University of Illinois Coaster

Back when we still lived in Chicago, my husband, Frank, came home from a street market one day with a stack of square ceramic coasters bearing ghostly photo collages depicting sites of regional interest. There’s a coaster each for the North Side’s Andersonville area, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Goodman Theatre, Evanston’s Northwestern University (my alma mater—go Cats!), and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (Frank’s alma mater—go . . . belted kingfishers I guess?).

The photos in the collages overlap and fade into each other like double exposures. The images are black-and-white with just a single smudge of color per coaster: a streak of red in the Goodman sign, a purple flourish in the stonework of an arch at Northwestern, an orange gown on the Alma Mater statue at the U of I.

I would like to dispose of these coasters because the eerie scenes on their drink-holding surfaces do not, for me, spark joy, as Marie Kondo would say. In fact, they spark unease. 

But unfortunately, you can’t take unilateral action in a marriage without starting a whole thing full of resentments and recriminations, so the creepy coasters remain on our coffee table.

The U of I coaster is the most unsettling because it’s the only one with a humanoid figure floating amid all the gray shadows. The Alma Mater stands with her arms outstretched, recalling graveyard statuary or some specter beckoning you to the eternal embrace of death. 

Anyhow, that’s how she looks on the coaster. She’s not scary in real life. I know from personal experience. Frank showed me the statue when I accompanied him back to Urbana-Champaign for homecoming one year. According to Frank, student lore has it that the statue will finally sit down on the big bronze chair behind her when/if a virgin ever graduates. 

Frank worked as a campus tour guide when he was an undergrad but he assures me that bit of trivia wasn’t part of his spiel to prospective students and their parents. Moms and dads probably don’t want to hear about the keg-fueled orgies funded by tuition payments. 

I don’t know of any landmarks on Northwestern’s campus that have become beloved symbols of that student body’s devotion to horny partying. In fact, I’d be willing to bet there have been plenty of virgin graduates from Northwestern. 

I went back to Champaign with Frank for another homecoming weekend a couple years later, but that was my limit because at one point during that trip, one of Frank’s college friends, with whom we were splitting an Airbnb, screamed at us for our lackluster involvement in the post-tailgate cleanup effort. 

Now, I will admit that I didn’t exactly give it my all. There’s more of the grasshopper than the ant about me when it comes to scraping gunk off a Weber grill or corralling wayward Solo cups. 

But in my defense, I would like to point out that I could have done without the tailgate in the first place. What’s more, I guarantee you that I partook the least of whatever was on that grill or in those cups during the game. And, finally, I do not like being yelled at, especially after a day of pretending to care about football in central Illinois. 

For these reasons, I invited the tailgate police to shut up—a tactical error on my part because, as a plus-one, I had little clout in the group. Worse, the person whose plus-one I was (i.e., Frank) happens to have an aversion to conflict and, as a result, immediately took the position that I should apologize.

Though we were not married at the time, this betrayal most definitely set off a whole thing. The resentments and recriminations reverberate to this day.

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