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Back to School

You’d think I’d remember the layout better,” I said to the top of David’s smoothly shaven head, which was hovering over a small map of San Diego State University’s campus. “Then again, I was only enrolled for, like, three minutes, and that was over ten years ago. Wow, that makes me sound old. Am I old?”

David lifted his head and gazed at me with his ice-blue eyes just long enough to quash my line of thinking. He pointed to the map. “We’re here,” he said. He moved his finger two buildings over. “This is where we want to be. It’s that building right there. What time are we supposed to be there?”

I smiled sheepishly. “In about an hour.” Before David could balk, I added, “Give me a break. I didn’t know where the parking lot was or how far it would be from the building, and there was a good chance we’d have to trek across half the campus. This place is huge. That would have taken tons of time, and I’m not about to be late to a class I was invited to speak at; that would be just totally unacceptable. This way, we can sit and relax for a bit. I wanted a coffee, anyway, and, look, there’s a café. We can get a drink and sit and chill and then we’ll be all relaxed when we arrive, instead of lost and stressed or panting because we had to run to make it.”

David nodded and followed me to the counter in the middle of what looked like a 7-Eleven with no walls. The outdoor mart even had hot dogs and a line of convenience-store drink coolers. I bought a Starbucks Doubleshot for me and a Naked Juice “Blue Machine” fruit smoothie for David.

We found seats nearby, across from the University Art Gallery. I recognized the building because I’d seen a handful of exhibitions there featuring MFA students’ thesis work, some of which David and I had ended up taking home. But those visits had always been at night, when the campus was mostly abandoned. Now the road and walking paths were busy with students, some studying alone or chatting with each other at tables around us, most treading this way and that, presumably on their way to various classes.

“When I dropped out after a few semesters, I never would have imagined that someday I’d be invited back to this same school to speak to a class as an expert in my field,” I mused. “I’m a teacher for a day, and I never even got a degree. Isn’t that weird?”

“It’s kind of cool,” David said. I nodded, because he was right.

I watched as a girl wearing argyle knee-high socks and shorts trotted by. “She’s probably late for class,” I said. “Oh, I hated that feeling — having to rush, worried you might not get a good seat, or, worse, that you would enter the room after the professor had begun lecturing. The stress of it…I don’t miss it, that’s for sure.”

“I enjoyed college,” David said. “Maybe too much — I don’t remember liking any specific classes; maybe that’s why I flunked that one class. You know, they sent me a letter suggesting, in no uncertain terms, that perhaps I might want to take a semester off to consider whether or not I really wanted to be a student at their university.”

“That’s Ivy League for you,” I said. “I doubt anyone here would have noticed. I flunked every class that didn’t interest me, but I did really well in those that did. Biology, Cultural Anthropology — I got an A in that one.” I took a swig of my canned espresso. “I was also working full time, mostly nights. I couldn’t help but doze in more boring classes, like Economics. God, I still cringe at the memory of that professor calling me on it in class — I fell asleep and he made an example out of me, said if I couldn’t be bothered to keep my eyes open, why show up? He was right, but I was still mortified. Hell, I still am.”

David told me about his dorm life, an experience I’d skipped. Because I was working, I could afford an apartment a few miles away; I had little crossover between classmates and friends. My work — at a call center populated largely by recent college grads — served as a surrogate for my “college experience.” I traded in frat parties for house parties and raves. I smiled as it occurred to me I’d stayed at the call center for four years — working my way up from freshman on the phones to supervisor on the floor, to a senior role in the training department.

“There was one thing I always loved about school,” I said, my eyes following a student with an impressive beard. “I loved taking notes.” David cocked his head, an invitation for me to elaborate. “That feeling of the pen on the page, the sense of accomplishment I got from seeing all the pages filled with notes. The smell of ink, and writing as a means of recording the experience, giving my attendance at what was often a boring lecture in a poorly ventilated room some tangible sense of purpose.”

I straightened in my chair and looked around with a new awareness. David asked what was wrong. “I just had a visceral memory from grade school accompanied by the smell of pencil shavings,” I said. “And then I realized I couldn’t remember the last time I’ve held a real pencil. I bet no one’s even using pens — I type much faster than I write. If I’d had a laptop in school, typing would have been a much more practical way to take notes. Do they even have books anymore? Or are all those texts available on iPads or Kindles?”

“Yeah, you’re old,” David joked. He smiled but subtly scooted his chair back beyond my reach.

I shot him a playful glare and said, “Watch it, you. I have a riding crop in the car.” I finished the last sip of my cold coffee and stood. “Come on. Class starts in 20 minutes.” To his credit, David refrained from commenting that it probably wouldn’t take us 20 minutes to walk the 100 feet from our table to the classroom door.

As we walked among the students through hallways lined with announcement-covered bulletin boards, I reached out and held David’s hand, pretending that I was in school again and that he was my college boyfriend.

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