Tag Archives: college

The Baggage

This is the sixth installment of a series about the Mountain Dude.  The Mountain Dude, some readers may recall, made a few enigmatic appearances in JJ in the 21st Century.

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I hate the term ESP. It evokes images of second rate documentaries, complete with gauzy slide shows projected into the mind of a paranormal freak from his spooky muse. I may be a freak, but I don’t feel like that kind of freak. Abnormal, maybe. Unsettled, yes. But, look around. Who the hell wants to be normal these days?

Plus it doesn’t come to me in visions. It’s more like a knowing, like when a word or memory goes missing then comes back, emerging from the blank place fully formed and plain as day. You know the blank place? It’s not a there/their/they’re sort of thing. It’s like when you forget how to spell a common word like “restaurant” and you spell it “resturant” and it looks wrong on the page, feels wrong, but you can’t pull the correct spelling from you brain. It’s in the blank space. Then you remember and it’s there again, unblemished, plain as day.

That’s how the sense about people emerges. The knowledge breaks the surface like a sea creature, a roiling of the water then a sudden appearance.

An example from college. A class in 20th Century European literature. The professor, a younger man with strong opinions passing for passion. He tries to compensate for his lack of gravitas with the affects of the academic. Long hair cut to shoulder length. The glasses. The sweater. The vague smell of pot and cats.

The secret undergrad girlfriend.

How do I know? Because I was in love with her, too.

We were in a class discussion about Thomas Mann, “Death in Venice”, and listing the portents of a descent into fluid unreasonable fetid passion when something was triggered and I just knew that he was sleeping with my friend and secret love Alex. I knew because I felt his worry that she was not in class that day, but his worry had nothing to do with her health or well-being. His worry had everything to do with a recent spat and what she might be doing that very moment that might lead to discovery, humiliation, and termination of his employment.

That son of a bitch.

Standing up there holding forth on these old world authors. Sleeping with my Alex. (Granted, she was no one’s Alex, would never be anyone’s Alex, and that’s one of the reasons I loved her.)

Clearly something had to be done.

Looking back, it’s easy to see that a proportionate response to a common human foible might include sidling up to Professor Pompous Ass after class and just letting him know that I know thus increasing his worry, making him squirm, but not destroying him or his career.

But, I didn’t know about proportionate response. Or about careers. I was just all thwarted love and impulse.

So I followed him after class.

It was midmorning and, sure enough, he headed over toward Alex’s apartment just off campus. There weren’t too many people around, too early for the lunch rush, and I ducked behind a thick tree when he comically turned to scan behind him before entering the building. I waited a few minutes before following him in. At Alex’s door, after pressing my ear to the door, but before barging into the apartment, there was a vague sense that I should just walk away. But…

ESP plus poor impulse control. Not a good combo.

They weren’t having sex. They weren’t embracing. Professor Pomp sat on the couch, leaning forward with his head in his hands. Alex (my Alex!) stood in a bathrobe near the window, smoking a cigarette and looking down at the Professor. It looked like a photo with streaming sunlight from the window, cigarette smoke in the sun rays, her in profile, him straight on in misery. A photo entitled, “The Breakup”.

Of course they were surprised to see me. My righteous anger dissipated almost immediately upon entering and I just stood there and we all looked at each other before I backed out and closed the door and fled.

He kept his job. Alex never spoke to me again. I tried to apologize, once. She said, “Fuck off, creep”. I dropped 20th Century European Literature and then transferred to another school in another state at semester’s end. I moved on.

I’m always moving on.

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JJ’s Memoir- Gasping in the Dark

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So, these are going to be excerpts, okay? I can’t just write the whole memoir and post it out here for free. The truth is, I can’t write anything longer than a page at a time anyway. In fact, I’ve begun to think that way, a page at a time, which is good for some things, like blogging and making grocery lists. It’s not so good for maintaining relationships, holding down a job, or contemplating the future. A page at a time. Could be the motto for my new twelve step group, Frustrated Writers Anonymous. Will you join? The coffee is horrible. But, it’s free!

Actually the cops had my dead neighbor’s car. And, I didn’t have my license on me when I got pulled over. So, they actually had squat. I told them my name was Fred and they were more concerned with the smell of liquor to pursue my last name. My dead neighbor’s name was Fred and I had borrowed the car. Fred was dead and I was running across campus. However, my oxygen intake was limited by pack-a-day lungs and I was starting to gasp and see stars. So I ducked into a little grove of trees to catch my breath. Beyond my gasping, it was very quiet. No dorms or bars or people around. The Charles Hicks Chemistry Building (CHC) loomed close by and a pond was between me and a campus road. A police car prowled slowly on the other side of the pond but I was in the trees and very still. I knew every inch of this campus from pizza delivery and six years of tepid undergrad commitment. So, I waited in that grove and thought about my life.

One thing was clear. Beyond the exhilaration of the shenanigans and lack of responsibilities, I was heading nowhere and I was fucked. College was just the scaffold that held my life together. Officially, I was a student. In reality, I was a grubby drug-addled drunk looking for the next blast. Fun and games on the surface, dying slowly on the inside, stagnant and sad. No one was going to recognize my unique brand of devil-may-care genius and give me a job or a book deal or even a sandwich. Professors reached out to me, encouraging, wanting to mentor. I perceived them as threats. These realities, long stewing in the swampy shame at the bottom of my (now ample) gut, bubbled up and I shed tears in those trees, which may have been from exertion but, for the purposes of this story, were tears of release. As I hid from the cops and my heart rate came down and I realized I left my cigarettes in the car, (Fuck!), I knew that it was time for a change.

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JJ in the 21st Century: (1989) JJ and Lila and the Shaky Promise of Spring

There was a man across the street, too old for college, too young to be old, playing hymns on a trumpet. One foot was up on his trumpet case, which was emblazoned (branded?) with a white cross. He faced the road, playing for the cars rather than people on foot. No virtuoso, he let the spirit move him, playing loud and proud.

“Why would someone do that,” JJ asked.

“He believes what he believes,” Lila said.

“But what does he believe?”

“That college is sin? That sinning is part of college?”

“I feel like sinning right now.”

She looked at him looking at her and smiled. “Later. We’ll sin together.”

“Then we’ll hear an orchestra.”

They sat on a bench, drinking hot chocolate from the dairy bar. A fickle day in early Spring, clouds and sun, cool and warm, snow finally melted, no leaves, no flowers yet, sand and mud everywhere. A time of year with possibilities and promise, yet stained with the gritty sediment of the barren winter just passed, a winter that would come again. JJ’s time to shine.

“Do you ever think about us?”

“JJ, why do you want to go there?”

He looked at the grass, knowing she didn’t care to delve into the meanings and the worry. And she definitely didn’t want to hear about his jealousy.

“What’s that guy’s name? The one you’re writing the play with?”

An exaggerated sigh. “His name’s Evan. And we don’t ever work on the play. We just fuck and talk about you.”

“I knew it,” JJ said and smiled a smile that didn’t reach his eyes or heart. He knew she was joking. He wanted to believe she was teasing him. But, the fact that she would tease him at all…

“Can I be in the play?”

Lila sighed. She thought she loved this guy. They’d been together four months and it was real and deep, not like with other guys, who were just surface bullshit and image and posturing and watching sports. JJ didn’t even have a TV. “I get all my entertainment right up here,” he liked to say with a crooked smile, pointing at his head. That was the problem, though. He spent too much time up in that head, weaving problems and seeing patterns that didn’t exist. She knew she brought some light, some lightness of being, to him. But it was a struggle sometimes.

“You can’t be in the play, JJ. And I don’t want to be with anyone but you. Don’t ask again or you’ll get nothing tonight. No orchestra, no banjo, no nothing.”

JJ smiled. “I like it when you’re bossy.” Then he frowned. “What does that say about me?”

“JJ, I mean it…”

“Kidding!” He laughed and got up, pulling her up with him. They walked down the hill, away from the road, away from the trumpeter. The sound followed them down the hill. Onward Christian Soldiers was replaced by Ode to Joy and, on cue, a warm sun came out from behind the clouds. All seasons in a day here in New England. JJ took Lila’s hand and they walked into what comes next.

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JJ in the 21st Century: (1989) JJ and Lila Meet at College

He first saw her across a smoke-filled dorm room.  She danced (swayed) to Eric Clapton.  They all swayed since there was no room to dance in a 12×12 double.  Who the hell could dance to Eric Clapton, anyway?  That smooth urbane angry broken-hearted Slow-hand.  “Going through your whole life miserable.  That’s no good,” thought JJ.

“Do you like her,” Brent yelled in JJ’s ear.

“Who is she?”

“Lila.  My sister.”

“What the hell is she doing here?”

“She’s checking up on me,” Brent said.  Then he fell away into the crush.  Brent was alright.  Kind of lost, smoked too much weed, missed a lot of classes.  But ok.  His sister, if she was his sister, was dancing to Cocaine with her arms above her head, her shirt hiked up a bit, showing some creamy skin and the hint of pink underwear peeking above her jeans.  JJ’s stomach did a little leap.  The glimpses, that was the thing.  Tantalizing.  He started burrowing into the crowd, towards her.

“Brent says you’re his sister.”

“Who wants to know?”

“I’m JJ,” he said and put out his hand.

Lila looked at it as if he were offering a trout.  “Let’s dance,” she said and put her arms around his neck.

“Do people still do that?”

“I do,” she said and they swayed and sweated and tried to dance to Steve Miller and the Stones.

Later, in the quiet of the stairwell.  “So, why are you here?”

“To check up on Brent,” she said.  “He’s kind of fucked up.”

“We know.  But we love him.”

“Oh, he’s lovable all right.  But that won’t last.”

They sat on the stairs, smoking Marlboros, the rumble of weekend parties and the occasional echoing cackle or shout from the floors above.

“So, you’re some kind of guardian angel?  You take care of people?”

“I worry.  I want to help,” she said and drew on the cigarette.  “We all need to help each other.”

“So, you’re a hippy.”

“Besides, I like to meet new people.”

“I’m new,” he said.  “And I need help.”

She smiled.  “Not now, you don’t.  Maybe some day.”

JJ took a half pint of Jim Beam from his pocket and took a hit.  “You want some.”

She took it and had her own little swig.  “Fire water,” she said.

“More like dirt water,” he said.  He put it back into his back pocket shifting awkwardly forward.  As he did so, Lila put her hand on the back of his head, fingers twining into his hair.  He turned and reached for her and they kissed, all Jim Beam fumes and the excitement of new lips and a whole new thing.

And, that’s how it began.

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