Three roads intersecting in the distance.
Photograph by Mikayla Whitmore for The New Yorker


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Audio: Lauren Groff reads.

Some nights, in my dreams, I find myself running through those hills above Palo Alto again. It is always just before dawn, and as I run I smell the sun-crisped fields, the sage, the eucalyptus. The mist falls in starched sheets over the distant hills, the ones that press against the Bay, and I can hear nothing but my own footsteps, my own breath, once in a while a peloton of cyclists whirring out of the morning fog that swallows them up again. I descend, going ever faster through the quiet wealthy neighborhoods, across the empty black river of asphalt that is El Camino Real, then when the road flattens out into Mountain View I am flying, and I see at last the great strong-armed oak that spreads its grace above the whole block. Every time, though, I awaken before I can lift my eyes to the converted pool house, covered in moss and bougainvillea and ferns, which I have not seen in twenty years, and which I won’t see again in this life.

My parents didn’t come to my college graduation; instead, they sent a dozen carnations dyed blue and a gift certificate to a clothing store for middle-aged women. I would give my left foot to be there, my mother had said, near tears on the phone. But her voice was drowned out by my sisters screaming at one another, the dog barking, and when she put the phone down to stop the ruckus she got distracted and never came back. It is true that one of my sisters had a dance performance that same weekend, another had a soccer match, and another had final exams, and even if these things had been deemed of less importance than the eldest child’s college graduation, my two brothers, who were still in high school, could not be trusted to resist having a party in a house vacant of parents.

This was why, after walking across the stage and tossing the mortarboard and hugging my friends, I came back alone to my dorm room, dodging my roommates’ families, who were loading all their stuff into cars. I closed the door and looked for a long while at my own neatly packed boxes, the stripped mattress. I took my toiletries, “Moby-Dick” from the box of books, a sleeping bag, a pillow, a hiking backpack full of clothes, and slipped out, leaving everything else behind. I didn’t say goodbye. I told no one where I was going. I didn’t know until I was outside in the softly setting New England sun that I was turning toward the West.