This is a rough account of my trip to visit grad schools back in March:
The morning before I left, we had a stupid argument. I was hassling Billy about wasting water, because he was letting the faucet pour waiting for the temperature to heat up when I’d already told him there was no hot water. He grew sullen and angry at the breakfast table, refusing to look at me, and my voice became shrill. I tossed his phone at him poorly (on purpose) so that it skittered out of his hands, and he swatted the expensive fresh cream I’d bought off the table, onto the floor. We were both behaving badly, in other words. These things happen.
We apologized stiffly in front of the taxi. I was leaving for five days, and our fight felt like a bad omen. I was looking at places to potentially move to for graduate school while he stayed behind, watering the plants in our back yard and feeding the cats.
More than anything else, the light in North Carolina held a different quality. It was brighter, for one thing, and also sharper. The sand, the air, the whitewashed walls, all had an overexposed quality. Like you might disappear into the background, a pair of eyes and a hand thrown up for shade, barely discernible in the flood of sun.
The ground, when I walked on it, was a mix of sand and grass. Sand with sparse blades crunching under my feet. The University buildings were brick and clean, and everything was still.
I drove my car with a broken right foot, using my healthy left foot to brake while I nodded along to classic rock and country radio stations. I spent a lot of time alone there. I ate alone at Outback, happily chewing on ribs and sipping Shiraz while I read Mary Gaitskill. I took a whole booth to myself and tipped my waitress nicely. Wilmington.
I thought maybe I could live there. When I went to the beach, a woman let me park my car in her neighbor’s driveway rather than feed money into the parking permit machine. A girl on the sidewalk smiled shyly and complimented my purse. The beach was shelly and crowded but real, a real beach, and I imagined summer bonfires and trips to the islands that dot the coast there. I would drink whiskey with professors and tan my shoulders while deeper, inside me, something slowed down.
But then there were the students, who made too big a fuss about me being from New York City, and my own reaction to their attention, knowing-it-all and puffed-up like a threatened bird. I spoke loudly, rudely, I thought, in class when the teacher asked for my perspective. I could sense (or was I imagining) their irritated glances. I was exhausted. The star student was a twenty-four-year-old named Keith who twisted his hair in mock dreads and wore his shirt unbuttoned far down his knobby tanned chest. His work was fantastic and I admired it, but he seemed committed to avoiding eye contact. When, after class, a couple of students invited me to a poetry party at a professor’s bungalow, I declined. I drove to my motel room instead, swallowed a xanax with a swig of bottled water, and set my alarm.
The 5am flight to Columbus was spent nodding in and out of a foggy half-sleep, my head thrown back and mouth drying out next to a polite businesswoman in a skirt-suit. I landed at 9am and got a text right away from my student guide, who was waiting at baggage claim for me. Here we go, I thought.
Raymond was short and stocky with wispy pale hair and pink skin. He didn’t offer to help me with my suitcase (I annoyed myself by noticing, but it’s true); still, he was right on time and parked close. His car was not just messy but dirty, dusted with crumbs and emitting a certain smell, like dirty laundry, old takeout and beneath that something more intimate. He hailed from northern Virginia like me, so we had that to talk about, and as we puttered along the highway and the buildings of downtown Columbus rose into view, he swept his arm in mock grandeur towards them and said, “and here’s the famed Columbus skyline.”
Raymond hated Columbus, though he didn’t care for Arlington, Virginia either. His ideal city was Madison, Wisconsin, where he’d gone for undergraduate and lived happily until grad school lured him away. These were cities I would never have considered as places to live, but here I was, nodding along. This could be your life, I thought. It was a baffling but not unhappy thought.
We did things for a few hours: drank coffee at Starbucks, drove through Columbus, stopped by his house, which also smelled, mostly of cat shit, and picked up another potential student named Nick. Nick was visiting from Possumneck, Mississippi, and when he introduced himself I asked him to repeat that. “Possum Neck?” I said, “really?” He laughed and said, “Yeah. Possumneck.”
That was point one for Columbus. Manhattan and Columbia might attract students from Prague, Mexico City or New Zealand, but they sure as shit wouldn’t have goofy guys with sky-blue eyes named Nick from Possumneck, Mississippi. Nick told me he wore steel-toed work boots to teach his students at the state school so that they’d respect him more. “They like good old boys there,” he said. “They loved Ariel, though. I told them the whole story about the gas oven, and they got really into it.”
The day was packed with activities – introductions, receptions, tours. I crunched around campus with my geriatric boot, marveling at the great lawn where undergrads in bikinis lugged stereos and blankets on which to roast themselves. We stopped for iced tea in the newly renovated student center, where we could hold office hours, we were told, whenever the 1960s-era English building got too depressing. The girl who told us that was beautiful, petite and charming in a flouncey sundress. Her father had been part of the Manson family.
Everyone was just so nice. The cliché about Midwesterners, it turns out, is true: they really are that friendly and welcoming and laid back. We were standing in a reception hall holding plates piled with cheese and crackers while around us people wheeled, laughing and chatting and shaking hands, and I felt like crying.
There were more events: dinner and drinks with the third-year women; a students-only open mic where people hollered and cheered, getting drunk on local beers; a keg party where the host played Britney Spears and people milled around the back yard wiping foam from their mouths and trading jokes.
I stood under a tree with a recent grad who was heading to Yale in the fall for his Ph.D. in Medieval Literature. It was getting late, and the party had evolved to its sloppy apex, people playing drinking games and grabbing each other, the music turned up louder. “I’m worried I’m too concerned about reputation,” I shouted. “Like what if this is a better place for me, but in the end I need the big name because I don’t believe in my talent enough. Like I need the big name to legitimize me?” He nodded, thinking. He leaned in closer, our temples side-by side, shoulders bumping into each other. “If that’s your thing, though, that’s your thing. I mean, if that’s your neurosis, everyone’s got something, there’s nothing wrong with it.” My ride home was standing on the porch steps; I could see her biding her time in a boring conversation while she waited for me. “I know, I just, I don’t think I can say no to Columbia,” I said. I felt mournful, like I knew just then that I was giving up my last chance at simplicity, at slowing down, at being on my own, away from anyone who ever knew me before, at some rare opportunity to start from nothing, as no one, unfettered. “Columbia’s the big time,” he agreed.
The ride to the airport the next morning, after I’d been treated to brunch and fig ice cream and a view of the park, was smooth and quiet. I watched the city shrink as the flat land around us expanded, the highway arcing over it towards the plane that would carry me home. This place would make you happy, I thought, but you’ll never let yourself come here again.
In the weeks that followed I would wrestle that voice, attempt to pin it on the mat and force it into submission, but in the end it spoke the truth. There was something larger I had to do, a stronger and more immediate call to finish what I’d started in New York – with Billy, with my home, with my friends, with my writing. I did not, ultimately, choose to leave. On the other hand, that voice had been layered with deception. Going away wouldn’t really be leaving, after all. I long to be less attached sometimes, but I’m not a tree that can be transplanted, gingerly dug up and then repotted, watered and sunned until I’ve forgotten my old plot of land. I’ve never known how to let go of things. I’d have left behind a severed hand, still holding on to what was mine.