Supporting a friend through her fourth pregnancy scare was far more important than improving my mile time. But the longer I stood wedged into a tiled corner with my nose desperate for a case of sinusitis, the more jealous I became of my track teammates. This afternoon's route ran along the Charles River. Right about now they'd be enjoying the crisp scent of mowed parks and late august sunshine, which in Boston was particularly inviting before winter chills and wind tunnels settled into the old city.
Instead, here I slouched, willingly sweltering in the musty bathrooms of a public library while trying to ignore the dewy condensation seeping off the wall and into my tank top.
Yep, a gorgeous afternoon and I was cramped inside a bathroom stall shared by a college roommate so nervous it'd taken her twenty minutes to pee.
"And why can't I stand outside?" I asked, counting ceiling stains under my breath. Like any bio major, I'd suffered through urinalysis labs in the past, but still wasn't comfortable watching bodies perform their functions.
"Moral support." From her perch on the toilet seat Becky's fingers drummed against my calf. "Besides, Al, I'll be holding your hair the morning after your bachelorette party."
My hand felt clammier than the wall as I swatted her hand away. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves."
"Logan had me swipe your old class ring. To size."
"Yeah, like three weeks ago." Feeling a migraine coming on at the mere idea of marriage, I pinched the bridge of my nose. She'd kept his request a secret maybe two hours, and I'd experienced periodic lapses of worry ever since she'd first run screaming across the university bookstore to congratulate me. The last wedding I'd planned was a Barbie's, and I'd had a piggybank back then. Student loans kind of ruined dream weddings.
"Three weeks, one day. What matters is he's proposing."
"We don't know when," I insisted, sneaking a peak at the girl drenched in a nervous sweat.
Her hazel eyes were serious. "But he will, and you're going to have to have an answer."
"I'll tell him I'm marrying you."
Her laughter echoed through the bathroom. "Careful, he might believe you. I mean, we live together and now you're watching me pee. Have you even burped in front of the man?"
My nose wrinkled. "Ew, no."
"Well, you know what they say. It ain't love if-"
I sighed and returned to counting stains. "Why don't you go chug a bottle of water and we try again in an hour?"
"Nope, nope. I'm good!" I was so relieved that her ensuing tinkle sounded like a score from our symphony orchestra. A few seconds later water flushed and her belt snapped around her waist. "It's officially over. Stop averting your eyes."
"Thank God," I muttered.
"Two minutes," my bridesmaid-to-be replied, thrusting the pregnancy test forward with hands pastier than I'd ever seen, even with her Scottish complexion. "Hold this before it joins the first one in the toilet."
My inner bio major hesitated.
"Please, Al. I don't have the stomach or bladder capacity for a third try."
"This is the last emergency test, okay? Coach is gonna be ticked one of his captains skipped practice." My ears already burned with my co-captain's nasally complaints about my undeserving appointment to team leader. "I've got to be responsible and so do you."
"Yeah, yeah. You guys set the example. How will a track team run five miles without you?" Becky brushed side-swept bangs off her face so I could glimpse her eyes rolling. "I've gotta stop doing this, need to be more careful, use protection, yada, yada. Just take it, okay?"
We were best friends, not that that said much when you can count your friends on one hand. I lectured her on being a little more careful; she encouraged me to be a little more wild. No matter what advice was ignored or taken, we were always there for each other. Even in ancient, smelly bathrooms. Loudly exhaling my frustration, I squeezed around her and unlocked the stall. "At least let me grab a paper towel."
"You're the best."
I stepped out of our stall and over our backpacks stacked right outside. "I'm serious. People are going to start thinking you're-" Another toilet flushed. My voice faded. How long had someone else been in here? I could've sworn the coast was clear.
A pudgy woman with jowls fit for a bulldog emerged from what was evidently not an empty stall. Our eyes locked in the mirror above the sinks. "Miss Stevens," she rumbled.
"I'm what?" Becky asked. I ignored her.
"Professor Warren." I greeted Mom's former colleague with a sheepish smile.
"Name one person who'd compare me to that old whale," Becky continued.
My tongue shriveled. Embarrassment tinted my cheeks at the thought of what our human anatomy professor might've heard. The woman's hand hovered over the soap dispenser a second too long. No, definitely heard. Crap.
Hissing at her to be quiet, I trotted to the sink beside Pentworth's infamous GPA annihilator. She was the university's kraken, sinking dean's list dreams with nightmarish ease. Her strict syllabus and narrow margins of success terrified me into studying hard. I planned on asking her to write one of my recommendations for grad school. Or had been, until Becky's insult magnified her perpetual scowl.
In an attempt to repair the damage or at least distract her, I cleared my throat and hesitantly nudged an arm blob.
"Hey. My roommate's sick and I-" Was air-soaping my hands with the fervor of Lady Macbeth. Smooth. "Your muscle lecture reminded me of a question I had about myofibrils."
"Office hours, Allison."
"One minute, that's all I need."
"Wednesday after class. That is, if you haven't caught Ms. Awles' ...verbal illness." Frown compounded by jagged mirror streaks, Prof. Warren washed her hands of my senseless babbling and left.
I made a mental note to call Dad later and beg him to make his famous snickerdoodles for Monday's class. If I couldn't smooth things over, Mom'd kill me once for the insult, and twice for failing to get a recommendation.
Towels bunched in hand, I headed back for the stall.
Almost on cue, Becky whipped the door wide open and straight into my thigh. I half-cringed, half-dove over our backpacks in the scramble to escape. "Physical therapy just ended," I barked, massaging my kneecap. "This puppy can't take a third ACL tear in as many years."
"You're fine. It didn't even hit you there."
Ligaments and tendons unknown to me before the car accident often tugged outside the smooth flexion of my knee. The therapist insisted I was projecting anxiety into phantom pulls, but she was also the one who'd suggested I try clearing regulation-height hurdles too soon after the first repair.
After the second surgery I felt good apart from the occasional thunderstorm, but still lapsed into jumpiness whenever the opportunity arose for knee-level blows. I never felt more defeated than after working so hard to get back to running, actually getting there, and having to start all over again.
"Anyway, I can't believe you." Dressed in tweed jodhpurs and a varsity polo for her equestrian practice tonight, Becky seemed an indignant, suburban princess, tossing a scarlet braid over one shoulder and fixing me with the disdainful lift of an eyebrow gauge. "'Sick?' We're twenty." She pried open my hand and deposited the tester into folds of recycled paper.
"But not whores," I mouthed, more concerned about gossip than my alley cat friend, who never cared if anyone overheard her yowling.
"Liking something doesn't make you a whore, especially when there's no money involved." Her hips wiggled with the liberated sensuality of someone comfortable in their own skin. The soles of her feet were scarred from dancing on the edge of a knife for so long that I expected the usual negative result, but today genuine worry darkened her eyes. For once inner recklessness may have cut her too deep for a bandaid. "Australians, man. Darcy was a stud up on his stallion, playing a sunburned Prince Charming."
I cracked a smile. "His accent was that good, eh, mate?"
"I regret nothing." The phone alarm went off. Shaking her head, Becky raised her brow so high the topaz barbell inched toward her hairline. She wasn't ready.
I set the timer on my phone for a little longer.
With a jittery sigh she elbowed on a crusty faucet. "So you pull the trigger on your anniversary gift?"
"Ordered the ancestry kit this morning. Cost me dinner from now to winter break, but it's the perfect present for the guy who has everything."
"Seriously?" Water flicked from her checkered fingernails dappled my neck, refreshing against a warming blush as the conversation shifted toward the one I'd been avoiding. "And here I was thinking Princess Celibate finally ditched her unicorn and mounted a real stud." The mischievous gleam in her eyes returned.
My reflection in the mirror paled. "Logan's fantastic, but ever since Josh-"
She stuck her finger in her mouth and pretended to gag. "That asshole? The video was destroyed years ago. You're better than him. You got better than him. You know I'm not trying to pimp you out or anything, but Logan's the most patient man in the universe. After two years the only gift he needs is you. He deserves it, Al, you know he does."
"I haven't ruled it out." But I hadn't ruled Logan in yet, either, not with paralyzing memories of Josh surfacing whenever we got close. Becky knew this and respected my decisions in the end, but she also knew how much I wanted to stop feeling scared and frozen every time Logan got close. Her suggestions sounded coarse to the outsider, but in all her teasing and suggesting she meant well.
"He's putting a ring up on your finger and 'you haven't ruled it out?'"
I wrung my worries into the paper towels and nearly snapped the stick in the process. "Some brides are virgins until their wedding night."
"Wishes every parent ever." Sensing reluctance or distracted by the illustration of a baby on the nearby changing station, she relented. "I'm just saying you're overdue and you want to change, so you better be ready. I'm sure he is. A good lawyer always comes prepared, but seeing as his probably expired months ago-" She fixed me with a pointed stare. "-you should buy condoms."
"I'll show you the receipt," I promised, grateful when Vivaldi's Autumn startled Becky back into the here and now. As I thumbed off the alarm the door at the entrance to the bathrooms opened.
Thursday afternoons were the best time to visit the Watson Athenaeum, Penthworth's library and academic poster child. There were always a few underclassmen writing last minute papers and getting tutored, but by one o'clock most had gotten sick of learning and left to scarf down an inadequate dinner and then consume their weight in beer.
One last, mousy holdout passed between us.
"When did this even happen?" Voice lowered, I slung my bag over a shoulder and gestured for her to do the same. We didn't leave the safety of the bathroom, hovering awkwardly around the sinks, waiting for the girl to leave. "No offense, but the last guy you brought back was a bit too doughy to be anyone's stud muffin, and you haven't left Stir-Fry out in weeks."
Stir-Fry, our code word and the name of my purloined turtle, spent his days navigating a terrarium beside the sofa, but whenever one of us wanted privacy we'd transfer him to his designated cleaning tank on the counter. The one who'd placed him there agreed to a week's worth of food and tank duty in exchange for the inconvenience. Naturally rules favored the sexually inactive, aka me, but from time to time I'd used Stir-Fry as a plea for solitude, too.
"Remember the Providence tournament? He plays for the Friars. Delicious man, mmhm!" She never acted so coyly around her mother but this time even her smile strained to dimple.
Together we eyeballed the poor girl, a round-faced freshman based on the lanyard strung around her neck, as she washed up. After she'd scurried out Becky collapsed and gripped the nearest porcelain throne with both hands.
"Oh God here we go." Her chest heaved like she'd finished a marathon. "Say it's the shrimp. I can't afford this."
For her sake and mine, I wished for food poisoning. Her eyes focused on the toilet's still reflection. Hoping for a negative, I peeled back the paper towel in search of a solitary blue line.