Issue #53, Fall 2014

What You Learn in College

Or how to play strip spin-the-bottle

Karen Donley-Hayes

What You Learn in College

YOU LEARN that although you loathe the taste of beer, you love intoxication, and it is possible to quickly drink through the loathing. You love the daring of your intoxicated self, the way you’re not stymied by your own naiveté. You feel brave and worldly when you join your new college friends in a bawdy exchange thick with sexual innuendo and brag. You laugh along with them, these people who welcomed your sober self before ever meeting your intoxicated self. You laugh when they close the door against dormmates attracted to the banter, and you sit right down on the floor in a circle with them to play strip-spin-the-bottle.

You learn you are having fun, and you revel in your bravery and the way you’re unperturbed by the first round or two of the game, during which you peel off your sweatshirt and toss it over your shoulder. The bottle spins. You learn you are perhaps not so intrepid as your beer-bravado led you to believe. A few more spins, the last of the beer-foam winging away from the lip of the bottle, and this strip-spin-the-bottle game is requiring more stripping than you expected. (What did you expect?) By the time the game spins you out of your shoes, socks, and finally your T-shirt, you have realized you are not really drunk at all anymore.

You learn you are still naive when Ed says, “Nice headlights, Karen,” and you are reasonably certain he is not talking about your eyes. You laugh along with everyone else, but you don’t look at Ed or at any of your other friends. You keep smiling, keep acting intoxicated, realizing you passed your comfort level with the game one spin ago, when you lost your T-shirt. You want to leave. You want to bolt into the cold dark of the night, but you don’t.

The bottle spins.

You learn you couldn’t leave even if you had the nerve, because the disgruntled wannabe partygoers in the hallway have pennied the door, tiny rounds of copper wedging door against frame. You watch Ed, in his briefs, try to yank the door open then shrug and return to the circle of strippers. No one is leaving.

The bottle spins.

You learn that if, immediately after your turn, you laugh, comment about your head swimming, and climb onto Ed’s bed, you can credibly feign a drunken blackout. You hope this will keep you from losing more clothing or anything else. You lie frozen on Ed’s bed, the only escape you can think of, faking slumber through the hubbub, the clink of the bottle, the giggles and wolf calls, the throbbing of your heart.

The bottle spins.

You listen to glass scraping against linoleum, the sound melding with the smell of stale beer and sweat and not-quite-clean laundry, the smell of slept-on sheets. You keep your eyes closed. Your friends continue the game to complete nudity (although you do not open your eyes to verify). They try to wake you for your turns, but you do not move. You leave your body in the slack of boozy slumber. You resist the intense impulse to cover your semi-nakedness. You stay in character.

The bottle stops spinning.

You learn that while your crush on Ed is, in part, what got you into this room and thus onto his bed, it is not enough to keep you here after the party breaks up and the participants re-dress, unjam the pennied door, and disperse. You sit up at the first sufficiently loud noise, feign bleary-eyed surprise—“Where’d everyone go? Where’s my shirt?!”—put on your clothes, and, with appropriate stumbling and giggling, wobble out the door.

You learn how relieved and grateful you are to be walking alone in the frosty black night. To be out of that room and away from your drunk, laughing, happy, naked friends. To leave behind what could have happened, how your life might have shifted, to have escaped unchanged. And yet, a pulsing disappointment follows you, a regret born of rejected possibilities. Almost a sentient thing. You could turn and consider it, even reach out to it, ask where it’s been and where it goes. But darkness and naiveté are easy and known, cool against your face, so you keep walking and do not turn to ponder.

You learn this is the last time you will make this walk across campus from Ed’s room to yours. And with this learning, that almost-sentient regret breaches like some black-backed sea creature glittering in the night. You do not see it behind you any more than you saw your friends’ nakedness. But just the same, you sense it as it slides away into the deep, beyond your sight. But the regret isn’t gone. It will never be gone, and you don’t need to learn that. You already know it.


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Author Bio

Karen Donley-Hayes

Karen Donley-Hayes’s work has appeared in The Journal of the American Medical Association, Bartleby Snopes, Blue Lyra Review, The... read more

Comments

Ginny Taylor

September 16, 2014

Karen,
Fabulous pulsating writing here. Each word, each phrase, each spin of the bottle pushes the reader up against the fear of what might happen and hurls them into what didn't. Masterful. I don't think I stopped once to breath while reading it.

Scott Lax

September 20, 2014

A beautiful essay, powerful and naked, and I mean no pun by that. Vulnerable and wise and a strong use of second person.

Venus

September 23, 2014

What a good story, well told. Thank you!

Flatus Ohlfahrt

September 24, 2014

Well done, Possum!

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