I somehow knew that the nearing engine purr was Beth’s. My heart skipped, and I pushed myself away from the empty desk and crossed to the window of my bedroom.
Her gray Ford Fiesta slowed down at the driveway, and she killed the engine.
“Troy,” came my mother’s voice from downstairs. “Bethany is here.”
“I know, Mom,” I said and watched Beth’s excited smile spread across her face. She got out of the car, fixed her bushy black hair and said hi to my dad, who was already crossing the front yard to greet her, dragging my large suitcase after him.
I’d been ready for this. I’d had an entire summer to get ready and, hadn’t been scared at all, but now seeing the car that was about to take me away, seeing the checkered green shirt my dad was wearing on what was about to be the last time I saw him in months and hearing my mom’s excited yet nervous voice, made me almost wish I could stay.
New Haven University was the way to go, everybody said. Beth would be there and without her, I’d be lost. She was the one who’d found the room, who’d walked me through the entire application and enrolment process, and who’d drive us there today. That should have made it easier, right?
I glanced at the wall above my desk and the row of framed certificates I’d gotten in the local and regional young chemists competitions. I’d debated bringing them with me, but Mom said there would be no space for them. She was right, as with all the books I couldn’t part ways with, I had little room for essentials, let alone my awards.
For all those awards, though, I still needed Beth to walk me through the steps of moving from home.
They’ll wait for me safely in my bedroom. My old bedroom, I should start saying soon.
I turned toward the door and found my mom leaning against it. Her smile couldn’t cover the mix of pride and fear in her deep green eyes. I’d gotten that gene from her.
She extended her arms toward me. “My baby’s leaving,” she sighed.
I put on my bravest face and went for the long goodbye rehearsal hug. “It’s just a few months till Christmas,” I said.
She said nothing, instead squeezing me tighter in her arms, placing her head on my shoulder and resting for a couple more heartbeats.
When she let go, I blinked twice and smiled again.
“You should go,” she said. “Bethany’s waiting outside with Dad.”
“Sure,” I said, and bent to pick up my backpack. Mom took the small suitcase with her.
As we went down the stairs, I slowed my pace, feeling each step, one at a time. Darn it, I thought, I’d never appreciated this house enough while I should. My analytical mind took over, and I remembered nothing could change this — and, indeed, shouldn’t — so why overthink now?
Beth jumped at me with a squeak, that cut my eardrums, her arms around my neck, feet flew off the paved driveway as she jumped up and down. “Are you as excited as I am?”
“Can’t you see?” I asked, deadpan.
“You’re no fun,” she said and punched my shoulder.
I rubbed the spot where she’d punched me while Beth opened the trunk of her car and let Dad load my luggage.
“Call me as soon as you can,” said Mom, after another soul-crushing, tight hug.
“Drive safe,” said Dad. He patted Beth’s shoulder, then shook my hand and pulled me in for a hug. “Don’t break any hearts, buddy.”
“Roger,” Mom scolded.
“What? He’s a man now,” said Dad and winked at me. I felt my cheeks redden and heat rose from my neck. Oh, he imagined me breaking some girl’s heart. You couldn’t be further from reality, but I pushed the thought away before it showed in my eyes.
“Call me whenever you need,” said Mom, as I walked around the car. She unleashed the list of the last-minute instructions as I sat in the passenger seat. Her head poked through the open window on Beth’s side. “Don’t forget to separate your blacks from your whites, always check the tags if you’re unsure of the temperature, and colored clothes can be tricky, but I’ll walk you through it when you call. And remember to eat.” She turned to my dad. “Roger, tell him to remember. He’ll forget to eat.”
“I won’t forget to eat, Mom,” I said, and bit my lip before I burst out laughing.
“You tell me about those blankets, Troy,” she said. Her finger wagged at nobody in particular. “We’ll send some more if they’re not thick enough, and you can always ask your landlord to lend you some while you’re waiting for yours to arrive. Bobby can bring them in a couple of days. Do you have Bobby’s number? He’s always driving there and back.”
“I have Bobby’s digits, Mom,” I said. “Drive,” I whispered to Beth, who positively glowed.
God, I could already hear the teasing once we were safely away from Mom’s earshot.
“I love you, Troy,” said Mom. “Drive safe.”
“Love you, son,” said Dad. “Good luck.”
Finally, the car moved, and my heart skipped a beat.
I looked back and waved at my parents. Dad had his arm around Mom’s waist, and their raised hands shook left and right. They stood until Beth turned right at the crossroad and I lost sight of them.
“I love you, Troy,” Beth impersonated my mom.
I looked at her, dead serious. “Well, you do.”
She snorted. “Yes.”
“It’s not funny if you’re just telling the truth with an accent,” I said.
She snorted again. “Find us some music,” she said, and poked me with her elbow. “Not the local stations, though.”
“Why?” I squawked. “We could listen to all the local stations from here to New Haven. It’ll be fun.”
“Alright, but try finding the student-run stations,” she said. “I’m done with country music.”
“I dunno, it’s not all bad,” I said, but Beth laughed, which meant I should do as I was told.
I sank into my seat and stared out the window as we left our little hometown and drove the wide country road, with endless farms stretched beyond the reach of my eyes.
Beth closed her window and turned on the AC once our brows were covered with sweat and my T-shirt felt damp.
“I can’t wait for you to see the place,” she said.
“I’ve seen the photos you sent.”
“Yeah, but this is the real thing,” she said. “It’s legit, the best place I checked out. And you’ll love everyone.”
I was in Europe when Beth was able to go apartment hunting, but we already knew we would share a room, so she took photos of each place she visited, and we agreed on this one. It was something like a boarding house, but not really; a four-bedroom apartment for a bunch of students from all over the place to share. The kitchen seemed enormous and there were two bathrooms (I’d have preferred six, but Beth said we had to compromise).
It was a six-hour drive to New Haven, and we’d switched at the wheel a while back, but as we neared the city, we took a short break at a gas station so we could swap back. Beth knew the city a little better.
“Muffin, do you want something?” she asked, as we got out of the car and stretched our legs.
“Huh?” My senses were dull from staring at the road for three hours straight.
“I’ll get some coffee for myself,” she said. “Do you want some?”
“Nah,” I said. She knew I didn’t like coffee.
“You need to get used to it,” she said. “I always heard people drank copious amounts before the exams.”
“Maybe because they never studied until the week before the exam.” I sighed and bent over, reaching down with my arms. “My back is killing me.”
“You go, gramps,” she said, and disappeared to get the coffee.
I walked around the car, feeling the energy slowly return to me as the late afternoon sunlight caressed my face. My jaw dropped when I opened my eyes and saw the cup in her hand. “Beth, what the hell? That’s the size of your head.” Or the size of the smallest of the Moons of Jupiter, to be more precise. “You’ll give yourself a heart-attack.”
“Want a sip?” she asked and extended her arm.
“I’ll pass,” I said. “I’m not even sure I could lift it.”
“Suit yourself,” she said and dropped into the driver’s seat. She left the coffee in the cup holder when I joined her, and drove. “It’s light on caffeine, though.”
I glanced at the cup. The idea of studying late at night and gulping down coffee seemed like something that waited for me in the future. I picked it up and spun it in my hands. “Alright, devil,” I said and pressed the cup against my lips, taking the tiniest sip I could. “Huh, it’s not bitter,” I said.
“It’s a latte with plenty of sugar, Sugar,” she said.
“Ew, don’t call me that.”
“Muffin it is.” She clapped her hands.
I screwed my face at her and took another sip.
“Look at you go,” she said in mock-awe. “You’re blossoming already and we haven’t even arrived at college.”
That was the idea, wasn’t it? A small-town boy goes to college and discovers all the joys of life, right? Well, not for me. I had one goal, and one goal only: ace it. My family had invested so much that I had to make them proud. I only had to study hard, and that had never been an issue. I didn’t fool myself with the idea I would suddenly change once I was officially a student at a big university.
I certainly didn’t fool myself into believing I’d have the sort of fun students talked about.
Part of me was eager to watch, though. I could imagine boys my age. I pictured them holding hands, kissing, laughing. They were nothing like me, sullen, blushing, and stammering. I wanted to be like them.
To get there meant to be out. I’d never be out. Not as long as I carried my parents’ hopes.
Other than Beth, I didn’t have any real friends. Beth was awesome, but I couldn’t handle two of her and boys as friends were off limits.
I had all the time in the world to attend the lectures, to study, and to read. The thought of the enormous library in New Haven made my heart trip. The excitement I’d felt the entire summer burst inside my chest and I shifted in my seat. I wanted to laugh, yet cold sweat dampened my palms .
Beth turned and left the highway behind.
“We’re here,” she said, after a few more minutes.
These were still the outskirts of the city, but in less than an hour we would really be there.
“I can’t wait for Monday,” I said, with excitement.
“It’s very much like you to look forward to the orientation class,” she said matter-of-factly.
I shrugged. “What else is there?”
“Parties,” she said, and hissed the s to emphasize the importance of the plural.
We passed the campus, my eyes locked on the vast lawns beyond the surrounding old iron bars . Beth made a few more turns before pulling over.
The building was red, the bricks bare but burnished with aged color, and the lane of trees glowed with orange streetlights setting the heaps of damp, browning leaves on fire.
I crawled out of the car, took a deep breath of the city air and helped Beth with the luggage ,. Oddly enough, I could almost feel the difference. There was something about the city that doubled my heart’s size. All the possibilities I knew I wouldn’t take the advantage of in reality were finally there, up for grabs.
A lean, young man passed with a dog on a leash not too far from us and my eyes followed him for a couple of heartbeats.
Maybe, if I was lucky, a handsome student might approach me.
I had no clue what I’d do, but the thought alone made me shiver.
We dragged our suitcases to the entrance door and Beth produced the key she’d gotten after I’d green-lit the place .
Lights brightened the darkness as we entered the building. Beth called the old elevator, and we rose to the fourth floor — the highest floor there was.
Beth cheeped as she stood in front of the door and pushed a key into the lock. With a frown, she turned the knob and found it unlocked.
Just as Beth pushed the door open, somebody showed up on the other side. “Hi,” said the skinny guy. “You’re the new ones, right?” He glanced at the luggage. “But if you’re here for the party, I hope that’s all booze in the suitcases.”
“Yeah, we’re the new ones. I’m Beth,” she said. “I didn’t realize open.”
“Um, we keep it unlocked,” he said. He moved out of the way and held the door. “I’m Quinn, by the way.” He shook hands with Beth, then turned to me. “Oh, a twink.”
I blinked. “What?”
But he had already let go of my hand and led us inside. He opened the first door to the right. “This’ll be your grand suite,” he said, swinging around. Something about him reminded me of butterflies and happy puppies. He pushed the door open.
I got a glimpse of dark red walls in the room and two desks, beside each other, before Quinn was on the move again. Beth and I let go of the suitcases and followed him down the long hall. He tapped on the second door. “This is my room — don’t ask about roommates, they come and go. It’s something like a bed-and-leave-before-the-breakfast kinda thing. To the left is Blake’s room, with one bed still vacant. If you know anyone who’s looking for a place, tell them.” His voice faded as we entered the living room.
The place was huge. There was an enormous sectional on the far side with a few people dotted around, staring at the big screen hanging from the wall.
“Hi,” I murmured, after they greeted us.
Quinn went on. “That stud there is Blake.”
“Hi, Blake,” said Beth. “He showed me around when I was looking,” she told me.
I felt a knot in my throat grow. I wondered if Quinn somehow sensed I was gay. Maybe he could tell,. like I could tell that he totally was. I pushed that out of my head.
“Those two love-birds are Leo and Mason. And you-” Quinn looked at the guy he hadn’t named. “I don’t know you, but you’re kinda cute. Want a drink?” He turned to me and Beth. “He doesn’t live here.”
The guy burst out laughing. “I’m here for the party.” He waved nervously. “I’m too early, I think.”
My head spun with names and roles by now, so I just followed Quinn to the dining area. The party they kept mentioning made me frown.
The dining table was huge, with eight matching chairs around it. Beyond it was the kitchen that I’d seen in the photos.
“You two must be tired,” said Quinn. “How long was the drive?”
“Six hours, give or take,” said Beth. “This is amazing. I love the place.”
“Oh, shit, you’ll fall sleep before the folks arrive,” said Quinn.
I couldn’t bite my tongue anymore. “For the party?”
“Yes,” he said, his eyes big and brown and sparkling.
“So, uh,” I felt my palms grow sweaty again. “There’s going to be a party tonight?”
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s Friday. Fridays and Saturdays are traditionally the party nights here. That’s not a problem, right?”
“No, not at all,” I lied. My eyes widened, the world crashed around me. Where the hell did we just move in? I thought. But it couldn’t be that bad, right? This was an apartment building — it had rules and stuff.
It was only after both Beth and I had showered and crashed into our beds , turned off the lights, and said goodnight we learned Quinn was nothing but literal. The beat of the bass threatened to bring the shelf down from the wall, and I felt sound-waves traveling through my body.
“Beth,” I whimpered.
“Yeah?” she whispered, just as terrified.
“What the hell?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Our moment of silence was shattered with laughter from the hall. I could faintly hear the entrance door open and close a dozen million times. Folks came and went as they pleased, no doubt.
“Beth,” I said again.
“Yeah?” “We gotta move out.”
I hope you liked this little taste of Troy (lol). The Nerd Jock Conundrum released on March 24 and the feedback was so overwhelming that I was on the verge of tears most of the time. For that, I thank you. And if you haven’t gotten the chance to read it yet, it’s free in KU and $3.99 for purchase on Amazon.