The light was industrial yellow, reflecting off the painted cement blocks and wall of gray mailboxes across the hall. Remodeling had driven the residential desk office to a former janitor’s closet tucked into a corner of the commons hall. The small room still smelled of drilled concrete and floor wax. The dutch door, top half open, was the newest fixture the building had seen since the 70s.
I worked the midnight to eight shift on weekends, a descriptor of both the setting and my social life during my sophomore year of college. Armed with fifty pounds of books, I’d descend into the basement every weekend, intent of finishing my papers early, and spend the hours reading true crime stories on the internet or playing a pixelated bowling game on the black and gray screen of my Nokia phone. I taught myself to write backward with my left hand. I helped manage social crises of my high school friends via email.
Other than my manager stopping by for fifteen minutes once a night to make sure no one had killed me, I was alone. One red button buzzer was affixed to the bottom of the desk, linked directly to campus police if someone tried to steal the fifty dollars we kept in the register. I rarely had real work to do. Every other night or so, a drunk student would show up after having lost her purse and borrow a spare key. Occasionally, a night owl would want to pick up a package at 3am. The janitor would hang out with me some mornings around 5am, eating yogurt and telling me about how taking coke didn’t help her weight loss, but aided in house work. Most of the time, though, I was alone.
Except when the unicorn visited.
I’ll admit my confusion the first time he stopped by, clopping down the hallway and leaning his chin over the top of the dutch door to stare at me. My brief childhood obsession with horses ended abruptly when my father told me I could ride cows instead, plopping me on the back of one of our herd as she walked to the holding pen. She had a retained placenta, a few days old and fetid, wrapped around her tail, and slapped me in the face with it as though I was a sixty pound fly on her back. You learn to stop asking about horses after that. Though my first best friend, a cow named Marlene, only had one horn, I was never a unicorn girl, which was why it was hard to fathom a white unicorn with a rainbow mane staring at me. A braid, inexplicably tied with a rainbow ribbon, hung limply over the door. Large black eyes blinked at me. A twisted multicolored horn poked into my personal bubble of safety.
“Hey,” he said. Little flecks of glitter shifted in the yellow light as he spoke.
“Hey,” I said. “How can I help you? I thought he might need a key to his dorm room or want to buy some ping pong balls (for playing ping pong, of course).
Bits of bright grass cling to his prehensile lips as he spoke. It was late December. “What you reading?”
I looked at the yellow book open next to the tablet where I’d been practicing my backwards writing. “Um. It’s a compilation of manifestos. I’m taking a class on them.”
He nickered at me. “You an English major?”
He nodded, as though this was the piece of information for which he’d arrived. As though this was his 3am package pick up. His spare room key. He backed up (as it was a narrow hallway and most equine couldn’t turn around in it) and clopped towards the stairs. I rolled my chair over to the door to watch him go, rainbow tail swishing with each hip movement. Oddly, a few rainbow leopard prints spotted his rear quarters. Upon reaching the stairwell, he looked back over his flank, as though he knew I’d be looking back. He cocked one front foot in acknowledgment. An impossibly bright reflection caught his hoof. Then, he was gone and I was alone.
I expected this interaction to be a singular experience, as though he was testing for some credential and found me lacking. I wasn’t a maiden fair or a desperate virgin. Rather, I was a fat feminist with a boyfriend back home, trying to mind her own business. I didn’t understand why he came by the next weekend and stuck his head over the door once more.
“Can I help you?” I asked, then paused. “You have a bagel on your horn.”
He nodded, the bagel bouncing up and down as he did. Snowflakes clung to his mane and fur where they had hardened, turning into little plastic decorations. “You know, you can’t get good bagels around here.”
“You have a bagel,” I said.
“It’s not a good one.” A rainbow butterfly landed on his shoulder. He jerked his head at it, annoyed. “It’s impossible to make good bagels if you don’t know how. Most people don’t know how.”
“I thought Lender’s frozen bagels were the only type of bagel that existed until I was in high school.
If a unicorn with impossibly long eyelashes could blink with malice, he managed it.
“I grew up on a farm,” I explained. My heart ached to say it. I enjoyed learning, lusted for it, but hated living in a town.
People. Sidewalks. Concrete.
No streams. No snakes. No hours spent alone without unicorns talking to me or drunk girls crying about their lost keys.
“So you didn’t have good bagels.” He scratched the side of his face on the door frame, leaving behind glittering pieces of fur.
“I guess not.”
He stepped back and dropped his head to the ground, pointing his horn at the waxed tile floor. With a little bit of shaking, he managed to free the bagel, which slid to the ground. He clopped back a few paces, stared at it, then stomped on the bagel. The butterfly, bothered by his movements, began to flit away. He tried to snap at it and failed.
It occurred to me that the unicorn was just like me, a college kid missing home.
“I’m sorry there aren’t good bagels here,” I said.
“I’m sorry, too.”
After winter break, he started coming by every weekend. He never mentioned his major or his residence hall. He did have very strong opinions about regional food. I was lectured on New England versus Maryland chowders, New York versus Chicago pizzas, different types of barbecue. Often, I suspected he was a little drunk, coming back from some dormitory celebration and making me his obligatory stop. I found myself looking forward to his scheduled appearances, but also disliking them. He was so charming, slick. I tumbled over my words. As much as I enjoyed socialization, I found my engagement in it to be awkwardly distasteful.
Sometime in March, he came to visit. A swarm of little rainbow bunnies followed him, but hopped away when he stopped to speak with me.
“Sup,” the unicorn said.
I closed my anthology of Milton. “Not much. Working on my term paper.
A long black peacoat hung over his back like a blanket saddle. “What’s it about?”
“Areopagitia and the virtue of temptation.”
“Why do you have that, then?” He jerked his head at Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which was suffering beneath my hardbound Milton. “You like comics?”
“I’m writing another paper on graphic novels as literature and, yes, I like comics.”
I was afraid I’d frightened him when he took a few paces back, but before I could react, he lept over the open door, coming to a clean landing in the small open space between the desk and the trashcans full of assorted game supplies.
“Have you read The Dark Knight Returns?”
I glanced around nervously. I should have been frightened that a unicorn I didn’t know very well had just jumped into a small, isolated room with me, but I was more concerned that my manager would stop by and I’d get censured for allowing another student into the residential desk.
“Some of my friends have,” I said.
He fell back onto his legs, sort of sitting. His long, redgreenblueyellowpurple tail curled around his rump. The peacoat slipped off his back, onto the floor. “You gotta read it,” he said. “It’s so good. The best. So amazing.”
I listened for my manager, but the hallway was silent. The unicorn leaned against the door, head tilted back.
“Wouldn’t you be more comfortable… not on the floor?” I was really hoping to get him out of the office.
“Nah, I’m good,” the unicorn said. I could smell stale booze emanating from the coat. He fluttered his lips a few times. “You really should read it. Miller is amazing.”
“So I’ve heard,” I said.
There was some thumping in the hall. I leaned forward past the unicorn, stomach in my throat, to see one of the rabbits returning. It twitched a lavender ear at me.
“One of your bunnies is back,” I said.
“Little fucker can wait.”
“I think it’s waiting for you.”
He glare at me with large, moist eyes. “I said it can wait.”
We were very close. Close enough to make me uncomfortable. I sat down in the office chair and tried to casually roll it backwards.
“You ever have a good cheesesteak?” he asked me suddenly.
“Yeah, of course. There’s this place back home that makes great cheesesteaks.”
He nodded, knowingly. “Tell me about it.”
I leaned back, bathing in my childhood memories. “Well, they have hard or soft rolls, which are baked locally. Then, there’s this pickled hot pepper relish. And the steak comes mixed with tomato sauce and onions. Oh, and provolone.”
His hide twitched beneath silken fur as though I was a horsefly. “Provolone. And onions.”
“Yeah. It’s great,” I said. “They’re like two bucks.”
“And tomato sauce.” It was as though he hadn’t even heard me. “Tomato sauce.”
He was on his hooves in a moment. His head pushed against me knees, sending the chair rolling backwards. “Tomato sauce?!??”
I tried to grip the side of the desk, pulling myself closer to the hidden alarm button, but he blocked it. “You ever been to Philly?” The unicorn asked.
“We went to see the Liberty Bell when I was in 5th grade,” I said.
“You listen to me,” he said, snorting in my face. His unicorn breath smelled like funfetti cupcakes and scented pantyliners, the ones you accidentally buy not noticing the Now Scented text on the side. “You’re going to go to Philly.”
“I mean, I guess I am,” I said.
“And when you go, you’re going to go to Pat’s, not Geno’s.” Steam from his nostrils fogged my glasses. I pulled them off.
“Yeah, Pat’s?” he spat back. “You’re going to go to Pat’s and when you get there, you’re going to say wizwitout, you got that?”
“What’s that mean?” I asked, trying to walk my chair out of his way.
“Wizwitout,” he repeated. “Say it to me.”
“What do you–”
“Say it to me.”
“Wizitout,” I said.
“And where are you going to go?”
“To Pat’s. In Philly.”
The unicorn backed up as I was cleaning my glasses on my shirt. By the time I had them back on, he was standing against the door again, looking away. “Wizwitout,” he said, a little meeker this time.
“You should probably get to bed,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
I reached past, pushing on the door’s latch. His rainbow tail hung limply as he walked out.
“I’ll, uh, see you later,” the unicorn said. The swarm of rabbits waited for him at the bottom of the stairwell, glaring.
“We’ll see,” I said.
He lipped at the side of the door frame before clopping slowly away.
It was the last time I saw him that year. I put the peacoat into the lost and found box and tried to get back to my term papers.
Right before graduation, my boyfriend and I were eating ice cream outside of the local used bookshop when the unicorn saw us and came over to say hello. He wanted to lend me his copy of The Dark Knight, but we were moving soon and didn’t need to be trying to find a unicorn and return his graphic novel.
“Who was that?” my boyfriend asked after the unicorn walked away.
“That’s the unicorn that used to bother me in the residential desk before they opened the new one.”
“He seems nice,” my boyfriend said.
“He’s also kind of an asshole,” I said.
The unicorn was right that I eventually did go to Philly, but I was a vegetarian by then. I never ordered a cheese steak from either Pat’s or Geno’s, though I did find that wizwitout meant Cheese-Whiz without Onions, that last part proving that unicorns know very little about good, regional food. You always get the onions.