He hated this part. Feeling the sweat welling around his neck. Heart pounding as he prepared for disappointment. Eyes burning as he sized up the look of the envelope. Fingers tingling as he felt the texture of it. This was the worst part of the process, and it zinged him every time he got here. But it was the most essential element. He’d never know where his future would take him if he kept it shrouded in mystery. As nervous as the envelope made him, he knew he couldn’t ignore it. No postponing until after dinner or sometime down the road when Google replaced the human stomach with an iron bubble incapable of queasiness from unchecked butterflies. It had to be now. Rejection or not.
Jimmy Grogan marched across his living room to the back hallway like a confident soldier who knew a sniper was targeting his brain but pressed on, anyway. Even if fear raced through his head, he could not let it to show. The external often affected the mind, and walking in stride was one way to trick it into thinking fear was under control.
He got to his bedroom and sat at his desk. The room was thick with humidity, but he wouldn’t let it distract him. The air-conditioning was on, so the humidity was self-inflicted. Mind over matter and the moisture could dissipate. He took a deep breath. Then he pressed his fingertips against the edge of the envelope and felt his throat tense. He really hated this part.
After a quick, hard blink, he tore the envelope open and watched as the letter fell out. It was printed on standard white paper, folded into three parts, deceptively simple, yet obviously heart-wrenching. It was also closed. No room for sneaky peeks.
He stared at it for several minutes. Just as he expected, it didn’t try to open itself or flit to the floor where he could forget about it. No, it just sat there, as an obedient sheet of paper would do in the realm of physics. Jimmy cringed inside. There was no avoiding his fate, which it held under its folds. He’d have to open it and look inside. People who said they loved him would ask him about it later. His answer to them couldn’t be a shrug.
He dug his fingernail under the crack in the fold and flicked the whole thing open, revealing the ugly or beautiful face of words that stuck to the page inside. The sheet spun a little to the right, showing the message at an awkward angle. But, regardless of orientation, he couldn’t unsee the words that his eyes glimpsed.
We look forward to your enrollment this fall.
Jimmy’s heart pounded as his brain interpreted the message. The words unscrambled into a discernable piece. Little by little they made more sense the longer he stared at them. For the last several months, he had gotten over twenty similar envelopes with look-alike sheets of paper inside, but none ended with a congratulation. Not even one. So he didn’t know how to react to this.
Then he checked the envelope again to see which university it had come from. His heart slowed. It was not his first choice. Or his second. Or his twentieth. But it was a choice. Somebody wanted him. This was huge.
* * *
The family had decided his accomplishment was restaurant-worthy, so his parents and his Aunt Barbara conspired with his girlfriend to take him to his favorite place, a small eatery in the back corner of town that shared parking space with a gas station and served gourmet peanut butter sandwiches as an entrée. The others didn’t love it like he did, but this was his day, so it would also be his dinner.
After the main courses arrived—Jimmy had ordered the peanut butter coconut sandwich on Panini, dashed with paprika and cinnamon and served with mixed nuts and fruit on the side—his dad raised a wine glass to his son and smiled.
“My proudest achievement,” he said.
Jimmy smiled, not so much at the toast itself, but at the admission that he was his father’s favorite kid.
“I had my doubts initially,” his dad continued. “In fact, even on the day you were born the doctor threatened to slap me for what I had done. Jokingly, of course. That’s what he told me. But you grew on me. Now here you are about to embark on the greatest journey of your life, and I can’t believe it.” He closed his eyes and shook his head, either to hide his tears or to feign his pride. “Who would’ve thought?”
Jimmy’s mom nudged his dad’s forearm. He looked down at her and smirked.
“Not to sound demeaning, of course. What I mean is, I’m happy I didn’t break you along the way. You turned out all right.”
“Unlike Beth?” Jimmy asked. He could feel the smirk on his own face now.
His dad looked down on him.
“Buddy, you know how I feel about stupid questions.”
“Sorry. Was cracking a joke.”
His dad shrugged.
“No, of course I’m proud of Beth. Never doubted her. But you know—”
Jimmy’s mom nudged him in the arm again. He shook his head and sipped his wine.
“Look, I’ve got great kids. Couldn’t be prouder of either of you. Even if, you know, it did take one heartbreak after another to get there.”
He looked down at Jimmy’s mom again and waited for her reaction. When she didn’t nudge him a third time, he took another sip, nodded at Jimmy, and then sat down to give his dinner his undivided attention.
Jimmy’s mom took that moment to make her own toast. She was drinking water.
“Unlike your father,” she said, “I’ve always believed in you. Since even the beginning. You always knew what you wanted, and you often went up and got it.” She paused in thought. “You’re just like me in that regard. So I’m proud of you, too, but I’m not surprised. I knew you’d wow me. Even during high school when . . . you know.”
Jimmy frowned at that last remark, but his mom must’ve noticed because she smiled, cleared her throat, and gestured her water at him. “I know, er, you made your choices because you valued your time, Jimmy, something that most kids aren’t smart enough to do for themselves, and, er, even if your grades didn’t reflect your intelligence, I’m still proud of you. Of course I am.”
Jimmy smiled at the compliment. His mom was supposed to say nice things about him. That was her job.
“So when you go off to college next month and begin changing the world, you still won’t surprise me. You have great genes and they sure will shine.”
At that, his Aunt Barbara laughed. Then she covered her mouth with her fist, said “excuse me,” and then sipped her strawberry daiquiri. Jimmy’s mom frowned at her. His dad was thumbing through the bills in his wallet, so he wasn’t paying attention to either of their reactions.
Dinner out was beginning to resemble a dinner in, and Jimmy could sense the need to interject. So before their table could experience a confirmed change in temperature, which he knew was coming any moment, he stood and addressed his family. He didn’t have a drink in hand, but he thought it was important to speak to them, nonetheless.
“First, thanks for getting me this far,” he said. “I know we were hoping for Cornell, but there’s nothing wrong with the school I got into.”
His dad grimaced, then shrugged. His mom politely smiled. His aunt sipped her wine. He glanced at each of them and frowned. They didn’t seem to agree on this. They seemed happier with the fact that he got in somewhere. If he were being honest with himself, he’d agree with them. He really had botched high school despite his good intentions.
But, as always, the one who swooped in to make him feel better was the pretty blonde sitting beside his mom, and that amazing blonde slid her chair back in preparation to strike again. Melanie, his high school sweetheart of six months, stood from her chair, held her water high, and saluted Jimmy with a bright smile.
“So the school we got into isn’t the Ivy League,” she said. “But we can still make the most of it. It may not open every door to our future that we may want, but it’s where we’re going now, and we will nevertheless storm its gates together and do what we can to turn it into an A-rated center for genii.”
“Geniuses,” corrected his aunt.
“Geniuses,” Melanie said. She sipped her water.
“Here, here,” his family said in unison.
“We can succeed there.”
“Here.” His family clinked their glasses together.
“Our school is just fine!”
Everyone glanced around to see whether Melanie’s slight outburst had garnered any attention. When it seemed no one was looking back, they each glanced at her again, then returned to their plates where they picked at their food. Melanie kept her smile bright.
When Melanie sat down, Jimmy’s parents leaned in, whispered something to each other, and then broke apart with a smile.
“Besides,” his dad said, “do you really want to go to the same school as your sister? I mean, enjoy your freedom, now that you have it. Right? No fear of comparisons between you. Every kid’s dream. Right?”
Jimmy felt a lump in his throat. Even though he didn’t want his parents to know, he had wanted to attend his sister’s college because she was smart, and Cornell was awesome in his mind, and he thought of the many doors that could open to him if he were to graduate from there. The school he was about to attend wouldn’t offer him the same hopes or promises that Cornell could have offered him, and he was annoyed at himself for blowing off most of his classes his senior year for the sake of enjoying life and his precious time. But the school could still offer him a degree of some sort. He was certain it was accredited. It was actually the school’s motto: “Hang Your Future Here. We’re Practically Accredited!” A little different from Cornell’s inspiring motto about its limitless inclusion for any person seeking any field of study, but still promising, potentially.
“I mean, they have a great dental program from what I understand,” Jimmy said. “One out of every fifty students gets a job, according to the brochure. That’s a big deal.”
“The biggest,” his family said.
Melanie clapped at the statistic.
“Especially in this economy. And that’s not to exclude their star program, anger management. The success rate there is—” He noticed his parents shaking their heads. The looks on their faces were grave.
“No?” he asked. Then he thought about it. “Oh. Well, they have a good dental program there, so I hear.”
Jimmy sat down. Stared at his peanut butter coconut sandwich. The school he was going to wasn’t his first choice, and wasn’t any better than his last choice, but it was the one that decided he was worthy for its student body, despite his poor high school performance, and that made it a star in his mind, even if it was the kind of star that lost its luster after years of trying to shine without great success.
“And Melanie will be there,” he said as an afterthought.
Melanie smiled at each of them, flashing her perfect ivory teeth.
“And I’m going to be that one in fifty,” she said. “I’m so looking forward to dentistry. It’s a dream come true.”
They spent the next few minutes picking at their food, chatting about things unrelated to Jimmy’s future, and fighting over who should get the last roll. Then his aunt handed him her cellphone. He didn’t see if she had made the call or taken it.
“Hello?” he said into the receiver.
“What’s up, little boy?” said the voice in the earphone. It was his sister, Beth. “Heard you got into the college of your dreams today.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t know if I’d call it that, but—”
“Right, but it’s the one that takes anybody who knows how to sign a check. Got it. So I wanted to congratulate you on getting away from Mom and Dad. But don’t tell them I said that.”
“Don’t have much time to talk. Got a deadline in the morning. But I wanted to say this in case I can’t give you your obligatory pep talk for a while. So here it is. If you want to go far in life, remember where you come from. Don’t forget your family or your friends when you hit it big. Success is a monster with its own problems, and you’ll be grateful to have someone to lean on. Now, don’t lean on me because I’m busy. But find someone to latch onto. It’s unhealthy, but it’ll take much of the burden off of you, at least until things blow up in your face. I wouldn’t recommend Melanie. She’s nice, sort of, but she’s likely to send you to the gutter. You can do better. Don’t tell her I said that. Also, I wouldn’t expect much from that school. You’re better off going to community college, and you know I would never recommend that. Still, something to think about. You should always strive for the best, not what you actually get. What else? Something to do with vegetables. Brush your teeth. I don’t know. I’m sure you’ll think of something.”
Jimmy rocked his head back and forth. “I don’t understand what you’re telling me here.”
“Ignore my advice and you will. Love you, little bro. Sounds like you’re ready for that school. I mean, a cat would be ready for that school, but . . . I’m going to hang up now.”
His sister hung up on him. He stared at the phone as if the phone itself had found a voice and used its first words to insult him. As a writer, his sister was capable of coming up with a more inspirational speech than whatever mad thing she had just said to him. But the more he thought about it, the more he was sure her entire call was just one big practical joke. Playing pranks on him was kind of her thing. He handed the phone back to his aunt. Beth would call back in a few minutes, tell him she was kidding, and laugh at his gullibility—he was certain of that. It would be her send-off.
“Who was that?” his mom asked.
“Beth,” he said.
“She give you good advice?”
“Not sure. She sounded drunk.” Might’ve been part of the joke.
His mom looked confused at that statement.
“I’m proud of my kids,” he heard his dad say. Jimmy looked up to see him talking to the server as he handed his money over. The server stuffed the money in her book and walked away. Jimmy couldn’t tell if his dad had been talking to her or to himself.
“I think she’s gonna call back,” Jimmy said.
Except, she didn’t call back that night. He frowned as he went to bed. Beth was really good at playing him.
He clutched his blanket to his chin and thought about the journey ahead. He realized his support system was present but a little thin. Nobody actually wanted him to attend that school. But they were still encouraging him to go. He didn’t understand it.
He shook his head. They should’ve talked him into holding out for the next school. There were still better ones that had yet to respond. A few, at least. Maybe there was a chance he could go out on more stable footing. He was disappointed that they wouldn’t tell him to write this one off and wait for the next one. He wondered if that was what Beth was trying to tell him. Then again, she wasn’t making any sense.
He reached over to his lamp and turned out the light. Sometimes, in times like this, he wondered how he could be related to these people, or how they had kept him from running out in traffic in earlier years. He decided they never lived close enough to a highway for that to be a problem. Maybe living in a quiet neighborhood was their way of looking out for him. He’d rather have a more interactive approach, though. Some real counsel would’ve been nice. The truth was he wasn’t a cat. He knew he wasn’t ready to attend the worst school in the country.