My first weekend in college, I swam across a local lake with one of my new mates from the basketball team. It was and still is the only time I’ve swam across a lake. 

From the beach to the floating dock on the opposite shore. Two 18-year-old males showing off for each other, having fun, only worrying about turtles snapping at our goods. Or about snakes. At least, if you’re me. (And I am me.) 

A third, my dorm roommate I’d also just met, a 6’9” state champion basketball player from the Quad Cities, withdrew early. He went back to the car and drove around the lake, finding his way to the dock we’d targeted upon go.

My first weekend in college, I also was cited for minor in possession of alcohol. In a dry town in this rural, rural corner of cornfield Iowa. 

Along with me, a young, sandy-haired church kid named Nathan. It’s possible he mistook me for being churchy-good just the same. Rather, I was anti. In no small part due to it being forced upon me for the first 18 years of my life. No more and not since.

Nathan was likewise from the Midwest. We’d known each other a little from previous summers’ church-vibed sports competition camps at the college we were now attending as freshmen student-athletes. He played soccer.

That Saturday night would be the last time we’d ever hang out, ever have a conversation. He must have decided – or maybe his parents did, if he told them about our run-in with the local law – that I wasn’t the kind of influence he ought to be around. 

I felt kind of bad about that. Also judged. Misunderstood a little. Probably understood well enough. To hold some blame, anyway. I mean, he was there of his volition. But it was my pint of Jim Beam and my idea and my car. And,

It was my coming from a rural culture of underaged drinking on the fly, on country roads, in the woods and down dark lanes. It was all normal and nothing to me. I’d been doing such things for years with my friends from home. 

Maybe he was in over his head and trying to find his way now that he’d started college, a young man out on his own, unsure of who he is and who he belongs with. 

Maybe he’d never actually wanted to be in that car with me but ended up saying yes against his better instincts. Maybe all in all I helped to make things clear, “This ain’t it, son.”

We were parked on a gravel road that looped around the town’s water tanks. I saw the cop coming from behind and started to drive, hoping to be left alone if I moved on. No luck. 

The cherries twirled, lighting up the night. Just us and him out there in the dark, but for one dim streetlamp. He knew what he needed to know to trust his suspicions, having been a cop in a quiet religious college town for more than long enough.

“Cop.” Constable on patrol, some say. I learned that that night when, as I sat in the passenger seat of his car while he wrote out the citation, I used the word “cop.” I stopped myself, trying to reel it back and replace it with “police officer.” For whatever reason. Is “cop” pejorative? I didn’t know, but somehow it seemed like it was less than.

He said, “That’s okay. Do you know what ‘cop’ means?” 

And I learned. My first weekend in college. 

It would be the beginning of a fraught life chapter for me. Illness and injuries would loosen the anchor of my identity as a basketball player, for the first time. With a quickness. Before the season even started.

My coach didn’t really care. I learned quickly that I was excess, that I probably should have chosen a different school for a ball career. He didn’t really mind that he’d read my name in the newspaper for the MIP rap, either. 

“It’s the ones who don’t get caught that I worry about,” he said to me. Like the former Division I guy on the team, a 6’8” center for us, who looked as if he were 35 years old, weathered and hairline receding. He was a drug addict being supplied by his sister in Ohio via the U.S. Postal Service.

He would show up to practice high. One day, I received a pass at the top of the key while we were running an offensive play. The addict, on defense, sprinted up the lane at me. He seemed to think he could beat the pass, intercept it and have an easy fastbreak dunk on the other end of the court. 

Instead, steps behind the pace of reality, as I stood already holding the ball above my head with both hands, he charged through me, gripping my left bicep, which he mistook for the basketball, and attempted to run down the court with my arm in hand. When my arm did not detach or work like a basketball, and when the veterans on the team yelled at him, knowing he was high, the addict laughed maniacally, oblivious to his impact.

That guy. That’s who the coach was worried about. Not me. Not my underaged snafu. Not my arm. And when I’d soon get sick with mononucleosis, not my need to redshirt my freshman season. Nonetheless,

My first weekend in college, after being tapped with that simple misdemeanor, I’d dutifully, I thought, gone to Coach to own up, tail between legs, assuming the hammer would drop, as it would have at home at any prior time in my life. 

I was well versed in the weight of criticism and mea culpas. A youth full of it. It would take me decades to learn that not every adult or authority figure in my life has a hammer at the ready, and that I could relax my hypervigilance. It would take me decades to understand people pleasing, its formation and fallacies and consequences.

Socially I would never feel like I belonged at that tiny private liberal-arts school with a Bible bent. An alma mater of my parents, a brother and a grandmother. I’d transfer schools, then commit to a different one a year later before impulsively transferring back to where it all started, with only a week to spare before my junior year. 

Unsettled energy was the undercurrent. With girls and alcohol and my future. With my parents. Within myself. I was shown, if not explicitly told: Go to and graduate from college (and get a job, get married, have kids, go to church, retire in 40 to 50 years … A good, stable, predictable life). 

I didn’t yet know how to cultivate a suitable rebuttal. I didn’t know anyone who had. So I kept being a college student. At one campus or another. Looking for the exit while also staying the course for the time being.

Before my freshman year was done, my parents had split. My dad had moved out of the family home I’d known from ages 1 to 18. They’d wrap the divorce around my 19th birthday. Nothing was the same after that.

I suppose the fact is, looking back now with 30 years’ remove and the ebbs and flows of my adult life, it seems nothing really ever was the same 

after my first weekend in college.

The First Weekend is #Seven in the weekly memoir series, Among Other Things. What’s it about? Read Introducing ‘Among Other Things,’ A Weekly Memoir Series.