Six Degrees or, Why College is Awesome
© 2009 by Le Meg

Epilogue: Noah James

I had a crush on Gudrun Klein for about a year and a half, and I never did anything about it.

People tell you to just go for it, grab life by the reigns, carpe diem, and all that shit, but you know what? Fuck that. It's not that easy. All a pretty girl has to do is just enter the fucking room and my hands start to sweat. I swear, if anybody ever finds a way to literally bottle courage, they'd make a fucking fortune.

I would like to tell you that I despise men like Clinton Zane and that he doesn't deserve her, but I can't. It'd be a big fat lie and I've never been very good at that. Fact is, I admire the bastard. It's not even about Dru—it's about confidence. It's about looking life in the face and telling her to piss off, cause you aren't her bitch. It's realizing for once that nobody has all their shit together, that nobody lives a perfect life, but that doesn't stop them from actually playing the cards they were dealt. If good guys finish last it's because they never got off their collective asses in the first place.

Zane does that, and I admire him for it. If he wants something, he fights for it. If he has an opinion, he shares it. If he disagrees, he lets you know. And if he fucks up, he admits it.

I fucked up, multiple times, and it took me five months to admit it, and why? Because I didn't want sweaty hands.

Five months ago Dru gave Zane a second chance, Adam flashed Jenna and became her slave for life, and after hooking up, Boman and Liz realized they wanted more than sex. In every instance, long term commitment of any kind seemed unlikely—whether they flat out avoided it or simply thought they didn't have the time or the patience, before that weekend not one of them gave it serious thought.

But here we are, five months later, and all three couples are still together. And I'm pretty sure all three are in love, whether or not they've admitted it to themselves, let alone each other.

I know, because I asked. Because seven days ago, Eddie and Ben locked me in our apartment and staged an intervention, and I realized how far up my ass my head really was. (That's what Eddie said to me, anyway: "You wanna know why there's no sunshine in your life, Noah? Because your head is so far up your ass you don't even remember what daylight looks like.") I have spent the last six days trying to settle scores, make amends, and understand the impossible.

I even took notes.

We'll start with the guy who I thought (for much longer than I should have) stole my rightful place.

Noah: You don't mind if I record this, do you?

Zane: Are you serious?

Noah: You do know what Ben looks like, right? Big black guy? Arms the size of your head?

Zane: So he gave you the shiner, huh? Gave me one of those, too, way back when. "Just in case," he told me. Nice guy.

Noah: He means well.

Zane: So what do you want to know about?

Noah: Dru.

Zane: (flicker of annoyance) No. You know what? Forget this. I get that you've got a thing for her and you resent me, but you've got a lot of nerve—

Noah: (quickly) This isn't about that. (pauses) Okay, it is. But I'm doing this for me, Zane. This has nothing to do with you or her, this is for me. And I need your help.

Zane: (after a long moment of consideration) Fine. What do you want to know?

Noah: Just tell me about her. What you like, what you don't. Why she's the one who got you to settle down.

Zane: Dru is… (glances up, smiles after a moment) Well, she's Dru. She's smart, driven, she doesn't bullshit around, she's refreshing. Even after five months of arguing and being pissed off at her for never sugar coating anything. She isn't afraid of anything. Well, no, that's a lie, she doesn't really like dolls—apparently she had a bad experience with the Chucky movies. But she is seriously a kicker of asses. And she isn't afraid to kick mine. (a little more seriously) I need that. More than I'd like to admit. Dru got past the reputation. She gave me a chance. She makes me want to be a better man, to quote Jack Nicholson.

Noah: When did he say that?

Zane: That's the other reason I like her. Dru would know the answer to that.

Noah: (hesitates) Why do you think she picked you over me?

Zane: Because she wanted her ass kicked every once and a while, too, and you were never going to do that.

Noah: (bites tongue, counts to ten) Wow.

Zane: My point exactly.

But he was right. I would have bent over backwards for that girl. I would have changed everything about myself. In a lot of ways, I did. When I thought she liked Zane because he was an asshole playboy, I became an asshole playboy. And I hurt a lot of people. I used girls to feel better about myself. And not only did it not work, I lost myself in the process.

When I finally managed to corner Liz, she helped clarify things a little.

Liz: You're a fucking idiot, Noah.

Noah: Thank you, Liz. That helps. That really does help.

Liz: Hey, you came to me, buddy. Now sit down and shut the fuck up.

Noah: (sits down and holds out recorder)

Liz: You wanna know about relationships? Here's a fun story: That first time we met at the bar, I approved of you. You seemed like a nice guy. I thought, "Now here is a guy who won't string my friend along and make her think that she's finally found a boy who will help her get over the cheating asshole that is her ex-boyfriend only to screw her over in the end, too, and with one of her friends, no less!" But I guess I was wrong, wasn't I Noah? I was really fucking wrong about you.

Noah: (in the most pathetic voice ever to come out of a man's mouth) Liz—I'm sorry.

Liz: I am not the one you should be saying that to, douchbag. (grabs books and starts to walk away)

Noah: (follows) Wait, Liz! Please—ow, holy shit, that hurt!

Liz: That was a love tap compared to what I want to do to you. Why is that thing still in my face?

Noah: (still in pain) Boman. Tell me about you guys. How'd you make it work?

Liz: Because I wanted it to, Noah. Because that's what you do when you care about somebody. You fight for what you want.

I left Liz with at least three more bruises to compliment the black eye Ben had already given me. Jenna, at least, was a little nicer about what she had to say.

Jenna: Everyone make mistakes, Noah. That's a huge part of being human. But it's how we fix the things we break that determines who we are. It's how we deal with all the terrible things we're forced to deal with. Adam's stepmother is atrocious, and his cousin is even worse—but he rises above it. He doesn't whine at his dad, he doesn't get petty. He does the best he can, and when that doesn't work, he tries again.

Noah: What if the bottom falls out, though? What if the hole you've dug is too deep to get out of?

Jenna: (smiles) At least you recognize it's a hole you dug. That's a start. If you can do that, you can find your own way out.

Noah: Easier said than done.

Jenna: No one said it was going to be easy.

Liz made me feel guilty, but it was Jenna who made me ashamed. Walking away from her, I realized she was right. I realized I'd been thinking of myself as the victim. Zane was the bad guy, and I was betrayed, and I spent months walking around bearing a cross that was never mine to bear. I couldn't control who Gudrun chose to be with so I began to believe that everything was out of my control. And I couldn't have been farther from the truth.

I let it get this bad. It wasn't Dru, it wasn't Zane, and it wasn't life kicking me in the balls. Eddie was right. This was my fault, and if anybody was going to make it right again, it had to be me. But there were still some things I had to understand—there were still three people to question. So on Thursday I found Adam.

Noah: You and Jenna have been dating for five months, give or take?

Adam: Yeah, sure.

Noah: It seems to be going well. You guys look happy.

Adam: I am happy. Didn't expect to meet a girl like her stateside. But Jenna's awesome. I got lucky.

Noah: Have you thought about what'll happen after school's over? If you move back to Australia?

Adam: (pauses, runs hand through his hair) Yeah.

Noah: Well?

Adam: I don't know, mate. A lot's changed. Before I met her, I just wanted to get through school and move back home. But now there are other things keeping me here.

Noah: Like Jenna.

Adam: She's a big one, yeah, but it's not just her. My school's here—the connections I'll make with other cooks and restaurants are here. I'd have to start over in Australia, and I hate networking. My dad's here, too, and he knows everybody—that'd be huge. Plus there's stuff we need to work out, me and him, and if I move back… (shrugs) There's no telling what the future holds though. Do I love her? Yeah. But that doesn't mean me and Jen will still be together when that time comes. Things happen. You can't always control that.

Noah: Tell me about it.

Adam: (slowly) But I do think… I do think that I've changed since meeting Jenna. I think maybe some people are meant to leave a mark on you, make you learn something. Jen is one of those people for me. She's helped me realize some stuff, and I don't know if the same would be true if I hadn't spent that night on her couch. Does that make sense?

Noah: Unfortunately, yes.

It reminded me too much of what Zane had said to me earlier that Monday. I'll never tell him, but I googled the Nicholson quote: As Good As It Gets. As if the title wasn't enough of kick in the head, I went and rented the damn thing, and afterwards I hated myself more than I ever have before. Not only is it a movie I never would have expected that bastard to like, let alone quote, it made me acutely aware that not only did he deserve Dru, he was a better match for her than I was. And that hurt. A lot.

What if this is as good as it gets? What if I never wake up from this stupor? What if I keep blaming other people for my mistakes? Am I really the kind of person whose only happiness is in misery? Will I spend the rest of my life complaining that nothing every happened the way I wanted it to, not realizing that I could have stood up and done something to change all that?

I don't know what happened to me. I don't know why I let it get that bad. And I don't know why I treated Sarah like that. I don't know why I do anything, any more, and that, more than anything, has made me realize I don't recognize myself when I look in the mirror and see the pale skin, the bags under my eyes, or the bitter gleam of hatred that lingers even when I turn the light off. I don't know who I am anymore.

I went to Boman next because, apart from Ben and Eddie, he knows me better than anybody else.

Boman: You look like shit, man.

Noah: You should see the other guy. (pause) No, actually, I think I am the other guy. Damn.

Boman: I take it the interviews are starting to get to you.

Noah: Oh yeah. And I saved the best for last. I may need you to come by the apartment tomorrow some time so you can help me put my heart back in my chest.

Boman: (laughs) You know, you may look like hell right now, but you sound better than you have in a long time, Noah.

Noah: Why didn't you say anything?

Boman: I don't know. (hesitates) I guess I should have. You know, I've been there—I knew better. I know what it's like to get so low, and so used to being down there, and—I don't know, man. I'm sorry. Liz—

Noah: Hates me. I know.

Boman: She doesn't hate you. She's just disappointed.

Noah: She hits like a man.

Boman: (laughs again) She's definitely got some fight in her.

Noah: (hesitates) I know I haven't—I haven't been a good friend either. I know what happened between me and Sarah has made things with you and Liz a little awkward, and I'm sorry about that. I wasn't, before. But now—

Boman: You don't have to do this, Noah. I get it. Better than anybody.

Noah: That's exactly why I have to do this, man. I didn't get it—you and Liz. I didn't even try. I didn't try to understand Dru and Zane, either, and I made assumptions, and it's come back to bite me in the ass. I have to stop acting like a douchbag. (exhales slowly) I think she loves him. I know they aren't going to break up any time soon. I accept that. I lost my chance a long time ago.

Boman: (grins) Are you interviewing me or yourself?

Noah: Okay, here's your hard-hitting question, Mellows. You ready?

Boman: Bring it on.

Noah: I have never seen you stay with a girl for longer than two months, tops. And even then, you were still going out and flirting, keeping your eye on the options—don't disagree with me, we both know it's true. So my question, Boman, is this: do you love her?

Boman: (considers him) Yeah, I do.

Noah: Have you told her?

Boman: Not yet. (quickly, at his look) I plan to, don't worry.

Noah: What made you change your mind? About dating, I mean.

Boman: Liz. Chemistry. I don't know. It felt like more than sex. Or, like it could be more. She was somebody I wanted to know.

Noah: Not trying to jinx you here but what if it doesn't work?

Boman: Then at least we would have tried. And I'd still have the last five months—I'd still know how important she was to me, and how she made me want to fight for something. Breaking up wouldn't negate all that.

Going into the interview with Gudrun, I was more myself than I had been in a long time. Boman, Adam, Jenna, Liz, and even Zane had all helped me realize that regardless of what happens to me, regardless of how unfair or random it may feel, my life is still my responsibility, and my choices reflect the kind of person I am. And my choices lately… I wasn't proud of them. And I didn't want to be remembered like that.

I'd been nothing but rude to Zane from day one, and that would have to change. If his relationship with Dru was anybody's fault, it was mine, not his. I waited. I had plenty of opportunities but I never took any of them. I let a good thing pass me by, all because I was too afraid to act. And I had to live with that. But I also had to let Gudrun know why, and it took me all week to build up the courage to tell her the truth. That's why she was my last interview.

Gudrun: Noah, why are you doing all this? I talked to Eddie Tuesday but he wouldn't—

Noah: I have some things I need to get off my chest, Dru. And there are things I want to know. The interviews… Eddie and Ben made me an ultimatum, and I'm just honoring that. But all week I've been dreading this, and if you could just let me get it out, and be honest with me, I'd really appreciate it.

Gudrun: …okay.

Noah: I have been pissed off at you for five months because you broke my heart, but I took it out on Zane, and I took it out on Sarah, and on a whole bunch of people who didn't deserve it. I've had a crush on you—more than a crush—since sophomore year but I never did anything because I thought I didn't have to. I thought it was obvious, and figured we would just end up together because that's how the movies work. And I know that it was stupid of me to think that, and I that I should have said something much, much earlier than this. But I let it fester for five months, and I dug this big ass hole myself, so I'm trying to get myself back out. So this is my declaration, a year and a half late. I'm sorry I've been an asshole.

Gudrun: (hesitates) Noah.

Noah: I don't like myself any more. I'm trying to get back to the point where I can respect the person staring back at me in the mirror. I'm trying to accept that I can't control anything, and I'm trying to take responsibility for the things I can control, and just didn't because I was too afraid or angry or bitter. I missed out, and that's my fault. Now I'll never know if something could have happened, and I have to live with that. I have to learn from that. (exhales slowly) Now, I want you to be honest—please. Why him over me? You had to know.

Gudrun: (quietly) I knew. But I would have walked all over you, Noah. I knew that from the very beginning. Clinton won't let me do that with him. And as much fun as we might have had, I never felt for you what I feel for Clint. You will always be my friend, Noah, and I will always love you for that. But never the way you want.

Noah: (long pause) Thank you.

Gudrun: …are you okay?

Noah: Nope.

I'm not going to talk about how long I cried after that, or how all the hate I'd been feeling for the last five months was never as deep and as sharp as what I felt for myself then. I'm not going to talk about the despair. I'm just going to tell you that I went home, I locked my door, and I cranked up the volume on my stereo.

I told her I wasn't okay, and while it was true then, it was only true then. I didn't sleep much Saturday night. I kept replaying everything that had happened, all the terrible things I'd done or said, but for the first time I also started thinking about everything I'd learned. Not just from the interviews, though those had certainly opened my eyes good and wide. I thought about the last five months, and about sophomore year, and everything in between. Even from those horrible mistakes, the mess with Sarah, I'd learned something and that was invaluable. I still think it sucks that it all had to go down like this, but at least now I recognize the part I played. At some point, I picked up my phone and texted Dru "I'm okay." And the funny thing was, I meant it.

On Sunday I woke up after a few hours of sleep, threw on some clothes, and then drove to Sarah's.

She was smiling when she answered the door, but as soon as she realized who was behind it, Sarah's good humor faded into shock. Her face went pale and her mouth tightened, and then after a few seconds of numb staring, she turned around and walked away. I didn't stand there for very long before Liz threw the door open, her look of bafflement contorting into rage.

"What the hell are you doing here?" She asked, and I couldn't help but back up a step when I saw her fingers curl into little fists. I still had a very deep and purple bruise from when she punched me in the arm earlier in the week.

"I came to apologize," I murmured. I felt exhausted.

Liz took in my haggard appearance, suspicion still outlining her features. Boman came up behind her—apparently he'd spent the night—and she rounded on him. "Did you put him up to this?"

Boman glanced at me, eyes making quick work of my rumpled clothes and total lack of hygiene. "No."

"Will you ask Sarah if she'll speak to me?" I asked. "I only need five minutes."

Liz lost it. That's the only way to describe what happened. I thought she'd been pissed before, but it was nothing compared to the sudden explosion of anger and empathy before me now. I had no idea how much emotion she'd been bottling up over this, and from the surprise in Boman's eyes, I don't think he did either. He grabbed her before she could beat the hell out of me and pulled her back, kicking and shouting as she was.

"No! Let me go, damn it!" She struggled, in vain, to free herself from his embrace, but once she realized he wasn't going to let her go, she started yelling at me from his arms. "You can't do this. You don't get it. You don't know how many times he came to our fucking door and apologized, and promised it would be better, and that he'd never hurt her again. You don't get it, you never do! You all think you can just walk all over us and not give a shit what you trample, and I'm sick of it, and I'm not letting you get near her—"

She was crying by the end of it and I've never been more ashamed to stand on somebody's porch in my entire life. I knew there was a story or two in there I was missing—there was a whole slew of details that I just didn't know about, and I couldn't help but feel like it wasn't all about Sarah, either.

If Boman knew any better than I did, he didn't say.

Sarah came to the door then, teary eyed but determined, and hugged Liz. "It's okay," she murmured, so soft I almost didn't hear her. "It's okay, Lizzy. I'll take care of this."

Liz, still crying, kissed her cheek and then disappeared inside without another word. Sarah gave Boman a nod, and he sent me one last significant glance before going to find his girlfriend. And then it was just me and Sarah. She waited until she heard a bedroom door shut inside before she wiped at her eyes.

"She was cheated on, too," she murmured. "Did you know that?"

"I didn't." I thought back with increasing horror to all the nights I'd encouraged Boman to leave the collar at home and come out to one bar or another and knew, without a doubt, that I deserved every bruise Liz could give me and then some. To his infinite credit, Boman didn't always come out, but when he did, he behaved.

"I don't want to do this outside," Sarah said then, and opened the door for me. "Five minutes."

I exhaled with relief. The past week had tested the bounds of my humility, and at this point I had nothing left. I was guilty, I was ashamed, but I had nothing left to lose. The only thing left was to gain closure, however small and unsatisfactory it might be, and Sarah was the only person who could give it to me.

"I'm sorry," I began, and saw her mouth tighten. "I guess you've heard that before. And I'm sorry to do this to you again—you don't deserve it. But I'm not here for forgiveness, I don't expect it and you don't have to worry about any ulterior motives. I'm not here to give you an excuse. There is no excuse for what I did, it was wrong and spiteful and I regret it. I know I can't tell you it wasn't personal because I know it was for you, and I'm sorry for that, too. I was an asshole, and I treated you horribly, and I'll reap what I sow. But I want you to know that it wasn't ever about you. What I mean—what I did—I didn't do it to hurt you. I didn't do it because I didn't like you. There is nothing wrong with you."

Sarah hugged herself, tensing to keep the tears at bay. "What—"

"That's what I came here to tell you," I said, and frowned as I felt the burn of tears in my own eyes. Damn. "Maybe it's stupid or arrogant, but I didn't want you to think that it was you who did or said something, that you were somehow to blame for what happened. As far as I'm concerned, you were perfect, and I fucked up like the asshole I am and fucked you over. It's my fault. You deserve much, much better than that, and I would never be able to forgive myself if I knew you thought otherwise."

She sighed, and wiped at her eyes again. "Why did you do it?"

I hadn't been sure if she'd ask that or not, but I owed her an answer all the same. "I wasn't thinking straight. I—there had been vodka, but it wasn't that, not really. I just—" I sighed, and rubbed my eyes. Funny, I'd spent all night thinking about this, and yet it still hurt like it was fresh. "I thought if other guys could get away with it and still get great girls out of it, then why couldn't I? But what I was doing—I wasn't doing the same thing, it wasn't the same—"

She gave a small, depreciative laugh and it made me cringe. "Why did you even take me home? Did you even like me at all?"

"Yes." I replied, feeling helpless. "I'm sorry, Sarah."

She stared at the floor for a while. I didn't want to move without a word one way or the other—I didn't want to interrupt but I didn't want to presume either. But when she moved forward and put her arms around me, I can safely say it was not an outcome I'd considered. I froze, surprised, scared, and hopeful, and stared at the top of her head.

"Thank you," she murmured. The hug was firm, unexpected. She was so much kinder than I deserved. "I don't know if we can be friends, Noah. I have to think about this, and sort out how I feel. But I appreciate the courage it took to do this. Thank you for your honesty."

I put my arms around her carefully and took a deep breath, inhaling the warm, almond scent of her shampoo. It struck me, a memory of waking up one morning to that scent and a thunderstorm, and my throat tightened in response. "Thank you," I murmured.

She nodded, and then backed away.

I hesitated. "Is Liz…?"

Sarah smiled. It was small but it was there. "She'll be okay. She's a trooper."

"Okay." I nodded, and started for the door. When my hand touched the knob I paused and glanced back at her, and for the first time in a long time, I actually felt better. Not good, not happy, but better. And that was something. "See you, Sarah."

Sarah smiled again. "Maybe."

Author Note:
As you have by now noticed, the epilogue is written quite differently from the other six parts. Some people seem to love it, others hate it. I could write a long essay about why I did it or what I wanted you all to get out of it, but I think that would be an insult to creative freedom and to your imaginations, so I won't. That said, I would love to hear your reactions, not just to the epilogue but the story as a whole. Did you enjoy it? Was the format intriguing? Did you take anything away from the story (besides a healthy blush from part five)? Are you convinced that the whole thing was terrible and I should never, ever post another story as long as I live? TELL ME. :D

BIG THANKS to Joa for helping me with Adam's parts. She checked over his thoughts and dialogue for me and made sure they were up to Aussie par. You're a good one, my dear.