My attention caught hers as we were passing by a department store. Throngs of Christmas shoppers wreathed around us as we stopped.
“Hey! I haven’t seen you since graduation.” A hug preceded the usual quick exchange (How have you been? Good. Good! How do you like school? Blah blah blah). Despite having spent a good amount of time together our senior year, we lost touch with each other as the Texas heat relented to an autumn breeze, and both of us left our hometown for other states and other schools.
I had so much I wanted to ask her about her life in the past year, but as she quickly excused herself, my excitement for our chance reunion waned to match hers.
“Goodbye,” she waved, returning to her life and melting into the crowd of strangers weaving in and out of Williams-Sonoma and Macy’s with their Cinnabon and Auntie Anne’s in hand. An air of distant politeness trailed her goodbye, and—in spite of our friendship—I wondered if I would ever see her again.
These uncertain partings have become increasingly common since I started college. Maybe I’m being nostalgic, but there is something unsettling about trying to reconcile why people slip through the cracks of our lives and back into their own: How did we ever have anything to talk about? Would we still be close today if I had called her a few times over the school year? If I had sent an extra text or two? The string of hypotheticals always deteriorates to a dead end, and I am always left without an answer.
I have been back home for the past two weeks, and the ambiguity has not wavered since. Each time I bump into someone at a coffee shop or near school, we are quick to smile and quick to embrace. But as we burn through questions, we ease out of each other. A quiet, quick pause punctuates our farewell, and that is always when I realize one thing: The leaving happens way before the goodbyes are uttered.
The other day, I ate lunch with one of my best friends in high school. I hadn’t seen her in half a year, but after all the standard catching up questions, we were left with few things to talk about. For better or worse, our lives have gone from being unquestionably intertwined to awkwardly independent. The same teachers have made way for different professors; shared assignments are now tucked away in dusty binders on childhood bookshelves; and while we talk of our new friends, the memories over which we reminisce lay buried with the memory of our past friends. It’s as if we are held together by the mere memory of friendship.
This quiet deterioration is what happens when nothing else does—when there are no fights and no disagreements. And it’s what happens most of the time, surreptitiously, while we are going about our present lives and living through our mundanity. Like other forces of nature, the process of drifting apart is unstoppable, invisible, intangible.
When I try to cling on, I remind myself of this one time I watched Arthur, my favorite show as an eight-year-old, on Netflix. (I can’t believe I’m disclosing this.) I completely bought into the theme song and the first five minutes. I thought that watching an episode might be fun; I could reminisce about the old days. But a quarter of the way through the episode, my attention had already drifted elsewhere. I was forced to accept what has already happened: time.
Back at lunch, the topic of moving off campus came up. “I don’t think I’ll ever see my hall mates again after I move out,” my friend mused.
“Don’t say that; I’m sure you’ll bump into them on campus or something,” I consoled quite sincerely at the time. But the more I think about it, the more I understand what she means. Campuses, let alone cities, are huge: There are some people in my year at UChicago with whom I will probably never cross paths again. And even when I do bump into someone I know—a former housemate, for example—what significance will that have, when the only precondition to our encounter will be something of the past? We’ll talk about classes and the quarter system, the cold and the next break. And then the uncertainty will creep up again.
“See you around,” I’ll say. We’ll part ways, her feet pointed toward Goodspeed, and mine toward Reynolds Club.
Kristin Lin is a second-year in the College. Summer Musings is a Viewpoints blog that publishes on Tuesdays and Fridays through September 27.