Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 7

She said …

I slammed the door shut on my Jeep and took a deep breath, stretching my arms out to my sides. It felt great to be back at Cedarville, which I hadn’t expected. After the stressful end to the previous semester, I was worried that coming back school would cause those feelings and emotions to come flooding back. But at the moment, I only cared about one thing—seeing Alex.

I smiled at the thought of him as I headed for the Student Center. Alex had come back to school a little earlier than necessary to attend a friend’s wedding. Because we hadn’t seen each other all summer, Alex insisted that I also come out early to see him. Of course, I happily accepted.

On the hour long drive from my parents’ house to Cedarville, I found myself feeling a little nervous about seeing Alex. Ever since the conversation that I had with my sister a few days prior, I had been wondering what it would be like. Would he seem different somehow? And if so, how would I feel? Did I want things to change between us?

Now, though, as I crossed the empty campus and gazed out over the lake in the direction of the Student Center where Alex was surely waiting for me, I felt overwhelmed by peace.

God, I’m leaving this one up to You. I prayed silently as I walked. He’s my best friend.

I realized just how true that statement had become, and with that realization came another wave of peace. It hit me that I did not care which direction things went between Alex and me. Either way, he would still always be my best friend, and that was all that mattered to me. He was important enough to me that it didn’t matter if anything ever changed between us. I knew I just wanted him to be a part of my life somehow. The peaceful feeling surprised me, and I quickened my pace toward the building.

When I opened the door, I immediately saw Alex leaning against the staircase and smiling. I squealed like a little girl and ran the rest of the way to him, hugging him and jumping up and down. It was so good to see him.

We ordered smoothies and wandered out to a picnic table by the lake, right next to The Rock, which was painted to say “Welcome to Cedarville!” Time flew by as we talked and laughed. One of my favorite things about my friendship with Alex was our ability to pick up exactly where we left off and the comfort between us that never left us short of things to talk about. Today was no exception.
At some point, after the smoothie cups were sitting empty but the conversation had yet to lag, I remembered that I was supposed to be paying attention to see if anything seemed different between us. I chuckled to myself. Clearly things were exactly the same, and I couldn’t have been happier. I had my best friend.

 

He said …

Here’s what Jess needs, I had thought. She needs a guy who will just be friends with her. Who doesn’t try to make her compromise. Who isn’t just waiting around to ask her out, but is genuinely interested in her and looking out for her. I had thought it on the drive home after school ended last semester, and rather than continuing to think it over the summer, I just tried to show her that kind of sincerity and loyalty.

After sitting by the lake and enjoying our smoothies to start the semester, things had only gone up hill. It was as if the smoothies we so thoroughly enjoyed (and, of course, the time we spent together) helped to define what we wanted to be. The closest of friends. In fact, while sucking down the smoothie that was gone all too soon, I realized that I was as comfortable around Jess as I was around friends I had known all my life or even my siblings.

The semester went then in much the same manner. Jess and I spent much of our time together, meeting for coffee (or more smoothies), going for walks, eating at Subway on Sunday nights after she returned from the Youth Group she worked with. We did most everything together. I looked forward to telling her everything; she looked forward to hearing it, and vice versa.

 

She said …

“A trip to Iowa!” Alex perked up. “Let’s do it!”

Our group of friends was sitting around a table in the cafeteria as we did every evening. The topic of discussion for the night was one of great importance: Fall Break plans. We had already decided that we wanted to do something together as a group, but the question on the table tonight was what?

A lot of good ideas had been offered up so far, but … Iowa? I looked at Alex, unconvinced. I knew I had to be careful in formulating my response, as roughly half of the friends sitting among us were native-born Iowans.

“Um, Iowa? What is there to do in Iowa?” That hadn’t come out quite as sensitively as I had hoped, and it was clear from the glares I got from the Iowans at the table that they agreed.

“Hey, Iowa is not such a bad idea.” Dave piped up, an Ohioan like myself. “We could stay with Alex, Emilie, and Kylee, so it would be cheap. We can … ride some tractors. Pet some pigs. Eh?” He looked around the table, as everyone seemed to be in agreement.

“Fun fact,” Alex chimed in. “There are actually more pigs than humans in Iowa.”

“Oh, well in that case …” I muttered under my breath sarcastically. Luckily, none of the Iowans heard.

“That’s it then! I’ll get the creamers!” Dave jumped up and ran to get a small container of French Vanilla coffee creamer for each of us. We always sealed important events and decisions with a toast of coffee creamer shots. I gulped down the sickly sweetness, a little unsure of the forthcoming road trip destination, but excited nonetheless to be with my friends.

A week later, we had crammed into the cars and were on the road for the eight hour drive to Iowa. Of course, considering how easily distracted we got by fun things along the way (like trying to spot the Mississippi River, which I somehow managed to miss), it took closer to ten hours. Alex and I were in separate cars, but for most of the drive we texted about the various antics taking place in our respective cars and the adventures we would have in Iowa.

I was particularly looking forward to meeting Alex’s family. He talked endlessly of his parents, his three older siblings and their spouses, and growing up on the Iowan countryside. I had never heard anyone speak as highly of their family as Alex did, so I knew they must be pretty special people.

I was not disappointed. The Lairds were every bit as lovely as Alex had described them to me time and time again, and I was fascinated to watch him with them. I loved how he sat on the couch with his arm around his mother, and always seemed to speak to her in a manner of love and respect. I loved that when we walked in, Alex’s dad clapped him on the back and pulled him into a huge hug, and then promptly gathered us all around to pray and thank God for giving us safe travels.

The week absolutely flew by. Although we never petted any pigs, we did get tractor rides and got see Pops Laird’s cows, of which he is very proud. Alex even took me out one day to visit East Iowa Bible Camp, which I had also heard him speak fondly of on many occasions. Alex had practically grown up there and considered its staff to be another family. He was trying hard to convince me to work there the coming summer, and although I wasn’t at first keen on the thought of a summer in Iowa, after our road trip there, I was beginning to change my mind. More than anything else, I was again fascinated to catch another glimpse into his world.

The whole group

Alex and Jess at East Iowa Bible Camp

 

He said …

“So, what do you think?” She questioned. “You wanna come?”

“Look, I like pumpkins as much as the next guy,” I speculated with a heavy droll, “but this sounds rather cultish to me.”

The Pumpkin Show was the ritualistic reunion that Circleville, Ohio celebrated each year. Aside from taking three years off for the World Wars (it required something of that magnitude to bring it down temporarily), The Pumpkin Show had opened its gates annually, billing itself as The Greatest Free Show on Earth (even though every single thing at it costs money). I was less than convinced.
Jess glared at me with her eyes, but her mouth never was good at hiding a smile. “Come on! There’s pretty much every kind of food at this thing, a parade, awesome desserts. There are pumpkin burgers … you’re from Iowa, you like cows! And rides like at a carnival.”

“You’re not going to win me over with rides that can be constructed out of an oversized truck in less than three hours.” She looked as though she was growing tired of my sarcasm. “Okay, okay. It sounds tolerable. I just have one question. Does The Great Pumpkin show up?”

“No … but there is The Pumpkin Man in the parade!”

I went. We got out of the car, Jess with the phone up to her ear, me with a look of a protest still painted on my face. “We’ll be there in a few minutes,” she said, ending the call with her mother and tossing the phone into her purse. She gestured with her head in the direction of the festivities. “Let’s go!” I followed dutifully.

We hadn’t been walking for two minutes before the sky opened up; rain came pouring down out of nowhere. I glanced up at the sky in surprise, wondering where the clouds had come from, as Jess dragged me toward the row of buildings ahead. We dove under the nearest overhang to wait it out, but it was entirely too late … we were both completely soaked. Jess looked quite distraught, perhaps worried that my first Pumpkin Show experience had been soiled.

“You know,” I said, smiling at her. “When I was little, I used to always ask Mom if I could go out and play whenever it would rain. ‘No’, she’d always say. ‘You’ll get sick’. So logical she was. But here I am, out in the rain. What’s she gonna do about it now?”

The rain finally subsided enough to where we could come out of hiding, and we headed for the show again.

The Pumpkin Man was one of the most terrifying things I had ever encountered. And the pumpkin burgers Jess boasted about? They weren’t burgers! They were sloppy joes. I do have to say, though, that the chocolate-covered-frozen-pumpkin cheesecake was probably the most delicious treat I will ever consume.

 

Alex's favorite part of The Pumpkin Show

The Pumpkin Show was alright, but I primarily enjoyed seeing Jess in her natural habitat. I met each member of her family, and I got to see firsthand how she interacted with each of them. Call me strange, but I’m always very curious to see how different my friends are when their family is around. Jess was no different. She was the same, reliable friend that I knew and loved.

I had bourbon chicken with her sister, Kara, one of the Queens of the Pumpkin Show (though I was pleased to find that the queen had no affiliation with the Pumpkin Man), and I bought a drink from the booth her youngest sister, Laura, worked at. Her mom snuck me a piece of pie, and her dad … well, he was a lawyer and a Nicolas Cage fan, I found, so I decided to take it slow with him.

 

Queen Kara and Jess

 

She said …

It was getting cold outside, so Alex’s and my regular smoothie dates had turned back into coffee dates. On this particular coffee date, we were reflecting lightheartedly about how our friendship had developed and how far we had come. It had been just over a year since I had watched him choke down a cotton ball, and it was hard to believe that we had grown so close in such a short and crazy year.

And yet, there we were—two best friends who spent nearly every day together. As Alex got up to get more coffee, my mind wandered to a conversation I had recently had with Kylee.

“You and Alex should just get married or something.” She had said, off hand as we walked across the courtyard of my dorm.

I laughed out loud and gave her a shove. “Marry Alex? Get serious.”

“I am serious. You are together all the time. Everyone knows you’re prefect for each other.”

“Ky, he’s my best friend!” I couldn’t believe we were even having this conversation. Those thoughts about a potential relationship between Alex and me had long since stopped crossing my mind.

“Isn’t that what everyone always wants in someone else?”

“Well, I guess so. But, people always start dating and then become best friends, not the other way around. How weird would it be to suddenly start thinking of him as my boyfriend?”

“Maybe if people became best friends first, they would be better off.” Kylee said wisely.

I pulled myself from my memories as Alex slid back into the seat across from me.

“I have an idea.” He said. “We talk all the time about all sorts of things, but I’ve never heard your whole story from start to finish.”

I laughed. “That would take a very long time.”

“That’s why I think we should schedule an afternoon when we’re both free and you can tell me your whole story.”

I considered the idea for a moment. “Okay. But then you have to tell me yours.”

“Deal.” And as simply as it was brought up, it was decided.

We choose an afternoon a few days later. After wandering around campus for a bit, we settled down in a secluded corner down the winding halls of the Student Center. We had promised to be as open and honest as possible with these stories, and even though I trusted Alex completely, there were many aspects of my life story that I didn’t readily share. Some, not with anyone.

And yet as I began, I suddenly realized just how much I wanted to share those things with Alex. I wanted him to know the real me, the me that not just anybody knew. So, I began. I told stories from my childhood, described my family, and shared what it was like to move from a private school to a public one. We laughed as I told about the silly things I used to do with my sisters and my childhood friends. He listened with interest as I described the point in my life when I chose to dedicate it to serving Christ. As I moved through the years of my life, I was surprised at how emotional I became. Alex looped his arm through mine and listened quietly as I cried and shared painful moments and difficult struggles. Through his quiet expression, I could sense him sharing in my joys and triumphs as well as empathizing with the struggles. The story was long and difficult to tell, and was something I had never shared in its entirety with a single person before. I was glad that now I had, and that person was Alex.

Our long talks about our lives spilled over into three successive afternoons, as they turned out to be far more involved than either of us anticipated. When, on the second afternoon, I finally drew my story to a close, I turned it over to Alex.

Alex’s story went surprisingly similar to mine, both in the telling and in the content. I sat, completely riveted, listening to his childhood, his memories, his joys and his pains. I saw him cry for the first time as he described his own struggles, and laughed with him as he reenacted his childhood adventures with his siblings.

When we finished three days later, we sat in a comfortable silence, feeling the weight of the knowledge we had both trusted each other with. I glanced at Alex out of the corner of my eye. Never in my life had I felt so completely at ease with another person, and never had I had anyone know me so completely. When he glanced at me, I could see in his eyes that he was thinking the same thing. He reached across his chair and squeezed my hand. I squeezed back, thankful that we had been able to share these stories together.

Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 6

She said …

Alex was right.

Through the hundreds of thoughts racing through my mind as I paced back and forth in my dorm room after leaving Sid standing in the Bible Building, this one stuck out most clearly.

Sid was exactly who Alex had said he was. I had just been too stubborn, proud, and insecure to admit it. What had I been thinking? One thing I had always loved about Alex was his ability to read other people, but I had refused to trust him, even when deep down I knew he was right. But it was too late now. I had pushed him away.

The tears welled up in my eyes again. Had I lost such a wonderful friend in one fell swoop? I wiped my eyes and sunk down onto my bed when suddenly a thought struck me. Alex’s words from before came flooding back into my mind.

I love you, Jess, but it doesn’t bother me how upset you are at me. I’d rather you be furious with me than to know that you are in a dangerous relationship. You deserve more than that.

This time, however, a different portion of it stood out in my mind, as clear as day.

I’d rather you be furious with me than to know that you are in a dangerous relationship.

I sucked in my breath and covered my mouth with my hand in surprise. How had I missed that part before? Alex had been willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to make sure I wasn’t in a harmful relationship. Even if it meant sacrificing the incredible friendship he shared with me. My safety was more important to him than even that. No one had ever done anything like that for me before in my entire life.

And I just pushed him away.

The tears came again, but this time I didn’t try to stop them. Instead, I reached for my phone. Maybe he would refuse to respond. Maybe he would never want to talk to me again. Could I blame him? But one thing was sure—I had to see him.

 

He said …

*tic* … *toc* … *tic* … *toc* …

Generally speaking, I tried to avoid the monotonous routine of watching the clock. After all, it tended to be fairly regular: tics on the second, tocs on the half. I sipped the Pepsi in my hand and squinted back at the clock on the wall; something between the caffeine in my system and my lack of good sleep was messing with my vision.

“Hey,” a voice said, snapping me back to reality and reminding me that I was in the lounge and not alone. It was Kylee, one of my closest friends, and about the only other person in the world who knew the entirety of the situation, so I felt most comfortable with her in my distracted state. “Why don’t you join the rest of the class?” We were supposed to be studying for our last final, which was in the morning.

“Sorry. Kinda distracted,” I confessed, turning yet another page of the textbook I was pretending to read.

“You did the best you could, man,” Kylee reassured, knowing exactly what was eating at me. “And the best you could was exactly what you should have done. You know that. Stop second-guessing yourself! Besides, it’s a little late for second guessing.” Kylee always did have a way of being genuinely optimistic with just the right twinge of sarcasm. Just the sort of thing that she knew would reassure me and lift my spirits, if only a little. “She’ll come around, and you know it.” She saw that I wasn’t entirely convinced. “You’re a good friend, Alex. The best. She won’t be able to throw that away.”
“I hope not.” We stared at each other for several unsure seconds, both refusing to blink first. “I just want my friend back.”

*buzz* *buzz*

Both our stares were directed at the table where my phone sat. “Bet it’s Jess,” Kylee blurted. I picked up my phone and flipped it open to read the new text message.
“Looks like I owe you a dollar,” I grinned. I read the text aloud. “Hey, I miss you. Can we go on a walk?”
“Well?” Kylee shot me a look of disapproval, jumping out of her chair. “Why the heck are you still sitting here?” She started yanking me from the seat I was so comfortable positioned in. “Go! Go!”

 

She said …

I was back to pacing around my room, trying to calm my nerves. Alex had agreed to see me and to go for a walk, but had said nothing else to reveal what he was thinking or feeling. I had no idea what to expect.

What if he was angry about the things I said to him before? At the very least, he had to be hurt. What if that was enough to keep him from forgiving me? In the midst of all the hurt and confusion surrounding Sid, I couldn’t bear the thought of losing Alex on top of that. Tomorrow, I was leaving for home and Alex was going back to Iowa. That didn’t leave much time.

I sat down on my bed and took a deep breath in an attempt to settle myself down. I am really terrible at confrontation, and my blowup with Sid surprised me probably even more than the confused people who had witnessed it. Even worse than confrontation, I hate knowing that I have hurt a friend, and I knew that I had hurt Alex very much. I gave up sitting and went back to pacing, just as my phone buzzed on my desk.

I’m outside.

My stomach flip-flopped as I gathered all of my courage and slowly stepped out of my unit. I stared at the ground as I walked across the courtyard of my dorm, willing myself not to cry. I suddenly realized that in all my worry about what Alex would say, I hadn’t even considered what it was I should say. I glanced up and saw Alex outside through the tinted double doors, hands in his pockets, eyes on the ground. It was too late now.

I paused for a moment and took a deep breath before shoving the door open. Alex jerked his head nervously up at me, and when his eyes met mine, the tears broke through again. Not knowing what to say, I did the first thing that came to mind. I crossed the few feet separating us and threw my arms around his neck, crying into his shoulder. Without hesitation, Alex raised his arms and wrapped them around me.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry …” I cried into his shoulder. He squeezed me back and told me it was okay and everything was fine. I realized he had forgiven me long ago.

 

He said …

We walked and talked for hours, not really wanting to leave each other. We both knew that once we separated for the evening, only one night’s sleep and a short exam in the morning stood between us and parting for the summer. But the time went too quickly, as it always does when you’re restoring a right relationship, and the summer had come. I sat in the backseat of my van, laying back and reflection over the last several weeks, as my family and I made the long drive back to Iowa.

I was thinking about Jess. I was thinking about how close I had come to losing her if she hadn’t finally seen that all I was trying to do was protect her, not ruin her, as she had initially perceived. I was thinking about how much I missed our three hours walks and talks. I was thinking about how much I had just missed spending time with her—not just in the last week when things had gone off the deep end, but for the entire time she had known Sid!

And Sid. My thoughts kept drifting to his kind. Not “his kind” as in the individual of Sid. “His kind” as in the state of the individual—I held out hope that this entire situation would grow and change him in the years to come. But I kept thinking about the countless other men out there that were just like him.

I settled further back into the van seat, trying to pretend I was sleeping so I could keep thinking without being interrupted by anyone else in my family. Here’s what Jess needs, I thought. She needs a guy who will just be friends with her. Who doesn’t try to make her compromise. Who isn’t just waiting around to ask her out, but is genuinely interested in her and looking out for her. Could I do that? Maybe not. But I could certainly try. I had the rest of the summer to restore the good name of my gender with her, and I was bound and determined to do just that.

 

She said …

The summer had absolutely flown by, and with it came healing and a new perspective and outlook on life. After a few weeks at home reordering myself from an insane semester, I got on a plane and flew alone to the Dominican Republic for a 6-week missions internship.

I was happy to go. I needed to get away to someplace with new people and a drastic change of scenery. The Dominican Republic, with its salty ocean air and loving, generous culture, was just what I needed. It was there, with the distraction of my ministry and the help of the girls I shared an apartment with, that I was able to forget about Sid and move on.

And then there was Alex. Ironically, out of everything else that I had made sense of over the summer, he was the one thing I couldn’t quite figure out. He had been amazing for the last two and a half months. Never once, from the moment I walked out of my dorm crying and apologizing, had he ever even hinted at harboring any bitterness or hard feelings about the Sid situation. Instead, he just seemed eager to pick up where we left off, happy to have me back.

Throughout the weeks leading up to my trip to the Dominican Republic, I realized just how much I had missed Alex during our unnecessary time apart the previous semester. We were anxious to make up for lost time, and I knew every night I could expect a call from him just as I was crawling into bed. Curled up under the covers with the phone pressed against my ear, we would talk late into the night until I could no longer keep my eyes open. If there was anything that was keeping me from being completely thrilled about the prospect of the summer in the Dominican Republic, it was the thought of not being able to talk to Alex whenever I wanted.

But despite the distance, the lack of cell phone service, and the limited internet access I had in the Dominican, somehow our friendship didn’t miss a beat. We emailed back and forth constantly, sharing stories of our adventures, and made plans for fun things we wanted to do upon our arrival back at school. The few times I had the opportunity use the phone of my Dominican church to make American calls, I found myself placing them to him more than my own family.

These were the things running through my mind as I sat in my room back at home, packing my bags for Cedarville. Something was different about the way Alex seemed to have treated me throughout the entire summer, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

Suddenly the door of my room burst open and my sixteen-year-old sister, Kara, came in, holding out my cell phone.

“You left this downstairs, and it keeps ringing.” She tossed the phone onto the stack of clothes next to me.

“Who was it?” I asked, folding another shirt.

“Who do you think?” Kara winked at me, turning to leave. “Alex, of course.”

“Wait! Come back in here.” Kara turned around and sat down on the floor giggling excitedly. She was clearly ready for some girl talk. She had never met Alex, but I had told her all about him, including details from the summer.

“Alright,” I said, smiling at her excitement. “I have an important question, and I need you to tell me what you think. Okay. Do you think it’s possible that Alex has … um, some other feelings for me besides just as friends?”

Think about it, Jess.” Kara rolled her eyes. “The boy saves you from some other guy by basically chasing him away, he calls you every night, he emails you all the time, he’s always complimenting you and saying nice things about you and telling you that he misses you. What do you think?”

“Well, yeah, I see your point. But that’s also just Alex. He’s a sweetheart.”

“Well, you know him better than me. But let me ask you this. What if he is interested in you? How would you feel about that? I mean, he’s one of your best friends.”

I didn’t respond right away. I guess I hadn’t thought of that yet. How would I feel about that?

“You’re right, he is one of my best friends. And, well, the same reasons why he is my best friend are the same reasons that would make him pretty much everything I would want in someone. So … I guess maybe I would be okay with that.” I responded timidly. “But I love our friendship, and I have no idea if he is even thinking about any of this. And if he’s not, that is fine too. Either way, I just don’t want to lose him again.”

“Well,” Kara said, standing up, “There you go then.” She winked again and walked out of the door. I shook my head affectionately after she left. The kid was pretty smart sometimes for being a little sister.

As for Alex, I decided I would just wait and see. The semester would tell what the summer’s events would lead to for our relationship.

Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 5

He said …

I was forced, in my years as an observant male, to notice that women have strange habits. Men, for the most part, do not and cannot understand these habits either. We don’t understand how women can have so many pairs of shoes. We don’t understand how your hair ties and bobby pins always end up everywhere but your hair. And we certainly can’t understand how you can convince yourselves that a piece-of-crap guy may actually be good for you.

I paced back and forth in Brock 317, glancing out the window of my third-story dorm room. No sign of Sid. He had agreed to meet me in my room to talk, which I considered to be a very daring move in his part. I steadied myself against my bookshelf—confrontation may have been a strong suit of mine, but it almost always made me dizzy.

After Jess’ and my walk to the park, I had plopped down at my computer, logged onto Facebook, and sent the following message to Sid:

Hey Sid,

Watch this video. It’s an hour and thirteen minutes long, so you’ll need to set aside some time to watch it, but I know you’ll find the time this weekend, preferably tonight or tomorrow morning. If you have to wake up an hour earlier to watch it, do it. We will be talking either tomorrow morning/afternoon or Sunday afternoon. I don’t care how busy you are, you’re going to watch the whole thing before we talk, and we are going to talk this weekend.

I included a link to the video Marriage and Men, a phenomenal Mark Driscoll sermon that essentially summarized all the things I wanted to scream at Sid at that moment. I clicked send and wished I could be in his room when he opened the message. I don’t know what mechanism spurred my anger toward him the most: my defensiveness of my friends, my protective nature toward Jess in particular, or my defensiveness against the frequent stupidity of my gender in their interactions with females.

I knew it would be good for me to have twenty-four hours to cool down, but it was roughly thirty-six hours later when I was pacing back and forth in my dorm room waiting for Sid, and I my face was still just as flushed. Then, the handle on the door turned, and it slowly opened.

Sid’s head appeared, face nearly as flushed as mine, but he refused to make eye contact. I gestured to the couch for him to sit, and I positioned myself in a chair on the opposite side of the room. I thought it best to be out of arms reach. So we could have a rational discussion, I asked him first about the Driscoll sermon. This gave me a chance to cool down a bit before moving onto more personal matters.

“Sid, you should probably understand,” I said leaning forward, “that you’ve put yourself into a terrible situation. Maybe you’ve gotten away with these sorts of things in the past, but this time, you see, you’ve messed with one of my friends.” I sat back in my chair and watched him sink further into my leather couch. Several long seconds of silence passed before he opened his mouth to try to break the silence. Before he could speak, I continued. “Now, I’m in charge. If you have a problem with this, well, you probably should have thought of that before you pushed Jess so hard last weekend. Now, let’s talk about your friendship with Jess. I say friendship, because the two of you certainly aren’t dating anymore, if that’s what you were doing before. We’re slowing things way down.”

I whipped out a pen and paper. “Let’s talk logistics.” I’m very contractual. For the next half an hour, Sid and I came up with a list of things he was and wasn’t going to do toward Jess. At the conclusion, I said, “This is a list of actions, thoughts, and boundaries, Sid. However, you’re also not going to even be with Jess without my knowledge, do you understand? If you want to go to Chuck’s with her, I expect a text first. And you do understand that I have eyes and ears everywhere on this campus. If you try to pull anything behind my back, I will find out.” I shot him a stern glare with little effect, since he was still looking at his shoes.

We concluded our three and a half hour conversation and Sid thanked me for looking out for him and Jess. “I’d do the same for any of my friends,” I said. “But you did happen to cross one of my closest.”

We shook hands and he hastily walked out the door. He went to pull the door closed, and I reached out and grabbed his wrist. Finally, he looked me in the eye. “Sid, I appreciate you being man enough to meet with me. And I’m sure you understand that if you ever even try to touch Jess again …” [I would record here my threat to him, but we’re trying to keep the story PG … PG-13 at the worst.] He held my stare for a few seconds, then nodded. I loosened my grip on his wrist and closed the door behind him as he left.

I fell onto the couch in complete exhaustion. Though I had been through many interventions in my days, I wasn’t used to being as forceful as I had been with Sid. I didn’t know if it was that I really didn’t trust him, or if I was just unusually protective of Jess. Either way, I had been a lot stronger than I had meant to be with Sid. But that didn’t mean I regretted any of it.

She said …

I listened in frustration and confusion as the phone I held to my ear rang and rang, finally ending in Sid’s voicemail. I hung up without leaving a message. I hadn’t heard from him since the afternoon before. Sighing, I tossed my phone in my bag and, slinging my backpack over my shoulder, headed out the door to the Bible Building. Perhaps I could put my frustration with the Sid situation to good use and actually get some studying done.

I stared at my feet as I walked, as had become my custom. For a fleeting moment, I wondered if Sid was done with me. Perhaps he had had his fun and was finished with me and would never call again. I shook my head. No way. He had promised things would be better—that he would be better, and for some reason I believed him. Sid wasn’t perfect, but neither was I. In fact, I was far from it. Deep down, I felt like I deserved a guy like him. Losing him, whatever he was to me, would only mean further humiliation and pain.

Suddenly, I stopped in my tracks. I had glanced up to see Sid through the window, sitting alone on a couch in the Bible Building. I started walking again, through the door of the building and tentatively over to Sid. He was just sort of staring out the window, looking at nothing in the distance

“Sid?” His head whipped around and suddenly he was on his feet.

“Jess! I … uh … was just leaving.” He began gathering up his books and shoving them haphazardly in his bag.

“Excuse me? What are you talking about? Wait just a sec—“ I reached out to grab his arm, but he was moving too quickly.

He paused a brief moment and looked at me nervously before pushing a wrinkled piece of paper in my hands. “I have to go.” And with that, he turned on his heel and walked anxiously away, glancing around as if he was looking for someone or something.

I stood speechless for a long moment, staring after him. Then I remembered the paper he had shoved in my hands and slid to the couch, attempting to smooth it out on my leg. As I read, my eyes grew wide.

He said …

I plopped down in my usual seat for class. I hated this class. It was hard enough to focus in it on a normal day, let alone when I had a million other things on my mind. Not to mention Sid was actually in this class with me, and we hadn’t seen each other since our talk the day before.

I was about fifteen minutes early, so I opened up my laptop and logged onto Facebook. I was promptly greeted with an IM from Jess.

Jess Rathburn: Alex, what the heck do you think you are doing? I gave you permission to talk with Sid, not to end my relationship with him. You had absolutely no right to do that.

My stomach turned. This probably wasn’t going to be the best way to start off class.

Alex Laird: You trusted me enough to allow me to talk to him. If you would like me to better explain my reasons for what I did, we can talk about them in person. But I’m not talking about this on Facebook.
Jess Rathburn: I trusted you, but you took it too far. What made you think you had the right to do that? He won’t even talk to me.
Alex Laird: I’d rather not talk about this on Facebook.
Jess Rathburn: I do not need you to tell me how to live or how to handle my relationships. You’ve lost the right to be involved. Stay out of it.
Alex Laird: I love you, Jess, but it doesn’t bother me how upset you are at me. I’d rather you be furious with me than to know that you are in a dangerous relationship. You deserve more than that. But, really, I’m not talking about this anymore on Facebook.

I closed the lid of my laptop and stood up. My already waning desire to sit through a class had dissolved into intolerance, so I stuffed my computer in my bag and slung it over my shoulder. Maybe I did overstep my bounds, I thought as I pushed the door open, walking out as the rest of my friends arrived for class. The last thing I wanted was to lose Jess. Should I loosen my grip on her relationship with Sid to preserve my friendship with her? Or should I continue to do what I knew to be right (and what others were telling me to do) and continue pressuring the both of them away from their relationship? I valued my friendship with Jess more than almost any other relationship I had. Ultimately, I knew what I was doing was what she needed, whether she was aware of that right then or not.

Not sure where Jess was, I headed in the opposite direction of her dorm. I thought maybe I could hide in the SSC for a while. But as I entered the SSC, a sharp voice came from across the atrium.

“What is your problem, Alex?” It wasn’t Jess’ voice. I looked around until I found the speaker—it was Faith, a girl from Jess’ unit.

“Excuse me?” I asked, confused as to how she could be talking about the situation I had just come from.

“You think you know what’s best for Jess, but you don’t.” She crossed the room in a frenzy to get in my face. “If she wants to date Sid, let her date him. You have no right interfering with her business.”

“One could say the same to you,” I retorted. “She came to me because she trusted me, and she trusted me enough to let me talk to him. She may not understand why I did what I did right now, but someday she’ll thank me.”

“You know, you don’t know everything,” Faith continued, flailing her arms, getting more in my face. She acted as though she wanted to hit me but didn’t quite have the nerve. “You think that you know him, and you think that you know her, but you don’t!”

“I don’t know him very well, you’re right,” I continued, much more calm than she was. “But I know his kind. And I know Jess better than most. And you clearly do not understand the gravity of the situation.” I put my hand up, separating her from me, and headed back for the door I had just come through. I guess my room is the only safe place on campus, I thought, toning out her shouts from behind me as I left the building.

She said …

After blowing up at Alex, I left to go find Sid. His letter had been vague, and I knew very little about the conversation that had taken place between he and Alex, but considering he wouldn’t come near me, it couldn’t have been pretty.

Alex couldn’t possibly understand. My relationship with Sid wasn’t perfect or wrapped in a nice, shiny bow, especially according to Cedarville’s standards. But somehow in the shame of mistakes I had made in the past and the confusion of how I had been treated by guys before, this dysfunctional relationship seemed normal for me. Maybe it didn’t reflect the idealistic image of how a guy should treat a girl, but to me it seemed silly and naïve to expect something different.

And yet, as the next weeks with Sid passed in much the same manner as the previous ones, Alex’s last words continued to haunt me.

I love you, Jess, but it doesn’t bother me how upset you are at me. I’d rather you be furious with me than to know that you are in a dangerous relationship. You deserve more than that.

You deserve more than that …

As the school year began to wane, I felt my self-esteem doing the same. Sid had grown increasingly distant. He made little effort to see or talk to me, and he treated me more like a possession than a person. I seemed to be constantly on the verge of tears, and I was tired of hanging on to someone who only seemed to notice me when it suited him.

But what was I to do? I had walked myself into this and pushed away someone who meant so much to me—the one person I could always go to with anything. I missed Alex terribly, and the more dismal things grew with Sid, the more I was beginning to think that maybe Alex had been right. It didn’t matter now, though; I was too ashamed to face him, and I didn’t deserve a friend like him anyway. Not after the awful things I had said to him.

It was finals week now, and as abysmal as things were with Sid, I did not want to leave for the summer without knowing where we stood. I only had one exam left to take. It was the next morning, but studying seemed impossible. I called Sid and asked to meet him in the Bible Building to study and talk. I was amazed that he even answered, let alone agreed, but I hurriedly grabbed my books and set off, wondering what I would say to him.

We met up and sat down on a couch in a secluded corner. The whole building was packed with students busily studying, and I didn’t want to cause a scene. After a gruff greeting, Sid sat down and pulled out his laptop, saying nothing else. Not knowing what else to do, I pulled out a book and a highlighter and pretended to read. Finally, I could take it no longer. I put down my highlighter.

“Sid, we need to talk.” Sid glanced at me out of the corner of his eye, but continued typing away on his laptop.

“What?” My confidence shook a little at his obvious lack of interest.

“I … well, I need to know what is going on between us. I’m going home tomorrow, but first I want to know where we stand. I want to know what to expect in the future.” There. I had gotten it out.

“The future?” Sid scoffed. “What do you mean, ‘the future’?” He chuckled a little and kept typing.

“I … I mean … the future. Where is this going?” I was so shocked at his initial response that I wasn’t even sure how to continue. What was he saying?

“Look, there’s something you need to understand.” Sid finally stopped typing and turned to face me, his eyes emotionless. “There’s no ‘future’ here. Yeah, I’m attracted to you. But that’s it. It’s just … physical. That’s all it ever has been.”

I stared back at him. It suddenly felt like all the air had been sucked out of my lungs, like I wasn’t sure if I had heard him correctly, or if I was even awake. Out of nowhere, Alex’s words flashed in my mind again.

You deserve more than that … more than that …

And for the first time, I believed it. What on earth was I still doing here? Why was I allowing myself to be treated like this? Without even thinking about what I was doing, I was suddenly on my feet. I began grabbing my things and shoving them into my bag furiously. Everything around me seemed to slow down, as if I were in a dream. I knew Sid was saying something, but he sounded a million miles away. I didn’t care. I never had to listen to him again.

Hot, angry tears stung my eyes. I couldn’t remember ever feeling more enraged, more used, more disgusted in my entire life. My hands were shaking as I zipped my bag and grabbed it. Not caring if I ever saw Sid again in my life, I stormed away from the couch.

As I marched down the hall and into the main lobby of the building, the angry tears streaming down my face, things suddenly began to come back into focus. I could hear Sid calling my name from behind me; I could hear his quick footsteps catching up. I kept going, not even pausing to glance back.

I felt him catch my arm with his hand. That was it. I swung around and shoved him as hard as I could in the chest, enraged that he had the nerve to follow me or to try and stop me.

“Don’t you touch me!” I yelled. I held up a fist and pointed my finger just inches from his face. “Leave. Me. Alone.”

And with that, I turned and left him standing there, completely appalled. As I continued across the very crowded lobby and out the door, my whole body shaking, I noticed everyone around had fallen deadly silent and was staring at me in disbelief. I didn’t care though—I was finished.

So much for not causing a scene.

Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 4

She said …

I gathered up my purse from the floor of the car and turned to face Sid, my hand on the door handle.

“I had a lot of fun tonight.” I smiled a little shyly at him as he slid his thumb across my hand.

“I did too.” His blue eyes looked even brighter than normal as he leaned across the center console of the car toward me. “Will I see you tomorrow?”

“Of course.” I paused, not wanting the evening to end quite yet. Curfew was in just a few minutes though, so I pulled on the door handle to get out of the car.

“Wait.” I turned back to Sid and was greeted with a peck on my lips, and my breath caught in my throat in surprise. “Good night,” he said, smiling slyly.

“Goodnight.” I slid out of the car and danced up the walk to my dorm, smiling all the way.

The past few weeks had flown by in a blur. A coffee date with Sid had led to another and another, which led to a dinner date—the one that had just ended. Everything about him was fun and exciting. Sid was quite attractive and gave off a slightly dangerous and risky vibe that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I was used to relationships moving at a more slow and steady pace, but being with Sid was more like plunging down the hill of a roller coaster. It was different and a little intimidating, but the thrill of the adventure, adrenaline, and speed was the relationship’s greatest appeal. Honestly, I was tired of playing it safe, and the prospect of living a little on the dangerous side made Sid all the more desirable.

This was what I wanted, wasn’t it? Suddenly, a conversation I remembered having with Alex in The Hive a few days before played back in my mind.

“Just be careful. I mean, you haven’t really known him that long.“ I looked up from my fries and was surprised to see Alex looking completely serious. I knew the summary of his lengthy warning against Sid was, “I just don’t trust him.”

I just laughed and shook my head. “You barely even know him. Don’t worry. This isn’t my first relationship, you know.” I said teasingly as Alex rolled his eyes. “I appreciate your concern, but I promise—I know what I’m doing.”

If I was honest with myself, I knew that Alex wasn’t the only friend to express concerns about Sid. The report back was the same from each of them: he’s a lot of fun to hang out with, but definitely not boyfriend material. Too fast, too risky.

But he seemed so kind and considerate on our date. Shivers still danced down my spine at the thought of it … yes, it was a little faster than probably recommended. But I knew what I was doing, didn’t I?

As I climbed into my bed, quietly to keep from waking my roommate, I decided to push these thoughts from my mind. I was perfectly capable of handling my own relationships, and didn’t care for others telling me how to run them, no matter how well-intentioned. Even so, as I drifted off to sleep, I couldn’t shake Alex’s and my from my mind.

He said …

I was branching out. Normally you could find me consuming mozzarella sticks, curly fries, or anything fried while sitting in The Hive. Today, I was sitting with Kristi and Ryan in an upstairs lounge of the SSC. Lately, as Jess had been preoccupied with Sid, our study dates in The Hive had decreased in number. That was what was distracting my thoughts at the moment.

“And you’re going to Texas for break, right Alex?” Kristi asked me, snapping me back to my own reality.

“Yup. Hanging out with Jenna and Joey and The Hen,” I replied, still a bit absentmindedly.

“What’s Jess doing? I haven’t seen her as much lately,” Ryan noted. I pursed my lips, contemplating whether or not to be the one to speak. Apparently my look gave it away. “She’s not doing something with Sid, is she?”

Kristi and Ryan had been there on sledding day and easily noticed Sid’s flirtatious attitude toward Jess. Kristi furrowed her eyebrows into the Teacher Death Glare, an intimidating ability she had been blessed with. I smiled and forced a cough and a laugh, which was my method of confirmation without requiring speech. “Seriously,” Li’l Kristi continued, “has anyone talked to her about him?” Again, I shrugged my shoulders without actually speaking.

I knew what was coming. Among my friends both in High School and continuing into college, it seemed that I was usually elected to be the voice of confrontation and of reason. “I believe I have voiced words of caution,” I said. “Though I’m just not sure how invasive I can be with her.”

“If they continue to progress their relationship at this rate,” Kristi said, rolling her eyes on the word “relationship” and leaning forward, “she’s going to regret it. And I don’t trust him. She respects you more than anyone else, Alex. You probably need to talk to her.” And there it was. I had been elected.

“Well,” I speculated, “I don’t trust him either. But I also don’t think he’s stupid enough to try anything over break. She’s a big girl. I think she’ll be okay.” In this statement, I was more going off of what Jess’ reassuring words in The Hive more than with what my instincts were telling me. But break was tomorrow, and she had made up her mind. She was stubborn, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to change her mind.

She said …

I dropped Sid off at his dorm and pulled away with a sigh. The last few days had been a disaster, to put it lightly. Why had I thought that taking him home for Easter Break was a good idea? Now I was left wishing I had taken the advice of my friends instead of stubbornly insisting I could handle this fast-paced relationship myself. Where had things gotten so out of hand?

For some reason, it had seemed like a fun idea to bring Sid home with me for the long weekend. I was tired of my friends telling me to be careful with Sid—that something about him and the relationship seemed untrustworthy. A long weekend away sounded perfect, so I invited him home with me on a whim. Now, looking back over the horrible weekend, I understood why Alex’s face had stiffened, as if he was trying to decide just how much he could advise without upsetting me, when I hesitantly told him Sid was coming home with me for the holiday. He had kept silent, and I was glad. I knew exactly what he wanted to say.

The weekend started badly and only got worse. From the first day home, Sid’s sweet, smooth-talking had convinced me to cross lines I had not wanted to cross. Something about the way he spoke convinced me that maybe loosening my grip on some deep-rooted values maybe wasn’t such a big deal. And when I found myself fumbling for an adequate response, I gave in.

I wiped a hand across my eyes, which had started to tear up again. I reminded myself that the weekend could have been much, much worse. Despite being thankful that I had eventually came to my senses and stopped things before anything I would have immensely regretted happened, I still couldn’t shake the deep, heavy feeling of disappointment in myself.

As the weekend went on, my feelings of discomfort with Sid continually increased. Even though I reminded him multiple times that I wanted to slow things down, he kept finding manipulative ways to subtly take down my guard, almost without me even realizing it. But the more he pushed my guard down, the more wary I grew, until he finally pushed things too far.

Yet again, I found myself telling him to knock it off. And yet again, I found him teasing me back rather than taking my requests for space seriously. In that moment, I snapped. I wound my arm back as far as I could and smacked Sid across the face.

“Get off me!” I shouted. That seemed to get his attention. He stared at me for a moment, the side of his face pulsing to a rosy red, his eyes a mixture of surprise and anger. I said nothing else, a bit horrified at what had just happened. Sid took in a deep breath, standing to his feet. We stared blankly at each other for a moment—the other side of his face had gone red too at this point. Then marched out the door. I ran to the window and watched him leave the house and walk down my parent’s half-mile driveway.

I paced back and forth in the toy room of my house while he was gone, my anger building as I realized that the “excitement” I had enjoyed in this relationship was not at all worth what it had turned into. After what seemed like hours, he walked slowly back in the door. Before even allowing him a chance to speak, I lashed out at him, making it quite clear that we were through. I expected him to lash back. I expected him to be equally angry, for some reason. But he wasn’t. I was surprised to find him looking guilty and ashamed. Caught off guard, I paused just long enough to allow him to launch into a long-winded apology about what had just happened, the entire weekend, and his behavior as a whole. For some reason, my anger subsided just enough to allow him to persuade me to give him another chance.

Is it even worth it? I wondered this to myself as I pulled into the parking lot at school and carried my bags back into my dorm.

He said …

We had been back from break for twenty-four hours, and I hadn’t heard much from Jess. During the brief dinner she had attended with the group, she was offset, quiet, and barely touched her food (though she stared at it plenty). Something was clearly eating at her, and I couldn’t shake the notion that it had to do with her weekend with Sid.

I have an open door policy. I try to be available for my friends whenever I know that they need someone to talk to. Unfortunately, it seemed Jess was too distant at the moment to feel comfortable coming to me, so I thought maybe she needed me to facilitate.

I plopped down on my computer and logged onto Facebook. She showed up in my Facebook Chat list. Perhaps, I thought, she’s not afraid to talk to me. Maybe she just needs an opportunity where she feels comfortable. I clicked on her name to open a chat. Jess was a talker, and I was a walker—we had a bit of a routine—and food makes everyone more comfortable, right?

Alex Laird: Hey. Subway and a walk to the park?
Jess Rathburn: Sure. Meet you outside my dorm.

Six words. Something was definitely off.

She said …

Alex was on to me, and I knew it. In the short time I had known him, I had learned that he was quite good at reading people, especially me. I was sure the reason he had asked me on this particular walk was because he had noticed that something wasn’t quite right with me.

I had been feeling distant and withdrawn ever since Easter Break, and as we settled down in the gazebo at the Cedarville park with a couple of Subway sandwiches, I knew Alex was waiting for me to start talking. I stared at my sub, feeling too guilty and ashamed to even speak. This was new territory for Alex and me, and I wasn’t sure how to proceed with such a delicate topic—or sure that I even wanted to.

“So.” Alex took a bite out of his sandwich and sat it back down. “How was break?” He looked pointedly at me. It was a loaded question, and we both knew it.

I took a shaky breath, feeling the tears already beginning to start. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to have this conversation, but I needed desperately to talk about it. I poked at my uneaten sandwich and blinked back the tears.

“Hey,” Alex reassured, trying to crane his neck down to my level. I glanced up into his kind, sympathetic eyes. “It’s okay.”

And with that, the whole story spilled out of me, in what felt like one long, shaky, crying breath. I told Alex everything, suddenly filled with assurance that I could tell him every detail without fear of him passing judgment. The more I talked, the more I cried … and the more I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear. Alex reached across the table and rubbed my arm, patiently letting me get it all out. I glanced momentarily up at him, relieved to see that he looked surprisingly calm.

I wrapped up my rambling story by describing the moments leading up to me smacking Sid, still staring straight at the picnic table, too embarrassed to look Alex in the eye again. When I finally got it all out, still staring at the table, I heard Alex take a deep breath. “Would you mind if I talked to Sid,” I heard him ask. And, surprised, I heard myself consent.

I felt too relieved that I had gotten through the whole story to really think about what Alex had just requested. As I wiped my eyes again, I had no idea what thoughts racing through Alex’s mind about his upcoming conversation with Sid. And though his face was calm and reassuring, I was unaware of his fists clenched in fury beneath the table.

Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 3

He said …

Admittedly, the day I first met Jess, I thought she was exceptionally cute. Beyond that, I didn’t know what to think, seeing as how I didn’t know her. What I did know was that she was a good friend of Emilie’s, I was surprisingly comfortable with her, and she seemed to be looking for a steady group of friends she could rely on. Though my initial interests may have been more flirtatious than anything else, I quickly established that what I wanted to be for her was just what she was searching for: a close friend she could rely on. I knew the rest of our friend group would be just the same for her. Therefore, I cast aside any other notions that entered my mind with ease and dedicated my efforts becoming trusted friend of Jess.

The semester was hastily drawing to a close. The first invitation I had extended to Jess to study with me in The Hive turned into a second, third, and countless more. In fact, our afternoon meetings became such a given that the invitations soon became unnecessary. And as the Cedarville volleyball team was winning the National Championship title, Jess and I were quickly growing to be close friends.

By the time Emilie returned from her week in Colorado, she was confused (and pleased) to find that Jess was an established member of our group. Jess even started initiating group events and inviting Emilie along.

Just as our friendship seemed to be in full bloom, Christmas Break hit. We were driven (literally speaking) hundreds of miles apart for a full month. But if you think that stopped us from staying in touch and getting close, you’d be wrong. We spent the majority of break chatting on Facebook (I wasn’t feeling bold enough to call her just yet), sending each other emails, and writing creative stories on each other’s wall involving everything from our families to the consistency of Candy Corn (which we determined to be made of pottery clay).

Before we knew it, Christmas break was over, we were back at school, and we had made arrangements to meet back in The Hive for another unproductive study date.

 

She said …

I glanced casually over my shoulder at the clock in the back of the classroom. Just a couple minutes until class was over. It was the first day of a new semester, so class was far from exciting, and I found myself spending most of it daydreaming while watching the snow falling outside the window. Finally, the professor dismissed us and I jumped up and dumped my books and new syllabus in my bag, and pulled on my coat, hat and scarf. The school day was finally over, which meant it was time for my study date with Alex—the first one of the semester.

I chuckled to myself as I headed out the door into the blustery Ohio afternoon toward The Hive, our regular meeting place. One could hardly consider what we did to be “studying”. It was mostly an hour or so of laughing and telling stories about anything and everything before meeting the rest of the group for dinner. No one would guess that we had only known each other a couple of months, because we talked and enjoyed each other’s company with the comfort and ease of two old friends.

And a “date”? It was even more absurd to call it that. Alex was funny, cute, and charming, and I was amazed at how comfortable I felt with him after such a short time. But a date? I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t a bit attracted to him. But this is college, I reminded myself. Grow up. I was sure it was perfectly common for a guy to just be good friends with a girl. There’s no way Alex was thinking of it in any other way than that, so neither should I. Even so, I couldn’t help but notice how lately our conversations weren’t all just about silly stories and memories, but they were becoming blended with more serious topics: thoughts about life, our pasts, and our faith. Things I don’t readily share with just anyone.

Oh, stop it, I instructed myself. He’s just a friend. Why did I need to remind myself of that? I pulled open the door to The Hive and shook the snow from my boots.

“Jess! Over here.” I glanced up and saw Alex waving me over to a table. He was smiling and eating mozzarella sticks. He slid them across the table over to me as I sat down, knowing that I’d only pick off the outside and give him the cheese. It was a good and well-established system. I smiled back and picked one up, pushing my private thoughts from the walk over out of my mind.

“So, how was the first day?” Alex asked.

“Well, you were right about Professor Greene …” I responded, launching into a story about a professor Alex had warned me about.

An hour later, I was wiping tears from my eyes from laughing and trying to catch my breath. In the midst of story after story, I had forgotten all about the things I had been thinking about on the way over and was just enjoying hanging out with my new friend.

“Yeah, and that wasn’t even the worst thing I ever ate,” Alex said proudly, between his own fits of laughter. “One time, I ate a cotton ball. Trust me—bad idea.”

I choked on my mouthful of mozzarella crust. “Wait … a cotton ball? That was you at that insane party?!”

Alex laughed and launched into his story. “Oh my word, it was horrible. I had cramps for—” He suddenly paused and started at me blankly. “Wait … how did you know about that party?”
It was my turn to laugh out loud in disbelief. “I was there! Emilie invited me. I can’t believe that was you. I thought you were absolutely crazy! Wow, I always thought that you looked familiar.”

“I can’t believe you were there! There were so many people packed in there, I must not have seen you.”

The irony of the situation was too much. We laughed and laughed, reminiscing about that party and agreeing it was for the best that I hadn’t put two and two together sooner, or else I might have quickly disassociated myself from Alex.

After dinner that night, I walked back through the snow to my dorm thinking about the afternoon. Even though Alex and I talked a great deal over Christmas break, I had missed our times in The Hive. Communication just wasn’t as easy via Facebook or email, and I was sure that was what had triggered thoughts about the possibility of something more between Alex and me. But after our afternoon together, I realized that the only thing developing between us was a deep and close friendship—and I was fine with that. I enjoyed his company immensely, and was unusually comfortable with him. Anything beyond friendship would just complicate things, and potentially threaten a friendship I had quickly come to value a great deal. I cared about our developing friendship too much to jeopardize it in any way. I quickly decided to leave those thoughts and questions back on Christmas break.

The next few weeks passed in much of the same manner. Alex and I continued to spend many afternoons in The Hive talking and even studying on occasion. We had developed an easy rhythm with each other, and at this point, Alex felt like a best friend or a brother, not someone I just met mere months before. The thoughts of a potential relationship between Alex and I had long been forgotten and had been replaced with the comfort of a trusting and loyal friend. Life seemed completely back to normal … until one fateful snow day.

Snow days are a rare joy in college, but on a freezing day in late January, the good Lord choose to bless us with one. Minutes after getting the news of canceled glasses, my phone began to ring. I answered while pulling up the blinds to see the thick blanket of snow covering campus. It was Dave, Alex’s roommate.

“Jess! We’re going sledding! Want to come? I still have those trays we swiped out of the cafeteria.” He said mischievously.

“Of course! Be ready soon!” Sledding was one of my most favorite winter activities, and there was no way I was going to pass that up.

My next phone call was to Alex. “Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to come. I don’t really like sledding. Or snow. Or the cold.”

“You’re ridiculous. Okfine. See you when we get back, wimp.” Apparently Alex was vehemently opposed to fun of all kinds. I’d miss having him along, but I knew it would still be a great time.

A few minutes later, I was jumping into a car driven by our friend Jesse. There was a blond guy with bright blue eyes sitting in the front seat whom I’d never seen before.

“Jess, this is my good buddy Sid.” Jesse said, glancing at me in the rear-view mirror. Sid turned around and extended a hand.

“Nice to meet you,” he said smiling. I shook his hand and my heart fluttered a tiny bit. He was very cute, and I introduced myself and giggled like a school girl with a crush. For the rest of the drive, Jesse was mostly quiet as Sid and I chatted away about our majors, where we were from, etc. I learned that Sid loved snowboarding, and was much more interested in that today than sledding.

“What?! You’ve never snowboarded before?” Sid responded, appalled when I admitted the sad truth. “Well, today is your lucky day, Missy, because I am going to teach you.” He flashed a smile at me, and suddenly I didn’t care so much about sledding either.
Several hours later, I was freezing, soaked to the skin, and only slightly better at sno
wboarding than I was when I started. Sid was an excellent teacher, but I found myself more often lost in his intense blue eyes than in his instructions. On the drive back, he flirtatiously teased me about my lack of snowboarding skills, and I joked back and pretended to be hurt. As they dropped me off at my dorm, I turned to Sid.

“Well, I wasn’t a very good student, but thank you for the snowboarding lesson.”

“My pleasure.” He smiled and then looked a little nervous. “Hey, um, would you like to have coffee with me sometime?”

My heart flip flopped again. “I’d love to.”

I floated up the walk and into my dorm, enthralled by the blond guy who had spent the afternoon teaching me to snowboard. I sat down at my desk and opened my laptop. Moments later, a message popped up from Alex.

Alex Laird: So, how was sledding?

I pulled off my coat and boots and then sat down to respond. Just then a second message popped up.

Sid: So, how about that coffee date?

My heart did that flippity thing, and I instantly sat down and replied. An hour later, I signed offline and got into bed, unaware that Alex’s message still sat unanswered.

Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 2

She said …

I was sitting at my desk, drumming my fingers on the textbook I had just finished reading. It was the beginning of the awkward few weeks of school between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I was bored. Life was going to get insanely hectic with finals in a couple weeks, but for now, I was still trying to talk my body out of its post-Turkey Day haze and enjoy a week of peace before madness took over. So, I did what I always did when I was bored; I strolled across the lounge of my suite to the room diagonal mine and flopped down on the floor.

I spent a lot of time on the floor of Emilie’s room. With me strewn out across the small floor space and Emilie perched on her desk chair, we always had our best talks. Emilie was so used to me letting myself in and taking my place on the floor, staring up at the ceiling, that she didn’t even look up from pulling her hair back into a ponytail.

“I’m bored.” I started counting the ceiling tiles.

“Well, I’m just on my way out to go watch a movie with some friends. You should come.” Emilie turned toward me. Still counting the tiles, I weighed the options. Stay in my room all evening, or go watch a movie? The choice was simple.

“Hmm … alright. Lemme go change.”

A few minutes later, we were stepping out of the bluster cold and into the Bible Building. Because guys and girls are not allowed in each other’s dorms, the prime movie-watching locations were the small Collaborations Rooms on campus, complete with wall-mounted widescreen monitors.

“Who are we meeting, anyway?” Before Emilie could answer, she pushed the door open. The guy closest to the door turned and looked up at us. His brown eyes looked vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t place where I had seen him before. But then again, it was a small campus. I’d seen pretty much everyone before. Even so, as he offered Emilie and me seats, I couldn’t shake the notion that I knew him from somewhere.

He said …

“Have a seat, Em. Hey, I’m Alex,” I said, extending the hand of friendship to the foreign creature. She timidly introduced herself as Jess, and I offered her the seat between Emilie and me. Ryan tipped his hat to her, Gabe gave her The Friendly Eyes over the magazine he was reading, and Dave grunted in her direction.

“Pinball’s the game. Emilie and I are left and right flipper; you can be the launcher.” Jess stared at me blankly, obviously completely lost. Emilie and I rolled our eyes at each other—so naïve.

Emilie was leaving for the NAIA National Volleyball Championship in Colorado tomorrow, so those of us relaxing in the Collaboration Room were trying to absorb as much Emilie Time as possible. It was no time at all before Emilie and I were frustrated with Jess (she was really struggling with the Pinball launcher), I had bitten Jess’ finger at least once, Gabe had read through his entire magazine, Ryan and Dave were fed up with studying, and the Bible Building was closing for the night.

“It’s closing already?” Emilie questioned. “But we never even watched The Goonies!” But there wasn’t any sound of remorse in the tone of her voice. She was just smiling in Jess’ direction.

The security guard kicked us out of the building, and we huddled around each other like football players at a pep rally … or maybe volleyball players. Our voices carried into the night as we hooted and hollered, shouting sports-related words of encouragement to Emilie. We each gave Emilie a hug, shook hands with Jess, and left the two girls at their dorm.

“You know,” I pondered, as the four of us guys headed back to our dorm on the other end of campus. “We’re going to have to find other ways to amuse ourselves for the next week.”

“That’s true,” Gabe continued. “Without Emilie and Kylee around, two members of our Wolf Pack will be missing.”

Dave and I pushed open the door to our room, threw our backpacks on the couch, and plopped down into our respective chairs. “What are your thoughts on this Jess character?” Dave asked.

“Well, I think she may be a pretty good stand-in for Emilie while she’s in Colorado,” I responded. “But I’ll get back to you on that.” I spun around in my desk chair and opened Facebook. Jess Rathburn, I typed into the search bar. She was holding a light pole and wearing a black peacoat in her profile picture.

Jess' Profile Picture

My mouse hovered over the “Add Friend” button. Not knowing that she had been at Pyhäinpäivä, I thought I had only just met Jess tonight. Did I really know her well enough to “Friend” her?

I clicked the button before allowing myself to dwell on a few strange notions that were beginning to surface. She must have been online, because she confirmed my request almost immediately. Still feeling particularly forward, I opened up Facebook Chat and clicked on her name.

Alex Laird: Hey. We’ve met, like, once, which practically constitutes a friendship. Emilie is cool, and she seems to think you’re alright, and I thought you were pretty alright when I met you tonight. So, I added you. Thus ends the story of how we became Facebook Friends.
Jess Rathburn: Well, “Hello” to you too. Thanks for the offer of friendship. I guess I accept … Well, I already did.

The quickest way to my heart was through sarcasm, and Jess proved to be sarcastic and amusing over the next hour and a half. We bonded over our mutual friendship with Emilie, plans of bank heists and car thievery (we needed money and transportation to visit Emilie in Colorado), and the proper technique for attaining invisibility (which we thought might come in handy during the bank heist).

Alex Laird: I have a proposition for you.
Jess Rathburn: I’m not interested until I get an apology for you biting my finger.
Alex Laird: We can skip the pleasantries for now. Here’s the deal: you need new friends, and we need someone to replace Emilie while she’s gone this week. You seem like a pretty alright person, so I’m speaking for the group and requesting that you join us for dinner tomorrow night.
Jess Rathburn: Still waiting on that apology …
Alex Laird: Alright, fine. Dear Jess, I’m sorry for biting your finger. In all honesty, it didn’t even taste that good. I don’t mean that in a rude sort of way, because I don’t think fingers are supposed to taste good, so don’t take offense to that … This apology is going south. Anyway, please forgive me for biting your finger. Love, Alex.
Jess Rathburn: Apology accepted. And the dinner invitation as well.

It took a lot to muster a fake apology out of me, but this girl I barely knew managed to do it. It was strangely easy to talk to her, but I hated the barrier of a chat client. For some reason I was feeling oddly selfish—I suddenly wanted to get to know her without the rest of the group around.

Alex Laird: Also, I’m probably going to be studying in The Hive tomorrow afternoon before dinner. You’re welcome to join me, if you like.
Jess Rathburn: Maybe I will. Oh my word, it’s almost 1am! I have class in the morning. I should get to bed.

I logged off Facebook and got ready for bed. I had just spent several consecutive hours hanging out and chatting with a girl I barely even knew but had a lot of fun being around. I knew I wasn’t looking for anything more than a friendship, but Jess seemed like a unique and genuine individual; someone I’d love to be friends with. Of course, I could never let her know that. I’d be sure to play it up that she was merely a stand-in for Emilie for the next week. Who says girls are the only ones that can play Hard to Get?

Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Part 1

He said …

It was Thursday, November 6th, 2008. The season was autumn. The weather was cold. Thursday night, ritualistically, was the night on which my friends and I gathered to watch The Office … you know, back when The Office was actually a show worth watching? On this particular Thursday, however, Dave, Gabe, and myself were feeling especially antsy—we wanted to do something, but it was too cold for outdoor antics.

“What if we throw a party? Griffin, can we throw a party here tonight?” Dave suggested. We were pretty used to inviting ourselves over to Griffin’s apartment.

“Uh, I guess. Halloween was, like, last week.” Griffin … he always was the voice of reason.

I quickly chimed in, “Just get on Wikipedia. It has that What Happened Today in History thing. See if today is a holiday somewhere.”

As luck would have it, the day was Pyhäinpäivä, the equivalent of All Saints Day in Finland. Or something like that. At any rate, we had an excuse for a party. We sent out a quick message to our friends informing them of the impending festivities that night. Luckily, since we were already planning on watching The Office together, everyone was available. It was already late afternoon, so with the few hours we had until the party commenced, we decided to abuse Wikipedia some more and make up bogus traditions.

As our friends started piling into the all-too-small apartment (there were over twenty people crammed into a living room that was smaller than an average dorm room), the Party Planning Committee had a quick Party Planning Council. We determined that, in order to get everyone into the spirit, one of us would have to do the first tradition. Naturally, I was game.

 

She said …

“I don’t know about this …” I said nervously to my friend Emilie as we hurried off campus to the apartments across the street. I pulled my jacket closer around me to shield the November wind and tried to feel more excited about the Halloween party I was about to attend. “I’m not going to know anyone there.”

“You’ll know me!” Emilie encouraged. “Come on, you’ll like them—I promise.” She linked her arm through mine as we crossed the parking lot of the overpriced gas station next to the apartments we were heading toward.

I wasn’t so sure. I had only been at Cedarville University a couple of months, and so far the closest friends I had were the seven girls I lived with, (of which Emilie was one) and the guys that I played soccer with in the field across the street from my dorm. But it was getting to be too cold for pick-up soccer, and even though I suddenly found myself feeling uncharacteristically shy about the party we were about to walk in on, I desperately wanted to find a group of friends to call my own. Emilie had wanted me to be meet her friends for as long as I had known her, and the Halloween party they were throwing seemed like the perfect opportunity. So, resolving myself to be intentional about making friends with these people, I took a deep breath and we opened the door and stepped inside.

The room was full of people who obviously all knew each other and were having a good time. A few were in costumes, but most were just in casual clothes. They were piled on couches and bean bag chairs, and were laughing and joking as they passed around bowls of chips and plates of cookies. I slid nervously down the wall to sit on the floor next to Emilie. A couple people in the room looked familiar, but most of them were new faces. Suddenly, the music playing in the background quieted.

“Attention, ladies and gentlemen!” A tall guy with shaggy brown hair stood up. He was obviously in costume, dressed in a long black leather jacket and black pants, but I had no idea what he was supposed to be. The room quieted and the tall guy, who introduced himself as Dave, began to speak.

“Welcome to Pyhäinpäivä! The party where we celebrate the little-known Finnish All Saints Day, which just so happens to be today, because we’re tired of Halloween. So get ready for crazy a night of games to reenact the traditions of those Fins!”

I glanced quickly around the room, expecting everyone else to look as confused as I felt. To my dismay, everyone else seemed to be totally tracking with Dave, and I was clearly the only one wondering what sort of party I had just walked into.

I shot a look at Emilie. “I thought you said this was a Halloween party?!” I whispered. She just shrugged and smiled, looking slightly sheepish. She opened her mouth to respond, but Dave had begun speaking again.

“For our first tradition, we need the oldest male present to step forward, who we have determined to be my roommate, Alex Laird.” A guy who had been standing to the side of Dave, a guy I had never met, stepped forward.

“And here he is!” Dave turned and began rustling through a plastic bag, as the other guy, Alex, stood grinning nervously. From my spot in the back of the room against the wall, I studied Alex for a moment. Unlike Dave, Alex was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt and had his hands in his pockets. His light brown hair fell a little above deep, brown eyes, and his big, nervous smile made me smile in spite of myself. I couldn’t help but think he was cute.

“Alright, Mr. Laird.” Dave’s voice jerked me from my thoughts. “Long, long ago, in the Finnish blight of 1728, the Fins had to ingest their bedding and pillows to survive. To commemorate this sad time in history, you must eat one cotton ball.” Silence fell over the room as everyone tried to determine if Dave was serious or not.

I turned to Emilie in alarm. “He’s not really going to eat that, is he?” She shrugged and laughed. I tried to think back to high school biology and wondered whether or not a cotton ball could be digested. Cute or not, this guy was crazy to try and eat it. If he didn’t choke, he’d have a heck of a stomach ache tonight.

 

He said …

I stood next to Dave, confidently awaiting my cotton-ball-sealed fate. Dave fished around in the large bag of cotton balls, trying to find “just the right one,” which I later learned meant “the biggest one in the bag.” Finally, he whipped out a cotton ball and held it in front of my face—everyone in the room gasped and then laughed. I took the cotton ball, studied it intently, and then popped it into my mouth like an oversized gumball. It did not taste like a gumball. It did not chew like a gumball, and thus I could not get it down to a manageable size like a gumball.

I salivated as much as possible, trying to soak the cotton ball enough to where I could at least be confident in swallowing it. Unfortunately, it was a very large ball of cotton, and it was not soaking well at all. I grabbed the counter, trying to stabilize myself, and I gave my best effort at swallowing. For a second, I felt confident with this decision. Right up until the cotton ball was half way down my throat, where it effectively lodged itself and refused to budge.

I darted a big-eyed look at Dave. Everyone in the room was quiet, waiting for me to show some sign of victory (or maybe it was death). Frantically, I looked around for any form of liquid. I grabbed the nearest cup, threw my head back, and downed its entire contents: Mountain Dew. Much to my relief, this was finally enough for the cotton ball to slide down into my stomach. I could breath again!

 

She said …

Alex finished the last bit of Mountain Dew and raised his arms triumphantly, to the relief of the rest of the party as a shout of joy went out in the room. I folded my arms across my chest in disgust and amazement. What a weirdo. At least I could just sit in the back of the room and not be a part of all of this. I was suddenly feeling less motivated to make friends with these people.

“And now, for our next tradition!” The guy sitting next to me, dressed head-to-toe as Spiderman, handed me a carton of eggs and through his mask, instructed me to take one.

“What? I-I …” I turned to Emilie jabbing me in the side.

“Just take one!” Her eyes were excited and mischievous. Reluctantly, I reached in the carton and pulled out an egg, regretting ever agreeing to come to this ridiculous party.

An hour later, I was completely convinced I was sitting in a room full of crazy people. I had played some strange rendition of Never Have I Ever using spinning eggs and lost miserably. With every eye in the room on me, I had been forced to describe to a guy dressed in a karate outfit, whom I had never met, what I would give him for Christmas, all while holding a stick of butter. In honor of some Finnish king, we all stood up and sang the theme song of The Fresh Prince Bel-Air, a song that I did not know, which meant I just awkwardly mouthed the words. It had been the most ridiculous night I had experienced so far at Cedarville. If nothing else, at least I could rule these insane people out of my options for a group of friends. Just when I thought the party had to be over, Dave stood up again.

“Our final tradition! The conga line!” Before I could protest or even comprehend what was happening, I found myself being dragged into a wild, dancing line. After circling the apartment a couple times, we burst out the front door and began winding through the parking lot, and finally into the door of the neighboring gas station. I ducked my head in dismay and hoped no one there recognized me. We were definitely attracting a lot of attention. I was relieved when the party finally ended.

“Wasn’t that crazy?” Emilie asked excitedly as we headed back to our dorm a little while later. I rolled my eyes.

“Crazy? That guy who ate the cotton ball is lucky he didn’t choke. I can’t believe he’d do that on a dare.” I answered smugly.

“I meant the party.” Emilie said, amused.

“Oh, that. Yeah, it was pretty crazy. Your friends are kind of … well, strange.”

“Yeah, I know.” Emilie said matter-of-factly, “But you’ll grow to love them.”

I laughed to myself at Emilie’s last statement. I had no plans of growing to love a bunch of crazies who parade around gas stations in celebration of obscure Finnish holidays. In fact, I was pretty sure I would be just fine going about the rest of college without hanging around a bunch of cotton ball-eating weirdos.

 

He said …

For the record, Jess was right—I did have a horrible stomachache the next day. If you care read of my suffering, or if you just want to know more about the party at which Jess and I first met, click here to read the blog I posted the day after the very first Pyhäinpäivä.

Once Upon a Cotton Ball, Preface

We Said …

Happy Valentine’s Day! In honor of the Day of Love, we (Alex and Jess) have decided to totally rip off Jenna and Joey’s idea from a few years back and write out our gushy love story for the entire world to see. It’s a lengthy story that dates back to way before we were dating, so we figure most of you haven’t actually heard the entire thing. We’ve decided to post one entry each Saturday leading up to our wedding, May 14th, 2011. Consequently, our story will be in 14 parts—the final installment appearing on the morning of our wedding, three months from today.

“But Alex and Jess,” you may say, “there are only thirteen weeks until your wedding! Your math is off!” Don’t you think we realize that? Don’t you think we have lists and chains informing us as to exactly how many days and weeks are left until our wedding? Well … Jess does. Alex doesn’t. He just keeps track in his head. But anyway. The thirteenth part will actually be posted on Friday the thirteenth, the day before our wedding.

Two names in the following story have been changed: Sid and Ted (in order of appearance). Their characters would have been omitted if they had not played such a significant roll in the development of our relationship—really, we owe it to them that we’re even got together in the first place. All that to say, we never mean to paint either of them in a negative light—they are both actually nice people—we only mean to show how their involvement contributed to our story.

That’s all the information you’re getting for now. Naturally, we assume you’ll be looking forward to the first installment this Saturday. Until then, Happy Valentine’s Day!

Happy Valentines Day!

Java: OS X Dock Icon and Name

For as long as I’ve been developing in Java, its lack of native support for OS X has always bothered me. This is more than likely an issue with Apple’s proprietary interface rather than Java, but, for the sake of being loyal to my Master, we’ll pretend the fault is on Java.

I don’t want the default Java icon–I want my applications icon to appear in the dock! And why does setTitle not actually change the name of my program in the menu bar? It still remains the name of the Java package that the main () method is contained within. I don’t want people to know the package layout of my software.

Of course, Apple’s “solution” to this is contained within Xcode … Just make an .app wrapper for your application! Native dock icon, native dock name. But then that’s just the problem–the application now appears to be native and is no longer portable. There has to a better solution …

Well, there isn’t. There’s no real solution to this problem, but I can offer you a slight hack that works for the dock icon and name, at least. Unfortunately, it only works for the dock icon, and the actual application icon in Finder will still remain the Java default.

First, we’ll look at the snippet of code that allows you to change the dock icon …


com.apple.eawt.Application macApp = com.apple.eawt.Application.getApplication();
macApp.setDockIconImage (new ImageIcon (getClass ().
 getResource ("/path/to/package/icon.png")).
 getImage ());

You’ll find that there are actually quite a few cool things you can do to the dock from inside the Application class. Unfortunately, none of them are changing the dock name of your Java application. You’ll also notice that, while your program now compiles and runs beautifully on OS X, it is broken everywhere else … Apparently com.apple.eawt is a missing package on anything but OS X. What happened to portability?

Never fear. Apple has been kind enough to give us stubs that can still be called (and ignored) from platforms other than OS X. You’ll need to include the stubs JAR in your project for your application to be able to compile and run on other platforms again.

Download AppleJavaExtensions

Okay, so what about the OS X dock name then? Sadly, there’s no good solution to that. Here’s the best work-around that I’ve found–put your main () in a class by itself in your applications default package. I know, the default package is evil … That’s why the first and only thing you’ll do is call JFrame.setVisible () from within this function.

This does mean that, as far as the menu bar is concerned, your application title cannot have any spaces. It will be the exact name of the class your main function is in, so, for instance, Get Organized shows up as GetOrganized. My GetOrganized class immediately launches MainFrame from deeper within the package system, but the average user no longer has to see the package layout.

A lousy work-around? Definitely. But it’s all they’re giving us. And considering Apple seems to hate Java as of late, I doubt they’ll ever give us anything more.

Booting Linux from a USB Drive on Apple Hardware

After hours of frustration and failure, I finally set up a USB bootable Linux distribution that worked on both a BIOS-based PC or EFI-based Apple system. Ten minutes later, I repeated the process with a second distribution.

I’ve been perusing this fine internet of hours all day, reviewing and attempting to complete step-by-step tutorials that were supposed to allow me to do this. Unfortunately, none of them would actually work on my MacBook Pro, as they promised they would. After finally acquiring a resolution, I decided to post my own step-by-step set of instructions that also claimed to work for a BIOS system or an EFI system. Hopefully it actually works for you as it did for me :).

 

My System, My Recommendation, and My Disclaimer

The systems I was trying to get this work was in conjunction with my out dated, 2008, 2 GHz Intel Core Duo MacBook Pro with a measly 2GB of 667 MHz DDR2 SDRAM. I dual boot between OS X Leopard and Windows 7 using Boot Camp. I plug into a 24” Samsung display and use a Bluetooth Logitech MX 5500 keyboard and mouse set at my desk. Using Slax, all of this was compatible and immediately recognized!! I had absolutely no problems with hardware, so I highly recommend using Slax as your portable Linux distribution. I had success with DSL after initial frustrations (the track pad is not recognized, so I was forced to plug a USB mouse in), and it’s simply not as clean or power of a system as Slax is.

Doing all of this in no way effected positively or negatively the booting, reliability or functionality of OS X Leopard or Windows 7 on my system or Windows XP on any of the BIOS-based systems I ran this on. However, as always, proceed at your own risk.

I recommend the 4GB flash drive from Amazon below, as it is cheap and reliable. Though you don’t need a full 4GB flash drive, if you ever want to throw a larger distribution of Linux onto the flash drive at any time, or if you’d like to use the drive for other storage at a later date, this is a good size and a great price.  Also … it’s hard to find a smaller drive than 4GB these days!

 

Setting Up an EFI System

Boot into Mac OS and follow these steps:

  1. Download and install rEFIt.
  2. Restart your computer.

Complicated, huh? The initial restart after installing rEFIt will not show a boot loader, but all following restarts will display a boot loader if multiple bootable systems are attached to your Apple computer or other EFI-based system.

rEFIt will essentially overtake Boot Camp. Before installing rEFIt on my system, when I wanted to boot into Windows 7 I had to hold down the Alt-Option key when booting. Once rEFIt is installed, the boot menu is shown whenever the computer is booted. After a given number of seconds, it will boot into the default operating system, which is usually OS X.

 

Setting Up a BIOS System

Your BIOS must support the ability to boot from a USB drive. Follow these instructions on a BIOS-based (any standard Windows-based) computer:

  1. Restart your computer.
  2. At some point your computer will inform you that you can press some key to enter the BIOS setup (probably some key like F8, F12, or Del). Hold that key down. If you miss it, restart and try again.
  3. Unfortunately, every computer is different in the BIOS menu setup. Do not change anything you are unfamiliar.
  4. You may need to enable the ability to boot from a USB drive.
  5. You will most likely need to change the boot sequence, moving your USB drive higher than your standard HDD.
  6. Make sure that you save your changes to the BIOS before restarting.

 

Setting Up Your USB Drive

NOTE: Generally speaking, the instructions given on a portable Linux distribution’s website will tell you to run some bootinst.bat file that will configure your USB drive to boot properly. This will work for most BIOS-based systems, and may work with some distributions on some EFI systems, but it generally would not work for me. The solution given below, theoretically, works on all systems.

In a Windows environment (it’s just easiest that way, trust me), follow these steps:

  1. Download and extract Syslinux. Since we’re in Windows, it’d be most beneficial to download the zip file. Extract it to a convenient location like C:\Syslinux.
  2. Download your favorite portable Linux distribution. It has been verified that this works with DSL (I can’t spell it out … My Mom reads this!), DSL-N, and Slax.
  3. Plug your USB drive into your computer.
  4. Backup any data on the USB drive you wish to keep! Right-click on the USB drive and select “Format.” Format the drive to either FAT-16 or FAT-32. I recommend FAT-32. A quick format will be fine.
  5. Extract the contents of your favorite portable Linux distribution onto your USB drive using your favorite decompression program.
  6. In Windows XP, click Start then Run, type “cmd,” then press Enter.
  7. In Windows Vista or Windows 7, click Start and simply type “cmd.” Click on the Command Prompt icon to launch it.
  8. From the Command Prompt, navigate to the win32 folder of where you extracted Syslinux. So, in my case, type “cd C:\Syslinux\win32\”.
  9. From the win32 folder of Syslinux, type “syslinux.exe -ma :” where is replaced with the drive letter of your USB drive. Most commonly this will be E or F (it does need to be followed by a colon), but you can verify this by checking in My Computer.
  10. Assuming you don’t receive any errors, your USB drive should now be set up for booting.

 

Conclusion

In theory, you should now be able restart your system and it will notice that you have a bootable USB drive in the computer (assuming, of course, that you do). If rEFIt opens, use the arrow keys to navigate to your USB drive and press Enter. If your on a BIOS system, you may need to press a key (if it tells you to press a key for the boot menu), but most likely it will pop up with a message telling you to press any key to boot Linux. If you don’t press any key, it may continue into your standard operating system, so you’ll want to strike that Enter key.

I hope this works as well for all of you as it did for me! It’s always handy to have a portable, friendly, and compatible version of Linux in your slacks that you can whip out and use anytime, on any computer.