My sister still goes to my old school. So even though the pandemonium of my last month in high school led me to declare in my journal that, “to burn my bridges would be no great violence,” my bridge remains pretty sturdy. I still hear about which new teachers are hot, who has turned into a fake goth and which sixth graders intimidate with their Prada wardrobes. I’ve read every high school yearbook published since my own.
Over spring break, my sister actually convinced me to go to a school play. Afterward, I played poker for M&M’s with three of her friends. I mixed screwdrivers for all of us while they talked about their graduation dresses. At the mention of so many white gowns, all I could think was that I, like Emily Dickinson, had no life outside the home.
Sometimes, when I’m at home, I sulk about my sister’s continued enrollment at an institution of my past, blaming her for my vacation regressions into adolescent, well, sulking. If only she went somewhere else, I think, I would never come home from parties and drunkenly read my old journals until dawn. I would live life only in the present.
For most of this school year, I have unconsciously assumed the same thing would happen with Yale. I would graduate, only to return a few months later to help my sister move her new extra-long sheets and stacks of old mix CDs into a small room on Old Campus. I would have a vague plan to move to Eastern Europe and she would stay up nights talking with her roommate, a girl who played jai-alai and liked to read Spanish translations of Jack Kerouac. My sister would paint all over her walls. She would start taking Urdu classes, because with Urdu it’s easier to learn Arabic and Farsi. She would get a Sudler Grant to make a full-length feature film. She would always have a reason for falling in love. She would be discreet, even on the weekends. She would remember to close windows when it was raining. She would spend summers studying plant life in Madagascar. She wouldn’t wait until after graduation to go to East Rock for the first time.
When I would call her after she settled into Yale life, she would tell me stories about my younger friends, whom she met by the decimated bar at some overwhelming party. She would tell me about the Davenport renovations and how they compared with Pierson’s. She would keep me abreast on the organic food situation. For another four years, my life would be framed by my past. I wanted my sister to get in, but I couldn’t help thinking in shameful moments that her impending Yale career was going to stand between me and the future. The Thanksgiving dinner table conversation would still linger on Hillhouse Avenue.
I had finally come to terms with these feelings when I found out that my sister didn’t get into Yale. My sister, with her perfect SATs and straight A’s and radical politics and red hair. I couldn’t believe it.
I cared much more than she did. She never really wanted to go here. She said, no offense Lucy, but hanging out with a bunch of privileged white kids is what she did in high school. I threw a book out my window.
But why was I so upset? I should have felt liberated. Yale was now mine, only mine, forever.
There are people who plan, and there are people who revise. I revise: e-mails, English essays, conversations, movies and, I realized last month, college experiences. I wasn’t afraid that my sister was going to replace me. I was obsessed with showing her how to do it as well as possible. I wanted to take Urdu. I wanted to make a feature film. It was only when my sister told me in her perfectly calm way that she hadn’t gotten into Yale that I realized that I wasn’t going to be here either. Graduation wasn’t a viral outbreak or a wrecked roller-coaster. It didn’t happen to other people. It was happening to me.
When I was a senior in high school, I had a fantasy of going to UC Berkeley. I imagined January sun dresses and midnight revolutions. I knew I really wanted to go to Yale, but I hoped that at some point in my 18th year, I was going to become the kind of person who went to Berkeley. And I didn’t get in, so I never had to release the fantasy. The summer before college began I was walking my dog in Central Park and thinking that if only I was going to Berkeley, my whole family would probably move back to Los Angeles, where we had lived when my sister and I were younger. Then I’d go to there for vacations and would never have to come home and face any of the people who were driving me crazy again. I could start my life again from scratch. Only then, I thought, could I be truly free.
My sister got into Berkeley and she called me last week to say that she has decided to go there. The professors are amazing, and in other countries, the most famous American universities are Berkeley and Harvard. In August, when she moves to California, my parents will move to North Carolina, where my mother has a new job. This year’s Thanksgiving dinner, my parents will talk about a Southern state that I know only in the negative (not the state that contains Myrtle). My sister will tell stories that take place on streets whose names I know only from Joan Didion essays. We’ll all have new lives. But afterward, I know I’ll still be reading old journals until dawn.
There are people who live and there are people who fantasize. After hanging up the phone with my sister, I went on the Web and started browsing for a plane ticket to the Czech Republic. I want to be both. n