Early in my freshman year, saying no to any social obligation feels like I am denying myself a friend. I give my number out to dozens of people I will never speak to again. I go out on nights where I would rather fall face-first into my bed. I recite the names of everyone I’ve met that day before going to sleep. I try to know everyone who cares to know me.
My birthday is early in November, and I throw a crêpe-party for all the people with whom I am now Facebook-friends. I do not know how to make crêpes. I turn nineteen sweating over a pan. My long-time bridge-year-given friend Emma rescues me from the stove.
There are maybe twenty people crammed in the Baker Hall kitchen. Some of them have met; most have not. I am playing music on my computer because I have no speakers. No one eats the crêpes.
I spend the night alone cleaning up flour from the countertop.
A sophomore friend texts me to hang out. I say yes, because I don’t yet know that it’s ok to be busy. I put away my problem set, resolved to finish it late into the night.
I run out of my room in my shower shoes, and meet him by the Bloomberg arch. We walk along Poe field, and the wet grass slips in between my toes.
At the foot of Icahn Lab, he asks me to climb it with him.
He shows me the two-story louvers that line the walkway along Icahn, and tells me that they cast double-helix shadows, like DNA. At the top, he says you can hoist yourself onto the roof.
I run a hand along the length of a column. There are little rungs carved out in the panels. They are slanted diagonally, but it could be done.
I look up at the height of the building. I look through the glass panel at the empty atrium, lit up from within. I look down at my rubber flip-flops and my grass-covered toes.
I say no.
The end of my first-year at Princeton is tinged with insecurity – it’s like a sepia wash of discomfort, and it hurts my heart to remember it. I worry about my friends, about the boys who text me, about the boys who don’t, about whether to-rush-or-not-to-rush, about how much I care.
As an antidote to my private anxiety, I collect rumors of secret societies: of the society whose sole purpose is to take care of a cat, of the society of religious fundamentalists, of the not-so-secret St. As.
Among these, I hear of the climbing society. Someone Snapchats me the picture of a pair of legs, disappearing over a building. There are stories of notes left in cubbyholes, between books in Firestone, behind bricks in walls.
I text the first friend who took me to Icahn. He is receptive at first, but ignores my texts as they become more probing. He acknowledges that there is such a thing – he claims that he is not a member – he will tell me nothing more.
Fast-forward to junior year.
I am locked out of my single for the third time this September. Fuck. The window’s open, and it’s on the first floor, and I don’t want to get fined, and maybe-just-maybe I can climb onto the ledge, hold on to the vines, latch onto the window-sill, pull myself through.
I am deliberating this when Icahn friend, whom I had just been speaking to, comes to mind.
Out of the kindness of his heart, he meets me outside my window. He gives me his phone and prox to hold, and a minute later, he’s standing inside my room.
On Friday night at 1:36am, Icahn friend texts me, “where you go?”
It takes me a few attempts before I can answer “home!!!” but the rest of that conversation is fairly civilized. He asks me if I’m going to sleep.
Brazenly, drunkenly, I answer “lol why, you got buildings to climb?”
I drag myself out of bed and put my shoes back on. On my way out, I run into my club’s Safety contingent and loudly announce my plans to scale a building. They say, “don’t jump.”
I have promised Icahn friend I won’t release compromising information. I can’t say which building we climbed, or where it is on campus, or how we got there. I can’t tell you his name, what he looks like, or how I know him.
Of the secret society, I know very little, so my silence is no big loss.
Icahn friend and I walk along the flat top, peering down at the sleepy campus. It’s bright, even at night, and I can make out the land’s topology from here.
Most people are home by now. There is no noise at this time of night, or if there is, it is covered by the whistling of the vents.
The analogy I want to make is of freedom and of heights. On that Friday night, my hair is tangled in the wind, my legs are dangling off a roof, and there is no wash of insecurity. On that Friday night, edging into the second half of my time at Princeton, I don’t worry like I have in the past. I tell my friend I am here for research, but the truth is I don’t care.
On that Friday night, I remember to look up at the sky.