I remember being on the floor of my room in South Quad, bawling my eyes out on the phone. I couldn't stop crying. Real, hard crying. The kind where your jaw unhinges and long, cathartic wails just come pouring right out of you. My mom was on the other end of the line, and for a very long time, she didn't say anything. She just listened to me cry, because sometimes being there to listen to someone's pain is the best (and only) thing you can do for him.
ME: (whispering) I'm so lonely.
HER: You're so lonely.
ME: (crying) I'm so lonely.
I don't usually bother telling people I went to Michigan for a single semester anymore. There isn't much point because I'm at the age where people don't give a shit where you went to school. They just ask you that question as a way of passing the time. But I also don't mention it much because frankly, I'm still somewhat embarrassed by it. I transferred from Michigan, and while being a transfer student isn't that big of a deal if you happen to be a D-I athlete shuttling between programs, it means something quite a bit different when you're just a plain old kid.
I grew up in the 1980s, which meant that I was conditioned by TV and movies to expect a certain kind of lifestyle once I attended college. I daydreamed all the time about joining a frat and having what I assumed would be unlimited access to booze and pussy. I'd have the time of my life. I'd make the best friends I'd ever have. I'd pull outlandish pranks, like crashing the Deathmobile into the grandstands and getting that Dean Wormer good. I'd become a better, more confident version of myself. Also, I'd somehow develop quarterbacking skills and win a Rose Bowl. That was the plan. I assumed that happened for everyone in college.
Of course, that didn't happen for me. The fact is that I don't keep close ties with anyone I know from college. Not Michigan. Not Colby, where I eventually ended up. I don't email anyone from those schools. I don't check up on them on Facebook. I don't see them at weddings. And that's because I didn't really have many friends in college. Two, maybe. Maybe less. Granted, my goals were not exactly noble: friends, booze, casual sex. Only one of those things is admirable to pursue. But that doesn't mean the loneliness was any less real, or any less consuming.
I certainly didn't have any friends at Michigan. I wasn't from the state, so I didn't know anyone when I got to school. This was bad, because all the other freshmen already seemed to know each other before I got there. The local kids. The Jewish kids from Miami and Long Island. They all had their groups established. Half my dorm floor went to Michigan State on the weekends to go party with old high school friends. The other half hung out at their respective frats. I tried rushing one frat (Michigan only allowed you to pick one). I think it was Sig Eps. I was denied. Given how slovenly and arrogant I was coming out of high school, I don't blame them in the least. I toured all the frat houses and attended all the mixers (alone) and saw other freshmen integrate seamlessly with their future brothers. I couldn't make that happen, probably because I wanted to make it happen so badly.
I had nowhere to go. I had a roommate named Rich who was from Grand Rapids and was very nice, but wasn't exactly my soul mate. On weekends, he went and played indoor soccer while I played NHL '94 in the room. I remember screaming at the TV very loudly while playing, to give myself the illusion of company, and to broadcast to others next door that FUN TIMES WERE BEIN' HAD AT CASA DREW!
There was a vending machine in the basement of South Quad, and I remember going down there frequently, mostly because I was fat and hungry, but also because I was secretly hoping to meet someone along the way. A girl. A friend. A Hare Krishna. Anyone. I didn't care. I just wanted someone to talk to.
The terrible part about being lonely isn't the isolation. It's the feeling, deep down in your guts, that you will ALWAYS be isolated, and that you deserve it. I couldn't make friends at Michigan, and each day I went without making a connection I felt more like I would NEVER make friends with anyone. Ever. And being alone that long made it feel as if everyone was right to ignore me. My loneliness was a kind of perverted validation of my unworthiness as someone to socialize with. I couldn't make friends. Obviously, there had to be a reason for that. Perhaps many of them. Perhaps so many that they could never be rectified.
This was irrational. I had had many friends in high school, people I still see and talk to all the time. Incredibly good friends. If I could make friends in high school, there was no reason I couldn't make them in college, despite my less-appealing qualities back then (fat, nailbiter, crotch-scratcher, etc). Shit, I assumed I would make MORE in college. I hadn't hooked up with any girls, but I assumed college would remedy that instantly. The idea of being left alone on the dance floor never occurred to me, which made it all the more jarring when it happened.
I wasn't prepared to deal with it. At all. In hindsight, I know that much of my loneliness was self-inflicted, but also that much of it was the product of circumstances beyond my control. Sometimes I think ... if I had just gone to school with people I knew. (I did vaguely know one person at Michigan. A girl named Dana. I got her number and called her frequently, often late in the night while drunk. Her roommate took the phone one night and demanded that I stop harassing her. I never called again.) Or a smaller school. Or one closer to home. If I had done that, maybe everything would have been different. Maybe.
I remember going to the Colorado-Michigan football game that fall. The Kordell Stewart Hail Mary game. I was supposed to go with a dude I kinda knew from the dorm. He said he'd meet me there, but he never did. I sat there and watched the game alone. And I think I was probably the only person in the stadium that day who could say that. I looked around and saw groups of frat brothers, and families, and couples ... a vast sea of people who were decidedly NOT alone. Everyone had someone to be with.
Then I scratched my balls and found out I had a hernia in my scrotum. It was operated on a week later.
I decided the night of that Colorado game to transfer. That's when I called my mom and started bawling on the floor of the dorm room, fat ribbons of tears bursting from my eyes. I filled out my applications and somehow got accepted quickly to two other schools (no clue why). At the end of the semester, my mom and sister showed up with the car and we drove back home 14 hours through the night. I drove the last eight hours, most of them on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, with asshole trucks running up my ass every five seconds. My mom wanted me to stop at a hotel. I had no such intentions. I wanted to get home. I wanted to be somewhere familiar, with people I knew.
I got to my second college and I assumed things would get better. But the problem was, like at Michigan, I was late to the party. Everyone already knew each other by then. Everyone had made their bonds. I was just a random January student thrown into the mix. You feel that awkwardness when you're a transfer student. You feel like you've missed the boat. You feel stained. Other students ask you why you transferred and you can tell they assume you did because you had a nervous breakdown, or because you had a drug problem, or because you were just a goddamn head case. Or, in my case, because you were a loser. And they were right to assume that about me. I was a loser. And I had no earthly idea how to correct it. I figured changing my scenery would solve everything, but it did nothing to remedy the fact that I was a deeply immature and at times insecure human being (and anyone who reads this site would be right to argue that's still the case). I couldn't see myself. When you're that age, you rarely can.
(Also, it didn't help that my first roommate's girlfriend walked in on me jacking it to The Price is Right. You never live that sort of thing down.)
I joined the football team for two seasons and tried to ingratiate myself with the guys, but I never really fit in. One of the captains wrapped my head in duct tape during a party and then ripped it off my lips because he thought it was funny. The rest of them thought I was just a petulant lardass. They weren't my friends, no matter how hard I tried to make that friendship happen. I was a social nomad. I flitted in and out of various groups, with them but never really part of them.
So I muddled through the next few years drinking and watching old episodes of MST3K and The Simpsons with my roommate until graduation eventually rolled around. I remember being very happy to leave college, to leave a place that I felt so many other people had gotten right and that I had gotten so wrong. I didn't have the time of my life. I didn't pull any wild pranks. I didn't make the best friends ever, and I thought that I'd never have the chance to make friends like that again (not at all true). I just ... SURVIVED. And I never thought college was something to survive. It's a goddamn oasis. Who fucks up the oasis? Well, I did.
I remember being very happy to get out into the wider world, a world I had absolutely no expectations for, and a world that didn't give a shit who I was or what school I had transferred from. I remember the only good times I had in during college were when I was far away from college, in New York or elsewhere. And the reason why is because I probably didn't expect anything of those other places, the way I did college. I didn't have some goddamn asshole 1980s fever dream about what those places would be like. You spend so much of your youth trying to achieve the dream version of yourself instead of just accepting yourself for your faults and moving on. Finding your niche. Not bothering to make friends with people who don't really want to be friends with you. I wish I had realized that before college, but I didn't. Sometimes, shit just happens that way.
Maybe you went to college and had a fantastic time. If so, I think that's great (so long as you aren't a real dickbag about it.) But maybe you didn't have such a good time. Or maybe you're in college now and it's not all it's cracked up to be. Or maybe you're new to your high school, or your college, and you feel like you don't have a place at any table. I just want you to know: It'll be all right. Hold tight. Maybe school won't be the blazing vodka-soaked orgy you were hoping for. But I promise you that, eventually, the world will open up for you. It'll give you more places to go. It'll give you more room for error than school ever did. Loneliness is never permanent. You don't always have to feel like damaged goods because people won't talk to you. You can find new friends. You can do away with pointless social ambitions. You can make your own world. And when you do, all those things you find embarrassing about yourself (like being a transfer student) stop being so embarrassing. In fact, they usually end up being the things that make you such a unique and wonderful human being.
But yeah, avoid going to Michigan if you can. That place is lame.
Art by Jim Cooke