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Dibs and the Art of the Subordinating Conjunction

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The Haus was quiet and dark, except for the dull, orange glow of Lardo's laptop screen and the clack of her keyboard. She had until eight a.m. to finish the art history paper that had been kicking her ass all week. She only procrastinated when she was nervous, and nerves this early in the semester weren't a great sign, but this was the last writing-heavy credit she needed to graduate, thesis aside. Art was easy. Art history was interesting. Words stressed her out.

It was barely midnight, but her eyes felt gritty, and the tension headache she'd staved off with an ibuprofen hours ago was creeping back. The silence around her felt condemnatory. Chowder had poked his head into her room earlier to say he had a late lab and intended to crash with Farmer afterward. Rans and Holster were out doing sociable Rans and Holster things, a double date, or some student society soiree, or a Halo tournament at the other end of frat row. She hadn't caught so much as a glimpse of Bitty all weekend.

She loved living in the Haus. It was good for her to be around people, and she loved these people in particular. But even though she'd been perfectly aware, on a surface level, that the Haus she was moving into would not be the Haus where Jack and Shitty lived, right now she felt stupidly lonely and out of sync. She missed Jack, her reliable homebody and study buddy, and Shitty, who always pestered her out of her funks and edited her papers for her and let her roll him up in a blanket for use as a backrest.

She tipped over in her bed and hugged the pillow Shitty had left behind almost four months ago, as if she could still smell him in the fibers, underneath her own BO and laundry soap.

Well, the Haus had one reliable upside, even when it was empty of people. Lardo pushed her blankets to the end of the bed, climbed down, and went downstairs in search of pie.

She didn't bother turning on any lights, just rummaged blindly in the cutlery drawer, then opened the fridge, winced at its sudden blue glare, and pushed aside milk jugs and juice bottles to get at the sandwich box labeled DUAN OR DEATH in black marker.

She was just closing her lips around the first forkful of pastry and turning to leave the kitchen when something in the living room clunked. "'Lo?" she called out around her mouthful of blueberries, refusing to be startled, but keeping a tight grip on her fork in case a stabbing was indicated. Someone snorted, then groaned, then said muzzily, "Lards?"

It was Nursey, tucked into a corner of the couch, pulling himself up out of an uncomfortable looking scrunch as Lardo rounded the doorway. "Hey, Nurse. Did you fall asleep here?"

He scrubbed one hand over his face and shrugged sheepishly. "Yeah. I came over to hang with Chowder, but my phone died and I missed his texts. Was waiting for it to charge."

"Oh, yeah, he's at Cait's."

Nursey nodded. "We were just gonna do homework together anyway, so I just started down here since it was quiet, and I got distracted. Think I got my Am. lit. essay outlined, though." He lifted and waggled the corner of a battered spiral notebook at her, then let it drop back onto his stomach.

"Ugh, how do you just—do that?" She slumped across the room and flopped dramatically onto the couch, still clutching her Tupperware. "Outlining is like pulling teeth for me, and I always end up changing it when I write anyway. It takes forever, and then I get mad and avoid it, and then it's the night before it's due and I'm stuck with a shitty draft and no time to get it proofread at the student center. And Prof. Jones is mean about grammar."

"Word," said Nursey. "I got her for Milton last year." Of course he'd tested out of freshman comp. "She's brutal, but at least, like, really clear expectations."

"Yeah, at least there's a rubric." Lardo thumped her head against the cushions. "My art responses this term are gonna be even worse because I have to cite multimedia."

Nursey eyed her consideringly for a few seconds, then offered, "I could proof them, if you want."

"Really?"

Nursey shrugged. Lardo bumped his arm with her container of pie, and turned the fork handle toward him. He gave a funny, pleased little "ooh," and stabbed the fork through the crust, with flaked prettily under the onslaught despite having been in the fridge for two days. They finished the pie in contemplative silence.

"So do you wanna give me that shitty draft for Jones, or are you still grinding through it?"

Lardo grimaced. "It's done, but it's due at the buttcrack o' dawn. Don't wanna make you schlep back across campus and then have to boot up your computer before you go to bed."

"I could do it now, on yours? I'm pretty fast."

"Oh. Yeah, sure, I guess."

And then there was the momentary weirdness of inviting a boy to follow her upstairs in the dark, of handing her laptop down off her lofted bed so he could read at the desk. She didn't love showing other people—even Shitty—her writing. She was always embarrassed by how pedestrian her sentences sounded, never mind how original her ideas were. "'Representations of Femininity in the Art of the Southeast Asian Diaspora.' Cool."

"It's a bad title," Lardo apologized.

"Nah," said Nursey, and slouched a little lower in Lardo's chair, already scrolling. She hovered long enough to watch him tap open the Track Changes menu, then slunk up the ladder to hide in her blanket nest for the twenty minutes it took him to read.

"Hey, Lards." Nursey's soft voice broke the quiet. "It's a good paper." He said it convincingly enough to loosen the annoying little knot in her stomach. She poked her nose over the bed railing. "I love how you described the prints, and I'm dying to know more about the textiles; those could be, like, a whole paper by themselves. I left a few technical comments and stuff. Can I show you?"

Lardo blew out a breath. "Yeah, okay."

*

The next essay came easier, and Lardo emailed it to Nursey with a whole forty-eight hours to spare. Given adequate lead time, he was a fucking great editor. He was good at organizing. He rearranged her sections, combined two paragraphs, deleted a third. And he said, "So this is pretty solid, but if you want to take it from a B to an A, I've got this Elin Diamond book checked out for American Drama that backs up your argument but like from a theatre perspective. If you want you could show how it applies across disciplines and it'd be mad impressive." And then he somehow fixed all her grammar and made her prose sound cleaner without leaving her feeling like he'd deleted her voice.

She felt excited to turn in a paper for the first time she could ever remember.

Lardo's art of the diaspora class and Nursey's drama seminar were both in South Quad, so they usually ran into each other afterward and walked together to the Haus for a mid-afternoon snack. On the day she got her paper back, she jogged up just in time to watch him walk headlong into a trash can, interrupt his own rant to exclaim, "Whoa, sorry dude!" and then sigh as his brain caught up with the situation while his classmate doubled over laughing.

Nursey only brushed himself off and said, "Anyway, I'll send you that link, bro. I know it's a cliché to call Spivak impenetrable, but it's not wrong, bro, it took me like five reads to get through the original. I got you." His friend departed with a handclasp-backslap combo, and Nursey turned around. "My bro!"

Lardo cocked her eyebrow. "Dude, how many asses are you saving this semester? Get a job at the tutoring center already."

Nursey scoffed. "Nah, this is a friends'-asses-only service."

Lardo held out her paper so Nursey could see the infamous rubric stapled to the back. "Lemme pay you in coffee at least."

"Lardo! Nice."

"Coffee nice, Nurse. You better let me, or I'm stealing your wallet and stuffing it with gift cards."

Nursey raised his hands. "A chai from Annie's and a drawing of a duck in my stats notebook. It'll cheer me up when chi squares send me spiraling into despair."

Once they'd collected their froofy drinks and were seated in the Haus kitchen with homemade apple crisp and whipped cream from a can, Lardo drew Nursey a cartoon duck with cheerleader pom-poms. "Dope," said Nursey.

*

"'K, so this one's less clear cut. Technically it's a dangling participle even though your meaning is clear and there's no way to hilariously misinterpret it like that other one. I flagged it just because Jones is a total prescriptivist and she will doc you, cumulatively, for piddly shit like this."

"Prescriptivism is rooted in class warfare," Lardo muttered in her best Boston Brahmin meets intoxicated frat bro accent, clicking "Accept Change" in the Word doc in front of her.

Nursey laughed. "You sound like my mom."

Lardo tipped her head back. "I do?"

"I mean, minus the Shitty impression. She's an editor at Conde Nast; this was, like, family dinner table conversation when I was growing up."

"Pfff, so basically you're saying your entire family are nerds."

"A noble lineage, yeah." He huffed and pivoted to prop his hip on Lardo's desk. "Actually, you know this is how I got into poetry?"

"Your editor mom?"

"Ha, no. So, like, Andover's pretty liberal in general, but the teachers are all super strict about written grammar, on the principle that you have to learn all the dumb rules before you get to break them. Because the ability to code-switch is the ability to succeed or some shit, which is a suspect and shitty paradigm, but whatever. Chill.

"So I'm fourteen, right, I can code-switch like Barack fucking Obama, and I've been listening to a shit-ton of conscious hip-hop, Talib Kweli and, like, vintage X Clan, and I'm all, I am a teenage rebel, and I have found my hill to die on! I wrote an entire term paper on symbolism in The Raisin in the Sun in phonetic AAVE."

"Oh my God. What happened?"

"Well for starters, my teacher probably stayed up grading it until one a.m., cursing my existence. But...I aced it. And then she held me back after school and told me I wasn't allowed to do that anymore, even though she was impressed by its internal consistency."

"Aw, poor tiny rebel Nursey."

"But, after she'd finished explaining the politics of written dialect, she said I could do whatever the fuck I wanted in my poetry, and explained that poetry could be a way to refine my voice for when I was out of school and didn't have to follow the rules anymore. And showed me Porsha Olayiwola and Ching-in Chen." Nursey smiled, then snorted. "And then she made me write a paper on Londonstani."

Lardo smiled back. "And the poetry stuck."

"Yeah. And these days, if I'm breakin' your fucking grammar rules, you better start hunting for the reason."

*

Lardo texted: "Yo, you home? I'm near your dorm and I've got your book, want me to drop it off?"

"Yea, c'mon up."

Nursey opened his door wearing his beloved Andover hoodie, soft old jeans scuffed at the hems, and no socks. "Hey. Do you want a cookie?"

Lardo blinked. "Uh, always?"

He stepped back so she could enter. His room had clothes all over the floor and P.O.S blaring from the Marley speakers on his windowsill. The breeze from the door set a tiny prism in the window swinging back and forth, sending bumblebee-sized rainbows zig-zagging all over the walls. Nursey snagged a small green and white box off his desk and popped off the lid, revealing half a dozen Middle Eastern pastries, most of them liberally topped with bright green crushed pistachio. Lardo dropped her bag and leaned in to inspect them. "Are they all the same?"

"Yeah, more or less. Dad brought them from my favorite bakery in Manhattan. There aren't enough to share with the whole team, so I'm hoarding them here."

"Oh. Thanks, bro, I feel honored." She pinched a honey-sticky diamond-shaped baklava out of the box and stuffed it in her mouth before it could drip. "Ohmgahh."

"Happy Islamic New Year."

"Yeah? Nice, Happy New Year. Also, damn, I shoulda told my mom to bring me a giant box of Vietnamese shit from Boston on Parents' Weekend."

"What, Asian fusion night in the dining hall isn't cutting it?" said Nursey as Lardo bent to unbuckle her bag and retrieve the volume of essays she'd borrowed.

"True," Lardo said. "We get a sushi bar and a DIY stir fry station. What more could I possibly desire?"

"A little Putumayo over the sound system, you'd be golden."

Lardo squinted up at him. "The fuck is a Putumayo?"

"Oh, they're, like, a record label that packages world music for white people. They're fine, they're, like, responsible and shit, far as I know."

"You should buy Dex a CD for his birthday."

Nursey threw back his head and howled.

"Shit, I'm supposed to be, like, fostering harmony between you two."

Nursey wiped his eyes. "No, no. I like him, I really do. He's—changed a lot since last year. He started, well, you know. But I can't fault him for not trying. He loves my man Bitty."

"It's pretty adorable."

"Dude, we should go to Chinatown," said Nursey as Lardo slung her bag back over her shoulder. "Take the shuttle and drink some chè, bring back obscene numbers of pastries."

"There's this one block that's all bakeries," said Lardo dreamily. "D'you think Bitty would kill us or weep?"

"Both? Better invite him. And we can't go to Chinatown without Chow and Farms."

*

It turned into a production. Chowder and Farmer went all the time, because neither of the Chinese restaurants in Samwell had soup dumplings on the menu, and Farms got a craving for soup dumplings at least once every couple months. With them signed on, it made sense to invite Dex, and Dex was washing dishes for Bitty when they found him, and Bitty got excited about hitting up the C-Mart for cheap fresh ginger and soy sauce. Ransom and Holster already had a double date scheduled with a pair of soccer players, but Tango scurried off to finish his homework early just so he could make it, and somehow convinced Whiskey to tag along. Ollie and Wicks rode the Samwell-Boston shuttle with them as far as South Station, then trundled onward to meet friends at MIT while the rest of the group got off and walked three blocks west to Chinatown.

The upside of traveling in a pack was that it made dim sum worth doing. They piled into Hei La Moon and squeezed around one giant, round banquet table. In the Saturday morning hubbub, dampened only slightly by the gaudy floral carpet, the hockey team wasn't even a contender for the loudest party in the room.

The carts rolled in, steered by servers in neat blacks. Caitlin deftly started a tab and began pushing steaming baskets across the table while Chris got up to order two huge plates of broccoli straight from the kitchen.

Nursey cracked his chopsticks and smiled sleepily at Lardo. Lardo poured him a cup of tea.

Bitty went a little nuts for the cha siu baau. "Are there more pork buns?" He asked hopefully whenever a new cart drew close.

"Here, Bitty, you'll like these too," said Chowder, offering a different pork-filled dumpling wrapped in a delicate rice flour shell.

"Normally I love trying new things," Bitty insisted, laughing. "But why would I when pork buns are so good?" But he took the shiu mai and made yummy noises when he ate it.

Once everyone was stuffed and groaning, and the bill paid, they visited Bitty's grocery store, then wandered up the street, past trinket shops and bakeries and the green-topped paifang gate, toward Washington Street.

"Are we cleaning out Brattle Books?" Farmer asked, tugging Chowder across the cobblestones to link her free arm with Nursey's.

"Hell yeah."

Before they left they had to double back to the dessert shop that sold chè. Lardo beelined for the counter to order a rainbow dessert. She closed her eyes at the first sip, blissed out. Nursey ordered one with mochi. Bitty was fascinated by chè bap, the sweet corn pudding full of tapioca and coconut milk, and took seventeen pictures to share with his mother. Dex eyed the menu photos of soupy drinks full of gelatinous lumps and bumps, and claimed, plausibly, to be fair, he was too stuffed with dim sum to order anything.

Lardo sidled up to Nursey and knocked her shoulder into his arm, a silent thank you. It wasn't the adventure they'd originally planned, but it was good. She didn't spend much time with the frogs and taddies without Ransom and Holster flanking her too. It was nice to be able to imagine what the dynamic among the core upperclassmen would be like next year. They loitered near the entrance as Bitty persuaded Dex to try his pudding while Chris and Cait waited with their cameras out, Nursey for once content to hang back and watch instead of jumping in to tease. Whiskey and Tango finished up their order and joined them, juggling two drinks apiece because Tango wanted to try everything. Dex's startled smile at his first taste of authentic Vietnamese food was documented and uploaded to five different social media sites, and then Bitty herded them all back onto the street.

*

Nursey spent a lot of time doing homework in Chowder's room. It was easy to wander in, armed with a plate of Bitty's baking still warm from the oven, and say, "'Sup, bros?" and pretend she had no ulterior motive.

At first she felt bad about crashing the party, but Chowder always waved her in with a grin, untangling his feet from Nursey's to make room for her to plunk down between them on the bed.

"Why can't I just explain my thesis in pictuuures?" Lardo moaned, drooping sideways to mash her face into Chowder's shark pillow, narrowly missing the edge of his laptop. Chowder patted her head.

"Ramble at me," Nursey just said, not looking up from his own laptop. Lardo made a pathetic wheezing sound into the plushie, prompting Nursey to amend, "Or at the shark, whatever's chill."

Lardo was somewhat awful at thinking out loud, but after a few minutes of lying there and letting Chowder play with her hair, she said, "Okay, so I'm trying to make this connection between sports iconography, and, like, hockey bodies, and this stuff I read in gender studies about the separation of body and voice..."

And Nursey would hum and nod just often enough to keep her going, and perk up and say things like, "Bruh. You should read 'Ode to a Grecian Urn.' Edward Said wrote this essay about it that's all about silence and subalternity in art, and Keats' poem is mostly about, like, pastoral scenes, but when I think about Grecian urns I'm, like, sports! Chariot racing! Naked guys wrestling! and you could totally hook that up to what you said about the magazine spreads..." And then Chowder chimed in and they got distracted ranting about Colin Kaepernick in GQ. And half an hour later, she discovered that Nursey had opened a new doc and had been stealthily transcribing everything she'd babbled at him. He turned the screen toward her. Smiled.

*

Most of the Wednesday lunch group was seated by the time Lardo made it to the cafeteria. She loaded a tray with a giant slab of pizza and a glass of chocolate milk as tall as her forearm, set it at the head of the hockey table, dumped her backpack on the floor, and threw her arms in the air. "GUESS who submitted HER GOTT-DAMNED HONORS THESIS?" The whole team started yelling like the Stanley Cup itself had manifested in front of them, leapt out of their chairs and, in typical demure and lowkey SMH fashion, hoisted her over their heads.

After a triumphant parade around the table, and the volleyball table for good measure, and a lot of back-slapping and hand-shaking and Holster accidentally kissing Ollie's forehead, they dispersed back to their seats. Nursey lingered, grinning as widely as she, though less pink in the face. He stooped to give her one extra squeeze, and her toes left the ground one more time with the force of it. Lardo laughed in startlement. Outside the chaos of group hugs, Nursey was a little shy of touching her. She'd been missing out: his arms felt fantastic. She stuck her nose between his neck and the wool collar of his sweater and got a good, appreciative whiff of ambery cologne and boy before he dropped her back on her feet.

"You are a scholar and a champion," he told her, pulling out the chair next to hers. "It's a great paper."

Lardo huffed, trying and failing to escape the compliment. "Shyeah, thanks, still gotta defend."

"You know we'll all be there. Loudly."

She stifled her laugh by stuffing half her pizza in her mouth. Nursey applied himself to his grain bowl for the twenty seconds it took her to chew. Around the table, the din had returned to normal levels. She swallowed and said, under its cover, "Hey, Nurse."

"Mmph?"

"Thanks. I mean. Yeah. You know."

He stuck his fist out for a bump, and that was that.

*

Nursey found her in her room a few days after the dips flip. "Thanks for the room, yeah?" he said, loitering in the doorway. "I promise me and Poindexter'll take care of it."

Lardo peered down at him. "If I come back to visit and there's blood stains, I'm rescinding and giving it to Ford. You two can sleep in the basement."

"Pfff. Nah, he, ah, came and found me, and we talked for a bit. I think we'll be okay."

"K," said Lardo.

Nursey shoved his hands in his pockets. "Seriously, man, I figured you'd give it to him, though. The Haus is, like, his pet project. I was just giving him a hard time because it was funny."

"Well if you don't actually want it—"

"NO! No, I do. I—" He unleaned from the doorframe and wandered over to prop himself against Lardo's desk, kicking the door mostly shut in his wake. "Andover was great overall, but the hockey team there was, like"—he chuffed and glanced up at her—"super white, right? We didn't click off the ice, and we didn't—didn't have each other's backs. The pranking got kinda weird, sometimes. Shitty was great, he did his best, but, God, you should've seen him, then. He was so scrawny, and he had, like, no social capital."

Lardo snorted. She'd seen pictures of Shitty at sixteen.

"This team..." Nursey trailed off.

"It's different," said Lardo softly.

Nursey nodded. "And the Haus holds the heart of it. And, like, it's easy to see how Bitty and Chow and Dex belong here. Fit the bill. They're all such caretakers, in different ways. But me, I don't—really fill that niche."

Lardo's heart clenched with an odd feeling of failure. She wanted to get up and hug him, hesitated because it might be awkward, and then remembered how warm he'd been when he'd hugged her in the cafeteria, and swung down and crossed the patch of sunshine on the floor between them to wrap her arms around his middle anyway. It was awkward, even though his hands came up readily to rest on her shoulder blades. "Fuck, Nurse, you don't need a niche." She tipped back to look him in the eye, and glowered at his bemused and rueful smile. "Your niche is you give a shit. Your niche is we like you."

His real smile bloomed. "K," he echoed, gently mocking.

She poked him in the tummy. "But if you need a purpose, take care of Bits like you took care of me. You know he's gonna struggle with the thesis."

The skin around Nursey's eyes crinkled up affectionately. "I can do that."

"Don't burn yourself out. That boy is a project."

"Hah. Speaking of, you wanna go downstairs and help box up jam?"

"Oh, yeah, I promised him earlier I'd come help. Well. I promised Jack I'd help."

Nursey laughed again, and squeezed her one more time before stepping back. "It takes a village."

Below them, a door banged open, and someone was hollering, and at least three others burst into bright laughter. Lardo said, "I guess all of us do."