A couple of years into college, I got a big itch that I just couldn’t scratch — I desperately wanted to travel and see the world.
It seemed that everyone around me was spreading their wings. My friends Terrell and “Grandma” had just completed a roadtrip that took them throughout United States and Canada. My ex-girlfriend Megan was somewhere in the Alps, playing her violin deep in the land of Mozart & Strauss. And Katie, the girl I was seeing at the time, disappeared at the height of our relationship in order to enjoy a European holiday, leaving me to pass the days wondering what things she was seeing that I wasn’t.
It took Katie many years to save for her trip. She would put away a paycheck here, a Christmas gift there, until it added up to the notable sum that allowed her to travel in comfort for well over a month. Every so often, she would send me postcards. One from Italy, with its sun-drenched image, seemed otherworldly and would make my heart ache in ways I never knew it could. The trip changed the way she looked at the world. It also changed the way she looked at me, as she broke up with me immediately after her return.
Although my soul yearned to travel, financial means to do so were themselves wanting. My parents were putting me through college at the time, but paying for my books and classes were all they could muster. It was left up to me to cover food and boarding, and when my mom & dad went through a financial crisis I soon found myself struggling to stay in school. I went from fifteen hours a semester down to nine, from working part-time to full-time, and my dream took a backseat to just getting by.
Every postcard I received from a friend overseas kicked up my wanderlust until I felt like I would die. Although I earned very little, I supressed the urge to spend that meager amount, and instead vowed to save ten percent of everything that came my way. Working extra hours, specifying cash as gifts, moving up to better jobs, selling CDs, and donating plasma — everything I could spare went into a savings account whose purpose was to help me achieve my destiny. It would be four long years before I was able to step foot outside my country and live my dream of seeing Europe.
Man, I wanted a tattoo something fierce!
Everyone else in art school had one except for me. Perpetual indecisiveness, coupled with a fear of making a wrong decision that I couldn’t erase, kept me from settling on a design. I would visit tattoo parlors across the state, browse around books of amazing art, then walk away. I attempted to use my own artistic talents, but my creativity dried up like an empty ink well. Nothing but 100% assurance that I was making the right choice would ever make my tattoo a reality.
Some of my inked neighbors at Bruce Hall offered some advice: Find some black-and-white drawings that I like, tape them up around my bathroom mirror, then look at them each day, morning and night. Then, if several weeks passed and I was still fascinated by what I saw, signs were favorable that I wouldn’t be disappointed with having one of the images as a permanent tattoo.
Their advice was great, but many months passed without any results. Weeks of seeing the drawings around my mirror began to annoy me, and soon they were all in the trash. My skin remained tabula rasa.
It was around this time I met Wade. Wade was a “dude”, a skinny stick topped with a shaggy mop of blonde hair. He had a habit of walking around in various states of nudity — most days, it meant only being shirtless, although there were times when his exposed bits brushed up against a misdemeanor.
Upstairs, Wade was a couple cans short of a six-pack. Catching him in any complicated loop of thought or questioning would cause him to pause and stare into space, a sign that his mind was in the middle of performing a reboot. He was that unique blend of personality whose silliness could make you enjoy your job as his resident assistant, but who kept reminding you of that job as he constantly broke the rules.
One day, in my room two doors down, I could hear amazingly powerful music coming from Wade’s room. I grabbing my resident assistant badge and clipboard then headed down the hall to do my duty. Wade opened up the door and performed the routine actions of turning down the stereo, apologizing for the noise, and handing me his ID, all without me having to ask.
From the waist up, Wade was his usual naked self except for one accessory. On his left nipple hung a gleaming ring of surgical steel. I had written him up just the week before and it wasn’t there. “Dude, where did that come from?”, I said.
In his surfer drawl, he said, “Man, it’s brand-new! Got it at a party last night! Doesn’t it kick ass?!”
I had to admit, yes. Yes, it did.
I had spent the past year working as a student assistant, a step above my old position of resident assistant, being groomed for continued advancement within the profession of student administration. That same year had seen me slave away in an art studio, building up my portfolio during the final stretch before the senior review, a tense and grueling process where my professors gave the thumbs-up that was prerequiste to graduation. Such activity took its toll on my immune system, taking me down in mid-Spring with a mild case of pneumonia. I recovered, passed the review, and graduated college. Now was time to enjoy the culmination for such an amazing year — it was time to take the trip to Europe which had obsessed me for so long.
For close to four years, I had been dutifully forwarding any extra money I stumbled upon to my childhood savings account in Minnesota. Far away from temptation and spending urges, the money waited for the day it would be withdrawn, convert it into colorful European banknotes, and like a modern-day Johnny Appleseed spread it amongst the Old World and sow some memories.
The trip would begin almost immediately after graduation and span nearly a month. I wasn’t going alone — my best friend Jim and mutual friend Monica would be making the journey. Flying first to England, we were to wander about, stumbling into odd corners of the countryside between Edinburgh, Salisbury, London, and the cliffs of Dover. After several days, we would travel to Paris and spend the final two weeks of our vacation cheering on the United States Men’s National Soccer Team in their valiant struggle against the rest of the planet during that year’s World Cup.
The timing worked well, except for one problem — at the same time as my vacation were several weeks of hall director interviews, which didn’t commence until after I was overseas. Being a hall director was the next step in my career path, a position where I would be given the responsibility to guide a community of nearly 500 students and employees. I had been lucky to serve under a great role model of a hall director — Jim. I admired not only his care for students, but also his resilience in the face of departmental politics. If I could be half the professional he was, I felt I had the chance to be a good hall director. Many people I worked with felt the same and were excited to know I was interviewing.
The selection committee hoped to complete their work and hire candidates before I returned. Knowing my circumstances, they were flexible enough to conduct my interview before I left. Although the hiring deadline occurred halfway through my trip, Kathy, the head of the selection committee, took down my overseas email, phone, and address and promised to tell me the results directly. I did my interview, and immediate feedback was that I did quite well. Everyone said the job was mine to lose.
Bookended by college graduation before and my future job afterwards, this trip would likely be my last time to relax before I was to grow up and join the world of professionals. Now, it was time to go see the world…finally!
It was the final week of our European trip. The British isles were far behind us, and Paris surrounded us with all its romantic glory. Soon I would be home then, if all went well, working as a hall director.
For the entire past month, we basked in the calming side-effect of being completely inaccessible using modern means. While in England, we stayed at tiny bed-and-breakfast establishments where one considered themselves lucky just to have a bathroom, let alone an internet connection. Our accommodations were slightly more stable in France, where we stayed at the same hotel for two straight weeks, giving us access to at least had a telephone. Sure, there was the pesky little matter of a language barrier between us and the locals, but it wasn’t anything that couldn’t be cured by some reciprocal rudeness on our part.
Besides simplicity, there was also mystery to our situation. Noone back home knew exactly where I was on this planet except for Kathy, the head of the hall director selection committee. Before I left Denton, I had explained the above-mentioned positional chaos I would be swimming in and provided her with my hotel’s telephone number. Since her committee planned to make their decisions during the time I was to be in Paris, the timing of this portion of our trip would work out quite well.
My interview rarely came to mind while in England, but arriving in Paris heralded the final stage of my vacation and made it seem very real. Like a kid who had saved up box tops and mailed them off for a skeleton key advertised in a comic book, I eagerly returned to the hotel each night hoping there would be a message from Kathy containing my expected congratulations. But the days passed, and eventually there were just two more days before it was time to return home. Kathy hadn’t called yet, and I began to fret. Did I give her the wrong phone number? Had something gone wrong back home?
Monica, a member of the “younger generation”, was squirming from lack of connection to the outside world. She had an itch that could only be scratched by plugging back into the internet, even if just for a little while. I thought it would be a good idea to check my email to see if Kathy tried to reach me there. So we flipped through our well-worn travel guide, found a cyber-cafe, and hopped in a cab.
By the time we reached our destination, it was nighttime and the famed lights of Paris were glowing all about us, giving everything a creamy cast and dramatic contrast. Like most of the city, the cafe was a mixture of old and new — dark mahoghany tables and incandescent lights mingled with the sleek computers and glowing monitors, all of which was blanketed in a murmur of various accents. Luckily, the manager-on-duty spoke a little English and we were soon able to secure a single computer for the two of us.
Being the gracious southern gentleman my momma raised me to be, I let Monica check her email first. When it was my turn, I sat at the computer then had to remember how to log in, it had been so long! Once I connected and opened up my email client, my inbox was clogged with messages. In the sea of subject lines, one quickly caught my attention — it was titled “Please welcome our new Hall Directors”. Just seeing those words made my heart skip in excitement.
Then it stopped cold when I read email itself.
The email was from Kathy. It began with flourishes of speech on behalf of the committee, about how hard it was to choose from so many qualified candidates, etc. I scrolled down past all of this to the heart of the matter. There it was, the list of new hires, and my name was not on it.
I reread the email to make sure I wasn’t missing anything. I looked through the rest of my inbox to see if there were any other messages from Kathy, which there weren’t. This couldn’t be possible, I thought. People told me that I was a sure thing. What went wrong? What did I miss? And why didn’t Kathy call to tell me the results directly, like she promised?
Drowning in a sea of jumbled thoughts, my brain began to swim inside of my skull. I felt hot and clammy, and the stuffiness of the cafe seemed to increase like an preheating oven. I got up to head outside and get some fresh air, but my knees decided to rebel and buckle beneath me. I was beginning to faint. Monica popped up to grab me before something happened. She had read over my shoulder and was an eyewitness to the shattering of my life. She eased me back down into the chair and tried to calm me down.
And there I was — an American in Paris, flat broke and jobless.
After I came back to the states in mid-June, not much time passed before my now-former coworkers started treating me like a social pariah. Much work was needed to prepare for the upcoming fall semester, and they didn’t have time to feel sorry that I wasn’t part of their staff. Once jovial buddies were now walking on eggshells around me, afraid to bring up the sore subject of my rejection, and I began to feel I didn’t belong. While Jim did his best to not be a part of that group, he had a new assistant hall director to bring up to speed. Besides, it was in his best interest to not show too much favoritism towards his best friend’s plight.
Thanks to my month-long European adventure, my financial situation was dire. I had blown much of my money overseas because of an assumption that a job was waiting for me upon my return.
During the 13 hour flight home, I passed time practicing some math. I kept performing the following equation over and over in my mind, hoping that its outcome would somehow change by the hundredth time: what is the result when you add “Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting” with “only fifty bucks to my name” and “no qualifications for any job in the real world”? At the ripe old age of 25, I was facing what all artists brush up against at least once during their lifetime: total destruction. If something didn’t change, that same fifty dollars was the only thing preventing me from sinking into depression and fear.
Word had gotten around to Kathy that I was back in Denton, and she wanted to meet with me to personally explain the hall director selection committee’s reasons for passing on my candidacy. While I agreed to meet with her the next day, I wasn’t expecting much.
The night before the meeting, I was sharing a drink with my friends Natalie and Annabelle. Natalie was a quallty buddy during that rough time, with one foot in the Department of Housing and the other firmly grounded in the “outside world”. This meant that I could trust her to listen and understand my plight. Also, she was buying that night, so all the better.
Beer lubricated my logic enough that I came up with a crazy idea. What difference did make whether I had $50 or nothing to my name, so why not go ahead and blow it all? Then I’d truly be an artist: dead broke and on the path to destitution. Somehow I thought of Wade, my old resident years ago, and that the idea of having a nipple ring never left my mind. I also knew that Natalie and Annabelle had been thinking of getting their belly buttons pierced. “All of us should get something pierced right now!” I said.
So down we immediately went to Oak Lawn, to the piercing pagoda known as Obscurities. While browsing the display cabinets for an appropriate bauble, a heavily-tattooed employee asked if I needed any help. To this dude I bared my soul and told him the whole story of the past few weeks, including how I was down to my last few bucks and wanted to blow it here tonight. Fair enough, he said as he agreed to make whatever I had left the price for that evening’s work.
All four of us went into a back room. I took off my shirt and laid down on the table. The slight draft took care of massaging my nipples into glass-cutters. With a Sharpie, the dude drew little black dots on opposite sides of my left-side nipple. Then he produced a thin needle, which had a 14-gauge ring of surgical steel threaded onto it. He lightly placed its sharp end against a dot. With a calmness befitting a true surgeon, he quietly and swiftly shoved the needle through one side of my nipple and out the other.
There wasn’t any pain. In its place was my breath literally being taken away, as I felt my flesh collapse to the sensation of being stabbed. Like a crusty French bread, my nipple initially resisted the needle’s pressure. But like a Dutch dike, it gave up and allowed passage, the power of the thrust being like a hot knife through butter. It was over almost as quickly as it began, and the dude was cleaning up his tools before my brain even began to register it.
While I was still soaking in adrenaline, he asked me to hop up and check myself out. I walked over to the mirror, took in the sight before me, and found that I couldn’t stop grinning. If only Wade could see me now. Natalie stepped up, with shock and awe etched into her face. “Holy shit, dude!” she said. “You got a ring through your nipple!”
I had to admit, yes. Yes, I did.
The dude who pierced my nipple had explained the maintenance required to promote swift healing. Every morning, I must massage a fragrance-free antibacterial soap around my piercing, then turn the ring both clockwise and counter-clockwise to work sudsy goodness throughout the inside. On top of that, four times a day I must marinate my nipple in a painful solution of warm water and sea salt, which was most easily accomplished by lying on the bed and holding a plastic cup firm enough against my chest to prevent drips. Lots of details, yes, but all I could think about that morning was the throbbing in my chest and conclude, “I suppose there’s no easy way to take a self-inflicted stab wound.”
Salinating my vestigal organs would need to take a back seat, as that morning I was scheduled to meet with Kathy and learn why I was passed over by the hall director selection committee. I wasn’t looking forward to it. In fact, I expected the meeting to be nothing more than a kick in the crotch. Sure, I would learn why I wasn’t hired, and perhaps the lessons I learned would help me before the next time I interview for a job. But anything Kathy said couldn’t change the fact that I was now officially broke, a state of being which can only be measured by my recent venture to Sack-n-Save and balking at the thought of paying a buck for only 6 bricks of ramen! Nevertheless, I got cleaned up and went to meet my destiny.
I walked over to Crumley Hall, where Kathy lived and worked as hall director. She was a person of boundless energy, so much so that it crackled out of her every gesture, smile, and word. So much jittery intensity radiated from her that we often joked that she was a “crack baby”. Before I had left for Europe, Kathy and I had a cordial relationship. Now I was angry and wanted answers to how my professional life had become so derailed.
Kathy had wanted to meet with me more than I did with her. As head of the selection committee, she was privy to the discussions on each candidate, and depending on the outcome she had the pleasure or burden of being the messenger. It was her email that floored me in that Parisian café. Kathy started our meeting with an unprompted apology for the way things were handled. She had tried to reach me in Paris yet couldn’t. The committee couldn’t wait for me to return, as other candidates, their future staff, and the entire campus community needed to know who was hired. She had to send out the email that almost knocked me to the floor. But Kathy didn’t want to send a separate email to me explaining what happened — she (rightly) felt that I deserved to hear such answers face-to-face.
I learned why I wasn’t selected, and the news was hard to swallow. Despite my creativity, energy, people-skills, and record of hard work, the committee felt I was lacking in maturity. In their eyes, I wasn’t ready for the responsibility of leading a building of 400 residents and two dozen staff members. In other words, I needed to grow up. The whole time Kathy spoke, I winced as my shirt brushed against the raw nipple.
Kathy then surprised me by informing me of her transfer to West Hall. Located on the far west side of UNT and barely a part of campus, West Hall was a traditional discipline problem because of its all-male freshman population. Kathy had volunteered to transfer there and take up the challenge of turning around the hall’s culture. To do this, she needed two strong assistant hall directors, which were already in place. One of them would be Norman, a former resident assistant at that same building. The other would be Don, an outside hire from Pennsylvania whom I hadn’t met yet. To round out her team, Kathy needed a competent person to serve as front desk clerk and whip the administrative operations into shape.
It was then that she offered me the job.
I was speechless, so Kathy explained her reasoning. In her eyes, I was on the cusp of being ready for the hall director position. Being her desk clerk would allow me to stay connected to the Department of Housing. If I took this job and applied the lessons I just learned, she felt the next time I was interviewed by the selection committee they would be foolish not to hire me. So despite a committee of my peers feeling I wasn’t up to snuff, this one person had faith in my potential and wanted to makes others see it.
I was so happy that I felt like crying. I accepted the position. That evening, I drove down to Southlake to have dinner with my parents. And thanks to Kathy, I had some good news to bring home.
After the meal, we did our customary hanging out at the dining room table, my parents enjoying post-dinner smokes and drinks while I downed a beer. We were talking about all sorts of subjects when the topic drifted to the youth of today. And out of the blue, my dad pontificated to me, “Better not get your ear pierced. I don’t want any of that faggot shit around the house.”
My heart was racing! Surely he was making a random comment, right? Dad had no idea of what I had done the previous evening. And he never would.
My secrecy on that topic was an interesting analogy to the way I changed because of the last month’s events. Somewhere between my graduation and now, I lost some measure of my trust in others. Before I left the States, I trusted those who told me that interviews were a formality and that I was assured of the job. I trusted co-workers until they treated me like an outsider upon my return. And although I wanted to trust Kathy, I felt that I was best served by keeping my cards close to my vest for the rest of my life. Sure, I’d take her job, work hard, and improve myself. And the next time hall director interviews came around, I would show them what they missed out on first time. And maybe, if they’re lucky, I’ll take that job, too. Any every time I looked at my nipple ring, I thought that I wasn’t about to fail ever again in my life.
Right before Halloween, my shift at the West Hall front desk was just about to end when the telephone rang.
It was Tara, an old friend and head of the current hall director selection committee. Earlier in the month, I had once again gone before that group and bared my soul through another round of interviews. Unlike my previous experience applying for that job, I didn’t go into–or come out of–that process with anywhere near the same level of confidence. Tara promptly got down to business and asked, “How would you like to be a hall director?”
I had been waiting for most of the year to be asked that question. Thankfully, she couldn’t see the goofy grin that was breaking out on my face. I responded yes, that would be great. As she talked, I could hear in her voice the pride of being the one to share such news with me. Tara went on to tell me that I would start in December, and that I would be staffed at Bruce Hall, working under its hall director Jim. The latter news was surprising. Although Jim was having issues with his current assistant, a recently-hired co-worker whose performance had been underwhelming, for me to be staffed there meant they were being reassigned or let go.
Although I had to wander a professional purgatory for the past semester, it was worth it. I had grown in many ways, learned new perspectives, and met many new friends. And I would reap multiple rewards: confirmation from my co-workers that I was good enough to be one of them, a return to my favorite dormitory, and working once again with my best friend.
We were getting the band back together!
It was hard for me not to smile.