It is stifling hot inside my kitchen, even though the windows are open, with chocolate chip pancakes sizzling on the griddle and sun pouring over us like amber syrup. I have a spatula in one hand, the other cupped around my partner’s face as we kiss, salty and burnt-chocolate sweet. It is the height of summer, September in the Midwest clinging to highs of eighty-seven and cloudless blue skies. It is the first moment that has felt real in a long while.
Since moving here to pursue a PhD, my thoughts have chased each other in circles through me without heed for hour or inconvenience, stirring me into a froth of paranoia and stress. I dread leaving this apartment. Every social moment feels like the diplomatic prelude to a war. It’s not that the city is particularly unsettling or that I don’t find the picturesque views from the window of my morning bus peaceful—it’s this endeavor, my life here as a graduate student.
I am very used to being good at what I do, at understanding the rules, using them to flourish. Yet here I am a novice in all things, from bus routes to vital professional relationships. Here I am afraid to show too much of myself, lest I be judged unfit—or worse, unserious. Here men will tell you, “I want your advisor,” they’ll pry about your research; here women will tell you, “I don’t want anyone to know my real age,” or, “I don’t feel safe in a room alone with most of the male faculty.” Here in the ivory tower we are all cutting each other on the gilded edges.
I am living my dream. This beautiful apartment, this independent life, this job teaching, this free education…. All the pieces fit together, but somehow I still don’t recognize myself. Suddenly, I am quiet in classes. I have not written anything creative in months. I don’t have time at the end of the day to play guitar or oil paint or bake apple pie. I dress differently too, a consummate professional, nothing personal or expressive to give away my myriad of opinions. I feel as if I am dulling myself in order to play the game, and yet I feel constantly as though I am behind.
It is night and I sit on the counter of my kitchen, one foot tucked in the window sill, eating pasta and cradling my cell phone between my shoulder and ear. Beyond the closed door, the sound of the TV fills the apartment, harmonizing with my roommate’s voice and the deeper one of her boyfriend. I am alone, but on the other side of the call my mother asks me, “How is everything at school?” I say, “I don’t trust any of them.”
She’s frowning, I can hear it through the phone.
I set down the pasta and my fingers itch. I want to make something beautiful but my mind is chaos and the days seem to speed past like a camera flash, leaving me blind and reeling.
“Isn’t there anyone that you like?” my mother asks, her concern making the edges of her voice indigo, blurring into the night.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I don’t know.” What I mean is, I don’t even trust myself anymore.
It is late afternoon and I am in my office at school. At work. At school. I am meant to be writing, but instead I am answering emails, a never-ending avalanche of little questions and tasks. They tell us that we are students first, that we should be dedicated to our own research and writing and progress through this program. They tell us to have hobbies. They put on panels about work-life balance. I spend twelve hours a day on campus. I answer emails on Sundays. I keep a notebook full of outlines in a desk drawer I haven’t opened since I got here.
My phone chirps and I look down to see a message from my partner: “Can I call you?”
He’s in New York, miles and hours away. I know before I pick up what he is going to say. I’ve been waiting for it for days.
“I got the job!” he tells me, boundless enthusiasm and just a shade of bitterness coming through it all. “They want me to start on the nineteenth.”
“That’s less than two weeks,” I say. He’s gone, I think. I have been waiting for this.
“I’m going to see if they’ll let me start later,” he says, and I barely listen. “I want to see you before I move.”
“I’m happy for you,” I say. It’s not untrue. “I’m proud of you for following your dreams.”
We both have. Only, I don’t know if I’m up to what my dreams require.
The air is full of rain, or at least the imminent promise of it. “What’s up? How is grad school?” one of my friends messages me. Another asks, “What do you do when you’re trying to write a poem and you just get stuck?” I ignore both and press my fingers into the ridges above my eyes.
What do you do when you can’t go back to filling your days with work because your heart is no longer empty?
I ignore that too, and press on with the final email. A stack of reading waits on my desk beneath the pictures that are meant to remind me of carefree summer days, of how much love I have discovered inside myself, and of my college graduation: all the work I put in, all the words I wrote, the tower of little achievements that paved my way here.
I sigh and open the first article, pen in hand. I am struggling to feel the excitement that drove me here. I am struggling to feel that I am living with purpose. I am struggling to feel.
I move through the article, Skim; no one does all the reading in grad school. But slowly I begin to realize that I am reading every word. There are ideas here that sound familiar, pieces of a puzzle I have been building for over a year, my research. I write notes to myself in the margin, exclamation points, validation!
It washes over me in a moment of warm relief, I already know what I want to make, and so many people don’t. I just have to write it. I just have to keep writing.
Later, I sit on the bus, holding a backpack full of books in my lap, a body full of feelings. Around me the crush of people: students, professionals, creatives, engineers, people living and making and doing and being. I close my eyes and lean back as the bus coasts down and struggles up the hills of this city I now call home and think back to that morning making pancakes. I can feel the warmth of the memory filling me, the sweetness of it, gentle and silly and full. There is pancake batter peppering the stove and my partner is shirtless, sweat making his skin glow. He takes the spatula from me, flips a pancake, grins. The song changes and he jumps away, shimmying his shoulders, flowing through my kitchen like a benevolent ghost. He looks at home beside me.
“Young hearts be free tonight/time is on your side....”
The music plays and I feel eternal; life is made of moments like this.