“It was thrilling,” she said. “The minute after we got off the phone, someone from the phone company called me. They asked me who you were and I said I didn’t know, you were just some guy I’d met at work. They asked if you worked with me and I said no, because you quit, but they didn’t ask me that.” She laughed. “Although I was already lying, so I don’t know why I didn’t keep going.”
“What did they actually say?”
“They said they were looking for you. They wanted to know your name. I told them I didn’t know.”
“They said they were looking for me.”
“That’s what they said. It all sounded very serious!”
My chest hurt. “Sure,” I said, and rather than stay at the house with the girl whose parents were gone for the day and who had been tanning topless in her backyard before I’d arrived, instead I made up an excuse to leave and I never saw her again.
Six or so weeks later when my family made the three-hour drive with me to Austin to check in to the dorms on the earliest possible day that you could check in, it came out that you needed a photo ID to complete your check-in. I’d lost my driver’s license to a guy who’d graduated high school with me, who’d told me he could get it doctored to say that I was 21. Like the early phone system, ID cards at the time had very little security baked into them. Pretty soon it was clear he’d been lying, stringing me along. He just wanted to disappear with my $20, which was a lot of money to me at the time and would still be for a while.
After he’d dodged all my phone calls and my insistences that I didn’t care about the money, that I just needed my ID back, I drove to the apartment near my house where I knew he’d turned to living with the family of some other friend of his. A ratty-haired older woman answered the door and told me in simple monotones that the guy I was looking for was not there. I explained my situation, presuming that as an adult she might feel responsible to help me out.
She nodded dully. “This card,” she slurred, “it seems to be some sort of…key to something for you, you could say.”
“It’s my ID,” I said, still confused. What else did I have to say? Her eyes unfocused and then it hit me: this is exactly the kind of drug scene I worked hard to avoid on my adventures through the computer underground. I wiped tears from my eyes as I scrambled down the concrete apartment-building stairs. That guy probably made more money selling my ID than I’d given him originally, once I thought about it.
So I only had a paper replacement license when I drove down to check into the dorms. My mom stared, open-mouthed, at my complete lack of preparation. I hadn’t told her that I’d lost my license, even though I knew full well that we’d need it right then, right there. What kind of dummy was her son? What were we going to do?
Then I remembered. Before packing for college, I had stripped away from my personal belongings anything I thought was childish or nerdy or otherwise immature — from my notebooks, my clothing, my wallet — but the one thing I couldn’t let go, the one talisman that still held serious power for me, was my old Photon access card. Its picture of me was nearly three years old, ensuring that I looked even more like a lost little boy than I did in person as someone who was supposed to be a college freshman, but I showed it to the dorm lady and she was happy to let me off the hook. I moved my things into the dorm and my family drove home and I was only as alone in my head as I had ever been.
It’s not a matter of “straight-and-narrow,” I told myself. It’s a matter of being uncomplicated. The truth was so simple and deception was only ever complicated, and I was more lucky than I deserved to be where I was, starting college, with such a bright future ahead. As long as I never talked to any of those people again, I’d be fine.
Of course it would not be that simple. I would have two more serious complications before I came to understand my real problem.