To belong

Freshman year, my dorm was all single rooms—clearly, the giant, water-cooled mainframe computer that processed my application had enough smarts to know that a roommate, any roommate, would pose probably irreconcilable challenges for both of us. That’s a pretty crafty algorithm for the summer of 1984.

That computer decided instead that I should live next door to a guy also named John, a sophomore from a Chicago suburb not far from mine. He had a truly giant personality. It wasn’t until much later that I’d learn it was shot through with terrible darkness and plagued by demons. But long before I knew that, to 17-year-old, small, sheltered, scared me, he was a friend with at least a few things in common and someone I naturally gravitated to. Remember that one Warner Bros cartoon where the little yappy dog Chester bounced around the great big bulldog named Spike? Like that.

Among our many adventures my freshman year was to find ourselves in the Big Brothers rush program for one of the sororities on campus. Most of the fraternities had Little Sisters programs then, and maybe they still do, though that seems too pre- for these post-post-modern times. This sorority was unique at the time in offering a mirror image program. I sort of knew a girl in this house from a class, and John sort of knew a friend of hers, and one night, as was his wont, we just barged into a rush party and declared ourselves to be on the list. Well, he did. I stood there behind him, speechless. Happened a lot when I was out with him.

It worked. We got invited back to a number of events in the weeks to follow. Some at the house, some elsewhere. The girls we knew would hand-deliver invitations to us, sometimes in class, sometimes at work. Always a show and all very good fun. It was, maybe, my first sense of belonging there. I’d briefly tried fraternity rush before that but realized about 2 days in that it wasn’t for me. That was fine, an easy choice. Being in an engineering program is not exactly surrounding yourself with extroverts, and remember that I lived in a dorm that was somehow selected for people who liked being alone. I had a few other friendships developing here and there, but two months into my college experience, heading toward the cold, dark solstice, this was a ray of sunlight and some actual warmth.

Plus, you know, women, and the talking to them. Especially that one I kinda knew. Kelly. I was starting to have ideas. I wondered if she was, too.

One fine Saturday evening, John came into my room and said he’d heard there was another rush party going on at that moment and we had to hustle over there. I was surprised since we hadn’t received invites, and they’d been very diligent about them to that point, making a show out of them like they did. Seemed like an odd oversight, but, you know, stuff happened. Let’s go, Spike!

We walked over and heard the party from the outside. Security at college residences was a lot different then. No keycards or biometric scans or DNA samples; we just let ourselves in. And what a party! There was a band, all kinds of drinks (different rules for that, then, too), and everyone was there having an absolutely amazing time. People were a little dressier than they’d been prior to that, but, you know, we weren’t exactly slumming it either, so that was odd but not a concern.

We made our way through the party and I noticed it right away: people were looking at us funny. Conversations were short and awkward. John, probably having had a half dozen drinks before we even got there, was oblivious as I started to piece together what was going on. I tried to get his attention, but he was barging in to conversations here and there, spilling his drink on himself and others, all the while being regarded with shock and confusion, and not registering any of it.

I started to plot a course for the door, and suddenly Kelly was in front of me, dressed up, made up, gorgeous except for the fact that she’d gone completely pale and her eyes looked to be the size of baseballs, and some newly minted Big Brother named Kip or the equivalent was all over her.

“John…what are you doing here?”

“Leaving. I know we got cut. It’s OK.”

I smiled. I didn’t want her to feel any worse than she already did. I took one last look over at John, realized he was going to have to figure this out on his own, and left. I walked around the corner to some other sorority on the quad, this one dark and relatively uninhabited, and sat on a stone bench, sucking in the cold, early winter air for a while before heading back to the dorm.