Thursday, September 20, 2012

Everyone's Gone to the Moon

It’s a football Saturday, but I’ve put off doing the leaf collection I have to do for my biology topics class till the last minute and have to miss the game to be able to get it done in time.

I hate this stupid class anyway. It’s full of upperclassmen, elementary education majors who have waited till the last minute to take it. Cool sorority girls, one who rides a yellow Vespa around campus, and I feel dumb, like the freshman I am, around them. The professor is a spry, though wizened old lady who is in love with nature and believes we are all as rapturous as she is about the opportunity to put on waders and look for tadpoles on our field trip to Griffey Lake or learn about the magnificent trees that surround us by making a leaf collection.

Pissed off, feeling sorry for myself, I set off from the dorm and, as if things aren’t bad enough, I’m crossing Jordan Avenue to take the path past the DG house into the woods and a car stops and backs up. It’s the guy I dated toward the end of the summer, with one of his friends. The night before I left for Bloomington, he told me he liked me a lot. I murmured I liked him, too—which I did, but not like he liked me.

“Write?” he asked.

I said I would, but haven’t done it.

Now here he is in the passenger seat of the car, his face all lit up at the sight of me.

“Hey, come with us,” he says.

“I’m really sorry,” I say. “But I can’t. I have to do this stupid leaf collection. Now.”

Then turn and head back for the path before he can ask, “How about this evening?”

I love the woods, the winding creek I’ve learned to call the Jordan River. It is so completely different here from “The Region,” where I grew up, with its petroleum refineries, chemical factories and steel mills, my own grim neighborhood full of men who work in them. I never want to go back there, and I try to make myself feel a little better about being such a jerk by telling myself I’ve done the right thing, the only thing I could have done, dumping that guy. Almost everyone who grows up in ”The Region” ends up living there forever—and probably he will, too. Even if I had liked him as much as he liked me, dumping him would have been the right thing to do.

The problem is how you did it, a little voice in my head says. The least you should have done was tell him you’re with someone else.

Just keep walking, I tell myself. Don’t look back.

There’s no one on the path but me. Everyone’s gone to the game, I think. Steve’s with his friends in the Sigma Chi block eating snow cones made with Chianti wine and laughing about how bad the football team is and yelling, “Blood. Blood. Blood makes the grass grow,” and here I am all by myself because of a goddamn leaf collection.

But the woods are aflame with color, leaves drifting down around me like bits of bright confetti and the sun slants through the trees touching my face so that the cool of the woods and the warmth of the sun feel like the same thing. The sound of the Jordan River bubbling along, the occasional bird call, the whisper of the breeze calms me and suddenly, somehow, everything in the world outside the woods falls away and I am wholly myself, this new fragile, thrilling self, in this moment, this place.

I have never in my life felt anything like this before. I stand, breathing, under a Red Oak tree. I know it’s a red oak because there’s a brass plaque on the trunk with “Red Oak, Querus Rubra” inscribed on it—and that brass plaque feels like a gift.

A lot of trees have plaques on them, it turns out. So I can just tape each leaf by its stem to a page in the notebook I’ve brought with me and copy the name down—instead of having to look every single one up in the tree book. The Latin names please me, I experiment with pronouncing them in a low voice.

Sycamore, Acer pseudoplatanus.

Black Walnut, Populus nigra.

Beech, Fagus sylvatica.

Sugar Maple, Acer saccharum.

The marvelous Ginkgo tree, Ginkgo Biloba, each yellow leaf with its ruffled edges a perfect little fan.

I shuffle along, dried leaves crackling beneath my feet, picking up leaves as I go. I sit on a bench a while, leaves falling on me like a gentle rain.

There’s a song I like, “Everyone’s Gone to the Moon,” and, alone in the woods, the campus deserted, it feels like everyone’s gone to the moon. Or maybe it’s me who’s disappeared—a thought that makes me feel sweetly melancholy, like the song sounds.

My notebook thick with named and unnamed leaves, I head for the Commons to have a Coke before going back to the dorm. It’s deserted, too. Just me and a scruffy Bagger guy, who sits down near me and strikes up a conversation. I feel strange sitting here talking to this person who’s so different from Steve and his fraternity brothers. He interests me, though, which scares me a little.

So I don’t stay. I finish my Coke, gather up my notebook, and walk toward Saturday night.

Where were you when this song was playing on the radio?

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