“. . . and don’t forget, the final exam next week is cumulative. Use your old tests and homeworks to study, and you should be fine. Good luck.”
Darrick Knight slapped shut his notebook as the professor finished up his final lecture of the semester. All around him, students were doing the same, the sound level of the room rising as chatter started up, letting out some of the tension of the week and even the entire semester, now very close to wrapping up. Most ignored him, but across the room one girl shot him an angry glance as she quickly packed up her things and headed straight for the door. Darrick could feel the glare in his gut, the sight of her hurt expression resonating with the sense of guilt her presence brought, forgotten during the lecture but now returning with a vengeance.
“Man, Viv really has it in for you now,” a voice said at his shoulder. Darrick turned to see Roger, his best friend since middle school, standing beside him, his eyes tracing the same path as Darrick’s own. “Didn’t I tell you never to take a class with a girlfriend? This is what happens if they go south; you’re trapped with them for weeks on end. And that goes double for you, seeing as how it’s always more of a ‘when’ than an ‘if’ with you.” Darrick rolled his eyes at his friend.
“Your confidence in me is truly inspiring,” he said flatly. “It’s the rock-like foundation of my self-esteem.” There were advantages to going to college in one’s own hometown, like the presence of friends who had known you since childhood. Of course, there were also disadvantages, like the presence of friends who had known you since childhood.
“I’m just going by what I see,” Roger said as they both picked up their bookbags and headed out of the classroom, Darrick making sure they waited long enough so that they wouldn’t meet Vivian in the hallway. “And you dropped Vivian quicker than most. I would have bet you would have had at least one more month of interest in you before you torpedoed the relationship. That was pretty cold even for you.”
Darrick didn’t reply; his own guilt would not let him. He had been as surprised by his decision as anybody. He had been happy in the relationship, enjoying that initial rush of giddy excitement before the onset of reality, when suddenly his feelings for Vivian had cut off, like shutting off a spigot. The only thing that had been left was a certainty that the relationship wasn’t working, that he had to get out of it as soon as he could, an almost-panicky need for escape. He couldn’t think of anything else he could have done, out of fairness to both himself and her, but Viv clearly had not seen it as so cut and dried. And now, as Roger had said, for the past few days he had been forced to endure her angry and pained looks in both Civil War History and Modernist American Lit. At least that’s over with now, he thought. The semester’s gone, summer’s coming, and by next year things will have cooled down. The blue sky and warm breeze that struck him as they walked out of the classroom building and onto the tree-lined campus path seemed to bear out his optimistic premise.
“Have your eye on anyone else yet?” Roger asked. Darrick twitched the side of his mouth downward, hoping his friend would catch on to the annoyance in the gesture. Roger’s response was a wicked grin as they continued to walk towards the student center for lunch.
“No, not ‘yet’,” Darrick said. “Believe it or not, I do feel bad about what happened. I’m not ready to jump into anything new. I’m not a heartless Casanova. I just need to find someone who feels . . . right.” Darrick waved his hand around as he searched for the exact word to describe what he wanted, and was irked that ‘right’ was all he could come up with. “No, it’s more than just ‘right’. I can feel that there’s a girl out there who can fulfill me, complete me. I’ve always felt that way, even before I was interested in girls.”
“So you’re going to sample them one by one until you find just the one you’re looking for?” Darrick knew his friend was needling him, but also that there was a real concern behind his teasing. The fact that his conscience was feeding him that same concern did not improve his mood.
“What else am I supposed to do?” he replied, feeling on the defensive in this discussion, both from his friend and from himself. “That’s what dating is, right? Try on different people until you find the one that fits? Isn’t it a good thing that I know earlier than most people, so I don’t waste months or even years on relationships that don’t work out in the end?” Darrick poked his index finger into his best friends arm. “Are you telling me that all of your relationships have been resounding successes?”
“They’ve lasted longer than just a few weeks,” Roger said.
“But you always break up in the end, right?”
“Of course,” Roger replied. “I’m not married, am I?”
“See, that’s what I’m saying,” Darrick said triumphantly as they two of them entered the dining area of the student center, grabbing their trays and surveying the options before them. After a quick look around, they ignored the salad bar and fruit stand and headed straight for the pizza. It was the end of the semester after all; a little celebration was in order.
“Ultimately, any relationship that doesn’t end in marriage is a failure,” Darrick said as they each took a slice. “Or at least in some sort of long-term monogamous domestic partnership, or whatever they’re calling it these days. And no one gets married when they’re only twenty, not outside the Ozarks.”
“Plenty of people get married at twenty,” Roger retorted. “It’s just that, in the Ozarks, it’s to their cousins.”
“Fine, whatever,” Darrick said, grabbing a seat at a corner table, Roger taking the one across from him. “People get married at twenty all the time, even outside of the Ozarks, or India, or China, or one of those places where you get married when you’re seven or something. But most of those people getting married at twenty are divorced by twenty-five, so my point still holds.”
“I’ve forgotten now,” Roger said. “What is your point?”
“That I’m not freakishly unique in my failure at relationships,” Darrick said, after thinking for a split second to try to remember himself. “We’re all failures in relationships. Not even marriage is a guarantee of success anymore.” Even before the last statement was out of his mouth, he realized that it hit him a bit too close to home. Roger must have noticed, because his expression quickly changed from one of amused exasperation to one of sympathy.
“How are your parents doing?” he asked in a tone a few steps quieter than the one they had been using. Darrick dropped his pizza slice after he had brought it halfway to his mouth, appetite vanished.
“They were fighting again this morning,” he said, matching his tone to Roger’s. He didn’t know if he had the will for anything stronger anyway. “I don’t even know what about; something stupid, I’m sure. I guess that’s not really news. They’ve been trying to have another baby recently and they haven’t gotten anywhere. Maybe that’s part of it. It’s really important to Mom that she have a daughter, but she’s never been able to, and she’s not interested in adopting. It’s probably just as well that they don’t.” Darrick ran his finger along the lid of his cup, staring into the depths of his Coke, not meeting his friend’s eyes. “I don’t know why they don’t just get divorced. I’m old enough to handle it. I think Dad’s afraid it would hurt me, but I’m an adult now. I could even live in the dorms if I had to, so I wouldn’t have to choose between them.”
“What about your mother?” Roger asked around a mouthful of pepperoni. He obviously had no problem with appetite. Darrick almost replied automatically, but he caught himself short. Why doesn’t she? he thought. She hasn’t been happy for as long as I can remember. She doesn’t seem to care for Dad. Why hasn’t she taken me and walked out? He remained silently pondering for long enough that Roger stopped eating and began to regard him with some concern.
“Are you OK, man?” he asked. Darrick ignored him for a few more seconds, then responded slowly, realizing the answer for himself as he said it.
“I think she’s waiting for something,” he said. “I think she always has been. Just the right moment, just the right milestone to pass, and then it’ll be over. Maybe she’s waiting for me to graduate, or until she finally gets another child out of my father. I don’t know.” He had lived with the possibility, the looming threat, of his parents’ divorce his entire remembered life, but the thought still nauseated him. As long as his parents were together, he felt he could always hold out hope that things might improve between them – after all, there had to have been something that brought them together in the first place – but once they were separated, he knew that it would be over. That possibility now seemed to him to be a certainty.
“Sorry,” Roger said. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
“No, no, you’re OK,” Darrick said, waving away his friend’s apology. “You know my parents almost as well as you know me. You have every right to ask, and I appreciate you doing so. At least I can say my parents are not my models for relationships. If they were, I would have kept the same girlfriend since high school, even though we had done nothing but fight since tenth grade. Compared to that, going through ten different girls in the same period of time doesn’t seem so bad.”
“It’s always good to realize you aren’t repeating your parents’ mistakes,” Roger said with a grin.
“Yes, my mistakes are all my own.”
“And you do have quite a few.”
“Hey, all it takes is for one to work out.” Darrick felt a smile returning to his face, and the nausea receding. “I’m happy with the odds on that one.”
“And until then,” Roger said with a wink, “you do get to have a lot of fun.”
Darrick’s only response was a blush and a bite of pizza.
Darrick stepped through the door of his home about an hour later. The rest of the conversation with Roger had fortunately gone along happier, more trivial lines, and he had headed out from school as soon as it was over. He had finals next week to study for, but he planned to spend the rest of the day relaxing, maybe going out with friends that evening, before hitting the books tomorrow. He and Roger already had a Sunday afternoon study session planned.
As soon as he stepped inside, however, he knew that his plans might be changing for the worse. Sitting on opposite sides of the living room were his parents, and as soon as he entered, they both turned to him as one. His father’s face was mournful, and his mother’s was triumphant. Darrick felt as though he had been hit in the gut.
Oh, god, this is it. They’re doing it. Splitting up, or at least separating. Despite his brave words earlier, he realized that he wasn’t even close to being ready for this.
“Sit down, Darrick,” his father said, his voice flat, betraying no emotion. “We need to talk to you about something very important.”
Darrick wanted to plead, to cry, to rage, to do anything to let them know exactly how he felt about what was happening. Instead, all he could get out was a plaintive “W-w-what?” around the lump in his throat. It was his mother that answered him.
“Darrick,” she said, “when you were a baby, we betrothed you to a girl, promised you to her as her husband. The time has come to fulfill that promise. By this time next month, you will be a married man.”