The first word someone said to me in Austin was "howdy".
He was a mustached man with a white dress shirt tucked into Wranglers, a cowboy hat, and matching boots. I also like to imagine him with a toothpick between his teeth, a horse parked outside, and a spittoon hidden in his carry-on.
At my Northern Californian high school, no one ventured out to "The South" for college. No one really knew what Texas was like, our views were mostly based off of Western movies and Sandy from Spongebob. My friends expected me to come back in overalls, having traded my guitar in for a banjo and having switched majors from computer science to cattle herding.
The teasing didn't faze me though, because I had spent weeks reading hundreds of forum posts about how liberal and hippie Austin was. I fully expected to be met at the airport with a drum circle, Green Party bumper stickers, and celebratory beads. That is, up until that "howdy", which fazed the hell out of me.
My thoughts then went from, I wonder who I'll meet at orientation, what classes I'll end up taking, what Jester will be like, to Oh god am I going to look out of place for not dressing like Woody from Toy Story? I should've listened to my friends and packed some dip in my suitcase.
UT, thankfully, is not the set of a Western, but this surreal experience was the first in a long line of shattered expectations. And for someone who anxiously over-plans, takes forever to adapt, and daydreams the future to the littlest of details, the unpreparedness terrified me.
The first unanticipated problem was my non-existent ability to befriend strangers. The fact that 80% of these strangers were from Texas didn't help. They strolled into class, decked out in burnt orange, already knowing the "Eyes of Texas", which orgs to join, and where to live. Many came from popular high schools, and for them, campus was already populated with friendly faces, and sea of grey New Balances, neon Nike shorts, and oversized t-shirts was no surprise.
Rather than deride their hometowns in that self-deprecating humor I was so used to, everyone was so insufferably proud of Texas that I wouldn't be surprised if email@example.com sent me a heated response to my generalizations. That isn't to say people weren't friendly-- they were, mostly-- but being even more awkward and gangly than I am now, I found it impossible to connect with these people who seemed so different than me, these people who I haven't been influenced by and influencing and learning to get along with for the last twelve years, this same fact not stopping them from meshing with each other so well, like nothing had changed, amplifying my own strangeness.
As the semester went on, they clustered into groups while I watched, my face pressed against these impermeable bubbles, trying to peer in for a hint as to what I was doing wrong.
My loneliness grew. It grew as I thought back to high school, as those in the grade above us returned from college like Cabeza De Vaca with wild and ecstatic stories from the promised land and I went to sleep fantasizing about this quickly approaching golden chapter of life. It grew as I went home after finals, and my parents' friends, with a nauseating enthusiasm, said things like, "So how's college? Isn't it amazing? I'm SO jealous, I wish I could go back. Really the best four years of your life! Savor it!" and I briefly thought back to my last Friday night-- when I sat on my stained blue mattress, eating unhealthy amounts of Gummy Vites, scrolling through Snapchat, addicted to what I was missing out on, continuously refreshing Messenger, hoping the lack of replies was a symptom of shitty WiFi and not some sad secret I'd never understand -- before reciprocating their ear-to-ear smile and regurgitating the three fun things I all semester so as to not be a downer.
The feeling only slightly relented over winter break, when I returned to my expectation-less hometown, the love of my parents, friends I truly valued, and rediscovered all of my incredible privileges and blessings. I hid this feeling of relief as my friends pined to get back to their new and exciting college lives.
I persisted in my efforts to find "my people".
I made conversation with strangers in dining halls while trying to mask my desperation, only to have the acquaintanceships fizzle out due to their contrived beginnings. I played board games and withstood lame icebreakers at club meetings, only to leave just as anonymously as I entered, learning nothing about the people I had just interacted with for an hour, aside from Jenny being allergic to watermelon (two truths, one lie) and Sam being an awful liar (mafia). If it weren't for the two friends I had coming into UT, an incredible stroke of luck, I could've easily gone weeks without any substantial conversation.
And freshman year, a time demanding rapid adaptation, was an awful time to be depressed. In the background of my futile searches for promised connections, I was getting wrecked by interviews, making me question my intelligence, wrecked by my introductory computer science classes, making me question my major, my future, and again, my intelligence, and wrecked by Introduction to U.S. History, making me question my life in general. I lost motivation to attend class, followed by motivation to be awake during normal societal hours. I stopped going to the only class I enjoyed, Intro to Philosophy, since it didn't agree with my 6am - 2pm (but get out of bed at 4pm) sleep schedule.
I wrote off the next three years as a waste, restlessly waiting for the next, hopefully better, fearfully worse, stage of life.
I tried blaming UT since it was easier than blaming myself, but it's hard to tell yourself "you don't fit in" when you go to a school of over fourty thousand people. Like, really? You can't find a few friends? Out of fourty thousand people?
And everyone else was so happy. All these peppy students in burnt orange jumpsuits and still put their horns up in pictures a decade after graduating. Their natural happiness attested to the perfection of my situation, so I felt increasingly personally responsible for my loneliness.
Still, "fixing" myself, seemed impossible.
Friends excel at questions like:
"yo should I cop these shoes?"
"yo what classes should I take next sem?"
Friends do not excel at questions like:
"yo is there something wrong with me? am I unlikable? is it my actions or something more fundamental? do you talk to me out of an obligation of politeness? why didn't you respond to my texts (this isn't rhetorical or an accusation, I genuinely want to know your thought process so i can improve and if you say 'I fell asleep' i'm going to scream)? can you please please please please enumerate my flaws without being nice, I mean actually tell me because nothing I try is working?"
because your desperate self-doubt will scare away the few you have, and the ones that stay will try their hardest to avoid planting insecurities in this fragile person in front of them, and so you are left with unhelpful but well-intentioned evasions like "uh haha idk I think you're cool, maybe try joining a club?"
Even now, only a few years removed from this period of my own life, I'm cringing for this person. All I can give him is an uneasy sympathy. Sometimes I'll see that part of myself in strangers, the part that's just a little too eager to meet a stranger, the part who's humor is just a little too self-deprecating, the part that skirts at the fringes of groups, the part that lingers for a moment after club meetings, hoping he will be graciously enveloped by one of the circles around him that are talking and laughing before the empty space between him and everyone else makes itself painfully apparent and he quickly shuffles out of the room.
I want to hug these people and tell them it gets better but I don't because I'm probably just projecting and the kid who shuffled out probably just had a doctor's appointment he had to run to and I don't have the courage to take that risk.
I want to tell him that he isn't alone-- he isn't alone, and it gets better.
Not "you aren't alone" like "everyone feels the same, some are just better at hiding it", because we both know that's a lie, but "you aren't alone" because I've been there, and I know that pit-in-stomach loneliness that keeps you up all night and seems like it'll never go away. I know how hard it is, how futile it seems.
I don't know your flaws or if they even matter. I don't know if you're too quiet or have a weird walk or a strained smile or interview people instead of conversing with them or take jokes too far or have reclusive interests or know nothing about sports, politics, or Game of Thrones or share so little about yourself that even after a two hour conversation no one would be able to form any sense of your identity. But I do know it gets better.
I know you're tempted to give up. To start wearing hats just so you can pull the brim down. To wear a permanently scorned expression so no one will talk to you, so this will all feel less like giving up and more like a choice. To live somewhere far away with a supremely comfortable desk chair and fighter pilot grade noise-canceling headphones and never come to campus. To rationalize it to yourself, to tell yourself that friends are a distraction, that you'll worry about that after you're a rich and famous civil engineer.
Don't. Because I promise it'll get better, and when it does, it'll be so worth all those shattering moments when you finally muster up the courage to be vulnerable, to expose your fragile ego to the world, only to have it turn away.
It'll get better, because your probability of making a connection isn't zero. You aren't that special. Maybe it's a fraction of a percent-- 0.2%. For five hundred people you talk to, there is one that reciprocates and will eventually accept enough of you to where it doesn't feel like you're wearing a mask.
So you go talk to five hundred people. You live in the dorms another year even if Kins is trash and join more clubs in spite of none of them having worked out yet and ask the person next to you how to do #6 on the homework and talk to someone every day until your chance friendships turn into good friendships. It will be disappointing and tedious at first. There will be people who think you're weird, overbearing, desperate, and it will hurt, but the acute pain of rejection pales in comparison to the persistent, gnawing pain of living life anonymously. All you need is a few successes and then you'll meet friends of friends and your probabilities will increase and you will finally feel contentment.
You'll finally ask real people for help rather than Google every question on your problem set, only to find one desperate query by Adam128 on Yahoo! Answers in 2005, and, filled with the motivation that comes with knowing you won't be stuck forever, more of your life will fall into place.
You'll finally be connected to the domineering campus walls you used to be intimidated by and your dorm will no longer feel suffocating, and the interactions with your dorm-mates will no longer be limited to moments of sheepish eye contact as someone you've never seen before waddles out of the bathroom having clogged one of the two working toilets yet again, and you will have a few friendly faces in constant proximity, and work will become more light-hearted as you yell and laugh about failing every test case an hour before the project is due because struggling with others is so so different than struggling alone, and you'll find that person you love and skip class to lay on the West Mall lawns, holding hands, listlessly blowing grass whistles in the sun, and lectures will become less sterile and transactional as you begin to take them with friends, and you'll attend an office hour or two where you and your professor laugh at the absurdity of sentences like, "the question of Being, not only being as being but the Being of beings, the nature of Being as such, has not been properly thought", and you will cherish these normal crumbs of life so much more because of how difficult they were for you to find.
You will go back home and your friends will again ask you, "hows UT going?", and you'll reflexively begin to bash it, but then catch yourself, because as you search for your mental list of Reasons To Be Sad all you can find are memories of drunken cliff-jumping into Lake Travis and stargazing on the roof of Chipotle and all those till-sunrise conversations that slowly erased the deep-seated disaffection you carried.
And eventually, you will graduate. Feeling sentimental, you will scroll through four years of photos. You will watch the progression of the occasional picture of a lecture board or binder paper, to stills of people you never thought you could miss in settings you never thought you'd become attached to and private snapshots of the idiosyncrasies of college life most take for granted but you thought you'd never experience.
And then, the next time some nostalgic, middle-aged, mom tells you those were the best four years of your life, you won't at all mind.