An excerpt from Jenn's project
“Thank you for the escort, my friend.” Simone and I arrived at our building ten minutes early, so she walked with me into the vast, theater-style room and stayed with me until I found a seat toward the back. As I got settled, she warily looked around.
“Do you want to switch classes? Majors maybe?” I playfully inquired.
Her English Lit class was just upstairs, so she could linger for at least another nine minutes. I knew she was taking it all in, assessing the room, every student as they entered. She noticed everything. What she didn’t see was their reaction to her. The guys wondered why she hadn’t taken a seat. Maybe they should stall in the off chance of strategically positioning her in their line of sight. The girls, those who noticed her, all hoped she wasn’t staying. The competition among female college students was fierce. No, she wouldn’t notice those signs on a normal day, but today, she was especially distracted. She was occupied by something else, a looming threat.
“Gwen, don’t move an inch. Garrett’s at the north entrance scanning the room. God, what’s he doing here?” If the softness in her voice could make her invisible, she would have disappeared.
She discreetly reached into her book bag for something. It was unnerving that he was here, true, but I was sure it was just a coincidence.
“He probably has a class in the building, Simone. Don’t go breaking out the pepper spray.” (Pepper spray had become popular in the self-defense world a few months earlier and Simone was proud to be leading the trend. And she really wasn’t afraid to use it.)
“Gwen, this isn’t a joke. He’s up to something. He looks like a madman.” Her panicked tone spooked me.
“I’m sure it’s nothing. He always looks irritated lately,” I replied, trying to calm her down.
I grabbed her wrist, silently urging her to sit. At that moment, her face dropped. Despite her warning, I turned to see what had made her pale. He was there, a deranged, hateful look on his face. His eyes bore into mine. He mouthed something, but I could only hear a deafening ring in my ears. Then he shifted on his heels and shoved an unsuspecting senior into the doorframe. Simone fell heavily into the seat next to me as I began to shake. Seconds later, another loud pop behind me and it all went black.
February 1995: Rain.
Unending wet and gray gloom. That was how we were welcomed back to campus after six weeks of holiday bliss. I was just beginning to understand the importance of time off, of the three R’s: rest, recovery and rejuvenation, when another semester crept up on me and demanded my attention.
“Karly, do you have an extra umbrella? I think Garrett still has mine and I’m not about to call him. I’d rather show up to class looking like a drowned cat!”
Karly was one of my roommates and best friends. Simone completed our trio. We were all in our junior year at Shoreline University. It’s amazing how three lives on different paths could collide and meld into a mutual sustenance. Simone and I had been friends since middle school. We met Karly at orientation. In just over two years, we’d become inseparable, relying on each other for everything: class notes, carpool, peanut butter, wine coolers and today, weather-proof gear. We were as close as sisters, none of us having any naturally, and I couldn’t imagine my life without them.
“Gwen, you just need to call him and tell him you’d like your stuff back, including your umbrella! You don’t want the rain to ruin your perm or your weave,” Karly playfully asserted.
I stuck out my tongue. She knew perfectly well I was naturally curly and naturally blond.
“You’re just jealous that I look good in hats!” I jeered back as she returned a sassy look. Regardless of the weather, Karly’s hair could not be tamed.
“But I have one you can use until you get up the nerve. Do you think you’ll run into him again today? He sure has been popping up in strange places lately. It’s like he’s trying to track you down. It’s kind of freaky.”
Karly handed me her extra umbrella. I wasn’t thrilled that it was covered with cats. She smiled smugly.
“Beggars can’t be choosers. We can grab one at Target later. We need toilet paper and wine coolers for this weekend.” I was thankful for the chance to spend most of the day dry.
“Thank you,” I smiled, trying not to reveal any sign that I was spooked by my ex’s behavior.
Truth be told, it was a bit menacing how often he’d just show up where we were. Even more disturbing was his perpetually angry glare, although it wasn’t surprising to me. My roommates had never seen the dark side of Garrett and they were perplexed by his menacing behavior since our break-up two months ago.
And I was ashamed. I had never told them about our last encounter, when his deranged outburst offered me a chilling glimpse of what he was capable of. I could still see my sunglasses on the ground, one lens crushed into tiny bits of glittering dark glass. They’d broken that day when he’d slapped me. The slap hadn’t hurt much-not physically anyway-but he made it clear he wasn’t done with me. I had tried to forget it all, but his frequent appearances made that difficult.
Yesterday we’d seen him as we were leaving the Laundromat, baskets of our favorites fresh and clean. His apartment building had a laundry room. I was processing this thought, pulse quickening, when Simone came in the kitchen and grabbed a crisp Granny Smith.
“Hey, you can use that umbrella for self-defense if you do run into Garrett and he tries anything. He’d never suspect you’d attack him with something covered in sweet kitties.” Simone giggled as she peeled off the sticker and twisted the stem of her breakfast. Was she going through the letters of the alphabet with each turn? I still did.
Simone was brave, in almost every way. She wasn’t afraid of the prospect of fighting off men, literally. She had made sure of that. She was striking: tall and lean with glowing skin, the kind that looks bronzed even in the dead of winter. She had long, sleek chestnut-brown hair and perfect, almond eyes enhanced with beautifully thick lashes. Every male, in any room she entered, fell victim to her auspicious appeal. It was as though the air in the space around her became lighter, infused with hope and happiness, when she entered. Fellow students, guys and gals alike, were naturally drawn to her. She was regularly approached by men of every persuasion, especially on campus. It was quite interesting to witness.
One guy in particular, a grad student she’d gone out with earlier in the year, became verbally aggressive, calling her constantly after she’d declined his invitation to go out again. It scared her. He lost interest after he reunited with an old fling, but she took the threat seriously. She'd found a self-defense class at the local gym and had been training ever since. Karly and I hadn’t shared the same urgent need to equip ourselves with life-saving skills, but Simone disapproved. Maybe we’d pick up some of her tricks once we got settled in school and had some free time. It couldn’t hurt.
“I’m going to escort you to your classes today, just in case,” she said, between bites. I tried to dismiss her, dissuade her with false confidence, but inside I felt better. Loved. Protected. The way she always made me feel. She had been taking care of me since the day we met, on our first day of sixth grade, when she boldly informed an imposing and intimidating seventh grader that he was blocking a bunch of lockers, one of which was mine. My locker was right next to hers and, unfortunately, right below Bubba’s. I would’ve never made it to first period in time had she not spoken up. She was my savior that day, and from then on, my best friend.
First on our weekly driving schedule, Simone grabbed her bag and coat and shuffled us out the door, with plenty of time to spare before class. She was tentative, at best, behind the wheel. Driving was not reflexive for her. It made her jumpy to navigate such an imposing fusion of metal and steel. Add a rainstorm and we had an overly anxious driver leading our unit. It was quite a contradiction. Her confidence in her self-preservation skills was pronounced, but her certainty in her ability to drive us twelve miles down the coast faltered. She was aware of her own limitations, especially driving. Maybe that was her secret: she learned to trust her intuition, therefore enhancing her skills of self-perception. Today, she wasn’t taking any chances. We left an hour early to complete the short drive.
Karly took the front seat and control of the radio. Our latest obsession was the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. Retro disco was all the rage, made even more popular by emerging disco nights at all the local hot spots. We spent hours deciphering the lyrics and writing down the words, a frequent undertaking. That way we could put to memory every inflection, every twang, mastering our favorites so we could belt them out at the tops of our lungs. Our motto: “If we’re going to sing, we’re going to make ‘em proud.” As though we’d ever be likely enough to encounter Donna Summer or Andy Gibb at the exact moment that we were harmonizing to one of their hits, impressing them so much that they'd instantly offer us a lifetime membership to their fan club and unlimited access to concerts and memorabilia. (Girls can dream.) Today, it was the Bee Gee’s “More Than A Woman,” but we kept the volume down to avoid distracting our apprehensive driver.
Karly sang along while she added the finishing touches to her messy bun of curly brown hair. Other than a coat of lip gloss and a dusting of sheer powder, she rarely applied make-up to her pale, freckled face. Instead, she used any extra primping time to tame her wild hair.
Our threesome was uneven. Karly was the mom, maternal beyond her years, and she took care of us. She had her finger on the pulse of our household. She knew exactly when we needed restocking, whether it was nail polish remover or groceries or girl time. She scheduled everything and taught us how to use a calendar. Shamefully, I admit, the concept of “future,” whether that be next weekend, next month, next quarter, had been somewhat abstract to me before college. Karly changed that.
Simone did too. She was the motivator in the house. Karly would develop a plan, Simone would make it happen. She was born with that gift and we were lucky to have access to it. Simone oozed sincere encouragement, and people around her yearned to please her. Including me. She could propel even the laziest, most selfish slacker into charitable acts. They say every village needs a chief; every kitchen needs a cook. Well, where Karly and Simone were concerned, they had it all covered. Our dwelling was a constant flow of energy and inspiration.
That brings us to the final leg in our tripod: me. I wish I could say my role in the house was as impactful and robust, but I don’t believe it was. I was playful and impulsive. The silver lining to such traits was that I was often the life of the party. I wasn’t the most responsible, but my protective roommates made sure that I stayed on track, in school, at my part-time jobs, with my funds and finances. My actions weren’t always appropriate, but thankfully, my regrets were few. I had moved from one set of parents to another. Karly and Simone, my new and improved caretakers, were also patient and forgiving, nurturing and wise. I trusted them implicitly. And during our years together, unbeknownst to me, I grew up. My two best friends, like my parents before them, deserve all the credit.
When we arrived on campus, the downpour had waned, leaving a heavy mist in its place. The gusty conditions added an eerie effect. Students were moving quickly from their parked cars to the nearest overhang to check and recheck a class schedule, verifying they were on the right track. We were no different. Halfway across the university grounds, Karly veered left to find the building where her Political Science class was held. Simone and I trudged forward, holding tightly to our umbrellas in an attempt to deny the wind its chance to upturn them. Our first class was in the same building.
“Why do I have to take Ancient Philosophy at 9:00 a.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays,” I protested again this morning, “when I could take it at 4:00 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays?”
Two months ago, as we gathered around the dinner table one Tuesday evening for tacos, we had the same argument.
“What in the world do you mean, you’d do better in the Tuesday/Thursday class? That makes no sense. It’s exactly the same class!”
Karly was using her authoritative, scolding tone of voice to gently influence me. Her question was rhetorical. She didn’t really want me to share my reasoning. I was annoyed.
Simone sensed the tension and gently explored my rationale. “Really Gwen. What’s the difference?” In an effort to pleasantly placate her roommates, she squeezed it out of me.
I would have been happy to pout for a bit longer, my passive-aggressive attempt to convince Karly to give in, but Simone was ready to play mediator.
“Well, to be honest,” I replied, “I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’m not the best morning person. My brain doesn’t function at full capacity that early in the morning, especially three days a week.”
Even as the words defensively marched off my tongue, guns firing, I knew my defense was weak.
“Plus, the cute guys don’t take classes at 9:00 a.m. They’ll fill up the afternoon classes and I’ll miss any chance of getting over this haunting break-up.” My attempt at sympathy-invoking reasoning didn’t fare too well either.
We continued mapping our semester out like a retired couple scheduling every detail of their vacation. Really, where’s the spontaneity? But Karly argued the convenience of mutual lunch and library breaks while Simone preached of our environmental duty to share a tank of gas. In the end, the three of us finalized our courses so our schedules coincided conveniently; the thoughtful organizers in my midst had fashioned an adult version of the steadfast and proverbial buddy system. I didn’t know then that it would save my life.