The room is like a symphony. Kelly’s wedding reception commences on the bottom floor of a giant hotel in Fort Lauderdale Florida. A loud, official voice announces the bridal party, and they march down curving gold staircases at the front of the room. Kelly’s family loves parties, loves laughter, and they all cheer her on and click their spoons against the glass, urging the new couple to kiss. Official waiters in tuxes serve a sit down dinner on the finest plates. The guests awkwardly, amiably chat amongst themselves. I toy with confetti on the table, looking at the table of Covenant College friends across the room. I watch Steven telling the whole table jokes.
Steven and I had taken a road trip together. I needed a ride from Covenant College, a Christian, liberal arts school in Chattanooga, to Orlando, and this older soccer player with a mini-cooper and empty passenger seat was more than convenient. Covenant didn’t have football, so soccer was it; and Steven was the cute soccer captain. I’d heard stories of how Steven would dance to N’Sync with his hallmates. I’d heard he was also a Floridian. It was winter break, and I needed a ride home; time for shyness was over. I called him, requested a ride—I’d cover have of his gas for the trip—and the plan was set. The morning of the trip we met for the first time. And that was a grand day.
It was December 19, 2002 and we sped down I-95 going south. Away from campus, it was easier to speak of what we really wanted, from dating and kisses and having too much passion to be godly. I grew up sheltered, and at eighteen had never been kissed, so even talking about kissing was dangerous. Steven admitted that chastity was difficult. I blushed. I turned on a mix tape my best friend from high school had made. He laughed at my trying to belt Whitney Houston’s “I will always Love you.” He joined in when Disney songs played, knowing all the words to “Newsies” and “Aladdin.” We stopped at Dairy Queen for Blizzards, because it seemed ludicrous to pass up 99 cent ice cream. It was that kind of day. We platonically debated about “behavior that which should not be continued.” Steven had had girlfriends. We both admitted to loving “Tombstone” and “Zoolander” and did our best to mimic the male model infatuation with “orange mocha frappucinnos.” We talked about Socrates and the life worth living. I was so sure about things back then.
Steven dropped me off and we didn’t hang out after that, but he would say hey when he saw me on campus. I was only there one more semester.
Now, Kelly’s getting married. It has been years since I have seen most of these faces. Last time I looked at them I was working at Covenant College’s bookstore, stoically shelving giant textbooks and filling orders. I had come back to campus early in the summer of 2004 to pick up hours.
“How was your summer?” Kelly had asked. She had returned to the mountain our school was on with even more enthusiasm than usual, after rest and the warmth of summer sun. I didn’t have an answer for her. I didn’t have an answer for any of my friends, so I left; I dropped out. I still didn’t have an answer.
“So you just weren’t cut out for Covenant were you?” Steven says. He asks and leans forward with all sincerity and honest blue eyes that are not blinking while they
unknowingly pry at my pain that three years has not lessened. The reception dance music has slowed, and I’ve finally made it to the table of Covenant kids.
“It couldn’t have been a money thing, if you went to Rollins. Why did you leave?” he says. Kind, popular Steven looks at me, the twenty-three year old Alanna. My hair is perfectly messed up from the rain on the way in. Florida weather makes no exceptions for weddings, but my hair decided to be flexible, wavy and romantic. I smooth the folds of my silky blue dress, enjoying the fact that I’ve lost weight since college and feel confident strutting across the floor. I feel pretty. Catching up with an old friend should not be too difficult. He’s safe, sweet and maybe even unjaded by all he has felt of life thus far. I could tell him why I left, couldn’t I?
“No, it’s not that. I wanted to go back. I really loved it there.” I say, protesting his assumption that it was just bad chemistry between Covenant and me that caused me to drop out two years in, the summer before junior year, the time when you finally really adjust to your social circles and proudly pronounce who you are to the world. .
“Really, I loved it there.”
He doesn’t seem convinced.
“I moved back home because I got sick.” This part I mumble through. I say sick with a nervous glance away, wondering if he will recognize the euphemism, but also speaking with the kind of controlled, sincere tone that tells a listener that asking questions can be disastrous, can bring tears unwelcome. It is wedding time. Smiles are proper accessories and mourners politely keep silence. I continue to explain what has happened since Covenant.
“I was able to finally finish school here, and now I am just waiting to see what I will do next.” I say. I finish the sentence with rising intonation, implying every bit of false enthusiasm that a girl whose dreams are lost can muster. A girl who took six years to finish college because she was sick.
“So, are you working now?” he asks.
“Yeah, Starbucks. It’s okay. I mean, everyone loves coffee.”
I tell him my job, the sum of who I am on this Saturday, meanwhile the music changes to a crazy Indian dance song. Steven jumps up.
“Be right back,” he says, and grins at Kelly and Ryan, getting set to put on a show. Somehow all the other Covenant kids know a dance to this song, so they rush to the wood dance floor and mimic the people in “Monsoon Wedding.” I wonder how I missed out on this cultural trend. Here I thought knowing the electric slide and Macarena would cover me for at least another few weddings. Steven comes back to the table, catching his breath.
“Where were we?”
“Jobs. Starbucks. Yeah, that’s all I got.”
“I’m an accountant now.” Steven responds, stretching in his gray suit. He tells me where he his now. He tells me he studied hard for the CPA. He leans back, raises his arms and folds his hands behind his head. This boy’s found success. I hear the realization of dreams, the optimism of youth, a calm that knows nothing of storms. But perhaps he has no storms.
He keeps talking.
I am not listening, just feeling everything underneath my shortly phrased regret. “I wanted to go back. I really loved it there” is what I had told him. This is not like saying, “I wished I’d tried harder in school,” or “those were the good ol’ days.” No. I wasn’t a drop-out who partied too hard. I didn’t just get tired of studying and quit.
If only I could just tell him my future was snatched from me, and I dreamed painful real dreams of going back. Dreams dipped in seroquel. Dreams, where I willed myself back up the mountain, and back to the lookout. Dreams that forbade me to wake up to the consciousness of being lost. I hate waking up, still. Miles from my friends, my school, and my mountain.
The wedding reception is full of the old classmates, the sane ones who kept in touch with each other. These are the philosophy boys I used to pine over. I had classes where I did my best to keep up with them, and when that failed I could just muse of over the mystery of their plaid shirts, their corduroy pants and their funny unkempt hair. There’s no guarantee that if I stayed I would have found a husband among them, but shouldn’t I have gotten a fair fight with no leaving halfway through battle?
“Yes, I enjoy accounting.” He keeps telling me about how satisfactory his present is. He is eager to share. And I listen, choking back tears.
It was time to cut the cake. We ran over to crowd around the happy couple. The DJ changed the song and brought people back to the dance floor. I found a seat, since my most of my friends had left. I watched Steven dance, noticing a wedding band around the hand he waved in the air. Eventually he came back, breathless from dancing.
“Yeah, (gasp) I got married two years ago and here’s a picture of our baby girl. Here’s a picture of my wife.” He clicks through his cell phone.
“She’s cute. What’s her name?”
“Illana, kind of like yours.”
“But not.” I say, with all seriousness. All the seriousness that says that is not my life, but know I am happy for you.
“Oh, I love this song.” He runs back to the dance floor.
I stay. I stay by myself eating the wedding cake. I stay repeating in my head, ‘I wanted to go back. I loved it there.”