Desolation:
A Chronicle of Depression

by ELAINE NEIL ORR

When we arrive on campus late August, a veil of sand hangs in the air. The next morning, it lies like dusting powder on the tops of our dressers. By the following week, we have to shake it out of our shoes every morning. Soon the grounds appear covered with a thin layer of snow. When a car takes off, a ghost of sand flies away behind it. But there is football and there are student body elections and no one but me notices when the applesauce in the cafeteria turns gritty. I try to be cheerful, wearing the cute cotton dresses I sewed on my Singer sewing machine in preparation for my freshman year. Some mild mornings, I hardly notice the sand. But then, almost overnight, it seems, the sand is three inches deep.

No one else seems disorientated. But I can hardly discern the path to my classrooms. When I start out on my way to biology, I lose my way mid-campus. If I make it to class at all, I wander in late. More often, I give up and lie down on a campus bench in what must be a garden only everything is the color of a biscuit. Once, I open a door to find a swimming pool and a class of boys in tight trunks lined up at the far end. I want to stay and watch but I don’t. I trudge back to my room instead, desolate.

*

By late September, low dunes have formed outside, a monotony of color. My shoes come off as I walk and my feet burn. On a rare day, I might spot a tree in the distance. Stunned by the blue-green of its branches, I stumble and drop my books. When I finally reach the shade, my campus ID is long lost. I watch the other students in their purposeful walk, the last ones running to make it to class in time, doors closing behind them. For five minutes I feel a thrill of freedom and abandon, but then the air stills. Loneliness settles over me like a cloak. My legs itch from sitting in this rare patch of grass. I head back across the sand to my dorm room and my unmade bed. I haven’t eaten yet so I stop at the vending machine and purchase a Coke and two packages of pink cupcakes. Alone in the room I eat the cakes, looking out the window at the dim traces of a highway through the desert. My bed seems further sunk in the sand. Pretty soon the sand will cover the mattress. But for now I still have sheets. In the stupor of a self-induced blood sugar high, I climb back into bed, cover my head, and sleep until afternoon.

I wake to see my roommate. Sherry sits at her desk, her back to me, sand up to her ankles

“What are you doing?” I say.

“Writing an essay for freshman composition.”

I tested out of freshman English, which is too bad. I might have found respite from monotony in that class. I might have been able to remember colors: guava pink, for example, or indigo blue.

“Are you going to dinner?” Sherry says.

“I guess.” Not an answer. But I get up and brush my teeth and put on a clean blouse. Because of the vending machine, I’ve gained five pounds since school started and my face is bloated. The wind picks up as we start out into the moonscape. The sand drifts, and walking is more difficult than ever though Sherry seems nimble enough. I wear a scarf to keep sand out of my hair, but it still settles in and when I scratch my scalp, it collects under my nails. I’m exhausted by the time we get in the cafeteria line. I select only cottage cheese, for purification and forgiveness. The college is a beach without a sea. Something is rotten in me but I don’t know what it is.

*

One day meandering on campus, looking for my class, I run into a tall solitary boy with long blond hair. His eyes are blue as blue glass against the camel-colored landscape. We nod at one another like monks passing in a silent chapel. But later he comes to my dorm and somehow finds me. Before I know what is happening, we are crossing the sandy lawn, holding hands until we come to his motorcycle. Sand swirls as we take off, but in ten minutes we are out of that small town and in the country where we spot a turquoise pond and gardens planted in fall vegetables. A curve of sand collects at the edge of the roadside but otherwise we are in a world of color. We drive down a long country road edging a stand of low pine until the road runs out and then we sit, the machine idling. That boy is a long drink of water.

Eventually he turns the cycle and we head back. Miraculously, the campus is free of sand. That night at dinner, the applesauce is smooth enough for a baby’s mouth. I can see the moon from my dorm window. For days I walk lightly in the grass. Then the sand sifts back in. Still, I make a game of it, leaping from one patch of green grass to another. I go to class and don’t get lost. I stop eating from the vending machine.

“What happened?” Sherry says.

“I saw a pond,” I say.

The boy comes back. We ride the motorcycle to the filling station and pay for our gas with coins and take another ride. But it is evening and we stay in town amid the pizza store lights and McDonald’s and Burger King This time our silence is empty instead of full.

He doesn’t come back a third time and I turn my face to the wall in the mornings. By midday of the third week of his absence, I have to use a cardboard box to shovel a path from the dorm to the street. This work is so wearying, I collapse with the weight of it and trudge back to the dorm.

*

It is truly fall now and sorority rush season arrives. Everyone is doing it, including Sherry. So I start a diet and make the rounds to the sorority houses. I go to class and wear bright pants-suits I sewed back in August. My professors blink when I come into the room but they let me stay. No one calls my name. Finally on a Saturday afternoon, the freshmen girls sequester ourselves in our rooms—doors closed—waiting for invitations to join a sorority. If we’re lucky, the coveted white squares will be pushed under our doors. I get the one I want. So does Sherry. Though they’re not the same sorority.

We scream and cry and run down the hall to check with the other girls. Even in the excitement, I feel an undertow.

Hazing is next. For a week, I am startled into wakefulness. Having been courted, we are now shamed. And ordered. And humiliated. The sand is still everywhere, slowing my steps, spilling into my shoes, filling my hair. But dragging myself through it is a welcome respite from cleaning a ballroom floor smeared with broken eggs.

An evening arrives and we are bused out to a cow pasture and blindfolded.

“Pick this up. Press it between your hands. Now put it on your forehead and chin.”

Cow dung.

“No,” I say. “I will not.”

And I withdraw, failing sorority hazing.

I return to my dorm. The sand is two feet deep in the lobby. Someone has left a book. The Exorcist. I go to my room and begin to read. Sherry is out with her sorority. Everyone is out.

*

Soon after, I begin to disappear into the sand. I don’t shrink. I am just so monstrous, so vague, so undefined that no one can see me. I can’t even see myself in the mirror, only a kind of ghostlike smudge.

The Exorcist isn’t frightening. It’s colorful. Everything is red. When I wake at night, I hold a bowl against my breasts to collect my tears, to make an offering to all the gods I have failed:

The god of discipline

The god of good grooming

The god of slenderness

The god of conformity

Even the one god I respect,

The god of creativity--

But I have no tears. I fail even the weeping god, Jesus.

I learn something, the only thing I learn my freshman year from the only book I read. Demon possession is really only absence. It’s living without a village, a tribe, a country. It’s mistaken identity.

*

I stink. Inside me everything putrefies. I want to throw up.

Outdoors it rains, a cold hard rain of early winter. The sand is heavy as wet concrete. My classmates somehow obtain snowshoes and easily skate over it. I get stuck in the middle of campus and have to be chiseled out with screwdrivers and a hammer. The screw driver breaks through one shoe and I bleed, a beautiful flow of red. I’m still bleeding when I enter my room and trundle across our three feet of sand to bed, leaving behind a rivulet of red. Finally, I weep.

That night the sand comes up over my sheets. I am half submerged the next morning.

I call my parents, who have left Nigeria and come to this country to be with me, though they’re three states away. “I have to come home,” I say.

“Don’t you like it there?”

“I can’t breathe.”

“Can you wait until Christmas? It’s almost here?”

A week later, I throw a handful of belongings out the dorm-room window. There is so little I can still wear or care for. One friend can still see me. A butch girl named Kay Fish. She has money and a car, and she drives me to a city half way to home, where my father fetches me, giving her five dollars to help with the gas.

The desert is behind me. What I don’t yet know is that the Dead Sea lies ahead.

I will recover, eventually, in another small college when I pick up a paint brush.

Watercolor is a hard medium. But I can paint skies: pink, orange, green, purple. Even brown can live next to green. I shake the last of the sand out of my suitcase.

ELAINE NEIL ORR writes out of two Souths, the American South and Southern Nigeria. She is the author of a memoir, Gods of Noonday: A White Girl’s African Life (UVa.P 2003) and two novels, A Different Sun and Swimming Between Worlds (Berkley/Penguin/Random House, 2013, 2018). Her short fiction and memoir have appeared in Blackbird, The Missouri Review, Image, and Southern Cultures, among other places. She is an award-winning Professor of Literature at NC State University and serves on the faculty of the Brief Residency MFA in Writing Program at Spalding University.