On Gay Modern Love: My Dropout Girlfriend Kept Dropping In
My Dropout Girlfriend Kept Dropping In
By LEE CONELL and THE GAY RECLUSE
Published: May 31, 2008
IN April of my freshman year, my girlfriend, Terry, decided she wanted to be homeless. Among the decisions I expected a college-age girlfriend to make (changing cellphone plans, or maybe going vegan), homelessness was not one of them.
Still, I took the situation calmly. I had known Terry since high school and had watched her pass through various phases: Goth, punk, anarchist, Marxist and Zen. When she explained that she was giving up her room to live on the farms and in the woods surrounding our Hudson Valley college town, I did not make a scene. I told myself this, too, would pass and politely asked her why she did not want to live in a house.
“I want to try to exist as free from material stuff as possible,” she said.
I squinted at her. “But I like your apartment. It’s in a great location.”
Terry looked straight into my eyes. “This is just something I have to do for myself.”
I didn’t say anything. It’s hard to argue with that personal power stuff.
Over dinner that evening, I told a girl who lived in my dorm about Terry’s plan. “I’m really worried about it,” I said.
A matter-of-fact business major from Brooklyn, she blurted, “She’s crazy!” She plunged her fork into a pile of rice, and then offered a thinly veiled criticism of me: “I would never put up with that.”
“She’s not so crazy,” I told her. “She’s going to be saving a lot of money. And I can understand wanting to feel close to nature.”
“No,” she said. “She’s definitely crazy.”
My roommate was equally nonplused. Where would she keep her stuff or brush her teeth? Could a city kid like her really transition into the life of an ascetic?
I had no answers. How would I explain her decision to others? Shouldn’t I have seen this coming? Several months earlier, Terry had given me the book “Into the Wild” for Valentine’s Day (because nothing says “I love you” like the story of a young man starving to death in the Alaskan wilderness). That should have been a clue.
Luckily, Terry wouldn’t have to worry about starvation in her own foray: she had a girlfriend with a college meal plan. I pictured myself sneaking cookies out of the dining hall and heading into the woods. People would think I was harboring an escaped convict.
An Oprah-esque voice in my head said: It doesn’t matter what people think as long as she feels fulfilled. But another voice in my head, the one that avoided self-help books and talk shows, was less convinced. That voice told me times had changed, and we weren’t in high school anymore.
Back then, before we started dating, Terry’s acts of rebellion had impressed and attracted me. Just standing next to her, a girl who wore black eyeliner and a safety pin through her eyebrow, was an easy and efficient way for me to act out. But I hadn’t been Terry’s friend only for rebellion’s sake. At heart, I understood and agreed with many of her ideas. I just expressed my agreement quietly.
Her Zen phase, for example, occurred at the same time as mine, in sophomore year of high school. But while I meditated alone in my bedroom, Terry would meditate publicly: in our high school hallway, on the subway and even, as a photograph I have demonstrates, under a fountain at the Cloisters in Washington Heights (her lined eyelids shut serenely, legs crossed in lotus, bemused museum visitors stopping to stare).
In another photograph from the same day, I also sit under that fountain, but my eyes are wide open and I’m smiling sheepishly, aware of how goofy I look, a teenager crouched on the ground, surrounded by medieval art.
We were attending separate colleges when Terry and I started dating in our freshman year, but after several months Terry, unhappy with school, dropped out.
This I defended to friends who gaped at the news by telling them that she was acting against the system, against the overplanned life of studying, choosing our majors, plotting out our meek life goals. What Terry was doing, I told them, was courageous, and I supported her decision even as I spent my nights in the library working wholly within the system to plot out my very own meek life goals.
When she rented a room in my college town and took a job as a taxi dispatcher, I was glad to have her nearby. Still, with the outdoors experiment beginning, I wasn’t sure how her roof-free life would mesh with my own. I had thought the enormous buildup to college — APs, SATs, and other nefarious acronyms — was supposed to pave the way to middle-class normalcy, which didn’t involve having to deal with decisions like Terry’s.
Sure, you might get involved in the occasional good-natured protest, but over all once you attended college, you were on the straight-and-narrow path. Or at least, if the economy didn’t sink, you were on the non-homeless path.
If Terry began to spend her free time lost in the woods finding herself, meditating next to a squirrel, in a state of perpetual nirvana, where would that leave me? Laboring away under fluorescent lighting? Of course, that was what I had chosen, just as I had chosen to smile for the camera under the fountain at the Cloisters while Terry sought the meaning of life in the same spot.
It was growing dark. I had an essay to start, a test coming up. Then there would be laundry to do, followed by several halfhearted attempts at matching socks and cleaning my side of the room. I took a deep breath and looked out my window. As I watched the light change, I thought of Terry underneath that sky.
Then I realized that I was jealous.
What sort of lessons would I learn if I fell asleep each night under the stars? What would happen if I left school and followed Terry’s footsteps? I knew I wouldn’t do it, being overly fond of my books, my room’s four walls and the internet. Still, I couldn’t stop one image from transposing itself onto my textbooks: me, lying by a brook at night, listening to its babbling, knowing I was going down my own wide-open path.
But once the experiment was under way, I realized that even when you are fully committed to treading that unbeaten path, it’s not so easy to lose yourself in the woods, particularly if you’re from Queens and scared of the dark. On one of her first nights outdoors, around midnight, Terry called me at my dorm. In a small voice she asked, “Can I come over?”
She had been trying to sleep in an apple orchard. As darkness enveloped her, the apple trees began to look less like trees and more like zombies with skeleton hands. Terry was frightened by the scuttling sounds in the bushes, and just as frightened when the sounds stopped.
“It’s really dark,” she said in a hollow, frightened voice. “I’m worried the farmer might find me and shoot me.”
So I told her to come by. And I made the same offer again and again over the following weeks, when around midnight my phone would ring, and Terry would ask me for shelter. She would say it was too cold for her to sleep outdoors, or that she thought she heard rabid dogs, or that the night seemed particularly dark.
Although she did manage to spend a bunch of full nights out there somewhere, she only became edgier as the experiment continued. Whenever I saw her early in the day, if she wasn’t cranky from sleep deprivation, she would be twitchy with anxiety, watching the sky for the looming dark, for a sign that the time of terror approached. Conversation centered on where her sleeping spot for the night would be, and how cold Weather.Com said it would become.
I couldn’t help but entertain the ways I would have done things differently if I were in her shoes, taking advantage of the peace in a way she seemed unable to do: sitting serenely in the wilderness, studying the movements of the stars, composing poetry about humanity’s unbalanced relationship with the natural world and communing with the Disney-eyed wildlife around me. I would certainly not be scared of the dark and a few barking dogs.
Deep down, though, I knew I would be just as scared, or even more scared. And so I felt a little triumphant every time Terry’s experiment went south, which happened often enough.
ONE night, bedded down by a river, she fell asleep with pepper spray in her grasp. Later she brushed her face with the back of her hand and immediately her eyes began to burn. Pepper spray had gotten onto her skin. Eyes smarting and sleep impossible, she walked out of the wooded area and into town, where she spent a few hours sleeping at a coin laundry before being awakened by the police. They threatened to arrest her, but let her go because they were impressed she had a legitimate day job.
That dispatcher job would prove handy during Terry’s time outdoors, as it provided her with a bathroom for tooth brushing and face washing, two activities that became difficult in the wilderness. Dorms were useful for showering. The grungier Terry looked, the easier it was for her to pass as a college student, so it wasn’t difficult for her to sneak into campus bathrooms.
Still, amid the run-in with the police, sleep deprivation and treks to showers, the ideology behind her experiment began to melt away. This became clear to me after I told her that the hunger and homelessness group on campus was doing a “sleep out.” Students would spend one night sleeping outside a campus building to raise awareness about homelessness.
“Oh!” Terry exclaimed happily. “Maybe I’ll do it with them. It’d be less scary if I could sleep near other people.”
Not long after, she began spending most nights on the foldout couch outside my dorm room. In June she rented a room, at which point the experiment was declared over.
“Terry’s living indoors now!” I bragged to friends.
Terry and I are still seeing each other, and she continues to live under a roof.
But my happiness at the experiment’s failure had a darker side. In truth I had enjoyed watching her forays into the wilderness fail night after night because each retreat made me feel better, even superior, about my own safe choices: roof, college, stability. And Terry’s final surrender only drove home the point.
This was hardly something to celebrate, and the dreamer in me knew it.
Lee Conell, a runner-up in the Modern Love college essay contest, recently completed her junior year at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
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