I wish I could say there was some dramatic event that led to me leaving Grinnell, but there wasn’t.
I had almost forgotten about Grinnell until I got the phone call. I was eating peanut butter out of the jar when my cell phone lit up and started to ring. I looked to see that a number with the 641 area code was calling. I sighed. Reluctantly, I set down the peanut butter and the spoon, and answered the call.
“Hello?” I said.
“Hi!” the person on the other line said, way too enthusiastically. “Could I please speak with Ellen?”
“This is Ellen.” I shifted my weight in an attempt to get a little more comfortable. I was sitting on the cold tile floor in my new apartment’s kitchen. It’s about a mile from campus. It’s a little farther than I wanted, but this was the best place I could get on short notice. I haven’t had the time, or more importantly, the money, to buy furniture yet. I’ll get around to it.
“Hi there, my name is Liz, and I’m calling tonight with Grinnell College Phonathon.”
I came to Grinnell almost four years ago from my high school in suburban Chicago. Though I told my friends and family I was happy throughout my first semester, I don’t think I ever loved, or even liked, Grinnell. There was just something about it that made me feel constantly uneasy. It’s hard to describe.
My parents came with me on the first day of orientation, along with my little brother, to help me move-in and learn more about the place where I’d be spending the next four years of my life. We drove in two cars—my parents in one, and me and my brother in the other. I got to campus before my roommate, so I was able to claim my side of the room and unpack without worrying about having to make awkward small talk. As I settled in, my dad held me a spot in the P-card line. When I came to meet him, I found him talking enthusiastically with someone else’s dad about sandhill cranes.
“Have you ever come out for the spring migration? It’s really something else,” the man said. I guess he lived on a farm near Kearney, a town in central Nebraska that hosts a festival every year in celebration of the cranes’ arrival. “You know, the call Kearney the ‘Sandhill Crane Capital of the World’ for a reason.”
“Oh man,” my dad said, memorized at the thought of hundreds of sandhill cranes flying low over the Nebraska plains at twilight. “No, I’ve never been, but I would absolutely love to.”
“You’ve got to make the trip,” the man said. “A guy like you, you won’t regret it.”
A few minutes later, the man was joined by his wife and he left to go to the bathroom. Before he was even out of earshot, Dad turned to me. “This might sound a little crazy, but I think you should become friends with that man’s daughter.” I raised an eyebrow. “That way, I can make a trip to photograph the cranes during the springtime and camp out on their land.”
“You’re so weird,” I said.
“Indulge me for just a moment. I can already picture it. I’ll wake up early to get some nice shots of them as the sun rises. He says they have several ponds and even a river running through their property, so I should be able to see tons of them. It’ll be perfect.”
I frowned. “But no pressure,” Dad added. “I’m not going to tell you who to be friends with.”
My parents stayed at hotel in town that night because my dad is a slow driver and he didn’t want to drive back in the dark. I pretended to be annoyed that they were sticking around so long, but I was actually relieved. I couldn’t sleep on that first night in my dorm. The bed was uncomfortable, my roommate snored all night, and there were too many thoughts and feelings rushing through my head. At about midnight, I snuck out of my room and drove to the hotel where my family was staying to sleep with them. My parents didn’t ask any questions, and I drove back to campus just a few hours later, at about 5 am, to make sure I was in my bed in the morning when my roommate woke up. As far as I know, she never found out that I snuck away that night.
I went to my first Harris party during orientation. I heard about the parties when I visited as a prospective student and I was pretty excited to actually go to one. My tour guide told me about all of the themes: Disco, ‘80s, ‘90s, 2000s, Halloween. Though I knew what Harris parties were, I was completely unprepared for what I would see and experience there. I guess I expected them to be like the fun and innocuous dances I had at my friends’ houses during high school, where there were homemade snacks and a parent always a few yards away. I actually showed up early to the party with a few equally clueless girls from my dorm because I didn’t know that the earliest acceptable time to arrive at Harris was 11:30.
I thought Harris was fun until some random guy tried to get me to dance with him. It was one of the first Harris parties of the fall—‘80s, yes, because I was wearing a bright pink off-the-shoulder sweater with a tank top underneath and turquoise leggings. It was dark, with the exception of a few flashing strobe lights. “Call on Me” had just come on when he grabbed my sweater around my left elbow. At first, I thought it was one of my friends trying to get my attention, but then I looked in that direction and saw a mysterious man wearing sunglasses and an orange windbreaker. Though I couldn’t see his eyes, he looked threatening. I panicked. Without thinking, I swung my arm a few times to break away and then ran off to the bathroom to seek refuge. The bathroom was packed. By the hand dryers, I saw a group of girls talking animatedly as I entered.
“Did you see me dancing with Jack earlier?” a girl wearing a leotard with leggings underneath asked.
“Yes, are you going to get some of that?” another girl wearing a purple dress with puffy shoulders said.
“I don’t know. Do you think he likes me?”
I kept walking. On my way, I passed a few girls hunched over the toilets with their friends overlooking and the stall doors opened. I stopped when I reached the last stall before the handicapped one. I locked the door and took a seat on the toilet. I heard “call on me, call on me,” in the distance. Suddenly, I felt dizzy. I covered my face with my hands.
I still went to Harris after that, but it was never the same. I had a heightened awareness of my location compared to the location of others. I kept lookout for the solo men who circled the perimeter of the dance floor.
My roommate at Grinnell was under the impression that she was much closer to me than she actually was. It’s not that I didn’t like her. She was fine. She is probably still fine, though I wouldn’t know for sure because I haven’t talked to her since I left.
I feel like my very first encounter with my roommate is characteristic of our relationship. When my roommate saw me on move-in day, she sprinted towards me and gave me a huge hug. But because she was coming at me with so much momentum, she almost knocked me over. It still would’ve been a nice gesture, except at that point I had no idea who she was. I was standing outside of our room, taking a break from all of the unloading and unpacking. I still had a one or two loads left from the car. She had just arrived and was coming inside to check out the room before bringing anything in. She recognized me instantly from my Facebook picture and was excited to see me. I didn’t register who she was, though, until after she ambushed and knocked me against the wall, later causing my elbow to bruise. When she embraced me, I didn’t know what was happening. I was startled. I probably would’ve been terrified if I had longer to process what was happening, but I didn’t because it occurred in such a short amount of time.
“Ellen!” she yelled as my back and elbow hit the wall.
I didn’t immediately respond yet she kept hugging me. “Hi?” I said eventually.
She was unable to see my surprise and discomfort. “Hi!” she said as enthusiastically as before. “I’m Meg. I’m so excited to meet you!”
If we never had to interact, Meg would’ve been the perfect roommate. She was clean and kept the room tidy. She liked to bake and randomly made me cookies and other desserts for no reason. She never hooked up and rarely had anyone over, so I never had to deal with unwanted guests. The problem with Meg, however, was that I couldn’t avoid interacting with her. She wanted to interact with me all the time. At first, I thought she would back off if I pushed her away. I tried to do this subtly. Whenever she asked me to do something, I made up an excuse. Whenever she asked me a question, I responded in as few words as possible. Whenever she did something nice for me, I never gushed or got excited. I just replied plainly and without emotion: “Thanks.” Somehow, she took my lukewarm attitude and passivity to mean that we were best friends. I guess I never expressed this explicitly, but believe me, I left plenty of hints.
Meg never wore pants in the room, even when I was there. This wasn’t that big of a deal. I, too, believe pants are unnecessary and uncomfortable. The big deal was when I came home after class to discover her wearing my underwear. I didn’t notice right away, but she pointed it out to me.
“Hi, Ellen! How are you?” she said when I shut the door.
“Fine.” I untied my shoes.
“I borrowed a pair of your underwear because all of mine are dirty and I didn’t have money for laundry. I hope you don’t mind.”
I froze. “No, it’s okay,” I said after a few seconds. What was I supposed to say? She was already wearing them.
I bought a beta fish at Walmart during the first few weeks of school. I didn’t intend to. I actually went to Walmart to buy allergy medicine and I somehow ended up looking at the fish. The beta fish were an especially sad-looking bunch. They were just sitting on a shelf in small plastic cups. They all looked so cramped and miserable that, on an impulse, I decided to buy one. I felt bad for them. I would’ve bought more than one, but I was with a girl from my floor and she convinced me not to.
Even though I did my best to take care of the fish, it died two weeks later. I think it was partially dead when I got it, but I still felt responsible. After it died, I couldn’t remove it from the bowl and dispose of it. I tried to several times, but I just couldn’t do it. Having pets die wasn’t new for me. I had fish and hermit crabs growing up and they died randomly sometimes. However, my parents always took care of them afterwards. But since my parents weren’t there to handle it, I just let the poor fish float in the water. It was almost like it was alive except that it never swam or ate. Meg noticed that the fish died after a few days. She tried to get me to do something with it, but I kept putting it off. One day, I woke up and the dead fish was gone.
I took four classes first semester, but I hated all of them except biology. I wasn’t expecting to like biology, but it ended up being kind of fun. My section focused on genetics using C. elegans as a model organism. C. elegans are basically just really small, almost microscopic, worms found in compost that’re often used in experiments because they’re simple in structure and homologues to humans.
We did experiments with different strains of C. elegans to learn about their breeding and other behaviors. I followed along and recorded all of the proper data, but this wasn’t the part of the class I liked. The part of the class I liked wasn’t really part of the class at all, and that was staying long after lab ended to watch the C. elegans. The whole semester, I don’t think anyone found out I did this. I guess I tried to be sneaky about it. Once lab was over, I’d put away all of my things and pretend like I was leaving with everyone else. After the lab cleared out, however, I’d pull microscope back out and get a few petri dishes of worms from the incubator. I watched them under the microscope for hours. I liked watching the worms move about, leaving dozens of paths in the E. coli behind them.
I grew too attached to the C. elegans. They are impossible to individually identify and keep track of, but I got emotionally invested with specific dishes of them. After only a few days, as the C. elegans quickly multiplied, the dishes became starved and we had to move them to a new dish with new E. coli. But we could only move a few worms to the new dish. We left the rest to die. We sealed the petri dishes of the starved dishes, which became moldy, and threw them away like trash.
I wish I could say there was some dramatic event that led to me leaving Grinnell, but there wasn’t. Instead, it was a series of small things. My parents didn’t even know I was leaving Grinnell for good until I came home in December with all of my belongings crammed in my car. When I pulled into the driveway, they were looking out the window. I didn’t look at them. I got out of the car and walked inside without saying a word. They didn’t say anything to me, either. I think they were too surprised. I walked up to my room, shutting the door behind me. I guess I fell asleep after a while, and I guess I fell asleep for a long time. When I woke up, I looked around, confused. Sometimes when I sleep, I forget where I am. It didn’t help that my mom or dad had brought some of my things to my room. I saw a stack of boxes, two suitcases, books sprawled over the floor and my bedding from school from when I awoke. I got up and somehow managed to navigate my way around my bedroom, crisscrossing around all of my belongings. I caught a whiff of my comforter and sheets as I picked my glasses up from my dresser. They smelled like lavender. My mom must have already washed them.
That afternoon, we had a serious talk. My brother was at some athletic practice when my parents came up to my room to ask me to join them for coffee. I knew what was going to happen, but I complied. I followed them downstairs to our kitchen table, where I sat down without saying anything in my usual spot. Mom set a mug of coffee in front of me. I let the steam rise into my nostrils.
“Would you like any sugar or cream?” she asked.
“No, I drink my coffee black now.”
The coffee was decaf, of course, because my parents don’t drink caffeine after lunchtime. I reached down and scratched the rash that had started to develop around my ankles. When I looked up, both of my parents were seated with their coffee. They were staring at me with eyes full of concern.
“Ellen,” my dad started off. “We are worried about you. We take it that you aren’t going back to school after the holidays. But why? We thought you were so happy there.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just sat there, fiddling with the hangnail by my right thumb. I should really trim that later, I thought to myself. My dad’s voice echoed. We thought you were so happy there.
For the first time since I left Grinnell, I’m starting classes in a month at a large research university. I was given the option to live on campus with a roommate, but I opted to get my own apartment. I’m excited but also worried. I can’t help but think that it’s not going to work out again. I purposely picked a school that was completely different than Grinnell. This place even has sororities and fraternities. I received a pamphlet shortly after I was admitted inviting me to some Greek Weekend to learn about Greek life on campus. I laughed when I got it, until I realized that everything in the pamphlet was completely serious. Even though my new college is different from Grinnell, I feel like the same issues might come up. What if it was just me and not Grinnell? I asked myself. A scary question, yet I thought about this as I was on the phone with Liz from Phonathon.
However, Liz from Phonathon interrupted my thought. “Can we count on you to donate $50?” she asked.
Not sure what to do, I hung up.