Nun School and the Psycho Turtle (part 1)

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This chapter starts at the angsty age of seventeen. I was in a transition home for teens in Montana, incredibly awkward and completely unsure of my future.

I woke up, dressed and caught the early bus to school with the other kids in my transition house. I always held the feeling that I loved them much more than they me; we rode to the local community college while they laughed and joked in spite of the early hour. To them, it was just another day but for me, it was another D-Day: I had a conference call with my parents scheduled that day: another discussion about choosing a college. While I was watching everyone else happily choose their colleges with their proud parents, I was struggling to choose one they would even approve. I had found, applied for and received scholarships from many schools meeting the criteria they had laid out, but each time they would somehow get eliminated as an option. I was starting to feel the time crunch. Immersed in my troubled thoughts, I started as the bus rolled to a stop and my fellow transition-housers bounced off without a second glance.

I dearly wanted to be friends with the kids I lived with. After the years of difficulty and abuse I had become too awkward and selfish; making friends was incredibly difficult with my limited social skills. Unloading myself from the bus, I trudged to my psych class and buried myself in learning other people’s problems. Afterwards, I goofed around for a few hours with kids in the gaming room and then waltzed off to my next psych class. It cracked me up; being a community college in Kalispell, MT, many of the classes were taught by the same professor; he used the same Powerpoints in most of them. Since I had just sat through his earlier class, I answered his questions before he finished asking them and gave spoilers for his favorite case studies as well; he was never a fan of my antics. After class, I hopped back on the bus to my volunteer job.

I loved helping teach at the local Montessori school, assisting in the pre-K/Kindergarten class. I especially adored a boy named Devin who was a total troublemaker; he was brilliant, enthusiastic and was constantly getting into mischief. I spent the day teaching him chess; from the second game on, he continued to beat me in spite of my real efforts.

School was over and the kids were safely packed into their parents’ cars, I collected my bag and walked the very short distance to the transition house.My call with my family was scheduled upon my arrival home, but I had been desperately hoping my father would cancel. after each of these calls with him, my life always seemed to get more difficult in spite of him living from the other side of the country. Since the calls historically could get out of control and misconstrued, the founder of my program, Dr. Easter, decided he would sit in on the calls. As soon as I entered the house and set my bag to the side of the door, he was waiting for me in the office. I sat by the phone as he closed the door and we dialed.

My father: Did you apply for colleges yet? Are they within the criteria your mom and I set?

Me: Hi. I submitted applications to the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Alma, Hillsdale College and Concord University. They all meet your criteria. I got my scholarships to all the Loyola colleges too. I love Loyola; It’s my top choice, plus it’s Catholic so you know I’ll be good.

Father: I was down in Florida this week. I toured Santa Maria University. They are turning out more priests and sisters than anyone else in the Church these days. The Mass was incredible; it’s a really great school.

My vision suddenly developed a vortex. I felt my stomach drop as panic poured from my face to every part of me. I tried to downplay discussing his visit to the school as much as possible and when we got off the line, I completely lost my composure. I was crying, sobbing really, and Dr. Easter was trying to make sense of it. I kept saying “He’s going to make me go there. After all this I have to go to a damn f****ing seminary!”

Dr. Easter: What? He didn’t say anything like that. You’re assuming too much. There is no reason why you would think he would make you go to that school.

He reviewed my writing scholarships and made every point to show me how there was no reason to think my father would make me go to Santa Maria; I hadn’t even filled out an application. I didn’t believe him; I knew my father too well, and he had already made it clear that I wasn’t to have any control as to what would happen to me when I left the transition house.

Over the next few weeks, an application and essay somehow completed themselves and the next thing I knew, I was completely prepped to go to Santa Maria in just a couple weeks. I hadn’t seen Doctor Easter since my call; it wasn’t hard to imagine he was avoiding me. Even he had lost the last battle with my father’s ironclad grip. Worse, I wondered, perhaps my father had convinced him it was the best course of action for someone like me.

Over the course of my short period left in the program, I did everything imaginable to get myself dropped to a non-graduating phase in the transition home. I picked up smoking and would sneak out onto the roof at night, puffing away. I made up stories, ratted out all the other girls for various offenses, left the house spontaneously after curfew, set off fireworks in someone else’s yard, the list goes on. The director of the house, whom I adored, was incredulous. She had never seen someone try to stay in the program before; students were always pushing hard to graduate and reclaim their freedom. For me, there was no freedom. Through tears of frustration, she told me whether or not I wanted to leave, I would graduate; even if it was from the bottom level of the program. My plan of escape, feeble as it was, had failed.

I graduated on a warm and windy August day. I was so angry I made a point to wear a paint-stained tee shirt beneath my graduation gown. I didn’t feel like I was graduating; I felt like I was begin dumped back to the wolves. Watching the other kids who graduated with me only fueled my rage at my situation; they were all going to dream colleges they chose and were excited to attend, while I was being shipped away to an unaccredited college to likely be a nun deep in the middle of the Florida everglades.

My itinerary was simple: I was to fly back to Michigan for one day of packing, then my father and I were scheduled to embark on a road trip to Florida the following day. He was to stay two nights in Florida while I settled in my dorm and then go home again, leaving me to study whatever he wanted. Every time I was required to call him, I could hear him almost shaking with glee.

I was basking in a severe addiction to Simon and Garfunkel. I played the morose song “Homeward Bound” over and over again during my flight back to Michigan. During my one day in my hometown, my mother and I went to Target to get school supplies. We ran into a girl I had run cross country with before being sent away. This girl had been a friend of mine, but her family was atheist, so my parents wouldn’t permit me to talk to her. It was an awkward exchange at best, and as she and her mother rolled their cart away, I felt like my last chance at giving out an SOS was departing as well.

I spent the night packing my limited belongings and loading them into my father’s car. When I finally finished, I stumbled into the bed I had left unoccupied for years, thinking to myself how foreign and hostile this place was that I had once lived everyday life. I let my panic fade into dreams.

The drive to Florida with my father was a blur. I took a selfie with him and whiled away as many hours as I could with earphones on or with a book in my face. Shortly before arriving at the school, his car made a strange howling whine, as if a hippo was dying under the hood. We looked at each other with a hint of worry, but the car continued to thrust us ever closer to the place Dr. Easter was sure I’d never wind up. As the minutes passed, the temperature climbed….and climbed. It wasn’t long before we had beads of sweat rolling down our faces; it must have been the air conditioner that died. We spent the night in the hotel. I looked over my housing information; I was staying in an eight-girl suite. Two bedrooms, one common area and two bathrooms; it was the exact same layout as my boarding school. I could handle this, but I wondered if the other girls were used to community situations.

We arrived early so I could lay claim to a bottom bunk. Walking into the chaotic dorm swarming with anxious parents and embarrassed kids, I noticed right away that the girls were already in full swing of ‘freshman frenzy’. I was seasoned already in various living situations; being away from home was easy and had lost all novelty to me.  Still, I wasn’t sure if I could handle watching my seven suite-mates go through such a transition all at once. Just in time, I got the bed I wanted. The other bottom bunk claimant in my room was named Quincy; we had all had a chance to get to know each other before meeting at the school, and she seemed to be the most like me. Having a friend like her gave me a twinge of hope; there was someone normal here, I thought. Her mother was the anxious, twitchy type with her hair rolled into equally tightwad curls. That night, I stayed in the dorms with the girls. We were required to go to a lecture together, so the eight of us made out way to the student union. As we walked, she began to chat and share with each other. The girls all seemed to be kind and I wondered if perhaps I could make some friends.

During the lecture, school officials discussed the dangers of local wildlife and school policies: We were required to stand to bless our food in the cafeteria before sitting, no one of the opposite gender was permitted beyond the ground floor lobby of each door; the rules rolled on and on. There were so many mosquitoes that August night that as we sat through the lecture, there was a steady applauding sound as every person in the assembly smacked one mosquito after another. I thought it was hilarious and seized the opportunity to smack the people in front of me. They didn’t actually have mosquitoes on them, but hey, I was an opportunist and I could get away with it.

After the lecture we headed back to the dorm. When we got up to the room, Quincy and her mother were frantically packing her belongings. I asked why, and her mother told me they never expected for the school to be quite ‘like this’. Quincy was going to go to a public Colorado university instead. I was devastated; The only normal person I’d met at the school was leaving me. Another one of the girls claimed her bottom bunk.

My father left. I don’t remember saying goodbye to him; I wasn’t used to him being around and I had been eager for him to leave. Once he had gone, I pulled my little secret lockbox out from under my bed, jammed the key in and removed a precious pack of cigarettes. Seizing it I went outside, stuck one of the paper tubes between my lips and lit up. This Santa Maria crap was way more than I could handle.

The rule was that smokers had to stand 30 feet away from the doors and they were religiously strict about it. I swung a leg off the side of a lengthy planter, puffing away and trying to get my bearings. Just two days ago I was safe in my transition home and suddenly I felt dumped into a crock of friendly crazies. I glanced around and noted four guys and a girl smoking in front of the men’s dorm. I breathed a sigh of relief; I wasn’t the a complete oddball out! I stalked over, still apprehensive about the small group, and they were friendly, welcoming me into their circle without questioning. W commiserated about the situation we were all in. A few of the guys were seniors and we were all new transfer students. I began to wonder if I’d found my niche. We played foosball in the boys’ dorm lobby for several hours and I discovered I was impressively skilled at it. Playing with only my left hand, I beat one team after another. It wasn’t long before I had a small crowd watching; loving the attention, I stayed late.  Finally I happily retreated back to my own dorm for the night.

When I arrived back in my suite, our RA (Resident Assistant) had entered to introduce herself. Ruth was incredibly sweet; so sweet she reminded me of little Devin so far out in Montana, probably asking what had become of his favorite teacher.

Sometime during those first couple days, I adventured on several long bike rides into the night in spite of warnings of wild boars, snakes, crocs and snapping turtles. I remembered only the advice to not venture into any kind of body of water. As I whipped along one of the few swampy bridges leading back to Santa Maria, wishing I had somewhere else to go back to, my front tire jerked roughly. I had hit something. The hollow skittering sound it made as it shot out to the side of the road alerted me that this was not a rock. I slowed and doubled back, scanning the well-lit street for the piece of debris. Finally I located it: a turtle in his shell gleamed in the light. I recalled from the wildlife briefing that snapping turtles had horns on the back of their shells; this little guy was only about four inches long and there were no evidence of horns. Naturally, I stuffed it into my bag and eagerly zipped back to my dorm.

I dumped the turtle out on the coffee room table in front of my new roommates, declaring we had a new mascot named Maui. He wouldn’t come out of his shell but they still cooed at how cute he was (even if he was a no-show) and expressed their excitement. Hours later, Maui still hadn’t come out of his shell and we started to feel guilty for causing it fear. We agreed I would set him free. I was wearing an unbuttoned blue flannel shirt over my white tank, so I dropped him in my breast pocket and turned to make way way outside.

Turns out, he was a snapping turtle after all.

Until then, I had never heard a turtle growl in my life. He shot out of his shell, seizing my favorite shirt in his beaked mouth. In less than a second the little turtle had doubled in length; I heard the sound of my shirt tearing and did the only sensible thing: I screamed and ripped my shirt off. My suite was one of the furthest rooms from the only exit so I sprinted down the hall with little hateful Maui chomping away in my bundled shirt, alerting everyone of my passing with my dramatic screams. The moment I was outside, I hurled the bundle into the bushes not far from the pool. A few of my new smoker friends had been standing outside, chuckling at the scene. I grinned weakly and told them the story, enjoying the sounds of their howling laughter. The next morning, I retrieved my slightly ripped flannel shirt. Poor misunderstood Maui was floating, dead, in the nearby pool. I opted to not tell my new roommates of his fate.

The school had arranged for several vans to run students to a strip mall in Ft. Meyer for supplies. I rode along, even though there wasn’t anything I needed. I was thinking hard about my aunt Connie, whom my father had used to rouse me out of bed during the chapter “The kidnapping (Kind of)”. That autumn she had died of a cancer resurgence. I had been devastated, but I wasn’t allowed to go to her funeral. As we parked at the shopping center, my humidity-soaked hair curling against my head, I spotted a Sports Clips. My aunt in mind, I made a split second decision.

I entered the barbershop. It was filled with woman wielding clippers, catering only to men. I asked for a haircut. The gave me a strangely disdainful look. I was quite a mess, sweat streaking my suddenly frizzy hair across my face. There was a hairdresser standing at the counter and as I approached her, she addressed me.

Hairdresser: This is a men’s hair place. Legally, we can’t turn you away. Know though, that we can’t cut women’s hair with any promise that you will like enough to come back.

Me: Totally fine. You can’t mess this up! My aunt died of breast cancer. Take it all off. I want everyone to ask about her.

The hairdressers paused and the air changed. One of the stepped forward and told me she would be with me in just a moment. They were all smiling warmly.

I plopped down into the chair to have my long reddish brown hair clipped off, but the hairdresser first cropped it down to a butch look. She asked me one last time if I truly wanted to shave my head. I had decided; I gave her a firm look and insisted. I had loved this aunt more than my own mother; I wanted to send a clear message that her loss was felt. Being totally honest, I also wanted to do something drastic. Being sent to Santa Maria was major and what I felt was out of my control, and I wanted to take it back. Obviously, shaving my head was a great place to start, I thought.

When I walked into Sports Clips, I looked like this:

This was taken a few days after I walked out:

Completely bald, I strode down towards our pickup vehicle. I had mentioned before getting out of the van that I was going to shave my head; it very quickly became clear front the looks of amazement, awe and complete shock on the girls’ faces that they never imagined I would actually do it. The shock rippled through my female dorm and across the small campus that day; I even had to take a new ID picture. I won’t lie; if it was socially acceptable, I would still have a shaved head. The lack of maintenance, the amazing feeling of my pillow against my head; it was incredible. When I stepped out of the shower and toweled off, I was completely dry. I was often asked if I had cancer or if I had pledged my life to becoming a nun. Nuns didn’t shave their heads, I thought incredulously.

While the girls were out with their instant boyfriends that night, I settled into my bed and went to sleep. One of the girls, fresh from TX and older than the rest of us, had decorated our room in giant metal gold stars and pink fluffy things. Completing the look was a massive pink fluffy carpet. The first week of classes was a blur. Latin was especially fun and math class filled me with dread; the subject did not come easy to me. At one point I leaned over to a cute guy in my Latin class and asked him why he had chosen Santa Maria; He replied sternly that he wanted to know if God was calling him to be a priest. I snapped back upright in my chair; I wasn’t remotely Christian. I felt like an oasis of semi-sanity in another brainwashed cult, equating it to existing yet again in the midst of zombies, bumping around blindly and doing as they were told, however unhappily. After consulting with several of the seniors in my dorm I had learned that as the years passed, the curriculum became so difficult that it was physically impossible to complete all the homework. My stomach tightened; there was no way I could tolerate this place getting even worse for years, I thought. I wasn’t even sure of a full semester.

Finally the weekend arrived. I wasn’t planning to do my homework; I had no intention of studying for a degree that didn’t count. The girls in my suite had decided to go to a John Meyer concert and I was invited to go; I was excited for my first real show. The van arrived and everyone started piling in; as I was about to climb in, the girls started shouting that it was full. I didn’t have much choice. I stepped back and waved. They took off in the van blaring John Meyer music. I still felt content; I had double-booked myself and was also supposed to have dinner with Ruth that night.

I waited outside the dorm for Ruth so I wouldn’t miss her. Hour after hour, I sat outside my dorm and waited for Ruth to show, and she didn’t. I would later find out that on her way back to Santa Maria to meet me, she had blown her tires out. It was Saturday night; I wandered into the boys’ dorm to play more Foosball. This was my first experience at being the cool kid; since I had shaved my head, everyone wanted to get to know me. I was used to being the reject; I loved the attention but had no idea what to do with it.

As it turns out, there were three types of guys at Santa Maria: wife hunters, vocational priests to-be and players (there has to be a player in every scenario). I was completely inexperienced in the realm of guys; I had never attracted attention from them in the past. For being as seasoned as I was in some things, I was completely naive in most aspects of everyday life. I was simply and innocently excited that people wanted to spend time with me….with ME, that I was ready to indulge everyone. It was a complete shift from the transition home I’d just come from, where I had to fight to get the time of day from anyone. As the guys filtered out of the lobby and into their dorm rooms, I was left by myself. It was a Saturday night, I was alone and my sweet RA Ruth was still nowhere to be seen.

A few of my smoking buddies approached me as I loitered outside debating on whether or not to go for another biking escapade. They said they were going to a club less than an hour away in Naples to celebrate a buddy’s 21st birthday. I shrugged. I still pictured birthday parties as cake, blow-toys and pin the tail on the donkey; my life had been locked down and isolated since I was young. As we loaded into his friend’s car, I saw myself in his side-view mirror. I looked beyond punk with my borrowed pink shirt and shaved head and I was thinking to myself that I would make it a night to remember.

Was it ever a night to remember.

We were supposed to go straight to a club. I’d never been to one before but I was curious and excited; such places were strictly forbidden in my previous life. En route, the guys stopped at a run down house and made some kind of drug deal while I sat in the car asking one naive question after another. No one answered me. Two of the boys were conversing in front of the headlights, then broke apart. Dave, the driver, settled back into his seat and we were off to the club.

I had drank heavily the night before for the first time and one of my roommates had made me promise to be more careful, so when we arrived at the club I grabbed Dave and asked him to be my ‘sober buddy’. He said no problem, giving me an odd, slightly humorous look. We entered the club and my shaved head, paired with a bright pink dress shirt, attracted attention from eyes all over the space. The bouncer made a purring noise at me as we passed through. Once we were in the club, I didn’t know what to do; seeing people either dancing, drinking or chatting, I hit the floor, a little angry still about the drug deal, and danced hard. I had never danced before. I hadn’t known how to cut loose, shake hips provocatively or anything, but I was a quick study and I had a lot of pent-up emotion to fuel me. After an hour or so of twirling, shaking and easing away from young humping guys, I was parched. I wandered over to Dave as he chatted with the birthday boy, who was holding a drink. I asked what it was, and he said it was Long Island Iced tea. Looking my sober buddy in the eye, I asked if it had alcohol in it. I had no idea what a Long Island was, but I assumed it was a type of tea.

I have never liked iced drinks; they have always given me brain freezes. Parched, I grabbed the drink from Birthday Boy and threw it back in order to avoid the sharp pains above my eyes. I was 18 with zero history of drinking save for the night before.

I believe that life isn’t simply a series of days strung together to form weeks, years, families and decades. To me, life is actually just ten or fifteen days spread out over a timeline and everything in between is just the aftermath of those days.

This was one of them.

TO BE CONTINUED…..

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