The Missing Hours by Julia Dahl: New Excerpt
By Julia DahlJuly 7, 2021
The details of whatever happened were gone from her mind, but present all over her body. Claudia dropped her hand below the stiﬀ dorm bed and felt for a water bottle. It was nearly empty, but she sucked the liquid down and it was enough to get her sitting. Upright, there was pain. Her skirt was bunched around her waist, and her underwear was gone. She stood and as she took oﬀ the skirt she noticed it was damp. Claudia brought it to her face, then recoiled: unmistakably urine. But the bed wasn’t wet. In the corner of the room she found a pair of shorts. She pulled them on and dragged herself across the common area to the bathroom.
When she sat on the toilet Claudia cried out. The sting was shocking and prolonged; the soreness deep as a canyon. She was going to get a UTI. Do I have a pill for that? That was the ﬁrst question she asked herself. And the answer was no.
She’d used the last one when she hooked up with Ben Herman over Christmas and never managed to call in a reﬁll. So, it was going to be a call to her family’s doctor, who might mention the request to her mother. Or a visit to NYU’s health center. The health center made her think of herpes. Did he use a condom? That was the ﬁrst question she couldn’t answer. Because, who was he?
There was no paper on the roll and when she looked down she saw blood. Claudia feebly wiggled her hips and pulled up the shorts.
When she ﬁlled up the water bottle at the sink Claudia had to confront the mirror. Her lip was split and had bled onto her chin. Her right eyelid was purple, swollen half shut. She stood in the windowless bathroom for a long time, waiting for the shock to fade. Waiting to ﬁnd something familiar in the face there. But the familiar was gone.
She ran the water until it was warm, cupped her hands beneath the tap, and brought them to her face. Twice, three times. She rubbed lightly and the caked red on her chin loosened, ran pink into the sink. Where can I hide until this goes away? As much as it sucked, the dorm— mostly empty for spring break—was probably best.
She pushed aside the moldy shower curtain and turned the tap to hot.
Claudia was supposed to be in the room for the birth. The doula had suggested Edie Castro choose one person to hold each leg, and she’d picked her new husband, Nathan, and her little sister. But when Edie called from the backseat of the taxi traveling up First Avenue, Claudia’s phone just rang and rang.
“It’s me,” Edie said to the voice mail. “My water broke. I’m on my way.”
She hung up and texted the same message.
A contraction came and she stretched back, trying to straighten her legs, as if she could make the cramp spread out; curl her toes instead of her writhing middle. Nathan reached for her hand and hit the button on the app to record the duration of her pain. It was just after midnight. Outside the windows the lights of the city smeared by.
They pulled up to Emergency and Nathan jogged in to get a wheelchair.
Edie texted her parents and Claudia again from the intake area. Once they got in a room, Nathan set up a laptop and a speaker, but there were only four songs on the birth playlist they’d started back in January. Neither of them were ready for this.
But Claudia didn’t rattle. When Claudia got here, it would be all right.
An hour passed and Edie lost count of the strangers coming in and going out of the room, looking at the monitor she was attached to, helping her squat over a bin to pee. Finally, just after dawn, the doctor asked if she felt like she should start pushing. At 7:07 a.m., a 5-pound 9-ounce little girl came shooting out into the world, squint-eyed and crying. Edie was crying, too, her arm thrown over her eyes. They sewed her up and put the baby on her chest. Edie looked down and saw the hair on the girl’s head. What was she supposed to feel? What was she supposed to do? Where was Claudia?
The nurses took the baby to be inspected, and Edie and Nathan were alone in the room for the ﬁrst time since they’d arrived. She was supposed to have given birth in their little rental house in Poughkeespie with the midwife she’d chosen. She was supposed to be surrounded by candles. She was supposed to be able to lay her head back on her own pillows and gaze at the photographs she’d taken of the places and people who made her feel happy and strong. But that plan dissolved when her mother had announced that if Edie didn’t have the baby in the city, at “the best” hospital, she’d lose access to her trust fund. So now she was shivering in a room where the lights never seemed to go down and the machines never stopped buzzing. She closed her eyes and asked Nathan for a blanket.
“I can’t believe how great you did,” he said.
Edie kept her eyes shut. She tried to give him a smile but it probably looked like a wince.
“Have you checked my phone?” she asked.
“Claudia hasn’t called. But I looked at her Instagram.” Edie opened her eyes. “What?”
“She went out last night.”
“Let me see.”
He handed her his phone. Claudia’s last post was a selﬁe (#staycation #springbreak #nyc) uploaded at 11:04 p.m. from a bar on Bleecker. An hour before Edie texted from the cab. Her sister looked drunk in the photo; her eyelids low, her mouth captured in a scream-smile. Yes! Look at me! I’m having so much fun! They’d talked about this exact thing two days ago. Two days! I could go at any time, Edie said. Make sure you have your phone. It was hard to wrap her mind around it: Claudia had missed the birth. All the arrangements, the fucking class they took together—and her sister just got wasted.
The nurses wheeled the baby back in a plastic bassinet, swaddled tight and sleeping.
“Has someone started you expressing yet?” asked the nurse. Edie shook her head. The nurse told her to squeeze her breast. “Like you’re trying to get frosting out of a tube.” She held a tiny plastic cup beneath Edie’s nipple, but nothing came out. “Keep trying,” said the nurse. “It can take some women a while. Keep switching breasts.”
A few minutes later, Edie’s father, Gabriel Castro, peeked in the door.
“Can I come in?”
Edie pulled her gown back up over her shoulder. Her dad’s hair was rumpled; he was wearing a Pavement T-shirt, jeans, and an old pair of Vans. Millions of dollars and half a dozen Grammys after leaving dusty Central California, her dad still dressed like a boy who’d just gotten oﬀ a cross-country bus. Six months ago, Edie’s mom, Michelle Whitehouse, had announced that after more than half a life together, she was leaving him. So that boy was now almost ﬁfty, graying, and alone. As far as Edie could tell, her dad hadn’t left the family’s town house in a month. But when Nathan set the swaddled child in her father’s arms, he giggled. He couldn’t contain the happiness the little person she’d made gave him. That was something, thought Edie. Had she made the right decision keeping the baby? This was a check in the “yes” box.
“Does she have a name?” Gabe asked.
“I think Edie wanted to wait till you guys were all together to tell everybody,” said Nathan. He looked at Edie, who shrugged. What was the point of a big reveal? Claudia was probably passed out in some asshole’s bed, and her mom, well, she could go fuck herself.
“Lydia,” said Edie. “Lydia Castro McHugh.”
Gabe looked down at the baby and put a ﬁnger on top of her ear, just peeking up from the swaddle. “Hello, little Lydia. Welcome to New York City.” He looked up at Edie, eyes glassy. “It’s a beautiful name. She’s beautiful. Nathan, we’re surrounded by beautiful women.”
Nathan smiled. He was sitting beside Edie and he leaned forward, kissed her on the cheek. For the next hour, Gabe held sleeping Lydia. He paced the room, he sat on the pink-and-blue loveseat, he whispered in her ear as he looked out the window at the city below. It was Saturday, and traﬃc on the FDR was light. The sun shone oﬀ the East River and the Roosevelt Island tram carried people across in a glass capsule. When Lydia woke and started to cry, he handed her to Edie and asked, “Where’s your sister?”
Claudia Castro walked right into him as she came out of the elevator. Trevor was in sleep shorts and shower sandals. He’d run out of toothpaste and was headed to get some at the Rite-Aid on University.
“Whoa!” he said. She stumbled back, her sunglasses falling to the ﬂoor. Trevor took in her broken face. “Oh my gosh, are you okay?”
He bent down to pick up the glasses.
“I’m so sorry,” he continued when she didn’t answer. “We’ve got a ﬁrst aid kit in our room.”
“I’m okay,” she said, taking the glasses without looking up. “Thanks.”
She walked past him. Limped, actually. Favoring one leg, bent slightly at the waist like she had a cramp. Trevor watched her go—he couldn’t help it. Perfect little half-moons
peeked beneath the edge of her shorts. Her butt was small, but it moved just enough that he felt it. After the drugstore, he got in the shower and rubbed one out before church.
On his way back to the dorm, Trevor stopped at a café on MacDougal and ordered coﬀee and a blueberry muﬃn—everybody likes those, right? Unless she was gluten free. Or vegan. Trevor didn’t know many vegans in Canton, but a lot of the girls he met since arriving in New York had some dietary restriction or another. Either way, it was a gesture. Her roommate, Whitney, who he’d been hooking up with for a couple months, was big on gestures. Hopefully Claudia was, too.
“It’s Trevor,” he said after knocking at her door. He smiled into the peephole. “I live down the hall. We bumped into each other earlier.”
Claudia opened the door just a few inches. She was still wearing the sunglasses, but they didn’t cover all the wounds on her face.
“There’s cream and sugar in the bag,” said Trevor, raising the coﬀee.
She looked puzzled, like he’d changed the subject.
“I’m Trevor,” he heard himself say again.
Claudia accepted the coﬀee and the brown paper bag with the muﬃn inside.
“Thanks,” she said, and shut the door.
At the little desk in his bedroom, Trevor tried to focus on his paper for Comparative Religion. He was writing about the concept of nirvana in Buddhism. It had to be six pages and use at least four primary sources, but he gave up after two hours and barely a page. He was supposed to be imagining a life free of spiritual poison, but all he could see was Claudia Castro’s face.
She knocked on his door that evening.
“Hey,” she said. “I’m Claudia.”
Trevor smiled, too big, probably. But whatever. He was happy to see her.
“Are you going back out?” she asked.
“I’m sorry to ask but is there any way I could give you some money to go to the drugstore? I can’t ﬁnd my phone and I don’t really want to run into anybody.”
“Thanks.” She handed him a hundred-dollar bill and a list handwritten on the back of a subscription card for Marie Claire magazine. “No rush or anything. I just . . .”
“You don’t have to explain,” said Trevor. “Do you want some dinner, too? I was gonna get ramen.”
He nodded. It wasn’t exactly a lie. He had been planning on ramen for dinner, but the plan involved microwaving a dollar-packet from their common room cabinet microwaved with bathroom sink water, not the $20 bowls they sold at the Japanese place down the block.
“Sure,” she said. “I’d take some rice and veggies. Thanks.”
An hour later, Trevor knocked on her door.
“I really appreciate it,” said Claudia. She was still wearing the sunglasses.
He paused after handing her the food. He wanted to ask what happened. Somehow, he sensed he could help.
“Do you want to come in?” she asked.
They ate at the coﬀee table. Claudia was quiet and he looked around the room for something to talk about. Trevor had been here to hook up with Whitney, but they spent most of the time in her bed. For Whitney, Claudia was the Holy Grail of roommates: rarely there. She’s rich, Whitney told him as an explanation. On a chair near the window Trevor saw an oversized leather portfolio case and he remembered that Whitney mentioned Claudia took art classes. But he didn’t know anything about art and he didn’t want to say something stupid, so the silence continued until Claudia asked why he was still on campus over spring break.
“I’ve got a lot of work to catch up on.” Again, not a lie, but not the whole truth. The whole truth was that he hadn’t raised enough money to go to Costa Rica and build houses with his church group. His parents would have liked to see him, but going home was exhausting and ﬂights expensive. “What about you?”
“Obviously, I should have gotten out of town.”
She didn’t elaborate. He noticed her water glass was empty so he got up and reﬁlled it, then gathered their takeout detritus and bagged it.
“I should go to bed,” she said.
“Cool. Thanks for dinner.” Stupid, he thought. I brought it to her.
After the boy from down the hall left, Claudia called the security desk downstairs and was told, for the third time, that no one had turned in her phone. It had been twenty-four hours and she still had no idea how she’d gotten back to bed, or who she’d been with past eleven o’clock the night before.
She’d blacked out only one other time, on Martha’s Vineyard last summer. After a graduation dinner at a restaurant near their seaside estate, Claudia’s parents had allowed her to stay and drink with her twenty-two-year-old sister, Edie. The bartender made key lime martinis and after two they stumbled down to the yacht club at the Edgartown harbor. Alcohol, the great equalizer: The prep school kids from Boston and New York were sharing a bottle of vodka with the barbacks and servers who worked on the island. The last thing she remembered was accepting someone’s coat around her shoulders. The next morning, after she woke up in a deck chair, her sister informed her that at some point she’d announced to everyone she wasn’t going to let anybody fuck her until college.
“You said it was going to be the ‘Summer of Blow Jobs!’ ” howled Edie.
“No, I didn’t,” said Claudia, although it sounded like something she might say, especially if she was drunk.
“Nathan is a witness,” said Edie.
“It’s true,” said Nathan, Edie’s scruﬀy boyfriend from Vassar. He’d spent the summer with them and knocked Edie up that August, right under their parents’ noses.
They were all sitting in the breakfast room, a wall of French doors ﬂung open onto the stone patio. The pool, the grass, the sand, the ocean, the blue sky: Claudia could stand up and run straight into the horizon from the table.
“You were pretty messed up,” said her sister. “I thought you went oﬀ to puke, but you never came back.”
“You didn’t try to ﬁnd me?”
“I ﬁgured you’d go home, and I was right.”
“I don’t even remember getting here.”
“You probably blacked out,” said Nathan.
Before that night, Claudia had assumed people who said they didn’t remember what happened when they were drunk were lying. Or at least they weren’t being literal. The idea that she’d said and done things she had no memory of was disturbing—and, in the case of her alleged Edgartown exclamation, mildly humiliating—but sitting alone in her dorm room now, staring into the black hole in her mind, she realized she hadn’t even considered how lucky she’d been that night on the island. She could have fallen oﬀ the dock, hit her head on one of the night-silent boats, and been washed away by the black water. She could have tripped stumbling home and gotten hit by a sleepy driver. She could have been raped.
Claudia took three Benadryls and slept for twelve hours on the shitty dorm mattress, dreaming of banging on doors and falling down stairs. In the morning the fear became more acute: the infection was coming. She needed the pills and she needed to ﬁnd her phone.
Trevor knocked about an hour later, while she was working up the courage to go outside.
“I’m on my way to the library,” he said. “I can pick something up if you want.”
He was very good-looking: symmetrical features, clear skin, dark brown eyes, a hint of muscle beneath his T-shirt. As he waited for her answer, Trevor ﬁddled with the chain on his neck, revealing a simple gold cross. A week ago, Claudia would have considered hooking up with him, even though she was pretty sure her roommate already was. A week ago, she would have taken in his scent and imagined what he tasted like. She might have smiled and ﬂirted and wondered if he could make her stop thinking about Ben for a little while. But not now. Now there were whole pieces of her that seemed to have been swept away. Why couldn’t she remember? Claudia looked at Trevor and thought: I need to get outside.
“I’m gonna head out, too,” she said. She looked around. Wallet, sunglasses, hat. Was that all she needed? “Maybe the sun will feel good.”
“I bet it will,” he said.
But it didn’t. The dehydration that had sucked at her brain the day before was quenched, as was the woozy slosh of alcohol in her stomach. But that delicate feeling of a hangover remained. The very air felt aggressive and the missing hours thrashed behind her eyes. The hole in her mind seemed to have its own gravity.
“Are you going anywhere speciﬁc?” Trevor asked as they walked toward Broadway.
“The health center,” she said.
“I went once for a ﬂu shot. I bet it won’t be crowded now, since it’s spring break.”
Claudia looked at him. He was imagining her concerns and trying to allay them. He barely knew her and yet he cared enough to consider not just what she might want to eat, but what she might be worried about. Claudia didn’t know many people like that. They walked side by side, not speaking. On the next block, they passed the green-and-pink neon sign for a bubble tea shop, and it ignited a pinprick of light in the darkness of her memory. She saw her hands on the sidewalk, felt an arm around her waist, and the cool night air under her too-short skirt.
“I fell,” she said.
Whose arm was it? “Never mind.”
She kept walking. He probably thought she was insane.
“Do you want me to go with you?” Trevor asked. “I’ve just got reading. I can do it there.”
Why did she say yes? Because she trusted him? Because she wanted an audience? Her sister was oﬀ social media since getting pregnant and routinely accused Claudia of needing an audience for every moment of her life. I don’t need anything, Claudia protested. It’s just fun.
From outside the glass entrance doors she scanned the waiting room and didn’t see anyone she recognized. She told the receptionist she needed to see a nurse to get some medication and was handed a clipboard.
“Don’t forget to ﬁll out both sides.”
Claudia kept her sunglasses on as she sat beside Trevor in a deep plastic chair. She began ﬁlling out the boxes: name, birth date, student ID number, medications. Are you pregnant? Have you ever been pregnant? Do you use alcohol? If so, how much? Do you use other intoxicating substances? She ﬁnished the paperwork, signed away her privacy, returned the clipboard to the receptionist, and sat back down. The magazines on the side table next to her were awful. Princess Meghan and Kylie Jenner and Cardi B. Blah Blah Blah. She pushed them aside and picked up yesterday’s copy of the New York Post. subway slasher strikes again screamed the headline, the ink red and the font appropriating a cheesy horror movie poster.
“Did you see this?” she asked Trevor.
He leaned over. “Yeah, I got an alert on my phone this morning.”
“From the university. I guess it happened at the Astor Place station. My parents are kind of freaking out. I keep telling them I basically never go anywhere except class.”
Claudia put the paper down. It could have been worse, she thought. At least she didn’t get stabbed.
A nurse with short blond hair and skinny arms held open a door for her.
“I’ll be here when you get back,” said Trevor.
In exam room 2, the nurse sat on a wheeled stool and pulled a wall-mounted computer monitor toward her.
“What can I help you with today?” she asked, typing.
“I need some Cipro,” said Claudia. The paper on the exam table crunched beneath her. “I have a UTI.”
“You’ve taken it before?”
“Would you mind taking oﬀ your sunglasses?”
Claudia hesitated. But what was she going to do, refuse?
“That looks recent,” said the nurse, frowning. She lifted a black ﬂashlight oﬀ the wall. “Do you mind if I take a look?”
Claudia didn’t protest. The nurse donned rubber gloves, placed her ﬁngers on Claudia’s face, and shone a thin beam of light into her eye.
“How’s your vision?”
The nurse put the light back on the wall. Claudia noticed a tattoo on the inside of her left arm: a thin arrow pointing toward her wrist. She’d seen those before. Supposedly they represented forward movement; struggles overcome. Claudia wondered what the tattoo meant to the nurse. What had she gone through before having it inked into her skin? Was it over now?
“When did this happen?” asked the nurse, peering at Claudia’s face.
“The night before last.”
“Same incident as the lip?”
Claudia nodded. She needed to make something up.
“I was drunk. I tripped and fell onto a . . .” A what? “A coﬀee table.”
The nurse didn’t laugh, which Claudia appreciated.
“Must have been a hard fall,” she said. “Have you ever injured yourself while intoxicated before?”
“No,” said Claudia.
“Was anyone with you?”
“Have you spoken with them? If we know exactly what happened it’ll help guide your care.”
“I haven’t,” said Claudia. “I lost my phone.”
The nurse nodded. She was waiting for details, if Claudia wanted to provide them. Would she, if she knew?
“You can get an ice pack at CVS. Wrap it in a towel and hold it over the eye and the lip as often as you can handle. Try not to touch either too much otherwise. You really don’t want the eye to get infected.”
“How long until it goes away?”
“A few days for the lip. Probably a week, maybe a little more, on the eye.”
Edie’s due date was in a week.
“Tell me about your other symptoms,” said the nurse.
“You said you thought you had a UTI.”
“Right.” The reason she was here. “I pretty much always get them after sex.”
“When did you last have intercourse?”
“The night before last.”
The words hung in the air. Claudia diverted her eyes. Did she look as stupid as she felt?
“Would you mind telling me your symptoms?” asked the nurse. “I don’t want to alarm you, but occasionally symptoms of sexually transmitted infections mirror those of UTIs.”
“Oh. Um. It stings when I pee. And I feel like I have to go a lot.” The last part wasn’t true, but it would be if she didn’t get the pill.
“Did your partner use a condom?”
Claudia hesitated. “I’m not sure.”
“Would you like to go ahead and do STI testing then? Just in case?”
“Okay.” Her eyes stung. She was not going to cry. But she understood. STI meant STD. Sluts got STDs. She’d seen the scare pictures in sex ed. The sores and the foul smells and the snickers forever behind her back. She was not that girl. She was not that girl.
“It’s a blood test and a urine sample. Shouldn’t take long at all. What about birth control? Would you like Plan B today?”
“Okay.” She was on the Pill, but had she remembered to take it that night? Or the night before? Or last night?
“Do you have any reason to think your partner might be HIV positive?” asked the nurse.
“What?” Sweat popped open the pores on her neck, beneath her arms. Her breath quickened.
“If you think you might be at risk we can get you on PrEP. It’s one pill a day for twenty-eight days. It’s not one hundred percent, but if you start within seventy-two hours of exposure and take it as directed we think it’s very eﬀective.”
“Okay.” Claudia tried to swallow but her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. The nurse was talking about AIDS. She might have AIDS.
“Is this the ﬁrst time you’ve had unprotected sex?” asked the nurse.
“Yeah. I guess it is. Was.”
“Was it a new partner?”
“Um . . .” The nurse waited, but Claudia couldn’t think of what else to say. She felt like she was shrinking.
“Was alcohol involved?”
Claudia nodded. “I’ve only ever blacked out once before.”
“Do you think that’s what happened? You blacked out from drinking?”
“I don’t really remember.”
“Would you say you think the sex was consensual, then?”
“If you were incapacitated, do you think you were the victim of an assault?”
Claudia didn’t answer. She remembered dinner with Lolly and Adrienne Kennedy, the twins she’d gone to prep school with. But after that there was nothing.
“I don’t know.” It took everything she had not to scream it.
“Okay. If you’re willing, I recommend the STI tests, and the PrEP, just in case. Have you ever used it before?”
Claudia shook her head.
“The side eﬀects are minimal, but you do have to take it every day for the whole twenty-eight days for it to be eﬀective.”
“Okay.” She sounded like a moron: okay okay okay. She should have questions; she did have questions, but she seemed to have lost the ability to ask them. Nearly lost the ability to speak.
“If you think you might have been assaulted, there are other, more specialized tests that can help us preserve any evidence that may still be available. We can’t do that here, but the Wellness Project has counselors that can meet you at the hospital and make sure you’re supported. I’ll be honest, the test is invasive. But if you think you might want to report what happened, it’s helpful. And I don’t want to pressure you, but the sooner you get it done the better.”
The nurse swiveled on her stool and took a brochure from a plastic bin on the wall.
“Have you showered since the night before last?”
Claudia nodded. Finally, she understood. How many SVU episodes had she seen? What was the mantra for every special victim? Don’t wash the evidence away. But she had.
“What we’d be able to collect might be limited, but if you want to make a report I still recommend it. There might be something there. Either way, if you want to talk, call the hotline. I’ve trained some of the girls myself and it can be really helpful to talk after something . . . confusing, has happened. You’d be surprised—or maybe you wouldn’t be—how many people end up in situations like this. Especially freshman year.”
Claudia took the brochure. It was NYU purple and white. A line drawing of a woman’s proﬁle. A phone number and website. She’d been given the same brochure probably a dozen times in the ﬁrst few months of school. She imagined them piled inside trash cans across the Village.
“Okay, so we’ll do the blood and urine.” The nurse paused. “We’ve got lots of resources here. And if you want to talk—even if you’re just feeling confused, the Wellness Project is really great.”
Claudia nodded. “Thanks.”
The nurse came back with PrEP, Cipro, a Plan B pack, and a pee cup.
“We keep the popular items stocked,” said the nurse, possibly attempting humor.
She pointed to the bathroom and instructed Claudia to use the Sharpie to label the cup, then leave it on the tray when she was done, and return to the room to have her blood drawn. Claudia took the medication and the cup and nodded, then walked out of the health center.
Copyright © 2021 by Julia Dahl. All rights reserved.