On a fantastically beautiful late-autumn day in 1985, I found myself completely and utterly alone. Fall had always been my favorite time of year, and that particular year the leaves had seemed spectacularly brilliant, mocking me, crunching underfoot and releasing their crisp tangy scent into the blustery autumn air. I kicked them as I walked, creating showers of fiery color.
It was the last day of classes before leaving for Christmas break. I was a freshman in a large, southern university, and in the past few months I’d had to do a lot of growing up in a short amount of time.
Shortly before leaving for the university, in the wake of my father’s extramarital affair, my family had fallen apart before my eyes. Because we lived in a home owned by my father’s company, and because his affair resulted in his relocation to another area, my siblings and I found ourselves temporarily homeless and rootless, drifting between schools, friends, and even parents, belonging nowhere.
When the dust settled, my older brother had joined the army and my three younger siblings, shell-shocked, had settled into a new life with my angry parents, in a different house in a new town. And me? Well, I packed my things and left, riding shotgun to my boyfriend, Darren, in his raggedy old pea-green Ford Pinto, headed for college.
On that fall day in 1985, looking up at the old, red-brick buildings that made up the campus, I marveled that I had landed there at all. Sheltered and naïve, with no available parent to guide me through the college application process, I had simply followed my high school sweetheart to this place. I had won a full scholarship, which was a necessity, and, I had reasoned, at least I wouldn’t be alone. I’d have Darren.
To give Darren his due, he did wait until I was unpacked and settling into my new dorm room before breaking up with me. “All set?” He had asked. When I nodded, he had said, “Good, then. By the way, I think we should see other people. I have to go now. I’m late for a date. See ya around.”
And so, with a proverbial kick to the chest, my college life had begun. I didn’t hear from my parents very often that first semester. Busy sorting through the broken pieces of their marriage, caring for the three younger ones at home, they had neither the energy nor the time to check on children that had already fled the nest. I was on my own.
And although I didn’t hear from Darren, exactly, I certainly heard about him. I saw him, too, around campus. Quite the ladies man, he was, and I was devastated. I had tried to talk with him a couple of times in the beginning, with horrendous results. He didn’t want to talk to me, didn’t want to see me. What he wanted was his freedom, in no uncertain terms.
In many ways, Darren had been a parental figure for me, guiding me into adulthood when no one else could. It was Darren who taught me how to drive, and Darren who took me to my first dental appointment at the age of seventeen. And always, it was Darren to whom I ran when things at home were too awful to bear.
I missed him, and even more than that, I needed him. I had no idea how to function in the grownup world in which I found myself. All semester I’d been afraid, hiding in my dorm room, clueless as to how to fit in with these students who seemed so much older and more sophisticated than I. While groups of sparkly, giggling girls paraded by on their way to holiday parties, I hid my face in my pillow and cried.
Now here I was, faced with the prospect of going home for Christmas, wherever – and whatever – home was.
Four hours and a smelly bus ride later, I found out. It was a typical company home, run down, in need of paint, appearing lopsided from the street. I had known many of these houses during my childhood. The inside, I knew, would be furnished with castoffs; a couch propped up on a brick, a wobbly table with a lamp strategically covering the water marks, gold scalloped carpet, stained and worn.
I hesitated in the darkness of evening, my breath creating plumes of fog. The neighboring homes were festive, Christmas lights blazing, wood smoke in the air, laughter drifting out into the street. My home, though, was dark. I could barely make out through the gauzy drapes the figure of my father, watching television in the living room with my baby brother whining and crying at his feet. From somewhere in the house, I heard my mother’s irritated voice, yelling for my sister to come and fold the laundry. I heard my sister’s angry response.
I stood, and looked. Then I turned, and left. I would make my way back to campus. I would call Darren, and thank him for raising me. I would tell him that I was okay, that I loved him for all he’d done for me. And because I loved him, I would bless his freedom. Then, I would make my own way, into my own life. Alone, yes, but also in control.