Through the Looking Glass: How I Messed Up, and How I Learned to Fix It
“Where are you from?” is such a simple question — but I dread it.
You see, after living in England, South Africa, Poland, Sri Lanka and France, in addition to attending boarding school in Wales, the answer doesn’t seem that obvious to me. Not to mention my door decoration has read “Lidingo, Sweden” since freshman year (don’t ask), and until recently I have not had a legal permanent address.
It will come as no surprise, then, that I don’t define where I am from in the traditional fashion. It sometimes feels like my parents, my brother and I make up our own little country. After all, it’s only in my own house that I don’t feel as though my accent is “so English — can you say ‘tomato’ again?” (when I’m at Dartmouth) or “ohmygod you sound so American” (when I go back to all my British friends).
Because I moved every couple of years, I haven’t grown up with ties to one culture or country or people. I have friends from every place I’ve lived, and I am the queen of long-distance friendships. I’ve never had to worry about friendships in the ways that other people have. Just as I would encounter an interpersonal problem, we’d move.
In fourth grade, for example, I used to race my friends to the same tree every day during lunch. One day I showed up and was told I wasn’t allowed to sit with them anymore. For the next month, I sat on the other side of the playground alone.
A sad story — until my family moved once again shortly after. Relocating to an entirely new home meant my schoolyard quarrel had come to an end, and I never had to see or deal with those girls again.
Packing up every so often meant my social circle was always fluctuating, and it was the first two years of high school when I acquired a solid group of friends for the first time. It was also when I started dating my first boyfriend. My teenage romance, though, was short-lived. By the end of sophomore year, I decided I didn’t really want to date him anymore. Luckily, I went off to boarding school in the U.K. a month later.
As graduation neared, it meant I had to make a commitment, and choosing to come to Dartmouth was an entirely new experience. I was about to live somewhere — in one place! — for four whole years.
Once I arrived in Hanover, I was lucky to meet my best friend, Katie. On my birthday freshman year, she organized a scavenger hunt that took me all over campus throughout the day. Every Valentine’s Day, she makes up lyrics to my favorite song of the month, and I am never out of delicious baked goods waiting for me in our room.
While Katie soon became a best friend, she wasn’t alone. My freshman floormates quickly grew into my new family. I didn’t spend much time my first year playing pong or looking for potential hook-ups. In total, I probably went out maybe seven or eight times. Instead of drinking on Friday nights, six of us might sit on my bed watching a movie and talking until 4 a.m. We would all go canoeing or hiking, and at night we would explore campus — starting, of course, with stargazing on the golf course. I’d never expected to find such a strong home away from my family.
Most of my sophomore year was spent abroad. When I came back for the summer, the same group of us lived together in an off-campus house, something we been planning since freshman spring. Having spent the last year traveling and living in new places, I returned to a friend group I had known for two years and counting. It made for a new experience entirely.
Yet something had changed in me — I wanted more. I wanted to walk into any fraternity and know the brothers, to get on table, to not suck at pong. I had — to an extent — kept such a distance from this world during my first two years that when I discovered it, I went a little overboard. I decided to pay wet dues in my sorority for the first time that first week back. After a party that weekend, I ended up upstairs, sleeping over in someone’s room. Katie had lost track of me that evening, and she finally found me sometime around 1 a.m. I opened the door to find her standing there, looking terrified. I’d never gotten drunk around her before, and she’d lost me. I insisted I was fine and laughed it off the next day.
Sophomore summer became a haze of dance floor makeouts and tequila shots. Katie watched from afar, and listened to my tales of alcohol-induced idiocy without complaint. She was patient, and she waited. Katie wanted me to come back to her, but she wanted me to explore — even if she didn’t understand my need to break out of the protective case my freshman floor had built around me.
Don’t get me wrong — it was fun. In some ways, it was everything sophomore summer is meant to be. Until suddenly it wasn’t.
A big night out happened to fall on the same day as my last midterm, and I took full advantage. I was drunk and in definite need of sleep, so one of my freshman floormates walked me home in the early hours of the morning. We got to talking — first about classes, then friends and then our respective love lives. This friend had recently gone through a breakup and was bemoaning the fact that it was so hard to find girls who wanted more at Dartmouth.
I was a girl who was so sick of being single in a social scene that was telling me that I shouldn’t have to be alone.
I messed up. Monumentally.
Do you know how hard it is to tell your best friend that you kissed the guy she’s been in love with for the last two years?
And this time my family wasn’t moving. I had another two years of Dartmouth to go.
Katie told me that night that she wasn’t angry — confused and upset maybe, but not angry. Over the next few weeks, we grew apart.
On the outside, we were still Katie and Steph — two inseparable entities. Still, late at night, when we would normally talk about everything and nothing, there was an emptiness.
The floormate whom I’d kissed suddenly became someone I could not be around. We stopped talking. Our friend group had to plan around us since we couldn’t handle spending time together. The “event” was never mentioned explicitly, never talked about. My friends whispered around me. I confided in a few. We had created a glass casing around our friendships, scared that if anyone talked about what was wrong, it would shatter.
Despite the numerous times I’ve been the “new girl” or had to make an entirely new circle of friends, I’d never felt so alone. I’d managed to alienate a place that had willingly taken me in like nowhere had before. All I wanted to do was talk to Katie about it. I just wanted to be there for her, but I couldn’t. I was the one who ruined everything in the first place.
The fall — thanks to the D-plan — separated Katie and me. We sent long emails. We informed each other of our day-to-day lives. Before she left, we had tried to figure things out. But she was too hurt, and she wouldn’t let herself be mad at me.
I got a blitz from Katie late one night junior winter as I was leaving rehearsal. The message started with “Disclaimer: do not freak out about this email.” Of course, I did just that. I took a deep breath and kept reading. She went on to say that she felt disconnected from me. She felt as though I didn’t want to be around her, as though I was pulling away. My instant reply: “I am coming over now.”
I sat on her floor for hours. She asked me if kissing him had been good. She asked what I was thinking, why I’d hurt her, why I hadn’t thought about her. Every question hurt more than the last. I, Stephanie, a girl who had previously considered herself loyal above all else to those she loved, had done the one thing that had hurt the person I loved most.
I threw away the home I created here.
That night, I told her everything I could. I told her why I started drinking, and tried to explain why I had felt so trapped. All I wanted to do was to let her know I loved her.
The two of us had a lot of these conversations, rehashing details and talking about what we wanted from our friendship. We revisited the situation. Eventually, the tension began to ease, and we started to feel like us again.
That spring, I became depressed. I wasn’t taking classes. Things weren’t going swimmingly back home, and I had too much time on my hands to think. I began to realize that I wasn’t all that happy, and I felt the loneliness creeping back in. I was terrified because I didn’t know if Katie would be there. She was there with me every step of the way throughout the term. I called her repeatedly late at night, and she would walk around Occom Pond with me.
I felt better — alive — when I was with her.
A year later, we still talk about our friendship. I get upset. She does too. I leave week-old tea on the fridge in our common room. It drives her crazy. She makes me baked goods and stays up with me if I need to cry. I do the same.
I listen. I love her and always will.
It took me a long time to be okay with the fact that my home isn’t where I live. Home isn’t the street I grew up on. Home for me is family. I am lucky enough to have two — my family at home (wherever that may be geographically) and the family I found in Hanover. Yes, Dartmouth can be hard. Yes, I succumbed to a culture that broke my world for a little while. I can’t blame my throwing away my home on anything other than my stupid mistake.
But Dartmouth also taught me to fight for my family, to fight for my home. I learned that people are just looking for other people.
I also learned that with perseverance and a lot of love, you can put your home back together again.