Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

The most interesting things on the web, handpicked each day. Sign up for our Headlines morning newsletter.

The Education of Elisabeth Eckleman

Semester’s End

It’s Elisabeth Eckleman’s first year of college, and she has a lot of tough choices to make. In this installment, Elisabeth is hit with some unexpected news, and she’s faced with her most important decision yet.

With only weeks left in the semester—her mom sick, her ex-boyfriend in the hospital with his banged-up girlfriend—Elisabeth faced another dilemma: Stay with her roommate Kat, whose behavior had become self-destructive and hostile, or move in down the hall with India, who recently revealed a tender side Elisabeth had never before appreciated. You voted for her to… stay with Kat.

 

I wake up to the sound of India making coffee. In her pajamas, big as a tent, she looks like a 10-year-old girl.

“I always thought Kat was lucky to have you as a roommate.” She pours a cup and hands it to me. I feel, weirdly, as if this is the end of a good date.

“Why would you think that?” I dig in my purse and pull out a packet of Splenda.

“Because you’re so…stable.” She says the word like other people might say “sexy.” She plops on the bed beside me. “The rest of us are so fucked-up and bloody.”

I slurp from the mug. “I’m a mess.”

She laughs. “See? That’s my point. This is your messiest, and you’re still stable.”

I don’t know why I used to hate India—was it her aloofness? Her insecurities masquerading as arrogance? Maybe I just didn’t know her. Maybe everyone is all right once you get to know them. I consider this and scratch it. No, some people are just dicks.

I change out of my pajamas, careful my back is turned at key moments.

“I’m not watching you,” she says over her shoulder, pouring more coffee.

I fasten my bra and tug on my shirt. “Really? And why not?”

Back in my dorm, three Post-It Notes are displayed on my bed like a mini-Warhol. Across them reads the following note:

I’m sorry for being a grade-A cunt. You are the sister I never had—OK, I have a sister, but I hate her. You are my best friend. Come back. Luv, Kat
p.s. Look in the fridge.

Inside our mini-fridge is a six-pack of Diet Coke, a bottle of olives, and a branch. Dammit, it’s hard to stay mad at Kat. It takes too much energy, and besides—I always feel like I’m missing out. I pop an olive in my mouth and unpack.

 

That afternoon, I take the bus to the hospital. Ariel is in stable condition, finally well enough to have visitors. Her family has gone home after spending days in plastic chairs, grabbing fistfuls of sleep. Brad sits inside her room, holding her hand. I see this and, for the first time, fail to feel a spike of jealousy.

“Elisabeth,” Ariel says when I enter. With her bandages and broken nose it comes out all mushy. “I’m glad you came. Did you tell the kids goodbye?”

On the last day of my job at Project FAITH, I had to explain to all the kids why Ariel wouldn’t be coming to say goodbye. I had feared their tears and outrage but, to my horror, some of them didn’t even remember who she was.

“You mean that blond chickie?” asked Shanetra. “Always reading us books?”

I guess so many people come through there, semester after semester, it’s hard to keep us apart. We are just the next in a line of well-meaning adults who cook their fish sticks and turn off the TV in the middle of the best part.

“I’m gonna miss them.” Ariel’s eyes glisten with tears. “Especially Shanetra.”

I nod. “She always did like you best.”

Brad goes outside to smoke a cigarette. I follow him. He looks like he hasn’t slept in days: Gray bags under his eyes, worry lines etched in his forehead. For the first time, I can see what he’ll look like as an old man.

“They’re not pressing charges,” he says, exhaling a long line of smoke.

“Lucky you.”

He grabs my hand and brings it to his lips. “I am lucky. Thanks for coming.”

One thing I can say about my ex-boyfriend is that he has good taste in women. Ariel is beautiful, and warm, and intelligent, and she loves him. God knows I once did, too. And for the past four months, I have dropped nearly anything to stretch out a safety net for him. But I wonder sometimes what I get out of this deal. And as great as Ariel and I are, I am beginning to question our taste in men.

“So what’s gonna happen to Ariel?” I ask.

“She’ll be out of here in a few weeks,” he says. “Her professors are gonna let her make up exams over Christmas break. She’ll ace them.”

“And what about the two of you?” I ask. “Do you love her?”

He crushes out his cigarette and sighs. “Yeah, I do.”

There was a time when this sentence would have crumpled me. Would have sent me bawling to my bed, tearing through Kleenex, twisting and kicking the sheets, wondering why he would choose her over me. Wondering why I couldn’t be enough. I spent the entire semester carrying around this fear and nausea, always staring backward, hoping for a new ending. If I believed in God, I would have prayed, kept vigil, blazed a trail till dawn with a thousand votives and rosary beads.

But when I look at Brad now, all I can think is: Wow, I dodged a bullet.

So, who knows? Maybe there is a God after all.

 

On Tuesday, my dad calls. My dad has been calling a lot these days. I don’t know why. Thinking that he is scared or lonely gives me a queasy, hollow feeling. I prefer to think he is drunk dialing, or taking advantage of our family calling plan.

The conversation always begins the same: “How’s school?” he asks.

“It’s OK. How’s mom?”

“She’s OK.”

We have spent 10 years like this—not answering, not really listening, just filling up the silence with noise and evasions. Will it always be like this? Does anyone ever learn to talk to their father?

“How’s your money holding out?” he asks.

I have $7.50 in my bank account. Yesterday, I opened up a credit card to buy a double latte. “Fine,” I say, folding clothes as we talk.

“Your mother’s test results came back,” he says. “They look really positive.”

“Are you serious?” I say, sitting down on the bed. I didn’t realize how much I wanted good news until it finally arrived. A sob slips from my throat and hits the phone like a hiccup. “That’s fantastic.”

“It is,” he says, and if I wanted to, I could hear a crack in his voice.

 

That night, Kat and I celebrate with a bottle of vodka. She has broken up with the hairy guy (“Too needy,” she says), and so it is a celebration of other things as well—the return of our friendship, the end of our semester.

“To our independence,” she says, holding up her plastic cup.

“And to our dependence,” I say, downing a shot.

“Let’s play a game,” she says. “It’s called ‘Predictions for Next Semester.’ Prediction no. 1: I will hang Geoff by his scrotum. Your turn.”

“OK. Prediction no. 2: I won’t come back.” This is something that slips out, an idea half-articulated, but after saying it, I realize how serious I am.

“Fuck off,” says Kat, pouring me another shot. When I don’t say anything, she stops. “Are you really thinking about not coming back?”

I am. I have been. The idea has been growing in the time between when I get in bed and when I fall asleep. How this college will always be here for me; how my mother might not be. Back in the fall, when I thought about going home, it felt like fleeing, like some kind of defeat. I’d always wonder if I could make it here, or if I went home just to bail out. But it doesn’t feel that way anymore. Now, it feels more like a choice.

“Your parents will never let you do that,” she says.

I shrug. “It’s not their decision to make.” Lately, I’ve been worrying less about my mom and more about my father. My father who doesn’t know how to ask for help. My father who can’t hold a conversation. Does my father even have friends? All my life, the thought of being alone with him scared me. Now, the thought of him being alone, without me, scares me even more.

Kat sighs and throws a dirty sock at me. “Well, that game sucked balls. Game no. 2: Let’s dye our hair!”

I clap my hands together. “Abso-fucking-lutely!”

We bust into the hallway, giggling and stumbling toward the elevator. The door opens, and out steps Chad in a context so foreign I almost don’t recognize him. Could it be? He’s with a girl.

“I want you to meet Marie,” he says, clearing his throat. “She’s visiting from Oberlin. She’s my, uh, girlfriend.” Marie is cute, with chunky black glasses and short, curly hair tucked back with bobby pins. She smiles awkwardly and grabs Chad’s hand.

“See what you’ll be missing if you don’t come back?” Kat asks, once the elevator doors close. “You have to win Chad back!”

“I hate you,” I say.

“You love me,” she says, laying a sloppy kiss on my cheek. I wipe it off, but she’s right.

At the all-night drugstore, Kat buys a bottle of Manic Panic Atomic Turquoise. I stay in the L’Oréal section, selecting a tasteful strawberry blond. Back in the dorm room, we make a mess of the sink, flicking the toxic-smelling goop all over the mirror and the basin. It looks like some gruesome crime scene.

“My scalp is burning off,” I say, wincing as I pour another shot.

“Good!” says Kat. “That means it’s working.”

I don’t remember washing the dye out, or telling Kat she could cut my hair. I remember watching tufts hit the ground, and laughing wildly as they scattered like snowflakes, fluttering across the floor until we were standing in a blanket of dead, split ends. I remember running my fingers through my hair, blunt and cold and new, and I remember staring at myself in the mirror.

“This is you from now on,” says Kat, her hair a brilliant blaze of electric blue.

My makeup is smeared and my hair looks like someone else’s, but I like it. I shake my head back and forth, noticing how light it feels. How good it feels to start all over again.

 

I wake up the next morning hungover and confused. My hair is wild and kinked from sleeping on it, and I throw a scarf over my head and rush out the door, late for my last day of Feminism and Sociology.

“For your last assignment, I want you to write a letter to yourself in 10 years,” says the professor. Oh, groan: One of those bozo prompts I feel like an idiot writing. The professor promises to send these letters to us in 10 years. I start a million times, and finally come up with this:

You’re 28 now. That’s so…adult. I wonder what you look like, where you live, what you’re doing with your life. My advice? Wait to get married. Spend time traveling and experiencing life and when you’re really old, like 30 or 31, then you can settle down. I hope you’re happy, because it would be nice to think all this craziness and turmoil leads to something. But more than anything, you should remember, when things get tough and you lose hope, that you survived the first semester of your freshman year. And it was a doozy.

The following day, Kat drives me to the airport. As we pull out of the parking lot, I take a long look at the dorm that has become my home. “It’s really a hideous building,” I say.

“Hard to be sentimental about it, huh?” she says.

I can remember pulling into this parking lot last August, how different things were then. My mother wasn’t sick, but in a way, I was so much more scared. I couldn’t imagine a life at college, and I couldn’t imagine a life without Brad. Now I know the contours of both, and they feel pretty good. Kat and I drive in silence, our windows cracked to enjoy the winter chill. I think about how my mother is getting better, and how maybe we are both stronger than we ever realized.

Kat pulls up to the turnstile and hauls my bags out of her trunk. “So what happens next?”

“I’ll call you when I make up my mind.” She is struggling with tears, but I can’t help giggling. “I’m sorry, but your hair looks ridiculous.”

This cracks her up. “I know. Yours, too.”

She hugs me, tight, and I walk off to the terminal. I pause for a moment, letting the brisk breeze hit my face. I close my eyes. This is the last time I’ll be here for a while.

Well, if that’s what I choose.