I Can't Explain, Everything Changed
In the cool lobby of a northern Chicago rail station, a young man laden with luggage and a bulky coat awaited the arrival of the first afternoon train. Standing behind the line of fading yellow paint, he watched his own foot idly tap on the tile. The rumble of the approaching train had been steadily building for several minutes, sending vibrations through his body and making his eardrums buzz. As he lifted his head to glance down the tunnel, he finally saw the beams of the train’s headlights. Seconds later, the bullet train appeared from the shadows and began to pull to a stop.
Ignoring the squeal of the breaks, the young man gathered his luggage. The doors let out their own squeal for a moment before opening fully, and he stepped forward and into the train car. It was mostly empty, save for an old couple on one end and a young woman on the other. Thankful for the extra heat of the car, he made his way towards a corner seat. Passing by the young woman on this end, he sat down on the blue cushioning of the bench seat and let out a sigh.
He adjusted his luggage so that it was close and took up as little space as possible. His father’s parting words of advice played in the back of his head: If you can make yourself look like nothing, people will pay you no mind. The young man had his doubts in the words’ truth, but it never hurt to try.
Rifling through his coat pockets, he pulled out the email he’d printed off from his new college. It was well-worn, with folds that had grown soft from how many times they had been undone and done again. Even though he could practically recite the email at this point, he wanted to double check just one last time that he knew his schedule.
“Dear Jasper Wightman,” the email read. “We here at Edley are excited to welcome you onto our campus! Move-in begins two weeks before the beginning of the quarter, but you can send belongings to your dormitory ahead of time by one week. It is recommended to do this for larger items only. Sign-ups for extracurriculars open one week before the start of the quarter. Details regarding the extracurricular activities you inquired about can be found in an attachment along with a verification of your registered courses. For further inquiries, please send an email to a counselor or the Dean of Students based on the criteria listed on the contact page.”
His courses for the fall quarter were Intermediate Algebra, English Composition I, and Elementary German I. Even though he’d read the email plenty of times, the strange feeling in his stomach still wouldn’t leave him. With a grimace, he refolded the paper and shoved it right back into the pocket it had come from.
‘Community college, huh? Easy and cheap, I guess,’ Jasper thought to himself. ‘And I need the foreign language for most other schools...But something still doesn’t feel right.’ Resting his chin on his palm, he turned to look out the window beside him. Eyes following the paths of the clumped-up snowflakes falling outside, Jasper decided to distract himself with counting. He reached a total of sixty-five snowflakes before he was forced back into his own body by his phone blaring. The sound of cheesy 80s pop made his movements quick, and he was hissing into the receiver in an instant. “Yes? Hello? Who is this?”
“Don’t you check your caller ID?” the person on the other end asked. Jasper’s irritated sigh was answer enough, and they went on. “It’s your good pal Elio. You know, your best friend. Anyway, where the hell are you? I thought you said you’d be on campus by noon!”
“I said I was leaving for campus at noon.” Relaxing back from his hunched position, Jasper let his shoulders drop and leaned back into the cushions. “But the train ride should only be about twenty minutes. Edley’s just on the edge of Chicago, right?”
“You’re a dirty liar.” A snort made Elio chuckle. “But yeah, it shouldn’t be that far from your parents’ place. Speaking of them, they doing okay? How’re they dealing with empty nesting?”
“They’ll be fine, trust me. Actually, uh, they’re finally not calling me Gisella by accident.” Watching the worn rubber toes of his shoes, Jasper tapped his foot.
“That news calls for celebration! I’ll buy you a round of espresso shots,” Elio cheered, though their loud voice crackled into static through the speaker. “Edley is gonna be good for you, Jasper, I promise. You’re gonna reinvent yourself into the man you’ve wanted to be since sophomore year: I can feel it. So just hurry up and get to campus!”
“Gee, love you too, asshole.” Jasper’s voice was light, even as the insult passed his lips, and he couldn’t help but laugh as Elio blew a raspberry on the other end. “Though you know I love talking to you, I was busy counting snowflakes when you called. I’d like to get back to that.” Elio protested on the other end but conceded a goodbye anyway, and Jasper hung up. The lights above him flickered slightly, and he checked the window only to see the walls of another tunnel. With a frown, Jasper shrugged and looked down at the phone still in his hand. Pulling up an e-book, he settled into his seat and picked up where he had left on.
Though the train was able to take him from internal Chicago towards the border, where a little college neighborhood had cropped up, Jasper still had to walk a ways to get to the campus. Even though he’d only been walking for maybe ten minutes, the air nipped at his nose. With everyone at work at the moment, the streets were empty. Jogging across an intersection, he finally reached the decorative gates of Edley’s east entrance. Sitting on the red brick of the half-wall surrounding the campus was Elio, who’d gotten to their feet when they’d seen him across the street.
“Moppet!” they called, ignoring the patches of ice on the sidewalk and running towards him. Holding their arms open, Elio crashed into Jasper and pulled him in for a hug.
“Canary yellow hair?” he asked, running a hand through their hair before letting the hug go. Elio punched his arm lightly and purposely messed up his bedhead.
“At least I don’t look like Oscar the Grouch.” Feigning insult, Jasper clutched his heart and gasped. The act only lasted a couple seconds before they both couldn’t keep smiles off of their faces. “God, it’s been a hot second since I’ve seen you! Your roots are starting to show again, but they aren’t that noticeable. Anyway, let’s get you checked in and all that jazz, it’s cold.” Tugging on one of his arms, Elio led Jasper towards the admissions office. It was a short walk, but they’d both been outside long enough that they shivered in the heat of the lobby. The woman at the main desk glanced up from her paperwork.
“Oh, Elio! Good to see you! This must be your friend, yes?” she asked. Turning her attention to Jasper, she asked, “Jasper Wightman, correct? I’ll go grab your file from the back.” She got up and disappeared into the file room behind the desk. The scrape of cabinet drawers opening and the rustle of folders created a welcoming hum, punctuated by the tapping of Elio’s nails on the surface of the desk. The woman returned after a few moments, holding out a thin manila folder, and said, “Here you go. Your proctor or RA will give you your dorm key.”
“Thank you,” Jasper said, tucking the folder under his arm.
“I’ll be taking you around campus first,” Elio said, waving at the woman as they headed towards the door. “Lemme see your file.” Grabbing the folder before they got an answer, they took a quick glance at Jasper’s dorm. “You’re a lucky duck, my good man. Edsall is known as the center of all queer culture on campus. And Boisse Hall, too. You hit the jackpot.”
“Who’s the RA?” Jasper asked, taking back the folder as they walked under the bare boughs of a few large trees. “Are they someone super cool or something?”
“The RA of Boisse is none other than Sylvia Johnson, the most badass woman I’ve met in my short life, except for my moms.” Elio’s smile was wide and toothy.
“She must be pretty cool then.” Elio nodded enthusiastically.
“I love her. And you will too.” Suddenly dropping Jasper’s arm from their grasp, they pointed at a building. “That one, with the Monet mural on the side! That’s your building!” Gesturing for him to follow, Elio began sprinting across the grass. Doing the best he could without letting go of his luggage, Jasper trailed behind. When he reached the doors, Elio was waiting for him. “Forgot about the bags; sorry friend.” Patting Jasper’s head as he stooped to regain his breath, Elio pouted. “Most of your stuff was sent early, right?”
“Yeah. My parents wanted to send it all as soon as possible due to paranoia: we got the confirmation a day after early arrival opened. Whoever I’m rooming with has probably been frustrated by the boxes.” Standing up straight, Jasper nodded to the doors. Elio grabbed the handle and pulled it open, and Jasper walked past them into the commons. Two women were in the lobby, chatting right outside what he assumed was an office. Elio stepped up beside him and coughed to get their attention. They looked over, and the first to walk over had a dark bun piled on the top of her head and round glasses.
“Jasper Wightman?” she asked, eyebrow quirked. He nodded and took the last step forward, one hand outstretched. “I’m the proctor of the building, Lu Mulan.” She took his hand in hers and gave a gentle shake. The other woman then stepped forward, a mass of lavender kinky curls and a toothy smile.
“And I’m Sylvia Johnson, your hall RA.” She held her arms open in an invitation for a hug, and Jasper felt his heart squeeze. Gladly accepting the offer, he hugged her tightly. As they stepped away from each other, he remembered the file in his hand. She pressed a key into his palm and handed the folder off to Mulan. “Your dorm mate’s off campus right now.” Turning to Elio, she playfully punched their arm and laughed. “Nice to see the bumblebee of the campus.”
Elio’s cheeks reddened, and they hid a smile behind their hair as they leaned into Jasper’s side.
“Would you like to go up to your room?” Mulan asked, drawing Jasper’s attention. He nodded, nudging Elio towards Sylvia as he went towards the stairs. “This is my first year as proctor so I’m really depending on my RAs to help keep things running smoothly.”
“The building is still intact.” Laughing a bit to herself, Mulan nodded. “I think it’ll all be fine. It seems like you have at least one good RA, after all.” The walls of the stairwell were covered in murals, some original and some copies. As he traced the spirals of a rendition of Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Jasper asked, “So what are you studying?”
“I’m saving up to go into genetic engineering,” Mulan answered, glancing back at him as she did. “I’ve got a paying internship at the hospital near campus, and the proctor position is work-study so I get tuition out of this. My sights are set on Harvard or Stanford, though, so I’ve got a lot of saving to do.”
“Oh, an Ivy League.” Gaze dropping to the steps, Jasper hopped a few to catch up and fell into stride beside Mulan. The landing of his floor came just around the bend, and came to a stop when he saw her pause. Looking up, he was met with sunny yellow walls covered in sloppily painted daisies and various other flowers.
“Welcome to Boisse Hall.” With wide eyes, he took in the details. “People don’t expect much from Edley, due to the stigma surrounding community colleges, but...I like to think this campus has more culture than a big school could ever have.” Nodding distractedly, Jasper stepped further in. The air smelled faintly of something sweet, and he felt his stomach twist up a bit from hunger. Forcing himself to look away, he read the tag on his key. ‘Room 314.’ Glancing back at Mulan, he practically asked for permission to go off on his own. Having already seen this a few times before, she nodded and watched him take off towards his room.
He hesitated at the door, the key clutched tightly in his shaky hands. Taking a deep breath, he unlocked it and pushed it open. The room was monochrome and empty, but the bed nearest the door was made and he could see other miscellaneous belongings from his dormmate. On the other side of the room sat his boxes, all neatly stacked beside the bare bed. Stepping in, he spotted a note on the mattress of his bed. Flipping on the light, he hauled his luggage into the room and read it.
“You’re finally arriving today, huh? I might still be out when you get here. My name is Atticus: I’m your roommate. I didn’t want to decorate until you turned up, so when I get back, we can wreak havoc on the room, alright?”
Leaving his suitcase by the boxes, Jasper shrugged off his duffel bag and tossed it onto the bed. Taking off his coat as well, he sat down on the bed for a moment.
‘This is my place in the world,’ he thought. ‘At least, for now.’ With a smile, he got back up. Adjusting the hoodie he’d been wearing under the coat, he left the room and locked the door behind himself. Rejoining Mulan at the stairwell landing, they made their way down to the commons. ‘And I’m perfectly fine with it.’