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  • Writer's pictureVictoria

Pour One Out for my Ex: Princeton Reunions

Early Saturday afternoon my mom drove me to Penn Station on her way to run some errands. We went through Times Square and laughed at the tourists who stressed about crossing the street while cars were piled up in traffic, blocking the white guidelines that tell them where to go. They hesitated while deciding whether to go in front or behind cars, pure terror in their eyes. Later in the day I would meet a Princeton man, Hailo’s friend, who now lives in New York and walks through central park at late hours insisting it is safe. Perhaps the Times Square tourists could take some tips from him, or maybe ignorant trust is just as dangerous as hesitation in a place like New York.

I noticed a large yellow advertisement for a VPN that read “Imagine a world where your thoughts are your own.” 

I met Hailo on track four right before the train departed. She wore a vintage boy scout crop top with tiger prints on it, black baggy jeans, and her signature black sunglasses. On the way to Princeton we made predictions for the day/night and daydreamed about our Hot Literati summer of art and exploration. She told me of her recent obsession with instances of scientific data fraud, and I told her how the BBL Drizzy song has been branded into my brain for the past few days. We talked of a near future where AI changes the way STEM employees work and we will return to a heavier cultural dependence on and appreciation of the arts and humanities (about time). After all, “writers are the original content creators,” as the alum who works in publishing said to us that day.

We arrived at Princeton’s campus and I was immediately transported to a foreign world, eager to learn about it. We checked in, got our wristbands, and headed toward the P-Rade. As we got closer my vision focused on the wave of drunk, orange-dressed generations of Princeton families and the impressively coordinated outfits, each person representing their respective year with pride. As Hailo started explaining the layout and lore of it all, I buckled in for what seemed like a wild time in a complex space. Suddenly I was the time square tourist, not knowing where to cross.

As we passed gorgeous campus buildings, Hailo name dropped iconic writers and their associations with the college most notably Toni Morrison’s office and where F Scott. Fitzgerald stayed. She told me how his writing so accurately encapsulates what it’s like to be a student at Princeton from start to finish, quoting the last sentence of his first novel, This Side of Paradise; “I know myself, but that is all.” 

Although this was my first time stepping foot on Princeton’s campus, I felt Fitzgerald’s words penetrate my being and define my relation to this unique day and place. I truly only knew myself, Hailo, and nothing more. While all too familiar with the manifestations of the American college dream, Princeton’s display reached an entirely new level. It gave me a picture perfect American college experience without having to suffer through the four years of undergrad at Princeton to get there. Having just finished my junior year at a much much smaller, similarly elitist and white institution this reunion was providing me a taste of an experience I will never have. These people drank, bled, and peed orange tiger pride, and while I can appreciate my school’s tame purple color and extinct mascot, I will never know what it’s like to be so emotionally indebted to a place by one’s own volition. I walked around campus in awe of the alum’s commitment, desperate to figure out what exactly made this place so special. 

I am in a moment of life where my baby fever is through the roof and so the future Princeton legacies running around wearing oversized orange t-shirts and tiger ears added a layer of joyful innocence to this event that, in a contradictory way, dulled the culty high academia of it all. They walked around with their parents and siblings, touring the campus as if they would be applying this coming fall and their parental tour guides telling them things like “let’s go see where mommy’s dorm was!!” I imagine myself showing my kids around my campus saying things like this, when what I really mean to say is “let’s go see where mommy made detrimental decisions that changed the course of her life and she struggled to find reasons to keep living!”

Being the only one in my family to attend such an elite American higher ed. institution, I watched the babies, toddlers, grade school kids and middle schoolers and wondered if they held personal opinions of Princeton or education or their parents or their future. Whether they bask in the access of legacy and feel the omission of future-worry opens the world up to them, or if they feel contained and non-unique like a predictable YA novel archetype or something. When my school abolished legacy admissions at the end of my freshman year, my dad thought it was a silly decision. “Your kids should be able to have that bonus,” he told me. If my kid is anything like me, they’re not going to want to go to college anyway…but wouldn't it be nice if their attendance to one could already be guaranteed?

As we made our way through campus I began to notice more and more pins with Palestinian flag colors calling for Princeton’s divestment. Throughout the entire day I saw an underwhelming amount of keffiyehs on various different attendees. When we were walking to Charter, Hailo pointed out the DEI building and it was a relatively drab house with a bright blue door that paled in comparison to the old-money mini mansions that surrounded it. While walking through town we passed an Hermes, and when we reentered campus we saw crowds of Black and brown service workers preparing for the evening ahead. The recognition of laboring kin was not lost on us especially considering the two of us were repeatedly mistaken for sisters or cousins by other attendees (the sisters comment was justified through the assertion that we have the same energy, which I am incredibly flattered by). 

In October of 2022, I attended the National Arts Awards because I was in the host organization’s internship program. Upon arrival, Black and latino men served me champagne without checking my ID and latina women asked me if I wanted to check in my jacket. I said yes, and while I struggled to take it off with the prosecco in my hand the women began giggling at me. But it wasn’t really at me, they laughed with me, and it was the most seen I felt that entire evening. When Hailo accepted me as a Hot Literati 2024 writer, I was most excited to be writing for and with a young Black woman, especially one who writes with such vulnerability. Though we did not discuss the subtle activism happening at this reunion, Hailo regularly and honestly pointed out the racial dynamics and moral contradictions of a place like Princeton. She offered me answers to the kind of questions I would ponder in silence and research later – or begin to insinuate after a few drinks – without me ever having to ask the questions out loud. When one of her friends was racially profiled by a security guard, we found sad amusement in the inevitability of it and joked about the sour start to our night. The school I went to for middle and high school had, and probably still has, a tradition of a racist senior scandal surfacing toward the end of the academic year, marking each class before their merry send-off. As disturbing as it may be, this kind of active ignorance offered me a sense of stability within this otherwise unfamiliar experience, grounding me in the one aspect of life I will never struggle to understand. 

At one point on our walk through campus, a man asked Hailo to take a picture of him and whom I presume was his partner. We got to talking with them afterward and when they asked what we did, we responded, “we’re writers.” We said this many times over to many different people that day. The man told us that his niece was a writer too and had a bestselling book about “coming to the U.S. or something like that.” Her name is Fatima Mirza. He asked us what we write and Hailo gave him the Hot Literati spiel, not owning that it was her own website established when she was student on the very campus we stood on. She gave him her card and he finally asked “is this your website?” with a tone that conveyed a lowering of value in his impression of us. Hailo avoided the question, we said our goodbyes, and walked to Charter building, where she lived and worked as a kitchen manager.

Upon arriving at Charter we got a second wristband, and eventually a third, gold “VIP” one, and I began to feel like I was at Coachella. There is something so gratifying about the easy access that something so simple as a wristband can grant you (is this what being a legacy student feels like?). She gave me a tour of the house which included an absolutely dreamy library that I wish I was sitting in right now, writing this. We exited to the balcony and sat with alum who were cooling off in the shade.

I had a brilliant conversation with the wife of an alum, J. She told me about coming to Princeton reunions every five years despite having little desire to return to her alma mater. She told me about her daughter’s Paris years and when I mentioned I was going there this month she asked where; “Le Marais is like..the center of the world.” We talked about the desperate, debilitating solitude of writing and J pitched me her wonderful journalistic passion project which she is still deciding whether to pursue. I told her she must – which frankly she already knew – and I think that she will. When I told her I was a writer too and majoring in English and Film, she expressed how happy it makes her to meet people based in the humanities. She told me more about her children who seem like people I would get along with wonderfully but not as much as I got along with her, and about her late mother who even as an elderly woman was friends with people of all ages. J believes this is the secret to life. Her filmmaking son who now lives in Brooklyn and is looking for a job just started dating a girl from Princeton and once we realized she was a girl in Hailo’s class year, J was dying to ask about her. Hailo said she knew little about the girl and J, having just met her the night before along with the rest of their family, responded with “us either.”

While sitting in town, Hailo and I discussed monogamy. She told me how she can’t shake the dream of having that one person who loves you and whom you love, even if or when no one else loves you, forever. I am so in love with my friends that I can’t imagine a world in which my love for one other person dominates the love in my life. It will never be just me and my one person because I already have more than one person who’s love for me, and mine for them, is lusciously rich. I may not want to have sex with or marry my friends, but I want to romance them and shower them with gifts as guarantees of my forever love just as I would my monogamous partner.

Being the dating icon that she is, Hailo debated for hours whether or not to give in to the ‘one night only’ vibe of reunion and download The Apps. We talked a lot about our exes, me freshly out of my relationship and her years out, as we spent all day and night reminiscing on her Princeton memories with him. She told me she missed being taken care of and being lovingly offered the necessary logic to make things make sense in life. I realized I quite enjoy figuring things out on my own and don’t want a relationship where that privilege is taken from me even if in small ways. She talked about the struggle of loving men, I talked about the struggle of loving women. I think perhaps my lesbianess largely influences my perspective on the monogamous dream, because a lesbian breakup can feel much like the ending of a female friendship which, as Hailo and I both agreed, is particularly devastating. Perhaps I fear having an “it’s us two against the world’ relationship because it would be with a woman, and what if it ended?  Hailo eventually did download The Apps, but she didn’t use them. I presume it is because she accepted that not even the spontaneity that a reunion night could provide beats the stability she was longing for. 

As we walked to the 10 year anniversary tent where there was a live band covering my favorite artists, I noticed men eyeing up Hailo’s Princeton bestie and as I walked behind him I wondered if he was holding eye contact with them. While at the tent, a middle aged woman who looked youthful and self-critical and held a plastic cup of white wine kept trying to dance with me. At one point she tapped me on the shoulder, gestured her cup forward and gave me an aggressively confused look. Nearly disgusted, she screamed over the music, “you don’t have a drink!” I assured her that I already finished mine and she hesitated to believe me. Afterward I wondered if she was attempting to hit on me or if she was simply enamored by our display of youth and wanting to find ways to relate. 

After our conversation about monogamy Hailo and I met a couple of high school sweethearts who grew up in the town of Princeton. The husband, who attended Princeton for undergrad, reminisced about attending reunions since sixth grade and the reunion during his senior year of high school when the Beach Boys performed. In my mind they exist as a reminder that people can and do live their perfect white American lives, go to good schools, marry their high school sweethearts, and live happily forever. Perhaps the monogamous dream is the American dream, which is most aptly found in the American college dream. I think I am beginning to understand; an app-sourced fling two years post-grad is not the same as falling in love with a classmate, so why waste the time?

We were out dancing until 4:00 am and went to Wawa before getting on the 6:11 am train back to New York. We were waiting at the train station for an hour, because we had just missed the 5 o'clock train. Exhausted and maybe a little drunk, we sat listening to the bird chorus sing as the sun rose. As we talked Hailo’s eyes remained closed, dreaming. She kept asking me, even earlier on in the day, who and what stood out to me and how my writer's mind was working in preparation for this piece. I never had much to respond with because it takes me some time to process reflections enough to verbalize them. “I feel like I was so vulnerable tonight, tell me something,” she said. I don’t remember what exactly I confessed, but I remember Hailo’s persistence reminding me of my ex, and how she would have also been asking me about my favorite parts and observations while the parts and observations were still happening. I always found this terribly endearing despite how incompatible it was with the ways of my mind. 

We slept the entire ride home and as we said goodbye in Penn station, I decided I would go to my school’s reunion after graduating so that I, too, could tell people I’m a writer, think about my ex, attempt to figure things out, and maybe even wish someone was there to do it all for me. And hopefully, one day, I will read J’s work and reminisce on this memory allowing it to jolt me from hesitation into trusting action. I will confess vulnerable things while keeping some thoughts as my own, and I will be a writer, an artist, a friend, a lover. I hope to know myself and so much more. 


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