September. These are the times that try the freshman soul. Ahead looms the school year like a nine-month chemistry experiment, pregnant with uncertainty, adventure and possible explosions. The laboratory: apartments and dorm rooms at schools and colleges across the land, where the molecules of maturity form and recombine. In that seasonal scientific spirit, herewith a grab bag of roommate memories from the past 40-odd years -- meditations on past companionships, forced and voluntary, and a few tips for beating the odds. In some places names have been changed in the spirit of charity. Beating the Rules
I was invited to attend Fork Union Military Academy by Judge Hugh Reid of Arlington Juvenile Court. He didn't exactly specify Fork Union, but told my parents such a place might keep a loud-mouthed truant who spent school days in pool halls from coming to a bad end. (Actually I was spending most days at the Smithsonian, but I wasn't about to admit that.)
"It will teach him some respect for institutions," the judge said.
It did no such thing, but it did introduce me to Eddie Hurley, whose roommate I became by luck of the draw, and Eddie taught me principles of lifelong value. Eddie was a tough little guy who was always smiling, even while beating the crap out of somebody, such as me, which he did right away, just to set things straight. "A smile don't cost you nothing," he said, "and anyway, it usually lets you get in the first punch."
The awful food and dearth of cigarette money aside -- I didn't find the $20 bill Mother tucked in my Bible until years later -- the major impediments to tranquility in our world were the bullies and the Rules. Eddie's advice was to always fight the bullies and to always seem to follow the Rules, cheerfully.
Desperation led me to heed that advice in the case of mean little Davey, whose older brother used to sic him on fat boys on slow afternoons. I trembled for weeks in anticipation. When my turn finally came I rushed into combat with such wailing fury that I was taken to be, and may for the moment have been, insane. Davey was taken aback and borne down, and I kept pounding away, too scared to stop. By and by Davey begged for surrender.
Eddie consolidated my significant social gain by judiciously dropping such remarks as, "You know, they sent him down here because he killed a kid," and "You know, when we went into town once, a dog came at us and Burchard bit him."
Thereafter life at Fork U became bearable, except for the part about the Rules. I'm still working on them.
-- Hank Burchard Shane! Come Back, Shane!
One of my favorite movies is "Shane." Whenever I see it, I break out into tears in the last scene when Shane rides off into the sunset and the little kid goes running after him, shouting, "Shane! Shane! Come back! Come back, Shane!"
So imagine my joy when I got to college and my freshman roommate turned out to be this lanky, slow-talking Texan named Shane. Every time he walked out the door, I was unable to resist the temptation to shout after him: "Shane! Shane! Come back! Come back, Shane!" I thought this was hysterically funny. Shane thought I was a jerk. After two weeks, he moved out.
-- Mike Isikoff Divine Dispositions
Frank was the world's best roommate. From him I learned all anybody ever has to know about living in close quarters with another creature.
We were brand-new to college and roomed at Miss Betty Booker's, one of the rooming houses of the day, all run by ladies of a certain age and gentility, though not many of them had sung before all the crowned heads of Europe and at Covent Garden, too, as Miss Betty had. Indeed, one of the few times Frank and I were startled in the middle of the night at her otherwise quiet place was the evening Miss Betty (who often declined to sing when we earnestly asked her to) decided to sing the national anthem about midnight. A fine clear big voice.
In Virginia, where our college was, it gets cold as hell in winter. The first night it did was the night Frank and I knew we were made for each other. He hated, for some reason, to get in bed with the windows open. So I opened them, turned out the lights and got in my bed.
On the other hand, Frank (who had some curious ways as all men do, but this was the strangest) loved to arise on cold winter mornings, leap from his warm bed and shut the windows. I, needless to say, having been born sane, loathed, and loathe still, getting out of bed in an icebox.
Frank also was smarter than I, had much fancier clothes, liked to share his sports jackets and liked to borrow one of mine -- a cheap thing from Bullock's in California, made of burlap but funky, I think the word is -- and had a superb sense of humor.
We only roomed for a year. We joined the same fraternity, but you had your own room there. Later I roomed alone in a cubicle designed by Jefferson, which featured most notably a quarter-mile walk to the john. Nobody shut the window for me on cold mornings then. How I missed Frank.
Later still I married. My wife never had any great clothes I could borrow, still doesn't. But we agree on room temperature, opening and closing windows, and laughing at each other's jokes. A divine disposition is a requirement. You must insist on that. If you can't find it, don't room with anybody and don't get married. These simple requirements alone make it possible to endure another human at close range. I learned it all from Frank.
-- Henry Mitchell Who Was That Guy?
I can't remember whether he was short or tall, big or small, whether he had dark hair or light or if it was curly, or his major or whether he was a grind or watched the Yogi Bear cartoons with the rest of us, or even his name.
Of course, that's to be expected. He wasn't my roommate. He was Bernie's. At least he said he was Bernie's freshman roommate, but Bernie can't remember him either.
Bernie and I spent a lot of time together, rarely in our rooms, often barely avoiding trouble. His roommate must have spent a lot of time away from the room too, perhaps in the library, because if they were ever there at the same time he didn't make much of an impression on Bernie.
The year after he graduated and started working in Boston, Bernie was making one of his frequent trips back to campus to see his fiance' when he picked up a hitchhiker on the Maine Turnpike.
Bernie made no effort to converse and his rider gave him a strange look.
"You don't recognize me, do you," said the stranger.
"No," said Bernie.
"I was your roommate," he replied with some pain.
To this day Bernie says, "He seemed like an okay guy, but I still can't place him."
-- Bob Kelleter Eek! Just a Minute!
It had been going on for months. My key would be in the lock when my freshman roommate Carol would run to the door hysterically bleating, "Don't come in, don't come in."
Dressed only in a bra and panties, she would press her body against the door as I attempted to peer inside. She'd pant, "Come back in about 10 minutes." Then she'd close the door in my face and I would leave, always wondering what was going on.
Carol and I had become good friends. She went swimming and I studied hard. Sometimes my younger sister would visit so that I could show my family what an adult I had become, though I was only 17.
Carol's visitor was Spencer, the man she soon left the dean's list for so she could send him through air conditioner repair school. Once Spencer, clad only in white boxer shorts, sweat streaming down his chest, had pleaded to me and my 15-year-old sister not to enter the room.
What in the world were they doing in there, I wondered.
It would give my parents great satisfaction to know that during that whole first year I never had a clue.
-- J.S. Squirrels and Nuts
True, he had been a "flamer" the weekend before. He was annoying too many people lately. He deserved a lesson. But we probably shouldn't have put the dead squirrel in his shaving kit, with the little paw hanging out of the zipper.
First came the scream. It was less frightening than the silence that followed. The bathroom door slammed open. Another scream, this one primal. The lower panel of our door exploded from his kick. His foot splintered the door across the hall. He raged for minutes going on hours. Then he stopped.
He didn't talk to us for months. For four years, he'd walk away when conversation turned to demented college pranks. Finally, at our 10-year reunion, he cornered me: "Ya know, I never really forgave you guys for the squirrel. But three people I don't even know have asked me about it. It's withstood the test of time."
-- Don Oldenburg Bridge Games, Water Wars
I can't understand why we had so much time on our hands. There we were, Harvard sophomores, me an honors candidate in English and Bob going for honors in physics, playing honeymoon bridge.
We had a 1,000-rubber match going.
That was in the afternoons. Evenings, we played regular bridge with the guys upstairs.
Saturdays, there were the water fights. Wars, actually.
Then we discovered chess and played a 100-game match of the Ruy Lopez opening. Then Bob bought a Hi-Li paddle with a ball attached by a rubber band. Pretty soon everybody on the corridor had a Hi-Li paddle. I won the Lou Gehrig award with 2,851 straight hits, which took so long I missed the whole dinner hour and had to eat supper at the Hayes-Bickford.
Bob was a big kid from the Boston suburbs, a high school football star who picked physics because he hated to read. All week long he worked sporadically on his English theme with the word count beside the last line. When he got to 1,000 words he stopped. When he couldn't bear to write anymore he would lie on the window seat eating peanut butter from a tablespoon and listening to his favorite 30 bars from Holst's "The Planets," over and over.
He was going to be a millionaire, and because he had read that millionaires had large vocabularies, he memorized a page of Webster's every morning. He reached the Cs in our senior year. He had also read that millionaires were supposed to be very enterprising as boys, so he started a candy business, selling unwrapped Welch Bar seconds in the dining room.
Bob didn't become a millionaire. The minute he left college he went into the priesthood. You think you know somebody and then you find you didn't know him at all.
-- Michael Kernan The Trouble With Harry
And then there was Harry. At the top floor of my freshman dormitory I greeted him warmly. He was a suburbanite. So was I. He was a Jew. So was I. His sheets and comforter, newly purchased for his upcoming college career, were identical to mine. Certainly we would get along.
The Trouble With Harry was that he smoked. Funny cigarettes. Weed. Enormous quantities. It seemed he had progressed beyond recreational indulgence to what could only be deemed a professional level of inhalation.
Each day we arose around 8 a.m., showered, dressed, trotted off to our respective 9 o'clock classes, went to the library for an hour, then met up at Introductory Biology.
At noon we returned from Biology. I went to lunch with my friends down the hall.
Harry returned from Biology for an afternoon of smoking pleasure with his buddies. They used a colossal piece of paraphernalia, four feet high, known around our dorm as "The Monster."
One night, I came back to the room at 11 from the library. I knew something was amiss before I opened the door. Smoke poured out from underneath. Harry had set the room on fire, I despaired. Stereo, school papers, all in ashes, I thought. Anxiously turning the knob, and pushing the door open, I entered a wondrous cloud bank; a few bodies could be faintly glimpsed tucked into the room's recesses.
"Harry?" I yelled, panic-stricken.
"Who's Harry?" somebody mumbled drowsily in response.
He was not in the room. I had lost my freshman roommate Harry. He was gone.
-- D.S. A Terbil Rift
I should have known immediately it was not a match. Gail arrived on campus with six or seven trunks of silk blouses and cashmere skirts. I brought two weeks worth of sweatshirts. She insisted that our tiny room be "decorated" with linens that matched the curtains. My sheets and blankets weren't color-coordinated. And she installed her two gerbils, Goldie and Honey, with their plastic cage and rusty exercise wheel that squeaked in the night. I hated rodents, particularly noisy ones.
The months crawled by. Gail and I did not talk. When we had to, we'd pin notes to each other's possessions. With time, the notes grew shorter. Sometimes the only sound in the room came from the gerbils rattling their cage.
In one of my early notes, I asked Gail not to let the gerbils wander free. Little tooth marks had become visible along the heels of my best shoes. At first Gail complied. Then she did not. My notes got more desperate. Gail merely smiled.
One spring day, at the beginning of finals, I wandered into the room and spied the gerbils nibbling at my shoes while Gail lay oblivious on her bed, reading a French novel.
It only took a few minutes to set up the mousetraps, one near my shoes and the other near my desk. Then I left for the library.
The mousetraps stayed there the rest of the year. I never saw the gerbils on the floor again. I saw Gail, however, many times before we graduated. She never said a word, and she never smiled.
-- Nina Martin Oh, Excuuuuuuse Us!
At Wellesley, almost everyone has her own room. -- Sandra Sugawara It All Adds Up, Sort Of
My freshman roommate Tony was an aspiring Republican from Newark who once poured a glass of imitation grape juice onto another student during a discussion of Vietnam. He was frighteningly precocious at math, already working toward his doctorate, and filled hundreds of paper napkins with theorems and formulae. His mentor was a highly strung Frenchman named Serge, who looked like a frazzled bird and dropped in occasionally to strum Renaissance tunes on his lute.
Serge was a famous mathematician. I found him very difficult to chat with. My most vivid memory of him is his shrieking over the dinner table, "Ze skycrapers! Zey are terrible! If you do not zink so, you are an idiot!" after an apparently unpleasant trip to New York, and I believe he felt the same about me. He hated Republicans, and not a few Democrats. But he loved Tony.
After dinner the two of them could be found grappling in a corner of the room, marking up napkins and shouting things like "Let n be an integer such that q is a prime number!" To me it was the babble of dread wizards. Tony, as Serge would tell anyone who'd listen, had the magic to be ranked with the best.
Toward the end of freshman year, Tony decided to go prelaw. He still liked pure math, he told me, but you could work for years in pure math and end up with zero to show for it. I never saw Serge in our room after that. Whenever anyone would bring up his name, Tony would look down and examine his shoes.
Years later, when I ran into Tony at a college reunion, they were soft, sleek shoes as befitted a corporate lawyer with a big Wall Street firm. My ex-roommate was married, prosperous and visibly more substantial. He seemed happy. Sometime afterward, on a trip to Paris, I spotted Serge on a narrow street opposite the Sorbonne -- a frazzled bird, his face upturned, gazing at the sky.
-- Lloyd Grove Avoiding Them Altogether
After two years in a boarding school dormitory, sharing the same room, air and viral infections with 27 equally unwashed youths, I decided I wanted a room to myself when I went to college.
But the residence application forms that arrived from Trinity College at the University of Toronto stated clearly that the limited number of single rooms were awarded on the basis of grades. I knew another strategy was needed.
When I got to the end of the form, I found my answer.
Do you smoke?
"Heavily," I wrote in.
Would you share a room with somebody who smokes?
"Absolutely not," I replied.
When I walked into the college that first September day I was directed to a very pleasant room of my own. While my friends suffered the burden of intolerable or intolerant roommates their first year at college, I immediately sank in a mire of sloppiness, late nights and overindulgence that has engulfed me ever since.
-- Tom Vesey $ Miss Piggy
As an only child, my previous experiences of sharing had been transitory. Now at Georgia State Women's College I would have a real roommate. We would stay up all night discussing Dorothy Sayers' mysteries, RAF bomber pilots at nearby Moody Field, the impossibility of learning algebra and the difficulties in drawing a line up the back of your legs to simulate stockings (real ones having gone to war).
It didn't turn out quite that way. My roommate had pig eyes and hated me on sight. I didn't care that she was ugly. A roommate of average or worse looks would have been fine, so as not to outshine my less than spectacular appearance at the well-chaperoned dances for fledgling pilots on their way to Europe and World War II.
But I soon found out that my roommate's little squinty eyes gave little stingy glimpses into her mean little soul. She told the monitor when I read with a flashlight under the covers after curfew. She stomped around the room at 5 a.m. when I didn't have a class until noon. When I put my own soap on the wash basin, she threw it out the window. But one day came the ultimate: She sat and ate by herself in exquisite pigdom a whole box of divinity candy, surely containing her mother's entire sugar ration for the year. It was then I realized the awful truth: She had a porcine heart.
-- Sarah Booth Conroy Par for Parents
I remember Eileen less as my roommate, which she was for six weeks one summer, than as my pseudo-roommate when we returned to school that fall.
There had been time that summer for her to fall in love, and when school started she moved in with "him." She asked, however, that I pretend to be her roommate when her parents came to town.
Naturally, I agreed, and took my responsibilities quite seriously.
When her parents announced they were coming one Sunday afternoon, I arrived an hour before, with a suitcase full of girl stuff. I draped my clothes over her boyfriend's in his closet, and redecorated the room with a few female knickknacks they wouldn't recognize as hers. We chatted amiably with her mom and dad, and breathed a sigh of relief when they left.
Eileen and her boyfriend had separate phones, and whenever I was there, I answered hers, in hopes it would be her mother on the other end.
Her parents visited again near the end of the year, and as we fixed dinner, I tried as best I could to find my way around "my" kitchen. When we sat down for dinner, I wondered what time it was and remembered the kitchen clock was somewhere on the wall behind me. I looked over my right shoulder. I couldn't see it. I turned and looked over the left.
I turned back to face her mother, sitting opposite me, grinning like a Cheshire cat. "Looking for the clock?" she asked. I saw a year of careful arrangements blowing up in our faces.
But nothing happened. A year later, in announcing her engagement, Eileen told her parents she had been living with her boyfriend for two years. Her mother said she never knew.
Which led me to one of the major lessons of my college years -- ratified when I became a parent myself: Parents see what they want to believe.
-- Sara Fitzgerald A Shared Moment, Apart
I received her name in early August, my microchip roommate chosen by a Miami University computer for compatibility with my interests. There was instant rapport when we met. I was tall and dark; she was short with bright red hair. But we shared everything else -- a serious interest in comedy, our studies, our families, music, antiwar protests, feminism and the meaning of life.
We didn't know just how much we shared until one night in October when we each told the story of our first real kiss. The tales involved long plots of teen-age intrigue and romance. One took place in junior high, the other at summer camp. But suddenly too many details sounded familiar. The Paul Newman eyes. The sincere approach. The English Leather after-shave. Could it be?
What weird probability permitted randomly selected students on opposite ends of one of our country's larger states to get their first kiss from the same person?
-- Margaret Engel