I spend this most recent Passover with my mother’s closest friend from high school and her family for the first time. The rest of my immediate family is making their way home to Chicago, but the Oliffs live in New Jersey so I go, the sole representative of the Stone Family which makes me feel both very old and very young all at once. At the Oliff’s house in Westfield, NJ, I take off my shoes and stow them in the front closet. Anne is warm and ridiculously young-looking for her age, and is only slightly flustered as she flits around the house preparing the holiday dinner. The house is Victorian restoration, with lace doily drapes hung across the windows.
It’s the first time I’ve been in a real home in months. I pad around on slippered feet. I am asked about school and friends in the same way I have been asked by extended family; carefully, vaguely, and requesting small responses. To my parents and my parents’ friends, it doesn’t matter how old I feel I am. I will always be the child in the adult house. I have been worrying about summer and internships for the past few months, but when I mention them here it’s as if they have only been homework assignments, not quite relegated to the worries of the actual world and its strangenesses. You’ve got time for that, you’re only a sophomore. Halfway left– How much you’ve grown!
Anne’s son files through the back door, along with his new fiancée and their parents. Then the son’s friends and their mother, the girlfriend of the son’s friend and a few other people who look friendly and Midwestern with names I promptly forget. There is a Rob and a Mimi and a Jenny but maybe one of those are incorrect. I stand up from the ground and brush dog fur off my tights, aware of how immature I look in socks but decide to just accept it for tonight. I am a child again in a warm home and there are so many things to do to prepare for the dinner that I don’t have time to dwell on this for much longer.
The longer I am alone the more I start thinking about my workload, a thought I can’t seem to compartmentalize like I want to. To distract myself, I return to the mothers and the girlfriends in the kitchen. Layne’s mother sits at the table in the back, and the twenty-something women gather around her as she trades dinner recipes. You want to know the secret to a perfect salmon? She looks around the table. The women are rapt. Cook it then season with lemon, just lemon. Sear it in the skin. The women nod. I make mine for my husband the way he likes it, one woman says. Near raw, marinated for days.
I dry dishes as Anne washes them, and realize that I am the only woman in the yellow kitchen without a husband. I stay silent. No one is rude, but no one asks my opinion. The secret to chicken soup in a Depression kitchen is ketchup, which adds salt and color when salt is too expensive. To make immaculate hardboiled eggs, rinse them under the faucet. Peel the shell back and let them rest in a bowl of ice.
Anne’s parents passed away within a few years of each other. They lived in Chicago and invited us to their home for the Jewish holidays. At this new and familiar Seder, everything is almost exactly the same except the children are all adults. When the guests are all seated, Anne passes by my place at the table. Tell me if it tastes familiar, she says to me. They’re all my mother’s recipes. I spoon a few carrots onto my plate; honey-glazed, topped with lemon zest. At the dinner table, everyone knows one another and their inside jokes, so I drink my third cup of wine. I feel far away from everyone and their stories.
When my family went to the Morton’s Seder, my sister and I sang the Four Questions in Hebrew, standing on their chairs so that we could be seen above the table. I am the youngest again here but have forgotten the Hebrew. Layne is gracious and lets me read in English. My voice wavers over the silence of the table. I think about how I will write about this, if I do.
After the Seder is over, the candles dim and the light warms into a comfortable evening glow; everyone mills around each other and tries the dessert. Nail decals in the shape of the nine make their way around the table. I recline alone in my chair and observe the adults moving around me. I am a guest in the Oliff’s kitchen and the child of Anne’s best friend and so I become a child again, a role I don’t rest into easily but one I don’t resist. It’s almost intoxicating. I realize I’ve been spending this entire semester thinking about what it will be like to leave Princeton. The more of my close friends that I’ve seen grow older and away from cozy academia, the more I internalize that I will be leaving it soon, thrust into some sort of responsibility that I am afraid I haven’t cultivated yet and might never. Will I know when it happens? My plate is cleared away from my table setting, and Anne packages up my leftovers.
I watch her wrap the food in tin foil and wonder about how no one told her how to grow up and grow older, how to lose her mother and father, how to make her own brisket from scratch. The adults all pitch in to help clean up and I feel guilty that I do not feel equally compelled. No one asks me to help so I stay in my seat, wine-drunk. I’ve never cooked a meal for a man before! My parents and sister are eating together in a different state.
The guests leave with Ziplock baggies full of kosher food, and it is time for me to leave so I drive with Layne and his mother in their car. The Oliff’s house is 40 minutes to Princeton but I feel like it’s rude to check my phone openly (you can see the light from the cell phone in a dark car) so I stare out my window. Tonight is the first time I haven’t thought about home in the way I usually do, like I’m coming back to it in the same way. I had spent the past few days showing my sister and father around Princeton’s campus. Unlike the last time they both visited, now I could point to my haunts and hideaways, invite them into the routines that I’ve cultivated in my time away from home. This is my home, now, I tried to explain. At least partially.
I think about the family I’m coming home to, back at my dorm. Omega Diner flashes past the window and I picture my friends and I as slideshow characters, freeze-frame images of us all tableaued on the C floor, in our winter coats, in altered states.
I think I enjoy living far from home. I can still call my parents, and sometimes when they pick up and say “Hello, Rachie, we’ve missed you!” my eyes still well up as if on cue. I’m getting better at conceptualizing it, though. Not a distance of self from former self, but of logistics. There is a train to catch to come to the next one. There’s a time to hurry towards and a suitcase to carry, and when these exoduses happen at the right moment, I feel as if I am carrying myself through the spaces I’m leaving. Like this.
There’s something to being halfway through with Princeton that makes me think about distance too, or of time in relation to it. I’m far enough from each end that I can’t quite see either of them completely—I’m so far from when I began, and have no idea what the end of it will even look like, if I get there. How far can you walk into a forest? Halfway. I will be reluctant to give up my sophomore status. If the rumors are correct, the next few years should bring with them a fair amount of despair and academic disillusionment, but the farther I get from freshman year the more relieved I am of whatever newfound maturity I think I’ve gathered. I know my way around now, and can even go to Seders in eating clubs if I want.
Terrace offers its own Seder in the library, and a few doors down the electro funk band is warming up in the Green Room. I attend this Seder for the second night of Passover. About ten Princeton students sit around a makeshift Seder table and read from the Fucking Haggaddah, a Haggaddah for “irreverent Jews” which translates the blessing over the candles as “Blessed are you, Lorde our Dog, ruler of pop music who makes us royal with commandments and commands us to light the festival blunts.” Jeremy reads more paragraphs than he assigns other people, and it’s worth the length of the Seder just to hear him compare the first cup of wine to “physical freedom…the freedom to fuck whatever you want, so long as it’s a consenting adult, fleshlight, Louisville Slugger or Cheesy Gordita Crunch.”
Like any Seder we have attended with our families, we take turns reading the prayers and joining in song, candles flickering on the table before us. Unlike any other Seder I have been to before, this time we are the adults. I don’t know all the words to this song but this is how we did it at home; each prayer’s refrain. Melodies clash, singers trail off at different times.
I sit with Emily and Sophie and Lily in the corner of the table. Sophie is not Jewish but knows certain prayers better than I do. All of us Jews at the table learned it differently from our families, and this is how we know to sing these songs. I make mental notes to tell my father and sister the next time they visit. Look! We have our own traditions now. We also have worse matzoh, and the maror (or the bitter herbs) are passed around less as a means of remembering the pain of slavery for the Jewish people, but more as an alternative to Sriracha. Emily makes sure the circulation of the plate stays relatively close to our corner. The lights are on in the room and the furniture still smells sweetly of smoke. The meal itself has been exported from Chabad to Terrace, and sits on the back shelf in buffet style.
I’m happy and on the way to being drunk, and I feel this happiness immensely. When I come back next year, and the next year, and maybe again if I’m lucky, for reunions, Terrace will be familiar. I have a sticker that says so.
Still, I can’t help thinking here that we are just approximating at the traditions of our families. Playing house, playing at traditions we are only borrowing. We have not become the adults yet, but there is no kid’s table here either. Thank god though, I am not the youngest student at this Seder and don’t have to read the Four Questions in a language that I have long forgotten. Sophie and Lily and Emily and I sit at the end of the table and drink our wine out of plastic cups. We are mature. We sketch out a hook-up tree of our shared extracurricular organization.
I think about how half of them will be leaving next year into the world, where they will not be students and will be expected to be firmly and finally Adults, and while none of us are getting married (yet), two couples I know are planning on living together over the summer, which is kind of like playing house, I guess, but maybe it’s more real than that now.
I look around at the Seder and it feels like everything is happening with an implicit joke—how funny it is that we’re doing this all ourselves! We’re pretending to grow up, pretending to apply for jobs, pretending to live alone, pretending to fall in love. We’re making traditions with friends and places. We’re purchasing second sets of toothbrushes. No one ever told my parents or their friends when this would happen. No one has to tell adults that they are. People are leaving here and people are staying and some people will begin their first years next year, which almost terrifies me, the way this is heading, but perhaps this means I am precisely in the middle. Or something. Too much thinking!
The night at Terrace slowly makes way into an ordinary Saturday night on the street. People in various states of inebriation wander into the library, and I realize that this is my cue to leave if I want to hold onto some semblance of piety. I leave through the double doors and through the parking lot, decide to walk past my dorm and towards the football field, past the burnished red of Butler and the chilled, damp ground; past the science buildings and Fine Hall and through the mazelike Richard Serra sculpture at the lip of the football field entrance.
I walk through the doors that have been left open and into the white rafters of the stadium underbelly. The sky is a deep indigo tinged with the haze of fog. It’s drizzling but still warm. I am the most and least grown up I have ever felt. I’ll start my readings in the morning.