Thursday, February 2, 2012

The Accidental Time Traveler

When people hear that Curt and I are living so close to the campus of our alma mater, they inevitably ask, "Isn't that weird?"

Then we say, "No, no. It's not weird because it's not like we just graduated. We've lived in Boston since then, and Vermont. It's not weird at all."

And it's true that we've lived in several different places since then. It's true that we've been married for more years than we were in college, that neither of us wants to go back to living in a dorm room or eating food off a tray at every meal. That one of us (Curt), does not in the slightest miss homework.

Okay, I don't really miss that part either.

There's just one thing that is weird: the time travel.

One thing you should know about me is that I am never living fully in the present. I try, I really do, but the ghosts make it impossible. Any time I go somewhere I've been before, I see memories playing out in front of me. Layer upon layer of the past is existing simultaneously and all I can do is watch and remember.

It happens in Boston and Brighton, in Connecticut and Scotland. Even the most inconsequential moments stay with me, like saying hello to a friend for the first time, or giggling with my roommate while we walked back from dinner. I can't stop it. In fact, I rather enjoy it.

It's particularly potent here because my college is small and therefore the ghosts are dense. I have found that since moving back, I walk different paths than the ones I took while I was a student. I do not cross the center of campus unless it's the weekend. It helps to remind me that I have a new life here, and a good one.

But sometimes, like today, I make a mistake. As I step through a doorway, an indescribable smell pulls at me. What is it? Just the smell of the walls and the carpet and the cleaning products that have come together into an alchemical scent I can only describe as memory. There is something about the lights and the way they hum, something about the fliers on the walls.

Without meaning to, I think, "I'm home."

It's a warm feeling, like coming in from the cold only to be hugged and handed a hot chocolate by a dear friend.

And I know I have time traveled by accident.

Then I take another step, and the present punches me in the stomach so hard I can't breath. This place is not that home, any more than an old house where I used to live could still be considered my home.

A home is defined by the people who live in it, and there are new students on campus now. I will never walk across the quad and see Howie the Goose Boy with his long neck and bobbing walk, I will never pass the library and see Jay, always sitting in the same spot, always with his black umbrella, no matter the weather. Those people are gone. They don't live here anymore.

And, in fact, I'm not the same person I was then, so you could say Undergrad Jennifer doesn't live here anymore either.

That place only exists in the past.

I live in a new home now, albeit one that is draped over the same brick framework. Of course, the ghosts are still here, and they remember. And so do I.

It makes me think of this quote by Little Edie Beale (captured in the 1975 documentary Grey Gardens), which Rufus Wainwright sampled in his song Grey Gardens:

“It’s very difficult to keep the lines between the past and the present…You know what I mean?"


  1. I feel that way, too. The just-so scent in the air, however faint or brief, the tiniest snatch of a song that I haven't heard in ages, and I feel like I step back to that memory, no matter how insignificant it may be.

    And it's so strange to walk through the campus I used to go to, because now its pathways are so familiar, but the faces aren't, and I can't help but recall my first experience walking around, feeling totally lost. (That first time was a tour of the campus and we went through this narrow path from campus center towards Hawaii Hall, which was being renovated at the time. I felt so disoriented, and it seemed so different when I took the same route my first week as a student.)

  2. Loved this :) It's actually what I wrote my senior thesis on, way back in the day!

    Have you ever read Joan Didion's "On Keeping A Notebook"? If not, I think you'd really like it:

  3. Sabrina, it's so funny that you're experiencing the same thing in Hawaii. I didn't realize you were teaching at your alma mater. It's so strange, isn't it?

    Anna, did your really write your thesis on this?? Can I read it? Also, yes I do need to read Joan Didion. On Keeping Notebook would be better than The Year of Magical Thinking. I want to read that one, but I'm too scared.

  4. I'm scared, too -- I have a signed copy (my mother wrote her MA thesis on Didion way back in the 70's, so I managed to get her a copy of TYoMT when Didion was at USC once -- she's a tiny, frail little bird of a woman -- looks terrified of the world and was totally flummoxed when I started crying upon meeting her!) but am too, too afraid...

  5. associationalism. (but not in the woodrow wilson sense.) argh. i suffer it too. it's like bumping into an ex on the street. constantly. my worst place like this is oxford. after all these years it's a little better when i go back now. a little.

  6. Alas, not working there (though I don't think I'd mind it, even with a longer commute), but I've gone back a few times for plays and events, and I experienced it when a year after getting my BAs, I returned for graduate school. Totally different (and strange) situation despite so many familiar places.

  7. Wow, Anna, you met her!? I don't blame you for crying.

    whaddaya, I was actually think of your time in Oxford while I wrote this.

    Sabrina, Oh I see. Still, it's odd, isn't it?