Sunday, October 19, 2014

On the Ledge

29 years old, driving back to Baltimore after Memorial Day weekend in Rochester, I stopped in Geneseo to watch the sunset.

I was on the fence about stopping at my alma mater. Sure, there are few places I’d rather get a slice of pizza than Mama Mia’s, few places I’d rather get a stiff drink than Kelly’s, few better places for me to wander and ruminate than all of those campus pathways and surrounding neighborhoods. But, pulling off the highway, driving into town, and then backtracking is at least a half hour detour in driving time alone.

But it was sunset time. And as far and wide as I may travel, there are few spots I’d rather watch the sun go down than from than the ledge, out by the gazebo, outside the College Union at Geneseo. There’s a view from that spot, overlooking an expanse of campus, and well past that into the surrounding fields and farmland. It’s a beautiful place.

I didn’t always see it that way.

Freshman year, I had a hard time making friends. I embraced so many awful clich├ęs, as I took to writing sad poetry, smoking cigarettes, and walking alone at late hours of the night. It wasn’t unusual at all to wind up at the ledge under moonlight, long after I should have gone to sleep. I’d stand up there and look down upon the pavement, maybe 12 feet down.

I never considered jumping in any real, conscious way. But I mused around the topic. Started writing a story about a character who took a swan dive from a similar perch and awoke in an alternate universe only to discover in the end that that alternate universe was hell--because he hadn’t dove through any magical portal, but rather had killed himself.

And while I never quite reached the point of suicidal thoughts, and while I did make more friends, and start to feel more generally content with my time at Geneseo, that ledge remained the place to go when I was least happy.

Then it changed.

At the end of sophomore year, I hit it off with a girl. It was complicated. We worked together and she had serious boyfriend back home. We talked all around these points and our feelings for one another in the final weeks of school, until we ended up sitting side by side on that very same ledge watching the sky turn to magenta. Our elbows touched.

The girl and I wouldn’t get involved in any meaningful way for another seven or eight months. But that very simple, innocent moment was enough to transform the location from a place that embodied loneliness and emptiness to a place of love and peace.

And oddly, unexpectedly, and perhaps even uncharacteristically enough, the space retained that meaning for me.

Two years later, after that relationship had ended, and a couple days after I had graduated, on the last night I lived in Geneseo, I returned to the ledge with my Discman in hand, listening to a freshly burned mix CD full melancholy, reflective songs. It was a surreal moment. Every last one of my friends had already left for summer, and it was only beginning to register that this place--from my favorite pizzeria, to the newspaper office, to the classrooms, to that very ledge--that, over the course of four years, had become a home, was about to become more memory than reality for me. A place to look at in pictures. A place to visit, but not to live within.

I sat down on the ledge alone in the late afternoon, when the sky was still blue. I stared out into the distance and listened to that CD twice through, watching colors fade, the twilight thicken, and the dark settle in. And I walked home alone.

Eight years later, I watched the sunset from that same spot, iPhone earbuds in, wishing I had more of the songs from that old mix CD on hand, but mixing college favorites with a few newer melodies. I remembered a time when it seemed unimaginable to leave that place. I realized that for all of my visits to friends in Rochester and the surrounding area, this was the first time I’d been to Geneseo--much less the ledge--in years.

Fast forward five months. And I’m back in Geneseo, this time not alone. Two of my best friends from college--Kevin and Emily--got married in Rochester. A small portion of our old crew came together at the church and at the reception, and the next day, we returned to campus, four of us returned to campus. We grabbed lunch on Main Street. We wandered past the academic buildings. We headed for the College Union.

And when we got to the ledge I stopped. Phone in hand, I stretched my arm long and asked everyone to huddle close together. And I took a picture of us. All nearly a decade older, maybe a smidge wiser than we were as college kids. But still together. Still smiling.

And though I didn’t say it then, I knew full well that we stood on sacred ground. And whether I stood alone or with those I held dearest, that spot would always be one in which I grew. One of my favorite spots to look out from. One of my favorite places to look within myself. A jumping off point in every sense of the word.

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