On the night before Valentine’s Day, I ran to the Dinky in the frigid February air, wondering for the hundredth time how life would be different if my sister had gone to Princeton.
As triplets, my brother, sister and I toured all of our prospective colleges together during one massive, exhausting summer road trip before our junior year of high school. In elementary school, I proclaimed Northwestern University my dream school, because it was twenty minutes from home and their school color was purple. At sixteen, I still didn’t know how else to judge a university. My sister, on the other hand, scoped out specific locations, programs of study, and admission requirements—practically everything down to the dorm rooms.
Our route was therefore mostly based on her ideal schools, with various stops along the way to see some other types of campuses for the rest of us. I sincerely weighed the fact that Northwestern was really close to a Jamba Juice.
Visiting Princeton was my sister’s idea. That day, the sun seared our shoulders and we lost the car somewhere behind Jadwin, I think. She already knew she wanted to be a Woodrow Wilson School major, so we went to the building where most of her classes would be and took a picture together in front of the zodiac statues installed nearby. Later she posed by the sign outside the dining hall: WILSON COLLEGE.
On the morning of Valentine’s Day, I took her to eat at Wilson and we passed the sign from her picture. She insists she knew all along that it wasn’t really a part of Woody Woo. Whatever you say, sis.
Last year, it took me five extra minutes to access my Princeton decision after she opened her Georgetown acceptance letter. I like to think of the technological delay as representative of our entirely different approaches to the college process, or to change in general. She throws herself in immediately; I need more time to acclimate.
What I remember most from that first visit to campus are the massive chocolate chip Frist pancakes. I didn’t yet know that Princeton has fantastic financial aid and an amazing creative community. I didn’t yet know that Northwestern wasn’t known for the type of writing I wanted to pursue, or that I truly needed to go somewhere much farther away from home. And I didn’t want to know any of these facts yet. While my sister at sixteen was busy imagining possibility after possibility for her future, all I could think was, don’t we have more time for this? I didn’t want to start thinking seriously about where I would be going to school, or where she would, when these schools would almost certainly be different. I had let her lead the way, because I didn’t want to make plans for a place that wouldn’t have her in it.
This year, she followed me as I pointed out the buildings where I studied the subjects I hoped to concentrate or earn certificates in: McCosh, for English; East Pyne, for French; the Lewis Center, for Creative Writing. Right next to McCosh, I showed her, the path to Robertson, for Woody Woo. We could have walked to class together.
After she applied and was accepted to Princeton in the regular decision round, I dared to dream of the Kelly sisters, conquering college together. All my life, my sister had been as much place as person, a home base wherever we went. Princeton, on the other hand, was an alien institution. No one in my family had ever gone here before, and none of my classmates would be attending with me, most preferring to stay in the Midwest. I was about to leave everything familiar behind, and I thought I needed her to come with me. Near her, I knew who I was.
Still, I didn’t try too hard to take her with me, because Princeton wasn’t where she belonged. She craved the capital, wanted it close enough to touch. Now accustomed to D.C., she complains that Princeton is too far away from an airport, from a subway, and from a Chipotle. I worry about keeping her entertained here, but she seems happy to sit together and call our family, watch our shows, do our homework.
We didn’t do anything too special for Valentine’s Day. We slept late, ate in, and ended up streaming a movie. It might as well have been an ordinary winter day together back home in Glenview, Illinois. We felt sixteen again, with hundreds of such ordinary days together still ahead. Suddenly, Princeton, New Jersey became a fondly familiar place to be.
She met my friends, and she cringed when they called her by the childhood nickname that I’ve never been able to stop using. She slept in my bed, which is on the same side as it is in our room at home. It was like she saw how I saw. She stayed for three nights, our favorite number.
On Monday morning, as I walked back from the Dinky alone, I passed Baker Rink. I thought about move-in day, when I waited in line alone to get my first prox, too scared to speak to anybody else. Then I thought about the skate night a few months later, when I waited in line with my best friends to exchange my prox for skates, and couldn’t stop talking to everyone I saw. The difference between my initial and later experiences was enormous. Places, and people, can go from foreign to family.
I realized that there is no need to wonder anymore about how I would be different with my sister on campus. While I loved spending this holiday weekend together and briefly recreating the life I had lived with her, I never forgot that my independent life was waiting for me when she left.
By sharing my perspective of Princeton with her, I could see that this place without her, this place I have created all by myself, is precious too. I didn’t have her there to lean on until I found my way, but I found it all the same. There is freedom as well as fear in leaving a base behind.