As the end of my first semester at Oberlin neared, the question that had been looming for some time began to loom even more loomingly. Like all decisions in my life, I was putting it off until the last possible minute, even more so because the past two or so months of my life had been total bonkers. College was happening, and college meant a never-ending stream of total newness (newdity?): classes and new people and homework which somehow required real legitimate sustained effort and roommates and the state of Ohio and parties with bands playing in the basement and red Solo cups filled with dubious liquids and napping during the day and all that fueled by yummy Stevie food aka Nectar of the Gods.
Thus, understandably, I was neglecting the highly important decision whose deadline was rapidly approaching: What to do for winter term. I mean, I don't blame myself. This whole winter term thing seemed comfortably distant, the kind of academic decision that I had been putting off for as long as I could, for as long as I could. A month of total freedom, absent of classes, schedule, commitments, absent of anything except for an "independent project." No sweat.
What I was sweating was the friend situation. I was not the most outgoing person, and most of the kids I met at Oberlin were also not the most outgoing people. I liked everybody I met, and some of them seemed to like me, but at that stage we always ran into a wall, faced with the nuts and bolts of the "making friends" process. It was like I'd forgotten how to progress from Acquaintance Stage 1 (knowing someone's name, saying hi to them) to Acquaintance Stage 2 (awesome friendship).
I did have some friends, mostly people from my hall, all of whom I liked (and still like) a lot, but there was only one person who I felt really close to: my friend Sayer, who had gone to my high school, and with whom I had been vaguely acquainted pre-college. We had become, in the span of only a couple months, more or less inseparable.
It so happened that Sayer too was undecided about what she was going to do for Winter Term. We talked about it, and at some point over the next few weeks, we had what I remember as the following discussion, which is condensed in the interest of clarity and avoiding tedium:
Me: Do you know what you're gonna do for Winter Term?
Sayer: Naw. What about you?
Me: I dunno.
Sayer: Wanna go to Montreal?
Me: Why Montreal?
Sayer: I dunno. I've never been there.
Me: Okay, yeah.
Perhaps her suggestion came out of the blue, but heck, the deadlines were fast approaching. And besides, we both knew some people at McGill, and we had a place to stay for a bit, and I had some graduation gift money still bouncing around somewhere. And in the end--why not?
A question still lingered: how to make this into a legitimate Independent Project? Eventually we hit upon an idea: we would do some writing, take some pictures, and cobble together some sort of record of the voyage, a compilation of Montreal-inspired art and writing. We were creative types, right? After more discussion, we determined exactly what form this record would take: a zine, the handmade medium of choice for short-form, low-budget art and literature.
So forms were filled out, tickets were bought, plans were made. We would spend about two weeks in Montreal, staying with friends and at hostels, exploring the city, writing and taking pictures, then travel back to Ohio by Greyhound bus, compile the writing and pictures and photos into a zine, earn the adulation of our advisors and peers, and probably win some kind of Best Winter Term Project Ever Award.
The trip was all perfectly planned out, except for two key things that we did not predict.
The first of these was immediately apparent upon our arrival in Montreal: how frickin cold the city was. Ridiculously, bitterly, painfully cold. The first blast of brutal Montreal air upon leaving the airport was like being punched by a snowman, and I realized soon that I had neglected to pack such winter necessities as gloves and long underwear, and aside from my coat and sweatshirt, my warm clothing equipment consisted of only a free-store scarf and a thin hand-knitted hat. Montreal in January?! What were we thinking?? I started to wear 3+ layers of t-shirt, a hood over my hat, and socks on my hands to ward off frostbite.
The other occurrence that we did not predict was more insidious, and it took a few days to emerge. Neither Sayer nor I had ever traveled with only one other person before, and, after only a few days in Montreal, we started to hate each other.
We hung out with our friends, took advantage of the drinking age of 18, went to some art and history museums,
walked down by the river,
admired the super cool street art,
hiked around Mount Royal, the big namesake/hill-park in the center of the city,
ate poutine, saw a concert, went to a drag show, drank a lot of the free hostel coffee and the not-free café coffee, had some brief, stilted conversations in broken French, took pictures, and did some writing. (These last things we do not have photos of--sorry).
But the whole thing was marred by each other's presence. At Oberlin, we realized, we had other people to hang out with (if not too many, at least in my case), and other things to do, and, probably most importantly, time to be alone. In Montreal, we were around each other literally 24/7, and we very quickly learned the limits of our tolerance. We were pissed off non-stop at each other, and we fought like every day--fought! Argued, I mean, but when was the last time I ever even argued with anyone? Was I not the amiable, ultra-chill, mellow fellow that I had once believed I was? Apparently not, as even Sayer's mere, perpetual presence was enough to aggravate me. And no doubt it was mutual.
Finally, finally, the time came to leave, and we boarded the Greyhound and rode on out. After 24-some-odd hours on the bus, and stops in just about every major Canadian city, and several American ones, we made it back to Oberlin. Never has Northeast Ohio in January seemed so warm and inviting.
We spent a day or so of much needed alone time, and then, to endless repetitions of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, set about putting together our zine.
This, too, was sort of miserable, as it turned out that, even though we had some good photos, the writing was pretty crappy, disjointed and disorganized, with a lot of pieces and nothing to tie them together. This in turn led to more arguments, more annoyance, and then finally, after a couple of weeks of frustration, we finished it, gave copies to our advisors (who probably didn't read them, wisely), never looked at it again, and then avoided each other for like a month straight.
For the rest of college, I viewed that winter term as pretty much bull honkey. We had taken some nice photos, I suppose, and had had a few good times and some interesting experiences, sure. But did it count as a legit Independent Project? Was it not more or less a big, frigid, ill-advised vacation? The zine was kind of cobbled together, much (most) of the writing was truly cringeworthy, and in retrospect the whole concept seemed pretty stupid. I packed that month away in the Shame drawer of my memories and revisited it infrequently.
After we got back, for a little bit in January and early February, I had some moments of panic and loneliness re: friends, but they passed. After some time away, Sayer and I started to hang out again, but not as much as we had before the trip. After a bit it was clear that we were drifting apart. It was probably healthy--I had come to view our friendship as one of those fast-forming, unsustainable, too-close ones, the ones that either fade or implode. But that was okay, because somehow, upon the beginning of spring semester, when everybody was coming back to Oberlin, it turned out that there were all these people who were happy to see me. It was weird. Looking back, I realize that I was expecting, in the space of a couple months, to make friends with whom I would have a closeness that rivaled that of the friends I had at the end of high school, which was natch ridiculous. I found that the less I worried about having friends, the more friends I had.
Anyway, yeah yeah, college progressed along, in that collegiate way. Friends came and went, classes were passed, majors were declared, and other winter terms (which I made sure were much more structured) happened. Basically a bunch of stuff went down. I was a creative writing major so I can use sentences like that.
Then, at some point, in senior year, digging through some old folders of writing in search for inspiration or something, I found this piece that I had written for the Montreal zine:
After Climbing the Fire Escape
On the roof I felt alert, excited; as if life was something higher than I, something that I had not really been able to reach, and somehow being on the roof of this building was bringing me closer to it. The rooftops spread out all around us, lights and satellite dishes and smokestacks breathing out thick white steam. Everything had a thin layer of snow on it. Maybe it was the view, or maybe it was the giddiness of being somewhere where you shouldn't be, or maybe it was just being able to see the ground wavering below through the black metal grill of the platform. Whatever the reason it was somehow thrilling, as if some grand adventure was about to unfold with me in the center of it. I looked down, at the snaking neon trails of cars, the icy mounds of snow and then up, at the dim orange-yellow glow reflecting off the thick clouds. The snow crunched under my feet and I shivered. In this moment, there we were: this city, bright and breathing, and above it all, me, high on altitude.
I kind of liked it, even if it read a bit awkwardly. I remembered that moment of being on the fire escape--it was on the roof of a McGill University dorm, where we were staying with a friend of Sayer's. We weren't up there escaping from a fire or anything, we were just exploring, and reading this piece, I remembered the view from the building, our breath steaming above us in the frigid air. And then, inexplicably, I felt suddenly nostalgic. I wanted to be back in Montreal, braving the icy weather, socks on my hands, hanging out on the roof of this building.
In our senior year, Sayer and I lived in houses next door to each other. I went over to hang out a bunch, and at some point during the year I was struck by a few things about our friendship. First of all, that we did not have much in common, and probably never had. But also, somehow, I felt wholly comfortable around her. I mean, what could go wrong, you know? The worst had already happened.
The questions: Would I have gone to Montreal that winter if I had never met Sayer? Most definitely not. It seems likely that I would have never made it to Montreal in my life. Would I have gone on that roof, written that thing, thought those thoughts? Nope nope nope. The trip wasn't all fun and good; it was hard and sometimes painful in ways that I didn't expect, but it put me in places that I never would have been, and it made me think about people and friendships and myself in ways that I never would have otherwise.
Looking back, that is more or less how I feel about college. I can't say honestly that I always had a bomb-ass, amazing time at college. There were moments of really intense unhappiness, of absurd, choking stress, of loneliness, but there was also so much euphoria, so many hugely meaningful relationships and brilliant fascinating classes. I met people the likes of whom I'd never met before, thought about things I'd never thought about before, did things I'd never done before. It was life, but bigger and brighter and deeper than anything that came before it. And best of all, after graduating, I think it stays with you. You never really come down.
Anyway, that's all I have to say on this matter. I wish a fond farewell to Oberlin and all Ober-folk. I will miss you.