Another week, another short story.
The ceremony was cold and impersonal. One by one, we walked the stage, received empty envelopes, and returned to our seats.
I sat between two people I didn’t know, whose last names were closer to mine than those of my friends were. One of them was too large for the tight-packed seating arrangement, and her arm acted as a very uncomfortable weight on my shoulder. I took a deep breath to stop myself from reciting aloud the headline of an old The Onion issue out loud—America’s obese, food source for America’s even more obese?!
I clenched my fists on my knees as I sat there, rigid as a board, waiting for the process to be over. I’d already received my envelope; it lay under my chair. I didn’t care at all about the envelope. It didn’t have my diploma in it. I would have to pick that up, later.
I didn’t care for the ceremony, either. I participated because last year, I’d been to a graduation ceremony for a friend at another school. This year, my friends had wanted to come be at my graduation. I tried to explain to them that I wanted no part of it, but they wouldn’t listen to me.
So there they were, in the audience somewhere. I couldn’t see them. This whole ceremony was a nightmare. Our rotund bespectacled headmaster had said a few meaningless pleasantries and then a machine had begun calling our names. What was special about this? How was there any of the previously coveted “class spirit” in this function?
Finally, after what felt like hours—no, it had been hours, my class was so large—the name caller fell silent and the last student returned to her seat. Almost immediately, we were afoot, chairs tumbling all over the place as the class of 2008 scrambled to exit the auditorium.
I stood outside for a bit, shivering in the cool breeze. The sun was out but the air was still frosty, despite it being early June. I don’t know if I stood there because I liked the cold, or if I stood there because I didn’t want to leave my school behind quite yet, or if I stood there because I was waiting for something. I knew that there was something here that I didn’t want to leave behind, but it certainly wasn’t the school. I hated the school. It was dirty and big and generally unpleasant. I was… glad to be leaving.
But there was something—maybe it was the lunch periods, spent in the company of people who laughed at my jokes. Maybe it was the handful of excellent teachers who had changed my life. Maybe it was all the non-lunch periods that I didn’t spend in the company of people I wanted to, all the classes I took with people I cared nothing for, all the classes I wish I could have taken with—
… with whom? I saw my friends every day at lunch. Classmates had become relatively close by the end of the year. So whom did I want to take classes with?
I shook my head as I stood outside of the auditorium, my back against the wall by the door. My classmates were still filing out; my luck had had it that I’d gotten out early, ahead of most of the class. Surveying the slope around the auditorium, I noticed that the main door of the building had been opened. The audience was filing out as well. Women with their hair done up and jewelry and makeup and a pile of other useless things marring them. Clean-shaven men in suits with a bucket of gel apiece. Sparkling eyes, a pretense of happiness. Did they not know that the ceremony had been hell?
I turned from the main entrance of the auditorium and returned my thoughts to the question of what I felt I was leaving behind. It was at that precise moment that that thing I was leaving behind forced itself into my peripheral vision, walking out of the auditorium with chin held high and eyes shining. I turned away far too quickly to look natural, locking my eyes back onto the crowds of families and friends.
Though I was staring at the audience members, I couldn’t focus on them. I couldn’t see them. I couldn’t sense anything except my heart going at four hundred beats per minute and my hands trembling like hummingbirds and chills shooting up and down my spine like they were pucks and my back a rink. Facing pointedly away from the single file line of graduates, I wondered what the hell I was doing.
When I was able to see again—which was probably only a few minutes later, judging by the fact that my classmates were still exiting the building—I saw the faces of friends. Not classmates, not people from this school, not even the group I had fun with at lunch. Better friends than those people. Friends I’d known for a long time, friends who’d gone off to better high schools than mine. These were the people who had promised to come to my graduation.
“You alright?” one of them asked, clearly worried. “You were kinda just staring out into the distance, and shivering a bit.”
“I’m… fine,” I said. They were with me, after all. It was more than what I could possibly have asked. It was more than what I could have possibly wanted. It was fine that I was leaving behind what I was, because it wasn’t something I wanted. It was something I had never had any hope of having.
“You don’t look it, man,” another one of my friends stated. “Anyway. We going to grab some pizza or what?”
“Sounds good to me,” I said.
“Whoo! You’re free!” a third friend interjected, trying to raise the party spirit, and then the four of us headed off campus to the nearest pizza place.
The pizza there was lousy, but cheap, and even cheap lousy pizza tastes good. Despite its good taste, however, I had trouble downing it. I wasn’t very hungry. My chest still felt like if I stuck anything else in it, it might explode. I nibbled away at my greasy slice of pepperoni uncertainly, glancing around to make sure that my friends weren’t eyeing my eating methods oddly.
After a few minutes, my friends, being less used to the pizza than I, commented on its low quality. I couldn’t help but chuckle.
“What’s so funny?” one of them asked, indignant.
I couldn’t answer that question; all I knew was that it was great to have friends, and it was great to hang out with them, and it was great to be able to complain about and laugh at trivial things. The world was wonderful and full of good things; I knew that I was going to have to leave many of those good things behind on my journey through life. There were simply too many to have them all, so it was natural that I’d leave something behind every once in a while. This one instance was not the first and I doubted it was going to be the last. I was just out of high school; a long, long life lay ahead of me.
The one of my three friends who knew about me and… well, her, I guess… smiled knowingly at me. It was an incredibly reassuring smile, and I ate my cheap lousy pizza with great appetite.