I learned several valuable things about myself within the first month of college, all of which would have stunned my high school self into silence: First, I was not nearly as introverted as I had assumed. Second, I didn’t like science nearly as much as I had thought. And third, I really, really liked parties.
I have never been and likely never will be a “party girl” — a collegiate socialite with lots of appearances to make at places with lists and bouncers. Throughout my adolescence, I constructed my identity as a girl who read, and in my mind, she was the opposite of a girl who attended parties. However, after starting college I quickly learned that paralyzingly awkward, mind-numbing small talk became tolerable, even hilarious, when I was holding a red plastic cup as a prop — and that being “a girl who read” occasionally came in handy when small talk became an intellectual pissing contest.
My overwhelming need to make people laugh, which had buoyed me through high school, became indispensable when going to parties. As the night progressed, I would crack jokes at my own expense and tell stories about myself as though I were absent from the room. In this case, I could blame the alcohol or atmosphere, or let the Solo cup fill any awkward silences. Such well-intentioned posturing was like wearing a wetsuit: I could enjoy myself without feeling entirely vulnerable; I could swim without catching cold.
I’ve found that parties abide by the same rule of self-consciousness as group fitness classes: everyone else is far too worried about themselves to actually care what you’re doing. People notice, but not enough for it to matter, so I dance and flirt and attempt to sound cool and standoffish and fail miserably and greet someone too enthusiastically and yell and most of the time, whatever I say or do will be forgiven or forgotten the next morning. At parties, I’m playing dress-up as a version of myself — same sense of humor, same ability to name-drop New Yorker staff writers, same willingness to embarrass myself, but freed by the dynamics of the room and the plausible deniability of the fact that anything I say is just something I said at a party.
Best of all, I can watch everyone doing exactly the same thing, and revel in the sheer force of dozens of college students doing their best to look like they’re having fun, while still having a little fun in spite of themselves.
As one might hope, the shape of the college parties I attended changed as I got older. The dorm rooms became marginally larger, and the spaces grew more familiar. I stopped crashing people’s birthday parties (though in my defense, that only happened once). Alcohol became easier to procure, and we drank it less furtively. And the sweaty, densely packed dorm rooms and basements lost some luster; I became a little washed-up, a little tired, a little sick of elbowing people while dancing.
A college party is only a college party, at the end of the day. But amidst the sweat and the plastic bottles of alcohol there is joyful coincidence: a perfect song I’d forgotten I knew every word to, a yelled conversation about unfinished homework with that kid from my poetry seminar, a shrill and warm-hearted greeting from the girl I kind of know and only ever see in places like this. By senior year, I know who I want to see on a Friday night, and I hardly have to leave my building to do so — going out means entering a universe only slightly parallel to daily life, where party norms play out on a smaller scale and the “most fun versions of ourselves” are nearly identical to our actual selves.
Hosting a party, however, offers all this and a bonus: control. I curate the playlist; I bartend, and thus see everyone in attendance; and best of all, I have the ever-present excuse of Having To Go Deal With Something, whether that something is pouring shots of tequila or saving a friend from a terrible conversation. The practicalities of my party-dominion are less important than the fact that hosting is the best social crutch of all, offering me a sense of control over ultimately uncontrollable social interactions.
I hadn’t realized how much value I place on hosting parties until last year, when I caught wind of the fact that my then-boyfriend intended to throw me a surprise birthday party. I talked him down to a celebratory dinner with the “I’m really not a big birthday person” line, but on a visceral level, I did not want someone else throwing me a birthday party. The beauty of any mediocre college party is that I’m anonymous, just one of many people trying to have fun in a similar way. If I am to be the ostensible focal point of a party, I must be in control of the party. Otherwise, I’m exposed — no wetsuit, no bar to tend, and no conveniently timed situations to deal with.
A little under a year later, I submitted my senior thesis on a startlingly sunny Monday in March, drank champagne in the English department building, and resolutely tried to convince my friends to stop talking about coronavirus. This proved futile and exhausting, so I eventually decamped to eat cake in bed before collapsing into sleep. My roommate later joked that Monday was like the last nice day you spend with your aging dog before putting it to sleep: I got all my favorite treats, saw all my favorite people, and even had a romp around the Yard.
The following morning, Harvard students received notification that we would have to leave campus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I had woken up, checked my phone, burst into tears, and started my period all before I could even hug my roommates.
My friends and I began drinking around noon, if not earlier. It was almost comforting to see other groups of students at the bar drinking their lunch: They also had no idea what to do, but they sure as hell weren’t going to class. There were not yet any confirmed cases of the virus on campus, and it seemed as though many students, myself included, had skimmed the announcement email in shock without absorbing its weight. As evidenced by that day, the gut instinct of many college students, when confronted with shocking upheaval, is binge drinking. This is a bad idea in normal circumstances, and surely a worse plan amidst a pandemic, but it was the only course of action that made any sense. It felt strange and hollow to go to class, and sitting at home crying with my friends seemed bleak. Famously, alcohol numbs emotions, and I was crushingly sad. I didn’t necessarily want to go to a party, but I wanted to embrace the fact that I was a Harvard student with only five days left on campus in the least depressing, most mindless way possible: hence, day drinking.
The kind of drinking that happened on Tuesday was, to my understanding, what happens during Senior Week. Normally, though, that drinking is spread out over an entire week (a month, even!), and the whole ordeal is less haunted by the specter of death. I was bewildered whenever I saw anyone dressed as though they were attending a party — a normal, springtime party, in celebration of something normal and inconsequential. Around 6 p.m. on Tuesday, I began sobbing on a rooftop bar, behind oversized sunglasses I had worn in anticipation of this scenario. I didn’t need a drink in my hand to feel comfortable; I needed people to look away while I cried, and maybe tissues. At that point, I realized that this was not a blowout bash, but rather the start of bizarre funerary rites for my college career.
The parties that happened in those last five days were like corrupted versions of normal college parties. They were necessarily more debaucherous than usual, but more than that, the regular components of a party now felt discordant. The people, locations, and drinks were all the same. But as partying mutated into a four-day-long hangover, there was no distinction between a party and daily life. People spoke bluntly in a mimicry of normal, tipsy party behavior, but now they did so because nothing seemed to matter. If a conversation turned awkward or if flirtation was poorly received, there was no need to blame it on the alcohol or the atmosphere — no one would see each other for months, or maybe ever again.
By Friday, we had stopped drinking ourselves into the ground. Our hangovers subsided but anxious aches and nausea remained, making any attempts at revelry unappealing. For the first twelve hours following the announcement, I had tried to forget the fact that we were vacating campus due to a pandemic — the fact that I had to leave campus at all felt like too much to comprehend. Social distancing was still an unfamiliar phrase, at least for a day or two. But news developed quickly, and we sobered quickly. By Wednesday evening, the prospect of a massive party felt more frightening than fun, though people still went out. By Thursday, we were worrying about infecting our families. Still, my closest friends and I hung on to each other like puppies, assuming that if one of us had been infected, we were all already infected. Our logic may have been flawed and was surely selfish, but I couldn’t imagine not clinging to them, tight grips on each other’s hands and shoulders like we were leading each other across a crowded dance floor.
Early on, my roommates and I had decided to throw a party on Thursday to blow through our excess alcohol, but that plan was quickly forgotten. Instead, on Thursday I brought an offering to my sophomore friend’s room: two just-opened bottles of liquor. My underclassmen friends, while resoundingly sad, were largely partying through the end with the knowledge that they would return to campus — to normalcy. I planned to move across the ocean in six months. If these were going to be my last moments of college, it seemed like I should try to remember them.
In the chaos of the week, I had almost forgotten that my 22nd birthday was on Saturday. Before the world exploded, I had clearly envisioned the birthday party I would throw after spring break. I would use my newfound free time to buy snacks and drinks and maybe bake a cake, curate a playlist, and convince all the people I liked most on campus to dance and gossip and drink with me for a few hours. In this alternate, normal universe, I would assuredly celebrate my actual birthday with friends before we all left for our respective spring breaks. In this actual universe, I was vacating my dorm instead of leaving for break on Saturday, but dinner at a bar on my birthday-eve was still feasible.
If I were to rank my birthday parties by the level of control I had over the situation, my 22nd would not be at the bottom of the list, surprisingly. I played at normalcy: the usual group of people, the usual bar, the usual drinks. The sense of control I relish at parties, though, requires predictability and established social norms. Any comforting predictability had dissolved over the past four days, even at a dinner of friends — a party only by the loosest definitions.
No one could focus on one conversation, much less the four simultaneous conversations that normally criss-crossed our table. I hardly touched my food, and the optimistic two pitchers of beer punch we’d ordered now seemed foolish. At one point, “Free Fallin’” by Tom Petty began to play. I was reminded of my mom (who is alive, just very kind) and Tom Petty (dead and beloved by my mom) and also, probably, of the fact that I had felt as though I was “free fallin’” for four days straight and I burst into tears. I can’t remember how my friends reacted, but I can only assume they felt similarly in the moment.
I hadn’t stopped going to parties that week because they were no longer fun, though that was true. I had gone, in the first place, to surround myself with people while it felt like Harvard was dissolving around me. I quickly realized which people I actually wanted to see, and I knew where to find them. While the idea of a party had lost all meaning, I still went with my friends to the bar for my birthday — an attempt at normalcy, maybe a desire to drink, but mostly, I just wanted to be around people. It didn’t matter where we were anymore.
I decided, somewhere between Tom Petty and the dregs of my drink, that all I wanted for my birthday was for the ten of us to scream in the middle of the Quad Lawn. The weather had progressively gotten colder that week, so I was shivering on the brief walk back but grateful to feel my body. We arranged ourselves in a close circle, leaving a small gap between each person. I felt twitchy and tense. Someone must have counted to three, and we screamed: ugly, horror movie shrieks and guttural cries of frustration mutating into almost-joyous release. Later, my roommate mentioned that she had felt panicky and weird all throughout dinner. “It was either the fresh air or the scream, but I feel better,” she said. In the moment after the scream, I felt the best I had felt in days.
— Norah M. Murphy was the Magazine Chair of the 146th Guard. You could try to reach her at email@example.com, but at this point it’s probably too late. Follow her on Twitter @norah_murph.