I was leaving the next day, and in spite of my best preparations, I just wasn't ready.
I had a life now, and didn't want to leave it.
But I had to go; if I didn't I'd always wonder if I had what it took to make it on my own in the world. And I needed to know that.
Tipper was in town, and he looked me up.
He took me lunch.
"I'm so glad you decided to volunteer," he said over a tuna-salad sandwich. "When do you leave?"
"Really? I guess my timing is good then. I'm kind of here on official business."
"Because, Dani, you have unusual skills, and we always need linguists."
"Yeah, but they know what all languages I speak. Why send you? I'm all done with my paperwork."
"Have you heard about Guatemala?"
"Yes." Earlier in the year, it had been hit by a huge earthquake. Tens of thousands were dead and many more homeless. "But the Peace Corps has been there since February."
"True, but there is still a lot to do. There are lots of German speaking immigrants there, as well as Spanish speakers. We could use your expertise."
"But I'm not trained yet. I'll be at Camp Winsome for three months, at least."
"Maybe not." He reached into his valise and pulled out a form. "This is an offer, you don't see them often, to waive part of all of your training and get you in the field.
"You still have some very important skills to learn, but we need to get you in the field Dani, where you can do the most good. It comes with a probationary rank of Third-Class."
"What's the catch?" I had learned from Tammy. There was always a catch.
"Just this; you will go sooner than your fellow volunteers, and get into the thick of it. It will be hard, but you'll be able to do it after a minimum of time at Winsome."
"Wow, Tipper. Why me?"
"Because, you speak all those languages. There's not another linguist in the pipeline who can speak both German and Spanish. Like I said, we need you."
"So what do I get out of it?"
"More money for college. Third-Class earns twenty-five percent more their first year than a Recruit. You'll take your pay and benefits at the higher rank from the start. Plus, you'll make Second-Class sooner. Field experience is the number one criteria for promotion; you could make it in six months, maybe less."
"You think so?"
"You have what it takes."
"Do you need an answer right now?"
"No. Take the offer with you. If you sign it and turn it in when you in-process at Offutt, they'll get it going."
"Wow, Tipper, thanks."
"No problem, kid, but it's not me; you are the one who speaks all those languages."
I considered it, and finished my meal. In the end, I didn't sign, I just took it and wished Tipper well.
Then I drove off to find Tammy. I hadn't seen her much since I graduated, and I was worried she might drop out of school, or worse.
I had in my glove box the title, signed over to her. I was going to make sure she had a chance.
I found her in a derelict park in East St. Louis, sitting on a tire swing, drinking bourbon.
"You tryin' to kill yourself with a bottle?"
"No," she said and took another swig. She smiled at me, but it was a hollow rictus. She was definitely on the edge.
She held up a bottle of pills. "With these."
"What are those, Tammy?"
She handed me the pill bottle.
"So you are trying to kill yourself?"
"Maybe." Even the sad smile was gone. "What else should I do?"
"Dammit, Tammy, what's wrong with you? I came here to cheer you up."
"Yay for you," she said flatly, taking another swig of whiskey. "What do you care, anyway? You're leaving."
"Not forever, I'll be back."
"Yeah, in four years, then it'll be off to college and I won't see you till we're Topher's age. I won't make it that long, hon. I'll be old and toothless with six kids and drawin' welfare."
"No you won't, you're going school."
"Oh yeah? For what? How?"
"For whatever you want. But first you have to finish high school."
"You mean, go to college? That's rich, girl."
"Not a girl, hon," I reminded her gently. "And yes, you're going to college."
"That'll be the day."
"It will. Look, Tammy, I've made some arrangements, with Topher and Mary Jane."
"What kind of arrangements?"
"For one thing, they said you could stay with them until you graduate. And they'll help you find a job. You'll be eighteen this month and you can start looking for something better than McDonald's. They have connections. I can't help you out with college, but if you get good grades, you should have no problem getting grants and loans. Your parents surely don't make enough to keep you from that."
"Look, Dani, I know you're trying to help, but I don't want that."
"Maybe not, but you'll take it. I insist. And I'm your bestest friend."
"Dammit, Dani. Why?"
"Because I love you Tammy, and I care about what happens. But you gotta do me two favors."
"One, you have to take my car. I won't need it, but I want it to it to find a good home. You can have it for free."
"I don't have a license," she pointed out.
"But you will, if you have a car."
"Okay, and two?"
"You have to promise me you'll go to college."
"No. I said I don't want to go."
"Just one semester. Promise me that."
"Because I know you can do it. You may even like it."
"Yeah, right. Look Dani, I know what you're trying to do, but I'm not like you; I'm not college material."
"Well, then, go to a trade school."
"Yes. It only takes a year or two, and it a lot more fun. You could be a potter, like Topher, or a technician like Daddy. There's no end to what you could do."
She was looking a little less down in the mouth.
"I could, couldn't I? I always wanted to fix things."
"Yes, Tammy, that's the spirit. Are you with me?"
"Yeah," she said, dropping the bottle of pills into the sand. "I think so."
"But you need to get help too. I've seen how much you can drink, and you didn't learn that by watching. I want you to look up Bobbi when I'm gone and go to her meetings."
"What, you mean talk to people with problems like mine?"
"And they'd understand? Like real problems, not 'oh, I broke my nail' kinda shit?"
"Trust me, Tammy. Some of these kids make you look like a prima donna."
"You're really not going to give up on me, are you?"
"No. And Topher isn't either. Neither are my folks. They offered my room, if you'd rather stay there, but I figured you'd want to room with Topher and Mary Jane."
"Okay, bestest friend." She smiled; her forecast was still melancholy with a chance of thunderstorms, but with a ray of hope glimmering in her eyes.
"If'n you ain't givin' up on me, I ain't either."
Gina was growing up, in spite of my wishes to the contrary. But she was determined, so I tried to accept it with certain amount of dignity.
She had spent the night with us a couple of times since I'd graduated, and always with Sanjin.
It wasn't my idea, but Topher's and Mary Jane's. They said Gina and Sanjin needed some space together, without either of their parents, or they would find it on their own. I think they both thought the poor kids might elope.
I thought they'd all been reading too much Shakespeare.
Topher insisted on letting them have our room when they slept over. I was a little miffed at first, but after the first night, I understood. They must've made love ten times that night, loudly. I know they were using condoms because Sanjin kept coming in and taking them out of the bowl Mary Jane kept beside the front door.
She didn't use them, but they were handed out copiously in the GBLT community and she kept us well stocked.
Topher and I used plenty, but only as socks.
I mentioned they were loud; sometime they would both make a lot of noise. Sometimes it would be Gina screaming, and I hoped he was thinking with the right head. Other times only Sanjin would moan, his ecstasy building into punctuated throes.
I was terribly embarrassed to overhear it.
But I was more alarmed, no shocked, when Sanjin stood up during dinner at my folks house and said "Mr. and Ms. Kheywood, I haff somezink I need to say."
"Sure son," Daddy told him, "what is it?"
"We have decided we are goink to spend our lives together."
"What was that young man?" Mother, already suspicious, was like a bloodhound on that scent.
"I love hyour daughter, and I hwant to marry her."
"Don't you think that's a bit premature," she asked straining to be civil. "And besides, when did you two become, ahem, an item?"
"I hlove her, she hloves me. What else is there to know?"
"That she's only fourteen, and that's a felony in this state. I was afraid something like this would happen. Why is it that my children, my wonderful, obedient, smart children, insist on age-inappropriate relationships?"
She looked at me and Gina both.
"How serious is this?"
"I vant her to marry me. Vhen she is old enough."
"Oh? Well, at least one of you has heard of waiting."
"Mother," Gina defended herself, "you've seen us dance; we are so good together. Sanjin wants to take me with him, when he goes off to school. He's the best in the city. Possibly the state. We have what it takes to dance professionally."
"What about your school?"
"I will finish high-school, for all the good it will do. But I want to go to Juilliard with him."
"Juilliard," Mother asked. "Are you sure you can get in?"
Gina and Sanjin both nodded enthusiastically.
"You would only have one year together there," Daddy observed.
"I'll take it, if that's all I can have."
"You two are determined," Mother asked. "Aren't you?"
They took each other's hands and nodded again.
"Listen, Romeo, if you hurt her, or cross that line I know you're thinking about before she's of age, I swear I'll break both of you knee caps."
"It's a deal," he smiled, and shook her hand. "I hlove you Gina."
"Oh my God, Mitchell, what are we to do?"
"One day at a time, honey. And, besides, we still have Robbie."
She turned to my baby brother.
"You're not seeing someone on the sly, are you?"