Going to college is a free pass to reinvent yourself. You’re no longer bound by the same social scene that remembers your Garfield lunchbox or that horrible bowl cut you inflicted upon yourself. This is an entire campus full of people who don’t know what skeletons are in your closet; they don’t know a thing about you. This could be, I suppose, interpreted as a freeing situation, each moment full to the brim with potential.
I, on the other hand, found the entire idea terrifying. I visited a college in my junior year – Caltech, to visit my girlfriend, and I was immediately intimidated by the open-ended, open-scheduled, chaotic blur of it all. We meandered through a dormitory filled with broken furniture and forgotten takeout containers and made our way onto the free shuttle bus into Pasadena proper. A guy my age wandered onto the bus, brown corduroy jacket, porkpie hat, briefcase, and looked at the two of us holding hands over the top of his tiny ornamental sunglasses. He made a casual pass at my girlfriend and then implied something about narcotics before skipping off the bus to god knows where.
The entire experience unnerved me. This was college, the uncharted waters beyond the edges of my map and, quite clearly, here there were monsters.
I stepped into my own dorm room a year later, with enough canned goods to feed a small village, palms clammy as I cross the threshold. I spent most of those first months with friends from high school, staying in their dorm rooms, safe and sound. Each time I returned to my dorm there was some new terror, someone wanted to know my name, to smoke a cigarette, to get to know me. I spent this time studiously avoiding any parties, any social contact outside that of living in the same apartment as other people. I spent each night on the internet, emailing my friends from high school who had gone to other colleges or wishing that I had more homework to do. I read ravenously everything I could find, doing little more than grumbling a reply when anybody tried to ask what I was up to. Sometimes I would go to the library and get a private study room, just to sit in.
I mostly came back to my dorm room to make food for myself, and my roommates would comment on what I was cooking. I’d sweat bullets each time one asked me to go do something. They were built for this, and I wasn’t. I was no party animal, I was no social butterfly. I wasn’t cool or interesting, I wasn’t fun. I turned down invitations, but I knew eventually, I’d have to go. I’d have to “let my hair down.”
Finally, I had enough of this agonizing anticipation. I wanted to be done with it, rip that Band-Aid off. I’d swim with the sharks for a while and then maybe they’d be happy. Yes, terrifyingly charismatic guy from Chicago, I will go to your party tonight. Yes, I do want a bong hit (and yes, I will pretend like I have done this before). Yes, I do want to do a keg-stand. Yes, I will make crude comments to that girl. Yes, I would love to do this again tomorrow night. Yes, I will make out with you for a few hours. Yes, I do want to drive down to Mexico and get so painfully drunk that I’ll throw up four times my own body weight. Yes, this party has somehow turned into a three day event. Yes, I would like to shower with the two of you.
And then one day I woke up, realizing it had been a month since I’d seen anybody I knew from high school. My hair was bleached white and standing out like straw, the back of my hand still smudged with the stamp of a booze buffet in Nogales, a pair of women’s sunglasses perched inexplicably atop my head, and eight digits of what looked like a phone number were scrawled down my arm. I looked up into the mirror and laughed out loud at what looked back at me.
I was in the uncharted waters, off the edges of my map, and here there were monsters.