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"Education as a Lifestyle"
As I walk up to the red brick funeral home, I can’t help but think about Oliver lying in the casket. Tears streamed down my face; people tried to console me, saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” While others had the nerve to say, "I don’t recognize you. Did you know Oliver?” I can’t take it. Oliver was and will forever be my best friend. I picture us laughing at the stories we would make up about people walking on the sidewalk, or the times we would watch the sky. As I make my way closer to the casket, holding the person I knew so well, my knees become weak, and my hands go up to my face; I can taste the saltiness from my tears. I had never seen such a precious, young life lie so still and so cold. Why did he have to die? Why am I the one suffering from this tragedy? I thought this only happened in movies.
Growing up, my parents had my whole life planned out for me. I would be involved in everything I could possibly be involved in. I would graduate from high school with as many honors as I could receive. I would attend a topnotch university and become a lawyer or a doctor or have some “super special” job, but I never wanted to be or do any of that. I love my parents. They have always given me every opportunity possible. I attended national honors choir. I was involved in my community more than anyone that had ever lived in my small hometown of Belle Plaine, Iowa. My parents supported me through just about everything… except for when it was my chance to decide something for myself. There had been many times when I had said 'no' to my parents, but I ended up doing what they wanted me to do anyways. I had always fought with my parents because I wanted more than what I was getting in my town. I wanted bigger and better. The only thing I had been thinking about during my senior year of high school was getting out of that place, getting away from my parents, and living my life the way I wanted to. When I got my diploma, I told my parents I was going to Chicago. They freaked out. They yelled at the tops of their lungs. They screamed about every little thing I had done wrong. They listed so many reasons why I should not leave home, but I stuck up for myself because I really wanted to explore who I was more than anything I had ever wanted before. The argument lasted a long while, but I didn’t care how long it would take; I wasn’t going to stick around to fight it out.
I stormed into my room and slammed my door shut. I felt so rebellious, an emotion I knew nothing about. I stood in the doorway looking at my room. I looked at my pale lavender walls, which I had painted during the summer of my sixth grade year, my white desk where I had done my homework for so many years, my closet whose doors were always opened because I never had enough time to shut them, and finally, I looked at my bed, the bed that had kept me so warm and felt more like home than my house. Why did I not want to stay here in this house with my family? Everything was so perfect. The perfect house. The perfect family. The perfect life except nothing was actually perfect. We disagreed and yelled at each other a lot. It felt like I was pressured to be perfect at all times. I felt like I had a huge weight upon my shoulders. I dialed my uncle Roy's phone number. We talked about me temporarily staying with him in Chicago until I moved into my dorm at the University of Illinois in the fall. I knew I soon would not be surrounded by any of this. I would be living with my favorite uncle, and I would be walking the streets of Chicago, Illinois.
Uncle Roy had been my favorite family member since before I could remember. He is so witty and kind. He is an artist and an amazing one at that. His paintings show understanding. It's like he gets why people are the way they are. One of his paintings is unforgettable. In the painting, there was a young girl sitting on an elderly man's lap. There was love in the man's face. The way he smiled at the small girl was so calming. There are no words in the English language that could be used to describe the emotion within the artwork. When I was a child, I would stare at the art in his studio for hours. He lives in a very classy, three bedroom apartment in Chicago.
Pulling up to Chicago, all I can hope for is that it is everything I dreamed of and more. Wide eyes and a huge smile across my face, I got out of my car and gave Uncle Roy an enormous hug.
"Hi, darling!" Uncle Roy used the tone of voice that I never got sick of hearing. His voice was deep and had steady rhythm to it. "Let's get you settled in."
Right away, Uncle Roy made me feel sure I had made the right decision by coming to Chicago.
Uncle Roy led me through his house to the bedroom that I stayed in when I visited him. I had always slept in this room. He opened the white door; my mouth dropped. That amazingly artistic man had decorated the room for me so perfectly. The walls were painted crème with peach colored accessories such as the comforter on the bed and the lamp shade on the nightstand. Little white lights, similar to the lights used to decorate for Christmas, were draped all across the room.
"You did this all for me?" I asked in amazement.
"All for you. I wanted this to feel more like a home than a temporary living arrangement."
The next day, I woke up with my hair in knots and a little puddle of drool on my pillow. I had slept so well in my new, homey room. I unplugged my phone from the white Apple charger. Squinting, I let my eyes adjust to the illuminating light of my phone. I looked at the three notifications I had. Two were from social media sites and the other was a text from my mother. I knew this would happen, but honestly, she was not going to change my mind about Chicago. The text read:
Jemma Jane Johnson, Call me right now. This is very important!! You need to come home this instant!
I read the message the exact way that she would say it. I knew how disappointed she must have been, but I knew that Chicago is what I wanted. Although I missed my mom, I was not going to give in that easy.
Walking into the kitchen, a smile spread across Uncle Roy's face. His extraordinarily white teeth seemed to sparkle. We exchanged good mornings, and he asked me how I slept and if I had anything planned for today. I replied that I had no clue what my plans were and that just being in a different house was enough to rejuvenate me for now. Uncle Roy was flipping a pancake when he asked me if I remembered the boy that lived on the floor below him.
"Yeah, I remember him. He and I would hang out when I came to stay with you, but that was four years ago."
"Good!" Uncle Roy said. "I told Oliver to come up and say hello around 10:15 this morning."
I glanced at the clock. It was 10:03.
"Oh my gosh! I don’t even look decent!"
I quickly put on a black tank top, threw on a blue flannel, and I slipped into some jeans. I scrambled to apply some makeup. Then, I heard a knock on my bedroom door.
"Oliver is here, Jemma!" Uncle Roy shouted.
My hair was a mess, but I wasn’t going to be rude and keep them waiting. I walked out, and butterflies gathered in my stomach. The last time I saw Oliver, we were freshman in high school. We felt like our lives were just beginning back then. Oliver and I had a lot in common. We both loved to watch the sunset and crack funny jokes. I always pictured him as a heartthrob when he was older, and man, I was right.
Oliver was a tall boy with broad shoulders and muscular arms. He had brown hair that did not quite fall into his eyes but wouldn’t exactly be considered short. The first thing I recognized were his eyes. He had green eyes from which I could not break my stare. He wore a faded NYU t-shirt and a pair of blue jeans that looked expensive to the eye.
"Hi. I'm Oliver, if you don’t remember me. It's nice seeing you again."
I could not take my eyes off of him. I couldn’t gather any words that would make sense to say back.
Finally, I replied, "Hello, of course I remember you! We used to hang out."
"I planned a day out on the town for you two. I'm sure Jemma can't wait to get out of the house to explore and have some freedom." Uncle Roy said glancing back and forth at us.
Neither Oliver's nor my stare broke. Then, I put it together. Oliver was not here to say hello. He was here to guide me through Chicago. I had no problem saying yes and going along with it as long as there were no strings attached. I wanted to experience Chicago without any distractions. I came here find out who I really was. I pulled Uncle Roy aside.
"I'm not going with him."
"Jemma, don’t think too much about it. Just go with him and have fun."
"This isn't a date, right?"
"No, no, no! I asked Oliver to do this because I know you don’t know anyone here, and you could use friend."
"As long as it's not a date, I guess, I'm okay with it."
Oliver asked if I was ready to go. I grabbed my purse and kissed Uncle Roy on the cheek.
Chicago air is so different from the air back in Iowa. Chicago air is heavier, but somehow, it feels lighter to me. People walk by me and have no idea who I am or who I want to be. It is so nice not being known. I grew up in a town where everyone's eyes were always on me.
It was so awkward walking around a city with a person I barely knew. We did not talk much at first. Oliver and I walked up and down streets. Every street looked so different. Some streets were dirtier than others. Some streets had fancy looking buildings, while others had worn down brick buildings. We turned the corner, and all I could see were clothing and accessory stores. I loved shopping.
Oliver started up conversation by asking, "Your uncle told me that you love to shop?"
I eagerly replied, "Oh, do I ever!"
We went through so many stores. All of them had a modern, city feel. The shops back home in Iowa were very traditional and dull, nothing like the crazy, wild, colorful outfits that were displayed in the windows down the streets of Chicago. I am sure we walked into at least ten stores. I bought a few shirts and a pair of shoes, and every time the cashier would hand me the bag, Oliver would grab it and say, "I got this," with a smile on his face. The sidewalks were gray with cracks scattered about. Oliver and I talked about everything from our childhood, the present, and the future. The awkwardness had settled between us. I told him about my family and how I did not want to feel tied down ever again. He told me about his dad. He died in a car accident when Oliver was very young. He shared that his mom had never remarried and doesn’t ever want to. He told me that sometimes he can hear her cry in the bathroom in the morning. He told me that she is a mess, but despite everything, she is a great mother. My heart ached for him. How could this amazing human being have such a disastrous life? From the outside, he looks like he has a perfect life, but as he tells me all these things, I start to put together that no matter who someone appears to be, that does not mean that is who they are on the inside. I do not know how I lived without this boy. Both, Oliver and I, had more in common than ever before. I could not help but think what it would have been like to grow up with him. Would we have stayed friends, or had our individual experiences brought us closer together?
It started to get late. The sun was starting to set, and Uncle Roy had told me not to be out past dark. We arrived at the apartment complex. The building was mostly glass windows that reflected the baby blue color of the sky. We pushed the button on the elevator to bring us up to floor five. Oliver lives on floor five. He insisted to walk me to Uncle Roy's, but I said I would be fine. We exchanged goodbyes and made a plan to meet up tomorrow at 10:30. Oliver wanted to take me to Navy Pier. Navy Pier is a pier that has a ferris wheel and a couple museums. I had heard about it in school before, but I wanted to experience it for myself.
Uncle Roy's once ordinary apartment was already feeling like home. As I arrived at home, I grabbed a piece of cheese pizza and plopped down on the couch next to Uncle Roy. I told him everything about what I did. I did not leave out a single detail. I had told Uncle Roy everything since before I can remember. I told him that Oliver was a really good guy, and I wouldn’t mind seeing him everyday. Uncle Roy seemed pleased that Oliver and I hit it off. He didn't show much expression other than a smirk that spread across his face.
The next morning, Uncle Roy made me an egg sandwich as I got ready in the bathroom. I hadn't been so happy in such a long time that I was dancing in the mirror. It felt good to feel good. Going back and forth from the bathroom to my room, I spotted Oliver waiting patiently on the couch, talking to Uncle Roy.
"What are you doing here?"
"Waiting for you."
"Hold on! What time is it?"
I was five minutes late, but Oliver did not care one bit. I scarfed down the egg sandwich as we walked out the door. I was blown away by the view as we walked along the pier. It was the beginning of June, and the water was so clear and beautiful. A perk of finishing my high school credits early is that I get to be experiencing the world while my classmates are sitting in a desk listening to a teacher talk about how "you will need to know how to find the mass of the sun when you are older." Oliver told me how jealous he is that I did not have to be in school and he did. I could stay in Chicago forever. Everything about the city is lovely.
"Do you know where you want to go to college, yet?" Oliver asked me.
"I'm planning on attending the University of Illinois in the fall. How about you?
"University of Notre Dame."
"Holy buckets- Oliver! You didn't tell me you were that smart!" I playfully punched him in the arm.
"I guess I never thought it was a big deal."
I did not want the day to end. Oliver's presence made me happy. I had only liked a boy this way once before. Back in the ninth grade, I had a huge crush on a guy. We had hung out a few times, but then, my parents found out, and I was grounded and banned from ever seeing him again. Whenever my mom saw me looking at a person of the male species, she would say, "Jemma, you are too smart for that boy." She thought that boys were distractions from achieving my goals, and I used to believe her. Oliver was different, though. He did not seem like a distraction. He seemed like someone I would not mind sharing my dreams with.
Later, I told Oliver that I was getting tired, so we left the pier and headed home.
After I showered, I put on a baggy, orange T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants. I heard my phone buzz and assumed it is Oliver, but when I looked I saw five missed calls, a voicemail, and a text from my mother. All of them said something about coming home, so I set my phone face down and ignored them. Then, another notification came through. A text saying:
If you do not come back home soon, you will never be welcomed back. This is an insult to your family.
I ignored her once more. I loved Chicago more than anything. These last few days had been some of the best days of my whole life; there was no way I was moving back in with my parents. I was free in Chicago. I was refreshed.
The next day, Oliver and I went out to dinner. He brought me to the best pizza place in town. He was right; the pizza was delicious! However, I was more into the guy sitting across from me. He was wonderful and very intelligent. Oliver knew the right words to say. I told him some of my darkest secrets, and he shared his. I told him that my mother wanted me to come home more than ever.
"Wow. That really stinks that your parents are the way they are. It's too bad that they don’t accept who you are. You are beautiful and smart. How could they not think you are perfect?" Oliver said.
Oliver understood what I felt without questioning it. I knew he accepted me for me, and I accepted him for everything he was. That night, our friendship grew on a deeper level.
As the week went on, I explored the city by myself. Uncle Roy had to go to work for a large insurance company, I don’t remember the name, and Oliver had school. Most days, I walked along the busy streets or went to the beach. Although it was chilly, it was nice having peace and quiet. I would eat lunch back at the house, usually a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and wait for Uncle Roy to get home around 3:30. Then, we would watch a reality TV show. A text always appeared from my mother around 3:15 every day telling me that I was running out of time to come home, but like all the times before, I ignored them. When Oliver got home from school, he would come and get me, and we would just hang out and talk. Oliver and I did a lot of talking. This routine went on for a little less than a month. My whole life had routine, and I liked routine. But then, one day, the word 'routine' was wiped out from my vocabulary.
It was the most beautiful day I had ever seen in Chicago. The sky was a blue that I never knew existed. There was hardly a cloud in the sky.
All I can remember from that day was the sky and the awful, dreadful news. I remember sitting on a park bench. The sky above me was blue and beautiful. The sky in front of me was dark and gray and terrifying. It looked to be one of the worst storms that I have possibly witnessed. I was sitting on the bench alone, and I remember that the only person that I wished would be looking at the sky with me was Oliver. I tried calling Oliver several times, but no answer. I had wanted him to see the storm rolling in. I realized that he was probably busy, so I took a picture of it and sent it to him. The storm was getting closer, and the time was getting later. I knew I had to leave to make it home before the rain caught up to me. I passed the same buildings that I passed everyday. Mirroring skyscrapers stood tall. I was in for a horrible surprise.
I made it home. Right away, Uncle Roy told me I needed to sit down, and so I did. He had tears in his eyes, and I knew soon enough I would, too.
Looking at his clock and then back at me, he said, "Jemma, about twenty minutes ago there was a shooting. Oliver..."
Everything stopped. I felt the world closing in around me. This cannot be happening. Oliver was just here twenty-one minutes ago. Twenty-one minutes ago he was laughing and smiling. Oliver was breathing twenty-one minutes ago.
"… was on his way home from school when two men shot and robbed him. A woman found him on the street, but he was already gone."
I knew the exact route Oliver took to and from school. It was seven blocks. In those seven blocks, there was one place where Oliver never felt safe, and I was sure that was the same place that he was shot. It was only one block. I got an uneasy vibe from the block. It had dark, abandoned looking buildings, much like what you would see in horror movies.
I stayed in my room and didn't eat much the next couple of days. Uncle Roy would bring food into my bedroom, and I would say I wasn’t hungry. Although I knew I was starving, there seemed to be a pit in my stomach that wouldn’t go away no matter how hard I tried. Bowls and plates started stacking up on my dresser. Uncle Roy would bring them back to the kitchen and throw the uneaten food away. I didn’t do anything other than go to the bathroom. I didn’t watch TV or go on my phone much. I didn’t even talk. The only person that I wanted to share my feelings with was the person who was causing me all this pain. I laid on my back and stared at the white popcorn ceiling. I spent a lot of my time wondering what Oliver would have been doing if he was still around, and I wondered what he was doing now that he was gone. I was deep in my thoughts when I heard a buzz, and for a second, I got excited, thinking it was Oliver, but I only set myself up for disappointment. It was my mother with another text about how I should come home. Then, it hit me. What if I am not meant to live in Chicago? What if Iowa has been my home this whole time? What would Oliver say to me?
As I walk up to the red brick funeral home, I can’t help but think about Oliver lying in the casket. Tears streaming down my face; people try to console me, saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” While others have the nerve to say, “I don’t recognize you. Did you know Oliver?” I can’t take it. Oliver was and will forever be my best friend. I picture us laughing at the stories we would make up about people walking on the sidewalk or the times we would watch the sky. As I make my way closer to the casket, holding the person I knew so well, my knees become weak and my hands go up to my face, and I can taste the saltiness from my tears. I had never seen such a precious, young life lie so still and so cold. Why did he have to die? Why am I suffering from this tragedy? My whole life I thought that this only happened in movies.
A few days later, the funeral is still the worst day of my life. My heart is shattered, and my mind is confused. I do not know whether to stay in the city where everything reminds me of Oliver or to go back home where I will feel like a hostage for the rest of my life. I loved Chicago with every piece of me. It was my safe haven. I dreaded Iowa, but nothing like what happened to Oliver had ever happened there. I don't know whether to stay or whether to go. Then, a text from my mom buzzed my phone.
It's time to make up your mind whether you're coming home or not. What are you going to do? This is your very last chance.