Val at College

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Young Adult  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: September 16, 2014

A A A | A A A

Submitted: September 16, 2014




Val at College

Closing is the worst part about working nights at Pizza Joplin.

I used to have to close by myself. Pizza Joplin was supposed to be the first in a future chain of Janis-Joplin-themed pizza restaurants across the country, but it never caught on. Maybe decorating a small, moldy building strictly with black-and-white close-ups of Janis Joplin doesn’t complement the lingering smell of pizza grease and minimum wage. At night, my manager makes us turn on the black lights, highlighting Janis’s thin smile and round, tinted glasses. In the pictures where she’s not smiling, she’s laughing, head back and wild eyed. In the dark, when I’m alone, she’s laughing at me. She’s laughing at me when I wipe down the tables. She’s laughing at me when I put away the extra napkins.

When Hickey and I started dating, I told him about Janis and her laugh. At first he looked at me like I was kidding, but when he saw that I was serious, he offered to always work close with me. We’ve been working together at Pizza Joplin for six years, but we’ve only been dating for one. It’s good with Hickey. It’s safe. I wasn’t sure on the whole “being more than friends thing”, but it’s worked out pretty well. I mean, I saw him all the time anyways, so it was bound to work out that way. And the nights are much better with him around. He plays music from his phone while we clean up the place, and it helps distract from Janis.

Usually when we’re closing, Hickey tries to make out with me. He thinks it’s romantic—the low, black lights, an acoustic playlist on his phone, fifty-seven empty chairs. When I’m cleaning the counters, sometimes he’ll come up behind me, turn me around, and lift me on top of a barstool. I’ll loosen the ties on his apron while he leans in and kisses me. He tastes like pizza. I probably taste like pizza too. Past his head is a big portrait of Janis, smiling over a cigarette, and I’ll have to push Hickey away. I can’t, I’ll tell him. You know I can’t do this with her watching us like that.

Today, though, he doesn’t try to make out with me as we’re closing. While I’m thankful for that, he’s uncharacteristically quiet, glancing over to me every so often with a nervous grin.

“Can’t wait to get out of here,” he says, winking at me.

I nod. “Yeah. We’ll probably get to leave early. All I’ve got left is to take out the trash.”

I sling three black trash bags over my shoulder. They sag at the bottom with grease and spilled soda. The dumpsters out back are spilling over with yesterday’s trash, so I balance my bags unevenly on the top.

Wiping my hands on my apron, I walk back inside and lock the door behind me. I go into the kitchen. It’s clean. Hickey must have already scrubbed the burnt grease from the oven. Everything gets done so quickly with Hickey around.

The largest picture of Janis is in the kitchen, right above the reject breadsticks bin, and it’s so big that her freckles match my fists. My first day working here, I thought Janis Joplin was still alive. “Does she know about this place?” I asked a coworker. She’s dead, they told me. In pictures, the joy in her eyes is so alive that I have to blink a couple times to remember she’s not.

I turn off the lights in the kitchen and walk into the eating area to finish up. All the chairs are upturned on top of the tables, showcasing the wiped-down wooden floor. And Hickey is in the middle of it. Directly behind him is a full-length picture of Janis wearing a patterned and tasseled vest and flared, paisley pants. He’s kneeling in the center of the restaurant, looking longingly at me.

“Hickey, what are you—”

He holds up one finger excitedly like, Wait a second!, and digs around in his flour-stained pocket. A little blue, velvet box. He smiles up at me, flipping the hair from his eyes.

“Val,” he starts. “This is where we first met, do you remember? Six years ago, and when I saw you, I thought, ‘Man. Look at that.’ But we didn’t date right away.”


“It took me five years to ask you out! I was so scared that you’d say no.” He’s sweating. “But you said yes, and look how far we’ve come.”


He opens the little blue box, and there’s the ring. It’s cubic zirconia.

“Marry me,” he says.

“Oh. Oh, holy shit.”

He frowns. “That’s not a yes.”

“That’s because it’s a no. Holy shit.”

“No?” He closes the ring box and stands up. “What do you mean ‘no’?”

“Marriage.” I say it out loud just to see how it sounds. It doesn’t belong in my mouth, or in his, or in Pizza Joplin. “I’m not ready for marriage. I’m only twenty-three. You’re only twenty-two! God, we’re children!”

“We’re adults,” Hickey snaps.

“We’re young. Like, what if I wanna do something more? I’ve always wanted to be a writer. What if I wanted to go to college? What if I wanted to be a writer, Hickey?”

“You don’t want to be a writer. You’ve never said any of that before.”

I stand up a little straighter. “Well, I’m saying it now.”

Frustrated, he shoves the ring box into his apron pocket. “You can marry me, go to college, and then become a writer or whatever.”

“Baby,” I plead. I look at him like I’m sorry, even though I don’t think I am.

For a second, he softens. “No one’s gonna love you like I love you,” he says earnestly. “You’ve got some pretty weird quirks, Val. Like the whole ‘Joplinophobia’ thing. And hey, I’ve probably got some weird quirks too. We’re the best thing that’s ever gonna happen to each other.”

I shake my head. “What?”

“We’re all we’ve got. You’re the best thing that’s ever gonna happen to me, and I’m the best thing that’s ever gonna happen to you. There’s not much else out there for us.”

We stay there for a moment, and I feel like I’m supposed to cry. I scrunch up my face and hope for tears, but nothing falls. I love him. It should be easy to cry because I love him.

“Hickey,” I breathe, taking his hand, “just you saying that means I have to say no. For both of us.”

“If you leave, I’ll never recover from this. I can’t keep dating you knowing that you don’t love me as much as I love you.”

I put the keys to Pizza Joplin on the counter.

“Goodbye, Hickey.”

I leave him, slumped over and defeated, Janis upon Janis blurring the walls.


At home, Ma’s in a cheetah-print robe, bent over the stovetop. “We’re having stuffing for dinner,” she announces when I come through the door.

“Great,” I say, “where’s the turkey?”

My high-school sister, Lydia, is lying on her back on the kitchen floor. She holds a Gameboy above her face, aggressively pushing its buttons. “No turkey,” she laughs. “Can you believe that? Just stuffing. Burnt stuffing.”

Ma rolls her eyes. She’s young—she was only seventeen when she had me—but it’s hard to remember that, with the wiry gray hair that falls stiffly to her shoulders.

“Your sister stayed home from school today.” She waves a wooden spoon at Lydia. “This morning she told me she was sick. I had to deal with her all day.”

Ma works, but only rarely. The furniture store she works at recently downsized, so they cut a lot of her hours. My income has covered a majority of costs lately.

“I am sick,” Lydia fake-coughs. “Lovesick. There’s a new boy in my home-ec class, and I can’t even look at him without collapsing. I got it bad.”

I sit at the table. “That makes one of us.”

“Right, like you don’t have it bad for Hickey Salensky.” Lydia makes kissy noises up at me.

I shrug. “We broke up.”

Ma, in the midst of taking the pot of stuffing off the stove, lets go of the handle. The pot crashes to the floor, and what hasn’t burnt itself to the bottom spills onto the tile.

For a good minute and a half, nobody says anything. The only noise comes from Lydia’s Gameboy that cycles 8-bit music.

Finally, Ma says, “You don’t meet a lot of men serving pizzas.”

“Good thing I’m not serving pizzas anymore then, I guess.”

“You quit Pizza Joplin?” Lydia asks in disbelief.

“Well, no,” I admit. “Not yet. But it’s not like I’m gonna go back.”

Ma cracks her knuckles, her nervous habit. I can tell that she wants to say something about how we need the money. She won’t. Admitting that she needs to depend on me isn’t very motherly. “Valerie. What are you going to do?”

“I’m gonna be a writer,” I tell both of them. “I really like science fiction-y stuff, and I want to learn how to write it.”

“A writer?” Ma scoffs. “What? You wanna go to college now or something?”

“Yeah, I do.”

Lydia frowns. “We’re having food a la floor for dinner. I don’t think you going to college is in our burnt-stuffing budget.”

“I’ll figure it out. I’ll get financial aid, or something.”

Ma sighs. “Hickey’s such a good boy.”

Ma doesn’t like change. When she found out I was dating a guy who had hung around our house for five years prior, depleting us of cheese puffs and toilet paper, she was ecstatic. Something new out of something familiar was the easiest to handle.

“I don’t know the first thing about marriage,” I tell her, frustrated. “And I’ve heard that getting engaged is the leading cause of it.”

 “Val, you can’t go to college,” Ma says sadly. “We can’t afford it. Pizza Joplin was good to you. Hickey was good to you.”

My phone buzzes in my pocket. It’s a three-page text from Hickey. I skim it. He’s asking me to marry him in twenty different ways, still not understanding why I said no.

“Yeah,” I agree. “Maybe you’re right.”



I didn’t expect there to be so many booths. Everywhere I turn: Join Kappa Delta Beta Zeta Yo Gabba Gabba Fraternity! I’ve never even heard of these organizations, but the people representing them look so warm, and they reach out to me with colorful, glossy pamphlets. “Eisenhower University” is printed in big, Comic Sans letters on the front of them.

There’s a gift shop right when you walk in the main building. People are so proud of where they go to school that they wear it around with them. I might buy a shirt when I start classes.

The registrar’s office is at the top of three flights of stairs. Students pass me while texting, but I can’t get one word typed without tripping.

An older woman with reading glasses and drawn-on eyebrows is hunched over a large desk.

“I’m here to join college,” I say confidently. “How do I start?”

The woman takes her glasses off and they fall to her chest, suspended by a beaded lanyard. She takes a deep breath. “Join college?”

“Yeah. I want to register to take classes.”

“It’s November.”

I shrug. “Better late than never?”

She leans back in her chair. “This isn’t a gym. You can’t just walk in here and get a college membership. There’s paperwork. And you have to have filled it out before a deadline. A deadline that’s already passed.”

I bite the inside of my cheek. “Look. Isn’t there some kind of late registration I can do? My boyfriend—well, ex—proposed to me outside this pizza place that we both worked at for forever, and I said no. Because I wanna do this, and be here at,” I glance at a paper on her desk, “Eisenhower. I’ll fill out any paperwork you have for me.”

She stares at me for a moment before opening a filing cabinet below her desk. She puts a small stack of papers on the desk.

“That’s not that much,” I say.

She goes back to the filing cabinet and dumps a comically large stack on top of the smaller one. She raises a Sharpie eyebrow.

“I just really hoped that if I actually came up here everything would work out somehow.”

The woman sighs. “Go home, do some research online, and try applying for the spring.”

Reluctant and defeated, I leave the office. There are more students with their eyes glued to iPhones making their way down the stairs, and I can’t be one of them.

I’m about to pass the gift shop when I hear a loud voice through cracked double-doors. I peek through the opening to see a large lecture hall packed with students. At the front, there’s a thin man talking into a microphone clipped to his shirt collar. I had expected the classroom atmosphere to be quiet, with attentive students nodding and taking notes. Instead, it’s full of energy. There are a few students copying PowerPoint slides word-for-word, but then there’s pretty much everyone else, legs crossed, tapping feet, lit screens, Facebook chats, snickers, whispers, Flappy Bird—there’s a network of communication here that I didn’t even know existed. 

A girl pushes past me through the doors. She gives me a look like “What the hell are you doing?” and disappears into the sea of students. I slip in after her. There’s an empty seat in the very back.

The chairs are narrower than they look, and the desks are just glorified clipboards. It’s not until now that I realize it must look strange coming in here without a notebook. I dig in my purse for a pen and a receipt. At first I think the ink is out, but I scribble swirls on the corner of the receipt until it writes.

About five minutes in, I realize this must be an intro biology course, because some of this I remember from high school. Mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell. The professor explains that the textbook (which I can’t refer to) doesn’t give mitochondria the respect it deserves. He says that the illustration makes it look like something still and hollow, cookie-cut and dehydrated. “In actuality,” the professor says, adjusting his shirt-collar microphone, “mitochondria are full of life. They are full, vibrant little things, zipping around the cell, performing tasks.”  

The professor looks around the class expectantly, as if they’re going to fall off the edges of their seats, bewildered by the overwhelming interest of the body at a micro-level. But they’re not. A rare one or two people are actually paying attention while the rest are sleeping or distracted. The professor frowns and scratches his head.

I’m scrawling ‘Mitochondria=powerhouse’ on the receipt when a piece of notebook paper slowly slides onto my desk.

“Professor’s got a Bueller voice, doesn’t he?”

I turn to my right. There’s a boy leaning his head on one hand, grinning. He’s wearing a newsboy hat, thick-rimmed glasses, and a checkered shirt—complete with bowtie. I know his pants are tighter than the average pant before I even see them.


He points the tip of his mechanical pencil to the professor. “He’s got a voice like that teacher on Ferris Bueller.”

I laugh a little. “Yeah, you’re right.”

“Forgot your stuff at home?” he asks, nodding to the receipt.

“Yeah, that makes sense.”

“I’m Robert.”

Val is too informal. “Valerie.”

The lecture goes on. Plant cells have cell walls. Robert passes me a doodle of a cell with big, goofy eyes. I pass the doodle back with a speech bubble saying, “It’s stellar to be cellular!” He laughs, and the girl in front of him turns around to shush. It isn’t that funny, but I laugh with him because he’s cute.

When the lecture ends, he slings his backpack over his shoulder. “Sit here next time, ‘kay?”

I nod.




I go home, beaming. Ma and Lydia don’t know where I’ve been all day, but neither of them asks. Maybe they think I went to grovel for my job back. For Hickey to meet me at the altar. Little do they know—ha! I’m a college student!

“You look happy,” Lydia says suspiciously.

“I am.”

Ma is washing dishes. “Was Hickey not good enough in bed? Was that it?”

“What? Ma, no—”

Lydia bounces her eyebrows. “So he was good in bed?”

“God, he was fine.”


I leave for Eisenhower an hour earlier than last time, because A) not entirely sure when the class actually starts and B) I need to secure the same seat as last time.

I brought a backpack filled with mostly-empty notebooks that I found in Lydia’s room. Last night, I wrote different school subjects in permanent marker on each one. I have notebooks for history, math, English, and, of course, biology.

Robert comes in right on time. He sees me and smiles. Today he’s wearing a shirt with a cat that’s shooting laser beams out of its eyes on it.

“Nice cat-shooting-laser-beams-out-of-its-eyes shirt.”

“Thanks,” he grins. “Are you ready for the test next week?”

“You know it,” I lie.

The lecture starts. Our professor begins with hydrogen bonds. I write down the words he says even though they don’t sound real to me. Apparently, the molecule of hydrogen really likes itself, so it bonds well with other hydrogen molecules. That would make a good premise for a story. A girl surrounded by other girls that are exactly like her—clones! She goes through life completely mistrusting of anyone that isn’t one of her clones. One day, she meets a mysterious guy with a bowtie. “Go away,” she’ll tell him. “I only bond with people who look just like me.” He shows her that sometimes those that are different from you can be exactly what you need. They fall in love.

Robert passes me a note. What kind of music do you listen to?

I think for a second. I like what’s on the radio. 

I mostly listen to underground stuff, I write back.

Me too. That’s so badass. We should hang out and exchange records sometime! Say, over dinner? J

I try not to stare at the note for an uncool amount of time. Tonight?

Yeah J

I don’t have any records. Can we just grub instead? All my records are at a friend’s.

Works for me J J


When class lets out, Robert asks when and where he should pick me up tonight. I tell him to come to Lakeshore Apartments, which is a complex within walking distance of my house. I don’t want him to have to meet Ma and Lydia. We agree on 7:30.




I hide my nice dress under a long jacket so I can sneak past Ma and Lydia. This time, however, Ma asks where I’m going.

“For a walk,” I tell her, grabbing my purse.

Ma is about to let me go, but Lydia steps in.

“You’re going for a walk?” Lydia asks. “You don’t go on walks.”

I hover near the door. “I do now, okay?”

She rolls her eyes. “Nobody goes walking in kitten heels.”




Robert picks me up in front of Lakeshore at 7:45.  

“I could have come inside,” he says, opening the passenger-side door. “You didn’t have to wait out here.”

“Oh, my apartment’s a mess. Besides, it’s a great evening. Where are we going?”

He puts on a pair of aviators even though it’s getting dark. “Oh, it’s a surprise. You’ll love it though. It’s a little place that nobody’s ever really heard of. A friend of a friend told me about this Thai restaurant a couple years ago and I’ve been meaning to check it out.”

There’s a song playing in his car. It sounds like a bunch of guys mumbling to bongo drums.

“Do you like this song?” he asks.

“Oh, yeah. One of the best off their album.”

He smiles. “I know. I love The Sunnyside Up.”

“Yeah, I like them over easy as well.”

Robert laughs.




He pulls into an empty parking lot. There’s a faded sign on top of the building that says “Win, Lose, or Thai”. We walk up to the building and realize that the inside is completely black.

“Must have closed down,” Robert frowns, putting a hand behind his head. “I guess no one’s ever heard of it because it doesn’t exist anymore.”

I shrug. “Guess we can’t Thai out their food.”

He doesn’t laugh. “Any requests on where to go instead?”

“Nah. I mean, I’m a really flexible person. Anywhere’s good.”

Robert turns around with his hands on his hips, surveying the area. Finally, he points across the street. A giant picture of Janis Joplin smiles back. “What about there?”

Right. There used to be a Thai place across from Pizza Joplin until it closed down because the owner installed hidden cameras in the women’s bathroom.

“I’m not really one for greasy food on a first date, but pizza’s always a safe choice,” he says, turning to me. “Ever been to Pizza Joplin? I hear their breadsticks are to die for.”

I look past him, trying not to seem panicked. “I used to work there.”

“Oh. Can’t go back or something? Too much drama?”

College girls don’t have drama. They’re collected, laid-back, spontaneous, and agreeable. I try to think about what my schedule looked like this week. Hickey and I weren’t supposed to work again until the weekend, so he shouldn’t be there. Going to Pizza Joplin with Robert will be fine.  

I take him by the arm and lead him back to the car. “Of course not,” I smile. “My life is drama-free, and it’ll be nice to see my old coworkers again. Plus, I could probably get us a discount.”

“Awesome. Pizza it is.”




Pizza Joplin looks the same. I don’t know why I expected it to look different. It had only been a couple days since Hickey proposed, but that part of my life already seemed so distant. Our breakup didn’t reflect at all on Pizza Joplin. We’d put so much of our relationship into this place that I sort of imagined it falling to pieces without us. For some reason, I wanted it to.

And there she is.

“So much Janis,” Robert notes, scanning all the Joplin close-ups.

I laugh nervously, casually checking for people I know. “Freaky, right?”

He thinks for a moment. “Excessive.”

I get us a booth in the back corner. He sits in front of me, blocking a particular portrait of Janis that exemplifies a wandering left eye. I’m grateful.

“Val,” our waitress, Leah, says in a hushed voice, laying menus on our table. “I didn’t know you worked today.”

“Uh, I don’t.”

Robert looks at me. “I thought you said you used to work here?”

“I… I’m in the process of quitting.”

“You’re quitting?” my coworker asks.

“I’m going to college.”

There’s Janis. And there. And there. She’s dead, but her eyes are so bright. She’s a liar. She’s lying to everyone. They’re all blind but me.

My coworker shakes her head. “Listen, Hickey’s stocking in the back.”

I swallow. “Hickey’s working today?”

“He took on extra shifts to busy himself. We all heard about what happened.”

“What happened?” Robert asks. “Who’s Hickey?”

As if cued, Hickey walks out of the kitchen unsuspectingly, glancing over at our booth before doing a dramatic double-take. His mouth falls open.

For a long time, he just stares. He stares long enough to get mad, and he gets mad enough to come over to our table. He hovers over us for a moment, restlessly balling and un-balling his fists.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” he says finally. “You’re already with someone else? And you decide to come on a date here? Are you insane?”

There’s a lot of yelling and aggressive flipping of menus. At one point Hickey takes a handful of napkins and throws them up in the air. “What is he talking about?” Robert keeps asking. “What does he mean he just proposed to you?” I don’t answer him. I can’t. My throat is closing in, or maybe it’s the walls. Hickey and Robert are blurred, somehow out of focus, but Janis is clear. Sharp. She’s trying to come into the real world, to blend in with the living.


“Well?” Hickey presses, his face turning red. “Not that I’m interested in hearing whatever bullshit excuse you come up with, but do you have anything to say for yourself?”

I don’t answer him. I can’t, mostly because I think I’m about to cry. I can’t tell if I want to cry because he’s yelling at me, or if it’s for another reason. Weird how I couldn’t cry after he proposed to me, but now he’s angry, flailing his arms everywhere, bursting at the seams. It’s…

It’s hot.

I stand up. Hickey is fuming. Our bodies are parallel, reflecting each other, and a part of me thinks that this is the way it’s supposed to be. Me and Hickey, forever and ever, til Janis do we part.

It takes him a full two seconds after I grab him to realize that we’re kissing, and that us kissing is wrong. He pushes me off and I stumble back into me and Robert’s table. I wipe my lips.

“What the hell!” Hickey yells.

“I needed to know why I was going to cry,” I tell him. “If it was because I love you, or because you were yelling at me.”

“And you think kissing him is the best way to figure that out?” Robert asks in disbelief.

I turn to him. Cool Robert with his jeans two-sizes-too-small. I grab him and kiss him too. I get to run my fingers through his hair in one successful swoop before he too pushes me away.

Hickey slams a fist on the table. “Jesus Chirst! Quit kissing people, Val!”

“I had to see if I liked him,” I answer even though he didn’t ask a question.  

So there are these two guys, and they’re both pissed off at me. In Pizza Joplin, this makes sense. It makes sense to be standing between a guy I’ve had history with and a guy I could have had a future with and ruin every possible outcome with either of them in two swift, impulsive instances.

There’s these two guys, and I don’t have feelings for either of them.

There’s no way I’m asking Robert to take me home.  I’ll catch a bus.

[OK SO that sucked but I’m having a lot of trouble here. HOW DO I MAKE HER LEAVE??]






I slam the front door. Ma jumps out of her chair at the noise. I rush past her and fall face-first on the couch. Lydia comes in from downstairs.

“Everything is gone!” I scream into a throw pillow. “I can’t go back to Pizza Joplin, and now I can’t go back to college!”

“College?” Lydia and Ma ask together.

I don’t explain. “I have to quit everything! All because I broke up with Janis!”

Lydia tilts her head. “Janis?”

I wipe my nose on my sleeve. “I said Hickey. Because I broke up with Hickey.”

Ma sighs. “He was such a good thing… but he really wasn’t for you, was he?”

“Nothing’s for me, apparently.”

She puts a hand on my shoulder. It rises and falls as I cry. “Something is,” she promises, leaning down to hug me. “And you’ll love it, but you can’t let it define you.”




I get there early again, but this time to make sure I get a seat nowhere near Robert. I feel like turning every now and then to find him, leaned back in a cat-shooting-laser-beams-out-of-its-eyes shirt, but I resist the urge.

The professor begins lecture by taking a live frog and dropping it in a blender. There’s no way he’s gonna turn it on, a student whispers. But he does. The frog becomes a brown blur, a carousel of flesh and guts, spinning and spinning and spinning. The lecture hall erupts in protest for a second, but quickly drops to complete silence. Everyone is watching the liquefied frog. He stops the blender. “A man in the UK was awarded a Noble Prize because he cloned a frog from another frog’s cells. He could take cells from this blended frog and grow more frogs from it. That man creates life.” The class erupts again about ethics, the value of life, and Frankenstein.

I think about writing a story: A deranged biology professor. He lives in an old cabin in the middle of the woods. He kidnaps people and puts them in giant blenders. “Flesh smoothies,” the deranged professor says, smiling. He takes samples of blended human in petri dishes. He grows people from those cells, and raises them in the cabin as his own sons and daughters.

Students around me are outraged. I look to the professor, and he’s trying to control the room again. He’s frustrated, running both hands through his hair. I hadn’t noticed until now that he’s kind of cute. I give him a Janis smile, but he doesn’t see me. The class is too big, and too wild.

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