@

eyes

In the backyard, a hammock stretched between two trees like a fishing net. It was just before our speech communications department’s welcome potluck with fruit-in-wiggly-Jell-O and foil-covered casseroles and jalapeño-cheddar burgers. Amy, the director, was sick. So, Christopher, the assistant director, had hosted it. Out by the hammock, he asked one of the new graduate students if she wanted to have a threesome with him and his fiancé. She walked away.

When it happened, I was looking through the porch’s screen. My girlfriend Lauren and I were ready to eat. The evening tinted darker despite flames licking out of the fire pit.

***

I found porn on my computer, Lauren texted.

I had checked the time on my phone as I made copies of rubrics for class. I wondered what the porn was and how I hadn’t deleted it. I didn’t use my laptop for the Internet, only Lauren’s which was always on. I always covered my tracks by clearing history, emptying cookies, and refreshing the cache. I never downloaded anything and never paid for anything. The laptop had pop-up software and virus detectors. It almost would have been easier to deny the porn if I could pass it off as randomly appearing. Without more information, I needed to be vague.

Do you know anything about this? Lauren texted.

What?! I texted back and then turned off my phone and shoved it in my pocket.

***

One of my students was advocating for emergency poles on campus. Her plan for installing poles in the line of sight all around campus made sense. Then she began to list off other colleges to support her argument. While our university was a public research school, the ones she used were historically women-only private institutions.

I’d had another female student attempt to turn in a persuasive topic calling all women to not walk alone at night. In office hours, I had asked her if our town was unsafe. And were only women at risk? I didn’t ask if all crime—want of money, want of flesh, want of power—was mostly done by men. The girl changed her topic to suggest every college student not walk alone.

During the emergency pole speech, I didn’t interrupt. I let her finish. The class applauded as they always did. I wrote on the notes section of her rubric: So, are men the real problem?

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January is a month for beginnings. This isn’t a new concept, nor is it one that I’ve ever particularly subscribed to: calendar dates are mostly arbitrary, rarely aligning with actual historical events and watershed moments. The president was inaugurated, again; the trees remained bare and scrawny; winter quarter at the university commenced. For me, though, two very new sensations appeared: my arms and legs began to shake uncontrollably, vibrating as if by some odd, latent tic; and I became convinced that I didn’t exist.

2.20.13.news.leadingvoiceslecture

Jeff Selingo’s new book, College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students (New Harvest, 2013), finds the editor at large for the Chronicle of Higher Education articulating the challenges to contemporary higher education. He also explores possible new directions for a future in which learning may well be unbundled from many of its traditional structures.

I interviewed Selingo and published a short version of our conversation at the Huffington Post under the title “When the Jobs of Tomorrow Don’t Exist Today: Jeff Selingo on College, Liberal Arts, and the Possible Future.” Here, I let the conversation expand to its full flowering, and then move at its close to issues of contemporary publishing.

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In the spring of 1989, I registered for a class called “Melville and Pynchon.” We were assigned two novels: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. The professor paired these books up, as far as I could tell, for their unreadability.

The 21st century kicked off with as auspicious a beginning as one might hope for, in the form of a first love inviting herself into my life with a pleasantly unexpected phone call. She was a fellow student of my creative writing program whom I’d been acquainted with since freshman year, wickedly smart and suddenly into me with an intensity I was helpless to resist. Despite this, though, we were still just a pair of dumb kids, straddling that margin of post-adolescence where our hormones organized themselves into ranks and assailed the ramparts of common sense. Inevitably, I fell for her hard, and when she broke up with me after an old boyfriend reentered the picture I hit bottom with a thud so loud it echoed for a long while afterward.

My sophomore year of college, I was a thin, small girl with a pierced lip and pixie-short hair and a mildly broken heart and it was because of this last item that I left myself make a mistake by the name of Lee. This was such a small moment in the great, growing swath of my life, this frozen semester of weeping over romantic comedies and thrashing angrily to loud music and getting drunk off Malibu coconut rum which I didn’t even like. Such a small moment. Over the course of the last decade, these few months I spent with Lee have barely registered. They have been a blip. He did not hurt me badly, nor did he teach me any great life lessons. He did not matter, hardly at all.

But I think about him often, and the day I first let him kiss me, because that was a mistake.

I was seventeen when a new millennium reset the world. I started it by drinking a bottle of cinnamon-flavored liquor at my own New Year’s Eve party and passing out in my room, sleeping right through the ball drop. In the morning, my mother woke me with the dregs of the bottle in a shot glass, the sickly sweet, spicy fumes like smelling salts under my nose. She told me to drink the shot or get grounded for being an asshole. I drank the shot and slept the entire first day of the year 2000.

 

I jump awake at 5 a.m., worried about the photos I can’t find, the ones of Ken, my brother. In my dream the photos were in a box on my desk in the office. In reality everything I have of him can fit in this box on my desk in the office. They’re not there. In one of them, I remember, he was dressed in drag.  On the back he wrote: Halloween 1996. Don’t worry, I don’t dress like this every day.  Not like when I was a kid.

What I imagine you’re thinking right now is, “Sure. This kind of thing happens to all of us. We’ve all made a porno, we’ve all watched it with our mothers, and we’ve all practically forgotten about it, because of how completely common and universal an experience it is.”

Right? That’s what you’re thinking? You guys?

Well, if that is not what you’re thinking, then I guess this one is for you–the minuscule fraction of the population that has yet to experience the joy of watching (on a giant screen, with your mom) your peers get naked and pretend to make sex.

Your new book is called Dream School. What’s it about?

It’s the sequel to my novel Girl, which was about a high school girl discovering the alternative music scene in the 1990s. Dream School is that same girl in college.

Frankinsane

By J.S. Breukelaar

Humor

It’s that time of year again. Student papers are in and there are marking meetings to attend. But it’s all a bit hard to take—again. Helmet for Hamlet. That one’s getting old. Opheloria for Ophelia. There’s a new one. Someone in the meeting wonders if it’s catching. I eye the door. It’s closed so the students can’t hear us laughing at them. (Not at, mind you; just, you know, toward.)

We teach what’s called a “core unit.”  You have to pass it before you can get your degree. For a psychoanalytic reading of Hamlet, a student cites Dr. Carl Hung. A Freudian slip, perchance?

The marking meetings are a ritual. Once a semester, we bond over bloopers.

Hamlet’s problem? He was shellfish.

Most of us are what’s called “casual academics.” As part of a cost-cutting initiative to reduce full-time staff yet still meet ever increasing enrollments, humanities departments such as ours rely on instructors-for-hire, but there is nothing casual about the fact that we publish, lecture, teach, grade and often counsel a vast body of diverse students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend university. Some, I’ve discovered, have never read a book. And not because of any language barrier. They’ve just never read a book.

To sea or not to sea. It’s all the same to them. What matters is getting that piece of paper that qualifies them as a teacher, translator, nurse or—God forbid—psychologist. We try and hammer home that a semi-literate school teacher will find him- or herself working as a glorified babysitter, and an ignorant translator will end up delivering skip bins, but it just doesn’t seem to compute.

Frankenstein created ‘new spices.’ Who knew? Some wag blurts out a weary zinger about a reanimated Victoria Beckham. It’s been two hours. The pile of papers seems to be getting bigger not smaller. Descartes, a student writes, was a jew list (dualist). The meeting erupts.

Perchance what’s rotten in the state of Denmark is that in spite of glossy government initiatives to make tertiary education available to all, most of these students sweep in from Skelltown High so unprepared for Frankenstein, philosophy, and $4 lattes that they’re set to fail before they begin.

Alas, poor scallop.

F’s and C-minuses. Coffee cups and water bottles and laptops. Plagiarism and office politics. You never know. Funding for summer schools, learning centers or literacy classes might just eliminate, or at least reduce, the rationale for these meetings. And then where would we find our fun?

Three hours later we have a winner: good old Victor Frankenstein, haunted by his double dangler.

Analyze that, Dr. Hung.

 

I first posted this on Thursday night. I apologize to everyone who read the first version, because with all the typos it looked like the ramblings of a drunk. The reality is someone edited the story without my consent. I’ve contacted the editors at TNB about the issue and I’m assured it will be handled properly.

In any case, this is the second part of a story I posted on June 15th. I intended to follow up much sooner, but unfortunately I had to take a little break from the Internet.

If you don’t feel like going back to it, I’ll give you the Hollywood pitch of the previous post: A college kid (me) meets the girl of his dreams,  but there’s a problem: She has a boyfriend already. So the natural question of part two is if the erstwhile lovers can overcome this obstacle, and if so, how3?

The last post ended when Sophia invited me to a fraternity party she was officially attending with her boyfriend, Jack. At the party, which was also a concert, Jack spent most of his time wandering around talking to his friends, while Sophia and me listened to the band together. At one point we wandered off the fraternity grounds and found an old playground across the street. We sat in a couple of old swings and looked at the sky. The stars were too bright, like someone had turned the power up too high, and neither of us said anything for a while. When I finally looked  Sophia again, she was staring into my eyes, leaning close to me, and I knew the moment called for me to kiss her.

But when I moved toward her, she pulled away. I remember this like it was yesterday.

“1 have to go,” she said.

“Why?”

“Jack’s waiting.”

“You mean wasted?”

Sophia stood up and glared at me.

“Don’t do that.”

I was angry with her but I tried to pretend like my comment was a joke.

“Don’t do what?”

After she walked away, I 4resolved not to see her again. I felt like an fool for being so drawn to a girl who couldn’t or wouldn’t return those feelings. I still spent time in the computer lab every day, but luckily the summer schedule changed and she didn’t come by anymore. But then one day, maybe two weeks later, she showed up in my ICQ chat list and wrote me soon after.

“I installed ICQ on the computer in my apartment!” she wrote. “We can talk on the Internet now. 1sn’t this cool?”

And pretty soon we were talking every day again, about everything and nothing. She told me about her family, about her classes, about a boyfriend in high school who once hit her after dropping a touchdown pass in the waning moments of a playoff game. I 5told her about my mother, how her bullying had affected my early relationships with girls, that I staggered through four years of high school without asking a single girl on a date. Or we just chatted about whatever was going on at that moment in the day. This was a dumb thing to do, obviously, because the only way she was ever going to see what we meant to each other was if I took it away from her. But I couldn’t bring myself to play games. I wanted to know what she was doing, what she was thinking, and I wanted her to know the same things about me.

I was also still learning to play the guitar.

You see, I’d never let go of this idea, the one I had back at the concert. If Sophia liked men who played guitar, why couldn’t I be one of them? And what could p9ossibly be more romantic than singing to the woman you loved, in front of the world, and declaring your love for her?

After working my way through a book about guitar chords, called CAGED, I started practicing a particular song—“Only You” by Yaz. I know it’s a sappy song. It’s embarrassing . But you have to consider my mental state at the time. I felt like I was living in a fairy tale. I felt like I had to prove my love to her, like a prince longing for a faraway princess. I just had no idea the fair maiden I was after was Rapunzel.

It wasn’t easy to work out how to play that song on the guitar, considering the synth-oriented sound of the original. I think I practiced in front of the mirror about 5000 times. I know for sure my fingers bled. But finally I decided I was good enough to make it through the whole thing without screwing it up too badly, and that’s when I wrote to Sophia on ICQ and invited her to join me for a drink at a bar called Ike’s.

I knew her boyfriend, Jackass, would be out of town that weekend, and I knew on a Saturday the bar would be packed. But that was the entire point, to make the scenes as dramatic as possible. My biggest fears was that Sophia would turn me down, but to my surprise she accepted readily. In fact I remember precisely what she wrote after we decided on a time for that Saturday night:

“This is gonna be a night to remember.”

After Sophia agreed to meet me (this was Thursday), I  drove to Ike’s and spoke to the bar manager. He was a surly bald fellow who listened to my story and looked at me Ike I didn’t have a Y chromosome in my body. But eventually I convinced him this would be a story he would tell for years afterwards, and he agreed to let me set up in a corner of the bar. He even arranged for a spotlight, and told me he’d turn down the other lights when I got ready to play.

On Friday I practiced until my fingers would no longer obey my commands. I played the song over and over and over until I was sure I could play it left-handed if it came to that. On Saturday Sophia wrote me on ICQ and confirmed the time we were to meet, which was 8 P.M.

I arrived about two hours early and spoke first with the bar manager. Then I had a few drinks. While I waited for Sophia to show up I struck up a conversation with some strangers and told them my story. They seemed to enjoy it and helped me watch the door. I kept watching along with them, first hoping she would arrive on time, then laughing to my new friends about how women never arrived on time for anything, and finally agonizing over if she would ever show up at all.

I’m sure you can guess what happened. That’s the whole point of telling this, right? By the time 9:00 rolled around, most everyone around me was watching the door for Sophia. The embarrassment was intense, severe, crippling. Here I was, terrified of getting up in front of a crowd of drunken strangers, ready to declare my love for a woman who was bound to another, and she never bothered to show up at all.

Turns out that Jack, ostensibly out of town, had actually staged an elaborate proposal for the girl of my dreams. While I waited in the bar for her, ready to play the guitar with bruised fingers, ready to sing to her, she was with Jack. Probably having sex with him. Isn’t that what people do after getting engaged?

So yeah. I’m not a fan of true love. I mean, it exists, I have firsthand knowledge that it does, but in the end I think it’s too rare to ever hope it might happen to you. When it does, chances are the timing is going to be off in some way or another. And they’re probably not even that happy. Did you ever notice how the person texting you, the one calling you, is never the one you wish were calling you?

It was a long time ago. I should probably get over it. I mean I am over it.

Yeah, I’m totally over it.

I met her in at a fraternity house before my senior year of college, which is surprising considering how much I disliked most Greeks.

But in this case it was summer, the university mostly a ghost town, and just about anyone left on campus was invited to a big fraternity party. The place was packed. Booze was everywhere. Ice chests packed with beer, kegs standing in lines like soldiers, more vodka and whiskey than an entire liquor store. And the food. Tables stacked with pizza boxes, chips, cookies, even several boxes of Twinkies. It was somewhere around ten o’clock and I’d already gorged myself on pizza, but since I was drunk I thought I was still hungry. The Twinkies were almost florescent under the warm lights in the dining room, so I unwrapped two of the little yellow cakes and smashed them together to make one big one. This seemed like a great idea at the time. But just as I opened my mouth to take the first giant bite, someone cleared her throat behind me.

I turned and saw a girl, miraculously gorgeous, and felt my face flush red. She was one of those blonde coeds so attractive that it was impossible to say anything witty to her. If you tried to approach someone like that you wouldn’t even be able to make your mouth move. And yet she was definitely standing there, seemingly materialized from nothing, watching as I prepared to inhale a ball of fake yellow cake. I waited for her to cut me to the quick. I winced at what she might say.

What she said was, “That’s a big Twinkie.”

And that’s how it started.

* * *

For the rest of the party, the two of us were inseparable. We took Jell-O shots together in the kitchen, played pool in the game room, and spent hours sitting on a sofa, just talking. I remember we turned all the lights off because of a huge saltwater fish tank that stood against the far wall. The tank was lit from inside and cast the entire room in a flickering blue light, almost ethereal, and which somehow added magic to our drunken conversations. Or so I believed at the time. By the time she was ready to leave, I felt like I’d known her for my entire life. Which I realize sounds trite and not very creatively expressed, but anyway that’s how it felt.

Her apartment was nearly two miles away, and mine a bit further, but neither of us were sober enough to drive. So we walked. After a few minutes of “accidentally” brushing our hands against each other’s, I finally laced my fingers between hers, and she let me. I didn’t feel awkward or nervous like I normally would in a situation like that, where I might be trying to gauge the feelings of someone else, wondering if she felt the same, if I was moving too fast or not fast enough. It was all completely natural. And when we finally arrived at her apartment, I didn’t hesitate to ask for her phone number. I assumed we’d be seeing a lot of each other in the coming days and weeks, so logistically this was the next step.

But her answer was, “I can’t, Thomas. I have a boyfriend.”

It probably seems profoundly egotistical to say so, but I couldn’t believe she was serious, boyfriend or not. We were in college. How close could they be? Of course it was lost on me at the time how I could apply the same logic to myself.

“Don’t you want to talk to me again?” I asked her.

“I do,” she answered. “Very much so.”

“Then let me call you.”

But she wouldn’t. When I asked why she’d spent the whole night talking to me, why she let me hold her hand, she blamed it on the alcohol.

“Sophia, come on. I’m sure you’ve been drunk a hundred times, but did you have a night like this?”

She didn’t answer. She just hugged me and told me it wasn’t meant to be and walked away, and I felt like I had just reached for and missed the most important opportunity of my life.

* * *

Today we take things Facebook and instant messaging for granted, but back then social networking was still theoretical because the Internet didn’t exist in its present form. However, installed on all the machines in the computer lab was a chat program called ICQ, and then, just as now, people used computers more for wasting time than doing actual work.

I was in the lab one day during the summer session, scrolling through the user names on ICQ instead of studying, when I saw one that said “SophiaP.” I’d never had a reason to ask Sophia for her last name, but I also couldn’t imagine there were many people on campus with that first name. So I sent an unsolicited message, and to my delight it turned out be her. She was sitting in the back corner of the computer lab and smiled when I stood up.

We chatted online for more than an hour. About movies we liked and songs we couldn’t live without and why both of us were taking classes in the summer instead of spending it at the beach like her boyfriend. She told me about another summer party the following weekend, where a new indie band called The Flaming Lips would be playing. Her boyfriend was driving into town for the concert, but she invited me to join as well, so I did.

I never saw the boyfriend at the party. He spent most of his time in the bar and I spent most of mine outside watching the band. I’d never heard of the Lips back then but their live show was already fantastic, lit beautifully in hues of blue. Sophia joined me for a while. We moved in rhythm to the music without making much eye contact, dancing together even if neither of us was willing to acknowledge it.

At one point she leaned over to me and said something like, “This music is so spacey, as if it came from another world” and it made me think of our first night together, talking on the sofa, bathed in that ethereal blue light from the fish tank. I was young and surely impressionable, but the whole situation seemed preordained to me, too perfect, almost as if someone had scripted it that way. It just didn’t seem real, how easy and natural it felt to be with her, and it was in that moment I decided I couldn’t give it all away, boyfriend or no boyfriend.

After all, I was a budding screenwriter who felt like he was living in one of his own stories. If someone was going to write us an ending, it might as well be me.

“You just like men who play guitar,” I replied to Sophia.

“I do. You should learn to play.”

And that’s when I had the first inkling of an idea, how I could push this story toward a happy ending. The only thing left was to find a way to make it happen.


Have you ever hated anybody? I mean, really, as an adult, HATED someone? And I don’t mean a politician or a celebrity, or whatever Paris Hilton is now. I mean a person you know and see on a regular basis. Because I’ve been angry with people—temporary hateful—but it took me a really long time to straight up hate a bitch, with conviction.

Hate is a lot of work. And I am emotionally lazy.

Most of the time, I can’t be bothered. But I hated this housemate I had in college. And I don’t think of her often, but when I do think of her, I still think she is the worst. I actively hate her. Still. Like, I would be okay with it if she got hit by a bus right now. I don’t want to identify her by name (in case a bus ever does hit her, Officer), so let’s just call her Fuckface.

Because fuck her. In the face.

Fuckface and my best friend leased the second story of a house near campus the summer after our Sophomore year. But Fuckface wasn’t able to move in until the Fall, and didn’t want to pay the summer rent (understandable, I guess). So she asked my friend to find someone to move in and pay rent for three months and then move out again (less understandable, I think).

I agreed to do it—mostly so that my friend wouldn’t get screwed on the rent. I packed and moved my shit twice that summer, in order to hold that room for Fuckface. (You’re welcome, Fuckface.)

Then she moved in. And I moved to the first floor. And she became a fuckface.

She started by being a secret bitch, for my eyes only. Subsequently, I would not invite her to join us for social-fun-times. I thought she hated me. (Stay home, Fuckface!)

Then when I wasn’t around, Fuckface would tell my friend/her roommate that I hurt her feelings by excluding her. My friend would say, “Oh, Darci, you should try to be nicer to [Fuckface].”  So I would be nicer. And Fuckface would be an even bigger bitch to me as soon as my friend left the room.

Finally, my friend caught Fuckface acting like Captain Asshole after I invited her to go to the movies with us. My friend stopped asking me to be nice. (Ya burnt, Fuckface!)

Yes, Fuckface was messy and inconsiderate and all the things I imagine we’ve all experienced to some degree with roommates, especially in our early 20s. But she was a special kind of asshole in that she was completely shameless about it. I’ve known people to commit bigger social crimes, but they at least have the decency to feel guilty. And the things that would upset her were ridiculous. She and I lived in separate apartments on two different floors and I would get calls like:

“Um, I can just tell that your TV is on. Could you keep it down?”

“Umm, I can hear you guys whispering. Maybe you could talk tomorrow?”

“Ummmm, I can hear your heart beating. Can you slow it down a notch? I’m trying to take a nap.”

I’m only slightly exaggerating. Fuckface expected us to stop cooking spaghetti because she didn’t like the way sauce looks when it simmers. But her sensitivity only applied to things the rest of us did. She felt free to make as much noise as she wanted, stink up the house with her weird pets, drink our beer, break our stuff and insult our guests.

And OH GOD, was she cheap. I mean, we were all broke, scraping by with shitty jobs. It’s college. I get it. But Fuckface (whose parents paid for her tuition and rent) was just obnoxiously cheap. No sharing. No hospitality. But also, no hesitation in accepting the generosity of others. She’d ask you for a favor, you’d help her out of a jam, and an hour later she’d make you give her a quarter before agreeing to split a can of Coke.

True story: For weeks, she asked every person who came over for an egg.

“Hey, umm… Do you have an egg? I have this brownie mix but it requires an egg and I don’t have an egg. And I don’t want to buy a whole dozen if I just need one egg. So I thought maybe you had an egg I could have. Oh, I mean, sure—of course you don’t have it with you. But do you have one at home? I mean, haha, right?! But also, you should go home and get an egg and bring it over and then we can make these brownies.”

I’m serious. That actually happened. FOR A MONTH.

I mean, I GUESS it makes sense to ask ME for an egg. It makes sense because I lived downstairs, and that is where I kept my groceries, which is what eggs are (unless you are a chicken). If I had an egg to give to Fuckface, and if I didn’t spend every waking moment wishing she would grow a foot out of her forehead that would kick her in her stupid face forever, then it seems like a reasonable request, and not much of an imposition for me to run downstairs and bring back an egg. ONE TIME, that question makes sense. Twelve times is excessive. To ask every day was rude and weird. And to ask our other friends (who did NOT live downstairs) to go home and bring back an egg was just insane. (You crazy, Fuckface!)

Even more kookoo-bananas was the fact that Fuckface had a part-time job at a grocery store, giving her both 24-hour access to eggs and the funds with which to buy eggs (sold by the half dozen for about 40 cents).  I pointed this out once and Fuckface said (while making the bitchiest face) that it wasn’t fair for her to have to pay for 5 extra eggs. (Life’s a bitch, Fuckface.)

If I ever have a time-traveling cat, I will make him take me back to the last time Fuckface asked me for an egg. I will bring her twelve dozen Grade A extra-larges and make her watch as I break every last one of those sons of bitches into the garbage can.

Then I will set that garbage can on fire.

Then I will bake those motherfucking brownies, Vegan-style with a banana-as-egg substitute. Then I will throw the brownies into a different garbage can and set that garbage can on fire.

Then my time-traveling cat will bring me back to the present and we will high-five each other until one of us passes out.

TIME CAT!

After a few months of living with Fuckface’s weird demands, her stomping around, and her general bitchfaceness, I stopped being polite and started getting real. I officially banned her from the first floor. Then a few weeks later, just because Fuckface extra-deserved it, my roommate double-banned her from the first floor.

Hating her may have started as a single player game, but it soon became a team sport. Floor One was off limits and Floor Two’s other occupant wasn’t exactly starting a Fuckface fan club. I’m reasonably sure that if our house had a third floor, Fuckface would not have been welcome there, either. (Not on my watch, Fuckface!)

But it didn’t make any difference to Fuckface. It didn’t bother her that she lived with three people who wanted to push her down the stairs. She had no shame, and she was impervious to hints, sarcastic remarks, stink-eyes and other passive-aggressive tortures. We knew she wouldn’t consider moving out. The rent was so cheap and the house was so close to campus—she’d never find anything better, or anyone else to live with her.

We were stuck with Fuckface, and her stinky pets, and her shitty moods and her, “You should pay more of the phone bill, because the phone sits closer to your room, so I have to walk farther to use it” negotiations. We had given up any hope of getting rid of her before graduation. But then a funny thing happened, and suddenly, we were saved.

We were saved by the band Portishead.

(I know! I was also surprised.)

My roommate came home one day and started playing the then-new Portishead album, Dummy. She put the song “Sour Times” on repeat, and then zoned out, doing her homework or whatever. It wasn’t blaring at full volume, but our house was old and the walls were thin, so it was easy for any noise to travel from one floor to the other.

Fuckface started to twitch, not because the music was too loud, but because she was tired of hearing that song. She asked her roommate to call and ask us to put on a different CD. Her roommate/my friend refused to tell someone what music to not listen to in the privacy of her own home, even if that someone wanted to listen to a dopey Portishead song over and over again, and suggested that Fuckface just turn on the TV or her own radio. But that did not seem to be a viable solution to Fuckface.

Instead, Fuckface threw a tantrum. She started throwing shit on the floor and at the walls, making enough of a racket to make me think something terrible was happening. I phoned upstairs to see if the terrible something was at least happening to her.

Me: “Hey, is everything okay up there?”
FF: “Ummmm… I’m just throwing a ball around my room to try to relieve some stress.”
Me: “You’re doing what?”
FF: “I’m throwing a ball.”
Me: “What KIND of ball?!”
FF: “I said I’m STRESSED. I’m tired of hearing that song your roommate keeps playing over and over.”
Me: “Yeah, me, too. So I put some headphones on. Problem solved. Were you just stomping around up there?”
FF: “I had to make myself feel better.”
Me: “Pictures were falling down off our walls, [Fuckface]. “
FF: “Sorrrr-yyyyyy. But I had to do something.”
Me: “Of course you did.”

I hung up the phone, livid, and determined to be done with this bullshit, once and for all. I gave my roommate a quick synopsis of my phone conversation with Fuckface and then very dramatically proclaimed,

“FOR AS LONG AS THAT BITCH LIVES IN THIS HOUSE, THAT SONG WILL BE PLAYING ON THAT STEREO. ALL DAY. ALL NIGHT. WHILE WE SLEEP. WHILE WE STUDY. 24 HOURS A DAY, SEVEN DAYS A WEEK, THAT SONG WILL PLAY IN THIS HOUSE FOR AS LONG AS SHE LIVES UPSTAIRS.”

It took a few days for Fuckface to tell us she was moving out, but we kept playing “Sour Times” for another week until she was actually gone. We would leave the house for hours—sometimes all night—with the CD on repeat and the doors locked. Once, we saw Fuckface leave for school so we turned the music off. But then she came back inside to get her jacket and we turned it right back on. She screamed, “I KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING!” from the other side of the door, but we just turned up the volume and laughed. When she moved, she assured us she had her own reasons for leaving, and that they were totally unrelated to the nonstop Portishead mindfuck coming from downstairs. (We believe you, Fuckface!)

I only saw her once after that, at a New Year’s Eve party. I was living in New York by then, but had come home for the holidays. When I moved away, I gave a bunch of furniture to my friend, Chris—the same friend who was throwing the party. Fuckface was there, and we managed to avoid one another for a while, but then I saw her sitting on my old sofa. I immediately ran to Chris and explained the rules: Fuckface had been banned from my apartment, and the banishment applied to the furniture of the apartment, even after the furniture left the apartment.

“You want me to tell her she can’t sit on the couch?”

I wanted him to tell her a lot of things, beginning with “You can’t sit on the couch,” and ending with facepunch. But before I could answer him, Fuckface stood up and left the party.

The DJ had finally gotten to my request for “Sour Times”.

“What the fuck happened to your hand?” I asked.

“Red Sox.”

“Yeah… I hear ya.”

***

In the spring of 1988, I was a sophomore at a small Catholic liberal arts college outside of Boston. Although I majored in Classics, my attentions were overwhelmingly devoted to rugby. I craved the social dimensions of the rugby lifestyle as much as the bone-crushing action of daily practice and weekend matches. And while our club were admittedly the poster boys for hooliganism (a decidedly un-Catholic brand of leisure), we nonetheless took our sport very seriously. We played fall and spring seasons, practicing nearly every day of the week and playing matches every weekend.

As one of the better teams in the Northeast, we competed against some of the best colleges in the country. This meant that while the rest of the school were filling up pubs and parties on Friday evenings, we were all laying low, saving our bodies for the games the next day and our livers for the post-game drink up with the other team.

My priorities were out of whack, I dedicated my time to battering my body from all sides, and I missed out on many traditional college experiences for the sake of my team. But man, I loved those years.

***

On your average American college campus, Saturday mornings are left to scholars and athletes. The former are jockeying for the prime study spots in the school library (wherever that is), and the latter are putting their pre-game mixes together, their game faces on, and if their nerves allow for it, addressing the most important meal of the day.

It was on a Saturday morning that spring that I bumped into Jim in front of the school cafeteria. Jim wore the school’s baseball uniform, with a shiny purple pitcher’s jacket fending off the spring chill. I wore purple and grey rugby sweats over my uniform, my gear bag slung over my shoulder. We nodded and trudged up the stairs together, two soldiers preparing for battle.

***

Jim and I had known each other for years, growing up in the same part of the city and attending the same classes in high school. He wasn’t one of my closest friends, but we hung out occasionally, always having great chats about baseball and music. Inevitably, the discussion would always land on The Cult and their 1985 classic album Love. I was a big Cult fan too, but nowhere nearly as intense as he was.

One day in high school, Jim plopped down next to me on the school bus. He looked concerned.

“Man…”

“What’s up?” I asked.

“I heard something kind of fucked up.”

“Yeah?”

“Ian?  Ian Astbury?”

“Yeah, what about him?”

“I heard he might be gay.”

“Really?  No shit?’

“Yeah.”

“Wow.”

“You know what? I don’t care. He fucking rules.”

This was significant to me, because we went to an all boy’s Catholic high school, where jocks were placed on pedestals and phrases like “fag” and “gay” were recklessly and spitefully used to demean anything perceived to be different or, God forbid, weak. It would have been socially risky to embrace an openly gay artist in that environment at that time.

But Jim didn’t care. He knew who he was and he knew what he liked, and if his favorite vocalist turned out to be gay (which Ian Astbury is not), so be it. Jim loved the music and that’s all that mattered.

Jim was bad ass.

***

As we met on the cafeteria steps that spring morning, I saw that Jim’s hand was freshly bandaged.

For the second time in as many weeks, Jim’s frustration with our professional baseball franchise had taken on a physical manifestation, with Jim pitting his pitching arm against an inanimate object. Predictably, the conflict was brief, painful, and humbling.

I had witnessed the first incident about a week before, when I dropped by to see if he was up for a party. I heard The Cult’s “(Here Comes the) Rain,” halfway down the hallway and found him standing next to his stereo, breathing heavily and seething. The floor was covered with a gaggle of items that clearly belonged on his dresser, but which had recently been swept to the floor.

“Sox lose again?”

“Yup.”

“Hey. You up for heading off campus?”

“Nope.”

I left him to search for acceptance.

On this recent occasion, as we picked up trays and entered the kitchen (Jim holding his tray in his good hand), Jim explained that on the evening before, it was a window pane that received the brunt of his ire. It had been 70 years since Boston had won the World Series and it appeared that 1988 was not going to be the season to end the drought.

As we sat across each other in the cafeteria, Jim’s primary concern was how he would explain the consequences of his choice to his coach.

Jim was expected to pitch that day.

I don’t recall if I was playing at home or away that day. In fact, I don’t remember who we played or whether we won or lost. I just remember sitting across from Jim and shaking my head as I commiserated with his predicament.

***

A few days later, they found Jim’s body.

He had taken his own life in our dormitory.

Having just seen Jim only a few days before, seemingly fine, apart from his concerns with the Red Sox, I was at a loss for explaining what had happened.

I entered the Kübler-Ross grief cycle when my roommate found me in the library.

“Joe…” he began breathlessly.

“What’s up?”

“It’s Jim… He’s dead. They found him in the dorm…”

Shock.

The kind of shock that blocks out all sound and sends the room spinning.

“No fucking way,” I protested.

Denial.

“Yeah man, I just heard. It’s him. Some of the guys are in [another friend’s] room now if you want more info.”

The other friend was one of our buddies from high school. There were fifteen of us who went on to this small college, and we were all relatively close.

On the way over to my friend’s room, I skipped the bargaining stage and dabbled in anger.

That selfish prick,” I thought, “what a gutless way to check out. Why didn’t he come talk to any of us?” I wondered.

Anger soon subsided and depression hit me like a rogue wave when I entered my buddy’s dorm room and walked into a circle of tear-stained faces. There was no testing stage at that point- just acceptance.

***

Jim was not the first suicide in college.

One year before, another guy from our high school, who was one year ahead of us, took his life while visiting his family for the weekend.

Mick was a year ahead of us in high school. Captain of the football team and coming from a long line of jocks, he was cocky, popular, and most beloved by the coaching staff and faculty.

Mick went on to the same college I eventually did, settling in as a smaller fish in a quite larger, co-ed pond. By the time my friends and I arrived on campus, Mick had toned down his swagger. He seemed more subdued and approachable. Certainly not morose. It felt more like he was simply feeling more comfortable in his own skin.

News of his suicide rocked my friends and me. Here was a kid who seemingly had it all- looks, popularity, grades- nothing but pure potential ahead of him. There were no signs- just the final sign off.

Mick’s funeral was packed. My friends and I sat in the back of the church, all breaking down as Mick’s older brother himself lost it, telling his brother’s coffin how much he had always enjoyed tossing around the football before Thanksgiving dinner.

It was an awakening- an unwanted and unforgettable lesson that you never know what someone is enduring at any given moment.

***

I was told that Jim left notes, though the contents were never fully revealed to me.

I know one was to his family, and another to his girlfriend, whom Jim had dated for some time and who was a classmate of ours. Most unsettling however, was the note that he left for Mick.

None of us could get our arms around that. To our knowledge, Jim had not been all that friendly with Mick. Certainly no more or less than any of us. Not to mention that Mick had been dead for nearly a year by the time Jim took his own life.

This detail unnerved me. It pushed farther away the possibility of understanding Jim’s mindset in those final days.

News of this note caused me to consider the possibility that Jim might have been mentally ill, which was not at all easy for me to stomach. Even to this day, the possibility sits like an unwelcome visitor in my mind. Yet one who has a right to be there.

I had always assumed that people who took their own lives were selfish and narcissistic, yet somehow clear minded and therefore responsible for their actions. Conveniently, this also made them responsible for my feelings.

As more sketchy revelations emerged, we all realized that we would never understand what had happened. Acceptance of this uncertainty was our closure.

***

On the afternoon of Jim’s death, I sat in the window of my first story dorm room, staring out at the plush green hill across from the building, doing my best to process what few feelings I could identify.

Then I saw a ghost.

From around the corner of the dorm came a kid with curly blond hair and the red baseball jacket of our high school. Same eyes, same nose- it was Jim.

It was either a bad dream or a horrible joke.

I looked closer as he walked up to me- it was Jim’s younger brother, still in high school. He was an eerie clone of his brother. Despair held his head down like a yoke. I wanted badly to leap out of the window and run over and hug him. Instead I sat there.

“Hey… I don’t know what to say… I’m so sorry about your brother…”

“Do you know why he did it?”

He was somewhere between depression and testing.

“I don’t. I have no idea. I’m sorry.”

He looked down at the ground and continued to walk, as if the answers to his questions had a physical location.

I swung my legs back into my room, put on Love and let the tears rain down my face.

***

I have many regrets from my college years. I should have been a Modern Languages major instead of Classics. I should have drank less and studied more. I should have visited home more on the weekends.

But one of my biggest regrets is that I don’t remember my final moments with Jim more clearly.

I don’t pretend to think there was anything I could have or should have noticed that morning- something that I might have used to prevent Jim’s death. It was clear, even at the time, that Jim’s fatal impulses were well-kept secrets held only by him.  Jim had a plan and he wasn’t going to let anyone try to talk him out of it.

I just wish I recalled more about that breakfast. I wish I could remember more vividly remember Jim talking about his hand. What inning it was when the game went south. Which player’s mistake had been so costly. Who they were even playing.

I wish I could remember what we talked about, period. I just remember sitting across from him in the middle of an empty school cafeteria, looking at his hand. That’s it.

Yet at times I wonder if that final meeting was actually perfect. Two friends sitting across from each other in a near-empty dining hall early on an overcast spring morning, each in our purple and gray uniforms- two soldiers in the same army, heading off to different battles. A private moment that was exquisite because it was so ordinary.

Two buddies having breakfast.

The most important meal of the day.