Authors: Don Winston
“S’wanee can get that back, I’m sure. These schools talk to each other.”
“S’wanee can also talk to your parents.”
“My mother,” Cody said.
“Whoever. S’wanee can call her. I’m sure she has questions.”
“I think they already talked to her. Once.”
“S’wanee’s gonna send you a new-student packet. That okay? Just look it over.”
“Okay,” Cody said, and then he said, “They can send through the mail. Doesn’t have to be FedEx.”
“Good deal.” Ross laughed again. “I’ll tell them that.”
“Just ‘cause sometimes I miss the FedEx guy.”
“S’wanee’s a great place, Cody,” Ross said. “It’s really the greatest place in the world.”
“I’ll call back in a couple days, cool?” Ross said.
“Sure, that’s cool, Ross. Thanks, man.”
“Greatest place in the world, Cody.” Ross hung up.
Cody sat on a bench under the tree and watched the next group lumber past. An enormous mass. There wasn’t a single pretty girl.
• • •
That night, Marcie was unusually chatty. The Clinique rep had come to roll out new products, and Macy’s computer system had gone down for an hour, which meant writing up sales by hand and inputting later. That added an extra hour to her day, but they paid her for it. And she was convinced her coworker June, whom she liked a lot, was pregnant because she took unexpected breaks from the floor and hadn’t gone with her for drinks at Ruby Tuesday for three weeks now.
“That boyfriend better marry her,” Marcie said,
“S’wanee called today,” Cody said, interrupting her.
Marcie took a breath and said, “Yes, I know. They called me, too.”
She sat at the dining table and rested her chin on tented fingers, with sparkling eyes. She’d been waiting for this.
“Who called you?” Cody asked.
“Dean Somebody.” Marcie shrugged. His move.
“What did he say?”
“They screwed up.” She shrugged again.
She reached across the table and took his hand firmly.
“Cody. Is this what you want?”
Cody assembled his thoughts.
“I’ve been selfish.” Marcie went on. “I’ve been scared. This is all new to me. I’ve never been alone.”
She was calm and focused.
“But it’s not so far away,” she continued. “It’s a great opportunity. And a great honor. God knows, I went far from home to pursue my dream. I remember. I get it.”
“I want to go,” Cody said simply, and for the first time. Even to himself.
Marcie beamed brightly and bolted up. “Goodbye, Rutgers! Hello, S’wanee!” she said, giggling. “God, that name makes me laugh!”
“It’s just a two-hour flight,” Cody said, standing up.
“If that!” Marcie corrected. “I’ve done my homework.” And then she said, “Believe me, I gave them the third degree.”
“You can come visit.”
“Oh, I will,” she said in mock warning. “I’ll shake things up down there. Bring’em up to speed.”
“I’ll call them tomorrow.”
“Let’s call them now!” Marcie said, grabbing her phone. “Before I change my mind.”
“I love you, Mom.” Cody said, halting. He hadn’t said that in a long time.
“I love you too, Cody,” Marcie said, and then she said, “What have I always told you? It’s all here for you!”
She opened her arms to the world.
“All of it, kiddo!”
’wanee sent separate packets to Cody and Marcie, through regular mail. Cody’s was larger—new-student information in a big purple and white folder that read “Yea, S’wanee’s Right!” in school-spirit lettering.
Travel information, lodging options (for parents and visitors), academic schedule with breaks and holidays, a pamphlet called “Rights, Rules, and Responsibilities” with a postcard he had to sign and return, pledging he had read and would comply. Typical college rules on drinking, drugs, and sexual harassment. The Honor Code, the cornerstone of “the S’wanee Experience,” was a separate document he would sign in person at a special ceremony during orientation week.
“Scholarship Guidelines” listed Cody’s part of the deal: maintaining a GPA of 3.0 or above, twenty hours of work/study per week (an on-campus job TBD), and, of course, strict compliance with the school’s general rules. In exchange, he would receive free tuition, room and board, book and supplies allowance, and a five-hundred-dollar stipend per semester in on-campus “Tiger Bucks”. Plus two round-trip coach tickets per academic year, his choice when and where. His scholarship status would come up for review at the end of each semester. Another form to sign.
Tucked in the folder pocket was an accordion pamphlet that said “S’wanee Freshman Map.” It folded out to a full-size poster with a cartoon aerial view of the campus. It reminded Cody of the ride map from Six Flags Great Adventure.
Cody taped the poster to his wall and learned it: All Saints Chapel, Shapard Tower, Breslin Tower, Rebel’s Rest (residence hall), McClurg Student Center, Convocation Hall, DuPont Library, Gailor Hall (literature), Spencer Hall (sciences), Bishop’s Common (student union), Fowler Sport and Fitness Center, and the Klondyke Book and Supply Store. There were dozens of other buildings strewn across the map, but apparently S’wanee thought that was all the freshmen needed to know for now.
The highlight of the orientation packet was a glossy paperback picture book called
, a self-described A-Z primer of all things “S’waneeana.” The history, traditions, legends and lore of the college since its birth. It was thick and beautiful, and Cody sank deeply into every page.
“Cody, we’ll miss the next train!” Marcie bellowed, breaking the spell.
She was taking him into the city, to Macy’s flagship in Herald Square. “Better stuff,” she explained. “Same discount.”
Cody took his new book in his backpack and studied on the train. H for “Honor Code” and Q for “Quadrangle.” The “S’wanee Curse” entry piqued his interest, but it simply said “See S’wanee Streaker.” Flipping forward, that entry taunted him back to “S’wanee Curse,” an endless, playful cycle of mystery and concealment.
As the train tunneled under the river, Cody flipped through the “Notable Alumni” section. There was a secretary of state from the 1890s and several congressmen and a few senators over the decades. A serious-looking general from World War II and a captain from the Korean War. Ambassadors, a CIA associate director, a doctor who was an early pioneer of heart and kidney transplants, a lawyer in the
Abrams v. United States
case, and a few US District Court judges.
There was a writer of a Broadway play he’d never heard of, a conductor of the LA Philharmonic, the former head of NBC Radio (who lived out his final days at the S’wanee Inn), one of the original actors on the soap opera
As the World Turns
, and the current editor-in-chief of
It was a long, impressive list, his fellow S’waneeans.
People stood and shuffled to the doors as the train slowed.
Marcie breezed through the crowded blocks around Penn Station in her swinging floral dress. She dazzled on her way to Herald Square.
“Steamy in the city!” she said to no one, as Cody hustled to keep up.
An MTA bus was already advertising the Rockettes Christmas show, which seemed odd in the extreme heat. Another roared past with a Broadway show called
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
. Cody liked the title.
“My boy’s a freshman,” Marcie told the Jamaican saleswoman at the Macy’s Ralph Lauren shop, where she insisted they start. “S’wanee. Heard of it?”
“I haven’t,” the woman replied, sorting mediums and thirty-inch waists for Cody.
“It’s a fine school,” Marcie said matter-of-factly. “Very classic.”
Marcie picked chinos in khaki, navy, and “college gray.”
“Flat front,” she insisted, knowing her styles. She showed him how to cinch the waist with a belt. “Paper bag style,” she schooled.
She picked lambs-wool sweaters—crew neck and V-neck—in navy, heather gray, and moss.
“Any without the pony?” she asked.
The saleswoman trailed them up to the home floor, where Marcie picked out prepackaged twin sheet sets: white and blue-striped, two hundred thread count. “You need two sets,” she told Cody. “And one blanket.”
At the cash register, Marcie whipped out her Macy’s discount ID, and the saleswoman watched her commission evaporate.
“Transfer to the East Brunswick store, please?” Marcie said, filling out a familiar form. “No sales tax, right?”
Marcie didn’t let Cody see the bill. “My treat,” she insisted. She bought nothing for herself.
Afterward they took the F train down to Washington Square Park, their usual custom, so Marcie could walk through the West Village. It reminded her of her childhood in Sofia.
Cody eyed the NYU summer students cutting through the park and felt their equal, if not better.
Marcie sipped pinot grigio and Cody a root beer at a sidewalk café off Christopher Street. Here, the bus stop ads were gay-oriented: 2xist Underwear and ads calling for volunteers for a six-month HIV vaccine trial. Cody thought it scary to be a human guinea pig, no matter the cause. How did an HIV trial work, anyway?
“I’ve loved this day,” Marcie said, finishing her wine. “I’m going to miss coming to the city with you.”
“I’m not going to Mars,” Cody said. “We’ll do it again.”
“Yep,” she said, flagging the waiter. “Let’s beat rush hour.”
They barely got a seat on the Trenton local. Marcie scoured the commuters with little interest. Cody flipped to the O’s in his book: Order of the Gownsmen.
He read that section again. And again.
They were home in no time.
• • •
The last few weeks of summer were a blur.
Rutgers promptly returned Cody’s deposit with a check and a letter expressing regret and wishing him the best in his future endeavors. He could keep the T-shirt.
“I knew your deposit wouldn’t be a problem,” Ross said when he called, as he did every few days, overcompensating for S’wanee’s rejection screwup.
Cody offered the deposit to his mother to help cover rent. She refused. “You made it; you keep it,” she said. “I’ll be fine.”
“You getting excited?” Ross asked on another call. “If you have any questions, just call or shoot me an e-mail. Anytime.”
“Is there a Facebook page for the freshmen?” Cody asked.
“Hmm,” Ross replied. “That’s a great idea. I’ll suggest it. S’wanee’s a little slow on the tech stuff. They just updated their website, though. They’re trying.”
“Is there, like, cell phone reception there?” Cody asked, wondering how ass-backward the place was.
“Oh yeah. Oh definitely,” Ross assured him. “There’s a new tower and everything. Wi-Fi, All-G, the school’s got all the network stuff.” Ross laughed. “S’wanee was slow to join the digital revolution, but they finally caved a while back.”
“Okay, cool,” Cody said.
“I got a network booster, though,” Ross said. “In case I’m working on my laptop down by the waterfalls or something.”
Cody didn’t know what waterfalls he meant but made a mental note to get a booster before he lost his Apple discount.
“You know S’wanee doesn’t let freshmen bring cars, right?” Ross asked.
“Yeah, I read that,” Cody said. “I wasn’t going to anyway.” He didn’t add that he and his mother shared one.
“Apparently it’s a common rule at Southern colleges,” Ross explained. “Another old-school thing. But you won’t need one. I can pick you up at the airport.”
“Thanks, Ross. That’d be cool,” Cody said.
“I think they’re making me your mentor anyway. It’s like a big brother thing. Every freshman gets one.” And then, out of the blue, “Hey, are you really seventeen?”
“I’ll be seventeen and a half when school starts,” Cody said, momentarily concerned. “Is that cool?”
“Sure, that’s very cool,” Ross said. “I’m actually old for my class. I took a year off before freshman year. Did you skip a grade? You a prodigy or something?”
“Nah,” Cody said. “My mom started me young. Must be a Bulgarian thing.”
“Ha.” Ross laughed. “You’re funny, Cody. I’ll check back in a couple days, cool?”
Marcie walked around with a printout from the
: “Preparing for the College Drop-Off,” although she’d only be dropping him off at the airport on the big day. S’wanee paid for one ticket, and Marcie had used up her vacation anyway. She checked off the list as she worked her way through it daily. “I should expect a ‘complicated cocktail of emotions,’” she mused, reading from the page. “Good times. This website cracks me up.” But she scoured it every day.
She ordered a dozen cardboard boxes from a moving company. Cody needed only one.
“I can always use more boxes,” Marcie said, dragging the bundle into her room.
Cody worked out almost every day in the building’s gym-let. He ran less because his mind didn’t need clearing, and he wanted to bulk up more. He thought about going to the tanning salon in the strip mall down the street, but there were always girls around the front desk. And, being from Jersey, he didn’t want to show up at S’wanee looking Snooki-Orange.
He went one last time to his silver-haired barber Gino, who was surprised to hear Cody’s news and peppered him with questions.
“S’wanee? Never heard of it. Where is it?” and “I thought you was going to Rutgers. Why’d you change your mind?” and “You leaving your mother?” and “Rutgers is a fine school. What’s wrong with it?” and “Who’s gonna cut your hair there?” And then he asked again, “Where is this S’wanee? Is that a real school?” Gino’s questions were increasingly skeptical and pointed, as if Cody were betraying the state of New Jersey by leaving it.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Gino said uncertainly, dusting Cody’s neck with talcum. “Be careful with college girls. They want an MRS degree.” At Cody’s confusion, Gino clarified, with vigor: “They’re looking for husbands.” Like his barbershop, Gino was stuck in a bygone era.
“I’ll see you at Christmas,” Cody said, shaking his hand.
“Just be careful,” Gino warned one last time, watching him leave.