Harlan Ellison

There’s One on Every Campus

AS HE WATCHEDSYLVIA UNDRESS, Cal Jacobs felt the unease of the evening mount to a high pitch. It wasn’t that she was ugly, nor that she was overly pretty; in point of fact, Sylvia … he abruptly realized he didn’t even know her last name … was just ordinary looking.

But, as he watched her roll down one nylon stocking, he realized something else.

No one actually looked at Sylvia.

There was always one on every campus like her. It wasn’t a business with her, she didn’t charge; all she wanted was that a boy be decent to her, treat her like a human being, and she’d sleep with him — if she wasn’t booked up. She didn’t go to State, but lived in town, yet every college man, from freshman get-acquainted luncheon to graduation day, knew Sylvia.

But no one actually looked at Sylvia.

They never really saw her, because her reputation was a film that covered her. Those who saw her only saw the legend, not the girl, and that was what made Cal feel so odd. He felt uneasy about sleeping with that film. He took a very close look at her as she rolled down the other stocking, then lifted his eyes to her face. A plain face, not an extraordinary face.

Yet it was the first time he had seen her, though he’d slept with her a dozen times.

He was thankful he’d gotten her up here to the hotel room rented for this night only, before anybody he knew had seen him. Because if they had seen him, they wouldn’t have said anything; they would have just snickered. Though each of them had spent a night with Sylvia at one time or another, they’d have snickered. That was the way of it; had he seen Sylvia with a guy he knew, the snickering would be from him. But tonight he was sleeping with Sylvia, and he didn’t want to be seen with her.

Not because she was ugly, but because she was what she was, and that was more legend than life.

“Aren’t you gonna get undressed?” Sylvia asked with interest. Nothing seemed to faze her, except roughness, which she would not tolerate. Passion was one thing, brutality another.

She was a simple girl, working downtown during the days, usually spending the night with a college boy. Her parents (if they really were her parents) didn’t seem to give a damn, even if she stayed out all night.

Cal dragged his thoughts from the private life of this girl. He had to stop thinking about what went on in her head — probably nothing at all, actually. Just a stupid broad, that’s all she was.

“Yeah … yeah, sure. I’ll be with you in a minute.”

Cal found it rugged, throwing off these thoughts. He pulled a cigarette from the crumpled pack in his shirt, and went to the window seat by the dirty hotel window. He sat down and struck the match on the sole of his shoe, looking down into the street, across to the campus buildings rising in the dark.

The evening was tainted for him, and he couldn’t figure why; it wasn’t what he thought of her — hell no! It was, well, the way the campus thought of her. There were girls who did, and girls who didn’t, and one way or another the word got around.

Oh nuts!Cal thought, snubbing the butt on the window ledge with viciousness. Why all this deep intellectual worrying? Why this social consciousness all of a sudden? What’s eating me now?

He drew himself away from the dark pictures, and turned to face Sylvia, determined to bury all this morbidness.

She was standing there shivering slightly in the cold of the hotel room; after ten they shut off the heat, figuring anyone who wasn’t in bed by now wouldn’t be in any condition to know the difference. The hotel was makeout heaven, and the management knew it.

Her blonde hair held a flat, painted look in the light that shone through the transom. She had said, “I don’t know. I just kinda don’t like gettin’ undressed in the light, you know.” Cal hadn’t realized, in all the time he’d known her, that she was sensitive even to that extent.

Her body wasn’t voluptuous, nor even full-fleshed. She wasn’t thin either. It was a state somewhere between bones-sticking-out and firmness. She was just a girl … and Cal felt an alarming urge to hold her tightly. So he went to her.

He pressed close to her, and felt the warmness of her. Her hair tickled under his chin, and he felt a vague annoyance that her face was crushing the half-pack of cigarettes in his pocket.

“Sylvia …” he heard himself whispering into her ear, and it was more than a physical thing … more than desire … He had the instant thought that it rang through with loneliness.

Now why that? If anyone wasn’t lonely it was him! With all the women on the campus, Cal Jacobs was the last man to be lonely.

She was talking to him, softly, like a mother to a child, and yet with the old transposing of personalities; as of the mother asking the child for affection:

“Cal, oh Cal, you do love me, don’t you? You’re not like all the rest of them, are you? You do, I mean, you do care for me a little?”

And his mood snapped. He felt it leave him, throwing him back into the play-actor’s role of answering what she wanted to hear, not what he wanted to say.

Not saying she was a girl with a film around her so that he had never really seen her till tonight.

Not saying she was a fleshly outlet for everything in him.

Not saying there was an unnamed need in him he couldn’t describe.

Just, instead, feeding her the manure she heard from every other faceless body on the campus, and that she’d hear till the day she was too old and ugly for the boys.

“Yeah, sure, sure, I like you a helluva lot, Sylvia. I wouldn’t be here with you if I didn’t. I wouldn’t have rented this room, it’s not cheap, y’know.”

She giggled then, and bounced onto the bed. “Hurry up, slowpoke!”

He made certain he didn’t touch the dirty carpet, made sure his socks were between him and ringworm or athlete’s foot, or whatever the hell you picked up in these joints, and sat down on the bed. He pulled off the socks as though they were the last ties that bound him to an island he was leaving.

Minutes later, next to her, he caught himself wondering crazily:

What color are her eyes?

Hazily, as he sat smoking on the window ledge and she straightened the collar of her blouse, Cal felt the energy circling the room anxious to leave, and he opened the window an inch, feeling it whizz out, leaving him forever, taking with it something he could not name.

This was an evening of mix-up.

Then she said something utterly unbelievable, utterly out of the question.

“Cal, take me downstairs for a milk shake?”

He sat stunned. If he was seen with her in the street, why mi-God! that would be the end. What if a girl he dated from one of the sororities saw them? What if the guys from the frat were walking the street? What could he say? Here he was, Cal Jacobs, out having a soda with the campus slut. He shuddered inwardly at the idea.

“Well, uh, I’ve, uh, got to get back to the House, Sylvia, and you know, sort of, uh …”

“I want a milk shake, Cal,” she said, and there was a strength in her voice he knew was resignation, determination. He hadn’t credited it to her.

She was about to say something like, “Ain’t I good enough to be seen in public with you? Only good enough to lay, but not to eat with, huh?” and he knew he would say something imbecilic like, “Your idea, not mine, Sylvia, but you’re right,” and that would louse up a steady thing.

So in the end, after a second that stretched to the tension level of time, he said all right, and they left the hotel room — leaving it unlocked.

When they walked through the small, seedy lobby, the bellboy and the clerk snickered. He wanted to brain them. She held his hand, and it felt like dirt on him. Like filth he’d never wash off.

In the Isaly’s dairy store they took a booth near the back, though she could tell — he saw in her eyes that she knew he was hiding them — he didn’t want to be seen from the street. They sat for a moment, and the waiter — a boy who worked in his off-study hours — took their order.

Sylvia: milk shake.

Cal: nothing but whirling thoughts.

She sat silently for a moment, studying the glass of water and the rectangular fold of the paper napkin, and finally looked up at Cal. The mouth in the face on the body in front of Cal spoke, and said something, and he answered, but the face relaxed and smiled, and he assumed he’d said the right thing, and if not, so what?

Then the horror, the slow horror began.

The waiter brought her so-smooth milk shake; he stood by the table for a minute, as though a landmark for what was to sweep over them next.

The guys came in, with their girls. Five guys and five girls, they came in. And as though they had been briefed by the Devil, as though they had known he would die and wither within himself if they saw him, they all called out, “Hey, look who’s here! It’s Cal!”

And then one of the girls, a honey blonde with a pretty Boston name like Clarice or Maude or Pamela added, “And look who he’s with … isn’t that that, uh, what’s her name? That Sylvia?”

Then the wave of them washed across him with the greeting and the snide hellos, and before he knew it they were all packed in the booth, with Sylvia across from him, and both of them jammed against the wall where there was no escape ...

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