Nothing prepared me for the first time that I tried to walk from one building on Vassar’s campus to another alone. It was before smartphones or even the proper signage that the fire department recently forced the college to install. I was hell-bent on finding my own way, no way was I going to ask anyone for directions, never mind that I was so obviously a tourist that I might as well have been wearing a fanny pack. (I was, after all, wearing a lanyard. At the time, it felt sophisticated. I was eighteen! A college woman! I drank vodka! Out of Nalgenes, and it was raspberry-flavored, but still.)
I don’t remember how I managed to get from the lawn outside Josselyn House to Main Building. I assume it involved a map, although that’s one of several details from my first months in college that I’ve excised from my memory on the basis that I was way too cool to do something as lame as look at a map while wearing a lanyard. Similarly, I never threw up in public, and that series of photos that keeps cropping up in this week’s “On This Day” where I am wearing what looks like the entire Old Navy clearance rack in at least one size too small is obviously Photoshopped.
What I do remember is that that was when I realized that from that moment on, it was up to me—for the first time in my life—to figure out what to do next. Driving was like this too, to a degree; nobody puts 20,000 miles on a car in Las Vegas without finding themselves on the wrong Durango (am I right, Las Vegans?). But that was only ever temporary. I’d pull over and study my MapQuest printout, maybe cry a little bit, but I was always on my way home eventually.
And the next morning, even if I ignored my alarm, my mother would be there to drag me out of bed and to school, where I went to the classes that I had selected from a diverse menu that offered things like A.P. English, Honors English, and English where they’re going to assign To Kill a Mockingbird for the fourth year in a row in the valiant hope that someone will read it and encourage the rest of the future valets of America not to vote for Trump. I would eat crackers with peanut butter for lunch and I would do my calculus homework. I would date the boy who sat next to me in biology class, and then we would break up and I would write poetry about his Converse sneakers, and then I would date his friend, and then I would date his other friend, and then I would have run through all of the straight men who weren’t being assigned To Kill a Mockingbird for the fourth time in a row. It had all been laid out for me.
So there I was, eighteen years old, realizing that not only did I need to figure out which of the seventeen sidewalks in front of me led to the building where I could sign up to audition for a cappella (I got rejected) but I also needed to downselect from approximately one billion classes to five and figure out which of the oodles of straight boys who lived on my hallway was the right one to stick my skintight Old Navy tank top-clad chest at. My map, needless to say, did not provide me with the information that I needed to choose wisely. (Particularly for that red herring of a last question, whose obvious answer is “don’t shit where you eat,” or more properly, “don’t shit where you all use the same gender-neutral bathroom.”)
But it was thrilling. I was kept on a short leash as a kid. I went to college 3,000 miles away to sever that leash as completely as I could. I was free for the first time to chart my own path not just across the maze of sidewalks—seriously, did Vassar design the residential quad intentionally to fuck with freshmen’s heads or is that some kind of midcentury landscape architectural feature that I missed out because I never took Art History 105-106?—but to draw, from among thousands of possibilities, what my future looked like. I had done what I’d been told to do up until then, smart kid, take A.P. English and don’t go to parties and don’t, God forbid, try to pursue a career as something that doesn’t involve a steady paycheck.
I was free, now, at last, to take my map and my lanyard and find out who I was supposed to be. (Naturally, the first answers I found to that question were things like “a person who sleeps through 9 A.M. Italian” and “someone who gained the freshman fifteen because she ate grilled cheese for every meal.”)
The sensation was powerful. I’ve spent my adult life chasing it back down.
I moved every year for the first four years and then finally I stopped, and then I started traveling for work last year. Trying to order a coffee in Fitzrovia in London was the closest I’ve felt to being an eighteen-year-old with a lanyard around her neck and the world at her feet, so I kept going. A hundred thousand miles later, I suspect that that might be the last time I get to feel that way. After London and Wellington and Toulouse and Sydney and Melbourne I know now that there are a lot of things that are possible, like the world’s best grilled cheese sandwich or that you can be a person whose commute is riding a ferry past the Sydney Opera House every morning.
But I also know that possibilities are not unlimited. By the end of my fourth year at Vassar, I could have crossed that maze of sidewalks with my eyes closed, and I had lost any illusions that just leaving Las Vegas would turn me into someone worldly. The forehead in the Global Entry kiosk photo is the same forehead that left Newark five or ten or fifteen days prior. (As an aside, someone should let Customs and Border Patrol know that they should have considered the full of range of adult heights when they were ordering those kiosks. Maybe if they ever review my file and realize that it’s just a gallery of pictures of the top of my head, they’ll put in for replacements.) I have changed more walking six blocks down Second Avenue, the length of time it takes to get in an argument that puts the wheels in motion for disaster five months later, than I have flying 15,000 miles around the world.
It’s not the setting that transforms me, in short. What in retrospect turn out to be the precipices off which I’ve fallen into new states of being are less exciting than the ones I would imagine them to be. It wasn’t the guy I “met cute” at a bar in a snowstorm whose medicine cabinet now holds a shelf of my things; it was the one I’d known for a year prior. Going to college 3,000 miles away didn’t turn me into the person I suspected I might be; auditioning for the spring musical there did. The world has always been at my feet, regardless of where those feet are situated. (And I still can’t find my way without a map, although at least now I can at least pretend that I’m texting while walking instead of bumbling around like Clark Griswold.)
In June, I went to my five-year reunion. Crossing campus was disorienting—it wasn’t quite like riding a bike, not after five years that I’ve spent learning to navigate so many different cities. My mind only has so much room, and most of it is filled with things like the names of every member of the Kardashian family. I felt a little frisson of remembering what it was like to be younger, to have illusions of what the world was going to be like now that I got to decide whether or not I woke up for class and what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I got lost more than once that weekend. I guess that a place that I once knew like the back of my hand can still surprise me.
“The sensation was powerful. I’ve spent my adult life chasing it back down.”
I think that’s true for many of us. Freedom, on one level or another, can be incredibly intoxicating.