Skipping Stones over Greeley

#4 in the Gap Decade Chronicles

One day in early Autumn Tiffany Chang’s appendix began to rupture. There was an era not long ago when this event would have resulted in her death, a tragedy for a twentyoneyearold young lady with the world in front of her. Lucky for her she was born sufficiently late enough in the stream of history that procedures exist to handle a destructive appendix. In the end she received a good scare and a little scar and a couple of canceled plans.

I do not know her, Tiffany Chang. In my mind she belongs to the hazy guild of people that have influenced my life from outside of it, occupying a position similar to my assigned roommate Floyd Wilkenson that set out for college and never arrived. The existence of Tiffany Chang and the state of her appendix are still peripheral to me as I step off my plane in Colorado. I have bigger concerns: First, the existence of some residual metallic taste in my mouth that no amount of water or cola can remedy, and second, that I have disembarked my plane at the wrong airport. Both concerns take their sweet time to fade.

Stapelton Airport is no more. It has been abandoned and then replaced by Denver International. No familiar musty carpet here. Miles of shiny new tile and a roof made of giant tensile translucent white peaks meant to mimic the mountains. And indeed it seems that I am interned inside it, buried inside a mountain, and inside that mountain is a depot. I stare upward at the hyperbolic valleys and towers from within them and by the time I wander to the pickup curb I’m so disoriented that even the actual mountains seem farther away. Which they are. They didn’t just rebuild the airport, they moved it out of town. I stare off at the distant city and the peaks behind it in confusion until I become aware that Coloradoans are staring in turn at the stoned Orangepainted Mouthbreather ogling their mountains from the curb. I have been getting stared at for hours, and eventually I’ll need to normalize or inevitably some figure of authority is going to make a project of me. I muster my senses, stuff my painted ruined flannel in my pack, and attempt to look a little more like Everybody Else.

The curb of the airport is shaded but the air beyond it is muggy and hot in that late summer way of Front Range Colorado. I do not sit on the curb. I turn back in to the airconditioned terminal, out of the heat. I wander the airport blearyeyed and cautious with my brain still hot from chemicals but not quite fizzling anymore, like how you warily view a fajita pan left on a restaurant table and decide it’s been a reasonably safe amount of time for you to conclude it’s no longer dangerous. Eventually I come to a woman sitting behind a desk marked Information and ask her where the shuttle bus for my University might pick me up. I sit on the designated bench silently and await the shuttle, which as promised pulls up to the curb. The shuttle admits me without issue because I have arrived at a proper date for such arrangements. And the driver brings me across the Plains towards the mountains in airconditioned silence for free towards Greeley Colorado. It just goes so smoothly, so much more smoothly than the debacle of last year. That I can accomplish such a feat in such a state says something profound about the relative dangers of Illegal Chemicals compared to more General Inexperience, but I am as yet illequipped to process profound thoughts. My thighs no longer need my attention to hold in all my blood and the metal slowly fades from my palette and aside from the cows out the window being just ever so slightly the wrong color everything is beginning to appear as it Actually Appears. Violet cows will fade back to brown on their own time and enough things look normal for me to be patient with the process and across from me a girl sits watching out her own window as people bend slowly in the fields and pick potatoes. She says something but it takes me too long to realize that she is talking to me and I’m not answering.
I said it’s a hot day to be working out there in the fields like that.
Far too hot. I couldn’t hack it.
That’s why they make the Mexicans do it.

I look out her window and she is right. Everyone we pass is brown. Brown like the Earth. Or maybe not like that. When the cows are still slightly purple there’s really no telling. But I can still tell from their dress. The workers spread out in groups reaching for the dry ground under the hot sun, bags at their sides.
Looks hard. Must be a good wage.
You’re kidding.
They make nothing.
Maybe the greenhorns. I work with Mexicans on the ships. The captains fight over the seasoned ones. You couldn’t keep them without a wage.

She looks back at me from the window.
Sailors from any country are free men. These people are tied to the land. And they don’t own the land. A business owns the land. Or, if they’re lucky, a business doesn’t own the land yet; the greatgrandson of the man that stole their land owns the land. And he looks after them like draft animals.
Stole it how?
Colorado was Mexican. You never heard of Guadalupe Hidalgo?
Naw. When was she?
I’m in sophomore year. History’s only gotten to TenSixtySix.

She looks out the window grimly.
Yeah, well. It doesn’t really get much better.

And we ride silently the rest of the way as the proper hues find their ways into the landscape.

Greeley remains unchanged in its green lawns and bucolic quiet and it should be lusciously easy to slip back into college. I should be happy again to be in a Soft Place where you can sleep the full night through and have time left over to drink and read and study and even head to the mountains on weekends with a friend or a lover but the Itch has grown. It has grown and it shall know no abatement. It is fed by Floyd the Missing Roommate and Lucio the Fisherman and Runkel headed to Europe and anyone else I hear of that doesn’t have to sit still and the Itch grows and spreads and festers and it’s not even a full week into school when it manifests itself at the Registrar’s Office.

Going to the Registrar’s Office at the University is a very official affair and you have to have your act together before you ever even arrive. If you don’t know what class you want to register for or how much money you still owe or what other administrative task you need performed then the lady behind the counter will be inconvenienced by you and that inconvenience will be matched by all the people waiting in line behind you. The whole arrangement can become quite stressful so my habit is to avoid it entirely and do all my business with the University by mail. But through lack of foresight I am on the wrong side of some deadline and I must visit in person. I stand in line for forty minutes and my mind passes from Kodiak to Seattle to a hundred other places most of which I’ve never been yet and when my time comes to talk to the Registrar about my small fee I instead blurt out
Do you have a program that goes to Sweden?
Sweden. In Europe.
I know where Sweden is. You mean like a Foreign Exchange Program?

She looks over her glasses at me as she writes out a pass.
Room TwoOFour. Foreign Exchange Office.

And she hands me the ticket I need to get back into the bowels of the Administration Building. The Foreign Exchange Office is a tiny room with no windows and every inch of wall is covered with posters depicting smiling people in foreign places. People standing in front of Cathedrals, People eating Croissants, People wearing Saris and feeding Giraffes and Bungee Jumping and sitting on the steps of Museums in happy groups, people doing a million things in a million places but all of them smiling smiling smiling and the colors are bright and the fonts loud and even the lonely person behind the desk is peppy and pleased to see me.

The Foreign Exchange Desk Worker is a ray of light compared to the Registrar, despite being confined to this cave. She looks too old to be a student but has a youthfulness about her and pencils in her hair and bangles on her arms and an absolutely incredible amount of trinkets and charms on her desk and all of the handwritten events on the calendar behind her have exclamation points after them and she looks overjoyed to see someone in her office, which I have found is generally quite rare among people that work in offices.
Can I sign up for Foreign Exchange?
You most certainly can. We have over a halfdozen agreements with universities all over the world. We have programs in Kenya, Spain, Germany, Japan, Italy, Korea and Argentina. Each program has a brochure and a description of the universities.
You got Sweden?

Her mouth goes from smile to empathetic disappointment and back to smile almost imperceptibly.
No Sweden, I’m sorry. Let me get the brochures for you and we can find the right program for you.

She shuffles through drawers and places different colored applications on the desk between us by reaching behind her, her head buried in the file cabinet. Goldenrod for Italy, Teal for France, Gray for Kenya, and each one with a corresponding glossy brochure. She stacks them each in tight little piles across the desk, sweeping the tide of chotskie flotsam towards herself and folding her hands over the forms. She smiles widely.
Now. Let’s find the program that is right for you.
Some programs will greatly help your application to graduate school. Do you have plans to go to graduate school?
What’s your major?
I don’t have a major yet. Do I need one?
Not at all. Which places are you most interested in learning about?
Depends. Which one starts first?
Some start in the Fall Semester and some in the Spring. Do you have a preference?
Alright. Next Fall.
No. This Fall.
But it is already Fall. The application period is usually two semesters long.
Two semesters?
Sometimes less.
That won’t work. I’m sorry.

I get up, thanking her for her time. She frowns at my easy defeat, my lack of followthrough. Between my disappointment and her motherly frown we are the only two people not smiling in the room. The optimism of the people on the posters remains undented.
Take an application anyway. There is a waiting list, in case someone pulls out at the last minute. You can get on the waiting list while you are applying, but it does cost a fee.
How often does someone drop out?
Not very often. Are you interested in being put on the waiting list?
Yes please.
Alright. For which program?
Which ones are next?
The Southern Hemisphere programs and the Equatorial. Argentina and Kenya.
Do I have to pay a fee for each separately?
No. I suppose not.

And I walk out with two forms, one grey and one cyan.

And really this is a horrible plan. I have money to throw around still from fishing but by the time two semesters go by I’ll be back to broke and won’t be able to travel even if my application is accepted. I could make it much longer here if I withdrew from school. Greeley is far cheaper than Alaska and nobody has any money but nobody is oppressed by scarcity because a university ghetto is a unique type of thrift. Nowhere in America are the Poor more cheerful and upbeat than in a College Town because everyone around you considers the arrangement to be temporary. But the catch is that if I ditch out of school then my foreign exchange application is cancelled. You must be enrolled to be eligible. I wallow here in indecision, wondering how long I can last, choosing nothing.

But then one sunny day Tiffany Chang’s appendix decides to burst. She is rushed to the hospital and modern medicine saves her bacon and somewhere out there she’s living a normal life and everything has worked out just fine for her. But she did have to cancel her trip to Argentina. Two weeks after her appendicitis procedure, Tiffany Chang was supposed to be on a flight to Buenos Aires to attend La Universidad de Belgrano as an officially sanctioned Foreign Exchange Student. Lucky for her that her appendicitis occurred before, or it could have been significantly more frightening in a foreign land with no family around. And lucky for me too, sitting around on a waiting list with no plan.

The Foreign Exchange Desk Worker apologizes over the phone for the inconvenience. Two weeks is not nearly enough time to get one’s affairs in order. I would be almost a month into classes already. A shame, really.

But I am packed in a day. The tuition transfers and the ticket’s deeply discounted for students and the Landlord can keep his deposit. I have an apartment and a lover and good friends and a course of study in Greeley and maybe it should feel inconvenient to leave but there is something wrong with the wiring, something difficult about what seems so easy for everyone. And when you’re sitting still you can dwell on dark alienating things like this but it’s pretty hard not to feel excited to leave your campus in the night to board a plane to a country you’ve never thought much about before. And it has to be quick. Couple more weeks and I’d repeat last year, waiting to run out of money while standing still. The Sounder taught me that the world floats perilously on water and Men just don’t have the buoyancy to not get mired in it but perhaps if you keep up the Velocity you’ll buy some time, hurling yourself at the world like a skipping stone over a lake, knowing that it’s not the Sinking at the end to focus on so much as your Moments in the Air. I bum a ride back to the white tented roof of Denver International thinking this, and out the window the cows are again violet in the darkness.

Click here to read the next chapter in the Gap Decade Chronicles: #5: This is The Foreign Exchange

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