Life in Kenna
By Dena Casella, who graduated in May. For more of her work see “E Kala Mai Ia’u: A Reflection on Paddling,” at kauaibackstory.blogspot.com.
The Air Was Good Enough to Eat
Autumn smelt like fatigue and anxiety and popcorn. Like sharpies and highlighters, dry-erase markers smearing rubbery whiteboards, freshly printed books. The smells lingered in the hallways and soaked into the dense carpet. Fall smelt like frustration and perspiration and deodorizing sticks, like microwaveable hot chocolate, like the mildewing knit of old hardback books, like damp hampers filled with the week’s wet-weathered attire. Like chapel candles and sandalwood incense and burnt dust from unchanged vacuum bags and the river and last night’s rain. Like powdered laundry detergent, dusty couch cushions, and chilled linoleum. Like sweet barbeque sauce and frying oil soaking into cardboard Cove containers, like eager ferns pushing their way through window screens, like crushed blue billiard-chalk. Like muddy, grassgreened athletic shoes, wet clay, hot clothes from a dryer, rain-washed pavement. Like the cold rust of the basement stairs crumbling like brown sugar.
Wednesday was hamburger day in the Commons and the whole campus smelled like picnic holidays, like Independence Day and Memorial Day and any hot summer afternoon. Wednesday air was good enough to eat. Spring smelt like crayons sweating in wooden drawers and incense in the chapel and the chocolate and macadamia nut butter and sliced salted mango and hibiscus tea that came to me in packages from home in Hawaii.
Singing Joyously Off-Key
From my room in Kenna I could hear cars in the parking lot, buses on Willamette Boulevard, dumpster lids slamming, country music twanging, people of various shapes and densities walking and running in the hall, toilets flushing, the squeak of moist rubber bathroom sandals, showers showering on people singing joyously off-key. I heard girls crying about boys, laughing about boys, complaining about boys, and taunting boys. I heard freshmen crying in their rooms.
In the basement I heard dryer doors locking, people pounding on the retired chapel piano, the blasting television, and study groups explaining their classroom scribbles. Hard-toed black boots stomping and echoing on the steel staircase as Army and Air Force cadets ran up and down. I heard laughter. Sometimes I could hear crickets in the ivy and grass outside. In the winter I heard rain, and Christmas music from different rooms creating a cheerfully mismatched holiday jingle, and people sighing and moaning about exams. I heard Christmas wish lists whispered and secret Santas revealed. I heard more phone calls to students from home. I heard good-bye and see ya later, and the zipping of luggage.
I heard prayers and psalms and readings from good books and earnest preaching just when I thought faith was low and goodness lost.
The Greatest Sleeper of All Time
One evening I found a newspaper heap moving gently and breathing evenly in Kenna’s lobby. I assumed it was Joe. Joe always slept on the couch in the lobby. He was the only student who could endure it for more than a few minutes. He could sleep or slouch or sit on that couch for hours. Everyone else in Kenna was astonished. I was awed and perplexed. Did he lack a nervous system? Could he not feel the prickly knit of the couch on his skin? Did disks not shift in his back from the dilapidated springs and cottonless cushions? Did his nose not function? Could he not smell the bland stench of dust and the mingled indented odors left by the hundreds of Kennans who had sprawled on the couch? We could not tell and he did not speak. Seasons changed and temperatures fluctuated but Joe remained: regardless of time, temperature, or noise level, Joe slept on the couch. We began to wonder — would anything wake Joe?
The tests began with newspapers. The boys from his wing covered Joe with The Oregonian, The New York Times, The Columbian, The Beacon, and The Bend Bulletin. Joe slept all night and woke, as usual, moments before class. Then we tried books, first paperbacks and then hardcovers. He slept. We tried clothing: every single piece of his own clothing stacked atop him until he was a fabric fortress. He slept. We tried cans of food, not on him but stacked around him, outlining his slumbering silhouette. He slept. Loud music? He slept. Finally the boys picked the couch up and moved it far away but Joe never woke in the voyage. He slept and slept and slept. Maybe he is the greatest sleeper of all time.
Liquid Was a Skin
I think I might have dried out and died without my dorm-room desk. That was my freshman year. I’d never experienced dry skin until the winter drained my Hawai’ian fluidity and left my flesh a forlorn bristle.
I was at home in humid air with salty breezes. My skin always glistened and dripped with perspiration. Liquid was a skin. Everything stuck to me: leather couches, fallen leaves, lint, dog hair, cat hair, ink from newspapers and magazines. My sweat glued me to things and sometimes to beings. Oregon’s air had hints of humidity and spurts of moisture, but nothing like the torrential downpours of perspiration in Hawai’i.
Nothing adhered to me here — except my desk in Kenna. My desk was cool and soft and it stuck to me and sometimes I would clear everything off and lay dry limbs upon it. It was the only thing I could rely on when I was a freshman far from home. Maybe because it was stuck to the walls and had been for years it yearned for my touch. It felt like hardened silk and it had a lacquered twinkle and I remember it with affection and respect. That was an excellent desk.
Kenna is a Sweater
Kenna Hall is a mousetrap, an old bomb shelter, a sanctuary to the homesick and unprepared. Its very shape, a vast X, directs people to the center, the communal belly. The building forces you to meet people. Its sharp corners and narrow corridors are perfect for friendly running-into-people. It’s a clever building. It is confusing and difficult to navigate and not unlike a castle. It’s like a sweater that your Granny knits you. First you are shocked at its dimensions and coloring, and you have difficulty finding access, and then you try it on, and the more you wear it the more comfortable it is and the better it fits, and sometimes it’s scratchy and irritating, but that’s the price for handcrafted and homemade, and eventually you realize that it’s a perfect fit. Kenna is like entering an elevator and you’re afraid to start a conversation because this is a temporary space but then one or two people start talking and soon everyone’s laughing.