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The Door (The Exception Proves the Rule)
The door was not uncharted territory. On numerous occasions, Jenna had edged open its wooden expanse, sometimes cautiously, sometimes passionately, always to see his face. This time was no exception. But this time, she felt something different, something gray and wooly and foreboding, like a dark roll of thunder after you finally get to the beach, like a lump of lead lodged stubbornly in her small intestine. She wasn’t one of the many bulimic girls occupying the campus of that boarding school, but never had she wanted to stick a finger down her throat and let all her pain purge out as in the moment when hand’s flesh met doorknob’s brass. Nevertheless, she knew what she had to do: she opened the door.
He was sitting on the floor of his dorm room, with one long, lean leg in the lotus position and the other strewn carelessly across the carpet, big toe touching the leg of his bed. He was typing away on his silver laptop, which was perched conveniently on a wooden chair between his legs. Jenna’s heart had always leapt into her throat whenever she saw him, and this time was no exception. But this time, after the initial rush (about half a second’s worth), it sank down next to the lump of lead in her intestines, and there it remained. With one sweaty hand gripping the cold, sour-smelling doorknob for support, Jenna gave him a weak, tight smile. “Hey, Sam.”
As usual, Sam hopped up off the floor immediately, shutting his laptop and giving her his full attention. “Hey, baby. What’s up?” he asked rhetorically, wrapping his skinny spaghetti arms around her shoulders and giving her an amiable hug. One good thing about Sam—he was very respectful about kissing her. He always wanted to spend a bit of time talking about how her day was going, how she was doing—and then they would kiss. Quite a bit of time was spent on that.
They didn’t kiss that day.
Partly to gain time, and partly for pure nostalgia, Jenna scanned the room. It was the stereotypical guy’s dorm—unmade bed with a navy blue comforter bunched up at the foot, miscellaneous papers and books scattered all over the desk and floor, a half-empty bottle of Cuervo barely visible from the closet (which was heaped with dirty balled-up polos and boxers), and a mold-spotted pizza box balanced precariously on top of the small plastic trash can. All this had always seemed so endearing to Jenna, and today was no exception. God, with any other person the sight of an unmade bed would tick her off to no end (let alone a biohazard like that pizza box!), but with him her stomach filled up with warm liquid gold… She shook her head. What was she thinking? She couldn’t be… well, she told herself, it was natural to still like him; she would probably always be fond of him to a certain extent… Yes. She had to keep telling herself that.
As if reading her thoughts, Sam grinned and looked around the room. “God, lots of memories in this old place, huh?”
Jenna smiled, grateful for the diversion from her intent. “Yeah… lots of memories…”
It was their freshman year; the last day before finals. Responsible students were studying furiously and turning in early, but neither Sam nor Jenna was a responsible student. Sam simply didn’t have to put any effort whatsoever into his honors classes in order to get an A, and Jenna was content with being a B student, even though with a couple extra hours of studying she probably could have been valedictorian. But, thought Jenna, where was the fun in that?
The fun was in the party in Jenna’s room that she shared with her roommate, Amber. The Stolichnaya was exhumed, and frivolity ensued.
“Jenna!” squealed Amber, pushing a strand of her golden hair behind her left ear as she gulped down the unknown alcoholic substance in her coffee mug. “Guess who’s here?”
“Who?” Jenna asked, raising one perfect eyebrow. “Besides our whole math class, practically…”
“Sam Fisher! Oh, he is so, so cute! He’s been checking you out all night!” To punctuate this, Amber swigged her beverage and glanced flirtatiously over at the area where Sam and some of his buddies were standing.
“Dude, you’ve been checking out Jenna Hammell all night. You should just go over there and talk to her.” Sam’s roommate Christian echoed Amber’s words as he caught Amber’s glance and gave her his own flirtatious nod.
“Nah, man. And get murdered by Kelly?” Sam’s girlfriend Kelly was far too much of a goody-goody to attend the party, even though Sam had told her that he wouldn’t be drinking and that she wouldn’t have to, either. She had claimed that she had to study for her biology final. A likely story, he thought with annoyance, for she had been studying nonstop for the past three weeks. No, the more plausible reason was because he and Kelly were on the rocks: they had wound up completely incompatible with each other, with Sam wanting to hang out with his friends as much as ever but Kelly wanting to spend every moment with Sam.
“Forget Kelly. Her body is not nearly as cute as Hammell’s. I mean, I wouldn’t say no to a piece of that.” Christian wiggled his eyebrows lasciviously, gesturing subtly to Jenna’s perky rear end.
“Don’t talk about her that way, man. You’ve got to show a little respect!” Sam exclaimed angrily. He hated when his boys did that. He was good friends with lots of girls, and he knew that they would be crushed if they were looked at as just an object, not the intelligent, funny, sweet people they were. For Sam, sex appeal was in the way a girl spoke, cracking witty, intelligent jokes while still managing to look completely cute. Jenna, he had to admit to himself, was the epitome of this.
“Ooh, we’re getting a little jealous. Well, I’m not stopping you from getting your share. Go on, she’s not doing anything,” replied Christian smugly.
Sam sighed exasperatedly and nervously sauntered over to where Jenna and Amber were leaning against the wall. “Hey, Jenna. Hey, Amber.”
“Hey,” the girls replied in perfect unison.
Sam turned slightly towards Jenna, hands in his pockets, and lowered his voice so only she could hear. “Um, Jenna, do you want to get some air?”
“Yeah, all right,” Jenna said with relief. The party had been getting a bit too crowded, too stuffy and humid, for her tastes: she liked being free. Without touching, without glancing at each other, the two headed for the hallway with that certain brand of casualness that fools no one and only calls more attention to them. Hence, as they passed, Christian motioned to Sam and mouthed the word “nice”.
He didn’t know why; he hadn’t planned it that way, but they wound their way across the quad to Sam’s dorm and up to his room, where they sat side-by-side down on his unmade bed. “Well, erm,” said Sam awkwardly, “this is my room.”
“Yes,” replied Jenna awkwardly, her adrenaline pulsing, “it is.”
“So,” began Jenna to fill the silence, “where’s Kelly tonight?”
“Well,” mumbled Sam, “she’s, well… she’s… just being Kelly. You know?”
Jenna nodded. She understood that he wasn’t just referring to the fact that Kelly was spending her night studying. Understanding Sam’s feelings, she inhaled nervously with the air of someone about to offer difficult advice: “Sam, we’re friends, aren’t we?”
“Yeah,” breathed Sam with just a hint of regret.
“Well then,” Jenna exhaled wearily. “As your friend, and as an outside observer, I don’t think Kelly’s good for you. She just… I don’t even know. She’s a sweet girl, but she keeps you on such a tight leash. She tries to turn you into the kind of boyfriend she thinks she wants, not the amazing boyfriend that you already are.”
“You’re right. And…” Sam’s heart beat like a snare drum in his chest. Was he really going to do this? “There’s more.”
Jenna waited patiently, her always perfect eyebrows cocked slightly.
He swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple moving up and down. “You see, there’s this completely gorgeous girl who happens to be a close friend of mine. Lately, she’s been all I think about. I mean… it’s like whenever I’m kissing Kelly nowadays, I close my eyes and picture myself holding this girl in my arms. I’ve tried to stop it, I know how wrong and unfair it is, but I can’t.”
Jenna bit her lip, looked down, and choked out, “Who’s the lucky girl, then?”
As his only response, Sam grabbed her tight and pressed his lips to hers.
She blinked, all of a sudden thrust into the glaring day of the present. “Right, sorry.” She always got a little déjà vu coming back into Sam’s room, and this time was no exception. But never, so vividly…
It had been perfect, her and Sam. They were one of those couples who just fit, one of those couples who managed to be best friends as well as significant others. They would spend countless hours together on the outskirts of campus on an old blanket, sharing an iPod, singing along to their favorite bands (MCR, Sonic Youth, and Linkin Park) in perfectly off-pitch harmony, pausing only for one to start making out with the other, the beats of the sludgy bass pulsing through their hearts.
Then came the families.
Sam came from a family of ambitious intellectuals, all angling for Sam to make a name for himself in some sort of academic field. Jenna came from East Coast old money, which placed huge stock on the Hammell family name, looking forward to Jenna reinforcing the Hammell dynasty resting on the family’s laurels: throwing teas, cotillions, and charity balls, married to an Astor.
Unsurprisingly, the Fishers hated Jenna.
“Sam, sweetheart,” said Professor Anaïs Fisher in perfectly clipped English, when up from her post teaching bioethics at Yale for Parent’s Weekend, “Jenna is a perfectly sweet girl. Really, she is. But she’s not the kind of girl that will support you when you’re off getting your Ph.D. and postdoc; she’s a Hammell, she’ll be far more focused on which Bryant Park fashion show at which to grace the front row.”
“No, Mom,” Sam retorted calmly and respectfully, but firmly. “Jenna’s not snooty like that. She may not become an intellectual, but she’ll find something she loves to do and give her all doing it. Besides, we’re in high school, it’s not like we’re engaged.”
“We’ll see,” quipped Dr. Eric Fisher, who had walked in on Sam and Jenna furiously making out in Sam’s dorm a few hours previously. “We’ll see, son.”
Equally unsurprisingly, the Hammells hated Sam.
“What I don’t understand,” drawled Coco DeWitt Hammell, “is why you can’t date that nice Rockefeller boy. He’s such a gentleman, and our families would get along quite nicely.”
“Edmund Rockefeller-Stetson is a pompous twit,” replied Jenna angrily. “And since when is who I date anything that you should have a say in? If you like Ed so much, you should hook up with him yourself, Mom!”
“Don’t speak to your mother that way, Jenna,” said J.P.S. Hammell IV sternly. “She is quite right. Young Samuel would not be the best son-in-law for us: he would have no interest in taking over the business once I retire; he would want to have some sort of career of his own, which would not be nearly as profitable as the CEO of Hammell Enterprises.”
“What’s wrong with that?” snapped Jenna.
Her parents just looked at her until she hunched her shoulders and teared up, wanting more than anything to be free.
“So…” Sam broke in once again. “Is Ed Rockefeller-Stetson still bothering you about a date?”
Jenna looked up again into Sam’s lovely, large brown eyes. It hurt. “Yeah, he is. He’s been Facebook-messaging me every day for the past month… it’s so awkward, Sam. I’ve told him that I’m with you, but he just says that he’s willing to risk castration to take me out.” She sighed, blowing her long, shaggy bangs up in the air. “He’s a good guy, all the same.” Jenna could not help but notice how Sam’s hands balled up into fists after this comment.
After that Parent’s Weekend, the honeymoon period had ended for Jenna and Sam. Everything that their parents had said about the other had wormed their way into their brains like a cancer: it seemed that more often than not they would guilt-trip each other about “not being good enough for them”; when Jenna wanted to treat themselves to dinner at a nice restaurant Sam accused her of being a “spoiled little rich girl”, and when Sam got into heated political debates Jenna accused him of being an “intellectual reverse-snob”. They felt perfectly awful about it afterwards, of course, but their words could not be swallowed back up. The quality time spent listening to rock music, talking, laughing, and kissing seemed to have disappeared like smoke.
There were lovely moments, when they were lying together, just lazing around in Sam’s bed, his fingers tangled in her hair, her lips nuzzling his neck, when their love seemed infallible. Then, inevitably, a nagging little voice that sounded uncannily like their parents would sneak into one of their ears: “It’s not like you guys are going to wind up married!” Then they would break apart unceremoniously, and Jenna would coldly straighten her outfit and return up to her room.
“Well,” mumbled Sam awkwardly (why was Jenna being such a space cadet?), “What brings you down to the guys’ dorm on this fine afternoon?”
Sam could always get Jenna to confess anything to him, and this time was no exception.
Jenna twirled a strand of hair around her index finger. Whenever she was nervous, she fiddled with something: her hair, a necklace, a pen, anything on hand. It was a habit that Sam found completely adorable, and today was no exception. “I’ve been thinking a lot lately about us. I haven’t been able to sleep; I haven’t been able to eat… I feel like something’s dreadfully wrong.
“Sam. What we had… it’s gone now. Something… someone… killed it. Killed it as surely as if they had taken out a machine gun and let fire. It’s dead. I love you, but I don’t know what to do about this. What should we do? It’s… just… not…” Jenna bit her lower lip and looked pleadingly at him.
Surprisingly, he did not change expression. He did not weep, or shout, or do anything except look deep into Jenna’s eyes for a long time. Finally, he gave a slight smile that made his Adam’s apple rise and fall and his jaw tighten. “Well, then. I think you know the answer to your question.”
“It’s just so hard.”
“I know, Jenna.” His small smile flickered for a moment, but finally prevailed and reassured her with its sweetness.
Jenna moved backwards towards the frame of the door, right hand fumbling for the knob. Sam simply watched her. Finally, she pried it open (it had always been sticky, and this time was no exception) and slid through. For a moment, she looked like she was on the verge of saying something; her lips parted and a choked breath came out of her mouth. But finally, she smiled tremulously and took another step away.
She shut the door.