jennifer willis

Things Left Unsaid

Jennifer Willis


In this piece, I think about my college experience, and how it all has prepared me for my future. It’s addressed to the person who played a big role in the reason why my college experience was the way it was.

We both know that I’ve done it, but we’ve never spoken it out loud.

You realized it during my junior year in high school, after I told you that I threw up during basketball practice. When you jokingly asked if I was pregnant, instead of saying “ew, boys,” I defensively said “no, I’m on my period right now.” I realized that you’d realized it when you gave me hug after I blurted out that idiotic response.

The only other time we talked about it was more recently, two months before my wedding. You asked me if I was on any birth control. Being the poor immigrant women we are, we concurred that birth control was shady and family planning was best. Who knows what that kind of stuff really does to you anyway.

Another thing left unspoken was why I was leaving your home so early to make my own, barely my own person at 22. For people like us, 22 was early to fly the nest. We both knew why, though. We just didn’t want to think of that night, way back when.

It was time to put down a deposit for a college and you chose the school for me. By your lucky stars, your youngest child happened to be born on that very important day, and we were throwing a party for her. No one in the entire family understood why I was not there when we cut the cake. I was probably the biggest nuisance of the night. Maybe I’d bugged you too much about going to my dream school that was too far away while you were putting up decorations earlier in the day. During the party, I stayed upstairs sobbing; baby cousins popped in and out of the room, looking for somewhere to play and hoping I would stop soon. Maybe the idea of me being gone bugged you so much that you decided holding me hostage for another four years would be worth it. Four years of commuting to a majority resident university. Four years of sharing a room with a sister seven years my junior. Four years of a long-distance relationship I was only allowed to maintain on your terms. Four years of working to provide for myself because I felt bad asking you for help. Four years of working to provide for myself because I was determined to become independent from you. Four years of discomfort and bitterness. Four more years of being at home, with you.

Another thing left unspoken is the reason why I’ve forgiven you for that night and those years that followed. It took me a while to figure out why you did it. Years of reflection and navigating complex feelings. Feelings that make me want to have a mother-daughter dance at my wedding, not father-daughter. Feelings that make me want to walk myself down the aisle. Feelings that push me to forgive him, and hold him accountable at the same time.

The spring before I was to leave for college, his abuse got worse than it had been in years. We are best friends, you and I, and you didn’t want me to go. You were scared to be alone. Understandable, completely. And you are forgiven. After four years of feeling alienated, outcasted, pushed aside, worked to the bone, lonely – I have forgiven you, and you know I have. Because that’s what best friends do. We’re there for each other when the going gets tough. But you think it means that I can forgive him too, and I can’t yet. You two are alright now, and I want to forgive him because I know it’ll make you happy. But I still can’t bring myself to say hello to him when I walk through the door. I can’t lean in to his hugs. I can’t dispel the image of him in my mind, the one that made you scared enough to hold me back from my dreams.

After I failed my road test, you said I should let him teach me to drive. I have to pass the exam before the wedding, so you think I might finally be willing to take his help. He is a good driver, but I quietly refused. I’ll learn from someone else in time. My husband and I will road-trip to our new home as newlyweds; we’ll go halfway across the country, just like I wanted to four years ago, when you weren’t ready. But one thing will not be left unspoken – you are my mother, I am your daughter, and we are best friends.

In Defense of Travel Envy

Jen Willis


In thinking about my complicated feelings about traveling, I found that a lot of it has to do with New York City and money. So, I wrote this piece for my fellow poor people who also get infuriated when other people go on vacation. That’s it.

Before I had wanderlust, I had travel envy.

Travel envy is exactly what it sounds like -- you see other people’s photos or videos of their travels, and you get really jealous. That was me before I had traveled anywhere outside of the US and Canada that no one else in my family had already touched. That was me even while I was studying abroad, and is still me now that I’ve already had that experience and I’m back at home. Travel envy is inescapable to me, because, you know, people are poor and not everyone can afford to travel.

I remember being in high school, coming back from spring break pastier than ever, to find that many of my classmates had gotten tanned, even sunburnt. I was infuriated. I deserved a vacation back  then. I worked hard. My high school was one of the best in the state, and it took me almost my entire four years to get adjusted to it because I came from a nearly failing middle school in an underserved community. In my freshman year, I looked around at my classmates and realized I couldn’t write a proper essay. It really hurt me. I spent the next four years trying to prove myself in a school where most of the other students had been given the tools to succeed: basic reading comprehension, basic writing skills, and basic verbal communication. The Manhattan kids were the ones who had an easier time, and they were also the ones coming back from spring break tanned and refreshed. I’m not sure if any pressure would have been relieved by taking any crazy international vacations, but it certainly would have at least been nice. But my family couldn’t afford vacations back then, and I still can’t really afford them now. I can’t really blame my parents for that.

Being poor is exhausting. Being poor in New York City is exhausting. Being in NYC is exhausting in general, but there’s something about spending $130 a month on a failing public transportation system in a place where $15 an hour isn’t a living wage that is especially soul draining. I don’t care how glamorous Manhattan has to look; people in outer boroughs depend on the subway to get them to work on time, and more often than not, the MTA fails. Try saving for vacation when you have to spend extra money on other ways to get to work because the trains you already pay $130 a month for are totally useless. One day, I was feeling adventurous, and took an express bus to work. I paid my $6.50, and ended up being 40 minutes late because of traffic. Looking at someone’s vacation in Jamaica would piss you off if you saw it on a delayed train that was making you late for work for the fifth time that month; that’s all I’m saying.

So yeah, as a commuting student also working at the same time, I had (and still have) really bad travel envy. Life sucks. I run from classes I struggle in to a thankless job in a harsh city, and then back to my home, where I still live with my parents. All this to still be in debt, living paycheck to paycheck. Anyone else would be pissed off all the time too.

Poor people are allowed to feel angry at their situations. If a white girl posts another picture with cornrows in Jamaica captioned “ya mon,” I am absolutely entitled to lose my shit. As toxic as it is to compare yourself to others, poor people do it all the time. Because not only are we constantly stressing about what we’re going without, on top of it all, the world is telling us it’s our fault.

My first vacation outside the US and Canada was to Aruba, whose relatively inexpensive flights and hotel are still gaining interest on my credit cards. I had to take out my own private student loan to study abroad. Anyone with any financial sense would tell me that those were bad decisions, but they have already been made, so here we are. That’s the thing; poor people can’t even fully enjoy a vacation because they’d feel like the money could be better spent in another way. Even while I was studying abroad, I was torn. I had travel envy because my classmates could afford to go places every weekend, meanwhile I barely scraped by on my summer savings that I tried to make last for the entire semester. I was already mad at myself for taking out the extra loan in the first place, but was also mad I didn’t take out an extra couple thousand to make the trip feel worthwhile. Each financial decision is a struggle between your present feelings and your future burden. Sometimes, the need for instant gratification wins out, but it’s not like you won’t be struggling in the future anyway. It’s always a lose-lose situation.

So yeah, I’m mad to see someone going on vacation with what feels like every three seconds. My previous vacations don’t change that, because I’m still struggling now and I will have to pay off those debts later, and I feel like shit about it. Vacations that put you in debt aren’t any fun, but for some, there isn’t really any other way to do it. And just because some people can afford to just put their travel-envious feelings aside and feel good about their lives doesn’t mean everyone else has the luxury of doing so.

I don’t have a magic remedy to end feelings of travel envy. If I did, I wouldn’t be writing this. Wanderlust and travel envy can be easy to succumb to if you find you’re not enjoying your life. There’s no easy answer to this problem. You can either try very hard to save up for a vacation, and sacrifice some immediate well-being; you could take out a loan and sacrifice well-being down the road, if you can afford a loan at all; or you could not travel in the first place and just live life in FOMO. All we can definitely do is take care of ourselves and find small moments of joy. Be mad, please, be mad as much as you need to. Anger gives us power to create change. But remember to take a step back and appreciate any good moments, however few and far between, because you do deserve to feel good.

Behind the Curve

Jennifer Willis

ISSUE NO. 1 • To Have a heart

Being a commuting student, I often feel that I have a completely different college experience from most of my peers. I wrote this piece for other students who may feel like they’re on the outside, and for the person who was there for me through it all. I see and appreciate you both.

I’ve totally missed the whole Tinder and Bumble and general online dating thing. Not that I’m complaining, but it would’ve been interesting to experience that. Whenever I go out to random places with my girlfriends, one of them will pull out their phones and jokingly go “Let’s see what’s going on out here.” I was hanging at a friend’s place in Plainsboro, New Jersey, when someone started swiping left. She wasn’t actually looking for a hookup; it’s become more like a party game among girls recently, I feel. Nonetheless, I was instantly hooked, like always.

“Let me see!” I’ll beg, and they’ll usually hand off their phone to me, disillusioned with the whole thing and wanting nothing to do with it anymore. I always take way too long, scrutinizing his bio and photos before deciding if this man is a good match for my friend, and swiping either left or right. I realize I take it way too seriously, and it makes me feel like I’m missing out on an entire way of thinking about dating. That you’re in control, and you have the freedom to choose any person you might want. Anytime I swipe left too quickly, I almost feel bad for the man I just digitally threw to the wayside. But then there’s another one there to scrutinize again, and the one from before is forgotten. It’s so fun.

My boyfriend and I started dating in December of 2013. I’m not sure how many dating apps existed by then, but we were under 18 anyway, both juniors in high school. Having been together so long, we kind of have an unconventional relationship for people our age, especially in today’s dating app world. I think we even have an unconventional relationship for college students in general. We’re seniors now, and we go to school in different states. He’s in Washington, DC, and I’m in New York City, so it’s not terrible, but it’s not easy either. Oh, and we’re engaged. We’re going to get married right after we graduate in May this year. And to me, that’s a miracle.

College, specifically commuting to college, was hard for me. I was depressed enough in high school for a cocktail of reasons, but undergrad was an entirely different ballgame. All high schoolers go home at the end of the day, no matter who they are. But not all college students do. And feeling completely disconnected from my campus took a huge toll on me emotionally.

I watched from a distance as my boyfriend, now fiancé, got adjusted to living on his own-- something I wrote about looking forward to doing in all of my college applications. The first time I ever visited him was for a long weekend in our freshman year, and my mom had demanded I take an 11am bus back to New York on Sunday so I wouldn’t be out in the city too late. It was freezing out, and no one was throwing any parties because all the fraternities and sororities were off campus that weekend, doing some kind of Greek retreat. I don’t know. The point is, I was dying to go out and just get trashed because I never had, and I couldn’t at home. That should’ve made me upset, but he didn’t let it. He invited all of his new college friends to his tiny room, and we had a movie night, which I still remember fondly but not too well because there was one of our good friends involved, Honey Jack.

He was there for me in ways I never expected. He showed me that college wasn’t rainbows and butterflies and fun parties like I expected. He’s in ROTC at his school so he worked harder than I had ever seen him do previously in high school. He felt his own disconnect, being a soldier on a very liberal college campus, and we found solace in each other despite being so far away. Don’t get me wrong- being long-distance was still really tough. We kind of had a role reversal: he was originally more clingy than I was, but once we got to college and I was bored at home and he was busy all the time...oh, how quickly the tables turned. It’s pretty funny in hindsight. If you told seventeen-year-old me that all this would happen, she’d cry laughing. Sometimes I still do.

I have not had, and will never have, the typical college experience, at least not the one that white people get to have. You know the one. It’s what they all advertise- some kind of weird individualism or whatever. For some reason, I thought being stuck in a plain brick room with a nightmare of a person was going to turn me into an adult. Try being stuck with your family, unexpectedly, for another 4 years, and see how quickly you turn into an adult.

But seriously, I was really looking forward to going to college the way I’d dreamt it up to be: a time and place where I’d find myself and lifelong friends. I didn’t get that, and it drove me into an emotional quarantine. As a senior on the verge of graduating, I’m still working on reconciling that. But what I don’t have to reconcile was that I spent college falling even more in love, growing and working on a relationship from miles and miles away. His warmth and support that he gifted me and continues to gift me is something that I appreciate immensely and have no words to really express my gratitude for. I’m trying it with this essay, but it feels so inadequate. The whole experience was so difficult. It really hurt me to watch the person I love get to have something I wanted so badly and to figure how to balance those feelings of jealousy and bitterness with the love and appreciation I have for him. He’s seen me at my absolute lowest. And after all this, he wants to marry me; he wants to continue providing for me forever, and call me old-fashioned but that is the greatest blessing I couldn’t have even asked for.

Sometimes I think about getting a Tinder just for fun, just to see what it’s like. I really feel that this thing that my generation collectively does is shaping our entire consciousness. Whether for better or worse, it doesn’t matter- it’s still huge. I don’t think I ever could get in on it though. I’m left to peruse my friends’ accounts, bringing them unnecessarily enthusiastic scrutiny and judgement, which they’ve seemed to either already have perfected themselves or just thrown to the wind. In this regard, I’m behind the curve. So yeah, I don’t know what it’s like to have Tinder. But it’s because I’ve been with someone for the past five years, someone who I really love, so that’s not exactly the worst problem to have. Disconnections aren’t always bad. While it’s fun and strange and totally earth-shattering to just have a catalog of men and women at your fingertips, it’s not something I feel too badly about missing out on. Actually, I’m glad I got a bit of a break. Lord knows I’ll need to save my energy for the new disconnection in my final semester of undergrad: planning my wedding.