The Winter of My Discontent
For three months that year, I was stranded in rural Gainesville, Fla., as part of an arrangement with my dad: If he acquiesced to fund a semester abroad in London, I'd swallow one semester at the University of Florida.
Never mind that the deal would complicate my college years, which so far had been taking place at quiet, docile little Loyola University in New Orleans. Never mind that New Orleans was where I really felt at home, and that I was thriving there. My dad, a lifelong Floridian, was sick of paying state taxes and not having any kids in state colleges. Thus, if I craved London I had to suffer Gainesville. Reluctantly, I agreed to his terms. How bad could it be? UF had 38,000 students, nine times Loyola's student body, and I wouldn't know a soul. But so what? Solitude had its place. And it was just three months. Dad hoped I'd stay on to get my degree there, but that wasn't part of the deal. It'll be over before I know it, I figured.
I was wrong.
The rapid slide into hell began with the housemate situation. I secured a room in a small three-bedroom house just a half block from campus--that was lucky. But as part of the bargain I got Gay.
Gay owned the house, and lived there. Her voice was squeak and high like a toddler's and she wore a constant, enthusiastic grin. And she clearly found herself very, very sexy, transforming into a sashaying, eyelash-batting when a male passed anywhere near. The Flirt mixed with the Baby--it was a jarring combination. Gay and her dry, curly, caramel-colored hair must have been about 37 then. Why she settled down in a sea of college kids, I had no idea; after my first few weeks among the beauty queens of Gainesville, I felt old and ugly, and I was only 20.
Gay startled me by trotting around a lot in her panties and a T-shirt. This increased my already robust desire to just stay in my room, but Gay would knock on the door and dragoon me into joining her on the sun porch. She was just trying to be hospitable, I suppose, but that semester I just wanted to be treated like a boarder and left alone.
Compounding the nerve-jangling roomie situation was the hugely impersonal campus. For some reason, every student at UF seemed to be of the conformist, sorority-and-fraternity genre. And since I was neither blond nor perky, I was invisible to all. The classes were just as bad. My economics professor would deliver a lecture at 8 a.m., then just show a videotape of it to his subsequent classes. Got questions about the law of diminishing returns? Too damn bad.
On top of that, my system was starting to reject my major like a bad kidney. At Loyola, I'd majored in business, more or less by default. Dad, a psych major, put big pressure on his five kids to study business. Having no other convictions at the time, I just went along. During the semester in Gainesville, though, my business classes finally began to grate on me like bone on bone. And having to watch a videotape of a guy mumbling about tariff-rate quotas just sent me over the edge.
But switch majors? Unheard of--at least when it came to my dad. If you wanted to be anything other than a graduate of the School of Business, there was trouble--not just gnashing of teeth, but the threat of total fund removal. Instead, I just dropped several classes that semester and didn't get around to mentioning it to my father, then busy with his new, much younger, tube-top-wearing fiancée. The time no longer spent in Accounting 201 was spent penning 20-page letters to my friends. What I wrote about, I'm not sure--there was nothing happening in my life. But writing--not calculating amortization schedules--was what felt right.
But nothing really felt right that semester. And the more I sulked in my room, the more the isolation and dread played with my brain, transforming the social butterfly I'd been in West Palm and New Orleans into an anxiety-addled loser in Gainesville. The only thing that kept me from plunging into utter weirdo darkness was the sweet fact that home, and several of my old chums, were only four hours away. Every two weeks I hit the highway, sometimes not departing for the groaning monster that was Gainesville until 6 a.m. Monday, making it to my 10 o'clock class in the nick of time.
In the absence of meaningful activity, I took to closely observing Gay. I learned that she had two separate and distinct boyfriends, one who was a rolfer and one who worked construction. She also had numerous other gentlemen callers. Gay wouldn't bother to put on pants when they came over, and most of them walked straight back to her bedroom, where they'd stay five minutes, 10 tops. Gay didn't explain, and I didn't ask. I started fantasizing about the day the cops would come, and I could stand there and honestly say I didn't know a thing.
I was pretty sure Gay didn't have a job, as she was around a lot and came and went at odd hours. Mysteriously, she kept the house's third bedroom locked at all times. But since the stench of human decay wasn't wafting from that part of the house, I didn't let that worry me.
A few weeks into the semester, bored with watching Gay, I dragged myself to a UF pep rally in a misbegotten attempt to commune with the Stepford students. I'd never in my life been to a pep rally. I had no pep, at least in the school-spirit sense. And let's face it, who goes to a pep rally alone? But I did that day, sitting by myself and getting more and more nauseated as the cheerleaders bounced and the football players pumped their fists in the air. Beautiful people yelled and yipped their hearts out, and all I could think was, For what? Who cares about goddamned football? I just didn't get it. Bathed in that roaring swirl of marching bands and screamers, I felt more like a mental patient than ever. And suddenly, I couldn't take it. The madness was producing the sensation of bees in my head. I popped up out of my seat and left the building.
Around that time, I began taking an on-campus aerobics class. It was populated by exactly one other aerobicizer. After a few weeks, the instructor invited us both to her wedding. Knowing no men within a 300-mile radius, I had no date, but I decided to go anyway. I got dressed up and drove out there. I pulled up to the church, then chickened out and drove home. If only Paxil had been on the market in 1986.
Too embarrassed to go back to the aerobics class, I sought out a real gym, off-campus. I settled on a pitiful place that was women-only. Called simply Figure Salon, it had a sign out front that bore a feature-less cut-out of a buxom woman with long hair, not unlike the figure often seen on truckers' mud flaps.
Figure Salon was dumpy and small, but I threw myself into it headlong, going to aerobics every day without fail. The more I attended the classes, the more I got to know each instructor's routines. I started to feel like one of the dancers in Fame, wearing leg warmers and throwing my body all over the place, flashing an adrenaline-filled smile. I'd have gone to several classes a day if not for fear of my menstrual cycle drying up.
The aerobics fixation opened the door to a secondary obsession: nutrition. Suddenly, I was burying myself in Understanding Normal and Clinical Nutrition, a mammoth textbook left over from a previous semester. The tides of mania rolled in, and there I was, awash in a burning desire to learn all I could about monounsaturated fatty acids, what effect inosital had on cholesterol levels, and how to best feed the lymphocytes. I took to hanging out in organic-food markets and carefully studying their contents. When Gay wasn't around, I'd make big vats of vegetarian stew that was so nutritionally balanced it made me want to weep.
The next step was separating our perishables so that Gay's were on one side of the refrigerator and mine were on the other. Sometimes, I'd open up the door just to stare at my goods--skim milk, Ruskets Whole Wheat High Energy Cereal, brown eggs, organically grown oranges, and vegetables, vegetables, vegetables. At the same time, I'd sneer at Gay's Coke and margarine and whole milk, peering up at me like dirty mutts chained up in a side yard. One time I was in such rapture over my groceries, I swung open the door and took a picture of them.
Gay would eat Oreos after dinner. But since I'd read that one tablespoon of Blackstrap molasses contained all the vitamin B you could shake a stick at, I'd just take a swig of that for dessert. Or, if I was feeling really special, I'd peel a banana, slather it in blackstrap molasses, wrap the whole thing in tin foil, then heat it up.
My biggest pleasure that semester was doing laundry in a strip mall that had the area's best organic gourmet restaurant. I'd shove my quarters into the slots and then go next-door, luxuriating in spiced tofu and brown rice while I busily absorbed what my nutrition book had to say.
Oh, I attempted to pursue one or two other amusements in Gainesville. A few times, I went out to the Devil's Millhopper, a 120-foot deep, 500-foot wide sinkhole containing plant species rarely found in Florida. I'd wander around and marvel at the waterfalls and ferns, and it was fun until the massive bowl-shaped cavity began to remind me of my life.
I may have been insane in Gainesville, but I sure looked good. By mid-semester, all the crazed working out and the über-foods had sculpted my outsides into a thing of glory. Near the end of the semester, a woman at the gym approached me and gushed, "Will you tell me how to get my body to look like yours?"
Well, first you must strip your life of all human interaction, academic fulfillment, contentment, and overall meaning. Then replace with pumping jazzercise, whole grains and other obsessive-compulsivity. That, I realized much later, is what I should have told her. Instead, I just advised her to come to the gym every day for an hour. I'm surprised I was able to impart that much advice, as dorkified and awkward as I was from two months of virtual seclusion.
Soon after I got home from the gym that day, Gay decided it was time to let me into her inner sanctum. She knocked on my door, sing-songing her invitation: "Hey, Suuuuzzzz, do you ever wonder what it is I keep in the third bedroom, the one that's locked?"
She was talking my language. I followed her to the room of mystery and intrigue, expecting to see shriveled circus midgets or a cocaine factory beyond its particle-board door. She turned the lock and let me pass through the threshold, revealing instead tons of cheap and frilly lingerie. A big rack standing in the center of the room bore nightgowns, teddies, bustiers, merry widows, and garter belts. Nothing in the room looked like it cost more than $16. Was Gay a thief of cheap unmentionables?
"See, I put on lingerie shows at local bars!" she trilled. "I keep the door locked because former housemates have pilfered this stuff. I'm showing you all this tonight because I wanted to ask, hey, will be one of my models?"
My breath caught in my throat. Nausea struck quickly. Prance around with my butt hanging out so Gainesville's testosterone-charged population could paw at my parts then drop $12 on a polyester camisole stitched with hearts? A part of me was flattered, but it was a very miniscule part; the rest was horrified. I guess Gay thought my newly muscular legs would sell more fishnets--but couldn't she see I wasn't the shakin'-it type? Hadn't she been watching me get more shy, withdrawn, and nutrition-obsessed as the semester dragged on? Did she grasp that people like this do not make good lingerie models?
I politely declined and retreated to my hideout. After a long letter-writing session that night, I fell asleep. But hours later I woke with a start upon hearing what sounded like a pack of angry, thrashing Rottweilers under the house, smack dab below my room. The snarling and barking and growling was as loud as a roar. I sat up in bed listening, waiting for it to end. But the canine violence went on and on. I listened for Gay to come thumping through the house in her panties, shrieking "What's going on?! What's going on?!" But there was no other sound. Great, I thought. That's all I need at this point. Wild dogs biting through my floor.
After 20-odd minutes, the dogs loped away, their territorial rumblings fading into the distance. Sitting wide-eyed in the dark, I waited for neighbors to flock to the house asking if Gay and I were all right. But they didn't, and after a little while I managed to go back to sleep.
In the morning I expected Gay to be chock full of exclamations about our visit from the incubi, but she didn't say a word about it. When I inquired as to whether she'd heard the wild devil dogs under the house, she said only, "Huh?" looking at me at first quizzically, then with true concern.
"C'mon, let's smoke some pot," she offered, leaning over and pulling a big weed- and money-filled wooden box out from under her bed. "It'll relax you."
A-ha. So that's why so many guys filter in and out of her room so quickly. Gay's a reefer saleswoman. I declined, and wandered to the front window, looking for the neighbors who would surely be streaming over bearing coffee cakes and sympathy. But nobody was out there.
I went back in my room to wring my hands and fidget. Were there really dogs out there last night? Or was it my subconscious mind wailing and raging and commanding me to get the hell out of Gainesville before my spirit flutters out of my body? Oh, jeez. Oh, jeez. Oh, jeez.
With that, I called my dad. The fear of really going loopy gave me the balls to face him. I informed him that I was switching majors as soon as I got back to Loyola, which I would be in a few weeks. He got his freaky fiancée on the other phone and they tried to tag-team me, yelping about how business would get me so much farther in the world. But I held firm.
Surprisingly, after about 45 minutes, Dad and Loretta backed down, agreeing to continue footing the bill even if I switched my major to print journalism. If I'd only known that it would be that easy. Oh sure, when I got off the phone I was hyperventilating, my breathing all heavy from the bout. But I'd done it--I'd stood up to the guy who'd made me spend three months in solitary confinement. I'd be back in New Orleans within a month, and I'd be learning how to write for a living. A chill went through me.
I put the nutrition book aside and began to pack.
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