Upstate New York May 2014
The most dangerous times to fly are landing and takeoff, according to my mother. She watches The Lehrer News Hour on Friday night with Gwen Ifil. In high school and college it was 20/20 or Dateline. She likes facts and emails my sister and I news articles on airline safety. Sometimes she sends clippings via snail mail. “You should count the number of exit rows ahead and behind you when you fly,” she emailed me once. “You never know what the plane will do. It could be dark. There have been studies that show that people who survive plane crashes have counted the exit rows so they know how to escape.”
I think about this when the plane takes off and lands. Sometimes I count the exit rows ahead and behind me. Other times I just relax and don’t care. I tell myself I’m being lazy but really it’s the constant hyper diligence that I’m letting go of. I’m not lazy.
On my flight from Portland to Atlanta I sit in a row across from three Amish women. I can tell they don’t fly very often. I am on the first leg of my flight to my fifteen year college reunion at Wells College in upstate New York. When I went to Wells it was a women’s college. It went coed in 2003. I was not pleased with the decision. The three Amish women are twenty years old with hair wrapped up in buns.
They are pale satin skin and innocent. The one sitting next to me in the aisle seat wears lavender, yellow, turquoise and green flower dress with what looks like material from the 70’s. The material looks like it doesn’t need to be ironed. She pulls out a box of Wheat Thins from a camouflage backpack with pink piping sitting at her feet. She eats the Wheat Thins and wipes her hand on her skirt.
I want to hand her a napkin. I have quite a few in my carry on. She passes the Wheat Thins to the woman sitting next to her and they eat, talk in quiet voices and giggle about flying.
I don’t like flying.
Four back and forth trips in planes between upstate New York and Portland yearly in college left me never wanting to travel again: Syracuse to Chicago to Portland, Syracuse to St. Louis to Portland, Rochester to Detroit to Portland, Syracuse to JFK to Portland. The girl in the lavender, yellow, turquoise and green flower dress closes the Wheat Thin box up and shoves it in her camouflage back pack with pink piping.
I take my journal out from my overstuffed bag and write about them. I watch from the corner of my eye. My shoulders scrunched up. I take a deep breath and realize I’ve been holding tension in my body. That’s how it is when I fly. I worry I have forgotten something at home:
My swimsuit for diving into Cayuga Lake during reunion.
Did I leave the cats enough food?
Did I lock up the house?
Turn on the outside lights?
There is always something to worry about when I fly.
In Atlanta I get off plane, check myself into the airport on Facebook and search for food. There’s McDonalds, Panda Express, Burger King. There’s a Pink Berry frozen yogurt stand that I had read about in People or US Weekly. It’s where celebrities go. I decide to give it a try since at least there is fruit they could put on top of my lime berry and vanilla swirl combo. It’s $7.50 for a small with the fruit topping. Still better than greasy fries and a burger that will only leave me farty.
My friend Hetty, a friend from college who lives in Atlanta sees my check in and comments that I should try and have a longer layover next time so we can hang out. Hetty is 5’9, skinny, and half Dutch and African American. She went to boarding school in Germany and always said if you travel to Europe you should try and get on an SAS or Swiss Air flight because all of the Luthanasa flight attendants were giant boorish women that would yell at you.
I shove the Pink Berry in my craw, find a restroom, pee and board my connecting flight to Rochester. I land, rent a car, start driving, see an EZ Pass sign and realize I don’t have money with me for tolls. I type in my friend Lee, who used to be Alicia’s address in Buffalo and search for all the non-toll roads on my GPS.
“I’ll be there in an hour and fifteen minutes,” I text him. I’m bleery eyed from travel and hungry. Lee and I will probably eat once I get to his house so I decide against stopping. I’m also dehydrated as fuck but press on knowing I’ll be drinking water in no time.
I get to Lee’s house in Buffalo and he’s inside with his girlfriend Lynn’s three cats, Sebastian, Princess and Figaro. Lee has just graduated from law school and is 160k in debt. He’s 5’7, skinny and taking steroid shots. His voice is deeper and face more chiseled than the last time I saw him a year earlier. Lee works at non-profit making $13 an hour doing I don’t know what. Lynn is in Rochester, an hour away working at Strong Memorial as an oncology nurse. I’m not a fan. We were in the same graduating class at Wells. She’s nervous, clears her throat constantly and always swings her head to get her stringy, thin hair out of her eyes.
My visit with Lynn and Lee the year before was like this: wake and funeral for our good friend Colleen in Northern New York who died at 36 after a seven year battle with breast, lymph and brain cancer leaving a seven year old and husband behind. Me trying to hold it together, grief spilling out everywhere, and calling Lee “she” instead of “he.” Lynn mad at me in the parking lot in Clayton after the funeral for calling Lee a “she”. The rain coming down and me driving, mad, to Governeur in my giant, black Chrysler rental car that the rental agent insisted I have, separate, to meet Lynn, Lee and our friend Alyssa, who thank god, was the great neutralizer : friendly, easy going and laughs. In Governeur, all four of us pile into a booth at an empty 50’s rock and roll themed diner. I focus all my attention on Alyssa: my saving grace in the depressing diner. I ignore Lynn and her stupid throat clearing and look at Lee only when necessary.
Lee makes me a gluten free grilled cheese sandwich and hands me a glass for water. I stand while he flips the grilled cheese in the frying pan. We talk on the phone once a week and text constantly. When I arrive we don’t have to spend a lot of time catching up. We walk to an ice cream stand a few blocks from their apartment. It’s a warm night so I order a chocolate dipped cone. Lee gets frozen custard. We crack Beavis and Butthead jokes with one another as traffic zooms by on the busy street.
I spend a day with Lee in Buffalo. We go downtown and take pictures of city and government buildings that have art deco styles from the 30’s. We go to Central Terminal, a train station built in the depression that was never used. It’s beautiful but abandoned with a police car parked near the train tracks. It sits in an old Polish neighborhood with abandoned buildings and factories. The city is trying to make a comeback but it’s a long slog. There are abandoned factories everywhere. The city smells like Cheerios.
I had a one night stand with Lee in college. Back when Lee was Alicia and the college was full of only women. It was February, dark and freezing outside. Snow on the ground and icicles hanging from the old brick buildings littered around campus. Alicia was in a black out. I was drunk but I remember the details: fisting, disassociating, and wanting to run away. Alicia was into S&M. I was not. I’m still not.
Lynn comes back from working in Rochester and we go to a natural foods restaurant. Lee is celiac and can’t eat gluten. Neither can I. Lee is my toilet humor friend. Lynn is not that way. I wish she was still working. Her nervous habits drive me crazy and I try and try and try to be friendly even though her presence makes me cringe.
The next day we leave in separate cars for reunion: me in my Hyundai rental that’s like a tin can. I make sure I have cash on hand for tolls and pray I don’t die on the New York State Thruway. Lynn and Lee leave together in Lynn’s new Subaru. Wells is two and half hours from Buffalo. I’m grateful to be away from the throat clearing. I’m staying in the dorms for two nights. I don’t mind since I haven’t slept on campus since 1999 when I graduated.
I boycotted my 5 and 10 year reunions. The female president of Wells converted the school from all women’s to coed in 2004. Lisa Marsh Ryerson was a 1980 graduate who made the decision behind closed doors without consulting faculty. It was a secretive decision made with help from the college trustees. Most of my classmates and friends who graduated in a few years before and after me are still mad.
When the decision was made in 2004 I met up with Yoshi in New York City, we rented a car and drove up to Wells to meet Lee, who was still Alicia, to protest. Yoshi, Alicia and I hung out with the students who pitched their tents on Macmillan administration building lawn and camped out in protest. It was the closest thing to a 60’s style protest that I had been to. I was 27 and angry at the great injustice that was the college turning coed.
I’m upset still but not so much that I’m still boycotting reunion. LMR has moved on and it now head of AARP. I park my tin car along a circular driveway and walk into Main building. It smells just like it did in college. I check in at the registration table in Faculty Parlors. Faculty Parlors is blood red paint on the walls, crimson/pink/yellow floral sofas and dark woods everywhere. When I was a student the college got a massive facelift. The woman that started the American Girl Doll Company graduated from Wells in the 1960’s and decided to redecorate the interiors of the four dorms and five buildings. The dorm I lived in freshman year had dark pink and pastel green plaid wallpaper, green sofas and matching art work. It was odd and eclectic and we weren’t allowed to move any of the furniture.
There’s a twenty something dude and a woman behind a long folding table in Faculty Parlors giggling and gossiping. I don’t make eye contact with the guy. I’m still resentful that there are men walking around my all women’s college campus. Correction: former all women’s college campus. Most people don’t care about going to their college reunion. Our graduating class was 76 people and everyone knew one another. I’m looking forward to seeing people I haven’t seen in 15 years. In Faculty Parlors the furniture is faded and worn. It looks like the college needs another facelift. I pick up my registration packet that includes a name tag with my name and graduation year, a pen, a pad of paper with the Wells logo, a stagecoach being pulled by two horses and a beer cozy.
I head up the stairs to Main third where I’ll be staying. I’m staying on one of the wings. My room is long and narrow with old wood floors and the same furniture from when I was a student. There’s a window that overlooks Cleveland Hall, the art building, named after Frances Cleveland, President Grover Cleveland’s wife. When I was a senior at Wells I would go into Cleveland on the weekends and write my papers. There were always papers to write. I rarely had tests. I text Lee and find him settling into a room down the hall from me. Lynn’s off somewhere else.
“What up, son?” Lee says.
“Nothing. It’s so weird to be back here.”
“I know. Wanna go down the dining hall and see if they have any coffee?” Lee asks. Lee drinks coffee from a silver travel mug and smokes cigarettes from the Native American reservation.
“Yea, let’s go,” I turn on my heel and down the hallway to the dining hall that’s just down the stairs.