A true-story essay on balancing expectation against reality / that really thrilling post-college moment when you realize you have to figure some things out yourself, and your degree probably won’t help you as much as you think.
The most enduring romantic comedies are the ones that start out as relatable and end with the impossible, carried by a leading lady that leaves your disbelief happily and willingly suspended from the moment she glides (or stumbles, or dances, or drinks) her way across the screen. One of the best examples of this is The Holiday.
Kate Winslet shouldn’t really be relatable. It doesn’t matter how plain a polka-dot wrap dress you put her in, how balefully she looks up at (that ASSHOLE) Rufus Sewell. She’s Kate Winslet. And yet when she thrusts her head out the window in search of clear, cold winter air, and slaps her own face saying, “LOW POINT”, I’m happy with my popcorn and seeing myself mirrored in her upper-middle-class misery. Who hasn’t caught themselves mid-overreaction, and, pathetic and embarrassed, had to chastise themselves? Just me? Okay.
Kate Winslet’s Iris is lucky in that her Low Point is without any witnesses. She lives it out alone in her so-picturesque-they-actually-built-it-for-the-film cottage in Surrey. My Low Point was witnessed by one of my guy friends and, to my undying shame, by his mother whom I still have never met.
2012 was a bizarre and directionless year – it usually is for most people. Not the year 2012 in particular, but what it was as a concept: the year following my graduation from college. I was twenty-three, had moved back in with my parents, and as a Humanities major, had sent out about a thousand and six applications to jobs in a wide variety of fields, roughly 95% for which I was woefully unqualified.
It was rare that I ever heard a response from any of these applications, despite several revisions of my resume using my dad’s old-reliable copy of What Color is Your Parachute? (Black. The color of my parachute is black.) My college friend Maggie once described the process of post-graduate job-hunting as shooting your resume out of a free t-shirt gun into a shapeless void. So, like any good aimless graduate that’s just moved home, I made the best of my time while I awaited responses from the void. I got a part-time job at a cupcake shop, reunited with most of my high school guy friends, and smoked a lot of pot.
What followed is what I like to call the Porticello Era (one night, a bowl or two in, someone had been trying to describe different vegetables, and I had passionately argued for the porticello mushroom, and my friend Kyle spent the rest of the night miming playing a giant, over-sized fungi). It was messy, emotional, and invaluable in the landscape of my twenties.
Making and retaining friends has never been challenging for me, with the exception of the first two weeks of fifth grade when my family first moved to a new town. (Long past are the days when my mom would buy me a chocolate-muffin-shaped bribe on the way to school while I cried silently and asked her to not make me go.) I was a somewhat incurable tomboy when I was younger, and for years I derived a particular level of comfort from my male friendships that always eluded my female ones (read: unidentified, underlying sexual tension). Between that tendency and the fact that most of the girls had stayed in their respective college-towns after graduation, my social interaction during the Porticello Era was almost exclusively male.
I had a daily-texting relationship with my best friend Lindsay that I leaned very heavily on – she was only two hours away in Chico, and our friendship has always been almost limitlessly accessible. Lindsay was the friend that those embarrassing, bodily-fluid-based sort of indiscretions would most immediately be shared with. Lindsay and I developed a theatrical rapport and cinematic delivery-style with our story and experience sharing based on the onslaught of pop culture we devoured as teenagers, and we lived vicariously through each other on many occasions. For some lucky reason our lives have often lined up in terms of milestones, if not geography. Most importantly, Lindsay always deeply appreciated a good story, and so did I.
By the spring of 2012, life had fallen into a fairly standard routine: around twenty hours’ worth the shifts at the cupcake shop a week, heading to hang out with the guys, and working on my book. Working on that manuscript was the only real driving force of this period of my life, and as is the case with most creative endeavors, it didn’t necessarily stop me from engaging in otherwise inadvisable behavior. (In fact, it could be argued it encouraged it. It was almost a memoir.) I didn’t get into any trouble, fortunately or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it. Smoking pot in the confines of a close friend’s house was the most rebellious I ever got, and I was lucky enough to have two easy refuges for this pastime while back home.
Haunt Number 1 was the apartment. Belonging to Brian and David, in a less than stellar but by no means unsafe part of town, it was less than ten minutes from my parent’s apartment and less than five minutes from Carl’s Jr. and Jack in the Box. There wasn’t much more we needed. We devoured movies, cupcakes, fast food, Super Smash Bros, and so, SO much pot and beer. It was a classic guys apartment – beer cans and a crooked movie poster was the extent of the decor – and when the lack of air conditioning became too much in the 100+ Sacramento summer heat, we would all jump in our assorted cars and head up to Haunt Number 2, Beck’s house.
Where the apartment was what was needed for an early-twenties refuge, Beck’s house was everything you truly wanted. It was his mom’s house, but his mom was a nurse in central California and was very rarely home – gone for days/weeks at a time – so it essentially was Beck’s house. It had a deck, a tree-filled yard, a pool, and almost no actual adult supervision. Sure, we were all 3+ years into being legal adults ourselves, but between still being in our hometown and wanting to engage in at-the-time illegal recreations, adult supervision was still an impediment to having a good time.
I had known these guys for years, since high school for the most part, but I was closest with Brian, who I’d been in band with. We’d been friends first and we had a number of unexpectedly deep late-night AIM chats on the books by the time I’d gotten back from college. Brian was my entry to this social group.
Then there was David, resident smooth-talker and movie buff, who idolized Kevin Smith and was constantly certain a move to LA with the screenplay was around the corner. He did attempt the move, twice, I believe, but over time we all realized David, while usually well-intentioned, was always just talk. All he did was incur several debts and failed dreams; I’m fairly certain he’s still back at home with the Next Big Thing right around the corner.
Beck was the ladies’ man; it was a Known Fact since we first met him at a pool party the summer before sophomore year. He had an enviable mysteriousness because he hadn’t gone to the same high school as us, plus he was naturally charming. Being the tallest and best-looking of the bunch sealed the deal. I honestly don’t know that he even got up to much when we were teenagers, but getting responses at all from any new female entry to the social group made him, relatively speaking, a ladies’ man.
There was Anthony, who was a bit rough around the edges but nice enough at heart. There was Dan, who had the inexplicable nickname of Sanjay and had also gone to a different high school. And there was Kyle of the porticello fame, sweet and gregarious and affable and friends with everyone.
It was a great crew of guys to get drunk with. We all worked casual, service-industry jobs, nobody was paying heavy rent, and it kind of felt like living out the movie Waiting on a daily basis. I spent more time at Haunts 1 & 2 than I did at home – any time in-between was spent working or writing – and I was really feeling comfortable for the first time since the despairing post-college mood swings of the prior winter. It was a time of townie clichés, and by May of that year, I had begun to make the most cliched mistake of them all: one by one, I started hooking up with the guys.
Of course, Beck happened first. It’s the second-best story because it was so very teen movie. One early May night, most everyone else had somehow drifted off to other parts of the house. Anthony had been the last to depart, off to the kitchen to make nachos. It was a warm spring night and the glowing pool (and shirtless redhead within it) was irresistible. I didn’t have a swimsuit, but why would that stop me? I stripped down to my skivvies and dove as soon as Beck asked. We were making out within seconds, and within minutes we ditched Anthony’s food endeavor, sex being a (slightly) higher priority than nachos.
Anthony came looking for us when the nachos were finally ready and got an unfortunate eyeful. The next morning it was as if nothing had happened, and Beck and I’s whatever remained a secret.
And that’s kind of how Dan accidentally happened.
Northern California is known for a lot of things – and while my friends did (rarely) engage in snowboarding and camping and trips to San Francisco, their most passionate Nor Cal pastime was, without fail, smoking weed. And they always smoked the really, really good shit. I hadn’t started to participate until after college, excluding one or two forays when I’d visit home for the summer. While that frequency certainly increased in 2012, I never developed much of a tolerance.
One particular night, now mid-June, the gang embarked on a game of Beeramid. I’ve since gathered that the rules of this portmanteau’d drinking game vary with the nuances of linguistic dialects, but our version bore the most important thread of every iteration: you didn’t play it and not get absolutely smashed. My friend Jessica had joined the evening’s festivities and the presence of an additional female was much appreciated, and immediately seized upon, and Beeramid became Battle of the Sexes. Jess and I lost spectacularly, and we all celebrated unsurprisingly with a bowl. I quickly bypassed porticello-level crossfaded and went for a lone wander.
Attracted by the colorful glow of the television, I ended up in one of the back rooms of the house, where Beck had at some point settled down to watch a show. I joined him, and as we were alone, figured it was safe territory to lean in. He quickly met me halfway.
We were about three minutes into our make-out session when I had the startling realization that I was actually making out with Dan.
Now, I can (and do) fully blame the beer and the pot in equal portion for my amiable mistake. However, when I decided a month or so later that there was no harm sleeping with Dan since we’d already made out anyway, that was all me. (The fact that we did so on the unforgivably grimy pull-out sofa-bed at Brian and David’s apartment was also my cross to bear.)
At some point, an additional shared friend made his way onto the list, as well as said friend’s roommate. My behavior got so bad – and I don’t mean bad as in shameful-judgement-bad, I mean bad as in ill-advised because the only thought I put into these decisions was “well this feels nice doesn’t it?” – that at a house party later that month, Kyle suddenly asked if he could ask me a question.
“Of course,” I said.
We were sharing a sofa in a room full of people that I mostly didn’t know, but I could see Brian and a girl I’d just met and bonded with over my old anti-drug D.A.R.E. t-shirt a few seats over, somehow using an air diffuser to get high. Kyle and I had just shared a laugh over an inside joke. (We had also, about an hour earlier, posed together for one of the most adorable photos of me that exists to this day. But that is neither here nor there.)
“Well,” started Kyle, and he looked almost shy for a second, which was a first. “Can I try something?
“Sure?” I said, always game.
And he leaned in to kiss me. I shoved him, surprised but playful, back into the sofa.
He looked shamefaced and shrugged, laughing, mentioning something about having heard something, and that it was worth a try. And I would hold him more accountable for his actions if he had less of a point, because later that night I decided to hit a coquettish second base with Anthony out on the porch.
People process things differently, and I like to think that 2012, my messiest year, was how I processed balancing expectations against reality.
I recently stumbled across a box of university-era journals. Post high school, my journaling was always well-meant, but inconsistent at best. One notebook in the pile was a perfect example of this: what had started as an artful assortment of collages and blurbs about what kind of future I wanted for myself devolved slowly into indiscriminate lecture notes. But among the article cutouts and doodles were two gems.
The first was a circa-freshman year “Strive List” (who was too cool to use the word Goals? THIS CHICK.) It had admirable and haphazard goals like “Write a Book”, “Own a Dog”, “Become a Yoga Aficionado”, and several others that were unnecessarily capitalized.
The second gem, with markedly less luster but no less striking, was this heart-breaking entry about how afraid I was of amounting to nothing beyond a financially unstable, paycheck-to-paycheck “adult”, incapable of ever looking feminine or like a real woman. And, startling for me because I remember more than anything feeling utterly confident, happy, and golden for the majority of the time I spent in college, this entry was written a mere two months before I graduated.
The timing of both entries isn’t lost on me. In the middle of college, it’s blissful and easy to casually expect amazing things from life. It didn’t occur to me to aim for anything but the absolute sun after one year of college, a time when even the most dramatic challenges could always be overcome by the right night out with the right people, by the right binge combo of movies and chocolate. And while I’d to that point retained that light-hearted and enviable ability to look past the impossible in my life and aim high, the version of me that wrote hopelessly, two months before entering that dreaded “real world”, that I was likely to never achieve anything was very afraid. She had a real fear that the sunshine that was so recently certain, had no guarantees.
2012, thus far my entire experience of the “real world”, had only validated those feelings. I’d gone to college and gotten a degree, like the world expected. And then I came home and the best job offer I got, after months of hunting, was at a part-time gig at a cupcake shop. My bright career full of words like aficionado (not to mention successful) was a joke. So the one thing that was working for me – being an engaging, attractive woman, and getting attention for it, was the one thing that I clung to and used as a source of fulfillment. Repeatedly.
As a successful formula, it had a familiar lifespan. It yielded satisfactory results right up until the point where it very, deeply, profoundly did not.
Welcome, my friends, to the Low Point.
That little town my family moved to remains to this day such a posterchild hometown of upper-middle-class white-privilege-clichés (and, apparently, hyphens) that I’m genuinely surprised it hasn’t snagged an offshoot of Real Housewives. It was a running joke that any minute now, it would get discovered. But until then, only locals would have the joy of experiencing its man-made water features, its immaculately-planned housing developments named after Italian villages, its faux Town Center that did – to give credit where due – became the center of town, as there was nowhere else to go if you didn’t have a learner’s permit. (Or any desire to escape the confines of a cookie-cutter populous that somehow managed to get its own Chili’s and Mercedes Benz dealership but distanced itself from the existence of its mobile home park and put the low-cost grocery store out of business in favor of a regional Whole Foods knockoff.)
In summary, we tended to avoid it as a hangout. There were other more interesting places to be. Or, if not more interesting, at least cheaper. But one unsuspecting July evening, I was at an upscale burger joint with Kyle, and we’d run into some mutual friends that had the distinction of not being townies, and ended up in Town Center. These former comrades escaped our home town and had enviably maintained the distance after graduation, so a catchup was due.
In all honesty, I don’t remember any of what we talked about. I couldn’t really even tell you which high school acquaintances they were. Over time, the individual aspects of this interaction – participants, topics of conversation, length of time – have glommed together into only one discernable concept: a looming, undeniable feeling of failure. That I was failing, spectacularly, at doing what these people were doing. At moving on. At using college as the jumping-off point it was so clearly supposed to be. And fuck me if that realization didn’t leave me more raw than I’d ever been in my discernable memory.
What I probably should have done was text Lindsay to see if she was available for one of our sudden but no-less-important “WHAT IS MY LIFE” talks. But two beers in, I made the unwise decision to text Beck and see if he was around. We always had a good time, and while we were definitely friends, we had never managed to cross that line from physical/friendly intimacy into emotional intimacy. I decided this was the moment to do it. I mean, what’s more of a bonding experience than telling someone that you’ve never talked emotional shop with that you feel utterly worthless? That your life lacks even the most remote direction?
Full disclosure, this was an idiotic decision for two reasons. One, I had been drinking. I should not have been driving.
And two, well, it went about as good as you can expect.
Very upset and certain this was a good idea, I hopped into my parent’s minivan. (Do you like how I got this far without revealing the fact that every one of these memories took place while I was driving around my parents’ 1999 Plymouth Minivan? I know, my restraint is admirable.) Around five minutes into the nine-minute drive to Beck’s I started crying.
Alone, in the minivan.
By the time I pulled up to his house, I was looking worse for the wear. Never have been and never will be a Pretty Crier.
I park in his driveway and notice the lights aren’t on, figure Beck caught an early night. He hasn’t responded to my text yet either, but my need is great so that doesn’t stop me. I get out of the car and knock on his front door.
For a surprisingly long time, I don’t hear anything, but the alcohol within me urges me to knock again, just louder. Finally, I hear one of his dogs barking, partnered with the noise of someone inside obviously approaching the door.
The porch lights flick on and I flinch. I can only imagine how pathetic I look at this point – crying unabashedly by now, ready for the door to be thrown open and to get scooped up in a hug. That’s all I wanted in that moment. But as I stand there in the yellow glow of the porchlight, accompanied by a few buzzing night bugs suddenly whirred to life by the flickering warmth, I begin to feel supremely exposed. That sixth sense of physical presence that humans seem to be gifted with me had me certain Beck was on the other side of that door; I could feel it.
I kept waiting and nothing happened.
The door never opened, and eventually the light turned off.
Defeated, crying anew, I made my way back to the minivan and drove back to my parents.
The Low Point was the next morning, when I got a text from Beck, apologizing profusely.
Because, well, you see, I’d had the unfortunate timing to arrive on one of the very rare nights that Beck’s mother was home.
So that presence I’d felt on the other side of the door?
Looking through the peephole, probably wondering, “What the fuck business does my son get up to if random girls show up at 1AM on a Wednesday night, crying hysterically?”
I look back on that next day (and the Tumblr post I wrote about it, because c’mon, it was 2012) and think of it as a jumping off point. Low Points often are. In the words of that Tumblr post: “ideally it makes you realize you can only be less weird and desperate and creepy than you were in that one moment.”
Here’s the thing – if that life I’d been living was fulfilling, there’d have been nothing wrong with it. I can’t stress enough my belief that happiness and satisfaction come in vastly different shapes and sizes for every human (a la my Bucket Theory). But it became a painful level of 20/20 clear to me on that night that I was not happy or fulfilled. I was very much the opposite.
The next week I decided I needed to make some changes. I started budgeting and looking at what it would take to get a little studio apartment in Midtown Sacramento instead of living with my parents in the suburbs. I kicked off the most successful spree of gym attendance I’ve thus experienced in my life. (You win some, you lose some. I’m still losing that one.) I began involving myself in wider circles and staying in better touch with my distant friends. I created feasible goals. And in later (healthier) years, some of those same superficial friendships became some of my best.
It ended up being an unexpected game-changer move to San Diego that catalyzed my next big Life Phase. But I remain convinced that it was this massive mind frame change, the understanding that what I had feared in the past wasn’t doomed to come true, that left me open to the idea in the first place.