I missed my last day of high school to go to a prom in New Jersey. Though I’d been living in New Hampshire for five years by the end of my senior year, I’d kept in touch with a select group of friends from my hometown. Or, really, a select group of friends had stayed in touch with me. Irina being one of them. Close since the third grade, she asked me to join her as a date to prom at the school that, had my parents not mercilessly uprooted me, I would have attended. On-the-nose sentimental as it was, it felt full circle. But what I hadn’t realized when I accepted her proposal was that prom would fall on the last day I’d ever sulk the halls of Gilford High School. A fate that, up until the final saccharine stretch of senior year, I wouldn’t have felt all that upset about.
The night before, driven down by my parents, we all stayed at my Aunt Karen’s house in north Jersey. The richest person I know in real life, she’s uber-Republican but makes up for it with her three-headed shower stalls and Eden-with-a-Parkway-exit backyard patio. Pretending to enjoy the can of Budweiser I was handed, we sat huddled around the fire burning in her chimenea. Having decided that a small liberal arts school called Emmanuel College would be taking me to Boston for the next four years, Aunt Karen eagerly discussed all that was to come.
“Have you already put together your schedule or will you do that during orientation?” she asked, her toothy grin a mirror of the flames. “Jeez Louise, this is so exciting. Honestly. You’ll just totally blossom into who you are.”
I choked on my own sob. Her smile atrophying into a question mark of the face, Aunt Karen asked me what was the matter.
“Ih-ih-ih-it’s just ah-ah-ah-a lot,” I heaved, ugly-crying onto the pashmina scarf I’d taken from her walk-in cedar closet. “So much is gonna change.”
With a GOP-informed EQ, there was no coddling from Aunt Karen in response. Unlike my mother and father, Baby Boomers who both made their careers out of a high school diploma, Aunt Karen was familiar with the college experience. Not only did she herself attend, she was now a sign language interpreter at a New Jersey state college, witness and translator to 18-year-olds responding to the stimuli of faux-adulthood for the very first time. She assured me that, yes, so much would change, that life on my own would prove to be very different from what I’d always known. Punctuating her advice with something along the lines of, “If there was no change, there’d be no butterflies,” I found solace in the fact that my tears weren’t the gayest thing that had been expressed.
True to form, I cried all my tears that night. Though there wasn’t a single uttering of “Is that Brian Burns?” as I shared a dance floor with peers I hadn’t seen in half-a-decade, prom proved to be fun—albeit lacking in the turn-of-the-millennium teen movie melodrama I’d hoped for. And when I accepted my diploma the following week, it was equally sans-schmaltz. Without knowing it, I’d prescheduled my grief. Like reading the spoilers before watching the show, my tears were dried before I had anything to cry about. Allowing me to face graduation, my last summer at home, and college as I knew it with some facile semblance of proper emotional adjustment.
“I’m just waiting for the fucking shoe to drop.”
“Huh?” asked Kyla, seated next to me, angling up her mortarboard and spitting out the tassel from her mouth.
Kyla and I were friends well before the alphabet placed us next to each other for our college graduation procession. Burke and Burns, the two biggest saps of our friend circle, side by side during, arguably, the single most sentimental hour-and-a-half of any matriculated individual’s life. Taking place outside under a massive Barnum & Catholic Bailey tent, the ceremony’s keynote speaker was about to take the stage and I was, presumably, about to soak my polyester-adorned chest with my own tears.
“It’s gotta happen soon,” I said, flipping through the program. “I have Nora Ephron’s 1996 commencement speech at Wellesley committed to memory for Christ’s sake. The Wonder Bra is not a step forward for women. Nothing that hurts that much is a step forward for women. If I’m crying at all, I’m crying now.”
“First off, I don’t have tissues,” Kyla said, returning the tassel to her mouth. “And if you lose it, I’ll lose it. So, fuck that.”
Try as I effortlessly might, I was keeping it together. I’d spent most of the last academic year dreading May 14th, the day that I’d no longer be basking in the glow of an undergrad life informed and structured by a syllabus telling me what to do, when to do it by, and how much amphetamine to ingest in order to get it done. As a lady-reverend began her speech with a resounding, “If you do not have a job, do not get a credit card,” my own resolute unemployment didn’t even have the power to prompt my waterworks. Seated on the precipice of an uncertain future, without a credit card in my name, I was dry-eyed, even-keeled and mind-fucked.
“What’s wrong with me?” I thought aloud.
“Yup,” Kyla replied.
In hindsight, those tears I cried on almost-prom night weren’t for naught. As melodramatic as it may have seemed, that missed last day of high school was just that. My last. I haven’t slapped a visitor sticker onto my chest at any point in the past four years, content to instead leave my past of PacSun girls jeans and chin-acne in the past. It’s poetic, really, missing out on that one definitive last day at a school I’d spent so much time, hormones, and journal pages loathing. The chapter anewed, the book ended, my peak not being had before the age of 18. A finality in the lack thereof.
“Yo, Boston Globe,” bellowed a voice from the other side of the salad bar.
I never corrected the manager at my college cafeteria job with a curt, “It’s Boston.com, actually,” when he referred to me as “Mr. Globe,” what with him seeming so proud to be coworkers with someone who worked at such a well-known city institution. It was a delusion of grandeur I didn’t have the heart to destroy. A delusion all the more deluded now that I’d been fired from its lame-ass online little brother too.
“Hello, Peter,” I said, piling my plate with wilted greens and chickpeas. “Really bumpin’ in here today.”
It was well into the summer at that point and Emmanuel College’s cafeteria was serving up grub for about 17 people total. Conference members and camp-goers and sexed-up European teenagers who called Emmanuel’s campus home during the four months that undergrads returned en masse to their suburban dutch colonials. Banking on the one-shift-per-week I once worked in this cafeteria, I figured I had some indisputable right to grab food for free whenever I was in the neighborhood. Three or five or seven nights a week. It’d just be getting thrown out otherwise, I justified to myself, averting eye contact with anyone I recognized on the quad as I bee-lined for the caf.
“You working brunch again this fall?” asked Peter, slinging vats of “green goddess” dressing onto a cart and cleaning up the lingering mess with a wet rag.
Was I? Could I? Why shouldn’t I? Participating in Peter’s bizarro world where I was still a student who would be returning to his part-time cafeteria job come September, I told him that yes, unfortunately, I would. Another semester, another hungover Saturday morning sacrificed to the Bon Appetit gods. Scoff, ugh, eye roll. I stuck a spinach leaf in my mouth, bid adieu, and found a seat in the dining hall next to an outlet where I could charge my phone.
Contrary to the Oliver Twisting of my alma mater’s cafeteria, I wasn’t exactly destitute. Between my overnight shifts at the hotel and walking nearly-nude alongside the South End’s finest canines, I was making a living for myself. Enough to make rent and pay utilities and consider the idea of addressing student loan debt earlier than lawfully demanded. I was no stranger to the art of grocery shopping and cooking a meal for myself, the five o’clock hour I adolescently devoted to The Barefoot Contessa still with me then, now, and always. But I had no reason to.
Conveniently, comfortably, exquisitely, I had Emmanuel.
“What are you doing?” my mom asked over the phone one day in August, the closest a Kristine Burns-greeting will ever get to sounding like hello.
“Laying out,” I responded, rotisserie-chickening onto my stomach and ensuring that my towel was still properly aligned with the sun.
Having just recently learned the basic details of what “data” entails, Krissy launched into a diatribe on not sucking up all our month’s cyber-rations. I rest-assured her, explaining how I was currently connected to the one Emmanuelite I hoped to never lose touch with: Eduroam. The wifi network that, by the grace of God, my phone still automatically connected to whenever I crossed the campus gates. Stationed on the lawn by the Merck building, I had premo UV exposure from noon till dinner time with the Cardinal Cushing Library less than 15 steps away if I needed to use the bathroom, refill my water bottle, or get out of the sun long enough to make the head-spins and spotty vision pass. If a better method of roasting my epidermis to absolute shit existed, I couldn’t imagine it.
“Well, I hope you’re taking full advantage of those doctors on their lunch breaks right now too,” my mom replied, hanging up the phone and getting back to work.
Pressing play on the podcast my mother had interrupted, I took the Moleskine I’d somehow managed to fill cover-to-cover in nine weeks from out of my bag and resumed position. The art of packing a day-long backpack had been mastered much earlier that summer. My dog walking boss had provided me with a satchel that, if I had the ankle-strength, could accommodate my own self-funded adaptation of Wild. Bountiful center compartment. Dual water bottle pouches. Those sternum straps I never felt Sporty Spice enough to fasten across my own chest. More than spacious enough to fit my daily bread of beach towel, SPF 2 tanning oil, single apple, and gym clothes.
“Hello, Class of 2016,” read an Emmanuel administration email sent in mid-May to me and my fellow recent grads. “As I’m sure you remember, a few years ago we established a policy that our Fitness Center is only open to current Emmanuel College students. As a proud alum and most recent graduating student class, I am hopeful that you can see the significance of this action. Therefore, we are only opening our doors to you until June 30. Have a great summer and again…congratulations.”
Not so much a rule-breaker as a staunch rule-make-an-exceptioner, I figured I was above this common courtesy. It was one thing to keep the lacrosse-bro-yokels away from the weight room once their undergrad days ended and their bloat settled in—but me? An involved, well-known, shame-lacking member of the Emmanuel community interested in monopolizing an elliptical machine seven evenings a week for a mere 20 to 120 minutes? What of it?
“Um, hello, God, is that you?”
Orifices I didn’t know I had tightened. I’d had my fair share of run-ins with familiar faces this summer, other Emmanuel students—some, in my defense, fellow graduates—who were on campus for research or internships or 24-hour access to the Wilkens Science Center bathrooms. But as frequent as these interactions may have been, it made them no less horrendous.
I pivoted on my feet to see a girl I was only barely acquainted with, a rising sophomore who liked me in the way a certain niche of the female populace likes gay guys who successfully manage to enter adulthood without offing themselves.
“Hi,” I squealed, exuberant as a flatline.
“Oh my god, I’ve missed you,” she said, reams of spittle spiraling down from her gullet. “What’s your washed-up ass doing around here?”
A mock-humble head shake away from explaining how a summer of dog walking had given me these glutes, I registered what my ass had just actually been called. If embarrassment didn’t prove to boast the more dominant genes, I would have been offended. Washed-up? Who did she think I was? Jon Voight? Adjusting the straps of my backpack, I laughed along with Gay Alexaccesorizer.
“They can’t tear me away from this place,” I soliloquised over my shoulder, inching away from her and towards the gym. “Ha ha ha ha.”
I told myself I’d stop going back to school once Emmanuel started looking like it did when I was a student. That once the girls from Old Lyme returned with their summer camp tans, I’d start cooking at home more and budget for a membership at an off-brand SoulCycle and commit myself to whatever it is that would come next. It seemed like it’d be obvious when that day came but, more than that, it seemed like I would be the one making that decision for myself. That the last day I wrang Emmanuel dry of everything it was supposed to give to me would be a day of my own choosing. And that some other prom at some other place would distract me, displace me, as I let go of my grip before it let go of me.
Handing my Emmanuel ID over to the student who had, begrudgingly, granted me access to the gym months past my expiration date, I got up onto my preferred elliptical. Situated in front of a window overlooking the quad in all of its Mona Lisa Smile glory, I programmed into the machine the same workout I’d been doing all summer. Program 4, Level 8, 45 minutes. My muscles had long gotten used to it, comfortably tolerating the rigor of this level’s resistance months ago, but my shirt continued to get soaked to the skin with sweat. So I didn’t feel the need to change anything. But once the 45 minutes were up, I continued pushing my legs forward and back, tracing and retracing the same ovals as the program restarted—my time spent, calories burned, and distance traveled each reverting back to zero.