I finished the bulk of this entry in early June but held off on posting it. For one, I wanted to avoid having fellow alumni clicking on the link simply to read something about Reunions and then finding a long, highly vulnerable blog post that might be too much information for a new or merely occasional reader.
I had also been looking for a way to conclude the post in a way that didn't indulge in self-loathing and would broaden the scope and relatability of what is a very personal story grounded in a very specific context.
Then I vacillated about publishing this post until I reconnected last night with a brilliant friend and soul sister, who happens to be a seasoned writer with a fantastic blog of her own. As she puts so well on a recent post, "Telling the truth about yourself – that you might struggle daily, that you are afraid of the future, that you are lost in the past – is much harder than saying, I am fine."
This is a post about getting lost in the past and--four and two years later--finally finding some peace.
If you're reading this and you're not a former tiger or I haven't already attempted to explain it to you, capital-R Reunions at Princeton is a gigantic celebration attended by over 18,000 alumni wearing enough orange and black to stock Halloween shops for a decade. When I was a tour guide, I'd often describe it as "a wedding in Orange and Black." Many universities bond strongly over some sports rivalry match or homecoming weekend game, but unlike the OSU-Michigan or Harvard-Yale football games, Reunions is a celebration purely by, for, and about Princeton. That much is to the university's credit as I write this near-nauseous from the stench of 3 nights' worth of beer from over ten Reunions tents that fills the air and drowns the grass all over the campus. At least we've had excellent weather this year. Last year was so hot, I'd packed a bathing suit as an outfit option to wear to the P-rade, the big parade in which the procession begins with the oldest alumni and ends with the graduating class walking through the Bloomberg archway onto Poe field on the southern end of campus.
It's been fun meeting with some of my old professors and reconnecting with friends who decided to head down to Tigertown for the weekend, mostly from my a cappella group and co-op. I ran into everyone who was around whom I wanted to see--even if only for precious moments. But enveloped in a cloud of orange and black and being back here specifically for Reunions and graduation, I'm feeling a little sad. This was the first year I felt truly present for the people I care about. I spent my other years in boy-obsession and in self-obsession (mostly riding guilt trips, throwing pity parties, and beating myself up about the boy-obsession).
Today I can genuinely say I wish no harm to the individuals involved in these moments of my life. I forgive them for where they went wrong. If you are one of them and happen to be reading, I hope you will forgive me, too--I was the person I was doing my best with the tools that I had. If you keep reading--and I invite you to--you'll notice that this isn't a post about you so much as a post about me and for me that happens to include you. Again, I forgive you and hope you forgive me, too, but this is about forgiving myself.
In 2010, I had been in a relationship for nearly 6 years, two of them long-distance, Vermont to New Jersey. I don't think I realized how tired I was of the relationship until I noticed myself having a serious crush on someone else. A senior, he and I met in an precept in the winter--I remember thinking he hated me then--and were in a translation class together in the spring, where, to my surprise, we flirted a fair bit. Also a member of the co-op I would eventually join, he was on the same cooking shift as a close friend of mine, so I was able to get to know him outside of class and to learn how to make some incredible food. Mostly desserts.
In April, he asked me to be his date to the co-op formal event since his girlfriend was off doing something else that night. That was the first time I'd heard him mention her, and the fact added a new layer to my conflicted feelings: not only did I find myself attracted to someone other than the one I was with, but also the person I was interested in was taken.
He matched his tie to my dress, which was cute as much as impressive--that shade of blue was pretty unique. I had a lot of fun with him, but felt very confused over the next month. When Reunions came, we drank and danced in the tents. I wondered how I would break up with my boyfriend. I also wondered how this guy could spend so much time with me without his girlfriend getting annoyed. The latter thought vanished with a bit of wine.
At some point I gave him a really deliberately-written-to-not-sound-overly-sentimental-but-still-overly-sentimental graduation card and a leather flask with a map of the world.
I went into the senior prom with a 'que sera, sera' attitude, determined to have fun with my closest friends who would be there. And for that hour, I was extremely present. The cloud of infatuation had lifted momentarily, and I danced for hours with my girlfriends and other graduates whom I would miss.
We took a picture after prom and parted ways. At some point, I met him at his room and ended up staying there until the morning when I left early to get breakfast and get dressed for graduation ceremonies. I'll never forget the combination of smugness and shame I felt when I spotted him and his (still-?) girlfriend having coffee in town the next morning. I also felt angry about the secrecy I felt compelled to keep. I wanted our relationship to be real, and seeing the two of them together, "business as usual" made me feel as if the past 72+ hours weren't real.
Of course, I was falling for a guy who was uncertain as to where he was headed after graduation, rendering possibilities of a relationship especially low or unrealistic. Of course, it would take me two more days before I sucked it up and ended things with my boyfriend. And of course, within days of ending it, I managed to coordinate a trip to meet this guy in Washington and stay together for three or four days.
I wish I could say that was the last time I would do something like this. But two years later, something similar happened.
In May 2012, I had some real moments of feeling on top of the world. I had handed in my senior thesis and was finally going to graduate, despite all those moments of doubt over the past four years. On May 10, 2012, I sang my heart out at my senior performance with my a cappella group before alternating inebriated karaoke with waiting to get into senior pub night with my two closest girlfriends in the class of 2012.
At the pub, I met someone whose name I'd seen on listserv emails my four years of college but had yet to encounter in person. At this point in the night, I was drunk to the extent I was actually enjoying myself around people I'd generally disliked throughout college. This guy and I got to talking and it seemed as if we had plenty in common--or at least I had plenty to say while under the influence. Because I have an eccentric memory, I remember asking him to buy me, nearing the tipping point of nausea, a coconut water while everyone was bracing themselves to fill up on Dirty Sanchez and Fat Lady sandwiches at Hoagie Haven. I somehow ended up on the rooftop of a nearby fraternity apartment off-campus, where we talked until late and then he walked me back to my room.
I asked him out, saying something like "thank you for being a gentleman and getting me a coconut water getting me home. I owe you one." It was his birthday a little over a week later, and he invited me to have a drink with him at the bar after the party he was having there. We ended up staying there for a while, headed to a second bar and then to his room, where we talked for a long time once more.
I headed home that night thinking,"Of course, I meet this person in my final three weeks." Of course, I tried to play it cool and not to care. Of course, I was ashamed at how much I cared and how much I wanted to create a real relationship in what would rank among the worst circumstances possible--just weeks before graduation.
And of course, that didn't stop me from trying to make it happen. I had invited him to my final cooking shift at the co-op and even made tiramisu. The night should have been a glorious end to my two and a half years of culinary joy. Instead, I was sullen, feeling slighted. He had fallen asleep after his exam and left for a trip with friends the next morning.
One friend had already shared the opinion of, "told you so," but I held out hope for reconnecting when he got back. We did. For two nights, things were great. He took me out for wine and tapas on the Thursday night of Reunions. He came to my alumnae a cappella performance the following night and watched me sing. I was flattered. Soon I would be flattered and drunk.
I don't think anyone in my a cappella group had ever seen me remotely unhinged in their years of knowing me, so watching me at the 25th Reunion dirty dancing and fiercely making out with someone without any regard for the surrounding circumstances was a combination of unfamiliar and hilarious for them. So they tell me.
By Saturday night, I was running on mere hours of sleep and my voice sounded as if I had emphysema. But I was high on feeling desired and on the thrill of possibility that something might work here.
Which it didn't.
Days of not taking care of yourself catch up with you. I hadn't realized that then. I was trying to hold onto every last moment of college because I felt that I hadn't really had all the good of "the college experience" until now. Being in long-distance relationships 3 out of 4 years and grinding myself academically until the day my thesis was in and comprehensive exams were over made much of college pretty lacking in dimension--and perspective.
Somehow, Saturday night ended up on the back porch of an eating club. It was past 3AM and I was sitting with this guy and a friend of his as they discussed a business venture they were contemplating. I tried to laugh at the misogynistic comments I heard--again playing it cool on the outside but feeling wounded. My sleep-deprived, alcohol-addled brain took this as another cue to weaken what little self-esteem I had. I was pissed about the comments. I was pissed that he wasn't paying enough attention to me. I started wondering if this guy even liked me at all and was feeling defiant--as defiant as I could in my compromised state. And it was in this moment some older alumnus started hitting on me and complimenting me. Feeling like crap and with my voice shot, I was craving attention and validation. All I remember is shouting out, "YOLO" (Short for "you only live once," to translate for my mom, who will likely read this), and making out with the alumnus for a few seconds while the guy I was interested in was sitting right in between us.
It got his attention. Understandably, it made him angry and hurt. I was out of my mind, but it was still a stupid and selfish thing to do. All my "plans" to make things work collapsed and all the fun moments vanished in those seconds.
And I would spend the next three days of graduation ceremonies not spending time with the people who mattered to the past four years of my college career, not enjoying a nice dinner with my family, but trying to erase those seconds and rectify a situation with a guy I knew barely three weeks.
I didn't have a place to stay that night since my room was filled with 3 or 4 alumni friends. I stayed with this guy again, and the most humiliating thing was sharing that bed, barely touching the entire night. He was repulsed by me. I was repulsed by me. I was hours from graduating from Princeton and felt more worthless than I'd ever felt in my life. If I could have hated myself into nonexistence that night, I'd have done it. For the next three days of graduation ceremonies and even the next year, I'd tell the story to anyone who would listen because that's how much I hated myself for it. I wanted people to make me feel better, to tell me that it wasn't my fault (somewhat true) and that it wasn't worth it (very true). But no amount of consolation could really get through to me.
I cried through the first day of ceremonies. I could barely keep it together during my a cappella performance for my family, between having no voice and the events of the previous night. We met briefly after that evening's activities and talked as if nothing had happened. We danced the next night at prom, and things seemed as if they were before. At this point, I think we were both pretending to be fine.
I invited him to stay over the night before graduation and left the door unlocked. He never came. I saw him the next day, also giving him a small gift and--as in 2010--a really deliberately-written-to-not-sound-overly-sentimental-but-still-overly-sentimental card. I asked him where we stood and, given that we lived in the same state and didn't have any fixed work plans yet, if he wanted to see where things could go. He didn't want a relationship. As he said himself, it wasn't what I wanted to hear.
The story didn't end there. After receiving a thoughtful congratulations from him on getting hired, I invited him to visit to my parents' shore house for 3 days before I left for Boston (and successfully convinced him by promising it would be "just fun" before I went away. "Nothing serious.") The fleeting "fun" of those few days would leave me feeling even worse than before. As I dropped him off at his house and drove back to mine, I was profoundly empty.
We had texted back and forth until something like July 3. I remember because I was bored and alone in my hotel room on Soldiers Field Road and was watching some terrible movie in the Final Destination franchise. If that wasn't a sign that this whole situation was destined to die, I don't know what was. But much like the characters in those movies, I wanted to control the outcomes of things, not wanting to accept my powerlessness.
It took seeing him by chance at the P-rade one year later at Reunions 2013 for the fear and anxiety about seeing him again to dissolve. I didn't end up running into him this year. Likely for the best.
The night before Commencement, Princeton hosts a senior prom to which friends and family of the graduates are invited. Some people dress in gym clothes (in their defense, the event is located in a gymnasium) and others dress as if it were their high school prom, tulle, sequins, and all. Some people have just a mom and dad to bring along and others have gigantic families with siblings and cousins and aunts in tow. The people-watching at Prom is fantastic, the music is generally good, and even though I knew hardly anyone at Prom 2014, having graduated two years ago, I might have had more fun this year at Prom than I ever did just dancing with Lucy and her family.
It was 11 o'clock as I left prom to head to my friend's apartment, at least two miles away. Exhausted after four days packed with walking and socializing--and now hours of dancing--I was not looking forward to the long walk home late at night. To pass the time and feel less lonely in the dark, I started singing. Walking north on campus, I first found myself drawn to 1879 Arch.
The day before I'd watch Lucy sing for her parents at her senior arch sing and was reminded of my own senior arch in 2012. My voice was gone and I exhausted and miserable from all the drama of Reunions. In retrospect, this was the saddest part of my graduation weekend--not being able to sing. I was especially sad since the group had worked hard to learn a new arrangement of Fleetwood Mac's "Go Your Own Way," which had been written for me as a graduation gift and I couldn't eke out a note of the solo. I was near tears as a friend had to step in.
So on June 2, 2014, two years later, I stood in 1879 Arch, illuminated by the one lantern hanging above the middle of the arch, I sang "Go Your Own Way." There was no audience save for the crickets and the darkness. It wasn't the way I planned to ever sing that song in that arch, but it was perfect.
As I finished singing and looked out across Washington Road, I saw the Woodrow Wilson School Fountain. Something spontaneous in me said it would be a good idea to walk in the fountain. A voice in my head told me this was a bad idea because it would get the insides of my shoes wet and make the walk home unpleasant. The head voice lost out to the heart one.
As I sat on the steps of the fountain, I was reminded of 2010, sitting by the boy I liked on the edge of the pool, talking of the future while watching people try to climb the sculpture in the center. I remember wishing he'd kiss me and feeling sad because I knew he couldn't and because wanting that made me emotionally unfaithful.
Returning to the present, I took my shoes off and waded into the pool of the fountain for a moment, humoring some conversation from a drunk townie who, in the shadow, vaguely resembled this boy. I said, "I wish I'd done this more when I was here," bid him farewell, and moved along, the sound of the falling water echoing in the night.
Singing again and walking in the direction of home, I found myself arriving at the chapel. I'd been in the chapel for four reasons during college--singing performances, tour-giving, the Baccalaureate ceremony before Commencement, and the one religious service I attended with my long-distance boyfriend the first weekend of freshman year. I never came in to pray. I never really came in to sit and simply marvel at the place, even though it is beautiful and was just steps away from my classes in East Pyne Hall.
On June 2, I did. I walked as close as I could to the altar without setting off any alarms and I said a prayer for myself and for the graduating class. I admired the stained glass panels, the rose window, and contemplated my smallness looking up at the high vaulted ceilings. I left at the stroke of midnight and began walking down Nassau and then down Stockton Street. It turned out to be over a half hour between leaving the chapel and reaching number 364, but I felt as if I was carried home, steeped in the awe and wonder of my weird, magical, midnight odyssey.
Last night, June 17, I went to a women's circle in Boston and was reminded of the quotation I've seen before on bumper stickers on cars and chalked at least once on the Esplanade bike path: "Your Love is Louder." The loving, kind, heart-centered voice that took me on that midnight journey was louder than the head voice that seesaws from self-important, invincible, and better than everyone to fearful, self-pitying, and never good enough.
I never thought I would be able to heal the wounds and settle my business with the ghosts of Reunions past. But somehow, in a way beyond my comprehension and at a time I could never have planned, I was shown an opportunity to do so and to give another meaning to places and times that had haunted me.
I used to want to forget what happened in those moments and many others involving men. Burn them. Erase them. Bury them with baked goods. Drown them with wine. Tell the stories over and over to friends who are tired of listening in hopes that just one more pair of ears hearing my woes will take off some of the edge.
But now I don't want to forget. I want to remember what it was like and how awful it was to be there so I never go back to that dark but familiar place. I want to keep that girl in my heart and tell her every day that she was born worthy and doesn't have to work so hard to get people to like her--men or women. That she isn't a bad person for what she's done or who she's been. That she doesn't have to rewrite the script or keep reliving the last scene--she just needs to step on stage for the next act.