I was woken up by my alarm at five AM sharp.
I sat up in bed and turned on my bedside light; in the gloom, I could see that Pat was still sleeping soundly. Good, since I didn’t want to disturb him. I was used to sleeping with someone else in the same room (I did a lot of trips for triathlon meets in junior high and high school after all), so my alarm clock was of the kind that just vibrates, without making a noise – this way, I wouldn’t wake up my roommates.
My running clothes – shorts and t-shirt – were where I’d left them the previous evening, draped on the back of my chair. I got up, took off my pajamas, and changed into them. Then I made a quick stop in the bathroom and put on my contacts: I’m near-sighted, and glasses are really uncomfortable for running and other sports, so I always use disposable contact lenses instead. It took a while to get used to putting them on, I always had the feeling I was about to poke myself in the eyes the first few times, but I got over it eventually.
I strapped my GPS watch around my wrist (an old model, and I still had to save money for quite a bit of time to be able to afford it), and, after glancing out of the window, I also grabbed my headlamp before heading out: it was still pitch dark.
Once I was outside I took in a deep breath of the brisk night air; it was chilly and invigorating. I clicked on my watch, picked a direction at random, and started running.
Like I always did on easy runs, I didn’t concentrate as much on my stride and steps, and soon found my thoughts were wandering. There I was, on my first day of college; the first day of the rest of my life. Well, that could apply also to the first day of high school, or to the first day of work after graduation, or any other day actually. Isn’t any single day, by definition, the first day of the rest of your life?
But it was a first. It was the first time I would be living on my own for any length of time – I’d always been at home with my family, after all. Starting today, I would be alone. Well, not alone exactly, there would be people around me. Pat. Darrell. My classmates. My teammates. My coach. Even though of all of them, I’d only met the first two.
But nobody here really knew me. Maybe I could experiment a bit? Try to change my personality, or my appearance? Make a brand new start?
The thought was exhilarating. Maybe I could leave the old Theo behind, back home, and try something new. Like a new hairstyle. Or maybe nail polish? I’d always envied my sister being able to pick and choose between many different colours, changing them every time she wished. True, boys don’t usually wear nail polish… Back home in the South. Here, in a liberal college, in upstate New York, I was sure nobody would even blink. Maybe? Perhaps?
And if someone asked why I was wearing nail polish? Well, it’s not like there’s a law forbidding me from trying new stuff. Maybe I could start with the school colours. Yeah, that’s it: as a way to show my school spirit. And then maybe…
My watch chimed, and I looked down as I slowed to a walk. Five miles already? Damn, I’d really lost track of time and distance. Alright, it was time to turn back, return to the dorm, take a shower, and head out for the first day of lessons. Let’s see now, the dorm was…
Where the hell was the dorm?
Where the hell was I?
I’d been so lost in thought that I hadn’t been paying attention to where I was going. That wasn’t unusual for me, and normally it wasn’t a problem: I always ran in the streets of my hometown, which I knew like the back of my hand so I knew how to get home no matter where I ended up.
Not so here. I’d only arrived in town the previous day, and I hadn’t had time to explore. I didn’t know left from right in this place.
Which meant I was completely, utterly, and hopelessly lost.
Okay, Theo. Calm down, deep breaths. Don’t panic. You’ll find your way back eventually, it’s not like you’re going to be late on your first day of college. Look around, try to get your bearings. Maybe you’ll spot a landmark, or something. Even though it’s dark and the sun isn’t out yet.
I glanced around, trying to remember where I’d come from. I could’ve just turned around, true, but I’d taken so many turns during my run, there was no way I would remember all of them.
And then I spotted something: a light, coming towards me, bouncing slightly up and down. I recognised it immediately as another runner’s headlamp – it was similar to the headlights of a bicycle, but the movement wasn’t as steady. It looked like I wasn’t the only one out running that early in the morning.
“Excuse me!” I called, waving towards the person approaching me.
The runner slowed to a walk, and then stopped a few metres away from me; they touched the side of their headlamp and the light dimmed so it was no longer blinding me. And then I noticed she was a girl; she was wearing a running top and shorts, same as me, and she had long chestnut-coloured hair, tied in a neat ponytail.
“Yes?” she asked, while steadying her breathing after her run.
“I’m, uh…” I began. “I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I think I’m lost.”
She looked at me for a moment, and then smiled. “New student, right?”
“Yeah,” I replied sheepishly.
“Don’t worry, it tends to happen a lot. Well, not a lot, but once or twice per year,” she said. “Where do you need to go?”
“Uh… The scholarship dorm? Squat, menacing building, real ugly and foreboding?” I answered.
“The one near CoffeePB?” she asked. When I nodded, she continued, “Yeah, I know where it is. Turn around and go straight along this street, then take the third right, and then second left. You should find it right there.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t make it in time and I would be late for my first day.”
“Well then, you better hurry!” she replied with a smile.
I nodded again. “Yeah, it’s probably for the best. Thank you again!” I called, as I set out at a run in the direction she’d pointed me towards.
“You’re welcome! See ya!” she called back.
What a nice girl, I thought. Though it’s weird she was out running this early in the morning. Usually girls don’t go out alone when it’s dark outside, because of safety. Well, maybe she was just bold.
I wonder if she has a boyfriend.
No. No, Theo. Bad. You’ve only just met her, and you only talked to her to ask for directions. Don’t get ahead of yourself. You need to get to know people before asking them out, a brief chat doesn’t qualify.
Following the girl’s directions I managed to find my way back to the dorm. That was close; I really didn’t want to be late on my first day. I was already almost running out of time as it was, and I still needed to take a shower and have breakfast.
Shower first, I decided, climbing the stairs instead of waiting for the elevator. Then it would be time for breakfast. I’d read the orientation material the previous evening, so I knew there was coffee available in the dorm’s common room, but I wanted something more substantial. Something like…
What was a bagel doing on my desk?
I entered my room and closed the door behind me, and approached my desk. Poppyseed bagel, it looked like, with a small container of cream cheese and a mug of coffee on the side. Along with the food was a note:
Hey Theo! I woke up and noticed you weren’t back yet. I went to CoffeePB to grab some breakfast and thought you might want some too. Don’t worry about the money. See you tonight!
Your friend Pat
...And now that I’m writing it I realise I got you black coffee, no cream or sugar. Sorry! Hope that’s not a problem.
I stared at the scrap of paper in my hand. What the hell? I mean, I was grateful, but I’d never known anyone who would do something this random, just out of the goodness of their heart, for someone who was effectively a complete stranger. Hell, I’d only met Patrick the previous day.
But I didn’t have time to lose. I shook my head, put the note down, and quickly ate the food Pat had left me. He’d lucked out on the coffee, that’s how I liked to drink it – no cream or sugar. And the bagel tasted quite good.
My breakfast done, I jumped in the shower and quickly washed myself.
Despite doing my best to hurry, I was still a bit late, courtesy of me getting lost on my run that morning. I entered the lecture hall at a half jog and looked around; fortunately it seemed the professor hadn’t arrived yet, but the room was packed, and there weren’t many seats left. Spotting one near me, I made my way to it.
“Can I sit here?” I asked the girl who was sitting next to the empty chair.
She’d been reading a passage from the textbook for the class we were about to attend (Chemistry 101), but she looked up at me and brushed a lock of chestnut hair from her face so she could see me more clearly. “Yes, of course,” she replied, motioning to the seat next to her.
“Thanks,” I said. “Boy, I’m glad I’m not late, I would’ve hated it if I’d had to sneak into class on my first day of college.”
The girl smiled. “Overslept?”
“No, not that,” I answered, shaking my head. “I went out for a run this morning and… Kinda got lost. Almost didn’t make it back to the dorm in time.”
She chuckled. “Well, next time you should bring a GPS with you, so you can find your way.”
“Funny story, I did have a GPS, only it was a GPS watch; it keeps track of time and distance, but it doesn’t have maps.”
“Right, I know the type of watch you’re talking about, my sister has one too,” she said.
“Yeah, they’re common for people who do endurance sports, both pros and amateurs who are serious about it.” I paused. “But I’m sorry, I realised I haven’t introduced myself. Theo Parker,” I said, holding my hand out towards her.
“Lena Hamilton,” she replied, smiling and shaking my hand. “Nice to meet you, Theo.”
“You too, Lena,” I smiled back. “You know, it’s…”
“Alright, everyone, pipe down!” the professor said, entering the classroom. “Sorry about my late arrival. I overslept.” His admission caused a generalised chuckle in the audience. “I promise it won’t happen again, at least until next week. Now, let’s take roll call.”
He began to run through the list of names, and I hoped he wouldn’t have to do every time – there were nearly a hundred people in the room, which I guessed was typical for a college class. I noticed he only called the last names though; that was good, I very much preferred not to hear my full, long name if I could help it.
When he got to the E, however, my face fell; there were two people with the last name Edwards in class, so the professor also said their first names. I just had to hope there wouldn’t be any other Parkers.
“Here,” Lena said, raising her hand.
Roll call proceeded apace. The P came closer and closer. Maybe with some luck…
“Here,” said a guy near the front of the class.
I grit my teeth.
“Parker… Oh, this is a big one,” the professor said. “Parker, John Duncan Theodore Alan?”
“Here,” I half-sighed, raising my hand. A good third of the class turned to look at me, curious to see who had such an important-sounding name.
The professor nodded and marked my presence on his sheet. “Parker, William?”
“John Duncan Theodore Alan?” Lena whispered in disbelief.
“I very much prefer Theo,” I replied.
She nodded. “Yeah, I can see why. It’s really a mouthful.”
That, and it sounded snotty, conceited, and self-important, not to mention really manly. A diminutive worked well for me, thank you.
The class was really interesting; we didn’t really learn anything, it was more of an introductory lesson, but it was useful, and it helped me get into college mentality. It was markedly different from high school, after all, I would need to learn to set my own schedule and to study on my own – or in groups. Lena and I chatted a bit under our breaths, commenting what the professor was saying; by the time the two hours were over, we’d become friends. Just a little bit. More than simple acquaintances, in any case: she was a really nice girl.
When we were done everybody got up and started filing out of the door, to head to the following lesson, but I turned to Lena and asked her “Sorry, can you wait a sec?”
She nodded, and I approached the professor, who was tidying up his teaching material. “Excuse me?”
He looked up at me with a smile. “Yes?”
“Sorry to bother you, sir. I’m Parker.”
“Parker…” he said, trying to remember. “Oh, the one--”
“The one with four names, yes,” I said. “I wanted to talk to you about that actually.”
“Sure, what is it?”
“Would it be possible for you to refer to me by another name?”
“That’s no trouble at all,” he replied, grabbing the student list and a pen from his desk. “What name would you like?”
That was that? It was that easy? I was expecting to have to go through some bureaucracy at the very least. But thinking about it, it’s not like I was changing my ID or anything like that after all. “Theo would be good,” I answered.
“Theo, alright,” he nodded, making a note on the sheet. “And don’t worry,” he continued, “Requests like these aren’t unusual, though I usually get them from trans people. Anyone should be allowed to use the name they feel comfortable with.”
Trans people? What did he mean by that? Who are trans people?
“Was there something else?” the professor asked.
I shook myself. “No. No, nothing else, thank you.”
I said goodbye to the professor and joined up again with Lena, who’d been patiently waiting for me. “What did you say to him?” she queried.
“Oh, I just asked him to call me Theo, instead of… That other name,” I replied. “Sorry, you must think it’s weird.”
“No, I get it,” she shrugged. “Some people don’t like their birth names, and so they change it. That’s all there is to it.”
Is it that simple? I wondered. Maybe it is. But I just can’t change my name outright, it’s an old family name after all – I’d never hear the end of it from mother and my other relatives.
Next, we had two hours of maths, an introductory calculus course; that was especially difficult to me, since I’d always had trouble wrapping my head around equations, what with their pluses and minuses and exponents and stuff. But it was a requirement for my degree, so I would have to bear with it.
Lena and I grabbed a quick lunch from the cafeteria, and then we said goodbye to each other – she was going back home to review the day’s lesson, she told me, while I had an appointment: I was going to the meeting for the triathlon team. It was the thing I’d been looking forward to most all day, finally I would meet all the teammates I would train with for my years of college. I pulled out the campus map from my backpack – I didn’t want a repeat of what had happened that morning, after all – and headed for the athletics track; it was quite close to CoffeePB, actually, and to my dorm as a consequence. Good, that way I could probably skip showering after training, go back to my room, and wash myself there. I’d always hated communal showers.
When I got to the athletics track there were already several people milling around, waiting for the team meeting to begin. Nobody was wearing sports clothes, they were all in their casual wear; we didn’t have any training session planned for the day after all. As I ran my gaze over them, I spotted someone, and did a double-take.
It was the girl I’d met that morning while on a run. So she was a member of the team, too.
She was standing just off to the side of the group, chatting animatedly with a boy who was a bit taller than she was; from the way they behaved, they seemed to know each other very well.
Alright, Theo. Let’s go make some friends.