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Sara K. Penrod

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Coming of Age in an Age of Logic
By Sara K. Penrod
Friday, June 02, 2006

Rated "R" by the Author.

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A short story about geeky college kids trying to find their way in the world.

Coming of Age in an Age of Logic

The girl is eighteen and feels that she isn’t happy enough. She has felt this most of her life. These days, she seems to function normally. She gets up, pees, dresses, checks her e-mail, leaves her dorm room, locks the door, walks to class, tries not to fall asleep in lectures, comes back to her dorm room, checks her voicemail, checks her e-mail again, showers, goes to bed around midnight. She eats somewhere along the way, and from time to time she knocks out the necessary class-work. Sometimes she watches movies with her friend and her roommate. Sometimes she eats dinner with a boy and talks about science fiction.
One day, the girl’s roommate tells her that the boy likes her.
“You think?” the girl says.
“Yeah.” The roommate nods, bouncing her dark curls.
“Really?” The girl doesn’t want to believe it.
“Yeah. We went to Target—“ by this the roommate means herself, the friend, and the boy—“and he asked what we thought of you. We said, ‘Oh, you know, she’s okay, what do you think of her,’ and he says, ‘I like her.’”
“He probably didn’t mean it like that.” The girls likes the attention the same way she likes thunderstorms—relishing the beauty and raw energy, but wary of being burned.
The roommate raises an eyebrow. “He was pumping us for information. He asked if you liked him.”
“No, he didn’t mean it that way.” The girl pauses. “Is it the sci-fi, or what?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I guess that’s how it started, but I don’t know.”
The girl goes to bed unhappier than she had been that morning. She has a dream about him, but when she wakes up she can’t remember the plot.

“We’re all lost,” the girl finds herself saying. She looks around her. It is just past 9:45 a.m., and she is in American Literature class. Everyone is looking at her, so she keeps talking. “I mean, we all think everybody else has it all figured out, but really we’re all wandering around lost.” She looks down at the book on her desk to remind herself what she’s talking about. “Hemingway thinks he’s got a monopoly on the lost generation. He’s so sorry for himself and his expatriate friends, getting drunk in Paris and Madrid, but the truth is his generation wasn’t any more lost than any other generation.”
“Perhaps that’s what he is trying to tell us,” the literature professor says, his hands steepled.
The girl disagrees, but she looks down at her hands and keeps silent. She is slightly embarrassed at her tirade and unsure why she feels so angry at a dead expatriate writer.
After class, she walks too quickly across the quad toward her dorm. She is angry at Hemingway and angry that no one knows her well enough to ask her why she’s acting strange. As she walks across the crowded quad, the clock tower chimes ten, and she thinks that she’s never been so alone. No overbearing mother, no smothering grandparents and uncles and aunts. The professors don’t care, hardly even know her name. She has gone from a graduating class of 59 to a freshman class of 8500.
She stops in the middle of the sidewalk. The grass and bricks spin around her. There is nothing to grab onto and steady herself—streams of people move all around her. She takes one unsteady step after another.

That night the boy comes into the cafeteria just after she sits down. He sees her and comes over.
“Hey. You eating all alone?”
The girl dips her spoon into a bowl of tepid chili. “Yeah.”
“Mind if I join you?
“Yeah, sure.” She gets flustered. “No. I mean, no, I don’t mind, sure, you can sit here.” She pictures herself bashing her head into the table over and over.
“That’s what I figure,” the boy says. He puts his tray down and sits. He’s eating something with enough soy sauce to make it resemble Oriental food and talking about his Classics class. “So he has this contest to see whose balls are heavier, his or the goat’s. And he wins. You think college boys are sickos? Get a load of the Greeks. Oedipus, Jocasta, Electra….”
“Hemingway couldn’t have been meaning to tell us that,” the girl says. “He didn’t know. He was just feeling sorry for himself.”
“What?” The boy doesn’t understand the jump from ancient Greek sexual perversions to Hemingway.
“Hemingway. We talked about him today in my lit class.” She recounts the conversation from earlier that day. “He couldn’t have meant we’re all lost because he thought his generation had the monopoly on being lost. He didn’t look around enough or deep enough to see that every generation is lost. He just felt sorry for himself. Hell, we’re all lost and stumbling in the dark, but we’re afraid to say so because we think everyone else has it all together, but they don’t either. They’re all just as lost.”
“You’re too metaphysical,” the boy says. “Or metaphorical. Or something like that. I’m not lost. I know exactly where I am. I’m in the cafeteria, sitting across the table from you. The dorm’s about a seven-minute walk from here, five and a half if you cut through the parking deck. I live on the fourth floor, room 422, and my bed’s the one on the left.”
“Easy for you to say.” The girl fidgets with the napkin in her lap. “You’re a math major.”
“So it’s a prerequisite for English majors to be way too metaphysical?”
“I don’t know if it’s a prerequisite or an aftereffect,” she mutters. “But you’ll never find a serious English major who’s not neurotic like that.”
“Why?” he says. “Why be like that?”
“My dad taught me that there are only two logical answers to the question ‘Why?’: ‘Why not?’ and ‘Because.’ Apply that however you see fit.”
“That’s not really an answer.”
“What else do you want? I can’t lay it all out logically like you can, or mathematically. Even the thought of a parabola scares the hell out of me.”
He chuckles. “You have a pathological paranoia of parabolas?”
“Nice alliteration.” She smiles and swallows a spoonful of chili. “What would you have me do? Seek for the patronage of some great man, and, like a creeping vine on a tall tree, crawl upward, where I cannot stand alone? No thank you!”
“Okay, now you’ve totally lost me.”
“Cyrano.” She sees no recognition in his face and sighs. “Cyrano de Bergerac. Edmond Rostand. The poet with the huge nose. Come on.”
“Oh, yeah, didn’t they do that on Wishbone?”
She sighs and shakes her head. “Wishbone. The great purveyor of American cultural literacy.”
“What?” he says.
“Yeah, what.” She stands up abruptly, picks up her tray. “I’m not going to have sex with you.” She moves toward the garbage cans.
He gets up and follows her. “What are you talking about?”
“I’m not going to have sex with you.” She dumps the uneaten chili into a garbage can. “Do you want me to yell it?”
“God. I don’t want to screw you. I thought we could be friends.” He follows her to the door.
“Why?” she says. Then she closes the door, a panel of glass between them.

She dreams of the boy again that night, despite the sleeping pills she’s taken. In the dream, she kisses him while he is reciting math formulas, forcing her tongue against his so he can no longer speak. At the end of the kiss, they both pull back, neither one of them surprised.
“There,” she says.
“Better that way,” he says.

In the morning, when she wakes up to shower, dress, and go to class, she finds a note taped to the door of her dorm room. It is in his handwriting: “Why not?”
She leaves a note on his door: “Because.”

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Reviewed by Guy Hogan 1/1/2007
The disjointed conversation that makes perfect sense reminds me of the ones I had in college. You do it well. The story has the classic short story form of the setup, the buildup and the payoff. I'm an English major too. To make a long story short I liked "Coming of Age in an Age of Logic". The university experience can provide a lot of good material for writing short stories.

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