Junior year of college starts now, which means I have two years left until I am free. Every day is a reminder of how completely different I am from my peers, a constant sense of my inability to be social and happy and emotionally unchained. It can be a challenge to isolate myself here, but I do what I can.
It takes Simon twenty minutes of circling Andrews College’s campus to find a place to park. Arrival day is always utter chaos, with students spilling from cars, arms laden with boxes and bags; cars double-parked up and down the streets; and tearful parents milling around and clogging the sidewalks. The drive from Boston to northern Maine has taken almost five hours, and this early September day feels more like August than it does the start of fall. Welcome to New England. I am sweaty from the lack of good air-conditioning, but I try to subtly fan my shirt when I step out of the car, relishing the faint breeze.
“Sorry about the AC,” Simon says apologetically. “This car’s an oldie but a goody.” From his spot outside the driver’s side, he looks over the car at me and half smiles as he taps the hood and looks unreasonably fresh, given the heat. “Bad timing for it to go out, I know. We could consider it some kind of fashionable spa detox. I’m sure Volvo would approve.”
I smile and nod. “Sure. Junior year should start with a cleanse of some sort.”
“Right? Before you do all sorts of college things to pollute your system. Parties, cafeteria food . . .” He waves a hand around, and I know he’s hoping I will continue with the joke.
Simon tries very hard, and I routinely fail him. I know this, but it’s all I can manage. It’s not his fault; it’s mine. He’s a very nice man. Too nice, probably. Too giving and too understanding.
Simon, I silently remind myself, is also my father. It’s embarrassing how often I have to remind myself of this, because I’ve seen the adoption papers. I was there, for God’s sake, when they were signed and when I officially—and finally—left the foster care system at the ripe old age of sixteen and a half.
I catch my reflection in the window of the car. My long dark hair is pulled into a ponytail, the weight leaden on my back, my thick bangs stuck to my forehead with sweat, my cheeks flushed.
My reaction is not from the heat, though. This is anxiety building.
I need water.
Not only do I have to meet a new roommate, but I’ll have to part ways with Simon. I’ll hate putting him through an awkward good-bye, so I resolve to perk up and do a better job. I’m just not very good at being a daughter, but I want to try. I care about him so much, but I still struggle with how to show him that.
I plaster on a smile and round the car to the trunk. “Think we can make it in one trip?” I ask. “If we do, I’ll buy you lunch.”
“At your nasty student union? That’s no incentive.” Simon retrieves a box from the trunk. He’s trying to hide it, but I can see him grin. “I’ll carry one shoe in at a time if that’ll save me.”
“Actually, I was thinking about the Greek place down the street.” The suitcase I pull out doesn’t weigh much. I’m a minimalist, and so I travel light.
Simon stands up and tips his head to the side, raising an eyebrow, no longer concealing his happiness. “Greek place? With gyros? And hummus?”
I nod. “And baba ghanoush.”
He shifts the box to rest on his hip, freeing up a hand. His voice elevates. “Grab everything you can and run! Only take what you need! Run like the wind!” He yanks a small duffel from the car and dashes to the sidewalk, calling out over his shoulder, “Come on, Allison! There’s no time to waste!”
I laugh and take the only other bag I have from the back of the car and then slam the trunk. Simon is teasing me, because the truth is that his car is now empty of what I’ve brought to school. My adoptive father is trying to make light of my inability to plant real roots anywhere, how I allow myself a fraction of the things other students stuff in their small dorm rooms, and I’m reminded of how sweet and understanding he is when it comes to my personality flaws. While most students take hours to unload cars and retrieve boxes from campus storage, we’ve unloaded the car in five seconds.
It takes scrambling to catch up with Simon—who has raced so far ahead that I’m chagrined by my inability to keep up with him—and my suitcase bumps up steps and over a good deal of grassy lawn as I shortcut between dorm buildings to reach mine. I’m breathless when I reach Kirk Hall, where he is sitting on the box, looking all sorts of casual and relaxed.
“Really, Simon?” I gasp. “How . . . how did you even know where you were going?” I pant.
“I studied the campus map last week. And perhaps yesterday. And again this morning before we left.” Simon manages to look as cool and handsome as ever, with no hint of a sweat stain on his button-down red linen shirt. The hair that is always stylishly whooshed back from his forehead is still in place. His effortless ability to always look so poised, even when not warranted, is admirable. Aviator sunglasses turn toward me. “I’ve only been up here a few times before, and I can’t look like the average bumbling family member, following blindly while their child leads the way. I want to look like I know what I’m doing.”
I feel bad for not inviting him up to visit more often over the past two years. Maybe this year will be different. Maybe this year I will be able to let him in. I’d like that.
My heart rate is returning to normal, but I’m sweating again. “So, you thought you’d scamper wildly across campus like a lunatic?”
He grins. “Yes. Now, let’s go see your room.”
It was my hope that I’d land a good room-lottery number last spring and snatch up a coveted single room, but, unsurprisingly, I’d been at the bottom of the barrel. I’d waited hours in line to choose my room from a poorly drawn map, only to find that all the singles were gone. The fact the dorm-room selection couldn’t be done online was beyond belief, and I cursed the archaic system as I ran through the remaining room choices. The student in charge asked repeatedly if I had a friend I could room with, and I tried brushing him off five times before I practically had to holler, “No, okay? No, I don’t have anyone to room with! That’s why I want a single room!”
Some might say I created a bit of a scene, but I was too busy panicking to care. I finally chose half of a two-person suite that at least afforded me a private bedroom, along with a common room. I’d have to come in and out through that small shared common area, but I could probably keep to myself easily enough. In more positive moments, part of me dared to hope that this mystery roommate and I might hit it off. Wonders could happen. Still, today I am anxious about meeting her.
It only takes a few minutes to sign in at the dorm and get my key. Then, with significant trepidation, I enter my basement suite.
Simon laughs when I audibly exhale. “Relieved she’s not here yet?”
I roll my suitcase into one of the barren bedrooms and then plunk down on the rock-hard, hideous orange sofa in the lounge. Simon takes a swivel chair from my room and slides it in front of me, where he then plants himself. “Why are you so worried?”
I cross my arms and look around the concrete room. “I’m not worried at all. She’s probably very nice. I’m sure we’ll become soul mates, and she’ll braid my hair, and we’ll have pillow fights while scantily clad and fall into a deep lesbian love affair.” I squint my eyes at a cobweb and assume there are spider eggs preparing to hatch and invade the room.
“Allison?” Simon waits until I look at him. “You can’t do that. You can’t become a lesbian.”
“Because then everyone will say that your adoptive gay father magically made you gay, and it’ll be a big thing, and we’ll have to hear about nature versus nurture, and it’ll be soooooo boring.”
“You have a point.” I wait for spider eggs to fall from the sky. “Then I’ll go with assuming she’s just a really sweet, normal person with whom I do not want to engage in sexual relations.”
“Better,” he concedes. “I’m sure she’ll be nice. This kind of strong liberal arts college attracts quality students. There’re good people here.” He’s trying to reassure me, but it’s not working.
“Totally,” I say. My fingers run across the nubby burned-orange fabric covering the couch, which is clearly composed of rock slabs. “Simon?”
I sigh and take a few breaths while I play with the hideous couch threads. “She probably has horns.”
He shrugged. “I think that’s unlikely.” Simon pauses. “Although . . .”
“Although what?” I ask with horror.
There’s a long silence that makes me nervous. Finally, he says very slowly, “She might have one horn.”
I jerk my head and stare at him.
Simon claps his hands together and tries to coax a smile out of me. “Like a unicorn! Ohmigod! Your roommate might be a unicorn!”
“Or a rhinoceros,” I point out. “A beastly, murderous rhino.”
“There is that,” he concedes.
I sigh. “In good news, if I ever need a back scratcher, I have this entire couch.” I slump back against the rough fabric and hold out my hands before he can protest. “I know. I’m a beacon of positivity.”
“That’s not news to me.” Simon’s blue eyes meet mine. His skin is tan and weathered from a summer spent sailing off the coast of Massachusetts, his brown hair lightened in places where the gray has not taken over. I should have joined him on these excursions more than the few times I did. Next summer, maybe next summer . . .
“I think a back scratcher is a great luxury provided to you by Andrews College,” he says. “Enjoy.”
As I look around the concrete room, I make a resolution: I am going to give this unknown roommate a chance. I will push myself to be open and friendly. We might be very compatible. There’s no need for this collegiate relationship to become a be-all, end-all friendship, because I already have that with my one true friend, Steffi, and my heart has no room for more than one. But a good, working relationship with a roommate? That could actually be enjoyable.
Well, enjoyable might be pushing it. I’d shoot for tolerable.
There is a loud knock on the door, and it swings open as a tall boy with a scraggly beard and rows of beads dangling around his neck pokes his head into the room. “Yo, are you Allison?”
He beams. “Hey! Great to meet you! I’m Brian, your RA. Listen, my friend, welcome. We’re so happy you’re in Kirk Hall. Gonna be a rockin’ year.” He makes a little fist pump in the air, and I try not to recoil. “So, dude, one thing? Your roommate? Small hitch with her.”
“What do you mean by hitch?” I ask.
“Yeesh, she sorta isn’t going to be coming to school this year. Something about an Antarctic trip and a sea leopard.” His face contorts. “Sounds unappealing to me, but she’s gonna be holed up in a lab studying this creature for a few months before she takes off to see ’em in person.”
Simon wrinkles his face. “Sea leopards?”
“Dude, yeah.” The boy with the necklaces pinches the bridge of his nose. “I bet they smell. Guess you’ll be flying solo this year, little bird.” Suddenly he brightens. “But hey! We’ve got a killer welcome-back party here in this very dorm tonight! Third-floor lounge! See you there!” He points a finger at me and then vanishes, letting the door slam behind him.
While Simon looks stricken that I will not have a roommate, my spirits are undeniably lifted. I’m a little bird who is going to be flying solo this year! “Let’s go get some baklava,” I say with too much enthusiasm.
“Allison . . .”
“What? Oh.” I force myself to look forlorn and try to hide that I actually find a degree of comfort in this turn of events. “I mean, it would have been nice to live with someone, I guess, but it’s all right. I’m sure this girl will have a unique year. So, good for her, right? Did you know that sea leopards are also called leopard seals? I like that name better.”
Simon tosses his hands in the air. “I didn’t.” He searches for something appropriate to say. “Look, I know you don’t like people, but that doesn’t mean you should be happy if—”
“If someone chose a year of living in a lab and then in the frozen tundra, studying a vicious and creepy animal, over living with me?”
He looks sad. “Yes. But it’s not as though she knew you and . . . rejected you. She’s just following some dream of hers or whatnot.”
We sit without speaking, and eventually my butt hurts enough from the scratchy couch that I stand and walk the few steps to what would have been my roommate’s bedroom. I lean my head against the doorjamb and look at the floor. “I’m sorry that I don’t like people. I’m sorry that I look clearly relieved that I’ll be living alone.”
“It’s okay,” he replies gently. “I get it.”
“And I’m sorry I’m pessimistic.”
“I get that, too.”
“And I’m sorry . . .” I can’t find the words. “I’m just sorry. I think you made a mistake. A mistake with me.” This is the first time I say what I have been thinking for years. I’m not sure why it comes out now, but, generally speaking, I’m not sure of much.
From the corner of my eye, I see Simon rise from the chair and turn my way. Softly, but very assuredly, he says, “No. I definitely did not make a mistake with you.”
Because he knows me well enough, he doesn’t step toward me expecting an embrace or some other emotional or physical display. Simon gets a lot of credit for respecting my boundaries. He knows that connection is not my thing.
People are not my thing.
Trust is not my thing.
“What I also know for sure,” he continues, “is that you owe me lunch.”
So, we walk to the little Greek place a block from campus, and we order a crazy amount of food. I spend a lot of time stuffing my face and little time talking, but Simon manages to make our silence feel less uncomfortable than it should.
“I wonder what she’s like,” I murmur between bites. For a few seconds, I imagine having a typical college experience, complete with a bang-up, awesome roommate, with me actually welcoming that experience. My past two roommates and I made zero connection, unsurprisingly. I know that was my fault. “Maybe she was really cool. Maybe we would have been friends.”
Simon clears his throat. He knows I’m full of shit.
“But,” I continue factually, “leopard seals are obviously the love of her life, and since I find them terrifying, I suspect a friendship wouldn’t have worked out anyway. This is for the best.”
My head starts to hurt. I down my drink and then focus on filling and refilling my glass with the bottle of sparkling water.
“How much do you actually know about these animals?” Simon interrupts my obsessive water consumption. “I’ve barely heard of them.”
It takes only a minute for me to pull up a picture on my phone, and I stick the screen out in front of me. “Teeth. That animal has mini spears for teeth.”
Simon casts a look of defeat. “Okay. You’re right. That’s an unpleasant animal. She might not have made the best roommate.”
I sit back with immense satisfaction, my headache now subsiding.
WE GET ONE
At nine o’clock at night, I’m in bed, smoothing down the crisp sheets, ensuring that the perfect fold resting on my chest holds its form. A small desk fan circulates enough air to keep me from suffocating on this hot night. Something about the sounds of students whooping it up and celebrating their return to campus makes my stomach knot up, so I don’t open the small window. The whir from the fan doesn’t quash the revelers’ drunken partying much, but it at least helps.
A sudden pounding on my door startles me, and it takes me a second to squelch my panic before I tentatively open the door.
“Allison! How was your summer? You coming to the dorm party upstairs?” A petite girl with a plastic cup stands before me. Her bleached hair spikes in dramatic chunks from her head and then lands just on her shoulders. I recognize her from a few of my classes last year. Becky? Bella? Brooke? Some kind of B name. She catches herself when she notices my tank top and pajama bottoms. “Oh. I guess not,” she says.
I form a big smile. “Hey! It’s so good to see you. Oh my God! You look gorgeous! Check out that tan!” I manage to sound so overzealous that even I’m surprised at the squeal in my voice. “I’m seriously beat from all the end-of-summer parties.” I give a knowing look, trying to convey the idea that I’ve been engaged in such wild and scandalous activities over the past few weeks that I cannot possibly haul myself to one more social event. I pretend to yawn.
B-name girl raises her cup in understanding and nods her head so vigorously that a strand of her hair bounces into the liquid. “I hear you. Well, rest up. Next time, ’kay?”
The idea that I am going to have to spend another two years here, deflecting social interaction, is daunting. If I could throw an invisibility cloak over myself and attend college that way, I would.
“For sure . . .” I make the horrible mistake of pausing, letting her know that I cannot for the life of me remember her name.
“Carmen,” she says with a splash of annoyance. “Carmen. I lived next to you last year, and we had lit and British history together.”
“I know your name, silly!” I scramble to think of something else to say. While I don’t want to go to any parties, I also really don’t want to hurt her feelings. It’s moments like this that I so wish I could be less awkward and weird. In a scramble to be friendly, I blurt out, “I just . . . I was just noticing your cool earrings. They’re so unique.”
She touches a hand to her ear. “They’re plain silver hoops.”
“Er, I didn’t mean unique, really. I meant . . . that . . . they’re the perfect size. Not too big, not too small, you know?”
Carmen looks at me skeptically. “I guess so.”
“They’re really nice. I’ve been wanting a pair like that.”
“My mom got them for me. I can ask her where she bought them if you want.”
I smile. “That’s so cool of you. Thanks!” I’m too chipper, I realize, so I bring it down a notch and fake another yawn. “Anyway, I’m sorry I’m so lame tonight. But drink a beer for me, will you?”
“You got it! I’ll start now!” She takes a big drink from her cup and goes down the hall, turning back after a few paces. “Nice to see you, Allison.”
“You too, Carmen!”
I lock the door and turn off the light. The door to the empty second bedroom is open, and I stare at it. Leave it open, or shut the door? I can’t decide what to do. Closed will make it seem as though someone is in there. sleeping, studying, hooking up, wanting privacy . . . As though maybe I have a friend in there with whom I have an actual connection. Something. Open will remind me that there is no one in there.
Truly, I have no idea what to do. Minutes tick by.
Suddenly, I lurch forward, grab the handle, and slam it shut. That room does not exist.
I rush away and quickly close my own door. I cannot get back into bed fast enough.
I scramble to pull the bedding up to my chin in some kind of crazy fit. Why would Carmen come by my room? It’s inexplicable. My toes are wiggling wildly, and I clap my feet together to calm them down.
I fan my body with the sheets before again smoothing the fabric, making sure the top fold is exact. Simon insisted on getting me new sheets, even though I already had one set, and he washed and even ironed these for me before we left home. He looked terribly disappointed when I tried to turn down these new sheets. “You can’t have just one set of sheets! Please? For me? Just this one year, have a second set,” he’d pleaded. “The thread count is off the charts.” So, I’d thanked him and accepted the gift of high thread count.
The feel of the heavyweight cotton is less familiar than the inexpensive, scratchy sheets that I’d often slept on when growing up, and so I am moderately uncomfortable and tempted to pull the old ones from my closet and remake the bed, but in an effort to make Simon happy, I stick with these. He’s been trying for years to give me a new normal.
I wish I could let him, but my history is too tainted for him to fix.
I stopped hoping for stability when I was ten. It was a good, long run of optimism, if you ask me, but when I turned ten, it became obvious that I was unadoptable. No one would want a shy, uninteresting, skittish child who was well past the cute baby stage.
I close my eyes and stroke the sheets over and over, trying to manage the anxiety that always comes with revisiting the past.
I remember a very kind social worker who picked me up from a home placement when I was around eight. It was New Year’s Day, with sleeting rain stabbing at the mounds of snow, and she must have adjusted her pink wool scarf a dozen times a minute in her nervousness. What a depressing job she had. I can still see the smiling faces of the parents and their two biological children as they all hugged me good-bye and waved, wishing me well and thanking me for staying with them. Thanking me, as though I’d been an exchange student who’d just stopped in temporarily to experience the culture of an upper-class Massachusetts family. As though they’d been hosting me for fun. But at least I ate well, went to a good school, and got to take ballet for those six months. Ballet classes, however, were not worth the heartbreak that came with being told it was time to go.
My childhood was a constant exchange of new schools, new rooms, new houses, new neighborhoods, new families. I think about how many teachers and classmates I had to meet, how many times I had to start over.
Then there were birthdays. Either overly celebrated or entirely forgotten.
My breathing picks up, and I squeeze my fingers over the fabric, trying to remind myself that I have more now than I ever expected. I should be reassured. There is Simon. He promised he wasn’t going anywhere. He adopted me. He signed papers, for God’s sake. Legally, he can’t go anywhere.
So, he is stuck with me.
My phone jars me from my impending escalation.
Steffi. She’s the only person in the world I’d talk to now.
I wipe my face and cough to clear my throat. “Hey, you!”
“Hey, back!” Steffi shouts happily. Immediately, I am comforted.
Steffi has been the one exception to the endless proof that the world is unstable and unreliable. From the moment we met when we were fourteen, we have been partners in survival. For only three months, we lived in the same foster family with four other kids, but three months were all we needed to cement our friendship.
“How is California?” I ask.
“Stupidly sunny and gorgeous. Just like me.” Steffi lets out her gravelly laugh, and I can practically see her flip her long blond hair. “I was made for Los Angeles, you know that. And you are, too. You’ll see that once you graduate and get your ass out here.”
I smile. “That’s the plan.” I hear music fade in and out and the sound of hangers being pushed along a closet rod. “You going out?”
“You betcha. I’m putting you on speaker while I get dressed, ’kay? So, what’s going on with you? How’d drop-off with Daddy go?”
“Fine. You know . . . We had lunch.”
“Simon still as hot as ever?”
“Oh my God, Steffi! Don’t be gross!” But I can’t help laughing.
“He’s not my daddy,” she says, making her voice all sexy and borderline creepy. “If I had my way, I could be Mrs. Simon Dennis. And be your mommy!”
“Shut up! That’s weird. And he’s gay,” I remind her. “You’re not exactly his type. Thank God.”
“There is that,” she says, sighing dramatically. “Dammit! Is he still wearing those adorable aviator glasses? Don’t answer that. Why is romance so unfair?”
I roll my eyes. “I think you’ll survive not capturing Simon’s heart.”
“It’s fine. I plan to drown my sorrows in a slew of vodka sodas and pick up the hottest piece of ass I can find. And you? Will you be getting some college-boy action yourself this fine evening?”
I refrain from snorting. “Classes start tomorrow. Just taking . . . it . . . easy tonight.” For some reason, I stumble over my words, and it’s the only thing Steffi needs to know something is off.
“What’s going on, Allison?” She’s gentle now.
“You having a hard night?”
It’s useless to lie to her. “Yes. A little. I don’t know why.”
The music in the background stops. Like it or not, I have her full attention. “You want to run through it again?” she asks.
I can’t speak, but she knows me well enough to know that I’m nodding.
She begins to tell me what I already know—or what I should know, but what she must remind me of all too often. “We are not statistics. We beat the system. Nobody wanted us for all those years? Fine. So, we blew apart the system. We grew up alone, rejected, unwanted. But screw everybody. We graduated high school, and we’re both in college. We haven’t gone to jail. We don’t use drugs. We’ve never run away or been on the streets doing Lord knows what. We are not statistics,” she emphasizes again. “We lived with some rotten families. We lived with some cool ones. The details do not matter. Do you hear me? The details do not matter. I don’t want to live in the past. Neither do you. We’re not going back there. It’s over. We are not goddamn statistics. We will never be. We are the exception, and we are exceptional. Got it?”
I nod to myself again. “Right.” I had become a shell of a kid until Steffi showed up and rocked me into life. At least to a degree.
“So, what else?” she prompts. “What do we do? Each and every day?”
I roll onto my side and reach to turn off the small desk light that shines over me. “We focus on the future, and we don’t look back.”
“Big futures,” she corrects. “And why do we have big futures waiting for us?” she asks me.
“Because you made us study. Because you knew that our education was the most important thing. That it would save us.”
She’s not bragging when she makes me say this; she’s only pushing me to validate what we both did. She should take more credit, though, because Steffi threatened, cajoled, and bribed to get my contact information with each move. She was relentless in keeping us together even after we were apart. And Steffi is the only reason that I threw myself into school because she instilled in me how crucial this was to survival.
“And you got into college. A damn good one.”
“And you got a full scholarship to UCLA. Nobody does that. Nobody,” I stress, almost as if to remind myself of what she’s accomplished. Steffi’s hard work and ferocious determination have indeed paid off well. She, much more than me, is the exception to the foster-kid rule.
“We got where we are,” she continues, “because we stayed focused.”
I stare at the ceiling above me. “And because you took care of me.”
“We took care of each other.” Steffi pauses. “Do you remember what you did for me?”
“I don’t want to talk about that.”
She’s silent for a bit. “Okay. But you took care of me, too.”
“Why don’t you let me take care of you more now?”
“Because I’m a tough shit.”
I can’t help laughing. “You are. I just want you to know that I’m here for you. That I’d do anything for you.”
“Of course you would! I know that. Allison?”
“You got a good ending, okay? You got Simon. Don’t forget that. Even when we thought it was too late, even when it felt like it didn’t matter anymore, you got a father. You have somewhere to call home, somewhere to go during breaks and summers. Just because he showed up late doesn’t mean that he doesn’t matter. You defied some crazy odds by getting adopted in high school.”
“It’s not fair.” I cannot stand when Steffi says this, because my guilt is uncontrollable. I cup a hand over my mouth to stifle the sobs that threaten to come through, and it takes me a moment until I can speak without emotion. I wait until my voice is flat. Factual. “But you didn’t get adopted.”
“I didn’t need to. I was a sick little kid, Allison. Nobody wanted a kid who’d had cancer. And then, years later, even when I was better, I didn’t need them.” The them she refers to are Joan and Cal Kantor. Steffi moved into their house around the same time I moved in with Simon. Simon adopted me, but Joan and Cal did not adopt Steffi, instead letting her turn eighteen and go off on her own. No support, no family, no sense of safe haven.
As hardened and independent as Steffi was, even she was shaken when they politely let her know that their time as foster parents was done. It was not a happy graduation from high school.
I will never forgive them.
I’ll never know what to say about Joan and Cal. What to say about how they discarded the most tremendous girl. A could-be daughter.
As always, Steffi steps in to fill the void I create. “Look, Allison, I was a dud, okay? A risk. And why would I want to settle down with a nice family and their three dogs when I have you, right?”
“Right.” But I’m not sure.
“Hey! Snap out of it!” she says sharply. “I got you! What do I always say?”
My head is spinning. “I don’t know . . .”
“Hold on to your one. Remember? I have you, and you have me. And when you’re lucky enough to find one--just one—person in this unforgiving life who makes everything worth it, who you love and trust and would kill for, then you hold on damn tight, because that’s probably all you get. We got this,” Steffi says with conviction.
“It’s going to hurt until it doesn’t anymore.”
“It’s going to hurt until it doesn’t anymore.” I repeat her words, but I’m not sure I believe them. I’m not as strong as Steffi, and my past does still hurt. Even though the worst should be over, it all still hurts with a relentless, enduring power that I cannot match.
It’s possible that I’m too broken.
“Steffi? You’re not a dud. You never were. You are more perfect than any parents could handle. That’s all.”
I learn a troubling thing during the first week of school: it’s harder to find upperclassmen courses that are jam-packed with students. I’m a big fan of lecture halls and classes that facilitate anonymity. As much as I avoid people, certain types of crowds are ironically my friend.
On Friday morning, I spend thirty-five minutes in the campus registration office, going over the course options with an eye for the best chance at being able to blend in. I refuse to drop my Hundred Words for Snow: Language and Nature class, because it’s all about how language influences the way we see the world, and I find that irresistibly intriguing. Plus, the course seems to involve a lot of listening, with minimal class participation, and I’m totally on board with that. I do, however, give up Cultures of Neoliberalism, because it meets in a conference room in the library, and there is no way I am going to discuss “the relative autonomy of the economic sphere” with only six other students and a professor. Instead, I swap that out for the very popular Social Psychology. Between those classes and the Eating for Change? Food, Media, and Environment in US Consumer Culture, as well as Probability and Mathematical Statistics, I should have a perfect balance between being safe from too much interaction and having really interesting classes that I’ll enjoy.
With my schedule in place, the next few weeks go smoothly. I settle into a pleasing routine of studying, visiting the library, and reading during meals in the cafeteria. I suppose I come off as a quiet, nerdy girl, but that’s nothing terrifically unusual at Andrews College.
I’m in a surprisingly good mood one late-September Friday as I move fluidly through the crowded student union and outside to the quad. I only have psych class left today, and the upcoming weekend means less pressure to interact. The union’s café makes a good iced coffee, and I suck the straw hard as I walk to the sunny lawn area and find a spot to myself under a large oak tree. I have a half hour before class, so I lean against the knotty trunk and retrieve a library book from my backpack.
I’m probably the only person alive who still prefers print books over e-books, and overall, I’m not much into technology. Obviously, I use e-mail and the Internet for research and news, and I have a cell phone, but that’s about it. Steffi has been hounding me to get on Facebook and Twitter and such for years, but the mere thought makes me want to hurl. As someone who stays on top of celebrity gossip, Steffi can’t understand my desire to avoid social platforms. While she doesn’t have any particularly close friends in Los Angeles, she’s well entrenched in UCLA’s superficial social scene, and she’s always busy going out with groups of party acquaintances.
My iced coffee is the right amount of both strong and sweet, and I draw another big taste as I kill time before class. The air has begun to cool a bit, and it finally feels more like autumn. I look up and watch the oak leaves flutter in the slight breeze, letting sun and shadow flicker across my face. There’s a feeling of peace. It’s so quiet here.
I scan my surroundings and, as always, admire the beautiful old stone that makes up the original buildings on campus. Andrews College could not look more classically collegiate, and even the newer buildings were designed to fit in with the old. Trees and shrubs, brick pathways, and ornate lampposts all add to the atmosphere. Inspired by this glorious day, I decide that I should spend more time out here before the brutal Maine winter arrives. Holing up in my room so much is probably not smart, and from my spot under this tree, I can at least watch the world go by, even if I don’t participate. I realize that when I pay attention, I actually hear a lot: Frisbee players calling back and forth to each other, the chatter of students traversing the nearby walkway, guitar notes floating my way from a musician under another nearby tree . . . I’m taken aback at how much sound I usually shut out. Great. Another thing that’s probably not indicative of sound mental health.
I watch the guitarist. He’s clean-cut, with short, perfectly trimmed hair, and wearing a plaid button-down shirt tucked into jeans. The guitar rests in his lap as he strums and sings to a girl lying on her side in the grass and gazing up at him. The boy doesn’t strike me as a typical guitar player. He looks like an economics major who picked up the guitar to get girls. But apparently it’s working, because the one he’s playing for appears utterly smitten.
This should be a sweet scene to witness, but instead all I feel is my good mood starting to sag. For a moment, I’m jealous. I can’t imagine that I’ll ever have a boy sing to me, much less look at me the way he’s looking at her. But I shouldn’t be jealous, because odds are this thing between them will end badly. That’s how life works.
They have no idea how naive it is to believe, to trust.
I try not to flinch when he sets aside his guitar and crawls her way, laughing as he rolls her onto her back before lowering his mouth to hers. God, I really am jealous. And sad. I’m sad that I can never have that.
I throw my unread book into my backpack and forcefully zip the bag closed. I pound across toward a trash can to dispose of my iced coffee, which I have now lost the taste for. I toss it toward the bin, but it ricochets off and explodes in a mess of liquid and ice that smatters against the sidewalk.
“Nice shot,” someone says rudely as he passes by.
“Thanks! So much!” I call to his back.
I sigh at the coffee disaster. I can’t just leave ice cubes all over the walkway, so I crouch down and start to collect them, cursing under my breath as more than one slips from my hold.
“Slippery little guys, aren’t they?” A pair of legs appears next to me, and I glance only for a second at ripped jeans and red Converse sneakers.
I don’t say anything as I continue my desperate attempt to clean this mess. Without looking up, I manage to locate a few napkins in my backpack and do what I can to blot up the liquid.
The person bends down next to me, and I watch as he deftly picks up every stupid ice cube that has fallen through my fingers and plunks each one smoothly into the cup in my hand. His forearms are tan, toned, with leather cords and thin rope bracelets around each wrist. Like superhero cuffs or something. He probably thinks he can deflect bullets. My head involuntarily turns a smidge, and I catch sight of a bicep peeking out from the hem of his white T-shirt. Quickly, I look away. I wish this guy hadn’t stopped.
I wish I wasn’t instantaneously having lurid thoughts.
I wish he didn’t smell like cookies and love.
When he gets the last of the ice cubes, I manage to toss the cup successfully into the trash bin without catastrophe. “Thanks for the help. I assume nine million ants will soon be here to celebrate Sugar Fest,” I mumble.
Cookies-and-love boy smoothly begins pouring water from a stainless canister and washes the pavement clear. “Not to worry.”
It becomes obvious that I must acknowledge this person who is being unnecessarily kind. It feels like a burden to do so, for which I’m ashamed, but I put on a smile and face him. Well, actually look up to him, given that he’s got a good half foot on my five-feet, four-inch stature.
This boy looks at me. He really looks at me. I shift a bit to avoid eye contact, and while I would love to turn away completely, his soft, deep-brown hair frames his face in a way that prevents me from doing so. His curls are too long, the shorter ones framing his face, others tumbling recklessly over his ears, almost touching his shoulders. I suspect it’s been a few days since he’s shaved, but the scruff suits him, and it takes all of my will not to get drawn in by his unusual amber eyes that pierce through me. I am entirely discomfited and displaced by this person. And yet . . . I stare. Only for a short spell. For a matter of seconds, I let myself follow the shape of his face, the way his cheeks are full and how they lead into a jaw that makes me want to insist he shave so that I can see it more clearly.
This is bananas. I’m bananas. Some sort of psychotic hormonal surge has temporarily engulfed me, and I will knock this nonsense away now. Like, right now. Really.
Finally, I avert my eyes and throw away a soggy napkin. “Thanks again. Gotta get to class.”
I sense he is about to say something, so I pivot and slip into the flow of students heading toward the other side of campus. As if I’m not already out of sorts, Carmen walks by, heading in the other direction, and waves. I wave back politely and say nothing, yet I’m actually dying to scream about what a hot mess I am after spilling coffee and having some unknown, sexy boy help me.
My Social Psych class is held in one of the biggest lecture halls on campus. Even though the class is huge, there are still plenty of empty seats, and I take what’s become my usual spot at the end of a middle row. Immediately, I flip open my binder and make as if I’m intently studying notes from the last class. Most students take notes on their laptops, but Steffi told me she’d read that writing things down makes you learn them better. I put in earphones and play my white-noise app for added security from interruption while the room slowly fills.
Someone taps me on the shoulder, and I jump. It’s just a girl wanting to get past me to take a seat. I nod and stand, and it’s then that I hear voices that pass the sound in my earbuds and make me glance up. The boy who helped me with the ice cubes is walking into the room. My stomach drops. Poised on the steps that run up alongside the rows, he is surrounded by students, all animated and talking effusively, and—it’s clear—fussing over him.
Without thinking, I mute my app and slowly sit back down.
The boy smiles as someone pats him on the back in greeting, then lifts up his chin to acknowledge the clapping coming from a row of students. Who is this guy?
Students begin chanting, “Esben! Esben! Esben! Hashtag rock yourself! Hashtag rock yourself!”
So, his name is Esben. Ice-cube plucker is named Esben. Huh. Well, whatever.
I frown and shrink lower into my seat. I don’t know what is happening, but it’s making me horribly agitated. This Esben boy laughs and waves away the attention. A girl in the third row calls his name loudly enough to be heard over the ever-growing chanting and beckons him to a free seat next to her. He’s clearly some kind of überpopular campus icon.
I’ll just ignore him. It’ll be easy. We have nothing in common.
Yet, I find myself staring at the back of his head for the hour-and-a-half class, and I have to work hard to stay on top of my note taking. Against my will, I’m intrigued when the professor raises the concept of charismatic leadership and then gestures toward Esben, eliciting laughter and applause from the entire room. By the end of the class, my heart is pounding, and I practically leap out of my seat the second the professor finishes assigning our reading. I reach the door in mere seconds, pushing through the flood of exiting students to get outside.
God, I need air. I need air.
My pace quickens as I separate myself from the mass of students, and I make it back to my room in record time. I deposit my backpack onto the sofa in the middle room and look in the mirror while I calm down. My bangs are still neat, my long ponytail has held its place, and my mascara has not smeared or left disgusting, goopy clumps in the corners of my eyes. I breathe in and out, in and out, until I begin to feel settled.
It’s then that I notice a not-insignificant coffee stain on my yellow top.
I tremble as I rip the shirt over my head and dash to my closet to find a clean one. My emotional reaction to a simple stain is extreme; I know that, but I also know that I have my reasons.
When I was eleven, I lived with a foster mother who was obsessive about me never getting dirty. A mere smudge on my shoes was catastrophic, so in an effort to avoid dirtying white sneakers, I developed this odd style of walking that looked more like stomping. A visible spot on a shirt was cause for alarm, so I learned to be continuously on the lookout for anything that might strike me off her adopt list. That woman was constantly pointing to minor marks on my clothing while wincing and gently encouraging me to change outfits. It’s impossible to shake the belief that she returned me to the foster system because of my inability to keep my clothes spotless.
So I rifle furiously through my closet for the most pristine top I can find. Even though I know why I’m freaking out, it doesn’t help. My crazy reaction is one of a million dysfunctional ones that I have perfected over the years.
I really am goddamn irreparable.
I take my coffee-stained shirt into the bathroom down the hall. Holding the stain under the faucet, something dark on the underside of my shirt catches my eye, and I groan. Great, what bizarre stain is this now?
My fingers glide under the fabric, and I feel something plastic. I am mystified, so I flip over the shirt.
Stuck to my shirt is a button pinned to the side hem. It’s pale blue with white lettering.
You can’t reach what’s in front of you until you let go of what’s behind you.
I stare at this in disbelief. Why is there a motivational button stuck to my shirt?
You can’t reach what’s in front of you until you let go of what’s behind you.
The statement is crap, because some of us will never be able to let go of what chases us.
You can’t reach what’s in front of you until you let go of what’s behind you.
The words nearly scream at me. Against my will, I smile.
This is so weird, a button showing up on my shirt. So random. And yet, I admit, sort of wonderful. It’s a nice sentiment, and I should probably take it to heart.
This button is probably smarter than I am.