how to leave college

The dachshund nestles in the hollow of your brother’s back, wheezing and snuffling to himself. The dog digs at the Persian carpet, pees in the corner, and occasionally bites people. Oscar is a holy terror. He sits in your lap, sweetly places his nose in the hollow of your chest, and violently elbows you in the gut in his attempt to find a suitable spot to rest from resting.

You sit like this for hours, into the night, with the occasional gruff from the dog at the deer in the shadows of the yard.

Something has to change.

You sleep on the floor on a mattress, your family all asleep in grandma’s upstairs bedroom.

Every summer, every winter, has been like this since you can remember. Your brother has begun to sleep on the long collapsed couch in what was once the gentleman’s upstairs smoking room—of course that’s what it was, your great-grandmother bought a Steinway just because she liked the look of it—and you miss the sound of four bodies breathing at once.

Awaken in an empty bedroom, sunlight streaming on the floor, dust in your throat, the residue of yellow, long-dehydrated paperbacks collecting in the corners where the bookcases meet the walls, covered in what was in the ‘50’s fashionable pine veneer.

My god, something has to change.

There is a portrait of a woman in their house with the slight smile of a woman who knows what she wants. I can never remember how her blood came to be in my veins.

I must have been around ten when I was playing soccer, my turn to be goalie, autumn sun and the action way down at the other end. Someone’s father with a camera told me to turn, and I did, smiled like I knew what I wanted. It must have been doughnuts and sliced oranges.

For some reason, my portrait hangs beneath hers.

My god, my god, something has to change.

The curse of clarity and smooth spasms of light

as the cars speed by in the snow.

How much do I need to breathe before I sleep?

I have no nightmares other than being smothered.

The darkness breaks again and again.

Even through eyelids, hazy and awake in the rough beams,

I cannot fathom any blessings in this shattered night.

Come back to college in the dead of winter, when the light has turned cold and there is no Christmas to yearn for. How does every step feel like a march to the death. Read every page twice over, notes you don’t remember taking, skip breakfast for the fourth time this week, shiver despite sweaters. This does not happen without a reason, but there are too many.

The only respite in all of this is the sisters you found long ago that somehow stayed.

How they hold your hands, kiss your head, bring you tea, you’re going to bed now, every supper, sit with you while you study, every coffee break, how’s the essay coming along, go on walks, recitals and plays and lectures, how was your day, tell me, drive on the highway late at night to talk, we’re going to a movie and you’re coming.

How it would kill you to leave them.

Sit in the place where you once kissed someone you thought you could love.

The stairs and Adirondack chairs, old names carved in brick.

You used to sometimes come here late in the night alone to think about how you couldn’t see a time ahead. There is no way to see where the hill hits the road, even though it is right below. You sit here now and think about what a choice is, and how many you have made without realizing it. And what choice you need to make now, before the fear closes back in.

Call home.

Years ago, they said that I didn’t have to stay if I didn’t want to, if I wasn’t happy.

Why didn’t I believe them then?

You have seen too many people leave in the early days. You thought then that they didn’t have the guts to stick it out. How foolish you were then to think that leaving was necessarily a weakness, staying a strength.

Come home, they said. Start over again. We’ll be here.

How you cried so soft, so joyful.

How the fear flew.

Maybe it doesn’t always have to be like this.

You sit on the floor of your room.

Do I stay or do I go. The sudden doubt.

Save for the few you sold back to the bookstore, you’ve kept every book from every class. You never knew which ones you needed. Now it is time to choose, to prune.

Which ones do you want, she asks.

We sit there, and prune, and prune, and prune.

In the bitter cold morning, as the tribe trudges to breakfast, each have their hands full of words to be given away, the words I did not want.

As you bring the last bags to the post office to be shipped away—will you ever see them again?—a falcon swoops low over you, silent wings and a harsh cry that slips into the wind. It is a lucky sign.

Old friends you don’t talk to anymore see you pass laden with luggage and ask what is going on?

The promise, I’ll tell you later.

They wander away. I do not tell them. They do not ask again.

Your friends make you go to the bookstore and buy the emblazoned mug that you have wanted since freshman year. You’ve earned it. And the sweatshirt.

You stop short of the beer cozy.

Inextricably, they are impossibly difficult to wear, to pour tea into, when you have come home.

Who do I say goodbye to?

A beloved few.

The regret that some of the beloved were not there to hold, semesters abroad.

It is the only regret.

Your brother sees you off. You wait for the bus, the sweat of struggling under too much luggage, the weight of years away from home, no choice but duffel bags kept at friend’s houses, bedding stored in boxes in dormitory basements, hangers left with a roommate who never returned them, magazine clippings taped and re-taped to walls, how many mugs do I own?

In what state are my sweaters?

He knows they are in plastic bags filled with mothballs somewhere in between the grandparent’s house and home and boarding school and college. He has gone to every school with me, two years behind, the answer to the promise I gave every teacher, the pride in declaring my little brother is brilliant.

I have forgotten what he said, but it was something like I want you to be happy.

How it would kill you to leave him. How you must.

I know I didn’t cry on the plane, just slept.

But did I take a cab home? I don’t remember now.

How the boxes I shipped did, indeed, return to me, the week of waiting that left me sick with worry, these were the only books I wanted, the cardigans and pullovers I found at the thrift stores, the scarves my mother gave me, or did I steal them? No one remembers.

The shock of having all my things in one place.

How I finally wept, after weeks, over the things I chose.

You stopped short of seven. It was six and a half years away from home, from when you were fifteen and afraid and went to Indiana and a boarding school to find whatever courage there was left within you.

Isn’t seven a holy number, six a cursed?

I am somewhere in between, mired between neither an unobtainable heaven nor an impossible hell, working in the purgatory where I am to make my own fate, with my own hands.

© 2017 Anna-Christina Betekhtin, All Rights Reserved.

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