*Some names have been changed.
I felt miserable when I got back to IU for my sophomore year.
I had decided to stay in the dorm because I’d loved it so much as a freshman, but it felt like a completely different place now. This dorm to me, I realized, had been Megan, Kim, and Andy. And now they were gone.
And not just gone from the dorm—they were gone gone.
Kim cut off all contact with us the day she moved in to her sorority house, exiting my life more quickly and completely than anyone had before. Andy had to take a semester off because of an infection that nearly killed him. And Megan had moved off-campus and started dating her first boyfriend.
Luckily I was rooming with Anne, a friend from my freshman floor whose quirks were a wonderful match for mine. Whenever I dropped my calculator down the front of my shirt and pretended to give birth to it, she would ask how many centimeters I was dilated. When I stuffed my clothes inside my other clothes to make it look like a person, she said “Let’s name it Princess Sophia.” And when she tracked down the mystery dude who tapped on our door at exactly 11:30pm each night and proceeded to chase him around the dorm wearing crazy makeup, one rain boot, a fake penis, and my monkey underwear on her head, I was there to cheer her on and take pictures.
But Anne had an emotionally abusive boyfriend back at home who didn’t recognize everything that made her awesome. He didn’t allow her to socialize outside of our dorm room or talk to anyone besides me, and he punished her if she missed one of his calls (even if she’d been in the bathroom). She went home every weekend to be with him.
So while every other student in the world breathed a sigh of relief on Friday afternoons, I would just come back to our room after my last class feeling frantic about the empty hours that lay before me. My loneliness grew enormous with Anne gone. It filled our whole room, and it overflowed out our second-story windows. I would take a few tablets of Melatonin and pray that it could somehow keep me asleep until Monday morning.
Sometimes during these hours, I would wonder how long it would take for someone to find me if I died. I didn’t have any floormates this year, because our room was at the center of our X-shaped dorm. Just our door in the middle of an empty hallway, eerily secluded from the day-to-day sounds and sightings of the hundreds of other students who supposedly lived in the building.
If I died on a weekend, Anne would obviously find me on Sunday. But what if I didn’t have a roommate? The only other person who might notice I was gone was Megan. The time we spent together had decreased drastically this year, but she and I still met once a week for dinner at Panera. She might stop by if I missed a Panera night.
Something like this actually happened in a dorm at IU. A guy noticed an odor on his floor and filed a maintenance request. The maintenance man came but he couldn’t figure it out. He said the smell might be coming from the trees.
The odor worsened until they finally found the guy’s neighbor dead in his closet with a bucket of hydrogen sulfide. They said he’d been dead for seven to ten days.
Seven to ten days? Because of the odor? Shit. I felt that answered the question of why better than any note he could have left behind. I couldn’t blame him. Just thinking about that made me want to kill myself.
I wasn’t good at being alone. Maybe because I’d never really had to be. Claire lived two houses down from mine and had been my best friend since first grade. She came to my house after school most days for twelve years, even when all we did was nap. We used to plan our wardrobes to wear the same clothes to school on the same day. She had an official spot at my family’s dinner table.
I wasn’t used to being romantically alone either, as I had proudly been one of those girls in high school who always had a boyfriend. So when I had fantasized about coming to college, I’d always imagined myself dating many, many guys. I’d figured that college would be my chance to try it all—athletes, musicians, nerds, black guys, stoners, goths. Why not? I figured I would acquire a ton of hilarious dating stories, kiss more guys than I could count on my fingers, graduate single, spend my twenties being spontaneous, and then eventually marry around age thirty.
Now I felt so far removed from the girl who’d dreamt up that life. Now I would have given anything to have one loyal boyfriend to share a boring life with. Or to fast forward through this stage of life entirely, to a time when I had a husband and kids and never had to wake up on another Saturday morning all alone.
“I don’t get it,” Bevin said on the phone one night when I told her I didn’t know how to meet guys. “Aren’t there, like, fifteen thousand guys at your school?”
That was the thing. Technically there were guys everywhere. Swarms of them. I walked past hundreds of them every day. Every hour. If guys were dollar bills, my tuition would be covered.
At first I’d assumed that the mere statistics of it meant that romance could and would blossom anywhere—the cafeteria, the bus, a crowded stairwell on the way to class. But in reality, nobody seemed to talk to anybody else. Everyone was busy with phones and iPods. I never had class with the same person twice. I had no idea how to bridge the distance between seeing people and knowing people. How did other people do this? Most days I didn’t speak to anyone but Anne.
I felt desperate to talk to someone about the way I was feeling. But whenever I called Claire or Bevin, they were on their way to a party or some other thing that normal college kids do, making college life seem so fun and easy that I felt too pathetic to admit the depth of my sadness.
The only person I could imagine telling was Vanessa.
Vanessa was the young graduate student who taught my creative writing class. I was confused by my desire to confide in her, because we didn’t have any kind of special relationship. I couldn’t explain it, I just knew she was the one I wanted to tell. She was gentle and kind. And if she had chosen to be a writer, then I figured she must have some wisdom and understanding of life’s pain.
I e-mailed her and asked if I could meet with her after our next class to ask some questions about an assignment. She said yes.
After class she and I walked together from our classroom to a nearby lounge in the building. I was flushed and shaky, unsure of what exactly I was going to say to her, unsure of why.
I pulled my phone out of my bag to have something to fidget with as we entered the lounge. I glanced at the screen. Five missed calls, three messages.
Vanessa and I slid into the chairs of a table and I tossed my phone back into my bag.
She smiled, and asked me what I wanted to talk about.
My mind went back to my phone. Five calls and three messages? For someone who had no social life?
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Would you mind if I checked my Voicemail real quick? I have a weird feeling.”
“Of course,” she said, gesturing for me to go ahead.
Two of the messages were from my mom, who normally only called on Sundays, asking me to call her as soon as I could. The other was from Bethany, a friend from home I hadn’t spoken to in ages. Her voice in the message was cracked and sad. She asked, “Is there anything we can do for Claire?”
Vanessa glanced around the room as I called my mom three times in a row. She didn’t answer. I called Bethany.
“What does your message mean?” I asked Bethany when she picked up. “What happened?”
“Oh my God,” Bethany said. “I figured you already heard.”
“I’ve been in class all day. What happened?”
She paused. “I shouldn’t be the one-“
“Tell me. Please tell me now.”
She let out a breath. “Claire’s brother died.”
I thought it was only in movies that everyone wore black, so I wore turquoise. I could not have been more wrong.
It was like a crashing black ocean flooded the church that morning. Young men in black with shocked stone faces, young women dripping black tears onto their black blouses and skirts. My dad used to joke that there always seemed to be a trail of adoring girls who followed Claire’s brother everywhere he went. They were all still here. All dressed in black.
Brandon was everything everyone wanted to be in high school. Football player, volleyball captain, homecoming king. Over the years he had transformed in my eyes from neighborhood playmate to Claire’s cool older brother to a kind of high school royalty who I felt privileged to have a connection to, if only because of my friendship with his sister and the fact that we’d grown up two houses apart. He drove Claire and me to school that overlapping year when he was a senior and we were freshmen. And I always felt so lucky to be seen riding in with him, in all my undeserved freshman glory.
He’d been living in Seattle as a Marine when he died. He was twenty-two the night that car flipped, killing him and his three friends instantly.
Bevin and I had gotten in to town the night before the funeral. We’d whisked Claire away from her house full of relatives and taken her to Dairy Queen and then to a couch where we watched Grey’s Anatomy as we laid tangled up in each other, our limbs interchangeable, our faces sore from shock, our bodies tensing anytime a character in the show mentioned death. The room went silent when the episode ended. What was there to say in a moment such as this? How could we keep pretending this was normal, all of us home from college on a Wednesday night in early October? How many more ways were there to not talk about Brandon?
And then Bevin lifted Claire’s shirt, shaped her lips around her belly button, and blew. Claire squealed and laughed as loud smacking sounds reverberated off her stomach. Then I pressed my lips to her belly button and did the same thing. And then Bevin and I did it to each other. And none of us could stop laughing. We laughed so hard that tears streamed down our cheeks, we laughed so hard our stomachs ached, we laughed until we couldn’t breathe, we laughed until we peed. We never laughed as hard as we did the night before they buried Brandon.
Back at school, a thick layer of grief settled over my loneliness. Whenever I forgot Brandon long enough to make it to that moment between wakefulness and sleep, that’s when the memory of his death would jolt me awake again. That’s when I would lay in the dark trying to grasp how someone who had been so alive just weeks ago, someone who had lived his life in the same schools and on the same driveways I had, could now be gone from this world forever.
But with my grief also came a small relief. It was strangely comforting to have an understandable reason to be sad all the time. A reason I could explain to Anne and Megan as the reason I did not want to do anything but lay in my bed and cry. A legitimate, non-pathetic reason that I could pretend was the real reason.
So with my relief also came guilt. Because Brandon wasn’t the real reason. He was part of the reason, of course. But he was not the main reason even though I felt he should have been. The things I had planned to tell Vanessa until I got the news that day were still true. I was still overwhelmed by my own loneliness. And how dare I indulge in a feeling as petty as loneliness in the face of the hugeness of Claire’s family’s suffering?
I needed to escape my brain. I wanted to run as far away as possible from this Indiana dorm room and all the sadness and shame I had filled it with.
But how? It seemed like it was too late to transfer. And I didn’t want to delay my graduation by taking time off.
I was contemplating this urge to escape while browsing Facebook one night. I stumbled across the profile of a girl I’d met through APO last year. My eyes fixated on a particular thing she had written. Thanks to my I-House family for the best semester of my life. If any of you ever find yourselves in Indiana, I have a couch with your name on it!
Intrigued, I started to do some digging. I gathered clues from her wall posts, status updates, photographs, and Google to reveal what had accounted for such a happy semester. I solved the puzzle within minutes. She had studied abroad at the University of Wollongong. Wollongong was a small, scenic city on the coast of Australia. “I-House” was an endearing nickname for International House, a dorm for students who came there to study abroad from all over the world.
By the time I crawled into bed that night, I knew I was going there.
It turned out that IU had a Study Abroad office, which surprised me since I hadn’t heard anyone else in Indiana ever mention the idea of studying abroad. I went there the very next day. The walls were packed with hundreds of binders. One binder for each of the places around the globe that IU could ship me off to, each filled with its own potential for friendship, romance, and adventure. Each with its own possible recipe for happiness.
I told the student working there that I wanted to go to Australia. She showed me to the Australia section and pulled out a dozen binders for a dozen Australian universities. She stacked them on a table and I flipped through each of them, making thoughtful sounds, pretending to carefully weigh my options based on several important factors.
But I was only pretending. I already knew I was going to Wollongong and I already knew I was going to live in I-House. I already knew everything I needed to know: I would get to live in a dorm with interesting people from all over the world where everybody wanted to make new friends, nobody was from rural Indiana, nobody went home on the weekends, and people thought of each other as “family.” Oh, and it was on the beach.
People were surprised by my decision. Honestly, I was kind of surprised too. I had never really been one to try new things.
I had been on a college visit with my dad a few years ago at the type of school where all the students were ambitious.
“Who here is planning to study abroad?” our tour guide had asked.
I had been the only prospective student who hadn’t raised my hand. Because I had already anticipated becoming so acclimated to college life that I wouldn’t want to step outside my comfort zone.
But that was before I knew my comfort zone would become a major suckfest.
By Christmas break, all my paperwork was turned in. I had one ticket to fly to Australia in July and one to return five months later.