Preferences

Jamie wakes in a bed that is not her own. It is Mikhail’s bed and Mikhail’s cramped apartment and tonight is the first night she has ever heard of this name attached to someone young, attractive and American, rather than old, political and Russian. Mikhail is a grad student at her university, but he is not her T.A. and they are not on-campus, so it is all right.

He has taken her to his place in one of the nearby towns whose name she always forgets. It is either Mountain View or Menlo Park, depending on which way they headed on El Camino.

Drinks in his apartment, seated on his floor near his couch, her back against his chest, his legs on either side of hers, comfortable. Mikhail says he went to the party “on a lark” and she finds the phrase expressive, charming. Jamie is a smart girl, capable of appreciating irony.

Mikhail has no television. Planks of wood balanced on cinder blocks serve as bookshelves. There are more books than shelves to hold them. Books are stacked haphazardly atop each other, splayed open. More than a few are upside down. His many books are haggard with wear and tear. Even from her seat on the floor, she can see the violence that’s been done to them. She thought a grad student would have been gentler.

He offers her a back rub.

How easy and innocent it all begins. Thumbs kneading shoulders, pads of flesh digging into skin. A simple whispered question, “Wanna come with me to the back room?”

The moment is so similar to the one earlier in the evening when–her back braced against the wall and his hands nestled in the back pockets of her jeans– Mikhail nuzzled her and said, “Do you want go somewhere and maybe have a drink or two?”

She appreciates the way he says back room instead of bedroom as if he is inviting her to view a painting and not asking to get lucky. She has already gone this far, but there is a certain point beyond which she will not go. By this far, she means coming to his place. She has no intention of sleeping with him, however, and to enter his bedroom would make him think otherwise. As though the events of the early evening were not meant to lead up to this, she turns to face him and says, “I would prefer not to.”

It sounds more prim than she would like, a guest declining the last deviled egg on a bed of lettuce.

He stops rubbing.

“This is too much like high school,” Mikhail says without rancor, meaning she is too much like high school. Implying he’s been mistaken in her. She isn’t, after all, astute enough, modern enough, progressive enough, mature enough.

She is silent. Stiffly, she scoots away from him until her back touches the wall.

On hands and knees he crawls across the carpet to her. “Look,” he says. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it like that.”

“It’s okay,” she mumbles, unwilling to let him know he’s hurt her. She smiles weakly to let him see she is not accusing. She is unsurprised when he kisses her; she thinks it’s his way of apologizing.

 

Her clothing does not come off, but articles of clothing are unbuttoned, unzipped, and unfastened. She is askew beneath him on the carpet, covered by his body, pinned by his weight and entangled by his limbs. There is no more kissing, no more rubbing. She is splayed like one of the books on his shelves, handled none too gently. She thinks he mistakes her shaking her head, her resistance, her pushing against him for something else though what the something else could be she doesn’t know.

 

Afterwards.

“May I use your bathroom?”

Without opening his eyes, Mikhail points down the hall.

In Mikhail’s bathroom, there is only one wash cloth and bath towel on the rack. No hand towels for guests. Jamie rinses his bar of soap under hot water, then washes her face with her hands. She dries her hands on his towel, seeing the black smudge on her hand, a left over from the party. They’d marked an X on her hand in magic marker so she could reenter the student center at will. At Orientation, they warn you about what can happen at a party, what can happen on a date. But she was no longer at the party and she and Mikhail weren’t actually on a date. Technically, tonight counts as nothing. Tonight does not exist.

She feels too tired to go back out to Mikhail’s living room. Too tired to see him. Too tired to think. She goes further down the hallway to his bedroom, where she had not wanted to go before, and curls up on top of his covers. It no longer matters if she is back here.

 

Sometime later he wakes her and says, “Think I should take you home now.”

Jamie rises silently, wordlessly reaching for the thin jacket he’s holding for her. Without his help, she slips herself into it and follows him out.

Mikhail opens the car door for her. He asks if she is hungry, if she wants to grab a bite to eat at either Denny’s or Jack in the Box, the only two near things open this time of night.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Sure?” he asks, belatedly solicitous. “It’s no trouble. They’re both on the way.”

“I would prefer not to,” she says, wanting only to go ‘home’—which is how she thinks of her dorm on campus— to her own bed, her own wash cloth and her own bath towel, folding her hands in her lap and looking ahead on El Camino at the oncoming cars with their bright lights winking as if they know her.


Image Credits: Dean Souglass