You are sitting on the couch that doubles as your bed when your mami hands you the envelope marked THIS IS THE BIG ONE. You’re eighteen, and here is the college acceptance letter you’ve been waiting for, the one from your dream school in Chicago.
Over 1,300 miles south—to Hialeah, Florida—this letter traveled to glisten in your hands, with flattering phrases like: You were one of thousands of applicants and You’re the crème de la crème. Your mami hugs you hard in her bleach-stained uniform, and you scream together, bouncing up and down like ping-pong balls for almost an hour. You’ll finally see snow.
The next day you sign the paperwork in your best cursive and slip it carefully into an envelope, as if it’s a winning lottery ticket. When you toss it into the mailbox, you think: This is too good to be true.
Over the summer, you buy a thick winter hat and gather all the books you own, from Harry Potter to Beloved. Each is a talisman, and you pack them gently into a suitcase, one by one. The day of your flight, your mami sobs uncontrollably at the airport, but you don’t cry at all.
You don’t cry because you’ve earned this. Because you’re poor, and you’re Latin, and your dad ran off with the neighbor, yet you still killed it on the SAT—you are clearly destined for greatness. You don’t cry because you are dying to leave your barrio, dying to leave that couch you sleep on. Because even though it’s scary, you know this fancy school is where you were always meant to be.
When you move into your dorm, conversation is easier than you expected. You can talk about European literature and art history, can name-drop every dead virtuoso who ever picked up a quill or a paintbrush; you can quote Chaucer and Dante, can easily recount the life stories—every tiny detail—about Gauguin, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Seurat, and Pissarro. Your opener—“Did you know Gauguin briefly lived with Van Gogh in a tiny house in the South of France?”—proves you belong.
In November, you ace your film studies midterm and strut back to your dorm in your new North Face jacket and Uggs, purchased with the $400 your mom sent after pawning her earrings. She wanted you to be ready for the cold.
On the way up to your floor, you notice the indentations on each step and think about all the feet that have climbed them, all the winter boots, so much snow to prepare for. You slink towards the bathroom and, as you get closer, you hear some rumbling from a dorm room nearby. You recognize the high-pitched voice of the cello-player from Greenwich seeping out of a cracked door: “You guys know what’s really surprising? That Natalie girl—the one from Miami—is super smart. I didn’t expect that at all.”
As you listen a few feet away, you wait for the rebuff, for someone to ask: But what makes you say that about her? But it never comes, no pushback at all. Instead you hear a chorus of: “Yeah, what a surprise.”
You tiptoe back to your room, What. A. Surprise echoing in your head.
In high school, you once had a dream about college. Autumn leaves snapped beneath your feet, and ripped, shirtless frat guys threw frisbees around the sorority quad. You swam in the chlorinated water of a campus pool nearby. Your round body—the circumference of which felt like the entire world itself—always seemed destined to float, to rise above the surface. What you remember most from that dream, though, is that you were surrounded by people. Your new friends all floating alongside you, freely, limbs spread like stars.
The inside of your dorm room is muggy when you plop onto your bed. The heat suffocates your skin, so you unzip your North Face and throw it across the room. It lands on your roommate’s desk, almost knocks over her laptop. You want to get up and grab the jacket but your body can’t seem to move. You sit still, sinking into the mattress, trying to remember what it felt like to float.
Eventually, you turn and glance out the window. The sky is gray, almost white. You’ve read about this, about this exact moment: the turning of seasons, the freezing of water vapor, ice particles.
It’s finally starting to snow.
Natalie Lima, a 2016 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow and VONA/Voices alum, is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona. Her essays and fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Longreads, Guernica, Catapult, The Offing, and elsewhere. She is currently writing a memoir-in-essays about the absurdities of living in a body. To hear her messy thoughts, find her on Twitter @NatalieLima09.
Photo by Paul Bilger