The Long Goodbye

On a rainy summer’s night in New York City, a month after graduation, a group of my college friends meet for dinner. We are currently undergoing a period of profound personal change: relocating our lives, moving into apartments, starting new jobs, forging new relationships. Yet for all this “newness,” our conversation invariably turns to that which remains fondly familiar. College, or at least topics related to it, still dominates the discussion: the boys who lived upstairs our senior year and how they are enjoying their European jaunt; summers spent in the Square compared to our current stint in the big city; news from friends beginning or about to begin their training as teachers, doctors, lawyers, professionals.

Tonight, however, the conversation takes a new, more introspective, turn: we begin talking about what we miss about Harvard. Perhaps prompted by this particular restaurant’s exorbitantly high prices, the dining hall and long lunches spent lingering over unlimited supplies of piping-hot popcorn chicken rank high on the list. “I’m so sick of eating cereal for dinner,” moans one particularly domestically deficient friend who, like me, has yet to master the finer points of preparing pasta. There are other seemingly mundane fixtures of college life we could never have imagined missing but for which we now pine, such as school-issued furniture (setting up house has meant hours of wrestling with infuriating IKEA booklets of DIY directions, complete with cryptic pictures of stick figures assembling beds from piles of lumber with the greatest of ease), or the ability to throw on jeans and a T-shirt and call it “semi-formal,” and also the ubiquitous keg parties, invariably held in some sticky-floored, sweat-drenched Mather House dorm room.

Needless to say, there are flickering shadows of real sadness beneath the bubbly, sunny surface of our conversation. Of course there is so much more we will miss about the last four years than ready-made lunches, rickety chairs, and the occasional bout of Saturday-night rowdiness, though perhaps it’s too soon, and the memories are too freshly formed, to say exactly what we will mourn the most. What is already apparent from our discussion is how differently my dining companions look back on their four years together.

“I miss being able to plan my own schedule,” offers a friend working 12-hour days at an architectural firm. “A productive day at school meant finally doing my laundry.” This kind of languid, semi-somnolent existence—sleeping in, taking breakfast at 11, spending the afternoon mustering the energy to return an errant library book to Lamont—conjures a vision of Harvard as a kind of Club Med of the Northeast that another friend, a Phi Beta Kappa academic superstar, cannot relate to his own disciplined, rigorous, undergraduate experience. “I didn’t relax too much these last four years,” he says, from which we can only presume he was too busy imbibing new languages and great tomes of political philosophy to bother with his beauty sleep. When a third friend pipes up with the by now well-established doctrine of college as a time in which one learns “just how differ­ent people can be in interests, values, and beliefs,” another responds with exactly the opposite sentiment. “I met so many people from so many different walks of life who are fundamentally so similar and all share the same basic values of loyalty, trust, and learning from one another,” she says. “Plus, we’re all fundamentally dorks at heart.”

The conversation stretches on, opening out to still more intimate matters. We discuss our regrets—none of which involve studying more for Core class midterms, an alarming number of which involve the sending of ill-advised e-mails to unrequited loves—through dessert and the qua∞ng of decaf lattes (work tomorrow precludes something stronger). Walking home from dinner with map in hand, still trying to learn the shape of these strange streets, I wonder why we’ve never plumbed that particular reservoir of sadness with each other before. Although college still looms large in our every discussion, tonight’s dinner represents the first time we have talked openly and explicitly about our sense of loss at leaving. 

Perhaps, I speculate, this is because we are all trying to be terribly grown-up with one another, desperate to prove a fundamental detachment from what has come before when we are still not quite ready to cut the proverbial apron strings. When I finally arrive home, it is more than a little unsettling to realize there is no problem set to muddle through, no impending task that I can berate myself for postponing, no need to embark on that self-flagellating, secretly satisfying form of academic penance known in the business as an “all-nighter.” There is, in fact, nothing to do at all but potter vacantly around my brand-new home, feeling for all the world as if I am five and have doused myself in my mother’s perfume and slipped into her high heels for a game of dress-ups.

The apartment, all granite countertops and bare walls (extensive polling has indicated that “posters are so college”), is furnished for a lifestyle I cannot yet fully imagine. It also comes with responsibilities I have not yet learned how to manage: “utility bill” has replaced “10-page paper” as the phrase most likely to strike fear into my heart. Truth be told, I feel phony, as if I am playing at adulthood, and I suspect my peers feel much the same way.

I wonder if another reason why we haven’t talked about our sadness before tonight is simply that the last few weeks of school left so little space to register the enormity of how our lives were changing. Between the influx of parents, the infamous “booze cruise” on Boston Harbor, the optimistically named Last Chance Dance, and that most Harvardian of social events—a black tie, Great Gatsby-esque formal event known as the Senior Soirée—there was very little time to do anything other than pass the Advil and nurse sore heads.

In retrospect, I can’t help thinking that the institutionalized long goodbye actually seemed engineered to stamp out sentimentality, rather than encourage it. Hell-raising, not navel-gazing, was the order of the day. “I just want to graduate, already!became a common catch phrase among even the most attached and emotive seniors. Graduands began the process of moving out, boxes in hand, bleary-, not teary-eyed. The night before my own grad-uation, while some brave classmates gathered remaining reserves of energy to climb up on the roof of Adams House to look out on Cambridge and make a final celebratory toast, I found myself collapsing into bed a few minutes after nine o’clock, unable even to muster the requisite strength to say goodbye to the people I had seen every day at breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three years.

I should have known it would be this way. Wizened alums had warned that Senior Week was a lot like Freshman Week, but in reverse, charged with all the terrible awkwardness and anxiety of what was to come. “It will all end before you know it,” they had proclaimed with a certain world-weariness. “You won’t even have time to say goodbye.” And indeed, the dying days of senior year were far too frenetic and activity-packed to allow any time at all for reflection—but perhaps that’s precisely the point. What good would wallowing in nostalgia do, really?

As for post-college life, I’ve certainly been forced to make a closer acquaintance of my alarm clock than I would like, but for the most part, this new existence has involved continuity and change in just the right dosage. I have a feeling those aspects of the college experience that I will miss the most will not announce their absence with pomp and ceremony, but rather reveal themselves slowly over time. For now, I’m content to store away the sentimentality for another rainy day.

Berta Greenwald Ledecky Undergraduate Fellow Amelia E. Lester ’05, of Sydney, Australia, is working at a literary agency in New York. She resolves to stop spending her paychecks on shoes and to learn how to cook very soon.

Read more articles by: Amelia E. Lester
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