Read Part I here! … After dinner I found myself alone with Sarah, another MLS prospective freshman. She had light-brown hair, a pretty face, and a quiet, reserved demeanor. We chose to attend the service fraternity’s pancake party (for obvious reasons). I tried my best, but I could feel my pep decreasing and my lameness rapidly revealing itself. I don’t know why I get so nervous around people my age. Her conversation was factual and polite, so I couldn’t decide whether she could actually be future friend material.
Around 9:30, I offered, “If we head over to Platt we can still make the comedy skits!”
“Actually, I feel really tired,” Sarah said. “I think I want to go to my host’s dorm.” After the initial fear that she was getting bored of me, I realized that I would look like a jerk if I abandoned her for the show. I had planned to hang out with my host and her roommate at 10, so Sarah’s whim ended my freshman festivities. For a moment, I resented her.
I forgave her slightly as she led me into the freshman Quad, framed by gothic buildings like a cozy castle. I had seen it during my tour of Penn during the summer but completely forgot how beautiful it was. More so at night. The stars were so clear.
I forgave her more when she invited me to sit with her in a cafe while she waited for her host. The conversation grew more natural as we talked about our college choices and applications. “I just still can’t believe how nice the MLS people were,” I gushed. “Like, they didn’t have to do anything for us. And they’re so fun to hang out with. Like, Greg is so weird.”
“Yeah!” She paused. “Was I the only one who thought he was cute?”
I laughed a little. “Greg? I thought Timmy was cuter.”
“Really?” she grinned.
“I guess I kind of see it in Greg. There are just not boys like him in my school, so I guess I’m not used to it. They’re more preppy like Timmy.”
“That makes sense. I thought Timmy might have been gay.”
This time I laughed for real. “That wouldn’t be the first time that happened to me.”
The campus was darkening as I walked back to Mayer Hall. The comforting crowds of people began to thin out into sparse clumps of people. For a strange moment, I couldn’t recognize my surroundings. Fear choked and paralyzed me. But I regained my bearing and exhaled through my nose in relief as the friendly dorm greeted me. I knew I shouldn’t have, but I rested my leg on the coffee table as I sat on the couch and checked Miitomo. A few minutes past ten, when I started to wonder whether I should text Sanny, an Asian girl burst out of the adjacent room. “Oh!” she exclaimed, as I hurriedly tucked my outstretched leg under the table. “I didn’t know you were here. You must be the frosh we’re hosting. I’m Sanny’s roommate, Lily.”
Lily was the skinniest girl I had ever seen. Not in a bony or anorexic way; her waist was just incredibly narrow under her white tank-top. She moved about the room in gray leggings and bare feet with comfortable grace. Lily poured herself a glass of water and released an “ahh~” after taking a gulp, making me feel like I was intruding on a private moment.
Aside from my pebbled forehead and her slim, matured mystique, there was an uncanny analogy between us; the light complexions, the low, short noses, the shoulder-length black hair that flowed in the same directions. She seemed to notice this as she sat down at the table across the room and looked at me.
“So are your parents happy that you got into Penn?” she asked. She was the only person during the whole day to ask that, and I don’t think it’s because she actually cared. It felt like she was testing our analogy further.
“Yeah! They were happy. Well, they really wanted me to go to Columbia, because it’s convenient for us in a lot of ways. But I was waitlisted, and I’m not sure what I’d do if I got off it.”
“Ah,” she nodded. “I remember applying to Columbia. At one point I was like: do I actually like this school?” She glanced at her phone. “Sanny says she’s running late and we should meet her at the gelato place.”
On our way there, I asked about her virus research and Fine Arts minor, and she talked about her picture-book designing class. She didn’t seem to think her research was as I cool as I thought it was. The street we arrived at seemed more city than campus, but was technically Penn domain. We entered the gelato shop, styled with modern chairs and smooth wood. “Work” by Rihanna played softly from above, and Lily mouthed the words and softly swayed her shoulders in perfect sync. Again, I felt like an intruder of a solitary moment.
“Sorry!” Sanny said as she arrived with her boyfriend, James. “I had to judge Penn Thillana tryouts, and it took four hours.” She introduced James to me, a Physics major (from: guess what! MLS). With his height and stylish glasses and long coat, I thought he could be a potential Indian Burberry model.
After sampling the gelato, I decided on chai and mango. Lily bought her cup of chocolate first and stopped me as I pulled out my debit card. “I covered for you,” she said. I thought I might die of shock and gratefulness. All four of us sat outside on a ramp that led up to a nearby mini-mall. As I reached the bottom of my gelato cup, I spit out a wrinkly, pale, and hard lump. I realized after initial revulsion that I was looking at a chai seed for the first time.
James proved to be an interesting character. “I know your hosts are obligated to be positive,” he began, “but I’m not.” Among other flaws, he said, “There’s definitely a ‘Penn bubble.’ A lot of people at Penn think that they own Philadelphia, but they really don’t get it. There’s some serious disparity in Philly. And a lot of students have a very fixed idea of success.”
Sanny tried to minimize or counter his points, but I nodded in listening. “No, I appreciate your honesty. It’s very real. I heard that Penn is quite pre-professional,” I said.
“Yeah, especially at Wharton. Like: start your own business by sophomore year, be a half-millionaire by junior year. And what’s with college admissions these days? It’s gotten so much worse since my days. It’s placing unfair expectations on poor kids. I think that one year, colleges should just accept no one. That should reset people’s goals.”
After we finished our dessert, I requested to walk around a little, and James announced his departure from our “tour.” After Sanny bid him goodbye, Lily and Sanny looked at each other and burst out laughing. “What?” I asked.
“Nothing,” they said in unison, and they brought me around the outskirts of campus that I hadn’t seen yet. For some reason, there were more people out and about than earlier, mostly Quaker Day kids, and I felt safe and protected. We stopped short before a freshly-paved road, pitch black and still slightly sticky and warm from its new coat of pavement. A construction worker, illuminated by artificial orange-red light, waved us through, and we ran across, giggling. I distinctly remembered a day in Ohio when my neighbor and I feared my fresh driveway would swallow us like quicksand.
I gasped as we caught sight of the Philadelphia skyline. “Look! Red and blue!” I said, pointing.
“Yeah, it’s like that for Quaker Days,” they said.
“For me?” I repeated in wonder.
I inquired more about MLS and their double-majors. “It’ll be harder to do Creative Writing with MLS,” Lily said pointedly, and — in a side conversation with Sanny — commented “Well at least I know I don’t like research.”
“Really?” I asked with shock; the MLS program is very much research-based and driven. “Well, I guess college is a good time to figure out what you don’t like,” I said.
“Yeah,” Lily said with a slight snort, as if reminiscing on her past four years. Back at the dorm, she acted a bit giddy as she searched the fridge for more food. Sanny sat across from me and answered more of my questions as Lily leaned against the radiator and spread peanut butter on a tortilla shell with a spoon.
“What got you interested in medicine?” Sanny inquired, and I told her that I wasn’t really on a pre-med path.
“My dad is a doctor and my mom works for health insurance. She really wants me to be a doctor,” I explained.
“Wow, so you already have a lot of medical exposure!” Sanny said. “My parents are like that, too,” she mused. “They encouraged me to work hard and have a better life than what they had as immigrants. Which all parents want for their kids. So I can do the same for my future kids.” Then she paused and suddenly spoke quickly. “But sometimes I wonder to myself: like, I’m already in an Ivy League and going to be a doctor. How much higher can the expectations get?” She stopped herself. “Sorry, I don’t know what I’m saying,” she laughed.
“No, no, I get it,” I said, but I could not put my empathy into words.
I was grateful that my couch was in a separate room from their bunks. As I lay there, fuzzy and worn from the days’ hustle, I at first felt insanely content and elated. Then, per my usual nighttime mood swings, I found myself laying on my side, a tired tear gathering at the corner of my eye.
I think I was overwhelmed by the whole experience. I repeated to myself in my head: Today changed everything. Nothing will be the same.