The Most Wonderful Time of the Year (KT)
"How long do you think it would take the two of us to finish a Vermonster?" David gnaws on his plastic spoon, studying the menu on the wall. His tone is casual but the 'us' in his question and the fact that his knee is pressed against mine, makes my palms sweaty. The air conditioning is on full blast in this Ben and Jerry's. I've just ate two scoops of chocolate fudge brownie ice cream. I should not be sweating.
I shrug and tuck my legs underneath me.
David leans forward and his chair land with a squeak on the linoleum. "If we didn't eat anything for a whole day, do you think we could do it? Do you think we could eat an entire Vermonster by ourselves?"
The Vermonster is Ben and Jerry's idea of death by dessert. It's the ultimate sundae…twenty scoops of ice cream, chocolate chip cookies, fudgy brownies, bananas, hot fudge, whipped cream, walnuts, M&M's, sprinkles, Reese's Pieces, and chocolate chips. It's not meant for two people. I feel a warm pressure against my knee again. David's stretching out his legs and guess who he bumps into? "That's crazy," I tell him, getting up from my chair to throw away my empty cup, getting up to get away from him. "I don't think it's possible at all."
He laughs and chucks his spoon into the trash can and trails me out the door. Outside on Grovney Street, cars are lined in bumper-to-bumper traffic. It's the most wonderful time of the year again. It's back to school. Natalie and I moved from Ryder 436 to Kelvin 313 yesterday but official move-in didn't start until nine this morning. She woke me up at seven-thirty today, rummaging through her boxes for hangers. When we left for breakfast, her closet was full, sundresses and ironed button-down shirts lined up in a neat row. It's two in the afternoon now and I've only unpacked my toothbrush and my chem. structures set. I've been wandering around Grovney Street with David for the past three hours, trying not to think about my boxes of shoes. But as the afternoon wears on and David becomes more unnerving to be around, I wonder if I should head back to Kelvin and put away my flip flops and sneakers.
Since that day at the beach, David's been…well, I don't know what he's been. If Barron hadn't called that night, twenty-eight minutes after ten o'clock, something might have happened.
I caught a cold last weekend. For forty-eight hours, I was a walking snot ball, spewing up chunks of mucus that left my throat raw and aching. But that didn't faze David. He made me chicken soup, tucked his comforter around my shoulders, and sat through Love Actually with me. And as the Beach Boys song started up, cueing credits, I wondered what would have happened if Barron hadn't called on the night of the Fourth. Would David have kissed me? Would I have kissed back? David says what he means and does what he means. Karen used to complain about his single-mindedness, the black-and-white way he divides the world. He would've equated me kissing him back to dating. And dating him means the promise of marriage, 2.3 children, and a house with a big backyard. Well, maybe not that extreme, but with David, there's no 'let's see where this goes.' It's either all or nothing. That freaks me out. I don't know how I feel about him now…how am I going to know how I feel about him in two weeks? In two months? In two years?
"Where do you want to go next?" David asks. We're standing outside Ben and Jerry's, in the middle of Grovney traffic.
While packing yesterday, I found a bundle of old letters from Barron. Three summers ago, a few months after we started dating, he hiked a section of the Appalachian Trail with friends from high school. It was six long weeks without internet or phone. Instead, he wrote me every day, forty-some letters about vicious chiggers, stale crackers, beautiful sunrises, and missing me. I kept them all, stashed in my sock drawer. I wish we could go back to that summer, when we were thousands of miles apart, but it felt like he was right beside me.
I told David I was still in love with Barron.
Actually, I stated it, like I was telling him about a two for one sale on brownies down at the Zip Mart. The admission hung in the air between us for a minute but then he just smiled and shrugged. The next day, he came over with peanut butter crackers and orange juice, a new box of tissues, and sat through Ever After with me.
"You wanna go down to Adams and get books?"
Last weekend, I lied to David….I think, I hope, I pray. Barron's still calls every night at ten and our conversations stretch past midnight. While it would be nice to think he calls because he misses me, sometimes I wonder if he calls out of routine.
I don't want to be part of someone's routine.
I want him to call because he wants to hear my voice, because he wants to know how my day has been, because he wants to know what I'm thinking. Because those are the reasons I pick up the phone when I see his name flash across caller ID. I don't want to be a habit; habits can be changed and replaced. I want to be a choice…but an uncontested one. When we first met, standing in line to get our ID pictures taken at freshman orientation, I wasn't a choice, I was a fact. But as our relationship has progressed, I feel as if I've become more and more of an option, and a low-end one at that. I can't compete with Leslie Rosamond. She's…Leslie Rosamond. And if she's the one that Barron wants, then I should bow out gracefully.
It's easy to admit all this to myself while staring at Ryder's ceiling tiles, but I'm worried that I'll be back to where I was at the end of May, hurt and pining, the second I see him again. So even though I realize David is a choice…I don't think it's fair to him or me to do anything about it until I know for sure that he's the uncontested one.
"Let's go to the bookstore and see if the manuals for your chem. lab have been printed yet."
It's tempting to put off unpacking for a little while longer but the heat and the crush of people is starting to get to me. David's constant scrutiny isn't helpful either. I feel like a bug underneath a magnifying glass. "Nah, I should go back and unpack."
"Oh, c'mon. You have the whole year to unpack."
"True, but I don't think Natalie will see it that way." Natalie has never outright complained about the piles of clothes and books on my side of the room but she knows she can guilt me into cleaning by vacuuming her spotless half of the carpet. She tends to do this on Friday afternoons, while I'm playing endless rounds of Pac-Man online, killing time before dinner.
David loops his arm around my shoulder. "Let's kidnap Nat and make her come with us to the bookstore."
I shrug him off. "I don't think she would like that much."
He smiles. "We'll convince her."
The door to me and Natalie's room is open when we emerge from the staircase. All of her boxes are gone. Her sandals are lined up against her bureau and her Swan Lake poster is plastered on the wall above her desk. She looks up from her computer. "Oh, you're back already. How was ice cream?"
"Good, cold." I open my closet. The boxes are endless.
David settles on my bed. "They had this special on the menu called the Vermonster. It had twenty scoops of ice cream. The next time KT and I go to Ben and Jerry's, we're going to order it."
When did I ever agree to this? "We are not," I say quickly.
Natalie shakes her head. "Ten scoops each? You'll never want to eat ice cream again."
"We'll ask for chocolate chip." David assures her.
"That thing is not meant for two people," I insist, "It's meant for like, twenty." The idea of that much ice cream for one person makes me feel nauseous but split between twenty, I suddenly see its appeal. Twenty scoops for twenty people doesn't sound so bad. Actually, it sounds like one of those crazy things you do with your friends and then talk about for years afterwards. Natalie's birthday is next Wednesday. In AVIT tradition, twenty-one means a visit to all of Grovney Street's bars, but I don't think Natalie will really be up for that. She likes for things to be low key. A trip to Ben and Jerry's would be perfect. And rounding up twenty friends to celebrate Natalie's birthday wouldn't be too hard either. "Let's order one for your birthday, Natalie!"
She laughs. "This is between you and David. Leave me out of it."
"No," I say, plans starting to whirl through my head, "We should do it. We'll get a whole bunch of people together and order one. It'll be fun. What time do you get out of class that day?"
She looks skeptical but glances at the schedule posted on the bulletin board over her desk. "How are we going to find twenty people that want to eat that much ice cream?"
I start ticking names off with my fingers. "You, me, Craig…don't you get ice cream with the people in your lab all the time? So that's another five people right there. And—"
"—Me," David adds, "And Sam. He would be pissed if we didn't tell him we were going. Plus, he could count for three people."
David could count for more than one person too. He inhaled his ice cream so fast this afternoon that I thought he was going to get brain freeze. Natalie glances at her bulletin board again. She's starting to waver.
"C'mon, Nat. How many times in your life do you turn twenty-one?"
He could not have picked a better argument. Natalie hates being in the center of attention, but she likes trying new things. "I get out of bio lab at five that day," she finally says, "We could have dinner first, so we wouldn't be eating tons of ice cream on an empty stomach."
"Now you're talking," David says, "Where do you want to eat?"
Natalie's quiet, thinking. She knows I hate sandwiches and Craig's vegetarian so that rules out about half the restaurants on Grovney.
"Somewhere nice," I suggest.
"Not too nice," she says, "You have to dress up for nice places and I don't want to make anybody dress up if they don't want to."
David shrugs. "I'll put on a tie if I get to see KT in a skirt." My mouth drops open. Did he really just say that? Why did he have to say that? The corners of his mouth quirk up. "Why do you think I show up for church on Sundays?"
I look at Natalie for help but all she does is giggle. David's still watching me, waiting for a reaction. I don't know what he's looking for. Responses flash through my mind, none of them appropriate. "I have to unpack," I finally say. My voice sounds squeaky, unsure, and it grates on my nerves because I'm not. I do have to unpack. And his comment doesn't deserve a relevant reply. He smiles again and that's all I need to ignore the awkwardness and refocus the conversation. I clear my throat. "So where do you want to eat, Natalie?"
"Anywhere is fine."
"It's your birthday," I say, "You should pick somewhere you really want to go. Do you want a soup and salad place? Or Italian food?"
"How about Torpo?" David suggests. "They're pretty nice."
Natalie slowly nods. "Yeah. And they serve a bit of everything too."
"Great, I'll make reservations." David grins at me and then turns back to her. "Now what say you to Adams?"
"The bookstore down on Groveney, Adams. You want to go get books?"
Natalie checks her watch "When?" She's supposed to meet Craig for dinner. They're going early to avoid the move-in day crowd. When she told me her plans this morning, I teased her about her freaky planning skills. She turned red and mumbled that it was actually Craig's idea. They're so well-matched it's scary.
"We could go right now," I say. With Natalie, a trip to Adams wouldn't be so bad. She neutralizes some of the weirdness with David. "If we get our books now, we'll probably get first pick." Classes officially start Tuesday. Most people wait until the day before to buy textbooks. There's so much to do during move-in weekend that it gets lost in the shuffle: the school-wide scavenger hunt on Saturday, house presentations on Sunday, meeting up with friends, turning in forms, attending orientations… Some people, like David, don't buy their textbooks until the first few homeworks have been assigned, turned in, and graded. He says earlier lectures are all fluff. But Natalie and I both like to get our books early. She likes them new. I like the ones bound together by duct tape, with rainbow colored pages from all the highlighting.
"I'm meeting Craig at the post office later," Natalie says, "I think I'll go before then. Why don't you two go together?"
I don't think I can survive another round of David's…Davidness.
"Do you really want to drag your books to dinner?" he points out. "Wouldn't it be easier to make two separate trips?"
Natalie looks thoughtful. Ah, ha.
"When are you meeting Craig?" he prompts.
"So if we leave now…say we spend about a hour at Adams, until four. You'll can come back here, drop off your books, and still be on time for dinner."
His words sink in and gel. Natalie nods and then we're out the door.
It's cooled down since noon and we take the scenic route through Davies Garden. The magnolias are in full bloom, pink and white puffs nodding over patches of green grass. It's peaceful here, away from the buzz of traffic on main campus and boxes filled with shoes and old love letters from a person best forgotten. I haven't been through here since last fall. The gardens are at the very edge of campus, where Grovney turns into the highway. It's a gorgeous spot, but it's always deserted because it's in the middle of nowhere. Few people have the time or energy to make the ten minute detour. The second we pass through the wrought iron entrance, the giddiness switch in my brain flicks on and the feeling spreads to my toes.
Natalie feels it too. She pirouettes over a rotting log and ducks underneath an umbrella of leaves. "So three AVIT students—a biologist, a chemist, and a physicist—walk into Davies Garden…"
"…and Nature asks, 'Is this some kind of joke?'" I say, finishing the AVIT saying. It's nice out here. The untidiness of the path is part of its charm. The easy sunshine, the thousand magnolia blossoms, and Natalie's laugh are infectious. I wish I could bottle this feeling. I would keep a supply in my closet. It would be something I would gladly unpack.
I fall instep with David. "We did it," I say, watching Natalie traipse from overgrown flowerbed to overgrown flowerbed, "We convinced her!"
He nods slowly. He looks from me to Natalie, and then back to me again, with an awestruck expression on his face, like he doesn't know what to make of our sudden unabashed joy. Silly David. Happiness isn't something you find and stash away for a more convenient time. When you stumble upon it, you should seize it, revel in it, because it might not be there if you try to come back again. People change too quickly and time moves too fast for any sort of guarantee. I loop my arm through his, wanting to pull him into this moment, wanting to share this bit of happiness with him. "David."
One, two. One, two. I feel him breathe in and out twice before he relaxes his shoulders. He turns to me again, waiting.
"We convinced her," I remind him.
He smiles. "Yes."
* The Beach Boys song at the end of Love Actually is "God Only Knows."
A/N: 5/21/09. It's been awhile. Two years…and some change. Chapter 20 will be up when 21 is written. No worries, the end is near!