In the fall of 2001, I was 19 years old. I had started college a year earlier at a private Christian school, and it had taken me all of 3 weeks to figure out that the place wasn't for me. I was, indeed, a Christian (this is part of why the school initially appealed to me), but more spiritual than religious. I abhored legalism. I also abhored hypocrisy and false piety. And, in the land of the Christian bubble, this was bound to present a problem for me. I roomed with a Socialist, found only a couple of good friends (both of whom I am still in close contact with), and got out of town every single weekend I could find transportation. I also got an out-of-town boyfriend who lived within driving distance of my parents (but twice as far from me) and who also hated his college. When I told my parents that I would be leaving the private school they insisted I attend, they made a fairly big "stink" about it and lamented what I am sure they believed was my own unique combination of unbridled youthful idiocy and Hedonism. But I was insistent: that school wasn't the place for me, and they were spending an exorbitant amount of money -- in fact, borrowing against their retirement -- to send me to a school I truly hated. I wasn't getting what they wanted out of the experience. They conceded.
In the fall of 2001, then, I had just enrolled at a branch of a major public university in the middle of nowhere but close to my parents' new hometown. That meant I was now a 15-hour drive away from my cherished boyfriend, who did everything you would expect a hopeless romantic to do at the age of 19: he sent flowers, flew out to visit and planned elaborate dates (for at least one of which I was blindfolded). To be alone in the middle of nowhere at another school I hated and 15 hours away from him felt like an earthly version of hell. I could not escape. 9/11 happened in the middle of this (ironically during the one class I actually liked: Comparative Literature), and it had the same effect on me that it had on everybody: I didn't feel safe, and my constant flights to see my boyfriend were muddled by brand new security measures. But it also had a different effect on me: it made me wonder what I was doing wasting my life away in the middle of an unknown, uninteresting city without him.
And so I did what every stupid 19-year-old girl does. I dropped out of college and moved in with my boyfriend and his mother. Never mind that I was in yet another unknown, uninteresting city: I was with him! My parents, who knew his mother very well at this point, were furious that I had forced their hand once again. But they had no choice in the matter. They conceded.
The first few weeks in this new town turned out to be anything but interesting, as he went to school or to work part-time and she went to work full-time. I was home alone for the majority of each day, doing things that I'm embarrassed to admit 10 years later: I cleaned, looked for jobs, surfed the 'net (that was the lingo in those days), downloaded music (it was still free), designed my engagement ring (at his suggestion) and picked out a wedding dress. In hindsight, the whole thing was ridiculous. I was more miserable than I ever was half a country away in a less-than-fulfilling college, but I was much too proud to admit this to anyone, particularly my parents. For me to leave my respected private school was one thing; for me to drop out of college altogether was another. So, for the next few weeks I put on a good face and bided my time.
The Monday before Thanksgiving my boyfriend's mother approached me whilst she sewed my Christmas pageant costume. (Yes, I had found one creative outlet, albeit brief and somewhat embarrassing: I was going to sing in the Christmas pageant.) She said she had a doctor's appointment in the city (roughly 3 hours away), and she was unwilling to leave me at home with my boyfriend. She thought it might be fun if I went with her. I wasn't sure it would be all that much fun, really, and I didn't want to be halfway across the country from my family and away from my boyfriend as well. But I had no choice. I went. He packed my things -- some new CDs, shampoo, $6 (to have coffee with a friend who lived in the city while attending college) and a change of clothes -- and that was that. On Tuesday morning we departed.
That night I had dinner with his mother and other members of his family, and then we all went elsewhere for dessert. My friend then picked me up, and we had coffee, catching up on the "men" in our lives and reminiscing about old times. I didn't see the next bit coming, but it did. My phone rang, and it was my boyfriend. I picked up, thrilled with his perfect timing and continuing to gush about our relationship.
"I need to talk to you about something."
"Okay, what?" I asked, oblivious.
"Well, my mom and my brother just called me, and they said it's either you or them. And I choose them. It's over. I don't know what else to say about it."
I felt like I'd been hit by a freight train. Like the rug had just been snatched out from under me. Like I would never, ever be the same. And I wouldn't. I asked his mother if I could stay with my friend that night, and she agreed. I told her I would call her promptly the next morning. And I did. But, instead of picking me up as planned, she did the unexpected: she left town, without me. With no warning. Even though I had (what was now) $3, some CDs, a bottle of shampoo, one change of clothes and no transportation. The morning after that -- that is, Thanksgiving morning -- she cussed me out, told me never to call again and informed me that she had "shipped [my] shit C.O.D." I was trapped in a city with nowhere to go, no way to get anywhere and no family nearby. On Thanksgiving. (Which I ended up spending with family friends before catching a ride three days later to the East Coast.)
I would soon find out the very worst, even evil part of it all: it was all one big, totally screwed up plan.
She was 53. I was 19.
I obviously view the situation much differently today than I did then. I chide myself for being so young, naive and reckless. I think about the damage it did to my psyche (over 10 years later, for instance, I am just learning to rest in the good times and not to wait for the other shoe to drop). I think about everything I learned, from the need to provide for my own health and safety to the high cost of unintended consequences (bringing up my GPA when I reentered college meant dealing with the fallout of a semester's worth of all F's). I think about what it takes to forgive someone -- a mother, at that -- for purposely putting you in harm's way.
But most of the time I just don't think about it. It was 10 years ago. And if I had to do it all over, I definitely would do it all again.
That's because sometimes the worst things that happen to us happen for a reason. They shape us, they mold us, they force us to take chances and to view things differently than we otherwise would have. In the end I ended up in a wonderful city for college, and I proved myself a stellar academic (who paid her own way through). I found a well of inner personal strength. And I found my way to where I am today, which is leaps and bounds beyond where I was even in college. I have a successful job and a wonderful, slowly rebuilt relationship with my parents. And I am in a love with a man who for 8+ years has proved he would never, ever do this. To anyone. (Not just to me.)
And I am me. I was only a fraction of myself then, still an unrealized, untested prototype. And today I'm a living, breathing testament to the beauty that can be found in tragedy. The fact that I am 95% healed of the effects of said trauma 10 years later is a major reason to take stock and give thanks. Even for that which I would rather have avoided at the time.