Fall 2015, Volume 19

Nonfiction by M. M. Adjarian

The Walls Between

When my friend Stephen announced that Pink Floyd’s latest album, The Wall, was destined to be a classic, I listened. A year older than I and in his first year of high school, he was the only boy I’d known at Malibu Park Junior High who didn’t mind a skateboarder girl with unshaven legs hanging around him.

“It’s all right,” I said, trying to sound like I knew what I was talking about.

“All right? It’s better for sure than that disco shit you listen to, Miss I-Love-the-Bee Gees.”

“What’s wrong with the Bee Gees?”

“They’re stupid, that’s what. Everyone knows disco sucks.” He laughed. I glared at him without saying a word, fuming inwardly at how self-righteous he could be about his musical tastes.

By the time I got to Berkeley three years later, the disco beat I had gyrated to in secret was dead. Stephen, whom I’d not seen in more than a year, was a sophomore at USC. In the meantime, The Wall had become the album of choice to blast at high volume wherever young people congregated and a film that everyone I knew had seen. As usual, I was out of the loop. Only this time I didn’t have Stephen around to point out my complete lack of coolness.

I saw the ad for the movie go up just outside of Sather Gate a few days after I arrived. Of course, I had to go. Minutes after I wandered into Wheeler Hall auditorium and the lights went out, the acrid-sweet odor of cannabis began to permeate the room. I closed my eyes and inhaled slowly. Raised straight-laced in an ultra-casual Malibu environment where some parents routinely smoked pot, neither my friend nor I had ever taken so much as a single hit off of a joint.

“Take that, Steve,” I said to myself.


Stephen could get under my skin and make me mad. But in the early days of adolescence, he had been my rock. I was an outsider among other girls who made it their mission to act stupid around boys just to get their attention. Quiet and thoughtful, Stephen was the one I told about my fears of not getting A’s in school and my crushes on boys who were too busy paying attention to the gossipy, giggly girls I hated.

My friend would tease me on exactly two occasions: whenever I professed appreciation for bands he thought unworthy or whenever I dared look female.

“What’s with the stilts, dude?” he asked me on a day I had decided to wear high heels. “Aren’t you tall enough as it is?”

I gave him a dirty look. “You just don’t get it, do you?”

Stephen raised himself up onto the balls of his feet and began taking mincing steps around me.

“Look at me, I’m just so sexy,” he said in a high falsetto voice.

“Oh, shut up,” I growled.

To him, I was essentially a boy with long hair and breasts who could mostly keep a secret and didn’t try to bash egos with him over music or skateboarding. Even after I blabbed to Michelle Covell that the reason he called her little mama was because he liked her, flat as-a-board body and all, he was loyal enough to remain my friend.

In the days and weeks after I saw The Wall, I wondered if Stephen still thought about me. We’d been close as young teens, but by the time he was a senior at Santa Monica High, Stephen looked right through me whenever we passed each other in the halls. Once he’d let slip that his father was a tyrant who bullied the family and that his mother drank. Maybe he’d been trying to tune out the rest of the world just as Pink had in The Wall.


Parents really could make you want to run and hide. Now that he was paying for college, my now-you-see-me-now-you-don’t father had suddenly become the doting dad who loved me so much that he expected I spend all my holidays with him and his new wife, whom I hated. My mother, on the other hand, was still floundering nearly nine years after their divorce. Depressed, anxiety-ridden and unable to hold down a job, she rarely left the house, which had become both her refuge and her prison. After I left for college, whenever she called me it was to berate me for not having gone to UCLA.

“You could have stayed in Los Angeles,” she said, her tone accusing.

“But Berkeley’s got a better reputation. Doesn’t that matter?”

“If you don’t come back…” My mother paused dramatically. “Well, maybe I should just do something.

Like her sadness, my mother’s threats had become so commonplace that I was long past caring. Go ahead, I thought. I’ve had it with you.


At Berkeley, I reveled in being one student among 30,000. The let-it-all-hang-out atmosphere made it easy to forget what I’d left behind in Malibu. Clouds of incense mingled with the smell of roasted coffee beans, pizza and urine on Telegraph Avenue, the local main drag that ran right into the west side of campus. Street vendors sold tie-dye t-shirts, pottery and silver jewelry while drug dealers peddled dope on street corners and bald Hare Krishnas chanted themselves into ecstasy. It was a misfit’s paradise.

Since I rarely heard from my father, my mother’s calls were the only real intrusions to the drugged out rainbow hippie world I had fallen in love with. Others from my high school in Santa Monica had decided to attend Berkeley, but the school was big enough that I managed not to run into them.

My luck finally ran out when I heard from Kim.

“Your mom gave me your telephone number,” she said when she called me. “I’m visiting Berkeley from Stanford with friends—I’d love to see you again.”

“Um, yeah, if you want.” I was too stunned to say more.

We had been lab partners in ninth grade science class who had fought and bickered over everything and friendly competitors who had tried to outdo each other in German class from tenth grade to the time we graduated. Why did Kim suddenly want to reconnect?

A week later, she was standing outside my dorm room door, strands of brown hair flying loose from her ponytail. Kim came inside, sat on my bed and flopped backwards onto the mattress while I retreated to my desk, which faced a large window overlooking a courtyard. The intimacy of her gesture surprised me.

“Everybody has changed so much,” she began. “Remember how I wanted to study biology? Now I want to major in folklore.”

“Oh wow.”

Her words ran together into a droning hum. My eyes traveled to the window and looked out at the concrete façade of Spens-Black Hall, the dormitory opposite mine. Two students stood glued body to body on the third floor balcony kissing. I wondered if they’d ever had sex. Their closeness was as alien to me as Kim’s visit was bizarre.

My eyes drifted back to my desk and the sounds coming from my visitor’s mouth merged into intelligibility again.

“Keep in touch,” Kim said uncertainly, getting up to go.

“Sure,” I mumbled.

I never saw her again.


I floated through dorm life like an absent presence: there without being part of it. That I didn’t have a roommate for the first six weeks to drag me around to Thursday night pizza parties on my floor helped. Before long, I was spending most of my time haunting the stacks at Moffitt Library, alone but safe from the randomness, losses and craziness I couldn’t control.

All that changed the day I met my new roommate. Our first visit was awkward and anything but propitious. It was evening, and as usual, I was hunched over my desk, studying when I heard a knock at the door.

“I’m Lisa” the girl said when I let her in. “The housing office told me this was where I’d be living.” Short and blonde, she moved with an abruptness that mirrored the clipped way she spoke.

My stomach twisted into a pretzel as I sat down.

“So what’s your name?”


Wanting nothing more than to disappear, I sat down and began flipping noisily through the tissue-thin pages of the Norton Anthology I had been reading.

Lisa looked quickly around the room.

“Well, nice to meet you and sorry for interrupting. Good night.”

Only after she left did I realized how unfair I’d been to her. Besides which, the room was small enough that it left no place for me to escape. Like it or not, my days as the hermit of Priestley Hall were numbered.

After Lisa moved in, it didn’t take her long to discover that her new roommate still slept with stuffed animals. I in turn found out she owned very few clothes and at least half a dozen pairs of running shoes, all of which littered her side of the room.

A dedicated jogger, she also swam several times a week at the Strawberry Canyon pool in the hills above the Berkeley campus. To her, the hours I put into studying verged on obscene and she had no qualms about telling me so.

“How can you just sit there?” she chided. “Go to Strawberry. Get in the water. Do something.

Lisa’s relentless badgering broke through my reserve. Within a month, I’d bought a one-piece racer back swimsuit, was doing laps at Strawberry Canyon and wondering why I’d been denying myself the simple pleasures of fresh air, water and sunshine.

As extroverted as my roommate seemed, she had few friends. Lisa spent most of her free time with a soft-spoken senior named Pete bound for medical school at the University of Minnesota. She had no trouble confiding things to me, including the fact that she and her boyfriend often went for late-night semi-nude jogs in the Berkeley Hills and that she was a virgin, though not by much.

“We tried having sex once,” she told me once. “But it hurt too much so we stopped.”

“Didn’t he get upset?”

“Of course not.” The condescension in her tone reminded me of just how naïve she thought I was. A mischievous look crossed her face.

“But we still have fun.”

She didn’t explain further.

As turned out she didn’t have to. One night and just before I fell asleep, I heard the two of them come in from a late-night run. I expected Pete to leave; but in the midst of fevered whispering, they took off their clothes and dove under the covers of her bed.

They tried to be quiet. But they couldn’t muffle the sound of hands brushing against skin or of a single bed straining under the weight of two people. My mother had not allowed me to date in high school so I had no idea what a relationship was like. Embarrassed as I was that Lisa had brought Pete home, I also took a voyeur’s pleasure in being this close to two people in love.  


I began wondering where I would go at the end of the second semester. A summer in Malibu was out of the question and there was no way I wanted to live with my father and his wife. Lisa suggested I look into summer housing at a fraternity half a mile from Priestley Hall called Theta Chi. Not long after I moved in I noticed that all the people who rented rooms were female. One of the brothers admitted this was by design.

“We like starting the fall semester with a clean house,” he said, grinning.

I spent the first month of vacation working at a 7-11 just a block from where I lived. When a new manager took over, I got laid off and spent the remainder of my summer swimming at Strawberry and doing moody watercolors with a set of children’s drug store paints in a third floor attic nobody used.

While I groused about getting my food stolen, the other girls complained about head games and boys who bed-hopped. Sometimes I heard the brothers laughing among themselves and calling the girls sluts behind their backs. A senior named Tommy who was taking summer school classes and reminded me of Stephen cleared things up for me.  

“Everyone around here is screwing everyone else,” he said. “And if I weren’t already engaged, I’d be doing it, too.”


My father, who had been living near Sacramento, told me he was driving to Santa Monica on a business trip and invited me along. I called Stephen and told him we should get together. We agreed to meet at the pier, which had been a favorite place to hang out in the months before I’d left home for Berkeley. But since then, a violent Pacific storm had taken more than a third of my old haunt out to sea.

When I arrived, I sat on one of the splintered wood benches at the end of pier that looked out towards Palos Verdes. Soon I saw a tall, slim-hipped man in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt walking towards me. It was Stephen.

Where was the short, greasy-haired kid I had known? As he neared me, electricity coursed through my body; suddenly I became aware that I wasn’t wearing a bra under my shirt. I waved at him.  The minute Stephen sat down I flew headlong into a tirade about the Greek system.

“Frat boys are just so stupid, don’t you think?”

My friend looked at me and guffawed at my awkward opening.

“You wouldn’t like SC, then,” he said. “The whole university is like a giant fraternity.

“Why did you decide to go there?”

Stephen’s eyes grazed my chest before resting on my face.

“My dad teaches there so I got a free ride.”

“Berkeley is great,” I said. “But it’s not giving me a lot of answers. Only more questions. It’s all just so confusing.”

My hands and fingertips tingled. I wondered how I could touch him.

“What is?” Stephen asked.

“College. No wait, life.”

“That’s a good thing to be confused about,” he said, turning his gaze out to sea.

When the two of us got up to go two hours later, I wanted to hug him. Instead, I put a hand on his shoulder just as he was starting to walk away.

“Goodbye,” I said.

Stephen had turned his head enough for me to see the surprised look on his face but kept moving.

“Yeah, see you around.”

All the way back to the Ocean Avenue hotel where my father and I were staying, I felt a hopelessness settle on me. By the time I entered our room, the heaviness had become so intense that I threw myself on one of the beds and began sobbing. When my father returned from his errands later that afternoon, he stood in the entryway in silence, unsure of what he’d just walked into.

“What happened?” he asked finally.

“Nothing,” I lied, trying to make sense of the wild beating in my chest.


A month before school started again in the fall, I started looking for a place to live. With less than two weeks to go before school started, I managed to talk my way into an 8x10 room in a small house a mile south of campus on Acton Street. The man who rented it to me, Chris, worked part-time as a roadie for local rock bands. His housemate Jim was a computer engineer who burrowed in his room like a mole.

I saw Chris’s three cats more often than I did either of my housemates. One, Sal, pushed open my door at night and curled up at the foot of my bed to sleep. His sister Sweetie was a wildcard who could be nice—when she felt like it. His brother Studs spat and hissed at anyone who tried to touch him.

“He wasn’t like that before he got neutered,” Chris explained. “Studs is just frustrated because he knows what he’s missing.”

I stifled a laugh. Feline sexuality seemed blissfully straightforward. Female cats obeyed biological impulses they couldn’t control and routinely went into heat. Males, on the other hand, yowled when they wanted a mate or sensed that one was nearby. Once a willing partner appeared, both males and females let nature run its course.

The other thing about cats was that they worked with what was in front of them. Memory and imagination just didn’t fit into the mating equation for them like it did for me. Now in my second year at Berkeley, the loneliness had started to get to me. Rather than admit I wasn’t an island and seek the company of others, I chose instead to dwell in the past and in my thoughts of Stephen.

After our afternoon on the pier, we exchanged letters at least once a month. I told him stories about my life with Chris and Jim and about my newfound love for Yes, a band he had touted from the day I met him. He told me about the all-nighters he pulled to get his projects done and expressed approval at the change in my musical tastes.

We would quote lyrics from the bands we both liked. Then one day in late fall, Stephen closed his letter with the lyrics from a song I especially liked from the album And Then There Were Three by Genesis.

                 Many too many have stood where I stand
                        Many more will stand here, too.
                        But what I find strange is the way you built me up
                        Just to knock me down again.

The ambiguity of the words tantalized me. Was my shy friend trying to say that he liked me, but that he worried that the feelings weren’t mutual?  My imagination reeled. We were childhood friends who had discovered each other as adults. Eight hundred miles separated us, but one day would be together.  

Eventually the stories I began to tell myself about Stephen evolved into an inevitable reality. What I didn’t know was that the person I’d seen that day on the pier had changed. But I didn’t find that out until that Christmas, when I flew to Los Angeles to visit my father, who had since moved to Marina Del Rey.

Eager to see Stephen again, I tried calling his house in Koreatown several times without success. When I finally did reach him, he chased me off the phone.

“Hi!” I said. “Did your mom give you my messages?”

He laughed harshly. “Yeah. Listen, I’ll talk to you later.”


I said I’ll talk to you later.

The whole conversation lasted less than two minutes. But it was enough to undo years of friendship and trust. When I’d spoken to him the previous summer, he had seemed happy to hear from me. And his letters had suggested he there was more brewing beneath the surface than he had been letting on.

Then I thought back to something he had said the day we had been on the pier. Though he still wasn’t dating at that time, he told me that females had begun to toss rogue comments his way. An older woman he worked with at the Malibu Fish Market had taken his hand in hers one day. After scrutinizing his palm, she pronounced that Stephen was a well-endowed lover who would break hearts.

It had been a flirtatious joke. But now I wondered if what she said hadn’t somehow made him rethink the way he related to girls, even those he only thought of as friends.


The isolation of my life on Acton Street struck me with full force as the spring semester began. Correspondence between Stephen and ended after I wrote to tell him how upset I was at how he’d treated me and he responded with the news that he was dating a sorority girl.

I still kept in touch with Lisa, who had lucked into an apartment near campus with two other girls. But I began to feel that she was changing as well. She’d broken up with Pete and was now spending time with a much older man named Dan. “We’re just friends,” she insisted. Even I knew better than to believe her.

Feeling adrift, I found myself striking up conversations with my housemate Jim, who was at home more often than Chris.  Shy and nervous, he seemed to relax when I confessed how anxious I was about school and grades. Even though I’d been at Berkeley for almost two years, I still wasn’t sure what my GPA was. But that hadn’t stopped me from applying to a university-sponsored junior year abroad study program to Britain and Ireland where the unstated GPA requirement was 3.5.

“Why did you apply if you didn’t know what your grades were?” Jim asked. “That makes no sense at all.”

“I’m pretty sure I have at least a 3.0.”

“Can’t you at least check to be sure?”

 “I’d stress out if I did,” I said.

“But isn’t it more stressful not knowing? Besides which, you’ll be disappointed anyway if you don’t get into your program.”

“Trust me, it’s easier this way.”

“I don’t understand you at all,” said Jim.

Later I confided that I was afraid someone might force open the back door that closed with nothing but a hook-and-eye lock and come into my room. Within a week, Jim rigged up a silent alarm system for me, which I managed to set off with embarrassing regularity.

“Watch out!” he would huff. “Every time you do that, the police department gets notified. Then I have to call in and say it’s a mistake.”

I’d mumble my apologies then slink away sheepishly, never wondering why a 30-year-old man bothered to put up with the antics of a neurotic 19-year-old girl.

His intentions became clear to me several weeks before I moved out for the summer. I was at the kitchen sink filling a glass I’d rescued from the dirty dish pile when suddenly he materialized by my side like an apparition. Jim cleared his throat, a gesture that struck me as oddly formal.

“I really wish you’d talk more,” he began. “You’re so quiet. It’s nice when you talk to me.”

I looked at him puzzled.  

“What do you mean?”

Jim went silent, his face hardening into a mask I could not read. He took a step toward me then stopped; immediately, every muscle in my body tensed up in fear.

“Are you that blind?” he shouted.

He vanished as quickly from the kitchen as he had come in.  Seconds later, I heard a door slam. Then Jim’s stereo exploded into life with a song from the Eagles:

                 One of these nights
                        One of these crazy old nights
                        We're gonna find out
                        Pretty mama
                        What turns on your lights

I retreated to my room and put my hand to the wall; it vibrated beneath my fingers. Shaken, I jammed a pair of earplugs into my ears, shoved a steamer trunk that doubled as a dresser in front of my door and sat down to see what would happen next.


As it turned out, nothing did. But I still tried to avoid Jim, who was avoiding me in return. While he resorted to moving around on tiptoe, I listened for signs of his comings and goings through the walls of my room. The next time I saw Chris, I asked him if he knew what was happening with his roommate.

“Jim’s just upset that you didn’t like him the way he liked you.”

“He what?”

“I know. I saw it happening and thought hey, it’s none of my business.” The pale blue eyes that peered out at me from behind his small round glasses brimmed with amusement. “But he sure is taking it a lot harder than I thought he would.”

A few days later, an envelope appeared under my door. Inside I found a five-page, single-spaced letter that was a revelation not so much for what it told me about Jim’s feelings, but for the way he had totally misread me.

It was the long conversations we’d had and the way I’d opened up to him, he said. But what had really clinched it was how I’d worn progressively less every time we had run into each other.

Shaking my head in disbelief, I thought back to a few weeks earlier. I’d briefly met him going down the stairs into our basement laundry room dressed in a t-shirt and a pair of blue nylon shorts. Older houses in Berkeley lacked air conditioning and I had been roasting hot. But feeling the heat for Jim? No.

If your antennae were working, you should have been aware of how I felt about you, he wrote. Then you could have clued me in that you weren’t interested.

Jim had expected a teenage girl to playing at the level of an adult. But I hadn’t been playing: I’d just been looking for someone to talk to. Still, I admired Jim for telling me his feelings. That was more than I could say for Stephen, who had decided to give me just enough rope to hang myself with then run away like a thief.

Letter in hand and heart thumping, I marched through the dust and clutter to my housemate’s room. I knocked on the door, which opened almost immediately.

“I wasn’t trying to flirt with you,” I blurted out.

“OK.” His thin voice quavered. “I did consider the possibility that you didn’t feel the same way.”

“I talk to you the way I talk to everyone.” My palms began to sweat. “I’m not looking for anything else.”

Jim sighed.

“That’s where we’re different, then, because I am.”

A few days later, my housemate slipped an article he’d torn out of a magazine under my door. “For your information,” he’d scrawled in tight, nervous script at the top. I scanned the first page. Ireland had just passed legislation that made it legal for anyone 18 and over to purchase condoms without a prescription.

Jim had remembered that I’d been accepted to study at Trinity College in Dublin in the fall. He was trying to be friendly. Yet all I saw was that the clipping had come from Playboy. That told me more than I wanted to know about what Jim did when he wasn’t on his computer. Yes, he had stoked his desires on fantasy and misperception. But at least was honest about it, which was more than I could ever say about myself.




BIO: M. M. Adjarian has published her creative work in The Provo Canyon Review, The Milo Review, The Baltimore Review, The Prague Revue, Twisted Vine Literary Arts Journal, Eunoia Review, Crack the Spine, Vine Leaves, and Poetry Quarterly. At present, she is working on a family memoir provisionally titled The Beautiful Dreamers.