Melinda, Doing Her Best

“I think she’s a bad person,” said my friend Fred Hirsch, his face creased into lines of grief, failure to sleep, defeat. A graduate student with a decent job coming up, he was too early for those etchings and purplish bruises.

The person under discussion, Melinda Hopkins, seemed like a fairly standard California and Stanford beauty, except for the shy way she had of not meeting the eyes when you looked at her. The population tended to look at her. Flaxen hair with almost no wave in it; tennis shorts on campus or, for more formal occasions, white tennis dresses; an unusual smoldering thing going on in those eyes that did not meet mine and, according to stricken garrulous Fred, did not meet his, either, as he loomed above her or squirmed beneath her. He said she had a talent for computers, was working on advanced programs for import-export purposes. Even when she made love, or a kind of love, looking into the eyes of others, it was a distraction from her interior life. “Bad, bad person,” Fred repeated.

“She did harm to you, maybe,” I said, a true buddy, “but that’s because you chose to fall. Let yourself get done to.”


“Hey, come off it. Let’s just say what kind of person she is has yet to be determined. Just, far as you’re concerned, it was a bad deal, okay?”

Closing out my buddy duties for the spring quarter.

Melinda, graduating on one of those glorious June days, kissed her dear ones goodbye, kissing Fred and then turning to me with the same lightning brush against the mouth.

Her father lived in Belgium (sometimes she saw him during the summers); her mother was an actress in New York. It wasn’t convenient for her parents to show up for graduation ceremonies. “They’ve been there, done that,” she explained. “Anyway, Mom is an ingénue, working at it in New York, still the ingénue.” She was smiling more than just at one corner of her mouth, enough smile to assure Fred and me that she saw the humor in her mother’s career. “But she’s not forty yet—well, maybe—so why shouldn’t she play twenty-two-year olds?”

I asked Melinda if she was interested in acting or modeling, and she said they were fifth and sixth on her list of interests, after sheep-ranching in Australia, running garage sales, knitting multicolored skull-caps for Hassidim, and—her serious talent—writing computer programs. “But that’s lonely sometimes,” she said. “So maybe I should get into the ingénue business, like Mom.”

Clever Melinda seemed to have some humor or at least irony. Sad young people often develop this as a useful device.

“I’d like it if you stayed in Palo Alto with me,” Fred said, ever the hopeless nerd. “We could get married?” It was a question. He wanted me as a witness.

She wouldn’t tell him where his idea could be found on her list of career alternatives, but she puffed out her cheeks in a throw-up gesture. She didn’t like it when Fred talked dirty to her, and as to tenure with an untenured professor — hadn’t been there, didn’t want to do that.

“I’m sure Stanford is a fine school with an excellent reputation,” she said. “And I love the architecture, too, all those beige buildings, that time in the computer lab, those rich kids with their fathers living in Belgium or someplace.”


Folks like Fred and many other young men tend to judge people by what they do, inadvertently or advertently, and what they look like, and how they happen to lock into the guy’s dreams. Fred made a mistake to set his sights on this high I.Q. campus belle with the programming talent; she was too much for him, her wildness searching to waste something more than a Fred. Personally, of course, well-warned and prudent, all I wanted to do was follow her to the ends of the Earth.

Instead, when Fred and she stopped seeing each other, and I was no longer on campus either, I lost track of Melinda. She ducked. She disappeared off my screen, but I imagined she was still on her own.

And then I heard she was in prison. It shouldn’t make a difference, but I especially disliked the idea of somebody like her doing time. The charge was smuggling cocaine in her luggage on a flight from Ecuador; what did she think, that the dogs and the narcs couldn’t meet her eyes and therefore would spend all their time trying to get Melinda to look at them? That they would spend their strength sniffing at her and not noticing that she was a mule? That a flight from Ecuador was safe because it wasn’t a flight from Colombia?

Her karma was that of a winner, not a loser?

Her Colombian boyfriend had given her such guarantee. “Just carry this, Me-leen-da, and you get twenty thousand nice ones and I get whatever the market turns out to be. I also am taking a chance, my sweet.” He, of course, took another flight.

The market held firm, so in general he won. Coke sales are more reliable than other forms of retail.

On the other hand, a tipster with problems of his own gave her up, so in specific Melinda lost.

The friend who called her Me-leen-da decided to head someplace where there was no extradition treaty with the U.S. to avoid all the time-consuming legal hassles. As to Melinda, sorry about that. Sheet happens.

Fred had given me the news and a few years later told me she was getting out, maybe hadn’t been raped by the matronly truck-driver population of her federal prison, and now what should he do? Surround her with caring, pay for therapy, woo her with his kindness into a new life program that might also include Fred?

“Stay away,” I said.

“Can’t,” he said (wailing).

“Then why are you asking me?”

As it turned out, it was I who had the chance to avoid contact with this bad-luck Melinda, formerly of Stanford University. She called from San Francisco, where I live, and said: “Beached here, man.”

Yes, I would take her to dinner. Probably I also wanted to see what twenty-two months in a federal prison looked like on this fresh-faced, shy-eyed young computer programmer.

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