Atrium

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic


After the tragic death of Marina's close friend, she finds herself spiraling into a depression fueled by the loss of the one closest to her and her faltering grades. Given an unlikely second
chance, she is desperate to turn herself around.

Submitted: March 22, 2018

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Submitted: March 22, 2018

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 “Can you tell Dr. Mezzenga what you told me on the phone?” My mom asked.

“The campus police showed up at my door this afternoon.” I deadpanned and my mom gave me a sort of withering look.

Dr. Mezzenga’s office was located in a little stone building in the town where I grew up. I probably passed it hundreds of times when I was in high school, but never really thought about what the inside looked like. Her office was painted beige, but not quite beige. It was pink, white, and beige all at the same time it seemed. Lamps with glossy white shades sat on two tables and the doctor’s desk. The shades made the light into unnaturally sharp shadows that seemed to match the modern art-deco look she was going for.

The chair I was sitting on was white and it was oblong and round and I thought it was barely a chair to begin with. My mom was sitting on an oddly shaped couch that was black and Dr. Mezzenga was sitting in a shiny office chair on twig like spindles with her computer set on an immaculately clean white glossy desk.

“That’s what I told you on the phone.” I answered. I diverted my gaze away from her and the doctor looked from me to my mom hesitantly.

“No, tell her the other thing.”

“I said a lot of stuff on the phone to you.”

“But you know what I’m talking about.”

She got me there; I did know what she was talking about. “I don’t want to see a therapist.” I sighed and looked at the hardwood floors.

Less than a week ago, my mom had informed me that my grades were slipping and they were. She was worried about me again and I can’t be angry about that, I just know that I can’t, but she said if I didn’t get my grades up she’d consider sending me to therapy, which I didn’t want. I used an untrustworthy source to get answers to my next American Lit test and I had gotten caught and I found myself exactly in the place I was avoiding – a place like Dr. Mezzenga’s office.

“And why don’t you want to see a therapist?” she asked.

Her voice was so calm, just like the way her facial expression never changed and it was getting under my skin. She was treating it like nothing, the way I had clear hostility towards her and the way I didn’t want to be here.

Her face was altered by plastic surgery and even if it was minor surgery it was still visible. Her face had tight lines around her cheeks and nose and her lips didn’t move nearly enough to be real. She had dyed her hair a hideous shade of brown that didn’t match her eyes at all. I had avoided looking at her eyes for the past twenty minutes because they were ice blue, the color that could freeze your blood as it moved in your veins.

“I just don’t want to talk to people.” I shrugged.

“Your mom told me about your friend Andrea.” She suggested softly. “Do you want to talk about that?”

“I’m not going to talk about Andrea with you.” I snapped. My mother’s chapped lips pressed together into a thin pink line.

“Mrs. Tucker-Bowen?” Dr. Mezzenga said. “It might be better if I talk to Marina just one on one.”

My mom tersely nodded. “Whatever you think will be best.” She stood up from the strange sofa and walked out of the room. When she shut the door behind her I was more relieved than I had been in the past week.

“Why don’t you want to talk about Andrea?” Dr. Mezzenga asked.

I shrugged. I was pretending that I didn’t know why I never talked about Andrea, but I knew. Andrea who had been my best friend and now she was gone and I had so few memories of her that I was unwilling to share them with anyone. I was protecting what was left of her in a way; I wanted what was left to be a shrine to her memory in my mind forever.

“I don’t know.” I lied.

“Why don’t you tell me something about her, something instead of what happened to her?” She suggested.

There was a part of me that didn’t even want to do that. I didn’t want to talk about the ways I knew how to make her laugh on her worst days; I didn’t want to talk about how she was planning to finish college and then move to Europe to find a job working for a museum overseas. There were things I knew about her that no one else did and it felt like a disgrace to her, even in death, to tell her secrets to someone else.

“I told you, I don’t want to talk about Andrea.” I said.

“Alright.” Dr. Mezzenga stopped and typed something onto her computer. “Then let’s talk about how you felt after her accident.”

I looked away from her. None of this was anything I wanted to talk about and it wasn’t anything I wanted to share anyways.

I felt betrayed by her accident almost. I felt hollowed out when my parents had woken me up at exactly 1:33 AM and we had driven to the hospital where I stumbled in only about half awake and half dressed and it felt like someone had pulled my heart out through my kneecaps when a doctor came out and told us that there was nothing they could’ve done. I cried for hours after that with her parents, unable to understand why she wouldn’t be coming back. I never rebounded from that, not a year later. I spent the past year at LaSalle a shell. I couldn’t make myself care anymore, not about my work or my classes or anything at all. I stopped putting in effort and so did everyone else, it seemed because now I was alone and I was desperate and that’s how I ended up here.

“I already told you that I don’t want to talk about any of this.” I mumbled.

That’s where we stood. My interactions between Dr. Mezzenga and myself always ended up like this – a stalemate between someone who wants to talk and someone who doesn’t. I didn’t want to open up to her because I didn’t trust her, I don’t care how the Internet rated her I didn’t trust her and that made all the difference.

The thing was that I really did want to get over my depression and my fixation on Andrea’s death and the worst part was that I was the one standing in the way of this. I knew that not talking to Dr. Mezzenga was hurting me more than it was helping me, but there was this permanent dark voice telling me otherwise and that voice always seemed more compelling to me.

I found myself back on the oblong chair every Wednesday, facing my plastic therapist, and pretending I didn’t have feelings. Every Wednesday I would remain nearly silent for an hour, but little did I realize that what I wasn’t sharing was almost giving her a better grasp on what I was thinking. It was almost like my plan had completely backfired on the dark voice, but had worked out for the voice of reason and logic.

“Why won’t you leave?” She asked me one day and at first I didn’t understand her question.

“I live here.”

Dr. Mezzenga cocked her head a little as if she was confused by my answer and then shook her head. Apparently my answer wasn’t satisfactory for her, but it seemed my answers never were at this point.

“That’s not what I meant,” She said (as if I hadn’t figured that out from her initial response). “Why didn’t you leave when you started college? You’re barely an hour away from home and you had this chance to go far away and broaden your horizons and you didn’t.”

Why I didn’t leave was almost an obvious answer or at least I felt like it was. I felt tied to this place, the place where my best friend died and if I left I would leave what was left of her. The seconds ticked by between the doctor and I, and the seconds felt like hours because I couldn’t tell her why.

With that question I realized she had hit the nerve I wanted her to avoid – asking why questions instead of whom and what and where.

“I feel like I’m leaving her if I leave here.” I answered quietly, in the hopes that she wouldn’t hear me.

“Do you want to elaborate more on that?”

I did want to elaborate more on that because it seemed like no one understood why I wanted to stay. I told her why I couldn’t leave that afternoon: the overwhelming guilt I felt when I was more than an hour away, my fear of something going wrong with my parents if I left, my general paranoia when it came to driving now. For the first time in four weeks I opened my mouth to say more than a simple yes or no.

Later that week at university I got an email from her that was also sent to my mother and it entailed a journalism camp of sorts in Portland, Oregon that was happening in about a month. In the email she asked me if I would be willing to try it, to go across the country to try and get away from this town. According to her she thought it might help me move on and reach out to people my age and for the first time since I met Dr. Mezzenga I agreed with something she was saying. I was willing to go, I was willing to try and get through this once and for all.

I took a break from university, talking to my counselors and citing my cheating incident as a sign that I needed help and a break. They agreed to pardon me for a semester after talking with the doctor and I found myself home for three weeks before I would fly to Portland.

“What do you think you’ll get to write about?” My mom was standing in my old room, pulling out clothes from an old worn down dresser. She was more excited than I was although I couldn’t be certain of the reason why.

“I don’t know.” I answered, slightly bored with the conversation. The truth was I didn’t know what I was going to write about or what I would be expected to write about.

“What do you want to write about?” My mom asked, piling more shorts on the floor.

“I want to write about people.” I said. It was true, what I really wanted was to hear people’s each individual stories and record them and follow the little mundane parts of their lives. The thing was that I wanted to see all of the intricate workings of people, what made them tick, and the things that made their world go around. I wanted to see each individual person’s sun, the thing they were fixated on.

“That’s broad.” My mom said. I was sitting on the edge of my bed and I started swinging my legs back and forth, feeling the rough fabric of the blanket hit the back of my calves. “What type of people?”

“Just ordinary people.” I answered. “I want to see ordinary people’s lives.”

My mom stopped folding and looked at my quizzically and I felt like I wanted to immediately take back what I said. What I wanted to follow was strange, even quirky and maybe it was typical, but I knew what I wanted to do. I wasn’t going to take back what I said about what (or who) I wanted to center my journalism around.

“That’s…interesting.” The way she said it made me cringe a little. I ended the conversation there and changed the subject to something that I thought would be less volatile.

I spent the next three weeks packing and worrying. The closer it got to the day of my flight the more worried I got. What if no one was there to pick me up? What if I was rooming with someone awful? Would I even get to write about what I wanted to write about? I was keeping myself up more than usual, my head filled with thoughts about how to cancel this entire plan. Every night I would go to sleep with the picture of my blank ceiling burned into my mind.

One of my professors recommended the book Dispatches by Michael Herr to me. I had ordered it off of Amazon and was planning to read it on the flight. My professor had said it was a book about a journalist in the Vietnam War, published in 1977. I knew there were pictures that accompanied it and I was interested to see how they paired with the story, but I was also interested in the way that it described soldiers during the war. I had it in my backpack and I was looking forward to reading it on the plane.

The rest of what I had packed was mostly clothes and toiletries along with my computer. All of it was set on the edge of my bed and I found myself fully clothed and still unshowered at 11:59 PM, the time where the previous day tottered on the line between days, uncertain of the direction it wanted to lead. My head was spinning in a million directions and I wanted to run. I was so close to leave and I could feel the guilt churning inside of me and I wanted to run.

Everything inside of me was telling me not to get into my mom’s car to drive to Philadelphia International Airport. It was an overcast day and I was only about half in the conversation with my mother. I spent most of the car ride staring out the window and at I-95 leading right into the city. The farther I got from home the more I felt tugged back, the sicker I felt. I stepped into the airport and I was in a complete haze as my mom helped me check my bag and get my tickets and then walked me to TSA.

My mom pulled me into a tight hug at the top of the escalator and I was almost shocked out of my near comatose state that I had found myself in for the majority of the car ride.

“I love you.” She said, squeezing me tighter. “It’s only two weeks.”

“I love you too, Mom.” I squeaked, trying not to cry.

“I’m so proud of you.”

“Why?”

“You’re trying and I hope you get to write about what you want to write about.” She stepped back and held my shoulders and I looked directly into her eyes. “I love you, Marina. Don’t forget to get to get yourself lunch before you get on the plane.”

“I won’t, Mom.” I said, my voice shaking as I blinked tears out of my eyes. “I’ll text you when I land.”

“Text me everyday, okay?”

“Okay.”

We hugged again and I was reluctant to let go. I was ready to ask her to take me back home now; this was too much adventure for me. I told her that I loved her before she went back down the escalator, crying. I did my best to force a smile and wave before I turned around and headed for the nightmare that was TSA.

I made it through TSA and into the airport where I did as my mother suggested and got lunch. Shortly after I got on the plane.  We waited on the tarmac for about a half hour before getting into a line of other planes, a situation I found to be surprising. I couldn’t see the planes in front of us, but I could see the ones behind us out the window. They looked like huge bullets – sleek oblong things with windows that looked like glaring eyes. The bullet plane behind us faded farther into the distance as we moved up through traffic that I thought was reserved for the highways.

Thirty minutes later we began our ascent (“Please stow your tray tables and make sure your seat is in the upright position. In case of emergency leave your bags. Your seat functions as a life saving device.”) And the plane rose above the city of Philadelphia and headed northwest of it. Above the parks and the streets and the people, it looked like an almost idealistic city with skyscrapers reaching up towards our plane with elongated metal fingers.

My city faded away from me fast and the second that the Comcast Center was no longer apart of the skyline I began to feel as sick as I had in the car. Below us were nothing but small towns and sprawling farms that looked like patches on a quilt. These places were full of people who had lives and cars and families and maybe even pets or lovers, but I would never know any of them. I wasn’t a passerby or an observer even at this point – but rather a speck in the sky. I was as nonexistent as aliens could possibly be to the people below.

My hands were shaking as I reached towards my backpack and tugged out Dispatches, running my thumb along the pages facing outward and letting them fan out. I wanted to write a book like this – something critically acclaimed and recommended to people like myself to read on plane rides. I ran my palm over the glossy back cover and then traced the spine with my index finger, gently caressing the smooth exterior of the book.

I found myself lost in the pages the longer I read, lost in the harrowing accounts that were found in the ink that was printed there. The people that Michael Herr wrote about in here were real people; this was really what happened to them. The book was one of the first of its kind – giving the public a pair of glasses to see a war they could never actually comprehend. I wanted to be able to write with this clarity, a clarity where you didn’t need the pictures to aid you.

The rest of the flight was mostly uneventful and the landing was smooth. Our plane touched down just as a light rain shower began to open up. I made my way off the plane and into the airport and immediately I seized up as I realized that I had no idea where to go. I blindly followed the signs towards baggage claim and I asked a random person waiting there where to go. I followed his directions after I got my bag off the merry-go-round and followed people towards what I could only assume was the exit for the airport.

My stomach was twisted in knots now. I was farther away than I had ever been from home and on top of it I was alone. I nervously tugged my checked bag behind me and when I walked out of baggage claim I saw a huge group of people with a tall lady holding a sign that had the program’s name on it. Some of the tension in me released as I hurried over to the group.

“Are you Marina Tucker-Bowen?” The lady in the front asked, looking at a clipboard.

“Y-yes.” I stammered and she nodded and looked at the man next to her who nodded.

“I’m Lucy!” She said, holding out her hand and I shook it. “This is Glenn.” She said, as she gestured to the man she had talked to momentarily. “It’s very nice to meet you and now that you landed we can make our way to the hotel. We’ll let you get settled with your roommate and then we’ll meet in the conference room.”

I smiled a little. “That sounds great.”

Glenn waved on the group and I fell into the crowd as we made our way outside towards a huge tour bus. I loaded my bags under the bus and found myself next to a boy named Jake with ginger hair that was gelled back. I found myself chatting with him on the way to the hotel, it was mostly idle chat, but I was interested to find out that he wanted to do journalism mostly about historical things. I asked him if he had read Dispatches and he said no and I recommended it for the historical events. He thanked me after I explained what it was about.

I awkwardly stuck by Jake as we filed into the hotel lobby. I didn’t even know him that well, but he was the only name that I know. There was a part of me that wondered if I was standing too close to him because I could make out the different colors in his hair. There were clear blond streaks running alongside ginger strands that at some points caught the light and looked more like bubblegum. We all stood, clumped around each other and waiting for roommate assignments. As I looked around it was clear that some of these girls already knew each other and I became nervous that I wasn’t going to fit in with them.

“Your roommate will also be your partner for your project.” Lucy announced as Glenn talked to the receptionist. “You are in this together.”

There were murmurs around the room and she started reading down the list. I was paired with a girl named Charlotte and I realized I had no clue who that was. My head was spinning again as I realized I was losing control of the situation until I looked up and saw Glenn beckoning me over. Next to him was a girl who looked to be about my age in a sweatshirt. She had dark brown hair and eyes that didn’t look blue or grey, but mostly a combination.

Almost like a robot I made my way over to them and Glenn gave us ground rules and then two key cards. I barely registered the thank you that left my mouth as I followed Charlotte down the hall.

“D-do you remember what floor we’re on?” I asked the other girl nervously. “I kind of zoned out.”

The other girl laughed. “We’re on the third floor, no worries.” She turned to me as we were walking. “Please call me Charlie.”

“Okay.” I said as we made our way towards the stairs. “I’m just Marina.”

“Nice to meet you ‘just Marina’.” We both laughed as we opened the door to the stairwell. “What’re you interested in?” She asked as we started stumbling up the stairs.

I realized that this girl had similar interests that I did and I felt myself relax a little bit. “Journalism.”

“No way!” She said sarcastically, laughing. “What type of journalism?”

“I want to do journalism about people.”

“That’s broad.”

“That’s what my mom said.”

“What do you want to focus on with that?” She asked.

“The ordinary things.” I said. “I want to report on the small things that make people’s lives tick, you know?”

She looked at me as we got to the landing of the third floor. “That’s really cool, I’ve never heard of doing something like that.”

“What are you interested in?” I asked as we walked down the long carpeted hallway.

She was interested in pairing photography with journalism and that piqued my interest. I had always been drawn to photography as well as journalism and I told her that. Our movement down the hallway was slow, the heavy carpeting slowing down the wheels on our bags. I asked her more about her interest in photograph before we got to room 315A.

The room was plain; it had dark laminate floors and a white popcorn ceiling. The walls were also white and so was everything else it seemed. The blankets were white, so were the sheets and the pillowcases. The headboards were attached to the wall and they were the same color as the laminate floor. I didn’t look inside the bathroom, but I didn’t have to because I knew it would be white with a shower and tub combination, a toilet, and a sink. It was a hotel room and this was a hotel – the carpet outside was clean but it’s a hotel carpet. It’s an ugly shade of evergreen with near abominable paisley patterns. It’s exactly what you’d expect to find in a hotel.

Charlie threw her bags onto the bed farthest from the door and then flopped down on the bed. Her dark hair fanned out around her, distinguishing her from the white bedspread.

“God, I’m so tired.” She moaned.

“Ugh, same.” I propped myself up on my bed.

“Look, can we not make this whole sharing a room thing weird? I don’t want to have to hold it for two weeks.”

I couldn’t stop myself from laughing a little. “Okay, we’re not making this weird. Got it.”

“Good to know.” We both smiled.

We spent the next hour unpacking and chatting about what we were up to back home. The painful thing was that there wasn’t much going on with me back home, after the accident I didn’t have many friends most of them skirting around me in the fear that I would break. I was finding it surprisingly easy to talk to her, even if it was about small things. She was easygoing and was doing the camp because she wanted to enhance her skills. She was also taking a semester off from college to do it. She said that she grew up in Iowa, but was going to college in North Dakota.

The rest of the night was spent downstairs in the conference room with the other people in the camp. I mostly stuck next to Charlie the whole time, afraid to leave the one person I knew. I met a couple other girls, including a girl named Fern who was also interested in writing about people. For a little bit I almost couldn’t feel the growing boulder in my stomach the longer I was away from home.

“Hey, you okay?” Charlie asked. I realized that I had fallen silent in the current conversation.

“Yeah, I’m okay.” I said quickly and Charlie shot me a worried glance.

Jake joined the conversation with Fern and a girl named Hannah towards the end of the night. After that moment I had grown almost exponentially more nervous. I was thankful when Lucy directed us back to our rooms and I made my way back, walking in almost silence to the third floor. I felt strange, almost like I wasn’t there. My head wasn’t where my body was right then and I followed Charlie like a ghost – drifting down the hallway more than anything else.

“Hey man, are you alright?” Charlie asked as soon as I closed the door. “Do you not feel good or something?”

“No, no it’s just…”

“Are you homesick?” She asked.

I nodded and I felt my throat close up. “God this is embarrassing.” I croaked.

“No, don’t worry, okay?”

“This is the farthest I’ve ever been from home.”

“That’s okay.” Charlie said. “It’s okay to be homesick.”

“I’m just nervous. What if I can’t get what I want out of this project?”

“I think you’ll be surprised.” Charlie said. “I’m going to shower and then I say we head to bed. It’s been a long day.” She stood in front of me and I looked up at her, the way her face naturally angled inward and the way her dark hair fell in messy clumps down her face and I saw her eyes, icy but sincere in every possible way and I found myself speechless. “Don’t forget it’s always a new day tomorrow.”

She showered and I called my mom, giving her updates. The call was almost exactly the same as the ones I gave her from university to let her know that I was still alive and breathing. The call lasted a total of fifteen minutes and I can’t say that anything really important was said during those fifteen minutes. After I hung up the phone I felt like more had happened in my conversations with the other kids at the camp than I had with my mother in nearly a year.

Charlie came out of bathroom and I showered shortly after that. We were in bed by 11 PM, but I wasn’t asleep until much later.

My head was hurting as I laid in the dark and stared at the outline of the tacky popcorn ceiling. My mind had wandered back home, past the night where everything had gone wrong, and back to a nicer one. It was a late Friday night and Andrea was over. We were sitting on the couch in my basement watching whatever was on Netflix and I can’t remember what we were originally talking about, but I remember the way she looked with her dirty blonde hair pulled into a messy bun and her pajamas hanging off of her arms because they were too big. The TV light was illuminating her and she looked eerily beautiful and all I could remember as I stared at that crappy popcorn ceiling was the way Andrea looked that night.

I was jetlagged beyond all else that night and I couldn’t remember falling asleep, but I remember waking up confused. My sheets and blankets were tangled around me and I sat up and glanced at my phone. I had five minutes until my alarm went off. I threw my phone back on the table next to the bed and flopped back against the pillows angrily.

“Dude you didn’t sleep like at all last night.” I heard Charlie mutter. “You were talking in your sleep.”

“I was?” I asked.

“Yeah you kept mumbling about this girl named Andrea. Who is she?” I didn’t answer. “Is that too personal? I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay.” My voice cracked when I spoke.

“If you need to talk, I’m here.” I saw Charlie swing herself out of the bed. “You ready for some journalism?”

“I think so.”

“Let’s get pumped, man.” She yawned. “We gotta have some enthusiasm for this.”

If you need to talk, I’m here. Her words echoed in my brain. There were very few people who offered that to me nowadays, my mother of course and Dr. Mezzenga did although I was unwilling to talk to either of them. There was a part of me that just wanted to cry, although the other girl would never understand why such a simple gesture made all the difference in the world.

We all sat down for breakfast in the conference room and we chatted with the people we had met the night before until Lucy got our attention.

“Alright everyone!” She said. “This is how it’s going to work. Our first week in Portland you will spend in the city with your roommate, gathering information about what you want your project to be about. Our second week is going to be spent working on the project, with our last day being presentation and awards. You’ll get more information as you go along.”

She continued her speech which entailed check in times and places we weren’t allowed to go as well as punishments and after that we went back to our rooms to collect our things before meeting back in the lobby so Lucy and Glenn could take us into the city.

Charlie and I were let off at a café in the heart of the city and for a second we both just stood there, unsure of what to do.

Portland wasn’t a bustling city like New York or Philly, but rather was quiet. The buildings rose well above our heads, gleaming in the early morning sunlight and the cars moved through the streets like loud candy. The sound was loud, but also calm and muted at the same time it seemed.

“Whoa.” I said.

The two of us were standing in the middle of an ever-flowing tide of people rushing from point A to point B. It felt like we were a singular boat in the middle of an ocean or the eye of a hurricane. I felt paralyzed by the scale of it all, the way the people would part around the two of us on one side and then rejoin on the other. They acted like nothing had happened – like they hadn’t just parted the modern day equivalent of the red sea.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, turning to Charlie.

“I have an idea.” Charlie said, tapping at her phone.

“What’s your idea?”

“Why don’t we go to the museum down the street and see who we can find in there?”

“Why?”

“Because I want to find someone older there who’s been to this museum before and I want to take pictures of exhibits that mean a lot to them and you can write about the different people we find.”

I smiled. “I like that idea.”

She smiled back. “I thought you would.”

“How many people do we want to interview?”

“Uh,” Charlie counted on her fingers. “How about two per day and then we pick the seven best ones to do our project on?”

“Alright.” I said. “Let’s get going.”

We hurried down the streets excitedly towards the museum. For the first time in a year I felt truly excited about something, absolutely exhilarated to be apart of something. My heart was pounding as we paid for our entrance into the museum and dashed in.

At first we couldn’t focus on anyone because the moment we stepped into the museum we were greeted by an atrium, the ceiling painted with intricate gods and angels surrounding him. I watched as Charlie took a camera out of her backpack and slowly balancing on one knee in a crouched position, she snapped a picture of the magnificent ceiling.

I found myself absolutely captured by the different faces of the people above us – how lifelike they looked. Behind the cherubs were clouds, but they weren’t white. They were painted to look how the real clouds look – with grey highlights and the blue of the sky shining through. It all looked so real, like rather than a painting someone had trapped people in the dome.

“That ceiling is my favorite part about here.” An old security guard walked over to us. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked.

“Yes.” I murmured and my mind couldn’t help but wander to how much Andrea would’ve enjoyed this.

“Sir?” Charlie asked.

“Yes?” He smiled and the wrinkles on his face formed into smiles lines decades old around his eyes, milky from cataracts.

“I was wondering if we could ask you some questions and use you for our journalism assignment.”

He smiled even broader now. “What questions do you have for me?”

“My name is Marina.” I said, stepping towards him and having the notes section of my phone open.

“It’s lovely to meet you Marina.”

“How long have you been working at this museum?” I asked.

“I’ve been working here for fifteen years, although I used to come here as a boy.”

The security guards name was Olsen Brewer. He had come to museum when it first opened and he said that his favorite part of the museum was always the atrium. He had moved to California for college, where he had majored in mathematic and had met his future wife, Violet. He moved all around the country for a while with Violet until he retired thirty years ago. Violet died of lung cancer twenty-five years ago and Olsen had decided to move back to Portland and take a job back at the museum he loved as a boy.

We thanked him for his time and he wished us the best on our project, but not before Charlie got an incredible shot of him from below with the atrium ceiling in the background. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the museum until we ran into a mom with a young son.

We ran into her near a section about how the Mount Saint Helens eruption had impacted Portland. I was reading the plaque on the bottom of an encased display when Charlie tapped my shoulder.

“Excuse me?” I walked over to her. “Would you be willing to help us with our journalism project?”

The woman had light brown hair the color of chocolate milk and while her hair was poker straight, her son’s was not. He had a huge mop of curly hair the same color of his mother’s sitting on top of his head.

“Of course!” She smiled. “What do you need?”

“I just want to ask you why you’re here.”

Her name was Nancy and she had also grown up in Portland, although she had never left. Her husband, Greg, was at work so she was taking her son Jordan to the museum her parents took her to as a child. Her favorite exhibit was the taxidermy bird collection, her favorite bird was the emperor penguin, her favorite part was that when it was Christmas the staff would dress him up like Santa. We got a picture of her and her son in front of the penguin (the penguin’s name turned out to be Elvis) and then thanked her for her time as well and she left.

The rest of the day was spent admiring the collection the museum had acquired over the years. They had an entire section worth of precious stones found in the area and donated to them and another section just dedicated to different skeletons of animals. They had the skeleton of a Thylacine and in the taxidermy bird section (the same one with the penguin named Elvis) they had a passenger pigeon. Both the Thylacine and the passenger pigeon were now extinct.

Reluctantly we left the museum and said goodbye to the teenager working the ticket counter. We waved back with his left hand, typing out a message on his phone with his right hand.

Lucy and Glenn picked us up in the tour bus and we headed back to the hotel for lunch. We were all reluctant to share what we were doing, almost paranoid of each other. We were introduced to the idea of awards at the end, awards for creativity and detail. I didn’t feel compelled to have to win them, but there was a part of me that thought it might be nice to win something for once.

Later that night I was asleep and I was feeling that family tug back home, that fear of being away and instantly my mind flashed to Andrea. Now we were at school and standing by her locker talking and she was telling me about her then boyfriend, Brad, who she had caught kissing Janet Mason at a party he had invited her to. I remember I advised her to dump him, which she did. She had come into school nearly in tears that day, wearing sweatpants and a loose shirt rather than jeans or a button up shirt. It was the same as the night before – I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I remember waking up in a near fit.

I hadn’t thought about Andrea this much in so long that I couldn’t remember. Although she seemed to overshadow my life in a sense, I hadn’t dedicated much thought to her recently. I had mostly thought about how she had left my life so abruptly more than the person that she was and everything that had happened between us and now that I was thinking about her again, I missed her more it seemed.

Charlie didn’t say anything to me that morning, so I could’ve only assumed that I didn’t talk in my sleep that night. The day continued as the previous day had except today we were able to say hello to Olsen as we walked in. He asked how our project was coming and we told him it was coming along well. We sat and talked to him for a little bit and he expressed his worries about whether or not he was balding.

Olsen had wispy white hair that was the color of perfectly bleached sheets and it was definitely thinning, but we assured him that he was balding well. He wished us a successful day and we made our way back into the museum.

We met Javier, a teenager who had skipped school to come to the museum. I asked him why on Earth he would skip school to come to a museum and he explained that his grades had dropped and whenever he felt like things were going bad, he liked to look at the giant fish tank the museum had. We took a picture of him in front of the fish tank and assured him that things would get better and reminded him that there was no shame in asking for help if he needed it.

The most surprising thing about meeting Javier was that when we sat and talked to him and then thanked him for his patience he gave us a hug before we left. He said that we were the first people to assure him that it was going to be okay. After we left him I almost cried because I felt like I understood him and I understood that he felt hopeless.

Charlie asked if I was okay after that and I tentatively answered yes. We met more people that day and the day after that and each day we followed a pattern, but the people never did. The people we talked to never ceased to amaze me, the difference between all of them were so great, but here they were all under one roof. We met army veterans and teachers on field trips and they were all there because they still felt connected to the museum. It was like nothing would change for them here and they would be thrown back to a different time whenever they came to the museum.

The second week was dawning on us and we realized our project was coming together, but at the same time it wasn’t. Out of all of these people how on earth could we choose the ones that were the most interesting?

“Marina, can you look at the pictures I’ve taken?” Charlie asked the night before our last day in the city.

“Yeah, of course.” I sat down next to her on her bed and she pulled them up from a folder on her desktop.

“I like this one.” She said, opening the first picture.

The picture was of me staring at the atrium on the first day. It caught the bottom of my face and then the huge biblical scene above me.

“It’s not bad, I guess.” I said.

“Here, look at this one.”

She pulled up a picture of an army veteran we had met named Ken. He was standing in-between the city’s World War II and Vietnam War monuments. On his left he was pointing to his grandfather’s name on the list and on his right he was pointing at his name on the list.

The next picture she pulled up was a profile of Javier. He was standing in front of the aquarium, his nose almost pressed to the glass. The blue light illuminated his wide eyes and combed black hair. The picture had an almost magical quality to it, the way Javier looked enchanted by the world in front of him.

“I definitely want to use that one.” I said.

“He looks a little like a merman.” Charlie said.

I looked at her and we both cracked up.

On our last day in the museum we saw Olsen and we gave him a hug, thanking him once again. On our last day we saw Javier again, who had told us he made a promise to keep going and that today was the last day he would skip to come to the museum. Nancy was there with her son and Greg and as we saw different amazing people whom we had met and we thanked them for their time and for sharing parts of their lives with us.

“Marina, I have to ask this.” Charlie said to me later that night as she uploaded pictures to her computer.

“What?” I asked.

“Who is Andrea?”

“Just a friend.”

“No, I know it’s just…” She took a deep breath. “Last night you were saying ‘don’t leave me, Andrea.’ You were asking her not to leave and we’re friends now and I care about you so I have to ask you.”

“Andrea was my friend.”

“Was?” Charlie closed her laptop and then walked over and sat down next to me on the bed.

“Sh-she was killed in an accident involving a drunk driver a year ago.” I choked out.

“I’m so sorry.”

“She was the one who inspired me to go into journalism, that I could be whoever I want to be. I’ve been depressed ever since and this is the farthest I’ve been from my home and I feel like I’m leaving her by coming here, I really do. My therapist thinks it’s good for me and so does my mom, but I feel like I’m leaving her.”

Charlie pulled me into an awkward but tight hug as I began to cry. “She’d want you to go out and live your life, Marina. I can tell you that.”

“I know! I know she’d want me to, but I can’t.” My voice turned from a normal level to barely a whisper. “We’ve met so many amazing people this past week, but I’m still thinking about her and how much she would’ve loved it.”

“It’s okay to feel like this. It’s going to me okay, Marina.”

“I’ve felt like this for a year.”

“You lost someone close to you, you probably feel alone.”

“I don’t have any friends anymore.”

“You’re wrong.”

“I am?”

“I’m your friend now.”

I smiled and then sniffled a little. “I’m sorry I’m getting snot on your sweater.”

“It’s okay.” Charlie said. “It’s okay to let it out.”

I spent most of the rest of the night talking about Andrea to Charlie and I realized that I had no idea Charlie had existed two weeks ago and a week ago we were complete strangers. It was nearly one in the morning when I stopped crying and talking.

“Does it make me a bad person that I’m angry?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.” Charlie said. She was absently playing with my hair.

“I almost feel like I’m angry at her for leaving my life so quickly.”

“It’s okay to be angry.”

“And I’m mad at the other driver I’m mad that he didn’t die instead. He was the one driving irresponsibly; he’s the one that lost control. He served time, but he didn’t die – Andrea did.”

“Anger is okay, Marina. You’re feeling intense stuff about what happened, which you should be because what happened was intense. You can be angry with her, you can be angry at the driver you can be as angry as you damn well please.”

“Really? It’s okay?”

“It’s okay.” Charlie paused. “It’s going to be okay.”

“Okay.”

I had never talked to anyone specifically about her or what had happened in the fallout of her death. I left her funeral early because I couldn’t get through it. I didn’t drop out of school, but I isolated myself from everyone else.

In a way Dr. Mezzenga’s plan had worked. I was finally talking about everything that had happened to me and maybe it wasn’t to her, but I could feel some of the stress relieving.

I wasn’t over everything that had happened to me, there was no way that I could possibly be at least not yet. This was a start for me – a start to get back into the game and to start working again. I was going to get back up and I was going to go home and I was going to try again.

“I have an idea.” Charlie said. We were both still on my bed, but now the TV was on, tuned to a nature channel.

“What?”

“We should dedicate this project to her.”

“Really? You would do that?”

“I think it’s important.”

We spent the next week in fervor, instantly realizing we couldn’t cut out a single story we had heard. I was writing articles and Charlie was sorting her photos according for a slideshow. It took a week to get through and in the end the whole piece was about 20 pages long.

“What do you think about this as the last paragraph?” I asked, Charlie nodded, signaling for me to continue. “We spent a week in a museum and we met 14 different people. These people had almost no similarities to each other, other than the fact that they were all at this museum for a reason. After hearing all of their stories both Charlotte and I have decided that there is always more to someone than meets the eye, there is more to the delinquent teenager and there’s more to the mother holding her child’s hand as they walk around the museum. We are all so different, but so alike at the same time and the two of us have walked away from this project with a new outlook on the people we pass by on the street.”

Charlie nodded. “I think that’s amazing.” She paused and tapped on her computer. “The slideshow is ready for tonight.”

We made it to the conference room, prepared to present what we had done. We sat with Jake and Fern and other girls who we had met during our time and suddenly I realized I was no longer homesick. I felt connected to the people around me and I felt 50 pounds lighter all the sudden. Our names were called and I let go of all of the sadness and anger I had been holding for a year like a balloon.

“For our project,” I leaned into the microphone. “Charlotte and I interviewed a series of people we met in the museum in Portland. Not only did we want to know why they were at the museum, but also we wanted to know more about them and any special ties they had. We took pictures of them in the museum and we have created a project that we both feel displays the diversity of daily human life. I’m dedicating this project to my close friend, Andrea, who passed away a year ago and who inspired me to keep doing what I love.”

Our friends clapped and we presented our findings and our reports. We finished and we hugged each other before sitting back down. I felt giddy with joy with what we had done; I was thrilled with our work I was beyond ecstatic actually. We all presented and we were congratulated on all of our work.

We didn’t win anything and yet somehow that didn’t matter.

The next day I walked through the airport with Charlie and we parted ways at my gate and it still didn’t matter that we didn’t win anything then. I had gotten so much more than an award here.

Charlie pressed a slip of paper in my hand.

“This is my phone number, please text me when you land.” She said.

“I will.” I promised.

We hugged one last time.

“Thank you for everything.”

“Thank you for not being an asshole.”

I laughed and wiped away tears forming in my eyes. “You better tell me how North Dakota is.”

“It’s cold, that’s what.”

“I can’t wait to get back to university.” I said. “I’m ready to go back.”
Charlie nodded. “Me too.”

They called my plane number to begin boarding and I looked back at Charlie, tears forming in my eyes again. We hugged once more.

“Text me when you land.” I said.

“I’ll see you later?”

“I’ll see you later, Charlotte Winters.”

She playfully slapped my arm.

“I’ll see you later, Marina Tucker-Bowen.”

I smiled and walked towards the gate and just as I stepped into the long hallway, I turned around and waved goodbye. She waved back and I stepped down the hallway towards the plane.

I was going home.

I was ready to start again.

 

 “Can you tell Dr. Mezzenga what you told me on the phone?” My mom asked.

“The campus police showed up at my door this afternoon.” I deadpanned and my mom gave me a sort of withering look.

Dr. Mezzenga’s office was located in a little stone building in the town where I grew up. I probably passed it hundreds of times when I was in high school, but never really thought about what the inside looked like. Her office was painted beige, but not quite beige. It was pink, white, and beige all at the same time it seemed. Lamps with glossy white shades sat on two tables and the doctor’s desk. The shades made the light into unnaturally sharp shadows that seemed to match the modern art-deco look she was going for.

The chair I was sitting on was white and it was oblong and round and I thought it was barely a chair to begin with. My mom was sitting on an oddly shaped couch that was black and Dr. Mezzenga was sitting in a shiny office chair on twig like spindles with her computer set on an immaculately clean white glossy desk.

“That’s what I told you on the phone.” I answered. I diverted my gaze away from her and the doctor looked from me to my mom hesitantly.

“No, tell her the other thing.”

“I said a lot of stuff on the phone to you.”

“But you know what I’m talking about.”

She got me there; I did know what she was talking about. “I don’t want to see a therapist.” I sighed and looked at the hardwood floors.

Less than a week ago, my mom had informed me that my grades were slipping and they were. She was worried about me again and I can’t be angry about that, I just know that I can’t, but she said if I didn’t get my grades up she’d consider sending me to therapy, which I didn’t want. I used an untrustworthy source to get answers to my next American Lit test and I had gotten caught and I found myself exactly in the place I was avoiding – a place like Dr. Mezzenga’s office.

“And why don’t you want to see a therapist?” she asked.

Her voice was so calm, just like the way her facial expression never changed and it was getting under my skin. She was treating it like nothing, the way I had clear hostility towards her and the way I didn’t want to be here.

Her face was altered by plastic surgery and even if it was minor surgery it was still visible. Her face had tight lines around her cheeks and nose and her lips didn’t move nearly enough to be real. She had dyed her hair a hideous shade of brown that didn’t match her eyes at all. I had avoided looking at her eyes for the past twenty minutes because they were ice blue, the color that could freeze your blood as it moved in your veins.

“I just don’t want to talk to people.” I shrugged.

“Your mom told me about your friend Andrea.” She suggested softly. “Do you want to talk about that?”

“I’m not going to talk about Andrea with you.” I snapped. My mother’s chapped lips pressed together into a thin pink line.

“Mrs. Tucker-Bowen?” Dr. Mezzenga said. “It might be better if I talk to Marina just one on one.”

My mom tersely nodded. “Whatever you think will be best.” She stood up from the strange sofa and walked out of the room. When she shut the door behind her I was more relieved than I had been in the past week.

“Why don’t you want to talk about Andrea?” Dr. Mezzenga asked.

I shrugged. I was pretending that I didn’t know why I never talked about Andrea, but I knew. Andrea who had been my best friend and now she was gone and I had so few memories of her that I was unwilling to share them with anyone. I was protecting what was left of her in a way; I wanted what was left to be a shrine to her memory in my mind forever.

“I don’t know.” I lied.

“Why don’t you tell me something about her, something instead of what happened to her?” She suggested.

There was a part of me that didn’t even want to do that. I didn’t want to talk about the ways I knew how to make her laugh on her worst days; I didn’t want to talk about how she was planning to finish college and then move to Europe to find a job working for a museum overseas. There were things I knew about her that no one else did and it felt like a disgrace to her, even in death, to tell her secrets to someone else.

“I told you, I don’t want to talk about Andrea.” I said.

“Alright.” Dr. Mezzenga stopped and typed something onto her computer. “Then let’s talk about how you felt after her accident.”

I looked away from her. None of this was anything I wanted to talk about and it wasn’t anything I wanted to share anyways.

I felt betrayed by her accident almost. I felt hollowed out when my parents had woken me up at exactly 1:33 AM and we had driven to the hospital where I stumbled in only about half awake and half dressed and it felt like someone had pulled my heart out through my kneecaps when a doctor came out and told us that there was nothing they could’ve done. I cried for hours after that with her parents, unable to understand why she wouldn’t be coming back. I never rebounded from that, not a year later. I spent the past year at LaSalle a shell. I couldn’t make myself care anymore, not about my work or my classes or anything at all. I stopped putting in effort and so did everyone else, it seemed because now I was alone and I was desperate and that’s how I ended up here.

“I already told you that I don’t want to talk about any of this.” I mumbled.

That’s where we stood. My interactions between Dr. Mezzenga and myself always ended up like this – a stalemate between someone who wants to talk and someone who doesn’t. I didn’t want to open up to her because I didn’t trust her, I don’t care how the Internet rated her I didn’t trust her and that made all the difference.

The thing was that I really did want to get over my depression and my fixation on Andrea’s death and the worst part was that I was the one standing in the way of this. I knew that not talking to Dr. Mezzenga was hurting me more than it was helping me, but there was this permanent dark voice telling me otherwise and that voice always seemed more compelling to me.

I found myself back on the oblong chair every Wednesday, facing my plastic therapist, and pretending I didn’t have feelings. Every Wednesday I would remain nearly silent for an hour, but little did I realize that what I wasn’t sharing was almost giving her a better grasp on what I was thinking. It was almost like my plan had completely backfired on the dark voice, but had worked out for the voice of reason and logic.

“Why won’t you leave?” She asked me one day and at first I didn’t understand her question.

“I live here.”

Dr. Mezzenga cocked her head a little as if she was confused by my answer and then shook her head. Apparently my answer wasn’t satisfactory for her, but it seemed my answers never were at this point.

“That’s not what I meant,” She said (as if I hadn’t figured that out from her initial response). “Why didn’t you leave when you started college? You’re barely an hour away from home and you had this chance to go far away and broaden your horizons and you didn’t.”

Why I didn’t leave was almost an obvious answer or at least I felt like it was. I felt tied to this place, the place where my best friend died and if I left I would leave what was left of her. The seconds ticked by between the doctor and I, and the seconds felt like hours because I couldn’t tell her why.

With that question I realized she had hit the nerve I wanted her to avoid – asking why questions instead of whom and what and where.

“I feel like I’m leaving her if I leave here.” I answered quietly, in the hopes that she wouldn’t hear me.

“Do you want to elaborate more on that?”

I did want to elaborate more on that because it seemed like no one understood why I wanted to stay. I told her why I couldn’t leave that afternoon: the overwhelming guilt I felt when I was more than an hour away, my fear of something going wrong with my parents if I left, my general paranoia when it came to driving now. For the first time in four weeks I opened my mouth to say more than a simple yes or no.

Later that week at university I got an email from her that was also sent to my mother and it entailed a journalism camp of sorts in Portland, Oregon that was happening in about a month. In the email she asked me if I would be willing to try it, to go across the country to try and get away from this town. According to her she thought it might help me move on and reach out to people my age and for the first time since I met Dr. Mezzenga I agreed with something she was saying. I was willing to go, I was willing to try and get through this once and for all.

I took a break from university, talking to my counselors and citing my cheating incident as a sign that I needed help and a break. They agreed to pardon me for a semester after talking with the doctor and I found myself home for three weeks before I would fly to Portland.

“What do you think you’ll get to write about?” My mom was standing in my old room, pulling out clothes from an old worn down dresser. She was more excited than I was although I couldn’t be certain of the reason why.

“I don’t know.” I answered, slightly bored with the conversation. The truth was I didn’t know what I was going to write about or what I would be expected to write about.

“What do you want to write about?” My mom asked, piling more shorts on the floor.

“I want to write about people.” I said. It was true, what I really wanted was to hear people’s each individual stories and record them and follow the little mundane parts of their lives. The thing was that I wanted to see all of the intricate workings of people, what made them tick, and the things that made their world go around. I wanted to see each individual person’s sun, the thing they were fixated on.

“That’s broad.” My mom said. I was sitting on the edge of my bed and I started swinging my legs back and forth, feeling the rough fabric of the blanket hit the back of my calves. “What type of people?”

“Just ordinary people.” I answered. “I want to see ordinary people’s lives.”

My mom stopped folding and looked at my quizzically and I felt like I wanted to immediately take back what I said. What I wanted to follow was strange, even quirky and maybe it was typical, but I knew what I wanted to do. I wasn’t going to take back what I said about what (or who) I wanted to center my journalism around.

“That’s…interesting.” The way she said it made me cringe a little. I ended the conversation there and changed the subject to something that I thought would be less volatile.

I spent the next three weeks packing and worrying. The closer it got to the day of my flight the more worried I got. What if no one was there to pick me up? What if I was rooming with someone awful? Would I even get to write about what I wanted to write about? I was keeping myself up more than usual, my head filled with thoughts about how to cancel this entire plan. Every night I would go to sleep with the picture of my blank ceiling burned into my mind.

One of my professors recommended the book Dispatches by Michael Herr to me. I had ordered it off of Amazon and was planning to read it on the flight. My professor had said it was a book about a journalist in the Vietnam War, published in 1977. I knew there were pictures that accompanied it and I was interested to see how they paired with the story, but I was also interested in the way that it described soldiers during the war. I had it in my backpack and I was looking forward to reading it on the plane.

The rest of what I had packed was mostly clothes and toiletries along with my computer. All of it was set on the edge of my bed and I found myself fully clothed and still unshowered at 11:59 PM, the time where the previous day tottered on the line between days, uncertain of the direction it wanted to lead. My head was spinning in a million directions and I wanted to run. I was so close to leave and I could feel the guilt churning inside of me and I wanted to run.

Everything inside of me was telling me not to get into my mom’s car to drive to Philadelphia International Airport. It was an overcast day and I was only about half in the conversation with my mother. I spent most of the car ride staring out the window and at I-95 leading right into the city. The farther I got from home the more I felt tugged back, the sicker I felt. I stepped into the airport and I was in a complete haze as my mom helped me check my bag and get my tickets and then walked me to TSA.

My mom pulled me into a tight hug at the top of the escalator and I was almost shocked out of my near comatose state that I had found myself in for the majority of the car ride.

“I love you.” She said, squeezing me tighter. “It’s only two weeks.”

“I love you too, Mom.” I squeaked, trying not to cry.

“I’m so proud of you.”

“Why?”

“You’re trying and I hope you get to write about what you want to write about.” She stepped back and held my shoulders and I looked directly into her eyes. “I love you, Marina. Don’t forget to get to get yourself lunch before you get on the plane.”

“I won’t, Mom.” I said, my voice shaking as I blinked tears out of my eyes. “I’ll text you when I land.”

“Text me everyday, okay?”

“Okay.”

We hugged again and I was reluctant to let go. I was ready to ask her to take me back home now; this was too much adventure for me. I told her that I loved her before she went back down the escalator, crying. I did my best to force a smile and wave before I turned around and headed for the nightmare that was TSA.

I made it through TSA and into the airport where I did as my mother suggested and got lunch. Shortly after I got on the plane.  We waited on the tarmac for about a half hour before getting into a line of other planes, a situation I found to be surprising. I couldn’t see the planes in front of us, but I could see the ones behind us out the window. They looked like huge bullets – sleek oblong things with windows that looked like glaring eyes. The bullet plane behind us faded farther into the distance as we moved up through traffic that I thought was reserved for the highways.

Thirty minutes later we began our ascent (“Please stow your tray tables and make sure your seat is in the upright position. In case of emergency leave your bags. Your seat functions as a life saving device.”) And the plane rose above the city of Philadelphia and headed northwest of it. Above the parks and the streets and the people, it looked like an almost idealistic city with skyscrapers reaching up towards our plane with elongated metal fingers.

My city faded away from me fast and the second that the Comcast Center was no longer apart of the skyline I began to feel as sick as I had in the car. Below us were nothing but small towns and sprawling farms that looked like patches on a quilt. These places were full of people who had lives and cars and families and maybe even pets or lovers, but I would never know any of them. I wasn’t a passerby or an observer even at this point – but rather a speck in the sky. I was as nonexistent as aliens could possibly be to the people below.

My hands were shaking as I reached towards my backpack and tugged out Dispatches, running my thumb along the pages facing outward and letting them fan out. I wanted to write a book like this – something critically acclaimed and recommended to people like myself to read on plane rides. I ran my palm over the glossy back cover and then traced the spine with my index finger, gently caressing the smooth exterior of the book.

I found myself lost in the pages the longer I read, lost in the harrowing accounts that were found in the ink that was printed there. The people that Michael Herr wrote about in here were real people; this was really what happened to them. The book was one of the first of its kind – giving the public a pair of glasses to see a war they could never actually comprehend. I wanted to be able to write with this clarity, a clarity where you didn’t need the pictures to aid you.

The rest of the flight was mostly uneventful and the landing was smooth. Our plane touched down just as a light rain shower began to open up. I made my way off the plane and into the airport and immediately I seized up as I realized that I had no idea where to go. I blindly followed the signs towards baggage claim and I asked a random person waiting there where to go. I followed his directions after I got my bag off the merry-go-round and followed people towards what I could only assume was the exit for the airport.

My stomach was twisted in knots now. I was farther away than I had ever been from home and on top of it I was alone. I nervously tugged my checked bag behind me and when I walked out of baggage claim I saw a huge group of people with a tall lady holding a sign that had the program’s name on it. Some of the tension in me released as I hurried over to the group.

“Are you Marina Tucker-Bowen?” The lady in the front asked, looking at a clipboard.

“Y-yes.” I stammered and she nodded and looked at the man next to her who nodded.

“I’m Lucy!” She said, holding out her hand and I shook it. “This is Glenn.” She said, as she gestured to the man she had talked to momentarily. “It’s very nice to meet you and now that you landed we can make our way to the hotel. We’ll let you get settled with your roommate and then we’ll meet in the conference room.”

I smiled a little. “That sounds great.”

Glenn waved on the group and I fell into the crowd as we made our way outside towards a huge tour bus. I loaded my bags under the bus and found myself next to a boy named Jake with ginger hair that was gelled back. I found myself chatting with him on the way to the hotel, it was mostly idle chat, but I was interested to find out that he wanted to do journalism mostly about historical things. I asked him if he had read Dispatches and he said no and I recommended it for the historical events. He thanked me after I explained what it was about.

I awkwardly stuck by Jake as we filed into the hotel lobby. I didn’t even know him that well, but he was the only name that I know. There was a part of me that wondered if I was standing too close to him because I could make out the different colors in his hair. There were clear blond streaks running alongside ginger strands that at some points caught the light and looked more like bubblegum. We all stood, clumped around each other and waiting for roommate assignments. As I looked around it was clear that some of these girls already knew each other and I became nervous that I wasn’t going to fit in with them.

“Your roommate will also be your partner for your project.” Lucy announced as Glenn talked to the receptionist. “You are in this together.”

There were murmurs around the room and she started reading down the list. I was paired with a girl named Charlotte and I realized I had no clue who that was. My head was spinning again as I realized I was losing control of the situation until I looked up and saw Glenn beckoning me over. Next to him was a girl who looked to be about my age in a sweatshirt. She had dark brown hair and eyes that didn’t look blue or grey, but mostly a combination.

Almost like a robot I made my way over to them and Glenn gave us ground rules and then two key cards. I barely registered the thank you that left my mouth as I followed Charlotte down the hall.

“D-do you remember what floor we’re on?” I asked the other girl nervously. “I kind of zoned out.”

The other girl laughed. “We’re on the third floor, no worries.” She turned to me as we were walking. “Please call me Charlie.”

“Okay.” I said as we made our way towards the stairs. “I’m just Marina.”

“Nice to meet you ‘just Marina’.” We both laughed as we opened the door to the stairwell. “What’re you interested in?” She asked as we started stumbling up the stairs.

I realized that this girl had similar interests that I did and I felt myself relax a little bit. “Journalism.”

“No way!” She said sarcastically, laughing. “What type of journalism?”

“I want to do journalism about people.”

“That’s broad.”

“That’s what my mom said.”

“What do you want to focus on with that?” She asked.

“The ordinary things.” I said. “I want to report on the small things that make people’s lives tick, you know?”

She looked at me as we got to the landing of the third floor. “That’s really cool, I’ve never heard of doing something like that.”

“What are you interested in?” I asked as we walked down the long carpeted hallway.

She was interested in pairing photography with journalism and that piqued my interest. I had always been drawn to photography as well as journalism and I told her that. Our movement down the hallway was slow, the heavy carpeting slowing down the wheels on our bags. I asked her more about her interest in photograph before we got to room 315A.

The room was plain; it had dark laminate floors and a white popcorn ceiling. The walls were also white and so was everything else it seemed. The blankets were white, so were the sheets and the pillowcases. The headboards were attached to the wall and they were the same color as the laminate floor. I didn’t look inside the bathroom, but I didn’t have to because I knew it would be white with a shower and tub combination, a toilet, and a sink. It was a hotel room and this was a hotel – the carpet outside was clean but it’s a hotel carpet. It’s an ugly shade of evergreen with near abominable paisley patterns. It’s exactly what you’d expect to find in a hotel.

Charlie threw her bags onto the bed farthest from the door and then flopped down on the bed. Her dark hair fanned out around her, distinguishing her from the white bedspread.

“God, I’m so tired.” She moaned.

“Ugh, same.” I propped myself up on my bed.

“Look, can we not make this whole sharing a room thing weird? I don’t want to have to hold it for two weeks.”

I couldn’t stop myself from laughing a little. “Okay, we’re not making this weird. Got it.”

“Good to know.” We both smiled.

We spent the next hour unpacking and chatting about what we were up to back home. The painful thing was that there wasn’t much going on with me back home, after the accident I didn’t have many friends most of them skirting around me in the fear that I would break. I was finding it surprisingly easy to talk to her, even if it was about small things. She was easygoing and was doing the camp because she wanted to enhance her skills. She was also taking a semester off from college to do it. She said that she grew up in Iowa, but was going to college in North Dakota.

The rest of the night was spent downstairs in the conference room with the other people in the camp. I mostly stuck next to Charlie the whole time, afraid to leave the one person I knew. I met a couple other girls, including a girl named Fern who was also interested in writing about people. For a little bit I almost couldn’t feel the growing boulder in my stomach the longer I was away from home.

“Hey, you okay?” Charlie asked. I realized that I had fallen silent in the current conversation.

“Yeah, I’m okay.” I said quickly and Charlie shot me a worried glance.

Jake joined the conversation with Fern and a girl named Hannah towards the end of the night. After that moment I had grown almost exponentially more nervous. I was thankful when Lucy directed us back to our rooms and I made my way back, walking in almost silence to the third floor. I felt strange, almost like I wasn’t there. My head wasn’t where my body was right then and I followed Charlie like a ghost – drifting down the hallway more than anything else.

“Hey man, are you alright?” Charlie asked as soon as I closed the door. “Do you not feel good or something?”

“No, no it’s just…”

“Are you homesick?” She asked.

I nodded and I felt my throat close up. “God this is embarrassing.” I croaked.

“No, don’t worry, okay?”

“This is the farthest I’ve ever been from home.”

“That’s okay.” Charlie said. “It’s okay to be homesick.”

“I’m just nervous. What if I can’t get what I want out of this project?”

“I think you’ll be surprised.” Charlie said. “I’m going to shower and then I say we head to bed. It’s been a long day.” She stood in front of me and I looked up at her, the way her face naturally angled inward and the way her dark hair fell in messy clumps down her face and I saw her eyes, icy but sincere in every possible way and I found myself speechless. “Don’t forget it’s always a new day tomorrow.”

She showered and I called my mom, giving her updates. The call was almost exactly the same as the ones I gave her from university to let her know that I was still alive and breathing. The call lasted a total of fifteen minutes and I can’t say that anything really important was said during those fifteen minutes. After I hung up the phone I felt like more had happened in my conversations with the other kids at the camp than I had with my mother in nearly a year.

Charlie came out of bathroom and I showered shortly after that. We were in bed by 11 PM, but I wasn’t asleep until much later.

My head was hurting as I laid in the dark and stared at the outline of the tacky popcorn ceiling. My mind had wandered back home, past the night where everything had gone wrong, and back to a nicer one. It was a late Friday night and Andrea was over. We were sitting on the couch in my basement watching whatever was on Netflix and I can’t remember what we were originally talking about, but I remember the way she looked with her dirty blonde hair pulled into a messy bun and her pajamas hanging off of her arms because they were too big. The TV light was illuminating her and she looked eerily beautiful and all I could remember as I stared at that crappy popcorn ceiling was the way Andrea looked that night.

I was jetlagged beyond all else that night and I couldn’t remember falling asleep, but I remember waking up confused. My sheets and blankets were tangled around me and I sat up and glanced at my phone. I had five minutes until my alarm went off. I threw my phone back on the table next to the bed and flopped back against the pillows angrily.

“Dude you didn’t sleep like at all last night.” I heard Charlie mutter. “You were talking in your sleep.”

“I was?” I asked.

“Yeah you kept mumbling about this girl named Andrea. Who is she?” I didn’t answer. “Is that too personal? I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s okay.” My voice cracked when I spoke.

“If you need to talk, I’m here.” I saw Charlie swing herself out of the bed. “You ready for some journalism?”

“I think so.”

“Let’s get pumped, man.” She yawned. “We gotta have some enthusiasm for this.”

If you need to talk, I’m here. Her words echoed in my brain. There were very few people who offered that to me nowadays, my mother of course and Dr. Mezzenga did although I was unwilling to talk to either of them. There was a part of me that just wanted to cry, although the other girl would never understand why such a simple gesture made all the difference in the world.

We all sat down for breakfast in the conference room and we chatted with the people we had met the night before until Lucy got our attention.

“Alright everyone!” She said. “This is how it’s going to work. Our first week in Portland you will spend in the city with your roommate, gathering information about what you want your project to be about. Our second week is going to be spent working on the project, with our last day being presentation and awards. You’ll get more information as you go along.”

She continued her speech which entailed check in times and places we weren’t allowed to go as well as punishments and after that we went back to our rooms to collect our things before meeting back in the lobby so Lucy and Glenn could take us into the city.

Charlie and I were let off at a café in the heart of the city and for a second we both just stood there, unsure of what to do.

Portland wasn’t a bustling city like New York or Philly, but rather was quiet. The buildings rose well above our heads, gleaming in the early morning sunlight and the cars moved through the streets like loud candy. The sound was loud, but also calm and muted at the same time it seemed.

“Whoa.” I said.

The two of us were standing in the middle of an ever-flowing tide of people rushing from point A to point B. It felt like we were a singular boat in the middle of an ocean or the eye of a hurricane. I felt paralyzed by the scale of it all, the way the people would part around the two of us on one side and then rejoin on the other. They acted like nothing had happened – like they hadn’t just parted the modern day equivalent of the red sea.

“What’s the plan?” I asked, turning to Charlie.

“I have an idea.” Charlie said, tapping at her phone.

“What’s your idea?”

“Why don’t we go to the museum down the street and see who we can find in there?”

“Why?”

“Because I want to find someone older there who’s been to this museum before and I want to take pictures of exhibits that mean a lot to them and you can write about the different people we find.”

I smiled. “I like that idea.”

She smiled back. “I thought you would.”

“How many people do we want to interview?”

“Uh,” Charlie counted on her fingers. “How about two per day and then we pick the seven best ones to do our project on?”

“Alright.” I said. “Let’s get going.”

We hurried down the streets excitedly towards the museum. For the first time in a year I felt truly excited about something, absolutely exhilarated to be apart of something. My heart was pounding as we paid for our entrance into the museum and dashed in.

At first we couldn’t focus on anyone because the moment we stepped into the museum we were greeted by an atrium, the ceiling painted with intricate gods and angels surrounding him. I watched as Charlie took a camera out of her backpack and slowly balancing on one knee in a crouched position, she snapped a picture of the magnificent ceiling.

I found myself absolutely captured by the different faces of the people above us – how lifelike they looked. Behind the cherubs were clouds, but they weren’t white. They were painted to look how the real clouds look – with grey highlights and the blue of the sky shining through. It all looked so real, like rather than a painting someone had trapped people in the dome.

“That ceiling is my favorite part about here.” An old security guard walked over to us. “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked.

“Yes.” I murmured and my mind couldn’t help but wander to how much Andrea would’ve enjoyed this.

“Sir?” Charlie asked.

“Yes?” He smiled and the wrinkles on his face formed into smiles lines decades old around his eyes, milky from cataracts.

“I was wondering if we could ask you some questions and use you for our journalism assignment.”

He smiled even broader now. “What questions do you have for me?”

“My name is Marina.” I said, stepping towards him and having the notes section of my phone open.

“It’s lovely to meet you Marina.”

“How long have you been working at this museum?” I asked.

“I’ve been working here for fifteen years, although I used to come here as a boy.”

The security guards name was Olsen Brewer. He had come to museum when it first opened and he said that his favorite part of the museum was always the atrium. He had moved to California for college, where he had majored in mathematic and had met his future wife, Violet. He moved all around the country for a while with Violet until he retired thirty years ago. Violet died of lung cancer twenty-five years ago and Olsen had decided to move back to Portland and take a job back at the museum he loved as a boy.

We thanked him for his time and he wished us the best on our project, but not before Charlie got an incredible shot of him from below with the atrium ceiling in the background. We spent the rest of the day wandering around the museum until we ran into a mom with a young son.

We ran into her near a section about how the Mount Saint Helens eruption had impacted Portland. I was reading the plaque on the bottom of an encased display when Charlie tapped my shoulder.

“Excuse me?” I walked over to her. “Would you be willing to help us with our journalism project?”

The woman had light brown hair the color of chocolate milk and while her hair was poker straight, her son’s was not. He had a huge mop of curly hair the same color of his mother’s sitting on top of his head.

“Of course!” She smiled. “What do you need?”

“I just want to ask you why you’re here.”

Her name was Nancy and she had also grown up in Portland, although she had never left. Her husband, Greg, was at work so she was taking her son Jordan to the museum her parents took her to as a child. Her favorite exhibit was the taxidermy bird collection, her favorite bird was the emperor penguin, her favorite part was that when it was Christmas the staff would dress him up like Santa. We got a picture of her and her son in front of the penguin (the penguin’s name turned out to be Elvis) and then thanked her for her time as well and she left.

The rest of the day was spent admiring the collection the museum had acquired over the years. They had an entire section worth of precious stones found in the area and donated to them and another section just dedicated to different skeletons of animals. They had the skeleton of a Thylacine and in the taxidermy bird section (the same one with the penguin named Elvis) they had a passenger pigeon. Both the Thylacine and the passenger pigeon were now extinct.

Reluctantly we left the museum and said goodbye to the teenager working the ticket counter. We waved back with his left hand, typing out a message on his phone with his right hand.

Lucy and Glenn picked us up in the tour bus and we headed back to the hotel for lunch. We were all reluctant to share what we were doing, almost paranoid of each other. We were introduced to the idea of awards at the end, awards for creativity and detail. I didn’t feel compelled to have to win them, but there was a part of me that thought it might be nice to win something for once.

Later that night I was asleep and I was feeling that family tug back home, that fear of being away and instantly my mind flashed to Andrea. Now we were at school and standing by her locker talking and she was telling me about her then boyfriend, Brad, who she had caught kissing Janet Mason at a party he had invited her to. I remember I advised her to dump him, which she did. She had come into school nearly in tears that day, wearing sweatpants and a loose shirt rather than jeans or a button up shirt. It was the same as the night before – I didn’t remember falling asleep, but I remember waking up in a near fit.

I hadn’t thought about Andrea this much in so long that I couldn’t remember. Although she seemed to overshadow my life in a sense, I hadn’t dedicated much thought to her recently. I had mostly thought about how she had left my life so abruptly more than the person that she was and everything that had happened between us and now that I was thinking about her again, I missed her more it seemed.

Charlie didn’t say anything to me that morning, so I could’ve only assumed that I didn’t talk in my sleep that night. The day continued as the previous day had except today we were able to say hello to Olsen as we walked in. He asked how our project was coming and we told him it was coming along well. We sat and talked to him for a little bit and he expressed his worries about whether or not he was balding.

Olsen had wispy white hair that was the color of perfectly bleached sheets and it was definitely thinning, but we assured him that he was balding well. He wished us a successful day and we made our way back into the museum.

We met Javier, a teenager who had skipped school to come to the museum. I asked him why on Earth he would skip school to come to a museum and he explained that his grades had dropped and whenever he felt like things were going bad, he liked to look at the giant fish tank the museum had. We took a picture of him in front of the fish tank and assured him that things would get better and reminded him that there was no shame in asking for help if he needed it.

The most surprising thing about meeting Javier was that when we sat and talked to him and then thanked him for his patience he gave us a hug before we left. He said that we were the first people to assure him that it was going to be okay. After we left him I almost cried because I felt like I understood him and I understood that he felt hopeless.

Charlie asked if I was okay after that and I tentatively answered yes. We met more people that day and the day after that and each day we followed a pattern, but the people never did. The people we talked to never ceased to amaze me, the difference between all of them were so great, but here they were all under one roof. We met army veterans and teachers on field trips and they were all there because they still felt connected to the museum. It was like nothing would change for them here and they would be thrown back to a different time whenever they came to the museum.

The second week was dawning on us and we realized our project was coming together, but at the same time it wasn’t. Out of all of these people how on earth could we choose the ones that were the most interesting?

“Marina, can you look at the pictures I’ve taken?” Charlie asked the night before our last day in the city.

“Yeah, of course.” I sat down next to her on her bed and she pulled them up from a folder on her desktop.

“I like this one.” She said, opening the first picture.

The picture was of me staring at the atrium on the first day. It caught the bottom of my face and then the huge biblical scene above me.

“It’s not bad, I guess.” I said.

“Here, look at this one.”

She pulled up a picture of an army veteran we had met named Ken. He was standing in-between the city’s World War II and Vietnam War monuments. On his left he was pointing to his grandfather’s name on the list and on his right he was pointing at his name on the list.

The next picture she pulled up was a profile of Javier. He was standing in front of the aquarium, his nose almost pressed to the glass. The blue light illuminated his wide eyes and combed black hair. The picture had an almost magical quality to it, the way Javier looked enchanted by the world in front of him.

“I definitely want to use that one.” I said.

“He looks a little like a merman.” Charlie said.

I looked at her and we both cracked up.

On our last day in the museum we saw Olsen and we gave him a hug, thanking him once again. On our last day we saw Javier again, who had told us he made a promise to keep going and that today was the last day he would skip to come to the museum. Nancy was there with her son and Greg and as we saw different amazing people whom we had met and we thanked them for their time and for sharing parts of their lives with us.

“Marina, I have to ask this.” Charlie said to me later that night as she uploaded pictures to her computer.

“What?” I asked.

“Who is Andrea?”

“Just a friend.”

“No, I know it’s just…” She took a deep breath. “Last night you were saying ‘don’t leave me, Andrea.’ You were asking her not to leave and we’re friends now and I care about you so I have to ask you.”

“Andrea was my friend.”

“Was?” Charlie closed her laptop and then walked over and sat down next to me on the bed.

“Sh-she was killed in an accident involving a drunk driver a year ago.” I choked out.

“I’m so sorry.”

“She was the one who inspired me to go into journalism, that I could be whoever I want to be. I’ve been depressed ever since and this is the farthest I’ve been from my home and I feel like I’m leaving her by coming here, I really do. My therapist thinks it’s good for me and so does my mom, but I feel like I’m leaving her.”

Charlie pulled me into an awkward but tight hug as I began to cry. “She’d want you to go out and live your life, Marina. I can tell you that.”

“I know! I know she’d want me to, but I can’t.” My voice turned from a normal level to barely a whisper. “We’ve met so many amazing people this past week, but I’m still thinking about her and how much she would’ve loved it.”

“It’s okay to feel like this. It’s going to me okay, Marina.”

“I’ve felt like this for a year.”

“You lost someone close to you, you probably feel alone.”

“I don’t have any friends anymore.”

“You’re wrong.”

“I am?”

“I’m your friend now.”

I smiled and then sniffled a little. “I’m sorry I’m getting snot on your sweater.”

“It’s okay.” Charlie said. “It’s okay to let it out.”

I spent most of the rest of the night talking about Andrea to Charlie and I realized that I had no idea Charlie had existed two weeks ago and a week ago we were complete strangers. It was nearly one in the morning when I stopped crying and talking.

“Does it make me a bad person that I’m angry?” I asked.

“I don’t think so.” Charlie said. She was absently playing with my hair.

“I almost feel like I’m angry at her for leaving my life so quickly.”

“It’s okay to be angry.”

“And I’m mad at the other driver I’m mad that he didn’t die instead. He was the one driving irresponsibly; he’s the one that lost control. He served time, but he didn’t die – Andrea did.”

“Anger is okay, Marina. You’re feeling intense stuff about what happened, which you should be because what happened was intense. You can be angry with her, you can be angry at the driver you can be as angry as you damn well please.”

“Really? It’s okay?”

“It’s okay.” Charlie paused. “It’s going to be okay.”

“Okay.”

I had never talked to anyone specifically about her or what had happened in the fallout of her death. I left her funeral early because I couldn’t get through it. I didn’t drop out of school, but I isolated myself from everyone else.

In a way Dr. Mezzenga’s plan had worked. I was finally talking about everything that had happened to me and maybe it wasn’t to her, but I could feel some of the stress relieving.

I wasn’t over everything that had happened to me, there was no way that I could possibly be at least not yet. This was a start for me – a start to get back into the game and to start working again. I was going to get back up and I was going to go home and I was going to try again.

“I have an idea.” Charlie said. We were both still on my bed, but now the TV was on, tuned to a nature channel.

“What?”

“We should dedicate this project to her.”

“Really? You would do that?”

“I think it’s important.”

We spent the next week in fervor, instantly realizing we couldn’t cut out a single story we had heard. I was writing articles and Charlie was sorting her photos according for a slideshow. It took a week to get through and in the end the whole piece was about 20 pages long.

“What do you think about this as the last paragraph?” I asked, Charlie nodded, signaling for me to continue. “We spent a week in a museum and we met 14 different people. These people had almost no similarities to each other, other than the fact that they were all at this museum for a reason. After hearing all of their stories both Charlotte and I have decided that there is always more to someone than meets the eye, there is more to the delinquent teenager and there’s more to the mother holding her child’s hand as they walk around the museum. We are all so different, but so alike at the same time and the two of us have walked away from this project with a new outlook on the people we pass by on the street.”

Charlie nodded. “I think that’s amazing.” She paused and tapped on her computer. “The slideshow is ready for tonight.”

We made it to the conference room, prepared to present what we had done. We sat with Jake and Fern and other girls who we had met during our time and suddenly I realized I was no longer homesick. I felt connected to the people around me and I felt 50 pounds lighter all the sudden. Our names were called and I let go of all of the sadness and anger I had been holding for a year like a balloon.

“For our project,” I leaned into the microphone. “Charlotte and I interviewed a series of people we met in the museum in Portland. Not only did we want to know why they were at the museum, but also we wanted to know more about them and any special ties they had. We took pictures of them in the museum and we have created a project that we both feel displays the diversity of daily human life. I’m dedicating this project to my close friend, Andrea, who passed away a year ago and who inspired me to keep doing what I love.”

Our friends clapped and we presented our findings and our reports. We finished and we hugged each other before sitting back down. I felt giddy with joy with what we had done; I was thrilled with our work I was beyond ecstatic actually. We all presented and we were congratulated on all of our work.

We didn’t win anything and yet somehow that didn’t matter.

The next day I walked through the airport with Charlie and we parted ways at my gate and it still didn’t matter that we didn’t win anything then. I had gotten so much more than an award here.

Charlie pressed a slip of paper in my hand.

“This is my phone number, please text me when you land.” She said.

“I will.” I promised.

We hugged one last time.

“Thank you for everything.”

“Thank you for not being an asshole.”

I laughed and wiped away tears forming in my eyes. “You better tell me how North Dakota is.”

“It’s cold, that’s what.”

“I can’t wait to get back to university.” I said. “I’m ready to go back.”
Charlie nodded. “Me too.”

They called my plane number to begin boarding and I looked back at Charlie, tears forming in my eyes again. We hugged once more.

“Text me when you land.” I said.

“I’ll see you later?”

“I’ll see you later, Charlotte Winters.”

She playfully slapped my arm.

“I’ll see you later, Marina Tucker-Bowen.”

I smiled and walked towards the gate and just as I stepped into the long hallway, I turned around and waved goodbye. She waved back and I stepped down the hallway towards the plane.

I was going home.

I was ready to start again.

 


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