freshmen. today, the word smacks of painfully earnest naivete and awakens a big sister-like tenderness in an older, wiser me, but once upon a time, i was one of them: a single eager face in a sea of one thousand six hundred eighty-four. i was as bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and utterly bewildered as the rest of them, but i still found it hard to relate to my classmates. for starters, i refused to use that infernal crimson lanyard to keep my keys handy. not only did it look ridiculous, i'd somehow missed the event where the rest of the class had received theirs...or had i lost it? i couldn't quite keep my room (or life) in order, either. these days, i'm wary of the overzealous first-year who aggressively forges awkward relationships with professors and teaching assistants, speaking up way too often in class despite the knowing smirks from their upperclassmen peers. i was not one of those freshmen.
aside from french and writing, i skipped class habitually. at first, i slept in for the novelty of it, later because the work i'd missed seemed too daunting to tackle. i avoided experimenting with the college party scene, instead pairing up with my boyfriend and becoming a hardcore homebody. stranded in unfamiliar territory with anxiety getting worse by the day, i literally stuck to what i knew, applying for a library job during my first week on campus to replace the one i'd had in high school. soon after getting hired, i rushed into work one evening, a couple of minutes late and too green to know that it wasn't a big deal. on my first day, i'd accidentally erased the contents of a vhs cassette, feigned illness, and went home mortified, so i made sure to bring substantial reading material with me - anything to avoid contact with my co-workers. that night, as i hurried past the swinging door to throw my belongings down and take a seat at the desk, someone commented, "nice coat." i wore an h&m trench, cream with oversized black plaid print, and i did feel a little bit like audrey hepburn when i cinched it tightly at the waist. "nice coat."
i knew the voice, albeit throaty and gruff, didn't belong to a man, but i instinctively turned to verify my suspicion. i'm positive my face registered visible surprise at what i saw: a rumpled blonde, well over six feet tall, peering at me through dark-rimmed glasses. she was slender but sturdy, with prominent features that gave her an almost goofy, birdlike appearance. still, i was taken in, downright intimidated by her presence.
"thank you," i managed to stutter, totally disoriented by the compliment. there was something inherently unattainable about her, and while i knew my coat was nice, it seemed odd that this woman would deign to grace it with her approval. she wore a white tee and jeans, the shirt's fit destroyed and hanging awkwardly on her lean frame. it was a shirt that seemed to have been yanked up over someone's head - perhaps a boyfriend's - many a time, the neck's shape lost long ago. paired with a men's vest and boots, everything about her was effortless. "yeah.. yeah," she said, looking me over more thoroughly. "great coat. great coat."
she left and i didn't see her for a while, until the new semester shuffled schedules around, suddenly throwing us together for a weekly work shift. by then, i was a little more grown up, a bit less awestruck. in fact, i'd grown downright cynical. i regularly fought with my parents, trying to convince them to let me transferr or at least take some time off from school. i'd only marginally improved my class attendance. on the other hand, my casual acquaintance with thea had hardly lost its luster. she had the leather jackets, the well-worn jeans and vintage pieces, of course, and when she took smoke breaks out in front of the library, she obviously struck a mean pose, but she had something to back up the aesthetics. she was a truly brassy broad, always equipped with one shocking story or another.
she came from somewhere out west, and i remember innocently wondering how someone so interesting could come from such a boring state. she was technically married to a man she rarely saw or spoke to, a rash decision she hadn't yet gotten around to fixing. she'd once stayed with a lesbian couple who hired her to model jewelry and unintentionally caused a severe rift in their relationship. she was mostly upset that she didn't get properly paid for the job. she'd worked on movie sets and traveled the world, once fudging a bit of jewish ancestry to take a birthright trip to israel. she'd attended a naked party in new york and gotten her picture taken by a famous photographer, using a strategically placed fanny pack. it wasn't the idea of a free spirit that blew my mind, but rather one blowing about the hallowed halls of american academia, slipping right past the squares and beating them at their own game. most astonishing of all, she'd left harvard! - gotten fed up with all of it and left - but decided to come back and finish her time there. it wasn't a teary-eyed case of seeing the light and basking in the glow of the ivory tower. she often griped about how she couldn't wait to graduate and i loved her for it.
and then she did. we weren't terribly close, but i knew that i couldn't exactly wrap her in a bear hug and tell her how much she'd inspired me. it wouldn't have thrown her off - weirder things had happened to her, i'm sure - but it wasn't quite her style, and i didn't want to encroach on that. still, i felt grateful to her for being frank, for never being aware of just how awesome she always, always looked, for having the dopiest laugh ever, for not being afraid to say that she habitually made outlandish excuses to get out of turning in assignments on time. she was forthcoming with advice, and even when she wasn't dishing it out, i always felt like i'd learned a lot just by being in her presence. she made me realize that even if i was never cornered my professor and asked him to dinner in the hopes of receiving a glowing recommendation letter somewhere down the line, this didn't make me an outsider in the student body. it just meant that i was the exception to the general rule. after getting to know thea, i realized that there's a lot of fun to be found in the exception.