About two weeks before my five-year college reunion, I got an e-mail from the school informing me that I had been entered into a lottery and won a free room for the weekend — the first college recognition I’d ever received. But I wasn’t ready to reunite. I had to graduate first.
For the last two years I’d been deleting emails about the event with subject lines like “Can you believe it’s been five years?” and “Can’t wait to party like it’s 2008.” I could both believe it and wait. Most of these emails sit unread somewhere in my trash folder along with articles about successful class members, standard nostalgia, and above all requests for donations, to ensure that future generations share the same experience that I’d had. But what about the grief? Would my donation ensure future generations that as well?
I’ve hardly kept in touch with anyone from my class, meaning I’ve had to piece together a narrative from what I’ve seen on Facebook, all while pretending not to be on Facebook. I’d scroll through and draw grand conclusions from images and lives that I could no longer imagine, which of course meant I imagined them all the more. E-mails turned into glossy alumni magazines and these too piled up, unread on my desk or coffee table—too afraid to open them, but too hopeful to simply throw them away, imagining a day when I wouldn’t be scared to look back.
“Why don’t you ever read these?” my roommate asked one day as he flipped through a new magazine full of success stories. “I don’t know, I mean, I’m glad all these people are out there doing all this stuff, but I wish they wouldn’t tell me about it and make me feel bad about not being one of them.” It feels like one huge guilt trip: guilt for not donating enough money, guilt for not having achieved some manner of success, guilt for forgetting where you came from. Sometimes they call to ask for money, make you feel that your $20 will really make a difference. “What’s the minimum?” I ask, and always wait for them to hang up first so they won’t hear my flip-phone closing.
It’s impossible not to compare yourself with the people around you. This can be a great motivator or the ultimate anxiety—sometimes both. Since leaving school, it felt like the baseline for comparison had changed; I had managed to stop comparing myself and learned to do things for myself only. Now, these magazines and emails seemed to be shattering this momentary bliss by showing me just where I fall in the spectrum, basically recounting what I haven’t been doing for the past five years. The few times I would actually feel up to flipping through one of these, I would run through it like a dating website—terrified of seeing someone I knew.
“I have nothing to tell,” I would say to people who asked why on earth I’d turned down two free nights in a freshly-Swiffered dorm room “right in the heart of campus.” “Yeah, but everybody exaggerates what they’ve been up to, how successful they’ve been. Just pick one thing each year and elaborate on it, stretch it out and make it sound important.”
The thought alone reminded me of going to an interview and lying and embellishing my way through my resume over the past five years. Other people have started companies, even been featured in Alumni Magazines and all I can say is that I got fourth place in the New Yorker caption contest and started a Tumblr…No, I haven’t posted anything yet, I’m still choosing a theme.”
I think the problem is that I haven’t yet moved on to the next phase of my life. And it’s for this reason that college still seems strangely open-ended, unfinished. I still don’t know where it leads to, and that’s why I’m not ready to go back. (Moving to a college-town like Williamsburg also hasn’t helped with this.) It feels like college is something that doesn’t end after a mere four years. It is something that follows you always, out of sight, but never far behind, when all I want is for it to end. The point is I’m not ready to re- anything—reunite, rehash, relive—because you can’t re-do something that isn’t done yet. You can’t go back somewhere you haven’t really left.
Of course, never opening the e-mails, magazines, invites just leads me to idealize and envy the lives of others in an unrealistic way. When I asked people who’d gone back about the reunion, no-one remembered any talk of companies, success or happiness—no-one remembered much actually.
But still, it’s all too easy to imagine that most people have managed to parlay College into the next step of their lives and have moved on to that natural next step. But none of the roads I created in that time seem to have reached a destination yet. And it’s only when you arrive somewhere new that you can start to make your way back. I feel like a tennis player who’s broken serve, but hasn’t yet held my own. It could mean everything; or I could be right back where I started. I guess I’m still choosing a theme.