One year when I was in college I spent spring break with a friend of mine in her mother’s house in Lowell, Massachusetts. I think her mother was ill or something and so she had to be there and she was seriously bummed about this circumstance and so I offered to come up and keep her company.
At least, this is the way I remember it.
Lowell is a singularly odd place to choose to spend a vacation, especially one that is traditionally associated with fleeing to a warm place of lighthearted, non-stop fun. It is perhaps a gross understatement to say that Lowell is not a place known for lighthearted, non-stop fun.
It’s an old mill town, of course, and so the downtown is less than thriving. I hear there are great things happening there now, though, what with old mills being renovated into artists’ studios and the downtown getting its groove on after a fashion and all.
None of this had taken place yet in 1991.
I had spent the first few days of my vacation at my mother’s house on Cape Cod. After a few days of the usual drama that exists between mother and daughter after the daughter has gone off to college and gotten all politicized and judgemental, I boarded the Plymouth-Brockton bus at the old bus station in Hyannis and rode it all the way up to South Station in Boston.
From there I took the commuter rail to Lowell. It took forever! but I was travelling alone, I was an adult on the road, I was free, I had my walkman and my Indigo Girls tapes and my Mount Holyoke hooded sweatshirt that would be my trusty travelling sweatshirt for a decade to come.
In 1991 that sweatshirt didn’t have a single hole in it yet.
When I got to Lowell, my friend Linda picked me up in her Dad’s car and we drove through the rainy, gray streets of her hometown and back to the house where her parents lived. It seemed like the kind of place that had been lived in by the same people for a very long time. It was drenched with the smell of cigarette smoke. It was the first time I had ever seen an overflowing ashtray in the bathroom of anybody’s house.
Of course, I was a smoker by this time, too. But I was convinced that I was a very different kind of smoker than Linda’s parents were. For one thing, they smoked cheap cigarettes. I preferred imported Dunhills, but settled for Camels most of the time. I would never smoke like they smoked, indiscriminately, and without any sense of decorum.
In Lowell, I smoked my special, terribly sophisticated cigarettes outside, on Linda’s parents’ stoop.
Linda took me to her old high school, a Catholic school. Having grown up on Protestant Cape Cod, I had never seen a classic 1950’s era Catholic school before. I felt like an anthropologist. I tried to imagine going to high school here, in this classroom where Linda tracked down her old favorite teachers, tried to imagine sitting in a classroom with a crucifix on the wall.
I was more familiar with the prettier, more stylized crucifixes of the Episcopal Church. I wondered why they didn’t use those crucifixes, instead of these depressing, blocky ones with sad Jesuses heavy with thorny crowns.
Those Catholics, I thought: so strangely literal.
Linda and I lived in the same dorm in college. It was the best dorm, the old one on the hill, behind the waterfall. We thought it was like a French chateau. I am sure that Linda was just as relieved and somewhat amazed as I was to find myself at Mount Holyoke, surrounded by oriental rugs and wood panelling and smart, fascinating women who were going to change the world. We had totally fallen through the rabbit hole.
I was poor too. And came from a freaky family. So I could totally relate.
One of my work study jobs was to drive the security van around the campus loop in the middle of the night, offering a safe ride to drowsy scholars in the quiet dark. I always took the latest shift possible, because I was a night owl, and sometimes Linda would join me with a cup of strong coffee and a boom box and her Indigo Girls tapes. She sang the high parts, I sang the low.
I could never remember: was I Emily? or Amy?
We drove through gray, crumbling old Lowell, singing in her Dad’s car all week long. It was Spring Break, but it was still very much winter. It was someone else’s hometown, high school, and parents, which was a relief to me.
But this was nothing like the relief of having found Linda, and a hundred more like her, a few hours to the west, in my French chateau by the waterfall.
We were both happy to be home.