I sat alone in my college amphitheater, poking at my fries. A crisp breeze rustled the branches overhead, just chilly enough to remind me that winter had only barely dissolved into spring. The blizzard of '05 was still fresh in my memory, and if I closed my eyes I could still imagine snow piled up around the trees.
My fries had gone cold, so I started eavesdropping on the students sitting around me discussing their Spring Break plans. Many of my classmates were wealthy kids from private schools in the Northeast, and I listened as they casually rattled off their swanky plans.
I had no spring break plans, and I'd been trying to dodge conversations about it for days. Truthfully, I couldn't afford to go anywhere, even if I wanted to. With just a single semester of college under my belt, I was still trying to figure out what it meant to be "on my own," and I was discovering that "on my own" meant poverty, essentially. Flying home to Montana for the week was out of the question, so my plan was to stick around the dorms and try and get better acquainted with Boston. At that point I had a pitiful lack of knowledge concerning the city I lived in, save for "doesn't have any Taco Bells" and "the Orange Line is gross, don't go on the Orange Line."
Besides me, the only other person in my dorm who was staying behind was Darla, a quiet, intense girl with dreadlocks who, up until that point, I'd never so much as spoken to. My first (and only) interaction with Darla had come late one night the week before break. Sometime after midnight I'd ventured downstairs to the the student lounge to grab a soda and found Darla bent over the sink, chopping off her dreads with a pair of scissors by candlelight. She jerked her head up, seemingly annoyed that I'd intruded.
I might've been more weirded out, but this was art school, and I'd seen far stranger. One time I'd walked into the communal bathroom to find a kid scooping out the insides of a pig head and dumping the excess into the sink; his only explanation was, "I'm making a mask for a photo shoot." So Darla's impromptu haircut was par for the course, and I didn't think much about it at the time.
Two days later, Darla disappeared from campus and never returned. The rest of the week was thick with gossip about where she'd gone — some said rehab, some guessed she had a breakdown and went home to Iowa. I was too anxious about my encroaching week alone in the dorms to give Darla's absence much thought. With her gone, it meant that I'd be solo for the next nine days, and that notion unnerved me. I made myself a promise that if I saw even one set of creepy twins holding hands in a hallway, I'd make a break for it and join Darla on whatever Island of Misfit Toys she'd escaped to.
On Friday afternoon, I watched my dorm mates pack up and leave one by one, until I was all that remained and the building was cold and silent like a citadel. Night fell, and in the quietude I pretended the world had ended and I was the only man on earth.
By day two, I was bored out my mind.
The subway stopped each night around midnight, and as a natural night owl who liked to explore, I found it stifling and more than a little bit rude. With the whole week left of smothering ennui, I struggled with ways to fill my nights. Literally everyone I knew had fled the city, if not the state entirely, so my options were limited. I decided I'd scout out the Newbury Comics down the street and browse their used movies section.
The next day, after an excursion down Boylston, I returned to my dorm with a handful of cheapo horror flicks: The House on Haunted Hill, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, and Night of the Living Dead, all for less than ten bucks. A scary movie night seemed a suitably sad way to pass the time, so once the sun set I brushed an old Sunchips bag off the lounge's crusty DVD player and popped Night of the Living Dead into the disc tray. I settled into one of the big green couches, popped open a can of Pillsbury Supreme Buttercream frosting to eat with a spoon, and tried my hardest to convince myself that this wasn't The Lamest Spring Break In History™.
I'd somehow lived for 19.5 years without seeing Night of the Living Dead, and I foolishly thought a movie from the '60s couldn't possibly be that frightening. I was dead wrong. I spent the the entirety of the movie on the edge of the couch, white knuckling the TV remote until all the blood left my hands and I could no longer feel them.
I slept poorly that night, and I dreamt of zombies eating my flesh.
I woke abruptly at dawn to a loud crash above my head. I jolted upright, my brain still swimming with thoughts of the walking dead, and glanced around my room nervously. Everything was bathed in the orange glow of early morning.
I stayed motionless in bed, puzzled over what could've yanked me from slumber, when I suddenly heard a floorboard creak directly above me and I froze, feeling immediately nervous. Darla's old room was right above mine, but she'd left a week ago. I thought maybe someone from the school staff was clearing out her room, so I kept still, held my breath, and listened. There was no more movement, and I eventually drifted back to sleep.
The next day, I heard footsteps again. This time I was in the hallway, heading back to my room with a bowl of Annie's pasta I'd made with someone's few-days-expired soy milk when I heard another creaky floorboard, quickly followed by the dull thump of something heavy hitting the floor, and the muffled voice of someone who was definitely not a teenage girl. I stopped in the middle of the hallway and tilted my head like a dog, wary of danger. There was silence for a minute, then footsteps again, then a door opening. Someone had gone into Darla's old room.
Something was wrong. If Darla had come back to school, I would've seen her in the building or at least around the deserted campus. Besides, it wouldn't make sense for her to return in the middle of Spring Break, so I decided to investigate. I crept upstairs and gazed down the hallway. Darla's old room was a good distance down the hall, but I could already hear thuds and thumps spilling into the hallway.
The door to Darla's old room was ajar and pallid light seeped into the hallway. I approached, trepidatious, and peered around the corner.
There was a man in Darla's room. He was an older guy, scruffy and clearly homeless, and he was muttering to himself. He'd piled half a dozen bulging trash bags around the room, which were accented with other odds and ends: a few loose bricks, a hub cap, a cinderblock. I could see a couple empty beer bottles and something that might've been a glass pipe, but I was too startled to know for sure. When the man noticed me, he stiffened and furrowed his brow at me.
"What are you doing here?" I blurted.
"Darla?" I said, "She's gone. She left. Were you staying with her? Are you... friends with her or something?"
"Mmff," the guy grunted, which I assumed meant yes. I wondered how long he'd been staying there with her. He reiterated, "She said I could stay here."
"Ok, well, she's gone now. You gotta go." I heard the words come out of my mouth and thought, I'm probably going to die tonight.
"But she said..." The man trailed off. For a brief moment I considered letting him stay there until school started again, partly because I felt bad for him but mostly because I hate confrontation of any kind.
"She's gone," I replied after a moment. We stared at each other for what seemed like ages, and I briefly wondered if I was going to be murdered and possibly crammed into a trash bag. Eventually the man mumbled something, sneered at me a little, grabbed a couple of bags and shambled out of the room, muttering all the way down the hall. I watched him disappear, then gazed out the blinds in Darla's room to make sure he'd actually left the building.
I lingered about for a moment, feeling a lot of things but unable to focus on a particular emotion. I marched down the hall to the communal phone in the stairwell and dialed downstairs to security. It rang eleven times before someone answered.
"Yeah, hi, sorry to bother you, but there was a guy living here in the dorms. Like, not a student? I think was homeless."
"OK, we'll send someone up." The tone in his voice made it seem like this was a weekly occurrence.
"No, I mean, he's gone now. He left. But I just thought I should, like, I don't know, tell someone?"
"Oh. He left? Alright then."
"Yeah, he's gone. But..." I trailed off. "Yeah, he's gone."
There was a long, awkward silence before the man in the security office spoke again. "OK, do you need anything else?"
I didn't know what I expected from that exchange, but this wasn't it. I felt rattled, and I wanted someone to care about it. I wanted someone to tell me how brave I was and give me a cupcake and maybe a parade for being so damn courageous, even though I hadn't really done anything that gutsy. Mostly, I was annoyed that something had happened that felt important and nobody had witnessed it. In a weird way I felt like I was actually on my own for the first time in my life.
When school started again, Darla's old room was cleared out by the staff and someone from security changed the code on the building's electronic lock. After a few weeks I almost forgot about my secret roommate, and I guess that's the most profound thing I took away from the experience: stuff happens, it's weird sometimes, but you deal with it and get over it.
That's sort of what being an adult is, I guess. It isn't a single big moment where you get to announce, "Sup, I'm an adult now!" It's a lot of little moments where you learn to cope, and if you're lucky you have help but sometimes you don't. Shit happens, you deal with it, and then you go finish your pasta you made with expired soy milk.