In 2016, I almost flunked out of Yale. Depression crept in and kept me hostage to the comfort of my dorm room, where I could sleep all day and rewatch the same stale TV. My junk show of choice was Friends. I liked the predictable plot flow: problem, complication, resolution. Inevitably, the canned dialogue lulled me into a dreamless slumber.
"It's funny," I told my Baba on the phone. "I always fall asleep while watching. I don't get it." I didn't tell him how often it was that I fell asleep before the flickering glow of my laptop, often when I was supposed to be in class.
He chuckled. "That makes sense to me. When you were a baby, I usually got home from work around the time that Friends was on. I would hold you - on my left shoulder, always on my left shoulder - and you'd fall asleep."
Those days, I didn't call him so much. I was scared he'd hear how bad things were in my voice and make me talk. Make me care about it, make me fix it. He's always been good at cutting through the chaff into the core of any conversation, teasing out the things that need looking at. I didn't want to be looked at. My core was hollow, and the hole I'd dug myself was too deep.
My friend Vince broke through the crust of my apathy first, in early April. He called me from the courtyard below my dorm.
"Hey," he said. "I know something's up with you."
"What?" I scoffed. "You're crazy. Nothing's up."
"Come down and take a walk with me. We need to talk." I deferred, claiming tiredness. "I'm outside your entryway," he confessed. "It's cold out here, and I'm not going away until you come down."
We walked to the furthest edge of campus, a playground by the University hospital. On the swings, he drew out of me a full confession of my situation. We drafted a recovery plan and he walked me to my dean's office. I pulled all-nighters to shape up the grades I could and dropped the classes that were past salvaging. I was placed on academic probation, but didn't care: I was still on track to graduate if I buckled down and didn't fuck up again. I was proud of myself for taking care of it before it ruined my life.
I still wasn't brave enough to tell my parents.
I went home for the summer and the race was on. Which would come first - the letter from Yale, or my departure for a job in Alaska? It felt out of the question to come clean before either. I knew it wouldn't be a pretty conversation.
The letter won by three days. My father pulled me onto our back porch for a talk and placed the piece of paper on the glass table between us.
"What happened?" There was real anguish in his voice. I shrugged. "Don't give me that. You owe me more." The words snapped out like a wet towel, harsh and stinging. He hadn't used that tone on me in seven years. I've hardly heard him use it since.
"I don't know what happened." A mosquito lit on my thigh, but I didn't slap it away. I let it bite me, watching its needle-thin proboscis punch through my skin.
"Can you still graduate?"
I explained to him the deal my dean and I had made - a couple of online summer courses I was already well underway on, the overload of classes I'd take for the next two semesters. I assured him I could do it. I smiled at him, but he wouldn't smile back. He stared at me.
"My fear," he said, pulling the letter back towards himself, "is that whatever happened here, will happen again. And if it does? What then?"
"Well, you didn't graduate from college," I said. "So I don't see what the big deal is either way."
His face went stony. "Get out of my sight," he said. "I don't want to talk to you at all."
I fled back to my bedroom, relieved to be released from the conversation. But for the next two days, he didn't say a word to me. Dinners were tense and fast, my brothers looking nervously between our father's hard face and my furious blush. I thought back over my mulish approach to our conversation. I feared he might never talk to me again, never joke with me again, never tell me another story from his childhood or mine. I had thought nothing could be worse than the hard conversation we needed to have. I was wrong. His silence was killing me.
The night before I flew to Sitka, he pulled me back out to the porch.
"Did I ever tell you why I didn't graduate?" he asked. I shook my head. He explained some things I already knew: he had met my mother in America, working for her Uncle during a period of work-study he had to complete for his degree. When the year was up, he had to return to Germany and finish his last year of instruction.
"That year was the hardest of my life," he said. "You kids don't get it. Phone calls were very expensive and mail was slow. I was away from her and hurting. I lost sight of my goals. My grades slipped, and I couldn't save them. I had the option to redo the year but knew I couldn't. Your mother was waiting for me. So I left for America without a degree, hoping it wouldn't matter."
"Clearly, it didn't." I gestured at the house behind us, the basement of which contained the successful small business he'd started fifteen years before.
"But it did. Do you know how ashamed I am every time someone asks about my qualifications? I made the only choice I felt I had at the time. But every day I wish I could go back to that terrible year and do it better. Do it the way I should have. So really, Schatz. What happened?"
Finally, I told him about my terrible year. Living just one floor above the boy who had assaulted me the year before meant I saw him every time I left my room: in the library, in the dining hall, in the narrow stone corridors of our dorm. I had terrible dreams that woke me at all hours, kicking at sweaty sheets, leaving my brain foggy and disorganized. I lived with the constant, irrational fear that if a former friend could hurt me, then anyone would. In the foggy comfort of my dorm room, where no one came in without an invitation, I could pretend all my problems were gone. But they weren't. They just kept mounting up in the world outside, popping up with alarming subject lines every time I opened my email. Until I stopped doing that, too.
By the end, we were both crying. "I'll ask you this only once. Do you want to go back? You don't have to. You could stay here, work instead, and go back when you're ready."
I thought about his offer. It was appealing to think of quitting, not worrying about the stress I'd be under during my senior year. I considered the comfort of my queen bed upstairs, my mother's home-cooked meals, and the gift of watching my youngest brother grow up. Then I thought of the new apartment I had set up in New Haven. The friends who were good to me, who I knew would help me through the next year. And the regret my father had just confessed to me, the prospect of never completing my college degree.
"I'm scared if I let myself leave, I'll never go back," I said softly. "I want to graduate. And if I don't go back in September, I don't think that will happen."
He nodded. "If you want it, then you have to do it. And you have to talk to me, ok?"
I graduated a year later, with a piss-poor GPA and all the pride in the world. Baba was there to watch me. I've had bad times since then, but never quite so intense. When I need someone to ask me the hard questions, I call him. When I'm about to ignore an email rather than respond, I let our conversation center me. He taught me that discussion is always worth it, and I honor him by coming back to the table and opening myself to it.