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Magan Chin / Staff Illustrator

Say it too early and people freak out. Wait too long and people wonder why you’re hiding information. There’s a sweet spot, after you’ve made a connection, laughed over a shared experience, and that’s when you want to say it. The conversation doesn’t arrive there naturally, so you have to steer it there: Oh, I’m in GS. You don’t consciously analyze these decisions; rather, as an adult, a sensitivity to the comfort level of others has become second nature. Run water over stone long enough and it softens in recognition of the current.

It’s been 10 years since I was last in college and the kids today, they are different. They know how to dress and how to contour and how to find natural lighting, which gives their Instagram feeds a carefully-curated-to-appear-unintentional cross between model and anti-establishment-activist and witty-bored-college-kid-out-to-save-the-world vibes. They have 2k+ followers and—do I even know 2,000 people? Do I know what 2,000 Skittles look like in a jar? When I was 18 I was still trying to figure out which shampoo made my dandruff flare the least.

Ten years ago I was enrolled in the College of William and Mary, and there was a 25-year-old named Andy who periodically hung around our debate team. He was one credit away from graduating and categorically refused to complete his last credit. Andy worked at a local gas station, would show up to our practices on occasion, and write debate cases that made the rest of the league hate us: cases about depressed sentient computers and spontaneously combusting art. He’d arrive at our first-year dorms, unannounced and high, and demand we help him look for the garden gnomes that were following him. At 18 years of age I had no experience with alcohol and even less with recreational drug use; everything I knew of psychedelics I inferred from watching my debate partner, another first-year, turn up to practice sleep-deprived and mutter “Andy” in response to my inquisitive eyes.

I came back to college for a degree, not friends, and certainly not garden gnomes, but sometimes I wonder if I am Andy. I dress better than Andy, smell significantly better, and speak in more coherent sentences, but the whole time I knew him I was never able to shake this feeling of, Why is this old person hanging around college students? Doesn’t he have a life?

My seven-year-old daughter cries at bedtime, worried I will die. I distill my Statistics for Behavioral Scientists and Science of Psychology classes to give her a rundown of statistical probability and tools for emotional reappraisal, exit to my room, lie silent in my bed. While I know there is no ideal time to get divorced, part of me thinks I have picked a shitty year to do so. My friends in town repaint cabinetry with their husbands to keep busy on the weekends, my friends in the School of General Studies get engaged, and my young college friends fall further into that undaunted love so characteristic of youth or break up with their partners to find a world ripe with possibility while I digest the knowledge that not all possibility is ripe.

My Columbia College friend asks for relationship advice.

My GS friend promises herself she’ll stop dating gang members.

My 99-year-old childhood neighbor laughs when I show her my first gray hairs. She tells me stories about how her family moved from Japan to California after the war, stories of the internment camp, and back to stories of the havoc I used to wreak with her grandson. She pauses. Her voice, a rich ripple through water, says, “You are a baby.”

My Barnard friend asks me if I know what the difference is between an Uber and an UberX.

My daughter asks me: How hot is fire?

Our trampoline flipped over during the hurricane that passed through in October and it sat there for months, like a beached whale. My friend’s husband brings three friends over and they set it right, gesticulating with their hands about some corkscrew-shaped stake I’m meant to buy at Home Depot, but I am new to being man of the house and I still have to get rid of the Christmas tree and I think there is a bird living in the dryer vent and a small animal in the grill but I have four midterms next week and three evaluations for my son’s medical problems. I smile gratefully and do not mention the statistical probability of me visiting Home Depot ever in this life.

I mentioned my children in an assignment for Spanish class and my professor now begins each class with, “VEENA! My superwoman!” or “Veena! The woman with four jobs!” or once simply, “My hero.” As with so many circumstances in my life right now, I am unsure how to react. Sometimes I feel like a hero, and other times I feel like she is chiseling a moat between me and the rest of the world. My camera is off because within the week my kids’ school announced its full reopening; this is their third snow day. My daughter leans a mattress against the bed and vaults off. My son copies. One of the CC guys Zoom chats me about being slightly hungover and I respond, “slightly different vibe here. my son is taking off his diaper.” The screen says “jfc” and I Google the acronym while refastening my son’s diaper.

My daughter asks how you say “ice cream” in Spanish.

The neighbor’s daughter comes over to babysit. She’s 21, the same age as some of my new friends, and like so many of them, she is gorgeous, taller than me, and unable to maintain eye contact.

I get shouted out on the anonymous Columbia Confessions page with words like “badass” and “fucking hot.” I stare at the screen for a moment, wondering how I, as a grown person with a family, am meant to feel. Infantilized? Flattered? Embarrassed? I settle on “disoriented” and delete the app to focus on my kids as I make dinner.

My daughters ask what is for dinner.

A CC friend asks if I know how to use an oven as a toaster. His roommate uses a shot glass to scoop coffee because they don’t have spoons in the apartment.

After the semester is over, I meet up with my University Writing professor for outdoor drinks in Brooklyn. She’s a Ph.D. student, three years younger than I am, and it was her first time teaching GS students. I fully expect her to extoll the virtues of age and the experience we brought to the table, but she instead exclaims, “You guys were a MESS,” over her hot toddy. “Every week one of you was emailing me, ‘my landlord just died’ or ‘my kid had to go to the emergency room’ or ‘I can’t pay my rent.’ The CC kids were easy. Their biggest problem is having two midterms in one week.” Part of me would like to take offense, but the more I age, the less energy I have for irritation. Her description is accurate; life has taken things from us in a way that it hasn’t yet from them—but I like to think it has given us something in return.

I meet with a kid from the School of Engineering and Applied Science for work and say, “I don’t know how to conduct research.” She smiles and tells me it is OK and I do not correct her, do not tell her that I know it is OK, that my ability to admit what I do not know is a hard-won skill I had not honed at age 18. I text a Barnard friend about impostor syndrome and she responds with one of the best perspectives I have heard in a while: I lowkey have to remind myself like on the daily that failing means I’m about to learn something which is exciting!

My daughter asks who I’m texting.

I live in Connecticut, in the same town as Keith Richards. The median age is 47 and the demographics break down to 95 percent white. We have one (1) town square which, when I moved in, had one (1) pharmacy, one (1) dry cleaners, one (1) local grocery, and one (1) liquor store. The pharmacy went out of business, followed by the grocery, but the dry cleaners and liquor store live on—necessities in a town like this. I know the liquor store owners by name, have been going there since I moved in three years ago, but every now and then they’ll have some new young guy working the cash register who will size me up (chunky sneakers, crop top, oversized jacket, and eyeliner) and only after handing me my alcohol, throw in a, “You’re over 21, right?”

All of my underage friends ask me if I will buy them alcohol.

(I won’t.)

A CC kid DMs me a video tutorial for wet sand tacos. Funeral dirge music plays in the background as hands lay out a tortilla, fill it with sand, and pour water over the entire thing. I watch it three times and wonder, What is this? Then I wonder, Is this how they communicate? And then I wonder, Is this friendship?

My daughter demands that I quit school so I can play with her all day. I feel less like a hero and more like a drowning person in the middle of the Atlantic as I brush my daughter’s hair behind her ears and offer her half of me. I wonder if it is even the good half.

My attorney asks me to look over the revised version of our parenting plan.

I wonder if I’ve made more CC, Barnard, and SEAS friends than I have GS friends and wonder what this says about me. I don’t know that I have; certainly my closest friends are mothers in my town or students in GS, but the idea of having made any younger friends at all unnerves me. (Am I Andy?) I resist the urge to spreadsheet the demographics of my friends and email the Excel to the therapist I stopped seeing last August, knowing she’d have much more to say about the hypothetical spreadsheet than my choice in friends.

I slide into the DMs of a potential CC friend and after the conversation is going well say, “We should meet up when COVID is over!” and am met with silence. I wonder, Did I say something weird? I wonder, Is this ghosting? Then I wonder, Do I care?

My childhood neighbor texts that his 99-year-old grandmother passed away from sepsis yesterday morning. The same day one of my friends gave birth to her third child.

I wonder what a dryer vent looks like and if it’s supposed to make that noise.

I have been trying to plan a walk with one of my friends in town for well over a year and our schedules still have not lined up. She is a working mom with two boys and the first time I met her on the playground she told me she never goes anywhere without her planner. Pulled it out of her purse right there. I looked at that planner and thought, I will never. Fast forward eight months: As soon as I enrolled in my first semester at Columbia, I went to Target and bought a planner. My classmates don’t see it but it’s in my lap whenever we make plans to meet for our group project and I color-code in “cultural psych project” between “drop off car for servicing” and “three-year-old well-visit with Dr. Jenn.”

One of the moms in my daughter’s class wants to know when we are free for an outdoor playdate. Apparently my daughter memorized my phone number and has been handing it out to all of her friends in class and I cannot blame her because—honestly?—same.

My GS friend wants to know when I’m coming to campus.

The GroupMe for my least favorite class blows up with the collective hatred of our lab report, uniting undergraduates across schools.

We have team bonding for my section at Spectator and I am the only GS student. (Should I instead use the time to schedule my son’s surgery or fold laundry?) We’re playing a game and it takes five iterations for me to understand “Amongus” is not some new and upcoming version of manga, but in fact the two separate words “Among” and “Us.” I download the app and my teammates say I’ll learn as we go. I don’t get it, I say several minutes in. I just keep falling into these grates.

A collective chuckle issues from the Google Meet. Um, yeah, you shouldn’t say that because only impostors can go into the grates.

Sometimes it is hard to learn the rules as you go.

View from Here General Studies Student Parent GS Friendship Family Age