“What lives undimmed in Clarissa’s mind more than three decades later is a kiss at dusk on a patch of dead grass, and a walk around a pond as mosquitoes droned in the darkening air. There is still that singular perfection, and it is perfect in part because it seemed, at the time, so clearly to promise more. Now she knows: That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.”
Michael Cunningham, “The Hours”
I’m not sure when I became obsessed with singular perfects, those moments that the whole world seems bottled within. I collect them, catalogue them with the precision of the girl who used to be me, the seven year old with the hundreds of stamps set in the laminated pages of a blue binder. My singular perfects tell me everything I need to know about that girl and likely tell you nothing. Ask me about her at 15 and I will flip to the page that shows a black sky and a yellow dress with the inscription “If Jamie can do it, so can I,” but what could that possibly mean to you?
This makes senior year all the more difficult, of course, as grandmothers and those few high school friends, the ones who somehow clung to a wearing thread, ask: Who did you become in these four years? How did Yale change you?
I can never answer the way they want me to. I can’t say that I came here looking to become Someone — maybe a girl with quiet confidence and aesthetic sensibilities and better taste in music — and am graduating having become that Someone. Maybe I am that girl now but maybe I’m not and maybe I never will be. Here is my point: to talk to me about Yale is to talk about the binder of singular perfects, the moments that said everything and nothing all at once and ended as quickly as they started. Maybe a connection threads the first one to the last one, creating a cohesive portrait of the girl today, but then again maybe it doesn’t.
All I can say, really, is that Yale goes like this:
Freshman year is the Silliman courtyard at dusk and counting yellow lights in windows. It is the walk home from Chinese tutoring on Temple Street to the fall’s first rain with a Guster song pulsing through broken earbuds. It is posing for a photograph on Easter outside of a yellow brick church in a white dress that was never worn again with a boy who doesn’t show up much after that.
I turn to sophomore year and find nothing in its laminated pages. No singular perfects, no trace of that girl. That’s the problem with remembering through singular perfects: there is no guarantee that you’ll find them. There is no promise that a year will stay with you.
Luckily, junior year is a flurry, padding barefoot at midnight into the president’s room in Commons and falling in love with two coeditors every Thursday in a room with red couches. It is a bar called Pianos on Ludlow Street and a plaid dress that no longer fits. (I always seem to remember the dresses.) And then an unthinkable series of three: meeting a forever kind of person in a French village, sitting on a windowsill with her and talking about mothers and God. It is a left cheek pressed against the window of a 4am train from Toulouse as a swimming pool fades from view. It is finally the sound of gold heels clicking down an empty Paris street.
For a while, those gold heels were all I heard, that Paris street the last page of the blue binder. For much of senior year I’ve battled the fear that if my someday daughter asks about my last year at Yale, I’ll have nothing to give her. No walk around a pond as mosquitoes drone in the darkening air, no singular perfect for my last year in wonderland.
Four weekends before the end of it all, I found it.
We woke up around 8:30 to the sun because we had forgotten to close the blinds the night before. The white light pressed against our eyelids and then we looked up and out and all of Manhattan seemed still. Midtown is nice from the 35th floor of a hotel. The height blurs the black gum spots and Ripley’s actors and bus tours and coupons and tourists whose paste-white skin folds over their knees. You look out the window and see a canvas blue sky framed by important buildings and convince yourself that, just for now, you are above it all. The gum spots and coupons.
We tried to linger in the white light for as long as we could. Wrapped the white duvet around our bodies and combed through the haze of the night before. The black walls of a jazz bar downtown. Taxis, dancing in silence and the momentary threat of rain. And then here, now, tightly wrapped in the white duvet because any looser and everything would be gone.
“That was the moment, right then. There has been no other.”
What Clarissa meant is this: It is the first warm day in April in New York. Seven days before, a boy told you he loved you and you said it back. It is the moment in which you both realize that love is not always enough, but that it is enough right then, there, suspended in white light. And then the unraveling of it all, the next moment, a knock and a soft female voice: “Housekeeping.”