Orientation Week

In 1962 my parents packed four suitcases, one gray trunk with a brass lock, my stereo, my tennis racket (remnant of happier days and therefore a sign of their hope for my future), and me into our white Lincoln Continental. We headed up Route 301 to the University of Florida campus in Gainesville three hundred miles away.

I was going to have fun. Before I left, Uncle Harry said I envy you, Monica. Four years of leisure to study mankind and the universe. Uncle Harry never recovered from not going to college due to the depression. He supplemented his life with a complete set of Harvard classics. The red books lined his office shelves for years unopened. I know because eventually I inherited them, and except for the pages being brown with age, they were in perfect condition. Yet I knew he was sincere. My psychiatrist was less scholarly minded. He said, “What a great time you’re going to have at college, Monica, sitting around drinking cokes, going to frat parties, bull sessions until four in the morning. It’s going to be a great four years.”

I believed both of them. Both scenarios appealed to me. I suppose that’s why when Dr. Davey said the day before I left, Monica, I can’t do anymore for you right now. (He’d already told me that all you could do for teen age girls was patch them up and hold them together until their hormones changed, so I knew what he meant.) So, you’ll be back here next week, or you’ll enjoy four years of college—it’s up to you. His words sank into my brain. When you consider what other words were clamoring in my head it is truly amazing. Words like glass, fire, poison, death, my fault—always my fault. I had to make it at college. It was that or back to Dr. Davey’s couch.

He really did use a couch. That startled me when I first saw it. I thought shrinks having couches was a stand-up comic joke. This one was a green velour job with no arms that always seemed to capture a few strands of my long blonde hair. Did they sell these things in catalogues I wondered? I’d never seen one in a furniture store. Dr. Davey sat at one end on a hard back chair and leaned his head over mine. We’re going to relax now, Monica, stare at the eraser on the tip of the pencil and relax. The dark room would become very quiet, and I would become very relaxed, but eventually I would have to open my eyes and look into his hazel ones and say, what’s up doc, (feeble attempt at humor). Dr. Davey would sit back and sigh. Monica, you’re not trying he would say.

Yet, I did try, wanting to please. I just didn’t trust anybody that much. Later I read that people who were intelligent had no problems getting hypnotized. I decided the reason I had so much trouble was because I had a mind of my own. So we were stuck with regular therapy. Talk, talk, talk. But the talking got out of hand the month before I left for school. It was then that I felt compelled to tell everyone what was going on inside my head.

Mom, there’s glass in the soup, I can see it. Stop it, Monica. Mom, if you eat that soup it’ll hurt you. Mom, I smell smoke. I’m calling the fire department. Mom, the devil is trying to get in me. Mom, don’t cry. I’ll stop. Mom, you’re purple pillows are evil—I can feel it.

When she cried I felt bad, but I still talked. Dr. Davey said, Monica save it all for here—O.K.? Dear Dr. Davey, there aren’t enough hours in the day to tell it all to you. Strange, but this is the one place I don’t have to tell it. I’m safe in your green and brown office, dear Dr. Davey. Is there something calming about green and brown?

The trip to Gainesville was a nightmare. Eight hours of non-stop talking. Dad, if a man’s penis gets glass chips in it, would it be awful? Dad, there was glass in the bathroom this morning, millions of pieces. Mom, don’t scream at me, please don’t scream at me. I would put my hands over my ears. No, Mom, I don’t want to work in a factory. I do want to go to college. Mom, there was glass in the bathroom this morning.

My parents continued up the highway hanging on to Dr. Davey’s vision for me with a tenacity that was incredible. I sat in the back seat and dealt with the hundred thoughts a minute that were clamoring to be told. I only said one in four, but I tried very hard to say them all.

As we drove into Gainesville, Dad finally gave out. This is insane, Lenore, we can’t leave her here. But he couldn’t make a turn on the skinny two-lane highwayit was too crowded. Suddenly I heard voices—real ones—coming from the white columned ATO house. The clear sound of young men’s singing floated across the air to our car like a gift from God. I looked at the bright green Florida campus, the romantic whitewashed fraternity houses, the solid brick Administration building and I shut up. My college career was saved by heavy traffic and singing frat boys—at least for the moment.

When I answered I could hear my own voice pleading and breathless. “Please go. I don’t know how much longer I can keep quiet if you stay.”

My parents were thrilled. Dad kept squeezing my shoulders and saying, Good girl! Dr. Davey was right. You’re going to be O.K. His face beamed as he carried my bags up to my second floor dorm room. Mother smoothed her blonde wavy hair into place. Let’s get your suitcases unpacked, Monica. I wonder who your roommate is.

Only I seemed to understand. Of course, only I was privileged to the craziness still going through my brain. I knew what Dr. Davey had said. If I could just keep quiet, the thoughts would stop. I needed my parents to leave so I could be alone. Please, Mom, you have to go. All right, Dad, but first thing tomorrow you have to leave. I can’t hold out. If you stay, I’ll start talking. Don’t you seeI have a chance here. I don’t know anybody and that helps me keep quiet. Please, you’ve got to go.

The next morning we said good-bye in front of Broward Hall. “Are you sure you’ll be all right?” Mother asked. I could feel her hand trembling on my arm. Her green eyes, so like mine, filled with tears that didn’t quite spill over. I noticed the lines around her mouth. She had never looked old to me before.

When I answered I could hear my own voice pleading and breathless. “Please go. I don’t know how much longer I can keep quiet if you stay.”

Dad stared at me. “What are you going to do after we leave?” All the joviality from the previous evening was gone.

He was standing two steps below me so I could look right into his face. I had never realized his moustache was turning white. I looked past him to the two rows of royal palms that flanked the entrance way to the dorm. “I’m going to walk by myself. If I’m by myself I can’t talk and school doesn’t start for a week.” It sounded so reasonable that I stopped right there before I started to talk about glass or smoke or the devil. If they didn’t go in the next five minutes I was going to lose it. I clenched my hands into hard fists and bit the inside of my cheek hard. I tried to concentrate on the pain in my mouth. I could see my dad’s dark eyes were becoming shiny so I looked down at my brown penny loafers.

“Come on, Lenore. We’ve come this far. Let’s go home.”

I felt them kiss me on the cheek and when I lifted my head they were halfway to the parking lot walking between those tall palm trees, my father’s arm protectively around my mother’s shoulders.

I headed to the northern part of campus. The Resident Hall Reception was in the afternoon. I knew that from reading the Orientation Week events. I planned to skip most of the events. I hadn’t met my roommate yet and hoped to exhaust myself with a ten mile walk before I did.

I noticed the trees first—palm and pine everywhere. I remembered the words to the Alma Mater—where palm and pine are blowing and southern seas are flowing—I wondered what the melody was; I wondered if I’d be here long enough to learn it.

Three hours later sweaty and tired, but calm, I walked into my room and saw two girls sitting on my bed, and another combing her hair in front of the mirror. The one at the mirror turned to greet me.

“Hi, I’m Susan Watson. I hope you’re my roommate.”

“I’m Monica Farelli, and if this is your room, I am.” The room had undergone a transformation since I’d left. Pink flowered bedspreads covered both beds and matching curtains hung at the wide casement window.

“I hope you like the bedspreads. Mom and I decided it was the only thing that would tone down this ghastly floor.” I noticed the green linoleum floor for the first time. “I wanted to paint the walls pink too, but that’s not allowed.” She wrinkled her nose. “I suppose it doesn’t matter. I’ll be a Zeta by the end of the week and probably move into the sorority house next semester. How about you? Are you going out for rush? Peggy and Jane aren’t.” She pointed to the two girls on the bed and started to apply bright red lipstick as she leaned closer to the mirror.

All this before I could open my mouth. It occurred to me that I wasn’t going to get a word in edgewise. Great. It also occurred to me that if she was going out for rush, I wouldn’t be seeing much of her. I could see she was the perfect co-ed. Curly brown hair framed an oval face and big brown eyes were set in creamy skin like two smoky topazes.

“Hello, I’m Peggy. I’m three rooms down the hall in 34B.” One of the girls on the bed got up and came toward me with an outstretched hand. “This is Jane.” She turned her head toward the girl still sitting on the bed with the dreamy look on her face. She had straight black hair cut blunt at her chin and bangs that almost came down to her eyebrows. She looked interesting like a character in a mystery novel. I was impressed with her long polished fingernails and the graceful way her hand moved as she waved to me.

“I was just asking Susan if she’d like to walk uptown for some dinner tonight. Would you like to come with us?”

I liked the looks of this girl. She also had brown eyes and hair, but she couldn’t have been more different than Susan. For one thing, she had a million freckles on her face. Something told me I’d better say no. “Sure, what time,” I said.

Six hours later the four of us sat in Woo Ling’s, a Chinese restaurant Susan had picked. Susan and Peggy were talking about school, but Jane and I just listened. I knew Susan had already written me off. Who could blame her? She had been the perfect roommate all afternoon and been met with a monosyllabic response every time. Feel free to borrow my clothes, Monica. Did you break up with your high school boyfriend, too? I do hope Mother doesn’t get upset when I pledge Zeta. She’s a Theta you know. Aren’t mothers pushy sometimes? Of course, mine’s really wonderful, but she’s really being ridiculous about this Theta thing. Don’t you think a person should have the right to pick their own sorority? When she mentioned being the President of the National Honor Society at Carelton High I announced I wanted to take a nap. Uncle Harry and Dr. Davey’s co-ed wrapped into one neat package and she was my roommate. Wonderful. All I wanted was not to say anything stupid at dinner.

Now as I sat in the restaurant I knew my hope for a normal evening wasn’t going to come true. The walls at Woo Ling’s were red and the chairs were lacquered black—bad colors for me. A huge Buddha sat in the center of the room, and a picture of a dragon with Chinese script was hanging right above our table. Evil lurked out of every corner of the room. Peggy and Susan chattered about orientation week, and Jane looked over the menu intently. I dared not lift my eyes from the white table cloth. I heard Jane and the waiter discuss the various satisfactions of General Tso’s Chicken and regular Chicken Szechuan, and I was impressed, but still too terrified to lift my head. When the waiter took my order I pointed to something on the menu while wondering if food prepared in an evil kitchen could make a person bad.

Then I heard Susan, her voice sounding impatient, address me. “Well, who do you like more, Elvis or Pat Boone?”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening,” I answered.

“Peggy was saying she thinks Elvis is gorgeous, but I like Pat Boone more.”

I remembered Susan showing me her new white shoes that afternoon and commenting on how all the Zetas were going to be wearing white bucks this semester—one of Pat Boones big trademarks. I shrugged my shoulders. “He’s O.K. I guess.”

Susan sat back, obviously stunned by such indifference. Then she turned to Jane. “What do you think?”

Jane turned her face toward the Buddha, pursed her lips, and then turned back to Susan. “I think they are both entirely inadequate,” she said. Susan rolled her eyes and looked at Peggy.

Meanwhile I looked at Jane as she stared at the Buddha again. Suddenly I noticed Jane’s black hair and heavily made up eyes. The red walls seemed to surround me and I could feel the urge to vocalize my anxiety spill over like a gushing waterfall.

“Do you think we should eat here? This place is evil and besides I think there are little glass chips on the tablecloth that could get into our food.”

Susan put the water glass that was halfway to her mouth back on the table.

“What did you say?” she asked. Peggy looked puzzled, and Jane turned her head toward me and stared with a long unblinking look. I knew I had to get out of the restaurant.

“Are you O.K.?” Peggy said.

Suddenly Jane leaned toward me and smiled. Then very slowly she began to brush the tablecloth in front of me with her hand. I tried to smile my thanks to her, but I couldn’t quite get my face to work. Instead I pushed back my chair, and mumbling something about having to get back to the dorm, I ran out of the restaurant. The last thing I heard was Susan asking Jane if there was really glass on the table.

I walked until I was exhausted, and Susan was asleep when I got back to the dorm. The next morning I was up and out by seven, deciding after looking at the orientation schedule that I could miss the tour of the library and the lecture on the Dewey Decimal System.

I headed north to the Century Tower and University Auditorium. I stopped for a few seconds to get a look at Albert the Alligator locked safely behind a chain link fence in the middle of the lawn. His pen was all muddy and he just sat in the middle of it. I had heard some fraternity boys had tried to whack his tail off, but it seemed to be firmly attached. I kept walking until I reached the Plaza of the Americas. A hundred pine trees stood straight as soldiers among the walkways that crisscrossed the open space. It had rained at dawn and everything smelled fresh and washed. I turned west and passed the gym and finally headed south toward Lake Alice. There were supposed to be gators in the Lake. I stopped in front of a huge pine with a trunk at least two feet across that lifted into the blue like a straight arrow. “Grandfather,” I said, (it seemed like a grandfather because the trunk was so gnarled) “I blew it last night.” I waited and blessedly there was no answer, just a soft swaying of the top branches from the breeze. I smiled to myself. I had one of Dr. Davey’s yellow pills tucked in my pocket. Don’t take one, Monica, unless you have to. You’re really not as sick as you think. O.K., Dr. Davey, if you say so. Time to check out the gators in the lake.

The lake took up the whole of the horizon, but no gators visible. Everything A.O.K., Dr. Davey, as the astronauts would say. I turned north again, walked slowly back to the student union and sat down on a bench beside the steps. Time to take a break.

The school newspaper was stacked in a pile in a green stand. Next to it was a box stating the cost, a nickel, and the admonition that the University of Florida operated under the honor system. I dug out a nickel and picked up the paper. The headline in black bold type read “Half of All Co-eds Not Virgins.” Just then a guy came up, picked up a newspaper, did not deposit a nickel, and sat down next to me on the bench. He had long brown hair tied with a piece of leather in the back and old dirty blue jeans on. Having troubles of my own I ignored him and plunged into the article about fallen women. Who knows, maybe Sr. Agatha had been right about this so called godless secular university. I could see her face swathed in white wimple. They will try to confuse you about your faith, boys and girls! They will use clever arguments to put seeds of doubt into your mind. Now, I hadn’t met any professors yet, but I had my arguments ready.

I looked up and two men in gray suits who were carrying briefcases (obviously professors) were depositing nickels into the box. The hippie was leaning back on the bench, his arms stretching along the back. I was going back to my newspaper when I heard the one with white hair hold the newspaper out toward the hippy and practically accuse him. “I suppose you think this is great, don’t you.”

The hippie shrugged and started to smile. “Hey, man, it’s O.K. Why shouldn’t the girls enjoy life too?”

Then before I could catch my breath at this nonchalant answer the one with the wire rim glasses turned to me. “And you, do you agree with him?”

I gathered myself together. O.K., Sr. Agatha, here we are center stage. God, classes haven’t even begun and here I am defending virtue. “Well, no, I mean, no, I don’t.”

“Why not?” The white-haired one threw the question at me like a bullet.

O.K., let’s see. The community—virginity and faithfulness are necessary to maintain stability in the community—then, of course, the obvious—babies out of wedlock, disease control. I decided to start with the community. That was less obvious and after all this was college. No obvious answers please. “Well, when a young woman decides to maintain her virginity she is in a sense upholding community values and contributing to the stability…”

“Because it’s wrong. Period. Is that right?” The one with the glasses peered into my very soul.

I nodded my head, but I couldn’t believe my ears. Godless professors! Why they sounded like Sr. Agatha, Sr. Margaret Mary, and every other nun who had ever taught me!

Years of learning the way to act, the way to do, the way to think were crumbling before this innocent fact—there were two ways to iron a shirt.

Three days later I walked out of my room and there was Peggy ironing a white blouse in the hall. I had calmed down quite a biteven trusted myself to spend a few hours a night with my roommate. (She just wanted me to listen while she exploded after the nightly call from her mother who was determined she join Kappa Alpha Theta.) I hadn’t seen Jane or Peggy since the dinner at Woo Ling’s. I decided to try some normal conversation.

“Hi, what are you doing?” Stupid question since I could see what she was doing, but she took it in the social way it was offered.

“Just catching up on some ironing.” She shook out the blouse and put it on the ironing board, folding it in the back along the yoke.

“Got all your classes yet?” I watched as she ironed the yoke, turned the blouse and ran the iron across the front tab without touching the inset at the sleeve.

She nodded. “How about you?”

“I’m seeing a counselor this afternoon.” I couldn’t believe the way she was ironing this blouse. When she started on the collar before she had even begun the back, I stepped up to the ironing board and gently removed the blouse from her hands. “Look, you’re doing this all wrong. This is how my mother taught me to iron blouses.” I shook the shirt out and carefully set the sleeve into the end of the ironing board. “See,” I said, “if you do the sleeves this way and then the back, you don’t get that line at the yoke. The very last thing you do is the collar.” I ran the iron firmly over the top of the collar, careful not to cause any creases at the stitching and handed her the blouse.

“Is that how your mother irons blouses? Well, guess what, my mother does it this way.” She grabbed the blouse out of my hand and slammed the yoke on the board. Her face flushed a bright pink behind her freckles and I stared speechless as she re-ironed the entire shirt. When she was finished, she looked up at me.

Startled I said, “God, I’m sorry.”

Suddenly her shoulders dropped. “So am I. I’ve got a fierce temper. Forget it. Hey, some of us are going downtown later to check out the shops. You want to come?”

“Sure.” I turned to go back into my room. I was relieved she wasn’t going to stay angry, but what she had said and done stunned me. I sat down on my newly acquired pink floral bedspread. Peggy’s mother didn’t iron shirts like my mother! It seemed there were two legitimate, bona fide ways of ironing a shirt! The implications of this fact had to be taken slowly. My life at school and home had been learning the one proper way of doing things. Years of learning the way to act, the way to do, the way to think were crumbling before this innocent fact—there were two ways to iron a shirt.

The next morning I was walking through the lounge when I heard the resident advisor, Miss Simpson, call to me across the room. She hurried up to me carrying important looking papers in a folder. I could see she was a little flustered. Little strands of dark hair had escaped the tight coil at the top of her head and hung down the side of her face. Very unlike Miss Simpson.

“Monica, can you do me a favor?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Can you walk Jane over to the infirmary? They’re waiting for her, and I can’t get away. I’ve got three sets of parents to see”—she held up the folders—“late coming students, and I can’t find Peggy anywhere.”

“Gosh, yes. Is she sick?”

She hesitated a moment and then tapped her finger against her forehead. “Freaked out this morning. Her parents will be here to get her tomorrow, but she’s got to go to the infirmary now. Oh, don’t look so horrified. She’s not dangerous. Come on, I’ve packed her bag and she’s sitting on the bed staring at the wall. And I’ve got three new students that just arrived. What a day!”

I followed her to Jane and Peggy’s room. Jane didn’t look like herself. Her eyes weren’t dreamy anymore; they were vacant and she was staring straight ahead at the wall. She was using her beautiful fingernails to pick at a scab on the back of her hand.

“Oh my God,” said Miss Simpson. “Stop that, Jane, You’re going to make your hand bleed. There’s her overnight bag, Monica. Do you think you’ll be all right?” I wondered if Miss Simpson knew I had a few emotional problems myself. Her next remark convinced me she didn’t. “Honestly, you’d think somebody would warn me.”

I picked up Jane’s overnight bag and helped her off the bed. “I’ll be fine, Miss Simpson.”

“Okay.” She sighed. “Let me know when you get back.”

It only took us ten minutes to get to the infirmary. I held on to Jane with one hand, and her bag with the other. I knew if I tried to talk to her I’d start crying. The nurse put us in a room with white walls, a black vinyl chair, and an examining table covered with a sheet. I settled Jane in the chair and started walking back and forth in the small room while we waited for the doctor.

I wanted to tell Jane so many things. About how walking had helped me, that she had helped me that night at Woo Ling’s, that I hardly knew her, but I thought her hair was beautiful and her fingernails elegant, and that I’d never heard anyone order from a menu with such sophistication. I wanted to tell her there were two ways of doing things, who knows, maybe a hundred ways to do everything, that professors (some of them anyway) were as pure as Sr. Agatha, that she’d be okay, I knew she would. But I didn’t say anything. I heard the door open and a man with a white coat and stethoscope stepped into the room.

“Hello, I’m Dr. Evans,” He glanced at me and went across the room and knelt in front of Jane. Gently he took her hands in his to keep them from picking at her scab.

I brushed my eyes with the back of my hand and I could taste the tears as they rolled into my mouth.

Dr. Evans looked up at me. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Was I all right? I looked around the room. No glass, no burning smells, and the black chair held no demons, just poor vacant Jane.

“I’m fine,” I said and turned to leave.

As I stepped out of the infirmary I stopped. My eyes were so blurry I couldn’t see. I held on to the railing at the top of the steps. Suddenly I shuddered and it was as if I was shedding some invisible skin. I decided I’d call my mom and dad later on. I wanted them to tell Dr. Davey I’d been up until four in the morning talking to Susan, trying to figure out a way to convince her mother she should be a Zeta, and to tell Uncle Harry I’d gotten my books and they were beautiful, and I wanted to tell my parents that I loved them. Right now, though, I wanted to see some pine trees. I wanted to sit on the cool green grass and feel scratchy bark against my back. I walked down the steps and headed east to the Plaza of the Americas.

Natalie Cornell HeadshotNatalie Cornell has a MA in political science and has taught as an adjunct at Santa Fe Community College and the University of Florida. She was a Contributing Writer to the St. Augustine Catholic and her articles have appeared in several other magazines. She lives with her husband, John, in Gainesville, Florida.