I still remember a passing thought I had when I was five years old and sitting on the small classroom floor: “I can’t imagine not being in Kindergarten.” Even when I turned 12 and was shipped off to middle school, I couldn’t believe it. Even when I graduated high school, I couldn’t believe it. Even now, after 20 years of schooling, I can’t believe it. Sometimes I swear I’m still that five-year-old sitting criss-cross on the cold linoleum floor, surrounded by toys I no longer remember the names of.
I was 18 years old when I moved to Lawrence — an adult, technically, but still somehow a child as I sat in the passenger seat of my father’s Ford Explorer. We didn’t speak. Instead, I stared straight ahead, memorizing every curve of the road that took me farther and farther from the place I called home.
“You can relax, you know,” my father had said eventually. “I know you’re nervous, but you’re going to love it.”
My chest ached as we grew closer and closer to the city skyline. Its silhouette was an overbearing shadow resting just beneath the dawn.
I sometimes wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self that he was right — that there was no reason to worry, no reason for my quick heartbeat and tense shoulders. College would prove to be a turning point in my life, and in a good way. But I didn’t know that back then. I was just 18 years old.
I used to sit with friends late at night in dormitory lobbies, pushing together couches into tight rings to shut out the rest of the world. I used to whisper secrets in empty dorm rooms, afraid that every word would soak into the brick walls. I used to steal food from the cafeteria to have feasts out on the lawn as we wasted away lazy weekend afternoons. I used to cry in warm laundry rooms that smelled like lavender and sounded like earthquakes. You used to be there too, but I haven’t seen you in awhile and you’ve grown just as hazy as the memories.
I watched that same dormitory fall three years later. The explosives sounded like gunshots to the head. I knew we moved everything we owned out of it long before, but it felt like we had forgotten something vital in the rubble. I wished I could collect the clouds of dust and store them in a funeral urn.
There comes a certain age when you stop caring what people think about you. You dance on tables drunk. You dance on tables sober. It’s all the same anymore.
I wonder when I stopped being the timid girl who kept to herself. I wonder why I was ever that girl to begin with. I still don’t talk in classrooms, but otherwise I talk too much. I turned an introvert inside-out and since then I haven’t had a moment alone. I joined everything I could. I filled my time with everything and anything so I never had to wonder what I would do next. The rush helped my insomniac mind slow down at night until finally — finally — I learned to sleep again.
I felt like a tree until I turned 20. I was rooted to Midwestern soil, stuck in the only place I had ever known.
And then one day I went to New York. I lost myself in the anonymity and found myself in the rush of the city.
And then one day I went to England. I spoke to people who had never even heard of my world while I explored their world I had only ever heard of.
And then one day I went to Italy. I never knew how hard a person could fall in love with a place until I felt the heartbeat of the city sync with mine.
I have a knack for falling into whirlwind friendships that leave me breathless. I don’t know how one day we’re stuck having awkward exchanges and the next we’re lying awake late into the night, talking for hours. But somehow you convinced me to pull all-nighters before early morning work and to get matching tattoos on nothing but a whim and to sing in front of strangers despite my overwhelming stage fright. You remind me that this is what it feels like to be young and spontaneous. You remind me that this is the time to be fearless and alive.
I am 22 now. I have finished every class, signed every paper, sent in every form. I am 22 now, and suddenly all these memories seem to hold some significance they never did before. There’s a sense of uncertainty in every goodbye now, a mutual understanding that it could be the last. Every day feels like a deadline.
I became afraid of the future when I realized that everything that is now may no longer be. When five became 12 and 12 became 18, 20, 22, and all I could do was watch as each new number ticked closer with every mark on the calendar. I became afraid when I realized that some things you leave behind really never come back. I became afraid when I realized that every end meant starting anew.
But I remember telling a friend about how the future feels like a blank slate sometimes, how I couldn’t even fathom what was supposed to go there. To this day, her words still ring in my head.
“But isn’t that what’s so great?” she asked me. “You’ve got a blank slate, but you can fill it with anything.”