At around 10 in the evening, Bradford, 2nd year PhD student in chemistry, finished grading the last test from his section of Organic I. It was a Friday, but he hadn’t made any plans. He yawned and stretched. He was in nothing but a pair of boxers and a white t-shirt. He lived alone; his generous scholarship allowed him to rent a place all to himself. He admired his office. It was bereft of any decorations on the walls other than a large poster of the periodic table. He sat in a big, black leather desk chair that his parents had bought him when he first moved in. On his desk was a wide-screen LCD monitor connected to his laptop. Once he had availed himself of the screen and an old computer that remained under the desk, and used them for videogames, but the demands of graduate work left him with little time for that. Behind him was a bookcase, nearly empty except for a couple dozen academic books and a few science fiction novels. He felt satisfied with the cleanliness of the room. It was spotless. A nice breeze came through the window that faced the street.
Bradford took out his phone to send a few text messages. Maybe there was something to do. He went into his living room, sparsely adorned just like his office, found his black exercise mat, and laid it on the floor. He did push-ups, followed by sit-ups. He almost skipped the sit-ups, but ever since he had met Linda at the gym a few weeks ago, he figured that the working out was doing something for him, and he had a new-found commitment to exercising. He went to his second-floor balcony and looked out at the street. He noticed his neighbor, a young girl in the English department, getting into her car. He admired her legs.
When he got back inside he looked at his phone. Randy from biochemistry had replied. “Not doing anything. Want to meet up?” Then Bradford remembered that he was downloading a few movies, and he went to his room to check their progress. They had all finished. He could connect his computer to the flat screen TV in his living room and spend the evening watching them. That was beginning to sound like the best option. But he wondered if he wanted to invite Randy. What was more lame: to have Randy over and watch a movie with him, watch it by himself, or get drinks with Randy and talk about how the girls looked at the bar? They never did talk to them, just about them. When it came down to it, Randy wasn’t a good wing-man. If anything, he brought Bradford down. Besides – for example – he had met Linda without anyone’s help at the gym, though he had to admit that she had initiated things. Well, it certainly wouldn’t have happened if he had been working out with Randy, Bradford was sure. He opted to watch the movie by himself. For a moment he considered ignoring Randy’s reply, to show him that he didn’t need his approbation, but he knew it would be rude not to reply since he had started the conversation. “I think I’m just going to stay in actually, feeling tired,” he said.
He paused, holding his phone. He wondered if he should text Linda. Maybe he could spend the night with her. But Bradford knew calling might not be in his best interest. He was fairly confident that she would want to see him, but he wanted to build more tension between them before making his next move. Prior to Linda it had been a long while since Bradford had slept with anyone, and he wasn’t even sure if he technically had ever had a relationship, so he needed to be deliberate about this if he wanted to make Linda his girlfriend. And there was more to it than that, because lately, since he’d begun sleeping with her, he felt that maybe he could start playing the field, and ride his wave of “pussy arrogance” – anyway, that was what Mark, the math post-doc, had advised, and though Bradford hadn’t thought to employ such vulgarisms to describe his new confidence, he agreed. It was a matter of having Linda fall for him while also keeping his options open.
On the computer he opened Facebook and searched for his neighbor. He navigated to photos of her last spring break, which, luckily for Bradford, was spent on the beach in a bikini. He was just putting his hand in his pants to begin masturbating when his phone rang. The screen read unknown number . His mind immediately ran over the possibilities. He wondered if he was overdue on any bills, but that was unlikely. And it was too late for the call to have anything to do with that. He decided, after all, to answer.
“Hello?” he said.
An unfamiliar female voice, which sounded to him like it was drunk, said, “Yes, Bradford? This is a concerned party and I just wanted to say that you’re a big bag of shit!” This was followed by some laughter in the background.
“Excuse me, may I ask who’s calling?” Bradford said, nonplussed and curious. There was a fumbling while the phone was handed to someone else.
“Hey baby, it’s Linda,” another female voice said.
“Hey, Linda! I was just thinking of calling you.” He paused. “This is unusual. What’s up?”
“Things are getting real wild here, Bradford. We need you to come by as soon as you can. I have a few things to tell you. Things are getting interesting!” she said. It occurred to Bradford that Linda, too, was perhaps drunk, which was unusual because they had never drank together, and he didn’t take her for someone who would get drunk on the weekends. “Oh wait, Mary Ann has something to say to you.” There was silence for a moment while Bradford waited for Mary Ann, whom he didn’t know, to speak. Then he heard Linda say, “go on Mary Ann, tell him! Go on.”
“You’re a scumbag,” said another female voice, not quite as drunk or emphatic this time.
“Um, what’s this all about?” Bradford said.
“Like I said, Bradford, things are getting wild here and we need you to get involved. So get over here, quick as you can.”
Bradford’s interest was, admittedly, piqued. “Uh, okay, I just have to get a shower. I’ll be right over.”
“Hurry!” The phone hung up. He sat in the chair and wondered what it was all about. The only voice he recognized was Linda’s. The other voices had sounded a little sexy, he thought, even though they were attacking him. But they were attacking him in a glib sort of way, or, at least, there was something prankish about it, and it didn’t seem serious, or mean-spirited. And there was a certain innuendo he had detected. Yet Bradford wondered if there was anything wrong between him and Linda. True, the last time they had been together, she had been upset about something when he came over, but it wasn’t long before they had started having sex, and after that she had seemed okay to him.
Before he got up, he wondered if he should finish masturbating. He decided not to; perhaps something was in store with Linda. She could be wild in bed, so who knew what she was capable of.
In the shower, he realized he was nervous. He washed himself fastidiously. Smelling clean and fresh goes a long way, he reasoned. Afterwards he rushed to get dressed, but stopped himself. He was not at her beck and call. If she wanted him to come over, he would take his time. He wondered if he should dress up or dress down, the choice being between a t-shirt or polo. He opted for the polo. But why deliberate? He went back to his bathroom and looked at himself in the mirror. There was a small blemish by his nose that irritated him, and a little razor burn on one side of his neck. He reached for some cologne, but decided against it.
Linda lived in the same neighborhood, so the walk wasn’t far. He nearly got in his car to pick up some beer for her and her friends, but he felt that perhaps he was taking too long; and besides, neither he nor Linda were really drinkers, even if she did appear to be drunk. Yet he considered that bringing beer might disarm her, if that was in fact necessary, and send a message that he was ready for whatever wild things they had alluded to. Nonetheless, he decided against the beer.
When he arrived at the apartment building, there was a young girl who Bradford thought he’d seen before standing outside smoking a cigarette. “Hi, are you friends with Linda?” he said. “My name’s Bradford. You look familiar. Have I seen you before?” He offered his hand.
“Hi,” she said. She took his hand and shook it – not so firmly, in Bradford’s opinion. “I gotta get out of here. I’m on my way.”
“Good luck,” she said, walking away abruptly. Bradford tried to remember if her voice sounded familiar from the phone conversation earlier, but he couldn’t say. He hadn’t particularly cared for her brusque manner, in any case. He walked to Linda’s door and knocked. He heard murmurs and footsteps, but it was a while before anyone answered. He was about to call her when she finally answered.
“Oh, it’s you – good,” she said. “It’s about time.” The door entered into her living room, where two guys who looked vaguely familiar to Bradford sat on her couch, silent. One of them was bleary-eyed and, Bradford speculated, under the influence of some drug. He wondered what it could be. This drugged one, it dawned on him, he recognized from his favorite coffee shop. The other one was probably someone in Linda’s department. The lighting was dim, and Bradford became aware of a pleasant vanilla odor that he assumed emitted from the numerous lit candles. He also noticed sitar music playing softly in the background, the same music that Linda played when they were in her bedroom.
Linda had sat down at her kitchen counter where there were a few bar stools. She was wearing a tight black dress and her long, wild, pink hair was down. Bradford observed, too, that she must have been wearing some sort of push-up bra, because her breasts were particularly prominent. Next to her a sat another young, petite girl with short brown hair. Together they seemed very alluring, to Bradford’s mind. He had the impression that he had walked in on a conversation started long ago, and he was interrupting it. “Okay, Bradford, you’re here now just so I can say you’re piece of shit. But now I don’t want to talk to you. So just go – get out,” Linda said. “They know that you’re a crummy guy, that’s all they need to know, so just go.”
Bradford was perplexed, and he felt the slight sinking sensation in his stomach that usually came with disappointing surprises. He no longer detected that flippant note in Linda’s voice from when she was on the phone, and she seemed, if anything, distraught. Yet the possibility remained that it was all a joke. Linda was extremely strange, she had a very peculiar sense of humor, and Bradford often didn’t know how seriously he was supposed to take her. Whatever was happening, he needed to get to the bottom of it, and possibly even defend himself, even though he didn’t know why he had to defend himself. Anyway, he felt equal to it; he was clever, and he could use his wits to come out of the situation with his dignity intact. He thought about how he could stick around just a little longer, perhaps ingratiate himself with the others guests, so he could figure out what was happening. The two guys still hadn’t said anything.
“Hey, I recognize you!” he said to the one who looked like he was on drugs. “Let me guess – what is it Adam? No – Daniel? No, what was it – ”
“Huh? It’s Chuck, man. How do we know each other?” Certainly sounds like he’s on drugs, Bradford thought.
“From the coffee shop where you work. I’m proud to be a regular there. I’m Bradford. Nice to meet you again.” He looked at Linda, who was whispering something to the other girl. “Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends? I’ll just introduce myself. I’ve met Chuck. What’s your name?” He reached out to shake the other guy’s hand.
“I’m Jerry,” he said.
“Nice to meet you,” Bradford said. Whatever they had heard about him, he certainly wasn’t going to let these people think he was impolite. The girl sitting next to Linda nodded and said, “I’m Mary Ann.”
So that’s Mary Ann. He would have to bring up her remark on the phone at some point. He looked at all of them, smiled, and said – with an affable tone, he thought – “so you’re all students together, or what? Having a small party tonight?” Then suddenly something came into his head. “Chuck, I remember now what it was. We were talking about Dune . The novel. You like science fiction,” he exclaimed. There was a strained, somber feeling in the air, and Bradford still didn’t know what Linda intended, but he wasn’t just going to leave.
“Uh, what are you talking about?”
“Yeah, remember, we talked about it at the counter.”
“Oh, yeah – ”
“Look, Bradford, he doesn’t care. You know what, I wasn’t going to tell you, but I’m going to say it. I found a new man. And he doesn’t treat me like dirt!”
Bradford, a puzzled grin spreading over his face, looked around to see if anyone was as surprised as him at this tirade.
“Look, man, just for the record I’m not the new man,” Chuck said.
“Neither am I,” the other one said. He nudged Chuck in the shoulder and whispered something in his ear. Chuck started guffawing, so much that he began coughing.
“Ha, the neighbor knows the new man, he’s the one who filed the noise complaint,” he was finally able to say. He abruptly went silent, and, as if something had occurred to him, picked up a small, brown-tinted glass bottle that was on the coffee table. He unscrewed the lid, put the bottle up to his nostril, and snorted. “Whew, that’s nice,” he said.
Bradford didn’t know what to make of that, and he wanted to inquire about it, but Linda was looking at him and for the moment that seemed more pressing. “What’s this? What are you talking about? I simply don’t understand. When have I treated you like dirt?” he said. He was beginning to get indignant, though he maintained a bemused, skeptical tone, rather than an angry one – which was clearly warranted. Bradford’s reputation with these people was at stake, and getting upset wasn’t going to help. “You know, I’m not going to just let you make a straw man of me here; give me the chance to say my piece. Tell me: what have I done?” he said. He was reasonable; if he had done wrong, he would admit to it, and he could have a conversation about it. We’re all educated people here, he thought. We can be civil. That Linda was seeing another man irked him somewhat – he would have to reconceive his understanding of their relationship and adjust his expectations – but they had never made any promises to each other, and it had only been a few weeks since they first met. In fact, this confession eased Bradford’s conscience somewhat because after all he did want to play the field and see other women; the possibility simply had not presented itself – and well, he was admittedly a little soured by that. But what bothered him most was the comparison between he and the new man, and in front of all these people, no less. He had a thing or two to say about that.
“You know what?” Linda said. She had got up now. “You’re so dense. I bet you thought some kinky shit was going to go down tonight?”
Well, actually, the thought had occurred to him. He looked towards Chuck and Jerry, who still hadn’t said anything. “I mean, given the circumstances, don’t you think any man would have entertained the possibility – a call like that from a couple of girls, late at night?” He gestured to Jerry, who seemed to be paying closer attention. Jerry shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t know, man.”
“Okay, you asked for it,” Linda said. Mary Ann approached her and touched her shoulder.
“Are you sure?” she said.
“I know I’m not thinking clearly and I’m a little drunk, but I’ve... I’ve got to say this.” Bradford prepared himself for whatever it was. “You know, you would be a real fucked up guy, a real evil guy, but you’re not clever enough. You came over here, treated me like a piece of meat. I was crying and upset and I called you, and all you wanted to do was have sex. And I feel bad for you because you don’t know any better. But come on, have some sense! I was crying, and you just started trying to take my shirt off. It’s you – guys like you, my therapist says – who have damaged my view of men.”
Bradford was, he conceded to himself, a little ruffled. And when he gave it a second thought, he was surprised at Linda’s distraught tone, because he had always thought he was harmless. But maybe he wasn’t harmless. There was actually something satisfying about that – Bradford couldn’t deny it – but before he could think about it more, Chuck stood up, looking a little unsteady on his feet. “Bro, you’re lucky to be getting laid at all.” He paused. “I gotta get out of here.” Without any more ceremony, he left.
“Well, I think that was a little uncalled for, don’t you?” Bradford implored, looking at Jerry.
“They don’t care,” Linda said, her voice slightly strained.
“Okay, okay.” Bradford said. He collected himself. Linda’s tirade had been, perhaps, slightly wounding, but he would maintain his dignity, and respond civilly while addressing her charges. He regretted, however, Chuck’s remark, and wished he hadn’t left before he had a chance to defend himself. And what exactly did she mean by ‘not clever’? Bradford considered himself, if anything, quite intelligent – after all, he did have one of the best research fellowships the university offered. Yes, he knew that wasn’t everything, but he thought he was smart outside of science too – not like Randy, who didn’t have a clue if it wasn’t related to computer programming. “First of all, I did comfort you when I came over! Obviously, something wasn’t getting across, because I was there for you... and in any case, you seemed into the sex, and you didn’t give me any indication that anything was wrong once we... you know... got started...” he said.
“You idiot! That’s not the point. And anyway, you treated me like your sex thing, you just left afterward. I thought, maybe, after we were through with that you’d stay over and comfort me. This isn’t just some hang and bang shit, or whatever the hell you called it. And even if it is, there was no hang – just bang!”
Jerry sounded like he was going to laugh, but instead he cleared his throat. “Um... perhaps now’s not the time to discuss all this?”
Bradford did not agree. If they didn’t discuss it now, they would never get to hear his side of the story, and they would leave thinking everything Linda said was true.
“Well, you know I had to get up in the morning to teach class,” Bradford said, calmly. He wasn’t going to raise his voice or indulge in these histrionics. Though he did feel a bit awkward with the other people there, and wondered if possibly he had been remiss with Linda. The last time they saw each other, had he made his move too quickly, or anyway, at an inopportune moment? But he never knew when to make a move. And truthfully, he couldn’t remember if she had seemed to enjoy the sex or not. But that was not the point, now! He would think over that later.
“Wait, wait, I can’t remain silent. ‘Hang and bang?’” Jerry interjected. “Where’d you get that one?”
Bradford laughed nervously. Admittedly, it wasn’t his own phrase; he’d got it from Mark, the post-doc, when Randy had first introduced him to Bradford. “Oh, I just heard it somewhere, I admit it wasn’t me, I’m not that clever,” he said, trying his best to strike a friendly, joking tone. Seeing Jerry assume a more casual aspect put him slightly more at ease. In fact, maybe it wasn’t so bad if Jerry thought he had treated Linda like a ‘sex thing,’ Bradford thought, with what he had to admit was a tinge of pride.
“And you said that to Linda? – wait, I don’t want to know what you said.”
Bradford looked down; so Jerry wasn’t a friend after all.
Linda cut in, “I had to teach in the morning, too.”
That was true, undeniably. But Bradford was his own man, and the thing was, he wasn’t much for spending the night, because he usually just thought about all the work he had to do the next day, and didn’t get a wink of sleep. Furthermore – he couldn’t deny it – he wasn’t really accustomed to sleeping with someone else in his bed. But that wasn’t the point. The point was: wasn’t Linda, supposedly, highly advanced in her beliefs about sexual relations and disinterested in questions of coupling and attachment? That’s what Bradford was given to believe when she told him about her thesis proposal. In short, she was being hypocritical in attacking him, there was no way around it. His indignation was aroused all the more.
“Well, look, all I can say is...” He paused. He had something especially scathing, yet civil, in mind, which would restore her to a proper sense of the absurdity of her accusations, but he couldn’t get the words out. “Well, I’m sorry, but I didn’t know this was how you felt.” was all he could say. He was rather deflated by the whole thing.
“You would-be-clever guy, you don’t have a clue. You’re lucky you got anything out of me. You know what? Just get out, now. I’m through with you. You came here, my friends know all about you now, there’s nothing more to say.” Again, Mary Ann was patting her shoulder.
“I think it’s time to call it a night,” she said.
“Just go!” Linda said.
Well, there was nothing else to do. Bradford walked up to Jerry and shook his hand. Jerry looked at him skeptically. He nodded and waved to Mary Ann and Linda, and then he left. On the walk home, he tried calling Randy to tell him what had happened, but he didn’t answer. The loser’s probably already in bed, Bradford thought. When he got back he sat on his couch in the dark for a few moments while he figured out what he wanted to do until he went to bed. The evening’s events had left him at a loss. He wondered if he would hear from Linda again, and if they would talk more about it. Assuredly he would run into her at the gym, if he kept going at the same time. Then he thought of his neighbor, and remembered that he hadn’t finished masturbating. After attending to that, he felt tired enough to turn in.