CLEAN SLATE • by Kayla Bell

The night before the first day of classes of my sophomore year at the old, ivy covered university on the Rhode Island coast, I sat on my bed trying to fight the panic attack I knew was coming. The humid, sticky heat in my shoebox single pressed me down into my comforter like a paperweight. Anxiety is always worse for me on hot New England nights like this, my one tiny nightstand fan doing its best to fight the early September heat to no avail. So I melted, sweating buckets, into the bed I couldn’t get out of.

As a kid, I secretly always loved this time of year. All of my siblings and friends would complain nonstop about school starting from mid-August to Labor Day, but, to me, it wasn’t something to dread. September always felt comforting. Clean slate. Every time we went into those golden-hour first days of September, I found myself thinking that this could be the year I would become the person I was meant to be.

Of course, it never worked out. That didn’t stop me from dreaming.

This night before sophomore classes, I found myself spiraling into my terror about the day and year ahead. Freshman year was kind of a nightmare for me. Not because I was one of those popular lacrosse team kids that peaked in high school. Actually, it was kind of the opposite. All four years, everyone told me that college was when everything would get better for me. I’d walk on campus and the stars would align to help me shed my social anxiety and depression and general feeling of worthlessness. When I got into a school I really liked, I thought that this was the beginning of the rest of my life. All I had to do was wait it out until September and then I would emerge a completely new person. Back to school couldn’t come fast enough.

The rudest awakening of my life was September 1st, the day I showed up to move-in, boxes of clothes and posters and overpriced appliances stuffed into the back of my parents’ car. In two hours, we somehow managed to fit it all into the closet where I lived five feet away from my roommate, Annmarie from the suburbs of Providence who came here with a pre-existing group of friends from high school. As soon as the last command strip was slapped on the wall, I rushed my parents out. It was finally time for my rebirth. I pulled open the doorstop and waited.

My guidance counselor told me, as he shuffled through my list of safety schools, that all I would have to do to make friends in college was leave my door open. People would just come right to me. That first day, I kept my door open for hours but all I did was watch as people walked right past me. After the sun set, I walked across the street and bought a sandwich at Subway, which I ate alone.

Of course, you can’t get through those first few days without meeting some people. There was Chelsea, from my orientation group, who never stopped talking. We kept in touch for a few weeks before she drifted off to a group of better listeners. Then, there was Peter, who lived in the room right next to me. I hoped each time we bumped into each other swiping into the dorm was a beginning. As with everyone, though, I was too nervous to actually have a conversation with him, so it went nowhere. I thought I would make friends through clubs, but every time I would bring myself to a meeting, I would get the wave of nausea and vertigo before walking through the door.

As the semester wore on and the days got shorter and grayer, my delusions of change ebbed into nothing. During the day, I’d go to class and spend hours at the dining hall, sitting by myself, scrolling absently through my phone to kill time. At night, I would go to the library for hours, trying to force my brain to focus on my notes. More midnights than I can count, I would stumble into my room to find Annmarie and her friends on the floor or her bed talking, laughing, and just spending time together. Those nights I would go to sleep facing the wall so that they wouldn’t see me crying.

Spring semester of freshman year, I stopped trying. I just put my head down and did my work. The dreams were gone. I was the same and would be the same forever.

That’s where I found myself that night before sophomore year. The entire summer, I’d been dreading this day where I would have to go back to the wasteland of university. As I melted into my mattress, I thought about last year. I was invisible, just another face passing by on the way to class. I meant nothing to anyone. My door was firmly closed.

Suddenly a knock on the door interrupted the whir of my fan. I sat up in bed, perfectly still, thinking I might have imagined it. A minute later, the knock came again. I threw on a bathrobe and opened the door.

Standing in front of me was my RA, Toni, who I knew from my freshman seminar last year. She was in her pajamas and holding a plate of cookies.

“Hey, Maia. I made these for everyone on the floor. Want one?” She held the plate out towards me.

After a second, I smiled and took one. Almost automatically, I started talking. “Thanks so much! Want to come in?”

Toni smiled and took a seat on the floor near my desk. She started talking about how much she was dreading the statistics class she had to take for her major. As she talked, I sat on my bed and pulled the covers around me. September felt new again. Change was possible after all.

Kayla Bell is a broke college student in Massachusetts. She splits her time between Boston and New York. She is passionate about intersectionality and dogs. You can find her work in Swimming With Elephants, Freeze Ray, and Not Your Mother’s Breast Milk.

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