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Parallel Harvards

The fall of my freshman year, I lived in a fishbowl. This, I realized only after the fact when the halcyon days of early September had passed. To my newly-minted college self, it was simply a second-floor room in Wigglesworth Hall, intended to house one student and his servant, yet somehow stretched to fit four eighteen-year-old girls. Our first afternoon together, struggling to stand amidst four sets of dressers, desks, and duffel bags, we drew straws. I drew the shortest, which entitled me to the suite’s only single: a glorified closet cloistered in the room’s rightmost corner. It was narrow enough to span both walls, fingertips to toes.

My first months of college, this single was my sanctuary. Sure, its size suggested an absurdist farce, staged at the behest of some far-flung administrator. Its location, too, poised over the Yard’s most trafficked entrance, ensured early wake-ups by excited intonations in foreign tongues: The ten yards in front of my entryway was, apparently, a must-see stop on tours of Harvard Yard. Yet, in a world that afforded few opportunities for solitude, these 50-odd square feet were the only on campus where I could be utterly, blissfully alone. Here, without retreating into the hermetic depths of Widener’s stacks, I could be sure that I would see no one—and, more importantly, that no one would see me.

I grew up in a suburb of Boston, which seems, in part, to explain my anxieties. Our neighborhood was the brainchild of a nameless 1970s developer, who took the added initiative of erecting a golf course—weeping willows and artificial ponds included—just down the street. The ostensible purpose of these ever-expanding lots and blocks, I suppose, was to foster a community of white, upper-middle-class, 2.3-children families. Yet, however aesthetically removed from the ticky-tacky sprawl spoofed in Weeds, the effect of private driveways and picket fences was an embargo on human interaction. Walking the subdivided streets gave one the impression of walking on the moon: You always felt like you should go back inside. While one could see the epileptic flickers of television sets through uncurtained windows, rarely did one encounter actual human life. Long after my days of playing in the driveway had ended, the scene began to feel almost post-apocalyptic: An endless inventory of impeccably groomed lawns that nobody ever seemed to sit in.

Freshman fall, then, came as a social immersion like none I had never experienced (except at its oft-analogized counterpart, summer camp). Up until that September, friends and family had always occupied separate spheres. As a day student at a private boarding school, being social required a 10-minute drive. Now, no such divisions stood. Our common room devolved into a motel, its futon perennially occupied by a friend of a friend. My days transpired in an ambient flutter of pre-twenty somethings, all possessed of an inhuman ability to fall asleep at 4 a.m. and wake to the tinny melodies of Memorial Church four hours later. To my freshman self, still uninitiated in the habits of sarcasm, campus life came as a welcome, though wearying, change. With midterms imminent and the novelty of Camp Harvard faded, the Yard’s numerous social taboos (of which dining alone in Annenberg was the most grave) became exhausting, even oppressive—milder versions of the totem terrors ruling Edith Wharton’s New York. On bad days, my room, though perversely sized and thinly walled, offered refuge from the scrutiny of the clan.

An offhand remark to my boyfriend soon shattered the sanctity of this space. As he related the comment from a freshman peer, my cheeks turned a uniform scarlet: “Dude, I saw your girlfriend naked.” Prior to this mortifying disclosure, I had treated my bedroom’s backmost corner as a black box. I couldn’t see out, so nobody could see in.  Exiting our cramped communal shower, I would change in my bedroom, my back pressed against the door. Loathsome speculations now replaced my former certainty. During these post-shower seconds, how many other students had seen me in the buff? In how many tourists’ snapshots did I inadvertently star, sans clothing?

Suffice it to say, my shade was drawn for the rest of that semester. Come January, the privilege imparted by my fortunate straw pull expired. Faced with the prospect of sharing a bunkbed with a comically hostile roommate, I opted for the concrete walls of my boyfriend’s Canaday single. When I returned the following fall, I entered the more casual world of upperclassmen, where everyone “did their own thing” and free lunch was served daily from noon to 2:15 p.m. As for my room, I upgraded from a fishbowl to a first-floor double that my roommate and I dubbed “the aquarium,” only half in jest. Strategic use of blinds and Ikea furnishings made the space oddly comfortable, even when fluorescent ceiling-lamps lit it aglow for all walkers past.

It was now my classmates’ turn to court invisibility, a feat which many accomplished more successfully than I. There were, for example, those friends relegated to the red-brick oblivion of the Radcliffe Quad. Every so often, we would meet in the Yard, exchange polite smiles and tepid small talk, and make amorphous plans for future get-togethers. There was the anonymous assortment of peers with whom I shared fire-doors and walls, and about whom I know more than is comfortable to admit. There were those library patrons whose furtive marginalia I read, the general incoherence of which left me vaguely reassured. If I didn’t understand Deleuze, neither did they.

Far from overexposed, these classmates were never seen. After our collective exodus from the Yard, they enrolled at an alternate, parallel Harvard, comprised of the same buildings and professors, yet never quite intersecting with my own. Three years later, I only wish that they had been a bit more visible, once in a while.

Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.

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