It was April and I was broke. Returning to college next fall was looking less and less like a possibility. As a 20-year-old freshman finishing up his very first semester, the thought of moving back to a crappy tenement on the seacoast, schlepping pancakes at some diner, and reacquainting myself with my dick-happy ex-girlfriend, (she seemed happy about everyone’s dick but mine), generated even darker thoughts than I was usually prone. Then one afternoon, after a clumsy session of hacky sack on the quad with some guys I occasionally bought weed from, I bumped into the Resident Assistant of my dorm. We didn’t usually speak to each other, let alone hang out—after all, he was a gestapo-in-training—but the air was warm, the day languid and pretty, and I was feeling generous. We got to talking, and when I told him I didn’t know what I was going to do about my finances next semester, he smiled.
“Ever think about becoming an R.A.?”
I laughed. “Are you serious?”
“Dude, it’s easy. You just fill out an application, demonstrate you can make decisions or whatever, and the job is yours.”
I looked out over the quad and sighed. Students walked about, casual yet ebullient—the boys in shorts and backwards caps, the girls in even less. The past semester had been the greatest social awakening of my life—everything I did, or had done to me, was defined by the quick, the easy and the sensual—and there was no other place I wanted to be.
“What about everyone thinking you’re a cop and shit? Doesn’t that suck?”
“Eh. It has its moments,” he said. “But the free room and board is so sweet.”
I blinked. “Wait. What?”
By design, a Resident Assistant, (or “R.A.”), is generally an older, responsible student who is depended upon to manage and oversee a dorm of 20 or so vibrating, hyper-curious, sex-crazed 18-year-olds living without rules, parents, or boundaries for the first time in their lives. And when critical information needs disseminating, rules need modeling, and homemade posters stating where the next LGBT meeting is need hanging, the R.A. is the one willfully in charge of such duties. But the R.A. was also the guy who’d take names while breaking up boozy parties on a Tuesday if you were too loud, get you to your bed if he found you slumped over and vomiting on yourself because you thought it’d be cool to do 11 Jaeger shots for dinner, or try and bust you if he found a towel tucked under your door, claiming you were smoking pot, which was true 99% of the time—the other 1% of the time you did it just to mess with him. But I was lucky; my R.A. and I never crossed paths like that. I managed to dodge trouble, though I had my hand in making most of it.
Yet as I stood there considering my options, I realized this was the only one I had: So I’ll make a couple of posters. Big deal. Granted, I had to get hired first. And that worried me.
When I mentioned this to my R.A. he just laughed. “Come on, man. You can probably B.S. anyone. You did me.”
I asked what he meant by that, and this made him laugh louder.
* * *
After I applied, Residential Life invited me to a group interview. The day consisted of being observed by people with clipboards in order to see how the candidates functioned in group dynamics to ferret out those who were passive, who crumbled under peer pressure, or who simply couldn’t make a decision. In fact, before I attended, my R.A. repeated his advice: “Show them you can take charge. Be a total uber-dick.”
So I basically went in and blasted everyone for their stupid ideas, regardless of whether I actually kind of liked them or not. When we were put in smaller groups and told that we were on a deserted island, we had to demonstrate we could think fast and come up with practical solutions. This one particularly chipper girl from Connecticut with blonde dreadlocks and a “Bread Not Bombs” t-shirt began by saying “Well, we should build a windmill for power, and then we could all share the electricity.”
I looked at the girl and then the rest of the group. “Wait, actually hold on for a sec. Where would you get your supplies?”
“Well, we could use driftwood and…”
“You mean that salt-damaged stuff dry enough to start a bonfire? And who here knows how to actually build a windmill from scratch? Does anyone know a windmill’s measurements and dimensions? Where would you get the tools, because they did say this was a DESERTED island, right? You just gonna up and make a couple of hammers? Out of what? Sand? How about starting with finding some shelter so you don’t get hypothermia and die your first night there?”
In less than a week I received a letter stating I had the job.
* * *
At the end of August, all the new R.A.’s met for 10 days of training. We vigorously performed extensive role-plays of typical student-crisis scenarios, sang corny songs in the name of team building, and did this weird thing called “Birdy Perch,” where you were assigned a partner and when one of the senior Residential Life people screamed “Birdy Perch” you had to run and find your partner and sit on top of his knee; it was totally humiliating.
A few days before classes started, I found out I was to be in charge of something called a “Mini-House.” Ostensibly, the Mini-Houses were standard two floor capes converted to ad-hoc dorms. Each house, (there were about six of them), held around 8 or 9 students, and were each named after one the counties of New Hampshire. Mine was named Coos House. I liked that the place was small, charming, and not a typical Soviet-Bloc style of brutalism associated with the other, much larger dorms found on campus. Another new R.A., Lisa, was given a floor in one of these cement monstrosities and during training I spent much of my free time with her.
Lisa was everything I wasn’t. Wholesome, clean, a staunch vegetarian, fierce social advocate, and hailing from a good, undivorced family, she was as beguiling as she was sexy. Those two weeks were made bearable by the time I spent getting to know her. Thankfully for me, her memory was a little bit fuzzy as we had actually met before; during the first day of training she asked if that loud, obnoxious guy “Patrick,” who shot down everyone’s ideas about how to survive on a deserted island, got the job too.
“That guy? No way, right?”
We were inseparable but very much platonic until the last few days of training when, after sharing a peanut butter and honey sandwich in her dorm room, she jumped me. And that was that. When Lisa invited me to bike the 20 miles to Mt. Monadock with her and camp out beneath that splendid mountain’s shade, I couldn’t say no. Even though I’d never biked that far before, the weather was perfect and I was absolutely stupefied by this woman. We set up the tent in the dark. Later, we made love with the full moon sifting its powdered light through the roof and making our bodies seem as if they were covered in flour. When my ex-girlfriend surprised me with a phone call the next day, I spent so much of my time talking about Lisa that it took almost a minute to notice my ex had hung up.
* * *
Move-in day on campus was typical, the talk loud and the students smile-ready. Copious vans and station wagons popped open in the dorm cul-de-sacs where tan underclassmen and their anxious parents tromped suitcases and lamps up flights of stairs; they passed dented cardboard boxes and cases of ramen noodles as if fortifying a levee. The R.A.s were all there to welcome back returning students and to reassure the new ones. We looked eager. We seemed prepared. Our bulletin boards were crisp with new schedules, and the common areas were vacuumed and free of clutter. The day held its brightness and the overall buzz was palpable.
So too was the buzz in the Mini-Houses, but this was mainly due to the keg party rocking out in Stafford House.
My boss, a Residential Director who was soft and white as bread, found me hanging out in front of Lisa’s dorm talking to old friends. My friends laughed at my nametag.
“Chris, there you are.”
I turned. “Hey, Suzanne, I was just…”
“That’s okay. Looks like we got a teensy-weensy problem over in Stafford. You’re on duty, right.”
I inwardly groaned. “Yep.”
“Well then, you ready for your first assignment?”
When we arrived at Stafford I couldn’t believe I actually had to take an active role in the process of ending a party; it looked pretty fun and I knew a couple of the guys who were kicked back on the porch, swilling beer.
“Hey Chris, what’s going on,” one of them asked.
I couldn’t really look him in the eye. “Ah, nothing. You just have to get out of here. Like, soon. Or now, actually.”
Suzanne and I cleared the place out and wrote up the names of the residents of Stafford House for hosting an illegal party. They would have to have their case brought before the Disciplinary Committee. I was embarrassed that others at the party knew me. It had never really dawned on me that I might actually be called upon to, you know, do my job.
So began my semester. But busting up parties didn’t happen often, and since I was pretty charming, I was able to convince Suzanne and others on my staff that I was fully engaged in the process and committed to making a difference. Sure, I was more than happy to point out where the upcoming Israeli-Palestinian debate was happening, or to tap the budget for an impromptu delivery of Chinese food for my residents; that stuff didn’t require any balls. But put me in the position to shut down a good time? If I could find a way not to, not only would I gladly ignore the whole thing, but I’d probably find a way to participate later.
Lisa (and her dorm room) remained my refuge. I spent most of my nights sleeping over with her, getting to know her residents on a first name basis. Lisa was the hallmark of responsibility, and took her job very seriously. I grew more interested in vegetarianism and feminism. I became more concerned about the environment and all the destructive practices spearheaded by big business. I even started reading Mother Jones. None of these political concepts was available to me in my own home when I was growing up; I felt invigorated and changed by so many new ideas.
Back in my own dorm, the only thing I changed was the name of our place from Coos House to Chaos House with the help of a red Sharpie; the old sign was hammered above the doorway and I thought the new name was fitting.
I liked to take mushrooms with a couple of the guys who lived below me and then play Nintendo. We’d drink Miller Genuine Draft and when the mushrooms started to wear off, we’d eat another stem or cap and say things like “It’s lift-off again!” Once, we got so high that I found it reasonable to piss into a plastic cup and throw it all over a poster hanging in a freshman’s room. He was out for the night and we didn’t like him anyway. The poster was of the band The Cure and its lead singer, Robert Smith, looked like he was crying and I said as much in half-gasps as I shaving creamed the kid’s desk and bureau. We all then howled and ran out of the room, stumbling down the stairs to get more beer. When the boy returned the next day, I told him he left his room unlocked and that that type of behavior was irresponsible.
“Probably was done by some assholes who don’t live here,” I reassured him. I opened the cleaning closet and scrounged up some rags and Windex. He looked broken as I handed him the cleaning supplies. I then left to meet some friends for lunch and didn’t think about the whole business again.
A student from Brooklyn mentioned one night over vodka shots in his dorm that he loved cocaine. I told him I loved it too. He laughed and took a small folded piece of paper from out of his jean’s front pocket and handed me a silver key and told me to do a few bumps. We passed the key back and forth for about three hours and he finally mentioned that he was planning on bringing a large amount of coke back to campus with him next weekend. He wanted to know if I could help him get rid of it.
“Sure,” I said. “A couple of guys over in Chaos would certainly buy some.” When we ran out of the coke, we looked very closely on the floor for any that we might have dropped, licking from our fingers all the small, white crumbs we found. I left his room at 5:30 in the morning and walked over to a nearby playground. I sat on a swing and closed my eyes. I let the early light cup my face like two, warm hands.
* * *
Next week, one of my residents said sure, he’d love a little “yay-oh.” He was a brother in one of the school’s biggest fraternities. I had him up in my room late on a Thursday afternoon and was weighing out a gram on a scale he stole from the science building when there was a knock at my door.
We both looked at each other and froze.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“Chris, it’s Lisa. Can I come in? The door seems locked.”
“Just a minute.” I put the drugs behind my desk and told my resident to pretend he was crying, to put his face in his hands and try and appear anguished. We were both completely stoned because when you weigh coke out, you tend to also sample the stuff at the same time. We had had many samples.
I cracked the door open a bit and said hello, but didn’t let Lisa in.
She looked confused. “Is everything alright? Can I come in?” She craned to look in and see what was going on.
“Um, it’s not really a good time right now,” I said, which was the most honest thing I had said all day. “Kirk’s going through a really tough time, and I’m trying to help him through it. His girlfriend left him, so he’s, you know, not handling it well.” My heart was pounding so hard from the coke, or Lisa, or both, I was convinced that someone could hear it.
Lisa looked concerned. “Oh, really? Okay. That’s too bad. Tell him I’m sorry for barging in. Want to come by later? Go to dinner?” Kirk sniffled and made a sound which was supposed to resemble grief, I think. I was afraid he was going to oversell the whole thing.
“Sure. Of course. But I better get back to…” I hooked my thumb over my shoulder.
“Okay. Of course. See you later?”
I closed the door and turned back to Kirk, feigned like I was going to have a heart attack, which I thought I might actually have anyway.
Kirk laughed. “Dude, that was awesome.”
* * *
By December, I vaguely knew I was in trouble. The semester was coming to an end, and though I managed to still accumulate pretty good grades, I had a grand total of about $80 to my name. The bill for next semester’s tuition sat unopened in my backpack. I found work at a restaurant over Christmas break and my Resident Director agreed to let me stay in a dorm the four weeks school was out. “But I need to see more from you, Chris. I need to feel that you care about this job.”
“Of course I care. Things have just been so…hectic. This job means everything to me. Lisa’s going home, and I plan on working, like, three different jobs over Christmas break here in town, and I know being alone on campus will help me get my head on straight. I mean, you know me, Suzanne. Let me show you what I can do!”
“I know what you can do, Chris, I know. Okay? I’ve never doubted that. Look, there’s a new student joining the Mini-House R.A.s. Her name is Rachel. Will you mind if she accompanies you on duty tonight while you go on rounds? You know, show her how we do things.”
“Not a problem,” I said, running my hand through my hair. “I’d be happy to.”
* * *
Rachel was a nervous girl with wiry blue hair and a weak smile. She wore a Malcolm X baseball cap and chewed peppermint gum the night she arrived at the R.A. office. Rachel said she was excited to be an R.A. but was worried about confronting other students. In fact, during our first set of rounds, we heard what sounded like a party coming from the Mini-House she just moved into. Everything, the buildings, the tree branches, the stop sign adjacent to her dorm, was covered in a thin layer of ice. It was brilliantly cold and walking was treacherous.
On the way to the house front door, I pumped up Rachel as best I could, and told her the safety of others depended on her doing her job right, that committing to be a Resident Assistant meant you committed to upholding the fundamental values serving the school and its immediate community. She smiled at me as best she could, which was weakly.
We opened the door to her dorm and found a couple of students drinking wine coolers in the common area and a few others on the couch, laughing. They turned toward us as we entered and quickly put their drinks on the ground.
Lame party, I thought.
We took names. We dumped lime green booze down the sink. We sent the non-residents back to their own dorms. Afterward, I told Rachel she did a great job. She was beaming.
When we arrived at the next Mini-House, the distinct, sweet aroma of marijuana hung in front of a resident’s door. I knocked as Rachel stood behind me.
The guy who opened up was someone I took a video production class with.
“Dude, what’s going on?” I asked.
“N-nothing.” He was completely caught off guard. And now that his door was open, more pot smoke rolled out of his room as if he’d just fired up a hibachi. We had him dead to rights.
Thinking Rachel was directly behind me and couldn’t see my face, I looked at him and mouthed the words, “Watch the pot.”
Stoned-Guy blinked, unsure, then nodded slowly.
“Okay, well, we’re just stopping by, checking things out. Stay out of trouble, okay?”
“Yeah, sure thing. Thanks for checking in.” He closed his door.
I turned to say something to Rachel but realized she was already at the exit, leaving with haste. As I hurried to catch up, she actually turned and screamed, “I can’t believe you!” and slammed the door in my face. I heard her feet crunching down the icy stares and I just stood there for a moment, breathing, the closed door inches from my face.
* * *
The next day, I was called into a meeting with my Resident Director and the Head of Residential Life. They asked what happened the night before. I explained that Rachel misheard me, that I said something different, etc. They listened intently, but their eyes were flat, like coins, their voices soft. I felt trapped. They wanted to give me the benefit of the doubt, they said. But where was that strong leader they discovered last year? Where’s that guy who wrote and rapped a hip hop song about being an R.A. back in August, making all the new R.A.s-in-training laugh? I thought about the fictional Patrick that Lisa had first asked about all those months ago and wished he could be beside me right then.
“Look, we have a lot of decisions to make, and I know you’ve planned to stay here over break anyway, so why don’t we revisit this in January, okay? We think maybe a change to a new dorm might help,” said the Director. I imagined the bags under her eyes had nothing to do with me.
After the last classes met for the semester and everyone shuttled out to their separate homes for the holidays, I headed over to Lisa’s dorm, who was still packing a few things before she left. I couldn’t believe I was not going to see her for a whole month. A light snow was falling and campus would have looked beautiful if it wasn’t so silent and empty; the school was eerie in the pale cast of a few streetlights as flakes ghosted down around me, nothing to be heard but my breathing and my steady, dry footsteps.
“So how’d it go,” Lisa asked after I let myself in her room and we embraced.
“Okay I guess. They don’t really know yet. I mean, I might be an R.A. in a different dorm or whatever. Seems Rachel really had it out for me.”
Lisa sat down on her bed, exhaled. “That’s so weird.”
“Tell me about it. I mean, it was a total misunderstanding.”
“So what are you going to do?”
“Well, I have to go to the restaurant in a couple of hours.”
“No, not your job…but this whole situation.”
I knew I couldn’t last another semester and had already called a friend of mine who lived down in Springfield, Massachusetts. He had left school in the spring and was now trying to make it as a guitarist in a punk band. He also delivered pizza on weeknights. He lived in a one room apartment and said I could stay with him no problem. There was an extra bed. I knew I couldn’t tell Lisa. Not yet, anyway.
“What am I going to do,” I said in mock urgency. “Well, how could I leave all this,” I spread my arms and laughed in Lisa’s tiny room. Lisa smiled, but it seemed apologetic, strained. We made love on her narrow twin bed urgently, hotly, and then, she was gone.
I walked the hallways, watched T.V. in the common room; George Bush was sending troops into Panama, and I watched grainy, night-vision film of soldiers parachuting into a city layered with too many palm trees. All of it was overwhelming, so I went outside, made my way to my old dorm. The front door was padlocked, so I jimmied a window.
My room was cold, but there was still an oversized poster of Elvis Costello tacked to the wall. I picked up the receiver of the phone on my desk, heard a dial tone. The phone was designated for emergencies only, and could only make calls to other phones on campus, but I figured a way around the block weeks ago and had been placing calls to friends all around the country. I knew the bill was coming and that would be the final nail.
I called my brother in Hawaii. He was in the Marines, and I thought I’d ask him about the whole Panama thing. He seemed happy to hear my voice, and said no one on his base was getting deployed for that operation. I was relieved.
“So what’s going on, man? Getting ready for Christmas and stuff? You going to Mom’s?”
“Yeah, I mean, no, not yet. I’m going to work a bit here in town first, get some money,” I said.
“That’s cool. Dude, I’m so hung over. Last night we did shots on the beach, and the sun was coming up and…”
“Brian, I don’t think…”
“What’s going on?”
“I…I don’t know what to do.”
“What are you talking about? About what?”
“I mean, school is so fucked, and, and, I don’t know what to do.” I could feel my cheeks burning as tears dropped in stupid splotches down my shirt.
Brian was quiet. I think he realized he needed to be the big brother in this moment, and was trying to figure out how.
“Dude, you okay? Hey, everything’s okay, man. Come on.” He laughed a bit. “I’m not going to Panama!”
I squeezed my eyes shut, felt my throat tighten with heat.
I sat down on the edge of the bed. I could suddenly picture Lisa on top of Mt. Monadnock again. We had hiked up and rested across the boulders under the sharp September sun. We drank grape soda and talked about our earliest memories. When my soda was empty, I found a blueberry bush and filled the bottle with the ripest offerings. I handed it to Lisa, a gift. After we hiked back down and had a post-hike nap, we showered in her dorm and ate broccoli-cheddar soup in her room. I told her I could easily get used to not eating meat. Lisa smiled and put her arms around my neck, pulled me into a kiss. I swooned. I had never been made dizzy by a kiss before. I had never felt that complete.
“Hey, guess what I got you for Christmas,” my brother finally said.
“I don’t know.”
“Come on, guess.”
I opened my eyes, and looked around the room. What answer, I thought, was right? What could possibly save me now?