We flew first class to Seattle so we could get the cello on board without a fight for overhead space. So imagine the come down when my son walked into the dorm room at cello camp. “Oh,” he said. “A dorm room is like a one-star hotel.”
I thought to myself: Who am I? Am I a person who flies first class, or am I a person who shares a bathroom with ten strangers?
There are cello lessons all day and we run around Seattle Pacific University with me marveling at the dahlias (are they perennials here?) and my son doing too-risky parkour (“Mom. I think my penis broke.”)
My son tells me I have to sleep in the top bunk because he doesn’t want to fall out. I climb up there and remember the kid down the hall who rolled out my freshman year, so I sleep on the floor.
Am I a person who has a garden that covers an acre? Am I a person who has no bed?
I can’t sleep. I’m obsessed with the research about how stable people can shape their past into a cohesive story. Successful people do not think of themselves as disjointed or as experiencing life like a schizophrenic. People who can give back to the world are people who can see themselves as a consistent person making rational choices at the time.
This is why I can’t sleep. I am making my story over and over and each hour it seems more bipolar. My past choices feel inconsistent and irrational. I tell myself I need to get a grip. At least get off the floor.
In the morning we move furniture. “Let’s get the top bunk onto the floor,” I tell him.
“Mom. You can’t rearrange the room!”
“Yes you can. That’s what college dorm furniture is made for. Everyone rearranges it.”
I move the desks. The book shelves. I put his bed by the window. He thinks stuff won’t fit in my plan. I worry that he isn’t good at moving furniture in his head. Visual thinking is a sign of intelligence. What if my roommate is an idiot?
Or maybe he’s just really employable because being a visual thinker is also a sign that you’ll get fired from every job.
You know how if you get put back in the same familiar situation you act in the same familiar way? I’m reverting.
Like, I stole a chair out of the lounge and put it in our room. My new furniture arrangement had space for it.
“Mom, that’s stealing.”
“The chairs are there for people to use,” I tell him.
I am ruining him. I am making his high SAT score irrelevant by adding my compromised college morals. So I tell him we have to practice before 8pm to be good hallway citizens. Which is a joke, since the kids who suck at their instruments practice the latest and the loudest and way past 8, but the point here is morality, not truth. There is a difference.
While he’s asleep I also look for a cup for our room. I tell myself that I will put it back in the kitchen when we leave. I read that anorexia is a genetic condition, and MRIs show the anorexic’s brain does not have enough swelling from the pain of deprivation. I wonder if the kleptomaniac’s brain is similar, but in the opposite direction. Maybe the kleptomaniac’s brain has extreme swelling from the feeling of deprivation?
Am I raising a son with the strong self-discipline of a cellist? Am I training my kids to be thieves?
The bulimic’s thinking is not the anorexic’s thinking. For one thing, the bulimic is not a perfectionist like the anorexic, which is why I am fine writing anorexic, which is a common word, even though the proper word is anorectic. The bulimic is more the pragmatist. You can get a runner’s high from running or from throwing up. Which is easier? You think it would be throwing up. Until you are in a mental ward. Because I can tell you that no one goes to a mental ward for running. Well, the anorexics think they do, but really they go to the mental ward for not eating and then running to lose a few more calories they didn’t eat.
The next morning, it is difficult for me to go to the cafeteria. The aroma of bread products and ice cream greet you at the door, the all-you-can-eat format still scares me, and Fine Young Cannibals playing in the background completes the flashback.
The cafeteria is full of young musicians. My son is the king of the cafeteria, looking for boys to sit with – even if he doesn’t know them. Then he remembers I hate people and he says, “Mom, today we can sit alone and tomorrow with other people. Okay?” I want to tell him he doesn’t have to take care of me, but I don’t. I’ll tell him next time. This time I don’t want to sit with people.
Am I someone who can fit in with other people? Am I someone who is mired in inappropriate thoughts that isolate me?
I look for something to eat for breakfast and I see a section of protein-rich food like chicken and turkey and hummus. I think that college food got better while I was gone. Then I noticed that the other group of kids sharing the cafeteria with us is ballet dancers. They are tall, blond, gorgeous, stately, and their food intake is being regulated. Then I notice everything: The girl who comes out of the bathroom with red cheeks. The girl who sneaks a cinnamon roll on the way out. The girl who is too big to be a dancer but still wears her tights to breakfast like the others.
There are only four male dancers in a roomful of girls. I should launch startup camp for high schoolers and have it at the same time as ballet camp. It would be the perfect blend of quirky, genius boys and hot, graceful girls. I would have the most popular startup camp ever. I need to stop thinking in terms of Internet-only businesses. What about cafeteria mingling of undersexed teenaged boys? Now that’s a problem market with a clear need for a solution.
Am I a serial entrepreneur with countless successes in my wake? Am I an eating-disorder queen still obsessed with calorie counts?
But this saves me from my flashback and startup fantasies: The conveyor belt. Where the dirty dishes go. I see piles of dirty dishes and I get calm. Because I was the dishwasher at my college. I did it with my best friend—two years washing dishes together three nights a week. We talked the whole time. We made a system where we’d let everything pile up and then blast through it in a half hour. Which means we got paid to eat dinner and talk. I have never loved a job like I loved that one.
The best memories I have in college are of the warm soapy water and great conversations in the small quiet room at the end of the conveyor belt. I didn’t learn much in college. I never took a writing class. I never figured out why people date if they’re not going to marry. But I learned about work. Any job is a great job if you do it with a friend.
I’ve had amazing jobs at high levels where I felt alone and it was not nearly as nice a memory as I have of washing dishes. I am at a stage of my life where I have to make decisions about what is most important about work for me. And it’s having friends. The experience of working with friends is so powerful that it can even calm me down in a roomful of purging ballerinas.
I am still that girl who wants a friend, and a job, and a place that feels safe. That’s my story.