Sunday, April 3, 2011
At times Cam hated hanging out with them—-times like, oh, right now, when, as seniors in college, Troy and Jeff were flirting with the high school girl making sandwiches behind the counter at Arby’s. Ty was making stupid comments to the girl at the register who clearly had heard every line a frat boy had to offer.
Cam wondered sometimes what it would be like to walk into a restaurant and sit down to have intelligent conversation with his friends—he smirked, Having intelligent conversation with them would be as awkward as wearin’ a burgundy sweat suit to an Auburn game.But these guys—the Core Four as they called themselves—had been his buds since grade school, through high school and now college. They hadn’t grown up that much since high school. But instead of abandoning them and going in search of that bridge from boyhood over to manhood, Cam stood in line at Arby’s in the middle of Auburn, Alabama, listening to Troy and Tyler try to extract from Jeff exactly how long it had been since he had changed his underwear.
Lucky underwear is a subjective term, Cam thought—seeing that the only lucky person involved was the party who hadn’t exerted the effort to change it. A day count didn’t matter past a certain intensity of odor—one that he was familiar with since Jeff had ridden over here with him.
Cam had tried to understand why he couldn’t bring himself to separate from them. Maybe he felt that he’d lose his identity—and yet he didn’t want to be identified with them. Maybe because he was afraid that if he left them, he’d never find anyone else who would ever accept him the way they did—but they didn’t accept him when he started talking about grown-up things like making a budget or getting a Master’s degree or making a resume. He wasn’t sure what made him stick with them. But more and more he felt that they were a burden, more like an eternal babysitting gig than his friends.
He ordered his number 3 in an apologetic tone to the woman at the register. When she handed him his receipt, he thanked her to compensate for his friends’ inconsideration and walked over to fill his cup with Dr. Pepper.
At the drink island, the underwear conversation was still in progress.
“You wearin’ your lucky boxers?” Jeff asked him. He grabbed too many cup lids in his hurry and flippantly tossed the extra four in the trash can.
“No, Jeff.” Cam sighed. “I stopped wearin’ them our sophomore year and funny thing—the Tigers have done just fine.”
“But it’s the principle of the thing, man.” Jeff clapped his hand down on Cam’s shoulder. “You do it for the team. Where’s your Tiger pride?”
“It might as well have been you that poisoned the oaks.” Tyler chimed in.
Cam had learned over his three and a half years in the communication disorder major at Auburn University that if you ignored people, they’d stop talking, eventually. In theory this always worked. With these guys it was a fifty/fifty success rate. This time, an Auburn game on the TV saved him, since anything with orange and blue caught his friends’ attention like red catches a bull’s. They went to sit in a booth along the back of the restaurant to wait for their order numbers to be called.
Ignoring the ensuing conversation about the game, Cam surveyed the restaurant. For a Sunday evening, the place was busy. A family still in their dress clothes from their Sunday evening service sat right behind the drink island, with a screaming three year old smashing curly fries in her hair.
A group of black ladies in red hats congregated by the door, waiting for their orders and talking noisily among themselves in animated conversation.
Another table of college students occupied a table in the corner, involved in conversation that elicited eruptions of laughter every so often.
The TV blared sports news above the din of the small restaurant.
But there by the window, right under the TV sat a young woman in jeans and a t-shirt; she was probably about his age or a little older—Cam couldn’t tell. She was alone, eating her curly fries daintily, tearing each coil in half before dipping one end in ketchup and popping it in her mouth. While she chewed each bite, she turned her attention to a small notebook on the table beside her sandwich wrapping. She scribbled something in it and then reached for her beef and cheddar again. Each time the sauce touched her fingers, she wrinkled her nose in disgust and reached for a napkin which, once desecrated, she would ball up to join the snowstorm of napkins surrounding her at the table. Something about her solitude in the middle of noise struck him with an emotion he couldn’t identify. It wasn’t strong enough to be desire—maybe the cousin of desire—jealousy. Her ability to be alone, but confident, to exude a maturity in identifying with herself intrigued him.
After taking the last bite, she stretched her legs out to rest on the seat across from her and concentrated fully on the notebook.
Cam jumped, startled when the other three friends burst out as the Tigers scored a basket.
The girl turned to look over her shoulder at the boisterous table, smiled, but then repositioned herself in her seat so that she was turned even farther from them, as if their noise were offensive to her solitude.
“Cam—hey man. Did you see that? Cam, hey. Where are you?”
Cam blinked and turned to look at Troy. “Uh, I’m right here.”
They looked toward the girl he’d been staring at and Troy let out a loud painful sounding snort. “REALLY, man. REALLY? Her?”
Cam attempted to nonchalantly defend himself. "What are you talking about?” He picked up his cup and drained it of the soda as his friend snickered to one another.
“Order 97.” The woman at the counter called the familiar number.
“That’s my number.” Cam jumped up, greatful for the escape.
“Looks like the shortest way up there is beside her table.” Ty laughed.
“Wait—someone get him a pen.” Jeff threw a napkin at Cam. “Don’t forget to ask for her number.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Cam grabbed his empty cup and made sure to walk around the other way to the counter. He gathered his tray, but when he turned around, his heart jumped to see that the girl stood throwing away the wrappers and napkins into the trashcan. She stopped right next to him at the drink dispenser, waiting to let him fill his cup first.
“No, you go ahead.” He insisted.
She stood on her tiptoes to watch the cup fill with Dr. Pepper, and when it had almost flowed over onto her fingers, she pulled it off and pressed the lid back on. “Thanks I, uh, hope your Tigers win.” She nodded toward the TV, and smiled.
Before he could tell her just how disinterested he was in the game, she called a cheery ‘Thank you,’ to the workers behind the counter and bounced—that’s what it was, as close as he could describe it—bounced trot out of the restaurant. Making sure that the guys couldn’t see him past the small divider between the drink island and the seating area, he craned his neck to watch as she backed out and pulled away. He grinned when he saw in the corner of her back window a Crimson Tide A. I wonder what else we’d disagree on?
Walking back past her table, he spotted the closed notebook with a pink and yellow design on it lying on the chair next to where she had sat. She must have left it when she was gathering her wrappers. Glancing back at the guys to make sure they were preoccupied with the game, he picked it up, trying to decide what to do. It was above him, of course, to snoop and read another person’s private writings. But he couldn’t stop himself. He wanted—no, needed to know what had preoccupied her in the silence. As if something written in that notebook could teach him about breaking free.
The pages were filled with penciled words in wide, loopy handwriting. Opening to the first page, he saw a plan for a budget. Surely that wasn’t what had preoccupied her. Let it go, boy. Take the notebook to the counter. You’re better than this. And yet he flipped further into the book. He found a list of books about writing labeled “to read.” Maybe she’s a writer. He flipped to the back of the notebook, searching for the last entry. He found the beginning of a journal entry.
“I’m sitting in an Arby’s in Auburn. Been a long weekend—visiting the family in South Carolina and realizing how much I’ve changed and they’ve changed since I last saw them. It’s kind of funny—I’m listening to a group of 20 year old guys up at the counter talking about how their friend hasn’t changed his underwear since last week. Silly boys. I wonder if they’ll ever grow up. But they’re cute.”
Cam stopped reading, his face turning red. He felt as if someone had taken a snapshot of him picking his nose and displayed it in the middle of Times Square. As if he’d stumbled upon someone replaying a video of his life that he hadn’t known they had recorded.
But these thoughts were confined in a stranger’s notebook—not plastered on Good Morning America or the front page of the National Inquirer. Why should he care what a random woman had thought of him? Why should it matter what she thought of him?
But it did matter. Snapping the book shut he walked over to the table and sat down, ripping open packets of sauce and squeezing it onto his sandwich. How could she not see that he had been standing off to the side? That he hadn’t been flirting, or giving input in the loud underwear conversation? I’m not even dressed like them. He looked over at his three friends wearing baggy shorts and t-shirts in contrast to his khaki pants and a polo. The more he thought about it, he fumed, unsure of the object of his anger.
Jeff jerked him out of his mounting fury when he kicked him under the table. “Look, Cam! Your girlfriend’s back.”
Jeff nudged Troy with his shoulder and they both burst out laughing.
She looked a bit frantic as she walked over to the table where she had been sitting, looked on the drink island, and even pressed open the trashcan, searching for what he knew he had already found. She hurried over to the lady behind the counter, and when the woman shook her head and the girl looked as if she might cry, as if her worst nightmare had just come true. She stood for a moment in the middle of the room looking lost, then in resignation she bit her lip and turned toward the door.
Cam gripped the notebook on his lap, struggling to know what to do next. But just when she reached the door, he made the decision.
Springing out of the booth, he called, “Hey, is this yours?”
She whirled around with relief on her face until she saw who the rescuer was. She blushed, horror tightening her jaw when she saw the guys behind him snickering.
“I just found it over—”
Before he could explain, she snatched it out of his hand, angrily. “Glad I could show you guys such a good time.” She called past him to the others, “Laugh it up, losers. You're just like your stupid Tiger team.” She shot Cam a sarcastic gaze before spitting out, “Thanks a lot.” Then turned on her heels—and this time, trotted out of the restaurant.
He stood in place by the drink island, wishing that he could explain that he wasn’t like them.
And then as if he’d finally diagnosed his problem it settled in. He was them. He was with them. His presence condoned them.
“Dude, what was HER problem? Callin’ us losers.” Troy stood from the booth and started toward the door. “I’ll show her who’s a loser.”
Cam grabbed his arm as he marched by. “Let her go, Troy. She probably thought we read her notebook.”
“Let go, man.”
Cam tightened his grip and raised his voice. “It’s not like you would do anything to her if you caught her anyway.”
Troy turned his anger on Cam. “You’re always actin’ like you’re so much better than us.” He jerked his arm out of Cam’s grasp. “And you know what? I’m about sick of it. What’s your problem?”
“My problem? You want to know what my problem is?” This was it—the moment Cam had been stashing inside for a long time. But he decided to speak slowly. “I’m a senior in college. I’ve got a full time job to get myself through. I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do when I graduate in May. But I have three idiots for friends who don’t seem to care that life is coming faster than they can grow up. Okay? So there. That’s my problem.” He felt the need to clarify a step farther. “You guys are my problem.” The words felt horrible coming out, but once he’d said them the truth felt so good that he continued.
“And another thing. I’m a communication disorders major, but I don’t need a degree to diagnose what you guys have.” He pointed toward Troy. “You—you’re obnoxious.” Looking at Tyler he said, “You’re immature. And you, with your lucky underwear—” he wrinkled his face in disgust at Jeff, “you’re just gross.”
Without bothering to gather his food, he pushed out the door and climbed into his Jeep, processing through the anger and emotion of the scene. He had just peeled off what had been his best friends since childhood. Had just left behind the best part of his boyhood and teen years. And it hurt like ripping a band aid off a hairy arm. But—wasn’t that the point? If becoming a mature adult meant making painful or uncomfortable choices, then let this be the first.
He backed out of his parking space and pulled around the side of the building, driving slowly past the window where he could see them, stuffing their mouths with fries, eyes glued to the TV as if nothing had happened. Almost as if he had never even been a part of them. He shook his head and drove off. I wonder if they’ll ever grow up?