April 23, 2020 | Narrative
things you miss
a tribute to sophomore year
I miss the tops of my friends’ heads. I didn’t realize how much time I had spent looking at them until I was home, looking up from my laptop to think or pause or let distraction envelop me, and there was no one there.
I miss the side-parted hair and the keyboard clatter. The sixth floor of the SciLi. The shoulder-ache when you’ve arrived there after wearily searching five other floors for empty seats, and how it feels to finally drop your backpack on the floor. Seeing who gets the outlet. Seeing who is the first to finally dissolve into their work after a long period of whispering over handwriting.
My roommate and I often walked back from the SciLi between 11 p.m. and midnight, the sky maybe speckled with stars or a stew of clouds, the air taking gentle bites from us, promising that tomorrow will still be cold.
What our carpet did not get a lot of: vacuuming. What our carpet did get a lot of: little almond-shaped leaves from Wriston Quad. And friends sprawled out on it.
My roommate had brought it, a soft grayish blue. It remained that forgiving color through the peanut-butter trail mix bag I accidentally dumped on it (gone but never forgotten) and the post-concert Chinatown on Thayer meals we ate, glittery eyeshadow twinkling above crab rangoons.
When we had to leave campus and the carpet was returned to its tubular form, I imagined my memories wrapped up inside it: those times watching Norwegian TV, lamenting our lack of chocolate other than “hot cocoa” Hershey’s Kisses (which have the consistency of soft chalk).
So when I find a single stormcloud-colored fiber on my sock at home, it doesn’t feel overly sappy to be sentimental about it.
The first time I went to the RISD Nature Lab was during the first semester of my first year, when the whole campus still seemed to be concealed in a layer of gift wrap—shiny and unknown and a little untouchable. My Introduction to Poetry seminar wound its way down the hill to the place on RISD’s campus I would visit again and again.
At that point, it was still new—the axolotl bobbing in its tank, the powdery, delicate wings of butterflies splayed out in little glass containers. It was a miniature city of glass buildings: bird heads and skeletons, their sturdy jawbones and delicate wings inhabitants of frames and cases. I wrote frantically, like I wouldn’t be back again, taking notes on a purple butterfly and never even making it into the next room.
The next semester, for my Writers on Writing class, we were back with the dead and the living. And then again the next year, as a sophomore—another poetry workshop. My friends and I have a joke (born of fondness, I promise) about how much the Literary Arts department loves the RISD Nature Lab.
I wonder how the axolotl is now, where it’s been moved to. The past few months have involved so many painful displacements and migrations for people around the world. We’ve never shared more in common with the overly familiar glass gallery of skulls and shells; many people right now are not unlike those butterflies, corralled in countless frames, some with no home at all. We see each other through the walls, but we can’t touch, treading together this complicated space between life and what can take it away.
Over the last month, my family and I have watched a lot of the Netflix docuseries Our Planet. Whenever a predator enters the screen, eyes keen and bright, the music changes to a minor key (of course), the camera shifting from big cat to small deer. (At this point, my dog, who we have learned is scared of tigers, usually begins howling.) It’s frightening, but there’s a lingering note of predictability hanging overhead: Someone has to win.
So many times in the Blue Room I have locked eyes with someone across the way while some innocent bystander refills her backpack with books and prepares to leave a booth. We walk, faux-casual, until it turns to a fast walk, and then the satisfying (or devastating) plunk of personal items on the somewhat sticky table.
Yes, the stakes are much lower than prey being stalked by something with claws. But little parallels the satisfaction of sinking into that seat and sending a triumphant group text that you do, indeed, have a booth.
Then soggy paper straws. Then croissant crumbs. Then laptop stickers and my head on my boyfriend’s shoulder. Then the crowding of too many people into one place.
It seems strange now that we ever did that—outer thigh to outer thigh. Before the time when jobs and lives and homes were lost to something invisible, with no minor chords to signal its arrival.
5 p.m. in February is where two inconveniences blissfully overlap and make a wonder: The Shop cafe closing at 5 p.m. and the sun setting at 5 p.m. Wickenden Street is drenched in light as Aidan and I slowly meander back to campus, the color not unlike the turmeric lattes that we had just finished.
The buildings look gilded. It feels as if, every hour of the day, they were just like that, and you hadn’t noticed until now, and it’s the best revelation to forget and remember, every 5 p.m. that we find ourselves on that sidewalk again.