It's my third night at the Feve in a row. I've been here just over a week and I'm batting well over .500. Or, to put it another way: I've been to the Feve more nights than I haven't. It doesn't hurt that there's only one real bar in town, but it still doesn't bode well for my steadfast conviction that China had made me an alcoholic and not the other way around.
Every night at the Feve starts out about the same: a handful of fresh acquaintances, stools nestled around a large wooden table, and a pitcher of beer so black you couldn't run a light through it. Small talk and, if the situation required, a small order of tots to follow. Then, the inevitable parting of ways, the block-and-a-half shuffle home, and Kent State's NPR-affiliate to lull me to bed.
I was talking about the situation with my friend Martha online. She asked me how in just a few days I had already connected with enough people to merit that many trips to the Feve. I told her that it wasn't a coincidence—that meeting every new contact took a great deal of effort on my part. After all, I had to practically construct my entire social life from the ground up. “I feel like I have to go to every social obligation I'm invited to,” I told her, “so I have a chance of building up a base.” “Wow,” she replied without the slightest hint of surprise, “you really network fast.”
I wanted to explain that it didn't matter if I was good or bad at networking or whether or not I even liked to do it. It just wasn't an option for me—I'm an extroverted person and when I'm not around other people for too long I start to lose it. “I can't help it,” I said, “it gets lonely up in this ivory tower.” I paused. I knew I had used the wrong analogy and was sure she would call me on it. “Well this ivory tower seems to have a lot of other towers in its neighborhood,” she quipped, not missing a beat. “It's an ivory tower colony,” I joked, “with no zoning restrictions.”
My own ivory tower is located on the southeastern fringes of campus. It's not to say that I don't feel disconnected from the concerns of non-campus life, but it's so easy to get caught up in my own tailspin—work, school, friendships to maintain. Some of the isolation is self-imposed but most is a product of circumstance. There are “young professionals” (what we call ourselves) in other departments in the college—ResEd, Athletics, Admissions, the MRC—but there's little opportunity for contact, and I certainly never had my radar out for them when I was still a student.
Being older than almost everyone doesn't help either. That, and having to strike a balance between my so-called grown-up friends and my student friends. Then again, the distinction may be a moot point. On my fourth day here I went to a karaoke cook-out event for incoming international students and the staff from the MRC was up there right alongside the new first-years singing “Bad Romance” and doing the Cha Cha Slide.
It felt like looking at Oberlin through the eyes of a stranger. All of the buildings had a foreign newness to them, and I had been exploring them slowly, so as not to embarrass my former self. The people had changed too. No longer could I simply expect to have friends based on geography and shared experience. It made me realize how lucky I had been in Taigu. Oberlin felt, for perhaps the first time in my life, like most of the rest of the world. I wouldn't be able just to fall into friendships here; I'd really have to work for them.
The fall from celebrity to dime-a-dozen has played out like your classic fall from grace, marred by all the telltale signs of recovery and addiction. I realized that I had invariably switched roles overnight—instead of being the person whose door everyone else was trying to knock down, I had become the archetypal “rando” who shows up unannounced and bearing gifts at four in the afternoon, appealing for nothing more than genuine friendship.
The night I went to the Feve with Jerry and Dave—two of the six foreigners I had lived with in China—a new art installation was up on the second floor. They had always been characteristically out there, even when I was a student, but this one seemed odder than most. Next to a collection of multi-colored lighters forming the outline of the African continent there hung a simple blue-and-white ceramic tile, on which, in all lower-case, was scribbled the line, our need to rebuild is the reason everything falls apart.
I wondered, if we stopped trying so hard to create anew, maybe all that should be lasting in our lives would cease to come undone? The network I had gone to great lengths to craft in my four years couldn't have felt more achingly distant. Looking around the bar that night, some faces looked familiar and others I just convinced myself were. Either way, it didn't stop me from trying to make conversation. I seem to be doing that a lot lately—giving my phone number out to almost anyone who seems interesting, hoping only that they might call me back.