Chapter 1: Rituals
STEP 1: Introduce yourself to someone new. Try a student sitting alone, or someone who seems upset or out of place. Invite them to an informal activity.
I’m nose-deep into Henry James when Christina Livingston storms through the common room. Her stale eye makeup and disheveled hair signal her apparent mental state. She frantically searches every corner of the room, even crouching down on the floor to look under chairs and tables.
Trying not to laugh, I imagine my former roommate, Sadie, mock-singing the first thought in my head: Driving that train. High on cocaine. It was Sadie’s theme song for Christina, but Sadie had other lyric snippets on file just for me, like the chorus to “Here Comes Your Man” when random guys she deemed undesirable walked by.
I turn the page of my book and pretend to read, hoping Christina will go away. She’s the type who procrastinates until she has to stay up all night snorting Ritalin through a cut-up plastic straw to cram for a test. She actually used to do this in my room with Sadie when they thought I was asleep.
Christina snaps her fingers twice in quick succession. “Hey.”
I look up.
“Where’s my notebook?” she asks. The animated bears on her T-shirt gleefully kick their way into a tie-dyed vortex as if mocking me. Christina’s eyebrows lift into an expression that’s both confrontational and patient. As in: I have all morning to calmly harass you until you help me find it.
“I have no idea,” I say.
She tilts her head and edges closer. “Well, it was here a few minutes ago, and now it’s gone. You’re the only person here, so what do you think happened to it?”
“I honestly don’t know, Christina. I just got here.” It’s hard to sound nice when it comes to Christina. Why would anyone want her notes for anything other than as entertaining drivel set to the sound effect of a cracked egg sizzling in a pan? This is your brain on drugs.
Christina scratches up and down her forearm as she paces. “You know I really don’t need this shit from you, narc.”
The nickname makes me flinch. It’s been inescapable since the morning I finally had to tell someone about Sadie. There was no other choice—her skin was too pale, her pulse erratic. Even when I shook her as hard as I could, she wouldn’t wake up, and I had no idea what she’d taken. I panicked.
“Sadie hated you, you know,” Christina hisses. My hands begin shaking. I know better than to tell her Sadie thanked me in the ER, where I never left her side, even though Sadie’s other “friends” never checked on her once. Before Sadie’s abrupt departure, I thought they were my friends too, but I guess the word holds a looser definition your freshman year of college. It took moving up here to realize just how far 1,485 miles (I counted) was to be away from your best friend. Summer stayed back home to work at a restaurant while taking art classes at the community college. It still hurts to remember how Summer rushed me off the phone the last few times I had tried to call her, either running to class or going to hang out with the other friends I left behind. I finally wised up and just stopped trying.
I turn to see Sadie’s other so-called friends approach the doorway looking for Christina. Shit. I don’t feel like dealing with them right now. I clutch my book and barrel out of the room. “Good luck with her,” I say as I pass, hoping for a sympathetic reaction, but they stare through me with silent hostility. I rush down the corridor, where each metal door flaunts personalized magnets and colorful Post-it notes with friendly messages. I resist the urge to tear them down to make them match mine: a dull, gray slate.
Blinking back tears, I slam my door and lock it. Silence overcomes me. “Home sweet home,” I say sarcastically to Sadie’s blank side of the room, where pinholes in the wall are the only evidence that she was ever here at all. This has pretty much been my life all second semester—in my dorm, alone.
At times like this, I have two choices: curl up in bed and let myself cry, or perform the ritual that keeps me here even when I want to leave.
My eyes flick to the bed before I get myself together and walk up to my phone and pick up the receiver. The dial tone blares into my ear as I think about what I would actually say to the person who answers. Dad would say: I told you it was a bad idea. Just come home. Even when he’s worried, his voice is laced with a condescension that says I was too young to move so far away. Part of the ritual is never allowing myself to press the numbers when I’m this upset. The dial tone is like an extended wrong-answer buzz—nope, try again. Sometimes I even picture a ridiculously annoying cheerleader: Just give college life one more chance!
Before, Christina’s misdirected vitriol over her stupid notebook was something Sadie and I would have laughed at, easily brushed off, but now it’s just one more reminder that I don’t belong here. That I never did. With white knuckles, I hang up the phone. I will not let them be right about me. I grab my backpack, already running through my checklist of reading assignments as I shrug it over my shoulder before running out the door. The slam echoes as I hurry off, taking me even farther away from home.
As I step out of my dorm and into the early spring sun, I nearly run into a group of girls who are too busy laughing at something one of them said to notice anyone else around them. One sounds so much like Summer that my heart constricts. She’s probably in her pottery class at the community college right now, or drawing on her deck under her mom’s noisy wind chimes. I miss her, but I was the one who pored over stacks of glossy brochures featuring glittering cities far from home, and students smiling at professors who seemed happy and enlightened. (“So staged,” my older stepsister, Tamara, had said, rolling her eyes.)
And maybe Tamara was right. Maybe I couldn’t see past the idea of new possibilities. Dad even offered to let me take a year off first, since I was barely seventeen at graduation. They’d bumped me up a grade in middle school so I could “stay challenged.” Dad had second thoughts about that decision when it was time for me to move away, but I was more than ready for a new beginning.
The sidewalks in the college brochure photos became uncharted paths through flawless green quads. I pictured them blanketed with layers of jewel-toned leaves that would morph into dark gray mazes carved through powdery snow, and then sprinkled with pink cherry blossoms this time of year—far away from all the things back home that never seem to change.
So I chose Boston, even after Dad was reluctant to let me move so far away. Unless I could change my name, nearby colleges would have been a nightmare. Dad’s trials had started to attract publicity—it turns out challenging profitable industries, and the wealthiest people at the top, also attracted pretty big enemies. And then there’s Tamara’s notorious reputation (for very different reasons). I just wanted the chance to start adulthood with the space to stand on my own, without people waiting to watch me fall. I’d already started preferring my locked bedroom to high school activities and social events. And I’m pretty sure Dad noticed, or at least he started staring at me with that glassy-eyed expression, the one that makes me wonder if he’s worried I’m turning into the person we never can bring ourselves to talk about: my mother.
On my own. I asked for it. It’s what I thought I wanted. But it’s hard to see people so happy where they belong when my “uncharted paths” turned out to be regular sidewalks where other people’s eyes rarely meet mine.
So now, here I am, every day, walking across bridges that span interstates, drifting through the rectangular shadows wedged between tall buildings, in and out of elevators, and up and down steel escalators. And I’ve learned that if I refuse to turn around, I stay just far enough away from the possibility of giving up and going home.
My secret study spot is a nearby coffee shop where my favorite chair waits against a fractured brick wall and people congregate behind stacks of books without any expectation to socialize. It’s where the outside motion of pedestrians and traffic creates a peripheral energy that allows me to fall deep into faraway worlds that exist only between pages.
Henry James and I have always had issues, the main one being that I cannot get past two pages of his long-winded sentences without my eyes glazing over. But when the story finally does take off, I can actually hear the layered muslin skirts pass by (a hundred frills and flounces, and knots of pale-colored ribbon). Gentlemen click by with their canes. And then everyone around me is sipping tea from dainty cups. At the very moment Mr. Winterbourne is pondering Daisy’s level of virtue (Some people had told him that, after all, American girls were exceedingly innocent; and others had told him that, after all, they were not.), a male voice speaks.
“Do you actually like that kind of stuff, or is it for a class?”
Glancing up, I blink as the world around me sharpens back into focus.
A guy with dark, wavy hair looks at me expectantly from the chair next to mine before asking again, “I was just wondering what you think of your book.”
He leans toward me and pushes his hair off his forehead in a casual sweep. The other details of him register simultaneously: navy T-shirt, worn jeans, hiking boots. He’s tall with a lean muscular build, the kind you wouldn’t really notice unless he gave you a hug. Pretty much the kind of guy most girls would gladly dive into a murky pool of trouble for.
“Oh, um,” I stutter, dropping my eyes back down to my book. It’s been so long since someone approached me like this. First semester was full of getting-to-know-you activities and parties—now it seems like everyone has settled into closed-off groups, leaving me stranded on a social island with nothing but textbooks.
“It’s for a class,” I say finally. “I guess it’s good if you like long, complicated sentences.”
He smiles. “I prefer Hemingway myself,” he says.
I roll my eyes. “Every guy likes Hemingway.” He laughs, and I begin to relax. “Are you an English major?”
“Yep,” the mystery guy answers. “You?”
“Undecided.” English is one of the many majors I’m still considering. I fell in love with literature in high school, and Dad says majoring in English would be good preparation for law school, but I’ve never wanted to follow his path. He just doesn’t know that yet.
“So, would you read it for fun?” he prods.
“Eh, I don’t know. I’m not sure if I should admit this, but it’s my third attempt. Henry James is, like, the king of semicolons.”
He laughs. “Well, there’s nothin’ worse than a mess of semicolons,” he says, this time revealing the hint of a familiar accent.
I scoot forward in my chair. “Where are you from?” I ask.
“Really?” Not many Gulf Coast grads choose to make the move up north, if only for the preference of sun over snow.
“Yes, ma’am. But don’t tell anyone.” He whispers the last part.
This time, I recognize the smooth drawl, the blurred syllables most people up here pronounce differently.
“I take it you aren’t from here either.”
“Wow. How’d you know?” I’m sarcastic. I learned to hide my Southern accent at school by talking fast—or not at all—to avoid the mocking that inevitably followed, but sometimes, like now, I can’t stop it from loosening into its natural rhythm.
“Okay. Let me guess where.” He squints at me. “Alabama.”
His eyebrows shoot up. “No? Well, I guess you’ll have to give me a hint, then.”
I think for a second. “Our states are connected.”
“So, we’re connected, huh?” His eyes light up with intrigue.
Something flutters inside my chest and dissipates into a slight dizziness.
“Arkansas?” he guesses.
I shake my head no, my lips sealed into a smile.
He leans in closer and narrows his eyes. “I know.” He looks around as if making sure no one else can hear us. “Say ‘y’all,’” he whispers.
I laugh and look straight into his pale green eyes, the edges crinkled in amusement. “Y’all,” I whisper like a secret, laying the accent on thick.
He holds me with his stare. “Well, I can’t wait to get to know you better, Emily, so I can hear all about Mississippi.” He extends his hand. “I’m Josh,” he says.
I reach out to shake it then pause. “Wait. How’d you know my name?”
He nods down at the table where my name is Sharpied in all caps on the front of my notebook. He grins at me. “You think I’m psychic or something?”
Releasing his hand, I try not to seem embarrassed.
His face contorts into an odd expression like he just thought of something else. “A few of my friends are meeting here tomorrow. Want to join us around seven thirty?”
“Oh, yeah, sure.” I’m too surprised to say anything else.
Josh picks up his book and stands. “Great. I look forward to seeing you then, Emily.” And then he’s gone as abruptly as he appeared.
I look around the room disoriented, as if waking from a dream. A guy in gray sweatpants is snoring on the tattered couch beside me. A coffee grinder punctuates the faint sounds of jazz. Two girls with backpacks open the door, letting in the rushing sound of traffic. I catch myself staring at the window for signs of Josh. There’s nothing except the constant passage of cars, but I can still hear his parting words: I look forward to seeing you.
Smiling into my anthology, I flip back to Henry James. I don’t even notice the semicolons this time as the scenes rattle back to life.