Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Written Word Weds. - Obligatory witty subtitle

Today is the first time I actually feel like I'm posting out of obligation, rather than a sheer enjoyment of writing . . . which is kind of ironic, what with it being Written Word Wednesday and all.

So, here's another semi-edited short story from college containing thinly-veiled versions of people I know.

The Year-and-a-Half High School Reunion

Roger was lying upside down on an enormous bean bag, acting on a misguided hope that the increased blood flow to his brain would help him come up with a speech topic, but so far it had only managed to make him slightly nauseous. His CD player was loaded with what he thought of as his "guilty pleasure" CDs, ones he enjoyed listening to but wouldn't brag about having to most of his friends. These CDs usually helped him concentrate, but tonight they were serving more as a distraction than an inspiration. He was absent-mindedly singing along with Linda Rondstat's "Love is a Rose" when a knock came on his dorm room door.

He yelled, "Just a minute," as he reached for his remote in order to switch his stereo from CD to radio mode. As the strains of the latest effort from Ben Folds started to emerge from the speakers he did a backwards somersault off of the bean bag, rose to his feet, and went to open the door.

He had barely gotten it open when he was suddenly pelted in the chest by a football. Startled, he groped at the projectile, but was unable to keep it from hitting the ground. His efforts were met with a chuckle from the hallway which transformed to a theatrical gasp of astonishment as he glanced towards its source.

"How could you drop it, Roger? It was a perfect pass, right between the numbers." With those words the newcomer picked up the football and pushed past Roger into the dorm room.

Roger laughed under his breath as he shook his head, his usual reaction when dealing with his former floor-mate, who somehow managed to be both the most annoying and the most entertaining person Roger knew. A man of many paradoxes was Vick Chalmers. "To what do I owe this pleasure, Vick?"

Vick collapsed on the bean bag and began tossing the football in the air. "I need some help."

Roger sat down on the corner of his bed. "That goes without saying. What with? Spanish? Calculus? Poli Sci?"

Vick shook his head. "Women."

Roger gave Vick a suspicious look. "Since when do you need my help with women?"
Vick returned the look with a large smile which Roger knew only too well, a smile that boded no good for the one in its path.

"Since the girl I'm interested in went to high school with you." He waited a few seconds before unleashing the real bomb shell. "You do remember a Lisa Patterson, don't you?"

"Lisa's going to school here? Since when? And how did you meet her? And how did MY name come up?"

Vick held up is hands. "Whoa, Silver, hold up. One question at a time. I met her at that workshop I had to go to for my theater class this afternoon. During one of the lame icebreakers she had to say where she grew up. I figured there couldn't be two Talahina's in Oklahoma, so I introduced myself to her as a friend of yours. She nearly bowled me over asking questions about you, so I gave her your phone number. She should be calling you any minute now to ask you out to dinner sometime."

"You did WHAT?"

Vick's mischievous smile grew. "Hey, it was the least I could do. I mean, as long as I was having to update her on your exploits I couldn't really hit on her effectively. So I figured, what the heck, I'll just let you two kids get together and reminisce about the good ol' days back at Podunk High. And in the midst of your great reunion you can slip in how lucky you were that she ran into your wonderful friend Vick, and isn't he just the nicest guy? And completely single too, did I mention that?"

Roger stared at Vick for a minute before responding. "So you arranged this torture just so I can try to fix you up with her, is that it?"

"Why Roger, do you take me for such a shallow person to set this all up just so I could get a date?" Vick asked with a voice full of almost-convincing hurt. "I mean, it would be great if Lisa and I were to get together because of this. But even if we don't work out, at least I'll have the pleasure of watching you squirm in anticipation of your big dinner. And believe me, that will be payment enough."

As Roger gave Vick another suspicious look, he briefly thought that if he continued associating with his friend, his face would soon freeze that way.

“What makes you think that I’d be nervous to have lunch with her?” Faced with Vick’s carefully neutral expression, Roger felt a sudden burst of insight. “Oh, crap, that stupid game of Truth or Dare last year.”

“Oh, you mean this is THAT Lisa? Why, I had no idea. None whatsoever.” Vick’s amused expression belied his innocent words.

Roger tried to summon a sense of outrage, but after a year and a half of being friends with Vick, it took a lot more than that to kindle any sort of feeling other than bemused resignation.

"What if I don't agree to meet with her?"

"But you will, Roger. We both know you will, so there's no need to go through one of your 'hypothetical situations.'” Roger couldn’t argue with that; a determined Vick was like a force of nature, it was easiest to just retreat to your metal shelter and weather the storm.

“Just be sure to give me all of the gory details," he said, launching himself off the bean bag and towards the door in one fluid motion.

"What, aren't you going to stay and witness my humiliation in person?"

"As much as I would love to, it's time for flag football practice. I've got to go and undermine the quarterback's authority before game-time. Enjoy yourself, young one." Roger watched him leave with a sense of regret, although he wasn’t sure why
As he stared at the phone Roger reflected on his relationship with Lisa Patterson.

She had transferred to his small school in the middle of their sophomore year. Before the year was over, Roger was totally smitten. It had been more than just her good looks, which he was sure was a more likely reason for Vick noticing her than her mention of Talahina. No, what really won Roger's heart had been Lisa's acting talent. Her portrayal of the suicidal Jessie in the school's production of 'Night, Mother had touched him deeply. He was amazed that a girl who obviously had so much going for her could capture the spirit of a character who had nothing left to live for. One of the girls Lisa had beaten out for the part claimed it was because she didn't have a personality of her own to get in the way. Roger brushed that away as jealousy; he had seen the quiet steel hiding beneath her placid surface.

But Roger had been the school nerd, trapped in a shell of shyness which he found nearly impossible to break. He had had to settle for being her friend, especially after she started going out with one of his few friends. After graduation Roger had headed straight to a four year university, while most of his classmates went to the local junior college. Away from home for the first time, hours away from anyone who had ever known him, Roger finally found the strength to break free of his shell. But at the thought of seeing Lisa again, he could feel himself sliding into his old cocoon of cowardice.

His phone began to ring with that odd double tone which signified an off campus call. Roger began to back away from the phone, until he realized just how ridiculous that was. "Stop it, dummy," he scolded himself, "it's just a phone call." But the thought of answering the phone; of talking to his first big, unrequited love; of arranging a meeting with Lisa (he couldn’t even begin to think of it as a “date,” besides, she was surely still with John, they were such a perfect couple, why hadn’t he mentioned that to Vick?); of trying to be the new Roger in front of someone who only knew the old Roger; the sheer weight was overpoweringly frightening. He felt like there was a physical barrier surrounding the phone, a barrier which seemed to grow stronger with each double ring.

Staring numbly at the phone, he heard a phantom sniggering in his head. Realizing that he had internalized Vick’s sarcastic laugh, Roger snapped. Somehow finding a hidden reserve of strength, he reached for the phone, smashing the barrier back into the nothingness from which it came. But as he lifted the receiver to his ear all he heard was the dial tone. He slammed it back into its cradle and collapsed onto his bean bag, tears of frustration forming in his eyes. She would call back. He knew she would. And somehow that thought was even more frightening than the thought that she wouldn't.


Roger limped into the lobby of Kirby Hall with a snarl on his face. As if it wasn't bad enough that it was taking him ten to fifteen minutes longer than usual to walk to class with his injured foot, the janitors decided to lock the side door to the dorm on the coldest day of the semester so far, forcing him to hobble around to the front doors while the wind cut right through his thin jacket. All he wanted to do now was go upstairs to his room, dump his backpack on the floor, and relax to some of his "guilty pleasure" CDs. He was in an Abba mood, he decided.

Totally focused on getting to the elevator, he didn't notice the figure sitting on the lobby couch until it spoke. "Roger, what did you do to your foot?"

He was completely caught off guard by the sound of that voice. He turned towards the couch slowly, unsure of whether he really wanted to be right about the speaker’s identity. As his eyes fell on her, though, there was no mistaking her. It was Lisa Patterson. Roger felt his body go numb from shock.

"And don't you ever go to your room?" Lisa continued, the lack of an answer to her initial question not bothering her a bit. The small part of his brain that was still functioning theorized that she was used to having this effect on men. "I met your friend Vick a couple of weeks ago and he gave me your phone number. I've been trying to get a hold of you ever since then but you never answer. I even checked the campus directory to make sure I had the right number."

"Well, I usually only stay in my room whenever I'm ready to go to sleep," Roger explained, happy to escape into an exchange of trivial information, "and that's usually not until around two in the morning, so it's pretty hard to get in touch with me. Mom's always complaining about that too. I keep meaning to get voice mail, but I just haven't got around to it yet."

He neglected to mention that ever since that first nerve-wracking experience waiting for her call he had been avoiding all off campus calls like the plague. But now that she was actually here he could feel his pulse start to speed up. He couldn't believe that she had made the effort to find out where he lived. "I've been acting like a jerk," he thought to himself.

"I'm sorry you had to come all the way over here to talk to me," he said. "Let me go put up my backpack, and then we can go get something to eat."

"Actually," Lisa said, "it's just luck that I ran into you, I'm supposed to meet someone here for lunch to work on a group project.” Roger struggled furiously to keep his disappointment from manifesting on his features. “But I am glad that you came in," she continued, scribbling on a corner torn from the college newspaper, and then handing it to Roger. "Here's my number. I'm a little bit easier to get a hold of than you, apparently. So I'll be expecting a call before the week is over, okay?"

Roger was saved from having to verbalize a response by a loud voice coming from around the corner of the lobby. "I can't believe they locked the doors," the voice was complaining. "It's frickin' freezin’ out there!" An instant later Vick rounded the corner along with his cousin Karen, who lived on the fourth floor of Kirby.

A huge smile began to spread across Vick's face as he saw Roger and Lisa together. "Hey guys, what's up? Glad to see you two finally got a chance to get together."

Before either one of them could respond the elevator doors opened up behind them.
"Are these punks bothering you, Lisa? You want I should take care of them?" These not-quite-joking words came from Mitch, a thoroughly unpleasant individual who Vick had often theorized only got into college in order to fulfill a “muscle-bound moron” quota. The numbness returned to Roger's body.

"That's OK Mitch," Lisa said, "I think I can handle these two by myself." She picked up her purse and headed towards the doors with Mitch. "I'd better get a call from you real soon, Roger," she called over her shoulder, "or I just might let Mitch take care of you." And with that she was gone.

Feeling his knees begin to give, Roger started towards the elevator, Vick and Karen following close on his heels.

"What, are you going to let that ape walk away with my girl?" Vick asked as Roger pushed the call button. "You're supposed to be going out with her, extolling my virtues, not letting her by wooed by that monkey."

"Leave him alone, Vick," Karen said. Roger was staring at the elevator, wondering why it was taking so long to come down.

"Why didn't you use the limp, man? All you had to do was exaggerate it a little bit, make yourself look more pitiful than usual, if that's even possible. Chicks eat that stuff up." Karen snorted at his use of the word chicks, as she usually did. Roger found himself starting to smile despite himself.

"What, you think it was an accident I broke your toe while we were playing ball?" Vick continued. "I knew you would need every weapon you could get. It’s not like you have my stunning good looks and suave personality to fall back on."

The elevator finally reached the ground floor. Roger tried to maintain his scowl as the doors opened, but finally let out an exasperated laugh. "Can't you let me wallow in my misery for at least a couple of minutes?"

Vick shook his head violently. "Nope, it's against my policy to let anyone I'm seen hanging around with be depressed." He slipped into his radio announcer voice. "Our motto here at Vick's is if you look sad, I look bad. And believe me, between your love life and my cousin’s abysmal GPA, I'm exhausted almost all of the time."

"What do you mean my love life? I thought it was your love life you were worried about."

"Oh, did I say YOUR love life? Man, what was I thinking?" He flashed his mischievous smile once more as the elevator doors started to open. "Well, looks like your stop, guess you gotta go, no time to talk, buh bye." He started to push Roger out into the elevator landing, pausing for an instant to say, "Not that I'm rushing you or anything," before finally ejecting him from the elevator. As the doors started to close Vick flashed him a military salute. "Buck up, soldier. Before I have to break another toe."

Roger stared at the elevator for moment, half-tempted to hobble quickly up the stairs to Karen’s room to slap Vick around, but he knew it would be a waste of time. He glanced at the piece of paper Lisa had handed to him. Vick was right, he reluctantly decided. It was time to give her a call. "What's the worst that could happen?" he muttered to himself, extremely glad that Vick wasn't there to answer him.


"You WHAT?" Roger's mouth would have been hanging open in astonishment if not for the fact that he had just shoved in a handful of cheese fries. He hurriedly chewed the mass of food until he could comfortably speak around it. "When?"

"We broke up sometime in September," Lisa answered, casually taking a sip of her Dr. Pepper. "We decided this long term, long distance commitment thing wasn't going to work."

"But you guys were the prefect couple. It was always like you were already married." Roger wasn't exaggerating a bit. Lisa and John had seemed made for each other, like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting of the All American boy and his girl. The sheer perfection of their relationship had added to Roger's reluctance to express his true feelings to Lisa.

"That was our big problem, though," Lisa continued. "We'd been like a married couple for over three years. I'm too young for that sort or thing."

Roger tried to assimilate this new information. He was really at a loss for what to say now. His dinner with Lisa had started off slowly. Ever since they had gotten to Eskimo Joe's their conversation had consisted of the same old trivia he had to spew every time he ran into anyone from high school: how did he like school, how were his grades, did he ever miss Talihina? He hated those little gabfests. He had changed so much since high school, and most of his friends had changed so little, that he never knew how to act. His question about John had been his last hope of starting a real conversation.

"You never did tell me what happened to your foot," Lisa said, saving Roger from having to rack his brain any longer. "Did you strain something studying too hard?"

The good-natured jab at Roger’s book-worm qualities rankled a bit. Struggling to appear nonchalant, he replied, "Nah, I was playing basketball with Vick the other day. He tried to push past me, our feet got tangled together, and when we went down he somehow broke my toe."

Lisa gazed at him with a strange look on her face. "I didn't think you liked to play basketball."

It's not that he didn't like to play, he thought to himself. It's just that in high school he was always afraid of embarrassing himself. But Vick had assured him that if he didn't embarrass himself playing basketball, Vick was going to embarrass him somewhere else, so he might as well be getting in shape when it happened. As usually happened when faced with Vick-logic, Roger conceded defeat.

"Well, Vick needed someone else to play, and I was the only one around." It was the truth, but only a part of it. Why was he so nervous about letting her know how he had changed?

The look on Lisa's face didn't change. "Speaking of Vick, did he say much about what happened when he and I met?"

"Not really. Just that he told you he knew me, you asked him about me, and he gave you my number."

"Did he tell you what I asked about you?"

"No oo," Roger said slowly, not sure where she was going with this.

"I asked him if you were still the same shy kid you were in high school. And know what he did? Nearly fell out of his chair laughing. He said he couldn't remember the last time anyone had called you shy, that you were one of the most out spoken people he knew. Then he gave me your number so I could see what he was talking about."

Roger stared at her, unsure of how to react, but positive of one thing: he was going to kick Vick's butt as soon as he saw him, broken toe or not. He knew Lisa was waiting for him to say something, but he found himself struck speechless.

Apparently tired of the silence, she continued with some exasperation, "You know what? I'm still waiting to see what he was talking about. After I finally ran into you I thought he was just pulling my leg. But I've been watching you tonight, Roger. There's something different about you, and you're trying to cover it up."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Oh, come on, Roger. Just because I wasn't valedictorian doesn't mean I'm an idiot.” He winced at the sharpness in her tone. “You don’t get to be a good actress without being able to read people. And I can tell you've been putting on an act ever since I saw you in Kirby the other day, and I'd like to know why."

Roger was flabbergasted. He had never heard Lisa talk like that before. In her own way, she had been as quiet and unassuming as he had back in high school; she just had the self-confidence that made it work for her. To hear her speak so bluntly, to finally let that inner steel shine through . . . maybe he wasn't the only one who had changed in the past year and a half. He decided he had better come clean.

"It's just that everyone knew me as the nerd in school for as long as I could remember. Every time I tried to change my image I stopped myself because I was afraid that people would like the real me even less. I broke out of that shell when I came to college here, but I still have trouble being the new me around people from back home. I wasn't sure if you could handle an out spoken version of me."

Lisa was shaking her head. "Roger, how could you possibly think that I wouldn't want you to break out of your shell?"

"Hey, just because I was valedictorian doesn't mean I'm a genius, okay?" Lisa laughed, which put him at ease. "Listen, I'll make you a deal. I'll try to loosen up and be myself if you agree to go out with Vick once."

"I told you I'm not looking for a relationship right now."

"Trust me, neither is he. And I think he was only using the excuse of hitting on you to get me to see you.”

A skeptical look crossed her face. “You think he was saying he wanted you to set him up with me because he was trying to set me up with you? That seems like an awful lot of effort, don’t you think?”

Roger shrugged. “Maybe that was it, or maybe he was just enjoying a new type of mind game. He loves trying to shake people up. But if you could go out with him in your full-on 'vamp' mode, maybe he'll be the one shaken up for once."

Lisa looked at him quizzically. "Are you sure that will work? Vick doesn't seem like the type who'd be shaken up that easily."

"Believe me, out of all the things that could shake him up, you are the one that I will enjoy seeing in action the most."

As the two began to outline a plan to give Vick a taste of his own medicine, Roger stifled a sigh. So, here they were: the new Roger and the new Lisa, falling into a new variation of an old theme, that eternal quagmire known as “let’s just be friends.”

“The more things change,” he thought to himself bitterly, and then dove headfirst into drafting their plan of attack.