I stood in the sticky, stagnant air of a sweltering cinder block room, smelling the unfamiliar perspiration of strangers I hadn’t yet met and staring down at the yellow bedspread with purple flowers I’d purchased a week ago at Bed Bath & Beyond. Now, standing here, it felt so Lisa Frank, so ridiculous. I couldn’t have predicted how different it would look to me in this light, on this day – The day I fractured off from the safety of my nuclear family and stepped into the role of pseudo-adult. I thought if I looked at the childlike petals long enough, a semester – and this feeling of coming out of my skin – might pass.
My brother, who was moving me in, heaved an off-white square of carpet into the middle of the space. Sweating like a Texas farmer in a ghost pepper-eating contest at the summer fair, he turned to me. “Do you need anything else?” he asked, answering the question for me with his expression. His friends were waiting. There was no time for tears, or assembly or the emotions other freshmen got.
And anyway, I had no idea what I needed. How could I? I was living away from home for the first time in my life. I was 18. Terrified. Unhappy with my adolescent bedding purchase. And so consumed with trying to act like the whole situation was no big deal. My best friends are scattering like dandelion seeds? No big deal. My mom was too sad to move me in? No big deal. I had to figure out the rest of my life in four years, starting Monday? No big deal.
I surveyed my messy jumble of belongings. In a pile next to the lofted bunk bed, sat:
☻ 3 laundry bags stuffed with clothes (mostly homecoming T-shirts, A&F, Gap and Old Navy)
☻ 1 shower caddy packed with essentials and matching flip flops wrapped in cellophane and tied with a bright pink bow (a gift from a well-wisher)
☻ 1 laundry basket filled with framed pictures of my girlfriends and boxes of Easy Mac
☻ The aforementioned bedspread and sheets that, I can say now, and realized then, belonged in an 8-year-old girl’s bedroom with a matching canopy
☻ A messenger style bookbag brimming with folders and notebooks in a variety of colors
☻ So many pens
☻ A computer
Aside from that, I don’t remember what I believed qualified as necessary for a daily existence sans parents. My kind sister-in-law took pity on me and stayed long enough to help me unpack and plug in my computer before taking me over to my brother’s friends’ house off campus to play quarters and wash away the fear with a flood of cheap beer. (And maybe Smirnoff Ice? Which I’m sure I sheepishly requested and I’m sure they bitched about when I wasn’t within earshot.) Whatever the case, I remember being properly shit-faced walking back into my strange home. And it helped.
From the August evenings spent perspiring and repositioning a box fan in the window, through the winters with snow-crowded walkways and wet jean bottoms, to the sunny farewells on the lawn that spring, I spent just over 8 months over 2001-2002 on the 7th floor of that co-ed dormitory. I watched the aftermath of 9/11 in that building. I fell in love with my now-husband in that building. I met two of my bridesmaids in that building. I befriended independence in that building. Just a bunch of shit went down in that building.
So, when my ex-roommate sent me a news article a few weeks back announcing that the University would be tearing down the establishment, which was affectionately and accurately referred to as the “freshmen ghetto” even in our day, I felt a twinge of emotion over the whole thing. Text messages were exchanged, husbands were bribed, and it was decided: We would go back in time and place and bid farewell to the site that birthed our sisterhood on May 6.
Sometimes people get lucky with college roommates. And sometimes they get really, stupid-lucky. I was stupid-lucky. Actually, at the risk of sounding socially arrogant, I’ve been blessed with some dope-ass friends in almost every stage of my life. Except middle school. Middle school was kind of a bitch … and so were the girls. But my college friendships came on like a pair of boyfriend sweatpants from Victoria’s Secret, real easy.
Ashlie was diagonal across the hall. Her dad had built custom bunkbeds for her and her roommate and the entire floor indulged her pride in his display of expert carpentry. She had a cartoon character laugh, a heart as big as her t-shirt collection and the ability to drink any man under any table at any time. Ashlie was (and still is) the type of friend who would take you to the bar, even though she won’t be old enough to go in for 3 more months, and drop you off because it’s raining and you might get your slutty tank top soaked if she doesn’t. This is a hypothetical scenario, of course. I saw this young woman fall down and rip her pants more times and in more ways than I can count. I would live with Ashlie five other times in my life and sit next to her on my wedding day, though I couldn’t have predicted that then.
Sarah was down the hall a bit. Although I could always hear her like she was right next door. She had the moves of Elaine Benes and the laugh of Cameron Diaz with a megaphone attached to her lips. She was always down for a bad decision unless she had a 12-page paper to write and only 4 hours to write it in. Sarah’s roommate in the dorm used to buy raw steak and put it in their mini fridge. And also, Sarah was salt-sensitive. If we ate at the cafeteria, her ankles would balloon up like a set of inflated whoopee cushions. This girl would change my life with her sunshine and soul, though I couldn’t have predicted that then.
Anyway, all this to set the scene. This past weekend, salt-sensitive Sarah picked me up and we went back to Muncie –
the Seattle of Indiana – to see our big-hearted friend Ashlie and the dormitory that built us.
We started the day at our favorite Mexican joint. Margaritas all around (yes, we got carded) and lots of chips. Dear, sweet, Ashlie – who was known as “Smashlie” in her former life – recently became a mommy to two little bambinos and has taken her cocktail game down a few notches. This is, of course, a polite way of saying sister can’t handle her liquor anymore and had tiny eyes about a fourth of a marg in. God bless her. The waiter was cute, Sarah said. Then he smiled at us with his braces and we all quickly looked away. This would be the first of many times the universe would bitch slap us back into our 30s that day. We were more likely to drop this kid off at the party than tap the keg.
First stop after lunch was the house we lived in our senior year. I remember my 22-year-old self thinking the red siding was endearing. Charming. Like an old barn. The layout was a little less so. The front door opened right into Sarah’s room, which she grew to loathe. My room was attached to an enclosed storage area and had no windows. I called it “the cave”. It could be 3pm and I would just be snoozin’ away with no idea. When winter arrived that year, so did the mice. They would run across the floor and we’d all scream like idiots. In true college landlord fashion, the asshole dropped off a handful of traps and wished us the best. That house was farther from campus and didn’t have the mojo of our first house. It was, however, right across the street from both a gas station and a liquor store. I could go get a cold bottle of Wild Vines for $3.99 and a pack of Camels any time I wanted.
But the years had not been kind to the little red house. It was downright dilapidated. “What the hell happened here?” Sarah asked, as we drove down the side drive. Two pitbulls fell over each other barking in the windows. “Just keep going!” I yelled, laughing nervously at our impending doom, as Sarah countered in an equally raised tone, “Pitbulls are nice!” (Sarah has a pitbull.)
The savage dogs damn near killed my buzz. We went to the liquor store for previsions. We browsed the selection and chatted about the logistics of a cooler, ice, cups, what would be the easiest way to carry our cocktails discretely. We were planning our roadies like a 5-year-old’s birthday party. Should we have a clown? No, kids are scared of clowns. But we’ll need plenty of little wienies. Also, we walked right passed the Bacardi. This was damning evidence against our youth, as were my tennis shoes.
Now that we had some CiderBoys, we needed something to put it in. The Village bookstore seemed like the logical next stop. I’ve never spent so much time in a bookstore not getting books. We looked at all the clothes, all the cups, we washed the cups, we asked if the cups were BPA-free. Apparently we’ve become very thorough with age as well.
Then, it was off to our first house, the one I always think of when I think of college. We lived in the same place for both our sophomore and junior years (I know, we’re working backwards here). You guys, this place had all the makings of a college dwelling; a bowl full of primary colored condoms from the local Planned Parenthood in the entryway (which we pretty much only used to put over Ashlie’s phone and then call her so she’d pick up the spermicide-covered receiver), a thousand empty liquor bottles with plastic flowers in them and Christmas lights for decoration, and black mold.
When I think of that house, I think of so many random things … A sweet group of neighbor boys became dear friends. We had the same number as a local manicurist, Magic Nails. Eventually, we just started playing along. “Sure, sure, we can get you in,” we’d say. “But, just so you know, we only have black polish today.” We spent hours on this old ‘70s green couch on the front porch, drinking, talking, smoking. Contemplating who we would marry, where we would work, and how are dreams were ever-changing. People slept on that thing, which, it had to be moldy as hell given it never came in out of the elements. It was the perfect place to sit and yell at freshmen. Our landlord told us he would be like our second dad, and then shortly thereafter passed away. It was a weird period in my life where I honestly felt like we were starring in a sitcom. Of course, the Real World was still popular, so …
At some point, in the 13 years since we’d lived there, a new porch had been added. Our green couch had likely been burned. And no one was home to let us in. But that didn’t stop us from posing like we still rented the joint. I will always remember walking up the street to that house on Thursday afternoons after class, Friday nights, and early Sunday mornings. The porch light my beacon. The carpet in that house is, I’m certain, still stained with tears from my days spent laughing, watching The Sweetest Thing or Super Troopers for the 5,000th time.
We couldn’t squat on the porch forever. We made our way across campus. Fresh landscaping and signage and medians made the street I’d trekked so many times almost unrecognizable. New buildings stood where early twenty-somethings once tapped kegs and tossed bean bags till their arms gave out. It felt like we were strangers in a semi-familiar land. We’d moved on, and so had our campus. We walked past a police officer directing traffic. It was, after all, commencement weekend. I instinctively tucked my tumbler inside my handbag, forgetting I am now both of legal age to consume alcohol and only mildly buzzed and, therefore, entirely capable of carrying on an acceptable conversation.
The top floors of the dorm came into the horizon. There she was. Walking up, and then in, I must have said, “This is so weird! You guys, isn’t this so weird?” more times than anyone with a mild buzz could count. But it was just so weird.
When I was a little girl, my family camped a lot. One particular campground was on our regular rotation, primarily because it had the best playground. The slide was high, the swings let you touch the sky and there was a tire swing that made every kid puke. But my favorite, was this giant log cabin. I’d be on it and in it for hours. I’d tentatively move my feet over the grains, careful not to get a splinter or fall through the cracks. I’d recruit strange children to be the brother or the sister or the husband to my “house”. When I grew up and got a travel trailer and a family of my own, the first place we went was the campground with the best playground. But now it all looked different. The high slide with the exposed screws that scratched my thighs countless times, was gone. The swings were different. The log cabin was so small, so easy to conquer with quick, sloppy steps. It was nothing like the mountainous, American Ninja Warrior course in my memory. One thing, the tire swing, remained, and it still made kids puke.
This experience mirrors my return to the dorms.
“Here’s our chance,” Sarah said like a Bond girl closing in on her villain.
A short kid with beard stubble and a band t-shirt (the mandatory uniform for college kids) was walking out, and we slid right in. Then, as if kismet, a young gal carting her mattress off asked if we needed her to “swipe us up” to the rooms.
“Why, yes,” Ashlie responded.
I turned to the girls. “Oh my gosh! Oh my gosh! We’re really going up there! Oh my go–”
“Be cool, Court. Be cool,” Sarah demanded, stopping herself just short of smacking my face.
The elevator opened on the 6th floor. That was as high as the elevator went today, and as high as it went back then. Outside the elevator lobby was the bulletin board I’d been forced to decorate with facts about smoking when I got caught puffin’ a heater next to my box fan by the resident adviser. I believe it had a sad-looking skull and crossbones and the health facts were on clouds of white smoke. Very after school special.
A brief flight of stairs and we were there. We were standing in the hallway where we’d met, almost 16 years ago. It was dimly lit and empty, aside from one middle-aged woman standing at the end of the hallway on her phone. I stood, staring at the white board that hung on the door outside of the room where my brother had left me all those years ago. Where I’d spent my allotted 200 minutes per month calling my boyfriend, and he’d spent his calling card minutes calling me. Where I’d printed off and saved his poetic emails, predicting we’d get married someday. Where I’d counseled new friends and tried desperately to hold onto old ones.
Today, the door was locked. They were all locked.
But I could still picture the cheap oak furniture and sticky, stray hair-littered tile. I could envision my Urban Outfitters tapestry draped haphazardly behind my bunk. I could see a young girl wearing a tiny t-shirt, trying to grow into herself. It was as if I’d been there yesterday and then also never at all.
I turned to Ashlie, taking selfies in front of her door. Sarah was down talking to woman in the hallway. Turns out she’d lived in the same room as my loud, lovely friend, a little over 20 years ago. She was waiting on her own “Sarah” and “Ashlie” to come.
We went to the study lounge. Oddly enough, this and the bathroom brought back the most concrete detail to me. I sat on this floor and confessed to 30+ girls that a guy I’d let walk me home from a party peed in our laundry room sink. I did that, in this room. I made a million flashcards in here. I killed spiders in here. I imagined I was Felicity (you know, from the show Felicity) in here. The furniture was the same. The smell was the same. The dated lighting was the same.
“Did you live here?” a woman asked from a corner table (the resident housekeeper, we would deduct from context clues).
“We did,” Sarah answered.
“Yeah … lots of folks coming back to see it. You know, they’re tearin’ it down.”
“Yeah, that’s why we thought we’d make the trip,” Ashlie offered.
“Yeah, it’s too bad, but you know, it’s time. Windows are goin’. It’s old. But, I tell ya, of all the buildings I like this one the best. They leave their doors open and talk in the showers and all that. The other ones, their bathrooms are in the room and they never see each other.”
I remember the open doors.
“The woman who cleaned when you were here, she got a bad infection and lost both of her legs. You remember her?”
I didn’t remember her.
I was starting to feel like we were talking to the Ghost of Housekeepers Past.
The whole thing felt very Ebenezer Scrooge, actually. The two flickering fluorescent squares in the ceiling cast a harsh light down on an empty shell of a place that once held the voices and sagas of so many special young women, thrown together at a time in their lives when anything was possible, but it all felt so small. But without the awkward theater girl, without the news anchor girl who put a full face of makeup on before she went to bed, without the easy girls, the stoner girls, the funny girls, the homesick girls, the smalltown girls gone wild, this was just a line of cells, all locked up.
My purse brushed my leg and I felt something wet. My spiked cider had spilled all over the bottom of my Fossil bag. I guess that’s one of the big differences between day drinking in your 20s and day drinking in your 30s. The bags, in which you hide your liquor, are more expensive. It was time for us to go.
We walked around campus, popping in and out of buildings where we spent hours plastered in seats, taking notes, prying our eyes open. Where more than a decade ago, I’d written papers on affirmative action and the importance of ethical journalism and our wishes for the health of the world.
In between recollections that blew in the wind over newly paved streets, we passed twenty-somethings who’d just minutes ago turned their tassels. They were chatting with friends and sisters about who they’d marry, where they’d work, how their dreams were ever-changing.
I brought up the elevated CRP results (a sign of inflammation) I’d gotten from a blood test I took last week to the girls, who’d known me when I smoked a pack a day. After I brought up the topic out loud, I silently acknowledged how out of place it was for such a day. I thought about how much the weight of knowing real consequences is so heavy and so affixed to me now. I envied those graduates. They walked with a lightness I traded in for a 401K and vinyl fencing years ago.
After dinner at a new bar that stood in the place where a bar we once frequented had been leveled, resurrected and eventually closed, I climbed into Sarah’s car and we drove home. As the sun dipped down to meet the farm fields, we had one of those rich conversations, where you ask questions of the other person that make you question the important things about yourself. No matter how many times I have these talks with Sarah, and there have been many, they always feel like a gift, opened slowly and savored.
They’re the kind of talks that come after years of being witness to another person’s life. That come only after you’ve identified those thresholds for how much truth and perspective a person can take, and you come right up against them. We know where each other’s limits lie. She knows how to pull out my most authentic self, as do I hers. We were in my driveway in, what felt like, 5 minutes. I hugged her, twice. And I thought about all the hugs we’d shared after other goodbyes, after vows, after babies, after quick weekend visits, and I felt a little of my grad envy quietly slip away.
We’re given a small group of memories strong enough to stick. Some stick because they’re so catastrophic at the time, others because they held so much love, others because they made you laugh until your muscles spasmed. My college years are nearly exclusively composed of moments with these women, who I’m lucky enough to still see when the stars align. We revisit those concrete cells, that green couch, the mice-invested barn, through the stories we tell when we’re together. Honestly, given the chance, I don’t know that I’d go back to the dimly lit hallway where our love affair began.
When I hug Sarah, when I smell her hair and she squeezes the crap out of me, a flood of sweet, treasured times come back to me. And I wouldn’t trade those memories, many of which came after we left campus. We still talk about our jobs, our loves, our ever-changing dreams. It’s all still there. It just looks a little different. Has a few more players to consider.
I’m glad we said goodbye to the dorm, but I think we took the best of what was there 15 years ago when we left. Sometimes a building is just a building. Sure, it was the backdrop to one of the great comedies of our lives, but paint the backdrop something different and the stories are still the same. Once I sectioned off and parceled out what I needed to take – the best friends, the best memories, the best lessons – what remained was a picked over skeleton of a place once bloated with characters and interesting plots. There was nothing left for me there.
There’s something so authentic about those transitional moments in your life journey; leaving home, starting a family. They gift you with a magic you can’t reclaim, and you can’t recreate. But you can put them in a jar like a handful of lightning bugs and look in on them with wonder every now and then. In the end, just like that log cabin, a dorm is just a dorm. It gets smaller and less inspiring the farther away from it you get. I think I’d rather have those long, rich conversations riding in cars with friends. Battle-scarred, unbreakable, lifelong friends. Friends who know my shit and stick around, even when it stinks. They were the best of those times. And I took those bitches with me on my way out the door.
But still …
7th floor Brayton–Clevenger 4 Life! Peace!