Picture this: a sprawling college campus with big, brick Gothic buildings. An ornate bell tower that sits atop the library, a kind of academic church. A small lake glistening underneath the April sun and a pedestrian bridge crossing over it. Seventy degrees, a cloudless sky. Fraternity row overflows with young, enthusiastic college students—all taut skin and big plans—gathered at the school’s annual pig roast, laughter and loud music and the smell of booze wafting through the air.
That was the scene that greeted me and my boyfriend a few weeks ago, when we went down to visit his son at the University of Richmond. And it made me want to be young again. To go back to a time when everything seemed to be ahead of me–to the night of my 18th birthday party, as I drove down a windy country road in a tight, hot-pink, spaghetti-strapped dress: a best friend driving, a Big Gulp full of Diet Coke and rum, and all that freedom rushing through the car with the warm July air.
As my boyfriend and I walked down Richmond’s fraternity row, all kinds of memories moved through me and made me long to go back.
Then I went inside the frat house and the longing subsided a bit.
Sticky floors, crowds of kids packed shoulder-to-shoulder, young men in pastel-colored pants and bow-ties, smoking cigars and hiding underneath expensive sunglasses. A packed courtyard with the pig that the boys had stayed up all night roasting, splayed out across a long folding table, sizzling in the Virginia heat, sans serving platter, tablecloth, utensils or plates. Just a couple of steak knives and a few rolls of industrial paper towels fingerprinted with pig grease. I think it was about the time that I got hit by a stray beer can that it all started to come back to me: I was absolutely miserable in college.
Truth is, it’s absurd that it took a porcine carcass and a flying beer can to jog my memory. I’m in the middle of writing an essay about my collegiate years–reading old journals and trying to assign some meaning to it all–and my heart breaks for the girl on those journal pages. A girl who worried constantly and feverishly about what other people thought of her, mostly because she was certain that they were all just a step away from finding out the truth: she was a fraud. Not nearly enough–of anything. That not enoughness followed me everywhere, flickering underneath everything I did.
Turns out, I was right: Of course I was a fraud–I was 19. But here’s the part I got wrong: I was no more a fraud than any other 19 year-old awkwardly aping the motions of adulthood. We were all just trying to fake our way through college–and if I hadn’t been so wrapped up in my own fear, I might have been able to notice that. Sometimes I ask myself: what if I’d known? What if I’d realized that everyone else was just scared and lonely too? Can you imagine how much easier it would’ve been?
I can barely even picture it.
Out to dinner Saturday evening, my boyfriend and I both laughed when his son told us that he’d probably finalize his plans for the night at 10:00 (p.m!). We knew we’d be in bed by then. And sure enough, we were back at the hotel getting into pajamas by 9:45 that night.
“Do you ever miss being young?” I asked as I got into bed.
“Nope,” he said.
“Do you think we should we go out more? Stay out later?”
“Is there something else you want to be doing right now?” Well now he was just being ridiculous.
Let me explain a few things:
- We’d had a busy day: a run, a frat party, an antique mall, a big dinner.
- There was NOTHING I wanted more than to climb into our hotel bed, watch the college basketball championship, and eat my share-size bag of Skittles without sharing.
- I am the happiest I’ve ever been.
There I was, exquisitely happy to be in elastic-banded pants next to the man I love with the candy I love, and still I was questioning if there wasn’t something back there or over here that might be better–closer to some picture in my head of what life is supposed to look like.
On our way home, my boyfriend and I got stuck in some traffic on this old, stone bridge just north of D.C. As I sat there looking out at the water, I began writing this blog post in my head, with a concluding paragraph that I loved: About how a weekend back at college was just what I needed to remind me of how good I have it now. About how lucky I am to be on this side of all those lonely years–about maturity and gratitude and hard-earned wisdom. The sun was just starting to set, and the moment was all glimmering and twinkly–and let me tell you something: it was a great, goddamn paragraph that I wrote on that bridge. And it was almost even true.
Except that underneath all of that very real contentment that I feel these days, there’s still a layer of yearning to be young again. It’s ridiculous and counter to the reality of what’s happened in my life, but there it is just the same. As Walt Whitman famously said in Song of Myself: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself.” It’s possible for me to yearn for something, and at the same time, be utterly relieved by its impossibility.
So ultimately, I had to settle on this less profound (but way more true) concluding paragraph:
I want to be here, in this messy life that I’ve built for myself, significantly more than I want to be young again. Which in my mind, makes it a weights-and-measurement kind of victory. The scale is tipped toward the present–and that’s really the best anyone can hope for anyway.