Expectations is a short story focusing on the pressures women feel when choosing what to do with their life. Sometimes, the people who only want us to reach our full potential inadvertently place a new strain on us. This piece is a reminder that a woman's best path to follow is the one that fulfils her, not the expectations of others.
Tony slammed the acceptance letter down on the table next to him, making no effort to hide the betrayal on his face that Piper had been trying to put off. “Dartmouth?” he asked in disbelief, “You applied there? You told me you weren’t going to, you said Albuquerque was your home. When did that change?”
Piper shifted her weight back and forth between her feet, finding herself unable to meet his gaze. “Nothing has changed, Albuquerque is my home. You know that better than anyone.”
“I’m not sure I do,” he snapped, “because last I checked you were excited to join me at UNM. We’ve been talking about it for months. You got accepted ages ago, wasn’t it early action for God’s sake? You told me you decided months ago, Piper.”
She felt herself shrink down more with every word, and kept her arms tightly crossed. “It started out just seeing if I could get in, I had the grades and it would be such an amazing opportunity, it didn’t mean anything-”
“You don’t just apply to an Ivy League on a whim,” Tony cut in flatly. “There’s the application, the essays, the transcripts, the recommendation letters, probably an interview, I don’t know, but it’s a process. One you’re familiar with now apparently.”
“I mean I saw that I met most of the requirements and like I’ve been telling you, I’d be fine going to the University of New Mexico I just thought-,” she began.
“Oh, I’m glad you’re fine with it. Guess I should just be thankful it made Piper Johnson’s list.” Tony wasn’t facing her anymore. Her hazel eyes craved the gaze of his familiar brown ones.
“Tony, stop! I just mean Dartmouth is a different ballgame, it would be an incredible opportunity. I didn’t think I’d even get in. I just kind of figured, it’s worth a shot. I would always have wondered. That’s all.”
“Stop it, Piper. You’re a shoo-in. You’ve been top of our class since kindergarten, no one has stood a chance of catching up. I don’t know what Dartmouth’s acceptance rate is but-”
“The acceptance rate is ten percent,” Piper repeated.
Tony’s eyes remained downcast, but half a smile emerged on his face. “Ten percent. Wow, Pipes. Ten percent.”
With tears in her eyes she took a step towards him, but just as quickly his grin became a grimace.
It was August, and Piper and Tony were too young to be worrying about college just yet. Tony had already started partying away his senior year and Piper was perfecting her study schedule a grade below him. Tonight, however, was just for the two of them.
Piper breathed in the evening air, listening to the music from the band float above the trees. She noticed her footsteps kept time to the acoustic guitar’s upbeat strums as they walked around Old Town Albuquerque. A soft, flickering glow came from lanterns that hung from the gazebo and the trees. Tony’s thumb absentmindedly traced her own as they walked through the Plaza Square. It was crowded tonight, with families laughing and chasing after little ones every which way. The whole town seemed to have gathered in the square, enjoying the coolest night so far of an unbearably hot summer. Every light breeze swayed the branches above them, tousling Tony’s curls and bringing the sweet smells of the festival. She could still feel the desert’s heat on the nape of her neck and shoulders, but with the sun’s setting came a slight temperature drop.
“Something smells amazing,” said Tony.
“No way,” laughed Piper, “We literally just ate like a half hour ago tops!”
Tony flashed a snarky grin at her. “I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: time is a human construct and does not affect my appetite.”
“Tony.” Piper groaned and rolled her eyes with a smile. “You always do this! We even got dessert tonight! There is absolutely no reason to get anything else to eat.”
“I’m just saying…” Tony began, ready for their usual after-dinner banter.
Piper, however, was checking her phone. She saw a text from her mom that read, “Got library book you needed for essay. On kitchen table.” She began to type a quick reply when Tony put a hand on the small of her back.
“Don’t tell me you’re already leaving,” he said, “It’s not even late.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I have an essay I need to get started on,” Piper answered.
“That one over The Awakening? It’s not due for a week.”
“I have to get to work on it, can’t risk falling behind. Besides the AP Lang test is supposed to be really hard-”
“Come on, school just started.” Tony’s brows furrowed as he tried to convince her. “Really, who would you rather go on a date with, me or this Chopin author dude?”
Piper put her arms around his waist and looked up to meet his eyes. “Well I’m not sure I’m her type, but you’d have her beat if it’s any consolation. Although I wouldn’t really be doing her justice if I picked a boy over my studies right now.”
Tony’s serious expression didn’t change. The flickering light from the lanterns created odd shadows on his tan face. “C’mon Pipes,” he said gently, “I know how important school is to you, I’m all for it. It’s such a perfect night though and we haven’t even met up with your friends yet! You could use more nights like these.”
Piper bit her lip, fighting the urge to give in and spend the night laughing and dancing with Tony and her friends. As she gave his hand a squeeze, she felt the scar on the side of his index finger. For a half a second she was back at that Fourth of July when they were kids, and Tony lost his grip on a sparkler.
“Please Pipes? Just an hour longer, we can catch up with Derek and Bailey. I think I saw Marissa and her sister up there too!”
His voice brought her back. “I’m sorry, you know I’d rather be here with you, but school has to come first. That’s just how it works, it’s what I do.”
Tony gave half a smile and pulled her into a hug. “Then you gotta do what you gotta do. Don’t worry about it. I’ll walk you home.”
“I love you,” Piper told him with a small smile when they separated.
“I love you too,” he said as he put his arm around her shoulders, although Piper sensed something had shifted between them.
The music was taunting as they left the square, calling them back to continue enjoying the cool summer night.
“Just forget about it,” Piper said, “you weren’t even supposed to see that acceptance letter.”
“Yeah that was pretty obvious, what with it being shoved behind the coffee pot and all.” Tony was pinching the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger, his eyes closed. “When were you going to tell me? Were you going to enrol in classes? Sign up for a dorm? When was I supposed to find out my girlfriend wasn’t at college with me like we planned?”
“I guess I kept waiting for the right time to make it easier, but there’s no easy way to tell you all of this.” Piper paused a minute before continuing further. Tears began to well up in her eyes. “It’s just...It’s just that I’ve worked so hard my whole life because that’s what you’re supposed to do right? From day one your parents and teachers are already ingraining that college idea into you. Next, it’s middle school and you’re being told to start thinking about college and to take pre-AP courses despite the fact that you don’t even have a cell phone yet. And high school for God’s sake is one big college recruit with everyone suddenly scrambling to get a good class rank and to fit as many AP courses into their schedule as possible, while still making time for extracurriculars of course, but you also have to find time to volunteer or to take a life-changing trip or something so you have a good college essay and then there’s the whole ACT thing because apparently a two digit number is enough to determine scholarships and there’s no time to party or meet people because CEOs don’t become CEOs if any troubling pictures pop up when your name is Googled especially for women and that’s only if you’re able to go to a good college in the first place-”
“I get the whole college thing Piper, stop and breathe” Tony interrupted, “I understand how hard you’ve worked, I get it, but why across the country? Why do that to us? I know how important school is to you, but we’ve had a plan for like a year now. You said you were going to join me at UNM. We could go on study dates and go to football games and homecoming and make memories together Pipes. Wasn’t it you who came up with it in the beginning?”
She heard the pain in his voice and struggled to keep her voice steady. “How could I turn down an Ivy League? How could I pass on an opportunity like that? Getting into UNM was no issue at all. I felt excited to get accepted, but not particularly accomplished. I just pulled up Dartmouth’s requirements on a whim one day during the fall and then I couldn’t put it out of my head, I had to see if I made it. I’ve worked so hard. I gave up so many dates, birthday parties, times with friends, and even just restful nights of sleep. I couldn’t let that all have been for nothing. There isn’t anything I want more than to go to college with you and start our real life together, but I can’t if Dartmouth is on the table. I just can’t.”
Tony met her gaze, his own eyes getting misty now. They stood with a gap between them, suddenly two strangers facing each other in unfamiliar territory. Piper had imagined this conversation dozens of times in recent weeks, but never could have known how painful it would be. She had been hoping to explain all this to him calmly, even professionally. At this moment however, she saw it was impossible to deliver the news in any other way than full of pain and distance.
“I don’t want to blame you or myself one day because I chose the wrong path,” Piper explained, half-crying. “I don’t want to wake up one day with an unfulfilling job and come home to kiss you on the cheek while deep down resenting you for holding me back. I don’t want to get so stuck in my dull, routine life that one day when I’m picking my kids up from soccer practice after a long day with the that same unfulfilling job, I look around and finally snap out of it all. I don’t want to live a life full of regret. That’s what all our parents are warning us about right? What they’ve ingrained in us since middle school? Make smart choices so you don’t regret them later. And giving up an Ivy League for a boy, you’re not supposed to do that. That’s not a smart choice.”
His expression was impassive other than the tears silently falling down his face. “I’m not just some boy. It’s me, Tony. We’ve been dating for three years. Piper, you mean everything to me. You were my best friend growing up, you’re my best friend now. You are my home and I can feel that I’m yours. If this is what you really want then I won’t stand in your way, but it sounds like you feel you have to do this. If this is your dream, then you have my support 100 percent. But Pipes, you’re talking like you feel backed into a corner. You are a brilliant, hard-working woman and you will thrive wherever you land. If leaving home and moving across the country is something you feel like you have to do, that’s not ambition. That’s you fulfilling expectations of society, of this town, of your family, of yourself. Don’t leave for anyone but yourself and don’t stay for anyone but yourself. Look, I can understand why you applied, and even why you lied about it, but how can you leave?”
“They offered me a good amount of financial aid a while ago. It’s almost a full ride.” She knew that wasn’t what he meant, but it was the best she could offer.
“And are you going to take it?”
It was the night before, or rather the morning of, Piper’s junior year prom. This, however, was the last thing on her mind. It was 2:30 a.m. and it felt like the whole world was crashing down on her. She had been taking practice test after practice test since dinner time in studying for her AP Biology test, and couldn’t seem to get a consistent passing score. Her essential oil diffuser filled the room with a lemongrass scent, soft classical music played in the background, and she even took a quick snack break around midnight. None of these seemed to be helping her sweaty palms, pounding heart, and upset stoma
Her phone buzzed with a text from Tony, “So no goodnight text?”
She replied, “Sorry, I’m still up studying. Can’t seem to get two passing scores in a row for bio.”
“???,” Tony sent back, followed with the message, “Piper it’s the night before prom, you need sleep.”
With her ears slightly ringing, she texted back, “I need to get at least two passing scores in a row to be sure I can pass that test.”
“Forcing yourself to pull an all-nighter to do a million practice tests isn’t going to get you the best results.”
She could see he didn’t understand. “I have to pass this test, Tony.”
“Well, tonight isn’t the night to do it. Go to bed babe.”
“I’ve been studying for this all year, and now I’ve gotten three failing scores on a practice test in a row. That does not happen!” she texted furiously.
Not even ten seconds passed before her phone started ringing, showing Tony was calling her. She picked up immediately.
“What?” she snapped at him. He didn’t answer right away, and in that pause she heard just how hard she was breathing.
“What’s going on, Pipes?” he asked calmly.
She stepped away from her desk and sank down onto her bed. Her hands were shaking, and she tried to take some deep breaths to calm down. “I’m a little anxious about this test and it’s getting to me I think.”
“You need some sleep Piper. You’re going to make yourself sick with worrying. You’re failing because you’re taking AP practice tests in the middle of the night. You’re the smartest girl in Albuquerque and you’re going to do better than pass that test, but tonight, you need sleep. I promise the day after prom I’ll quiz you and everything, but just rest tonight, babe. Sound good?”
Piper closed her eyes and took a deep breath. He was right as usual, even as sleepy as he sounded. “Sounds perfect. I love you so much.”
“I love you too. Now get some rest. You’re gonna need it to keep up with me on the dance floor tomorrow.”
“Well?” Tony asked, “Are you going to take it? Just tell me, Piper.” His dark curls were frizzy from running his hands through them all night, and the brown eyes she loved so much were red and puffy from crying. Piper gave in to all of it and just said, “I accepted it about a week ago.”
He closed his eyes for nearly an entire minute. When he opened them, his face was stoic. “So that’s it then? That’s it for us? You’re just moving to Vermont?”
“New Hampshire,” she practically whispered, feeling stunned herself.
Tony shot up, grabbed his jacket and bolted out the door without another word. Piper sank down onto the floor.
Nearly done with her second semester, Piper had learned to like Dartmouth, sort of. The snow was beautiful, but the long, cold New Hampshire winters made her miss the deserts she grew up with, with its heat and seemingly never ending landscape of mountains and canyons, something her new friends couldn’t wrap their heads around. These friends were good people who she had fun with, but to no fault of their own, they never fully understood Piper and her roots. She simply wasn’t home. Her classes were stimulating, interesting, and above all, challenging. She liked her new life, but sometimes when she studied through the night just to keep up with her homework, it felt like her life wasn’t so different from Albuquerque, other than being dishearteningly colder. And lonelier. And missing someone very important. Someone who was out there, someone she had left behind. While the snow tapped against the window of her cinder block dorm on these nights, as much as it killed her to admit, a bit of regret crept in. She would look at the small cactus sitting on her bedside table, which was slowly turning grey, and start to resent the scholarship that brought her here.
She had given up a part of herself, and for what? She was unfulfilled.