I was 20 years old before I got my own room, except for the one year when my sister went to college ahead of me. She’s 13 months older than I and we shared a bedroom all my life. When I went off to college I of course had a roommate in the dorm, and the next year I shared a bedroom with a girl in a house. The following year I changed colleges and I finally had my own bedroom in a house that included my older sister, but the real glory came when that situation broke up two years later and I got my own apartment.
I was 22 and I got a furnished studio in Madison, Wisconsin. They call them efficiencies around there, which I always thought sounded so much less glamorous. And it was a cheesy little Midwest, cheap-hotel-looking place, but I loved it. I remember the day I moved in. A guy that was in the group of people I sort of hung around with had a car and he helped me. We packed all my stuff from the house into his car and drove the five blocks over to my new place. It had a little parking lot in front and he pulled in.
Before we brought anything in we went upstairs to open up the door. I was on the third floor—the top floor—in the corner apartment. The windows faced east and there was a tree right outside. I read an excerpt from Proust once where as a child he goes to see his beloved grandmother after having been away from her and is shocked and horrified by the sight of her and her usual surroundings. He describes the violent colors of the wallpaper in her habitual room, all things that had once been such a source of comfort and peace to him. It was simply the time away that had caused this perception, and I had the same reaction when I walked into the apartment I had chosen and so dreamed of.
The guy who was helping me liked me, I knew, as a girlfriend, and I didn’t want to betray any emotion to him, as I didn’t return the feelings. But my brain somehow didn’t know the meaning of poker face, ever, so I cried out, “It’s horrible,” to cover up how I really felt, which was that all my hopes and dreams for the future had been dashed and the world was truly coming to an end. God bless that nice guy who said, “What don’t you like?” And we narrowed it down to this end table and a few other pieces of way-too-hotel-like furniture and only kept the bed and the round eating table.
Suffice it to say we got my stuff moved in, and I proceeded to get kicked out of the university on academic dismissal for a semester, get a fulltime job at a way-funky shoe store on State Street, crank up the level of my beer and pot consumption, and otherwise try to become an independent adult. Sure, there were others who were graduating at around this time and turning to careers. I wasn’t one of them.
I loved living by myself after I got used to it. It was a little hard at first and I’d always try to find someone to have around, or else dash out to my sister’s and her boyfriend’s apartment until I could tell they were sincerely getting sick of me. But the more sort of unhinged my academic life became, the more I reveled in my newfound solitude. I got back in school and promptly got kicked out again. I had changed majors all over the board and was generally without a center and I smoked way too much pot.
I started writing poems and I would sit at my little round table feeling all the angst of the world. One day I painted these large, pink trees on my wall, taller than I, with bright yellow leaves. When winter rolled around I came home from work and pulled the jungle-pattern curtains that my mom had made on the window closed before it even got officially dark. I drank beer and smoked pot and danced to my giant collection of records and tapes.
I must have known I was going down and I started dabbling in fine dining, by myself. I’d take my minimum-wage-plus-commission and go to a restaurant called Second Story, one of the finest restaurants on State Street in Madison. It had a black-and-white checked floor, was French, and true to its name was on the second floor of a building. I sat at a table by the window.
I went on weeknights, and maybe on the early side—the place was always almost empty. Perhaps needless to say I was totally high. I’d order up a little meal. I’d drink wine and have dessert afterward, sometimes, and Drambuie, always. My dad had taught me how to enjoy Drambuie after dinner, and although I knew he’d be appalled by my current behavior—which I decidedly kept to myself—I couldn’t help but think part of him would be a little proud, too.
The people at the restaurant were incredibly polite to me. I always left a huge tip. And I could tell even then they were amused and sort of wondered about me. I was a cute person. I knew it. I looked young even for my age and was a little punk in style. Why was I there? Maybe I was in from out-of-town, on some off-the-map kind of business. Maybe I was a writer. Maybe I was some young twit spending her minimum wage and running short for rent at the end of the month, what with the cost of the Thai pot that was around that fall and everything.
I tripped home gladly after those meals, which to me were the equivalent of a jaunt to Paris, and back up to the solitude of my room. I was immersed in a world of books then, interrupted only by my job, reading Dostoyevsky, Sartre, Camus, Gorky, and all those writers who had that edgy, existential flair. My entire life bombed out rather quickly when I got fired from my shoe-store job, and then a clothing-store job, after being kicked out of school. My rationality took leave as further alcohol and marijuana moved in, and I got quite dark. But I toasted myself for one last meal at Second Story before packing the whole affair in and heading back to my parents’ in Milwaukee to recoup some time and sanity.