Monday, September 23, 2019

Welcome Week - The Real Story

My last post featured a short story inspired by my first night away at college. When I started writing it, my intention was to tell what actually happened, but as I typed away I realized I wasn't quite ready to share the true events of that night. So instead I wrote about what I wished had happened. This week, I'm still not ready to share, but for some reason, I feel compelled to do so.

This account of that night from 23 years ago is as accurate as my memory will allow. It certainly wasn't my ideal way to start my college life at Michigan State University, but it was certainly a lesson in poor decision-making, speaking up and healing shitty first impressions.

The following is a true story.

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Co-Ed Expectations

Party Time

I breathed in the humid night air of East Lansing as I walked across Grand River Ave. The feeling was a mix of guilt and relief; guilt because I truly didn't think I deserved this gift of going to away to college and relief because I finally felt like I could make up for the years of social stagnation that my 18-year-old self had deemed unacceptable. I was sick of being the odd one out and now I could just blend in with the rest of my peers... at least on a social level. No more, "I can't go," or "I'm not allowed." For the first time, I could actually make the decisions for myself.

Back in 1996, Welcome Week at Michigan State University was a full week. I have since learned that it has been reduced down to a weekend shortly after I was gone from campus, so I feel lucky that I was one of the last to enjoy an entire week of familiarizing myself with the various aspects of scary college life. That first night, I tagged along with Kavita and her friends to a few house parties off campus. I couldn't think of anyone better to usher me into the college party life than my best friend of 9 years. She was starting her sophomore year, so she could show me the ropes.

We were one of many large clumps of co-eds crossing over to the party streets; Charles, Division, Bailey among others. Flashes of various party scenarios appeared in my head, no doubt an amalgam of tv shows and movies I'd watched for the last 5 years. People making out everywhere, lampshades on heads, loud music and dancing, keg stands, rounds of shots being passed around. Basically, if it happened on My So-Called Life, Beverly Hills 90210 or any John Hughes teen movie, it was swirling around in my head as a trailer of what I was in for later that night.

The beer was gross, but Kavita had assured me that I would acquire a taste. "It won't be so bad after you have a buzz going," she said. After achieving said buzz, I was having a great time. While not every party trope I'd seen on screen was happening, I was relishing the freedom of it all... I didn't have to watch the time or figure out an excuse to tell my parents. The night was as young as I wanted it to be, and I loved every minute of this new normal.

Post Party Time

The group had splintered into a few pairs and triplets, but eventually we all made it back to Holmes Hall. Since I was already with her and her friends, I had decided to crash with Kavita that night instead of going to my own dorm room, which was all the way across campus. Besides, I barely knew my roommate yet, so spending my first night with a familiar face was the perfect way to start my college life.

It was decided that a bunch of us would go to the brother floor and hang out. All the rooms had the bareness of the just-moved-in quality; boxes half emptied, beds barely made, closets adorned with a few hanging garments. Holmes Hall was one of the dorms on the far east side of campus affectionately called, "The Projects" since it was one of many high-rise residential halls that lined a divided road, each of them looking exactly alike with their beige brick and sterile design. Kavita had been a bit horrified that I had been placed in the West Circle side of campus, with the old architecture and dorms that resembled more of a tudor style aesthetic. She insisted all the fun happened in The Projects.

Kavita and I were hanging out with a couple of her friends in their room. One of the friends, Carl, was a guy I'd heard quite a bit about during our long distance conversations the previous year. Kavita told me all about how complicated he was, but also how smart and sensitive he could be. I had built him up in my mind to be Troy Dyre from Reality Bites.... Ethan Hawke's portrayal of a smart but damaged guy who lets his potential slip away in order to avoid becoming a yuppie seemed the perfect imagination match for Kavita's stories.

Sitting on the dorm-issued couch next to Carl was sort of thrilling. He wasn't exactly warm or friendly, but again, my knowledge of his nature allowed me to excuse his iciness. In fact, I wasn't sure he knew I was even in the same room... that is until Kavita and the other guy left, and all of a sudden Carl reached his arm around my back and hoisted me on top of him. Completely surprised and unaware of how to do... well, anything, I let him sort of take the lead. My heart pounded... first at the surprise at what was happening, but also feeling a bit flattered that THE Carl wanted to make-out with me?! I couldn't really say for certain that he knew my name.

Uncharted Territory

Before the night began, I was hoping to kiss a guy. I feel no shame admitting that. A full make-out? Okay sure! Sex? No way. I knew better than to go straight to rated-R before getting comfortable in PG-13. Ever since I hit puberty, I was a boy crazy, rom-com loving, hit teen-show watching dork who longed for my over-romanticized first boyfriend, kiss, couch make-outs, etc. Much like the Nancy Reagan "Just Say No" campaign worked on me to avoid drugs, episodes of my favorite teen shows scared my unskilled libido into submission with pregnancy scares and HIV/AIDS tests. I was eager to start, but I was in no rush to enter the world of condoms, birth control or going to the free clinic for tests. 

We made it back to Carl's room and onto the top bunk which he had claimed. His roommate wasn't arriving for a couple of days, so we had all the privacy we needed. Laying beneath him, kissing in the dark, hearing his breathing and feeling his hands on me, it felt... okay. While my experience level was pretty much zero, I could tell Carl wasn't a master at the art of making out. His movements were urgent, sloppy and totally devoid of the romantic rhythm I had seen with Dylan McKay and Brenda Walsh. He wasn't aggressive or scary, just clumsy and clueless. As it was happening, I distinctly remember the thought, "I'm sure this will get better," crawling through my brain. 

At a certain point, my shirt was off and his attempt at unbuttoning my pants was met with a clear "no" from my mouth. "That's cool," he panted and returned his focus to everything above the equator. I felt very shy being topless with a guy, but given that the room was dark, I wasn't as self-conscious. It was exciting and scary at the same time. Carl never made me feel unsafe, mind you, but there were moments where I wondered if I was actually enjoying myself. These moments occurred when he'd be giving a lot of attention to my virgin nipples with the enthusiasm of a newborn baby. That's as detailed as I can get without wanting to melt into the floor. But yeah, let's just say that Carl had a fixation on two very specific parts of my body that night. 

I'm not sure how long the make-out lasted, it could have been 30 minutes or an hour. We were done after a knock on the door from Kavita wondering where I was. Carl hopped down from the top bunk and cracked the door open slightly. I heard some muffled talking and Kavita's signature giggling.

"Having fun in there?!?" she yelled.

"Uh, yeah!" I responded half embarrassed, half lying.

"Haha! Okay, I'm going to bed now Sheevs... you coming with me orrrr....?"

"Oh yeah, hang on! I'll be right there!"

My first make-out was done, I had decided, and it was a solid 5 out of 10. Eh, maybe 4. I re-dressed, jumped down from the bunk and asked Carl if I could use the bathroom. He nodded and yawned as he pulled his shirt back on. After peeing I looked at the mirror in horror to see purplish patches all over my neck and chest. ALL OVER. It was like a strangulation of hickeys. I opened the door and Carl stood there, bleary-eyed and waiting to use the bathroom himself. He took one look at me in the light and his eyes grew large.

"Oohhhh shit... I'm so sorry."

I fake laughed, said some semblance of a farewell and sped-walked to the other side of the building to Kavita's room, thankful to not see anyone else in the hallway. She was the one and only person to whom I could show my complete humiliation. Along with her roommates, they commiserated with me and called Carl an asshole. I didn't totally defend him, but I also kept saying, "I had no idea it was even happening!" The entire session was just a jumbled mess of kisses from my mouth down to my... well, Carl's favorite points of interest. His apparent "passion" lended itself to higher than average suction settings. 

Turtleneck in 90 Degrees

The morning after, Kavita's roommate let me borrow an ill-fitting white mock turtleneck that only covered half of the affected area. The combination of that shirt along with the expensive concealer my mother had ordered for me was how I masked my neck for the next couple of days. I could see the looks of consternation at this weird girl wearing a white turtleneck in peak August heat. The edge of the white collar eventually got stained with a ring of beige concealer as I sweated the days away. The worst part of my make-out aftermath happened under that marred shirt and was only known to me. Carl's prolonged fixation on my nips that night caused the skin to crack and bleed. In the days leading up to the start of classes, I'd feel sharp pains from the peeling skin rubbing against my bra. With every stab of nipple pain, my eyes would flush with tears and not just from my physical malady. I just wanted to have a fun make-out with a guy... but I ended up an ashamed idiot with a neck full of hickeys and bleeding nipples. College was supposed to be where I could start fresh as a confident young woman who was eager to explore her freedoms. Well, that first night certainly wasn't the ideal way to make that idealistic impression.

They All Knew

It wasn't until about a month into the semester when my new dorm friends were comfortable enough to address what they saw of me that first week. 

"Oh my god, it was so obvious! The more you tried to cover it up, the worst it looked!"

I would bury my face in my hands with a muffled, "I know!!"

"I felt so bad for you, but I didn't know you at all, so I couldn't really say anything!" said the girl in the next room over.

I finally explained what had happened and how it was basically a cautionary tale for any other sheltered girl looking for too much excitement the minute they leave the nest. 

"It could have been worse... believe me," another girl said with a serious expression.

"Oh, totally," I said, understanding her implication,"A lot worse, I know."

Contrary to what Kavita had said, my side of campus was just as fun as hers. It may have not been the mecca of secret kegs being snuck up to dorm rooms, but there were nights spent chatting with some incredible friends, who really became my saviors that first year. After they learned more about who I was as a person, that first impression of me from Welcome Week seemed to be an alien who had invaded my body. After some time, I could joke and laugh about that ugly turtleneck. While it took longer than my nips, I eventually healed from the shame and embarrassment of it all.  

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So, that's what really happened that first night away from college. This wasn't easy to share, but at the same time, I feel it sort of encompasses a lot of my identity struggles in a single night. When I find myself cringing at this story, it's not so much about the hickeys and nip abuse, but more about my inability to distinguish who I was and who I was supposed to be. 

Look, at age 18, most of us don't know who the hell we are yet, but for me, I rushed to be what I'd seen in others rather than figuring out who I really was. Back then, I was sure my parents rules were to blame for my stagnated experiences and well, that is true, but I had also built that up as what was "holding me back." From what exactly? Oh, all the stuff that parents are supposed to protect you from. "You'll understand when you're older," has never rang so loud and true in my ears. 

This is a story about succumbing to an urgency of identity and not following your gut. It has served as an example over and over in my life of what happens when you covet an experience or lifestyle that may not be what's best for you... or even something you'd enjoy. 

I'm happy to report that eventually I did experience my fairytale moments complete with movie-like magic and true love romance. They happened when I wasn't trying so hard to be someone I wasn't... they happened exactly when they were supposed to. Go figure.  




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