It was a few days before the start of the semester for Michigan State University, where the crisp air of fall threatened the leaves and wind of warm summer days. Lila’s dorm room curtains tapered out of the small window, the flap of the curled fabric wrapping itself around the ledge, in and out, in a monotonous rhythm. The caw of a passing crow rang into the silence of the room, weaving through the carpet, each strand following the echo as it raced into the sky.
Her mother had left her alone in her room, for what seemed like a long time ago, standing in the narrow doorway, surrounded by luggage and boxes. With her mother’s parting words of good-luck, coughed out between breaths of lingering cigarette smoke, she engaged in the age-old ritual of a parent parting with their child, wrapping her in an awkward one-arm hug. With one last look, her mother’s hard-brown pupils softened under the wrinkled folds of her eyes which hid the glistening sheen of misty tears, and she pulled her shawl tight with a huff before disappearing down the hallway. Although Lila wasn’t sure if she imagined the glisten in her mother’s eyes out of some faint left-over desire in her heart.
Her mother’s hand still lingered on her shoulder, warm and cold still on her shirt. The feeling was as uncertain as she felt.
Looking around, small was an understatement for the dorm room. Two beds adorned opposite walls and were tucked closely to a desk that occupied the back half of the room. There was barely any space between the beds, and she was sure that she would be able to feel her roommate’s breath from her bed. A distinct demarcation of the roommates’ sides divided the room into “A” and “B”.
A mirror hung above the sink beside the door and she blinked owlishly at her reflection. She was average in build, nothing too proud in her frame or pose. Curled brown hair licked rounded shoulders as the tendons adjusted themselves along her backside. With a face like a forgotten, dusty library book, her features were plain; a soft jaw complemented plump rosebud lips and an upturned nose. Pools of brown rested in dark shadows, hidden in the dark caverns of her eye sockets. She dressed plainly and barely managed to stand out against the southwestern-inspired brown wallpaper.
Her foot toed the edge of the metal bed with a blue mattress laying like a thick boulder across the frame. A couple of boxes were haphazardly strewn across the bed, one box’s guts spilling clothing that tangled into an unmanageable knot onto the floor.
A sigh, a resignation, she began to unpack with the cold discomfort that comes with unfamiliar spaces. She had never been away from home for long periods of time, except for summers at sleepaway camp that she spent huffing hot under bed sheets with a dim flashlight and a book. During the day, she avoided going on hikes and rowing adventures, hiding under the cabin’s decrepit porch where she would emerge covered in spider webs in the dim evening. The counselors could never find her.
Friends were far and few inbetween. Fitting in with the blonde haired, blue eyed girls that would flip their hair and flutter their long lashes whenever a shirtless boy walked by was never an option for her. Her dark complexion and chubby stomach would make the outdoor-obsessed boys turn their lip up at her with glazed, amused, glassy eyes.
Despite her hatred of the camp and begging not to go, her mother, in faded pink scrubs, would silently pull up to camp in her 2003 blue-green suburban, that always grinded to a squealing stop, and begrudgingly stared at her between swirling clouds of cigarette smoke. Lila always caught her gaze in the rear-view mirror, her mother’s deep set eyes like two dark beads, challenging her. With too many bags all gathered in her lap, thinking it would make the exit easier, she would stumble unceremoniously out of the car, hiding blushing red cheeks and eyes glued to the ground in embarrassment.
She imagined college to be a similar experience; silence and stumbling. Her mother even completed the ritual of making it feel like sleepaway camp, tapping cigarette ash outside the window as her gaze watched steadily in the rearview mirror as she schlepped all her stuff inside alone.
She had long grown accustomed to her mother’s hot and cold behavior. Sometimes it seemed like her mother was gathered in a ray of warmth, radiating sunshine in waves off her skin. During these times, a little spot in her heart grew warm enough to capsize all the dark lingering criticisms in her head. When she carried the last of her items inside, she was surprised that her mother followed her up the stairs and stood outside her door wordlessly to say goodbye.
At other times, the brooding cloud of darkness that hung around the dark circles under her eyes, twisted her words in her mouth into sharp arrows that hooked under her skin and followed her everywhere, ready to fish her out of the water if she swam too deep. The quick change of her mother’s mood, the sudden shifts in the way she set down items, breathed a sigh too sharply, and creased the edges of her morning newspaper open, could make Lila on edge, feeling prickles up her arms.
Her mother never hit her, but the power in her movements always told her that she could. She went into fits where she would break glass in the kitchen and leave it on the floor overnight, making Lila clean it up in the morning before going to school with a cold sneer.
While her mother never spoke of her past, Lila would peel faded pictures apart from the bottom of her drawer where her mother has 80’s gravity defying hair do and is wearing padded shoulder blazers and cheer leading uniforms. She caught herself in the corner of the mirror again feeling some sort of disappointment with the way her shoulders hunched up and were way too rounded.
Halfway through packing, she heard a sound hit her door followed by a high-pitched shriek. Footsteps thundered down the hallway.
When Lila opened her door, she stepped into a puddle of eggs. Broken shells were scattered on the ground, sticking into the carpet in a wet, gooey mess. Yellow yolk streaked the front of her door, now slowly dripping on the inside of her dorm room.
“You should really clean that up,” a girl passing by said. Lila didn’t look up to see her face, but saw the pristine white sneakers on her feet.
She shut the door and sat down at her desk, trying to gather her feelings and prevent tears from spilling over. The pinching in her heart was almost too much and the tears she held back were sour along the bottom of her jaw. As she sat there, she decided to put some things away in the bottom drawer.
Some devious pupil had sprawled haphazardly inside the desk “welcome to hell” in bleeding red, the jagged Ls dragging into the end of the drawer. And indeed, she began to think in agreement.