I screamed into a pillow in my tiny dorm-room. My professor expected me to send him a thirty page paper on prehistoric technology and culture by midnight. That wouldn’t have been so bad if I had started working on it in time, but I had been in the hospital for two weeks because of a lung infection. Yet, Professor Gilman still wanted me to send him a midterm paper! I knew everyone said he was a stickler for the rules but man, I did not expect him to have no empathy whatsoever.
So here I was, sitting on the edge of my tiny bed, trying to spew out whatever garbage I knew about cave men from tens of thousands of years ago. The paper was probably going to be full of spelling mistakes and the structure would be all over the place, but at least I’d have something to show after five straight hours of mindless typing. Books lay scattered all over my bed, marked with sticky notes and stray strips of paper. I also had fifty tabs open on my laptop, all about stuff like the invention of language or bone tools and how different places invented different things at different times. Fifteen of those tabs were scholarly articles that were so hard to read, I almost wanted to jump into the Charles river. This was the bare minimum amount of research I’d need to not fail Gilman’s class, but a part of me wanted to just throw it all away and take my chances with a heaping helping of word stew.
But the class would be competitively graded and none of the other students were gonna take the assignment lightly. Man, how I wish I was back in my crappy high school. Knowing basic English and Math was good enough to ace any class back then. Why did I have to come to this godforsaken university, anyway? Would’ve been so much easier going to the local public university like all of my friends did. Then again, it was a stretch to call those people my ‘friends’. I only stuck around them to pass the time, score some booze, maybe play a few video games or whatever. But eventually, talking to them made me feel like I was losing a brain cell with every utterance.
You say you like Kim Kardashian’s new clothing brand? Oh, I’m sorry I didn’t see the hockey game. No way, did your little sister really eat her own hair? Wow, I never knew you won the unofficial glue-sniffing competition in your old middle school, congratulations.
Yeah, those sorts of conversations got real old, real quick. And don’t get me started on the dating scene, jeez. I couldn’t stand any of my old girlfriends and, to be fair, they couldn’t stand me. After a few lame dates, we’d sleep together, just to see if that would change things, or because we were hormone addled teenagers and liked doing it. But, honestly, it would make things awkward when we eventually broke up. Can’t trust teenagers to be cool around people they’ve slept with, I guess.
But whatever, I was just procrastinating by thinking about high school. I was in college now, at the place I said I always wanted to go to. Gotta say, the novelty wore off real quick. One month in this place was enough to make me feel like I was drowning in papers and problem sets. The professors expected everyone to spend all their time studying or doing homework. I used to love reading when I was a kid, but after being assigned hundreds of pages every day from archaic tomes or new books mimicking the old ones, the scent of paper began making me nauseous.
The worst part? I had no idea what I wanted to do. This was my final semester here, so I really should’ve figured something out by now, but I hadn’t and it was stressful as hell. I majored in Humanities and Economics, but man did I have no clue what to do with that. I’d taken a bunch of silly classes this semester, just to meet the university’s requirements, but none of them had made it easier to make a decision about my future. I’d taken some advanced French classes because my French had gotten rusty. I spent some time brushing up on my Latin and Greek on my own. I loved learning new languages, but I definitely didn’t want to go into any language-related disciplines.
Hell, going into anything that would force me into the realm of academia was off the table. Even if I loved History—despite what my dislike of Gilman’s class might suggest—I wasn’t about to spend my life paging through documents, and establishing timelines or whatever. Literature, even of the comparative kind, wasn’t really my cup of tea, especially now that I knew how much reading that would actually involve. Philosophy and Sociology were fun little experiments that I’d toyed with in previous semesters, but they were squarely in the realm of self-improvement and learning, especially because logic and research were fun to learn about, but a pain to actually do.
I had the same issue with Science. Physics was wondrous, Chemistry was magical, and Biology was noble, but man, was staring at treatises and picking through equations a massive pain. Engineering at this college was particularly grueling, and I absolutely did not have a head for computers. Mathematics itself was sort of fun until proofs became like tougher, more mechanically structured essays. Really, anything STEM related was more trouble than it was worth, even if it could lead to a steady, profitable career.
God, I got distracted again. Maybe I needed to clear my head a little. It was late, but the weather had finally warmed up enough for a late night stroll. I grabbed a light jacket, folded my laptop into my backpack, and slipped into my sneakers. I stopped at the door, grabbed a couple of books from my bed, and finally walked out the door.
I walked past a couple dozen doors. Most of their occupants were asleep or were feverishly working on assignments like I had been. The smell of various substances filled the hallway, an inevitable consequence of living in this place in the mid-twenty-tens. I heard some quiet music coming out from a half-opened door on the floor beneath mine. A young woman lay sprawled on her bed, book on her face, fairy-lights twinkling like stars. I shook my head. She was the closest thing to a friend I had in this place, with both of us having joined the board games society. In fact, we were the only ones in the society from our year.
It wasn’t the most glamorous of societies, and quite honestly, we played little more than chess, monopoly, and dungeons and dragons. Still, it was the only place I could go and have fun without stressing out about stuff. I’d already sworn off of drinking and partying after I blacked out in my second week of college only to wake up in the hospital. Apparently, I’d stripped out of my clothes, run around the campus making weird noises, and fought some random dude who beat me up and handed me to the campus police. The police then took me to the hospital because I’d passed out in the middle of the street, inches away from a speeding unicyclist.
Yeah, I’d rather be a boring dungeons and dragons nerd than die like a clown in a circus accident. Anyways, I’d come to care a lot more for the nerds in this society than I had for most other people in my life. So, I sighed, stepped over to Samantha’s door, and closed it. I was definitely going to make fun of her for her Hello Kitty poster in the morning, though. What was she, ten?
I left the building under a barely visible new moon. On the bright side, no pun intended, the lack of a moon meant there was just enough darkness for the most luminous of stars to peak through the Boston-Cambridge light bubble. I strolled through the remarkably bustling streets, admiring the sky and breathing in the fresh, almost-spring, air. There were almost no cars at this time of night in this part of the campus. A group of people walked by with greasy slices of pizza on paper plates too small to hold them.
I got startled by a cat. It darted out from behind a streetlamp and rushed right past me. I cursed under my breath and continued walking. Eventually, I came up to the fence in front of the Charles river. There was a couple making out on the bench near the bridge, and I figured I’d give them some space by going the other way. Eventually, I came to an empty stretch of pathway, with a single streetlight, a couple of trees, and a wooden bench. I’d never walked this far along the river before so I didn’t even know this bench existed, but I figured it was as good a place to start working as any.
I sat on the bench barely illuminated by the streetlight, and took out my laptop. Under the sparse stars and the shade of the spruce trees, I hammered away at my paper, finally finishing it just a few minutes before midnight. The internet wasn’t working this far away from the campus buildings, but I’d managed to make do with the tabs I’d already opened and the couple of books I’d brought with me. I transferred the document to my phone and sent it off to my professor via cellular data. God, what an awful assignment that had been.
I stretched. My stuff was scattered all over the place, there was a cramp in my neck, and I could’ve sworn the streetlight had been dimming as the night wore on, but I didn’t care. It felt good to be done. I lazed around on the bench, kicking my feet up on my opened backpack, and took in the view. For all its faults, this place definitely had its moments.
A gentle breeze rustled the leaves and grass. It blew over the river, making the serene waters a little rougher. There was a dull thud near the rails in front of me. As if something had bumped into it from the back. Curious, I heaved myself up and walked up to the banks of the river.
There was a small boat tied to a tiny pier just below me. The boat wasn’t one of those fancy speedboats some of the rich alumni came in to taunt poor schmucks like me, but a crude wooden craft that I couldn’t quite classify. It was too dingy to be a dinghy, and it was certainly no yacht, even though it was styled like one.
I had no idea who would tie a boat all the way here or why it was such a weird little thing, but I was craving a little excitement after having typed up thousands of words on flint tools and ancient irrigation canals. I found a little staircase cut into a bend in the rails, a few dozen feet down the path. I packed up my bag and hauled it over my shoulder.
The stairs were very steep and each landing was incredibly small. Small clumps of algae had grown on the stony steps, making them uneven and slippery. I hugged the edge of the railing with my hands and carefully made my way down to the thin strip of rock that connected the stairs to the pier. I shimmied across the strip, water lapping at my feet, and finally made it onto the pier.
The boat had been abandoned. I could tell now that I was close enough to see inside it. It would have barely fit a single person, even before it had decayed into the wreck that was barely managing to float in front of me. I thought about stepping foot on the thing, but decided against it. As much as I disliked dying to that unicycle like a clown, walking onto this thing would mean I might as well have glued a red-nose to my face and cha-cha’d straight off a cliff.
Amused by my own humor, I sat on the edge of the pier, legs dangling right above the water. I tossed aside my sneakers and put my bag near the back of the pier. Sometimes, the waters kissed the bottom of my feet. The streetlight had definitely been growing dimmer all night, because although I was further away from it now, I was sure it should not have been this dark, even at midnight.
I fished around in my jeans’ pocket. I opened a pack of cigarettes, popped in my headphones, and put on some relaxing tunes. I wasn’t a regular smoker, since I knew it was bad for my health, but well, it was fine, once in a while. Or at least that’s what I told myself.
It was really dark now. Sparks flew off my lighter as I tried to light my cigarette. Damned thing wouldn’t light at all, must be out of fluid. I sighed, put the cigarette back into its pack, and stuffed the pack into my pocket. I kept the lighter in my hand though, fiddling around with it as my head was filled by chill, relaxing music.
In fact, the music was so chill and so relaxing, I began to bob my head from side to side, while singing a happy tune. I don’t know what happened, since my mind was empty, and I wasn’t really thinking about anything at all, but I had this weird feeling in my chest. I felt like I could see myself from a birds-eye-view, dangling on the edge of a pier on the Charles river, fresh off a lung infection and a hurried mid-term paper. Lost, in more ways than one, and with barely a plan for the future.
I felt like I’d achieved my childhood dream and now there was nothing left to motivate me. Nothing left to make me want to push myself, to hold myself accountable, and give my life meaning, direction, purpose. I started to cry. Not like, sorrowful, painful tears, the kind a kid might let loose after hurting himself. Nor like something that came with loss, like the kind I’d let loose when my mom had died in my senior year of high-school. On my eighteenth birthday, if you can believe it.
No, these were empty tears, ones which definitely had some meaning, but whose meaning eluded me. God, I doubt this would even make sense to other people, no matter how I tried to describe it. It was like water had suddenly begun dripping out of a hollow vase, but you knew there was no sorcery involved. You simply did not know how it got there.
I closed my eyes as the music ended. Before the next track could start playing, I heard a creak. I turned around but couldn’t see anything. Another creak directed my attention to a line on the pier, a line I soon realized was a crack. I bolted upright, which was perhaps the single stupidest thing I had ever done in my soon-to-be short life. The crack widened from my sudden movement, a particularly rough wave pulled the boat into the pier, shattering it from the side. The wood snapped from the other side and before I could even begin to step towards my backpack, which lay safely on the other side of the crack, the entire structure collapsed into the water.