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I was half in love with Tom McAfee before I ever met him because Shirley Tarbell, my friend from Waynesville High School, who taught me to inhale and lent me her copy of The Waste Land and later told me there was no scientific proof of the existence of the soul, came back from the University of Missouri and told me that she was in love with her English teacher, a romantic Southern gentleman with a beautiful voice and artistic hands. Shirley and I had already been in love with Elvis Presley and Montgomery Clift and several other unattainable men (and Shirley was very fond, too, of Mario Lanza), so it was only natural that we would fall in love with Mr. McAfee, an older man, a sensitive English professor who was also a poet. [End Page 11]
That was freshman year, 1958, when I wore a red bouclé pullover with a cowl-neck and a matching red-plaid pleated skirt with short red suede boots that tied on the side, and lived in TD 4, a “temporary dorm” that was really a relocated World War II army barracks, and met Dave Holt because we ate in the same dining hall.
When I arrived at TD 4, I was surprised to find that a group of girls had already been there for a week. It was for something called “rush,” and many of them were wearing a special pin on their sweaters, with Greek letters that showed that they had chosen to join a certain sorority, which meant that after freshman year, they would move into one of the big, beautiful houses that lined the streets a few blocks from TD 4.
This seemed strange and slightly creepy to me, but I didn’t really care, since I loved almost everything else about college. First of all, it was in Columbia, Missouri, not Waynesville, and I lived with another girl who was also an English major. We slept in bunk beds in our temporary dorm room, and because it was temporary and would be torn down after that year was over, we were allowed to write on the walls, which we did with abandon, scrawling lines of poetry and what we thought were deeply meaningful sayings in giant cursive everywhere we could.
My roommate was tiny and evidently brilliant. She hardly needed to study, while I had no idea how to do so. I had been surprised to learn that college meant you had to take only a few classes at different times in different places, not all in one building from eight to three, as in high school. I thought I would have ample free time and that it would all be easy, but it turned out that I didn’t know how to take notes, read for content and ideas, research and write a paper or study for tests. My roommate seemed to know all these things, and while I was laboriously outlining the chapters in my giant green American government textbook, she would read her assignments quickly and absorb whatever was important for her to know. But she also stayed in the dorm on weekend nights, not going out on dates and getting drunk, as I did.
My roommate was in love too, though, with someone named Van Cliburn, whom I had never heard of. She told me he was young and brilliant, and she played his piano concert record for me on her record player. But she also liked my Ray Coniff and Billy Daniel and Johnny Mathis albums, and especially my Shelly Manne album of My Fair Lady. We played Billy Holiday’s “Gloomy Sunday,” known as “the Hungarian suicide song,” just to see what would happen, but it didn’t make us want to kill ourselves. [End Page 12]
I loved the very idea of college, which I thought was the best idea anyone had ever had: a place where almost everyone was your age and there were more than thirty-two people in your freshman class, with beautiful stone and brick...