The seven of us cram around a plastic folding table, two three-person benches and a chair on the end which seems to drift further across the lawn each night, no matter how often we tug it back over. We've beaten the rowing team to dinner to snag this spot: it's the best place from which to spot the campus turkeys, when they come strutting out from behind the natural sciences building and into the grove where they roost overnight. Plus, a few faculty members like to walk their dogs along the nearby road around sunset. We whisper choruses of awwww and good boy when the pups trot past, hoping they—but not their owners—will hear us.
It's only 5:30, but with daylight savings ended, darkness and chill blanket us. We stave off the latter with layers of denim and flannel, the former by setting clear plastic cups of tea and lemonade over phones with the flashlight function switched on, makeshift lanterns illuminating our food. The menu changes every night, but there are constants: meat overcooked or underdone but never just right, rarely an ounce of salt on the nightly fries, go back inside if you want the ranch you requested (they'll never remember the first time), and though we pray the new brand of tofu's texture will grow less off-putting with time, months have passed with no improvement.
Last year, we ate off tables crammed with food we'd made together, bumping into each other and every surface in the basement kitchen as we'd try to use the sink and stove at the same time. Every week we had fresh-baked bread from a recipe that never tasted the same twice, made without aid from the measuring cups forgotten at home, but always coated with the homemade jam that had been prioritized in packing. There was chili, fondue, and chocolate pudding, made in a pot that was emptied and rinsed three times in one night; thick stacks of crepes, topped with everything from syrup to sriracha; and mountains of dollar-store popcorn, anointed with a shaker of yeast filched from the cafeteria. But this year we wouldn't dare share a bag of chips without a bottle of hand sanitizer to pass alongside it, and the stove/oven combo in the sophomore dorm is busted anyway.
We are lucky, nonetheless, and we know it. Although many people we know could not, many of our friends, even those who once sat at our tables and shared our food, the seven of us could all come back this year. And though it is not like it used to be, we prize this hour under the darkening sky, our laughter soaring over the roar of trucks on the nearby highway as we swap stories of the strangest moments from class that day and pictures of the pets we've left at home. (Well—at our houses. This is home, as much or more.) Though our fingers stiffen and our noses grow pink, we linger after our takeout boxes are picked clean, pulling at the thinning strands of our conversation until they fray and sag.
Sooner rather than later, the grim promise of homework will pull us back up the steep hill where our dorm rests, lungs straining to suck air through our masks as we climb, eyes scanning the bushes for the coyote who sometimes lurks near the base of the path. (We call him "our dog," not having yet found a name we agree on.) We'll discipline our clump into a single-file line as we trudge through the entryway and down the hall, spacing six feet apart as we must do indoors. Bidding early goodnights, we'll wall ourselves away in single rooms, each separated by a couple of feet and an ocean of rules keeping the people under this crumbling roof—even those in the same social bubble—masked and apart. And when the door closes behind me and leaves me to myself, I will slink back to my bed and hope no one can hear my loneliness seeping through the walls. Alone, I am not big or strong enough to chase off sorrow.
But it is not later or even sooner yet. It is now. And now, not yet cold and newly full and bubbling with mirth in the lemonade light, I am more than myself. I am part of a seven-headed beast, strange and lopsided and beautiful, feeding the fire in its heart with memories of when times were brighter and hope that they can be that way again. And down to the smallest molecule of my being, I am awash in love for the people who are alongside me in bad times as they were in good ones, miraculously constant and consistently miraculous.
Born and raised in Alaska, Ari FitzGibbon is currently studying English at Mills College in Oakland, and has had previous work published in the Pomona Valley Review and the 2019 Harmonious Hearts anthology. Ari can be found on Twitter at @unassumingowl.