Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Cookie Love, Part 1

[Author’s Note: This isn’t, technically, a story that takes place in the reality-based version of Left Behind.  It’s simply an attempt to respond to the latest T.F. post by writing a love story…about cookies and airports.]

Sam stood up and hefted his bag as the bus rolled to a squeaking, rumbling stop outside the main terminal at Dulles.  He trudged down the center aisle, staring at the floor.  It was, without a doubt, the worst day of his life.

His classmates were noisy, excited, ready to get back to their lives.  Tom Jenkins – the closest thing to a friend Sam had in the group – bumped him on the shoulder.  “C’mon, man, get moving.  The faster you go the faster we can get to one of the parties on Adams.”

Sam obliged, picking up the pace.  But he didn’t want to get back, he wanted to stay.  He stepped off the bus, hoping and praying for news of a delayed flight.  Lake effect snow, perhaps, causing a freak white out.  It was a highly unlikely occurrence, though.  Even Chicago weather didn’t get crazy enough for snowstorms in late May.

Still, if there was any tiny bit of a possibility that the universe cared about Sam’s happiness, he knew something would happen.  And a blizzard in May would be a pretty good sign.

He looked to his left, scanning the knot of students next to where the ISU bus had already nearly emptied out.  The face he most wanted to see was nowhere and for a moment he wondered if she was already gone.  But, no, that wasn’t possible.  He’d seen her get on the bus, waved at her in that last moment before she disappeared in to the dark world of tinted windows and frayed upholstery.

Then, suddenly, the crowd parted and she emerged, smiling, dragging a blue suitcase that was big enough for her to pack herself in and fly home for just the cost of a checked bag fee and an incredibly uncomfortable flight.  It was funny, he realized for the first time, how someone so tiny could have a smile so big and eyes that seemed to hold the entire world.

He shouldered his bag and walked towards her.  They met between the two busses and he stopped to hug her.  She stood on her tip toes and gave him a quick peck on the cheek.

“So this is it, huh?” she said as they drew apart.  Her smile faltered for just a moment.

“Yeah.  I guess so.”

“Well,” she shrugged, “At least our gates are right next to each other.  So we’ve got a little while longer.”

“Yeah,” he smiled at the thought, “I guess we do.”

“Okay, everyone,” Professor Briggs shouted, “Let’s get moving.  We’ve got to get through baggage check.”

They parted company.  For an agonizing hour he waited in the baggage line and then the security line, feeling every second tick by on the clock while he reflected on every moment he’d spent with her and thought about how unlikely the whole thing was.  He still couldn’t believe it had happened, still wanted to deny it was already over.

Sam had grown up in a small town in the middle of the vast corn and soy fields of western Illinois.  He’d had his first real growth spurt in the fourth grade and practically overnight found that he was in possession of a body that was far too big for his reflexes to control.  He had also instantly lost any chance to excel at sports.

In junior high and then high school the coaches of all the teams had wanted him.  They’d seen the kid who stood head and shoulders above everyone else and assumed he would make their team unstoppable.  But every time someone threw him a ball he’d drop it.  Every time he tried to run and do something else at the same time he’d trip over his own feet.

Eventually he’d stopped trying to be what his coaches wanted him to be.  Eventually they’d stopped trying to figure out how to turn him in to what they needed.  And with that he’d just kind of dropped off the social radar at his high school.

Sam didn’t really mind.  He’d discovered he was more at home tinkering with computers or lost in the pages of books.  He might not have gotten invited to parties on Friday nights, but he’d realized at some point that he didn’t much like them, anyway.

Still, there was one problem that came with his glaring lack of a social life.  In a school where most of the activities and attention revolved around parties, sports, and the activities of the 4-H Club or the Future Farmers of America, the quiet kid who stayed home and tinkered with computers didn’t get much attention.  Especially from girls.

That, of course, didn’t mean that he paid them no attention.  Like any teenage boy he’d spent his days in class daydreaming about how to get the attention of the pretty girls in his class.  And there had been no shortage of pretty girls to choose from.

The endless cropscape of the vast, long-tamed former American frontiers that stretch across the endless Great Plains and fertile Midwest long ago created a new stock character for the bards of rock, blues, and country music to write endless songs and the writers to pen endless novels about.  She is the character known as a “small town beauty.”  Born of parents who still work with their hands, corn-fed and healthy, the small town beauty beguiles all who come across her.  She might be a blue-eyed blonde or a green-eyed brunette, but she always has the same story.

She grew up in a small town on the edge of that vast frontier wilderness that still exists in fiction.  She spent her early years running through the woods, riding horses, and learning to hunt, fish, and cook over an open fire.  As she got older she would spend her Sunday mornings properly dressed and in her family’s usual pew in church, smiling to herself about her Saturday nights spent driving too fast and teasing the boys to distraction.

In the songs and in the books the small town beauty is always eighteen going on nineteen.  She’s forever immortalized in that place between innocence and knowledge, youth and experience, the small town and the huge world.  She is bronzed skin, easy smiles, taught muscles, and wide-eyed wonder.

The big problem with the small town beauty is that she doesn’t exist.  She is the amalgamation of the hopes and dreams of men searching for a lost utopia.  She is the invention of marketing genius.  She is the renewal of the cultural memory of Helen of Troy, that face so beautiful she launched a thousand ships and a ten-year war.

The slightly-less-big problem with the small town beauty is that there is a germ of truth to the story.  In those small towns in Illinois there are an awful lot of girls who spent their days outside running, jumping, and working.  There are an awful lot of girls who learned how to shoot a deer at eight and replace a carburetor at ten.  There are an awful lot of girls who love fast cars and teasing boys with their smiles and bronzed skin.

All of them seemed to make it in to Sam’s integrated school district.

None of them ever noticed Sam.

Sam, unfortunately, never quite managed to push either one of those facts out of his mind.

He’d dreamed about the day Jenny DuBois would notice him.  He’d imagined how great it would be if Anne Montgomery one day realized how much more interesting it was to talk to him than the meatheads she usually dated.  By the time he graduated from high school he’d had a scenario dreamed up for how he’d gain the attentions and affections of practically every girl in his school.  But none had ever come even remotely close to reality.

When he left home for Western Illinois University he’d been excited.  It was a chance to re-invent himself.  It was a chance to meet girls from all over who had no idea that he was the awkward, dorky kid who never got noticed.  He knew he’d take the school by storm, figure out how to prove to everyone how cool he could be.

Unfortunately, however, the dorky, awkward version of himself was the only one Sam knew.  He’d been just as tongue-tied as ever in the presence of girls he met on campus.  He’d been just as likely to want to spend his weekends with a book or sitting in front of a computer screen.

The upside, though, was that he’d gotten excellent grades and attracted the attention of his professors.  So during his sophomore year when a week-long seminar in Washington, DC in cooperation with a group from Illinois State University was presented, Professor Briggs had suggested that Sam sign up.  Even though all of the students going were juniors or seniors.

On the first day in Washington the two groups had basically been allowed to meet and mingle.  During the introductory breakfast he’d stood back and scanned to crowd from the edges, still a little intimidated by being the youngest there and the only one who obviously didn’t have a lot of friends and acquaintances in the group.

He’d found his eyes lingering on one particular girl from the ISU side for reasons he couldn’t really understand.  She was about as unlike those tall, tanned, small town girls he’d left behind.  “Short” and “pale,” were, in fact, the words he’d use to describe her.  Also, even though he had no idea what the term was really supposed to mean, he kept thinking, “mousy.”

But there was just…something…about her.  Perhaps it was the way she smiled at jokes and laughed with a lilting tone that carried even to where he stood.  Perhaps it was the way her eyes twinkled when she smiled.  Maybe it was the carefree way she threw her dishwater-blonde hair over her shoulder.  He didn’t know.

At one point she’d looked right at him as he’d looked at her.  She smiled that wide smile of hers at him.  He’d looked away, cheeks burning with embarrassment, vowing to not look at the strangely mesmerizing girl for the rest of the week.

It hadn’t worked.

The two groups had spent the morning touring the area around the White House and Capitol Hill.  At lunch gathered on the National Mall for prepared box lunches.  They contained a sandwich, a bag of chips, and a cookie.

Sam had sat down to eat his sandwich.

All of the sudden she’d been in front of him, brandishing a cookie.  “Hey, um, you wouldn’t happen to have an oatmeal raisin cookie, would you?  I’ll trade you this chocolate chip cookie for it.”

He’d stared at her for a moment that was probably just long enough to stretch from awkward to uncomfortable.  When he’d managed to regain his senses he’d looked at his own cookie.  “No,” he’d said, heart falling.  “Sorry.  I’ve got chocolate chip, too.”

“Oh,” she’d said, “Too bad.”  Then she’d sat down.  “You win some, you lose some, right?”

“Y-yeah,” he’d stammered out, “I guess.”

“I’m Sam.  Well, Samantha.  But everyone calls me Sam.”

“Oh,” he said.  “That’s awkward.”

“Y’know,” she’d replied, a look made up of equal parts confusion and amusement working its way across her face, “I’m pretty sure you’re the only person who’s ever thought that.”

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