In the summer of 2014, my mother and I flew from New York to San Diego to meet up with her college classmates. I was 10 years old at the time, and much of the trip is a blur, but one memory has remained stubbornly vivid: the hours I spent with Emma — my mother’s college classmate’s daughter, who was one year older than me and had an iPad — playing the endless runner game Subway Surfers.
Over the course of those four days, I guided the Subway Surfer — the default, denim-clad, spray bottle-wielding “Jake” avatar — through neon tunnels, over metal rail cars, and beneath yellow barriers. Together, with the help of jetpacks and score boosters, we ran faster and faster, collecting hundreds, thousands, even millions of gleaming golden coins. Occasionally, when my fingers slipped, Jake rammed into a barrier or rail car, but not hard enough to end the game. As the policeman caught up to him, he would leap up at the last possible moment, stars spinning above his head; glance back at the policeman, grinning with adrenaline, and keep running.
Almost a decade later, I graduated high school.
I spent most of the summer before college doomscrolling in bed. In mid-August, a few days before my summer of rest and relaxation would be curtailed by college move-in, I happened upon a TikTok that had been reposted as a YouTube reel. The video was actually an overwhelming collage of smaller videos: some cartoon playing, various soaps being sliced, and shrunk on the right side of the screen, a recording of Subway Surfers gameplay. My phone was flashing with too many colors uncomfortably close to my irises; beckoned by nostalgia, I closed YouTube and redownloaded the Subway Surfers app.
Hesitantly, I tapped the screen to begin the game, and Jake sprinted off into the tunnels. When I’d collected a few thousand coins, the speed of the game became dizzying. My skills had long declined since San Diego: Jake rammed into a short barrier and a tall one. He shook off the policeman both times, an easy smile on his face. Then I found myself leading Jake head-on into a train in the rightmost lane with another train blocking the middle lane. There, as Jake crashed and collapsed supine on the rails, a headache began throbbing between my temples.
While I watched hot light seep in and eventually fade from the cracks between the blinds in my bedroom, I played game after game of Subway Surfers. My fingers mindlessly tugged the screen again and again, allowing Jake to duck beneath the taller barriers. I found myself getting higher scores, the counter next to my gold coins steadily increasing. Because there is no way to win endless runner games, my hard work wasn’t building up towards any final victory, but still, I kept collecting coins.
My excess of free time came from my decision to avoid all forward motion that summer. Idleness was my attempt at happiness. I believed that, in the liminal respite before a breathless four years of college, I could discover how to live differently than I had in high school. So I lay very still through the hot months of June, July, August.
By August, I found myself to be very unhappy.
When I am unhappy, I turn to writing to make sense of things: I inscribe meaning into my life by organizing my experiences into narratives with a beginning, ending, and theme. After penning the final sentence of a piece, I feel like I have carved a small clearing into the messy underbrush of reality.
However, my four years as a high school writer were not full of whimsical discovery. Instead, I remember an endless chase after poetry accolades, perfect literature exam scores, and prestigious bylines. I traded in these academic tokens for admissions to writer residencies, colleges, and other opportunities to improve my skills. My skills, in turn, went toward accruing more writing achievements, which unlocked further opportunities.
I was terrified that the rest of my life would be like high school: I would be forever chasing that next line on my resume, that laureate title or publication — swerving around railcars for one more gold coin — in hopes of one more glimpse into how to understand and describe my human condition. I did not want the pressure of this constant pursuit; I only wanted to write well and to make sense of it all.
Sitting in a pool of August light on my bedroom floorboards, I tried to convince myself that I could arrive at clarity alone, outside of this hegemonic chase. I revisited poems and essays that I’d revised alone: I remember being constantly immersed in a state of writing and rewriting, leading to hyper-fixations and blind spots. Without the external perspectives of professors, editors, and mentors, I failed to identify the stylistic and logical flaws in my writing.
My old writing told narratives of life that I no longer believed, further convincing me that no draft could truly be final. No matter how far I got, I would always discover someone farther along than me — a poem, story, or essay that spoke with such piercing clarity that it fundamentally destroyed every narrative that I had ever written. In the ensuing haze, I would despair, wondering if I was treadmilling in place.
I took breaks from agonizing over my old writing by playing Subway Surfers. On my phone, I collected gold coins and hoverboards instead of accolades and exam scores; I traded these tokens for score boosters instead of writing mentorships. Eventually, I realized that I had sworn off one endless run only to replace it with another one.
On one of the final days of summer, I put on my mother’s green dress and walked barefoot into the middle of the road in my suburban Florida neighborhood.
The asphalt was 110 degrees beneath the soles of my feet. The midday sun swaddled me in a fever dream. It was noon on a workday, and everything was so silent, so still, I could hear the buzz of the heat.
I took step after step along a shaky crack in the center of the road. A hot breeze wrapped the fringes of my dress around my ankles. As I walked, I squinted until the houses on either side of me dissolved into an endless green-and-brown blur of suburbia.
From a distance, it looked like I was suffering meaninglessly: The skin cells on my feet were sloughing off from the heat, I had progressed about one 10-millionth of the Earth’s radius, and I had no real destination. But in the moment, I loved the soft burn of asphalt, the warm silk of my dress, the sun spreading across my skin.
Once I reached the end of this road, I could walk down the one next to it, and the next one, and the next one. When I ran out of roads in my neighborhood, there would be another neighborhood, and another, and another. When I grew too tired to walk, I could sit and wait through the night, and there would come another sunny day when I could start again, and I would experience this same feeling.
This joy, I realized, reminded me of high school.
My friends often asked me why I missed high school if I had not enjoyed it. That nostalgic part of me only emerged in the pensive dawn or twilight hours — never at a time when I was conscious enough to analyze it properly — so I usually chalked it up to Stockholm syndrome and YA media’s romanticization of adolescence.
Eventually, however, I found myself returning to the framework of Subway Surfers in an effort to explain: High school felt like a game, collecting those proverbial gold coins. If I missed one opportunity — a competition, an internship, an exam — there would always be another opportunity awaiting me, thanks to the college admissions-industrial complex: another mystery box in the tunnels ahead, another row of coins atop a train car; another new project, another fresh page.
I had enjoyed high school. I enjoyed it so much that I filled its absence with games of Subway Surfers to mimic the feeling. In my stillness, I missed the running.
On the morning of my college move-in day, in the hour between the flight I missed and the flight I was transferred to, I sat on my suitcase in the crowded terminal and refreshed my email. My fingers mindlessly tugged the screen again and again.
The night before, feeling guilty about doing nothing all summer, I’d sent out a slew of internship inquiries. Now I stared, dismayed, at my inbox with no unread messages. After the tenth refresh, I remembered a Chinese parable my grandfather told me when I was young and frustrated by rejection and failure: One day, a farmer’s horse runs away. The next day, the horse comes back bringing seven wild horses with it. The next day, the farmer’s son breaks his leg while riding one of the wild horses. The next day, the army, coming to enlist young men, allows his son to stay home because he has a broken leg.
Condensed into a few sentences, this farmer’s life is full of highs and lows that ultimately leave him neither better nor worse off. Seemingly aware of this, the farmer never rejoices nor mourns, remaining calm as fate takes its course.
But I never learned to be blasé like the farmer: Every small victory or failure felt monumental to me.
And neither did Jake. Though an endless run is not very different from standing still, he sprints into the subway with unfaltering excitement every single time. Jake might be trapped within the pixels of my screen, with nothing to do but run forever, and maybe that’s tragic. But in the moment: his glee, his giddy jump, arms outstretched on the way down from a railcar.
Perhaps, from the vantage point of a bird hovering miles above, our passion makes us all fools headed nowhere. I will never get closer to the finish line because there is none; infinite distance exists between me and a complete understanding of my human condition, and any progress over infinity is still zero.
But as long as I am running, there will be some other opportunity that feels once-in-a-lifetime up close, and I will believe that this one will deliver me the truth. I could sleep now, and in the morning, there would be another story to write. I would once again experience the elation unique to a first draft — an unedited experience, an outpouring of subconscious emotions, some understanding buried beneath layers of fog that are begging to be lifted. This elation is born from what I know lies ahead: clarity, no matter how temporary.
If we trace Sisyphus’ path up and down the mountain with a pen until the paper tears beneath the wetness of the ink, it becomes impossible to imagine how Sisyphus could be happy. We would never see Sisyphus as he stands at the bottom of the mountain, comforted by the knowledge that he would be able to climb toward its peak again.
On the final night of my San Diego trip, as I was getting ready for bed, Emma came to my room with her iPad, deeply distraught. Her younger brother had made a very expensive purchase on her Subway Surfers app, spending millions in in-game currency on a character that Emma did not want. Now, she was set back from purchasing the character she had been saving up for.
Back then, I couldn’t quite understand why she was so upset. Despite the number of coins her brother had spent on the character, Emma was still a Subway Surfers billionaire. However, I knew I had to stand by her as her new friend.
Together, we berated her brother and stayed up late into the night, taking turns collecting coins. Slowly but steadily, Emma’s coin counter reached its former glory, and we laughed together as the numbers rose. The flashes of gold on the screen illuminated our faces.