On my 18th birthday, my mom gave me a book called “Stuff Every Woman Should Know” by Alanna Kalb. I could immediately see it was full of advice, like “Good Responses to Bad Pickup Lines” (“Hey baby do you have a minute?” “Sorry, I’m fresh out”) and “How to perform the Heimlich Maneuver.” My mom made a little speech with it, about how, since she never really had any kind of talk with me about … you know … and since you’re leaving for college in a week … well …
For context, my mother is a Russian literature professor and immigrant. When I introduce her to people, their reactions are similar to those inspired by pet rabbits, or newborn infants. Their eyes widen, their expression softens. “Is she yours?” they ask in gentle voices. “She’s adorable.”
However, between studying the creative marital arrangements of obscure Russian writers and devoutly attending services of the also dramatic Russian Orthodox Church, my mother didn’t have much time for coaching me through my impending legality, apart from some stories about coveting black market Western jeans and records as a teenager, back in the USSR.
If it hadn’t been for sixth grade health class I probably still wouldn’t know how to locate the vagina on a grainy photocopy. To this day, in my household, we refer to menstruation, in Russian, simply as “that thing” — accompanied by a slight, nearly imperceptible change of tone to distinguish it from, you know, other things.
All of this probably explains why I still don’t have my ears pierced — or, like, a dowry. I grew up in awe of my friends’ more courageous mothers, who talked to them about Kegel exercises and made appointments for them to get their eyebrows waxed. For most of my life I’ve felt like womanhood was some sort of secret society I had been tapped for, but no one had ever explained the rules.
So I was understandably excited by the prospect of finally finding out all the things my mom had been holding out on. But upon closer examination, the book turned out to have far more instructions along the lines of “How to age gracefully” and “How to check your oil,” than the kind of secret womanly knowledge I had been hoping for.
Even the things that should have been interesting, like the parts about makeup and alcohol, were somehow staid and disappointing: “How to choose a bottle of wine,” “Purse Essentials.” Whatever happened to just drinking something that tastes like cough syrup mixed with lighter fluid from a plastic bottle? Or just using lip-gloss roughly the consistency of Elmer’s glue, which also somehow always ends up inside your mouth?
Suddenly adulthood just seemed somehow … boring, full of rules and guidelines. I couldn’t apply the makeup tips because I couldn’t understand whether my face was more oval or pear shaped. I realized that every thank-you card I had ever received followed the same six step procedure outlined on page 104. Even laughing was suddenly just another duty, with “How to Nurture a Sense of Humor” stuck between “How to Perform a Breast Self-Examination” and “Tips for Good Posture.”
I could tell something was wrong when, back in April, adults started telling me things like, “These are going to be the best four years of your life, so enjoy them,” and “After you graduate you will probably never be happy again,” with a slightly crazed look in their eyes. (What they don’t realize is that the best years of my life were in elementary school, when leggings as pants were also a thing, but in a good way.)
Just days after overcoming the hurdle of adulthood, I could already tell things were going downhill. I can’t blindly shove bills and medical forms at my parents. If I break the law, I won’t just end up getting superpowers while doing my community service, like on Misfits. I sat on my bed, listlessly flipping through the Yale Daily News, when I saw the headline, “Camp Yale: it all starts here.”
And that’s when it hit me: college isn’t about accepting adulthood. It’s about delaying it. College is camp. How do you explain intramurals? The singing? The spandex? Sure, at first you’re homesick. You try not to let the kids in your cabin hear you cry. You try to negotiate some sort of arrangement with whatever is living in your shower. And then, pretty soon, there you are, making friends, passing your swim test. You stay until they tell you you’re too old to go, and then you become a counselor.
Admittedly, I don’t really know what I’m talking about, because sleepaway camp was one of the many American institutions I missed out on as a result of being born to almost-foreign parents (my dad was technically born in California, but I swear he has an accent). I spent years of my life deeply envious of everyone else’s camp stories and traditions, their absurd allegiance to some abandoned backwoods of Pennsylvania. And finally, at Yale, I’m excited again. Cocktail parties can wait. For now, bring on the color wars.
Anya Grenier is a freshman in Silliman College.