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short story    
 
photo of Alicia Erian








































































































































































































































































































































  Standing up to the Superpowers


Beatrice told Shipley she would sleep with him, and then she passed out. When she awoke the next morning, he said he'd gone ahead without her. He got dressed and asked her to drive him to the police station so he could turn himself in for rape, but she said not to worry about it. She wasn't happy, she said, but it was her own fault for drinking with a freshman. Shipley walked to the police station and turned himself in anyway. A Lieutenant Verbena called to see if Beatrice wanted to press charges and she said no. "Put him on," Beatrice said, and when Shipley said hello she hung up.

He called her the next day to say his mother, a pediatrician, had suggested she take a morning-after pill. "You told your mother?" Beatrice asked.

"She's a doctor," Shipley said.

"I got that."

"I'm going into counseling for my drinking," he added.

"How old are you?"

"Eighteen."

"I'm twenty-two," she said. "Now leave me alone."

Beatrice was a junior. She had taken a year off from college to work in a cheap clothing store for older women, then returned to school when she realized she made more money living off student loans. Her father, a divorce lawyer who had successfully represented himself against Beatrice's mother, had promised to help with tuition as long as Beatrice did well in high school. When she turned out to be not quite as smart as early test scores had indicated, however, he reneged. His advice to her was to stay away from the humanities, where there were no jobs.

She signed up for a Russian literature course with a professor named Fetko, who gave her good marks for implying that she'd be willing to sleep with him. Sometimes in his office he'd let her sip from his vending machine coffee, or take bites from the sandwiches his wife had prepared for him. Other times he gave her quarters for her own snacks. Mostly they just sat around shooting the shit, talking about Chekhov and his famous hemorrhoids.

Shipley, the freshman, was also in Russian literature. Fetko hated him and so did Beatrice. He was always asking stupid questions and interrupting Fetko's flow, something that was very important to Fetko. "Get him drunk and fuck with his head," Fetko had instructed Beatrice. "That would be worth a letter grade to me." Now, as she sat before her professor after Monday's class, Beatrice was unsure of what to say. "I fucked with him," she began, but when she described exactly how, Fetko turned white. "Jesus, Beatrice," he said, letting his pipe hang limp from his mouth.

She shrugged. She had been asleep when it happened.


Shipley called that afternoon to ask about the morning-after pill. Beatrice was sitting in her attic bedroom in a house filled with students. She had slept with two film majors on the second floor, one of whom had gone to great lengths to explain his uncircumcised penis to her. This had made her laugh--something she rarely did--and lose all interest in him, though she let him screw her anyway. "You're so hot," he'd whispered in her ear. "All the guys in the house want you."

"Thanks," she'd said, waiting for him to finish. Compliments had stopped doing it for her a long time ago.

Today she was trying to read a book about China for a history class. The professor was old and deaf, and whenever she tried to make a pass at him, he'd bellow, "What?" It was a grade she would actually have to work for, and it was killing her. Sometimes she went to his office to tell him this and he just nodded, pretending he could hear. She was no dummy. Her brain had just stopped accepting academic text along with the compliments.

What kind of name was Shipley anyway? Beatrice had half a mind to ask him now that he was on the phone, but didn't like to encourage friendship. Anyway, she was irritated, sick of his mother and this morning-after crap. "Don't worry about it," she told him. "I'm on birth control."

"What kind?" he asked, panting a little.

"What do you mean what kind?"

"What brand?"

"I don't know."

"Generic is cheaper."

"Fuck off."

He laughed. "You have a nice personality. I liked you even before we got drunk."

"Thanks."

"You wanna keep talking?"

"Let me think. No."

"I tried to talk to you after class today but you left so fast I couldn't find you."

"Try to breathe slower," Beatrice instructed him.

"Can I talk to you after class on Wednesday?"

"No."

"Before class?"

She hung up on him. He was in love with her, that much was clear. It happened all the time; men loved her personality, thought it was nice. Not nice-nice obviously, but nice-honest. Back home, people said she was like her mother, who was often described as acidic, and who had become a lesbian after Beatrice left for college. "Sex is sex," she had once advised her daughter. "No need to be picky." What bothered Beatrice was her mother's refusal to come out in the liberal, northwestern city where she lived, instead preferring to divulge the intimate details of her love life solely to Beatrice, over the telephone.

"I don't want to hear it, Mom," Beatrice would say, at which point her mother would accuse her of being homophobic. Beatrice protested, saying she had never felt comfortable with her mother's bedroom stories about her father either. "So I guess I'll kill myself," was her mother's response, "if my own daughter won't even talk to me." It was Beatrice's freshman year and she didn't need the responsibility, so she listened. She allowed herself to be lost track of as a sophomore, however, moving off-campus and delisting her number. There was some comfort in knowing that neither of her parents had ever been of a mind to chase after her.

Increasingly, Beatrice loved no one. She had a fair amount of sex but in general preferred her own company, and on occasion that of Fetko. He had information about dead writers that fascinated her, health problems and such. She told him that after he died, people would say he had liked for his girl students to talk dirty to him, but he said no one would care since he wasn't a real writer. She pointed out his books of criticism and he told her she was sweet to be so na‘ve, to have such big tits. In the end, though, she was glad he never tried to touch them, that it never went beyond talk. This would have weakened their rapport, which was something she felt they definitely enjoyed. Everybody traded on what they had, after all, and if what you had wasn't pretty, well, there was still a friend for you.


In class on Wednesday, Fetko seemed distracted. When Shipley raised his hand and asked him to expand upon the socioeconomic conditions of the lady with the pet dog, he did so without protest. Later, when Beatrice went to meet him in his office, he wasn't there. A note on his door said he was ill and that office hours had been canceled. Beatrice hoped Fetko's guilt over what had happened between her and Shipley would not jeopardize their arrangement. She had enough on her plate worrying about China without the added anxiety of having to complete his assignments as well.

At a vending machine she purchased lunch--a chocolate bar and pretzels, neither of which would taste like anything, she already knew. She found a bench on a wide walkway in front of the tall Humanities Building, and looked down into the valley at the poor town she had sold ugly clothes to the previous year. It's better up here, she thought, though she knew she would tumble down the hill soon enough.

Moments later she was joined by Shipley, a fat, sweaty guy with a dumb haircut. People's appearances were of little concern to Beatrice. She bedded the handsome and the homely alike. Along with her taste buds had gone her sense of smell, and she didn't miss it. Sex, she believed, should be more of a democratic process, distributed only when a situation-and not a person-merited it.

He presented her with a card depicting Monet's Water Lilies and containing a message that read, Sorry I raped you-Shipley.

"It's not funny, you know," she said, thrusting the card back at him.

He took it. "I know."

"Then what the hell is that?" she said, motioning toward the card. He was picking at it with his wet fingers.

"My parents think I should try to make it up to you."

"Are you retarded or something?"

He laughed, relieved. "You have a great personality."

"You are retarded," she said.

"I'm in college," he offered.

"You have some sort of emotional retardation," she surmised, "some sort of freakishness in that way."


He shrugged. Suddenly, a strange concern that she had hurt his feelings came and went. "Well," she said, "I guess I'll take the card back."

He handed it to her, then sat down on the bench. Her nylon book bag lay between them, and she made no attempt to move it. "You're my first," he said.

"Is that right?" she said. She had been many, many firsts.


"That's why you're kind of special to me."

"Uh-huh." She was alternating: a bite of chocolate, a bite of pretzel. Sweet, salt, sweet, salt. It tasted like a little something.

"I'd like you to meet my parents," he said hopefully.

"You're a nice kid," she said. "I don't really like to meet people's parents."

"My mother feeds expired birth control pills to our plants," he said, "to fertilize them."

"Stop talking about that," she snapped.

"Sorry," he said.

They spent the rest of the afternoon like that: together, but not too close.


Fetko seemed back to his normal self on Friday. He refused to acknowledge Shipley's request for an accounting of Babel's whereabouts on the eve of the revolution, and was in his office after class. But when Beatrice asked him softly what she would find if she unzipped his pants, he stared back at her blankly. "Beatrice," he said, rubbing his eyes, "I've made a mistake here. We can talk as much as you want-anytime you want-but not about the stuff we used to talk about. And you need to start doing better on your quizzes."

She left his office, stunned. She went home and masturbated, then fell asleep. A call from Shipley woke her at around eleven that night. "What do you want?" she demanded.

"I'm hoping we're going to make love again sometime soon. When you're awake."

"Forget it." She sat up in bed and noticed how perfectly her square, latticed windows framed an amoebic moon.

"What's the matter?" he asked.

"My boyfriend dumped me."

"You have a boyfriend?"

"Had."

"Wow." He paused for a moment before saying, "Well that's great! Now I have a better chance!"

She laughed for the first time since the explanation of the uncircumcised penis. "I guess you do."


"Really?" he asked, excited.

She woke up a little more. "No."

She went on to tell him about China, as a sort of review for a test she had the next day. He listened intently, and she was surprised at a man more than satisfied by this kind of talk.


She failed the test, having spent too much time studying the health of the Chinese--acupuncture and such--as opposed to agriculture and commerce. She wasn't doing much better in Russian literature, where she had begun sitting next to Shipley and passing him questions intended to drive the professor mad. Upon receipt of these, Shipley would instantly raise his hand and ask, "Is Lolita a memoir?" or, "Have you ever been to the Russian circus?" Though Fetko eventually stopped calling on him, Shipley continued to wave his arm around maniacally, complaining frequently of numbness in his fingers. It was during this period that Beatrice first knew herself to giggle.

She could've scared Fetko, she knew--could've threatened to turn him in if he didn't keep her grades up. But the thought of this reminded her too much of that first night with Shipley: how, because she had set out to harm him, the whole thing was really all her fault. In reporting either man she would only incriminate herself-reveal that she was a fraud who would do anything to keep her good grades and student loans. There was no point. Her only recourse now was to brace herself, China and Russia having allied themselves against her.


Shipley had an old VW van he drove Beatrice around in after class. He bought her lunch with a credit card belonging to a Shipley Sr., and wrote stories in which the two of them met Chekhov and took him to the doctor. He let Beatrice stick a fine sewing needle in his face and insisted it made him feel better all around. Knowing her financial situation, he cut her envelopes of coupons, brought her bags of pharmaceutical samples from his mother's office. They lay side by side on the grassy campus hills, drinking children's cough syrup and chewing Flintstones vitamins until the sun set over the Fine Arts Building and they fell asleep, waking up with bugs and grass in their hair. The word idyllic sprang to Beatrice's mind more than once, but she ignored it, thinking it was probably just anxiety. For when she wasn't with Shipley, she was irritable, unsettled. She had lost track of some of her unhappiness and could not seem to relocate it, not even in the bedrooms of the boys on the second floor-though she had looked.

"Do you remember anything about my penis?" Shipley asked her on the hillside one evening. The pollen count had been high that day, and they were passing a bottle of nasal spray back and forth.

"Not really," Beatrice said.

"Wow," he said.


"Yup," she said. "Imagine that."


"Hey, why did your boyfriend dump you?"

"Why?"

Shipley nodded.

"He was jealous of you," Beatrice said.

"He knows me?"

"He's been watching us," she confirmed.

This silenced Shipley for some time. It was a Sunday during finals, and the campus was deserted. "Would you like to see my penis?" he asked.

She looked over at his crotch. "Is it anything special?"

"I think so," he said.

She nodded. He took it out. "Okay," she said. "I saw it."

"It doesn't ring a bell?"

"No." She passed him the nasal spray.

He inhaled deeply, pinching the side of his empty nostril. "If I left it out," he said, sniffling, "would you do anything with it?"

"Probably not."

"Because I raped you?"

"Probably."

He put it away. "My mother thinks you should go for counseling," he said as he zipped up his fly.

"Why?"

"She says I raped you and you need to face that reality."

"I already did," she said.

"You're supposed to get mad, though."

"I'm busy," she said. "Doesn't your mother know anger is unproductive?"

"Is there anything that would make you want to make love with me again?"

"Yes," she said.

"What is it?" he asked eagerly, but she said she didn't know.


She failed out of school and lost her student loans. They hired her back at the cheap clothing store, where she felt oddly invigorated by her co-workers' discussions of impostor perfumes and patio furniture. Shipley picked her up in the evenings in his VW van and drove her to the college, where they continued to lie on the grass and take medication. He told her if they got married people would give them money and small appliances. "I'm tired of trading," she said, and she fell asleep.

On a Tuesday in May, Fetko came into the clothing store with his wife. Summer was slow in retail, and so it was just Beatrice, her manager having stepped out for lunch. Fetko seemed startled to see her and immediately told his wife he didn't think she would find anything she liked here, but she told him to sit down in the chair by the dressing room and wait. "What do you know anyway?" she said, and so Fetko shuffled past Beatrice at the cash register, his eyes glued to the floor.

Beatrice watched him for a moment, thinking about how most male professors his age--maybe fifty--still dressed as if it were 1974. She thought how amazing it was that young, stylish women of the nineties managed to get crushes on them anyway, as if age and intelligence transcended fashion. She had never had a crush on Fetko, and suddenly regretted this. He was a depressed, inappropriate, badly dressed man, and all she had ever noticed was his grade book, his red pencil.

Beatrice approached his chair now, which was puce where it wasn't threadbare. "Can I offer you a magazine or something to drink, sir?" she asked. She had no magazine or drinks. It was a cheap store. But she was stirred by his grief and did not want it to end.

"No thanks," he said. Then he added, "Miss."

Beatrice nodded. "I'll just help your wife then," she said, and walked off.

Mrs. Fetko was stout and seemed drawn to a group of coordinating, boxy separates done up in feminine, floral prints. "May I say you have lovely skin, ma'am," Beatrice began, which was the truth. Mrs. Fetko laughed and reached into her purse for a business card. "Here's my secret, hon," she said, handing it to Beatrice. Full Body Massage by Jules, it read. "You can keep it," she added. "Now, what do you think about this?" She held up a pink-and-gray blouse and a matching gray skirt.

"Is there a special occasion?" Beatrice asked.

"My husband works up at the college and he was just awarded an endowed chair. Very impressive. So I need something to wear to the ceremony. How about this?" She had laid the pink group over her arm and was now into the teals.

Beatrice shrugged. "They're just the same exact things in different colors."

Mrs. Fetko laughed. "Tell it like it is! I love it. Here. Start a dressing room for me, babe."

Beatrice took the clothes from her and headed toward the back of the store, where Fetko was furiously examining a dry-cleaning receipt from his wallet. She put Mrs. Fetko's clothes in a cubicle and said, "Congratulations," when she came back out.

He looked up from his receipt blankly.

"On your award," Beatrice added.

"Thank you," he whispered.

"Do you remember me?" she asked.

"Of course I do," he hissed. "Please!"

"Just wondering," she said.

Mrs. Fetko tried on several outfits, none of which was any better or worse than the others. When she asked Fetko which one he liked best, he said he didn't know. She pressed him and he said, "The pink, okay?"

"Don't be such an ass, Fetko," she said, rolling her eyes at Beatrice before returning to the dressing room.

"What are you looking at?" Fetko asked Beatrice after his wife had gone.

"Nothing," she said.

He glanced at the dressing rooms, then back at Beatrice. "Say something good to me," he whispered, laying a hand across his groin. "Quick."

She said something. He closed his eyes and smiled a little, the way he used to do. "Say something else," he said, and she did.

In return he offered her nothing. There were no more grades left, no student loans. Furthermore, he had clearly come to understand that she wouldn't retaliate. She had never once complained about the D he had given her, never hinted she even knew of the trouble she could cause him. And now here he was, looking to gratify himself at her expense. Asking for a freebie. She had complied not out of fear or hopefulness, but rather gratitude, for at last she felt herself to be depleted, empty, and in need.


In the van on the way home she told Shipley she loved him. "Will we make love?" he asked hopefully.

"Probably not," she said. "It's not that kind of love."

"Oh," he said. "Well, maybe you could stop making love with everybody else."

"I'll think about it," she said.

"Really?" he asked.

"Sure."

They drove through town without saying much more. The old van heaved and lurched while Shipley coaxed it on for one more mile, up one more city hill. Beatrice noticed a woman at a bus stop wearing a dress from her store, and pointed this out to Shipley, who said she didn't look half bad from a distance. "My mother likes your store," he said. "She said she may come in this weekend."

Beatrice considered protesting but then remembered that the shop was a public place. "What does your mother look like?" she asked instead.

Shipley thought for a minute before saying, "My father," which was of no help whatever.

Later, on the way to the college, Beatrice felt herself wanting more to eat than just medicine, and mentioned as much to Shipley. They planned an elaborate evening of food and drink, then stopped off for ice cream before dinner. It was very wrong of them, and it tasted very good.
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    Copyright © 2001 by Alicia Erian. Excerpted by permission of Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.