by Madeline Dougherty
I will always remember the day I got in.
The frenzied phone call to my mom; the worry I had misunderstood the email; telling my boss that I would be leaving; my family immediately driving 3 hours to celebrate.
I remember everyone telling me this would be a formative year, the best year of my life.
I remember when the world shut down, too. When the dream that felt so surreal seemed doomed to stay a dream, never reality.
For a whole year, I pushed away the hope of coming to Oxford, and made new memories instead.
Memories of corn mazes, haunted houses, hot springs. Long days spent in the sun followed by long days cuddled inside, resting. Of climbing, restaurants, family, skiing, the magic of new traditions. Building a life with someone. Feeling that this was the best year of my life.
I remember still not believing I would make it to Oxford. The visa was delayed — again. Tickets had to be re-purchased — again. I remember the plane ride, both of us delirious from stress, lack of sleep, and the exciting new place just 14 hours away.
Then we got here.
I thought the memories made in Oxford would involve top tier tea, stylish sweaters, rosy cheeks and smiles like I grew up seeing in British media. I thought the memories made here would involve diverse friend groups, from the community, college, department, organizations. We would travel all of the UK, all of Europe. I pictured myself studying in a library with a warm cup of tea.
Instead, the memories made in Oxford have been like the limited produce at the nearest grocery store; expensive bus and train tickets. Uneven sidewalks that are too small for two people to walk on. Rushing traffic that doesn’t slow for bicycles or pedestrians. Friendships that never progressed. And tea isn’t even allowed in the libraries.
Instead, the memories are being shoved off the sidewalk. My partner not being allowed into stores. Teenagers shouting slurs. Restaurants always seating us by the bathroom, discarded by the rubbish bins, away from windows, away from view.
Instead of foundational memories of self-discovery, I feel like I’m losing myself. Dirty looks for bright coloured clothes have narrowed my closet to muted greys and blacks. Scowls and clouds have wiped the smiles and laughs off my face walking anywhere.
Instead, my memories here involve watching my partner shrink into herself. Taking up less space, going out less, talking less. Both of us spend more time remembering the before to escape the now.
Now our time is coming to an end. The return plane ticket has been bought, arrangements made to leave as soon as permissible. The accrual of difficult memories here has been given a limit.
Now the sun has come out in Oxford. Now some friendships are developing. Now there are only 5 weeks left.
Now we spend every day doing something, anything, to replace the bad memories with good. Finding secret paths that take twice as long but with half as many derogatory remarks.
New memories of rearranging the living room and buying expensive tea to have a personalised study experience. New memories of finding the cheapest holiday in France. New memories of nights out, just the two of us.
I’m determined to leave on a positive note, mostly so I can convincingly respond to everyone back home who was so excited. I remember that feeling of excitement and hope, I understand their insistence that academia is where I would thrive. I also remember the hard and fast fall of facing reality, though, and can’t pass that on.
So new memories will be carefully curated to replace the bad, one by one, until “It was amazing” rolls off the tongue. The most formative insight I gained is simply the quiet knowledge that it’s hardly the place that matters for good memories, but rather the person who replaces the bad ones with you.
The greyness will not linger, nor follow, reduced to merely a blip in a life full of spirited colour.