You stand on the corner of 50th Street and 2nd Avenue on a Friday night waiting for the traffic light to change and trying to decide what you’re going to do tonight: Read The Anatomy of Melancholy or fill-out financial aid forms for graduate school? You think that there must be something that you would rather do, but you’ve become so inured to juggling full-time school and part-time work that can’t really imagine alternative possibilities. You don’t really know a single soul who doesn’t work all the time, so perhaps you are consoled that there are others like you. You remember what one of your professors said: “All vast fortunes are acquired at the expense of somebody else,” and you wonder if you aren’t the “somebody else.” You worry that your life will never be any different, but end up wanting to jump out your 9th floor window. You picture yourself standing on the ledge, but here you stop, because, well, you just can’t think thoughts like that.
But, still, what are you going to do tonight: Read The Anatomy of Melancholy or fill-out financial aid forms? In spite of not having made a decision, your feet carry you home, because long before ever making it to the corner of 50th Street and 2nd Avenue, you’ve decided that “you just have to get home”; that is, make it from the subway, to the corner market, to the news stand (where you buy a package of cigarettes, while telling yourself that not only shouldn’t you be smoking, but you can’t afford it either), and then home. One foot in front of the other, don’t think about it, because if you do, you just might want to jump from that 9th story window again.
You step into your building and walk to the elevator, relieved at the opportunity to set down your bags, since you can’t press the button and hold your bags at the same time. While the elevator is coming, you mechanically walk to the mailboxes and check for the mail, even though you know that your roommate has already gotten it. When the elevator comes, you step inside and lean back in the corner like you always do at the end of a long day. You compare yourself to the woman in 7C, who also leans back in the corner of the elevator, not because she’s afraid of you, so she says, but so she can keep herself propped up. You worry a little, since you’re doing at the age of 25 what she’s doing at the age of 80.
You open the door to your apartment and stand for a moment in the entryway. The TV is going in your roommate’s room, but he’s nowhere in sight. You know he must be in the bathroom, so you don’t call out hello as you typically would. There are only three rooms in the apartment: yours (the bedroom), your roommate’s (the living room), and the kitchen, so you’re able to determine his whereabouts fairly quickly. As you walk into the kitchen and flip the light switch on, your phone vibrates in your pocket. You pull your phone out and open your texts. A friend from school is asking how much of The Anatomy of Melancholy class is supposed to read by Monday. You can’t help but notice the text from Princeton University saying that decisions would be posted today.
Maybe if you were a different kind of person, you would have immediately logged into your Princeton University application account first thing in the morning and then checked throughout the day until you heard. But you’re not that type of person. Besides now you’re tired and want to eat. You take the bottles of seltzer from your shopping bag, put one in the refrigerator and the other three on the floor next to the sink. You put the brown paper bag in the recycling bin and notice that the trash must be emptied.
You walk to your room and loudly say hello to your roommate through the bathroom door. You get no response, but don’t venture a second try. You wonder if it is impolite to yell “hello” to someone through a closed bathroom door. Once you’ve gotten your coat off and put your book bag down, you decide that you want to be sitting down, smoking a cigarette, and drinking a glass of seltzer when you retrieve Princeton’s decision.
While standing in your room, you think about Princeton University. You tell yourself that you shouldn’t, but you can’t quite help yourself. You see casement windows and slate covered walkways. You’ve never been to Princeton, so you’re not quite sure where these images are coming from. But somehow, they’re in your mind. You imagine career opportunities automatically opening up, if you went to Princeton. You’d write without being anxious about time. You’d read while sitting in a comfortable armchair. You’d give up smoking and join a gym. You can see your future unrolling neatly into the years, if you got into Princeton. But fantasy or no fantasy, you still feel that you should be sitting down, when you check your account.
You decide that the garbage really should be taken down before you check your account. You carry keys, ashtray, and phone into the kitchen with you. You bundle up the trash and reflect on how your roommate always sets the bag outside the front door and doesn’t take it down to the basement until he’s going that way. You would never do this, for fear that the neighbors would complain.
Once the trash has been thrown away, you sit down at the kitchen table, rest the full glass of seltzer on a flyer (you don’t want to leave water rings), and pull up your Princeton account on your phone. Once you open up the e-mail from the school, you begin to read: “After careful consideration …” You could stop right there, because you know that you’re being rejected.
You think that they are probably lying about having reviewed your application carefully. You assume that because your test scores weren’t good enough, you were one of the hundreds, maybe thousands – you’re not too sure – automatically eliminated. You wonder if they even looked at your writing sample, Sexism Raises Its Unprotected Head, and what they thought of it. You worry that it wasn’t good enough. You think of your $95 check which they have nicely pocketed, and you begin to say to yourself: “All the time, money, and energy …” But here you stop again. You just can’t think thoughts like that. They get you nowhere.
Next you notice that the e-mail has come from the Dean. You can still see his smiling picture from the website. But you don’t even have to try to remember his words, their sense is etched on your mind: Students mustn’t expect a prolongation of leisurely college life; students must have clear-cut, professional research interests; and, of course, competition at Princeton is fierce. You worried that because you had to work, scrimp, and save, because you had to struggle — that the very effort somehow marked you as ineradicably inferior. By the time that you began your personal statement, you had gotten angry with the Dean and started with, “If I may address myself to the Dean’s opening remarks … .” Then you thought better of that. You didn’t want to make yourself sound like a crackpot. But even that wasn’t good enough, Princeton still didn’t want you.
Rejection or no rejection, you don’t want this decision to distract you; you don’t want it to put you in a bad mood, so you can’t get your work done. After all, you have The Anatomy of Melancholy to read or financial aid forms to fill-out tonight. You have three more schools to hear from, so maybe there’s still hope. You begin to get anxious over the prospect of not being able to work tonight, so you offer yourself soothing words. You say to yourself that you’ll get in somewhere, and if you don’t, there will always be next year. But then you falter and groan, remembering that there will always be next year. You try again, and now say to yourself that you’ll get those test scores up. You’ll write a better paper. You’ll write a more interesting personal essay. You’ll, you’ll — you falter again — what are you going to do now?
You think of telling your friends about Princeton’s decision, because you think that is what you are supposed to do when you’ve received bad news. Telling your friends is supposed to help soften the blow. The phrases resound in your mind, because you’ve tried such tactics before: “Did you really think you would be accepted there?” “Princeton? I can’t picture you there.” “It’s probably for the best.” “Don’t worry, the timing just isn’t right.” You know, of course, that they are trying to be kind, but the stock phrases just make you angrier. Maybe once you’ve yelled about how unfeeling all your friends are, you’ll be able to see their kindness. But for the moment you don’t much want to tell anyone.
You walk back to your room through your roommate’s room, where he has installed himself on the sofa and is watching TV. You say as you pass, “I won’t be going to Princeton next year.” He says, “I’m sorry,” and goes back to watching TV. Once in your room, you take the manila folder labeled “Princeton” and put it into a larger binder marked “closed.”
You think about how your experience doesn’t fit with everything you’ve been taught about the “land of opportunity.” You’ve swallowed it all, made it apart of you. And whenever anything contradicts this ethos, you always take it back upon yourself and think: If only I were better. But tonight is different, and you wonder if you’re imprisoned? You ponder this a moment, and then walk back to your room, sit down at your desk, and open your laptop. You suddenly know what you’re going to do tonight, and the first line comes to you just like that.