I step into the Fine Arts building at Arkansas State University in small town Beebe, Arkansas. A teenage student assistant greets me, and I say the same thing to her that I said to every receptionist at Pulaski Tech earlier that morning. â€œHi, Iâ€™m Leah. Iâ€™m a bookbuyer, just coming through to see if any of the professors would like to sell me some textbooks theyâ€™re not using.â€
â€œOkay, let me just ask Lawanda about that. Hold on a minute,â€ she says. Then she stands up and walks into an adjoining room and out of sight. I can still hear her.
â€œMiss Lawanda,â€ she says in an accent that I might have found charming on a different day. â€œThereâ€™s a lady out here that says sheâ€™s a bookbuyer.â€
â€œTell her to sit down,â€ Lawanda says, â€œand then call the campus police.â€
Oh, holy hell.
The student assistant comes back into the room where Iâ€™m standing. â€œPlease have a seat.â€
Sure, I think, just have a seat and wait for the nice rent-a-cops. Just ignore every instinct in your body. â€œDo you want me to leave? Because I think Iâ€™d rather just leave.â€
â€œNo, itâ€™ll be fine.â€
â€œHmm,â€ I say. â€œI actually think Iâ€™m gonna go.â€
Another student aide, sitting on the floor and wrapping a Christmas presentâ€”or Iâ€™m guessing, an empty box meant to be a decoration in the officeâ€”turns to me and says, â€œLawanda said to sit and wait.â€
Great, now an 18-year-old girl, a girl that reminds me of the girls I used to teach at OU, is rude to me. This is the kind of week Iâ€™m having.
I know I could just leave anyway, but part of me really wants to see this Lawanda Harvey, to see the face of someone who would decide, without even looking at me, that I am some kind of a menace. I sit down in a chair and throw my backpack on the ground next to me. I slouch, leaning my face in my hand like a high-schooler sent to the principal for cutting class.
Lawanda steps out of the adjoining room. Sheâ€™s an unpleasant looking woman with a very red face and short, gray hair. She has the type of body that leaves an impression (on the chair cushion-zing!), and her lips look like they stay permanently pursed. She stands in front of me, her hand resting on her hip, and gives me a smug smile. â€œIâ€™m gonna let the campus police explain our policy to you.â€
I roll my eyes. â€œIs there any chance you could just explain your policy to me? I am, after all, a person.â€
She plops down behind her desk and looks at me, crossing her arms.
â€œBecause if you want me to leave,â€ I continue, my voice getting all high and weird-sounding, â€œIâ€™d be happy to leave. Iâ€™m from Oklahoma. I didnâ€™t even know you had a policy about bookbuyers. I promise, I will leave and never come back.â€
Lawanda arches an eyebrow, giving me the once-over. She turns to the student aide. â€œYou can hang up the phone.â€ Then she turns back to me. â€œOur policy is that we donâ€™t allow bookbuyers on campus.â€
â€œThank you,â€ I say, standing up. â€œThatâ€™s all you had to say.â€
She points her finger at me. â€œBut so help me, if you leave here and walk into another building, I will make sure the campus police come and arrest you.â€
I put my ridiculous Elvis sunglasses on. â€œDo you really think Iâ€™m gonna do that?â€
â€œWell, I sure donâ€™t know,â€ she says.
I laugh. â€œThanks for the good time.â€ As Iâ€™m walking down the hall, I catch both student aides glaring at me. The one sitting in the desk shakes her head in disdain.
Iâ€™m not afraid of campus cops (no one in their right mind ever should be), and I know that no one has the authority to arrest me for trying to buy textbooks, but I also know I canâ€™t do this job anymore. Iâ€™m just a smidge too sensitive to have random strangers like Lawanda Harvey treat me like a criminal for no good reason.
I need people to like me.
Itâ€™s only noon, and I know that if I go back to the comedy condo in Little Rock, Iâ€™ll just lay on the MCâ€™s bed with the leopard print sheets, bury my face in the smelly pillow, and think about how everyone hates me.
Instead, I decide to go to the Clinton Presidential Library. I went there last time I was performing in Little Rock, and I remember it being sorta boring, but I kind of want to go somewhere strangers have to be nice to me, even if I do look like someone they might want to punch in the face.
I have to go through a metal detector to get in the building. I toss my tiny backpack onto the conveyor belt, take off my sunglasses, and drop them in a plastic bowl with my cell phone.
The security guard looks in the bowl. â€œYou can keep your Elvis glasses on if you want.â€
I want to hug him. Iâ€™ve been walking around wearing novelty gold plastic sunglasses since Halloween, and only one other person besides the security guard has acknowledged their utter ridiculousness.
As my bag goes through the x-ray, the guard stares at the screen, confused. â€œWhat you got in there?â€ he asks. â€œIt looks like a bunch of round things. What is that, fruit?â€
â€œNo,â€ I say. â€œTheyâ€™re bouncy balls.â€
â€œYeah, like rubber bouncy balls.â€
He raises his eyebrows. â€œIt looks like thereâ€™re about 20 in there.â€
â€œYep,â€ I say. â€œI collect them.â€
â€œYou collect bouncy balls?â€
â€œYeah. I believe theyâ€™re good luck.â€
He shrugs and smiles out of one side of his mouth. â€œWell, okay then.â€
As I walk away, I hear him repeating, â€œBouncy balls?â€
For the past few months, Iâ€™ve been writing my initials on bouncy balls and leaving them in different towns and cities Iâ€™ve visited. Iâ€™m not sure exactly why I do it. I like to think of the stories that each of those balls might live through, who might pick them up, what those peoplesâ€™ lives might be like. I like to think that if I throw enough out into the world, I might run into one again someday, and that would be a hell of an interesting coincidence.
I like to think of all the possibilities.
Since arriving in Arkansas, Iâ€™ve dropped one in Russellville, Conway, Morrilton, and several in Little Rock: one at the club, one in my room at the comedy condo, and one in a Starbucks parking lot. I plan to drop one as I leave the Clinton Library, too, my way of getting rid of all the negative energy Lawanda Harvey threw at me in Beebe.
The day before I meet the dreaded Lawanda, I drive down to Hot Springs.
The scenery along the rideâ€”all mountains, trees, and brilliant fall colorsâ€”is so beautiful, I almost forget the reason Iâ€™m going to Hot Springs. But that familiar dread creeps into my stomach when I arrive at National Park Community College.
One hour in, and Iâ€™m doing okay. No one really has any books, but everyone is basically nice to me. As I navigate my way across the small campus, I realize that Iâ€™m about to walk by the same skinny guy for the third time, and I laugh when I catch his eye.
He stops walking and smiles. He has a magnificently shiny set of braces. He asks me if I can help him find a specific teacher, Ms. Whatâ€™s-Her-Face.
I shrug. â€œIâ€™m not from here.â€
â€œMe neither. Iâ€™m from Chicago.â€ He looks down. â€œI like your neon Cons. Whatâ€™s your name?â€
â€œLeah,â€ I say, glancing at my shoes. â€œYeah, thanks. Theyâ€™re very green. Whatâ€™s your name?â€
â€œPreston. So why are you here in Hot Springs?â€
â€œBecause Iâ€™m a bookbuyer.â€
â€œWhat does that mean?â€
â€œI buy textbooks.â€
â€œOh.â€ I can tell by the look on his face he has no idea what Iâ€™m talking about. â€œSo youâ€™re staying in Hot Springs?â€
â€œNo, Iâ€™m on my way to Little Rock.â€
â€œTo buy books?â€
â€œNo,â€ I say. â€œTo do stand-up comedy.â€
â€œNo, really. Iâ€™m a comedian.â€
â€œTell me a joke.â€
I sigh. â€œThere is absolutely no way Iâ€™m doing that. I mean, I donâ€™t even know you. Donâ€™t you have to go find some lady?â€
He nods and puts his hand up to his chin. â€œHow old are you? â€™Cause I would guess like 25.â€
â€œOh, ha, yeah. I think youâ€™re trying to flatter me. But Iâ€™m 28.â€
â€œReally? You donâ€™t look it.â€ He crosses his arms and stares at me expectantly. â€œSo now are you going to tell me a joke?â€
I know I should keep moving, but itâ€™s nice to talk to someone. â€œDefinitely not.â€
Preston grins, the sun glinting off the metal on his teeth. â€œHow old do you think I am?â€
â€œTwenty,â€ I say.
â€œHow did you know?â€
â€œYou look twenty.â€
â€œOh.â€ I think heâ€™s going to leave, but he lingers. â€œCome on. Tell me one of your jokes.â€
â€œIâ€™m not doing that.â€
â€œBecause this is not the right place to tell you jokes. And if I did tell you a joke here, it wouldnâ€™t be as funny as it should be, and youâ€™d just stand there and fake laugh. And Iâ€™d know you were fake-laughing because I can tell the difference. Then it would just get awkward.â€
Around this time, a young, pretty girl wearing dress clothes and a little too much lipstick walks toward us and waves at Preston, flashing him her best dimpled smile. â€œHey!â€ she says.
He turns to her, they start up a conversation, and I take this as my chance to exit the scene. I wave at Preston over my shoulder. â€œNice meeting you.â€
As I walk toward another building, I hear Preston say, â€œThat girlâ€™s gonna tell me a joke.â€ Then I hear his shoes on the pavement as he runs to catch up with me.
He appears next to me again. â€œSo you gonna tell me that joke?â€
I laugh. â€œOkay. Two muffins are sitting in the oven. One muffin turns to the other and says, â€˜Man, itâ€™s hot in here.â€™â€ Comedic pause. â€œAnd the other muffin says, â€˜Oh my God, a talking muffin!â€™â€
Preston, to his credit, laughs. â€œThatâ€™s not your joke, is it?â€
We stop walking at the top of a hill next to an unremarkable brick building. â€œSo what do you do, Preston?â€
â€œOh, right now Iâ€™m in fashion design school, but I got lots of inventions.â€
â€œYeah, I got a list of over 50 inventions that Iâ€™ve come up with.â€
â€œOh yeah?â€ I say. â€œTell me one.â€
â€œNo, come on, Iâ€™m not gonna tell you one.â€
I cross my arms. â€œI told you a joke.â€
He narrows his eyes. â€œOkay. I have this idea about creating a GPS System that tells you where you can get specific items you might need. Like you can put in â€˜batteries,â€™ and a list of stores that carry batteries will come up. I sent an email to GPS about it, and they like it.â€
â€œThatâ€™s actually not a bad idea,â€ I say. â€œYou should make it an iPhone App.â€
â€œHey, yeah. We work pretty well together.â€ He grins at me. â€œWell, I have to go talk to this lady, but can I get your number and text you later?â€
â€œText me? You want to text me? What are you gonna text me?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know. Whatever.â€
I sigh. â€œWhy do you want my phone number? You donâ€™t even know me.â€
He shrugs. â€œBecause I think youâ€™re an interesting person.â€
â€œYeah, well, I think youâ€™re an interesting person, too. But you donâ€™t know anything about me. I mean, how do you know Iâ€™m not a huge liar?â€
â€œAre you a liar?â€ he asks.
â€œNo. But you donâ€™t know that.â€
â€œSure I do,â€ he says. â€œI trust you. You just gotta trust people sometimes.â€
I end up giving him my number. I donâ€™t know why, maybe just because heâ€™s the first person I run into all day thatâ€™s genuinely nice to me.
I drop a bouncy ball in Hot Springs on my way out. I write my initials and the words, â€œThank you, Preston,â€ on it.
Preston surprises the shit out of me when he calls me later that evening. Iâ€™m in Little Rock sitting at a Starbucks when my phone rings an unfamiliar number.
â€œHey,â€ he says. â€œItâ€™s me, Preston.â€
â€œOh, uh, hi.â€
â€œI was calling to let you know that I like you.â€
I laugh. â€œWhat? Why?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know. Thereâ€™s just something about you.â€
â€œAre you being serious right now?â€
â€œYeah, why wouldnâ€™t I be?â€
After a few minutes of small talk, Preston ends up asking me in a roundabout way what I think of the idea of us dating.
â€œI think that wouldnâ€™t really work out,â€ I say.
I give him all my reasons (age, distance, and randomness), but he has a rebuttal for each argument I bring up. Iâ€™ve exhausted every option of turning him down gently. Finally, he just asks me point blank whether or not I want to date him, and I take a minute to admire his courage. He reminds me so much of myself when I was younger, back before I became so scared of what people might say to me. I figure I owe it to him to be direct and honest.
â€œNo,â€ I say. â€œI donâ€™t want to date you. And it is because youâ€™re 20. But you shouldnâ€™t want to date me, either, because Iâ€™m a bitter asshole who doesnâ€™t trust people, and youâ€™re not. And I wouldnâ€™t want you to end up anything like me.â€
God, I sound so old.
He seems annoyed, but he maintains his cool. â€œThereâ€™s no way Iâ€™ll end up like that,â€ he says.
I hope heâ€™s right.
I used to be like Preston. I used to fall in love with almost everyone I met, and then I would somehow declare that love, unashamed. After years of rejection, Iâ€™ve become much less brave.
Take, for instance, a few months ago, when I go to meet someone for lunch, someone I have feelings for. My plan on this day is to ask all the hard questions that need to be asked. Where do I stand with you? Do you see this going anywhere? Iâ€™ve rehearsed them in mind over and over again, and theyâ€™re right on the tip of my tongue when we order our food and find a table. Iâ€™m gonna do it.
As we go to sit in a booth, I swing my tiny blue backpack off my shoulder, and the zipper comes open, releasing some of my personal items onto the floor. For some women, these personal items may include a used tissue, an unopened tampon, a tube of lipstick, or a novelty lighter shaped like a penis. But when my backpack betrays me, these are the things that fall out: a small notebook, a yo-yo, a penguin Pez-dispenser, and three bouncy balls, one of which lights up and sparkles when it bounces.
As I scramble to pick up the balls jumping around on the other side of the restaurant, the guy with me laughs and says, â€œWhat do you have in there?â€
My cheeks burn while I throw the stray balls into my bag and zip it. â€œI collect bouncy balls.â€
I chicken out, and I donâ€™t ask any of the questions I came to ask because, for one thing, Iâ€™m afraid of the answers, and for another thing, the bouncy ball fiasco seemed to make the scene just a little too ridiculous. We talk some while we eat, but our conversation feels sort of pointless.
At least my bag of randomness made him laugh. It occurs to me then that Iâ€™m so stilted and jaded, so hellbent on making the world around me ridiculous, that making people laugh has become the only way I know how to tell them that I love them. Thatâ€™s my way of sending positive energy out into the world, to make up for the bitter Lawanda Harveys out there spreading cunt-i-ness around like AIDS.
Iâ€™m happy to know there are people out there like Preston of Hot Springs, who release such high levels of ambitious optimism and fascination with the world around them that their genuine interest in other people creates giant waves of good will, more than enough to make up for any one personâ€™s hate.
And then thereâ€™s me, walking around telling jokes and dropping bouncy balls, making the world just a little bit sillier.
(c) Leah Kayajanian All rights reserved.