"Did you like playing in the snow as a kid?” Adrian asked, turning his entire body to look at me.
“Definitely! What kid didn’t like playing in the snow?” I said, removing my hood so I could see him. Those things sure ruined the ability to converse during the wintertime.
“I asked because my sister was the complete opposite,” he replied. “She’d rather drink hot chocolate and watch us play outside than join us.”
“That does sound pretty good,” I sighed.
Winter was my favorite time of the year, despite the rude Chicago winds. Each step was a slap in the face, a shove that prevented me from getting anywhere. But on days when the wind didn’t form mini tornadoes on the sidewalk, I welcomed it. It was one of those days and instead of lying in bed watching The Office, I asked Adrian if he wanted to hang out.
We drove past our old high school, remembering times when homecoming pep rallies and Friday night basketball games were the only things we could look forward to. But the two of us had just finished our first quarter of college, which made high school feel like the eraser on a pencil. There wasn’t a label to warn us when it was running out, no way of realizing it was gone until it really was. It was there when you needed it, but eventually you’d abandon the pencil for one that had an eraser.
At the park, we sat on a bench and talked about our newfangled lives, the new eraser we each had found. Adrian was going to school in Michigan and he missed his siblings more than he thought he would. I was only an hour and a half away from home, so if I wanted to return to the familiar, I was only a train ride away. But I didn’t take advantage of that. It was easy to deflect feelings of homesickness by disguising it with busyness; there was always work to be done. Throughout my first quarter, I told myself that winter break was just around the corner. Besides, nothing beats going home for longer than a weekend. Sitting in the comfort of my childhood home with a cup of coffee, not having to worry about final papers and exams, never felt better.
I glanced over at Adrian. He was looking out at the frozen pond several feet away from us. I knew he was letting me ruminate like I usually did, but he was quieter than usual. It didn’t take long for him to notice me watching him.
“Is something wrong, Jess?” he asked.
“I was just going to ask you that,” I replied. “I’m supposed to be the quiet one.”
“Is that so? You’re still the same Jess I was friends with in high school?”
I smiled. “Of course I am.”
He looked down at his feet. “This past semester…did you ever think that maybe college wasn’t for you? Or like you didn’t belong there?”
“Because I missed home?”
“Yeah, and like other reasons.”
I had been asked a similar question by a girl named Riley who lived next door in my dorm, except she had asked me, “Will it get better?” I didn’t ask her what “it” was, but I think she was referring to the same sentiment that Adrian had – feeling inadequate and out of place. I told her “yes,” even though I myself didn’t fully believe it. I still didn’t believe it.
“Jess? Are you okay?” he asked, waving his gloved hand in front of my face.
I couldn’t look him in the eye, so I glanced out at the pond. Its surface was smooth and unscathed. I wish I could feel as unaffected as the pond looked. “Of course.”
He laughed. “You’ve been saying that a lot.”
“I guess twice can seem like a lot.”
I turned back to face him. His shoulders were slumped, his mouth was curved slightly downward. His brown eyes studied me carefully. I wanted to tell him how I felt too, but I didn’t want to shift the focus away from him. Maybe if we had stayed in touch more frequently throughout the semester we wouldn’t be here. Maybe it was time to be honest, no matter how much it hurt.
“I know how you feel, Adrian,” I said. “And as much as I want to forget about every time I felt alone, I know I shouldn’t. Just because we’re here, back home, doesn’t mean our feelings aren’t valid.”
“You’re right,” Adrian replied. “But I didn’t know you felt the same way. Your Instagram didn’t express that.”
“I know. I’m sorry if that made you feel lonely, like you were the only one who felt that way.”
“It’s OK. We’re going to be OK.”
I realized then that even with my hometown several miles away, I had erased everything about it. Every memory of this place was linked to my family and friends, so when the tiniest ounce of sadness emerged from its hiding place, it was always easiest to just move on. I couldn’t keep holding on to the past, especially if my friends couldn’t.
But I was wrong. I don’t know if it was because I was back home, confronting what I had tried to forget. Once I knew how Adrian felt, I didn’t feel alone. I had someone to talk to, someone who I wasn’t going to forget. Months from now, we would remember the sparkling snow and the stillness of the pond. To anyone else, it’d sound like just another winter day in Chicago. But for us, the cold air had brought us closer together.