Two years have passed since my sophomore summer. I have forgotten, I assume, most of the things that happened over the term. I have certainly forgotten moments that I did not intend to forget: the personal victories, the river-soaked days, the mundane romance of evenings by fire.
Yet I do remember the anticipation, first, and then the validation, after. I anticipated sophomore summer for the same reason that I suspect many do. I had been promised so much; accidentally, I believed it all. This needs no more discussion. You have heard the same.
Validation requires an addendum. It was summertime and I was accelerating forward just as everybody else was. The terms always seem fast but the summer is somehow faster still. I was moving toward the halfway point of college. I was moving, but some part of me felt as though it were stuck, or maybe becoming younger, falling into some place between cocoon and metamorphosis. It was as though I were becoming younger and older at the same time, as though I were discovering what I had already known — what it meant to be cool, what it meant to be sad, what it meant to be powerful.
This was how things were. My outlook kept shifting, and with it, my sources of pleasure. But I so clearly remember feeling validated in the banal ways that make this college strange and terrific, all at once. I felt validated by Greek life, by tails, by meetings. I dove into the mainstream of Dartmouth and from there I swam, I swam, I swam. (Or was I just treading water? The difference was never so clear to me.)
The whole summer was surreal. It was like learning to fit in. I was already in my twenties, a grown child, and yet it was like learning how to fit in for the first time. But the days passed cheerfully. In those summer months, I spent hours by the river on the docks, drinking cold drinks, browning my tan skin more brown. I held onto my plans and I held them tightly; I was worried that if I let go the present might just unwind. Each dog day of excess reaffirmed my beliefs. Weekends produced new validation. And so I continued through the term innocently, like a fool, like a moth in the rapture of fire. With this learning and this effort, I tried to save my own happiness. With this, I tried to create my own life.
Some weeks ago, this year, I stayed overnight at a cabin in Vermont. I had traveled there with a large group, of which I knew very few. This was no problem. We had all entered college as anonymous allies, and we have all managed to find our ways.
The drive from New Hampshire takes two hours. People split between several cars. There were four others in mine; three were barely acquaintances. We drove steadily, climbing up and down through the Vermont hills, deeper into spaces without signal. It was early spring and the world was still thawing. Idle conversation filled the drive in the way that it always does between near-strangers — excitedly, then languidly, then slower still. I did not mind. We kept on forward.
Before long, sunset started to blur the horizon into ruddy patches. The sky then blackened until suddenly, imperceptibly, it disappeared altogether. And so we arrived at the cabin in darkness, swaddled in the night. I stepped out into the parking lot and turned toward some of the others who had just arrived. I looked at the more familiar faces, smiling, gleeful at the newness of what had come.
The next few hours passed by with little fanfare. There were no special guests, no novel games, no real peculiarities. I joked around, and I laughed loudly. The evening was right. The talk was right. Jell-O shots rested in a cooler by the corner, knowingly. People changed into pajamas. Before bedtime, I grinned at how some magnificent fate had pressed all of our lives together. There was nothing to do but enjoy the moment. The next day, after all, we would return to our separate worlds and the memory would begin to wither.
Yes, somehow, during my last term at this college, I felt as joyful surrounded by acquaintances as I do among my closest friends. I was content to the brink of sadness, to the edge of nostalgia. I’m still figuring out what this all means.
Hearing about life is interesting. It bears almost no resemblance to experiencing it. Hearing about life prepares you for it in the same way that describing wine allows you to enjoy the glass.