She was a graduate student studying social psychology at one of the most illustrious R-1 universities in the country. In high school, she’d been the valedictorian; people said she peaked early and was on a slow downward slide.
She was elegant but frumpy when I met her; long delicate fingers, a wiry, tall frame, thin mouse-brown hair, unblemished and undecorated skin, crystal blue eyes, and a lively, mildly frantic expression. She ran long distances every morning and ate sensible snacks of small seeds and bagged baby carrots. When she said she was vegan, I asked her if it was for health reasons or moral-ethical ones; she said ethical, nodding cutely with her lips covering her teeth. It was nice of her to humor my prying. It was rude of me to ask.
She was one of my first research mentors. I was 19, an undergraduate Psychology and Political Science dual major; she was studying political behavior, specifically ecological attitudes and pro-environmental activism. I admired how she would carefully explain a her research to me, excited but restrained, not trying to oversell that which had not yet been borne out by data. She appreciated that I was thorough, reliable, and painstaking in my notes.
Every day I would come into her office after class, and set up a computer survey, print out the list of participants, and place discrete green or yellow colored envelopes at the doorstep of the lab room. Inside participants could place donations for recyling programs or Greenpeace, depending on the study; how much participants donated was one of her key outcome variables. Sometimes I would be asked to place a mirror against the wall. People are more moral when they can see their own reflection.
I was a teenager with delusions of future scientific brilliance and she was on year five or six of her PhD, sweating through her dissertation study. You could tell she had once been glamorously pretty, and she still was, in a way. But her pilled grey-blue sweaters, unfashionable jeans and tired looks were enough to make you forget it. There was a sad remove to her, an exhaustion. It made you feel sorry for her without there being a single pitiable fact on which a finger could be placed. It is something I have come to recognize very well. It’s a stage of growth, really. A sad but necessary one.
The other graduate students were younger, or at least newer, with dewey faces and eyes that still glimmered — with hunger, with the desire to be liked, or the hope that they could say the right thing and you’d be impressed. I was impressed by them. They were amiable and well-read, they dropped terms like “upward social comparison” into discussions of America’s Next Top Model, and didn’t seemed depressed that a closet-sized, windowless office abutting a laboratory was where they spent all their days. When results when their way, they delighted in it. This was how I came to yearn for graduate school. This is who I wanted to be.
But not her. I can’t say she was depressed. She worked too hard for that, and she was too chipper. But her chipperness felt forced, like bad thoughts were floating buoys she everyday struggled to bat down. It worked. Everybody liked her. She could talk for hours or sit still, fiddling with the mouse of her computer, numbers on an SPSS spreadsheet telling her arcane truths I didn’t then know how to discern. But away from the office, at a Sunday barbecue or in a bar over lunch, they gently mocked her. She was struggling too much. She was taking too long.
I became overly involved in the lives of the graduate students. It was a way to pass time in between experiment sessions. I would sit at a free desk and watch them, eyes darting like ping pong balls from one speaker to the next, cutting in, asking questions, imagining that I was one of them already, that I deserved to be there.
A few of the older female graduate students signed up for an on-campus speed dating session. They pooled over the numbers and faces and compared notes. At home, I recounted the whole ordeal to my disinterested roommates. Graduate school speed dating, I said. Could you think of something more pathetic. Nobody answered.
She got a number. She went on a few dates. I heard her talking about him at her desk, on the phone with her mother or maybe a sister. Certain comments were elusive, maybe worrisome. He was in the MBA program. They had a date in the Short North. They went camping. He was a Republican. She was torn. She didn’t know how to feel about him. They went dancing on Valentine’s Day.
Sometimes I would be sitting at an open desk and she would be sitting at hers, eating her bagged baby carrots, clicking over rows and rows of statistics or writing a paper and she would sigh, and mumble a question. Or she would say something declarative, just loud enough. “That’s funny,” perhaps, or “Hmm, I wonder why…” And I would have no idea what to do. Do I engage with her? Ask what she is thinking? Look sympathetically? Or was she just somebody who emoted out loud?
In high school she would have been the type of woman that I hated. A perfectionist, with an overeager attitude and the ability to please. Women like that always found me brittle. I found them cloying and scary. But since five or six years and a whole host of disappointments separated us, I did not hate her. Instead I was the supplicant, eager to please, and she was the tired, wise mentor. I was quietly enthralled with her instead.
There was so much I wanted to prove. I wanted to be as successful as her, but I wanted that success to look better on me. I wanted to have the friends she had, but without the distance and pity. I wanted to be an effortlessly gamine, clear-skinned runner, but without the green vegan politics. I wanted to be loveable and not desperate. I wanted to graduate young, and be a rising star, not a dulling shell of my former glory.
I left after two and a half years working in that lab, to attend a far less illustrious graduate program. She helped to write me a glowing recommendation. In her dissertation, she credited me and thanked me for a job well done. I left for a bigger, brighter city. I had a boyfriend and quickly cultivated friends, then replaced the boyfriend with someone more glamorous and far less scrutable. For a few years I did not think of her, sitting under fluorescent lights, chewing carrots and mumuring at a volume just loud enough to invite my commentary.
I looked her up the other day. Most of the other graduate students have moved away, but she still lives in Columbus. She has a son who populates her wall. He’s tawny blonde and blue-eyed, and of course she adores him. I see his tiny shoes standing on piles of Midwestern fall leaves. She has long since graduated, but I see no signs of her taking a job anywhere. She married the MBA who so fascinated and flummoxed her after that fateful speed date. By all accounts she seems to have placed her career on pause or stopped it altogether for them.
A few years ago, I might have discovered her fate and found it dismaying. I have seen countless other women place themselves in the backseat of life, following the drives of a man they’re tethered to. Some have lost jobs, potential degrees, cities, close friends, hobbies, passions, homes, and every other time I have been disgusted. When I broke up with my first serious boyfriend, I told him it was because I could feel him edging me into that backseat, and I couldn’t let my life be ruined like that. It follows, then, that I see most women who make that choice as ruined.
But I do not see her that way. In her photos she is frumpier than ever, and tired in the way all makeup-free thirty-whatevers come to look tired. But there is nothing drained about her. The colors in her photographs are lush. She’s out in the world, with her child and often her husband, smiling and if not radiant, then surrounded with radiant life.
There were never any photos of her before. And why would there be? When she sat all day in that drab, closet-sized windowless office, she saw nothing beautiful or worthy of documentation. But I did.
Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.