I’ve never felt lonelier, more melancholy, or chunkier than I did my freshman year in college. I had come from a snooty Orange County high school, where I was the most popular kid…in the nerd crowd. High school was excruciating for me. I had frizzy hair, was missing two front teeth, which forced me to wear a retainer with fake teeth in it, and couldn’t justify wearing a training bra. I was ashamed of both myself and of my friends, and yearned to be one of the popular girls…a girl who’s glossy Wet n’ Wild lips got kissed by boys with athletic ability. My loving mom, ever worried about my self-esteem, reassured me that college would be different.
I dreamed of going away to “that party school in San Diego” all through high school. SDSU had quite the reputation, and I figured…SDSU, UCSD, same thing. Since the two schools were in the same city, I thought everyone hung out together as one giant group of buddies. I couldn’t WAIT to get away from home, reinvent myself, and party the nights away with all my new friends. I fantasized about brazenly doing the walk of shame on Saturday mornings, still a little drunk, mascara smudges under my eyes, maybe a little sore.
So imagine my disappointment when I arrived that first week not at the party school, but at UCSD, the place where parties go to die, a college so solely focused on academics that you could walk through the dorms on a Friday night and the loudest noise you’d hear is a group of engineering majors quietly quarreling over a game of Dungeons and Dragons.
When I realized the grave mistake I’d made in selecting a college, I was heartbroken. On top of this, I’d missed out on the dorm giveaway and got squeezed into an on-campus apartment with a recluse. Never in my life had I found it so difficult to make friends. I tried to join the dance team, and though I was an ok dancer, there was that chunky thing, and I didn’t make the cut. I really got tricked by that non-fat food craze of the late 90’s, and in my isolation, I’d sit around for hours on end in my sad, little bedroom, stuffing myself full of Lucky Charms and Snack Wells cookies.
After one semester of utter misery, I was ready to call it quits, go back home, and start high school part two with all my friends. That’s when I met the girl next door, Angela. Though she was studious, responsible, & shopped at Old Navy (all of the same qualities I was trying to shed), there was something desperately attractive about her – a car. Not only did she have a car, but she was willing to use it to take us to TJ at least four nights a week – 5 if Monday was a holiday.
Having solidified the foundation of a virtuous friendship, we began to spend every day together. Unlike me, Angela knew exactly what she was getting herself into when she chose UCSD, and that suited her just fine. She would bury her nose in biochemistry books while I lied on her floor, drank Coors Light, and repeatedly made her tell me the story about how she’d once given a guy a blowjob in high school. We were so lonely, and we saw something in each other we both longed for – she, my carefree attitude and obsession with having fun…me, her car.
We only needed $3 each for a night of good, clean south of the border fun. We could get into the club for free if we were willing to bartend. There was the blue drink and the red drink, and because we went to UCSD and not SDSU, we knew how to make a purple drink. We poured the colors into plastic cups, grabbed the sailors’ money, stuffed it into our bras, and took tequila shots in between. We’d spend $1 on street tacos on our way back across the border and still have money the next morning to buy a non-fat coffee shake.
The only catch was that we had to walk back across the border at 4am instead of pay for a taxi. But as long as we left the club by 3am, we’d be across the border by 4am, home by 5am, and able to squeeze in a refreshing two hour nap before it was time to wake up, change into our overalls, and run to class.
My mom would call me every day to make sure I was still alive, and her supernatural mom radar betrayed me relentlessly. “You’re not going to TJ, are you? Honey, I don’t want you to get pregnant. Please tell me you’re not going to TJ.”
“Mom, we only go to TJ during the day, and it’s because we have to go watch Ballet Folklorico for dance class. They’re MAKING me go.” I really thought I was pulling one over on her, until she dragged me to the ladies-only doctor midway through my freshman year and forced me to get on birth control (thank god). And since the only danger she associated with TJ was premature grandmothering, she didn’t worry about the fact that her 18-year-old, her only girl, the baby of the family, was getting wasted and then walking an hour back across a dark, dank border, only stopping long enough to vomit all over herself or publicly urinate.
On one of our epic walks back across the border, my normally hearty stomach started rumbling, and I knew trouble was ahead. Midway through our walks, we always stopped at the same empty fountain in the same desolate plaza to pee. But this time was different. When I pulled up my denim mini-skirt and squatted, the “pee” came out of both places. That fountain really got more than it bargained for, but I didn’t care. I became desperate to get across the border, knowing there was more sex on the beach and carne asada begging to come out.
“Come ON, Angela!! We need to hurry. I feel GROSS.” I HAD to get to a non-fountain toilet, so I hustled us along in our Payless ShoeSource heels. As we approached the border crossing and saw the unusually long line, I panicked. The pre-911 border crossing was a pathetic joke, but it appeared as if they might be straying from their usual routine of herding drunk college kids across without a second glance and were actually checking I.D.’s that night. That’s when I spotted a hole in a chain-link fence, which would definitely cut our wait time. It was a small hole, low to the ground, and only big enough for an excessively drunk person to fit through.
“NO WAY!” Angela said. “I am NOT squatting under that fence. It’s ILLEGAL!”
“Oh, come ON, Angela. Don’t be such a pussy.” I taunted her, willing myself to hide my own fear of getting in trouble.
Poor Angela’s biggest mistake was being too sober. Everyone knows drunk people have tougher bodies. The second she squatted under that fence, she froze. “What’s wrong, Angela?? Hurry up! I REALLY have to get to an American bathroom.”
“I can’t move!” cried Angela. I knew her to err on the side of drama when it came to ailments, so when she crouched under that fence and couldn’t get back up, I wasn’t worried. Plus I was a selfish monster, so I grabbed her arm, yanked her up, and pushed her limping legs across the border, through tears and pleas for an ambulance. MY stomach hurt, and I wasn’t about to be deterred by her make believe injury. Furthermore, instead of cutting in line, we’d bypassed the line altogether and accidentally crossed straight into America, meaning we could get to a bathroom even sooner.
We finally made it to Angela’s gray Ford Taurus, where I lied down in the plush back seat and forgot all about her fake knee pain. We drove for about 30 seconds before I knew my stomach just wouldn’t hold. “I’m gonna hurl!!”
“Oh my god, Jen. Here, barf into this Kleenex box.” She tossed a full Kleenex box into the back seat, I tore the tissues out, threw them on the floor, and filled that sucker up. When it was full, I drunkenly pressed the automatic window button and emptied the box onto the 5 freeway, filled it back up, and repeated the whole process twice more. I was really proud of myself for containing my barf so well, and I told Angela as much the next day.
“Oh really? “Then why was I scraping your pink barf off the side of the Taurus, scrubbing it out of the back seat, and prying it out of the seat belt buckle today for three hours while you were lying on the couch eating Doritos? Oh, and by the way, my knee is swollen and purple, and I can barely walk.”
“Oh, puhlease. Lemme see it,” I said as I buried my guilt somewhere deep inside. Her right knee did look a little different from the left one, but I knew she just wanted attention. “Well, you probably strained it. Put some ice on it and it’ll be fine in 2 days.”
The first knee surgery happened two weeks later, over spring break. Angela had to lie to her parents and tell them she injured her knee on the elliptical machine at the gym. They’d raised a nice Catholic girl, sent her to the nerdiest school in America, and had no idea she’d become best friends with a girl who coaxed their daughter into spending her nights in TJ. I kept telling myself Angela probably had a pre-existing knee injury. Telling myself this made me feel like less of an asshole. After this happened, Angela wouldn’t drive me to TJ for weeks. She got over herself when I promised to pay for a cab to haul us back and forth across the border, and she was considerate enough to schedule her future knee surgeries for winter and summer breaks, so as not to ruin our fun. It was then that I knew Angela wasn’t just somebody to fill the void, but that she would be a lifelong friend.
Six knee surgeries later and a knee replacement on the horizon, Angela still won’t forget about that night in TJ. It’s a miracle she’s still my friend, but I’m sure it’s her way of thanking me for making her squat underneath that border fence twenty years ago and setting her on the path to find her true calling in life. Through her agonizing pain, complicated surgeries, and intense rehab, she developed a passion for helping injured people, and she’s now one of San Diego’s most successful physical therapists. So you’re welcome, bitch.