My phone buzzed.
“I don’t know what happened, Erin…”
I unlocked the text.
“I’m so sorry. I thought you’d be fine…”
My phone slipped from my hand into my friend’s carpet, lost in the fluff. We’d been sitting right there a moment before, playing Sleigh Bells and bitching. I’d been so sure, so assertive, so strong. I’d been comforting her.
“You got hosed.”
I sunk to the floor, my two-articles ready Dalmatian onesie crumpling with me. It was over. I’d been hosed.
It would be easy for me to stand here and denounce bicker. It would be easy to reprimand the Princeton social system for its antiquities, easy to, once I’d been excluded from it, call it lame, or pointless. Unfair. Stupid. Vapid.
I’m not saying that it isn’t all of those things. It can be unjust and shallow, judgmental and unfair. It’s a system that often judges you on the things far out of your control—your clothes, your looks, even that awkward way you snort when you laugh sometimes. But the worst part about it is that, when you’re in the throes of it, it makes you feel like you could maybe “belong.” You put yourself out there to be judged, you reveal things you’d kept so carefully hidden, with the hopes that maybe, finally, someone, no matter how corrupt or judgmental they are, will accept you.
And so I sat there in my onesie, clutching a glass of wine I’m unsure how I got, and stared at my toes. They’ve always been crooked, my nails a little bit too small. I moved up to my ankles, bony and weak, the cause of countless foot injuries. My calves, perhaps a bit large, perhaps a bit dry, perhaps not quite powerful enough. And up. And up. To my hands, cold and shaking. And up, to my arms, which have been always been too short. To my ears, which have always been to small. And to my face, inexplicably tear-soaked, blotchy, and swollen. I could see nothing but the bad. Could feel nothing but my own discomfort and self-distaste. What had been wrong? What could I have done? Why hadn’t I been good enough?
I know now that this reaction was somewhat ridiculous. I know that it’s a crapshoot system, ridden with injustices and error. I know that, perhaps, it hadn’t been me. That I’d simply fallen victim to a system. But in that moment, this was the furthest thought from my mind. I felt erred. I felt like a mistake. A mis-make. A societal fluke. I’d finally showed people who I was, how weird I am, how I love Where the Wild Things Are and dream of riding motorcycles, and they’d rejected me. I’d failed.
But walking out of my friend’s room that night, I tried to buck up. Fragments of every pep talk I’d heard in every sports movie rattled in my head, and I couldn’t help but repeatedly mumble, “Buck up, sport!” under my breath. I tried to laugh. I kicked pieces of snow, smothering my anger and sadness with faux jubilation. I was, or so I convinced myself, fine.
That is, until the apologies began. They looked at me like I’d lost my mother. Or a limb. Or my mother and a limb. Their heads tilted slightly sideways, their eyes grew wide. They came towards me, arms outstretched, muttering a million variances of “I’m so sorry,” or, “This is so fucked up.” They held me. They comforted me. And under the weight of the people I love, I broke.
I stood on the porch of Terrace and cried. I cried silently, tears rushing down my face, some freezing in the Polar Vortex. I cried through conversations. I cried through a pack of cigarettes. I cried through six beers. I cried. I didn’t want to cry, but I cried. I was ashamed. I’d put myself out there, and I’d been rejected. More than anything, I was just embarrassed.
I escaped to the city the next day, and managed to put some perspective on the whole thing. When I tried to explain what had happened to my friends at Columbia, they stared at me dumbfounded, repeatedly asking why we ate in mansions in the first place again? And who had decided that that many interviews had been a good idea? And they made people eat what?
They didn’t understand. And I realized, I didn’t either. I didn’t understand what had compelled me to participate in the system. I didn’t understand what had gone wrong. And I didn’t understand why it felt like someone was following me around, punching me in the stomach with every breath I took.
I wish I could say that, a week later, I understood. I wish I’d had some great insight into the whole thing, could explain just what made me so upset. But I can’t. And I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to. Under the intricacies of the Eating Club system and under the guise of socially antiquated rituals, I’d simply been rejected. And the pain that caused me was shocking.
The looks haven’t stopped, and the hugs continue. Sometimes, when people try to comfort me, I still feel tears pricking at the corner of my eyes. Don’t get me wrong, I love all of those who were there for me more than I can possibly express. But I also don’t want to be the friend who got hosed anymore. None of us who are in this position do. It’s a label we’ll undoubtedly find near-impossible to shake, but it’s still something we’ll try for. All I want, as impossible as it may seem, is for things to be normal. For friends to be friends not because they fall on the same side of arbitrary lines, but because they like each other. Or they have the same favorite color. Or they both really like Los Campesinos.
I lied. The worst part about bicker is that I know that this will never again be the case. Sure, friendships will remain, but they will forever be tainted with the knowledge of how some arbitrary council decided that, despite your best efforts, you and those you love really weren’t socially matched anyways. Bicker changed everything. We can pretend it didn’t. Life might be the same in many ways. But it did. Hugs will be longer, looks will be warmer, and so many conversations will take place in self-conscious, hushed tones.
We will feel alienated and coddled and even hated. We already suffered through judgment and rejection and wine and cigarettes. We’ve felt the pain of feeling unwanted. But that’s nothing. The worst part about bicker isn’t the crushing blow it will deliver over the next two years is; it is that no matter how much you reject the “system,” how much you try to act outside of it, it will continue to have power. We can say “Fuck Bicker!” all we like, but life here will never be the same.