(This is Part Seven of series. Part Six is here.)
Let’s get this out of the way:
I hated college.
Maybe I was destined to. I’ve spent an adult life (and nearly twenty years, post college living in a college town) trying to work out whether the problem is me or the institution.
Like most of life’s great disappointments, it wasn’t supposed to be that way. College was supposed to be the best part of my life. I had been assured of that since I was a child. I believed that, in college, I would finally discover the people the people that understood me, the classes that would turn my world upside down and fill me with much fervor and curiosity. I thought I might figure out why I’m here or what I’m supposed to do while I am. I thought I might have my talents finessed, by skills honed, and be put on a path toward something great and sublime. In the meantime, I’d spend four years talking all night about philosophy and history and literature with a bunch of people who also wanted to make strange and beautiful art and explore whatever we could figure out to explore in or around our scenic ivied campus. I’d have lots of sex with the sort of boys (and maybe girls, perhaps something neither and in-between) my grandmother would never approve of. I’d probably get into radical politics. I’d maybe start a band. I’d read Ovid in Greek. I’d travel abroad and study Joyce in Dublin and Dante in Florence. I’d study aesthetics and revolution. I’d write novels and plays about both. I’d definitely have weird hair.
By the end of the senior year, the reality of financial situation collided with my fine, but not competitive enough for a fancy scholarship academic record and I was left with a handful of highly unappealing options. The best of which was Women’s College, who liked me enough to offer a generous scholarship and invited me up last minute to tour a campus I’d honestly never believed I’d set foot on. I was wary in my introductory chat with the admissions director. She was so confident I’d be happy as a Women’s College Girl that she smiled right through me noting that I was reticent about single-sex education because my impression of young women en masse was that they “tended to act like a bunch of vicious @#nts.”
“We like diversity here,” she said. “We’d like you to accept the scholarship because we think you’ll bring something unique to campus.”
A terrible attitude? A kind of self-loathing misogyny? A determination to transfer at all costs? I couldn’t work it out. The admissions sent me out to tour the campus with a chubby theatre major. She was funny, brassy, and outspoken in that way that chubby theatre majors are when they don’t want you to think they’re the type to spend hours in the kitchen and the rest of their monthly allowance making cupcakes for everyone they know (but she herself will not eat, because chubby) because they secretly believe they have to provide material incentive for people to like them. I was also that person, and recognized something of myself in her when she shamelessly took off her t-shirt to show me the scars from a breast reduction surgery the summer before. “Check out my fucked up tits,” she said, in a way you do when you’re greatest fear is people thinking that you’re a nice, sweet girl with a pretty face, so considerate! Which is shorthand for Jesus Christ, have you ever seen a creature so pathetic, so desperate, so terminally uncool.
I liked her. I thought we might be friends, if I had to make friends at Women’s College. I really liked her room, which was located on the close end of a creaking old colonnaded dorm overlooking the main quad. The ceilings were high. The windows were tall. The floors were old scratched up wood. It felt like a platonic version of a college dorm room. Even if outside looked like the sort of postage-stamp antebellum Virginia that conjured images of hoopskirts and served as continual reminder that the only non-white people you’d seen so far on campus so far were either emptying trash cans or working in the dining hall. Inside, the light was good for reading and you could read yourself anywhere.
“This is kind of the arts dorm, so none of the girls that live here are really straight or, like, normal,” said my still-topless host. “There are a lot of cool talented people in this dorm. Obviously, this is where you’d want to live.”
I was so flattered. Neither straight nor normal. And I didn’t even have to namedrop a single band or shave my head. Then I thought, only at a place this unsophisticated would anyone in their right mind mistake me for cool.
“Tell me the name of the building,” I said. “I’ll put it on my room request form for next fall.”
She beamed and clapped her hands. “Does that mean you’ve decided to come here? Yay!” She opened her arms. I hugged her gingerly because I didn’t quite know what was appropriate contact with the boobs. “I know you’re going to love it here so much.”
I thought, well, that makes exactly one of us.
The campus housing forms arrived early in the summer. I filled them out with all the impotent rage I had at my predicament. I wrote the name of the dorm on the main quad under Preferences and then in the section about Roommates, mentioned that I was a baby eating psycho killer, whose interests included painting frescos with bodily fluids and listening to death metal at 4am. My gag reflex is activated by Christians and debutantes. I cannot promise I will not projectile vomit if you pair me with either/both of the above. Satisfied, I sent it back and waited.
Campus housing responded by pairing me with a girl named Nino from the Republic of Georgia, whose sole contact (when I called to ask if she wanted me to bring a TV) was an answering service in the State of Georgia that ominously promised to forward my message to Nino’s handlers. For the dorm, they’d stuck me not in the dorm on the main quad, but in Randolph, a building I did not remember from my tour.
I cried all the way to Virginia the day I left for college, vacillating between fury and despair. My mother, kept trying to cheer me up. I was inconsolable. “This was supposed to be the best day,” I told her. “Now I just wish I were dead.”
“You don’t mean that,” she said (I didn’t), but I was still in terrible spirits, puffy-eyed, stomach-churning on opening day, when we pulled up in front of Randolph.
The Campus of Women’s Collage was mostly made up of the brick colonial buildings, the afore-mentioned antebellum quad, a series of adorable white houses. Even the new construction mostly came festooned with shutters and cupolas. Randolph was sole nod to the modernism, specifically the Holiday Inn era of modernism. The front entry looked like the loading dock of my high school cafeteria and the inside was a white-washed cinderblock warren of what looked like cheap motel rooms.
Even my mother, so far the eternal bluebirds and sunshine retort to my despair, took one look and said something like, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” I got out of the car and entered through a gaggle of thin-nosed leggy blondes making arrangements to stable their horses. I received a key to my room and an invitation to an ice-cream social on the central quad by Gwyneth Paltrow lookalike in a scarf with a jaunty fox-hunting motif. She told me that my roommate had failed to matriculate.
“So I don’t have a roommate?” I asked.
She gave me a God, peasants look and said, “You’re still in a double. You don’t have a roommate, yet.”
Mom and I unloaded the car. I dumped my shit in the double room I had to myself. After Mom left for some parent function, I played Mozart’s Requiem at top volume to drown out the sounds of happiness surrounding me, as I wept in earnest at the realization that I had no choice but to soldier on.
When my mother came back, she found me dressed in some variety of Goth mourning, as if all the years since eighth grade had never happened. She said, “I don’t know what to do to help you, but there’s a girl across the hall that has a lot of shoes like the shoes you like, and she seems friendly.”
I pshawed, but I was curious, and that’s how I met Texas, the first of the four friends I would make at Women’s College freshman year. She and I skipped the ice cream social. I changed out of my black brocade and we cruised around downtown until we found a coffeeshop and heard skateboards and kids talking about punk rock bands. They weren’t the glamorous aesthetes and genius radicals I’d assumed I’d be friends with in college. But they were uncommonly hospitable and generous and nice. They probably weren’t going to do transgressive theatre with me, but they might keep me sane. When we returned to Randolph, I felt marginally less suicidal. I still maybe wanted to kill myself, but there were a couple of local record stores and at least five shows I wanted to check out first.
Randolph Hall was a smoking hall at a time in which that was not so unheard of (when I arrived on campus, there was still an old-style cigarette machine in the lobby. It had been regularly stocked until 1993). I can’t imagine that the building hadn’t burned down, because only places we really had to sit in our rooms was on our beds, and so we all dropped ashes in the sheets.
My Hall (third), also had the laxest visitation policy on campus. By visitation they meant “male,” and I found this humiliating in the extreme to explain to people. Some halls never allowed men. “Like some kind of convent,” I would say to friends, or the boys downtown. “For girls who worry that running into a boy in the lobby will befoul them in the eyes of the lord. Or maybe for parents worried that a girl running into a boy in the lobby will befoul them in the eyes of the lord.”
We all got a good chuckle. Me blushing, how did I end up here? What did I do in a past life? In retrospect, I can imagine many scenarios in which a woman might not want dudes on the hall, but I was all wrapped up in myself and not terribly sensitive in those days.
As a result, third Randolph was kind of a party hall. Our RA was basically like, “Be cool and don’t be obvious, but I don’t really give a shit what you do,” and went back in her room to stay with the boyfriend we all thought maybe (secretly) lived in her room.
It was noisy, but there was always alcohol (never beer, Women’s College Does Not Do Beer, to my neverending disappointment) and pot available. I also had parking outside the front door, which I was technically not supposed to use, but did so often enough that I racked up hundreds of dollars in parking tickets by year’s end.
Women’s College was a lot like summer camp. There were always activities we were expected to participate in en masse. Traditions. I’d come from boarding school. I was over it. Girls came door to door to summon you for mass hikes and costumed rituals and all kinds of bullshit. I wrote FUCK OFF across my white board and after it kept getting erased and replaced with a smiley face, wrote it again in permanent marker.
I heard someone refer to me across campus one days an asshole. I was like, Score.
About three weeks into the first month, I went to check my mail for the latest batch of transfer applications and found an envelope from the housing office. My stomach sank at the sight. My sole consolation in the first few desperate weeks at Women’s College was that I had a room, ugly as it was, to myself. But now, according to the letter in my hand, my idyll was coming to a close. I had forty-eight hours to find my own roommate or the school would just send somebody over.
I went to find Texas in the dining hall, but on the way in I had to pass through the gauntlet of Student Government Elections. Pretty blondes handing out buttons and leaflets, promising better treadmills in the fitness center and more low-fat options in the dining hall. One of them got right in my path. She literally wouldn’t let me pass.
“Why don’t you vote? You have to vote.”
I sighed. “I’m an anarchist.”
And she said, “Whatever. Just because you don’t believe in God, doesn’t mean you can’t vote.”
It was the kind of exchange I’d been making up to help me bolster my case against Women’s College when people would be like It can’t be that bad, can it? I should have felt vindicated, but all I could feel was regret.
I couldn’t find anyone to live with me, in part because no one hated Women’s College the way I did. I was depressed and angry. I was bitter and judgmental and zero fun. So I walked through all the blondes in riding boots on the quad wondering which of them would be my doom. Would she go to frat parties? Would she bring frat brothers back to our room? Would she be a Republican?
I was so caught up in my waking nightmare I didn’t notice the tall girl waving at me across campus until she was right up on me. She said she had film class with Texas and Texas had told her about my dilemma. She was having her own version of a housing crisis. She heard I had an empty bed. She didn’t have a horse or a weakness for fraternity parties. And she thought if I knew one things about her, it should be that she was almost expelled from public high school in Virginia for being a Satanist. She thought we maybe should take a walk.
We tramped off over the quad, headed for the fields past the stables, beyond the reach of even the most avid campaigners for student government. She told me a little about herself. She was studying film. She had a terrible roommate, a girl who believed trousers would lead women straight to Satan. “Sooner or later, she’s going to find out about the Satanism thing.” Even though Tall Girl wasn’t actually a Satanist, but she was a afraid of waking up to a prayer circle. Or an exorcism.
“Ordinarily,” she told me. “I’d be all over that. But I’m overloading this semester. I don’t have time for shenanigans.”
We’d been walking for a while. We were well off the edge of campus by that point and into the future. I told Tall Girl I wanted to be a actor/rock critic turned playwright turned novelist, but not, you know, a southern novelist. Tall Girl told me she wanted to become a cult leader, so she could have her devotees sign their property over to her and she could use the proceeds to make gory b-movies about bisexual vampires.
We were standing in a sun-dappled pasture at golden hour, steps past the kind of ominious NO TRESSPASSING sign that usually implies shooting first and asking questions later.
I asked if we should turn back. Tall Girl nodded to a stack of bricks.
“We could,” she said. “Or, since we’re here, we could build a giant pentagram in the middle of the field. See if we can start a local panic.”
“A satanic panic?” I asked.
I remember thinking, God, this is what a meet-cute must be like.
Tall Girl and I didn’t exactly work as roommates, but my social life improved. I got involved with the theatre department, where I met Boston, who’d end up being one of my very best friends.
Randolph ended up being a hub, my room in particular. I grew to like it in that weird grudging way you end up liking the grumpy old man that lives up the street. After short term, I took Texas home with me for the holidays. Boston called to see if I could get back in a hurry.
“A room opened up in the dorm on the quad. You know, the artsy one. The one you liked. I can move in immediately, but I need a roommate immediately.”
I remember the scarred wood floors and the high ceilings. The topless girl (she’d been studying abroad all year, so I hadn’t seen her). The only time I ever felt for a second that I wanted to be at Women’s College was in that room. But I couldn’t get back quick enough. My car had died while I was home. I sighed and told Boston to go on without me. I would only be at Women’s College for a few more months.
I guessed it didn’t matter where I spent it.