What a brown land, I thought, peering out of a late-'80s station wagon, at the chaparral-covered mountains looming over the Santa Clarita Valley. I was headed to a Great Books college, Thomas Aquinas, tucked away in a circle of mountains near Ojai in Ventura County. Having left the deciduous forest land of Connecticut, the lack of trees was disconcerting to me. I did, however, love the open space, the miles and miles of land spreading out in all directions, the open sky above. The country roads I grew up on were a labyrinth of speckled sunlight shining through the oaks and maples onto the blacktop.
I arrived at the campus, hauling two stuffed suitcases that weighed in just under United Airlines' pound limit. Plopping them down on the top step of my dormitory's front porch, I looked out over the green quadrangle of the little campus. Parents and fellow freshmen exchanged hugs in front of the trailer-park-style temporary dorms. Upperclassmen hung their heads out of windows calling to friends not seen since spring. And an anxious student hustled up the path, carrying his seminar reading, Homer's Illiad, anxious to get his studies started.
My room was empty, my roommate hadn't arrived yet, and I had arrived without any family. Two high school chums had come to campus this year as well; they were my comfort. I was excited but scared. Homesickness wasn't the problem; I had gotten over that malady during my two previous years at a high school boarding school. This anxiousness was foreign to me. I had only visited the campus when I was in middle school some eight years earlier. Memories were fuzzy. Two siblings were students then, and we younger girls flew out with Mom and Dad to spend Easter with them.
I plopped myself down on my high school friend Juliet's bed and watched her unpack. She buzzed around introducing herself to everyone who walked by her door. Juliet was a great friend for a shy girl like me to have in a strange school. Between introductions we discussed our class sections and teachers. All classes at Thomas Aquinas College were held seminar-style, with the "tutor" assisting in the discussions in each section. During my years at the school, class sections were small -- only about 13 students. Our graduating class numbered only 39. By the end of the four years, we became a tightly knit group, but on this first day on campus, we were strangers. There was the girl named Kinga, a Canadian of Hungarian roots, with bronze skin and iridescent blue eyes. She dressed all in black with black Converse sneakers. There was fair-skinned Ann with graying hair, from Kentucky, who had spent the previous four years in a convent. There was Tony, who had been in the Air Force before being kicked out of flight school because he was too aggressive at the controls. There was James with wire glasses, a home-schooler from Northern California, experiencing his first classroom. We were an odd bunch, aged 16 to 28, thrown together to hash out the truths of Western Civilization.
That evening, we headed "down below" (as the lower, wooded half of the hillside campus was called) to the "Hacienda," the college president's residence. Placed amid live oaks, redwoods, sycamores, and Japanese maples, the Hacienda was the site of the annual "Meet the Freshmen" party. My girlfriends and I giggled walking down the paths to the house, but once we arrived, I stood silent, sizing up the crowd. A handful of upperclassmen introduced themselves to me. Some came off reassuring, others I was sure were hitting on me. At the end of the evening, my future husband Ernie walked in with his father and older brother Leon, who was also to be in our class. Leon and his father were similar in looks: tall, fair-skinned, brown curly hair, blue eyes. Ernie, my husband-to-be, was short, black haired, very tan, and green-eyed. I was attracted immediately to what my friends and I decided must be an adopted Mexican brother. (We were wrong, as it turned out.) I stared intently at my shoes as I was introduced to the three.
The next morning came too early; gossiping into the wee hours left us girls hung over as we arrived to our first class on Euclid, the ancient Greek geometer. We sat around a great table, waiting for our tutor. My future husband took the seat next to me. My heart pounded so hard that I was sure Ernie could hear it. Silence fell on the room as our tutor walked in with a deck of cards in hand. "We are not playing cards," he jested. "You each have been assigned a card. After shuffling the deck each class, I'll pull one card, and if it is yours, you'll demonstrate the proposition at the board by memory."
We discussed the nature of lines and points that day. Ernie talked a great deal. I didn't say a word. My mind drifted away from the universal questions of geometry toward the more particular question, "How can I make this handsome (Mexican?) guy fall in love with me?"