The wooden door was massive, suitable for a castle. It could have been surrounded by an alligator-infested moat, inhabited by fairies and trolls, princes and princesses. The heavy iron knocker, lifted by many weary travelers seeking refuge, beckoned.
Instead, Pat rang the doorbell.
I might not be living out a tale from the Brothers Grimm, but the trip from St. Louis to Boulder had certainly been fraught with adversity and adventure. It was the first time I’d ever flown without Mom, and although my friend Pat was a more experienced traveller, I was worn out by the journey and ready to be somewhere safe.
The door creaked open, the musty odor of ancient carpet mixed with the more contemporary aromas of Jiffy popcorn and ramen noodles wafted past us into the spring air. The Colorado sunshine bathed the girl at the threshold in light, giving her an otherworldly glow. As my eyes adjusted to the relative darkness she was standing in she took on a more mortal appearance, but it still wouldn’t have surprised me if she were a princess.
Her straight, long brown hair flowed down to her waist, her sleeveless green mini-dress showed off her cute figure and her smile could fairly be called benevolent.
“Welcome to Phi Beta Beta. Are you here to tour our sorority house?”
Heck no, I thought. This was the ’70’s. I might not be a hippie, but I aspired to shed my suburban upbringing and be something more radical than a sorority sister. I kept these thoughts to myself. I really wanted to go inside.
Pat answered politely, “No, we’re here to see my friend Betty. She’s expecting us.”
“Great! You can leave your suitcases by the door and I’ll take you to her room.”
Two girls walked by, one in baby doll pajamas and hair curlers, the other in shorts. They both wore makeup. And they were both beautiful.
I was grateful Pat carried on the conversation with the sorority girl, freeing me to continue my observation of the females that lived here. One after another passed by, similar in shape and size, all very attractive. I felt like I was in Hollywood.
As we ascended the three flights of stairs Pat answered questions about our trip while I mentally filled in the blanks. We were both applying to the University and were visiting before we committed. What was left unsaid was the trepidation my mother felt about this journey, the many calls between her and Pat’s mom. She begrudgingly consented after she heard we would be chaperoned by Betty, a girl from their neighborhood. Mom understood that Betty and Pat weren’t close but knowing Betty came from a “lovely family” offered some assurance. Mom cautioned me that Betty was only nineteen—still a teenager.
“Oh, Mom,” I sighed in my most sophisticated tone, “she’s been there for two whole years. She’s practically a junior.”
Now Mom’s apprehension seeped under my skin, flowing up to my face, making my eyes water. I stole a glance at Pat. She looked fine. I had chafed at the way my mother had hovered over me as I’d packed, but honestly, I was looking forward to having someone else take a little responsibility for my welfare. I was ready for the older, wiser Betty to take me under her wing.
The sorority girl tapped on a door festooned with paper hearts and flowers and a singsong
voice chirped, “Come on in.”
Pat went in first. Betty rose from her chair and gave Pat a hug then returned to her desk retrofitted with a large makeup mirror complete with light bulbs surrounding the frame.
Back home Betty would have been considered pretty, or at least normal. She had a round face and a shapely body. Not fat, but certainly different from the rest of the girls I’d seen.
Betty was applying massive amounts of hairspray, scowling as she attempted to tame her naturally wavy hair. Finally satisfied, she went back to putting on her makeup with a swift and practiced hand.
“You must be Pat’s friend. Great to meet you,” she said, not taking her eyes off her reflection as she brushed bright blue shadow on her lids.
In the haze of my exhaustion, I was mesmerized by her movements and had a hard time following her words. She was speaking so fast. I lost track of the chatter until I picked it up again mid-sentence.
“…and Bobby is sooo cute! I’ve been waiting ages for him to notice me. I’ve gone to every fraternity party all year and he finally asked me out. He’s picking me up at 7:00. Why don’t we meet up tomorrow for lunch and I’ll tell you all about my big night.”
I started to panic. Was Betty abandoning us? Even Pat seemed concerned. Every time Pat tried to ask a question, Betty waved her off with a flick of the wrist and kept barreling through her monologue. Clearly, we were the audience and she was the star of this show.
Betty was applying the finishing touches to her face. It was 6:45. We didn’t have much time left. She continued, “The dorm you’re staying in is really close. Go out the door and turn left. Go two more blocks and turn right. Keep going until the street ends. You can’t miss it.” She clicked the lid on her lipstick.
I was pretty sure we were going to get lost.
“Hey, you two must be starving. Do you like hamburgers?”
I felt faint. Maybe I’d misunderstood. Perhaps the three of us were going to dinner together.
“Why don’t you go to around the corner on the hill?” she continued, not waiting for an answer.
Around the corner. On the hill. Was this some kind of college code? I didn’t want to appear ignorant, but I really was hungry.
I spoke for the first time. “Around what corner? And there seem to be lots of hills.”
Betty burst out laughing and said, not at all unkindly, “Around the Corner is a restaurant. The Hill is where all the college kids hang out. You’ll have fun.”
Ah, I thought. Around the Corner. On The Hill. I get it.
She stood close to Pat as she ushered us down the stairs. Betty confided, “I’m really in love this time. I think the other girls are jealous of me,” and glowed as she walked us out.
After stopping multiple pedestrians to clarify the sketchy directions we’d received from Betty, Pat and I found the dormitory, put our luggage in the room and walked to The Hill.
We stood under the big red awning emblazoned with Around the Corner spelled out in bold letters. Pat started to open the heavy metal door when I pushed it shut.
“Wait, Pat. Read this.”
There was a caution, written in bold, red letters on the clear glass window.
“NO ADMITTANCE to those under eighteen without an adult.”
“Pat, I’m only seventeen. So are you. We can’t go in there.” I kept my palm on the door.
“Alice. We’re seventeen and a half. We won’t order a beer. That’s all they care about.”
“But Pat…” I was starting to whine. “Mom will never let me go to college if I get arrested.”
“We are not getting arrested for eating a hamburger. For God’s sake, move your hand and follow me.”
Inside were tables of boys, tables of girls, tables of boys AND girls. All of them seemed so self-assured, so comfortable. I regarded my reflection in the glass. I would never fit in.
Pat moved in front of me and grasped the handle, squared her shoulders, and strode through.
She looked so regal. So sophisticated. She looked…eighteen. The door began to shut, leaving me alone on the sidewalk. I sidled in before it closed completely.
I held my chin high, trying to match her royal demeanor and tripped on the welcome mat. I settled for being her shadow.
We sat at a booth near the rear and read the instructions on the back of the menu. Pat picked up the receiver of the red phone in our booth and ordered. The button would glow red when the food was ready at the counter.
A busboy cleared the table next to ours.
“Pat! That guy is staring at us. I think he’s going to get the manager. We’re going to be kicked out.”
“We are not going to be kicked out. Alice, don’t be silly.”
I tried not to look silly.
The button in the middle of the phone pulsated. It was time to stand and make our way to the counter.
We got our trays. The manager stood at the cash register and I scanned his face. Was he suspicious? No. Actually he seemed kind of bored. He took the crisp five dollar bill Mom had given me, handed me my change and mumbled, “Enjoy your meal” without ever looking up.
We ate our food and I savored my first real taste of independence.
It was delicious. I wanted more.