For two semesters, I sat behind the only three physics majors in fraternities. They were clunky and smug and moved like a hydra– three heads sticking out of one body. When I try to recall the diagrams my professors drew to explain electromagnetism or optics, the blackboard in my mind is obscured by the silhouettes of their thick necks. Eventually, the head on the right– Ben turned just enough to flash his profile. He was very cute, and I had to inform someone right away.
“That one is cute,” I whispered, pointing to his hairline– almost touching it. My friend, Jane, nodded and pulled her eyebrows together like everyone knows that.
I did not know. I would have already planted seeds to sow Ben’s obsession with me if I knew. I had a scrupulous system for kissing boys in college, which Jane had no reverence for. I begrudgingly formulated a plan:
My old roommate, Amy, had just pledged a sorority and had been hounding me to accompany her to a party. I always refused to go on the grounds that sororities are a “detriment to the feminist cause.”
“Amy, the themes are like ‘CEOs and Whores.’ Half the people starve themselves in preparation, and the other half don’t even shower,” I would say.
“Everyone showers,” Amy would roll her eyes.
Ironically, I was now eagerly awaiting Amy’s invitation so I could pretend to bump into a lackluster frat boy from my class “serendipitously.” Soon enough, she mentioned an event being co-hosted by his chapter– I recognized the name from his sweatshirts– and I casually suggested I attend. She was thrilled.
The rave was in a rented performance hall downtown. A sweaty mass of nineteen-year-olds huddled together outside the venue. It was freezing, but thankfully everyone was on coke. The girls were in iridescent underwear, and the boys in Hawaiian shirts; I could not guess the theme.
When we arrived, the two of us stood at the edge of the mob– Amy in a bra, me in jeans, and neither on coke– to scan for familiar faces. I immediately spotted Housten, who was briefly my lab partner and, crucially, one of Ben’s trio. I took a few steps into the chaos and rested a hand on Housten’s upper arm. It took him a moment to place me.
“Wait…hey! Wow, hey!” he shook my shoulder excitedly. “What are you doing here? yoU GUYS–” he turned and reached into the crowd behind him, his hand momentarily disappearing. When his hand returned, it was gripping Ben.
“She was my lab partner!” Housten pointed to me, yelling over the roar. I tilted my head at Ben, feigning curiosity.
“Oh, is this your frat?” I asked, motioning to the people around us. He nodded and smiled; it was like clockwork.
Unfortunately, the clock exploded all over me, impaling me with shards of embarrassment and horror. I had four minutes of being charming before “The First Incident.”
Ben and I were chummy already, leaning in to hear each other better, when I pulled a flask out of my jacket to share a final, sexy moment before the event’s start. Suddenly, the container was no longer in my hands. A bouncer had snatched it from me and was sneering down at the two of us.
“No alcohol outside.”
“That’s great because it’s water.”
“You think I’m a moron?”
Everyone who could hear turned around. The bouncer then dramatically unscrewed the cap, placed the flask in front of his belt buckle to pretend it was, in fact, his penis, and dumped the vodka onto the street. The worst part was something about the liquid’s turbulent glugging downward and then splattering back upward. The following silence was deafening.
The bouncer flung the flask back at me, opened the doors, and everyone raced inside. “That’s…unfortunate,” was all Ben could squeak out before disappearing into the fog.
It wasn’t “The First Incident” yet, just “The Incident.” I couldn’t stop replaying it, especially when standing in front of the soda machine in the dining hall, watching Sierra Mist spurt out of the nozzle.
After avoiding Ben’s eyes in every lecture hall on Science Hill for months, I flew home to Brooklyn for spring break. The entire trip was wet and gray, and I spent the week riding around on a Citi Bike, going the wrong way down First Avenue. I crossed the Brooklyn Bridge on the coldest day, figuring it would be desolate. I was toiling up the first half, looking out across the black river, when I thought I saw Ben out of the corner of my eye.
The familiar figure was standing in a trio– the only other people on the mile-long bridge. I skidded to a stop about ten feet from the group and said his name aloud, just in case. Ben turned to face me; he was with an old man and a young woman.
I was so shocked I don’t remember what first came out of my mouth, but soon we were loudly and frantically talking at each other, trying to figure out how statistically this could have happened. We went to college three thousand miles away in Santa Cruz, and he was from San Diego, anyway. Our astrophysics cohort had fifty students. Thirty thousand pedestrians cross that bridge every day– I learned that during the bridge unit in second grade.
I was convinced it was divine punishment. I was really mean to a girl at summer camp because she was a lousy singer and this was my comeuppance. I was barely in my body enough to hear Ben explain that he was visiting his sister in her last year at NYU.
“We need to take a picture– to show Housten,” he cleared his throat. We miserably leaned in together and grimaced at his phone. “I’ll be here just couch surfing for the next few days,” Ben continued, “Maybe I’ll see you around?”
“It’s a big city,” is all I could think to say. Then, I was back on my bike, flying away, screaming that sentence at myself repeatedly in disbelief of my idiocy.
There were more months of even less eye contact. His story– now two incidents long– was famous in my circles.
“There’s your boyfriend,” Jane would howl with laughter, motioning to the Hydra slipping into lecture. I would deflate as much as I could into my seat.
It got worse.
Once, Ben was late to Phys115 Classical Mechanics and came through a door too far from his friends to join them covertly. I confidently motioned to the seat next to me, ready to redeem myself. He took it gratefully, and we whispered jokes for the rest of the period until I felt something wet under my shoe.
His thermos of coffee was on its side, and my binders were fully steeped in the liquid. Months of my meticulous notes had bled out. Magically, the puddle didn’t touch a single other student or backpack. The drink had spread around our two seats in a perfect, compact circle, like a puddle of caffeinated shame. He cleaned it up wordlessly.
Then, in one of our last Phys112 Thermodynamics lectures, our professor was stuck in traffic, and the entire class was on their feet, stretching and chatting about the final. I was wearing a vintage boy scout uniform shirt I bought at a flea market.
“My culture is not a costume,” Ben joked, pointing at a patch on my shirt. His friends laughed, but so did mine, and we were instantly center stage in a perverse social experiment.
“Of course, you were a boy scout.” I got an even more substantial laugh.
“Jealous?” Ben said.
“Defensive?” I said.
We grinned big at each other.
“The real question is, what little kid did you steal that from?”
“It’s fine. He didn’t need it. He was in a wheelchair.”
And the laughing stopped. Wheelchair? What the fuck is wrong with me? My professor stumbled in, and like we had already done so many times, Ben and I desperately scrambled away from each other.
Our limitless disconnect kept me up at night. It felt like whenever we got within a few feet of each other, something somewhere flew off a shelf and smacked someone in the head. The cycle was exhausting. I would finally regain confidence, humiliate myself, and have to crawl back from square one.
And Amanda hadn’t even entered the story yet. If Ben and I were like eating soup with a fork, then Ben, Amanda, and I were like a fork stuck in the garbage disposal.
It was Fall Finals Week of my junior year, and the libraries were so packed that students were sprawled out all over the floor. The only chair available was across from Ben. I took a deep breath and sat, determined to get some work done.
Ben was astonishingly excited to see me. I don’t think either of us opened a book for the next couple of hours– just exchanged jests about annoying classmates and the terrible restaurants of Santa Cruz. For two people in a cursed acquaintanceship, we were great at making each other laugh.
The girl next to him was familiar to me. I was sure she had classes with us, but I didn’t know her name. She interjected a few times but got lost in our banter and gave up, pretending to read a textbook she rented from the library.
“I’m gonna head home,” she stood, fleetingly touching his upper back.
“I’m staying,” Ben waved her off.
“Violet, do you need a ride?” she asked.
She knew my name? We walked to the parking lot together in the dark, officially introducing ourselves. Her name was Amanda. As Ben and Co. were the only physicists in frats, Amanda was the only one in a sorority. She clicked her fob to unlock the car and smirked at me before climbing in.
“Was it obvious? In there?” Amanda asked.
“What?” I asked.
“Me and Ben– that we’re fucking.” I choked a little on my saliva and slid into my seat. It was like she had pulled her pants down, squatted, and peed in front of me to mark her territory.
In the following weeks: Incidents Five Through Ten.
Amanda developed an obsession with me, insisting we sit together in every class and texting me about assignments she didn’t need help with. She called me things like “girl” and “babe” and referenced inside jokes I never consented to make. I would recite conversations I had with Amanda for Jane to decode. Jane, the genius astrophysics computer-science double-major, could not figure the girl out. Was this the ol’ Keep Your Enemies Closer approach? For weeks we exchanged theories.
One day in the spring, Amanda asked if she and I could co-host a physics party at her house.
“How can I be a host if it’s at your house?” I asked.
“We’ll call it ‘our party’ and invite both our friends,” Amanda pressed.
Though I was suspicious of her, I sensed her genuine desire to spend time with me outside of campus and felt like I should better get to know my classmates.
When Jane and I arrived at ‘my party,’ Amanda was already drunk. She was beyond drunk– drunker than anyone there– and kept saying my name aloud like she was hexing me.
Ben was there too, and I did my best to ignore him, pretending to meander away whenever he joined my conversation circle. It was a silly dance, but I was worried that Amanda would poison me if I publicly spoke to him. She did not poison me but did decide to strike in the five minutes Jane was in the bathroom.
“You and Ben are soulmates,” Amanda slurred. I looked around.
“What?” I said.
“He told me about seeing you in New York, and I was like, whoa. I think that means you– that you and Ben are soulmates.”
“Ha,” I was so on edge I couldn’t even laugh– I had to say the sound like I was reading a play. In my floundering to find the words to derail her passive-aggressive rampage, I noticed Ben behind her, sitting on a couch. She saw me look away, and her face changed.
“I’m gonna go get him for you,” she threatened, turning to the couch.
My life, or at least, my social life, flashed before my eyes. I felt the night suddenly morphing into the most significant incident of all. I stood quiet and still, tracking her journey across the room to meet him. She said something, took a clumsy seat on his lap, and stayed there.
Maybe she forgot what she was doing, had a change of heart, or just wanted to fuck with me. Whatever the case, Jane was back from the bathroom, and I was ripping her towards the door.
“I’ll explain outside,” I said with my nails in her sweater through closed teeth.
I slept on Jane’s couch and woke up the following day to a text from Amanda.
“Last night, I was so fucked up,” it read.
I waved Jane over, and we sleepily peered at the screen together.
“Me too,” I typed. Jane nodded in approval.
“I did the funniest thing, omg.”
“I asked Ben if he would have a threesome with the two of us.”
I screamed. Jane snatched my phone, put it in her back pocket, and we went out for breakfast.
Enough, her eyes said, enough.
Long after she stopped sleeping with Ben, Amanda came around. We became almost friends. She told me once, unprompted, how she learned of what happened on the Brooklyn Bridge. She and Ben were lying together, she asked him what he was thinking about, and he told her that story. I guess it became an Incident for her too. We both had new boyfriends, and I was excited to take mine home to NYC to meet my family.
Before the school year ended, I was looking around for my research professor to ask a question when I noticed Ben alone in a room full of technical equipment.
“Hi,” I poked my head inside. Ben looked up from some sort of ohmmeter.
“Hi,” he placed it on the table next to him.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“Random independent project,” Ben shrugged.
“That’s cool.” We smiled.
I turned to leave, and before both feet were out the door, he exclaimed, “Marry me?”
I didn’t turn around.