Salveson Prize in Prose 2015.
Published in the Waldorf Literary Review.
“We’re just like Skins,” I say, reaching a bare arm towards the falling snowflakes.
It is a typical Saturday morning in mid-December. The sky is white. The ground is white. My arms are linked with three of my closest friends; we are all in different stages of our hangovers. Kevin’s Metallica T-shirt is ripped along the bottom seam, and he’s wearing faded beige moccasins with a hole at the left pinky toe. Jaclyn’s eyes are red, a thin California sweater covering her braless chest. Haleigh has on her skirt and tights from the party, the smell of tequila and lime thick in her hair. And I am in a flowing black tank top and leggings, skipping to keep warm, catching snowflakes on my tongue.
“Wait, the TV show?” Haleigh asks, “The one with those British kids?”
Kevin and I exchange smirks. He nods, laughs. He’s the one that first introduced me to Skins, his current favorite series on Netflix, only slightly behind Friday Night Lights and Prison Break. Skins is a show about teenagers, about drugs, about drinking, about partying, about reckless mistakes and being young. I’ve only watched a few episodes but the storyline captivates me. Those characters live with abandon. The girls are dangerous, sexy. And they each live without fear or regrets, just laughter and risk-taking.
“No, guys, this is totally Skins!” I say again, surveying the quiet streets, only a few cars gliding silently past us. In the opening episode of the show, a girl walks home on a school-day morning. The roads are deserted, not a person in sight. The girl’s obviously hung over as hell, stumbling across the road. Her hair is a mess, lipstick blurred across her lips, dress ripped, heels in hand, bare feet on the slushy asphalt. She’s disheveled and doing a classic ‘walk-of-shame,’ but for some reason I found myself attracted to her, to her disregard for anything other than fun. She seemed so free.
“He should be here soon,” Kevin says, nodding in the direction of our dorm. One of his buddies is supposed to be joining us. I rub the sole of my faded black Converse against the concrete step impatiently and study the dorm front doors. This is our first year of college, our first year in this building. The exterior is not much to look at—brown brick with full floor-to-ceiling windows on each of the two levels. Small school, small dorm. In the center lobby there’s a worn pool table and two sets of plastic purple armchairs that are only comfortable if you curl up in them sideways, toss your legs over the side, and lean your head back. My room is third floor, left side, with a view overlooking the residence hall across the street and the football field a few blocks south. Only a few months have passed since the start of the school year, but I’ve already started to label this strange place as mine.
I poke my toe into a slush puddle. The ground under my Converse sole is cold; the snow seeps through the thin fabric and into my sockless feet. If I think too much, I’ll start to shiver, but the snow feels refreshing against my hot, alcohol-filled skin. I sigh, glance over at Kevin. He’s squinting down at this phone. My head is pounding, but it’s a happy reminder of the night before—vodka, dancing, drunken snow angels, being young.
I remember the start of the party. I had walked boldly up to the door where a dark, hooded figure asked me what my name was, where I was from. To this I always gave the same answer: “Marisa, Chicago” with an air of confidence. Away from home I’d established a sense of pride in who I was, where I’d come from. Being from a big city was a luxury here, something to brag about in this small town. I’d become bold, knowing I was a city girl, and proud of this. Yet I still felt comfortable here.
“Come on,” Kevin says, turning away from the dorm, “Let’s just go.”
The four of us are headed to Saturday brunch, our ritual. After blurry nights and emptied bottles, we’ll pull ourselves from our twin beds, throw our hair back in ponytails or shrug on baseball caps, swish around some mouthwash, and trek the two blocks to the dining hall.
For the rest of our walk I am silent. I watch the snow melt on my bare arms; I trace footprints leading back and forth down the sidewalks. I am a Chicago girl, used to the snow and slush. We walk by a few football players, bundled in jackets and gloves. They are not from the Midwest, maybe from California or Texas. I wonder what it’s like to be them, to hate the cold, hate the winter, hate Iowa Saturday mornings. I do not hate anything, I realize. Even the cold, which washes over my body like the beginning of a shower when I’m anxious and step under the water too quickly, not letting it fully warm. The rush of heat comes soon enough.
We walk past two girls in jeans, boots, scarves, and jackets. Their hair is pulled half-back and straightened; they look presentable, fresh. I wonder what they think of me in my tank top, messy bun, and salt-stained Converse. I smile at them, deciding that I don’t really care.
The doors to the dining hall open and I’m hit by the instant warmth and the smell of cheesy potatoes and burned bacon. From the glass windows on the opposite side I see out into the street, into the quiet neighborhood I have come to call my home. In three months of being away from Chicago, I have learned to love this place. The snowy roads that are hardly ever plowed, the mix of farmers and factory workers with camo jackets and thick boots, laces always untied. The gray-haired ladies bagging groceries, who pause for a full five seconds at every stop sign; the children that play out on street corners with their six other siblings; the mothers who smile and nod as they run by with strollers, receipts poking from their purses and toddlers in tow.
Coming from a fast-paced, McDonalds on every main intersection type of town, I am still not used to the silence of the mid-morning or the ‘Closed on Sundays’ signs that hang in three of the mom-and-pop restaurants that line the main road. I am still not used to running the country roads, pavement stretched out in front of me for miles. There’s a sense of quiet and peace I’ve never known. But in the last few months, I have learned to live in tension. Learned to embrace this peace while simultaneously disrupting it with my drunkenness. Learned to love the trees and this single-stoplight city, while still clutching onto every piece of home.
Kevin and Jaclyn step forward, arms still linked. They have been dating several months now, and seem happy. Haleigh and I stay back, let them walk first. We gossip about last night: who slept with who, what pictures were taken, who had to be carried home.
The dining hall is filled with misfits in clothes from last night; hair still curled, but flattened by bed pillows; glossy eyes. Then there are the presentable ones—athletic jackets, hair done right, faces washed clean.
Kevin, Jaclyn, Haleigh, and I find seats on the left side, middle of the room; I face the door so I can survey who walks in, give nods of approval or shake my head with a teasing smile. The food isn’t good. It’s college. But I fill my plate with it anyway, greasy hangover potatoes with ranch, slices of French toast with peanut butter, chocolate milk, sausage, eggs with cheese and salsa.
The room is divided in half by a center wall, and the left side holds the loudest of us. The room has blue-black carpet, blue chairs, blue tables. I listen to the sounds of metal forks against our plastic plates, plastic cups hitting the edge of the table in an off-time sort of rhythm. We shout over one another. We shovel food into our mouths.
“Did you see what Katy was wearing?”
“Alex had sex with her?”
“Maya stayed the night with Devaughn! Yes, I’m serious!”
I listen to the conversations with one ear, nod when I’m supposed to, laugh when everyone else does. I usually love being updated with the latest news, but today I am distracted.
To my right are glass windows, identical to the ones below, but these face the other side of the street, where the building opens into a parking lot and then the street with the library, upper-class dorm, and just slightly beyond view, the local daycare.
I have come to know these streets. The daycare is where I work in the mornings twice a week. I hold butterball babies that smell like cornstarch and milk against my chest until they stop crying. I measure tiny cups of formula and press miniature spoons to toothless mouths.
The street the daycare is on leads in one direction to the ballpark where I played my first intramural softball game; in the opposite direction is the Fieldhouse where my sweat mixes with the sweat of hundreds of other athletes and my palms rub raw with callouses.
This town is not where I grew up. Not the giant, over-taxed houses or the high school that could fit 8,000 kids. Not the backyard field where I took my first sips of alcohol, or the tiny blue house where I lost my virginity. Not the softball field where I pitched my perfect game, or 95th street, where I first drove drunk. Those places have defined me—a rebel, a mother’s worst nightmare, a child. The roads outside these windows are different. These roads are where I’ve found myself these past few months, running alongside cornfields, taking in sweet, quiet country air. I am no longer defined by the places I have been, or the memories those places hold. Three hundred ninety-four miles away, I am no longer my mother’s biggest disappointment. I am no longer the girl who gave everything to a boy in a little blue house. I am no longer a child.
“Skins, Marisa,” Kevin says, laughing. I follow his gaze just to the left of where I had been staring, to a couple walking from their dorm to the dining hall. The girl is in flip flops, perched on the guy’s back. He’s wearing shorts and tosses an empty beer can into the snow. They are laughing, free.
“We’re all Skins,” I say. All different stages and pieces and mixes of where we’ve come from and who we want to be. I watch the couple, watch as he tosses her playfully over his shoulder and catches her just before she hits the snow. They play fight and I look away, smile.
I have changed in the last few months, though the change is not outwardly apparent. I’m still just as rebellious, waking up half-drunk in a dormitory bed, making snow angels at 3 a.m. But it is the freedom of this place—the decision to walk outside in a tank top in the middle of December, the ability to love and hold onto my home for what it has made me, but exist as a new me in a new home somewhere else. It is funny how place defines us, but also how we define place. How we become a part of where we are, how where we are becomes a part of us. And how we learn to call this new place ours.
I turn back to the table and shovel a forkful of salsa-eggs into my mouth. Kevin is sharing the story of how he ripped a hole in his moccasin. I laugh, smile. He’s ridiculous. We all are. But as I study the faces of my friends—a little glossy-eyed, a little disheveled—I realize I love them. And I love where we are in this moment, surreal, like a television episode.