Bryn Mawr, PA
“I’m over caffeinated,” is what I say, before all else.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“I have to catch a train by 3:20,” I tell him with a grimace and a shrug. We were supposed to meet at one. It’s 1:30. He went to the wrong cafe.
He orders a sandwich, I order soup. We take over a table at the Milk Boy Cafe.
I’m trying to be as honest as possible without telling the truth. I spend the night before researching Philadelphia neighborhoods, in case he asks me where I live. My friends offer suggestions. Two for Rittenhouse Square. Two for Manayunk. Butch suggests a penthouse house on 13th and Walnut. Powerslut thinks I should live near, but not next, to Jim’s Cheesesteaks. I decide on Northern Liberties. There’s a nice dog park there, it’s by the river, an industrial, artsy neighborhood. I’d like to visit one day.
“I went to college here,” I tell him, though he already knows that. “I hated it.”
We talk about Dallas and Houston, New York and Brooklyn. We have so many places in common.
Philadelphia never comes up, so I never have to lie.
I don’t want to go to college, but I can’t stay home. Connecticut is depressing, an awkward state. I apply to the first five schools that send me mail and choose the one with the glossiest acceptance letter.
Freshman year, I room with a girl named Sunshine. We exchange letters the summer before we arrive. She’s from L.A. The only child of an aging hippie couple, she’s recently discovered that the gumdrops on her parent’s wedding cake were laced with LSD. She’s a little irked by that.
Second week, she sees I’m not happy and mistakes my attempts to shed my previous persona for suicidal behavior. Though the college counselor I’m forced to see chuckles softly and suggests that perhaps Sunshine is the one in need of counseling, I find none of this funny. Sunshine moves out of our dorm room and spends the rest of the year watching the spin cycle in the laundry room, hallucinating her head off on acid. I dive deeply into my books. This way, I don’t have to talk to anyone.
I hate it there. I hate the over achieving girls with eating disorders, the faux feminists, and four years lesbians. I hate the traditions, the sorority feel, the institutionalized teaching.
I’m hugging the pole on the rush hour subway, barelling towards Penn Station, sandwiched between the unethusiastic and the weary. The guy next to me reads the Philadelphia City Paper. I stretch to catch the headlines, to see if there’s some clue, some information I can quote to prove my Philadelphia-ness. As always, I am woefully unprepared for this date, should any questions arise.
I’m early for my train. I dodge commuters and tourist and head towards Seventh Avenue and a decent cup of coffee. Splattered everywhere are signs for Philadelphia.
Later, I’m sitting in a bathroom stall before boarding the train. An overwhelming sense of pronoia – the sneaking suspicion that the universe is conspiring on my behalf – washes over me. The girl in the next stall sobs loudly. I’m smiling like an idiot.
The summer between freshman and sophomore year starts out well. I visit my friend in the woods of Northern California. She teaches me to drive stick on her karmann ghia. We laugh and lay out at night, stargazing. The plan is to drive down the coast to Santa Cruz, where we’re both taking summer classes. But, this doesn’t happen. Her father, a motorcycle rider, collides with a sixteen wheeler. His helmet shatters; he fractures his skull. Emily is left to make the decision of whether or not to take him off life support.
I catch a bus and ride down to Santa Cruz alone.
I spend the first semester of sophomore year at Brandeis University. My creative writing teacher, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, loves me and my writing. My roommate, a freshman named Daffodil, a beautiful hot house flower of a girl, is raped in the hotel where we both work. Away from home for the first time, away from anything and anyone of comfort, she cries herself to sleep nearly every night.
When my writing teacher suggests that Bryn Mawr is a better place for me, I heed his advice. Armed with my writing portfolio and a game plan for an independent major, I board the bus back to Bryn Mawr.
The writing teacher there, an independently published novelist, whose muck of a book sells only at the Bryn Mawr bookstore, doesn’t feel as strongly about my talents. He finds me and my writing dull and boring, and tells me so. The few girls I had been friends with, turn their backs on me. And Emily, whose father died a few days after I left, she never speaks to me again.
“You should write this down,” he says. “That’s crazy.”
“But wait,” I say. “There’s more…”