“Excuse me, do you have an extra cigarette?” I asked a woman outside New York Penn Station on my way home from Reunions in June. As I inhaled, the previous nine months began to transform from life to memory, things that were happening to things that had happened, becoming things that had happened to me rather than things I had made happen.
I walked onto Princeton’s campus in September 2012 ready to “do college right.” I imagined I would be a Woody Woo major and write for the Daily Princetonian. The first day of OA while everyone complained, I was the optimist, encouraging everyone to keep pushing and stay happy. My college experience would be a continuation of my high-powered, successful high school years. I expected to be the type of eager individual indigenous to the Princeton Tower Club.
After my week in the woods, I stepped back onto campus and smoked a cigarette—within days I had bought a pack, and I spent the year trying and failing to quit. As I flicked cigarette butts across the Holder Courtyard, in many ways I flicked away a year at Princeton. While I didn’t royally fail at anything (though I came dangerously close in my neuroscience class) and even had some successes, I didn’t live as I had expected.
Rather than leading that high-powered life, being proactive about my health, academics, and extracurriculars, I smoked in the courtyard while skimming my readings and writing my papers the night before they were due. To a certain extent I thought I could bullshit my way through my classes, figuring out ways to half-do the online exercises for Arabic and still get credit or predicting which readings my preceptors were most likely to bring up in class.
Twice during fall semester I would get rip-roaring drunk on Tuesday evening, once to wake up on a couch upstairs in my boxers at 6 AM having no idea how I got there. I took Reading Period as a time to drink. What else was there to do when we didn’t have class but take shots of vodka in my room, sinking deeper into my couch as I enjoyed the boisterous yet meaningful chatter between my roommates and me?
My experience is by no means unique—surely tens of thousands of college freshmen drink too much and don’t do all their homework. I imagine the classic view of the problem of imbibing too much during your first year of college is that it detracts from academic work, and to an extent, that was true for me. But none of my classes ended horribly or even badly; my problem was not the time I wasted on Prospect Avenue but what I did when I was there. I spent months vainly pursuing guys largely because they were cool and normal and had straight male friends like me, which somehow represented some rare form of gay social assimilation.
And I embarrassed myself—the drunk texts haphazardly articulating sober thoughts which should not have been articulated, the awkward flirtations when I was too drunk to hold a proper conversation, the nights when I pretended not to care that things weren’t going well, turning into the “aloof troll” at parties, walking around with a dopey smirk on my face, far too drunk to handle myself properly. Worse, I woke up the next morning, once shaking from the hangover, and hid behind a literal smokescreen so I didn’t need to address the mistakes of the previous evening. I deeply inhaled and quickly exhaled my mistakes, leaving them to disperse into Holder Courtyard or Palmer Square.
Maybe there were Thursday mornings when I woke up and said, “I’m going to stay in and do work tonight,” or “I’m going to go out to be with friends, not go for a guy.” But by 10 o’clock those evenings, any morning instincts of mine were overcome by some inexplicable desire—perhaps motivated by ease and familiarity—to keep doing what I had been doing. Nothing inspired me to change. I let life happen to me; I fell into a cycle of drinking and smoking, bought into a scale of priorities that placed my social life and things that I thought made me “happy” above all else. Drinking and smoking bred drinking and smoking, and soon I was in a rut I was too lazy to crawl out of; the rut enveloped me, and I was not in control.
At the end of the year my GPA was adequate, though mediocre by my usual standards. My parents weren’t particularly happy (or particularly unhappy), but I justified things to them like I justified them to myself. I worked hard (I didn’t always), and more importantly, this was my year to screw around because I was tired after high school. I felt some God-given right to fuck up, especially after spending years avoiding any mistakes so that I could get into a school like Princeton. I thought in some sense that years like this were “allowed.”
And so the summer came. I lived on my own for part of it and spent many hours in my car. New Jersey’s most frustrating traffic gave me the opportunity to reflect on a year that ultimately displeased me, and on how I could change. I came home from work and relaxed, maybe had a beer or two after going for a run, got a reasonable amount of sleep, woke up in the morning, and worked hard. I breathed the air instead of exhaling my problems into it. The routine of life and the long days of driving with my camera to see lighthouses and clam shacks on the Jersey Shore allowed me to reflect, at times to cringe at a drunken incident from January that popped into my mind as I moseyed down the boardwalk in Seaside Heights or to question how I could avoid a repeat of my freshman year as I stared at a lighthouse on Long Beach Island. My seemingly boring routine allowed for reflection, which catalyzed changes like quitting smoking and losing weight. By the end of the summer, I felt better.
But I couldn’t help but think I somehow pissed away a whole year at Princeton and wasted the opportunities of this University. I remember a time I was still drunk on a Wednesday morning for the lecture in my Middle East History Class on the Lebanese Civil War. Hardly anyone understands the Lebanese Civil War, and I blew part of my chance to do so. I could have worked harder on my writing seminar drafts instead of going out on Thursday nights. I could have actually tried in Econ 100 instead of making excuses like “numbers aren’t my thing.” Bullshit—the math was far more basic than the Calculus I had to do to get into this school. I could have read all—or at least the majority—of the books for my English class and started the midterm paper a few nights in advance instead of staying up until 5 AM in the Rocky Dining Hall with a pack of cigarettes and a box of Cheez-Its. My preceptor commented that the argument in that paper was generally solid but my prose was choppy and unrefined.
She was right: the language was rough, and so was the year. It had its positives—plenty of great friends and meaningful memories, some solid, even good academic experiences and grades—and the general argument of my year was fine, much like it was in that English paper. In that light, my freshman year in some ways has fallen victim to my instinct to magnify the negative, an instinct making the desire to make this an article of “couldas” and “shouldas” strong.
But besides the true pluses of friendship and decent academic experiences, there is likely value in the mistakes I made. I needed to err both inside and outside the classroom. I needed to alienate people because of things I said when I was drunk; I needed to learn how to apologize to people for those things. I needed to learn that you don’t find a boyfriend on Prospect Avenue. I needed to see the tar I hacked into the sink every morning. I needed to slack off. I needed to embrace social egotism with a pack of Camels, to arrogantly blow smoke at the world. I needed to let life happen to me and to have regrets.
It’s cliché to call it a learning experience, so maybe I won’t. But there were lessons. I learned something from my erroneous weaponization of my phone on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings filled with regret and apologetic texts; I learned that no matter how many cigarettes you smoke, reality doesn’t go away, and you have to start to grow up. Humbling regrets followed me back to campus this fall, making me more conscious of myself and my actions and concerned with bettering myself.
Have I stopped drinking and done every reading this year? No: you’ll still find me out on most Thursdays and Saturdays, and sometimes I will drink too much. But I’m trying to absorb life rather than let it absorb me as I did last year—I exercise, I do almost all the readings, and I strive for consciousness of the past and present. I’m certainly flawed now, but hopefully slightly less so. And I won’t be drunk for the next lecture on the Lebanese Civil War.