It begins late in the evening on commencement day, the total absolute last day of your career at Oberlin. You're heading out at an awful single-digit o'clock tomorrow, out of this soft green bubble into the brutal concrete truths of the Real World.
To celebrate this, plus probably the fact that you graduated, your parents take you out to dinner in Cleveland. This is all well and good, even though you're hella sleep-deprived and emotional and probably kind of a drag to be around. But that's what parents are for.
Dinner is good, and your parents are good, but on your way back from Cleveland, things take a turn for the not good. Looking out the windows of the rental car at the rural Ohio night, you have a sudden realization: you may never make this drive again.
Coming into Oberlin, you pass the art museum, the house you lived in last year, Tappan Square, Asia House, these places in which you will never set foot again. For the first time, perhaps, you come to understand the permanence of your departure. You'll never again stay up late finishing a lab write-up in Mudd, never again estimate how many lentils to make for the co-op, never again get a cookie at the Cat in the Cream. Yeah, yeah, you'll probably visit at some point, and maybe you'll go to commencement next year, so, yes, you can't completely write off the prospect of another Cat cookie. You like cookies a lot but this is still small comfort. It's not gonna be the same.
Your parents drop you off at your house. Your former house. You climb the steps, shut the door, stand alone in the kitchen. And as soon as you breathe out, an awful train of thought barrels into your mind:
You didn't do enough at Oberlin, the train says. Jeez, a talking train? Why didn't you go to more concerts, more parties, spend more time at the art museum, at the observatory? What about those nights, just last week, where it was beautifully warm out, where people went to parties and swam in the arb and hung out but you just stayed inside and watched True Detective? How much of your time here have you wasted?
You go to your room, hoping for some comfort, but your room has changed. The posters are gone, the books and papers packed away, even the rank mountain of laundry (aka Big Sock Candy Mountain aka the Malodorous Massif) has been washed, dried, folded, and packed away.
You feel a creeping panic.
But then the thought strikes you--your friends are still here, your kind, wonderful friends, in your life for just a few hours more, thank god. You're not alone, not yet.
You call them up and explain to them the situation: It's everyone's last night here, maybe forever, and maybe you've already said your goodbyes but you may never see each other again, and even though you may try to keep in touch, the capricious future-world may throw any number of varieties of wrench in your plans, and you can't speak for anyone else but least you personally are more or less actively keeping tears at bay. Does anyone want to hang out?
General feelings are positive. Wanna go to the arb? someone suggests. One last time?
The arb! Yes, the arb! That beautiful refuge of nature, that oasis of peace in this crazy desert of emotions. You're pretty exhausted and there's a cold percolating in the back of your throat, and you should probs be sleeping, but no. Forget that. You're going to the arb.
The night is warm and buggy, the streets deserted. It's after midnight. You pass the empty contours of campus in a daze. Oh God, the lamps of Tappan, the memorial arch, the warm striped light of the conservatory, even the hulking angles of Mudd are somehow bittersweet. Where are the people?? Just last night the whole of Tappan was lit up, filled to the brim with students and parents and alumni and friends. Now the little paper lanterns are gone, the brick paths are empty.
You meet up with your friends. Nobody says much. A big thick layer of emotion-fog has settled on the whole campus, too heavy and dense to communicate through. But just being around them is a comfort. One thing is clear to everybody: this trek to the arb has become a quest, a journey fraught with meaning.
The arb is dark, the reservoir absolutely still, reflecting the streetlights and the faint stars. You follow the trail around the water, so familiar, but tonight, through the lens of your emotions and your exhaustion, it's become something different. On the ground tiny luminescent bugs flare and fade with a greenish light. Frogs are making an enormous creaking sound in the water.
You remember your first time here in the fall of freshman year, exploring with the people you didn't really know, who would become your friends; that one night you wandered here alone instead of doing your homework and spent hours talking to that kid whose name you never learned, that one evening when you sat here and watched the purple sunset with your best friend, just a week before he dropped out, that afternoon in the middle of winter when you walked here after breaking up with ----- and you lay in the snow and stared up at the clouds and cried for the first time in years.
A few yards along the path you realize there are people here, no doubt fellow last-minute pilgrims to the arb, sitting on the banks of the reservoir. You'd probably recognize them but in the darkness they're just shadowy anonymous figures, giving you little waves as you pass. You feel like you're walking into the frickin underworld or something.
What you wouldn't give to be a first-year again, your parents helping you move into Kahn or Barrows, meeting your roommate for the first time, wondering if you would ever make friends. What you wouldn't give for one more orchestra concert in Finney, one more party in a grimy basement, one more sunny Friday in Wilder Bowl, even the stuff you never thought you'd miss: one more co-op discussion, one more 9 am lecture class, one more long night studying in Mudd.
You take the stone steps down to the woods, cross the bridge. You follow the trail that leads up to the grassy hill and rest there for a few minutes, looking up at the stars. But you'd rather be on the move. It's like you're crying, and then you can feel yourself ease off and start to feel better but you don't want to stop, like you want to dig deeper into it.
Let's go to the golf course, someone says.
You begin to object, Golf course shmolf course, but you stop yourself. You realize there's something satisfying about the idea of fighting through the thick arb-forest and emerging into these soft rolling hills, the curving paths, the warm orange streetlights in the distance.
And in you go. Twigs and branches scratch at your arms, leaves slap at your face, bushes claw at your enshorted legs. These lush Ohio summer woods; why, you remember when everything was stark and bare and gray, just a few months ago! Time is really just zipping on by, isn't it?
You, however, are not zipping anywhere. You're just thrashing around in the woods like a loser animal. Your friends are there somewhere beside you, invisibly but not inaudibly making their way through the foliage. You can't see a foot in front of you; you thought you were on a path but you've left it, and after ten minutes you seem to have made no progress; there's just black trees and bushes in every direction.
I think we're lost, you opine.
You're all scratched up and you can feel a dozen bug bites on your skin. There are bits of leaves in your hair and dirt and twig fragments in your socks and you may have scratched your glasses, and underneath it all these insidious, terrifying thoughts are catching up with you: you'll never see your friends again. Your parents are getting old. Your dog is getting old. You're an adult. You'll never be in college again, never be in high school again (not that you really wanted to, but that's not the point). There's not going to be enough time to do everything you want. And the worst thought of all: what if you already, irredeemably, wasted all the time you already had?
And then your friend pulls out his phone and illuminates the screen.
It's right there, he says. Look.
You make your way towards the light, and then, yes, you can see the edge of the woods, just a few yards ahead, and beyond that, pushing branches out of your way, the rolling hills of the golf course, the little creek running through it, the moon illuminating the soft grass. Something turns the volume down on all the crazy turmoil in your head, and then all you feel is tired. You're almost out of here.