Dissolution in the Dorm

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Cesca Janece Waterfield

One year later, I am accepted into a small private college in North Carolina and the first essay I write as a freshman is titled, “The Shared Characteristics of Violence and Grace.” My composition professor is a man of stocky elegance with a Chapel Hill Ph.D. and instant recall of Jim Morrison’s poetry. He begins to dispense students to my dorm room without my knowledge or permission, for writing help. The role embarrasses me as a fluke. My mother, who works at the headquarters of the Navy base, pays the hefty tuition, and my unsolicited “title” is a liability in a place where I only want to fit in.

One Friday night as I’m walking back to my room from the student center, I hear Stevie Wonder blasting from a window of one of the male dorms. Three floors below the room of my friend Rob, the son of a Raleigh psychiatrist, a chair lay in the boxwood bushes, which glisten with shattered glass. I sneak into the building and head to his room where he is now playing “Purple Rain” on loop, loud enough to be heard across the quad and into the perimeter of the small town. He’d pitched the chair through his window in a building that dates to the late 19th century.

Rob is pacing and chain smoking. The music is too loud for conversation, so I clear a space on the floor to sit and consider the peregrinations of my classmates. His outburst seems like a junior version of something that plays out at my home, where a darkened splotch over the fireplace marks the night dad threw a plate of spaghetti against it, infuriated by something, or by nothing much. A few months into college, it’s clear that expressions of wrath differ. Rob saw whatever trouble was trailing him and tried to obliterate it by striking out in its direction.

I consider my suitemate, Veronica, who exudes her politician father’s charisma. Most Sundays, she returns from visits to her hometown of Winston-Salem, parks her forest green MG-B askew in the student lot, and weaves like a sine wave down the hall to her room, silver cap of an Absolut bottle glinting from the lambskin handbag, bouncing jerkily against her hip.

Rob stabs out his cigarette and aims it at the shattered window like he’s throwing a half-court shot. It’s centrifugal versus centripetal, I think, as a concept of physics suddenly makes poetic sense to me.

On Parent’s Day in October, my composition professor folds his hands beneath his white beard and says, “You dream about getting a student like this.” Four weeks later, he swings open the classroom door at which I’m jiggling a locked handle 45 minutes late and tells me I will be withdrawn from his class. Showing up so late is considered an absence, making it my third. After two absences, I’d been warned to be on time for the rest of the semester or else. Under the polished portrait of a Southern aristocrat for whom the library is named, I swear to make good.

But I’m still getting used to the variance of MWF schedules versus TR college schedules.

The day my professor withdraws his personal endorsement and my name from his roster, I arrive at the correct time my MWF class would have met — if it had it been a TR class. It’s an unlikely error, one whose psychoanalytic implications to this day bring blood to my cheeks before I brush the memory away like a book mite flying up out of the pages of Freud.

After he shoos me from class, I return to my dorm and try to sort out what just happened. I smoke no more pot than my classmates who, with the exception of Rob the chair shot-putter, are successfully navigating college culture, many of whom do greater quantities and compositionally harder drugs than I. They manage to remember what time class starts, at least after three months of going. With shaking hands I unlace my boots and it occurs to me: I am young enough, that if I were the agave plant whose distilled pulp I often sling back like an Elizabeth City rowdy, I’d still have four years before anybody would care to split open my heart for its contents.

How is it that I spend each day jumping inside my own skin, marked by a constitution that manifests always in high anxiety? If I don’t notice a friend approach and she calls my name or, god forbid, taps me on the shoulder, I detonate in a scream that can clabber blood. I have recently been waking in the middle of the night, bolting upright on my ass like mom told me her grandmother slept, heart pounding in my ears after dreams of being hit by a car, or in more surreal dreamscapes, aerial train cars, specifically the moment of impact.

I can’t explain the constant sense of striving to inhabit ever-widening circles, the forgetfulness and inattention that are accompanied by an easy ability to lose myself. I often sit at a long table of nattering lunchmates and don’t hear my own name spoken, can’t venture a wild guess what subject is under discussion, and if I’m pinned down to say, can’t conceive of a smart-assed reply to deflect the fact. I have no words for the feeling of fraying, of dissolution, of coming apart in disarray.

Although I’m happy — to be away from my father, to enjoy a level of freedom I’ve never known, and to be surrounded by a circle of friends — everything feels subject to slow, accumulative loss by spinning, an unbinding point scuttling apart, discharging debris from its center. Detritus flails against or slips past my body that with each spasm and twinge feels subject to disintegration.

But even as the source of this sensation jitters unreachable among moonlit limbs of mystery, it carries a recurring image: the fine, chalky dust of oxidized paint left on my knuckles when I knocked as a girl on aluminum doors of house trailers. Sprawled on cracked concrete pads fringed with weeds, trailers are prevalent enough in rural Virginia. The first time I knocked on my grandfather’s trailer, I thought of moth wings dissolving in the warmth of fingers, and I knew: homes plod toward dust the minute they’re lacquered in paint.

“Dissolution in the Dorm” is part of the manuscript Baleful Heirloom, which chronicles a family wounded by domestic violence and war, when many soldiers suffered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before it had been recognized.

Cesca Janece Waterfield completed her MFA in Creative Writing at McNeese State University. She received the 2017 Editor’s Prize in Fiction from MARY: A Journal of New Writing, judged by Natalie Baszile. Her work has appeared in Map Literary, Scalawag Magazine, LUMINA, Writers Resist, and more. Cesca’s manuscript “The Helicopter War: An Oral History of Fort Rucker Aviators Class of 1960” is maintained at the United States Army Aviation Museum in Fort Rucker, Alabama.

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