Category Archives: Campus Culture

Dolls, by a Palm Tree, in the Sand

by Nick Hoy

I. ANNA KOURNIKOVA

Two minutes into Stanford and I’ve spotted a girl with blonde hair and a California smile. She rolls into the Wilbur quad with wheelie-bags while I sling duffels like a real man should. She gives me a first-day half-wave, the kind that says, I’ll be seeing you around, but my hands are stuffed with linens and other things so I grin back the East Coast way, my best warm-hearted grimace. And here’s the thing. I never see her around. Never once in three years. Maybe she was someone’s sister. But that pretty half-wave was all I ever got.

At the beginning of my Orientation Week in the Junipero Dorm, our RAs transform the lounge into a map-metaphor and tell us to sit ourselves down according to where we came from. “The Pacific Ocean is over by the piano and TV,” they instruct us. “North is in the direction of Cedro. So – imagine Canada is Cedro. And China is, uh, Okada.”

“Where’s Okada?”

“That’s Okada.”

“I’m from Thailand.”

“Oh, fuck, the international kids.”

“They can sit on the pool table.”

We are tightly-coiled and in near hysterics. Our parents have about-faced and alighted for the real flyspecks on the map. They left twenty minutes ago – and left us restive in a state of giddy abandonment. A girl wanders in from across the Mexico border and her face shows the freshly flushed and scrubbed-out stain of tears. We are stirred by (and a little embarrassed for) this tender sacrament. She sits Indian-style in the Midwest, maybe Missouri or Illinois, and looks cheerful. I myself am pinned against the lounge windows, where Canada should be, if not in Cedro. I am desperate not to be segregated on the pool table like the rest of the international residents, who are from Greece and England but mostly Asia. I have a defense prepared. “I am from Toronto,” I will explain to them. “It is at more southerly latitude than Seattle. If you’re going to make me sit with the foreign kids, you’re going to have to make all of Washington State and Maine sit with them too. I skipped international orientation. I’m assimilated! Doesn’t that count for anything?”

Like any new posting, college freshmanship takes guts and a steely resolve to fit in. For the same reason that you won’t wear a polka-dot necktie to your first day of work on Wall St. – and the same reason I carefully roll up the sleeves on my first-day-of-Stanford blue button-down, and wear my most winsome pair of distressed cargo pants (sartorial splendors that I now regret) – for that exact reason, Orientation Week unfolds like a high-wire tiptoe, where acting too gauche (or droite) risks a freefall tumble to the circus-ground. Whispers and hissing beneath the social frequency. “Umm… so what’s his deal?”

That’s what we are afraid of.

And as a consequence we are exceptionally boring. We are meant to recite our names and places of origin, geographical clump by geographical clump, but after the first eager beaver tells us just how excited she is to be at Stanford and among so many potential new friends (she is Very Excited), we feel compelled to reveal something of ourselves as well.

“Hi guys. My name is Sam Lipsick. I’m from Palo Alto – that’s just around the corner!” This is said zippily and maybe apologetically. “And, uh, I like to play tennis.”

“Hey everyone. I’m Meghan Daniels. I’m from Pawling, New York. So happy to meet everyone! In person, since I know a few faces from thefacebook.com!” Everyone laughs. “I like to meet new people and play tennis.”

The good news is that we have rock-bottom standards for humor, partly because we are nervous and trying to be agreeable, and partly because we are freshmen. Virtually everyone in the dorm likes to play tennis, which is eventually deemed funny, and by the time we reach the Eastern seaboard the joke, “Well , I don’t like to play tennis” is funny too.

After Michigan it is my turn. I am at a distinct advantage because I am from Canada, and Americans find Canada funny just for existing. Canada is large and unwieldy but usually benign, and it contains moose and Mounties and mountains and igloos, each of which is inoffensively comical in its own way. Sometimes I will tell someone that I am from Canada and they will giggle to themselves, like small children might when they visit the hippopotamus at the zoo.

“My name is Nick,” I say. “And I’m from Canada.” I survey the room. People seem to be smiling expectantly. “Well, Toronto, Canada.” I have dialed into two attractive girls out west who look bored. Probably Canada is not working because some wisecracker from Kansas tried the exact same swindle. “I play hockey. Not very well. Really excited to chill with everyone.” I nod my head slowly, to signify, Chilling with Nick will be fun. A college beat. Then, “Tennis is O.K.”

Laughter; relief; the globe keeps spinning. High stakes is how I remember it. It doesn’t matter that three Orientation Weeks later the whole racket seems charmingly trivial. Come December I will be ass-naked except for a strategic red cup, belting out my national anthem, atop the foreign kid pool table. But by then we had our expectations managed.

There’s a line in a favorite IHUM poem, Do I dare disturb the universe? This is such a viciously unfair question that we read it rhetorically. The universe gets along well with or without us.

II. ANTI-CELIBACY LEAGUE

The question of fucking. Slamming, shtupping, Roxy-Sassing. We have more brains then the national average, but we’ve probably had less sex. No sooner have we cracked the spines of IHUM 1A than we’re told the real objective of our college careers is to pair off and lose it. This is no racy revolution. Hardly! We are attending passively our sexual evolution, which will sidle in like the hangover after a freshman bender. A little messy, painful, or awkward – but carrying the unimpeachable badge of adulthood.

But the problem (we learn) is that sex at Stanford is difficult and highly-regulated. For example, we’re not meant to have it with people who live near us, because that’s dormcest. We’re not meant to have it with people who live far away, because they are scarcely known and likely sketchy. We’re not supposed to do it drunk for the risk of non-tumescence. If we do it sober it will probably be extremely awkward (and quick). It’s strongly advised not to have sex with friends, neighbors, or strangers. There’s no dating at Stanford, but you should really try to lose it to someone who you’ve been dating. And so on.

I have heard statistics some of which I am certain are untrue. 40% of Americans lose their virginity by the age of sixteen. 90% by the age of twenty. 80% of Stanford freshmen have never had sex. Three quarters of those 80% will still be virgins at commencement.

That we manage to mate at all speaks to the anarchy of our species. To the thrill we take in breaking rules that we imposed ourselves, piece-by-piece. Why not screw same-floor girl? Because we’re amigos? Because we’re drunk? Because she has a boyfriend back home at the U. of Pittsburgh?

Give me one good reason why not?

As Orientation Week fades into Fall Quarter, we get told by our RAs to complete the Anti-Celibacy League (ACL) online “100 Point Purity Test.” This test, which purports to measure sexual purity, is considered definitive in these parts. You have probably taken it yourself. It asks awkward, probing questions. Have you ever:

4. Danced cheek to cheek?
17. Had an erection, clitoral erection?
19. Tasted semen?
70. Read a pornographic book or magazine?
87. Engaged in intercourse with an unconscious person, while conscious?
100. Committed bestiality?

The quiz-answering itself is a private affair, conducted behind closed doors and dimmed computer monitors. In contrast, the results could not be posted more publicly. We scrawl them in blue dry-erase beside our names on hallway whiteboards. Leland Q. Freshman: 46% Pure.

I take the test in the dorm computer cluster and try to decide whether to lie, and if so, to which end. I have an intuition that my sexual experience will fall somewhere within a standard deviation of the mean, but it is too soon to be sure. The Purity Test nibbles at a freshman’s insecurities. Were we all too busy in high school, trading in sky-high grades and chess club memberships, to take a breather and get it on?

But instead of lying, I wait until nearly everyone else has written their scores on the whiteboard – until it is clear I will pass under the radar. There are three marks under 30 and two above 90. If I am witnessing exhibitionism, then it is unapologetic, and I am envious of it. Like confidence, sexual purity is a state of mind.

This reminds me of Maggie Pollitt, the cat on a hot tin roof, who by willing herself pregnant made it so. To advertise bluntly our painful-past inadequacies is to acknowledge a conscious remaking of our prior selves. The object of the Purity exercise, after all, is to become Less Pure. In May when we retake the quiz we’ll marvel at how much Less Pure we’ve become.

III. CATHOLIC CHURCH

After the geography icebreaker there is some awkward milling about. We have very little to say to one another because our entire first-day conversational arsenals have been exhausted. We can think of nothing to say except, “Where do you come from?” and “What is your name?” queries both of which have been answered so recently that it is impossible to bring them up again (until tomorrow). No more than twenty minutes from now the scheduled programming will resume and we will be whisked to the first of endless pseudo-fun pseudo-events at Memorial Auditorium.

In the meantime twelve of us pile into a first-floor dorm room. We’re a big bunch of dudes and we look each other over. This is the sort of the ritualized posturing that we never got to do in high school because other guys were doing it for us. The whole gig is unrehearsed but doesn’t ring false.

“So what did you, uh, think of the girls in our dorm.”

“They seem nice,” I say.

“They went to Catholic school.”

“A lot of them did, yeah.”

“What’s that mean?”

Cautiously. “Some… cute ones.”

“Lots of Catholic schoolgirls…”

“Looking to experience new things…”

There’s a gleeful pause. The nut’s been cracked. “I like that,” we say.

Download “Dolls, by a Palm Tree, in the Sand” as a PDF.

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Filed under Campus Culture, Vol 2 Issue 1