand darted about, wildly seeking to strike palm. “Whoa,” said the guy, rueful. “It’s okay, buddy—just trying to shake your hand.” The guy looked over to the right: no! Here were four other guys, two standing, two sitting in wooden chairs pulled from desks, shades of sly amusement on their faces.
Now Matt dropped the box. Now he gasped. Now the box was cracking, bits of his notes’ yellow legal paper showing through the tape. “Oh my God,” he said, “I’m so sorry.” Instantly, he knew: saying this was precisely as stupid as that time in fourth-grade science when he had clapped his hands ecstatically on seeing the green of a seedling peeking from his Dixie cup and gasped, Oh my goodness, so that Mrs. Markham the teacher, ashamed for him, had actually had to look away from those rows of kids clapping, mock-gasping, Oh my goodness! all over the room.
“It’s okay, buddy!” The guy had slapped a broad, reassuring hand to Matt’s back. “It’s your room—you can put that anywhere!” He laughed convivially at Matt, at the four kids gathered together, at the powder-pale kid standing still by the back wall. “So, welcome, Matthew! It’s excellent to meet you finally, face to face!”
“Thanks. You too, I mean. Totally excellent. Oh, um, but, actually, it’s Matt.”
“Right on!” The guy gave Matt a diplomatic grin. Okay, if you say so. “Well, I’m Dwight. So, guys, this is my roomie Matt; Matt, I want you to meet some guys from down the hall, Ken, Dan, Ben, and—ah!” Dwight broke off, skipping the fourth. “What am I thinking! Before we go any further,” with a steady pressure on his shoulder, Dwight wheeled Matt around, “our other roommate, Josh!” Dwight flourished with his free hand—voilà!
How-style, the pale kid by the back wall lifted an arm furred with tiny black hairs, then awkwardly thrust it down. “ ’Lo.” He flushed, glancing quickly at Dwight.
Somehow—was it Josh’s reverential look? the way Dwight casually looped an arm about Matt’s neck and dragged him this way and that over the room, to the open door of a single bedroom and then by a double, waving over windows and desks and speaking so confidently, so fait accompli of the necessity of drawing lots? who can say from what sev- eral flowers the honey of an intimation is made, but at any rate—Matt understood.
They thought yours truly their inferior! I mean, how funny! Mr. Freebie T-shirt on the one hand, and here—Dork City, this overgrown pastry of a Josh! Quite, quite droll. The hand thing was a dreadful mix-up, of course, and the box, but—please! I mean, merely let them scan his clothing, exactly in accordance with the styles he’d espied and copied down from life. These were real vintage gray fine-wale cords from the secondhand section at Urban Outfitters. This was a hipster T from Screaming Mimi’s. These were Adidas. Or maybe they didn’t know enough about sneakers to comprehend?
“What do you think, Matt?” Dwight was beaming at him.
“Hmm? Sorry, what was that?”
“It’s all right.” Dwight granted on him a tired, knowing smile. “Buddy. You must be exhausted from your long drive.”
“No, no—oh.” Matt caught himself before bringing up New Jersey. “I’m fine.” He nodded vociferously at the four visitors. “Go ahead. What were you asking me?”
“What you thought of the pad,” Dwight replied.
Pad. This meant an apartment, doubtless here their suite. Okay. Now what he needed was something killer to shoot back. Just a little something. To say, hey, who’s cool? Me, not you. “The pad? I mean, it’s . . .” He smirked for time. “Well . . .”
“It’s pretty great, wouldn’t you say?” Dwight cued him like a kindly teacher.
Matt looked over at the four guys, nearly permitting himself an eyebrow raise. But didn’t anyone notice how high-handed Dwight was being? Great. He could do vastly better than that anyway. There must be something for this exigency in his slang glossary. Let’s see now. “As for me,” he patted back a faux yawn, peeking through slitted eyes, “I’d say it’s the bomb.”
But the guys did not seem impressed. Hard to tell for sure, since Matt’s view was obscured, but the Asian kid—Ken?—clearly laugh-coughed, and Ben, a short, stubby guy, seemed to exchange a look with Dwight; he may have snorted, unless that was just his chair’s scraping on the floor. What? The bomb was a perfectly good term. Hadn’t it just appeared in an interview with some rap star? Maybe it was a little too advanced for them, streetwise, slick; these four were excessively white-bread for such urban lingo. Dwight, meanwhile, had a wide euphoric smile veneered over his face, as if Matt were perhaps a dolphin that had just docilely flipped for him in the air. Neat trick!
“I like it.” Josh glanced protectively at Dwight. “I think our suite’s pretty great.”
Dwight began rubbing Josh’s shoulder like a masseur. “Oh, so does Matt. That’s all he meant. Isn’t it?” Dwight winked at Matt. Suddenly, he let his hand go still on Josh’s shoulder, then flashed him, Matt, and all four of the guests a grin. It was a beautiful grin: a masterful grin. A grin that said, Let’s you and me slip off the shackles of the world, my friend, and ride away on motorcycles into the distant California night. Yet it was also somehow a grin that said, We’re making real progress on drinking-water wells in sub-Saharan Africa—we’re going to beat this whole world-poverty-injustice thing! In all the times Matt had rehearsed the thousand- kilowatt smile called Confident back home in Teaneck, he had never quite mustered up that luster or, for that matter, lost his resemblance to a slightly daft vampire. “Dudes!” Dwight announced, overwhelmed by surprise and epiphany. “This is going to be one fantastic year!”
At Dwight’s invitation, the visitors began chattering about their trips: Dan, a wiry type in a navy Izod and clean blue jeans, had ridden in from LA on the same plane as Cameron Diaz; Ben, the short guy, had packed while completely hungover from a humungous going-away party he and three of his friends had thrown, which led into a discussion of graduation parties. Matt recalled the way he had celebrated his own graduation: a noontide trip to Charlie Brown’s, during which his mother sniffed at his sticking to the smorgasbord salad bar (as ever unable to appreciate the need for that dietary regimen practiced since the reception of his acceptance letter), followed by, at home, in the backyard, a well-tended bonfire of high school things—AP Chem notes, SAT prep books, and, most deliciously of all, materials from the college counseling office, such as the form where Mr. Blaine had penned a list of distant second-tier schools. Did they really think they could ship him off to “special” places like Reed College? We think you will do best in a smaller environment, where uniqueness is treasured and your distinctive gifts will not get lost . . . Those appalling naysayers.
They were getting up, the visitors. They were stretching, preparing to leave. Missed your chance! “Ah, g’bye,” Matt croaked out, hastily shooting up from the desk as they started to walk past. “Catch you later.” He gave the first one, Ben, a sprightly wink.
Ben did not smile. Instead, his face twisted up like some sort of badly manufactured Cabbage Patch Kid. His head jolted back in disgust or astonishment, his ugly squat mouth dropping open. “Catch you later,” the guy repeated, gruff, not without perhaps a taint of irony. He was a few paces past when his voice returned, borne up from the echoey corridor. “Did you see that?”
“He winked at me.”
“I’m telling you, the kid—”
The door slammed shut, blotting them out.
Matt squeezed his eyes closed. He had chosen precisely the wrong one. It was Short-Boy-Something-to-Prove: Matt knew that type. Like Jake Garbaccio, who, in order to make everyone on the school bus forget how easily his name lent itself to Jake Garbage-io, spent the whole of to-and-fro-school transports in sixth and seventh grade inventing new tortures for you.
Dwight coughed. “So! Guys.”
Matt flashed open his eyes to see Dwight posing cross-armed.
“I’m going to join those kids for lunch in a minute, which by the way you guys are totally, totally welcome to. I want that to be completely clear: you guys are my homies. Okay? It’s all good. Right, buddy?” Dwight extended a hand low: Josh gazed and then fondly batted at it. “Right on. But should we just go ahead and get this whole picking-lots thing out of the way?” Dwight found a slip of paper and began writing out lots, with Josh looking eagerly over a shoulder. “Bro, ready for your date with destiny?” He stretched out a palm to Matt.
Please send me a sign. Just so I can survive. Please.
—But it was D for Double when he unfolded the slip.
“Oh, bummer,” said a mournful Dwight. He shook his head when Josh unfolded a D as well. “Sorry, man.” Dwight put his hands on his hips and sighed. “All right. So that’s settled. Anyone up for lunch?”
“I’ve got to go unpack my car,” Matt muttered. “See you.”
He swept out the hall door, pushing blindly through kids and parents and bags until he found the bathroom, the stall door slamming behind him and, with a wicked twist, safely barred. But what’s wrong with you? Getting all rapt in reminiscence like that. You need to open your mouth at the critical juncture. You need to go through the motions! Keep your eyes on the prize here—do you expect another shot at a vita nuova is likely to come knocking at your door? “I told you,” he whispered aloud, hands on his naked knees. “You have to. I told you. Come on.”
What kind of a creature was this Dwight? Matt was shaking his head, a grim, tight-lipped smile on his lips. Thoroughly annoying, that’s what, full of himself, fulsome. But really: focus. Not a veritable jock, though Dwight’s appearance and movements did tend in that direction; too sharp, on his toes for that. Nice, even nicey-nice, cheesily touchy-feely and inclusive. And yet—liked, apparently. How had he managed to pick up those four guys, get invited to lunch, direct their conversation like a leader? Like their president, for Chrissakes, striding about broad-chested, generously looking everyone in the eye, a student-government type. Hand-shaking! And winking—he gets to wink! Yet liked nonetheless, Dwight. Josh seemed practically in love. A strange new species indeed. Are you jealous, sir? No, of course not, sir, don’t be absurd.