Monday, March 22, 2010

Hating the Road

I was a complete fish out of water. What I needed was to be in liquid, completely immersed in it, drunk like a fish in beer. But rather I was as dry and flimsy and as scared as a fish who has jumped out of the pool and has lain out to die, gasping for breath, suffocating. I had no idea that I could have hopped my way back into the water, could, by sheer will power and determination, drink myself into oblivion with the other fish. I had no idea, about any of it.
Before I left my home in California to go to college in Lake Forest, Illinois, my mom bought me Grapes of Wrath. I tried to read the book that fall while at school, but every night before bed, my eyes would be so full of tears that I couldn’t make it past the first hundred pages.  Steinbeck was so depressing, and god, I was so depressed. I cried at the drop of a hat that fall. I felt embarrassed practically all the time because I knew people could see the telltale signs of weakness—my red, bleary eyes. “Did you cry again today?” Why yes, yes I did. It may have been 9:30 in the morning, and I may have woken up at 9:25, but you can be sure I’d have cried.
I should have known that it’s true what they say about vibes and “feelings.” When something or someone doesn’t feel right, your body tells you almost immediately. I first visited Lake Forest with my dad during my senior year of high school. I interviewed with “Spike,” one of the admissions officers earlier that school year, and somehow, during our thirty minutes in the lobby of the Marriot Hotel in the Valley’s west side in Los Angeles, I had impressed him enough to grant me an $80,000 scholarship—that is, $80,000 after the course of four years. Needless to say it was my best school offer by far, so visiting became somewhat essential, and my parents had me convinced that once I had actually touched down and set my sweet little eyes on the campus, I’d feel better, and there’d be no chance of saying no. But I cried the second I got to the town. I checked into a fancy old hotel, had a Coke and some peanuts at the hotel bar and a game of pool with dad, who was all glowy with smiles and dollar signs in his eyes, and when we got on the phone with my mother to say goodnight, I cried. “What’s the matter?” I didn’t know, and even months later after I’d already made the decision to attend and packed up my little room at home on Kilfinan Street , and showed up to meet my new roommates, I didn’t know. Everything. Just everything. It’s a feeling.
Mom and I both held back tears the day she left. She seemed awfully guilty, leaving me there, but she did her best to assure me that this was a rough patch and that it would all be okay. “Just jump in head first,” she said.
That’s right; a fish in the water, not out of it. But it quickly became clear that I was so far outside of Lake Forest’s watering hole that I was on the endangered species list. It’s a small school, about 1400 people at most, and private, but definitely secular. LFC is most known around the Midwest as being a very small, but very enthusiastic party-school. It’s also known as “Last Fucking Chance,” which I came to find out much later.
Those of us who didn’t get into Berkeley or Vanderbilt or Yale, took the low road. Money. The low road always involves money. When you don’t get into a really fantastic school, and you don’t get a scholarship from a damn good school, you do the next best thing—go somewhere that’s not so great, but ease the pain by making it almost free. Free college these days is nothing to scoff at. So that’s exactly what I did, and I’d like to say I took that road and never looked back. But quite the opposite, I was looking back the moment I mailed in my acceptance. ‘How can I leave California? What about my family? What about my friends? What about the ocean? I’m leaving an entire ocean.’ Or so I thought.
And my friends agreed. I had them over for dinner one warm, spring day in April, and my mom cooked a hearty meal, and we sat outside beneath the green umbrella and the Jacaranda trees.
“I’ve decided to go to Lake Forest,” I said. Everyone remained silent, faces fallen and hard to decipher in the candlelight.
“That’s great, Rach,” Tracie said.
She’s always hopeful, but I figured she was wrong this time. Is that pessimism, or is that a feeling?
On one of my very first days in Illinois, our school decided to take the freshman class into the city. We met up with our fellow “home-roomers” outside of the cafeteria, grabbed a brown bag lunch, and walked towards the train station. While waiting in line for the south facing train, I reached into the pocket of my brown Fossil pants, and pulled out a small seashell, just as big as my thumbnail. The guy standing next to me was from Illinois, and was fully aware of my California-ness—my sun bleached hair, my leather sandals, oh, and that fun little quirk of mine where I complained about how much I missed the west coast. (That always gave me away.)
“Huh,” I said, getting his attention. I held the seashell up and rotated it in my palm. “How ironic.” He nodded and smiled sadly, sympathetic to my nostalgia.
My room mates were really great people, and were perhaps the only thing that kept me from going completely insane those first few months. But they knew how unhappy I was, so my connection to them was doomed from the beginning. And I hated myself for that, so most of the time I would separate from them.
It was during this time that I met Jared. Well, met is the wrong word, as we actually met when we were both visiting campus during the spring of our senior years. We immediately connected over the fact that we didn’t want to go to Lake Forest—there were other schools, closer to home, larger, more prestigious, but funding was completely steering our decision.
So we were surprised to find each other again.
 “You actually came?”
 “Yeah. And so did you.”
  Isn’t life funny.
  Jared was a dramatically flamboyant gay man, very pretty, and the girls (and guys) in our class were simply falling over him. I suppose I became a bit more popular through our connection—“Who’s that girl you’re always with?” they’d ask. The California girl. The Christian girl. The sad girl. Call me what you will.
Our mutual hate is what brought us together. Most people bond over likes and interests—tennis or ballet, Tolstoy or Dickinson, they connect through positivity. We bound our grief and dissatisfaction to our backs and linked arms and faced our little world and its people with cynicism. I needed to know that I wasn’t alone, and with Jared I wasn’t. I sighed heavily and finally breathed easily during my days with him.
Jared would tell me about the guys he was interested in—who he slept with, who he wanted to sleep with, and he always seemed curious about my lack of interest in my own love life. But these Lake Forest guys were not the kind I wanted to date. In high school I had fantasies of going to college and meeting intellectuals, men who liked to read and to talk. Men who could feed my inner-nerdieness. But these boys were just boys. Beer drinking, ping pong throwing, we-think-it’s-funnier-when-you-drink-till-you’re-sick boys. So instead, I ignored their pleas to get me to the next party or drink the next red-cupped drink. I clung to Jared.
We’d walk across the oak strewn campus, orange and red leaves glimmering in the sunlight, and while fall was beautiful, my mood remained unchanged. “Don’t you hate this place?” I’d ask.
“Yeah,” Jared would say.
“Yeah, I frickin hate this place.”
 We’d laugh at our defiance, but it would be with bitterness that I would finally go forward, while Jared would turn his laughter into irony and finally acceptance.
 As you can imagine, I didn’t stay in Illinois. The school and I got off to a bad start, and like a doomed relationship, I felt the crag was too deep to ever fix. There may have been good hours in some of the better days there, but I never let go of my fear and dislike. I couldn’t wait to get out. As soon as it was feasible, I left.
Naturally my father has never let me forget about the $80,000. Even after finishing school, and moving out of the house, and on in life, he will, maybe once a year, mention that scholarship—“Who would walk away from that?” When he says this I cringe with something less than guilt and more like hatred. Can’t he see I’m happier now? Of course he can, but now as I look towards grad school, I agree. That was a lot of money.
I still keep in touch with Jared, though minimally. He graduated and seems to be doing really well. And so am I. Turns out choosing the road you want really does make a difference. Through facebook pictures I’ve stalked over time, Jared seems happy. One day we will meet up again, and one day I may even go back to that place, just for the hell of it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Proof Through Paper Part 2

I had a really tough time falling asleep the other night, which is funny because just an hour before my head hit the pillow I was at Shakespeare’s drinking a pint with my writing group and telling Juliana how, in the midst of March madness (i.e. waiting to hear from grad schools), I haven’t had one bit of trouble sleeping—not one little bit.
But that’s Murphy’s Law, or the “knock on wood” principle, or whatever you want to call it. I should have rapt my knuckles on the table after I said it, but I didn’t, so laying in bed with eyes more popped open than when I’m actually up and awake, was to be my fate for the night.
All sorts of things were crawling through my head—the three gigantic scorpions from my dreams the night before were making a second guest appearance. According to Anna, my psychic co-worker in the cubicle next to me at the Globe, probably represent the three schools I didn’t get into.
“Anna, what,” I had asked in between calls, “Do scorpions represent in dreams?”
Anna leaned back in her chair and shook her head quickly. “No, no, not the way it works,” she said in her English, John Cleese-like accent.” “It’s not as if they stand for something—it all depends on what they mean to you.”
This answer did not satisfy me.
Anna poked her head back around the wall. “So what do they mean to you then?”
“What, scorpions?” I asked. “I’m afraid of them. I don’t want them in my room.”
I had to laugh and think to myself, ‘Isn’t that obvious?’
“How many schools did you say you didn’t get into?” Anna asked.
Not seeing the connection, I answered, “Three.”
Anna nodded her head, smiled knowingly, and began dialing another call. “Those are your scorpions.” And then, her psychic abilities kicking in, she concluded, “They won’t bother you anymore.”
In a way Anna was right because the very next day, after attending Blake and Raphaelle’s wedding ceremony and reception in Balboa Park (tres chic), I had a missed call on my phone with a number I didn’t recognize. The person on the other line turned out to be a woman from The Inland Northwest Center for Writers at Eastern Washington University, informing me I had been accepted into their nonfiction writing program, and I cried. Before the voicemail was even over I cried, and laughed, and messed up my hair, and tripped on a planter.
This news was, by far, the best news I had received in months. Even better than when I found out I was going to Thailand for a travel story, or when I remembered I would in fact be receiving a tax return. I guess I really wanted to get in if my immediate reaction was tears, laughter, and loss of motor skills.
So when, the next day I had another voicemail on my phone my heart skipped a beat. Another school, perhaps? (There are six more after all.) But no, instead it was my father.
“Rachel,” he said. I could hear the smile.
“I’m going to play a guessing game with you. I have a little red thing in my hand…”
Now normally I would have rolled my eyes and said get on with it already, but my life as of late has been defined by anticipation. Anticipating the contents of the mailbox on a daily basis—are the letters “normal sized, your writing is shit, go away” or “packaged, we love you more than words can express and please come join our community sized?” Anticipating any missed calls with unknown area codes—damn those telemarketers. Anticipating, with gusto, each and every time I sign onto gmail. Since when did college start informing by email? How impersonal, and in many cases quite confusing, can you get? For example, I received an email a week ago from The New School (one of my top choices), thanking me for my interest in the program and would I please visit their website. What the hell is that about? Don’t these people remember who I am? They have a copy of my social, my tax return, and a list of my innermost hopes and dreams. Would I please go and visit their website??
So anyway, I was up for a guessing game.
“It’s red, and from her Royal Majesty…” dad continued on the voicemail.
“…of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland…”
Oh my god.
“…Rachel Marie Hurn…”
            Yes? Yes?
            “A citizen of the European Union.”

Screw the scorpions. I’m European.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Go Lightly

Used to joke about the differences,
saying in the newness, the old ones have nothing to talk about now.
What is there to say to those old folks, those people, anyway?
They live far away, in a world of brown,
While I was away,
In my land of green.

I'll pull a Holly,
Walk a mile, then two, 
and never come home again.
I tire myself with the person I've become,
And maybe it would suit us all if I took my judgements
and my big ideas
and threw them in my trunk.
With a broken lock,
they should be easy to lose.
If only someone would come,
if only someone would come and steal
these mean and empty thoughts
away from me.

Angry about nothing,
you've always been so angry.
And we tried, oh we try, 
to make it nice and honestly,
honesty is what you need.

You hide your life away,
for fear, of me?
But it's me you don't know,
and why the silence is audible,
and the noise, it dissipates.