By the end of the semester, we were the last ones left. I think we were social pariahs by that point- at least that's the conclusion we came to sitting in a little bar at lunch on an overcast late fall day in Italy. It didn't matter that you'd watched culture shock rip through your friends or the entire fuzzy, fashionista-brained group you'd come here with. Or through your own personality, for that matter, either, because no one else was having that thought. No one else was factoring that weirdness into their thinking about why there was so much damn drama. Every single second of every single work drowned day.
I envied the merchandisers. They had only three classes and almost no homework. They were out every night, slept in most of the day and began to shop and drink in the late afternoon. They travelled constantly and knew a million local boys. They had time for everything. I tried to feel superior to them. Told myself I was becoming skilled in ways they would never replicate. That any fool can plan a wide/shallow/narrow/deep selection based on last year's numbers and this year's economy. Any fool can stock a department once things have been created by the real thinkers. To be a designer was a much higher calling, even if it paid worse and demanded more for years and years. I thought of Vera's and Donna's aging faces and shuddered. Calvin's was worse. Better to think of the un-American ones- Carolina and Giorgio for example- who radiated something light and unending as they worked.
But the worst part of this wasn't the work or the tiredness (which frankly told you that you were stronger than you ever knew) or the lack of time for language, travel or new friends. The most awful of all were the infinite combinations of stupidity these 17 other girls and two boys (who are we kidding?- 19 girls) could work themselves into. The gossip, the sniping, the actual destruction of other people's plans and property-not to mention reputations- were omnipresent. The bitchy, shaming confrontations and declasse polarizations which would have scared the living shit out of the meanest Real World cast member, were eternal.
I sat with the goat at lunch. The one who had become the epicenter of the drama queens' shit storm. I wanted to get away from her and at the same time I knew that I'd better not. I'd better not because it wouldn't be good for her. And I'd better not because no matter how weary I'd become, and no matter what was being destroyed in the foundation of my own life these days, I'd be a person profoundly changed for the worse if I left her to what they had planned. I knew better than to step away. But I wished that I could.
She talked out loud about the Doc Martens we'd seen in a shop three doors down before lunch. She wanted a rather classic pair but couldn't decide between a dark red or purple. I lazily pondered the weirdly illustrated ones on display but they weren't good enough to stop me. I couldn't get the white ones out of my head. How colossally tacky they'd become- scuffed in two seconds flat (not that that's necessarily a bad thing.) My brain wondered over the meaning of white boots- sixties sharpies to Clockwork Orange creepiness. Clockwork caught me. Where's my milk bar? Do I get to beat up some of these jerks before or was that after?
Who could have predicted that people deeply commited to something surface-y like fashion would actually be shallow? I laughed at myself. My old, old self, for trying. For walking into this with heart wide open, not holding back. The latter got people convinced I thought I was better than everyone else and it really revved up some who just wanted to measure themselves against me. Kind of an "everybody wants to fight a black belt" sort of thing. Since I wasn't actually the snob people anticipated and because my confidence included a belief that I was among equals, either reaction tended to be a cold shock. I was much too tender to handle the retaliations against the way I pushed into what I loved. Always have been.
But this experience was teaching me I'd better work with what people believed I really was. Fuck them all. I would have given more- it's what I'm made for- but nobody believes that when insecurity blocks their eyes. I'd given up trying to explain myself to creatures whose jealousy and competitiveness never slept. Best to just run with their distorted view. You were made to be small, I said to them in my head, and I was made to be big. It's what you believe and I'm ready to make it real.
I knew I'd been so beaten up that I'd finally turned a bad corner. But I hadn't abandoned her. And in that little bit of loyalty to a person who annoyed me often enough, I still recognized myself. She was talking now about a trip we'd been part of- a trip with a group of people who'd been our friends. People who still were her roommates in a house which was now sick with secret betrayals and an irrational hatred of one of its own. Culture shock would have been a helpful concept for these idjits to grasp, I mused. Still, no matter. We'd obviously been cut out of the loop regarding a trip we'd been part of planning. Her because she was the scapegoat for the entire school and me because in two or three key confrontations I actually dared to try to balance the scales and talk calm sense about her to those who were in a frenzy. In repayment, I'd been cut off suddenly. And that without remedy.
Now, our former friends were beginning to lie about cancelling the trip and splitting off in other directions for a break we had coming up. We kept hearing from other people, though, that they were sticking with their original plans- they just didn't want us along. If I'd rolled my eyes one more time, they would've fallen out, so I let it go. She wanted to go back to Germany, though. And I said why the hell not. Munich was cool. Berlin would be even better.
But when we got to the Circus Hostel (the one at Weinbergsweg 1a), I folded. We went out to eat but it was obvious she was ready to stay out and that I was just pacing myself until I could collapse into bed. There were no worries about replacing me. She'd chosen to stay in a room with twelve beds in it and when I wandered down to check on her later, she was jammed onto a lobby couch with five guys from a huge, rowdy group which included Americans, assorted Europeans, boys and girls. She was happy. She was doing just fine. I took my key card and myself to the to the top floor, ready to stop pretending I could handle my life.
The main room had yellow walls and two beds which I shoved together after unfolding their down comforters. A small living room area, kitchen and a little rooftop terrace I ignored after looking through the curtains at the bit of Mitte district showing late at night. I threw coins and candy and remnants of tickets onto the little breakfast table in the light from one lamp. I unpacked my things, laying clothes carefully over the metal rail at the end of each bed. I was too tired for this but I did it anyway. As if the order I imposed on my belongings would keep something terrible far away. I went into the bathroom which was spotless and covered in tiny pale blue tiles. The room was quiet, peaceful. In the mirror I saw that I was shattered and unloved. After a shower I went to bed.
And lying there in dim moonlight from the windows,
flanked by photographs of scuptures I didn't like,
and pressed to the bottom of an ocean of loss,
I gave up.