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Life After Graduation

By Kevin Wood

MAY 15, 2000:  It will be tough to forget the fateful month before I graduated from college. First, my brother wrecked my car while I was home for a weekend visit. Three-car collision on a Houston freeway, and there I was in the passenger seat watching the whole thing happen. Then, three weeks later, my grandmother, the last of my grandparents, died in her sleep. It was the middle of the week, and I had been walking to school and hitching rides to and from work when Dad called. Mims, as we affectionately called her, passed away on a Wednesday in April, her favorite month because of the flowers and Easter. I managed to cover my weekend shifts that night, and my brother drove from Fort Worth to pick me up after work. The next day, we drove to Louisiana for the services, not knowing quite how long we'd be gone.

The funeral was the next day. It was sad, as funerals usually are, and I felt really bad for my mom and her sister, who took it pretty hard. There were lots of tears. But in all truth, what sucked more, for me at least, was the timing of it all. All the distant cousins, great-whoevers, and old family friends were there, most of whom I hadn't seen since the last family funeral. Most I didn't recognize. Most seemed to always lump my brother and I into a collective "the twins" and make obligatory comments about how fast kids grow these days.

My aunt's husband, a self-made businessman who's proud to tell you so, mingled with us that afternoon. He kept reminding people that we were both about to graduate. "They're so close they can taste it," he'd say to each relative, failing each time to get the laugh he hoped for. And with that, and the strained hugs, and the hastened handshakes, came the ominous question, again and again.

"So," they would begin, "What's next?" Somehow, I knew they weren't asking about the burial site.

"Hmmm ..." I thought. "I don't know what's next, really. I mean, I have a restaurant job, and it will pay the bills all right. I was turned down for an internship in New York, sort of an impulse thing that I had applied for but probably wouldn't have known what to do with anyway." I hadn't thought much beyond that.

At that point, I realized that it would have been really nice to be able to say what my twin brother could say: that I was starting law school in the fall. It seemed to get him off the hook real quick, and everyone looked all giddy and congratulatory. He told them where he had applied, and after a big grin, was able to saunter off with confidence to the soda machine for his fifth Coke. Of course, he really is in law school now.

I guess I could have said law school, or created an obscure graduate program in Oregon or anything else out of thin air. Hell, how would they have known that I didn't really have a successful career with a processed meat distributor outside of Wichita Falls? But, of course, I didn't say any of those things, because they would have been lies, and for some reason I couldn't bring myself to lie at a funeral. I wished I had though. Instead, I shrugged my shoulders stupidly, made some quiet grunts, or just smiled, leaving them to wonder just what I was graduating from.

It was weird, painful really, being forced to assess and reassess my life over and over again in front of people who only knew me by name.

Later, during the service, my brother and I were asked to be pallbearers. The heat that spring afternoon made my shirt stick to my back when we carried the coffin, and I suddenly felt very weak. We drove back to Texas the same day, and by the time we crossed state line, I was feeling downright pathetic.

"What is next?" I kept repeating to myself as I lay in the back seat of my dad's car. Hell if I know.

It was good to get back to Austin -- just in time for Eeyore's Birthday. But somehow, something felt different. Graduation was looming, only four short weeks away. I knew where I was going to move when my lease ran out in May, and I knew I had a job, but the rest just kind of dropped off into nothingness. Graduating in four years is a pretty fine accomplishment, isn't it? The rest I could figure out after the ceremonies. I got really stoned that afternoon and tried to forget about it. But it wouldn't go away.

Then, the week of graduation, nervous about my future, I did what any red-blooded, depressed college graduate in a fit of anxious logic would do: I quit my job.

Anger at one particular manager had been roiling for a while. In a moment of fury, I walked out of the restaurant, mid-shift. I had never walked out on a job before in my life. That weekend, I bought my cap and gown, walked across the stage, went to dinner with my parents, got really drunk, packed my stuff, and moved into another apartment for the summer.

I began my first week as a college graduate with no steady job and nothing to study.

Ironic, isn't it? I felt less competent and more stupid as a college graduate than ever before in my life.

See, there are people (besides my brother) for whom continuing their education right after college is a good fit. My friend who started medical school in San Antonio this fall is one of those people. He thrives on stress and staying busy. He took the MCAT his junior year while I was struggling with a lower-division accounting course. Then there are people for whom signing with a behemoth like Motorology or Deloitte & Waterhouse or Arthur Andersen Touche offers a certain amount of security. They train you, and you get fat travel expense accounts. There are still others who choose to postpone graduation as long as possible, especially when their parents are footing the bill. I had a roommate like that once: a sixth-year senior this fall. And then there are people like me.

I graduated from college this time last year. That's when it hit me. All those relatives and well-wishing busybodies at Mims' funeral were actually perceiving my deepest fears and life anxieties, probably without even realizing it.

What is next? I really started thinking hard about this one morning after a night when my buddy and I split an entire bottle of vodka.

Hung over as hell, 10am on a Friday, I found myself in just my boxer shorts on an old, dirty couch decorated with stripes and tiny pineapples. My able and ambitious friends who live in the apartment had already left for the morning -- both still in school and both committed to part-time jobs. I climbed slowly off the couch and hit my knee on the coffee table in front of me. An old beer bottle with the label peeled off fell over, spilling its remains on an empty box of cigarettes. I rubbed my knee, stood, and made my way to the bathroom.

So, dear relations, here's what you wanted to know. If you're missing the master plan, well ... sorry. This is my life after college:

I've taken up Zen philosophy. I've started (and quit) meditating. I lived with a girl for the first time. I had a one-night stand with the best friend of an old fling. I finally saw the Scabs play in Austin. I went to Mexico during the rainy season. I lived in New York City and roomed with a "bohemian," a nurse with a coke habit, a struggling actress, and an alcoholic depressive. I videotaped a girl one Monday as she shaved her head. I found my own apartment in Manhattan. And I couldn't afford it. I went with my roommate to a funeral for a 17-year-old boy she knew growing up -- he was murdered. I went tubing on the Guadalupe River, got stoned and got naked and made an ass of myself. Bill Clinton's law firm offered me a job. I drove to New Mexico from Texas, 12 hours in a car, twice, once alone, and I listened to a horrible book on tape. I followed a girl to Colorado.

I saw snow in October.

I got drunk with my brother's college friends. I saw Chicago on Broadway. I've seen three plays alone. A priest humiliated me in the middle of a church service in Scotland. My car got towed, and I got a speeding ticket in Amarillo. I moved furniture for money and meals, painted an apartment to earn my keep, and a couple of times even got paid to be photographed in the buff. I've seen lots of afternoon movies, watched very little television, and have kept used bookstores open in at least two cities. An old high-school teacher got me drunk on red wine. I've lived out of a suitcase for three months on and off and worn the same socks four days in a row.

And, I started smoking.

"Yeah ... but what have you been doing?"

The echo of that question resounds.

Those who have "moved forward," as they like to call it, seem to feel better putting down those of us who apparently haven't. These are the people I grew up with and went to college with. But now, when I meet them at bars or parties and we compare postgraduate adventures, they look at me with utter disgust. It's like re-living that damn funeral over and over.

Is it because these eager achievers, like surrogate parents, really care about me and are just are trying to point out how much wasted potential there is lying around by the pool in the sun on a Thursday afternoon? Or is it out of some sort of feeling of superiority? I don't know, I'd hate to think that. Hell, maybe it's just the way my friends are. Then again, perhaps the real answer is that the ones who have "moved forward" secretly regret jumping into the water so soon, before bothering to get a healthy glow themselves.

Gulping down a glass of cool water to nurse the retched hangover, I thought long and hard about it all. I'm saddened, I guess, because I know that there are others out there who know what it's like. They know the cold look from the seemingly sweet lady who was friends with their grandmother. Worse yet, they know the look they now get from the friends with whom they so recently posed in those silly gowns. Arm in arm, cheek to cheek. Only they're not smiling anymore.

Despite all this, I am hopeful. Maybe one day, we'll all come to terms with our lot. One day, if that happens, maybe we can all breathe a collective sigh. We can look the world straight in the eyes, with our big toothy smiles, and in a moment of sheer confidence we can say:

"Would you like fries with that, ma'am?"


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