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Authors: Molly Ringle

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BOOK: Relatively Honest
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Chapter 4: Away to University

The next
day my parents were posing me in front of the house for a photo, making me hold up my University of Oregon course prospectus, when a blue two-door Toyota from the early ’90s drove up and stopped at the curb. I tried to fling the book away onto my luggage, but Mum barked at me to keep holding it and keep smiling. So, posing like a complete git, I let her take the picture while Julie and Patrick got out of the car and stood grinning at me.

Though last night I had barely slept, today I was itching to get away and start my adventure. I still worried about Mum’s behavior, but had come to the conclusion, as I tossed and turned, that the best thing I could do was go to college, work hard, give her the space she obviously wanted, and come back after the first term as a young man she could be proud of. Maybe by then she would be willing to tell me her troubles – or, better yet, her troubles would all have worked themselves out and gone away. (Denial, as you know, being not just a river in Egypt.)

My parents greeted Patrick, whom they already knew from Whitecrest, and shook hands and exchanged first names with Julie. She looked as pretty as I remembered. Her hair was held back with a wide yellow scarf, and glinted red in the sun where it escaped. She wore a forest-green tank top and denim shorts, and blue canvas shoes with no socks. As I put my boxes and bags into the boot of the car, Dad winked at me with a meaningful glance in her direction. I only smiled.

My parents asked me for the hundredth time whether I had everything.

“Mobile?” Mum asked.

I took the phone from my pocket and held it up.

“Little black book?” Dad gave my elbow a nudge.

“Dad, that is
so
’70s.”


His
little black book would be too heavy to carry anyway,” Dad informed Julie and Patrick. I wanted to slap packing tape over his mouth. Did he think he was doing me a favor?

All the same, I hugged him goodbye, and said low in his ear, “Look after Mum.”

“Of course.” He sounded jovial, if a little confused.

I hugged Mum, who was sniffling and trying not to show it. “Don’t worry,” I told her. “I’ll only be three hours away. You’ll still be able to hear my music.”

This made her laugh and cling even more tightly to me, and between one cheek-kiss and another I made my escape. The whole scene was starting to remind me a little too much of Miriam. (Never did send her that postcard, did I? Oh well, she could do with one from the university. If I remembered.)

“Revelstoke,” Julie said as she drove away from my house. “Why does that name sound familiar?”

I had turned to wave out the back window at my parents, and now settled myself forward again. “Well,” I began, but Patrick beat me to an answer.

“Because of Tarzan. Of Greystoke.” He laughed at his own joke.

“It’s also a town,” I said, coolly. “In British Columbia.”

She snapped her fingers. “That’s it! We drove through it on our way to Banff.”

Patrick squeezed her thigh. “That was a great trip.”

The back seat of Julie’s car didn’t seem like such a glorious place to be anymore. I grimaced and turned my attention to the scenery.
One week
, I reminded myself.
That’s all you get, Patrick, then it’s my turn.

By the time we reached the city limits of Eugene two and a half hours later, I had begun to think the afternoon would never end. It baffled me how the same accent could sound so atrocious on Patrick and so tasty on Julie. Patrick talked on and on and on, and when he did ask me questions about England, he was patronizing.

“Do you guys even
have
peanut butter?” he asked, while handing me one of the peanut butter sandwiches Julie’s mother had packed for us.

“Yes,” I said. “Television and microwaves, too.” My only reward was that Julie, on some of my smart-arse rejoinders, had caught my eye in the rearview mirror and given me a smile.

On the rare occasions Patrick stopped talking, she asked me about England as well, but in an intelligent fashion, citing not only famous places but also somewhat obscure ones by name.

“Are you sure you haven’t been there?” I asked her when she rattled off the architectural details of Salisbury Cathedral.

She laughed. “I’m sure. I’m just interested in history. Buildings and artwork especially. Plus, I’m part English, so it’s in my blood.”

“Everyone’s part English in this country,” Patrick said through a bite of sandwich.

I ignored him and asked Julie, “Will you be majoring in history, then?”

She nodded. “With probably an art minor. I’d love to work in historic preservation.”

“She’s going to be, like, the curator of the Smithsonian.” Patrick’s mouth was still full. “Or the person in charge of renovating all of Boston’s cathedrals or something. Right, hon?” He groped her thigh again, probably smearing her with peanut butter.

I rolled my eyes and went back to watching the outskirts of Eugene crawl into view. I had been here before, for one whirlwind afternoon, on a trip in spring with Dad. We had looked at this university as well as four others in Oregon. But I couldn’t say I was familiar with the town, or remembered much about my first visit except a few campus buildings where we had stood still long enough to form an impression. I now saw it was a typical university town, with perhaps a higher than average number of bead shops and tattoo parlors. As we drew nearer to campus and stopped at a red light, the scent of incense and the sound of a steel-drum band floated in through our open windows.

“This place has never gotten over the ’60s.” Patrick glanced at Julie. “If I come back to visit, and you have a nose ring and smell like patchouli, I’m going to kidnap you and take you to Boston by force.”

She smirked. “Relax.”

I had to admit I didn’t fancy the idea of Julie in a nose ring and smelling like patchouli either. For all Patrick’s faults, he had good taste in women. Obviously.

“What dorm are you in, Dan?” Julie asked, lifting her face to me in the rearview mirror.

“Spiller.”

“Really? So am I!”

“Are you?” I brightened up. “That’s fantastic.”

“Small world,” muttered Patrick. His displeasure only made me happier.

When we got to the dorm, however, it was time to split up and move into our separate rooms. Julie was on the second floor, an all-women’s floor, and I was on third, which was all-men’s. We checked in with the Resident Assistant, a grad student named Mary Jo. She found our respective keys, and Patrick and Julie trudged up to second to get Julie settled into her new room.

Mary Jo picked up one of my boxes and walked me upstairs to the room that would become my home till next June. She thumped down the box in front of a door, and knocked on it. “Your roommate checked in,” she said. “Sinter.” I knew his name was Sinter Blackwell, from the information the university had mailed me, but the way she said it, drawling the syllables with a flat look at me, seemed ominous. No one answered her knock, so she unlocked the door and opened it.

I took one step, and froze in place. My roommate was not evidently present, but he had certainly left behind an impression. Over his bed he had suspended a black sheet, like a canopy, rigged up with what looked to be fishing line and drawing pins. The smell of clove cigarettes and leather boots lingered in the air. His blankets were a dark tartan. A huge Union Jack hung in the corner over his desk, blocking out the light from the window. In the spaces of ceiling and wall left to him, he had begun to stick up posters of emo and goth bands, and spooky black-and-white art prints. A scattering of rolled-up paper on his desk suggested he was going to fill in the rest of the wall space later, but had left it for the time being.
Probably doesn’t come out during the strongest hours of sunlight
, I found myself thinking.
Must be lying in a coffin under the bed.

Mary Jo read the expression on my face. “Yeah,” she said. “If it gets too weird, come talk to me. We’ll see about moving you to another room. Well – ” She put the keys into my hand. “Good luck.” She glanced once more at the bat-cave Sinter Blackwell had made of his bed, then shook her head and left.

I swallowed, and tried to focus on putting stuff away into my side of the room.
All right, so my roommate’s a nutter
, I thought, as I unpacked my clothes.
Needn’t be a problem. It will give me interesting stories to tell Julie – and excuses to spend time in her room.
Unfortunately, though, Patrick would be commandeering her life for the next week, so I had to get through at least seven days of the nutter on my own.

I left the door to the hallway open. While I was on my knees under my desk, plugging in my computer cables, I didn’t realize anyone had entered until he spoke.

“Are you Daniel?”

He sounded hesitant and fairly ordinary, but I was so startled I smacked my elbow against the corner of the desk – and became even more startled when I looked at him. “Yes.” I rose to my feet, rubbing my bruised arm. “Hello. And you’re…Sinter?”

He nodded, examining me without a smile. He looked, if anything, even more alarming than you would expect him to look from his interior décor. He was probably six feet tall, a bit taller than me, and seemed thin, but it was hard to tell, the way he had shrouded himself in clothing. Though it was a hot September day, he wore black from head to toe: black jeans, black chunky Doc Martens boots, and an oversized black shirt with long sleeves. His hair was black too, most likely a dye job, and might have touched his shoulders if it hadn’t been so spiked up. It lent him another four or five inches of height, and against it his skin was quite pale. Black eyeliner shaded his blue eyes all the way around.
What, no lipstick?
my mind joked, nervously.

“Good to finally meet you,” I said, with considerable effort.

He clutched a brown paper bag, and I kept darting glances at it, fearful of what it might contain. “The room assignment said you were from Sunriver,” he said.

“Only in a way. I’m really from London.”

“Oh.” He seemed to come alive a little. “Cool. I thought I heard an accent.”

“And you’re from…sorry, where was it?”

“Beaverton.” He drew a pair of sunglasses and a pack of clove cigarettes from his shirt pocket, and tossed them onto his bed. “It’s near Portland.” He put both hands on the paper bag, and slowly opened it.

I watched, holding my breath. I’m not sure what I thought it would contain. A gun? A bottle of absinthe? The skull of a cat?

He pulled out a clear plastic box. “Ran out of thumbtacks,” he said, “so I went over to the store. Got some Oreos and milk, too, if you want any.” He tilted the open bag toward me.

I relaxed. “That sounds lovely. Thank you.”

Ten minutes later, we were sitting on the floor, facing one another with our backs against our beds, the open pack of Oreos and two U of O mugs of milk on the floor between us. “So I guess I’ll try to do theater on campus while I can, but career-wise,” he was saying, sucking crumbs off his fingers, “fuck, I have no idea. How can you answer that when you’re eighteen, you know?”

“Completely. I’ve chosen my major, but I sometimes think I’m only taking the easy route, following what my parents did. Being a lazy bugger when I should be striking out on my own.”

“Nah. You have the connections, you ought to use them. Besides, you get to travel when you go into tourism. I’d go into it myself, if I had any customer service skills.” He swigged his milk. “Enough about careers. Let’s cover the important stuff. What kind of music are you into?”

I squinted past him at his posters. “I like that band, that one, and that one,” I said, pointing at each in succession. “I’m not too keen on
that
one, and the rest I’ve never heard of.”

He looked over his shoulder at them. “You should have. Most of them are from your country.”

“Anglophile, are we?” I smiled, flicking my gaze toward the Union Jack.

“Oh. Yeah.” He scratched sheepishly at his scalp. His fingers disappeared in the black tangle. “I wouldn’t have hung that up if I knew you were actually English. I can take it down.”

“Yes, how
dare
you fly our flag, you bloody Yank? No, honestly, I don’t mind. I’m perfectly used to seeing it.”

“I’ve never even been there. I’m a total poser.”

“I’m sure you’ll be sick of everything having to do with England after living with me for a year.”

“I doubt it. If I save up enough, I’m ditching this place and running off to the UK.” He threw away his crumpled-up paper towel. “By the way, I should warn you, I’ve never had a roommate before. I’m an only child.”

I spread my arms. “In great company, mate.”

“You too? No siblings?”

“Not one.” I shoved the Oreo tray aside and leaned back. “So, as my roommate, what is the one thing you’re likeliest to do that will drive me mental? Let’s get these issues on the table straightaway.”

He nodded, resembling a bobbing black palm tree, and ran his tongue over his teeth. “Be moody and listen to depressing music, and whine that everybody hates me.”

“No problem. Should I keep a suicide hotline on speed-dial?” I took my mobile out of my pocket.

“Shouldn’t come to that. What about you?”

“My most annoying quality?” I pressed a phone button, and smiled at the long scroll of names and numbers that appeared: almost entirely women. “I’ll bring home girls,” I said. “And get up to things you’d rather not see.”

“Hm.” He frowned at his funereal decorations. “Will this stuff kill the mood?”

“Not at all. It’ll be a conversation piece.” I put the phone away. “It’s five o’clock. Want to get some dinner? The dining hall should be open.”

“You’re willing to be seen in public with me?”

He was joking, but from a quaver in his voice, I sensed he meant it to some degree, which I found touching. “Of course.” I jumped to my feet. “Why not?”

“Got to say,” he confessed, as we walked down the hallway, “I was worried you’d be a bonehead jock or something.”

“I was worried you’d be like Patrick.”

“Who’s Patrick?”

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