She noticed him first, with his blonde hair swept back and falling to his shoulders, and earnest blue eyes squinting through round John Lennon-style glasses. He was saying something about that other Lenin, the Russian one, though it took her a moment to make that distinction. They were having some sort of debate about the new government that needed to be installed, a government that would put an end to all wars. That perked up her ears.
She came over to the group and filled their coffee with a practiced smile. "Would you like anything else?" she asked.
He looked up at her, and their eyes met. "What do you think about the war?" he asked her.
One of the women at the table, who had come in wearing a miniskirt, a beret, and an attitude, laughed. "Bruce, let's let the poor girl do her job. I'm sure she's not interested in intellectual discussion."
Stella suppressed the urge to dump coffee on the girl's head, but kept on smiling. "We've had some great discussions in my government classes," she said.
"You're a student?" Bruce asked. He looked surprised, and she felt the usual shame, the feeling that she didn't belong. She had been underestimated most of her life, and she was used to it, but somehow, coming from him, the words stung.
"Senior," she said.
"Sorry, I didn't know," Beret Girl said. "I guess I figured…"
"This is how I pay my way through school," Stella said. She had seen students like that often, students who came in on Daddy's dime and then complained about how bourgoise they were. They could pontificate about the world because they had time to do so. Stella, on the other hand, had to work.
When the group rose to leave, he came over and introduced himself. From then on, they had been inseparable. She thought he had fallen in love with her. She didn't know at the time that she would become one of his projects, he the rich intelligentsia there to explain to the poor machinist's daughter how the world worked.
"Revolution is a full-time job," he said often, but she just wanted to go to school, to find work, to fall in love, to marry and have children. He said that it was wrong to bring children into a world where they would have to fight and die – not that he would ever have to. He had a student deferment, so as long as he stayed in school, he didn't have to worry about that. She didn't point this fact out to him, though. She was just happy that someone like Bruce showed an interest in her, and she figured that with time, he would want the same life that she did. Wasn't that what people did, after all?
Lying in her bed, praying for sleep to come, she saw their relationship as if for the first time. He didn't love her and never would. She remembered fights she had barely noticed, fights about how they never did anything for fun, like go to the movies. Fights about other women, including Beret Girl, who always seemed to tag along when they got together. "We're just friends," Bruce would insist, but Stella knew better. Stella was his trophy to show that he cared about the working class, nothing more.
He had left her alone that day, doing her duty to him by protesting, with no notion of what to do when everything went horribly wrong. As she finally fell into a fitful sleep, muscles tense, she felt that she was about to be swept away yet again like an autumn leaf, headed off in no particular direction, waiting once more for life to begin.
The next morning, the sun rose as it always had, and the world continued to turn on its axis. Many time zones away, the war continued, while the war at home held its collective breath in shock at what would come to be known as the Kent State Massacre. Later, many would blame the students for their actions, but for now, a nation mourned the deaths of four fresh-faced young people, sons and daughters, who wanted only peace.
Stepping out into the morning after, Stella braved going outside, her eyes darting this way and that, wary of guns and snipers. The trauma had left her with a stiff neck and muscles tight as a rubber band pulled to its limit. She made her way to his Bruce’s dorm, only to find him gone, along with all of his possessions. He had vanished like a drop of water in an ocean, just as she knew he would. She tried his family, but no one had heard from him – or wanted to.
With nothing else left to do, Stella returned to her dorm. Graduation was canceled, and just like that, her dreams of crossing to get her degree vanished as quickly as Bruce had. The school shut its doors for the summer and sent the students away, promising to send diplomas in the mail. No matter, she thought. No one would have come to the ceremony anyway.
She gathered what she could carry, including a few items of clothing, flimsy granny dresses that she had adopted in order to fit in with Bruce’s crowd. She left behind books and notebooks, and even ignored the sheets on the bed. She had worked hard as a waitress to buy those items, and she hated leaving them behind, but there was no time to sell them. Students were leaving like rats from a sinking ship.
She envied the students whose parents came to get them. With her few belongings in a sack, she watched as tearful families came to rescue their children, wishing she’d had a family to come rescue her. She set out on foot, not wanting to impose on anyone.
Where could she go, anyway? She couldn't face home – not yet. She could only wander from town to town, heading in the general direction toward of Illinois, but knowing the fate that awaited her there. She had fought her father about the war from the moment he had come came home from his service. How could she explain what had happened here?
In May of 1970, it wasn't unusual for young people to wander cross-country, whether for a rock concert or a new life. Hitchhiking had become the preferred mode of getting around for broke kids seeking adventure. The war was killing all of them – why not live for today? They sought freedom from the bourgeois existence of their parents, sometimes disappearing for months on end. It was time to break all the rules. Stella didn’t care about any of that, though. She just wanted to get away from the war.