Few moments in recent memory have felt more liberating than the time I did away with my decade-old bowl cut one morning freshman year. Without the mushroom-like mass atop my head, I gained confidence, the same sort that brought me out to fraternity rush that spring.
Flash forward a semester of pledging, and I was a newly initiated brother. My social circle had nearly tripled, my room in the frat house for next year was finalized and, best of all, my grades remained consistent with my lofty premed ambitions.
By sophomore year, I was exposed to hundreds of partygoers, impressive athletes, and aspiring scholars each weekend. Just feel the energy on Channing Circle any Friday or Saturday night, and you’ll know what I mean. The rush and excitement of it all — crowding around the pledge-operated bar and knocking back shots of Vitali — was enough. After spending the previous year feeling trapped on an all-male floor in Unit 1, this finally felt like definitive social progress.
But mornings after, I would often forget the substance of these agreeable conversations, only to remember the pleasant smile or patterned shirt of my talkative partners. Perhaps I gained a Facebook friend or two. Even the memories of girls I brought back to the fraternity house seemed to fade, and I found myself uninterested in talking to or texting them soon after the weekend. As this bittersweet cycle continued, an increasing sense of guilt wore on me. But more importantly, I began to notice that these interactions subjected my personality to an infinite series of rearrangements and adjustments so that I eventually felt compatible with anyone. On my way to class, I could produce high-fives and smiles for any of my new friends and signal my enthusiasm to see them the next time. But this universal compatibility felt lukewarm, and I never experienced the same responsibility and care for these relationships that I had with my friends in high school.
Later that year, on my way to get a King Pin donut, I saw Katy, a girl I had met and spoken to a few times. She was alone across the fraternity courtyard, furiously scrolling on her iPhone and staring wide-eyed at the screen. As I approached her, I suddenly noticed her muted sobs and watery eyes. She had been rejected from the Haas School of Business and was repeatedly reading the unfortunate email, as if to squeeze new meaning from it. I had never witnessed tears at a frat party, and the courtyard certainly didn’t seem like a suitable place for emotional conversation, so I asked her to come to King Pin with me.
Walking down Durant Avenue, she spilled her feelings to me. Fears of failing her parents, their relentless pressure, her reputation as a student — as a human being — she let me hear it all. While I felt the rejection she was feeling, her willingness to share invigorated me. By the time we arrived at the donut shop, I could tell she had relaxed, that this catharsis was her way of coping. And as I smiled at her and nodded my head rhythmically, I began to envy her openness. I could feel my own thoughts and problems buzzing frantically somewhere inside me, waiting to escape.
Now, I wanted to share. I told her how scared I am for the future, how even as a bioengineer from UC Berkeley, I don’t feel much certainty for my post-college life. The side of me that so often lay dormant beneath my composed demeanor or praise for my academic accomplishments began to unravel. There we were, nervously shifting around on the slick Asian Ghetto benches, eager to show ourselves to one another. I noticed the way she listened, carefully watching me reach deep down and slowly let my thoughts float to the surface. The same thoughts that tortured and tensed my mind each day.
She called the next day. She wanted to talk post-rejection plans with me. I think it’s because she trusted me. With Katy, I finally felt the fulfilling sensation of deep connection, something I had only glimpsed during countless conversations on campus or the row in years prior — but something I had expected in college. I think my night with her also made me more comfortable with myself.
In my encounters with others over time, I began to notice that all sorts of vulnerabilities percolate underneath the masks people wear day to day. I wanted everyone to experience the same security and candidness I felt with Katy, and to realize that sharing these vulnerabilities isn’t so bad after all.
Contact Aaron Gupta at [email protected]