You shake the old woman’s hand and walk off stage, looking for your parents in the crowd. They spot you and you smile back at your mom before taking your seat. You know your graduation is just as much her accomplishment as your own. After the ceremony, you kiss your relatives, make plans with your friends, and walk off into the sunset only to return to your dim and dusty dormitory. The dormitory that looked like the home you never had now looks like a glorified cave. You take three hangers from the closet, a belt from atop the desk, and close the door for one last time.
But college isn’t really over. You meet your old roommates at a friend’s apartment the next day. You’ve got a sinus infection and you drink like it will cure your cold. On the bus downtown, you consider taking your pants off, ultimately deciding it’s too cold for that. By the time you get to the first bar, the last thing you want is a drink. You walk around the block with Joe a few times before getting in line, ID in hand.
Three bars in one night; Joe, Miles, Dom, Hugh Douglas before he was fired by ESPN. Gin and tonics, Guinness on draft, and pizza. You wake up quick, like you wanted. You start cooking eggs and making toast. You wake up the group. You’ve got a long trip ahead of you and want to arrive before dark. Dom’s curled in the fetal position complaining about a headache.
“Your own fault,” you say as Dom groans.
The five-day trip feels like three hours. Mountains hiked, canoes paddled, money wasted and time spent. Your girl called you every night, pissed you ditched her for the guys. They were here before you and they’ll be here after you, you think. She says she understands, but condemns you still. You can’t blame her.
The summer flies by. You move back into your mom’s house. You cut her grass, take out the garbage, cook dinner sometimes. You race to see your girl every weekend. Sometimes she races to see you. In June, just as you start classes, you fly to San Francisco to see her. It’s like escaping time, you say to the clouds on the way home. The fat woman in front of you just nods.
At least you’re busy. Dom sounds so bored, it gives you nightmares. All my friends are gone, he’ll say. My brother just went back to school and my mom takes classes at night. I go to work, come home, go to bed and do it again, sometimes without talking, he says.
You walk back to the high school you left five years before. On Fridays, teachers look at you like you’re a student. Students look at you like you’re their hero. When the leaves turn and the temperature drops, you spot boys holding girls in the front seats of twenty-year-old cars before first bell. You remember when you did the same and turn to spit on the sidewalk. Your pace quickens.
Most days you walk into school with three cups of coffee in your gut and a smile on your face. Not one of those fake peppy teacher smiles you observed in fourth period French. Not one of those strained muscle smiles Holden Caulfield loathed; a gentle, eager smile. Of course some kids weigh it down, others wipe it clean off, but most just build it stronger. You start getting to school earlier and staying later. You stay until after five for two weeks in a row. You spend all of your hours between Monday and Friday working—reading, writing, planning, correcting, even ironing. You say you love what you do and you mean it.
Fridays you breathe, put away the schoolwork, and speed toward your girl. You walk in the door and argue, usually about being late. Hours later, you think you’ll never be able to hold her as tight as you want. She drives to your dad’s house and types papers and stories on your ottoman while you scream at the TV.
“We need to stop running that fucking draw on third and long.”
“Are we trying to punt?” your dad adds.
She pops up and says, “So when are you guys getting in the game?”
Student teaching ends and your last winter break begins. You start painting rooms in your mom’s house, preparing for the day she finally gets rid of the old place. You call your dad everyday to complain about the Giants. Your girl calls you every few hours, just to say hi. You eat, you sleep, you work, and you wait for the Christmas Party, the one bedroom apartment that will bring back the old feeling, if only for a few more hours.