Losing a Chair
I had left Pforzheimer House early on the morning that I would learn my time at Harvard had ended. The day was cleared for writing, and my biggest concern was grabbing my favorite seat at Starbucks. Most of my college papers were written from that chair, positioned with easy access to an outlet at a table by a floor-to-ceiling window. This chair was in high demand, especially among the early-morning regulars, and was usually claimed by dawn. I made things difficult my sophomore year, when I convinced myself that I was capable of writing only in that exact spot. Luckily, my chair was still open when I made it inside. I settled in with my coffee and opened up my laptop. Then came the email: “Harvard College students will be required to move out of their Houses and First-Year dorms as soon as possible and no later than Sunday, March 15 at 5:00pm.” We had five days to say goodbye to what had become home over the past four years.
When I think about what has been lost in the past couple of weeks, I start with that chair. It is easy to wrap my head around. One should never become too attached to the interior design of a chain café, which is as subject to corporate whims as it is to pandemics. The other losses are much harder to comprehend. I think of Elizabeth Bishop’s villanelle “One Art,” where the speaker first masters the art of losing keys, then losing cities, then losing someone she loved. The work of mourning must start with the small things.
The loss of a campus is, of course, far less important than the lives that social distancing will save. It feels a bit ridiculous to complain about the loss of my senior year when social life around the globe is collapsing. But I can’t help but think of the months I had expected to spend with my friends, who are now scattered across the world. I can’t help but grieve for the relationships that could have been, the people who were on the margins of my life whom I hoped to get to know better before our short time together came to an end. What will it mean to end our time on this campus with no closure, no time to reflect on what it all meant? And then, like a defense mechanism, my mind shrinks back down to that chair. I can lose a chair.
After the email came, I went back to my dorm to process the news with my roommates. There wasn’t much to say—or, there was too much to say and we didn’t know where to begin. We had all grown so much together in the past few years. Frank had come out of the closet, transforming before our eyes from a nervous kid, distrustful of his own emotions and talents, into a self-assured adult who had thrown himself into the work he was meant to do. Teddy had spent years wrestling with what it meant to be a good person, and we watched him inspire dozens of younger students as he led campaigns and lived his way towards an answer. Adam taught us all how to be a good friend, to never lose focus on the lives of those around us. He showed it in such a quiet way. The room would just be mopped. His door would be cracked, and he would be ready to listen. But it was too soon, and I wasn’t ready to think about saying goodbye.
So the first thing I cried about was the loss of our room, which can only be described as an open office in the style of Animal House. In preparation for midterms and thesis deadlines, we had requisitioned a beer pong table and transformed it into a shared desk, so that we could all study together in the common room. Benefits included shared access to an illicit vanilla-scented candle and bottomless supplies of tea. My girlfriend had camped out at the table to finish up her senior thesis, which was due the next day. But there is nothing like a disaster to put academic work in perspective. Papers and classes were quickly abandoned. We all instantly adjusted to the people around us, all of us dedicated to making the most of the unexpectedly short time we had left together.
“If something is remembered,” writes the poet Kay Ryan, “it has been selected by the mind out of an almost infinite pool of things that might have been remembered but weren’t.” Why we remember what we do is a mystery, outside our conscious control. Memories are more like dreams, Ryan writes, a gift from someone who is not entirely like the self.
As an antidote for my feelings of powerlessness, I have been hoarding every detail of my senior year. The memories I was given are too precious to leave to a character as unreliable as my unconscious. In my past week of isolation at home, I have been writing down as much as I can of our final days together: the spring formal dresses and suits broken out early for senior photos, the friends who finally told their crushes how they felt, the last conversations about nothing in particular which stretched late into the night. I want to be able to reconstruct everything in my mind, as if we never had to leave. Everything seems too precious to lose. I think back to our room, to how it was decorated. I write down everything, including our infestation of acrobatic mice, one of which I witnessed brazenly hopping up our staircase. I can’t even bear to forget that Starbucks chair.
Of course, these memories will all soon turn to Swiss cheese. The art of losing starts with the small things, as Bishop says, the inconsequential objects we can bear to part with. So too does the art of forgetting. But I will never lose the greatest gifts of our final days together. It is a rare thing, to wake up to the world around you and see with new eyes how lucky you are. I think of our last night, which we spent dancing to our favorite music with no concern for the moving boxes that were still empty. There was nothing left to say.