On a perfectly ordinary bright September day, Paul Venturi's parents drove four and a half hours to abandon their son behind the bricks and bars of a state institution. His sentence would last four to six years, subject to academic success. If his mother had known the assembly of perverts, delinquents, and drug dealers into whose care she was leaving her only son, she might have urged him to apply to community college instead. Nurtured in the time-honored tradition of Christian denial, and despite personal tragedy, she subscribed to the belief that evil seldom invaded the order of decent people’s lives.
On the other hand, Paul's stepfather knew better. He was a military man. His career rested upon the constant threat of chaos - a systemic belief that homo-sapiens had to claw, scheme, and struggle for a slice of American pie. At the close of the twentieth century, the laws of Darwin still applied. It was time to turn the boy loose on the world, or more appropriately, turn the world loose on the boy.
For his own small role, Paul couldn’t wait to get away to college. He couldn’t wait to escape the joyless suffocation of his parents’ split-level suburban home. He was relieved when he graduated early from that soulless institution of social feudalism know as public high school. College offered a fresh start - new friends, new freedoms, a new environment of intelligence, reason, and thoughtfulness… or so he thought… so he hoped.
The year was 1982. Ronald Reagan was President, crusading against communism. The economy was in recession with record unemployment. Tensions and terrorism were mounting in the Middle East. One dying, paranoid Soviet leader would soon be succeeded by another - former head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov. The Cold War heated to rapid boil - the hottest international crisis since 1962. The entire world teetered on the brink of thermonuclear self-destruction.
Paul just wanted to survive his own belated adolescence.
His university was quietly nested under the Blue Ridge Mountains in an obscure burg in the southwest corner of Virginia. It was a long, tedious morning drive from the suburbs of Washington D.C, as far from civilization as one could possibly travel and still qualify for instate tuition. Their green family station wagon with artificial wood paneling was packed with college provisions. It entered the campus from the East, driving down a tree-lined corridor known as the Mall, which terminated at the head of the Ellipse. Rising to greet them was a monument of eight sculptured stone monoliths known as the War Memorial Chapel - a modern synthesis of religion and war. Paul thought the structure was a strange mix of Egyptian archeology and the film 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The traffic of incoming freshmen moved at a slow crawl. Paul’s stepfather pressed his elbow to the car horn, impatiently trying to merge into the Ellipse. Slouching in the backseat, Paul knew he would probably be mortified by half a dozen parental quirks before the day was through. Gazing out the car window, a paradox caught his eye. Two ordinary signs just knee high stood side by side at the edge of the road. Read together in a sentence their meaning was nonsense, a contradictory message, and yet a prophetic enigma:
"One Way... Do Not Enter."
Paul’s stepfather honked his horn again. A discombobulated mother was attempting to turn her Honda into oncoming traffic. He cursed at the freshman traffic, ordering his wife to look for an alternate route on the campus map. Paul’s mother objected to his unnecessary profanity and suggested that they patiently follow the other cars around the drill field. Another argument ensued.
Paul sunk into the vinyl seat, hoping the afternoon would fly by a little more quickly. Whether they bickered or not, he felt their tension under his skin. He was acutely aware of the disappointments and irritations they concealed. Their emotions surrounded him like a murky fog, with tentacles slipping into his mind, and toxins seeping into his chest, sucking the life out of him. Paul was what was commonly, and somewhat ironically, referred to as sensitive. He couldn’t exactly read their thoughts. He lost that skill when his real father died. But the intervening years had tuned his mind to receive and translate his parent's dark muted emotions, which usually shouted louder than their words. He only had to endure it for a few more hours.
Paul lifted his chin to catch another glimpse of his new home. The summer sunlight was blinding; a glaring white heat reflected off the polished limestone walls of the campus. The buildings were soaring, glittering fortresses of chiseled rock. Their majestic towers were crowned with turrets. Narrow windows aligned in regal order. Tunnels opened in sculptured archways to courtyards and garden walks. Some were closed with black iron gates, a bundle of spears that probably made a mighty “clang" when shut. The University was a collection of mysterious castles that had already cast a spell over him. They were strangely familiar. He had walked through these castle walls before in the lucid dreams of his childhood. The foggy details had been long lost, but the memory of glittering castle walls remained opaque. This unexpected whiff of déjà vu filled Paul with hope. He couldn't explain it. It just felt right. He knew that he was meant to be here. He was optimistic. His future was waiting to begin.
Not yet eighteen, Paul Venturi looked more like fourteen or fifteen. He was shorter than most boys, with a prepubescent face, broken like a sundial by a long Roman nose. His dark eyes were empathic and haunted. His face was a contrast of light and shadow, pale white skin and straight black hair. It was a handsome face, but a dusting of freckles and a protracted war with acne made the distortion he saw in the mirror hideously unremarkable.
Scholastically, Paul Venturi was a heavy weight champion. He tested well. He cruised through Calculus and Honors English and was paroled from high school a full year early. He labored in a world where parental esteem was measured by grade point average. He was a parent's wet dream - the award on the shelf, the diploma on the wall, a source of pride without a trace of willfully rebellious self-identity. He slipped through high school, socially illiterate, completely untouched or unscarred by adolescent experience. By the high standard that most teenagers judged themselves abnormal, Paul was a freak of nature.
Under the September sun, the day unfolded with cool deliberation. Through a curving maze of narrow roads, the family wagon found its way to Paul's new residence - a smaller castle crested on the side of a hill. Crowds of parents and freshmen washed ashore from the parking lot, unloading cars like Mayflower pilgrims colonizing the New World, hauling their mini refrigerators and television sets across the courtyard in a frantic attempt to civilize the fortresses abandoned by their previous residents. The invading faces were young, immigrants leaving home, many for the first time.
They passed each other with cool regard, avoiding glances, quietly evaluating their surroundings, remaining anonymous. The presence of adults made them invisible to one another. Their parents, on the other hand, stepped over themselves to exchange cheerful pleasantries. Paul’s stepfather complained about the heat, the traffic, and the lack of administrative organization to anyone who would listen. Meanwhile, Paul's mother followed up with polite rebuttals trying to compensate for her husband's gruffness. Paul blended in with the rest of his freshman class, suitcase in hand, head lowered in silent humiliation.
His heart sank as he unlocked his door. His dorm room was little more than a ten by twelve foot prison cell. In one corner was a bunk bed: a black girder frame and two ratty thin mattresses with naked horizontal stripes and brown stains. A porcelain sink protruded from the wall, pipes and all. Two wooden desks sat at odd angles, antiques that probably survived the Civil War. The cinder-block walls were painted puke green. Cobwebs hung like tightropes from the corners of the ceiling. A stale orange light bathed the room, sunlight filtered through the yellowed window shade. A single naked light bulb protruded from the ceiling. The room had an overabundance of rustic charm.
Alarmed by the sight of it, Paul's mother set out to the car to retrieve her cleaning supplies. She swept the floor, dusted the furnishings, cleaned the window ledge, and scrubbed the sink. She was a woman with a conscience for tidiness. Against her son's protests and her husband’s criticism, she measured and cut plastic lining paper for his dresser drawers. Ahead of schedule, Paul was mortified again. Guys shouldn’t have plastic lining paper in their dresser drawers.
As Paul hauled a tower of empty boxes back to the station wagon, he entered the stairwell and accidentally collided with another boy who was carrying a milk crate stuffed with record albums. Paul didn't see him behind the stack of boxes, and the tower tumbled to the ground. The impact knocked off several of the loose LPs stacked on top of the other boy's milk crate. Paul reflexively apologized as he stooped down to pick up the albums. Scooping them up, he glanced at the covers. Rush, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath: these were bands he was unfamiliar with.
“Sorry about that,” he apologized again, returning the records to the top of the stack.
“No problemo, dude,” the other replied. His dialect was borrowed. The California surf was a continent away. Paul looked up and saw his face for the first time. The image matched the voice. He was slightly taller than Paul, a beautiful kid with tanned skin, flushed cheeks, ocean blue eyes, and a wet tangle of golden hair. Sporting an orange tank top and showing off some prominent biceps, he wore a string of Puka shells around his neck. The outer door was slowly closing behind him. The constant trample of feet had stirred up some dirt outside. A shaft of sunlight poured into the stairwell, the rising dust illuminated around the boy’s head like a golden halo, and for an instant the faux-surfer was surrounded by divine light, which was rather disconcerting.
“You have a lot of albums,” Paul added sheepishly, shading his eyes with his forearm, blinded by the radiant light. "My name is Paul, by the way." He was eager to make his first new friend.
“Yeah, right. Eric, here,” the other boy introduced himself shifting his feet under the weight of the milk crate. "I'm a metalhead, I suppose" he proceeded to inform Paul. "Rock is my god, but not that radio band-candy crap. You should swing by my room later. I'll be firing up the old turn table."
“Sure,” Paul hesitantly agreed, distracted by a flood of subliminal impulses. Colliding with this boy, his guard down, Paul immediately perceived his mind. He tried to suppress this sixth sense, which was more of a curse than a gift, as it was often difficult to separate other people's emotions from his own. It was a challenge to feign ignorance, to navigate endless superficial encounters, a social-survival skill that was vastly under-appreciated.
Eric's emotional pattern seemed deliberately distracted and mischievous, light and sticky like a practical joke. There was this towering wall of confidence surrounding him sustained by willpower alone - a freshmen determined not to be perceived as one. Yet there was something else, something much deeper, something hidden behind that wall.
The outer door closed. The sunlight vanished, and the boy’s face fell into shadow. For a fraction of a second, by some trick of the darkness, another image superimposed over his face. Paul glimpsed a different silhouette. The tangled hair became horns. His bright blue eyes extinguished, leaving flecks of yellow light. A cold shudder raced up Paul’s spine. The hair on his arms stood erect.
Paul sensed something incomprehensible and unfamiliar... two separate personalities. A foreign intelligence was crouching behind the mask of the boy's distracted thoughts. A cunning and quick mind was watching him behind the dark windows of this colorful front porch. It leapt out at Paul with a surge of complex emotions: surprise, malice, and sinister delight. Then it vanished again without a trace. Paul stumbled back a step in shock and confusion. His heart was racing. Summer perspiration turned into a cold sweat.
"Yeah man, when the parental units blow away, we should have ourselves a little celebratory toke. I got some refreshment stashed away for the occasion." With a coy wink and a half raised smile the boy shuffled past Paul and disappeared through the interior door, completely oblivious to Paul’s panic attack.
More freshmen with boxes poured into the stairwell as Paul became self-conscious. He grabbed his boxes and pushed through the outer double door. The logical half of his mind was already rationalizing the disturbance.
‘Great, not even here a whole day and I’m already suffering from freshman anxiety,’ Paul chastised himself. He always had an active imagination. Then another thought occurred to him. Had he really just been propositioned with drugs his first day on campus? Perhaps, that’s what he sensed, the drugs. Shaking it off, Paul returned to the family station wagon like a mule to the quarry.
Hours later the sun was ready to set, the last family dinner was over, and Paul was anxious to say goodbye and move in to his new life. Although he 'd soon be home again for Thanksgiving break, this moment, this farewell, marked the end of his childhood. He was being released from their jail. He was even inclined to forgive them for being so completely miserable, for making his childhood unhappy by osmosis. Family appearances were continually propped up by so much polite self-deception.
His stepfather grabbed his hand and shook it violently, one soldier to another. He never once looked into Paul's eyes as he instructed him to keep his nose clean, whatever that meant. But then, he never really looked at Paul at all. So Paul nodded obsequiously for the last time. He was almost free.
His mother hugged him loosely, a fragile airport embrace between distant relatives. If she wanted to cry, she held back her tears. She was quite proficient at holding back her emotion, channeling it into some form of domestic obsession, reminding Paul to separate his whites from his colors when he does his own laundry. Paul often wondered if he had been secretly adopted, but the resemblance he shared with his mother was undeniable.
As the car pulled away and disappeared down the road, Paul's heart raced with excitement and just a tremor of fear. He was completely on his own. The thought filled him with a perverse sense of joy. He returned to the disorder of his dormitory room. The single naked light bulb illuminated his work as he finished unpacking. The novelty of freedom slowly made room for boredom as passing footsteps and distant conversations echoed through the walls. And still there was no sign of his roommate.
Paul wandered down the hallway on his way to the communal bathroom. Eric’s door was wide open. His stereo was blaring music into the hallway, AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell,” just a cacophony of screaming guitars and Satanic verses which Paul found both ridiculous and disturbing. He was going to quietly glide by the open door when the boy suddenly emerged from the frame, sunburned, shirtless, and smiling.
“Dude... I wondered if you were gonna show. I’m cranking the tunes. Yah interested in a little herbal refreshment?” His eyes were already narrow bloodshot slits as he leaned coyly into Paul to whisper under the music, offering him marijuana.
“Ah, no… sorry… actually... I’ve got a lot more unpacking left to do,” Paul lied. He stepped aside and glided backwards towards the men's room, shrugging his shoulders to look more convincing. Then he turned around to escape.
Eric was unconcerned, stretching his body, grabbing the top of the frame, hanging in the doorway. “OK, catch you later then, when you’re like totally bored.”
And then, in the back of his mind, Paul distinctly heard something in Eric’s voice, something Eric never actually uttered. “... when you're ready to surrender.”
Paul turned around. The little hairs on the back of his neck were standing up again. He felt that strange cunning presence leap into his mind, catching him in his lie, and calling him out. Eric was still hanging in the doorway, grinning broadly with stoned amusement. He slipped back into his room and closed the door, just as the foreign intelligence slipped away and closed a different door. As Paul shuffled into the bathroom, he wondered if he just imagined it. Was he going crazy? Was he really ready for life at college?