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( Those who wish may take this story as an epic of the Harvard freshman year. )
THE TELEPHONE sat on the floor in the center of the living room-black, mysterious, almost untouchable out there all by itself. Martin, however, sat in the far corner of the room in the armchair that he knew he and his roommate had bought from a smiling sophomore for twenty dollars. He was daydreaming; his dark hair had fallen over his forehead and now partly concealed his empty-eyes, but it could not hide the wanton slant of his grin. He had not moved for half an hour when he decided to make the phone call.
A girl answered. He spoke (too quickly, damn it), "Hello, Jean, this is Martin."
"Oh... hello, Martin."
"How have you been, Jean. It seems like years since I spoke to you. How long has it been since I saw you, Jean?" (Hm, A crummy introduction, as they had met only last week.)
"Well, I'm not really sure, Martin."
"You're not sure?! Oh, come on, hon, you're going to tear me apart!" He laughed. "You know I've been thinking about you all week?"
Jean didn't answer.
"Seriously, Jean, I just couldn't get you off my mind. I kept thinking about that afternoon last week, when we just walked around Cambridge, looking into store windows and fooling around in the Yard, and generally having a good time. That was fun, wasn't it?" (That, for the most part, was garbage; he had been dreaming all week about her body and how nice it would be to get into.)
Silence. Martin, frantic, decided to change the subject.
"Oh, hey, uh, I already got the tickets for Friday night. Did you read the review in the Crimson? They seemed to think it was a pretty good flick. I'm kinda looking forward to it, aren't you?"
"Friday night? We... uh... had a date?"
"Yeah, don't you remember? I asked you at the door and said that we'd probably go to a movie and that I'd call you this week."
"Oh... umh, Martin, I have to tell you something."
"Sure, shoot." Martin was glad for the break, for some reason he was out of breath.
Umh... Martin, I'm afraid I can't go out with you Friday. You see, I met this junior yesterday, and he asked me out, and I kind of forgot about our date, so I told him I would go out with him."
(What?) "Well, that's okay, you can get hold of him and tell him you already had a date, can't you?"
"Well... yeah... except I don't know where he lives, and he didn't leave his phone number."
MARTIN exhaled. "Hmm, that's pretty bad. Oh-why don't you call information and ask for it? That's easy."
"Uh... okay. I'll call you back in a few minutes." She hung up.
Martin looked at the receiver in his hand as if it were a snake. What had happened? Jean had sounded unenthused, to say the least; and he had sounded like an eighth-grader! What was the matter with him? That same kind of stuff had worked so well at home; what was he doing wrong? Martin hung up the phone and crawled back to his chair.
That really pissed him off, though. How could she forget that she had a date with him on Friday? I mean, no girl could just outright forget a date! He had stood there on the porch, stuttering and awkward, and suddenly they had kissed-a lingering, deep, open-mouthed kiss, much more than the peck he had anticipated-and then he, breathless, had said. "See you next Friday, okay?" and she had said, "Yes," and he said, "I'll call you next week, we'll probably see a movie," and then he had run all the way back to the Yard; she had forgotten this?! No, she was too nice. Such fine girl! So good-looking and what a body! Martin thought again of that kiss, how she had pressed her body against his-he had met her only that afternoon! But then... she had met that junior only yesterday afternoon. No... she couldn't do that. She wouldn't deliberately break the date. It takes a real bitch to break a date, and she just wasn't a bitch. But what a bitch she would be if she broke that date! Damn!
The phone rang and Martin dived for it.
"Yes, it's me, Martin. I... uh... couldn't get his number, so I guess I'll just have to break our date."
"What?" Some unknown force within Martin caused him to rise to his feet without knowing it. The short cord of the receiver was fully stretched, and the phone dangled at Martin's knees. Again he said, "What?"
Jean repeated herself, this time a little louder: "I couldn't get his number, so I'll just have to break our date."
"Oh... I see."
"I'm really sorry, Martin. We'll make it for some other time, okay?" She hung up before he had a chance to answer.
Martin dropped the phone, and it clanged to the floor. She had done it. She had broken a date with him so she could go out with some goddamned junior! Well, so be it. Any girl who breaks a date is not worth dating. But how could she do that to him? How could she make him feel so good one week and then stomp on him the next? What a thing to do to a guy!... And he had just taken it. He had stood there, not saying a word, taking it. She had squished him like some earthworm in the garden, and he had just taken it.
AFTER FRIDAY night, Martin began to feel better, realizing that Jean was just a silly little bitch who would sooner or later learn a few things. By Wednesday, he was himself again. He was in such good spirits that his biology instructor had promised to throw him out of the lab the next time he started singing. Undaunted, Martin hummed as he prepared and set aside test tubes of coagulated and precipitated proteins.
He saw her elbow gliding along toward his test tube rack, but there was nothing he could do about it. He watched as the rack and eighteen test tubes of proteins went into the air and hit the floor. It had seemed so inevitable, even if only for an instant, that he wondered why the girl was all upset. She was almost hysterical:
"Oh, I'm so sorry! Here you've worked three hours on these proteins, and I've destroyed them! Completely! I... I don't know what to say! Do you want to share my results? Oh, I just don't know how I could have done that... a whole lab, ruined..."
Martin could see that she was about to cry, so he spoke sharply: "Girl-what's your name?"
Astonished, the girl stepped away involuntarily. (At least she wasn't crying. Martin remembered her now, from the Radcliffe Register: Susan Something, from somewhere in Connecticut.)
"You won't tell me? Well, I already know. Susan, this is a hard thing to say-but you're going to have to pay for this."
Her jaw dropped, along with the test tubes she was carrying. Martin summoned up the dopeyest basset hound-Pat Paulsen deadpan he could imagine until she finally realized he was kidding (Thank God! Man, what a sober little babe!) and began to laugh. So did Martin and, to his discomfort, the entire biology lab.
After everyone shut up and went back to work, Susan looked up from the floor where she was wiping up proteins and asked, "Martin... umh... what is my punishment?"
Martin didn't even look at her. "A date with me on Saturday night."
This time Susan managed to swallow her surprise and squeaked out, just audibly, "Okay." Martin grinned at her, and, averting her eyes, she smiled back.
That, however, was one of the last times they smiled at each other, for as it turned out, Martin could not have sentenced her to a worse punishment than a date with him that Saturday night.
IT WAS FUNNY, the way Martin talked himself out of having a good time on that date. Delighted with himself, he had gone back to his room and had plopped into the armchair, all set to fantasize endlessly about this new girl. Susan. There was no doubt about it: she was tough. Short, slender, pretty, and so serious she was funny. Yeah, and probably popular too. Martin wondered if she had dated a lot. Probably. No reason why not. Hmm, probably some upperclassmen too, damn them-that biology lecture was filled with nothing but juniors and seniors.
But Susan seemed so sober and serious and responsible-she'd never do anything underhanded like what Jean did. But, hell, Jean did it, and she seemed to be a really fine girl herself! Damn, could they all be bitches? What if Susan didn't like the way he talked, or what he said, or what he wore, or what he looked like? What if he did something stupid? She'd pull the same damn trick!... noh, probably not, she was too sober to have developed that kind of thing to the art that Jean had-she'd probably come up with some ridiculous bullshit that Martin would see through immediately! And what would he do then? Yeah, what would he do then?! He couldn't just take it again! He'd have to let her have it! Tell her what to do, where to get off, and how to get off. No doubt about it.
Now Martin was an effective defeatist when he wanted to be, and he ran that Saturday date pretty much the way he thought it would run itself. He and Susan had one strained laugh-no, two-over the incident in the lab, and then both of them clammed up for the rest of the night. Martin was inhibited, constrained-he was afraid to say anything for fear of what she might think of him, so he just didn't talk. Susan, of course, didn't know what to think of him-a a wit on Wednesday and a stone wall on Saturday night.
SO WHEN they arrived at the door of her dorm, Martin guessed correctly that Susan had had enough punishment. Nevertheless, he knew that they could have a good time together if he could only be himself; hope sprang forth, and he asked her out for the next Saturday.
"We can go into Boston and shec a sow-uh, see a show." (He was getting nervous again, damn it; he could feel his self-control evaporating like sweat.) "I can pick up the tickets on Monday. I'll call you Monday night and let you know what show it will be; I'm sure we'll have a real blast!"
Martin had never been less positive of anything, and he knew it, and so did Susan. But she was on the spot, so she said that would be fine, and they parted without even a peck.
By the time he reached the Square, Martin realized he would not have to worry about buying tickets. By the time he had reached his room, Martin knew he would not even have to worry about calling Susan, for she was going to call him. Tomorrow, as a matter of fact.
This time Martin knew what was coming, and he determined not to be caught. He would not take any crap from this little bitch. None! He stayed up until four in the morning, plotting his answers.
Martin was up on Sunday by eight and in the living room, waiting, by nine. He sat in the hazardous old armchair and mediated upon the telephone. It reminded him of something biological; what? Yes, that picture in his tenth-grade biology book. A whole lot of snaky little cells and some great fat black ones. What the hell were those cells, anyway? Jesus, Martin thought. I can't remember anything any more. But it doesn't make any difference. Whatever that little one is, it sure looks comfortable lying up there-right in the groove." I mean, a gross-
THEN, strangely, the big fat black cell rang.
Martin snapped out of his reverie real fast. He stood up, walked slowly over to the phone, sat down on the floor, picked up the receiver, and said, "Hello, Susan."
"What? How did you know it was me?"
"Who else would call at nine-thirty on Sunday morning?" Martin wasn't being very pleasant; that was a good start. But Susan didn't know what to say to that question, so Martin asked another one: "What did you want, Susan?"
"Oh. Well-I don't know how to say this-(Get ready, Martin, here it comes) but I'm... I'm... I'm not going to be able to go out with you next Saturday."
"Oh." (Martin! What's happening, damn it?! Don't let her get away with it!)
"You see, it's my great-aunt's birthday in Connecticut, and, uh (That's a goddamn lie, Martin!) my mother called this morning (At nine A.M.?! Sure she did!) and told me I have to come home next weekend because
my great-aunt is ninety years old and she's going to die soon and this is probably her last birthday so you see I just won't be able to make it next Saturday night, Martin!"
TELL her it's a GODDAMN LIE. Martin!!)
"Uh... I see, Susan." (MARTIN!) ( NOW, MARTIN! TELL her you're GOING TO MAKE IT NEVER because she's a LYING LITTLE BITCH!! TELL HER, MARTIN!)
"Oh... well... ( MARTIN! )... I guess so... (MARTIN, YOU'RE TARING IT AGAIN!!) Oh, wait a minute, Susan."
(NOW, MARTIN, NOW! TELL HER SHE'S A LYING GODDAMNED BITCH THAT SHE DOESN'T EVEN HAVE A GREAT-AUNT ANDTOGO-STRAIGHTTOHELLANDHAVE-BLASTINCONNECTICUTDAMN-IT!!!)
"Uh... never mind. ( Aaaaghhh!! ) Have a good time in Connecticut. Goodbye."
( MARTIN!! YOU'RE A FUCKING EARTHWORM!!! )
MARTIN began withdrawing from things after that. He didn't date any more for the entire semester, or work, or play or even go to biology lab. All he did was sit in the living room in the old chair and stare at the telephone, which he seemed to be afraid to touch. His roommate sensed that something was bothering Martin and alerted Martin's parents, who agreed that their son seemed to be having trouble adjusting to life at Harvard. They took Martin to see the Dean of Freshmen, who, being a man of diplomacy, suggested with a frown that perhaps Martin should have his head examined, and that the nice people at the University Health Services, third floor- "Just across the street, folks" -would be glad to examine it for him. Martin's parents thanked the Dean and took Martin across the street. There he was examined by a sweet old lady who was not a full psychiatrist but a psychiatric social worker or, as Martin put it, a shrink-trainee (which sounded to him like some kind of seafood dish, but he didn't pursue the comparison any further.) Anyway, she told Martin's parents and Martin that he wasn't really in bad shape (mind you, she was only a trainee) and that all he needed was to take a more positive approach to things, and that everything would turn out fine.
Well, Martin tried that until Christmas vacation and started to feel pretty well. He even went to his biology labs on Thursday (the Dean, bless him, had checked into Martin's case and had transferred him to the other section), and he began talking to people and doing other informal things. Then he had a wonderful Christmas vacation in Florida, playing golf and tennis and, believe it or not, with girls (but not Cliffies). Afterwards, Martin came back to Harvard and aced all his finals, salvaging an almost-Group III average ("You'll do fine next term," said the Dean) and actually enjoying life occasionally. He sailed with full colors into he second term, in good spirits and, according to his lady shrink-trainee, in excellent mental health.
But she was wrong, and Martin, always perceptive, knew it. He felt that something was missing. He kept having these funny dreams about earthworms, telephones, cells, and girls; and although the dreams were ludicrous, they kept reminding him that he had forgotten something of vast importance. Also, Martin was meeting a lot of Cliffies now, and he knew he would have to date one sooner or later. Martin felt a crisis coming on.
Then one day Martin's roommate, who was practically engaged to some Cliffie he had known all his life, strode into the room and announced that he had a girl for Martin to meet. He had been introduced to her just that day at the Cliffe, and he had told her about Martin. (Not all about Martin; no, not even much about Martin.) Several girls who knew Martin had sworn to this girl that he was really nice, and she had told Martin's roommate to have him give her a call. "Give her a ring," said Martin's roommate. "If I weren't all tied up, why, hah, I'd mess around with that myself."
Martin waited about a week, but finally he called her. This girl's name was Betty.
"Hello Betty. This is Martin." He felt funny, talking into the phone.
"Oh, hello, Martin. Are you the Martin whose roommate I talked to?"
"Yes." said Martin, fingering the phone cord. "Would you like to go out with me?"
"Oh... hah, you kind of took me by surprise. Martin... umh... when did you have in mind?"
"Well... no. I've already made plans for next Fri-"
"Why, all right, that will be nice. Martin, Where are we going to go?"
"I don't know. I'll call you."
"Okay. Oh, Martin... aren't you in my Soc Sci section?"
"I don't know; I've only been there twice. Goodbye."
Martin put the phone back in place, and immediately he began to feel very strange. Things were whirling around in his head: it was as if he were about to make some great discovery and knew it already. Martin shivered and looked at the telephone in the middle of the floor.
EVERY NIGHT that week Martin had one of his funny dreams, and by day the tension was unbearable for him. Something was going to happen to him soon; he knew it. Every minute seemed to heighten the anticipation. He couldn't study any more-he couldn't even concentrate on wasting time. He began sitting in the armchair again and staring at the phone: why, he didn't know. He just sat and stared.
Then, on Friday, something prompted him to go his Soc Sci section at ten o'clock. He got out of his chair, put on some clean clothes, forgetting to shower beforehand (he was really preoccupied, because he had been sitting in the chair without moving for four days), and went to the section in Emerson Hall.
He saw Betty as soon as he walked in the door-it must have been Betty, because she was a very sweet-looking girl-and said hello. Betty said hello too, and she came over to talk to him, but before he could say anything she got a funny look on her face and said that the class was starting and she had to go sit on the other side of the room. That didn't bother Martin too much, although it seemed to him that everybody was sitting on the other side of the room. Then the class was over and Betty came to talk again, but she said she was in a hurry and by the way she would not be able to go out Saturday night because a friend of hers was coming to stay with her for the weekend. Martin didn't understand why she couldn't get a date for her friend too, but Betty rushed off after promising Martin a date for the weekend after that.
As soon as Betty left, Martin's head began to reel again. Everything became distorted; he fell down four times just walking back to his room. He thought he was going crazy, for now he was having one of his dreams in the daytime. He was an earthworm, burrowing through a telephone cord into the receiver: Betty was in the other part of the telephone, and he was getting closer and closer to the receiver there, and something was about to happen-but before it could, he would see pictures, wildly distorted, of his old biology book's photographs of the cells, and the little cells would be swimming around trying to get to the big black one-but then he would see the telephone again!
This kept happening as he sat in the chair, staring at the phone, ill that day and the next. His roommate got scared and told Martin that he was going to sleep in Dave's room "because you're blowing your goddamned mind, you freak," but Martin didn't even hear him. He was completely absorbed in his hallucinations, which kept getting more and more intense, more and more frantic. Something was going to happen very soon now, and Martin didn't want to miss it. Soon he had to grip the chair to keep from being thrown out, everything was going around so fast. But he tried to keep his eyes on the phone, and finally, as he watched in disbelief, it began undulating to a strange ringing vibration. Martin crawled over to it as fast as he could and then pulled himself up to a kneeling position so that the phone was writhing at his knees. He picked up the receiver, for that was what he had to do first, and he put it to his ear and said, "Hello." A voice came from inside it, and it was Betty! Martin was overjoyed: Betty was the telephone after all She said, "Hello, Martin, I'm afraid I have some bad news." The anticipation was making Martin moan, but he managed to say, "Yes?" He knew it was going to happen now; his heart was beating a thousand times a minute, and he was breathing too fast to get air into his lungs; Betty said, "Martin, I'm afraid I can't go out with you next Saturday," but Martin was busy watching the earthworm crawl into the receiver so he just said, "Oh, that's a goddamn lie." Betty gasped and said, "No, Martin, really, this friend is leaving for Greenland tomorrow and I want to spend the night with him, and I'm not lying at all," but by now Martin couldn't care less, and he said so for the earthworm was in the receiver now and they were ready to go. But Betty was upset, and she said, "Look, Martin, I could have lied to you and told you I was stuck in the snow, or that it was my dog's birthday, but I'm telling the truth!" Martin barely heard her; the pleasure was intolerable. He screamed into the phone. "LOOK, BETTY, YOU'RE LYING!! IF YOU EVER WANT TO GO OUT WITH ME, JUST GIVE ME A GODDAMN PHONE CALL IF YOU DON'T GO FUCK YOURSELF!!!! "
With that, Martin's hand shot out to the phone, the receiver slammed right into place, and Martin fell sprawling to the floor at full length. He didn't remove his hand from the phone, but just lay there, trembling. His knees were shaking, he was sweating all over, but for the first time for as long as he could remember. Martin was completely calm.
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