Navigating the Perils of an Upperclass Romance

In ninth grade, I had a crush on my high school's entire senior class. The seniors I knew were so much that I was not--tall, cool, college-bound, unconcerned with the tormenting intricacies of my school's social geography. In my wide eyes they looked like heroes. But when I became a senior myself I smiled at my youthful enthusiasm. From the top of the mountain that had seemed so towering from below, the view was the same as ever.

So when I came to Cambridge for my freshman fall, I never expected the same thing to happen. My friends and I felt like the kings of the school we were leaving behind. I was a high school graduate, an openly gay activist, a scholar and an increasingly independent person. That summer I had traveled to Europe with my friends, had navigated foreign train stations and surly hostelkeepers with aplomb. But as soon as I arrived at Harvard, I met Dave and Andre, and I was humbled like the ninth grader I had been. I had met Dave online that in-between summer. The instant I decided to go to Harvard I added that fact to my AOL profile, and he sent me a congratulatory note, having searched "Harvard" and "gay" and found a new name. He offered to show me around Cambridge when I arrived--"don't worry, I know plenty of cool people," he wrote. And so the day after my father closed the door of my Straus room and left for good, I called Dave and arranged to meet in the courtyard of Eliot House.

The Houses were a vague abstraction in my mind, imposing brick buildings on identical streets that seemed to merge together. When I visited Harvard during my senior year, I had thought the Yard was the sum of the College, so I was shocked to discover those Georgian acres by the River. The Eliot courtyard was a second shock. The grass was pristine and emerald after a summer of crisp maintenance, and the trees were thick with late summer. I was overcome by the primary colors of Harvard--green grass, red brick, white mortar and trim, blue river through the iron gates. Upperclassmen lay quietly on the lawn talking or reading books, a social world apart from the forced friendliness (and friend-lessness) of the Yard. From the middle of the biggest and loudest group, Dave waved me over. He was surprisingly attractive and had a delicious smile, and his friends were the same. Dave introduced me to all these glamorous gay men and funny, lively women and right then I fell uncritically in love--with Dave, with his friends, with all the juniors, with Harvard and college and being on my own.

That day I was their pet. I sat in Dave's living room in Eliot and just watched him and his roommate Andre stick posters on the walls and argue about the placement of the furniture. They fussed over me--how did I like my dorm, and Annenberg, and what did I think of the place--not too much, but enough so that I talked and felt witty and knowledgeable, an insider on my first day. Everything impressed me: the vintage hexagonal tiles in their bathroom, the working fireplace, the slant of the light, Andre's chic black shoes (that year I told my mother, only half-joking, that I had to have black Kenneth Cole boots if I wanted to survive in the gay social scene at Harvard). Mostly I was impressed by Andre and Dave. I was openly, adamantly gay at my high school, but I could number my similarly out acquaintances on one hand. We were a cautious bunch, dipping our toes into West Hollywood coffeehouses on Friday nights but sitting awkwardly in corners and hardly talking to anyone, certainly no one older or more flamboyant than ourselves. But Andre and Dave were loud and pushy and funny, and they had great sweaters. Andre called himself the queen of Eliot House; he and his friends, he said, were ground zero of the revolution. He towered over me and confounded me, teasing everyone and calling me "girl" and cackling in the dining hall without an inhibition in the world. I drank in their confidence and self-assurance. When I walked back to the Yard late that afternoon I looked smugly upon the other first-years, who didn't know anyone and who looked confused when I said I had spent the day in Eliot ("Is that one of the Union dorms?"). They were still struggling to establish themselves. But I had a connection, a built-in community, a dining hall where I didn't have to wait in line for an hour. I had arrived.

I tried too hard and assumed too much. Walking home drunkenly from a party one night, a friend of Dave's leaned suspiciously heavily on me and slipped his hand in my back pocket. More soberly the next day, he called and asked if I'd like to come by his room to hang out. I was elated at this social triumph--he was cool and suave and built, and a sophomore. A catch. Never mind that after half an hour of conversation he abruptly and unblushingly dimmed the lights, turned on jazz music and folded out his futon. We proceeded eagerly if clumsily. The next day I bragged to my roommates about the hook-up, all the more distinguished in my eyes because he was an upperclass student. I felt like the coolest first-year I'd met. My fatal misstep, however, came later that week when, in a roomful of his friends, I snuggled up to him on a couch and took his hand without a second thought. After a second torrid evening, he called me out into the Eliot courtyard to talk--this wasn't going to work out. I stared moodily out the gate at the Charles and cried.

As with the hook-up, so with my semester. I tried hard to fit into this new world of gay upperclass students. Every Monday and Wednesday morning, I agonized about what to wear to my gay and lesbian studies class, waking up early to make sure I could shower, shave and primp. At the first meeting of the Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Supporters Alliance (BGLTSA) of the year I impetuously ran for vice chair, gave an off-the-cuff speech, and thereafter attended weekly board meetings in Eliot with Andre, the co-chair. I refused to buy a winter jacket with my aunt until I could see what everyone else was wearing (ordinary parkas, thankfully). By second semester the sparkle began to wear off at last. I started dating another first-year, dropped the requirement for matching shoes and belt and began to let my calls to Eliot House trail off.

Dave, Andre and their friends have graduated. A senior now, I look at my first-year self in his Kenneth Cole boots and think: I was so young, younger than I ever realized. The afternoon light in the Eliot House courtyard seems to glimmer from the other end of the world.

Adam A. Sofen '01 is a history and literature concentrator in Pforzheimer House. He is a news executive who heads the comp, The Crimson's training program for new reporters.