Since these discussions are taking the place of Tuesday’s class, please make them longer please, around 400 words. By Wednesday night, write anything about Loner up to p. 106 (up to Chapter 10). As always, include two quotes and analyze, think of a theme you see emerging, and connect the novel with two of the four following (you might have to WIKI some of this before I lecture about it): *Loner and The Social Network*Loner and Lolita (Nabokov)*Loner and Toxic Masculinity*(more personal) Loner and first-year college experience. By NO means am I asking for relationship details, but more stuff David navigates like roommates, new friends, endless campus “events,” ignoring parents phone calls, stupid posters on the walls, etc. Thursday, after talking about Paper 1 and giving a brief lecture on this novel, I’d like you to do some group work research on the dozens if not hundreds of intertext allusions in this novel. We met this in We Are Okay, but this book has them all over the place, Most notable are Lolita (1957), the class David takes on the Tragic Male in American Literature, the class Veronica takes on Gender and Consumerism, “the male gaze/ scopophilia,” the question whether Veronica is simply a cartoon written by/and imagined by a ridiculous man (Prufrock), The Social Network, what “Seeing backwards” means (both David and Veronica have a sort of emotional dyslexia) etc. Might want to think if you want to be in any of these groups! Take care:)Thank you for downloading this Simon & Schuster eBook.
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To Kate, and with her
Man can indeed do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wants.
—Arthur Schopenhauer, Essay on the Freedom of the Will
“After I go out this door, I may only exist in the minds of all my acquaintances,” he
said. “I may be an orange peel.”
—J. D. Salinger, “Teddy”
David,” my mother said, “we’re here.”
I sat up straight as we passed through the main gate of Harvard Yard in a caravan of
unassuming vehicles, rooftops glaring under the noonday sun. Police officers conducted the
stammering traffic along the designated route. Freshmen and parents lugged suitcases and boxes
heaped with bedding, posing for photos before the redbrick dormitories with the shameless glee of
tourists. A pair of lanky boys sailed a Frisbee over the late-summer grass in lazy, slanted parabolas.
Amid welcome signs from the administration, student banners interjected END ECONOMIC INEQUALITY,
SILENCE IS VIOLENCE, and YALE = SAFETY SCHOOL.
A timpani concerto pounded in my chest as we made landfall upon the hallowed ground that
had been locked in my sights for years. We’d arrived. I’d arrived.
“For the tuition we’re paying,” my father said, carefully reversing into a spot, “you’d think they
could give us more than twenty minutes to park.”
My parents climbed out of the car and circled around to the popped trunk. After tugging in vain
at my door handle, I tapped on the window. “Where’d he go?” I could hear my mother ask.
“In here,” I shouted, knocking louder.
“Sorry, thought you got out,” my father said following my liberation. I checked in under a white
tent teeming with my new classmates and received my room key and a bulky orientation packet. As
we approached Matthews Hall, a girl emerged from the building. Seeing our hands were full, she
paused to hold the door. I stepped inside and my orientation packet slid off the top of the box in
“Thanks,” I said when she stooped down to get it.
“You would’ve been completely disoriented,” said the girl, smiling, her nose streaked with
contrails of unabsorbed sunscreen.
“She seems nice,” my mother said encouragingly as we shuffled upstairs to the fourth floor. The
doors were marked with signs listing the occupants and their hometowns, stamped with Harvard’s
Veritas shield. Beneath these were rosters of previous inhabitants, surname first. My room’s read
like an evolutionary time line of American democracy, beginning with a procession of gilded
Boston Brahmins, gradually incorporating a few Catholics, then Goldbergs and Jacksons and Yangs
and Guptas, and, in the 1970s, Karens and Marys and Patricias. My mother was impressed to
discover an NPR correspondent on the list (I’d never heard of her). In fifty years, I thought, I’d
humbly recall this moment in career-retrospective interviews, insisting that never in my wildest
dreams did I imagine my name would someday be the one people noticed.
For the time being, though, I knew it didn’t quite emblazon itself across the heavens like a
verbal comet. David: blandly all-purpose, a three-pack of white cotton undershirts (CREWNECK,
MEDIUM); Alan, an ulcerous accountant in Westchester circa 1957; then Federman, long a sound for
the first vowel, an entity who is hardly here, or maybe he just left— Wait, who were we talking
about, again? It was as if my parents, upon filling out my birth certificate, couldn’t be bothered. Tap
is fine, they always told waiters.
But now my ID card read David Alan Federman, Harvard Student.
My roommate, Steven Zenger, had yet to arrive. I claimed the front room, envisioning it would
lead to impromptu visitors, a revolving door of campus characters popping in, lounging on my bed,
gossiping late into the night.
My parents took my student card and fetched the remaining stuff as I unpacked. After setting
down the final box, my lawyer father checked his watch. “Thirteen minutes,” he announced,
pleased with himself.
“Seven minutes to spare,” my mother, also a lawyer, chimed in.
Through the door the hallway hummed with the chatter of other families.
“Well,” said my mother, surveying the room. “This is exciting. I wish I were starting college
again. All the interesting courses and people.”
“And I bet you’ll be beating the girls off with a stick,” my father added. “There are a lot of late
My mother scowled. “Why would you say something like that?”
“I’m just saying he’ll find his tribe.” He turned to me. “You’ll have a great time here,” he said
with the hollow brightness of an appliance manual congratulating you on your purchase.
“Just be yourself,” my mother advised. “You can’t go wrong being yourself.”
“Yep.” Sensing more imperatives and prophecies, I opened the door to let them out.
“Just one little thing, David,” she said, raising a finger. “Sometimes when you talk, you do this
thing where you swallow your words. I did it when I was younger, too. I think it comes from a
place of feeling like what you say doesn’t matter. But it’s not true. People want to hear what you
have to say. So try to enunciate.”
“It helped me before I spoke to think of the word ‘crisp,’ ” she said. “Just that word: crisp.”
After our own swift hug, my mother prodded my father into initiating an avuncular, backpatting clinch. They seem comfortable enough with my sisters, but for as long as I can remember,
my parents have acted slightly unnatural around me, radiating the impression of Good Samaritan
neighbors who dutifully assumed guardianship following the death of my biological parents in a
The door swung shut with a muted click. My bereft mattress and bookcase and motionless
rocking chair stared at me like listless zoo animals. It was hard to picture people gathering here for
fun, but a minute later someone knocked.
It was my mother.
“Your ID.” She held out my student card. “It’s very important—you can’t open the door without
it. Don’t forget it again.”
“I didn’t,” I said. “You guys did.”
I resumed unpacking, yanking the price tags off a few items. Earlier that week my mother had
dragged me to the mall, where I’d decided to adhere, for now, to my usual sartorial neutrality of
innocuous colors and materials. It would serve me these first few weeks to look as benign as
possible, the type of person who could be friends with everyone.
I was standing inside my closet, hanging shirts, when the door flew open and my roommate
bounded into the room, his equally enthusiastic parents in tow.
“David!” he said. “Almost didn’t see you. Steven.” He walked over with his arm puppetishly
bobbing for me to shake.
“If I look different from my Facebook photo, it’s because I got braces again last week,” he said.
“But just for six months. Or five and three-quarters now.”
All hopes I had of a roommate who would help upgrade me to a higher social stratum snagged
on the gleaming barnacles of Steven’s orthodontia. He would have fit right in at my cafeteria table
at Garret Hobart High (named for New Jersey’s only vice president), where I sat with a
miscellaneous coalition of pariahs who had banded together less out of camaraderie than survival
instinct. We were studious but not collectively brilliant enough to be nerds, nor sufficiently
specialized to be geeks. We might have formed, in aggregate, one thin mustache and a downy
archipelago of facial hair. We joked about sex with the vulgar fixation of virgins. We rarely
associated outside of school and sheepishly nodded when passing in the halls, aware that each of us
somehow reduced the standing of the other—that as a whole we were lesser than the sum of our
While Steven’s mother fussed over his room’s décor, his father uncorked a geysering champagne
bottle of hokey puns and jokes. “Matthews” became “math-use,” so now “students can finally find
out how learning math will help them later in life!” When his son remarked that the Internet in the
dorms was free, Mr. Zenger chortled uncontrollably. “Free!” he roared, clapping his hands. “I
didn’t notice that when I wrote them a check last month! What a bargain! Free Internet!”
After a prolonged, maternally teary farewell—Mrs. Zenger smothered even me in her arms and
assured me I was about to have the best year of my life—Steven invited me into his room. Nestled
into a bean bag chair, he linked his hands behind his head, his collared shirt’s elbow-length sleeves
encircling hangman-figure arms.
“There’s no lock on my door,” he said. “So feel free to come in whenever you feel like hanging
“Okay,” I said, lingering at the threshold.
“So what are you majoring in?” he asked. “I mean concentrating in,” he threw in
conspiratorially, now that we were in on the secret handshake of Harvard parlance.
“We don’t have to declare until sophomore year, right?”
“Yeah, but I already know I’m going to concentrate in physics. How about you? What’s your
passion? What’re you into?”
I was into success, just like everyone else who’d gotten in here, but admitting that was taboo.
Though I’d excelled in all subjects, I didn’t have the untrammeled intellectual curiosity of the true
polymath. I was more like a mechanically efficient Eastern European decathlete grimly breaking the
finish-line tape. Yet almost anyone could thrive in a field that consumed them. To lack ardor and
still reach the zenith—that was a rare combination.
Because I never mentioned my grades to anyone and seldom spoke in class unless I had silently
rehearsed my comments verbatim, my academic reputation never approached the heights of Alex
Hines (yearbook prediction: Fortune 500 CEO), Hannah Ganiv (poet laureate), or Noah Schwartz
(President of the United States). When the college acceptance list was posted, my classmates were
shocked that I was our grade’s lone Harvard-bound senior. (David Federman’s yearbook
prediction: ??? FILL IN LATER.)
But my teachers weren’t. My letter of recommendation from Mrs. Rice made that much clear.
(Eager to read her formal appraisal of my virtues, I overstated the number of copies I needed.
When she handed me the stack of envelopes, I giddily retreated to the boys’ bathroom, tore one
open, and inhaled her praise like a line of cocaine in the fetid stall.) She wrote that I was “one of
the most gifted students I have encountered in my twenty-four years teaching English at Garret
Hobart High, already in possession of quite a fancy prose style (that sometimes goes over my head,
I must admit!), although I can sense the immense strain human interactions put on him, whether
in classroom discussions or individual conversations. It would be wonderful if David shared his
observations more in class with his peers, who would surely benefit. But I have the utmost
confidence that, with the properly nurturing environment, this young man, somewhat of a loner,
will come out of his shell and be as expansive and eloquent in person as he is on the page.”
I looked at Steven, the extroverted physicist in training, the trajectory of his impassioned career
already plotted with a suite of differential equations he had memorized, his shell long since
“I guess I’m still waiting to really get into something,” I said. “And if that doesn’t happen, there’s
always a life of crime.”
Steven waited a moment before laughing.
Later that afternoon, the two of us headed downstairs for an orientation meeting. Steven swatted
the casings of all the doorframes we passed through and leapt the last three steps of each flight of
stairs while holding the railing.
A few dozen freshmen mingled in the basement common room, key cards dangling over chests
from crimson lanyards. Taxonomies hadn’t been determined yet, hierarchies hadn’t formed. We
were loose change about to be dropped into a sorter that would roll us up by denomination.
“Lot of cute girls here,” Steven said to me. He plopped himself on a couch and began chatting up
a girl who wore a pink pair of those rubber shoes that individuate one’s toes like gloves.
I took the seat on his other side. A number of “cute” girls did indeed dot the couches and
folding chairs, even one or two who could compete with Hobart High’s Heidi McMasters. (Our sole
exchange, in eighth-grade earth science:
HEIDI: “Do you have a pen?”
DAVID: [immediately hands her his best pen, never sees it again])
A boy with chiseled forearms fuzzed with blond hair sat on the floor to my left. He was also not
speaking to anyone, but seemed indifferent. I could tell he’d be popular.
“David,” I said, extending my hand.
He shook it and looked around the room. “Jake.”
“Are you from New York?” I asked, gesturing to his Yankees hat.
“Connecticut.” His face lit up as he raised his hand. Another freshman swaggered up to him and
slapped it. I introduced myself to the new guy.
“Phil,” he said. They began talking about several people to whom they referred only by last
“You guys know each other from high school?” I asked.
“Same athletic conference,” Phil said.
“Oh, what sport?”
“Baseball,” he answered without looking at me.
Llabaseb, I thought—no, llabesab. I hadn’t reversed a word in a month or two; I was getting
rusty, far from the fluency of my younger years. At twelve, without many interlocutors to speak of
(or to), I began a dialogue with language itself, mentally reversing nearly every word I encountered
in speech, signs, objects I saw: tucitcennoc (Connecticut), citelhta (athletic), draynal (lanyard).
Doing so came naturally—I’d visualize the word, reading it from right to left, syllable by syllable—
and it surprised me when it impressed others. My verbal ability was discovered that year at summer
camp, where for three days all the kids besieged me with requests to apply it to their names;
Edward Park’s was a crowd-pleaser. For those seventy-two hours I reveled in a social power I’d
never had before, awaiting all the gnolefil spihsdneirf that would sprout from a few disordered
words. Then the boy who could flip his eyelids inside out stole my thunder and, upon returning to
the solitude of my parents’ house, I graduated to a new lexical pastime: memorizing vocabulary lists
in my older sister’s SAT books. Words turned around in my mind only intermittently thereafter.
When the Harvard application solicited me to write about a meaningful “background, identity,
interest, or talent,” though, I was reminded of that summer I felt genuinely special. “To
continuously reflect the world in a linguistic mirror,” I postulated in the essay, “is to question the
ontological arbitrariness of everything and everyone. Why is an apple not an elppa, nor, for that
matter, an orange? Why am I me and not you?” I titled it “Backwords” and typed the whole thing
in a reverse font and word order (by line), preparing to mail in a hard copy so that the reader
needed to hold it up in front of a mirror. My parents, however, feared the admissions committee
would think it was gibberish. Bowing to prudence, I compromised by writing the body of the essay
normally and changing just the title to
My “unique” essay had “rather intrigued” the Harvard admissions committee, my guidance
counselor later informed me.
I waited for a lull in conversation between the baseball players. “Ekaj and lihp,” I said.
“What?” Jake asked. “A lip?”
“Your names backward.” They stared at me blankly. “Jake is ‘ekaj,’ Phil is ‘lihp.’ ”
The two of them contemplated their reversed monikers and shared a look.
“Guess we’re really at Harvard,” Phil said under his breath.
I sank back into the couch’s quicksand cushion, praying for the meeting to begin so that my
silence wouldn’t be conspicuous—or, failing that, for a monumentally distracting event: burst
sewage pipe, freak hurricane, the president’s been shot.
Uoy t’nac og gnorw gnieb flesruoy, I thought.
Someone tapped my shoulder and I turned around. “How was your move-in?” asked a girl
standing behind the couch.
“I saw you coming into the dorm with your parents,” she said after I failed to react. “I’m Sara.”
“Oh, hi. David.”
“Nice to remeet you.”
“You, too,” I said, and I was groping for something else to add when, from the entrance behind
her, in the fashion of a queen granting a balcony appearance to the rabble below, you traipsed in,
the nonchalant laggard. Suddenly there was no one else in the room; for the briefest of moments,
as you entered my life, I paid myself no mind either, a rare, narcotic, unself-conscious bliss.
“You’re late,” Jake hollered in your direction. “You missed the meeting.”
You glanced up from your phone. “Isn’t it at four?” you replied.
He drew out the suspense for a beat. “Just messing with you.”
You returned to your phone without any expression.
“It’s about to start, though,” he said. “Sit with us.”
“Thanks,” you said in a low, unmodulated voice. “I prefer to stand.” You crossed to the other
side of the room.
I’d received nothing from those fifteen seconds, but it felt like I had; Jake and Phil’s loss was my
gain. You had no truck with entitled athletes who chased openmouthed after fly balls like Labrador
retrievers and assumed any girl would jump at the heliocentric opportunity to orbit their sun. Their
assets from high school were liabilities here. Guess we’re really at Harvard, I wanted to scoff in their
Jake, looking unscathed by rejection, whispered something to Phil, who laughed.
“Well, I should probably find a place to sit,” Sara said, and wandered off.
You sequestered yourself against a wall, arms crossed over your chest, the only student without
a lanyard. You were here because it was compulsory, not to make friends. You had no interest in
present company, didn’t need to manufacture an affable smile and hope some generous soul took
pity on you. No, you weren’t one of us at all. You were in a tribe of your own.
How differently our lives would have unraveled over these years if the computer program
generating the room assignments had started up a millisecond later, spat out another random
number, and the two of us had never had a chance to meet.
If one were creating the Platonic ideal of a woman from scratch—which I could do here,
manipulating the facts to serve my narrative agenda, though I’ll cleave scrupulously to the truth—
she would not necessarily resemble the being who had just swept through the common room,
whose features I later had time to assess in magnified detail.
To begin with, your “flaws,” a word I sandwich between petrified scare quotes. On the upper
third of your forehead, as if connecting your two cerebral hemispheres, a blanched hyphen of a
scar; a nose the tiniest bit crooked and long; two central incisors that outmuscled their next-tooth
But the faces that are most compelling rarely belong to models, avatars of unblemished
conventionality. They don’t possess the imperfections that highlight the nearby superlatives—the
distant twin mountains of an upper lip under an elegantly concave philtrum, the cheekbones
sloping like the handle of a jug. And, most salient to an eye across a room, the hair in a carelessly
knotted bun, a few rogue tendrils grazing the sides of your face, chestnut flecked with mid-October
hues, a newly minted penny unsullied by commerce. That would be your hair-dye lyrical
subcategory: “Mid-October.” (My mother’s color of choice is the law office sensible “Medium Ash
My seat on the couch allowed me to study you with impunity while keeping the dorm proctor, a
redheaded grad student in German philosophy, nearly in my sight line as he introduced himself.
The heel of one of your leather-sandaled feet was planted against the wall. Gazelle legs encased in
dark jeans; I estimated your height at a half inch shorter than mine, depending on our footwear.
The spaghetti strap of a tank top climbed over lissome shoulders (a fuller bosom than your lemonsize breasts would have been incongruous—gauche, even—against your svelte torso). Adjacent to
each strap was a pearly sliver of skin less touched by the sun; the rest was the tone of a patiently
“One of the great things about college,” the proctor said as my eyes remained on you, “is how
seemingly unrelated stuff starts unifying in your mind. A theory you learn in a science lecture will
connect to a line of poetry in your English seminar and link to a story a friend tells at lunch. Your
world is expanding and diffusing while simultaneously contracting and growing denser. Everything,
in a sense, becomes one thing.”
After the abstract musings, he shifted to the practical matter of dorm rules, the details of which I
would have been diligently committing to memory in my previous incarnation—the one that ended
when you arrived. My concentration was broken only when the proctor, reading aloud the college’s
policy on sexual misconduct, suddenly lost his vocal footing.
“. . . includes not only unwilling or forced vagin—vag—vag—”
His face turned a shade darker than his hair. I winced, but a few students snickered, Jake and
Phil included, as he continued to trip on the word.
“—vag—vag—vag—” he stuttered, excruciatingly incapable of advancing, an oratorical Sisyphus.
The poor guy, who’d likely spent years in speech therapy working to remedy a lifelong affliction,
had finally decided he was ready to be in a position that required public speaking, and it was all
undone with a single anatomical adjective before a room of puerile teenagers.
The more he persisted, though, the more my sympathy waned, replaced with resentment for his
subjecting us all to such vicarious discomfort. Eventually he gave up, skipping the section altogether
and moving on to the rules for alcohol and drugs.
I kept ogling brazenly without fear of detection until your head swiveled a few degrees from the
proctor, casting, from your face to mine, an invisible string stretched taut.
It’s difficult to say for sure, since I was less bold about looking at you after that, but I believe I
was the only person you made eye contact with, however fleeting.
“That about wraps it up,” the proctor said, flop-sweaty minutes after his slip-up. “Oh, whoops—I
forgot the icebreaker game. Duh.”
He asked us to go around in a circle and announce our first names prefaced by another word
beginning with the same letter. I came up with a few options right away, to mitigate the anxiety of
any turn-based speaking program, in which you count down with dread how many people are left
until you, whereupon, as everyone looks your way, you must turn the key in the ignition of your
vocal cords and hope they start without a hitch, always a risk with an inveterate mumbler in the
final, shaky throes of puberty.
Adamant Adam, Terrestrial Tejas, Shy Sara, the attention of the room revolving with the
centrifugal force of a roulette ball that was inexplicably gaining momentum. After my physicspassionate roommate proudly declaimed “Subatomic Steven,” my mind went blank.
The room was still. Someone coughed.
As I tried to remember the words I had considered earlier, my internal dictionary scrubbed
clean from czar to each, I heard, from the floor to my left, “Genius Jake.” The others laughed in
“We forgot David,” Steven yelled.
All eyes reverted to me—yours included, I imagine.
“David,” I squeaked. My brain harped on the word vaginal.
“Defiant,” I said.
I was the only one to state my name before its alphabetical pairing—a small act of defiance itself,
it occurred to me. I’d begun faultily but had recovered with verve, the gymnast sticking his landing
after a herky-jerky dismount. I wondered if anyone else had taken note of my subversive
“Funky-fresh Phil,” said Jake’s teammate as the room again buckled in laughter. The line
“Veronica,” you said in your voice with nothing to prove, so unlike my own timorous quaver.
Then, with the minutest upturning of the left side of your lip, “Veritas.”
You were the only person who had followed my lead. Kindred spirits of swapped syntax. And,
from that curling lip, there was some mischief to your appropriation of our college’s motto of truth.
Other names and parts of speech skittered around as the game continued, but I heard only the
two words you had spoken. Had you gone standard as everyone else had—Vivacious Veronica—it’s
possible that you would not have lassoed my imagination so completely, that I might have feasted
on your superficial appeal over the course of that meeting and decided I was sated. Yet that Latin
addition meant you had more than beauty in your arsenal. You possessed creativity and wit and, as
your dismissal of jockstrap Jake and feeble-minded Phil had suggested, valued intelligence and
Veritas: someone like me had a shot. We were, after all, really at Harvard.
When the meeting concluded Steven drafted me into a six-person troupe he had formed in the
scrum of the common room. We trundled over for dinner to Annenberg Hall, that cathedral-like
space splashed across the brochures and websites, where glowing, ethnically diverse faces rounded
out every photo. I’d seen it during my campus visit with my father a year earlier, but tonight I was
no longer a mere spectator of its burnished walnut paneling, stained-glass windows, and
chandeliers; I was standing in the brochure itself, ready for my close-up.
I brought my tray over to the table Steven had secured. As was my New Jersey set, they were a
visual hodgepodge, a chimera of the shambling (Justin) and the husky (Kevin) and the ectomorphic
(Steven), the overdressed (Carla looked like she was on her way to a college interview) and the
flamboyantly unfashionable (Ivana and her shoe gloves), topped off by an aggressively nondescript
seat filler (Sara, who had gravitated to us).
Sara patted the empty chair next to her. “Saved you a seat,” she said.
Though an upgrade over my Hobart High lunch club—three girls!—we were still clearly
freshmen who had missed out on the normal high school experience and were now attempting to
simulate it in college. Our dinner conversation revolved around the cuisine, the refuge of those
with little in common. We lobbed insults at the sogginess of the tater tots. We mocked the
desiccation of the halal grilled chicken. We speculated about breakfast. Everyone responded to each
joke like soused nightclub patrons yukking it up as a legendary comedian trotted out his greatest
I forced myself to smile along, but felt a spasm of apprehension seeing the next few months
unfolding much like this, the ripe cranberry blush of autumn fading to bleached December. By
cruel accident, these might well become my college friends. We would choose to live together as
upperclassmen, visit one another on vacations, stay in touch after graduation, attend the other
members’ nuptials—maybe two of us would even get married. We would rate the hors d’oeuvres at
the wedding reception and ponder what brunch would be.
My cowardly instinct was to cling to them. But not for too long: powerful clans are never this
diverse and scattered. Only the outcast are.
I got up to scoop myself a bowl of sugary cereal amid the symphony of fork tines scraping white
ceramic plates, wending past tables populated by students who appeared to have happily found
their tribes: girls with chemically blond hair; an octet of preppy black students; football behemoths
with phalanxes of neon sports drinks; chicly dressed Asians; outdoorsy types toting bumperstickered Nalgene bottles; future Undergraduate Council presidents and their cabinet members;
legacy WASPs with Roman numerals appended to their names and swoops of hair soldered to their
When I sat back down, there you were at last, coming into the dining hall late.
You stood in the roped-off line near my table among the clutch of students you’d arrived with,
engaged in a whispery tête-à-tête with another girl, already having things worth saying in
confidence. The rest of your group possessed a similar ease, as though they’d hung out together for
years. A uniformity of physical desirability differentiated by grace notes: that girl’s raven tresses and
alabaster skin against your coppery tones, that boy’s cultivated stubble, the one black guy wearing a
gauzy scarf in August. I watched them—you, really—in slow motion, cinematographer of the
hackneyed movie sequence in which the cafeteria’s din silences and a languorous song spills in as
your moving lips swallow up the frame.
I could tell that you all had not only gone through high school as one should but had done so
precociously in seventh and eighth grades; your secondary education had featured the unfettered
experimentation typically associated with college; and now you were, compared with the rest of us,
bona fide adults.
One other thing was obvious, from your clothes, your body language, the impervious confidence
you projected, as if any affront would bounce off you like a battleship deflecting a BB pellet: you
came from money.
My parents made good salaries practicing law, but nothing close to the assets of your families,
where a crack about tuition and parking would never even come to mind, let alone be verbalized.
Yet your crowd didn’t reveal its class by stock emblems of affluence: navy blazers with brass buttons
and chinos, pearl necklaces, the plumage of those crimson-and-blue-blooded WASPs who looked
like they’d been born wearing a pair of boat shoes. Yours was subtler and pitted against that
bloated, decaying archetype. You had traveled widely, dined at Michelin-starred restaurants
without parental supervision, matriculated at schools with single-name national reputations,
ingested designer drugs and maybe had a cushy stint in rehab.
It wasn’t just your financial capital that set you apart; it was your worldliness, your taste, your
social capital. What my respectable, professional parents had deprived me of by their conventional
ambitions and absence of imagination.
I’d done everything I was supposed to my whole life, played by all the rules. It had gotten me
into Harvard, but look where I was sitting: with Subatomic Steven and the rest of our lost-andfound bin.
As I hovered over my bowl of Lucky Charms with soy milk, your conversation with the girl
concluded. You took an eyedropper out of your pocket, reclined your head, and squeezed a couple
of times into both sides. Then you closed your eyes and massaged the corners, as if the public world
were too pedestrian to bear witness to and necessitated a retreat into your private one. You blinked
several times, your eyes glassy with artificial tears, and stared off into space. It seemed like we were
the only two people in the cacophonous dining hall not speaking to anyone, the only two not fully
A moment later the ID checker asked for your card. You were still in your stupor, and one of
your friends nudged you. You snapped out of it with a halfhearted laugh. I then understood.
Maybe you wouldn’t admit to it, maybe you didn’t even know it yet, but you were also faking it.
Somewhat of a loner, too.
Justin and Kevin were hosting a gathering in their suite that night. When Steven was ready to go, I
told him that, actually, I was pretty exhausted.
He insisted I come. “You don’t want to miss out on the first night,” he said. “Someday we’ll all
reminisce about it.”
Precisely. But the immediate terror of staying in while everyone else on campus drank alcohol
together and hooked up—my four years of high school compressed to one joyless evening—began
to eclipse my fears of the long-term consequences.
“Maybe for a bit,” I said.
Crudely Scotch-taped to the walls of Kevin’s bedroom was a gallery of posters for comedies and
gangster movies starring all-male ensembles. A purple tapestry tacked to the ceiling cast everything
in a dank submarine light.
Justin’s height—a slouch-shouldered six foot five—and fake Idaho ID had enabled him to
purchase thirty-six cans of beer and two plastic jugs of vodka from a liquor store in Central Square.
I splashed orange juice into my cup of vodka and took a sip. An acrid corruption of my breakfast
beverage of youth. I’d have to find something more palatable, a signature drink.
Everyone was more reserved in the cloistered intimacy of a dorm room. When the conversation
remained stilted, Ivana suggested we play the drinking game Never Have I Ever.
“Never have I ever blacked out from drinking,” she said after a cursory review of the rules.
“I’m confused,” Steven piped up, unashamed to put his ignorance on display. “You haven’t
blacked out yourself, but if someone else has, they drink?”
Justin and Kevin nodded and swigged from their cups with lupine grins of self-satisfaction,
conquests masquerading as confessions.
On Carla’s turn, she brought up marijuana use. Kevin, Justin, and Ivana all drank. I’d seen it
just once in person, when a drum-playing skater had passed a green baggie to his friend under a
desk before history class.
“Never have I ever been fingered by someone,” said Kevin.
The sudden swing into the crassly sexual startled us all, except Ivana, who tipped her cup,
emboldening Carla to follow suit and rendering Sara the female holdout. She peered into the
opening of her beer can while everyone else stayed silent.
My lower back prickled with perspiration. I hadn’t even kissed a girl yet, an abyss of experience
I’d hoped never to reveal at all in college, and certainly not on the first night.
My turn. To head off any further declarations of carnal milestones, I said, “Never have I ever
been convicted of a felony,” knowing that none of us teachers’ pets had ever run afoul of the law
and hoping it would act as a reset button which, as an ancillary benefit, would shift the focus from
Sara’s contagious embarrassment. No one drank. From there things amplified into the absurd:
orgies, snorting cocaine off strippers’ breasts, unsolved homicides. The game petered out, followed
by a card trick from Steven (he’d brought his own deck).
We split up into factions. Sara ended up next to me on the bony futon and we traded getting-toknow-you questions. She was planning to concentrate in Latin American history; she’d gone to a
magnet school in Cleveland; she had an older brother and younger sister.
I didn’t have much to say about my sisters when Sara asked. Miriam had been genuinely
apathetic to me growing up and had recently decamped across the country for law school,
cohabitating with the boyfriend she’d had since college. Anna spent all her time socializing; when
she and I overlapped in my senior year at Hobart High, I tacitly agreed never to speak to her in the
hall lest I betray our relation. I’d always envied the brothers and sisters whose last names were
legendary among the student body—those handsome Wilson boys, the wild Capalleri sisters. The
entirety of Anna’s farewell to me the morning I left for college, after my parents woke her, was an
irritable “Bye” shouted from her bed. Those crazy three-to-four-years-apart Federman siblings.
“My older sister’s in law school and my younger one’s in high school,” I told Sara.
“How old are they, exactly?” Before I could answer, she laughed. “I’m the worst at small talk.
You must be so bored. Hey, here’s a fun fact: I spell my name without an h.”
“I spell David with two d’s,” I said. “I’m even worse at small talk.”
“No.” Then, with robotic caesurae and emotionless inflection: “I—am—worse.”
“I believe—I am—in fact—worse,” I said in the same voice.
“I—dis—a—gree,” said Sara. “De—fi—ant—ly.”
Defiant: my nominal adjective. I tried to remember hers—short? sensitive? shy!—but her phone
rang. “Sorry,” she said before picking it up and leaving the room. “My parents.”
On the floor by my feet, poking out under a men’s magazine promising its reader guns for
biceps, was Harvard’s Freshman Register, known as the Facebook, onetime inspiration for the
digital Goliath. I hadn’t picked up my copy yet. I flipped through the Fs.
There he was: David Alan Federman, wearing a white dress shirt, tie, and yearbookphotographer-mandated smile—a rectangular vacuum of charisma. My hair the drabbest of
browns, destined to desaturate without distinction, parted like a small-market weatherman’s. My
complexion was barely contrastable from the shirt and white space bordering the frame. Features
that neither enticed nor repelled. A body sixty-eight and three-quarters inches long and 146
pounds at my last checkup, outwardly average in all respects.
The museum card next to the artwork: Garret Hobart High School, 152 Midvale Ln., my
hometown, the humiliating two letters of NJ.
Turning to the first-name index in the back, I found two Veronicas. The first wasn’t you. The
second was in the middle of the W’s, above a spare Park Avenue address and The Chapin School, a
faceted blue sapphire among the round gray pebbles:
Veronica Morgan Wells.
Careless sunglasses half hidden in windswept hair, a collared shirt with just enough pearl-snap
buttons unfastened to make your décolletage inviting but not tawdry. Behind you, an
indeterminate bifurcation of sea and sky, your serenely unimpressed smile implying the
background was a perennial vacation spot rather than a one-off outing. You had wrapped up a day
of lounging in a secluded cove on a private beach, reading a Russian novel from a clothbound
volume, wondering how you could feel so lonely in such a beautiful place—you’d always worried
there was something defective about you, were scared people wouldn’t like you when they got to
know the real you, maybe you’d meet someone at Harvard who would accept you for who you
were, and next summer you could take him back here.
(I’d spent July and August interning at my father’s law office in a squat brick building that
shared a lobby with Dr. Irving Jomsky, chiropractor.)
Sara came back and I casually tossed the Register on the floor. Carla joined us and talked about
Freshman Week activities, but all I could think about, running in a loop, was Veronica Morgan
Wells, Veronica Morgan Wells, Veronica Morgan Wells. The quadrisyllable that halves its beats at
the middle name, dividing again at its pluralized terminus of subterranean depths. The percussively
alert c drowsily succumbing to the dozing s. Perfectly symmetrical initials, the V found twice
upside-down in the M, inverted once more in the W, and, if spoken, easily confused with a
German luxury automaker.
Sara talked about participating in the First-Year Urban Program for preorientation, whose main
project had been “reconstructing furniture for low-income families in Boston.”
“I was pretty bad at it,” she admitted. “I think I ended up deconstructing the furniture, to be
honest. I was like the team’s Derrida.” She waited for us to laugh at the reference that neither of us
yet knew. “You guys do any programs?”
“The Fall Clean-Up with Dorm Crew,” Carla said.
“I didn’t know about that option,” said Sara. “That sounds fun. What did you guys clean up?”
“Mostly bathrooms in the dorms. The pay was good, though.”
“Oh,” Sara said, clearly discomfited by the socioeconomic schism. “David, how about you?” she
asked, her eyes meeting mine pleadingly.
“I stayed home,” I said.
I returned to my room shortly thereafter. In my bed, I sleuthed around the warrens of the free!
Internet for your name, adding information from the Register (high school, address), modifying it
with new data that cropped up (on the track team, with three-thousand-meter race times recorded
in a few places; supporting cast in some plays and then, senior year, Lady Macbeth in your girls’
school’s production; a quote in a news item on Chapin’s website about your participation in Model
UN: “ ‘It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to think about the world outside themselves,’ said
junior Veronica Wells, representing Hungary.”). Progenitors: Lawrence, member of the senior brass
at a household-name financial services firm and a Harvard Business School graduate, and
Margaret, who, according to the New York Times, “sits on the board of various philanthropic
organizations,” and whose willowy figure was photographed on a host of society websites. No
siblings I could find.
And no other photos, except perhaps for those cached in your Facebook page, which was offlimits to me. (I couldn’t locate any additional social media accounts in your name.) You’d used the
same profile picture as in the Register. I saved it to my computer and zoomed in.
You had no affiliation with Steven’s modest metric of cute. Cute didn’t fuel Romeo and Dante
and Paris, couldn’t galvanize the unerring belief that their inamorata justified any sacrifice, that
their quest for Juliet or Beatrice or Helen, successful or not, was itself a peerless achievement
reflecting back on their own valor. There’s just one Everest, and only the most heroic can reach the
You’d elected not to list your dorm room or any contact details in the student directory, so I
combed the doors on my floor. I didn’t find your name and went upstairs. It was at the end of the
hall, on room 505, a symmetrical number to match your symmetrical initials.
Yours was also a two-person suite. Headlining the sign was SARA COHEN, CLEVELAND, OH. Sara
without an h.
I looked around for you on campus over the next few days, a blitz of tours, placement tests, and
advisory meetings. With my placeholder friends, I endured a marathon of organized social outings:
the Tin Man gyrations of the First Chance Dance; the Freshman Talent Show, dominated by music
and juggling performances (Steven put on a well-received magic act); the annual screening of Love
Story, interrupted with increasingly tedious commentary from Crimson Key members, the student
group that ran much of Freshman Week; the A Cappella Jam, exactly as fun as it sounds. You were
a consistent no-show. Sara, too, refrained from most activities.
To lend my bare walls some color, I bought a van Gogh print of sunflowers. After affixing it with
dorm-approved putty, I recognized I was becoming a collegiate cliché and returned to the Harvard
Coop, but saw that no matter what I might purchase—Dalí’s The Persistence of Memory, Munch’s
The Scream, the couple kissing in Times Square, John Belushi in his COLLEGE sweatshirt, a kitten
doing its best to hang in there—I’d at best be some potpourri of stereotypes. Hence I decided to
transform my room into a self-aware caricature by full-throttling van Gogh, plastering the wall
above my bed with a collection of his most famous yellow-hued paintings to complement the
original sunflowers: a chair, café exteriors, straw hats, whorled wheat fields. I stood back and
admired the results with a chuckle. (If anyone ever noticed my thematic curation, they didn’t say
When the opportunity presented itself, I made a few bumbling attempts to strike up
conversations with other freshmen. None backfired as badly as with Jake and Phil, but they never
led to anything, either. It was still better, I reasoned, to bide my time with my entryway
companions than to sit by myself like a leper, and so I stuck with the clique, who had christened
themselves the Matthews Marauders.
“We’re pregaming in our room again at eight o’clock,” Justin announced the fourth night at
“Technically speaking, we rarely go to any games,” Steven said. “So we’re stretching the
definitional properties by calling it pregaming.”
“Who cares? The pregaming’s the best part,” said Kevin. “Not gonna lie: the actual game usually
“Yeah,” Justin agreed. “If I spent my whole life just pregaming with you guys and never going to
any games, I’d be cool with that.”
“Once we start going to parties,” Kevin proposed, “we should just think of them as pregaming for
some other game.”
Justin raised his glass of soda. “To pregaming and never gaming.”
“Puk-chh,” said Kevin as he jerked his arm in two movements to toast with Justin. He
punctuated much of his speech with sound effects of cinematic violence: guns loading and firing or
cyborg combatants landing bone-pulverizing punches.
“You guys crack me up,” Ivana said, shaking her head fondly. “You’re so weird.”
They weren’t, in the slightest. They were completely ordinary, all of them, having already
pledged their fealty to one another halfway through the first week of college, with no aspirations to
maraud beyond the claustrophobic perimeter and dirty-sock musk of Justin and Kevin’s room.
Sara ate meals with us, but sat out the pregame sessions with various excuses: early wakeup for a
meeting, scheduled phone call with her grandmother. She hadn’t referred to a long-distance
boyfriend or other freshmen she’d befriended, so it appeared that she was just reclusing in her
room. Or in her room with you. Perhaps she, too, saw our group as a parochial small town and was
scheming to flee it with her roommate as her one-way Greyhound ticket—in which case I needed
to guarantee I was also on board.
My only sightings of you were in the dining hall, where your friends had claimed a table in a far
corner yet managed to make themselves the hub of attention and activity, with other social blocs
frequently coming by to pay their respects, as if your preeminent coastal provenance had been
directly transposed onto the map of Annenberg and the rest of us were flyover country. Over the
course of the week I’d seen enough of their faces to locate the core members’ entries in the
Freshman Register. Their footprints on the Internet were private or contained no tangential
material about you. A few were from Los Angeles or abroad, but most had attended prep schools in
New York. That explained your immediate alliance—your social scopes were not limited to your
high schools but encompassed small-world networks of the well-heeled: second homes, clubs,
family connections. That, or you’d simply identified your kin on sight, and if I ever attempted to
breach your city walls, you would instantly peg me as a barbarian.
Sitting at lunch one day with the Matthews Marauders, I was furtively reading an essay from
that morning’s Crimson about the author’s attempts to squelch her inborn competitiveness with her
classmates over grades, summer internships, and boyfriends. (“Then I realized,” she wrote in the
generously italicized and disingenuous epiphany, “that I didn’t have to be the best. I just had to be
the best me.”)
“Let’s start the pregaming half an hour earlier tonight,” Kevin said. “We may as well maximize
our hangout time together before classes start.”
“Fine by me—I can’t get enough of your guys’ dumb jokes,” Ivana said teasingly.
“Yeah, right,” Justin said. “You know they’re hilarious.”
I imagined one of the hulking chandeliers above us breaking free and crashing on our table in a
blizzard of glass.
When I tilted my head back down, I spotted you grabbing two pears from a basket and walking
to the exit, none of your private-school mafia in the vicinity. A chance to stage a seemingly random
I abandoned my partially eaten lasagna on the dishwasher track and followed you outside,
maintaining a discreet distance as you cut across Harvard Yard. The chiming of the Memorial
Church noon bells was drowned out by the sputtering roar of a lawn mower. A monarch butterfly
juked flirtatiously in front of me. You were biting into one of the pears and heading toward
Matthews. I could enter with you, make you aware that I lived in the same dorm, maybe jokingly
remind you of our shared name-first, descriptor-second introductions that night in the common
You got waylaid by something written in chalk on the pavement. I swerved around you and
over to Matthews, where I waited by the entrance, pretending to be immersed in my phone. When
you approached, I pushed the door open and held it. Up close, your skin appeared like the
unperturbed shell of some creamy European confection.
“Thanks,” I said, flustered, as you stepped in.
I’d mixed it up; I was the one doing something for you. I would’ve been better off making the
bad pun I’d formulated during my chase: Pair of pears?
Yet the verbal blunder didn’t offset my small chivalrous gesture. You smiled at me. Not the coy
smile of your Facebook photo—a genuine one, flashing the full range of your front teeth.
It was like entering Harvard Yard again on move-in day. Cue the timpani.
Not wanting to seem as if I were tailgating you upstairs, I loitered in the lobby, browsing the
fliers on the bulletin board. “Stressed or sad?” one read. “Anxiety and depression are the two most
common mental health diagnoses among college students. Schedule an appointment with
university health services today.”
“Harvard isn’t for everyone,” my guidance counselor had told me in my junior-year advising
session, words I ignored as boilerplate dissuasion he dispensed to every Cambridge hopeful in
hedging against the school’s stingy acceptance rate. “It’s true that it can open doors for you later,
but you might well get a richer college experience elsewhere, in a place you can find yourself more
easily. This is often the problem when you go somewhere primarily for its name.”
It’s convenient, in hindsight, to blame Harvard. But it wasn’t the guilty party.
The eve of Harvard’s weeklong shopping period, in which students sample classes before selecting
them, I was on my bed, laptop scalding my thighs, meandering the Internet of you, looking at the
photo and cycling through the same information. (“ ‘It’s a wonderful opportunity for students to
think about the world outside themselves,’ said junior Veronica Wells, representing Hungary.”)
The September breeze carried boisterous shrieks and distant music up to my open window. The
Matthews Marauders were in the Yard, attending the Ice Cream Bash. (As with the A Cappella
Jam, a number of social happenings attached an overblown noun that leached them of any allure:
the Foreign Students Fete, the Hillel Gala.) I didn’t have it in me to go to yet another cornpone
event, especially when you were unlikely to be present.
An e-mail pipped into my in-box among the deluge of university mass mailings. It was from
Daniel Hallman, a charter member of my high school cafeteria table. He was reporting on his first
week at the University of Wisconsin, where, he claimed, he’d gotten “wasted or high” every night
and had received “blow jobs from three girls, though not at the same time . . . yet.”
His tone was unrecognizable, nothing like the Daniel of the previous four years, who once in a
while threw in a sly remark at lunch, who had never, to my knowledge, had a real conversation
with a girl outside of class. Though he was evidently a new man now, flush with alcohol in his
bloodstream and treatable venereal diseases, to engage with him, albeit electronically, would be to
return to that cafeteria table, an even more desperate seat than my current one in Annenberg.
Yet he was the one having the quintessential college experience, drunkenly bed-hopping, while I
had locked myself up in sober solitary confinement. I thought of my childhood bedroom, the years
in which no one other than family members and cleaning ladies had set foot inside it. It occurred to
me that, had I not been assigned a roommate, I could die on my twin mattress and it might take
weeks until someone investigated.
My phone buzzed.
“So he does know how to use that expensive device we bought him,” my mother said after I
“Sorry for not calling back.” I could hear NPR in the background. “You’re in the car?”
“We’re going out for Chinese. I didn’t feel like cooking.” She lowered the radio. “So? How are
you? How’s Harvard?”
“It’s okay,” I said. “Classes haven’t started yet.”
“And your roommate? What’s he like?”
“He’s fine. I don’t think we’re going to be best friends or anything.”
“No?” She sounded disappointed. To my father: “Green light.” Back to me: “Well, it takes time
to get to know some people. I’m sure once classes begin you’ll make a few friends.”
“I have friends already,” I said. “There’s a bunch of us in the dorm that eat together every meal
and hang out. The Matthews Marauders.”
“Really?” she asked. “That’s great. What about that nice girl we met moving in?”
“Sara,” I said. “She’s in the group, too. We talked awhile the other night.”
“Oh, good. I liked her.”
We both waited for the other to say something.
“But things are okay?” she asked.
“Yeah.” My voice cracked. I took a drink of water from a stolen Annenberg cup. “Really good,
actually. I even have a nickname everyone calls me. David Defiant.”
“Anna, put your phone on silent,” she chided. “Sorry, what did you say? They call you David
Definite? Why’s that?”
“Defi—it’s a long story.”
“You’ll have to tell it to me sometime,” she said. “Listen, we just got to the restaurant, but I’m
glad to hear you’re enjoying yourself.”
“I should go, too.”
“Oh? What’re you doing tonight?”
The bass from the Ice Cream Bash turned up. “I’m going to this ice cream party.”
“Sounds fun,” she said. “Remember to take your Lactaid.”
Hordes of students ate ice cream from paper cups, gabbing amiably as sanitized pop music played
on speakers. While no one was looking, I swallowed one of the two lactose-intolerance pills I stored
at all times in the small fifth pocket of my jeans, entered the fray, and got in line. It seemed like I
was the only untethered attendee, as if everyone else knew the secret that ensured they were never
alone at a party.
“Hello?” The Crimson Key member wielding the scooper was looking at me with hostile
impatience under his perky mask. “What can I get you?”
I quickly asked for vanilla. “No, wait,” I said as he plunged his arm into the bucket. Vanilla was
what I always picked, the gastrointestinally safe base that deferred flavor to its toppings.
“Chocolate,” I revised. “With rainbow sprinkles, please.”
I was tucking into my audacious dessert, wondering how long I could last without speaking to
anyone, when Sara materialized in another well-timed intervention. She wore a capacious L.L.Bean
backpack and was empty-handed.
“No ice cream?” I asked.
“I was hoping there’d be sorbet. I’m pretty lactose intolerant.” She added, with mock solemnity,
“We all have our crosses to bear.”
The spare lactase-enzyme supplement bulged in my pocket. I reached in and fingered its singleserving packet. To offer it to her would be an admission that we together were fragile Jews in the
crowd, unable to stomach a treat little kids gobbled unthinkingly.
“Here,” I said quietly, handing her the packet as if making a drug deal. She recognized what it
was and smiled.
“Thanks,” she said, tearing it open and depositing the pill on her tongue. I felt a curious surge of
warmth toward her.
We drifted back to the ice cream table. “So, a fellow digestively challenged Ashkenazi,” she said.
“You are Jewish, right? Your last name sounds like you’re a member of the tribe.”
“Uh-huh,” I said. “You haven’t been around in a while. Were you in hiding?”
“Ah, you’ve seen through my facade,” she said. “Underneath this pleasant exterior lies a deeply
antisocial personality. I’m a closet sociopath. Or psychopath, I mean. I always confuse them.”
She chuckled. I spooned some ice cream into my mouth and nodded.
“Groups aren’t my thing,” she went on, waving her hand at the masses around us. “I’m an
extroverted introvert at best. But everyone says that, right? They want to claim the best parts of
each—that they can be charming when they need to, but they really prefer solitude. No one’s ever,
like, ‘I have the neediness of an extrovert and the poor social skills of the introvert.’ Sorry I’m
talking so much. I’ve been in the library all day prepping for my freshman seminar.”
“I’m not that good in groups, either,” I said, thinking of Mrs. Rice’s letter of recommendation.
She laughed authentically.
“Like, when it’s just Steven and me in the room, I’m not any more comfortable than I am here.”
It was a clunky segue to my next question. “Who’s your roommate?”
“Veronica Wells? The really pretty girl?”
Feigning ignorance, I shook my head. “I haven’t been paying much attention to the people in
our dorm. Is she nice?”
“I wouldn’t know,” Sara said. “I’ve seen her maybe five times. I think the last conversation we
had was when she turned on the light at four in the morning and said, ‘Sorry.’ ”
“Oh, you’re also in the front room,” I said. “That’s annoying, huh?”
“So do you have any sense of her?” I was leading the witness ham-fistedly, but I couldn’t stop
“Not really. She and her crowd seem a bit too-cool-for-school.”
“Does she have gatherings in your room?”
“No, thank God.”
A spastic “Hey, guys!” interrupted us. It was Steven, in the second physics-pun T-shirt he’d worn
that week (MAY THE M•A BE WITH YOU).
With breathless excitement, he informed us that there was a proctor in Grays who wasn’t
cracking down on freshman parties, and they were having a big one tonight, the other Marauders
were being lame, but did we want to come?
“I’d better stay in,” Sara said, taking a skittish step back.
You and your too-cool-for-school friends might be there, at an unsanctioned event. Sara and
you clearly weren’t friends, but she could nevertheless provide a bridge, rickety though it was. And
thus far hardly anyone else was even talking to me.
“C’mon,” I said. “I thought groups were your thing. What are you, a closet psychopath?”
The reference was just enough of a gesture toward intimacy to elicit a giggle. Parroting
something a person had previously said in a different context, I was figuring out, was a winning
tactic. The subject is flattered you paid such close attention in the first place and commends her
own intelligence for catching the allusion.
“When in Rome,” she said, hands clenching the straps of her backpack like a soldier preparing to
parachute into enemy territory.
Inside the rain forest fug of the dorm room, we leaked through a strainer of bodies toward a desk
that had been transformed into a bar. I poured myself half a cup of gin and glazed it with tonic
water; Sara reached into a cooler of beer cans bobbing in a slushy bath. A poster of Bob Marley
exhaling miasmically presided over the festivities. Clubby music blared a beat resembling a
spaceship’s self-destruct alarm.
I scanned the room. You weren’t there. But it was early.
Steven ambled off to find some people he knew; he had already gotten himself elected mayor of
Harvard’s nerdy township, of which the Matthews Marauders was one of many districts.
Sara and I were left alone. In between baby sips of her beer, she confessed she’d hardly drunk
alcohol before this week.
“I wasn’t what you’d call Miss Popular in high school.” She wiggled the tab on her beer can like
a loose tooth. “Unless ‘mispopular’ became a word. Thank God for Becky and Ruma. Those were
my two best friends.”
I had always envied the depth of female friendships—even the abjectly ostracized seemed to
have a soul mate on the margins with them. I’d have traded that for my tenuous coterie of fools.
“I was sort of the same,” I said. “I had two hundred classmates, and I bet half of them wouldn’t
even remember me.”
The tab on Sara’s can snapped off and, with no garbage nearby, she slipped it into her pocket.
“But the anonymity is kind of nice,” she reflected. “I always felt a little sorry for the kids at the top.
Everyone’s watching them. That can’t be easy. If no one’s paying attention to you, at least you can
be yourself, do your own thing.”
I was about to counter that whatever things the anonymous accomplished, they were of little
consequence, since nobody noticed. But she had a point. Unseen, you could take your time, slowly
amass knowledge and skills. For years everyone could believe you were a faceless foot soldier; they
hadn’t investigated more closely, or they simply lacked the necessary powers of discernment. Then,
in a single stroke, you could prove them all wrong.
Someone jostled my arm as he passed, spilling gin and tonic on my wrist.
“No one paying attention to you.” I licked my sticky skin like a cat. “I guess that’s something I
“Something with which you identify,” she said playfully. “Aren’t you glad you’re talking to that
fun girl at the party who reminds you to never end a sentence on a preposition?”
“You should also try to never split an infinitive,” I said, but whoever was manning the volume
control cranked it up and she didn’t hear me.
“Just one request, please,” the rapper boomed from the speakers, and everyone in the room
pumped their fists and chanted along to the next line: “That all y’all suckers can choke on these!”
The volume was lowered. “I hope to play that at my wedding someday,” I said with a nervous
“What a coincidence,” Sara said. “I was saving it for my father-daughter dance.”
She looked down, cheeks reddening, and excused herself for the bathroom. As I refilled my
drink, Ivana showed up.
“So, Sara’s cute,” she said, much like a mother suggesting a piece of fruit for dessert.
That word again. I considered her assessment. Sara’s dishwater-brown hair was generally pulled
back in a ponytail, and her face looked like a sculpture someone hadn’t thought worth putting the
finishing touches on, its planes and protrusions not fully defined. But when she smiled she was, I
“Mmhuh,” I grunted.
“Oh, you’re playing it cool.” She smirked. “No worries. By the way, do you have any idea if
Steven’s hooking up with anyone?”
“Steven? I doubt it.”
“To both of us playing it cool, then,” she toasted, bumping her beer against the rim of my cup
and spilling it again.
Sara returned. Ivana gave me a knowing look as she melted back into the throng.
Two ovals of perspiration had bloomed in Sara’s underarms. She noticed right after I did,
noticed I’d noticed, and crossed her arms.
“Well, screw it,” she said, uncrossing them. “I sweat. Big deal.”
She finished her beer and I asked if she wanted another. “I was thinking about heading back,
actually,” she said. “But I can hang out for a little more if you want to go after this drink.”
It wasn’t that late yet. You might show up.
“I’ll probably stick around for a while.”
“Okay,” she said. “See you later.”
I got another drink and searched for Steven and Ivana. I didn’t find them but saw a face that
looked strangely familiar, as if it were the instantiation of one I’d hazily conjured up in nightmares
over the years. Pug-nosed and short, he nonetheless commanded the attention of a circle of
listeners. At one point he tipped his head back in amusement at something he’d himself said. Over
the music I heard a strident cackle, the sound a pterodactyl might make if it could laugh.
Scott Tupper was at Harvard.
One day in fifth grade, Jessica Waltham, one of the popular girls, passed me a note in
“I have something to tell you at recess,” she’d written. The i of something was dotted with a
At the appointed time Jessica stood alone while the rest of our class frolicked on the playground.
I timidly approached.
“I love you,” she said, looking at her sneaker as she toed the rubber matting.
Even in those latency-phase days I understood that this was socio-romantic validation of the
“Thank you,” I replied.
Neither of us spoke. Then Jessica looked over her shoulder at Scott, who had seemingly come
out of nowhere, his minions in tow.
“Did he say he loves you?” he asked.
Jessica responded with a less-than-convincing nod, but that was enough to send the boys into
I wasn’t familiar with the word entrapment, but knew I’d been the victim of something. Nor was
I aware that Scott and Jessica had recently begun “dating,” whatever that meant at our age. I
protested that I hadn’t said I’d loved her, I’d only thanked her, but it fell on deaf ears. By the end
of recess it had become gospel in the class that David F. said he was in love with Jessica.
The next day I noticed a rancid stench in my cubby as I took my winter jacket out for recess.
After I zipped it up, I felt dampness on my back.
“Eww!” Scott shouted after our teacher had led the first wave of students out of the room.
“David peed himself!”
His cronies howled with disgusted delight. Compounding my humiliation was that I was, in fact,
an occasional bed wetter. It must have been a coincidence that he’d chosen that way to debase me,
though at the time it didn’t seem like one, and, feeling outed, I never reported anything to our
teacher; I just wanted the incident to go away.
Those two episodes apparently quenched Scott’s thirst for cruelty, as he did nothing else the rest
of the year. Still, I developed a precautionary habit of sniffing my jacket before putting it on every
single time, and my fears of additional torment manifested themselves in stomachaches each
morning. My parents asked what was wrong, why I kept making excuses to get out of school. As
much as I craved justice, I refused to tattle. Openly admitting my status as a target of bullies would
authenticate it on the deepest of levels.
Scott’s family moved away the next year. That he had gotten into Harvard came as a shock. He
hadn’t distinguished himself as a student, and I’d always assumed he would grow up into the sort
of druggie who fried his brain with pot while supplying it at a suburban markup to his deeppocketed classmates.
After refilling my cup with gin—just gin—I retreated to the opposite corner of the room,
blending into the nubby white wall. Once I had enough alcohol in my system I was ready to initiate
a confrontation. I advanced toward him, armed with my opening line: Scott, it’s David Federman.
But I shouldn’t have had to jog his memory, shouldn’t have had to be the one to approach; he
should see me, feel guilty, and come up and beg forgiveness. I stopped before infiltrating his ring
and stared at him.
We briefly made eye contact before he returned to his conversation. Not a flicker of recognition.
I was one of a few dozen forgettable boys he’d arbitrarily victimized over the years, and after a
while we’d all become constituent parts of one effete, thin-wristed composite, a chorus of panicky
titters preceding whatever indignity we were about to suffer.
Maybe the experience had made me more sensitive, more academically focused, and I’d been
rewarded with acceptance to Harvard; that was fine. But if the world were really fair, people like
him would be punished for their loutish misdeeds, not given the same prize. The Scott Tuppers
should have been banished to community college.
I stumbled home through a ginny fog, somehow fit my key into the lock, and sprawled on my
bed. Drunken sleep had nearly overtaken me when I heard a sound like an army of mewling mice
from Steven’s room. Once I’d started to pay attention, it was too loud for me to fall asleep, so I
hoisted myself up to investigate and put my ear to his door.
It wasn’t rodents; it was his bouncing bedsprings.
Subatomic Steven was having sex his first week of college. And I was forced to listen to it.
I woke up for the beginning of shopping period with my first hangover and groggily dropped in on
an art history lecture, The Renaissance to Impressionism, chosen purely for its convenient location.
Smaller classes would have been a better way to make friends outside of the Matthews Marauders,
but I hadn’t applied in advance for any of the freshman seminars, which winnowed out
dispassionate students by requiring an essay attesting to one’s interest in the subject.
When I saw you poised to leave Annenberg at lunch, holding your tray aloft, it occurred to me
that I could follow you around for the afternoon and sign up for the same classes you did.
As I took a final bite of cereal and trailed you outside, I imagined revealing to you, in the future,
this moment of my taking decisive, romantic action. Just think, we would conjecture, we might
never have gotten together; life is so random.
You proceeded toward the redundantly named Harvard Hall, the contours of your shoulder
blades pulsing under a thin black sweater, your gait as fluid as the motion of an underwater
breaststroker. We arrived at a second-floor lecture room and you took an aisle seat. I found a free
chair in the row behind, from which I had an unobstructed view of your profile.
A professor, his white hair fringing a dome that shone brilliantly under the lights, fiddled with
his notes at the podium. The syllabus was distributed: From Ahab to Prufrock: Tragically Flawed
Hero(in)es in American Literature, 1850–1929.
Throughout the eighty-five-minute lecture I was riveted on you and only you, the professor’s
voice droning like talk radio in the background. You composed notes in longhand, scribbling in
your Harvard-insignia blue spiral notebook, periodically snake flicking your tongue between your
lips to moisturize them before flexing the angle of your mandible. At one point you massaged your
nape, precipitating a delicate flurry of dandruff that drifted onto your shoulders, becoming a
constellation of stars on the night sky of your sweater.
When you tilted your head in my direction to work out a knot, I looked at my laptop screen and
busily typed Professor Jonathan Samuelson’s last insight, about how the whiteness of the whale in
Moby-Dick enables it to stand for anything in the minds of both Ahab and the reader.
“Its very blankness, the colossal void it imposes on the text, reifies a central tension of post–
Manifest Destiny American literature,” he proclaimed with closed eyes and an upturned head, as
though channeling his wisdom from above. “The twinned desires of narrative and of capitalism.
The populist author entices the ravenous reader via withheld information to keep him wanting
more and more, just as the free market promises additional capital to seduce the never-satisfied
worker. To quote Blake, ‘Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be
restrained . . .’ Anyone know the rest? TFs?”
One of the graduate teaching fellows who had helped hand out the syllabus spoke up from the
back of the room. “ ‘And the restrainer or reason usurps its place & governs the unwilling,’ ” he
recited behind a trim sandy beard and tortoiseshell glasses. “ ‘And being restrain’d, it by degrees
becomes passive, till it is only the shadow of desire.’ ”
At the end of the lecture Samuelson announced that those planning on taking the class should
sign up online for one of the four graduate student–led weekly discussion sections. I had no way of
knowing which one you’d be in—assuming you even remained in the course.
You slipped out ahead of me. By the time I exited the building you were traversing the Yard,
your over-the-shoulder bag—its handsomely distressed leather standing out in a sea of gaudily
zippered backpacks and nonprofit-logoed totes—rhythmically colliding against your hip.
I stopped and prodded at my phone when you crossed paths with one of your dining hall
friends, a sharp-faced, nearly translucent girl with blond hair (Jen Pelletier, East Eighty-Seventh
Street in New York; a fellow alumna of the Chapin School). You each pulled out a pack of
cigarettes and lit one, in defiance of the Yard’s tobacco-free policy. That was the end of your
competitive running days, I surmised, not without some disappointment; I liked imagining you
extricating yourself from your social circle to log hours on a chilly outdoor track, the masochistic
introversion of the middle-distance runner.
And yet there was something attractive about it, a yesteryear femininity to the way you handled
the cigarette. I held up my phone, zoomed in with the camera, and snapped. It caught you with a
plume of smoke escaping your mouth, your lips in a perfect O. After you stamped out the butts, Jen
parted with an air kiss and you continued on to Sever Hall.
Our next class was an intimate seminar. I entered the room a few students after you, and not a
moment too soon, as the professor asked if I would shut the door behind me. There was only one
(clearly gay) male at the oval table. Everyone looked at me as if my presence were unwelcome, a
grotesque insect crawling over their lovely picnic spread.
The professor, a thirtyish woman with cat’s-eye glasses and the edge of a tattoo peeking out of
her jacket sleeve, reminded the class that if they were here it meant they had already signed up for
the freshman seminar Gender and the Consumerist Impulse. Enrollment in the seminars was
restricted to twelve. I counted thirteen students in the room.
I was sitting halfway between you and the professor, which meant I couldn’t look at you—this
time I was in your line of vision. As the professor lectured during a slideshow on print ads of the
1970s, I devoted all my energy to appearing attentive, knowledgeable, and passionate, nodding
along after brief pauses as if I were mulling each comment and giving it my carefully considered
She opened the seminar up to discussion. A girl to my right raised her hand.
“The magnification of feminine mouths in many of the ads seems to be about isolating the one
non-taboo main orifice,” she said. “The female mouth takes in edible objects that substitute for the
“Absolutely,” the professor said. “Male mouths are rarely eroticized. They typically function as a
tool to imply speech or some other form of power.”
Here was my opening, a place where I felt slightly more comfortable speaking than in an
orientation session or dorm entryway. I came up with a line to simultaneously flaunt my intellect
and cleverness. Crisp, I reminded myself. Crisp.
“But then you might say that the Marlboro Man ads are an example of pathetic fallacy,” I said,
referring to the campaign that had just been on-screen.
I leaned back in my chair and folded my arms, waiting for approving laughter. The silence was
“How so?” the professor asked.
No wonder—if she hadn’t even understood the terms of the joke, there was little chance the
“Pathetic fallacy is the attribution of human emotion to nature,” I explained. At least her
ignorance gave me another opportunity to demonstrate my knowledge, perhaps secure my spot in
“Right,” she said. “And how does that relate to the Marlboro Man?”
The room suddenly felt very warm. “Well, he’s in nature, and he has a small cigarette in his
“I’m afraid I don’t follow,” she said. “Unless you were just making a pun on ‘pathetic fallacy’ and
I nodded and swallowed. The professor, stony-faced, called on another student. A disaster,
worse than if I’d made an earnestly inane observation. I clammed up for the rest of the class. You
didn’t talk, either.
When the seminar ended I didn’t follow you to your next destination. Though I was loath to let
you out of my sight, I needed to speak to the professor.
“Excuse me,” I said as she gathered her notes. “I didn’t sign up for this seminar and I know
you’re at the size limit, but I’m very passionate about the subject and would be happy to write my
application essay now.”
I felt pinned by her glare, which seemed to convey her presumption that I, as a male whose
signifiers (to borrow a word she used repeatedly) pointed to heterosexuality, was not here out of
academic integrity but for some nefarious agenda.
“There’s a wait list,” she said, zipping up her bag. “If you don’t get in, I’ll also be teaching this
One more student would hardly upset the equilibrium; how bureaucratically compliant for
someone with a tattoo and a professed interest in “nonnormative modes of intersectionality.” I
could only hope that one of the students would be scared off by the daunting syllabus, which
culminated in a lengthy “anthropological study requiring local fieldwork.”
You didn’t eat lunch in Annenberg the rest of the week, foiling my designs to duplicate your
course load. In addition to the English lecture, I ended up registering for the art history class I’d
shopped; the massive introductory economics course; and a philosophy/psychology class, Ethical
Reasoning 22: The Self and the Other.
I didn’t get off the wait list for Gender and the Consumerist Impulse. The good news was that
you showed up to the next lecture for Ahab to Prufrock, though we weren’t slotted into the same
discussion section. Our time in a shared space would be confined to Tuesday afternoons from 1:05
to 2:30 in Harvard Hall, which was just as impersonal as Annenberg. I would have to find another
point of “intersectionality.”
I skimmed the campus events listings, found a viable candidate, and copied the link in a jaunty email to Sara:
Subject: salsa? (not the condiment)
Hey, future concentrator in Latin American history, want to go to this thing tomorrow
night? I warn you: I’m really good at salsa dancing. (Not really.) If you’re game, I can
meet you in your room and we can head over together.
A few hours later she wrote back, “I’m even better! I’ll be coming from the library, so I’ll meet
you at the place.”
Sara wasn’t there when I arrived at the salsa event, hosted by a Latino students’ organization in a
building on Mt. Auburn Street. I dawdled by the door as the undergrads filed in and warmly
greeted one another. They began to pair up and I went to the bathroom to kill time. I returned to
find Sara watching from the sidelines.
“Sorry I’m late,” I said. “A friend from high school called on the way here. She wouldn’t stop
She nodded absently, a look of trepidation on her face. “I can tell I’m going to be really bad at
this,” she said, eyes on the dance floor, where the couples synchronized back-and-forth steps, the
more expert dancers adding spins and flourishes the execution of which were as beyond my
purview as dunking a basketball.
“I didn’t realize what we were getting into,” I admitted. “I’m pretty sure no one would care if we
sat out. Or even notice if we left.”
“Maybe it’s a good thing for us to experience being unseen at a Latino event,” she whispered.
“You know—when Latinos have to deal with being unseen more systematically every day in the
I gave her a sidelong glance to see if she was joking, but she wasn’t.
To my horror, we weren’t unseen. “Join us!” called out a girl who seemed to be the leader. Sara
and I looked at each other self-consciously, the sixth graders jammed together by a well-meaning
teacher at the school dance. With a resigned shrug she dropped her backpack to the floor and we
tentatively shuffled to the outer ring of the action. I aped the stance of the men, holding my left
hand up to the side. Sara took it in hers. My right hand hovered by her back without making
contact, respecting an inch-wide force field. Her loose-fitting clothes—amorphous jeans, a longsleeved shirt—stymied lecherous inspection of her figure, but from what I could tell, it carried little
excess fat without being toned. A peeled potato, solid and compact. No one would ever become
irritated with her in a crowd; she took up modest space.
We watched the eight-beat footsteps of the dancers subsisting on the fundamental moves.
Mimicry proved challenging. Sara and I both lacked the coordination to follow the kinetic
algorithm independently and were even more hopeless collaborators.
Ashamed of our ungainliness and cultural trespassing, the bovine American tourists immobilized
by bulging fanny packs, I looked down at the floor, focusing on my feet. As we stepped forward at
the same time, Sara’s forehead struck my nose.
“Shit,” I said, rubbing the spot to assess the damage.
She clapped a hand over her mouth. “I’m sorry! Are you all right?”
“Does it look broken?” I asked. “It feels broken.”
“It looks okay to me.” She grimaced with remorse. “I’m so sorry.”
“I guess I’ll just put some ice on it,” I said. “You mind if we go home, though?”
After wrapping a few ice cubes inside a napkin at the refreshments table and holding it to my
nose, we walked back to Matthews, chatting about our class schedules.
“We’re doing it again,” she said.
“Small talk.” She shook her head with faux sadness. “Which neither of us excels at.”
“At which neither of us excels,” I tsk-tsked. “So, have you bonded with your roommate yet?”
“Nope,” she said. “You and Steven having some deep discussions?”
“Nothing beyond what you’ve seen in the dining hall,” I said. “To be honest, you’re the only one
here I’ve really talked to in any depth.”
Sara tilted her jaw down to her sternum, fighting a smile. “You, too.” She looked back up.
“That’s what college is supposed to be for, right? Those life-changing conversations you won’t have
“Right,” I said. “So if I don’t have any here, it means my life will never change. I’ll always be the
“Well, let’s change that up,” she said.
“You mean ‘Let’s up that change,’ ” I corrected her.
As we approached Matthews, a small branch fell on the path not far in front of us.
“If I hadn’t stopped to get the ice cubes, we might’ve been under it when it fell,” I said, looking
up at the tree from which it had fallen. “They really should cut that down. It’s a negligence lawsuit
waiting to happen.”
“Are your parents pressuring you to become a lawyer?”
“No,” I answered. “But it’s the obvious option.”
“That shouldn’t be why you choose something so important,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “This is America, after all—I can be whatever I want. I can be a world-famous
She smiled at my weak joke but didn’t laugh. When we reached the fourth floor, she asked what
my room number was. “There’s something I want to bring you,” she said.
“Is it in your room?” I asked. “I’ll come get it.”
We arrived at her door. You could be inside.
“Wait here—my room’s a mess,” Sara said, and slipped in, shutting the door before I could
sneak a glimpse. She stepped out a moment later and handed me a book: 101 Idealistic Jobs That
“Hold on to it as long as you want,” she told me.
I thanked her, peeked down the hall in case you were returning, and said I should get going.
“By the way,” she said, “I realize that comment about Latinos’ being unseen sounded pretty
sanctimonious. I didn’t mean to imply that you’re someone who doesn’t recognize his privilege.”
“Not at all,” I reassured her.
Sara nodded, but her face remained anxious, and she showed no indication of signing off for the
night. She was waiting for something. I’d worried this might happen; I had, after all, asked a girl to
go dancing, an invitation that could be interpreted as romantic. I’d hoped she wouldn’t regard it as
anything more than an overture of friendship, the kind that evolved into hanging out in her room
and, inevitably, meeting her roommate.
I had already run a cost-benefit analysis of a sexual relationship with Sara. Not only would it
take me off the market, but my association with her could diminish my standing in your eyes. Yet it
also meant I’d be around you much more than I would if we were Platonic; as I was now learning,
she wasn’t even letting me see her room. And it was college. These things didn’t last forever.
Despite my certainty that a kiss would be reciprocated, the prospect of instigating it remained
unduly terrifying; like a trust-your-new-summer-camp-buddies fall backward, it went against every
instinct of self-preservation. No one was around, but it felt to me as if the whole campus, my high
school, even my parents and sisters, were watching. If I didn’t do it, I’d be unmanned in front of
them, the boy who, after eighteen years, had finally found a girl willing to kiss him—and he
couldn’t even go through with it.
I closed my eyes and, impelled more by fear than desire, made the trust fall forward. Our lips
touched and soon yielded to tongues, which grappled like junior-varsity wrestlers trying to impress
the coach with their hustle. I was too conscious that I was having a legitimate sexual experience to
bask mindlessly in the sensory pleasures. Nonetheless, I achieved an erection that was deftly
hidden by 101 Idealistic Jobs That Actually Exist.
Bizarre verb, achieved, as if to remind you of the possibility of failure and all its attendant
And so began a courtship. Since parties weren’t Sara’s thing, we gorged on the menu of oncampus activities: film screenings, plays, world-music concerts, and guest speakers. Afterward she
was raring to discuss whatever we’d seen. I tried to engage for her sake, but if I wasn’t being tested
on the subject matter, it was hard for me to care. During our study dates in Lamont Library, she
read every word assigned to her, meticulously underlined and highlighted and marginalia’d, sought
out competing perspectives, researched auxiliary material. An academic mule, if one motivated by
All our rendezvous were in public. Whenever I suggested doing something that would get me
into Sara’s room, I was frustrated by her goaltender’s knack for deflecting me. “I’m kind of burned
out on the library,” I texted one night. “I’d say we could study here but Steven has been popping
out to practice magic tricks on me all day. Maybe your room?” (A lie; Steven was a reactor core of
interpersonal fuel, joining a raft of clubs, picking up new friends like a lint roller, and entering into
a relationship with Ivana that entailed incessant fondling and pet names. Stevie-bean spent most
nights in Ivana-suck-your-blood’s room, so I couldn’t really complain, though he indulged in one
instance of grating boastfulness, requesting that a picture of himself and his parents reside on my
bookcase, not his. “Why?” I asked. “It’s weird to feel like they’re staring at me when Ivana’s in
there,” he said with put-on embarrassment. “You know how it is.”)
“Let’s go to Starbucks!” Sara replied.
Our physical contact was restricted to PG make-out sessions by the lawsuit tree near Matthews,
an awkward location, since we couldn’t part immediately after kissing. Instead, we had to walk
another few dozen paces to our dorm, go upstairs together, and, at the fourth floor, she would
wave like a friendly neighbor before continuing her ascent to your castle in the faraway kingdom of
505, where you remained out of my sight—though very much on my mind.
Location was also a problem the next two Prufrock classes, when you snuck in late and chose
seats out of my field of vision. You were the whole reason I was taking the class—and dating your
roommate—but we might as well have been at different schools.
One evening Sara and I attended a lecture by a visiting economist with the elaborate title
“Antisocial Mobility: The Impossible Transcendence of Previously Permeable Socioeconomic
Borders.” I daydreamed about you through the whole talk, but snapped to attention when, as we
shambled out of the auditorium, Sara at last asked if I wanted to study in her room.
On the way back to Matthews, the excitement leavening my step had little to do with the sexual
promise of what lay in store. In fact, while I wasn’t about to reject the leap forward we were about
to take—maybe even hurdling over all the preliminary obstacles straight to the final one—I couldn’t
help feeling a little disappointed that Sara might be my first.
“Those stats he brought up were scary, about how the situation you’re born into more than ever
determines your economic fate,” Sara said as we walked back.
“Mmm,” I said.
“I was getting really depressed listening to him, but at the end, in a weird way, I started thinking
all his pessimism about America is actually almost optimistic, because he’s also basically saying, ‘If
we made this, it means we can unmake it.’ And the real travesty isn’t what’s already happened, but
continuing to let it happen and resigning ourselves to it.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Good point.”
Your door was closed. Sara’s room was neat, contrary to her previous claims, and modestly
appointed. Around her desk were framed photographs of her family: the diffident younger sister
who closely resembled her; the gregarious older brother who was a blunt-featured male version;
the jolly, ursine father whose genes had been lost in transmission; the graying, bifocaled mother
into whom Sara would someday evolve.
Sara sat on her bed, knees propping up Anti-Imperialist Marxism in Latin America. I stationed
myself at her desk and began reading The Scarlet Letter.
“You can sit here, you know,” she told me a few minutes later, patting the mattress. I moved
over, leaving enough space for a phantom body between the two of us and resting against the cool
wall that separated her room from yours.
“At least she’s quiet,” I whispered, pointing toward your door. “Nothing worse than a noisy
“I doubt she’s home,” Sara said. As she read, her forehead squinched around a central point and
the tip of her tongue explored the corner of her mouth, an expression of concentration I would
come to know well. After a while she announced she was tired and asked if I wanted to go to bed.
“Okay,” I said, unsure if this was an invitation or a tactful request to leave.
“I’ll go brush my teeth and change,” she said.
She left for the bathroom, carrying her toiletries kit, a pair of gray athletic shorts, and an
oversized shirt that said RAISE OHIO’S MINIMUM WAGE NOW! I stayed put, alone in the room, desperately
waiting for your entrance.
A few minutes later I heard a key in the door. Too nervous to look up, I kept my eyes on the
book, pretending to read, but then the door opened and Sara’s voice was muttering, “People waste
so much water here.” I waited for her to extinguish the light before removing my jeans. My shirt I
kept on; if she was going to remain clothed, so was I. My physique, I knew, wasn’t much to look at,
but as a purely tactile experience in the dark, it would be unobjectionable.
I climbed in under the pink flannel sheets, a reprieve from my own scratchy, cotton/poly-blend
bedding (which, if I ever got you into it, I would claim was my backup, and then blow my entire
semester’s petty cash on a high-thread-count upgrade). Sara turned on a white-noise machine.
“You mind?” she asked. “It’s kind of loud, but I need it to fall asleep.”
We lay on our backs on the narrow mattress, our shoulders but nothing else touching, her body
an environmentally friendly space heater. The white-noise machine was, indeed, loud; I would
never hear anything in your room over it. As it thrummed, our stomachs produced gurgly video
game sounds. Neither of us was making a move, two disoriented and jet-lagged travelers stepping
off a plane in a foreign country, unsure if we had to go first to customs or the baggage claim.
Then, imagining the warmth next to me was radiating from you, I grew hard and found myself,
almost without any conscious self-direction, turning to kiss Sara. We continued for several minutes
in an uncomfortable, torqued position until I rotated on top of her, hoping you’d come in,
inconsiderately flip the switch, and view me in a newly sexual light.
I reached for the hem of her shirt. (Oh, Ohio’s minimum-wage movement, if only you knew
how your lofty ideals would someday be corrupted.) We were in college, far from watchful parents.
It might actually happen. I could reply to Daniel Hallman’s stupid message.
Her fingers interlaced with mine with a cheerful squeeze, as if hand-holding were what I was
really after. I brought my other hand down and was likewise rejected. Now all four were clasped as
I bodysurfed on top of her with our legs braided together, a two-headed octopus in coitus
I took the double hint and lifted our tentacles out of harm’s way. Without any demarcating
biological event, it was up to one of us to call a ceasefire. I let my kissing subside and parallel
parked myself on the wall side of the bed. We spoke only about practical matters: if I wanted water,
what time to set the alarm on her phone.
“Is your roommate going to wake us up?” I asked.
“No,” Sara said. “If she comes home, she knows not to turn on the lights anymore.”
“If she comes home? Where would she be?”
“You do the math,” she said.
We spooned amateurishly, my body acclimating to the alien sensation of sustained contact with
someone else’s, my forearm losing circulation under her upper back, my other arm unsure what to
do with itself, until I retracted both and flipped over. Sara’s breathing slowed to sleeping pace as I
listened for any sound of the door opening, pondering your whereabouts, sorting through the male
regulars at your Annenberg table: the one with landscaped stubble (Andy Tweedy), the black guy
who favored scarves (Christopher Banks), the rumored Italian baron (Marco Lazzarini).
I stayed awake until dawn pressed through the window shade, and woke up when Sara’s phone
tinkled at eight and she took a birth control pill. “To regulate my period,” she explained
awkwardly. No signs of your wee-hours entrance, if there’d been one.
A few nights later, after a documentary about migrant laborers in the Southwest, we went back
to her room again. Sara talked about how she wanted to see more documentaries, how easy it was
to get into an academic bubble here and forget how unjust the world was.
“Well,” I said, “in the long run we’re all dead.”
She squinted at me. “So it’s all right if there are inequalities now, because eventually we’re all
I smoothed out her comforter with my hand.
“That’s a pretty cynical sentiment,” she said. “There are a lot of people whose lives are almost
exclusively hardship. Just because we all die at the end doesn’t make it even.”
“I was only trying to lighten the mood,” I said.
“I know.” She reached for her copy of Anti-Imperialist Marxism in Latin America and handed it
to me. “But check this out when you get a chance.” She left for ablutions in the bathroom.
What I wanted was impossible; even this starter relationship was in danger of collapse. How
foolishly optimistic to think it might somehow lead to you. When Sara came back I’d tell her that
we’d made a mistake and should go back to being friends before anyone got hurt.
As if you’d heard my doubts and were telling me not to surrender, that nothing worthwhile was
ever acquired without a struggle, the door was unlocked from the hallway. You looked at me with
the vague recognition one has for a stranger on the same daily bus commute and walked toward
“Aren’t you in Prufrock?” I asked, hoping to salvage the moment.
“Me, too. I’m David.”
“Nice to meet you,” you said as you opened your door, acknowledging there was no need to add
your name—I’d have seen it on the sign outside, but I’d have known it anyway, much as I imagine
celebrities don’t have to introduce themselves. And we’d met before, of course, but your error
comforted me: our doorway encounter had been so undistinguished that I preferred it be stricken
from the record.
Sara returned. “Your roommate’s back,” I said softly while fake reading her book about the
unjustness of the world.
She lowered her voice. “Aren’t we lucky.”
I grinned in bogus conspiracy. She had some e-mails to respond to and asked if I minded if she
took care of them before bed. “Happy to wait,” I said.
I didn’t have to wait long. You emerged from your room in a white silk bathrobe and flip-flops,
a towel over your shoulder and a toiletries basket by your side. My eyes flew a brief reconnaissance
mission over the terrain of your calves: still bronzed, the elevated plateaus of muscle sloping down
defined cliffs to the lower planes of your Achilles tendons. Elegant, lean feet, callused heels; it
looked like you’d spent a lot of time barefoot in the summer. Other guys, the philistines who
chugged domestic light beer, might have salivated over the body parts your robe concealed, but I
was a connoisseur of your peripheral qualities, an oenophile who sussed out your fruity bouquets
and spicy notes.
“Hey,” you said to Sara on your way out.
“Hey,” Sara said, eyes on her laptop screen.
The next twenty minutes felt like days, my imagination rioting with you in the shower. You
came back enrobed and glistening, your hair wrapped in the towel. The robe was monogrammed
with a stitched, proud wound of VMW over your heart. As you opened the door to your room, an
air current caught the tip of the lightweight belt, which fluttered up as if of its own accord.
A hair dryer rumbled in your room. Going out to parts unknown. Worse, you knew precisely
what I was doing: tragically staring at a Marxist tome with your bookish roommate. I’d given myself
more opportunity for surveillance of you, but it meant you were now privy to my own humdrum
“Night,” you said as you left.
Sara nodded in your direction. “See ya,” I called to your back.
Sara asked if I was ready for bed. I put down the book, waited for her to turn off the lights, and
stripped to my boxers and T-shirt.
Once again we lay side by side until, eventually, I kissed and mounted her. It looked like it was
going to be the same restrained tussle as before, but tonight I was more driven. I thought of you—
in your robe, in the shower—as I rammed against Sara’s dreary gray shorts. This time I succeeded
in lifting the RAISE OHIO’S MINIMUM WAGE NOW! shirt. Her breasts were, to my untrained cupping,
perfectly adequate. I pulled off my shirt, hoping my own nudity would induce her to shed
additional layers. It didn’t.
“Hold on,” Sara said. She fumbled over her bedside table and her hand came back with a plastic
pump dispenser she p…
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