Goodbye from under the magnolia

senior column

In the main field of Duke Gardens, where the gargantuan stick sculpture used to make its home, there’s a grassy slope under the shade of a magnolia tree. A small slope, close to the Flowers Drive entrance, adjacent to the gravel path which leads you to colorful, terraced flower beds and the koi fish pond. We’ll call this spot Gardens Slope™, because I don’t have much patience to think of a more creative name. Gardens Hill is an appropriate alternative, and I might use them interchangeably. Might.  

On a typical evening, preferably in late spring, you can spend hours on Gardens Slope as students play soccer or throw a frisbee, children chase birds in the other small pond, and swaying skyscraper trees soar above you. In what became an unconscious ritual, the end of each school year meant I found myself lounging or thinking or talking or walking on this slope, sometimes with others, often alone.

I first encountered the Gardens Slope in May 2017, finals week of my first year. My mental health crashing, I had just made the split-second decision to rush from the Gothic Reading Room, walk furiously to the Gardens, and break up with my long-time high school girlfriend. I’ll spare you the details— in fact, I don’t want to share them—but it sucked. I regret this moment, how I handled the end. When we hung up, I walked, dazed, until I found the slope, my half-finished final exam materials obnoxiously saving my seat in Gothic. The next six months became some of the most difficult of my life. Gardens Slope had little to do with any of this, but sitting there is my clearest memory of that day, in the messy wake of an emotional trainwreck.

I found myself there again, twice, at the end of my Sophomore year. Once, in a large group, relieved that the University had failed in punishing students who skirted the rules of the Pickets, Protests, and Demonstrations policy. A sunny afternoon in late April. 

Another time, just a few weeks earlier, sharing a bottle of wine and strawberries on a perfectly warm evening. If you’re rolling your eyes, I understand—but when else can I be so publicly nostalgic? Gardens Slope stayed the same, though I think this was the last spring you could see the twisted branches of the stick sculpture. 

On LDOC, junior year, I walked across the slope at midday with three friends on our way to spend time with some ducks. If you’re wondering why we wanted to spend time with ducks, the answer is that it was LDOC. No further comment. Another group of people had staked their claim to Gardens Slope anyway. I think we said hi to them. I don’t remember. I do remember some passive-aggressive ducks, my friends, my sweat, and an impending sense of time running out—though comforted by the knowledge that I’d still have one more full year to enjoy moments like this one. 

A year later, sitting on Gardens Slope, there is nothing but birds and flowers and trees and squirrels (who, in this pandemic, have seized control of campus). Of course, I didn’t imagine this for my last few months at Duke, certainly not while I watched those ducks. Sitting here, I’m overwhelmed by memories, blurred together, and I’m reminded of the loneliness I felt in the same spot a few years earlier. I can’t help but long for the final few moments I could have spent on the Gardens Slope, surrounded by people I love and who I might not see again for a long, long time. The ritual is ending.

I wrote three or four drafts of this final column. I wanted to wrestle with what the last four years meant to me, tease out a lesson, make meaning out of a place that, for better or worse, has made me an entirely different person. I didn’t want to be too sentimental—I have no love for Duke the institution—but I wanted to commemorate all the people I’m so grateful to know, the places I found refuge. This slope, the roof of Environment Hall, Duke Pond, Vondy. I wanted to think deeply about my life beyond graduation. I want to say goodbye, somehow.

But, at this moment, I really have nothing to say. I just keep thinking about the Gardens Slope and how I’m sitting here, again. How the sun feels even more comforting when I close my eyes. Nostalgia, alluring as always. I’ll think about what comes next another day, and save profound thoughts for later. For now, I want to indulge in the Gardens Slope one last time. 

Gino Nuzzolillo is a Trinity senior, and this is his last column. I’ll stop using third person to say I am grateful to Mihir, Leah and Frances for being incredible editors and even better friends. And to Jenny, Trey, Ivan, Varun, Ethan, Hadeel, Kezia and many more who read numerous drafts of various columns for over a year and made them immeasurably more interesting and coherent. In other words, they put the “hot” in my hot takes. And, finally, to the boomers and that one dude who told me repeatedly how much my columns sucked—thank you. Goodbye. 


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