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THE CLAUSTROPHOBIC ALLEY reached a long way back and brick walls on either side towered many stories, dimming the bright shaft of sunlight a few feet away. Squinting, I tried to discern "Fred," the guy my friend Brian said would meet me. Brian had many contacts. I’d told him what I wanted and he raised an eyebrow, but said he could make it happen. He asked how much money I wanted to spend and I told him. A few days later he told me what I must do.

I thought of Brian as worldly, more social, not like me, the bookworm. He paced his way through college with me, but he didn’t have the drive to excel, not like I did. Good that it didn’t affect our friendship.

As I peered into the darkness of the alley I made out a shadowed form and gulped with the sudden thought, what if it’s not him? Things happened in alleys. I steeled my nerves and stepped in.

“Fred?” I called softly.

The man said nothing, but I felt intent eyes on me. He nodded. He appeared the epitome of average, not dirty or rumpled, but nondescript, with a forgettable face. He didn’t smile. Here goes. I tried to be ready…for what, I didn’t know.

“You have it?”

Another nod.

“Can I see it?”

From a pants pocket he produced a minuscule clear plastic envelope  and dangled it in front of me beyond arms reach. It looked like it. Trying not to breathe hard, I handed him an envelope. He opened it and peeked inside, closed it and passed over the little prize I wanted. He made no move to leave. I inspected the little package more closely.

Yes! I smiled and put it in my pocket. It felt strange doing something I’d never done before.

Somehow, the thrill of fear that gripped me heightened this first time adventure. Taking my cue from the silent man in front of me, I nodded, turned and headed for the street, but I have to admit, little tremors went up and down my back. At the end of the building, I glanced back into an empty alley. He’d disappeared. I reached into my right pocket, grasped the plastic, felt the outline of what I’d paid so much money for and held it protectively. As I walked, it seemed to swell in my hand.

I needed this. Four years of college behind me and already I had a good job offer. I earned it with hard work and personal dedication. This item in my pocket would cap the experience.

On leaving the alley, I became fearful. Suppose someone saw me duck into that narrow space between the buildings. What would a curious person think? Would he or she flag down a cop and point at me. Would I hear, “Stop, mister…!

Furtively I searched the crowded sidewalk. Had anyone noticed? I couldn’t tell. Sidewalks filled with shoppers went this way and that, intent on their own missions. I breathed a sigh.

Still, my body tingled. My emotions; too tight. It wouldn’t do.  I tried to relax and become one with the crowded scene, but kept my hand in my pocket, fingering the plastic. If I could get the rest of my body to cooperate, I’d look jaunty at worst, anonymous at best. Be part of the scene, raise no stir, blend in. That’s what I had to do.

Twenty-one years old today, not that Mom or Dad cared. Dad left Mom after a loud argument…it hit me, a year today! My twentieth birthday. A disappointing time. I hardly expected presents that late in life, but hearing “Happy Birthday, son,” from either might have been nice. No, the crack in their marriage overcame any thoughts of their son that day.

The memory crawled back. I saw me in my bedroom with the door closed, working on an outline for my Psyc essay. I needed to ace it.  I needed to stay focused entirely on my schoolwork. I didn’t want to be here with them, but we lived too close to the Cornell campus to justify staying at a dorm. Regardless, long-term money problems made it impossible.

Dad threw up his hands. He’d done it so often I pictured it as though I’d seen it, and I heard him yell, “That’s the last time, May.” Behind my closed door, I suffered in silence as the minutes stretched.

Finally, the door slammed; Dad’s final solution and not a word from him since. I stayed with Mom thinking only of my need to acquire my final solution, to get the hell out.

We lived in a big house on a tree-shaded lane on Linden Street, except in winter snowstorms an easy walk to the campus. After he left, to his credit Dad paid the bills, but he divorced himself from any contact with his wife and son. Total concentration almost to obsession on my studies insulated me from my parents’ adult mess.

I’m not saying Mom needed me. She had her own spate of problems, her drug dependency generated by a bad fall three years before from which she recovered physically, but with too many pain pills and an associated weight gain, her self-image plummeted. She became sloppy, ineffectual and quarrelsome. Dad had it “Up to here!” words I’d heard him say that echoed in my brain even today. I didn’t blame him when he gave up. I blamed Mom.

After he’d gone, I never felt right about telling Mom to stop wallowing in self-pity, so I said nothing. She’d put herself there and I believed she could have gotten help. She didn’t and I didn’t give her any support. Dad brought me up to believe that you make your own way in life. If you had a problem you couldn’t handle, suck it up. Unable to see Mom’s side of it, we became strangers in the same house and she faded into the background.

Then, in the beginning of my senior year, I met Gail, a theater student on campus. I fell for her hard. Her magnetism took some of the edge off my studies, but I had to graduate well. I had to be in the top tenth percentile in my class. When scouts descended on Cornell in the final semester, they had to notice me.

Gail’s and my chemistry was awful and beautiful and sensible and crazy and we wallowed in it. Mom sunk further into the background. A few months into the relationship, Gail and I had a serious conversation. Evidently, she had it as bad for me as I did for her, so mutual devotion, tied up in common sense and acceptance of the greater goal made it workable.

I graduated in the fifth percentile of my class. The scouts noticed. I had ached for Microbiology as my chosen field. I wanted a job in a top lab with all the tools and funding where I could prove myself and eventually indulge in working up original ideas I’d kept close to my chest for years.

Now I walked stiffly, looking from side to side with my eyes, trying not to appear an outsider to the moving crowd. I fingered the plastic and squeezed it gently, thinking of the near future and the job offer I’d wanted and successfully won.

I massaged this elephant in my pocket, my piece de resistance.

Gail rehearsed her small part in a popular local play today. I wanted her to see what I held so firmly. At Ithaca Downtown College Theater, I mounted the stairs, stopped before the main entrance door, took out the plastic envelope, opened it and beheld its contents. I inhaled and exhaled several times and squared my shoulders. This is for the two of us, I thought. Pleasure beyond measure. The thought made me giddy.

Now on the surest footing I’d ever been, I walked into the darkened theater, resolutely strode down the main aisle and onto the brightly lit, crowded stage, my face hot but my will strong.

In front of Gail, to the horror of the director whose rehearsal I had interrupted, I dropped to one knee, held out the brilliant one-carat diamond ring to her and said, “I love you, Gail. Will you marry me?”

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