Lines Composed a Few Years after Letting a Stranger Sleep on my Couch, On Revisiting the Decision-Making Skills of a Nineteen-Year-Old Undergoing a Severe Depressive Episode

My logic wasn’t unsound. I thought that if I could make myself small and sturdy, my problems would shrink with me, and I’d be able to right myself. I would roll like buoy in a storm. The route forward seemed as obvious to me then as it seems irresponsible to me now—my plan was to pretend, march my ass back to campus and plant myself in my dorm, armed with the narrowest of purviews—read, drink water, sleep. 

I had been back at school for three or four weeks, and my sleep schedule was in tatters. Night had become day, dinner was breakfast. I had spent the first half of the semester doing little more than sleeping through my days in shapeless depressive drift; but now, ironically, I couldn’t sleep, could hardly think. 

What was happening, I suspect, was my body was mishandling its newly granted, mid-semester stomachful of antidepressants, which lead me into a kind of da Vincian sleep pattern, slipping into a groggy nap every couple of hours at the expense of true sleep.

I still managed to make it to the library almost every day, just a little before lunch. I would take a novel with me, and sit in one of those bland stalls in the absolute nosebleeds of the place, behind the maps and the stats books, and I’d stare at the pages of Zadie Smith or Don DeLillo or Susan Sontag or whomever I was test-driving that week, until I found my way into reading them or fell asleep trying. 

And if I did slip into a nap, I’d wake just as the evening’s worth of studious undergrads came filing in, plugged into their earbuds, sporting peacoats and beanies, everyone staring blue-faced into their screen light. 

I’d scamper back to my dorm once it started to get crowded. 

The reason I wouldn’t let myself spend time around them (or anyone, including my carboard cutout of a roommate) was that, secretly, I wasn’t taking any classes—not at the moment, maybe not ever again. I’d dropped them all, one by one over the course of the semester, as I maxed out their respective absence policies from oversleeping. I didn’t have very many friends in my major, and I was too embarrassed to tell anybody else about it. I simply never brought it up. 

Plus, by some fluke in the enrollment system, withdrawing from classes individually (instead of taking an official, sweeping “hardship withdrawal”) had meant that my dropped courses never triggered any sort of notice to the school that I wasn’t (technically) a student anymore—I kept my meal plan, my dorm, my bus pass, and my library access, all without issue. I have to assume that this was for financial reasons (because I’d paid for these things all ahead of time with money from student loans; and in this country, being a student is akin to be a customer of the school, so was no reason for them to bat an eye at what I was doing), but nevertheless, I stayed. I suppose my thinking was that, if the school was content to still classify me as a student, I was free to do so myself. 

Looking back, I’m not exactly sure what I was thinking; maybe I thought that I could will myself into normalcy by pretending that nothing was wrong. It was no different than the rest of the pretending I was doing—pretending that the semester was going fine; pretending that I was in control of my emotions; that my thoughts weren’t melting like wax crayons; I wasn’t spiraling; wasn’t lying; and certainly hadn’t spent three days at the beginning of the semester bedridden, nearly catatonic, so utterly lethargic that I couldn’t find the strength to scrape myself out of bed to use the communal restroom in my dorm and had instead peed myself, stripped bare, and slumped into a nest of clean clothes on the floor. Maybe my thinking was that clinical depression, like a job interview, or yoga, was something that could be conquered by that aphorism, “fake it ‘til you make it,” except the “make it” here wasn’t a matter of ascending into a state of competence, but rather coming out of hollow-eyed misery with your life and sanity still with you.    

When sleep was especially distant, I’d try and push myself through the night by slipping out of my dorm into the grim twilight, hoping that I might correct my circadian rhythm by wandering around campus into the early hours of the day.     

This was why I found myself, one crisp, gloomy October night, seated on a bench on one of the major quadrangles of the campus, settled in a weekend silence. I sat cross-legged, in athletic shorts and a grey hoodie I’d taken from my brother back when I was home. I had drooping bags under my eyes, and ragged, unshowered hair. I was a shade of a person, hardly there. 

I sat, staring out at the crisscross pattern of sidewalks before me. The air was damp and pleasant, and I could smell that scent of moldering leaves and far-off bonfires that I had come to come to associate with October, with the rush of seasonal change. The light emitted by lamps along the walkway was orange, as if it were almost self-consciously Halloweenish (I half expected a black cat to come rub its nose up against my legs.) I was thinking of my birthday, October 30th, just a few weeks away, about the string of phone calls I’d be making to relatives, walking them through my life—what was new? (I’m severely and medically depressed); what was I doing? (taping myself together, stripping life down to its most basic functions); how were things? (truly awful); was I doing alright? (no); did I have a job? (I can’t stay awake for more than five hours at a time); had anything interesting happened recently? (I forged a letter from a “professor” to get out of jury duty), etc.—questions that had nothing to do with my present life of being a college dropout in denial. I was going to be turning twenty. Twenty. And I had bottomed out. I was playing with the little strings at the clavicle of the hoodie, tying and untying them into little bows. 

Suddenly, someone caught my attention, I sat up. A woman was standing next to me. 

She was tall and thin and hesitant in her approach. She wore jeans and a wine-colored sweater, and was creeping toward me at the periphery of my vision. Something about the way she moved made me think that she was going to try to rob me and I tried to gather all the little flecks of self-defense that would constitute an explanation that all I had on me was my dorm keycard. But as she stepped into the light, I could see the makeup smeared down her face in stout raccoonish streaks. She’d been crying. She looked to be in her thirties. The woman introduced herself with an apology. 

‘I’m sorry,’ she whimpered, sniffling a bit. She wiped her nose.   

‘Oh, um. No, it’s fine.’ I replied. I took my hands away from my hoodie strings and let them dangle. 

‘I don’t need money, or anything.’

‘Well. That’s good.’ 

She was directly in front of me now, holding her hands in front of her mouth in the way that people do when they’re warming themselves in front of a fire. 

‘Listen,’ she said ‘I’m a real person, okay?’ 

My initial thought was that she was trying to steer me away from thinking that she was a ghost, but then she went on, telling me her name. ‘I have a job, a condo in Atlanta. I pay taxes. I’m an engineer.’ She sat down next to me on the bench. And then, rather earnestly, said, ‘I’ve lost my sister.’

‘Oh my god.’ I inhaled. ‘I’m so sorry.’ 

The woman clarified herself. ‘She’s a swimmer here. She has a scholarship. I came down for the weekend to go to the football game with her.’ And then, she added, with some curiosity, ‘Were you there?’

‘No, I wasn’t.’ I said, honestly trying to recall what I’d done that day. All I could remember was the little package of vending machine chocolate-covered pretzels I’d polished off in my room before setting out on my jaunt, an hour or two before. I was still sitting with my legs crossed, in my hoodie, my shorts. ‘The games are fun though,’ I added, which I knew even then was a non-statement. ‘How did you lose your sister?’

The woman looked at me very intently, and, though encumbered by the occasional sob and sniffle, she told me that she and her sister, the swimmer, had gone out after the game with a couple of the swimmer’s teammate friends to celebrate the win. She was a freshman, but, being an athlete, she’d been all but handed a fake ID when she’d arrived on campus. Things had gotten rowdy—there had been shots and dancing, bar-hopping. At one point, the engineer had gone to the restroom, and by the time she came out, her sister and her friends had vanished, taking her purse with them, which the woman had given her sister so that she could buy a round of drinks for them. Her phone was in the purse. She had shouldered her way through the crowds, scoured the bar, grabbed the bartenders, the manager, the manager of the bar next door. No one could help her.

She’d wandered around town, poking her head into grimy doorways for a couple of hours with no success. She managed to stop a couple of people for help and had gotten someone to lend her their phone so she could call her sister, but the calls all went straight to voicemail. Eventually, sobered up and frenzied with worry, she figured that the best course of action was to try and find her way back to her dorm and wait for her there. But, maybe a mile or so into the walk, she she’d realized that she didn’t know where the dorm was, or what the building was called, or her sister’s room number, or if the building would even let her inside. All she knew was that the dorm was mostly occupied by athletes; ‘it’s one of those places,’ she told me, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her sweater. She threw her hair forward and pitched it into a ponytail, using a hair tie from her wrist.  

The truth was that there was a cluster of about a half dozen dorms which our school reserved mostly for athletes and international students—bigger spaces, newer beds, laundry machines that didn’t chew holes in your clothes. The rooms that were left over usually went to non-freshman who still wanted to live on campus. People like myself. 

‘I live in one of those dorms,’ I said. ‘Do you know what building she’s in?’ I started rattling off dorm names, to jog her memory. She was still uncertain. 

‘It was U-shaped. It had a courtyard.’

‘I think they all look like that. Mine definitely does.’

‘If they’re all in one place, could you tell me how to get there?’

I was fiddling with the knot on my sweatshirt again out of habit. I told her that without knowing the campus landmarks she’d probably get lost. So I walked her back myself.

At a certain hour in the night, even on gamedays, the UGA campus becomes a desolate, bottom-of-the-ocean type of place. We seemed to be the only people around for miles. Our walk home was mostly in darkness.  

The engineer had wiped the tears away and mostly pulled herself together. We walked at an even gait up the sidewalk, we took the stairs together, crossed over false cobblestone and passed sleepy brick buildings. 

It’s strange to think how naturally the interaction unfolded, given the circumstances—two strangers going on a half-assed odyssey, sharing nothing but an acute sense of unbelonging to the setting. 

Our conversation had a kind of raquetball cadence, one-directional volleys. I asked her a lot of questions about the swimmer, because I didn’t want to get into my situation. It wasn’t hard to keep the conversation focused in that direction, because she clearly loved her sister a lot and wanted to talk about her. Apparently, her sister was the only athlete in the family, the rest of them were scientists and academics. Her sister, she told me, had always been herself, even to a fault; she was loud and rambunctious, full of energy. From the way that she described her, I got the impression of a bouncing, golden retriever of a girl, happily knocking into things, paddling in the family pool with a stick in her mouth. 

I asked the woman, maybe pushing a little bit, if she thought her sister was overstepping her boundaries, drinking to the point of theft and losing people. 

‘No.’ The engineer said, rather certain of herself. ‘I mean, I’m gonna strangle her tomorrow, obviously. But people go through phases.’

I blinked. 

She went on, describing how her sister had been making a name for herself in practice; her coaches were already talking about the Olympic Trials. And then she wanted to know what I thought. Did I go to the swim meets? Did I know her? Maybe we had class together. What was my major?

The two of us had completely skipped over that oh-so-sticky question of whether or not I was a student here. I suppose that my understanding of the dorms had filled the untouched gaps in her logic and taken her to that conclusion. But the assured tone of her question made me think, rather suddenly (joltingly, in fact), that I ought to tell her that I was not in school anymore, that I didn’t actually know if I’d ever be a student again at the end of the semester, that my parents would eventually find out about my ruse and scold me with vicious tenderness and send me to the sort of place where they send people who are delusional enough to think that pretending to be okay and keeping dangerous secrets is better than getting real help. I wanted to tell her this. 

But, of course, I didn’t. 

Instead, I told her, somewhat obliquely, that I was an English major, and proceeded to rattle off some books that I’d read recently (skipping over the ones that I had failed to finish for my classes), to avoid actually getting into the subject itself.

‘Do you know Zadie Smith?’ I asked. ‘I just read White Teeth.

‘No, I don’t. I’m mostly into fantasy and niche irreverent stuff. Allie Brosh—do you know her? She’s my favorite.’  

‘What does she write?’

‘There’s this blog Hyperbole and a Half. It’s a web comic; it’s being published as a book. She does these silly doodles. But she uses them to get into some serious subjects. Like depression.’

I told her I’d give it a read. 

When we got to my dorm, we were both beat. It was too dark, too late. We hadn’t even bothered with the process-of-elimination game we ought to have been using to figure out which of the dorms her sister was in. We both guessed that she was probably still out, anyway. The student-athlete dorms were nestled in a terse little cluster at the edge of campus behind an old cemetery; most of the capital-P Partying happened downtown or in the bigger high-rise dorms. 

But she had to be close by, we knew that at least. So, with no other options, I suggested that she sleep on my couch. My roommate (whom I hardly knew) was out of town for the weekend—we lived in a suite-style dorm, with separate rooms connected by common living space. I gave the engineer a clean t-shirt, and some athletic shorts. She changed and texted her sister from my phone, and went to sleep. I let her keep my phone with her, in case her sister tried to reach her in the middle of the night. 

I don’t remember thinking much about the possibility of her stealing it, or taking anything else of mine, or if I should lock the door to my room, or any of the other concerns that people express to me now when I tell them this story. I don’t know exactly what was in my head. Maybe there wasn’t anything at all. I’d spend the past couple of months feeling stupid and useless and lonely.   

I didn’t have very many close friends at that point in my life. I’d moved more times than I could count, and I’d gone to college in a different state than I went to high school in (my parents had moved during my senior year, which,thankfully, still let me qualify for in-state tuition rates). In some ways, I think I felt guilty for just being where I was—not at home, not around my alcoholic mother, where everything was broken and anger was the only currency.   

I remember laying in my bed, wishing I had had some breakthrough with the engineer, some moment of clarity—we’d broken through most of the barriers that exist between two strangers, anyway. I could have told her about my situation and maybe she would have had advice for me; maybe she’d grown up in a shitty household where people screamed and broke things and chaos was the status quo; maybe she’d had a tough time in college; maybe she’d even suffered from depression herself. I think I was looking for someone to tell me flat-out what I needed to do to fix my life. Who better to do that than a “real person?”  

I laid in my bed, trying to think of the last time I’d even been in a swimming pool. Eventually, I fell asleep.   

When I woke up the next day, she was gone. I found myself questioning if the whole night had been some odd dream, until I saw, just outside my door, the clothes I’d let her borrow, and my phone. They had been neatly folded and stacked, sitting there on my floor. I hadn’t folded my clothes in weeks; I’d been stuffing them into my drawers, at best. I took it as example of proper etiquette; these were the building blocks of a proper life, it seemed to say—folded clothes and the order of common things. 

I unpacked my dresser and folded the rest of my clothes.  

Trevor Lisa is a person of great intensity and few interests—most of which include books, running, eating, and playing air drums with cooking utensils. There isn’t a whole lot he can say about the period of his life described in Lines Composed; he was listening to Radiohead’s song Codex on repeat for about six months and the whole memory web seems coated in a murky wash. You can read his words in Hypertext Magazine and Masks Literary Magazine. You can listen to him in the spoken word & music collaboration TRiO. He is an MFA Candidate at Columbia College Chicago.

%d bloggers like this: