The Outsider Ch. 06bycaligula97236©
Chapter 6 - An evening in Santa Cruz
The next morning Ruthie's alarm went off at 4:30 am. She put on her usual shorts and t-shirt. She normally wore athletic shoes with her shorts, but her shoulder hurt so much that she did not want to bother with tying the laces. She settled for a pair of slip-on sandals and made her way through the darkness to the Student Center. At first she felt somewhat better than she had felt the night before, but after she had been at work for an hour her depression returned. She turned off the news, not wanting to hear anything that would depress her further. Slowly and mechanically she finished setting up. She dreaded the thought of having to deal with customers, given her down mood and painful shoulder, but she did not have the nerve to call the manager to ask for the morning off.
Although the coffee shop did not open until 7:00, Mike showed up 15 minutes early, hoping to talk to her and get beyond the unpleasant silence from the previous day's visit. He had debated to himself whether or not he should even bother to get coffee at all, given that Ruthie had brushed him off the previous day. Finally he reasoned that he could not be completely sure that was indeed what she had done, given that her behavior never was quite "normal" and there was a very good chance something was bothering her that had nothing to do with him. Anyhow, if he did not go, he would spend the rest of the day wondering. It was better that he get his answer right away, before the weekend.
The moment he saw her, he could tell that something was very wrong. He didn't bother to say good morning.
"Are you OK, Ruthie?"
"And I'd guess not. You don't look OK to me."
Ruthie looked away. Her eyes were full of tears, but she did not want him to see. He added:
"I mean...if it's not too personal, you might as well tell me what happened."
"It's nothing...really...an accident...I sort of got into an accident yesterday."
"Yeah, I gathered that. That's a pretty bad scrape you've got on your knee..."
"You put some medicine on it?"
She nodded again.
"Actually, it's my shoulder I'm worried about. It didn't hurt too bad last night, but it's hurting now. I'm wondering if I pulled something."
"Well, you're gonna have to go to the Medical Center to find out."
Ruthie nodded again. Mike continued:
"OK, so you've got a banged up knee and a messed up shoulder. What'd you do, fall off a bicycle?"
"No, but it was a bicycle. This girl ran into me outside the Language Building. I wasn't paying attention and she ran into me when I crossed the bike lane."
"What was she doing, riding there?"
"What do you mean, what was she doing?"
"The area around the Language Building is a dismount zone. What the hell was she doing, riding her bicycle there anyway?"
Mike pressed Ruthie for the details of the incident. Reluctantly she told him what happened. By the time she finished, he was livid.
"OK...we have a bicyclist who was driving recklessly and hit a pedestrian in a dismount zone. Then she assaulted you and left the scene of an accident. As far as I'm concerned, that's some pretty serious shit!"
"So, what am I supposed to do about it?"
"I'll tell you what you need to do. You need to file a report with the Campus Police Department and when they find her, you need to press charges."
"That's bullshit! What good's that gonna do?"
"To start out with, do you have insurance? If your shoulder's busted, how are you gonna pay to get it fixed?"
Ruthie shook her head. Of course she didn't have insurance.
"She's the one who hit you, so she's the one who's gotta pay. But that won't happen unless you file a report."
The tone of Ruthie's voice told Mike that she might be willing to file the report, but only if he made it convenient for her and walked her through it. He could not expect her to go over to the Campus Police Department on her own. He pondered how to convince her to take some time off from her job so he could take her to see the police. Then, by sheer luck, he noticed a campus cop with whom he had worked during several football games walking through the main door of the Student Center. He called the officer over to the coffee shop and explained Ruthie's accident.
Ruthie expected nothing to come of the conversation, so she was surprised when the officer took out his clipboard. It turned out that Mike was right and that the officer was taking the incident seriously. He pressed Ruthie for details, especially for a physical description of the girl that hit her and the identities of possible witnesses. When Ruthie finished, the cop had another surprise for her.
"I think I know who it is...the bicyclist, I mean. If it's who I'm thinking of, it wouldn't be the first time we've talked to her."
The officer handed Ruthie an envelope.
"Take this over to the medical center, turn it in to the receptionist, and get yourself looked at. Whatever injuries you have will have to be documented here, so don't put it off."
The coffee shop manager showed up just as the cop was about to leave, which was another piece of good luck for Ruthie. It turned out that she did not have to explain anything to her boss about needing to take time off because the cop explained for her. A few minutes later Mike and Ruthie were on their way to the Student Medical Center.
As they crossed the university, both Mike and Ruthie realized that their lives were about to change. The depression that Ruthie had sunk into had completely vanished after she had been told by the cop that she was definitely not at fault for the accident and that the bicyclist, if caught, would face criminal charges. She shyly glanced over at Mike, feeling strong and yet conflicting emotions. She was grateful for his help, but more importantly, she was grateful that he actually cared about what happened to her. However, being a person who was not used to having intimate relationships with people her own age, she found the prospect of being close to Mike frightening because she did not know what to expect from him.
The thoughts going on in Mike's mind were even more complicated than those of Ruthie. Whatever his faults, he was a natural "Good Samaritan" who wanted to help those around him, especially people he knew. His obsession with "fairness" also entered into his efforts, because he felt that his classmate had been the victim of a huge injustice. He hated that arrogant bicyclist who had treated her so atrociously and wanted to do what he could to ensure that she would be prosecuted.
As important as Mike's over-all attitude about helping others might have been, what really mattered to him was the fact he was attracted to Ruthie. Her weirdness fascinated him. She was not a girl who played by the rules of modern society, as was made clear by her unkempt appearance and scanty clothing. That unwillingness to try to please others by conforming to fashion expectations might have been one factor our of many that caused others to reject Ruthie Burns, but it was a huge point in her favor according to Mike's values and criteria for choosing a potential partner. Already he was starting to feel protective of her, so much so that he missed a class to stay with her at the Student Medical Center.
It turned out that Ruthie had just pulled a couple of muscles in her shoulder and that she would just need to avoid straining the joint and take some Motrin to calm the pain. The intern was more concerned about her knee, which was just starting to show signs of infection. The scrape would require some antibiotics. The most important task however, was to verify that Ruthie's bruises were consistent with having been hit by a bicyclist going at a high rate of speed. The intern filled out the form, which he would turn over to the campus police later that day to add to the incident report. Ruthie still was surprised at the thought that the police really were planning to investigate the collision.
It was close to lunchtime when the two students left the clinic. There was just enough time for them to eat together. Not knowing what else to talk about, Ruthie complained about her ruined books. Mike sympathized, realizing that she must have been dirt-poor to be so stressed out over some books. Finally he decided to change the subject, working up the nerve to ask her out.
"A quick question...have you started getting tired of dorm food?"
"I was asking, because I was wondering if you'd like to go down to Santa Cruz with me...you know, to have dinner...walk around...just to get out of Davenport for a bit."
Ruthie started to fidget. She gave him a quick glance.
"I...I guess that'd be OK."
"There's a lot of places downtown. I'll let you pick."
"I'm off work at 5:00. Will that be OK for you?"
Ruthie nodded again.
Mike could tell that she was nervous. What he did not realize was that she was totally terrified, because he would be the first guy she had gone out with in over a year.
Santa Cruz is one of a string of affluent towns that lie along the central coast of California, which also include Monterey, Carmel, and Big Sur. As a result of the local wealth, the process of big-box homogenization that has overrun the US has been slower to affect the Pacific towns and there still are interesting and unique things to see there. Santa Cruz also is a place where there are still some remnants of 1960's hippie culture and the New Age movement of the 1980's, both of which have totally vanished in the rest of the US. In the downtown area of Santa Cruz there are plenty of local restaurants, book stores, and stores that sell totally useless "artistic" decorations. There are clothing stores that cater to the marijuana crowd and of course, stores that cater to the surfing crowd.
Mike had plenty of opinions about Santa Cruz. He held the artistic crowd in disdain and was even more cynical about the hippies.
"What a bunch of losers, those hippies. They were so big about changing the world, and the only thing they accomplished was sticking society with a drug problem. So idealistic, but they made sure they sucked up all the decent jobs and didn't leave us shit, and now they're whining about how we're gonna pay for their retirement."
Ruthie said nothing, because there was no trace of hippie culture in Salinas and had nothing from her own experience to judge Mike's comment. As for the groups of oddly-dressed teenagers roaming about, he commented:
"They're just a bunch of spoiled brats trying to piss off their parents."
She responded: "It's better than what they're doing down in Salinas."
"Where I'm from, if you try acting weird the gang-bangers are gonna beat you up."
Even though in high school she had lived barely 40 minutes to the south, Ruthie had never been to the downtown area of Santa Cruz. She found the place extremely interesting and totally alien to what she was used to seeing. Prior to graduating from high school, her world had consisted of the fast-food restaurants and big-box stores that her mother and cousins frequented in Salinas. Even going to the local mall was a big deal for her, since there wasn't much in the mall that her mother wanted or needed. Her cousins went to the mall more frequently, but Ruthie's mother was leery of having her accompany them and falling under their "ungodly influence".
Mike was much more familiar with Santa Cruz than was Ruthie, since he had grown up in a suburb that was just a few miles to the south. He commented that he liked the bookstores more than anything else. As wide-eyed as she was with all the shops full of strange stuff, like her classmate she gravitated towards the bookstores and the used music stores. A lot of the books she had read as a teenager were present on the shelves, tempting her to spend the tiny amount of money in her pocket. The bookstores proved vital to the growing friendship between Mike and Ruthie, because they were able to talk about books they had both read and avoid a lot of uncomfortable silence. They laughed when they came across a collection of stories by Somerset Maugham and saw that "Mr. Know-it-all" was included. Ruthie then picked up an English translation of "Pedro Paramo" and held it up.
"This is a really neat book, but I read it in Spanish. I didn't know they had it in English"
"It was one of your favorites in school?"
"Yeah. I read it a bunch of times. It's the best book I ever seen, 'cause I think Rulfo understands the meaning of life more than anyone else I've ever read. I mean, I've read a lot of stuff, but this one's the best."
Ruthie noticed that Mike kept the book in his hand.
They passed over to the religious section and Ruthie's mood changed. She commented: "There's so much bullshit in here. It's all crap and lies. I'd ban it if I could."
"You'd ban religion?"
"If I could, yeah, I'd ban religion. Outlaw all of it. Stick all the believers in jail and not let 'em out until they admit they're lying. I'm so sick of these God freaks and fucking holy books and all their shit."
Suddenly Ruthie blushed, because she realized that she had just made a very strong statement without knowing anything about her companion's religious beliefs. Mike was silent for a moment, because it's not every day one hears a person saying that people should go to jail for being religious. He tried to set her at ease without exactly agreeing with her:
"I certainly don't think it should be in politics. I don't think I'd go so far as banning it completely, because I think that would be counter-productive. But I would like to see a law that would force public officials to be religiously neutral. I wouldn't let a politician pray in public, for example, or associate himself with a particular church, or talk about morality in religious terms. That's something I would support."
The uncomfortable moment of Ruthie's outburst passed, but it left Mike wondering about her. That was not the first time she had given an opinion that was overly strong. She was prone to outbursts, a trait that could be both good and bad. At least he would know where she stood on any given issue, but at the same time felt uneasy about being with a person who could not control what she said. Mike guessed that his classmate's tendency to give overly strong opinions might be one of the causes of her isolation.
Ruthie was flattered when Mike actually bought the copy of "Pedro Paramo", solely based on her comment that she thought it was the best book she had ever read. He cared enough about her to take an interest in something that had touched her life.
Mike still did not have a clue what type of food Ruthie wanted and she seemed overwhelmed by the choices. He decided on a restaurant that had a general selection of food. When she saw the prices she was very shy about ordering. When he tried to coax her into choosing something, she responded:
"Just get me whatever you're having. I've never been here, so I don't know what's good."
The restaurant put Ruthie in an uncomfortable situation. She felt that Mike was spending an inordinate amount of money on a single meal. She didn't want to tell him not to spend on her, but at the same time felt very nervous about asking for something what would cost him $ 25. So, rather than order herself, she wanted him to order on her behalf and that would allow him to decide what he ought to spend on her. As soon as Mike realized that she was uneasy with the situation, he realized the best thing to do was order a variety plate for two people.
Mike noted that as uncomfortable as Ruthie may have been about ordering, she certainly had no problem eating once the food was served. She had not gone off-campus a single time since the semester began, so she was eager to eat something different from what was served at Watson Hall.
There was an uncomfortable moment when they finished dinner and returned to the street, because Mike was unsure what to do next. He had no idea whether Ruthie was getting bored, whether she wanted to return to Davenport or stay in Santa Cruz. She could not suggest anything, because she had never been in Santa Cruz and did not know what there was to see there.
"Are you OK?"
"Are you ready to head back?"
In spite of her answer, Mike could tell that Ruthie was disappointed at the suggestion.
"If you're not ready to go home, there's a boardwalk here that goes out along the beach. Wanna see it before we head back?"
The boardwalk gave Mike the chance to talk more about Santa Cruz, and for Ruthie to start opening up about Salinas and Lincoln. He realized that she liked to talk much more about Nebraska than Salinas, even though she had not seen it for six years.
One interesting detail was that she never talked about family members unless specifically asked: she stuck to describing what things were like and to commenting about how various details of daily life in Nebraska were so much better than Salinas. She talked about her father's house and neighborhood in Lincoln, but never about her father. The same was true about Salinas; she only talked about it in general terms. There was an uncomfortable moment when, out of curiosity, he asked:
"If you like Nebraska so much, have you thought about going back there?"
"Not really. I've lost touch with everyone I knew there."
"And your dad?"
"I don't ever want to see him. And I don't really want to talk about him."
Their conversation touched on John Steinbeck and the Steinbeck museum in Salinas, something they both had visited in high school. Like Ruthie, Mike had been the only member of his student tour group who had any interest in Steinbeck whatsoever. In Mike's case his interest in the 1930's was because his great-grandfather had moved to Santa Cruz during the Depression and shortly thereafter started Sinclair Pharmacy.
"Your family owns a pharmacy?"
"We used to own a pharmacy. My dad had to close it three years ago."
"Mega-Mart. They shut us down, along with most of the other businesses in my neighborhood."
Over the next few minutes Mike told Ruthie the story of Sinclair Pharmacy; how he was supposed to inherit it, but how instead Mega-Mart had put them under. "That's why I hate them so much...why I'm always wearing these pig-slogan shirts. For me it's personal. MTA fucked up my life. I'll tell you this, if the Danubians ever ask me to pick up a gun and fire at them, I will. There's a lot of us who will."
"Then I guess you won't like hearing that Mega-Mart was the only place my mom ever wanted to shop. I always hated it because it was so depressing to be in there, but she'd make me go so I could carry her stuff."
Ruthie sympathized with Mike's situation, because Mega-Mart had completely overrun Salinas. It was interesting to hear from a person who had experienced first hand what it was like to be put out of business by the conglomerate. Ruthie's experiences with Mega-Mart consisted of just shopping, but she had heard on the news about the tremendous damage the Mega-Town business model had inflicted in communities like the one where she grew up. During her senior year in high school she had tried to convince her mother to stop shopping at Mega-Mart, but "she looked at me like I was totally crazy, like I was telling her to run out on the highway or something."
By the time they returned to Mike's car, the two students felt very close to each other emotionally. They had talked about a lot of different things and had discovered that they had much in common. There were plenty of differences as well, but those differences made each more interesting to the other. They both were very happy as Mike drove out of Santa Cruz and they made their way back towards Davenport, but they were happy for somewhat different reasons