This story is a work of fiction but inspired by the true experience
Her name was Janet. We were in the same Engage group during my first semester at Northwestern at the campus Wesley Foundation—a semester-long bible study group for freshman. I didn’t know her well, but I did see her at an open mic night hosted by the college radio station towards the end of fall semester. I was playing a couple songs—“Ring Them Bells” by Bob Dylan and the reindeer song from Frozen, which had come out a month or two before. I was explaining what songs I was going to play to her, and she was excited when I said I was doing the Frozen song. Well, I was the second performer of the night—which was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because I got my performance out of the way and was then free to enjoy the rest of the night. A curse, because the crowd was just getting warmed up and everybody was paying more attention than they would be later on. I led with “Ring Them Bells,” and I’m not sure how it sounded because my guitar wouldn’t output audio to the PA, so I was playing purely acoustic next to a cardioid microphone, one for me and one for my guitar. I know I mis-played several of the chords, but ultimately wound my way to the end of the first song. People clapped, but they felt like claps of sympathy more than anything else. “My next song,” I said, slowly. “Is about reindeers. And people. From Frozen.” I know I got a few laughs for this, and then I sang it. I remember, as I played the last, intentionally discordant notes of the song, seeing people smiling and laughing and clapping, and Janet on the front row, on her feet, laughing.
Which I didn’t think about much at the time.
2 Years Later
“Hey,” I said as I looked over at the new person who had just walked into the classroom—it was Janet. “It’s been a while,” I said.
Smiling, she agreed, and we talked for a bit. Except for a couple times in passing sophomore year, Janet and I hadn’t seen or talked to each other since freshman year. Now, it was spring semester of junior year—two summers had gone by.
The class was an introductory legal policy class, taught by a local attorney—Professor Stevens—and it met for 3 hours every Wednesday night.
It was late on a Friday night. I had participated in a sound check and setup that morning, competed in a debate competition all afternoon, and had then headed straight to a local church to get ready for a worship night happening at seven. Fighting a headache due to lack of food, I awkwardly mingled with the other musicians until seven o’clock rolled around and some friends arrived for the show. I sat most of the service, enjoying the music, playing when my turn finally came.
All of these details are mostly irrelevant, but I’m just trying to set the stage.
It was 9.30, and the service was finally over. Musicians began to drift out. I mingled with some of the other musicians and friends who had attended.
When I finished, I texted my friend Will that I was on my way over to his place—the Incubator, as I had christened the house he lived at with his three roommates. I needed to borrow a soldering iron to fix an audio cable that had been torn earlier that day while setting up for the sound check. The weather was cool in the darkness of a southern spring, and I kept the radio playing loudly to help maintain my alertness as I drove by the gas station, over the railroad tracks, and through the woods to the Incubator. Will and his roommates were watching TV, but when I walked in, Will took me to his garage, where he kept all his soldering irons. I say “all,” because apparently he had two cheap old irons in addition to a bigger, nicer one he used himself. Unsure which one actually worked, Will plugged both of the cheap ones in to test. While we waited for them to heat (and later cool), we sat in the garage and talked (the garage was well-equipped with a coffee table, two couches, a fridge, and many, many, other odds and ends).
We talked about all sorts of things, from the doctrine of original sin and backslidden Christians to the behavior of electricity at power plants. I mentioned Janet to Will, just noting how she had come by the programming competition I participated in the day before and had seemed really interested in it.
“You have her number, right?” said Will. “You should ask her out.”
“Yeeeaaah,” I said, skeptically. “But it’s so close to the end of the semester. And I’m not sure I really feel like trying anything romantic right now.” I paused. “But. Since summer’s almost here, I’ve really got nothing to lose. I mean, if we go on a date and it’s awful, then I get to leave for the summer and not see her again.” I realized that my thinking, while pragmatic, was not very nice. “I’m an awful person, aren’t I?” I said.
Will shrugged. The topic changed. We talked some more, and I left.
The next morning, I woke, late, if I remember correctly. While drinking coffee, I pulled out my laptop and opened Facebook. Scrolling through my news feed, a picture appeared. It was Janet, next to a man. It was a sorority formal, and the man in the photo was her date—a football star, no less. He had a championship bowl ring and everything.
I laughed, and then I told my roommate, David, what Will had told me, and what I discovered. David listened, then he shook his head. “Nah, having a date to formal, that’s just a…formality—you’ve still got a shot.”
I shook my head, and I didn’t really think about it again.
You’re probably wondering when I’ll get to the important part of the story. Well, hang on.
The following Tuesday, around 11, Dr. McCullin, the computer science professor teacher teaching us the theory of computing, let the students take a five minute break, halfway into his 2 hour long lecture. Stepping out into the hall for a drink, I noticed as I was returning to the classroom a poster on a bulletin board advertising a drive-in movie showing of Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Back in the classroom, I mention to the classmates sitting around me, “They’re showing Avengers tonight. That would probably be cool.”
At this, Ron, who I had several classes with—including the one with Janet, leaned forward and said in a quiet, quirky tone, “You should ask Janet to go with you.”
I turned around and stared at him with a quizzical smile.
“What?” he said, giving an impish grin in reply. “Penny for your thoughts?”
I didn’t have time to reply because Dr. McCullin resumed teaching at that moment.
After class, as I hurried to pack up my notes to head to my next class, I turned to Ron. “The reason I gave you that look is because you’re the second person who’s told me I should ask Janet out in the past week.”
Ron shrugged. “I just noticed both of you seemed like really…normal people. Who are both friendly. And I thought—” he motioned with his hands, bringing them together in a figurative gesture. “And I notice people. When I’m sitting in the back of that class, every time I look over at her, she’s looking at you.”
I laugh. “That’s because Professor Stevens stands over where I am,” I said, but I had been convinced. I pulled out my phone, composed a quick message to ask Janet if she’d like to go with me, and sent it off. Normally, I would have re-read the text 10 million times before sending it and said at least one prayer, but this time I was quick to tap the send icon—as I had told Will, I had nothing to lose if she turned me down.
Sitting at the back of the lecture hall at my next class, I checked my phone periodically. No response. It had only been 10 minutes. She’s in class, or busy doing something. I said. Don’t worry. That didn’t help. I felt like I was being torn apart with anxiety for the next 20 or so minutes. But then, a reply!
That sounds like fun. Yeah, I’m down!
So it was settled. Looking over at Ron, I whispered, “It’s happening.”
“What?” he said, confused for a moment.
I gestured at my phone, and he realized what I was saying. He smiled that same impish grin, “I told you so.”
At 7.15 that night, I rolled up to Janet’s apartment in my freshly washed and vacuumed Nissan Sentra. She came out almost immediately, and I drove us to Sonic, where we got drinks for during the movie—her a Cherry Coke and me a Cherry Limeade.
We chatted about class, and sports, and about favorite hobbies. It was not memorable conversation, but it was pleasant.
Pulling up to the parking lot where the movie was scheduled to play, an attendant guided us to a spot at the front of the lot, a great position for viewing the screen. The rest was an agreeable blur. I learned about Snapchat (which I had not used before and have not used since that night), and we both ended up angling our seats back—Janet did first to get more comfortable, and I did too when I realized it enabled me to see the screen better without contorting my neck as much. The movie was good, but I’d seen it 3 or 4 times already, so I’ll admit I was slightly bored throughout.
On the way back to Janet’s apartment, we talked about movies and TV shows. When I pulled up at her apartment again, she thanked me for inviting her and told me how she’d never been to a drive-in movie before and had wanted to try it. I told her I’d enjoyed it, too.
“See you Wednesday!” she said, as she got out.
“Yep!” I said. We were all friendly smiles.
And that was that. The most normal, regret-free date I had ever had. I didn’t ask her out again or do anything in the remaining week and half before school let out for summer—we were both incredibly busy, so it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. I’m not saying it was a ridiculously good, best-date-ever sort of thing. But it was fun, and I regret nothing. Which, for someone who had mostly awkward, cringy memories of interactions with the opposite sex up to that point in life, was something very refreshing.