Dropout Dom – Episode One
Eli glared at his phone. Professor Randal’s face smiled next to the email in the inbox, and he pursed his lips as he opened it. As he’d feared. Three paragraphs of squiggling black greeted him.
“For fuck’s sake.” He frowned.
“Problem?” Charlotte sidled up to him.
“Look at this.” He handed her the phone. “Ten bucks says that’s a ‘come to my office after class’ email. Only he takes three paragraphs to say it.”
She squinted, then huffed and pulled her glasses off the top of her head to in front of her eyes. “Eli…concerned with your lack of enthusiasm…failure to hand in the latest…large percentage of your final mark…you aren’t taking this class seriously…your future studies at this…yada, yada. Yup.” She handed his phone back to him. “You’re in shit. He wants to see you in his office at five today.”
“He couldn’t just tell me that in class?”
She shrugged, put her glasses back on top of her head, then hitched her pack to a more comfortable position. “Maybe he didn’t want to single you out?”
“Because he has such a problem doing that all the rest of the time. You’d think we were the only two black people in the entire university.”
“He’s not even black. He’s brown.”
“You see? Exactly my point. He just won’t let me flunk quietly out of his class like every other undecided general arts student does.”
“So he likes you. Poor baby. You do know that the students he likes get the best assignments at his dig site, right?”
Eli groaned. The last thing he wanted was a chance to dig up charred rocks with a spork. “I am not cut out for this.”
“No one’s cut out for anthro 101. They only offer it because it gives them a ton of free labour to scrape the topsoil off a 3000-year-old campsite What you need is something where you can help people. You’re wasted on the echoes of the ancient dead. You need to be around live people. They love you. You love people. Mostly, you love to help them.”
“Do I though? Do I really?”
She rolled her eyes. “Cut it out. You know you live to make people happy. You know what you need?”
“I’m sure you’ll tell me.”
“You need a night out. You need to find you a guy who’ll lay himself out like a buffet for you and beg you to eat him whole. The ultimate opportunity to indulge your weird obsession with being the guy who makes everyone smile.”
“I am not that guy.”
She stepped in front of him, faced him and stopped. “Who made sure Kathleen got chocolate cupcakes on her birthday?”
“And who found Damien the perfect houseplant for his new place after Sharon kicked him out and flushed his cactus garden down the shitter?”
“And who, may I ask, traded his coveted last serving of curly fries at lunch today for Demeter’s salad, just because the apples in the salad made him tear up because he was homesick?”
“I mean the guy was practically in tears over a few apple slices. What was I supposed to do?”
“Wrong! He just wanted those fries, and he knew you’d cave. He’s so got your number.”
“He’s twelve,” Eli muttered. “He has no business being away from home that young.”
“He’s seventeen. So is every other first year student on the common.”
“No. You’re freakishly old. Practically geriatric.”
“Twenty-six.” He stepped around her and continued down the hallway towards their anthropology class.
“Why haven’t you picked a major yet?” She asked, jogging after him.
“Why haven’t you?”
“I’m only twenty-two, and I was busy.”
“So was I.”
“I was in B.C. handing out food vouchers and blankets to homeless teens.”
Eli rolled his shoulders. “I was saving up. University’s not cheap.”
Once again, she hopped in front of him and stopped him in his tracks. “So then why are you pissing this expensive education away?”
“You said it. It costs a fortune. You’re not even trying. It’s like you don’t care.”
He scowled at her. “I care.”
“Not about school.”
“What do you know?”
“I know you. You bend over backwards to help people, yet the idea of doing one thing for yourself, like picking a fucking major, makes you clench up like a virgin’s asshole at a fisting party.”
For a long time, he stared over the top of her head. He could feel her glaring at him. He wanted to refute her.
But she wasn’t wrong.
“Eli.” She placed one tiny hand on his bicep and squeezed, surprisingly strong for such a mini-person. “Go see Randal. Talk to him. You still have a week to withdraw and think this through before you lose the entire year’s tuition.”
“You think I should quit?”
“I’ve never quit anything. Ever.” Finally, he looked down at her. “Not ever.”
“Then don’t think of it as quitting. Think of it as pivoting.”
He bit his lip and she patted his chest, then swung around to walk next to him again. “You know,” she said, “I had a friend in elementary school.”
“You had a friend?”
“Haha.” Subtly, she shifted their trajectory to walk through the doors into the student commons, instead of through the doors leading to the stairs and up to their class.
He noticed but let her do it.
“This friend had a weird habit.”
She looped one arm through his. “Whenever they had to read out loud in class, they suddenly had to go to the bathroom. Or didn’t feel well. Or had forgotten their book. It was always something. They never copied notes off the board. If there was a sign or poster in the hall with information, they’d say they hadn’t seen it and ask what it said.”
“Really?” Eli tugged to get his arm free.
Charlotte held tighter. “It was never obvious, unless you caught on to the pattern.”
“Things like getting annoyed and showing me an email and somehow getting me to read it for you and tell you what it said.”
They’d reached the middle of the commons, and Eli yanked his arm free. “I didn’t ask you to read that.”
She wasn’t put off. Instead, she pulled him onto a nearby couch and moved close enough to speak quietly. “You didn’t have to. You never do, because I recognised the pattern. Only because I’ve seen it before. With Jan, it was because they’d never learned how to read English. They were Chinese. Their parents didn’t even speak English. And they could read and write their own language. But they didn’t get English, and they never got a chance to practice because their parents didn’t let them hang out with anyone who wasn’t Chinese. Th weren’t even allowed to speak English at home.”
“I can speak English just fine.” Sweat had begun to trickle down Eli’s back. He could imagine how this Jan kid must have felt.
“So could he. Not the point.”
“What is your point.”
She scooted around so she was facing him, practically in his lap. Her face was soft but set. Determined. ‘You can’t read.”
“I don’t know why. But I know you can’t. At least not well.”
For a few minutes, Eli concentrated on breathing too shallowly through parched lips. He didn’t figure she needed him to confirm her guess.
“You don’t have to even tell me why. But you have to tell Randal.”
“They’ll kick me out.”
“They’ll kick you out if you fail. But if you tell them, they can help.”
He shook his head, sinking down until his shoulders were pressed into the low back of the couch and he could drop his head back to stare at the ceiling. “No. They can’t.”
“Trust me. People have tried.”
“How are you going to get through four years of academia if you can’t even read?”
“How am I going to tell my father I crapped out of University? He wanted this for me so bad.”
Charlotte made a soft sound as she snuggled down beside him and put her head on his shoulder. “That’s dumb. What do you want for you?”
Eli closed his eyes. Licked his lips. Then gulped. “Not this.”
“And you know that’s okay, right?”
“My dad is going to be so pissed.”
“So let him. You’re grown fucking man. He can deal.”
“I’m all he’s got.”
“Oh honey. You’re all you’ve got. This is your one life. Don’t live it for him, no matter how much you love him. Give him a chance to love you back by letting you live the life that means something to you. And if he can’t, fuck him.”
“You make it sound easy.”
“Simple. Easy’s a different thing.”
She quickly pushed to her feet, turned to face him, and took both his hands. “Come on.”
“Pub. We are going to get you a beer before you go tell Randal you’re dropping out.”
She grinned at him.
“Yeah. A beer sounds like a good idea.”
“I know. I have lots of good ideas. So after you trash your university career, I’m taking you out. I’m going to introduce you to some friends and take you to the best gay bar in the city.”
“You reinventing me all in one night?”
Another grin. “Gonna give it my best shot. At least you’ll be on a more Eli Benson shaped path.”
Maybe. Maybe not. But she was right that this wasn’t his path. As he followed her towards the pub at the far end of the student commons, he felt almost like he was floating. For the first time since he’d left high school, he didn’t feel like the world was swallowing him whole.
It wasn’t such a terrible way to feel.