This essay was selected as the 2nd place submission from Street's Love Issue personal narrative contest. Read some of our other favorite pieces here and look out for new pieces as we publish them throughout the week!
If you’re happy at Penn, you must be stupid. I said it.
I wanted to date smart and happy people, but they didn't exist at Penn, or anywhere. I did not admit this to myself for a while. My belief was suppressed, but emerged as most of my personal revelations do: off of Penn’s campus.
After taking a summer class and working at a marketing firm in Philly, I left for six weeks with more or less a plan. I had a flight to Europe. I wasn’t setting out to find myself because I had already completed résumé–worthy material and hooked up with a guy that I could see myself being with at Penn. Leaving was a reward for accomplishing some serious adulting, not an escape.
I landed in Bulgaria’s capital and into the arms of a friend and fellow Quaker. We debriefed about new love and old flames as we drove to her family’s house in Greece and then left to party in Stockholm. We stayed out all night until she flew to Oslo for an architecture program. I left for Copenhagen to work unpaid. Touching down with the mother of all hangovers, I opened Google Maps to find out where I was working for the next three weeks. I’d taken an unpaid job on Drejø, a Danish island that I assumed was near Copenhagen. It was not. Two trains, two buses, and a ferry ride later, I arrived. With a dead phone and 20 minutes of daylight left, I walked down the sole road on the island. I didn’t have a phone number for my boss, Beth, but I wrote down the name of her cafe that I’d be waitressing in: Gammel Elmegaard.
The road forked. I chose the right arm and approached two visibly drunk Danes eating outside a combined restaurant and grocery store. I apologized for my American–ness and asked if they knew a Beth. They spoke only Danish and were clearly unamused. I retreated, but caught the eye of a tallish man, jocular, skin like lemon sorbet, nonchalantly flipping burgers, pretending not to smirk while watching me interact with the town drunks. Suddenly, a middle–aged woman with a bowl cut and Levis took both my hands and said, “I know where you need to go. You’re in the right place.”
Anne Brigitte, as I later learned her name, was right; I was in the right place. Beth welcomed me as a daughter, just like everyone on the island did for Drejø’s party week of community events. At the Gammel Elmegaard Annual Craft Fair a few days later, I saw the blonde boy. He showed up with the rest of Drejø’s 80 inhabitants. Ogling from the cafe window, I watched him chat up the older folk. My co–workers insisted that I make plans tonight with him.
Usually blasé around potential suitors, I stumbled on my words, flushed. I’d talked my way in and out of people’s lives, but now I was nervous. He wasn’t. He was happy and brilliant, an impossible mix. Two years at college and endless firsthand accounts from friends at other schools had taught me that no such combination exists. The conversation was more a series of hand gestures from me and listening from him. I didn't have to make plans with him because he stayed at the fair until my shift was over. That night, I texted friends that I’d found the nicest man to just hook up with, joking that he could never be as smart or as kind as he seemed.
We talked about welfare economics and whether marriage was obsolete. The second night he slept over, I asked if he’d been in love. Unfazed, he replied, “No.” There was a longtime friend who he had never shared a physical relationship with, whom he could imagine himself living with and loving forever. I reciprocated the same honesty in responding to his questions. We made an agreement to withhold nothing. I threw away the postcard that I wrote to my ex and skinny–dipped with the new man.
I kept finding more of myself to share with him. He challenged my presumptions and the love I’d come to define at Penn. I found myself admitting to him that if a person is happy they must be stupid. He laughed heartily, and smiled into my shoulder, “No, elskling.”
Not often alone since meeting him, I carved out time for myself to journal about these sickening personal revelations, knowing I’d let myself deaden and become jaded since freshman year.
The following night we had a proper amount of local beer with my co–workers and played a game. I pulled out an English dictionary that we passed around, asking for certain page numbers and entries based on lucky numbers or important dates. When I asked him to read the word corresponding to the night I arrived on Drejø, he shuffled through the pages, grinned, and read, “fortunateness.”
I had laid it all out on the line on Drejø, and frankly, I only had dirty laundry; I was more of a mess than I’d admitted to myself. He could tell I was processing my last year and didn't care. I felt like I had baggage, but he assured me that what I had was a lot of stories. We talked all night, worked all day, and suddenly we had our last 24 hours together. We cooked three square meals, lay in wheat fields, and ate plums off his mom’s trees. Suddenly I found myself weepy and waiting for the ferry. In keeping with our disclosure agreement, I blurted out, “I fell in love with you here.” He replied, “I love you, too.”
Placing the breakfast he packed for me into my hands, he explained that we had to see each other again, as if I needed convincing. I agreed. Over shoddy wifi, I pushed my flight from Europe back and met up with him in Vienna for a week. This fall, he visited me at Penn, where he met my friend that I went to Stockholm with. Over spring break, we’re meeting up with her in London before going back to Copenhagen.
We leave each other voice memos and FaceTime weekly. I don’t call him my boyfriend because he’s an ocean away, but I love him. He knows it.
In returning to Penn, I realized my belief that you must be stupid to be happy here was false and an expression of my own insecurities. The fortunateness of last summer was not a result of luck, but rather, of being wholly candid and present with another person, first platonically and then romantically. Realizing that I was willing to share a bed and secret stories with a total stranger was a wake up call to my own callousness. I accessed the interpersonal sublime, better known as love, with honesty and trust. It’s the same truthfulness and confidence I am attempting to continue sharing at Penn.
Abigail McGuckin is a junior from Radnor, Pennsylvania.