Tuesday, March 13, 2012

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Back There

Seen from an airplane two and a half hours after leaving New York, it seems almost obscene to call St. Louis a city. Of course, I've never had any illusions about my hometown's size, but after an aerial view of New York, St. Louis's abbreviated skyline feels almost comic, a lone leaf blown far from its parent tree. New York's omnidirectional sprawl dwarfed my sense of the compass, but St. Louis from the air is very definitely a point on the map, the surrounding flatlands lending it the dogged look of an outpost.

I was returning from a weekend in New York with my old friend Matt, who would not be coming back home with me, instead going to visit his girlfriend in DC. Matt and I have known each other since we were twelve, and during our weekend in the city, I kept thinking about the strangeness of suddenly finding ourselves ten years older on the East Coast. The first time we hung out, my mom drove us to and from a par three golf course. Now we were nearing graduation, walking around Manhattan without having to call our parents and tell them where we were. Hardly a profound realization, I know. Who hasn't found themselves wondering at the spot where time's conveyor belt has deposited them? But being with Matt underscored that things had changed, that from here on out, things would probably move pretty fast.

Or perhaps not; the first thing I did at home was to go for a run in Forest Park, which underscored the ways in which things hadn't changed. Hours earlier, I'd been speeding along the highway towards LaGuardia. Now, I was running the same loop as always, passing the familiar sight line that goes across the golf course to the art museum on top of its hill. This vista showed me my weekend in New York for what it was: one of those weekends that only college can afford, a weekend of walking the tight rope of adulthood with a net waiting squarely beneath me.

This thought brought a measure of dismay. On the afternoon that I came home last summer, I walked onto my back patio and looked up at the same sky I'd been looking at for a decade, lazily mowed by airplanes, a sky uncluttered by much in the way of buildings or trees. I'd been up there not an hour ago, and back in Philadelphia ninety minutes before that. But I'd traveled farther than an odometer or clock can measure, for suddenly, amidst the whirring insects that one doesn't hear in Philadelphia, I realized that for the first time, my life lay elsewhere. St. Louis was a pleasant pool of memory and family, but the main channel pulsed and flowed back east. It was a sobering and powerful moment, suggesting the separations and risks that would be required of me to pursue that current; even as I experienced the moment, I suspected that I'd look back on it as transformative.

That feeling lasted through my summer in San Francisco and into the fall, when I went to New York for the day to seek career advice from a friend's uncle. I've always enjoyed visiting New York without ever feeling I could live there, its impersonality alternately embracing and ambushing me. But on this day, a beautiful specimen of Indian Summer, the self-sufficiency that had bloomed on my patio in St. Louis found a natural correspondent in New York's ceaseless vibrations. I read in Central Park; I strolled along Madison Avenue; I received an intimation of what my life could be.

Of course, any place to which you don't belong sends you that kind of signal, for good or ill. Even in St. Louis, there's a place where I can endlessly ponder counterfactuals: Washington University, which has become, as I told a friend before spring break, my home away from home at home. "They should give you an honorary diploma," said my friend Dave, a student there.

I won't go so far as that, but I have spent a lot of time there: I worked at the law school after freshman year of college and visited Dave just about every break I had. During my sophomore year at UChicago, my friend Lucas and I traveled to St. Louis to watch Chicago's baseball team play there. A thunderstorm canceled the Maroons' visit, but the track team hadn't been deterred, and we saw a number of friends run and throw before a tornado warning drove us into Dave's dorm for shelter. I started my senior thesis there in August; last week, in the same spot, I brought it to a close with two long days in Olin Library.

There is nothing lonelier than a college campus at 4 pm, Friday, except for a college campus at 4 pm Friday that isn't yours. The Friday in question was Wash U's last day of class before spring break, and so I watched through the windows as a bustling campus turned into a deserted one, the emptiness sharpened by the thought of taxis streaming to the airport, where planes bound for Mexico or the Bahamas waited. I took a break outside, noticing for the first time that Wash U's quadrangle is much wider than Chicago's or, say, Princeton's, the order of campus geometry married to the freedom of Midwestern acreage. The buildings there don't tower above you. Rather, they loom at the periphery, which put me in mind of one of de Chirico's piazzas as the sun set over the abandoned campus.

I've had my share of lonely moments at Wash U. Not unpleasantly lonely; I wouldn't keep returning otherwise. What hanging around the campus affords is communal anonymity, such as can be found in big cities. But Manhattan is always something of a novelty to me, whereas Wash U., like a work of good fiction, offers an alteration of the familiar. I go there and see the same architecture, the same type of student, the same books, the same Greek letters sewn on the same tote bags as I do at my school. And I see a community that I could join fairly seamlessly. To be sure, no one guesses that I'm not a student. Last Friday, entering the library, I was asked to take a survey on the library's services. I gladly obliged.

A day earlier, on Thursday, I had visited my high school, where I'll be teaching English next year. I loved my high school years, and the nostalgia I harbored for them impeded my transition to college. I transferred after my second year at Chicago; unsurprisingly, one of the schools I considered moving to was Washington University. This was a bad idea for a number of reasons, the most salient one being that the reasons I like Wash U. so much would be shattered by enrolling there. I enjoy being part of the bustle of campus without knowing anyone but Dave. I enjoy studying in a beautiful library without hoping a certain girl will text me to meet for coffee. I enjoy everyone thinking I belong there when I don't.

Saul Bellow once said that he loved solitude, but especially when company is available. I sympathize. It took a while to admit to this fundamental tension in my character, just as it took me a while to proportion my affection for my high school after I'd left. It was only after transferring, after I'd gotten a whiff of what my life might be like beyond the Midwest, that my high school no longer seemed like the largest place on earth. Suddenly, the students I saw when I visited looked very young, belying my sense that as an 18-year-old I'd arrived at the height of my mental and physical capacities.

As I write, I'm on the verge of teaching where I once learned, and the adjustment to life after high school is about complete, just in time for my college graduation. If there's any lingering doubt about which side of the adulthood divide I belong on, my view from behind the desk next year should put it to rest. Still, it was bewildering to find myself back in St. Louis, back in my high school, just as I've begun to look beyond those places. Is this really what I want? I found myself thinking during my visit. If I've finally solved the problem of high school, I've only begun to tackle the problem of college, which my location in St. Louis next year will only magnify: Instead of trying to quell the feeling that everyone I know is elsewhere on campus having a great time, I'll have to quell the feeling that everyone I know is on one of the coasts, having a great time. The challenge remains: How to reconcile the need for solitude with the need for community? As Bellow well knew, you can't always write in your study while a party unfolds in your living room.

I sat in on several classes at my high school, including one taught by my friend and mentor Steve. He was the last teacher I had on the last day of senior year, and I hadn't seen him lecture since. Watching him speak about Othello in front of a group of sleepy 17-year old boys, passionately making the case for tragedy in an age that increasingly asks us to think that comedy is only an app download or an Amazon purchase away, I thought of how many times Steve had poured himself into a class like this since I'd graduated—how many anonymous March mornings spent trying to get young men to think and feel while the culture told them to play and snooze—and I thought of what I had been doing in the meantime in college, a lot of snoozing that looked like thinking, and a lot of thinking that looked like snoozing. College has been strange and painful and is coming to a close just as I'm making it work, and this is all right with me. Sitting in 201 while many of my friends were waking up from their margarita hangovers on some Caribbean isle, I thought of getting to spend another year around Steve, and around Jim and Chuck and Rich and all my other colleagues-to-be, all of whom I met in the fall of 2004, when I was a boy; I thought of the privilege of returning to one of the formative sites of my youth not as a dreamy tourist, but as an adult; I thought of the challenge of taking a year to stand in front of a group of surly 17-year-olds and try to make the case for literature half as eloquently as Steve was doing now; and I thought of how there was no longer any doubt that next year, I had to come on home.