Claire’s Will is an award-winning short story. Need a quick shot of women’s college brand love? Here’s your jam.
When Claire walked the racetrack, we all watched. Some stared while stretching on the sidelines nearby. Others, like me, pretended not to watch from the cafeteria window, sneaking peeks over a tomato soup or smoked turkey and brie sandwich. She was wearing a beige ensemble and sunglasses, with her makeup perfectly done, smoking cigarette after cigarette, circling the track calmly in even strides. A girl from my Modern Novel class stopped mid-stretch when Claire came walking nearby and asked her why she was smoking if she was trying to get in shape. Claire stopped, dipped her sunglasses to the end of her impossibly dainty nose, looked over them, and said, “I’m walking for my ass, Darling. Not my lungs.” People whispered that Claire disappeared for months at a time and came back to school with a different chin, nose or slant of the eye. Rumor was that her body was completely hairless and that she was still a virgin.
Long before we’d even met, Claire had been the object of my interest and loathing. As we were all women at Holt, most of us slogged from class to class in ravaged jeans, with baseball caps hiding our unwashed hair. Claire’s perpetual style and grace made her a bit of an icon on campus, as early as freshman year. I’d watched her confident, boyish stride across campus looking renegade in her tailored and carefully composed outfits. And I hated her for it.
I feigned disinterest around Claire. It wasn’t easy. When most of us were just trying to make it through the dismal dullness of freshman year, she stood out. Brilliant. Claire was the bright booming voice across quad you couldn’t help but hear, especially walking by the newly renovated Claire Sparks Pennington Library. Once when I sat down in the dorm lounge I was enveloped in the most delicious aroma, like a rich layered dessert. I said, “Oh, my God, what is that smell?” And somebody told me Claire had just been sitting in that chair.
First semester of sophomore year she was in my painting studio and I was forced into the spectrum of Claire’s world. Painting was simply a way to fulfill my dreaded arts requirement. Whereas Claire was an Art major, focused mainly in Art History and Theory. She announced during one painting session that there were two kinds of people, artists and saints. It was just Claire’s personal theory.
“You’re an artist.” Claire whispered over my shoulder late one night when I was working alone with my usual bottle of wine. “Unfortunately for me, I’m a saint.” I felt my shoulders tighten, suddenly conscious of my tattered jeans and braless tank top. She stood behind me, unseen, probably judging. I offered her the bottle out of politeness. Claire guzzled it while explaining her re-appropriated definitions. I tried not to reveal the friction I felt.
This studio is for everyone. It’s not just for you, Lex. This studio is for everyone. It’s not just for you, Lex. I kept repeating this to remind myself that it was a public space. But it didn’t help. I owned the studio at night. It was my music in the tape deck. It was my wine. It was my painting that progressed overnight while all the others sat in stasis until the next class. Smelling Claire’s pastry shop scent over the acrid turpentine and oil, I called out to the solitude I’d found there the last few weeks. I tried not to look at the interloper behind me, but was compelled by the conversation.
“Seems like being a saint would be lovely.” I turned to watch her squirm onto a stool, settling with her legs bent like a spider and her high-heel ankle boots hooked on the stool’s bars. I remained standing. Our instructor had forbidden sitting while at work and I continued to dab at my canvas through our discussion.
She shook her head and said, “It’s absolutely awful. An artist has a gift whereas a saint has a duty.” Claire looked windswept that night, with flushed cheeks and her long hair swung around her shoulders. It was the first time I saw her unkempt. Her ideas were simple, square, and easily knocked down, like a child’s blocks, but I tried to sound diplomatic as I disagreed.
“Well, in either case they’re obligated to fulfill expectations, so it’s kind of even. I mean, it’s just as criminal to waste talent, as it is to deny one’s duty. Right ?” I smiled because I had made Claire frown. There was silence between us as she twisted to cross her legs and kick one calfskin toe toward me.
“I suppose. ” She spoke with hesitation, mouthing the bottleneck, and staring out the wall of casement windows. Then she slipped off the stool and sidled up to my canvas. “So, this is the painting everyone’s talking about.”
“What do you mean?” I slid my brush into the turpentine and picked up my wineglass. The thought of people discussing my painting struck me like a slap. It was the first thing I’d ever attempted and it had gotten away from me immediately. I had no idea where it was going or what it was about.
“Darling, don’t get upset.” She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “They just think you need your head examined and…” Claire took a gulp of wine, “and that you’re gifted, of course.” I pushed her arm away trying not to smile.
“My name is Lex, not Darling.” With effort, I was able to avert my eyes from her bright blue, amused gaze.
“I like Darling better.” She set the wine bottle on the stool she’d forsaken and crossed her arms, smiling as she turned back to me. “So, what’s the story with this? Is that you?” Claire pointed at one of the people in my painting.
“Oh, they’re all me. I just have different masks on.” She nodded blankly in response and I knew she didn’t know what it meant either. That relaxed me. Claire reached for the stool and missed, falling for a second and then catching herself with a quick step. “Why don’t you have some more wine?” My sarcasm floated past her.
“We’re all out, Darling.” Claire flashed me a sprightly look that probably got her out of multiple fixes with various parental units, traffic cops, and professors. Her eyes, distractingly huge, had that endearing quality often found in small animals. I frowned to show I wasn’t charmed. “Let me make it up to you. Sometimes I can be a terrible lush.” I turned back to my canvas pretending to dab it with my dry brush while she sidled away. Her scent was fading behind me, replaced with the stale smell of wood shavings and craft glue. The room felt chilly and I realized I was painting over the best part of my piece. I dipped a rag in turpentine and swiped at my recent brushstrokes. Thank God, I thought, it didn’t take.
Then I heard Claire shout over her shoulder. “I’ll bring you a vintage bottle from the family’s wine cellar next time we have a break.” It was a laughable proposition because my wine was from the drugstore, picked up next to the cocktail nuts and pretzels. As I heard her goodbye dropping down the studio stairs, I turned to catch a glimpse of her hair in the stairwell, floating away. I yelled after her to forget about it. She never did.
Three days later Claire was standing in the hall outside my room balancing a tower of cloth-covered hatboxes and trying to open the door across the hall from mine with her elbow. I came out of the bathroom with a towel around me and began to turn back as soon as I saw her. But she yelled to me, “Could you help me with this?” I winced. Then, clutching the towel tightly to my chest with my other hand, I opened the door for her.
I’d never seen this room because it was vacant first semester. All of our rooms were unique, and, because Holt had previously been a luxury spa for Southern socialites of the nineteenth century, handsome in their uniqueness. Her room was enormous, with detailed scrollwork ceilings. Boxes filled the center, and matching leather luggage lined the walls. There was an antique trunk covered in stamps from around the world. I spied an open suitcase with argyle socks in various neutral tones piled next to neatly folded cashmere sweaters, each one wrapped in tissue paper. A lamp sat on the trunk, the shade a multicolored landscape of stained glass. I tightened my grip on her doorknob and lowered my eyes to the floor. It made me dizzy to see such precious details in a dorm room. These were the exact items I dreamed of someday owning… and Claire already had them.
“My previous room over in the East building had this dreadful water stain crawling across the ceiling. Every night I would look up and see it had grown more legs or arms. Perfectly awful.” Claire mocked a shiver.
“Well, if that’s all then, I really need to get going.” I pointed to my towel to indicate my near nudity and turned to step into the hall.
“You’ve got some nicks there.” Claire pointed to my legs. “I recommend waxing.” I turned back to her and felt my face flower with heat. The words triggered my memory of one of the rumors about her. I stared at the fluid sweep of her luminous arms and shoulders and wondered about the skin hidden beneath her loose peasant blouse and jeans. Claire’s collarbone and arms looked burnished, as if brushed ever so slightly with gold leaf. Was she completely hairless from the rigors of waxing? The question sent me from her room perplexed and imagining.
I turned into my plain room. It had always seemed understated and elegant before. Everything I owned; my white duvet, sheets and curtains, the drugstore alarm clock, and wall of books, seemed blanched and barren. All I could think was that Claire lived in a world like a magazine spread in Architectural Digest and I couldn’t even afford magazines of that caliber.
Claire took a few days to settle in because she spent a majority of her time standing in my doorway. “Have you read all these books?” “Do you have a tape measure?” “Will you tell me if the picture I’m hanging is straight?” I began shutting my door, which had the unfortunate consequence of cutting me off from everyone, not just Claire. And she was inescapable anyway.
I was nestled into my duvet reading the Henry Miller trilogy late one night when Claire started pounding on my door and yelling. “Stop shouting and come in!” I barked at the door, afraid she would wake our neighbors. She rushed in with a desperate expression and a public notice clasped in her hand. I made out that it was a sign I had recently posted, offering tutorials, and exhaled an imperceptible sigh.
“Darling, you’re brilliant and all that, so you’ve got to help me.” Claire shut my door behind her and seemed taller and more colorful than I remembered her outside the translucence of my room. She had on an angora sweater and pearls. I stared at the necklace and was imagining each orb individually hand picked from the South Sea with the deft fingers of loin-clothed divers while Claire babbled on. “I’ve got this dreadful physics class and I must do well.” She pulled out my school-issued wooden chair and sat astride, pressing her breasts into the rungs facing me. “I’ll pay you triple your fee. And if I actually do well in the class, you’ll get an incredible bonus.” I realized I was staring at her chest poking through the hard-backed chair and pulled my eyes away to look at my hands. They were ragged from my gnawing; I hid them under Henry Miller.
“Can I get that in writing?”
“You’re funny,” Claire said with a blank face. We started the next day.
I never realized how lazy I was, breezing through with honors, even doing other tutees’ homework rather than actually teaching, until I worked with Claire. She was tireless. She genuinely struggled to learn the material. Though I despised absolutely all of her exterior qualities, Claire’s will impressed me. Night after night I fell asleep lecturing from my bed while she worked out problems at my desk. Sometimes she woke me to ask questions and there were always notes waiting for me in the morning, generally on little yellow post-its stuck to my pajama top.
Claire wore contact lenses and would often have to take them out in the middle of a study session or after I‘d fallen asleep. She would work the rest of the night in her glasses. They were small and round and wire-rimmed, sitting on the edge of her delicate profile. The glossy wave of hair that fell down her back during the day would be pulled up into a vanilla ponytail.
After our first week, she left a check on my desk that surprised me in the light of morning. I knocked on her door and when she called me in said, “This isn’t the amount we agreed on.” Holding the check up, I rested the other hand on my hip.
“I know, but I think I need your exclusive attention. Would that be enough for you to not have to tutor others?” I wished she had asked me before leaving the check because now that I had the money in hand, I couldn’t say no. It was more money in a week than I made in a month of work-study and tutoring combined.
I watched Claire for clues on how to spend the money, but invariably trekked up and down the aisles of the local warehouse of discount designer fashions with an empty cart. Clearly this wasn’t where she bought her clothes. One afternoon when I knew Claire was in class I snuck into her room and foraged her closets. Apparently the classy way to shop was to buy everything in a singular color. I never noticed that everything she wore was in the beige family until the day I frisked her wardrobe. After my discovery, shopping became a pleasurable escapade, sifting through all the black items to find the finest fabrics. Black because I had to be careful not to copy Claire too closely.
We started working in her room sometimes, where before we’d always been in mine. Occasionally, while she worked through formulae, I canvassed her cosmetics and crèmes, looking at labels and taking note. One night she looked up from her pile of papers and caught me with my nose in her cleanser. Claire wasn’t wearing makeup and looked like an elfin girl with ebullient eyes behind her glasses. She told me she was grateful. “It’s paying off, Darling. My grades have improved so much that I’m actually hoping I might get an A.” It wasn’t really about grades to her, though. She was just appealing to my interests with that point. For me, college was a means to success in business, a way into the world of making real money. It was all about grades, kissing up, and networking. For Claire, it was about learning.
I started looking forward to our sessions and loosened into the easy laughter that came with Claire. She continually told me how much she appreciated my help and a feeling began to grind into me that I owed her. How could I be so thoughtless? Just by showing me how wrong I was in my estimation of her, Claire had helped me see myself more clearly. She seemed superficially motivated, with her savvy self-presentation, but when it came down to the deepest interior of self and motivations, I was the shallow one.
I rationalized it away at times, telling myself Claire could afford to focus on learning, whereas good grades and their subsequent good jobs were my only chance to secure final passage out of the trailer parks where I had grown up. But at the same time, I began to appreciate Claire’s pungent personality and unique qualities beyond pedigree. I noticed her fingers were like her figure: lean and elegant and unfettered, grasping her practice pencil and racing across the page. She said she was self-conscious about them and claimed to have deformed nail beds. Perpetually clipped short with neat polish, they always appeared perfect. I often found myself staring at her nails against my own will, but I did it surreptitiously, so as not to upset her. Her concentration on the formulae shielded her from my scrutiny and she never noticed. Sometimes she ordered food while we were working and I would catch myself watching her chew. She had bright rabbitish teeth when she smiled, so she kept her puckered mouth closed most of the time. Claire seemed oblivious to my eyes on her, keeping her gaze on her order. I watched the shift of shadow from her lashes cross her cheek and feigned disgust with the tidy Japanese dishes she preferred. “How can you eat that?” I would say, wrinkling my nose, even though it smelled fresh.
I wondered if Claire noticed any of the little things that I did. She seemed to notice me less as we progressed through the semester and it put me in a bit of a panic. I started giving myself manicures and brushing my hair a hundred times every night. Claire heard me counting while I brushed one night, sitting on my bed. “You know that’s not good for your hair.” She said, “It’s damaging the follicle.” Then she laughed a little. “Where did you get the idea anyway, Little House on the Prairie?” Actually, that was exactly where I had gotten the idea. Clearly, I needed to update my beauty methodology. “Your hair is gorgeous anyway. I wish I had such an incredible natural color. It looks like mahogany. You know what these highlights cost?” Claire pointed to the layers of creamy latte, lemon rind and island sand that I had always assumed were natural. I didn’t want to know how many dollars were involved. Such facts nauseated me as much as I found them fascinating. She had left the receipt in a shopping bag that I’d borrowed and I was secretly keeping it. It wasn’t sentimentality. I looked at the receipt as an artifact. There were people walking among us who spent hundreds of dollars on items to smear on their face.
Claire’s compliment of my hair was one of many. She was generous with kind words. I wanted to reciprocate, but inevitably stumbled over what to say because I didn’t want her to know what I was thinking. I sought opacity. She somehow seemed innocent in her compliments; that it was just her manner and motivated by mere kindness. Such gushing wasn’t natural coming from me. But I wanted to give something, somehow. So, I began sending her flowers anonymously. She must be hunting for a card, I would think, as I listened, barely breathing, at her door to the rustling of flowers after the delivery boy left. I let the gladiolas, freesia, lilies, and amaryllis speak for me. My grand bouquets of white flowers with no gift cards kept her guessing for months. I smiled to myself when I saw them in her room and even asked her who they were from a few times. She usually brushed me off with a wrist flick, but was evidently pleased, smiling to herself. Once, when I asked who sent her the flowers, she winked at me and I instantly broke a sweat.
After she took her physics final, Claire’s generosity with my bonus stunned me. I had never had so much money at one time. She tucked the check under my door with a yellow post-it note attached that said, “I ACED IT! THANKS!” I crossed the hall and held my fist up to Claire’s door, about to knock, but dropped my arm before I delivered. What was I afraid of? I kept asking myself over the next few days. It was the end of the semester and I told myself I should be focused on finals. I wasn’t cramming, though, having worked my way through all my classes rather than waiting until the last week to read the books. Preparation killed my focus.
Claire wasn’t around. I looked in the art studio, the gallery, and the art section of the library. I wandered in the parking lot near where she liked to park her car. As a last resort, I went to the mall and surveyed department store cosmetic counters. Maybe she went away to some sort of study spa. I thought. I imagined such a place; where they would provide infinite resource materials, plush accommodations for plentiful rest, and scientifically formulated meals to ensure premium nutrition. While I imagined her studying among the leisurely, I treated myself to a six-pack from the snack bar and locked myself in my room. I stopped eating, took up smoking, and stayed up all night carefully analyzing the lyrics to every song she had mentioned liking, believing it would help me understand her thought processes and priorities.
When finals were nearly over the bonus check cleared and I went straight to the florist. I’d sent the other flowers through phone orders, but this I was going to do in person. Ordering a tremendous bouquet, I selected each flower with exacting consideration, realizing all the while that I’d never spent so much money on a gift, forget an anonymous gift. So, what was I trying to accomplish with all this spending? I wondered. Claire will be pleased, was all I would let myself think. That’s what I wanted. My heart was pounding in my stomach and my hands trembled atop the steering wheel on the drive back to campus.
That night I was deep asleep when Claire called. Her voice, remote and soft through the receiver, felt unfamiliar, washing through me in the dark quiet of my room. “Can you come over?”
I turned on my light and rubbed tiny bits of Vaseline on my eyelids and lips to make them shine, then brushed my hair before crossing the hall. Usually I left my door open when I went over to Claire’s, but this time I shut it. Her room was completely dark and she was tucked into her bed with only a piece of light from the open door shining on the length of her corn-colored hair. I stood in the doorway a moment, searching for her face “Come here but don’t turn on the light.” I closed the door and strained to see a clear path to her as my eyes adjusted. While tiptoeing toward her bed I whispered, “Are you OK?”
“I’m fine. I was just thinking.” Claire was quiet for a long minute and I saw the bouquet on the windowsill, artfully arranged in a crystal vase, illuminated in moonlight. She turned her head in the pillow with a rustling sound and joined me in looking at the delicate white petals. They glowed in intricate and distinct shapes against the bright blue of the sky outside. “Can you smell them? I think freesia is the main element, but God it’s a brilliant combination. An exquisite scent.”
I sat beside her and felt her turn toward me, still lying down, with her knees gently pressed against the curve of my lower back through the dark silk of the duvet. My breathing sounded loud in my head, so I deepened my intake to slow it down. I straightened my shoulders, letting my arms fall to my sides. Claire touched my wrist in the dark and then took my hand with the tender heat of her fingers. She curled her hand around mine and fingered my palm in a slow, steady sweep. “I wanted to thank you. For all of them, Lex.” I wondered if she could feel my pulse pounding, and closed my eyes. It was the first time she called me Lex.
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