Caught in the fall

October 25, 2011 – 10:48 am

Massachusetts caught me in the fall.

It was October, approved and I was 16. My dad and I were in Boston for college visits, ophthalmologist the second time I’d ever been — the first time being when I was perhaps 6 or 7, and my little brother 4, and the video documentation of our family trip shows me raging impatiently at the dinosaur museum when my brother took too long to puzzle out the signs in his hesitant small-child-beginning-to-read-out-loud voice.

But I was older now, and this was the college tour trip — MIT and Harvard, said my father, because we know they’re Very Good Schools. Olin, I said, because it’s on the way, we might as well. Besides, I’d never get into any of these places; they were for Smart People. But I’d like to see them.

We saw MIT and Harvard; I think this is when I spent the night at MIT’s Fenway House, curled in a basement room with garish red/white/yellow/black murals painted by teenagers, cats and encyclopedias, random trips to the video arcade without asking our parents for permission! and late-night conversations, scruffy sneakers and sweaters and statistics tangled on the couch studying, adrenaline. It was the first time I had walked a city’s streets at night without a parent and a tight agenda, and — what a buzz! There was traffic. There were buildings. There was… everything, it seemed — the city screamed of informality and freedom and sprawl, mental and physical. Harvard Square was red brick, bookstores, history — a depth of stately knowledge lacking (or so my high-school self thought) in the extruded plastic subdivisions I’d grown up in.

Then we drove into the suburbs towards Olin. As we curved through Wellesley and Newton, northeastern sunlight filtered through the trees, which were saturated with yellow and red with splotches of green. Brown, purple. Mottled shapes, different textures; bright bars thrown across the roadway, slow confetti flutters cartwheeling across the street as we sailed past. One curve in the road is blurred into my memory; I saw the light, I saw the leaves, and I thought yes, I would surround myself with this beauty of a city for four years, see what it transforms when it soaks in. Even now I see flashes of that moment every time I drive to Olin in the fall.

Now I am in Lafayette, a far cry from Boston. We’re in the cornfields; roads are straight and flat. But autumn still comes, and I am still arrested by rain-varnished mosaics of fallen leaves on the sidewalks as I walk to campus. Now I walk by houses on the way. Some are obviously occupied by students; beer pong tables and cheap plastic furniture on dilapidated porches, uneven spurts of decorating (a Purdue-carved pumpkin, a state flag). Some are what I imagine a professor’s house to look like, a sort of worn-in comfort; cozy-looking gates and windows, an absently roaming garden jammed with flowers, grasses, and a plethora of charmingly mismatched lawn doohickeys.

Inside, I imagine a fireplace, a lounging couch with laptop power cords winding towards it, shelves and shelves and shelves stuffed full with books, desks stacked happily with papers and coffee stains. Everything in a sort of happy flow, absentminded of the cooling mulled cider because of an intense, expansive mental presence in a problem space, dogs and cats and spouse and kids tumbling in and out of a researcher’s field of vision.

The night grows crisp, and the tea kettle runs out and is rinsed with hot water and placed upended on a towel to dry. Lights fade. And I am still caught in a timeless fall, with teenagers and leaves tumbling across college campuses. And glimpses of myself — my past, my present, and maybe my future — in the flashing flights of color that float down.

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