Growing Pains

School was so annoying yesterday. My teachers always call on me to read or ask me what I think the answer is. I think it must be because I read better than the other kids or something. They called on me a lot yesterday and I really wasn’t in the mood for it. Some of my teachers had my brothers and sisters in class, too, but they’re all a lot older, so I think some of their teachers are gone now. Dead or quit or moved. They were all pretty smart, though, so I think my teachers think I am too. Stupid teachers.

Recess has been really cool this year, though. Last year there were so many kids around, and we had to deal with the immature kids who were still in second and third grade. This year, we get picked up at the junior high school (where I’ll go next year), and they drive us to Loda in the bus. There are some younger kids around, but mostly it’s just us fifth graders, especially at recess. I think their recess is at a different time. Anyway, it’s cool ‘cause we can get some really good games in at recess. Sometimes we play football, but lately we’ve been playing some really good games of soccer. I really like the soccer, ‘cause I’m pretty good at kicking the ball right. Mr. Martin, the p.e. teacher, said that it’s dribbling the ball in soccer just like dribbling the basketball with your hands, but basketball’s pretty stupid. We have to play basketball when it’s colder out, ‘cause we’re supposed to stay on the pavement so we don’t track snow or mud in the school. I play basketball then, but I don’t like it, so mostly I just try to mess up the other team. When it’s hotter, we play baseball sometimes, too. I like to catch, and I can do good at bat most of the time.

The worst part of the day is the ride home from Loda. Yesterday’s ride seemed to take longer than usual. Mom brought me to school that morning because I missed the bus, so it seemed like forever getting home afterwards. We have assigned seats on the bus, so I have to sit by some of the stupid kids. Richie and Stephen sit next to each other near the back of the bus. They’re lucky. All I can do is sit there and look out the window at all the stupid cornfields. The farm kids who sit near me just look out the windows, too.

Some of the worst kids at school are the farm kids. They wear flannel and overalls just like the dumb hicks in the movies. The kid who sat in front of me last year, Jimmy, smelled kind of funny. There were a couple of days when I thought he might have pooped in his pants or forgot to wipe, but most of the time it was just a weird smell. His hair had like a fuzzy spot on the back of his head from when he slept. He would turn around when the teacher was talking and tell me something that he thought was funny, but it never was, and then the teacher would call on me to read or answer a question. And I wouldn’t hear the question or know where to start reading because that stupid farmer kid was talking to me. He sort of reminds me of some of my cousins on my Dad’s side, though, so I’m not mean to him. He’s sitting right across the aisle from me right now. I don’t smell him right now, but I bet he’s wondering if anybody will see if he picks his nose and eats it.

My Dad and I went fishing last summer when he picked me up and took me to where he lives in Michigan. I was up there for like four or five days, and I really liked it. I don’t get to see him very often, since lives so far away and works and stuff. I guess mom was still kind of mad at him because he had the woman he lived with in Michigan as a girlfriend when I was born, and mom didn’t know about it until she answered the phone one day when mom was calling Dad. I guess mom still wanted him as a boyfriend then, but when that woman answered the phone, mom drove to where he lived to tell him what she thought of him. I guess he was a trucker then, and mom told him that he didn’t have to bother having two homes anymore, he could just stay in Michigan. That’s what Spencer told me, anyway.

Spencer is one of my older brothers. I have three brothers and two sisters that live with me. They’re all older. I have a half-sister named Terry who lives with her mom, and she’s older, too. We have the same Dad and different moms. None of my brothers or sisters who live with me have the same Dad as I do. Tim and Rose’s Dad died after Rose was born, so mom married Spencer’s Dad. I’ve seen Spencer’s Dad before, but I never really got to know him. I guess mom doesn’t like him very much, either. She was pretty mad when Chris wanted to live with him instead of her when he came back from the smart school. He moved back in, though, before he left for college. I guess his Dad was drinking a lot then.

I remember Tim leaving for school once, too. I don’t think he was going to college, but it might have been a different smart school that he went to. I was really little when he left for that, but I remember being pretty mad at him, ‘cause he was my favorite before he left. He came back for a while, and was going to everyone else’s school again, but then he graduated. Then he went to the Marines, so I got to go out to California and see him graduate from that. It was a really cool trip out there, but I went with mom and Grandma, and Grandma is kind of crazy. She smokes cigarettes all of the time and really starts to talk mean about people if she gets mad about something. We got to drive through the mountains, though, and we could see the ocean, so it was cool.

Rose has moved in and out of the house a lot. She’s been living in Champaign for a while, like more than a year or something. Carol and Spencer both still live here, but Spencer goes to stay with his Dad for a while sometimes. They drive, though, so they’re not always around very much. Most nights mom and I get some pizza or Just Hamburgers or Hardee’s. I guess mom used to have a pizzeria, but that was before I was born. They always tell me how good the calzones were and that they haven’t found anyone who makes them as good as she did. I still think Pizza Hut is pretty good. They don’t have any calzones, though.

When I went to Michigan with my Dad, we had pizza at a bar there, and it was pretty good. He said that you can always get good food in the small bars that look dirty. He drank a lot of beers there, and when we went fishing he drank more. He’s almost as bad as Craig was. Craig was mom’s boyfriend for a while, but he died. He drank every day and smoked cigarettes all the time. He would always have a bottle of Jim Beam in his back pocket, and he’d take a big drink of that and then drink some beer real quick. He usually drank a whole box of beer everyday. He didn’t work very much, mom said he didn’t have to because he went to Vietnam. I don’t know what’s over there, but if I could just hang out and drink beer all day, I’d like to go there. But Craig died because he drank all the time, so maybe I wouldn’t want to go over there.

My Dad didn’t drink as much as Craig. He did buy some wine coolers for me and his girlfriend’s son, Jonathan, when we went fishing in Michigan. We got to drink some of those, so I drank mine real fast and couldn’t stop laughing when I was done. I tried to tell them the story about tying Louie up with a hose and throwing him off the porch, but I was laughing so much I couldn’t tell it. That was a lot of fun, but I don’t think we caught any fish that night.

My favorite part of the trip was driving there and back. My Dad has a big Harley Davidson, and it’s awesome to ride on. I’m gonna get a Harley sometime, too. Then I can go to Michigan whenever I want and go fishing. Maybe I’ll even go to Vietnam. I don’t know, though. I don’t wanna cough like Craig every morning or yell when I’m sleeping. Mom said his nightmares are from Vietnam, too. He drove a Harley Davidson, too, but not when he was living with us. He wasn’t supposed to drive because he got caught driving after drinking a bunch of beers. I saw a picture of him and his brother by some cool Harleys, though, but his brother died, too. His brother had been dead for a long time when he lived with us, because he crashed his Harley. I don’t know, but I think he’d probably had some beers when he crashed.

My Dad drove after drinking beers, too, but he told me that you just weren’t supposed to drive “drunk.” He said you have to drink more than six beers for that. I don’t think he’d drink more than six to drive his Harley. He wouldn’t want to crash it, ‘cause it’s a really great bike. I wonder if I drank too many wine coolers to drive. I think I only had three or four, so I think I could have done it.

I only drove one time before. Chris had come home from school for the weekend and was going to Rantoul for some Central Park, and when we went home he let me drive out in the country. I did pretty good, but he told me that I need to work on my stopping. We were coming up to a stop sign and I slowed down a lot but there was still a long way for the stop sign, so I started going faster, and then the stop sign got there before I was going slow enough to stop before I was in the middle of the road. He let me drive a little bit longer and then we stopped and he drove the rest of the way. He told me the next day that when we got out, he dropped his cell phone, and didn’t know until that morning. He drove back out there and found where we got out, and he looked around for a while and found it all smashed up. I laughed at him. I don’t know if he got a new one yet.

We saw a deer that night, too. Lucky it was when Chris was driving, ‘cause I probably would’ve wrecked. That would’ve sucked. Chris told me about a time when he stole mom’s van in the middle of the night when he was too young to drive and they saw a deer on a country road. He said it ran right into the side of the van near the driver door and he could see the head smack against the hood, but the deer still ran away afterward. I think that maybe after I drive some more times, I’ll try taking mom’s car while she’s sleeping. It’d be awesome if me and Richie and Stephen could just drive around wherever we wanted to. I’d just run the stupid deer over.

Dad used to hunt deer. He showed me a couple of pictures of the bucks he got with his bow and arrows. He still had the bow, and he let me shoot some targets in his yard in Michigan. I don’t think it was the same bow he used to hunt, though. It was kinda small, and it wasn’t that hard to pull the string. Jonathon couldn’t pull the string back, though, and he’s like a year older than me. I’m taller than most of the kids in my class, probably because my Dad is so big. Jonathon’s Dad must not have been too tall.

After school yesterday, I was supposed to go straight home. My friends and I usually hang out after school for a while. Mom never really gets home before six o’clock on days that she works, so it’s no big deal if I come home between six and seven, but my teacher told me that my mom had called to tell me to go straight home. She called once or twice before when she wanted me to come straight home to help clean the house. Richie and Stephen and sometimes Louie and I hang out and find something to do. The cops in town hate it when we ride around on our skateboards, ‘cause they always think we are making some kind of trouble. We usually don’t try to do stuff we’ll get in trouble for, but sometimes we get in trouble anyway. One time all we were doing was skating in the pavilion at Pells Park. We didn’t do anything wrong, and Officer Baine wrote us a warning ticket. Mom got pretty mad, not at me, but at Officer Baine. She said that it was really stupid that the cops in this town have nothing better to do than bother kids for having fun. She said that they should be trying to find the older kids who were drinking and smoking dope. I thought that was funny, especially because she told him that to his face when he was dropping me off at home, and she wadded up the warning and told him to go do some real work.

Rose and Chris used to smoke a lot of pot when they lived here. They would smoke with Carol, too, but Carol doesn’t do it anymore, and she said Chris quit, too. I don’t think Rose quit. Her boyfriend has long hair and a beard, and when she took me to Champaign to see where they lived, he was wearing a tie-dyed t-shirt and they wouldn’t let me see their room. But when they lived here, they used to have a lot of people come over and go in the basement, and I would go down there when they were gone. In a box behind the couch, there were some weird little pipes and a bunch of seeds. Sometimes I found empty bottles back there, too. I wonder if mom would tell Officer Baine about all of that stuff. She probably would. She told Rose it served her right when she got suspended from school for smoking cigarettes.

When we got out of school yesterday, Richie and Stephen said they were going to hang out at Richie’s house, so Louie and I rode home. Louie lived in the same direction as me, but farther, so he rides with me if I go home after school. He told me to call them if I could come out later that day. Louie probably wouldn’t be able to hang out. His parents were pretty strict. We didn’t even bother to tell him to call anymore, ‘cause he never did.

When we got to my house, I wondered what was going on, ‘cause mom was home, but she had gone to work that day. I said bye to Louie and went inside. My Aunt Linda was over. She is my Dad’s sister, but she and my mom stayed friends even after mom and Dad broke up. I don’t like her much, though. She’s always telling me that I should do more housework and stuff. If our yard was mowed already in the summer, she would make me come over and mow hers, too. She says that she and my mom work hard and they’re old, so I should help out.

Mom looked really sad. She was sitting at the dining room table with Linda, who looked pretty bad, too. I hadn’t seen mom like that since Craig died. Linda told me to sit down with them. I tried to think if I’d done something wrong, but I couldn’t think of anything, so I sat down. Mom didn’t say anything, but started crying pretty bad.

“Bob, your Dad was in a wreck today,” Linda said, starting to cry, too. She was having a hard time talking, but she went on, “he was riding his bike on the interstate in Indiana, and he hit a deer. He’s in the hospital, but he’s on life support. They will have to decide tomorrow whether or not to keep him on life support.”

I just sat and stared at both of them. They were crying pretty hard, and I didn’t know what to do. I walked up to my bedroom and got in bed, and I pulled the blankets over me. I stayed there all night, and I don’t even know if I slept at all.

I woke up this morning and went downstairs. Mom was in the living room with Rose, Carol, and Spencer. They all stared, but no one said anything. Mom’s eyes were red, and I saw a tear roll down her cheek.

“Can I go to see him?” I asked.

Familiar Pain

“If you can’t keep that in your mouth, I know where you can stick it,” the raven-haired woman in her mid-twenties said to the bright-eyed young man in an apron across the counter. He had just stuck his tongue out at the woman. He stopped where he stood, his mouth half-opened, and stared at the woman. He stood at five feet, nine inches, and he had bright blue-green eyes. Underneath his ball cap, he had short, light-brown hair. His name was Josef, but he preferred to be called Joe. After a few moments, he shook his head and smiled at the woman before walking back into the kitchen of the sandwich shop. She laughed to herself and proceeded in line to place her order.

The woman, a few inches shorter than Joe, waited in line and made her purchase before returning to work. Her black hair contrasted her light complexion sharply, accentuating her clear skin and soft facial features. She was thin, but with a supple figure, and she always dressed to highlight what she thought her most appealing attributes—her figure and her shapely hips. Her name, and what she preferred to be called, was Susan. She was a secretary for a local lawyer, and she usually went to the sandwich shop at least twice a week to get lunch. Joe was often working when she visited, and she’d flirt with him whenever she could. He would occasionally be sitting on his lunch break when she came, and she would sit with him for a while and eat her lunch there, as long as she didn’t have to bring lunch back to anyone in the office. She hadn’t wanted to be too presumptuous, though, so she never sat unless he invited her. He always did.

Through these frequent trips to the sandwich shop, Susan had developed a playful relationship with Joe. He was a twenty-two year-old senior studying mathematics, and he wanted to teach high school after graduating, which Susan thought was cute. She often thought from their conversations that he seemed like a Boy Scout, which was one of the main things that attracted her to him. She’d dated so many guys who seemed like the type who beat the Boy Scouts up as kids, and she usually ended up feeling beat up herself when they were through with each other.

Susan had jumped into a number of relationships in which she became quickly emotionally attached to her boyfriends, and she would structure her life socially and emotionally around them, only to find that her life seemed incredibly empty when she was single. Worse, she thought, was the fact that she invariably felt, after a break-up, that she hardly knew a thing at all about her boyfriend. She found that it was much easier to just spend all of her time with her boyfriends and substitute that time and physical affection for the communication required in getting to know them. She put her feelings on the line for men, but wouldn’t talk about her feelings with them, and knew nothing of what they felt.

Joe seemed like the type of guy, though, who wouldn’t jump right into things, the type of guy who’d insist on getting to know her before he spent much time with her outside of actual “dating.” They had never been on a date, but Susan sometimes suspected that he was on the verge of asking her.

“What are you doing this weekend?” he would ask her if she was in on Friday.

“I’m probably just gonna go out with some of my friends,” she might reply, unless she had some specific plans. When he asked her such a question, she’d look into his eyes as she answered and pay close attention to his facial gestures. He’d be looking down at what he was doing or looking around the lobby of the place if he was doing nothing, as though looking for what needed to be done. She would try to reassure him with a smile without outright grinning at his sheepishness. He would look momentarily into her eyes as she smiled and then tell her to have a good weekend. “You too,” she’d say, “I’ll get to see you next week, I guess?”

“Of course,” he’d respond, able to look her in the eyes and pay attention again.

She finished out the Monday answering phones and typing memos as usual, all while daydreaming about Joe. Some days, and especially those days when it had seemed as though he might ask her out, she would be frustrated and upset with how slowly things were progressing. She would spend other days wondering if things were actually progressing at all. Her daydreams that day were easy and romantic. She imagined the time that he would ask her out, and she pictured his face as he blushed. She imagined him standing by the counter at the sandwich shop, his hands in his pockets as he looked down at the ground, asking her if maybe sometime she would want to do something, if she wasn’t busy, that is.

Susan couldn’t help but wonder what more there could really be to getting to know a person than to sit and talk as she had with him. How could she have spent so much time with her other boyfriends and still walk away feeling as though she hadn’t known them? The most conversation she seemed to have had with any of them was usually on their first dates. She couldn’t remember ever really talking much about what she felt or what she wanted except for on those first or second dates. She imagined that it might be nice to go out more frequently for those awkward, nervous dates with the same guy before actually deciding to “get together.” She grinned as she imagined Joe finally asking her to come to his apartment after five or six dates together.

“What are you smiling at?” boomed the voice of the young man approaching Susan’s desk. He was a tall man with black hair wearing a navy-blue three-piece suit and shoes that looked as though they might’ve cost as much as Susan earned in a week. He grinned back at her and she gave a chuckle at his timing. She’d spent the whole weekend alone, and today she saw Joe at lunch and Vince in the afternoon.

“Hey there, Vince,” she said quickly, “I was just thinking about something funny. What brings you by this afternoon?”

“Just stoppin’ in to see if Dad can look over a few papers for me. Is he in his office?” Vince asked, as he took a seat next to Susan’s desk. He was a very self-possessed and moderately successful businessman, and he made no effort to hide his rather indulgent glance at the cleavage betrayed by Susan’s low-cut blouse. She leaned forward ever-so-slightly, resting her elbow on her desk and her chin on her fist. She smiled thinly and watched his eyes slowly make their way up to meet hers.

“So how’s life?”

“Oh, you know…okay. Another day at work.” She looked into his deep brown eyes and admired how they were complemented by his dark skin. She always tried to decide whether or not he actually went to a tanning salon to stay that way, but she’d never been able to stick with a decision either way. He had a jaw cut from marble…but dark marble, and he had a smile full of beautifully perfect white teeth. Every time he stopped into the office, she thought that he was every other guy she’d dated, and she usually felt like she wouldn’t even really need a first date with him. She imagined that they would be through with each other in less time than it takes many people to endure the first date. “Anything exciting going on with you?” she drawled slowly after letting the silence go for slightly longer than was decent.

“Just stopping by here,” he replied with a grin as he stood slowly. He stood for a moment and didn’t look away. “I’ll go see what the ol’ man’s up to,” he said. Susan leaned back in her chair and folded her hands behind her head as he walked back to his father’s office.

She and Vince had assumed an immediate rapport when they met, and every time he came in they shared their moments of sexual tension and sometimes incredibly racy innuendo. Susan hadn’t been surprised to learn from an intern that the last secretary had quit because she couldn’t take Vince’s visits to the office after they had a one-night stand. She wasn’t worried about the idea of quitting her job, because she’d handled being around guys with whom she’d had one-night stands. None of the guys she’d had one-night stands with had ever been so appealing once she’d slept with them, and she’d probably soon find Vince’s narcissism incredibly boring if they “hooked up.”

Susan had this feeling that hooking up with Vince would just add another link to what was beginning to seem like an unbreakable chain of meaningless flings. She’d really perfected her skills with that sort of thing, but she was dying to find something one of her friends had once described to her. Her friend from high school, Jamie, was a devout Christian and spent nearly two years in “courtship” with the man who became her husband. She told Susan once, not long before becoming engaged, that the only way to describe the way her relationship felt was that it was like cuddling with her boyfriend all day long, even when they weren’t together. She could feel his embrace, she said, by simply thinking about him.

There was only one man with whom Susan had ever cuddled without first having sex, and that had been so long ago that she hardly remembered it. She had been a freshman in high school at the time, and the boy, Adam, was her first real boyfriend. They’d been friends for three or four years before she tried to be his girlfriend. He was the first she’d kissed, and she even stayed the night at his house once. They both wore pajamas, and she fell asleep in his arms. Less than a month later, she’d begun going to parties with one of her girlfriends pretty regularly, and because he wouldn’t ever go with her, she told him that she felt like the relationship wasn’t going anywhere. She lost her virginity at a party her sophomore year to a senior she wasn’t dating. Since then, cuddling after sex never seemed all that comforting to her. She could never seem to sleep well with some strange body rubbing against hers. Adam ended up dating some girl from the volleyball team all through senior year, and the last Susan had heard, they were married. When she’d heard that, the first thought that came to mind was that night that she’d spent in bed with him, and how comfortable she’d been.

When she finished work for the day, Vince was still in the office with his father. She’d hurried to finish up the few things she had to do before leaving so she could go right at closing time and perhaps leave before he came out, but she found herself trying to think of more things to do when the time actually came. She could find an excuse, if she tried hard enough, to still be sitting at the front desk when Vince came out. But why? She’d tried so hard to be able to walk out when he was still with his father.

“Whatever,” she mumbled, rolling her eyes. “Do you need anything before I go?” she buzzed through on the intercom.

“No, Susan, thank you. Have a good night.” Vince’s father was always such a gentleman. She wondered, sometimes, if he hadn’t adopted Vince or something.

That night and the following couple of days were fairly uneventful. Susan had been single for nearly five months, which was a quickly becoming a personal record. She’d never been with any particular boyfriend for more than a few months, anyway, but usually between boyfriends she’d hook up with at least one or two guys just to pass the time. She’d grown incredibly bored with the social scene, though, as it usually seemed to be the same people doing the same things no matter where she went, and they were all staying so young. So many of the people she’d gone through high school and community college with had gotten married and had at least one kid, if not two already. She spent most of her evenings at home anymore, usually drinking beer and watching television or drinking wine and reading. She drank more regularly now than she ever had in the past, but hadn’t drank enough to be drunk in a long time. She talked a couple of times a week on the phone with her cliché mother, who’d ask if she was seeing anyone yet and warn her of becoming an old maid. The first time her mother had mentioned that, Susan was shocked. She was barely over twenty-five. And being an old maid would sure as hell beat chasing rugrats around and sharing a bed with some guy she hardly knew.

Thursday night, though, the image suddenly sprang to mind of waking up next to Joe. She could picture how sweet he’d be with kids, how loving and nurturing and what a Father he’d be. She hadn’t seen him or Vince since Monday, and she’d even managed to pass the week without calling her mother. She picked up her remote and made the English subtitles and French actors go away, and she realized the obvious. She’d go to the sandwich shop, and she’d just ask Joe out. She wouldn’t have hesitated to initiate something with a guy in a bar or at a party. Why should she be so afraid of Joe? Somehow she’d felt as though “real” dating had to be initiated by the man. She was tired of waiting, though, and she knew that he’d say yes. She finished her glass of wine and waltzed into the kitchen, pouring and downing another half-glass before heading to bed. She lay in bed for a while before she was finally able to fall asleep.

She looked up at the clock the next morning, sometimes every fifteen minutes, all while considering how she’d go about asking Joe to have dinner with her. She’d usually leave the office at 11:45 or so on those days that she went out to pick up lunch. She tried to imagine how he’d react, what he’d say. She wondered where he would take her and how he’d dress. When she looked at the clock at about 11:15, she began to worry about what she’d do if he wasn’t working that day. He was almost always working when she went for lunch. Had there been a day when he wasn’t in? What if he was particularly busy with school this week or had a dentist’s appointment? What if he had a girlfriend? Was he even straight? Maybe he was worried that she was too old for him…

She looked at the clock again at 11:35, just as someone came walking through the front door. She looked over and suddenly felt like someone had given her a quick jab in the kidney. Vince smiled at her and strutted his way over to the chair by her desk. He sat down without saying a word, folding his hands in his lap. She looked at him disinterestedly at first, but after a few moments she could no longer hold back a half smile.

“Hey, Vince, how you doin’ today?” She looked back to the file sitting in front of her and began thumbing through the pages. “Your dad’s in his office…”

“Awfully chilly in here, Susan,” he laughed. “Maybe I came to see you.”

“Sorry, Vince, I’m just trying to get stuff organized before I go pick up lunch,” she said, looking up from the paperwork. “Why, you wanna propose?”

“As a matter of fact, yes I do,” he grinned, “I propose that you come out to that new bar on Main Street tomorrow night. The owner is a friend of mine, and he’s having a private party there for investors and select guests. I wanted to let you know that I could have them put you on the list,” he looked up at her, “if you wanted to come, that is.”

“Is that right,” Susan said. She stared at him for a minute as she imagined how that night would play out. “I’m really supposed to be doing stuff with my family tomorrow,” she lied, “but maybe I’ll stop in depending on how the night goes. I appreciate the offer!”

“Suit yourself,” Vince responded, his joviality fading. “I’ll have them put your name down in case you do stop in. It’d be nice to see you there. We never see each other outside of this office,” he paused for a moment, getting up from his seat, “But I should go see what kinda trouble Dad’s causing.”

“Alright, tell him I’ll be back with lunch in a bit,” she said. She watched him walk through the door to his father’s office and shook her head before closing the folder on her desk and getting her car keys out of the drawer.

Susan drove the speed limit to the sandwich shop and stopped for every yellow light. She hadn’t turned the radio on but it seemed noisy in the car as she thought about Vince and Joe and old maids. She finally pulled into the parking lot and found a spot not too far from the door.

Walking in, she scanned the faces behind the counter. She didn’t see Joe, but sometimes he was working in the back when she came in. He was a shift manager, meaning he got to do food prep and that sort of thing sometimes. He’d told her once about how relaxing it was to slice turkey.

“Hi, Susan,” she heard a voice call from off to the right. She looked over and saw Joe sitting at one of the tables. She smiled and waved at him, but she walked up to the counter to place her order. She made her slow procession from the “order here” to the “pick up here,” occasionally looking over at Joe, who was eating chips slowly and reading a newspaper. She picked up her order and some napkins and made her way back to Joe’s table.

“Hey there, mind if I sit for a minute?”

“No, that’d be great! I’ve only got a few minutes, though,” Joe said after wiping his mouth with his napkin. “How are you doing?”

“I’m doing okay, you know…it’s Friday,” she smiled. “Have any exciting plans this weekend?”

“Not much, really, probably just be studying a bit, and I think I’m working Sunday afternoon. How about you?”

“Well, I’m hoping to have dinner with this really sweet guy tomorrow night,” she said, nearly stammering. Joe looked at her without saying a word, looking almost like he’d just heard that his dog had cancer.

“That sounds nice,” he said after a minute. He looked up towards the counter and took a sip from his nearly empty drink, making a gurgly noise with his straw. “Where’d you meet him?”

“Right here,” she replied, hoping he’d pick up on it soon. She smiled at him and said, “it’s you, Joe. I’m hoping that you will have dinner with me tomorrow.”

“Really?” he laughed. “That’d be nice! I would like that a lot!” He smiled at her for a minute, saying nothing more. She smiled too.

“I could give you my phone number. You could call me to make plans.” She had never had to walk a guy through this part before.

“Yeah, yeah. Let me go grab a pen,” he said. He hopped up out of his seat and half-walked, half-ran behind the counter. He returned with a pen and a little piece of paper. He handed them to Susan, who wrote down her number. She smiled at him again.

“So call me this evening or tomorrow in the afternoon and tell me what you want to do,” she said. “I’ve got to get back to work.”

“Yeah,” Joe said, grinning widely, “I’ll call you! This evening or tomorrow!”

“I’ll see you, Joe.” Susan walked back to her car and sat for a moment before starting it. She started the car and then laughed. She turned on the radio and drove back to work, speeding up for yellow lights and driving at least five miles over the speed limit.

Vince was gone when she returned, so she took sandwiches to his dad and his partner before returning to her desk. The rest of the day at work was nice and calm. She went home after work to drink wine and read. Around six-thirty or seven, her phone rang.


“Um…Hi…Susan?” a familiar voice asked. “It’s Joe.”

“Hi, Joe.”

“So, uh, what do you like to eat?”

“Whatever you like is fine, Joe. Where do you want to go?”

“Well, uh, I guess we could go to that Italian place downtown?”

“That sounds great. Do you know where I live?”


“I live in the Vista View apartments on 7th Avenue. Do you know where they are?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

“So pick me up here at like 7 o’clock. You drive that blue car, right?”

“Yeah, that’s mine.”

“I’ll be looking for you…have a good night, Joe.”

“Great, yeah, I’ll be there at 7! You have a good night, too, Susan!”

She shook her head as she hung up the phone. She finished her book and most of a bottle of wine before going to bed. She spent the following morning tidying up her apartment, doing dishes and laundry, and she took a nap in the afternoon. Around five o’clock, she showered and began getting ready for the date. She wore a tight-fitting red turtleneck and black slacks that were a bit tighter. She wore her hair up, and as she put it up she tried to recall the last time she’d worn it that way. It must’ve been a wedding. When seven o’clock finally rolled around, she locked her door and walked down to the street. Joe was parked on the street at the end of the sidewalk and walked towards her in a long-sleeved black button-down shirt and a pair of white dress pants. He held his hand behind his back, and when he met Susan on the sidewalk, he presented a single white rose to her. He walked her to the car and opened the passenger door for her. He held the door for her at the restaurant and pulled out her chair for her when they were shown to their table.

They talked a lot at dinner. She asked him about where he’d gone to high school and what that was like, and he told her about his experiences playing football and baseball. He asked her about her job and her family, and she told him about how she liked to consider herself an “office manager,” not a secretary, and that she was pretty close to her mother and visited at least once a month. Her father played golf and watched a lot of television. She had no brothers and sisters. He, too, had none. At a slow point in the conversation, she decided to breach a difficult area of conversation.

“So have you been in many relationships?” she asked, not looking up from her plate as she tried to organize a prudent bite of her lasagna.

“Huh. Well…no, not really,” he started. “I was dating a girl when I came to college, and we broke up my sophomore year. We’d been dating since my junior year in high school, and I just really never got around to dating after we broke up.” He spoke slowly, looking around the room and playing nervously with his napkin. “I’ve just been so busy with school most of the time, you know?”

“Yeah…I can understand that. She was your first serious girlfriend?” Susan asked gently.

“Yes. We just couldn’t make it through the long distance stuff. She wasn’t going to school and really wanted to settle down and that sort of thing,” he said, beginning to speak casually, again. “I think she felt like I abandoned her when I came to school, and when I stayed here over the summer after my freshman year, our communication really started to fall apart. It didn’t take long at all before we were through.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Susan said soothingly. “Then again, if you were still with her we wouldn’t be having dinner right now.” He smiled and sat back in his chair.

“How about you? I wouldn’t have figured you for the type of girl who had to ask a guy out in order to get a date,” he chuckled, taking a drink of his water.

“Ha! Was I too pushy?!” she asked, a bit surprised that he would bring up the way they’d made their date.

“No, it’s fine. I just felt kinda silly. I just haven’t really ever asked anyone out. And I could never tell if you were just being nice to me or if you liked me.”

“I never said I liked you,” she laughed. “Maybe I just wanted a free dinner!”

“Oh, so you think I’m going to pay for this?!” They laughed for a minute and Joe wadded up his napkin and tossed it onto the table. “So really, though, have you been in any serious relationships?” He looked, for a moment, just like her high-school boyfriend Adam.

“Well…none that seem very serious when I look back on them. I guess I really wasn’t ever looking for something very serious before…”

“You are now, though?” he interrogated.

“Um…I guess so. Maybe. More serious than just going out to the bars together and that sort of thing. What about you?”

“Well…I don’t really know anymore. I don’t think I’ve been looking, so I wouldn’t know what it was I was looking for. I don’t go out to the bars, though, so that’s one thing that we could both not do, together,” he laughed. “And I’m sure we’ll both keep eating…so that’s something we can do together…if you want to again, anyway.”

They didn’t finish their meals, and they ordered coffee when the waiter asked if they wanted dessert. They talked for another hour after finishing dinner, and Joe really seemed to get comfortable, and the conversation was humorous and light-hearted now that they’d gotten the serious stuff out of the way. They covered movies, music, books, and those sorts of topics. Susan was pleasantly surprised to learn that they had very similar tastes. He drove her home and walked her to her door, and he told her he’d had a really nice evening.

“I had a wonderful time, too. Thanks for everything, Joe.” She stood looking at him, the key to her apartment in her hand. She slid her right foot an inch closer to him.

“So I can call you again?” he asked cautiously.

“Of course, yes! Please do,” she responded.

“Great…so…have a good night,” he said, nearly leaning forward but stopping short, like an invisible clothes-line held him at his distance.

“You too,” she said, still facing him. She now slid her left foot closer by an inch. He smiled, then looked at her feet, and slowly turned to walk to his car. Susan didn’t move as she watched him drive away. When his car was out of sight, she let herself fall back against the building door, where she remained for a few minutes. She breathed in the refreshing summer air and admired the clear sky surrounding the trees in her yard.

Soon she walked to her car, got in, and drove downtown. She parked on Main Street. She sat in her car for a minute, thinking about her evening with Joe. She looked down the street, at the new bar Vince told her about. The car was still running. She could put it in Drive and go home. She could even call Joe and thank him for a nice evening. She could take a bath. She shut the car off and took the keys out of the ignition. She should go home and read a book. She got out of the car and walked down the street.

“Susan? Yeah, you’re on the list. Come on in,” the bouncer said. She made eye contact with Vince, who stood talking to a group of people in the back of the room, and after getting a drink from the bar she began to make her way towards him through the crowd.

Becoming the Overman: Nietzsche’s Path to Transformation

Nietzsche’s transformation includes three main stages: the camel stage of putting into traditional values into action; the lion stage of challenging and overcoming useless or obsolete values and replacing those with new values; and the child stage of living the new values. Those who are not already capable of effectively handling their daily lives cannot hope to transform themselves by these processes. Those who have fully developed and become competent individuals, though, can take on these processes of transformation to rise above the standard level of functioning and become creators. When a person is ready to take on such transformation, they are ready to enter the camel stage.

The camel stage is presumably called such because it is a long journey. When a person has developed into an adult, they may have already begun this process of taking on the values of their culture and society. In the camel stage, a person works towards perfecting their ability to live according to these values and take them on as a sort of second nature. Living deliberately and making informed, conscious decisions, as opposed to simply reacting and responding to the world thoughtlessly or carelessly, develops a person such that they are disciplined and able to apply themselves to life. When the person has learned to rely on self-discipline to live intentionally, they become ready to challenge their traditional values in the lion stage of development.

The lion is a fierce and wild animal capable of taking on opponents as fierce and dangerous. The lion challenges what Nietzsche calls the dragon, traditional values. Having lived by these values, the person can make decisions about what is practical and reasonable and what aids or inhibits their ability to live as they want to. This can be called the “free-spirit metamorphosis” because a self-sufficient person who has successfully embodied traditional values has reached a point at which they are able to view values critically and make informed choices about what should be valued. Persons who are not able to embody traditional values do not have a point of reference from which they can discern value. In the free-spirit metamorphosis, a person can revaluate, discarding values that are useless or obsolete and replacing those with values that serve the person’s drives more fully. When the person has parted with these useless values and created those that take him/her to where he/she wants to go, they are read to move on to the child stage.

The child stage is a time when the person is able to enjoy the fruit of their labor, so to speak. Having become disciplined and having created values that serve their higher purpose, the person can live by their values in a “lighthearted, carefree” way. The child is innocent and joyful and does not have to exert great effort to live by the values that have become second nature. The child is not concerned with social norms and is not reactive to the world around him/her, but rather acts on the world outside according to his/her values, embodying his/her virtue and following his/her own drives.

In order to make serious strides in my own character transformation, I believe that the most important tasks at hand include developing a mastery of traditional values and skills and gaining more extensive knowledge of the world around me and the people in it. I especially need to develop my skills in maintaining honest and open relations with my friends and acquaintances and my skills in fostering a sense of respect and compassion for the people around me. I also need to further my education, formal and otherwise, and further develop my level of self-discipline as it pertains to time management and the willingness to complete the tasks for which I am responsible.

My need to develop my skills in dealing with the people around me is apparent because I tend to withhold pertinent information about myself when dealing with my closest friends, specifically information about thoughts and feelings that bother me. In doing this, I fail to process my feelings, and those feelings eventually affect my attitude and my willingness to act reasonably towards the people and situations in my life. In most cases where I’ve acted on ideas that I’ve hidden from others, I’ve found undesirable consequences that might’ve been avoided if I’d have been willing to hear another perspective on the problems and proposed solutions. Similarly, failure to discuss my feelings with my friends leaves me with only my own perspective on the events and situations in my life, and gaining multiple perspectives usually inspires me to overcome pain. Finally, in being open and honest with my friends, I allow them to know me as I really am. Knowing me more fully, they are able to make better decisions regarding our friendship and be more effective as friends. My honesty and openness may also inspire them to be more open and honest about themselves, which would help me to know better how to treat them as friends. So far, in my relationships, I have become skilled in being very open and direct in my communications, but I still fall back on a failure to communicate at sensitive times, some of the times when I most need to discuss things. To this end, I could use improvement.

Another area of my personal relationships that could improve would be my willingness to treat the people in my life with respect and compassion. In most of my affairs, I am both able and willing to behave respectfully and compassionately, but this tends to fall apart in my relationships with members of the opposite sex. I view members of the opposite sex not by looking at who they are, but by looking at what they can do for me. I especially find myself interested in those who can provide relief from my emotional and physical intimacy needs. I am not, however, usually willing to put the effort into developing genuine emotional connections with my partners, though, and so I rely on physical intimacy to meet all of my intimacy needs. Coupled with my failure to meet emotional intimacy needs through friendship when I keep my friends at a distance, my reliance solely on physical intimacy with women would have me be something of a nymphomaniac, provided I could find a willing partner without all that effort of meeting and getting to know people. Essentially, I have reached a point at which I understand that my relation to the opposite sex is poorly founded, and I need to revaluate my approach to such relations with a greater emphasis on respect and appreciation and less emphasis on the needs that I have that I refuse to address myself. I also need to work on taking care of my own needs, wherever possible.

Finally, I need to further my education and master such disciplines as time-management and prioritization. My formal education is following a somewhat prescribed progression, but I can always pursue knowledge on my own time, as well. This would require better time management and prioritization, however. My natural tendency is toward entropy of the spirit. When I’m not at work or school, I usually spend my time “hanging out” with friends, “killing time.” It would do me well to work towards approaching work and school in such a way that I effectively manage my time in order to allow myself more of my own time. It would also do me well to strengthen my willingness to work towards personal goals of self-improvement in my own time rather than simply “killing time” until some entity outside of myself prompts me to work. By changing these things about myself, I would put myself in place to make a transition from Nietzsche’s camel stage of development into the lion stage, in which I could throw off those values that fail to serve my drive and create new values.

Two of the most significant obstacles to my own self-transformation include the fear of failure and established habits that lead in wrong directions. When I think of the ways that I could seek my highest love and the means to embody that in my life, I usually imagine that the process would require a lot of effort and a long-term commitment, so I become incredibly anxious about what a waste it would be to put a great deal of time and effort into the process only to fail. As I said in my answer to question two, I have a tendency to hang out with friends and kill time when I’m not at work or doing something for school. I often find that I want to simply “relax” when I’m not otherwise occupied, not devoting myself to my transformation when I have time of my own. The fact that I operate this way seems to have causes both in my laziness and in my ill-directed habits.

So my fear of failure is one of the most prominent obstacles in my self-transformation, but I believe that it draws force from other problems, as well. Part of my fear of failure includes the uncertainty of what exactly my highest drive is, or should be. I tend to fear that I will misinterpret my drives and make a significant investment of time and effort to something that doesn’t “pan out.” I also worry about whether or not I will properly understand the best ways to act on those drives such that I am actually moving in the right direction. There have been times in my past that I have felt that I was doing work to better incorporate my values into my living, only to discover later that I’d actually reinforced undesirable values. There have also been times when I felt as though certain values should be among my priorities, only to discover later that the values were void of some of the qualities I’d attributed to them. This seems to fit into the scheme of Nietzschian development, though, now that I think about it. I embraced values that I took from the society and culture around me and found them to be unfulfilling, and so had to replace them with something else. I do not claim to be a value-creator yet, but I’ve simply been searching so far, I suppose, for a set of traditional values that complement each other rather than work against each other. The idea that a failure to try is worse than an actual failure makes great sense and takes a lot of wind out of the “fear of failure” sail. There is much to be gained, I’m sure, in the processes of becoming and learning, regardless of whether or not I learn all that I hope to or become what I hope to be. If I learn nothing else, to learn that I do not want to become a certain type of person, or cannot become that person, will be valuable in narrowing my search for exactly whom I should become.

The other significant roadblock in my self-transformation is my set of established habits. As I said before, my natural tendency seems to be toward entropy of the spirit, and I often want to rest on my laurels and enjoy the fruits around me that seem fun. It’s a bit difficult to speak to this issue greatly in the midst of what is perhaps the busiest semester of my life, but in slower times I often find myself wasting time in front of a television or taking unnecessary naps. I smoke cigarettes and drink coffee excessively, and oftentimes both of those habits lend themselves well to doing nothing else other than sitting with friends, “talking shit.” I have established a very strong aversion to such pointless habits as drinking alcohol and engaging in other recreational drug use through membership in a 12-step fellowship. My involvement with that fellowship prompts me to work toward character development or self-transformation to a certain extent, but it only succeeds in doing so to the extent that I’m willing to allow it. One area in which I struggle to find willingness is the drive to enjoy meaningless relationships with members of the opposite sex. In times when I could be putting effort into doing the work that fulfills me, such as reading and writing or enjoying meaningful friendships, I find myself longing greatly to find “victims” or “volunteers” among the fairer sex. Though my exploits in this area are not so involved that I could consider myself promiscuous, the amount of time and energy that I devote are sufficient that I consider myself somewhat lecherous.

The solutions that I try to implement in these areas are very similar to those that I implemented in overcoming my willingness to subject myself to the pointlessness of drug use. I try to devote myself increasingly to meaningful endeavors, including school (15 semester hours), employment (~35 hours a week), 12-step recovery meeting attendance (at least 1 or 2 weekly), service to the recovery fellowship (positions such as Area Service Committee Vice Chair and Regional Service Conference Treasurer), sponsorship of newer members in the recovery community, building a website, writing poetry and stories, and, of course, seeking meaningful Platonic/Nietzschian friendships. Though being so busy helps greatly in my refrain from promiscuity, I have wondered about your suggestion of “Putting yourself in situations where you know those habits will lead to failure or pain is one way [to break a habit].” I wonder if I might be more willing to recognize the emptiness of sex without friendship if I were to engage in a streak of promiscuity that left me feeling hollow. The other solution that I’ve had in mind is to try to learn how to enjoy friendships with members of the opposite sex and intimate relationships that incorporate deep, honest communication. Whatever.

Designing a school for Nietzschian self-transformation would probably be somewhat costly. A great deal of effort would also be required to establish the institution, but the return on the initial investment would be great. Some of the main concerns of the institution would be recruitment, setting, educational programming, methods of instruction, and methods of evaluation.

One of the main concerns that I would have with a small, private school would be the issue of recruitment. With a limited enrollment, which might prove to be optimal for the type of school, it would be very important to ensure that all of the students in attendance merit the right to attend. Student in this facility should be intelligent and skilled in a well-rounded manner. It would be imprudent to recruit students who might require disproportionate levels of instruction and guidance, and students in this institution should be able to walk themselves through the stages of development to ensure that they are being true to their own drives and passions. The students will likely have demonstrated in their performance in traditional education a high level of ability, but it is also important that their abilities and discipline extend beyond scholastic endeavors. They might be able to demonstrate through their achievements with some religion or personal accomplishments both a willingness to advance themselves and a certain sense of disillusionment or dissatisfaction with tradition. Self-motivation would be important, as it would be pointless to attempt to instruct students without a drive to “go under and overcome.” If applicants can demonstrate that they fit those requirements, they might make worthwhile candidates for attendance at this school.

If I had unlimited resources to create private college, I would definitely situate that institution somewhere in Montana. I think that there is something about the majestic nature of wide-open space and freedom from the abundance of industry and technology that helps to inspire human creativity and passion. Nietzsche illustrated the value of solitude in Thus Spoke Zarathustra through Zarathustra’s trips to the mountain. Not only would my students experience some seclusion from society outside of the school, they would have the opportunity to experience solitude from the other students in private, self-contained rooms. Should they find it necessary to isolate themselves in their rooms for indefinite periods of time, they would have the opportunity to do so. The rooms would be like small apartments, but they would also have a cafeteria available for social and practical purposes. Social relations between the students would be encouraged, and the students would be encouraged to approach these relations with a great deal of integrity andauthenticity so as to gain the most from their relations with other seekers. They would also be encouraged to take both group and solitary outings into the wilderness for camping and other recreation so as to cultivate a relationship with the natural world around them and gain an understanding of what they believe about the world and their existence in it. Instructors would be nearly indistinguishable from students in their presence at the institution, living in the same quarters and following the same general guidelines and suggestions. Instructors would likely continue to grow through continued transformation of their own in their roles as such.

Educational programming in this institution would vary greatly from traditional forms. Instructors would hold a variety of seminars and group discussions on topics of their own choosing and scheduled according to convenience during the days of the week. Students would be able to choose from a weekly agenda the various seminars and discussion groups they wish to attend, and they would be free to attend as many or as few as they wish. Among the topics of discussion and presentation would be issues of traditional values, philosophical and theological treatises, contemporary social issues, and various topics in psychology, sociology, and history. Students with an interest in preparing presentations of their own could do so under the auspices of willing instructors with their consent.

The issues of educational programming and methods of instruction blend together to a certain extent. The instructors in the institution would work personally with students, and each instructor’s “case-load” should be as small as possible, perhaps as many as two or three students. Instructors would work very closely with the students as mentors, counselors, and leaders-by-example. The instructors would work with their respective students to explore issues of innate values and personal development. Students would be encouraged to meet with their instructors at least once weekly for at least an hour, but could make arrangements with the instructor to meet as often as necessary. Students would be encouraged also to work closely with other students wherever possible or desirable in aiding each others’ progress through Nietzschian friendship.

The final issue is that of evaluation. Given that the each student’s instructor would have the greatest understanding of the student’s particular standing and development in terms of character, the instructor and the student should work closely together in determining what sorts of accomplishments should be made before the student can begin to consider the idea of requesting formal evaluation. Formal evaluations would not attempt to “grade” the students’ performance, but rather would attempt simply to gauge whether or not the student has made sufficient progress to “graduate.” The student and the instructor would work together to give a formal presentation to a committee of other instructors, and perhaps non-participatory student witnesses, and the committee would discuss the presentation with the student and instructor, propose questions and commentary, and finally come to a decision by way of secret ballot as to whether or not they believe the student has made sufficient progress to complete their role as a student. Students might be encouraged to venture out into the world for anywhere from one to five years to apply their transformation to practical living and then return to the school to become instructors. Because it would do much good for the graduates to return to the school as instructors, it’s likely that the employment span of any given instructor might be relatively brief, i.e. five or ten years, perhaps. Past instructors might retain a status on a sort of council or board to help the school with administrative and decision-making issues so that any person who has been a part of the institution would remain such for as long as is practical and fitting.

This school would not do a great deal to provide the capitalist machine with gears or axles, but it would do a great deal to provide humanity with worthwhile human beings. Though perhaps not an express purpose of this institution, it would be nice to think that by aiding people in overcoming themselves, this institution might instigate dramatic changes in the surrounding society and culture, taking power from the materialist, commercial forces that guide us and reminding people to be humans before they die. On the other hand, there’s the risk that this institution would result in the severe depression and disillusionment of its students who see what an ugly society we’ve created for ourselves thus far. No matter how hopeless the project of overthrowing social conventions might seem, though, Nietzsche (and Schroeder) seem to argue that failure is preferable than a failure to try, so if the institution prompts students to try to make serious changes, it will certainly be worthwhile to at least that end.

Age Is a Number


On my eighteenth birthday, I visited Chicago with my family. My family was going to visit Navy Pier and the downtown business area. I wanted to take advantage of the trip, however, to visit an ex-girlfriend at the University of Chicago. Jenny was the first girl who’d ever been my “girlfriend” for more than a couple of weeks. We met when we studied together at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois. She grew up in Chicago, and I grew up in Paxton, a small town one hundred twenty miles south of the city. I left the academy while we were together, though, and we tried to maintain the relationship long distance. We’d thought that we would last forever, and I’d even given her a “promise” ring for Christmas in 1997. We’d been together for nearly four months by that time, but we wouldn’t last through the fifth, as the distance failed to make her heart grow fonder, I did have a hard time with it and I did find myself looking up sites like go binder for advice during that time. I was still friendly with her, though, so I let her know that I would be in town on my birthday, and we made plans to meet for a cup of coffee.

At the time, I lived alone with my father, who’d been divorced from my mother for thirteen or fourteen years. My father and I had for a long time related to each other as equals, for the most part, so it was not too strange for me that he’d gone to California for the month of December and trusted me to handle myself fairly well. We were almost more like roommates than father and son, oftentimes, and I’d felt a fairly strong sense of independence living with him for the year prior to my eighteenth birthday.

Before living with my father, I’d attended the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois for a little more than a year. This academy was a residential facility that was structured much like a college campus, and students were largely responsible for themselves, though they would always be held accountable to the rules of the institution, academic and residential. I managed to get into some trouble while I was studying there. My friends and I were caught a couple of times with alcohol. Some people think that the drinking age should be lowered. “American teens, unlike their European peers, don’t learn how to drink gradually, safely and in moderation.” (Newsweek, May 29, 1995 v125 n22 p14). This was certainly true of my friends and me. A big part of our urge to party had to do with our excitement about doing something forbidden. We felt as though we could become more adult, more grown-up by smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol. I would like to think that, if such age restrictions weren’t so rigid, I might not have felt so inclined to jeopardize my educational opportunities simply for the chance to feel a little older.

Ultimately, I was put into a position in which I had to choose between studying at the academy or smoking cigarettes, so I moved in with my father. Before the academy, I’d spent nearly all of my life living with my mother, the single parent of six children. Mom spent most of her time when we were children working to provide for us, so often we were responsible for each other. So, even before living alone for the month of December in 1998, I’d always been fairly independent.

On the drive to Chicago that morning, we stopped at the Cracker Barrel for breakfast. We sat in the smoking section, and I smoked a cigarette in front of my mother for the first time in my life. I’d been smoking fairly regularly for two or three years by that time, but I’d always been very careful to hide this fact from my mother, a reformed smoker and a registered nurse. No longer did I have to hide, though. I could legally purchase the cigarettes, and though my mother could certainly disapprove of my choice to smoke, she would no longer attempt to prevent me from doing so.

When we arrived in Chicago, we parked the car in an all-day lot, so I wouldn’t be able to use it to drive down to my ex-girlfriend’s campus without paying the all-day rate. I was a big boy now, though, so I’d just have to learn to use the Chicago Transit Authority’s means of transportation. I made plans with my family to meet for dinner at 6 o’clock and walked up the stairs to the el train. I’d only been on the el once before, when I was significantly younger, and I had been with my family at the time. I approached the ticket booth by myself, and it seemed to have a dark, dirty, and lonely feel to it. I asked the woman in the booth what the best way to reach the University of Chicago would be. She wasn’t very friendly when she told me where I should get off the train, so I didn’t ask her to repeat it though I wasn’t entirely sure what she had said. I thought that I had a general feel for the way it sounded, so I’d probably know it when I heard it. I boarded the next train and rode until we approached a stop that sounded vaguely familiar.

The doors slid shut behind me when I stepped off the train, and the train pulled away just as quickly as it had stopped. I walked down the stairs to the street and tried to figure out how I was going to find out how to get to where I needed to go. I looked down the street in either direction and saw only the barrenness of the inner city. I could only surmise that I was no longer downtown and not yet near campus. I noticed after a moment, though, an office for the Chicago Transit Authority. Perhaps whoever was working would be more polite or helpful than the woman who took my fare for the el. It couldn’t hurt to find out, anyway.

I opened the heavy green door and walked into the dingy transit office. Behind a thick pane of glass sat a couple of obese women who looked like they may be in their late forties. I approached the glass in front of one of the women. She finished what she was saying to her coworker before turning and asking me how she could help me. I asked her how I might get to campus, so she handed me a bus schedule. She tried to explain to me the general vicinity in which the campus was located and told me that I might be able to catch a bus soon out front. She was slightly more helpful, but she still spoke quickly, assuming that I knew more than I did about the city. I thanked her and stepped out of the office.

I looked eagerly up and down the same barren street hoping to see a bus. Among the things she’d told me, I understood, at the very least, that I would catch my bus on that same side of the street, so when I saw a bus coming, I didn’t bother trying to figure out whether or not it was the right one, I just boarded. The bus didn’t have many passengers on board, just a few young black kids in the back and an older Asian man and woman sitting near the middle of the bus. I took a seat halfway back to the Asian couple and frantically studied the bus schedule, hoping to figure out when I should get off the bus. Just as I’d done with the train, I just got off the bus when it felt like a good time to do so.

I examined the map in the bus schedule and looked at my surroundings, and I deduced that I was somewhere near Hyde Park. I trekked through the park and into a business district. I saw a well-dressed man standing on a corner and thought maybe he would be able to help me to find my way, so I approached him. He began talking before I could, and he asked me if I was registered to vote yet. I said that I wasn’t and he began telling me that he was running for office. He was running for some sort of local office, and though I tried to explain to him that I lived more than a hundred miles away, he still insisted that I fill out whatever form it was that he was having people fill out.

Though I liked to consider myself to be fairly well-educated for my age and aware of current events, I really felt a bit of disregard at the time for politics. “18-34 year-olds are most interested in practical solutions to society’s problems.” (US Newswire, Dec 5, 2000 p1008340n0132). I really felt at the time that the state of our society was pretty sad, but I didn’t have a lot of faith in government or politicians to do anything about it. Turning eighteen didn’t make meany more interested in the idea of voting, but I bec
ame able
overnight to do so. In the five years since then, I feel slightly more inclined to participate in the process, but I actually feel like I have an understanding now of the problems that stand in the way of my comfort levels with voting. In order to be more comfortable participating in the process, I would have to feel as though I knew much more about what is actually going on. Throughout my education as a minor, I was bombarded with the rhetoric of “every vote counts” and “vote early, vote often.” We were instructed as to the importance of involvement in the democratic process, but we were not greatly exposed to the issues. If we were instructed more thoroughly in current events, I think that we’d be much more prepared to take part in our own government when the time came. It seems silly that we deny so many young people the right to vote when such a significant portion of the adult citizenship has the right and ignores it. I shook my head and filled out the form that the politician asked me to fill out as I asked him for directions. He gave me a vague idea of how to get to the campus, so I thanked him and continued my journey.

The neighborhood that I was in didn’t seem too bad, but I was pretty worried that my nervousness about being lost would be mistaken for naïve small-town worry about being accosted in “the big city,” so I tried to walk as brazenly as I could. After walking for what seemed like forever, I started to feel like I was heading in the right direction. I was through Hyde Park, and there were some streets with businesses and such, so I was feeling much more comfortable. I’d seen all sorts of “street people,” homeless folks and the like, walking through Hyde Park. I saw them sitting on park benches, smoking cigarettes, and walking down the sidewalk or in the street carrying 120-proof brown-bag lunches. None of these men were minors, and yet they didn’t seem to have the ability to handle their rights to drink and smoke. They didn’t seem to be very responsible. I had only just turned eighteen and had already decided that I did not want the consumption of alcohol to be a very big part, or a part at all, of my life, and it would be three years still before I would earn the legal right to drink. These men had obviously been old enough for some time to drink, and it seemed as though that was just about all that they had in their lives.

Before long I reached the dorm for which I’d been searching, and Jenny and I made our way to a small restaurant where we had a light meal and coffee. We talked about how life had been for each of us in the last year. She was in the midst of her first year in college and I in my last year of high school. We compared notes and discussed ideas about what we might do with our lives, and I soon realized that I should head back downtown quickly so as to only be two hours late meeting my family. I walked with Jenny back to her dorm and found a bus that was headed downtown with her help.

It was dark when I made it back downtown, but I was able to find the restaurant in which we were supposed to meet without too much trouble. Unfortunately, though, my family was not there. The restaurant we’d chosen had more of a bar atmosphere than I’d expected, and when I went in to try to find them, I felt almost drunk just being there. It was dimly lit and very smoky. There was little walking room between the bar seating on the right and the booths along the wall on the left. The seats in the booths had high backs to keep things private, and there were light fixtures hanging from the ceiling above each booth. The lights were fairly bright inside each booth, and walking down the cramped aisle, looking into each booth, I had to adjust my eyes in each booth to try to see if the people sitting there were the people for whom I’d been looking. All of these efforts were to no avail, and it occurred to me that because some of my younger cousins were with us, my family had probably opted for a more family-oriented atmosphere. I left the restaurant wondering where I might go from there.

I stopped into a gas station at one point to stock up on cigarettes. While I was in there, I realized that I could buy a lottery ticket if I wanted to. That had never happened before. I plopped down a dollar on the counter and showed my ID to the clerk, who almost smiled when he realized that it was my birthday. He didn’t, though, and he tore one of the scratch-off tickets from the long roll. I scratched it right there at the counter and didn’t win anything. I was a bit confused. I didn’t know for sure whether I had been protected until that day from being taken by the gambling industry, or if I had been protected from the possibility that I might win and have no idea what to do with the money. I took solace in the fact that I hadn’t won, as my youthful naiveté would not be strained by the responsibilities of handling such a great financial influx.

I wandered around downtown in search of the parking lot in which we’d left the cars, but I soon found that each back-street had three or four dimly-lit parking lots in as many blocks, nearly all of them looking like the one in which we’d parked. Becoming somewhat desperate as I pondered sleeping on a park bench like the many homeless men that I passed in my hike, I decided to call Jenny to see if she might be able to offer me any assistance. Amazingly enough, when I called her she explained that my mother had just called minutes before I did. Jenny told me the names of the streets near where Mom was waiting. I made my way to that general area and found my family waiting anxiously. For all of my independence, I imagined that it might be a while before I grew into the rights and responsibilities that I’d inherited overnight.

I didn’t smoke any cigarettes in the car on the ride home. I was relieved to be surrounded, once again, by the people whom I love and care about. Turning eighteen allowed me certain “adult” privileges, but my experience seemed to say that independence—adulthood—need not mean living without the help or support from others. Becoming an adult allows me greater freedom and responsibility, and learning to handle either didn’t come overnight.