(Sorry this essay is so flipping long. It was originally published in Rio Grande Review.)
When you wake up, you notice that you’re here.
Annie Dillard, “To Fashion a Text”
I stomped up the narrow stairway to my dorm room at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania. It was late August 1984, freshmen orientation week. Classes hadn’t even started yet and I wanted to drop out. I entered the room, slammed the door shut and sat in a desk chair.
How quickly things had fallen apart, and yet it seemed like years had passed since my father had driven me from Cheektowaga, New York, working-class suburb of Buffalo, to this very expensive college with a car full of stuff my mother had bought for me—striped Marimekko sheets and towels, shiny trapper keepers, a dictionary and thesaurus in their own cubby-box, packets of plastic hangers, a gross of Mennen Speed Stick, and a toothbrush in a blue carry case that came with a matching travel soapdish. As my father, a career mailman, chauffeured me in his two-door Toyota Tercel—AM radio only, the horror!—I’d slept, exhausted from staying up most of the night before, partying with my high school friends, saying goodbye to my sweet and shy girlfriend Adrian. They’d sprayed me with champagne, gotten me drunk, and generally made me very sad, thinking about leaving Buffalo. Before he left me standing at the curb, my father had hugged me, then handed me a few twenty dollar bills. Our awkward embrace—do I lean to the left or right, where do my arms go, should I kiss him on the cheek, or would that freak him out?—and then him driving away without looking back, made me understand that I was like him in some ways. I wasn’t very good at leave-taking, but I often did leave places, and people.
Sitting at my desk, I picked up a pen and whipped it across the room. It slapped against the wall and fell to the ground. Despite my best efforts, I began to cry, blubbering like a child.
I’d just spent the entire afternoon at the Freshman Olympics. Our dormitory floor had been paired up with a sister hall and we’d competed in a series of dorky events–an egg toss, a sack race, a trivia contest. It was an opportunity to get to know people and make friends since, after all, we were all in the same situation—away from home, in a new place, with new roommates, strangers everywhere. (You know how it is. If you’re reading this, you probably know what I mean. The lonely, mildly frightening existential freedom one feels upon leaving home for the first time.)
It had been a fine late-summer day. Allegheny itself was a picture-postcard campus, with lush old trees, wandering flagstone walkways, and staid brick buildings. The Olympics were held on a broad green field in front of the newest building on campus, the Henderson Student Center.
My only event was the soccer ball relay. The team consisted of four freshmen–two girls, me, and another guy–and we had a piece of, well, equipment: a softball stuffed into one foot of a pair of pantyhose. Relay members were to tie this limply hanging apparatus around their waist and swing their hips in order to get the softball arcing like a pendulum—between the legs—in order to strike a soccer ball and move it forward across the contest field, which was about forty feet in length.
Horrified before the race had even started, just the idea of swaying my hips back and forth in such a sexualized way in front of so many strangers made my face hot. To make it all much worse, I’d been chosen to serve as anchor leg.
My teammates were so bad that by the time it was my turn, all the other teams had finished. I had to hump across the field all by myself. The crowd hovered close in, strangers pointing and laughing. I gyrated my hips and tried not to look at anyone, but my uncoordinated body couldn’t get—what else can I call it?—my apparatus to swing with any force, and when the softball did hit the soccer ball, it went nowhere. It took at least a minute and countless thrusts to move it five feet. I wanted to give up, but I just couldn’t. Quitting is a cardinal sin to a Buffalonian. Better to suffer a terrible defeat than chicken out. Such losing contains a certain—and often drunken—dignity. Think Jim Kelly, Scott Norwood, wide right, home-run throwback, no goal.
As a joke, I nudged the ball forward with my foot but an official–a resident advisor wearing a black-and-white striped T-shirt–blew a whistle and moved it back to its original position. The crowd howled. As I tried to get the damn soccer ball rolling again, I considered various ways of ending the whole torturous affair. My stomach muscles were sore; I was drenched in sweat. Some began saying sarcastic things to me, trying to be funny. Come on swing those balls. Whatsa matter you a virgin or something?
And then I had a great idea, something absolutely stellar! Everyone would see me for my snappy sense of humor, my innate creativity; they’d shower me with applause!
I took a few steps back and scanned the wall of faces. They screamed and clapped, hooted and pointed. I raised my hand and stepped forward to the soccer ball—like a football player kicking off—and booted the ball as hard as I could.
The idea was to loft it high in the air and out of the circle of people. I imagined it arcing across the sky, against the blue, a small planet spinning away.
Instead, I’d kicked it hard, with little elevation. It screamed into a corner and smacked a young woman dead in the face.
* * *
Growing up, and especially after my parent’s divorce, I was an awkward, shy kid. I’d even venture a bit further and say I was a spoiled-brat-pain-in-the-ass mama’s boy. For a long time I literally believed that I had thin skin, and therefore I felt everything more. Generally, whenever someone demanded something from me, I’d get pissed—why don’t they leave me alone!—and then I’d go and hide. It usually worked, except at some point in my life I got tired of being passive, resentful, weepy, lazy, and absent all the time. I wanted to live, dammit! No J. Alfred-Prufrock frittering away for me—I would dare to eat that peach! So, just before I turned 15, I transferred from the public high school I’d been attending for a private school, an all-boys Jesuit school. I quickly re-envisioned who I was, moved the part in my feathered hair from the center to the side, grew out my bangs like a guy in a Duran Duran cover band would, and became a new person. Since I had no role model for such a persona at home—or in Cheektowaga, which is an Iroquois word that supposedly translates as “land of the crabapple trees”—I made friends with a few trendy and intelligent Buffalo boys and parroted their every move. I listened to the music they listened to (obscure bands like Echo and the Bunnymen, New Order, and The Clash), and read the books they loaned me (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, The Sun Also Rises, Catcher in the Rye, Henderson the Rain King). I learned the meaning of terms like nihilism and abstract expressionism, read the chapters Mark and Luke from the New Testament, which my teacher, a very tall, black-robed Jesuit from the Bronx, called the Infancy Narratives. I emerged from the bleak suburbs with a new sloppy-preppy wardrobe, and garnered a new way of speaking, with phrases like take a pill instead of fuck off, rizzard instead of loser, yes Father instead of yeah man, and punk rock instead of punked off. I entered the world of real, live, ambitious people—people with expectations, desires, issues of their own. In short, I aspired to morph from Cheektowaga loser kid to erudite, insightful Buffalo kid, the Big City of Western New York, Snow Basket of the Empire State, City of Good Neighbors.
Alas, I digress.
Gabbing with a friend, the young woman was totally blindsided by the leather projectile, had no time to react or cover up. Her head snapped back awkwardly and she crumpled to the ground. People ran to her, huddled over her. The crowd grew quiet. Then, from somewhere in the midst of the throng, a loud “Oooooooooohhh” rose and built in volume. I scurried over, almost tripping over the contraption between my legs, concerned for her cheek, her eye, her neck, her front teeth, but couldn’t get through. I was going to shout out “I’m sorry, so sorry,” but such an outpouring seemed exceedingly lame, so I said nothing. There was nothing I could do to make it better, no comfort I could give to her.
I yanked off my pantyhose-softball-belt and ran away, back to the dorm. My right knee, which had bursitis–I’d hoped to join the college cross country team, but hadn’t been able run for months–suddenly ached in its familiar way, on the outside of the joint and radiating up to my hip. Everyone would know me as the idiot who blasted a soccer ball into some girl’s face. I imagined graduating, walking up to receive my diploma and being hissed at by the crowd. The name on the fancy paper would read Idiot Pelé. Or maybe just Loser Poser from Cheektowaga.
Dave, my resident advisor, knocked gently on the door and asked to be let in. He pulled up a chair next to me and sat down, elbows on knees, hands softly clasped. He asked if I wanted to talk about what had just happened. I was too embarrassed to look him in the eye. What I did was so idiotic, so thoughtless, so clumsy. I wiped the tears off my cheeks, blew my nose, and looked at Dave. I noticed Dave’s hair, so many pretty brown ringlets. They made him seem even more empathetic. “I fucked up. They’ll never forget,” I said.
“Hey, once all the upperclassmen get back, nobody will remember. I promise,” he said. He also said that the girl I’d bashed–whose name was Buffy–had personally told him that she was all right. “She actually thought it was kind of funny, in a way,” he said. “Plus, she wants to meet you, to let you know she’s fine.”
I began bawling again. My recent happy life rushed back and I wondered if other freshman were having the same trouble, but I knew they weren’t. Rich and Tony, my roommates, seemed so giddy about the present while all I could think about was the past, like some sappy, nostalgic bozo.
I stared into an empty, dust-free corner. Unlike most freshman boy’s rooms, ours was clean and well-organized. I’d already put up a few posters. One, a life-size black-and-white picture of Humphrey Bogart, hung on the back of the entry door. Bogart, Quintessential Man, lingering in the shadows in a dark suit and hat, cigarette smoldering between his fingers. He seemed to be waiting for me to stop being such a pussy and get on with things. I stared at him, and he stared back until I had to look away.
The sound of people laughing and chatting filtered in though the open window on a warm breeze. Dave got up and glanced through the thin white curtain—another one of my mother’s purchases.
“She really wants to meet me? She’s really okay?”
Dave nodded. “Yup. She sure does.”
That night, my roommates teased me for hours. Tony, a mischievous Italian kid from Jamestown, suggested I go out for the soccer team. Rich, my other roommate, a farm kid from southern Pennsylvania, asked if he could meet Buffy too. “She’s kinda cute,” he said. “Well, she was kinda cute, before her nose got all mashed up against her face.”
* * *
Growing up as an only son to a mother and grandmother who worshipped me, life was easy. Household chores were not my domain; cleaning my room was not something I had to do. I’d drop my dirty clothes on the floor and a few days later they’d reappear, as if by magic, washed and folded smartly in my dresser. Every day, my Grandmother Sorrentino, whom we called Nonny—a woman who never learned to drive or balance a checkbook—came to our house and made the beds, did the laundry, prepared dinner. And to be sure, I cried too much and felt too much for a boy in Cheektowaga—boys in my hometown slapped each other upside the head and stole bicycles for shits and giggles (their phrase). They drove around in souped-up Dodges and Chryslers painted in gray primer, smoked voluminous baggies of acrid pot, listened to Van Halen’s “Running with the Devil” at deafening volume, laid rubber at every stop sign they encountered.
I’d been nurtured to become a man so unlike my father and grandfather, so unlike those Cheektowaga boys. Such men were stoic, except when angry. But not me. I’d been raised by my mother and grandmother to be soft—essentially, to feel and acknowledge and listen to their wifely plights. An empathetic man. Someone not like their husbands. At the Jesuit high school, I’d begun to thrive in that sensitivity, although the Freudian implications of listening quietly to my mother’s sadnesses sometimes made me feel, well, icky. But when I went away to college, everything changed. My sensitivities, which used to get me lots of dates, suddenly began working against me, and I needed the comfort that my mother and grandmother used to supply. And I needed the toughness that my father always tried to impart, with usually poor results.
Dave the RA was right; no one remembered the soccer ball incident. I met Buffy on a cool fall morning after my 8:00 AM calculus class. She was cute—a tiny woman with a thick brown bob and braces. (Months later, a friend of mine would serenade her with the Beatles’ “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” while standing on a table in the dining hall–a fraternity pledge requirement.) She had a sexy, hoarse voice and said she liked the jacket I had on—a heavy, black-and-white checkered wool shirt that used to be my grandfather’s. It didn’t fit him anymore and he’d given it to me. I wore it everywhere.
“Here, you can borrow it.” I took it off and held it out for her. She slid an arm into each sleeve and spun around. “Wow. Thanks,” she said.
“Don’t mention it.”
The rest of the semester, I’d spy that jacket from across campus, Buffy walking the quaint pathways and laughing with her friends, so alive, so happy to be there, and it would make me happy. For a while.
At frat parties held every weekend, I drank to overcome my lostness. Everyone was a stranger to me–they didn’t care where I came from, didn’t have any clue that, in high school, I was popular and well-like (or so I believed). I was just an odd freshman who rushed around campus, sprinting down the sidewalk to class, a boy always running late, dressed in over-sized cotton dress shirts buttoned to the collar, pants pegged tight around my ankles, sockless in black penny loafers with nickels stuck in their fronts.
Mostly, I hung out in our dorm room with Rich, who listened to John Denver and Seals and Krofts albums on a rickety turntable, and Tony, who was either scheming up practical jokes or doing homework. But on weekend nights, I’d traipse down the hill to various fraternity houses to drink and dance in tight crowds. There was nothing else to do. The same parties, the same cheap beer, the same mix tapes, the same drunk coeds dancing in a dingy room with the lights off and the furniture cleared out, shuffling lamely back and forth like Courtney Cox in that Bruce Springsteen video. I’d wander among the throng, scoping out girls—who always seemed to collect on a stairway, row after row of eager young faces–desperate to make contact with someone pretty and young, someone who’d listen to my plight and really know me.
One Saturday night I was talking to a freshman woman with dyed red hair and heavy eye makeup, one of a handful of cool-looking women on campus. We were in the basement at Alpha Delta Phi—known as the rich boy’s frat. Music thumped loudly and we drank from plastic cups, remarking on how lame Allegheny sometimes was. She lamented how few students there were–around 1,900. “My high school was bigger than that,” she said.
I told her I missed my friends, missed Buffalo. “I liked my life the way it was,” I said.
And while I did love my previous life, I’d often recall something I’d read in health class my senior year, a pull-quote set in a colored box in the book’s chapter on self-esteem. It said, “Risking failure also means risking success.” Safety wasn’t something I necessarily liked, either. If I had stayed in Buffalo–well, Cheektowaga–I’d have felt like a giant loser. And yet I spent so many bittersweet nights lying in that top bunk, listening to Haircut One Hundred and Tears For Fears on my Walkman, trying to relive the small moments of the past summer: Nights walking on the beaches of Lake Erie, kissing Adrian under the stars; my friend Bob and I comparing and contrasting Picasso and Jackson Pollock; guzzling booze at the Park Meadow Saloon during Friday night Happy Hour. Precious memories lifting me up and dragging me down.
The red-haired girl and I went to get more beer, waiting in a mass of people standing by the kegs, our plastic cups held out eagerly. When they got filled, we retired to a corner of the basement again. Time passed, slowly. We made several more trips for beer. She kept talking. I kept talking. I’m not sure if we were really listening to one another.
I tried to focus on her face, which grew progressively blurry as the night progressed. And then one moment she was there, right in front of me, and the next, I was staring at the ceiling. Rough boards, cross beams, pipes and wires. The red-haired girl’s face appeared again, floating in air. She looked both concerned and amused.
I’d fallen down somehow, was flat on my back.
I lay there for a few moments, going back and re-thinking the answer to the question of why I was there¾not just on the basement floor of an old fraternity house–but why I was in Pennsylvania, why I was on the stupid goddamn planet earth even, and then I recalled something my mother always used to say. Two things, actually.
The first was that she was wearing a coil when I was conceived.
For years I’d cluelessly pondered what that meant. What the hell is a coil? I used to think, picturing the spiral heating elements on the stove in our kitchen.
The second: “You weren’t a mistake, honey. You were a pleasant surprise.”
Lying on the floor, drunk as I was, I realized that my existence was a product of fragmentary chance, a haphazard accident. I was not planned for. There was no blueprint for my life.
I am all alone, I thought. No one’s coming to comfort me, to make it better. I was out in the world, and would have to forge my own path, day by day, hour by hour, and that realization exhausted me, all the toil and peril and mistakes and falling down and getting back up. I wanted to close my eyes and sink into a coma. Still flat on the floor, my bony ass throbbed.
I had no idea what my life was going to be–where I’d end up, finally, what profession I’d take–but I knew that if I didn’t search with a deep need, I just might disappear. Just a snap of the fingers and–poof!–I’d be gone. Part of me liked that idea; just going away. Perhaps fragmentary chance would come again and I’d get run over by a dump truck and wouldn’t have to deal with being in the world anymore.
There was no going back home. I couldn’t hop a Greyhound bus back to Buffalo and get a job driving trucks like Poppy, my grandfather, did as a young man, nor could I take the civil service exam and become a mailman like my dad. Ever since I was a very small child, my mother had always said: “I don’t care what you think you’re going do, you’re going to college and you will graduate.” I had to make something of myself. I’d been made special, made to scale the wall separating my working-class family so that I might enter the world of greater possibility. But no one in my family knew how to help. They hadn’t gone to college, didn’t know what it entailed. I, The Only Boy, savior of the family name, was going to do them proud and find greater success than they’d ever had. But how?
It was an opportunity they’d labored and sacrificed so much for, but in my youthful and self-centered confusion, it felt like a punishment. A sentence I didn’t know how to serve.
I sat up, slowly regained my feet. The red-haired girl moved closer. “Are you okay?” she said, her hand glancing across my cheek.
“Yes. Well, no. I think I’m a little drunk.” The basement floor had been painted a deep, glossy burgundy and I must have slipped. “It’s these damn loafers,” I shouted. “I got no traction.”