Insiders: 1972

S. E Hinton’s iconoclastic novel, The Outsiders, imagined five years in the future. These are the first two chapters of the novella.

Friday: Ponyboy

Dear Ponyboy,

You’ve only been gone for a week and already it seems like forever. The old neighborhood isn’t the same without you, which might not be a bad thing when you think about it.

Darry sends his love. He also says that if you mess around and don’t get all A’s, he’ll personally come up there and set you straight. Since he’s leaving for college today and he won’t see this letter before I send it, I can tell you that he smiled after he said it. Just a little one, but it was there.

It seems so strange to have two brothers who are college boys. You’d think that I’d be used to it, but with both you and Darry living on campus now, it’s hitting home. Not that it’s quiet. It’ll never be quiet at the Curtis house, especially now that the new generation lives here. Speaking of them, the monsters send their love.

Well, Ponyboy, I know you have thousands of things to do and I need to get some sleep. I hope you know how proud Darry and I are of you.

Your brother,

Sodapop

P.S. Sandy sends her love too.

Even from a thousand miles away, Soda could make me smile and ache inside at the same time. I had the same problem with everything from home: I loved the fact that everything was working out for everyone, but it made me miss them even more.

Luckily, there was plenty to keep me busy so I didn’t have time to dwell on it. After the first week, I was already buried, but it was a good buried. I was taking classes in my major, I was in a place completely different from anywhere I’d ever been, and I was surrounded by people who didn’t care where I was from. I could be Ponyboy Curtis, and it was entirely up to me who that was.

There was still one class I hadn’t been to, Creative Writing, the one I was looking forward to the most. My roommate Brian had already left for his classes, so I took a few minutes extra to check myself out in the mirror: not great but not that bad. I’d kinda gotten used to my looks and had to smile at the thought that five years ago, I wouldn’t have recognized myself now. I wasn’t short anymore. I was a little over six feet tall and I was in pretty good shape, but no more greasy hair. It was pretty long and I liked it, but it didn’t matter to me as much as when I was younger. Like I said, not great but not that bad. I still wouldn’t have minded looking like Paul Newman. I wasn’t sure about who I was going to be, but I was hoping I’d figure that out as I went along. For now, busy college student would do.

The walk to my class wasn’t very long, which was a shame. Tree-lined sidewalks and beautiful buildings: I could learn to live with that, and when I thought about the difference between this and the old neighborhood, I felt like I was on a different planet. It reminded me of the time we went to Randy’s house for Cherry’s farewell party.

None of the parents were happy about what happened back then — I couldn’t blame them because none of us were — but Cherry’s were the most upset. It was like they finally realized what was going on. Their solution was to move. Her father was enough of a bigwig in his company to make that happen. Randy’s parents, who were good friends, threw a party and Bob’s parents invited us. I’ll give you a few minutes to chew on that, but I promise to return.

I was uncomfortable. Darry insisted we wear our best clothes, and I had never seen a house like that. It was brick and it seemed to go on forever. I wanted to ask Randy how many rooms there were, but I figured that wouldn’t be very cool. Even with directions, I got lost looking for the bathroom. I didn’t feel too easy around so many parents. Other than my own and Two-Bit’s mom, there weren’t many good examples. Not knowing most of them didn’t help, and they weren’t giving us the kindest looks.

The lawn, which looked better than our football field and was almost as big, was set up with round tables and fancy tablecloths, and it was obvious that someone — probably from my side of town — took care of the trees, bushes, and flowers. It was better than any park I’d ever been in. The tables were set with real plates and silverware. I had no idea what all the forks and spoons were for and felt kind of lousy about that.

Anyway, the walk to class didn’t have fancy tables and silverware, but the brick buildings, landscape, and lawns were as carefully put together. The difference was that I wasn’t intimidated. I knew I belonged there. I had worked hard and I was sure I wasn’t accepted because of somebody I knew.

Even though things settled down into an uneasy truce in the neighborhoods after all the trouble, years of looking over my shoulder to check for enemies never left me, especially when I was in an unfamiliar place, even in beautiful places like the campus. I hadn’t been jumped since I was fourteen, which was more than fine with me, but the thought that it could happen was always there, which made me wonder if I’d find a place where I felt truly safe. A doctor I talked to (Darry made me go after he read my English theme) said that I’d always have it somewhere in my brain, but it would become smaller and smaller with time, especially if there were good memories to bury it. I had to admit that over the past few years, there had been many more good ones than bad.

I almost forgot about Darry and Bob’s parents. After everything settled down and they stopped blaming themselves for what happened to him, they caught up with all the newspaper articles and court transcripts thanks to Cherry leaving them off (with her father’s help). Out of the blue, they called us and asked for a meeting. They guaranteed that there wouldn’t be any blame tossed around. Darry wanted to meet with them alone — he thought Soda and I had been through enough — but they insisted on the three of us. They wanted to meet at their lawyer’s office. That sounded ominous, but they were willing to do it on Sunday so I didn’t miss school and Darry and Soda didn’t have to take off from work. There’d been too much of that already.

We didn’t talk about it much during the week. We were all busy: Soda with his job, Darry with his two, and me with catching up on my school work. It was close to the end of school year and I was hoping that I could still get B’s. I was sure that the others were thinking what I was: there was no way this was going to end up being a happy meeting. The few times it was mentioned were mostly reminders not to schedule anything else for that day. It was on my mind most of the time when I had a chance to think. I imagined them saying they were going to take us all to court, that they’d found a new way to separate us despite the ruling at the trial. I imagined the police coming to our house and putting me into handcuffs before they led me away. They’d refuse to tell me or Darry where they were taking me because they didn’t ever want us to be together again. It probably was a good idea that I didn’t have much time to dwell.

Sunday started as a normal one. I woke up late — I couldn’t ever seem to get caught up with my sleep — and the bed was empty. That was unusual. Soda never got up before us when he didn’t have to. When I walked into the living room, Steve and Soda were messing around. He’d had another fight with his father and crashed sometime after we went to bed. I avoided them because everything that happened hadn’t changed Steve’s attitude toward me, or anyone else for that matter. He hadn’t learned from Dally that hating got you nowhere. I didn’t think he’d end up like Dally, but I’d had enough hate to last me a long time.

I could smell bacon so I headed to the kitchen. Darry was working on the eggs. “Hey, little buddy, I was beginning to think I was going to have to put yours aside.” Of all of us, I think Darry changed the most. A few months before, he would’ve yelled, pulled me out of bed, or told me make my own if I slept late.

“Sorry, I didn’t realize it was this late. Can I help?” The bacon was simmering and I couldn’t take my mind off of it.

“You can work on the toast.” That was a tall order. Most mornings, we hurried through breakfast, but there was no rush on Sundays so we went all out. It wasn’t unusual to go through an entire loaf of bread for toast. Darry had six slices done, which meant there were at least a dozen to go, but I loved toast and jelly, so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice.

Except for the usual Soda-Steve back-and-forth, we were pretty quiet during breakfast: too busy chewing. Four hungry boys getting down to business was a frightening sight. Steve volunteered to clean up so we could get ready. Guess he wasn’t all bad. Darry insisted that we wear good clothes and leave super early. Whatever Bob’s parents had in mind, we were going to show them that we had manners and class. It was a long drive and the silence continued, mostly because both Darry and Soda had that far-off look and I was worried about interrupting that.

The building was pretty intimidating: brick with columns and three stories high. It was a lot like the buildings I was walking among at the moment. A security guard had our names and let us in. The look he gave us, despite the fact that we were cleaned up, made it pretty obvious that he thought we didn’t belong, which made me feel pretty mad. Was it going to be this way forever? I looked over at Soda and he didn’t seem to notice, but I caught a glimpse of Darry’s jaw tightening for a few seconds. He shook his head and smiled. “Relax, Pony. I’m sure it’s not going to be that bad.” I was still getting used to the new Darry, who was really the old Darry from before our parents died, and any time he smiled at me like that had a magic effect.

The guard wouldn’t leave us alone in the conference room until the Sheldons arrived, but I didn’t care because the books fascinated me. The shelves covered every wall and they were all full. I guessed that they were mostly law books because lots of them looked like sets. Someday, I thought, I’ll have a library like this full of novels and books about anything that catches my interest. Instead of a big table, I’ll have overstuffed leather chairs with little tables between them for lamps and big glass ashtrays. There won’t be any TVs in the room but there’ll be a big fireplace on one wall with a beautiful painting, maybe one by those Impressionists we studied in art. The floors will be wood with a big fancy rug covering most of it, and the shelves will be so high that I’ll have to have one of those rolling ladders to reach the books at the top. Maybe there’ll be a piano in one corner (which I’ll have learned to play), and anyone will be able to come and read in my room any time, just like they can come and stay at our house.

The Sheldons arrived just as I was just beginning to plan the get-togethers we’d have in my room every Friday. They were impressively dressed, probably for church, and they looked like they had been through hell, even though it had been a few months since everything happened. I couldn’t blame them: Bob was their only child. I knew they had great hopes for him that would never happen. Even Cherry had stopped visiting them. She told me that she tried to stop in at least once a week, but it was making her crazy and depressed because it seemed they had nothing to live for. On her last visit, more than a month ago, she left the copies of all the newspaper articles and the court transcripts.

We stood when they entered the room, something Darry had rehearsed with us. They stopped when they saw us. Soda and Darry had that kind of effect on people, even when they were wearing their work clothes. When they recovered and came the rest of the way in, we each introduced ourselves and shook hands — another Darry rehearsal — waiting until they sat and gestured before we did. Thankfully, Mr. Sheldon began to speak fairly quickly because none of us was about to begin the conversation. “Boys — young men — I want to begin by thanking you for coming downtown to meet with us. I apologize. I didn’t realize how far you had to travel until I consulted a map.” His tone was friendly and he smiled when he paused. Mrs. Sheldon nodded, but there was no smile. I didn’t think there’d been one since Bob died, and it didn’t look like there would be one for a while.

Mr. Sheldon told us that when they finally realize that Bob was gone forever, there was only one way they could make him live on: by making sure that someone else with as much promise got the opportunities he would’ve had. They were impressed by our story, especially all that Darry had sacrificed to keep us together. Mr. Sheldon paused, looked down for a few seconds, and then focused on Darry. “You were a better father to them than most I’ve seen, including me.”

His expression never changed. “I had great teachers.”

“Apparently. I would have liked to meet them.”

My first thought was, “No, you would’ve looked down at them and thought they weren’t worthy of your attention,” and even though I knew there was some truth to that, I felt bad for thinking it. Randy and Dally had taught me that there was more to people than what I saw on the surface, but it was hard to get past all those years of thinking the other way.

He continued. “You were a top student?”

Darry looked him straight in the eye. “Near the top, but not straight A’s.” I admired his honesty. He could be annoying when he refused to entertain anything he couldn’t see in front of him, but he never tried to put anything over on anyone.

“And you had a football scholarship to the University of Oklahoma?” Darry nodded. “What were you going to study?”

“Business, Sir.” It was true. Darry had a great head for numbers. He could glance at my math homework and tell me what was wrong, usually dumb mistakes because I wasn’t paying attention.

He nodded and turned to Soda. “You dropped out of school and work at a gas station?” Soda’s turn to nod. “To help support your family?”

“No sir, because I was lousy at school but I’m good at working with cars.” Even though my brother usually seemed to live on another planet, he was pretty good with honesty.

Mr. Sheldon thought about that a little longer before nodding and turning to me. “You have straight A’s and you were moved ahead one year in school because of your grades?”

I decided to try the simple honesty thing. “Yes on the second part, Sir, but my grades aren’t so good since everything happened. I missed a lot of school.” That didn’t hurt.

He looked toward his wife, who nodded, and then turned back to Darry. He proposed establishing a fund that would pay his college expenses as long as he kept up at least a B average, plus a job that wouldn’t be too hard so he could concentrate on his studies. Darry didn’t say anything, but I could tell from his eyes that while he was imagining what that would be like, he wasn’t jumping in either.

He shifted to Soda and offered him a job selling cars at an auto dealership he owned. “I hear that you’re really good with people, and I like having a salesman who knows about cars.” He added the condition that Soda enroll in a technical school to study auto mechanics. “If the sales job doesn’t work out, I can always use a first-rate mechanic. If it does, there’s no such thing as a salesman who knows too much about the cars he’s selling.” Soda didn’t say anything, but the smile on his face made it obvious that he liked what he heard.

It was my turn. I couldn’t imagine what he was going to offer. “You, young man, want to be a writer from what I read. Cheryl says that you have a great imagination and a ‘writer’s soul,’ whatever that is.” He shook his head. “I don’t have much time for reading, but my wife does it all the time. She says it gives her great comfort, which makes it a worthwhile pursuit in my book.”

“I love to read and write, Sir, and I have been accused of having an overactive imagination, which I can’t deny.”

Another smile. “Our proposal for you isn’t as specific because of your age. In fact, my suggestion is that you get back on track with your studies, go to summer school beginning with this summer so you can finish high school as soon as possible, and get yourself to college. If you do that, go to community college to start. I can help you get a job, when you’re old enough, and with expenses.” He sat back and then explained that if I did that, I should earn enough scholarships to get me through as much schooling as I wanted. They’d make up any differences.

When he finished, he sat back and waited for our reactions. Soda and I weren’t about to speak first. Darry’s jaw was set and his forehead was wrinkled. That usually happened when he was hearing something that didn’t fit with his version of the universe. I saw it a lot when I let my imagination get too out of hand. Finally, he spoke. “Mr. and Mrs. Sheldon, we’re very sorry for your loss. Two good friends died too, but I can’t imagine how it felt to lose a son. You’ve made very generous offers to all of us, incredibly generous. We appreciate that you’re trying to keep your son’s memory alive and keep us together as a family, but we prefer to work for what we get. We’re just not comfortable with having things handed to us when we haven’t earned them.”

I expected them to be angry, but Mr. Sheldon smiled. “Even though you’ve taken on a great deal of responsibility and handled it admirably, you’re very young and don’t understand how things work in the world.” That didn’t loosen Darry’s jaw one bit, but then he went on to explain that he admired our work ethic because he was born poor, almost as poor as we were. He had to work hard for what he got, but along the way he had people who helped him when he showed what he could do. “Hard work alone doesn’t do it. Everyone needs a hand or extreme luck. Besides, we’re not offering you much: you still have to work for what you get.”

Somehow, that made sense to Darry and he actually relaxed and smiled. He looked at us and we nodded. “I’m still not convinced that we can make it with your plan, but if we can, we most gratefully accept.” The rest was history.

Back to Chicago: being lost in thought, I didn’t notice much else until I was near the building where my class was being held. When I finally came back into focus, I looked up and thought I saw her: Cherry Valance. I shook my head — too much thinking about the old days — and told myself that I really needed to try to stay in reality, at least for this class.

When I walked into the classroom, I saw the same girl sitting in the first row, so I decided to sit behind her. I liked to entertain some fantasies, and since I hadn’t seen or heard from Cherry in almost five years, I wanted to play with this one for a while. What were the chances that two girls could have red hair like that?

The professor — he was a classic seventies college teacher with long hair, a full beard, silk Nehru shirt, jeans, and a fringed jacket — began by apologizing for having to call roll. When he got to my name, he paused for a moment and smiled before calling it out. The girl immediately turned around and flashed me a smile that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. It really was her. Time stood still, but at least I thought to smile back. Unfortunately, the next few minutes were lost on me. What were the chances that after five years, I’d run into her in a Chicago classroom?

I regained focused when I saw her raise her hand and say, “Professor, I apologize, but Ponyboy and I need to catch up on too many years to think about.”

He smiled — Cherry had that effect on everybody — and said, “Please,” holding out his hand.

She stood up and offered her arm, which somehow I had the sense to take, and we walked out of the room to the sound of some of the class clapping, which I thought was really dumb.

We didn’t say anything until we got out of the building. I didn’t dare to look over at her because I thought I’d lose my balance. Wouldn’t that be tuff? As soon as we reached the bottom of the steps, she turned to me. “Ponyboy, it’s really you?” and gave me a hug and kiss that probably would’ve knocked me out when I was younger. Who am I kidding? It almost knocked me out then. She took my arm again. “Let’s find a place to catch up. I know a good coffee shop.”

I finally came back. “It’s great to see you, Cherry,” which made her giggle. “Five years is a lot of sunsets.” My head was swimming. Cherry Valance had hugged and kissed me, and now we were walking down the street with her holding my arm. I had dreamed of something like this happening back then, but after she left and I got so busy, there wasn’t time. I didn’t have much experience with girls beyond a few dates here and there. I always had Darry reminding me that my studies came first, second, and third, plus there was Soda’s example to keep me straight.

She brought me back. “Do you believe in fate, Ponyboy, that things are meant to happen?”

“I think that when it happens, it seems obvious, but otherwise we don’t think about it.” No one who wanted to be a writer could believe that magical things didn’t happen. Too many of the events since my parents died fit into that category.

She didn’t answer right away, and then increased the pressure on my arm. “I’ve forgotten how much fun it could be to talk to you.”

I didn’t remember much else, including the route we took, until we arrived and sat down. For the first time, I had the chance to really look at her and it was hard not to stare. She was exotic when I was fourteen, an older goddess who I could talk to but little else, especially considering her involvement with Bob and interest in Dally. After everything fell apart, she loosened up about saying hi or talking occasionally at school, but I never had any contact outside of school except for her farewell party. I only talked to her briefly there, telling her that she’d be missed and reminding her that they had sunsets in Rochester. She smiled and told me never to change, but then got distracted by some parents. The Cherry I was looking at across the table wasn’t exotic anymore, just unbelievably beautiful. Her hair wasn’t as styled, her clothes were more casual, and she didn’t seem that much older anymore.

She began because I didn’t know what to say. “Five years, almost a lifetime.”

“Feels like it.” Despite my ambitions to become a writer, my first drafts weren’t very good, especially with girls. I had dated a few, but if Darry had been crazy before, he became totally insane after the Sheldons’ offer. As far as I knew, he hadn’t dated anyone after our parents died (when did he have time?), and with his new focus, he saw no reason for complications.

“So catch me up,” she said after waiting for more and not getting any, “beginning with your family. How did Soda’s job selling cars work out?”

That one I was happy to talk about. “Turned out that he was an incredible salesman. Between his good looks and ability to get along with everyone, he became their top salesman in less than two years. On top of that, he finished the auto mechanics program.” I was most proud of that: my dropout brother had an Associate’s degree. “Of course, since it was Soda, there were built in problems. He doesn’t do well when there’s nothing going on, doesn’t have the longest attention span when there’s nothing to focus on, and isn’t very good at entertaining himself, so he kept slipping back to the garage when there were no customers. He was probably one of the best mechanics so he could be really helpful, but he got grease and dirt all over his hands and good clothes. Not exactly a turn on for sales.”

She laughed. “I can picture it. How did they solve the problem?”

“They’re still working on it,” and added in my thoughts that they’d probably never get that problem solved.

She sobered up a bit. “I was sorry to hear about his problems with his girlfriend. It sounded heartbreaking.”

I was beginning to warm to the conversation, especially since good news brought such a great smile to her face. “Another happy story: it turned out that on orders from Sandy’s mother, her grandmother was intercepting his letters and sending them back unopened. Her mother also spread the rumor that it wasn’t Soda’s child.” She nodded because she’d heard that much. “He didn’t give up. One of the letters got through saying that he loved her, didn’t care who the father was, and he wanted to marry her.” The smile was enough to light up the stadium. I asked Sandy once what changed her mind about the situation, and she said that he told her that he wanted to marry her, not that he still wanted to marry her. I looked at her with confusion and she continued, “Leaving out the word ‘still’ made all the difference because it showed he wasn’t judging me in any way.” Cherry smiled again and nodded that she understood.

“Anyway, it took a while but they worked it out, got married, and they live in our house with their two kids: Johnette is almost five and Dallas is three.” I didn’t mention the fact that, while I loved my sister-in-law and niece and nephew to pieces, the past week was the first peace and quiet I had in a long time. Soda alone made life crazy enough, but add a wife and two kids…

I thought I saw a tear or two in her eyes. She reached across the table and took my hand. That one gesture was better than any date I’d ever been on. “Ponyboy, that’s wonderful. Now tell me about Darry.”

That wasn’t an easy story, but I doubted that any story about Darry would be an easy one. The stress caused by our parents’ deaths threw his life off-line and it would take a long time to get it back on track. “It’s complicated.”

“I heard that Mr. Sheldon was going to find him a job that would let him go to school too. What was it? Did it work out?”

I told her that it was a problem because Darry actually enjoyed physical labor, but it took a lot out of him, which made going to school difficult. Mr. Sheldon understood that, so all his offers were desk type jobs, which Darry gratefully but politely refused. He could handle anything they threw at him, but he needed to be moving and doing things physically. Finally, he found his own job as a waiter. The hours were right, he was a hard worker, and (who would’ve guessed?) he could turn on the charm enough to make a really good tips. He made almost as much as he did with his two previous jobs, and since Soda was making a lot more than he did before, we were in better shape financially. Typically, he didn’t trust the good fortune and insisted on starting out at the community college so he could stay at home. Between the crowding and the constant commotion in the house, studying was hard enough. Writing was almost impossible. By the end of the first year, we convinced him that we were okay and he needed to move on to the university. He called nearly every day for a while until he realized we’d need extra jobs to pay the phone bills, but the best we could do was cutting him down to twice a week.

“Did he do well?” I was struck by the way Cherry could focus on a person when carrying on a conversation. She made me feel like there was no one else around.

“When Darry sets his mind to something, the best thing to do is get out of the way. He graduates with a business degree in January, and he’s already been accepted into graduate school.” We always thought that Darry would’ve been a Soc if it wasn’t for needing to take care of us, but he wasn’t going to just be a Soc. He was going to be a Super Soc. At the rate he was going, he’d probably be their boss before long.

She shook her head. “My heart’s racing, Ponyboy. I can’t wait to hear your story.” Her hand was on mine again, and I can’t tell you how good that felt.

I had to shift the focus or get her hand off mine, which was the last thing I wanted to do. “I promise to get to me and even Two-Bit and Steve, but it’s your turn and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered how you were doing over the past four and half years.”

There was a little bit of a pout, and unfortunately she pulled her hand away, but she began. “After hearing about Soda and Darry, I feel like I haven’t done anything, but here goes.” She fixed her eyes on me. They were beautiful eyes and it was hard to meet them. I had that problem when I knew her before. We could talk about all kinds of personal stuff, but I always had my eyes averted because I froze if I looked. I wondered how much she was aware of her effect on people. Soda seemed to be oblivious most of the time until he began to sell cars. He was embarrassed by the fact that his looks could be part of anyone’s decision to spend money on a car, so I doubted that he used it much. Cherry had to be aware of the effect she had on people, and I didn’t think she liked it any more than Soda, but I wasn’t always right about people. Either way, I decided that since I was just listening, I could try to meet her gaze. As soon as I thought that, I also thought about how brave that didn’t sound.

She told me that when they moved to Rochester (actually it was Brighton, a suburb), she was happy to get away from everything in Tulsa. “There were too many bad memories. Every time I turned around, there was a reminder of Bob and all the terrible things that happened.” She went on to explain that she became a bit panicked when they arrived because of the newness and the idea that she was starting over in her senior year, knowing nothing about her school or anyone in it. She was moving from the top of the heap to somewhere in limbo, a very unfamiliar territory. The weight of it grew over the summer, despite her parents’ “adventure trips” around town to explore what was there, and by the beginning of the school year, she was in such a state that she found herself following the same pattern: cheerleader, popular A list group, doing things socially she didn’t care about, and talking about absolutely nothing. “Ponyboy, it was frightening how automatic it was and disappointing that I had learned so little.”

I lit a cigarette. “I can count the number of things I don’t learn on a daily basis; most of them are bad for me.”

She thanked me: another smile and pat on the hand, what my teachers would call positive reinforcement. “The turning point — I wish I could say that I had a moment of clarity that I was on the wrong path — was the anniversary of Bob’s death.” She stopped and took a sip of coffee, and I was thinking that a week after that was the anniversary of Johnny’s and Dally’s deaths. It wasn’t a special day for us. We didn’t look at it that way.

We did visit their graves, which I told her about. “We visited Bob’s too.” She was surprised. I shrugged, “You loved him, so we figured that there had to be something good about him; we thought he deserved a visit. Besides, he was as much a victim as the others.” Too much and too little. I knew that the too little end was what all three had in common. Johnny’s parents barely acted like they knew he existed, Dally’s didn’t care what happened to him, and Bob’s refused to see who he really was.

She smiled and nodded, then sobered up. “I dropped out, Ponyboy, from everything. I went to school and returned home. I didn’t do anything outside of the house unless it was with my parents.” She looked down. “That worried them, but I explained that I was just trying to avoid old traps and agreed to meet with a counselor.”

I had to smile at that news. “Darry made me see one too, after he read my English theme about everything that happened.” It was quite a leap for Darry, who thought such things were nonsense. When something was eating at him, he worked out, lifted weights, or ran until he was too tired for it to bother him, but Soda convinced him that his view of the world didn’t work for everyone else.

“It was good to talk about it with someone who wasn’t there, but the best thing was that it helped my parents to realize how emotional everything had been for me. They saw it as losing a boyfriend, but it was so much more. My world was pulled apart.” She told me that she owed me because I was her first therapist. Talking to me, someone outside her world, made her re-examine her way of looking at things and face up to the fact that what she’d been feeling for quite some time was real.

I was just beginning to wrap my head around that when she suddenly stood up and came to my side of the table. She bent down and kissed me on the cheek. “Thank you for that,” with her face still very close to mine, and then she straightened up, “and now I’m feeling the need to walk because all this history is making me feel a bit weighed down.” She put some money down on the table and I made a face. “Don’t try to be gallant. I’m sure my budget is much higher than yours. Indulge me.”

Between her use of the word gallant — I was sure it wasn’t accidental — and the idea of indulging Cherry Valance in any way, I wasn’t about to argue so I thanked her. As soon as we got outside, she took my arm again and I said, “Where to, fair lady?”

She giggled at that. “I don’t know about you, but I’m really looking forward to the Creative Writing course and I’m dying to see the syllabus.” I nodded. “So, let’s stop by his office to see if we can get a copy and then go somewhere quiet and romantic like the library, because I’m already buried before I’ve begun.” I nodded again, a man of few words. “I promise that I’ll fill in at another time,” taking a tighter grip on my arm, “because there will be more times.” Slight pause, before, “Many more.”

“I’ll take as many rain checks as you want to give.” She giggled again and we walked on, looking — remember my imagination — like just another couple enjoying a stroll. Imagination or not, I knew that the sight would be enough to raise eyebrows to the hairline back home. She asked about my classes and whistled when I ran through the list. I had to admit: it made my head swim a bit.

We found the professor’s office and luckily, he was there. He smiled broadly when he saw us (who am I kidding, when he saw Cherry) and took a few minutes to fill us in and go over the syllabus. “You made for an interesting class. There was a lot of talk about your departure. You may have spawned some story ideas among your classmates.” He gave us a look. “Any personal ones?”

Cherry stood up and flashed a smile. “We’re still trying to figure that out, Professor, but you’ll know shortly after we do,” before she grabbed my hand and we walked out.

I didn’t remember much about the walk to the library (how many times have I said that already?) but before you make assumptions about what that meant, it wasn’t that far away. I had a crush on her back then, but put it away when she left. Being with her again, there were a lot of old feelings, but they were different. The gap between us, both in age and status, wasn’t the same: seventeen vs. fourteen and twenty-two vs. nineteen, Soc vs. Greaser and college senior vs. junior. Still, through the haze of my overactive imagination, I had a voice inside my head saying, “Slow down, Cowboy.”

Fortunately, I had brought some of the research stuff I needed to do, so when we arrived we put our materials on the table and separated for a while. When we met again, we broke up laughing because we both had our arms full of books. “We’ve reached a new level, Ponyboy, and I don’t know about you, but it’s one I love.”

“Five years ago, I would’ve said, ‘You ain’t just a woofin’.” I couldn’t think of any reason why that came out of my mouth.

“Really? Let’s get to work then, Cowboy.” Work we did. I loved searching through books and journals. I felt like a detective on the trail of the Holy Grail. We worked next to each other at the table, hardly speaking the entire time except for once when I turned to her and said, “I never asked: what’s your major?” Things like that popped into my head all the time, and when they did, I had the choice of either blurting them out or becoming totally distracted because they were bouncing around in my head. It made Darry crazy, but Soda didn’t mind because that was close to the way his brain worked.

She balanced her head on her left hand. “Psychology.”

I nodded and went back to work until a few minutes later, when I said, “I’m not surprised, but it’s kind of superfluous.” Another pop-up.

She turned her head slightly but went back to work until sometime later, when she said, “Superfluous?”

I had to come back from Shakespeare to say, “Cherry, you read people better than anyone I’ve ever met, including Soda. The degree is…superfluous.”

She thought for a second. “Good word,” and went back to work.

We worked very hard. I’d come to appreciate libraries. They were quiet places, even better than the movie theater because I could read and write. Theaters were places for the imagination, but libraries were places to put it to work. College libraries were even better: they opened early and closed late, you could always find a place to work, and nobody bothered you. I assumed that her reasons were the same, but I was hardly ever right when I guessed why girls did things or how they thought. I figured that I’d be less likely to guess why Cherry Valance did something.

Before I come off sounding too smooth, I confess that as long as it was next to her, I would’ve sat there as long as she was willing. I tried to keep that part out of my head or I’d never get anything done. The fact that I was able to work under that circumstance made me think that I’d matured some, but I also knew that I lied to myself all the time.

We were still going strong when I heard a stomach growling. I thought it was me and automatically looked down and blushed. I was trying to figure out how to make it go away when I heard her giggle. “Sorry about that. It’s six o’clock and we haven’t even had lunch.” So it was her. It never occurred to me that girls like her did things like that. “Do you think you could take a growling woman to dinner?”

I sat back, somehow relaxed because I hadn’t made the sound. “Somewhere romantic like the cafeteria, or somewhere with atmosphere, like the cafeteria?”

Big smile, although a bit weary. “Oh Ponyboy Curtis, you have a way with words that’ll turn a girl’s head.”

I knew she was exaggerating and tired and hungry, so I didn’t get a swelled head. I laughed. “Yeah, that’s me. I’ve left women with cricks in their necks from Tulsa to Chicago.”

“The cafeteria it is. I do have an account.” When my eyes rose, she added, “My parents’ way of making sure I don’t starve. I’m a terrible cook.”

Walking into the cafeteria with her on my arm raised my value with everyone there. I said before that Cherry looked much plainer in her dress and makeup, but that said nothing about her presence. She could walk into a room wearing a potato sack with no makeup and heads would turn. “We shouldn’t walk in like this together. People might get the wrong idea.”

She turned sharply toward me and let go. “What do you mean by that?”

It wasn’t the reaction I expected. “I meant that everyone will think more highly of me than I deserve.”

She took the arm again. “Funny, I was thinking the same thing about me.” For punctuation, she kissed me on the cheek again. Punctuation was a good thing.

We found a table and after some complicated arranging of food and utensils, she began where she left off. “Fortunately for me, I was finishing high school, so the earth didn’t shake or shudder.”

“Why Chicago?”

“I could’ve gone anywhere — my grades were pretty good despite all that happened — but even though Rochester was new, I wanted to get away. This is a pretty good school.”

“Couldn’t disagree with that.”

“Anyway, the rest is pretty boring. I’m a senior now and applying for grad school here. It’s kind of hard to do anything worthwhile in psychology with only a Bachelor’s degree.”

I nodded. “I’m a junior but I don’t know if I’m going to go on after graduation. You can study writing only so long. Even though Darry wants me to go as far as possible, eventually I have to do it.” No publisher was going to be swayed by the number of degrees after my name. I needed to actually show them something.

“You were telling a pretty good story this morning. Please continue.”

I couldn’t say no to that. “Okay if I switch chapters to Two-Bit and Steve before I start my confessional?”

“That’s good. Keep your audience wanting more.”

“As long as you don’t expect it to build into some kind of spectacular ending.”

“Give it a shot, Cowboy.” Even though it was a classic Tulsa expression, the sound of Cherry calling me a cowboy was a turn on. Down, Ponyboy.

I sighed and began with Steve because his was the only one without a great ending. As I said, he never let go of his anger, and he didn’t get any better when Soda left the DX Station. I think he felt abandoned, but once Soda got established, he got him a job as a mechanic at the dealership. He was good and he still worked there, but even Soda has put some distance between them. He didn’t want so much bitterness and nastiness around the kids all the time. It was a narrow tightrope to walk: maintain a friendship while holding it at arm’s length, but Soda managed it somehow. “The last time I saw him, he was still treating me like a little kid who was in his way.”

She shook her head. “I haven’t kept up with a few of the old gang because they haven’t changed either. In fact, Randy’s about the only one who seems to be anywhere near as affected by what happened as me.”

I told her I’d occasionally run into him, mostly during the summer because he’d gone off to college, and we were always able to talk about things. “He was one of my first therapists. That time before the big rumble when we talked in his car was the first time I fully realized that he wasn’t some kind of demon rich kid, that he was just as messed up and confused about life as I was. It helped me understand Bob too, but that took longer to sink in.”

She turned her head sideways at that. “Who were your other therapists?”

“You, of course, although I had such a crush on you that the message was a bit confused. The others were Soda and Two-Bit.”

Her eyes widened. “Two-Bit?”

Two-Bit had three talents: comedy, talking to people, and shoplifting. The last talent wasn’t very promising except for the way he did it. He was careful and patient. He took his time sizing up situations before he made his move, and he could put off doing it until he was sure he had everything figured out. When Johnny and Dally died, he took a while to size up his situation. On the outside, he didn’t seem much different, but the people who knew him best suspected that something was brewing inside. He drank less and disappeared, sometimes for days at a time.

We chalked it up to the deaths, never suspecting that he was actually studying. We found out during the summer that he was going to be a senior the following year. Another thing we never suspected was that he began to hang around the theater department. In the fall, out of nowhere, he said he thought he’d go to the new play at the high school. I thought it was a great idea, but Soda and Darry needed convincing. In his usual annoying way, he kept at them until they agreed. Darry didn’t even like movies because they weren’t real enough, so you can imagine what it took to get him to agree to a high school play.

The evening came for the opening night, and when we arrived, Two-Bit excused himself, saying that he wanted to wish one of the actresses (with a wink) good luck. “Save me a seat and I’ll join you before the curtain, unless it takes longer than that to wish her luck.” We rolled our eyes at the same time and went in. We weren’t surprised when the lights went down and he hadn’t shown, but when the curtain went up and Two-Bit walked onstage, you could’ve blown any of us over with a feather.

Her eyes were wide open too. “Really? Of course, it makes sense. What was the play?”

I smiled at the memory. “The Odd Couple. Neil Simon. I know I’m prejudiced, but he was great.”

“I know that play. I’ve seen the movie too. Was he Oscar or Felix?” She really seemed excited.

“I’m going to hold back on that for a little while so you can ponder the possibilities.” I wasn’t really trying to mess with her. I wanted to know which she’d guess because anyone who knew Two-Bit could see him in either role. “While you do that, I’ll fill you in on the rest.”

He was in three plays that year. When he graduated, he went to Houston, auditioned for a theater company, and was hired. The interesting thing is that he specialized in serious roles, not comedy. He was a man of many surprises. I tried to ask him why, but off the stage he was the same old Two-Bit: never a straight answer. Just a string of bad jokes.

She shook her head and grinned. “Is he still acting?”

“Yeah, but in New York City, on Broadway.” She shook her head again, letting it sink in. “A man of many dimensions. Last I heard he was trying to get into movies.”

She returned to her food and didn’t answer right away. I resisted the temptation to fill in the silence, thinking how strange it was that I had no problems with gaps in the library but felt anxious in the cafeteria. Finally, “Another case where I misjudged someone. I liked Two-Bit, but I thought of him as a lightweight, or at least someone who had little depth. I hope he makes it,” slight pause, “as long as he doesn’t appear in a Godfather sequel.”

That made both of us dissolve into laughter because there was no way to picture him in that movie. There was nowhere left to go with it. We were also finished with dinner. “Well, Cherry, can you do another library session or have you had enough of the Curtis family adventure for now?”

No hesitation. “Oh no, Ponyboy Curtis, you aren’t going to weasel out of telling me your story.” She tried for the serious, but there was a kind of playfulness to it.

“I wasn’t really trying to weasel. Like I said, it isn’t exactly a big ending. Any good writer would’ve saved Soda for last.” It was another case where a chance for revision would’ve been helpful. “I’m a bit embarrassed that I didn’t think of it at the time.” I was good enough at fooling myself to think that the surprise of seeing her and the fact that she was so affectionate threw off my writerly instincts.

“I do feel the need for a bit more work. I was in the middle of something important when my stomach interrupted. I hate leaving things undone.” I offered my arm, and as she took it, she added, “It’s not that far to the library, so you could begin with the English theme. You’ve mentioned it twice, and I seem to remember hearing something about it around school.” Should I mention that she practically whispered that in my ear?

I shrugged it off — almost — because the idea of Cherry Valance whispering in my ear was too foreign to deal with. “It began as an attempt to work my way out of a failing grade in English because of all the school I missed and how messed up I was.” I shook my head. “No, that’s not right. It began with Johnny’s farewell letter to me. I wanted to write about kids like him and Dally because there were a lot more of them out there. I wanted them to watch a few sunsets.” I stopped to maneuver some steps. “That sounded a bit lame, didn’t it?”

She didn’t answer right away, possibly because she was concentrating on the steps, possibly because she was thinking of a tactful way to answer. “To someone who wasn’t there, it might, but I was.”

I explained that it was the first time I ever wrote something that took on a life of its own. When the time came for the deadline, I was on chapter six but nowhere near done. Mr. Symes accepted what I had and gave me an A, but it took me almost another six months to finish it. “Mr. Symes wanted me to publish it, and maybe I’ll try someday, but it’s still too personal to think about that.”

“Can I read it someday?”

I kind of blushed. “You’re a major character, so I guess I can’t refuse. I think I’ll have to change the names and some scenes if I decide to publish.” I had to admit that I was curious about what she’d think. Every writer likes to have others review his work, especially people he respects and cares for. Cherry fit both categories. I wasn’t sure she’d be crazy about my fourteen-year-old view of her, but I guessed it was the chance I had to take if I was going to put words on paper. We were approaching the library. “Saved by the seat of knowledge.”

She pinched my arm. I was grateful for the fact that her nails weren’t as long as I remembered them in high school. “Temporarily. I’m not sure how much longer I’ll last, but I have to finish that Abnormal Psych research.”

I had some clever answers to that but I held back because of the possibility that they weren’t as clever as I thought. We went in and resumed our positions after regathering the books. It was pure work with no talk and only occasional glances and smiles at each other. I was the first to yield. I stretched and felt some interesting pains in my back and neck. She did the same and cracked her knuckles, loudly. I couldn’t help myself and broke up. “You certainly are a woman of surprising and mysterious sounds.” I hadn’t heard a girl make that sound since Patty, a Greaser girl who did it regularly to annoy everyone.

She smiled. “That wasn’t on purpose. I didn’t realize how tight my fingers had become.” She examined her hands. I noticed that the only rings she was wearing were decorative looking and that none of them were on the all-important left ring finger position. I glanced up: no necklace with a ring on it. That’s where she had worn Bob’s ring. Before I congratulated myself on my powers of observation, I reminded that same self that we’d been together for ten hours and that neither of those observations meant anything.

She looked at her wristwatch, which prompted me to look at mine. “Is it really 8:30? I think I’m researched out, but I’d be happy to sit here and daydream if you’re not done.”

“No, Ponyboy,” as she began to gather her papers, “it’s definitely time to stop.” We separated to put our books back. For some reason, I couldn’t remember where I’d found one of them and took a ridiculously long time. When I returned, relieved to find that she hadn’t left, I apologized and pulled everything together. “Normally, I’d object to being made to wait, but it hasn’t been a normal day.”

We walked out, both lost in some other world. Outside, I turned to her and said, “It’s been great — “

She cut me off. “Oh no, you’re not getting off that easy. My apartment is only four blocks away. I’ll give you until we get there to gather your thoughts.” After a slight pause, “I think I might have some Cokes.”

“Actually, I’ve given up on Coke. I’d prefer coffee, if you have it.”

“Why Ponyboy, you’ve become sophisticated.” I reached for her arm but she shocked me by taking my hand. Other than trying to keep my mind from overreacting to any implications behind that, I was also trying to concentrate on what I was doing because I’d only walked with one other girl holding hands before, and that was a while ago. I hoped that my hand wasn’t sweaty and that thinking about it that might cause it to sweat. It was…complicated. When we arrived, she went to her mailbox, which was empty. “Darn, I love mail, even junk.”

I wasn’t sure how the rules worked on campus for visiting hours and things like that. “Is it okay if I come up?”

She laughed. “Ponyboy, this isn’t campus housing. I have a real apartment.” For some reason, that made me nervous. Holding her hand had messed up my mind. We went up a flight of stairs and stopped in front of a door. She reached into her purse and pulled out a set of keys, then turned to me, “Would you?” I took her books and she turned back to open the lock, pushed the door open, then turned back to me with a smile on her face. “You need the password.” When she saw my totally blank look, she added, “Oscar or Felix?”

“Which do you think?”

She hesitated for a few seconds. “I could see him doing either, but I’d say Oscar.”

“Bingo.”

She laughed and said, “Come in, but don’t look too closely. When I left this morning, I thought I’d be back a little after lunch.” I reminded her that I lived in a house with three brothers, two kids, and any friend who felt like dropping by, any time. She shook her head. “Thanks, but there’s no excuse.”

I don’t know what I expected, but it reminded me of the gap between people like her and people like me. It may have been as big as our house. The part I could see included a kitchen, separate dining room, and a living room area. The furniture didn’t look new but it was obviously expensive — leather and nice wood — and there were nice paintings (not posters) on the walls and rugs on the floors. It reminded me of a casual version of Randy’s house or the Sheldons’ lawyer’s office. I shrugged. For all I knew, she considered this roughing it.

She was a whirlwind moving around the apartment: hanging up things, putting others away, and straightening others. I just stood there not knowing what to do. I had never been in a girl’s apartment. Should I take my coat off? Should I sit down? If I did, should I sit on the couch or a chair? Should I wait until she told me what to do? Since I was already doing that, I decided to stick with it. I might come off as dumb and inexperienced, but I guessed that that was a fair assessment.

Fortunately, she was busy and didn’t notice my obvious bewilderment and discomfort because I was sure it was pretty sad. Unfortunately, that meant that I was left standing there for many uncomfortable minutes. Finally, she looked up. Thankfully, she smiled before saying, “Oh gosh, Ponyboy, I’m sorry.” She pointed to a table. “Put our books down there [I was still carrying hers too], take off your coat, and have a seat.” I put both sets of books down, rather clumsily, and she took my jacket and arranged it over one of the table chairs, then pointed to the couch before returning to straightening. “I’ll make us a cup of coffee in a minute.”

“I’ll make it, if you tell me where everything is.” I needed something to do, and her straightening was making me dizzy.

“Thanks. Electric coffee pot on the counter, coffee grounds in the cabinet above along with filters.” She was straightening a pile of magazines that I thought looked pretty neat before she did it. I thought about Darry always complaining about stuff laying around. Soda would never notice, so it was usually up to me and later Sandy to straighten. Soda got better at it with the kids because there were always toys around to trip over.

I thought to myself, “Come on, Pony, you can handle this. Water, filter, grounds.” I turned to her. “How much coffee do you put in?”

She sounded far away. “Three scoops, but I like it strong.”

“Three scoops it is,” I muttered to myself as I carefully measured them out, trying to make sure I didn’t spill a thing on the counter or in the water. Now that I had some control over my environment, keeping it orderly was a new goal. Back home, I learned that putting something down anywhere brought no guarantees that it would be there later. Sharing a room with just one person was pretty great; I couldn’t imagine having entire place to myself. Maybe someday, but in the meantime I could see how this would be a sanctuary, at least it would be if Cherry ever stopped moving around like a mad woman.

I must’ve zoned out thinking about it because she brought me back with, “Ponyboy, it works better if you plug it in.”

Caught. I’m sure I blushed. “Sorry, I was thinking about something and I’m used to a regular coffee pot. This one is pretty nice.”

“My parents again. They knew about my habit of burning things and were afraid of what I’d do with a normal one.” She was finally standing still. “What were you thinking about that occupied you so much?”

I fumbled, “Oh, nothing important.” I was used to keeping my thoughts to myself with Johnny and Cherry gone and Soda so busy and occupied. Voicing them, except on paper, had become a lost art.

She put her left hand on her hip. “Ponyboy Curtis, after the day we’ve had, are you going to start keeping secrets?”

“Just thinking about what a nice place you have. Sharing a room in the dorm is heaven because I have a place for myself, but having a place of your own, compared to the chaos of our house, would be seventh Heaven.”

She glanced around. “I, on the other hand, am an only child, and I often become lonely. I envy you your family.”

That was a surprise. “You do?” She nodded. “Really? Families are messy, and I’m not only talking about physical messes,” thinking that if she went this crazy with her apartment, she’d probably faint from the sight of our house.

“But you always know that you have someone there for you. All you need to do is ask.” She seemed a little sad.

“Family doesn’t always come to the rescue.” I thought about the difficulties for the first six months after my parents’ deaths. “You have friends.”

She shook her head. “Friends come and go, but family’s always there.”

“Even if they drive you crazy?”

“Even. How many friends can you depend on for support?”

She had me there, so I put my hands up to surrender. “It is a nice apartment.”

“Noted. How about pouring us both a cup of coffee? Cups are in the cupboard to the right of the coffee, sugar’s in the blue canister on the counter, milk’s in the refrigerator. I don’t take anything.” I carefully grabbed the cups and poured, grateful that they were mugs and not fancy cups.

When I brought them out from the kitchen, she was sitting on the couch. She motioned for me to join her and looked at my cup with curiosity. “Black?” I nodded. “What happened to your sweet tooth? I heard you were famous for that.”

“I was bad, I had to admit, but when I recovered from my illness, it didn’t taste the same. For a long time, all I could stand to drink was water. I graduated to coffee a year ago.”

She gave me what I could only describe as a critical eye. “You graduated from water to plain black coffee in one step?” I shrugged. She continued, “There was a girl involved, wasn’t there?”

Once again, I held up my hands in surrender. “See what I mean? You don’t need a degree.”

She nodded and smiled. “Maybe we should start a new organization: the Superfluous Society.”

I laughed. “Charter members. It is kind of a fun word. Wonder if there’re other forms: superfluousness, superfluation, superfluidity. There’d have to be specific ground rules for membership.”

“Like living and breathing? Anyway, nice try. Get back to the story. Begin with after I left.”

“That was a sad day. I was pretty sensitive about losing people.” Everything went back to the upside down just when it was beginning to normalize. Soda was in a new job, Sandy had moved in, Darry had begun classes and his new job, and I was taking classes in summer school. Very little made sense and I was busy letting it get to me, acting so cranky I could barely stand myself.

Finally, Soda pulled me aside and made me open up. He listened without saying a word, then jumped all over me with no hesitation. “You expect sense, Ponyboy? And then you get mad when things don’t jive? Where’s the sense in Johnny, Dally, and Bob dying? Where’s the sense in Sandy’s mom telling everyone that the baby was someone else’s? Where’s the sense in Darry having to drop all his dreams and take two backbreaking jobs to keep us together?” He shook his head. “Making sense is a luxury. Maybe someday if we’re lucky and we all work hard, it can happen, but I’m not holding my breath waiting for it and neither should you.”

It may have been the longest speech I ever heard Soda make, and it woke me up. If you hit me over the head often enough, you could get my attention. “Anyway, I got on with it.”

She ran her hands through her hair. “What exactly was it?”

I rubbed my hands together because they were sweaty, then took a sip of coffee. Cherry certainly did like it strong. “Mostly school, trying my best, trying to act like a human being, at least one who learns from others’ mistakes,” I hesitated, “and mine. Especially mine.” I gave an inward shudder. Pull yourself together, Ponyboy. I forced myself to brighten. “It was messy and I certainly didn’t follow a straight route.”

That was putting it mildly. Once Darry moved out, though I missed him, there was a bit more room, a bit less chaos, and I had enough space to allow my brain to clear, at least a little. “I became a fan of the public library.” She nodded. “I actually became a dropout, something like you,” except, I thought, I had never really dropped in. “I didn’t even go out for track.” All that high school stuff seemed a bit silly, and Darry insisted that I develop a workout routine, so I was getting plenty of exercise every week instead of just during track season. In one way it was a shame because with Darry’s routine, I was in my best shape ever. I might even have been a star, but I didn’t want that kind of scholarship or publicity.

Back to the library. “The library wasn’t easy to get to and I couldn’t go directly there. I had to go home first because the others insisted that we eat together. Funny, we’d always been pretty casual about that, but it seemed to be important.”

“I could see that.”

“Me too, I guess. We were all over the place and they wanted to make sure we didn’t lose touch.” Darry especially was insistent and I’d messed him up so much already, so I went home from school, helped to make dinner, ate, and hopped the bus to the library. It was worth the effort. As soon as I walked through the door, I caught my second wind. I was surrounded by books. It was my fantasy library, even better than what I imagined that time in the lawyer’s office. It was a bit over much: ceilings over two stories high and a few hundred thousand books, but it made for a great diversion when I needed one. It was also a great incentive because I made a promise to myself that browsing wasn’t allowed until homework was done. When I had to do research, it was especially hard to fight the temptation to look around.

“Unfortunately, my homework usually took most of the available time. The library closed at nine and Darry’s orders were that I should be home as soon after that as possible. My temporary reward for working hard was usually a book I checked out, a luxury.”

Her eyes raised at that. “You probably grew up with books all over the house.” She lowered her eyes. I reached forward and pressed her hand (Did I really do that?). “No, Cherry, I think that’s great. We only had newspapers and the books I had from school. Having the occasional novel around, something I picked out, made me unbelievably happy.” That brought the smile back, and I decided that it might be a good idea to take a few sips of coffee. “If I was really good during the week, I had Saturday to browse and read, or even write.” The best part: when I turned sixteen — old enough to work — the library offered me a job because they figured there weren’t many people who knew the place as well. I got paid to browse.” Whenever I thought of the day that realization came to me, I went to another place for a few seconds, and this time was no different. “Paid to move among thousands of books, wade through all those millions, maybe billions of words, to keep them organized so others like me could find the ones we needed quickly, paid to be free to open to any page and read it. Can you imagine that?”

She didn’t say anything at first, then leaned toward me. “They say that if you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life.”

I had to think about that. “It sounds pretty, but I don’t know if it’s true. I’m hoping it is, though.”

“I’m not sure what job I’ll end up with, but I like the idea of doing research into what makes people tick. Sitting around in an office and trying to help people solve their problems doesn’t appeal to me as much.” She was biting a fingernail, one more in a long list of things I never expected from Cherry Valance, but I had to admit that my frame of reference was from a time when we weren’t too worried about what we’d be doing for the rest of our lives. We were stuck in the present at the same time that we were trying to recover from the immediate past.

Working at the library was the icing on the cake. I was in a world so far removed from the one I grew up in that I felt like I needed a passport. By the time I was able to begin the job, I was a regular feature at the library.

“Did the Sheldons have anything to do with you getting the job?”

“I didn’t find out until later that the library board had wanted to add a few positions, and he arranged for the funding that made it possible. He swore that he attached no conditions, especially who should be hired.”

That was how time passed. I finished high school a year early by going for two summers. I took it easy in college by not taking classes during the summer the following two years, but I continued to work, moving to the college library eventually.

She settled back against the arm of the couch, facing me with her legs crossed. It struck me as such a relaxed position, and it made me feel the same. I couldn’t explain why, but there it was. “Did you write a lot?”

“Not much for a while.” I had to smile. “Even on my best weeks, I had an hour, maybe two, barely enough time to pull my thoughts together, let alone write them down. I ended up with quite a collection of incomplete ideas.” Mrs. Sheldon bought me a portfolio for my birthday that zipped shut so I could keep my ideas together and safe. It seemed like such an extravagance when she gave it to me — it was leather and looked like something a lawyer would carry — but it really came in handy and I could have everything with me.

“Incomplete beats none.” She leaned forward at that, a small movement but enough to encourage me to turn and cross my legs facing her. It was very unlike me, but this day was so unlike anything I’d lived through.

“On the bright side, if only half of them have any merit, I have enough to build on until I’m in my thirties or forties.” She laughed at that, “But I’m not counting on more than ten percent.”

“Is that why you took the writing course, to work some of them through? It makes me feel like I’m behind the curve, even though I have to admit it’s a great idea.”

“It was part of the plan, but a glance at the syllabus tells me that it won’t work. I’d have to tailor them to fit his requirements. I don’t want to do that, so I guess we’re both starting from scratch.”

“With that, we need more coffee.” Before I could react, she was up, grabbing the cups and heading to the kitchen. “By the way, I want you to watch closely, because this is as domestic as I get.” Watching her closely wasn’t a chore. I told her not to worry because over the years I’d acquired enough domestic for the both of us. “Will you make me dinner someday, Ponyboy?”

That was unexpected. We were big on improvising, especially Soda, with what we had around the house. I doubted she’d be thrilled by stuff like chocolate cake for breakfast. Even when the money situation was better, grocery shopping was chaotic because of our schedules. “Depends on what you want. I don’t have the widest repertoire.”

“French?” She considered for a minute. “Do you know how to make macaroni and cheese?”

Macaroni and cheese: the first thought I had was of Sodapop’s version, which was blue. Fortunately, it tasted good so I never questioned how the color came about. I really didn’t want to know. I shook that from my mind and somehow managed to answer, “Box-type or from scratch?”

She said she hadn’t realized she was getting into a philosophical debate, but the sad fact was that she hadn’t known there was anything beyond boxed. “You’ve piqued my curiosity, Ponyboy, for about the tenth time today. Tell me more.” I began to explain the options of available cheeses; she interrupted as she returned with the coffees and resumed her position on the couch, except for the fact that she was closer. I returned to a regular sitting position, mostly because I didn’t trust my ability to drink without spilling if I was sitting the other way.

I told her that despite the possibilities, the vote in our house was overwhelmingly in favor of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. She said she was relieved: she wasn’t sure that the kitchen had all the pans and utensils needed to do it from scratch. “The proper utensils are so overrated.”

“Is there some deeper meaning to that?”

Was this the future psychologist talking, or was she being flirty? It amazed me how similar they could sound, or was I just too tired to tell the difference? “Part of me wants to say something really clever, but I’m too tired to come up with anything.”

“Rain check?” She was looking kind of tired, although tired on her still looked really good, better than most people looked well-rested.

“Anytime I have a clearer head,” thinking that was a lot less often than I wanted to admit to her, “which is definitely not now.” I reached for my coffee. “I should probably go. We’re both tired.” I didn’t want to leave her, but I didn’t want to push it to the point where I was sounding like an idiot.

She stretched. “It has been a long and full day, and the great thing is that tomorrow’s Saturday.” I finished my coffee and stood up to take the cups of the kitchen. “Any plans?”

“Library, plus a few hours at my new job.”

She pouted a little. “Where are you working?”

I beamed. “Library.”

She matched me. “So, if we meet at the library, you’ll be able to spend a little time with me?”

Was she flirting? “Except for when I’m working, I’m all yours…unless you have plans.” I felt like we were playing a game, but it didn’t feel like the kind of game I’d seen most of the girls I knew play. I knew I was too tired to figure it out.

“No plans except some research, hearing the rest of your story, and stopping at the grocery store for several boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese.”

I couldn’t think of anything to do with that except smile, which I did, and stand up. “Thank you for the coffee, Cherry, for the conversation, for an unexpectedly good day, and for showing up in my life again.”

She took my arm and walked me to the door. “I think you’re in the right major because you do have a way with words. Will you bring me some of your writing?” I nodded and I was halfway out the door when I heard, “Ponyboy Curtis, after a day like today you don’t have a good night hug for an old friend?” I turned around and did as ordered. She held on tight, then kissed me on the cheek and whispered, “Thank you too for all you said.” I turned to stumble out. “Breakfast at nine in the cafeteria?”

“It’s a date, but can we make it eight? I have to work from nine to noon.” I had no idea what time it was, but I was sure it would come too quickly.

She laughed. “You ask so much of me. Eight o’clock on a Saturday. How can a girl resist a man with high standards?”

“Goodnight,” and I was on the stairway, walking carefully so I didn’t do a Three Stooges fall. The great exit was ruined when I realized I hadn’t paid attention to the route to her apartment, so I muttered, “Way to go, Ponyboy,” and knocked on her door. She opened it with a surprised look. “Can you give me directions back to Whalen Hall?”

She giggled and said, “Some things never change,” before telling me.

I nodded and said, “Thank you, Cherry. Goodnight,” before making my less than graceful second exit, trying to ignore her continued giggles.

I only got turned around once on the way home, a miracle considering where my head was. When I got back to the room, Brian wasn’t there, which was fine with me. I had too much on my mind to deal with someone else. I didn’t need to be social. I decided that getting into bed as soon as possible was the wise move, so I got ready and jumped into bed in record time, if one week of trials could be considered a record.

Settling back into the pillow, the strangeness of the day came over me. Despite my limited experience, I was pretty sure that I shouldn’t read too much into Cherry’s behavior. I didn’t think she was toying with me, but I could remember the way she was five years ago. She had a way of focusing on you when she was in your presence that made you feel like she thought of you as someone special. Within a half hour of meeting her, I had the most intimate conversation I ever had with a girl, only to find out at the end of the evening that she had a crush on Dallas. In school, she might pretty much ignore me if we ran into each other in the halls, but that night she could pull me aside and instantly go back to that level. I never felt like it was the power trip that a lot of girls her age did. Soda had explained that one to me.

The difference was the amount of time we spent together. Other than that first time at the drive-in when we were surrounded by distractions — Dally, Johnny, the Two-Bit/Marcia show, Tim Shepard, the movie, the anger she was feeling about Bob’s drinking — I’d never talked to her for more than a few minutes at a time. Today we were together for twelve hours, and while a lot of what she said and did could be considered flirty, a whole lot of it probably came from coming in contact with history.

It was an idea I’d thought long and hard about over the past few years. I had even begun a short story about how people could go through similar experiences for a period of time and form a bond that never went away. I was interested in the types of experiences that created that bond because they had to be the key. I had gone to school with pretty much the same people, had spent six hours a day, a hundred eighty days a year for ten years with hundreds of kids, but I didn’t feel like I’d develop a history with more than one or two. Before today, Cherry and I had spent no more than three or four hours (much of it sitting in a courtroom) in each other’s presence, but we definitely had a history, so time wasn’t a factor.

When you run into someone with whom you share a history, you begin like no time has passed. It didn’t matter how you felt about that person. I hated the life they lived, but if Tim or Curly Shepard walked through my door, it’d be just like I’d seen them the day before. I remember my mother explaining it to Dally once. He was all jazzed up because he and Tim had an argument over something, and he wanted to fight with knives. That was pretty serious. “You and Tim have been through a lot together,” she said.

“Yeah, well that’s over now.” Even though I knew he’d rather die than do something to hurt my mother, the menacing look on his face made me feel like I should run for help.

She knew that look too and I was sure she saw, but I couldn’t tell because her voice and face didn’t change except for maybe a flicker of sadness. “No, Dallas. If one of you moved away and you ran into each other ten years later, you’d pick up where you left off.” She reached for his hand. She was the only one who could do that, including his girlfriends. “That’s a valuable thing: a gift.”

I could see him softening just a little because I knew him so well. Anyone else besides the gang would’ve only seen an angry, dangerous young man. “I’m not saying you won’t ever get mad at each other,” she continued, “or fight, but that connection will always be there, and you should be grateful for it.” Thinking of my mother helped me to drop off to sleep.

Friday: Cherry

Mind your own business, Cherry. I hated that phrase when my parents used it. Strange that over the past few years, I’d said it to myself so many times that it became my mantra, my daily operating manual, my philosophy of life. I took my mantra to Creative Writing that Friday, as I did everywhere I went. I was a bit hesitant; it was my last class, kind of an impulse. Lord knows I didn’t need a new challenge. My other classes were enough to keep me quite busy, thank you, but it was part of my research on creative people.

Walking into the classroom, I had to smile. The professor was definitely a product of the times with long hair and sophisticated hippie clothes, but I checked him out and my friends assured me that he knew what he was talking about. I headed to the front row, another part of minding my own business, and got myself organized, unsure if we’d be taking notes or writing but ready for anything.

I could hear the others filtering in but didn’t look around. There’d be plenty of opportunities to see them over the next two months. I wanted to get my mind set. Soon enough, the professor cleared his throat from behind his desk. “Good morning. This is Creative Writing I and I’m Christian Matthews. Please check your schedules to make sure you’re in the right place.” After a slight pause, he smiled. “As much as I find such activities odious, the registrar assures me that if I don’t call roll on at least the first day, he’ll do damage to my paycheck, so here goes. Please grunt or answer in a similar manner: Lawrence Atkins…Maria Bell…Wendy Brian…” He paused for a few extra seconds and a smile came to his face. I was beginning to settle in because my name was at the end, but not too much. I’d been caught napping mentally more than once. He continued, “Ponyboy Curtis…”

My mind snapped back with a start. I knew that there couldn’t be two people with that name and the voice, though deeper, had to be his. I turned around to confirm my suspicions. It had, after all, been almost five years. It was him, grown up into a man, and from the smile on his face, I could tell he suspected who he was sitting behind. He looked…good (I’d been reading Hemingway over the summer). My statistics classes had taught me that there were a lot of low probabilities working to bring us together after five years and a thousand miles, a reminder that assigning numbers to human activity was risky at best. “Ponyboy?”

His smile must have mirrored mine. “Hi, Cherry.”

It was too much. There was no way I could sit through a class; despite the fact that I hated to use it, I flashed my best smile. “Professor, I apologize, but Ponyboy and I need to catch up on too many years to think about.” He let us go, probably more out of his sense of theater than anything I did. I turned to my old friend and he stood up. Oh my, he’d grown tall. His hair was long, down to his shoulders, and it looked good. I took his arm, partly to steady myself, and I’m afraid we made a rather showy exit. I didn’t say anything on the way out because my mind was racing. Ponyboy Curtis. I knew him for less than six months and his effect on my life was immeasurable, but the picture associated in my mind was a fourteen-year-old boy, not the man whose arm I was squeezing. Naughty Cherry was sending bad thoughts through my little brain and I tried to kick her to the side. I thought I had her under control (the past few years had been a struggle to subdue her so I was fairly proficient), but when we got outside the building, all that went out the window and I went and kissed him straight up on the lips. Can you imagine that? Considering that it was unplanned and he barely reciprocated because he was so surprised, it was still intriguing. I grabbed him and gave him a hug to cover for how flustered I was. “Ponyboy, it’s really you?” I went and gave him another hug. There seemed to be other forces at work here. “Let’s find a place to catch up. I know a good coffee shop.”

He seemed to come out of his fog. “It’s great to see you, Cherry.” I had to giggle. Some things never changed. “Five years is a lot of sunsets.” His mannerisms and those two sentences confirmed that the old Ponyboy was still in there. I was pleased by that.

I steered him into a café I liked because we both needed to move and I wanted to talk, but I wanted a table between us. We didn’t talk on the way. Thoughts needed to be gathered on both sides, and I hadn’t felt so unbalanced since Bob died. Every vision of what my senior year was going to be like was shattered. Overdramatic? Not if you consider that Ponyboy had turned my world upside down. He was smart, imaginative, sensitive, and despite being associated with a number of them, definitely not a bad boy. I could talk to him about things that mattered without effort. Our conversations began above a level I could reach with anyone else, but then things went back to old routines and a few months later, we moved and the conversations ended.

After a number of false starts and unadvisable decisions, I made up my mind that I was going to keep lofty company to increase the chances of finding someone similar. I was sure I’d never see him again. Things had obviously changed. What I could see from my subtle sideways glances showed that his financial circumstances must have improved because his clothes were different, although some of that could be the difference between a fourteen and nineteen-year-old. Of all people, I knew that jumping to conclusions was a dangerous thing to do. “Do you believe in fate, Ponyboy, that things are meant to happen?” It was a far better opening than my recent performance deserved.

“I think that when it happens, it seems obvious, but in the meantime we don’t think about it.” It was one of those simple answers that could easily be glossed over unless you thought about it, and then it could steamroller you, something like what he was doing to me.

I asked him to catch me up, and the story was better than I could’ve written. I’d heard about the Sheldon connection, even had a small part in making it happen. Listening to him tell it reminded me how much I enjoyed hearing him talk, and honestly, it was pure pleasure at what I was hearing that prompted me to put my hand on his. What prompted me to keep it there was beyond me at the moment. I seemed to be working on pure instinct for the first time in…forever.

The moment got spoiled when he shifted it to me. “I promise to get to me and even Two-Bit and Steve, but it’s your turn and I can’t tell you how many times I wondered how you were doing over the past four and half years.” This Ponyboy was new to me and I had to admit that a pout escaped at the same time that I was thinking, “This is interesting.” It gave me an opportunity to move my hand because I wasn’t really sure what I was doing with it. That made at least three times in less than an hour when I didn’t seem to be in control of what I was doing, a very unusual feeling for me.

I began with the move to Rochester because the months between Bob’s death and the end of school were a blur. I was on automatic pilot, walking through life on the outside while my brain traveled in dizzying spirals, observing my life while reevaluating everything that motivated it, too confused by the whole thing to make any outward corrections. Same friends, same parties, same idiocy. Little made sense. I didn’t want to be who I was but had no idea of how to break out of the cycle. Rochester seemed to be a good solution. New York was promising to be different enough to get me started: a new school after being in the same ones all my life, new people, a different way of doing and looking at almost anything. I knew that the unfamiliarity would leave me swimming upstream, but at least I’d be moving.

The going away party was eerie. I was sad about leaving Randy and Marcia. We’d double dated with them the most so I felt that I knew them best, but I’d already separated myself from that life. I was thrown off a bit when the Curtises walked in, but I knew that the Sheldons had gotten to know them. Hate to admit it, but I pretty much avoided them, especially Ponyboy. He was part of the confusion in my head, and I didn’t want to deal with it. I was ready to leave it all behind me, so when I did end up alone with him, I excused myself before he could say anything that would make it harder. I’ve regretted that many times, both because I wasn’t sure how it affected him and I couldn’t shake the idea that I’d missed an opportunity, but since it was so wound up with my need to separate, I wasn’t sure how or why anything connected.

Brighton was close to what I was used to, but Rochester as a city definitely was different. About the same size, but a different look — more grown up somehow — and feeling. When we arrived, all the change hit me and I began to panic, not sure that I could handle it without the cover of my old life. My parents’ solution was to explore. They were delighted with the unfamiliarity of the area, so we drove and the miles worked, in a way. I calmed down but reverted to the old Cherry as soon as school began. I rationalized that I needed a comfort zone so the transformations working in my head could work themselves out. “Ponyboy, it was frightening how automatic it was and disappointing that I had learned so little.”

He lit a cigarette. “I can count the number of things I don’t learn on a daily basis; most of them are bad for me.” His smile showed me that he had been there and fully understood. Nice move.

When the anniversary of Bob’s death came, it was like a switch went off, and I mean off. The significance of the day had barely registered. There was a pep rally so I wore my cheerleader uniform to school. Some time during the day, the date hit home. It was probably something insignificant like writing a heading on a paper. No fireworks went off. I just stared for a minute at the date and then went on with the assignment and the rest of the day until I was home and in my room to change. I saw my reflection in the mirror and froze. When I came back, I couldn’t change out of my uniform fast enough. I put on my pajamas and stayed in them for three days. My parents were worried. I wasn’t one for laying around the house. Even when Bob died, from all appearances it was business as usual, but that was my way of not having to deal with anything else. It was kind of strange that with everything that happened, it took me in pajamas for them to realize what I was going through. Life is a scrambled thing.

When I emerged from my pajamas, I turned in my cheerleader uniform. It wasn’t an easy thing. The coach, the rest of the squad, and a number of the players were angry and didn’t want anything to do with me. I could handle that. My biggest problem was the thought that the only other time I’d walked away from anything was that night at the drive-in, when I’d done it to Bob and later to Ponyboy, and the results didn’t fill me with confidence that it was the right move even though in one case I was standing up for my principles and in the other I was trying to protect him. “I dropped out, Ponyboy, from everything. I went to school and returned home. I didn’t do anything outside of the house unless it was with my parents. That worried them, but I explained that I was trying to avoid old traps and agreed to meet with a counselor.” Thank my therapist for making sure I separated it all. Nevertheless, I changed my focus to school, college, and family, and left in August. The strange thing was that I chose the University of Chicago over a few other equally good schools. I had a reason, but I couldn’t tell you exactly what it was. Even if I wanted to get mystical (which isn’t my style) and think that I had a premonition that Ponyboy would show up one day, the fact that it happened more than four years later would stretch believability to its limits. Scrambled.

College was a revelation. It took a while to get it through my head that the person who’d been growing inside could actually come out. I was in a place completely different, where the A list was dependent on what I achieved, not by the clothes I wore or the money my family had. I threw out most of my wardrobe, restyled my hair, and get serious about learning. No one was more surprised than me when it worked.

My new venue for finding friends became the library, quite a change from drinking at the river. I didn’t touch alcohol for two years. I didn’t have an aversion: I just wanted to avoid that kind of association. It wasn’t a sacrifice. I needed clearheaded and found that I liked coffee, in case you thought I became a health nut. My social life became movies, plays, lectures, discussions in coffee shops, and visits to museums. Again, not a sacrifice. There was almost always a group, and while I sometimes went with a male buddy, I was just as likely to be with a female. No entanglements, thank you. I was a woman with a mission, ever careful about sending the wrong message.

I’d been aware of the effect I could have on males since I was thirteen, and while I don’t think I’ve abused it, I have to confess that I used it. Mostly, it got in the way, like when I met Ponyboy. He was intimidated and I knew right away that I didn’t want that with him, but I wasn’t sophisticated enough at that point, and when I reached my turning point a year later, one of the resolutions I made was to learn how to control it because I wanted to get to know more people like him, figuring that barring a trip to Tulsa (despite the attraction of seeing him, there were too many snake pits there to make that likely), there was no way I’d ever see the genuine article again. I never thought to ask Randy about him in our correspondence because I didn’t realize they ever had any more contact. I knew very few details about the Sheldons’ involvement with them, but it didn’t feel right to ask. Not from me.

It worked. I did really well, studied very hard, and managed to have a social life without complications. My parents were a bit hesitant when they saw the makeover during the Christmas break, but I convinced them that it was part of my therapy, the new Cherry who was serious about life. Mom wasn’t terribly convinced, but when my grades arrived in the mail, they couldn’t argue. To smooth over their fears, I talked about museums and lectures, sprinkling in descriptions of my new study buddies.

It got even better the following year when I was able to move into the apartment. There was less pressure to go out and do things. I didn’t become a hermit, but there wasn’t a dorm full of people who weren’t necessarily operating on the same wavelength to tempt me. I could stay in and work, go to the library, go out with my like-minded friends, watch a movie on the television (it was a big decision whether to have one at all, but I finally reasoned that I was being a chicken if I removed all temptations), or just wander around campus when the Chicago weather allowed. That was when I really grew up. There was no one but me to make good or bad decisions, no one else to blame, and I found that I liked being responsible. Sophomore and junior year moved along smoothly. I was comfortable in my situation, if comfortable could include working my tail off. I was successful in a completely different area from my former life and it felt good. There were no romantic relationships, but I convinced myself it was an excellent trade-off. I was also convinced that I couldn’t have both because I’d been unsuccessful at finding a Ponyboy clone. Yes, at the same time that I’d been avoiding relationships, I was searching.

When I told Ponyboy the he was my first therapist, I was understating his importance because I couldn’t tell him how much of an effect he had on me. The kiss on the cheek was genuine but it also gave me a way to change the direction. It almost backfired on me because I came close to planting one on his lips again. I partly gave into the urge by taking his arm. My use of the word gallant also wasn’t an accident.

The me I’d become really did want to find out about the class. The syllabus was the key to every course. All professors regarded them as sacred, whether they were old school or new at it. In this case, I knew that the little drama we created had made his day so there’d be no hard feelings, but I’m ashamed to admit that I turned on whatever it was that I have, just in case.

Leaving there, I was feeling a bit more sure of myself because we were heading for my home away from home, so I grabbed his hand. It was still exuberance. The library was a test. Some people traveled together to test a relationship. I worked in a library. Some of my museum and coffee shop friends hadn’t passed the library test, but those who could were definitely my inner circle. I was very particular about library companions. Before I could make any judgments, he stopped in the middle of working. “I never asked: what’s your major?”

I was in the middle of a line, so I put my finger down to mark the place. Not an unusual question, but the timing was interesting. “Psychology.”

He nodded and went back to work. I didn’t think about it much and went back to my reading. A few minutes later, he looked up again and said out of the blue, “I’m not surprised, but it’s kind of superfluous.”

One doesn’t interrupt Freud too often if one wants to stay on track, so I filed it away until I finished the article. On my way to finding the next one, I backtracked to what he’d said. “Superfluous?” He looked up a few seconds later, using the same finger bookmark (interesting: did we share the same habit or had he picked that up from me?), “Cherry, you read people better than anyone I’ve ever met, including Soda. The degree is…superfluous.”

It was quite a compliment but I didn’t want to get gushy in the middle of research, so I thanked him in a way I thought he’d appreciate, “Good word.” He smiled and we both went back to work, but somewhere in my brain, a little tremor went off. I realized that he had me. The word was part of it. Not the number of syllables: I knew plenty of people who used big words. When he explained his use of the word I realized that, despite the fact that our prior relationship would be described by most people as casual, and despite the fact that we had no contact for almost five years, he knew me better than anyone. It took everything I had to buckle down and get some work done. Fortunately, I had a lot of practice with blocking out unnerving things.

By break time, announced by my growling stomach (which he handled beautifully), I had myself together enough to avoid sounding like a blithering idiot, so I felt comfortable flirting with danger by taking his hand. I knew enough about him to be certain that he’d allow me some space for my actions. There was no concrete evidence for the certainty, just what he said: I knew people. The romantic little devil then showed that he knew the way to a girl’s heart (at least this girl’s), by suggesting that we eat, “Somewhere romantic like the cafeteria? Or somewhere with atmosphere, like the cafeteria?”

How could a girl resist? “Oh Ponyboy Curtis, you have a way with words that’ll turn a girl’s head.” Such a flirt. The teenager who batted her eyelashes and invited him to be our protector was still somewhere in there.

He laughed. “Yeah, that’s me. I’ve left women with cricks in their necks from Tulsa to Chicago.”

The surprises continued with the story about Two-Bit Matthews, a funny and sometimes annoying guy who was one of the people I’d failed to read. Sure, I knew about him at school, but I had accepted the label of class clown. We found labels useful because we felt our lives were too busy to get to know everyone. Who am I kidding? We used them to classify people because we never planned to have anything to do with them, and as a Greaser and someone whose pranks could potentially embarrass us, he was definitely a person we wanted to box in and put on the shelf.

I saw him in a different light that night at the drive-in when he hit it off with Marcia. He was goofy like her but he lived by a code, which was more than I could say for most of us, and he thought nothing of taking the time and risk of driving us home all the way across town. I didn’t have much contact with him after that except for running into him in the hallway one day. Did I mention that it was the hall outside the library, or that he was coming out while I was going in? We exchanged hellos, and I must’ve given him a look.

“Surprised to see me leaving the library?” He didn’t look very happy about the development.

I smiled, partly residual from expecting him to lead with a joke. “Doesn’t exactly fit your carefully crafted image, does it?” There was more than a little sarcasm in that in preparation for whatever he might throw my way, little of which I expected to be pleasant. I wasn’t sure why I was even hanging around to open myself up to it.

I got another serious look, Unexpected. “Yeah, well, Ponyboy isn’t the only Greaser who can read, and I’m not just talking about Gone with the Wind.” By then, I was thoroughly confused, which I’d heard was the normal state for a conversation with Two-Bit. Before I could ask for an explanation or escape the library, which would’ve been my normal solution, he told me the history of the book and gallantry, and before I could react or change my opinion of him, he flashed that reckless smile of his and said, “Let’s keep this encounter our secret, and please continue to keep that fine stuff shakin’, Cherry,” and he was gone.

The secret wasn’t a problem because I immediately filed it away. Ponyboy’s story put it into perspective: he’d begun his plan to move on with his life, and I was happy that it was working out, probably beyond his wildest dreams: a professional actor on Broadway and a classic example for me of the danger of refusing to see beyond the surface. I loved psychology because it dealt with below the surface all the time and I’ve learned to distrust surfaces. On the surface, Bob was the ideal teenager, we were the ideal couple with the ideal friends, the Greasers were shady characters to be avoided because they had nothing to contribute, and I had the perfect life. All lies. All scrambled.

Armed with that hit on my self-esteem, I felt the need to go to the ultimate below the surface object: Ponyboy’s English theme. I’ve heard people talking about it. Unfortunately, it was from people in my circle so it was derogatory, something about being amazed that a Greaser could put together two sentences, let alone over a hundred pages, and that his version of everything had to be messed up. From what I knew of him, I was intrigued. I wasn’t sure, but I felt that it would put things into a different perspective. When he said that he’d finished it and even had a copy, I had to hold myself back to keep from appearing too creepy with my curiosity. “Can I read it someday?”

He actually blushed. “You’re a major character, so I guess I can’t refuse. I think I’ll have to change the names and some scenes if I decide to publish.” His willingness to let me see it gave me another moment. He was guileless and seemed to trust me. I was good at reading people, but Ponyboy Curtis was no amateur. He was also a bit maddening in his politeness and unwillingness to assume that there was something more to this than two old friends finding each other. It wasn’t shyness or standoffishness. He was just too polite to assume. I needed to send some messages because I wasn’t sure where this was going either, so I invited him to my apartment. You might think of this as sad, but he was the first male other than my father who’d been there. When we arrived inside, the idea didn’t seem so brilliant and a bout of nervous straightening followed. I was sure that he wanted to run away from the crazy woman (when my mind was disorderly, I felt the need to add order to the world around me by straightening) but for some reason, he stuck around and even offered to make coffee.

Discoveries: a love for black coffee and libraries, writing (even though his involved actually doing it while mine was appreciation of others’ writing), and a feeling that we were on a quest to find someone inside. I found the combination almost impossible to resist, which I swear was the reason I was so bold in insisting on a hug and the kiss I gave him before he left. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

When he left for the evening (that return to get directions was the old Ponyboy, a reminder of how far he’d come), I flopped onto the couch and let out a breath. “Oh Cherry, Wherever are you going?” I had no idea. Every plan I made for the year was messed up. That might sound overly dramatic, but I was feeling jumbled up. I wasn’t sure what it all meant, but I knew it was something I needed to pay attention to. I also knew that I needed to get some sleep because it was looking like we’d be together for a significant part of the next day. I needed the energy to pull back and figure this all out.