The breeze is cool on my neck as I slough off my cap and gown and drop them to the ground on top of my honors regalia. Beside me, Melissa toes off her shoes and bends down to hook her fingers through their straps before straightening up and turning to face me.
I nod, and we start forward, promising Mel’s parents we’ll be back in a few minutes. “Shelb and I just want to take a walk around the front lawn, get some closure,” she says, and her dad smiles and drifts back toward her mom. We pass under the Harding arch and enter the cool tunnel of trees, leaning our heads back to soak in everything we’ve taken for granted the past seven semesters.
“There’s Engel’s office,” I say, pointing to a bank of windows breaking the brick of the American Studies wall. “And there’s Claxton’s — ”
“–and Boone’s and Qualls’ and Dillion’s–”
We go down the list of our professors, eyes lingering on windows as if they were the people themselves. “I’m really going to miss them,” I whisper, and Melissa nods.
The breeze kicks up again, tousling my hair, pulling at my skirt and legs. It feels good to be rid of the trappings of graduation, but I can’t help feeling empty. (It’s over.) (Really over.) (No more classes or tests or spontaneous office visits.) My chest feels hollow and tight.
We pass the dorms — Kendall and Cathcart and Pattie Cobb — and I open my mouth to point out the corner room where I lived one semester, but instead I let my gaze linger on each of its five windows in the hopes of finding the tears that I’ve kept at bay all morning and afternoon. I’d started to cry an hour before, saying goodbye to a professor, but had held myself together by sheer force of will, refusing to crumble, focusing instead on her whispered well-wishes and the fierce, almost desperate strength of her hug. This isn’t the kind of hug you give someone you’re going to forget, I’d reassured myself. She’s really going to miss you. They all are. You aren’t the only one struggling to say goodbye.
I hadn’t let myself cry then, too embarrassed to break down in the crush of family and friends and three thousand strangers, but now that it’s just me and Melissa, I can let myself go.
Except I can’t. The tears just aren’t there.
“Let’s go play in the fountain,” Melissa suggests, and we turn left to cut through the grass. Halfway there I stop and kick off my ballet flats, wincing a little at the sudden sharpness of sticks and acorns, so different from the sweaty press of shoes.
“Remember that time we had class out here and ended up talking about Powerpuff Girls instead of postcolonial literature?”
We laugh and drop our shoes and climb over the edge of the pool. The water is cold and knee-deep and we giggle as we try to keep our clothes from getting soaked.
“I didn’t play in the fountain enough,” Melissa mourns. “I feel like the novelty wore off after freshman year.”
“It’s weird to think that it’s over. Like…that was four years ago. Four years.”
We stare at each other, uncertain what to say.
“Sweet memz?” I finally offer, falling back on the phrase I’ve latched onto these past three days.
“Sweet memz,” Melissa agrees, and we sit on the edge of the pool.
Though I try my best to hide it, I’m a sentimental sap, and because of it, every inch of the campus clamors for my attention as I try to soak up my final moments as a college student. I’ll come back to visit — I will — but it won’t be the same. I won’t belong. I’ll be the past come to visit the present, and it will be good and wonderful, I know, but it won’t be the good and wonderful of belonging.
We couldn’t have picked a better place to sit. In front of us is the Ganus where I fought to earn my Spanish minor and ended up becoming dear friends with my professor. To our left is the library where I’ve worked my entire college career, and behind us, supporting us, cheering us on, is the English building. I soak it in, all of it, like a dying woman saying goodbye.
The water is cold on my feet, and as I stare out across the splashing fountain, I can’t help but think of the scene in Lila by Marilynne Robinson where an aged preacher baptizes his wife. They stand on the edge of a river and he dips his hand in the water and presses his palm to her brow: once, twice, thrice, a threefold intentional touching that welcomes her into the community of believers. A touch that says, I love you, but even better than that, God loves you. I wish I could do the same for Melissa. Not to baptize her, but to bless her, to find some way of communicating the depth of my love and gratitude.
We sit for a long time, quiet, unwilling or unable to find the words to express what we’re feeling. My gaze falls to the bottom of the pool and the objects scattered there, and when I see them, I don’t think. I just move, pushing myself up from the fountain’s edge and wading to the middle of the pool, bending, scooping, shaking water from my wrists. Melissa watches me, head tilted as if to ask what’s going on.
“There’s this part in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” I begin, sitting back down beside her, “where Annie says that if you cultivate a healthy poverty, finding a penny will make your day.” I hand her the coin I’d fished from the fountain and rub my thumb along the one I’ve kept for myself. “These can be our pennies, and this will be our day.”
It’s a feeble offering, but I know she understands. A moment that at any other time would have seemed scripted and hokey has transformed into something holy and wonderful. I’ve managed to bless her after all.
We hug, and when my tears come, they’re soft, silent, signaled only by my shaking shoulders. So this is how you say goodbye. Not with fanfare and trumpets, not with smiles or wails. But quietly, peacefully, with pennies tucked into our palms.
Eventually, we break apart laughing, crying, swiping tears from cheeks and eyes. “You ready to head back?” I ask, and Mel nods. We pull in a deep breath and take one final, lingering look around campus as we climb out of the pool, offering goodbyes to each landmark as we pass. Goodbye Ganus, goodbye library, goodbye fountain, goodbye… It feels like we’re reading the children’s book Goodnight Moon, but I love it. I cherish it. I won’t always get goodbyes.
We’re both barefoot now, wrists and fingers dangling shoes, and as we cut across the grass and travel the brick pathway to bid one final farewell to our beloved English department, I get the sense that right here, right now, we are on holy ground.