A friend of mine at Columbia did it. “They told me not to fuck my freshman year RA,” she said, lips curled in a wry smile. “But I did it. It’s really not that hard.”
I was a senior in high school and a prospective applicant. She was a jaded college student with cropped blonde bangs and palpable coolness. I was awed. I also didn’t know what an RA was (though I would learn that Princeton’s definition of RCA is quite different than that of most schools) and in my mind she was cool and capable of sex and power, doubly powerful for her conquest of someone forbidden. I wonder sometimes if this contributed to my own story; I knew the rules could be broken before I knew that I might want to break them.
About a year later, upon matriculating, I received an email from my Princeton RCA. He seemed attractive and interesting (according to his Facebook, which I found and stalked), and when I met him in person before OA I was also met with a clichéd swooping feeling in my chest.
When I returned from the wilderness I put time into curling my hair and demonstrating interest in his interests, which wasn’t hard to do because he was actually interesting on his own without my infatuation to help. He was funny in a boyish way, deeply passionate about causes I didn’t know people in college could even care about, and had a certain sort of handsome that other people openly acknowledged.
In high school I didn’t drink, nor did I really date. I was good and meek and bookish, and school sports competitions extended into weekend nights (read: I had strict parents and had never slept with anyone). I was not my friend from Columbia; I couldn’t seduce, and I had no idea where to start. I personally didn’t confess to myself that I had an impossible crush on my RCA until about a month in, impossible because of my sexual ineptitude, and impossible because so far, his role had been less disciplinary and more parental. He led our orientation discussions on safe sex; he shepherded us to our activities and meticulously explained the difference between PSafe emergency and non-emergency numbers; he told us that his room was always open if we ever wanted to talk.
Despite this, we had started up a casual texting repartee. I noticed myself tipping my phone in text conversations so that my new friends and roommates would notice.
“[Redacted]? Why are you texting [Redacted]? He’s your RCA, right?”
I would quickly tilt back the phone and nod, feigning a coyness I didn’t feel. I couldn’t figure out why he was texting me back; he couldn’t have been flirting, so it must have been that he genuinely wanted to hang out with me.
I remember the moment I changed my mind: He had thrown a study break, and earlier that day I had written a Spanish vocabulary word on the back of my hand so that I would remember it. [Redacted] stood next to me in the common room, in front of our zee group, and took my hand in his.
“What’s this?” he said quietly, flipping my palm over to reveal the pen-marked scrawl.
“Añorar,” I said. I could feel myself reddening. “It means to yearn for.”
He smiled, trailed his finger gently across my wrist. I couldn’t fall asleep that night, thrilled at the knowledge that I could see him every day if I wanted to.
I admitted to myself that I liked him; I fell hard. I heard that he was maybe hooking up with someone else; I backed off. [Redacted] and I became real friends, and I could last a whole study break without blushing. After I returned from winter break, however, we began to talk too much. I knew something was happening, and I knew it was against the rules. I couldn’t make any moves; I was worried I was projecting it all, and that if I let on my feelings he might rebuff me. It was against the rules. I was being inappropriate.
Soon, studying became a pretense. We wouldn’t even stay in his room, but instead spent hours talking outside Forbes, letting conversations linger on until the early spring light. It would take us until April to finally kiss, after which he told me he wanted to take it slowly; he knew that relationships could end badly, and he wanted to do some thinking before kissing me again. He cared about me, he said, he was worried about hurting me, I was young. I told him that was a cop out; now that I knew he had feelings for me, I didn’t want his guilt to prevent what we both wanted. He deliberated, then chose. The next night, I slept over.
Princeton was bursting into bloom: heady magnolias and lingering twilights. My face stuck in a grin. I was afraid to tell my friends the source of my happiness, and aside from two people, I didn’t even hint. I was so happy it didn’t matter that when we kissed we kissed in secret, in his dorm room, once all the other zees had left. I was so happy I didn’t consider what it meant when he made me promise to keep it a secret, because he could lose his RCA position. I was so happy I didn’t think of how that silence could be turned against me.
I remember going out to a pregame in early April. He was supposed to be there. I felt illicit, capable of seductions. An hour later when he hadn’t shown up, I causally inquired with the host.
“Oh I thought [Redacted] told me he was coming? Do you know him?”
“Oh, [Redacted]?” One of her friends replied. “He’s not coming. He’s on a date!”
The friend gave the details of the date, the friend’s name, how excited he had been. I’m sure my face gave me away, but I left before I could let it. I was not allowed to be visibly upset; he was my RCA, and even reacting visibly could be damaging to him. I kept it together across campus to Whitman, then cried on the floor of my friend’s suite.
We never said we were exclusive. I was supposed to trust him. I couldn’t tell anyone. I couldn’t even be upset with him in public. I’d have to see him in my zee group. I’d have to walk downstairs and know he was there, maybe kissing someone else with the door closed. I wasn’t allowed to care.
So I told her, swore her to secrecy. She cursed him out and I felt guilty.
“This was on me too,” I tried to tell her; I had tempted him into this. He was hesitant and I had assured him I would be fine and now I was being irrational. “Besides, we never said we were exclusive.”
No, my friend told me. He fucked up. He was the one who overstepped his bounds. But I didn’t feel like I’d been taken advantage of, I tried to tell her. I just felt dumped. It’s one thing when someone you are attracted to decides they don’t want to hook up with you. It’s murky and confusing but you get over it; it sucks, but you do. When it’s your RCA, no matter how amicable the rejection (is it even possible to be rejected kindly?) it’s harder to get over it.
That night I didn’t drink because I was afraid I’d get too pissed and tell more people about why exactly I was feeling upset. Even then I didn’t want to get him in trouble.
So I went to Terrace. I danced and tried not to feel hollowed out. He didn’t know I knew. I wondered if I would see him. I tried not to give a shit. I drove my body into the downbeats of the music.
After a few days I confronted [Redacted], who had stopped texting me flirtatiously. In fact, he had stopped texting me at all. Was it someone else? No, he said. He felt guilty for breaking the rules with me, denied hooking up with anyone else. I was embarrassed. We weren’t exclusive. He was looking out for me. I avoided Forbes whenever I could. Later I found out I knew the woman [Redacted] had lied about dating. I never told her. I didn›t want to get him in trouble. The year ended. I flew home.
During the summer [Redacted] and I kept in touch. I missed him. He was the first person that I had become close with at Princeton, the first person in my life who I had connected with on an emotional level and also slept alongside.
Over the summer, I would get an email from my residential college Dean with his name as the subject line and would panic, worried that somehow I’d accidentally tipped off someone in the administration. I’d open the email to find a request: he was applying to a prestigious teaching program and as one of his zees, I was asked to write a letter of recommendation. Do you have any thoughts on what kind of RCA he was that I could include in my letter? the Dean asked; I want to make sure to capture what a great guy he is!
I laughed out loud.
My sophomore fall I started hanging out with him again. He missed me, he said over text. I swooned. I was Teflon; he could no longer hurt me. I didn’t realize this at the time, but I had become more careless with how I treated other people after him, insulating my emotions by ensuring I had other men to catch me if one let me down. I shared a cigarette with him out on the golf course, passing the ember back and forth.
A few days later, I would see him talking with a freshman teammate of mine. He was her RCA, and she said his name too much in conversation for me to believe he wasn’t flirting with her. I thought about warning her but didn’t want to get him in trouble. I took pity on myself instead, and mentally called it (what did we even have anymore?) off. I wondered what he had been after when he pursued me. Did he want me because he thought I was intelligent or beautiful? Or because I was young and unattainable?
Let’s disrupt the idea that I was naïve, that any other freshman girl in my situation was without agency, controlled by a player, a rogue. I knew what I was doing, I knew we were breaking a rule. But it was confused; the entire setup of our relationship was predicated on the fact that he was my RCA and I was his zee. It was always confusing— were we close because he was my RCA? Or because he genuinely cared? The intimacy that resulted was borne out of a strange conflation of roles; I could talk with him because he had to listen, but because he listened I felt heard, and would hear him in return.
I would venture that at a university where RCAs are more inconsequential, it’s less shattering. I’ve never heard drama about a freshman screwing her PAA, but I’m sure it happens. But at Princeton, where the role of RCA is sometimes allowed to serve as surrogate for parent, for counselor, for professor, for friend, that authority creates a power gulf.
Being silenced by an authority figure who calls himself your friend is an alienating affair. It wasn’t powerful to feel silenced. It wasn’t sexy to be rejected by someone who was supposed to be my emotional support. It wasn’t empowering to lose the one source of comfort and community (and snacks!) afforded to every single freshman, to have to worry about seeing him and feeling embarrassed or ashamed. If the guy who was literally given responsibility to look out for me could still pass me on for someone better, my subconscious reasoned, then why did I think I deserved someone who wasn’t bound by university policy to not screw me over?
My RCA is no longer on campus, and hasn’t been for a while. I’m still aware that saying anything specific could be detrimental. I’ve written under a pseudonym, have redacted his name. I have changed some of the identifying details that might reveal either of us to our friends or former professors without introducing variables that might make this story too different from the truth.
I don’t want [Redacted] to find himself in this essay. I tell myself that it’s because I want this story to be universal; I want other students negotiating strange power dynamics to realize that the weirdness isn’t their fault, I want other RCAs to consider setting up better boundaries before romance seems inevitable. It’s both of those things, and it’s also because I still worry that I made the wrong call, that [Redacted] was blameless and I got in too deep.
I’m still not sure if I intended to write this as a brag or as a warning. I do still understand the allure. My Columbia college friend was smart and wild and chosen by someone older than her, someone forbidden, and that was intoxicating. I became that, and it still makes me a little proud.
In retrospect, [Redacted’s] whole argument for my virtue was completely invalid. Yes, I was young; yes, he didn’t want to hurt me; etc., etc. I don’t doubt that. But if my RCA didn’t want to break the rules, he could have established parameters. He shouldn’t have texted me for so long, so late at night. He shouldn’t have let me talk in his room. He shouldn’t have allowed me to feel like I was cajoling him into romance, like I even had the power to tempt. It was up to him to prevent this from the beginning. The power was always his. He could have broken it off before it began. Instead, he kissed me quietly in the hallway of our dorm, then ducked in through his own doorway.