The envelope shook in Nandita’s hand. This was the moment. She had waited weeks for it to arrive. She turned the envelope over in her hands admiring the creamy expensive stationary and stroked her thumb over the return address. Princeton University.
The walls in this tiny bathroom loomed over her as if, they too, were standing by to watch her future appear before her in glorious technicolor. Finally! Her acceptance letter. This envelope was her destiny, the future she alone had engineered. There was no Plan B.
She tucked her finger under the corner of the envelope flap and was tugging at the sealed closure when there was a thundering knock on the door and her friend Sally’s muffled voice reached her ears.
“Oh no, you don’t! Let me in!”
Nandita sighed. Sally couldn’t stand it if you left her out of anything. She eased the bathroom door open about four inches, and Sally forced herself through the narrow gap into the bathroom. Nandita caught a quick glimpse of the eager and anxious faces in the living room.
Today she had graduated from Rutgers, and her family and friends had gathered for a small celebratory dinner in the Hoboken loft where her friend Sally lived with her husband, Tod. The celebrations had come to a jarring halt when her older brother, Satish, had arrived clutching this very envelope in his hands.
“My apologies Nandita, I opened the mailbox by accident.” He said. Both Satish and his fiancee, Claire, were under strict instructions not to check the mailbox at their cozy townhouse on Sinatra Drive where they all lived together. Nandita had wanted to be the first to have this door to her future in her dainty hands. Satish had passed her the envelope; she had fled to the bathroom.
Now she slammed the bathroom door shut and turned to Sally, who had perched on the edge of the closed toilet seat.
“Well?” Sally asked.
“How am I supposed to know I haven’t opened it yet.” The shake in her voice irritated her. She was as confident and 'in control' as always. Wasn’t she?
“What are you waiting for Nan? Let’s go!” Sally grinned and reached out to grip her forearm making her wince.
“I need the functionality of my arms to open this envelope, Sally. That’s not helping.”
“Sorry’” Sally withdrew her hand “I’m just so excited for you!”
She didn’t look excited. She looked petrified. Nandita surprised herself as tears rushed to her eyes. “I wasn’t even nervous until now Sal. I just assumed I would get in. What if I don’t. What then?”
“You will. Just open it.”
Sally was the best friend of her her older brother’s fiancee, Claire, but over the last four years, she had become Nandita's rock. After a tumultuous "escape" from her country of birth and a disastrous first year in the United States, she realized that if she wanted to reach her goals she had to renew her focus. She had sworn off friends, men, and fun so she could dedicate herself to her dreams and plans. It was Sally who had stepped in to fill the gap. If you were in Sally’s company, it was impossible to be sad or lonely.
She shook the thoughts of the past from her head. She would focus on the future, and the future was here, in her hands. She had spent her Undergraduate years at Rutgers preparing for this moment, taking the right classes, going to the right lectures, working her backside off in the right internships. A Masters in Architecture from Princeton was her dream.
The loud tapping of Sally's foot brought Nandita back into the present. One glance at her strained face and Nandita could tell she was as scared as she was.
“Okay,” She slid her finger under the flap of the envelope and pulled. There was a loud rip. Nandita panicked and dropped the open envelope into her lap. They both gawked at it.
“Well come on Nan. You’re killing me.” There was a second of hesitation, and then Sally grabbed the envelope. She unfolded the single sheet of paper with care, gave Nandita a reassuring smile, and read. “Thank you for your application to the Princeton University School of Architecture. We regret to inform you…”
Sally stuttered to a stop, and Nandita felt her heart seize up in her chest. The bathroom went deadly silent until she found her voice. It came out in a strangled whisper. “What?”
Her friend looked up from the letter with panic in her eyes. “Oh, Nan. I’m so sorry.”
Sally moved toward her and wrapped her in her arms, but she didn’t even register the hug.
This could not be happening. Sally had misunderstood. “Wait, what? What does it say?”
“You didn’t get in Nan. It says they've rejected your application.”
She shook her head firmly. “This is not a funny joke Sal! Not funny this time.”
Nandita snatched the letter from Sally’s hands and glanced down, the words ‘we can not accept you at this time' leapt from the page. She looked up at a tearful Sally. “But how?” She looked down at the letter again, she had read it wrong, but there it was, the dreaded word, ‘rejected.' “How can this be? I did everything right?”
They heard a soft knock, and a smiling Claire poked her head through the door. “Can I join the celebra…” Her sentence trailed away as she caught sight of Sally who, with a complete lack of subtlety, was shaking her head vigorously.
Claire’s soft, sweet voice was the last straw; she burst into tears. Claire squeezed into the room and pulled Nandita into a hug. Sally stood and reached her arms wide around both of them. They stood there for a few minutes, Nandita as silent and unmoving as a statue while Sally sent Claire frantic, “what do we do now?” looks. Nandita burst into tears. Sally started to rock their little cluster gently. There was another timid knock on the door.
“Oh for goodness sake, Maureen come in!” Nandita couldn’t help the giggle that escaped through her tears. It was such a farce, all of them crammed into this tiny powder room.
Maureen, another of Claire’s best friends, squeezed in and stretched her arms as wide as she could around the group hug and joined in the gentle rocking. “I’m assuming we're not celebrating.” She said as she reached with an awkward lunge over the group hug and wiped tears from Nandita’s face with her thumb.
“No - we are not,” Nandita said. The mob had pushed her back tightly against the porcelain sink, and she felt a stab of pain in her hip but dismissed it. She had bigger problems to deal with. Through her tears, she could just make out three sets of concerned eyes staring at her. “What did I do it all for?" She asked them. "This past four years? No friends. No men. No parties. No life.”
“You have a life Nan. And you have friends. You have us!” Sally tried to reach over to pat Nandita’s shoulder but ended up whacking Claire in the nose.
“Ouch Sally!” Claire raised her hand to rub her nose and poked Maureen in the eye.
“Sally!” Maureen said bringing the heel of her hand to her watering eye.
“Me?” Sally said. “That wasn’t my hand that was Claire’s! Nice.” Sally tried to step back from the group hug and slammed her calf hard into the toilet seat. “Fudge!” She said and hopped on her other leg, gripping hard onto the shoulders of Maureen and Claire, who both yelled and tried to push her off.
Nandita’s tears didn’t stop, but she couldn’t help chuckling. These were her big sisters. Her family. What would she do without them? “I think we should leave this bathroom before someone gets killed.”
Maureen leaned on the door handle, and the group tumbled out of the cramped space, stumbling over each other and swearing. Nandita waited until they were all out and then grabbed the bathroom door and swung it closed. She needed a minute alone.
She picked up the letter from where it had fallen to the floor. It shook in her hands. How was it possible that ten lines of written text could change a person’s life in an instant? Where did she go from here? She was unmoored, with none of the satisfying sense of control that had become the hallmark of the way she lived her life. Nandita decided she would do something, and she made it happen. She was in control.
But not anymore.
Nandita crumpled up the letter in her hands and dropped it into the wastebasket at her feet. She stared at the crumpled paper for a few more minutes and then gave the basket a swift and violent kick. This moment was the single most horrible moment of her entire life. Well, at least she knew what rock-bottom looked like. It couldn’t get any worse than this. Could it?