While terrorists didn’t scare me much, the thought of freshman year did. On a muggy Friday morning, with the nation still stunned, I packed up my things and prepared to write the next chapter of my life.
I had crammed all of my worldly possessions into the back end of our ‘88 Oldsmobile Custom Cruiser station wagon, baby blue with rusty fake wood paneling (as though wood could rust). A high school teacher of mine, Mr. Buenavista, once told my European History class that if we should ever see him behind the wheel of a vehicle with fake wood paneling, we could throw a brick at his head. I’m certain he was serious.
Our woody was (approximately) thirty feet long. Some people might call it a boat. There was an extra seat in the way back where I’d sit with my siblings when we were little, facing the car behind us, waving at the driver. If he was nice and waved back, we’d say we had made a friend.
“Do you have everything?” Mom asked me as I slammed the trunk door with a heavy metallic thud. “Did you pack your toothbrush?”
“What about the pile of clothes that was sitting on top the ironing board?”
“Are you sure?” She gave me that look you shoot a little kid to see if he has to go to the bathroom before a long trip. It was a look I’d seen ten thousand times.
“Mom, I’m all set. If I’m forgetting anything, I’ll find out once I get there and need it.”
She let out a pensive sigh and backed out of the driveway.
I said “so long” to the house my family would now inhabit without me. As the oldest of four, I was the first bird to leave the nest. That’s how it had always been — first to kindergarten, first to drive, now first to fly away. It was hard to never know what lay ahead. Sure my parents had told me stories about their college years, about dropping acid and protesting the war. But that was the 70s, this was the 00s. It had to be different now.
The school I was headed to, Northwestern University, was supposed to be one of the finest institutions in America — #10 in some rankings I saw in a magazine at the dentist’s office. When I’d tell adults I was going there, they’d say things like “Northwestern? Wow! Your parents must be proud,” which I’ll admit was nice to hear. The campus was also under an hour’s drive away, convenient if only for laundry purposes.
“Are you nervous?” Mom asked me.
“Not really,” I said. “Just anxious to get there I guess.”
I was sweating balls.
“Well I’m sure everyone else is in the same boat as you.”
I rolled my window down all the way. The a/c hadn’t worked in years and my skin felt like it was covered in cactus sand.
“Won’t it be nice being surrounded by all those other intellectuals?”
“I’m not an intellectual.”
“Of course you are.”
“How do you figure? It’s not like I watch Frasier or listen to NPR. I don’t even read the newspaper.”
“Yeah, but you read the whole encyclopedia when you were seven.”
“I don’t remember doing that.”
In my mind intellectual was just a fancy word for nerd, something I didn’t care to be. I’d never minded being smart, but I’d just as soon be cool. When I started kindergarten, I was still like everyone else. I colored birds and played tag and took naps after lunch.
But somewhere along the line, things changed. I was pulled out of class one day and told that I was different, that I was gifted. I was placed in gifted classes with other gifted students and made to do twice as much homework as the normal kids. Doing homework has never been cool.
Around noon we arrived in the town of Evanston, where the Northwestern campus sprawled beside Lake Michigan.
“What street am I looking for again?” Mom asked me.
“Is that it?” She narrowed her eyelids. “I can’t read what that says.”
“That says Sherman. Clearly, you need glasses.”
“I know I know.”
“How can you drive if you can’t even see?”
She just shrugged and kept going.
Emerson Lane was the next block down. A mustachioed police officer was waving people in and out of the dead end street. He leaned in and said, “You have 45 minutes to park and unload. Any longer than that and your vehicle will be towed.” Some people are poets and don’t even notice it.
“Towed?!” Mom said once we were out of his earshot.
I guess most intellectuals have well-off parents because my peers had all arrived in much nicer cars than ours. They were not, it turns out, in the same boat as me. I was sure I could sense their eyes behind the tinted windows of their luxury SUVs, gawking at our rusted wagon wondering what the hell I was doing there.
We found a vacant strip of curb and parked. I got out and looked up at my new home: Houlihan Hall, an ancient gray stone building cloaked in spotted ivy, a scholarly looking residence if there ever was one. I imagined students solving complex equations in white pencil on window panes.
Mom stayed with my stuff while I went off in search of a key.
“Hi! How are you?” the reasonably attractive Asian girl behind the table asked me. She was smiling so hard, it hurt my face to look at her.
“Is this where we get our dorm room keys?”
“Yes it is,” she said. “Can I please have your name?”
“It’s Lloyd, el el oh why dee.” Probably didn’t need to spell it.
She flipped through her papers to the Ls and scanned down the page.
I nodded and gave her a “yep,” although I wanted to start going by Luke. For some reason everyone had always called me Lucas and I’d never liked it. It made me think of that goofy 80s movie where Corey Haim is a twerp with glasses who tries to play football to impress some girl but just gets his ass kicked instead. Not really the image I was going for.
The girl crossed my name off her list and handed me a small manila envelope. Inside were three keys, which she pointed to one at a time: “Your mailbox, your building and your room. You’re in…” she inspected her clipboard… “405.”
I felt as though I’d just checked into a hotel.
Next thing I knew, I was lugging my desktop computer up four flights in a steamy stairwell, trying my best not to trip over the dangling cords.
“You’ll get some good exercise climbing these stairs every day,” Mom said, carrying my clothes on hangers.
“How is there not an elevator?” I wondered. “What if I was on crutches? You’d think for forty grand a year there might be some amenities.”
The door at the top of the stairwell was locked. Great. I tried to retrieve the keys from my shorts but the massive monitor in my arms made it impossible to maneuver.
“I’ll get them,” Mom offered, and reached into my pocket (jeez) to grab the keys herself. “Do you know which one it is?”
“No idea.” I hadn’t really been paying attention when the girl said what was what. It didn’t matter, though, because the door opened on its own and a huge man stepped out. I couldn’t tell if he was a student or someone’s dad, but he gasped when he saw us.
“Oops, excuse me.” His high-pitched voice betrayed his mature face. He kicked a stop beneath the door. “This must have accidentally closed.”
We entered the fourth floor hallway and found Room 405. On the door was a yellow duck with my name written on it, and a green fish below it that read Steven Hussle. How adorable.
I set my computer down and knocked. No answer. Mom handed me back the keys.
We stepped inside to discover that there wasn’t much room in my room. It was absurdly small. How could the housing department expect two grown boys to coexist in such a cramped space for nine months? There were surely some girls at NU with shoe closets that were bigger.
A pair of wooden desks took up most of the floor plan, bunk beds took up the rest. Tucked into the corner was a mini-fridge, and on it, a white dry erase board that read:
I’m at band practice but should be back by 3. Make yourself at home.
It appeared that this Steve character had already laid claim to the bottom bunk, as well as the desk by the window. Mom pointed this out but I didn’t care. I probably would have chosen the window desk if I’d had the choice, but I was fine with the top bunk. It would be fun to climb up there every night, like an ape going to sleep in a tree.
I perused my roommate’s things in an attempt to figure out what he was all about. There was a rack of CDs on his shelf, a third of which were Led Zeppelin. This was a good sign, as I, like any teenage male who wasn’t deaf, understood that Zeppelin was the greatest band of all time. Anyone who felt otherwise had poor musical tastebuds.
Steve’s desk also housed several books on mountain climbing, a Far Side calendar and a small Buddha statue. Based on these possessions, I presumed we’d get along alright. There wasn’t enough space here for us not to.
Once we’d hauled all my stuff up and were back out on the curb, Mom left me with some parting words of wisdom.
“Now remember Lucas, no one knows you here. You can be anyone you want to be.”
I felt my eyes roll. “Okay Mom.”
“I’m serious,” she said. “You have a blank slate.”
“I know I know.” A tabula rasa, as Mr. Buenavista might say.
“My first born…” she trailed off, about to cry.
“Ah jeez, Mom,” I said, attempting to preempt any melodrama. “Look, it’s already quarter to one.”
“So? What does that mean?”
“It means you should probably get going. I’m sure the tow truck’s on its way.”
“Ha ha, very funny.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I just can’t believe how fast the years go by. It feels like just yesterday I was taking you home from the hospital.”
“It’s felt like forever to me.”
“If you ever need us for anything or if you just want to talk, we’re only a phone call away.”
“Thanks. I know the number.”
Then my mother drove off and I waved goodbye to my self in the way back seat.