Meditations after an Emergency
By Kameryn Carter '19
Four years ago, I was dead-set on attending a Midwestern liberal arts college whose campus was featured in at least two coming-of-age indie movies. The college was picturesque—it had ivy but was not ivy league, which was exactly what I wanted. Somehow, I’d gotten it into my head that writers went there, a notion I now attribute directly to the movies. I applied early decision. I thought my smarts would outrank my mediocre grades, but two months later, when I received the standard-sized envelope instead of the gigantic, celebratory one, I knew without opening that what I thought my future would look like was now entirely up in the air. I was also rejected from several other schools, or was waitlisted, or got no financial aid. From Bennington, I received a link to my application decision. When I opened it, I was met with as much fanfare as a screen could communicate. Electronic confetti. Congratulations, it said.
I knew almost nothing about Bennington. As many as two people from my high school had gone. I had read Franny and Zooey several times, but had no frame of reference for that line about the sculpting in the train bathroom. My high school English teacher had convinced me to apply because I needed a “safety”, a word which would strangely recur in the next year, acquiring more irony each time. Bennington was part of a world I had never known existed, a world I was terrified I didn’t have access to. As far as I knew, it was very rich and very white. I Googled and scrolled through the website with ambivalence. I had a pleasant phone interview in which someone told me the poems I sent were promising. And suddenly, I was at the wrought iron gate after a fifteen-hour drive, for orientation, for the first time. In the past I have often said that I came to Bennington by accident, though perhaps it only seemed that way to me then. Perhaps a series of cosmic events unknown to me occurred that led me here, backing me into the right corner. Maybe, due to another series of unknown cosmic events, my arrival at Bennington coincided directly with a quietly life-threatening breakdown. The word “breakdown” feels antiquated and gendered and wrong, so instead, I will just try to describe what happened.
At the time, the year happened incredibly slowly. Each day felt like seven, and the year felt like one hundred years. But in recollection, memory has sped up what little I am able to remember like a winding VHS. Just after my first Field Work Term, as we approached campus, the cab driver pointed and said, “There’s your little college.” It felt odd to hear someone attribute that place to me, odd that someone thought Bennington belonged to me. As I walked down first street with my bags, the double-white of the snow caked to the houses, I felt more alien than ever. I don’t know how I survived until spring. For the past decade of my life, my everyday depression has roared up tremendously every few years, culminating in a near-death event, like a comet or a brood of periodical cicadas. I should have known it was coming, as I spent the previous year standing on chairs in my high school singing “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette, exaggerating minor injuries by way of prop crutches from the Theatre department’s Costume Shop. I sat inside a suitcase in the hallway as classes changed yelling “Don’t pull me!” I wrapped my boyfriend’s hands in gauze though he was not injured. I said I had to go to the bathroom and climbed inside its empty cabinet, folding my knees to my chest and closing my eyes. This sort of manic behavior was always Act One.
In March, I went to the hospital. When my dear friend helped me call Campus Safety, they asked if I needed an ambulance and I said “Dear God, no.” We sped through the woods in the minivan and I pressed my face against the window. I couldn’t make out any shapes in the dark. Several hours in the waiting room. Everything cast in fluorescent. Then, an exam room the size of a closet. A woman on the other side of the wall wailing to see her children. The doctor comes. He is also from Chicago. What are you doing all the way out here he says. Isn’t that the question I say. He has me dangle my fingers and pulls on each of them as some sort of test. Did I comb my hair today? Is he handsome or am I just in distress? I don’t want to be here. The last time, they zombied, surveilled me, I didn’t see outside for weeks. I have to go, I say. Campus Safety comes and the sun is half risen. The woods I couldn’t make out the night before are clear to me this morning, branches growing around each other like a die-cut pattern.
I wake up in a room I’ve never been in before. There is a woman I’ve never met at my bedside. She has glasses. Her voice is singsong. She might have held my forearm as she talked to me or I might have made that up. The room is lit in the same hospital-fluorescent. On the other side of the bed is a small table—yellow, with a drawer and a shelf very near to the ground. I begin to imagine my future with this table, the marigolds I will put in a jar on top of it, the yellow life we will have. The woman asks me how I am feeling. I ask her how much can I buy this table off you for. She asks me if I am safe. I answer yes.
I spent the rest of term eating wilted Grab and Go salads in my room and crying at episode after episode of the 1980s sitcom Cheers. Crying at Pet Sounds. Crying at Grab and Go. At Cheers again. My friend knocked on my door every day to make me come outside. “Cumby’s” was our daily field trip. Health Services let me have the table, which I placed in front of the window. I read Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely and cried some more. My mother called three times a day to confirm I was alive. Inexplicably, I held weekly dinner parties on the porch. Even more inexplicably, I had a birthday. I turned nineteen. I ate Shepherd’s Pie which I had never had before and have never had since. Soon, it became clear to me that whatever mental bandaging I’d done after the hospital would not hold for much longer. I saw my therapist twice a week and delivered all my dialogue to objects in her office. A crooked painting of lilies on the wall. Marbles on the table. Her water bottle. The carpet. One day, she suggested I go home. I met her gaze and told her I had no idea such an option existed.
On my last day at Bennington, I got dressed and went to class. I don’t even remember if I brought a pen. I met with my teacher about poems and I do not remember what was in them. I think there was a violet growing out of someone’s throat. I left two weeks from the end of term and did not earn any credits. I went home with no intention of returning.
Some variation of this occurs often at Bennington. There are so many of us who leave and come back or leave and don’t, each with our own reasons, but so many of them are similar to mine. I don’t know why. Maybe it is that the near-silence of the landscape leaves us too alone with ourselves and our minds. Maybe Bennington inadvertently attracts the type of students that struggle with comets and cicadas. Maybe it is simply more noticeable when a person leaves because there are so few of us in the first place. I, among others, will not graduate this June with the people who pulled up to the wrought-iron gate with me four years ago. Some days, this feels shameful to me or like I’ll never graduate at all. But I am coming to terms. I will not graduate this June, and this is fine, not for any reason other than because it is true.