Before: a reflection on my last moments of normalcy.

A memoir-style recollection of the last moments I spent with my a cappella group ‘Tar Heel Voices’ before and right after we got the news about Carolina sending us home.

          I woke up on the carpeted floor of my Chapel Hill home. It was 6:18 a.m, Lauren was upstairs getting ready. I rolled over, incredibly sore and tired. We’d just competed in the ICCAs the night before – my throat was scratchy, my hair still straightened, save for the pieces around my forehead where the sea-salt sweat brought out some recollection of ringlets. I’d poured my clean clothes on my bed the night before so I’d have to fold them before going to bed – but exhaustion had gotten the best of me. I quickly shoved some t-shirts and leggings into my duffle (the one mom had given me senior year, specifically for train rides). It was a nice full circle.

          “You ready?” Lauren was downstairs with the biggest smile. I bit back my racing heart.

          “I’ll be fine once we’re on the train. Then I’m not in charge anymore.” I’d planned the whole trip, rode every bump, swallowed every hiccup. I’d done all I could to make sure the trip would go smoothly; now we just had to get there.

          You see, my dearest friends were horrible at getting places on time and no amount of reminder messages was going to force them to wake up on time. So, there we are 5 present from a group of 12. I was pissed. I was freaking out. I was scared. I’d set the expectations! I’d been so clear! How could the first part of the trip already have gone so horribly?

          A few phone calls later, it was sorted out. Brooke later joked that she woke up to “The wrath of God. The wrath of Lizzy Campbell.” I was far from a happy camper.

          A car ride to Raleigh with Arjun and Sarah was filled with show-tunes and pleasant conversation. I was just ready to get there, get on the train, and let someone else take over. The train station was sparkling; it was brand new. I could hardly remember the old one I’d spent so much time in. But it felt sort of therapeutic, I was going on a new adventure with new people in my life, and I was starting it in a brand new space.

          I sent the troops off to get food from the market down the road and sat with the luggage, took a few thousand deep breaths, and peed at least four times in 15 minutes. A vegan chicken salad snack pack and a coconut lime kombucha later, we were on the train, spread out in one car. I was relieved. We’d all made it; I’d done it! I’d actually successfully planned a trip and it was about to be the best five-days-four-nights of my life!

          The train ride was perfect, but then again I’d always loved the train. Kind of felt like a field trip. Turning to Brooke behind me, speaking in whispers, laughing at inside jokes that the boys were annoyed to not understand. It was a really simple and giddy kind of fun; I was utterly content. After an impossibly busy semester, I was so relieved to have a break.

          When we got there, the air was perfectly crisp – just cold enough to wake you up, but not enough to make you hate your own existence. We walked to the metro station and all laughed a little bit when Batman put on gloves to touch the metro card machine. He wiped down the railings of the metro with a Clorox wipe; Lauren passed around a bottle of hand-sanitizer. I didn’t think much of it; public transportation would always be gross, but I knew better than to lick the metal poles or rub my face against a seat that had sat many-a-stranger with many-a-story.

          The airbnb was my final fear – booking it had been a breeze, almost a little too easy. I punched in the door code and thank God it was just as cute and cozy as it had looked. We did bed selection in our usual order (Year, time in the group, position in the group). Since I’d planned the trip, I was a little insistent on choosing first. I was claustrophobic after all and had always had a hard time falling asleep. On most group retreats I would sleep on the floor or the couch just to avoid sharing a bed. I chose the small bedroom at the top of the staircase on the right. It had one bed just big enough to fit two people; Sarah was my bed buddy and best friend. We were both a little relieved that we had our own space – Sarah liked having personal space and I liked invading her personal space! A perfect duo.

          We were lucky that Arjun’s mother lived in the area; she was kind enough to host us for dinner that night. We sat around some of us sipping beer, some of us sticking with water and vegan ranch dip, and we sang. We sang songs we’d rehearsed a hundred times; we sang songs we hadn’t touched in months; we sang songs we’d never sung before just riffing off of each other and coming up with harmonies on the spot. It was beautiful and pure and everything I loved about that group of people.

          Sarah and I woke up to the sound of far too many alarms throughout the house. We got dressed quickly – used some charcoal toothpaste – and left with a small group to go to a supreme court open hearing. Security was intense – metal detectors, bag checks, electronics in lockers – the whole shebang. Batman continued wiping down surfaces, Lauren continued to hand sanitize every five minutes or so, and Sarah and I continued washing our hands – like a lot. We obsessed afterward about seeing RBG in person (and also that other justice that we wished we hadn’t seen).

          The Holocaust museum was emotionally draining. I found myself crying in the presence of strangers for the first time on the trip. I looked for Lithuania on all the signs trying to find the city where Ramunė was from – searched the names to see if her last name was anywhere. Tragedies always felt worse when we had some sort of personal attachment…I wondered what that said about me.

          I was drained and mad at the world and highly irritable. Sarah and I went back to the airbnb to nap. Which, yes, seemed extremely lame to our friends; I mean, we were in DC there was so much to explore! Why just go back to the house? But then we were on the metro, talking about life and romance and our theories on how that virus would affect our lives. I didn’t think it was gonna hurt us much; Sarah wasn’t really sure. We pushed those thoughts aside as we ate pancakes in bed and accidentally spilled syrup on our pillows. Brooke joined us later and we talked for hours; body image, teenage tendencies, life. I could tell they were gonna be friends I had in my life for a long time, dipping their toes into that pool of my eternal love.

          And the journey continued – every day bringing the kind of memories you know are fundamental when you make them. The moments that feel so special in person that you know you have to memorize all the details for later. We scootered around the city, drank too much coffee, and stood in somber silence as we learned more and more of the messy history of our country. Sarah and I went off on our own quite a bit – so much to talk about, so much to catch up on, so many spontaneous adventures we needed to let ourselves have.

          We were at the science museum staring at a small exhibit where children could hold insects. I asked the woman working the station where the bugs were kept went the museum was closed; she pointed to the cart, looking disappointed.

          “They’re just trapped there? In those small little boxes – forever?” I was shocked and complained to Sarah about it all the way to the Washington Monument. That was when I got the first email.

Congratulations Elizabeth. You have been accepted to the Writing for the Screen and Stage Minor.

          I couldn’t stop smiling; it was something I’d been dreaming of since I stepped foot on Carolina’s campus. I thought nothing could touch the joy I was feeling but then the second email came through.

          “Lizzy.” Sarah and I looked at each other. It didn’t feel real.

          Then we were with the rest of the group – all joined together, singing our alma mater outside the lincoln memorial. I started to think that maybe it would be the last time I performed with that specific group of people. We sang the rest of the night, sitting on the couches downstairs in the little home we’d made ours for the time. I couldn’t stop crying and I certainly couldn’t fall asleep; I felt like my life was slowly collapsing under saran wrap – suffocated by outside forces.

          I didn’t want to say goodbye, so I didn’t. After hugging one person goodbye, with the knowledge that they were exiting my life, for the time being, I knew I couldn’t handle saying goodbye to all 12 people. I couldn’t stomach the idea of acknowledging the end, so I didn’t. I got off the train, met my dad, and left.

          I wish I’d known those were the last slices of normal life. I wish I’d known how different things would be now. I wish I would have spoken all my truths, poured out all my love, sucked every bit of joy out of the moment. What a different world that was – my biggest fear residing in the question of if a boy liked me back – my biggest complaint resting with a group of people’s inability to be on time. I would give anything for my friends to show up fifteen minutes late to my doorsteps now.

But I can close my eyes and escape there for a moment, and there I am sitting, laughing, and crying with them all, knowing we had something special – knowing we were something special. There I am in Alexandria, sitting on a porch swing, eating ice cream, surrounded by endless love, and knowing that everything was about to change.