Four hours of orientation finally over, a very young me sat staring at a girl who had been in my new student group all day long. She had not said one word to me, but I couldn't help staring nonetheless.
I heard her tell the 'Dorm Mother' her name was Jenn. She was lanky and thin in a homeless girl kind of way and smelled like she hadn't changed her clothes in weeks. The smell wafting from her reminded me of the teenage boys I had grown up with, sweat and smoke mingled with just the tiniest bit of cologne, thrown on for good measure. Her orange coif was curly and kinky in that way where it might be an attempt to grow dreadlocks, might just be a unkempt mess. She had it all pulled up on top of her head with a dark blue bandanna wrapped and tied around the bundle of orange like an odd tiara balanced on her head.
I sat across from her in a narrow dorm hall, strangers in close proximity, while a jacked up but pretty R.A. with a very high ponytail and an even higher pitched voice was telling us some rules to remember.
Jenn kicked out one long chuck taylor and knocked my foot to one side. She looked me in the eyes and gave me one deliberate wink. I noticed her eyes were very pale blue in color and I spent a few moments trying to remember why pale blue eyes reminded me of death. When she had my attention she reached down between her legs and slowly slid a bottle of liquor from the folds of a beat up canvas bag. I found out later it was a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20, Peaches and Cream.
Our dorm was a very old mansion and five of us (including Jenn and myself) were exiled to the highest floor, a expansive attic with two fireplaces and giant floor to ceiling windows, framed by iron flourishes. We each had a twin bed and lots of space to set up the trappings our parents had furnished us. I loved the adorable bed set and matching lamp my momma had bought me. She had packed the most thoughtful things like little dorm cooking utensils and special bathroom accoutrements. I learned later that Jenn preferred to sleep on the floor and all of her belongings were stuffed into that aforementioned canvas bag or a larger but just as dismal looking duffel bag. I felt bad for her and glad at the same time that I had parents who cared for me so much.
All day and all night Jenn and I talked. She smoked cigarette after cigarette, billowing puffs of grey climbed and fell out of her thin mouth. I begged her not to smoke in our room and she laughed and laughed at me, so hard at one point she wrapped her thin arms around her even thinner body and started to hack uncontrollably. When she stopped she lit up another cigarette and told me,
"You can do what you want now, Baby. Just relax."
Like we had known each other for years and years...even though at that point we had met literally moments before.
I prefer to think about these moments rather than later ones. A struggling Jenn talking on the phone to her father. A failing Jenn straining over the easiest assignments. A passed out Jenn puking all over herself, throwing her in the showers, watching her body limp and seemingly dead as the water washed over her clothed body.
An inebriated Jenn bringing men back to our dorm room. Those scary men coming back to find her at all hours of the night and day.
Today I'm thinking of the day we decided to go out to eat and on a city tour. Although Jenn and I were both very familiar with the city we went to college in, most of the girls housed with us were not.
Jenn was missing the whole day before the dinner/tour and I started worrying about her around 2pm, but was distracted by the frenzy of girls around me, looking in mirrors, borrowing earrings and asking for opinions on this dress or that pair of shoes. I was wearing a simple black shift in linen and my hair was pulled back in two braids. I remember what I was wearing very clearly, being that it was one of the best nights of my life.
I also remember very clearly a giant black Escalade pulling into the cul de sac about 10 minutes after I had written Jenn off for the evening. From the back, climbing over three thugs and a rottweiler, emerged a disheveled Jenn. She was wearing cutoff jean shorts, a thin white tank so threadbare that two dark circles were plainly visible along the bones jutting from Jenn's chest. Around her waist was a flannel t-shirt (grungish 8 years too late) and her feet were bare and dirty. She greeted me with a huge smile and said,
"Let's get this show on the road, Baby!"
I had barely enough time to run to our room and grab her a pair of shoes before the shuttle came to pick us up and everyone began piling into it.
At dinner, Jenn wasn't interested in eating, although everything was delicious. She stared at me from across the table, smoked and drank wine. We had previously decided that we were all going to split the bill, but when it finally came to the table Jenn insisted on paying. As she usually did in every instance.
The city tour bus was picking us up in front of the restaurant and while we were waiting Jenn meandered over to a pay phone and made some phone calls. She whispered in my ear when she came back,
"Can you walk in those shoes?"
I laughed and we practically ran away from the group, waving and giving promises of calling later in the evening, promises not to stay out all night. I could see on the worried faces of the girls we left behind that they disapproved of Jenn, despite her warm and generous ways.
We walked and talked all night. Jenn would stop here and there, go into an apartment or townhouse and I would stay on the stoop or would stand on the sidewalk. Looking back I see how dangerous this was, but at the time I was exhilarated, amazed at how powerful this amount of freedom felt in my belly. The air was a bit chilly, but every time the wind blew I only felt grateful to be alive and walking around in our giant world, a good friend by my side.
We finally ended up in front of a giant brownstone in a much higher end neighborhood than we had previously traversed that evening. This time Jenn invited me in. She used her own key in the door and we walked into a lovely home with modern furnishings and luxury items everywhere. She barely noticed her surroundings as she went straight up the stairs and into a much less nicely appointed bedroom. From a cupboard on the wall she loaded up her bag with bottles of alcohol and packs of cigarettes.
We left without saying a word about the house or it's inhabitants.
We walked home, sharing cigarettes and a bottle of Boone's Farm Strawberry Wine. Jenn would from time to time take my plump warm hand in her cold bony one. We made great promises of life long friendship and toasted to freedom and love.
I prefer to think of this night rather than all the others, this night rather than the night I told her I would never see her again. This night rather than the time I did see her again, only to regret it. This night rather than the last time I saw her, when I told her she was better off dead, and meant it.