By Allison Whittenberg
In a sports bra worn thin by use and sweats that once tight hung were now loose, Jennifer ran five miles before her morning class. It was her second favorite part of the day.
Her bare feet hit the unyielding pavement, shock waves assaulting her feet, ankles, knees, and back. Though the hurt felt good, she vowed that, when she hit 25, she’d stop this. By that time, she’d be totally grown, married, have children, and spending hours in front of an ironing board. She’d be too worried about how the table linens looked to indulge in a hobby as consuming as this.
In the meantime, it was pure bliss: running and running and running. Arms and legs churning. Body floating. Like a waterfall, like Niagara, pouring herself through the sunrise. When she got back to Powelton Street, she launched into one last burst of speed as she crossed the finish line, the entrance to her dorm.
Her suitemates were either at breakfast eating those horrible pancakes with disgusting syrup or they were asleep, lazing away the best part of the day.
Jennifer paused before keying into her room when she saw the following message scrawled on her magnetic message board: Call your father. Security Badge #24.
Jennifer’s chest constricted. She turned and ran back down to the lobby. There, she saw one of them in navy slacks, gray shirt, and navy suit coat.
“Are you #24?” she asked.
She noticed the guard eying her up. She was about his height, but only a quarter of his size. He didn’t run, he was too wide backed, too flat footed, too easily winded. Security guards didn’t have to pass a physical. They just had to show up on time and try not to doze off during the long lulls of inaction. “I’m badge #24. You college students read very well.”
“What’s the matter with my father?” she asked.
“What’s the matter with him?”
“Call your father,” the uniformed man told her. ”Why are you making problems? Just call your father.”
“I just–” Jennifer began.
“Call your father.” The man spoke over her, then opened up his logbook and made a notation.
Jennifer turned and walked back to the elevator, frowning. As difficult as this fat security guard was, he was like sweet potato pie compared to her father. Talking to her father was like crossing a mined bridge.
So she didn’t call him.
She took a shower and got dressed for her first class, Nutrition. There she got her assignment back, her three day diary of food intake. Her professor wrote back a simple question: Not eating much? A checkmark. During class, the prof touched on the Metropolitan Life Insurance weight charts. According to it, a healthy female between the ages of eighteen to twenty-two and her height should weigh between 120 and 130 pounds. And that was just for those who were considered to have a small frame. Those charts were wrong, she thought. She weighed a good 112 and she was looking to shave off another 5 or 10, just for good measure.
At 11:00am to 11:50am, she sat in Calculus class.
At noon, she had Intro to Lit.
Her father didn’t like her attending college. He’d always said it was a waste of time, and she wasn’t smart enough. He thought she ought to stay home with him and keep him company.
“A family should be close,” he would say.
Jennifer’s skin was brown. The perfect in between of her mother’s lightness and her father’s deep skin tone. Her father felt she should have been nearer to her mother’s hue. He brought this up to her over and over again as if his criticism could make her different.
As a child, she was a fussy eater and very thin boned. By the time, she reached adolescence, she had put on weight due to a combination of puberty and adjusting to the loss of her mother.
“Come here, let me weigh you,” her father teased her.
“You’re going to be really big later on,” he warned. “You’re drinking milk?!” he had exclaimed. “You’re eating potatoes and bread. No wonder your butt is so big.” He father was a visionary, into the Atkins Diet without even reading any of that doctor’s book.
Her father was a thin, stingy man who always wore long sleeves even in the swelter of August. He was simultaneously proud and ashamed of his slim physique. Jennifer used to wish her father was more generous with his praise or his affection. Over the years, she had been so worn down she simply wished that he’d leave her alone.
A few weeks ago, she’d spent winter break with him, and he badgered her daily. She was glad to escape to school. It wasn’t due to her vast number of friends. She wanted to be a history major but she knew her father wouldn’t approve of that. So she was undeclared, as an UND, she took foundation classes.
One more run in the low sun, the fading sun. She needed it to give her the strength to call. To punch the numbers.
“Hi, Daddy,” she said.
“How come you never call?” he asked. She could imagine his jawbone jutting out in anger.
“I just called you Monday.”
“You never call. I don’t know what you’re doing to keep you so busy.”
“I’m calling you now.”
“Well, it’s about time.”
“You didn’t have to call security.”
“You are supposed to call me every day. That’s why I called security. You were going to let this whole week pass weren’t you?”
Jennifer didn’t answer. She just felt the sweat in her palm make the phone hard to grip.
“I got your report card, Jennifer.”
“They sent it home?”
“You shouldn’t even be at the school.”
“You’re getting Cs. Cs.”
“What?” she asked.
“That’s all you got was Cs. Is that all you can do?!” he asked her.
Jennifer wondered whether he was holding the report in his hand or had he committed it to memory. She wanted to ask specifically what did she get in Freshman Comp, she thought she’d done well in that class. She’d gotten a B+ on her midterm.
His anger showed no signs of lifting. He was like a hot, flat iron moving back and forth over her.
Jennifer looked out through the window. Night wove its darkness even deeper. He yelled at her for a good five minutes before he let her go.
Her ears were ringing; her heart was pounding, thundering in her chest, yet she shed no tears. Her face was impassive. She had learned that much.
She wasn’t really smart at all. What was she doing in college anyway? Maybe she should kill herself, she thought, but then recovered.
Jennifer’s suitemates, Connie and Sara, were from Massapequa and Albany, respectively, they were used to tree lined streets and manicured lawns. So was Jennifer. She was from Binghamton.
That night they went to a party. There was nothing to eat, but plenty to drink. Kegs of icy beer.
He noticed her — a small, slender, brown, young woman biting her lower lip. Jennifer always had to be doing something. Moving somehow.
She wasn’t the prettiest, but that night she did look among the most desirable to him. Despite their racial differences, he picked up on her availability. Though she wore a frozen smile she wore that never reached her eyes, she was at least smiling.
“Hey, Jane,” he said to her.
“You don’t have to be sorry, you were close.”
I’m Trent. I’m in your Lit. class. I missed it today.”
“I overslept. Did Professor Hass collect the journals?”
“I don’t like short stories. I can’t get into them,” Trent said.
“The one that we did today wasn’t bad,” Jennifer said.
“What was it about?” he asked, stepping a little closer to her.
“I don’t remember.”
He drank his fourth can of the night.
She was still on her first. She didn’t like consuming too many carbs.
“I see you running a lot,” he said.
“I like to run,” she said, “Do you run?”
“I hate it.”
He was lean of body – fit, wiry muscles. Short like her father. “You must do something, Trent. You look fit.”
“Me? I can’t keep weight on.”
“Lucky you,” she said.
“What are you talking about? You have a beautiful body.”
“I’m all right.”
During sex with Trent in his dorm room, she wished she was running as the rain shone on the pavement. Why was she thinking of all of this when he was on top of her, giving her what he had in jolts, faster and faster?
The blood rushed swiftly to his face making it red as though he were angry. Veins in his forehead stood out thick and swollen, as if angry at her.
There’s no dating in college. There is just coupling on bedrolls surrounded by unfolded laundry and milk crates.
After he climaxed, he pulled out and gave her a single kiss on the lips. Then he rolled over and fell asleep. The condom was still on him, loose and filled with juice. He’d be out cold till about noon or maybe even 2 pm. She got her things together and slipped out. She walked with the path highlighted by red security call boxes thinking how the first semester had been a dream, a kaleidoscope, a mesh of possibility. This second semester was shaping up to be reality.
The next morning, she was the only one up in her suite. She went into the bathroom. Connie’s hot pink shag rug gave it a homey appeal. The other girls left their caddies filled with mascara, shadow, eyeliner, blush, and lipstick. The digital scale, wedged in between the sink and the toilet, was Jennifer’s donation to this space.
Jennifer stood on it. She was down a half a pound from the previous day. She felt proud. This was the happiest part of her day.
Copyright Whittenberg 2021