There are only two types of people on campus that Javier can’t stand: a cappella singers and environmental studies majors.
Unfortunately for me, I’m both. Is that a form of irony? I wouldn’t know; I’m not an English major.
Javier and I met on a train last spring. It was packed, and I dragged my way-too-full suitcase down the aisles, bumping into wayward elbows and ankles. Not my fault people can’t keep their limbs in their seats, but the way they glared at me, you’d think it was. Imagine my relief when there was a single open seat, next to a guy about my age. Turned out we were both on our way to the same place, on an all-expenses paid trip to a college hoping to woo us into attending. You know, one of those diversity initiatives that feels a little sleazy, where they lure in all the POC and queer and poor and first-generation kids and show off their campus? Yeah. Javi and I laughed about it on the train, so I guess you can say we were fast friends. We were like, not sure if we should be offended or flattered.
“Not gonna refuse a fancy dinner,” he said, later, when they served us apple crisp with fresh whipped cream at a banquet that evening. “But also? I kinda feel like I’m selling my soul.”
Through a mouthful of apple crisp, I said, “They probably do the same thing for the sports recruits.”
We didn’t have a lot in common, Javi and I, aside from checking off all the boxes on the diversity checklist. Poor? Check. Single parents? You bet. Public school. Of course. Me: Black and trans. Him: Mexican and gay. Oh, and of course, smart, beat the odds, whatever. Anyway, we exchanged numbers after the train ride home, didn’t keep in touch, both decided to attend. No fancy dinners waiting for us this time, just dining hall food like everybody else. Well, except for the kids that had spare cash to spend at the local restaurants. But joke’s on them because the restaurants weren’t much better than the dining halls. We quickly learned that the accepted students’ reception had been orchestrated to make us feel like we would belong. The reality? Overwhelmingly white, overwhelmingly straight and cis, overwhelmingly rich. So, yeah, Javi and I stayed friends.
When I told Javi about my a cappella audition over a much less extravagant dinner, he said, “No offense, but do you really wanna hang out with that crowd?”
I twirled my rubbery spaghetti on my fork and leveled a glare at him, “What crowd?”
“You know.” He waved his hand vaguely. “They’re all white.”
“They’re not all white.”
“They’re mostly white.”
I chewed my spaghetti, swallowed. Hit him with: “What, you think I should do gospel choir instead?”
He rolled his eyes and stole a baby carrot from my salad bowl. “Oh, come on. That’s not what I said. I just think it’s weird. How they walk around campus singing spontaneously and having battles or whatever. I’ll be in the middle of class one day and bam, your a cappella group barges in, sings me some pop remix of ‘Happy Birthday’?”
“Where are you, the set of Pitch Perfect?”
“I mean, you know they’re going to pick like one Rihanna song for diversity points and then rest will be The Chainsmokers or whoever.”
He wasn’t entirely wrong. But at least I joined one of the co-ed—or ‘’all voice” as they’d started calling them—groups. I could have joined one of the men’s groups, but I didn’t feel like getting involved in some toxic masculinity bullshit, so. Co-ed. All voices. Good for me, since I’m more like a low alto than a true tenor anyway.
Anyway, this isn’t really about a cappella. I just thought you should know that Javi is weird about it. Always looking over his shoulder like I’m going to appear any second and start singing a bunch of disembodied dums and das. One day I might just do it, to freak him out.
As for environmental majors, he basically has the same argument. Bunch of white hippies worried about trees and oceans. Quoting old white men who forced indigenous people from their land so they could ‘protect’ it. Vegan hypocrites who eat meat when they’re drunk. More worried about the plight of the polar bears than the black and brown people in their hometowns. Again, not entirely wrong, but still missing the point. Obviously, I know all those things. But what am I supposed to do? Drop the major? Do economics instead? No. I can fix that stuff from the inside. Theoretically. In practice, I spend most of my time doing homework, like everybody else. But someday I’ll be able to do something about it.
Javi is pre-med, which means he spends all his time in chemistry labs. Or biology. Or both. Literally, that guy always has labs. I don’t even know what he does in there. I took lab classes in high school, but that was just like forty minutes of screwing around with Bunsen burners or whatever. Javi always plans out his schedule well in advance. He’s got a five-year plan.
So you can imagine my surprise when, on the first day of spring semester, he showed up in my ecology class.
“You lost?” I said, as he slid into the seat next to me.
He grunted and dropped his backpack on the floor. “Got dropped from anatomy. This was the only biology class with space left.”
“Oh, don’t look so happy about it.”
His mouth twisted into a scowl. “Dude, I needed that class. Anatomy? Med school? Can’t get into med school by identifying trees. Birch. Sycamore. There. Got it. Give me the A and get me outta here.”
“Aw, poor Javi will have to go outside. You think the sunlight might kill you?”
He slumped back in his chair and stayed that way while we read through the syllabus, and even when the prof put up a slideshow of his weirdest animal encounters. I decided I liked Professor Gibbs, or Pete as he preferred us to call him, a sprightly old guy who’d been teaching here since before I was born. The kind of guy you’d want to adopt as your grandpa. Hold me, Grandpa Pete.
When class ended, I said, “See you in lab,” and left with some other friends. I glanced back in time to see Javi skulk out of the classroom, the last one out. I wondered if he’d actually show up to lab, or if he’d drop the class, enroll in development psych instead.
The day of our first ecology lab was brutally hot. Like, hold your face in front of the air conditioner, steal ice from the dining hall, cook an egg on a solar panel hot. (Can you cook an egg on a solar panel? Note to self: try that.) Grandpa Pete sent us an email with a warning to wear long pants and sleeves anyway to prevent ticks. I weighed the options. Lyme disease or heat stroke? I wore shorts and a t-shirt, and from the looks of it, the rest of the class decided that Lyme was the lesser of two evils. Except for, you guessed it, Javier, follower of rules even when mad, who showed up covered head to toe in a long-sleeved tee, jeans, and a baseball hat crammed down low on his forehead.
We all climbed into a van, sitting way too close for comfort, and our TA got behind the wheel, driving while the professor navigated. I sat in the back row with Javier, who kept his arms crossed and his head down. I poked him.
“Hey.” He didn’t respond. I poked him again. “Javi.”
“It wouldn’t kill you to smile.”
“Shut the hell up, Quinn.”
The TA drove us off campus, onto suspiciously unpaved roads lined with trees, and up a hill that was apparently the mortal enemy of an old college van, because when we neared the crest, the engine stalled and went dead.
Without missing a beat, good old Pete turned around and held up his hands sheepishly. “Well, folks, guess we’ll be hiking today!” He sounded like this was the best outcome for the trip. I was half-certain he was responsible for the engine trouble.
Apparently, he wasn’t the only one pleased with this turn of events, because there was a smattering of claps from the front two rows. Beside me, Javi slumped over and for a second, I thought he was dead. But then he lifted his head and glared at me, like it was my fault the van broke down. Yeah, that’s right, Javi, I messed with the engine to strand you in the woods. You got me!
As we scrambled out of the van, he drew up beside me and said, “See? This is why I don’t trust you people. You think this is some kind of adventure. This is not an adventure. This is the beginning of a goddamn horror movie.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so in reply, I grabbed his plastic water bottle from the side pocket on his backpack, unscrewed the lid, and pressed it into his hand. “Don’t get dehydrated. Also, we need to get you a reusable bottle,” I said.
“That’s what you’re worried about?”
“Come on, we’re falling behind,” I said, and picked up my pace. I wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of an impromptu hike in the heat but complaining wasn’t going to make it any better.
Since it was our first lab, we were supposed to be making observations about the forest and taking notes in our field journals. Grandpa Pete was in his element, using a big branch as a walking stick, always at least ten feet ahead of the pack and calling everything by its Latin name. I swore he was making half of the names up. We had turned off the main road and onto a trail that wound through the forest. Javier kept throwing me looks like tell me this isn’t the beginning of a horror film and as usual he wasn’t wrong, but at least we weren’t stuck back at the broken-down van with the poor TA. (Whatever they were paying that guy, it wasn’t enough.)
I could have hiked faster, but I stayed in the back with Javi, determined to make sure he didn’t fling himself into any poison ivy or bury himself in fallen leaves and stay there to perish. A white girl whose name was either Sophie or Sarah fell back with us. She took a dramatic swig of water and smiled brightly. “What a day, huh? Not at all what I expected. But it’s so beautiful!”
Before Javi could say something rude, I said, “Yeah, we’re really getting the field experience.” Sophie/Sarah laughed. I nudged Javi and told her, “Javier took this class by accident. He’s afraid of bugs.”
“I am not—”
Sophie/Sarah cut him off and whispered conspiratorially, “To be honest, I only signed up because I heard this class was easy. Gibbs has been around so long he doesn’t care, he just wants to hang out in the woods.”
Someone up ahead turned around and called, “Sophie!” She winked at us and ran up to meet them.
When she was out of earshot, I said, “There you go, Javi. The easy A you wanted.”
Javi blew out a long breath and said, “I wouldn’t call this easy.”
We only hiked for maybe thirty, forty-five minutes, but dragging my feet to stick with Javi made it feel much, much longer. To pass the time, I started pointing out everything I noticed, like a lightning-struck tree, and the signs of erosion, and the difference in species density on either side of the trail.
“Why do you know all this stuff?” he asked, after I’d uncovered some millipedes in a leaf pack.
I brushed the dirt from my hands and shrugged. “There was a little park near my house growing up,” I said. “Past the playground, there was a part with trees and a tiny creek. It was the only real nature we had in my neighborhood, and it was the only place I felt like I could be myself. So I just, I don’t know, I like this sort of thing. I don’t think it’s fair that some people have access to it and so many others don’t. You ever get to play in the woods when you were a kid?”
“If you could have, you think you’d be scared of bugs and dirt?”
He narrowed his eyes. “I told you, I’m not scared.”
“Whatever.” I paused to catch my breath. We were far behind, but I could still see Sophie’s ponytail bobbing in the distance. I recognized the trail now and knew where we were headed. “You make fun of me for studying this stuff, but the only reason you think it’s a ‘white’ thing to study is because like everything else, they’ve made you think it has to be that way. It doesn’t. Okay? We live on this planet too.”
Javi sucked in his cheeks and looked away from me. “Sorry, dude.”
I grinned and punched his shoulder. “You can still make fun of a cappella.”
Smirking, he said, “Deal.”
We hiked in silence, picking up our pace to catch up with the others. When we emerged onto an overlook, everyone else had already settled, sitting or laying on the ground, grateful to have stopped moving.
“Wow,” Javi breathed, surveying the view of the whole town and the mountains beyond. He pointed to a cluster of buildings to the left. “Is that campus?”
“Pretty, isn’t it?” I said, dropping to the ground and resting my hands behind me. I tipped my head back and looked up at Javi. “You’ve really never been up here?”
“You know I didn’t do the outdoor orientation. I don’t hike.”
I shook my head. Classic Javi. “Better than the chemistry lab, though, yeah?”
“Better,” Javi agreed, his tone strangely sincere, and sat down next to me. He nudged my shoulder. “Maybe you tree huggers are onto something.”
I smiled to myself as I gazed out over the landscape, bright with the colors of spring. “Yeah, maybe we are.”
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I love kind-of-sequels-to-“Legacies”. It makes me so frustrated how Javi feels like some subjects are “white.” But it’s only that way because of systemic racism and I smiled when Quinn told Javi that it could change. And don’t get me started on the title—it’s brilliant. And do you recommend “The Duck Pond”? Because I am absolutely hooked on these imaginary college stories.
I do tend to lean more towards “spiritual” sequels than true sequels, and that’s what this one is! I’ve worked as an environmental educator and I’m going back to school for it, and it’s incredibly frustrating how students of color are excluded from outdoor education from a young age due to inaccessibility and a variety of other factors. Anyway, I don’t need to re-write my grad school essays here but Quinn’s goals reflect my own. ‘The Duck Pond’ is a bit different because it’s about two graduates going back to their school, and I haven’t re...
I am glad to hear that. I’ll check it out when I get time. Sounds interesting.... maybe you could write another spiritual sequel with the library prompts, haha.
just a quick note that I majored in environmental studies and was in an a cappella group, so I have full permission to make fun of both of those things (not that anyone really needs permission to make fun of a cappella) also, fun fact, this takes place at the same imaginary college as my stories 'Legacies' and 'The Duck Pond', because why not?
I like that you went back to a setting that you know. You did the work to build that world and now making more use of it makes perfect sense. You get more for the time you put into imagining it and your story is clearer because you know about the setting.
In case you have not noticed, I definitely just read through all of your stories lololol Amazing job on everything Natalie!!! You are one of my favorite, and I love binge reading all of your entries. Ill see you in a couple weeks to do this again haha
I’m not sure if it was what you were going for but it was inspired to make the Mexican gay man seem like the narrow minded bigot. It was definitely a twist. It was also a terrific job of painting a picture of what it’s like to be young and in college. It’s been a while for me and you really took me back. You just have a way of writing stories that seem so authentic. It’s really just fun to read you. Great job. I wrote one this week called “The Eulogy.” If you have a second give it a read and let me know what you think.
I like this a lot. I liked it a someone who sings and a white girl who likes to hike, and who's been to college with some lovable grandparent-like professors. It unfolded so organically. Even the backstory felt light in Quinn's (alto) voice. I laughed a few times. The dialog and the narration were engaging. Quinn ultimately made a really powerful claim, though-- to the environment. It's for everyone.
Your writing flows so easily. It pulled me in right from the start and my attention never wavered. I loved how you dealt with big themes, big and very different philosophies in such an engaging way. I wouldn’t call it “light” - that is too flippant - but it wasn’t heavy either. And the description of walking down the train aisle was right on. My dad and brother live in Connecticut and I have have spent many hours on the Amtrak. Another great story Natalie - I really enjoyed it! I managed a new one this week if you could take a look wh...
Thank you Kristin! I was trying to capture that college experience of constantly having big conversations in the most mundane places with people who sometimes are and sometimes aren't your closest friends. And some of my recent narrators have been awfully serious, so it was fun to write in the voice of someone a little more relaxed. I finished reading yours just before you wrote this and I'm working on my comment to you :)