The Nerdy Nudist

"Hang on," Mark said to his best friend as they stepped into their dorm. "I need a glass of water. Freakin' science building always dries me out."

"Can't fool me, man," Alan said. "You just want to be hydrated so you can drink more tonight."

"That too," Mark said as they cut through the lounge to get to the kitchen. "Hey, we're legal now, why not enjoy it?"

"Right," Alan said, electing not to point out that Mark had been able to pass for twenty-one since freshman year. At least now that they both really were twenty-one, getting carded while Mark didn't was only humiliating, not any risk of getting kicked out of the bar.

Opening the kitchen door, they found a note scrawled in bright blue marker.

Whoever

the fuck took

my pizza Sat night

Don't be a FUCK,

Bring it back!

"Those bastards stole my line," Alan chuckled.

"Then it is yours?" Mark asked. "Should've told me, dude, you could've kept your pizza in my fridge."

"Tom and Tim, no doubt," Alan said. "They found out last week they're suspended next trimester. Academic probation. So they've decided to live like Animal House for the rest of this trimester before they get kicked out. They've been spreading around all kinds of stupid jokes like that all week."

"Tom and Tim from your floor?" Mark asked. "That figures. Never seen them doing any homework. But what do you mean it was your line?"

"I told them about a sign I saw once in the laundry room freshman year," Alan explained. "It was a stolen laundry basket, though. Not a pizza. I mentioned it to Tim once and he thought it was even funnier than I had. Anyway, they've been goofing off all week, and putting up stuff like that for the staff to clean up after."

"Man, that is funny!" Mark was still chuckling as he drew a glass of water. "So, speaking of the rest of trimester, who are you taking to Spring Forward?"

"Ugh, don't remind me," Alan said. "Who's got time to go looking for dates? Come on, let's go drop our books in my room and head to lunch."

"Everyone but you, dude." Mark slurped his water and set the glass roughly in the sink. "But don't you dare say you're not going. Don't pull a James on us."

Alan laughed through his irritation at being compared to their awkward, shy friend as they left the kitchen. "Don't worry, I'm not James. If I say I'm not going, I'm really not going."

"Yeah, well, you're going. I'll need someone to split the champagne with for my date and me."

"Who's your date?"

"Wouldn't you like to know?"

"Right, you haven't got one either," Alan said.

"Tain't none of your business if I have, is it?" Mark teased. "But dude, you're going and you're finding a date. James is going, but probably not with a date." As he set his hand on the fire door to Alan's floor, he burst into laughter and had to let it go. "Hey, I've got an idea, dude. You can ask James!"

"Not funny, man," Alan said. "James still isn't out to us, and we've got to respect that."

"Yeah, yeah," Mark said once he'd regained control of himself. "I just wish he would come out and get it over with. Doesn't he know we're the biggest allies on campus?"

Alan didn't dignify Mark's nonsense with an answer as he opened the fire door. They stepped into the hallway to find Tim and Tom pontificating on a No Fear t-shirt they'd found somewhere. They had an audience of a few freshmen from the end of the floor who were looking on in bemusement. "No fear of what?" Tim asked, "Sports?"

"Nah, man," Tom said. "All the jocks wear 'em. It's like they're just tryin' much too hard to prove how tough they are."

"You mean they're not saying they've got no fear, they're asking to have none?" Tim said, holding up his hands as if he were begging. "No fear? Please?"

Alan found himself laughing as he fished his key out of his pocket.

"What're you laughing at, Alan?" Tom demanded.

"You guys just gave me a great idea," Alan said. "Thanks." Lingering outside his door with Mark watching over his shoulder, he picked up his dry-erase marker and wrote on his own message board:

2 weeks

5 papers

3 exams

1 stats project

NO FEAR!

"Don't whine, Alan," Mark said. "Everybody's busy."

"Thanks, guys," Alan said again, opening his door and beckoning Mark in, once again ignoring his comment.

"You're not gonna do all that work, are you, man?" Tim asked. "Join us instead, man. We just decided, we're gonna be comedians."

"You already are." Alan laughed again and set his books down on his desk while Mark ditched his on Alan's bed. "Let me see if James is home," Alan said.

James, the token quiet guy in their gang, lived across the hall. Alan was just about to knock on his door when it opened to reveal James had company -- a tall red-haired woman he'd had a class with freshman year. Alan couldn't recall her name, but she knew his. "Alan!" She grinned and turned to James. "I thought I remembered you guys were friends."

"Since our freshman seminar," James said. "Hey, Alan. Mind if Sarah joins us for lunch?"

Sarah! "Yeah, that's fine," he said, giving her a cordial smile.

"James and I are practicing for our French orals," Sarah said.

"As long as you don't mind us speaking French there," James added.

"Just happy to have you talking at all, dude," said Mark from Alan's doorway.

"Ohhhhh!" said Tom and Tim in unison, as the latter reached for his recently-discarded guitar. "Mark, you're a songwriter, you now that?" Tim said, and began strumming. "Come with me, come with me, come with me to eat, and if you ain't a chatterbox like shit we will treat!"

"Sarah, they're always like that with old James," Tom added. "Best buddies, but they have this big thing about him not being a big talker."

"It's okay, guys, I'm used to it," James said. "Been hearing jokes like that as long as I can remember. Doesn't everybody know we just choose not to flip a switch and become a chatterbox?"

"Just like we can't flip a switch and become a couple of Rhodes scholars," Tom said. "Right, Tim?"

"Yeah," Tim said. "Sarah, you sure you want to eat lunch will all three of these virile specimens? Maybe a little too much testosterone for one table?"

"Dude, Sarah's one of the guys," Mark said, giving her a pat on the rear end that earned him a dirty look. "Hey, I kid, I kid! Let's go!"

"One of the guys, really, Mark?" Sarah said. "And keep your hands to yourself."

"Yeah, he should've," Alan agreed, opening the door for her. "But come on, Sarah, you are one of the guys. Nothing wrong with that."

"Are they like this all the time?" Sarah asked James.

"I'm afraid so," James said. "It's their clumsy way of flirting."

"Aw, screw you, James!" Mark said it with just enough of a sneer in his voice to leave even Alan wondering whether he was joking or serious.

Alan, still feeling a bit sore at Mark's comments about the upcoming dance, added, "Yeah, for one thing, Mark here has a date for Spring Forward!"

"Who?" Sarah was glad to change the subject.

"I didn't say I had a date, and I didn't say I didn't." Once again Mark's smugness was unmistakable. "But I do happen to know Alan doesn't, Sarah. Hint hint."

"Man, she doesn't want to go with me!" Alan said, slapping his friend playfully in the head. Mark caught his hand and gave it a good wrenching before throwing it back at him.

"Good save, Alan," James said, and he stole a look at Sarah to confirm that she was thinking the same. But no such look was forthcoming.

"How about you, James?" Sarah asked. "I know someone I think you'd be perfect for if you need a date."

"Oh, I'm not going," James said.

Mark and Alan burst out laughing, their brief animosity forgotten. "What'd I tell you?" Mark said.

"What did he tell you?" Sarah asked.

"Every trimester, every dance, James says he's not going," Mark explained.

"Then in the end he always does go, and has a wonderful time as far as we can tell," Alan added.

"You guys are all heart," James said.

"Dude, it's true!" Mark said.

"Haven't you guys considered he's got a reason for not wanting to go at first?" Sarah said.

"I guess he must," Alan said. "But he's never told us what that reason is. James, care to explain?"

"You wouldn't understand," James said. "I will say the timing couldn't be worse, just before the end of the trimester. Who's got time to look for a date?"

"Thank you!" Alan said. "That I can agree with. And this year having it right after April Fool's Day, too. What a wonderful way to fuck with anyone you have issues with, man, ask them to the dance and then when they get to your door, 'April Fool's!'"

"You asshole!" But Sarah was laughing as she said it. James looked at her, expecting Sarah's politically correct wokeness to come roaring out, or at least some sort of indication that the laugh wasn't sincere. But once again he didn't see any such thing. "Anyway, if you guys must know, no, I haven't got a date yet."

"I wouldn't panic," Mark said. "Everybody knows women have all the control there."

"No kidding," Alan said. "A man goes to a party wondering if he'll get lucky..."

"A woman goes knowing she will," Mark finished, and they laughed together. James didn't.

To his surprise, Sarah did laugh. "That's funny, Alan," she said. "I don't agree, but it's funny."

The three of them spent the short remainder of the walk to the dining hall arguing playfully, while James was his usual quiet self. Though he was serious about his reluctance to go to the dance, he wondered who Sarah's friend might be that she had in mind for him. It wouldn't hurt to ask, after all.

When they arrived, he got a clue. A dark-haired woman from their class, whom he'd been seeing around campus ever since freshman year but had never been introduced to, was just hanging her coat up as they stepped in. She was dressed fetchingly as usual, this time in a black skirt and tights with cowboy boots. James had often admired her idiosyncratic style, but he didn't even know her name.

Sarah did. "Rosa!" she said.

Rosa turned around. "Sarah, hi!" The two women embraced like a couple of schoolgirls while James, Alan and Mark looked on in bemused silence. "I've been meaning to come by your room," Rosa said when she and Sarah finally disentangled. "It's just been so busy lately!"

"God, aren't we all!" Sarah said. "Join us for lunch?"

"Oh, Sarah, you know I eat at the Corner Table!" Rosa said, pulling her ID out of her purse. "Of course, you're always welcome there."

"There's always a place for you at the Corner Table," Mark intoned dramatically.

"There's always people hugging at the Corner Table," Alan added.

Rosa gave them both a dirty look, and for good measure she glared at Sarah for a moment, before handing her ID to the card checker and proceeding into the dining hall without another word. James was relieved that she seemed to have noticed he hadn't joined in on the shaming of the Corner Table -- the misfits of a college that already was full of misfits -- and just for a wonderful moment he wondered if Rosa was the one Sarah had been referring to. But just as quickly he admonished himself, it couldn't be. Despite her affiliation with the Corner Table, Rosa was very pretty and confident and she had that style all her own that worked against all odds -- he'd managed to notice all that from afar even as he'd never met her -- and she could have a real hunk if that's what she wanted. She wouldn't bother with a shy guy like him. But at least he'd been spared her anger.

And Sarah's. "Guys, look," she said, standing in the doorway to block their way. "I know Rosa's kind of weird and I know she hangs out with those weirdos at the Corner Table. But she's my best friend, and I won't stand for her being insulted like that, all right?"

"Sorry, Sarah," James said.

"It's not you who should be apologizing, James." She gave the other two an expectant look, and got nothing but smirks in return. "Whatever," she said, and handed her ID to the checker.

Rosa was used to scorn from Sarah's friends. She'd been putting up with it since freshman year, when they were roommates and Sarah had gravitated towards the jocks and she towards the hippies. Even then, Rosa had sensed she could have avoided all that if she'd steered clear of the Corner Table. But even then, the Corner Table had been the one and only niche on campus where she'd felt fully accepted for the quirky young woman she was. So she'd put up with the snickering and the stupid comments and jokes, in exchange for the warm welcome from the one group of ragtag misfits that got her.

Today, as she carried her tray back to the Corner Table, she wondered if the results of the confrontation with Sarah's friends were visible on her face. They must have been, for Moose took one look at her and stood up and opened his arms. "Hi, Rosa," he said. "What's wrong?" Rosa cheered up as she saw he'd finally switched his shoes: black on the left and white on the right today.

Rosa set her tray down and let her friend enfold her in his arms. "Hi, Moose," she said. "Just the usual, friend of a friend stuff."

"Need say no more," said Moose, whom no one but the professors ever called by his real name, Henry.

"Just had a taste of that myself," said Patricia, who was just finishing her lunch. "It's like they think we're coming for them if they don't repel us or something."

"Well gee, haven't you heard how funny we smell lately?" asked Keith, known far and wide as the biggest computer geek on campus. As Rosa let go of Moose and sat down beside him, she once again opted not to tell Keith that it actually wouldn't hurt for him to shower a bit more often.

"What are they afraid of?" wondered Paul, a sharp dresser like Rosa.

"Yeah, it's not like we're going to their beer blasts and tearing our clothes off or anything," added Paul's boyfriend, Nick, of whom Rosa was still a touch jealous.

Moose burst out laughing. "What if we did do that?"

"Yeah, I'm sure the whole school wants to see us naked, Moose," Patricia said. "Can you imagine?"

"That's just my point!" Moose said. "They think we're a bunch of freaks anyway, what if we gave 'em just what they want? You want to point and laugh at us? Here we are, vulnerable as can be. You got the guts to do the same? You all just know not a one of them does!"

Rosa was expecting her friends to laugh, but then she found she was not laughing. Neither, to her surprise, were any of the others. Someone had to break the silence, so she did. "You're not all seriously considering this, are you?"

"There'll be parties or movies in every lounge tonight, you know that," Nick said. It was Friday.

Pregnant pause. This time it was Patricia who spoke up. "Oh, all right, I'm game if the rest of you are."

Shy Rosa had never given any thought at all to such a thing -- that was just the sort of college nonsense she'd always figured was beneath her. But if all her dearest friends were joining in...

Rosa could never forget what she'd read about Claxton in the book her mother had bought her, about what colleges were really like. "A current student says, 'The perfect Claxton College student is the kind of person who could have fit in back in high school but chose not to.'" Rosa hadn't bought it then, and over halfway into her junior year at Claxton, she still didn't buy it. She still had no doubt that guy had really been talking about people who couldn't have fit in back in high school and still weren't honest with themselves about it. Rosa herself, with her shy demeanor and complete lack of sense of what was in fashion with clothes or music or much of anything else, hadn't been in any such denial back in high school. She'd been more than happy to eat lunch with the outcasts: the nerds, the one boy who loved ballet, the only out lesbian in her class, the artistic weirdos...they'd attracted plenty of dirty looks and laughs from the cool kids, but they'd made a wonderfully cohesive band of misfits and she'd never had any regrets about her inability to make nice with the beautiful people.

Little wonder, then, that when she'd gotten to Claxton freshman year, she'd gravitated immediately to the Corner Table. She'd heard that name -- "the Corner Table" -- before she'd even been to lunch at the dining hall on her first whole day on campus, but a senior on her floor had told her and Sarah all about just what it meant. "It's a really open community here, you know, no cliques, but we've got a few weirdos who still just have to act like outcasts even though high school is over. We call them the Corner Table because that's where they sit in the dining hall. We're talking no social skills here, and I think some of them don't even like taking a shower very often."

"Gross," Sarah had said. Rosa had said nothing; she remembered all too well hearing her friends in high school talked about in the same sort of tone by the popular kids she'd always loved to hate.

"I wouldn't worry about them, though," the older woman had told them. "A couple of nice gals like you won't have any problem finding your footing here. Leave the freaks alone and they'll leave you alone."

Rosa had dutifully joined Sarah and the rest of their floor for lunch. But she'd scoped out the Corner Table from a safe distance, and their cohesiveness was palpable from first sight. That night at dinner she'd helped herself to a seat there.

She had never since regretted it. But now, walking back to her room after lunch with her heart doing flip flops, she felt her first-ever twinge of regret. This wasn't who she was! It wasn't who any of her friends were, that's why they were friends in the first place. Of course, if she chickened out, they'd never hold it against her. As Rosa climbed the stairs to her room, she began to practice the explanation she would give when she arrived at Moose's room at the appointed hour. Guys, I'm sorry, I just can't...please understand... They would understand, that she knew.

Rosa had the speech all set by the time she got to her door and stood looking through her purse for her keys. Just as she got them out, a pair of freshman guys came out of their room down the hall. "Well, if it isn't the freakiest cowgirl!" one of them snickered.

"Giddyup!" added the other. They laughed and slapped high-fives, and took off down the stairs.

Rosa, who had been on the business end of their teasing before, didn't even look at them as she unlocked her door and stepped inside. As she locked the door and tossed her purse on the bed, once again she felt the righteous indignation that had just gone around the Corner Table.

Yes, she decided, she bloody well would!

After lunch, Sarah went back to James' room and they did one last run-through of the French conversational review. "God, if we'd done this every week," Sarah said as at last she closed her book.

"This exam'd be a snap," James agreed. "Well, there's always next term. You taking French again?"

"Mais oui!" Sarah said. "Yeah, let's plan on that, once a week. James, thanks, you've been a big help."

"No problem," James said. "And look, I'm sorry about Mark and Alan."

"I told you, it's not you who should be apologizing," Sarah said. "Besides, I really don't know what Rosa sees in those freaks. I mean, yeah, she's a little weird herself, but..."

"Maybe that's why?" James offered. "That you think she's weird, I mean."

"Well, I love her, but she is," Sarah said. "Do you know her, James?"

James shook his head. "One of those people I've seen around campus since freshman year but never met. This place is bigger than it sometimes seems, you know?"

"True," Sarah said, and now she recalled what she'd said before lunch. If he didn't think Rosa was weird, maybe she should...but she didn't. Instead she asked, "Now, feel free to tell me it's none of my business, but may I ask why you always almost don't go to Spring Forward? Or the Snow Ball either, I suppose?"

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