August 23, 2000 is a date that I will never forget. It was move-in day for my freshman year of college. I had moved across state lines, and my parents helped me lug my things up to the third floor of my dormitory. We had a farewell dinner and multiple rounds of goodbyes and promises to call and visit soon. Once they left, I sat on my bed with the door closed. It’d been a while since I’d had to make new friends, and I wasn’t feeling all too social.
What I truly was looking forward to was hooking up my TV and watching the finale of the first season of Survivor, a show that I, like much of the nation, had been glued to the past few months. What had started as a summer replacement series had become a bona fide phenomenon – a monster hit.
I placed the TV on the dresser, and hooked the coax cable into the wall. Basic cable was provided with the room, so I thought I’d be good to go. Turned out I wasn’t. All I saw was snow. I fiddled with some of the settings, but I wasn’t having any luck. Maybe the service hadn’t gone into effect yet.
I looked at the clock. It was less than five minutes until the show. Where was I going to watch it?! I could knock on some doors, see if anyone else had service. But I was shy. What if I was bothering them? What if they hated Survivor? What if I became the laughingstock of the building for frantically trying to find a place to watch the conclusion to a silly reality series?
Eventually I made my way to the lobby. Lo and behold, about a dozen kids were gathered around the TV. The final beats of the catchy tribal theme played. I was still feeling timid, but my relief that I’d found a place to watch trumped those nagging insecurities. I found a seat on the floor, where I felt safe, and watched as contestants Rudy, Richard, and Kelly competed at the final immunity challenge. When Richard voluntarily stepped out of the challenge, everyone howled.
“Why would he do that?!” a guy asked.
“What an idiot!” a girl declared. Everyone seemed to be in agreement. Everyone, that was, except me.
“He’ll be in the final two,” I said, under my breath, unable to contain myself.
“What was that?” the girl who declared him an idiot asked. I was suddenly on the spot. I had a dozen strangers looking at me, judging me, during the commercial break.
“Well, I, I just think that Kelly or Rudy would be crazy not to take him to final Tribal Council,” I explained.
“But he’s risking the chance at a million dollars,” said a guy wearing a beanie. People were nodding.
I sat in silence. Wasn’t college supposed to be place to express one’s self? I didn’t know it yet, but the very finale we were watching would go on to average 51.7 million viewers, and Nielsen themselves would report that 125 million people watched at least some part of it. And still, I’d never felt more alone.
“I agree with him,” said a cute girl sitting in one of the armchairs, pointing in my direction. “The jury, like, hates Richard. Of course they’d want him up there next to them.”
A big grin spread across my face. It was my first genuine smile since I’d arrived in this strange place, my new home. Survivor returned from commercial.
Kelly wound up voting Rudy off and taking Richard to the final two after all. The room was quiet. I liked to think it was a moment of silence, acknowledging my wisdom. The girl who’d agreed with me looked back at me. I mouthed “thank you,” and she smiled.
Richard Hatch went onto win the first million dollar prize with 4 votes to Kelly’s 3. No one, including me, could believe that this universally hated man had convinced a majority of his peers to vote for him. Richard had outwitted, outlasted, and outplayed not only his competitors, but all of us watching at home. The dozen or so of us talked about the results for a few minutes before going our separate ways. I went to go get a drink from the water fountain. When I looked up, the cute girl was standing behind me.
“Hi, I’m Melanie,” she said, extending her hand.
“Hey, I’m Josh.” There was that smile again.
We went to go have coffee next door, the only place still open on campus. Over chai lattés and chocolate chip cake, Melanie and I talked about television, our classes, our hopes, and she filled me in that the cable didn’t turn on in our rooms until the first day of classes. Melanie and I did not end up becoming lifelong friends – we only hung out a few more times that semester. There wasn’t anything wrong; we just met other people and drifted. But making that connection my first night, against the backdrop of the Survivor season one finale, meant more to me than I can express. Suddenly, I was excited to find out what came next. It would be a long process, but I was ready to start shedding some of my childhood fears and insecurities about what other people thought.
The tribe had spoken. It was time for me to let go.
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Josh Kossack is a writer based in Los Angeles, California. When he isn't cruising around with his convertible top down or reading to the blind, he can be found putting Sriracha on pretty much everything under the sun.