The Surprise(s)

I got home from school, went straight into my dad’s office, and fired up his computer.

Within moments, the system was up. A few swift keyboard commands fired up the internal modem. And chirps and clicks of static noise confirmed a successful connection to one of the many bulletin board systems I perused each and every day.

While browsing around some message threads, the screen suddenly went haywire with bursts of random, ASCII characters. My session locked up, and I was unable to enter any commands. I cursed in frustration, causing my dog to pop up in excitement at the noise.

Looking at the clock, it was 4:00pm, the time my mother regularly called to ensure I was safely home from school. Many times I had asked my mom not to do this, as her incoming calls always knocked me off of my modem connections, and getting reconnected to bulletin boards wasn’t the easiest of prospects. But since she refused to let me disable call waiting while I lived under her roof, we played this cat-and-mouse game each and every day. I picked up the phone, and indeed it was mom.

After chatting for a few minutes about the school day, mom asked, “Will you be there when we get home from work?”

I thought for a second. It was the day before Thanksgiving, so all of my friends were busy doing their own thing. I said, “As far as I know, sure.”

“OK, sweetie. Love you,” she said.

“Love you, too.” I hung up.

Moments after placing down the receiver, I realized what day it was. Sure, it was Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving. But more importantly, it was Wednesday, as in “the day before Thursday”, as in “the normal day of the week when my favorite comic book shop received their new shipment of comics but instead got them one day earlier because of the holiday.” The shop would be open today but closed through the weekend. If I wanted new comics, I had to go…now!

I sprang into action. I grabbed my wallet and keys, hopped into my truck, and flew down Davis Parkway towards Hurst, the town that was home to the closest comic book shop. I got there with plenty of time before they closed, and the owner Stephanie was furiously trying to unpack the new shipments and get the shelves stocked. I helped her out a little, reading a quick comic book here and there between opening boxes. Because I was a regular customer, Stephanie held my favorite titles behind the counter, ensuring that my weekly reading list’s comics were never sold out before I could get my hands on them. I ended up spending quite awhile there. I eventually purchased my booty and headed back out in my truck.

Right before turning onto the highway heading home, I spied Best Buy and recalled that I hadn’t rewarded myself with a new CD in quite some time. I steered into the parking lot and spent an hour browsing the stacks. Eventually I settled on some discs and attempted to get back to Southlake.

While fumbling around with my in-dash CD player, I passed North Halls Mall on my left. The video arcade inside called to my soul, and I felt the irresistible urge to play some pinball and Galaga. Soon enough, a slowly depleting fistful of quarter-dollars filled my pocket, and somewhere video game designers were already cashing their holiday bonuses.

Finally, long after the sun had set, I made my way back to Southlake.

Moments after walking in the door, I was accosted by my parents. Both were sitting in the living room, sternly staring at me as I walked in, arms laden with plastic bags of pop culture goods. My mother barked, “Where the hell have you been?”

This was in the age before cell phones, when parents had to wait for their kids to call them — and they had to be home to receive such calls. But in general, my parents treated me with kid gloves, and as long as I returned home before it was too late or called to tell them where I was—both of which I failed to do–they weren’t particularly concerned with what I did.

But they were aware that I regularly drove south to get comic books each and every week. And even in the past when I’d fallen off the grid like this, they hadn’t reacted so sternly as they were now doing. I mouthed back defensively and very much like an obnoxious teenager, “I went to the comic book store to get my comics before Thanksgiving!” I punctuated my exasperation with a breathy, woe-is-me, get-off-my-back-man, “Shhhhhit!”

The two of them said that was fine, but they berated me for not calling or leaving a note. I had little fight in me, so I let them finish their lecture. I then shut myself in my bedroom at the front of the house to read my comics.

My High School Room

I lay on my bed, underneath a sea of posters and pictures dedicated to my favorite fictional heroes. I digested book after book, absorbing tales of earth-born mutants, Kryptonian-born saviors, and all-too-human everyday heroes.

Midway through my weekly ritual, a string of lights began to shine through the blinds. One after one, the sweeping beams of headlights swung left to right as a series of cars came up the curvy road leading to our house. Multiple vehicles were descending upon our farm. Yet since I was self-centered enough to not care unless I knew they had something to do with me, I ignored the event and resumed reading.

Through the thin walls, I could hear the doorbell, and Gos, Tyson, and Murphy barked in excitement at the prospect of visitors. I could hear the murmur of voices as several people entered the house and were greeted by my parents.

Moments later, the sound of shuffling footsteps came closer, capped with swift raps on my bedroom door.

Before I could say come it, open flew the door and standing in my room was every single one of my friends, with my girlfriend Pam forming the point of a visibly-annoyed phalanx of high-schoolers.

They barked in unison, “Where the hell have you been?”

Apparently déjà vu was also one of my friends.

I responded to them with the same annoyance I projected to my parents. “I went to the comic book store to get my comics before Thanksgiving! Fuckin’ A!”

When tempers finally cooled and notes were compared, it turned out there was an amazing orchestration of people and food that was thrown into chaos when I vanished earlier that afternoon.

It turns out that Pam and my friends had been secretly waiting for hours at a nearby pizza joint, so that my parents could bring me over for my surprise 18th birthday party — a surprise party which I had failed to show up for, because nobody bothered to me about it!

The whole gang was there: Pam, Micha, Matthew, Katie, Todd, Dan, George, Scott, Bill, and Nancy. And since they were tired of waiting for me to show up, they decided to bring the party to my place.

We had a silly time, goofing off within the house, outside on the volleyball court, and inside the barn.

It’s worth noting that up to this day, there had been a hard-fought detente between me and my friends regarding my girlfriend. Out of 136 other members of our senior class, I was seemingly the only person who got along with her. My friends tolerated her presence only because of how I felt about her, but such peace was tenuous at best.

While out in the barn, Pam had found one of my mother’s horsewhips, an artificial riding aid that my mother used sparingly to gentle coax her Tennessee Walking horses into proper form. Pam brought it into my group of friends and jokingly announced, “Oh, cool! S&M!” Everyone that laughed did so politely and without sincerity.

Pam then gave the whip a mild crack, inadvertently sending its tail straight into George’s face.

George’s cat-like reflexes saved his face just in time, but they weren’t quick enough to completely avoid the attack. The tip of the whip flicked him hard just below the eye as he fell back. Then in an explosion of anger, he flew forward and lunged at Pam, screaming at her, “What the fuck!?”

Her eyes grew into saucers as she realized the enormity of her mistake. All of us were aware that George had a fiery temper, but even I was surprised at how honestly scared I was for Pam. I jumped in between them to prevent the unfortunate scene of one of my best buddies beating the shit out of my girlfriend in my house on my birthday before all my friends.

It wasn’t until after Pam broke up with me months later that I realized that this was the moment in time when everyone stopped assuaging their intense dislike for her. Through their actions tonight and onward, my friends let me know that if I wanted to hang out with them, I sure as hell better not think of inviting her along.

Tempers eventually calmed down enough for everyone to gather in the kitchen for the best part of any birthday: presents and cake. I then discovered that it wasn’t all about me; it was also Micha’s party.

Born just five days after me, Micha made it hard for me to forget this calendric coincidence. After all, she had spent the better part of the past week delightfully reminding me that I was the “older one”. This was a healthy break from her other persistent cue: because I was the one of us with facial hair, I would also be able to grow a goatee, thus solidifying my secondary role as the “evil one”.

So when we were gathered together, out came presents for both of us. I was apparently the easy one to shop for, as everyone gave me comic books. Titles like “Justice League” and “Green Lantern” helped solidify the survive-the-holiday-weekend arsenal I had purchased earlier that day.
Unbeknownst to me, unfolding nearby was the curious saga of Micha and her three birthday gifts from the boys.

The wrapper came off the first present, revealing a plastic dog dish. Quite a curious gift, as she didn’t own a pet of any kind. The box in came in contained no note, no card, and no explanation. She looked at Matt, Dan, and Todd, who were all equally unforthcoming.

Micha ripped open the second present, which contained a can opener. Her eyebrows arched as she sensed the brewing diss. I was on the receiving end of an evil glare that silently said, “Alright, you’re part of this. What the hell’s going on here?” I shrugged helplessly, as I was not included in their evil plan.

It didn’t take long for the last vestiges of Micha’s good humor to dissolve when the third present turned out to be a can of Alpo. Matt, Todd, and Dan were highly amused at this point. Despite—or because us—this, Matt and Micha would hook up just a few months later. It’s my assumption that the highly inane chain of gifts was the horsemeat equivalent of a guy letting a girl know of his crush by being mean to her.

Thankfully we had a knife on hand to cut the upcoming birthday cake — it could be used to also cut the tension hanging in the room. Attempting to reset a birthday steadily going awry, Micha decided it was time to reveal the birthday cake. Beaming with pride, she returned with a foil-covered baking pan containing a cake she had baked herself. Micha removed the foil, held it before me, and wished, “Happy birthday, big brother!”

Her trademark smile faded as she registered the confused looks of those in observance. She looked down. Written in frosting across the cake she was giving me were the curious words, “Happy Birthday Micha!”

Somehow, someway, Micha had baked her own birthday cake.

Micha quickly glared at Nancy, who was doing her best to not furiously crack up. It turns out that earlier, Micha had used Nancy’s kitchen to start baking the cake, but she trusted Nancy to finish decorating the cake while she rushed to work. That is when Nancy took advantage of the opportunity to pull the prank currently in progress.

That so makes up for being the older one.

Later that evening, we were all running around the farm once again, playing grab-ass and celebrating until long after midnight. We were high-school seniors, and I was having the best birthday ever. I felt that such good things would never end. I felt the same about Pam.

I took a moment to pull her around the back of a horse trailer for a private moment. Pressing her back against the trailer wall, I leaned forward and gave her a deep kiss. Then I whispered, “I love you.”

Pam smiled back at me, but didn’t say anything. It wasn’t until the next semester that I realized why.

My Soulmate

Brooklyn Decker picking her nose. Yes, it can be a deal-breaker. Photo by Esquire.
Nearly every summer in college, I worked on a crew of conference assistants. Our job was to prepare the dorms for the presence of different summer camps, ranging from prepubescent cheerleaders to over-singing barber shop quartets. It involved a lot of cleaning, moving of supplies, and sweat in between. Mostly, it was a way to pass the summer, and not think too hard about the fact I was lonely and desperately wanted to fall in love.

One afternoon, I was part of a crew transporting some materials to West Hall, which was located at the crossroad of a three-way stop T-intersection. My coworkers Dan and Michael were driving a van, while I stood on the curb guiding them as they backed it up to the dorm’s entrance.

Suddenly, my concentration was broken by the epic sound of harkening trumpets. While trying to pinpoint their source, I came to realize they were coming from my heart.

To my left, a vision arose on the horizon. It shimmered like a mirage only to become material as it approached me. Soon, a black Jeep appeared, emblazoned with orange stripes that stood out like wings. Instead of rolling towards the intersection, it glided above the road on a cotton-like cloud that glistened with silvery brilliance.

As the vehicle came to a halt before me, the heavens parted and a shaft of the purest light shone from the sky. It beamed down like a spotlight on the Jeep, making all things around it inferior in comparison. Angels high up could be seen crying, and as their falling tears hit the ground, fresh flowers would sprout in their place.

It was then that I first saw the unearthly creature in the driver’s seat. She rode high, wearing a cute halter-top that revealed lean, sun-browned shoulders dancing underneath an ocean of strawberry-blonde hair. Sugar-sweet winds, like those that blow forth from Pan’s flute, whipped through that fiery mane, making it dance back and forth around her face. And that face — it was almost impossible to look at, it was so perfect. It was at this point that time stopped and all other people in the world disappeared, leaving just the two of us.

She turned to look at me, and the gleaming emeralds which were her eyes caught my gaze and wouldn’t let go. And with the voice of a thousand songbirds, as if she had known me her entire life and had been looking for me forever, she said, “Hi!”

I was so stunned, the most I could do was stare and murmur, “Uhhhh…”

Her stop now complete, she drove forward, away and out of my life. The heavens sealed back up, and the world resumed its normal schedule.

Dan and Michael poured out of the van, ran up to me, and couldn’t hold back their excitement. “Dude, who was she?!”

I was still reeling. “Uhh…I don’t know.”

“Dude, what did she say?!”

“Uhh…I don’t know.”

Dan couldn’t believe me. “Damnit, Matt”, he said, “that was your soulmate. And if you had said the right words, she would have stayed with you forever!”

And for the next several years, at every opportunity, Dan and Michael would not let me forget it.

It was the first day of Spring. The cloudless sky sparked with sunny warmth, and I celebrated by sitting in a horrible traffic jam during my daily commute to the office.

My drives to work occurred during the dark days before Tolltags, when there wasn’t an elite group of RFID-armed individuals that could easily zip past the huddled masses of the tagless waiting in queue to pass through tollbooths. No, at this time we were all equals. As in equally screwed, stuck in a slow, ponderous line to pay the piper.

While sitting in the traffic jam, I passed the time using my mirrors to check out my surroundings. My rearview mirror showed an endless stream of cars following me. Just behind my vehicle was a Jeep, itself tailed by a Toyota, followed by a Ford, and so forth. We were all lined up like lemmings with no other way to go but forward. My attention went back to the Jeep. Its top was down, providing a view of the beautiful woman behind the wheel.

A woman with strawberry-blonde hair.

Suddenly, a flair of recognition! The mirror became a portal back in time, and my mind drifted away from reality into memory. I saw it all as if it was yesterday, that provident event from seven years ago where I encountered my soulmate for the first and last time.

I snapped back to my senses and once again looked into the mirror. Her hair glowed in the sun. She was also passing the time, directing her gaze to the left and getting lost watching the sea of opposite traffic. But then she looked forward! I quickly took my eyes off the rearview mirror, but slyly used the side mirrors to continue my research.

Like the woman I remembered, the driver was slender and quite attractive. Her Jeep was black, adorned with the same orange stripes that were burned into my brain. Could this be my soulmate? Like Charlie Brown, was I in the presence of my little red-headed girl?

Oh fickle fates, I thought! If it was truly her, I must make up for the mistake of letter her disappear seven years ago. I resolved that no matter where she was headed, I knew I must follow, even if she were to drive a hundred miles in the opposite direction of my office.

But before I could chart such a course, I had to be sure it was truly her. I had to gaze into her eyes and feel the same connection that linked us before. I looked once again in my rearview mirror.

I saw that she was picking her nose.

I then realized then that she wasn’t my soulmate after all.

I laughed and looked forward again. And this time around, angels did me a better favor this time around as the traffic before me cleared up. I threw my truck into first gear, drove away from that wrong soulmate, and went about finding my real one.