Chuck had three books devoted to Morrissey and The Smiths stacked in a pile on his desk. It was a point of connection on the night we first met: me, a study abroad student from England; him, a born and bred American from Asheville, North Carolina. We also had a mutual fondness for The Cure. Ironic that that we made a social connection over those two bands celebrated as great comforts for the lonely and introverted — in Finland, for example, it’s actually illegal to listen to The Cure’s album Disintegration with company.
We talked on that first night until the world was shaking the sleep out of its eyes and starting another day, but it was the last night that I remember clearest. It was mid-May, Finals week. Our other housemate had finished his exams and had left a few hours earlier, after the three of us had had dinner together, to start the long drive back up north to Maryland. I was finished too and was heading to the Amtrak station in the early hours of the morning; Chuck, in fact, had offered to drive me there, despite his exam early the next morning.
Chuck had gone to the library to study after we’d had dinner, so after Billy had left the flat was mine. I sat on the balcony looking at my little collection of train tickets that I needed for my adventure. It was warm, as North Carolina typically is in May, but there was a light breeze. A few people walked past below me, talking mutedly. I could see a few other people on other balconies, all alone, all with a textbook or two on their laps, heads bowed.
Without Billy talking on his phone to a friend in another state or yelling into his headset while playing Xbox the flat was as sombre and sad as a man finding his first grey hair one morning when he wakes up. I shouldn’t have been sombre or sad, not with my great rail adventure just hours away, but I didn’t feel like laughing, not even as I watched the guy on the balcony opposite rip up all his notes, kick them to the ground below and yell, “Fuck this shit.” Normally I’d be in tears of laughter over that, but I just felt sorry for him. What if he needed to pass that exam to finally graduate after seven years? What if, by giving up like that, he’d doomed himself to a future working awful jobs?
I shook my head. I wasn’t one for defeatism, especially not on someone else’s behalf. When Chuck came home I told him about that guy and my reaction and he said, “I don’t blame you, and I couldn’t have laughed. Never do in fact. It’s never far from my mind that I will have been here for seven years by the time I graduate…I never should’ve tried for a double major. Stupid decision.”
“Seven years? Hell of a long time to be stuck in education.”
“I know. And it’s not just seven years at this place. Like most of us in this country, I went straight from high school to college. No gap in between. I’m 24 now, should graduate next year. Been in education all my life.”
I kept forgetting he was older than me. I’d taken two years out before coming to university and was still only 22, also graduating the following year.
“By the way, I listened to that guy you mentioned.” Chuck took out his laptop and went to YouTube. He played some Frank Turner and said, “I’m jealous of you, y’know. You’ve got this great trip you’re about to go on and I’m still stuck here. I haven’t been out of the country since I was six.”
I said, “You’re still only 24, there’s still plenty of time to change that.” It felt like the right thing to say, but I’m not sure I meant it and he knew it.
“Dude, 24 is old. Sure, not old as in canes and cataracts, but I’m done — we’re done — with a quarter of our lives. The best quarter. And I did fuck all with it. I still don’t know what I want to do with my life, which is why I’ve changed my Major half a dozen times. I want to travel, but I don’t know where. Or why.” Then he asked me directly, “Why do you travel?”
“Just…I don’t know. First time it was because I needed a change, and I had the means to change it. Like this trip though, it’s just because I can. I want to see shit. Have stories to tell — I was gonna say to tell my grandkids but if I don’t get married or whatever I’ll probably just end up telling random strangers. Christ knows I’ve met enough strange old men on my travels who want to share their stories. No one will care of course, not really. I can talk about it, and I might find someone who will listen, but I guess, at the end of the day, I’m only doing it for myself.”
He said, “Wish I could go somewhere. But I don’t know how. I only earn enough to get by so if I wanted to save up to go across country and back, or to Europe or wherever, I’d have to whore myself out in a second job.
“So whore yourself out already.”
“Seriously?” He asked, like he’d only suggested it as a joke.
“Yeah. Look, it’s easy to decide whether you should. You can either get along comfortably with one job and whatever classes you need to do, and do that for the rest of your life, eventually swapping out college for a full-time job and a family. Or you can work your arse off for a few semesters, have no social life and just barely struggle through exams but have enough money for a summer trip. Then repeat that. You just need to decide which you’d prefer. Most people go for the easy option, Option A. I’m an Option B kinda guy.
Then he asked the question I didn’t know how to answer. “What about when you get a long-term girlfriend and maybe kids?”
I said, “No idea yet. People keep saying I’ll want to settle down eventually. But until then…Right, are you ready to take me to the station? I’ve got an adventure to have.”