At 12:15 the next day in college, about twenty students gathered at Kennedy Hall in Social Work Block. When I reached the hall with few others, Shirley, Prof. Goode and the rest of the volunteers were already waiting for us.
The moment I stepped inside, I heard Shirley call for me from my left where the crowd of volunteers were behind a desk filled with chilled water and sodas.
“Come have a drink!” She called when I was heading straight toward the circle of chairs at the very front of the hall just below the platform, where some people were already seated.
I went over to her to grab a drink. “You guys give drinks too?”
“Something to refresh your soul, why not?” Shirley beamed amiably.
“You guys are awesome.” I smiled back. “I’ll have a coke.”
“Anything you want.”
I grabbed a coke and headed toward the circle. About twelve of the chairs had been occupied but, the circle still looked sparse since people were seated chairs away from one another. I took a seat one chair away to a guy on my right with headphone over his ears, wearing a faded vintage, denim jacket and staring down at his phone.
Not long after, the rest of the people piled in and I saw Augustine, looking as sizzling as ever in pure white T-shirt and dark jeans, coming down the aisle with Marlon. He saw me too and as always, we greeted each other with just meeting eyes.
“Hey! Sophia!” Marlon called out to me in the most delighted voice and came toward me, pulling Augustine, who was just about to take a seat at the far end, behind him by his arm.
“Hey!” I returned.
“How long have you been here?” He asked as he took the seat between the guy with headphones and me, while Augustine took the one right next to me on the other side.
“Not long. Just a minute ago.”
We watched the rest of the people come in and I particularly spotted someone tall in shoulder length, pink hair strut down the aisle with a camera in hand.
“Yeah. There comes the starrrrrrr, the Queeeen.” I heard Marlon mutter under his breath with an eye-roll.
“You know her?” I turned to him.
“Him.” Marlon corrected. “Everybody knows him. Now you know him too. Remy Starr from Multimedia.”
I watched him take a sit right across us, throw one leg over the other in the sassiest manner and pull out his phone. Almost all the chairs were seated when Shirley, the volunteers and Prof. Goode finally joined us too.
With a nod from Prof. Goode, Shirley stood up from her chair and addressed us in her usual, spirited smile. “Hi, y’all. Welcome to Penny For Your Thoughts. I know most of us are strangers to one another for now but, by the end of this circle, I do hope and believe that we would have transformed into a. . . family!” She paused to swallow. “So, before anything, we do need to introduce ourselves and as a ritual of Penny For Your Thoughts, we have a certain way of introducing ourselves.” Shirley flashed an excited smile hinted with a bit of mischief. “I would need y’all to pick an adjective that has the same first letter as your name. My name is Shirley. Starts with an S so, my introduction is ‘My name is Strong Shirley. Shirley Paisley. Social Work Major’. Right?”
“Right.” We replied.
“So, there goes my introduction. Next.” She turned to Prof. Goode and settled back on her chair.
Prof. Goode stood up from his chair and followed right after Shirley with a friendly smile. He was a forty-year-old man with short, soft hair and glasses, dressed in a suit, with about five books on motivation and psychology in his resume.
“Good to see you all here. I’m Bonkers Bryan. Bryan Goode. I’m just an old hag walking to and fro in this campus.” He joked and everyone laughed at how unexpected that came from him. He smiled too and added later on. “I teach Psychology.”
And so on, we introduced one after the other. We now have a Grand Gale, Daring Denise, Charming Clarisse. . . Rebellious Remy, Fried Frederick. . . Troublesome Timothee Froid (the guy with headphones), Magnanimous Marlon, Steady Sophia and. . .
“I’m the. . . alluring Augustine Urban.” He said with a roll of eyes and great emphasis on the adjective. “Astrophysics major.”
His introduction simply put a big, fat smile on my face. Was it the name or the adjective, I’m not sure but, I smiled. Something about his name, something about him. . .
Marlon, by the way, laughed a bit at his choice of adjective. Augustine only looked our way with a heart-stopping smile. For all we knew, he really didn’t care.
Once the quick introduction was done, we were divided into two groups, which would be our group till the end of the circle, and then we were made to stand in two lines facing the opposite group. I happened to stand in front of Timothee. Marlon, Remy and I were in the same group, Augustine and Timothee in the other. Shirley and the volunteers handed out a notepad and a pen each. We assumed that we would be made to draw our partners face but then, at the sound of a whistle, we were asked to draw a man riding a motorbike without looking down at your notepad but, eyes solely concentrated on my partners face.
We all laughed throughout. We laughed, even more, when we saw all the meaningless scribblings that looked far from a man riding a motorbike. But, Timothee pretty much nailed it. In two minutes, he was the only one who managed to actually make some sense with his drawing.
We settled back on our places and proceeded to watch a fifteen-minute cartoon illustration video - cast through a projector to the screen on the platform - of a man chasing happiness through the vision of wealth and money but, it still leaves him with an emptiness inside of him.
Jason, the guy operating the projector, paused the video and we all stared at the question on the screen in silence - ‘What makes you happy?’ Such a simple question and yet, when I actually thought of it, it seemed pretty hard too. Nothing exact seemed to come in mind. I looked around to see everybody else thinking too.
“So that’s the first question. It could be anything. Who’d like to go first?”
Those who had turned their chairs to face the platform turned back to form a circle and for a minute, we were all quiet. I assumed we were all deep in thoughts.
Remy stood up from her chair and every eye turned to look up at her. “For me, Rebellious Remy, dressing up and going out for dinners with my girls make me happy. I’m even happier when we’re all happy together.”
After Remy broke the ice, one person after the other stood up. Some said money, spending time with family and friends, music, road trips. . . Being more of a listener than a speaker myself, I remained seated until there wasn’t more people speaking up. For a moment there, I thought maybe I wouldn’t speak to this time but then, Shirley’s gaze zeroed in on me with an insisting smile.
“What about you, Steady Sophia? What makes you happy?” She asked.
“Umm. . .” I stood up, thinking about how I should put this without bringing up that I write novels or cheesy piece of craps, whatever you call it on the internet. I thought maybe I should say something else but then, that would be lying in a place where most people were being honest so, that wouldn’t be very nice.
“I’m happy when. . . people actually enjoy reading the stuff I write on the internet. I feel really good, especially, if they find the jokes I write funny too and if we can just. . . laugh over it over and over again, or. . . If I have helped them in any way with the things I write. . . Yeah. That’s it.”
“That’s awesome!” Shirley beamed at me.
“Thanks.” I returned with a shy smile and settled back on my chair. From the side view, I caught a glimpse of Augustine curiously looking at me now and I didn’t like it. For all I knew he was going to ask me later what I write.
“What about you Troublesome Timothee? What makes you happy?”
He turned his gaze down to the floor, thinking hard for a moment, and then he pushed his lips up and shrugged indifferently. “I don’t know. Honestly. I really don’t know.”
We could all see that even Shirley looked a bit staggered now just as the rest of us were but, she handled it in no time. “Yeah. It takes time for some of us to actually come up with an answer. So, moving on to the next question, it’s actually two questions combined in one since the next follows the first – What is your safe haven and how did it become so?”
“I have the answer for that one,” Timothee spoke up right after and tapped twice on his headphones with his right forefinger. “Helps me block out the rest of the world. Sometimes.”
Shirley nodded. Prof. Goode listened carefully to each answer. This time, most of the people spoke up. Even I contributed that it’s my bed. Nothing in the world makes me feel as secure and homely as my bed. It’s my cozy cocoon, my nest, my true love. Only Augustine remained quiet even after everyone has spoken.
Shirley prompted him. “What about you alluring Augustine?”
“It’s my basement.” He said. “I have a nice couch and a punchbag down there. So if I’m really tired, I go down there and maybe take a nap in the couch or either beat the crap out of the punchbag to relief my system.”
Some of us had funny answers too and we shared rounds of laughter too. Soon after we moved on to the third and final question of the day – What are you grateful for?
“Is it possible for someone to have absolutely nothing to be grateful about?” Timothee spoke up again.
I turned to look at him. His face had changed. From the nonchalant, poker face he had all through the session, he looked almost angry now.
“Why, Timothee?” Prof. Goode calmly asked in response.
“Because I feel so.”
Timothee shook his head and scoffed a little. “No you don’t.”
“Trust me.” Prof. Goode met him in the eyes and Timothee looked away, back to the phone in his hand which he gripped tighter.
The moment we called it a wrap, Timothee grabbed his backpack from the floor, put the headphone around his head and hurried out before anyone else. I had thought of speaking to him but, I stood watching at his retreating back from my place in silence. I felt like he might need a friend. I felt like we were on the same page. . . On a spiritual level. I wanted to be his friend. But, I couldn’t quite reach out to him yet. I felt something like a force, a guard, around him that seemed to block people out. . . Something I knew so well.
When I pulled my gaze away from Timothee, I found Prof. Goode looking at me quizzically. I met his gaze for a short moment but, not making much deal of it, I looked down to the floor to grab my backpack.
“So, what do you write?” I heard Marlon ask me from his place.
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just some craps and lobsters.” I laughed.
“Sounds cool! Good luck with the seafood then.” He gave me a cheeky smile and stood up.
“I’d love to read some of your works.” Augustine said.
I looked over to him. “You’d hate it.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Trust me.” I stared at him dead in the eyes. “You’d die reading it.”
“Now, I’m more interested. What sort of writing is it, Miss Swann?”
“High on sugar, cheesy, highschool rom-com that will make your teeth rot. . .”
“Oh my God! That’s all I ever read!” He awed and stared at me in utter admiration.
For a moment there, I seemed to have lost a million brain cells hearing him say that. I pulled my eyebrows together and gawked at him until both of us burst out laughing.
“God.” I laughed.
“I still want to read it.”
I shook my head. “Not going to let you read it.”
Feel free to give your own answers to the three questions!
1. What makes you happy?
2. What is your safe haven?
3. What are you greatful for?