My roommates and I should have loved our big-windowed, river-view common room when we moved in sophomore year. Unfortunately, there was a major complication: noisy neighbors. Not only were they loud, but they were also, well… weird. We decided this based on the ruckus filtering through a firedoor that might as well have been cheesecloth for all the sound it kept out—a combination of shouted conversations, television soundtracks, unidentifiable scraping, and operatic arias (sung live, early in the morning). Through expert Harvard and Zuckerberg facebook stalking, we learned that the guys who shared our wall were seniors. Once, they left on a weekend night intending to “find some girls,” and returned half an hour later with no evidence of a female among them. We found that telling, and snickered about it for weeks.
I wrote an opinion piece for this newspaper soon after, pointing out how students judge disembodied voices on the other side of the firedoor without bothering to get to know the actual speakers. I had an explanation for the common habit: “What you hear when no one knows you’re listening is often as real as it gets,” and so the people you meet through the walls are more authentic than the people you’d meet if you shook their hands face-to-face. In other words, Type A Harvard undergraduates are so committed to appearing perfect that the only way to find out the truth about us is through intentional or unintentional eavesdropping.
As I was prone to do, I offered readers advice that was really directed at myself: “Instead of latching on to moments of vulnerability, realize that the urge to tear down comes from our own insecurities.” I felt guilty about poking fun at boys who I had the privilege of hearing uncensored, especially because I was afraid of what people thought who caught me during similar moments. At that time, I was determined to hide my embarrassing quirks, my insecurities, and my temper from even close friends. It seemed necessary to appear flawless—I thought that only immediate family would accept imperfections without turning tail and sprinting in the other direction.
Around Thanksgiving, I noticed that the firedoor was no longer flush with the wall. It had somehow inched out past its frame, enough that I could grab hold and pull. It opened. My roommate and I found ourselves facing two half-strangers. We stood there, shocked and staring, until they invited us in. It was like entering Narnia through the back of the wardrobe, we said at the time. Finally, we had met our “firemates.”
After I pried it open the first time, our firedoor rarely stayed closed. When my roommate cut her hand alone in our suite, a firemate ran over and rushed her to University Health Services. If any of us needed fashion advice before a party, we would throw on various outfits and parade next door to get a trusted man’s opinion. A few roommates and firemates made a habit of trudging across the river to the rink in chilly early-morning darkness to ice skate before class. Together, we mourned the death of Phoenix Firebird, a much-loved fish, at a maudlin memorial ceremony on Weeks footbridge (complete with an operatic aria, sung live). Nights would often end on the firemates’ futon, sometimes with a bottle of port, where we debriefed before heading to bed. As it turned out, the four boys were fantastic. Eccentric, yes—but also funny, generous, inspired, and warm.
As pseudo-roommates, the firemates witnessed our unglamorous moments—the very struggles, irritations, and mistakes I had planned to keep secret. And they did not run away. In fact, a roommate and firemate started dating a month before graduation. It did not matter that he already knew how she looked without makeup, covered in sweat, or wearing unflattering outfits that he vetoed as her fashion consultant. It did not matter that she had seen him right after a week-long computer coding session, during which he stayed up all night and subsisted on snacks from the Science Center vending machines. They both fell in love with real people, human beings who sometimes have greasy hair and do not manage their time well. He moved away that summer, as expected, and we assumed they would break up. Two years later, my roommate and firemate are still one of the most mature, functional couples I know—largely because, in my opinion, they began being honest with each other long before their first kiss.
I was wrong when I wrote that the only way to discover the vulnerable side of a Harvard student is through anonymity. Like it or not, you can live with someone only so long before cracks start to form in the public facade. I was also wrong to believe that these pockets of vulnerability drive others away. It is the people we are able to ask for help, the ones we sometimes tell to shut up, the few we are willing to completely break down in front of—get red and snotty and plain disgusting—that actually last. Sometimes you pick them, and sometimes they just show up next door, in the last place you would think to look.
Molly M. Strauss ’11, a former Crimson editorial chair, is a social studies concentrator in Winthrop House.