The Ivory Tower Suite

by Hildie S. Block

#1 The End of It

He fell.

We all just watched.

He landed.

We all just stared.

We raised our glasses and toasted him.

And that was the end of it.

*************************************************

The first weekend of freshman year in college.  One of the very first parties, at the school where it was legal to drink, legal to drink too much.   Legal to drink everywhere, at meal plan, in the dorm, on the quad.  In a place like that someone is always bound to push back the boundaries of safety, of what can be survived and climb the radio tower.  To force open the windows and dance on the ledge.  To look too far over the railing that held us snugly to the roof.  

Of all the people trying.  For whatever reason.  Of all the people trying to basically kill themselves, that first weekend, only one succeeded.  For whatever reason.  

And one was plenty.  Brent Dalrymple.  His name took on a meaning of its own.  

It was a dorm room party.  Not his room.  Not my room, nor the room of anyone whose name I knew.   Crowded.  Happy.  Drunken and giddy.  “What’s your name” was yelled constantly over the music.  You spin me round, round, baby, right round.  “What dorm do you live in?”  “What are you majoring in?”  And on to the next.  No one could hear anything so it really didn’t matter what you said.  We were packed into that dorm room like sardines overflowing the can into the hallway, flipping and slipping all the way down to the elevators.

So after he fell from the window ledge onto the concrete, and suddenly became a Keith Haring chalk outline of a freshman in college, we drank to him.  To the courage it took to push it that far.  And then, we panicked.

We looked at each other, faces white as the new twin sheets our parents had sent us off to college with.  There were no drugs to hide.  No police to call, because we could hear the sirens wailing already.  All that was left to do was give statements, finish the keg and get up for class the next day, as if.

As if he’d never climbed out the window.  Never stood on the ledge to escape the crowd.  He was dancing, happy, euphoric.  Living on the edge.  And when the world tilted, he shifted and started to fall, he pedaled his arms in the air to keep his balance the whole way down.  Like at any point he might regain his balance, and be standing on the ledge once again.

As if his parents had never dropped him off at all.  As if that triple were always meant to be a double, which was actually true.  As if he’d never touched any of us, which he’d pretty much not had the chance to yet.  As if his stuff hadn’t just been unpacked by his mom the day before.  As if.  

As if it weren’t about to get repacked up the next day by that same mom.

And after that stuff was packed and gone, then we thought that was the end of it.  

Why?  We’d never know.  I don’t think many people really thought there was a why.  It was just a thing that happened.

***************************

And maybe it would have been the end of it.  But here I am 20 years later, at a dinner party and I’m looking at this guy across the table from me.  Our kids go to school together; they are in kindergarten.  Same bus stop.  Same class.  We live 4 houses apart.

I’d never have recognized him.  I don’t even think I knew him.  Really.

And now, what with working all day, and day care and rushing around, who knows their neighbors?

But we were both at that party, that party 20 years ago when no one did anything wrong, but someone died anyway.

That weekend.  That first weekend.  We both drank to Brent’s swan dive that set off the fireworks and welcomed us to college.  

“Didn’t you go to WU?” he asked me at the bus stop.  

I looked up.  I grabbed my five year old’s hand as she was about to dash in front of a car.  

“What?” And then, “Yes.”

“In the 80s? Like mid-80s?”

“Yeah.  Class of ’86.  You?”

“Eighty-six, yeah.   I thought I knew you from somewhere.  You should come by for dinner on Friday.  We’re having lasagna and, you know, some folks.”  He tilted his shoulder toward another family at the bus stop when he said “and some folks.”

And so now I sit across the table from this man, his wife and the other couple as our kids run laps around the circular floor plan.

And that’s when I notice his hand.  On his index finger, the nail is deformed from an accident.  It’s funny the things you remember.  I remember being at that party before anything else worth remembering happened.  I remember the guy pumping the keg had that same finger.  I remember trying to make up what had happened to the finger.  A weird crease in the middle of the nail, and a matching scar down the finger.

And explosive pen in Jerusalem

A plant accident at a paper mill summer job

A potato peeling incident with an older brother

I’d had a long list.  Sometimes when I’m bored I still wonder about meaningless things like that.  Until they are resolved.

That finger was never resolved.  

And now it taps a wine glass across the table from me.  The dark red liquid jumps a little in the glass on each tap.  Like a little earthquake.  A tremor.

“You were at that party freshman year,” I said.  “Brent Dalrymple.”

“Yes,” he said.  “I remembered you as soon as I saw you at the bus stop.”

“Shit,” I said.  “That was a long time ago.”

“Yeah,” he said.  “Yeah.”

#2 Dead Tired

Three a.m., five other people in her dorm room and Demi wasn’t sure she could stay awake much longer.  She tried to give them the hint, saying goodnight, getting into bed, turning off all the lights.

Natasha put Demi’s phone in the middle of the floor as a light now – and it was casting an eerie glow over the room, piles of stuff in turn casting shadows on the walls.  

“I’m not tired,” whined Maddie.  

Well, you be you, thought Demi. 

“You know what this reminds me of?” Things always reminded Brianna of something. Usually something only Brianna cared about.

“If we knew, would you shut up?” Fiona putting her hair into a messy bun, and then it would fall out and she’d do it again.  And again.

“Oh be quiet—“ Lexi was the one who usually had the good ideas, and the car.

“It reminds me of sitting around a campfire telling, you know, ghost stories –“ Oh, no, Fiona, not stories from camp — 

“Who knows one?” Fiona’s bun had just fallen out again.

“This is stupid—“Maddie got scared.  Once, she actually passed out from fear.

I know one – there were 5 people in my dorm room and they all died and I got to go to sleep.

“I know one – one my mother told me,” Natasha wrote a lot of fanfic.  It was decent.

“You mother tells ghost stories?  The one that never even let you watch –“ 

“Not that one – my birth mother –“

“Your birth—“

“She’s adopted – shut up and let her finish—“

“My mother used to tell me this story when it was dark and too cold to go outside –“

“What—“

“In Siberia –“

“Siberia, Pennsylvania?”

“There’s no Siberia, Penn–”

“The one in Russia?”

“The one in Russia–”

“How old were you when you were adopted?”

“Like with the frozen tundra?”

“Yes, the one in Russia, with the tundra – steppe, actually–”

“Wait, Siberia’s real?”

“Yes, you—“

“Just let her finish”

“I’m still back with – it was too cold and dark”

I’m still trying to sleep, thought Demi, and pushed her pillow over her head.  

“She told me these stories – when it got so dark – like dark all, but a couple hours a day.  And seriously like freezing out – not low key cold, like freeze the hair out of nose cold –

“Eewww”

“It’s true–”

“And she would tell me about how when she was a little girl, she’d go out on nights like that –she’d go out, bundled up – even though she wasn’t allowed –

“Bad girl–”

“She was bored, can you imagine?”

“Was it really night? Or just dark–”

“It was really night –she’d wait until her parents were asleep – and she’d creep out and into the town square where the statue of Lenin was – and one night–”

“John Lennon?”

“OMG – did you ever study?  Russia!”

“It was Vlad Lenin!”

“The vampire?!”

“And around the statue this one night, there was a fire and a family – just sitting around the fire.  She crept closer because why were they there? And why weren’t they inside and why did they have the fire?”

“And they turned to look at her – there was a father and mother with a baby – she could see the baby was nursing under her big woolen scarf and two older sons and a daughter and they looked at her and they screamed, but it made no noise.”

“How could they scream and make—“

“Just let her finish –“

“How could she tell the mom was breastfeeding if the baby was under the scarf?”

“My mother said she squeezed her eyes shut and when she opened them –“

“Let me guess – they were gone?”

“No, she was back in bed.”

“WHAT!”

“So she dreamed it.”

“No, wait – so she crept out again – the next night – and this time she didn’t close her eyes when

they screamed – and she heard the scream.”

“But –“

“I feel like screaming!”

“So what happened?”

“And her parents found my mother the next morning, asleep outside by the statue.  She’d almost frozen to death –“

“Oh my god –“

“But she was wrapped in the scarf of the mother –“

“The one she had over the baby?”

“Yes, it was a woolen plaid scarf, browns and yellows.”

“Didn’t she get frostbite?”

“Yes, she permanently had a black mark from frostbite on her nose – and she kept that scarf – it was like a blanket, so big.  And she sent me to America in it when I was adopted.”

When Demi opened her eyes again, it was light in the dorm room.  Her roommate Natasha’s bed was stripped to the mattress and none of her posters were up.  Demi pulled the brown woolen blanket up to her chin and closed her eyes again – hoping for sleep.

There was a knock at the door – and she dragged herself over to answer it.  There was the Dean of Students – Prof somebody or other –looking concerned.

“Demi – are you going to class today?  It’s okay if you aren’t ready – it’s been a shock to everyone –“

Demi rubbed her eyes – tried to refocus them.

“The school has never had a tragedy like this before – the whole car – I mean just all five of them gone like that.  The truck driver is getting out of the hospital and wants to see you. He feels so badly – the ice, the glare – it was an accident.  Are you sure you are okay?  It’s only been a week – what can we do to help you?”

“I’m okay.  I just need to get up and –“

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, I’ll go to class.”

“Stop by my office – we’ll chat –“

“Yeah – see you.”

Demi shut the door, not rudely, but not kindly and turned to her mirror trying to rub the black mark off her nose, but it wouldn’t budge.  She fell back on the bed.  She had to sleep when they’d let her.

#3 That Sleep of Death

 “Never mind, she sleeps like the dead.”

“You’re horrible”

“OK, you totally should have come last night!”

My eyes opened enough to notice that daylight was leaking through the cracks where the curtains swayed over the air conditioner.

Sleep threatened to pull me under again.  Not before I noticed at least one warm body sitting on the side of my dorm bed.

“OMG! I totally should have!”

“I mean red lights flashing, sirens blaring!”

“EVERYONE STARED.”

“But she was all right?”

“Look at her.  Sleeps through anything.”

The door opened with a creak and another one came in.  And sat on my feet.

“So wait, you guys never showed up right?”  On my feet, did I mention that?

“Oh my god, you have to hear what happened.  They went to NV!”

“Wait, you guys never came to the party at Steve’s because you got into NV?”

“No.  Well, sorta–”

“Before the police and all that –“

“Ok, so we went out – you know just Maddie, Gwen, Victoria, Iliza, Grace and you know who.”

I’m you-know-who.

“Right.  But you were supposed to get to Steve’s by 12, I was like, you know, waiting and stuff.”

“I know, but that wasn’t going to happen until late — so around 10 took a Uber.”

“OMG!  It was so funny, we were freakin’ clowns getting out of that thing! “

“But the driver was sooo nice.”

“I’m not sure we gave him enough money, but he was cool.”

“Anyway – so like we get out and there’s clubs all over and she’s like–”

“Let’s go to NV.”

“No way!”

“Way!”

“So we stood in line for-like-ever–”

“And then this guy came up”

“Not a guy, a GOD”

“And he talked to her.(me again)

“He like KNEW HER.(he is my second cousin, Johnny)

“The next thing we know, we are going in a side door”

“WITH HIM!”

“Like serious VIPs or something.”

“OH. MY. GOD.”

“That’s what I’m saying!”

“So was it awesome?”

“Of course.”

“There was a band playing in one room and the other room was like a total disco from like, the 70s or something.”

“And the drinks all glowed!

“It was just the black light.”

“I don’t care – they glowed!”

“But the police?  What happened?”

“OMG.”

“You won’t believe it.”

“Seriously.”

“What happened?  Celebrity skirmish? Congressman with a woman-not-his-wife?”

“Better.”

“So there’s like this death band in one room, this disco and all these lights and loud music in the other room, even the back bar had loud music playing, right?”

“OK.”

“and SOMEONE, wanted to leave and go to Steve’s.”

“OK.”

“But we didn’t want to go, not yet.”

“I was dancing with this guy, OMG was so hot.”

“I still had a drink left.”

“We had just like gotten there.  That’s what it felt like, and who knows when we’d get in again.”

Me.  I knew.  My mom’s cousins owned NV.  I can always get in.  Can’t drink in there.  But I can get in.

“So she wants to leave but we don’t.”

“Right. “

“So she is sitting in the back bar – Music totally blaring from everywhere, right?”

“My ears are still ringing, I swear.”

“You should have worn ear plugs”

“I know, I know, but still”

“Anyway, so what happens?”

SHE FALLS ASLEEP–”

“SATURDAY NIGHT AT THE HOTTEST CLUB IN THE LIKE WORLD!”

She’s completely out.”

 “She’s in the back bar – which is packed.”

“But people start noticing–”

“And no one thinks, OH MAYBE SHE JUST FELL ASLEEP”

“And who falls asleep at a club on a SATURDAY NIGHT?”

Me, when I’m bored.  That’s who.

“So they like think she’s OD-ed, so the next thing we know there’s all like sirens and lights–”

A Stretcher!

“So the guy I’m dancing with, he’s like, let’s go see what’s happening–”

“So we get to the back bar–”

“I pushed to the front to see what was going on and they are loading her onto a stretcher, and THAT’s when she wakes up.”

I’m not going to deny it because it’s all true.  But here’s what they didn’t get.  I hadn’t slept in who knows how long.

OK.  Me, I know how long it was.

Nine days.

I dozed in class and once at the library face down in my Econ book. But not in bed at night.

It’s not what you are thinking.  Nothing happened in the room.

It was worse.

There’d been this party – we’d gone together – freshmen girls travel in packs.

Alex, the funny cute one from class? We went for a walk.  We kissed and he told me about his girlfriend back home.  Present tense.  And somehow we ended back in his room.  But, I really didn’t want to be that girl. 

Things were complicated.

Leaving got ugly.

I walked back across campus and crawled into my bed.

The next thing I knew, hours later, there were a bunch of people in the room, all chattering.  I squinted at my phone – 4:11 am.

SO I asked, politely.  As politely as could be expected considering the circumstances.

“GET THE FUCK OUT!”

Which is when they seemed to notice me and all the pieces slid into place.

“Wait, have you been sleeping?”

I seriously need to transfer.

“How long have you been here?”

“Weren’t you outside?”

Were they talking in code?

Which is when I noticed the red flashing lights reflecting on the back wall.

“Didn’t you go outside for the fire alarm?”

“Aren’t the Resident Advisor’s supposed to make sure everyone is out?”

“If she couldn’t hear the blaring alarm, you think she heard a knock?”

“I think I told the R.A. you were still out with Alex – – you left the party with him, right?”

I guess I could say, “At least there wasn’t REALLY a fire.”

But there could have been.

And that thought didn’t help me fall asleep.

#4 Rear View

The first thing I notice is her bare feet in December, pacing the sidewalk next to the dorm.

“You’re LATE.”

I’m two minutes late.  One-hundred-and-twenty-seconds – give or take – late. 

BUT she is ready to go and the only word that matters is LATE.

She is ready to go, which I should have realized was a clue.

When I see the mountain of stuff she’s packed to come home from college for winter break, I think – no – I speak, out loud, “Are you coming back?”

“Yes,” she glares back.  “Why would you EVEN ask that?”

And then the eyes roll, the shoulders shrug, the phone comes out of the back pocket and a text flies out to some unknown entity on the multiverse.

As we pull out of College Drive onto Mattapany – pronounced Mat-ah-PAN-EYE, not Mah-TAP-an-knee – because it’s Native American not Indian, which explains nothing, she tells you that she failed some classes, but it is OKAY.

It is not okay.

It is okay, as in it’s not the end of the world turning on its axis.  Not the opening of Pandora’s Box of zombie virus.  Not a grave diagnosis.

But it might be the end of some things.  The end of the fresh start.  The end of the $60K scholarship.  The end of the college thing.

But maybe not.  

I want details.

I want to know what happened.

I want to know if I can fix this – which I know I can’t, because even if I could, it wouldn’t fix anything, not really.  

Not.At.All

OH.MY.GOD.

Which was the wrong thing to say and the next minutes are in silence, as graves of enslaved people slide pass the window, followed by a Confederate Flag, followed by the moon shining over the Chesapeake Bay.  

Two hours of driving ahead, and college in the rear view.






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