Squalor and Stairs

Soon to be immersed in the final editing of my fourth novel, The Rocky Orchard, I continue to work on a possible fifth, tentatively entitled The Reading.  Here is a recent snippet:

squalor

That school was trying to crush me.  Right from the very first day, that school wanted my soul.  My mom and I had checked the map the college had sent before we set out that morning.  We had marked the exact route and the exact place that the official literature had said was the closest place to park for my particular freshman dorm.  When we drove down the squalid city street, we pulled the car over to check the map again.  The juxtaposition of boarded-up buildings and heavily gated storefronts set against a backdrop of lush, towering elm trees fascinated me.  The way the sun glistened from a million shards of broken bottles that lay in clumps was beautiful enough that my road-trip woozy brain considered that they may have been placed intentionally.  But it did not seem like we could possibly be close to a university, let alone on the campus itself, as the map indicated.

It hadn’t registered that all of the freshmen were housed on a campus that stood separate from the rest of everything.  Meaning, along the edges of a monstrous quadrangle.  Meaning, a killingly long distance from the closest place that we could park.  My mom pulled up to the curb at the end of a long line of cars lit up with emergency flashers blinking in a dazzling display of orange.  Mom gave me a weak-but-brave-smile, and we opened the doors of her little red station wagon to a day that would go on record as one of the most wretchedly hot days I ever experienced.  Meltingly, inexcusably hot.  I thought this well before I learned that Wren Hall Room 545 was on the fourth floor, the fourth floor of a building that had no elevator.  And, there was a flight of stairs up to the “first” floor.  I was not even slightly charmed by the European sensibility, nor by the staircase that appeared to be genuine white marble, the edges of the steps rounded by the footfalls of generations.  I was incensed, indignant that such a thing as a fourth floor walk-up that was actually a fifth floor walk-up even existed, let alone that I was destined to spend a year planning my days around not returning to my dorm room more than absolutely necessary.

stairs

But first, my mom and I had to get the sundry possessions that filled the back of the station wagon up all of those stairs.

Thank heavens I was more or less of a minimalist.  I hadn’t brought all that much stuff.

Meaning, thanks heavens I was poor.

I said hi hi hi to all the kids and their family members who were lugging endless numbers of suitcases, quickly scanning the faces of my classmates for any hints of who they may be.  I noted as well the high-end stereo equipment and the boxes with the names of stores I had only read about in novels.  The families seemed impermeable to the heat. I surreptitiously checked their brows for beads of sweat.  I inhaled as they passed, trying to catch a whiff of rank, locker room worthy sweat.  My mother and I were dripping puddles well before we reached the top floor for the first time.

The stereo stuff, the store names, the careful way that the parents carried various lamps and desk accessories – it was all a clue.  But nothing so much as their shoes.  I looked at the shoes of my classmates’ parents as they made their way up and down the marble staircases with the lacquered ebony wood trim, and I knew for certain that I was the only person among this group who was at this school on scholarship.

At some point two young women came out of their first-floor room and introduced themselves as my resident advisors.  One was quite tall and willowy and the other relatively short and not-so-willowy;  they both had long, very blonde hair, oversized blue eyes, bland smiles, and eyebrows that were slightly raised in a perpetually expectant expression.  I disliked them immediately, and decided I wasn’t even going to bother to try to tell them apart.

My roommate Carrie popped out of her room at one point to introduce herself.  When my mom took a potty break, I popped into Carrie’s room to have a peak.  She had arrived before I did.  From the looks of it, Carrie seemed to have arrived weeks before, as her tiny bedroom already bore the look of having been lived in for a while.  She had covered her walls with posters of two things: big cats, as in lions and jaguars and cougars, and huge tomb rubbings of medieval knights.  The rest of the room was decorated in a mishmash of floral prints – lampshades, throw pillows, sheets and blankets all with different sizes and colors of flowers.  Carrie herself wore her clearly-wild hair parted with razor-like severity straight down the middle and braided in two tight braids.  She had an overbite and kind of bad acne and looked both bewildered and ironic all at once.  She wore a plaid cotton shirt, and a quick peek into her closet revealed a seemingly unlimited supply of plaid cotton shirts.  I liked her immediately.

dorm

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