This Thing We Did
Editor’s note: On the eve of Commencement, former Ledecky Fellow Noah Pisner ’14 recalls his last night at the College.
We spend the evening after graduation in the Mac Quad: ill, inebriated, nerves webbing up our throats, incapacitated by a sense of longing only appropriate for this type of ending. Mom’s at the Doubletree. She is bringing the sedan around at 9 a.m.
The field is glazy, dark, but we know it by heart: the river just out of sight, a picnic table off to the side. Everyone is here: linkmates, teammates, that afterthought-of-a-girl I saw this morning, wowing in black. On the adjacent sidewalk, men in coveralls are stationed by with bags, to be filled with the mess we will leave behind. They expect the mess, I realize.
We are talking:
“You’ll visit me in San Fran, right?” “At least we’ll start work soon.” “This morning I was a magna cum laude Harvard graduate, now I’m an unemployed alcoholic.” “The Club? Dude, the Club?” “My maid of honor!” “You want the rest of this? I’ve been saving this cigar, but now I’m trying to quit. It’s bad for you.” “I think I should’ve applied to grad school this round—food and shelter provided gratis.” “I wish we were all just getting drafted to go fight, y’know?” “I thought, by now, I’d like Brussels sprouts or something.” “Is it like high school? Do us plain-lookers get another shot at blossoming when we ?” “You’re going back to your wealthy family, and I’m going back to my not-so-wealthy family.” “I don’t want to get hung over, there’s already going to be too much happening.” “I guess what I’m picturing is myself failing to get what I want most, and then succeeding to get what I want second-most.” “Rendezvous in Prague?” “So much will change, but in my imagination it looks so still.” “Send me the poems you publish.” “Sorry, he already left.” “Luck! Good luck!”
It feels at once artificial and authentic, like a bad actor reading a heartfelt monologue.
“Next year where will I find you, again?”
It is May 2014; the dogwood is out in Massachusetts, and the lilac. More than once this week I have been asked if I am OK: “Are you weary?” I’m OK, and why not? I have my own unbroken bottle of prosecco, see? It is important to note that it is, in fact, an unbroken bottle of prosecco and not, as it were, a broken bottle of champagne. It was an instance of the latter that resulted in our early expulsion from the steps of Widener Library, where seniors gather on their last night (though I hear that has only been a tradition for the last few years). We tried to keep it going, but the Harvard University Police Department sent us away. So I shouted “Mac Quad!” and it looks like everyone has shown up.
I am embraced in series, brought close to body after body in the rhythm of two Little League teams slapping hands at the end of play: good game good game good game. Up next is the rower from my entryway, about to drop the name of his new company again. And here’s L—, who is off to Cambridge next year: so long, L—! I mingle and diffract, browsing the crowd as though it’s a stack of books I’m sorting through, deciding which to give away, which to keep. Do I spend this time with those I know I’ll keep in touch with? Or do I spend it with those I likely won’t make an effort to see again?
I see a guy from The Advocate I know. “Noah Noah Noah, thank shit I found you in this crowd!” he says. I’m glad too, though it has not occurred to me that I would want to say goodbye to him; it has not occurred to me that I may not remember to miss someone. Who else am I forgetting? In my head, I craft a list. First, there is C—, whom I find posed alone beneath the lamppost. He is clutching the neck of a full Corona.
“Everyone is talking about weddings,” I say, “about being part of each other’s lives indefinitely. We are kidding ourselves. My cousin just got married. He’s 28. Do you know how many college friends he had at his wedding? Just one.”
“I just can’t picture not staying close to you guys,” C— replies.
“It’ll happen, man. I hope not, but I
think it will,” I say, truthfully, insensitively. When he doesn’t answer, I add,
“It’s not so bad as that,” and step back. “I’ve been thinking about how next
time we see each other we can say we are old
friends. We couldn’t say it before—old
friends—because we were together in the setting in which we got to know each
other. It was newness on top of newness. But now, we’re going off, and one day
you’ll come through my town, and we’ll review our years apart over a late dinner,
and the maître d'—because we’ll be very rich and go to places that have maître
d's—will take our picture, and he will sense some ancient rapport between us, these
inside jokes. And he’ll say something like, you guys must go way back, and I’ll
explain that this is C—, my old friend.”
I silently offer C— some prosecco, but he’s good with the beer that he isn’t drinking. He says, “Bastard, you’ve made me cry.”
We are in love, all of us. It is disgusting how much we love each other.
The rest of the night is a like any other night from this past year, but endlessly heavier. We wander: odd lights—water sliding down pedestal, wavering—steps—wood, strutting pianos—languorous dead air—teary eyes on corners, in doorways—innumerable touches—decommissioned soda fountains—eight ball side pocket—confusing white straws for cigarettes—joy in bits—finding grass, the dew sweating up—a Boston accent: “She is an exquisite girl,” “exquisite umbrella”—violin strikes up—find me at the benches—tyranny of the present minute—
When I eventually find myself alone, I track down my heart in my unfurnished common room, where I also find my roommates, sitting cross-legged on the floor. They are determined to stay up, to buck tomorrow by keeping awake all night. They have packed sheets in solidarity. I join. No sleep! We drink more, talk about jobs in “En-Why-See.” We are oblivious to what a 70-hour/80-hour/90-hour workweek actually is, to the fact that there is only enough time between work and bed to say “fuck this,” to the reality that we will no longer know what to say to kids.
We have an inkling of these things, but no one wants to spoil the moment.
I calculate that in 15 years every cell in our bodies will have been replaced ex novo, twice over. We’ll be new people. We’ll travel, settle, move on, stay put, go. That year, 2029, the Alumni Association will request short autobiographical entries for a leather-bound book to be distributed at the reunion, that reflect our worldly successes—things achieved, children had, spouses found and unfound. The thought is startling.
We play a drinking game, one last one. Someone tells a story from college, real or made-up, and we have to guess right or take a swig. It is surprisingly difficult.
H— tells us about the last thing he learned in a course, about the evolution of flight, wings and their primal construction: a means for the theropod to balance upright as its talons dismember the smaller life.
“I wonder at what it must have been like,” he says. “The day this balancing act pulled the creature afloat.”
“Don’t say,” I say. “I’d rather just believe you.”
It is late. I have promised not to sleep, no matter how incoherent I get, but the floor is hard and lights are distant. We have stretched our night to its most translucent state already. We slip away to the privacy of our rooms, one by one.
I don’t have the option to give in quite yet, though. Mom’ll be by at 9 a.m., and I have done one of those self-denial packing jobs, where nothing is put in boxes, but simply organized in drawers so things can more easily be put into boxes when the time comes.
In the hours before sunup I pack, stopping, as one does, to recollect the origin of each item. Into the box goes the trusty fan, the pea coat I bought my first Thanksgiving break, a scroll of paper towels we had painted one night, an unread copy of Middlemarch. The memories curve away like a gymnast’s back. Here is the backpack I ditched for a messenger bag. Here is a mug from the dining hall. And here is a photo of my little brother and me from when he first came to visit sophomore year. He was 10 years old, and he asked me to show him Harvard. He had heard so much from Mom. I gave him a tour—That’s Dunster, that’s the Yard, that’s a student, that’s—
He cut in, “OK, but where is Harvard? Y’know, HARVARD.”
“It’s all around us, you’ve been walking through it.”
At first I didn’t get it, but then I understood: what he wanted was a synecdoche, some souvenir-site, something he could photograph and, then, back home, point to for a friend and say, “See? Harvard, where my brother goes.”
So I took him to Widener Library, and a woman took this photo of us there, and I explained to him just how many books are in the building, how it was books all the way down. I said if any place was Harvard, this was it.
Impressed, he asked, “So you go in there a lot?”
“Almost never,” I said.
If only my brother had been by my side tonight, and seen the 1,600 of us, displaced from the steps of ye olde library to this field, where pickup Frisbee games sometimes happen. If only he had heard us talking tonight, bashfully at first, and then later, all boldly. Funny, I am reminiscing about the evening already. I wish I could have put it in formaldehyde—to keep the flesh on. Maybe it would still feel alive. Instead it feels far and cold, like a piece of shale at the bottom of a canyon—or warm and near, like the magnolia below my window. Only, it’s not my window anymore. Outside, men in coveralls are filling bags.
I pack the photo on top of my sheets so it feels safe. It is late. It is so early.
I lie down on a bare mattress.
If only my little brother had been with me tonight, I could’ve turned him by the shoulder and showed him: “Look, look: how lovely it is, this thing we did.”