Back from “The Real World”

Central New York has the same joke as Wisconsin and Minnesota. “We have two seasons: winter and bad sledding.”

It’s not true. Spring and summer are magical where I went to college, and that’s good because it helps you overlook the jolt you feel when the sleet arrives full force after Labor Day. I arrived back on campus in late June, relieved to be finished with the complexities of life in the city, and ready to tackle summer school. My roommate, Julie, wouldn’t be at our apartment until September, so for the first time in my life, I was living alone.

If you’d known me as a freshman or sophomore, and we happened to meet on campus that summer, you would have been able to see I was no longer the shallow coed who flitted from boyfriend to boyfriend. Mostly because I would have told you so. And for anyone who remembered my short-lived Power-to-the-People phase, I would not have screamed in your ear about Nixon’s war machine either.

I may, however, have been a little too full of unsolicited advice when it came to what I’d learned over the last year in New York City, or — as I called it — The Real World. Walking to class or in the grocery store, I found lots of people who knew me, and I never seemed to be at a loss for words. I noticed no one ever said, “Wow! Fascinating! Why don’t we go for coffee later and you can tell me more about how you’ve conquered the universe?”

Eventually, I came to recognize the bored looks on people’s faces and figured I had summer session to get my feet wet in a new style of shutting the hell up.

My apartment was a fraction of what had been an enormous house at the turn of the twentieth century, probably full of children and the small staff needed to run a proper home. It stood at the top of a hill on Prospect Terrace, a name just full of all the gilded-age optimism rich people had. This neighborhood was once full of business owners or the town’s best doctors and lawyers. The slate roof had long ago been replaced with something cheap, and now the paint was peeling, and the evergreens hugging the front porch were rangy and overgrown.

By the time I moved in the summer of 1971, the house was a conglomeration of apartments and single rooms for rent, with suspect wiring and kitchen cabinets bought at auction. I didn’t care if the corners were dingy. I didn’t care that it seemed I was the only one living in this three-story mansion, except in the middle of the night when the wind blew and the house groaned.

The first week went off without a hitch. How many times in my life have I said that? I went to my new classes, bought the books, and settled in. Nothing to it. I spent early mornings sitting on the steps off the back porch, drinking instant coffee in a handmade mug with a broken-off handle. I kept the music — usually Laura Nyro — turned up as loud as I wanted. I looked forward to afternoons hunched over my typewriter, making sense of convergent validity for my Child Psych paper, and I wondered why I hadn’t done it this way from the beginning.

After my first tests, I called my parents with the news. “I got an A on both of them!”

I’m pretty sure they misheard me and thought I’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature because their reaction was way over the top. The year I’d spent as a college dropout was tough on them. They would be overly thrilled at every increment until the first notes of “Pomp and Circumstance” rang out two years later and I marched into the field house in my cap and gown.

I started to wilt in Week 3 of this new life. How many times have I said that in my life? It was late afternoon, and I was reading the paper on the back porch. I’d gotten used to the silence from being the only tenant in a house with 20 rooms. But then I started thinking how nice it would be to share these summer nights with someone. And by “someone,” of course, I meant a man.

An hour later, I heard something come up the winding gravel driveway. A pickup truck rumbled into view and cautiously made the right turn behind the house, toward the bank of garages that had once been a carriage house. Evan Callahan turned off the engine and jumped out.

“Greetings!” He said the word as he moved his entire forearm in a semi-circle.

He would be living here, too, in an apartment on the other side of the house from mine. His was a small studio he was going to share with a roommate, who wouldn’t be in town until September either. So now there were two of us, and I liked the idea. With creaking walls on windy nights, it would be nice to know I wasn’t alone. And now if I found mice in my kitchen, I’d have someone to kill them for me. The Real World hadn’t taught me anything about rodents.

I said, “I made some stew. Are you hungry?”

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