I grew up in a lovely town in Northern California, one from which I was nonetheless desperate to escape. High school had not been kind to me, nor had junior high school, for that matter. College was going to be my big fresh start, the payoff for having suffered through years of social awkwardness – and social anxiety – that had been fostered as much by my oddness as a person as by my inability to easily – or even competently – make friends.
I don’t get how people make friends so easily. There’s some secret to it, some trick I never learned properly. I don’t know how to date either. I’m like a caged animal at parties. I have to keep myself on a short leash because I’m apt to blurt out weird things. I am often on the edge of maniacal laughter. Sometimes when I can’t maintain a façade of normal sociability anymore I’ll continue straight past the powder room, right to the coats, and just flee. I regularly insult people I care about, I suspect because I carry about a kind of suppressed rage and hostility that’s built up over decades of social failure and envy at others’ social success. Then I release the internal hounds upon the few people in whom I’ve actually found some measure of trust.
I apologize a lot.
The few people with whom I am intimate are special indeed. My closest friends possess enormous patience and perhaps a slight streak of masochism as well.
Here’s what’s truly disturbing: my inept and often outright unsociable personality is augmented by my extreme need for approval. I can think of many examples to illustrate this unfortunate combination of frankly unattractive traits, but few are as entertaining and amusing as the one that follows.
Let me take you approximately three decades back in time to my undergraduate experience. I didn’t exactly select my college with care. And, to be fair to myself, I didn’t have a whole lot of guidance. Anyway, my criteria were pretty basic:
- Would they actually let me in despite my mediocre grades?
- Could my dad’s budget handle the tuition?
- Was it very, very far away from my hometown?
- Could I take art and writing classes there?
- Was I likely to find someone there willing to have sex with me?
That was about it. I didn’t even know why I was going to college. It was just what you did after high school. But I reasoned that it would get me out of my house and my town and, I thought, propel me into the world of adulthood, or at least into a world of people other than the ones I’d been avoiding since kindergarten.
I was so clueless that, aside from one art school in nearby San Francisco (not far enough away!), it didn’t even occur to me that I might want to tour some schools I was interested in. Instead I would wait for the random visit from college representatives as they came through the Bay Area high school system to hawk their academic wares. Bard College, a tiny liberal arts school in New York’s Hudson Valley, was one of the earliest schools to pay a visit. They fit my criteria and they offered early admission. This was a no brainer. If I could convince them to let me in on the strength of my art and writing portfolio (and simply wave my report cards at them without allowing them time to absorb their contents), I’d have this problem squared away and I could then focus on my packing list.
By some miracle, Bard admitted me. The thick acceptance envelope I received contained many forms to complete, one of which was a dormitory questionnaire. I don’t know what I was thinking when I filled this out, but I suppose I saw this as my big opportunity to show how mind-blowingly unique and fascinating I was, and perhaps even find someone with whom I could bond.
My completed questionnaire should have taken me about five minutes. But I spent days composing it, laboring over its many facets of subject matter. It was more like an opus, an emotional, spiritual and intellectual topographic map of my internal landscape. This questionnaire was going to be a window into my soul. Surely others were sending in similar representations of themselves. So the admissions people could match us up properly. Isn’t this what admissions people did?
There, in two single-spaced pages, was everything I wanted the people at Bard to know about me.
“I’m a huge fan of popular culture,” I wrote. “But I’m also highly irreverent. If something is too popular, its fans too mindless, then I automatically reject it.”
“My favorite work of philosophy is Thus Spake Zarathustra,” I asserted with not a hint of self-consciousness, even reaching for the alternate title translation. “While I don’t always understand everything Nietzsche is saying, I certainly get the gist.”
My assertions were oddly confident considering what a quivering mass of insecurity and low self-esteem I was. “The Cars are an innovative band,” I opined. “But they’re kind of overproduced.”
My questionnaire would serve as a vivid portrait of Me: what I thought, my hopes, my fears, my loves, my hates, the totality of my life experience, such as it was, as a person of 18. It was hard to fit all that onto the single sheet (there had been no prompt to continue on the back — but why else would it have been left blank?), yet I’d managed.
Months later, when I arrived on campus, ready to begin my new life with my perfectly compatible new roommate, I discovered that I had been given a single room. This was apparently unheard of for freshmen or sophomores. I thought it strange, but I was mostly relieved. Now I could acclimate to the college experience without the added pressure of having to spend much of my time in a 12×16 foot room with a new person.
And yet, as I unpacked, I began to experience a growing unease. I had a moment of frightening clarity as I hung a shirt on a wire hanger. I was aware of the hive of activity going on just outside my door. Others were out there, getting to know each other, being social already, making friends. But here I was, in my quiet room, hanging up the clothes I’d limped my way through high school wearing. I’d dragged the same clothes, the same problems – the same me – all the way across the country, expecting some kind of miraculous change. Bard was supposed to be my social Lourdes. But it was just another place that was crawling with indifferent or hostile strangers.
I realized that living in a single room would be a mistake. Even standing there, right then, at that moment, was a bad decision. So I forced myself out the door, out to the hallway, out into the world of new people. I needed to cross this Rubicon now, early, immediately. I just hoped I wouldn’t totally fuck it up. The campus only had 600 people. It wasn’t like I had a huge margin of error.
By chance I wandered past a room where people were laughing. I poked my head in and met the woman who would become my first new friend at Bard. Within days, I’d offered to trade living arrangements with her roommate, who eagerly accepted my no-strings-attached offer of a coveted single room.
Life proceeded. I took art and writing classes. I found someone who was willing to have sex with me. I made some friends and hung out. I discovered alcohol’s utility as a social lubricant. In certain aspects I was flourishing. By normal collegiate measures I was still struggling socially, but compared to my high school experience I was Dale Carnegie.
Then one day I found myself sitting in the commons and sharing a table with someone who, as it turned out, worked in the admissions office. He asked me my name and when I said it his eyes lit up. “Oh, wow,” he said, stifling a laugh. “Oh, I remember you.”
And somehow I knew he wasn’t remembering my admissions essay. I just knew. He was remembering that dorm room questionnaire. My opus had made the rounds. It had probably been Xeroxed and passed around to other staff. People had brought it home to share with their spouses, to show their friends. As he looked at me knowingly I could feel my ears and neck catching fire.
It made sense now, my assignment to a single room. My questionnaire had betrayed what I truly was: a person unfit to cohabitate with others.
My mind could not process this level of retroactive humiliation. So instead I found a way, based on what he’d told me about his background, to denigrate him as a person and in the process demote him as a figure that could confer acceptance and approval. I managed to totally miss the possibility that his granting me a single room might have been an act of kindness.
“What a loser,” I thought to myself. “He came here 12 years ago as an undergrad, never graduated and now he’s still here, working in the admissions office?”
Later that day I casually asked my roommate, “When you filled out your dorm room questionnaire, what kinds of things did you say?”
“Oh, you know,” she said. “Things like did I smoke or was I a night owl or a neat freak. Why? What’d you say in yours?”