This Time Last Year


This time last year, I was in the produce aisle of the grocery store. I reached for the raspberries on the bottom shelf, my hand shaking with the remnants of too much caffeine.

Unprocessed and unexpected, grief had come for me earlier that morning. I’d tried to stave it off with a lot of black tea, to no avail. The raspberries fell from my hand, becoming a broken necklace of red beads as they bounced and rolled across the aisle.

I knelt down to clean up the spill. A woman and her child stopped to help me. She caught my eye and gave a warm, rueful smile that I did my best to return. At that moment, I wasn’t capable of much small talk, and I was grateful for their silent company. If I tried to speak, I might start crying again.

Smarting with some guilt, I bought a bunch of snacks, including the recovered raspberries. I could wash them later. I was impatient to get out of the store, into my car and onto the freeway. I had decided to drive east to go visit my college campus. It would be the first time I had been back since graduating a little over three years ago.

The campus was a place I had thought about many times since leaving. It was impossible not to. It was where I had fallen in and out of love for the first time, discovered new worlds of literature and philosophy, and met lifelong friends.

That campus had been the backdrop for some of my most formative experiences. For me, any meaningful self-inquiry still required at least a metaphorical tour of its hallowed halls. Now, with snacks and a full tank of gas, I was headed back for the real deal.

Earlier that morning, I had been running through the park near my apartment when I came upon a grove of eucalyptus trees. Something about their smell—an unmistakable mix of pine, honey and mint—reminded me of walking to class on campus. I stopped in the middle of my run and took a deep inhale. To my surprise, I began to cry. I knew that I missed college, but the tears were unexpected. They sprang out of somewhere forgotten.

I did not cry at graduation. The day felt surreal, but not sad. It rained softly throughout the ceremony, unusual for Southern California in May. That evening, the rain cleared and my friends and I snuck onto the roof of one of the academic buildings. We wrote our hopes and dreams down on wish paper, set it on fire, and watched it float into the night sky. From there we celebrated into the early morning, saying numerous goodbyes to the people who had made up so much of our world the last four years.

The next morning, the air hung heavy and expectant with humidity from the prior day’s rain. I darted across campus to see friends I’d missed the night before. My best friend and I finished packing up my car with our things. Soon enough, it was time for us to leave.

She and I were unusually quiet as we drove through the small campus streets. We had no idea when we would next be back. It was one of many things we didn’t know that day. For the last eight years, we had lived in four-year cycles, first high school and then college. Each place had its own set of rules, a structure of curricular, and extracurricular activities that yielded certain results.

Every minute of my high school career had been scheduled. College had offered more freedom and autonomy, but I still walked a well-traveled path from point A to point B. I learned and grew in mostly predictable ways. By the end of the four years, I was more well-read, spoken, and written than I had been at the start of it. I knew a little bit more of who I was and who I aspired to be. It was what I had signed up for.

Then we graduated. For the first time in eight years, I was driving off a proverbial cliff into an unstructured, uncertain future. I felt a whisper of envy as my friend began to tear up in the passenger seat. We both knew that we were not just leaving our campus. We were leaving behind a world unto itself and the people we had become while living in it. It was a poignant moment, deserving of tears, but I barely felt anything other than tired from all of the prior night’s festivities.

Now, three and a half years later, my tears had finally come. They may have been delayed, but the grief they communicated was real. I really missed college. I missed running into friends every day at the dining hall, in the library, and on the way to class. I missed poring over books and attending lectures. I missed the predictable succession of academic years, knowing that after this semester came the next one.

Now it was rare for me to see friends more than once a week. I spent my days navigating spreadsheets instead of literature. Time no longer had a predictable succession. Instead of semesters, my life was punctuated by promotions, break-ups, new loves and new cities — all of which seemed to happen when I least expected. I found myself navigating a wider world that was far more complex, unforgiving and unpredictable than the one I had inhabited in college. Over the last several years I had often joked that I most certainly would have cried at graduation had I known what was coming.

I knew that not everyone from my graduating class felt the same way. Some of my peers had been very ready to leave our campus. They had found solace, purpose and comfort in the years following graduation. For them, college had been something to get through, not to get over. High school had been that way for me. I spent most of those four years feeling painfully out of place and dreaming about life afterward. I wanted out. At the end, as soon as I had my diploma, I left and did not look back.

In contrast, I frequently reminisced about college. It had sort of become its own mythology. College was that legendary, magical time when I used to be much happier than I was now. When the grief had hit me earlier that morning, the only thing I could think to do was go back. Now that I lived in LA, I was less than an hour away from the campus. It was the closest I had been in the last three and a half years. Like my grandmother counting her rosary beads, I hoped that returning might act as a sort of talisman, that being there again would alleviate some of the heaviness in my heart.

Driving back to campus, eastbound on the I-10, I found myself lost in thought. The cars in front of me stopped suddenly. I slammed on my breaks. The raspberries, which I had so carefully placed on the passenger seat, launched into the air, hit the car floor, and broke open once again. Despite the grief swirling in my heart, a hoarse laugh escaped my throat. These berries were determined, maybe even destined, to break free of that carton.

An hour later I was parked on campus, harvesting raspberries off the floor of my car. In the distance I heard students talking and laughing as they walked to the library. I drenched the raspberries with the remnants of my Nalgene, hoping the water would erase any traces of their misadventures.

Strolling over to the quad, I searched the faces of those I passed. Secretly, I hoped I would see someone familiar. Towering eucalyptus trees still bordered the main campus street. Their smell, the smell that had prompted this whole journey, hung heavy in the air. The academic buildings loomed large against the fading October sky. Their steps, doors, arches and columns seemed to be made for giants.

I reached the quad and found a spot under a large oak tree. Being back, it almost felt as if I had never left. The campus was so similar to my memories of it. The grass was still scratchy. The white-washed facade of the auditorium still caught the afternoon sun. I half expected to see my younger self, happy and care-free, walking with her friends along one of the pathways.

Over the last several years, comparing my current self to my college self had become somewhat of a hobby. I remembered being more confident, adventurous, fun-loving and fulfilled than I felt now. I aspired to be her again.

Memories of the campus began to parade through my mind: sitting at breakfast with a table full of friends; getting caught up in a welcome late night conversation with a classmate outside of the library; drinking fresh-squeezed orange juice from the orange tree in my professor’s backyard; dancing like a fool with my best friend on the rooftop of our dorm. These were the stories I had told and retold many times over. Then a fuzzy, almost blurry memory from the end of my sophomore year came on screen:

Today was hot as hell. Early tomorrow morning I am flying home. I’ve just showered, shaved my legs, and put on lotion. I feel almost slippery. My hair is wet. I’ve tried my best to cover up a massive zit on my forehead. My shorts are tellingly loose on my hips. At the beginning of the year they were well-fitting, tight even. 

For about a month now, I’ve lost my appetite. I’ve also been running a lot. A lot. There have been many nights I’ve lied to my friends, told them I need to study and then just had some yogurt in my dorm room and called it dinner. The truth is that I am terrified of having to see and face certain people who I’d inevitably run into in the dining halls. Ironically, I’m now walking to the library to say goodbye to one of them.

An unconscious tic, my hand, like a claw, grabs at the side of my waist to measure what’s there and what’s not. At least my legs look good, I think to myself.

It’s close to midnight. He’s on the fourth floor of the library, writing his last college paper before he graduates next week. I text him to let him know that I am downstairs. 

They must have the air conditioning on high inside because he comes out in a blue fleece and sweatpants. My bare arms and legs suddenly feel oddly immodest. We talk for a few minutes. This next part is blurry. I can’t remember much of what he says. Then we might kiss, but I also could have imagined that.

The memory becomes clearer. I am now walking back to my dorm. My arms and legs feel light, almost as if I am no longer bound by gravity. My face stings from sunburn and dried tears. I am sad, but also so relieved this year has finished. It’s finally over. That was it. I get to go home.

I snapped back to the present, surprised by the memory. I had thought today was going to be an average Saturday. I had planned to run errands, maybe do laundry and take inventory of everything I hadn’t yet seen on Netflix. Instead, here I was on my college campus, facing a younger, college-aged version of myself who I had almost forgotten. This girl was really going through it.

I wished I could run back in time to her. I wanted to hug her, tell her to eat something, that it was all going to be alright, her heart would heal, she was deserving of boundaries, he was not worth the small hell she was putting herself through.

But I couldn’t do any of those things. So I just cracked open that carton of well-traveled raspberries, popped a handful in my mouth, and sat with my thoughts.

At first college had felt like a haven of self-reinvention after the conformity of high school. I arrived on campus ready to recreate myself. And I did, many times over. Those first two years, I burned through crushes and friendships like they had been soaked in kerosene, leaving myself and others singed along the way. I changed majors several times. I looked hard for someone or something else to tell me who I was only to find that no one and nothing else actually could. Unsurprisingly, by the end of my sophomore year I was exhausted.

Then the dust from all of my self-construction finally settled. It was the start of my junior year and with the start of a new school year came a somewhat fresh slate. Summer break had dulled some of the hurts. Certain people had graduated. Others had moved off campus or were now studying abroad.

That semester marked the beginning of the college experience I remembered with so much fondness. My best friend and I shared a massive room right above the dining hall. It smelled like french fries and had big windows that opened up onto the rooftop. Some nights we’d sneak out there to watch people passing below. I’d get up early on Sundays to buy figs at the farmers’ market in town. Classes were challenging, interesting, and complex, but not impossible. We met new people who felt like long lost friends. The place finally felt like it belonged to me and I belonged to it.

I had spent a good amount of time the last several years since college wishing I could return to a past self frozen in time, perfectly preserved. Now I saw that even if I wanted to, there was no one self to revert to. I had evolved many times over the course of those four years, each iteration with her own difficulties and triumphs. I had to face them and acknowledge each of them. Otherwise, they would continue to live as ghosts of my own making, eager to come around and haunt me.

All of my nostalgia was beginning to feel more like a cry for help than a trip down memory lane. To wish to return to an old self, an old way of life, was to reject my own transformation, both past and present. It simply said: I do not like what I am becoming and discovering; I’d rather go back to that time when I knew less about myself and the world.

I finished off the raspberries and snapped the empty carton shut. Since graduating, I had lived in four different cities and held four different jobs. Friends came and went with each move. I knew I had changed, but I wasn’t sure who I was becoming. The knot in my stomach told me that this most recent chapter in my evolution was not nearly finished with me. Right now, not dissimilar to the end of my sophomore year, I was still in the part that felt like chaos.

The air had started to turn cool as shadows from the trees grew longer with the late afternoon sun. The campus might not have been a cure-all for my post-grad malaise, but its stillness was soothing. At some point I would have to get up, brush the grass off my legs, and drive back, but I was not ready yet. Truth had opened up something in me that nostalgia could not. Caught in a crawl space somewhere between my past and my present, I stayed there in the grass until after the sun went down.

It was the Fall of 2019 when I returned to my college campus. George Floyd and Breonna Taylor were still alive. COVID-19 wasn’t even a whisper in the news cycle. Much has changed since this time last year.

At the end of this past June, I left LA and moved back home to Utah. On the morning of my departure, I joined a close friend and her dog for a socially-distanced walk around our neighborhood.

The overcast sky was reminiscent of the day after my graduation, just a little over four years prior. I felt a familiar mix of fatigue and adrenaline from several days of disassembling and packing up the life I’d been living.

My friend asked how I was feeling about leaving. In truth, I didn’t really know. I had been so focused on packing and getting everything together that my new reality hadn’t really landed yet.

I paused before answering, looking sideways at her. She was one of my oldest friends, but up until this last year, most of our friendship had actually been long distance. We’d met during a summer program eight years ago. At the time, she had been a rising junior at NYU and I was about to start my first year at Pomona College.

Over the coming years, our communication ebbed and flowed with the various rhythms of being 20-somethings. We’d go for months without talking and then one of us would call or text and we were back at it. She lived in Shanghai for a while, then I lived in Spain for a year. Time differences often let us talk to each other at those ungodly hours when epiphany and tragedy tend to strike. Our friendship became a sort of mutual support hotline. We talked about our worst days and those secret hopes we didn’t often say out loud. I never really gave the distance much thought because it didn’t seem to have any bearing on how close we were.

Then I moved to an apartment five minutes away from hers on the east side of downtown LA. For the first time in eight years, we were no longer long distance friends. We’d go to yoga, walk around the farmers market, grab dinner, put on face masks and watch Sex and the City re-runs. Some days we’d hang out without saying much because we didn’t need to. It was reminiscent of friendships in college where I could just roll over to a friend’s dorm in my pajamas. There was no pretense. It was just easy to be a part of each other’s lives.

Now looking over at her, anticipating our imminent goodbye, I could no longer ignore the fact that my time in LA was really over. When I first moved to LA, I’d assumed that she and I would hang out every now and then. Instead, most of my Saturday nights over the course of the last year had either started or ended (often both) on her couch.

I’d never thought we’d get to be everyday friends in the way that we had been this last year, and the fact that I hadn’t predicted it made it all the more special. It also made this goodbye all the more difficult.

So, how did I feel about leaving? I was really sad. My voice thick with fresh emotion and tears to come, I told her the truth.

A few hours later, I was east bound, driving the same route I had last Fall when I’d returned to my college campus. As I neared the exit for my alma mater, I felt the pull of its inevitable gravity.

I decided to get off the highway and stop for gas. I couldn’t resist. From the overcast sky to saying my goodbyes, the whole morning had been eerily similar to that day after graduation over four years ago. Besides, I thought, better I stop here than some desert ghost town.

After I filling up my tank, I drove through campus. Passing the familiar buildings, I silently saluted each of them and smiled to myself. There had been some absolutely magical years here and also some very difficult ones.

I could now see that the last four years had truly been an education of their own. My life since graduation had been messy, confusing and occasionally heart-wrenching, but it had also been eye-opening, unexpected, and even liberating. Much had happened, but it was really the unplanned moments, just like this one, that had become the most memorable. They were detours that let me glimpse a bit of truth.

As I neared the far edge of campus, I reflexively braced myself for the feeling of leaving once again. But this time, to my surprise, I felt hope. Somewhere, somehow, in the midst of the last four tumultuous years since graduating, I had outgrown this place. I no longer yearned to be who I once was. Instead, I wanted to find out who I was becoming.