I always thought that love was a trump card. No one ever wrote a song called “All You Need is a Summer Internship.” The Trojan War wasn’t fought over money or job security, and neither of those ever meant never having to say you’re sorry.
Love was in its own category, the apple to the orange of the day-to-day bullshit of subletting, grade-fretting and teacher’s-petting. If you had love, I thought, you’d won the game.
Then I came to Northwestern, and found out I was wrong.
I started to fall in love one night in the fall when I was very tired. We had been dating just long enough that I was starting to let my whiny-bitch-side show: I wanted to lie down but his roommates were sleeping so he dragged his mattress into the living room. I dozed on his shoulder and dreamed we were floating in the middle of the ocean.
In early February, I realized we had no future. I was sitting in his apartment while he talked to Chelsea in the kitchen. I overheard him telling her about all of his exciting plans – going to South Africa for Journalism Residency the next spring, staying there all summer for the 2010 World Cup and then studying that fall in Morocco. I had heard all of this before – I myself had planned to be on my own JR, the quarter before he left the hemisphere – but suddenly I was frantic, empty.
That night, on a bench on the second floor of the McCormick Tribune building, I asked him, “What’s the point?” By the time he’d return to Northwestern, I’d have graduated nine months before. After December of this year, who knows if we’d ever be in the same place again? Why bother falling in love if we already knew how this was going to end?
He didn’t have any answers. I wasn’t going to change my plans, and he wasn’t going to either. But we agreed that we were in too deep to just break it off. We’d take it day by day, enjoy the ride and other trite sentiments. And when December came, we’d say goodbye.
Then we got off the bench and got back to work.
When you’re in love, you have two essential needs: to be unconditionally accepted and to be the top priority in your loved one’s life, according to Dr. Wei-Jen Huang, a clinical psychologist for Northwestern’s Counseling and Psychological Services. But at Northwestern and other prestigious schools, “achievement-oriented” students are more likely to prioritize school work, summer internships and careers over a romantic relationship. As a result, many students engage in expiration dating.
Reed Wilson, a Communication sophomore, wears a gold ring on the fourth digit of his left hand, but it means nothing. He got the trinket in Budapest, and it only fits his ring finger. Reed’s hair is dark and dull, culminating in a sharp widow’s peak. He sports a goatee and speaks in surprisingly Californian-like tones for someone who grew up in Oak Park, Ill., before moving to Bethesda, Md., where he attended the ultra-competitive Walt Whitman High School. “From day one of freshman year, they’re like, ‘You need to be thinking about college and where you want to go,’” Reed says. “It’s like a microcosm of Northwestern, where people do a thousand things. So I know how to play the game with all the Northwestern kids – I know how this game goes.”
The game, Reed tells me, is this: “I do this many things and I take this many classes and this many credits and I get this many A’s but I’m still able to go out and party.” It’s the need to find validation, essentially, through shit.
He met Cara R., a Communication senior, back in October, while Reed was doing his shit: attending a call-back for Rhinoceros, a play about the seduction of ideology. They played their parts as boyfriend and girlfriend and pretended to be in love. Then they packed up their things and said goodbye. Later that month, Reed saw Cara’s performance in Sweeney Todd. After the show, he told her he was coming to her Halloween party that night – he knew her roommates. Cara ran home and told her roommates, “Do you know Reed Wilson? I’m going to hook up with him tonight.”
Everything in Cara’s Evanston Place bedroom is black and white: a short black couch and desk, mottled white walls and carpet, even the two photographs of zebras framed above her low black and white floral bedding. In one photo, the zebras hug, their necks pressed together. In the other, the animal stares straight into the camera, solitary, focused. Black and white – it’s a motif, she explains.
At the foot of her desk are scattered books like Museum Studies. Cara picked up an Art History double major her sophomore year to accompany her Theatre degree, and decided to pursue a career in museum education this past fall. She has two volunteer jobs right now, one at the Art Institute and the other at the Chicago Children’s Museum. She’s hoping one will turn into a summer internship, then a full-time, “real” job. It’s a good plan — but one that she can’t quite say out loud.
Cara started doing community theater when she was five years old. Born and raised in Culver City, a community almost entirely surrounded by Los Angeles, Cara caught the bug. “I loved it. I just loved it,” Cara says. When she wasn’t in school, she was acting in Grease and West Side Story. Her best friends were Danny and Sandy, Tony and Maria. “I was all theater.”
She was. And one night in high school, she couldn’t stop crying. Cara attended Marlborough School, a private, all-girls college-prep school in L.A., where in her sophomore year she played Rocky in Damn Yankees. When the curtain fell on the last show, she felt for the first time what it was like for something she loved to be gone. That’s when Cara’s mother told her, “You know, you can do this for the rest of your life. Then, it won’t ever be over.” From there, Cara says, theater became her life’s direction.
She’s been Sally Brown in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, a featured soloist in Waa-Mu, and, Jojo in Seussical this February. She’s the co-chair of Waa-Mu (the “Senior Song” gets her emotional, as do most things about graduation) and on the board of the Jewish Theater Ensemble. This fall was JTE’s 13th year as a theater group, so Cara planned a Bar Mitzvah. It was open to anybody, but mostly people involved in JTE showed up, as did Reed. They had only been officially dating for a week, but when Cara teased Reed to get a haircut, his friend commented on Cara’s “girlfriend privileges.”
“He supported me,” Cara says. “It really spoke to me that he was putting aside any Saturday night plans to come to my event – and he was the best dancer on the floor.”
Reed started leaving groceries in Cara’s fridge. He stopped saying “Thanks for having me” when he came over. They exchanged “I love you”’s. Over winter break, they disabled the sleep mode on their laptops and, through video chat, fell asleep together. Seven months before graduation, she had her first real boyfriend.
“I think seventh graders can have relationships that last two weeks and now, look, I’m onto the next thing,” says Dr. Arthur Nielsen, a clinical associate professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Feinberg School of Medicine. “The psychology of seventh graders is that they’re just trying out a whole new thing. But I think when you have the maturity of a college student, well, I’m not sure you can hold back that intimacy.”
A 2007 study at the University of Texas found that in long-distance relationships, partners who are unsure when they’ll ever be in the same city again are significantly more distressed, less satisfied and rated communication coping strategies as less helpful than couples who knew they’d reunite.
But at least they tried, says Dr. Nielsen. What puzzles him is the flinty practicality of expiration dating – the attempt to sweep the emotional aspect of dating under the dusty dorm rug in favor of what “makes sense.”
“Relationships aren’t as under neurological control as all that,” he says. You can’t just decide to love someone until it’s not convenient anymore.
“You start sleeping with someone and you’re going out all the time and you’re talking about your future and it’s very intimate,” Dr. Nielsen says. “How do you stop the train?”
This is how: On Feb. 14 we ran through Evanston, west on Church Street then veering, laughing like children, onto Maple Street, a bottle of wine concealed under his coat. I was smiling so hard I could barely keep my eyes open. We toasted our first Valentine’s Day, and in the next second I knew it was our only Valentine’s Day. I made a falsely cheerful comment, like, “We won’t even know each other next year!” to which he just chuckled.
– Dr. Wei-Jen Huang, clinical psychologist
I always wanted to be the Cool Girlfriend who lived in the moment, went halfsies on deep-dish pizza and didn’t talk about feelings, unless they involved the Red Sox. I knew that breaking up in December was practical, and that dealing with it when the time came was the Cool Girlfriend thing to do. But you can only tell someone you love them and they’re so special so many times before they start to believe you. And then they wonder why you’re willing to throw them under the bus.
The more I cared about him, the more I resented the Plan. Every time he told someone how cool his ”real” life was going to be – when he wouldn’t know me anymore – I stored another part of me away, somewhere safe.
“Legal divorces,” Dr. Huang says, “are not nearly as worrisome as psychological divorces.”
Over burritos in late March I told him about my story, about Cara and Reed and the impossible fissure between the emotional and the practical. Then I made a last stab at being Cool Girlfriend. “I’m sorry I worry about the future so much. I’m going to stop,” I said.
“I know what you mean,” he replied, beans and rice falling out of his mouth and landing everywhere.
“Really? I asked, but he thought I was talking about jobs, and spent the next 10 minutes telling me just how important the South Africa program is to him, and I sank.
Reed is the lead singer of his high school band, Butterscotch Moses. They have a CD on iTunes, he tells me. It’s something he’s considering pursuing for a little while after college, before law school. “My dream job would be in, like, a legal department of a record label or a theater company,” he says. “That would kind of combine the legal aspect and the kind of entertainment world into one job.”
Reed sounds a bit like a seventh grader trying to design the ultimate roller coaster, but when his priority was his high school band, he was featured in a 2007 The Washington Post article under the headline “Just Jamming? Not Anymore.” And right now, he tells me, his number one priority is being a student.
“With everything I do, it’s always school first. Whether I’m in a show or with Sigma Chi or doing Thunk stuff, if I have a paper or project due, I’m going to drop everything and do that,” Reed says.
Reed didn’t grow up rich. He’s bussed tables and he’s sold books at Barnes & Noble. He’s on a lot of financial aid and he knows that he’s responsible for paying those loans back. Every class skipped has a dollar tag attached to it. Reed’s dad reminds him of this.
Cara’s luckier, she admits. Her parents will help support her while she works, unpaid, at museums. And her parents aren’t disappointed that she’s chosen not to go to New York and do the audition thing, like they had always thought she would. “I’ve had my passion for Art History for a while,” she says, monotone. “I think this year I came to realize that I’m graduating, and one day I’ll need to support myself. Theater doesn’t necessarily do that, especially in this economy.”
I ask her if she fell out of love with theater. “No, no! I love doing shows!” It’s just, her friends who have graduated, they’re waiting tables. And the lifestyle, it’s so demanding. She doesn’t want to wake up 10 years down the line and realize she wasn’t meant to do it forever, and then have to start Plan B. She’s ready for Plan B now. “If you had asked me about that after Cherubs or freshman or sophomore year, I would’ve been like, ‘Oh, it’s all about theater and I’m going to do theater for the rest of my life, but…” she’s barely whispering. “Now I’ve had a change of heart.” With graduation getting closer, Cara tells me, she’s becoming more practical.
If we’ll give up absolutely everything, even our dreams, for success, how can we be expected to hang onto our relationships?
“It’s something that happens so much around here,” Dr. Huang says. “People put relationships on hold until they graduate, get a job and then settle down. But deep down inside, people have the yearning of finding that special someone.” That’s why we enter relationships, even though we’re ultimately not willing to follow through.
“There’s a sense that you wouldn’t compromise,” Dr. Nielsen says. “The students that were busy trying to get into college – the college of their choice that’s going to solve all their problems – they had that value system indoctrinated in them, not just from their parents but their parents get it from the rest of the culture…that puts relationships on the backburner.”
Reed makes an estimation: “I’m 85, 90 percent sure that if it were me graduating, I would choose the life path over keeping my relationship together.”
He breaks it down, in terms of priorities: “Now, I would never say that once Cara leaves, our priorities are different, we have to call it quits, because we care about each other. But — it could very easily become the relationship before being a student, and that would be dangerous. The maintenance and stress the relationship will require can easily start to get your priorities out of whack.”
The walls of Cara’s room are peppered with pictures of her best friends, her dog, her family and her plays. There aren’t any pictures of Reed. It’s because printing pictures is such a hassle, she tells me.
She hasn’t made up her mind about what will happen with Reed when graduation arrives. She’ll move into the city with a few girls and try her hand at the museum thing. It’ll only be 12 miles away and, with her sister enrolled at Northwestern, it’s not like she’d be a stranger to Evanston.
But then again, “Practically, I want my life in the real world to not be too attached here,” Cara says. “I don’t really want to be up here all the time. I’ll have my life down there, and weekends and fun things, you know – that real world people do.”
She tells me she doesn’t want to make a decision about her relationship until June comes, or maybe September, when the new tenants will move into her apartment and she’ll pack up and go to the city.
“I don’t want to be in denial, but I want to enjoy this relationship,” Cara says. “If we know that we’re going to break it off, wouldn’t that be a bad relationship for the next two months?”
“With all due respect, and correct me if I’m wrong,” I say, slowly, “But it sounds like you’ve already made up your mind.”
Cara doesn’t look at me for a few minutes. She lets out a short puff of a sigh.
“Yeah,” she says. “I was just thinking that.”
I asked to write this story because I needed to know that people can care about, even love, something that doesn’t them get a job, or an internship, or an A in a class. I turned to sources, experts and studies to find out. In the end, though, I had to get it from him.
I stopped bringing the future up after the Burrito Misunderstanding. I didn’t go over to his place as readily when he called, and sometimes I’d bring work and not look him in the face when we talked, cooked, whatever.
In early April we went to an all-you-can-eat BYOB sushi haven in Lincoln Park with some friends. He started going on about his year in Africa again when Shiana cut him off: “But you’re coming back for Lisa’s and my graduation, right?” Well, no, he wasn’t. He’d be in Africa for the World Cup. It wasn’t practical. I went home and cried.
The next day, I started preparing to break up. I wrote out what I’d say. I even put it in bullet points so I’d remember everything I wanted to say. I texted him, “I hate to be ‘that girl,’ but I think we need to talk.”
On Easter Sunday, Cara met her friend, and likely future roommate, for brunch at Clarke’s. Cara hadn’t seen her since October, before she started dating Reed, and the girls spent the morning catching up on their relationships, their jobs, their apartment in the city and other potential roommates.
When Cara got back to her apartment, Reed came over. Cara put her laundry in the dryer and they did homework. She began to tell him about her brunch: the jobs they were looking for, the apartment they hoped to share. And sitting together on her black and white comforter, Reed and Cara started to argue.
“Your internships are great, but they don’t pay the bills,” he told her. He rattled off his history of grunt work. It was a conversation they’d had many times before, but it had never been driven by so much anger. “In order to become independent,” Reed said, “you need to start at the bottom.”
Cara was angry. She told him that while her jobs may not pay in money, they will pay in experience. She told him that she didn’t want to work at Starbucks, that she wanted to work up to a job at a museum, and that one day that would pay. “I will get there,” Cara said. “It’s just maybe a different way from you.”
Cara stood up. “My clothes are done,” she said. When she returned with her laundry, they didn’t speak. She sat on the floor, folding her shirts into tidy squares and tucking them away in her long, squat, black dresser. Finally, Cara looked at the clock. She had a rehearsal for the musical Not Wanted on the Voyage. “I have to go,” she said, and then left the room.
She poked her head back in. “I love you,” she offered. They blew kisses to each other and tried their best to catch them.
He called at 6:15 in the afternoon and we made small talk while I ambled past Deering Field. He told me he had been walking around campus. We decided to sit on a bench by the Rock.
“What did you want to talk to me about?” he asked. He was scared. I wasn’t expecting that.
“I completely respect your plans and your career goals and I never would, nor should, ask you to change them. I’m not upset because you have ambition and I’m not upset that you’re so excited about all the things you have yet to do because it’s so great, and I have things I’m really excited to do too,” I said.
“It’s just that, well. I don’t understand why you don’t care. I don’t understand why, if you love me so much, it’s so easy for you to let me go. I don’t know how you can talk so much and so happily about your career without realizing that you’re talking about a time when we won’t be together, because we’ve chosen other things over each other.”
He was crying, I was crying, and everybody was walking by.
“Every time you talk about how great your life is going to be once you get going with your career it’s like you can’t wait for your ‘real’ life that I’m not a part of. Why am I not a priority too? Why is it so obvious to choose that over me?”
“I don’t feel valued,” I told him, “and I deserve someone who thinks I’m an option.”
They had planned to meet up at Kafein at 9:30 p.m., so Cara calls Reed at 9 p.m. She buzzes him in, then changes into a gray tank top and black cardigan. She’s been stressed this week and it shows: her dark, glossy hair is in a mess of a bun, her bangs bobby-pinned back from her face.
Walking hand in hand, Reed brings it up first. “Let’s not take this into Kafein.”
“I don’t like thinking that my internships aren’t good enough for you. I’m good at what I do, and that’s experience I want and need,” Cara says. “I need you to see that.”
“I do, and I’m so impressed with you. It has nothing to do with that.”
They exit through the south entrance of Evanston Place, then cross the street at Church Street. “What’s wrong?” Reed asks. This wasn’t the first day things had been tense. Several times that week, Cara greeted Reed with, “Ugh, stressful day.”
He wants her to lighten up. “If everything I say makes you feel stressed, we need to figure that out.”
“Does your moodiness have anything to do with the possibility – is it sinking in,” he asks, “The possibility of us not being together?”
Cara pauses. “Yeah,” she says. “Maybe.”
Entering Kafein, they sink into a red couch by the window and pick up their laminated menus. Cara puts the menu down. “I already know what I want,” she announces.
When I ran out of words, he asked, “Can I talk now?”
“Yeah,” I said.
He cared more than I could possibly know, he said. Did I really not think that he wasn’t trying to think of every possible way for this to work – if I came to Africa or he came to New York? He was raised to keep his chin up and to keep it to himself. He saw how upset I was when I asked “What’s the point?” and he didn’t think I wanted to talk about it again. He had had an interview that day, and he’d canceled it, because all he could think about was losing me.
“Really?” I asked, blinking hard.
“Really.” And I knew we were going to be fine.
That’s when Cara and Reed walked by. And I looked at them and they looked at me, and we didn’t say a thing. And when I looked back at him, he was covering his eyes.
Getting ahead is easy: work hard in high school to get into the right college and work even harder to get the right internship to make the right contacts and get the right job.
“We are pretty good with our studies. We kind of know that if we study harder, then things will be under our control,” Dr. Huang says. “But in the area of our relationships, you just have no control.”
I don’t know that love is a trump card, but this is what I do know: We are ambitious people. We want to be engineers, doctors, journalists and teachers. We want to study abroad, teach English in Japan and get the best co-ops we can – and that’s okay. That’s great.
But people are options too. And love can be what makes you a success. I wish that was something we were more comfortable saying out loud.