A week before my flight left to New York this August to get back to campus, I was brewing tea in my family’s kitchen. I was putting a kettle on when my father emerged from the depths of our three-bedroom downtown Moscow apartment in order to get something warm to drink while he did his late night readings. Once the water boiled, he poured it over an Earl Grey tea bag and looked at me. “You have to approach this as if you were serving time,” he said. “Society has looked at your doings and ruled that you are to spend two years in prison.”
My father might not be the perkiest person in the world. I take a lot after him. Mainly, things like libertarian politics, a caffeine addiction and a passion for techno music. But also things like proneness to constant overthinking, bouts of debilitating anxiety and general melancholic composition of the psyche. Back in the ‘80s, he left a grimy industrial Siberian city for Moscow, striving to get more out of his life. Thirty years later, I followed his footsteps and left Moscow for New Haven. My parents were overjoyed. They spent their whole life wishing that they could get out of Russia on respectable terms. Now their daughter would get to attend an Ivy League school.
That was before I withdrew from Yale after barely completing my first term. I intended to never, ever come back.
I couldn’t imagine my life without Moscow. If there is a city that shows how humans are able to persevere through anything, Moscow is one. I grew up among its freezing winters, coastless multilane avenues, Soviet leaders’ ashes entombed in the Kremlin walls and women high-heeling their way through November sidewalk slush. I’m nothing but a Muscovite, one of 15 million nationals of a landlocked metropolis built upon a series of concentric circles, with a dead body laying on public display in its heart.
Some people I meet on this campus perceive me as a mystery daughter of some clandestine oligarch with dubious criminal connections when they learn what city I call home. I get a perverted kick out of that. It’s a tempting identity fantasy, considering that I’m probably as low-income as it gets. I’m more broke than that wine glass I smashed as I was handling my bag way too carelessly on a Tuesday night sometime in early September. That was unfortunate. I still have no idea how to clean that mess up. I carried my laptop wrapped in a plastic Walgreens bag when it rained until a visiting friend generously gave me her worn-out Vans backpack. It has an odd floral print that, honestly, does not go well with my goth gopnik aesthetic. But I can’t complain — free shit is free shit, especially when you have exactly $1.49 left in your checking account.
I’m generally on the weirder side of the student body in terms of my background. According to the Yale Facebook, there are precisely five Russians-from-Russia on campus. Out of the five of us, I’m the only one who arrived here as a transfer student. I’m also the only one who spent more than a term away from school. Even my credit standing is so weird that I’m somehow a junior, a second-semester sophomore and (technically) still a first year at the same time.
If you’re like me, Yale is less Hogwarts than it is Azkaban. You can’t eat when you want; you’re stuck on a few blocks of a tiny town; your identity is reduced to your year, major and residential college. Yale is incomprehensible and takes itself way too seriously. Worst of all, Yale is severely uncool. Maybe it’s a complex I developed after spending the first 16 years of my life as an unsocialized hermit. Maybe it’s my compensating for my hatred of academia. Maybe it’s just some sort of post-Soviet trauma. But if there is any sort of a life rule I follow religiously, it’s this: Avoid lame shit at all costs.
I dropped out of Yale because Yale was a living nightmare. I reinstated two and a half years later because I ran out of options for a life path that I could follow without a degree. Upon coming back, I knew I had to figure out how to survive on this campus. I can’t carelessly join the social mechanics. I can’t reject those mechanics either. I had to find a way out.
What makes Yale cool is its vice. It’s in that sheer desperation that is underlining every day on campus. It’s in the cover story about Rohypnol I read at Saybrook College hot breakfast, my cold hands wrapped around a cup of Heavenly Hazelnut in a futile attempt to undo the damage years of nicotine abuse have done to my circulation. It’s in the 2006 graffiti announcing “WE HAD SEX HERE” in a Stacks study carrel. It’s in the viscerality of a Friday night SigNu party you observe when you climb out to the roof through a window, a red solo cup filled with bad lager in your hand, a sea of sweaty drunk bodies spreading out beneath your feet. It’s in mediocre social intrigue moves pulled by first years, in the hookup gossip and overshared screenshots, in moral bankruptcy, substance abuse and collective sleep deprivation.
Yale is horrifying. But, as the old saying goes, if you can’t fight it, join it. And if you can do neither, embrace the struggle. After all, it’s what makes you cool.
Daria Kozeko | firstname.lastname@example.org .