Back in the Day (Just A Few Years Ago)

From The New York Times Magazine

In my late teens, when I should have been in college, I was touring the country on a professional skateboarding team. After a competition in Philadelphia, a young woman — bless her angel heart — even asked me to autograph her midriff. Then I broke my foot. The injury was ostensibly why I retired, but in truth I started realizing I’d never be really great. So, with nothing better to do, I moved back in with my parents and limped my way through the serpentine registration line at the local university.

This was in Corpus Christi, a small city on the Gulf Coast of Texas, where fishing and quail hunting carry the weight of religion. (Remember when Cheney shot that lawyer in the face? Right outside Corpus.) The heat is glomming; the land is as wide open as the bottle-green bay. There’s a pickup truck in pretty much every driveway. In ours, it was my father’s, a Dodge he had to jump-start on cold mornings. He maintained air-conditioners at the army depot; my mother managed a dry cleaner. Before me, no one in my family had ever graduated from high school, let alone college, and yet I understood I had no choice but to go.

“You’ll have an easier life than your mother and me,” my father said after I enrolled that first semester. We were at Red Lobster, celebrating.

“I like how we live,” I said.

“You don’t know any better,” he said. “And think about a haircut.”

For years, I’d let my hair grow and matt into long dreadlocks. Like most people in Corpus, my father couldn’t look at them without shaking his head. If we went anywhere important — weddings, say, or Red Lobster — I’d twist the mass of hair into a knot and conceal it under a knit cap.

“Why do you hate my hair?” I said at the restaurant.

“Same reason those Aggies will.”

The local university had recently morphed from Corpus Christi State University into Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. The expansion to a four-year university was, according to everyone, the best thing to happen to South Texas since landing contracts for another naval base. The school’s buildings even resembled marine barracks: there was no quad, no student union, no contingent of artsy kids mainlining coffee and writing sestinas. We lacked dormitories and Greek life and any hint of the lovely hedonism that movies like “Animal House” promised. My fellow students were mostly middle-aged men and women with stalled careers and such hope and fear in their eyes that, at 22, I felt guilty for starting college so young. They took children and grandchildren to seminars; before exams, they swallowed blood-pressure pills.

On campus, I always tucked my dreads under a hat. I wore button-down Oxfords and khakis my mother “borrowed” from the dry cleaner. I never mentioned skateboarding. I wanted my professors to take me seriously, even if I felt fraudulent. I chose classes willy-nilly, dropped courses that bored me, sought out electives offering field trips: Bowling. Outdoor Survival. Advanced Bowling. Not that such scheduling didn’t bolster my G.P.A.: I made the dean’s list, was invited into the honor society and, after one especially strong semester, was accused by my mother of “hot-wiring” the university’s computer and changing my grades. Her accusation notwithstanding, my disguise, my impersonation of a dutiful college student, had everyone snowed.

But I was still completely ambivalent about college. If anything, I was trying to flunk out, hoping a professor would unmask me and steer me toward a trade school or Navy recruiter’s office. I wanted to please my parents, but I think I worried that finishing college would make me less of my parents’ son. I imagined coming home in a week or a decade and my mother not recognizing me, my father having forgotten my name. So, probably the real reason I kept my hair under my hat wasn’t to convince anyone that I could handle college but to hold on to the most recognizable part of who I’d been.

Late one night in my sophomore year, my father came into my room. He’d been working overtime that week and we hadn’t spoken much. I’d recently switched my major to English, which had my parents worried about my job prospects. In my room, where I was struggling with a paper on Voltaire, my father said, “How will you eat?”

“I’ll marry rich.”

“Maybe think about a haircut,” he said.

His eyes played over the wadded papers on my desk. He picked up the Voltaire, fanned the pages. I expected him to lecture me on money and responsibility.

But he said: “I’ve read this. I liked it.”

“You’ve read ‘Candide?’ ” I asked. I was shocked.

He stared at me for a moment, during which I saw how if events in his own life had played out differently, he would have gotten a Ph.D. in engineering and his truck would always start, regardless of the temperature. And maybe he saw that despite the good grades and khaki pants, his son was struggling with himself and his future and the desire to do right by his father. Maybe that’s why he lied about Voltaire. Or maybe he wasn’t lying. My father winked at me, betraying nothing, and went to bed. Later that semester, he died working on a neighbor’s roof; his death was so sudden and my grief so relentless that the only thing that comforted me was hacking off all my hair, which I now believe he’d secretly come to love. But that night in my room, holding a book my father might well have read, I found that college began to excite me — not like signing a girl’s stomach did, but still — and that the world seemed to be opening up, that my life was becoming, if not easier, then more than it had been.