One Flew West: A Short Story

By Angelo Digiacomo

Isn’t it funny how your memories of a person change once they’ve gone out of your life? I don’t mean death, not necessarily, but sometimes a more serendipitous case; I know better than anyone how people can up and leave you with little notice, and just like that, your entire perception of them has been reshaped, both the good and the bad.

The last memory I have of Palin was just that – he stepped out the door with a few small, taped up boxes in his hands, and was on his way to sunny Californ-i-a; he had always dreamingly spoke of the state, as if it were some long forgotten civilization or culture that was waiting to be rediscovered, but I never thought that he would up everything and leave so suddenly. I don’t think he thought that, either.

Me and Palin first met each other at University orientation when we happened to sit next to each other at the start of it all – when you don’t know anybody else in the crowd, the friendliest looking stranger in the room is your best bet, and I suppose we both saw each other as rather friendly unknowns. He seemed rather unassuming – he was a few inches shorter than me, which probably made him look very small to others, with bright green eyes and thick, curly brown hair that piled up neatly on his thin head. When we started quietly talking, though, that’s when more was revealed about ourselves – he was curious about my music major, which I gladly entertained, and after some psychology talk from him it was clear that he wasn’t the same unassuming figure I initially took him as. We exchanged numbers, dorm locations, and were eventually on our merry ways for the rest of orientation; it was certain that we would talk again at that point.

Palin always loved to visit my place, especially since I was lucky enough to not have a roommate, which meant that he saw a lot of my initial music composing – it was around that time when I picked up a cheap acoustic guitar to get better at understanding works by Tárrega, Sor, and other classical composers that worked with the instrument, as my only experience prior had been idly strumming on one at a friend’s home every now and then during a visit. I didn’t play it a whole lot, since it was not only hard to learn compared to the woodwind instruments I was familiar with but also because it always went out of tune, but a few of the friends always found it a neat thing to have around – my guess is that they thought it would help pick up women. Still, Palin seemingly always had his eyes on it when he would stop by, and one day he broke his silence.

“Ritchie – your guitar.
“Yeah, what about it?”

“I know you have that around for your degree and for studying composers, but would you care if I stole it for a bit? Just to try and learn? I’ve always wanted to when I was younger.”

I had no reason to say yes to him when he asked, but I had equally as little reason to say no – we had been friends a bit at that point, and as far as I was concerned the guitar was so cheap that it wouldn’t have mattered if the thing ended up broken. I asked for 50 bucks up front, just in case, and he came back to me next week with 50 in hand, and just as quickly I sent him on his way with the wooden nickel – it’s not like I couldn’t study Tárrega without it, anyhow. I trusted Palin to take good care of it anyhow, and I had secretly been planning on saving for another, better, acoustic guitar anyways. I thought little of the encounter at the time.

By the next semester, Palin and I were rooming together, and we were equally thrilled about it – by that point we had gotten to know each other very well with philosophical ponderings on people, study sessions, and a few party visits – it was times like those when I learned how useful the sometimes rational thinking of Palin was. Most significantly, though, Palin had become a capable guitar player, at least to my ears – I hadn’t gotten much better at it, which promptly had me switching back to clarinet, but Palin fell head over heels for the guitar, and on any given day I could come after work to see him playing Bob Dylan or The Beatles, and he was gradually getting better. It was nice to watch, especially because he was probably getting better use out of the guitar than I ever would have.

But I was noticing subtle changes in him, and they were becoming more noticeable since I was now living with the guy; the big one was that his confidence was slipping. When we first began studying together and hanging out almost every other day, he was boldly confident in his classes and his major, to the point of almost arrogance – I distinctly remember him once betting that he would ace an exam that he hadn’t studied for, to which I later became the happy recipient of 10 dollars later that week. Over his second semester, though, that bold conviction of his ability had begun to slip, and he was gradually becoming more and more unsure of his own work. I distinctly remember one conversation we had not long before he eventually found his way.

Palin was sitting, deep in thought, resembling some sort of ancient Greek statue, when he quietly asked me something.

“Ritchie, do you think you made the right choice with your major?”

“Yeah, of course. Why?”

“Because I’ve been asking myself that question more and more, and my answer is always more unsure than the last time.”

“Well, it happens to all of us sometimes – I remember when I first started some of these classes asking if I really wanted to go through this for four years, but you shake it, and you realize that it is exactly what you want to do, y’know?”

“I guess, but I’ve been thinking about this for a while – I’m not so sure I’ve got it in me.”

A week later, it was the middle of February, and I was out most of the day with my then-girlfriend for a fun Valentine’s Day out – I had let Palin know where I’d be for the day, and he gave me his typical silent acknowledgement of a head nod before getting back to some Humanities work. When I got back to the dorm, however, he wasn’t working; he had a handful of small boxes packed and some bags of clothes.

“What’s going on, Palin?”

“Richard, I’m leaving.” It was the only time he ever called me by my actual name.

“Is it something I did? Is it the mess? You know you can just tell me to be cleaner!” I didn’t want to be upset, but we had gotten rather close in a short amount of time – I always did get attached to things quickly.

“I’m not just leaving dorms, Rich – I’m leaving, period.”

“What?” It was something I never expected from someone like him – to up and leave seemingly so suddenly seemed like an impulsive move from a man who was so meticulous and calculated.

“I’m taking a long drive, and I’m not stopping until I get to Sacramento. I need a change of things.” It was obvious then that it wasn’t irrationality – he had thought about this plan for a while.

“But what about the psych stuff? You loved that! You killed for it, and now you’re just gonna abandon it all?”

“I did for a while, but it was when I met you that I realized what I really wanted to do, and that’s try and go into music, too. I always found that stuff interesting, but it never clicked that I could do it until I had you around, Rich. Forget about all that psych bullshit; it doesn’t mean much to me anymore.”

In hindsight, it was obvious that this would happen – maybe not so soon, but it was festering within him like a growing balloon. I guess we both never expected it to burst so suddenly.

“Why not just change majors? You have time, you’re smart as all get-out, and I’m sure everything can still work out that way.”

“Maybe it would have, Rich, but I know that’s not what would have made me happy. I’m sorry about this all being so sudden – I should have told you sooner, but I was afraid you would get upset. I can’t blame you.”

We sat in silence for a bit, looking around at the slightly more bare walls, before my eyes were drawn to the same guitar that I lent him all those months back; the same guitar that really set the path of his future up, and the same one that was taking him far away. As far as I was concerned, the guitar was very cheap.

“It’s only right that I give you this, then, if you’re really leaving.” He looked at it with an amount of reverence, before looking back at me with slight surprise.

“Thank you, Ritchie. Don’t forget about me up here.”

For the last time, we hugged, emotion being held back as best we both could manage. With a few small boxes in one hand and a cheap Jasmine guitar in the other, he quietly walked out of the dorm to the parking lot. The click of the doorknob was the last proof of his presence, and it was at that same moment when I realized how much bigger the room suddenly felt.

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