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The Education of Elisabeth Eckleman

Bright Eyes, Big City

Elisabeth Eckleman just left home, and has a lot of difficult decisions ahead of her. In this installment, Elisabeth goes to the Bright Eyes concert with her R.A. and continues to avoid her T.A. You decide what happens next.

In the last installment, our heroine had to choose between attending a grade-boosting study session for the Reality Television class she’s failing or going to a Bright Eyes show with Geoff, her R.A. and possible crush (who happens to be the definite crush of her roommate Kat). It was the closest vote yet. But you voted for her to... go to the Bright Eyes concert.

 

That Tuesday afternoon, Geoff and I spend hours in his dorm room listening to his Bright Eyes CD. He turns off the lights and lies across his bed. I sit on the cold linoleum with a crusty towel underneath me.

“His voice,” he says, rolling a joint between his fingers. “His voice is, like, full of glass.” A knock on the door. “Fuck off! We’re expanding our minds!”

“I brought something,” I say, producing a bottle of Bacardi from my satchel. I stole it from Kat; she’s at Vagina Monologues rehearsal.

“Eckleman,” says Geoff, groping for a plastic cup, “not only are you sexy but you’re smart.” He pours out a few glugs into the rest of my Diet Coke and swirls it around with one finger. “Cheers,” he says, handing it to me.

I knock it back and almost do a spit take.

“Taste too much like alcohol?” he asks.

I wipe my lips. “Tastes too much like real Coke!”

But the rum settles me, and after a while my face and feet start to feel warm and furry.

“Isn’t he a fucking genius?” Geoff asks, skipping to track two for the third time.

If he were asking for my opinion—and he’s not—I would tell him that I like the music but what I like most about Conor Oberst is that he writes about being from some place nobody talks about and everybody leaves. When he sings, “We are nowhere, and it’s now,” it makes me think of the town I grew up in, small and shabby and full of hate. I know it’s corny when small-town girls say they were meant for bigger places, but that’s how I felt back then, when football players called my boyfriend a fag, when men in trucks spit on a Democratic Party sign in our front yard, when popular girls made fun of me for my grades, my hair, my stupid shoes.

“Just five hours, baby,” he says, his voice far away. “Just five hours till we see him.” His arm drapes to the floor and caresses my bare leg. I think about moving it, but don’t.

By the time I get back to my room I’m rubbery with rum. I carefully type an email to Raj about missing the study session. Whoever invented the 24-hour virus must have been a college student. I pass out on my bed, shoes still on, wondering how much my parents shell out for tuition, and if I could possibly pay them back.

 

I was 12 years old when I went to my first concert. Fine: It was the Backstreet Boys. My dad took me and two friends, and I remember being so amazed that the Backstreet Boys had come to my town. Actually, it wasn’t my town; it was 40 minutes west on the highway, but still. I had this idea the band could see me, that the entire stadium would fall away and Nick Carter would reach out to me: You, the little brunette in the third balcony—you’re our no. 1 fan.

We pull into the parking lot and Geoff tucks a flask into the inside pocket of his jacket. “Can I borrow your cell phone?” he asks. “I need to find out where the floor is meeting.”

“What floor?”

“Didn’t I tell you? A bunch of people on our floor are meeting beforehand.” He starts pressing buttons randomly. “How do you use this fucking thing?”

At the entrance, we meet up with a handful of kids not speaking to each other. They look relieved when we arrive, like they finally have something in common.

“Geoff, don’t look for me after the show,” says India, lighting a slim cigarette as we take our place in line. “I’m gonna slip backstage.” India is a tiny, beautiful Asian girl with hot pink streaks in her slick black hair. Every morning I see her in the bathroom, sketching in the slivers of her eyebrows with a black pencil.

Geoff turns to me. “Last time Conor came to town, India made out with him at an after-party,” he says.

India rolls her eyes. “Jesus, tell everybody!”

Chad and Kevin are two pudgy white guys I always see in the hallway wearing concert T-shirts. Today, it’s Taking Back Sunday and Interpol.

“Hey, India,” says Chad, “if you have trouble getting backstage, why don’t you tell Conor you brought him a delicious bass.”

Kevin doubles over at that. “Tell him Pedro offers you his protection,” says Chad.

India arcs one eyebrow and exhales in their general direction.

“What the fuck are you guys quoting this time?” asks Geoff.

“What do you freaking think we’re quoting?” asks Chad. “Napoleon Dynamite... GOSH!”

Geoff turns to a burly guy with stringy hair and a goatee, who has yet to say a word. “Hey, Randy, did you bring some weed, man?”

Randy nods.

Geoff gives my butt a pat. “Save our spot.”

 

It’s three songs into the set when Geoff and Randy reappear.

“I brought you a delicious bass,” whispers Geoff, offering me a plastic cup and a wink. I take a sip; it’s filled with rum.

Conor Oberst is drunk tonight—India tells me he always is, that up close he smells like beer and Frito Pie—and he guzzles a Shiner between every song. He keeps rambling about war and politics, and Chad and Kevin throw middle fingers in the air every time he mentions the president.

“What do you think?” asks Geoff, leaning back in his seat.

I shrug. “I kinda wish he sang more.”

“I don’t know if you know this,” Oberst is saying from the stage, “but I hate your fucking state. I’d put a fucking gun to my head before I’d live in your state.”

“Fuck yeah!” yells Geoff. Chad and Kyle keep their middle fingers in the air. I look around for India, but she’s disappeared.

“If you came to this show tonight, you’re probably not a normal Texan,” Conor says. He drains his drink. “If you were a normal Texan, you’d probably be roping steers and raping Indians.”

Geoff whoops, and I shoot him a disapproving look. “It’s a joke,” he says.

“It’s not very funny.”

“Please, Eckleman,” he says, kicking out his long legs. “As if you disagree.”

I turn back to the stage and start chewing the inside of my lip. I keep thinking about my parents, about how maybe I should pay my own tuition, about this dive off the interstate where we used to eat on Sunday nights. I think about how I wish I’d been born in New York knowing the rest of the world was uglier and stupider than me but instead I was born in a town full of rednecks I hate in a state that I hate but not enough to let some drunk asshole insult it. I turn around to say all this to Geoff, but he’s snoring.

Chad and Kyle sling their arms around each other and yell the words to “Landlocked Blues.” Halfway through the song, Conor Oberst stops abruptly.

“The whole singing-along thing is kind of a bummer,” he says. “It makes me feel like Dashboard Confessional.”

Chad and Kyle drop their arms awkwardly without looking at each other, and I’m happy, however selfishly, to see someone else embarrassed, too.

 

I come home at midnight to find Kat in front of her laptop. “And where have you been young lady?” she asks in a German accent.

I flick off my shoes. “Some people from the floor went to the Bright Eyes concert.”

“Ugh. Why?”

I recognize the screen from across the room. It’s Geoff’s blog.

“You know, when the university introduced this stupid blog requirement, I thought it was so asinine,” she says, munching on potato chips. “But I have to say, I am learning so much about my new love.” She scrolls back a few screens. “Look at this shit.”

In an entry titled “New Development?” Geoff writes the following: “This week I met a new girl on the floor. We have ALOT in common. We can talk for ages, about anything. I can’t say anymore right now. This could be good.”

Kat turns to me. “So?” she says, drumming her fingers on the table. “Think it’s me?”

I flop onto my bed. My ears are ringing. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Maybe? This is the exact week we met,” she says, pointing to the screen. It’s also the exact week I met Geoff. It’s the exact week 10 other girls probably did, too.

I sigh. “Look, Kat, I’m not sure Geoff’s the right guy for you.”

She cuts me a look. “Why?”

“For one thing, he still doesn’t know that ‘a lot’ is two words.”

She laughs. “Jesus, Elisabeth. Spelling has no bearing on a person’s sexiness.”

“See, that’s where you’re wrong.” I cover my eyes with a pillow. Everything is kind of spinning.

“Maybe you just want him for yourself,” she says, mouth full of chips.

“That’s right,” I say sarcastically. But I fall asleep wondering if it could be true.

 

Thursday morning I get to my Reality Television class early and start reading the chapter on the first season of Survivor.

“Are you feeling better, Elisabeth?” Without looking up, I recognize Raj’s gentle voice.

“Much, thanks.” We lock eyes, and I feel a little spike in my pulse. “So how was the session?”

“No one showed,” he says, combing a hand through his hair.

“Oh, Raj. That’s ridiculous.” I suddenly feel outrage at all the students who asked for extra credit and then blew it off. Granted, I’m one of them.

“I thought the offer of adult beverages would be enough,” he says, shaking his head. “Next time, we will have heroin.”

It’s a joke, but I don’t laugh. “Well, I was sick.”

He smiles. “Yes, I know.”

The lecture that day is about Mark Burnett, but I can’t stop thinking about Raj, imagining him in his dingy apartment, those beautiful eyes growing sadder as he waits for a doorbell that never rings. After class, Raj calls our group together to announce a study session this Friday. Maybe it’s my imagination, but when he says it’s mandatory, I could swear he’s looking at me.

 

But I haven’t even mentioned “Feminism and Sociology” yet. Of course, Brad’s new girlfriend, Ariel, is in the class, which makes it the cosmic curse of my Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Seriously, I hope the next time your first love starts dating someone else that he has the decency to make her a little less smart and beautiful. If Ariel answers another question exactly right, I’m going to poke out her fucking eyes.

On Wednesday, the professor explains that half our grade will be volunteering at a feminist nonprofit each Friday, and I practically jump out of my chair with excitement. That’s one less hour per week I have to spend listening to Ariel rattle off S.A.T. words and marveling at how her wavy blond hair got so luminous and full.

I am scribbling all this in a note to Kat when the professor calls me out. “Elisabeth?” she says. “Elisabeth, we haven’t heard from you. Do you want Walk for the Cure, date-rape hotline, or crack mothers and their babies?”

I feel my face redden slightly as I run through the list. If I can’t be as thin as Ariel, if I can’t be as brilliant as Ariel, I can at least be a better person. “Crack mothers and their babies,” I say, shutting my notebook. “Definitely.”

The professor claps her hands together. “Well, Ariel, you finally have some company.”

 

Kat doesn’t look up from the laptop when I come in. “Did you see Bright Eyes with Geoff?” she asks, gnawing on a pencil.

“Yeah, he was there,” I say. “Why? Don’t you have class this afternoon?”

She turns to me. “Was India there?”

I nod vaguely.

“She gave Conor Oberst head after a show once. Have you heard that?”

“I thought she made out with him at an after-party.”

“Whatever. She’s a fucking whore.”

I can’t say I’ve ever heard her voice like this. I can’t say I’ve ever heard her offer anything but admiration and encouragement for the most promiscuous among us. “Kat, what’s going on? Do you really care about India and Conor Oberst?”

“India—” she spits out. “That’s not her real name, you know. Her real name is Kimberley.” She turns back to the screen and starts scrolling through text.

Over the last few days, Kat has become increasingly obsessed with reading Geoff’s blog, which is unfortunate for several reasons, not the least of which is that, not having a computer, he rarely ever updates it. I find the whole thing boring and riddled with misspellings, and even though I secretly do wish I were the girl he keeps mentioning—the girl he shares a kinship with, the one he can tell anything to—I can’t imagine any genuine relationship beginning with this kind of weird voyeurism.

“Oh my God!” Kat shrieks, so suddenly it makes me jump. “Is there something going on between you and Geoff?”

I bolt to the computer, but she shuts it before I can read anything. “Of course there isn’t. Kat, you’re acting really weird.”

She turns to me with nostrils flaring. “Elisabeth, I need to know the truth. I really, really need to know it. Is something going on with you and Geoff?”

In girl-power movies, they always say no guy is worth a friendship. I suspect that’s not true, that many guys probably are worth a friendship, but Geoff certainly isn’t one of those guys. I’m a little disenchanted with him, anyway. When I went by his room this afternoon I heard giggling voices inside and just decided to blow it off altogether. I grab Kat’s hands. “I swear to you: Nothing is going on with Geoff.”

She takes a deep, quivering breath and regains her composure. “I’m sorry.” She squeezes my hands back. “I just get so fucking mental after I have sex with a guy.”

My phone rings, and I immediately turn it off. Later, alone and confused, I find my throat seizing with guilt as I listen to the message:

“Hi, honey, it’s your mom. Just wanted to see how you’re doing. Love you, talk to you soon.”

Should Elisabeth come clean with Kat about what’s been going on with Geoff, even if it means risking their friendship or keep her mouth shut and spare Kat’s feelings?