My Voice from the Past

April 10, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

I frequently write things that have nothing do with movies, although most of them go unpublished because of my fundamental laziness when it comes to taking all the tedious steps necessary to get them from a semi-final state to where they're in a publisher's hands. Editing, re-writing, query letters, rejection notices... who needs that, especially in an era where the web has made it easier to get things into the public eye without going through the process? (Note: having had two books published, I can speak with some authority on what a pain in the ass it is.) The three "Price" novels I have written are available on this site, but fantasy is not to the taste of many readers of my reviews or this column. So what about other stuff?

Earlier this year, I indicated that my penchant for reviewing started when I embarked upon a project in 1991 of providing a write-up for every episode of the original Star Trek TV series. There are two problems with making these available for on-line consumption and ridicule (something more than a few e-mailers have requested): the only copies I have are hard copies, so the effort (even using a scanner and OCR software) is not insignificant, and some of them are embarrassing for me to read after all these years. Another request I have received is for non-fantasy prose, and that's easier to provide. Written about 15 years ago, this is an autobiographical short story about my first meeting with the woman who would become my college girlfriend. Those who read the "My Life as a Geek" series will recognize her impact on my movie-going habits. It's short (about 1400 words) and self-indulgent but hopefully some of you will find it interesting.

The first time I met Tracie was at a party following the last round of fall semester finals. I was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, slowly gathering steam in the electrical engineering curriculum I had chosen, and my last exam in a basic circuits course had finished at six o'clock in the evening. Too late to walk to the train station. A twenty-block stroll through Philadelphia at night can be a harrowing experience and is not to be undertaken lightly. So I stayed in the dorm, intending to make the sojourn the next morning.

I lived in a three-bedroom quad - that's four people to three rooms: two singles and one double. I was unlucky enough to be stuck with a roommate, and Rich was not the most considerate of people to live with. Most of the time he was okay on Mondays and Tuesdays, but later in the week he had an annoying tendency to come in around two in the morning, usually not on tiptoes. Once, he stumbled and collapsed into my closet, tearing the doors off their hinges. The next morning, he was his usual expressive self, observing his handiwork and saying, "Wow."

By December 22, however, Rich was already gone for the holidays, so I had the room to myself. Another of my suite-mates, Alan, was also gone, but Scott was still here. In fact, I doubt Scott had a home to go to. He lived a bohemian life and if he had any family, he never mentioned them. I'd constructed this image of him as an eccentric, independently-wealthy English major. After all, to afford the university's tuition and lodging fees, he had to have some money.

Scott was my antithesis. I was an engineer; he was an English major. I had no girlfriends; he had at least a dozen. I was quiet and sedate; he was larger-than-life. I didn't drink; he consumed alcohol like water. Despite our differences, or perhaps because of them, we got along pretty well. We'd spend some nights talking until the wee hours, Scott taking drags on a joint while I sat across the room from him near an open window.

It didn't surprise me that Scott had discovered a party and it was apparent from the noise level on the floor that this soiree was two doors down the hall in Tina and Lisa's room. If I was going to get any sleep tonight, it was going to require ear plugs. Even then, the vibration might be enough to keep me awake. That, and wondering whether I had answered question five on the final correctly.

At seven-fifteen, I was curled up on my bed, with the heater cranked up to seventy-six, turning the pages of David Eddings' "Magician's Castle." My mood didn't warrant anything more substantive. I didn't bother to turn on a radio; the noise from the party would have drowned out anything I tried to listen to. Reading wasn't a problem, though. I'd long since mastered the tactic of tuning out distractions.

"Yo, James," said Scott, cutting into my concentration as he stuck his head through the open doorway to my room. "Come with me to the party."

"No thanks," I told Scott. "I've got plans." It wasn't a lie. I fully expected to get eight or nine chapters read before turning out the lights.

"Bullshit," said Scott. "Get up. You're coming with me even if I have to drag you by your hair."

I knew Scott well enough to realize he was probably serious. Over the past couple of weeks, he'd gotten it into his head that his mission during the final days of the semester would be to expand my cultural horizons. To that end, he had introduced me to three of his girlfriends, tried to get me to accompany him to a bar, and nearly succeeded in forcing a shot-glass of whiskey down my throat. According to him, I was hopeless. He was probably right.

So I got up, reluctantly put the book down, and threw on a sweater.

The noise was a lot louder in the hall and almost deafening once Scott had opened the door to Tina and Lisa's small three-room suite. The pungent aroma of sweat, booze, and grass wafted into the hall, accompanied by the blare of the Rolling Stones and the shouting of at least fifteen people, all trying to be heard over the din. I resisted the urge to plug my ears as Scott and I slipped inside.

Boy, was this place crowded. The living room, which was probably twelve feet by twelve feet, was wall-to-wall people. The same was true for the double bedroom. Even the bathroom appeared to be filled. My best guess put the total number of people present at close to thirty. I wondered how many fire laws were being broken.

Scott disappeared into the press around me, presumably looking for something to drink. It's amazing how hard it can be to locate someone in such a small space. I considered leaving immediately now that my escort had abandoned me, but trying to make it to the door would have been like swimming upstream. The prevalent current of bodies was going deeper into the suite, pulling me along with it.

I felt someone grab my arm and turned to see Lisa, one of the two girls who lived here. She was a short, petite brunette with ample cleavage that the gaping neckline of her oversized sweatshirt wasn't doing anything to hide. Her hair, normally worn loose, was pulled back into a simple, utilitarian ponytail. She flashed me a slightly drunk smile and shouted in my ear that it was a surprise to see me. My response was a rather unenthusiastic nod.

Whatever song had been playing came to an end and there was a momentary lessening of noise. Into this breach, Lisa said, "Look, there's someone here I want you to meet. She's staying with us for a few days to, like, get to know the university. She's transferring from UCLA."

Taking me by the hand, Lisa forced her way through a knot of people over to a girl who was lounging up against a half-open window. It was twenty-five degrees outside, but the frigid breeze was welcome in the heat of the room.

"Tracie, this is James. James, Tracie," said Lisa, perfunctorily introducing us before melting out of sight. The music started up again: Steve Winwood's "Take It as It Comes."

Tracie was about two inches shorter than I was with curly fair hair that hung to her shoulders and bright blue eyes. Her skin had the healthy color of someone who'd spent a lot of time out in the sun, the typical Southern California look. She was wearing a tight-fitting black tee-shirt and a skirt that ended well above her knees. It was pretty clear she kept herself in excellent physical condition and wasn't shy about showing it off.

"Hi," she mouthed, the noise level again having risen to where conversation was impossible.

Tracie moved away from the window and, beckoning for me to join her, started to gyrate to the music. It wasn't actually dancing - there wasn't really enough room for dancing - but she was undoubtedly letting the pounding rhythm of the song carry her along. Hips swayed and arms moved, alternately lifted above her head then sliding down the side of her body. Hair whipped from left to right, frequently obscuring at least part of her features.

I could feel a flush of heat and, despite the frigid blast of air from behind me, a trickle of sweat made its way between my shoulder blades and down my back. Tracie took my hand and pulled me more toward the center of the room where the crush of bodies was nearly unbearable.

When the music ended, we broke apart, she to get something to drink and me to make my way to the exit. I pushed and shoved until I got outside, where I heaved a sigh of relief. I went back to my room where I took a quick shower, then collapsed on the bed. I didn't try to do any reading. Instead, I lay there in the dark listening to the sounds from down the hall: music, shouting, and laughter. I didn't get a wink of sleep all night.