I step into the Fine Arts building at Arkansas State University in small town Beebe, Arkansas. A teenage student assistant greets me, and I say the same thing to her that I said to every receptionist at Pulaski Tech earlier that morning. “Hi, I’m Leah. I’m a bookbuyer, just coming through to see if any of the professors would like to sell me some textbooks they’re not using.”
“Okay, let me just ask Lawanda about that. Hold on a minute,” she says. Then she stands up and walks into an adjoining room and out of sight. I can still hear her.
“Miss Lawanda,” she says in an accent that I might have found charming on a different day. “There’s a lady out here that says she’s a bookbuyer.”
“Tell her to sit down,” Lawanda says, “and then call the campus police.”
Oh, holy hell.
The student assistant comes back into the room where I’m standing. “Please have a seat.”
Sure, I think, just have a seat and wait for the nice rent-a-cops. Just ignore every instinct in your body. “Do you want me to leave? Because I think I’d rather just leave.”
“No, it’ll be fine.”
“Hmm,” I say. “I actually think I’m gonna go.”
Another student aide, sitting on the floor and wrapping a Christmas present—or I’m guessing, an empty box meant to be a decoration in the office—turns to me and says, “Lawanda said to sit and wait.”
Great, now an 18-year-old girl, a girl that reminds me of the girls I used to teach at OU, is rude to me. This is the kind of week I’m having.
I know I could just leave anyway, but part of me really wants to see this Lawanda Harvey, to see the face of someone who would decide, without even looking at me, that I am some kind of a menace. I sit down in a chair and throw my backpack on the ground next to me. I slouch, leaning my face in my hand like a high-schooler sent to the principal for cutting class.
Lawanda steps out of the adjoining room. She’s an unpleasant looking woman with a very red face and short, gray hair. She has the type of body that leaves an impression (on the chair cushion-zing!), and her lips look like they stay permanently pursed. She stands in front of me, her hand resting on her hip, and gives me a smug smile. “I’m gonna let the campus police explain our policy to you.”
I roll my eyes. “Is there any chance you could just explain your policy to me? I am, after all, a person.”
She plops down behind her desk and looks at me, crossing her arms.
“Because if you want me to leave,” I continue, my voice getting all high and weird-sounding, “I’d be happy to leave. I’m from Oklahoma. I didn’t even know you had a policy about bookbuyers. I promise, I will leave and never come back.”
Lawanda arches an eyebrow, giving me the once-over. She turns to the student aide. “You can hang up the phone.” Then she turns back to me. “Our policy is that we don’t allow bookbuyers on campus.”
“Thank you,” I say, standing up. “That’s all you had to say.”
She points her finger at me. “But so help me, if you leave here and walk into another building, I will make sure the campus police come and arrest you.”
I put my ridiculous Elvis sunglasses on. “Do you really think I’m gonna do that?”
“Well, I sure don’t know,” she says.
I laugh. “Thanks for the good time.” As I’m walking down the hall, I catch both student aides glaring at me. The one sitting in the desk shakes her head in disdain.
I’m not afraid of campus cops (no one in their right mind ever should be), and I know that no one has the authority to arrest me for trying to buy textbooks, but I also know I can’t do this job anymore. I’m just a smidge too sensitive to have random strangers like Lawanda Harvey treat me like a criminal for no good reason.
I need people to like me.
It’s only noon, and I know that if I go back to the comedy condo in Little Rock, I’ll just lay on the MC’s bed with the leopard print sheets, bury my face in the smelly pillow, and think about how everyone hates me.
Instead, I decide to go to the Clinton Presidential Library. I went there last time I was in Little Rock performing, and I remember it being sorta boring, but I kind of want to go somewhere where strangers have to be nice to me, even if I do look like someone they might want to punch in the face.
I have to go through a metal detector to walk in the building. I toss my tiny backpack onto the conveyor belt, take off my sunglasses, and drop them in a plastic bowl with my cell phone.
The security guard looks in the bowl. “You can keep your Elvis glasses on if you want.”
I want to hug him. I’ve been walking around wearing novelty gold plastic sunglasses since Halloween, and besides the security guard, only one other person has acknowledged their utter ridiculousness.
As my bag goes through the x-ray, the guard stares at the screen, confused. “What you got in there?” he asks. “It looks like a bunch of round things. What is that, fruit?”
“No,” I say. “They’re bouncy balls.”
“Yeah, like rubber bouncy balls.”
He raises his eyebrows. “It looks like there’re about 20 in there.”
“Yep,” I say. “I collect them.”
“You collect bouncy balls?”
“Yeah. I believe they’re good luck.”
He shrugs and smiles out of one side of his mouth. “Well, okay then.”
As I walk away, I hear him repeating, “Bouncy balls?”
For the past few months, I’ve been writing my initials on bouncy balls and leaving them in different towns and cities I’ve visited. I’m not sure exactly why I do it. I like to think of the stories that each of those balls might live through, who might pick them up, what those peoples’ lives might be like. I like to think that if I throw enough out into the world, I might run into one again someday, and that would be a hell of an interesting coincidence.
I like to think of all the possibilities.
Since arriving in Arkansas, I’ve dropped one in Russellville, Conway, Morrilton, and several in Little Rock: one at the club, one in my room at the comedy condo, and one in a Starbucks parking lot. I plan to drop one as I leave the Clinton Library, too, my way of getting rid of all the negative energy Lawanda Harvey threw at me in Beebe.
On Wednesday, the day before I meet the dreaded Lawanda, I drive down to Hot Springs. The scenery along the ride—all mountains, trees, and brilliant fall colors—is so beautiful, I almost forget the reason I’m going to Hot Springs. But that familiar dread creeps into my stomach when I arrive at National Park Community College.
One hour in, and I’m doing okay. No one really has any books, but everyone is basically nice to me. As I navigate my way across the small campus, I realize that I’m about to walk by the same skinny guy for the third time, and I laugh when I catch his eye.
He stops walking and smiles. He has a magnificently shiny set of braces. He asks me if I can help him find a specific teacher, Ms. What’s-Her-Face.
I shrug. “I’m not from here.”
“Me neither. I’m from Chicago.” He looks down. “I like your neon Cons. What’s your name?”
“Leah,” I say, glancing at my shoes. “Yeah, thanks. They’re very green. What’s your name?”
“Preston. So why are you here in Hot Springs?”
“Because I’m a bookbuyer.”
“What does that mean?”
“I buy textbooks.”
“Oh.” I can tell by the look on his face he has no idea what I’m talking about. “So you’re staying in Hot Springs?”
“No, I’m on my way to Little Rock.”
“To buy books?”
“No,” I say. “To do stand-up comedy.”
“No, really. I’m a comedian.”
“Tell me a joke.”
I sigh. “There is absolutely no way I’m doing that. I mean, I don’t even know you. Don’t you have to go find some lady?”
He nods and puts his hand up to his chin. “How old are you? ’Cause I would guess like 25.”
“Oh, ha, yeah. I think you’re trying to flatter me. But I’m 28.”
“Really? You don’t look it.” He crosses his arms and stares at me expectantly. “So now are you going to tell me a joke?”
I know I should keep moving, but it’s nice to talk to someone. “Definitely not.”
Preston grins, the sun glinting off the metal on his teeth. “How old do you think I am?”
“Twenty,” I say.
“How did you know?”
“You look twenty.”
“Oh.” I think he’s going to leave, but he lingers. “Come on. Tell me one of your jokes.”
“I’m not doing that.”
“Because this is not the right place to tell you jokes. And if I did tell you a joke here, it wouldn’t be as funny as it should be, and you’d just stand there and fake laugh. And I’d know you were fake-laughing because I can tell the difference. Then it would just get awkward.”
Around this time, a young, pretty girl wearing dress clothes and a little too much lipstick walks toward us and waves at Preston, flashing him her best dimpled smile. “Hey!” she says.
He turns to her, they start up a conversation, and I take this as my chance to exit the scene. I wave at Preston over my shoulder. “Nice meeting you.”
As I walk toward another building, I hear Preston say, “That girl’s gonna tell me a joke.” Then I hear his shoes on the pavement as he runs to catch up with me.
He appears next to me again. “So you gonna tell me that joke?”
I laugh. “Okay. Two muffins are sitting in the oven. One muffin turns to the other and says, ‘Man, it’s hot in here.’” Comedic pause. “And the other muffin says, ‘Oh my God, a talking muffin!’”
Preston, to his credit, laughs. “That’s not your joke, is it?”
We stop walking at the top of a hill next to an unremarkable brick building. “So what do you do, Preston?”
“Oh, right now I’m in fashion design school, but I got lots of inventions.”
“Yeah, I got a list of over 50 inventions that I’ve come up with.”
“Oh yeah?” I say. “Tell me one.”
“No, come on, I’m not gonna tell you one.”
I cross my arms. “I told you a joke.”
He narrows his eyes. “Okay. I have this idea about creating a GPS System that tells you where you can get specific items you might need. Like you can put in ‘batteries,’ and a list of stores that carry batteries will come up. I sent an email to GPS about it, and they like it.”
“That’s actually not a bad idea,” I say. “You should make it an iPhone App.”
“Hey, yeah. We work pretty well together.” He grins at me. “Well, I have to go talk to this lady, but can I get your number and text you later?”
“Text me? You want to text me? What are you gonna text me?”
“I don’t know. Whatever.”
I sigh. “Why do you want my phone number? You don’t even know me.”
He shrugs. “Because I think you’re an interesting person.”
“Yeah, well, I think you’re an interesting person, too. But you don’t know anything about me. I mean, how do you know I’m not a huge liar?”
“Are you a liar?” he asks.
“No. But you don’t know that.”
“Sure I do,” he says. “I trust you. You just gotta trust people sometimes.”
I end up giving him my number. I don’t know why, maybe just because he’s the first person I run into all day that’s genuinely nice to me.
I drop a bouncy ball in Hot Springs on my way out. I write my initials and the words, “Thank you, Preston,” on it.
Preston surprises the shit out of me when he calls me later that evening. I’m in Little Rock sitting at a Starbucks when my phone rings an unfamiliar number.
“Hey,” he says. “It’s me, Preston.”
“Oh, uh, hi.”
“I was calling to let you know that I like you.”
I laugh. “What? Why?”
“I don’t know. There’s just something about you.”
“Are you being serious right now?”
“Yeah, why wouldn’t I be?”
After a few minutes of small talk, Preston ends up asking me in a roundabout way what I think of the idea of us dating.
“I think that wouldn’t really work out,” I say.
I give him all my reasons (age, distance, and randomness), but he has a rebuttal for each argument I bring up. I’ve exhausted every option of turning him down gently. Finally, he just asks me point blank whether or not I want to date him, and I take a minute to admire his courage. He reminds me so much of myself when I was younger, back before I became so scared of what people might say to me. I figure I owe it to him to be direct and honest.
“No,” I say. “I don’t want to date you. And it is because you’re 20. But you shouldn’t want to date me, either, because I’m a bitter asshole who doesn’t trust people, and you’re not. And I wouldn’t want you to end up anything like me.”
God, I sound so old.
He seems annoyed, but he maintains his cool. “There’s no way I’ll end up like that,” he says.
I hope he’s right.
I used to be like Preston. I used to fall in love with almost everyone I met, and then I would somehow declare that love, unashamed. After years of rejection, I’ve become much less brave. Take, for instance, a few months ago, when I go to meet someone for lunch, someone I have feelings for. My plan on this day is to ask all the hard questions that need to be asked. Where do I stand with you? Do you see this going anywhere? I’ve rehearsed them in mind over and over again, and they’re right on the tip of my tongue when we order our food and find a table. I’m gonna do it.
As we go to sit in a booth, I swing my tiny blue backpack off my shoulder, and the zipper comes open, releasing some of my personal items onto the floor. For some women, these personal items may include a used tissue, an unopened tampon, a tube of lipstick, or a novelty lighter shaped like a penis. But when my backpack betrays me, these are the things that fall out: a small notebook, a yo-yo, a penguin Pez-dispenser, and three bouncy balls, one of which lights up and sparkles when it bounces.
As I scramble to pick up the balls jumping around on the other side of the restaurant, the guy with me laughs and says, “What do you have in there?”
My cheeks burn while I throw the stray balls into my bag and zip it. “I collect bouncy balls.”
I chicken out, and I don’t ask any of the questions I came to ask because, for one thing, I’m afraid of the answers, and for another thing, the bouncy ball fiasco seemed to make the scene just a little too ridiculous. We talk some while we eat, but our conversation feels sort of pointless.
At least my bag of randomness made him laugh. It occurs to me then that I’m so stilted and jaded, so hellbent on making the world around me ridiculous, that making people laugh has become the only way I know how to tell them that I love them. That’s my way of sending positive energy out into the world, to make up for the bitter Lawanda Harveys that are out there spreading cunt-i-ness around like AIDS.
I’m happy to know there are people out there like Preston of Hot Springs, who release such high levels of ambitious optimism and fascination with the world around them that their genuine interest in other people creates giant waves of good will, more than enough to make up for any one person’s hate.
And then there’s me, walking around telling jokes and dropping bouncy balls, making the world just a little bit sillier.