When I went away to college for the first time, my college was essentially chosen for me by adults who didn‘t really know much about college. It was in a small town close by, and not a scary big city where there are gays, weirdos, and Democrats, and where I may get strange, liberal ideas about how the world works, and it also gave me the most financial aid, and I was too young to sign the papers myself, so my fate was sealed.
The other students at this college were wealthy and privileged. This was not actually a good school; it was one of those overpriced upstate private schools for rich kids who were too stupid to get into good schools but still came from families who could afford good school tuitions. Of course, this meant that I would have no friends, being one of the token poor townies. I hated it. It was everything I didn’t want: small, provincial, homogenous, and without room to explore interests. I thought I was stuck there for four whole years, which is a lot at the age of 17. I was horribly depressed. But when I turned 18, I left. This was a rude awakening for my parents, who realized that I actually was an autonomous person, and I couldn’t actually be forced to do things, no matter how hard they tried, and I couldn’t actually be forced to take out loans and remain at a college I didn’t want to be at no matter how much that would anger them.
I was thrust into college. I had never been anywhere and I knew nothing about the world. I had no support system and no clue how to conduct myself as an autonomous adult. I had no money and no chance of getting a job. I didn’t know how to manage my time or to conduct myself in different places. I didn’t know how to resolve conflict. I didn’t know how to not feel helpless. These were never options for me growing up, and I was a terrible roommate. After five weeks, my first roommate and I switched rooms, and I ended up rooming with another discarded roommate who was just as awful to live with as I was.
My first roommate was everything I was not. She was the privileged stepdaughter of a man from old money. She came from a wealthy, picturesque town in downstate New York, a place you want to be in autumn with mountains and wineries, a place you want to wake up on Christmas morning, a place where everyone takes the Amtrak to work in Manhattan, the kind of breathtaking charm and natural beauty that the decline of the Rust Belt would never hit. She was thin. She was well-traveled. She knew two languages. She went to good schools before college. She was an only child for both her parents. She got anything she wanted. She fit right in with everyone else at school because they were just like her.
I resented her before I met her, but the resentment grew as I knew her. She didn’t value what I valued. She would give my groceries away. I brought a cheap, fold out futon from home and she slept on it every single night, deciding it was now her bed and I couldn’t use it anymore. She actually gave a key to our room to the RA, who would just walk in and take stuff. I tried to explain to my roommate that I have no money to get things and wouldn’t until my financial aid kicked in, so you cannot give the RA permission to take my groceries, and even though I’m poor and not as good as you are, I still have property rights. She was so carefree that she couldn’t fathom what it was like to have a finite amount of money, but told me not to tell on the RA for stealing.
Strangely, my roommate was also on financial aid, and this was what I hated about her the most: her wealthy stepfather decided that her biological parents should pay for college since he paid for her schooling up to then. Her mother worked part-time and her biological father was a farmer or something, so to afford this college that cost $36,000 a year in 1997, she lied and said she lived with her biological father. This child who clearly didn’t have the hands of someone who had ever done farm chores was scamming the government for money while still never having to worry about money.
The first week of classes, she and a bunch of girls on the floor (I wasn’t invited) went out to the bars. She was drunk and drove home and hit another classmate’s parked car. That student sent out an email offering a reward for information on who hit her car. My roommate on the other hand, told her stepdad about it, and he understood, because these things happen, and paid for the repairs to her car in full so she wouldn’t have to file a police report.
He wouldn’t help her with her tuition, but he would help her cover up her DWI.
I really hated her. Of course, now I realize that at that age, we know so little of how other worlds work, that I didn’t hate her. I liked her, actually. I hated what she represented to me, which was the barriers to being somebody, the world that I thought shut me out and thought nothing of me, the one that would look at me, my clothes, my family, our house, and throw pity scholarships at us, but never actually let us in.
And maybe if my mother was more attractive, or charming, it could have been her trading up my father for a wealthy man.
Periodically, I would wonder what she was up to. Perhaps living in a villa in Spain, or married to a wealthy hedgefund manager with her wedding written up in society pages. Or maybe she had given it all up to start a school for girls in West Africa. Who knew? Kids like that didn’t have to work for anything, so they could do and be anything, and someone as charismatic as she was could look to the sky and call that her limit.
One day last year, I was taking a break from work and she popped in my head. I decided to look her up, and I mean I looked her up to piece a narrative for her adult life after I left that college in 1998. I could look at her social media first, but most people’s social media is a carefully-crafted lie. It is probably the last place you should look.
I did a public records search instead.
The first thing I found was her mugshot.
She was on felony probation for stealing drugs.
She looked old in that mugshot. She looks unhappy in pictures. I suppose no one is happy in mugshots.
Apparently, her stepfather died the spring after I left school when, strangely enough, he fatally crashed his own car.
My guess was that this wasn’t the first time she had trouble with substance abuse. Most people don’t quit their careers at good employers, go freelance, and then go to school locally to become drug and alcohol abuse counselors unless they have some personal experience with drug and alcohol abuse. She had her own business for a little while, too. She had a house but sold it and didn’t make any money from it. She had trouble paying at least one bill. She sold that house and moved to a house that wasn’t as nice in a part of the country that wasn’t as nice. I think she has a house cleaning business now, and perhaps she was starting again, and she was working. I have to say that it seemed strange that the girl who didn’t know how to clean, and didn’t because her home was always cleaned for her, was cleaning up after other people.
We haven’t actually switched places. My life is on the up; hers seemed on the up, too. Or, at least that was my perspective on it. We both ran our own businesses. We both were living away from where we grew up, and we both had different careers than the ones we planned. I have no idea really what her relationships are like, or what she had learned in life, or what. But I’m not rich and she’s not poor, at least I don’t think so. We’re both older, fatter, more matronly-looking than we were as children.
I found out that she died shortly after her 39th birthday, in a very short obituary, on August 28th this year. It’s her – she has a very distinctive name – in the right town. Nothing about her, who she was, her family, her life. I suppose it’s no one’s business anyway.
I remember a couple things about her though, that maybe gave some clues as to why she didn’t bounce back. See, the difference between who makes it and who doesn’t isn’t rooted in privilege. It’s in who they are, and what they do with what they have. I remember that she told me once when she was a little girl that her baby sitter’s teenager son would molest her, but her parents didn’t do anything about it; they just stopped taking her there. I also remember her sleeping around, drinking, and partying in high school in ways that if a poor kid like me did it, I would have ended up in juvie. I remember her mother buying her fancy lingerie when she would go traveling, which I thought was weird. Of course, I came from a home where my mother refused to buy me bras big enough to actually fit me and panties that weren’t two sizes too big.
I also remember that she moved in with, the one she had way more in common with, was a coke addict who flipped her shit in our room one night. I could have called someone back home and asked around, but I didn’t want to be the drugs go-to kid. I then moved in with the other roommate, whom I learned quickly why the other girl moved out, because this one, Elizabeth, was a loose cannon, unpredictable, volatile, and bizarre. In fact, I think one night, I was passed out and she did something to me in my sleep, because my pants were off. In fact, all of the rich, privileged kids on our floor had serious problems, and only they could really understand each other. There were girls on our floor who were friends with the frat boy accused of supplying roofies to the other frats, but they wouldn’t tell on him because he was their friends, and it’s wrong to betray your friends. This was years before it broke into national media that the school had a date rape problem.
In the short time I was there, which was about a semester, the fire alarms went off at least once a week in the middle of the night, and the windows on the doors were broken because someone forgot their key.
In a way, it was probably a very good thing for me, though terribly, terribly lonely, that I didn’t have any friends in college. I don’t think it would have been good for me to be in that mad house for much longer, though leaving was not well-received. One of the biggest differences between families of means and families without means is that if you come from a family with means, you have time to find yourself and figure out who you are and what you want to be. If your family has no means, you have to figure out what you want to do for a living, get on that treadmill, and don’t you dare step off or else you’re a shithead loser who blew their chances. Poor kids have to take a straight and narrow path; what would make other kids well-rounded makes us look scattered.
But I got up again, and I’m still alive, a few months younger than my roommate, whose death should not affect me so much, but it does, because why her? Isn’t this someone who could have bought any life she wanted, who had the connections to become anything? Couldn’t she have simply started over again, and she was charming and bubbly and people would just let her in and give her what she wanted. But I didn’t really know her, as much as she affected me, and I didn’t know anything about her struggles, and I don’t even know anything about her death, but usually if it’s only sentence long, then it’s likely because it was a suicide or overdose.
This is her chart, with my guesstimated birth time based on what I know about her:
I hate everybody who thinks we have to punish people for their addictions, and yet, as a victim of those whose abuse was in part fueled by their addictions, I am strongly ambivalent about it. I know people who went into the hospital gravely ill and came out with an opiate addiction. I know people who were trained up to become reliant on alcohol, and I know people whose only escape from the misery of life was drugs, and they followed in the footsteps of those before them. But I also know the hell that addicts put their friends and family through, and what it is like to grow up in a household with an alcoholic and an enabler.
But I also know that these people can improve, and they can get better, and I know ones who have. They have children, families, careers, good reputations. They work hard, and they contribute to society.
The main difference, I think, is that you can’t find their mugshots online, or their arrest records. You may be able to google their names and find something nasty about them, but you can’t see their mugshots. The Internet can’t remind them every second of their lives of a past they’re trying to forget or the way that someone else has hurt them.
I don’t actually know why or how this person I only knew for a few weeks died. I can only speculate. She’s the one who told me what a duvet was and showed me how to do tequila shots. When I thought about her, when I wondered what she was up to after all this time, I wondered what it would be like to run into her again, and if this time I would still feel like a piece of poor white trash, or if I would be composed. I’ll never know, but I would like to think that at this age, I would have gotten over it, and have gotten over myself enough to have simply been friendly. She was married, and a mother. I thought about her today because I wondered if I knew anyone who lived in the path of Hurricane Michael, and once again, I remembered her, and when I googled her and saw listings for an obituary, I thought she must have died in the storm, which to me was shocking enough that in 2018 something as simple as weather could take a person’s life, but it wasn’t that.
It was just her name, her age, and the date and location of her death, and the funeral home. That’s it.
Every time someone I know dies, I can’t get over it. No matter how old I get, it just sticks with me. I don’t cry. I don’t get depressed. I just wonder. No matter how old I get, I still can’t fathom that people can actually die. They can go away. They can leave me. They can wander off, they can get sick. They do all sorts of things, but I can’t really grasp with entirety how other people can end this journey in these flesh vehicles on this place called Earth.
But they do. And the stories I tell myself about the life they’re living comes to an end. And I wonder if we will ever really know how much and in what ways we affect people, or how they will make stories about us in their heads, and what our interactions will do to them, and I wonder if I’ll have enough time to find out.