Tag: Story Time

Breaking the First Rule

Fight Club

The best part of browsing my old college writing is that I occasionally happen upon an event that hasn’t crossed my mind in over a decade.

I usually find a little detail here or there that gives me a chuckle. Very rarely, I’ll find a real gem in there, though. And it’s almost always the sort of story that makes me wonder how I could have possibly forgotten it in the first place.

In this case, I’d been wandering around campus shortly after midnight. I had just returned from a fruitful Taco Bell run. I was probably on my way home to watch Adult Swim because, as a total winner, that was the way I spent most nights. And I very well might have, if the sidewalk hadn’t suddenly been blocked by a group of seven sweaty, shirtless men sporting assorted injuries.

“Hey,” one said when he spotted me, nudging one of his equally shirtless companions. “Let’s ask him.”

It should go without saying that I had zero interest in being asked whatever question he had in mind, let alone answering it. But, like a deer caught in seven very shirtless headlights, I was frozen in place.

“You look bored,” one said.

It wasn’t a question. I very briefly entertained the notion of telling him this, until I heard my grandfather’s sagely advice to never correct a sweaty man with no shirt. For once, the side story of why my grandfather told me that is less interesting than the one I’m telling now, so I won’t get into it.

“Want to have some fun?” another asked. Or maybe it was the same one. It was hard to tell the seven men apart when I was trying to look in literally any other direction.

I cycled through the list of potential answers. I had plans. I didn’t want any trouble. Saying nothing and just falling into the fetal position and crying. As they all seemed about equally likely to end with my savage beating at the hands of a baker’s half dozen of sweaty men, I chose one at random. “I…was just headed back to my room.”

My answer led to the obvious follow-up question. “Have you ever seen ‘Fight Club?'”

Wait. Did I say “obvious?” Because I meant “totally nonsensical shirtless non-sequitur.”

I had seen the movie. In fact, I’d been a disillusioned, angsty high school student, which meant I’d watched it over and over in an attempt to find a bit of meaning in my life. And I certainly could have told them this, though the fact that they weren’t wearing shirts urged caution in volunteering anything but the minimal amount of information. “I think I saw it…a while ago,” I hedged.

One of them stepped forward. “I want you to attack me the hardest you can,” he said with a grin that suggested…I’m not quite sure what. Definitely not something I wanted suggested anywhere in my vicinity.

Punch me as hard as you can,” one of the others corrected.

“No,” another chimed in. “Hit me as hard as you can.”

Suffice to say, I did literally none of those things.

“Oh,” I said. “Like in the movie. I get it.” I glanced off toward the door to my building, wondering if I could make a break for it the next time they tried to correct a misquote from the movie. Don’t get me wrong. So far as being approached by a group of sweaty men goes, this was probably one of the better outcomes. All the same, I didn’t want to linger there.

Though, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to ask whether or not it had been a set rule in the movie that no shirts were allowed. I’d never thought of it before that moment. It suddenly seemed very important.

“What do you say? Want to join our Fight Club?” the one who’d recently beckoned me to attack him asked.

“Rule number one! We don’t talk about Fight Club!” another called out.

It was a tempting offer. I mean, they were getting a solid forty percent of the movie quotes right. Still, as fun as it was to be in one of the few situations that would end with me being punched by a stranger whether I agreed with them or told them I slept with their sister, I politely declined. “I’m…actually pretty tired. I should eat my dinner and get some sleep.”

“Yeah, well, how much can you really know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?” one asked, nearly at a point in the conversation where it would’ve been clever.

“I’ve actually been in…I don’t know…three fights? I’m good.” I certainly hadn’t learned anything particularly interesting about myself, aside from how much I dislike being punched. And even that was probably something I could’ve guessed.

The group was midway through trying to come up with a fitting but not quite correct movie quote when a flashlight shined on all of us, saving them the trouble. “Hey! Everyone put your hands where I can see them. Nobody move!” a police officer said, emerging from the shadows.

Two members of the Fight Club immediately moved, sprinting off at top speed. Within moments, both they and their hands were completely out of sight. Honestly, it was like they weren’t listening at all.

A second officer surveyed the situation and scowled. “What the hell is going on here?”

I turned back to the shirtless men, still having more than a passing curiosity myself. Sadly, no one volunteered the information. On the other hand, no one tried answering it with a butchered line from the movie, so it wasn’t all bad.

Some discussion followed, with one member after another trying to fumble through what had happened in a way that made it seem less insane than it actually was. One had even gone so far as to clam up, aside from saying, “We all wanted to hit each other, so no one’s pressing charges! So no one broke any laws!”

It was then that the officers turned to me and my rapidly cooling Mexican food. “What about you? You with them?”

I glanced down at myself and blinked, wondering if I’d somehow misplaced my clothing and become heavily bruised since I last looked. I felt this should have been the first place the police checked, as well, but I’m not one to tell people how to do their jobs. “No. I don’t even want to be standing near them.”

“Yeah? Then why are you out so late?” he pressed, suspiciously. As though there weren’t thirty other students wandering within a hundred feet of us if he’d just swiveled his head slightly.

I held the bag of food up. “I was getting dinner.”

“What sort of person is out getting dinner at one in the morning?”

I don’t recall my exact answer to the question, though I can safely assume it wasn’t that I was very obviously a total winner.

The officer gave me another look up and down, then shrugged. “Fine,” he said, finally believing either my explanation or shirt. He sent me on my way before leading the line of shirtless and now sobbing men toward the parking lot. The last thing I heard before they left earshot was, “I swear to God. That movie has ruined a goddamned generation.”

“Yeah,” the other answered sarcastically. “Everything was fine between ‘Animal House’ and ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ and now.”

“Shut up, Doug.”

And that’s where I think I’ll end the story. Lest I accidentally end up suggesting there was some sort of greater moral to take from it. Or, perhaps more importantly, before I take the easy way out and end with a painfully forced tie-in quote from the movie.

Stop waiting for one. We’re not doing this. We’re both better than this.

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Three’s a Crowd

Distracted

“Wow. So in the end, you didn’t get the girl, huh?” the radiologist said, dragging both myself and the readers back into the story’s hospital framing device.

I readjusted my open-backed gown as haughtily as I could muster (which it turns out, is “not very”). “Not the girl. I didn’t get one of the girls I met in my lifetime. There were others. Obviously, I succeeded. Eventually.”

The man just shrugged. “Well, how was I supposed to know that?”

I held up my left hand and wiggled my occupied ring finger.

“Honestly,” he said, “you sort of seem like the type to wear a fake ring.”

I gave him a hard glare. “I don’t remember writing you this mean.”

The technician held up his hands defensively before clutching his metal clipboard to his chest. “What I’m saying is, if I understand the bullet points of the story thus far, it’s that you seem to view relationships as sort of a…chore.” He poked his head out the door then, making sure no one had noticed he was listening to an exceedingly long story rather than doing the work he was being paid for. “Or you used to, at least.”

“One…could make that assessment,” I begrudgingly conceded. I leaned back in my chair. “My entire life I’ve been surrounded by people who were miserable because they were alone. And when they found someone, they were usually even more miserable.” It was hardly a ringing endorsement for being in a couple.

Or, for that matter, being single.

The radiologist drummed his fingers on the clipboard absently before sighing. He seemed to have made a decision he wasn’t thrilled with. “Well, in any case, since you wrote me into the story, I’m here if you need someone to talk to.”

I raised an eyebrow. “I’ve been talking to you for an hour.”

“Let’s call this what it is. You’ve been talking at me.”

I considered the offer before waving it off. The idea of using a character I’d created for the purposes of a story as my therapist seemed like something I’d have to describe to a real therapist later. “It’s fine. I’m just trying to close out this bit of the story. I feel like it’s been dragging on.”

“So, what happened with Kay? Did Hatey find out?”

“He did,” I answered. As far as I know, Kay told him exactly what happened as soon as he arrived – most likely over a very tense meal consisting of bad fighting and worse soup.

The technician whistled. “Wow. I bet there were some fireworks there.”

“You’d be surprised,” I said. In fact, I’d been surprised at the time. Hatey had showed up at my door around 2am the following night. (Or morning, depending on your viewpoint.) Despite my concerns for how he’d figured out where I lived and my suspicions that he’d come to murder me, it was actually a very short, fairly polite conversation. “He actually thanked me.”

“You’re kidding.”

Hatey apologized for being an intolerable ass, though he may have used a different word for it. He said he’d unfairly misjudged me as someone just trying to get into his girlfriend’s pants, largely glossing over the entire portion where she’d been trying to get me into them. “It was mostly pleasant vindication, up until he thanked me for not being as selfish as a lot of guys would’ve been in the situation.”

The radiologist blinked at this. “Wow. How dare he.”

“He was telling me that I might be a more decent guy than he thought at first,” I scoffed, shaking my head. “He even said that if I ever wanted to hang out, he thought the two of us could be friends.”

Mocking outrage, the radiologist covered his mouth. “The monster!”

“I didn’t do it for him.” In reality, he wasn’t even astoundingly far off in his initial evaluation of me. And it echoed eerily close to how Kay had also judged me to be an entirely different person than I really was. “I semi-politely declined his offer to be friends. I told him that I didn’t think not sleeping with his girlfriend for reasons entirely unrelated to him was a solid enough foundation for friendship.”

“Ouch. So that was the end of it?”

I rolled my eyes. “It probably should have been – if I, Kay or Hatey had had an ounce of sense between us. But we actually hung out as a group throughout the rest of the year.” Despite our love triangle morphing into something like a love-hate-lust-vague disinterest…triangle, they were still surprisingly fun little group outings.

“Even when nothing had changed between you and…Hatey?” It was clear he didn’t like using the name I’d picked for him.

“It was a little different. It was less open hatred and more…a temporary ceasefire. A gentleman’s agreement to pretend we liked each other,” I said. Spoken out loud, it sounded pretty stupid.

“That sounds pretty stupid,” the technician agreed. “But at least things must’ve been less tense with things resolved between you and Kay.”

I scoffed again. “I never said anything resolved there. She reminded me on an almost daily basis that she’d happily dump Hatey at a moment’s notice if it meant she could pull me into the nearest dark alley and have her way with me afterward.”

He grimaced at this. “That sounds…horribly awkward.”

“Tell me about it.” And the fact that she regularly communicated this sentiment to her boyfriend – occasionally while we were all together – made it ten times worse.

“Why would those two even stay together? She didn’t seem all that fond of him. And he was basically indifferent to the idea that he’d be gone the moment you decided you wanted sex more than you wanted to be a good person,” the radiologist wondered.

I honestly had no idea. If the story had revealed anything, it should have been that I was no relationship expert. “I think some people just can’t stand being alone. Even if being together makes them just as miserable.”

“Speaking of miserable, what happened to those crazy kids, anyway?”

I gave him a shrug. “Not a clue. I only know what I was personally involved in, and I eventually had the sense to get out of it before they tried to wrangle me into an awkward threesome or some other mess.”

Still, I told him the end of my part in it. “We hung out for the last time before we all left for Christmas. I take it they spent the holidays at her apartment and things didn’t go well, because the next time she got in touch with me she specifically mentioned we should hang out without him there.” I hadn’t wanted to go, but as I was legitimately busy at the time anyway, I hadn’t had to lie to get out of it.

“It got very difficult to be around her,” I continued, “when every time we got together seemed like a trap to wear me down. It eventually became obvious that if we couldn’t be an item, she wasn’t really interested in being a real friend.”

“No offense, but what did she see in you, anyway?” the technician asked, looking me up and down. The hospital gown probably wasn’t doing me any favors.

“None taken. And I honestly have no idea.” If she’d ever given me an explanation, I’d apparently forgotten it. Among other things.

“So that was the end of it?”

“More or less,” I lied. She had, in fact, called me one last time to say she didn’t even care how I felt for her anymore. She was just so tired of being with someone she felt nothing for that she wanted to feel anything, just to not feel empty for a few hours. I hadn’t bothered explaining to her that I was very much a virgin. Unless she’d wanted to fill the void with disappointment, I couldn’t help her.

I don’t remember how I’d answered. But I’d remained a virgin. So she probably didn’t get the sort of disappointment she’d been asking for.

The radiologist nodded. “It makes you wonder, though. I’ve heard of worse couples working things out. You think they ever got married? Had kids?”

“A guy who abandoned his entire life to pursue a girl it would have been illegal to be with in quite a few states? And a girl who pursued the first guy she saw just to get away from him?” I summarized.

If those two didn’t deserve a “happily ever after,” none of us do.

A Recipe for Disaster

Disaster.jpg

Like nearly every dark chapter in human history, the end of my never-quite-romance with Kay began with the mistaken notion that rice and soup go together.

Okay. That’s not entirely true. One could probably make a strong argument that any relationship is doomed before it even begins when both parties make a policy of being almost exclusively dishonest with one another. Especially in regards to a lack of feelings for the other, pre-existing boyfriends, etc.

That part about rice in soup causing most disasters throughout history is true, though. Look it up.

“I need you to come over,” Kay said over the phone. I wasn’t normally awake at 5:30am most Saturdays, let alone answering phone calls. Still, I’d assumed that for anyone to call at such a horrid hour, they must have had a good reason for waking me – very likely one that involved one or more of my family members dying.

I rubbed my eyes for effect, hoping the sound was loud enough for the receiver to pick up. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“I really need your help and…are you rubbing your eyes?”

Score.

“Help with what?” I asked grumpily.

“Do you know how to make soup?” she asked, in a frantic tone very often reserved for discussing recently deceased family members and only rarely for the logistics of soup-making.

“I…guess so,” I ventured hesitantly. In reality, “knew” may have been a strong word for it. But as most soup was some combination of cooking stock, vegetables and noodles, I didn’t think it could be too hard to fake my way through it. Still confused, I asked, “Are you making soup for…a funeral or something?”

“What? No.”

“Fair enough,” I conceded. It seemed fairly obvious at this point that the entire purpose of the early morning call really was to discuss soup rather than the recently deceased. “What do you need to know?”

She fumbled through a few attempts at words before giving up. “I don’t know. Lots of things. Everything? Just come here!”

“Okay, okay. Calm down,” I soothed. I considered how best to explain before settling on blunt honesty. “Step one: Go back to sleep. Then wake up in five hours and start boiling chicken stock.”

Kay gave me a mocking laugh. “I’m serious. I woke up and I really want soup and I won’t be able to sleep until I make it. Will you just come over here?”

I sighed. “I’ll be there in half an hour. What kind of soup are we making?”

“Chicken and rice.”

“An hour and a half,” I amended with a groan. I needed more rest if I was going to be dealing with the tapioca pudding of all soup recipes. I instructed her to buy the necessary ingredients before I arrived, to save time.

“Well…okay. What do I need?”

“Chicken, rice, some sort of broth and…” I hesitated, already out of ideas. I stared longingly at my destroyed computer, realizing it wouldn’t be much use in quickly looking up a recipe. I hedged my bets. “Everybody likes different veggies. So probably carrots or celery or…” I acted like I was trailing off meaningful there to let her fill in the blanks. In reality, my mind had gone totally blank when it came to soup-worthy ingredients.

Luckily, she didn’t seem to catch on. We exchanged our goodbyes and I set my alarm for an hour later. I was asleep again halfway through unplugging my phone.

Two hours, a short nap and a long walk later, I was at Kay’s off-campus apartment, mentally preparing myself to make a soup that should have never been.

Technically, this was against school rules. Freshman were required to live on campus their first semester for reasons I’ve already forgotten. But a number of fairly wealthy individuals had bypassed this rule by simply paying for off-campus housing and their dorm room. And overall, it’s not important to the story except in explaining how we were able to cook when dorm rooms offered very few options beyond a small, dirty microwave attached to our mini refrigerator.

Kay greeted me with an enthusiastic hug and gave me a quick tour. It was the first time I’d set foot in her apartment, though it was at least the fourth time she’d invited me in the course of our week of knowing one another. In hindsight, that probably should have told me something. Though, in case you’ve forgotten, I should point out that I’m incredibly, stunningly oblivious.

“So…want to make the soup?” she asked. “Or…did you want to do something else?”

“Soup, I guess. What else would we do?” I’m going to save you some trouble. I don’t get any less oblivious to the fact that someone is throwing themselves at me. You may as well stop expecting it.

For her part she didn’t seem upset. She just took me into the kitchen and showed me the supplies she’d gathered. “Okay. We start with the rice…right?”

I considered voicing my objections to the ingredient but gave in. She seemed fairly set on it. And it was her soup, after all. “Right.” I summoned the woeful amount of knowledge I possessed on rice. “It takes longer to cook than the rest. So you start boiling that first.” I didn’t add the “probably” that belonged in that statement.

“How much water do we need?” Kay asked.

“It probably says on the…” I trailed off, seeing the plain, unmarked bag that looked to have come from a farmer’s market. “Maybe…two cups for every cup of rice?”

“Maybe? I thought you knew how to make soup.”

“I know how to make soup without rice, yes.” I then said something incredibly smart. “If there’s too much water, we can just drain the excess.”

“Oh. Good idea.” It wasn’t. For those who don’t know, rice is small enough to fit through the holes in most colanders. Ten minutes later, we had no choice but to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater and start from scratch.

As amusing as this cooking adventure was in its own right, I’ll skip to the end, though. It’s a cute little backdrop to a much bigger story. But the truth is that it also has nothing to do with that story, aside from being that backdrop. So for the sake of not stretching this out any longer, let’s just cut to two hours and a halfways decent pot of homemade soup later.

“Do you want some?” Kay asked.

“I’m actually pretty full from tasting the ingredients.” And this was entirely true. Of the two pounds of chicken we’d cooked, I think only a pound of it made it in the final product. “It’s all yours.”

She shook her head. “Nah. I ate breakfast before you came.”

This struck me as odd. “I…thought this was the craving that woke you up. And then woke me up.”

Kay gave me a long look that went from gentle amusement to sadness to acceptance. “I was…” She smiled. “Nevermind. Doesn’t matter.”

Silence dragged on, begging either of us to blurt something out.

And then, as if I’d understood the past week a lot better than I really had, I said, “You like me, right? I mean, like…not just like a friend.”

Of course I do,” she said, sounding almost annoyed. “I’ve been throwing myself at you for the past week and today…” She made an inarticulate gesture with her hands before letting her arms fall to her sides.

A great deal seemed to dawn on me at once. “Oh. Oooooooh.” I nodded, probably being the last human being on the planet to understand the situation.

She almost growled. “And now it’s too late. Hatey is coming over at ten. I thought we’d have all morning to…make soup.” She sighed. “Instead, we actually made soup.” The fact that she finally seemed as upset about rice soup as I was was small consolation.

I glanced at the clock to see it was after 9:45am. Depending on Hatey’s particular viewpoints on punctuality, he could be there at literally any moment. It was then that I blurted out something else that turned out to be surprisingly insightful. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised he’d be showing up. He always does.”

“Well…yeah,” Kay said. “He is my boyfriend.”

I gaped.

“What?” she asked, noting my surprise. “You knew we were going out. I must’ve told you…” She hesitated here, going through the past few days of conversations. Then, a less profound look of surprise appeared on her face. “Oh…wow. I never actually told you that, did I?”

“Not so much, no.” The picture suddenly become clearer, and far less pretty. “And you had me come over today to…cheat on him. Huh.”

“Well, I wouldn’t use those exact (accurate) words, but…I take it you’re…not okay with that?” she asked, apparently not expecting this outcome.

It was strange. Because with as little experience as I had with dating and relationships, it’s odd to think I’d have actually formed an opinion on the matter or have standards of any kind. And yet, here we were. I shook my head. “No. I guess I’m not.” The answer seemed to surprise us both. As did my subsequent apology for…I’m not even sure what. I apologize a lot.

“Oh…” Kay looked embarrassed. “If it made you more comfortable, I could…break it off with him…I guess?”

I held up a hand. “If you don’t want to be with him, that’s fine. But…” I gave her the closest thing to honesty I could muster. “I’m really not the person you think I am. I’m…pretty sure what you’d have with me isn’t worth throwing something real away for.”

I stopped short of admitting I’d never really developed any actual feelings for her. Or that my interest in her at all was largely due to the broken part in my head that equated someone treating me decently with romantic compatibility. In that regard, I guess it wasn’t really that honest.

I started to leave before things somehow got even worse, but she grabbed my arm. “Stop. I don’t want things to be awkward. This feels like it went…really badly.”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m sure this isn’t even in my top ten most awkward moments with a girl,” I said, trying to make her feel better with a little self-deprecation. Despite how the morning had turned out, I still felt I had some sort of obligation to not make her feel terrible if I could manage. As to why, I’ll refer you back to my previous mention of things being broken in my head.

Kay smiled but seemed uncertain. “We’re…still friends, right?”

I almost said something very honest before smiling weakly back. “I’d like it if we could be friends,” I said instead.

And I meant it. I would have liked if we could have been.

A Knack for Forgetting Faces

Hatey

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 and 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?

…Right?

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 really, really 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 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 of 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 emotional 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 sound 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 straight 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.”

Hook up and Shook up – pt. 1

Pizza
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.”

“You…think?”

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

Hornets
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.”

“What!?”

“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.”