These are sad times. End times. Graduation has come and gone. We’re in the grey valedictory, suffering through the anticlimax as friends and lovers drift back to from where they came. The end of college was the death of a family for me, and I’m wading through a second aftermath already.
It’s a block away from campus, and it’s the only bar for almost a mile in any direction. My university is notorious for fake IDs and DC bars are notorious for taking them. Police crackdowns switch up the underclassman bar of the moment every couple of weeks, and there’s a constant trade in buybacks from bouncers and licenses from similar-looking older siblings. But The Tombs is special. By tradition, the earliest drink you have there is on your 21st, and sneaking one beforehand is bad form. You walk in after midnight with as many drinks toward twenty-one as you could muster since morning, they stamp your forehead, and you try to hit the big two-one with the cascade of shots and beers that pours in afterward. You’re carried out, and you feel like dying for a couple days. It’s a rite of passage, it’s the way you do it.
Then, for one year, your senior year, the Tombs becomes the best bar in the world. Not because the beer is good or the food is interesting or the music is trendy or anything is cheap. Because they aren’t. But because at any hour of any day, the bar is full of friends. You know the bartenders and the wait staff, the DJ and the bouncers. They’re all students or have been working there so long that their names have passed into local legend.
After one a.m. or so, everything’s top forties, but before that, every night, it’s the Tombs playlist, the same rundown of semi-oldies that by May you can sing in your sleep. Shout and I Wanna Dance with Somebody and Tainted Love, and it’s embarrassing how fervently you can jump along after thirty-six weeks of the same. The last two numbers every night were Wagon Wheel and Country Roads, and both of them played together make me imagine I’m still in a dingy basement singing loud enough to drown out the thesis hanging over me.
After graduation on Saturday, everyone takes their parents out to dinner, and then they drift back to the Tombs. The place probably couldn’t hold more than a couple hundred people with any comfort or safety, but that last night it feels like half the class is in the place, singing ‘a little bit softer now, a little bit softer now, a little bit softer now,’ with the kind of desperation you can only work up on the cusp of something so massive. When we get down to three o’clock and ‘West Virginia, mountain momma, take me home, country roads,’ it’s a massacre.
The next night, the few of us left near campus head back in, hoping that things can’t be so different, but the change is tangible, and isolated groups of friends nurse too much wine in what seems a much-darkened place. We catch each other’s eyes from across the floor and we know by our looks that it’s done, that it’s over, and that it will never be the same.
I’d spent two summers on campus, and the quiet streets, the friendly parties, those were familiar. The Tombs was the end of college for me. And it feels just like that here, now. The weather’s cooperating, too. Clouds are hanging low and all day the mist has been climbing over the far ridges into my valley.
I’ve been on hiatus for a long time now, and I’ve had a long time to think about all this. I left for the All-Volunteer Conference in late September. We have it every two years, often enough for every volunteer to see at least one, enough for some for two. Every one of us gathers in a ballroom in the city and pantomimes our way through a day of sessions in order to get to the real reward—all of us there and breathing in the same space. Time to meet everyone you’ve never met and to see every volunteer you’ve only talked to in trainings and roundtables, away from the auspices and the watching eyes of Peace Corps proper.
I got to be a part of a storytelling workshop this year, the last of the sessions, a quick primer and then a performance from a few of us. We had just one rehearsal, and I spent a friendly hour with people that I wish I’d had the time to know. Because this All-Vol happened at the end of September, and Close of Service started for Group 13 two weeks afterward. Which made it a bit of a bittersweet to-do.
We had a giant ‘technical forum’ with all of our counterparts in the same hotel the day before, and the closing session was a preview of our denouement. Technically some kind of networking session, the hotel provided free wine and brought out a massive second round to smooth over tensions about the food and gastrointestinal distress during the week. All seventy-odd Volunteers and more than as many counterparts getting hammered as hard and as quick as they could.
This was like the last few weeks before finals, classes done, nothing left but to think of the future. Old crushes resolving themselves, secrets spilling out, all the might-have-beens making themselves into maybe-shouldn’t-haves before God, the Director, and everyone, fueled by cut-rate booze and a ticking clock. I’ve rarely seen anything so beautiful.
The night after the All-Vol was more subdued. I spent a couple of minutes in a room with most of the group before mine, thirteen, taking a break from my concomitants and my very soon to be ex-girlfriend. It was as quiet as I think our final goodbye might be. Our group are villainous partiers, and I’ve seen some of thirteen measure up in headier times, but this was more a wake than anything else, somber and possessed of the easy company of the fellow-mourning.
Normally there’s hell to pay for me after these big events, a weeklong hangover of companionship that’s murderous to live through in site. But I skipped out on it, escaped to a long-awaited trip to Istanbul with Alex Guyton. And when I got back this past Monday, I was still evading. My colleagues were all away at a workshop, and Janessa was running a three-day conference in the University here in town. Which meant that some of my favorite volunteers from my group were up here helping—Kalyn, Eden, Danielle, James—along with Danny and Josephine, the two, the only two volunteers I’m really close with from group thirteen.
How do you spend that last week with people? How do you let them know? We did the planning, for one. Us young traveling people, we always have the luxury of imagining that we’ll find each other again before too long, humping our packs through some other exotic corner of the world. And that’s good enough for the half-loves, for the sort-of friends, but for the real ones, what is there?
I’ve written before about my problem with goodbyes—I never know exactly how I’ll feel until it’s far too late to tell my best of friends about it. I’d have written them letters if I’d thought ahead, but I’d never have been able to put the stuff that mattered into them, not til I’d had the time to let the pain of loss sink in, to worm its way down to the deeper parts of me.
But I tried. I told Danny that I loved him and how, enough times to let him know I meant it, told them both I’d miss them and tried to pick the moments that would make it stick. We made plans, too, the gentler, more cautious and contingent ones, the kind that think in months and years instead of soons and see-you-arounds.
They’re both gone now, and I did what I could do and said what I could say. I don’t know when or if I’ll see them. But I’ll keep planning for it.
Now all there is to do is wait for the hangover and the hammer fall.