March came and went. With the beginning of April, life seemed to get back to normal. Since basketball season ended, life for me was pretty free and easy. Sookie went back to working her former schedule of Monday and Wednesday afternoons, with occasional Saturdays. She still had random practices with the dance team since they would be in competitions until May. She had taken her SATs, we both got into a more regular schedule, and, all-in-all, life was good.
The afternoon everything started to change was burned into my memory. I saw Sookie off to work from the parking lot and headed home. On the kitchen table were two large manila envelopes addressed to me. My heart stuttered as I checked the return addresses. The first was from Tuscaloosa. Okay, University of Alabama. I looked at the second one. Knoxville. Oh God… University of Tennessee. I ripped open the Alabama one, wanting to delay my gratification… or disappointment.
I was in. I was accepted to the University of Alabama with a partial scholarship dependent on me playing football. I closed my eyes and sank into a chair in relief. I was going to college.
With my heart in my throat, I opened the envelope from Knoxville. Oh. Christ. I was in there too with the same offer as Alabama. I couldn’t help the celebratory yell I whooped that echoed through the empty house. I was going to fucking Tennessee!
I wanted to call Sookie, but I knew that Senior didn’t like his staff on the phone while they were on the clock. Pam was at play practice. Mom was on call in the ER until the next day and only God knew if Dad would come home at all.
I needed to share my news with someone. Not wanting to distract Sookie, I headed over to her house. I could hang out with Jason until she came home. I was relieved to see his pickup in the driveway. I was bursting to tell someone my news, but it wouldn’t be right to tell Jason before Sookie. I left the envelopes from Knoxville and Tuscaloosa in my passenger seat and knocked on the door, knowing that Jase would be thrilled to have someone play Madden with for a few hours until his sister was off work.
I was surprised to see the red Camaro in the driveway when I pulled in after my shift. I racked my brain trying to remember if Eric and I had plans. I didn’t think so, and I couldn’t think of any other reason he would be at my house waiting for me. I knew he and Jason were getting along, but I didn’t think they were at the “hanging out” stage.
As I passed his car, I saw two envelopes in the passenger seat. It was nosy, but I couldn’t resist. Every kid who has applied to college knows what envelopes that size mean. The little ones are rejections; the giant manila ones are acceptances. I saw the logos in the upper left hand corners. Alabama and Tennessee. He got into both.
For a moment, I wanted to head back to my car and forget I had ever seen those envelopes. I would be able to fake surprise when Eric told me, but more than that, I wanted to be able to ignore or forget what those letters of acceptance meant.
I took a deep breath and steeled myself for his news. I plastered a big fake smile on my face and greeted everyone as I walked through the door. Mom was cleaning up the kitchen from dinner and Jason, Daddy, and Eric were all watching Sportscenter. I could appreciate certain aspects of sports after being to several games, but I could not understand the appeal of three hours of random updates and on sports like golf, rugby, and cricket. It amused me that poker games were shown on ESPN. Being able to bluff and bet was not a sport.
Eric shot to his feet and he saw me with a gigantic smile on his face. God only knew how long he had been waiting for me to get home. As soon as I was in grabbing distance, he pulled me up the stairs to my room, with Mom shouting the “door open” rule behind us.
I grabbed some pajamas from my dresser and excused myself to take a quick shower to get the smell of grease off me before we talked. Fifteen minutes later, clean and comfortable in my jammies, I rejoined Eric in my room so he could tell me his news.
He sat at my desk and straddled the chair backwards, facing the bed. While I was showering, he must have run to his car and gotten the letters because those vile envelopes were sitting on my desk behind him. He gave me his panty-evaporating grin and held the letters out to me for read.
After reading what the letters had to say, I found I was actually happy for him. He been able to achieve something he told me he’d wanted since he started playing Pee-Wee football in elementary school. What kind of evil, heartless bitch would I have to be to shove my unhappiness over his success onto him, effectively shitting on his dreams and making him feel bad about something he was obviously proud of. I gave him the most genuine smile I could muster.
“Eric, this is great! I’m so happy for you, and proud of you too! I know you were hoping for Tennessee; were you expecting Alabama too?”
His smile matched the brightness of mine, but wasn’t forced. “I knew scouts from Tuscaloosa had been to some of the games, as well as Tennessee. I won’t be surprised if I get letters from Raleigh or Blacksburg either, but you know I’ve had my heart set on an SEC school.”
I did know that. I learned all about the different conferences on Saturdays and Thursday nights during the fall. I could appreciate the differences, and I knew why he preferred one conference over another, but all of it only meant one thing since he started getting acceptance letters: he was going to be leaving.
Since I really only had a little while left to do my homework before I needed to get some sleep, I congratulated him as many times as I could before I walked him back out to his car and kissed him goodnight. When I came back in, I bypassed the curious looks of my family and rushed back up to my room and closed to door. Try as I might, I wasn’t able to keep the pages of my history text from blurring through the tears that flooded my eyes, and I felt stupid. I knew this was coming. I had known for a while. I just hadn’t let myself realize how close it was.
I rested my forehead on my arms as I bent over my desk. I remembered how I felt when Rasul left the previous spring and knew that this would be about a thousand times harder than seeing him board a flight for Spain. I hadn’t loved Rasul. I hadn’t let myself, because I knew that things between us were going to end when they started. This was different in so many ways. I let myself fall for Eric. I was angry at myself for that. I had known better. As I mused over my own stupidity, I heard a soft knock at my door. Without waiting for a response, my brother slipped into my room and closed the door behind him. He wasn’t surprised by my tear-streaked cheeks.
“So what was he so determined to tell you? He got here just after I did and was bound to wait for you to get home to tell you something. Said that he got some news that he wanted to share with you first. Is this going to be something I need to chase him down and beat his ass for?”
I shook my head emphatically. “No Jase. It was good news. Really. He got acceptances from Alabama and Tennessee earlier today. You know as well as I do that Tennessee is his dream school. He wanted to tell me that he got in with a scholarship offer.”
Jason’s face split in a huge grin. “Well, damn! Good for him.” Then he registered the misery evident on my face. “Oh shit, Sook…” he trailed off.
“Yeah,” I confirmed. “Shit. He’s going to be leaving in four months. How the hell am I supposed to deal with that?”
He wrapped a strong arm around my shoulders and let me rest my head on his shoulder. “I wish I could help you out. I never had to deal with this. I don’t know if you were old enough to remember Desiree.”
“Dre’s girlfriend when he graduated? I vaguely remember her,” I nodded. She had been a tiny little thing, especially compared to my giant cousin. They had been together since the beginning of her freshman year, Andre’s sophomore. “Yeah… whatever happened to her?”
Jason shrugged. “Tuscaloosa was too far away. Dre was willing to try the long distance thing, but she wasn’t. She wanted something more than occasional holidays and seeing him only on TV on the weekends. She dumped him the summer before he left and started going out with Malcolm the same weekend he moved.”
While I could understand her motivations, I couldn’t imagine doing that to Eric and I told him so. “I don’t want to do that. I just don’t think I’m capable of hurting him like that.” I may not have remembered too much about the girl that did it, but I certainly remembered Andre’s heartbreak after it happened. “But I don’t think I want to try the long distance thing either. It would be too hard. It wouldn’t just be for this year…”
“Sook, what’s going on?” Jason looked at me suspiciously.
“I haven’t said anything to anyone yet, because I’m not sure how I feel about it… but…”
“Oh shit, you ain’t pregnant, are ya? I am gonna beat his ass!” His drawl always came out when he got worried or emotional. He stood up and looked ready to storm out of the house.
I had to chuckle and pulled him back down to sit again. “No, Jason, you’re not, because I’m not. You should know that I’m more responsible than that. No, I… um… I kind of applied Early Decision to Northwestern for their journalism program… and I got in.”
He stood again and wrapped me in a huge hug. “I’m so damn proud of you,” he almost yelled before I shushed him, reminding him that no one else, including our parents, knew yet. “So what does that mean?”
“It means that in less than a year and a half, I’ll be moving to Chicago. More than five hundred miles away from Knoxville. More than nine hours driving time. Almost seven hundred miles and more than twelve hours driving time from here. I’m not exactly going to be able to take little weekend trips home or to visit him. Hell, with what his schedule is going to be like, since his scholarship will depend on football, I wouldn’t count on him being able to spare time for me anyway.”
Jason thought about that while I ran to the kitchen to get a glass of ice water. I gave up on any attempt to finish my homework and just resolved to get up earlier than usual to do it before school. When I returned to my room, my big brother gave me another huge hug. “The way I see it Sook, you have a decision to make. First, are you even willing to try a long distance relationship? Nothing guarantees that it will work, but it’s an option. Second, if you aren’t, do you want to enjoy the time you have left together or end it now?” He flipped my lamp off as I crawled under the covers. “Oh, and you better tell Momma and Daddy about the Northwestern thing as soon as you wake up, because I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep that quiet.”
My dreams that night were more like nightmares. I dreamed that Eric went off to Knoxville and became the big football star that he always wanted to be. With me so far away, he fell back into his old routines and took advantage of the numerous women that would surely throw themselves at him. What appeal could a little nerd like me possibly have for a guy that only had to crook his finger and have any girl that he wanted? So many faceless, nameless groupies flitted in and out of his dream bed in my mind that I woke up with my cheeks drenched by tears I had cried in my sleep.
I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep anymore, so I floated to my bathroom to splash some cold water on my face to fully wake up and relieve the redness and swelling around my eyes. Since had a few hours before even Daddy would wake up, I forced myself to get back to the homework I had put off. About halfway through my assignments, I heard the heavy footsteps downstairs alerting me to the fact that my father was awake. I finished up the English test prep I was working on and drifted into the kitchen for an early breakfast.
“Hey, sugar. What are you doing up so early?” Daddy’s deep voice asked and I could hear the smile in his words. It was rare that he would see me out of bed at this time of morning.
I poured myself a mug of coffee and sat at the table. “Oh, I just didn’t sleep very well. I’ve been up for a while. I heard you up and moving and wanted a little company. Do you know when Momma is getting up?”
I heard lighter footsteps in the hall. “I’m up now, sweetheart. What has you looking like you’re about to jump out of your skin. You haven’t had enough coffee to do that yet.”
“Well… um… I have a couple of things to tell you guys.” I cleared my throat needlessly and waited for them to sit across from me. “So, the reason that Eric was here last night… he wanted to let me know that he had been accepted to both University of Tennessee and University of Alabama with football scholarships.”
Daddy clapped his hands together once and smiled. “Well, I’ll be. He’s a good kid. I’m proud of him. Tell him so when you see him. What’s the other thing?”
I was nervous about telling Momma and Daddy about Northwestern. It was so far away, but they had one of the best Journalism/Communication programs in the country. “Now, I did this just on a whim and I didn’t tell anyone because I didn’t think anything would come of it, but I applied to Northwestern Early Decision. I figured I’d be turned down and I’d have a whole year to apply to other schools… but they already accepted me.”
My parents looked at me with identical stunned looks. Momma was the first to come back to herself enough to ask a question. “Chicago, Sookie? Do you really have to go that far away?”
“Hush, Shell. I think she has more to say,” Daddy interjected and I was grateful.
I went on to tell them my reason, the only one that really mattered: the prestigious communications school that I would be honored to have a degree from. They had known since I was little that I wanted to be a writer. That had never changed, but my focus shifted from fiction to journalism once I joined the staff of the high school paper. I liked the challenge of writing objectively, especially since I was rarely someone who hid her opinion about anything. We talked about it a little more. While they were proud of me, and knew that Gran and Gramps had set up college funds for all us grandkids when we were babies, they begged me not to make any concrete decision yet.
I told them the deadline of when I had to either accept or decline the Early Decision acceptance and let them know I had some time to decide. I finished my coffee and went to shower before Jason woke up. I dressed and returned to the kitchen for breakfast. While talking about my own collegiate future with my parents had been exciting, I couldn’t help but feel my depression return when I thought of the dream that had woken me up so early.
I wished that had been the kind of dream that erases itself from memory as soon as you fully wake up, but it clearly wasn’t granted. I mechanically ate my biscuits and gravy and gathered together my books and papers from my room. Numbly, I put my stuff in my car and headed for school.
It was proof how messed up the dream made me when I parked and realized that, since I didn’t have either practice or work today, Eric would be showing up at my house any minute. Fuck. I didn’t have enough time to turn around and drive back. The only thing I could hope was that my parents or brother would tell him I drove myself and I could explain myself when he met me in the parking lot.
I leaned against my car and waited… and waited… and waited. I saw Trena’s dark green Explorer pull into the drop off queue to let Pam off at the sidewalk. I went to meet her before she got lost in the crowd as her mom pulled away.
“Where’s Eric,” I asked, trying to be casual.
She rolled her eyes. “Daddy came home last night and heard Eric’s news. He decided to congratulate him by taking him on a ‘Guy’s Only’ trip. I don’t know where they went or what they’re doing, so don’t ask.” She seemed very bitter, but Eric and I had already talked about his issues with his dad. I wasn’t about to talk about them with his little sister if he hadn’t.
“I had no idea. I’m glad I drove myself today. Do you know when they’ll be back?”
She headed off in the direction of her locker, on a different floor than the one mine was on. “Supposedly Sunday, but no guarantees. I’m sure he’ll call you when he can.” She said nothing else before heading up the stairs, leaving me looking at her back blankly.
It was unlike Eric to take off, especially with his father, and VERY unlike him not to let me know. Not even a text message or voice mail from him when I checked my phone before turning it off. Maybe I should get used to it now. In the near future, he would be gone and what I was doing would have no impact on his decisions whatsoever. Maybe this was what I needed. Some time away from him to help clear my head and decide what I really wanted.