Thursday, July 31, 2008

Why I still wonder

The story of our becoming roommates is convoluted, and like so many things in life, might have ended up quite differently. The summer before my freshman year of college, my mom must have sent my deposit check in late. Room assignments were made upon receipt of the deposit check, and by the time my check was finally mailed, the freshman girl's dorm was already filled to capacity with children of responsible, bill-paying parents. But I didn't know this yet. I received a letter from the school with the names of my two assigned roommates. I immediately sent out two e-mails, to the effect of, "Hi! Wow, I didn't expect to have two roommates, but I'm sure we'll all get along great! So what do you like to do? What music do you like? Are you excited? I'm so excited!!" In response I received two very similar e-mails, only varying in degrees of iciness. These e-mails said, "There has been some confusion. We're going to be seniors in the fall, and we've lived together for the last three years. Because of overcrowding, the school is turning some doubles into triples, and we're really not happy about this. They'll be paying us a small stipend, so let's all just enjoy the extra money while it lasts, and hopefully they'll find you another place and you'll be out of our hair soon." Then I cried. I cried and I sobbed and I threatened not to go. How could I go and live with people who already hated me? How could I have my idealistic college experience now? My father was furious. He threatened to call the school and tell them what's what. I don't know if he did or he didn't, but in any case I soon received a new roommate assignment. She was a sophomore, but at least she didn't already hate me by default. Her roommate had decided at the last minute not to return to school, and so we came to share a small room for the next nine months.

When I entered our room on that first day, her things were there, but she wasn't. I tried to form a picture of her from her belongings scattered about: charcoal drawings on the walls, clunky black boots strewn on the floor, jeans with holes in the knees. I was already intimidated; she was obviously cool. What would she think of me? I threw my floral comforter on the bunk above her ripped olive green bedspread, put on a Moloko cd, and hoped for the best. When she came in she said, "Is this Moloko?" and I breathed a small sigh of relief. We slowly warmed up to each other, and I got used to sharing a room for the first time in my life. We were always ultra-polite to each other, and even at the end we would still say things like, "Do you mind if I put this picture on the wall?" or, "Are you sure the tv's not bothering you?" and the other person would never dream of saying, yes, it is bothering me, even if it was. She, being a sophomore, already had her own friends, and I, a freshman in a mostly upperclassman dorm, never really found any friends of my own, except for the three girls I knew from high school who I clung to with increasing desperation. She and I would end up ordering Papa John's pizza one out of three nights, sometimes, which was good because it saved me the embarassment of eating at the dining hall alone. We'd eat pizza and watch The Simpsons, and I remember that one night when she laughed so hard, she couldn't stop. "Ned, you so craaaaaazy!" And she laughed and laughed, and I laughed too, because how could I not? And every time she'd stop, she'd pause and then start up again, which would get me going again too. It felt so good to laugh like that. We would prank call people, and hang up, hysterical. Sometimes at night, we'd turn off the lights and peek out the window until someone she knew walked by. She'd yell something inappropriate and we'd watch their reaction, then duck down giggling, and then pop up and do it again.

But it wasn't all laughter and pranks. I remember listening to Iggy Pop's "Perfect Day." "I love this song," she sighed.

"Yeah, me too," I said. "It's so...happy."

"Really?" she said. "You look at it that way?"

"Well, yeah." I said. "What other way is there to look at it?"

"Oh come on," she said. "It's such a perfect day...I'm glad I spent it with you...You just keep me hanging on...?" The way she heard it, the song was bitter and dripping with sarcasm. "I've never thought about it your way," she said. "I guess it is more...optimistic."

When she told me she was going to shave her head, I said, "Oh. Cool! I can take before and after shots!" She hesitated a second and then said, too brightly, "Ok!" And I knew that that really meant no, that it was a horrible idea, and her shaving her head wasn't about before and after, it was about something much deeper and much more desperate than I, with my ponytail and my Gap jeans, could ever hope to understand.

When she told me she was an alcoholic and had started going to AA, I had already pretty much figured it out. I had seen a pamphlet on her desk, and she'd started only returning to the room to sleep, long after I'd gone to bed. It was obvious something was going on. I'll be honest; I didn't believe she was an alcoholic. I knew she didn't keep liquor in the room and she didn't drink alone. I thought she was probably a confused college student who went to parties and drank too much, like most of our small, non-Greek, non-football playing campus. The way I heard it, that's all there was to do. I think AA provided her with something, a higher power to believe in, and something to belong to. I understood that need, so I said, "Good for you." She went in all the way, going to one or more meetings a day, forming friendships with her group people. They came to her recitals and supported her. They were like family. She started distancing herself from her former friends, and they were understandably confused. I'm sure they probably had the same initial reaction I did--"What? You're not an alcoholic!"

She said she was glad I didn't drink, it made things so much easier. I nodded along like I was doing it for her, or even myself, but the truth was, if I had been invited to even one party, I would have done anything, drank anything, eaten or smoked anything, just to fit in.

But in fact my one attempt at fitting in, like everything else I tried that year, was a failure. At the beginning of the school year, when I was still making some attempt at an effort, one of my friends from high school told me she was going to a party that night. "Oh," I said, "do you think I could go too?"

"Ohhh," she said. "Well, um, I'm kind of tagging along myself, so I don't really think I could have someone tag along with me...ya know."

"Oh," I said. "Ok." And I never asked again.

By the end of that year, even she had made her way "in," while I was doomed to forever be, not even outside, but a particular brand of invisible understood only by those who have experienced it.

By winter break, I knew I could never stand another year there. I applied desperately for a transfer to what had been my second choice school originally. I had gotten in there a year earlier, but it was a private school, so I went with the cheaper of the two. On paper it wasn't much of a change; I would be going from a small, rural, public liberal arts college in Maryland to a small, rural, private liberal arts college in Maryland. Even the student population was the same; about 1500 students. But I needed a fresh start somewhere else, anywhere else, and at the new school I knew I had no acquaintances from high school to rely on, although that was perhaps more terrifying than it was inspiring. I knew I wanted to get the hell away from that campus and its intellectual elitist, cliquey students, and its (what seemed like) perpetually gray skies. I felt like if I stayed there, I would die.

Though it seemed like May would never come, it had to, and after the studying and exams were finally over, I stood out in the parking lot with my roommate after packing my car. She was wearing a tank top and a bandana over her spiky hair that was starting to grow back. We hugged, and it was the first time we had ever touched like that. I wished I wasn't leaving her, and I wished I didn't have the heavy feeling of knowing you're looking at someone for the last time. She said she might transfer too, next year, although she admitted it was getting a little late for her. She understood why I was doing it, she said. "This place..." she said. She wanted to get out of it too, go somewhere where the art program was better. She said she'd miss me and I said I'd miss her too, and I knew it would be true.

We parted, and as I got in my car, I watched her hug one of her friends goodbye, just for the summer, and it was like she never wanted to let go. I understood our relationship then for the first time. We weren't friends, exactly. We were thrown together by random forces, and we helped each other through those dark months as best we could, even though we were both weighted down, both dragging our own broken wings.

Even though we only lived 25 minutes apart, we never did see each other again, though I always looked for her in malls and public places when I was in her hometown. I sent her a letter, and then a card with Homer Simpson on it, hoping she would laugh, even if I couldn't hear it. I still wonder about her, sometimes. I wonder if she did transfer to another school, if she graduated. I wonder it she still goes to meetings, I wonder if she still makes art, if her jaw still clicks when she eats. I wonder if she's found her way. I wonder if I have.


  1. Whew! In childhood we expect the world to give in to us and love us unconditionally. In adulthood we bump up against other lives randomly and realize childish ideas of our unique wonderfulness really are just fantasies. So the transition is often painful. I remember my first year at a small college 500 miles from home--liberating and terrifying. I wanted my mother; I wanted a car and a woman (a friend made his girlfriend pregnant and I thought that was more cool than Superman. Sex!). Had none of it. And it was OK.



  2. I don't know if we ever find our way, but I believe you are well along the path.

    Beautiful post Rachel.

    ps. if you were on facebook, you could stalk her out :)

  3. I was just going to say that, about Facebook. Even though I, with my stalkerish tendencies, am not on there, I've heard it's easy to reconnect.

    Anyway, if you don't think you've found your way yet, you will. You're smart like that.

    And, damn, you tell a fabulous story.

  4. I've tried. Either she's gotten married and changed her name, or maybe she's just not on Facebook, but she's not findable. It'll always be a mystery, I guess.

  5. Rachel, that was awesome. Your writing inspires me to start my own blog (finally), but at the same time it intimidates me because I'll never be quite this good!

  6. Gavin, that is the sweetest thing ever. And I can't wait to read your blog!

  7. Wow Rachel, I'm glad you're back. (I mean, I know you weren't really gone, but I'm glad you're back where you can update regularly...) You have such an amazing ability to convey emotion in your writing.

  8. I enjoy all of your posts! I think my last comment maybe made it sound like I don't.

    I'm going to go sit in the corner with my shovel before I dig myself in deeper...

  9. I hope I wasn't the HS friend that asked you not to tag along. I always thought that you thought you were too cool to hang out with me and my roommates.

    If I remember correctly your roommate had dated the guy I was desperately in love with for most of Freshman year and beyond. So I was scared to go to your dorm room for the fear of seeing her.