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.

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