It was a few days before Commencement and we were eating at a sushi restaurant on Chapel. Seated next to us was a table of graduating seniors and their parents, so thrilled to stop paying college tuition, that no extravagance felt too great. Courtney and Kyle had each finished their last final exams, and along with Kyle’s fiancée Jean, the four of us were out celebrating, too. We wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but we were not just celebrating graduation, or even the end of the year – but what felt like something bigger.
Kyle is over six feet tall and lanky, with the kind of exaggerated limbs that bring to mind the inflatable tube men outside of used car dealerships, and a head of red hair so at odds with his skin tone you could swear it was dyed. Jean, his fiancée of four months, is nearly a foot shorter, a Korean American as at home in New Haven as anywhere, but nowhere more proud than of her hometown of Cleveland. It wasn't the first time we were out like this; I was living with Kyle when I started dating Courtney, and the two first met on wooden stools in our kitchen.
I caved and ordered a Yale Roll – the sweet taste of eel heightened by wasabi and paired with the crunch of tempura, the fried tails of the shrimp still on. Jean ordered a couple of smaller rolls, and took generous swipes at Kyle’s plate of chicken teriyaki, the way Courtney and I sometimes end up eating more of each other’s meal than our own. It reminded me of the sushi restaurant on Whalley that the four of us had eaten at two years prior, right before my own Commencement, back before I could even imagine ever moving back to New Haven to live in the same city as them again.
As if reading my mind, Jean started in: “If it weren’t for you meeting Courtney,” she asked me, “do you think we would all be together here like this?”
I looked down at my plate and scenes from the movie Jiro Dreams of Sushi filled my mind. The film profiles Jiro Ono, a consummate perfectionist and 80-year-old owner of a Michelin three-star restaurant in Tokyo, who has dedicated his life to the craft of sushi. His attitude toward making sushi extends to parenting: the younger of his two sons, Yoshikazu, who has worked under Jiro since he was a teen, will eventually face the prospect of taking over the restaurant and working there until he retires. Whenever I think of him, I can’t help but feel a little remorseful: a man forever bounded by circumstance, never able to escape the seeming inevitability of his lot.
The answer, of course, was no. Had it not been for speed dating, Courtney and I would never have met, and, by the odd and serendipitous turn of events that is some combination of choice, chance, and destiny, would not have made it through twelve months of long distance, culminating in my decision to relocate – jobless and without direction – from Beijing to my once-temporary home of New Haven. To their credit, Kyle and Jean would have tried to get me to come back regardless, but leaving any college town is like ripping the bandage off a big, nostalgic wound; no one in their right mind would willfully incite the same pain again.
And yet, there had already been a precedent. When I graduated from Oberlin, I moved to China for two years, only to return, living less than a mile away from my old house, working, and taking classes with undergrads who resembled my old college friends in everything but name. It was lonely and isolating at first. There is always unease about returning to a place, like society reminding you that you couldn’t hack it in the real world, or that you had failed to launch in the first place. But consciously or not, I have lived on college campuses for nearly all of my adult life. I thought about Jiro’s son Yoshikazu again. There seemed to be an inevitability about moving back to New Haven, some incorrigible cyclical fate that pulled me and wouldn’t let go.
I went over to Kyle and Jean’s apartment four times in the week leading up to Commencement. I knew this would probably be the last time I would see them for a while, and, like replaying the boss stage in a video game, I wanted to get the ending right. Before Jean moved to New Haven, Kyle and I had been housemates in a fraying, purple house on Winchester, in a two-story apartment that we shared with three other people. Two years later, he still lives in the same building, but on the ground floor apartment much better suited for a couple, with a guest bedroom and a bathroom that doesn’t smell like college. Even still, the place conjured memories of our old life together: the morning oatmeal, movie nights with the rental projector, the compost bin that everyone loathed but me.
When I came over, I drew from his stable of sundry alcohol and watched the Cavaliers game on TV while Kyle packed. Jean wore a pair of striped pink pajamas like we were still living together, her mood riding on every made basket or missed shot. Kyle had three huge piles in the living room: things he would keep, things to giveaway, and things to throw out. He was deliberating over the sum total of his possessions, planning to take what he needed in a car across the country to Denver, where he and Jean would be living for the foreseeable future.
He wasn’t the only one planning to move; in August, Courtney and I will be making our own road trip across the country, terminating in Seattle, where Courtney will be working. It is not unusual to want to leave New Haven; I don’t know many recent graduates who will be sticking around. The plan is for me to eventually move out there too, after I finish my work contract next February. After the drive, Courtney will stay in Seattle and I’ll fly back to New Haven, to move into a shared house much like the one I left on Winchester, in the city I can’t seem to leave.
During the halftime show, Kyle reached from the top of his keep pile and tossed me his old high school yearbook. It wasn’t long before I found his photo. His face looked the same, but his hair was longer then, a thick red fro that encircled his head like a rainbow. The back page was full of autographs and messages – jokes, memories, hopes for the future. I remembered my own high school yearbook then, back before Facebook existed, even before permanent email addresses were widely used. My mom’s home address was printed along with our landline number, like we didn’t have another way to stay in touch. It felt like there was so much at stake, a time in our lives when we actually had to worry that we might never see each other again.
I looked up at Kyle and sneaked a glance at the other things in his keep pile, mostly notes and books and old memorabilia from Yale. But when I asked him about it, he said that a lot of it was actually from his undergraduate days, in 2007, long before he came back to New Haven for grad school.
“Did you have any idea four years ago that you would end up here again?” I asked him. In his hands was a bulldog plush toy, which he moved haltingly between the three piles as if it were a planchette for an Ouija board. Four years ago, he and Jean were both working in New York, and had only recently started dating. Now they were engaged to be married, ready to start a new life together halfway across the country.
“It’s useless to try and make plans that far down the line,” he said finally, relegating the stuffed toy to the giveaway pile. He spoke with the careful, deliberate tone that politicians sometimes use to deliver speeches. “It’s futile to try and predict the next four years, given how unpredictable the last four were,” he said. “No one can foresee the future.”
A few days after we had sushi together, Kyle’s upstairs neighbors threw a going away party. Kyle and Jean were out of town at a wedding, but I knew Morgan, one of the guys who lived there, and practically invited myself over. They called themselves MAMBA now – nearly all were graduating with MAs and MBAs, like getting one degree wasn’t enough. It had been a few years since I'd lived there, but the apartment was a lot like I remembered it from the days Kyle and I hosted parties: silver disco ball hanging from a ceiling beam, metal folding table stretched over the second floor balcony, beer and liquor on the checker-tiled island in the kitchen.
“Welcome home,” Morgan said, when I reached the second floor landing. It was the apartment I had introduced Kyle to at the outset, setting off a chain reaction. I agreed to move in on the spot, never having seen more than a photo, and without knowing who I’d be living with. Unconsciously, I kept searching the apartment for vestiges of my former life: the IKEA bedframe and desk in my old bedroom, the leather couch I hauled in a trailer from Queens. I delved surreptitiously in kitchen cabinets for mugs I’d never recovered, tried to exhume memories from DVD cases, dishrags, magnets – the mundane objects I’d left behind.
When I first met Kyle, we were both in long-distance relationships, making twice-monthly trips to New York. It was the most significant relationship I had been in before I met Courtney, and I thought about how in the four years that Kyle had known me, just how much had changed. The one constant, though, was the parties on Winchester: the speakers that skipped and overheated, strangers dancing in dark corners, Jell-O shot stains that still clung to the wall – immutable as the passing of time. It wasn’t like graduating from high school; I wasn’t worried about not seeing Kyle or Jean again. But it didn’t lessen the degree to which I would miss them, miss Winchester, miss this whole city when I eventually leave it.
Seeing Winchester from the outside felt like coming full circle, jamming the first memories I’d had of this place right up against some of the last. New Haven, unlike most cities, is small enough to feel ownership over, to know when a business is foreclosed on, or to get a call when an old acquaintance passes through town. I thought about the two brand-new colleges being built catty-corner to the street, and how that was going to change the neighborhood. I felt like the last guy hanging around a college town after all his friends had left, wondering how nothing ever stays the same for too long.
On the way out, I paused near the front door. I remembered one time when a drunken neighbor had come to one of our parties, thrown up on the sofa, and started to get physical with some of the other guests. We dragged him to the door, and he promptly fell down the stairs on his way out. Part of me wanted to know what would come of the place next, to see who would be there to take up the mantle. I contemplated what it might be like to move back to Winchester with an entirely new group, and how, after living in my first grown-up apartment with Courtney, it would almost certainly feel like regressing. But I remembered, too, that had it not been for living with total strangers, I might never have met Kyle and Jean to begin with.
I thought about how Yoshikazu must feel about his father’s imminent retiring, that amidst the pressure and the speculation, he’s still taking it one day at a time. He may continue in his father’s footsteps or, against all expectation, he may not. He knows as well as I do: the only surefire way to plan for anything is to let it happen.