I go home to St. Louis from college for the first time in October, dragging along my roommate, Juliet, and a month of being a real, true adult (I swear). My dad drives the five hours to pick us up in his crumb-filled gray Honda CR-V, just to turn right back around and drive the five hours back. He bought us tickets to see Hadestown months ago before I packed my socks, cheap film camera and expectations into the car to move into college. We stop at Wally’s for gas and sickeningly sweet Jolly Rancher Slooshes on the way home, which Juliet (in a rare moment of Southern pride) says pales in comparison to Buc-ee’s. I sleep the rest of the way like I always do on road trips.
My foot is leaden on the pedal, flying past the speed limit and the dappled trees along the road. They spread their yellow and orange limbs over the hood of my blue Versa, covering the sky and obscuring my view in a beautiful array of colors. I’m driving past my ex-boyfriend’s street and I don’t feel a thing anymore. The trees clear, their branches receding, and I can see the bluest sky I’ve seen in months, spotted with picturesque fluffy clouds. I spin the volume knob up to 15, 20, 30. The songs pound deep in the back of my head, building up a throbbing that won’t go away. I am flying 50 in a 40 down this winding road with no end in sight.
I am standing in the farmers' market with five of my best friends, a few hours too late for the waffle truck that fueled most of my previous Saturday visits (80% Oreo, 20% waffle). We’re in a circle that’s misshapen in the way that only a cluster of teenagers can form, directly in the path of the families with four-year-olds looking for the perfect pumpkin and workers trying to drag their wagons past to set out just-budding mums. Juliet and a younger friend I left behind when I graduated fill in the gaps in my friend group, standing in for boys pretending to be men in different states. The conversation bounces over and around me, as I make eye contact with yet another ex-boyfriend. As we all disperse to our cars, my oldest friend lets me really hug her for the first time in years.
I pull the dress from my senior photoshoot out of my closet on Saturday. For a split second, I consider stuffing it in my blue duffel bag to take back to college. But I just pull it over my head and buckle my prom shoes. We go see Hadestown and a man offers to take a picture of Juliet and me in the aisle. I cry during the second act.
We find a cat before the drive home to Evanston, a little six-toed tuxedo with a fish-shaped tag (Bean). We embrace being barely adults and delay our departure for a few minutes to just pet this little cat who has slunk into my backyard and calmly flopped onto his side to offer up his stomach. My mom comes out of the backdoor to investigate the disturbance and joins us kneeling on the cold concrete of the patio. We leave the number on the tag uncalled, figuring he’ll find his way back the same way he came.
I have a meeting over Zoom on the drive home to Evanston. My dorm’s social chair can only meet at 10 a.m. on Sundays, so every week starting in October, a group of overly dedicated but bleary-eyed freshmen piles into our collaboration space to plan Willard Formal. I try to sound professional and hide my bitterness over the tangled mess my seat belt has become. But it’s a mandatory morning meeting, and I only have so much dignity. After leaving the call, I start to drift off. My AirPods fall out of my ears, and I don’t realize they’re gone until I wake up near Joliet, Illinois. I sleep the rest of the way like I always do on road trips.
I ride the train home for Thanksgiving a month later, and there are notes from Juliet all over my whiteboard back home in St. Louis. The marker scent has faded in the weeks since the words were written, but I know if I try to scrub them away with the old sock I use as an eraser, it’ll just hurt my knuckles. So I leave them up, blue scrawls on my whiteboard in once unfamiliar handwriting (‘Heyyyyy big R-teest. Work on masterpiece.’). The words are a reverent mockery of the Hadestown lyrics I painted onto a canvas sunset that now hangs above my bathroom door: "...the darkest hour, of the darkest night, comes right before the dawn."
Graphics by Xinyuan “Sophie” Zhang