Abby Girl: I can’t believe you’re leaving this small town.
Jo-Jo: Semper fi, Abster, the Marines are calling.
Abby Girl: But college? Your father?
Jo-Jo: I don’t care about those, not now.
Abby Girl: Was it something I said?
Jo-Jo: No. Just something I have to do.
Abby Girl: I’ll miss you. I’ll write you every day.
Jo-Jo: You promise?
Abby Girl: I promise.
I pulled into the parking lot of one the smallest junior colleges I had ever seen in my life, with a conversation from eight years in the past rolling around my brain. What experience did I have with college? Especially community college, like this one? None, that’s exactly how much. But somehow, I just thought it would be bigger. A row of bare trees, their barely budding branches announcing the end of winter—the near-end of the school year, as a matter of fact—separated the only two-story building, marked the Student Union, from five others. Students milled about between buildings, wearing the uniform of the newly educated at a junior college in early spring at the start of a new term: young dudes in tight jeans and t-shirts, girls in cardigans and some in scrubs, and older women clustered together who death-gripped their books, all while looking tired and haggard.
Once upon a time, I had dreams of an Ivy League school, but I discovered the Marines to be a terrible mistress. She seduced me overseas and into the thick of combat since the day I graduated from high school.
The same day Abigail James had sent me to the deepest, darkest corner of the friendzone. Granted, it had been my own damn fault. I was eighteen and thought I knew about the world back then, and I couldn’t keep my mouth shut. I didn’t blame her for shoving me away, but if the last eight years taught me anything, it was that some second chances were worth trying for.
Her last text before I left town, eight years ago, was fresh on my mind. She used to call me Jo-Jo; an incredibly feminine name, I knew, but I let it slide. I was always on the rough side in high school, playing football, going out for wrestling, and not afraid to get in a fight here and there. Until I left town, I kept my two lives separate: Joey, quarterback of the football team, or as my coaches called me, “Joseph ‘get-your-ass-in-gear’ Harrison.” I’d never forget the coach that seemed forty inches taller than me, blond and terrifying, who screamed things like “Why you lollygagging around in the back? Get off your ass, acting like the goddamn king of France!” It wasn’t a surprise Marine boot camp had been a relatively easy experience. Drill instructors had nothing on the sheer motivational terror invoked by high school football coaches.
When I was with Abby, however, I reverted to her Jo-Jo, confident enough in my masculinity to play in the rain, go to the arcade, jam guitar in her garage, and rollerblade around town. I didn’t have to think about football, moving fast enough, keeping plays in my head or any of that other crap. With her, I was just Jo-Jo, who could shred a mean Stairway to Heaven and beat Abby at any video game in existence. Except maybe some old school Zelda. She could finish the water temple in record time.
In some ways, I was still Jo-Jo. In the Marines, when one of the guys in my platoon found a letter from Abby and saw the nickname, and it stuck. They all had fun with that, especially my drill sergeant. It was such a joke that my honorable discharge even mentioned my nickname.
So, Abby dubbed me Jo-Jo in high school and I had carried it three continents over. That was me, now: Sergeant Joseph ‘Jo-Jo’ Harrison, the prodigal son, as my father would say, come home at last. And Abby was here, in this small town, somewhere, if her post-marked letters from the last few years were any indication. Unlike my unpredictable eighteen-year-old self who wanted to see the world and battle insurgents, she’d been responsible, gone to college, and returned to our hometown to become a teacher.
I smiled as I shut the engine of my little car off. I could just see her now: exasperated and distraught at chasing around a room full of kindergarten brats. That would be Abby—all anxiety and no control.
Today was the first day of school. I groaned slightly as I stepped out, grabbed my shiny new backpack and books—thank you, G.I. Bill, after all. I’d been home a week, and this school was my second stop, after seeing my mother and sister, of course. Soldier life was over; time to start afresh.
The only problem? I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. Pathetic, right? To be twenty-six and have no idea whether I wanted to be a doctor, baker, or candle stick maker. But definitely no to the last two. Probably. I envied Abby for her direction. She’d wanted to be a teacher forever. She’d gone right for her dreams, while I had spent eight years dicking around in Fallujah.
Well, being a soldier was different from being a teacher. By a lot.
Teachers didn’t get…
I froze by the side of my car, as everyone rushed to their next class, gripping the strap of my backpack for support and swallowing hard as I mentally slapped myself—hard. Yeah, teachers got shot at, too.
Fuck it. I’m doing this. I am gonna make something of myself, despite what my father says. I had to run a couple of red lights to make it on time for my first class, thanks to an alarm that failed to wake me this morning, and I would destroy it later. But no matter. I was here now.
I only hoped Abby could see how much I’d changed. I wasn’t an aimless little boy anymore. I had purpose, grit, determination to major in … well, something. It’s my first day, okay? I’ll figure it out. The texts from Abby, the night before I left, floated across my memory. I’d escaped this town, but she was here, somewhere, living out her dreams. I wondered which school she taught at. I only hoped I had an ounce of Abby’s genius and could make it through college like she did.
Feeling less than confident, I focused on the students rushing past me. I spotted a scruffy older man, easily into his 50s, wearing coveralls and sporting slicked-back gray hair. He trudged to one of the smaller buildings, slowly shuffling across the parking lot.
“Excuse me, which one is building 201?” I called to him, jogging to catch up.
He gave me a sideways glance and stopped, tucking two thumbs under the straps of a worn and dirty backpack as he turned to me. “Just there,” he barked, pointing his chin to the building up ahead. He frowned at me. “You new, boy?”
“Joseph Harrison,” I said, my back straight as I pushed my hand out to him. Normally, I would smile at strangers, but this man stood tall and had an air of ex-soldier about him. So, I kept my face straight and stoic.
He eyed me for a minute, then stuck out his hand as well. His grip was tight and firm, strong. “Glad to meet ya. Sam Warly,” he said, despite the blue text embroidered on the upper left of his coveralls and I could clearly read it, being in college and all. He turned my hand over, and I realized he stared at the edge of the tattoo on the underside of my lower forearm, where the edge of semper fi was clearly visible under the cuff of my hoodie. “Marines, too, huh?”
I nodded as he released my hand and I shook my sleeve down to cover it again. “Three tours over in Afghanistan.”
He pulled up his coverall sleeve to reveal a faded tattoo of a vicious bulldog and his company number on his upper arm. “The gulf is a bad place,” he said gruffly.
I agreed, both of us holding our stare, neither of us wanting to share the horrors of war, I imagined.
“First day, hot shot?” He started walking, and I followed him. “What class ya got?”
I pulled my registration slip from the side pocket of my pack and unfolded it. “Uh, History 102. The professor is…”
“Years,” he finished. “Good gal. she’s young, fiery, but she makes history fun. I had her for 101 last term. Glad she’s teaching this one.”
“How long have you been here?” I hopped over the curb as we approached the tiny one-story building. I wonder if it even had more than one classroom.
“I’m a second year, but I’ll graduate next summer.” He tapped the name tag on his chest. “Diesel program.”
“Grease monkey, eh?”
“Turrets and tanks,” he answered briefly. He pulled the door open and ushered me inside. I wanted to ask him another question, but suddenly we weren’t alone.
I was surprised to see the building was bigger on the inside. The narrow area held four chairs on either side of the short hallway, which opened into a bigger room just ahead of us, with a couple of classroom doors on either side of that. Two computer cubicles sat on the far side of the room next to bathrooms.
The room was so narrow and small, yet it was packed with twenty other students.
“Big class,” I mumbled to Sam.
He nodded. “Yeah. The professor is pretty popular on campus. She’s only been here for a couple of years, but the students seem to love her.” His sleazy smile made me want to cringe. “You’ll see. Professor Abby used to teach at some military school. She’s as tough as the rest of us old vets.”
I smiled back, but only caught about half of what he said as the chatter in the hallway pulled me in many different directions at once. Did I hear him right? Did he just say Professor Abby? I thought idly. Not my Abby, I thought. No way would she be a college teacher. She was the same age as me. Didn’t college professors need like ten years of school or something? Besides, she always wanted to teach kids. I shrugged, mostly to myself, and dismissed it.
A door opened at the end of the hall, and a flood of students compacted the already full area. The classes switched over fairly efficiently, as the old one let out and the new one filled the small classroom. It was a tight fit, with only three rows of tables and bright green rolling chairs behind them.
I exhaled, relieved to leave behind the horrible desk-and-chair combination of high school. A silly thing to worry about, but it had still been on my mind.
I slid into a seat next to Sam, and two girls filled the last two at the table on my other side. Wholly invested in their phones, they didn’t give a second look at me or Sam. The professor from the class just before us, an older, hunched over man, was packing a rolling briefcase and fiddling with the computer. He gave us a quick glance and without another word, exited the classroom.
“Where’s the professor?” I whispered to Sam.
He chuckled. “She’ll be here.”
“College is strange,” I mused, mostly to Sam, thinking back to my high school years, almost a decade ago. The teachers had been prompt, but then again, they only had one room. It never occurred to me that college instructors, especially on a small campus like this, wouldn’t have their own classroom all day. The excited first-day chatter around me died suddenly as the professor entered the room, and I forgot our conversation. Rather, I was too distracted to even pay attention.
She was dressed in a smart pantsuit, tall, with wide hips and wavy blonde hair down the middle of her back. She rushed into the classroom with an arm full of folders that she placed heavily next to the computer.
I had trouble swallowing and almost choked. What happened to her short summer dresses and the cropped straight hair she had at high school? She looked so grown up.
“Welcome to History 102: Civil War and Restoration,” she said cheerfully as she looked over the crowd. “Glad to see some of my favorites here. Sam! How are…” she paused when she saw me, and for a minute her mouth wouldn’t work. “…you?” she finished bravely, smiling at my seat-mate.
My throat tightened. I peeled my eyes away from her to look at Sam, who was beaming and smiling widely. “I’m glad to be back, Professor Abby.”
I could see her nervousness as she swallowed hard. She identified a few other students by name, then called the roll, purposefully ignoring mine, and set about passing out the syllabus.
Abby. I couldn’t breathe.
Abby was a college professor.
My college professor.