As I sat in my hot car on a sunny morning, eager to surprise my boyfriend with homemade cinnamon rolls, I had no idea that he had a much grimmer surprise for me.
It was August 29—the day before my 19th birthday and two days before we were to return for our second year of college. My boyfriend intertwined his clammy hand with mine and told me he had a tumor nestled in his right lung. He needed to get half of his right lung removed, and he couldn’t come back to Columbia for the fall semester. His rigid composure couldn’t hide his pain. The cinnamon rolls sat stupidly by my side.
I was shattered. How could this have happened? How do you even remove part of a lung? Would he ever be able to scuba dive again? I felt sick to my stomach. But even more sickening was the guilt I felt at my initial reaction: How will I get through this semester without him?
My senior year of high school, I was on top of the world. I was getting my best grades ever, I was finally arts editor of the school newspaper, and I had a loving group of friends. I had everything, but I only longed for more. Mundane Michigan suburbia had begun to confine me and I was ready to escape. I knew I would miss driving past the unbeatable fall foliage and roasting s’mores by the lake with my friends, but I was ready to start fresh without anything holding me back.
I didn’t expect to fall in love senior year. The hours of late-night texting with him weren’t meant to be flirty. The cookies and cupcakes I baked as community service club president weren’t because he was a member. All the witty banter and inside jokes with the news editor late on production nights didn’t mean anything. Until it did.
His cute floppy hair, his willingness to help anyone and everyone, and his downright refusal to be anyone besides his quirky self enchanted me. He was, without a doubt, unlike anyone I’d ever met before. I can’t name anyone else who would eat a slice of pizza from a box in the trash because it was “still good.” So, day by day, the arts and the news editors fell in love.
We knew it couldn’t last. In September, we would be 3,000 miles apart—he at Columbia, me at Berkeley. But as fate would have it, three weeks before graduation, a Barnard admissions officer called me and told me to pack my bags. Fast forward four months and we were right back where we first fell in love—both reporters for our college newspaper.
The first semester of college started out like the movies. I was excited to explore each alleyway of New York and become best friends with that girl in my First-Year Writing class, but I was haunted by an emptiness that crept up on me. Gradually, I began to comprehend this void: I couldn’t find any friends like the ones I had back home or figure out my place in the huge sea of intelligent people. The students in my French class spoke with native fluency, and the front row of my international politics class seemed ready to be the next set of diplomats. Most of all, I felt sad and insecure, wallowing in my own self-perceived mediocrity. I became a shell of my old bubbly personality.
I was utterly homesick, and my boyfriend was my only semblance of home. Soon enough, I stopped tagging along to dinners with people who I couldn’t picture ever surpassing my high school friends. My boyfriend became my rock and my solace throughout each day and I took full advantage of his unwavering support.
I only felt truly happy when I was with him—binge-watching The Office in his dorm room until 2 a.m., or gliding through Central Park on a rowboat. When we were apart, I tried to distract myself with homework. By the end of that year, I totally forgot who I was and how to be on my own.
Which brings us to the cinnamon rolls and the tumor diagnosis.
I didn’t want to go back to school while he was going through something so serious and unexpected. Like a scared child at the deep end of a swimming pool, I was afraid to dive back into college without my life jacket. I so badly wanted to cancel my flight to NYC and pretend summer was seven months long, but my bags were already packed and sitting at my front door.
When I got to my unfurnished dorm room in Hewitt, the glossy white walls reflected my own bitterness back at me. I begrudgingly lined the walls of my room with photos, lumps forming in my throat each time I taped up one of us.
On the day before his surgery, the words on my history notes smeared together. Even when the scariest part was over and he seemed to be recovering, I often couldn’t fake a smile over FaceTime. After I had stained my mascara on too many tissues to count, I knew I needed to pull myself together. Not only for my own sake, but also for his.
I flew back home often to visit my boyfriend through his surgery and recovery period, but for the first time, I felt like he needed me more than I needed him. It was never easy leaving Michigan again, but the sadness, while still potent, lingered less. I hoped to show my boyfriend that I could truly be there for him when he returned the next semester.
I woke up one morning and adjusted my eyes to a blurry notification: One of my favorite bands, The Wombats, was playing in Manhattan the day before Halloween. I hesitantly texted a friend who I hadn’t made plans with in a while, and we decided to go. A couple of weeks later, we ended up squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder in a sweaty crowd as we danced until our feet were sore to the touch.
Little by little, I started looking forward to my free time instead of wallowing in my sadness. A vegan Italian place downtown that I hadn’t tried yet? I shared the news with my friends and we all overloaded on ravioli and cannolis until we could barely walk back to the 1 train.
I also started to spend more time on my own, treating myself to a new show I had been dying to watch, or taking pictures for my food blog. On the weekends, I ventured out into the city to check out a new pop-up shop I’d read about. And occasionally, I would lay in my bed, confronting the anxious thoughts I had throughout the day.
When my boyfriend, now fully recovered, returned to campus in the spring, I went back to my old ways a little. But now I know that I can function on my own and that knowledge has given me the confidence and comfort I had been searching for since high school. My boyfriend’s absence gave me the first building block to resuscitating the old me, which I’m still constantly working on even as he is within arm’s reach again.
I have never felt more confident and happy with myself. And the other day I got some news. As I sat in front of my computer, listening to the oh-so-familiar ruckus of drilling and jackhammering outside, I got the acceptance letter I’d been holding my breath for. I will be studying abroad next semester, alone in a country 20 hours away from NYC. I’m scared about leaving everything—all of my crutches—behind next semester. But I’m finally going to be able to fulfill my high school dream to start college fresh, without any trepidation.
Enjoy leafing through our fourth issue!