When I came down with a hacking cough last week, I headed to the Harvard University Health Services (UHS) pharmacy in the Holyoke arcade for some free cough syrup. Watching CNN on the overhead television while I waited in line, it occurred to me that I was getting what would be my last UHS cold pack. An unaccountable sadness overcame me. It was mostly unwarranted—free antihistamines are nothing to sneeze at (ho!), but they’re hardly worth waxing maudlin over. But my last UHS cold pack was, I realized, just one in a series of Harvard lasts that had slipped by largely unnoticed and unmemorialized.
My little brother is a freshman in college. Over the course of the year, I have been updated, via IM and drunken phone calls, on a series of more and less licit college firsts. His first Spring Fling—which, so far as I can gather, is like our Springfest with more alcohol and an actual band—was last weekend. His first brush with campus police, first fraternity rush season, and first sexile came considerably before that. His breathless and quasi-coherent accounts of college life make me nostalgic for a time when so much of college was new. When he came up to visit over his spring break, he tried, with limited success, to demonstrate for me and my roommates the arcane drinking games he’d learned, most memorably one wherein you put beer in a bowl and sometimes make moose antlers with your hands while shouting “Moose!” When at last we went to bed, he said, “Phoebs, I have three more years of this. Aren’t you jealous?”
Well, yes. But I am not jealous of what he’s doing so much as I am of the novelty of it to him. His first times are correlating, more or less, with my last times, but last times are not nearly as memorable or easy to recognize when they occur. I can remember the first time I stayed up talking so late that the birds were waking up as I went to bed, can remember my first snow at Harvard, when everyone piled out of the freshman dorms and into the Yard, shrieking. I am not sure when I went sledding for the last time on the MAC quad, although it must have been sometime late this winter. In any event, it was not accompanied by the same exhilaration of the first time we went sledding there, when we discovered that if you run really fast across the parking lot before jumping on a snow tube, the gentle slope at the north end of the quad makes a passable sledding hill.
There are, of course, well-marked lasts during one’s senior year: Commencement, Senior Week, and the Last Chance Dance, among other things, all make our leaving this place a self-conscious act. But it is the smaller lasts, the ones that slip away unnoticed, that break my heart when I think about them—because it is the small things that fill our lives here. I have a single now, which means I can never again bitch to my blockmates about having been sexiled; my last chance to comp anything has gone by. My last campus job is the one I am now working. I am enrolled in my last undergraduate classes. Probably the worst thing about this elegiac mode is that it precludes new beginnings. There is no sense in marking promising classes that we have not yet taken in the course catalog. There is no sense in admiring rooms that you no longer have a chance to win in the housing lottery. Senior year is like a series of doors closing, quietly and implacably, behind us.
There may be advantages to not knowing when we do things for the last time. We would, I think, be paralyzed by the knowledge that we are hanging out with a given group of people for the last time, that we are attending our last sweaty room party, that we have heard our last painfully moronic section discussion. Nostalgia and regret make a deadly cocktail. Over beers Friday night, a roommate and I lamented how quickly time seemed to be slipping away from us, lamented the time lost sleeping when each of our remaining hours seems precious. And then—for what will, with any luck, not be the last time—we went out.
Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.