By Karen Dempsey
We piled into a long, rented passenger van. Two of the juniors, Dan and Mike, had already claimed “driver” and “co” and instituted the rule that driver chooses music, setting us up for sixteen solid hours of Phish.
I crunched in next to a wiry kid with a mess of black hair.
“Benjamin.” He grinned, showing off a shiny retainer. “Freshman.”
I was a college sophomore headed out on a road trip from Boston to Savannah with a dozen kids I didn’t know. It was a Habitat for Humanity volunteer trip—not exactly MTV Spring Break. But, for me, that wasn’t really the noteworthy part.
I don’t need an introvert/extrovert quiz to know where I fall on the spectrum of personality types. I’ve always been a person who lingers most comfortably near the edges of things, enjoying the view from a distance. Even at nineteen years old, my ideal break would have looked more like a low-key trip with a good friend, or week at home in Buffalo with the people who knew me best.
But some small part of me had pushed to try it for once: fall fully and inescapably into the center of something unfamiliar, with a whole group of people I didn’t know pressed in close. And I’m being literal here, because, as I settled into my seat, Benjamin the freshman was making the case that he should be allowed to sleep on me.
“I know we just met,” he said. “But you’re going to know me really well by the end of the week. It’s a long drive. And if I can’t lean on you, I’ll never get any sleep.”
The drive was long. With Phish cranked up and Benjamin nuzzling my shoulder, sleep wasn’t really an option. So I spent the ride trying to catalog the other volunteers by the things they said, the way they interacted.
By virtue of being a senior, Cindy had earned some kind of a supervisory role on the trip, a designation quickly challenged by several of the boys. She was enthusiastic but wavering, an unforgivable combination among ruthless twenty-year-olds. But she had two smart, solid girlfriends with her, and they shored up her confidence. You could see they wanted her to succeed. Eventually, the rest of us would, too.
Anthony from Staten Island was an RA on campus. He had signed up with his friend Eileen and a kid from his floor named Rob. From the moment we all introduced ourselves, Rob began working the refrain, “Come on, Eileen,” a la Dexys Midnight Runners, into every conversation.
There was the soft-spoken, fair-minded guy who was treasurer of student government. The amazing pianist who would spend his junior year studying in South Africa. The pretty, smiling girl who was active in a Christian youth group on campus. There was Beth—alternately friendly and harsh, caught in the push-pull of wanting to fit in and pretending it didn’t matter.
And then there were Mike and Dan. Pushy, I thought. Kind of jerky. But they were the type of kids who pulled the outliers into their jokes instead of making them their (easy) targets. Also? They were really, really funny.
Along with being an introvert, I was a person known to develop crushes on smart, funny boys. Driving across those ten states, as we neared the end of our drive, I was falling hard for Mike.
Like the children we still were, we found ways to debate everything from seating arrangements to whether beef jerky was an acceptable snack choice. But there were long, quiet spells where no one said anything at all. And there were discussions about things that mattered, too, like the fact that we were getting a chance to help build a house that an actual family would live in.
A few hours into the drive, someone brought up the subject of abortion, and the exchange got heated, fast. Beth’s voice trembled. She seemed about to cry. Cindy and her friends exchanged a look, and stopped talking. The silence hovered there in the thick air of the van. Then, carefully, someone started a new thread—something light. And someone else picked it up. And just like that, we were a group of people who looked out for one another.
We passed a hand-lettered, misspelled sign on the road: “Acers of land for sale,” someone read. “Ace – ers of land.” And then someone screamed, “Yeah! We made it! We’re in the south!”
The house we were to stay in was a mustard-colored ranch set up with several rooms of bunks for Habitat volunteers. I was glad when Anthony called to me, “You wanna bunk with us?” He, Rob, and Eileen had kept up a steady stream of lighthearted bantering and bickering since we’d all met in the van. They were easy to be around. All I had to do was laugh.
The work would start Monday, but first we had the rest of the weekend, beginning with a night out in Savannah. It was Saint Patrick’s Day, so we planned to head downtown to a popular Irish bar. I was glad I’d packed a little makeup along with my work jeans and tee shirts.
“Is that my brush?” Eileen asked, as Rob checked his hair in the mirror over the bedroom’s one small dresser.
“Oh, come on, Eileen,” he shouted back.
We drove into the city and found parking; we weren’t even through the door of the bar when a beaming blond girl flew into Mike’s arms out of nowhere. A girlfriend. Of course. She—Amy—and her friend were sailing the friend’s dad’s boat (I know) down the coast for spring break. They had run into us coincidentally, we were assured, with no previous planning between Amy and Mike, on our one night out in Savannah.
“Man!” Mike said. “Can you believe this?”
No. I really couldn’t.
One night later in the year, my roommate Caroline went out to see a popular band—Living Proof—that was loved mightily for its covers of new wave songs. Disappointed she couldn’t convince me to join her and her new beau, Caroline went to the show dragging her feet a little. But she came home effervescent. Drunk on keg beer, she gushed about this beautiful nameless girl, who had spotted her not having fun and pulled her out on the dance floor, turning her night around.
Caroline called her The Living Proof Girl, which became shorthand for the enviable, carefree spirit who approached college—and life in general—with a seemingly effortless upbeat attitude. Be charming and pretty! Dance with strangers! Infect the world with your happiness!
Soon after we went to see the campus improv comedy group, My Mother’s Fleabag. Caroline said, “It’s her,” at the same moment I thought it. We both recognized the girl on stage for different reasons. The star of Fleabag was The Living Proof Girl. Who was Mike’s girlfriend. Who was Amy freaking Poehler.
(“You’re funnier then she is,” my friend Kim said recently when I told her this story. “But I think she’s got you beat in the tits department.”)
My heart sank a little as Mike melted into Amy’s hug. But I had only known him for a matter of hours. I swallowed my Guinness and made myself start conversations with the other volunteers. I even tapped my Irish American upbringing and requested songs from the band. The singer asked where I was from, then gave our group a shout-out into the microphone. I had fun.
The next day, Sunday, we had planned to drive to Hilton Head. But Anthony wanted to go to church first, and we had only one van.
“Guys, I haven’t missed Sunday Mass my whole life,” he said. “You can’t wait an hour?”
There was grumbling. Silence. He looked around at the group, pleadingly.
“I don’t think we can make someone miss Mass for the beach,” I heard myself say. Anthony had pulled me into his little crew when I was apart from the crowd and I owed him one.
It turned out Anthony had gotten the time for the service wrong, so he would miss Mass after all. But he seemed grateful we’d made the effort, and I was glad I’d spoken up.
At the beach I sat taking in the view of the Atlantic, seeing it for the first time from a place other than from the New England Coast. It was chilly out, which didn’t stop some of the girls from peeling down to bikinis. People swam and screamed and splashed each other. I was happy to sit on the beach and watched, wiggling my toes in the sand, wondering what else the week held.
In the morning, the alarm sounded early.
“Ugh!” Rob groaned. “Come on, Eileen.”
We were putting up the framework of the house. When had I held a hammer before? To hang cheaply framed posters over my bed? The nails bent at odd angles or went in sideways. Wood splintered. I was sweating, and my shoulders ached. Jack, a guy who lived on the property in a trailer with his dog and managed the volunteers, walked around offering guidance. I swung the hammer. Thwack thwack thwack. When a nail bent or broke I wrenched it out again. Eventually, I could set those nails in perfectly and my beams came together, part of a wall that was part of a house that a family was going to live in.
Mike and Dan walked over with a sledgehammer.
“Ma’am, this wall is going to have to come down.”
“This is going to hurt us more than it hurts you.”
“Don’t laugh, ma’am. You should probably look away.”
We watched the walls go up. We filled them in. Jack handpicked the best workers to hang the drywall. We screamed and cheered because, at that age, when you accomplish something big, you can still do that.
One morning there were gnats—no see-ums, people called them. They descended on you and filled your nose and mouth. I was near tears. Bug spray didn’t work, the nets on your head helped but obscured your view, and no one else was wearing them. I snuck back to the house, made myself a peanut butter sandwich, and used the house phone to call my sister. “Why did I do this?”
I pulled myself together. Back outside, a little rain descended and drove the bugs away. We celebrated.
Another day, Beth cut her hand using the table saw and Jack had to take her for stitches and a tetanus shot. While they were gone, we lazed around a bit. There was chalk on the worksite and Mike splayed across the ground and had me trace his outline like a body at a crime scene. Then he called Jack’s dog and coaxed it to lie beside the tracing so that he could trace the dog too. Laughing, I took a picture of their two empty outlines.
Our last night in Georgia, Cindy hooked up with the freshman.
“Tell me you didn’t have sex with him,” one of her friends fumed.
“She would,” Beth said acidly.
And the confirmation was written in the grin on Benjamin’s face.
Mike gave me a wide-eyed, open-mouthed look of exaggerated shock and I had to leave the room and laugh.
Back at school, I mailed off my rolls of film and when they came back, I bored everyone I could with photos of the house going up. I slipped the crime scene picture into an envelope, carefully wrote out Mike’s address and dropped it in the mail. And soon after I got an envelope from him—an invitation to the party he’d promised us all he’d throw at his off-campus apartment.
I went alone. The Savannah group came, in pairs and with roommates or on their own.
“That picture was so great,” Mike said to me.
I walked around his apartment and saw a picture of him with Amy and then, eventually, the real Amy, hanging out and laughing in a hallway.
I stood next to Beth, watching Mike laugh with a group of his friends.
“I had such a crush on him,” I said.
“Who didn’t?” she answered dismissively.
There wasn’t a lot for us—any of us—to say to each other now that we were back on campus. But somehow, that seemed okay. It seemed, in fact, exactly right. The experiences we’d shared together, and whatever we’d learned about ourselves as individuals, weren’t the kind of things we needed to say out loud.
Content to leave it that way, I finished my drink and slipped out without saying goodbye.
Junior year at a football game, I was walking through the stadium with a boy when I saw Mike and Dan in the crowd, running toward me.
They spotted me, whooped, and each grabbed me in a hug, and I felt like my face would break from smiling. I introduced them to my boyfriend and they shook his hand because we were in that strange world where adulthood and childhood, job interviews and football tailgates, collide. Mike, who was then a senior, put his hands on my shoulders and leaned down.
“You’re good?” he asked, while the crowd roared around us. “You’re good?”
“I’m good!” I grinned back, and he squeezed me in a last hug.
“Good luck,” we called to each other, and laughed. And headed back toward our futures.
Twenty years later, I’ve discovered via the magic of the web that Mike is even handsomer than I remembered, with three equally photogenic kids hanging off of him in his Facebook picture. Dan is a New York Times bestselling author who has been interviewed on all the major news shows. Amy Poehler continued to pursue her interest in comedy. And the guy who shook hands with Mike and Dan at the game? He’s my husband, and we have two (adorable, hilarious, introverted) kids.
KAREN DEMPSEY has written for The New York Times Motherlode blog, Babble, and Brain, Child. She lives in Massachusetts. Read her work at kdempseycreative.com or follow her @karenedempsey.