The Snake Girl

The winter of Ben Kwiatkowski’s junior year was the coldest on record. The first blizzard hit on Halloween, and by Thanksgiving the snow was beaten flat on the slopes behind the women’s dorm where students went sledding on trays stolen from the cafeteria. By early December the river, which curled around the campus like a question mark, was frozen. In the mornings, strung out, crossing the bridge over the railroad tracks on his way to thermodynamics, Ben would squint into a howling arctic wind that froze the tears in his eyelashes. 

But when Ben met Linda it was still September, the skies were fair, and the upstate New York autumn still yielded sunny days when you could lie out on the quad and watch girls in short skirts throw Frisbees to dogs named Frodo. It was in this calm season that Linda first showed up in the dish room. 

The dish room was in the dining hall of Stanton, the women’s dorm, where most of the students from the outlying dorms ate every day. Ben had worked there since he was a freshman, and the dish crew had become his circle of friends. They tended to be scholarship kids like Ben who were trying to pick up some extra cash. The pay was minimum wage, but you could work your way up to thirty hours a week if you didn’t mind smelling like grease most of the time. At least it kept gas in his car. 

That Monday when Ben showed up for his first day of work, there was a new girl among the crew waiting for Mr. Hsu, the cafeteria manager. 

“Quiet Man!” said Tony Spicelli. “How’s the summer?” 

“Not bad. How about you?” 

“I got a job working in Lake Placid. I had a great time.” 

“Who’s this?” 

“This is Linda.” 

She was a skinny girl with large breasts. She wore her brown hair in a long braid that hung to the middle of her back, tied with a blue rubber band. Brown eyes, dark eyebrows, and very pale lips, a pretty face, and straight white teeth. There was a pimple on her chin. 

“Nice boots,” she said. She kicked him in the toe, leaving a scuff. 

Ben was wearing the boots he had bought at a head shop in Yorkville, the hippie district of Toronto, at a considerable investment. Black, square toed, an inch of heel, halters around the ankle fastened with bright brass rings. He wore them all the time, part of his attempt at making himself into a hippie, a step up from physics nerd, which had been his identity the first two years of college. Hippies had at least a chance of success with girls. 

Not that he knew how to talk to girls. “Thanks,” was all he said to Linda, and then Mr. Hsu went on to describe to Linda the five jobs in the dish room: bussing tables, scraping plates, racking plates, glasses, and trays, pulling racks from the big Hobart machine, and sorting silverware. While Mr. Hsu talked Ben hung up his hat and jacket, rolled up his sleeves and put on an apron, and added a headband to hold back his hair. 

Girls tended not to want to work the dish room, and Mr. Hsu would give them jobs in the serving line. Ben wondered whether Linda had asked to be on the crew, or whether Mr. Hsu had no other jobs available, or even whether he had something against her. 

That first week Linda was put to work sorting silver, one of the cleaner jobs, though the tableware came out of the Hobart almost too hot to touch, and the job left you stuck in the corner at a stainless-steel table where you couldn’t talk to anyone else. In the middle of her first shift Linda startled them by shouting, “Jesus H. Christ on a pogo stick! I hope this self-indulgent generation appreciates what I do for it!” 

Ben’s semester did not go well. His grades in physics skidded as the term wore on; he had carried a B+ average coming into the semester, but Advanced Classical Mechanics was busting his ass. He couldn’t tell a Hamiltonian from l’Hôpital’s rule. It took him an hour to read five pages of matrix algebra only to have it all evaporate the moment he closed the textbook. It probably didn’t help that he was staying up late blowing dope four nights a week. He began to realize that he was not going to be any kind of scientist. Since that had been his goal since he was seven years old, 

whenever he thought about the future all he felt was panic. The only thing waiting for him after graduation was the draft. 

Ben sat with his roommate Mitch Beckmann in Poli-Sci 310, The Age of Reform, the last of Ben’s social science electives. Linda was also in the course, and one day she sat with them. Professor Goldberg was droning on about the Prohibition movement. Goldberg was one of those professors who had started to affect longer hair and sideburns. Ben leaned over to Linda. “Look,” he said. “One of his sideburns is longer than the other.” 

Even though they were sitting in the middle of the large lecture hall, miles from the lectern, it was obvious that Goldberg’s neatly trimmed left sideburn was at least an inch longer than his right. “How do you get them that far off ?” Ben asked. 

“I bet he’s blind in one eye,” Mitch said. 

“Maybe he did it on purpose,” Linda said. “Maybe it’s a statement.” 

They went back and forth, speculating on the mystery of the sideburns until suddenly Ben realized that the room had fallen silent—Goldberg had stopped lecturing and was staring at them. “You want to tell us all what’s so funny?” he asked. 

Mitch leaned away as if he didn’t know Ben and Linda. Linda slouched in her seat. 

“Uh—no, professor,” Ben started. 

“Perhaps then you ought to pay better attention.” Below the level of the seats, Linda kicked Ben’s boot. “Tell him!” she whispered. “It’s a public service.” Goldberg’s blue eyes were locked on Ben. 

“Yes, sir.” Goldberg’s sideburns had to be more than an inch out of whack. Ben couldn’t help it: he burst out laughing. Linda exploded into giggles. Goldberg closed his book and said, “You two—please leave my class.” 

“Yes … sir … ”Ben gasped helplessly, gathering up his backpack. The other students stared as he and Linda fled the lecture hall. 

Out on the quad they fell against each other laughing. “Shit, shit, shit!” Ben said. “I am in a world of hurt. Poli Sci is the only class I’m doing well in.” 

“That’s why he did his sideburns that way!” Linda crowed. “He’s out to get you.” 

“The bastard!” Ben said. “I ought to egg his car.” 

They walked to the student union and drank coffee in the café. They talked about music and politics and feminism and Vietnam and what was the funniest movie they had ever seen. Ben voted for The Crawling Eye. Linda held out for some old movie called The Awful Truth. When Ben asked her what she intended to do after she graduated, Linda said, “I want to be a part of the world, not the enemy of it.” 

Linda came from money; her father was the mayor of Hartford, Connecticut. That explained why she had so many different pairs of bell- bottoms, and the embroidered Russian-collar shirts that cost twenty-five bucks each in any head shop. But if she didn’t need the money, why did she work in the dish room, where the tropical heat was rivaled only by the reek of old vegetables? She could quote Shakespeare but she cussed like Ben’s Uncle Stan, who was an ex-marine and a millwright. 

On a Friday night in late October Ben and Mitch went over to Debbie Rosenbaum’s room to smoke some dope. It was already turning cold, windy with freezing rain. Ben had a nickel bag in the pocket of his thick corduroy coat. While Cream’s Wheels of Fire played on Debbie’s stereo and Mitch fired up Debbie’s hash pipe, Ben sat cross-legged on the knotted rug and started cleaning his dope. He didn’t have a screen, so he creased a double thickness of newspaper down the middle, rested it on Debbie’s history textbook, and rubbed the dry dope between his fingers, breaking the leaves and stems. The seeds and bits of stem fell into the crease of the paper, and rolled down it to another sheet of paper Ben had laid on the floor. Ben liked cleaning dope—it was a mindless task but made him feel like he was accomplishing something. After a few tokes on the pipe he was feeling very happy, when a knock came on Debbie’s door. 

“Shit!” Ben said, trying to slide the dope under Debbie’s bed. 

“Stay cool,” Debbie said. “Who is it?” she called. 

“It’s Linda,” came the voice from the hallway. 

Debbie moved the rolled-up towel away from the crack beneath the door and opened it a sliver. “Come on in.” 

Ben did not know that Linda was tight with Debbie. Linda sat down opposite him on the floor. She was wearing bell-bottoms and a knit vest over a turtleneck. He retrieved his dope and continued cleaning it. 

After a while, when Wheels of Fire quit and Bringing It All Back Home dropped onto the turntable, Linda started kicking Ben’s boots. It shook the paper on his lap and a couple of seeds rolled off onto the floor and under her thigh. “Cut it out,” he said. 

“Cut what out?” Linda said. She kicked his boot, harder this time. 

He looked up from the paper. Her brown eyes were studying him. “I’m gonna waste this dope.” 

“‘Look out kid,’” she said. “‘Don’t matter what you did.’” 

“Boy, am I thirsty,” Debbie said. 

“I have a bottle of wine in my room,” said Linda. 

“But this isn’t your room, is it?” said Ben. 

Linda shot him a look. “Come with me. We’ll go get it.” 

“Yeah,” said Mitch, leaning into Debbie. “You should go get the wine.” 

Ben set aside his dope again and slipped out with Linda into the hallway. Rather than wait for the elevator they cut through the fire doors and up the stairs three floors. Linda unlocked the door and led him in. 

“Have a seat,”she said while she opened her closet. The narrow room held a single unmade bed, a desk pushed into a corner, a bookshelf. A jar of pennies and a coffee mug full of pens bracketed her books—The Era of Excess, A Separate Reality, An Economic Theory of Democracy, Siddhartha, The Way of Zen, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. On top of her bookshelf stood a row of empty wine bottles. The desk chair was covered with dirty clothes, and Ben did not want to move the bra on top in order to sit there. 

On the windowsill sat a large fish tank. Except it wasn’t full of water, though it had an inch of sand and some rocks and a couple of dry sticks on the bottom. As Ben looked at it in a stoned daze, he was startled to see something move, uncoiling and sliding silently behind one of the rocks. The thing lifted a triangular head and looked at Ben. 

“That’s a snake,” he said. 

“Bingo.” Linda pulled the bottle from the closet. “That’s Lucifer.” 

The snake had to be at least three feet long, half an inch in diameter. It had a black face and rings of orange, black and copper. “What kind is it?” 

“It’s a he, not an it. He’s a king snake.” 

“What do you feed it—him?” 

“Mice.” 

“Mice? Where do you get them?” 

“At the pet store on Hudson Street.” 

“I bet they come in packages, like hot dogs.” 

“Lucifer only eats live prey. He hasn’t been fed for a week. Would you like to watch?” 

Ben couldn’t think of anything he wanted less. “Sure.” 

Linda went back into the closet and pulled out a cage with two white mice. She reached in and grabbed one of them, then tipped up the screen over the top of the snake’s tank and dropped the mouse in. The mouse scrambled into the corner of the tank, face pressed into the angle, one little pink foot splayed on the glass. 

At first the snake did nothing. Then, slowly, he began to slide from behind the rock. The mouse trembled and scrabbled against the glass. Leisurely, the snake slid toward it. Head turned sideways, Lucifer seemed indifferent to the mouse. He stopped, and Ben hoped that he wasn’t hungry. Then, remarkably quick, the snake snapped his head toward the mouse and took it in his jaws, coiled his body around it, and crushed the life out of it. The mouse hardly struggled. Lucifer’s mouth opened impossibly wide and swallowed the mouse, headfirst, in one huge gulp. For a second the mouse’s tail remained trailing from the snake’s mouth, but as peristalsis pushed the mouse down his gullet, the tail disappeared inside. Ben watched the bulge slide down the snake’s body. Lucifer rested on the sand beneath the fluorescent light: beautiful, swollen, and bright. 

“You want to hold him?” Linda asked. 

“You’re sure he won’t eat me?” 

She tilted her head sideways. “Not for another week or so.” 

Linda reached into the tank and lifted out Lucifer. It curled around her arm up to her elbow, the head peeking from between her thumb and forefinger. She held the snake out to Ben. 

Awkwardly, Ben took it into his hands. Lucifer tried to slither away and almost fell. 

“Catch him!” Linda said, holding out a hand. 

Ben moved one hand after another in front of the snake whenever it slid forward to get away, as if it were a Slinky and he was trying to make it climb down the steps of his palms. “He’s warm,” Ben said in surprise. 

“Lucifer’s not crazy about being handled after he’s eaten. Come sit on the bed.” 

They moved over to Linda’s bed and sat. Lucifer stopped trying to get away and curled into a coil in the crook of Ben’s knee. Linda lit a scented candle. 

“He likes you,” she said. 

“Yeah, right.” 

Linda got a corkscrew from her desk; Ben was impressed with her dexterity at pulling the cork. She poured wine into two Dixie cups. They leaned back against the wall. Ben was acutely aware of Linda’s breasts. She began tapping her shoe against the toe of his boot. 

“Why do you keep doing that?” he asked. 

“Doing what?” 

“Kicking my boots.” 

“I’ve got to do something. You’re not doing anything.” 

He felt his face get red. He reached out to touch her waist, and suddenly she was kissing him fiercely on the lips. Her breath tasted of wine. He worried about his own breath, he worried about Lucifer, he worried about his dope left back in Debbie’s room, but pretty soon he wasn’t worried about anything at all. He slid his hands up under her turtleneck, fumbled with the catch on her bra until, giggling, she pulled off her shirt and undid it herself. Ben thought he was going to faint. His dick was so hard in his jeans that it was painful. She unzipped them and they fumbled to pull off each other’s pants. 

“Wait,” she said. Linda got up, found Lucifer under the pillow, and carried him to his tank. Ben pulled off his jeans. She returned with a foil-wrapped condom that she dropped on the bedside table. She kneeled down on the bed, straddling him, leaned over, and brushed her breasts against his face. His pulse raced in his ears. 

Ben tried to act like he knew what he was doing, but it was his first time and it must have been obvious. Linda said nothing. He took in her extraordinary kiss, the touch of her warm skin, the scent of sweat and wine and incense. He felt dizzy, excited beyond words. When she guided him inside her he had never been so urgently alive. “Fuck,” he gasped. “Fuck.” 

“That’s the general idea,” Linda said. 

Outside the window he heard the wind howling in the leafless trees, and the click of frozen rain against the glass. 

After she rescued him from his virginity, Ben saw Linda a lot. He couldn’t believe how lucky he was. He couldn’t believe how great sex was. He loved sex. 

He remembered reading a story about a man who got a magical pocket watch that could stop time, so that whatever you were doing could last forever—but you could only use it once. The man kept waiting his entire life for the perfect moment, and never used the watch. 

If Ben had owned that watch he would stop time tonight, while he was in bed with Linda. It didn’t even have to be a big bed; the sprung single in Linda’s dorm room would do. He wanted nothing more. 

Ben went home for Thanksgiving, and it was misery. On Thanksgiving Day his Uncle Stan came over and he and Ben’s father sat in front of the TV all afternoon, trading shots of Three Feathers while the Packers whipped Detroit. Ben sat at the kitchen table watching his mother and Aunt Stasia cook; his mother kept after him about getting a haircut before he took communion with her at mass on Sunday. At dinner hardly a word passed between his parents. His father treated his mother like an annoyance, as if the only reason she had been put on earth was to torment him. His mother returned the favor, though her hostility showed itself in much more subtle ways. They never touched each other. In his entire life, Ben could not remember seeing them touch each other. How had they managed to have a child? 

Sunday afternoon he fled back to campus; Linda was back, too, and that night they went to a movie. He told her all about his visit home. She didn’t say much. It was colder than Nixon’s heart outside when they left the cinema, but Linda insisted they walk along the river road back to the dorm. 

“Why?” 

“Look at the stars! Let’s get away from the lights. It’s so clear!” 

“It’s clear because it’s six degrees out.” 

She pointed at him, her mouth open in a round O of horror. “Serpent! Serpent!” 

He had to laugh. “You’re insane.” 

She scooped up a handful of snow and threw it at him. He ducked and it hit his shoulder, a dust of flakes sliding down his collar. By the time he turned back to her, she was running down the road. “Serpent!” she shouted. 

He raced after her, his boots crunching on the snow. The river road was deserted; between the branches of the bare trees the lights of the houses on the other side gleamed on the frozen river. Snow, lifted by the wind, swirled across the ice. 

Linda hopped down the riverbank and onto the ice. 

“Wait!” Ben shouted. He picked his way between the trees down the brush-laced slope. There was a lot of trash at the river’s edge, including a rusted, twisted bicycle frame. 

“Come on!” She was already thirty feet out, headed for the other side. 

Ben followed her, but before he had taken three steps his foot skidded out from under him and he did a desperate dance trying not to fall. Linda stood out in the middle, her hands on her hips, laughing. “Come on!” 

He moved toward her, more slowly, and heard the ice moan beneath him. She waited until he was close. “Are you sure this is safe?” he said. “How thick is this?” 

“How thick are you?” 

Ben grabbed her around the waist and picked her up. She struggled, laughing; they fell. When she landed on top of him, his head snapped back and bounced on the ice. “Ouch.” 

“Are you all right?” she asked. Her breath fogged his glasses. 

“What are we doing out here?” 

“It’s called fun. You should try it.” 

“I think I’ve heard about it.” 

She rolled over and pointed at the sky. “See the stars? There’s Orion.” 

The back of his head hurt. “I know.” He pointed. “Betelgeuse. Rigel. See those two?—that’s Castor and Pollux. That bright one? That’s Spica.” 

She leaned over and kissed him. He put his arms around her and held her tight. They were both so big, in their scarves and heavy coats, that they were like winter bears. He felt himself getting hard. 

Linda got to her knees and stood. She reached down and grabbed his gloved hand. “Come on, Mr. Science. Get up.” 

He scrambled to his feet. The ice beneath them made a cracking sound. In the distance he could hear the traffic on Power Avenue. 

“Don’t worry. I’ve been out here a dozen times.” She led him across the river to the city side. “We can get to Tony’s Pizza from here.” 

They climbed the bank to the street and walked two blocks to Tony’s. By the time they were there, Ben was frozen. They ordered calzones and drank two pitchers of beer. Linda drank more than he did, and he had to keep her from stumbling on the walk home. He made them go the long way around, by the bridge. 

He knocked on Linda’s door several times, but there was no answer. He went back to his dorm room and tried calling her, but still no answer. He tried every ten minutes until it was time for work, then hurried off to the dish room. 

She was not there. Mr. Hsu said she had called in sick; either she had lied to Mr. Hsu or she was in her room so ill she couldn’t answer the door. Ben worked through the dinner shift in increasing anxiety. As soon as work was over he threw his apron into the hamper and hurried back to her room. He knocked on the door repeatedly, to no answer. A couple of girls passing in the hall gave him odd stares; he glared back at them. 

“Linda?” he called, his mouth up close to the door. Suddenly it opened, and Linda was there, inches away. “Are you all right?” 

She was wearing sweatpants and a red T-shirt. Her hair was undone, hanging tangled around her shoulders. She rubbed her eyes. “I was asleep. What’s going on?” 

“I came by earlier, about five. Where were you?” 

“I didn’t hear you. I’m kind of strung out.” She gave him a sleepy kiss. “What’s the matter?” 

He pushed her back into the room, took her in his arms. “I need you,” he said. 

She resisted a bit, but then relaxed. They fell onto the bed. 

Ben decided that he wanted to make her feel as good as possible. Linda had taught him about oral sex, and, though he had been timid at 

first, it turned out that he liked going down on her. What he liked the best about it was how excited she got, how her hips trembled and heaved beneath him, how her nipples got hard and she gasped for breath. How she would laugh when she came. 

It was only afterward that he realized he was halfway off the bed, his knees on the floor. The room was cold. He pulled himself up beside her and she drew the covers over him. “That was lovely,” she said. 

Lovely. A word he never used. It was the kind of word the daughter of the mayor of Hartford might use. “Why do you work in the dish room?” he asked. “Your parents are loaded.” 

“I want to be more than the daughter of loaded parents,” she said. “Just like you want to be more than the son of a Catholic martyr.” 

“Too late,” Ben said. “For both of us.” 

“You think so?” She lay on her back and folded her hands behind her head. “Do you believe in God?” 

“‘I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church. I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins, and I look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.’” 

“Don’t hold your breath.” 

“Did you know that prayer was written by a committee?” he said. “It was like a loyalty oath, hammered out in a negotiation in A.D. 380. They invented it so they could kill the people who wouldn’t say it.” 

“How do you know that?” 

“History 235: Early Christianity. That drove the stake through my Catholicism. So now I believe in the laws of thermodynamics, and that Alfred Bester is the best science fiction writer alive. What do you believe?” 

“I believe when you’re dead, you’re dead, so don’t waste any time. I believe Alfred Bester, whoever he is, isn’t fit to wipe Shakespeare’s ass. I believe I can do anything that I set my mind to, and nobody owns me.” 

He grabbed her around the hips, and kissed her belly. “Wrong. I do.” 

“You pig!”she laughed. They wrestled together and it became another bout of sex. 

They lay in each other’s arms for a long time after that. His hand rested where her hip narrowed to her waist; it gave him the oddest feeling of mild arousal and comfort just to touch her there. He was half asleep 

when Linda rolled away from him. “Come on, get up. It’s time for you to go home.” 

He slipped on his glasses and looked up at her. She put on her T-shirt, pulled back her hair and tied it with a rubber band. Standing with her legs spread, wearing the red shirt and blue panties, she looked like Wonder Woman. She raised her eyebrows at him. Had he said something to make her mad? “That line about owning you?” he said. “That was just a joke.” 

“I know. Get going. I have to study.” 

“Study? It’s eleven o’clock.” 

“I’ve got a paper for Anthro due Friday.” 

“I’ll just lie here. I’ll be quiet.” 

“No. Come on, go—or else I’ll set Lucifer on you.” 

Reluctantly, he pulled on his clothes and left. She gave him a long, lingering kiss at the door. Ben went outside and walked back toward his dorm, but when he was halfway there he turned around. He circled to the back of Stanton, counted up five floors and six windows from the end of the wing. Her window was dark. If Linda was studying, she was doing it with the lights off. Or maybe he had counted windows wrong. But he thought he could make out Lucifer’s tank sitting in the windowsill. 

December saw eighteen consecutive days when the temperature did not rise above freezing. Though Ben wanted Linda to stay in town over Christmas, Linda insisted that she had to go home. “My parents will kill me,” she said. 

“I wouldn’t like that,” Ben said. 

“But you could do me a huge favor—could you take care of Lucifer?” 

Ben had never gotten used to the snake. He liked holding it well enough, but the thought of feeding it made him cringe, and he had never watched Linda do so after that first time. But he didn’t want to look like a wimp, and he didn’t want to lose Linda. 

“All right,” he said. 

So they moved Lucifer into Ben’s dorm room for the break, and she bought him three mice, enough to carry the king snake through the holidays. Something about the whole farewell bothered Ben. They made love in Linda’s room, and in the morning he drove her to the 

train station. She thanked him profusely for taking care of Lucifer, and hugged him for at least thirty seconds before getting on the train, but as she turned from him and flew up the steps she seemed like a bird let out of its cage. 

Mitch went home, but Ben stayed on the deserted campus most of the break, trying to catch up on his physics. There were only a handful of other men in the dorm. They watched NBA games and Star Trek on the TV in the lounge, and staged one snowball fight. Ben went home for four days over Christmas proper and the whole time his mother complained why didn’t he stay longer. Back on campus by New Year’s Eve, he and some guys got together to drink Southern Comfort and smoke weed, but Ben broke away before midnight and went down to the lounge to use the pay phone. He dropped in a buck and a half in change and dialed the Hartford number from the slip of paper in his wallet. 

The phone rang a long time before anyone picked up. “Hello?” said a man’s voice. 

“Hello. May I speak with Linda Norton?” 

“Who is this?”The man sounded a little drunk. 

“This is Ben Kwiatkowski. I’m a friend of hers from college.” 

“Just a minute.” 

Much more than a minute went by. On the phone Ben heard music in the background, some Frank Sinatra record. He looked across the lounge. Outside the big plate-glass windows at the front of the dorm, snow swirled down out of the blackness to briefly catch the fan of light beneath the streetlights before hitting the ground. 

The man’s voice came back. “Linda can’t speak with you now. She’s not home.” 

“Can you tell her I called?” 

“Who are you?” 

“Her boyfriend Ben.” 

“Who?” 

“Ben Kwiatkowski.” 

“All right.” 

“Are you her father?” 

A burst of noise came from behind the voice on the phone. “Yes. Goddamn it. Happy New Year.” 

The phone clicked and the dial tone buzzed in Ben’s ear. He looked at the clock above the dorm elevators. It was 12:01. 

Instead of going back to the dope party, Ben went up to his room. He took Lucifer out of the tank, sat down on the bed, and held him. The snake liked the warmth of Ben’s hands. It would try to slide up Ben’s shirtsleeves and sometimes Ben even let him. At other times Lucifer would dangle from his hands, head down, like a piece of rope. 

“Are you hungry, Lucifer? How about a mouse to bring in the New Year?” 

Ben put the snake into its tank and got one of the mice out of the cardboard box in his closet. He clutched it in his hand, a little ball of fur, useless claws pricking his palm. As soon as Lucifer saw it his head perked up. Ben dangled the terrified mouse over the tank by its tail, then dropped it inside. 

Ben was at the station at the end of Christmas break to meet Linda. She was standing on the platform with her red suitcase and matching overnight case, wearing her peacoat, a red and green tartan scarf, and a red stocking cap. A dark green skirt and green kneesocks. Very New England prep school. There was a line between her brows. 

She granted Ben a tepid kiss and they loaded her bag into the trunk of his ’63 Plymouth. On the way back to campus she said, very simply, “I don’t want to sleep with you anymore.” 

It seemed that she had done some thinking over Christmas. It seemed that things had gone too fast. It seemed that he was taking things much more seriously than she had intended them. It was fun, and she liked him, and everything, but he was too intense. She was only nineteen, he was only twenty. What did he expect to happen? 

“I expect to get married,”he said. The bright sun glared on the snowy streets. He felt like he was from another planet. Linda didn’t say anything, and when they stopped at the next red light he turned to her. 

She was looking at him, and for the first time ever he saw what he might call anxiety in her eyes. If it had ever been there before, he had not noticed it. 

“That’s sort of the problem,” Linda said softly. “I mean, how many girlfriends have you had?” 

“What difference does that make?” 

“Well, it ought to make some kind of difference. What do you know about me?” 

“I know I love you.” 

The driver of the car behind him leaned on his horn. “The light’s changed,” Linda said. 

Ben pulled away from the signal. His mind was in complete confusion. They said nothing to each other until they pulled into the parking circle in front of Stanton. The place was busy with students returning from break for the rump session and finals. He turned off the car’s engine and the blower on the fan stopped, leaving them in silence. “How can you say this to me?” he asked. 

“I know you love me, Ben,” Linda said. “But why do you love me?” 

“What are you talking about? You don’t make any sense.” 

“Please don’t get mad.” 

“Don’t get mad! What am I supposed to do? You wouldn’t even talk to me on the phone!” 

“I’m sorry. That was my father.” 

“You could have called.” 

A snowball splatted against the windshield. Ben looked out and saw Mitch wave from the sidewalk, then hurl another at the car. Linda opened the door and got out. 

Ben walked around to open the trunk while Linda said hi to Mitch. Ben put her suitcases on the sidewalk. Another car was idling behind him, exhaust smoking the chill air. The driver rolled down his window and asked Ben to move. 

“We need to talk,” Ben told Linda. Linda looked uncertain and, while Mitch watched, leaned up to Ben’s shoulder and whispered in his ear, “I don’t think there’s much to say.” She turned and picked up her bags. 

Ben got into the Plymouth and drove to the student lot. He sat in the parked car and hit his forehead on the steering wheel until it began to throb with pain. 

The rump session was two weeks of classes and a week of finals, followed by a five-day break and the start of the second semester. Linda wouldn’t talk with him. She quit the dish room. Pretty soon the others knew what 

was going on. Some of them talked behind his back, and others acted like it was no big deal. Mitch told Ben he was crazy to get hung up on a girl who used a snakeskin as a bookmark. He ought to just study hard and forget about her. 

At least Ben still had Lucifer, and if Linda wanted her snake back she was going to have to come to him. He would make her give him a better explanation, a real one. What she had told him meant that she didn’t really love him, had never loved him. When they had sex together that was all it was—sex. He tried to get his mind around that. He didn’t talk to anyone. He wrote Linda a long letter, tore it up, wrote another, and sent it. He got no reply. 

He didn’t sleep. He would lie in bed and think of Linda, imagine making love to her, masturbate desperately, and end up just as sleepless as he started, only filled with self-loathing. 

He saw her in Poli Sci, but he did not sit with her. She was always with Susan Meredith. Ben sat two rows behind her and to her left. He watched the back of her head and wondered what she had told Susan about him. Professor Goldberg’s sideburns were still out of balance. Ben wondered if Goldberg noticed that he and Linda no longer sat together. 

That weekend the campus cinema had a Marx Brothers double feature, Monkey Business and Duck Soup. Ben went in order to cheer himself up. In Monkey Business Groucho put the moves on a sexy blond woman who was falling out of her dress. “I want to dance, I want to sing, I want to ha-cha-cha!”They danced a loopy tango that was aborted when the woman’s husband entered the room and Groucho fled into the closet. Ben laughed until tears came to his eyes. Fuck her, Groucho! Fuck them both! 

At the break between films Ben got up to go to the men’s room, and when he walked up the aisle he saw Linda sitting in the theater with some other guy. Ben immediately fell into a funk. He came back from the men’s room and sat through the second movie, but did not remember a single thing about it, so full was his mind of shame and humiliation and desire. 

He went so far as to try studying like Mitch suggested. In order to get out of the dorm and away from the dope smokers, after work in the dish room he would go to the library stacks. He found a carrel hidden in a corner on the eighth floor. Beside the carrel the thick masonry wall 

was pierced by a narrow window, like the loopholes in medieval castles through which defenders shot arrows. Through it he could spy a slice of one of the paths on the quad, the glitter of a streetlamp on the snow, where occasionally a lone student would pass, bell-bottoms flapping, head hunched against the cold and breath steaming the air. 

The light in the stacks was dim. After reading pages of thermodynamics he would raise his head and look down the aisle of bookshelves under a row of dying lightbulbs in wire cages. By eleven at night the stacks were silent. Ben would think about Linda and imagine he was the only person left in the world, like some character in a science fiction book. One time, as he pored over a page of classical mechanics, a powerful feeling came over him that he had slipped out of reality. He became convinced that, if he raised his head and looked down the aisle, he would see a vision of the Virgin Mary floating beneath the sixty-watt lights. His breath trembled in his chest as he tried to decide whether to look. The equations lay stark black on the white page before him. Do it, he told himself. Lift your head. There’s nothing there. But if there were something, if he did see the Virgin Mary, crushing a snake beneath her heel, then he would know that he was insane. No matter how bad he felt, he didn’t want to be insane. He was supposed to be a scientist; he didn’t believe in visions or in the Virgin Mary. 

He kept his head bowed over his textbook, and eventually the moment passed. 

Finals were a disaster. The worst was Advanced Classical Mechanics. Ben carried a C+ average into the exam. Students were allowed to bring a single crib sheet of equations into the test. Ben worked over his sheet meticulously; he was nervous but as prepared as he had been all semester. 

The moment the test papers were handed out, he panicked. There were ten questions. Ben could not make himself understand a single one. Everything he had learned was caught in some barbed-wire tangle in his brain, neurons firing randomly. He wrote down equations, did hectic calculations, but it was all vapor. He might as well have been on acid. When the professor announced the end of the three hours, Ben couldn’t believe it. It had seemed like no more than twenty minutes. What had he been doing for all that time? 

After handing in his paper he put on his coat and scarf and stumbled 

out of the physics building. The sky was leaden, but the setting sun shot in from below the clouds, giving ten minutes of weird sunshine before it turned dark. The wet sidewalks glared with polarized light and heaps of dirty snow dripped into the gutters. Ben threw his mechanics textbook into a trash can and went to see Linda. 

He went right up to her door and pounded on it. One of the girls on the corridor peeked out at the noise, and then ducked back into her room. “Linda! Linda, open up!” he shouted. No one answered. Maybe she wasn’t there. Or maybe she was afraid. “Please,” he said, quieter now, leaning in to the door, one hand on either side, speaking to the battered oak. “I have to talk to you. Something’s wrong.” 

No response. He closed his eyes. 

He was about to give up and go when he heard the latch click and the door swung slightly open: he opened his eyes to see Linda’s face in the gap. Her brow was furrowed. “What’s the matter?” 

He swallowed hard. “Please. Let me come in.” 

Instead, she came out into the hall. “We can talk here.” 

He wanted so much to hold her. She stood with her arms crossed over her chest and would not look him in the eye. When he spoke he was surprised at the resentment in his own voice. “When are you going to come and get your snake?” 

“Is he all right?” There was more concern in her voice than he had heard from her since she had gotten on the train to Connecticut before Christmas. 

“Him? What about me! Why don’t you care whether I’m all right?” 

“I do care, Ben.” 

“Well, I’m not all right. I’m fucked up. You fucked me up.” 

“I fucked you up?” She laughed. “You were fucked up long before I met you.” 

“You dumped me.” 

“If you keep this up I won’t be the last, Ben. Get a grip.” 

“Get a grip? I’ll give you a grip.” He grabbed her arm. 

She pulled away. “Let go of me!” 

This wasn’t what he wanted. This wasn’t what he wanted at all. He let go, and turned from her. Other girls had come out of their rooms to stare. The resident advisor was hurrying down the corridor toward them. 

Ben looked at Linda, made a fist, and with all of his strength slammed it into the door beside her head. Pain shot up his arm. Then he fell to his knees and cradled his hand in his palm. 

In the student health center, they bandaged his knuckles, put a brace on his wrist, and made him talk to a shrink, Dr. Thompson. Ben didn’t want to talk to anyone. Dr. Thompson asked him a lot of questions about his appetite and his sleeping habits and whether he smoked dope. He prescribed a drug called Triavil and kept Ben in the clinic overnight. In the morning Campus Security wrote up a report and sent him back to his dorm. His anger had dissipated the instant he had hit his hand. He felt stupid, embarrassed. How was he ever going to face anyone again? What a clown. 

Somehow he managed to make it through the rest of his finals. The five days between the semesters was a big all-campus party, but Ben stayed in his room and read science fiction novels. If he let himself get caught up in the story, time would pass, and he would not have to think about anything. Second semester started. He saw Dr. Thompson once a week and talked about his parents and the fact that he didn’t know what he was going to do. The Triavil didn’t seem to do anything but make him thirsty. He was not supposed to drink alcohol while taking it, but when he finally let Mitch take him out for pizza, they split a pitcher of beer. It didn’t seem to do any harm. 

He’d flunked the classical mechanics final but out of pity the prof gave him a D for the course. In the spring semester he enrolled in the second half of thermodynamics and an astronomy class, but for a free elective he decided to go off the reservation and sign up for Milton. He studied hard and managed to start well enough in the science classes, and to his amazement actually enjoyed the Milton class, though his wrist brace made note taking hard. In the dish room he was stuck in the corner sorting tableware. Between classes and work, he made it through the days. 

He avoided talking to Dr. Thompson about her. He didn’t say anything about the times he imagined her dead, or the more frequent times he imagined himself dying and her called to his bedside. Stupid fantasies of resentment and revenge. How he hated her. But then, when Thompson 

asked him what he wanted to do after he graduated, without thinking Ben said, “I want to be a part of the world, not the enemy of it.” 

He saw Linda in the dining hall, or in the student post office or on the quad. Mitch told him that Linda told Debbie that she missed Lucifer, but she never came to see Ben about it. Was the snake his now? Did he want it? He hardly had the extra cash to spend on mice, but on the other hand he had gotten used to having the snake around. He read up on king snakes. Lucifer, Ben discovered, was a false coral snake, camouflaged with the red, gold and black bands in order to look venomous, but actually harmless to humans. Red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend to Jack. Ben cleaned the tank regularly, set out a fresh bowl of water daily, and visited the pet store on Hudson Street to buy mice. Ben would take Lucifer out of his tank and hold him, let him spiral around his forearm and taste the air with his tongue. “Close the serpent sly, insinuating, wove with Gordian twine his braided train”—Ben chanted—“and of his fatal guilt gave proof unheeded. Serpent! Serpent!” 

Mitch looked across the room and said, “What was that?” 

“Milton meets Alice in Wonderland.” Ben was almost ready to ask Mitch to help him out. He couldn’t face Linda himself, but Mitch could contact her for him. Mitch could tell her Ben was ready to give Lucifer back. Mitch could even bring the snake back to her dorm room, and Ben would not have to see her at all. 

Except Ben wasn’t sure that was the right thing to do. Maybe he should see her in person, talk to her like an adult, and show her that he could behave himself without putting any expectations on her. Maybe, even, he could ask her what she thought had been going on between them, since he so obviously could not figure it out himself. But whenever he got to this stage in the scenario, his emotions would rise up and leave him in anger and confusion. So he let it slide. 

One Monday evening in early March when Ben showed up at the dish room, two campus cops were waiting for him. They pulled him aside, took him into Mr. Hsu’s office in the kitchen. The cafeteria staff all watched through the plate-glass window. 

“You’re Ben Kwiatkowski?” 

“Yes.” 

“When did you last see Linda Norton?” 

“Maybe a week ago, in the dining hall.” She had been sitting with some tall guy with curly hair. He’d had to turn around and go back to the dish room, and couldn’t think of anything but her for the next hour. “I haven’t spoken with her in almost two months.” 

He looked at the cops, who looked back levelly at him. 

“You must know about that,”Ben said. “You’ve got the report. What’s going on?” 

“She’s been missing since Saturday night.” 

Linda had gone out with Susan and two other girls to a club in a run-down neighborhood. They drank some beer. About midnight Linda begged off and said she was going back to campus. No one noticed she was missing until Monday when she did not show up for classes and her friends realized they hadn’t seen her in the dorm or dining halls all Sunday. 

After the campus cops came the city police. They made Ben come down to the station and questioned him at length. They accused him of abduction, rape, murder. They asked him where he’d hidden her body. His parents hired a lawyer. For a week or two the newspapers were full of it. But there was nothing to connect him with Linda’s disappearance, and eventually they let him go back to his classes and attempt to reconstruct his life. Other students treated him like he had a disease. Ben was scared witless: he stopped smoking and threw away his stash. Linda’s father hired a private detective to investigate him. Her parents drove up from Hartford and emptied her room. 

Ben contemplated dropping out, but if he did he’d lose his draft deferment and then what would he do? So instead he stuck it out, worked in the dish room, studied spherical astronomy and black body radiation, read Areopagitica and Samson Agonistes. 

Whenever his concentration failed he thought about Linda. Late at night he imagined himself lying next to her in her dorm bed. He remembered how she looked while she slept, her hair spread across her face, her eyelashes trembling with some dream. He thought about how he had wished her dead. 

He wanted to imagine that she had run off to some better place, booked a bargain flight to France under another name and was working in some pension. But he knew better. As time passed the likelihood increased 

that she was dead. He could not imagine her committing suicide; no, somebody had assaulted her as she walked home from the club. He wondered what she had been thinking as she approached the river. 

Then he remembered her fearlessness on the river ice, and realized that perhaps nobody had alerted the police about that. She could easily have fallen through. He imagined how her last moments would be, in the freezing water, struggling and failing. What a horrible way to die. He should call the police and tell them. He owed her that much. 

But if he did, it would only renew their suspicions. They had to know already. 

In late March, when the winter finally broke and the ice cleared, Linda’s body was found tangled among some dead tree limbs on a bridge abutment in the heart of the city, a mile downriver from the campus. 

Paradise Lost, Ben found out, was not about the discovery of sex, but about the discovery of shame, selfishness, exploitation, and guilt. Adam and Eve had lots of sex before the Fall; it was in fact their chief delight. But afterward, after they had eaten the forbidden fruit and gained the knowledge of good and evil, it was not the same. Not that sex became evil, but it was drawn into the world of good and evil and could not ever again be separated from it. 

Ben got an “A” in Milton, the only one he received that semester. 

He kept Lucifer with him all through graduate school. His new friends called him “the snake guy.”