“We’ve been talking for a few months, but he’s not ready to commit,” my roommate Maggie* explained as she drove me past miles of cornfields on our way from the Cedar Rapids airport to Iowa City. We’d known each other for 20 minutes, since she’d met me at baggage claim and helped me heave my two enormous suitcases into the car, and we were now discussing her current romantic predicament.
I first assumed that by “talking” she meant that she’d been literally speaking to this boy, or possibly texting with him, so I was shocked at the obvious sexual tension brewing between the pair when I met the guy in question later that day, when he came to our spacious apartment to meet the new roommate from New York.
“I thought you guys were just talking,” I whispered to my roommate when he was in the bathroom.
She just laughed. “Talking,” it turns out, is Midwestern slang for “seeing each other casually but not in an official relationship.” Maggie is from a tiny farm town in Illinois with Victorian-style houses and its own town pedophile, but I’ve heard the saying from people who are from Chicago to Colorado, and everywhere in between. The sentence “Mandy talks to Alex” means that Mandy is physically intimate with Alex, and perhaps they think of each other as exclusive sex partners, or whatever, but they’re not officially a couple. I spent the rest of the week puzzled when anybody used the verb “to talk,” struggling to differentiate between platonic and the romantic talking; context, it turns out, is everything.
There’s a saying here in Iowa that if you’re unhappy with the weather, you should just wait a minute, because it’ll change. My first full day in Iowa, it hovered at around minus-7 degrees Farenheit, although my weather app informed me that it felt more like minus-26. In the morning I dressed in a silk undershirt, a sweater set, and a plaid felt skirt. After pairing the ensemble with fleece-lined tights, thick socks, winter boots, a hat, gloves, a scarf, and my heaviest coat, I figured I was as ready as I’d ever be. I nodded solemnly at myself in the mirror, knowing that this could be the last time I would ever gaze at myself with both a nose and a full set of fingers.
Outside, it wasn’t so much my core, legs, or even extremities that were cold—it was my face. The one inch of exposed skin on my forehead immediately began to ache and sting, a feeling that only intensified when the wind picked up. The cold cut straight to my brain, making everything glow. Head bowed, I managed to stagger across the flat, wide blocks to the Prairie Lights Bookstore, where I was to pick up textbooks. (Prairie Lights also hosts a reading series that I’ll be frequenting this semester.)
As I trudged along the icy sidewalk, I passed a few other intrepid pedestrians in similar distress.
“Fuck…this,” one managed to say as he struggled to put one foot in front of the other against the whipping wind. I just nodded in solidarity, unable to manage any words from the depths of my scarf.
Later that day, when I mentioned my love for cornfields and prairies in response to Maggie and my other roommate Tammy’s questions about why I’d come to Iowa, they laughed hysterically.
“Let’s go,” Tammy said, leaping up and grabbing her car keys. (She couldn’t believe, by the way, that I don’t drive; she’s had her permit since she was 14.)
“Is this a public cornfield?” I asked in disbelief when Tammy parked her car by the side of the narrow, winding road, in front of an expanse of dead, but still majestic, corn. All around us were fields, blissfully flat and endless. We climbed out and trod carefully over the icy mud. And then there was the corn, taller than I was; as high, in fact, as an elephant’s eye. I stroked it lovingly. There was so much of it, and everything was totally quiet, except for the sound of Maggie’s and Tammy’s chattering teeth. It was the closest to heaven I’ve ever been.
I’m in two literature classes and two writing classes: a fiction workshop and the Undergraduate Essay Workshop, taught by a member of the M.F.A. faculty. In all of my classes, we introduced ourselves and said where we were from, and everyone gasped when I said I was from New York; this was especially true in my class on 9/11 literature. I felt unspeakably cool, like a movie star who goes undercover at a suburban high school and whose identity is later revealed at prom or something. (I think I stole that plot from a Meg Cabot book.)
I, in turn, gasped when in my comparative literature class—and in every subsequent class—the syllabus included a section on what to do in case of a tornado (don’t stand near a window, apparently). I also gasped when we had to evacuate the building during my first class—that same one—due to a rumored bomb threat. Standing outside the English-Philosophy Building, feeling my toes freeze and break off one by one and listening to the members of the women’s tennis team locate one another from their various locations in the crowd as though through birdsong (in fact, they made chirpy vocalizations: “Mandy!” “Tiffany!” “Claire!”), I made peace with my imminent death. The irony, I mused, was pretty hilarious: I go to Iowa to avoid terrorism, and of course it’s right there waiting for me. When we were allowed back inside 10 minutes later, I silently thanked the universe for reminding me that no place is safe.
Because I’m in upper-level classes, two of which include graduate students, the level of discussion is almost as high as at the University. I did switch out of my first fiction workshop because I was outraged by a superficial, somewhat racist discussion of Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl,” but I found the new section more agreeable. My classmates, however, take a less critical lens of the texts we read, and discussions of privilege—specifically racial—are largely absent in the classroom, perhaps because all of my classes are so overwhelmingly white.
In the past week, I’ve seen both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders speak; Demi Lovato sang for Hillary, and Vampire Weekend performed for—and with—Bernie. Few things in my life have been cuter than seeing him sing and sort of bop along to “This Land is Your Land” with the various bands who’d come to support him and the University of Iowa Hawkapellas.
On Monday, I went with my two Democratic roommates to our caucus site, a recreation center a block from our apartment, while my third roommate, a Republican, went to caucus elsewhere for Dr. Ben Carson.
The rec center was packed with people, many sporting Bernie gear; importantly, one woman wore a shirt with perhaps 50 images of Bernie’s face, in various emotional expressions, plastered on it. After registering—it was as easy as filling out a form with my address in Iowa—we filed into an enormous gym packed with people and waited. And waited. Finally, the woman who was in charge ordered the crowd to physically move to one side of the room for Sanders, another side for Clinton, and a final side for O’Malley.
It took about 10 minutes to form groups. I migrated toward the crush of people for Sanders, which I later found out numbered over 400; fewer than 100 caucus-goers had come for Clinton, and way fewer supported O’Malley.
When the woman in charge announced that neither Clinton nor O’Malley had received enough support to be considered viable candidates at our site (those candidates would have needed 15 percent of the room’s support), many on the Sanders side of the room erupted in cheers.
“BERNIE, BERNIE, BERNIE,” many began to chant.
Our civic duty completed, we went home to watch the news.
Things that make me apoplectic
A Trump “Make America Great Again” banner hangs from a fraternity house near my apartment. I’ve met a small handful of people who don’t believe in white privilege and have heard of even more who share this belief. This phenomenon makes me feel torn; I came to Iowa to learn about people in another part of the country, and I’m incredibly privileged to be awarded the amount of invisibility that I am. My privilege is such that I can understand people’s thinking from a place of curiosity rather than a place of defense. But even though these beliefs horrify and offend me, is it my place to act as a liberal missionary? I tend to think not; I’d prefer to ask questions, gently raise relevant issues, and take notes. (I would never pretend to agree, but isn’t silence agreement?) I’m still working out these questions and thinking of ways to provide my own knowledge in a way that feels respectful (gently correcting someone who uses incorrect terminology, for example).
On a wholly separate note, it also makes me quite angry when each person in a 10-person line has a lengthy conversation with the cashier at the library café. It fills me with rage when people dawdle on the sidewalk and when strangers slow me down by engaging me in conversation. I’m trying, however, to become more Iowan and kind.