What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
-Robert Hayden, “Those Winter Sundays”
In three weeks time, I will graduate from college and join the ranks of those mythical creatures, Adults. I imagine that it will be anticlimactic. It will be too hot; I will have to pee; at the crucial moment, I will be attentive to the wrong things, and when I think back to the ceremony (rows of seats, perspiration) I will visualize something completely irrelevant: my hands clasped tightly in my lap, snatches of a song I cannot identify. (My high school graduation was too hot.)
At the edge of the stage I will feel a heavy paucity in the pit of my stomach because I will have skipped breakfast, allowing the damp urgency of momentary nausea to win out over the certainty that later I’ll wish I had eaten. The weight of my hunger will hang around my neck. Before that, stepping out of the shower, I will feel my body come up against a wall of cold: a border.
A week before any of this, I will find myself sitting in Novack between the hours of 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., alternately staring blankly at my computer screen in a posture of despair and typing the frantic sentences that gather for at least short stretches of time their own desperate momentum. Inspiration, or whatever it is that carries a paper from its 10 p.m. inception to its 6 a.m. completion, always comes in brief bursts. I will be writing about Thomas Kuhn, and, dazed by too much coffee and the first hint of an unexpected sunrise (light and happiness are inconceivable from within the confines of late-night Novack), I will think that the paper-writing process is non-linear in much the same way that scientific progress is non-linear, that it comprises a series of starts and stops, ruptures and reunions, until, very suddenly, imperceptibly, it has become exactly what it is, something turn-in-able, something complete.
Throughout the course of the night I will encounter a constant succession of acquaintances—visitors from the 1902 Room in search of hot pockets or a bathroom, my best friend wanting to show me a paper he found that contains a shockingly silly pun about homo sacer and Saki bombs (homo sacer bombs, homo sacer mom, ha ha ha); someone I know tangentially who stops by to tell me that my Facebook status was funny, he enjoyed it; my friend who works at Novack, refilling my fourth cup of coffee, heavy on the soy milk; that girl from my geography class whom I’ve always vaguely wanted to befriend; a frantic text, “you gotta give me a crash course on Levinas’ views on subjectivity because this shit is confusing and I don’t have time” [sic]; my study companion looking up from a stack of secondary literature on Elizabeth Bishop to comment, every so often, on something entirely unrelated.
Through my exhaustion I will sense out the vague outlines of something the way I discern the contours of my room in the dark, knowing and not knowing all at once where I am in relation to the dresser, the desk, the door. The walls. I will feel that I am somehow engaged in a constant conversation, a dialogue rooted in a common context, a shared project, something not just abstractly universal like love or justice but concretely universal like EBAs and lukewarm coffee congealing at 5 a.m. The disgusting things we ate when Game of Thrones premiered. The Monday when you cried. I will know that when I wake up to 16 texts—dude, are we still on for lunch? Are you alive?—and 30 messages in the GroupMe—Anyone in the libs? I have a table in Sherman—that here, in this space populated by paper writers and exam takers as frazzled and despairing as I am, there is no room for any of us to fall through the cracks. We are too much constituted by each other, too much dependent on the mutually supporting network of which we are a part. I picture us bound to each other like a game of Jenga, threatening to tumble down at the slightest disturbance. This feeling, so difficult to acknowledge because it is in some contingent on apparent normalcy, by its having become natural, is comforting, quieting, an early Sunday morning with a big cup of tea. A friend across the table hours before her thesis is due, wiping a stray hair off her forehead, eyes widening behind her oversized glasses. 15 minutes until Lou’s. Maybe this is what all that the unapologetically pro-Dartmouth missives that I have always read with a tinge of skepticism and distaste mean by community.
Much later, after graduation, at dinner, I will capitalize on my parents’ generosity, order more food than I can comfortably finish, and finish it all anyway. Two appetizers and two desserts and an entrée drenched in heavy cream, carbohydrate-heavy. I tend to err on the side of over-fullness, of taking too much away.
I am not in denial so much as I suffer from a lack of imagination. A world so far beyond the one that’s so immediate is unthinkable. Slowly I become aware of Dartmouth the way I become aware of the way my house smells—the way I become aware that I am, unbeknownst to me, already in some way aware of the way my house smells—only when I enter it after a period of absence, of removal.
It suddenly strikes me (now, then) that I will miss this. Green print never working. Knowing what “grim” means, the whole semiotics of “grim,” “grim” scenes you don’t want to frequent and “grimbos” you don’t want to make out with. Recognizing this sofa as the sofa where I took an accidental nap that yielded an impressively mortifying puddle of drool. Knowing that I have relationships with these objects now, this table, this armchair. I’m terrified, suddenly, of the world where this isn’t true.
Strangely, one of my favorite moments of college, if only because it encapsulated so much, if only because its apparent simplicity and familiarity and required so many years of precedent, was trying and failing to remove my best friend’s splinter in One Wheelock. The Internet recommended that we slather it with baking soda, which we did, not knowing any better. It was ridiculous, my best friend sitting there at 1:30 am nursing the splinter he had incurred in his sculpture class, a major requirement he’d put off until his final term, me steeling myself for the task of splinter removal, the baking soda paste frothing obliviously in a paper cup stolen from LNC.
In the background were the faint strains of the Motown Pandora station we’d half-ironically but mostly seriously selected the day before, largely a reactionary move, a response to the unbearable station that had dared to play a soft rock cover of Pachelbel’s Canon. Everyone was neglecting their research into secondary literature on Elizabeth Bishop or science-as-literature (or whatever) in order to distract my best friend at the crucial moment, when I knelt over him with the tweezers, feeling I was performing a religious rite, crossing an inflexible threshold.
He was worrying aloud about his unfinished thesis and that boy he’d ill-advisedly kissed. I was happy in a strange way, an almost unenjoyable way. We were all playing grown-up, but this made us accountable to each other. I couldn’t remove the splinter but my promise that it would be alright became a prophecy. It would be alright. Will it?
Not all love is unlearned, unproblematic. I have amassed a collection of irritated friends’ sweatshirts because I always dress for yesterday’s weather, knowing they’ll give me more sweatshirts, as many sweatshirts as I need, no matter how often I need them. I have taught myself to expect their forgiveness. The apparent simplicity of thoughtful gesture is deceptive.
This love, my first real love, is the product of sustained conflict with all the things that I hated. This love is born out of the combination of dreary realism and four years of nowhere else to go, of constant confrontation, of dogged determination. The camaraderie of 4 a.m. coffee and sushi gone stale, watching the sunrise out of the Novak windows. Despairing of finishing that paper, finishing it anyway.
I have grappled with these people and this place until, imperceptibly, their foreignness was neutralized and they became a home to me, something instinctive, something traversed so intuitively that coming up against it even banally is a kind of comfort, like navigating the nighttime landscape of a familiar room. The shape of his hands around the tea. The pitch of her excited voice. How something seems so different about sleeping forms you love, so infantile, fingers curled and mouths slack without a trace of resistance. How love is strange, sometimes, and so unwilling.
My freshman summer, I left my salad unattended for half an hour in Baker Lobby, and by the time I came back someone had picked all the tomatoes out of it. I don’t know what to say about this except that it happened and I can’t explain it and I don’t want to forget it. It seems too strange, too wonderful.