I never would have met Charlie-the-girl if my high school guidance counselor had not lied to me. She, the guidance counselor I mean, not Charlie, was a burly woman with wide shoulders and almost comically oversized glasses. Her office was a windowless, cinder block-walled room in the basement of the school. Around the ceiling of the room were thirty-odd pendants from different colleges and universities, pointing down like a long row of technicolor shark teeth.
She frowned at my parochial school transcripts. I had flunked Bible class my freshman and sophomore year and skated through with Cs in a few other classes.
“How did this happen?” she asked, lifting up the dot matrix printed page of my sophomore year grades. Her finger was on the failing grade in Bible class.
“I flunked on purpose because I hated the teacher.”
“OK,” she said, turning back toward her desk.
I hated everything about high school. Every minute of it. I was still at the church most evenings, but couldn’t shake the Cobain-brand angst. There was a bible verse that said I was supposed to be filled with “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” I never felt anything of the sort.
The week before I graduated, they played that awful Sarah McLachlan “I will remember you” song at the baccalaureate with a PowerPoint slideshow of pictures of popular kids doing popular stuff. And of course everyone who was in the slideshow was sitting there watching and just bawling and I remember thinking, this song is terrible and I have to get out of this town.
“I tell my best students to apply to this,” my guidance counselor told me. She handed me an application out of a tall filing cabinet. How do you say no to a woman who spends all day in a room like that? So I had to fill it out in front of her. Essays and all. About a year later I found out that my class rank was so low that I was literally one student away from not being eligible to fill out the application. I could have misspelled “mitochondria” on a test the following week and been shit out of luck.
I wasn’t her best student. I wasn’t even close. That was the lie.
Anyway, I applied to the honors program at the University of Nebraska and got in. All the freshman in the program had to take an Honors Seminar, which was supposed to show us the wonders of high-minded academic repartee. My seminar was centered around Nebraska’s “Brain Drain,” (college graduates leaving the state in droves), and I was working on a paper about it at about three a.m. one morning when I first met Charlie-the-girl.
Charlie was sitting in her pajamas, spinning an apple on the desk next to the keyboard, aimlessly reading email. She had fantastic teeth. Right out of a toothpaste commercial. I thought at first that she was smiling to sort of show off, but as it turned out, she was just a happy person. I was sitting there typing one sentence at a time, reading, and then deleting it. Someone broke the silence, but I don’t remember who. She ended up telling me her name.
“Like the boys’ name,” she said. “But not.”
She asked what I was writing and I told her. “It’s because we have no beaches and no mountains and no cities. You can’t expect people to stick around without even one of those things.”
“Yes, but we have Nebraska Furniture Mart.”
“I think I need a break,” I said.
“There’s a donut shop that opens at four,” she said. “We could walk.”
So OK, fine. We walked out into the cold night and got donuts at four a.m. and I bought a dozen of them and we ate as much as we could and left the rest in the computer lab for someone else to discover. That part was Charlie’s idea. She liked the idea of someone miserably staggering into the lab to print off some homework and finding a box of sweet-god-did-someone-bring-donuts?! with “TAKE ONE” scrawled across the top. I guess what was nice was that she didn’t feel like she needed to get credit or be there to see it. Maybe the janitors threw them out.
The honors dormitory was quite small, so we ran into each other now and then. We argued more about religion than we should have. Charlie saw me as an anomaly. She found it fascinating that I could list all sixty-six books of the Bible in order, but still thought it was pronounced “minstrel cycle.”
“But you know a period isn’t like… court jesters singing songs, right?” she asked.
I stared at her blankly.
She dragged me out of my tiny dorm room once or twice a week. I asked her if she wanted to go to the chapel on campus, but she said she had never been to church and didn’t want to go. We went to Nebraska Furniture Mart, but not on a date. That shitty Sarah McLachlan song was playing, and I told Charlie all about that night at baccalaureate. We sat on a sectional that, we were told, was available in at least a dozen other colors of fabrics and leathers. It wasn’t romantic at all. We weren’t a match that way, and it was nice to not have to worry about it. I was the product of eighteen years of sexual repression and anxiety and abstinence-only sex ed, and Charlie was sexually liberated and had her nipples pierced.
We used to go walking in the rain together, which was when she told me that her nipples were pierced. She said the rain and the cold made them tingle. It felt great, she said. She told me I should get mine pierced, too. She knew a guy who could do it. I know how it sounds, but it was the 90s. Lots of frat guys were doing it and then once Dave Navarro got his nipples pierced, all of the grunge kids started doing it, too. A few years later, I ended up getting the top of my ear pierced in a Walmart at 2 a.m., which is another story, but I never did get my nipples done.
Near the English building there was a huge sculpture that looked like a pair of parenthesis shooting straight up out of the ground. On the nights when the rain came down too hard, we could stand in between the parenthesis and stay dry. We talked about what a parenthesis was for.
“Clarifying, maybe?” Charlie asked.
So we made a rule that if you stood in the parenthesis, you had to clarify something. You could clarify whatever you wanted. One night Charlie clarified her feelings on her mother. One night I clarified where certain scars of mine had come from. One night she clarified that she both wished she had chosen another school and was glad she didn’t. When she said, “I’m glad I didn’t,” she cupped her hands around her mouth.
“It looks like a pair of parenthesis when you do that,” I said.
She kept her hands in the same position. “I know! That’s why I did it!”
In February, I started donating plasma at the clinic just a block away from the donut place. I got thirty bucks a pop for sitting there with a needle in my arm for an hour. Sometimes my blood pressure would be too low and they’d send me away. I was dropping weight, and twice I stood up too fast in my dorm room and woke up on the floor with a bruise on my face. I tried handing in a few job applications, but no one was hiring.
I tried not to complain about money or feeling tired all the time, but I definitely didn’t feel “joy unspeakable and full of glory.” I still tried to talk about religion as if I wasn’t questioning it. Charlie threatened to buy me a stack of condoms for Valentine’s Day to make me feel better. I told her I would throw them away. I gave her some line about saving myself for marriage. Charlie knew when I was being genuine and when I was reciting something that someone else had told me to say. Two days later, I unwrapped a small gift box full of condoms with a note that said “you can use these to fuck me and my roommate anytime.”
One night we walked in the snow to the parenthesis. I leaned on Charlie. I must have weighed nothing.
“I wish you were kinder to yourself,” she said.
“That’s not clarifying,” I said.
“But it’s true.”
Charlie’s Honors program seminar in biochemistry took up most of her time during the spring. At the end of the year, she moved out of the dorm and rented a house south of campus. I moved back home and spent the summer several hours north, working as an unpaid youth pastor at my parent’s church. I would eventually drop out of school and move to South Africa to preach. That’s another story, I suppose, except to say that I never did “rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
When I moved back stateside eight months later, I drove south to see Charlie, again. We drove to the grocery story and bought a jar of Ragu. We went back to her place and made spaghetti. It was impossibly hot out, so we stuck our heads under the kitchen sink and got our hair wet every twenty minutes or so. We smoked pot on the back stoop of her house. Charlie didn’t have a stereo, so she played Waylon Jennings on her iPod and we shared a pair of earbuds. She knew some of the words to all of the songs, but didn’t know all of the words to any of them.
We sat on the couch for a long time. There were no curtains, so all of the headlights from the cars moving through the night came in through the windows and threw strange shadows across the room. From where we sat, we could see the same white square of light move across the hallway and toward the kitchen.
We went outside and sat on the stoop. It was quiet, save the slow swishing of unseen traffic. I needed to tell her. I cupped my hands around my mouth, the way I had seen her do at the parenthesis sculpture on campus. “I don’t think I can believe in God, anymore,” I whispered to her.
Charlie cupped her hands around her mouth, too. “It’s OK,” she said. “No one said you have to believe it all the time.”
We thought about walking back to campus in the middle of the night, but it was late. We waited in the dark for the night to swallow us whole, but it was more patient than we were. I remember looking up and seeing the moon like a sidewalk chalk smear against a black ceiling. When we went back in,
Charlie brought me a pillow and a blanket, and I stretched out to sleep on her couch.
She sat down at the end of the couch, near my feet. “Are you going to be OK?”
When I looked up at her, I saw light from the street lighting up her goddamn perfect teeth. She was full of glory.
“Thanks, Chuck.” I said. “I’m good.”
2018 was a tough year. I kept returning to the sorts of authors who are able write thin, bright slivers of hope in the dark. I came back to poets like Hanif Abdurraqib and Bob Hicok. I rediscovered Bruno Schulz and Alessandro Baricco. Pam Houston’s new book is fantastic. I spent much of the year trying to do what they did—or some version of it. This piece was part of a series about people who were kind to me at times that I wasn’t able to be kind to myself. I tried to write it without climbing onto a soapbox. I tried to be honest.