Author’s note: This piece is adapted from and inspired by Lydia Davis’ seminal short story, “Break It Down.” The story appears in, “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis.”
A senior in college is reclining on his front porch in the gray spring light of Ann Arbor. He’s trying to make sense of it all. He says:
The tuition was $50,000 a year, frontloading on classes to wrap it up in three years, that’s $150,000. Plus food and housing, which totaled about $900 a month, that’s $180,000, but I’d have needed to eat regardless, so maybe only $170,000.
Eighteen hours a week of classes, assuming I’d attended them all, for 90 weeks, costs $105 an hour, which is expensive, but not too expensive, because my whole college life hadn’t been squeezed into just those 18 hours a week.
Bursley Residence Hall had those long, tunnel-like hallways — hallways with no windows that made me lose track of time — and the little convenience store with sushi that was always picked clean, minus the Philadelphia rolls. I remember I had this tree, growing outside my window, in the dorm, that changed color day by day that first fall. I’d never watched anything the way I watched that tree turn colors, which maybe speaks to my dependency on the room, but people visited me there, visited and laughed and slept on the floor and threw up on the carpet and listened patiently while I played them songs that, frankly, didn’t possess the sort of liveliness found in music that ought to be played around new friends, but they listened anyway, nodded and faked smiles and decided, after only a month or so, that they’d like to live with me once our class was kicked out of the dorms.
You sign a contract to become this little odd family, promise to nag each other about the dishes in the sink, the stains on the tile and oh, my god, why are there squirrels in the walls and mice in the basement, but it’s all okay because your housemate has a fighting spirit, just running in circles with a broom and a plastic tub, going to teach those squirrels a lesson. Your schedule picks up. Everything moves faster. Walk to class; no, run to catch the bus; no, skip class and write your thesis and hole up in your room while the dishes pile higher and higher. See the housemates less, yes, but when you do, it’s a real outpouring, because just today, I heard Truth House is throwing, and just today, I have a coupon at Domino’s, and for just one more song, we can dance, please, let’s just keep dancing. And everything kind of crescendos, faster than you know it, and all of a sudden, there’s less can you believe our house has a front porch? and more by the time the next season of this show comes out, we’ll be living in different cities.
So 18 hours a week would really be selling it short. More like 120 hours a week, spent just absorbing the strangeness of it all. Say it’s only $16 per hour then, which isn’t too unreasonable.
Though it’s not just 120 hours because it doesn’t stop when you’re sleeping. I keep having this dream about a bowl of cereal, and I don’t know, maybe everyone has this dream, or some version of it, but the bowl feels warm to the touch, as if I’d just taken it from the dishwasher and the milk inside is cool. I’m eating heaping spoonfuls of Lucky Charms, all those alluring bright colors, eating, wondering what’s at the bottom, like I can’t wait to find out, but I’m terrified to find out, and at the bottom, it’s just an emptiness, lonely, like I’d never had any cereal at all. It’s easy to decide, then, to stay in the dream — to keep splashing around in the cool milk, stained with all the bright colors — but you move on because you have no choice, and I’m starting to realize, just now, as I’m coming to the end of it, that there is no end, no hard, fast line drawn in the sand to say, okay, it’s over, you’re an adult already, just pack it up and move on.
No, instead it all bleeds over, smearing like a child’s watercolor after you told them to let it dry, and the memories well up, just as everything else starts to go, and they leave you exhausted, gasping for air, washed up on a rocky shore, confronted by the images that keep appearing in your mind: You’re soaked to the bone in the pouring rain, grinning from ear to ear, walking quickly down South University Avenue, back when it was under construction; or you’re kneeling on Palmer Field, kneeling in the grass with a blank stare, like an idiot, because oh god, her ankle isn’t supposed to bend that way, but maybe it’s alright because your pre-med friend looks confident; or you’re trudging through the snow, then drumming your fingers on 7-Eleven’s plastic countertop, making a joke to the man ringing you up, but he doesn’t laugh. The images flash past, too quick, really, to catch them all, so you’re stuck with just the brightest ones, chastising yourself for forgetting the details and replacing them with questions, unanswerable questions like, why did my English professor wear a mask some days and not others? or why had a photo editor worn bike shoes to a meeting?
The little images start to haunt you: not constantly, but in uneven increments, so one day you’ll be working away, laser-focused on some peculiar comma placement, and the next day you hear someone accidentally use a specific word, like barn or implication, that takes you back to a place where the images well up, and for hours afterward the memories feel fresh again. So it only cost maybe $8 an hour, taking all that time into account.
I have to factor in the bad memories, though, and it’s hard to conjure them up now, in the warmth of spring, but I know times weren’t perfect. The everyday sort of bad occurrences have largely faded to the background, but one memory stuck around: when I had to say goodbye. The pressure started during a weekly meeting with some columnists — our last meeting — when a thought popped into my head, and I suddenly wondered which of them I’d ever see again. The question didn’t spark a panic so much as an odd fascination — an urge to hold onto all of life’s little guest stars, people I loved, but not enough to keep in touch with — and so I learned to say a permanent goodbye, not out loud, but quietly in my head whenever someone left a room. I came to terms with the minor characters disappearing for good, but occasionally they’d turn up in unexpected places, at a bus stop or crossing the street, and it would spook me because I’d already written them off, but now I had to say a permanent mental goodbye all over again, quickly, in the space of a few seconds before they disappeared, and that’s when the doubt crept in, the thought that maybe they weren’t gone for good after all. I found this thought to be the most dangerous, as it threatened to override the sanctity of the whole system, of all my previous goodbyes, goodbyes which were safely intact.
A craft and collage night, intended partly as a formal goodbye for Statement staff, came and went without much ceremony. I craned over a coffee table in the dim blue light of my fellow editor’s apartment, quietly making my collage, and said my farewells when the time came. But just before we left, someone handed me a paper plate. In this fashion, scribbled onto paper plates, we gave each other awards, like senior superlatives. I held tight to my paper plate and turned to leave. That was it.
The farewell waits for you all along; it’s an implicit part of the contract with the university. You arrive to find a whirlwind, and then you leave, stuck looking internally, really examining yourself, trying to evaluate if this new you got their money’s worth, and the question arises, after some thought, of how you might ever do anything else, without this university — this community — in your life, and you can’t answer, but you have to ask.
So I’m just wondering, how you head into it with $170,000, maybe closer to $180,000, and walk away with a paper plate.
Statement Associate Editor John Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.