It all goes back again.
In New Haven. Late July. Ninety degrees. Hot and steamy. I’m walking down College Street. On my right is Sterling Memorial Library. On the lawn of Cross Campus playing Frisbee, nobody. Out of WLH through the fibers of sunshine skateboarding and scootering, nobody. Along with me walking, nobody. I am all alone. The only living being around at Yale. Or am I at the relics of a former civilization?
I walk past Hopper’s empty dumpster and cross Elm Street. The blinking traffic lights tell me I only have five seconds. Cars and buses wait for me, their front lights staring through my body. In front of these reemerging traces of humans, I suddenly become aware of my gait. I straighten my back and try to walk like a Big Man, as if I own this campus. Nope. The locked northeast gate of Old Campus promptly rejects me. It doesn’t open as I push my entire body against it, as if I don’t have any physical weight. I don’t physically go here anymore. My head starts to stare down. I feel an outsider’s humbleness, as if I’ve invaded this place, like a rat in Manhattan, like the first time I visited Yale as a tourist when I was 13 — what am I thinking? I go to Yale after all, and I’m here on a mission. To retrieve the belongings of Josh and Louie, my friends and roommate/neighbor who wisely do not trust Yale Storage and Shipping. If I’m truly traversing through some relics of civilization, I’m also here to be a gravedigger to retrieve others’ personal history.
I lift my head and walk toward Phelps Gate. Across the street is an avocado-green food truck selling vegan food. Walking past me are Yale staff talking on their phones. They all wear the same Yale Blue t-shirts, with the head of an angry white bulldog covering their right nipples. The word “Yale” doesn’t appear on their shirt, as if emphasizing they are only here to work temporarily and therefore don’t deserve the badge of honor yet. On the elevated roadside in white chalk: FUCK YALE HEH. Behind these wo›rds is a sprinkler, ready to sprinkle whoever doesn’t also FUCK YALE HEH.
Enter Old Campus. The million-year-old Mr. Woolsey stares at me through his statue. The monsters atop the door frame of Bingham C peek their heads out from behind their newly donned black curtain and poke their tongues out to breathe. Below these monsters, a mildly dusted window reflects my masked face. I look around and see my entryway door unlocked, propped open by a trash can. I head over and dial Josh on FaceTime.
“Save Christina!” Josh says the moment he sees the whiteboard on the first floor. Hanging by the dim staircase, it shows the names, phone numbers, and the smiley faces representing the eight FroCos, along with a bag of condoms and lube. The smiley faces flutter in the wind, unable to escape a Yale whiteboard after their Yale graduation. “Save Jordan too,” Josh suggests. Christina is our FroCo, and Jordan is her suitemate who always barges in during our FroCo meetings. I clench Christina’s smiley eyes and carefully tear the face from the wall. Christina’s smiley face winces. Josh reminisces about the tea and quesadillas Christina and Jordan made on Saturday duty nights. Hot and salty. I clench Jordan’s smiley cheeks and carefully tear the face from the wall. Josh reminisces about our FroCo group plus Jordan hiking to East Rock last September. I carry the two smiley faces upstairs and put them in Josh’s suitcase. They’ll no longer be thrown out when the next class moves in.
It doesn’t take long to pack up Josh and Louie’s stuff. Thinking about how to kill some time in this place I used to live in, but now am merely visiting, I head upstairs and reach the top floor. There’s a suite, its door propped open by a trash can. I know nobody who lived here, and was never bold enough to just walk in and make friends with them. Now everybody has been evicted. I can go in and, with no consequence, learn the lives of the residents—when the residents are no longer present, ironically.
Wind blows through the window and shuts the ajar door.
Do I go in?
The door opens without resistance. Empty. The only word you can think of. Everything has been removed. No furniture. No posters. No books.
No leftover GHeav sandwiches or Junzi. No dirty laundry. No empty beer cans.
You can see through the long hallway of this 10-pac, as if seeing through the lives of whoever used to live here.
You stand in front of the wall that blocks off two symmetrical singles. Both desks sit in front of the windows against this communal wall. The beds are squeezed in between the desks and the opposing walls. Looking from outside, the wall looks like a butterfly’s spine, where the antennae and wings unfold —the symmetrical desks, windows, floor. You have never been to any top floor suite before, and this is your first time seeing a Yale bedroom with a slanted ceiling. Curtainless windows open on the roof and hang right above the bed. You imagine whoever lived there waking up by natural sunlight right above their face every morning. The first thing to greet them would be the blue sky, or even a bird that happened to fly by the roof. How come I never got to live here my first year, you think.
You move forward to the common room. Nothing in the middle. The table, gone. The jackets in the closets, gone. The TV monitor, if it ever existed, gone. A brown couch humbly sits in the corner under the slanted roof. Your fingers flit on top of it — dust. A shattered mirror barely holds together on the wall. You stand in front of it — your frame also shatters. Your masked face, your dark blue Yale t-shirt, your hands, your legs, all shatter, barely holding together.
You recall your most quintessential night at Yale: you went to play basketball with friends from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on a Saturday night, then back to the common room of their suite, a common room just like how this empty one used to look. You poured everyone some beer, and everyone poured out their life stories. Sipping the ice cold beer, you and friends talked about Plato and Socrates, you heard how one friend regretted breaking their high-school S.O.’s heart, you confided how you struggled with your family, your friend told you their life dreams. The bubbles in the beer fizzled in your mouth. All your friends had studied Symposium, and the conversation definitely felt like it at the beginning, until it all turned personal. You all felt too tired at 5:30 a.m., but you wanted this talk to last forever. You thought your friends were the most awesome people in the world: intellectual, kind, vulnerable, determined. You wanted to be their lifelong friend.
You wonder if a quintessential Yale night has ever happened in this common room you are in right now. If yes, you also wonder if the best friends back then are still together.
A hidden hallway extends from the common room next to the broken mirror. You head over and turn left.
A door wide open. Another connecting suite. The common room. Chaos. All furniture pushed to the corner of the room. Cardboard boxes stacked on top of the couch. Paper delivery bags strewn on the floor. Empty Styrofoam boxes vomited out. A Biden campaign poster on the ground. A wooden table steps a leg on it. A dusty teddy bear sits a few feet away and watches.
Two desks sit against the opposite wall. Takeout boxes crawl all over one desk. Plastic forks and used paper napkins hide under a few boxes. A row of cans occupy the other desk. Beer. Ginger ale. Double-shot espresso. Neatly aligned in a straight line. Evenly spaced. The coffees yet to be opened. All have expired.
The fridge has disappeared. Along with the things inside. Iced tea. Diet coke. More beer. Leftover Papa John’s. The last tuna salad sandwich with the floppy whole wheat bread from Durfee. That was supposed to be consumed late at night. All disappeared. Along with the intended consumers.
Where did they go?
Did they really voluntarily leave? Or has another civilization raided this place, kidnapped its occupiers, and terminated the civilization of the occupiers?
Of every Yalie?
Are you visiting a stranger’s suite, or a museum of an extinct people?
Tiptoeing through this raided common room, you are surprised to find two unraided adjacent single bedrooms. You peak in from outside: the left room brightly lit thanks to the window in the slanted roof above the bed, the right room dark, the left occupied by an unmade double bed, the right by a large table piled with books and papers, the left room has a large fake plant, the right a bronze soccer player statue. With the reverence of visiting the MET, you walk into the left room.
In front of you is a large vintage wooden storage chest, unlocked, engraved is “CIVILIAN—PRIBAG” on the front. On top of the table scatter a quill pen and some ink, a box of Mickey Mouse chocolate, a bottle of Febreze, a birthday card, a WebsterBank flier, and some handouts. Under the quill and the Mickey Mouse chocolate is a piece of paper: “Welcome to English / William Shakespeare.” On top of everything lays an Eileen Myles poem:
The cat is in
I leave the bag where
so the cat can get
in it and dream
for a very long
while the rest of my building
A penny lies on the floor in front of the chest. To the right of the chest, an iron sits yet to be unplugged. Behind the iron, a kettle barely fits between the wall and the open door, as if reverse-propping the door from being fully closed. Above the chest is a black clock,
stopped. At 10:25.
On your left is the bed. A queen-sized bed with blue, wrinkled bedding and a white blanket, folded to one side, as if the sleeper just left. Buried in the soft, fluffy bed is a black pair of headphones. In front of the bed is a TV.
You walk around to the other side of the bed. An inside-out red sweatshirt is spread out on a corner of the bed. You want to pick it up and revert it. But just before you touch it, your hand jerks back, as if touching a layer of glass that blocks you from these pre-apocalyptic artifacts. Your eyes follow the sleeve of the shirt, to the ridge of the folded blanket. Underneath it is
Gleaming under the sunlight. Lying in the middle of the bed. Its golden hilt presses down the soft blanket. Its tip almost slits open the pillow.
White blanket. Blue beddings. No spraying stain of blood.
A preserved knightship.
Next to the bed by the wall is a black metal shelf. A half-empty bag of tortilla chips and a box of English breakfast tea. Next to a glass vase with one giant plastic leaf. Next to a pile of undone laundry. At least five months’ old. No longer smells. Next to a wooden basket of bottles of booze. Unfinished wine, open-seal champagne. The burgundy-colored liquid appears bottomless in the dark green glass bottles.
Behind the window, Yale’s castle-esque architecture completes New Haven’s skyline. A thin slice of cloud goes to hide behind Phelps Gate. A black bird flits through the blue sky.
The bird stops and lands in front of the neighboring room’s window. It peeks inside and sees nobody. A vintage Paris poster hangs right next to Batman’s twisted face. A pencil sketch of a gondola that looks like a Gucci handbag. A B/W photo of a Swiss village. A grey metal lamp with five lightbulbs poking outward like Medusa. A white clock high on the wall, also stopped. At 10:10. A bit earlier than next door.
Below the clock, a mirror reflects the opposite wall. A blue-and-white illustration of the Empire State Building. An oil painting of a European rural house, with orange roofs and red flowers. Hanging above a blue twin-bed mattress and a wooden desk. A stack of books on the left. A pile of ID cards in the middle. A deck of cards and a stack of flashcards on the right. A test scored 89/100. And the bronze soccer player statue.
The bird knows that it just witnessed the relics of an ex-life, or an absence of life. It attempts to reconstruct the life of the room’s habitant from what it just saw. So do you. You and the bird reconstruct two dramatically different lives, only separated by one wall. And 15 minutes. Two frozen clocks apart.
“Is Christina’s suite unlocked?”
Josh asks me as I head back downstairs. I look to my right: her suite is right here. The suite in which I played Rose, Bud and Thorn with my FroCo group for 10 straight days during Camp Yale. The suite where I sipped tea and ate grilled cheese every Saturday night. The suite in which Josh and I and friends hid to surprise Christina when she was named a Rhodes Scholar. I turn right toward the dark wooden door.
The door opens with the same squeak as the last time I opened it in March. Nobody else is here, but the common room is left as if the vibrant actions halted just as I walked in. A black down jacket dangling on the back of the couch. A green book from the library resting on the couch’s armrest. Whoever left it there quit studying to join the socializing crowd. A stack of clothes piled up on the end of the black futon, as if making space for people to sit. On the window sill, the green bonsai extends its leaves towards the sun. In the fireplace, melted candles. On the coffee table, a half-empty bottle of hot sauce, its lid loose. An open jar of jam. A swiss knife. A pair of scissors. A row of Christina’s mugs.
I recognize all of them. Which one did I use the last time I came here to sip tea and eat grilled cheese?
The black one — was I the one who put it at this exact spot on the coffee table?
Was I part of the history of the last day in this suite?
In the middle of the coffee table lies the unfinished puzzle my entryway was working on. Eighty percent of it is complete. The finished puzzle would be a flock of birds flying in the blue sky. The monocolor blue pieces—nobody knew which part of the puzzle they belong to—are neatly laid in the box of the puzzle.
When the puzzle is finished, where will the birds go?
I study the puzzle with my continued reverence as if visiting the extinct civilization museum. A roll of trash bags stands on top of the birds. I want to remove it. But a layer of invisible glass blocks me, the spectator, from the artifacts. But I was there when my entryway was completing the puzzle! I am observing my own history! Why am I not allowed to restore it?
I extend my right hand and pick up the roll of trash bags. The moment my fingertips touch the white plastic, the invisible glass shatters. The boundary between the collective forgotten history and our personal history is breached. Whatever happened the last night everyone was in Christina’s suite, the moment this March our personal histories froze, is saved.
I text pictures of what I see in her suite to Christina. She loves them.
After being raided by coronavirus six months ago, Christina’s place will be raided again by Yale dorm movers before long to make room for new residents next year. Christina’s puzzle, mugs, futon, mug, hot sauce, will all be thrown away, along with the headshots of the other six FroCos on the first floor whiteboard, along with the top floor mystery residents’ vintage storage chest, quill pen, Mickey Mouse chocolate, Eileen Myles poem, sword, unfinished wine, soccer player statue, flash cards, Batman poster, the 89/100 test, and the stopped clocks.
Along with everything left behind yet to be packed.
Maybe the memories, too.
The trivial memories. The ones you don’t realize their significance during their occurrence.
Like the fridge and the leftover food and everything in the empty suite that has already disappeared.
Old things in these suites are thrown away so that new people can move in with their new things and form new memories.
Only to be forgotten later as well.
Until someone random—a stranger, or even a bird—walks by. And walks in.
And remember what they see.
To save these memories.
Tony Hao | firstname.lastname@example.org