I was smiling, yes, but it was a rigor mortis smile. My jaw ached. The space between my eyebrows pinched.
"It's just overwhelming, all these people," I told them, sometimes adding, "And it's strange to be back at my college." And it was -- overwhelming and strange. In the way that revisiting the past and exhuming regret can be overwhelming and strange.
Twenty years ago, I was a freshman at Notre Dame of Maryland, a tiny women's college tucked into a tidy, tree-lined Baltimore neighborhood. When I first heard about BlogU, I hesitated. My blog is still an itty-bitty 4-month-old baby. And I, to be honest, get nervous in crowds, making me a much older, much larger baby. But when I found out that the conference would be held at my alma mater, I took it as a sign that the gods of cyberspace wanted me to attend. So, last weekend, I plucked my panties from whence they were bunched and overpacked a bag for Charm City.
My room for the weekend was a spartan dorm in the oldest building on campus. I praised Jesus and, appropriately, Mary, that my roommate and I had scored a private bathroom. It was bad enough being surrounded by knowledgeable, talented bloggers; crapping next to knowledgeable, talented bloggers would be totally out of the question. And besides, I'd already spent hundreds of hours of my college career becoming intimate with the public restrooms on campus. I had, in fact, cultivated an ugly, abusive relationship with all of the darkest, most unused stalls -- places where I could secretly pour out my anxiety along with my breakfast and lunch and dinner.
Within hours of my arrival at BlogU, it was obvious that the atmosphere was supportive, even celebratory. Introductions were made. The faculty mingled with the hoi-polloi. There was hugging. There were bags of candy. (If memory serves, I hugged a bag of candy.)
I was reliving Freshman Orientation, 1994. But beyond the introductions, the bonding, the junk food, and the bonding with junk food, the similarities ended.
I was nervous at BlogU. I was anxious. But it wasn't freshman year all over again.
Twenty years ago, my stomach cramped at the thought of juggling classes and an off-campus job and new friends and a meaningful (?) love life: What jean shorts would convey that I was smart and friendly, but also edgy and cool? Where could I strategically recline in the grass while drinking coffee and writing in my journal to best indicate that my soul was full of art? Who could get me into a Johns Hopkins frat party and would a spaghetti-strap camisole look hot or just slutty?
Ridiculous. When I write it all down, or type it all up, it sounds ridiculous. But when you're 18 and unsure, wearing the wrong jean shorts can feel like having social cancer.
So I gave myself a little makeover, because if you hate everything about yourself, why not become someone else? I lopped off my waist-length hair, opting for a scalp-hugging pixie cut. I traded in my crop tops for baggy overalls and combat boots. I went on a diet.
The pixie cut looked fantastic. The overalls and boots did not.
The diet, however, was utterly transformative.
What began as a "light lunch" of tuna salad, Coke, and potato chips, transformed into no lunch. What began as 30 minutes on the treadmill transformed into all-nighters secretly spent in my parents' garage, compulsively doing jumping jacks. What began as diet pills transformed into diuretics, laxatives, purging. What began as my freshman year in college transformed into a summer spent in a locked unit of the hospital.
While my classmates had been cramming for exams or staying up until the wee hours to dish over new loves and old hurts, I was skipping class to go for a run, binge on frozen yogurt, and puke in the cafeteria bathroom.
I could not be convinced that I had a real problem. Until I tore my esophagus.
So, what I remember most about my freshman year of college is my father's face. Not projects or parties, not the typical misadventures of the young, dumb, and newly free.
I remember his face that was the tortured mix of confusion and desperation people refer to as "anguished." As the doctors explained that I needed long-term, in-patient treatment, my dad's hands lay on his knees, empty, palms up, like he was waiting for me to take them in my own, to lead him out of the office and tell him, "No, they're wrong. Everything is alright. I'm okay." But I was not okay. And it would not be alright for years.
For the next few months, he couldn't stop asking, "Is it because of me?"
In the fall of my sophomore year, I returned to school, despite my doctor's concerns, and started a slow march toward recovery. By my senior year, I stopped filling every class notebook with calorie counts. I worked on reestablishing a normal relationship with the bathroom, one built on, um, digestion.
Twenty years and one kid later, I eat whatever I want (mostly Tostitos). I don't make it to the gym as often as I'd like (I don't go to the gym). And I don't take laxatives (I drink coffee). But, just the same, spending the weekend at Notre Dame dredged up the regret, which was surprisingly robust for a pile of bones.
There I was again: Among new people -- nervous, afraid, hopeful. I was walking the same halls, eating in the same cafeteria, hanging out in the same gym. I could barely breathe with the weight of those bones on my chest.
I wanted to tell everyone at the conference, "I went to school here! Let me show you around." But the words sometimes caught in my throat. What would I show them? My favorite elliptical machine? The most private bathroom on campus? The classroom where my professor confronted me, insisting I eat a granola bar he'd stashed in his briefcase? Because those are my memories. And that is my regret.
But I didn't want to make the same mistake twice. I have a son now. And I want him to know that it's okay to be scared, but that you can't shrink away -- literally or figuratively -- from everything that makes you fearful. I don't want to ever watch my child destroy himself. I don't want to wonder, "Is it because of me?"
As classes kicked off on the second day of the conference, I lamented that my roots were noticeably gray, yet my skin looked to be in its second puberty; that my post-nursing boobs were barely boobs at all; that I was the only person at the conference (perhaps in the United States) with a 6-year-old flip phone. I wanted to run laps around campus, to hide under a desk, to be someone else, but instead, I grabbed a to-go cup of coffee, clutching it in my hand like a talisman, and began . . . talking to strangers.
|Through coffee, all things are possible.|
Hellos in the hallway turned into long conversations over lunch. An exchange of business cards led to tipsy late-night confessionals. It was bittersweet -- realizing how college could have been.
So when the folks at BlogU dreamed up a retro prom for Saturday night's festivities, I decided to indulge myself, because when you're 38, frat parties are hard to come by. And I haven't entirely lost that desire to be someone else. And I look like shit in a tube dress.
|You think I look hot and you're feeling |
kind of weird about it, right?
I was hesitant at first. I wondered if everyone would point and laugh because I had donned a tuxedo t-shirt and an eyeliner 'stache. It had been 20 years since I'd worked as hard at looking aggressively ugly.
And, in fact, they did point and laugh. And laugh. And laugh. And laugh me right up to the front of the dance floor, where they crowned me king of retro prom.
It was ridiculous. It was what could have been. It was okay. And everything was alright.