I am eighteen and on my way north, to begin my post secondary education. This is a dream for my parents and an exciting time for me. I was accepted into the university that I wanted to attend, despite my low ACT score in math, which proved that I graduated from high school with a third grade understanding of numbers.
Neither of my parents had been to a university, so this was new for all of us. I had a few suitcases, a box of small personal items, a hair dryer and a curling iron, my winter coat and boots, and bedding. We hauled everything up the stairs, and my father seemed out of breath when he reached the top. Mom made my bed. There were supposed to be three other roommates to share my address, but none were present on my arrival. We looked in one closet and noticed a band uniform. My parents breathed a huge sigh of relief at the sight of it, and felt confident that as a former band student, I would easily make friends with the owner of this sharp looking wool suit with brass buttons gleaming in the dark closet.
They hugged me goodbye. My mother was crying. From my window on the second floor, I watched my parents wave to me on the sidewalk, then walk out of sight. For the first time in my life, I was truly alone.
And I stayed that way for what seemed like an eternity while I unpacked my belongings in silence, listening to someone's stereo shouting out something good, something rock and roll and bluesy, down the hall.
What an awkward situation to suddenly be living in a dormitory and have a complete stranger insert a key into the knob and walk in. Having only ever shared a bedroom for one week with my brother, and never knowing what it was like to have a sister, I was suddenly faced with a new challenge and no past experience to strengthen my confidence. I felt completely unsure of myself. To make matters worse, after unlocking the door, Julia Roberts walked in.
Yes, I mean the movie star, Julia Roberts. More specifically, her exact duplicate in a nineteen year old form. When she walked through the threshold, she found me standing in the middle of the room, feeling like the smallest ant, feeling like a goofy nerd with short brown hair and glasses (why, why did I think having my hair cut before going off to college would make me look more sophisticated???) and Julia, whose real name was Heidi, smiled one of those smiles that only Julia Roberts can do, with that oversized mouth and perfect teeth...
And became my friend. I loved her from that awkward first moment when her long, blonde frosted hair made me self conscious of my dark, short curls. Who could not love Heidi? She was lively and excited and totally enthusiastic that I was her new roommate. This was a welcome that I hadn't expected. I listened and nodded my head in silence while she told me everything. Heidi loved to talk, and during her rambling, up and down discourse, my shy insecurity gradually began to melt. I learned that the two other "roomies" were her best friends from high school, and that there was once a fourth in their room, but this girl had partied too much last year and went home. So the three who were left were incredibly nervous about who would be assigned to 219 Woldt.
Those three girls were like a little family. I became their adopted sibling. Heather (another blonde, and so full of humor ---in a dry, sarcastic, witty way) was Heidi's best friend. They shared a bedroom on the opposite side of our tiny living room. Just before classes were to begin, Stacy moved into my side of the dorm. She was like me in many ways, practical, dark haired, serious about school, wise, and kind. She was the grounding energy to balance the emotional swells and rushing currents of teenage girls headed into adulthood.
They took me to all of the parties. They took me to the dance clubs. We studied together in our living room, but they did not go to the library with me. When I needed to remember who I was again, the college library was my sanctuary. I even got a job on the sixth floor, working in the Historical Library. Once I was scheduled to work at eight a.m. and was so hung over (perhaps still intoxicated?) that I slept with my head in the microfilm viewer and dry heaved in the trash can.
I probably almost died in 219 Woldt. The night before, someone had given me an enormous super sized cup full of some red substance called Slow Gin. I think they had mixed it with some kind of sweet soda pop. I lost my mind drinking that stuff. By four o'clock the next afternoon, I was still heaving, confident that soon my demise would release me from the spinning, brain shattering pain. Thankfully there was a picnic going on outside and Heidi made me go down and eat a hot dog. After eating, I felt like I would maybe live.
Heidi called me "little roomie." Little Roomie was a term of endearment, and made me feel loved. When I was a child I played on a softball team and was named "LJ," short for "Little Jenny." At five foot two and a half (maybe), I'm usually the shortest person in a room, unless there are children around. Once I was directed to move along in a straight line at my daughter's elementary school, and most recently I was nearly trampled by a crowd of munchkins after a theatrical production of The Wizard of Oz. Maybe my short stature brought out the nurturing mother in Heidi. Even though her best friend was Heather, she always showed me love and kindness. Long after I left college because of my father's first cancer battle, which began five months after I moved into that dorm room, it was Heidi who made an effort to reconnect.
That freshman year, I witnessed and was sometimes a part of the ongoing drama of 219 Woldt. It felt like living on the set of a soap opera. There was always some event to rage against, cry over, or laugh ourselves sick over. My roomies always included me in everything, keeping me up late and talking, talking, talking. Sometimes I felt like I needed to remember who I was without them. I found an ad for a used loft for my twin mattress, and that became another sanctuary.
The first time I caught a glimpse of my adult identity, I was in the loft. I had a paper to write for an English comp class. I made my bed and climbed back up the ladder with a mug filled with fifteen brand new, sharpened pencils and a spiral notebook. I looked at the instructor's teaching on the scope of the paper and felt discouraged. I didn't want to write on any of those topics. But just sitting up in the loft, on my soft quilt, looking at the cup of perfect new pencils, I experienced a mindful moment; I was suddenly far away from friends and family, fully aware of myself as an individual person with a soul and a purpose. I savored the process of writing, finding deep pleasure in the simple act of meshing the graphite pencil tip onto smooth lined paper, feeling the loveliness of thinking through a problem. Although I was at college to earn a teaching degree, in that moment I recognized myself as a writer and felt a kind of love that no one else can give, a kind of love that suddenly happens within a soul when you recognize that you have been created to simply enjoy life and add a bit of goodness to it.
It felt completely natural to write. I felt whole and good inside. Happiness started to flow into my being, along with contentment, security, and peace. While standing next to my movie star roomies, who were always, always good and kind to me, I still felt like I was somehow less in their limelight. But on the page, I could be fully myself without considering whether my hair was right or how dumb I looked in plastic frames. I didn't have a need for anything when I was writing. No need for a boyfriend to like me or take me to the movies, or kiss me at a party.
After Christmas break, I returned to my roomies and a new set of classes. I was scheduled to retake college algebra, which I dropped the first semester. After a few weeks of transitioning back into my dorm life, I discovered an inner confidence that was unfolding in the act of writing. The distracting drama of my roomies was always present, but I also had a new gift. I needed to protect that secret joy found in solitary writing.
Then, one weekend, I was called away. My father was diagnosed with small cell carnioma. A rapid growing cancer was spreading like wildfire in his lungs.
It was hard to keep going to classes. One day, I just lay on the floor of our dorm and cried and cried, like a baby who has no way to comfort herself. I cried and could not be consoled, even by Stacy. Finally, exhausted and empty, I stood up to face my life as it happened to arrive. In the following months, I stopped being the adopted younger sibling of my roomies, but an adult with a real problem that had nothing to do with teen drama, boys or parties. I went home for the summer, hugging Heidi with tears in my eyes, not knowing if I would return.