IRL Ch. 03

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Blonde

Like all of us, college senior Jackson has fantasies. Lately, all of his are about his philosophy professor. But Jackson has stumbled upon a peculiar way to go a little deeper into his fantasies. Maybe too deep. As he drifts further and further from reality, he is pushed toward a dangerous choice: Does he want the girl of his dreams, or the uncomfortable truth?

This story is sequential; Part Three probably will not make any sense if you haven’t read Parts One and Two.

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I rest my aching head against the door of Katy’s office. Which is locked. Which is dark inside. I check my watch. 6:30. Exactly an hour past our appointment time. Part of me is relieved that she forgot. How can I possibly face her and act normal, after whatever the fuck happened twentyish hours ago?

I’ve spent those twenty hours trying not to play the whole thing on the beach back in my head. It’s like trying not to think about an elephant. I showered three times. I kept finding sand behind my ears, under my toes. I showered three times. I told myself I was trying to finally get the sand off. But if I’m being honest with myself, it was more than sand that I was trying to wash away. I tried to sleep. I couldn’t. I told myself Coop was right; I had developed a dependence to Desitrol. I couldn’t fall asleep without it. But if I’m being honest with myself, it was more than withdrawal keeping me awake. I was afraid of what I’d find in my dreams. I was afraid of the feeling of cold wax fingers in my hand. I was afraid of what it meant about me, that I had seen and heard those things.

So I didn’t sleep. Instead, I feverishly rattled off a final project proposal and sent it to Katy. So we could talk about it at this meeting. Which she forgot about.

I should just go home. It’s Friday night. She’s out having a life, like a normal person. I should try to do that too. Or at least sleep.

But I don’t do these things. I tell myself that I really do need to meet with her about this project, or I won’t be able to work on it over the weekend like I need to. But if I’m being honest with myself, I just need to see her face. Her real face. Last night took me to the edge of sanity’s gravitational orbit. I feel myself drifting away. I need to retouch solid ground.

I call her. She listed her cell phone on the class syllabus. This came from a similar motivation, I think, as the failed coffee shop sessions—she wanted to lessen the space between her and her students. She wanted to be the cool prof.

“Hello?” She answers after two rings.

“Hello, Professor Donahue? It’s Jackson.”

“…Oh, shit!” She exclaims. She remembers now. “Jackson, I am so. so. sorry.”

“It’s okay.”
“I just—I put it in my phone calendar, but I don’t know how to work that damn thing, and I thought I was done for the day, so I went home and—damnit. So sorry.”

“Really. It’s fine,” I insist. “We’ll reschedule.”

“No, I don’t want to do that to you. It’s my fault. I’ll uh…I’ll be right over. But I’m coming from across town, in Clearwater.” This is a cute little artsy neighborhood several miles from campus. “So it’ll take me like twenty minutes.”

“Oh? You live in Clearwater? I live in Clearwater.” This is not true. I live in the dorms on campus.

“…Oh,” she says. Then there is awkward silence.

“So, I mean. I would be headed that way anyway.”

“Right.”

“So it would be stupid for you to come all the way here just for both of us to go all the way back,” I say.

“…Right. I guess it would be,” she says. Then there is a painful silence. I wait for her to shoot me down. I wait for her to say it wouldn’t be appropriate. “…Well. If you don’t mind my place being a mess, I guess you could just stop by?” She sounds hesitant. But I’ll take it.

“Yeah. No problem. Text me your address. I’ll swing by.” I try to sound nonchalant as I bound for the door.

***

“…Come on in,” she says. She leads me into the cramped but functional living room-with-attached-kitchen of her one-bedroom apartment. She wasn’t just being modest when she said her place was a mess. It’s the kind of clutter that seems more befitting a college student than a college professor, right down to the Chinese take-out boxes and beer cans left on top of a book shelf. But there is also an immense amount of reading material—books, journals, loose-leaf paper. In random towers that stretch toward the ceiling. It’s exhausting to think about reading even a fraction of the words in this apartment even over the course of a semester.

“Have a seat.” She motions toward a little loveseat that looks like it was rescued from the side of the road.

“Thanks.” I sit. “I like the place.”

“Oh, shut up,” she says. “It’s a dump.” She plops onto the couch across from me, putting a dishearteningly wide void between us. “Financially-speaking, I am still a student, remember. No salary.”

“But still. It’s a charming dump. It’s very…you,” I say.

She chuckles ankara escort at this. “Thanks, I guess?”

“And it smells good. What is that?” A sweet, homey aroma catches my nose.

“Oh, it’s a scented candle. I get them from a woman down on the boardwalk,” she points to the flickering flame on her windowsill. “That one’s ‘Cherry Pie,’ or something,” she says. I like it. I like it here. It feels safe, but exciting. Katy plucks a half-full glass of red wine from the coffee table and swills it. “Would you like some?” She offers. “It’s just the three dollar stuff. Again, I call your attention to the me-not-being-paid thing.”

“Sure. I’d love a glass.” I say. We are in her apartment. On a Friday night. She is pouring me wine. Whatever the ‘boundaries’ were, they appear to be stretching.

“Thanks so much for agreeing to come by,” she says as she pours. “That was cool of you. I hope it wasn’t too out of the way.”

“Not at all. Is it alright that I’m here this late?”

“Oh, no. It’s fine.” Her fingers graze mine as she hands me the glass. “I was just working. …Like always,” she sighs. Sure enough, her laptop and a stack of unorganized papers sit on the small table between us.

“Oh. I thought you’d have exciting plans on a Friday night.” She’s not exactly dressed to hit the town. She wears blue jeans and a t-shirt with an inexplicable dinosaur on it. I still find it an incredibly sexy look for her. The casual clothes do nothing to hide her voluptousity.

“Nope. Cheap wine and my dissertation. That’s pretty much as exciting as it gets. With my defense before the committee coming up in a month, this godforsaken paper is kind of my whole life right now.” She picks up the wine glass and swills it. “What about you, college boy? Don’t you have beers to be bonging or something?”

I laugh. Then I shrug. “I’d rather be here, I guess.” I watch for her reaction. At first, she avoids my eyes, pouring herself another glass. But then she looks up at me and slowly smiles.

“…I’m glad you are,” she says.

“Though I have to admit,” I say. “I was sort of surprised you offered. After your boundaries thing earlier.”

She sighs and runs her hands through her hair. “Look. I’m sorry about that. This isn’t easy for me.”

“What isn’t easy, exactly?”

“This job. I think of you guys as peers. Especially you, Jackson.” I wonder what that means. “So I treat you guys like peers. But the other week I got kind of a…talking to, by my department head.”

“A talking to? About what?”

“About my role, as a teacher. And making sure lines didn’t get blurred, and stuff.”

“Oh.”
“And it got me all in my head about it. And then maybe I overreacted, yesterday. I don’t know. I suck at this.” She takes another gulp of wine.

“Well I didn’t mean to put you in a bad position, by asking you to lunch. I’m sorry.”
“No, it’s not your fault. And I didn’t want to say no. I hope you know that.”

“Well. I wouldn’t want you to get in trouble.”

“I know. But it’s not just about getting in trouble.”

“…What else?”

She’s squirming now, increasingly uncomfortable. “I just…I don’t want things to get weird. Between us. I hope that, when the class is over, we can still be…you know, friends.” That’s not the word I wanted to hear, of course. But still. The idea of Katy still being in my orbit after this semester is really nice. It certainly beats never seeing her again. “I hope that I can be a resource for you, in the future. You know, as like, an older, wiser friend.”

“You’re not that much older,” I remind her. “And possibly not at all wiser.” She sticks her tongue out and throws the wine cork at me, which I nimbly dodge.

“All I mean is, I like you. I like being around you. And if anything happened—between us—and that got ruined…well. That would really be a shame,” she says.

“…Yeah. No. I totally…yes. It would.” Maybe she’s right. Maybe it’s better to leave it how it is; to be friends. “But. This is okay…right?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says emphatically. “I mean, we have to talk about your proposal, right? We were supposed to do it at school. I screwed up. You did me a favor and came here. To talk about your proposal. I mean, what could be blurry about that? Right?” I’m not sure who she’s trying to convince, anymore. She tosses the last of her wine back. “So. Your proposal. I just read it.”

“Oh. Yeah. So that was a really rough draft,” I say. I’m horrified at what she must have thought of the frantic gibberish that I clattered out this morning. “It’s just something I did really quickly. It’s not really fully formed, so don’t…” But I stop as I notice her rolling her eyes at me.

“Oh, Christ. Don’t do that. Don’t do your self-deprecating thing. It’s a really good idea.”

“…Yeah?” I try not to smile too broadly.

“Yeah. I found it really intriguing, actually.” She taps her laptop to bring the screen to life. “‘IRL,'” she reads. “‘An examination of the 21st century flight from reality.'” escort ankara She considers my title for a moment. “What is that?” She asks. “IRL?”

“Oh. It’s an abbreviation people use online and stuff. For ‘in real life.'”

“Oh. Shit. Am I that out of the mainstream?” She asks. “I don’t even know the latest internet abbrevs?”

“Well. At least you know enough to abbreviate the word ‘abbreviations,'” I say, and she laughs. I laugh. We laugh together. And I get that feeling again. Like before, at the vending machine. I wish I could just bottle that feeling. Or…encapsulate it. In little pills. I wish I could take a hit of it whenever I needed to.

“In real life as opposed to what?” She asks. “I mean, how could that possibly come up often enough that it needs its own abbreviation?”

“That’s—yes! See. That’s exactly my whole point here.”

“What do you mean?”

“So, ‘IRL’ is something that, for instance, my friend Coop might say while playing this online role playing game he’s kind of obsessed with, one of the ones where you pretend to be a wizard or whatever. Like, if he wanted to tell his internet friends that he met someone—like actually, physically met them in person—he would say he met them ‘IRL.’ But my point is: how messed up is it that he has to specify? What does it say about us when so much of our life is something other than real?”

“Ah. So you’re saying that for the players in this game, there’s been a kind of inversion in how they experience the world: the fantasy has become their primary experience and reality a secondary one?” She asks.

“Yeah. I think so. But it’s not just role-playing games. That’s just Coop’s escape. Most of us have one. Facebook. Pornography. Drugs. Romance novels. Alcohol. Anything that absorbs us. That allows us to reject reality for something preferable,” I say. I can hear Katy’s words from last night echo in my head. ‘It’s okay to want things that aren’t even real.’

“Mmm-hmm,” she nods along. “And how do you see this fitting into the course?”

“Well, philosophy is all about the search for truth. Take a guy like Descartes. He was desperate to figure out how to be certain about what was real. And my argument is that most of us today, we’re not searching for the truth; we’re trying to escape it.”

Of course, when I sat down and wrote the proposal this morning, the “we” was less of a societal “we” and more of a veiled “I.” I couldn’t stop thinking about what happened on the beach with Katy. With Jill, I mean. I told myself that it was just a bad trip. I had a weird hallucination; that’s out of my control, right? But if I’m being honest with myself, I know I saw Katy because I wanted to see her. I wanted it so badly that my drug-addled eyes and ears and hands and dick made it real. And everything she said and did, it came out of some throbbing, oozy place of need inside me. I wanted Katy. But not real Katy. Fantasy Katy. The one I could actually have. The one who was perfect. The one that would fuck my brains out and tell me she loves me, not the one that wants to be an older, wiser “resource,” whatever the hell that means. But at the same time, I hate that I want that. I hate that I spent the whole day thinking about taking another pill. I probably would have, but I couldn’t find Coop, who still had my only stash. So I sat down and wrote this proposal as half philosophy assignment, half secret confession to Katy about my own pathetic fixation, half weak attempt to convince myself I could change; that I could want the truth. Yes. That’s three halves. Deal with it.

“Uh-huh,” Katy says after silently re-reading the rest of what I wrote. “Yeah. I dig this. This is a great idea for a term paper.” She nods enthusiastically.

“Thanks.” I guess losing your mind has its benefits.

“So. What’s yours?” She asks.

“Hmm? What?”

“You said most of us have an escape. A flight from reality. What’s yours?”

“It’s an essay. Not a memoir.”

“Deftly deflected,” she smiles. “That’s okay. You don’t have to tell me.”

“What’s yours?” I ask.

“Me? I’m more like Rene. I wish I could escape, sometimes. I would love to be into trashy romance novels or World of Warcraft. Or jogging, or heroin, or something. But I have this compulsion to neurotically dissect the truth. I guess that’s why there’s all…this.” She spreads her arms toward the piles of prose; the scattered mountains of questions without answers.

“But what about when you don’t like the truth?”

She shrugs. “I suppose I’m inclined to think the ugly truth is preferable to even the most appealing lies,” she says. Her words from last night echo in my head, as if in retort. ‘I’m better. An idea is always better than the real thing.’ “But look where that leaves us,” real Katy says. “We’re right back at the question you posed yesterday in class: why should we care whether a thing is ‘truly’ real? If Coop gets meaning from his fantasy world, if it feels real to him, should it matter that it’s artificial?” ‘I thought ankara escort bayan you wanted me,’ the echo mocks. ‘That it didn’t matter to you?’

“…I really don’t know, anymore. Should it?”

“That’s a deeply personal question, Jackson. And it’s one you’re going to have to wrestle with as you write this paper. Me? I say yes. I want to believe that there is such a thing as a reality outside my own head, and that I can know about it, and be a part of it. So I struggle to try to understand it—like Descartes. But that’s my choice. You have to make your own.”

I stare into the steady brown of her eyes. They betray nothing. I never know what real Katy is thinking. But they look so much like the eyes that stared at me last night, the ones filled with gentle understanding—with exactly what I needed. No questions. No doubts. Just truly unconditional love. I could be lost in those eyes again. Soon. I could leave and track down Coop, get my pills back. I could be in my bed and on my way to her in an hour. ‘Me, you can have. Me, you can love.’

Or I could stay. And I could push my luck one last time. I could find out for certain what Katy and I can or can’t be. And be rejected. Crushed. Slapped in the face with the ugly truth.

Do I want the reality outside my own head?

“…Jackson? Going somewhere?” Katy asks. I cross the room to the windowsill.

“…I think I understand now,” I say. “Why Descartes needed to know if it was all real.” I pick up the candle. The one that smells like cherry pie. The wax pools at the top—a little molten lake. “If it’s real, you can trust it.” I walk back toward her, candle in hand. “Reality is always there. Relentless. Merciless. Whether you like it or not.” I sit next to Katy on the couch. We almost touch. She doesn’t move. “But if it’s all in your own head? Then even if it looks real. Even if it feels real…” I tilt the candle and let the wax plummet down the side, toward my fingers.

“Jackson! You’re going to—!” It runs over my fingers. It stings. I don’t care.

“…Then it could all fall apart at any moment. It could just melt away.” I put the candle on the table, its flame still dancing. I examine the gooey red on my fingers. “…Like wax,” I say.

“Shit. Here. Let me—” Katy scurries to the attached kitchen and grabs a dish towel. The red goop is already starting to harden in the cool air, like coagulating blood. She returns and gingerly takes my hand in hers.

“…Maybe you’re right,” she says, as she wipes the wax away with the towel. “Or maybe he was just…lonely. It’s very lonely, I think. To spend all that time in your head, wondering if you’re the only thing that exists.” She doesn’t use her professor voice. She’s put that away for the evening. This is something less steady. More brave. “It must be so sad, and scary. To not be sure that the things around you are really there. Or the people around you.” She tosses the rag aside and lightly traces her fingers over mine. They are clean now. “I guess the most frightening thing about the truth is also the most comforting: it’s so much bigger than us.”

I let her words hang in the air for a second. I feel the warmth of her hand. We both stare at the candle, flickering in the dim light. “So what’s our truth, Katy?”

“What do you mean?” She pulls her hand away, and avoids my eyes.

“Forget the rules. Forget screwing things up. Suppose we were just two people. Sitting on a couch.” I lean in, trying to shrink the distance between us.

“…Yeah?”

“Then, I would tell you that I like you. And not just I-enjoy-your-class like you, or want-to-be-friends like you. Like, want-to-kiss-you-on-the-mouth like you.” I can barely keep my voice steady. My adrenaline is out of control. But it feels good to say it out loud. Whatever else happens, at least it’s out there. “And unless you’re just willfully unaware, you know that already.”

“…Yeah.” She picks at the fabric of her jeans. I’m close enough to smell her, now. Her hair.

“And you would say…?” My heart pounds.

She finally looks me in the eyes again. I don’t know what’s going on in there. The soft light hides them. All I see is the candle’s flame reflected off her glasses.

“I would say that, on the subject of you kissing me on the mouth…” she goes slowly, in a low, hushed tone. The kind we use when we have to say dangerous words. “I would…describe my position as…favorable.” I try to stop my hands from shaking.

“…Favorable?” Our faces are a little closer. I’m not sure who moved. I can feel her breath.

“Yes.” She’s trembling, too. Our lips are perilously close now.

“That’s…good. Favorable is good,” I say in less than a whisper, my mouth almost on hers. I finally close the gap, and bring my lips to hers. She is still. My hand trembles and reaches out for hers. Our fingers intertwine. I press my lips against hers harder. My other hand wraps around her shoulders and pulls her into me. She opens her mouth to me. I wasn’t quite ready for it. I feel her teeth against my lips. She realizes her error and quickly backs off, but I’ve already tried to open my mouth to accommodate her, so now we’ve got the inverse problem going on, and my tongue darts out and finds her closed lips.

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