I crawl and am knocked down, clawing my way to shore. Even in two feet, the current, so insistent, tries to suck me back.
Finally, I am on the beach. Gasping and happy. I collapse and cough and throw up water. I consider what a colossal failure my little baptism was, though it is a thought uncharged with feeling, likely to be revisited when I have more strength to hate myself. Instead I am taken by such a blissful state of peace, unlike anything I’ve ever felt, that it seems rooted in something bigger than just my relief. It is a bone calm, a soul calm, as if the unnamable but constant rattle inside me has been silenced for a moment, given a source to express and extinguish itself. I think back to that saving voice in my head and I wonder how I can find her again—the me who is wise and unafraid, who believes I will be okay.
Upwind, the sound of another human voice shatters my serenity. The rattle inside me stirs. I glance up. It’s one of the homeless guys now standing on the bench, a hand cupped to his mouth while the other waves the pack of cigarettes in the air like a rescue flag.
“You okay, girlie?”
I start to laugh, but it feels like crying so I stop. I raise my head, triggering more coughing. Eventually I manage a limp wave.
“I’m fine,” I call back, though my voice has no sound.
I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.
Because just like all the other times I’ve drowned in my life, I’m determined to keep paddling forward, to believe that none of it has affected me at all.
I SPEND THE next hour in a dirty gas station bathroom changing out of my clothes, blow-drying my wet hair with the hand dryer, reapplying my makeup—trying to make myself perfect so no one will be able to guess what’s underneath, see the girl who can’t stay afloat. I light a cigarette from the new pack I’ve just purchased and immediately start coughing again. I’ve been hacking almost nonstop since I left the beach, trying to eject something lodged deep in my chest. The moment my lungs settle down I check my reflection once more. No matter how many hours I spend in front of the mirror, I can never hold on to what I look like the second I turn away. I’m like a vampire’s opposite, existing only in the glass.
I leave the gas station and walk toward the brick buildings of Dunton, dragging my suitcase behind me. The campus appears to be straight down the road. I can’t tell how far exactly, but I don’t mind the walk. I’m still adjusting to how strange it feels just to be able to move through the world without supervision, to light my own cigarettes, to know the wind on my skin won’t be taken away from me. Besides, I’m in no rush to get there. I’m scared shitless.
Forty-five minutes later I am at the main entrance to the Dunton campus where a big sign hangs, welcoming incoming freshmen. I stop and look around, taking everything in. The sun has come out over buildings so large and old and Gothic that everyone looks misplaced in time beside them. The ocean is present in the hang of salt in the air and in the coastal breeze that tosses the hair of both girls and trees. All around me, kids leap out of minivans and station wagons like they’ve just arrived at a party while their parents organize missions to unload their crap into the dorms. I stand alone with my suitcase and try to figure out where I’m supposed to go. A small voice in my head keeps saying, “I want to go home.” I have no idea what I even mean by “home,” which somehow makes the refrain harder to ignore.
Finally I take a deep breath and drag my suitcase across the lawn toward an orientation booth, threading through preppy parents and their loud, happy teenagers. Everyone around me is wearing T-shirts and shorts in the latest styles, while I am in my oversized jeans and sweater. Already I feel like I’m advertising that I don’t belong here. I push my shoulders back and lift my chin higher, trying to appear cool and confident, like I don’t care.
After standing in a long line of eager, boisterous freshmen, I eventually get my student info packet, which includes my dorm assignment, key code and meal card. Then I wander around until I find my dorm—an industrial-looking building with interior cinder-block walls and a concrete staircase. A disturbingly cheerful resident adviser greets me at the door, checks my name off a list and then points me toward my room. I reach my hallway and see a blond girl and her mother at the other end, struggling to hoist a huge picture frame through their doorway.
I summon the courage to say “hi” when I reach them, but in the same moment, their frame slips and crashes to the floor and they both erupt in hysterical, exclusive laughter. I turn and punch the pin number I’ve been given into the keypad on the door, push it open and step into silence. The room is painted stark white and contains a broken window shade, a single bare bed, a small desk and a chair.
Instinctively I assess my surroundings, calculating the distance between the bed and the door, the number of windows, the type of locks, the quickest escape. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a deep-seated fear of being trapped, and it’s only gotten worse since I got locked up.
On the wall above the desk, I notice a fire alarm. I climb up and pull out the battery and then flick on my lighter, watching for a moment the vitality of the flame, feeling the heat of its nearness against my thumb. Then I spark up a cigarette and plop down on the bed. There is a phone on the floor beside me, but when I pick it up, there’s no dial tone. I have no idea why or what to do about it. I imagine my mother helping Matthew with things like this in his first year of college. I stuff the phone under my bed so I don’t have to see it.
The coughing starts again, so deep and persistent this time that little diamonds of light flash across my vision. The taste of seawater scorches the back of my raw throat and I feel kind of light-headed, like I can’t get enough air.
I lie down on the mattress without bothering to put the sheets on and stare out the undressed window until the only light comes from the embers of the cigarettes that I light back to back and ash onto the floor between coughs. Music and laughter and the sounds of new friendships developing float under the door. I fall asleep questioning my decision to get a single, wondering whether it’s worse to be with other people and have nowhere to hide or to be so alone that no one can find you.