This is Blahsmopolitan, a weekly column about one sophomore’s misfortune as he navigates his New Adult Life in Chicago. New stories are posted every other Monday, alongside a curated Blahsmo playlist, and an audio reading, to take the journey yourself. This week, our columnist meets the four Fates of U of I, crosses paths with a probable murderer, and goes skinny dipping in hopes you can learn from his mistakes.
I hear people tiptoeing around me. Floorboards make little creaks and doors are opened and closed ever so gingerly. All talk is kept to a hushed murmuring. Am I still wearing my boots?
“Ohmigoddddd, how are we gonna fit the Omega through the dooooooor?”
“I don’t know, Sylvie. I just don’t wanna chip it. The girls were up so late painting it last night.”
God is doing the Hoedown Throwdown on my skull and has injected fire ants into my temples.
My eyes struggle open- I can physically feel the crust on my waterline splitting and crumbling as I begin to take in the room. I am indeed wearing my boots which, along with the bottom quarter of my pants, are completely plastered over with dried mud.
Panic sets in as I realize that I am completely and utterly alone. I have never seen this house before.
I muster all my remaining strength to peel my sweaty body off of the cheap tan leather couch and begin to take stock of my surroundings:
A collection of empty, suspiciously flavored Burnett’s bottles on top of the fridge.
A wall decal that says “Girls just wanna have fun(ds).”
Sheer white curtains with no practical purpose.
And the final piece of damning evidence: Uggs. My fears had manifested and reality was a bitter pill.
Just then, four girls with long brown hair come slowly down the stairs carrying a giant wooden π.
“Hi,” I say.
“Hi!” They reply in a chorus.
“Do you guys know how I got here?”
They look at each other and shrug. “Nope!” I scan their faces for any trace of concern that a complete stranger is in their home. Nothing.
“Do you guys know anybody who knows me? Jessica? Madeline? Rob?”
“Mmm… No, I don’t think so!” chimes Brunette 3. She has a bedazzled butterfly clip in her hair and it’s got to be about ten in the morning. Who are these people? Butterfly Clip Girl is flanked by Messy Bun Girl, Zooey Deschanel Bangs, and Used-To-Be-Ombre-But-Got-Lazy Girl. The four sorority girls of the apocalypse.
They continue their trek outside. I check my phone: dead, of course, with a fresh new diagonal crack across the screen.
Walking back into the living room, I squint and focus through the window slats.
Oh my God. I should have known.
I made the ever-wise decision to make a return voyage to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign during finals week of my second semester. The semester before, I abandoned all of my friends and wound up going home with a stranger. I felt magic, I felt validated, I felt alive, (though, in a cruel twist, when I drunkenly Facebook messaged the aforementioned stranger a completely illogical and ill-advised “Are you hErE” during the first night of my return pilgrimage to the bars, he replied a smooth “Yes” before promptly blocking me.) So, I figured that at the peak of a year-end panic attack cycle, returning to the town where you only have to be nineteen to bar hop but will be shunned forever if you try to jaywalk would be the perfect release.
I made it out alive (with no memory) this time- but there was still one more night.
This isn’t entirely related, but I cannot kill a bug without thinking about getting murdered. Do not take that sentence as my stance on bug-killing in general- you better believe that no matter the shape or size, every six to hundred-legged intruder in my home is getting murked on sight, but I’m just saying that I think about getting killed any time I kill anything else.
My reaction to the thought of being killed changes pretty often- sometimes I’m pissed (because seriously, how rude), other times I get genuine crack pipe paranoia like it’s actually going to happen.
Most times I’m sad. I have a very real lust for life- I have a lot of moments where I step outside, take a deep breath in, and get super sentimental about how beautiful the world is. I have almost cried in Petco from looking at neon fish for too long, because I think of how crazy it is that a little creature out of a sci-fi movie exists in real life and I get to see so many of them. I get very emotional about my friends and have sobbed driving home from a fun day out with them because I never want it to end.
Despite all of the good feelings I know I’m capable of, when I get home and start thinking about my day, my mood, my life in general- there’s this cloud, this rolling smoke of something that fills every corner of my brain. It keeps me from remembering all the good in my life with any sort of satisfying clarity. Despite the logical part of my brain saying “You have so many friends who trust and impress you, you have parents who give you the freedom to explore your passions, you have a body that isn’t breaking down,” the cloud in my brain says, “Here’s something depressing: 8,000 people on Facebook die in real life every day and your back fat is somehow more unbelievable.” College stress only ever intensified this internal panic.
now this panic attack here is an old favorite… And it goes something like this. Hit it boys
— ♡MITSUBITCHI♡ (@VlRTUALBOY) March 21, 2017
Stepping out onto the porch and into the light, I feel my pupils expanding and contracting like crazy, attempting to focus in on anything. All my organs feel like Jell-O, my skin feels like it could be scratched just a touch too hard and bone would become exposed.
The girls are across the street trying to jam their letters into a tiny station wagon to no avail. The street rings as many bells as the inside of the house did, which is a slick zero.
Hesitantly, I walk across the street towards them. The friends I’m staying with live in a building called Allen, which at this point may as well be Atlantis. We took two buses to get to the bars the night before, and back home in Chicago I live in fear of every bus line, so the new system feels just as horrifying, if not more.
“Hey, so I have no idea where I am. Do you guys think you could tell me how to get to Allen Hall?”
The girls take a moment to look at one another.
“Sorry, we don’t know where that is,” says Messy Bun Girl, speaking for the entire gaggle of them like the leader of the Fates.
“None of the four of you know where the dorms are?”
Butterfly Clip Girl tilts her head, irritated. “That’s what we just said.”
“Okay. Fine. Just kind of feels like between the four of you all living here for however many years, you’d maybe know.”
They continue pushing one of their letters into the trunk, which is so not happening.
“Alright. I’ll just start walking I guess, hope for the best.”
I start walking. It’s a particularly ominous and gloomy weekend- the entire town is shrouded in a cool, eerie mist and an impenetrable quiet. I feel like I’m in a live action Scooby-Doo movie, my eyes darting all around looking for any sort of familiar landmark.
After wading through the mist for what must have been a full hour, I finally see Allen at the end of the road through haze. Bursting through the doors, I teleport to the dorm showers.
Being the pampered city princess that I am back at UIC, I didn’t bring shower shoes, and am forced to reckon with the reality of true dorm life. It takes all of fifteen seconds for a murky broth of shampoo, piss, and cum to rise up and engulf both of my bare feet. I take a deep inhale and close my eyes, trying with all of my might not to look down. Suddenly, my memories come rushing back.
A frat house.
A beer pong table with a little chunk missing from the corner. The taste of table in my mouth.
A Solo cup full of plain vodka. A guy giving me head in a closet that looks eerily like Steve-O.
Wandering. Stumbling. Big dudes yelling as I dig through drawers that are almost certainly not mine. What am I looking for?
A sharp shove. A flight of stairs. Pain.
I twist the shower handle and feel the mystic Urbana-Champaign memory elixir swirl around my feet and down the drain. My soul hurts. How will I do this again tonight?
Not that this is the end of the world, but sometimes it feels like there is a tiny vacuum in the stem of my brain that sucks all the joy out of everything. Maybe it’s less like a vacuum and more like a little bug that feeds on positive moments- things that I once thought were uproariously funny, or moments with new people that seemed like they were taking friendships to the next level, are gobbled up and turned into little bundles of static that I can’t get to the core of when I reach up to recall them.
While the bug renders these moments useless to me, he still demands a steady stream of them to satisfy his hunger. He rattles the synapses in my brain and demands that I fill awkward silences by oversharing, by flailing for connection, by putting on a show. A lot of times it’s easier to force a breathless laugh at something that wasn’t really that funny. A lot of times it’s easier to divulge unwarranted details about my sexual history just to ease conversation along. When these fake moments of little connection inevitably go away, it just hurts less than losing something real.
Soon I am back with the gang of people I made my journey with the night before, thankfully much more familiar than the people I encountered when I finally arose from the ashes of my blackout.
The game plan for tonight is thankfully less financially demanding than the night before- one of my Lithuanian friends has a brother who’ll be leaving his apartment empty for the night, so we’ve chosen to forgo the bars in lieu of Circle of Death and passing out on the hardwood.
The apartment is small and all of my friends are narcissistic and loud. More and more people pile in ready to party, and soon the entire living area is packed from ceiling to floor with an impenetrable buzzing chatter, like a swarm of locusts but with more uninformed opinions.
“I could get addicted to cigarettes so easily. I mean, remember when I used to have to sneak out of class a few times a day to check on FarmVille? Thankfully I don’t inhale,” says one.
“I know I shouldn’t have called that girl a bridge troll on Twitter but she also has that shirt with a slave on it, so morally speaking I feel like I did the right thing,” says another.
“I’m pre-med but I’m open to less sh*tty opportunities,” says a third.
I contribute by starting an argument on the patio.
“Okay, let’s talk Mulan. She was a crossdresser, right?” I ask.
“Not even a little, she had to do what she had to do to survive and be taken seriously. If anything, that makes her a feminist.”
“Who’s to say those things are mutually exclusive? Mulan could’ve been a crossdressing feminist, stranger things have happened. She was way too good at being a man to have never done that before.”
“Some people are just naturally more androgynous. I shaved and wore a beanie to Barnes and Noble two weeks ago and the cashier called me ma’am.”
“Alright, well none of this changes the fact that Pocahontas was trans.”
There’s a really cute stranger who’s hanging out with us tonight. He’s someone’s cousin or childhood friend or something else in that vein. He’s cute in a strange sort of way- he has a tight, military-short haircut that gives the rest of his very European features a sort of Construction Worker Dad charm. It’s abundantly clear that he doesn’t know anyone- his eyes scan the room with a sort of ditsy wonder, like he’s seeing Disneyworld for the first time, his mouth slightly agape, lips curled into a sort of confused smile.
Plus, it’s always easy to spot the face of someone who is in the middle of a conversation about where they’re from and what their major is. I decide that I want to save him.
I plant myself next to him on the couch and he immediately locks eyes with me. I feel my head jerk back a little to break free from the range of the laserbeam he’s created.
“Hi,” he says first. I’m completely caught off guard. I was supposed to initiate the conversation, but he acted so quickly. I feel our faces trade- he’s suddenly beaming, totally in his element, and I’m dumbfounded, half-smiling like someone just told a joke and I’m the only one who doesn’t get it.
“Hi. I’m Nick,” I toss back at him. “I came over here to ask a stupid question but now I don’t remember what it is.”
“Do you believe in God, Nick?” he asks, still smiling wide, staring directly in my eyes.
Sometimes before I fall asleep I make a list of all the people I’ve met who I think have it in them to murder a person. With this, he makes the list, and the other list I sometimes make of people who give off a clear murder vibe that I continue to indulge anyway.
“Um… No. I don’t think so anyway. At least not in the thin-Santa-Claus-in-the-sky-wearing-Birkenstocks sense.”
“Does anyone believe in God in that sense?”
“I guess not. Sometimes I think maybe. Sorry, that was just a really strong opener.”
“I always wonder why so many people just never think about stuff like this, whether they believe in God or not. Some people just go their whole lives believing what their parents believed or believing in nothing at all and are totally at peace with that. It’s mindblowing to me. It makes me scared for those people.”
He seems exasperated, shaking his head and staring at me harder than anyone ever has before in their life. I think about this and figure he’s blazed out of his mind.
“I wouldn’t worry about them. I don’t know. Some people just fundamentally aren’t deep and that’s okay.”
“I guess so.”
“At least you’re thinking about it,” I offer.
“I feel like once I figure it out, I probably won’t be scared for them anymore. Whatever happens to me happens to them.”
“Maybe.” I think that he is perhaps the most difficult to read person I have ever met. I can’t tell if he’s stupid or if he actually has something to say, but either way he is unflinchingly genuine.
A short man in flannel pajama pants emerges from the darkness of a hallway. He beckons my Lithuanian friend and I already know what’s coming.
“Yo, so my brother’s roommate is actually here, and he didn’t know he was gonna be back so early, but now he’s trying to sleep so… we’ve gotta go.”
Thunder claps and it instantly starts pouring rain.
We decide we’re going to one girl’s boyfriend’s dorm room. We’re warned that it’s the size of a shoebox but it seems better than being caught in a storm in a group of fifteen people who all have their own personal fifth of liquor.
We walk into the tiny room and my glands start firing on all cylinders- I’m instantly drenched in sweat from being so close to other people’s bodies. Thankfully, the rain makes it difficult to discern who is in my boat and who is not.
People take root on both of the rickety twin beds with a quickness, so I resign to sit on the radiator and hope I don’t break it off the wall. The possible murderer sits next to me and gets right back to staring at me again.
I flick my eyes over to him and notice that his stare isn’t harsh or intense- in fact it’s anything but. His eyes are a deep brown, almost black, and carry a fragile softness, like he’s on the verge of crying, or like he’s looking at a baby animal.
“Hi, Nick,” he says. “What’s something really important that I should know about you?”
I flick through the file cabinet in my mind looking for something funny, something shocking, something stupid.
“Okay, I’ve never had a bad experience with Fireball.”
“Would you say that’s your defining characteristic?”
I consider this for a moment. “Probably?”
“Bullshit. There’s gotta be something.”
“Just because you asked me about God doesn’t mean I know you.”
“Do you want to know mine?”
“Was the point of asking me so you could tell me yours?”
“No,” he says, without a trace of contrivance in his voice.
“Okay, go then.”
“I love space.”
“That’s your defining characteristic?”
“Yeah. I mean, outside of it being cool, it kind of reminds us that we don’t mean sh*t. We’re such little nothings and a lot of times it’s easy to feel like we’re big, important somethings. And it’s hard feeling important, because then when we fail, it feels like the universe is gonna collapse on itself. But it’s not- it’s comforting for me that whether or not I wind up accomplishing everything I want to accomplish by the time I’m 25, I’m just a cog in the machine, and that machine will keep on running till I die.”
“There’s something really depressing to me about just being a cog. I am very depressed by what you just said.”
“So maybe that’s your defining characteristic.”
The party has formed a narrow clearing in the middle of the room for everyone to shoot darts at a board mounted on the back of the door. Everyone has started to get to the final quarter of their bottles.
“Guys… I kinda wanna swim,” says my very high, very blonde friend. It gets a laugh.
“No, guys, I’m being so serious, let’s swim. I don’t care what, I just wanna swim in something.”
“It’s storming out, what if we get, like, electrocuted or something?”
“Good. I don’t give a shit.”
“There’s this Japanese water garden right off campus. There’s a pond there.”
“Perfect! Works for me,” the blonde goes around the room frantically tapping people on the shoulder. When he finishes his rounds, he halts in his tracks.
“What?” I ask.
“Let’s f*cking go skinny dipping.”
“Are you crazy? We’re gonna get like, dysentery,” says a girl.
“No one said you had to drink the pond water, Tiffany. You just have to be naked in it.”
“Say no more, let’s f*cking dewww iiiiiit” slurs the dorm owner. Suddenly everyone is sprinting outside.
“Don’t worry, Tiff, it’s not the 50’s anymore. You aren’t gonna get anything.”
“Polio and dysentery are not the same thing at all,” I say.
We all break into a run down the road. Champaign is not a well-lit place- people stumble and trip and laugh, cutting through the night. I weave around the middle of the street, running with my arms stretched out like an airplane. It’s one of those moments where I remember that my parents have no idea where I am or what I’m doing, and that it’s been a full year since they have.
We stop and jog in place as a group, while one girl throws up on a cornstalk. She rallies and we cheer her on.
YOU HAVE TO PAY THE TROLL TOLL TO GET INTO THE CORN HOLE
— ♡MITSUBITCHI♡ (@VlRTUALBOY) April 29, 2017
We make it into a clearing through some woods and find the pond: pitch black and sparkling with the reflection of the moon. The drops of rain on the water make me feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone, or a very fancy beach resort after closing hours. There’s a thin tree adjacent to it, and we all gather around it in a circle.
Clothes quickly begin to fly off, down to underwear in seconds. In case you were wondering, I’m wearing these shiny gold boxer briefs. Everyone looks at one another, waiting for what to do next. One girl breaks the silence.
“I don’t want to go first.”
“We’ll be here all night if we pick an order. We all have to do it at the same time,” says the blonde.
Somehow instinctually, everyone grabs their fifth out of their backpack.
“On three?” says one.
“I think this calls for a full-on countdown from 10,” I counter.
“That makes sense.”
I feel the possible murderer’s eyes on me. I feel the pressure of the moment. I straight up giggle in spite of myself.
“10!” My grip tightens on the neck of my Fireball and I grit my teeth, shaking in the cold of the rain.
“9!” I’m not a scientist, but I’m pretty sure I can’t get a disease from pond water in my asshole. That girl freaked me out though.
“8!” Wait. We never addressed the issue of fish. Am I gonna stomp on some koi?
“7!” I feel like it’s such a standard truth or dare question to ask if someone’s been skinny dipping. I finally get to say yes!
“6!” I definitely never Venmo’d anyone for this Fireball. Yet another benefit of never carrying cash.
“5!” Oh sh*t. Oh sh*t. I’m fat.
“4!” I am so fat, I cannot do this. I look like an opened can of Pillsbury dough left out in the sun, except not as tan.
“3!” I lock eyes with the murderer again.
“2!” Holy sh*t. I get to see so many of my friends’ d*cks in a second.
Everyone takes a big pull from their bottle and strips down to nothing. Boxers and bras go flying like the world’s sluttiest graduation ceremony. Everyone goes off running full speed- the worst idea possible. The first three slide on the slick mud at the edge of the pond and fall right on their ass- I can hear the bruises forming.
As my feet hit the bottom of the pond, I consider myself very lucky that I can’t see anything. There is a layer of something enveloping me up to the halfway point of my calves, mushy and veiny, like kelp or moss. I splash my friends, lock pinkies with the dorm owner as we do a trust fall with the still water, fully submerged in the foul-smelling shallows.
There’s something oddly asexual about the whole thing. Despite seeing and feeling a great number of d*cks and asses, in a weird way, I feel like I was just born.
We finally pull ourselves from the water and dry off as best we can- naturally there’s a fair share of helicoptering and misplaced clothes, but we do our best. Everyone is laughing, everyone is shouting- I get the distinct feeling we will all remember it.
I pull on someone else’s white T-shirt, unable to locate mine. Everyone goes sprinting off again, except for me and the murderer. Despite feeling like a newborn, as I watch my friends turn into an amorphous blob in the distance, I feel like I am watching my children leave- my children with the murderer.
The sky is swollen and grey, but somehow plush and friendly, like the worst it would ever do is burst into a cinematic, rom-com downpour, tousling our hair and dancing across our skin. All rolling thunder, bright javelins tossed from cloud to cloud.
In that time, he never really makes eye contact with me, just keeps smiling up at nothing, running and jumping through the street every so often like he wants to catch up with the others, who have long since rounded the corner back to campus.
He walks parallel to me for a moment. I try to catch his stare but he isn’t offering it.
“What do you want to do?” he asks.
I laugh. “Put on dry clothes. Maybe make out.”
“No, I mean like, with your life.”
“Oh. I want to write.”
“Like Harry Potter?”
“Not at all. Harry Potter was a wizard.”
“I meant J.R.R. Tolkien.”
“That’s not who you meant but I know who you mean.”
“What do you want to write then?”
“I like writing stories. Short stories.”
“Like stuff they make you read in high school?”
“They can be more interesting than that. I’m writing a story right now. It’s about sex and things. And about how my T-shirts are too small but also somehow too big.’”
“That seems boring to me.”
“I might write a book one day.”
“What would that be about?”
“Probably the same stuff.”
“So like 50 Shades of Grey?”
“I think everyone’s T-shirts fit just fine in that book.”
There’s a pause for a moment. The rain has slowed to a plinking drizzle.
“I want to be a producer,” he says, in a voice full of confidence.
“So, you want to have a lot of money to bankroll artists, professionally.”
“Yes.” He suddenly locks eyes with me, unflinching. His eye contact hasn’t made me uncomfortable up to this point, but I find myself frantically searching for anywhere else to lay my gaze.
“Not every dream needs a plan,” he says, then grabs my hand and pulls me into a sprint.
I hope this doesn’t come off dramatic but I feel very alone. I don’t want to lose anyone. Every day I want to mass text my entire contact list and say “Hello, I miss you, please don’t forget about me.” I want to send handwritten postcards to my friends in couples that say “I am glad you found someone to love but I still love you and I can change to make sure you don’t outgrow me. Wish you were here.” I want to knock on doors and run into the bushes and whisper my name when they answer. I want to lay in my bed and feel all of my feelings so hard that someone comes and holds me close and doesn’t know the right thing to say but is willing to soak up the static bundles stacked high in my brain anyway. I want so badly for someone to take my fear of being this way forever and crush it with a kiss. I don’t want to be scared.
We make it back to the dorm and everyone has already crashed out- I feel like I’m in a kennel with all the soft little snores.
The murderer and I stand over everyone, passing a towel from the dorm owner’s closet back and forth, drying off as best we can.
I stare at him.
“I’m gonna do something stupid.”
I lean forward and kiss him. He does not return it, but he doesn’t flinch either.
“What was that for?” he asks.
“I don’t know.”
We’re silent for a second.
“Was that stupid?” I ask.
He doesn’t miss a beat. “It only would’ve been stupid if you had asked if you could do something stupid. But I don’t want to do it again.”
I don’t want to seem like a drama queen but from what I hear and what I’ve experienced, life is full of little rejections, whether they’re explicit or not. I live in fear of crossing that point in my life where I look back and think “This is not what I thought my life would look like at all.” I never know what’s worth suffering for, because history seems to show that it all gets ripped from under you more often than not anyway. Sometimes I feel like I could implode.
But there are so many things in my life that feel so good. Like getting in the perfect position in bed and then taking my socks off, or doing an extra good job brushing my teeth, or taking a nap when I have a migraine and waking up without one just as the sun is going down, or going to the garden section of Home Depot and taking a ten second inhale, or the tingly nerve response that I get in my brain every time I listen to Last Friday Night by Katy Perry, or putting a bagel in the toaster and eggs in a pan and getting the timing just right so that they’re both the perfect temperature when you sit down to eat them, or not recoiling when someone puts their arm around me, or watching those TV specials where Muppets are mingling with real life people, or having a full tank of gas, or going to sleep and knowing I could do it all again.
It’s not easy having a good time.
Nick Malone ain’t no hollaback girl, and lives in constant fear of a mainland nuclear strike. Read more of his writing here, and share a panic attack with him on the UIC campus where he studies Creative Writing and Religious Studies.
HEY! Down here! I have an announcement: I’m taking over as Blog Director for UIC Radio this year! I’ll be curating super dope pieces from the current Radio staff and commissioning work from new writers for the new school year! (Recruitment starts in the fall- keep an eye out! I’m gonna be running a very tight ship and only the best will survive!) Blahsmopolitan will be returning to its regular weekly schedule in September, and I’m so excited about the new format. Fingers crossed for the inevitably messy year ahead.
Lots of love… xo, Nick.