It started when Aurora died, I told him.
Well, no, it started when I got hired at Eventive.
Actually, none of it made sense unless you went back to the day I met Robbie.
“I met this guy when I was still in high school. We seemed like a perfect fit,” I told Oak. “I moved in with him. He got me a job at Eventive.”
I didn’t go into all the gory details, but it was meeting Robbie that afternoon that set my life on the course that zigged and zagged all the way to Magnusson.
I had ditched out of my high school classes and was hanging out in a college computer lab when a student wearing his ID on a lanyard arrived and began to inspect the guts of a malfunctioning tower, muttering to himself. I’d seen him before. He had a work-study job with the campus IT department. He had dark curly hair, long fingers, and a palpable intensity as he crouched down to study the machine. “Fan’s shot,” he said when he looked up and saw me watching him. His eyes skittered away. “Probably not worth replacing. These things are junk.”
“Still better than my garbage fire of a laptop,” I said, and he stole another look at me.
We were in a computer lab at Bates College library, where I was pretending to be an undergraduate. It was a few weeks into my junior year. My grades were in the toilet, and I didn’t care. What would a high school degree get me? It all seemed like such a waste of time when I had found a whole world of learning available online. Learning I cared about. Learning I could do on my own, without the rigid schedules, endless busywork, and routine humiliations of high school.
The previous year I had been an A student. That was Allie’s doing; she had taught me how to do school. Just by hanging out with her I learned some useful hacks for my daily habits that made life easier, like paying attention to deadlines and doing my homework. What a concept. In return, I was able to help her with her algebra problems. She effortlessly excelled in most of her classes, but was easily intimidated by math and struggled to turn word problems into formulas when what she wanted to know was why John and David were rowing up the river and what would happen next.
Without her help, though, I would have struggled with English and social studies. She brought me up to speed on how to make an argument and polish a paragraph and what to do to avoid the kind of basic grammar and punctuation problems that, years later, I would see college students struggle to master. It was down to her that I knew what a run-on sentence was and what “subject-verb agreement” meant so I could pretend to be an English teacher.
After my mother kicked me out, I stayed with Allie’s family for the whole of my tenth grade year, having a cake for my sixteenth birthday, opening presents on Christmas morning with her family, helping out in the kitchen and doing chores, finishing homework at the kitchen table with the other kids. It was a weird interlude of Norman Rockwell life, a strange practice run of who I could be if I just made an effort to fit in and act normal. But by the end of that year, things were changing. Allie signed up for the drama club and was spending most of her free time in rehearsals and hanging out with the theatre kids. I joined Math Counts and the computer club. After another student sold me his old laptop for cheap I dialed back on the homework and spent most of my free time online, working on my programing skills and hanging out in the IRC channels where I felt at home, shitposting and code-wrangling among the nerds.
In the summer before my junior year, I moved back in with my mother, who was single again and lonely. I got a job in a restaurant and Allie got a job with a veterinarian. She got a boyfriend, and when they broke up she got another one; I didn’t get a boyfriend, not even one. By the time school started again we only had one social studies class in common. We were still friends, but we weren’t as close as we had been, that temporary interlude of being almost sisters.
That was the year I began hanging out daily on the campus of Bates college, dying my hair electric blue and doing my best to wear the same kind of clothes as the college students: hoodies, black tees, and the kind of ripped-up jeans that wealthy kids bought pre-tattered. Paying attention to my surroundings and doing what I could to blend in was good training for adopting identities that weren’t mine, something that would come in handy later, though I didn’t know it at the time.
All I knew was that there were some computers in the library that you could use to access the internet without a campus login. They were better than the high school computers because they were newer and faster and didn’t require the annoying workarounds it took to get past the spyware and filters that all the school computers had. The internet speed in the college library was a lot faster and more reliable than the wifi signal I had to mooch off unsecured routers when school was out. (My mother claimed she had electromagnetic hypersensitivity so we couldn’t have internet at home, but the truth was she didn’t want to pay for it.) Most of the college students used their own laptops, so I could squat on a PC and spend hours working on whatever I wanted without anyone batting an eye.
It was intoxicating to be on campus. There was a kind of freedom in the air, a sense of permission, a feeling of being someone new, and nobody ever asked me “why aren’t you in school?” like they did the one time I tried to use the internet at the public library during the day. My camouflage worked: everyone seemed to assume I was in school. The kind of school where you didn’t have to sit for hours until the final bell rang. The kind of school where I could practice being the person I wanted to be, merging myself IRL with the person I presented online. I was beginning to feel whole, even though it was all based on a lie.
The day I met Robbie I was hacking away at a Python program that refused to execute, and I couldn’t figure out why. I watched him for a minute as he replaced the chassis on the computer with the faulty fan. After I had turned back to debugging and swearing under my breath, I saw his reflection in my screen. He had put the problem computer on a cart and was rolling it away when he paused. I turned and gave him a sheepish smile. He stared at my screen. “I can’t get this to run,” I shrugged.
He stared some more, came closer to peer over my shoulder, then pointed. “There. Try commenting that line out.”
I did. It ran. “Damn. Why didn’t I see that?”
“You were looking too hard. I’m Robbie, by the way.”
He wiped his hand on his jeans and held it out to shake, shifting his gaze from the screen to my face. He had intense blue eyes, uncomfortably direct, but only for a moment before he looked away. “You’re here a lot.”
“My laptop kind of sucks.”
“You’re not a CS major, though.”
“No.” I felt suddenly worried he might report me. “I haven’t picked a major yet.”
“You should declare CS so you can use their lab. The equipment is a lot better. You can’t run UNIX on these.”
“Is CS your major?”
“I’m a double major in math and CS with a minor in Classical and Medieval Studies.”
He started rubbing his palm against the edge of the table. “I would take business courses, but they don’t offer that here. I’ve been supplementing my education with Corsera. Online courses, they’re free. Like, I’m taking one now on entrepreneurship from Wharton. I also took courses on project management and running a startup. You want to get a coffee sometime?” He blurted the last words.
“Sure. That would be great.”
He rubbed his palm harder. “Like, now?” Every muscle in his body was tensed.
He took a deep breath, nodding sharply. “Let me dump this junk and clock out, and then we can go.”
We fell into a regular pattern. I made sure I was on campus when he finished working or had his last class for the day. He even shared his Google calendar with me so I would know. We’d get coffee or something to eat and then hang out in the CS lab late in the day, when nobody was around to check my credentials. He worked on homework and I didn’t. Homework was something I could throw together at the last minute, if I ever felt like it. Instead, I would work on whatever programming problem I was trying to master. He gave me his two-year-old laptop because he had bought a new one. It was hard for me to imagine just giving away a computer, but he dismissed the idea of selling it as too much of a hassle. “Just take it,” he’d said, a little impatiently, as if it were a stick of gum or a paperback book.
We were a little stiff with each other at first—he was stiff with everyone except a handful of friends from the computer science program. But when he realized we had hung out on the same IRC channel for years he loosened up, as if that was an endorsement that I was trustworthy. He started calling me his girlfriend, and his friends took me into their circle, though a little warily, as if I were a tropical bird they’d never seen before. But since they were all geeks, I felt a kind of belonging that I didn’t feel around the other college students. And once I’d met Robbie I didn’t even try.
There was a visible caste system on campus, one I recognized when I got to Magnusson, though at a compressed scale. There were the wealthy kids destined to Wall Street or Harvard Law, like their dads, hard partiers who couldn’t fail no matter how hard they worked at it. There were the activists and anarchists who despised wealth without realizing how much of it they had. Then there were the first gens, the ones who whose family members had never attended college, trying to find their niche, kids who didn’t have money but made up for it with grants, hard work, desperation, and a long record of high achievement.
Robbie would have fit into the first category, but you wouldn’t know it from his clothes (white t-shirts, jeans, and converse sneakers every day) or his car (an old Mazda). He didn’t pay attention to status symbols and only bought a new pair of shoes when his soles began to flap, ordering the exact same style to avoid the aggravation of having to evaluate alternatives. But despite his simple-life aesthetic he was ambitious. He knew his future meant building exciting things and making a ton of money.
I didn’t know what my future held, but I wanted it to be with Robbie. I loved him, everything from his knobby Adam’s apple to the way his shoulder blades stuck out like hangers for his t-shirts, to the way he concentrated so hard he shut the rest of the world out, his eyebrows scrunched together, his mouth slightly open as he scanned the screen, motionless except when his fingers began to rattle off commands or when something didn’t work and he threw himself back in his chair and stared at the ceiling, intently reviewing his code his head.
In the spring semester of my junior year I calculated the bare minimum of work it would take to pass my courses and titrated my attendance to see how often I could skip class without too much trouble. According to the official rules, if I missed more than ten days, I would be considered a truant, but illness and family emergencies didn’t count, so I made the most of the mess my family was and played on the kindness of those teachers who were used to having fuckups in their classrooms. I signed up for the easiest courses I could with teachers who were either too bored with their jobs to pay attention or saw themselves as saviors of troubled kids, willing to bend the rules. One of those, an English teacher, gently harassed me about not taking classes I’d need for college, saying I was plenty smart enough, and did I know about financial aid? I might be able to get a free ride. But she didn’t push too hard, and let me slide through without reporting my many absences.
Allie, on the other hand, was taking all the AP courses she could and homework ate all her free time. She even gave up the drama club because she needed a perfect GPA to get a good financial aid package for college and could save a semester of tuition payments if she scored high enough on her AP tests. We saw each other in the hall sometimes but were both too busy to hang out much, and she had completed the required math courses, so didn’t need my help. I still thought of her as my best friend. My only high school friend, really. She was excited when I told her I was seeing this intense guy who was hella smart, who wrote elegant code, and was going into the same line of work I aspired to.
“You really like him,” she said.
“I do.” I would have said I loved him, but I didn’t want to jinx it.
“Sounds nothing like the last guy.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me. No, this one’s the real deal.”
She scrunched me toward her in a half-hug. “That’s so great.”
One afternoon, as I walked to the coffee shop with Robbie and his friends, somehow the fact I’d had a previous boyfriend came up, though I didn’t mention the jerk had ditched me as soon as he heard I was pregnant. Robbie’s pace faltered. “Who’s that?”
“Just a guy.”
He frowned. “What do you mean, ‘just a guy’?”
“Jealous,” one of his friends giggled, and Robbie punched his arm, a little harder than the usual joking-around kind of punch.
“It wasn’t anything serious,” I backtracked. “He was an idiot. Also, he wasn’t really my boyfriend. We just went to a couple of games together.” Trying to bury it as just typical high school stuff.
“You don’t like sports.”
“Board games,” I ad-libbed. “Scrabble. An after-school thing. He was terrible at it. This was, like, eighth grade, when kids talk about boyfriends but it’s just a, a label, not real.”
He nodded, but once we were at the coffee shop, he gave me the cold shoulder, ignoring everything I said until I got the message and shut up, letting the friends talk around me. For the next several days he told me he was busy with a project and couldn’t hang out. I felt sick with anxiety, sick with longing, until he came up to me as I left the library one afternoon and slipped his hand into mine. Back to normal. Forgiven.
I wasn’t about to make the same mistake as before. By the time we started having sex I had an IUD. Robbie approved, since he didn’t want to hassle with condoms. I wasn’t too worried about catching anything from him, and felt even more reassured after our first fumbling attempt—he was clearly inexperienced, but luckily was so focused on his own performance that he didn’t suspect I knew more than he did. We got better with practice.
When summer rolled around he got a fulltime job with the college’s IT department. He could have stayed in a dorm, but I encouraged him to look into the possibility of getting an apartment. We’d have more privacy, I told him, but I didn’t mention I was nervous about not having a place to live. My mother’s landlord was threatening eviction, and she was talking about moving in with one of her old flames. The way she talked about it, I got the message there wouldn’t be room for me. I dug around on the college website and found out he could apply to live off campus during his senior year, so he did and got permission. The rental market was tight, which made me worry all over again that we would be out of luck, but before I had a chance to panic his parents contacted a realtor and bought a house within walking distance of campus. It was big enough for his geek friends to move in, so they did. And so did I.
High school felt like it belonged to a different life, a child’s life, something I’d left behind when I met Robbie, though during my junior year it had clung to me like sticky cobwebs. Now I had turned seventeen and wasn’t legally required to be in school. I dropped out.
In the fall, after midterms, I invited Allie to at a raucous off-campus college party. She’d been to our house a couple of times, when it was just the two of us sitting on the porch and talking, but I wanted to show off Robbie and my new life. I wanted her to understand that, after my first loser boyfriend, I’d found the perfect match. He was smart and talented and didn’t have to worry about money, poised to rocket to professional success in the industry where I wanted to make my mark. People were already calling him about jobs. Sure, he could be socially awkward, but I loved his I-don’t-care-if-I-fit-in attitude. It was kind of like Allie’s comfortable self-confidence, but it came from a different place. He was simply more intelligent than other people, and didn’t have time for their bullshit.
“You two are really serious,” Allie said as we wandered with Solo cups filled with box wine out into the backyard of the house where the party was rocking. It was a warm day in late October. The air was fresh and crisp, a breather from the smoke and beer and impossible-to-have-a-conversation roar of party noise inside.
“We’re good together, and Robbie’s amazing. What?” Her expression as she gazed down into her Solo cup wasn’t as happy for me as it should have been.
“Did you notice how every time we started to talk he came over and cut me out?”
“No. That’s not… you’re imagining things.”
“He just wanted to be sure I got to meet everyone. There’s a lot of people here I don’t know.”
“He did it when you talked to that guy, too. Mike? You were laughing about something with him and Robbie grabbed your arm and pulled you away.”
“He doesn’t like Mike.”
“He doesn’t like me, either. I have the feeling he doesn’t like anyone who likes you.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” I laughed.
She didn’t even smile. “Some guys are like that. They see everyone as competition.”
“He is competitive. So? He’s incredibly smart, and there’s nothing wrong with being ambitious.”
“That’s not what I’m talking about. He wants to be your only friend. He’s possessive.”
“That’s silly. You don’t even know him. Besides, we have lots of friends.” I shook my head and took a big gulp of my wine. This wasn’t funny anymore.
“I hope I’m wrong. It’s just… I don’t want to make you mad, but I’ll be honest with you: it’s giving me a bad feeling.”
I felt a flare of anger. “A bad feeling? I think it’s called jealousy. I used to be your special project, your charity case, and now I’m meeting new people and making a name for myself doing something you think is boring and stupid.”
“That’s not true. I don’t think—”
“It’s something I’m really good at it, and Robbie is even better. I’m learning a ton from him. Plus he’s really into me. I’ve never been happier.” I had to blink back tears. This wasn’t going the way I’d hoped at all. “If that pisses you off, that’s your problem.”
“I’m not pissed off, I’m just a little concerned, that’s all.”
“Maybe you’re the possessive one.”
She sighed. “Em, I know I haven’t been a good friend lately. I should have made more of an effort to keep in touch. We don’t hardly see each other anymore.”
“We just have different interests, that’s all. We’re not nine years old anymore. You have your friends, and I have mine. Lots of them. I mean, look how crowded it is in there. I meet new people all the time. Besides, you’ll be going off to college somewhere next fall.”
“You could, too.”
“Yeah, sure. With my grades? Besides, I’m sick of school, and I’ll be able to make a good salary without running up a bunch of debt.”
“That’s true, and it’s awesome. Unlike me, you’re good at something people actually want.” She laughed, a brittle sound, and offered a toast with her Solo cup. “I probably won’t be able to get a job even after running up piles of debt. Nobody wants to pay writers.” She drank, and a little wine dripped down her chin. She wiped her mouth with her wrist, looked at it, and sighed. “My parents keep bugging me to major in bio so I can become a doctor, but that’s not what I want to do with my life, and it wouldn’t even work. I mean, I only got through my math classes thanks to your help. I’d flunk out of pre-med. But tuition costs so much they freak out whenever I talk about majoring in English or creative writing. Like, why would you spend all that money for something so useless? How are you going to support yourself?” She picked at the edge of her cup, staring down into it. “But I want to be a writer. There’s nothing else I want to do. Dad jokes about starving in a garret, but he’s not really joking. He’s worried.”
“That’s dumb. I’m sure you’ll do okay. You’re really good at it.”
“I’m not sure that matters much.”
“The stories you’ve written, those A-plus essays? You could knock ten pages out before I could finish one. I’d rather go to the dentist than write a paper.”
“Remember Mrs. Tatum’s class in tenth grade? That research paper?”
“God, that was traumatic. She was tough. And then there was all that Shakespeare we had to read.” I made a gagging sound.
“You liked it.” She bopped me on the shoulder.
“I liked some of it. Hamlet had some good lines. Oh god, remember that time, when she had some of us read out loud that scene from King Lear—‘Out vile jelly!’”
“‘And Larry laughed so hard he fell out of his chair.”
“He thought it was hilarious that what’s-his-name got his eyes poked out. What a weirdo.”
“What ever happened to Larry, anyway?”
“I heard his family moved away.”
“Or he’s in an insane asylum, where he belongs.”
We were laughing when the back door opened. “Emmie? What are doing out there?”
“Just getting some fresh air.”
I went to Robbie, and he wrapped an arm around me. “You’re so cold. You should come inside.” He was looking at Allie.
I glanced back. She raised her Solo cup at us in a toast, smiling, as if everything was fine.
I didn’t notice when she left the party.