Abby Keane

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                                        Abby Keane

For a span of eight weeks I was an adorer of Abby Keane. And I say that as if I were
owed something—praise or applause, maybe—as if I were unique among others, when in
truth there was no way around it; no ample alternative, no resistance to the pull of her.
The moment she entered the room that first morning I felt like I’d been smacked with a
pan, or with something like a pan, and in my daze I saw the room go suddenly dim as a
spotlight split the gray and spilled a bright pillar that lit and encased her and held her in
its center as she moved, as she wove her way deep into the interior aisles of the lecture
hall before settling herself in the desk two-and-a-half feet to the right of my own.
       She occupied the little thing the same way then as she did every day thereafter,
with her body slung at an angle, her legs crossed, her hands in a peaceful fold; her
stillness a pure white canvas that intensified her little flourishes—a stroke of the hair, a
beautiful blink, a wriggle of her painted little toes. And when I learned the name Abby
Keane I found in its sound a music that matched her image, and the song of her inhabited
me, filled me with noise that shook loose the practicality I’d always obeyed in the
company of women. I had long distanced myself from those girls who seemed to possess
a little too much of everything, including admirers—of whom I’d never wanted to be
among. And here was one of their kind, no more than an arm’s length away, warming the
flesh of my face as I feigned my interest forward and willed away the weight she heaped
upon me.
       I knew then that I’d always been weak, yet with strength enough to withstand the
allures of lesser creatures of her mold, though not of their summit. Had she been nothing
more than apple-gold hair, symmetry, height and leanness—I might have forgotten her.
But once the brightness beneath her surface was revealed I surrendered. Once I caught
the first easy and everlasting gaze of hers I lost all interest in mining an imperfection, so
struck was I by her grace, her believability. Not to say she was unaware of the attention
thrown her way, but that she didn’t require it to fuel her radiance. Her beauty wasn’t a
source of pride but a thing of ease—more coziness than statement. I had never seen
anyone so comfortable being so exquisite, with owning such features, with absorbing so
many elongated stares. I looked at her and could offer nothing, not because I wouldn’t
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have wanted to, but because the thought of her requiring it was absurd. She simply
negotiated life too well. There was nothing I could give her that would alleviate things,
nothing of mine she didn’t already have in abundance.
        So through adoration I became a student of Abby Keane. Before then I had never
considered how well the collegiate lecture schedule lent itself to the task of infatuation. It
is an ideal design, one of dosage and withdrawal, the dosages unleashing enough wind for
me to navigate the spells of absence, where her concreteness could roam the reach of my
imagination as it mixed memory with prophecy, brewing a bath of anticipation that boiled
over just as a new dose of her dawned. Three days a week, in 50-minute blocks I was
allowed an audience with her, an occasion to watch her enter, watch her walk, to note her
curtain of hair and the calm in her eyes, to imagine her selecting the clothes she now
wore and to examine how kind the morning had been. That her loveliness so permeated
her was remarkable; that she controlled it so well was astounding. And this union of
allure and command was the hallmark of Abby Keane, was what set her apart from even
the stunning, and proclaimed her the punctuator to an entire line of lovely girls.
        There was one day and one day only she missed, and even her empty desk felt
charmed. I was free to stare uninterrupted, so I did. That bare little desk enthralled me. I
learned the stain and grain of the wood, the number of steel bolts that fastened it, and
found no difficulty picturing the curve of Abby Keane nestled there; the long lovely
bends from neck to nails and all the highlights in between—the little jewel at her throat,
the line of her calf, the length of her arms when she stretched them. Every now and then
her invisibility would register, and for the first time I really noticed the others in the
room, aware of how ordinary and uninteresting were their postures, how alike in esteem,
how blandly attentive they were. And as I eyed the other girls and tried to impose her
image upon them, I met the revelation of just how much would need to be amended in
order that they resemble her. If I could draw I’d have drawn her. Instead I contented
myself with printing the words “Abby Keane” until the pain in my hand had shamed me.
I entertained briefly the image of our roles this day being reversed, but was unconvinced.
Abby Keane was incapable of slouching over a notepad with longing in her eyes,
scribbling the name of one greater and brighter and more satisfying than she.
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       We never spoke. Or rather I never spoke. She spoke once and I didn’t answer—
couldn’t answer. And though wordless, our recognition of one another was real. Our
eyes would lock accidentally and she would bow her head in the politest way and flash a
beam that pardoned my stare, that told me it was all right and even expected that I be
caught from time to time doing what couldn’t be helped. Abby Keane was too kind to
ignore another, and assured enough not to require the crutch of speech. But she did speak
to me once, as I mentioned, and it was so sudden that I have trouble remembering the
pitch and pleasure of her voice.
       Our professor had announced, in keeping with her frequent crusades of promoting
goodwill beyond classroom walls, that any student who donated blood to the Red Cross
before the weekend would be awarded an extra letter grade on their midterm exam.
There was mild stirring, both among others in the room and within me as I paused to
weigh the hassle against the reward, and as I weighed things my head thickened with
thought, and my eyes glazed, and I doubted them when they caught the upright form of
Abby Keane, dangerously close, hazy like a daydream. But she crystallized, and then
spoke from what seemed like a high and airy place. Her words (“Maybe I’ll see you
there”) echoed for a beat, and when I looked up to confirm what I thought I’d heard and
from whose mouth it had come, my search met the button of her chin, and a rush rippled
through me, and all I could manage was the weak little smiley shrug that asserts itself
when your tongue is too swollen and dumb. She grinned and turned to leave, and in her
wake I vowed to see her there, and then added the virtue of charity to the glittering gifts
of Abby Keane.
       A few times a year the Red Cross would encamp itself in the basement of our
building and emit that low surge of courteous guilt they used to snare donors. They
would never admit to the tactic of course, nor should they, preferring the more outward
incentives they offered: big smiles and long heavy tables piled high with sweets and fruit
and juice and pizzas stacked a half-dozen high, with the bright white declarative stickers
they’d place ceremoniously at your breast. And despite the very fine cause I could never
help but dwell on this guise of festivity they aimed for, and somehow attained. I had
never given blood, had never wanted to give blood, but had always carried a deep private
shame because of it. I became skilled at studying my shoelaces when near an ongoing
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campaign, and on one occasion had even taken a spare minute to jot down several
excuses I could supply if ever confronted directly . . . that I’d been overseas recently, was
taking antibiotics, was due for elective surgery the next morning, hadn’t eaten today . . .
all feeble but sufficient, and none anywhere near as compelling or forceful as the truth:
that I didn’t at all want to, that needles spooked me, that the thought of my blood being
extracted made me feel uneasy at best and robbed blindly at worst. But the Red Cross
had in Abby Keane the finest incentive it could have hoped for, and therefore earned
within me a consent I’d never before given.
       I found it odd that the task of reviewing my midterm notes was mild when
compared to the preparations I laid for the giving of my own blood. I went to bed early
in hope of better reviving my cells. I stayed hydrated. I ate a large and varied breakfast
the next morning, drank tea instead of coffee and walked the half mile to campus. All
this was done in the spirit of precaution, given my poor grasp of (and fearful respect for)
nutrition. I even dressed for comfort—loose clothes and cushiony shoes—but was
careful not to cross into slovenliness because of the chance that the chair next to mine
might hold a radiant, reclined Abby Keane.
       The swarm I waded into that morning didn’t help. So packed with souls was the
room that I had to hover near the door to get a better lay of things. The Red Cross
staffers wore vests with red crosses. They were spread widely about the place in little
clusters. Some greeted at the doors, others roamed. Several sat behind the tables of food
and gave it graciously. Along the far side another corps wearing collared shirts was busy
with paperwork. Dividing the length of the room was a wall of cloth barricades that
closed off an inner area, and through the cracks I could see rows of reclined chairs in
which were students, and between them the staff wheeled about on padded stools, their
hands busy with tubes and rubber balls and wine-red plastic sacks that they’d ferry and
then bury in coolers the size of caskets.
       I decided speed was the best antidote to hesitation. So I found the nearest Red
Crosser, walked immediately over and told her I wanted to donate. She smiled and
placed her hand at my back and eased me toward the row of tables along the far wall. A
sign nearby read “Screening,” and I understood. A short line of students had formed to
the left of the screeners. I filed into place and waited as they did, studying the gist of the
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operation. Atop the screeners’ tables were stacks of pink forms and rows of pens like
river logs. One by one a screener would wave over the next student in line, who would
sit and endure a short interview and then stencil in a few boxes before being either
admitted to the inner room or informed it would be best not to bother, and dismissed.
        More than once I was drawn to the circle of chairs behind me, where finished
donors sat and recouped, downing their food and juice in silence save for the noise of
their intake. None of them seemed too terribly interested in anything but keeping their
mouths filled and their eyes open, and as I pitied their state a shrill little whistle brought
my head back around where a screener was waving me toward him. I strolled his way
and when near enough to the table I lifted an uncapped pen before seating myself, but as I
turned to gauge the chair I saw Abby Keane emerge from the inner room, and there was
heat in my face.
        She stepped through a gap in the cloth and now came forth in easy strides,
prodding gently at the cotton gauze taped to the interior crook of her arm. Watching her
walk was as welcome as always, and she smiled at no one in particular and swung her
hair with a toss of the head and set her course for the food. On her chest was a bright
white sticker she wore like a badge. I stole a breath as the room slowed in response to
her, and then the heat in me cooled at an awkward step of Abby Keane’s.
        The ball of her toe stubbed the floor midway through a forward stride and she
flung the same foot in a desperate stomp to stay balanced, and when righted she nearly
froze—for there was movement, but nothing conscious about it. She swayed as if under a
spell, and every shade of health left her face as her eyes emptied out and her mouth
formed a small dark hole in the whiteness around it, and stillness descended, and what a
pause it was—what an eerie, incredible pause, and I wasn’t alone as a witness, for by
now the Red Crossers behind the food had mirrored her dizziness with concern of their
own and began to rise from their seats in response. But the drunken advance of Abby
Keane, of ash-faced Abby Keane, labored onward, and her hands reached out to the
empty air in search of a brace to latch onto, and their frantic sweeps sent the balance of
the body off-kilter again where it caught itself before reversing the pull completely, and
here the long arms fell to her sides and the jaw dropped a degree nearer the ground and
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the torso of Abby Keane made a full and impossibly slow swoon around the anchor of her
pretty painted feet and then every inch of her plunged like a sturdy felled tree.
       Her body struck the surface of the table at a point just between the metal legs, and
the impact split the cork tabletop as a hatchet would, the downward force sending the
ends skyward—launching a rain of fruit and juice and assorted snacks that arced slowly
upward where they hovered, spun, and then splattered against the exposed backside of
Abby Keane, whose limbs lay splayed, whose face pressed flush with the tile. The Red
Crossers dove headlong into the mess, dropped to their knees and flung all manner of
debris aside, dirtying themselves and countless others as they dug Abby Keane from the
wreckage, and when they rolled her to her back the myriad stains had already claimed
what I’d known of her. And stuck to the side of her face was a slather of sauce and
mozzarella, seeming more adhesive than even the sticker she’d earned, and just watching
them peel it from her flesh was an agony I could feel in my belly. So I stood there among
assorted others, the mass of us encircling the smashed table, the blast-ring of the food and
the once lovely body lying amidst it, and all that entered my mind was a certainty that I
no longer adored Abby Keane.
       And doubtless beneath the slop that covered her the same lovely form lay intact,
only every bit of it now marred by the ruin I’d just witnessed. For when the very spell so
instrumental in sustaining beauty erodes, so does every assurance that it was ever there at
all, and I knew I would never again be able to look upon Abby Keane apart from all this,
would never again view her without this image descending and dominating her entirely,
for there is not a shred of allure to be found when even the tawniest angel plants her face
in a mound of concessions. A dose of this magnitude injects a permanent, unalterable
blemish. I turned to look at my screener, who cocked his head as nothing bolder came to
mind, and here I replaced the pen from where I’d plucked it, made straight for the
stairwell and put this business of donating blood behind me.

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