The following is an excerpt from a book about the year I lived with college students at 23 schools across the USA. Each chapter tells the true story of one week in the life of a random college student at one of the nation’s most interesting colleges. The following chapter tells the story of Nora, a shy, disaffected sophomore who has just started hanging out at a co-op that plans to host a drug-fueled orgy at the end of the week.
Chapter 14: Tufts University (excerpt)
For Nora, life is an absurdist tragedy that oscillates between boredom and depression. The only sustainable mindset that someone could adopt in such a world, she showed me, is one of disaffection. I joined Nora for one week of her disaffected life as a student among students at Tufts University. The week I stayed was a typical week for Nora, full of humdrum and monotony, except for two very unusual days—the first and last—which were full of excitement. Those two days bookended my stay with chaotic entertainment that gave us both something to reflect on and to look forward to during the long, boring middle stretch of the week.
Nora was a different form of introvert than Mary from RISD. Mary had friends but preferred to be alone; Nora preferred company but had no friends. She lived in a shared house on campus in her own room and mostly kept to herself. However, she recently had started to become acquainted with some students who lived at a co-op up the street called the Highland House. The co-op received funds from the university to cook vegan food a couple nights a week for Tufts students. Students could go by and eat for free if they wanted, although it was unclear to me whether anyone ever took them up on the offer. It was the students at Highland House who hosted both of the chaotic events that brightened our week and made the rest of our time manageable.
I met with Nora moments before she would be leaving for the Highland House to attend their celebration of Passover. The co-op had no religious connection to the day of Passover, but the holiday served as a great excuse to have a feast. We walked from Nora’s dorm to the Highland House and went inside. Some students were setting up a long dining table in the room next to the foyer, and other students could be seen coming and going from the kitchen in the back of the house. Nora and I stood together in the entryway. At first I deferred to Nora to lead the way, assuming that she had some friends there or knew where to go, but instead she only crossed her arms and looked around with a weak, nervous smile.
“You should talk to people,” Nora said.
“Ok,” I told her. “Do you know anybody here?”
“Not really,” she said.
Standing next to Nora made me feel just as shy and uncomfortable as her. Instead of making small talk with anybody, we moved over to the dining table, took seats, and waited. Food was now being delivered and more students were coming downstairs for the feast. The event had been open to anybody from Tufts, but other than Nora and me, the only attendees were the students who already lived in the house. As more of the Highland House occupants joined us at the table, I became more and more confused as I tried to figure out what the event was supposed to be. Most of the students wore costumes of some sort, although there was no unified theme. One girl was dressed as Tinker Bell, another as a cat. Some of the girls had faces covered in glitter. The only students with costumes that had any relevance to Passover and/or Easter were a skinny, long-haired guy dressed as Jesus Christ, who wore only a white loin cloth and a crown of thorns, and a girl dressed as a sexy Easter bunny—she wore only a white bra, white skirt, and bunny ears. The dining table was mostly full when those two entered, so everybody was watching them. Before Jesus and sexy Easter Bunny took their seats, they made out with each other dramatically while everybody applauded and cheered. I was becoming rapidly desensitized to all of the strangeness.
One student was actually Jewish, so he explained to everybody what we were eating. The main food was matzah ball soup and matzah bread. Then he stood up on a chair and read some ceremonial chants. He was wearing a brown wool robe. His ceremonial chants had a call-and-response segment, and the students at the table echoed out their responses loudly and without bashfulness. Nora and I were still shy though, and we did not yell very loud. Her lips were frozen in an unchanging, nervous half-smile as she looked around. There were big jugs of wine on the table, and Nora poured herself another glass. Halfway through the meal, the students passed around a small stuffed-animal squirrel out of which you could smoke weed. The bowl came out of its chest and the pipe came out of its ass.
Afterward the students went outside to play some games for the occasion. First we stood in a big circle and tossed around a ball of yarn, each person holding onto a piece of the string. When you caught the yarn, you were supposed to say something for which you were thankful. Once everybody had a piece of the yarn, our task was to untangle the knots in the middle. This took quite a while. Next we went back inside for an Easter egg hunt. Nora and I took a break during this activity to drink more wine so we could loosen up.
“How do you know everybody here?” I asked her.
“I used to sleep with a guy who lived here,” she said. “But he dropped out of school. And now his old friends are the only people I know.”
That was the most she had spoken so far. Nora was tall and thin with black hair and straight bangs. She was very pretty. In social settings, she kept a slight smile on her face, but otherwise she wore a bit of a scowl. She laughed nervously any time she spoke. If you saw her walking down the street, you might think she was in a bad mood and didn’t want to talk to anyone. In reality, she would love you to talk to her and become her friend. She didn’t speak often, and when she did have something to say, she would speak in short, pithy statements. Her voice was so quiet that I often had to ask her to repeat herself three or four times. It took me a while to realize she was funny because her humor was so dry. For example, when I asked her what Tufts was like, she told me, “Tufts feels like high school, I just have even fewer friends here.” Nora’s primary friends were her internet friends. She was relatively popular as a poet among some online groups. It was easy to see that Nora was funny after I wrote down her words and reread them, but in person, her humor was often too subtle to elicit a laugh. Real life doesn’t do Nora justice.
It was dusk. The Easter egg hunt had just ended. Nora and I stepped out onto the porch of the Highland House so she could smoke a cigarette (nearly everyone at Highland House smoked, and Nora had recently decided that she should also start smoking). On the porch, there was a guy named Anthony. I introduced myself and told him about the book. Usually people went about their normal business after hearing that I was there to document their lives, but occasionally a person would become eager to show me something especially entertaining. Anthony told me that they sometimes have big wrestling matches at the Highland House, and he wanted to show that to me, so he went inside to round up other students in order to start some wrestling right then. The group of us went to a large bedroom on the second floor.
In the bedroom, everybody sat leaning against the walls, passed around joints and pipes and jugs of wine, then we waited for the wrestling. Anthony set the mood by blasting the soundtrack from The Lord of the Rings. Then he stood up in the middle of the room with his hands in the air. He spun slowly like he was a wrestling referee in a big arena.
“I say ye, are there any challengers?” he screamed.
The guy dressed as Jesus Christ leapt to his feet to fight.
“Three rounds, ten second pin-downs,” said Anthony.
Students cheered. “GO!” someone yelled. Anthony locked arms with Jesus then threw him to the floor and jumped on him. Jesus squirmed out from underneath, grabbed Anthony’s torso, and spun him to the ground. For how skinny Jesus was, he was a pretty good fighter. Next Anthony wrapped his legs around Jesus’s waist and threw him back underneath him, smashing Jesus’s shoulder into the floor. Then Anthony pinned Jesus’s arms behind his head, this time using his whole bodyweight to keep Jesus on the ground. Jesus fought to break free but didn’t have the strength. A third guy started to count down.
“Three, two, one... WINNER!”
Round one was over—Anthony had won. Jesus won round two, then Anthony won the third and final round, which meant that he won the match. Match after match went on in the same fashion.
In the South where I spent the first ten weeks of this trip, there were profound gender differences between men and women. A man looked like a man and behaved like a man; a woman looked like a woman and behaved like a woman. In this co-op, however, gender played much less of a role. A man might have long braided hair, and a woman might have short hair and tattoos. And everybody wrestled. The room was full of both guys and girls, and many of the fights were co-ed. At one point, Jesus fought the girl in the sexy bunny costume, and they would make out with each other between each round, much to the crowd’s approval.
“You’re up next,” Anthony said, pointing at me.
I wanted to resist, but the group pressure was too strong. They wanted me to fight one of the girls, and I agreed. Regrettably, I was overly scared of losing, so I was a bit too aggressive while fighting. When the round started, I immediately tackled the girl, and when our bodies hit the floor, there was a huge bang and the audience gasped. But the girl was fine, and after the fight was over she was all smiles. Afterward we all tried to encourage Nora to wrestle, but she refused in a way that assured us we had no chance of convincing her. No group pressure would have been strong enough. I rejoined her, and we stood together watching the next fight.
“A few weeks ago I was in this room, and I saw a girl’s vagina,” she told me plainly.
“How?” I asked.
“I saw an orgy, and I saw a girl’s vagina at the orgy.”
I was intrigued. “How did that start?”
“I was in the room hanging out with this guy, and people started coming in really drunk and on drugs, and eventually someone said, ‘Let’s have an orgy!’ and I was like, ‘That’s a really funny joke,’ but it wasn’t a joke. I didn’t partake. Somebody took my shirt off, but that’s about it.”
“Interesting,” I said.
After we all had our fill of wrestling, everybody was clearing out. Anthony asked if I wanted to join him in his room for “a smoke and chat.” I agreed—how could I say no? Nora headed back to the front porch for another cigarette and left me alone with Anthony. In Anthony’s room, he rolled the two largest joints I’d ever seen, then we climbed through his window onto a fire escape. Tufts is located in a suburban area outside of downtown Boston, and we could see the Boston skyline in the distance. Our shoes were still off from the wrestling, and the cold metal of the fire escape stung our feet. Anthony handed me one of the joints and held his lighter out. We stood shoulder to shoulder as we looked out across the city.
“You must have some crazy stories,” Anthony said.
I told him a few stories, selecting all the stories that were the most sensational and ridiculous.
After I had talked for a while, he said, “Oh my God, so our generation is just totally fucked?”
I laughed. That hadn’t been the point of the stories, but taken in all at once, it made sense that he would feel that way.
“Well, I haven’t made it around the whole country yet,” I said.
“But still, based on what you’ve seen so far, would you say we’re fucked?”
“You mean humanity?”
“Yeah. Are today’s college students going to ruin everything?”
I didn’t feel qualified to make any broad statements about college students, much less about the future of humanity. “I have no idea,” I said. “I couldn’t say.”
Anthony appeared dissatisfied. “I bet the world ends in our lifetime,” he said. “We have the power to blow ourselves up, and I have a feeling there are enough people who want to do it. I think technology’s going to be what ends us. I just don’t see how we could survive another century after looking at the last one.”
He continued, “And then you have environmental disaster, global warming, population growth. Have you met anyone who gives a shit about this stuff?”
I thought over each student I had visited. I wondered—who among them seemed personally concerned with those issues? Nobody in particular came to mind. Perhaps Jonathan from NYU. I said, “I’ve met some people who worry about those things, but I haven’t met many people who are specifically devoting themselves to that stuff.”
“Fuck. So absolutely nobody gives a shit.”
I laughed again. It had not been my goal to send that message, but Anthony seemed determined to hear bad news.
“I’ve heard we’re basically the most selfish generation to ever exist,” he said. “And right now is the most important time for us not to be selfish.” He shook his head and gave me a dejected look. “It doesn’t mean anything if people want to care about something but still don’t do anything.”
“That’s true,” I said. “But our generation doesn’t run things yet, so it’s hard to say what we’ll do. People are still in school, learning.”
“Yeah, but what are they learning?”
“You’re right, I don’t know.”
He took a drag of his joint. “Civilization is falling apart and we’re all just watching it happen.”
I wasn’t sure what to tell him or how to cheer him up. I don’t think he wanted to be cheered up—some people just like to believe that the world is about to end. Maybe he was right, I’m not sure.
After our “smoke and chat,” we went inside and were greeted by Nora and a guy I hadn’t seen yet. He had mischievous, foxlike eyes and was there to buy weed from Anthony. He had been smoking cigarettes with Nora on the porch before they came to the room. Nora introduced us. His name was Theo.
“You should invite him on Friday,” Nora said to him, talking about me.
Theo glanced back and forth like there was some kind of conspiracy.
“What’s Friday?” I asked.
Theo put his palms together and tapped his finger pads in waves like a movie villain. “Well...” he said. “It’s a wine party, and it’s also an ecstasy party.” He paused for dramatic effect. “And it’s also… an orgy. Are you in?”
Nora and I went back to her house, which was a house like the one at RISD—an old house that was remodeled and converted into dorm-style bedrooms with communal showers. On the second floor of the house there was an unoccupied bedroom where I would be sleeping. Since we were both drunk and tired, we went to bed right away. I lay awake for a long while, pondering both the end of the world and the orgy that Friday.