He hadn’t been in Wilmington for more than a day before he knew it was the kind of city he’d never settle in for good. It was too touristy, and the whole place seemed as though it had grown willy-nilly, without any planning. While the historic district had the kind of porch-fronted homes he’d anticipated, with columns and detailed wainscoting and sprawling magnolia trees in the yards, those lovely neighborhoods gradually gave way to a commercial area of strip malls, convenience stores, chain restaurants, and car dealerships. Endless traffic snaked through the district, growing even more unbearable in the summers.
But the grounds of UNC Wilmington had been a pleasant surprise. Somehow, he’d imagined a campus heavy on the ugly architecture of the sixties and seventies. There were a few of those buildings, especially at the fringes of the university, but the central quads had proved to be an oasis of sorts – shaded walkways and manicured lawns, the Georgian columns and brick façades of Hoggard and Kenan Halls gleaming in the late-afternoon sunlight.
He admired the commons as well. There was a clock tower there and when he’d first arrived, he’d stared at the image reflected in the pond behind it, time itself mirrored and unreadable at a glance. As long as he had an open textbook in his lap, he could sit and watch the activities, almost invisible to the students who wandered around in their self-absorbed trances.
It was warm for late September, students lounging in shorts and tank tops, skin evident everywhere. He wondered if they dressed the same way for class. Like them, he’d come to the campus to learn. He’d visited three times in three days, but there were still too many people around; too many possible memories, and he didn’t want to be remembered. He debated whether to move to another area before finally deciding there was no reason. As far as he could tell, no one cared that he was here.
He was close, so very close, but for now it was important to remain patient. He drew a long breath, holding it in before finally releasing it. On the walkways, he saw a pair of students walking to their classes, backpacks slung over their shoulders, but at this time of day, they were outnumbered by those classmates who were getting an early start to the weekend. Here and there, students were clustered in groups of three or four, talking and sipping from water bottles he suspected were filled with alcohol, while a couple of Abercrombie-model lookalikes were tossing a Frisbee back and forth, their girlfriends chatting off to the side. He spotted a young man and woman arguing, the woman’s face flushed. He watched as she pushed at her boyfriend, creating space between them. He smiled at that, respecting her anger and the fact that unlike him, she wasn’t compelled to hide the way she was feeling. Beyond the couple, another group of students played a game of touch football with the carefree abandon of those without real responsibility.
He figured that many of the students he saw were planning to go out tonight and tomorrow night. Fraternity houses. Sorority houses. Bars. Clubs. For many of them, the weekend would start tonight, since many classes didn’t even meet on Fridays. He’d been surprised when he’d first learned that; with the cost of a college education so high, he would have thought that students would have been demanding more time in class with their professors, not three-day weekends. Then again, he supposed the schedule suited both the students and the professors. Didn’t everyone want things to be easy these days? To expend the least effort possible? To take shortcuts?
Yes, he thought. That’s exactly what students were learning here. They were learning that hard decisions weren’t necessary, that making the right choice was unimportant, especially if it entailed extra work. Why study or try to change the world on a Friday afternoon when you could be out enjoying the sun?
Shifting his eyes from left to right, he wondered how many of these students even gave much thought to the lives they were going to lead. Cassie used to, he remembered. She thought about the future all the time. She had plans. She’d mapped out her future by seventeen, but he could remember thinking that there was something tentative about the way she’d talked about it, and he’d had the sense that she didn’t quite believe in herself or the face she showed to the world. Why else would she have made the decisions that she had?
He’d tried to help her. He’d done the right thing, followed the law, filed reports with the police, even talked to the assistant district attorney. And up until that point, he’d believed in society’s rules. He’d held the naïve view that good would triumph over evil, that danger could be corralled, that events could be controlled. Rules would keep a person safe from harm. Cassie had believed that, too – after all, wasn’t that what kids were taught when they were young? Why else would parents say the things they did? Look both ways before you cross the road. Don’t get into a car with a stranger. Brush your teeth. Eat your vegetables. Put on your seat belt. The list went on and on, rules to protect and save us.
But rules could be dangerous, too, he’d learned. Rules were about averages, not specifics, and since people were conditioned since childhood to accept rules, it was easy to follow them blindly. To trust in the system. It was easier not to worry about random possibilities. It meant that people didn’t have to think about potential consequences, and when the sun was shining on Friday afternoons, they could play Frisbee without a care in the world.
Experience was the most painful of teachers. For nearly two years, the lessons he’d learned had been all he could think about. They had nearly consumed him, but slowly a clarity had begun to emerge. She had known about the danger. He had warned her what would happen. And in the end, she’d cared only about following the rules, because it was convenient.