Through The Looking Glass: The X-Factor

by Madison McIlwain | 5/9/18 2:10am

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Source: Courtesy of Madison McIlwain

Most of us have an ex — a significant other, a hookup or even a friend. But not every college student has experienced “the X.” 

At Dartmouth, masked behind a laughable meme, there is a stereotyped system we call the X. Girls “peak” as freshmen and become less desirable as they age. Boys inversely rise in desirability to finally “peak” as seniors. While the idea of older guys going for younger girls is not novel, the construct of “the X,” with its official title and explanation, gives the whole trend an odd sense of legitimacy.

Shortly after the six-week frat ban of my freshman fall, the perks of the Dartmouth X became palpable. I had little trouble getting on table despite the fact that I didn’t know the rules. Fraternities never seemed to run out of Keystone, even though my guy friends were led to believe there was a shortage. The prescribed power freshman girls waltzed into basements, which felt like ours to wield. The senior boys felt the same way. The key difference between us was that they could buy the Keystone, and in turn carried a confidence only accrued through three years of Dartmouth behind them. 

One boy in particular stands out in my mind. I first noticed his tall stature and sure sense of self from across the basement as he frantically foraged for a pong ball. By fate, I would have once said, we were introduced after his winning game through a friend of a friend. From the way he casually touched my arm and lower left hip, I could tell he was into me. So we attempted to have a conversation in that noisy, smelly frat basement. 

Leaning into my ear after having shouted at/spoken to each other for 40 or so minutes, he whispered, “Do you want to get out of here? I live upstairs.” More of a statement than a question. I confidently smirked, knowing how those stories ended, and decided to settle for his phone number. With a stolen kiss goodnight, I walked out of his fraternity back to my room in the Choates on cloud nine. 

Over Lou’s the next morning, my friends and I plotted my X-games strategy. 

“Maybe I’ll see you at the Shark concert tonight?” his text read later that Saturday. 

My very thoughtfully crafted and crowd-sourced text back read, “Maybe ;)” 

“Maybe.” A clear euphemism for yes. 

Attracted to the allure of the unknown and infatuated with the romantic idea of him, I found little problem in the fact that he had been listening to Vampire Weekend the year I stopped reading vampire novels. We had nothing of substance in common. But before I could blink, I was blinded by his seeming Dartmouth omniscience. I fell fast into a “maybe he’ll text me tonight, maybe I’ll text him” lifestyle. It felt exotic, very adult and exactly the kind of thing I had left my high school boyfriend behind to experience.

One Sunday, after a weekend of being ghosted, he reached out. 

“Hey, we should probably talk.” 

  After unsuccessfully convincing him to meet me in my one-room double, I found myself nodding along later that night as he told me his thoughts. While stroking my leg on the sagging frat couch in his room, he explained his disappearing act.

“You’re great, but I graduate this spring,” he told me. “I don’t think I can commit to anything serious. I am really just trying to have fun.”

Wasn’t that what I came to college for? To have fun? 

I took his desire to “just have fun” as a challenge to my own need for commitment and consistency. At Dartmouth, we often deny ourselves sleep, food and “me” time for the sake of other commitments. In turn, we create an illusion of control over our lives. Denying what I needed in a physical and an emotional relationship wasn’t too much of a leap from there, especially with the X telling me I was getting everything I wanted. 

I told my friends, and myself, that while I was probably playing with fire, I didn’t care. 

  But care I did. Though I was keeping it casual, I always made time for him. He, on the other hand, was busy playing the field. He wouldn’t respond to texts for days at a time, but suddenly remembered my existence when we’d “coincidentally” run into each other in his fraternity. More than once on First Floor Berry, he would walk right by me without so much as a hello. 

Unsure of what to do with moments like these, I insisted to myself I was being overly sensitive. I convinced my stinging heart and bruised ego that this was normal. He was a senior and I was a freshman — that was how it worked. Turns out that telling your heart to be cool only works for so long. These minor infractions piled up, slowly pulling me down from my high-and-mighty position at “the top of the X.”

You better believe that things were over when I saw him, the last night of that winter term, walking into his fraternity with another girl. This was after he told me he had too much work to hang out that evening. Ouch. I cried on my friend’s shoulder, ate Cherry Garcia and watched “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.” I swore off him for good.

I wish I could say the story ended there. Alas, my freshman self had given into his apologetic advances by the time the snow melted that spring. As it turned out, he had seen me that night and was really sorry, he claimed.

This didn’t stop him from quickly turning back into his same non-committal self. But this was no surprise. Even though I had the power of the X behind me, it did nothing to validate my sense of self. I should have felt empowered by this system. In reality, I felt worse because I was unable to be truthful to myself about what I needed. I deserved more than what he was giving me, but let myself be used because this was supposed to be my moment at the top. 

Plus, okay, I liked him. 

Once I was in so deep, I had only one last power move to pull. And that was to walk away entirely. Yet the only reason I would have done that was so he could have chased me. Again. The reality was, I wasn’t strong enough to demand more and mean it. He couldn’t be the man I wanted, so I settled for the boy he was. 

We left things before his graduation with a “see-you-later” and a kiss on the forehead. 

Now it’s my graduation spring. And I am officially at the bottom of the X. This metaphor would suggest I’ve been stripped of my previous perspective at the top. Ironically, I think my view has only become clearer with time. In every hook-up, crush and broken heart, I’ve come to learn more of who I am and what I need. 

Our school’s laughable “X” reflects a deeper, problematic system. We all have an illusion of control over our emotional needs and personal preferences. Young men and women today enter fraternity basements, swipe left and ask people on dates under a misguided mirage of control to be had. Of course our generation can shut down our feelings like a device with a flip of a switch.

It is in this attempt to control ourselves that we assert control over others unfairly. Dartmouth’s accepted mainstream construct validates this power dynamic to the advantage of some and the detriment of others. Not only could I not control my own emotions, I let a system and a boy tell me what I should be feeling. Even when I was ignored or belittled, I still thought our relationship was somehow empowering thanks to the X. 

In full disclosure, he and I still talk sometimes. I think I respond to his texts because I enjoy feeling like he still needs me out there in the real world. I’m his link to the bubble of his past, and now the tables have turned. He can’t let me go, but I tell myself I could at any time. 

In four weeks, I, alongside my classmates, will be entering this mysterious “real world.” There might not be an X, but I have no doubt that power dynamics will remain a staple in everything from our careers to our casual, climactic moments.

My own experiences with the X have taught me that being told you have power and actually feeling powerful are two very different things. If I keep looking to other people to have power over, I’m never going to be satisfied. I’ve come to find in my four years here that my own strength must reside in a belief in something bigger — in my case, a faith in God. We must all place a deeper trust and value in our own authenticity. Who we are should replace the fleeting worth found both in a superficial system and the temporal affections of a senior boy. 

We perceive vulnerability as weakness. In reality, having enough self-confidence and self-worth to be truly vulnerable with someone is the only real power that exists.

I haven’t gotten this right yet. Maybe someday I will.