My first week of freshman year: what a delightfully confusing and contradictory experience.
After too many reruns of ‘Top Gun’ and ‘Cocktail’ and ‘Tequila Sunrise’ and too many hours of staring longingly at Tom Cruise’s face and fantasizing with pictures of the ocean and the waves crashing on the beach of the college brochure from my high school’s career counselor’s office, I had a clear picture of what my California based college life would be like. My senior year had been less than spectacular with the hiccups of an unreturned crush and my unexpected weight gain (along with my unexpected and escalating awkward-to-be-in-my-skin binging sprees and suddenly reclusive nature) that made it impossible for me to get into my treasured size 6 Guess jeans and kept me hiding at home most of that year, daydreaming of the day when I’d finally take off and land in paradise.
I was sure I’d be able to erase that terrible year and have a painless fresh start as a freshman in college. Many nights I lay in bed dreaming about how I would walk from the campus grounds and get to the beach in a matter of minutes and be surrounded by all those cute, sun bleached, and tanned surfer boys holding their boards, because they would all be my classmates and friends. And of course, by then all the extra weight would have disappeared and I would be back to wearing my bikini and shorts and showing off my tanned and well-shaped runner legs. And it would only be a matter of time before my peculiar duck walk, the one I used most of the time with my feet turned inwards that my mom had spent so many years trying to fix with ugly black orthopedic shoes and chiropractic sessions, would stumble upon Tom Cruise’s sexy gait, and just like Julia Roberts in ‘Pretty Woman’ I’d finally be discovered and swept off my clumsy feet to the grand life of Hollywood and Beverly Hills.
You can then maybe imagine what a shock it was to walk on campus on the first day of orientation week and first find myself on a mountain overlooking the sea (only way to touch sand required a mandatory car drive which I did not have) and surrounded by crowds of Asians wearing anything but surfing clothes. I walked the grounds insecure of my bearings and confused with all the slanted eyes staring back at me. Where were the surfer guys I had seen in all the movies? I didn’t recall having seen an Asian, much less this many Asians in any of my favorite flicks. I made it to the auditorium where the freshman welcome speech was going to be given and spent most of it scanning the dark haired audience for a sign of blond hair that could soothe my rising despair.
I know this may come across as very biased but let me explain. Up to then I’d grown up and lived most of my life in the very traditional and quite homogeneous country of Guatemala – where we have only European descendants like my family, European mixed with indigenous and indigenous like the girl who cleaned our house - and a passion for anything American, specially films - but no blacks and no Asians. At least none that I could recall except for Erwin, the marginalized genius in our high school class who could never sit completely still without some part of his body going up and down - if it wasn’t his leg it was his eyebrow and if it wasn’t his eyebrow it was his hand tapping on the table and if it wasn’t his hand tapping on the table it was his upper lip going up and down. They said that he couldn’t speak properly without spitting in your face because his brain just worked too fast and he couldn’t get the words out quickly enough to follow his thoughts. And he also had strange clothes and gave off a strange smell and never hung out much with the rest of the class.
So I for one, had never seen so many Asians in my life and felt the first bubble of my dream painfully bursting as I confirmed that no, there were no blond surfer boys around, at least none in my freshman class. I proceeded to check out those who were not Asian and found one that was as close as I could get to my image of what a California boy should look like – brown hair, fair and freckled skin, blue eyes and a big smile, short but cute. Turned out to be Jason from Alaska, who did think very highly of his looks and was keen on getting his hands on any girl that would let him. And I, eager to send my share of early success stories back home to my friends and compensate for my lack of action during the previous year, was ecstatic when he flashed me his big smile and later tried to tickle me.
Ok no blond dudes but not bad for a first week, I thought after we’d made out on the sidewalk outside of his dorm one night and I’d sneaked away after he tried to make me lay down under some bushes. With my big move to paradise, I’d resolved to revert my dull and un-happening sex life as soon as I’d stepped off the plane in LA but my courage failed me right then and there with the passing cars honking at us and my nervousness about going beyond the making out mark.
I must have returned to my dorm on my own, because I can’t recall a midnight kiss under the blue door and it’s probably what I did, knowing how awkward I usually acted after making out with strangers, so my best guess is that I probably escaped as fast as I could to hide myself. Sitting in the corner of Meyler St and 21 St in downtown San Pedro, the white and blue falling building was also not the dorm with the view to the ocean that I had also just assumed came with the beachfront college. Instead we were right in the middle of down town San Pedro, in a three-floor complex that had worn down apartments that looked into a kind of patio where we were offered too many free pizza and ice cream midnight snacks that helped me to quickly load additional weight and blossom into 20 pound heavier cow that I returned home for four months later for my first Christmas break. My poor mother was waiting for me at the airport (as she would for so many years there after as I continued in my overseas search for perfect bliss) and could not hide her sadness when she saw her eldest baby wearing a Victoria Secret flower print pajamas over a pair of black stretch pants – the only thing that fit and that I thought could still look flattering and hide some of the bulging around me.
My dorm apartment was also full of surprises, starting with Rita, the first of the three roommates I’d be living with for that first year. I probably couldn’t hide my shock as I looked into her female version of a football quarterback with the look of a psycho and the nostrils of a dragon - that flared often and whenever she got angry, which I soon found out was pretty often. Where were the ‘Barbies in Paradise’? Rita wasted no time in telling me how she didn’t put up with anyone’s shit and had already broken a girl’s arm and nose for messing up with her.
She needn’t worry because at our place, nobody messed with her and her couch, the one under the window, and which she took permanent possession of and spent days on watching TV and dozing off. How this specimen of a human had ended up at that small and expensive private two-year private college in the middle of Ranchos Palos Verdes was just beyond me.
Shortly after, Lauren walked in balancing my shock, restoring my faith that yes this was California and there were more sunny and pretty days to come. She was a tall big boned girl as she liked to call herself (talk about self confidence), with a golden tan and green eyes that dipped at the corners and stood out with the aquamarine dress that she was wearing. She also had dimples and a perfect row of white teeth and thick blonde hair that she never tired of flicking this way or that. My eyes opened wide when she told me that she came from Pacific Palisades, a name I’d never heard before, but that I recognized as valuable when she said it was right next door to Malibu and Beverly Hills. My vicious hope rekindled and I made and oath to myself to zone on her and worship her so one day soon she’d invite me into her glamorous life and take me home with her for the weekend. She did have a strange thing for dolphins wearing them not only on bracelets and necklaces but decorating the entire room she was to share with Rita with dolphin posters much to Rita’s disgust. To compensate Rita cranked up her beloved Rapp music whenever she felt like it, which of course was almost every day.
Miko, our fourth roommate took some weeks to appear and if I had known what I’d be in for, I would have enjoyed my privacy and comfort much more while I had the room all to myself. She was Korean, I think my Karma with Asians was getting back at me, extremely skinny and quiet and never came out of the room, and when she did walked with her head bent down. But her main problems were her eating and studying habits. She liked to study in the middle of the night and turned on the light without wondering or worrying if it was something that bothered me or not. But being the light sleeper that I’ve always been it did, and no hiding underneath the covers helped me get back to sleep, and no matter how much I wanted to ask her to step out I couldn’t get the words out of my mouth and instead just fumed around angrily and cursed her lack of consideration. And she also had this strange habit of eating her food in our room instead of at our dining table, which would have been ok but her menu consisted of these strange soups with strong fish and shrimp smells and to make it worse she left her plates under her bed and left them there for days.
I don’t know why she had it or how I found out about it but for some reason she had an enormous suitcase in the closet full of the new Reese’s pieces cups that had just come out then. Whenever I was bored, or sad, or anxious which turned out to be pretty often as I faced the reality of living inside my California dream, I began sneaking my hand into her suitcase when she was not around, thinking that she would never notice - until the day when my hand reached inside and found the suitcase empty. I had to beg Rita to take me in her also mean looking brown truck to find where I could buy back all those Reese’s pieces I had eaten before Miko came back and found out her suitcase empty.
All the pictures that I had dreamed of Malibu, Santa Monica, Beverly Hills and Rodeo Drive only materialized months later when I got rides with some of the students that had cars and got to see what those places were really like. I even did eventually get invited to her highness Lauren’s house, opportunity she dangled before me for weeks before it came true because she preferred to take her best buddy Marya, the Hawaian girl, to her place, probably expecting that in exchanged she’d get invited to Hawaii. But even Marya got tired of Lauren’s dolphin infatuation and began coming up with excuses to not go with her on the weekends, and on one of these empty slots opened I was finally invited to spend my much-awaited weekend in Pacific Palisades. There wasn’t much to it, we might have gone to a coffee place in town but mostly spent the days at her home, a small cottage with a lot of shrubbery around. It was boring and I didn’t get to see any of the actors she’d mentioned but then again I didn’t get to see any famous movie starts during the six years that I lived in California and it was only years later that being back at home in Guatemala and attending a business conference at a hotel I got to see in the skin and flesh Jack Nicholson, whose film ‘As Good as it Gets’ had by then become much dearer to me than Top Gun.
Looking back to that first week and that entire first year of college I see how life gave me a big humorous shake and began rattling my perfectly built imaginary worlds and giving me a good taste of how absurd and adorable real life could be. And despite my numerous fresh starts and moves I confess that I still struggle with my weight and with saying things out loud, I ended up living in a congested and polluted city, and although with each year that passes my sleep gets lighter in compensation my humor grows deeper and allows me to enjoy the little contradictions of every day life.