My first few months at the University of Chicago were bliss. College! Great books! Stimulating conversations in the dorm cafeteria! At first it did not bother me that everyone around me was miserable. This, after all, was a place that welcomed misery. We thrived on it.
And if you were feeling down, you could open the campus newspaper and turn to the funnies:
Ha ha ha ha ha. See? Instant pick-me-up.
During my first year a magazine—I think it was Playboy—ran a survey of the Best Party Schools. We came in at number 300, dead last. #299 was West Point.
But hey, I tried to make the best of things. I launched into this world with great seriousness and a masochistic redefinition of fun.
It worked for a while.
And then, in the middle of the winter trimester, when it seemed like sun never rose high enough to get over Harper Library and the quadrangle was in constant shadow, and finally even the inside of the classrooms seemed cold and wet and gray—well, at that point I finally began to wear down.
It was at this time I developed a strange problem: I was getting a little uglier, every single day. You may think of that as “aging,” but this was different. It was not a natural process. It was a constant deterioration of unknown origins. It started in the morning and lasted as long as I was awake. There was no decline overnight—no new ugliness while I slept—but then it started again the next day. I didn’t look at myself in the mirror—too painful!—but I didn’t need to. I could feel it.
“What’s wrong with you?” my friend Lan said one night. We were eating sandwiches in the cafeteria. We had arrived late; the only hot meal available had been orange carrot soup. Soups designed around colors were creative but risky. “You haven’t smiled in days.”
“I talked to my friends at Madison again,” I said. “They just sound so different.”
I sighed. “They sound…happy.”
As usual Lan was practical. “Sometimes people just sound like that. It doesn’t mean they are.”
I thought about this for a moment. “No,” I said, “I’m pretty sure they are.”
“Well, you’re the happiest person here,” she said.
I surveyed the torment around me, zombies staring at their books, nobody talking, nobody smiling, all immersed in their own hellish thoughts. Here I was, gloomy, getting uglier by the second—and I was the happiest one?
What was wrong with this place? What hope did I possibly have of recovering the happy boy I had been in Wisconsin?
I am here, I thought. But where is Happy Boy?
“Have you thought about therapy?” Lan asked.
“I’m from Wisconsin,” I told her. “We don’t do therapy.”
“Oh, right. Because you’re all so well-adjusted.”
“No. Because beer is cheaper.”
“You should talk to your counselor,” Lan said. “That’s what I did this week. It was awesome. I told her everything about me, all my problems, and we had a great conversation. She’s the best. And it’s free.”
“I don’t have a counselor.”
“Of course you do. You meet with her at the start of each semester.”
“My guidance counselor?”
“Yeah. You can talk to them about other things too, you know. Not just courses.”
I thought this over. I had liked my counselor, who had bright eyes, a beautiful laugh, and a big tangle of wild red hair that she pushed around her head with both hands. She had signed me up for Italian:
ME: Language requirement? Well, I took Spanish in high school.
COUNSELOR [checking her chart]: That’s booked.
ME: Okay. How about French?
COUNSELOR [studying chart]: That’s booked too! Amazing.
COUNSELOR: [looks at chart, shakes head]: We are really on a roll here.
ME: How about Latin?
COUNSELOR [looking down]: Wow. Maybe you should think of your last choice. What language do you not want to learn?
COUNSELOR: Modern or ancient? Actually… [looking down] don’t bother answering that.
ME: Well, what’s not booked?
COUNSELOR: Hmmm…let’s see…oh, perfect. Italian! [Scribbles on paper.] You can learn the language of your ancestors!
ME: I’m not Italian. I’m Hungarian.
COUNSELOR [checking chart]: And…that’s completely booked too. Who would have thought? Hungarian. Huh. I have to say, I’ve never seen this before!
ME: I guess I should feel lucky I got a spot in Italian.
COUNSELOR [smiling hugely]: This is definitely your day.
“Really?” I said now to Lan. “You had good luck with your guidance counselor?”
“Absolutely,” she said. “She is so awesome. She’s really cool. She’s an actor. I heard her on the radio talking about a play she’s in on the North Side. Kim Rubinstein.”
“That’s my counselor!”
“There you go! Make an appointment!”
Lan wrapped up the rest of her sandwich and went off to study while I remained behind staring at the zombies. I had never before tried to unburden my problems on a stranger. But hey, college was all about trying new things. I had never read Plato before, either, or drank grain alcohol punch made in a garbage can and stirred with a hockey stick.
I sat there getting uglier and promising myself I would make an appointment the first thing in the morning.
What did I have to lose?
“Jacke Wilson,” Kim Rubinstein said when I showed up in her office. She narrowed her eyes, trying to place me. Finally her face opened up into a huge smile. “Italiano!” she said.
“Bene, bene!” she cried, gesturing as if she were encouraging me to eat something.
“Benissimo!” I shouted back, opening my arms wide.
We hugged. My therapy was off to a great start.
We sat down and smiled at each other over the desk. It seemed like a shame I was about to discharge so much negativity. Why ruin her day? Maybe I should just say I came by to tell her that things were going great. Nobody hurt! No harm done!
“So tell me, Jacke,” she said, arching an eyebrow and sucking in her cheeks, “what brings you here?”
She sounded like a purring kitten. I was in a safe zone—Lan had told me it would be like this—and I poured out my story. How I had been excited to be at the university, but from the first day I had been afraid. Afraid of my classmates, who were all smarter than me and had gone to better high schools. Terrified that I would be discovered—that others would recognize that I really had no business being there—and then I would lose my academic scholarship, which would ruin my family.
But this was just the start. Because even if I made it through, I was doomed. It seemed clear to me that I would always struggle, not just in college, but after as well. In the summers I worked in a shoe store while all my classmates all did amazing unpaid internships they’d gotten through family connections. I didn’t know what to do and nobody was there to help. I was 19 years old, riding a roller coaster that only plummeted down, with nothing ahead but a void. An endless canyon of emptiness. An abyss.
“Interesting,” she said.
I didn’t belong there, I told her. But on the other hand I couldn’t go back to Wisconsin either. I was condemned to forever bounce from one place to another, desperate to find a home.
I told her I had recently seen a movie in which a character points at Ted Danson playing with some kids and says, “He’s failed at everything but life.” And I knew, immediately knew, that I was going to be just like him, never holding a real job, never measuring up, always disappointing everyone—except that I was going to fail at life too.
“Incredible,” she mused, shaking her head slowly.
Emboldened, I told her that before I left for college my high school girlfriend had made me watch It’s a Wonderful Life. Her plan had been to remind me of the joys and pleasures of being surrounded by people who love you, and I broke into tears at the end of the movie, and my girlfriend was crying too, and she said, “See? See? Isn’t it wonderful he has so many friends? Right there in his hometown?” And I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed, until finally choking out the words, “He never made it out! He never made it out!”
I had never before told anyone these thoughts, not even Lan, but I told Kim Rubinstein, my new therapist, who gazed at me with a warm, gauzy look in her eyes, the look of intense empathy. She saw me as a kindred spirit, I could tell. A creative soul, burning like a desperate candle in the middle of a storm.
“And every day I get uglier,” I said. “My face and body. In increments. Hour by hour, minute by minute. I can feel it.”
“Fascinating,” she purred. I thought she might have fallen in love with me.
Finally I ran out of breath. I needed to hear her advice. I cleared my throat. “I don’t know, maybe it’s just me…”
She said nothing. I tried again.
“All this sounds crazy, I guess, but…”
“How’d you get that sweater so white?” she said.
“Your sweater,” she said in a faraway voice. “It’s so white.”
“I don’t know,” I said.
We looked at each other. Her eyes were on my sweater. What was this? Some kind of zen koan? Some bit of misdirection that would circle back and help me understand my problems?
I looked down again. The sweater was pretty white. But so what? I could not follow the logic.
“It’s like my grandmother’s bedspread,” she said. “What’s the secret?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I haven’t thought about it.”
“What have you thought about, Jacke Wilson?”
Hadn’t I just told her? The hopes and dreams and fears? Did she want to hear it all again?
I swallowed hard. “Before I came to college, I worried that—”
“Come on, tell me. Do you bleach it?”
“How was Kim Rubinstein?” Lan said that night at the cafeteria.
“She didn’t seem to be listening,” I said. “I feel worse than ever. Like even my insecurities aren’t as good as other people’s.”
“Really?” Lan looked like she was trying not to laugh. “I have not heard of that before ever in my life.”
I told her about the sweater.
“Well there you go,” Lan said, turning serious and setting down her spoon. “A white sweater is a good thing,” she said.
“Because I have good laundry skills?”
“No. It’s just a good thing.”
She looked so certain I thought I must have missed something. A white sweater was a good thing…and that was it? Wasn’t that a little simple?
Aha! Maybe that was the point. That some things are just good. Ice cream. Christmas presents. Morning dew. White sweaters.
We forget the simple things, don’t we? The purity of a cool glass of water. A comfortable chair. A good night’s sleep. And a white sweater.
Was that it? My sweater kept me warm, and it was white. That’s all it did. But that was all it needed to do! And it did those things very well!
Oh, Plato would have known what to do with this! Plato would have seen it as so much better than that rat’s nest of problems I’d been carrying around in my brain. My sweater was white and pure and good at what it did, white for whiteness’s sake, a sweater for a sweater’s sake–and I should do the same! I should be the best possible Jacke Wilson, just that and nothing more, and not let myself be destroyed by that roiling cauldron of wants and futility and ugliness and darkness. I was thinking too much. I needed to reduce, and simplify, and live. I needed to be.
That was it! That was Kim Rubinstein’s point! The sweater was simple! Life could be simple! The sweater was.
I felt like jumping on the table and singing an aria at the top of my lungs. Screw those smiley people in Madison! Things were just as good here! Soon the trimester would end, and there would be spring break, and eventually summer vacation working at the shoe store, where I would earn enough to buy a computer. Which would in turn help me to produce excellent academic work, which would send me on some path—what path exactly I did not know, but what did that matter? I was on my way to something new…something new and great! I would figure it out! And I too would know the joys of life, the brightness, the sunshine! The whistling of the wind in the trees in the woods! The gentle breeze on the summer day! The smiles of infants, the laughter of children, the bursting heart of the young lover on the doorstep with flowers! The pleasures, the mysteries, the wonders—all the rich and terrible beauty of being alive!
Ice cream! Christmas presents! Morning dew! And white, white, white, white sweaters!
Lan got up to leave for the library.
“Thank you, Lan!” I shouted.
“Anytime,” she said.
I was alone now but who cared? Happy Boy was back! Happy Boy was right here!!
Then I looked down.
And maybe it was because I was in an underground cafeteria at night. Maybe it was the weird exit-sign lighting of that cave-like place. I’d like to think that was it. But the truth was my sweater did not even look familiar. Between my trip to see Kim Rubinstein and that moment, my sweater had somehow transformed.
I shook my head, blinking. I must have changed clothes—but when? I couldn’t remember going upstairs. How had my sweater gotten so different?
Or had it always been this way? Had Kim Rubinstein had been lying? Had we both been deluded?
Had I even been to see her? Had any of this happened?
My stomach fell. Suddenly I felt a chill.
I tucked my chin into my chest and stared until I was sure my eyes were not deceiving me. My sweater was not a bright and astonishing thing. It was not that at all. No. It was not even white.
The sweater I was wearing was black. And it was getting blacker.
Yeesh. These are not getting easier. But there’s something good about being able to set a story in Pierce Hall, which they demolished last year after students complained that the toilets kept exploding. You can read more history lessons by checking out football coaches seeking dignity, a five-year-old femme fatale seeking excitement, and a cannibalistic officemate seeking a hero. Or just brighten your day with a little Little My.
A History of Jacke in 100 Objects has proved to be one of the most popular features on the website. Enjoy!
- #14 – The Bass Guitar – a Suzuki dad goes electric
- #13 – The Monster – a big surprise on a tour of Loch Ness
- Special Interlude – The Artist and the Music Teacher – old friend provides a coda to Object #7
- #12 – The Tickets to the Premiere – taking my talents from Bologna to Broadway
- #11 – The Bench – a day in the furnace provides an object lesson
- #10 – The Spitwad – a science teacher with zero personality confronts a bully, with a little help from the heavens
- #9 – The Intersection – Hamlet Dad goes to the movies
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits meets a child with dreams
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season