Thursday, August 18, 2022

postcard from a thousand miles

Even though I had made plans to be in Rockford in case I wanted to go to my 30-year HS reunion a couple weeks back, covid did not quite make that possible or desirable at all. But I've spent the weeks since thinking not necessarily about high school, but more that 30 years ago this week, my whole family piled into a rental Lincoln Towncar with a giant, body-sized stuffing trunk for all my belongings, and drove to Wilmington, North Carolina where I was set to start college the very next week. We left in the middle of the night, driving through Chicago and into Indiana as the sun was rising over the smokestacks in Gary. Through Ohio with a stop overnight in West Virginia and then into Virginia and the Carolinas. 

We spent the week until I moved into my dorm sightseeing--beaches, of course, Cape Fear, a battle sight museum and the aquarium (which at the time was in line with why I was there in the first place--the UNCW Marine Bio program, the destination of every girl with porcelain dolphins on top of her dresser. )  I want to be a scientist, but science didn't necessarily want me. So months later we would pack everything back up and deliver me back to the midwest, where I would eventually study things I was far more suited for.  

Last week, I was finishing up a lesson on Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, a woman who started off an English major and wound up switching to Biology, the reverse of my trajectory. I was once a bright-eyed 18-year-old convinced she could save the world by saving the oceans. A year later, being terrible at math, I sought other ways to save the world. By the time I graduated I was less bright-eyed and fighting to live in the world, let alone save it. I feel like this happens to most of us.

I spent my first night without my parents at a terrible frat party, the only one attended at the bequest of freshman boys in my dorm who were pledging. I was so green I didn't understand the other girls' terror when one of us went missing (she was just getting high in the woods, but it could have been bad.) After that night, boys, who I had never really been part of my social world in high school,  were something to be wary of. Including the one later in the semester, a friend of a suitemate's friend from home,  who would try to break the lock into my room after a night out after drunkenly making advances on a beanbag chair in the lounge. 

But I fell in love with other boys, just a little, a roommate's older sweet paramedic boyfriend. A theater boy from another girl's hometown who was very gay and on the verge of coming out. A history major who was never quite my boyfriend who was my unceremonious first, an experience that always felt like it was just an awkward way to cast off virginity like an itchy sweater and just get on with it. We hung out a couple times after just out of politeness, in my dorm room, in the dining hall,  but I was on the verge of leaving. I don't remember his last name. 

In North Carolina, there were a lot of all-night rummy marathons with suitemates and beach trips to a pier that was open 24 hours with a couple video games and an air hockey table. The pier was destroyed by a hurricane four years later then rebuilt --this time from concrete not the original wood. I would eventually write a terrible poem about watching the fishermen setting up there at dawn on the other side of my own night watching the sunrise. Not then, but a couple years later. It would win a college poetry prize my senior year at RC. That morning, I crawled into my bed and three hours later, was back up to take a government class exam at 9am. When you are 18, who needs sleep? 

In the dorm, I ate a lot of bad pizza and good dining hall fare. Endless Doritos and Mountain Dew. I wrote letters home, to my sister, my high school friends, carried fat care packages sent by my mom from the post office to my dorm. The internet wasn't even a flicker for me in 1992, I think I accompanied a roommate once to a computer lab to type a paper, but typed my own on the electric I bought with graduation money.  Same with my first sad forays in fiction and plays that semester, though I don't think I was writing poems.  I kept notes and a diary in a floral tapestry blank book that is kind of embarrassing to read now. 

Most weekends, my roommate (also a Kristy, also a marine bio major)  was visiting her hippie boyfriend that smelled like weed and patchouli in Myrtle Beach. I spent time in the room listening to her much better CD collection--where I first discovered Pearl Jam and NIN albums, which I carefully dubbed to cassette tape before I left and then wore out within a year.  I spent time between classes, like always, in the impressive library, where I found the stash of lit and writing mags on the first floor, but never ventured much further. 

As for school, I did well enough (gen eds weren't particularly challenging and I really liked my History of Film and Intro to Marine Science courses)  but I failed the remedial non-credit math I needed to take to start my major. By then, I had already relinquished my science plans and planned on returning to the midwest to save money and homesickness and all my other afflictions. In hindsight, the semester seems superfluous and a detour from the path I wound up on, but it also feels necessary somehow in getting me to the path. 

In hindsight, I was always that same girl, adrift in a new place, almost a thousand miles, from home...

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