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Behind the Register

By Phoebe G. Barr, Contributing Writer

His fingers are graphite-smudged from lecture notes, but they’re practiced when they fold the cheese in wax paper and ring me up. Seven dollars, he says.

Was this your first choice for a job?

He shrugs. Didn’t really have a first choice, he says. Money’s money. He sticks the rest of the cheese back into its refrigerated case, where it’s crammed next to blocks of every lumpy shape and color — but not before he snips off a slice for himself and savors it. Rosemary manchego, he says. You don’t get shit like that in the dining hall.

It’s true, I think. I’ve got an ear for that sort of thing. But I also think he’s not telling the whole truth. So I wait.

Not like there weren’t other options, he says at last. My roommate said he’d recommend me for an administrative role in something Harvard-affiliated. God only knows how he’s gotten that already. Maybe he knew someone on staff? Accosted someone at the end of a class or a workshop? How do people get jobs that fast in the real world?

I wait again.

Would have looked great on a resume, he says, idly rearranging jars of fig jam. Some real professional adulting shit. You get a desk and your own special computer login and paperwork. Doing Harvard proud.

So, why didn’t you go for it? He leans forward on the counter. He must be tired, standing like that for hours on end. I don’t know, he says; my roommate’s always coming back to the room late and waking up early. He’s never around in the dorm like he used to be. I think he likes the job, but all he talks about these days is work and emails and meetings. Like we’re all suddenly 40.

Well, what would you rather talk about?

He looks down. A little embarrassed, I think. Like I’m probably already rolling my eyes. He says, we used to listen to the same podcasts. Not the intellectual kind, the dumb kind. The kind that’s just three guys joking about random shit. Or the ones with roleplaying games. He doesn’t have time for them anymore — not even the really funny ones.

He’s not telling me the whole answer. I wait.

Look, he says, I’m not stupid. I know there’s plenty of people working jobs like this one who’d kill for a roommate to just get them a desk at an office. Better pay, and you get to sit down, and people take you seriously when you say what you do. Cheese-shop-salesman, or whatever I am, that’s not really what comes to mind when you think Harvard kid. But I…

He sighs. I don’t know, he says. I’m supposed to still be in school.

He glances at a wheel of smoked gouda. Pulls it out and slices off a sliver, like he did with the manchego. Pops it into his mouth and tells me it’s excellent. I wonder if this is most of his job; it’s not busy in here. There haven’t been any other customers since I came in, besides a couple of browsers who left without buying anything.

You know, he says, it’s pretty often my roommate gets back with his eyes itching his head hurting and tells me he didn’t have time for lunch today. What with the meetings and classes and 10 million emails. Doesn’t even seem that stressed about it, like it’s just something he’s used to. And you know what the worst thing is, about that?

What?

He says, sometimes I wonder if I should be jealous.

— Phoebe G. Barr’s ’23’s column, "The Harvard Kid" is a series of short stories that explores the space between reaching Harvard and going corporate, and questions whether that space contains any room to live in.

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