It is past 2 a.m. on a Tuesday evening when a mouse creeps out from under a grate in the Kirkland Dining Hall. It bolts across the floor toward the kitchen, followed by a friend who has just emerged from the same place in the wall. I am with my own friend, and (besides the mice) it is just the two of us, keeping the other company in this empty space. Two mice, two friends, 2 a.m. — and we are too exhausted to do anything but sigh and smile weakly at each other.
We are tired — physically, emotionally tired — and we long to slip into our beds and drift off to sleep. These days are so saturated, so dense, that I find myself wanting each one to pass quickly, to rid myself of its burden faster. To not think of all I should be doing, all I could be doing. To just let everything go.
Let everything go. I reconsider. Maybe not.
The mice disappear from my sight. I shiver, and my thoughts wander back to a distant Halloween.
Amidst the heyday of my childhood Halloweens, when my friends and I were old enough to trick-or-treat by ourselves and young enough to do so without shame, a neighbor whose name I will never know deposited a Fun-Sized Nestlé’s Butterfinger Crisp Bar in my candy bag.
I had never seen anything like it, and it was for exactly that reason that I could not eat it.
It was true that Butterfinger bars weren’t my favorite, but this was a Butterfinger-meets-Kit-Kat bar, and the novelty, the rarity of that prize was infinitely enticing to me. I had lived eight years of life without encountering such a thing, and I felt quite sure that I never would again. And so the candy remained untouched.
(I did many similarly nonsensical things at that age: I refused to open birthday gifts because they looked so elegant all wrapped up — yanking at bows and ripping apart glossy paper always felt a little sad to me. I played in the snow as gleefully as any other kid, but I never wanted to be the first one to charge across its delicate brilliance. A small ache always accompanied the disappearance of a beautiful thing.)
So it was with the Butterfinger Crisp bar. In the weeks following Halloween, my older brother prodded me repeatedly, reminding me that there was no point in going trick-or-treating if I wasn’t going to eat my candy. I knew he was right. But by that point I had exalted the Butterfinger Crisp bar beyond my own sense of rationality, and — if I was going to enjoy eating it — I would have to eat it at a really good moment. Since I had no knowledge of what that moment would be, I waited. Soon waiting became stalling and months passed as saving the candy became easier than making the decision to consume it.
I began to understand that a moment worthy of the Butterfinger Crisp bar would never come, and, if I was going to eat it, I would have to do so on some regular old day. And so I did. On a night indistinguishable from any other I sat on the floor of my room — I could show you exactly where — and ate my most prized piece of candy.
It was okay. I reaffirmed my ambivalence toward Butterfinger bars and noted with mild interest that candy goes stale sooner than I had thought. This anti-climax was my own fault, of course. I should have known that such intense anticipation was bound to come with disappointment. So I sighed, threw out the wrapper, and moved on with my life.
That night was still remarkable though. Here’s why. In the instant before I pressed the wafer-filled candy to my tongue, while the chocolate was already starting to melt on my fingers, I closed my eyes and said to myself: This is something you must never forget.
And it worked. Over a decade later I remember all of this. Not because the Butterfinger Crisp bar was the most magnificently scrumptious thing I ever tasted; no, it was simply because in that moment, I commanded myself to remember it.
The significance of this triumph was not fully evident to me until the second semester of my senior year of high school. A peculiar sense of urgency saturated that spring — I found myself hyper-aware of just how much there was to hold on to, how much I did not want to lose upon graduating. I thought back a decade prior to my empowering success with “the Butterfinger method” and attempted to replicate it by willing myself to remember every preciously mundane moment I did not want to forget: a walk to class with a friend, an afternoon in the park. But these memories became hazy within a few days. Soon I realized I was unable to remember anything other than the fact that I had tried to remember something.
It was infuriating. Memory proved to have its own vexingly random storage mechanisms whose operations were beyond my control. What if my brain only had the capacity for one self-selected memory? What if I had used it up on a stupid Nestlé’s Butterfinger Crisp Bar — a fun-sized one — which wasn’t even that great, and now I would never be able to do it again?
I knew I had to keep trying. I was distrustful of the Butterfinger method but I had not lost all faith, and so I began writing down all the experiences I did not want to forget. Lying in grassy fields with friends, the pages of my notebook filling, the afternoons endless, I would observe the intensity of my own scribbling, the quickness of my pulse. How wonderful it felt to care so deeply for something. And I would say to myself: This is something you must never forget.
So it is with leaving a place, and so it is with arriving at a new one. Open-eyed, alert; mindful of each passing instant.
Freshman fall found my friends and I ready to bask in the newfound concept of Halloweekend. It was Friday night, which also happened to be the night before my 19th birthday, and the autumn dusk was delightfully chilly as we skittered across the Science Center Plaza toward Annenberg. I no longer remember why we thought it would be a good decision to attend the freshman Halloween event taking place there — but we were freshmen, and perhaps that is explanation enough.
I do remember that we decided to arrive so fashionably late that, by the time we got there, nearly everyone else who had been there — if indeed there had been others — had left. The music still pounded dissonantly off the dark, wooden walls, and, with the chandeliers extinguished, the space was eerily unrecognizable. Light from a disco ball flashed over the portraits of scowling old men. I found this effect to be unintentionally much more haunting than the cotton floss stretched over the Berg’s panini presses. All of the tables and chairs were gone — where? — and in that empty, hollow space, I suddenly felt small and alone and cold. Young women often wind up feeling cold on Halloween, I thought glumly.
One of my friends laughed at the pathetic scene and then twirled toward the center of the hall, beckoning the rest of us to follow. And so we did. There was nothing else to do. Whooping and dancing, our arms and legs flailing wildly, merging into one, riotous group with the few other strangers there. At midnight, as Friday turned to Saturday and 18 turned to 19, we gave a great cheer that echoed off the walls and disappeared into the music. Under the vaulted ceilings of that old, old space, we danced onwards, understanding that we were still so very young and so very new to this place. There was still so little to cling to. My eyes wandered through Annenberg’s shadows, over the grim faces in the portraits, over the newly familiar faces of my friends, and, with a sense of resolve I recognized easily, I urged myself not to forget.
When the mice reappear in my line of sight, I am oddly comforted knowing that I can track their movements from afar. By now I have tucked my feet up under my chair, because maybe they are plotting to scuttle maliciously over my shoes.
Across the table, the light from my friend’s computer flickers over his face, and I know he must be watching a video, and suspect that it is not for a class. No matter. We will stay longer. We will keep each other company.
The dramatic beginnings and endings that characterized the past year-and-a-half feel remote; it has been quite a long time since I have consciously willed myself to remember a moment as I felt it passing. Now we always seem to be in the middle of something, caught in this present, numb to most other things. Soon we will leave this mouse-infested dining hall, we will head off to bed and drift off to sleep. We will hardly recognize that we have witnessed the disappearance of yet another beautiful thing.
Maybe I will forget this moment, and maybe I won’t. How good it feels to hope that I won’t. To sit here longer, simply because we can; staying here, now; together and safe.