The Secret Identity
By Richard Butner
25 August 2008
In college we met once a day. We lived in the same dorm—I in a single room slightly larger than a coffin, and she in a double room, one floor down. Every day she'd wander up to my room and we'd walk across campus to the cafeteria. Lona and Walter.
We'd met in an English survey, but mostly we took different classes—she majored in botany, I was in aeronautical engineering. Outside the bounds of the dorm we ran in different social circles, but every day at our cinderblock headquarters we met, blew off steam, traded weird news stories, ate institutional food, studied. Actually Lona always ate cereal at the cafeteria, dumping it from the Lucite bins where it sat left over from breakfast.
After dinner, after cereal, we'd hike back to the dorm and study together, on the nights when she didn't have to go manage the fencing team and the nights when I didn't want to go meet the townies on North Street. We were quite disciplined. She had a key to my room. She would sit at my desk, poring over textbooks with a rainbow handful of highlighters. I would lie on my bed, re-reading notes from my quadrille pads. The little air conditioner/heater unit would wheeze tepidly, no matter what the season. We would study together for hours, and then Lona would decide it was her bedtime, and she'd shamble out onto the balcony and down the stairs to her room.
We were studying for midterms when I found out about the ghost. Lona had gone back to her room around midnight. I had washed up and crawled into bed and drifted off rather quickly. I'm a heavy sleeper, usually, and it doesn't take much for me to nod off. I always sleep through the night.
But that night I woke up a couple of hours later, confused. Lona was there, her tall silhouette barely illuminated by the greenish light from the numbers on my clock radio.
"Shhh," she said. "It's OK."
I'm sure I said something at this point; I'm not sure what.
Lona was on the edge of the bed, lifting the sheet, clambering into the narrow space beside me. I gave ground.
"There's a ghost," she explained. "I'm scared."
I rolled over and went back to sleep.
In the morning, I woke up still back to back with Lona. I twisted around carefully so as not to wake her, but her eyes were open anyway.
"Good morning, sleepy," she drawled, pulling herself up into a sitting position. Her blue pajamas were covered in bunnies, and she stuffed her feet into big slippers shaped like bunnies. She got up and walked towards the door, picking up her robe from the back of my chair.
"What's all this about a ghost?" I asked.
"There's one in my room," she said. "For a while now, I've been thinking there's one. My clothes and make-up would vanish, or they wouldn't be where I left them."
"Lona, you've got a roommate. Old whatsername. It's just her moving your stuff around."
"No, you don't understand," she said, and she looked as if she was about to cry.
I waited for her to continue.
"I was in my room by myself last night. My roommate goes up to the main drag almost every night—she's got a really good fake I.D., she can get in all of the bars. I was writing my mom a letter before I went to bed. I heard this scrabbling sound—"
"Like a rat?"
"Like a rat, but not a rat. Hear me out. I heard a scrabbling in the closet, my closet. The closet door was cracked a bit, but I only had my desk lamp on so I couldn't see anything. There was more scrabbling. Then suddenly, one of my shoes flew out of the closet."
"Plopped out onto the floor. One of my suede pumps."
"Pushed by the rat?"
"Shut up," she said, and she leaned over and punched me on the shoulder. "Yeah, I still thought it could've been a rat, or something. So I went over to investigate. I got up slowly, angling my desk lamp so the beam pointed over toward the closet. I went to kick the shoe, just to make sure there wasn't something inside it, right? That's when I heard the sound. A voice. It said, 'Lo.'"
"Lo as in Lo-na."
"Somebody on the balcony, or in the next room . . ."
"No, some thing in my closet, that knew my name."
Lots of folks had ghost stories—the folks over at North Street, who lived in a decaying Victorian house rather than a modern cinderblock dorm, they claimed visits from various dead relatives at night. They also drank excessively. Lona didn't drink at all. She just studied, and managed the fencing team, and spent four or five hours with me most every day. I pulled on some jeans and we went to her room to investigate.
There wasn't just one shoe lying on the floor. A whole pile of shoes rested on the dingy linoleum: sandals and sneakers and boots. A pair of brown suede pumps too, with heels much higher than I would've imagined Lona would wear.
I'd never seen Lona dress up, ever. But that morning I discovered an array of finery in her closet, as we cleaned it out entirely. Or rather, as I cleaned it out, handing the beaded dresses and the silk scarves and the high-heeled shoes out to Lona, who carefully arranged everything on her bed.
"When do you wear this stuff?"
"I have a life outside of the dorm and the cafeteria, you know."
I did know about some of that life—the fencing team, the guilty pleasure she took in watching her daily soap in the TV lounge, the one weekend a month when she took the bus to visit her parents on the coast. But I'd never considered it further. She volunteered what she wanted to, as did I.
I had a secret identity. On campus, I was just another transparent student, just like Lona. I wore khakis and knit shirts, I hauled my books around in a brown nylon daypack, I made As and Bs. But on weekends and the occasional weeknight, I'd slip out to North Street.
I thought I was special, playing my little game, changing into my costume. But seeing Lona's clothes all piled up there on the floor made me think. What if she had a secret identity too? What if the whole campus was full of folks who walked around as bland college students by day, but who changed into something more colorful, more dangerous, at night?
I tried to imagine Lona in those clothes. Her one outstanding feature, her height, and yet she had shoes to make her even taller? Even more noticeable? Those dresses had low necklines or high hemlines or both. So different from the lumpy sweatshirt and sweatpants she usually wore around the dorm.
I felt small and stupid that day, wandering from class to class. I wasn't special anymore.
At 6PM that night Lona showed up as usual. Her day had been fine, she said. No, she hadn't seen her roommate. Yes, she was hungry. So we trudged across campus to the cafeteria.
What was there to say? In the paper that day I'd read a story about a man castrating himself for Jesus. Normally this was the kind of story Lona and I would share, laughing at the crazy world out there, secure in our ivory-colored cinderblock tower. But it didn't seem worth discussing.
She got halfway through her bowl of frosted flakes before tossing the spoon in and saying, "let's go hit the books."
I stared at thermodynamics equations, reading them over and over. I was doing fine in the class, a solid B, but I couldn't concentrate. Lona sat at my desk with her nose stuck in a Henry James book, but she didn't seem to be turning the pages very often either.
After three futile hours of this, Lona said: "Do you mind if I crash up here again tonight?"
"No," I said.
It felt odd taking off my jeans, even though Lona had seen me in T-shirt and boxers plenty of times. I got into the bed, pushing myself up against the wall to give her room. She kicked off her sneakers and climbed in next to me.
"Good night, Walter," she said, and she rolled onto her side, her back facing me.
"Good night, Lona." I reached up and hit the light switch.
I woke up, swimming up out of a dream about a map of the city. It wasn't yet morning; the blinds were still dark and the digits on the clock glowed green. In my sleep I'd rolled over toward Lona, and she'd rolled toward me. I could feel her breath on my face.
"Sleepy finally wakes up," she said, brushing her nose against mine. I realized that she was holding my hand, or maybe that in my sleep I'd grasped her hand. I didn't pull away.
There was a tap against the linoleum floor.
"Was that you?" I asked.
"Nope. I'm all here," she said, wiggling her hands and feet against me. I reached up and turned on the light.
My eyes adjusted, and I could see that one of my boots was sitting outside the closet door. Lona and I both sat up and just as we did so—plop—the other boot came flying out of the closet. Then, a pair of black trousers. A belt with a heavy buckle. A black shirt, and then another. Finally, my leather trenchcoat flew out and sat on top of the pile.
"You're right, it's not a rat," I said.
I vaulted out of the bed, over Lona, and went to take a closer look. That's when I heard the sound. A voice saying my name.
"Walt," Lona said, "Walter." She was sitting on the edge of the bed, her hands folded in her lap. "You show me yours and I'll show you mine," she said. Then she started taking off her costume.
Copyright © 2002 Richard Butner
Originally published in Say. . . Was That a Kiss?
Reprinted by permission.