We call our college boy and wake him when we are about fifteen minutes away. When he admits us to the dorm his hair is wet from showering and he is barefoot. “You'll get athlete's foot,” I warn him. He says, “we all go barefoot,” and I stop myself from explaining that's all the more reason for him to wear shoes. I realize that as the parent of a college freshman I have lost my clout with regard to informing his behavior. The little that I had. We arrive at about 12:30 and the dorm is dark and silent. Roommate is still in bed when we enter the cluttered room. I start to say that if I were expecting visitors I would at least have made my bed and ask what's become of the top sheet but remember that I am even more impotent now than when his bed was under my own roof.. It is decided that Roommate will join us for lunch and we agree to wait while he gets himself ready. Himself, who cannot abide waiting for anything, rolls his eyes, but our freshman placates him by proffering that the lobby holds many books.
The lobby is a sea of clutter, including a half eaten cake that has been sitting out so long the pathogens are visible by naked eye. I wonder what is so difficult about putting books neatly on a shelf rather than cramming them in willy nilly stacks although there are a few titles interesting enough to keep Himself from complaining about killing time waiting for Roommate and the inevitability of paying for his lunch. By one pm there are a few more lights on in the halls and a few students in boxer shorts pad drowsily to the coed bathrooms. Barefoot. We are informed that few students rise before noon and Roommate notes that our own scion is a campus sleeping champion, often logging fourteen consecutive hours.
When I arrived on campus with the boy back in September, Roommate, from a private school in the hoity toity part of Pasadena was clean shaven with a fresh haircut. He wore a pastel polo shirt, freshly ironed khakis, Bass Weejuns and something I'd not seen in ages, a ginormous class ring. Fewer than three months have transpired but Roommate's gone native with hair grown out to near Angela Davis proportions. He has a full beard and sports tattered cut off sweat pants and rubber flip flops and he's bagged the class ring. He is, as obviously as my own progeny, hungover. My college boy reports that Roommate's sheltered high school years included few parties. After imbibing from what is described an awesome sized bong in a neighboring room Roommate awakens my own sophisticate at four in the morning in an apoplectic panic as he is unable to feel his tongue.
We set out for a coffee shop in Mentone. I point out a few vestigial orange groves that have somehow survived the epidemic of endless cul de sacs crammed with huge brown stucco houses. I remember distinctly that the street behind the campus runs directly into Mentone Blvd but we wind up at a tiny airport I didn't even know existed. I see Himself's eyes flashing daggers in the rear view mirror. He hates wasting gas as much as he does having his six foot frame jammed into the back seat. Roommate's Iphone navigates us to the restaurant and I note that a number of charming field-stone houses still line Mentone Blvd. We arrive at an old school diner and are seated next to a group of adipose tattooed locals in Valvoline caps and wifebeaters. I posit, as I face them from behind that it might be a back fat convention. Uncle Richard is included in the field trip not only because he is cheerful and keeps Himself on good behavior but also because he shares with Roommate a common interest in the Academy Awards and an intense discussion ensues. Our neighbors glance our way when Roommate squeals loudly “It's gonna be Meryl Streep in Iron Lady” and Himself gives me the stinkeye, like it's my fault.
I've eaten in my share of coffee shops and I know that it is foolhardy in these establishments to order any food that is available in canned form. Himself and I are happy with toast and an omelet. Mr. College asks for 2 sides. Corned beef hash and home fried potatoes. The waitress brings two plates of hash and a third with a plate of undercooked spuds and we are puzzled. I start to say that the boy had wanted two separate side orders, not two of corned beef, but Uncle Richard takes the waitress' side that it sounded indeed like two orders of hash had been requested. I wonder if he would have defended her if he'd intended to pick up the check himself but alas, this is something we will never know.
The hash is definitely of the Dinty Moore variety and is uneaten, as is Roommate's homemade biscuit which drowns in a thick beige gravy of the same provenance as the hash. My boy comments that the hash tastes like store brand cat food and I say that I'd expected a canned product. “Why didn't you tell me not to order it?!” “You don't like it when I tell you what to do,” I reply. He can't argue with this but shrinks a bit, realizing how many more shitty meals he is condemned to.
We continue up the mountain to the apple growing area of Oak Glen. It is a tourist trap with petting zoos and tractor rides but there are fresh apples and cider presses. The air is clean and thin and there are maples and oaks gone autumny red and orange. The boy has come home almost every weekend and rarely leaves the campus during the week. After a lunch among the meth lab haircuts and a short ride to mountain orchards 5000 feet above sea level, it dawns on him that where he lives now is someplace else.
We return to campus and he takes us to the library and checks out a book on Buddhism for Himself to borrow. He treats us to a coffee at the student union and we meet a number of his friends and an instructor and Mr. College is poised and friendly and obviously well liked. We leave him chatting with a group of pals and head back on the 10. The kid is 19 now. I wish he'd wear shoes and keep his bed clean and take it easy with the partying. I no longer have the power of enforcement but I hope what we taught him while he was with us will serve him well. My 19 year old accepts more and more that he lives now in another place. I know sometimes he feels like there is no net but with every passing week this grows less frightening. He is settled in and I am proud and maybe seeing only three place settings at the dinner table someday won't make me weep. Someday.