I never did make it to Europe myself. The summer after graduation Malcolm did go and that’s where he met the guy from Atlantic Records who gave him his job. Danny did finally tell his dad that he was switching his major to theater and, even though it meant there were a few uncomfortable Christmases, it worked out. I was never that brave. I still get the postcards, Michelle repeats herself every once in a while, but as far as I know she’s never been back home. At least I’ve never known if she’s home. All I do know is that she did it, she’s living the dream.
The Get-A-Way Girl
I got another postcard today. They come every few months. They are always from some fantastic location: Hawaii, Tahiti, Norway, London, Paris, Venice, Tokyo, and other places all over the world. They are always signed the same and always a reminder of what could have been.
Adulthood. I always knew that it was coming and all my life I think I purposely looked for ways to put it off. I was trying to procrastinate growing up in spite of its relentless march. I surrendered, like most do. I got a job that pays steady, married a girl that is emotionally and physically compatible with me, had two wonderful children that are both the apple of my eye and the biggest pains in my ass. I did it all the way that was expected of me and it worked out as we were told it would, when we were still young and hopeful, if we were good and took the right steps. Despite all that it’s been a life of regrets and pining for “the good old days.”
I know that this probably sounds like a big pity party, and I guess that there is an aspect of that, but as I get older I find myself looking back and wondering what could have happened “if.” “If,” it’s such a magical and damning word. It’s impossible to know how other decisions would have worked out, but I’d be lying if I said that I don’t spend my quiet times, in the shower or when I’m trying to sleep, wondering what other outcomes could have come out of my life. Then I look at my actual life and hate myself a little because what I have is, truly, wonderful. Yet it still happens. I just can’t shake it.
Getting these postcards takes me back to college. They were the last of my “Peter Pan” days, when I was still holding on to the idea of being able to chase off time. I had what I imagine people consider a typical college experience: I went to class, made friends (some that I still have to this day), met girls, and did my fair share of drinking. It was the mid-90’s when grunge was slowly losing its grasp of the charts and the disaffected youth of Generation X suddenly realized that we’d need to start making money because our Baby Boomer parents were starting to get tired of paying our way through everything.
I was at a state school on partial academic scholarship trying to decide if I was going to keep my business major or switch over to poli-sci. I was a sophomore in loose jeans, a t-shirt and an open, long-sleeve, denim shirt. My hair was a lot longer then. Well, longer than it is now, and more blond. It covered my ears and had just enough shag to it that I felt like I was wearing my alt cred well. I was thinner then too; 155 pounds of man and fit. I still wish that I had my old metabolism back. I could have eaten a whole Stouffer’s lasagna and not gained a pound. I had a great group of friends: Malcolm, the guy who played Oasis songs on his guitar under the trees between classes to woo the ladies; Danny, a guy on a baseball scholarship who secretly wanted to be a theater major; Mariah, the mid-western girl who smoked Marlboro Lights and jogged five miles a day to counteract the damage to her lungs; and Ben who was always coming from or going to some place. I had met Danny and Ben at orientation the year before and we became fast “line” friends. We had fallen into a conversation, awkwardly as you might expect, as we were being parsed out to our different departments to sign up for class. We were standing in the California sun trying to grab shade from a line of nearby trees and Ben decided to get a hat out of his backpack. It was stuffed full, impossible to tell from the outside what was in it, but I tried to guess. There were sharp corners poking out the sides, clearly books in my opinion, and on top the soft plumpness of clothes, maybe a sweatshirt? He opened his backpack and it exploded everywhere! Sure enough a sweatshirt, pair of shorts, several books (Dungeons and Dragons mostly) and the hat he was looking for. Ben wasn’t embarrassed about this, even as the girls in line around us giggled about it, but in what we would come to know as typical Ben fashion he was frustrated that he had to pick everything else up. Danny and I helped him so he wouldn’t lose his place in line. Ben threw the hat on his head, an Angels ball cap, and grabbed his D&D Player’s Handbook.
“You like the Angels?” Danny asked and he grabbed the Monster Manual in one hand and the pair of shorts in the other.
“Huh?” Ben looked confused as he retrieved the items from Danny.
Danny pointed at it and said, “Your hat?”
“Oh, sure, I guess. I’ve never actually seen them play. My Dad got it for me and it’s, like, the only hat I own.” Ben pushed the hat back on his head and pushed up his glasses as he adjusted his position to pick up a set of adventure modules.
“Here you go,” I had picked up the last of the books and reached over to hand them to Ben. He grabbed most of them but one thing stuck to my palm. It was a comic book, an X-Men comic book to be precise. Issue 222 featuring both Wolverine and Sabretooth on the cover locked in mortal combat. It was bagged and boarded the way any good collector back then would keep their comics. I had the same issue back home. “I dig the X-Men too.”
Ben smiled for the first time as he took the issue back. He put the comic back in his pack more carefully than the other objects and made sure to put it between the two hard cover D&D books to protect it. “Yeah? That’s cool. I’m Ben.”
“John.” We shook hands.
“I’m Danny, I like them too, but I stopped buying them when I graduated. My dad says that dudes in college don’t read that stuff.”
“Well we’re in college and we read them,” Ben reached out to shake Danny’s hand, “so, John, Danny, have you been keeping up with both titles now that the teams are split up?”
And that was all it took. Those guys and I were inseparable after that. I picked up Malcolm in my freshman English class and we connected over our mutual love of The Smiths and Oasis’s Definitely Maybe album. Mariah came into the picture one day at lunch when she decided to sit with us and injected herself into our conversation about how tough a teacher Professor Stewart was.
“She just hates men, guys, you’re doomed to fight for a C in that class.” She said it so matter of factually that we were all just kind of stunned into silence… except for Malcolm.
“That’s just ludicrous! That’s asinine!” then Malcolm stole French fries off of her plate and dipped them in the side of ranch that she had on her tray, “Oh, those are good! Guys you should try those.”
It was a good group. I still talk to them to this day, Danny and Mariah got married right after graduation and moved back to Illinois to be near Mariah’s family when they started having kids. Malcolm stayed in California and ended up in the music industry, as an A& R rep for a major label. Ben settled in San Francisco and opened up a comic book store that he still runs with his wife. They all ended up living the dream. It was different for me. While I always felt like those guys knew who they were before they got to school, I always felt like school just made me more confused.
I was never “defined” in high school. I wasn’t super popular, but I certainly wasn’t friendless or picked on. I was a good student, but not quite valedictorian material. I never liked competitive sports or played on any teams. My friends were casual about everything; growing up in suburban California can make you like that – especially in Orange County. I liked comics and music and football and movies but none of them enough to get excited about them. I worked to get into college because I thought that it would magically turn me into whoever I was going to be. Surprise, surprise it didn’t, but I was willing to believe that it was because it had only been my freshman year and there were still three more years to go (probably four due to class availability).
So there I was, the start of my sophomore year. I was single, I had been dating a girl named Becky but we had broken up pretty amicably a few weeks prior to school starting. I was on a real coffee kick. This was before Starbucks had taken over the world and so the group and I would frequent the little mom and pop shops near school. My favorite that summer had been a place called Caffeine Bean that was directly across from the main quad of the school. We’d sit out front, smoking Mariah’s cigarettes and watching the summer school students as we drank fancy lattes and judged people. That’s when I first started to notice Michelle.
Michelle had a favorite spot under one of the big trees in the quad. It was directly in sight of our favorite table at Caffeine Bean. At first I noticed the pattern of her being there more than I noticed her. She was a girl, usually in shorts or jeans and a colorful t-shirt, with her nose in a book under the tree who would occasionally write something in a big three-ring binder. The first few times I would just catch a glimpse of her when I would scan the campus. After the third time I started paying attention. I couldn’t see what the books were called from where we were, but they were always thick and looked like text books in how they were over-sized; and the binder, always the binder. It was a pale purple and had loose leaf paper in it. And when she wrote in it she would write a lot, occasionally aggressively erasing and then writing again.
After the seventh time I saw her I mentioned something to the rest of the group.
“Hey guys, does anyone know that girl?”
Malcolm perked up, “What girl?” He squinted and looked at the quad. I pointed to the tree and he stared hard before dismissing her and leaning back in his chair. “Don’t know her.” Then he lit one of Mariah’s cigarettes.
“Fucker! You better buy me another pack; you’ve smoked more of these than I have!” She grabbed a cigarette for herself and looked over to the quad as she lit it. “Sorry John, no idea.”
“She’s a little plain for you, isn’t she?” Malcolm was being a sarcastic ass. Admittedly most of the girls that I had been dating were girls who had been more adventurous in their appearance. Dyed hair, piercings, tattoos, and lots of torn jeans; nothing full Goth or completely Grunge, but a lot of girls were experimenting with their appearances now that they weren’t under their parent’s roofs. Michelle definitely didn’t fit that profile. She had long brown hair that had a natural curl to it and was always up either in a ponytail or in half up/half down way that girls do to keep hair out of their faces. I never got a good look at her face completely because there was usually a book in front of half of it. She didn’t look particularly tall or thin, she looked like a girl. I wasn’t surprised that no one had noticed her or knew who she was.
“No, you don’t get it. She’s been in that spot, like, every day. At least every day we’ve been here. She’s always reading her book and then writing things in that binder.” I just kept watching her.
“Are you stalking her, dude?” Danny punched my arm and laughed.
“They have laws against that John,” Ben poked me in the shoulder as he said it and got up, “I gotta’ run I’ve got to…”
“Get to the store, we know.” We all finished his sentence for him. Ben was working at a comic book store nearby and if he wasn’t in school or asleep he was there. He’d still meet up with us to hang out but usually only when the store was closed. If it was open we were just a brief layover before he headed back.
“Shut up you guys.” Ben headed off and the other three got into a conversation about which Beastie Boys album was the best. I still stand by Ill Communication if only because of the song and video for “Sabotage.” Man, I love that. As they talked I watched Michelle. She just sat there under the tree reading and jotting down whatever it was she was jotting down.
So when the fall semester started I wasn’t surprised when I saw her there again. But now I was on campus and could get a better look. She looked the same up close, except I could confirm that she was cute. She wore no make-up, at least none that I could see, and she had the skin of a girl who was recently a teenager with little patches of acne, but relatively clear beyond that. She had a pencil in her hand and a pen behind her ear. Again she was reading a large text book, but from where I was now I could see that it was a theoretical math book. Suddenly it made sense why she was both in summer school and constantly reading it, that had to be some hard stuff. I was never a math guy. I got through algebra and geometry just fine, but never wanted to move up beyond that. I made my way to class feeling like the mystery had been solved for the moment.
I had arranged my schedule to be Monday through Thursday, with Fridays off. Just like now, I lived for three day weekends. Tuesdays and Thursdays were my morning classes. It was history and, being a history buff anyway, it was one of my easiest classes. I rarely went in completely awake which probably explains why it took almost four classes before I realized that Michelle was in my class. She sat near the front and made what appeared to be meticulous notes. She carried a big backpack. It sat next to her seat like a boulder. It was impressive that her small frame could carry it. Just like my friends, no one else in class seemed to notice her. She was practically invisible. She’d come in, sit, learn, and leave. She didn’t look like she had any friends in class and even the professor didn’t seem to acknowledge her. I started to follow her after class.
Before you start, I know how this sounds. But you need to understand that she piqued my curiosity. It was like she was the Snuffleupagus and I was Big Bird; no one else seemed to see her. So, yeah, I followed her. After class she went to her tree and pulled out her math book and made some notes. Then, after forty-five minutes or so, she went to her next class: chemistry. I went and got coffee at Caffeine Bean. Sure enough, when that class was over, she was under the tree again. I had a lab after that so I didn’t follow her the rest of that day, but I showed up Monday, early, to see when she would appear. I got to Caffeine Bean around 8:15am (it was the earliest I could rouse myself) and waited. Michelle must have had an early class because she came from campus to her spot around 9:30. I watched until she left at 10:30. I had an 11am so I crossed to campus as she was packing up and almost got up the courage to say hello. Worried that I’d make an ass of myself I headed to my class.
I knew I was a little obsessed that day; I really couldn’t focus on class. My imagination started to invent what things she might be writing down in her book. Was she developing some kind of super math code? What if she was a computer chick creating some kind of super program? Was she curing cancer? Danny noticed my distraction that day. He and I were taking an acting 101 class. I was taking it to fill my arts requirement and he was taking it hoping to back door into a drama minor without his dad figuring out it out. He caught up to me as I was walking to class.
He lightly shoulder checked me and caught me by surprise, “Dude, I’ve been yelling at you from across the way. What the hell? You goin’ deaf?”
“Sorry, man, I was lost in thought.”
“Huh,” he laughed, “don’t think too hard you might hurt yourself. What’re you thinking about?”
I hesitated to tell him. “Eh, nothing. Just had a busy morning today. I got up early and I think I might have messed up my circadian rhythms or something.”
“Sure.” Danny let it go and I tried to as well, but I didn’t do a good job of it. We met the group, minus Ben (he was at the store), for lunch and Danny couldn’t wait to throw me under the bus.
“Something’s wrong with John.”
“What?” I stammered trying to defend myself against the charge, “What’s wrong? Nothing’s wrong.” I dropped my head over my B.L.T.A. and hoped that lunch would save me.
“What’s wrong with him,” Malcolm asked as he took fries off Mariah’s plate. She slapped his hand, but it didn’t matter the fries were in his mouth.
“He’s been all distracted today.” Danny took a bite of his chicken sandwich.
“What’s her name?” Mariah ate some of her fries and then shoved a forkful of salad in her mouth.
“Her? What are you talking about?” I was completely flustered.
“Guys don’t get distracted by much. It’s usually a job thing or a girl thing. You live off your student loans so not a job thing therefore it must be a girl thing.” She shrugged her shoulders and ate a forkful of salad.
“The girl has a point,” Malcolm grabbed one of her cigarettes and lit up. “So who is she?”
“She’s… nobody. She’s…”
“Uh mah Gah,” Danny was talking with his mouth full, “Theh rehly isa gurh?”
“What? No!” I tried to play it off.
Malcolm laughed, “Hahaha! There is! Holy shit, do you like her? Why don’t you want to tell us about her?”
“Yeah, John, what’s the big deal? You’ve never had a problem telling us about your conquests before?” Another forkful.
“She’s not a conquest; it’s not like that…”
Danny swallowed, “Then what’s it like?”
I felt backed into a corner and at the same time I didn’t know what to tell them. I didn’t really understand why I was so curious about her either except that I didn’t know anything about her and that, in and of itself, was interesting. “You remember that girl from the end of summer break? The one under the tree in the quad?”
“No.” Malcolm looked truly confused, like you had just asked him to translate Chinese.
“The plain girl with the book?” Mariah stabbed her fork aggressively into her salad.
“Yeah, that one,” I finally took a bite of my sandwich.
“So did you take her out?” Malcolm still looked confused.
“No.” I took another bite.
Malcolm’s face twisted from lack of understanding, “Do you want to take her out?”
I wiped my mouth, “I don’t know! I’ve just noticed her around is all. She… intrigues me.”
The whole table burst into eye rolls and grunts.
“Intrigues you?!” Malcolm could barely stay in the chair.
“That’s pretty bad John,” Mariah put down her fork and lit a cigarette for herself.
“Wow, dude. Wow.” Danny went back to his sandwich.
I spent most of the rest of lunch with my face in my hand as the three of them took turns giving me shit. I didn’t make any efforts the rest of the week to see Michelle.
The following Monday I stopped at Caffeine Bean before class and happened to see Michelle under the tree packing up her stuff. After the ration of shit that I had gotten the week before I figured I should at least introduce myself before Malcolm or anyone else got any ideas about trying to embarrass me in front of her. And, really, if I’m being honest with myself, I just needed any excuse to finally get me to do something. I jogged lightly across the street and made my way toward her under the tree. As I got closer I panicked, I hadn’t thought this all the way through and I had no idea what to say.
I went with an old standard, “Hi.”
She didn’t seem to notice me. She kept putting her stuff away.
“Hey, how are you? I’m John.” I got a little bit closer so she knew I was talking to her. She looked up at that and looked around to make sure that I wasn’t talking to someone else.
“Uh, hi?” She looked a little confused that I was talking to her.
Truth is I wasn’t really sure what to follow up with. As it was I had barely gotten the greeting and my name out. Then I remembered, “I’m John. We have history with Professor Standish together?”
“Oh, hi.” That seemed to work. She didn’t look nervous any more. “I’m Michelle. Did you need notes or something?”
“No, I’m good. Thanks, no. I was just coming from the coffee place and saw you and thought I’d say hi.” I was fumbling. It was all I could do to keep from saying that I had been secretly watching her and wanted to know what she was reading and what was in the big binder.
“OK,” she finished putting her stuff away and hoisted her backpack on clearly not sure what to make of the whole exchange, “Well I guess I’ll see you in class.” And then she walked away. At first I started walking to follow her, but I really didn’t know what to do when I would’ve caught up to her. So I just started heading to class, but at least now I knew her name: Michelle.
I met the rest of the group for lunch and things were fine until Ben showed up.
“Hey guys! Pete at the store is forcing me to take a day off so what’s been happening?” Ben sat down with an overly full tray of mac and cheese, a burger, an apple and the biggest soda they offered in the commissary.
Mariah started, “I got in a fight with my sociology professor about structural functionalism which turned into a shouting match that went fifteen minutes into his next class. I feel like I made my point.” Then she lit a cigarette.
“Suede has changed their name to The London Suede. The new album only has one decent single. And I banged Bernadette and we liked it enough that it might be a regular thing. Probably TMI, but I am beyond your judgments.” Then Malcolm grabbed one of Mariah’s cigarettes and lit it up.
“John is in love with some girl he’s never talked to.” Danny elbowed Malcolm and did a head nod at Mariah as he took a bite of his burger.
Ben blinked, “How much did I miss?”
“John, how is plain Jane?” Malcolm had a grin on his face, like he was ready to strike no matter what I said.
I sighed, “Her name is Michelle.”
The table burst out in “Ohs” and Ben looked a little confused, but joined in anyway.
“Wait, you talked to her?” Malcolm leaned in over the table in excitement.
“Yeah, this morning when I was on my way from Caffeine Bean to class.”
“Well, what happened?” Danny asked as he shoved more burger in his mouth.
“Nothing, I mean we kinda’ said hello to each other and now I know her name and that’s about it. We sort of talked about the class we have together…”
“You guys have a class together?” Mariah seemed upset that she didn’t know this.
“I thought you guys knew that.”
“No, we definitely didn’t know that,” Malcolm ashed and took another deep drag.
“Yeah, Tuesday and Thursday. History with Standish.” I tried to play it off and tried to eat.
“My God, how long have you been eyeballing this girl?” Malcolm was eating this up.
“I didn’t even know she was in my class until last week. Guys, seriously, I know this seems weird, but I don’t know. She reads that big book, takes a bunch of notes, it’s like a big mystery and I want to learn the answer…”
“…But what if the answer is totally boring?” Ben interrupted as he stirred his mac and cheese. “I get it man; sometimes the want is way better than the get. Still, don’t be, like, a total stalker. I don’t want to see you go all serial killer on us.”
“Dude, talk to her.” Danny was finally giving his two cents. “What do they always tell us in acting class? Get to the truth. Ask her about the book if you want to know, or don’t, but if you don’t you’re basically giving us license to make fun of you.”
“Hell, even if you do,” Malcolm took another long drag.
“OK, OK, I will. Jeez.” I kept eating my sandwich and Ben got caught up on our lives.
After class I decided that Danny was probably right. I should just talk to Michelle; ask her what was up with the book and the notes. As much fun as I was having creating these fantasies in my head of spy codes and programs I couldn’t keep it up. It was getting dumb. So I went to the tree, committed to talking to Michelle and getting the real story behind the book and the binder. She wasn’t there. I was at the tree, class was over, and she wasn’t there, naturally. I made the decision to come back and see her in the morning. We had a class so it’d be easy.
I got to class just a bit late (I slept through my alarm) and came in just as Prof. Standish was doing role.
“Mr. Peterson, thank you for gracing us with your presence. Please sit.”
I didn’t even speak, just nodded and made my way to the back. As I passed Michelle I waved and mouthed “hi.” She didn’t seem to notice. As class went on I found myself just staring at the back of her head and her backpack. I was getting pretty confused about my feelings. Was this really about book and binder or was this just my brain finding a reason because, for whatever reason, I was attracted to this girl? I was jostled out of my thoughts by the closing of books and the sounds of people getting up to leave class. I put my stuff away and made my way to Michelle.
“Hey Michelle.” She turned a little surprised that someone was talking to her.
“Oh, hey. John, right?”
“Yeah, that’s me. I wanted to know if you wanted to get coffee between classes?”
“Oh, uh, I can’t, really, I have to study.”
“Under the tree?” I don’t even know why it came out of my mouth. I wanted to put it back as soon as I said it. She looked surprised and caught off guard.
“Well, yeah, actually. Why do you know that?” She started going toward the door.
I came clean, “I frequent the Caffeine Bean, the coffee shop across from the quad, and I’ve seen you there, like, every time I go; with the book and the binder?”
She looked a little embarrassed. “Oh, well, yeah. I’m a math major and there’s a lot of reading.”
“Yeah, math is hard.” I mentally gave myself a face palm.
Michelle chuckled at that, “Uh, yeah, I guess it is sometimes.”
Hoping I had an in from the laugh I made one last shot, “So maybe that coffee…?”
“Sorry, John, I really do have to study. But thanks.” And then she was out the door. I stood there just an extra moment. She was studying. She was a math major. That was definitely not creating secret government codes or curing cancer. I felt a little relieved and a little sad, so I just went home.
“She’s a math major? That was the big secret?” Malcolm was puffing away disappointed, more so than I was, I think, about Michelle’s secret. “That’s completely asinine!”
“That is a bit anti-climactic,” Danny was chewing on some fried chicken, “but doesn’t it feel better to know?”
“Yeah, I guess.” Truth be told I was still a little bummed out about it.
“So are you going to ask her out?” Mariah had a selection of fruit on her plate today and moved them around with her fork as she ate.
“No, I guess. I don’t think so.” The question seemed to come from left field. “Why do you ask?”
“Just wondering. She occupied a lot of space in your head for a while. I thought you might want to see if there was anything else there.” She ate some melon. Mariah was right, this girl had been an obsession for weeks and in your early twenties weeks are a decent amount of time. But I was scared. Most girls I talked to seemed interested in speaking to me as well, Michelle could take or leave me and preferred to leave me. And she wasn’t my type, even though my type wasn’t even my type, if you know what I mean. It wasn’t worth it to me to try, so I just let it go, like everything else that was difficult.
A few more weeks passed. My routine set back in. I’d still see Michelle under the tree and in class, but didn’t do much more than wave if we saw each other. She was just another girl that I recognized on campus now; until one Wednesday when I was crossing the quad and passed near the tree. It was after 10:30, normally she would be packed up and on her way to class, but Michelle was under the tree and she was crying softly into her hands. I stopped and looked around; no one else seemed to notice. Not really knowing what else to do I went over to her.
“Michelle, are you ok?” She was startled until she saw it was me.
“Oh, it’s you.” She wiped her tears on her sleeve and moved to put her stuff away.
“Are you ok? Did someone do something to you?”
“No, I’m fine. I’m fine. It’s ok, don’t worry about it.” She was packing up and trying to get away.
I put myself out there, “Hey, I know we really don’t know each other but if you ever want to talk or whatever I’m around. You know where I like to hang out.” I gestured over to the Caffeine Bean and tried to make a sympathetic face.
“Are you asking me out?” She looked surprised and not all that happy about it.
“No! I mean, not that I wouldn’t, but, no, I’m not asking you out right now. I mean, not saying that I’ll do it later…”
Michelle started laughing through her tears, “OK, thanks, but I’m OK. It’s just my project, the one I’ve been working on, I don’t think it’s going to work, that’s all. Thanks for asking, though. I’ll see you in class, John.” And she walked away wiping the last tears from her eyes. I felt like my mission had changed. I didn’t need to know about her “project” any more, now I needed to save Michelle from what I had diagnosed, in my infinite wisdom, as her real problem: she needed some friends! In all the time I had known her, even in the early days, I’d never seen her with anyone else, and she was always alone. That couldn’t be healthy, right? And who would she talk to about her project not working out? I made the decision that I was going to help her make friends.
The next day, Thursday, we had our class together. I came in and dropped off a coffee I had bought for her that morning. She smiled and said thank you. After class I asked her what she thought of it.
“It was… all right, I guess?” She was making a face that said that she didn’t like it but didn’t want to be impolite.
“What?!” I said in mock shock, “That was a fine Ethiopian! You don’t even need to add anything to it, it’s so smooth.”
“I’ve never really been a big coffee fan.”
I acted like she had just shot me in the heart and fell on the desk next to me.”
“I’m more of a tea person, just so you know.”
“Great, can I buy you a cup of tea between classes?” This was going great! I really felt like I was on a roll!
“I can’t, I’m sorry.” I must’ve looked pretty disappointed, “It’s just, I need to keep working on my project. It’s… it’s just really important.”
“What, is it, like, 90% of your grade?”
“It’s so much more than that, but I’ll see you next week.” And then she was off.
I made a mental note about the tea and then left to meet my friends.
The next few weeks were nice. I made an effort to be up early and met Michelle under her tree, with tea of different types, and then go to class and see my friends. They went from teasing me about Michelle to wondering if we were going to get married and have a bunch of kids. We weren’t, our relationship wasn’t like that. I really liked being around Michelle, but it wasn’t in that “relationship” way. We talked about class and she tried to help me with the math that I had to do. I introduced her to my group (except Ben, he was always at the store) and, even though she never ate with us she at least got to know them a little. And she kept working on her “project.” It was always “the project.”
One Wednesday, when we were under the tree, I finally asked for details.
“So, we’re getting close to the end of the semester. Is this project going to be done, finally?”
She looked over the edge of her book with an “are you kidding?” face, “No, not yet. Probably not for a long time.” And then she scribbled some notes down. It was a string of numbers, and equation that I didn’t understand at all.
“Wait, so this isn’t for school?” I was shocked, who does math just to do math?
“No, this is just for me.”
“So, what does it do? Wait, are you secretly decoding government communiques?” Suddenly all of my conspiracy theories came rushing back into my head. I knew it! She was curing cancer or making a super computer program or whatever!
She sat and put her book in her lap and thought about what to say. “Have you ever felt trapped?”
That wasn’t what I was expecting, “Uh, yeah, I guess.”
“Like, really trapped? Like you have very few choices in what happens in your life?”
“Sure, doesn’t everyone?”
“I don’t know if you know what I mean.” She got really quiet and closed her book. “I don’t want to be here, John.”
That threw me. “Wait, here like school or here like life?”
“Here like school, like California, like America. I don’t really feel like I fit in, you know.” She crossed her arms and tucked her legs Indian style. This was probably the most vulnerable I had ever seen her.
I tried to be reassuring, “Hey, that’s ok. That’s exactly what college is for, so you can figure all these things out. Figure out where you dofit in.”
“But what if I already know?”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s never been my dream to go to school, or get married or, you know, do things like our parents did.”
“I get that…”
“But my parents really want me to want that. Really want me to want that.”
“Oh, I see. I bet that’s tough.”
“I really want to travel, John, see the world, you know?”
“Sure, I’d like to travel too. I’m thinking about maybe going to London with Malcolm after we graduate…”
“No, John, it’s all I want to do. I want to see places and try new food and see things that are thousands of years old; I want to experience that all the time.”
“Well you’re a math major and a smart one too, from what I can tell. You’ll probably get a great job and then you can travel wherever you want, right?” She thought for a moment. I thought she was considering what I said, but now I know she was thinking of whether or not to trust me. I’m glad she did.
“What if you could find a way to travel wherever you wanted whenever you wanted?”
“Sure, just give me the winning Lotto ticket and I’ll hop a private jet to anywhere!” I thought I was very funny, but Michelle got a gleam in her eye.
“No, I mean anywhere instantaneously.”
“I don’t get it.” I really was confused.
“That’s my project, John. If it works I’ll be able to go wherever I want whenever I want and I won’t be held to anyone’s idea about what I should or shouldn’t do.” She started to tear up a little. I was at a loss of what to say.
“Well, ok, is there a way I can help?”
“Not really.” She seemed sad that I couldn’t help, and that made me sad too. “It’s my dream, John, and any dream that going to come true requires sacrifice. I have to be the one to make those sacrifices; no one else can do it for me.” She started to put her stuff away. I sat up in the grass and collected my stuff too.
“OK, well I guess I can be moral support?”
She wiped her eyes and chuckled a little, “Yeah, I really appreciate that.”
After that things were never quite the same. I could feel Michelle pulling away. We still saw each other in class, but not as much outside of it. She stopped coming by the commissary and saying hi. Sometimes she wasn’t even under the tree; she said that she found a new place to study. I assumed that some of the changes were due to approaching finals, and that lie kept me going.
On the last day of finals I was beat. I was down to my last one, history with Prof. Standish, which was great because I at least knew the answers to that test. I strolled into class just seconds from being late. I walked past Michelle and she slipped a note into my palm. She had a big smile on her face. I opened the note at my seat. It just had three words written on it: I did it. After the test we walked out together.
“So you did it, huh?” This was the happiest I had ever seen her.
“Yes! Can I buy you a coffee?”
“Well, who am I to turn down a free coffee?” We headed over to Caffeine Bean. It was dead since most of the students were now trading caffeine beverages for alcoholic ones. We took a spot looking out the window toward the quad. Michelle was very excited.
“John, I’m leaving tonight.” She could hardly contain herself.
“Wait, what? Tonight? Where are you going?”
I laughed a little, “Well, shit, that’s great! I thought you said your parents didn’t want you traveling.”
“They don’t, they have no idea I’m leaving. I figured it out!”
“Figured what out?”
“My project, John! I figured it out and now I can go all the places I want!”
I didn’t know what to say, this was all very confusing and at the time I still didn’t’t’t realize what the project actually did. “That’s great, Michelle! I’m so happy for you!”
“I want you to come with me.” She grabbed my hands as she said it.
“You want me to go to Paris, tonight?”
“Yes. You have been my only real friend though this and I want you to come.”
“Michelle, I’m flattered, but I can’t go to Paris tonight. I don’t even have a passport…”
“You don’t need one, you don’t understand, we can go anywhere! No planes, no boats, no trains, unless we want to take them. I figured it out!”
“What do you mean? Michelle, what you’re saying doesn’t make sense. What are we going to do, teleport to Paris?” Her eyes lit up. That’s exactly what she meant. I pulled my hands away not sure if she was joking or not. She looked hurt.
“What’s wrong? I thought you’d want to go.”
“I do, but what you’re saying is impossible.” I thought I was talking sense.
“No, it’s not. I figured it out.” Tears started to well up in her eyes. She wanted me to understand so badly.
“Michelle, I’m really sorry. I know you want this but I don’t want you get your hopes up and then see you crushed that much more when it doesn’t work.” A tear fell down her cheek. I got up to get her a napkin. I was only turned away for a second, but when I turned back she was gone. I ran outside calling for her, but didn’t see her.
Over the break I kept coming back to Caffeine Bean hoping she’d be under the tree, but she never was. My friends would sit with me, even Ben when he could, but after the first week they were telling me to let her go. After a while I started to agree with them. About a week before the new semester started I got a postcard with a picture of the Eiffel Tower on it. It was airmail stamped from France. It said, “Having a great time. – M.” My knees gave out below me. She really had done it. A couple weeks later I got another postcard from Amsterdam and then from London and then from Spain and Italy. Each time signed the same way.
*WRITER’S NOTE: This story started really slow for me in the development process and as I was writing it some of the characters and the story itself started to drift into directions I didn’t expect. Good directions that time didn’t really allow me to follow through on. So any thoughts you have are welcome. This is a story I think I might re-visit when this is all over because I definitely have more to say about John and his friends.