After that first dinner, all the new freshmen gathered outside the dorm entrance and smoked and learned one anothers’ names. I went back to my room, hugged my body pillow, and cried. I could hear snatches of laughter from the newly forming groups outside. I wanted to join them really badly, but I didn’t smoke, and it had never occurred to me that I could just go stand with them outside, anyway.
The day had obviously been a test, and I had failed. Failed at college and possibly life. I couldn’t make friends—I didn’t know why. At my high school I had had lots of friends. How could I make everyone understand that at home people knew me? That at home people thought I was funny?
Cayla didn’t come back to our room until 2 AM. She had had a great time and met loads of new people, she told me. She said goodnight and flicked off her reading lamp. The next day was Sunday, and I had no plans, and no one to make plans with, and I was terrified. I didn’t start school until Tuesday. Two endless days stretched out in front of me. I could go anywhere, do anything I liked, without telling anyone, for the first time ever, and…what the hell was I going to do?
At any other time in my life, two free days would have pleased me immensely. I had lots of hobbies, and plenty of ways to fill up time. But I cannot even begin to explain the nameless anxiety that gripped me. We’re talking cold night sweats. I had this weird idea that I needed to make friends immediately, as if there were only a few days in which to find people, and then after that there wouldn’t be any more friend-making that happened.
Who would I eat breakfast with tomorrow? How about lunch and dinner? What was everyone doing later? Why hadn’t anyone invited me to the party I heard some girls in the common room talking about? How would I fill my first hours of total freedom? Should I walk around by myself and figure out where all my classes were? (Hint: do this.) I needed to go to Target, but where was the bus stop, and how much was it to ride the bus, and did you need exact change? I had never ridden a city bus before. Everything was so different and new. People blasted music and ran down the hallways of my dorm yelling and slamming doors at all hours of the night. College was suddenly happening, ready or not. Apparently, I was not. I finally fell asleep, the knot in my stomach never loosening.
Well, guess what? You know how “they” always say “everything will turn out all right?” They are right, sometimes. Everything did turn out all right at college. But it didn’t happen overnight.
There was a lot to get used to. I needed to get used to the idea that the bathroom was communal and not my bathroom, and that there would be weird long dark hairs in the sink every morning. I needed to get used to seeing boys pass me as I walked back from the showers, wrapped tightly in my towel. I needed to learn how to go easy on the unlimited junk food; how to make myself go to class when no one cared if I didn’t show up for class, how to sleep with Cayla’s headphones softly-but-still-audibly-and-irritatingly playing.
In a few months, I learned how to share a 15-by-20-foot space with another human being who, while civil with me, was not my friend. I learned to watch for puke on university sidewalks on Sunday mornings. I learned to just go up and introduce myself to someone if I wanted to be friends, because everyone was new. I said yes to almost every invitation thrown my way, and that’s how I learned I love exploring new cities, going to hilariously solemn poetry readings, and visiting dog parks when I don’t have a dog; and that I hate, hate, HATE house parties. (Red plastic cups, awkward conversations on the couch with drunk boys, trying to find the bathroom upstairs only to realize you’re in a darkened bedroom and there are weird fumbling noises coming from the bed…I will happily pass on house parties forever, thank you and goodnight.)
I don’t know why it took me so long to adjust to college. Lots of people, like Cayla, took to school like fish to water, and seemed to have come to the U completely, utterly ready to go. At home in Green Bay, I’d felt I was so ready to be at college that I would pass out if I had to spend one more minute with my parents, but once I got to Minneapolis, it took me longer than I had ever expected to be comfortable. But I eventually did. I didn’t feel appallingly lonely and scared for long. It all turned out OK, finally. Some things, like Cayla, turned out better than I could have hoped for.
Around Thanksgiving, Cayla was making fun of an annoyingly bossy girl who lived a few doors down from us, doing a spot-on imitation of her, and…I laughed. A big, snorting laugh. Then Cayla laughed. Then we both laughed harder, and all of a sudden we were in hysterics, and then we looked at each other, and suddenly…we were friends. That’s how it happened. Cayla told me she’d thought I was a stuck-up preppy blond bitch, and I admitted that I thought she was a dirty hippie, but it turned out we had almost the exact same sense of humor, and we became extremely good friends. We couldn’t have been more different, and we would never have hung out together just a few months earlier. Thanks, college! We became such good friends that we lived together off campus for our sophomore and junior years, too. Y’all, I spent three years living with Cayla, and I had hated her on sight. We’re still good friends today!
Starting on a new road (or path or chapter or whatever you want to call it), whether it’s moving to a new city or going to a new school or starting a new job or quitting your job/school/whatever, is exciting and terrifying and awful and hard and wonderful. When you start something new, you will have moments of horrible loneliness, where you think you’re screwing up your life and you’re too awkward for anyone to like. But you just keep going—and one day you wake up, and everything has (mostly) turned out all right, just like they said it would. You have plans for the day, and people know you, and you can sleep through anything, and you’re meeting a friend for breakfast in the dining hall, but sometimes you eat alone and that’s fine, too. And then you go eat as much Cinnamon Toast Crunch as you want, ’cause you’re a grown-up now. ♦