Today we continue our first Essay Week, featuring the work of a new writer each day. Enjoy Thursday’s piece.

by Deb Palmer

In the early 1990s, Central Washington University bounced with fresh skin, high hopes, gel-spiked hair, and me. At least that’s how it felt. A single mom, pushing forty, striving for a degree promising to pay bills. There were others sporting crow’s feet, suited for the staff lounge, awkward in the student hub, but we were few.

The desire to fit in with the puffy banged girls and boys who reeked of beer and Clearasil, faded the first week after overhearing a conversation between two gals in class. I shall respectfully refer to them by the shoes they were wearing.

Doc Marten: I’m so pissed.

Birkenstock: What happened?

Doc Marten: My mother forgot to pack my lunch.

Birkenstock: That sucks!

Doc Marten: I’m starved.

Birkenstock: I’ll buy lunch. I have Dad’s Visa.

As Birkenstock comforted her shaken friend, I thought over my morning. The gas hog Chrysler Cordoba needed a jumpstart, my son tried to fake the flu, and my daughter surprised me with “today is conference day.” How I longed for a mom to pack my lunch.

College life as a mom with a full-time job and a long list of new chatty friends calling from various collection agencies, kept me hopping and stressed. Why pine for invites to tag along for “brews and peanuts” at the infamous Tav, when I’d have to decline? I pictured my children’s noses pressed to the window, peering in, mouthing “Mom, he hit me!” Or, “There’s no food at home!” (translation: no chips or pop). Besides, I’d never resist the temptation to force feed my new friends motherly advice. Would they thank me for the good intentioned buck up – quit whining – do your homework encouragement? No, I didn’t think so.

I grew used to the groans and eye rolls when the professors would slide me into a group project. And I learned to show grace when asked the burning question on my classmate’s minds: “How old are you?”

I didn’t have time to bother with them. Thus we settled into our roles, side by side, avoiding contact beyond a polite nod. Normal days dragged on with deficits of sleep, money, and time for taking care of myself. Extraordinary days, like those mid-finals, left me vulnerable to the flu of the moment. One such day, I landed in the on-campus free medical clinic.

Seated in the lobby, hunger grinding at my gut, I regretted having no mom to pack me a lunch. Just then, I saw a huge bowl of colorful cello-wrapped candy, in the center of the table of the lobby. Grateful, I scurried over, grabbing fistfuls of the rainbow of choices, red, green, blue, yellow.

Back in my chair, I placed the pile of candy in my lap, choosing red as my first delight. Fumbling with the package, I felt stares, the kind that make you check for open buttons, or trailing toilet paper. Victorious over the stubborn packaging, I popped the promise of sweet in my mouth expecting hard candy, but finding it was chewy like a gummy bear. A few chuckles rose as I spat out the flavorless rubber band-like candy.

That’s when wisdom returned to the scene. There in my lap, mocking like a colorful mirage, was a pile of condoms. Now the unnoticed sign on the bowl flashed like a Vegas billboard.

FREE Condoms – Safe Sex

I hear my name. Rise. Stuff the 20-some condoms in my pockets and follow the nurse from the lobby. Before disappearing, with no way out of the embarrassing dilemma, I own it, shooting a smile and a wink to my mesmerized fans.