When Frederick woke up that morning, he wanted her. He made his bed neatly and brushed his teeth for two full minutes, thinking about her. He could hear Debussy following him around campus, as he refilled his pencil with lead, as he dropped coins in the slot and made copies, as he raised his hand in his Ethics class. He chewed on his sautéed carrot slices at lunch and thought of her hair, rippling like the ridges on the carrot slices. He scrubbed his hands in the bathroom and the soap reminded him of her clean smell. Everything about her was clean and smooth, and he wanted it all.
Frederick grew up in a quiet home with a hidden mother and a timid father. They were hidden and timid when he came home from the hospital, when he learned to walk, and when he moved on to the 5th grade. They were hidden and timid when Frederick discovered himself one Sunday alone in the bathroom during his 14th birthday party. Frederick hid his tears in Chemistry class when Selena Rodriguez came too close and he felt a swelling down below his belly button and Mrs. Matthews couldn’t hold in her laughter. He also hid these tears from his mother and father. He hid them in the locker room and hid them at home in his pillow.
Somehow these tears forced their way back into Frederick’s body, because there grew a bubble of hate in his chest that only expanded as he finished his teens and moved on to his twenties. As he learned to control his fevers, his hatred inflated. He hated his desires, his filthiness—he hated Frederick.
His parents were the same. He kissed them goodbye before school and sat down to dinner with them at night. The world was the same. At restaurants, he would order scrambled eggs, but if you asked him what kind of eggs you should cook him, he would say he didn’t care. But the bubble of hate was still growing.
When he met Leah, he knew. He held the door open for her in the art building so she could hoist in a giant sketchpad. “Thank you,” she said, and smiled at him. He recognized her from his economics lab. Her voice was deliberate and soft.
Frederick adjusted his backpack and pointed to the pad. “Drawings?”
“Yes, just a few,” she said. “Not great or anything.” He lifted the cover of the sketchpad at her nod. An orange covered with beads of moisture. A portrait of a woman—her mother. He flipped to the back, carefully, sliding the thin paper between his two fingers. The last drawing was of a naked man. His private parts were shaded over with pencil.
“Aren’t you in my economics class?” she said.
He looked up and nodded. “My name’s Frederick.”
Leah and her white dresses, her Christmas lights lining the walls of her bedroom, her habit of swinging her legs underneath her chair while sitting in class. Once, downtown, they had passed a homeless man on the corner. He had asked for some change, pausing the cigarette before his mouth, peering up at Leah from the depths of his tangled hair. She mumbled in bewilderment, a deep red blush creeping up her neck to make her appear masked. Frederick grabbed her hand and hurried her away. The frozen trees crackled above them, mimicking Leah’s rushed heels. He gazed at her face—pure shock, beautiful shock. She excused herself, embarrassed, and cleared her throat, dismissing the situation. But he was entranced by her clean simplicity, much as a child and a music box. He wanted to be that clean, with Leah’s help, of course.
He took her out that night. Leah wanted Thai food and he didn’t complain. After he ate the spicy Thai food he always felt full and spotless as if Leah were inside of him, fitting into his skin and pushing all the dirt out through his pores. The booth was lumpy and frayed, and while Leah spoke slowly of her 2D design professor, her lips like slices of peach forming the words perfectly, she squirmed from the waist down. Frederick coveted her tiny movements. He couldn’t see, only felt with the tip of his kneecap, once, her smooth leg under the table. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, and cleared her throat. He thirsted for her.
At the end of the night, Frederick pulled the car into the dark driveway of her house. Her father had decorated the roof with miniature glowing reindeer. He made a sluggish ordeal of shutting the car off, taking the key out of the ignition, and unbuckling. Leah sat still and intelligent in the passenger seat, her hands in her lap, placid as a Thanksgiving snooze. He took one of them on impulse. She had beautiful hands. Her palms were plump and the lines defined. Her knuckles rose smoothly like grassy knolls. Her fingernails were tiny moons of silk. They tasted of seasoned salt as he quickly kissed them, following her arm up to her shoulder as she looked at him, silent and motionless on the leather seat. He paused in front of her face. Molecules hopped back and forth between their noses. He wanted to be clean, he wanted Leah to scour him inside and out.
She put her hand to his chest and pushed him away. One slow push. His eyes grew wide. His mouth was dry. The click of the door handle, then her slow voice, “Not yet, Fred,” and she glided inside after she shut the front door, leaving him stranded in her soapy scent, his car filling up with foamy bubbles that overcame him. The Christmas lights twinkled from her window. There was clean, white snow all around. He stepped out of the car and buried himself in it.