I was a bit gobsmacked by this prompt because my best friend and I had recently decided to write the narrative of our college years as a series of letters to each other. (We had some very unusual and interesting and challenging college years.) It felt totally serendipitous.
This is not the first letter in my series to her (I tailored it for this purpose), but I might use some of the bones of it for that purpose.
It’s been nearly seven years, but I’ll never forget the first time we hung out. It was September of our freshman year in college, a warm fall night in New England. Louisa had come to visit me for the weekend. As her host, I wanted to show her a good time, but my standards were desperately uncool. We stood at the top of Spring Street in the dark while I scrolled through my phone to find the details of a party in the Newman Room. Louisa isn’t religious, but they said that there would be snacks and such. I had to look up directions to the chapel.
The Catholic party was fine. When I retell this story I always emphasize that the Muslim party was better, but it wasn’t like the Catholic party was terrible. It was just quiet, staid. I chitchatted about field botany, I think. We stayed for a little while. When we were getting ready to go, I remember standing on the threshold looking out across the common room toward the Muslim Prayer Room. (That was the same threshold where someone had carved HOPE into the wood with a screwdriver.) I saw you through the doorway, laughing and joking around. The room was full of people. There may have been music. I took a deep breath. College is all about taking the initiative, I told myself. I have to go in. I have to go into the party and meet the new people. You and I had already met once or twice, briefly; you were in that math class with Megumi and she’d introduced us to each other in front of Paresky one day. I took a breath, grabbed Louisa, and went in.
Some people were skyping in the corner. It was the year that F took off from college, so I think they might have been skyping him into the party. I didn’t pay any attention, of course, but less than two years later, he and I would sit up all night in that same room, holding hands and talking about God. Less than two years later, I drank Veronica’s leftover wine and came back to that room to cry and cry. Less than two years later, I was in the room when a call came about the vandalism and hate crime… I hid from Father Caster after I gave that speech about the Catholic Church… Carman and I stayed up until the dawn poured through the window and then got coffee in the still of the icy early morning before our Arabic exam… you made steaming chai on the stove for all of us…
But that night, Bilal was sitting on the couch and I felt like he was looking right through my skin when he asked me what I was doing with my life. Shaan beat me at chess. I guess it was after that night that you invited me to that late Eid party. We both wore white.
Everything I’m doing, Bushra, is because I can’t let go of that feeling. The feeling I had in that room, that night. And all of the feelings after that, even the horrible ones. Even what happened with F. Even what happened senior year. It was the life of that place that I’m chasing. God was there. The people were there and God was there.
I still fear my neediness, my reliance on others, my horror of rejection. You know this side of me better than anyone. We need others, but what about when that need becomes debilitating, codependent? I’ve come a long way – we’ve come a long way – but the fear is still there. But I still have to try.
It’s not about the Catholic Church, even. Their parties aren’t always the best, but they’re not the worst, either. I’ve rooted myself there because we all have roots and we all need roots, but it’s about the people. It’s about you. It’s about the space, the land, and the people. God between us. God within us.