February 10, 2011

Into the Abyss

Most of this actually happened.  Names have been changed, once again, to protect the innocent.  Though really, if you think you know who these people are you are likely right.

“I got my first rejection today.”  Lisa said as she plonked her bag in the corner and hugged each of us in turn.

“Yea, I got my first one Friday.”  I said, “I sympathize one hundred percent.  Order a drink.  When did yours come in?”

“About ten minutes ago.”  She replied and asked for a glass of wine.  I don’t know why we switched from drinking beer at the dive bar to drinking wine at the dive bar, but clearly it was just a merlot kind of day.

“I’m sorry.”  I said. 

Brian looked miserably over the top of his club soda.  “Is it this time already?  Really?  I was just beginning to think that I was okay with not knowing.  I was just starting to not check my mailbox every two seconds in hopes that some answers would be there.  I was just getting over the constant compulsion to over-think what I shouldn’t have said in my personal statements.  I was just hitting my zen spot!”

“I know,” I said, taking another sip of wine, “Me too.  But!  I got into Tufts!”

“Congratulations!” Lisa said.  Brian had known last week, but Lisa had been MIA due to her rigorous other-stuff schedule.  I felt bad busting the news on her like that at the height of her fresh disappointment, but I had to say it sometime.  I had been waiting to tell her so that I could post it on my facebook.

“Yea.  I’m a little nervous that they don’t guarantee funding for your full time there… but I’ll wait until I hear back from Columbia before I twist myself up about it.  And it would be kind of awesome to move back to Boston.”

The table vibrated as Lisa reached for her phone which she had placed face down next to her elbow, as was her wont.  We both had iPhones.  Whenever one made a noise, we instinctively both reached for ours.  We were so well trained by the little beeps that came from the machines that, like good mothers, the very sound of them urged us to action.  She had even adjusted the noise hers made when she received a text so that we didn’t have to both reach when one of us got one.  It’s the little things that make some friendships great.  “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’ve been compulsively checking my e-mail ever since I got this letter to see if anyone else has sent me a decision.”

“Crap.”  I said.

“What?” she asked.

“Now I’m going to be compulsively checking my e-mail to see if anyone else sends me a decision.”

“Sorry.”  She replied.  She glanced at her screen then sighed.  “No, not a decision, just the same reaction everyone else gave me about the place that rejected me.  ‘The University doesn’t know what they’re missing’.”

“Yea, I got that too.”  I commiserated, “I think it’s just because people who love us want to say something but aren’t sure what else to say.”

“Cold comfort.”  She muttered, and put her phone back down.

“I just… don’t even know what to do with myself.”  Said Brian, head in his hands.  He didn’t have a smart phone.

“Wait.  Hope.  Pray.  Order another drink.” I said, “It’s like Death, it will all happen eventually.  Worrying about it isn’t going to make it happen any faster.”

“I know.”  He said, “But that doesn’t make me want to stop worrying about it, you know?”

“Well, the way I see it we have two choices: we can either give ourselves ulcers fretting over the inevitable, or we can zen it out for another month or so and worry about what to do with our lives from there.”  I took another sip of wine, thinking I had done well.

“How’s that line of reasoning working for you?” Brian asked.

“Sometimes I convince myself better than others…”

“You know what the messed up part is?” He said.  Lisa and I indicated that no, in fact, we did not.  “My advisor told me the first time I met him that I was wasting my time.  He told me, without even knowing me, that I might as well quit.  There are no jobs for me.  John, you know, John?”

We all knew John.  He was our God.  Our Savior.  Our Boss.  Our Mentor.  The best professor in the world.  He had been a still point in the turning world of academia for the three of us and had taken us under his wing as Graduate Students of Promise.  At this point, he was also a friend.  He had a list of publications longer than I am tall and he popped one out every six months or so.  He also kept busy on more committees, boards, peer-review panels and scholarly organizations than any one person had a right to even know existed. 

“Dr. F said that John was ‘the Voice of his Generation’ and Rutgers had to VOTE to see if they would keep him or not.  If they have to VOTE about John, then… really… what are any of us doing here?”

Lisa and I grunted our indication that we had conceded the point as we drank more.  Somehow, drowning our sorrows just seemed like the right thing to do.

“You know what’s really messed up?  So many places are going to wait to send out decision letters until they receive word back from people they’ve admitted and notified.  That way, in case their first choices say no they have the option to let others in instead.”  Lisa said.

“Wait, isn’t that what a wait list is for?” I asked.

“You would think!  I just want to know already!  Yes, no, I don’t care, I just want to get on with my life!”

“…but what is my life?  Really, I’ve spent all of it working up to this one moment and now… if this is the end of the road I don’t know what to do.”

I reached over the table to pat Brian on the shoulder.  I didn’t blame him.  I felt the same way.  Luckily, my safety net in place, I wasn’t fearing the freefall anymore.

Looking over that cliff into the endless abyss of uncertainty isn’t easy or pretty.  There is nothing nice about not knowing.  Walking the tightrope across it is probably the most uncomfortable thing that I have ever done.

But… really… when you know that nothing else will make you happy, when you are certain of what you want and that this is the only way to get it… looking back just isn’t an option.  And it was something we were all feeling and had been for some time; none of us wanted to fall, but we knew that turning tail and running wasn’t an option either.

So I keep checking my e-mail.  And so does Lisa.  And Brian will whenever he gets a chance.  And we know that, no matter what happens, we will have each other, a table at our dive bar, and a waitress who really likes us and may bring us free drinks if we all come in in tears.  I, for one, am stocking up on those little travel tissue packets.  You can never have enough of them, they are totally portable, and in a month or so I’m pretty sure I’m going to need a good long cry.  My nerves only stretch so far.

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