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What is nostalgia?  I’m not even sure I’m trying to define the right word.  It’s the closest that I can come to the sentiment blowing around inside of me.  It could be that I latched onto the concept of nostalgia because I once read in a Spanish novel, “la nostalgia me pisaba los tacones.”  Literally: nostalgia stepped on my heels.  I reproduce that in English verbally as often as is moderately appropriate.  Sometimes people chuckle, sometimes they nod approvingly (or knowingly), and sometimes they allow their bafflement to show.  It feels right to me anyway—this thing, properly identified as nostalgia or not, does indeed step on my heels in certain contexts.  Such as this: a return to my college campus to read alongside the famous poet Amy Gerstler (also an alum) to launch an open mic of faculty and students on a hot February evening.  Fourteen years have passed since I last darkened the doorway of McConnell Hall—or any other doorway of Pitzer College for that matter. 

            I arrived early to stalk the commons and stare in stupefaction at the dorm I lived in, which remains unchanged.  The odd desert tree that I once spent hours in the limbs of, wonked on a pill of unclear origin, shouting at classmates below to “cut off their thumbs and get back in the trees!”  The fountain, spouting faithfully over the naked torsos of young people as it ever did.  The color shock murals of ethnic and psychedelic celebration.  The clock tower, now adorned with a long banner of a photo of a beloved professor—for the occasion of the schools’ 50th anniversary (which accounts for my invitation here). 

            It’s easy to conjecture that the sweet, haunting pain I felt was due to the fact that I was to read from my memoir, which chronicles the decade of friendship I shared with a woman whom I first met not 100 yards from the lectern I stood at, that this place is so hopelessly imbued with her.  I read passages that took place in the acres surrounding us, to at least three professors who also loved her deeply but knew little of her end. 

            But it’s something more than that.  As I strolled with unspent tears in my chest and a strange half-smile on my face, watching impossibly young liberals flirt and Frisbee, taking photos and texting them to my equally ancient friends—some still close and some not so—the feeling spread and bloomed, invisible spores floating on the Santa Ana winds.  So, it’s also this: that I was back in a place where I was young and my friend who shared this place with me just left his wife.  I was young and now I have a four-year-old son, 3,000 miles away and as unreachable as the moon (only for a few weeks).  I was young and now I have two Master’s degrees, neither of which I am certain will guide me to a sense of home as strong as I felt sitting again on the quad.  I was young and now I hadn’t seen the girl I loved most (in a traditional, romantic sense) back then in nine years.

            I called her and she answered.  She was kind and quiet and somehow knew, as if my voice banging off multiple satellites and hitting her ear across the bulge of America communicated all that I’m failing to on this page.  I caught my tears in my throat and told her I loved her and spoke of a future reunion where she would meet my wife and child.  And then I erased my cheeks with a handkerchief, turned my back on the glorious, poisoned sunset, and went inside the hall to resurrect the past, to excavate it for the explanations of my tears and smile. 

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