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The Education of Elisabeth Eckleman

Back to School

It’s Elisabeth Eckleman’s first year of college, and she has a lot of tough choices to make. In this installment, Elisabeth heads back to school with fresh eyes and provides a shoulder for Kat—a friend in need, indeed.

Last week’s dilemma was no small one: Elisabeth went home to visit her sick mom and had to decide whether to remain home and take care of her family or go back and salvage her semester. You voted for her to... go back to school.

 

The light is still on in my parents’ bedroom when I get home, just past midnight. My mother is in bed, reading. “Can’t sleep?” I ask.

She smiles when she sees me, and her eyes sparkle. It’s the best thing that’s happened in days. “My schedule’s all messed up,” she says, making room beside her on the bed. “I sleep like a housecat.”

I scooch in beside her. “Where’s Dad?” She smells sweet, like perfume and powder.

“Your father conked out watching a Mad About You marathon.” She sighs. “I’m not sure which one of us has it worse.”

When I was a kid, I used to lay like this every night as my mom read to me. I loved closing my eyes and letting the stories unspool, so much so that I never fell asleep. And I’d be begging for another chapter—please, I have to know what happens next—while my poor mom’s voice sputtered to a froggy whisper. “I can’t get this child to go to sleep,” she would complain. “She’s too wrapped up in these stories.” Eventually, out of desperation, she started reading me Strunk & White.

“Mom, what would you think about me spending some time at home for a while?” I drape an arm across her and give her soft midsection a little squeeze.

“Why would you want to leave college?” she asks, smoothing my hair and giving me a kiss on the forehead. “You’re doing so well.”

And something about the way she says it unlocks this enormous ache in me. All the shame and confusion, all the stupid things rumbling around in my brain, all the things I still fear. Tears start dripping off my nose and onto the sheets.

I finally catch a shuddering breath. “It’s just. So hard.”

“Oh, sweetheart. Everything worthwhile is hard.” She takes me in her arms and draws me closer, which is nice.

I can’t remember how this next part happens. Maybe I catch a glimpse of her old medication. Maybe it’s something I feel in her breath, something I sense in the strong, cool clutch of her hands. But I realize this tumor isn’t so sudden. It didn’t show up last week, a monster bursting from the closet to devour us. She has hidden these things from view to protect me, to keep me from worrying. She has known all along.

In the warm, drowsy silence between us I can hear my father snoring on the couch and I let it lull me softly, safely to sleep in my mother’s arms.

 

Kat is 30 minutes late to pick me up at the airport. “I have an excuse,” she says, as she screeches up to the curb.

“What? Morning sickness?” I hoist my bag into her back seat.

“My parents are driving me bananas. Fucking bananas.” She drives as though her brakes are punctuation marks. “I honest-to-God think I’m going to kill them.”

Kat’s parents are like a fable to me. The young mother with the facelift and the boob job, the father dangling somewhere in the periphery, like a crazy uncle who shows up at birthday parties to make balloon animals. For graduation, he bought her night-vision goggles. What the hell is she gonna do with those? Other than wear them when she’s drunk and start acting like she’s on an episode of COPS? I’ll tell you what, though: It cracks me up every time.

“Why are my parents so batshit crazy?” she asks, coasting casually through an orange light. “Mom made dinner reservations for Saturday, but that’s the only time my dad can come in town, so of course that means I have to call and ask politely would he please not bring his stupid cunt of a girlfriend so we can all go to dinner together and make nice, but then he starts rattling on about how he wasn’t invited to my birthday party and it’s like, well maybe if you weren’t so fucking drunk at Christmas you would have been. And meanwhile,” she fumbles for a lighter as she sucks on a cigarette, “I still haven’t gotten my period, and I can’t get an appointment at the fucking student fucking health clinic till Tuesday. I’ve tried three of those fucking home pregnancy tests. Easy-to-read, my vagina.”

“Ugh,” I slump against the window. I’d almost forgotten: Parents’ Weekend.

 

Kat isn’t lying about the pregnancy tests—each of them is a cruel exercise in ambiguity. “If you tilt it this way, it looks like a plus,” she says, examining the plastic stick in her hand. “But then, if you look at it straight-on, it’s a minus.”

“Aren’t there other ones that are pink or blue?”

She fishes out a different stick from the trash. Sure enough: Purple.

“As you can see, I am absolutely, positively, maybe pregnant.”

“Have you talked to this guy?” I ask, popping open a cold D.C. “This Daron guy?”

Kat goes to the mirror and starts fiddling with her frizzy hair, twirling locks around her fingers and admiring how they lie on her bare shoulders. This is what she does to avoid things like homework and honesty.

“Kat, are you gonna tell the guy? I really think you should.”

She goes to her bed and crosses one leg daintily over the other. “Daron is a wonderful guy,” she says expansively. “Great sense of humor, fine cheekbones, plays a fabulous Richard III.” She fiddles with the frayed hem of her long, flowy skirt. “But Daron isn’t the guy.”

“Oh, honey.” That vegan son-of-a-bitch.

“Daron and I did make out in a real randy game of Spin the Bottle. Yeah, baby.”

Poor thing must be heartbroken. She’s quoting Austin Powers. “Why did you lie to me?”

She searches the room as if the answer is scribbled on the walls. “I don’t know. I didn’t think you’d approve maybe? I didn’t want you to be mad at Geoff?”

“Mad at Geoff? Why do you care if I’m mad at Geoff?”

“See, this is what I didn’t want—your self-righteousness. You’re not like me, OK? Shit like this just happens to me. I’m a fucked-up person.”

I take a deep breath and try to gather myself. “First of all, I’m not self-righteous; I’m protective of you. Second of all, this could have happened to me just as easily as it could have happened to you so don’t give me all your doomed-soul bullshit.”

“I knew it!” She claps her hands together. “You totally slept with Chad!”

I smother the smile creeping on my face. “Third of all, shit like this doesn’t just happen to you. Geoff is a cold, selfish child who pisses in your punchbowl every single time you sleep with him, and not only do you keep inviting him to the party, you ask the rest of us to drink the fucking Kool-Aid. Stop making excuses for him.”

Kat remains silent for a moment. “That’s pretty funny coming from you.”

“What are you talking about?

“Ever since the day we met, all you’ve done is make excuses for Brad. How if I only knew him I’d see he’s really very nice. How if I’d only seen you two together I’d understand why you still want to be friends.”

“You would,” I say, my voice faltering. “That’s totally diff—”

“All I know is how he treats you now. And that’s not a friend.”

She’s right. For so long, it felt like being angry at Brad would somehow unravel the goodness of what we had. So when I got mad, I learned to swallow hard, and when I wanted to throw a drink in his face, I learned to smile and say goodbye without a quiver in my voice. And what I was trying to do was build myself up in his eyes, make him see how forgiving I could be, how exceptional I was. What I was trying to do was make him want me back. The problem is that I made it so goddamn easy for him to get everything he wanted—Ariel in his bed, me on speed-dial. The problem is I never gave him any reason to stop.

I take a seat beside Kat on the bed. “So here’s the deal. We have a new motto, and our new motto is: Fuck him.”

She takes me by the hand and squeezes hard. “Fuck him.”

 

On Tuesday morning, I meet Raj in his small, cramped office to take a makeup for my Mark Burnett test. The night before, I stayed up till 2 a.m. watching the first season of Survivor. Wow, what an exciting show. I had no idea.

“Impressive, Ms. Eckleman,” says Raj, glancing over the test after I hand it in. “Things may be turning around for you after all.”

“Finally,” I say, slumping in my seat with relief.

“I’m sorry to hear about your mother, by the way. I hope she gets better soon.” He continues looking over the test, making checkmarks in the margins. “I lost my mother three years ago.”

“Oh, God, I’m sorry,” I say, even though it feels dumb in my mouth. “How did she die?”

He scribbles off a long note and looks up. “She killed herself.” My emotions must have bolted directly to my face because he smiles warmly. “It’s OK. It’s heavy stuff, I know.” He restacks the papers on his desk. “Mark Burnett suits you well. You got a 92.”

“Are you serious?” I jump out of my seat. I consider hugging him for a moment.

I take the paper and slip it into my notebook, beaming at the number in red ink. Back in high school, anything lower than a 95 was practically cause for a hairshirt. Getting a B in sophomore Biology is like a dirty one-night stand I’m always trying to forgive myself for. But this 92 feels so good, so perfect.

I start to leave then turn around at the door. “You wouldn’t, by any chance, be interested in a cheese pizza?”

 

At lunch, Raj tells me about the class he’s TA’ing next semester—Slacker Culture.

“You should take it,” he says. “We start with Thoreau.”

Afterward, I stop by Chad’s room on the way to my dorm and leave a note. “I’m baaaack! Call me. Love, E.” I never thought I’d say this, but I kind of miss the guy. He’s so sweet, so comfortable to be around. Maybe we could be a couple after all—not a hot-sex, sizzling-romance kind of couple, but the kind that shares Chinese food and old T-shirts, the kind that can fart in front of each other.

Kat’s not in our dorm room, but she has left a note. Two words: “HEALTH CLINIC.”

Oh, shit. How did I forget?

I crumple the note up and throw it in the trash. My heart starts fluttering, and my hands start getting sweaty. Honestly, I feel a little bit sick to my stomach.

And then, a knock on the door. “It’s Geoff.”

Christ. “Kat’s not here.”

“I need to talk to you. Please open the door.”

He stands in the hallway soaked with sweat. I can smell him from here. “Does Kat think she’s pregnant?”

“Who told you that?” I try to make it sound preposterous, not paranoid.

“Nobody did. I saw her outside the health clinic today crying. She won’t speak to me. Elisabeth, please tell me. This is really important.”

I notice the trashcan with the pregnancy test face up and stand casually in front of it to block his view. Not that he could decipher the results anyway.

Should Elisabeth tell Geoff the truth or lie and make up a story to protect Kat?