Monday, September 15, 2008

The Certainty of Chance

Nothing is certain. The impossible or unexpected could happen at any time. That was the lesson of the day. Evolution was a theory — so was gravity. Technically, nothing about physics was certain. Mrs. Miller told the class that, theoretically, it was possible that one of the students could shove a pencil through a desk. Nora spent the rest of the period testing that hypothesis.


Nora's English teacher was sick, so she got a free period. Nora “freed” herself from the school and headed home. The day wasn't over, and "expect the unexpected" wasn't confined to physics. She learned that when she got home and found her brother and his girlfriend having sex on the couch. They sprinted to his room before Nora could say anything, and the girl left soon afterward.


The incident made dinner even more awkward than normal. Her mom was absent, as usual. Thursday was surgery day, which meant all the doctors and nurses in the center had to stay until the anesthesia had worn off in the last patient. Her dad started eating as soon as he got home, without changing out of his suit. They had the rest of the lasagna from the night before. The cottage cheese standing in for ricotta always tasted like dry lumps of dirt after a trip through the microwave.


“How was school?” Her dad asked.


“Fine,” Nora replied. “I got an A on my first calc homework.”


“Good.” He turned to Mark, her brother. “What about you? Did you find a job?”


Mark shook his head. “No, not yet.”


“Why not? Did you just sit on your ass all day like always?”


Mark looked at Nora, but she kept my mouth shut. “No. I talked to John. They might have an opening for a painter. Part-time at first, but...”


“Great, part time. Fuck. I swear to God, if you don't find a real job in a month, we're going to start charging you rent. I'm sick and tired of you freeloading.”


“Wonderful,” said Mark, trying his best to appear unfazed.


“Look at your sister. She works hard in school, she knows exactly what she wants to do with her life. She's going to be a CEO while you're still living with your God damn parents.”


Mark didn't speak, so Nora chimed in. “I made an appointment with a counselor for tomorrow. We're going to go over college stuff, I guess. I think it's pointless, but the school requires it.” Nora's father seemed to accept that, and went back to eating his dinner.


Nora volunteered to do the dishes, in hopes that her brother would mellow out a little. No such luck.


“A perfect student, a hard worker. Really working Dad today, aren't you.”


“Shut up. If you want to wash these, you're more than welcome.”


“No thanks. I'll let it slide since you're keeping our little secret.”


She smiled as politely as she could. “No problem. Speaking of which, I'll need a ride to Sarah's tomorrow afternoon. And probably again this week. It's not like you have anything better to do.” Other than your slut girlfriend, she thought to myself.


“Fine,” he said. “But if I see this on your Livejournal, you're fucking dead.”


“Don't worry. I'll change the names to protect the innocent. Namely me.”


He sneered and stomped off.


“I'll say hi to your girlfriend at school tomorrow!” she yelled after him. She found it both perverted and hilarious that her long graduated brother continued to lust after high school girls.




* * *




Nora's eyes cracked open after she heard Mrs. Miller utter the absolute worst words a teacher could say: “Partner assignments.” There was nothing worse than being pitted with a stranger in the first few weeks of school. She listened as the teacher ticked off pairs of names. Sarah shrugged at her when “Sarah Jones, Nate Wilson.” More and more of her known friends fell off the list, before Nora's partner was finally announced. “Nora Nelson, Rachel Baker.” Rachel Baker. Nora looked behind her with a stare of half-apathy, half-horror. It was her. Murphy's Law.


Rachel rolled her eyes as their gazes met, and Nora turned ahead to look at Mrs. Miller.


All right, everyone, please meet up with your group member and start talking out your first project. Feel free to ask me any questions you might have.”


Nora leaped to the teacher's desk before she finished the sentence. “Mrs. Miller, I don't think I can work Rachel. We have some... personal issues.”


Mrs. Miller raised an eyebrow. “What kind of issues, Ms. Nelson?”


She and my brother are ...” Nora paused slightly, but caught herself. “Dating. I don't really feel comfortable working with her.”


Ms. Nelson, you are a senior. You'll be graduating this year. You'll need to learn to be professional and work with people you don't like if you want to succeed in college next year. If you two have problems, come and talk to me again, but I want you two to give it a shot. I think that's fair.”


Nora, defeated, sulked back to the empty seat next to Rachel and plopped down.


Couldn't get yourself reassigned?” Rachel flipped her springy, dyed-blonde hair behind her ear.


Let's just finish this and be done with it. You don't like me, I don't like you, but let's do this and get a good grade out of it.”


The sides of Rachel's mouth lifted up into a grin. “Who said I don't like you? We've never even met.”


Nora stared at her partner, lips parted, not sure how to reply. Being stuck with an airhead blonde in physics class when she needed an A was bad enough. But getting stuck with her brother's high school love bunny was almost more than she could handle.


Look, I'm dating your brother, big deal.”


More than dating.” Nora hid her surprise at Rachel's cavalier identification of the elephant in the room. Nora was not the most comfortable person in the world when it came to sex, and she certainly didn't feel like discussing it now, with Rachel.


Fine, whatever. We're not breaking the law. If you want it to be this way, that's fine with me.”


Nora did want it this way. The less contact she had with this girl, the better.




* * *




University of Wyoming. Good job, Nora.” Mara, the senior guidance counselor, poured over the folder containing Nora's ACT score, personal statement, resume, and acceptance letter. “Very impressive. I can see you've worked hard these past few years.”


Nora nodded, gluing the best fake modest smile onto her face. “Thanks. I've just made college my goal for the past four years, I'm excited to finally get there.”


Mara (who preferred to be called by her first name, she had told Nora) nodded silently, turning over the pages in the folder. “Where else did you apply?”


Nora stared. “What do you mean?”


What other schools have you applied to?”


Well, none. UW is offering me a scholarship, and it's close to home.”


The counselor closed the folder and handed it back to Nora. She removed her reading glasses and placed them on the desk. “What are you planning in majoring in?”


I'm not quite sure,” replied Nora. “I like math and science – maybe biology. But I like literature too, so I've thought about English.”


You seem very smart and well-rounded, Nora. I'd like to know what you'd think about applying to a few more schools.”


Nora felt like she had been punched in the stomach. She had been expecting a quick chat, a pat on the back and an ego boost; she hadn't been prepared for any conflict.


“Well, I mean, I don't know. My family doesn't have a lot money, I'm kind of relying on that scholarship. And UW is a good school, and it's close to home. I mean, some people are going to Colorado and stuff, but I don't really see a reason to move out there.”


“Of course, Wyoming is a great school. But Nora, you're one of the smartest students we have, you're at the top of your class, you have clubs, NHS, volunteer work, AP credit ... I'd really like to see you apply to some upper tier colleges. Yale, Vanderbilt. You can worry about money later. If you need money for applications, there are fee deferment programs I can help you with.”


Nora sat speechless. From the day she entered high school, she had planned to go to college with her friends, an hour away from home. Her mind and actions had always been focused on that singular goal. She felt blindsided – offended, even – that this woman had the gall to smash that, to imply that her plans weren't good enough. Mara slid some paperwork out of a file cabinet and handed it to Nora. Nora took them without saying a word and placed them into her folder.


“There are some applications and information packets in there. I think it would be healthy if you looked over them and picked one to apply to. Even if you get accepted, there is no pressure to have to go. But having options is always beneficial.”


Nora let out her best emo sigh. “Is this required?”


“No, Nora, this is not required. But I am sure a student like you knows how important it is to strive for something more than the required, and shoot for the exceptional.”


The motivational-phrase-of-the-day did very little to encourage Nora.




* * *




Rachel took the mechanical pencil out of her mouth long enough to send a question down to Nora. “What did you get for d equals five?”


Nora clicked the button on the stopwatch as her the ball hit the floor and marked down the time. “1.24. And 1.58 for d equals ten. Here, let me do the calculations for g, and you can write them down.”


“I've got them. Hold on a second, and I can finish.”


“Great,” Nora said, failing to hide the sarcasm from her voice. She stared at Rachel's sheet of paper as the girl worked through equations, stopping ever now and then to punch a few numbers into her bulky graphing calculator.


“Hurry up,” Nora said. “I've got some other homework to work on. I was hoping we could finish this early.”


“Just do it then,” said Rachel.. “I can handle this.”


Nora sighed, but continued to watch Rachel work. She didn't feel comfortable moving on to something else until this was done. She peered over at Rachel's equation and noticed a mistake.


“X should be positive there, the way you set that up.”


Rachel looked up to where Nora had pointed, and nodded. “You're right. Thanks.”


“Are you sure you don't want me to do it?”


“That's it,” said Rachel, slamming her pencil on to the black lab table. “What is your problem? I've been nothing but cooperative, and you've been treating me like a idiot for the past month.”


“Calm down,” whispered Nora, hoping to fend off the few other students who had turned to look at them. “I told you before, I just want to get through this class. We don't owe each other anything else.”


“You owe me some fucking respect!”


That did it. Mrs. Miller appeared at the side of the desk. “You ladies need to leave the room and work this out. I won't have you disrupting my class. I was hoping you two could manage to be professional. I'm disappointed. We will talk about this after class.”


Nora, humiliated, sulked into the hallway and sat against the wall. Sitting in the hallway against the wall like ... like a goddamn delinquent junior high student. Rachel leaned on the opposite wall and slid down into a sitting position.


“Nice job,” Nora said.


“Are you kidding me? You can't manage to be civil for an hour a day, and this is what happened.”


Nora's heart pounded, anger surging through her veins and sending her to her feet. “You're screwing my brother. How the hell am I supposed to act. I walked in on you screwing my brother! That's not something that you just forget.”


“So what?” Rachel replied. “I'm dating your brother. Get over it. Sometimes people have sex. We were idiots, and did it in the living room. You don't need to throw a giant fit over it.”


Cat noises and hisses came from across the hall. A student, with a backwards baseball cap, baggy pants and visible underwear, had wandered by and seen them fighting. He guffawed and kept walking. The distraction allowed Nora to hold back a reply, so she sat back down and turned her head.


“You know, I work just as hard as you. You're not the only one with senioritis.”


Nora puffed air through her nose. “Whatever. I'm getting through this, and then I'm done.”


Rachel sat mute for a few moments, and then continued. “Your brother told me you got a scholarship from UW, right? That's pretty cool.”


Nora said nothing.


“Your brother is pretty jealous of you, you know. He dicked around in school, but I can tell he's envious. I think he figures you would of gone to some amazing school. Harvard, or something.”


“Why are you talking to me?” Nora muttered.


“I don't know. Nevermind.”


The fifteen minutes waiting for the bell to ring were the longest fifteen minutes of Nora's life. That wonderful sound couldn't come soon enough. She closed her eyes for an eternity, then opened them to look at her watch. Still five minutes to go. Rachel had been completely successful in making her feel like shit, a feeling far worse than the humiliation she had felt in the classroom. Nora held the top rank in her class. She had been elected as the president of Astronomy Club and treasurer of Key Club. She had taken more AP tests than any other senior in her class. She could do this.


“Sorry.” Nora felt the words escape from her mouth, but didn't remember forming them. It was like a band-aid that had been ripped off. Unfortunately, Nora had made far more than one cut. “I'm sorry. It's just ... it's my brother. It was just sort of a shock, you know.”


Rachel turned and looked her in the eye. Nora had a hard time maintaining the apology, and looked down at the floor. “I should have been able to get past that, but ... I don't know. I guess I don't like to mix school and home.”


“Why?”


Nora hadn't been expecting the question. She had been expecting Rachel to act equally standoffish to her, but the girl had defied her again. “I ... don't know. I like school, I like working, you know. Home life is sort of just ... there.”


“I know what you mean. I've been working my ass off studying for the SATs. I'm going to try to get a higher score. I really want to get into a good school, get out of this state. It drives you crazy. Know what I mean?”


Nora didn't, really. But she nodded and smiled. “Where are you thinking about.”


“Well, UW, CU, of course. That would be great. I really want to get in Stanford, but I think I'll need better test scores to be really competitive there.”


Stanford? Really, I wouldn't have ... uh, that's cool.”


“You wouldn't have expected it?”


“Sorry,” came Nora's sheepish reply.


The bell rang and the horde of students piled out of the doorway. Sarah waved at Nora as she passed, and Nora waved back, her face bunched up into a worried smile. Mrs. Miller walked out as soon as the room had emptied.


“I wish you girls would have come to talk to me before it came to this. I wish you could have worked things out, but I know it doesn't always happen that way. I'm going to allow you girls to work alone for this project, and we will rotate partners afterward.”


Rachel rose, seemingly content to leave it at that, but Nora spoke up. “It's okay, Mrs. Miller. It's my fault. I've been having some family problems, and I took it out on Rachel. I think we worked it out. I'm sorry.”


Mrs. Miller raised her eyebrow in her signature interested-but-skeptical face. “Are you two going to be able to work together, then?”


Nora nodded. “If that's okay with Rachel.”


It was.




* * *




It was late when Nora got home. Mrs. Miller had another class after theirs, and had required them to come in after school to finish their experiment. Nora had talked to Rachel for a little while after they had finished. Nora ended up inviting her to her house – she told Rachel that her father was worried about this unknown girl dating Mark. It would be awkward, at first, that Rachel was in high school – but Nora felt confident that she would be able to make a good impression. And she figured she owed the girl enough to help her to that end. At the very least, Rachel would be a good influence on Mark, and Nora's father was sure to see that.


Nora ate some of the leftover pasta her family had saved for her. She told her parents she stayed late to finish a project, but she didn't reveal the whole story. She supposed that the rest of it should be left untold, and it wasn't like she was lying – not exactly.


After her shower, Nora felt completely ready to collapse into bed. The day had been emotionally draining, if not physically so. But before she could pass out onto her mattress, the corner of her eye caught a small manila smear. That folder. That damned stupid folder. She hadn't even looked at it since her meeting with Mara, but there it sat, as it sat every night. Today, though, it seemed particularly ornery. Taunting her. She couldn't help herself. Nora grabbed the folder and dropped to the floor.


Mara had included a large amount of information in the folder. Princeton, Yale, Brown... standard Ivy League fare. They didn't appeal to her. Too snooty, it seemed like. Nora though about giving up, admiting defeat to the yellow bastard of a folder, but the last pamphlet and application stopped her. Stanford. Not Ivy League ... but not state. California – a far cry from the windy Wyoming plains. It seemed poetic. How could she not go for it? She opened the application, and saw the standard requests for information. Name, GPA, test scores. And then the essay. She grabbed a pencil before even looking at it, determined to do this before she lost her nerve.


Nora looked at the question. Write a short (500-1000) word essay about a specific obstacle you overcame to achieve academic success. She stared at the ceiling in thought. These questions were always pointless, and Nora had never been sure exactly what the readers would be looking for. But in a divine moment of realization, it came to her. She put her pencil to the paper, and began to write: “Nothing is certain. The impossible or unexpected could happen at any time.


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