you know what to do.

i just finished watching this documentary on bees, and it basically covered what will happen if and when bees go extinct. it was called extinction of bees: the buzz stops here. i could be wrong about the second part of that title, but it was some kind of wordplay, some type of onomatopoeia. anyway, really early on in the film, the narrator said something very poetic, something about how bees know exactly what they’re supposed to do with their short, short lives. she repeated “short,” and thus, i found it poetic. sue me.

the line really struck a chord with me, though. does that ever happen to you? when you relate to one line, or maybe just a phrase, and it just takes forever to settle in your brain? it’s like how some people can never get over that one lost love, or those last few seconds of the championship game. for me, it’s something as simple as a gentle, soothing voice saying, “bees know exactly what to do.” they visit flowers; they pollinate; they make honey. they know exactly what to do. they don’t try to climb the social ladder or upgrade their wings. they just serve the queen, and they’re quite content doing that.

i’ve never been content. i’ve always been taught to want more, want better. want, want, want, and there’s nothing poetic about it, nothing at all. i’ll be turning twenty-eight this summer, and still, i want things that, with the passing of time, are becoming further and further out of reach. one, i’d like to travel. i haven’t even been out of the western region of the united states. i’ve seen beaches and mountains and snow, but somebody, or something, has decided that isn't enough. i feel compelled to order a bratwurst from a middle-easterner in times square; i feel like i’m missing out if i haven’t climbed the eiffel tower; i need to see bulls butchered in spain.

there once was a time when i was more ambitious. a time when i firmly believed that the world was my oyster, that around every corner, lurked endless possibility and adventure. i can’t say what triggered it. perhaps i had just reached my breaking point, and i was tired of being a passive observer in life. i hated sitting in class, listening to others drone and continually pontificate about literature, art, and philosophy. i could rarely, if ever, get in my two cents because most other students felt that their tuition dollars were more valuable, or perhaps that their scholarships and “honors” status – if you can call it that - built up their egos, made them more prone to dominate class discussions with their worldly ideas and conservative, egocentric views. whatever the case, i became sick of it. any sane person would.

so i spoke up more. hear me. listen, you stupid fucks. i’ve had to listen to you guys all my eighteen years of existence, the least you could do is spare me a few minutes. and so, class after class, i gained more confidence and became more outspoken, and as this transformation progressed, i noticed that the faces of my peers, and often my professors, showed genuine signs of interest, and possibly, quite possibly, even approval. looking back, almost a decade later, i couldn’t even tell you a snippet of what my eighteen year-old self was going on and on about. but it didn’t matter. what mattered was that, for the first time in my life, i felt like i was being heard.

being heard felt great. it was almost like reaffirming that i existed. and the best part was, because i was a liberal studies major, i could say whatever the fuck i wanted. there was no right or wrong. everything that came out of my mouth began with, “well, i think that...” or “well, that reminds of...” and people ate it up. people, at least in my view, thought that i was right on the money. but what did it matter if a bunch of assholes agreed with me? the approval i really wanted was that of lena hernandez. each time i said something, i checked her corner of the room to see if she was nodding her head in agreement, or showing that she was interested in what i had to say. most of the time, though, she was copiously taking notes, and didn’t look up for a second.

what did i have to say to get this girl to recognize me? i knew nothing about her, other than that she might be mexican. how would i conjure up her ambiguous heritage in a religious studies class, especially when we were still studying the byzantine period? “prof, could we possibly just speed things up to the spanish conquistadors?” i couldn’t wait another century, definitely not two. and so, for the first time in my life, i took it upon myself to approach a strange girl i knew nothing about, a girl with naturally curly, shoulder-length brown hair with golden streaks. i would be that guy i never thought i could be, you know, the one on tv who always stops the girl in the doorway, smooths his hair back, and asks in a very straightforward manner, “are you free saturday night?” i’d make her swoon, and then i’d offer to walk her back to the dorms, or her car, or wherever she was going, while i carried her books.

but this is how it went: i waited until she left class, and then i followed her. in my head, i reasoned that it would be weird to be in front of her, only to suddenly turn around and go, “hey!” in that type of scenario, the timing has to be perfect, and you have to play the part of the adorable klutz who bumps into her, scatters her belongings all over the floor, and offers to help her pick everything up. that almost never happens in real life, and when it does, you have to be really fucking adorable to pull that off, in order for her to not become utterly irate with you. i couldn’t pull it off. i don’t know anyone in real life who could. so i waited until she left, and then i followed her. by the time i got sight of her again, she was almost out the building, and i had to power-walk just to catch up. i was only a few feet behind when i muttered an out-of-breath, “lena!”

she turned around instantly, her brown eyes flashing. i still remember that precise moment. she was wearing a violet camisole and faded jean shorts, and i caught her full left-side profile. she was a movie star, a model, but not a sleazy porno-type victoria secret model; no, more like a down-to-earth, wholesome, study-abroad model for anthropologie. the kind of girl who looks amazing and most natural against rustic, deteriorating homes, or else villages made of straw. i suddenly felt like the village idiot. i couldn’t go through with it. i’ve just started to learn to speak in class, how was i going to speak to perfection?

“you’re lena, right?”
“yeah.” she smiled.
i wished then that i had something like a pen or tube of lipstick in my pocket, and i could get out of it by saying, here, you dropped this. but no, this was it. it was time to grow up.
“you’re in my religious studies class.”
“yeah,” she said, “i am.”
i introduced myself, and extended my hand. she shook it weakly. it wasn’t until our palms touched that i realized how sweaty mine was. damn it. “how do you like class?”
“it’s okay,” she said. “kind of boring.”
“yeah.” we started walking toward the parking lot. i was running out of ideas, and she wasn’t helping me any. she was probably used to these failed attempts at flirtation by amateurs like me. suddenly, i resented her, but i managed to keep my cool. “do you live on campus?”
“no, off,” she said, then added, “i live with my boyfriend.”
“oh.” this was obviously my cue to exit, but for some reason, i remained with her. i didn’t want to come across as being a typical guy who was only interested in one thing, even though i was. i was exactly that guy. at eighteen years old, who else could i have been? “how long have you been together?”
“seven months.” don’t care. tell me to go away now, please.
“cool.” idiot. say something stupid like, why don’t you ditch the zero and get with the hero? make her laugh at least. don’t be a creepy, monosyllabic moron.
“well, that’s my ride over there,” she said. she unlocked her ’87 corolla with the automatic keychain. beep. beep. thank god.
“alright, cool.”
“see you thursday.” thursday? what the hell was thursday? oh yeah. class. duh.

i don’t know what it is about bees that should make me recall this particular story. what happens, though, if bees knew that they had other options? what if they outright refused to serve the queen? would they fear growing old? would they think that their time spent on earth was being wasted? would they remember transient encounters, or view documentaries on other species?

since lena, i’ve had a number of equally awkward encounters. some have worked out; some have not. i still wonder about that first time, though, and all the anxiety, sweaty palms, and self-consciousness that surrounded it. ten years later, i continue to marvel at how the loneliness, the frustration of feeling voiceless and powerless, and the fear of growing old and bitter, became so overwhelming that it forced me to move.

even though i had failed, i take great comfort knowing that for the first time in my life, i knew exactly what i was supposed to do.

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