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Make Your Mess Your Memoir


Chatper 4 Person-to-Person Call for Professor Newton

12 minute read

“Person-to-person call for Professor Newton,” Chris said into the phone. “Do you accept?”

“I do,” Professor Newton, our math professor, responded.

Chris grinned, pressed the receiver button down and dialed our friend Jason’s number. Lowering his voice, he said, “Person-to-person call for Jason. Do you accept?”

“Sure,” Jason said, sounding a bit apprehensive.

Chris then put the conversation on speaker and muted our side. He, Jamie and I sat on my bed, clutching each other, already in hysterics.

And then we listened to our math professor—the oddest man I’d ever met, a person who managed to make calculus more confusing with every class and who gave most of his students D’s—talk to our friend Jason. Chris and I silently howled as we listened to them trying to figure out why the other had called them.

It was a genius trick. Chris had first broken it down for me the week before, explaining that the phones in our dorms allowed you to connect one call to another.

It was his idea to call up one person, pretend to be an operator placing a “person-to-person” call and then call a person we knew they would have an incredibly awkward conversation with, pretend to be that same operator…and voila! You have two people who would have an uncomfortable conversation even if they had actually meant to call one another each thinking the other had called them and spending the whole phone call trying to figure out why. And we got to listen to the whole thing!

We thought it was hilarious.

And actually, it was hilarious.

Because we’d already done this to Jason the previous week—connecting him in a “person-to-person” call with Sandra, my next-door neighbor in the dorms who we knew had a wicked crush on him—the math teacher call only lasted a minute.

“Um, sorry, Professor Newton, I think Chris and Anna are playing a joke,” Jason said after Professor Newton asked why he was calling. Chris, Jamie and I collapsed in laughter and then started to count to 10. At nine, Jason knocked on my dorm room door.

“Very funny guys,” he said. “You trying to get me a D minus?”

The person-to-person call trick was one of several schemes Chris, Jamie and I came up with. It was hilarious and delightful. And really, that was my freshman year of college.

College was a revelation. There I was in Connecticut, 3000 miles from my family and my so-called high school friends. Finally, I was among my people.

Trinity College is what is known as a “little ivy.” What that really means is that it’s full of a bunch of kids who went to Exeter, Andover and all the fanciest prep schools, but were too busy having fun to get into the colleges they were supposed to attend, like Harvard or Yale. They were the spoiled, beautiful, fun kids…smart enough to skate by but with social priorities far above academic ones.

I felt like I could finally exhale.

I was from a family that prioritized academics. My father had gone to Harvard. His mother had gone to Radcliffe. My dad’s dad, while not great at gin rummy, had gone to Yale Law School.

My high school prided itself on being rigorous academically. What that actually meant is that nothing mattered more than getting A’s and high SAT scores, even if the A’s were procured by cheating and the SAT scores by figuring out the systems that could strategically earn you the best score.

I know this because my dad sent me to three different SAT tutors every time my disappointing test scores came in. I eventually ended up being tutored by a guy who’d written all the biggest books about how to game the SAT.

Even though he taught me all the tricks to rig those standardized tests, I still never got the scores my family wanted.

I understood why, though.

Growing up, one thing had been hammered home to me again and again: my brother was smart and I was pretty. In other words, I was not smart. While we both applied to Harvard, he was accepted and I was not. (I later found out that my dad and grandfather called in a favor to get him in and did not do that for me.)

Still, I was fairly convinced by that point in life—even though I got decent grades—that I was all but a raving idiot.

At Trinity I didn’t feel like an idiot. I felt like I was surrounded by a lot of smart, cool people and I fit right in. 

Basically, I was at a college with a great reputation for academics but that also had a Halloween party which had made a Playboy magazine list of best college parties. It was a place where it was acceptable to drink every night of the week, as well as during the day on weekends.

In recovery, we talk about when drinking “really worked.” Boy oh boy did drinking work for me at Trinity.

When Chris, Jamie and I weren’t pulling off hijinks that everyone seemed to find hilarious, even when the joke was on them, we were either drinking, planning our drinking or getting over our drinking.

Oh, we also went to class. But after a rigorous childhood and adolescence made up of classes followed by ballet followed by play rehearsals followed by homework, I marveled at how much freedom I had. Once my classes were over—usually around 1 pm—I could do whatever I wanted.

And there were boys—amazing boys—everywhere. Tossing footballs on the quad. Playing beer pong in their fraternities. On the floor below me in my dorm. And they gave me so much attention! While I’d been popular with boys in grammar school, the ones at my high school only seemed to care about going to Grateful Dead shows and getting high while watching the sunset at the Headlands. At Trinity, I wasn’t scrambling to keep up and be a part of; I was leading the way.

Life had never felt so sweet. No one knew or cared about who my dad was. I was just Anna, exotic simply by virtue of the fact that I was from California, naturally effervescent and finally free.

There were no Cory Carlsons at Trinity. The focus wasn’t on ostracizing people. We were all united in our goal: to have a good time. 

***

“Want a line?” Sean asked me, pushing a small mirror my way. I’d been pretending that I hadn’t noticed he was doing cocaine.

I had first tried cocaine in high school and loved it. But I loved it in the way you love eating the entire s’mores cake one night, telling yourself you’re disgusting as you lick marshmallows and chocolate off your fingers. In other words, I loved it because it was such an insanely decadent, unusual, outrageous thing to do.

But over the years, my stance shifted.

Cocaine is like that crush on the sixth year senior, the one who should have graduated but is still hanging around and is never going to do anything with his life. You try to ignore him because you know he’s a loser but you can’t. He looks at you from across the table and you want to tell him to stop staring but instead you find yourself looking back and then getting that uncomfortable twinge of excitement when your eyes connect.

In other words, I’d started seeking it out.

After years of partying around the same people, you learn which are the ones who do drugs. Sean’s dad was a famous novelist and he lived in an off-campus apartment filled with real furniture that made our tapestries and Robert Doisneau Kiss by the Hotel de Ville posters seem so very “college.” He also always had cocaine.

And that’s the reason I said yes when he invited me and my friends over.

Still, I acted surprised by the cocaine offer and then pretended to have to think about it.

Slowly shrugging, I finally said, “Why not?” I’m not sure who I was acting for.

The second I did that line, I wanted another. And another. And another. But still playing the part of the girl who only agrees to do drugs because they’re in front of her, I waited patiently—by which I mean picking at my cuticles until they bled—for Sean to pass the mirror my way again.

***

“I think something’s wrong,” I said to my boyfriend Scott as he snored. Then I shook him awake and said it louder.

He shot up in bed. And just as quickly, I jumped out of bed and ran to his bathroom, where I threw up. He followed me, doing exactly what a guy like him does: wet a hand towel, put it on my forehead and then sit with me as I continued to vomit.

The casual few lines I’d intended to do at Sean’s had turned into an all-out bender, something I’d attempted to hide from Scott when I met up with him later at his fraternity. Scott and I drank together—all the time—but he was anti-drugs. The minute he told me that, a week or two into our relationship, I knew I would have to lie to him if I ever did coke.

Lying wasn’t the only bad thing I did in that relationship.

Frankly, I was a nightmare to date when I was in college and the more nightmare-ishly I behaved, the more boys seemed to want to date me. I careened from one boyfriend to the next with the same pattern: find a boy, fall for him, date him for six to nine months, meet another boy, be spontaneously crazy for him, make out with him, break up with the current boyfriend and then make the new guy into my new boyfriend for the next six to nine months before continuing the pattern.

I wish I could tell you it felt terrible to behave so selfishly, but it didn’t. At the time I simply believed men were mine for the taking and I could pick them up and toss them aside like they were a dress I’d stopped wearing and might take to Goodwill if only I could be bothered to go there.

How desirable, attractive, kind or amazing they were or how good they were to me didn’t seem to matter once I set my sights on someone else.

Case in point: I had met Scott at a party when I was dating Matt Damon.

Yes, Matt Damon. The actor. Not just a guy with that name.

I spent a lot of time at Harvard, first because Jamie’s best friend from high school went there and later because Jamie and I befriended another guy who later became ambassador to England during the Obama presidency. (Let’s just call this whole section one long name drop.)

One weekend when Jamie and I were visiting our friend, I met Matt. I later came to understand how successful he became because, in addition to being incredibly talented, he is also the most determined person I’ve ever known. Which is to say: when I met him at the beginning of the night, he seemed like a nice enough guy who was kind of cute and was shooting his first movie and by the end of the night, his dogged, endlessly charming determination to woo me was so effective that I felt like I was in love.

Anyway, Matt and I had been very happy, very in love, for nine months. Then…Scott. I met Scott at a party, wasted, and felt like it was love at first sight. We confirmed this by making out all night. The next day, I drove to Harvard to break up with Matt. It was Valentine’s Day.

But my callousness wasn’t limited to the way I picked up and discarded these boys like they were pieces of tissue. I also tore them apart when I lost my temper. While I now see all of this as unresolved trauma—I had misdirected rage that I blasted onto the people closest to me—at the time I simply excelled at mistreating wonderful men.

This means that when I confessed to Scott in between bouts of vomiting that I’d been doing cocaine all night before I’d met up with him, he only nodded. Hours earlier, he had confronted me about it. “You’re being weird,” he’d said. “You’re not on drugs, right?”

I’d acted incensed. “Don’t be ridiculous!” I’d responded, wiping my nose, probably talking a million miles a minute.

But as I lay there on the linoleum floor, so appreciating its coolness on my burning hot forehead, he just got me another cold hand towel and told me he loved me.

***

It was a few months later, roughly nine months into my senior year of college, that it occurred to me that I had absolutely no idea what I was going to do when I graduated.

Despite the fact that I had surely been receiving information for the previous two decades that figuring out your life was crucial, the realization that I hadn’t a clue about my future descended upon me randomly and dramatically as I sat smoking cigarettes with my quad mates one winter morning.

“Wait, what are you doing in the fall?” I asked Olivia.

“Moving back to DC with Neal,” she said, talking about the boyfriend she ended up marrying. “He’s helping me to get a job at a non-profit there.”

I was dumbfounded. She’d figured all this out? How had I forgotten to? I looked at Sara.

“I’m starting at Foote Cone and Belding in October,” she said. “Going to be the assistant to the woman I interned for last summer.”

Now I was even more dumbfounded. Sara and Olivia were so on top of things! But that had to be unusual, I thought. Surely other people were in my situation?

At that point our friend Jeff poked his head into our room to see if we were planning to walk over to the dining hall for breakfast or if we wanted to avoid the cold and just order a pizza with him.

“Jeff, what are you doing in the fall?” I asked him.

“Moving to the city with Steve,” he answered. “We’re both doing the Morgan Stanley trainee program.”

“Does Steve want to come to breakfast?” Sara asked, clearly making the decision that the group of us were going to the dining hall. Jeff nodded. Sara put out her cigarette. Everyone seemed to take it for granted that we all knew exactly where we were going next.

I watched Jamie stand up and grab her coat. I knew that she was also moving to Manhattan with her boyfriend and starting her MFA program in the fall.

How on earth, I wondered, had I missed the announcement that I was supposed be to, um, planning a life?

***

There are the classic anxiety dreams you hear about: you show up for the test and have forgotten to study, you’re somehow naked when everyone else is wearing clothes, you walk out onto stage for the play but realize you don’t know your lines.

My recurring dream for the 20 years after I graduated from college was this: it’s the last day of college and most people have already left. Their rooms have been emptied out, their boxes have been shipped. And I am standing in a room or an apartment or a house that is filled with things—many of them items I’ve never even seen before—and I can’t figure out where to find boxes.

Sometimes, I’m madly calling box stores but discovering they’re closed. Sometimes I’m walking through room after room, wondering how I could have accumulated so much stuff and cursing myself for doing that without realizing that it was only going to end up slowing me down.

Occasionally, I would discover cats—either in my pocket or in one of the rooms. And this would only add to my stress. How was I going to get everything packed and out of there right away and also care for these animals?

While those dreams didn’t start until after I graduated from college, the feeling started after downing the pancakes, hash browns and eggs with Sara, Olivia, Jamie, Jeff and Steve that morning when I realized college was really ending. Camp Trin Trin was no more. I had to get serious about trying to plan a life.

The problem was, I had no idea what sort of life I wanted to have.

I wanted to scream at the entire dining hall, “Can’t we all just stay here for the rest of our lives, going to football games and on-campus concerts and fraternity parties and occasionally to class?”

No one else seemed to wonder this. No one else seemed to want this.

And so I tried, diligently, to think about the sort of life I wanted to have.

But nothing came to me.

I’ve never been good at planning the future and in the moment when it seemed most crucial, I could only picture a sort of blank wall where the rest of my life was supposed to be.

I had this vague idea that I wanted to be terribly glamorous and so I would envision myself wearing business casual suits and high heels (two items that, to this day, I have never owned), walking around an office in a city, ordering people to do things.

That was as specific as it got.

Scott was a year behind me in school and I realized then that he had been trying for a few months to instigate conversations with me about our future. He would suggest that I try to get a job at a magazine in New York, which was only an hour from school, for the following year and then, when he graduated, we could move in together.

This sounded…possible. Did it sound good? I couldn’t tell.

And so I did what you do when you don’t have any other options: I acted as if I wanted to move to New York and work at a magazine. I had majored in Creative Writing and while the main reason I’d done that had been that it didn’t require you to take any tests, I thought a career in writing sounded nice.

But I knew nobody was just handing out magazine jobs so I got busy, re-launching the then-defunct Trinity literary magazine, meeting with the HR people from Condé Nast magazines when they came to campus, getting an internship at Hartford Monthly magazine and begging the Trinity college paper for a job writing about…anything. (I ended up becoming the paper’s restaurant critic.)

Still, by graduation time, I hadn’t really figured much out. The Condé Nast HR department hadn’t, in the end, been that wowed by my review of the Hartford TGI Fridays. 

I’ve always been someone who is ready for things to end. I used to marvel at the other kids on the last day of camp as they sobbed and told each other they never wanted to leave. I enjoyed camp but still wanted to scream, ”Hey guys, it’s over! A month was the deal. And what are you crying about, anyway? We get to come back next year!”

College was different.  

For the week after graduation, all our friends gathered at our friend Paul’s family’s summer house in Maine. For days, about 20 of us lived idyllically: eating delicious food Paul’s mom made us, going on long walks and bike rides, drinking and sleeping and Jacuzzi-ing and pretending life would always be like this.

When Scott and I left Paul’s and started driving toward Scott’s family’s place in Brooklyn, I started sobbing and didn’t stop for days. We were going to spend a few days with his family and then I was going to move back home to Marin and try to figure out my next move.

I knew real life was beginning and the thought horrified me.

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