For some reason, I chose a sundress. In retrospect I should have been more concerned about other matters, but up until that point I’d clung to the idea that clothing is the closest thing we have to armor anymore. It keeps people from poking, prying, and digging too deeply. They see what they want to see and move on. Maybe sometimes it’s just a good place to hide.
My steed was a maroon Sears floor model mountain bike that my parents had gotten half price. Whether they’d forgotten or overlooked my lack of cycling prowess, I don’t know. I do know they drove home laughing. All the way. Choking back tears and pulling over at rest stops to walk off the stomach cramps.
Up until that point, I’d never ridden a bike without crashing it. Not because I was a BMX pro daredeviling off the school roof tops or in abandoned empty suburban pools. I crashed because my brain can’t seem to make the quick decisions it takes to steer them. Garage doors, curbs, turns, changes in terrain shortcircuit my survival wiring. I once crashed into a pole because I couldn’t decide whether to go left or right around it. I’m not proud of it and mostly like to think I have other skills that outweigh the defect but I don’t know. Maybe in the metric system.
Thus the battlegear of a 17 year old girl’s first day at UCSB was chosen in a world that smelled of eucalyptus, the ocean, shiny new rape whistles from our orientation package, and vague hints of last year’s Keystone trickling down the gutters. A sundress, an empty backpack, and a godforsaken Sears bike. Luckily I found a reasonably slow and methodical rider ahead of me. I shadowed his every move like a bounty hunter and made it to campus alive.
First class- classical philosophy (formerly known as one of the only GE classes available in the Fall of 1992, now known as the fork in the road of my life):
Simple. One job: blend into the background, sit and listen. The professor began the class asking for the class to call out names of people they admired. One at a time they rattled off the usual suspects. JFK, MLK, Mother Theresa, Einstein, Gandhi, Princess Di. My brain frantically searched through the roladex of people I could mention. I didn’t take the time to frame the question in the terms of the group. In my mind then and to this day, I admire people who do necessary things I could or would never do: garbagemen, the people who suck out the innards of port-a-pottys, people who sew buttons onto shirts day after day, the ones who make sure there are exactly 12 frosted Entenmanns donuts in a box, athletes, leaders of millions of strangers in countries I probably still can’t find on a map. Basically anyone that isn’t living in the trenches of my life, but managing to find the way through their own.
Sit and listen. Simple.
I watched in horror as my arm shot up. I didn’t ask it to move but anarchy reigns in the human body at times. Professor McNamesForgotten gestures to me for my answer. I felt my mouth open and heard my voice say “the Pope”. In my mind it made sense. He was someone whose face and bubble car everybody knew. He had a job I could never do. Never understand. One I would never want. Not ever. But his job was important to so many people trying to find a safe place to place their faith. That’s admirable. 80 heads turned my way in unison which was awkward enough. I shrunk down into my sundress where they couldn’t find me. Then the boos started. Not kidding. They effing booed me. I felt the steam rising from the neckhole of my sundress and became a human sweat lodge for the remaining 45 minutes of class.
Once time ran up and the last of the others shuffled out, I slowly emerged from the dress and shuffled off to the bookstore. As I was walking, I heard someone running up behind me. Thinking I was in for a second round of boo’s, I doublestepped. He ran faster to catch up and, for a fleeting moment, I thought maybe I’d be able to explain what I meant. Maybe I’d make a friend and we would laugh and laugh over cheap coffee and burritos. I turned around and he said “Excuse me”. I smiled. “I’m sorry to be rude, but I thought you’d want to know”. Know what? I wondered. He pointed at my derriere. Interesting development. My eyes followed the exact trajectory of his index finger to the sundress that had apparently been tucked into the back of my underpants for the entire morning as I walked the expanse of campus.
I removed the half dress from its hiding place, hung my head, and headed back to the maroon beast. With a turtle shell filled with books I slowly rode back to the dorm. I made my way onto the path and didn’t notice that the terrain was different in the opposite direction. If I’d thought enough to be tracking, I might have noticed a rider ahead of me deftly steer around a stick jutting into the path. But I wasn’t tracking anyone.
The stick jumped up and struck at my front spokes with its fangs, temporarily locking them up, eventually paralyzing them, and shifting all momentum in the space time continuum. The bike stopped. I didn’t. I slowly catapulted over the handlebars like the winning throw you see in feel good sports replays. Slowly, ever so slowly- “Concrete, I’d like to introduce you to sundress….and elbow…and knees. I’m sorry, it seems as though pride has already left. Ahh but here come tears. How delightful!”
Nobody stopped. They steered around me and zipped off on their journeys. I scraped myself off of the road. Ribbons of dress hem fluttered behind and around me. My bike sounded like the one Debo rides in Friday. Squeaking every third rotation. Rhythmically. When I got back, I threw the sundress into the trash. I opened my first philosophy book. And I read all of it.
The next day, sore and a bit wiser for the wear, I squeaked my way back to school. I sat in that class and I listened. And I learned. And I switched my major to philosophy, and the road less traveled.