Heartlines

The Two Who Saved My Freshman Year (excerpt from my essay collection manuscript)

She has tears in her eyes and dark shadows encircling her eye sockets, like sunglasses she’s forgotten to remove in the fluorescent light of the hospital room. Her skin lacks its usual glow, and her hair cries out for a shower. This is not the Melissa I know. Mostly because the Melissa I know would be jumping out of bed to wrap my mom and I in a bear hug and then bounding around the room in search of somewhere comfortable to perch her long legs, not immobilized on a hospital bed. Never the tame, obedient teen, Melissa ran her own show and, to a degree, everyone else’s who spun in slight awe of her orbit. And I was one.

Freshman year of high school is an endless string of lonely, anxious days. After rumors spread of me sleeping with Joey, what a slut, they all whispered; my friends, even my best friends Lindsay, Angela, and Becky; deserted me to make friends who aren’t the ugly center of a gossip tornado. I spend my days mostly alone and toeing the line of depression. 

I’m a cheerleader, but it barely garners me one or two days a week where I can tag along with a couple fellow pleated skirts to lunch. Other days I descend to the dreaded cafeteria to find a face I know who might let me sit at the table, though, on days I can’t spot someone, I find myself crying in a bathroom stall for the loss of my friends. 

My mom is reassigned to my high school for her school social work job. She starts a couple support groups for troubled teens, which always strikes me as ironic because isn’t it the nature of a teenager to be troubled to some extent, part of the growing pains? Because she can tell I’m far from flourishing, she invites me to join one.

My group consists of the usual suspects. There’s me, loner freshman who looks put together as a cheerleader with excellent grades but who’s crumbling on the inside. Travis, an unruly and unpredictable sophomore with curly hair, resides at the boys’ group home up the hill from where I live because his parents can’t deal with him and his affinity for a high. His eyes are sky blue when they aren’t bloodshot from smoking weed. Tami’s a junior with long blonde hair and a penchant for fighting, whose violent tendencies can be traced to her mother and her mother’s string of shitty boyfriends. Abby, the petite sophomore with a loud mouth and contagious laugh would rather skip class to smoke cigarettes than follow orders from anyone in authority. 

Then there’s Melissa. When Melissa struts down the halls of our high school, people know it. They notice her. How could they not? She’s disruptive in our French class, and I find her brash and crude. During one of our group sessions, while someone’s opening up emotionally, Melissa removes her bra because it’s uncomfortable, a literal and metaphorical gesture of how she sheds all that doesn’t suit her carefree nature. Of that, I’m in awe. I long to be bold and embrace myself that way.

Josh is the final member of our personal Breakfast Club. He’s a quiet and angry freshman with a chip on his shoulder whose bangs dust the tips of his long eyelashes. Like Travis, he lives at the boys’ home. Foster home transfers and time in juvie have hardened him, but he’s soft and sweet under his tough exterior. He’s poetic and fiercely intelligent, doesn’t dominate conversations like Abby, Melissa, or Travis, but when he speaks, we all listen.

Both Josh and Melissa fit the bill for the support group but not necessarily for people I would have counted as friends. During my lonely freshman year, though, when they swoop in to haul me out of my sadness and self-wallowing, I jump on for the ride. At first it only starts as two people who greet me in the halls. Then Melissa partners with me for a French class activity, which leads to the two of us grabbing a coffee. 

She picks me up in her garbage-filled car and blasts her tunes, the steering wheel her drum kit. Even if no one else can see us jamming in her car, I feel cool. I force myself to loosen up enough to dance and sing along with her, but something in me is learning to open the dark rooms and allow in a crack of light. 

Josh and I talk on the swings at our neighborhood park or at the nearby library where we tuck ourselves into chairs overlooking the river. My dad disapproves of our outings because Josh doesn’t appear the clean-cut jock with whom he’d like me to associate, but Josh pushes me to think bigger with his interesting, and often challenging, perspectives. He comes with a posse of guys who’ll “have his back” and will now, consequently, have mine. My circle grows until I no longer feel alone. 

Even when, at the end of freshman year, a couple of my former friends reach out, humbled, to apologize for the way they treated me and to ask to be friends again, I still maintain my friendships with Melissa and Josh. My long-time friends don’t understand, but I don’t feel the need to explain. 

Josh and Melissa came into my life when I was desperate for friendship, but they are so much more than rebound or interim friends. They bring energy, depth, and an alternate point of view from the safe, Catholic, middle-class one with which my former friends and I were raised. While I’m glad and grateful to have my best friends back in my life, my horizons have widened to farther reaches of the human experience. My new friendships captivate me in their providing not only companionship but also a kaleidoscope of pain, raw emotion, empathy, wildness, intrigue, and a desire in me to touch and inspire other people. 

Our friendship continues beyond the support group. Melissa periodically picks me up, with or without her other friends, to go for coffee or ice cream, or sometimes simply a drive with loud music and the windows down, our hair whipping about our faces. Her energy and wide smile enliven me each time, remind me that each day, each ordinary day, holds potential for an adventure.

Josh brings me along to bland apartments with little furniture, plays rap music I’ve never heard and shows me how to roll blunts I’ll never smoke. His world is foreign and thrilling in the way novel and borderline-inappropriate things are. I straddle the preppy kid world and the dysfunctional, near-dropout scene through sophomore and junior year. 

At the end of sophomore year, on the pom pon squad with more friends and a better reputation, I run for junior class president. Josh convinces his posse and their other friends to vote for me in addition to everyone I know who will back me. I lose by a mere four votes, according to the student council faculty member, the closest election my high school ever had. (The girl I lost to is now a neuroscientist married to one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, so I don’t feel too badly). I’m redeemed by all the friends who advocated for and supported me, for the way Josh believed in me enough to demand his friends vote for me. 

By senior year I’m at the top of my game socially but still do my best to maintain the umbilical cord pumping life to me from the energy and chaos of my friendships with Josh and Melissa. Melissa moves to Iowa, her parents fed up with her partying and pot smoking, but we keep in touch with a random call or visit when she’s in town. And I still have Josh. 

In the fall of my senior year, I attend intake court at the county jail three hours a week as a mentee of the judge, who took me on because he’s a family friend and knows I’m antsy to be outside the classroom.  I sit beside his judge’s chair and listen to him set bond and bail determinations for a sequence of men and the occasional woman in cuffs and orange jumpsuits. 

On an afternoon in October, the young man who enters intake court isn’t another nameless druggie, assaulter, or petty criminal. It’s Josh. My Josh. My eyes bulge in disbelief and confusion. Though Josh runs with some questionable people and had been in and out of the system throughout his adolescence, I still can’t place him here. In cuffs. In the orange jumpsuit. He is my loyal friend, the charmer, the sweet-talking poet, not a criminal with a charge of conspiracy to rob a movie theater. Apparently he’d been in the backseat of the getaway car when the guys he was with robbed the movie theater across town, so he’s booked and sent back through the heavy, bullet-proof door from which he entered minutes ago. 

I do not see him in the halls, do not meet him at smoky parties. One time I visit him in jail, and he’s angry I’ve come. He doesn’t want me to see him like this and tells me not to come again. So we write each other long pen pal letters, his full of poems confronting his choices and tormented sense of faith, my letters confiding the goings-on of my life. I miss him in the quiet of my room; none of my friends knew much of him or feel the loss of his presence as acutely as I do. The hole of Josh’s absence transforms to a restless ache I cannot quell.

A year later I’m standing in a sterile hospital room, the sour and chemical mix of scents nauseating. Melissa had been driving too fast down an Iowa country road, hit a large pothole, and flew through the windshield of her car. She’s now paralyzed from the sternum down and attempting to figure out how to live like that. I can’t even figure out words to console her—for the loss of her legs, for the stripping of her freedom to run and jump. There’s nothing I can say to make it better, so I hold her bruised hand and cry with her, for her. She no longer has the body to live the life she wants and, consequently, is no longer the self she wishes to be. 

Here I am, unable to inspire in Melissa something to look forward to the way she did for me. Melissa’s now constrained by her physical body, while Josh is constrained by the bars of a jail cell. I’m helpless to free the two people who freed me from my lonely depression not so long ago.

Melissa learns to maneuver a wheelchair, even equips a van to drive herself around. Josh is released from jail after a couple years and starts to manage a restaurant in a small town not far from Janesville. I keep in occasional touch with both of them for a while. 

When I return from my second time studying abroad, Josh arrives at my parents’ house to celebrate my birthday. I’m sporting a pair of tall black boots I bought in London. Before we head out for the night, he insults me and my boots. 

“You look like a hooker,” he says.

“You’re going to insult me on my birthday? After not seeing me for years?”

“Just being honest,” he states with a shrug.

 “Just leave then. I don’t need that on my birthday.”

So he does. He buries his hands in his jeans pockets and walks out the back door. I’ve never seen him since. Though I’ve long since forgiven him for that insult and tried to locate him through Facebook, I’ve not had any luck finding him or resuscitating that friendship. People sometimes come into your life for a limited period of time but for a reason. Without a doubt, it’s for a reason. So, Melissa and Josh, wherever you are, if you happen to stumble upon this book and you’re reading this, I want to say thank you. Thank you for your friendship and the widened lens of life that I may have missed had it not been for you. You two filled a void in me and changed my life. For that, and for all the memories, I will forever be grateful.


Barista (excerpt from my essay collection manuscript)

I wait in line, staring across the coffee shop, trying not to make eye contact before I’ve reached the front of the line. Occasionally we both glance up at the same time, and so begins the near-daily barista exchange. When I approach the register, there’s a frantic pause while I determine if I recall my drink order. I despise how my mind tends to go blank when called upon if I haven’t rehearsed what I’m going to say. 

It doesn’t really matter, though, because he raises his brows and asks, “The usual?”

“Yep, my usual,” I reply, smiling as much at my barista as to myself. 

I’m a regular. My frequent order of a four-pump no whip hot chocolate has bumped me out of the masses into a face with a name and a “usual.” It warrants me a brief exchange with Greg or Blake or Madison, questions of how my weekend was, if I caught the game, how work is going. The eye contact holds just enough glint to evoke slight flirtation. Eye contact and a usual are why I frequent the same few coffee shops. I like that for the two-minute exchange with my barista, I feel noticed. Welcomed. 

Though one might not see an identical clientele between each coffee shop, I lump coffee shop goers together in the sense that we’re all a certain type, and it doesn’t have to do with a sleepless desperation for caffeine. It’s about the near-friend exchange with the barista, about the eye contact and smile shared with another, about having a space to feel at home, perhaps better than at home, because you have a sense of belonging. I believe this is especially true for women whose beauty and efforts often go unnoticed.  It almost feels a little pathetic to receive as much satisfaction from grabbing my drink as I do. Do I really need the attention of being a regular with a usual to feel as though I have been seen, tended to, counted? Maybe it makes us women who are frequently taken for granted feel appreciated and important. It’s such a simple minute or two at the counter, but it creates an opportunity to fill a little void in my psyche. My coffees and hot chocolates cost a few bucks, but the human connection in the barista exchange and the gratification of attention are priceless.


A Nice Guy (My Italian Cliché) (excerpt from my essay collection manuscript)

The café  we find during our exploration of Padua, Italy, proves quite unlike the ones in America or even England and France. This place is the size of a mid-size kitchen with a sturdy wooden bar flanking the back wall and a few small round tables inside and outside. Almost no one is sitting, though, only one table occupied by a couple of elegant women deep in conversation. The café is hopping; everyone orders and downs their espresso or doppio while standing at the bar like American college kids doing vodka shots.

We American girls, on the other hand, take our cappuccinos and hot chocolates to the outdoor tables. I sip slowly between gulps of water while we chatter away. My hot chocolate is richer and thicker than even Parisian hot chocolate, the idea of hot chocolate taken a bit too literally, more like a dash of cream in melted chocolate. 

I spot a black Vespa parked across from us, gleaming in the spring sunshine. I comment how adorable Vespas are and that I want to own one someday but have never been on one. Minutes later an attractive twenty-something exits the café and makes for the sleek scooter. I cannot resist; some external force of boldness that has grown in me during my study abroad compels me to ask this Italian man for a ride. He smiles, nods, and gestures for me to hop on the back. My friends throw up their hands, a flailing mix of concern, intrigue, and excitement for me.

I wrap my hands around his tight t-shirt and beckon my friends to take a photo of me on my Vespa ride. Then we’re off, zooming down the cobblestone road. I toss my head back in delight, catch the scent of baked bread and feel warm sunlight on my face. 

“This is so great!” I shout.

He laughs. “You American girls always want to ride on Italian man’s scooter.”

“Yes, we can’t help it. It’s totally part of the Italian experience.”

We both embrace the cliché as he darts through a couple more city blocks. It’s only once he deposits me back at the café to my anxiously awaiting friends that I realize how naive I was to hop on this man’s Vespa. My friends admonish me but simultaneously exude admiration. The memory and the thrill outlast my fleeting worry of abduction.

When I see the photo of me on the back of that Italian’s Vespa, I’m reminded of my trivial but daring adventure, reminded of the part of me that doesn’t hold back out of fear. Rarely does life offer such simple, perfect gifts, but on a gorgeous spring day, I got my long-desired Vespa ride. I asked, and the universe granted my request. I haven’t forgotten.


Alex & The Sweetest Day in London (excerpt from my essay collection manuscript)

Late March in London resembles mid-May in Wisconsin, and so we’re coatless, donning short sleeves and craving an adventure. The sun’s out this morning, illuminating the sidewalks and the façades we’ve become accustomed to seeing in shades of gray. On this particularly lovely spring day, I’m with a few of the people who have become closest to me during my semester abroad in London. 

Kerry is a tall and lithe graphic design major who could modeled if she didn’t have such an affinity to nerdiness (or aversion to attention). Sara’s the epitome of small town Wisconsin goodness, the group’s mom stand-in while away from home. 

Then there’s Alex, the Swiss guy who returned from an internship in Paris to the international students dorm where we live. Coincidentally, his room is the exact room he’d sublet to an English guy with whom I’d gone on a few dates while he was in Paris. Alex is infatuated with all things French, so I’ve spent the past month convincing him that London is magnificent and alive with energy.

In the bar attached to the International Student House, my friends and I are about to go dancing but have gathered first for a drink in the smoky darkness. From across the dimly-lit room, I spot him, a Jake Gyllenhaal-circa-Donnie Darko-look-alike wearing a black turtleneck sweater. We lock eyes. He beckons me over with the wave of his hand. 

“I’m Alex.” He shakes my hand across the large wooden table. “This is my very good friend, Lou,” he adds, gesturing to the girl beside him.

Alex has a Swiss accent and eyes so rich and warm that I sink into them like melted pools of chocolate. And just like that, I’m in love.

Hurriedly, we exchange numbers before I go out dancing, crushed to leave him but consoled that we made plans to see each other tomorrow. All night I dance wildly, giddy with anticipation.

The next day he meets me in the lobby of our building in a navy coat, skinny jeans, and little white sneakers, so very French, so very my type. He leans into the doorframe, either natural model or someone adept at appearing as such. He greets me with a smile and disbelief, surprised I didn’t stand him up. 

Though I’ve been in the city for a month and have walked extensively, he leads me through half-hidden cobblestone alleys and undiscovered plazas, by unnoticed statues, and quaint townhouses with flower boxes. We stop for hot chocolate, and as we sit across from each other, sipping our drinks and laughing, I remind myself this is real. Somehow the culmination of so many daydreams and birthday candle wishes has manifested and now sits across from me, agreeing how much better a drink is out of a mug rather than a paper to-go cup. 

Back on the street, my dream quickly crumbles when he reveals he has a girlfriend in Paris. Solenne

“That’s a pretty name,” I say.

“A pretty name for a pretty girl,” he replies. 

All at once my heart sinks into my gut, and my hopes, the magic of soul mates meeting, tumble to the pavement. Because I like him so much, I resign myself to friendship at least. For all of five minutes, I succeed. However, when we arrive at a street corner, he reaches for my hand as we cross the road. His hand is cool but first-class soft, and now I’m doomed to adore a taken man.

When we’re not attending classes, we spend every day arm-in-arm, exploring the city. Most nights we cook dinner together and then either snuggle in his bed or go out with my friends. He kisses me but only in secret. We have sex but not so often as to feel it’s part of our relationship. 

I continue to fall madly in love—or lust—or both. We straddle the line between friendship and lovers exquisitely. Although I’m technically the mistress, because she is there in Paris and I am here, she’s become the other woman. Alex doesn’t mention her, and I pretend she doesn’t exist. 

Only once when Alex returns to Paris for a weekend do I worry about her, about them together, about the extent of my envy. I try to keep busy with my friends rather than obsessing about what Alex and his girlfriend are doing together. Just calling her “his girlfriend” elicits a sour taste in my mouth. I wonder if Alex is thinking about me at all because I haven’t gotten a call or text. I miss him more than I’d like. 

When he returns, we resume our normal daily rendezvous, no mention of her or the Parisian delights he used to rave about. We dive right back into late night dancing and the beat of our feet trekking London sidewalks. Our explores, we call them.

One evening while standing in a boutique awaiting the return of a clothing clerk from the stockroom, Alex leans in and kisses me. We’ve kissed many times, even slept together several times, but something about this kiss in the middle of the clothing boutique stems from need, from urgency. Though he typically reserves kisses for the privacy of his room, tonight he kissed me publicly, right here and now. From this point on, despite the other woman, I feel assured of his love. Even my friends can see his face light up when I enter the room, gushing to me about how smitten he is with me.

One night a few weeks before my study abroad is set to end, I accompany Alex and friends of his that I haven’t met before to a hipster club in Brixton. Damask-papered walls and vintage chandeliers dangle over velvet green chaises longues to fancify the cocaine and pills of which other clubbers partake, the bathroom door swinging in constant motion: Open. Snort. Close. Swallow. Open. Snort. Close. Swallow. 

I chat with Alex’s friends. They rave about how he treats his girlfriend like a queen, something they know from her prior visits. Before me. I listen anxiously, reminded they’re not talking about me. With my friends, Alex and I can play the couple, but his friends have no clue about us. Tonight I can’t reach for his hand, kiss his cheek, or dance too close. It feels like a lie.

Despite his supposed royal treatment, while I’m in the midst of conversing with one of his friends, I spy Alex mid-makeout with a petite pixie-haired girl with too many piercings. Territorial animal instinct propels me in his direction until I’m physically intervening. 

“What are you doing?” I shout over the hypnotic Eurotrash music. 

“Enjoying myself.” He smirks. 

I want to slap that fucking smirk right off his handsome face. 

“Are you kidding me? We have to be a secret, but you can make out with her in front of your friends?” I shout, the pixie retreating.

I dart from the club into the chilly night air, unsure what to do or where to go, but Alex rushes out behind me. We fight in bursts during the way home, certain questions or accusations plummeting us into silence. Back at our building, we continue yelling in the stairwell between our floors, me on the upper landing, ten unforgiving steps between us.

“How could you do that to me?” 

Tears finally break free and stream down my cheeks. I’ve tried so hard not to let him see me care so much, but now there’s nothing I can do.

“You’re not my girlfriend. I already have a girlfriend, and even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t want to date you!” he shouts. 

My chest caves, the wind knocked out of me. He could’ve whispered those words and had an equally powerful effect. 

I race to my room, flop on my bed, and bury my face in my pillow to prevent disturbing my roommates as I sob. Balloons of salty tears burst on the linen. 

We don’t speak or text for nearly two days, at which point Alex sends me a text. 

I miss you.

I miss you too. 

I push send, and then it all falls back into place. I miss him, his smile, his caress, the way he makes me laugh. I want to forgive him, so we might spend the rest of my study abroad like the fight never happened. I pretend the other night isn’t real any more than the other woman. As pathetic, desperate, or delusional as I occasionally feel, I am his. Entirely. And while he didn’t break up with her after making up from our fight, he finally gives himself to me as completely as he can. 

So on this lovely spring day, Kerry, Sara, Alex, and I set off for another explore. We wander through the borough of St. John’s Wood, picking out houses we’d like to own someday. Alex and I choose one together where we fantasize we’ll raise our two adorable French-speaking daughters. I note there is a we in our future; I have heard the words from his own mouth.

We roll down Primrose Hill and pop in and out of shops. Alex buys a magenta t-shirt for 50p in a second-hand bin and puts it on immediately. He wears it for the rest of the day, even as we reenact the Abbey Road album cover and afterwards while we eat ice cream cones in the sunshine. 

None of us want the day to end, so, upon return to our building, we sneak onto the roof balcony from Alex’s window. The golden hour bathes us in warm, ochre glow. We deem it the sweetest day in London as we dance on the rooftop to music playing from Alex’s laptop. 

“Elle Danse Seule” starts to play, the song Alex dubbed mine after seeing me dancing on a night club platform, alone and in the zone; the song he played me the night he rented us a car just to go for a joyride in the English countryside, our car barreling down roads so dark and narrow that the bramble patches scraped at our windows. 

The song becomes our song as soon as Alex reaches for my hand and, with his other hand pressed to the small of my back, pulls me in close. We slow dance in the dappled evening light, his voice softly singing in my ear. Effemere et legere, j’oublie tout…

The sweetest day in London grows sweeter during our dance. For a few minutes, his voice drowns out the hum of the city below and veils Kerry and Sara, who look on longingly, until there is nothing and no one but Alex and me. Twirling.

Spooning on his bed one night the week before I’m set to leave, the room lit only by the flickering TV, Alex tugs me to turn to face him. He confesses his worries about graduating college next month, about finding a job, about what London will be like without me. 

“Stay with me,” he says.

“You know I can’t,” I whisper. 

Melancholy trickles into my veins, and I caress his cheek, tell him he’ll be fine without me. But I don’t want him to be fine without me. I want him to beg me to stay, to propose marriage, to run across Europe together, at the very least. 

In months, even years, to come I will tell myself he never asked me to stay. I will attempt to believe that to avoid admitting to myself that I was the one who walked away. I refused to admit that I quit on him, that we weren’t together because I hadn’t thought it practical.

Our final week together is tinged with bittersweetness, both of us well aware we’re counting down the days until I leave. 

The morning of my departure, he carries my luggage to the bus on which my study abroad group is going on a three-week tour of Europe. Neither of us slept much, snuggled on his twin bed, savoring each minute. We have bloodshot eyes this morning and trudge to the bus like wading through deep water. 

He kisses me deeply, whispers goodbye, and walks away. 

He doesn’t look back.

During each stop of our European tour, I search for Alex, hoping he planned to surprise me, realized, like in the movies, that he can’t live without me. From each destination, I depart with disappointment: Paris, Salzburg, Montreux, Munich, Venice, Florence, each gorgeous city empty without him. I no longer have him, but he still has Solenne, the pretty girl with a pretty name.

Over the next year we exchange emails regularly. I don’t know how to be happy in Madison. I feel half-alive, dazed with longing and a new homesickness for London. I walk home from classes in chilly October wind, leaves billowing and scraping the pavement, and I decide to apply for a second study abroad program. When I reapply for another semester in London, it’s partly for love of London but more so for love of Alex. We make plans to reunite the next summer before my next semester. I fantasize about us together in London again, especially since he broke up with Solenne. 

Of course, life isn’t so neat and tidy. The adage about God laughing at our well-made plans bombards me when I read his message. Alex has begun dating a British Betty Boop look-alike with vintage hair and clothes from what I gather of her Facebook photos. Worse, he’s taken a new job and moved—to Paris. I want to be happy for him, for how he’s building his future, but I can’t because he’s building it without me. 

I end up seeing Alex again for two weeks in Paris the following August. While most Parisians have escaped on holiday, we eat baguettes and chevre in his posh Left Bank apartment and have sex by expensive candlelight, all courtesy of his new job. I’m the mistress again. But now his girlfriend is there in London, and we are here in Paris. With him, I never feel like the other woman. I am the only woman, temporary as it is.


London is Not a Map (excerpt from my essay collection manuscript)

What is London? It is not a map. Not a city on a map. The cartographers deceived you. Don’t believe those figures: Area 607 square miles, Population 9 million, Elevation 79 feet. You won’t find the center of London at coordinates 51°30′29″N 00°07′29″W

London is a jumbled rush of bodies and brains, people flocking from other countries to remember the history and take part in the progress. I, too, have come to be with the speed and the energy. 

I want to experience Chinatown, hot dog vendors, idling black cabs, and barmen yelling Last call. I want to climb Tower Bridge at night and see the entire city lit up. History arcs into the present in Big Ben’s chimes beckoning the Parliament to work, in gothic latticework and stone still standing on each street block. 

I pass Buckingham Palace in hopes of spotting royalty or making Beef Eaters smile. I learn how Brits value their prime minister but wouldn’t trade him for their Queen. I see the secret Cabinet War Rooms, sense freedom in the glottal rasp of Churchill’s voice over the old-time radio. Bomb shelters and Blitzkrieg before a stop at the pub for fish ‘n’ chips. 

I traverse the city in pilgrimage to my favorite painting hanging in The Tate, how I want to take it home with me.

After sneaking on the back of the bendy buses late at night, I brave SoHo’s dim lights and basement cocktails, the well-dressed men with trendy haircuts and their own rolling papers, to dance on platforms, Britpop and Eurotrash ringing in my ears. 

Short skirts and boots rise to seductive heights in narrow alleyways, the thrill of the unknown. Monday nights I wait two hours to crawl inside the small space of Ain’t Nothin’ But just to hear a little blues music. 

Tunnels of The Tube disappear while awaiting the dreaded Circle Line. Hot Tube cars carry me to the East Side where art is graffiti on the walls, cracks in the street, and crumbling stone. Petticoat Market is piled with linen cloth and racks of tattered clothes. Garbage, sex, literature, pavement, and pollution. Drunks cackle from a bench behind the church. 

Curry steams from Brick Lane, candles burn down in empty wine bottles beside worn leather sofas, and cigarettes dangle on lips. Hipsters shake to neo-punk electronica as the bass rattles vintage chandeliers. Chalk, metal, smog, wire, basmati rice, and soy milk. 

Ochre light when I least expect it and vanilla tea after listening to the boys’ choir at St. Paul’s. So many walks home, thinking of the explosion that failed Guy Fawkes.

Pipe tobacco and tweed emerge from Mini Coopers outside bookshops on Charing Cross, all biscuits and teatime, lamplight, wool, wax, and coal. High class grace and proper etiquette, proper speech, none of that Cockney jam jar down the frog and toad to get Brahms and Liszt

Sitting in a desk at the Ragged School House Museum, remembering that old pea soup, I wonder about Oliver Twist and Charles Dickens’s London. Like him, I am a writer with stories infused by the pulse of city streets, wet cobblestone, and giant black umbrellas. 

I practice tai chi barefoot in the meadow grass, dew still on the blades, embrace autumn’s slow onset. As I loll about in the grass, men approach and ask me out for coffee. I find a giant green-gold Maple leaf waiting by my front door, as if I carried it home with me from Hyde Park.

I discover the British Library and think the Magna Carta changed everything. Then I stroll from Regent’s Park onto Marylebone High Street, my favorite street, with Daunt Books and Le Pain Quotidien charming me as I wander. I buy a book and a pot of Praliné spread to take along with me, something of a souvenir for time well spent.

Just off my favorite street, I discover St. James Spanish Place church. Though I grew up Catholic, I forgot how to believe; but when I visit this gothic beauty with its stained glass, I want to douse my whole body in holy water and trust without proof like I didn’t think I ever could. I find a different kind of religion here: a rainbow on my way home and Latin masses with ladies in lace veils, tiny prayers floating in an empty candle-lit church, and how it makes me feel true belonging. 

I watch Londoners illuminate Christmas lights on Oxford Street and Piccadilly Circus; erect window displays of glitter, silver, red, and green; enjoy High Street shopping. The scent of pine trees in Spitalfields Market before the holidays, bread pudding, and hot Darjeeling tea with milk and honey, so terrible I almost love it. 

Tinkling jazz on Tuesday nights, chilly wind and gray day after gray day. I only feel sun for twenty minutes in the morning. They say it never snows in central London. Once in awhile it does. I have seen it, felt drifting flakes on my eyelashes. 

I read about the brothels and courtesans, once the lust of Covent Garden now sound and glimmering lights from the Opera House. I admire ballerinas dancing Swan Lake, men juggling knives in the covered market, and quartets performing for spare change. 

New Year’s fireworks burst at midnight down by the Thames with a million other revelers. Grinding metal and the soaring view from a glass cage on The London Eye, largest of Ferris wheels. 

I stroll by colorful doors and walls in Notting Hill, thoughts of Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts’s movie in my mind and disappointment in the reality of the bookshop.

Walking Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury, I imagine the typewriters once clacking away. I’m humbled by the bounty of flowers laid in Gandhi’s stone lap, free newspapers doled out on the sidewalk, a smile from a passing stranger, and a cellist’s tune in the underground. 

In spring, I roll down Primrose Hill among the clovers and wander along the rambling patches of yellow daffodils when the winter drizzle fades. I cross Abbey Road and think so did The Beatles. I remember magic when I greet Peter Pan’s statue in Kensington Gardens and learn that Mr. Barrie had it erected in the middle of the night as a grand surprise for all the city’s children.

Here, I burn to know more, to see more, to never stop filling up with this sprawling city. Iron, flour, ink, oil, pound sterling, lost buttons, and newsprint. Drink down the madness. Yearn to belong.


Not Death or Divorce, Per Se (excerpt from my essay collection manuscript)


[denial]

“Lindsay, hey, we haven’t hung out in almost a month. Do you want to get a coffee this afternoon?” 

She says she has choir practice at the church. I tell her fine, some other time. 

“Hey, I haven’t seen you in so long! Let’s grab lunch tomorrow.” 

She says she’s going to be on a religious retreat. I tell her fine, some other time. 

Another month, and I call. Did I want to come to church with her? No, I want only to see her, not her church congregation.

Time passes; she finally calls, asks me to join her for dinner. She pays, and, while I wonder if she’s only trying to buy an apology for her absence, I think it’s kind. It’s so nice to see her. 

“Hey, it’s been awhile again, but I was thinking we could get ice cream later.” 

She says she’s too busy being camp counselor. 

Another month, and I call. I wait for her to call me back like a negligent boyfriend. I hope and wait, hope and wait. She’s my best friend, after all. 

“We got your Christmas card,” her mother tells me at the grocery store. I don’t have Lindsay’s new address since she moved. 

[anger]

What a religious freak! She thinks she’s so high and mighty, so self-righteous. How very Christian of her to judge me, tell me she doesn’t approve of my behavior. What was that about casting the first stone? It’s birth control! Just because she’s chubby and doesn’t have boyfriends doesn’t mean she has the right to criticize me for having sex. She would if she had the chance. Who does she think she is? She was the bitch, always saying whatever popped in her head. I defended her, defended our friendship, had to explain so often why she was my friend. I cared about her. I was loyal, and now she treats me like this. I’m not good enough for her? I’m not pious enough for her? I curse. I have sex. I don’t go to church every Sunday or say the rosary. I used to be the spiritual one, not her. I brought her to Camp Gray, that place that brainwashed her or made her finally feel accepted. Sorry, Lindsay, you always wanted to be like me and that I didn’t give you the “acceptance” your church friends can give you. Fucking youth group! They stole my best friend. I wouldn’t want to be friends with her anyway now that she thinks she’s some saint, all her holier than thou bullshit. 

[bargaining]

Oh God,

Maybe if I speak to you directly you can carry my prayer 

from one believer to another.

I have so many questions, but I’m hoping you can comfort me.

If she’s abandoned me for religion, how is this fair?

Help her to see that I’m not a bad person,

That she can still be my friend and believe in you.

It doesn’t make any sense that you would take her from me.

Tell her you don’t throw away twelve years of friendship.

I will try to be a better Catholic.

I won’t judge her or her church friends.

I just want my best friend back.

Please give me the patience to wait for her to realize 

That she misses my friendship too

And to take her back openly like the prodigal son.

I would be content even just seeing her

Once a month for a hot chocolate.

I trust that you will open her eyes and her heart.

Amen.

[depression]

Stopped calling, 

don’t have her number in my phone anymore. 

If I pass her church, I stop for a minute 

and think about seeing if she’s there. 

I miss her smile and her raucous laughter, 

how we laughed so hard that time in geometry class when our teacher kicked us out into the hall. 

Think of sending her a Christmas card to thank her 

for all those holiday memories: 

frosting cookies in her kitchen while making mix CDs, 

building a snowman with her little brother, 

making hot cocoa from scratch on the stove. 

She always added vanilla, her secret ingredient. 

I never put vanilla in mine because it reminds me of her. 

I loved our adventures in her red Grand Am. 

Driving past boys’ houses and singing too loudly 

while parked at stoplights. 

Shared music—

Ben Folds on the top of the hill, city all lit up below—

and Target runs 

and waiting in line at Frostie Freeze on balmy summer nights. 

Played golf together at 6 a.m. every morning for an entire summer 

and never once got sick of each other. 

It wasn’t possible.

Made a second home out of the extra bed in her room, 

wrapping myself in the plaid blankets while we gossiped about our crushes. 

After my first college breakup, 

I drove forty-five minutes late at night just to cry to 

someone who understood all the love and cracks 

in my stupid heart.

Sometimes I run into her mother, 

See her sisters, 

walk down her street and remember 

all those days when we were inseparable. 

It was never just Gabby or just Lindsay,

always Gabby and Lindsay. 

Everyone knew that.

I grieve the end of our friendship like a divorce, 

a death even. 

She deserted me, 

discarded me like some old, used object that she no longer needed. 

After twelve years, I can’t help but miss her. 

Of course, I’m devastated. 

How do you learn to live without your best friend? 

[acceptance]

Years have passed since Lindsay and I were really best friends. I don’t even presume to call us friends anymore. A few times we have crossed paths. We exchange an awkward hello, how are you, I’m fine, nice to see you, and go our separate ways. I don’t hate her or harbor any bitterness anymore. I also don’t miss her like I used to because I know we could never truly be friends now. She isn’t the same person anymore, and, I suppose, neither am I. 

Sometimes I wonder if she had never found God if we would still be friends or if our college years would have undone us anyway. I’d like to think we would have been mothers together on the same block and grown old drinking tea on our front porches. 

I have never had another best friend since but now a husband best friend with whom I’m carrying on my life. When I got engaged, oddly, I still wanted to tell her. She never even wrote to say congratulations, which is more of a testament to how far apart we have drifted than anything else. I wanted her to be a part of that moment because she was a part of all the waiting, longing, and dreaming that had to come before any wedding, any love even. Perhaps I still haven’t come to terms with the end of our friendship. Perhaps I’m still angry and sad and in denial that I’ve lost her, or hoping to bargain for her return.


Not Quite a Bennington Girl (excerpt from my essay collection manuscript)

On a mucky day in early February, I joined the lineage of Bennington girls, a litany of women forming in my mind from the first time the girls in Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye got off the bus. I’m not even sure how I first decided Bennington was a college option, but I was lured in by the unconventional application requirements and the welcome box I received upon acceptance full of a baseball t-shirt, a frisbee, a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie, and the tiniest of Vermont maple syrup containers. 

Bennington is expensive, so expensive, in fact, I heard rumors when applying that it was the most expensive school in the country. Though Bennington called to me more on the first go-round, I didn’t have any money saved for college, so I opted for Sarah Lawrence in New York because they offered me a much larger scholarship. Attending Bennington means a huge undertaking of debt, but at least I have four years before I have to deal with figuring out how to pay my student loans.

My parents drive me out to Vermont through the wet remnants of snow, unload my carful of belongings in the chilly drizzle to a corner room in one of the white Colonial houses. Because many of the students haven’t returned from their internships in city studios or organic farms, the house is mostly empty when I move in. Saying goodbye to my parents feels different than parting in New York; I’m ready to be on my own this time. After losing Jake, I realized my discomfort with being on my own at Sarah Lawrence had far more to do with extreme homesickness for Jake and my friends than an inability to make it on my own. Without Jake back home and without the same degree of closeness in my friendships, I’m eager to forge a new life for myself at Bennington.

When I meet Dylan, the house chair, and a cute senior who lives across the hall from me, he states it’s pretty special I got into the Canfield house as a freshman. He gives me the rundown about our house with its wood floors and fireplace, explains it’s a smoking house and centered on a love of video games. He seems even more perplexed that I was placed in Canfield when I tell him those are two things of which I don’t partake. Regardless, he makes me feel welcome and offers a standing invitation to any party he and his roommate host.

“Speak of the devil,” Dylan says, as a familiar face pops in the doorway, warm and twinkling eyes meeting mine. 

“Hey, I’m Adrian.”

My ears perk at the sound of his name. I know why he’s familiar. I met him at the coffeeshop back in the fall.

“We actually met when I visited last October,” I say.

“That’s right. You hung out while I was working. So you decided to come after all,” Adrian replies with a smile. “If you need anything, we live right across the hall.”

I smile, likely blush, instantly crushing like the night he was frothing milk for my mocha. He has caramel skin and shiny black hair, messy waves to accompany his vintage sweatshirt that has to have been rescued from a thrift shop. I’m supposed to share a bathroom, brush my teeth, and shower with such a beautiful specimen of a man free to walk in at any point? This place, despite feeling welcoming, presents its own host of issues and version of culture shock.

It’s tough starting as a freshman in the spring semester after all the other freshmen already had a semester under their belts. I’m playing catch-up from the start, while the other freshmen had time to adapt and make friends, to figure out which colored dining room holds their people, to get up to speed on college professor demands, and to learn which houses host the best parties.

Everyone at Bennington lives in houses, not dorms. The original Colonials like mine reside on a small cul-de-sac out of the 1930s now flocked with hipsters in oversized rimmed glasses. Some houses resemble white milk cartons, and others are covered in wood and shingles. Each house has a distinct personality, people cohabitating whose questionnaire answers fictionalized some type of common ground. I like discovering the particular traits and interests of the people in each house, taking detective-like interest in identifying the connections and commonalities from one house to the next. Though living in Canfield is supposedly a privilege, I’m pretty sure I got in because of lack of room options entering in second semester rather than similarities to the interests of my housemates.

My house is cozy, especially when the fireplace crackles with burning logs as the snow drifts down outside the back windows, but everything’s covered in a haze of cigarette smoke. Every housemate but one smokes, and they all play video games on the rigged setup of five TVs stacked and wired like the Tetris game displayed on them. Canfield predominantly houses artists with a couple of poets, a science major, and a dancer thrown in for good measure. I become acquainted with everyone during Sunday Night Coffee Hours in our living room where someone offers a communal pack of smokes, tossing Marlborough’s or Parliaments on the table like a potluck dessert, while we cover house meeting issues and upcoming events.

I enroll in four classes for which I have to run around campus to convince each professor why he or she should accept me into the class, a mini-interview to take a class for which I’m paying a ton of money. I take a drawing class with an artist professor who wears flowy Indian garb and armloads of gold bangles. I learn mediation techniques in a class on war and peace and note parenting best practices in a fantastic class on early childhood learning and development outside the classroom. 

My favorite class is Contemporary Poetry with a professor from Wisconsin and, coincidentally, the inspiring poet who read at Sarah Lawrence one of the nights I was there. He razes my ideas about poetry to ground zero to show me of what the word, the fragment, the metaphor are capable. We play Dial-a-Poet where we call up the poets we study. I’m rapt listening to Sarah Messer unravel how she penned her brilliant Bandit Letters, my favorite book of poems, by cutting words and phrases from the page and rearranging.

While my Contemporary Poetry workshop wakes up the writer in me, equally importantly, it allows me to meet Jess and Jessica. They’re the two closest friends I’ve made, both of whom I’m drawn to like a moth to a streetlight. I want to hover in their presence and learn to emulate their boldness and confidence. 

Jess is my age, born in Mexico City, but lived much of her life in Surrey, England. She wears jewelry she made of silver and turquoise and laughs easily. We play her favorite mix CD and shimmy in her living room before heading to parties. Jess makes me feel safe and accepted in a campus full of weirdos. She asks smart questions that challenge me to stretch my world views and push my critical thinking skills more than any professor. She invites me to poetry readings and live music when poets and bands can be convinced to trek up into the Green Mountains to entertain our secluded student population. 

And then there’s Jessica, this captivating could-be model who exudes spontaneity and ravishment with life. An eclectic mix, she wears all black with a pair of cowboy boots, a holdover from time spent on her parents’ Tennessee ranch. The first time she invites me to hang out after class, she steams us mocha lattes in her room while playing Billie Holiday on her record player. After studying abroad in England last semester, she tells me she’s secretly engaged to a Brit. She gushes about him and informs me she’s scheming a way to move back just like she’d schemed a way to miss her flight home to The States to stay with him longer. 

Jessica pushes me to broaden my horizons, to meet people who might not have allowed me into their circle without her. Some nights we sit around in the room of Simone, the depressed writer in black turtlenecks, and other nights with Kastoory, the obese girl with scars covering every inch of her arms and legs from too many years with a problem of cutting. They drink cocktails that are more vodka than cranberry and laugh raucously until others from our house filter in to join the incense-smoked gathering.

I frequent the café where Adrian works as a barista just to see his black eyes glittering as he smiles and hands over my drink and also because he makes a tasty latte. The dining hall food is incredibly tasty, too, with professional chefs preparing all the meals and desserts. 

The dining hall is also the only building on campus where you can’t be naked, as Bennington is a clothing-optional campus. Mostly this consists of girls sunning themselves topless in the grass when the weather warms at the end of the semester, but I definitely witness some dicks dangling or leaving sweaty ball imprints on the wooden chairs in the classrooms. There’s a designated Porn Tree where scraps of pornographic photos ripped from Playboys or snapped with a Polaroid dangle from the branches. 

Besides the overt nakedness, in general, things at Bennington pulse with an undertone of sexuality. I hear moans through the walls. When rumors circulate about someone getting some the night before, the dining hall crowd chimes a greeting of, Bow chicka-bow-wow. I feel hands caressing my arms and a girl’s lips briefly kiss mine when a few friends take ecstasy one night, their hands beckoning, Touch me; I’m on E. Student poetry speaks bluntly of fucking, the explicit descriptions of a wet pussy flushing my cheeks when a classmate reads the work aloud. Even when I consent to let a senior who’s working on a photography collection for his final project photograph me, he requests I lose my shirt. When I say no, he squints his mousy eyes at me like I’m a prude. 

Though I’ve grown more accustomed to nudity and sex during my weeks here, I’m still uncomfortable inserting myself into these scenes. I don’t want to bare my naked body to people I hardly know, and I don’t know how to read, or write, for that matter, explicit poetry like my peers. The openness rubs off on me gradually, a subtle erosion of my emotional and sexual barriers.

I let down my protective shield little by little. Then, dropping my guard and better judgment entirely, I have a one-night stand. My roommate’s brother and his friend, Brad, a hot physical trainer for a hockey team in Philly, visit for a ski trip.  My roommate and I don’t get along very well and aren’t accustomed to hanging out, but on this particular night Brad and her brother invite me to hang out with them. With Brad and his muscles bulging out of his athletic fit t-shirt on the bed next to me, I agree. Though not a drinker, I don’t want another night where I have to explain myself. Brad’s deep blue eyes peek out from under his snowboarder beanie and pierce my nervous inexperience. I join them in a few shots of Jager and let the guys regale us with tales from the slopes. I warm, loosen the careful grip around my self-control, and flirt shamelessly. 

When my roommate and her brother fall asleep, Brad and I stay up discussing music and travel. With a Sharpie, he draws a tattoo on my hip where I’ve tugged my jeans down to expose the flesh where hip bone meets desire.  While I’m semi-reclined from the tattoo, he leans in to kiss me. I’m hungry for affection, my skin starving to be touched after several months since Jake broke up with me. I yield to him as he joins me in my bed, the two of us panting as quietly as possible so as not to wake my roommate and her brother. I trace my hands along the sculpted musculature of his biceps and triceps, the way one muscle flexes against the other as he rocks against my eager body. 

The next morning Brad and my roommate’s brother leave early for the slopes, but I hope to see Brad one more night when they return. I worry I’ll regret having a one-night stand, sleeping with someone I barely know, but the glow of feeling wanted hangs around me like a halo for my ego. Entering the dining hall for lunch, I receive my own room full of bow-chicka-bow-wows and silly congratulations for scoring. You slept with that hot trainer? He’s like twenty-six! In their awe, the sex halo expands around me, has me lusting for more sexual encounters, more attention. People finally seem to be noticing me and taking an interest.

I grow hungrier for a relationship and for sex. I’ve rarely known what it’s like to be turned on, to crave sex, but now my body’s lit with sexual yearning. Perhaps it’s the oversexualized campus culture or my taste of it with Brad, but once my roommate moves into a single, leaving me with my own room, I occasionally seek out internet porn. Although disappointed at the lack of romance and eroticism in the videos and images, I’m turned on nonetheless. While I’ve had sex and engaged in foreplay with multiple guys, I’ve still never had an orgasm. 

For the first time in my life, I experiment with the potential of my own body and fumble around, unsure what will work. Even alone in my room, I’m embarrassed to touch myself, to even desire it, but I continue. After some time, my body quakes and convulses in genuine orgasm. I had no idea the ecstasy involved until touching myself alone in the dark and fantasizing about the day I’ll have actual sex again.

I reach out to my ex-boyfriend, Nnanna, the guy I’ve seen on and off for the past couple years. He only ever came over after work or invited me over late at night, promising I wasn’t just a booty call, though that’s what it felt like. Because we didn’t go out on dates, in the dimly lit carriage house over my garage or in his bedroom, we’d talk and fuck, and I’d try not to feel used. Sometimes he’d go two weeks without calling me, excusing himself with his busy schedule, and I’d let it slide. I craved affection that badly. 

Looking back, I’m disgusted at the way I let him make me his side dish, his dessert, but he checked all the boxes of my teenage needs: hot, sculpted biceps and six-pack abs, super intelligent, wealthy family, and great sense of humor. These qualities lure me back after each time I break up with him for not making me a priority. Despite our past, Adrian isn’t available, and I’ll be back in Wisconsin come summer anyway. I need someone, and Nnanna seems a likely candidate. He says he misses me, or perhaps just misses my body, and wants to try getting back together when I return home for the summer. 

One night while dancing at a house party to Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River”, it’s obvious how Chris wants me, but I can’t take my eyes off Adrian who’s watching me undulate from the sidelines. For weeks we’ve been making fierce eye contact that seems to hold so much longing and meaning, yet he’s still dating someone else. I don’t know if he’ll break up with her for me, but he looks at me with that kind of intensity. So I hold out hope that he might. 

Near the end of the semester, horny, lonely, and unable to sleep because the spring music festival is on and a shitty band’s screaming Death metal Alex, death metal Alex repeatedly into the mic, I tell Chris to come over. Chris is a short, dark-skinned guy from Brooklyn, the rough side, not the hipster side, according to him, the part where older boys would steal his new tennis shoes on his way to school. He’s a ballet and hip hop dancer and took an interest in me from day one. Though I suspected he wanted more, I accepted his offers to hang out. That usually consisted of sitting in his room getting a contact high while he and a few other people smoke weed and rave about Pink Floyd and Phish’s album-length jam sessions. I danced with him in the mirrored dance studio where late one night he tried to kiss me. I pulled away, uninterested and unattracted to him, and reminded him we’re just friends. After that, though, it was obvious how he wanted me. SO tonight I’m taking advantage.

I greet him in the dark of my room in only panties and a tank top. He knows why he’s there and proceeds straight to kissing me, trailing his cow tongue down my torso. I’m uncomfortable knowing it’s Chris, so I close my eyes and imagine Adrian’s lips and tongue cascading over my body. Just as Chris tugs off my panties, the phone rings and startles us. I jump out of bed to answer it. 

“Hey, you.” It’s Nnanna.

“Oh, hi.”

“Uh, did I interrupt you? You sound out of breath.”

“No, just running for the phone. I’m not busy,” I say. 

Chris’s tiger eyes search for explanation, but I hurriedly usher him out the door. As I open the door for him to leave, Adrian exits his room and sees me half-dressed bidding Chris goodbye. Damn, that was not the plan and is not going to help me get Adrian. I do my best to avoid Chris for the remaining weeks, and as his ego was injured from my turn-down, he keeps his distance. 

I’m fine without Chris because I have Jess and Jessica and now Toby and his gorgeous boyfriend. Each night I work out at the gym, running the elliptical while talking to Jessica and watching rock climbers scale the wall or taking a yoga class with a guy who breathes louder than I knew was humanly possible. I also know I’m returning home in June to reunite with family and friends, and all of this will become a string of memories, fodder for future stories to tell.

I will tell about the night Kastoory played Cat Power’s hypnotic cover of “Wonderwall” on repeat for hours and hours and hours, not softly in her room, but windows thrown open and blasting for the entire area to be swept up in the rasp of Cat’s emotion.

I’ll tell them about midnight breakfast during finals week when an alarm blared unexpectedly, and we all flocked to the dining hall as is, partially-clothed or in pajamas. The professors lined up to serve us breakfast food, while half the student body may’ve been hopped up on uppers to pump out final papers and art exhibits. The guy who rooms next door to me ran to the event stark naked to the one place you’re expected to wear clothes, health code reasons and all. He climbed atop a dining room table, sang and danced up there, his cock dangling and swinging to and fro until the security guards hauled him out of the dining hall. 

I’ll tell them of exploring the haunted mansion on the hill, how Jess and I wandered through the meadow on our way back to campus. I will tell them how Chris and I went on a bike ride into town and about the old church we found among the trees. I will tell of the view at the End of the World, how it appears as if the Commons lawn falls off into a vast nothingness, and mention the evening trip to Massachusetts to see “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” because Vermont is that small. I’ll tell them how Dylan always has spray paint on his hands and about how our other house chair, Catherine, is always hungover, her thick brown curls lapping at her bloodshot eyes. I will tell about miniature pints of Ben & Jerry’s Brownie Batter ice cream, listening to discs of sound effects with Jess’s music producer boyfriend, the way everyone taps a heel and nods their heads in unison at a concert, the lemon ricotta cake that puts all other cakes to shame, and the way, despite all this novelty, I still miss my friends and family, the routine, the familiarity, the symphony of their laughter ringing out across the miles as if I press my ear to the ground, I might just hear it.


Jake and the Semester of Nothing (excerpt from my essay collection manuscript)

When Jake returns me home after my failed attempt to go away to school at Sarah Lawrence, there is no great fanfare, no welcome home banners, no family or friends turning up in the driveway to greet me. Jake and I unload my stuff into the quiet house, carrying belongings back to my room that, while mostly cleared out, is still clearly my room. As soon as we finish, he kisses me goodbye to get ready for his shift.

I sit on my bare mattress, surrounded by boxes and bins of everything I thought I needed, and cry. My wails echo through the empty house, my sadness and confusion vibrating through the old walls as I stare at the wall that once held all my posters, posters I’d torn down almost violently in a rampage one night during senior year when I was moved to wipe the slate clean. This wall reveals faint lines and dirty right angles where the old me ceases to be.

I can see against that bare wall cracks in the plaster stretching out in all directions like the roots of a tree that might in one heavy wind uproot the wall. I trace the cracks through blurred vision and feel the whole room shift and crumble, my world as I’d known it, the dream of becoming a writer and professor in New York broken into heaped remnants I no longer recognize or call my own. Who is this girl who couldn’t hack it out on the East Coast?

I’ve always been the girl with the plan, the drive, the good head on my shoulders. I tend toward perfectionism with a strong desire to please others; I wanted my parents to be proud of me. Since the age of three or four I’d scribbled in notebooks, and since the age of eleven I’d clung to the idea of becoming an English professor and authoring novels and poetry after college on the East Coast. For the better part of a decade, I strove diligently in pursuit of this plan. 

I skipped freshman English to get ahead, worked hard for straight A’s (with the exception of two damn B’s in math), volunteered for the school newspaper as Copy Editor and, later, Managing Editor. I wrote poems and short stories in my bedroom. 

I lettered in golf and spoke at the WI Crime Stoppers Convention as the student rep. As chairperson of the Blue Ribbon of Promise committee, I organized an entire school day devoted to students coming together in peace to accept each other and respect our differences. I participated in so many clubs in high school that I appeared in the senior class yearbook more than anyone else.

I had all these shiny words on college applications, claimed awards and honors in National Honor Society, Quill & Scroll Honor Society (the first in my school to represent both newspaper and yearbook), French Honor Society, Rotary Club Student of the Week, and Lion’s Club Student of the Month. More importantly to me, I won Happiest and Best Personality of my senior class. I had finally reached popular status but in a good way, for being myself, not the bitchy princess who often claims that moniker. I’d claimed it for fully embracing myself, for being my best self and having everything on track. Since returning from Sarah Lawrence, I can claim nothing.

Only once during senior year did I long to scrap the plan and take a gap year. I still remember the desire, the conversations, the enthusiasm squashed before it blossomed. 

“I don’t want to go to college.”

“Of course you do,” my dad said, a grin on his face but a fierce look in his eyes. He didn’t want to argue.

“No, I don’t think I do. I’ve been researching different islands, and I think I want to live on an island for a while and be a waitress.”

He laughed once, loudly, an abrupt staccato cutting through our chilly kitchen. Autumn wind hissed through the window’s edge. I didn’t say anything, only sat on the wobbly stool and stared at the scratched checkerboard linoleum. He said people don’t move to islands to wait tables. No, they take AP classes to get into good colleges where they strive for 4.0 GPAs and then land successful, high-paying jobs to work forty years. I wasn’t positive what I could possibly want to do for forty years.

I had slightly better luck with my mom. The next day while she was washing dinner dishes, I resumed my place on the wobbly stool and told her I didn’t want to go to college, at least not until I knew for sure what I wanted to study. She asked what I was planning instead, and so I told her of my island dream, gushing about the beauty of Seychelles—the twisting roads among the trees where I could bike from a coastal restaurant on white sand by turquoise waters to a quiet hut in the forest. She nodded and smiled, looked at me with sadness in her eyes.

“That sounds really wonderful, Gab.” She paused, pursed her lips.

“I know. I can take a gap year or something like European kids, work on an island and figure out what I really want to do.”

“You could, honey, but I’d be afraid that you’d lose out on any scholarship money you have coming or that you’d go there and one year would turn into two or three, maybe even ten years. Would you really want to come back for college then? Do you want to waitress your whole life?”

“No, but I don’t know what else I want to do either. Why should I spend thousands of dollars on college when I have no clue what I really want to do? That doesn’t make sense.” 

“You want to write. You want to be a professor. When did that become ‘no clue’? Maybe you’re right, but I think you ought to give it a chance before you go running off to an island.”

I didn’t know what else to say, so I agreed to give college a try. I’d been grooming myself for this path anyhow.

Without my dream and my plan, I am utterly lost. I try to write but come up empty, so I buy a keyboard and attempt to relearn the skills I lost since quitting the piano years ago because my teacher wouldn’t let me learn the songs I really wanted to play. Sometimes I wander the rooms of my quiet house, a marvel I’ve rarely known with six of us kids clamoring about whenever I’m home. The stillness is unsettling, another reminder of how my life has changed.

Nothing about my days feels normal anymore. The streets which once meant friends’ or crushes’ houses or parties are now souvenir snow globes of places I once visited. With my friends away at college, Janesville is my personal ghost town. On afternoons when my parents and Jake are working, my siblings still in school, I drive familiar roads, maybe stop for an hour or two at the botanical garden to journal and read by the pond before driving farther out into the country where everything isn’t suffocating from conservative and contained normalcy.

My dad presses me for my new plan. Could I still get in somewhere else this semester? Where are you going now? Madison? Bennington? His questions bombard me almost daily, but, for once, I don’t have any answers to offer, no plan to get my life back on track.

I stall, search for answers on my continued sojourns to the garden and down country roads that split miles and miles of farmland. Perhaps I could live on a farm or a ranch, tend the land, grow something. Maybe I can realize my gap year dream of flying to Seychelles to live the island life, take the time I’d pleaded with my parents for before college admissions. 

I cling to the remains of my former life, cling to Jake, perhaps a little too tightly for his free spirit. I try to see him as much as I can, but I feel him drifting. He recently visited our guy friends in Milwaukee for the weekend, and while he hasn’t said anything significant about the weekend, something in his cornflower blue eyes tells me otherwise. He starts feeding me excuses about why he can’t see me. For nearly two weeks, I listen to Jack Johnson’s “Cocoon” and wait for the phone call I know is soon to come. 

It does, late one afternoon in early October. He wants to meet at the park near my house to talk. I walk the half block as if trudging through molasses, my body refusing to meet the truth of the moment, refusing to lose the only good piece of my adolescence I have left, as all my friends are only sort of available now that they have classes, parties, and new college friends with whom to share inside jokes.

We stand along the third baseline in the open swath of grass reserved for t-ball or pick-up baseball games. His eyes are red, from crying or getting high, I can’t discern. When he says the words, I’m still shocked to hear them, though I’ve known for the past two weeks they were coming. 

“Why? We have so much fun together.”

“You deserve so much more than I can give you. I just can’t be the kind of man who can talk about all the smart things you care about or give you the love you deserve.”

“But you do. You make me so happy.”

I hold back my tears, though a lump rises in my throat. I can tell his mind had been made up, nothing more to convince him, but then instead of walking back to his car, the car that only six weeks ago had rescued me from New York, he looks me straight in the eye.

He says, “Gabby, I want you to know you changed my life. The other day I was driving down the road, the kind you love with the canopy of trees, and I rolled the window down to stick my head out and look at all the trees. I notice things now. I never would’ve done that before. You showed me how to look at the world.”

His words ease the pain of losing him, hang sweetly on my skin, honey to the wound. 

After crying much of the night, the next day I inform my parents I want to go to Bennington next semester. My dad contacts them to see if it’s possible and to schedule another on-campus visit. 

The remainder of fall semester is an unremarkable string of lonely days with the exception of one memorable night. Two of my friends have birthdays to celebrate, so I head to Madison, and, as we share the same friend group, ride with Jake. It’s our first time together since our breakup a couple weeks ago; my cuts still ooze and sting. He seems perfectly fine, laidback and casually collected. 

I eye him longingly, remind myself not to reach my hand across the center console to weave my fingers into his. Jake isn’t mine anymore, and it doesn’t matter that we rocked out at concerts for our favorite band or spent entire nights in his car, drifting off after talking most of the night and into the dawn. It doesn’t matter that we shared couches, kisses, our bodies, and our secrets. It doesn’t matter that he drove sixteen hours to New York for me or that we once shared the twin bed of some family’s daughter while we housesat for a long weekend. 

Most of our friends have gathered in one dormroom to “pre-game”. The group passes cheap bottles of vodka and a bong. Though I’ve grown accustomed, wary even, to the party scene, I’ve never partaken in any of it. Alcohol and drugs never appealed to me or tempted me out of curiosity; I’ve always been able to talk, dance, and have fun without substance. 

On this night, however, I am achingly single and two months into a stopgap of nothingness while all my friends are forging new friendships and creating memories without me. So I finally give in, not out of interest or peer pressure, but because I need to do something, anything, to jostle myself out of the sinkhole. 

When I tell my friends about my plan for the night, they’re perplexed but not so much as to try to dissuade me. In fact, they cheer me on and snap photos to capture this unheard-of occasion. I do my best to shove my cautious nature, my worries and reservations to the back burner for the night. Between hits on the bong, of which I go one-for-one with the potheads of the group, I take swigs of disgusting, cheap vodka. I zoom from zero to sixty.

After traipsing down to the dorm lobby to leave for a party, I greet my friend Becky, giggling. “I’m sooooo high.”

Her eyes bulge. “What? You?” 

She tosses her head back in delight. She loops her arm through mine and leads me out into the dark fall night, our rowdy friends trailing behind. I know there’s a party or two, one where I sit on a couch attempting to listen to a guy, but I’m too high to follow along. 

At the end of the night back in the guys’ dorm room when I ask to order pizza, they all laugh. Gabby’s still high, they chime. I try to curl up into Jake’s frame as he lies on the futon.

“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he says, but I spoon around the warmth of his body anyway.

“It’s just for one night.”

I didn’t change my ways or opinions about partying after that night, didn’t start getting drunk or smoking weed, didn’t get back together with Jake. It was like the night existed in a vacuum, unaffected by what came before or what was to come after.

I spend another week grieving Jake and wallowing in my loneliness, and then my dad, my sister Arielle, and I set off on a road trip to Bennington, Vermont. For the first time in a couple months, I’m hopeful and feel the promise of forward movement. 

Arielle and I sit in rockers on the porch of the Admissions building, soaking in the stunning autumn view, while my dad talks logistics inside. Late October light drenches the tangerine, coral, and golden leaves of the forest-covered Green Mountains that stretch as far as our eyes can see. 

We toured the campus a year ago, so my dad and Arielle leave me to my student host until the following day. My host escorts me around to her room, to a class, to the dining hall where she provides insight into the social cliques this small college was unable to shake after high school, how each color dining room houses a particular group. I wonder in which dining room I’ll find my friends, if or when I come here. 

My host brings me to her shift at the campus café where she steams lattes for another eclectic mix of students.  Adrian, the gorgeous barista working with her, his black eyes sparkling onyx, flashes me a knee-weakening smile that seals the deal. Bennington, here I come! 

Near Christmas does our mutual friend reveals that Jake cheated on me the weekend he’d spent in Milwaukee, the one after which I’d noticed him acting differently. I finally understand why. All his friends, who are my friends too, maintained the “bro code” and revealed nothing to me. Rage seizes me. I’m furious at Jake for betraying my trust, furious at him and all our friends for deciding I didn’t need to know the truth, and furious at myself for all the weeks I’d spent crying over him.

So, again, I sit alone in my room and sob for the loss of Jake, but mostly I shed tears for the loss of my former life, for the friends once inseparable that I barely see once a month now and who have let me down, for my plan for the future, for my expectations, for all I was and wanted to be, for the overwhelming absence of laughter from my days.

It’s cathartic only in the sense—or hope—that all the shedding of old skins will clear the canvas for new friends, plans, adventures, and love. When the deep well of grief dries up, all I can do is lean in to the pause and wait for Bennington to gather me in and gift me with all I want.


Four Days in Yoko Ono’s Room (excerpt from my essay collection manuscript)

It’s hot and sticky this morning. Jake’s and my clothes are damply matted together where the perspiration has curled between our nestled forms. Neither of us complains or rolls away. It’s our last night, or morning really, together before I leave for college. The August sun has already broken over the treetops, but we haven’t slept yet. When you have a matter of hours, you don’t want to miss a second. 

“I don’t want to go,” I whisper, my words trailing through the morning stillness.

“You’re going to have an amazing time. You can’t stop talking about how much you want to get out of this shit town. You’ll get to write and meet new people, and me and Brady, we’ll come out for Thanksgiving and cook a turkey and my famous apple pie.”
“Yeah, but I really don’t want to go. I don’t want to be so far away from you and my family and all our friends.”

“I’ll call you every day, and you’ll make cool friends, not as cool as me, of course, but…”

“Jake,” I chide, poking him in the ribs. 

He kisses my forehead, and I cry into the sleeve of his white undershirt. I want to tell him that I don’t want to sleep alone again, but I don’t. I don’t tell him I’m afraid I’ll lose him, but I’m unsure if we can stay connected across a thousand miles. 

Jake captivated me to the brink of falling just a little bit in love with him, and he will be the hardest part of leaving. Who will make me laugh so hard I almost pee my pants when he stuffs thirty-two Starburst candies in his mouth at once? Who will make my stomach flip when speeding over country roads with the windows down and the music up? I’m going to miss his white t-shirts and how they smell of laundry detergent but look as rumpled as if he pulled them straight off his floor. I’m not ready for this summer to be over, but I don’t have a choice anymore.

My dad’s already packing the suburban when Jake and I make our way down from the carriage house. He frowns upon seeing Jake has spent the night again, but he doesn’t scold me, probably because he figures what’s the point when I’m moving halfway across the country. Jake greets my dad and offers to help load my boxes and bags. I’m too groggy to do anything but stumble into the kitchen for breakfast. My brothers and sisters have risen early to see me off and are helping carry my boxes to the driveway.

“You ready?” my mom asks, a broom in her hand and excitement in her voice.

“Not really. I don’t want to go.”

“We sure do struggle with anxiety in this family, don’t we?”

“I’m not just nervous,” I reply, annoyed. “I don’t want to leave everything, and everyone, behind. I don’t want to make new friends. I have friends already.”

She tells me to eat some breakfast, and then things will seem a little better. She pulls me into her arms and hugs me tightly. “I’m going to have a hard time letting you go, too, you know.”

“I know. I’m going to miss you, too,” I say and mean it. 

I pour myself a bowl of Cheerios, get dressed in one of Jake’s t-shirts, and haul a couple more bags to the car. After loading the last of my things, I have to say goodbye. My family gathers in the driveway in a lineup. I stop at each sibling, hug them tightly, and hold in my tears. I’ve never been gone more than a month, and now it’ll be four months until winter vacation. How will I survive that long without my family—Mom listening to my thoughts about the day, Arielle baking brownies when I come home late at night, Dad managing my taxes and student loans, Sam cracking me up with his one-liners, Liv watching TV shows with me, Ice making me smile with his latest crazy idea, and Noah asking questions in his boundless curiosity? 

When I finish my sibling goodbyes, Jake approaches from the tree trunk he was leaning against. His green eyes hold a sadness I recognize, acknowledgment this might be the end, though we’re promising it’s not. Jake and I have agreed to try long distance, as he’s staying in Wisconsin; he decided not to go to college. He opens his arms wide, and I collapse into his soft belly of warmth. I hear his heartbeat and feel his breath on my neck. We don’t say anything, only stand here savoring this last physical touch. You can’t feel that over the phone.

“Go be a badass and have so many adventures,” he bids me farewell. 

I do want to have adventures and be brave in a new state on my own. It’s the writer’s dream to live in New York, to attend bookstore readings, to workshop stories with other aspiring writers, to write in coffee shops. At the same time, I’m also filled with anxiety, my familiar tormentor, and instant homesickness. Because of a choice I made six months ago, I’m voluntarily picking up my life and moving to New York. I am the only one in our friend group embarking on an out-of-state college plan. I settled on Sarah Lawrence College, only beating out Bennington College in Vermont in its proximity to New York City and its generous financial aid scholarship. 

Most of my friends are attending nearby UW-Madison or UW-Milwaukee. Worry that my friendships will fade from the pinnacle of closeness we established over senior year and the summer after graduation sweeps in like a tidal wave to the kiddie pool. I barely spent an hour alone all summer, and now I’ll be completely alone on the other side of the country. 

I crawl into the backseat where my parents have perched a pillow and blanket. As we pull away from the house, I watch out the window as Jake, my five siblings, and the neighbor staying to watch them all flail their hands, waving and shouting goodbye.

My parents drive the Suburban that’s packed Tetris-style up to the back seat where I lie curled, in and out of sleep. When I wake up about a half hour from Sarah Lawrence, my dad says, “You slept the entire way. How do you sleep all the way from Wisconsin to New York?”

I chuckle one sleepy laugh and peer out the windows to find not the urban setting I was expecting but a little town. Though I’d toured campus last summer, in my mind it morphed to a city school, and I’d forgotten it’s located in a small town outside the city. We pass a yuppie couple and preppy teenagers in polo shirts exiting a Starbucks before we maneuver the campus streets of students unloading luggage and milling about the courtyards.

“Well, this sure looks like you’ll meet some interesting people,” my mom notes, polite commentary about the eccentric students. 

“That’s what you get at a hippie dippy liberal arts school,” my dad says.

Students, parents, and staff in purple shirts flock the main registration building. When I check in at the folding table marked Step 1, they tell me my name’s been flagged.

“Flagged?” I question, confused and still exhausted.

“Yes, flagged,” the purple shirt replies. “There must be some sort of problem with your account. Go to that table over there and see if they can tell you what you need to do.” Before I even have a chance to respond, she has waved over the next new student. 

When I tell the man my name at the station on the opposite side of the room, he scans the list with his index finger and nods upon finding my name. “Yes, Gabrielle Berghammer. Here, it says they never received copies of your medical records.”

“I’m positive I sent them back in May.”

“Well, unfortunately they never got to us, and we can’t let you move into your residence until we have the medical records.” He shrugs his shoulders, nothing he can do.

“So what am I supposed to do?” 

My parents are wrapped up in conversation when I arrive. They turn to me with expectant eyes and happy grins, thinking the check-in process is already finished. When I explain the problem, my dad demands to know how they could have lost the records. He rants about how inconvenient this is and wonders what we’re supposed to do now. I feel accused and inept, like I screwed this up. 

We weave through cars and people to the health services building and enter to find a closet-sized lobby crammed so full the floor can’t be seen. Inside, my dad arches his brows and gestures to look around the room. I do. It’s filled with the most eclectic group of vintage t-shirt wearing, lip pierced, dyed hair, and too-tight jeans students. 

“We’re not in Kansas anymore, Gab.”

We huddle like chickens in a crowded henhouse, the smell no better. We twist and waddle our way to the front desk and explain our problem. The woman here repeats that, yes, a hold has been placed on my move-in status because of missing records and informs us that, by New York law, no student can live in common housing without proof of immunizations. She gives us two options: wait it out until the copies can be resent or get a lifetime of vaccinations again. For a minute, I imagine myself camping out in the grassy lawn with a carload of my belongings for a week until copies can be sent to the office. My dad’s dead set on an immediate turnaround back to Wisconsin, so between a round of shots or days of homelessness, shots it is. 

I locate an open space on the floor the size of a shopping cart and take a seat. It reeks of sour body odor, all these women with hairy pits who smell like they stopped wearing deodorant long ago, sitting body to body on the paper-thin brown carpet. To keep from passing out, I watch the seconds tick by on the waiting room clock. After almost two hours of attempting not to breathe and listening to my mom make idle talk, I’m called back for my shots. I’ve never received so many shots at once and imagine myself containing a dormant Incredible Hulk. 

We’re assigned rooms in a house, not a dorm, and I’m given a triple that was once Yoko Ono’s room. Everyone in the house, maybe even on campus, comes peeping to ooh and ahh, which might’ve been cool if she hadn’t painted the walls the drabbest shade of olive green with creepy little people speckled about, my very own hobbit hole for the year.

My parents help me unpack and arrange my space as close as possible to the way I had it back home, but it looks nothing like it because of the new bedding, lamp, and plastic clothes bins. One of my new roommates has hung a poster of a bloody screaming face above her bed, opposite mine, so I have the most pleasant of images to view when I wake up and go to sleep. The only familiarity is in the photo frames and Chippy, my tan stuffed monkey, which I brought along for comfort. I’m embarrassed that my mom has propped him on my newly made bed, but I’ll be glad he’s there when I’m sleeping without Jake.

When my parents say goodbye, a lump rises in my throat and tears burn in my eyes. I hang onto my mom like a child leaving for her first day of kindergarten, afraid to be completely on my own. I thought I wanted this, to be on a distant island or at a faraway college, but now, still in the same country, I only want to go back home with them, to my family, friends, and Jake. I spend the next hour lying on my bed sleepy and depressed.

Before the first evening’s event, we have our introductory house meeting. Our resident adviser, a sinewy brunette with a nose piercing, rattles through our names like class roll call and then starts get-to-know-you activities.

“Who are your favorite bands or singers?” she asks us.

“Ani, Ani, Radiohead, Ani, definitely Radiohead…” a cacophony of voices all spew the same two answers. I like Ani DiFranco and Radiohead, too, but they aren’t my favorites, so this is a strange coincidence that everyone else picked them. Did I enroll in the Twilight Zone

I scan the bodies, take in the black eyeliner, pixie cuts and spiked hair, tattooed arms and legs, jelly shoes, and tattered shirts. One of my roommates could sub in for The Clash or the Sex Pistols, has the makeup, green hair, piercings, and angst of a punk rocker. My other roommate seems to own nothing but belly shirts. She has dyed blonde hair with roots and a pallid face, and apparently a fondness for drugs, inquiring about our drug use within the first hour of meeting. My sport shorts and t-shirt feel overwhelmingly conventional and out of place. 

“A few house rules here, so that we’re all comfortable and on the same page: No smoking. You’ll have to take it outside. Second, try to respect your roommates if you plan on having a guest over. Work out a plan so you’re not walking in on anything, although technically the policy is no overnight guests. I should also remind you that no alcohol or drugs are allowed on the premises.” I hear a few groans and someone boos. “I believe you’re all underage, but let’s be honest, I’m not going to tell you not to do something you’re going to do anyway. Use your best judgment.”

“Are you going to search our rooms for any…thing?” my stripper-like roommate inquires.

“No, I won’t search anyone’s room, but be smart. Don’t leave anything out, and keep an eye on your roommates to make sure they’re okay, you know?”

“But come to you if somebody’s getting out of hand?” my roommate asks. I take this as a bad sign that she seems overly concerned we might have drug or drinking issues.

“Of course. A little pot or ecstasy here and there, whatever, but if they’re doing coke off the floor every night, then, yeah, I want to know about it.”

Everyone nods in agreement, filing her recommendation away, but I sit shocked. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I’m from a little Midwestern city and grew up in a mildly conservative middle class home. 

After the meeting, I head to an on-campus bar with most of the girls in the house where the boldest of them take turns straddling the mechanical bull brought in for freshmen fun. The event is full of blatant sex jokes and appeals to be taken home, many of the girls coupling in dark corners. 

I leave early, retreating to my introverted self, the self overwhelmed by rowdy crowds who would rather chat one-on-one over a coffee than do a round of shots with my whole house. I’m not the girl looking for a hookup, so instead of a bull ride, Jake and I talk on the phone and whimper about how badly we miss each other. 

The following day I sleep in unusually late to avoid breakfast socializing in the dining hall, but by lunch I’m ravenous and trudge to the dining hall with my roommates. Somehow they have already made friends who sit at the table with us. Through the course of the meal, I learn that the blonde from 10 Things I Hate About You goes to school here. I learn of a room where pillows for naps and meditation cover the floor. I hear the dance and art studios are open twenty-four hours a day, for which I’m slightly jealous of the fine arts majors. I learn of the express train to the city and where the best vintage shops are, but mostly everywhere I go all I hear is everyone talking about their love lives and sexual conquests. 

The more I look around, the more I listen, the more people I meet, the more I realize the school appears to be comprised of an almost exclusively homosexual student body, which I had no clue of prior to coming. I have absolutely nothing against gay people. In high school, I had a couple gay friends, but it was never consuming like this. It’s an overpowering population here, a little too in-your-face about it, probably because these students had been closeted or ostracized and can now be out, embracing and flaunting their sexuality. While I admire their confidence, I don’t know how to relate to them. It’s very possible I am the only straight one on campus. If it’s not true, it surely feels like it. Looking back, my lack of empathy appalls me, but at the time my need to distinguish myself as a heterosexual Midwestern girl was growing.

We’re crossing a street while returning to our house after lunch when a car of teenage boys speeds through, chucking empty beer bottles at us. Dykes! they shout as bottles smash on the pavement around us.

“Fucking townies,” says a girl with a plastic barrette in her hair. “You’ll get used to it.”

How does anyone get used to that? I want to ask but don’t. I don’t want to make them feel worse if that’s what they have to deal with. I’m straight and feel wrongly accused but also, for the first time, a little more aware of what homosexual people are forced to endure. 

At night the RA leads our house of girls to an ivy-covered brick building where lectures will soon be held. We listen to professors read their poetry, some of whom may be my future teachers. One poet steals my attention, slender in his blazer with dirty blonde hair falling periodically over one eye as he reads beautiful lines from his book. Some contemporary poets are too abstract, too absorbed with the idea of being a poet to write something anyone would want to read. However, this man standing at the podium shares wit, stark images that stick to the underside of my eyelids, and elegant language that inspires me. Maybe this school will work if the inspiration to write surpasses outweighs everything else. The writing program is why I came here after all.

When the readings finish, the mood shifts with the flicker of bright lights in place of the sole spotlight. A group of three men and a woman file down to the stage. Someone behind me mentions The Upright Citizens Brigade, which sounds sort of familiar. The comedy group spends the next hour improvising hilarious situations, playing off one another for storylines and comedic comebacks. We all laugh so hard our cheeks hurt. For the first time since leaving home, I feel happy to be here. I’m not sure I should stay, but I feel lucky to have this poetic inspiration and gut-riddling laughter.

However, it’s followed by a safe sex talk with a sex therapist. She strips naked and climbs atop a table to talk about the body, pleasure, and respect. Later, I’m told by my RA that last year the therapist had latex gloves on hand for students to try to find her g-spot! What kind of school thinks this is acceptable? 

I wake the next morning to the bloody scream poster and wonder how I can arise to that awful image every day. My eyelids are still heavy because one roommate came in around two a.m. and went to bed with her headphones up so loud that angry chick rock buzzed in my own ears. My roommates, whose names I haven’t bothered to remember, are talking on the edges of their beds about their adviser meetings today. I recall mine is tomorrow, which forces me to decide whether or not I’m staying. 

It’s clear I’m a black sheep in our room, in our house of indie rock-loving lesbians, but I don’t know what to do. I want to go home to Jake and to my friends who get me. I’m homesick and uncomfortable. I don’t feel cut out for this school, but I haven’t given this place much of a chance. I don’t know how to decide the right thing to do.

My dad answers after the second ring, sounds perplexed that I’m calling him already.

“I want to come back home,” I say. “Can you come get me?” I ask like it’s only a drive across town and not across half the country.

“Gab, you’re just homesick. You gotta give it some more time.”

“No, Dad, this school is not the place for me. I can’t stay here,” I plead, a lump rising in my throat.

“You wanted to go to school out there, so we made it happen. This was your decision. We wanted you to go to Madison.”

“But I didn’t know it would be like this! We visited during summer, so I didn’t know what it was really like here.”

“What’s it really like there?” my dad sighs. 

Thankful I’m alone, I tell him and my mom, whom he’s put on speakerphone, about my weird roommates, the townies chucking bottles at us, the sex therapist, the talk of sex and drugs like it’s San Francisco in the late ‘60s. Finally after hearing it all, their Midwestern, conservative sentiments kick in, and they consent to my quitting school before it even begins. The caveat is I have to find my own way back home.

One desperate call to Jake, recanting the same woes, and he agrees to drive to get me in a couple days when he and his cousin have a day off work. Immediate relief swallows the anxiousness, homesickness, and depth of missing Jake. 

I climb into bed to journal where I stay the next day, reading, journaling, and munching chocolate Teddy Grahams I’d brought from home. My roommates come and go, occasionally inquiring if I want to go to lunch with them or to check out the pillow room. I do want to see the much-discussed pillow room, but I don’t join them, afraid to socialize or find anything redeeming that might make me question my call to leave Sarah Lawrence.

On my fourth day at college, I go to the admin building and, with one quick form, withdraw. While I’m packing, a few girls from my house stop by to ask if I’m really leaving. They confide that they’re not sure about school either and are feeling homesick, too. For a second, I feel camaraderie, all of us freshmen from across The States trying to fit in and adjust to a different life. When I ask if any of them plan to leave, though, they all shake their heads. I guess it doesn’t matter if I connect with anyone at this point, but I realize some of them may be more like me than I realized.

Late afternoon sun disappears into ominous storm clouds when Jake and his cousin drive up in his white two-door Cavalier. I run into his arms, and he lifts me off my feet and swings me around. We kiss each other after too much time apart.

Because his next shift is later the following day, we have no time to waste returning to Wisconsin. We load his car as best we can, but it can’t hold all the Suburban could on the way here. I pick and choose what to keep and what to leave behind, remains of that girl who couldn’t hack it here. One of my roommates asks if I’m moving out, as if it weren’t obvious.

“Yeah, back to Wisconsin. I just don’t think this is the school for me.”

She doesn’t persuade me otherwise, only shrugs her shoulders and exits the room. The rain pours down as we barrel away from the house, off campus, and onto the road back home. My knight in shining armor has come to rescue me from a terrible place called college.


I Have Been Here Before (excerpt from my essay collection manuscript)

My sobs echo out and surround me, the grief a boomerang from one blank white wall to the next blank white wall. I heave into the weight, stare down at my hands, my index finger smoothing circles around the nail bed of my thumb as hot tears unspool down my neck, wetting the tips of my hair. Though I worry my wailing might disturb the neighbors as they ready themselves for bed, I allow myself this, this— what? Pity? Guilt? Loneliness? The origin of my sadness lies just outside of reach, like an elusive word on the tip of a tongue, the word I need this very minute to articulate why I feel the way I do when I made this decision.

I wanted to leave my husband. I wanted to move to my own place in a different city. I don’t miss him, don’t regret my decision for a second, but I crumble each night when I return to this empty apartment. Restlessness surfaces, a subtle agitation in not knowing what to do with myself and in not welcoming my own company. I longed for a fresh start, an end to my marriage and a breath from constant mothering, but I see now I still don’t know how to be alone. 

I was once a self-assured four-year-old who built forts in closets and refused outfits because they weren’t my style. Somewhere along the way I misstepped and went fumbling one unsteady foot after another. I have fumbled my way to this point of being a thirty-year-old-divorcée who can’t bear to be alone in her own apartment, who isn’t comfortable in her own skin, and who doesn’t want to own the choices which brought her here. Where did I first falter? Can I trace the line of longing and grief back to where I first deviated from the future I’d hoped for myself?

My sobs dissipate as they have each night the past two weeks, and I know, despite all of this, I will find my way through to what’s waiting for me. I will find my way to joy if only I can first untangle the ugly knots of my past, make sense of the choices that have spun a web of melancholy and regret before my eyes.


Preface (excerpt from my essay collection manuscript)

What if? 

That question of what if, what could be or what could have been, has plagued me more nights than I care to count. We all make choices, doing our best to feel out what step to take next. Our paths course in a direction we’ve carved one choice at a time, the way a river twists and turns as it finds its way to sea. When I begin to question a choice I’ve made, I think of the river winding in what sometimes seems an unlikely direction but is actually heading exactly where it needs to go. 

The question then becomes how do we live with our choices and move forward rather than looking back? While studying economics has familiarized us with the concept of opportunity cost in relation to decisions we make, most specifically our purchases, I find the real opportunity cost we mourn revolves most poignantly around relationships. 

Regardless of how we define a relationship, its boundaries of time, and the degree of involvement we assign each, how we choose to stifle some but let others play out, dictates much of our zigzagging route forward. The questions, the fragmented memories, the nostalgia, and the regret create an overlay on the day-to-day, a mental palimpsest of what was and what could have been. This further complicates our feelings about all the choices we make and stories we tell ourselves to make “peace” with those choices.

I thought by now I’d have it figured out. My concept of what it means to be grown up shifts, seemingly just out of reach. The adulthood certainties I imagined for myself—car paid, showpiece home, two kids, successful career, enviable spouse, lavish vacations in locations seen more often as screensavers than reality—drifted from age twenty-five to thirty and now into the distance of thirty-five or even forty. Every time I feel forward momentum, the progress toward a goal, some event or other hurdles me back in the other direction. 

Questions and worry overwhelm my best-made plans and most optimistic of thoughts. Another utility bill to pay. Do we need more eggs? When will my son want to join an activity? My husband and I need more exciting date nights. All my dreams of writing, of owning a coffee shop, of traveling far are swathed by practical need and self-doubt. Take this book, for example, this pipe dream of a published memoir that’s hovered in my mind for years, never gaining enough air for liftoff. 

Who the hell am I to write a memoir, to think that in my thirty-four years I have done something worth documenting and that another person would be willing to spend money and time to read? Who am I to delude myself that my ordinary life might, in actuality, be expansive and relatable enough in even the most basic of moments, that perhaps a kernel of truth might be garnered from my mistakes, from the snarled mess of growing? In spite of my doubts, curiosity fuels me with the desire to see, to do, to know, possibly even to understand. That’s what I hope to accomplish in writing.

So this is my attempt to tell a story about relationships and choices distinctly mine, but I’m certain it also contains events and emotions experienced by everyone, that when reaching out into the recesses of my words, you will find your hands look for purchase as my own have in writing this, will look for meaning in my words, clinging for a stretch of wild, green grass along the river. 

The story won’t always be linear; it’s not an autobiography of my whole life. It won’t be entirely funny or heartbreaking. It will be both, sometimes simultaneously, and it might make you uncomfortable to observe so closely the raw honesty. I’m still deciding if I’m even brave enough to bare myself this way, but I believe to really connect with people, you have to be authentic and tell it true (and I want so much to connect with you, to show you we’re all a bit weird, imperfect, and incredible). As I worked to overcome insecurities that my story is too ordinary for anyone to want to hear it, I’ve determined we all have so much to offer. All our stories are worth telling. Nothing, no friend, no kiss, no glance, human being to human being is too insignificant. They are all part of it. They get us where we need to go…

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