Tami Bell at College
Words By Sara Lippmann, Art By Enrica Angiolini
Love, she’d heard about—talks late into the night, with a feverish exchange beyond body and habit that could not wait. This was college. This was why Tami had studied and sweat and done all those churchy service projects: to arrive here, at the juncture of knowledge and experience. Out the back-seat window frisbees flew, footbags jounced on bare knees. Her life was about to begin.
Cars spilled belongings. Parents blocked stairwells and siblings cartwheeled down halls where doors opened onto mandala prints, to Lennon posters, and starry nights. Her roommate sat in bed with a tin of popcorn, licking orange dust from her fingers. Want some?
Tami wanted. There was no end to her wanting. They plugged in desk lamps, listened to the ambient hum. Her dorm smelled like burrito. Lonely hooks awaited coat season. They sized each other up from their respective beds, bouncing. No one could agree on the music.
There was hair everywhere.
Orientation week found her against a denuded cherry tree with a boy she used to know. At college, you ran into people. Bill was dropping someone off, the sister of a friend. After that, on to New York City. Real estate was booming, and college had done him well. My god, Tami Bell. When did you grow up?
She stood taller. In the mirror, chin to shoulder, she practiced saying: Hadn’t noticed and You don’t say.
Tami took Biology, Art History. She dog-eared the course catalog—Hard Choices, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, What’s Love Got to Do With It? She filled up her basket with the contents of her syllabi—Clarissa, Beloved, The Well of Loneliness.
Early on she received letters, though they sounded like threats. Connor wrote I hope you’re happy now.
She couldn’t be bothered with him. Parties had themes! At thrift stores she bought polyester then stood around salvaged couches smoking French cigarettes, pretending to be someone from another era. Tami had the look—approximate, close enough—where she was often mistaken. There were honest mistakes. From behind, she could be anyone’s girlfriend.
One night, Tami rode a bus out to a mansion by the sea. Guests felt like Gatsby. On the dance floor her dress swished like a car wash until her heel broke off her shoe. Afterward, an oil tycoon flopped on her like a dead whale. She tried telling her roommate about it, but her thoughts were all jumbled in feelings. Maybe later. Her roommate had to study.
There was so much to learn:
- How to blow campus credit on meat sticks
- Aerate instead of wash
- Read by osmosis
- Give herself over without risk. This dude from boarding school, that Namibian diplomat’s son, the semiotics major with a switchblade comb he’d rake along her thigh—activating any old itch
- Masturbate like a mouse
- Cry in the bathroom
- Nap in the library
- “Hair of the dog”
- Cross the quad without eye contact
- Layer soundly for the cold
In class, she took notes. Love is a construct. Patriarchal, sentimental. They deconstructed everything. The things we do. Throughout history. Conquer, claim, pine for every figment.
Connor, in mawkish, juvenile print: I don’t get you.
What’s to get? Connor pumped gas. Tami was in college. An upperclassman took her for oysters, for tuna in a sesame crust. They watched the Kama Sutra at an art house theater with red velvet seats. He offered her something—for the mood. Tami Bell would take anything. Everything was cool, easy, easy. Afterward, she puked in the sink.
Her wants could be categorized by texture and temper—a soft sweater, an athletic hand, a well-worn Madame Bovary, to camp in Big Sur, eat squid in Corfu, to sleep and sleep and never leave her room.
A cookie care package prompted a call home. Sure enough, her parents were divorcing.
Remember how we had it so good?
When she wanted to forget, Tami tried groups but that was exhausting.
As a sophomore, she discovered she could go days without speaking. Eating was unavoidable. In the dining hall, people shook Tabasco like loons. Tami pulled cereal into a bowl and sat by the fake ferns. The talking, no one noticed at all.
The wanting, it shifted, too. Still tactile (plush towel, fresh piercings) and temperature-controlled (iced coffee, hot compress) (to love and be loved, to crack this thing called love)—but less. Her senses merged into one. After a while, feeling dwindled.
A black cut-out on Valentine’s Day: Who stole your heart, Tami Bell?
Spring break junior year, she answered a ride board for Miami. She woke up in beds she didn’t remember, plucked burrs from her hair. No one asked where she was headed, whom she’d left behind. She walked in and out of lectures, of frat houses, midnight raves, poetry dens. Every jelly jar became an ashtray. She bought glasses without prescription. She got bong acne, got Chlamydia, got carded. She got a cat.
Eventually, the letters stopped.
Her grades were fine—only idiots flunked college—but she was not about to impress any career fairs, either.
The morning of graduation was boiling. Tami lined up, tassel swinging, melting in the sun. A sour funk seeped from her that she hardly recognized as her own. Who were all these people? Somewhere in the crowd, her parents sat separately. She thought she could almost picture the bright brim of Connor’s cap jutting like an overbite—but that was another unrealized life. She went in one gate and out the other. Desire metamorphosed.
Everywhere, a suffocating heat, but the whole world lay in wait. All she could think was, get me out of this gown.