I Woke to Total Darkness

I woke to total darkness and the warm hum of the fire. It was my second Spring Break in America, and as I shuffled out of my borrowed sleeping bag, pushing aside my borrowed Hemingway, I stole a soft breath, held it, my lips sealed, trying my best not to make a sound (and failing stridently); and immoral winter cold crept under my skin.

I crawled to the lip of the loft where I had slept alone, sat up, my legs dangling over the edge, and looked down at the sparsely furnished room below. Lonely moonlight poured into the heart of the cabin, searching for company, and spilled over the scattered deck of cards which Connor had taught me to shuffle; the precious half-empty cans of Keystone which Garrett had disapproved of me stealing; and the red Solo cups, each standing loyally in formation on the old wooden table that had seen more than any of us could imagine. The Great Bear Cabin groaned as I laboured down the flaking ligneous ladder. Over the last three days we had spent in that cabin, this had been the hardest and scariest part of each one  – one of my many newfound, first-world problems; man versus dodgy man-made furnishing. It was a battle of wits, a shameful war waged in silence. I was suddenly relieved that the two other people in the cabin were asleep. As it were, I needed some alone time with the woods. 

Landing gently, the plank floor supplely gave way. I scanned the ground for my glasses, and sighed with relief as I found them far away from the fire stove, not unlike the stove that claimed the life of an older, fallen pair of specs. I remembered Connor’s face, even more smug than usual when he woke me that morning, long before the dark days of prohibition, the smell of vodka heavy on our breaths: “The bad news is, you’re an idiot who left his glasses and phone on top of a literally flaming-hot stove, and they’ve both melted.” And the good news, I asked. “Oh. Well…it’s a kind of pretty outside.”

I couldn’t tell you when I decided I was going to be friends with Connor. Nor I think could he. It happened in that natural way, where affection silently seeps in to the rough cracks of fumbled, forced first impressions. Here was a boy who grew up in a loving family, the son of Ivy League educated parents, who was on track to graduate in two years’ time from the very school where they had met, the same one from which his two elder siblings would soon be alumni, and  the very one to which his younger brother would most likely apply. Here was a boy whose pet dog, whom he loved, was named after the Black Panther from Kipling’s ‘Jungle Book’ – beautiful, beloved Bhageera – and was a dog shown more palpable affection than its owner showed most of his friends. Here was a boy who often went out of his way to do things differently, and who himself admitted that he was ‘blessed’ and ‘fortunate’ (depending on how far or close to Thanksgiving you asked him) to have the constant and loving support of his family when he chose to do so. A boy who had most likely never really wanted for anything; a boy on whom ‘social luck’ had bestowed the gifts of intelligence, boyish good-looks, and relative athleticism (that is, for a white kid from Princeton); a boy who, for all intents and purposes, had no reason to see the world as anything other than the generous, good, and genial planet that it had been to him for the first 20 years of his life; and yet, for some inexplicable reason, here was a boy in whom the attitudes of caustic sarcasm, and corrosive sardonicism ran rampant. A boy with a sharp, somewhat mean wit that took no prisoners, and whose survivors were the ones deemed fit to be his friends. And once taken, accepted, and embraced as such, those friends were cherished. Not always vocally, but cherished nonetheless. Here too of course was a boy with flaws. A weakness for older women who love to laugh, and a fondness for drink. A stubborn pride, and a relentless, if well-hidden conceit.  Yes, here was a privileged, flawed boy. Here was my friend. Who in that moment, as I practiced the shuffling technique he had impatiently and begrudgingly taught me the night before, became my friend whom I loved. 

Connor of course was oblivious to all of this. It was 4 o’clock in the morning and he was, as any normal person would be, soundly asleep. I wasn’t about to wake him, especially because Garrett was there, sleeping in the bed opposite. Whereas mine and Connor’s affection was obvious, sometimes annoyingly so, and we often, usually drunk, told each other exactly how we felt, Garrett’s affection, like most of his emotions, were shrouded. What little exposure I’ve had to Texans, has been largely enjoyable. They are polite, kind, and principled people. In this way, many Texans remind me of home. In Garrett for instance, like most Zimbabweans, I recognised a fierce loyalty, especially to his family – in a cabin housing a Texan boy of albeit questionable Indian ancestry, a pure-bred WASP from New Jersey, and a young, undeniably handsome boy from Zimbabwe, a strong sense of family was the common denominator. Long ago, in our respective corners of the world, seeds of love had been sown, and we had each in us grown the capability to be patient, forgiving, loving, and loyal. Tucked away in between Hanover and Mt. Moosilauke, in a cabin built on top of the ashes of another, the reaping had begun.

Perhaps especially so for Garrett. With him too, I am unsure as to when exactly the boundary between acquaintance and friend was crossed. But even now, writing from thousands of miles away, I am sure of my place in his heart. As I can only hope he is sure of his place in mine. The first thing I noticed about Garrett was that he was an incredibly good-looking guy, who had absolutely no idea just how good-looking he was. So, instead of the brashly confident boy I had expected to get to know, I instead found myself getting to know a boy who was naturally, almost painfully shy, and preferred to listen before speaking. A good, somewhat hasty judge of character, Garrett is a boy who makes his decisions about what company to keep quickly, assuredly, and more often than not, correctly. Conversely, judgements made of Garrett as being “arrogant” and “vain” could not be further from the truth. That’s not to say that such judgements aren’t close to the truth, but that to give to him any one, single label of extreme gregarity or conceit, would be an incomplete appraisal. I say with full confidence that Garrett is as much a convivial and gentle soul, generous with his time and loyal to a fault; as he is a smug, dismissive prick who won’t greet you if he doesn’t feel like it. In his defence, it’s just a matter of whether you’re a friend or not. (And in Garrett’s sparse but sure way of communication, if you ever actually have to think about whether you are a friend or foe, chances are it’s the latter.)

As I think about it now, the truth is I do know Garrett and I were truly friends. It was rather simple really – he invited me to dinner with his parents. By the way, if there is any Dartmouth ‘tradition’ that this poor international student is most grateful for, it is the free meal in Town with a friend’s family – God bless America. Anyway, I truly believe that one need only to see Garrett around his parents, his mother looking at him from across the table with that love that only a mother can feel – a love as much delicately accepting, as it is harshly demanding – and his dad making a concerted effort to joke with him, to tease lovingly, and sit there, anticipating and welcoming any retort his smart son, of whom he is so clearly proud, can come up with. Seeing him then, so utterly relaxed, smiling as he does, with none of the poise that characterises his usual countenance; laughing recklessly, his chortle awkwardly erupting from his chest, body slightly bobbing, head faintly bowed as if in solemn prayer – my heart filled. Here too was a friend.

These, and many such thoughts were floating around my head, as I sat at that knowing, old wooden table, and absentmindedly shuffled those damn cards. I looked out the large window, and took in the sunrise it so naturally framed. It was nauseatingly beautiful. The sun’s early rays shone haphazardly in all directions – even the sunlight could not penetrate the purity of the snow. It was a purity that lay not so much in the snow’s colour, that innocent, unspoiled white, but in its sheer ubiquity. A harsh whiteness filled my vision. The woods stared back at me as echoes of laughter, decades old, reverberated from where we had played, the snow in which we had fought, fallen, and frisked, let me know that there had been others before my friends and I. And there would be hundreds, thousands more after us. I shuffled the cards one more time, and stacked them next to the cabin log. I considered writing in it. Flipping through it, there were short notes, littered across the ratty pages, snapshots of the secrets this ancient table knew.

“Four days we will never forget! – s’mores, singing songs to Jay’s guitar, and more wine than we can remember. It’s good to be back at Dartmouth” (signed, Oenophile ’91); “It’s been so fucking hot. But it’s also been so fucking worth it.” (Ben and co., ’99); “first year back. no stocked logs. soooo stupid. the DOC needs to do better.” (Annoyed, ’09) 

‘Annoyed’ sounding like someone I wouldn’t like. The other messages, though written with affection, seemed so vapid. So bland. No doubt true, but somehow, I felt, they were insufficient. I couldn’t care less about what happened then, I cared only about what had happened after – about what was happening now. All I really wanted to know was whether they were still all singing. Whether they were still all drinking together. For God’s sake – is it still “fucking worth it” Ben?

In the end, I did add to the book. My message was just as vapid and just as bland. Just as unrevealing. I wrote something about Hemingway, and the sunset, and how we’d always have them. Unsurprisingly, Connor and Garrett’s joint judgement was that my note was “ridiculous”. I don’t think they understood what I meant. I wanted to leave that God forsaken cabin. I wanted plumbing and electricity. I wanted to speak to my mum. I wanted Oreos. But I also never wanted to forget how I felt in the dead of the night, hearing one of my friends shift in their bed, but refusing to listen, instead offering all my attention to the woods, shuffling those cards, sitting there, remembering, and hoping.

We would be leaving in a few hours, driving back down to Hanover, and then on to Princeton – it was going to be a very long time before I had the chance to be alone again. As dawn silently colonised the night sky, I sat there telling myself over and over again, to treasure this last moment of solace – “you are alone”. I smiled wryly. I smiled freely. I smiled because I knew that, for the first time since I’d come to Dartmouth, since I’d parted ways with all I’d ever known socially and culturally, as I said those words, I didn’t actually believe them.  And thanks to Connor, Garrett, and many more of the incredible people whose paths had crossed with mine at that small college in the wilderness, I never had to again.