The world runs off of rules. Science, language, human relations... rules. Some are just theories and some govern every aspect of our lives. It's kind of amazing when you think about it. Because of the inverse square law, gravity is actually one of the weakest invisible physical forces. There are 46 chromosomes in the human DNA, half from each parent. The verb "to be" is the most used verb in the English language, and considered a sign of weak writing when it's overused. Waiting a week to call someone who gave you their number is a myth. I think.
Oh, and the geek never gets the girl.
"So she finally took off."
That was me. Brian Johnson, age seventeen.
"Well, she did always carry that shit in her purse..."
And that was Andrew Clark, age eighteen.
"Sorry to hear that, really. Did she say where she was going?"
"No, if I knew that I'd... I don't know what I'd do."
We both had the collective problem of being a little in love with a crazy person who had a desire to disappear. Andy at least had that returned in its own twisted way. But I was--am--a geek. And Andy was the star wrestler. There was no competition though because he'd decided to be my friend.
I armed myself with the shades that Bender had left with us. "Move on, there are other fish in the sea." And that was bravado in a jazz man's kind of voice.
And he smiled that slow and easy smile that the All American Boy could pull off. Even if I knew better, even if we all knew better about the act, we couldn't help but let ourselves be fooled. There were secret signals in the hallways. Notes left in lockers. It had all been Claire's idea, even if it was a shitty one in the end.
We had made a pact. Even if we all couldn't be friends like we wanted to. We'd made a pact and in three years it would come true. Three years.
"You're right. Other fish."
I had a pile of notes.
Someday, someone would invent a way for people to talk about the things on the inside and keep up their life on the outside. It was shitty, but I had to be some kind of idealist since Allison had gone. It really said something about people if the crazy one was the conscience. Part of me wanted to protest, wanted to shout that these other lost people were just like me but no one would believe it. Us weirdoes were the only ones that ever talked to each other in person. And Andy. Andy who wouldn't talk to me as much anymore.
I read some Moliere today. - Claire
Her notes always smelled good too. It was like even her paper was expensive. I dug further into the notes, because it seemed they just piled in my locker. I thought for a while I was what held us together, that perhaps it was geeky old me that reminded everyone.
I think I'm not going to blow my ride. I don't know. What do you think? - Andy
Because I was the smart one, maybe. Probably because it wasn't the way it was like with Bender and Claire, Andy and Allison--there weren't those kind of volatile things wrapped up in me. I liked to think it was more than just being safe. I liked to think a lot of things like that.
I was probably being stupid, though.
"Hey Brian, you ever think about how this would have been had things been..."
"Different? It's ok. It doesn't have to be."
The girl ran away and we only spoke when we were waiting to leave.
When there were no more lockers we kept in contact, the kind of contact that people who know each other better than anyone else but never actually spend much time with each other can. Claire went to California, Bender went to the corner store, Allison was still MIA, and Andy... Andy went to college. Sports. Took his ride as the chance to escape, like I think we all hoped he would.
And maybe during my freshman year, fighting for my spot amongst all the other valedictorians and salutatorians that went here, maybe my heart died a little. In this world full of adults with superior intellects, maybe I started to buy into the propaganda. Engineering didn't leave much time to sort through anything other than LaPlace transforms and RLC circuits, and I forgot things.
They were still there, under my twin bed, hiding out in a shoebox. Notes left in lockers when no one was watching. A postcard from Venice Beach, and another from France. I always figured, I was so idealistic to think I would be the last to forget. Maybe to spite, I was the first.
I sat at my desk puzzling over control theory. My roommate threw me mail that I didn't read for weeks. That was me--Brian Johnson, age eighteen--on the way to becoming my worst nightmare.
He was starting to put on some weight and it showed around his neck and chin the most, making his face look a little more squashed. I passed right on by him on the way to the lab, and he demonstrated that he was still strong--the grip on my arm was tight. But when we faced each other, it was surreal.
I wondered what I must have looked like. Had I changed enough inside for it to show on the outside? I hadn't slept well in the three days before because of this circuits project--and I never looked in the mirror when projects are going on. When you go to college for academics, a lot of things stop mattering. I was surrounded by people just like me, only smarter. Letters are replaced by decimal points and maybe it is true that people can become a little like machines.
"Andy." I should have felt bad that I almost forgot his name, but all I felt was a little static electric shock, not even enough.
"So, how's it been? You get my letter... you seem surprised."
I had bundles of letters. Andy had kept sending them even after Claire's postcards stopped coming and Bender's magazine clippings of shit that was supposed to interest me had long since gotten stuffed in a drawer. I had to get another shoebox for his letters. The last dozen were unopened.
"I've been kind of busy." There was a girl once that would have cringed at such a cold phrase. She stood between us, but wasn't there. Just a ghost smoking black cigarettes that smelled like cough syrup--it was a weird memory that shouldn't have been there.
"You busy right now?"
"I've got to get to the lab." Was that really me, saying that? Was I really there?
"I'll be around for the weekend... seeing some people I know around here. You want to meet up?"
One more string of numbers, hastily written on an outstretched palm like girls did in movies. I hadn't really thought of girls much, outside of hormones, and it was odd that I thought of them then.
"Give me a call later."
At twenty years old, I'd finally lost my heart, and not in the way I should have.
It was dark and cold when I finally left the lab, but my room was warm. My roommate snored and the desk lamp kept flickering. I didn't check for phone messages, I only read, read until I started to wonder if I would need glasses like my father, considering the eye strain. There was nothing unusual, at first, just the typical "how you doing" and "college is fine" sort of unwordy dull crap.
But then, as if seeing Andy in the flesh was a sort of codec, it all began to make sense.
Hey, you remember how we used to wait around after school when your club was over and my practice was done?
Did I remember? What was high school really, but a holding cell. We were always just waiting for our parents to pick us up until we learned how to find our own homes. But he wrote like that time was some magical thing. Maybe I'd seen it around; the beer-bellied former heroes pumping gas and talking about the good old days with a lot of the same people that they had always talked with.
So what are you doing to change the world?
Maybe, in the back part of my mind that hadn't been polished by competition to a sharp point, I felt bad for them. Because it was people like me that had elevated them to a place they could never live up to. But it wasn't like Claire had said. It wasn't like that at all. People just naturally reacted to modern day heroes, positive or not. That was the magic of people like Andy, but people like me grew out of the need for heroes.
We wanted to change the world ourselves, but even then...
I threw my jacket on and nearly tripped on my way out of my dorm room. I had to figure out why--because it didn't make sense at all--why Andrew Clark had held onto me more than he had glory.
"Hey. Didn't know if you'd come here."
I'd called from a pay phone because I didn't want to wake my roommate. But really, it just helped to distance that old life with this new one. Some distancing, though, standing so that his broad shoulders blocked the cold wind. Dodging between lab and class and the dorms made it so that I usually didn't feel it, but standing outside long enough was starting to make my fingers numb.
"You said you'd be around."
"Yeah. So how've you been?"
"Busy. I'm up for a possible internship."
Did we really have these awkward pauses and shifty postures? We'd never been buddies in the cop show sense and this nagging little voice in the back of my mind said we weren't really friends either. But there was a connection once that was supposed to last longer than the hurt and anger in the world. Wasn't it?
"You know, it's not the same without you around." He scratched the back of his neck in a way that was almost nervousness, and was one of those kinds of gesture a nerd like me wouldn't be able to pull off the same way.
"Really?" I really wanted to say, 'was I ever really around?' and I wanted to shake him out of whatever had him fixated on this idealistic past. It would have been a... a waste to see him end up just like everyone else.
What have you done to change the world?
"I don't know man... people are different now, you know? They just don't... they don't..."
"Seem to care at all."
I saw it then for what it really was. And it wasn't the shadow of a girl that we'd barely even known. It was kind of scary, because I thought this kind of... thing... was for those creepy guys that wore makeup or hung out in parking lots passing around disease.
It was me, at seventeen again, realizing that heroes needed smart sidekicks because otherwise they'd get ray gunned.
"I'm sorry Andy. I d-didn't mean to turn out wrong."
We leaned together outside a parking garage. Even if I couldn't feel my hands, they were probably the only thing that was numb.
The world's built on rules. But some rules are trickier than others. Like electronics, there's a positive and a negative. And on an even deeper level it gets to where we haven't been able to make up rules at all. Only a semblance--odds and probabilities.
"Hey, you going to sit there all day or are we going to get food?"
Sure, the geek doesn't get the girl. But odds are? He doesn't really need her anyway.
"Just a second, Andy."