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[End Page 140]
There was a long pause when I finished my research presentation in anthropology class, followed by a smattering of halfhearted applause. My classmates’ heads rested on their palms or bent elbows. The professor nodded and cleared his throat, then called the name of the next presenter. He didn’t look at me. I wasn’t used to being denied a smile of approval. [End Page 141]
I knew I had bombed. My presentation had been bullshit, an attempt to spin my casual observations on diversity in the retail workplace into something that could pass for actual research. I’d sweated straight through my red sweater, the one I’d worn the night I lost my virginity on Tyson’s floor. It had taken immense effort not to scratch the creeping itch on my back for ten minutes. The only person besides the professor who seemed vaguely alert at eight in the morning was the blond guy in the back. He sat straight as a board and shot me little smiles throughout my speech, even though we’d never spoken. I had to look away. It was hard to tell if he was encouraging me or pleased that I was establishing the bottom end of the grading curve.
I was usually on the dean’s list, but that semester in my senior year things had nosedived. It began with a bout of influenza in January, followed by a sprinkling of angry red welts across much of my body. The rash was intensely itchy, and both a family physician and a dermatologist were confounded by its persistence. Antihistamines, steroids, prescription creams—all had proved powerless against the rash, which crept to new crevices on my body each week. An allergist at the university hospital advised me to stop eating wheat and soy, and then dairy, before finally saying he thought the rash might be a sign of an autoimmune disease, maybe lupus. He prescribed antimalarial drugs in addition to the other pills and creams and shook his head each time he scraped a line down my forearm and watched it swell.
The stress of not knowing when, if ever, I would find relief consumed me. The allergist said lupus symptoms first present themselves after a period of physical stress, and I feared my constant worrying could have brought it on. Each night I used a hand mirror to inspect the blotches that had congregated around my vagina and wondered who would ever touch me again.
The blond guy held the door for me on my way out of the building and stayed on my heels as I walked onto the quad.
“I liked the part when all the employees danced to Beyoncé during inventory.” His voice was deep, and he was tall and muscular.
“That was a lie. Only like four people danced.”
“Still. I liked your presentation. It was entertaining.”
I knew he was trying to flatter me, and it made me nervous. I wasn’t used to handsome guys approaching me. It brought out some kind of [End Page 142] leftover fear from the seventh grade that he’d call me “wildebeest” or “cheese nose.”
“I’m Andy. We should study for the final together.”
It dawned on me—I was skinny now. The stress of being sick had caused me to lose about 15 pounds, which seemed to impress people who didn’t know I had the plague from the neck down. My mother had had to take me shopping for new pants the last weekend I’d gone home because my new butt was swimming in the shadow of the old one. She’d watched with a hesitant expression while I turned before the three-way mirror at the Gap, for the first time not wincing at a multiplied image of my hips. The size six pants were my only consolation for the nights spent scratching and fighting panic.
Andy e-mailed me that week with his phone number and said we should hang out sometime. He was brief...