Indelible. This is the word that knocked me out of contention as St. Raphael Grade School’s Spelling Bee Representative. I fudged it in the final round. I thought it had an -able suffix.
When I set out to write my mini-memoir of the first month of college, I did not think that the succession of events would surface in my mind’s eye so vividly or so poignantly. But here I am, removed from college for just as many years as I was enrolled. I am recognizing the cast of characters whose imprint is still etched quite indelibly on my heart, and who may have just captured that part of me that went to college four years ago and never came back.
Needless to say, I survived the first month of college and have lived to write about it, sans book deal. I turned 18 in mid-September and I officially became an adult, liable for all kinds of unimaginable crimes for which I might be publicly identified. Adulthood was already solidifying itself, my naivete waning with each passing day of college life. The following realities, to name a few, were quickly becoming starkly apparent:
1.) People in college went out to house parties on school nights. Sometimes, these parties lasted until after midnight!
2.) Sometimes, college girls went to these parties and got drunk on the dancefloor and spilled beer on themselves and looked unattractive and didn’t appear to CARE!
3.) People in college had SEX – sometimes, with people they had just met!
4.) People in college lost things quite often. They lost their IDs by throwing them away when they dumped their dining hall trays on the rotating belt, they lost their keys at house parties when they were too drunk to find them or remember them before they stumbled back to their dorm, and they also lost their memory of meeting people, especially when it involved meeting me in class and then not remembering that they had met me previously when they saw me at a houseparty.
Despite the rude awakening that was this pervasiveness of irresponsibility, I somehow remained positive. I tried to laugh off the fact that I was always walking home by myself from parties where drunk boys would suddenly pause and poke my stomach to see if I would mind. I hung out with Steve a lot – whose room was a veritable looneybin – and occasionally ventured up to the hall 4B where the clock never seemed to tick because at 4pm or 4am, there was always a loud cacophony coming from every room and a rousing game of hall bowling beckoning passersby to come and join.
Flowers for moi?
The boy whom I had decided that I loved called me on my birthday and, since I didn’t leave my room for purposes other than to go to class or for meals, I was there when the phone rang. We talked for an hour about Bill Murray movies and other pressing matters. The next day, a delivery person came to my room in Baldwin Hall with a bouquet of flowers from the Amazon – they were huge. I wanted the delivery person to say that the bouquet was for my roommate because, even though I had watched enviously as my high school mates received tall stemmed roses from suitors every Valentine’s Day, and proceeded to carry them around to every class because “the box was just so big, it wouldn’t fit in my locker!,” suddenly, receiving flowers was really totally embarassing. NO ONE on our floor had received flowers yet, so my hallmates were all peeking in and asking who are they from??? I didn’t know what to say when the deliveryperson said that the flowers were for me. I didn’t know what to do when I found out the flowers were not from my dad. I called Big Pops and he said that I had to call the boy whom I had decided that I loved, because that was so thoughtful of him to send flowers. So I called the boy and I said thank you, thank you, thank you, and he said that he had to call my sister TP to check my dorm room number. Hercules himself had not gone to such great lengths, as far as I was concerned. My little sister was a doll but she could also be a total pill when she had information that you needed and could not find elsewhere. I subsequently stayed on the phone with the boy for another hour, deciding that I loved the boy even more than I had decided earlier, especially as he promoted my status on the floor from the girl whose clothes didn’t fit to the girl whose clothes didn’t fit who ALSO had a bouquet of flowers in her room.
A few weeks later my mother Big Red and TP visited for Family Weekend and they counted up all of the birthday cards I had taped to my closet door. Three were from the boy whom I had decided that I loved more, and two were from his best friends. I am sure my mother raised an eyebrow that could have also raised the roof, which is the way of an Irish mother in case you weren’t raised by the silent fury.
A few short weeks after that was Fall Break. I had plans to fly on an airplane for the first time without a parent to go see high school friends in New York City. I went home prior to my flight and the home of my girlhood appeared vastly different. The carpet was softer, the bathroom was more commodious, and my bedroom looked palacial. I had been institutionalized in just a couple of months, and was now profoundly aware of the luxury I had taken for granted for 18 years.
My first visit to NYC was monumental. I remember perching my camera with the autoflash on a pile of rocks in Central Park and taking a picture of me toppled on my friends. The frivolity reminded me that I was not the socially maladapted creature that college had convinced me that I had become. Rather, I was fun and had a penchant for breaking into fits of laughter and musical numbers on the sidwalks of SoHo. The trick would be transferring this same zeal to my life back at school.
The rest of the semester passed quite quickly. It was punctuated mid-way by my father picking me up for Thanksgiving Break and getting rear-ended in front of my dorm. He jumped out of the car with his legal tablet and proceeded to take down the names of eye-witnesses (who incidentally comprised the defensive line on the football team at Small Liberal Arts College). I was asked repeatedly that year by other eye witnesses if my father did indeed have “I SUE” as his license plate. This event was hailed as the second most exciting thing to happen in Pennsylvania since the Quakers founded the commonwealth.
The weekends were still lonely times, as many of my floormates were still evacuating campus for cozy weekends back home with their high school boyfriends (whom they would inevitably call their X-Men by second semester). Still, I was finding many excuses to get off campus myself. I even left my dorm room on week nights, too. Never to party but sometimes to study in academic buildings alone, only slightly plagued by fears of rapists and pillagers finding me unattended by a bodyguard.
My first experience in surmounting final exams in college was exactly what it was meant to be for a freshman with no time management skills. I stayed up for three nights in a row, ate leftover icing from the Hall Council study break parties, typed craptacular papers on poorly-researched topics, and cried everytime I thought about TP and Baby Bro at home watching Christmas claymation specials. But I made it through and my roommate and I rejoiced for having survived our first semester and wished each other well on our holiday breaks.
I spent the holiday break under a proverbial mistletoe with the boy whom I decided that I loved, absolutely enamoured with him and every second I got to spend with him. It was clear that our relationship was maintaining a high frequency of flirtation, but I wondered where it was going and was it worth even questioning?
There was one day in which he and I and several of our other pals went sled-riding and I felt in myself something strange and eruptive the whole day when I looked at him. I felt as though some kind of fizzling candor was going to burst in my esophagus if I didn’t say something. And so. He dropped me off that late afternoon and I thought in my mind, “Say something. Self? You cannot NOT say something.” So I dragged my innertube up almost to the door and spun around and I am sure my eyes grew as big as a kewpie doll. I wanted to say, “Okay boy. I have been head over heels for you since you left me at Dairy Queen. In August. Since then, I have decided that I am pretty much interested in being your pen pal for the rest of my life. So how about you just say okay and promise that you’ll never look at another woman ever, ever again, and only write sweet letters to me with illustrations and underlined words that I have to look up in a dictionary.”
Instead I said, “So, [Boy], like, when you go back to school, you don’t have to feel obligated – like, I mean, like you don’t have to send me letters or anything.”
What followed was a pregnant pause. It was so pregnant, it could have given birth to with quints.
He then gave me a look that I have never seen EVER recaptured anywhere else, not in “The Wonder Years” when Winnie tells Kevin that people change; not in “Little Women” when Lawry tells Jo that she will find someone and she will love him tremendously, and he’ll be hanged; not even in my own life by any man that has loved me, or been perplexed by me, or even who has told me that I was being laid off for department downsizing. The look was a combination of confusion and panic, of deep deep care and absolute madness.
I wanted to clarify what I had said, only I didn’t know WHY I had said exactly the opposite of what I had wanted to say, and so he replied, with his finger touching my lips, “Now you be good.” And then he kissed me and I looked around and – WHAT?!? DID HE JUST QUOTE A MOVIE LINE? “Now you be good” – WHAT! I am still searching for why he would tell me to be good, now, and perhaps it is because he, too, said the opposite of what he wanted to say, which may have been, “I haven’t a stinking clue what you are talking about, young lady, because today we just went sledding, and tomorrow, who knows, maybe we will go sledding again!”
Someday, I will have a daughter, and I will not be able to prevent her from dating boys who will cause her to cut class or make her feel fat or break her heart. She will break my own heart by doing so, but I will have to let her, because that is what growing up is all about. What I will tell her, sternly, though, is about the hazards of telling someone not to feel obligated to do something. I will encourage her to make people feel obligated to take responsibility for themselves and their actions, and I will teach her the subtle difference between guilt and earnestness, between owing someone something and honoring someone with truth and respect.
I will tell her about how I once told a boy not to feel obligated to write me, even though I would have pulled out my fingernails right from the nailbeds if he had asked me to do so. I will tell her how he went back to school and found a girlfriend and didn’t tell me about her, while simultaneously asking me if I would be coming to visit him in the spring, and that it would be fine to stay with him. (OF COURSE THIS WAS OKAY, THOUGH, SINCE I HAD TOLD HIM NOT TO FEEL OBLIGATED!!!) I will tell her that I eventually received a very pointed letter from him, detailing certain feelings he harbored for me, but that I was not in the right place to effect those feelings, and that he was presently preoccupied in channeling other feelings to someone else. I will tell her that I never never cried about that letter, that I only got angry, and very bitter, and that I moped for the entire second semester of freshman year. I will tell her that I got sick to my stomach everytime I saw that boy for the next two years. I will tell her that it got much worse before it got better, but then it did. Get better, the pain, that is. And eventually, after a lot of good counsel, I realized the Almighty Importance of Fit and Time in a relationship. That the fit might be right, but the time might be awful and therefore the relationship will never be able to launch. And likewise, the timing of meeting and falling for someone might be excellent, but sometimes the people involved don’t quite fit, and it is wise not to waste time trying to configure a fit that’s just not fulfilling and, in fact, quite uncomfortable for both parts involved.
Just as I do not regret anything that happened with the first boy whom I really loved, I do not regret anything that happened that freshman year. It was necessary to hurt and learn and hurt and learn because, much like gold held up to the hottest part of the flame, refinement sometimes comes through the most heated of trials.
The next fall, when I went back to school, I had a much brighter perspective. I would be an RA on a floor with lavendar walls. My room was big and beautiful with two closets. It was on the second floor, but my friend Steve once climbed in my window, because he could. I met some great new people, some were my residents on my floor who were constantly taping Cracker Jack prizes to my door, and others were RAs, too. One RA, John wore fantastic shoes – clogs and red Converse – and had a kind and therapeutic voice. The next summer, I told him it was NOT okay to tell me about other women that he liked. Five summers later, I said “I Do!” to that boy, and then I turned with tears pooling up in my eyes, and listened to my best gurlfriend and the boy whom I had first loved sing the most beautiful wedding song ever rendered, in front of a few other VIPs in our lives. I thought myself quite lucky to be so engulfed by love, and a tear streamed down my face.