Fawn in Ice
“I was Carolina.”
The fluorescent light of the cellar classroom flickers off his dark eyes. “Carolina?”
After checking my cell phone—no new texts—I slip the device back into the kangaroo pouch of my sweatshirt. “Yeah. In middle school, everyone in Spanish class got to pick a special name. I was Carolina.”
He points at me. “You’re Amber in my class.”
I hold my breath before pulling the door shut behind me.
My room is cold as I return to the dorm. I try not to pay attention to the disassembled bed frame leaning against the wall, the frame that was supposed to hold a roommate. Its mattress is tucked underneath my bed frame, its bones hard against the tiled floor. I touch my temple with the pad of my finger. The physical chastise is punishment for preventing the company of someone else.
Before Christmas break, West Virginia University did not want to house me due to my history of mental illness. It also did not help that my previous dormmates found me face-down in our bathroom suite one Tuesday evening, the song “Sylvia Plath” evaporating on the back of my tongue, two bottles of Ibuprofen and three packets of sleeping pills dissolving in my stomach.
The university welcomed me back after I attended therapy every other day during Christmas break. I wore my mother as armor as I battled my way back into the school about which I’d always dreamed.
I sit on cold sheets and watch out of a curtain-free window as a January snow peppers the Morgantown campus. A vase of dead flowers crumbles on my vanity. Its note is stained with plant residue and Dollar General blush.
Because You’re Awesome!!! Love, Aaron
Behind the note, five prescription bottles line up like a selection of liquor at a bar.
My notebook for my Spanish class slips out of my messenger bag as I crawl into my bed and sob.
He melts over the podium at the front of the classroom. His hands pretend to be sandpaper as he grinds away at the frustration clinging to his face. “Guys. It’s easy for me to tell when you use Google Translate,” he pauses, his thick eyebrows arching, “and when you copy one another.”
The class is quiet. Meanwhile, I am drawing the body of an Articuno near my notes.
“Those who did not copy,” he starts, “will receive extra credit.”
Someone asks if they can do extra work to make up for the assignment.
“Unless you write something as good as Amber, it probably will not work.”
My ears tingle at hearing my name on his tongue. His accent cradles the sounds of my name in a strange, ethereal way. I glance up to find a classroom of eyes studying me. They definitely see the rose-colored flesh spreading on my cheeks and down the stem of my neck. I pretend something of interest piques my attention, and I lean over and sift through the contents of my messenger bag. I know there is nothing there. My action is calculated and purposeful, especially how I roll my shoulders until my long dark hair spills over my neck.
A girl shifts at her desk. “What did she write about?”
He breathes in through his nose. “She wrote about the colors of fall. The sounds leaves make when you step on them. And her pet deer.”
A choir of stifled giggles fills the room.
“Let’s continue with the lesson.” He clears this throat and fixes the collar of his black peacoat.
I leave my window open at 2:30 AM. Drunken laughter from the street below me spills into my room as college students return to their dens. I listen to a girl debate on sneaking her date into her room. Someone asks if there are any after-hours bars in Morgantown. Nobody responds. Boots crack on ice and snow.
Peeling down the sheets and comforter from my body, I lay alone in bed while wearing my ex-boyfriend’s boxer briefs and one of his volunteer T-shirts from the University of Delaware.
My dreams freeze in the innards of my brain before I can even see them.
He walks into the classroom wearing black Converse sneakers, tight jeans with holes at the knees, and a T-shirt for a band I do not recognize. Probably one from his hometown, a small village outside of Madrid. His black hair is disheveled. The entire class recognizes the pints of beer still lingering underneath his dark eyes. As he drops his laptop bag near the podium, his voice is hoarse and rusted, “I graded your exams.”
The self-proclaimed class clown utters, “You look like shit, dude.”
“Your exams were shit,” he counters.
A piece of paper appears before him. He pulls a pen out of his coat pocket and starts making tallies. We wait. We hear four marks.
Someone gasps. “Only four of us passed?”
His eyes narrow. “Sí.”
I snort again.
As I am packing away my notebook and mechanical pencil, he approaches my desk. He knocks on the corner of the surface with a knuckle. “Amber, may I speak to you for a moment?” The rest of the class has left the room aside from one girl who continues to pound a message into her mobile device. She wears frustration and fear of the exam on her face. She must believe she is one of those who did not pass.
“Yeah, sure.” I check my phone again. Nothing.
We meet at the podium. He slides the piece of paper over to me with a finger pressed at my last name. There is a 94% next to KENNEDY. His mouth opens to speak, but the sounds of the girl pushing herself from her desk and walking out of the room keep him quiet. As the door closes, both of us understanding the new intimacy that exists around us, he whispers, “You are my best student. Do you like Spanish that much?”
I shrug my shoulders. “I mean, it’s okay. I think it’s pretty neat.”
He plucks a pair of glasses from his coat pocket and wears them. My neck is hot again. “I want to treat my best students to drinks this weekend. Will you help me arrange this?”
“Great. Please talk to Jimmy, Frankie, and Tim.” He says their names as if I am supposed to know who they are. Then I feel something in my hands. “Give me your number so I know what day to meet you guys. My weekend is free.” It is his phone. As I key in my number, he buttons up his coat and tucks in the bottom of a red scarf. His messenger bag clings to his left hip. I see pins on his bags for bands like The Misfits, Rob Zombie, and Blink 182.
I hand his phone back to him. “There. You have my number.”
“Thank you, Amber.” He taps my shoulder. “Hasta luego.”
I spit out, “Adiós,” and leave before he does.
My mother drives over an hour to visit me. She brings with her a new pair of owl pajamas from Walmart and a penguin plushie. When she asks me if I am okay, I lie and say I am fine. She sobs because she knows I am lying.
We have a quiet dinner at Red Lobster, and she forces me to eat my entire meal. “You lost too much weight at that place,” she says through the dim lighting, “and it’s a bad winter this year.” Unsweetened iced tea fills her straw as she swallows. “They’re small. Do you still wear a small?” She is talking about the owl pajamas.
I stare into my lap. Somehow my body shed over fifteen pounds in two weeks. I am only 91 pounds. “No,” I utter, “I’m an extra small.”
She hands me another cheddar biscuit. “Eat this, please.”
I tell her I love her and eat the biscuit.
Frankie and Tim are unable to make it.
I meet Jimmy in front of my dorm. He stands in black sweatpants and a gray hoodie. He waves as I approach. His dark red hair is combed to one side. We are more than classmates now after exchanging friendly banter through texts. He was quick to talk about his girlfriend, and I was embarrassed to admit that I was still in love with my ex-boyfriend. Jimmy talked about food after that. I should have thanked him. “You live in the freshmen dorm?”
Instead of telling him that I am in the freshmen dorm because it was the only dormitory with an available room where none of my previous roommates lived, I force a smile and join his side. “Yeah. But it’s okay. I have a single.”
We meet our professor at the intersection of High Street and Willey Street. He readjusts the thick-framed glasses on his nose before making a defeated comment about Frankie and Tim’s absence. Something in the way he moves—how the tan skin of his fingers glows in the evening streetlights—terrifies me, how there is fear in my curiosity of wondering what he feels like. I do not even know how old he is.
“Let’s go to Sports Page.” Jimmy holds out his arm, a protective gesture that prevents me from stepping forward, before determining that the next intersection is safe to traverse. He looks down at me. “You can go there, right?”
I frown. “No. I’m not 21.”
An arm snakes over my shoulders. My professor buries his hand underneath the fur collar of my winter coat while his elbow rests between my shoulder blades. “I will say you are with me. It will be okay.”
Jimmy does not seem convinced, but he urges us to keep walking.
We are one entity as we descend the staircase into the basement bar, arm around my shoulders, warmth in my clothes, his accent holding me together like glue. I feel him yank me closer as he pulls open the swinging door. The bouncer immediately asks for IDs. My palms are warm, and I feel droplets of sweat dripping down the small of my back. Jimmy flashes his identification before rushing to the packed bar for a round of drinks.
My professor opens his wallet, revealing his face on a piece of plastic, and then he shakes me by the shoulders. “And she’s with me. Okay?”
The bouncer rolls his eyes. “Just go in. If ABC shows up, go out the back door.”
Did that just work?
We find an empty seat at the end of the bar. He helps me out of my winter coat and scarf before lifting me into the high chair. I am quick to look around the bar, my first time ever in a proper college bar, to see if I recognize any of my older friends. A part of me wants to see them, but another part of me does not want to see them. The part of me that does not want to see them is worried of their judgment at seeing me at a bar with my Spanish professor. Then I realize how foolish I am, because I do not have many friends anymore, not since that one Tuesday.
He stands behind me with a hand on the back of the seat. “Is this okay?”
I do not say anything until Jimmy returns with three pints of Yuengling.
He stays next to me for the remainder of the night.
At the end of the month, he asks me why I added myself as Carolina in his phone.
I tell him I am only Amber in his class before handing him my homework.
As I return to my room, a young girl hands me a flyer for a Singles Awareness party on February 12th at the Lazy Lizard. I wait until I am in the protection of Boreman Hall before tossing the colorful piece of paper in the trash.
My room is cold again as I step inside. The window has not been closed in weeks.
I shove my winter boots and coat in the corner before retrieving my cell phone from my messenger bag. Three voicemails wait for me.
First message: “It’s your mommy. Just calling to see how you are doing. I love you. Bye.”
Second message: “Hey. It’s me. I, uhh, haven’t heard from you in a while. I hope you’re okay. Text me or something. Bye.” His name is James, and he was in my bed last weekend.
Third message: “Amber. I do not know what you are doing, but I need to hear your voice. I am so worried about you. Please talk to me. I love you.” His name is Cam, and he was in my bed two weekends ago. He is also my ex-boyfriend.
I open my laptop and contemplate reactivating my Facebook account.
I close it and instead hide my shame with me in my bed.
I wake up the weekend before Valentine’s Day to a series of unread text messages from my professor. As I grind the sleep from my eyes and turn on the Keurig coffee machine perched on top of my mini-refrigerator, I open the texts from a contact I have labeled Mr. Spanish.
My skin crystalizes in the cold as I read the texts in his voice.
“I want you to know you’re more than my best student.”
“Are you at Gibby’s?”
“That wasn’t you.”
“I wish it was.”
“My friends want to meet you. I can’t stop talking about you.”
“I am a little drunk. I hope you can forgive me.”
The last text message in my inbox is entirely in Spanish. I open Google Translate on my laptop and transcribe the message.
“Please come find me and let me hold you again.”
I sit on the edge of my bed and stare at his words for over thirty minutes.
My mother calls me as I walk to The Grind to get a vanilla latte. The heartbreak in her voice weighs more than her words, the ones that share the news that Hazel has not been seen in weeks. Hazel is my pet deer. I listen to her bite back tears while she urges me to stay positive and have faith in Kevin, my step-father, as he continues to migrate the West Virginia wilderness for the little doe with an orange collar. We have had her since my 16th birthday.
I tell her good-bye right as I catch sight of him across the street.
He battles traffic to reach me.
He wheezes, “Let me buy you a coffee.”
We both stare at the paper cup in my hands.
“No, no—drink. Let me buy you a drink.”
I tell him to meet me at the Boston Beanery on Friday. We still have not mentioned the texts, just like I have not mentioned the other two men in my life.
I enter the Irish pub wearing a little black dress, floral-lace stockings, knee-high winter boots, and a purple paisley scarf. He waves me over to the only unoccupied seat at the bar. A draft of Blue Moon and its signature orange slice waits for me. As I strip out of my winter attire and drape it over the seat, he mentions that I have the most beautiful eyes he has ever seen. I tell him I get that a lot. Then I hold my breath, and I chug half the beer. I wonder when the bartender is going to card me.
We stay at the bar until last call. My veins are soaked in alcohol. He closes his tab, and mine, and we step outside onto the street. I ignore the somersault in my heart as he reaches for my hand and pulls it into his. He is much taller than me, and his tan skin contrasts with the pale, near-transparency of mine. He asks me if I want to stop at the 24-hour convenience store for coffee. I say no. Realizing we are just two minutes away from my dorm, I suddenly lead him across the street and walk in the opposite direction.
“What are you doing?” he asks.
“I don’t want to go home yet,” I tell him. I make sure to quickly add, “And I don’t want to go home with you.”
“Okay. But tell me if you get too cold.” Words in Spanish fly from his mouth. My eyes must have asked the right question, for he smiles, shines a row of straight teeth, before admitting, “I said you must read minds. I didn’t want you to go home, either.”
I am unsure if I can trust him or not.
We walk up and down High Street’s spine, our feet more familiar with the stone-bones of the sidewalk every time we turn around. At one point we stop in front of the closed Jimmy John’s business. I point at discarded shreds of lettuce near the door and say they look like fried acid worms or the fake grass that parents put in kids’ baskets for Easter morning. He begs me to stop talking before digging my face out of my coat hood and scarf and pressing his lips against mine.
He tastes like whiskey. One of his hands play with my ear lobe.
When he pulls away, he says, “Tell me something I need to know.”
So I tell him everything:
“I tried to kill myself after cheating on my boyfriend. My friends kicked me out. I almost spent Christmas in a mental institution. I am not in a relationship with anyone anymore, but I am sleeping with two different people. I am not normally this skinny, but my medicine makes it difficult to eat. Anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression, post traumatic—”
He steps back. “Oh, you’re so broken.”
I flinch at his remark. “Excuse me?”
“I just—” He paces the sidewalk. “You are too broken for me. I cannot help you.”
He is still pacing when I turn on my heels and walk in the other direction. I do not want him to see what it looks like when someone cries without tears.
It takes me a few moments to pluck my room key from my purse. It is not until its teeth are at the keyhole when I see a new message written on my dry erase board. Did you take your medicine? I quickly erase the black letters with the side of my hand before stumbling inside and locking the door behind me. My heart drowns in desperation as it hopes the message was written by someone I knew, someone who could pass the security check at the front door, but my brain is much stronger. The message is a bullet dislodged from the mouth of someone who knows my history. I pretend I am uninjured as I strip out of my clothes and climb into bed naked.
The window breathes its ice-breath on me. My skin trembles, but I do not relent.
My midterm grade for my Spanish class should be 93% based on my previous homework assignments, quizzes, and exams; however, I find an impressive 97% staring back at me when I open my electronic report card.
During the last class before spring break, I wait until almost all of the students have fled the classroom before stepping up to the podium and accusing him of inflating my grade.
His shoulders deflate as his dark eyes soften. “Why are you crying?”
“Please do not cry.” He reaches for my arm, but I walk backwards until the tears in my eyes have warped him, shapeshifted him into something other than my Spanish professor at West Virginia University, my teeth exposed and sharp as I gasp for air, breathe in something that does not remind me of that night two weeks ago when he kissed me, when I talked too much, when I cursed us.
I turn to leave, but he says something that catches my interest. He says I look nicer for class now, that I am no longer showing up in sweatpants, leggings, and hoodies, that I am wearing makeup, that I am fixing my hair, and that my perfume is something the entire class must look forward to when the lesson starts. I glance down and see that I am wearing skinny jeans, snakeskin flats, and a low-cut leopard-print top.
What does he mean? What is going on?
He sighs. “I know it is not because of me. You have other classes.”
“It is nice seeing you like this.” He closes a folder. “I am glad you are fixing yourself.”
My fingers clench. “Hey, that’s unf—”
“I will see you after break.” It is the first time he excuses himself from class without physically touching me—patting my shoulder, nudging me with his hip, touching the top of my hand—and it is not until that very moment that I understand him.
When I get back to my room, I close my window.
A few days before my 21st birthday, Hazel returns to the house with new deer friends.
She is no longer wearing her orange collar.
A Pushcart Prize nominee and a two-time Best of the Net nominee, Amber D. Tran graduated from West Virginia University in 2012, where she specialized in lyrical nonfiction and contemporary poetry. She is the Editor-in-Chief for the Cold Creek Review literary journal. Her work has been featured in Calliope, After the Pause, Spry Literary Journal, Cheat River Review, and more. Her award-winning debut novel, Moon River, was released in September 2016. She currently lives in Alabama with her husband and two dogs, Ahri and Ziggs.