Harvard Square A Novel - By Andre Aciman


I’d never heard my son say anything like this in all the weeks we’d been visiting colleges together. We’d seen three universities in the Midwest, then stopped at liberal arts colleges in New England, Pennsylvania, and New York. Now, on the last leg of our summer college tour, in that corner of Massachusetts I had known so well, my son had either reached the limits of his endurance or simply lost his nerve.

“I don’t want to be here,” he said. I told him that leaving was not an option. “Of course it is,” he replied. To avoid being overheard by the families assembled around us in the Office of Admissions, I lowered my voice and told him that leaving before the welcoming speech was totally inappropriate. But he nixed that argument with an equally terse and snappy “Let’s just split.” The wood-paneled room with the thick carpeting was filling up with more visitors. “Like now,” he hissed, almost threatening to raise his voice.

“I don’t get it,” I whispered. “The best university in the world, and all you want is to leave. Seriously?”

But arguing wasn’t going to work. Besides, he must have sensed, just by looking at me, that I wasn’t going to put up a fight. Perhaps I too was tired and had had my fill of these guided college tours. He didn’t wait for me to yield. He stood up and picked up his large brochure and baseball cap. I was forced to stand up as well, if only to avoid looking awkwardly at odds with him in front of the others. Then, before I knew it, the two of us were discreetly making our way out of the admissions office. Almost immediately, our seats were taken by another father and son.

In the vestibule, where more parents had gathered before entering the hall, we heard a member of the admissions staff announce, with a slight, informal giggle in her voice, probably meant to sound kind and reassuring, that following a few words of introduction, she and her colleagues were going to walk us over to such-and-such a place, then to that other place, then head over to yet another spot where we’d all stop at the so-and-so memorial to get a breathtaking panoramic view of yet another Harvard favorite. I recognized at once the slightly smug lilt with which she delivered an itinerary that couldn’t have been more thoroughly planned but that wished to convey we were all in for improvised good fun in an otherwise routine trundle through yet another college campus.

As we walked out, more parents with prospective applicants were still filing in, headed to the staff desk, then directly to the assembly hall.

Outside, on the patio, we inhaled a breath of early morning air. I recognized the incipient pall that heralds a typical muggy summer day in Boston.

I could tell my son felt uneasy. He had run into a familiar face on the patio. The two had tried to avoid each other. When they couldn’t, the other hastily grunted what must have passed for a cordial greeting among students from rival schools. At least that young man knows the rules, I thought. There was contention and muted feuding in the air, and for everyone, parents and children alike, the choices couldn’t have been clearer: either play the game or fold.

We left the building and were cutting through Radcliffe on our way to the river. I wanted to ask why the sudden change of heart, why the itch to leave. But I thought better than to raise the matter quite yet. The tension underscoring the silence between us was palpable enough and couldn’t be dispelled. Then, and almost by way of an explanation that was also trying to pass for an apology, he hesitated a moment and finally said, “I’m so not into this.”

I didn’t know what this meant. Did it mean college tours, college towns, college admission officers, colleges, period? Or was he referring to college visitors who’d been deftly showcasing their children with both awe and muffled pride, each vying not to look too eager or too diffident or too summery to be taken seriously by the admissions staff? Or did he mean Harvard in particular? Or—and this suddenly scared me—was what really irked him most the thought of being asked to like the school because I had?

We had arrived a day earlier and had already visited many corners of Harvard: the Radcliffe Houses, the River Houses, then I’d taken him up the