Fifteen years ago today, I turned 25. On the same day, I defended my master’s thesis. A few days later, I got on a plane for Moscow, en route to a summer in Tver, which I knew would be followed very shortly by at least a year in the UK for more grad school. It was one of the points in your life that you remember as a temporal landmark in later years; I think of every event in my adult life as either before the summer of 1998, or after it.During the two years of my MS, I was in a disastrous relationship with a guy who was depressed, unstable, and not at all in love with me. Instead of recognizing this and getting as far away as possible, I devoted more and more time and energy to fixing him (why are we so dumb? Why?), to the point where I suddenly realized in early April that I had not written the master’s thesis that had to be done and defended by the end of May, when I had that plane ticket to Moscow. I wrote my thesis in four weeks, fueled by Milk Duds and Diet Coke.
That same semester, my friend Cecilia was wrapping up her music degree, getting ready for her performance recital, and planning a cross-country move to start a PhD in a different field. It wasn’t an easy decision and it wasn’t an easy time for either of us. We were leaving behind lives were knew weren’t on the right path; we were leaving our friends and our familiar worlds and heading off, both of us really on our own, to do something totally different. I knew, deep down, that the relationship I was in, the one I once thought would last a lifetime, was about to end; she was taking a decisive step off the path she’d been on since she was three. We both knew we were making the right decision, but it was so hard. Neither of us were feeling very happy about any of it.
All through that year, whenever the boyfriend was more angst-ridden than usual or I just felt like I couldn’t deal, I would email Cecilia—sometimes at 3 PM on a Friday—and say, can I come visit? The next Greyhound is in an hour and a half. And I’d get on the two-hour bus and go visit, and we’d knit and watch bad TV and eat pizza and talk about nothing for hours, sometimes all night. It was more than an escape hatch; it was more like the valve on a pressure cooker. I’d stay for a day or a day and a half and then I’d take the bus back to reality.
I don’t remember exactly how the discussion started, or on which late night, but at some point we started talking about qiviut. Qiviut, in case you don’t know, is the fiber of the musk ox, made into insanely expensive yarn. Neither of us could possibly hope to afford it, and we thought about how really, all one would need to support oneself—no degree required—was a musk ox. We thought, hmm, we could forget the whole academic thing and we could open a musk ox ranch! Maybe in Canada, or in Australia. And after a while we decided that if things really didn’t work out, if we both still hated our lives in fifteen years, we’d throw it all up and open a musk ox ranch together. On my fortieth birthday, fifteen years to the day after my thesis defense. I wrote the date into the acknowledgments section of my thesis: May 19, 2013.
It seemed so impossibly far away.
It is, of course, today. In a few hours, to mark the occasion, we’re going to Skype. She’s a ten-hour time difference away, so it’ll be morning for her and late at night for me; we’re going to knit and eat pizza and drink Diet Coke together, and complain that we don’t have any short circular size 6s. We’ll wonder where lost scissors go, and we’ll ask to borrow each other’s tapestry needles. And we probably won’t talk about anything too heavy, because we never do. We won’t talk about the twists our lives have taken, or how we both got to where we are—places we never thought we’d be, but good places, all things considered. We know we made the right decisions, fifteen years ago. Hard, but right. And so, if you’ll excuse me, I have some Diet Coke to chill, and some knitting to do.Happy Musk Ox Day.