Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 4.9]

About a month before summer, I was still trying to decide what I wanted to do next. Grad school was high on my list, although I wasn’t sure which program to apply to, and I’d also applied to two dolphin-training openings at parks nowhere near my hometown. I was in a sort of holding-pattern. I jumped when Grandma Jane and Grandpa Martin invited me to fly to San Diego with them to attend a national softball convention there for a week. The night we arrived, Grandpa went to a meeting and ran into someone who said they had brought along their granddaughter who was about my age—a very nice young lady and straight A student from the University of Pennsylvania. They conspired that we should befriend each other, and so we were going to have breakfast with them in the morning.

“Ugh,” was my first thought. I was looking forward to exploring the city a little on my own and did not want to be trapped with some boring girl, one I probably wouldn’t click with at all—or worse, get stuck with a goody-goody, like Bridget McDunn.

I was skeptical meeting Danielle the next morning. She had long brown hair and a face full of freckles. Neither of us opened up much at breakfast. Our grandparents kept prompting us to talk about our accomplishments, but since we were both reluctant, they bragged on our behalves. Danielle seemed like a goody-goody alright. Our grandparents decided we should all make a trip to Tijuana together after breakfast.

Once we were all walking together in downtown Tijuana, Danielle told everyone she wanted to check out a shop across the street because she was looking for a gift for her boyfriend. Our grandparents said they were going to check out the art gallery next to it, and I followed Danielle. She traipsed right into the store and bee-lined to a glass case. To my great surprise, it was full of very exotic looking bongs, which she told our grandparents were “decorative tobacco pipes” that you couldn’t really smoke out of. I giggled at this. The ice was broken, and she wanted to see the city with me the next day.

We caught an early bus, walked around a bit downtown, and then found a Chinese restaurant for lunch. As we sat down with our trays, Danielle admitted she’d had the same gut reaction I’d had when her grandparents gave her their spiel about me. “Ugh. I bet she’s an annoying goody-goody.” After two bites, the conversation turned to the bong she’d bought and whether or not I smoked. Flashing back to that awful trip in Philly I’d spent under the bed, I confessed it really wasn’t my favorite drug. I told her I’d had a lot more fun on acid. Her eyes popped out and she let egg noodles fall out of her mouth. “Well, now isn’t this auspicious,” she said with flare. “I just happen to have some acid in my purse right now. It was a going-away gift from my boyfriend. I was hoping the right moment might come along…” At the sight of her acid, my eyes popped out and I let egg noodles fall out of my mouth.

Snickering and agreeing we probably shouldn’t eat anything else if we were going to take the acid, we strolled right into the bathroom and dropped. Then we looked for a safe little bar to hide out in. And we waited. The acid came on really strong and we had to leave the bar because we couldn’t control our giggles. Downtown San Diego was beautiful. We spent several hours sitting on a pier at the bay. We learned a tremendous amount about each other that day, and I got the impression she and her boyfriend perhaps had a more serious drug problem than she let on. They did a lot of coke and he had been unemployed for over a year now. About sunset, we knew we’d better get back to the hotel before our grandparents called a search team for us, even though they were the last people we wanted to see right then.

Thankfully, they were at a social event and very intoxicated when we got back, so we said we were going into the hot tub. We stayed there until the stars were out and talked about what a great connection we had with each other. Then a strange, annoying drunk guy got in the hot tub with us, wrecking our vibe. Danielle said she could tell the acid was wearing off, and she asked me if I wanted to go smoke some pot to “kick our buzz back up a notch.” I told her my fears that it would make me paranoid. She assured me she’d take good care of me. Besides, this was “really good shit,” she promised.

Against my better judgment, we ended up in some bushes behind the hotel where two hotel workers were already smoking out. After two drags, I was fucked and wanted to get the hell away from those guys. Danielle and I found a bench tucked away far from our grandparents’ rooms and I told her I felt totally creepy. She told me I just needed to think of something really happy, but nothing came to mind.

Perking up excitedly, she said, “What about the Twiddle bugs? Remember them? They lived in Ernie’s window box.”

“Umm, no,” I said, but something had struck a chord.

So, in her best Twiddle bug voice, Danielle cooed, “Oh Moooommy, Daaaaaddy, Tiiiiimmy Twiddle bug! What are we going to do today? Let’s do something fun! How about the zoo? Oh yes, the zoo! Can we really go to the zoo today, Daddy? Yes, alright, let’s walk to the zooooo! No, let’s swim to the zooooo! No, let’s FLY to the zooooo. Oh my, let’s just take the family car!”

Suddenly, an extremely vivid memory of the Twiddle bugs—buried for fifteen years—came tunneling up. Better still, I was transported into Ernie’s window box with them. I was instantly overjoyed, to be with those beautiful, sweet, loving, pure-of-heart, little Twiddle bugs. I was pure and innocent and five again. It was the most intense feeling of nostalgia I’d ever had times a thousand. I also utterly adored Danielle at that moment. If it wasn’t for her, that memory may have never been unlocked for me to enjoy. How many other wonderful memories were locked up in there? I hoped I’d find more.

I gave Danielle a huge hug and thanked her for being so kind to me. The next thing I knew, we were kissing. It was a foreign experience and I was surprised by how soft her lips and skin were and how sweet her breath was. Her hand was burning a hole in my thigh as I wove my fingers gently into her silky long hair. The kiss was long and ended naturally. Giggling, we held hands back to our rooms and said good night.

The rest of the week together was a blast, yet neither of us initiated anything more physically. Danielle confessed some serious shit to me about her deepest insecurities, her boyfriend that she loved but knew was an addict, her lost dreams, her disillusionment in life, and her own inclination to use drugs to escape. Her vulnerability was intense.

I thought about Danielle for months and months afterward. I wanted to stay close to her. She made me wonder what it would be like to have a real relationship with a woman. My feelings for her were kind of similar to those I’d had with men, but the pressure to give of myself sexually was absent. The bond felt genuine and honest and beautiful. Could I love a woman?

After San Diego, I thought a lot about what would really make me happy. I followed up on the marine animal-training jobs, and without experience or a connection, was unable to get an interview. What could I do well that would also give me joy? As much as I didn’t mind rats or pigeons, something told me I wouldn’t be happy locked up in a lab doing research. I’d loved being an R.A. and had friends who’d gone on to Higher Education Administration programs. I could definitely see myself working as a professional in Residence Life. Having decided on an area of study, something told me to see if the university I’d started and left in Florida had a program. They did. The thought of being able to “do over” what I hadn’t been ready to handle years before also motivated me. I didn’t research my options much further. As a personal challenge to myself, I applied to their program.

A week after applying, I received a call from the secretary of a program in Florida. She said, “Hello. Is Michelle Dean there please?”

“Yes. I’m Michelle.”

“Hi. I’m calling because there is some confusion surrounding your application. The recipient’s name on the address says ‘Higher Education Administration Program,’ but the location on the address belongs to our office, not to mention your essay sounds like it pertains to an area of research in our field. So, I’m wondering…which program did you mean to apply to?”

“Well, I meant to apply to the Higher Ed. program, but what program are you with?” I was surprised to learn there was another program so similar.

“We are the Educational Psychology department.”

“Oh? What is that exactly?” Because I’d never taken an education class before, I’d never heard of it.

Marilyn went on to explain it was an applied field of psychology that involved using all of the domains of psychology—learning, cognition, developmental, personality, social, and the brain sciences—to improve teaching and learning in the K-12 classrooms. I did love psychology and could see myself teaching. The purpose and possible difference this work could make really inspired me. So I made a split decision.

“Wow, Marilyn, I had no idea this field even existed, but it does sound like something I would like to pursue. Can you transfer my materials down to your department?”

And, with that, I’d changed my area of study. A few days before I left for Florida again, on my way home from waitressing, I stopped by a tattoo parlor and had a small blue dolphin placed on my ankle, so that one would always be with me.

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