The Outsider
by EC

Part 2

(warnings: language, adult themes, social commentary, public nudity, spanking, sex between adults)

Chapter 4 - A meal together

The next morning Mike went to the Student Center to buy his usual cup of coffee. He showed up slightly before 7:00, eager to have something better than the brown water they served in the dorm, but also with the vague hope of having a few more minutes of conversation with Ruthie.

She was dressed in a pair of loose-fitting gym shorts and an old t-shirt under her apron. Mike had expected that, because he had been noticing what she wore. The dress was something she put on only once a week, usually on Monday or Tuesday. For the rest of the week it always was shorts and a t-shirt.

He knew that there was a topic he could open with, the English literature class. He decided to attempt to open with a joke, referring to the last line of Somerset Maugham’s “Mr. Know-it-all”.

“So do you not entirely dislike Mr. Kelada?”

Ruthie blushed and smiled slightly. “No, at this moment I don’t entirely dislike Mr. Kelada.”

The two students chatted about the class and upcoming assignments. Then Mike asked if it was Ruthie’s first semester, to which she nodded to the affirmative. He commented that it was his second semester and then followed up with a question that seemed innocent enough:

“So… what do you think of Davenport State so far?”

Ruthie gripped a pitcher so tightly that he could see her knuckles change color. She hesitated, wondering whether to tell him the truth. Finally she responded, in a voice that was totally unconvincing:

“It’s OK.”

Mike knew that Ruthie was lying about her feelings, but he was smart enough not to press her. Instead he commented:

“For me, this place has its problems. Every place does. In some ways Chicago was better and in some ways it was worse. The whole frat thing gets to me sometimes. And my roommate’s a bit of a jerk…”

Ruthie nodded.

“Yours too?”

“Yeah. Mine too.” Then, with suppressed rage in her voice, she added: “I fucking hate my roommate! I can’t fucking stand her! She’s the biggest bitch I’ve ever met! I hate her! Last night I wanted to… I mean I wanted…”

Suddenly she checked herself…mortified at her own outburst. She turned away to fill a pitcher of half-and-half, even though a full one already was out on the counter. Her hand was shaking slightly. Mike realized that Ruthie Burns did not have anyone to talk to and that there were a lot of issues pent up inside her. That made her somewhat pathetic, but for him that was not much of an issue. He had felt the same isolation plenty of times.

“Don’t worry, Ruthie. It’s OK to vent. I’m sure my roommate’s as big a jerk as yours.”

“I doubt it.”

“Well, if you have to talk… you know… about whatever’s bothering you… you can, with me. You can talk.”


Ruthie’s co-worker showed up, much to Mike’s dismay. The co-worker put on an apron and joined Ruthie behind the counter. Obviously the chance for intimate conversation had passed.

“Ruthie, see you in class?”


* * *

In class Mike and Ruthie sat at the opposite sides of the room. Mike had his usual spot near the door: Ruthie had her usual spot near the window. For the first time they felt a bit uneasy in each other’s presence, so neither volunteered to talk in class. The fact that Mike was not taking up class time pontificating as usual gave the professor a chance to lead the discussion with other students, many of whom were caught not having read the class material.

Both Mike and Ruthie watched with satisfaction as some of the less responsible students struggled without the protective cover Mike had been giving them throughout the semester. Mike no longer was eager to jump in and help out classmates, not after what had happened two days before. The humiliation he endured by being laughed at was not something he held against Ruthie, but he did hold it against the others. Fine. Let them be caught out. I’m not coming to anyone’s rescue today.

After class Mike observed Ruthie going back to the dorm, presumably to have lunch. He decided to catch up with her.

“Heading back to the cafeteria?”


“Which one?”

“Watson Hall.”

“I’m going that way too. Want some company?”

Ruthie glanced at her classmate. It would be the first time anyone had sat down to eat with her in nearly a month. She was elated that her lonely routine was about to be interrupted, but that prospect also scared her. She took a deep breath and gave him another quick glance.

“Yeah, I guess.”

Mike paid attention to what she put on her tray. He was surprised to see that she took nothing but items considered healthy: fruit, vegetables, steamed whole rice, and a glass of orange juice. He moderated what he took accordingly and then wondered to himself: why do I care about what I’m eating in front of her?

A couple of the girls from Ruthie’s floor glanced over at the two students, noting that “Shannon’s creepy roommate” was not eating alone for once.

Ruthie badly wanted to talk, but her ability to make small conversation was extremely limited. Mike realized that he had to take the initiative.

“So, have you thought about what you’re gonna major in?”

“I already declared. Geology and Spanish.”

“You’re doing a double-major?”


“Kind of an interesting combination. So you speak Spanish?”




“From your family?”

“My mom. She’s from Culiacan… you know… it’s a place in Mexico.”

“So… that’s where you’re from?”

“No, I’m from Nebraska.”

Ruthie’s last answer totally took Mike by surprise. Nebraska? She glanced up from her tray and noticed the confusion on his face. She volunteered.

“That’s where my dad lives.”

“So, your parents are split up?”

Ruthie nodded.

“I guess with that I lucked out. My parents are still together.”

Ruthie nodded again.

“So your dad is from there too? Nebraska? Not Mexico?”

Ruthie nodded. “He’s from Lincoln. I lived with him when I was a little kid.”

OK, Mike thought to himself; that must be why her last name is Burns.

Suddenly she started talking, instead of nodding and giving him one syllable answers:

“I guess I’d better explain all this. My dad was in the Navy when my parents met. He was stationed in San Diego, and when they got together my mom had been in the US just a couple of months. She crossed the border and was here illegally. They got married when they found out my mom got pregnant with me. I think they did it ‘cause they couldn't get military benefits for me unless they were married, and I ‘spose they also did it because my mom needed to get her residency straightened out. INS couldn’t deport her if she was married.”

“So, did she?”

“Get her residency?”


“She got a Green Card. She never took the citizenship test. I’ve tried to talk her into it, but she’s telling me that someday she wants to go home, and she doesn’t really want to be a citizen here.”

“So the rest of your family is in…Cula…uh…”


Mike nodded.

“They’re all still there. On my mom’s side. My uncle’s here, but that’s it. Well, him and his kids.”

“…and your dad?”

“He’s still in Nebraska.”

“Do you ever talk to him?”


There was a lot of anger and bitterness in just that single word. Ruthie’s expression changed. Mike realized that something unpleasant must have happened between her and her father, but decided not to inquire further. He changed the subject.

“So… uh… where’d you go to high school?”


“What’d you think of Salinas?”


“I ‘spose… I didn’t hear too many positive things about it.”

“You won’t hear positive things about a place that’s got nothing good about it.”

“Did you like Nebraska?”

“It was a lot better than Salinas.”

Suddenly Ruthie became nervous, because she was fully aware that she was not making a good impression on her classmate. Already Mike had been far more patient listening to her than most other people had been. She tried to figure out what she needed to do to look better, to not appear so embittered about all of the unpleasantness she had suffered during her childhood. Finally she remembered an article that advised the reader to try to get the other person to talk about himself in order to gain trust.

“I… uh… Mike… you were like… in Chicago last year?”

“Yeah. But just one semester. I came back here at the end of the year.”

“What was it like?”

Mike took a deep breath. That was a very complicated question. There was a lot that he liked about Chicago and especially the university, but the loss of his relationship with Lisa overshadowed all of his other memories.

“I was at a big university in one of the suburbs. It’s an hour-and-a-half from downtown, and that’s just when traffic’s not bad. It was quiet, ‘cause it was so far out, almost like a small town. It was a nice enough place…”

“…so…if it was so nice, how come you came back?”

Mike hesitated.

“I had my reasons, but I had to come back here. To be honest, I wish I’d never gone out of state, and I wish I’d never set foot there.” He hesitated, wishing he had not just said that. He tried to correct himself: “It’s a long story… what happened to me in Chicago.”


“No, it wasn’t academic.”

Ruthie looked down at the table. She began twirling a spoon.

“I guess we both have long stories.”

“We all do. ‘Long stories’ are just a part of life.”

Both students finished their meals. Mike mentioned that he had to go to work, and Ruthie replied that she had a class. They got up to turn in their trays to the kitchen. They felt very uncomfortable at that moment, partly because of the very strange conversation that they had just experienced, and partly because they were nervous about saying goodbye. They were uneasy about being together, but subconsciously they did not want to separate.

“Are you ticketing today?”

“You bet. Today is pay-dirt day for me.”

Ruthie’s expression changed, reflecting resentment over the impending loss of her “private spot”. Mike noticed, but of course had no clue why she was upset.

“Ruthie, trust me. Those people getting tickets out in the Econ lot are the same ones who spend their lives giving people like you and me crap all the time. They wouldn’t give us the time of day. They’re not anyone you ought to care about.”

“I ‘spose not.”

“If you want to have some fun, come out there at about a quarter after four and just watch what happens. You wouldn’t believe how some people freak about something as simple as a parking ticket. It’ll be funny to see, but kinda pathetic too.”

“I’ve got class, but maybe I can get out there… a little after 4:30.”

“OK, then if I see you there, I mean… if you want, we can go to dinner after I get off work.”

Ruthie nodded, surprised at the dinner invitation.

A few minutes later Mike was out on the lot, with his ticketing machine, eight rolls of receipt paper, an extra battery, and his backpack stuffed with 400 red envelopes. He had to deal with a couple of sarcastic comments from the dispatcher, but true to her word, she had not told anyone about his plan to write 400 tickets in a single afternoon. She pulled out his supplies from under the counter in a market sack. He was grateful, because she had his stuff ready to go and he did not have to wait around.

He started on the cars parked farthest away from entrance because he did not want anyone to see what he was doing until it was too late. Hour after hour the machine clattered away, recording the vehicle information of student after student who blissfully assumed that a meter was the same thing as a “free parking for students” sign. Mike had his routine perfected: he wasted none of his precious seconds as he stuffed ticket after ticket into an envelope and put each under a windshield wiper. He only stopped to change his ticketing tape, and once, about three hours into his shift, the battery of his machine.

By 4:00 he was exhausted, his arm was painfully cramped from holding the machine for so long, and he was dehydrated. However, by then the majority of the envelopes he had brought with him were safely on cars and he had spent five of his eight rolls of ticketing paper. He had not moved as quickly as he planned: instead of averaging 80 tickets per hour he had only averaged 70. However, after four hours already he had written 280 tickets, and he had another hour to push for 350. That would still be a record for the department for a single shift.

As he worked his way up and down rows of cars that he would never be able to afford for himself, Mike had a chance to reflect on lunch with his strange classmate. He thought about her totally unadorned appearance and realized that her speech was every bit as unadorned as her body. Perhaps sometimes she had trouble expressing herself, but when she did speak she was bluntly honest. After having endured the painful breakup with Lisa and dealing with the multitude of phony girls who surrounded him in Davenport, Mike found that extremely refreshing.

He wondered about Ruthie’s world, which apparently consisted of Salinas, Lincoln, and Culiacan. A strange combination, to say the least. He put together the clues that she had given him about her past, concluding that when she was 12, something traumatic must have happened between her and her father, something that forced her to leave Nebraska and move to California. The conversation left him with many more questions than answers.

Finally, Mike began pondering something that never would have occurred to him just three days before: the possibility of having a relationship with her. Of all the women in Davenport, she was the one who seemed most within his reach… the only one, really.

* * *

Starting at 4:15, Mike could see students running across the parking lot to get to their cars, and hear the cussing when they found out that they already had been ticketed. He kept on, because he still had several rows to go. A young couple got into their car just ahead of where he was working. They were among the few lucky ones who made it to the lot before Mike had a chance to ticket their car. They passed by and the guy rolled down his window:

“Looks like you missed me, asshole!”

'Yes… yes… I missed you. No problem. I’ll get you tomorrow,' Mike thought to himself.

Around the parking lot students angrily pulled out of their spaces, screeching their wheels in a show of defiance. Mike was careful not to be standing out where people were driving by, because he knew from experience that someone could whiz by him and honk or throw something at him. He kept on ticketing.

By 4:30, a steady flow of students was returning to the lot. Many of them started running along the sidewalk when they saw what was going on. Around the parking lot the cussing and the roaring of engines and screeching of tires picked up. A second lucky student got to her un-ticketed car and pulled out. She was an exception.

A guy pulled up to Mike and tried to hand him the ticket that was on his car.

“You can take this back. I’m not paying it.”

“Yeah you are.”

“I’d like to see you make me.”

Mike shrugged his shoulders. “You won’t get your grades if you’ve got unpaid tickets. So you can threaten me all you want, but you’ll still be paying it.”

The guy tossed his ticket on the ground and drove off.

With just 10 minutes to go, Mike glanced towards the Econ building and saw a dark-haired girl in shorts and an old t-shirt sitting on the grass. His heart jumped. So she had come after-all. He waved at her and she waved back.

Ruthie watched the spectacle of students running past her and people roaring their engines in anger as they exited the lot. It turned out that Mike was right, it was kinda fun to watch the rich crowd get theirs for once. As much as she still lamented the fact the area no longer would be deserted in the afternoon, she did have to admit that it was nice to see people that she hated being inconvenienced and not being able to do anything about it. Oh, how she wished she could have treated those spoiled beauties in the coffee shop the way Mike was treating them in the parking lot!

A few minutes later Ruthie accompanied her classmate as he returned to the Parking Enforcement Office. The office was located in the corner of a huge parking garage, a new structure on campus that nearly everyone considered an eyesore. However, in a world dominated by personal transportation and the need to accommodate all those machines, such structures were a part of life.

Mike gave his classmate some further explanation about his job and some trivia about parking on campus. She commented that she was somewhat surprised by how angry many of the students were upon seeing their tickets. He explained that for some students, parking illegally and avoiding tickets was something of a game and they resented it when they lost. Many others simply felt that free parking was something they were entitled to and that in issuing tickets, Parking Enforcement Officer # 036 was violating their rights. They had been using the lot for two months without paying, so the sudden change was an outrage.

“You have to understand how obsessed people become about ‘convenience issues’ such as parking. That’s why some of them get so pissed when they see me. According to them, I’m taking away their rights. But that’s just too bad, ‘cause they’re not supposed to be in that lot anyway.”

Ruthie commented: “You know, I’ve always found it weird what ‘rights’ people fight for and what ones they don’t. Last year in my school, they nearly had a riot when they took out the candy machine. I mean, there’s all this other shit going on there… the gangs and all the cutbacks and having to be scared for yourself every time you walk around in the halls… but nobody ever said anything about any of that. You take away the candy machine…and everybody got pissed… you know… that they took away their right to buy candy in the school.”

When Mike nodded in agreement, she added an observation that surprised and impressed him:

“I wonder if they do shit like that to us on purpose. Getting us to worry about the little shit, so we don’t have time to worry about the stuff that really matters. I always wondered that about the whole candy machine blow-up. I mean… if everyone was fighting over a candy machine, then they could cut our lunches and nobody would say anything… and that’s what they did. I’m thinking the candy machine was a trick they pulled on us to keep us under control… just like parking…”

“…like parking?”

“Yeah, like parking…you know, you’ve got all these people stressing about their cars and guess what? They’re not thinking about stuff that really matters.”

“Maybe that’s true, but the big problem around here is that there’s simply too many cars. There’s no room in the world for all the cars and we keep adding more.”

“I wouldn’t say ‘we’, Mike. ‘We’ don’t make those decisions.”

“No, I guess you’re right. But ‘we’ accept things the way they are and don’t try to change them.”

“Yeah, and just how’s anybody gonna want to change anything if it’s all the same shit on TV and on-line and on radio? They’ve got us beat. There’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

“I don’t know. I’d like to think that’s not true…”

“Mike, look at yourself. You’re helping Admin control people’s behavior. I mean, maybe they’re people we don’t like and who don’t like us, but you’re still trying to control what they do. That’s what you’re doing for a living. It’s what we’re all doing, ‘cause we have to. They’ve got us beat.”

Mike didn’t agree with Ruthie, but still, he was very impressed. At age 18, already she was thinking about “the big issues” in life. She had a mind of her own and was able to intelligently analyze the world that surrounded her. She could think, and given the chance, she could talk. Her mind was not full of pop culture and shallow socializing and status symbols. There was nothing phony or vain about her.

Ruthie accompanied Mike into the dispatch office, even though in theory she wasn’t supposed to be in there. Mike smiled as he handed back his machine and about 50 unused envelopes to the dispatcher.

“I let you down. I only wrote 352 tickets.”

“Hun, you are such a slacker. What are we gonna do with you?”

“So, what’s the record? For a single shift? ”

Mike’s co-worker looked at her computer for a moment.

“218. That was four years ago.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it hun, 218. Congratulations. You’re the new big thing; you’re the one they’ll be chasing now.”

With that, Mike and Ruthie headed back to the dorm cafeteria to have dinner. Her self-confidence improved dramatically, because for the first time she had come across a person in Davenport who hadn’t lost interest in talking to her within a few minutes of conversing with her. She also found Mike interesting as a person, because in spite of the nickname she had tagged him with; he really was knowledgeable about a lot of topics. They spent dinner talking about her major of geology and evolution in general. He was not an expert on the matter, but he knew enough to allow her to have an intelligent conversation. She went on about different kinds of rocks, something that would have quickly bored most classmates who were not geologists. However, Mike was genuinely interested. The two students compared notes on their respective majors and then he commented on his dual interest in political science and pharmaceutical studies. By the time they finished, they had been sitting at the table for more than an hour.

After dinner the two students had to go their separate ways. Mike had a meeting to go to and Ruthie had to go to the library. However, they both were happy. Mike finally saw the possibility of having a relationship with someone in Davenport, while Ruthie was elated about simply having had a decent conversation and not having to endure the humiliation of eating alone in the cafeteria.

* * *

Ruthie stayed in the library basement studying the entire evening. She followed her normal custom of taking off her clothes as soon as she realized that she was the only person still on that floor. She put away the books she had taken off the shelves in the nude. That night she went clear to the opposite end of the basement, putting herself at risk, because the elevator separated where she was re-shelving books from where she had her backpack and her clothing. Fortunately no one came downstairs that night.

She loved the feeling of the soft breeze from the air-conditioning on her bare skin. For a brief moment she was happy, and danced alone for a few minutes.

However, her good mood did not last long. A loudspeaker broke the silence to announce the library would be closing in 10 minutes, meaning that she would have to return to her dorm room and face her nemesis Shannon. The very thought of that unpleasantness canceled the temporary lift her conversation with Mike had given her earlier.

The hard reality she faced was that in a few hours she’d have to wake up and endure yet another dreary day of serving coffee and going to class.

Chapter 5 - Counseling

The alarm went off just a few hours later. Ruthie was dead-tired and it took her longer than normal to rouse herself. She heard Shannon mumble a complaint about the noise before she finally managed to sit up and hit the “off” button. She got up and made her way to the student center across a campus that still was totally dark and cold. She set up as usual, but did not bother turning on the news. She preferred to be alone with her thoughts.

Her vague hope about Mike having paid attention to her and her ongoing hatred of Shannon were jumbled up with a bunch of other worries and concerns. Her mind was wandering more than normal; she was completely unable to focus on any topic for more than a few seconds. Had she been forced to think or engage in an activity she was not accustomed to, she would have had a very difficult time concentrating. However, there was nothing new or challenging about setting up the coffee shop for the day, nothing to tax her already overly-stressed brain.

That morning there was a very unfortunate coincidence when Ruthie’s co-worker showed up early and Mike came in a few minutes later than normal. He had slept very deeply because the rare silence in his room and had woken up just before 7:00. He ordered the first coffee of the day; Same order as always, black with a small amount of half-and-half, no sugar. With her co-worker present, Ruthie was not very communicative. Mike interpreted her behavior as hostile: he assumed that she was angry at him and that he had offended her in some way. He nervously drank his coffee, said good-bye and put his usual dollar in the tip jar.

Ruthie’s anxiety turned into despair as she watched Mike depart. Resentment built up inside her, directed at both Mike for showing up late and at her co-worker for messing up her morning with his presence.

* * *

Mike left the coffee shop almost as upset as Ruthie. His atrocious luck with women was holding up. He had hoped that maybe, just maybe he could connect with that weird girl in the coffee shop. But obviously something was missing, because he was convinced that he had offended her in some way and had no clue what it could have been.

Following his morning classes, Parking Enforcement Officer # 36 picked up his ticketing machine and 400 envelopes. He knew that there would be just as many idiots parking in Econ-A and not paying the meters as the day before. It would take several days of hard-core ticketing before the lot started to clear out. In the meantime he could work on his ticketing stats and vent his anger on all of those arrogant shit-bags who thought they were too cool to pay the meters. BMW’s… Jeeps… Escalades… yeah, he was gonna get ‘em all.

* * *

Ruthie passed an unpleasant morning, not only because of her disappointment over not being able to talk to Mike, but also because she was starting to dislike her co-worker more and more. There were numerous petty disagreements over things such as what music to play and how loud, whose turn it was to clean out the coffee machines, and finally a fifteen-minute smoke break that lasted a half an hour. Towards the end of her shift, Ruthie experienced another unfortunate incident that soured her mood even further. An arrogant sorority bitch, of the sort that Ruthie stereotyped with the bleached hair and huge tits that could not possibly have been natural, ordered a six-dollar mocha-latte. She took back her change and separated the pennies. The bitch put the coins in her purse except for the pennies, which she put in the tip jar. There were three pennies and Ruthie heard them… clink… clink… clink. The sorority girl flashed Ruthie a neutral glance and took her drink. She displayed the same emotion that she would have shown if she were taking something from a vending machine.

Suddenly all of the resentment Ruthie felt towards the rich hit her full force. At that moment she was holding a coffee pot full of hot water. The urge to flip up the lid and throw scalding water into the customer’s face was overwhelming. She actually did flip up the lid. Her hands began shaking, so much so that boiled water began spilling out of the pot. She felt a sharp pain on her ankle as some of the water splashed on her leg. The pain made her jump and brought her to her senses. Already the sorority bitch had turned and was leaving. However, Ruthie’s nerves were on edge, because she realized that she had just come very close to committing a serious crime.

It was only 10:00, but Ruthie realized that she needed to leave work. In less than two days she had seriously contemplated suicide and come very close to throwing boiling water at a customer. Her hands were still shaking. She turned to her co-worker.

“I need to go.”

“Well, you can’t. You’ve still got another hour.”

“Then you can’t take 30-minute smoke breaks. I’m leaving, and the deal is I don’t say anything about your smoke breaks and you don’t say anything about me leaving. Anyhow, it’s just for today.”

Before her co-worker could think of an answer, Ruthie took off her apron and pulled her cash drawer.

Ruthie’s mind normally housed a muddle of thoughts at any moment, but she was unusually focused when she left the student center. She realized that she needed help. The thought of committing suicide did not bother her, because she had toyed with the idea for several years. However, the thought of doing something that would send her to jail did scare her. She wouldn’t mind dying in the least, but the idea of sitting in jail and having a criminal record was enough motivation for her to take action.

Fortunately the university counseling center was not crowded. She was handed a form in which she had to provide her personal information, followed by a long list of questions, including:

Do you feel you have trouble expressing your feelings? – yes
Do you feel that no one understands you? – yes
Do you feel that other people treat you unfairly? – yes
Do you have problems getting along with your family? – yes
Do you have problems getting along with co-workers and/or classmates? – yes
Do you have any friends on campus? – no
How often do you go out with other people just for fun? – never
Do you have a roommate? – yes
Please rate your relationship with your roommate from one (lowest) to ten (highest) – one
Please explain – she’s a total bitch and treats me like shit
Are your parents divorced? – yes
Do you have regular contact with both parents? – no
Please think of one word to describe your life before you entered college – sucked
Please think of one word to describe your life now – sucks
Do you worry about your financial situation? – yes
Do you have trouble concentrating in class? – yes
Do you have trouble sleeping? – yes
Do you feel lonely? – yes
Some of the time, most of the time, or all of the time? – All of the time.
Do you feel hopeless at times? – yes
Some of the time, most of the time, or all of the time? – Most of the time.
Do you feel depressed? – yes
Some of the time, most of the time, or all of the time? – Most of the time.
Please rate your happiness from one (lowest) to ten (highest) – one
Have you ever thought about hurting yourself? – yes
Have you ever thought about hurting others? – yes
Have you ever considered suicide? – yes
If you have considered suicide, do you have a specific plan? – yes

Fifteen minutes after she turned in the form, the receptionist asked her if she could come to an appointment at 3:00 that afternoon. No problem. Ordinarily that was the time that she’d be sitting under the shade in her “private spot”. However, Mike had ensured that the “private spot” would not be so private anymore and she had nothing else going on at that time of the day, so… sure… she could make it.

* * *

Shortly before 3:00 Ruthie returned to the counseling center. By that time she was starting to have doubts about actually going to her appointment, but she could not work up the nerve to cancel. She nervously looked around the waiting area. There were two guys waiting as well, one of them somewhat overweight and the other very ordinary-looking. My fellow psychos, she thought to herself.

A counselor who introduced herself as Lynn Hartman called Ruthie’s name. Hartman was in her mid-30’s. She was well-dressed and only slightly taller than Ruthie, with medium-length brown hair done up in a casual style that would have been fine had she been a bit younger, but looked a bit out of place with the rest of her professional appearance. She spoke with the usual soothing voice that it seemed all counselors used with their clients. Ruthie vaguely wondered if they taught counselors to talk like that as part of their major, or if for some reason the soothing way of talking came naturally.

When the two women entered Hartman’s office, Ruthie plopped herself into the most comfortable chair she had ever sat in. Hell, she thought to herself; I’d come here just to sit in this chair. The office had some props to help calm clients’ nerves: a couple of misty landscape photographs, one of those small desktop waterfalls, and a side table with a couple of paperweights that a person could fiddle with while talking.

In the background Hartman had some music playing. It was a strange but very soothing song in a foreign language Ruthie did not recognize, sung by the most beautiful woman’s voice she had ever heard. As nervous as she was at the moment, Ruthie was curious about the music. Hartman responded that it was from a European group called “Socrates’ Mistresses”.

“Her voice is addictive, isn’t it?”

Ruthie nodded.

Hartman looked over Ruthie’s questionnaire and asked her new client to talk about herself and what she was doing at the university. Quickly she found out that Ruthie had no trouble talking about impersonal topics such as her majors, but was much more reserved talking about herself. As the hour progressed, Hartman slowly worked her way towards finding out how close her client really was to “doing harm” to herself or someone else. It was obvious the girl was dealing with plenty of other issues as well, but those would have to wait. The main worry for the moment was the suicide issue.

Even when Ruthie talked about general topics, Hartman could tell that the student had been brutally honest on her form about her difficulty connecting with other students and that failure had left her both very depressed and very bitter. Hartman also realized that Ruthie was very literal and that she gauged the world by what people said to her, not by how they acted. What that meant was that if the counselor wanted Ruthie to tell her something, she would not elicit any information by dropping hints. She would have to ask directly. At the same time she could not be overly direct for fear of intimidating her client. She talked in general about the questionnaire and then got to the point.

“Ruthie, I’m seeing from your form that you’ve given suicide some thought.”

Ruthie looked at the floor and started fidgeting.

“I ‘spose that’s true, Dr. Hartman.”

“Is that why you came here? To talk about that?”

“Not really, Dr. Hartman. If it was just that, it really wouldn’t matter. But I did something else today… or almost did it, and it kinda scared me…”

Ruthie suddenly became very talkative, rambling on about how close she came to throwing boiling water on a client just because she put three pennies in the tip jar. At first she felt ashamed of herself for being so infuriated over something that was much more an act of thoughtlessness than an insult. When she finished Hartman totally surprised her with her response.

“I’m going to tell you that you had every right to be so angry with that customer. I don’t think you were imagining things. She was trying to insult you. Had I been in your shoes I would have wanted to do exactly what you wanted to do. To be honest, I think you exercised remarkable self-control in that situation. The fact that you were able to do that says a lot about the strength of your own character.”

Ruthie looked up, because that was not what she was expecting to hear. Hartman continued:

“You have feelings, and there’s nothing wrong with that. You should never feel guilty about your feelings. What you need to do is accept your feelings, and then come to terms with what’s going on. It sounds like you have a tough life, and maybe we can work on making it less tough for you.”

Ruthie nodded.

“Here’s a question for you. Do you think that customer is more important than you? Is she a better person or more worthwhile than you are?”

Ruthie thought for a moment. Finally she answered: “I don’t think she’s better than me. She’s worse. I mean, I don’t do shit like that to other people.”

“Then I’m a bit puzzled why you think so little of yourself that you wouldn’t come in here to talk about your desire to hurt yourself, but you are willing to talk about hurting someone who insulted you.”

“It’s just because I got scared of getting in trouble. It’s not because I think she’s more important than I am.”

“So dying doesn’t scare you, but getting in trouble does? Don’t you think you have your priorities a bit mixed up?”

“No. That’s not it. It’s just that my life sucks enough as it is. I just don’t want it to get any worse.”

“Ruthie, I want to get back to something you said. When I asked you if you came in here to talk about suicide you told me that ‘if it was just that, it really wouldn’t matter.’ Is that how you look at your own life, that it really doesn’t matter?”

“Pretty much. I mean, if I had any friends, or anyone who gave a shit about me, or at least I could have some fun, or I had some money to buy what I wanted, then my life would matter. But I don’t have any of those things, and everyone hates me. My life sucks, it always has sucked, and it always will suck. So if I kill myself, what difference does it make?”

“I’d like to think that our time together can help you see that your life isn't pointless, and really is worth living, and that it does make a difference.”

Hartman looked at her client hoping for an answer, but the only response Ruthie could come up with was to shrug her shoulders. The counselor was not surprised, because the student was dealing with a lot of issues. She suspected that they had only touched the surface of everything that was bothering Ruthie and that it would take several sessions before she could even come up with a preliminary diagnosis. What was most important was that Ruthie had someone to talk to, which hopefully would forestall any crises until Hartman could come up with a strategy that would help her pull herself out of her emotional abyss. Communication was vital.

“We’ll set up an appointment for next week, but in the meantime I want you to keep two things in mind. I’ll give you a couple of my cards, and if you need to get a hold of me you can reach me through the emergency counseling line, or you can e-mail me. There’s another thing I’d like you to do. I want you to keep a journal. Write whatever you want in there, but of course it would help us the most if you could talk about your feelings or about stuff that is bothering you.”

Noting the skeptical look on her client’s face, Hartman elaborated:

“I know it’s more work for you, as though you don’t have enough as it is. But you’re going to forget things if you don’t write them down; stuff that you’re dealing with throughout the week, maybe memories from high school, your family… it’s all important. And always remember that what happens to you does matter to me.”

* * *

Ruthie left the counselor’s office in a somewhat better frame of mind than upon going in. She was looking forward to having someone to talk to, even if that person was paid to listen to her and viewed her with the detached label of “patient”. I suppose she’s seen plenty of us psychos over the years. I’m probably nothing special compared to some of the others she’s had to deal with.

Out of curiosity she passed by the sidewalk of the economics building to see what was going on in lot Econ-A. The majority of the cars already had red envelopes on their windshields, except for a handful of people who had wised up and already started paying the meters. Ruthie knew that if Mike kept at it, the next day more meters would be paid, and more the day after that. He had explained that eventually non-compliance in the lot would be reduced to about 30-40 hard-core violators, students who would continue to challenge him until their cars got towed.

Ruthie wanted to talk to Mike, but she was too full of self-doubt at that moment, in spite of the slight emotional lift that Lynn Hartman was able to give her. Instead she wandered in the direction of her next class in the Foreign Language Building.

The usual muddle of thoughts returned to Ruthie’s mind as she approached her class. She saw a street preacher arguing with a couple of Hari Khristnas. She resisted the urge to scream:

“You’re all full of shit! You and you stupid imaginary friends and your money-grubbing bullshit! That crap doesn’t exist!”

She remained lost in her internal world as she walked around to the other side of the building and crossed the bike path.

Just as she approached the main entrance of Foreign Language Building she heard a sudden screech of bike tires and felt a very hard blow against her arm. She saw a bright yellow flash as she fell on the cement. The young woman on the bicycle who had just hit her struggled to regain control and not crash.

“Watch it, you stupid bitch!”

Ruthie was sitting on ground where she fell. The wind had been knocked out of her and for a second she was too shocked to react. The girl on the bicycle, seeing that Ruthie was not much of an opponent, decided to circle back and confront her.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? You fucking stupid or what?”

“I… I wasn’t looking… sorry…”

“I nearly got fucking killed because of you! I oughta kick your fucking ass! Dumb-ass bitch!”

The bicyclist dismounted and gave Ruthie’s backpack a tremendous kick that sent it rolling into the grass. Still in shock over the blow to her arm and having been knocked down, Ruthie struggled to get up. The bicyclist pushed her to the ground.

“If I ever see you walking in the bike lane again, I’ll fuck you up, you stupid piece of shit!”

Having established her dominance, the bicyclist mounted and rode off. Several students were looking at Ruthie, but none offered to help her. She struggled to her feet and noticed that one of her knees was skinned. Her t-shirt had a tear on the side where she had been hit.

She reached for her backpack and with dismay noticed that it was wet. Even before she opened it she knew why: she had a carton of apple juice in with her books, and it must have broken open when that girl kicked the pack. She pulled out several very wet books and dumped out what was left of the juice.

Ruthie’s eyes welled up with tears as she went into the women’s bathroom and tried to wipe off her books. She wrapped them in paper towels, hoping to sop up as much of the juice as possible. She put some soap on her scrape and winced at the sting. Then she looked at the shirt in the mirror. It was badly torn under the arm and could not be fixed.

She forced herself to go to class, even though she was late and feeling very sick to her stomach. Fortunately the professor realized by looking at her that she had just been in an accident and said nothing as she sat down. She spent the rest of the class trying to listen, but with the trauma of the bicycle crash fresh in her mind there was no way she could pay attention.

The shock and pain of the accident faded as the class wore on, but those emotions were replaced by frustration, anger, and eventually, self-loathing. Ruthie mourned her ruined books and torn shirt, but what truly upset her was the fact that she had been totally unable to react when that bicyclist accosted her. The other student was the one who had run into her, and yet it was Ruthie who ended up taking the blame.

Why was it always like this? Why was she always the loser of each and every confrontation she had ever been in? What was wrong with her, that she was so totally incapable of sticking up for herself?

By the time Ruthie left class, her depression had returned stronger than ever. She knew the pattern: something unpleasant or traumatic would happen, she would have a burst of anger that eventually turned into self-loathing, and finally that faded into a numbness that could last for several hours or several days. She resisted the temptation to toss her books into the trash. She wanted to, because from that point forward seeing the stained pages and smelling spoiled apple juice always would remind her of the ugly encounter with that bitch on the bicycle. However, she had to keep the books, no matter what condition they were in, because she did not have the money to buy replacements.

Ruthie wandered aimlessly in the twilight as the numb dead feeling penetrating her soul intensified. Her shoulder was starting to hurt, which left her wondering if she may have sustained injuries beyond bruises and her scraped knee. I hope so, she thought to herself. I hope I have internal bleeding and I go to bed and don’t wake up tomorrow. That would be nice.

Ruthie needed to study, but there was no way she could concentrate given her bleak mood. She wandered around campus in the gathering darkness. She would miss dinner at the dorm, but at that point she didn’t care. She walked along the sidewalk, alone. Always alone. A group of sorority girls passed her and did not even notice that she was there. Several couples walked by, followed by two professors arguing about a grant program. The point was that none of those other people were alone, but Ruthie was. Again she asked herself: what is wrong with me? Am I really so disgusting?

She walked all around campus, ignoring the smell of stale apple juice coming from her backpack and the pain in her shoulder. Whenever she got to the edge of campus, she turned around and walked in a different direction. In the darkness she was afraid to go beyond the confines of the university. Anyhow there was no point in leaving because there were no interesting stores or entertainment in Davenport. For entertainment and shopping, students needed to drive to Santa Cruz and Ruthie had no car, as she had confessed to Mike earlier in the week. She had no friends, either. That too, she had confessed. The inadvertent admission was so humiliating because it was true. After nearly two months on campus, Ruthie did not have any friends in Davenport. There was no one to give her a ride to Santa Cruz and no one to hang out with. She watched cars go by, most of them full of groups of students leaving the university.

Ruthie Burns was not going anywhere. She would stay behind. She returned to her room and found that her roommate was not there. She went to bed, relieved that for the moment she did not have to face yet another person who hated her.

Chapter 6 - An evening in Santa Cruz

The next morning Ruthie’s alarm went off at 4:30 am. She put on her usual shorts and t-shirt. She normally wore athletic shoes with her shorts, but her shoulder hurt so much that she did not want to bother with tying the laces. She settled for a pair of slip-on sandals and made her way through the darkness to the Student Center. At first she felt somewhat better than she had felt the night before, but after she had been at work for an hour her depression returned. She turned off the news, not wanting to hear anything that would depress her further. Slowly and mechanically she finished setting up. She dreaded the thought of having to deal with customers, given her down mood and painful shoulder, but she did not have the nerve to call the manager to ask for the morning off.

Although the coffee shop did not open until 7:00, Mike showed up 15 minutes early, hoping to talk to her and get beyond the unpleasant silence from the previous day’s visit. He had debated to himself whether or not he should even bother to get coffee at all, given that Ruthie had brushed him off the previous day. Finally he reasoned that he could not be completely sure that was indeed what she had done, given that her behavior never was quite “normal” and there was a very good chance something was bothering her that had nothing to do with him. Anyhow, if he did not go, he would spend the rest of the day wondering. It was better that he get his answer right away, before the weekend.

The moment he saw her, he could tell that something was very wrong. He didn’t bother to say good morning.

“Are you OK, Ruthie?”

“I guess.”

“And I’d guess not. You don’t look OK to me.”

Ruthie looked away. Her eyes were full of tears, but she did not want him to see.

“I mean…if it’s not too personal, you might as well tell me what happened.”

“It’s nothing… really… an accident… I sort of got into an accident yesterday.”

“Yeah, I gathered that. That’s a pretty bad scrape you’ve got on your knee…”

Ruthie nodded.

“You put some medicine on it?”

She nodded again.

“Actually, it’s my shoulder I’m worried about. It didn’t hurt too bad last night, but it’s hurting now. I’m wondering if I pulled something.”

“Well, you’re gonna have to go to the Medical Center to find out.”

Ruthie nodded again.

“OK, so you’ve got a banged up knee and a messed up shoulder. What’d you do, fall off a bicycle?”

“No, but it was a bicycle. This girl ran into me outside the Language Building. I wasn’t paying attention and she ran into me when I crossed the bike lane.”

“What was she doing, riding there?”

“What do you mean, what was she doing?”

“The area around the Language Building is a dismount zone. What the hell was she doing, riding her bicycle there anyway?”

Mike pressed Ruthie for the details of the incident. Reluctantly she told him what happened. By the time she finished, he was livid.

“OK… we have a bicyclist who was driving recklessly and hit a pedestrian in a dismount zone. Then she assaulted you and left the scene of an accident. As far as I’m concerned, that’s some pretty serious shit!”

“So, what am I supposed to do about it?”

“I’ll tell you what you need to do. You need to file a report with the Campus Police Department and when they find her, you need to press charges.”

“That’s bullshit! What good’s that gonna do?”

“To start out with, do you have insurance? If your shoulder’s busted, how are you gonna pay to get it fixed?”

Ruthie shook her head. Of course she didn’t have insurance.

“She’s the one who hit you, so she’s the one who’s gotta pay. But that won’t happen unless you file a report.”

“I ‘spose…”

The tone of Ruthie’s voice told Mike that she might be willing to file the report, but only if he made it convenient for her and walked her through it. He could not expect her to go over to the Campus Police Department on her own. He pondered how to convince her to take some time off from her job so he could take her to see the police. Then, by sheer luck, he noticed a campus cop with whom he had worked during several football games walking through the main door of the Student Center. He called the officer over to the coffee shop and explained Ruthie’s accident.

Ruthie expected nothing to come of the conversation, so she was surprised when the officer took out his clipboard. It turned out that Mike was right and that the officer was taking the incident seriously. He pressed Ruthie for details, especially for a physical description of the girl that hit her and the identities of possible witnesses. When Ruthie finished, the cop had another surprise for her.

“I think I know who it is… the bicyclist, I mean. If it’s who I’m thinking of, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve talked to her.”

The officer handed Ruthie an envelope.

“Take this over to the medical center, turn it in to the receptionist, and get yourself looked at. Whatever injuries you have will have to be documented here, so don’t put it off.”

The coffee shop manager showed up just as the cop was about to leave, which was another piece of good luck for Ruthie. It turned out that she did not have to explain anything to her boss about needing to take time off because the cop explained for her. A few minutes later Mike and Ruthie were on their way to the Student Medical Center.

* * *

As they crossed the university, both Mike and Ruthie realized that their lives were about to change. The depression that Ruthie had sunk into had completely vanished after she had been told by the cop that she was definitely not at fault for the accident and that the bicyclist, if caught, would face criminal charges. She shyly glanced over at Mike, feeling strong and yet conflicting emotions. She was grateful for his help, but more importantly, she was grateful that he actually cared about what happened to her. However, being a person who was not used to having intimate relationships with people her own age, she found the prospect of being close to Mike frightening because she did not know what to expect from him.

The thoughts going on in Mike’s mind were even more complicated than those of Ruthie. Whatever his faults, he was a natural “Good Samaritan” who wanted to help those around him, especially people he knew. His obsession with “fairness” also entered into his efforts, because he felt that his classmate had been the victim of a huge injustice. He hated that arrogant bicyclist who had treated her so atrociously and wanted to do what he could to ensure that she would be prosecuted.

As important as Mike’s over-all attitude about helping others might have been, what really mattered to him was the fact he was attracted to Ruthie. Her weirdness fascinated him. She was not a girl who played by the rules of modern society, as was made clear by her unkempt appearance and scanty clothing. That unwillingness to try to please others by conforming to fashion expectations might have been one factor our of many that caused others to reject Ruthie Burns, but it was a huge point in her favor according to Mike’s values and criteria for choosing a potential partner. Already he was starting to feel protective of her, so much so that he missed a class to stay with her at the Student Medical Center.

It turned out that Ruthie had just pulled a couple of muscles in her shoulder and that she would just need to avoid straining the joint and take some Motrin to calm the pain. The intern was more concerned about her knee, which was just starting to show signs of infection. The scrape would require some antibiotics. The most important task however, was to verify that Ruthie’s bruises were consistent with having been hit by a bicyclist going at a high rate of speed. The intern filled out the form, which he would turn over to the campus police later that day to add to the incident report. Ruthie still was surprised at the thought that the police really were planning to investigate the collision.

It was close to lunchtime when the two students left the clinic. There was just enough time for them to eat together. Not knowing what else to talk about, Ruthie complained about her ruined books. Mike sympathized, realizing that she must have been dirt-poor to be so stressed out over some books. Finally he decided to change the subject, working up the nerve to ask her out.

“A quick question… have you started getting tired of dorm food?”

“I ‘spose…”

“I was asking, because I was wondering if you’d like to go down to Santa Cruz with me… you know, to have dinner… walk around… just to get out of Davenport for a bit.”

Ruthie started to fidget. She gave him a quick glance.

“I… I guess that’d be OK.”

“There’s a lot of places downtown. I’ll let you pick.”

Ruthie nodded.

“I’m off work at 5:00. Will that be OK for you?”

Ruthie nodded again.

Mike could tell that she was nervous. What he did not realize was that she was totally terrified, because he would be the first guy she had gone out with in over a year.

* * *

Santa Cruz is one of a string of affluent towns that lie along the central coast of California, which also include Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur. As a result of the local wealth, the process of big-box homogenization that has overrun the US has been slower to affect the Pacific towns and there still are interesting and unique things to see there. Santa Cruz also is a place where there are still some remnants of 1960’s hippie culture and the New Age movement of the 1980’s, both of which have totally vanished in the rest of the US. In the downtown area of Santa Cruz there are plenty of local restaurants, book stores, and stores that sell totally useless “artistic” decorations. There are clothing stores that cater to the marijuana crowd and of course, stores that cater to the surfing crowd.

Mike had plenty of opinions about Santa Cruz. He held the artistic crowd in disdain and was even more cynical about the hippies.

“What a bunch of losers, those hippies. They were so big about changing the world, and the only thing they accomplished was sticking society with a drug problem. So idealistic, but they made sure they sucked up all the decent jobs and didn’t leave us shit, and now they’re whining about how we’re gonna pay for their retirement.”

Ruthie said nothing, because there was no trace of hippie culture in Salinas and had nothing from her own experience to judge Mike’s comment. As for the groups of oddly-dressed teenagers roaming about, he commented:

“They’re just a bunch of spoiled brats trying to piss off their parents.”

She responded, “It’s better than what they’re doing down in Salinas.”

“How’s that?”

“Where I’m from, if you try acting weird the gang-bangers are gonna beat you up.”

Even though in high school she had lived barely 40 minutes to the south, Ruthie had never been to the downtown area of Santa Cruz. She found the place extremely interesting and totally alien to what she was used to seeing. Prior to graduating from high school, her world had consisted of the fast-food restaurants and big-box stores that her mother and cousins frequented in Salinas. Even going to the local mall was a big deal for her, since there wasn’t much in the mall that her mother wanted or needed. Her cousins went to the mall more frequently, but Ruthie’s mother was leery of having her accompany them and falling under their “ungodly influence”.

Mike was much more familiar with Santa Cruz than was Ruthie, since he had grown up in a suburb that was just a few miles to the south. He commented that he liked the bookstores more than anything else. As wide-eyed as she was with all the shops full of strange stuff, like her classmate she gravitated towards the bookstores and the used music stores. A lot of the books she had read as a teenager were present on the shelves, tempting her to spend the tiny amount of money in her pocket. The bookstores proved vital to the growing friendship between Mike and Ruthie, because they were able to talk about books they had both read and avoid a lot of uncomfortable silence. They laughed when they came across a collection of stories by Somerset Maugham and saw that “Mr. Know-it-all” was included. Ruthie then picked up an English translation of “Pedro Paramo” and held it up.

“This is a really neat book, but I read it in Spanish. I didn’t know they had it in English”

“It was one of your favorites in school?”

“Yeah. I read it a bunch of times. It’s the best book I ever seen, ‘cause I think Rulfo understands the meaning of life more than anyone else I’ve ever read. I mean, I’ve read a lot of stuff, but this one’s the best.”

Ruthie noticed that Mike kept the book in his hand.

They passed over to the religious section and Ruthie’s mood changed. She commented: “There’s so much bullshit in here. It’s all crap and lies. I’d ban it if I could.”

“You’d ban religion?”

“If I could, yeah, I’d ban religion. Outlaw all of it. Stick all the believers in jail and not let ‘em out until they admit they’re lying. I’m so sick of these God freaks and fucking holy books and all their shit.”

Suddenly Ruthie blushed, because she realized that she had just made a very strong statement without knowing anything about her companion’s religious beliefs. Mike was silent for a moment, because it’s not every day one hears a person saying that people should go to jail for being religious. He tried to set her at ease without exactly agreeing with her:

“I certainly don’t think it should be in politics. I don’t think I’d go so far as banning it completely, because I think that would be counter-productive. But I would like to see a law that would force public officials to be religiously neutral. I wouldn’t let a politician pray in public, for example, or associate himself with a particular church, or talk about morality in religious terms. That’s something I would support.”

The uncomfortable moment of Ruthie’s outburst passed, but it left Mike wondering about her. That was not the first time she had given an opinion that was overly strong. She was prone to outbursts, a trait that could be both good and bad. At least he would know where she stood on any given issue, but at the same time felt uneasy about being with a person who could not control what she said. Mike guessed that his classmate’s tendency to give overly strong opinions might be one of the causes of her isolation.

Ruthie was flattered when Mike actually bought the copy of “Pedro Paramo”, solely based on her comment that she thought it was the best book she had ever read. He cared enough about her to take an interest in something that had touched her life.

Mike still did not have a clue what type of food Ruthie wanted and she seemed overwhelmed by the choices. He decided on a restaurant that had a general selection of food. When she saw the prices she was very shy about ordering. When he tried to coax her into choosing something, she responded, “Just get me whatever you’re having. I’ve never been here, so I don’t know what’s good.”

The restaurant put Ruthie in an uncomfortable situation. She felt that Mike was spending an inordinate amount of money on a single meal. She didn’t want to tell him not to spend on her, but at the same time felt very nervous about asking for something what would cost him $25. So, rather than order herself, she wanted him to order on her behalf and that would allow him to decide what he ought to spend on her. As soon as Mike realized that she was uneasy with the situation, he realized the best thing to do was order a variety plate for two people.

Mike noted that as uncomfortable as Ruthie may have been about ordering, she certainly had no problem eating once the food was served. She had not gone off-campus a single time since the semester began, so she was eager to eat something different from what was served at Watson Hall.

There was an uncomfortable moment when they finished dinner and returned to the street, because Mike was unsure what to do next. He had no idea whether Ruthie was getting bored, whether she wanted to return to Davenport or stay in Santa Cruz. She could not suggest anything, because she had never been in Santa Cruz and did not know what there was to see there.

Finally he asked, “Are you OK?”

“I guess.”

“Are you ready to head back?”

“I ‘spose…”

In spite of her answer, Mike could tell that Ruthie was disappointed at the suggestion.

“If you’re not ready to go home, there’s a boardwalk here that goes out along the beach. Wanna see it before we head back?”


The boardwalk gave Mike the chance to talk more about Santa Cruz, and for Ruthie to start opening up about Salinas and Lincoln. He realized that she liked to talk much more about Nebraska than Salinas, even though she had not seen it for six years.

One interesting detail was that she never talked about family members unless specifically asked: she stuck to describing what things were like and to commenting about how various details of daily life in Nebraska were so much better than Salinas. She talked about her father’s house and neighborhood in Lincoln, but never about her father. The same was true about Salinas; she only talked about it in general terms. There was an uncomfortable moment when, out of curiosity, he asked:

“If you like Nebraska so much, have you thought about going back there?”

“Not really. I’ve lost touch with everyone I knew there.”

“And your dad?”

“I don’t ever want to see him. And I don’t really want to talk about him.”

Their conversation touched on John Steinbeck and the Steinbeck museum in Salinas, something they both had visited in high school. Like Ruthie, Mike had been the only member of his student tour group who had any interest in Steinbeck whatsoever. In Mike’s case his interest in the 1930’s was because his great-grandfather had moved to Santa Cruz during the Depression and shortly thereafter started Sinclair Pharmacy.

“Your family owns a pharmacy?”

“We used to own a pharmacy. My dad had to close it three years ago.”

“Had to?”

“Mega-Mart. They shut us down, along with most of the other businesses in my neighborhood.”

Over the next few minutes Mike told Ruthie the story of Sinclair Pharmacy; how he was supposed to inherit it, but how instead Mega-Mart had put them under. “That’s why I hate them so much… why I’m always wearing these pig-slogan shirts. For me it’s personal. MTA fucked up my life. I’ll tell you this, if the Danubians ever ask me to pick up a gun and fire at them, I will. There’s a lot of us who will.”

“Then I guess you won’t like hearing that Mega-Mart was the only place my mom ever wanted to shop. I always hated it because it was so depressing to be in there, but she’d make me go so I could carry her stuff.”

Ruthie sympathized with Mike’s situation, because Mega-Mart had completely overrun Salinas. It was interesting to hear from a person who had experienced first hand what it was like to be put out of business by the conglomerate. Ruthie’s experiences with Mega-Mart consisted of just shopping, but she had heard on the news about the tremendous damage the Mega-Town business model had inflicted in communities like the one where she grew up. During her senior year in high school she had tried to convince her mother to stop shopping at Mega-Mart, but “she looked at me like I was totally crazy, like I was telling her to run out on the highway or something.”

By the time they returned to Mike’s car, the two students felt very close to each other emotionally. They had talked about a lot of different things and had discovered that they had much in common. There were plenty of differences as well, but those differences made each more interesting to the other. They both were very happy as Mike drove out of Santa Cruz and they made their way back towards Davenport, but they were happy for somewhat different reasons

Mike already was feeling romantic towards Ruthie. Not only was she the only woman who had paid any attention to him at all since the break-up with Lisa; it turned out that she was knowledgeable and interesting to talk to. Pushing through the emotional barrier of her shyness and her inability to make small talk took some patience, but once that initial barrier had been passed, he could talk to her about almost anything.

Ruthie’s feelings towards Mike were not romantic in the least, but she felt a very deep appreciation for the one person who had paid attention to her since she started classes in the fall. She desperately needed a friend, and now it seemed that she had one. He was willing to talk to her, do favors for her, spend his time with her, and most importantly, listen to her.

* * *

A few minutes later Mike returned to campus and parked close to Ruthie’s dorm. Even though she was used to walking alone on campus late at night, he insisted on seeing her safely back to her room. The hallway was largely empty, but a couple of Ruthie’s floor-mates glanced at her with surprise to see that a guy actually was bringing her back to her room.

Fortunately Shannon and her boyfriend already had gone out, so for once Ruthie would have the room to herself after she said goodnight to Mike.

There was no hint that Mike would go into Ruthie’s room, because he did not feel that he knew her well enough to step into her sleeping area. Anyhow, she did not invite him in.

They did not really know how to say goodnight. Finally Mike broke the silence by asking what she was doing the next day. Studying, that was about it. When he suggested getting together for breakfast, she smiled slightly and nodded.

“Is 8:30 OK for you?”

Ruthie nodded again.

They nervously hugged each other goodnight and with that their first evening out came to an end.

* * *

Mike returned to his own dorm building, happier than he had been in a very long time.

When he opened the door to his room, his loser roommate Todd was at his computer, playing his monster game of course. Todd was totally engrossed in what he was doing and seemed not to have noticed Mike entering the room. He did not put on his headphones, which he normally did whenever his roommate was present.

The prospect of dealing with his roommate’s online gaming all night somewhat dampened Mike’s good mood, but then he realized something. It seemed that Todd’s online battle was not going well, because he was swearing and desperately going through on-line menus. Mike watched over his roommate’s shoulder with vague interest for a few minutes as his situation worsened. Suddenly Todd’s character took a hit and electronic blood spattered on the screen.

“Fuck! Godammit!”

Several flashing warnings came up:

“Yeah-yeah, I know! I know!”

When more electronic blood splashed on the screen Todd became increasingly desperate. Mike knew just enough about the online game to understand that his roommate’s character was seriously injured and at risk of dying.


Another hit, and more electronic blood…

“NO! GODAMMIT! NO!!!!!!!”

More flashing warnings…

“Come-on godammit, help me! HELP ME!!!!”

A few more minutes of desperation…and then quiet funeral music started playing…

“Sonofabitch! NO! Fuck! FUCK! GODAMMIT! NO!!!!!!!”

Todd’s character lay peacefully on a dark screen, as electronic spirits came to take his soul to the game’s afterlife. A poem in medieval script informed him that he had fought well, but we all must pass away at some point. His time had come…

Todd threw his keyboard off to the side and pounded his desk. He was crying.

Awesome! And Mike had been there to see it happen! He tried to maintain a neutral expression as he took off his clothes and grabbed his shower stuff. He smiled as soon as he was out of the room.

This was his day. Not one, but two great things had happened in the same evening.

Chapter 7 - A Day in Monterey

Mike woke up the next morning after the best night of sleep he had enjoyed for several months. He felt not just rested, but truly refreshed. He had gone to bed happy and woken up happy.

On top of his good mood, he slept well because for the first time all semester he had not had to put up with the muffled sounds of electronic warfare coming out of Todd’s headphones. Todd had crawled on top of his bed and went to sleep in his street clothes shortly after Mike returned from the shower. He didn’t even bother to take off his shoes. He slept curled up in a fetal position with his back to Mike. There was nothing normal about his behavior; it seemed that the life had gone out of him. Mike quietly turned off his roommate’s computer. Todd did not react.

Mike had silently gloated as he watched his roommate’s online life come to a bloody end, but in the morning, looking at the listless body on the bed in front of him, he started to feel somewhat guilty. He knew that Todd was a serious addict, addicted to gaming every bit as much as a gambler is addicted to slot machines or Poker. Like any other addict, he was experiencing withdrawal, in his case because he could no longer play his on-line game as the character he had been using for the past 18 months. Sure… he could start over with a new character, but there was no chance whatsoever he could attain the same ranking with a new character that he had with his old one. The quality of his gaming experience, no matter how much effort he put into building a new character, would never match what he had lost when his old character was killed.

Mike was convinced that what his roommate needed do was to forget about gaming altogether for the rest of the year and try to fix his grades. Probably there still was time for him to salvage the semester. The perceived commitments that he had with his battle partners disappeared when his character died. Besides… what did he owe them anyway? Wasn’t it his battle partners who failed to protect Todd’s character when he was injured, and just let him die? Maybe he should take that as a hint that he took his own commitment to the game, and specifically to his battle group, way too seriously.

Mike had wanted to say all that, but his roommate’s curled back indicated that at least for the moment he would be unresponsive. Better let it wait and try to talk after he woke up. Still, Mike felt very uneasy. Todd was going through a serious psychological crisis and there was no guarantee whatsoever he would come out of it OK. Even if he did recover, probably it would take a couple of weeks and by then his window of opportunity to salvage his grades would have closed. Then he would have another crisis: failing the semester.

Todd’s predicament made Mike even more grateful for his own life as he stepped out of his building into a cool overcast October morning. The weather forecast promised to become sunny later on, so he looked forward to a pleasant day. He would have breakfast with Ruthie and perhaps take her out of Davenport again. He wondered what would be better, taking her somewhere during the day, or asking her out that night. Finally he settled on suggesting they go out during the day, figuring that might be less intimidating for her.

Ruthie already had stepped outside, given that Shannon had woken up and turned on the TV to chase her out of the room. Mike noticed that she seemed relieved to see him, because she looked out of place sitting by herself on the grass outside her dorm building. She was dressed in her usual shorts and loose-fitting T-shirt. She wore nothing else apart from a pair of old athletic shoes. She looked like she had just gotten out of bed, because her hair was not combed.

Ruthie had expected to go to Watson Hall, but Mike offered to take her off-campus to Santa Cruz. Ruthie was elated at that idea. On the way in to town he gave her a summary of what was going on with Todd. Then he mentioned that there was a statue of a surfer that overlooked the main city beach area of Santa Cruz.

Ruthie giggled. “A statue of a surfer? Can we check it out? That I’ve gotta see.”

Sure enough, Santa Cruz boasts a statue of a surfer, the city’s monument to its best known recreational activity. The surfer stands in a boxer-style swimsuit, holding up an old-style surfing board from the 1960’s. The statue was done in the same style as war memorial monuments typical of the US National Park Service. The detail that Ruthie found the most comical was the guy’s noble expression; with his head turned into the air resolutely looking like he was about to go off to battle.

“This is just too funny. We’ve got to get a picture of it.”

Mike took a photograph of Ruthie in front of the statue, and then asked a passer-by to take a shot of them together. It was the first picture documenting their relationship.

The surfer statue put both Mike and Ruthie into much better moods. They were able to enjoy a laugh over something they both felt was silly. Ruthie mentioned the big artichoke statue at a restaurant near Salinas and Mike jokingly chided her:

“So you’re laughing at a surfer, and you guys in Salinas have to look at a big artichoke?”

“It’s not just an artichoke, Mike. It’s the great artichoke… the artichoke that gives meaning to all life… or at least makes people look twice at that restaurant.”

Mike smiled at Ruthie’s sarcasm.

They had breakfast just south of downtown Santa Cruz. They talked about the university and exchanged information about classes and majors. Ruthie talked some more about her interest in evolution, which gave Mike an idea:

“Just thinking… since you’re interested in stuff like that, would you want to go to Monterey and see the aquarium?”

“I’d love that!”

They drove south towards Salinas, and from there would head back towards the Pacific to see Monterey. The trip would take each of them past a sight full of unpleasant memories and thoughts: Watsonville for Mike and Salinas for Ruthie. Just after they passed Watsonville, the traffic slowed down. For several minutes Mike drove in a traffic jam full of cars from the Saturday shopping crowd. The view of the countryside was blocked by enormous billboards which took advantage of the captive audience. A lot of the billboards were for fast-food restaurants, but many others featured the infamous clown face and Mega-Mart’s slogans:

Buy more stuff at Mega-Mart!

At Mega-Mart your money buys more stuff!

Mega-Mart – The biggest!

Mega-Mart – Bigger is always better!

Mega-Mart – Be part of our future!

Mega-Mart – We are the future!

Mega-Mart – The future belongs to us!

…and their latest slogan: America and Mega-Mart – partners in greatness!

That last slogan was taken from the most recent marketing campaign, which portrayed Mega-Mart’s enemies as being enemies of the United States and “the American way of life”. That list of enemies included of course, the Danubian government, but it also included groups such as the one to which Mike belonged at Davenport State University. Just recently Mega-Town Associates had successfully promoted a Federal law expanding the definition of “hate speech” to anti-corporate slogans. Among other things, if Mike were to set foot in a Mega-Mart wearing his t-shirt, he could be prosecuted under the new law, sentenced to six months in jail, and placed on a terrorist watch list.

Once they got close to the Mega-Mart exits, the traffic began to speed up again as the hoards of shoppers left the highway. There were three exits to the Watsonville Mega-Center, each four lanes wide; that fed into a parking lot that boasted space for 50,000 cars in the open area, plus several parking garages. Beyond that black desert of asphalt lay the Mega-Mart Mega-Center itself. It was a building the size of six football fields, which from a distance looked like an enormous gray and yellow box. Two of the ubiquitous clown’s heads, each five stories high, framed a series of glass doors through which tens of thousands of shoppers passed every day, morning and night, without stop.

Ruthie commented that she wondered whether her mother and aunt were somewhere down in that huge parking lot, or perhaps in the store itself.

“They’ve been coming here every Saturday since this place opened.”

“Them and the rest of the country.”

For several more minutes they continued southward across open fields of vegetables. Ruthie commented:

“It’s kinda funny that people think these vegetables are so healthy. If you knew all the shit they spray on top and what they put in the soil, and put in the plants themselves…you’d probably never eat anything green again.”

“Except that meat’s even worse.”

“…and that’s what I meant when I said they’ve got us beat. You can’t eat meat and you can’t eat vegetables without eating a bunch of chemicals.”

As they passed through Salinas, Ruthie pointed out several landmarks, including her high school and the places where her mother, uncle, and one of her cousins worked. She pointed out the dilapidated shopping center that contained her mother’s church and talked at length about her religious experiences growing up. They discussed religion, a topic of which Ruthie was extremely knowledgeable, in spite of her loathing towards anyone who was an actual believer.

“I ‘spose I’d find it more interesting if I didn’t have it pushed on me so hard by my mom. But for me it’s personal. I can’t read too much about it nowadays without getting pissed off.”

“A question… was there ever a time when you did believe in God?”

“Yeah… I did… I guess up until I was 16. Before that I was always on all these guilt trips when I was like 14-15 or so. I was real scared of being watched all the time, and I kinda resented it. I was thinking… ‘God, you’re always watching me, so how come you don’t come down here and help me out every so often?’ I’d pray for stuff, but I never got one single thing I wanted. Not one single fucking thing. And it wasn’t as though I was praying for money or anything like that, ‘cause I knew that we were supposed to be poor and God was OK with that and that to want money was sinful… but I’d pray for stuff like having friends in Salinas or hearing from my friends in Nebraska, or maybe hearing from my dad, or being a bit happier. I never got any of those things, so in the end… I just prayed that God could change my attitude towards my own life, to have Satan leave me alone and be content with what God gave me. I didn’t even get that. So I finally gave up on praying ‘cause it wasn’t doing me any good.”

“…and you were… about 16 or so when that happened?”

“Yeah… towards the end of my sophomore year… Anyhow, at that time I was reading a bunch of stuff about ancient Rome and Egypt, I was kinda escaping into that time… there was this one Roman queen called Livia Drusilla who poisoned a whole bunch of people she didn’t like and I envied her and wished I could do the same thing around my school… anyhow, I started reading about the early Christian church and how it got started. And that’s when I realized there was a whole bunch of really interesting stuff written about the Bible that had nothing to do with the ‘how to be a better Christian’ bullshit you see in the bookstores. So I started reading about all that. My mom thought it was great that I was so interested in the Bible all of a sudden, but what she didn’t realize was that I was reading real history and academic stuff, not ‘how to be a better Christian’. I kept at it for a year and even did a couple of term papers for my world history class in high school.”

As Mike turned onto the road to Monterey, Ruthie stopped:

“Am I boring you with all this?”

“No, not at all. It’s interesting.”

“OK… if you’re good with it… I’ll go on. Anyhow, I started arguing with my Bible-study leader and I loved to embarrass her, ‘cause I actually knew a lot more about the Bible than she did. Whenever she got a fact wrong I’d correct her and I could talk about ancient Hebrew and Greek society, which she didn’t know a thing about. Finally one day after we were done and everyone had left, she told me that she wanted to talk to me. She told me: ‘you know what? You may know what’s written in the Bible, but for you it’s not the Living Word; to you it’s dead. You’re so arrogant that you don’t understand what the Living Word is. You have raised yourself up with your sinful conceit, you don’t know humility before the Lord, and you don’t have Jesus in your heart. I don’t know what’s inside your heart, but I can tell you it isn’t Jesus.’ The only reason I didn’t say anything was because I didn’t want it getting back to my mom, but she was right, and I was glad about it. I didn’t have Jesus in my heart. I knew that I was free from Jesus.”

They sat quietly for a few minutes as they passed the hilly countryside that separated Salinas from Monterey. The memory of that encounter came back to her in detail, the reproaching expression of a young woman who was only a couple of years older than she was… full of the ‘authority of God’ in her own mind. Ruthie continued speaking on the topic she was most passionate about:

“At that moment I felt that my mind completely broke free, because I realized that my Bible-study leader had no right to bitch at me. I knew more facts about the Bible than anyone else in my church, and at that moment I realized that the Holy Book could not have possibly been written by God. I knew from my own reading that the Bible was assembled piecemeal from old scripts that had been re-written over and over and selected from thousands of potential variations, by men who were worried about themselves and their own agendas at a particular time in history. Those bastards were hateful, ignorant, misogynistic people who had nothing but their own interests in mind. That’s the foundation for the Judeo-Christian religion. That’s the origin of the Bible, the real origin. God had nothing to do with it. God couldn’t have written the Bible because God doesn’t exist. That’s what I realized that night, talking to that ignoramus.”

Mike noticed that Ruthie’s face was tensed up and her hands were shaking slightly.

“After I went home that night, I thought about something. It wasn’t just Jesus. I didn’t believe in God anymore, but I didn’t know that much about the alternative, science. I didn’t know shit about evolution, because I was too busy reading up on ancient history and biblical studies. So I knew I needed to fix that. I’d make sure those fuckers in the church couldn’t ever touch my mind again. I’d fix it so that I’d win every argument I ever got into. So I read up on evolution… the origins of the earth, dinosaurs, paleontology, genetics, carbon dating, plate tectonics, the Big Bang… I read about it all. The astronomy part gave me some headaches because I’m not good with math and some of the theory based on those big equations confuses me. But I figured that I could at least understand what they were talking about, even if I didn’t get all the details.”

“What did your mom have to say about that?”

“She never knew. I hid the library books under my bed, the ones that talked about evolution and the history of the earth. I didn’t worry about the Biblical history books because I could always tell her I wanted to understand the Bible better, which was true, but just not the way she thought. I did real well in my science classes at school, but she never put two-and-two together to figure out that I had gotten into all that because I no longer bought the line of crap they were giving us at the church. So I’d go and listen to that moron preacher scream and yell, put in my time… deal with my mom speaking in tongues… by the way, have you ever heard a person speaking in tongues?”

“Not up close. I’ve just seen it on TV. They don’t do stuff like that at my parents’ church.”

“It’s not a pretty sight. It’s scary the first time you see it. I remember when I was 12, and got dragged to that church the first time… how scary it was… you know ‘cause I’d never seen anything like that and here my mom was, on her knees babbling a bunch of crazy crap. I can tell you it scared the shit out of me when I saw her doing it the first time.”

Their conversation was interrupted as they came within sight of the aquarium in Monterey. Ruthie had visited the aquarium only once in her life during a high school trip, so she was happy to have a chance to see it again. Mike had seen it more often. She was taken aback by how much it cost to get in, but her classmate brushed off her concern and bought two entrances. The presence of all that sea-life, along with being in the presence of a companion who was willing to listen to her, gave Ruthie even more confidence. She talked about everything in the tanks, about the evolution of fish and other sea creatures, and how some groups of invertebrates had gone unchanged for hundreds of millions of years.

“The fossil record seems to show that there is a big difference in the way vertebrates and invertebrates evolve. Vertebrates, especially if they are more advanced, whether it’s mammals or dinosaurs, are constantly changing. It seems that invertebrates don’t do that. They hit a certain point in their evolution, and they just stay there. An example is cockroaches, but an even better one is silverfish. Silverfish are one of the first insects there was; they’re older than just about anything else that ever came up on land, and they’re still around. You hold one of those in your hand, and it’s like you’re doing some time travel.”

Mike marveled at the outward transformation of his classmate as she talked about a topic that interested her. She was as knowledgeable as any of the paid guides would have been and was able to hold his interest. It was unfortunate that the side of her that he was seeing was not the one people in Davenport were accustomed to. Her normal behavior made her appear either socially inept or mentally disturbed, and yet here she was, confidently talking about the marvels of the natural world and the science that set out to describe it.

When they left the aquarium, Mike knew a lot more about ocean life than he had known going in. He had received a crash-course in marine biology from a classmate who was a year younger than he was. He realized that Ruthie easily was as intelligent as he was, probably even more so.

* * *

When they left the aquarium they decided to drive around the Monterey Peninsula before going back to Davenport. They passed the famous golf courses, looked out over the ocean, and saw some sea otters in the water. Ruthie quickly launched into a lecture about the history of sea otters and how they had been hunted close to extinction. When they saw sea lions she commented about their evolution and compared it with the evolution of whales.

As much as Mike was curious to hear what she was talking about, he could see how Ruthie’s continuous reciting of information could get on the nerves of a person who was not as interested. He considered himself an intellectually curious person, so it did not bother him to be with a companion who chatted incessantly about things that she was familiar with. However, a more typical college student would not have had much patience to spend an entire day getting impromptu lectures about biology and evolution. Thus he could see how her personality could grate on the majority of the people with whom she came in contact. Her brain was full of facts and information, but unfortunately that information was a hindrance for her having a normal life, because she was unable to talk about the shallower topics that interested most of her classmates.

As the day wore on, Mike realized something important about his relationship with Ruthie. The more he let her talk, the closer she felt to him. He had given her something very simple, but at the same time something very important, the chance to express herself without being cut-off. She became much less nervous and quit fidgeting when she was alone with him. Eye contact still was a source of discomfort, because she tended to look down or off to the side if they were face-to-face. When they were talking in the car or walking side by side and they both faced forward, she could talk with ease and confidence.

Ruthie Burns was a very literal person, to whom words meant more than they would to most people. If Mike wanted to convey how he felt about anything, he had to tell her directly. The same was true with understanding her; he had to ask because her outward behavior did not necessarily reflect what was going on in her head. At times there was a strange disconnect between the girl’s thoughts and emotions with her gestures, expressions, and mannerisms.

The afternoon went by very quickly. They thoroughly enjoyed being together, so much so that as they sat in traffic near the Watsonville Mega-Mart on their way back, they realized they had gone the entire day without having eaten since breakfast. Mike suggested that they stop in Santa Cruz for dinner before returning to Davenport. Ruthie, who was in no hurry to see the day end, cheerfully agreed.

They decided to walk around downtown Santa Cruz and see where they might want to eat. As they looked for the “right” restaurant, they browsed several “artistic” stores. In a couple of places they irritated store employees by making fun of the more ridiculous items that people with money would put in their homes.

They finally chose a restaurant and were just about to go in when Ruthie asked if they could make one last stop in a store that sold vintage and unusual clothing. Mike had no problem with that, although he was somewhat surprised, given that she had commented that clothes and fashion meant little to her. She poked around a little bit and was just about ready to leave when a small dress caught her eye.

It was a very small dress indeed, one that barely would stay within the confines of the law, even in a liberal place like Santa Cruz. It was made from soft red material and totally open in the back. The top consisted of a U-shaped piece of cloth that went over the wearer’s neck, which would hold it in place over the breasts. The most risqué detail however, how the dress appeared below the waist. The bottom part was as short as a mini-skirt and only covered down to the upper thighs. The skirt portion was open on the sides clear up to the belt-line, which would leave the wearer’s hips completely exposed.

Ruthie held the dress and her face lit up with enthusiasm.

“This is so cool!”

Mike’s heart pounded, because if she tried it on and came out to look at herself in the mirror, he would have a very good look at her attractive figure. With effort he managed to control his voice:

“Did you want to try it on?”

“You don’t mind? Yeah, I’d love to!”

Mike shook his head: “No, I don’t mind.” Of course he wouldn’t mind…

Ruthie took the dress into a changing room and came back out a few seconds later. Mike barely could speak as he studied his scantly-clad classmate with very wide eyes. The dress covered even less of her than he had expected. It obviously could not be worn with any sort of bra, and the only panties it could be worn with would be a very high-cut thong. Mike knew that under the skirt she wasn’t wearing even that. The skimpy piece of clothing looked unbelievably sexy on her small figure.

Ruthie ignored her friend’s gaping expression and looked at herself in the main mirror. She was very pleased with how the dress appeared on her, covering what needed to be covered by law and nothing more. She found being so exposed a big turn-on and felt that wearing such a dress around campus would signal her rejection of traditional Christian values more than anything else she could possibly do. Yes, the dress would be her statement to all of the religious types trying to snatch control of her mind and telling her that she had to cover up. She commented to Mike:

“This is neat! I totally love it! How do you think it looks on me?”

Mike swallowed and struggled to speak. “It looks really nice on you… but… you’d… wear that around campus?”

“Damn straight I would! It’d be my ‘fuck you’ to all the God freaks who won’t leave me alone, you know… kinda like your pig-shirt is against Mega-Town. It’d be my personal protest against the Bible thumpers.”

Mike’s heart continued to pound at the thought of her actually wearing that dress. It certainly would be a bizarre contrast with her normally shy personality. She turned around a couple more times. Then her face reflected disappointment.

“Sucks that I’m gonna have to put it back.”

“You don’t have any money on you?”

“Fuck no… like I’d ever have any money on me?”

Mike wondered what he should do. He had been thinking of buying her a small gift anyway, something that she might appreciate and that hopefully would help open the door of her heart to him. He had been wondering what she might want and would enjoy. Well, there was not much doubt in this store; she desperately wanted the dress. He decided to take a chance:

“Ruthie… I mean…If you’d really like that dress, I could get it for you… you know… if it’s something that you’d think you want to wear.”

Ruthie nervously looked at her classmate. Had it been any other item of clothing, she would have felt embarrassed at the thought of having a guy she had only known for a week pay for something she was going to wear. However the dress was different. She had never seen a piece of clothing like that and probably never would again. If she turned down his offer, she knew that she would be fantasizing about wearing the dress and end up totally frustrated. She took a deep breath.

“I… I mean… you’d actually wanna do that? You wouldn’t mind?”

“No, of course I wouldn’t mind. It’s not expensive and you like it, so why not? It does look good on you.”

She surprised him by hugging him. Then she returned to the dressing room, not to change, but to grab her other clothes. Mike’s heart jumped in his throat when he realized that she was dead serious about wearing that dress out on the street.

When they had dinner, Mike could tell that the hostess had doubts about seating them because of Ruthie’s lack of attire, but in the end the customer was not breaking any rules or laws, so there was no justification to deny her a table. Mike did notice that they were seated in a booth near the back wall and out of view of the main dining area. Ruthie was oblivious to the restaurant worker’s discomfort.

Dinner was a strange experience for Mike, because Ruthie wanted to talk some more about geological deposits and the subduction zone off the Pacific coast that caused the San Andreas fault. She mentioned that there was a volcano that had been formed and later split in half by the fault and that the two separated pieces now were miles apart.

“There’s some neat hiking trails and a park on one of the halves. It’s south of Salinas.”

Mike promised to take her hiking there, but his mind was more focused on her attractive figure and almost naked body. Whenever she leaned forward the cloth of her new dress parted, allowing him to see her breasts. He became very uncomfortable throughout the meal because looking at her gave him an erection. He badly wanted her, much more than he had wanted anything for a long time.

* * *

It was well after dark when they finally got back to the university. As much as they didn’t want to part ways, they had to because both had term papers due the following week and Ruthie had a mid-term on Monday. He accompanied her to her dorm room. Fortunately the light was not turned on, which meant that Shannon must have already gone out for the night and Ruthie would have the room to herself.

Saying goodnight was awkward, because they had not determined what they were actually doing with their relationship. Were they just friends? Were they going out? Was there any romance? Mike noticed that Ruthie was fidgeting again, so he decided not to push the issue of trying to kiss her. There would be plenty of time for that later. Instead he hugged her, enjoying the touch of the smooth skin of her bare back as he held her.

“I really had a great time with you today. I… was kinda wondering… what you’re doing tomorrow night… you know… for dinner?”

“The usual… Watson hall…”

“Well… if you’d like… would you want to meet up with me?”

Ruthie nodded.

“Five-thirty… here at the front door?”

She nodded again.

As he turned to leave, she added:

“Mike… I… you know… I wanted to tell you… I… I really enjoyed my day with you.”

She blushed furiously and fidgeted. Mike reached out and took her hand.

“Me too. It was the best time I’ve had… all semester… I liked it…”

He gently squeezed her hand and with that their first day together came to an end.

End of part 2

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