Louis sat on his bed, staring at the stacked boxes and full duffel bags that clogged the floor around him. The things in his room didn't seem to fill as many boxes as he had expected. That's the thing about memory; makes things bigger, fuller.
Louis had been pulling the last of his clothes out of his closet and folding them, placing each folded item in a large green Army duffel his grandfather (Fielder, not Taylor) had given him. In the back of the closet hung his commencement robe. He pulled out the wrinkled, silky garment, pulled it off the hanger, and began folding it. While he struggled to fold it properly, the texture of it, the coolness of it, the smell of it triggered something familiar in his mind. Without thinking, he sat down on the edge of his bed, holding the bundle in his hands, running his fingers along each soft fold.
He remembered how light it felt. The full-length robe was feather-light. And, as un-masculine as it would have sounded to admit it, Louis liked the way it swished around him. The way it billowed and moved as he walked. For a moment, he could understand the appeal that similar vestments have for some of the fairer sex.
He sweated through the commencement address, barely paying attention. The speaker went on and on about "the future," something about which Louis had thought neither too often nor too deeply. He had a rough outline, the barest of sketches, but nothing concrete. Certainly nothing planned or prepared for. All that mattered to him was that he had graduated and that he was marrying the most beautiful girl in the world.
Anna sat a few rows behind him. He wanted to turn and catch her eye, but the flock of mortar-boards obscured his view. He smiled, knowing that she was there, knowing that very soon, they could begin their future together.
What that future held was still up in the air. Every time Anna tried to talk seriously with him about the logistics of their shared life, he kept getting distracted by the very pleasure of the thought. Louis was of the belief that "all you need is love;" his intended, clearly the more level-headed of the two, understood and tried to make him understand that his love "wouldn't pay her bills." Louis would dismiss her concerns with "we'll be fine as long as we're together" and a kiss. Against her better judgment, more often than not, Anna would let her love for her fiance overwhelm her worries. Or her misgivings.
If pressed, Louis would say, "Oh, I'll get a teaching job, or a newspaper job, and write on the side. Once the books start selling, we'll be great. Maybe we'll start a family then." Noble goals, all. However, he didn't have any concrete knowledge of how to accomplish any of them. This didn't concern him as much as it should have.
All his life, Louis was skilled at improvisation. Whenever he was unprepared for a class assignment, he would bluff his way through. His charm and his quick thinking saved him in many situations (though, toward the end of college, the guise wore a bit thin). And whether he admitted it or not (likely not), deep down, Louis knew that each new challenge in his life could be faced the same way. Charm, cleverness, sincerity. And he would be golden.
The problem with Louis, if you haven't gathered it thus far, gentle reader, is that he was in the habit of being reactive, never proactive. Certainly, when faced with a problem, Louis could deftly address it, or sidestep it. But when given the opportunity to prepare for something, he wasted his chance, turning his attention to activities more interesting, more entertaining. He prided himself on being the king of the last-second comeback, the all-night cram session. He had begun writing term papers at eight hours before they were due, and still getting high marks.
He'd done it before; he could do it again.
The commencement speaker finished his interminable address, and the conferring of degrees took place. It felt speedier than it actually was. It seemed like Louis blinked twice, and he was back in his seat, holding his diploma. And that was that.
After commencement, as families hugged and expressed their pride, as friends cried and hugged and exchanged addresses, as former students shook the hands and hugged the necks of their former professors, Louis hugged his parents and talked to them for a moment, and then turned to find his betrothed. He scanned the crowd back and forth, and finally saw her standing with her parents, at the outskirts of the crowd. He told his parents he would meet them at the apartment a little later, and then darted across the football field, weaving through the crowd, patting backs and hugging necks as he passed, until he caught up with Anna and her parents.
"Hello, Mr. Brooks, Mrs. Brooks. How are you?"
"We're fine, Louis," Mr. Brooks said. "Congratulations. You did it."
"Thank you very much. Congratulations to you, too! For Anna, I mean! Magna cum laude, Honor Society! She makes me look like an absolute slacker!" Louis was breathing hard and beaming. He turned to Anna. "Congratulations, baby!" He leaned in to kiss her. She turned her face at the last minute, deflecting his kiss to the very corner of her mouth.
She grabbed his arm. "Let's go for a walk, Louis. Mom, Daddy, I'll be right back."
Mr. Brooks nodded. "We'll be here, sweetie. Good to see you again, Louis."
Louis eagerly shook his hand. "You too, sir. Very much. Good to see you, ma'm."
Mrs. Brooks smiled, "And you, Louis. Take care."
Louis was about to reply, but Anna cut short the pleasantries by non-too-gently jerking his arm away. They walked away from the crowd, down a sidewalk. Louis put his arm around her waist. "Are you as happy as I am?"
She moved away from him as they continued to walk.
"Anna, what's wrong? Did I make you mad? Was it about the kissing thing? I mean, they know we're engaged, it shouldn't be that--"
"Just...give it a rest for a minute."
They walked silently for a few more minutes, until she led him to small park. He sat down on one of the benches. She didn't join him. She stood a few feet away, looking out over the fields nearby.
"Anna, what's the matter?"
"I got accepted to Columbia, Louis."
"What? You didn't apply to Columbia. Accepted for what?"
"Graduate school. I applied a few months ago. I told you about it. You weren't listening."
"Oh, right, yeah, grad school. But... I didn't think you were serious."
She turned to face him. The tears on her cheeks tracked back to glaring eyes. "Why wouldn't you think I was serious?"
"Well, for one thing, we never discussed it. It wasn't part of the plan. I thought you wanted to get married."
"You wanted to get married, Louis!"
"And you didn't?"
Anna shrugged and turned away again. "I did. Maybe I still do. But not now. Maybe not for a while."
Louis folded his arms. "Or maybe just not to me."
"That's not fair, Louis. And that's not true. Necessarily."
"'Necessarily,' she says! It's true enough. We were going to get married. We were talking about it, planning it out, and now out of the blue you want to go to grad school in New York, and leave me here with, what? A 'maybe'?"
Anna laugh angrily and spun around toward him. "Oh, 'we' were planning? That's a laugh. 'We' never plan anything. You come up with some idea, some grand scheme, but when I try to talk about the details, you zone out. You're not interested. I could have given you a two-hour presentation on why I wanted to go to grad school, and none of it would have sunken in. You just don't get it. I want more, Louis. I want to push myself, stretch myself in a hundred directions. I want to have a family one day, but before I do that, I want to see the world. And it's not wrong of me to want these things! I have the ability, the skills, to make this happen. If you loved me at all, you would have wanted this for me, too! But it was never about what I wanted, what I needed, was it? It was about what Louis wanted... I'm willing to sacrifice a lot for you, but I will not give up my entire life. Especially not if I know that you wouldn't even notice."
Louis sat, arms folded, glaring out over the green field, gritting his teeth. "So that's it? I don't pay attention to you? I don't care about your needs?"
"Those are symptoms, Louis. The real problem's deeper. Our relationship has always been about you. And I'm not willing to spend my life dealing with that. I'm sorry."
"I'm sorry, too."
She pulled the engagement band off her finger and set it down next to him. "You'll want this back, I guess."
"I don't want it."
"Take it, Louis, come on."
"I don't want it, Anna. Pawn it. Trash it. I don't care what the hell you do with it. I don't want to touch it."
"Fine," she responded, but she made no move to retrieve the ring. Finally, she said, "I have to go. My folks are waiting."
"Do they know? Did you tell them?"
"Great. And I just made that scene. I must have looked like a real jackass."
Anna started laughing. Louis said, "I don't think it's funny."
"No, Louis. It's not. But that's exactly what I'm talking about."
They were silent for a moment more. Anna, standing, facing Louis. Louis, sitting, facing nothing.
"I've got to go."
"You said that."
"Right. Well then." Anna started walking back down the sidewalk. She stopped and turned back toward him. "So that's how we're ending this? No goodbyes, no nothing? You pouting and me walking away?"
A moment. "Looks that way."
"It's fitting." With that, Anna was gone.
Louis sat with arms folded, staring out over the grasses. Fuming. Hurt. Confused. Finally, he stood, and picked up the gold band on the bench next to him. Swimming his hand through the folds of the robe until he found his side pocket, he deposited the ring there, and began the long walk back to his apartment.
The next morning, after packing up his truck and locking up his on-campus abode, he began the short drive home. As he set out, he immediately drove across campus to a parking lot on Lake Michigan. He got out of his car, pulled the ring out of his pocket, and hurled it as far and high as he could over the water. He could just see it splash when it hit. And that was that.
Louis was holding his folded robe when there was a knock at his door. He jolted out of his thoughts, and spoke up, clearing his throat. "Yeah?"
The door opened, and his mom poked her head through. "Dylan's here."
"Aw, man, I've been dreading this."
"You gotta do it, baby."
"Yeah. Tell him to come up."
He tossed the robe into the duffel, as his mom disappeared. A few seconds later, Louis heard the familiar clomp of his best friend's size 16 shoes running up the stairs. There was a tentative knock at the cracked-open door. Dylan had never done that before, Louis thought.
"Yeah, man, come on in."
Dylan opened the door and took a step in. At six foot six, his head always seemed to barely clear the doorframe. He took a look around the bare room and let out a low-whistle. "So this is it? You're really doing it."
Louis stood and faced his friend. "Yeah, man. I gotta give it a try. It's the next adventure, right?"
"Right. You'd be a fool not to go."
There was an uncomfortable silent moment. Then Dylan sniffled and walked over and wrapped up Louis in his big, dark arms, squeezing him tight. Louis laughed, trying not to cry. "Geez, man, it's not like I'm dying or something."
"Yeah, I know. But I'm still gonna miss not having you around to beat in one-on-one."
Louis returned his friend's embrace. "Guess that means you'll have to find some real competition."
Dylan laughed. "Yeah. Not likely."
Louis slapped his friend's back, hard. "Okay, okay. Come on, now, I can't breathe. Besides, we gotta finish packing this crap up. Then, I'm taking you to dinner."
Dylan let go and pulled away. "Yeah, you better, Mr. Moneybags."
"You bet... Dylan? Thanks for coming by, dude."
Dylan laughed. "Where else would I be, Louis?"
Dylan nodded. "Damn right."