The Bad Project

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Chapter 30. After Fall Break/Crystal

A few weeks after fall break, Crystal noticed that Marianne and Liu didn’t seem to be spending as much time together. She asked, “Have you broken up with Liu?”

“No, no. He and I just need to give each other a little more space.” Marianne wouldn’t quite meet her eyes, and Crystal wondered what had happened. She was almost sure they’d had the Sex Bad at the retreat. Marianne hadn’t said so, though. Had the sex been painful, felt like a rape, and scared Marianne? But she had gone out with him since they came back, so probably not. She pushed that out of her mind.

“You might want more space, but he hangs around looking like a kicked dog,” Crystal said.

“Don’t say that. He can get used to it, I’m sure he can. My grades aren’t too good, and I really need to concentrate on studying right now. He says he understands.” Marianne started paging through her daytimer, looking up assignments. She moved some things into her backpack and took others out.

Crystal didn’t like not knowing what had happened, but wasn’t too unhappy about the results, since Liu had never been one of her favorites. But this clouded the new understanding that Crystal thought they had reached before the break, when she had confided her secret to Marianne. She felt vulnerable with Marianne being offhanded about her relationship when Crystal had told her everything. Marianne picked up a bottle of water and her backpack and went out, waving to Crystal.

Crystal got out her red book and wrote, “Will we ever really be as close as we were?” She sat looking out at the gray-brown lawn and the bare tulip trees outside of her residence hall for a while. Then she went on writing. I’m worried about Marianne, but she doesn’t seem to want to be around me any more. She is gone most of the time but not with Liu. Could something be going on with another man? Someone she doesn’t want to tell me about? Could it even be someone black? I can’t tell what she’s up to, but I suspect mischief. She does a lot with Jim Elder, that guy who she knows from the lit magazine. I don’t think it’s romantic, though.

Would Marianne be scared to tell me if she was involved with Jim or another black guy? I think she’d be okay, I’ve never said anything about sticking to your own race. And she told me she imagined someone white as her special person. I’m sure I didn’t sound shocked or like I thought that was wrong. So that can’t be it. So then what? Married? Now that’s really no good. It’s the Bad Project, but we tried to keep others out of the damage zone, at least I tried to do that. I don’t know if Marianne thinks that way.

Maybe I am coming from a Christian perspective she just doesn’t have. She never has seemed at all mean, to me or to anyone. I remember she tried to stop Mandy from ignoring me and she tried to make peace between me and Liu with that dim sum trip. And she’s real considerate to our PenGirls. I just don’t know what her moral code is based on. What is she up to? Crystal closed the red book with a snap. She was annoyed that Marianne had a secret she wouldn’t share. Hadn’t she told Marianne her darkest secret? But it wasn’t enough to make her reciprocate.

Crystal rested her elbows on her desk and opened the blinds so she could look out the window. The eucalyptus trees across the quad were swaying in the breeze. She saw a woman with a stroller passing by on the sidewalk outside her window. Was Marianne pregnant? Pregnant women were sick in the morning and rather easy to upset, and Marianne wasn’t like that. She was just withdrawn. Crystal decided Marianne probably had a new secret boyfriend who absorbed all of her time and attention.

She thought about her dad. He didn’t have secrets exactly, but he had withdrawn contact the same way Marianne had. She didn’t have any guilty explanation for Marianne’s withdrawal though, the way she did with her dad. She thought about her conversation with Grandma over fall break. Grandma thought time would heal the situation for her and her dad. But she didn’t support Crystal’s inner feeling that she was at fault for Leroy’s problems. Crystal thought about how her first impulse was to help other people. Was that normal? Or did most of it come from trying to make up for the guilt she felt? What if the guilt was not based on reality?

Come on, she told herself, you loved to put band-aids on your hurt friends years before the rape. Wow, she thought, I just used that word in thinking about it. Am I really recovering? At least a little bit? She stretched and made a cup of tea. Sipping and breathing steam up into her sinuses, she thought, I always enjoyed helping people. But I didn’t always feel like I owed it to the world. That started with the rape. It’s the debt, the guilt, that I picked up then that feels like such a bundle of rocks to me now.

Crystal put away her journal and took out a floor mop and bucket. In the bathroom, she mixed a bucket of water with a dollop of liquid detergent, then mopped the floor. She thought someone on the residence hall staff cleaned the floors about once a month, but it got dusty a lot faster than that. And now that the grass was dormant, they tracked in a lot of dirt. She finished the mopping and then cleaned the mop and filled the pail with fresh water. Something about physical work settled her mind. Once the floor was cleaned to her satisfaction, she put the pail and mop away and brushed her hair. She decided to walk over to the computer center and see if Bronnie was on duty, so she could talk with him.

When she walked into the computer center, Bronnie came around the counter at the help desk and gave Crystal a hug. “Come on over here and talk. I have to sit here, but I’ve taken care of all the red tape for now,” he said.

Crystal sat down next to him and he said, “Want a coke? Here’s a couple bucks, you can get me a Coke and you whatever you want down there at the snack lounge.” She agreed and got them two ice-cold cans of Coke. They popped the tops and laughed as the fizz hit their faces.

“What are you thinking about what you’ll major in, Bronnie? Don’t you have to decide soon?”

“I got a whole semester still,” Bronnie said, with a slow smile. “I like my Psych classes this semester, the Psych Stats and the Abnormal, but Comp Sci started sending students to beg me to major. I’m taking a class in Comp Sci again next term. I just don’t know. I might get a better job later if I go with Comp Sci. What can you do with Psych? You need more school to be a counselor or anything like that. Or even to teach.”

“I think you should major in what you like best, and then worry about a job later,” Crystal said.

“Guys have to think more about making money, not just having fun,” Bronnie said.

“Hey, was that a sexist remark? The guy works and the gal stays barefoot and pregnant?” Crystal said, teasing, shaking a finger at him.

“Just seeing if I could pull your string,” Bronnie said. He took a long drink and set down the can. “My sister Helen’s husband was killed in Iraq, so I know gals need jobs too, don’t get me wrong.”

“Oh, no. Long ago?”

“About a year. They married right out of high school and had Chuckie, but when he was three, Charles’ truck hit an explosive device over there and that was it. They sent home the bits of his body and he’s buried at the National Cemetery.”

“That’s awful. Is Helen doing okay?”

“Yes, I think much better, but she still cries sometimes with no warning.” Bronnie drank some Coke. “Thank goodness she had a computer and was trained as a CPA already when Charles…when it happened. She’s an accountant and keeps the books for a church and a furniture store. She does a lot of the work at home.”

“Did you know Charles pretty well?”

“Oh, yeah, his little brother Ray was one of my best friends. Charles was a good older brother, sometimes took us to the Orioles games and that stuff, even though his friends made fun of him for hanging around with us. Ray and I planned to be just like him when we grew up.”

“How’s Ray doing?” Crystal asked.

“Not so good. He lost his job at WalMart and I think he might be dealing. I hate that, but I’m so far away, what can I do?”

“Just let him know you care, sometimes, that’s all you can do.”

“I do, but it’s not enough.” Bronnie looked very sad.

Crystal said, “I’m so sorry.”

“I think my pastor is trying to help him,” Bronnie said. “I hope so.”

After they finished the Cokes, Crystal took the cans down to the recycling bin. Then she said goodbye. She had to meet Mia Chase to study biology.

As she walked over to Mia’s room, she remembered that she had met Mia through Marianne in a way. Marianne’s advice had led her to complain about the lab partner situation in Pirkley’s lab and that had led to his assigning Mia to be her lab partner. Crystal was interested in Mia’s future plans; she didn’t want to be a doctor, but a biological researcher like her dad, who was a professor at UCLA. She started doing research with Professor Pirkley the day she arrived, and Crystal liked to hear about the progress of her experiments, trying to isolate a novel micro-organism from enrichment cultures.

“Hi, Mia, how goes it,” Crystal said. She sat outside on a folding lawn chair and had another one set up next to her.

“Good, good, very good,” Mia said. “How about studying outside? It’s almost warm today!”

“Okay with me,” Crystal said. She unpacked her biology notebook and book from her backpack and plopped into the other chair. “Let’s start with electron transport.” The two studied together for the rest of the afternoon. At about five thirty, Crystal got up and stretched.

Mia looked up at her and said, “Hey, I almost forgot. Pirkley wants to talk with you. He has an extra stipend for summer research and he wants to see if you’d be interested.”

“Will you be working there?”

“Oh, yeah, I really can’t wait to continue my project full time. But he said this new work had to do with malaria resistance and he thought you would find it interesting. He said you were one of his best students.”

“Oh, lord. I’d love to do it, but after that lab partner incident I was sure he thought I was a weak student. I’m very surprised he noticed me.”

“Well, I kinda told him about some of our conversations. I think it would be fun if we worked together. We could bike up in the hills, and the pools are good and they’re free for students in summer. What do you think?”

“Let me find out about the project, but it sure sounds good. Thank you so much, Mia!”

“No problem. Now, how about going for pizza? “

They agreed and walked towards the nearest Zoombah stop. It would be good to get off campus, and pizza was right in Crystal’s price range. She was excited about how the summer could go, if she was doing malaria research. But she would miss her family.

“Is the research likely to be all summer?”

“Nope,” Mia said. “The stipends are only for ten weeks, and the rest of the summer is your vacation.”

As they walked towards the student bus stop, Crystal felt very relaxed and realized it was the contrast with the times when she was with Marianne. She always worried about her. Mia was relaxing to be with because Crystal didn’t feel she had any problems, or if she did, Crystal wasn’t responsible for them. And the two enjoyed kidding around about biology, and really made good progress when they studied together. But I still care about Marianne, it’s just good to get a little relief once in a while, Crystal told herself.

The next day, Crystal felt Dr. Pirkley touch her arm as she was packing up her notes after class. “Do you have a few minutes, Crystal? I’d like to talk with you about a summer project.”

She smiled, said, “Yes, I do. Mia mentioned it to me.” They were quiet as they walked down the bright yellow hall with its framed enlargements of skin cells, neurons, chromatin, eye retinas, and other biological specimens. Pirkley unlocked his office and beckoned her in.

The room was small, more like the chemistry offices than those in math or music, where large groups of students often met with the professor in his or her office. It was crammed with books and journals, but Pirkley’s desk was almost empty. One sheet of paper with appointments for the week was face up on the left side.

“I have a short description of the project with some references you could look up, just a minute,” Pirkley said. He pulled open a file drawer and selected a folder, pulled a two page document out and handed it to her. “That’s for you. Basically, it’s a collaboration with some physicians at Angel’s Rest Hospital near here, who work part time in sub-Saharan Africa. They have data on malarial infections of a number of patients in two villages where they work, both whether the patient got malaria and how successfully it was treated with quinacrine, quinine, or artemisia. They’ve collected pre-infection red blood cell populations and they want us to look for the presence or absence of a variant membrane protein in each sample. We won’t know which ones got malaria later on, but they do, so we can blind test for this protein and later they can compare with the infection data. And also with the treatment data. It might help them develop a better treatment. Would you be interested?”

“Sure. My dad is just doing a final check on the financial aspects of it. I would love to do it, but of course, I need you to train me in the methods.” Crystal felt like she was smiling so wide she probably had double dimples. This job was very closely allied to her interests and would help even more with Carson’s expenses.

“No problem. And if there’s a financial aid problem, I can intervene and get some more money for you, probably. I’ve done that before.” He shut up the folder, put it away, and got up. Crystal shook hands with him and walked out of his office, then when she heard his door close, she skipped down the hall. She was too happy to keep still.

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