What if they want to search me? I don’t have anything to hide, but I’m anxious anyway. They pass me through without a second glance, and I retrieve my things. The whole process seems…embarrassing, strangely intimate. Businessmen in suits traipsing around in dress socks, women in bare feet, juggling their belongings and trying to keep out each other’s way, and all the while the blue-shirted TSA men and women watch apathetically, shouting instructions and looking stern.
I find my gate after passing bookstores, duty-free shops, restaurants, and groups of travelers with backpacks and headphones, rolling carry-on bags with extended handles. Everyone is with someone else. I see one other solo traveler at my gate, a man in his thirties with a carefully trimmed goatee and an expensive-looking briefcase. He has three cellphones on his belt and a suit coat draped over his arm, and is reading a precisely folded New York Times. He glances at me, looks me over, and dismisses me. No one else even seems to see me.
I’ve never in my whole life felt so alone. I have my iPod and a paperback copy of Breath, Eyes, Memory that Devin gave me. I’m not sure why she thought I needed this book, but it’s something to pass the time. For the hour that I wait, I set aside my own life and lose myself in the struggles of other people.
The flight is long and boring. I finish the book halfway through and then I’m stuck with nothing to do but listen to my iPod on “repeat.” I leaf through a Skymall catalogue. The landing is rough and jouncing, and the airport in L.A. huge and confusing. It still feels like this could be a dream, like I can wake up in my bed at home, and Mama will be there, alive, and she’ll make me lunch. Eventually, I find the luggage claim and wait for my bags. There’s a new rip in the side of my duffel bag.
I follow the signs to the exit, and when the glass doors slide open, I’m assaulted by a wave of dry heat. Suddenly, it all seems more real. I have four hundred dollars in my purse; half of that is mine, saved from my allowance. The rest is a gift from Devin’s parents. It’s all I have. Four hundred dollars. A cab ride from LAX to USC costs $40, and I’m left with $360 dollars to my name. I haven’t eaten since I left Devin’s house, so my stomach rumbles. I’m too nervous and scared to eat. The cab driver is a huge, burly, silent black man with thin dreadlocks hanging to his shoulders. He doesn’t say a word. When we arrive at USC, he simply points at the fare meter and waits expectantly. I pay, parting with the money reluctantly.
USC is huge. I follow other young-looking people around my age, some equally as scared. Most of them have their moms or dads with them, some both. No one notices me. I follow the crowd to an office swarming with people. There’s an orientation, a tour of the campus. Maps are handed out along with cheap day-planners. My dorm room is a box with bunk beds on one side; a thin, shallow closet; and a tiny computer desk, which I assume belongs to my roommate. It’s off-white, and there’s a thin window in one corner with dirty white blinds tilted to one side, letting in a dull glow from outside.
My roommate is already there, sitting on the bottom bed, flipping through an issue of Vanity Fair. She’s a few inches shorter than me, several sizes smaller, and model-gorgeous. Her makeup is perfect. Her platinum blonde hair is sleek and polished and perfectly coiffed in a French twist. Her clothes are expensive, and perfect. Her nails are French manicured, and a Dooney & Burke purse sits on the bed near her, an iPhone peeking out of the top. She smiles at me, takes in my outfit, off-brand but not cheap clothes—a knee-length skirt, a fitted but modest V-neck T-shirt, much-worn dance flats—and her smile dims a bit. She’s clearly unimpressed.
“So, are you an actress?” she asks. She sounds like a movie version of someone from “The Valley.”
“No. I’m going into production.”
“Oh, like, those behind-the-camera people?” She oozes disdain as she says this.
“Yeah, I guess.”
“You’re from the South,” she points out.
“Yes. I’m from Macon.”
“Is that, like, in Alabama?”
I stare at her, and I wonder if she’s joking. “No, it’s in Georgia.”
“Oh. I’m Lizzie Davis.” She doesn’t offer to shake my hand.
“Grey. Like the color?”
“Yeah, well…except it’s spelled with an ‘e.’ G-R-E-Y.”
“Oh. Like Fifty Shades.”
I shrug, not wanting to admit I don’t know what she’s talking about. She smirks self-righteously and goes back to strumming her guitar. Her phone chimes, and she sets the guitar aside, crossing her legs and tapping at the phone. This goes on the entire time that I’m unpacking. I have no posters, no decorations at all except the photograph of Mama and me in New York. I don’t have a laptop, or a phone. I see a laptop on Lizzie’s desk, a big silver MacBook.
When I’m unpacked, I’m at loose ends. Lizzie is still texting or whatever she’s doing. It’s four o’clock in the afternoon on Wednesday, and classes don’t start until Friday, and then we have the weekend off before the semester really gets under way. I climb the ladder then lie on my side and stare at the wall, missing my Mama. She’d tell me to stop moping and find something to do. Explore the city, dance. Make a film.
Instead, I lie on the top bunk and wonder if I’ve made a mistake coming here.
The rumbling of my stomach becomes a constant over the next year. The stipend my scholarship gives me to live on is tiny, barely enough for the meals at the cafeteria, which are generally awful and far between. My classes take up most of my day from morning to evening, and I often only have time for a bagel in the morning and something quick and nasty in the evenings. I make good grades, a 4.0 for the first semester, 3.9 for the second. I study film, and I dance. My haven, my sanctuary away from everything, is a quiet room on the top floor of one of my lecture halls. I’ve never seen anyone else there, since the floor is primarily faculty offices. The room is large enough for my purposes, and empty except for a lone filing cabinet in one corner, so I can dance freely. There’s a window to let in daylight, and an outlet near the floor where I can plug in my portable iPod speaker dock.
I retreat there between classes, keeping the music turned low and the door locked. I find a song that hits me in the place within where movement lives, and I let go. I just move, just let my body flow. There’s no choreography, no rules, no expectations, no hunger or grades or homework or loneliness. Just the extension, the leap and the roll and the pirouette and the power of my legs, the tension in my core. I can be totally me there.