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 my arms.
“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 bloomers here.”
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, back-patting 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 plane crash.
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 parts.
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 out.”
“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 shucked.
“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 names.
“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 faces.
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.