Author: thenerdempire

A Knack for Forgetting Faces


Having solid confirmation of someone’s feelings for me, I immediately jumped into (in)action. I proceeded to march right up to Kay (the following day), looked her right in (the vicinity of) the eye and never once brought up what she thought of me.

While anyone with the appropriate amount of guts and the requisite number of spines might have broached the subject, I took a different tack. I went with the tried and true method used in dozens of romantic comedies – finding relationships by saying literally nothing to the potential love interest until she’s basically ready to leave the country in utter disgust. Or…maybe less “tried to true” and more “tried and tried,” anyway.

I mean, it hadn’t worked well for those guys in the movies. But that only meant it was bound to work for someone eventually, right? Maybe even me?


More importantly, I wasn’t really sure it was a good idea to seek a relationship with Kay at all. And as much as I’d like to pretend the reason was primarily my being a coward, it wasn’t. In truth, having more or less not noticed her for three full weeks despite seeing her five times a week, I wasn’t sure I had any feelings for her worth pursuing.

Still, for all my cowardice and uncertainty, she seemed dead-set on spending time with me. And I certainly didn’t mind having a friend. We walked to class together. We ate lunches and dinner together. We studied together. I even started inviting her along to my semi-nightly arcade adventures.

And at the end of the week, I searched my heart and finally realized the truth: I didn’t much care for Kay’s friend who seemed to invite himself along everywhere we went.

I wasn’t sure what it was at first. I didn’t strictly view our outings as dates, so it wasn’t like I was jealous. But there was just something that rubbed me the wrong way about him. It might have been his sense of humor. It might have been the way he carried himself. If I had to guess, though, it was probably that, for someone who insisted on being literally every single place I was for ten days straight, he certainly hated being around me.

Of course, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise at this point that I don’t recall his name either. The only thing I really remember was that he looked a lot like the oldest brother from “Malcolm in the Middle”…if he also hated me and glared at me whenever he thought I wasn’t looking.

For the purposes of this story, I’ll be calling him Hatey McHateface – or Hatey, for short.

While I wasn’t comfortable discussing Kay’s feelings with her, I was eventually forced to mention Hatey’s. “Does Hatey…hate me or something?” Keep in mind, again, that wasn’t his real name, and this question didn’t sound so weird since using his actual name.

“He’s…a bit overprotective,” she explained, though she was at least quick to apologize for it rather than pretend I was imagining things. “Sorry. We’ve known each other since we were little. I think I’m the only one he really gets along with.”

Judging by what seemed to be the eternal side-eye he was giving me, I certainly couldn’t argue her theory. In my wisdom, however, I came up with a more diplomatic answer. I then immediately dismissed it and said, “Maybe he’d make more friends if he wasn’t such an asshole to everyone except you.”

“Oh, be nice,” she said teasingly.

“Have I been anything but nice to him?”

Kay considered this for a while before letting out a pent-up breath. “No. You’ve been fine. But maybe you could try being nice enough for the both of you.”

Despite how immensely fun and likely to succeed that sounded, I gave her a doubtful look before sighing. “Maybe you could at least try suggesting he make some other friends in class or something? I don’t know. Seems like it would mellow him out a bit to have other friends.”

She gave me a confused look before something dawned on her. “Oh. He doesn’t go to classes. He doesn’t go to school here.”

My expression become a mirror or her prior confusion. “…How’s that, exactly?”

“He was going to go to school over in Allentown when he graduated. But he decided to take a few years off because he didn’t want to be away from me when I went to Penn State,” she explained, in a tone that suggested it wasn’t utterly insane. She went on to explain – just as calmly – that he’d made this decision when he graduated from high school a full three years prior to her.

I managed to muddle my way through the remainder of that conversation without saying any one of a few hundred very reasonable points I could have made that, notwithstanding, seemed like they might not have gone over well.

It was then that I came to two realizations. The first and more obvious of the two being that Hatey was utterly infatuated with Kay. And, in a similar vein, if the situation was as filled with landmines as it seemed to be, I had to decide soon whether or not I even wanted to be involved with a girl with so much baggage.

At which point I proceeded to make a very bad decision for reasons very much related to my own not insubstantial set of personal luggage.

Rather than pretend my decision was anything other than idiotic, I’ll instead draw attention to one of my more important flaws. When it comes to love, relationships or any number of similar topics, my childhood had taught me very little. And what few details I’d pieced together were almost invariably wrong in every regard.

I had, for example, never gotten the strong impression that my parents liked – let alone loved – one another. My mother seemed to resent my father being at work. And yet, the more time he spent at home, the more time they spent fighting. By the time I was a teen I came to the very reasonable conclusion that marriages were relationships built almost entirely out of misery and loathing. What few redeeming qualities they seemed to have came from the brief moments when the fighting stopped.

Or…at least, it was the most reasonable answer I could have possibly come to given the completely broken data I was being fed.

Rather than walking away from a potential relationship with Kay based on a hundred very sensible reasons, I ignored them all. Instead, I focused on the one thing that mattered to me. She seemed very fond of me. This, I irrationally rationalized, meant that it would be some time before she reached the inevitable point of mandatory loathing in a future relationship.

And to a lesser degree, well, I didn’t want to let her down. Despite not really feeling anything for her, I felt somewhat obligated to at least pretend to reciprocate. The alternative – turning down someone I didn’t like that way when they had so graciously gone through the effort of liking me – seemed almost…rude?

Thus, armed with enough bad ideas to replace a suitable spine, I met her the next day for a rare unchaperoned lunch. “I was thinking…maybe you and I could start hanging out more often like this…with just you and me. You know?”

Kay positively beamed at the idea. “I’d really, really like that.”

“And…everyone else will really like that, too?” I had the feeling that, if Hatey had been there, he wouldn’t have been beaming at the notion whatsoever.

“We’re two adults. We’re the only two opinions that matter,” she said. I didn’t beam. I wasn’t, after all, much of a beamer. But I very likely did some approximation of what a normal person might have done to express happiness with my mouth. “And…you’re sure this is what you want, too?”

“I am.” I wasn’t. I was, in fact, making the decision based entirely on her feelings, rather than any I might have had on the subject.

Then again, I wasn’t nearly as unsure as I was going to be, when I found out Hatey was her boyfriend.

Oh? Did…I not mention that little wrinkle earlier?

Well, neither did she.


The Unforgettable Tale of What’s-Her-Face

No Face.jpg

I’ve heard from older, wiser friends and relatives that you never forget your first crush. I assume they meant that in a very general way, rather than your crush’s name. Or eye color. Or skin tone. Or height. Or length or color of hair. Because I’ve forgotten literally every one of those things about mine.

Though I’m at least certain enough that she had a face and was a girl to make the title honest.

I want to be very clear here. I’m not trying to play it cool or anything. This isn’t a case of someone getting shot down and then acting like it was no big deal later to save face. This is the unusual case of someone who distinctly remembers the first time he ate sushi, the first time he made lasagna and the first time he owned a pale blue shirt that fit him just right across the shoulders…but not his first crush.

Obviously, I won’t be playing it up as a particularly noteworthy event for drama either. I certainly won’t claim it still keeps me up at night wondering about…what’s-her-face. I mean, yes, I am up very late most nights, though that’s for reasons entirely unrelated to…you know…whosits.

It was, however, an event in my college life. It was an event I think many people also shared in their respective college lives. And, if I’m being entirely fair, after some of the horribly insignificant stuff I’ve included it makes sense to include even a few weeks of not remotely romance with…that girl from the thing.

At which point, it occurs to me I’m going to need something to call her sooner rather than later. So let’s go with “Kay.”

I probably interacted with Kay for a few weeks on an absent-minded basis before we officially met, mostly because she was in my Philosophy class. We may have even sat next to one another once or twice. But for someone who was trying to find new friends in college, I was strangely convinced that the point of going to class was to hear a lecture and not notice any of the dozen or so other people there who clearly shared similar interests and potential majors.

We officially met somewhere between week three and four of summer semester. It was during a pleasant walk to class that I heard someone yelling behind me. As time went on, the yelling continued and the walk became less and less pleasant. Still, not wanting to get involved in whatever mess was going on back there, I kept moving.

Or at least, I did, until someone nearly tackled me from behind.

“Geez. Are you ignoring me or something?” a girl who had some sort of appearance asked as I turned and took a step away. I seem to recall she had some sort of face.

“Well, not now,” I answered, readjusting the straps of my bag on my shoulders. It was my policy, and continues to be even today, that anyone who attempts to tackle you from behind should be given your full and undivided attention. “May…I help you with something?” I ventured, ready to retreat if I got the wrong answer.

“Yes!” she said, more amused than annoyed. “I’ve been calling your name for two blocks now. I thought you had your headphones in or something but you’re just…really, really oblivious.”

In my defense, this was only a half-truth. In reality, I was more selectively oblivious. Between my first and last name, 90% of English words sounds very much like someone saying my name when they were actually referring to hats, cats, gnats, floors, sores and bores. At a certain point in my life, it only made sense to stop turning around and wasting my time. People very rarely wanted my attention.

I explained this to her. “That’s funny,” she said with a giggle.

“It is,” I agreed. I hadn’t been joking, but I didn’t want to ruin her fun.

“Do you want to walk to class together?”

“Sure,” I said, less because I really wanted to and more because now that we were already standing together going to the same place, the alternative would have been a great deal more effort.

“So I’ve been trying to walk with you for two weeks now. But I can never catch you. You always leave at random times, like you just wake up, throw on clothes and walk out the door,” she said.

I coughed into my fist at the surprisingly dead-on explanation of how I got ready to go to classes. “Um…why?” I asked.

“Why what?”

“Why have you been trying to walk with me?” I wondered. I walked with myself every day. Trust me. It wasn’t a life-changing experience. Hell, if I wasn’t literally attached to myself, I’d have probably avoided it.

She shrugged. “I don’t know. You seem cool. I wanted to get to know you.”

“I feel like getting to know me would almost immediately end that fantasy.”

This elicited more giggling. “Oh, my God. You are funny.”

I still wasn’t joking. But I decided to keep not ruining her fun.

We walked to class together. We talked about this and that. I’m even fairly sure she told me her name at some point. Then again, her not telling me would actually go a long way toward explaining why I don’t remember it now.

With midterms on my mind, I honestly didn’t think about the encounter much at first. Nor did I think twice about her suggesting we study for them together despite the teacher explaining there was essentially no way to give a wrong answer. It was only when she wrote her phone number on my palm in pen that something stirred in the back of my mind. While I had very little self-awareness, I seemed to recall seeing something very much like that happen in any number of teen romance movies.

“Does she like me or something?” I mused.

“I…don’t know,” the cashier at Panda Express answered.

“Oh, sorry,” I said, not realizing where I was. Or that I wasn’t doing an inner monologue. I pondered how unfortunate this would look if my future self decided to edit the event together in a misleading way in a story. “Well, anyway, I’ll take the two-entree plate to go. Orange and Kung Pao Chicken. With fried rice.”

While the cashier was as unhelpful as always with my love life, I was able to talk to my friend Matt for a bit more perspective.

“You know, I may have been wrong before,” he said sagely. “The more I think about it, the more I wonder if someone reading this later in story form would still think you were just talking about yourself if you mentioned me.”

I’d had similar concerns. “Yeah. I really wish you’d had a different name.”

Matt – who, I might again note, is a separate person from me who just happened to have the same name and be my first college friend – shrugged. “Well, I didn’t pick it.” Getting back on track, he asked, “So what makes you think this girl likes you?”

I wasn’t entirely sure she did. Being liked by a girl was new to me. “She wanted to walk to class with me. She gave me her number. She wants to study for a test that a toddler could pass. And she laughs really hard at almost everything I say, even when I’m not really making funny jokes.”

“She might like you.” Matt rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Did she try to find an excuse to touch you? Maybe when she laughed or something?”

“She tried to tackle me.”

“Wow. You’re quite the lady killer,” he said, nodding in appreciation for what he likely saw as an intentional skill on my part. “And you’ve got your stalker on top of all that, too.”

I blinked at this. “My stalker? I have a stalker? Since when?”

“I thought you…huh. How have you not met her by now?” he asked, baffled. He described her in terms that I would apparently forget entirely within the next decade. At the time, however, they sounded very, very familiar. “She practically chases after you every day when you’re headed to Philosophy, yelling your name.”

I continued blinking. “Actually…I’m pretty sure that’s the same girl.” Though, I made a mental note to look behind myself more often, fearful I was being followed by a horde of women calling my name without my realizing it.

“Oh. It is? Then, yes. That girl is completely in love with you.”

Kant Stop, Won’t Stop


Philosophy is weird.

Allow me to clarify. When I say that, I’m not referring to the broad topic of philosophy as a whole. I’m referring specifically to the college course of that name, Philosophy.

…Also, the broad topic of philosophy as a whole is weird but, well, that’s a whole other issue that I don’t have time to get into right now.

It’s been about ten years since I graduated. And since that time, I’ve discovered an odd little quirk about college. I can remember a number of things that were said word for word but almost none of what I was taught during class.

I realize that probably comes as a bit of a shock to anyone still attending college. After all, your ability to pass or fail hinges almost entirely on whether or not you retain all that information. Based on bad dreams alone, it seems to be the number one fear of any college student come exam day.

Well, that and the “not wearing any clothes” thing.

I also expect it’s considerably less of a shock to anyone who’s been a college graduate for more than fifteen minutes. As any Psychology major will tell you (if you ask before they graduate and prove my point), memory strength is based heavily on access. Things you thought of only once or twice are bound to be lost forever. Things you think of again and again tend to stick in your mind forever – whether you want them there or not.

There are only two things I remember with any real clarity from my college courses. The first was the theory of how the first peoples migrated to the Americas – largely by virtue of hearing it several thousand times during my Anthropology coursework. There’s a bit of grim irony there, mostly because it’s since been proven almost entirely wrong by dozens of peer-reviewed studies.

As to that, I assure you, it will come up at some point during the story. For now, though, I want to focus on the second thing I remember clearly. That being things said by my professors that were so bizarre, confusing or shocking (and in at least one case, borderline racist) that it permanently burned the quote into my brain.

In this case, “You can use philosophy to prove pretty much anything.

Taken at face value, this isn’t unusual. In fact, it hints one of the more interesting axioms of philosophy. There are so many different viewpoints and schools of thought that you can make a fairly convincing argument for almost anything. And if the teacher hadn’t said this in the middle of discussing how exams were graded, that’s exactly what I’d have assumed he was implying.

But he wasn’t.

“I mean, it’s all essays. No multiple choice or anything,” he added. “If you say anything that you can back up with any philosopher, I’ll give you credit. Hell, if you say something that sounds philosophically convincing, who am I to argue?”

His point was even more valid, considering that, through some administrative fluke, he was teaching the class without even having a Master’s Degree, but I’ll assume that wasn’t what he meant.

The class made sounds of confusion and disbelief until a brave soul raised their hand to ask a question. “So…anything we say that sounds right…is right?” the student asked.

“Pretty much,” the teacher said.

If the rest of the class was anything like me, their next thought was likely why we should even bother coming to lecture at all if that was the case. And apparently at least one other student was, because they asked, “Then…why come to lecture at all?”

“Well, I’ll be teaching you the specific areas of philosophy that will let you answer the exam questions best. You can use the ideas of other philosophers, but you may as well show up, since I’ll pretty much be giving you the answers,” the not-quite-professor explained.

The students didn’t seem convinced. Grumbling continued. “Couldn’t we just copy notes from someone who does show up?”

“You could,” the teacher admitted slowly. He quickly added, “Though, to be fair, ten percent of your final grade is based on attendance, so you should show up.”


Still a bit confused, someone asked for an example.

The teacher considered before brightening when he thought of one. “Okay. So let’s say there’s a question about whether or not it’s morally okay to steal bread for your family. I’ll be teaching you what Kant and Mill think of that question, so you can give either answer. Or, you could just use nihilism to say that everything is meaningless. So in the end, any codified system of how we ought to behave is irrelevant. Understand?”

A number of heads bobbed up and down. Then, another student raised a hand. “That seems like an easy answer to anything. Can we just say nihilism means all your exam questions are meaningless?”

“No,” the teacher said, starting to sweat a little. “No using nihilism on exams.”

“Why not?”

“Because you wouldn’t learn anything. It’d be meaningless for you to even be taking the course at all,” he said, exasperated.

“Isn’t that the point of nihilism?”

The teacher grudgingly conceded the point. “Yes. But it’s not the point of formalized education. If you don’t learn anything then I’m doing a bad job.”

A chorus of other questions erupted from the class.

“Are you going to argue this hard against our exam answers?”
“Isn’t closing loopholes just squashing critical thinking?”
“So…only easy answers are wrong?”
“I zoned out. Is this going to be on the midterm?”
How is it that you’re teaching this class when you don’t even have a degree again?”

The teacher cut off all discussion by rapping a book against his desk. “Okay. Just…don’t worry about it, okay? Just listen to lectures and you’ll do fine.” He shot me a dirty look then, because I was the one who asked the last question. “And don’t worry about my degree. It’s just…held up. I’ll have it soon.”

To his credit, things made a lot more sense when we reached the midterm exam. His questions were incredibly random, one of them arguing whether or not animals might be held to human standards of morality, or where the fault fell if they were trained by a human who needed them to steal for him and they committed other crimes. In short, I highly doubt he used the example questions from the teacher’s manual.

I still can’t remember anything I learned in that class. I barely remember which side Mill or Kant took in the debate on morality. But I’ll give that teacher credit. I won’t soon forget being asked whether or not it was immoral for a monkey to stab another monkey and steal his food.

Though, I really wish I’d remembered his name, because I’m actually really curious as to whether or not he ever got that degree.



Hook up and Shook up – pt. 2

Pictured: Something pertinent to this topic and not an innuendo.

As you may have gathered from my previous writing, largely because I said it almost word for word and am now trying to hastily summarize to tie this back to it, sex wasn’t hard to come by at my college.

Was everyone having it? No. And they weren’t for the reason most people weren’t eating at Arby’s. They didn’t want to be.

Your personal college environment may have varied, though I at least know from secondhand experience that even (or especially) some of the most religious schools were basically poorly-organized orgies that sometimes broke out into learning. I can’t speak to your personal experiences. But at my school, I remind you that I once knew of someone who bungled buying frozen pizza and it somehow resulted in intercourse.

I absolutely don’t say this to insult those who have never had sex. There is nothing inherently better or worse about you as a person when it comes to having or not having sex. The point I’m trying to make is that if people are dedicating their entire lives to it, you’d at least think they’d be good at it.

As an example, consider this second scenario from my second weekend at college.

I was doing some writing on my then-still-functioning computer, likely trying to decide whether or not repeatedly hyphenated compound words were proper grammar. Whatever the case, I was startled when something hit the screen of my window and fell out of sight before I got a good look at it. I gazed out into the night, deciding that at that hour it must’ve been a bat.

“Are you a hot girl?” a voice called from below.

For a moment I wondered if maybe Dracula’s charm had been heavily overrated in the movies. But I looked down to see a group of three boys retrieving a tennis ball. “No!” I called back down.

“No to being hot? Or…no to being a girl?”

I’d never been asked for demographic information through a window before, but I assumed honesty was the best policy – at least insofar as it ended the conversation as quickly as possible. “No to being a girl,” I answered, contemplating how many girls spoke in a low, pleasant baritone like mine. After waiting a beat, I noted, “I’m about a six, hotness-wise. Seven if it’s dark.”

As it was dark at the time, it seemed like an important distinction.

One of them loudly cursed me out for some reason. It likely had to do with some breach of etiquette in responding to being hit on through a window. In my defense, it wasn’t a situation that had come up before. Or, luckily, since.

But the tennis ball continued to bounce off the wall and random windows over the course of the next few hours. (I would later learn they’d been doing this the past week, obviously finding neither success nor a hot girl, apparently.) I paid attention with half an ear while various conversations played out almost exactly as expected. Shockingly, no one wanted to meet their future husband by having a tennis ball thrown at them.

Least of all when they couldn’t seem to grasp that we alternated genders by floor, and had probably spoken to more guys than girls by that point.

“Hey! Are you a hot girl?” the chorus sang again.

“Okay,” a stern voice called from at least two floors above me. “Guys, I know you’re just having fun and all. And I know this seems like a really great idea in your head, but this isn’t going to get you anywhere with girls or anyone else. So knock it off. People are trying to work and you’re being pests.”

“What are you? The lawn RA?” one of the boys outside asked. He and his cohorts slapped hearty high fives.

“Seriously, dude?” the voice called back, not nearly as amused. “I’m your RA. We talked right before you went outside to play your little tennis ball asshole games.” He noted that the conversation had specifically advised not doing so.

Some giggling below suggested the RA’s warning was being taken about as seriously as RAs usually are.

“Yeah, yeah. Ha ha,” the RA grumbled. “I actually have a lot of paperwork to do up here, so I don’t really have time for this. So knock it off. Find some other way to meet hot girls and then scare them off.” He suggested turning around and looking in literally any random direction until they found one outside.

Naturally, the three boys realized the error of their ways and considered the feelings of others. And while I didn’t see it personally, I have it on good authority that they went on a walk that night that ended with all three meeting the women they would eventually marry some years later. As endings to stories go, it’s probably one of the happier ones from my college days.

It’s also a total lie.

No. As pretty much anyone could have predicted, they continued tossing the tennis ball at random windows. I’m not sure if they even wanted to find girls by that point. More likely, they’d given up and were just being pricks. And in that RA’s defense, he actually gave them another ten minutes to get bored and find something else to do before he completely snapped.

At least until they hit his window again, this time hard enough to actually knock his screen out.

I’m sometimes sad that I’m not always privy to the fates of the side characters in my stories once they leave my field of view. It’s a failing inherent to any first-person storytelling and one, I assure you, that often leaves me just as curious as the people reading it. Suffice to say, though, those three were taken into police custody. Whether or not they got their act together later, I can’t say. But I can say with some certainty that none of them found the hot girl they were looking for that night.

Or, if I’m being realistic, any other night either.

That’s sort of the point I’m making here. One of the things that amused me to the very end of my college days was how dead set some students seemed to be on frightening away any sort of sexual intimacy they happened to come across. And that they were, almost without exception, the ones so transfixed on getting laid that they abandoned almost everything else to go looking for it.

I’m not sure there’s a moral to this story. In fact, I would generally view any story about trying to hook up with random girls via tennis ball as not necessarily worthy of a deeper lesson.

Though, if I had to tack one on so this could be published as a children’s book down the road, it would probably be that if you’re trying to find love with tennis balls, try to at least develop a basic understanding of floor plans.

Hook up and Shook up – pt. 1

Pictured: Something definitely related to this topic.

I think one of the more surprising things I learned in college was the number of students there for seemingly any reason besides learning.

Now, I’m not “study-shaming” other students. Nor am I even “grade-shaming.” Everyone works at their own level and has their own style when it comes to getting work done. What I’m saying is, from the moment I arrived until the moment my first semester ended, there were students who – despite having eight weeks to do so – somehow didn’t once end up in a single classroom.

This came in several distinct flavors. Some were from families with more money than common sense who couldn’t grasp that their child didn’t want to be there even when they were told by phone on a nearly daily basis. Others fell into the trite routine of spending their waking hours trying to find any way to get their hands on alcohol, even if the results were almost universally terrible.

And others, of course, came to college for the ancient and noble purpose of attaching themselves to a matching set of genitalia.

Now, I’m not “slut-shaming” other students. Nor am I even “performance-shaming.” Everyone sexes at their own level and has their own style when it comes to pleasing a partner. What I’m saying is, from the moment I arrived until the moment my first semester ended, there were guys on my floor who – despite trying night and day for eight weeks – somehow didn’t once end up in a single woman.

In short, the only thing more surprising than the the number of students who totally gave up on school to get laid was how tragically bad some of them were at it.

I didn’t go to college to find a girlfriend. I realize that sounds like something people just say when it wasn’t a possibility in the first place. And maybe it is. But I assure you, in that particular college environment, 95% of people who wanted to have sex were having it, as well as about 5-10% of the people who went to the store and just happened upon some sex on the way there.

To demonstrate my point, allow me to walk you through two scenarios from my first few weeks at college.

In the first, one of my floormates was making his rounds to ask if anyone wanted him to pick up something for them while he was at the store. As I was still recovering from my illness at the time, I gave him a ten and asked if he could grab me some frozen pizzas. He returned an hour later with a wad of crumpled bills in his clenched fist and a faraway look in his eyes.

“Were they out of pizza?” I asked, disappointed.

“What?” he said, as if startled to see me in my doorway, after he’d knocked. “Oh, I don’t know. I never made it to the store.”

“How?” I demanded, more confused than angry. Given that the campus store was only about ten feet from the front door, it was entirely possible to tumble down the stairs and end up there just by rolling.

“I don’t really know. I walked out the door and talked to a girl.” He paused, as though the story had ended. It hadn’t. “Then I think I lost my virginity.”


His expression became contemplative. “Yeah. It happened sort of fast. I was just out the door when I nodded to a girl talking on her phone.” Then, with so little warning I nearly got whiplash, the story took a sudden leap. “Anyway, she was upset and said I looked like her boyfriend from back home and then we started kissing…”

“Oh, then you didn’t lose your virginity,” I clarified.

“After that, she pulled me into the alley and we had sex. Three and a half times.”

I withdrew my previous statement, careful not to say anything that might be misconstrued as curiosity about the “and a half” portion of his explanation.

He shook his head, looking suddenly very tired. “You know the weird thing, though?”

“Literally every word of that story?” I guessed.

Ignoring the comment, he said, “She actually looked a lot like my girlfriend back home, too. Except, well, my girlfriend wanted to save herself for marriage after college. That girl didn’t want that. Like, at all.” Something seemed to dawn on him then and his expression grew somber. What I misread as realizing he didn’t even know the stranger’s name was actually something far worse. “Oh. I guess I have to break up with my girlfriend, don’t I?”

I wasn’t sure what to say. I was barely qualified to manage my own life, let alone anyone else’s. “Maybe she’ll understand if you tell her what happened?” I offered.

“Probably not,” he said, not quite sadly. “Because I just came up here to give everyone back their money. I’m going to go back to her room and…” He didn’t actually trail off there. But suffice to say, dear reader, only one of us needs to have the “and a half” explained to them in vivid detail.

He then placed the crumpled bills into my hand and went off to plow a complete stranger who looked vaguely like his very-soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend. I’m kind of a purist when it comes to the sanctity of relationships. Then again, he’d also given me nearly forty dollars instead of the ten I’d originally sent him off with. Let’s not split hairs and pretend anyone was the good person in this story.

Which leads me to the series of ellipses that mean this has gotten too long and I’m ending the first part…


That First Strep is a Doozy

Pictured: My throat (interior).

There are few things more disappointing than waking up sick.

I’m the sort of person that considers sleep a gift that I give my body, largely against my better judgment. Sleeping means I can’t get anything done. It’s more boring than almost anything I could be doing while awake. If the alternative wasn’t literally dying, I probably wouldn’t grudgingly sigh and part with six hours of my free time every night for my body to do routine maintenance.

Given that I’d actually slept twelve hours the night before, it seemed particularly unfair that I’d woken up feeling like I somehow swallowed six angry hornets.

“I sleep and you keep all my stuff working, body. We had a deal,” I said, or tried to say, anyway. My throat was so swollen that it was more a croak than complaint.

I sat in bed for a while longer then, not sure what to do. It was clear by that point that I was sick, so that was one less problem than I’d had the night before. But of my two problems – the other being decidedly more hornet and throat related – it was probably the one I minded least.

Then, acknowledging this moment as a milestone in my new responsibilities as an adult, I did the only thing I could. I called my mommy.

“You sound sick,” she said, almost the moment I’d said hello.

“I have a sore throat,” I rasped with great difficulty. “It’s hard to talk.”

“You could always e-mail me.”

“Can’t. Computer exploded.”


“That’s not important,” I said, trying to get us back on topic. (Though, as I hadn’t yet told her about the fiery demise of my desktop, I can understand why it was a topic that might interest her.) “I feel awful. Should I stay home from class?”

There was a pause. “I don’t know. If you feel sick enough to stay home, then you should stay home.”

“How sick is sick enough?” I wondered. Remember that sickness was always something other people had decided about me. I was happier letting my mother, doctor, mercury encased in glass or even a campus store cashier make the determination than I was to decide myself.

“I don’t know. Do you have a fever?” she asked.

“How would I know?” I explained, in as few words as possible, that I had no way to measure my temperature.

“Put the back of your hand on your forehead. If it feels hot, then you probably have a fever,” she offered.

Still a little skeptical, I did so. I waited. And to perhaps no one’s surprise, it felt almost exactly the same as my hand. It was only then that I considered that using my own body to test my body’s temperature might be an inherently flawed endeavor. “I don’t think it works on my own forehead.”

“Can you have someone else feel it for you?” she suggested.

“I’m…not entirely comfortable with that.” I wasn’t sure what seemed worse to me – the idea of asking a random stranger to touch my face, or a random stranger actually touching my face.

“Okay…” my mom said. “What if you put your hand on someone else’s forehead? If it feels cold then that means you’re hot. I think…?”

“I’m even less comfortable with that,” I said. I then explained, going forward, that she could probably skip any advice that involved other human beings – especially if it involved us awkwardly touching one another to detect our respective temperature variations.

It was at this point that my mother started to sound a bit exasperated. She sighed loudly. “I don’t know what to tell you then. If you feel sick, stay home. If you feel okay, then go to class.” There was a momentary pause before she added, “You’re on your own now. So whatever you decide is fine.”

We exchanged some small talk. This mostly consisted of her talking while I made as little response as humanly possible. She tried to bring up the computer several more times, but that wasn’t a topic I was ready to discuss even while healthy.

And then, as my mother had said, I was on my own.

There were two sobering pieces of this realization to painfully swallow. The first was that being an adult meant I was in full control of my life. And as excited as I was to take ownership of my successes, it was far less pleasant to consider that I was the only one responsible for my mistakes and failures. I mean, I could (and would) blame my upbringing for things here and there, but overall, the buck stopped with me.

The second, and more personal, realization was that so many of my life decisions had been made with my childhood in mind. On some level, I realized I wasn’t fighting to go to class because it was the right thing to do. I was fighting to avoid my mother’s disapproving gaze on the back of my neck as I watched Bob Barker make small talk with contestants on “The Price is Right.”

But my mother wasn’t there. She didn’t decide when I went to school anymore. And even if she judged me from afar for missing class, it wasn’t something I had to live with.

With those revelations in mind, I laced up my sandals, pulled up my short sleeves and pulled myself up by my…sandle straps? Sorry. I just realized that all the metaphors about working hard don’t really work when you’re wearing jaunty summer clothing. But you get my point.

I’m not sure why I went to class that day, even after I’d decided I was far too sick to make the trip. Maybe it was a long overdue attempt to try and live up to my own standards. Maybe it was a stupid decision, and someone with more experience should have made it for me.

In my defense, I’d tried to go that route.

The important thing, though, was that it was my decision. And as an adult, it would be the first of many. I felt a lot of pride in my choice…though, in all fairness, pride could have just been another symptom of whatever was killing me at the time.

I had literally ever other symptom, so why not pride, too?

“Jesus Christ,” a voice said as I set my books down. I looked up to see my professor doing a passable imitation of my mother’s disapproving glare. “You look like death.”

I croaked in the affirmative, then added, “But I made it here.”

“Awesome. Get out.”

I blinked at him, confused.

“You damn kids have gotten me sick five times in four weeks, because you don’t have the sense to stay home when you’re dying,” he said, muttering something about our parents needing to teach us these things. “No more. Go home. Sleep. Drink fluids. Rub yourself with Echinacea or whatever they’re saying to do now. Just leave me and my immune system out of it.”

“Oh,” I said. I waited a beat to make sure he wasn’t joking, and then picked up my books. “I guess I’ll just…go then?”

“Go breathe your death air in the hallway,” he said, pointing.

I left, a little stunned. I was joined, not half a minute later, by six other students displaying a variety of other symptoms. It made me feel a little better. Emotionally, I mean. I was still so sick I could barely stand.

There might have been another life lesson or two to learn from all that. Maybe something about making decisions but accepting the unpredictability of life. Maybe something about accepting limitations. And I may have even tried to learn them, if my vision wasn’t slowly fading to black. So I went home.

Though I did note, as I stumbled back outside, one of my fellow exiles worriedly looking at her phone as she said, “My mom is going to kill me.”

From a Certain Point of Flu


There are few childhood memories I remember quite so vividly as the familiar routine of a sick day.

Illness was held to rigid standards in my family. Being sick the night before school, for example, wasn’t medically relevant. Even symptoms themselves were largely ignored in favor of jamming an old mercury thermometer in my mouth. Sore throats were subjective. Coughing could be faked. But the thermometer was infallible. Its word, law. Its decisions, final.

Reaching the coveted 100 degree mark (as even 99.9 was only “something to keep an eye on”) was a bittersweet victory. My mother never made her displeasure at having company during the day a secret. She would sigh and moan and wonder how someone with literally several things to do during the day could find time to take care of a sick child, as well.

There was a lot of strategy involved in being sick in my household, insofar as there was any strategy required at all. Most of it involved avoiding my mother. The rest largely revolved around finding watchable television before and after “The Price is Right.”

And, between bouts of real dreams during days spent mostly sleeping, I daydreamed of how much simpler it would be when I had no one to answer to.

As with more or less everything I thought during my childhood, I turned out to be wrong, of course. Being sick as an adult wasn’t nearly as fun as being sick as a child. And that even before Bob Barker retired as host of “The Price is Right.”

One of the more inevitable truths of human biology is that cramming students from all over the state into a small area is the recipe for disaster. In fact, it’s the recipe for more than one distinct flavor of disaster. But in this particular case, the disaster in question was the epidemic level of exposure to every illness in the the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania – a traveler’s guide to the very worst bacteria, viruses and fungi the Keystone State had to offer.

Truth be told, I did better than most. I’ve always had a fairly strong immune system. So I spent the first three weeks of college just being surrounded by sick people. It was only the Sunday of my fourth week that I finally succumbed to one of the dozens of sicknesses I’d been assaulted by since I got there.

I realized, almost from the moment when I was forced to use toilet paper to blow my nose because I had no tissues, that I was completely out of my depth.

Things didn’t get any better from there, not least of all because I had no real sense of how to tell if I was sick at all. When I was growing up, sickness was something determined by either the back of my mother’s hand, a thermometer or, in dire straits, an actual doctor. Deciding for myself whether or not I was sick seemed to be an awkward proposition rife with potential bias.

My mother was a five hour drive away. I could only assume the back of her hand was with her. Both were equally out of my reach.

Of course, even if I had been home, I couldn’t have used the old mercury thermometer. It had been destroyed in fairly spectacular fashion years before when my brother tried to test the temperature of water that, despite refusing to boil, was apparently hot enough to burst a thermometer. There’s an old saying about not watching a pot boil (which, for the record, we followed). If someone had made a similar saying about not putting glass thermometers in them, we might have avoided the mess entirely.

As for seeing the doctor, well, I usually thought of seeing someone with a medical degree as the step you’d take after you figured out if you were sick or not.

Within the next hour or so, though, my symptoms escalated from sniffles to sneezes to runny nose before finally reaching monsoon levels, with a sore throat added for a little variety. It was only when I rummaged through my trusty medical bag for a cough drop that I realized I hadn’t had the foresight to pack either cough drops or tissues. Or, for that matter, a medical bag of any level of trustworthiness.

And so, rather than ruin the sleeves of every shirt I owned, I trudged down to the campus store to buy anything I assumed would be helpful, at prices that weren’t.

“Are you sick?” the cashier said as I dropped a random assortment of medicine on the counter in front of her. She looked at the pile and then at me. “You look sick.”

“Thank you?” I said, not certain of how else to answer.

Although I wasn’t happy that she had judged my health by my shoddy appearance rather than the six pounds of medicine I was buying, I let it slide. Aside from wanting to consume the aforementioned medicine as quickly as possible, it was actually nice to get any sort of outside confirmation that I was sick.

“Well, get some rest. Those are some nasty dark circles under your eyes,” she said, handing me the bag. I didn’t bother explaining that those were a standard feature of my face rather than a recent addition.

I wisely left before she pointed out anything else that was merely a symptom of being me.

Back in my room, I picked through my Trick or Treat-esque haul and more or less put a random handful into my mouth. I realize that sounds either dangerous or idiotic, or more likely, both. But keep in mind that no one is born with instinctual knowledge of proper pharmaceutical consumption. And my parents certainly never tried to instill any in me. The fact that I ate only oral medication and not the box of tissues was, frankly, a small wonder in itself.

And then, far more exhausted than one ought to be from a short walk and a small amount of swallowing, I collapsed into bed.

Then again, this probably worked in my favor. The only real advice I knew about being sick was that sleeping helped. I wasn’t sure of the science or magic behind it, but it was all I had. “I’ll watch Adult Swim twice tomorrow night,” I reassured myself, and slowly drifted off.

You can only imagine my surprise when, the following morning, I somehow woke up feeling even sicker than before I’d gone to sleep.