What Could Possibly Go Wrong?
My new favorite bumper sticker: what could possibly go wrong? It’s the question that the completely clueless ask when standing in the middle of their perfect happy ending. And what follows is usually a movie-scale epic disaster. It would be the ideal bumper sticker for the back of my car, but I just might wait and have it put on my tombstone someday. I saw it on a Volkswagen in the LAX parking lot as I was leaving for MIT. I think I’m going to have to start paying better attention to omens.
It’s funny to think that I spent the first eighteen years of my life putting things in perfect order: math problems, number sequences, puzzles. I’d think them into orderly submission and then revel in the crisp solution. Even the bumper stickers that cover the four walls of my bedroom are lined up at perfect right angles. This is my defining characteristic, this preoccupation with order. Which is why it’s really hilarious-slash-tragic that I never focused on all the loose ends.
I mean, maybe it was the whole near-death thing and the falling-in-love thing that blurred me a little. I was in such a rush to get to the romantic finale that I wanted my story to wrap up nice and neat: The bad guys are caught and the young lovers are headed off to Hawaii for a little rest and relaxation. What could possibly go wrong?
Seriously? It turns out that 1) there are plenty of un-caught other, even worse bad guys out there, and 2) I have parents who frown on me jetting off for a pre-honeymoon honeymoon with my new boyfriend. Of course, I’ve listed these outcomes in reverse order of tragedy.
The truth is that life isn’t nice and neat. At least mine isn’t. You never know what or who is waiting around the corner. Sometimes it’s a guy with a knife; sometimes it’s a casually placed kiss. The bottom line is that none of it was part of my plan.
And I should have known better. You don’t get yourself nose-deep in trouble, hunted by a crazy bunch of terrorists, and then walk away with a new attitude and a cute boyfriend. This isn’t a sitcom, and the credits never rolled on the whole story. I should have known trouble would follow me. And that you shouldn’t go ahead and mess with national security just because you can. Really, what could possibly go wrong?
If You Knew My Family, You’d Understand
My second (ignored) omen was the human torch I’d been assigned as a roommate. I should have known she was going to be the match that got the whole fire blazing. When my parents and I got to my dorm on the first day of freshman orientation, she was already there. She is about five foot ten and impossibly skinny with bright red hair, cut short and spiked straight up. I had to pause a few beats at the sight of her. “Hi, are you Farrah? I’m Tiki.”
She is the most perfectly named person I have ever known.
She is from Virginia, and her parents were driving back that night. Anxious to beat the traffic, they made the obligatory trip to Bed Bath & Beyond and then hit the road. My parents seemed to have all the time in the world. In fact, I was scared to ask when their return flight left. Not what time, but more like what day.
Not that there’s anything really wrong with my parents. It’s just that I was hoping to slip quietly into college, blending in, in a low-key sort of way. And my mom did not blend in, especially in Massachusetts. She wore white leggings (there are only six people on earth who can get away with wearing white leggings—my mom is one of them) and a turquoise tunic with sequins along the cuffs that caught the light as she gestured. She was way too bright for New England and made me feel like I was being followed by an oddly beautiful neon sign. My dad, on the other hand, blended beautifully. All tweed and khaki, in a rainbow of beige. He seemed as if we could have just happened upon him at MIT: a quietly friendly math professor whose mind was chewing on something that no one but me would understand.
“Girls, those metal blinds are not going to do. What do you say we take a trip into Boston and hit the Marimekko store and see what we can find?” My mom clapped her hands together like a kindergarten teacher calling us all onto the rug for circle time. When we didn’t move, she pressed on. “Tiki, this is in your best interest. If we don’t do a little decorating fast, she’s going to cover these walls in bumper stickers. Now, we don’t want that, do we?”
“I brought posters?” Tiki was proceeding with caution, not knowing exactly how to handle my mom’s enthusiasm.
“Mom, we’ve got it. We’ll be fine. How about Tiki and I get settled in, and we can all, including you, talk about decorating at parents’ weekend in October?”
I’d just stuck a pin in her. “Fine. And in October you give me four hours in the Copley Place mall?”
Finally, they left. Tiki and I were both excited and nervous, sizing each other up. Tiki sat cross-legged and perfectly balanced on a desk chair, watching me. She had a way of moving her long body and slowly unfolding her limbs that reminded me of a cartoon character. “Farrah? Is there another name for you? I mean, I’m just not feeling it. Tiki and Farrah rock MIT? It doesn’t seem right.”
I looked down at my boots. They needed to be resoled and maybe polished. I’d worn them just about every day since the ninth grade, and I’m more and more sure as time goes by that they have magical powers. It was my goal to be as comfortable in every part of my life as I was in those boots. “Yeah, in middle school they called me Digit because I like math.” And so it was out there, on day one: Digit.
“Awesome. Tiki and Digit. This is going to be epic.”
She continued unpacking her things. She took the bed closer to the window and covered it with a turquoise bedspread, embroidered with a giant peacock. There was going to be nothing subtle about Tiki.
“You mind if I hang these?” She unrolled two posters, both prints of works by Adam Ranks, a popular Los Angeles graphic artist who’d become even more popular since he’d been kidnapped three weeks before.
I sucked in a little air. “Oh. Adam Ranks, right? Have they found him?” I tried to sound casual, like a person with no personal experience with kidnapping.
“No. He’s history. Two guys came to his house, tied up his wife, and took him.” She dropped a poster, and I watched it roll back up on itself. I knew exactly how it felt. “They left no fingerprints; no one saw the car. The police have nothing.” She picked up the poster and taped it to the wall, reasonably straight, but not nearly straight enough. “You okay?”
“Yeah, just a little surprised. I mean, I thought that was local news in L.A. You seem to know a lot about it.” I walked over to retape the poster exactly straight and ran my finger across it. It was a simple geometric design of an evergreen tree, with an overlay of a sparkling poppy that seemed to be 3-D. “How does he do this?”
“He invented this special printer that creates digital prints that can be overlaid with lots of different textures. The designs are easy to make but impossible to print without his printer. His is the only one that exists. His wife has been keeping it locked away since he’s been gone. She thinks someone’s after the technology. Cool, right?”
“Cool.” Not cool. This was the last thing I wanted to talk about on my first day of college. This was supposed to be a forward-moving day, and thinking about those Jonas Furnis nuts trying to kidnap me just because I’d cracked their stupid code seemed kind of counterproductive. Of course, there were good parts, like my sort-of-fun fake kidnapping by the FBI. And John. I mean, I think about that all the time. But the idea of a real kidnapping and what almost happened to me were topics I’d rather leave back in Los Angeles.
Tiki unrolled the second poster and held it against the wall for my inspection. The background was a brick colonial house, overlaid with six concentric circles. But the circles must have been drawn freehand: the largest appeared to be a bit smushed and was begging to be pressed from the left a tad to get it back to 360 degrees. I reached out my hand as if I could fix it and saw Tiki staring at me.
“What are you doing?”
I thought for a minute about how far I’d come. How free I’d felt all summer just being unapologetically Digit. I took a deep breath and spit out, “They’re not perfect circles. And I know this is kinda nuts, but my mind really needs them to be.” I went on to explain my little unnamed disorder and how my gift for solving any math problem occasionally accelerates into hyperfocus on patterns and imperfections.
“That why you dress like that?”
I laughed and looked down at my jeans (I have four pairs, identical) and my T-shirt (I have eight in three colors). “Pretty much. Keeps my mind clear.”
“Well, you’re a regular Albert Einstein. Eccentric, simply dressed, but with better hair.”
I smiled gratefully.
“Now that we’ve let your crazy out of the box, let’s get this room together. I’ll just hang up this one. Is it even enough for you?”
I looked again at the evergreen tree and the poppy. Neither was perfectly symmetrical, but the balance was there. The evergreen erred to the left, while the poppy erred to the right. This happens in nature all the time, and Adam Ranks understood it and had replicated it perfectly. At that moment it felt like he was speaking directly to me. Honestly, it gave me the creeps.
“I’m going to get going,” Tiki announced after about an hour of unpacking. “My boyfriend, Howard, lives in a single across campus, so I’ll probably be spending a lot of nights there.”
“You have a boyfriend already? We’ve been here eight hours.”
Tiki laughed. “No, we’ve been together since high school. I was a sophomore and Howard was a junior when we first started dating. He’s the reason I came here, really. I wanted to go to Brown to study art—I’m no aerospace geek. But they have an Art, Culture and Technology major here that’s pretty cool. And my parents are thrilled because they think I’ll become all buttoned up and eventually get a real job. Which I won’t. I mean, please. But I think distance is tough on a relationship. And this thing with Howard is pretty serious, maybe the real deal. I think.” There was something about the way the light left her face as she said this. It was like she wasn’t buying her own story.
“I’ve never done the long-distance thing.” Hello, or even the normal boyfriend thing, besides this summer. “But my boyfriend is moving to New York. We’re going to try to visit each other and make it work.” I could hear the laughter of the thousands of people before me who had said the exact same thing, only to have the whole relationship unravel during the first week of school. But it was different with John and me. We were sort of handpicked for each other. We’d figure it out.
“Where is he in school?”
“He’s out of school; he’s older.” Her eyebrows popped up, and I laughed. “No, not like Clint Eastwood older—he’s just twenty-one, but he started college early and finished in a couple of years, so this is his second year with the FBI.”
“That’s hot, but what’s with the big rush?”
“I don’t know. It’s just the way he is. He has a lot to prove. He’s a little worried about me running off to New York every weekend and missing college like he did. But I think I can do both. We’ll just have to see how it goes.”
I wasn’t going to get all gooey and explain to her what it was like between John and me. How he saved my life and gave up his dream job and knew me completely and embraced my craziness. When we were lying on the beach in Malibu just days before, it actually felt impossible that there would ever be a time when we wouldn’t be together. “Get your education,” he’d said. “It’s important for you and probably for the whole world. We’ll make the distance work. And when we’re apart, you can cure cancer and figure out what to do with all the world’s garbage. When you finish school, we can find a way to be in the same place, like normal people. I’m not going anywhere. Ever.” Ever? As in the second part of forever? I mean, I still had the tags on my eighteenth birthday presents.
He said ever.