Another check on the list: Sarah’s year of firsts

Sarah pulls out white bread, peanut butter, and jelly to make the lunch she’s had every day for the past five years. She puts the sandwich on a plate, places the knife in the sink. In her one-bedroom apartment off a tree-lined street in Chicago, we sit at her table as she lights two candles.

The flames of the candles dance off a framed photo of her first time in Ireland. In it, her choir friends are cheersing beers, celebrating their pilgrimage across the Catholic holy land. 

Sarah grew up in an Irish Catholic household with one responsibility: to get straight A’s. Throughout high school in rural Indiana, she was in 17 clubs—held the presidency of most—and graduated valedictorian. She excelled at school and “literal intelligence,” and acknowledges that when it comes to the antics of daily life, “I just never had to do anything for myself.”

Things didn’t change when she went to college. She lived on campus all four years at Notre Dame, which she attended on a full-tuition academic scholarship. About an hour drive from her childhood home, her parents visited once a month and brought with them her clean laundry, taking her dirty laundry home. Not that she couldn’t do it on her own, she just owns “more underwear than anyone in the world.” 

The count? Over 100 pairs.

Sarah has soft brown eyes and brown hair that she pulls back in a low bun with a twist on the left side. She keeps her nails cut short and doesn’t wear makeup. In bed most nights by 9 p.m, she’s up the next morning before sunrise. She’s “loud and mouthy,” with no self-esteem issues. “It’s almost pathological,” she says.

When Sarah graduated with honors from Notre Dame at 22-years-old, she had been in six clubs and, naturally, academically overachieved. She wrote for and was the humor editor of her school magazine. She studied abroad in London her junior year. She accepted a yearlong apprenticeship in Dublin. 

She excelled at everything school-related, yet missed out on what many students consider a crucial part of the college experience: Sarah never went on a date. “Not only did I not date,” Sarah says, “I had never kissed a boy when I graduated from college.” She had “many years-long, futile childhood crushes on mostly homosexual men.” That was it.

Back in her colorfully decorated apartment, Sarah pulls out the scrapbook she made from her time in Dublin and places it on the table. She smiles, causing her almond-shaped eyes to slightly squint and her round cheeks to rise — the contents inside hold the memories of her most formative year to date. 

She opens to the first page.
We enter into 2014:
her year of firsts. 

This year, her priorities shift. While succeeding at her apprenticeship is on her list of to-dos, living in a country across the world where she knows no one means one thing: “No one I know is going to accidentally pop up on Tinder and embarrass me.”

Day five in Ireland, Sarah meets Steve.

First #1: The date.

Sarah, despite hating the taste of beer, suggests a local craft beer bar because it’s “hip and cool.” Her roommate and neighbor go incognito, dress in all black, and stake out a table in the back of the bar to ensure the date unfolds amicably. Sarah enters the bar a few minutes later. She sees Steve and they grab their beers. Sarah, a Samuel Adams and Steve, a hipster-Irish man with a full, dark beard, a craft beer. They proceed “to have just the best date.” 

After hours of fun and easy conversation—and after her roommate and neighbor deem the date safe and wander home—Sarah and Steve walk across the street to a local music hangout and continue to laugh and talk. At night’s end, Steve walks Sarah home. They don’t kiss. In the morning, he unmatches her on Tinder and never reaches out again. Confused, yet unfazed, Sarah has “another date set up for Thursday with a different person.”

First #2: The kiss. 

It happens two weeks later at “a really gross club” that she “absolutely loves.” Name, unknown. Intoxication level, high. Sarah’s outfit: a black, banded skirt and leopard-print top. He approaches and starts dancing with her, pulls her to another part of the dance floor, and starts making out with her.

Sarah’s response? “Sure, okay, great. Check.”

First #3: The boyfriend.

Ciarán. He’s a sweet, kind, Irish boy who’s obsessed with American football and strums the guitar in a local gospel choir. He lives with his parents and is just as new to this whole dating thing as Sarah. He takes her to a late-night hot chocolate bar for their first date in October, they travel across the country together in January (where she loses her virginity—another check), and their relationship is as loving as it is fleeting. 

First #4: The breakup. 

One late January evening, Ciarán is unusually late for a date. He calls Sarah, which is one, out of character and two, something Sarah despises. Sarah answers to hear, “I can’t do this anymore.” That night, he deletes Sarah’s friendship and memories from Facebook and never speaks to her again. Sarah is “oddly unaffected by it,” and commemorates by going to the opening night of the Celtic Woman 10th anniversary tour with her roommate. (To her, the breakup is inevitable and simply another check on life’s lessons-list. She’s also spent her “whole life basically wanting to be a Celtic Woman.”)

Other mentionable firsts:

Balancing a checkbook with pencil and paper. Dancing alone at The George, a gay club, to celebrate Ireland becoming the first country to pass gay marriage with popular vote. Successfully doing her own laundry every two weeks. A Fourth of July party at the American ambassador’s residence. Making breakfast (Rice Krispies and an unfrosted cherry Poptart), lunch (a PB&J), and dinner (varies) every day for a year. A foxhunt.

Now, in 2019, Sarah finds herself embarking on another first at Medill School of Journalism, the highest-rated journalism school in the country. She’s surrounded by intellectuals and challenges and devotion she hasn’t experienced since high school. She carries the independence she developed from her time in Ireland and revolves her days around class, conversations, freelance work, and preparing herself for a formidable future. 

Harry Potter, Samantha Irby, and Ta-Nehisi Coates occupy her turquoise blue bookshelf while Vogue, Notre Dame Magazine, and Conde Nast Traveler lay displayed on the trunk that sits in the middle of her brightly colored living room. She pays her bills on time, packs lunch every day, and can’t quite figure out how to adjust the heat in her bedroom. 

She’s also been dating Michael for a year and a half, and if she lands a job in Chicago, they’ve talked about moving in together. If she doesn’t, well, Sarah says, “I don’t see the end of the relationship as a loss.” 

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