College, where’s How to Survive 101?

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It’s funny, isn’t it, all of the things they don’t teach you in college. Like how to properly balance a checkbook, how to find jobs that come with benefits, or just plain old How To Survive in the Real World 101.

I’ve realized as time passes since graduating, and listening to my friends talking about commencement that is just a month away, that this is really it. It’s over. I’m at the end of the tunnel, the end of That Journey, and That Chapter. Those four (and a half) years disappeared before my eyes.

I already feel like a different person. I’m already passed the hype of graduating because January was that month for me, not May. I’m in the I-need-a-job-now-but-all-I-want-to-do-is-watch-Netflix phase. Oh, and slight panic mode.

I’m realizing that Sallie Mae is going to come knocking on my door in June, and that if I don’t start budgeting and prioritizing, I’ll be struggling to pay for everything – and oh my god, that word “everything.” How do adults survive? How do they pay for it all?

I should’ve raised my hand during one of my Shakespeare lectures and said, “While Lady Macbeth is my favorite character, can you please tell me how I’m going to be able to pay for my loans, my car, other bills, and still save enough money to move out? How does that work, exactly? Winning the lottery? Okay, thanks.”

It’s not just the money though.

I already feel like a different person because my mindset has changed. I have finally learned how to focus on myself, and I feel incredibly grateful. While it is sad to be leaving the college bubble, and all of its impactful, memorable years behind, those years have shaped me into the person who is confident even as she stands outside of the College Bubble.

Those years taught me to have faith, be strong, work hard, love yourself, and set boundaries. Maybe that is all I need to survive.

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Letter to My Younger Self

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Dear Seventeen-Year-Old Me,

It’s the end of your junior year. It’s been a rough year.

Mom’s been telling you that everything is “going to get better.” That losing your friends, Greg breaking up with you, and all of this crying will mean something someday.

Right now, it doesn’t help. You’re angry, you’re upset, and you have just learned a few hard lessons in life all at once: sometimes, when people hurt you and do wrong to you, they will still think they are right. They will not apologize for the ugly things they have said or done. They will try to knock you down.

It’s shocking, right? That people can be that selfish, that hurtful, and be okay with what they’ve done to you, isn’t it? But it’s okay. I can see you right now trying to act like it’s okay, it doesn’t matter – you’re pushing all of this fucked-up-ness down. Don’t do this. Listen to me.

What I want to tell you is that Mom (you will realize this when you’re about twenty-one) is almost always right.

It’s going to be okay. It’s “going to get better.”

And I’m not writing this to talk about your asshole high school friends, or Greg. You won’t remember them until you see them again. No, really, I’m serious.

For example: one night in the August before your graduate from college, you’ll run into those assholes at the Landmark Pub in Livingston (yup, you’ll hang out there – you’ll appreciate the cheap drinks and the easy access to Nikki’s house if you’re too tipsy to drive). You will all smile politely at one another. You will then continue walking passed them towards your remarkable, supportive group of friends that you have acquired over the years. You will not even think about the interaction again. If anything, you’ll be laughing with your new friends about how time really flies.

It’s going to be okay.

I am writing to tell you that there’s a lesson in this pain you are currently experiencing: this heart-wrenching feeling is not the end of the world, but it is okay to be upset. It’s okay to feel what you’re feeling and embrace it, and therefore grow stronger from it. Don’t be ashamed or hide from it. Stop holding it in. You have to (figuratively) bleed it out. IT’S OKAY.

We’ll experience more pain. We have to. We’re going to cry really hard once in awhile. We’re going to get angry and throw things. We’re going to push people away. We’re going to hate ourselves. The pain will come from other people, and from the inside too. We’ll screw up and cause our own pain. We’ll hurt others. It’s inevitable. We’ll also find good – of course. Good people, good opportunities, life changing moments, but that pain you’re feeling now will be felt again. And that’s okay.

At twenty-two, I’ve begun working on us. I’ve decided that we should allow ourselves to heal. Right now, you are not allowing yourself to heal. You are actually about to begin a self-destructive pattern, because you think that’s what healing is. It’s not. Partying and hanging out with “bad” boys is not healing. You’re charming when you are not drunk (prepare for us to embarrass ourselves a few times). You’re worthy of good men. These distractions merely numb the pain. They don’t let you embrace it and they don’t help you grow. I know you know this, because even at seventeen, we are smart enough to logically see this. We just don’t want to see it. We will eventually figure this out. Have faith. It’s going to be okay.

Pain is not a negative thing or a sign of weakness. For last five years, starting at the moment you are starting at now, I thought it was.

I was ashamed when I cried because the girls we used to be friends with stalked our locker to harass us, when they vandalized our car, when they spread nasty rumors. I was ashamed of crying when Dad told me fine, I’ll never talk to you again. I was ashamed that Andrew, who you will date next year, hit me and that I let it happen. I was ashamed when Oscar, who loved us so much, hit me years later. I was ashamed of being weak. I was ashamed of being broken. Bottling everything caused me to hate every fiber of my being, and I was ashamed of that pain too.

I subdued the pain. I put on a pretty, fake face, like you’re doing now, because I couldn’t handle facing my pain. I was scared of pain. But listen. Pain can be good. Pain means you are human, that you are growing. We hurt and we adapt. And it’s going to be okay.

There are phenomenal things coming too. Those shitty experiences that will happen to you? It’s cliché, but they are necessary lessons that we will be thankful for. We will learn how to embrace other people’s actions and realize it’s not a reflection of ourselves. We will learn how to respond thoughtfully, to care about other people’s emotions – because like I said, we will cause pain too.

It’s all a matter of growth. It’s all a matter of positive energy. How will you find a best friend like Nikki if you don’t get hurt by fake friends? How else will you learn what you want in a man if you don’t go through the bullshit? How will you stand up for yourself, threaten to quit your job, and have them ask you to stay and offer you a raise, if you don’t experience pain and learn self-respect?

Our pain is our strength because we grow. Learn to love yourself, because the next few years are rocky. We’ll make it. I’m already proud of you because of the person I am now. We have a good head on our shoulders.

Embrace the pain, feel it.

It’s okay to be human.

The Walking Dead and Shotguns

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A frantic string orchestra builds into a loud crescendo as The Walking Dead flashes across my television screen. My body automatically tenses. Adrenaline begins the race through my veins.

I’m thankful I’m sitting on a comfy couch in a world where zombies do not exist. I hate zombies. I have a deep-seated fear of a zombie apocalypse. But The Walking Dead? For some reason, every Sunday night, I’m hooked.

Minutes into any given episode, there’s a swarm of walkers. I cringe as I see Daryl shoot a walker with his cross bow, the arrow so gruesomely pierced through the bloody skull. When Rick uses his shotgun and a few walkers’ heads explode, I am both fascinated and revolted.

“I would kick ass in a zombie apocalypse. Just blow ’em to bits,” my longtime friend says as a walker narrowly misses biting Maggie on screen.

“I’d probably be one of the first people to die,” I admit. My friend laughs. Because we both know it’s true—besides my “irrational” fear for zombies (bath salts people, BATH SALTS CAN CREATE ZOMBIES), I’m petrified of weapons in general. How would I ever defend myself? I’m the first to admit – I am easy zombie prey.

This seems to be a common fear among the public. No, not zombies, but weapons in general. If you watch the news, countless people are trying to revoke the second amendment. Politically, I don’t think we should give up any rights. I want the option to bear arms if I want to. But actually handle a gun? Or a knife? The few times I’ve seen either in person, my body literally shook from fright. Sword fighting movies make me sick. Movies with too many gunshots, too much blood, too much careless brandishing of any type of weapon, give me so much anxiety that I stand up and leave the room.

However, a percentage of America doesn’t possess this fear. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2014, 37% of Americans with children under 18 at home own a firearm. That’s an estimation of roughly 317 million American gun owners. My dad is one of those statistics – a licensed owner of a shotgun and a handgun. So one late August evening this past summer, I mentioned my fears to the gun owner himself.

“You don’t have to be afraid of guns. You have to respect them. They’re lethal weapons, yes. But if you know how to safely handle one, it can protect you. They’re less scary once you know what you’re doing. You should come with me to the shotgun range one day. An instructor can teach you, and I’ll be by your side,” my dad said.

It took me until November, about four months later, to take him up on his offer. I decided that I should face this fear straight on. How scary could it be? My dad has been hunting for years, since before I could remember. An instructor would be teaching me how to operate and properly shoot, and I was glad it was going to be my dad by my side the entire time.

My dad happily agreed to take me, despite the cold weather. So on November 19, 2014, my best friend Nikki, my little sister Isabella, my father and I headed up to Thunder Mountain in Ringwood, New Jersey, to go to the shotgun range. It was about 26 degrees out, but felt like it was below zero with the wind chill. It was 8 o’clock at night—the only time we were all free to try shooting before the holidays. The darkness blanketed us.

We pulled up to a small, one-story building next to a small field that had a few wooden huts scattered across it. Within ten minutes, a cute twenty-something year old man named Nick, wearing camo pants, Timberlands, and what appeared to be at least three layers of sweatshirts, walked across the field with Nikki, Bella, my dad and I towards a concrete pavement patch in the middle of the field.

“This is a 12-gauge, pump-up shotgun,” Nick said as he handed me the weapon. The gun had camouflage print, matching Nick’s pants. He spoke loudly so I could hear him over my ear protection.

“Put five shotgun shells into your pocket. You’ll load one at a time. Then you slide the pump up, loading the gun. Once it’s loaded, you have to always keep the gun pointed downwards until you’re ready for the clay pigeon – the clay disk that I’m going to release when you say ‘pull.’” Nick explained as helped me load the first shotgun shell and pump the gun. He then brought the gun up to my right shoulder and propped it against my inner shoulder.

“Press your face against the gun. Your right cheek. Keep your face against it. Squint your left eye, so your right eye is lined up with the gun’s barrel. You’re going to follow the barrel with your eye, and when you think the clay pigeon is about to be right in front of the barrel, you shoot. With shotgun shooting, you have to shoot where you think the pigeon is going to end up. You have to move the gun slowly upwards to follow the pigeon before shooting. It’s a moving target, so it’s a little harder. Don’t panic. Just breathe.”

I stood in position. My face felt frozen against the shotgun, but my fears seemed to have vanished as I held the gun. The entire field was silent.

Nick reminded me to breathe and say pull when I’m ready. I lifted the gun. It’s really loaded. My heart started thumping but I encouraged the adrenaline. It was controlled. I took a deep breath. My right pointer finger was on the trigger, and my left hand was on the barrel where Nick placed it. I squinted my left eye awkwardly, and my right eye stared down the barrel.

“Pull,” I said.

The orange clay pigeon disk soared across the black ink sky. I pulled the trigger and felt the gun jut back against my shoulder. I missed. I took a deep breath. The power, the loud burst from the shotgun, is actually what I expected. I imagined Rick shooting walkers and wondered how the hell he’s so precise. I imagined criminals in the real world using these weapons, and wondered at how they could possibly do such a thing. These thoughts don’t panic me or make me want to run, hide, or give Nick the gun back. Instead, I’m overwhelmed with respect for the weapon in my hand. It is deadly.

“Not bad. A little higher next time and you’ll get it,” Nick said. I laughed and let the gun face downwards.

“You ready to go again?” my dad asked from behind. I nodded and reached for the next shotgun shell. I shot about 15 rounds. I missed all of them. Nikki shot 15 too, and got one. My dad hit 18 out of his 25 shots. My little sister filmed and snapped as many pictures as her hands would allow in the cold. Nick and my dad excitedly bonded over bird hunting. As we exited the field, Nick smiled at me.

“It’s really cold out. You should come back on a warm day. It’ll be easier. But you did a good job. And you handled the gun well. It’s not that scary right?”

“It’s not that bad,” I admitted.

“I don’t even know why you guys would come on such a cold night,” Nick said.

“Just preparing for the zombie apocalypse.”

Americans Go to a Pub

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The single, most rewarding trip of my life was in the summer of 2013, when I lived in the outskirts of London, England. I had traveled the 3,459-mile trip to take my Shakespeare classes at Kingston University, where we visited the Globe Theater and experienced British culture. We stayed in flats in a village called Kingston-on-The-Thames; most days consisted of waking up, walking to lecture in the morning, and taking the train into the heart of London for lunch and excursions. I arrived on July 3rd, and had my first silly culture shock when I realized there would be no fireworks, no parties, no anything for my country’s independence day, a tradition I had celebrated the last twenty-one years of my life.

But thoughts of July 4th quickly slipped my mind. I was enthralled with a modern city in an ancient setting, and enjoyed every waking moment of my schooling and getting lost in London with my newly acquainted friends. It was almost like a cliché movie moment, a perfect “holiday” as the British would call it. And no matter what they tell you about London, it was anything but rainy, cloudy, or cold that summer—the average day was about 98 degrees and sweltering. We even had the (hot) sunny weather on our side.

I could handle the heat though. I was drunk off of the historical city and sometimes quite literally, drunk off of their drinks. Whether it was lunch or dinner, the pubs would have a steady flow of customers coming in for bangers and mash and a Guinness. It was cheap, and it was good. Every college student’s dream. On the first day of my Shakespeare class, my professor smirked at all of us and said, “You want to experience British culture? Go to the pub.”

One evening after class, my friend Jess and I decided we were going to walk from our flat to a nearby pub called The Coronation Hall. It was a fifteen-minute walk past local grocers, two petrol stations, an overpriced pub, and the local train stop. The cheap drinks and location made Coronation Hall “the spot” within days of us arriving at Kingston University. The pub is on the lower part of a two-story building, the name itself etched out in gold cursive against a black backdrop. The storefront is all windows, and you can see the boisterous crowd from the street.

Once inside, it opens up to a large hall littered with high tops and booths. Everything, from the bar, to the tables, to the ceiling, is made from a light, cherry wood. Paintings, photographs, and signs from all eras clutter the walls, as though you are imbedded in a 3D collage.

Being Americans, Jess’s and my accent stood out. This generally gave the locals some excitement, and they seemed to like interacting with us when we went out. Coronation Hall guaranteed drunken discussions of one another’s countries, giggling at little culture shocks—“New Jersey? Like the Jersey Shore? Is it really like that there?” “No, most people don’t call the bathroom the ‘loo’”—and simply appreciating the differences of one another.

Sure enough, after we ordered our beers and found a high-top table to sit at, a gentleman in his late fifties eyed us for a few moments before walking over.

“Are you American students? You sound like Americans.”

“Yes. We’re studying here for a few weeks,” I said as I sipped my Guinness.

“Whereabouts? I have relatives from California to New York.”

“Wisconsin,” Jess interjected.

“New Jersey,” I said.

“That’s by New York, right?” The man leaned on our high top between the two of us. I nodded. “I remember 9/11. Hearing about that. Horrible stuff. You might have been too young.”

“I was nine. I remember it. My dad was sent down to Ground Zero to film it for the news.” I pictured my mother’s panic that morning. The towers falling on the screen. The sound of the air force fighter jets rumbling above the house, too late to do anything.

“It’s a tragedy. Whenever I meet New Yorkers, I think of it. Really horrible. We have had terrorism here too, but not on such a grand scale.”

“Yes, it was horrible.” I didn’t know what else to say to this man. I felt a wave of strange protectiveness seep over me: pride for my country, a city I love, and the Americans that died. This was not discussing what “football” was versus “American football,” and this wasn’t a pop culture reference. My skin flushed from the beer and the identity this man gave me. Amy, American student, New Yorker, witness of terrorism in her backyard.

“England supports America’s anti-terrorism efforts.” He politely excused himself and walked away.

Jess and I exchanged looks. We are Americans.

Up And Over

Up and Over

I felt the sweat perspiring on my forehead, and held in a groan as I saw the long line of customers waiting for their iced coffees and lattes. An old man shuffled his way in front of my register and peered at the menu in front of him. The young woman behind him tapped her foot impatiently. Only two more hours, I thought to myself.

“I’ll just have a cup of black coffee,” he said. I punched in the code on the screen and reached my left hand out for the three dollars he held between his aged fingers. His crisp blue eyes widened as he saw the pink, freshly healed inch-and-a-half gash on my arm. I looked away and pulled my arm back quickly. It was the first week without my bandage, and I had specifically asked my manager if I could be the one making drinks, to avoid the customers’ looks. That didn’t work out. I saw her now, throwing ice into plastic cups, slamming buttons on the espresso machine, and calling out finished orders to the Starbucks fanatics who were waiting.

“What happened there?” the old man asked. I looked up and saw him staring, still.

“It was an accident.” I felt my pale skin flushing, but now it wasn’t only because of the heat.

“It’s a shame. You would be such a pretty girl if it wasn’t for that scar.” He smiled, kindly, though the comment slapped and stung my cheek. He shuffled off with his coffee after wishing me a good day, and the young woman behind him exhaled loudly before rattling off her order to me.

“Iced caramel macchiato—”

You would be such a pretty girl if it wasn’t for that scar.

            You would be such a pretty girl if it wasn’t for that scar.

            You would be such a pretty girl if it wasn’t for that scar.

* * *

“Amy, it’s okay. You just have to put your foot between the holes in the fence, and push yourself up. Use your legs. Just go up and over,” my best friend, Nikki, instructed from the other side of the fence. My eyes traveled up the black fence and noticed the spokes at the top. Nikki and her sister stood on the other side, looking from me to the street and back again. A police siren rang in the distance—were they coming for us? Did the town pool system have an alarm? It was late, about 11 o’clock at night, and the streetlights in the distance showed no cars passing.

My adrenaline pumped recklessly as I stuck my foot into one of the fence holes. My fingers wrapped themselves around the black wires and I lifted. My muscles, out of shape, screamed in protest, and the wires bit painful wedges into my hands. I lifted, tugged, and pulled my way to the top. I raised my torso and, without thinking, swung my legs over the top of the fence and sat on the fence’s spokes. Pain ripped through my body as the spokes pierced into my butt and thighs.

“Shit!” I screamed. My body reacted without me—I shot up, into the air, awkwardly trying to hold onto the fence as my body struggled to get away from the sharp spokes. I was a tumbling mess of limbs, my arms and legs moving so quickly and haphazardly that I must have looked like a whirl of chaos. As I began to fall, I reached out for the fence one last time with my left arm, only to feel it graze one of the spokes on the fence. I hit the ground, somehow landing on my two feet. Nikki and her sister bit back awkward laughter, coupled with concern in their eyes.

“Are you okay?” Nikki asked, as I shakily took a step. My left arm was burning. I looked down and held back vomit. The white skin of my arm peeled open, with rose-red blood spilling onto the summer grass. Blood slipped down my pale legs too. The police sirens blared again. And there it was, my foolhardy teenage summer, forever carved into my arm.