What is it about these micro-breaks that makes for such darn good TSL fodder? You’d think the whole not-being-in-school thing wouldn’t really have a place in the school paper, but there’s something about the negative space between the long stretches we spend here on campus that helps to better define them. At least, that’s what I decided at 4 a.m. on Black Friday while I was retching into a bucket.
The list of revelatory experiences I had this break is long and, when taken for what they were in the most literal sense, undeniably banal. I realized, for example, just how much first-run cable television I have been missing the past few months, an epiphany that must’ve decreased my productivity ten-fold (“Yes, Mom, I’ll do the dishes… after these next 16 episodes of “Rizzoli & Isles””). I listened in largely uninterested silence to two months’ worth of past weather reports, lapsing into raised-eyebrow territory when I heard about the freak snowstorm that had hit New York the week of Halloween, the one my parents had somehow failed to mention, no doubt preoccupied with Harwoodian warnings. I marveled at the unoriginality of my relatives’ questions (“How’s school? How are your classes? How was the flight? How were those little blue chips they give out? Still little and blue? Well, that’s nice.”), noting that impossibly long family dinners do not necessarily lend themselves to unpacking unprecedentedly long absences. I came to know the awkwardness of the Talk with the Prodigal Friend Who is Not Enjoying College, the one that’s supposed to be encouraging but comes off as either falsely sympathetic or downright passive-aggressive. I calculated the number of hours of my life I’ve spent in transcontinental flight (approximately 195).
They say it’s the little things that count, and they’re right. Just as something as small as a nibble off the end of a madeleine can send you hurtling toward old Combray, so the simple throwaway “Well, that’s nice” of an uncle you realize you barely know anymore can speak that extra little 3,000-page volume of what you’ve begun to suspect: that you don’t belong at home anymore. That “home” as a geographical-emotional marker could mean anything, or that—and this is the worst fear—maybe it means nothing. Maybe you don’t belong anywhere, that if your freshman anonymity and your total lack of future and the fact that nobody seems to be doing anything to answer your PERM requests is evidentiary of anything it’s that you’re sort of like this invisible floating on the fringes of the real world, no longer a kid, old enough, even, to have gotten your post-pubertal mess of a half-life together, but an absolute nobody in any sector of normal society. It’s that in-between uncertainty that makes itself painfully obvious during these breaks, bringing to light what’s been building for months in the form of that uncomfortable game of let’s-see-how-much-we-can-charge-on-Mommy’s-credit-card-before-she-notices, that moment you realize you’ve got another 40 minutes until your flight boards and you wonder what to do with yourself, the strangely implacable heartache of putting yourself to bed at an hour you considered in your former life to be ungodly.
I was thinking about all this, and the worst part about it was that I was home among friends and family and there we all were, trying to pretend like we had roles that still held in a sense-making way, going through the motions, riding around in cars and throwing house parties like we used to, sitting down to elaborate home-cooked meals and politely inquiring about the chips on the flight. But the play felt contrived, the happy harmony forced, the so-called self-assuredness a downright sham (but it’s a sham with yams!). The nothingness of it all proved too much for me to bear, and so it was no wonder that I woke up with a tummy ache in the wee early hours after the big meal.
I’m back on campus now. I don’t have any finals (call me a loafer, but I didn’t plan it that way, I swear), which means I’ve got six more days of class and then a week and a half of more scheduled nothingness until I go back to New York again for a whole month. I’m looking forward to a longer break—if anything, it’ll give me more time to sleep—but I’ve stopped expecting the answers to come from these sojourns back “home” because they just seem to raise more questions. But I’ve always been a fan of the questions; they give you purpose, which is as good a substitute for meaning as you’re gonna get, when the questions themselves deal with meaninglessness. So, this holiday season, stay warm, stay safe, pay attention to your emotions (or lack thereof), and keep ruminating (but keep a trash can next to your bed just in case). And make time for first-run television; those little things can be a comfort, too.