One afternoon, towards the end of my first semester freshman year, I was doing the same thing I did almost every afternoon--studying on my bed. This was not due to my studiousness, rather to the fact that I was scared of two things: failing (and subsequently being sent back home) and making a fool of myself. While I have still managed to avoid the first, I failed at the second endeavor no matter what I did--even if I spent almost all of my freshman year hiding in my dorm room.
On this particular afternoon, the girl at the front desk called and told me Mike was there to see my roommate. My roommate wasn't there, but I knew Mike and went to bring him to our room to wait for her. When I went to get him from the front desk, I saw a thin, tired looking man dripping wet from having walked in the rain. He followed me silently and sat on the floor by the door. I would have gone back to studying, but there was an awkward silence and a very wet man on my dorm room floor. I offered him a towel, which he silently accepted; I still couldn't focus.
"Are you ok?" I didn't know what else to say.
"Yes. I'm fine--for a guy who has just been cut off from his family and hasn't eaten in two days. My father just threatened me, claimed that I wasn't getting another penny out of him and not to even think of contacting my mom or grandparents for help. I would rather starve than ask them for help. She's can't help herself--how the hell is she going to help me... "
He was rambling, angry words bursting to the surface--apparently he had just been waiting for someone to ask him. Meanwhile, from about the time he had finished saying he hadn't eaten in two days, I was keeping myself busy by making him a stack of turkey sandwiches.
I was shocked at his anger. Every time I had seen Mike during his visits, he had been funny and carefree. He was nice to me, if a little confused by my lifestyle. He was one of the rare people I had met who had never seemed stressed or overwhelmed by college life and the realities of growing up. This wet man named Mike was a stranger, I was meeting him for the first time.
By the time I handed him his turkey sandwiches, he was looking at me with more than his usual confusion. "What's this?"
"Turkey sandwiches. The bottom two have mayo and mustard. But I didn't know if you like them or not, so the others are without sauce. What? You just said you hadn't eaten in two days."
He sat in the same spot and ate the first sandwich in silence. Of course, it would have probably been impossible for him to talk as he stuffed his mouth with food--but he may have run out of angry words about his family life.
"I'll go to DC. I have a couple of friends out there. You can get places if you play your cards right over there. You need to look at people and make them feel like they're smart. Learn a few things, shake a few hands, act confident and you'll make it. Have you ever been to DC?"
I shook my head no. He continued to talk to himself.
"Well, I'll send you a postcard when I get there. I'll probably crash with Jess or Amy. They'll take me in. I swear, flatter a girl a little bit, give her a good sob story and she will take you in and treat you like a king. I bet you anything, in two weeks, I'll have a bunch of new clothes a comfortable couch to sleep on and a date to all the interesting events. I'll be eating three meals a day again. For some reason, girls really feel good about themselves when they feed a 'poor guy'." He stopped here, sandwich mid-air and looked at me in the eyes for the first time. I had just taken him in and fed him, and he sat on my floor mocking me. I said nothing.
"I didn't mean it like that. Really I didn't."
For the first time that entire semester, I made eye contact with him and did not avert my eyes. That was not how I was raised. In my old world, only shameless girls looked men in the eyes like that. Even then, I blushed out of shame, because I was unaccustomed to the directness of the exchange. I was becoming something different from the daughter my mother had raised and sent away. I was no longer only focusing on my studies, but slowly talking to boys. It occurred to me for the first time, that not only had I ignored my mother's advice and stayed in the room when my roommate had brought her friends over, I had talked to them over time. Indeed, they were almost the only people I talked to outside my lab partners and study group members. And now, without thinking I had brought this man into my room, fed him and looked him in the eyes as he mocked me.
"Listen. I'm sorry--really. You're different. You're not cool, you don't look like the other girls, you don't act like the other girls. You're nice. You didn't even ask me if I wanted something, you just helped me. No one around here does things like that." He was back pedaling, confusing the color that had rushed to my face for an emotion other than what I felt. He felt bad for being caught.
"I fed you because you said you hadn't eaten and it was the right thing to do. I know you--or men like you. I didn't feed you to impress you or make you like me, because your kind does not like my kind. You think I'm stupid and funny--but nice enough to help you if I can."
And from there, we returned to the awkward silence. He ate, and I read--or pretended to as I stared at my book. My roommate eventually came back, and looked completely baffled by the semi-wet man on the floor and the silent girl on the bed.
I learned two things that day, 1) the reputation you develop early on in college seems to follow you around for a while. 2) in the minds of many people, 'nice' and 'cool' are mutually exclusive qualities. That day, in the awkward silence of my room, I established a reputation as a 'nice' girl; the girl guys were honest with, the one that listened but didn't play games. It was safe to tell me what you really thought, because I wouldn't use it against you on a date. I was the little/big sister, at once teased and protected. I don't know how but for years after, people I met on campus knew me through that exchange with Mike--one that he didn't forget for a while. How do I know? The following year, I got a postcard from Washington DC in an envelop, with a $20 paper clipped to it.
On the postcard, there was a short message, "Thanks for lunch. It's nice here."