We decided to flip a coin. But we didn’t have a coin, so we dug around in our pockets and bags and couch cushions and finally came up with a penny that she deemed worthy. She placed it on her thumb and forefinger and said, “Did you know there’s a national coin shortage?”
And I said, “You’re stalling.”
And she said, “This penny is dated 1942. Do you think it’s worth anything?”
So I took the penny from her hand and I flipped it myself. It came up tails. She smirked; I stared at the penny in disbelief. I had lost, and although I knew the chances were fifty-fifty no matter what, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had jinxed myself by stealing the coin. There was no use fighting it. The coin had spoken, and we were moving.
It was originally my idea to move, and she agreed with me. It made sense: she would be working remotely for at least another year and my grad classes had moved online. Our lease was up, and we hated our landlord. We disagreed on the where. I said we should be practical, stay in the area in case she went back to work, or move closer to my university. She said that was silly.
“Why’s that?” I asked her. “What, do you think we should move somewhere cool? California? Rhode Island?”
She laughed and shook her head. “No coasts.” She was convinced that every coastal area was going to fall into the sea any day now. “And since when is Rhode Island cool?” I shrugged and she said she wanted to move back to our college town. I thought she was joking.
But she was not joking, and so we flipped a coin, and I lost, and we moved back to the rural college town I thought I’d seen the last of.
I hadn’t gone back in the four years since graduation, but she had, for homecoming and a cappella concerts and random visits. Still, when we made the final turn onto the main street and passed the sign with the school name and crest, she was the one with her head on a swivel, hands drumming on the dashboard in anticipation. She kept saying “Look!” but I kept my eyes straight ahead and tried not to look at the dorms with their crumbling roofs or the new library with its glimmering glass façade. The library wasn’t really new anymore, I realized. Its grand opening was during our sophomore year. I felt simultaneously old as hell and impossibly young, the same way I did when I first moved here at age 18.
We rented a house on one of the streets mostly occupied by what we’d always lovingly referred to as “real people” along with a few off-campus houses. Really, some of the off-campus houses were closer to campus than the less popular dorms, and so we could see the library from our lawn. She thought it was terrific. I thought it was taunting me.
“It’s so weird without students here,” she said, while we walked around, stretching our legs after so many hours in the car. “So empty. It feels dead.”
“Well, they are here, they’re just quarantined in the dorms.”
“Same thing, basically.”
I let it drop, but I wanted to tell her that for me, this wasn’t the weird part. Unlike her, I had spent plenty of breaks on-campus, nearly alone except for the few other people I saw each day as we lined up for our meals at the dining hall. We didn’t know each other and didn’t make any effort to aside from a nod here or a wave there. Instead, we got our meals in silence and trudged back to our rooms, usually in the snow, and waited for everyone else to come back. She had never had that experience because she could afford tickets home. After we started dating, she invited me to fly home with her like it was the easiest thing in the world, but I turned her down. How could I let her buy me a ticket to go visit her family while mine could barely afford my tuition?
She knows me better than anyone, but she still doesn’t get it, and so of course she also didn’t understand why I didn’t want to move here. As we walked around, she had a wild story or good memory for every building:
“I had my a cappella audition there,” she said, pointing to a squat grey dorm with two rusty bikes propped against the wall. “I completely botched it.” I finish the story in my head along with her I can’t believe they let me in. I was so shocked.
We passed the gym with its clock tower and said, “Remember when I took that spin class at 6:30 AM? It made me never want to see a bike again.”
She had the idea for her senior thesis sitting on that wooden bench underneath a willow tree, while reading something by Foucault. And that big dorm with the ivy on its walls was where she went to her first party, got drunk, and vomited on the lawn. She inspected the patch of grass where it happened and announced that it had finally grown back. She has so many stories. It’s like she left a piece of her soul in each of these places, and she can only go so long without visiting before they call her back.
I let her chatter and I didn’t share my memories. Hers aren’t especially exciting, but they’re sentimental, and far better than mine: That’s where I cried because I was homesick. That’s where my mom called to tell me my dad was sick, and I cried. That’s where I cried because I hadn’t started a paper and it was due the next day.
“Hey,” she said, tugging on my sleeve. She pointed again, this time to a small pond. “Remember there?” I nodded and let her tell the story because I liked to hear it. “That’s where I met you. There were some ducks and I was feeding them bread, and you came to stand next to me and told me that it’s bad to feed bread to ducks.”
“It’s like potato chips to them—”
“And if too many people do it, they get accustomed to the free food and the pond can get overcrowded,” she finished for me in a mock-lecturing voice. “Yes. I know that now. And then I almost cried, and it was because I was having a bad day, but you thought it was because of the ducks, and you started freaking out and apologizing.”
I smiled. I couldn’t help it. “I still feel kind of bad about it. I mean, who walks up to someone they don’t know and lectures them about duck malnutrition?"
“You do, and I love you.” She took my hand and we watched the pond for a few minutes. Frogs poked their heads out from the water and croaked at us as the sun began to set over campus. The sky turned pink and orange with the shadows of mountains in the distance. It reminded me of a watercolor painting I did once when I was trying new hobbies. This sky was better though, because unlike me, it knew how to mix colors. It always was beautiful here, even on the bad days. I hadn't seen a lot of sunsets here, because I was usually inside, bent over a computer, cloaked in darkness or artificial light, but I did see a few sunrises. She took me on sunrise hikes. I hated the hiking part, but the sunrise was always worth it.
“We don’t have to stay forever, you know,” she said. “I just thought it would be nice to come back for a little while. I know you didn’t love it here like I did, but I thought maybe, if you came back as just a person and not a student, it might be different.”
“We can go back to the house, if you want.”
I did want to go back to the house, but I knew I’d been moping since we arrived, and I hadn’t been much fun. “No, let’s keep walking. Will you show me your favorite place on campus?”
She looked at me, smiled, looked at the watercolor sky, then back to the pond. “We’re already here.”