It is simple, what happened. I was an eager-eyed and relatively coy 18-year-old who was convinced that I was going to attend any four year university for acting, because I was a Capital A Actress. I applied to many schools for acting, I performed earnest monologues in front of expressionless adults behind a folding table. They thanked me for my time, my tights and sensible flats making me feel pulled together and adult. I wrote an essay about moving to California. The first paragraph contained the word “plucky,” which my eleventh grade English teacher Mr. Green circled with a red pen and scribbled “Good!” in the margin. I applied to Emerson College on a whim, as a backup plan, on the off chance that one of the prestigious and extremely competitive acting programs I applied to wouldn’t accept me. I navigated the hell that is the FAFSA, calling my father on the phone every night to make sure he got the papers and filled them out, pressing the papers into my mother’s hands, making sure that she did her part. I gathered all these things, I sent them in, I waited.
Emerson accepted me as a freshman — for writing, not acting — for the fall of 2000, a welcome relief after two weeks full of skinny rejection letters from various acting programs. I awaited the bounty of financial aid money that I would surely receive. Thanks to complications and a couple of sticky conversations about finances I mediated between my father and stepfather, it turned out that despite how it actually was, on paper, it looked like my combined parents made too much money to qualify for much financial aid, despite the fact that my mother and stepfather had already informed me they were not contributing to my higher education. What came was a paltry offering, an insult really, and not nearly enough money to pay for even one class, let alone an entire semester. After a week of tears and debate and gnashing of teeth, I had two options — apply to the state school in Buffalo, start in the spring semester and go to college in a town where it snowed from October to April, or defer admission at Emerson and reapply for financial aid. Deferring admission seemed the lesser of two evils, so I packed my bags and flew back to New York after high school graduation where I’d wait out my self-inflicted gap year.
I spent a lot of time helping my friends pack for college, accompanying them on trips to Bed Bath & Beyond to get XL twin sheets and shower caddies, checking off the items on the list.
“You can come visit in Boston!” Sonia said as we idly pushed a cart thru the aisles. “You can come see us and then you’ll get an idea of what it’s like to live there! It’ll be great.”
One by one, I watched my friends shove off in their parents’ cars, until I was the last one standing, staring into the maw of a bleak year peppered with full-time work at a Chinese restaurant and a bone-deep ennui that I couldn’t shake.I attempted to save money, but instead bought a lot of books and spent long, silent hours in a car with my friend Hayley, driving back and forth from the good mall in Poughkeepsie, smoking cigarettes out the window and listening to Led Zeppelin. At first I tried to make the best of it, telling myself that this was building character. I would be so grateful when I finally made it to freshmen year. I’d take school seriously, and this year would be a blip on the radar, not a big deal. The smallest of deals.
Truthfully, it was hard. The house I was living at was the perfect size for my father and my sister, so for the fall, I colonized the living room until we half-heartedly finished the basement for me to live in. It was difficult to stay behind and feel like my friends had moved on, doing stupid freshmen things like binge drinking and sleeping around and making friends and experimenting with hallucinogens and writing long, thoughtful papers while alternating Dunkin’ Donuts iced coffee and No-Doz. These were things that I wanted, experiences that I felt I was missing out on by sitting at home, watching TV in my bedroom, tearing through novels and putting in desultory hours at the Chinese restaurant. I made friends with the kids who were a grade younger than me, and spent the majority of the year playing the role of weird townie that didn’t know how to drive, but was always down to hang out wherever, whenever, even on a school night because I didn’t have to study for Regents the next day.
All was not lost during this year. I read many books, I found new and enchanting ways to fight with my sister, I learned of the small joy inherent in picking out paint samples for my basement lair. I learned that I am horrible with money. I learned things that I already knew about myself that were now just thrown into the harsh light that long stretches of time create.
I would love to say that taking a year off made me grateful for the relatively unnecessary privilege of entering a private university and studying post-colonial literature for one semester too many. I would love to say that my time off between high school and college made me a diligent student, deeply committed to higher learning. I am sad to say these things are not true. On the first day of college, after my dad dropped me off, helped me unpack a little and then drove home, I got my nose pierced with my new roommate and took a walk with the boy down the hall to go smoke pot at his friends’ off-campus apartment. I failed my math pre-requisite because I fell in love and stopped going to class. I drank too much bad vodka and wrote a lot of papers and did all the things a normal college freshman does. The year off didn’t make a difference. Everything was still the same.