By EMMA IANNI
On my way to my first semester at Cornell, I lost my wallet at the Port Authority bus station in New York City. I only realized afterward it was gone as I was rummaging in my purse and I couldn’t breathe — my hands suddenly turned cold. I had everything in my wallet: pictures, my Italian ID, credit card, a concert ticket, my ticket for the London subway and an important letter written in blue ink and signed with a tiny scribble. I also liked the wallet itself because it was an elegant black and it belonged to my mother. But I didn’t have it anymore, and that is how I started my new adventure with the feeling of having nothing.
I arrived at Cornell in a cab; it was a Friday and it was sunny and my suitcase was really heavy. I entered the green campus feeling unsure and proud, with the same tremor one has when starting a new book or finishing a special one, with the rush that one has while sleeping that the dream might end so that one can experience it in real life.
Ezra Pound wrote in a famous poem of “petals on a wet, black bough,” which is a metaphor cruelly clear and familiarly immediate that expresses the humid loneliness of those places which are not home yet, the black – a little scary – of those eyes we don’t know yet. Yet under this foliage that was still green and that was going to be spectacular once it turned red and yellow, beneath the clock tower I saw faces, not rotten petals, weak and fallen. And I saw them clearly, in the genuine smiles and in the pictures on the walls, in the noisy line in the dining hall and in the silence of the Harry-Potter-like library. I saw them in the phone numbers exchanged (and never called) and in the shyness of a new friendship, in the heavy eyelids covering shining eyes and in the doors left open onto the hallway. And I wondered whether my homesickness made any sense in front of all those handshakes and first hugs. I tried to understand while I was asking for names and directions if we miss certain things or if it is those things that need us, and forcefully demand us back.
During my very first class we read sonnet CXXVIII by Shakespeare. The poem was written for charming Dark Lady, a snapshot of her caressing a rudimental piano without even looking at the adoring admirer.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.
“It is Shakespeare, it is love and rejection and indifference. It is splendid, it’s heart wrenching, isn’t it?” At our shy nodding, the professor smiled. “No it isn’t. It’s comical.” Now, the meanings of tragic and comic are not important — none of the whole Aristotle thing matters here. What matters is the revelation, the epiphany: I had never really opened my eyes to many things, to many constants in my life. I had confused light-heartedness and spontaneity, I had thought that what I needed and what I wanted could not be reconciled and I cried when I should have laughed – or joked.
And this is how I started to answer to all those questions I had. I woke up early in the morning, a lot earlier than my first class. I stared at the ceiling, I breathed in and I tried to answer. I found out that absence is something that depends on us, but that more importantly we are responsible for our presence; I discovered the courage of knocking on the door of the room next to mine, saying “Hey” and sitting on the floor to talk about myself and listen to others. I learned to find my way around campus and around my ideas. I remembered why I was here and I didn’t forget all the tears I shed over what I had left behind — I froze them and they turned into crystals of courage, hope and pride. During my first week at Cornell I saw people saying goodbye to their families, I saw people hiding their fear under a layer of cockiness. Some people made their dorm room similar to their room at home. I saw parents’ cars driving away, but nowhere did I see disillusion, bitterness or powerlessness. Because there were more than 3,000 of us and we had made it.
I took a plane from Milan and I crossed the Atlantic Ocean, then I hopped on a bus and I arrived here in Ithaca. I was alone but I was never lonely. After losing my wallet, I bought another one; it was white and green and empty, but that was the point — I could fill it.
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