Note: The author wrote this piece before the start of spring quarter in celebration of their first full year; the current spring quarter is alluded to in future tense.
The only thing that has stayed the same in the past year has been the echo of a train whistle ringing in the distance. Strangely, it’s comforting. It’s as comforting as the fleece blankets on my bed at Stanford and the one in my childhood bedroom. Fleece doesn’t catch you by surprise, though. The train whistle — or better described as a horn — is a sharp sound that scares off birds, makes neighborhood dogs bark and can even catch me by surprise, making me jump in my seat when I’m lost in thought. Yet both ring the same whisper of home — home 1, Stockton, and home 2, Stanford. From my house at Stockton, blocks away from rails, I can hear it, either from freight trains or Amtrak or ACE. From the four dorms I have lived in during the past year at Stanford, I could hear it from the mile we were away from the tracks, either from freight trains or Caltrain.
I’m back where I began, writing this now. After a year in quarantine, I finally moved to Stanford last year for my frosh spring. March 28, 2021 is the day I finally took my first steps onto campus; every day of Spring break was me counting down the days until that moment. And before that were moments and routines then that were so normal in the time of isolation that are now strange. To Stockton — I’m unrecognizable to the place I’ve returned to.
Nevertheless, I’m back. I’m back to hearing the feral animals, cricket chirps, chicken squawks, loud Spanish music, ominous bangs and pops and car screeching combining with the train horn to make the cacophony of Stockton’s Garden Acres. My lullaby for the night. I’m back at the spot at my kitchen table, where I would log in and out of Zoom meetings for six months straight, spending long days sitting alone in a chair in the process of getting decent grades at the expense of deteriorating hips and mental health. I’m back in my room and bed, where I would shut myself in and shush the noise in my tiny house, trying to contribute to classes and club meetings and attempting the art of Zoom theater. I’m back to where I would finish each quarter by turning in a Canvas assignment, metaphorically patting myself on the back, exit out of each tab and close my laptop until the next one would start. I’m back to the place I didn’t leave for months on end, only blessed with the sight of the Stockton cityline and distant view of Mt. Diablo when I would venture outside of my house for a grocery trip or to-go order pick-up.
I’m back in my hole of disconnection … yet I’ve never felt more connected, now, with what I have found at college. I never thought I would be able to call Stanford home, especially during those moments of bitter loneliness, but I did just a few paragraphs ago. I saw a TikTok, moments ago, where a girl talked about meeting the love of her life, and she had something to say about change —
“So far my life doesn’t feel that different … even though it’s entirely different now.”
And it’s true. So much has changed in such a short amount of time.
– – –
It’s weird how places look when you see them for the first time. Especially when it’s a place you’ll eventually know like the back of your hand. And especially when it’s a place you’ve imagined for months and months on end, having expectations from college vlogs for a place you have never been to before. It’s disorienting, your brain trying to register the new stimuli (Escondido Road, Branner Hall, Arrillaga, Volleyball Pits, Stern Dining, Escondido Turnaround, Encina Hall, Hoover Tower), navigate what was in front of you and contain all your excitement simultaneously.
You know that feeling that you get on your birthday or on field trips or on days of breezy summer air and just the right amount of sunlight beaming on your back? That was what Stanford felt like — what was going to happen and who I would meet was unknown, but something was coming, something good.
Weirdly enough, though, for the prophecy I made for a place I desired to be at for so long and all the excitement I had for spring quarter, my first day arriving on-campus consisted of a lot of crying. My parents describe me as independent and work-oriented, but in reality, I’m pretty sensitive and require attention. (The mentality of a golden retriever, if you may.)
I cried when my mom teared up as we put my dorm together after we hauled everything up three flights of stairs and into Burbank, room 321. I could barely keep it together when my parents dropped me off behind Crothers to go take a rapid test and left. I went back to my room and cried more before I went out into the hallway and put all the feelings on the back burner to introduce myself to my ITALIC classmates: people, before that day, I only knew top-up due to Zoom. (Everyone was taller than me — that was new.) I was frustrated with myself when I couldn’t find the dining hall entrance and had to call a friend to find me. (The main entrance was the only way to get into Stern Dining due to COVID.) And I exhausted myself by doing all my unpacking in one day, taking a break to go shower only to realize I forgot my towel. (I luckily had a robe.)
I was lost — the maps app was my best friend for the week . Stanford, despite the excitement and all Broadway song allusions I had, was a place I had to adapt to. Even when I did learn where Coupa, Tresidder and Meyer Green were and rented a bike to explore campus, making it all the way to McMurtry, the feeling of being lost carried into the rest of the quarter. I mistakenly took on too many extracurricular activities and 16 units for a time when I wanted to be social and enjoy spring. I really felt imposter syndrome — while I had questioned whether I was good enough for Stanford before, my struggle to finish a five-page reading and lack of motivation to write an essay, something so easy once before, made me question whether I deserved a spot on campus.
For that first night, though, unpacking my boxes was my biggest worry. And once that was done, I locked my door, turned off the light and went to sleep, covered in light blankets. There were moments of peace.
– – –
My first full day consisted of me waking up to the sound of a garbage truck and the 8 a.m. sunrise casting light through the window. I would soon learn that the truck would come every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, serving as its own alarm for those mornings. I would soon also learn that it was almost impossible for me to get up early every day at college, and that first week was the only full week I would get up in time for breakfast.
Somehow, I was ready before 10 a.m., outfit and green eyeliner on to celebrate the first day of spring quarter. (I would also eventually learn that I would also not have enough time to do my makeup every day.) Breakfast — eggs, bacon, hash brown, a strawberry crepe and boxed water — was to-go, served in microwavable plastic containers and placed in a brown bag. Once I was done eating in my dorm, the maps app led me past the Law School and Meyer Green to the bookstore, then past White Plaza and up the stairs of Tresidder, where I would take a Verily COVID test.
Student ID please. Please confirm your name and date of birth. Did you receive a welcome kit? It has a reusable face mask and a picnic tarp. Thank you and have a great day.
Stand on that line in front of Station 4.
Lower your face mask below your nose, insert the swab and circle ten times in one nostril and ten in the other.
On my way out, washing my hands with foaming Purell hand sanitizer that came out of a dispenser, there was a chalk sign. In front of it stood a vase.
Flowers. Please take one!
When I got back to my dorm, right before I started my first class, I put the flower in a cup full of water and placed it on top of my fridge to catch the sunlight pouring in from the open window. Wilting, it felt right there.
– – –
Fountain hopping, I discovered when talking to my cousin, is weird.
Or at least not socially acceptable in most locations outside of Stanford. When I first learned about it from pamphlets and student guides I read from quarantine, I thought, Wow. So cool. I can’t wait to do that the day I finally get to campus!
That evening, on the Saturday that closed our Week 3, hours after my first experience of jumping into various fountains across campus, my cousin thought otherwise.
I stared back at him, partly surprised and partly offended. I guess I was already acclimated to Stanford norms, even by Week 3. “What do you mean disgusting? It’s like swimming in a public pool. You’ve swum in a public pool before.”
He was joking, partly, and carried on. “Disgusting.”
“What? I showered after.”
“Literally gross. I can’t believe you did that.”
“It was a fun dorm social,” I said. “Besides, it’s a good way to make friends.”
And that’s true, too. Around 11 a.m., about a dozen of us emerged from Burbank and onto Stern field, in swimsuits, carrying towels and beach bags and soaked in sunscreen. Our little troop, led by two RAs, one blasting music from a portable speaker, led us around campus from fountain to fountain. The first stop was the one between MemAud and Hoover Tower.
“This is a fun one … mainly for the photo-op,” one of the RAs said.
After three weeks of not having many friends, something was different that day. Camaraderie bloomed … at least for me. Not only did I know these people from ITALIC, but we formed intangible bonds within the conversations we had in between each stop and the physical support of helping each other scale a fountain. When we took pictures, each of us wrapping our arms around the person on the left and right, it felt like we were old friends. That this wasn’t the first time we had had an adventure like this. That the majority of our frosh year wasn’t ripped away from us, the culprit a minuscule virus wreaking massive horror, and that we had resided in Burbank since autumn. Maybe even longer.
Later, after I hung up my call with my cousin, a friend I had gotten to know that day herded me and six other ITALIC frosh to her room. The intention was to study together. We brought work to do, but eventually that plan dissolved into karaoke and then talking. And we talked. And talked. And talked. About our first impressions of each other. About our Harry Potter Houses and Zodiac signs. About our aspirations, our fears and what we expected the rest of the year to look like. I even shared an idea for a novel I eventually wanted to write and that wouldn’t be planned out until the end of 2021. I was met with nothing but enthusiasm. I had enthusiasm myself — that day was the first time I felt I had friends here.
As everyone got sleepy, one by one we began to return to our respective rooms. I ended up taking a shower at 3 a.m. before I fell asleep. Late-night showers, like fountain hopping and nights like these, times of love, friendship and being invested in one another, became their own regular.
– – –
The beach is a special place. Water and the ocean, despite the unknown its size holds, was healing. I’ll always look back to our spring day trip to Santa Cruz, a trip to the edge of the Earth at the edge of the quarter, as a capsule of love. It marked the end of an era. Change was coming, but then and there the only thing we had to worry about was the Memorial Weekend crowd and the sand that got stuck in our shoes.
The water that makes up the waves in front of us
once came from the puffs of clouds crowded in the sky above.
And how that day, May day, peeking into summer,
we finally went to the edge of the world,
and let the ocean pour over our feet. One of you said
the beach was healing, but forgot about the sand
It took an additional hour to get from Downtown Santa Cruz to the shore, the traffic building up while we mistakenly took a pit stop at Taco Bell. Even then, we made do in the car, admiring the ocean city and playing indie pop on the stereo. We even managed to score a parking spot close to the beach; rather than in the mess that was the Boardwalk lot, our car was safely nestled on top of a hill. The parking meter only needed money until 6 p.m. After that, it was free.
that juts between your toes and stays trapped in your clothes
for weeks on end. But every grain I emptied was worth it,
worth more than the dollars I spent on oily Thai takeout
and the overpriced tye-dyed T-shirt that read
“Santa Cruz” because I wore that T-shirt and
became bloated on that food
while afloat on your bed, on baby soft blankets,
howling out of hysteria and tucked in with all
of your hugs when I told you my love language was touch.
After we finished running in the waves, dodging debris in the sand, buying trinkets and overpriced merch at a tourist pit and grabbing a bite to eat at a convenience shack (I had a breakfast burrito for dinner), we found abandoned railroad tracks next to a park. I took pictures of my friend group as they snuggled up together on the tracks. Our party soon moved to the park, messing around on seesaws and tires. And soon we were climbing up the ramps at a neighboring skate park. More pictures.
We took our time leaving, letting ourselves enjoy the sunset. Soon, we headed to Mountain View for Thai Food and McDonald’s for sundaes and softserves and eventually back to Palo Alto. Before then, though, we braved a dark forest through a shortcut we found to avoid traffic. Mitski and other slow jams hummed from the radio. The night wouldn’t be over for hours, as we would eventually eat together in a friend’s room. The memory wasn’t over. Our time together, too, was long from being done — we had three more years ahead of us. But something loved, an irreplaceable way the universe made things fit together, would be gone soon. Change was coming, for better and for worse.
During the car ride, halfway fearful of the dark forest (I was certain a demon would emerge from the depths) and halfway already longing for what was in front of me, I buried my head into a friend’s shoulder. I started silently crying. He noticed.
I typed it out on my notes app.
I let tears drip on your shoulder when I knew
“everything we have now will never be the same.”
Change was coming. It was the end of a chapter; summer was approaching and we would separate for months to come, and when fall happened, everything was different. New people, new memories. Santa Cruz, and the rest of spring 2021, will forever be a nostalgia bath. Peace and lavender Epsom salts. Sparkly love, bubbles and suds of youth. But it eventually has to come to an end; the water, seemingly endless, has to be cut off from the source. You have to leave; if you stay in the water for too long, your skin will be pruned.
– – –
I’m nostalgic, I’ll admit. Not in an annoying, baby boomer way, where I’d say “Everything back then was so much better than now.” (It wasn’t, trust me. It was just easier to be in bliss.) However, I treasure memories, picture films that exist in the mind that I never want to forget and moments that have made me me. I’m nostalgic for my childhood, my teenage years, my first year of college and even the past year, the most change I’ve experienced as I near my twenties.
How do you measure a year? Is love, a la Jonathan Larson, a sufficient unit? In recent years, so much occurs within the span of the 365/366 day period that a year feels like a multitude. We have all aged so much, even in the little moments, in the time we type a word on the computer or take a sip of water or burn our hand making cookies or go outside and breathe the remaining fresh air we have before global warming tears everything we have built down to the ground. How do we not only measure the time we have left, the rest of college and the future, but everything in between?
I present to you micro-eras. They’re exactly what they sound like — periods of short yet unrelenting growth. The assertion that our existence, the minuscule within the cosmos, matters because it has an impact on someone, that the trajectory of life never remains stagnant. People are always in flux, a new version of themselves every day, hour, minute and second. The mundane is never really mundane, and despite global catastrophe, rampant death and isolation for one year, humanity and individuals are somehow able to push forward. All types of growth in between point A and B matter.
Labeling is my coping mechanism, I guess. If we apply “micro-eras” to my life, a year at Stanford, we can call summer “an era of realizing-the-world-is-bigger-than-you,” that campus was meant for so many more people, and that beneath the surface of projected happiness, there were hidden tragedies, even secrets hidden by those you hold closest. Sophomore fall is “an era of finding-your-place” and “reconfiguring-a-place-you-know.” Winter — “an era of the-best-and-the-worst.” What will spring hold?
The quarter system provides a good outline, but we can further break these large, overarching periods into smaller bits. Weeks, days, hours and even minutes. And these bits will continue and continue to build upon each other until the picture is complete and it all comes to an end. Is this what Frank Sinatra meant when he said, “That’s life?”
Is there a happy ending? Not necessarily. Civilization eventually will have its final moment. Judgment day will come. And to many, optimism is a privilege; it’s not enough for everyone to say that, a la Dr. Seuss, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” For many, it will matter when it’s over, when the little that people do have relinquishes and disappears. What happens, though, is all that we can take with us when it’s over — not just in terms of life and death, but even after college ends. I, we, have changed so much in the little time that we’ve returned before then. While we may never get back the time we lost, time that was never ours, time that was eaten up by a minuscule virus, we were able to continue to grow every moment in between the early days of chaos and now.
– – –
Tuesday morning, spring break 2022. I’m back, waking up in my childhood bedroom and Stockton and more. I await my return to campus the next spring quarter — will it live up to the hype? We’ll see. I immediately turn on my phone. Among numerous notifications, there’s one that catches my attention. An email. I sit up among the blankets and fleece and read —
R&DE Student Housing Assignments
You have a reassignment application, and we have a space available in a Burbank 1-room double …
I smile to myself. After 6 months on a waitlist, I will finally be back in Burbank to spend my last quarter of sophomore year, almost halfway done with college, and so much has changed since undergrad started. I lay there. It’s frightening to think that — a quarter left until the year ends. And two years left until Stanford ends. There’s not much time left. Part of me wants to stay in bed, hug my blankets and ignore the rest of the world, let time stop and never grow up. But I won’t, because the other part of me wants to wake up, make eggs, toast and chorizo and take on the day, grow and change with the minutes that pass. Like everything else that I have experienced so far, what’s comforting to know is that, despite the little that’s left, in the next quarter and within the rest of the time after, so much will happen. Beautiful moments and growth are ahead, things so fulfilling that they would make up for any time we have lost.
When I come back for spring quarter, I’ll be back in a place that no longer recognizes me, and, afterward, a place that will never see the same version of me again.