A week after our high school graduation, I walked over to Laramie’s house to find out how the ceremony went. I had been sick with the flu and had missed the most important event of my life until that point.
Laramie’s mom welcomed me at the door and steered me to the family room where Laramie was sitting on a black leather sofa in Under Armour sweats and white socks. He had his feet up on the center table with one arm stretched across the back of the sofa. He was watching an NBA game between the Wizards and the Knicks. There was no one else in the room. As he saw me enter, he straightened himself, got up and shook my hand.
“Hey, what’s up?” he said.
“Not much. How did the ceremony go? Your mom said you were disappointed.”
“Well, kind of. I didn’t get my award at the ceremony,” he said with a solemn face.
“Well, everything was going well until they announced my name and I was on my way to the podium. Then the lights went out. We were in pitch dark except for the emergency lights. Inside the auditorium we had no idea that there was a thunderstorm raging outside. Principal Pierce cancelled the ceremonies for the evening. I was so looking forward to it, man. Grandpa and grandma had driven three hundred miles. ”
“What happened to your award?”
“Mr. Pierce handed it to me in his office the next day.”
“I am sure everyone is still proud of you, Laramie.” I always addressed him with his full name.
“Yeah. But it’s not the same thing.”
I remained silent. I felt a little sorry for Laramie, but did not understand why he was so hung up.
I had known Laramie since our sophomore year in high school, having lived within two blocks of his house. During our senior year, we drove to school every day at 7 in the morning. Sometimes after school we would get together to play video games or do homework. Laramie was great in math and science – getting A’s more often than me. I nicknamed him The Smarty.
At six feet three inches, Laramie was tall and slim, with blond crew cut hair that made him look like a star athlete, which he was. Sometimes I thought he drove himself too hard. Many times after practice I would time his extra runs with a stopwatch. With all the practice and dedication I was not surprised that he turned out to be our star runner. He won the conference 100-meter dash and was to receive an award as the team MVP for the year. I remember how excited he was to receive the award with his parents and grandparents looking at him admiringly and applauding. He had worked hard for it.
“Why did the lights go out just before my award? Laramie whined. “I don’t understand. Can’t they have waited just five more minutes?”
“It’s one of those things that can happen to anyone,” I said.
“No, no. It’s my luck. Maybe I was born under bad stars or something.”
I was surprised that a person like Laramie would be act like this. Was he looking for a scapegoat to blame for things not turning the way he had envisioned? On the other hand, I figured he was the type of person who always wanted to be the best one in the room, getting all the limelight. Only supernatural powers could take that limelight away.
“You’ll get over it. You’re just feeling bad today.”
I tried to reassure him, but I knew I had not succeeded after seeing the sour look on his face.
We soon got busy in planning our post high school life. We had already received letters of admission to the colleges of our choice. Our schools were within short drive of each other. That summer went fast, in making orientation visits and preparing for the next phase in our lives.
We made some new friends in college but still managed to meet on various occasions, like sporting events or just to talk and catch up on what was happening. Laramie was sharing a room in his dorm with a guy named Greg. Whenever I went over to see him, Greg would join us. I got to know him well.
Before we knew it, we were in our senior year. Laramie had not pursued athletics in college, taking the engineering track instead, whereas I decided to be a computer scientist. One Friday afternoon, as I was about to leave for my computer lab, my phone rang. It was Laramie.
“Can I come over tonight?” he asked. He sounded concerned about something. I wondered what it would be.
“Sure,” I said. “We can go to Sal’s Pizza and have a couple of beers.”
Laramie had enrolled in an elective course in modern American history. His professor, Dr. Ferguson, was a mesmerizing character who would dart from one corner of the class room to other when lecturing and waive his hands to emphasize a point. Laramie really liked him and wanted to excel in the class.
“Beginning next week I want each one of you to prepare and deliver a three-minute talk on President Woodrow Wilson and his approach to war and international cooperation,” Professor Ferguson had told Laramie’s class.
Laramie had never spoken in front of an audience but wanted to do his best. He visited the college library and borrowed books on the life of Woodrow Wilson. He studied and prepared a well-researched speech. He was confident he could do the presentation well.
On the day of Laramie’s turn to speak, he skipped lunch and studied his notes instead. When he entered the class at 1 pm, his hands started to shake and he started to feel tightness in his chest. He tried to reassure himself that all would be over in a few minutes and not to worry. He had never felt this way when he had to run in front of hundreds of people in high school.
Professor Ferguson took a seat in the rear of the classroom. Two students spoke before Laramie. The first one almost shouted, as if loudness was a sign of confidence. The second one spoke in a whisper, and no one could hear what he said. I can do better than that, thought Laramie.
When his name was called, Laramie stepped in front of the class and surveyed the room. He took a deep breath and started to speak.
“I would like to start with a famous quotation from President Wilson,” He began. “The world must be made safe for democracy. Its peace must be planted …”
Suddenly his voice became hoarse. Words got stuck in his throat. He forgot what he was going to say next. He felt warm. He looked at the students in the front row. They were looking at him with anticipation. Laramie tried to continue, but he lost the place in his notes and did not know where to start. Professor Ferguson discreetly left the room, perhaps not to intimidate him anymore by his presence. Laramie managed to finish the speech. A few students approached him after the class and said that they liked what he said.
“That was a good speech, Laramie.”
He knew they were just being polite. Otherwise, why would they praise a speech that was flubbed? Why would Professor Ferguson leave the room? Laramie felt awful and ashamed. He was sure the professor had gone outside and laughed his heart out at Laramie’s incompetence and would probably give him a D in the course.
“Is it me or my bad luck?” Laramie asked, taking a sip from his beer.
I told him that everyone gets stage fright, especially if they are not used to speaking in front of an audience. Even Steve Jobs felt as if he was going to throw up just before his first presentation on TV. I tried to convince him that it gets better with time.
“You may be right,” he said.
I was glad our meeting ended on a positive note.
The next semester, Laramie enrolled in Speech 101 taught by Steven Warbeck, a graduate student who was working on his MFA in English. The class was just six people. Steven did not offer much instruction in the techniques of speech-making but instead had his students practice by talking in front of the class on random topics such as “How I managed my morning without running water” and then he would critique. Laramie’s speech on “How a sunny day in January fooled me in believing it was a warm day” was not a success. He choked when he spoke. It was not as bad as Professor Ferguson’s class but Laramie knew he needed to improve. He got a B in the course, but he was not happy. He wanted to be a great public speaker.
As the semester came to an end, everyone was looking forward for the holiday season to start. Holidays were celebrated with gusto in Laramie’s house. His dad would start decorating right after Thanksgiving to get ready for Christmas. Laramie’s mom was famous for her carrot cakes and pumpkin pies. On New Year’s Eve Laramie’s house buzzed with relatives and friends. I was a regular at this party. Laramie told me that Jim Jenson, his dad’s college friend, was a new guest this year. A recent retiree, Jim had joined a Toastmasters club.
“These guys are great,” Jim was telling his dad. “I go to these meetings, meet new people and it gives me a chance to hone my public speaking skills. Not that I need to. Ha, ha, ha.”
“Maybe I should look into this Toastmaster thing.” Laramie said, looking toward me.
“Go for it,” I replied.
Later that week Laramie registered in a Toastmasters club near our neighborhood. In the first few meetings he just sat and listened to others talk. After a while, Richard, the organizer, encouraged him to start by speaking on topics he felt comfortable with.
“Just be yourself,” Richard said. “The more you know about the subject and the more prepared you are, the more comfortable you will be. There is no magic to it.”
For the next meeting Laramie chose to speak on “How I prepared myself for the 100-meter dash.” He knew what he wanted to say, but he repeated his poor performance, just like in Professor Ferguson’s class.
He was surprised that his training in Warbeck’s class had not adequately prepared him. But he had made a commitment. The people in the Toastmasters group were empathetic. After all, they were meeting so people like him could learn the craft of public speaking.
Within a few months he began building confidence. He wrote a speech on his expectations as an automotive engineer and delivered it without a flaw. He told me that his timing was good and he did not forget any words. He was feeling good about his accomplishment.
The clubhouse in our neighborhood needed an outdoor swimming pool. The recreation committee had organized a fundraiser and encouraged the homeowners to voice their opinions. To my surprise Laramie volunteered to speak in front of the gathering and wanted me to attend. I was impressed by his performance. He eloquently made a case in support of the initiative, stressing how beneficial it would be for the teenagers in the community. His speech was greeted with warm applause.
A few months passed when Greg announced his plans to marry his long-time girlfriend Eugenia. I too got an invitation to attend the wedding. Greg requested Laramie to be in his wedding party and to make a toast. Laramie accepted and thought this would be an opportunity to show off his newly honed skill.
The wedding was at the Blue Bay Grand Esmeralda, an all-inclusive resort in Cancun. Close friends and family were invited to arrive a week early to enjoy the resort.
Laramie and I arrived there on Wednesday, hoping to take in some sun on the beach and visit the Chicen Itza pyramids. On the day of the wedding we played beach volleyball after breakfast and then retreated to the swing bar. The bar had small swings arranged in a U shape with seats made of canvass belts about six inches wide. We ordered margaritas. The sun was shining as we sat on two adjacent swings, enjoying the cool breeze.
“Well, here we are,” I said. “This is Greg’s day and yours too. How do you feel?”
“I feel great,” Laramie said. “Do you know I spent almost three months working on my toast? I have some funny anecdotes.”
“Like when practicing the drums in his dad’s basement, the stick slipped out of Greg’s hand. It struck an expensive vase and brought it down to the floor. Greg made a dash to catch the vase but missed. The whole drum set crumbled to the floor and his pants got ripped in the back. Luckily the floor was carpeted and the vase did not break. Greg didn’t tell this to anyone. I knew because I was there with him. Well, it won’t be a secret anymore.”
“My sis Lauren edited my speech. She is a high school English teacher. And I practiced in front of my mom and dad.”
“How did that go?”
“My mom said she hopes I will impress some nice girl,” Laramie said with a smirk.
“Well, she can’t be wrong. I hope the lucky stars will shine on you this time.”
He just smiled.
We spent the afternoon in a sports bar watching football.
The wedding was at 6 pm on the beach overlooking the ocean. Everyone was dressed in business casual attire. We faced the bride and the groom as they stood under a canopy within twenty feet of the blue water that reflected the evening sun. The leaves of two palm trees on each side of the canopy swayed in the mild wind. At the cocktail hour preceding the reception, Laramie was moving around chatting with his longtime friends, and even with strangers.
The reception was simple. Round tables with white table cloths were decorated with red orchids, birds of paradise and other tropical flowers in a rectangular glass jar. The chairs were draped in white cloth. Laramie and I shared a table with eight other guests. The DJ announced that the toasts would be in an hour, just before the cake and coffee were served.
The bride and groom had the first dance. Others joined them. There was much laughter and music.
“We are in Mexico. We have to have tequila shot!” said a man at our table.
Tequila was ordered and poured in shot glasses. Everyone gulped it. The waiter was not pleased.
“No, no, no, Sigñors. Let me show you right way to drink tequila,” he said.
He came with a new bottle of tequila and a plate loaded with lime wedges. He asked everyone to sprinkle some salt on the back of their left palm. Then he shouted in Spanish:
“Arriba, Abajo y Adios” (Up, Down and Goodbye)
He asked us to lick the salt, down the tequila and bite the lime.
The music and dancing continued. The first course of the dinner was served. Someone at our table asked if there should be another round of tequila. Everyone agreed with a loud chorus of “Yeah!”
The waiter brought another bottle with salt and lime. He chanted as everyone downed the shots.
The DJ started playing “The Macarena”. I joined the group on the dance floor. As I was leaving our table I saw Laramie get up from his chair and say to his neighbor: “This tequila is not strong. Are we sure the waiter is not adding water in the bottle?”
While dancing, I bumped against a pretty young lady named Sukanya. She was from India and was Greg’s sister’s close friend. She was so sweet and pretty that I just kept talking to her. I noticed that Laramie had also joined the group on the dance floor. At one point he bumped against someone and fell down. I noticed a few people helping him get up. I did not think too much of it. After all, the twists and turns that go with “The Macarena” make people miss the steps. After the song ended Laramie went back to our table and I stayed with Sukanya.
The DJ followed with Chubby Checker’s “The Twist”. While gyrating to the rhythm, I peeked at our table. The group had ordered another round of tequila. I saw Laramie do the salt and lime routine, and then get up. He came over to me through the crowd, tapped on my shoulder and said he was feeling hot and was stepping out for a while.
The DJ announced that he was playing Johnny Cash’s “The Ring of Fire” next before the toasts. As the song started, the hall filled with the sound of a chorus of “The ring of fire, the ring of fire.”
After the song ended there was silence followed by Greg’s dad making a brief speech congratulating the bride and the groom and thanking all for attending. Greg’s sisters spoke next. All through this I was standing with Sukanya and did not go to my table. I heard Laramie’s name called but did not see him. I got a bit worried but figured he was in the restroom and would soon appear to give his speech. When they started serving coffee there was still no sign of Laramie. I made a round of all the tables, thinking he may be talking to someone. He was nowhere to be seen. Then I remembered him telling me he was stepping out for a while.
I dashed out of the hall. It was quiet and dark outside, except for the lights by the open air bar. I could hear the waves hitting the shore, making a rumbling sound. The red lights from an ocean liner that was docked far away from the resort reflected in the water. A few people were drinking at the outdoor bar. That is where I saw him, sitting on a chair with his head down, eyes closed and tapping his fingers on the arms of the chair.
“Laramie, Laramie,” I said, shaking him as he opened his eyes. “Where you been? They’re serving cake and coffee. You missed your toast!”
“Oh, my God! Did I really?” Laramie said as he opened his eyes. “Just my luck!”