Memoir Monday: The happiest place on earth

by Nina Gee, Reporter

The navy blue color of the sign accentuates the glowing silver plates that read “California Institute of the Arts” in all caps. Seven girls stand in front of the sign, arms linked around each other, bending slightly forward as to try to fit the entirety of the sign into the picture.

The seven girls, all different, are distinguished by factors ranging from bronze-bleached to bright blue hair, from towering figures to squat statures, from glittering medals as proof of our excellence to the clear Birkenstocks that are clearly meant to be a joke but are still taken seriously. The sun beats down mercilessly on the girls, and sweat glistens on the planes of their faces, but it does nothing to hide the gleaming smiles that stretch across their cheeks.

It’s the last day of California State Summer School of the Arts. I’m in the process of packing up what was my entire life for the past month into three, unassuming suitcases when I remember that Ava’s leaving. Ava, who’s been by my side everyday for the past month. Ava, who wrote a poem detailing how much she’d miss me when she’s gone, and I know I have to see her. I check my watch and panic as I realize that I only have three minutes to sprint across the courtyard to our meeting place.

I run out of the dorms, past the picnic tables, across the field to the giant navy blue sign in front of the CalArts building. Leah is already there, looking dead from the heat in her cut-off leggings, and Sandra is tugging at the hem of her gray dress. I run farther up the grassy hill to see that Ava is also there, and Calista, Meera and Jocy materialize behind me as I reach the sign.

I notice that two of our other friends, Gena and Audrey, aren’t there. I ask to wait for them, but Ava explains that we don’t have much time because she’s leaving soon, and hurriedly ushers me into line with the other girls.

“Irving!” Leah shouts to the boy walking across the courtyard. “Take a picture of us!”

I plaster a smile on my face as Irving lifts the camera up further, positioning the phone to take a picture of the seven of us. Calista reaches her arm around my shoulders and gives me a reassuring squeeze; I wrap my arm about her waist and do the same. Time seems to slow down as I glance to the side, watching the corners of Leah’s lips lift into a smile. I begin to notice things I’d never bothered to notice before, like how Sandra’s hair is so blue it could be black, or how I’ve never seen Meera without her glasses, and I’ve seen Ava without hers but never without her signature red lipstick. It’s in that moment I realize how much I’m going to miss these people when I leave. I look away, forcing back the tears I can feel threatening to burst from the corners of my eyes.

Irving hands the camera back to Leah and the world is soundless. I reluctantly let my hands drop from Calista’s shoulders, and suddenly we’re all laughing, but the sound is muffled in my ears. In the distance, I hear Gena’s warrior screech as I see her and Audrey madly sprinting across the field.

“You took it without us?” Gena screeches in her high-pitched voice.

“I’m sorry, but we had no time. I have to go now,” Ava says.

The conversation stops.

“Oh, Nina,” Audrey breathes.

It’s only then that I notice the tears sliding hot down my cheeks. When I do, I can’t help but let the sobs ricochet in the empty cavity of my chest, and before I know it, everyone is crying, and Leah is wrapping her arms around me for the third time that day. Meera is patting my back and trying not to cry because she promised Ava she wouldn’t cry, and for the first time, I feel like I’m never truly alone.

This picture means more to me than seven girls capturing their last moments together for a lasting memory. It’s a promise that we’ll never forget each other or the experiences we’ve shared together. I look at this picture sometimes and ponder how much these girls have changed my life, from Gena, who encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone, to Jocy, who showed me that sometimes being a little weird can make for great creative reserves, and finally, Ava, who made me believe that it’s okay to be vulnerable around people sometimes. It’s these people who showed me that it’s always okay to be yourself, even if it steps out of the idea people have of you.