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The Education of Elisabeth Eckleman

Freshman Year

Elisabeth Eckleman just left home, and has a lot of difficult decisions ahead of her. In this installment, Elisabeth loses her high-school boyfriend and drives to college with her parents. You decide what happens next.

When this series was originally published, readers voted at the end of each installment to determine its outcome.

 

Brad refused to drive me to Austin. He said it would be confusing for both of us if we were acting like a couple right after breaking up.

“But I love you,” I whispered, miserably.

“And I love you too, Elisabeth.”

“And I’m always gonna love you, whether you drive me to school or not.”

“It’s just not a wise thing to do.” Ever since we graduated in May, he’d been using this phrase with eerie frequency: It’s just not a wise thing to do.

I began to cry. “Bu-bu-but... I love you.”

Brad was silent. He had to admit: I had a point.

Two weeks ago, Brad’s older brother got him stoned and convinced him to break up with me. He said that, even though we’re going to the same school, college would change us. Between tokes he described how we’d want to date different people and have “experiences,” and that it would be best for us to end our relationship now and give each other a chance to grow. I swear to God, I hate what marijuana does to people.

The next day, my parents drive me to college, which they were dying to do, and I lie in the backseat the whole time, crying with my head crammed into the seat cushions. For a while I pretend to be asleep, but snot starts sliming my face so bad I can’t lick it away.

“Can we top ad a gad tation?” I ask, wiping my upper lip.

“Oh, honey,” my mom says, handing me a stiff and wadded Kleenex from her purse. “College is going to be so wonderful. You’re going to experience things you never knew were possible. You just can’t imagine what awaits you on the other side.”

“Can I haff some modey?” I ask as my dad pulls into a Texaco.

“Here’s a twenty,” he says. “Keep the change.”

It’s not that I don’t want to go to college. I’m not one of those pathetic small-town girls who clings to her stupid high-school life. I’ve been ready to leave it since the first pep rally, when the whole class was told to pray for the triumph of quarterback Mike Smalls and the rest of his football team. As if God is so preoccupied with Mike Smalls. And if so, then why did Mike Smalls get crabs?

Hatred of that school is what brought Brad and I together. We made fun of those people and their bullying, redneck ignorance. During our senior year Brad won county in debate, and as the school newspaper editor, I enlisted him to write a series of withering satirical essays about racism and homophobia.

“Fucking fag,” the shitkickers would say when Brad walked down the hall.

One time Brad responded. “I’m not homosexual,” he said. “But if by ‘fag’ you mean someone who supports the right of every man and woman to choose their sexual destiny, if by ‘fag’ you mean someone who believes in freedom for all people, if by ‘fag’ you mean someone who doesn’t fit into this provincial town and would rather be in the company of a liberated gay man than spend five seconds with a yahoo like you—then yes. I am a fag.” It was part of a brilliant closing argument he’d made at District LX.

“See?” the shitkicker said to his friend. “I told you he was a fag.”

I’ll never love anyone the way I love Brad Petersen. That’s what nobody understands.

“Here we are!” my dad says as we wheel into the dormitory parking lot. I wake up. I’d fallen asleep with my head in the seat cushions, and imprints run down both cheeks like red zippers.

“Oh, Elisabeth, it looks so nice,” says my mother, who tends to attribute personality traits to inanimate objects that pleased her.

“It’s awful big,” said my father, who tends to see catastrophe around every corner.

I stare up at the dorm and try to imagine living inside. The guy with the beer sign in his window—will he be my temporary boyfriend? The girl with the stained-glass Pooh mobile—will she be my confidant? There are times when possibility swells inside me like a sneeze, when I can’t wait for my new life to unfurl. These are the times when I think Brad’s brother might be right. Will it be better to start college without ties to our former life? Will it be better to give ourselves a shot at something new, something profound? But then I think about the way Brad’s dark hair fell across his brow, the way our bodies tangled on his bed, Bowie on the stereo to drown out our moans: “Turn and face the strange, ch-ch-changes. And tears well up in my eyes all over again.

 

My parents leave that afternoon to check into their hotel room.

Dad: “Call if anything happens.”

Mom: “Call if you want to talk.”

But the only person I want to talk to is Brad. I dial half his number and hang up abruptly. I promised myself I wouldn’t cave—not after last night. No way. I’m tired of limping back to him, wounded and sobbing. It isn’t fair. I’ve been sad and hurt for ages it seemed, but sitting there, in a dorm room full of bolted-down furniture, all I feel is angry. I’m angry he’s turned his back on us. I’m angry he refused to drive me to college when that had been our plan all along. I’m so angry that all I can think to do is call him and tell him how angry I am. This is a violation of my original vow, yes, but still acceptable, since it proved both strength and purpose.

I scan my contact list, settling on the name “Bradley,” but I can’t bring myself to dial the number. Something in me rallies against it. I wonder: If I dropped the phone, and it dialed his number accidentally—would that be OK?

At that moment, the door flings open. “Greetings, new roommate!”

I grab my chest and shoot backwards. “Jesus!” Before me stands a thin girl with red, acne-scarred skin and a tangle of blond hair, one lock stacked with blue beads that lay across her shoulder. She’s wearing a tank top and a long skirt that I can see straight through.

“I’m Kathryn with a Y. Or Kat. Now: Tell me everything,” she says, her hands arced out for dramatic effect.

“OK,” I say, fumbling to put away my phone. “First... I hate surprises.”

I’d met people like Kathryn with a Y before. In my sophomore year of high school I competed in UIL drama tournaments, which mostly involved playing pinochle in a school cafeteria and watching endless performances of Steel Magnolias. Which is why I started hanging out with the debate nerds, which is how I met Brad in the first place. He said my finals performance of Children of a Lesser God made him want to sing. It was the most romantic thing anyone had ever told me.

“So where are you from?” Kat asks, unpacking a suitcase on her bed.

I tell her the town, and she shrugs as if it had been merely a suggestion.

“I’m from Dallas,” she says, pulling out a framed picture of two guys kissing and setting it on her desk, “which is a godawful, dreadful, wretched, wicked little town. I will never go back. Nev-ah!” She flings herself back on her mattress, a hand draped over her forehead. “Can you tell I’m a drama major?”

“Kind of,” I say. “I won regionals in dramatic interp once.”

“Is that like a UIL thing?” she asks. “We don’t do those. True art can’t be judged, young girl.” She says the last part in a silly voice meant to take the sting out, but it just makes me feel dumb, like I’m supposed to respond in a hayseed accent.

“Oh,” I say. “Where’d you go to school?”

“Performing Arts Academy.”

“That sounds fun.”

“It was fun,” she says, and then stands with her finger on her chin. “Fun in the way a bunch of jealous art fags taking drugs and sleeping together is fun. Fun like a totally coked-up, dysfunctional orgy.”

I laugh uncomfortably. I don’t think it’s right to refer to gay people as fags. “So,” I say, gesturing to the photo, “is that...are those two guys your friends?”

“Boyfriends, really,” she says, pulling books from her suitcase. I strain to read the author names, but I’ve never heard of any of them: William Gibson, something Gibran, Milan Kundera. Tom Robbins—isn’t he an actor?

“Sooooo,” Kat says, “How about you? Do you have a partner?”

“Oh, like a boyfriend? Yes. Kind of.”

“Let me guess. You dated in high school, but you left him back home and you’re going to try to stay together because you both love each other so veddy veddy much.”

What the hell? I thought ugly girls were required to be sweet. “He’s got a debate scholarship here,” I say. “He’s just not coming till the end of the week.”

“Poor thing,” she says. “ I’ll tell you what—I’m going to a party tonight, and you’re going too.”

“I don’t drink,” I reply, which is mostly true. Brad said I was the only person in history who got an MIP for actually holding someone else’s beer.

“Oh, you are darling,” Kat says, looking at me like an old aunt. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there is something compelling about Kat—something that made me feel the pallor of my own life, made me feel young and puny. I imagine us both in an empty field drinking imported beers and debating Ibsen. Now that’s the kind of excitement I expect from college.

“OK,” I say, swinging my legs from the bed. “Do you have any more baggage?”

“Dahlink, you have no idea,” she says, and then throws her head back to laugh. “Just kidding, it’s in the car.”

My phone rings. It’s Brad.

 

“Did you just call me?” he asks.

“No,” I say, walking to the community bathroom in hopes of a little privacy. “I mean, I didn’t mean to.”

“Well, I was going to call you anyway. I’m really sorry about last night.”

I try not to let the stall door creak as I shut it behind me. I sit down on the toilet lid. “I’m sorry too, sweetie. I hate it when we fight.”

“Are you in a cavern?”

“No, it’s the cafeteria.”

“Cool. So listen, I want to come to Austin tonight. Can we see each other?”

“Umm, maybe,” I say, trying to sound casual even though my heart is hitching. The more this happens (and it seems to happen every week), the easier it’s become. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I want you to make the choice.”

I read somewhere that people are the sum total of their choices, that our choices are what make our destiny. That’s terrifying, isn’t it? And maybe that’s why I’m so rotten at making decisions. This drives Brad crazy. Sometimes, to prove a point, he’ll refuse to choose where we’re going for dinner just so I have to pick the place, and I’ll sit there in agony for 30 minutes, trying to figure out if he wants Mexican or Chinese. I just can’t stand the pressure. What if things go wrong?

This is cowardly, I know, but these questions are so murky and overwhelming to me: Are Brad and I meant to be together? Is anyone? What if I have a terrible time at the party? What if someone slips something in my drink? What if I die? I could go on like this all day. Sure, part of me wanted to tell Brad I was busy. That was the “empowered” thing to do, the thing my mother or one of her self-help books would advise. But part of me missed Brad so much that I ached, physically. I’d be happy just to hold his hand, just to press his knuckles against my mouth.

“So tell me what you want,” Brad says.

But what do I want?

In the stall next to me, a toilet flushes.

What happens next? Should Elisabeth go to the party with Kat or see Brad?

biopic

TMN Contributing Writer Sarah Hepola is the Life editor at Salon. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Slate, Nerve, and on NPR. She lives in Texas with a sweet orange cat who is not fat, he’s just big-boned. If you just read her story about Joseph Gordon-Levitt, she’d like to point that it is fiction. More by Sarah Hepola