Although I had stopped skipping classes, they were still difficult. It felt like everyone was staring at me and whispering behind my back. I tried not to show how I was feeling. As soon as I entered an academic building, I went straight to the bathroom to do my breathing exercises and compose myself. After class, I went straight to the bathroom again, this time to compose myself for walking to the next class. Most of my interaction with my peers was on the paths.
My dean responded to my email, giving me permission to attend a meeting during study hours on Friday. After a protein bar for supper, I headed over to the humanities building.
In three years, I had never considered attending Ichthys, the Christian fellowship student organization, mostly because I was worried it would be a big prayer service. But I figured it was my best shot at finding like-minded people with whom I could confide.
I was a little surprised when Bethany entered the room. She glared in my direction. With a sigh, I headed over to her. “Look, I’m sorry I snapped at you the other day.”
“Why are you here?”
“I’ve been going through a lot lately and . . . I thought coming here might help.”
She considered me for a moment. “Let me see your eyes.”
“Just let me see.”
I was a few inches taller than her, so I squatted slightly until we were eye level. She must have been satisfied with what she saw, because she simply said “hmph” and flounced away.
A teacher I didn’t know began the meeting at exactly seven. “Welcome back, everyone. I see we have a couple of new faces, so why don’t we go around the room and introduce ourselves? Please tell us your name, your form, and . . . the best Christmas present you received this year. I’m Mrs. Jenkins and I teach philosophy and religion. My favorite present was a new watch from my husband.” She held up her wrist, then pointed to her left.
“Hi. I’m Bethany. I’m one of the co-presidents. I’m in the sixth form and my best present was these boots from my parents.” She held up a foot.
We went around the room. James from my Latin class was the other co-president. His best present was a new phone from his parents. There were about ten of us and I was the last one sitting in the circle.
“Hi. I’m Pat. Fifth form. My best present was—it’s kind of hard to describe. It’s a blanket that can also be used to play this board game my family likes.”
Mrs. Jenkins smiled at me. “That sounds nice. And who gave it to you?”
“Oh. My girl—I mean, my ex-girlfriend.” I saw Bethany gasp. A few others sent me strange looks, as if I had just confirmed one of their worst suspicions.
After Mrs. Jenkins reminded everyone that everything said in this room would remain confidential, most of the meeting was spent with people sharing stories about their breaks. When the meeting was almost over, Bethany asked me about my break. It almost sounded like a dare.
I shrugged. “My mom’s family came over for Christmas. There’s a lot of them and it’s pretty crazy. Then we went to visit my other grandparents in Florida for a few days. After that, I had to go to LA and Chicago for work stuff. Then, I just hung out at home until we got back. Nothing too exciting.”
No one commented on my break and Mrs. Jenkins started asking if anyone needed prayers. I glanced at Bethany, but I couldn’t read her expression. I wasn’t sure why her approval suddenly mattered to me, but it did.
We all held hands and prayed. It wasn’t as weird as I expected it to be. When Mrs. Jenkins dismissed us, I checked the time. We were nearly halfway into the break. It was too late to join Walter and Melinda for our NeoGenesis science fiction club. I went to my dorm to stare at my ceiling.
It took me a lot of effort to get through my Saturday classes. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, but after last night’s meeting, I felt even more certain people were staring at and whispering about me. Bethany kept sneaking glances at me during physics class. I did my best to maintain the mask I had put on.
At the all school meeting, my assigned seat was in the back of the lower level. Melinda was sitting on the stage with the wind ensemble. I pretended to sing while watching her play the school song. I knew music. She was playing from heart, not reading the sheet music like the girl sitting beside her.
I had no idea what the speaker was talking about today. Not that I cared. I was watching Melinda. She was listening intently, focusing on the speaker.
No, she wasn’t, I realized. Her flute was in her lap and she was fingering the keys. She was practicing something. I don’t know why I found that amusing, but I could help smiling.
After classes, I grabbed a sandwich in the dining hall and brought it to my room. I didn’t have much of an appetite. I realized I had no idea what sports were home today. Could I go watch Walter? Did I want to? Should I go to the basketball game to watch Melinda?
There was a knock on my door. I glanced over to see Bethany standing in the doorway. I sat up, but didn’t get off the bed.
“What’re you doing here?”
She sighed. “Can I come in?”
I shrugged. “I guess. I’ll go tell Wilson you’re here.”
“I saw him on my way in. You’re fine.” She came in, shutting the door behind her.
“You can’t shut that. I’m not a senior.”
She rolled her eyes and opened the door a crack before sitting at my desk. She looked surprisingly comfortable. When she said nothing, I raised my eyebrows.
“What’re you doing here?”
“Lemme see your eyes.”
“Why do you keep looking at my eyes?” I couldn’t quite hide my anger.
She came to sit beside me on the bed, jerking my head to face her. She stared intently at my eyes for nearly a minute, then went back to her seat as if nothing had happened.
I swore at her. “Why do you keep doing that?”
“Ever since break, you’ve been acting differently. I knew you spent some time in LA. I thought maybe you had started partying while you were there. And maybe you still were.”
“Oh, yeah.” I spoke sardonically as I waved my hand around the empty room. “I’m having a blast. It’s a total rager in here.”
“That’s not the kind of partying I meant.”
I stared at her. Then I called her a very unflattering name. I have to hand it to her. She took it in stride. Another girl probably would have smacked me. She just pointed at me.
“You’re not yourself. I never see you in the dining hall. You’re skipping classes. When you are there, you’re too happy. And, with all the rumors going around, I didn’t know what to believe.”
“Take your pick. There’re the ones that you cheated on your girlfriend and that’s why you broke up. One version is she caught you with some fourth former in the back of your car. Another one says she caught you with your costar in the back of your car. Then there’re the rumors that you were too high or too drunk—pick your poison—to go to classes. That your girlfriend broke up with you because of your drug-slash-alcohol problem. There’s the one that you spent your vacation in rehab. That’s my personal favorite.” She rolled her eyes, but I wasn’t sure if she was saying she believed the rumors or not.
I glared at her. “So, what? You’re here to see if the rumors are true?”
“Yes. No. I’m here to see if you need help. You’re not doing drugs. I can see that much.”
“By looking in my eyes?”
“Among other things.”
“And you’re an expert because?” Why, Pat? Why was I encouraging her? Did I want her to think I had a problem?
“My brother has been in and out of rehab three times already. He’s twenty. Over Thanksgiving break, I had to bring him to the emergency room because I thought he had OD’d.”
“I’m sorry.” All my anger was suddenly gone. “I’m not.”
“I know. Can you tell me what is going on? I know I’m not, like, one of your best friends, but I am a good listener.”
“Melinda and I broke up, but not for any of those reasons.”
Bethany looked relieved. “Oh, good. Was there another girl?” She sat back a little in her seat.
I shook my head. “No.”
“So, who’s this fourth former going around saying she was in the backseat of your car?”
“My roommate took some random girl there. Because my other roommate was entertaining a friend in my bed.” I gestured to my new room. “Thus, the single.”
“When did that happen?” I could hear compassion in Bethany’s voice. She was right. She was a good listener.
“Our first day back. Before classes.”
“And Melinda? When did you guys break up?”
“Just before New Year’s.”
“So, I get why you’re skipping classes and not eating. But what’s with the super happy?”
I couldn’t help but smile. “No one has ever complained about my acting before. I guess I’m overdoing it a little?”
Bethany looked around my room in silence. Her eyes landed on the book I had borrowed from Father Aidan. It was on my desk so I could return it this evening. She picked it up, leafing through it a little, stopping to read a page.
“This looks like a good one. Can I borrow it?”
I shook my head. “It’s not mine. I borrowed it from my church.”
She put it down and used her phone to take a picture of the cover.
“You’re not posting that somewhere, are you? Look what Pat’s reading!”
“Paranoid much? I wanted to remember the title so I could look it up later.”
“How long have you and Will been together?”
“Two and a half years.”
“And have you guys . . .”
She shook her head. “We both believe in waiting for marriage.”
“So do I, but—”
“It’s really hard sometimes, isn’t it? Sometimes I wonder why I’m torturing myself. It’s one of the reasons I wear this.” She pulled a cross out from under her blouse and started playing with it. “To remind myself.”
Her phone beeped. “Oops. Coach wants us on the court in half an hour. I better go.” She crossed to the bed and sat beside me. “This was a good talk. Don’t be scared to do it again.”
She gave me a hug and a friendly kiss on my cheek before leaving.
Melinda’s story will return in Episode 99.
Melinda is always trying to build her vocabulary. What were some words in this episode that were new to you? She will add them to her vocabulary journal.