By Ellie Utter
We clink bottles and pull at stubborn corks, attempting with little avail to avoid explosion. I look at the four faces around me, people I have peripherally seen for years but know with no level of intimacy. As a staff, we plan to walk campus, reminiscing on the memories we hold separately in the spaces we share, with cheers of champagne along the way. We add alcohol out of fear of boredom. Do our memories truly stick to the places around us?
As we start out on our quest, I take a moment to look back at the facade of our shared house. Prior to calling Mars home, the circular windows and arches felt like a face keeping watch over the Row. When I saw it as a sophomore, I wondered if I would ever belong at Stanford, if I would ever find a home. Now, I wonder if I will ever find a home again.
I stare at the mirror, trying to determine if it is really me looking back. Although the yellow jumpsuit could easily be confused for the uniform of a car mechanic or beekeeper, I aim for a flirtatious and spunky space woman on her way to Mars.
“Where is the disco ball?”
“Where should we put the consent sign?”
“How sober does a sober monitor need to be?”
“Are you Rosie the Riveter?”
I fire answers back as quickly as the questions come and seek refuge in the kitchen. The alcohol measuring cup provided by the Office of Alcohol Policy and Education sits idly by as I incrementally douse Bacardi into a mix of juices as warm as sunset. Once the taste errs on the side of childhood juice box instead of frosh mistake, I push the packaged juice bottles out of the frame and post a picture of the mixed drink in the GroupMe describing how it was made from scratch. I linger over the screen for a moment, until a heart illuminates on the side of the photo, and I put the phone back in my pocket.
I take my position outside the front door of Mars. Tapping my anxiety out on the cool concrete, I scan the lawn but see no one.
“What if no one comes?”
“Should I invite more people?”
I turn to Swetha, who is perched on the step next to me. She looks up from the Tik Tok tutorial on her phone and rolls her eyes knowingly.
Despite knowing her for three years, I still find myself surprised by her powerful presence. My brother, staffing in a frosh dorm, used to tell me how much I’d like his resident Swetha. Part of me tinged with jealousy that my brother could possibly enjoy spending time with another frosh more than me, but after meeting her I knew why. Her laughter and compassion could fill the largest of rooms. I first thought we could never be friends; her music taste and references went far beyond what I could pretend to know, her makeup looked like it came right out of Euphoria. My long legs, naked face and closet of t-shirts made us ironically opposite physically. Our intense inner drive to be caretakers, to put everyone else first, even at our own peril, drove us together.
Music ricochets between houses. I pace on the step: a 6-year-old waiting for their birthday party guests to arrive.
A small group begins approaching, I recognize their faces from late nights in Mars’ kitchen. I open my arms wide and shout: “Welcome to Mars!” They laugh and avoid eye contact. People begin to arrive more rapidly. I give them all the same enthusiastic greeting that I would give my closest friends and recommend my favorite flavored pretzels while ushering them inside.
After 30 minutes, I wander to the picnic tables on the lawn. The paint peels as if it fears parting with my hand, and I hop onto the top of the picnic table. I look back at the windows as blue, green and pink flashes cast silhouettes across the walls. I raise my hands out and open my face to the stars. I feel a warmth and contentment I never thought I would find, especially at Stanford. I use my energy to fly to an adjacent table. I shout to Swetha: “They came!!”
She rolls her eyes.
“Of course they did.”
At the age of 22, I still felt myself in constant contact with a fear of loneliness. That night, I felt a shift inside. Instead of wondering if I was going to ever feel at home, I knew that I was a part of one. I started to worry it would never come again. I still remember the feeling of weightlessness that comes with being part of something bigger.
Deep into our bottles of champagne, we draw closer to East Campus. We move in a loose unit, ebbing and flowing, each in our own head about our own journey but collectively enjoying the moments where our memories intertwine. The tables of Stern field act like barriers, large hunks of stone radiating a coolness regardless of time of day. A flower pressed into the cement bench urges my mind to wander.
In warm waves the memories come back. It was from this table I was serenaded by Uche in the glow of freshman spring; it was here where Maeve brought me poke on my 21st birthday; it was here where I reached out to a therapist for the first time. If the picnic table were to disappear, would I lose the memories with it?
Sharp pangs of memory, an icy burn, come quickly after. At this table, I told someone I couldn’t support them for my own well-being; I prepared to confront the men who treated my body like a toy; I found someone I knew unconscious from booze and cocaine. Some memories are better lost.
Palimpsest. If I were to ever commit to a tattoo, I think I would get this word in Helvetica on the left side of my rib cage. I can feel the texture of the letters as I say the word. It starts lumpy and uncomfortable, and the end sails out smoothly.
Palimpsest, historically, refers to a piece of writing material where the original text has been scraped off to make space for the new. You see the etching and consequences of the previous layers, and they affect the way the current layer takes shape. While this is probably really exciting for a historian, I am more excited by the palimpsests created in physical space.
I first heard the word in my ANTHRO 126: “Urban Cultures in Global Perspective” class my junior year. At 9 a.m. on a hazy Tuesday morning, my professor gesticulated wildly while describing the way that cities are palimpsests, the way that the past decisions and built design affects both the layout and community of the city today. The ripples of one layer still show on the layer above. With time it may shrink, may become less obvious, but built spaces carry the history and experiences of those that were part of it.
Stanford is a palimpsest. Each crack in a bench, etching in a Green cubicle, or broken window screen speaks to the experiences of those who have used the space, and were made better or worse for it. Our bodies as well — each anxious scar on my hand, each dark shadow on my knee, each stain on my back — tells a story.
I think about the layers we can’t see in all of the spaces around us. Whether it be the layers left from people and stories we don’t know, or layers that aren’t visible to the eye. Falling in love, feeling academically engaged, processing loss, accepting identities you’ve held in secret for so long, sharing with others, wondering if any of this is worth it. The layering of the experiences in one place is what makes it beautiful. How do these palimpsests, these layers of feeling, continue to exist in memory, especially when the physical space is gone? How do you come to terms with knowing any moment could be the final layer?
I am a senior. The bed is bunked with that classic college futon underneath, multiple untouched MCAT books line the shelves and a 3D printed yellow penis basks in the red hue of the lamp. I throw out an insincere comment about how much the current RA has done with the space but am soon interrupted by a blonde head bobbing in through the crack of the door begging him to unlock her own door — not so subtly hinting at how important it is that she gets to her IntroSem on time. He shuffles through his desk, looking for the all-powerful key, and seems to take on a new level of authority once he finds it. He follows her down the hall, and I feel myself relaxing as I am now able to explore his stuffy single in peace. I flop onto the futon and find myself focusing on the cracks of white between the album covers on his walls. The walls create a shell, the boundaries for a place that occupies very little physical space but an immense amount of space in my memory.
My freshman year, I remember walking by Soto 212 only once, following my brother around like a lost puppy. Priding himself on his vast amount of animal facts and ability to eat anything, we were quite different, but I still looked up to him with an intense amount of admiration. He was the RA, and I soon understood the best times to force him to spend time with me would be when he was trapped doing an on-call in his dorm.
Sophomore year, I spent only five minutes in the room, admiring how it glowed in shadows of pink, and how memories of the current RA’s time as a Dollie along with remnants of theatrical productions clung to her walls.
Junior year, the room became mine. The walls soon became an homage to my past through postcards and letters arranged by color. As a rite of passage, I bought a futon, sacrificing comfort to get the one futon that I knew was unique.
Summer after junior year, Soto went through a massive renovation. The locks on the doors upgraded to magical, magnetic card readers. This may have prevented my co-staff and residents from stealing my door and bed as a prank the previous year, but probably not. The moment I found my furniture missing, I felt the action was a sign of dislike, but in the months to come I began to appreciate it as a sign of love. Now the carpets have been replaced, a murky grey turned darker and more confident. In the middle of the carpet I search for a stain — made from wine and regret — I knew I wouldn’t find. I think about how much time I spent on the carpet compared to a chair or bed. It was on this carpet I fell out of love and back in; it was on this carpet I found out, through a mass email, my friend had died in a tragic accident. I remember gripping at the carpet, coming up empty-handed. Even the window was unscathed. For most of last year the screen lay broken across my desk, a constant reminder of the life that was momentarily questioned in the absence of the screen. I remember sobering up in a moment.
Now, I can barely recognize the space, but the shell still stands. In just three years, everyone who shares my memories will be gone from campus. This leaves me unsettled, I consider the walls a sponge, absorbing the moments of sorrow and joy, grateful that there is something that remembers with me. Life goes on.
Joan Didion writes, “We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget.” I have these moments often, when I feel my perspective zoom far above where I stand, where I hear an external narrator tell me this is a moment I won’t ever forget. Yet Didion is right. All too soon do these moments come to pass. I can’t quite tell if it is luck or misfortune that things that once felt monumental soon become commonplace. Not only do we lose the moment and the experience of things we feel are unforgettable, but we lose who we were. Something inside of us is constantly shifting. We gain knowledge and lose some of it along the way. Didion notes: “We forget who we were.”
Bottle of champagne empty, cork tight in my hand for the sake of memory, I find myself immersed in the silence of Meyer Green, alone. The ground and sky are both covered in a thick darkness; I feel my way into the wet grass. I see the small lights on the outside of Hoover Tower, take in a deep breath, and feel my body heave as warm tears drip off my face into the darkness.
Stanford is where I sobbed on my birthday, feeling speechless and overwhelmed from the love of my friends. Stanford is where I felt my voice rise as I fought people who had my best interests at heart. Stanford is where I pulled all-nighters deep in conversation on anything from menstrual products to identity. Stanford is where I accepted that I didn’t love myself and worked to change it. I am me because of the last four years. I don’t want to ever forget the unsettled excitement that has held my hand through this whole journey, but I can’t help but focus on the end of college coming soon.
As a senior, I feel a heaviness of time. It feels fragile, limited, almost entirely out of my control. Each day I find myself drawing closer to the end and hear a chorus of adults telling me these are the best four years of my life. I can sense they’re right, but it makes it that much harder to embrace what comes after graduation.
A few weeks back, I watched the Super Bowl with my residents in the Mars lounge. I can’t tell you which teams were in the game or even how one scores a touchdown, but I can tell you that Google made me cry. In an ad that starts with the Google search bar, the question “How to not forget” types itself in and searches for answers. In the two minutes that follow, the viewer hears an endearing elderly man reflecting on intimate details and memories from his time with his wife. Partially from dialogue, partially from the music, you can tell the wife has since passed away. You somehow feel the absence of someone you’ve never met. Google serves as the hero in the ad, as it is able to record all of the details, all of the photos, all of the memories, to keep the experience alive for the man.
The root of the word memory, mem-, is a Latin word meaning “for the perpetual remembrance of the thing.” What happens when the experience is too much to comprehend, when there isn’t time to reflect before life moves on? I fear the memories I hold won’t be perpetual, but instead leave as quickly as my time with the people and places does. Maybe this is what Google is suggesting. Maybe it is the call to action that I took it as. Maybe it’s not. Either way, I set out to remember Stanford and the experience as best I could before it was out of reach.
My first thought for holding memories close was a blog, but I quickly moved from the idea after remembering the ineffectiveness of my last attempt. The last time I kept a blog was when I switched my life on the Farm for a life in the urban chaos that is Madrid during the spring of my sophomore year. I spent my afternoons practicing flamenco, sipping sangria and wandering the streets of the city with no destination in mind. I felt my brain crowd with memories, so I chose to keep a travel blog for my family back home as well as for my future self. For the first few weeks, the entries were dense. I retold every awkward encounter, every successful attempt to speak Spanish, every joke from my host brother.
A few weeks in, I traveled to Barcelona. In the late hours of night (or early hours of morning depending on who you ask), I stood outside of my Airbnb fiddling with a lock. The key was so large it felt like something a clown would have at a birthday party. I giggled to myself, but soon felt the presence of someone else. I waited for them to pass but felt my heart rate steadily increase as I realized they weren’t moving. I pulled my shoulders back and turned to see a man with a peppered beard and milky eyes. He stepped closer, shouting words that weren’t familiar enough to be Spanish, but I could still understand their emotion. Before I could process, I felt dry fingers wrap about my arm. I turned to run, not even considering grabbing the key from the jammed lock.
I am grateful I had the opportunity to run. I am grateful nothing happened. The moment was so insignificant, but I could tell you I was in a blue tank top, faded blue jeans, pink sneakers and had my hair in a bun. I can’t tell you how I wore my hair for any formal I’ve been to at Stanford.
As I sat in the airport pondering my blog post, I wrote about paella and the influence of Gaudi, posted photos of the brilliant orange pants I bought in the market. If it were a personal journal, I would have written about the moment I lost the naivety I had my whole life, the moment I lost my false confidence as a solo female traveler. I would write about how it changed the way I moved through space, changed my fierce sense of independence.
I pondered the idea of only sharing my highlight reel with my dad once while we drove through Pennsylvania a few months later. “Maybe not writing about it is a good way to help you move on, you know?” As much as I wanted to move on, I felt this moment stick with me more than any that I wrote about. In the two years since keeping the travel blog, I never went back to read it, not until working on this essay. Memory is funny like that. As much as I’d like to be, I don’t think I am the one in charge of what sticks.
Inspired by my creative writing class, I wonder if a personal journal, an in-depth personal place to record the things closest to me, could help me keep what I wanted close. After feeling a strong dose of admiration for one of my closest friends, caused by nothing more than seeing him between classes, I try to capture it. I write:
“Uche’s unmatched talent radiates out in the way he holds his head high, greets everyone with relentless confidence, sings with a voice that defies description, has a mind strong enough to get him into med school in high school, heart that made him a revered RA, biceps that make his competitive nature in volleyball understandable, and calves so defined it’s no wonder he’s the star of most dance shows. Whenever I talk to people — our frosh dorm mates, his frat brothers, my residents, his residents, bio students, anyone — they speak about him as if no mortal could do what he’s done. They all consider him one of their best friends. Hearing this always makes me question my own closeness to his aura. I doubt it only momentarily, as I then think to the times with him that mean the most — late mornings when we lay in bed watching Netflix while sharing self-deprecating humor and the fears we needed someone else to assure us were wrong. This is where I admired him most, when his vulnerability made his talent even more palpable.”
This writing doesn’t do him, or the impact he’s had on my life, justice.
I worry about losing the memories I share with him as easily as I will lose his presence in my life in just a few short months.
I wonder if my writing is to blame and spend a week focused on photos. I capture it all: the greasy pizza lounging on my slip dress as I sat on the sidewalk of San Jose at 1 a.m., the cheetah skirt I was empowered to wear to my first TRX class, the glass jar Swetha broke in a vegan restaurant, the carnage of a Great American Challenge, Swetha asleep in my bed, and my face, euphoric, when I felt like therapy was working. For now, these moments feel incredibly significant. I am unsure if that will stand in a few years or even a few weeks.
Researchers at Fairfield University in Connecticut discovered the “photo taking impairment effect.” Through various studies, they found that taking a photo of an object or place impairs one’s ability to recall details about the situation, the object, or the sentiments attached to that thing. The impairment effect even increases when you yourself are in the photo, as it allows your brain to feel like more of a passive observer. With this research in mind, I feel somewhat defeated about the power of photos, but I scroll through my camera roll anyways.
So many sunsets appear: burning reds, lazy purples, excited pinks. The pictures strengthen my memory for the view, but they blur around the feelings and experiences that came with the view. I’m missing the reason behind the feeling.
In a final attempt at preserving moment and memory, I choose to live sans-record: no writing, no photos, just moments.
Paint runs down my back, gaining speed at the curve of my spine. I look down to see my body morphing with color and creations. Hands locked with Maeve, we skip toward the Main Quad, stopping only for quick hugs or when the laughter is too strong to do anything else. Once we reach the quad, my body spends the next hour dancing with glow sticks, roses, and kisses, morphing to the movement of the music around me. I hope, staring at the gold on MemChu, that this is a moment I will be able to keep close. My phone stays asleep in my hand; there is no necessity for a picture.
“You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” In “The Last Black Man in San Francisco,” Jimmie Fails is riding public transportation after spending years fighting to regain his family home in a gentrified part of the city. When he overhears two women complaining about their hatred for the city they have newly joined, he turns to them and states with certainty: “You don’t get to hate it unless you love it.” There is a power to knowing a place, a power to having your personal history embedded in a place. I look at Stanford with an incredible amount of admiration for shaping who I am, but an incredible amount of disappointment for letting me, and so many others, down.The painful memories I carry, the intense amount of compassion I pour into the creation of positive memories, gives me the space to give criticism. But I don’t hate it. I am grateful for the hardship, although hesitantly. After all of this, I am left wondering how the word “Stanford” will settle on my heart in a year, or 10 years. Stanford has given me a home, yet the home rests in the people that have been a part of the journey. Despite my quest to preserve memory, I still don’t know how much memory is in my control, how much will stick no matter how hard I try to forget. Time will only tell.
The sun sinks low in the sky and melts Mayfield into marigolds. I pick paint from the surface of the picnic table, wondering about wasted time. My name cuts through the air from a silhouette in the distance. I swerve to make the person out, but I see only shadows. My fingers dance in the air to return the greeting. I live in the opposite of loneliness; I feel the comfort of community even when alone. My heartbeats hit harder as I stand, heeding the heaviness of limited time.
Contact Ellie Utter at uttere ‘at’ stanford.edu.