What would be your last meal?
Take the morbid implication out: what would be your last meal before leaving a place you love, for the longest time you’ve been gone from anywhere? What is the last meal you’d eat before going through (you’ve been told) a metamorphosis?
My last dinner with my family before the big emotional adventure, before ripping off the Band-Aid and stepping on the flight, was at The Cheesecake Factory.
You’re reading this and shaking your head. You’re asking me, why didn’t I have an emotional, sappy meal with handmade something-or-others that my grandma used to make? Of all things, this fast-casual chain? What is wrong with me?
My favorite walking path in my hometown in South Jersey. It’s surrounded by suburbia, but from this angle its like the middle of the woods. I spent a lot of time here this summer.
Well, I counter with this: what could exemplify the American experience better than Cheesecake Factory? What else could sum this whole experiment up? The Capital of Indulgence, the Bastion of American Excess, The Cheesecake Factory. You’d be hard-pressed to find something like it anywhere else in the world. In so many ways, Cheesecake Factory is only possible here. So of course, I had to eat there one more time before I left.
Cheesecake Factory is one big American victory lap, which is why it was so necessary for my send-off. There is a distinct feeling at the Factory that everything good is endless and timeless–The gentle, reassuring clashes of every style of design you’ve ever seen, the warm 90’s lighting, the plastic pillars with placid faces cut into them… the breadbasket! It’s bizarre and lovely, this big American Fever Dream. It is all so sincere; it is all so campy.
We eat our breadsticks, thumb through the endless pages of cheesecake, and happily distract ourselves with the baseball game playing on the bar’s TV. Only a tear or three are shed at the table, and our to-go box tower safely makes it to the family SUV. All the America I could ever want.
The ride home after dinner is quieter than I hoped. It’s tough to finally to drop this act of “I’m okay!” with the people I love. I’m scared. And we might all be. After 3 months together without school, I find myself forced to admit that time is finite: ultimately, this summer lull will stop lulling in less than 24 hours. I’ll be away from them, and them from me, for a length of time I have scarcely thought about. There is a sense everywhere, seeping through the cracked car windows and pooling under the tension between our few words, that something bigger is ending than summer, something none of us can quite laugh off. It’s time to stop joking around. Now, I really do have to go.
Summer turns to fall. Something is making room for something else. This is how all change works. But even so, summer’s end seems to color every change with a sensitive, painful brush. I keep finding myself frantically grasping on to everything around me: the past, the present, anything but the future. These are the things I can touch without flinching.
Leaving the gentle routine of a hometown summer, working at the library, walking laps around the lake with my high school friends, warming like a lizard on Jersey Shore beaches—all these things feel a bit harder to rip away from this summer. The unsolvable problem with loving has always been the leaving.
While queueing in the TSA line the next day where I really, for real this time left my family, I asked for another hug from my little sister over the line divider. She’ll be going into her senior year of high school while I’m away. We’re hugging over the divider, drawing a look from the TSA Agent. “One more time,” I say thickly into her shoulder, trying not to lose it. “One more time before I go.”
A packed London Heathrow Airport during my layover—just a small section of one wing of the airport! The scale was shocking.
A week past the TSA line, my eyes sting for new reasons. I’m now sitting on a dock by a Copenhagen canal, near one of many orange ladders inviting swimmers into the cool water. The sun claims everything as its own, making everything shimmer and burn into the backs of my eyelids. I don’t know the canal’s name, or even where I am. I can’t read the signs, and I can’t yet navigate without a phone. Besides, phones can’t do this last summer day justice. No one can quite believe it, this shock of a summer day. The water is briny and deep-dark solemn, full of seaweed and even rumors of jellyfish. The beachy scene is surrounded by a bustling metropolis on either side. The cobblestone streets are full of spoken Danish, German, French, and English mixing in the air, bits and pieces half legible against the splashes of falling swimmers.
Sunbathing and enjoying the water on the canal in Copenhagen.
This golden day is already turning dreamlike and hazy as it becomes memory. I already know it’s the type of Danish day I’ll miss most when it gets cold and rainy. The temperature forecast is due to drop almost immediately this month, which will send the sun bathers scattering. There are so many more “last times” than anyone cares to admit. This is yet another one.
The view from my Copenhagen bedroom window. Our apartment is in Amager, an island a 10 minute bike ride from the city center.
I was asked to write about a bit about my time right before departing for my study abroad program. That big “before” feeling had haunted me for weeks. I don’t do well with unknowns, and this unknown was no exception. But part of growth is committing to both loving and leaving– giving familiar things, people, and places, extra space for your own sake.
Last few summer days spent at the man-made lake, Ørstedparken, in the city center
So, for those of you who are nervous about leaving for a program, who feel the lurch of a season ending and a “new you” on the horizon, know that you aren’t alone. This is an all-too-common side effect of pushing past borders of old comfort zones. These growing pains will change you for the better.
Want to know more about pre-departure? Feeling pre-flight jitters?