At a twenty year remove, I’m forced to concede that sometimes life hands you lemons sourer than not going to your first- (second or even third) choice college. There’s death, illness and oppression. There’s crushing poverty, violence and war. There are roommates that love patchouli. There are Jimmy Buffett fans. There is “Hotel California.” At eighteen, though, I was sure pretty that Women’s College was the worst thing that could possibly happen.
“This place will be the death of me,” I said to a friend on the phone, without a trace of irony, after my first night in a peach and vanilla scented dorm, surrounded on all sides by stereos playing the same Counting Crows song, not quite in sync.
My friend was dealing with her own troubles the time, but managed something sympathetically Fuck Them-ish as I moaned about the fact that my Campus Schedule featured things like “Ice Cream Social” and “Cotillion” and the “Day Where All The Girls Dress In Wacky Costume, Bang On Pots and Climb a Mountain Singing Old Camping Songs.”
Coed, boozy and served up at an ironic distance to my friends back home, any one of those things might have sounded sort of fun. After all, we’d been to a high school featuring similarly outdated, absurd and patronizing traditions. There we treated them as they should be treated: as excuses to sneak off, smoke cigarettes and fluster the prefects. “The weird hiking thing? People have told me about it at least six times. Like they genuinely think it’s a thing I might want to do. ”
I couldn’t wrap my head around it any more than I could wrap my head around the precise run of unfortunate events that landed me there. The short version started with me being bad at math from roughly seventh grade and ended with an Unexpected Scholarship to the Women’s College. The long version was a toxic combination of underachievement, parental job loss, bad faculty advice, expensive out-of-state liberal arts colleges, a punitive admissions policy at my flagship state university (since lifted), a lack of financial aid and having the only family member that might help be grandmother who believed I’d be grievously ruined by Communist Yankees with Disreputable Table Manners should I register for class north of the Mason-Dixon Line.*
“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” my mother had said. She’d gone to a women’s college after all, one in the same state to which I’d been banished. But in her day women went to women’s colleges because of institutional sexism, not just a preference for not having dudes in their Abnormal Psych class. To me, single sex colleges not objectively bad, maybe, but, like garter belts and hand fans, a quaint response to a problem since solved. And sure, I did try to believe it might be all right. The Women’s College definitely wanted me–that was flattering. I came from a matriarchal family. Most of best friends were women. Just because the girls in middle school/my camp cabin/junior high gym class/field hockey practice/every slumber party I’d ever been to had been complete assholes en masse, that didn’t mean my college classmates would lock me in the bathroom and call me a fat smelly loser. Perhaps women’s college would be thick with bluestockings, riot grrrls, woman warriors, and artists who had no time for traditional gender roles because they were creating furious and brilliant things. Women who didn’t allow their sex to define them and didn’t care how men saw them.
And to be fair, there were a few of these. A precious few. But mostly it was willowy, blonde debutantes in riding boots visiting the stables between class. It was like a summer camp for Barbies, each girl more beautiful than the next and every one more beautiful than I. Every Thursday, my dorm would mostly empty out, and my now-perfectly made-up and coiffed classmates with disappear by the carload to fraternity houses throughout the Old Dominion. There, they would hook up with young Republicans named after confederate generals and come back late Sunday with a hangover and a pregnancy scare. I hated them and every time I tried to explain why, I was accused of sour grapes. Is it just that you’re jealous that you weren’t invited to the Sigma Chi Cock and Bull Bonanza Blaze Weekend? I mean, maybe if you brushed your hair and put on a little make-up, you might get a date too. And that, of course, made me hate them even more.
Of course, there were other kinds of girls– modesty-positive Bible-beaters, who’d show up in my creative writing workshop with a sonnet cycle about Jesus and the sacred duty of the womb, painfully shy women, who hid away in halls with incredibly restrictive visitation policies, radical lesbians. I tried to hang with the latter, thinking that maybe there I’d find my funny, angry weird people. Maybe we could start a revolution together. Maybe I’d level up on the Kinsey Scale. Maybe I’d find a soulmate. But the Womyn’s Collective was a mostly dour affair–a mess of internecine squabbles and humorless debates about vocabulary and spelling. It was about halfway through my first and only meeting, when I realized I just didn’t care enough to be righteous. I didn’t belong.
I’d carved a sliver of an identity out of books and records and hair dye and thrift store dresses. I thought it might keep me afloat. It was so precarious, built on the illusion of knowledge I did not really have and a façade of toughness so paper-thin that it would collapse in a light drizzle. It mattered to me, perhaps more than it should, to be inspired, to be respected, to have a like-minded community that would accept me on my own terms. I remember thinking, what if they don’t exist? what if I never find them? what if I’m doomed to be forever alone? what if Women’s College is as good as it gets?
It was maybe the second weekend on campus when I went down to a mixer in the pavilion under the dining hall and watched a wide-faced frat brother extend his arm and refer to us, all the women at the college, by our unofficial nickname. It was a breed of dog that rhymed (sort of) with the Women’s College-pretty, purebred, longhaired, expensive. And the best part is they always come when their master calls. His friends howled. I looked away, disgusted, horrified that my classmates would allow men to speak that way on their campus, enraged at myself for not punching his smug, fat, entitled face, but mostly furious that I had been included. I didn’t feel angry solidarity with my fellow students, the girls who didn’t care, the girls who would date that guy. I felt gross and humiliated to be seen, if only for a second, as one of them, an expensive pet, bred for the pleasure of some asshole in madras shorts.
The play was a thesis project on the subject of Penthesilea, Queen of the Amazons, and brainchild of a radical feminist theater graduate student, whose directorial style was basically a just do what feels right for you kind of thing. Imagine the awkward stepchild of performance art and a sixth grade school book report skit, but with Jacques Lacan played by an adorable snub-nosed, brunette from Kansas and Achilles played by a girl who looked like a boy who looked like a member of a Brit Pop band. Offstage, Achilles was dating Penthesilea. Every night before rehearsal they bickered in the green room and every night at rehearsal Achilles slayed her girlfriend onstage. Theirs was a compelling cycle, and probably better suited for the stage than the actual show.
If I recall correctly, we hadn’t auditioned, merely put our name on a sign-up sheet in the dining hall lobby. That was fine with me. I’d auditioned for a legit Drama Department production my first week on campus but I’d been cut after the first callbacks. I took this very hard—at least this godawful third-place, backup college could give me a fucking part in their stupid shitty fall play—and petulantly swore off ever acting again. Then the only friend I’d made on campus got bored listening to me complain and started taking fraternity weekends with her roommate . Boredom and desperate loneliness drove me into a chiton and a spirit gum and cotton ball beard. I played Aristotle. My entire performance consisted of stomping around a platform shaped like an isosceles triangle carping the female sex in my best ersatz Oxbridge. It wasn’t much of a stretch, as I’d basically spent the last few weeks doing just that,** but without the facial hair and the accent.
We spent the first half of our rehearsal schedule in an over-bright multipurpose room in the science building with stage directions masking-taped to the floor. We rehearsed in scenes and sections. I never saw a complete script. My group–ancient philosophers—was comprised of myself, Plato and one other, who I’m going to call Diogenes, because I don’t remember who she was supposed to be. We trudged around our triangle of misogyny for about ten minutes every night and got released just as my roommate (an orgiastic Helene Cixous) and the modern theorists arrived to do their thing. I didn’t have anything in common with Plato and Diogenes. In fact, I had a clear sense that Plato hated my guts, which would have been completely fair. I’d spent most of the last few weeks indiscriminately telling my classmates to fuck off. I had no idea if Plato had been on the receiving end and, more importantly, I didn’t care.
Achilles didn’t show up until we moved rehearsals into the actual theater, which was as charming, historic and slighty claustrophobic as the rest of campus. After that first night, I ended up on my only cast-related hangout until the cast party. Jacques Lacan recommended we buy coloring books as well as cigarettes, so we ended up drinking coffee and smoking, coloring Disney characters together at a diner until 2am. I remember thinking, Is this fun? Do I hate this? Is this really what college is like? On the way back to the school, Lacan sang us a song in Russian. Her voice was high and clear and sweet. I was touched. She was talented. I told her so.
“How do you stay sane here?” I asked.
“I love it here,” she said. “This is exactly where I want to be.”
And I thought, things would be so much easier if I could make myself feel that way.
The play opened. People came to see it, which shocked me. I sprayed my hair silver and waited until the house lights dimmed to put on my beard so I could smoke outside the stage door with Achilles. She’d had—or more accurately, was having—a particularly nasty spat with Penthesilea. I didn’t see their final duel on stage, but I figured that one would surprisingly credible The cast party was held in the cinderblock basement of a classroom building. It was ugly and damp and stank of beer and mildew. “This would be a great place for punk rock shows,” I said, knowing, even as I said it, that the Women’s College would never be a great place for punk rock shows.
My roommate and Diomedes fretted over the music selections. Somebody made me my first fuzzy navel, which smelled like a Bath and Body Works gift basket and tasted sort of like my dorm. I’d hoped for maybe a beer, but the first thing you learn at Women’s College is that there is never any beer at Women’s College.*** I was eighteen and without a fake ID. Beggars can’t be choosers.
Achilles had a bottle of something that was definitely not Peach Schnapps and offered to share. I poured it a bit into a plastic cup and got very drunk very quickly. I walked home sometime later, supported by my roommate and my only friends, hollering across the quad about how Nirvana was actually a pretty good band, even if they had ripped off the Pixies, and then I passed out on my bed in my clothes.
It was the first really good night I had at college. If it had been a movie, this would have been a happy ending Life isn’t life the movies, though. I woke up the next morning with a hangover, not a renewed sense of purpose and community. I didn’t grow to love Women’s College or the women who went there. I didn’t learn something special about myself.
I transferred of Women’s College after exactly two semesters with a few close friends, the closest of which had all been at that same cast party, a few credit hours and a palpable sense of relief. After Women’s College, my social circle moved out of the theater and into record stores, self-consciously seedy bars and nightclubs with terrifying bathrooms. That scene required its own kind of performance–a full-time acting job at the outset– and I lacked the interest and the energy to take on other roles. “Penthesilea” was almost the last time I acted in a play. Almost, because fifteen years later the best friend I met (but do not remember meeting) at the “Penthesilea” party, cast me in the show she wrote for her wedding. I remember standing on stage, watching her take vows, thinking, This friendship is just about the only good thing that came out of my year at Women’s College. I remember thinking, my freshman year? I guess it could have been worse.
*Nana was over the moon about the Women’s College for exactly all the reasons I suspected it would be hell on earth. For one thing, it was located just across town from her house, in my mother’s hometown, so I would be available for weekly, if not daily visits and to attend any and all events involving my mostly conservative, rural extended family. And as she said, quality people have been sending their daughters to the Women’s College since before the Civil War. Only the finest girls from the best families go to the Women’s College. Even rich Yankees would send their daughters there to learn how to be ladies.. When I was young, all the girls at the Women’s College had to bring at least twenty-five pairs of white gloves and their own set of sterling silver. I would have loved to have gone there (wistful sigh). Let me know if you’ll need that sterling, honey, and I’ll put a few places settings together for you.
**A cursory overview of my freshman year journal finds the phrase “I hate women” a staggering twenty-three times. The self-loathing wasn’t lost on me. “I hate myself” and “I hate my life” each appear roughly twice as often.
***Gross and full of calories, I’d been told early on by a girl putting away a bottle of Strawberry-flavored Boone’s Farm