Despite my 18-year-old fears that attending Princeton meant that I would never get out of my home state of New Jersey, my Princeton career has taken me to many places I never expected to go: San Francisco, London, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro. But the most exotic place I have ended up on account of Princeton is Shelbina, Mo.
In May 2016, I received an email from one of my best friends from college, Raphael, asking me to be in his wedding in December. Because Raphael grew up in Santa Cruz and met his wife in Berkeley, I was expecting to fly out to some part of California for the wedding and indulge in a warm escape from wintry Boston. Instead, it would be hosted in the bride’s hometown, making the big day more convenient for her family members and more affordable for the couple.
To test the strength of a relationship (friend or otherwise), ask yourself how far you’d be willing to go to do something crazy for someone else. Jump off a cliff? Walk over hot coals? Eat a cockroach?
I don’t think I’d do any of the above for anyone, and for anyone else, I wouldn’t have made the trip to Shelbina. But this wasn’t just anyone. This was Raphael: the history major whose knowledge of pretty much everything but pop culture was encyclopedic. The amateur chef who joined me for countless early Saturday runs to Sam’s Club to pick up groceries for our co-op and humored me by watching Twilight: Breaking Dawn one winter before finals. The thin, pale-skinned boy with freckles and green eyes whose innocent appearance concealed the fact that he was an expert internet troll whose subversive wit and snark could always make me smile. The friend who saw me and supported me through my dumbest and darkest times at Princeton — and never ran away.
My Princeton career has taken me to many places I never expected to go: San Francisco, London, Beijing, Rio de Janeiro. But the most exotic place I have ended up on account of Princeton is Shelbina, Mo.
There was never really a question of whether I would be in his wedding and show up for Raphael. I booked my tickets and before I knew it, December arrived.
After two flights and three hours of driving in a car with strangers, I arrived in Shelbina. I grew up in an upper-middle-class, secular-Jewish household in New Jersey and live in the liberal womb of Boston, Mass., so this very Christian, very conservative, very traditional Midwestern town with just over 1,700 people felt like a foreign country.
This is what I remember from the weekend:
• Settling into the upstairs guest bedroom of the bride’s grandmother, whose house featured, on the walls, at least four real deer heads that her husband had shot.
• The rehearsal at the church, when the pastor asked, “Who is the best man?” and Raphael’s best man, Gabe, said, “I am.” The pastor then asked, “Who is the groomsman?” I said, “I am.” The Pastor, seeing a woman respond to the question, was immediately confused and attempted to conceal any feelings of shock, disgust, or surprise. (I wonder how he’d have reacted if he also knew I was Jewish).
• The rehearsal dinner, at a restaurant reminiscent of a T.G.I.Friday’s called Fiddlestiks. Because Fiddlestiks, compared to Shelbina, was in “civilization,” it was almost an hour’s drive away. Redownloading Tinder around dessert for the amusement of the wedding party, I showed that could have matched with one of the Fiddlestiks’ fry cooks.
• The morning of the wedding, getting my hair done with the bridesmaids in a garage-turned-salon with biblical quotations and “Jesus loves you”-esque artwork on the walls that I had never seen in a home, only on the shelves at TJ Maxx.
• The wedding photo shoot, which looks Victorian and effortless and glamorous, but was also in the middle of nowhere and freezing.
• The bride’s sister, studying Uighur and telling me all about her kittens.
• After the wedding, watching the bride, completely at ease in a silver dress, shoot pool in a dive bar, all of us drinking the alcohol that we weren’t allowed to have at the dry wedding.
• Most of all, the wedding itself, seeing this boy become more of an adult than I think I will ever be, marrying the woman he was clearly meant to be with for the rest of his life, and vice versa. Myself, recovering from a week-old broken heart at the time of the wedding, oscillating between feelings of despair that I could never find a love like that and feelings of hope that perhaps, I, too, could find a love like that.
The weekend was strange and wondrous in every way. But the strangest thing of all, stranger than anything in Shelbina was the feeling of growing up. We weren’t college kids anymore trying to figure out how to cook a meal for a co-op of 30 or survive finals or write a thesis. There were vows being made. Lives being spent together forever. And I was witnessing the first sign that, at our fifth reunion, which would come just a few months later, we would never be “going back” to Nassau Hall the same people.
I had traveled to Shelbina, for sure. He had traveled to an even more foreign land: adulthood. It’ll be some time before I travel there. For now, I’m content with wherever I am.
Erica Zendell ’12 is a tech product manager at SAP by day, aspiring author and public speaker by night. When not working with engineers and designers on new software or working on her own creative dreams, she trains Brazilian jiu-jitsu and judo. She lives in Boston — for now.