Track 1: "Boxing" (4:45) Ben Folds Five · Ben Folds Five · Passenger Records That first time back, you're a rock star. Most of your friends are right where you left them, save for the ones who were kicked to the curb with you on graduation day. When you walk through the door there are cheers, and hugs, and drinks held high in salute. For you have seen the other side. You have been among the savages, who expect you to pay rent and get health insurance. You are out there doing it, whatever it is supposed to be, and now you have returned.
Freshmen stop to get a look, so they can put a face to all those stories. One of them may actually go as far as to bow in Wayne/Garth awe upon meeting you, though you're pretty sure it's just to butter up the girl doing the introduction — a girl he does not deserve, but neither do you. Not anymore. Later, as the clock slips past 2:00 AM and the last of the bottles have clinked into the bin, you will run out of tales to retell. Suddenly, they all sound as if they happened a thousand years ago.
When you show up again a year later, there's little fanfare. Some people have transferred, taken a semester off, dropped out. Those who remain are still happy to go out for some late night pancakes, but they've filled your spot on the roster. They've moved on. The fact that things on the outside aren't exactly turning out they way you'd hoped is not their problem. Their plates are kind of full, nothing personal.
The third time back, you're only there to see a select handful, friends who are about to graduate themselves and are more than willing to grab onto a life jacket like you. There may yet be a few folks worth stopping for a quick hi, perhaps a few to avoid. After that, even though you know damn well the chances of running into someone are nil, you still look around. You can't help it. It's reflex.
When the day comes that you walk across campus and habit doesn't compel you to look around for familiar faces, that's when you know you're truly gone.
This particular morning, there weren't many faces around at all. Even for August, it was muggy. The incoming class wasn't due to start orientation for another three weeks, and what few students I saw would have been toddlers when I roamed this place, clad in untucked flannel, NATO-issue military backpack, high-top Chucks, and Smashing Pumpkins baseball cap. Worn backwards, obviously.
Durham is a quiet town when UNH isn't in session. Apart from an occasional car, the only sounds along the sidewalk came from pockets of construction that were finishing up before the semester. Main Street bisects campus east to west, lined with vast lawns and brick buildings. Some of the buildings had fresh faces of their own. There were a couple that I'd never seen at all. The building I was looking for had a major renovation at the end of my senior year, so despite having weathered a dozen New Hampshire winters, it still looked brand new to me.
It also wasn't where I remembered, but whatever. Honestly, who remembers how to find the library anyway?
Gone were the neon-striped carpets from the 1960s, replaced with muted beige and wood tones that are far more charitable to the eye. The girl at the front desk pointed me in the right direction — two floors below, down an utterly silent hallway that ends with a set of glass doors. The archive. High ceilings give it the air of a great hall, washed in sunlight from windows overlooking the woods. Massive wooden tables stand neatly in rows.
A sole librarian sat working at her computer. When she noticed me headed for the glass doors, she gave a push and wheeled her office chair from the far desk to the near one to greet me. She seemed like a more casual version of Mrs. Landingham, the President's secretary from "The West Wing." She had a decent guess as to why I was there. Alums must have a certain look about them.
"Yearbooks?" she asked.
"Actually, I'm looking for an old issue of The New Hampshire." Copies of it used to pile up in my dorm room.
"Ahh," she said, and reached into a drawer for a form. "The back issues are cataloged by fiscal year. How far back are we looking?"
"It would have been some time during fall semester 1995, I don't remember exactly when." She picked up the phone, dialed an extension, and relayed the dates.
I had a seat at one of the tables and glanced around, bouncing my knee nervously. There was a feeling I couldn't quite shake, the feeling that this was a foolish errand, that this whole enterprise was only going to make me look like an asshole, not to mention possibly upset some people. What the hell was I doing here? Was this tale really worth reopening old wounds? Besides, there was a distinct possibility that I was about to kill several hours of a vacation day poring over old campus newspapers, only to come away empty-handed.
Mrs. Landingham's colleague arrived with two long, flat boxes, and pushed one of the glass doors open with her back. She placed the boxes in front of me on the table. "Let us know what pages you'd like copied, it's twenty-five cents per page. Take your time." She smiled and left. I laid the boxes side by side and pulled off the lids.
What I was looking for was on the front page of the very first issue on the pile. The story was a piece of horrible news, the kind that reporters don't like to write, especially college students writing about their own classmates. It was a story about a guy I knew for all of five months, a story about a band that played exactly once.
It was a story about a kid who wanted to be a rock star.