Friday, August 9, 2013

i wrote a love letter once.

well, not really a love letter. a story. but it's kind of the same thing. 

and this letter/story morphling was about graduation. which is a big word all it's own. i wrote it for my last class at university. it portrays every nasty, good, happy, sad emotion i've had to face in years trying to figure myself out. so, here it is. 

* please note all events are fictional, and any relation to reality--beyond the metaphysical--is purely coincidental. 

The Graduation
You get four years. To grow up. To get an education. To start a life. As if everything before didn’t count as much as these eight semesters, forty-eight months, 1,460 days—2,103,796 minutes that all rush together and blend, a mess of memories and moments meant to matter. They have to matter. They make you. And so you keep count.

First, you walk into a dorm with white walls decorated only by loud flyers stating dates about cleaning checks and mandatory socials. The minutes count down—from 2,103,796 to 2,103,795. But there’s still so many you don’t notice. There’s an awkward exchanging of first hellos with the roommates who look you up and down to see if you’ll do. It’s an introduction tainted by the goodbyes you turn to face as your mom struggles to hide her tears and your dad stares at a corner where the TV plays the game he’s missing for you. Your mom grips you like she would the last cigarette before she quit. Your dad pats you on the back but then remembers you’re his daughter and affection is okay, so he hugs you from the side and musses your hair for old-times sake. They say to call them everyday—a promise you keep for a week, maybe two, until you forget they were your whole life once. Eighteen years become nothing to parties and dates and homework and classes and pranks and dances that still feel like something out of high school.

But you have to move on. Because 44,640 minutes later and you’re telling a joke at a party—something about a giraffe and a lion that isn’t that funny, but he smiles at you anyway. There’s an electricity between you that you won’t be able to fight and then he’ll be next to you, leaning in against the loud music to tell you his name. You think it will matter for a long time. Because he touches your arm and asks you to dance even though no one else is dancing. And your bodies will move together, pulsing intimately to the music as the others around you laugh but all you can care about is the way the green in his eye turns golden when he keeps smiling at you.

It’s only 2,880 minutes after that and he’s walking you home after a perfect date. You went dancing again and the heat is still trapped beneath your skin where your heart pounds and you breaths stay shallow with all the nervous laughter. He stands at your door and reaches for you. And you smile first, thinking of the way the light sheen of sweat on his forehead sparkles in the moonlight. But his touch is rough and hungry. He pulls you too closely, holds you too tightly, touches you too familiarly. You tell him no, you ask him to stop, but his hands grip you in ways that make you feel naked, insignificant, worthless, empty. His tongue twists inside your mouth and you wonder how he ever convinced you he was beautiful. Somehow, his touch makes you wonder if maybe, since he’s on you—since you let him come even this close—that makes you just as ugly as him.

It’s not a minute later and your roommate opens the door, screaming like a banshee as she chases him off in colored language, threatening his manhood as much as his life for ever touching you. And you fall to your knees and cry, heaving against his taste still in your mouth, shaking off the shadows of his wandering hands.

You see him again after 20,160 minutes, his arm around another girl, his eyes shining the way they did the first time you met. You wonder if you got it wrong. You are alone and miserable and he is happy and beautiful. And your world suddenly seems small and limited and gray as your plain sweater. But your roommate will step into the scene to spill a drink down his shirt, apologizing half-heartedly as he jumps up, enraged. Then he recognizes her—he has to—and he steps down. She smirks and flips her hair, walking back to you, grabbing a new drink on her way.

“Forget the asshole,” she tells you. “He’s bound to lose his balls in some freak accident.”

And you laugh then. 131,487 minutes later and she’s more than a roommate or a best friend. And you can’t keep track of every minute together. It’s a mess of morning pancakes, open mic nights, long bike rides, double dates, YouTube marathons, and inside jokes revolving around cat memes that no one else find funny. She’s a part of you, as familiar and constant as another limb—like a third arm that might make other people uncomfortable but that you can’t imagine life without. It will be later, but the turning of the 1,000,000 minute will mark the last night of singlehood. And even though she refuses to mention his name—because this night is about you—you watch her blush and laugh and realize you’re losing her. Suddenly, your life loses its color.

You consider all your options too late. It’s a year gone—1,577,847 minutes lost—and you’re rethinking that major in business, the course you long ago settled on over stilted talks with your dad. Now when you talk about English and writing, people all tell you what to do: “Think of all the time you spent that you’ll never have again”; “What are you going to do the next time you want to quit?”; “Just because you’re passionate about it doesn’t mean you can make a life out of it.” All the advice jumbles together, twisted like a Twizzler you can pull apart and take string by string—bits of well-intentioned life lessons wrapped around messages of doubt and disbelief, all making you scared that maybe you can’t do it—anything you want—after all.

People change and leave and grow. Your life is unfamiliar at 1,051,898 minutes and you wonder if it will ever make sense like it once did. Now a flat tire leaves you stranded on the side of the road when you’re already late to take a test for your business minor—the compromise that still lets your dad send you that monthly check. But you don’t know what you’re doing—with the car, that is—and your spare tire gets away from you, rolling away from its precarious position on the curb. You chase it and the wind chases you. It only makes it a few feet before you catch it, drinking in big gulps of air as you struggle to find some sense of direction; as you struggle to remind yourself that this is only a flat and not a life crisis; as you struggle to remember why you’re taking the test in the first place; as you struggle to comprehend that it could be worse and maybe it will be. So you hold that tire and stare ahead at a traffic light that blinks green then yellow then red.

You find yourself 40,320 minutes later in the height of summer when a cloud burst above you, dumping rain in a violent tempter tantrum that catches you off guard in your white shorts and tight top. You think you should be mortified but there’s something so cleansing in that rainfall. So you stand in the middle of the courtyard and laugh, your arms stretched out over you as if your whole body is thirsty to drink it in. You lose yourself in the pounding rain running in torrents off every curve you see as a flaw, rinsing off every thought from the last thousand minutes. It’s cold and warm all at once, steaming in hurried twists off the burning cement. You wonder for a moment if you can evaporate with it, but then you smile, somehow whole again.

You take a last-minute trip during your last summer. It’s only 262,974 minutes to go when dozens of kids drive together, laughing and screaming “YOLO” in ways meant to prove they believe it. But the nights turn to talks around the fire about where you’re going and what you want to do and who you’ll still care about. People get quiet and the air gets heavy as they realize that carpe diem only carries you so far. The fire crackles and the stars twinkle and your life never felt so cliché. Everyone lets their s’mores toast too long and the marshmallows drip from sticks, crystallizing black against the ash. You’re reminded about that poem you were forced to analyze your freshman year—something about dreams deferred withering like a raisin in the sun. And you suddenly understand. You wonder if you’ve wasted four years or if you’ve done enough, seen enough, accomplished enough to make them count.   

And, now, here you are. The minutes have run out. The months have wrapped up. The semesters are finished. Suddenly, four years are over. You sit in a black, billowy gown that hides the blue dress your mom bought in an attempt to prove she still knows you best. But you’re different, and you can’t quite place why you feel uncomfortable in her version of you now. The fabric itches, the cut is wrong, the seams stretch. But you smile blithely as she straightens your cap. Dad is there, too, but he’s quieter. If it’s possible. He stands apart from your mom, irritated by her tears. The years look heavy on him and the unfamiliarity between you grows. He smiles quickly and your mom tries not to cry. But you pretend not to notice. That’s what threw you back four years. That’s what made the memories churn and burn and rise to the surface, determined to never be forgot. But what do they care, if you remember them or not? Dark and bright, sudden or constant—the layers of them don’t get past you; they swallow you whole.

You walk forward blindly. You sit down amongst hundreds. Some of them you know and some you don’t. Some of them are smiling, but some of them stare like you, lost in a shadow of their own making. And time suddenly stop.

You tell yourself the memories matter. That they have to. No matter how jumbled or random or trivial. They have to. They are you. So you stash them away with something like a smile. They line up together like broad splotches on a white canvas, coloring you in unfamiliar ways until you take a step back, watching them blur together. The further you get, the clearer the image. Until you’re walking across a stage, a piece of paper handed to you, finally forced to face your future and, suddenly, the image takes form. It’s you. Each corner of color builds you; each memory makes you. Separated in desperate attempts to paint detail, they mean nothing; splotched together, they suddenly become you.

You step forward. You turn your thoughts forward. And you move forward.

Off the stage. Down the steps. Into the arms of people who all think they know you perfectly but who only have shades and colorings—the images they were a part of; the ones they use to define you as well as them. You let them smile at you and hug you and congratulate you, but you recognize the you that you are is different than the one they’ve constructed. There’s a complexity in the coloring. There’s a layering in the make up. There’s a promise of more to come.

The minute turns. And, for the first time, time moves forward.


  1. oh my gosh. shelby, i've always thought you were one of the best writers ever, and your writing is addicting! it's still true! also, you are so gutsy and awesome for going to new york!

    1. thanks, lydia! that's so nice of you to say--all of it. i'm kinda freaking out, but it should be fun. PS i love your blog, and how eloquently you always manage to voice my own frustrations with modesty/sexism. i'm mesmerized by your posts, honestly.