Days come and go, but sometimes your parents can make certain events and days impossible to hide. Dad had sent me a 50 pound box of jelly beans, a huge box of teeth-destroying sugar pills that I lugged up four flights of stairs to my dorm room. I opened the box and the card spilled out, giving my secret away. I left the door to my room open and headed for the dining hall. I was trying to remain unnoticed. I wanted everyone to get their fill of jelly beans and then leave me alone to study or whatever was important to me at that point in my young life.
Beer was the forbidden fruit, the stuff that we all craved but couldn’t legally have. The college town was dry, no liquor stores, but plenty of beer distributors, a uniquely Pennsylvania thing that I assumed was worldwide. I would hear tales of drinking parties, but I never went, staying within the lines, keeping to the books, always a rule follower.
Tonight might have been different if it wasn’t for the need to cram for a test. Can’t remember what the subject was, but it too was vital at that point. Plus, hot dates were scheduled for both Friday and Saturday with the same girl. I needed to conserve my strength.
The anonymous welder, the guy who made the tubular track way for the cafeteria trays, would have been proud. His huge speed bump-sized welds created a road fraught with disaster. My plastic tray almost took a dive. I managed to spill my 16 ounce glass of milk, and didn’t cry over it. I headed for a table away from the windows, one that was far enough out of the traffic pattern that I might be able to get some quality time in, thinking about cars, girls, my test, or nothing. Probably nothing.
Two exceptionally gorgeous girls—we called them coeds in that simpler time—approached, and to my amazement sat down after asking if I minded. I looked for Allen Funt and his Candid Camera crew, but they weren’t showing their faces or cameras just yet.
They asked nice, caring questions. I must have mumbled a lot because they cocked their heads to hear what I had to say. One was a senior, the other in my class. They never lapsed into that “we’re better than you are” speak that split the campus into the commoners and the wannabes.
We sat there for an hour, even though the three of us had somewhere else to go. It was a pleasant time with the sun streaming through the windows, the trees losing the last of their leaves. No promises made, no lies told—it was a watershed conversation. I must have mentioned the day, the milestone, because they both gave me a kiss as they stood up and congratulated me.
I walked back to the dorm knowing I could brag about this for weeks, but I never mentioned it to anyone. I kept in touch with the girls for a while, but our paths diverged and we didn’t see much of each other.
Fast forward a few decades. I was crammed into a vinyl booth at the Waffle House ordering breakfast. My family wanted to take me there, a ribbing gesture to celebrate another milestone, this time marking my first order from the Senior Menu, or “Food for the Young at Heart,” as the menu cloyingly called it.
My smile was fixed as I forked my Senior Menu Denver Omelet. The wait staff came over and sang “happy birthday to you.” A small dish of strawberries came with a single candle, many short of the real number.
I looked back over my shoulder and could have sworn that I was sitting in that dining hall again, chatting with those two girls, and having the best 21st birthday on record.