Discussion Post on Actually 1-20

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Character Analysis

For this discussion post, I would like us to focus on the first twenty pages of the play and what we know of Amber and Tom in these first twenty pages (there’s a lot, I know!). By now, you all have likely realized that the braided narrative and rapid shifts in storyline, voice, and tone are really challenging to follow in the play. At some points it can seem disorienting. When approaching previous works of literature, we examined themes and linked themes together throughout the works of literature. Themes are helpful for a play like Actually, but also helpful are character analyses where we provide a brief description of who a character is in order to better understand the action taking place. If we were studying acting, we would call this method acting where we learn everything possible about the character to inhabit the role as fully as possible.

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Initial Post

For your initial post, choose either Amber or Tom and describe her or his character traits in as much detail as you can. To support your descriptions, make sure to present evidence (meaning quotes) from the text to support your analysis. Consider identifying two or three character traits for which you can find multiple pieces of evidence. In a final paragraph, tell us what you have learned about Amber or Tom in process of writing your analysis.

Initial posts should be 250-300 words.


a new play by Anna Ziegler

Seth Glewen
The Gersh Agency
41 Madison Avenue, 33rd Floor
New York, NY 100


212-634-8124 | sglewen@gershny.com



Amber: early-mid 20s, high-strung, talkative, charmingly neurotic. She is Jewish.

Tom: early-mid 20s, appealing and confident with some swagger that conceals a
deeper vulnerability. He is African-American.


(Lights up on a college party. Princeton. Two students, freshmen—
Amber and Tom—are outside on the quad. A first date. Sort of.
They’re drinking. A lot.)

Let’s do another one. Let’s do Two Truths and a Lie.


Come on.

Okay. I have two truths for you…I hate games and I hate that game.

But you’ll play it.

And why would I do that?

If you wanna sleep with me tonight, for one thing.

(without missing a beat)
Okay, who goes first?

(A shift in tone. Amber faces the audience. )

So, like…

(to the audience)
In some ways I’ve been on trial my entire life. Like every minute of every day of my



It wasn’t an actual trial. It was a hearing but it felt like a trial. We sat across from
each other. At these long wooden tables. I felt like I was a character in The Crucible.
Maybe because our “trial” was in a classroom where I’d happened to read The
Crucible earlier that semester.

We sat across from each other.

The room was very cold. I had to wear two layers. The cardigan I carry with me
because I am always cold but also my jacket. Inside.

I couldn’t believe how cold this girl got. She’d have goose bumps like sitting outside
on a 75 degree day.

See it became, almost immediately, “the matter of Anthony dash Cohen.” (bashfully)
Which I couldn’t help thinking looked like what our last name would be if we got

I get an email from the Office of the Vice Provost of Institutional Equity and
Diversity. It’s from some dude named Leslie. He made it clear that he was a dude by
saying “because the name can be ambiguous I want to make you aware that I am a
man.” I’m told to come into the office “at my very earliest convenience.

(back to the audience)
What happened was I told Heather who told our RA Olivia who told whoever she

I honestly thought maybe this was about my being an asshole for not joining the
Black Student Union.

But I didn’t know Heather would tell anyone. She just came into my room and was
like “Amber. People are saying you were topless at Cap and Gown last night. What
the fuck. Were you super wasted?” And I’m like “that’s the least of it. I mean, Thomas
Anthony practically raped me.” And she looked at me with these wide eyes, like she


was kind of seeing me for the first time, and what she saw both impressed and
horrified her?…And I knew immediately that I said something I couldn’t take back.

(Back in the scene)

(getting a little frustrated)
So…are you gonna—

Okay my first truth is: I thought I’d fall in love on my first day of college.

First day. Wow.

(she speaks very fast)
Well, my parents did. My dad was my mom’s professor in a class called History of
the American South and she liked his accent and in a sort of twisted way that he was
old enough to be her father and I guess he liked being able to lord it over her and
probably her looks –my mom was very attractive back then – because then they
were together.

That was allowed back then?

You don’t even know if anything I just said was true.

Okay. Fair point.

Second one: I have never excelled at any sport.

But you’re on the squash team.

Third one: I have no feelings for you whatsoever.


(Tom stares at her.)

So now you guess.

No, I know. I’m thinking.

Lay out your thought process.

Well, I’m an arrogant bastard so I think you do like me…And that shit about your
parents is either too detailed to be a lie or so detailed it’s the obvious lie.

Hm. Interesting.

You’re on a team here so I think you’ve excelled at sports. And I’m way confident
you’re into me—

So you’ve said.

So I’ll go with the lie is about your parents.

The lie was not about my parents.

Then you’re no good at sports.

I’m no good at sports.

How the hell did you get on the squash team?

Anyone can get on the squash team.


Is that right.

I mean, you don’t have to be great. You can be good. Or just okay. It’s a great way to
help you get into college. Just like being black.

Um. You know you can’t say that. Right?

But it’s not a micro-aggression or anything.

Cause it’s like a macro-aggression.

Come on. Everyone has things that help them get in. I’m not saying either of us is
remotely unqualified to be here.

(in disbelief)
Wow. Okay.

No, I’m sure you’re super smart. You had to beat out a shit ton of other black kids to
get in. I just had to beat out some other mediocre squash players.

You think my only competition was other black kids?

Mainly, yeah. We all fill some stupid niche, which reduces us to something much less
than what we are, but that’s the way it goes. Has it been very hard for you, being

God, you really are a piece of work.


But has it?

(back to the audience)
So I’m sitting across from Leslie, and the guy has an enormous beard. Part of me
wonders if maybe there is a woman behind there.

So I’m like “well…yeah.” And she’s like “well, yeah what?” and I tell her what
happened. Or what I can remember. But I don’t tell Heather everything. I mean, why
should Heather know everything?

And he’s like “I assume you know why you’re here” and I’m like “enlighten me,
Leslie” not realizing I shouldn’t be, like, a dick right now. And he squints his eyes at
me like he can’t believe what he’s hearing.

Okay, so even though my mom was always like “don’t give anyone any reason to
write you off” or maybe because of that – I’m not great at gauging when I should be
polite. Like in 11th grade I once said to the school psychologist: “who’s your shrink,

I mean, like, I had this one weird thing and my high school sent me into therapy.
What’s that all about?

So I just say to Heather that things went pretty far and she’s like but that’s not rape
and I’m like I know that Heather. What might have maybe constituted something
approaching sex without my one hundred percent consent was that he got a tiny bit
rough with me and at first I was like into it but then I wasn’t into it anymore and I
was like “actually, um” and I stood up, but he pulled me back and kept going. Also I
was just so, so drunk.

(back in the scene)
It’s my turn, right?

I’m all ears.


Okay, so I guess I’ll say…in the spirit of truth…

Or maybe a lie.

If I can, one day I’d like to play piano professionally. Like in a symphony. Or jazz
piano. Or the orchestra pit of Hamilton or something along those lines.

Oh god I love that show.

You saw it??


The second one is…my mom is the love of my life.

Aw. That’s sweet. That better not be a lie or you’re kind of deranged.

I am capable of some pretty poor behavior.

Oh yeah?

The third one is…
(He thinks for awhile)
I feel most out of place when people would assume I feel most comfortable.

Like when?


You don’t even know if that one’s true.

I know it’s true. The question is which of the other two is the lie.

Oh fuck.


I fucked it up.

You forgot to lie.

I straight up told you I hate games.

Wanna do it over?

I’m just too honest. What can I say?

Then tell me some other things that are true.

(to the audience)
I was playing the piano in one of the music rooms during a free period.
And this teacher Emily Mackey, who couldn’t be more than five feet tall, and who
teaches percussion, (which is like “percussion”—who even takes that?), she walks in
and asks if I’d mind if she listened to me play.

I was like sure, be my guest, and I just kept playing. And yeah, maybe I stepped it up
a little because I had an audience. And maybe it wasn’t totally lost on me that Ms.
Mackey looked about eighteen and also that she was a type I hadn’t tried before –


boy body, flat-chested, short hair. Also she would wear these little hats, like she was
five years old.

And she’s like what does a tiny bit rough mean? And I can tell she’s imagining
something worse than what it was and she says, all horrified, “and all you said was
‘actually?’” and I’m like yeah. And she said “but that’s not no” and I’m like I know
that, Heather—I am aware that two different words in the English language are not
the same word.

So when she stood up and was like leaning on the piano while I played, I might’ve
gotten pretty fancy with my fingers, just sort of dancing them over the keys.

I don’t mean to come off, like…but at the time I felt I knew a coupla things. One was
that I was decent-looking. Or maybe a little better than that. And the other was that I
was a damn good piano player.

And she’s sort of swaying. Ms. Mackey. I’m playing Bartok’s third piano concerto,
which is kind of a weird one, sort of all over the place, and not always the most, like,
melodious, but she’s into it.

And then, at the end of the first movement, she sits on the bench next to me so our
legs are touching. And it’s this fucking electric electricity and I don’t know what to
do about it. So I look her in the eyes and wait a second to be sure I’m reading
everything right before I kiss her.

So…the funny or maybe sad thing about Bartok’s third piano concerto is that he died
before he finished it. He was writing it for his wife’s birthday; he was gonna surprise
her and I guess he did, but not in the way he was going for.

And the funny or maybe sad thing about that afternoon when I was playing it is that
Mr. Damion, the chair of the music department at Carpenter, this total walking
prick—I mean, the guy literally looks like a penis—well, he walked right into the
room, and there I am, on top of the tiny percussion teacher, playing her like a
fucking symphony.


The least funny thing about what happens next is that she says I came onto her. And
also, that I was aggressive or something.


When I was little, I remember wondering, like, how sex happens. Not like what it
entails but how you possibly get yourself into the situation where it would actually
occur. It all seemed so impossible to me, and embarrassing.

I mean, credit to my mom, because she didn’t believe it for a second…Said it was
racism. Plain and simple. And, you know…maybe it was.
Maybe it was.

And then, when you’re just a little bit older, you wonder how to avoid sex. Like how
to avoid bad sex, and how to tell ahead of time that that’s what it’s gonna be.

Ms. Mackey got fired, so I guess that’s… But then everyone asks why she’s gone and
word gets around, so by December of my junior year, I’m the guy who fucked this
sweet little teacher literally and figuratively, even though we didn’t actually fuck,
and I have to see this shrink because what if I’m like totally depraved, which seemed
like such a joke. But now…

But knowing what kind of sex you’re about to have is, like, hard. You usually don’t
know until you’re in it. Or maybe not even til after it’s over. Like days or weeks or
even years in the past. Which is what I try to tell Heather, but she’s very definite
about things, so she’s just like: if he raped you, he raped you, okay? And I’m like

I think I went to a debate in the first week of school in this room. It was on whether
Guantanamo Bay was constitutional or not, and this one dude was so crazy
passionate about it being unconstitutional that I started to agree with the other side,
just because they weren’t so annoying, and the whole time then and the whole time
now I’m like how do you defend yourself? Is it what you say or how you say it?

It’s not a good story. It’s not a good story to say that I was into it and then I wasn’t
anymore. It makes me seem…I don’t know.



When I sit down with Leslie, he says “this is about you and Amber Cohen. I believe
you two are acquainted.” And then there’s this silence while my brain computes
that. Me and Amber Cohen. And my first thought is she did something weird, like
maybe she’s in trouble for doing something really fucking weird, but then I look at
his face and I can tell it’s not that.

I don’t know how to be right now. Like should I look really solemn? But when I look
at Tom I want to smile. It’s a problem. Also that I want him to smile back at me,
which makes me feel….

“I won’t lie to you,” he says, “this is serious.” And I’m like, thanks, Leslie. I appreciate
the honesty.

Which, to be honest, is probably my default state. This zone of wanting something
and not wanting it at the same time.

And he starts talking about “Title IX” and how it’s his responsibility to oversee all
investigations of conduct that might have violated the policy. And he’s speaking
really carefully and not making eye contact and it’s making me feel like I did this
time when I was going out with this girl Samantha at Carpenter who was actually a
sort of minor celebrity – like she had this blog that I never read but which was
apparently very popular and white people like Lena Dunham were all excited about
it or something? I really didn’t care; she was hot and we’d go to her apartment after
school and no one was ever home and then one afternoon I was sitting around in my
boxers and her mother just, like, walks in and Samantha is all, “oh this is Tom; I told
you about Tom, didn’t I?” which she clearly hadn’t, and the mother acts as though
she’s so excited to see me there, which she clearly isn’t, and the whole thing is so
uncomfortable and I sort of knew that if I’d been a different guy she would have sent
me home on the spot but instead there I was having dinner with them and being
talked to like I was the minor celebrity, like they’d be so disappointed when I’d
finally have to leave.

Like, what happened with Zach was a big example of that. He’s my friend Sarah’s
brother, this totally white bread frat guy type, not the brightest bulb but cute, and I
liked him probably in large part because he never seemed to know who I was, even
though I was over at Sarah’s all the time and always tried to look nice for him but


also not like I was trying to look nice because you can’t seem to be trying to look
nice when you’re going over to your friend’s house to do Latin homework.

I was a senior in high school and I’d just gotten into college. Like, that day, I mean.

I’d come home from school and I was scrolling through this really dumb email
where you have to rank like the five best books you’ve ever read and then send it
onto the second person on the list and I was trying to decide whether to make my
number one, like, Gone Girl or The Iliad, when I see I have a new email and the
subject line is “Welcome to…” but you can’t see the whole thing, so I open it and it’s

I’m like what policy, Leslie? I honestly don’t know what the fuck he’s…But then he
says “sexual misconduct.”…And he says it strangely loud, like he’s embarrassed,
which embarrasses me. See, I’ve never had any clue what to do with someone who’s
trying to hide how they feel…probably because I am always trying to hide how I feel.

Which is…I mean, I was NOT expecting to get in. I really wasn’t, even though being a
mediocre squash player can help a lot because colleges need to fill their teams, and
there just aren’t enough really excellent squash players. But still I didn’t expect
anything that good to happen to me. I was always kind of not the best at anything,
you know?

Like, I was never the prettiest girl. Not, like, ugly. I mean, I can actually look in the
mirror and see a person who’s kind of attractive, looking back at me. I don’t know.
My mom told me once I was “pretty enough” which might explain everything.

So I’m just like…what?? And he says it even louder, even though the problem wasn’t
that I didn’t hear him.

The day I got into Princeton was the second night of Passover and Sarah had invited
me to her family’s seder. But I mean, who does the whole service on the SECOND
night? And not only that but her dad asks everyone at the seder to discuss things,
like why is it worse to be indifferent than stupid? In reference to the four sons. And
why do we say next year in Jerusalem?


And before I know what I’m doing I’m looking right at Zach and saying something
about Jews and longing, and I know my face is very very red and kind of splotchy.
Which is what happens when I’m embarrassed, so the whole world can see exactly
how I’m feeling at all times.

So, just to be clear…Amber says I violated the policy? And he says yes, she has
lodged a complaint. And I’m like “but that girl is seriously into me” and he gives me
this look like I’m deluded. (a realization) Which I guess I am.

After the seder, we’re all just hanging out, and Zach wants to watch hockey because
the Rangers are having an okay season so they’re “worth watching”, but, you know,
they lose. In like overtime.

And Zach is not happy. I guess he’s one of those beleaguered fans who takes
everything really hard, and he’s like “I’m gonna have a fucking drink” which makes it
sound like he hadn’t already been drinking all night long, but now he switches to
beer, even though it has barley or wheat in it or whatever and isn’t something you’re
supposed to have during Passover. But he’s just like “fuck it. The Rangers weren’t
supposed to lose during Passover either.” Which doesn’t make any sense.

I ask him: what exactly does she think I did? And Leslie turns this bright shade of
red and says “she thinks you raped her, Thomas” and I can’t help it but I start to cry.

Sarah had fallen asleep on the couch, and Zach was just like “Amber” and I was like
“yeah?” and he asked if I wanted to see this app on his phone that’s like an updated
version of Angry Birds Star Wars and I said sure, but really he just wanted me to
come sit next to him because once I was there he kind of touched my wrist and I
froze and of course he knew. I mean, really he’d probably known for years.

And he stands and kind of pulls me up with him, and we go to his room and he’s
kinda stumbly drunk and I am completely sober and we fall onto the bed and he is
not exactly gentle with me but I don’t really mind; the next day I get a UTI and it
hurts so bad, but I don’t know that right now and eventually he takes his fingers out
of me and squeezes one of my boobs really hard, and I moan a little because I think
that’s what people do but he puts his finger to his mouth like I’ve made this faux pas
by making a sound, a gesture I remember at least subconsciously because I am
always silent during sex, always always, like you practically don’t even know I’m


there, and then he climbs on top of me and sticks it in. And the whole time, which
isn’t a long time, I keep thinking “I got into college today” which, in conjunction with
what’s happening right now, makes me feel like a…yeah, like a different person, I
guess. And when he’s done he grunts a little, like this sound is just getting pushed
out of him and it’s not exactly a happy sound, but still I feel weirdly privileged—and
in all honesty, grown up—to know what Zach Lieberman sounds like when he

Leslie hands me tissues and I blow my nose over and over again; it’s embarrassing
how many times I blow my nose, but I don’t want to say anything so I just keep
going. I can’t stop thinking about leaving Carpenter on the last day, after eight years,
trying to or hoping to feel a little…I don’t know—sad?—because if you’re not sad at
that moment doesn’t it mean all those years were a waste? And then there’s my dad,
who was a math wiz for about a minute; he won a state competition and the family
threw a party for him; he was suddenly everything to everyone, but by high school
he was drinking, and getting into fights, and so he never made it to college, which
haunted him forever because he knew he should have. And here I am, at Princeton,
sitting across from Leslie, who asks what questions I have about the rape I may or
may not have committed within the first two months of school. Of course there they
are too, like clockwork: the men swaying in the trees, because they’re always there,
waiting, behind your eyes. And I just blurt out: I’m innocent until proven guilty,
right? And Leslie looks kind of apologetic and then, really gently, is just like: not
really, no. College campuses are not the criminal justice system. He says there’s
going to be a formal investigation. A panel of three “neutral” appointees will
interview me extensively and they will interview Amber and any witnesses to try to
get a full picture of what happened and then we will “convene” altogether and
discuss. And I think immediately oh that fuck Jayson better not fuck me over, not
because I did anything wrong but because my roommate is such a douche and so
clearly has it in for me.

I keep looking across at Tom and feeling annoyed because how differently could this
whole thing have turned out? He really is just so, so cute, like you kind of want to
hug him – and then fuck the daylights out of him. I mean, he is like cute and hot at
the same time, which is a rare combination.

I mean, fuck me, right?



It snowballed. I’m suddenly the most interesting person Heather has ever met and
she wants to be with me all the time. She even waits in the hall when I go talk to this
guy Leslie, whom I’d just assumed was going to be a woman because of the name
and also because here was someone whose job was to talk to predominantly female
rape victims. But it wasn’t.

And Leslie says if the panel determines that a preponderance of the evidence
suggests I did it, he will be brought in to help determine my penalty. And I’m like
“what??” and he says: if they find that the claim is more likely true than not true,
which is still sounding kind of opaque to me, like it could mean anything, and then
he’s like “fifty percent plus a feather – that’s what it’s like”, and I picture this two
sided scale, and each side has the same amount on it – of books and barbells and the
fear that I admit consumes me sometimes – the same shit on both sides, but wait,
what’s that up there? Oh, it’s a feather, and it comes drifting down from the sky…and
lands on one side of the scale and suddenly that side is weighted down beyond
belief. Suddenly there’s no contest.

I tell Leslie that my mom says Bob, my horrible-in-a-totally-clichéd-way stepdad,
she says Bob says I have to be really careful and think twice about accusing a black
man of…you know. And the way Leslie looks at me, even though he doesn’t say
anything, makes me worry even more that Tom isn’t gonna get a fair trial, like he’s
gonna be one of those black men just tossed recklessly into the tornado of a broken
system, but then I realize that shouldn’t really matter to me. I can’t fix the system. I
mean, everyone says I’m the victim. So…I’m the victim. Right?

So the panel of three neutral appointees is made up of a white dude who’s like the
assistant assistant dean of students, this hippy-ish art professor who looks white to
me but her last name is Diaz; and a black woman in the women’s studies department.
Which is like, really?

And then Leslie looks at me with his beady little eyes and says “but are you sure you
want to bring this claim? You know it’s a very serious accusation, young lady; you
have to be one hundred percent sure” and I wanna say I’ve never been one hundred
percent sure of anything ever but he’s staring at me hard, like it would suit him just
fine if I walked right on out of his office and his life, and for the first time I flash back
to the night in question and to the way I felt the next morning, how I wanted to get
out of Tom’s room as quickly as humanly possible, and dig a hole and just live there


forever, and I’m like “I’m sure, Leslie, but thank you for reiterating the gravity of my

He puts his hand on my shoulder and is like “call me if you need anything” and I
wanna die, it’s just so forced and sweet. I have the sensation I always have when
someone tries to be paternal, which is pretty much uncontrollable rage mixed with
deep-seated resentment and I brush his hand off my shoulder as though it was a bug
and he flinches like I hit him or something.

Linda is also there with me, at the trial. She’s my lawyer. That creeper Leslie told me
I could bring one person with me to any discussion related to the investigation – a
friend, a relative, an advisor or a lawyer. So duh. I go with a lawyer.

I am all alone. I don’t even tell my mother about this. It reminds me of this time in 9th
grade when my mom came to see me in the school play and she got all dressed up
and was so proud but the thing is—I never stepped foot on that stage. I was in the
third floor computer room making out with this girl Julia, who was also in the
chorus and when we realized we missed the beginning we didn’t know what to do
so we just stayed there and later my mom was like “you were just so good in that
play” and I guess she must’ve thought I was one of the guys in a mask or maybe she
just so wanted to believe I was up there that she did. And I never told her it wasn’t

Bob found Linda for me. He’s a lawyer too and needs to feel important so he’s
always like “lemme help you with that.” Bob is this tiny man and so maybe he has to
compensate. I don’t know what my mom was thinking. It might seem weird to say
so, but my dad, who, let’s be honest, was old enough to be my mom’s father, was a
very attractive man. Even when he was frail. Like I once overheard my mom on the
phone snorting and saying “well, at least he’s still virile.” Which is not really the way
you want to think about your dad. Or maybe it is?

When we’re all there, the chair of the panel stands up and says “Welcome, all.” As
though we’re at a church service or something. “Welcome.”



I guess there are downsides to having a parent who was for a long time consumed
by the imminent death of your other parent and then afterwards consumed by
moving on from it, which in my mom’s case meant Bob and going back to school to
become a social worker, a career choice I couldn’t help finding ironic since if she’d
ever wanted to talk to someone, and really listen, hey I was right there, but no she
had to go out to find strangers to listen to.

Welcome. We’re here today to decide whether or not Thomas Anthony committed a
violation of the Title IX policy on October 23rd in connection with his interactions
with his fellow student—

“Amber Cohen.” And when they say my name it’s like, whoa. This is really

Then I guess we’re each supposed to make a statement. I am made aware of this
because the panel chair is like “Tom. Amber. Now you will each make a statement.”

Here’s a statement for you: the beginning of college was INSANE. I can barely
remember it, that’s how insane it was.

I drank. A lot. Like, a lot a lot.

And it tastes so foul but you just keep drinking it.

It’s not peer pressure so much as fear. Like, if I don’t do this, I might have to think
about who I am and where I am and all of that is just too…

It was nice to be on the squash team, because you have this kind of…this built-in
group of friends. Or at least people who could be your friends if you liked them. I
mean, you see them all the time. The thing about doing a sport in college is that you
do it all the time.

Heather was on the team too and she lived on my hall, so it actually would have
been like weird and conspicuous if we weren’t friends.

And Heather came from a lot of money. You could tell. You could just tell. And that’s
not a knock on her at all, it was just…you could tell.


And she had a boyfriend from home, Dave, who was at Georgetown now, and she
was always getting What’s App messages from him and then laughing hysterically. I
guess Dave was really funny or something.

I don’t know. Heather and I spend a lot of time together, and she shows me how I’ve
been plucking my eyebrows all wrong and she shows me how to drink demurely
from a flask. Also she buys me a flask.

We go out every night because everyone goes out every night. And then you go to
classes and then you read—and there is so much to read; every day you have like
hundreds of pages assigned but you only have between let’s say 4 and 7 to do all
that reading because after 7 you have to go out and drink til you’re sick but those
afternoon hours are exactly when, if you’re on a team, you’re at practice. So there’s
no time to do any of that reading and it starts to build up and even by the end of the
first week there’s this voluminous amount of reading you haven’t done and this
equally voluminous terror and that’s what keeps you drinking.

Amber makes a really brief statement about how regrettable this whole thing is and
how she wishes it hadn’t come to this. And I’m like really, girl? You know, if you
wished that you had it in your power to make it happen.

And then Tom makes his statement. He’s like a) we were drunk and b) I would never
rape someone. He can’t even say “rape” – he takes this enormous pause before he
says it like there’s something in his mouth that’s causing him great pain but which
will be even more painful if it managed to escape.

I don’t want to be here. It’s all that goes through my head. I don’t want to be here.

I don’t like that Tom is all alone. He’s like all alone at this long table.

I start thinking about when I first got to school, and how…yeah, how nervous I was. I
mean, nobody brought me to college. My mom didn’t, like, come with me and unpack
my clothes and make my bed for me. Nobody took me to the store to buy that sticky-
stuff you use to put up posters, that doesn’t leave a mark on the walls. Nope, I took
the bus and then dragged myself and two crappy suitcases across campus.


And then halfway across the quad, one of those shitty suitcases just cracks wide
open so there I am gathering as much of my stuff as I can in my arms and trying to
look like it doesn’t matter one bit. Finally this guy who’s like the Indian Channing
Tatum or something comes over and is like “need a hand?” and that was Sunil. He
went and got me some garbage bags and we shoved everything into them so I show
up to my room hauling what looks like this gigantic load of trash, but, you know, it’s
how I met the best friend I ever had, so I guess, in a way, I’m grateful.

Not that Sunil and me were tight from the start. I didn’t see him again for a week,
and it was possibly the weirdest week in my life, when you’re sort of trying to fit in
but you’re not sure yet you even want to. I mean, seriously—part of you just wants
to put all your stuff in your one remaining suitcase and go back the way you came.
It’s overwhelming—people are all over you to join their newspaper or their
Motown-only a capella group, or the Black Student Union and you feel sort of sorry
for them and also guilty for not wanting any of it. I mean, you’re just like trying to
figure out where the damn bathrooms are. And how to get from your room to where
you can eat things.

And yeah, maybe you kinda miss home. Or not like, home, but the idea of it.

Like, maybe you start to realize you’ve moved on from something. And you’re never
going back.

Linda, my lawyer, told me not to mention enjoying myself for some of the night. So I
didn’t say anything about my emotional state. I didn’t say anything about how just
looking at Tom makes me tingly all over, so much so that sometimes I need to go
home and change my underwear, which is gross but also a totally natural
phenomenon as any high school health teacher would have you know. I didn’t say
that every night, going to sleep, I imagined Tom slipping into my dorm room,
unannounced, and crawling into my bed and just having me.

Oh, and thank you Princeton. I almost forgot. They gave me a black roommate.
Wasn’t that thoughtful? Only Jayson was from San Francisco and into, like, fashion
and didn’t know a thing about music. He was always telling me how I could “dress
for success”, which apparently meant never wearing any of the clothes I actually
owned, and of course I assumed he was gay so on one of the first nights I’m like “so
what’s it like being gay?” and he gives me this weird look. Whatever. I’m sure he
figured it out sooner or later.


So at the end of that first week the only thing I wanted was to find a piano and be
alone. I’m hung-over from all the Jell-o shots; I can’t get the taste of keg beer outta
my mouth; I can’t find my jacket which I musta left somewhere. So I’m cold and I
have this headache and so far the food – it’s like there is just never enough food to
fill me up, or I feel like I have to leave the dining hall because I have a sense that I
need to do something but almost immediately after I’ve left I realize I’m starving.

I’m just feeling depleted, you know? And my mom sounds a little tired on the phone,
like not as interested in what’s going on with me as I would expect. But whatever. If I
find a piano, I’ll be okay.

So I’m wandering around like a jackass looking for Room A in Building F or
something like that when I hear my name. And it’s Sunil. And he’s leaning against a
wall under this stone arch and he’s like “you have to hear this” and he shoves his
iPhone at me and I kid you not the guy is listening to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9,
which is one of my all-time all-time favorites. And he’s like “isn’t that astonishing?”
And it was.

And then they start asking questions. And the questions are almost as embarrassing
as the answers.

The white dude is like: you’re saying it was consensual? And I’m like, yeah…what I
can remember was consensual. That’s right.

“What were you wearing when you met up with Tom?” the art professor asks
nonchalantly as though since she’s a woman it’s okay. She prefaces it by saying it’s
important for the investigation, as a way to make sure everyone’s stories match up.
And I’m like fine, I was in a tank top.

Some of the questions we wrote ahead of time to ask each other.

I think this must be one of Tom’s questions: Amber, did you feel you had something
to prove that night? And I’m like “no.” And Linda puts her hand on my knee, which is
her way of saying “no need to elaborate, Amber.” But when I think about it, I guess I
think…well, I think when I got to school I should’ve said I had a boyfriend at home


because Heather got to be like this outside observer, staring down at us all. She was
always like “what about him?” and invariably pointing to some loser and I’m like
that’s what you think of me? And by night ten or twelve, the pressure is huge. One of
those nights we’re out and I’m so incredibly wasted that when Heather throws me
into this guy’s sweaty arms, I stay there, and we make out even though his breath
smells like barf and he probably gropes me in public, but I just let him do whatever
he wants, and later, when I throw up on my roommate’s new comforter, an act that
ends our friendship before it even began, I can’t remember a thing.

They ask whether anything else was going on with me that might have contributed
to my behavior that night. And because Amber isn’t really answering the questions,
I’m just like, “nope.” Nothing else going on with me.

I look at him, and I’m like “really Tom?” Because it really really seemed like
something was going on with him. That night.

Sunil is like my spirit guide, my maestro, my first base coach, my brother. I follow
him around like a fuckin’ cat in heat. I just have this reverence for the guy.

He’s from Florida, some town where he was the only person under, like, ninety-five
for miles around, and his family owns a few restaurants now but for so many years
they were just poor, just like dirt poor. His dad couldn’t get work and at one point
his mom and one of his sisters moved back to India. They went back to India
because shit was gonna be better in fucking Calcutta where no one has any money or
food or like running water. So Sunil was left with his dad. They literally started with
a cart. One of those food carts and the two of them cooked everything and it took
years of that but then it caught on.

He said the violin saved him. He played it all his life. And to hear him play is a
fucking miracle. That’s how good he is.

You know how some people love a book and they read it again and sorta get new
things out of it? That never really happened to me. But with music. With music, it
happens all the time. I know it sounds…but yeah. And Sunil. He wasn’t anything like
me but he got that and so he was completely like me.

And one day, not long after I got to college, it occurred to me how lucky it was that I
didn’t realize, growing up, you know, like, how alone I’d been.


I tried to explain it, on the phone, to my mom, and she was just like “Tommy, you
had friends. You’ve always had friends” so yeah, she didn’t get it.

And you know, she was just sounding so tired.

But then I thought it was just that I was so fatigued myself because I wasn’t sleeping
because, you know, every night it was one of these parties, or three of them. And
every night I was having sex.

I notice him for the first time, like out of the corner of my eye, in Intro Psych. He’s
sitting off to my left, a couple rows ahead of me, and his head is jerking forward
every few minutes in that way that happens when you can’t stay awake. He’s making
a really valiant effort though and at one point I see him literally hold his eyes open
with his fingers and he is also constantly shifting in his chair. So all of that catches
my attention, and also, and this probably sounds, like…but yeah, that he’s black. I
notice that too.

At some point Sunil is like “man, you should slow it down.” And I’m like “why?” And
he points out – because he’s a nice guy – that a couple times, these girls have emailed
these crazy transparent emails like “hey, did I maybe leave a lip gloss in your room?”
or “I wasn’t gonna get in touch but I had this weird dream last night and you were in
it!” but I’m like screw that. I’m a freshman. It’s the first month of school.

And instead I start to get on him about why he’s not hooking up. Because these girls
are just there for the picking and every night he hangs back. I’m like “dude, what’re
you doing??” and one night he says he’s not feeling well and another night he has a
leg cramp and another night he doesn’t see anyone “remotely interesting.” And I’m
like “interesting? These girls don’t gotta be interesting.” And I can tell there’s some
part of him that thinks I’m a dick and also some part of him that likes that about me.
But he doesn’t give in. He’s just like “Tommy-boy, you do your thing. I’m heading
home.” And after five nights of that, I pounce. I’m drunk off my ass and I get in his
face, like “what the fuck are you doing? This isn’t gonna happen every day for the
rest of your life, you know” and I start thinking about my dad, and how he wasted
himself, how he just wasted himself because he thought he could be great so he
didn’t end up even being good.

Poor Sunil. I’m like “This is your fucking life. This is it” and by this point we’ve
walked out onto the quad and I’m so wasted that I’m seeing stars or maybe there


really are that many stars over New Jersey, and I am so pissed at him and love him
like a brother—maybe even more than my actual brothers—that I am shaking him a
little, like shaking his shoulders and feeling really righteous and like I’m helping a
brother out and teaching him what’s right while at the same time justifying all the
choices, good and bad, that I’ve ever made, that when he kisses me I am more
shocked and repulsed than I’ve ever been in my entire life.

But, like, I’m a big fan of black people. I don’t want to be so naïve as to say Jews and
African-Americans have all this stuff in common, but they have some stuff in
common, also my babysitter growing up was like my second mom, like a better
version of my mom, and also my camp boyfriend – he was black. So I am a big fan.
And also very sensitive to the complexities of being black in the world today.

And like, I just, I notice him. That’s all.

The weird thing is that after Sunil like assaults me with his tongue, we’re actually

We don’t even talk about it.

I mean, it was clear that I didn’t want anything to do with any of that, but he didn’t
seem hurt or anything. Which is actually kind of amazing, right? And I start to have a
little insight. Like maybe this is why guys do this. Something doesn’t work out, you
just move on. Not like every single female I have ever known who is physically
incapable of moving on even if you make out once for five minutes on a fucking
dance floor.

After I notice him in Intro Psych, I start seeing him everywhere. I turn around and
he’s a few people behind me in line in the dining hall with like five waffles on his
tray; he’s walking across the quad with this ripped Indian guy, who looks kinda like
Channing Tatum if he was Indian, like he’s really bulked up, which you don’t expect
with Indian guys, no offense.

And then one day at the end of Intro Psych, Sunil’s like “dude, you are aware of the
fact that this girl can’t stop staring at you” and I’m like “who?” and he points to
someone a couple rows behind me and she’s really hot, like kind of a Gigi Hadid /
Kate Upton type, skinny but with enormous tits, and I’m like “wow” and he’s like


“no, the one next to her” and the one next to her is not as good, but you know, I’m
equal opportunity.

I see him sleeping in the library and I see him in the doorway of Conte’s Pizza, and I
see him at the gym where he’s maybe technically lifting weights but mostly just
talking to that Indian guy. One night I see him making out with this tiny Korean girl
at Tiger Inn and he’s so into it it’s like he’s eating her face, and normally I would
think that was gross but for some reason this time I don’t.

So I go and talk to her. Why not, right?

He comes up to me after Psych and is just like, “hey.” And I’m like “hey” and it occurs
to me that maybe he’s been seeing me everywhere too. And maybe he thinks I’ve
been stalking him? And then I get self-conscious. And then I think that maybe
actually he’s talking to Heather, and I just hugely embarrassed myself, but no…it
really does seem like he’s talking to me.

For some reason, I lose my smooth. Like, I don’t know what to say next. And we
kinda stare at each other until finally I’m like “so how’s psych treating you?” which
has gotta be the worst line ever. And she’s like “it’s okay.”

So, so far we’re having a really interesting conversation.

Sunil’s right behind me and kinda jumps in. He makes a bad joke, at least I think it’s
a joke?, about how we’re probably missing out on some critical exploration of the
human condition by always falling asleep in this lecture so maybe she could help fill
us in, and I’m thinking, holy shit, Sunil is NOT good at talking to the ladies. And then
this girl, this – sorry – kinda mousy girl who looks like she could be any of the girls
at Carpenter whose Bat Mitzvahs I went to every weekend of 8th grade, where their
parents and parents’ friends just stared at the black kid on the dance floor who
always won the limbo and killed at the Macarena and could sing the Jewish prayers
better than the Jews—I mean, baruch atah adonai booyah bitches —this mousy girl
turns to me and is like “I’m afraid you might have gotten the impression that I’ve
been following you or something” – which btdubs I hadn’t, at all – “but I really have
just been struck by how we seem to move along the same paths or in the same
circles or something, like I saw you in the gym and at Conte’s and weren’t you at the


Bent Spoon too—the ice cream place? And isn’t it crazy” and all that and I’m just,
like, who is this girl??

Then her friend, the hot one, is like “Amber, I think he just wants your notes” and
poor Amber turns beet fucking red and you can see her mind just unraveling. She’s
like “Oh, right. Duh” and then these kinda splotchy spots start to appear all over her
neck and before I can even help it I’m like “nah, I wasn’t after yer notes. I saw you
that time, at the Bent Spoon, right?” even though I haven’t once gotten ice cream
since I got here and would never pay five dollars for a tiny scoop of gourmet
whatever, but I don’t know what’s up with me; I keep going: “and I was thinking we
could go back there together, like on purpose this time.”

The funny thing, or maybe it was just weird, was that I’d never actually seen him at
the ice cream place. As soon as I said it I knew it was wrong; I was just running at
the mouth the way I do sometimes, and sometimes as a result not everything I say is
one hundred percent wholly and completely true. I mean, maybe it’s just that ice
cream is never far from my mind. Or maybe I wanted it to be true because then we’d
have something in common, and I don’t mean liking dessert, even though that’s
hugely important, but the need to reward ourselves in this artificial way to feel
better, temporarily…But either way we do end up getting ice cream the next day and
he, like, offers to buy mine, which even though I demur because I’m the product of
feminists who worked really hard to have the right to buy their own ice cream, the
offer means we’re on a real date, right? Me and ‘Thomas Anthony,’ who, I mean, even
his name is hot, and who knows, maybe he’s going to be my first real boyfriend, not
counting my camp boyfriend, which in all honesty was a relationship based almost
entirely on correspondence. Anyway I can’t really believe it, and I’m trying not to
think about all the other things I should be doing, like seriously the call of those
books stacked on my desk is deafening, and also I didn’t work out as hard as I
usually do this afternoon, I don’t know why, maybe I was distracted or nervous or I
don’t know, but now this ice cream that I can’t help but eat all of is gonna make me
fat, I can feel myself getting fatter as I eat it, not that I have eating issues, I mean, I
don’t really, aside from the way all girls have eating issues, which is that we think
about what we eat 100% of the time and always wanna kill ourselves.

Okay, so she’s, like, weird.

I mean, she talks fast, like Usain Bolt-fast, and she doesn’t really look at me.


But she’s not shy, exactly. I’ve been with shy girls before. This isn’t really shy. This is
more like…yeah, weird, I guess.

But it doesn’t matter. I’m on a date with this guy who for some reason I noticed and
it turned out he noticed me too, and this is why I’m here, right? For experience, not
just to read, like, books I’ll forget a month after reading them, and life is short, I
know it is; I’ve had that feeling in my gut since I was a little kid, and it’s not just
because my dad was older and was always maybe about to die, it’s something that
was in me, was just in me, this sense that you can’t hold onto anything and every
moment is over before it’s even begun.

Not like there’s something wrong with her. She’s just awkward and I’d like to say I
find it cute or something, but really I just feel awkward too, until she’s like “god, I’m
so awkward, aren’t I” and without meaning to I’m like “yeah, I guess” and she
apologizes and laughs in this way that is kinda cute and says she’s gonna stop eating
her ice cream because she’s SO full, and she puts it down, but a minute or two later
she picks it up and finishes it anyway.

And then she’s like “so what’s up with your friend?”

And I’m like “what?”

And she’s like “that hot Indian guy” and I’m all “you mean, Sunil?”

And she’s like “how many hot Indian guys do you hang around with” and for a
second I’m sorta taken aback, like despite myself, because does she think Sunil is
hotter than me?

But then she adds, “not that he’s hotter than you, Thomas Anthony,” I mean, she is
already calling me Thomas Anthony, which is up to this point something only my
mom has called me, and only when she’s mad or like being really lovey with me, but
this weird girl starts it up right away, which is what I mean when I said she wasn’t
really shy; I mean, she’s actually kinda straight up confident except that she can’t
look me in the eye and she can’t stop talking.

A little thing about Judaism? When something good happens to you, you just assume
something bad is on the way. That’s the way Jews exist in the world, and also we
have a very hard time walking around knowing about all the bad things happening


at every moment in every part of the world, like if you hear about a tidal wave
somewhere that swept all these people away, you can’t stop thinking about the last
moments those people had alive and their fear, and also the pain they left in their
wake. When this kid I didn’t know well, but had known since preschool, so I knew
him, you know?…when he killed himself in 11th grade, it occurred to me just how
deafening and enormous the grief must be that emanates off the surface of this
earth. Like, our atmosphere must just be filled with all this airless sorrow.

“Is he a nerd in a not nerd’s body?” She’s still talking about Sunil, and I really don’t
wanna be thinking about his body right now, I mean cool it, girl, who just took you
for ice cream?, so I’m like “nah, he’s chill” and she’s like “okay but, like, didn’t I
notice he had a violin case” and so then I have to get into the whole music thing and
she’s all “wow. WOW, you two sound like professional musicians. So is that why you
came to Princeton? To pursue music?” And I try to explain that pursuing music
suggests thinking about it like it’s work whereas I want it just to be an escape from
all that, you know? And she nods, and then says “so why did you come here?” which
to me is, like, duh, because I aced my SATs, and I got in; you don’t not go to
Princeton, and she’s like “I was attracted to the university’s very strong English and
creative writing department. See, my only minor talent is in writing so I have to
pursue that path because really I think we pursue what we feel we’re decent at
because why set ourselves up for total abject failure.” That’s what this girl is like. I’m
telling you.

But we keep going. Like after that kid died, and his name was Jonathan, I feel like I
should say his name, I was IMing with Sarah about how horrible it was, how we just
felt empty and like we had no business being alive, when one of my camp friends
messaged me too, wondering if I could send her a photo of me the summer after 9th
grade because she was about to get that same haircut and wanted to show her
stylist, so I’m having these two simultaneous conversations, one about the utter
existential pain of living and the other about whether that was my haircut after 9th
grade or maybe she means the one during the 10th grade chorus trip to Budapest?
and really that just about sums up life, doesn’t it?

Only it doesn’t. Because it leaves out so much. Like when my dad died, I was just
numb for so long. For so long I walked through my life without really living it, just
years of school, squash, homework, in this endless cycle, and feeling like if I had
something great to say there wouldn’t be anyone there to hear it because my dad
was many things – a product of his time and of growing up Jewish in the South,
which probably made him irascible and insecure, but he would always listen to me


and seemed to care what I had to say and when he was gone that was gone too. And
somewhere deep inside, I think I felt like I was due for something good to happen,
and when I got into Princeton it seemed like maybe that was my dad’s doing, like a
balancing of the scales, but Thomas Anthony felt like too much, a gift that would
come with strings attached, like a new set of Bose headphones that look awesome,
like they really will cancel out all the noise of the world, but you can never get them
out of the plastic box in which they are utterly and completely entombed. I mean,
there was just something about Tom. Not only that he was by far the hottest person
who had ever noticed me, but that behind that layer of swagger and charm he was
also, frankly, probably the nicest. Like you could tell he was just nice, like a really
nice guy. You could tell from the way he looked at me and this kind of smile in the
corners of his eyes.

Never in the past, not once, yo, have I gotten such a hard time for not making a move
on a date. I mean, I went with her for fucking ice cream, for godsake, and I ate some
too and it didn’t maybe sit so well on top of the questionable pork loin I’d had in the
dining hall, which was a lesson to me about what you should eat—cereal, waffles,
sandwich stuff, plain pasta—and what you shouldn’t eat in the dining hall, which is
everything else, so I wanted to get back to the dorm in case a tsunami was coming, if
you catch my drift.

Though…niceness exists on a kind of continuum, I guess. And has a way of changing
on a dime, don’t you think?
Like what does it mean, really, to be nice?
Maybe it’s just what we are when we aren’t something else?

All of which is to say, he didn’t kiss me that night. And I couldn’t tell what that
meant. I mean, maybe it was because all we’d done was get ice cream like fifth
graders so afterwards it made sense to go our separate ways.

Or…maybe it was…me.
Something to do with me.

Fuck me for wanting to avoid an unfortunate gastrointestinal consequence. An hour
later, I get this email:

“Dear Tom.”


I couldn’t help myself.

“Just to be clear, I really enjoyed hanging out with you. I wasn’t sure, based on the
way our date (was it even a date?) ended – the way you said “okay, so see ya
around” that you would wanna see me again but I wanted to let you know that I’d be
more than game to give it another go because I feel like I still have so much to teach
you about the world, Thomas Anthony, like the proper way to eat an ice cream cone
(which is not all in one bite) and how to pronounce your linguistics teacher’s name.
(I spent a summer in Wales.) And if that doesn’t tempt you completely, I don’t know
what will. J

I was really torn about the use of an emoticon, which any self-respecting person
should be, but then again I was torn about sending the email at all, so I figured what
the hell.

Also the hour I spent writing that email was more time than I’d spent focused on any
single thing up to that point in my college career.

And like forget about it in terms of creative writing. The second I start to write a
story, I’m like but is that really a good enough topic for a story? Does that really
cover everything? Or anything, for that matter? What if this was the last story you
ever wrote? Which means you can never actually start.

I don’t know if I’d been planning to go out with her again. Probably not, if I’m being
honest. Some guys get off on a girl being aggressive but for me it’s the other way
around. If I’m being honest. Not like I want someone really timid or anything, but,
you know, let ME make the moves.

But in the case of Amber, I remembered this thing she’d said when we were
ordering our ice cream, like “isn’t it funny how incapacitating having choices is” or
something like that, and also she isn’t quite as, like, mousy as I first thought, like
actually her eyes are sorta weird and sad and pretty when she actually looks at you,
and the one time she actually looked at me, when I was saying goodbye, I was so
taken aback that I just took off.

So I wrote her back. I mean, I waited a week, but I wrote her back.


He waited a week. And, like, I saw him around and had to pretend I hadn’t written
that stupid email.

Sunil was like, “dude, you’re blowing her off” and he seemed really amused by the
whole thing, and strangely, like, interested in Amber. Like in what I knew about her,
and I was like “I don’t know, dude, she’s just sort of a weirdo” and he’s like “but you
like her” and I’m like “I don’t know.” And he seems really suspicious about why I
haven’t had a real relationship before and I’m like dude I’m eighteen; I don’t need to
settle down. And he’s like “but I bet your mom would like if you did” and I don’t
know how he knows that, but my mom is always like “Thomas, you could make
some young lady so happy, why do you insist on torturing these women?” But I can’t
admit that so I’m just like, “get off my back” and then he says, really simply, “what
are you looking for, man? What do you think you’re gonna find?” And I almost tell
him the truth, which is that I have this sort of 3am fear, this desperate like night of
the soul fear, that probably accounts for the dream I’d had constantly since getting
to college where I’m stuck in my room because I can’t find any clothes that match or
that fit me right or that will keep me warm enough. In other words, I’m
uncomfortable and mismatched and cold…and alone, and I have this feeling that it
will always be that way. And that whatever I do I won’t amount to anything. It won’t
get me out of this room, which by the way has no doors or windows…and this might
be why I write Amber back. Because she looked at me as though I might pursue
something. And be worthy of the pursuit of it.

He Snapchats me: “Amber, wanna meet at Cap & Gown tonight? Kegger.”
And I can’t help it. I write back right away.

I get a message back within like two minutes.
This girl has no fucking game, right?
But that’s okay, I guess. I mean, so she has no game. So what.

I don’t know what to wear so I just go with a sort of tried and true look—the tank
under a blazer with tight jeans and tall boots look. And I used the more expensive of
my two shampoos and I even read two pages of my psych textbook before going out
and they happened to be about the pratfall effect which explains why people
actually are attracted to people who aren’t perfect, who are clumsy or flawed in


some way, and I found that really encouraging and the timing, like, really fateful.
And then I started thinking, what’re Tom’s imperfections? Not that any were readily
apparent. What was readily apparent was that Tom was just, like, wonderful. And I
could tell that even Heather was kinda impressed. She was like, “do you want me to
come with you tonight?” and I was like “no.”

And that afternoon I’d spoken to my mom, which is hit or miss because sometimes
she only talks about herself, which is my fault for asking her questions but I always
want to see if she’ll realize she hasn’t asked me anything and turn it towards me of
her own accord. But this time I think there was some undeniable quality in me –
happiness, I guess – and she could just tell and she was like “Amber?” and I said,
“you know, I think I’m gonna like it here” which is obviously a quote from Annie, a
movie I watched about a zillion times when I was a kid, so much so that I think the
movie and my childhood are sort of synonymous. Which made her cry a little. To
think of me happy. Because that’s just not always true. Of me.

Before I met up with Amber, I’d been pre-gaming with Sunil. We’re three shots of
Jagermeister and a couple Sam Adams in when my phone rings and it’s my mom –
and she’s just like “Tommy, I’ve got it.” The big fucking C. Cancer. She says she
doesn’t want me to give it a single thought and she’s fine; it’s not such a bad kind of
cancer and I should enjoy college and I’m like you know I can’t do that and she starts
to cry and she says “Tommy, what’ll kill me quicker than cancer is if you don’t take
every advantage of your time at school” and what can I say to that? My brothers
didn’t go to college, my dad—nope—and the closest my mom came was three
months of nursing school. So she’s wailing and I’m all “okay, okay, of course I’ll enjoy
college” so I’m trying and Sunil and I go back to pre-gaming and talking and I’m
already kinda drunk and it comes out, what she just told me, and Sunil—he just flat
out bursts into tears. I mean, I’m not even crying but he cries for me and for my
mom, who he’s never even met and that moves me—that fuckin’ moves me—and
our man Mozart is playing in the background, Piano Concerto number 9, and Sunil
puts his arms around me and I start to let it out; I let it out because I can’t lose my
mom; I can’t lose my mom; she’s been the glue binding me to this earth, I know it
even if I’ve never said it out loud…and it’s good to be held, it’s nice to be held by my
friend, to be in his arms; I even have this passing thought about how nice it must be
to be Sunil’s violin, this is how gentle he is, and even when he, like, rubs my back,
that’s okay; he’s just there for me; he’s just feeling it, but yeah…

When he tries to kiss me again… I mean, that’s too much, that’s a line crossed, that’s
me being taken advantage of right there and so I say so; I jump back and I say so,


and he’s like “Tommy. Come on, Tommy. You know you’re in love with me. It’s cool.
We’re in love.”

Heather walked me to Cap and Gown even though I told her not to, and when we get
there I’m just waiting for her to leave, even though Tom’s not there yet. I just sort of
don’t want to be with her when he arrives. Like I don’t need a) the comparison and
b) the suggestion that I didn’t want to meet him on my own. I didn’t want to seem
nervous. Precisely because I was so nervous.

But Heather isn’t getting the picture. So finally I have to just be like, “so maybe you
should go now?” and she looks at me like “you really think there’s any situation let
alone this one where you’d be better off WITHOUT me there?” and on top of that
says “there’s just something about Tom that feels a little off to me” which comes out
of nowhere, but I guess she’s just that jealous. Finally she’s like “suit yourself” and is
really huffy and I’m like “you don’t have to be that way; this isn’t about you” which I
think maybe adds fuel to the fire because Heather secretly or not so secretly wants
everything to be about her, or thinks everything really is, and as she’s walking off
she says “nothing’s gonna happen tonight anyway” which, like, infuriates me,
because how does she know that? And so I call after her “who died and made you
Humbert Humbert?” and then to clarify, “an omniscient narrator” and she looks back
at me like “what??” and walks away.

And then there’s this long pause, like a fucking pregnant pause, and finally I’m like
nope. Nope you’ve got that wrong. I say you don’t know the first thing about me and
you never will. I say you’re an asshole and my mom has cancer and what the fuck
were you thinking? And I can’t help it–despite every TV show and every movie and
every warning my mother ever whispered–I pick up his violin and I smash it; I
smash it into the ground and pieces of it fly everywhere and Sunil screams as though
I’ve hit him, or worse, and my mother is sick and my friend, my only friend, is not
my friend anymore and I wanna puke it all up and get it out of my body, just out, just
gone, all of it, this whole day, and then cleaned up and away, I want someone else to
please clean it up—please.

I was standing in the quad when Tom appeared out of the darkness of this archway.
I’d been taking little ladylike sips from my flask and watching this kid – like he was
definitely too young to be a freshman – walk along the fence but he kept falling off it
so it wasn’t really so impressive but still strangely compelling – to watch someone


keep failing at something – and I was like nota bene, Amber. The pratfall effect at
work again. How human it is to fail.

I don’t know why but I kept thinking about Richard Wright’s Black Boy. We read it in
10th grade English. Like you know, even the title. Even the title alone. I felt like
everyone was looking at me because, you know, they were. I mean, there were other
kids from “under-served communities” who got into Carpenter through this
program Prep but my year I was the only guy. And so my friends were all white. And
no. I never told them that I felt at all…like, weird, going to their houses after school
and playing Xbox while their black babysitters cooked and cleaned and made us

And in English class we’d read aloud. And I remember having to read this part of
Black Boy that was like: “I live in this country where black people’s aspirations are
limited. So I had to go somewhere else to do something to redeem my being alive.”
To redeem my being alive. I remember that part. And I felt so much shame. And I felt
so much shame that I felt so much shame.

When he got there I could tell he was in a bad way. And in my head I was like “please
don’t end this. Don’t say you have to go home. Please.” I tried to just keep him
drinking so he wouldn’t leave. And, amazingly, that seemed to work and eventually
we went inside and danced. He had his hand on my waist and he was kind of holding
on. Digging in. As though if he let go something horrible would happen. And I liked
it. Feeling needed like that. But I think I also knew that something wasn’t right? And
it made me so sad, that Tom might be sad. I mean what in the world should make
Tom sad?

And suddenly she just takes her shirt off.

I mean, yeah I was drunk, but I’d been drunk before and never done that. I just had
to do something to try to get rid of that look in his eyes.

I was like what is going on. Did we just walk into some alternate fucking universe
where Amber Cohen takes her top off? … But she looked happy. And free…To this
day, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt free like that.


We were in this crush of people. We were inside of it and moving with it and I loved
it because I don’t usually feel…part of things in that way. And being there with Tom.
That was like.

She looked…yeah, she looked sexy, and I was like, let’s get out of here.

And I took his hand and led him away. I felt like a character in someone else’s story.
Daisy and Gatsby. Or that woman who worked at the department store in season
one of Mad Men and Don Draper. I was just a girl pulling an attractive man out of a
party with her.

Where do you wanna go?

Where do you wanna go?

I think I must’ve said we could go back to my place.

But first we just walked around. And made out. All over campus. It was…amazing. I
remember my hand in his, and the total thrill of wondering when we’d kiss next
combined with the equal thrill of knowing it was going to happen. The gift of that.

When we got to my room, Jayson was there, sleeping; I must’ve thought he was
sleeping. Or maybe I just wasn’t thinking about Jayson.

He was sleeping. And we sort of tiptoe in, trying not to laugh. But there’s this
enormous poster on the wall, this Calvin Klein ad with Justin Bieber like naked, and
I’m like what? And Tom is like “that is NOT mine I promise” and that cracks me up,
and his roommate was like “shut the fuck up I’m trying to sleep” and then Tom was
kissing me again.

I remember these little flashes of what came next…Her back, this streak of white.


And the light going on in the room, but I don’t know who turned it on. I remember
how good it felt to turn off my mind. The way you feel when you get lost inside a
piece of music and the texture of it just envelops you and you’re not in the world
anymore; you’re just part of the music.

I remember the weight of him on top of me and thinking he was different from Zach
– not necessarily heavier, just different, like he was giving me more of himself,
letting his weight just completely cover me up and I didn’t not like it, or maybe I was
too drunk to like something or not like something. I remember kissing him. I
remember at some point really kissing him and thinking this guy was an excellent
excellent kisser and worrying a little about how long ago I’d eaten that tuna
sandwich at lunch while feeling simultaneously proud of myself for experiencing
this unexpected thing, and very lucky.

Yeah. I think mostly I just felt really lucky.

The Latino one only uses the word coitus, not sex. Did Amber say anything, she asks,
trying to sound neutral, when you were mid-coitus? Not that I remember, I tell them,
always trying to smile as though I’m Mister fuckin’ Rogers over here. How about
“actually” the women’s studies woman suggests. Did she say “actually” at any point?

There was this moment when suddenly it all just felt a little bit…wrong.

No, I don’t remember what she said or if she said anything but yeah, she probably
didn’t say yes. But, like, who says yes? Who in these situations is like “yes do that,
please.” We were drunk. She was into it…

And if she wasn’t into it at some point…well then my body, my brain, convinced me
she was. I wasn’t knowingly…I didn’t do anything knowingly…I know that.

Why would I have asked him to stop? You were into it at first. On this everyone
agrees. And I really think about this. I didn’t ask Zach Lieberman to stop, and it’s not
like he was so gentlemanly. I didn’t ask Robby O’Neill in eighth grade not to put his
fingers inside of me on a dare in a closet. I didn’t say stop in 5th grade when Sarah
and these two other girls were pulling my hair to see how long I could take it. I
didn’t say stop when my high school advisor suggested I take French and Latin and


Ancient Greek and Japanese my junior year, even though when it comes down to it I
much prefer English to any foreign language because how can you express yourself
fully in a language that isn’t your own? It’s hard enough to express yourself in your
own language. I didn’t say stop when my mother told me I wasn’t very pretty but
that probably someday someone would like me because of other redeeming
qualities. I didn’t say stop when my dad died because I knew that was one thing I
couldn’t stop even if I tried, but still…I didn’t even try.

In the really early morning, I wake up, and my face is tangled in her hair, like it’s in
my mouth and stuff. She’s sleeping. Peacefully. And I’m breathing a sigh of relief
because I thought shit, Tom, you were so gone, something bad coulda happened.
And then she opens her eyes and when she sees me she kinda startles a little, like
she’d forgotten where she was. Then it’s like she’s about to say something but
instead she just throws up all over the floor, just everywhere. “I’m so sorry,” she
keeps saying, “I’m so sorry,” and I’m holding her hair back and I see just a little of the
back of her neck and I swear I wanna, like, touch it, just a tiny bit with my thumb,
which is weird because there she is puking but I feel something, like a longing
for…Like maybe I do actually like this girl. After that she runs outta there pretty
quick but I’m thinking she’s embarrassed. And I clean it all up. It’s fucking disgusting
but I don’t mind too much.

At some point, Jayson walks in like he’s been up for hours already and run ten miles
and designed a new messenger bag or some shit, and he’s like, “good night?” in this
snide little Jayson way and I don’t say anything, and he’s like “next time try not to
fuck someone when I’m literally in the top bunk,” and I’m like “I’m sorry, man,”
which I really was, and then, just to be sure, I say, “but she was into it, right?” And he
gives me this weird look like “you’re really gonna ask me that?” but still he said
“well, she wasn’t not into it, if that’s what you’re asking.” And I guess that was what I
was asking. And I was relieved.

The night after the hearing, I have this dream. At first I think it’s about Tom but then
I realize it’s about me. It’s far in the future, but time is sort of porous the way it is in
dreams. I run into Tom. We’re adults. I’m a successful novelist and have the
confidence that I so hope comes with success. And I’m like “wow, you look amazing”
because he does: he’s got on this suit with a pocket square and these very snazzy
shoes that don’t match his outfit but in a really stylish way. People are always
wearing hats in my dreams and so Tom has on this sexy fedora and I’m like “where
are you going?” and he says to work and I ask him what he does, assuming so many
things, assuming he’s done very well for himself in part because I so want to believe


that, and he says “wouldn’t you like to know” and I realize he’s not gonna tell me. I
realize I don’t know the first thing about this man, except what I see. And that that
isn’t nearly enough. And I wake up in this sweat and can’t get back to sleep.

At one point during the trial they start reading our emails out loud and let me tell
you it is really fucking weird to hear your own idiotic emails read out loud as,

Hey Amber. I don’t know. I guess that was kind of weird. Ha. But I hope you’re feeling
better and you never vomit like that again in your life because that looked like deeply
deeply unpleasant.

I’m sorry I was in a sort of weird “frame of mind” yesterday. I hope I didn’t freak you
out or anything. I’m not really such an asshole. I promise. See you soon — T.

And the even crazier thing is? I wrote back.

Hey Tom. No worries. I mean yes it was a little weird but it’s okay. I don’t think you’re
an asshole. – A.

So, like.

I don’t know.

And I think: well that’s gotta score me some points. Her email back to me.

And then this awful professor—I’ve repressed her face she was that awful – I think
she was in Women’s Studies so she thinks she and I are…she thinks we are on, like,
intimate terms. And she just asks the most graphic questions in the most matter-of-
fact way, like “Amber, at what point did you feel Thomas Anthony’s penis inside of

Thomas Anthony is what my mom calls me.


And “can you go into detail about the moment when he ejaculated?”

Thank god my mom isn’t here. It was bad enough that time we watched Game of
Thrones together and it was like one big orgy. The whole episode.

I mean, let’s just be clear. We had sex. And I didn’t say, like, “yes, fuck me. Do it in
any way you want.” So when they ask: “did this boy do this to you without your
consent?” even though I might not have chosen that exact phrasing it seemed like
the honest answer was yes, especially because I was probably too drunk to give any
meaningful consent anyway—

You think I wasn’t drunk?

And because Olivia, my RA, sat me down after Heather told her and I guess Olivia
had been raped once too and she said “Amber you have to take this very seriously. If
women don’t take this very seriously it hurts all women. It affects all women.”

Jayson comes into the hearing wearing this bow-tie like he’s about to go have tea
with the queen but what comes out of his mouth is low-down and dirty; he says
Amber couldn’t have been conscious when we were…He says he didn’t hear a thing
from her. But I’m like…who would have a better sense of that? Me, or the guy on the
top bunk? I think there are things the body just knows, you know??

And then the assistant dean of students looks at me, hard. He says, “Amber, I want
you to pay very close attention to what I’m about to say” and he looks around the
room really intensely like a poor man’s Gregory Peck giving his closing statement in
To Kill a Mockingbird. He’s like: “So everyone agrees that earlier that night you took
your shirt off. That you drank to excess. That you very willingly went back to Tom’s
room and got into his bed. Which makes me wonder: why do you think these actions
that you admit you freely took don’t amount to some kind of tacit consent?” And the
panel stares at me, one of the women looking kind of annoyed with the tenor of the
question as though it doesn’t accurately reflect her opinion, and the other one doing
her best to appear really neutral—which is when it occurs to me that maybe it
doesn’t even matter what I say. Maybe these people will hear what they want to


hear no matter what. Maybe they decided in the first five minutes what they thought
happened, or even last week. And I’m processing that and to stall a little I’m just like
“what?” And he says “you heard me” kind of harshly, like a dare. And for the first
time I really wanna leave the room, but I can’t, here I am, so I look down at my
hands, and…I tell the truth. Which is that…I do remember it. This moment when all
of a sudden he was inside me, and it’s not like I expected him to ask my permission
but I didn’t expect him not to either. And it hurt because it was so sudden and just
on impulse I jumped out of bed.

Wait a second. No you didn’t. You didn’t jump out of bed.

I thought you didn’t remember.

I would remember that.

But you don’t. You obviously don’t because it happened. I jumped out of bed and you
grabbed me, hard, and I was like “actually, um” but you pulled me back into the bed
and you just…

I didn’t. And her face is turning all splotchy and red and I can’t look at her. I’m just
filled with this…

He starts to get kind of agitated, like he’s holding himself back from something.

That’s a lie – she didn’t get out of bed; I know she didn’t, and she certainly didn’t
jump out of…Amber, tell them.

No I did. I had this strong physical impulse to get away from you, I did—

(quietly, not quite breaking yet)
You are such a privileged bitch, do you know that?


Oh I’m privileged? I am? I know you want people to think you’ve had this awful life,
but you haven’t.

I want people to think that?

I bet you’ve always had friends. You’ve always had girls in love with you. You’ve
always felt good about how you look. You get to be comfortable in your own body.
And that’s a privilege. That’s a privilege.

It’s a privilege to have everyone always looking at you? Is that right, Amber?

No one ever looks at me. So yeah. I think it is.

You’re crazy if you think I’m comfortable in my own body.

Well if you’re not that might explain why you did this to me.

Why are you doing this to me? Because you think I’ve had it easy or something?

I don’t think you’ve had it easy. I think you raped me.


And I try with every fiber in my body not to break; don’t break Tom, that’s what they
want you to do but the idea, the sheer fact of what she just said hanging out there…I
can’t. And so I say it: “I hate you, Amber. I really hate you.”

(suddenly quiet)
You don’t mean that…do you?


You’re like this…flood of feelings that you dump at people’s feet. It’s never occurred
to you to be careful, or that it matters how people see you.

I never stop thinking about how other people see me.

I know I have to calm down but I can’t. And I can’t hide. Holy fuck, there is just
nowhere to hide. I can’t be anybody but who I am – this man in the world who
everyone assumes will make a mistake, if they just wait long enough.

I don’t know how to say out loud what happened next. Which is that I let him do
what he wanted. I mean, I lay there, as he pounded into me, this vacant look in his
eyes, just thinking, “you idiot, Amber” because I’d let myself believe that he actually
liked me. And also “fuck you, Tom” because stupidly I thought he could see that I’d
spent my entire existence feeling…invisible, and that he would therefore know how
amazing it would be just to look at me right now, because I think he’s pretty much
the greatest, and it would mean so much to feel for a second that he might think I’m
worth seeing too.

And I felt so profoundly, like desperately…sad, like am I the only one aware of the
fact that I’m on this earth, in which case am I really on it? And if I don’t exist then
who is this, what is the point of this brain constantly torturing me with all this self-
doubt if there is no self; what is this body I’m inside of, this body I hate, that never
does what I want it to and doesn’t look good in the clothes I put it in, that I don’t like
to look at too long in the mirror, that seems so wholly inadequate to the task of
housing a person in this awful, difficult world.

And Tom didn’t see any of that…He didn’t see or forgive anything of my body or my
soul. And I wanted to die.

(with reluctance)
Yeah, so.
There are things the body just knows.

(then, quietly, realizing)
Of course I couldn’t say anything else. I wasn’t even there.


(quietly, chastened)
So maybe I knew. Maybe I knew. That she wasn’t…And that’s the…That’s the thing
that I…I mean, I thought…Deep down, I thought I was a nice guy.

But I’m here, now. And I can’t just be silent anymore. I can’t do that to myself.

She’s crying, all of a sudden, these heaving sort of animal cries that make everyone
deeply uncomfortable.

But the cost of not doing that to myself anymore is…Tom. Which is just…

I don’t like seeing her cry like that. It’s all just…It’s too much.

And then he starts to cry, and we just…

So now we’re both sitting there just…

And Tom is all alone and I wanna…

I mean there’s Amber, and she’s gazing at me with this unmistakable…love. Which is

I remember this Kierkegaard quote we learned in Intro Phil. “It belongs to the
imperfection of everything human that man can only attain his desire by passing
through its opposite.”

But I don’t know what it means.



I played the piano for the first time when I was eleven. This was back at 261, when I
was in a class with thirty other kids, and none of us paid any attention, just no one
did anything anyone told us to, but still this one teacher, Mrs. Landrieu, still she, like,
found me.

I mean isn’t it crazy, the idea that every single thing leads to everything else?

Mrs. Landrieu was sweet and in over her head, like all those kinda offensive movies
you see of well-meaning white ladies in inner city schools trying to control this, like,
pack of beasts.

But yeah, we probably were a little like beasts. And she was sweet. And she was
trying. And one day towards the end of a particularly, I mean, a particularly fucked
up class—Elijah, who was the worst of the worst and also my best friend—might’ve
implied that he was gonna go to her house and mess her up when he was like, “Mrs.
Landrieu, I’m gonna go to your house and mess you up.”

And then Mrs. Landrieu, she says in this tiny voice: Elijah, go to the office. Go straight
to the principal’s office, but here’s the thing—he won’t go. He just stays there. And
the whole class laughs. And this is when she starts to cry.

And the next day, Elijah sits right up front, like an asshole, just to show her who’s
boss. And yeah, it was funny, but the look on her face like she wanted to die right
there on the spot made it not the least bit funny. And so when she calls on me – and
I’m telling you her voice has gotten even tinier since yesterday – I’m just like “I
think that’s a really interesting question, Mrs. Landrieu,” which doesn’t win me any
popularity points but, you know, I see a chance to do something nice for someone
and I take it.

That’s the kind of guy I thought I was, after all.

Of course she wants to talk to me after class. And I think she’s gonna thank me but
instead she’s like: “Tommy, I wondered if you might like piano lessons.”

I’m like “what??” Turns out she teaches piano on the side. So when I show up at her
apartment the next day and sit next to her on the piano bench—by the way, I had no
interest in the piano, zero, but I would also never turn down something that’s free–
that’s like my modus fucking operandi—when I sit next to her and she says really
gently and really kindly, “I know your father left a few months ago” I just…I break


I mean, I didn’t even like the guy. I didn’t even like the guy.

Oh, there you are.

And…after that, like…what else can you do. So you just play.

(Suddenly they are in a scene – the college party that took place the
night of the incident. Tom is agitated and irritable. They have to shout
a bit to be heard over the music in the quad)

(waving awkwardly at him)



Sorry– I got a little held up.

That’s totally fine. I’ve only been here…
(looks at her watch—she’s been here forever already)
Like, yeah, not very long.

(She holds herself, shivering)

You’re cold?

I’m always cold.

(He rolls his eyes)

What’re you drinking?

I mean, beer. Just whatever was in the, um, keg.


Do you want another one?

Well, it’s so delicious, I don’t know how anyone could turn it down.

Is that a joke or something?

Are you okay?

Yeah I’m just trying to figure out if you want another beer. Is that okay by you?

You don’t seem like you’re in the best frame of mind tonight.

Who talks that way: “the best frame of mind”?

I do.

I know. It’s weird.

Is it?

We could also just get outta here.

Where do you wanna go?

I don’t know. But I’m gonna get a beer for the road.


I also have a, um.

(She pulls out her flask)

Heather got it for me.

Heather’s the hot one, right?

I mean, yes, she is very attractive. Like, objectively…attractive. She has a lot of
qualities men would find attractive, I guess. Like she has a very nice body—

God, do you ever stop talking?


(with a small smile)
Just stop talking.


I’m gonna kiss you now.


(He does; it’s actually kinda tender. When it’s over, Amber doesn’t
know what to say. She gets incredibly awkward)

I…um. I mean, so, like, do you still wanna go somewhere?



Do you?

I don’t need to. I mean, I’m happy to do what you wanna do.

Lemme see that flask.

(He drinks from it; she drinks from it)

That’s good. What is that?

I’m not sure because Heather just gave it to me so…

It’s tequila.

If you knew, why’d you ask?

Maybe I was testing you.

Why would you be doing that?

See if you’re up to my super high standards.

From what I hear you have no standards at all.

Now who told you that.

I think there’s a whole website at Princeton devoted to it.

That’s hilarious.


I thought so.

What can I say? I like women. That’s not a crime.

No it’s not.

(They drink some more)

And I like you.

I think you say that to everyone.

Doesn’t mean it’s not true sometimes.

And false other times.

You got me.

You know the joke about the prisoner in the room with two doors?

Should I?

So there are these two doors and each is guarded by a guard. And one guard always
tells the truth and the other guard always lies. But you don’t know which is which.

Oh I hate jokes like this. Like logic jokes.



This was my dad’s favorite. Now granted my dad was a messed up guy, but he still
had good taste in riddles.

How was he messed up?

And you need to figure out which door to open.

Wait, you can just open the door, just like that? I thought I was a prisoner.

You’re a prisoner but you can escape, if you open the right door. If you open the
wrong door, they’ll like chop off your head immediately.

Ouch. I can’t even call my mom first?

No. Immediately. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Off with your head.


You’ll just die, okay? Death is behind one door. So what question can you ask
EITHER guard that will help you choose the right door?

I don’t know. What’s the answer.

You’re not even gonna try?

I’m a black man. There’s probably death behind both doors. At least that’s what my
mom would say.

That’s cheery.


She’s a cheery lady.

Just guess an answer.

You mean a question. For the guards.


Okay…I think…if you ask either guard which door the OTHER guard would say is the
freedom door, you’d be good.

Is that what you think?

Final answer.


Aren’t you gonna tell me if I’m right or wrong?

(She kisses him)

Let’s do another one. Let’s do Two Truths and a Lie.


Come on.


Okay. I have two truths for you…I hate games and I hate that game.

But you’ll play it.

And why would I do that?

If you wanna sleep with me tonight, for one thing.

(without missing a beat)
Okay, who goes first?

(She laughs)

I do.

End of play


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