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Things fall apart. That which we take for granted—as fact, as certain—has the ability to change in an instant. Yeats knew this—as did Achebe and Didion. Even The Roots I hear. Situations we perceived as fixed—a gyre, an ancestral village, certain social mores—unravel before our eyes.
I first experienced the unraveling of things—of disintegration—when my parents decided to stop loving each other. Since then, I’ve chosen to leave before the disintegration arrives. I switch schools and move cities. I stop contacting friends and cheat on lovers. The end is always easier with a cut that is sharp than one that is dull, I suppose.
I most recently experienced disintegration the fall of my sophomore year when four envelopes were slipped beneath my door. I didn’t recognize it as such at the time—disintegration is not sudden but measured; a glass of split milk on a dining room table. But I should have seen the signs. I have made it my life to see the signs. The fact that I didn’t speaks to the particular brand of falling apart that I was dealing with. Am dealing with.
And so when I found myself, months later, standing outside on Mt. Auburn telling two girl friends they couldn’t come in because they weren’t on “the list,” or—another time—when I barely followed up with the friend who drunkenly confessed that she “might have” been sexually assaulted in the upstairs bathroom, I knew I was too late. The gyre had widened and I had failed to get out in time.
A few weeks after the first letter arrived under my door, I stood outside of the Cambridge Tennis Club in a suit, waiting in line. This was my third event, and I knew more or less what to expect. There would be catered food. There would be a book—pages long—in which you signed your name, email, and phone number. There would or would not be alcohol. There would be a speech by the club president and its board members. There would be lots of handshakes, introductions, and formations of circles. There was, in effect, a formula, and by the fourth club I had more or less figured it out. Except—of course—why.
Here’s a game: Ask someone why they are in a club, or punching a club, and wait for the moment in which what he or she is saying starts to sound rehearsed. Disingenuous. The moment will come; it came out of my own mouth two years ago. And so what lingered among every event was a distinct sense of purposelessness—of recklessness. The stilted conversations, the imbibing, the strangers, the opulence, the myth. Distractions from the hole in the center of it all: Why are we here, why are we doing this, why are we playing this game?
Here’s a scene to consider: a club courtyard, loud music, a boy proclaiming the girls to be “chunky.” Here are some more: asking a girl to thank her mom for a meal she didn’t cook. A boy detailing the professions of both his parents within two minutes of meeting him. A group of girls waiting to embrace blindfolded punches at the bottom of a staircase. A dinner with a friend in which he asks me to convince my roommate to join a club. A box of Cuban cigars. The smell of money. Girls who laugh without making a sound. Boys who will laugh at anything.
There is, of course, the “problem” of the thing. There is the allocation of social spaces on campus, of gender and class imbalances, of social stratification and sexual assault. But this has all been said and done, underlined and italicized, to the point in which to talk about the “problem” would feel habitual, like the swallowing of a pill or the reciting of a psalm.
I’m not interested in habituals. Nor am I interested in the altar of finger-pointing. What I am interested in is the spaces between gaps, the intellectual straddling of which we are all capable. For example: I had said, numerous times, that I didn’t think I would punch. For example: Guys who I hadn’t spoken to freshman year began speaking to me sophomore fall. For example: I smiled at strangers whose names I did not know. For example: At one point I felt jealously towards my closest friend. These are the moments in which I’m interested; the clear and sudden rendering of our invisible social code.
In psychology, “cognitive dissonance” is defined as the mental stress experienced by an individual when holding contradicting beliefs. To avoid this stress, alteration occurs. One belief is dropped, or changed, to fit the other. The aim is consistency and cohesion: total integration. One could view my disassociation from the Spee last fall as a study in cognitive dissonance. After joining, I began to participate in the commune of intellectual aerobics to which we all prescribed. Adages of “change from within” became second-hand. The words “progressive” and “diverse” were applied liberally to the club itself. There was in all discussions an attempt to gloss over the thing; to make excuses for what we all knew at our core was somehow a social aberration. An anomaly. Then, one day in December, I decided to stop making excuses and left. Alteration occurred.
That is cognitive dissonance.
The night the Spee announced they were going co-ed, they held a mixer. The lights in the courtyard were turned on and the upstairs windows opened. The club’s flag flapped in the wind. A friend of mine said the place looked stately. Inviting, even. I thought it looked proud.
Days later a friend told me I would have found the deliberation to allow women into the club “hilarious.” Another disclosed that the vote was “unanimous.” There was, in each of these interactions, the distinct tone of celebration. “Look!” they wanted to say. “Progress!”
Sometimes, when I still ate meals at 76 Mt. Auburn Street, members would talk about going co-ed. People tip-toed this way and that. “We see both sides!” they said. “We shouldn’t do it now, but we should definitely be the first!” Others nodded and chewed in agreement.
On the second Friday of September the Spee became “the first.” To which I say: congrats. But to which I also say: Maybe—just maybe—you’ve missed the entire point.
This past year I took a leave of absence from Harvard. After hanging around LA for a little too long, I decided to hit the road for a month. I stopped and saw various friends at various colleges around the country—from Colorado to St. Louis to Ohio. I met their friends, saw their apartments and went to their parties.
I remember one particular night in which a jazz band played. The house overflowed and the floor buckled from the weight of the thing. People danced, laughed, kissed and did those other things one does at parties. It was, in all senses of the word, normal. Another Friday night.
And yet the whole thing felt entirely queer to me. There was a decided sense of communion, of camaraderie, that was unfamiliar. There were no furtive glances across the room—nobody surveyed the social latticework. People came, went, and came again, danced with and next to strangers, shared and spilt beers. There was no list, no one “at the door,” no incessant questioning of place or belonging. Because there was no need. We all participated and belonged to that same club; that easy faith in the future, that submission to the immediate, that clear eyed naiveté. Youth.
It was, unequivocally, the most fun I’d had in a long time.
The other day I stood on the rooftop of Felipe’s. School had just begun, and the recent closings of the clubs had turned the Mexican establishment into a refuge for the occupants of Mt. Auburn Street. People moved about, changed places, played the game. Circles formed: the Porcellian in one corner, the Spee in another, the Bee between the two, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum. I stood among them all—at once bemused, angry, lonely.
After hearing that I had formally left the Spee, a member of the PC suggested I should punch in the fall. He assured me that I would “love the guys” and the guys “would love” me. Most importantly, he said, it would be “the biggest 'fuck you' to the Spee.”
The biggest fuck you to the Spee. I laughed and shook my head no; he shrugged and sipped his beer and soon after that I left. Outside people walked in twos and threes and cars sped down JFK and clouds churned overhead. I walked down Mt. Auburn and entered my dorm and got in my bed and laid down. I thought about leaving again; I dreamt about cutting ties, about starting anew. I thought of these things while listening to the sounds of a party above me and shouts on the streets for friends to wait up and the din of the rooftop bar across the way until suddenly I closed my eyes and became very sleepy, and all I could feel was the world spinning beneath me, one great revolving door, that widening gyre, turning and turning on its own strange accord.
Eli Wilson Pelton '17 is a history and literature concentrator living in Adams House.
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