Commuting in College: Comfortable and Broken In
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
There were some perks to standing alone at a bus stop.
I used to play John Mayer’s “Comfortable” from his 1999 EP “Inside Wants Out.” On the album cover, he cocks his head at the camera, hands folded—he wears what looks like a letterman jacket. He couldn’t have been more than 22. Around my age, and already finding his own song.
On a particular day, February of 2017, the Seattle street was gray, full of wind and rain and dirty gutters. Wind bit at my ears. Headphones in, I pulled my fur-lined hood up over my hair. I was in a blue nimbus of perfect aloneness, a holy space of contemplation that felt like breathing again after being on that moon so far from home.
The 554 bus was a haven. It was hard not to lean my cheek against the window as I listened:
what went wrong last September
though I’m sure you’d remind me
if you had to.
Our love was comfortable and
so broken in.
I’m sure that I looked comfortable and broken in at SPU for those first three months before I decided to move out. You’d find me in the dorm with friends, baking cookies late at night, wind-chime laughter ringing down the fluorescent hall as I kicked the oven door closed with my heel. But there were nights when I’d wake, heart beating for no good reason, sweat wreathing my face in the wide-eyed dark.
So yes, JM, I remember what went wrong last September. Chronic anxiety gone untreated, yes. But, also, a feeling that I wasn’t in the right place. I wasn’t happy. I wasn’t me.
She thinks I can’t see
the smile that she’s fakin
And poses for pictures
that aren’t being taken.
It wasn’t that I didn’t have great friends, a church to go to on Sundays with a burgeoning college ministry, or every offering of community. It was the weight of having to perform an identity set out before me: the vibrant red-headed girl who laughed so hard she cried, who supposedly loved going to a church three times a week that was crowded with people she didn’t know. All I wanted was to be alone. But I couldn’t claim that space of aloneness because of the self-imposed pressure to always be there—in that circle gathered in the living room, watching that movie, studying (distractedly) in someone’s room. It wasn’t that I didn’t have fun—but there was always that strain beneath the laughter, the smiles. I was pushing a little too hard. After the first month, my smile would hang on my lips a little too long. The corners of my mouth ached.
I kept home within a highway’s breadth—driving up on weekends to pick up a shift, to pet my cat, to sleep in my unfamiliar bed. Home was always pulling me with its gravity, its distant music of dishes clanging and the TV blaring that was oh so comfortable.
I won’t keep spinning it as some dramatic story—people move home from school all of the time. But some part of me felt like a failure when I ended up moving out in late January after only a quarter. Moreover, moving out revealed much that I didn’t know about myself that I’d kept sweeping aside. Like the fact that I wasn’t handling my anxiety well. That I needed to work on cultivating healthy friendships in which I could be myself, rather than be what I felt someone wanted me to be. Moving out allowed me to find myself before I became fully immersed in college life.
Over the past four years at Seattle Pacific, I’ve often been looked at with wide eyes when I mention that I commute all the way from Sammamish. Responses like these still come after people ask me what dorm I live in. They used to make me feel distant as a high, cold star:
“Wow, that’s a long drive.”
“How do you do that every day?”
But these things were minuscule in exchange for the ease of being comfortable. Comfortable in my own space, with my cat curled up at my feet and a glass of pinot gris. No slamming doors, no feeling left out when laughter echoed through thin walls. No social mania or scrambling to be included. Everything was broken in, and nothing was breaking me.
Now, when people ask me where I live, it doesn’t feel so alien. It feels right.
I’ll be the first to admit, I could have stuck it out, and maybe even have found my place there. Change is hard for everyone. But when I think of where I’ve fallen into since—within walking distance from my best friend; building snow men in my col de sac; watching Bachelor with mom; working at a journal where I met two brilliant poets and friends; grabbing coffee at The Wick with a professor; lying on friend’s beds in their dorms and it feeling like a novelty rather than an obligation—these are comfortable places. More than comfortable, they’re where I’m meant to be.
Admittedly, before I got to these sun-lit spring evenings under the cherry trees, to the happy hours under strung-up lights, to reading poems over maple tea, there were some lonely places. Cold mornings spent waiting at the bus stop when I took two buses a day and it was an hour and a half each way. I’d be lying if, for those first few months, it didn’t hurt seeing people sprawled out on the lawn on campus, scooping sun with outstretched hands, mouths open in laughter.
But wasn’t it all worth it for that respite, that closeness to parents that would have been kept at arm’s length for four years? For those summers by the lake at my best friend’s house, sun on my shins? Most of all: time and space to be me.
I drive now—forty-five minutes to an hour each way. These drives are my church. Lake Washington glistens in the mornings—boats make ripples in peachy waves. After a late night fiction class, I drive home beneath silvery streetlamps when traffic is blessedly sparse. I listen to music: a balanced soundtrack. Some worship. Some R&B. John Mayer, of course. I’ve grown with the seasons from standing alone at a bus stop to laughing with friends by the canal, feeding ducks from our open hands. A balanced soundtrack, indeed.
Though my college experience hasn’t been like the movies, where you’re expected to move away at 18 and go to some distant state, it was mine. Not always comfortable. But so very broken in.