The R.A. told us to go to our rooms and lock our doors. She wouldn’t answer questions but we got the buzz that the first floor R.A. had been found tied and gagged in the stairwell leading to the dorm basement.
“Go to bed,” she said. “The police are here. They’ll figure out what happened. In the meantime, stay in your rooms. No bathroom, no shower, just stay put. I’ll tell you when you can come out.”
My roommate, as she did every night, walked into the closet to change into her nightgown. She was tall and silent, older, maybe mid twenties to my eighteen, large and unbelievably oafish, otherworldly. She moved stolidly, like her feet each weighed fifty pounds, stayed to herself, her tiny desk lamp lighting the half circle where she studied each night, her arms folded in front of her like she was protecting herself from an assault.
We laid in our beds in the dark. My bed was along the outside wall, the window the prize I’d won by being first to move in that day in September. She came later and got the bed by the inside wall. My bed was where I smoked Tareytons and looked out at the snow falling on the lawn of the dorm and across the street at the house where later that year I’d look out the window at my dorm and worry that I would get caught being in a forbidden place. Everything sitting on that bed seemed tortured and extreme, Sunday afternoons endless with the letters from my boyfriend at home spread on my lap, a milk carton candle burning on the sill and Joan Baez keening about the death of Queen Jane. My misery was no less than hers. I missed my boyfriend everywhere I went but I was comforted by my yearning in the way that young women are.
During the night I looked over at my roommate. She slept on her back, her hands folded on her chest as if in an ad for a funeral company. I supposed she was awake but pretending sleep and I worried all night that it was she who had tied and gagged the R.A. and left her in the stairwell.
Outside in the hall, I could hear the police going up and down the hall. They knocked on our door and asked if we were all right and we answered yes but I didn’t know if that was true. I wanted the police to come in and see my roommate and then decide if we were all right. I didn’t ask them to do this so they didn’t. They just moved down the hall, to the very end, where I could hear them going down the stairs.
The next morning, the R.A. told us to go downstairs where the dorm mother would tell us what had happened. We gathered there next to the grand piano that no one played and the sofas where no one normally sat and she told us that the police determined that the R.A. found in the stairwell had, in fact, tied and gagged herself. She had problems, the dorm mother told us, and she would be leaving school to deal with them. It was a peculiar end and not believable.
We went to class.
That night, we went to our rooms. We didn’t discuss what happened. At dinner, we went to the dining hall and the girls made the usual jokes about sausages which were the more profane because of the situation. Why would she do such a thing? She must be crazy. She had to be crazy. Who would tie themselves up? It was sickening to think of all the angles. So we didn’t.
The next year, I sat with friends in a house in the country where we dared each other to finish a bottle of tequila. As we drank, we tossed out the most amazing things of our first year in college, the keg parties, waking up in wrong places, forgetting our boyfriends and our places, until we landed on the riddle of the girl in the stairwell. We talked about where she was now, whether she was in a mental hospital, as we called it then, whether anyone had talked to her. One of us should find out what happened to her, we decided.
But we never did.