Sunday, May 15, 2005

Talismans

My first two years of college were spent at Western Washington University, a fairly large school in a college town on the water, a little south of the Canadian border.

None of my friends had cars, or if any of us did, we didn't drive anywhere. For entertainment off campus, we would take the bus to Bellis Fair Mall. The fare was thirty-five cents. (The second year, we were incensed that it was raised to fifty cents. Oh, the innocence!) We would go to a movie, or to the Red Robin, or just walk around the mall. In that mall, as well as a few others in the greater Seattle metropolitan area, was a store called Natural Wonders. It was kind of like a precursor to the Discovery store, only a mite nicer. There were lots of science toys, pretty jewelry, and new agey music. The back of the store was the best--the real toys as well as stuffed animals. They had a whole menagerie of oversized exotic animals that were as soft as heaven.

I don't know when I discovered it, but my absolute favorite was the big green frog. He was large and squishy and just right to hug. Each and every time we were in that mall, we usually went into the store to play, and even if we didn't, I always made sure to run in and hug the frog. I never bought him, but I always loved him. It actually got to the point that the staff knew us, and specifically me, that I was that girl who came in for the frog. I thought that was pretty neat, that I was 'infamous' and known to a group of strangers. I didn't care that it was related to a stuffed animal and that I was supposed to be a grown-up.

All through my sophomore year, I couldn't bring myself to choose a major. I had already abandoned biochemistry and regular chemistry; I just barely got a C+ (my lowest grade EVER, by far, before or after) in pre-calculus my first sememster, and all chem-related majors required second-year calculus. I survived my first quarter of organic chem, and did alright, but I had to work so damn hard, and really study, and I just couldn't focus on that and other classes. I loved it, but it was too hard. So I quit.

I had started up French again in the winter quarter of my freshman year. I'd stopped in junior year of high school, because the one French teacher was ridiculous and I didn't learn anything new all year, even though it was third or fourth-year French. Anyway, I kept taking French at the college level, and I liked it, but nowhere near enough to major in it.

I really loved my linguistics course. And my anthropology class. But after the first joy wore off, I realized I didn't want to actually major in them.

So I did what any quitter who can't stay more than one place very long would do: I transferred colleges. To the University of Washington, where I'd never wanted to go; it was too close to home.

As it ended up, the boy who I'd had two years of saga with already also left Western, and we finally got together. We dated all through my junior year of college, even though he lived forty-five minutes away and did not have a car, and I was working and going to school and feeling insane, and he wasn't doing much of anything.

In the fall of senior year, he met me on campus of UW one afternoon. The previous weekend, I had made a trip to some Natural Wonders store (had I actually gone up to Bellingham and finally bought it, or did I find a more nearby store? I don't remember), and I bought that green frog. But I bought it for my boyfriend, not for me. I don't know why; our relationship was winding down, but we both, at that point, pretended not to notice too much yet. I wanted it to be a kind of symbol. To show that something that meant so much to me--that silly frog--I wanted him to have. I told him that I was kind of lending Mr Frog (very creative namer, I am) to him, to take care of, and so that I could visit and hug Mr Frog when I visited the boy.

At some point near to that--it shows that I am the worst girlfriend and friend EVER that I don't remember--he had given me a stuffed animal too. It was the spotted leopard from Natural Wonders. He said that he'd gone to the one in Seattle somewhere, but they didn't have the frog, so he got me the leopard instead. We named him Burgess, because we kept seeing that word or name all over the place. But I always call him Mr Leopard. So perhaps that means I got him the frog after that? Who knows. Anyway, that leopard has stayed with me ever since, and every once in a while, when I visited my ex, I would see Mr Frog, and I would feel a pang. Of what, I don't know.

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My college friends will also remember Blankie, my infamous stuffed sheepdog. I got him on my fourth birthday. I named him Blankie because he was the same color and texture (white, slightly knobby) as my favorite childhood blanket. I loved him, of course.Even though one time when I was eight or so, he fell behind the little sofa upstairs in my dad's house, and a line of his tatted fur was toasted from the heater.

I probably forgot about Blankie while I was trying to grow up, but I found him in plenty of time for college. He came with me and when I hung out with friends in the tv lounge, I brought Blankie with me. People made fun of him, because they didn't know what he was supposed to be, and because he was smushed and very old-looking. But I defended him and loved him still. He was a great companion.

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When I left for AmeriCorps after college, you can bet that two of the most important things I brought were Blankie and Mr Leopard. They lived in my bed with me, and my new burgundy flannel sheets and flannel blankets. I had plenty of time with them, since our first project was local.

However, when it came time to pack my Red Bag for spike second round, I knew that my two friends would not fit. And I felt a little dorky insisted to carry around and sleep with my two stuffed animals. My teammates, at least some of them, already knew that I had them, but I didn't bring them.

That first night in New Jersey, sleeping in Chimney Cabin's front room, in a sleeping bag covered with a pile of moth-flaked wool blankets, with three other girls nearby, I felt lonely and strange in that twin bed. I didn't like being alone while sleeping.

Two or three days later, we made our first of very many trips to the nearby Wal-Mart. The most important thing on my list to buy was a companion. Thankfully, I found one: a plush orca whale. It was the perfect size for hugging, and it was only ten bucks. I bought it and that night I was so happy to have a new friend.

On all my spikes, and yes, even when I went on disaster relief, my whale was with me. It sat with me in the van with my pillow, squashed among my teammates on those long drives from one place to another. The whale went through the security checkpoint with the rest of my on-board belongings. Remember, I was twenty-three years old at this point. The people I met while clutching that whale never made fun of me; in fact, they loved the whale as much as I do. Perhaps they felt a longing to return to the childish place where our friends don't have to be real people and a little token like a whale can mean the world to us, like a little bit of home or consistency that goes everywhere we do.

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I'm sure that now you can guess what some of the things were that I packed in my suitcase when I flew out to New York. I only had room to pack one of my stuffed friends in that suitcase; the others must have been put in one of the boxes I had shipped. But I made sure to have at least one of them available to comfort me on my first night in a new city, in a new apartment, and a new bed (with no bedding, as it turned out).

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I don't care that I'm an 'adult.' My friends know me and that I keep these stuffed animals. They find a way to love me and laugh at me even though that part of me has never grown up. I can't imagine ever outgrowing those. Many of you don't actually know me in the 'real world,' and I should probably care that I'm revealing this to you, but I don't. You can laugh, I don't mind. You can roll your eyes or you can say, "hey, thank god I'm not the only one!"

To date, the best part of getting into bed is hugging my stuffed animals. All three of them are in that twin bed with me every night; it would feel large and empty and alien without them. Each of those three has a story behind them, and those stories are intricately woven into the story of who I was, who I became, and who I am now.

3 comments:

Rebecca said...

hey, thank god i'm not the only one!

we have an awesome carousel in our town and i love riding it, though at eighteen i'm getting a little big to fit on the horsies. my favorite thing about visits from my nieces and nephews is that i have a good excuse to ride the carousel. there is nothing wrong with retaining a bit of childishness, i think.

~Just Michelle~ said...

And the it is in the stories that we each have to tell that we are both unique and similar. We all carry our comforts with us in sone fashion or another.

Some of the most amazing stories, I'd bet, will come from the unbridled minds of your students!

~M~

Anonymouph said...

Big Bird and I LOVED this post. He was especially thrilled to hear about Blankie's "burn." Big Bird has had his pupils rubbed off and redrawn with a Sharpie about 400 times since he joined me in bed at age 13. His once bright yellow fur (feathers?) is now dull and matted. He can no longer hold his head up straight after years of being clutched around the neck in the crook of my arm at night. We owe a lot of thanks to these special troopers; they've always been there for us. Thanks for reminding me.

One more thing - when I was little, my mom used to bake cakes for my stuffed animals' birthdays. She baked them in those pot-pie tins, and they were the perfect size. My stuffed creatures didn't seem to mind that they celebrated so many birthdays each year; I know I didn't.