Dead Ends: Or, That One Time I Dropped Out Of College
I sat at my desk in room 6235 Bursley. It was quiet, but for the bustling wind I could hear outside of my cracked window. My roommate was away, per usual, running on her business hours of 7:30am to 8pm. I saw little of her, and heard even less. I’d wake up by myself often, undisturbed by her early morning activities. Winter in Ann Arbor had proved to be reclusive; the trees shivered, standing branch to branch to conserve warmth, students kept their eyes to the ground dodging oncoming ice patches and bracing themselves for the ones they forgot to see. In short, it felt lonely.
I was an incoming transfer student, and had spent only a week in my new home. Having already been banished to the secluded, dreaded North Campus, I had found it difficult to form friendships with my peers, peers of whom had already established relationships within the previous semester, amidst Saturday morning tailgates, midnight trips to Meijer, and sleepovers in the undergraduate student library. Not to mention I had caught the flu quite literally the day I moved in, thus spending the first week of classes tucked in bed back home in Zeeland, Michigan, away from the social and academic sphere I had been eager to enter. In this week, I had declined party invites from high school friends who were already attending the university, forgone the ritual “syllabus week” celebrations, and had sent out a mass array of emails to professors, begging for extensions on assignments that had not even been given. Stress had overwhelmed me, but my parents quelled my fears, stating that it was only the fever talking.
But I didn’t feel all that different when they dropped me back off. It was a drizzly Sunday afternoon, a typical smattering of Michigan’s bipolar weather, or whatever Mother Nature felt like cooking up. This particular day’s recipe beheld a concoction of patchy gray skies, rain, snow, and the occasional flecks of the ever-teasing sunshine. I waved goodbye to my parents in a way that was almost movie-esque: me, standing at the door of my new dorm building, them pulling out of the circular drive, exhaust dripping from the exterior of the Honda Pilot. The wind blew me back indoors, picking up strands of brown hair and whipping them up whimsically. Freely.
Two days later, I decided I didn’t want to be there.
I sat at my desk in room 6235 Bursley, hyperventilating. Salty, hot tears had dripped from my nose to my chin to an inky home of page thirty-five of my Spanish textbook. The spot swelled and blurred, and soon others joined, making a puddle of poor page thirty-five. “You’re not going to be able to return that,” I told myself. Just another check mark added to the list of non-refundable items I had racked up. A stupid decision. “Stupid, stupid, stupid,” I repeated to myself. The tears failed to cease. I racked my brain to find rational words to explain this to my parents, most of all my father, who had departed with a kiss to my forehead and the words, “I’m so proud of you, honey,” a mere two days ago. I choked on the stale air of room 6235, and I neared the open window to attempt to gasp in a few fresh breaths. But the bitter January air did nothing but taunt me and my weak, flu ridden lungs.
I moved back to my desk, gazing at the term withdrawal slip that sat front and center on the smooth, wooden desk. I drew my feet up from the cool, dust speckled laminate flooring onto the plastic chair, cradling my shins and leaning my forehead against my knees. I had wished myself away from situations before: in my fifth grade gym class, or when my ex-boyfriend had presented me with a bouquet of roses on a Valentine’s Day when we were no longer together, or when I sat in front of my first pre-calculus exam. But I had been able to overcome, to handle the situation. Nothing had driven me running away from a situation before. Nothing except the time I was six, about to have my blood drawn.
I had felt ill the entire morning. From the moment my mom had sent me walking through the swinging doors of Corpus Christi’s elementary school, to the moment I sat down at my desk in Mrs. Schuehart’s second grade classroom. I had even declined Anika Jasper’s birthday treat — chocolate chip brownies, my all time favorite. Anxiety pumped through my lungs, my veins — my breath was laced with the stuff. I knew what was coming at 2:45 sharp, when my mother arrived once more in the circular parking lot. She had warned me earlier in the week, that “Thursday is the day, Beck, don’t forget.” Not that I, a six year old, really had any delegational abilities to call the shots on my afternoon plans. All the while, a sense of dread began to descend over me, washing away all prudent thought. The entire week I had been anticipating this day. It wasn’t the first time I had to have blood drawn. I had struggled with dehydration for nearly two years (mostly because I disliked the taste of, and thus refused water), and had subsequently been subjected to pokes and prods and doctors offices of all kinds. But it never got easier, in fact, the anticipation grew.
It was no later than 2:43 and I saw the Honda swinging into the school parking lot. Gripping the straps of my American Girl Doll backpack, I vowed to myself I would be strong. My sister would be there watching; though, at two, she probably had little to no idea of what the heck was going on and was satisfied to simply play with the germ ridden waiting room toys. But she was my motivation: “Be strong for Liz,” my six year old self vowed. And so, when I climbed into the back of the Honda, next to her navy blue carseat, I gulped down the nervous bubbles congealing in my throat, and greeted my mother.
“Ready, Beck?” came the back of my mom’s head. I greeted her through the rearview mirror, meeting her sunglass clad eyes, and forced a smile. “Yup.” John Denver hummed through the vehicle’s stereo, singing the songs my mom would often use to sing me to sleep. I felt a little better. I could do this. The Honda’s wheels crinkled over the gravel and peeled out of the lot. I gazed out the window, forehead pressed to the cool glass, watching the world mold into greens, blues, and browns until we reached a white edifice, emblazoned with black writing highlighted in red, reading words like “Emergency” and “Intensive Care Unit”. We were here.
It seemed like forever as my mother gathered my sister into her stroller. I tap, tap, tapped the sides of my pants. I bit my nails. I gazed down at my light up sneakers and noticed that my shoe was untied. I tied my shoe. After what felt like at least twenty minutes, we pushed our way through the office doors. I pushed the handicapped button, bare hand palming the square, blue sign, and was struck by how cool the metal was. It was only late September, but the temperatures had been quick to drop. “We’re preparing for a pretty bitter winter,” I overheard my dad say to my grandfather after beers one night. “Still don’t know why you’re living here, Greg,” came my grandfather’s reply.
Every step felt ominous. The anxiety was back. I could practically hear the sound of latex gloves snapping at the crooks of wrists. I could practically smell the unbearably sterile smell. I could practically imagine the nurse dotting the crook of my arm with rubbing alcohol, feel her tighten the band around my bicep. I shuddered. I felt the knot of terror return to my stomach, and soon all my muscles began clenching with my core. Upon entering the stuffy waiting room, I sat down in the chair furthest from the doctor’s office doors. Those doors, kept inconspicuous by frosted glass, those doors that held the nurses with bad haircuts who called out children’s names, who led them back to multitudes of questions and paper clad beds. I felt my heart rate increase, tap, tap, tapping against my ribcage, as if trying to beat its way out. I kicked my light up sneakers together, hair freely falling in front of my eyes as my mother checked me in at the receptionist counter, pen in one hand, my sister’s stroller in her other. Kids with snotty noses played with the beaded toys set on a blue, red, and yellow table, their knees pressed into the tough, ruddy colored carpet. Mothers with overly bleached hair paged through Better Homes and Cooking Light magazines. Tagging along older brothers thumbed GameBoy Color, thankful for the extra hour to postpone homework.
I kicked my shoes together, remembering the final scenes in The Wizard of Oz. Maybe, I thought, if I keep kicking, I can disappear, too, imagining Judy Garland’s bright red shoes and tightly closed eyes. I knocked my heels together until my mother’s familiar scent of vanilla and Paul Mitchell hairspray enveloped me as she descended into the seat to my left. “Doing ok, Boo?” she moved to push dark strands behind my ear, but I dodged her icy hands. “Yeah.” I kicked. She didn’t say anything. She picked up a magazine. I kicked. I listened as the frosted door opened, a nurse called a name, and then closed. At least ten names were called. “Did they forget about you?” My mom joked, but I wished to all above that she was right. I kept kicking.
Finally, the frosted door swung open, and in the frame stood a petite, pixie-haired redhead in burgundy scrubs, with a metal clipboard in hand. “Rebekah?”
This was it. The moment I had been dreading since the moment the news broke, at five pm on Sunday evening, over a plate of mashed potatoes, green beans, and meatloaf. My mom haphazardly tossed down the magazine she had briefed through, readjusted the sunglasses atop her brown locks, and began to gather my sister, who had been making faces at me for the entirety of the waiting period.
On two shaky legs, I arose. My sneakers flashed, and the right one had come untied again. “Come on, Boo.” My mom began pushing Liz’s stroller towards the red-headed nurse, away from me. I took a step in their direction. And then, without a moment’s notice, I turned the other way and ran.
I bolted out of the waiting room door, feet pounding the eggshell colored linoleum floors of the pediatrician floor. I pounded down two sets of stairs until I reached the front door, and, forgoing the handicapped button, slammed my two hands into the metal press bar until I stood beneath a brick overpass. Pots of flowers aligned my right and left. I could hear a siren in the distance. The air had considerably chilled, but I breathed it in with vigor, a firm juxtaposition to the stale office air of before. I felt free.
The withdrawal slip had not moved. It had not sunk into the wooden desk as I had wished, nor had it been miraculously whipped out of the cracked window. The tears still had yet to cease. Page thirty five of my Spanish textbook was practically a puddle at this point. “You’re doing it again,” I told myself. “You’re starting something you can’t finish. You’re running away from something because it’s hard, because you don’t fit in. Because you’re scared.”
My conscience, as usual, was right. But, as usual, I didn’t listen. With shaking hands, I held the page down and gripped a ballpoint pen, scribbling my sloppy signature in all of the necessary spots.
“But what will your friends think?” My conscience quipped. “You’re going to be letting down a lot of people, you know. You’re going to be a really big disappointment. Think about when you go home. You’re going to have to explain all of this.”
“Shut up,” I thought, eyes blurry, face tear-soaked. “It doesn’t matter. I can’t do it. I can’t do it. I don’t belong here.”
“No one will understand,” she replied, unsympathetically.
I wasn’t sure that I even understood; the anxiety had clogged all logical brain behavior that allowed rational thought, it had purged all nutritious hope from the body. I felt nothing but this claustrophobic panic, and the stale air in 6235 Bursley did nothing to remedy my asphyxiation. I needed to get out. I needed to get away from here.
But here, at the University of Michigan, is where I had envisioned myself for the past three years. I had outlined all of my college admissions essays, went to all of the campus tours, filled in the right bubbles with my number 2 pencils, and I was finally here. I had packed all of the right things, hugged all of the appropriate people goodbye. I updated my Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter profiles. “Rebekah Rinckey, University of Michigan” read my new title. I soaked in the triumph for months after receiving my acceptance letter, I gladly accepted congratulatory text messages and words passed on from parental colleagues. “She’ll go far at that school,” they told my mother. My dad could hardly keep himself from telling his entire pharmacy staff. “That’s great, Greg,” they replied, warmly. I had sat in the backseat of the Honda Pilot, adjacent to suitcases and cardboard boxes carrying pencils, hair products, and my necessary collection of classic novels. I watched, forehead pressed to the glass, as the world rushed by me in a swirl of grays and whites. Anticipation flooded my system. I was finally going to be there.
And once I was, I could not wait to get away.
There I was, sitting at that goddamn desk, the tears still streaming down my face in uneven patterns. I had no energy to reach over to the Kleenex my mom had just bought me to dry my eyes, instead, I mentally outlined the messages I would send to my parents, I solemnly concluded that I would just take a semester off to work and rebuild myself. That I would just use this time to become better. I rationalized and re-rationalized this decision, trying to force something comprehensible to be conceived from my madness.
But I was right. They didn’t understand. They came and got me that Tuesday afternoon, quickly packing away my new belongings. Some of them still bore their price tags that I had neglected to trim. It was a quiet process. My dad stood in the doorway, gathering the boxes my mom would hand him; she would move from the bed to the box to the doorway. It was an assembly line of shame. I felt unseen. Running away had proved harsher this time then it had as a six year old. The January air felt stale in comparison to the crisp September breeze that I had drank in when I rushed out of the hospital doors. My fear could be reasoned with as a child — “it’s just a needle, Boo, you’ll be ok.” But this time, my fleeing involved a loss of money, a loss of respect, a loss of composure. “I told you,” murmured my conscience, as the Honda pulled, once again, out of the circular drive. Snow flung itself to the car windows. I watched, solemnly, as flakes clung to the silica glass, held on for a few seconds.“I told you they wouldn’t understand.” The single flakes were soon joined by their brothers, making a hazy, frosted mess on my window. I pressed my forehead, once again, to the frozen glass. I let the icy prickling on my scalp admonish me, remind me of what I had done wrong. It couldn’t be patched up with a Hello Kitty band aid and a SmileMaker sucker. It couldn’t be laughed off at family gatherings, “Well, you know what Rebekah did?” My dad would begin with a chuckle. “She bolted out of the doctor’s office. Needles, they just scare the crap out of her.”
But this time, there was no conversation to be had. There was nothing to be done but bear the unbearable weight of disappointment and shock. Every surprised glance at hearing the news was like being in the doctor’s office all over again. Every text message asking me if I was ok was like my skin was being punctured all over again, the needle sinking into my vein.
The car ride was silent, but for the purring of the engine. My mom didn’t even move to put music on, though she can hardly make it through car rides in complete quiet. But this time, all that was to be heard was the deafening silence that permeated the four walls of the vehicle. My decision resonated in it, it showed bright in it, it hung in it like a foggy, Michigan-summer humidity. I thought to wish myself away from the situation once again, but could not muster up the strength nor the gumption. Instead, I sat with my knees curled into my chest. I sat with my decision. Nothing was said. Nothing was done. We simply drove away.