How to Disappear
Reflections on an NSOP made of solitude and cookie dough.
By Will Lyman
Friends of mine recall their first few weeks at Columbia in a series of crime-drama clichés: Where were you the night of August 27? Why is your penis on a dead girl’s phone? Was it Miss Peacock in the billiard room with the candlestick? Or they recount as an amnesiac would describe a traumatic car crash: All I remember is that “Good As Hell” was playing and everything was red.
Memories of orientation exist in these half-statements, in these mysteries of where was I? or why was I wearing that? My younger self feels foreign and confused, and when I think of NSOP, I am convinced that the twink in short shorts and Air Force 1s was not and could not have been me. This sort of retrospective NSOP cringing feels pretty universal, as we are all different people than we were even a few years ago. I, for one, feel that I’m in a constant state of reinvention—where I can completely grow and transform after an eventful trip to the grocery store. Yet, my NSOP amnesia is not a result of the week’s fun moments—chugging mystery vodka in a Carman suite or a moment of love-at-first-sight reaching for the same chicken burger at the JJ’s hot bar—but is a symptom of the plain truth that NSOP wasn’t for me.
I spent the majority of the week locked in my John Jay single, watching the world from the window. I felt it was just too dangerous to go into the hall, to the lounge, or to the dining hall—for fear I would run into people who would make me feel seen. I’m terrible at hiding my distaste for certain people, and so I often chose my own company over that of people I simply didn’t like. I felt that every connection I had either needed to bake a few years or be erased from my memory completely. When I tired of this isolation, I would walk two blocks to Morton Williams to steal cookie dough and eat it on the steps with a friend from my OL group. This, of course, was a valid activity—but it was also entirely unproductive.
My NSOP experience was significantly tainted by the fact that my closest friend from high school arrived at and dropped out of UC Boulder within 24 hours. She definitively dipped and left her roommate to pick through her closet. Part of me admired the America’s-Next-Top-Model-esque “I don’t think this is, like, right for me … I don’t want to do it” sentiment, but it was also terrifying to see that everyone I knew either landed gracefully in their new lives or collapsed under the pressure. It was even more concerning to arrive on campus in August suddenly aware of the fact that my decision not to post in the Facebook group had left me without the months of networking, coordinating, and friendship building that everyone else had done. I knew people who unpacked their bags with a pre-established friend group and designated going-out schedules. The singular conversation I had with anyone from Columbia before arriving was a three-selfie long Snapchat exchange where we both gave “weird vibes,” and the other person—who would eventually become a good friend—vowed that when they saw me on campus, “it was on sight.”
When orientation came, everyone seemed like they were miles ahead of me. I spent the first night in a Furnald lounge with COOP people who spent the time reminiscing about their recent wilderness adventure. I could not keep up. A number of my other days were spent with a boy who thought every time I wanted to hang out, I was asking him on a date. None of the people I met had a fake ID yet, so I was left to do liquor runs on my own or travel in small groups to bars, where I would sit, stir a gin and tonic, and think of home.
I would do strange, sad things like searching “how to combat loneliness” on YouTube—finding only patronizing animated self-help videos and Emma Chamberlain vlogs—or sitting in public trying to look interesting and approachable. The only relief I found was taking the train to unfamiliar parts of New York and aimlessly walking around, alone and drunk on the beauty of the new landscape.
There was no easy solution to my melodrama, as my first year segued directly into the pandemic and I didn’t get the chance to feel belonging until last year. Even now, with a community I’m deeply tied to, I still feel a distance from campus life, like I’m observing everything from another planet.
I look back with a resolute sense of annoyance on my younger self. I don’t want to offer him the cliché “put yourself out there” that is probably best suited for the situation, but I do wish to make him understand that the fear I felt in public—on the lawns, going to campus bars—was a product of my own mind. Perhaps it came from growing up in the Midwest, feeling like everyone was always watching and evaluating me, but it was a projection. When I think of that first year, and the two others since, I’m confronted by the fact that we are responsible for our own interaction with campus, with our classmates, and with New York. I only gained a sense of belonging once I recognized that I was getting in my own way.
One of the most common phrases I heard once I emerged from my self-imposed isolation was “why didn’t we know each other sooner?” All I have to offer in response is that during NSOP, I disappeared, but I’m here now.