I was blasting a Katy Perry song in my car two Septembers ago when I found out that, just a few hours earlier, a friend of mine had died. I was on my way back from the grocery store with my roommate, and as we were parking two girls in my sorority pledge class approached me, shaking and crying, to deliver the news through my car window. Katy Perry was still playing in the background, and I didn’t know what to say. I still don’t know what to say. The truth is that what happened didn’t make any sense, and, anyway, I don’t know how much weight to put on that one event in my life. I truly, to this day, don’t know how much it affected me. We were friends, but we weren’t close friends. Truth be told, her apparent perfection and her sometimes-overbearing leadership bothered me. And yet, she was a golden girl - a shining innocent, and brilliantly smart. She lit up a room. She believed in the world. She was an exceptional person, as people who die too young tend to be. I had always expected that we would get closer as time went on; suddenly, there was no time. What was I supposed to make of that? Was my world supposed to shatter? Every time that song comes on, I ask myself those questions. What bothers me, though, at my very core, is that that song doesn’t make me cry.
Merriam-Webster’s online “Simple Definition of Innocence” –
: the state of being not guilty of a crime or other wrong act
: lack of experience with the world and with the bad things that happen in life
: lack of knowledge about something
I came to the University of Virginia a bafflingly innocent eighteen-year-old. I was a virgin, opposed to the use of all drugs (none of which I had ever seen); I had never gotten drunk – the idea of drinking to get drunk fundamentally appalled me; I was not good at texting, and certainly not good at texting boys; and I don’t think I was very good at talking to boys, for that matter (and that may still be true). I was straight off the boat from a strict and sheltered boarding school – which I loved – and I was pretty devastatingly clueless. I was innocent to such an extent that my then-innocence did not allow me to see just how innocent I truly was; and yet I was desperate not to be.
On my college revisit day – colloquially referred to by the University as a “Day on the Lawn” – I remember distinctly the feeling that I got as my mother and I first got out of the car we had rented. We had parked in an area we believed to be the center of campus, having driven by several fraternity day parties and arrived at a neo-classical structure of sorts. We were in fact at the top of the amphitheater-like stadium seating surrounding Lambeth field (an area that is – for those readers who may not be familiar with the poster college of America’s layout - quite far from what is actually considered the center of the campus). As we walked down the steps, breathing in Virginia’s spring air, we stepped over an empty beer bottle lying on the ground. My mother made a very mom-like comment along the lines of, “well, I guess you would be quite the party girl if you decided to come to UVA.” This was her subtly snarky way of rooting for me to push harder for a different school, the one that had waitlisted me and that my father had attended (a certain ivy league beginning with the letter H). I, despite the sarcasm of her comment, began to daydream about a carefree, beer-drinking, tan and UVA-enrolled version of myself and immediately decided that I wanted to accept my admissions offer. It was to be a new adventure, danced to the tune of whatever Flo Rida song was blasting from the nearest fraternity. It was to be a new push outside of my all-too-comfy comfort zone.
So, after a summer of washing dishes at my old summer camp and timidly testing the waters of alcohol consumption on my time off, I packed my bags for Charlottesville, Virginia not knowing quite what to expect. I moved into a dorm full of strangers, most of whom would remain strangers to me through the year, and made friends with my roommate and a girl who lived next door. This girl next door, who would remain my best friend for the following two years, would refer to me as “baby Olivia” from the first night we got drunk together. This nickname drew both from my whining and from my obvious naïveté. My new friend, my christener, would largely coax me out of my innocence over the coarse of my first year of college, but only in the most superficial sense (i.e she got me to drink a little too much, dance a little too much, and kiss a little).
When I fell in love, hard, later on, for someone who probably didn’t deserve my time – let alone my affection – I realized, suddenly, that life wasn’t as simple as I had thought it to be during my boarding-school days. Then, I could exist in a bubble with set rules, set distinctions between right and wrong: We weren’t allowed to drink – why would I risk getting expelled, risk perhaps my entire future (what college I would be admitted to, and henceforth what job I might get out of college, and henceforth my entire life) for the experience of getting drunk? We weren’t allowed to have sex – why would I risk having to explain to my parents why I was called into the dean’s office, just for the experience of getting naked with someone I didn’t even feel comfortable around fully clothed? We weren’t allowed to “grind” at dances; in fact, there was a jarringly uncomfortable line in our student handbook describing precisely what “grinding” meant – why would I risk the embarrassment of my teachers seeing me do this, when I was just as happy to dance with my girlfriends? We weren’t allowed to wear leggings or jeans or ripped clothing of any sort to class, weren’t allowed to leave our dorms past 10:30pm, were expected to show up to and participate in all of our classes and assemblies, were required to play sports every season, were encouraged to try out for the school play and to join any number of clubs that caught our fancy, and our social lives were expected to fall into the deliberately limited negative space remaining in our schedules. Many of my classmates found this constricting and uncomfortable, resisting the rules wherever they could and suffering a suspension here and there (and, in some cases, an expulsion). I, on the other hand, flourished in that rule-defined environment. Rules were easy for me to hide behind. They were an excuse and a rubric: my values were defined for me – sticking up for them was a matter of protecting the unreasonable sum of money my parents were paying to send me to prep school. I didn’t have to explain, to lobby, to condescend or to reproach my peers for the choices I made or they made or the differences between the two.
Innocence is something that college does not accept. College does not give people the time to ease into its culture – the drinking, the drugs, the sex, the faux friendships. It asks simply that you participate or that you don’t, that you learn to play the game or that you quietly sit out, that you inevitably regret some part of either the game or its absence – though no one cares either way. College forces you to decide – prude or daredevil, observer or participant, out or in; in either case, your innocence will be lost just for the inescapable knowledge of what each party decides to engage in.
Merriam-Webster’s online definition of molly:
: any of several brightly colored tropical live-bearers (genus Poecilia) highly valued as aquarium fishes
Disillusionment. My old reality shattered the summer after my first year of college, when I found out that connections that feel magnetic and real and honest and true don’t necessarily equate to true love (at least, true love in the reciprocated and happy sense). That truth ripped open my body. It seeped into my soul. It weakened whatever immunity I had held from the ugliness of the world. From that moment on, I saw it all. My second year of college slapped me in the face with knowledge I had managed to avoid for the first nineteen years of my life. The knowledge that, every night I went out, alcohol and marijuana weren’t the worst things – the most potent, the most dangerous - that people around me were consuming. The knowledge that these things transformed, ruined, and killed, that they killed that golden friend of mine (an occurrence that unluckily coincided with every other unlucky occurrence that year). Furthermore, the knowledge that letting people into your heart doesn’t mean that they won’t push you out of theirs, that happy endings depend as much on timing as they do on soul compatibility, that sex is scary and that most people are more interested in being liked by others than in knowing themselves. Thank god I still don’t watch the news.
Innocence is a state of mind that is impossible to get back to. Once gone, it is gone forever. It is impossible to erase gained knowledge, gained insight into the once invisible darknesses of the world. Somehow, I think, some people keep distance from those truths, the ones that poison the perception we all once had that there was a reason for everything, that the world must be wholly good.
Disillusionment. Nothing seemed airy and fun the way it used to: flirtations carried weight, parties carried weight, my friendships carried weight, and somehow, among the glitz and the coke and the dark bars and fraternities that I was used to either skirting around or floating through carelessly, I felt suddenly alienated, slapped awake, and disappointed.
I used to think that all I ever wanted out of life was for someone to recognize my magnificence and to claim it, to proclaim that they couldn’t go on a day longer without making it theirs. I never stopped to think that perhaps things weren’t so simple, that that dream came with its own politics, that perhaps I should be the one recognizing another’s magnificence instead of awaiting recognition. I never thought that love had to be waited for, or pined for, or cried for, or lost, until my innocence was broken – by more than one person: by myself, by my friends, by several men who wanted nothing more than to know what it felt like to kiss me - and I remained, to my solemn surprise, standing alone and a little bit lost. See, women are brought up to think that childhood – utter bliss, utter innocence – becomes adulthood in one perfect and beautiful first kiss. They’re taught that life ends on their wedding day, that the biggest force of evil exists in the form of a giant octopus named Ursula who lives at the bottom of the ocean. I don’t enjoy swimming in deep water.
Innocence means being blind to the darkness the world offers up. It means skipping down the street, blushing hard, dancing recklessly, laughing hard, asking questions, and having an undoubting knowledge that the stars hold the answers to any question you could possibly offer them. There is no way that a miracle like the night sky could exist in a world that presents unsolvable problems and dark truths. There is an up, there is a down, and there is an edge between dark and light that is exhilarating to walk but that will never, ever, let you fall into an abyss you’re not meant for. I suppose loss of innocence and the disillusionment that inevitably follows means having to look a little harder at that abyss – feeling its pull, its danger, and the ugliness it holds. Somehow, I still trust its intentions.