Welcome to the Jungle
University life was supposed to be a difficult adjustment. It could have just been that he didn't take the time to think about any difficulties he was supposed to experience. His first day on campus he'd walked into his dorm with no thought but that he would conquer the next stage of his life. Just as he had succeeded at everything else. He was determined to be more than a success in his studies. He aimed for phenomenon. No longer forced to concentrate on maintaining a façade of the carefree young man, he was free to dive into books and classes with the monomaniacal intensity of an addict trying to get contact his dealer. He loved the freedom of being able work at any hour without having to explain himself. On the days when he feared that he would be dragged into the undertow of coursework he didn't have to come up with a reason for his silence. His classmates soon learned o stay away if they saw Jimmy surrounded by stacks of books and notes in the back of the dining hall. He was too busy carrying on a conversation with himself to be bothered with human interaction.
"So, how's college life, little brother?" Matt asked.
"At the moment, it sucks. I had to drop my Tuesday night Lit course—you know, the one I convinced my advisor to let me take."
"Good! I'm glad you dropped at least one class. I'd say you should drop another two or three. Relax, Jim, there's no competition. I don't care if you're more successful than me. And I doubt Tom gives a shit. You can always take that class in summer school if you can't stand being less than a semester ahead," his brother's laugh carried out of the payphone's handset. Matt was teasing, but summer school was a serious consideration.
Staying as far ahead as possible was part of the plan. Not that he really knew what that plan was leading toward, or if it was a plan, a path or some other predetermined, unexamined course from which he was unable to divert himself . But he was certain that it was important to keep his eyes in the general direction of where he thought the prize might be located.
Matt was as close as Jimmy got to unbiased information about what was happening back home. He sensed that his parents edited out important details and Tom never called. "What's Tom been up to?" he made a point of asking that question at some point during each phone conversation. "I haven't talked to him in months."
"You and everyone else. He comes and goes. Margie's a saint for putting up with him."
When he talked to his brother the conversations ran a predictable course. Matt would pick on Jimmy for working too hard. They would talk about the family or mutual acquaintances. Jimmy would give a vague description of what he was doing at school. But it was easier if no one went into much detail.
Tom was nowhere to be seen when he'd been home for the summer after his second year at university. Jimmy wondered if his brother was pissed off at him. Matt told him not to take it personally.
"He's just busy is all. Margie's pregnancy has him lighting fires everywhere he can. Talked to him about two weeks ago, he sounded tired. Mom says Margie seemed really distracted when they had lunch the other day. But what do you expect, the girl's carrying around a kid. That would distract me."
"Yeah. I should try to get a hold of him. But I'll be home for break Nothing much to report anyway. At any rate, doubt he cares that my prof is a bastard or how sick I am of cafeteria food."
He was facing down the end of the 1980s. Edging towards, and then hitting, the two decade on the planet mark and only a few credits shy of senior status. Nothing was going to slow him from starting med school before he could buy a legal drink. If he ever paused for a moment and thought about it, he would've probably felt extremely proud of himself.
"Hey, Jim, you want to go down to the Union?" Scott, his roommate asked. "They're showing A Fish Called Wanda at the theatre."
"I've got work." Piles of books and note cards surrounded him.
"Jesus, put away the books and relax a little. Try not being such a tight ass. It's practically a Python reunion, how do you pass that up?"
"I pass it up by having work."
"You're pissier than usual. When was the last time you left this closet and did something fun?"
"Just go to the damn movie. I have a paper to write and if you're not here I can work in peace."
Conversations like that became normal. Scott stopped bothering to ask him to go places. People wondered if he was all right. Once, the subject had come up over lunch and he brushed off. But he decided to make a point of being social, if only to avoid conversations like that.
A couple of times a month he would go out. Always in well planned bursts of spontaneity, with as many friends and acquaintances around as possible. He'd listen to conversations for details about the Thursday night bar crawl and show up in time for the second or third round. He equipped himself with a fake ID. The drinking lightweights were already on their way to idiocy by then and the professionals were happy to have fresh blood to add to the round buying pool. The girls were more relaxed by that time, too. That was a benefit. He got drunk on over-priced watered down beer and punctuated his comments with the ever present Camel cigarette. Smoking was one thing he wasn't proud of, and he'd never let on to his parents that he'd acquired that addiction. He knew what smoking did to a body He'd seen the pictures and read the horror stories. He knew it didn't match his chosen profession. Deadly addictions clashed with white lab coats. The idea of offering the patient a Chesterfield cigarette before delivering bad news gave him dark amusement. At that moment in his life smoking was relaxing, and it was how he'd met most of his friends. "Gotta light?" was a foolproof ice breaker. Too busy with studying any other time, when he was standing out front of the campus buildings with the other smokers it was only polite to share witticisms in between drags.
It was outside of the Page, the sci-tech hall, that he met Lily. She'd bummed a cigarette off him and they'd stood smoking and watching passing coeds for close to a minute and a half before he'd realize she was in his OCHEM class. She sat in the second row on the left side of the room. He sat three rows behind her. He didn't recognize her, so he didn't think about where she sat. He saw the textbook.
"You're in Stephens' OCHEM, then?" he'd asked.
"Wondered if you would recognize me," she smiled.
"I recognized the book." He took a drag from his cigarette and watched a couple on bicycles weave through the crowd on their way to a class somewhere else on campus.
She smiled and brushed a few stray hairs off her cheek. "Charmer. You must have women falling all over you. How do you fend them off?" She was teasing him, flirting, trying to draw him into the game. He didn't take the bait. She inhaled the cigarette and brushed his arm lightly as she lowered her hand. Taking a step closer to him she attempted to look into his eyes, but he stared somewhere across the green. "Hey, what're you thinking about that's so important?"
"I don't have time for this shit," he tossed the butt onto the concrete and ground it into the sidewalk. He turned and opened the institutional glass doors of Page Hall and headed towards his chemistry class.
"He's a moody son of a bitch, isn't he?" asked one of the other smokers.
A moody son of a bitch. That was one way to put it. He probably would have just called himself focused.
Two weeks before winter break, right in the midst of preparation for finals, Matt called.
"You talked to Mom or Dad?" he'd asked.
"Not in the last couple of days, something up?"
"Margie had the baby last night."
"This early? No one bothered to call me. That's really nice. I might not live there anymore but I'm still a member of the damn family.," He was angrier than he should've been. "Jesus, Matt."
His brother sighed. "I'm calling now, Jimmy. No one-" his speaking didn't trail off. It just stopped.
A knowing infected his blood and his bones. "The baby," he whispered. His throat grew tight as he braced himself for the inevitable news. His fingers wrapped around the collar of his shirt. He pulled down on the fabric. A button popped off and fell to the floor. It landed with a flat tic, hardly any sound at all but it filled Jimmy's head
"He was stillborn," his brother's voice was ragged.
"Goddammit. I'll come home."
"You have work."
Emotion stuck in his throat. Whether it was anger, sadness, confusion or a combination didn't matter. He thought he should cry, but not where everyone could see him. "And I have a family…I was supposed to be someone's uncle. Fuck school."
"Stay away as long as you can, little brother. You don't want to be here. It's better if you're not." He sounded beyond sad or tired. There was a new tone to his voice. "Mom told me to make sure you know you're not to come home until break."
"She makes it sound like I'm still eight years old. I don't get a say in this?" He closed his eyes and raised his free hand to the side of his head. He curled his fingers into a fist. His attempt at a deep breath made his body shake, his lungs catch. His chest ached. He was dizzy.
"For fuck's sake, Jimmy. You don't want to see this, okay?" Matt's voice was loud. "What's going on here, it's….It sucks and if you're lucky you won't ever have to see it first hand."
They didn't speak for a moment. Jimmy tried to regain his composure. "What's Tom doing?"
"I don't know," Matt's answer came out like a sigh.
"How do you not know?" The tears he refused to shed fought his decision.
"I haven't seen him since he left the hospital last night. He isn't home or at Mom and Dad's."
After graduating from high school Tom had gone on a three week road trip. Until he'd been gone for nearly two days without calling no one had worried.. Everyone agreed he was a little impulsive. His actions were thoughtless, but not vindictive. Three days after he left he'd called from a hotel in Indiana. He said he wanted to see the country while there was still time. His father had screamed at him and his mother had calmly implored him to be careful. Matt and Jimmy decided amongst themselves their brother was the definition of cool. He was a rebel, like James Dean or Dally Winston. In the following years that had been his pattern, leaving without notice, returning without explanation.
"You don't think he's gone off again, do you?"
"Yeah, I do."
Tom didn't come home during the preparations. While the family mourned the loss of the child, he was just the unasked question that filled one of the empty spots at the table. Stuck several hundred miles away with huge amounts of work and very little time to do it, Jimmy had no time for proper sadness. Nor did he know how. He tried to trudge through the days, with no thought of anything but work.
The first two nights he sat in the common area of the dorm watching television
"Are you watching this?" someone was blocking his view of the screen.
The television was on, he could see it. That qualified as watching, but he had no idea what was playing. "No," he answered.
Earlier in the day, he'd smuggled a in a bottle of bourbon. He had been making regular trips to his room to dilute his Coke. By the time Letterman began his Top Ten list the drink was liquor and ice.
He was completely wasted.
That was what he was going for.