College Girl

by Valerie Cumming

I get the sense that you can do anything with these boys. They work the grill, wear hair nets, dress in sleeveless undershirts because of the heat. Muscles moving beneath the skin, flesh marked with tattoos and cigarette burns.

College girl, they say, out back near the dumpster between lunch and the dinner rush when there’s nothing else going on anyway. They pass me their cigarettes, still damp from their mouths, and I put my lips where theirs were and pretend to inhale.

You with your big words, they say, taking their cigarettes back with thick, warm, calloused fingers spotted with grease. What you gonna be when you grow up, anyway? Doctor? Lawyer?

I like working in a restaurant, I say, which makes them howl, even when I tell them that my dad has worked in places like this one his whole life.

Isn’t that why people like you go to school, college girl? To be better than their parents?

The boys all have girlfriends like my friend Jorie, who lives in a two bedroom apartment with her mother and her sister and her sister’s baby. Jorie, whose teeth stick out in front because her family never had money for braces. I run my tongue over my own straight teeth and say, You go to college to learn things.

That right? They laugh. You want to learn things, college girl? Come a little closer. I’ll teach you things.

All of them with girlfriends; some with wives, usually ex-wives. They pull you close like you’re dancing except that it’s dark out and there’s no music: the others laughing and you just hanging on, pretending to have a good time, pretending that your heart isn’t going like it’s going to slide right out of your throat. And when they let you go again – so fast that you stumble a little in your regulation non-skid old lady shoes – you feel all the electricity leave your body like a balloon deflating. For a minute – just one minute – you want to be one of those girls, one of their girls, a girl with big teeth and wide hips and yellow nicotine stains on her fingers, a girl with dirty hair and a man’s hands on her waist, a girl who dances with men in an empty parking lot on a hot night in late spring: the girl you are for right now, for this night, and only this night, and never, never again.

Valerie Cumming received her MFA from the University of Michigan, and her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in over a dozen publications. Currently, she works as a freelance writer, teacher, and editor based in Columbus, Ohio, where she lives with her husband and four daughters. “College Girl” is an excerpt from Girls In Trees, her novel-in-progress.