Morning in late August in New Jersey dawns like any other. I wake up in my room I lived in for the last eight years, with walls that have been green for the last two. We’re in the middle of a drought, so though I rise early, it’s already murderously hot and muggy. All the summer bugs are busy buzzing about. I dress quickly in the clothes I left out last night, then rush downstairs to eat breakfast where bagels taste just as they always do.
After eating, Dad takes all my boxes and suitcases gathered in our living room and loads it into the back of our hunter-green mini-van. We pile in once he’s done and I share the middle seat with my sister June. Randy is away at band camp.
Mom gets in the passenger seat and turns around, surveying the back of the van. “That’s a whole lot of stuff,” she says to me. Then she faces Dad. “Are you sure all that piled so high won’t block your vision or distract your driving?” She asks it like he’d be nuts to say no.
“I’ll be fine,” Dad says with his usual empty optimism. He starts the car. Mom settles back into her seat. I wave one last time to our blue-grey house, our sweltering driveway and wilting lawn, and we’re off.
June and I play all our usual car games—A My Name is Annie, Twenty Questions and The Three People—like we used to do on drives to and from Nana’s in Connecticut where I was born, but we just keep falling into silence. I stare out the window and watch New Jersey disappear under the front of the van. I’m the oldest, and none of us has ever moved out before.
When I was fourteen in eighth grade, in the height of my music heyday, I imagined I’d be ultimately cool by the time I left for college. I ran around in black band t-shirts, baggy jeans and sneakers with fluorescent yellow laces. Nirvana was the awesomest alternative group in all the world and I was just starting to grow out my curly bangs. I was sure by the time I was eighteen they would stop sticking out at the sides. My white-blond hair would be long and luxurious, I daydreamed. No one would care about my albinism anymore; they’d just know that I knew every song and band and lyric, and I’d be a rock star.
As the years went by, so much of that young girl slipped away. I got older and stopped seeing myself on the eve of my adulthood so specifically. I just counted down the days until college—especially when I got music taken away for whatever expression of teenage angst—reminding myself that if I could just stick with it, one day I could be this free.
It’s funny how things change, and how they stay the same, I think as I watch more landscape fall behind us, wishing I could stretch out time and make this car trip last longer. I’m wearing a black band shirt but it’s not Nirvana but Jerry Cantrell, the lead guitarist from Alice in Chains. Along with that, I have on a silver ball-chain necklace that’s forty-two inches long and totally rocker-chick worthy. My hair is indeed long now. It goes halfway down my back and gets limp halfway there. No matter how hard I look out the window, I can’t find the confidence I’m supposed to have at my disposal. I’m not sure I’m as ultimately cool as I once imagined. Mostly, I’m just scared.
We pull into Chestertown in early afternoon and drive onto the campus of Washington College, right onto the cobblestone walkway in front of my new home, Middle Hall, the creative arts dorm. When we open the doors of the van, I know New Jersey was nothing. Maryland is where they made the words hot and muggy, and murderous.
The first thing I have to do is check in at the building across the way from Middle, and to the left of the dining hall, with big white columns around it. There’s a long line so I look around at my fellow entering freshman class. Nearby girls wear cute shirts and shorts. Some have on shirts with collars, skirts, dresses. Their hair is styled, piled on their heads and their smiles don’t waver. The guys wear jeans, plain-colored t-shirts. They all have short hair. I try not to hyperventilate.
I want to hide behind Mom like I did when I was little in department stores. “I’m nervous,” I say, quiet enough so only she can hear. She gives me an exasperated look like, not this again, you’re old enough to know better. I am, and I’m half a foot taller than her now so hiding is not an option, but still I want to try. With my limited vision, I’m afraid I won’t see or know what to do when its my turn.
Finally, we get to the front of the line and there’s a whirlwind of booths to go through. I get my picture taken for my student ID which doubles as a meal card. I take my glasses off for the camera, and study the card when I get it. There’s my picture-face, washed out in whitish light with my pale face and light hair against the contrast of my black shirt. My eyes look red from the light of the flash and I’m not quite looking the camera in the eye. It’s not at all like the face I see in the mirror at home. There I see the way my light hair flows, the way it looks against my slightly darker skin and I like it. My eyes close up are a blue-grey color, like the sea. I have my imperfections and pimples like anyone, but on good days I think I could be pretty, even hot, if people could see me as more than just my albinsim. On the ID card though, that’s all I see.
At another station I get my schedule and a code of conduct handbook. I continue on and collect a list of student clubs and organizations, an academic calendar, and another copy of the catalog. The upperclassmen manning the stations smile, shake hands, wish me luck and welcome me to WAC. Still I wonder which face they see. I have this sense that I’m a strange, white, talking blob at first and people only start to see my features once they get to know me. At the last station, I get my key to Middle 102.
We walk back to Middle to unload the back of the van onto the grass next to my dorm. Dad does most of the heavy lifting, and Mom makes most of the remarks about how much stuff I packed. One by one, we carry everything up a flight of twelve white steps to the door, then inside and immediately left to my new room.
I open the door, and step inside first. It looks like an elongated shoebox with two beds lining the wall that faces west with windows that look out over the stairs. There are three closets at the foot of the second bed and they’re tiny. I pick the bed closest to the door because it comes with a better desk. Dad sets up the mac they got for me with help from my camp counselor earnings this summer. Mom, June and I make the bed. It’s flipped up with lots of room beneath it, so the top is level with the huge windowsill beside it. Next to that goes my box of Christopher Pike books, my suitcases, and more boxes full of notebooks, journals, and the book I’m writing that’s based on a breakup that’s not even six months old.
That’s at least where it starts, with Josie Struthers reading a book in her bedroom while on the phone her boyfriend dumps her, just like I did last March with Nick. Except in my book, it’s two hundred years in the future and Josie and her friends and her boy end up on this girl’s spaceship during spring break, where they will soon encounter an alien world with invisible beings that will make them face their worst fears and learn a lot about themselves and each other before they head home forever changed. I’m not sure yet if Josie and Arden will end up back together. I’m only on chapter six, right before they land on Isadrine. I got distracted by trying not to grieve over Nick. Maybe once classes start and I get used to college I’ll find time to work on it.
Next to that go more boxes of all the nooks and crannies of my old room, my old life.
“Now, are you sure you’re going to need all this?” Mom asks again.
“Yes,” I say for the millionth time today.
“You’re sure you’re sure?” asks Dad. “If you’re not, I can always take something back in the van, and then if you need it we could bring it to you next time we visit.” His tone is rather official, but since my dad works for the government, the FBI to be exact, it’s to be expected.
I plug in my CD player on the dresser and consider his question. I’m packed in pretty tight for sure, but again and still, “No. If I end up not needing something, I can always have you take it back with you, next time you visit.” I take out my thick CD binder and put it next to the player. I couldn’t stand its plain black cover so I decorated it as soon as I took it home. I wrote “Emilia’s waves of sound,” on the front with metallic purple nail polish and coated it with a glittery dark pink, purple and blue. Underneath my title I painted a star, a moon and a ringed planet. After admiring my artistry, I left it on my floor to dry. Mom freaked when she found my impromptu project. She fumed about the fumes, but the damage was already done, and it was beautiful.
Above the dresser I put my framed poster of Jerry Cantrell in flaming tones of reds and orange. My high school friends loved it. They didn’t listen to Jerry or hardly know the name Alice in Chains that was so dear to my music heart, but in the picture he’s shirtless and smiling and they often said through his tight pants they could see his balls. I laughed along with them and loved my poster more, and when I was alone I looked more closely at Jerry’s physique like he could teach me sex education from afar. Among my circle of friends I could be the queen of innuendoes and the one who knew the most sexy words and positions, but I have very little experience with actual male bodies and my low vision made me even more self-conscious about this lack. Looking at the poster together, I fluctuated about my friends. Sometimes it felt like ogling the picture brought us closer, while often once I considered that they didn’t know or care to know his music, it only increased an already present divide between us. Added to that distance was the fact that some of them had a lot more experience with boys, whereas I had a more vivid imagination, and a more open and dirty mind.
Today though, with my family here, I can’t study Jerry’s balls or think about sex. My high school friends are so far away that maybe the way I compared to them no longer matters, as of today. I move on to two collages I made on huge pieces of blue posterboard. Both are made entirely from pictures cut out from music magazines or printed off the internet. The first is all Alice in Chains, but the second includes all kinds of bands—Sonic Youth, Garbage, Social Distortion, Pearl Jam, Silverchair, Smashing Pumpkins, Hole, Soundgarden and Screaming Trees—who I love or who I like and whose pictures’ colors fit well with the others. I left the middle spot blank for so long until one day I found a picture of Zakk Wylde with his gorgeous long hair in the back of a Hit Parade magazine. Even then I waited until a friend of mine played me his solo CD. Once I heard his music, it was okay to put his face in my collaged frame. Integrity must come before even the cutest of boys.
I hang these two posters on the west wall on the side of my bed, one above the other. If I ever lie down and look left now, I can look into so many smiling, inspired or sorrowful eyes so full of souls that sing.
As we’re setting up the room, a girl wanders in from upstairs to say hi. She’s short and cute with strawberry auburn hair. She says her name’s Jillian and she met me last spring at the Sophie Kerr weekend. I shake her hand. She’s moving in directly above me, from Madison, Wisconsin. We talk for a bit but it’s not until she mentions that she wrote a book that I vaguely remember her.
Sophie Kerr weekend was late last March, two weeks after Nick let me go, for accepted high school seniors interested in creative writing. We were all competing for the three scholarships they offer to incoming freshman each year. Dad drove me and wasn’t as strict about me hiding behind him. In fact I think he liked it, so we worked great together in an entirely awful way. I didn’t leave his side during the dinner reception while other students laughed and bonded I was scared out of my mind by all these college kids who were our hosts and all the other prospective students. After Dad left for his hotel, I stayed with a girl in the substance-free hall and everyone wanted to drink. I never had a sip in my life, not even at communion when we used to go to Catholic church. My mom doesn’t touch it and would surely kill me if I did. Dad has a beer with dinner once every week or so and that’s all the drinking my family does. I’ve had the dangers of drinking and drugs drilled so firmly into my head that during the first night I spent in a dorm, I was overwhelmed with culture shock. Students went up and down the hall yelling, talking about going to parties. I stayed in the room to read my packet of poems and stories for the next morning’s workshop and was sure everyone who walked by saw me as an alien bookworm.
The workshop itself was much more comfortable. There were so many writers, so much good writing and a cool atmosphere. We sat in a big circle on cozy couches and talked about our writing. A lot of us were from Jersey and we joked that college kids were our state’s biggest export. On our way out, Dad and I stopped in the bookstore and I got a red notebook with the college logo, and by the time we arrived home, I had started my book. A few weeks after that, I got one of the scholarships. I remember Jillian because she was the only one of us who’d written a real book. It was about Russia and from the small parts she read that morning, I knew she was one gifted girl.
Jillian goes back upstairs to unpack and the girls in my family explore my hallway. It’s a square with a couple rooms on each side. The floor looks like a chessboard with big black and white squares. The bathroom is coed. The urinal stands shamelessly next to two regular toilet stalls with doors. For the showers, there’s a curtain at the end of the bathroom, and behind it a small space to change and a windowsill, and then a tiny actual shower stall with a curtain on each side of that. What will I ever do if I see a boy while I’m in that middle common space, trying to change, or if I walk in here and some dude is taking a piss? Mom and June both are more weirded out than I am.
We check the doors on the other rooms. They all list traditional girls’ names except the room next door. It says Nedim and Cade, and that’s more suspicious.
“That’s such a cool way to spell Katie,” June says. “I think it’s all girls.” I’m not so sure, but she insists.
We go out to dinner at a restaurant in town named Black-Eyed Susan. As I eat, I look around the table at my family. They’re the spitting image of our Irish heritage background but without the booze: dark hair, light skin, blue eyes. If Randy were here, his reddish hair would be the icing on the Irish cake, as everyone else has brown but me. I watch June with her young smiles and wonder if I’ll always see her this way, just turned twelve, about to enter seventh grade, even as she goes through all of adolescence. Will Randy always be this distant? And Mom and Dad, will I still see them sitting here, together and not touching, as they age?
Back in my room, I put up my Silverchair poster above the head of my bed. I know the separation is soon, so I start to whine more, get cranky and almost mean, like that’ll make them want to stay.
“Well it’s getting late and we can see you’re getting anxious and tired, so I think it’s time to go,” says Mom.
I want to pout or pull on their arms and plead for them to stay, but I also waited my whole life for this moment, so I just say, “Okay.”
We hug goodbye but the act isn’t commonplace among us, more like a foreign custom. They leave, go out the door, down the stairs outside my window and into the van to drive to their hotel. Tomorrow they’ll return home to become a family of four. At the same time, I’ll leave on my freshman orientation outdoor adventure, then return to my dorm to try to make this strange place into a new home.
In the middle of my sulking, Jillian knocks on the door and I let her in. She leans against what will one day be my roommate’s bed and tells me about herself. “It was so hard to leave Madison,” she says. She worked at a restaurant and loved one of her co-workers while a different one loved her, and they were all good friends. Before she left, they threw her a going-away party and it made it hard for her to go.
She doesn’t seem to notice that I look different or that my eyes move, and I’d prefer if she never does. I tell her in turn about the going-away party I had last week, but don’t mention that half of my guests were legally blind. We walked past some boy’s house and the half that weren’t screamed his name into the sky because it can swallow your cries, and dusk settling somehow makes it safe.
I also fail to mention to her that the dusk settling in its humid, cloudless, blue August way was the only thing I wanted to hold onto, that I tried so hard to feel like there was anything else in my friends or my town that I belonged to and should be sad to leave, but there wasn’t. The boy whose name we called made fun of me all through school, mimicked the way I hold books close when I read, made loud and nasty comments about my white hair and my bad eyes to all the meanest girls in class, always loud enough for me to hear. One time, outside the school building, he flicked a lighter, turned to a girl nearby and said, “I wonder if albinos burn like the rest of us,” and started moving toward me with the flame. So as we walked the sidewalk near his house, my yell was heated and full of feeling, but not at all in the simple way that it was for the rest of the gaggle of high school girls who all just found him so cute, and squealed with laughter after they shouted his name.
I tell Jillian instead about my own summer job working at a camp. We talk forever and discover we both love to read and write and laugh, listen to music that means something to us, and involve ourselves in liberal politics. It’s not long before I know that I’ve already made a real, lasting friend. It surprises me that it’s happened so soon, so I smile.
We go out to meet other people in our dorm together. This is where I get really nervous. Sometimes I feel like people might be willing to overlook my looks, only to find out I’m even more different on the inside. It’s like I’m a raucous, raw raunchy and discordant rock song full of darkness, angst and melancholy and most people are pop anthems. Jillian’s immediate acceptance and openness is infectious though, so I follow her out of my room and down the stairs.
In the basement there’s a computer room and a room with a stage, both also with chessboard flooring. We run into a group of boys chasing each other with light sabers. They scream and run around, stop only briefly to say their names or ask us ours, then jump back to their game.
“Umm, nice to meet you too?” I mutter to Jillian.
“Yeah, I know, what a welcome, huh?”Jillian agrees with a laugh.
We follow them back upstairs to the first floor to the porch outside the one for Nedim and Cade. Out there, we meet Nedim. He’s tall and Bosnian with dyed-blond hair and a slight accent and he’s a boy. Cade is not another way to spell Katie.
It starts to lightning without rain. The light saber boys go wild and yell with every crackling across the sky. One of them, an actor named AJ, asks it to stop. “If you do that again, I’ll show the ass my sky! Shit, I mean…” On cue another streak of lightning sizzles, lighting up his outline and a tree behind him in shivery white.
We all laugh and someone runs inside to write, “I’ll show the ass my sky,” on the quote board outside the coed bathroom. After awhile, Jillian and I go inside, then to our separate rooms as we have to get up early for our respective adventures, for freshman orientation and for the next four years.
Alone again, I unpack my clothes and more of my nooks and crannies. Recently I bought a solar system glow-in-the-dark mobile so I could remember how I loved astronomy as a child and how I still love the deep space mysteries of outer space and the night sky. I take it out of its box to assemble but first I have to untangle Neptune from Mars from the moon. I stand on my bed to tape the top to the ceiling by the window, then put it together by pushing thin metal poles laden with planets into the centerpiece. I accidentally jab my thumb hard with one of the poles. It hurts like it’ll ache as it heals. Maybe when it does, I’ll finally be adjusted to this whole change of scenery.
I change into pajamas and climb into bed with my new lavender comforter. There’s an orange light outside my window so the solar system isn’t in enough deep space dark to glow, even with reflected light. I guess I’ve always taken for granted that I could look out my window wherever I was and see clouds shift shapes or search the sky for UFOs or shooting stars, but here night is obliterated by this obnoxious orange. It really hits me now, how far I’ve come since this morning. It hardly seems that New Jersey could have been today. In only slightly more than twelve hours entire states have shifted, and now the day is done and a new dawn is already taking shape.
All night students rush up and down the stairs outside my window. They’re loud and wild. They might be drunk or doing drugs. Maybe they just came from having sex somewhere and I’m the only creative arts dorm virgin in the world. I crawl deeper into my covers and rub the hurt spot on my thumb.