Congratulations on getting into college! What a privilege. Not to say you didn’t do your part to make it here. (High school yearbooks don’t edit themselves!) Many good and many terrible things will happen to you on this well-pruned, high-fenced campus. Keep in mind that the most disturbing and bewildering moments will make you— me!—a stronger Older Caitlin.
Let’s not spend too much time discussing academics. You’ll do just fine. So much reading awaits you, a bibliophile’s dream. Your sociology courses will impart a necessary anger towards society’s inequities, and you’ll find much to rage against outside the classroom as well. You, my West Coast public school–raised duckling, should earn study-abroad credit for navigating the social waters of an all-but-Ivy-League pond of wealthy, New England boarding school alums. Your year in Madrid will be less of a culture shock.
I know you’re currently eying the legacy students and considering converting to their aesthetic. Don’t waste your time. Pink and green don’t pair. Salmon-red pants and those tiny embroidered elephants are atrocities. Stick to your initial reaction: no one should get to wear such ’80s-throwback frivolities without being pickpocketed. Besides, your true uniform will develop soon enough: more dog collars than pearl necklaces, a show of allegiance to the worldwide queer mafia rather than to someone’s grandparents’ country club.
Any minute now you’ll hear about a party at one of the oldest frats on campus—founded in 1850! Designated a national historic landmark in 1985! The party will be called “Anything for Money.” This is how your classmates will meet their future spouses, but no house in the Hamptons awaits you for starring in some rich boy’s Girls Gone Wild–style cell phone video. Stay in and study your sociology.
There will be incidents during these years that I won’t make light of in this letter. You are entering a four-year struggle to maintain bodily autonomy. There will be young men who kiss you roughly before you decide whether you want them to. There will be times when you wake up in bed with a near-stranger. It will be easy to tell yourself on these mornings that Everclear punch and a healthy sex drive are to blame. This may be true. But there will also be the male “friend” who sneaks into your bed at night when you’re passed out, drunk and naked and ever so trusting of the sanctity of your bedroom. He will act bewildered when you scream at him to leave. Neither of you will mention the incident again.
Your girlfriends will prove to be little help in maintaining your sanity in the face of such things. Be easy on these women. They live on this campus too. The embarrassment and self-doubt born on campus will never leave you. But they will form a shade in the palette you’ll go on to use as a professional writer, a heavy matte gray that contrasts with the bright, beautiful colors of your many friends, your many triumphs. In time you will count among your loved ones drag queens and porn stars and intellectuals, and, most beloved of all, people who are all three. You will host parties in heels and lashes and bustiers, your queenliness under a spotlight. You will get regular STD checkups. You will have dates who teach you that gender roles are a lie used by capitalism to herd sheep. You will live to see an age in which the exposure of bad men doing bad things is popular enough to be dismissed as a trend by threatened patriarchs. You will learn that sexual desire can generate not just cruelty and discomfort, but also strength and community.
You will break your chronic attraction to flippant men who have no business holding your breasts, much less your heart. You will learn from queer friends a sense of self that you will wish had been available to you on those mornings-after when you avoided the waffle iron in the cafeteria because it left your back exposed to the jock tables for too long. Years later, though, prepping for your close-up, you will remember when you wanted to be invisible, and you will laugh into your makeup mirror, apply another layer of eyeliner, and film your first sex scene.
Maintain your exercise regime and eat complete meals. Keep hold of your physical form. It is tangible proof of that which they say is theirs and must never be. This body— this untanned, traveling, designer clothes-free body—you must hang onto it and love it during these tough years. In the squalid, square lethargy of your dorm room you cannot even imagine its future glory.
In the meantime, feel easy but keep your distance from these man-children, these beautiful starved women. Buy a sippy cup, glue jewels on it, and bring it to frat parties. Gesture to it with a big smile when someone offers you a drink, and make a practice of holding onto the handle when they pour you a cocktail. Never the punch.
I repeat, C, congratulations! These battlefield years will whittle you into a strong woman. The cuts you receive will enable you to recognize the wounds of others. You are special, you are loved, you are yours.
Older Caitlin ●
You, my West Coast public school–raised duckling, should earn study-abroad credit for navigating the social waters of an all-but-Ivy-League pond of wealthy, New England boarding school alums.
This is an excerpt from Indelible in the Hippocampus: Writings From the Me Too Movement, edited by Shelly Oria and published by McSweeney's.
Caitlin Donohue is a freelance writer living in Mexico City. She writes about reggaeton for Remezcla and Fact magazine, and about cannabis for High Times, in addition to other publications. Follow her on Twitter @caitlindonohue.