36: Lucky Me

36: Lucky Me

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

Lucky Me

Praise the bridge that carried you over.

~George Colman

“Hi, welcome to Mertz third floor south, closest to heaven.” Two guys approached as I heaved my luggage up the wide staircase. “Um, hi,” I panted. The brittle January weather had chilled my skin, which was finally starting to thaw from the effort of two flights of stairs. My heart, on the other hand, stayed colder than the coldest nights. I just didn’t know it yet.

“You the exchange student from California?” asked the taller one with an impish smile, as he steered a remote control toy down the hall. “I’m Jim.”

Great, I thought. College kids are just as immature here as back home.

The shorter, curly-haired boy took my suitcase and led the way. “I’m Dave. Lucky you. You’re with Melissa in the big double at the end of the hall.”

One by one, people stuck their heads out of their rooms as they heard the squeak of my suitcase wheels. All of them envied my luck and ogled at the girl from California.

The room was large — twice the size of every other on the floor. Lucky? Me lucky? I had come to this little Pennsylvania college for a fresh start, hoping to leave my nightmares behind.

No one here knew me. They didn’t know my nickname. They couldn’t pity my tragedy.

I couldn’t wait for second semester classes to begin — something to keep my mind occupied — too busy to think about the past.

Jim turned out to be in my “Revolutions and Revolutionaries” history class. There were only a handful of students. The professor, who encouraged debate, kicked off the first class with a heated discussion. “Is there really any such thing as altruism?”

“Sure,” Jim answered. “People do things for others all the time without getting or wanting anything in return.”

“But they always get something in return,” I countered. I was always up for a good argument — just another thing to beat back my reality. “Even if it’s just a warm, fuzzy feeling from helping someone.”

Despite the fact that he called me a cynic, we continued our exploration of the topic back in his room. Over the next few months, we had many conversations stemming from that class and elsewhere. I found myself working twice as hard on the papers for history — hoping to live up to Jim’s high standards.

Yet, at the same time, he drove me crazy. I didn’t know what it was that kept pulling me back to those debates. “He’s always on my case,” I complained to my roommate.

“Got any ideas for the next paper?” Jim asked me one evening.

I stared at him in bewilderment. “Me? None as good as yours.”

“Oh, sure. Thought you could handle it.” And he was gone. It drove me nuts.

Then there was the night — the ridiculous night — I sat by the phone in the common room, trying to decide whether to call my parents or not. I needed the connection, the hug across the wires. On the other hand, I did not want to upset them. Who else but me would be obsessed enough to calculate that on that day I had become older than my brother ever had the opportunity to be? Two and a half years before, at this exact age, his life was taken from him. Now, I was living to be older. It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair. It should have been me.

Still stuck in the bargaining stage of recovery from the loss of my brother, I knew that my death wouldn’t bring him back. However, it would have ended the Monkey’s Paw-type nightmares. As I sat there, sobbing, I realized that the nightmares had become less frequent. Images of my new surroundings, new friends, and my history class swam before my eyes instead.

A few weeks later it was my birthday — a fact I kept well hidden. I just couldn’t bear the thought of becoming nineteen when my older brother was frozen in time at eighteen. Perhaps this was part of getting away. Nobody here would recognize the event, and so I could somehow pretend that it hadn’t happened.

Strolling back from the library, I paid little attention to the fact that Jim and Dave had opened the window in Dave’s room and were singing “Happy Birthday” at the top of their lungs. Clearly, it was for somebody else.

It was naïve of me to think that someone else they knew at this small school shared my birthday. “Why didn’t you tell anyone it was your birthday?” they demanded as I headed up the stairs.

“How’d you find out?” I asked, greeted by a common room full of people and large pizzas.

“Your grandmother called and left a message to wish you a happy birthday,” Dave told me.

“Just my luck. No one was supposed to... I didn’t want... what did you do all this for?” I stammered, realizing too late how ungrateful it must have sounded.

Jim rolled his eyes. “Oh yes, poor ‘Deirdre of the sorrows’ all wrapped up in her own self pity.”

“That’s not what I... could you just lay off for one second!”

At that moment our eyes met. It was the same impish smile from the first night, but suddenly different. Standing before me was a man who hadn’t lost his joy and optimism, who still harbored faith in humankind and the belief in true altruism.

Always on my case. It suddenly occurred to me how wrong I was. Jim only did that every time I put myself down. I had become so self-deprecating, a sullen serious pessimist, constantly insulting myself before anyone else could. After all, it hurt less if I did it — or so I thought.

The door that stood between my life of depression and my future — the one Jim had been trying to help me to unlock all semester — had opened a crack. Smiling at Jim, I was able to stick my foot in that doorway to keep the bright light shining.

The semester was drawing to a close and it was time. I somehow had gotten what I’d come for — traveled three thousand miles to meet this altruistic person — a guy who returned my faith in humanity and in my own future.

I was scared to go, afraid the door would slam shut in my face back home in California. For the next year or so, Jim was always in my mind, like an angel on my shoulder, reminding me of the things he would have said. “You’re so lucky,” a classmate told me as I stepped forward to receive a special award on graduation day. I smiled at her. Luck had nothing to do with it.

~D.B. Zane

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