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It is August 1996.

I am involved in a summer independent poetry workshop along with two classmates who are also beginning their senior year in the English major, Nate and Larry. It will give us three credits for summer and also give us fodder for the Distinction in the Major honor.

Nate, with his tribal thicket of black hair looks as though he has just stepped whole off the third spot on the evolutionary charts, is a Faculty Kid who has made an art of taking the path of least resistance. He looks like a hirsute Gilbert Gottfried and, as you might imagine, has not made much impact with the ladies. Larry, with his dirty blonde crewcut and crooked teeth, seems like an anachronism, maybe dispatched from Walton Mountain to show Gen X how to be strong and not so concerned with material things. His disposition is more that of an 80-year-old shaman rather than a twenty-something college kid. He lives in the attic of a house on the Bay and drives a car with holes in the floor, or, as he described it, ‘Like a sunroof, only for your feet.’ To this day, Larry remains one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met.

Sometimes we can coax some of our fellow students who stayed in town over the summer to join us. Bob is the elder of the group–a sage 30-year-old who has made an art of living up to the Gen X principle of underachievement. He has a bachelor’s in Theatre and a Master’s in English, but he kept the easy hours of a delivery person for Pizza Hut so that he could act in community theatre and audit undergrad writing programs. He reminds me of John Corbett’s character Chris-In-The-Morning on ‘Northern Exposure’. His hair is a work in progress and throughout the summer he has shown up with a long brown shag, a badly peroxided strawberry-blonde hack job and most recently, a black crew cut. I never see him clean-shaven, but he must be shaving because he always had stubble. His facial hair, much like Bob himself, is a mystery.

laurie is the only girl in the program whom I like, and also the only girl in the program who seems to like me. I don’t know why this is, but her matter-of-fact explanation is that the rest are posers just passing time until they get pregnant or become secretaries. I’ve written about her before. The girl Steven always called ‘the chick with the shit in her face’ (and which Nate said was a perfect description because she did, indeed, have shit in her face). Every poem laurie has ever written only uses lower case, including her signature and I have come to think of her this way, not as Laurie, but rather as laurie. Beat grrl extraordinaire.

On this night, we are meeting at Nate’s. The previous week, our poetry guru (and my undergrad adviser) read a poem that mentioned humus, the dark rich soil and moss, except that she had written ‘hummus’. We then had a big discussion about how much more fun it would be to lay down in hummus and smell the chick peas and garlic. And then we all declared that we could really go for some hummus and laurie, being the resident vegan, declared that she would make some at our next meeting. However, cooking and laurie only were very distant acquaintances, but she felt up to the challenge, since hummus just involved blending (‘Vigorous blending!’ Nate had added. He works at the Hippy Mafia Deli, so he was well-versed in such things.) However, we all somehow knew to bring other food as a backup. I brought a tabouli salad and a cucumber/tomato/basil concoction. Larry brought peanut butter, homemade jelly from plums he procured off the tree in his landlord’s yard, and a giant boule of French bread (‘It was the only vegan bread they had!’) Bob brought three mistake pizzas from work. The mistake was that they had meat on them. laurie, however, is classy and doesn’t say anything, as I knew that she wouldn’t. Especially since I had eaten cheese sandwiches (which was the cheapest thing on the sandwich bar but could be bulked up with a bunch of free lettuce, tomatoes, sprouts and spinach) for lunch with her for three semesters and counting. Our poetry mentor, Denise Sweet, has yet to arrive.

Nate is inside his two room apartment with the big bright kitchen and lovely floor to ceiling bowed window which dwarfs the closet-like living room slash bedroom that has only one window three inches from a garage and has been covered ceiling to floor in dark cheap 70’s paneling so that it feels like a cave. The temperature inside his apartment is roughly 96 degrees. Larry has been enlisted to scrub and then chop raw potatoes which will be tossed in olive oil and rosemary needles and then roasted, undoubtedly heating the apartment to a nice round 100, while Nate is attempting to whisk together a vegan ceasar salad dressing (which will become the Best Ceasar I’ve Ever Had In My Life) from a recipe out of Vegetarian Times. Nate has endeavored to become Boyfriend Material, which, in his opinion, involves making girls laugh, cooking for them, and after a long discussion with me about what I found attractive in men, wearing argyle socks and smelling good. We were to be the focus group for Project Mate Nate.

Bob and I have moved out to sit on the stoop of Nate’s giant Victorian-turned-Tenement. Eventually, the bugs will drive us back inside, but for now, it is a welcome respite. Also, we’re worried that Denise isn’t sure exactly where Nate’s apartment is, so we hope that she will see us, sitting there in the shadow of a hundred-year-old maple.

I pick up my notebook and scribble a phrase into it, but I can’t read what I’ve written and will have to wait until I go back inside to see if it is legible.

Two girls wearing just swimming suits and their brown tanned skin, more tanned than anything but also covered in a sheen of washed on dirt, scurry across and into and out of and across the road. These might be feral children. It seems possible, probable even. Their giggles are thick with purple Slush Puppies and they whisper to each other in a language indigenous to this particular six feet of grass between the sidewalk and the curb of Webster Street. Their hair is thick and tangled as a raspberry bramble, their eyes bright as berries.

‘Do you even think she’s coming?’ I ask, certain that she has flaked.

‘Don’t know. Does it matter?’ Bob replied.

‘Well, I’d like an A for this. If I get anything less than an A, my GPA will go’.’ I made the noise of the Coyote trying to drop an anvil on the Road Runner.

‘Ah.’ Bob breathes.

This was the wrong answer. I am so not cool that I make a pledge to myself to not say anything else for five minutes.

‘You know…it’s weird.’ Bob trails off. I wait for a few beats for him to continue, but he doesn’t, so I am forced to break my pledge.

‘What’s weird?’

‘College. You and I are the non-traditionals of the group, you know?’

‘Yeah.’ I was twenty-six. Almost everyone else in the English program was a standard twenty or twenty-one.

‘And sometimes, when we’re workshopping stuff, and I check out your reactions and I can tell that you and I are like the only ones in the room who get each other’s stuff.’

‘You think?’ I ask, puzzled, because sometimes Bob’s poetry is so out there and brilliant that I can only get a sense of the undertones, while all of my stuff seems insipid and completely apparent.

‘Yeah.’ He turns his head and looks right at me, but his eyes are in shadow and I can’t tell what exactly is being said.

‘Huh.’ I say, because I know that I have to say something, but haven’t any idea what it should be. I am cursing myself for breaking the pledge.

Across the gloaming, as streetlights flicker and buzz, about to fire, there are other people on porches, sitting in their own version of stasis. Bob and I watch as the red cherries of their cigarettes glow bright and then dim, followed by slivers of conversation that thread between the passing cars over to our own porch stoop.

‘Follow the bouncing ball,’ Bob says, apropos of nothing, but his voice is soft and intimate, as though he were whispering this to me in bed. I don’t know what it is about his voice. It’s a great voice and I want to believe anything it says. He’s an actor and knows how to use it well, I guess. It makes him seem strong and competent and if I did not know the details that belied that, I could believe this facade. However, I know that just the week before, he broke up with his girlfriend because she kept talking him while he was watching television, a rerun of Star Trek: The Next Generation he had seen several times already. He realized that he wanted to watch the rerun more than he wanted to talk to his girlfriend and ended it right then. This is how Bob makes decisions. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of Star Trek reruns. ‘So you broke up with her? Just like that?’ I had asked, incredulous. Bob had an awestruck look on his face, as though he had been transfixed by his own logical process. ‘Yeah’ well, I waited until the commercial.’ He had perked his eyebrows and cocked his head, as though to say ‘Imagine that.’

‘I don’t really think my poetry is about anything, actually. I mean, anything more than what it is about, you know?’

In the dark, I think I hear his eyebrow rise. ‘Does it have to be?’

His battered Converse shoe sneaks out and kicks at a weed creeping up between the cracks of the sidewalk.

‘No.’ I slap a mosquito on my arm.

‘Exactly. See? Exactly.’ He pulls his foot back up onto the step.

A slender figure steps into the puddle of streetlight. It is our adviser. She is carrying several folders. I recognize that they are our manuscripts, a summer’s worth of poetry. As she steps off the curb and makes a run to beat a speeding El Camino, she drops my pink folder. The papers slip out from between the manila and flutter in the hot wind from the traffic like moths in the streetlight .

From the darkness of a neighboring stoop, applause.