It was pouring rain, you could tell by the thundering claps against the pavement, the quick strokes lit up by streetlights, and my cold, soaking socks. Rain is normal in Santa Cruz, so much so that my LA sensibilities had waned over time. My core temperature had finally dropped from a warm and dry 85 degrees, to a damp and windy 64. The chill that had settled into my knuckles and the tip of my nose was normal at this point. I was huddled on UCSC’s north bus stop bench, staring down at my sloshing feet, my poor black Asics gushing with rain water. I remember I was immersed in Joji’s SLOW DANCING IN THE DARK when he sat down. He was a college student about my age, wearing an all Nike outfit from head to toe, with an Apple Watch as the cherry on top of his wrist. He said something to me, I pulled out my left earbud and asked him to say it again.
“Has the 16 come yet?”
“Nope not yet.” I was also waiting for the 16.
“Oh okay, thanks.”
Silence, for a minute. He says something again, and I pulled out my earbud, again.
“Oh, I was just asking about your phone, is that an iPhone 5?”
“Uh,” I looked down at Joji smiling back at me through the cracked screen, which I was eager to get back to.
He laughs a little, “Wow how is it still working? That thing’s, like, ancient.”
I resist the urge to look down at his Apple watch. And at his brand new Nike shoes. I quickly try to hide my soaking wet Asics, worried he’ll also comment on the holes they bear.
“Well-uh-it’s a good enough phone for me, and I don’t have the money to buy another one.”
I muted him with my left earbud. The 16 stops at the bus stop. I wait for the Nike boy to get on, and decide to wait for the 15 instead.
I’ve never been poor. My family has been solidly middle class for most of my life. That night at the bus stop, I wasn’t embarrassed because of my socio-economic status, I was embarrassed because this boy, this stranger, was commenting on the most superficial aspects of my person, while I was going through one of the worst periods of my life that those holes in my shoes bore witness to.
I had been going to UCSC for about six months before I fell off the beaten path of college life. I started off college strong. I enrolled in a summer introductory program for incoming freshman to make friends and take a couple classes, that way I would be prepared for the Fall Quarter massacre. It was an amazing experience. I came out of the program with good grades, a good understanding of college life and how to navigate it, but more importantly, I came out of it with really great friends. We were attached at the hip. We traversed the entirety of Santa Cruz together, hand in hand, stride in stride. For the first time in my life, I felt like I found true friends who were going to be in my life forever. I felt like the college experience that everyone had been hyping me up for my entire life had really arrived and that this was going to be the best time of my life.
Fast forward to winter, six months into the school year. My classes were going great, I was hanging out with my friends every single day, relishing in the “college experience,” when suddenly I was slammed to a halt.
I woke up one morning in my cold dorm room, with an abysmal pain in my lower back and back of my legs. It was so intense I couldn’t push myself out of bed for an hour. I slept in a bunkbed, so it took forever to work my way over the bunkbed’s ledge and down the ladder. Once my feet hit the ground, I couldn’t bring myself to stand up straight. I had to hobble around, hunched over at a 90-degree angle for about two hours. I had no idea what was happening, I had never experienced this level of pain before, but what I did know is that I missed my morning class, the first of soon to be many. I took the day off to visit the Student Health Center to find out what was going on with my back. I slipped on my brand-new Asics and made my way to the Health Center. The doctor I saw that day could only deduct that I was experiencing intense sciatic pain but couldn’t identify the source. The problem was that we couldn’t take the next step with that diagnosis, because I was living on an HMO insurance plan over 300 miles away from my primary care doctor. Cue the insurance tango, where me and my mother tried jumping from primary care to primary care in Santa Cruz, in an attempt to get a referral for an MRI.
As the tango carried on, I felt like everything in my life was out of my control. With the amount of pain I was in, it was nearly impossible to get up in the morning and make it to classes on time, along with the fact that sitting for an hour in class was terrible for my back. I couldn’t submit a formal excuse to my professors because there wasn’t an official condition or injury that could excuse me out of showing up to class or qualify me for disability accommodations. My friends and I stopped hanging out. Even with the best intentions, my friends didn’t want to be hanging out with a girl who was constantly complaining about being in pain. Probably the worst was that trying to go to sleep caused me the most pain out of my entire day. Sleep, the one thing that is supposed to give you escape from your day, was taken from me. I dreaded every step towards my bed. The feeling of my bones settling on the mattress made my eyes well up with tears, and bite on my pillowcase as I softly cried myself to sleep. I wept every night, not just because of the pain filling my body, but because I felt like my body had turned against me and become my enemy.
Throughout all of this, the one thing I could control was walking. Walking turned out to be a pain reliever for my back. It wasn’t a completely painless experience, I still felt some pain throughout the duration of my walks, but it was the only time in my day that I was in the least amount of pain. So, I started to seriously break in my new Asics. Every night, I would walk the circumference of the campus, 3 miles, until 3 or 4 am. Each step I took put distance between me and my bed. It gave me the one escape, the one semblance of control I had in my life. Once I started walking, I couldn’t stop. I started to walk everywhere. I would walk to my physical therapy appointments, I would walk to all of the classes I could get to, even if they were two miles away. Those Asics saw the entirety of Santa Cruz, and were worn down to the bone to do it.
It took about five months before I finally got an MRI and found out I had a severely ruptured disc in my L5 and S1 vertebrae, my lower back. In those five months before my diagnosis, I lost my friends—they didn’t feel like waiting for when I was going to miraculously heal, so they moved on without me; I barely passed all my classes with C’s, quite possibly the worst academic performance I’ve ever given; and had been in a debilitating suicidal spiral, one that the young man in Nike unfortunately caught me in only two weeks before my diagnosis. But this diagnosis gave me a glimmer of hope. I tried to take life by the reins and dived deeper into attempted recovery. During the summer after my Spring Quarter, I committed myself to physical therapy two times a week. Donning my ripped black Asics, I pushed my way through Summer with an optimism that was rare and beautiful, but short lived.
I had been doing intensive physical therapy for the entirety of summer and 2 months into the Fall Quarter, but for whatever reason, my disc hadn’t made much progress. I started to lose hope. I spent the rest of the Fall quarter spiraling once again, letting my optimism and control slip through my fingers, letting go of the reins completely. I started to skip physical therapy appointments, I felt that if I was going to be in pain for the rest of my life, what was the point of trying to get better? I started to miss classes, stay in bed for the entire day, and just give up. The only thing I wanted so badly that my chest ached was my family.
It was sprinkling when I called her. I was walking to the south bus stop, holding back tears as the sprinkles of rain stung my cheeks. I realized that I just couldn’t stay at UCSC. It was killing me. It had drained any optimism and light I had left to give to the world. I knew that if I ever wanted to come back from this, I needed to go back where I started. I needed to go home.
I sat down on the bench, stared at the hole by my pinky toe in the left shoe as I called my mom.
“Hi honey! How are you?”
I felt my throat pull tight, “Mom I—” my eyes got misty, “I just can’t do it anymore.”
Silence, for a minute. “Sweetie, come home, it’s going to be okay.”
“But what about school? What if I never get my degree and become a college drop—”
“You won’t, I’d never allow that to happen,” she laughs. I don’t. But she usually laughed for the two of us.
“…Okay. I’m coming home.”
One month after that conversation, me and my black Asics were back in my dad’s white pickup truck, driving south, past the Los Angeles County line. We didn’t say much on the trip back, just a silent conversation of chewing trail mix and bobbing our heads to Elvis Presley. We pulled up to my mother’s driveway where she was eagerly waiting for us. I jumped out, and rushed to give her a big hug. Silence, for a minute.
After a couple seconds, we let go. She smiles at me, and she smiles at my feet and says: “You’ve got to throw those ugly fuckers away.”