My favorite part of college was always summer. Not just because I hated going to class (although I really hated going to class), but because the southern college town I lived in emptied out and slowed down, leaving the remaining residents to enjoy the local bars and apartment complex pools without much competition. The summer before my senior year, I was excited to spend my last pre-adult summer living alone for the first time—all my roommates in my suite-style dorm were moving back home until fall.
Then I met Ben.
Ben sucked, in that particular way that some men in their thirties suck that reads as charming to 21-year-old women they want to have sex with: He had consumed an extra decade of pop culture and had lots of opinions about it, to which he wanted a young woman to listen. I don’t remember how we met, but it was probably at a bar. I was still young enough to feel flattered by the approval of a man so much older and who, at the time, seemed so smart.
Ben had a side gig as a writer, which is what I was hoping to turn myself into one day, and we went to lots of movies, probably so he could tell me about them afterward. I listened dutifully to his observations and advice about the world—mansplaining was not a part of the cultural vernacular just yet, and although he did most of the talking, I was naive enough to still feel special that a man his age wanted to tell me about art and music and life, as though he had judged me smart enough to understand.
Our fling started early in the summer and I quickly started fantasizing about he and I becoming more serious. But by July, Ben had moved on to a different girl of the same age—and I was crushed. I’d gotten used to seeing myself as I imagined he saw me: young but mature, charming, smart beyond my years, special. It never occurred to me that maybe he just liked easy targets, and that a college town full of very young women who’d prefer a slightly more adult alternative to their male classmates gave him plenty of options.
Frankly, I was surprised at how much the split smarted. I had been in multiple long-term relationships by that point, and had never been the type to catch feelings for a fling before properly sussing out the situation. I was also more than a little ashamed for caring as much as I did, about someone who had apparently not cared for me. Our relationship felt like a trick that I had fallen for.
So, as a salve, I bought myself a mammoth new television set.
I know—it sounds nuts. But to my mind back then, this big purchase was the most sensible next step: I had worked after school at Best Buy for a couple years, and my proximity to status technology, combined with my predilection for solving problems by throwing money at them—even when I didn’t have money, which I never did; even when the problem couldn’t be solved with money, which it never could—meant I’d accumulated a medium-impressive assortment of gadgets and DVDs of movies.
If my feelings for Ben had been the only thing I lost my grip on that summer, I probably would have waited until I had saved up, or at least until I moved off campus to a bigger apartment in the fall. But the week after the breakup, I added injury to insult: I stepped in a hole and a dislocated my ankle, which required me to summon a different ex to take me to the hospital. It was summer, after all, and only a handful of the people I trusted enough to see me in a paper gown were even in town.
Because my retail job required me to stand, healing meant taking unpaid weeks off work. That meant I was not only newly single, but also homebound. I had no roommates to keep me company, nothing to do all day, and no paychecks padding my account. I became deeply depressed as quickly as the human mind can travel; I remember thinking to myself that I understood why someone might abuse their prescriptions. At least chemicals would take the edge off the loneliness that had quickly replaced all of my other thoughts and feelings.
Instead of filling a prescription for painkillers I didn’t need—this was 2007, when doctors were giving out opioids like candy—my brain saw an opening to do something far less dangerous but still incredibly stupid, which was to buy that TV to keep me company while I couldn’t work. And so, even though I couldn’t really afford it, I slapped down my credit card.
In the living room of my dorm suite, on its tacky glass TV stand, my purchase took up a majority of the space and glowed during all hours of the day. If my new roommate was obnoxious, I didn’t care: It was beautiful and bright and made the space around me less empty. Plus, that summer was the heyday of VH1 reality show gold: Rock of Love, Flavor of Love and Charm School. I watched for hours, lounging too close to the screen and recording everything on my TiVo, just in case I hit a dry patch in the cable lineup in the middle of the night.
The less time I spent thinking about people having fun without me or the man I was obsessed with who was dating someone new, the better. For weeks, I absorbed the petty squabbles of first-generation reality stars, personally investing myself in the genre’s nascent folk heroes. Laid up and heartbroken in a town with only a fraction of its normal population, my giant new TV and the drama playing out within filled both the empty space around me and the endless, empty attention I wanted to be giving to people who weren’t there.
Looking back, it seems like the TV served as an escape from more than just my heart and my ankle. Though I was excited to be nearly done with school, especially in that period before the 2008 financial collapse when things still looked promising for young people embarking on new careers—it’s unsettling to wait for your life to change. The quotidian disappointments of being grown were starting to press in on me: romantic rejection, the fallibility of the human body, the uncertainty of where I’d be in a year. Everyone uses TV to escape. But usually there is guilt attached to the time spent on the couch, because it means we’re not outside, living life. Young adulthood can feel like uncontrollable forward propulsion, and being forced to sit still for a little while was its own kind of gift. With nothing to do but sit and wait, I didn’t have to feel bad about binging.
By summer’s end, my ankle healed. So did my heart. My friends moved back, my depression lifted. Life went on. Years later, I gave the TV to my parents when I moved from Atlanta to a tiny shared apartment in New York; by then, I had learned some practical lessons about huge televisions in small spaces. When I finally got my first roommate-free Brooklyn apartment last year, though, I bought another giant TV. I have the space to accommodate it now, and you never what fate might be coming around the corner and can only be solved by hours upon hours of Vanderpump Rules.