In the past four years, in fact, I'd switched schools three times. I'd only lasted at Jackson High for a couple of weeks before my mom, having spotted a misspelling and a grammatical error on my English syllabus, moved me to Perkins Day, a local private school. It was smaller and more academically rigorous, although not nearly as much as Kiffney-Brown, the charter school to which I transferred junior year. Founded by several former local professors, it was elite—a hundred students, max— and emphasized very small classes and a strong connection to the local university, where you could take college-level courses for early credit. While I had a few friends at Kiffney-Brown, the ultra-competitive atmosphere, paired with so much of the curriculum being self-guided, made getting close to them somewhat difficult.
Not that I really cared. School was my solace, and studying let me escape, allowing me to live a thousand vicarious lives. The more my parents bemoaned Hollis's lack of initiative and terrible grades, the harder I worked. And while they were proud of me, my accomplishments never seemed to get me what I really wanted. I was such a smart kid, I should have figured out that the only way to really get my parents' attention was to disappoint them or fail. But by the time I finally realized that, succeeding was already a habit too ingrained to break. My dad finally moved out at the beginning of my sophomore year, renting a furnished apartment right near campus in a complex mostly populated by students. I was supposed to spend every weekend there, but he was in such a funk—still struggling with his second book, his publication (or lack of it) called into question just as my mom's was getting so much attention—that it wasn't exactly enjoyable. Then again, my mom's house wasn't much better, as she was so busy celebrating her newfound single life, and academic success, that she had people over all the time, students coming and going, dinner parties every weekend. It seemed like there was no middle ground anywhere, except at Ray's Diner.
I'd driven past it a million times but had never thought of stopping until one night when I was heading back to my mom's around two A.M. My dad, like my mom, didn't really keep close tabs on me. Because of my school schedule—one night class, flexible daytime seminar hours, and several independent studies—I came and went as I pleased, with little or no questioning, so neither of them really noticed that I wasn't sleeping. That night, I glanced in at Ray's, and something about it just struck me. It looked warm, safe almost, populated by people who at least I had one thing in common with. So I pulled in, went inside, and ordered a cup of coffee and some apple pie. I stayed until sunrise.
The nice thing about Ray's was that even once I became a regular, I still got to be alone. Nobody was asking for more than I wanted to give, and all the interactions were short and sweet. If only all relationships could be so simple, with me always knowing my role exactly.
Back in the fall, one of the waitresses, a heavyset older woman whose nametag said JULIE, had peered down at the application I was working on as she refilled my coffee cup.
"Defriese University," she read out loud. Then she looked at me. "Pretty good school."
"One of the best," I agreed.
"Think you'll get in?"
I nodded. "Yeah. I do."