Love and Other Things I'm Bad At

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Love and
Other Things
I’m Bad At

Rocky Road Trip
Sundae My Prince Will Come

CATHERINE CLARK

Dedication

For Erica, Chris, and Andrew.

You’ll know why.

 

Grant called, and at first it wasn’t that much fun. He told me how he likes his roommate, Matt, and how he’s sending me pictures of his dorm room and how he got a job at a pet store this afternoon, only it’s one of those giant corporate chains—not what he wanted. He went on and on. He sounded so good, so happy . . . I almost really hated him for a minute. How dare he?

Told him I couldn’t do this, that I missed him too much and was coming home immediately. That I hated everything here and felt completely out of place.

“Hello? Is this Courtney Von Dragen Smith?” he said, tapping the phone. “Operator? I thought I was talking to Courtney V.D. Smith.”

“Will you quit saying that?” I started laughing even though I was still crying. Nobody was allowed to use my middle initials except Grant. “Why are you saying that?”

“Because this isn’t you. This really doesn’t sound like you.”

“The crying part? Or the whining, complaining part?”

“The giving up part. You don’t give up that easily. On like, anything.”

“I don’t?” I asked. Shoot. Because this throwing-in-the-college-towel thing was something I felt I could be a real natural at.

8/18 FRIDAY NIGHT

Can I even explain the weirdness that is my life right now?

My new college roommate, the person I have to spend the next 9 months living with, Mary Jo Johannsen, is sleeping now. Went to bed at 10. Set alarm for 5 but said she’d probably wake up before it went off. What? Who wakes up before 5?

Her straw-blond hair is spread out on the pillow. She has baby-blue flannel pajamas with little black-and-white Holstein cows on them. Which she is wearing even though it is about 90 degrees in our room. 3
rd
floor. Hot, humid. No A/C.

Mary Jo is the type of person you might hate if she weren’t so nice. Too nice, actually. Highly suspect. Has perfect body, perfect hair, and no clue of this. Wears unflattering clothes that end up looking good anyway—orange corduroy pants, the kind you see for $1.99 at Old Navy, only hers are legitimately vintage, plus white T-shirt with green John Deere tractor logo. She’s tan, she has muscles. She looks healthy, strong,
normal
. Sort of like Drew Barrymore.

Me, I feel like the heifer in the photo at the end of her bed. Could be the fact I ate cheese in addition to sour cream today, however. In spite of being a vegan. Okay, a semi-vegan. Mary Jo’s mom brought snacks and sandwiches and cubed cheese and kept insisting I have some, wouldn’t take no for an answer. Realized I had to take something or she would never stop asking. Opted for the lesser of 27 evils and had cheddar cubes. Mom was in heaven, bonding with other mom over advantages of having large cooler stocked with bite-size items in Ziploc.

Anyway, now my stomach is as bloated as my college application was, which is the reason I ended up with mega-size scholarship and grants to this supposedly “top-notch” Cornwall Falls College in the first place. It is
way
out in the country. Thought I would like that for some reason. Now it seems crazy as I am too far from major airports. Where is my escape route?

Never should have listened to Mom. Or guidance counselor. Or Gerry, the ex-guidance counselor. They all told me to volunteer, like being the student council VP and then P wasn’t enough. End result: I cleaned out streams. I collected donated books. I tutored at elementary school. I nearly joined the Girl Scouts to get into a good college. Insane concept, as I am too old to wear uniforms and badges, not that I had any badges yet, which would have been really embarrassing. Would have been oldest living Brownie, and though I have a few camping skills, like rolling up my sleeping bag, and gathering firewood, I am lousy at camp songs and cannot cook a marshmallow without singeing my hair.

What was I thinking when I decided to go away to college? What was I thinking when I said, “Hey, okay, Wisconsin!” I even went for a tour, which should have given me time to think. But no. Must have been in a dairy-induced daze. Just because they served free Starbucks Frappuccinos on the plane and got my vegan/vegetarian/non-chicken meal right, I took that as a sign. A flight attendant with frosted blond hair and an attitude about me having a special request meal gives me a stupid egg-free, gluten-free cookie . . . and I make a major life decision based on that? Am I
that
insane?

Anyway, that’s beside the point. It’s all beside the point. The point is that I am here at Cornwall Falls College.

Getting here was
so weird.
Little sign outside; Rankin Hall. Crowded parking lot. We walked up the stairs and I was wondering if Mary Jo would be here yet. Nervous about meeting her. Have never had a roommate except for Alison, and sisters don’t count. Wondered if I’d filled out my housing questionnaire right, if there was such a thing as a right answer to “Hobbies You Enjoy.”

What about “Hobbies You
Don’t
Enjoy”? Why don’t they ever ask the important questions?

Anyway, we wandered down the hall looking for 326. Very crowded. Lots of parents, lots of microwaves and computer boxes and trunks, lots of girls looking either ecstatic or terrified. I kept saying “Hi,” like an automaton. Hi, hi, hi. Then suddenly we were at room 326.

I peeked around the corner. Mary Jo was standing on her bed, putting up a Faith Hill poster. Which would add to the 10 million other things she already had on the wall: barn print, family portrait, Leann Rimes calendar, and 3 different “Precious Moments” posters with uplifting sayings and supposedly cute photos of kittens and puppies.

Agh!

Mrs. Johannsen was scrubbing built-in dresser and closet with toxic cleaning product. No oxygen in room.

Mr. Johannsen was creating new furniture, putting up shelves, hammering nails into concrete, with plaster pieces crumbling to the floor which was covered with giant red University of Wisconsin rug.

“Um. Hi?” I said.

Everyone totally dropped what they were doing and turned around. Mary Jo smiled as Mom and her parents shook hands and exchanged fascinating news of trip, highway route, weather. Mary Jo said she hoped I didn’t mind if she kind of got the place settled—she left all this wall space for me, and if I wanted to change beds or anything, that was completely fine, etc. Very sweet and polite. I was looking around this tiny room trying to imagine how I could make it look remotely like a place I lived when suddenly this crowd of tall blond boys came rushing at me. Thought it was some fraternity reference when Mary Jo mentioned “brothers.” Then I remembered there are no frats here, and realized these were her actual brothers. 6 of them, all over age 20. Was introduced but forgot each name instantaneously as they all wore similar T-shirts and jeans and boots. They all work on the family dairy farm. They all have the blondest hair I’ve ever seen. They all insisted on bringing up my stuff (which was very, very cool). Only took them 5 minutes.

Mrs. Johannsen then served a huge lunch. Their giant cooler was used as a table. 6 boys perched on Mary Jo’s bed; me, Mom sat on my bed across from them; Mary Jo, Mr. and Mrs. J insisted on sitting on empty cardboard boxes, which they were practically falling into. Very bizarre meal. Kept having to say I wasn’t that hungry as everyone else devoured ham and cheese on white, cold fried chicken, macaroni salad, some sort of Jell-O salad made with cottage cheese and marshmallows. Bluck.

Realized boys were staring at my “Meat is Murder” anti-animal-abuse poster and my framed “Vegetarians Make Better Lovers” bumper sticker (a joke gift! It’s a joke, guys!), and old “Truth or Dairy” sign from the original store (Gerry’s going-away gift). Very embarrassing. But is it my fault they were gnawing on drumsticks at the time?

“Colorado!
Wow
. That’s
so
far away! So how did you end up here?” Mary Jo asked. 6 brothers stared at me, awaiting answer.

I launched into the story of how Grandma and Grandpa went here, and how I was interested in environmental law, and how Cornwall Falls kept calling and adding more stuff to my financial package just to get me to accept, so it seemed like they really wanted me to come, and I told Mary Jo how at the same time I was waitlisted at Colorado College, and how it seemed like I should go somewhere where they wanted me. Etc. Too depressing to remember faulty chain of events right now.

At the same time, I was thinking about how Grandma told me I’d be a better person for accepting the challenge of moving away from home, and how Grant and I would be a better couple for it, etc., etc., blah blah blah. She snowed me. I can see that now. Don’t want to see Grandma tomorrow when she and Grandpa are supposed to visit. Hate her for giving me that speech.

I’m beginning to feel very, very sorry for myself. I miss Grant so intensely right now.

Okay, so I’m going to take a deep breath and think calming thoughts. Repeat after me, Courtney: Grant and I will stay together, we are going to make this long-
distance relationship work. I’m picturing happy places. Sun, mountains, gurgling streams.

What a bunch of crap. This isn’t working at all.

Anyway, Mary Jo and her family were really into what I said about deciding to go to CFC. Her mother started talking about how Cornwall Falls launches this major recruitment drive to bring in students from all over the country, and how they’re committed to a diverse population, which is great considering it’s a small college in a rural area.

“It’s known for being a microcosm of society,” Mary Jo said.

“Yeah, that sounds familiar,” I said. It was straight out of their shiny, misleading brochure with photos of cornstalks. So far all I’ve seen are tall blond people. Microcosm of Norway,
maybe
.

Mary Jo is from a small town about two hours from here. She’s going to study science and math, and she likes country-western music. I’m living with a brainy Faith Hill. Who goes to bed way earlier than me and snores, I just found out a minute ago.

It’s so strange, because they did make us fill out those really long questionnaires. There are like 2,000 other students here, and Mary Jo and I are supposed to be the most compatible out of all the other people I could have been matched with? Based on what? The fact we’re both 18?

I am looking around our room. It is as polarized as a plug-in. Her side: country. My side: rock ’n’ roll. Her side: cows. My side: leave cows alone.

She has a serious number of knickknacks on all open surfaces. We’re talking a clock shaped like a potato, and tiny porcelain lambs, and other crap like that. She put about 18 different editions of
Chicken Soup for the Soul
on her new dad-installed bookshelves (he built me some, too, which is very cool). What is the deal with those books? Souls don’t need
soup
. And chicken? Definitely not. My soul wants miso soup, if anything.

Also, my soul wants to get out of here and move back home. To be with Grant. But I guess it’s too soon to bail. When
would
be a good time? Must check Leann Rimes calendar.

8/19

Grandma and Grandpa came today, stopping by on their way home from 2-week tour of the Great Lakes. They were on some senior excursion where they drive around hauling trailers and all hook up at the same spot. Hook up their trailers that is. Though with my grandparents you never know. Ever since Viagra was invented, their lifestyle’s gotten a lot more, shall we say, active. The less I know about it, the better.

Grandpa insisted on coming to town because he loved going to school here and wanted to show me the sights and give me the tour of town. Which took all of 10 minutes. I must have been in
such
a daze when we drove into town for our campus tour last March that I didn’t really notice. Perhaps I was too out of it due to multiple Frappuccinos. Perhaps they distracted me at crucial town-viewing moments by asking me all about myself. They kept doing that. Very tricky.

First of all, when you get down to Main Street from campus (which is only about a 5-minute walk), there’s a sign that says, “You’re in the One and Only Wonderful Wauzataukie!” Like I wasn’t painfully aware of that.

The place is like a shrine to Dairiness.

I mean it. There’s a bronze statue of a guy called His Royal Dairiness in the center of town, in the park. (Cute park. Very green. Little healthy-looking kids running around, high on calcium.) The founder of the town was a dairy god, I guess. He invented the udder or something. I also learned that the town’s name is ancient—it comes from a Native American tribe’s language and means “land of standing water,” or something like that. Nice connection, but not exactly inspiring—sort of mildewy-sounding. Grandpa kept joking that the town is the nation’s largest breeding ground for the state bird: the mosquito. Then Grandma said no, that was Minnesota’s state bird. Ha ha ha. Funny. Except that right now I have too many red welts on my legs to count.

There also was a cow sculpture representing different breeds, with some bronzed goats running around the base. I don’t know why cow sculptures are necessary, when cows are never out of sight and certainly never out of smell here.

Grandpa and Grandma kept lamenting the stores that have closed since they went here 100 years ago. The missing “five and dime,” the vanished Bert’s Dairy Bar. (Since when do you order milk at a bar? No wonder the concept failed.)

“At least good old Brat Wurstenburger’s still around. If you ever want the perfect brat, that’s the place to go,” Grandpa said. “You can get it boiled or grilled, made with cheese or beer, you can get weisswurst and knockwurst. . . .” And he was off on another lecture about the wonders and virtues of sausage casing.

Naturally we ended up at Brat Wurstenburger for lunch. It’s incredibly popular—all the tables were full of other parents and their unsuspecting children. I had a lemonade and some pickles and then afterward a slice of apple cake.

“Worried about gaining the freshman fifteen?” Grandma patted my knee. “Well, sure. And you’re smart to be.”

“I’m not worried about that!” I snapped. They were all really getting on my nerves. Couldn’t they tell I was going through the most painful day of my existence? And that watching them eat pork while I smelled sauerkraut wasn’t helping? Also, seeing all those hot dogs made me miss Oscar, world’s strangest dog. And thinking of Oscar made me miss Grant, the only person who understands Oscar. And we were all separated now. Got so upset I had to go into the bathroom and cry for a while. Very embarrassing, because girls who will probably be in my classes kept coming in and there I was sniffling into a paper towel.

Then we were back out, exploring the town. It seemed to me that
all
the stores advertised “Cheese” and “Sausage” and “Bratwurst” in their windows. Like they
wouldn’t
have them. Where was the sign for “Organics Sold Here” or “Meat-Free Zone”?

“Grandpa, I
told
you,” I had to say before he nearly dragged me into Karl’s House of Meat. “I don’t eat meat.”

“Well, no, not at every meal, of course,” Grandpa said.

“Not ever!” Unless you counted the random times I slipped, but those were only 2 or 3 times a year, or maybe a month, at most. Only when I got really stressed out. “How many times do I have to tell you guys? I’m a vegetarian. I’m practically verging on being a vegan.”

“A what?” Grandma asked. Her ears turned red. I think she thought I said I was a virgin. Not exactly.

“Nonsense,” Grandpa said. “There’s no such thing as not eating meat.”

I think he has mad-pig disease from all the pork he eats.

“She’s just tired from the long drive,” Grandma said.

No I’m not! I just want everyone to leave me alone for 2 seconds and quit hovering and let me just cry my eyes out in private, if that’s OKAY with everyone.

“Bagle Finagle. What’s
that
?” Grandpa turned up his nose as we stopped outside yet another brick building. “Didn’t they spell bagel wrong?”

“It’s cute,” I said, peering inside. To me, it looked like the only cool place in town. It figures that Grandpa wouldn’t be able to see that. He was too busy complaining about bagels, and what was wrong with a good old piece of toast, and how toast went so well with bacon and eggs, it was God’s food.

I can’t
wait
until they all leave tomorrow. I just want classes to start. The sooner classes start, the sooner the semester ends, the sooner I’ll be home with Grant.

Did I mention the worst part of the trip?

When we were driving through Nebraska, I saw this evil road sign on the highway: “Exit 126. Ogallala. Grant.”

Total conspiracy to make me burst out crying and regret decision to be in a mini-van leaving Grant behind. “They should really put more thought into those signs,” I told Mom. “It’s not very considerate of them.”

“It’s a town, Courtney,” Mom said. “Grant’s been here for years and years. It’s not a conspiracy.”

Sure it isn’t. That town’s name never
used
to be on the sign, okay?

Then we had to drive through Grant County when we got to Wisconsin. And then I studied the map and realized there is also a Superior, WI, way up north (spent way too much time bonding with AAA maps on the drive). This is in addition to Grant and Superior in Colorado.

Grant Superior is everywhere. Just not here with me, where he should be.

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