“And how was I supposed to know how to not get drunk every Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and—why not—Sunday? / How was I supposed to know how to steer this ship?”
—Will Toledo, “The Ballad of Costa Concordia”
“Mom and Dad,” I said. “I need to talk to you about something.”
We were in the living room of the house we moved into two years after my high school graduation. It was the week between Christmas and New Year, that liminal period which bears the promise of renewal but forestalls its enactment, perhaps to accommodate the hesitation that the cosmos and I seem to share. My parents sat across from me in complementary chairs, clearly nervous about a big secret I was about to reveal. Perhaps someone was pregnant, or I had crashed their car.
“I’ve been thinking about it a lot, and I wanted to tell you that I’m scared to graduate.”
I had staged a similar performance two weeks earlier. My two best friends, both juniors, were sitting on the couch in my dorm room, looking at details for nearby screenings of Spider-Man. I got up from my bed and pronounced nearly the exact same words, a dress rehearsal for the conversation I would soon have with not only my parents but also, eventually, myself.
Both audiences reacted with a similar lack of surprise. “That makes sense,” they said, as though my nervousness were inherently predictable. In turn, their practical nonchalance momentarily turned my world upside-down. Did it make sense? I suppose it did, though it hardly provided any comfort. I had similarly found little solace when another friend of mine, a graduate student in his late twenties, once responded to my expression of wariness by saying, “Yeah, they never tell you that graduating from college is actually a really sad time.”
I sought comfort in artistic ruminations whose subjects were wayward and ponderous youth. Phoebe Bridgers, Sally Rooney, Elliot Smith, Jonathan Lethem, you name it—if it features some college kid fretting in equal measures over their life arc and their romantic prospects, you can bet it was on my mind. On the one hand, this artistic consumption was helpful, giving me a structure to which I could attach my anxieties. On the other hand, maybe it was just a way to confirm my preconceptions: that the oncoming end of college would mark the end of my youth and, in turn, all the concomitant freedom, adventure, and mystery that have defined it. My coldest comfort? Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, that masterpiece of a novel concerning the wayward wandering of a gang of implicitly untalented poets who scatter in disillusionment as their youth expires. Aside from the characters’ literary aspirations, I identified most with the words of Amadeo Salvatierra, who says: “I saw our struggles and dreams all tangled up in the same failure, and that failure was called joy.”
Culturally, college is often used as a shorthand for youth, and for at least a few understandable reasons. Practically, college tends to overlap with a time when our minds are both impressionable and free. Where in high school and earlier our curricula are largely determined by others, in college we can study what we choose. While before we are often under the watchful and sometimes repressive eyes of our parents and other authority figures, in college we find ourselves freer than ever before from their constant presence. We’re not kids anymore, but we’re certainly not adults yet either, usually far more concerned with the content of our philosophy lectures or chemistry exams than our utility bills or our prospects for home ownership. College can also be an early opportunity to experiment meaningfully or even radically with everything from our musical tastes to our political or sexual identities. To top it off, it’s easy to envision our university days as the fount for all the memories and relationships we’ll spend the rest of our lives invoking or recalling, everything from our roommate turned best friend to our epic vacation in Connecticut to the first time we fell in love. This reality is certainly not true for all, especially for students of more marginalized and/or economically precarious backgrounds, to say nothing of the vast swaths of Americans who, whether out of constraint or apathy, never obtain a college degree. But it is the societal standard, at least in my American context, a chapter in our cultural mythos that reigns supreme.
At some point in the past four years, I became obsessed with this myth of college as an all-encompassing experience. Now does seem the moment in life—or at least in my sliver of the human experience, unrepresentative as it may be—where we’re freest from consequences, where all my struggles and dreams, to echo Bolaño, can in fact coalesce into a failure indistinguishable from joy. Part of my obsession surely stems from effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which fragilized so many experiences and institutions previously thought unshakeable and disrupted so much that was otherwise taken for granted of the typical four-year university experience. More profoundly, however, I think I have clung to the safety of college to sidestep the pressures of the future. After this, it’s all uncharted. I’m a twenty-three-old American iteration of my juvenile literary namesake, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Leave a Dorm.
So, what happens when this all ends and I have to step out into the dreaded “real world,” a place bearing seemingly no resemblance to the emphatically curated environment of Princeton? Maybe, I fear, this is as good as it gets, this little oasis in central New Jersey where my friends and I can drink beer, strum guitars, and write personal essays without the crushing weight of the world and its burdens. Afterwards, the joys of youth will live on only in what Dolly Parton called “the sweet used to be,” a period of life that will never be superseded and only remembered with that melancholy nostalgia that the Portuguese language calls saudade. The coming of age has come and gone, according to Taylor Swift, but what comes next?
In Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Julia Flyte says, “Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.” I decided, finally, to talk to my parents because I realized I was too busy idealizing the not-even-quite-yet-past to be able to confront the future, let alone embrace it. Facing the future, which grows nearer every day in accordance with the stubborn advance of time, I realized that it was actually quite similar to the past, which had itself once been unknown to me. The only difference was that this future seemed different, scarier, less full of hope and promise. But what does it really hold? Could it truly be as terrifying as I’ve made it out to be?
I remember the feeling I had when I first came to Princeton: lonely and unexcited. I dreaded the next four years because I thought they would be full of cookie-cutter sameness, institutionalized bullshit wholly divorced from the realities of the world. I found it hard to enjoy anything about college in the first months, too overtaken was I about this school’s elitist and isolating tendencies that I still find abhorrent. I remember telling my friend Matthew my disappointed realization that perhaps I was not suited for this place, that my Princeton experience would be far from the typical one. He changed my life with a single rhetorical question: “Why would you want it to be?”
I leaned into my best friend’s insight and found, over the next three and a half years, something uniquely wonderful, uniquely mine. Now, when I contemplate my lapsing undergraduate career, I recall a host of memories: my arrival to campus, whose neo-Gothic spires were equally intimidating and entrancing; my first Nass piece, where I worked out political and personal evolutions in equal measure and, more importantly, first felt like the writer I so desperately wanted to be; the first time I vomited from over-indulgence, taking refuge in a toilet in Freiburg, Germany; late nights spent learning about the hearts and souls of my peers; lost loves and lost friends, ritually superseded by new loves and new friends with greater vigor; long drives back down to Tennessee, my first home, the song “Hannah Hunt” on repeat; the satisfaction of writing a thesis; my first ever hit off a bong; that first sparkle of sunrise on a beach in Barcelona.
These moments are only small slivers of an experience far too grand ever to attempt to commit to paper. The key takeaway: instead of going through the motions, I seized my life and made it my own. This realization, this understanding, has driven me back into myself and allowed me to understand that the future is not best lived in advance but in the now, as it comes to me. By looking into my past, I have succeeded not in keeping the future at bay, as I once hoped, but in running into it headfirst. I no longer think of my next steps as an intangible promise of loneliness and monotony. Instead, they are an extension of the present, equally full of sadness and disappointment but also joy and hope.
The only thing more wonderful than recalling passed moments of happiness and growth is to consider the prospect of new ones. These are moments whose character and shape I cannot predict, but whose eventual existence I recognize with the same certainty with which I can declare that the sky is blue and things fall when you drop them. Maybe no one, young or old, knows what to make of life. Maybe, contrary to the messages of my anxieties, there’s nothing so wrong with that. In fact, maybe that’s the whole point.
The other night, I was drinking a beer in Terrace’s dingy basement, surrounded by colorful murals of wild animals. Equally under the influence of mid-grade alcohol, all my best friends were around me, discussing Lukács and Tolstoy while I leafed through my copy of Eliot Weinberger’s 19 Ways of Looking at Wang Wei. Two unfamiliar faces arrived, both of which I quickly learned belonged to sophomores. I introduced myself as a graduating senior, and one of them said, “Oh, that’s so sad!”
Her exclamation caught me off guard, so incongruous with my current outlook yet so reminiscent of my former. How strange, then, to hear those words, as though I were conversing with an earlier incarnation of myself. My new friend must have detected a hint of my internal monologue in my facial expression, because she said, “I mean, maybe not. How are you feeling about it?”
I looked towards my separately conversing friends, one of whom I caught amidst a roar of laughter. “These are the people that I get drunk with,” sings Will Toledo. “These are the people that I fell in love with.”
“It’s a little sad,” I said. “I’ll miss seeing my friends all the time. But I’m ready for the next thing.”
“That’s great! What’s next for you?”
“I don’t know.” I took another sip of my beer. “But I’m ready for it.”