The 10-hour, smog-choked crawl down from Boston had rattled my nerves. We arrived at the Georgetown University campus to find the elevators in Village C West packed with frenzied freshmen and their bumbling, box-laden parents. I couldn't stomach the idea of being elbowed and stepped on in a packed elevator, so I was left with one alternative: the stairs.
Up one flight, adjust load; up another, adjust load, wipe brow; through a door, past a very cute guy with a clear view of my sweaty armpits; around a bend, and there it was: my dorm room.
My parents had yet to catch up as I stepped through the open door. I saw a set of bunk beds with plastic-covered mattresses wedged between a wardrobe and a built-in double desk. There was a second wardrobe, and a single window above the desk overlooked a construction pit. I set my cardboard box down with a thud.
I looked up. The Roommate had long, curly brown hair and hazel eyes and wore a sleeveless brown shirt and khaki shorts. She looked to be about my size, and I wondered if we'd be able to share clothes.
"Hi," she said, smiling broadly. The voice on the phone finally had a face to go with it.
We chatted briefly; then she left the room. Ten minutes later, she squeezed through the doorway with a massive beanbag. I watched, horrified, as she plopped it down in our room's only free corner. It was the biggest and most heinous thing I'd ever laid eyes on, worn and misshapen and made of hunter green corduroy. I imagined it had sat in her basement for a decade, lonely and unused and moldy, until the day she decided to resurrect it.
She walked out and reappeared with a smaller version of the first green blob -- equally corduroy, equally ugly.
"Ottoman," she said.
"Oh, yeah. Right," I said. "But maybe we shouldn't keep it, you know, because the room's so small," I ventured.
"We'll find room," she replied, matter-of-factly.
THE CHAIR, TECHNICALLY, WAS ONE OF OUR FIRST DECOR DECISIONS. When I had talked to the Roommate over the summer, we settled on who would bring the fridge and who would bring the phone.
"If you've got furniture, that'd be great," I'd said.
"I have a matching chair and ottoman," she had replied. "I think I'm gonna bring 'em."
"Sounds good to me." She seemed set on it, and I had no chair, no ottoman, to offer.
In retrospect, the Chair was certainly an omen, the opening salvo in a decor war that would end only after much bloodshed. But in my first week of college, I was optimistic. Maybe at our 10th college reunion, we'd laugh about the Chair until we cried.
The next day, we decided to hunt for carpeting to warm the cold, tile floor. Conveniently, a carpet dealer had set up shop on campus. I had something dark in mind, a color that wouldn't show dirt.
"This navy blue one would probably be good," I suggested.
"Yeah, maybe," she said. Then she pointed to a peach carpet. "But how about this one?"
"I don't know . . . We don't want to worry about it getting dirty."
"No, it won't get dirty," she said. "We'll keep it clean."
"I dunno, I just think we should try a little darker, just in case."
"What about this one?"
Pink. No way.
"Nah . . ." It was 90 degrees, humid as hell, and I was growing weary.
"Oooooh, I like this one," the Roommate piped up, motioning to a large square of cream-colored carpet. I relented as a bead of perspiration rolled down my temple and off my cheek.
We unfurled the carpet that night, forcing it under the legs of our bunk beds, which we had stacked to make room for the Chair and ottoman. I tried not to focus on the contrast between the hunter green corduroy and cream carpet. After all, the rug still felt nice on bare feet.
But by mid-September I was cursing myself. The carpet was hopelessly stained. I vacuumed a few times, but when I realized the Roommate was either (a) incapable of operating the machine or (b) just unwilling, I gave up. The carpet was a constant torment, but I needed the energy to fight the war on other fronts.
I was angry with this stranger who had been thrust into my life, and was fuming over my bad luck. What freshman doesn't look forward to the freedom of college? Fixing up the room should be part of that. With no parents around, the TV can go on top of the refrigerator, the coffee maker can go on top of the TV, and the stereo can go in the bathroom. The wall can be plastered with posters of marijuana and Marley, and no one but an anti-Rastafarian roommate (and maybe a suspicious R.A.) can get in the way.
It seemed everyone on my hallway had a more compatible roomie than I did. There were the laid-back, do-your-own-thing guys at the end. One of them proudly contributed his four-foot fish pillow, which comfortably accommodated visitors seeking Busch Light and PlayStation. "It's a bass," he'd announce nonchalantly. His roomie bought posters advertising beer and John Belushi as Bluto in "Animal House." Gatorade bottles filled with Skoal spit accented the decor.
Then there were the might-as-well-be-twins types across the hall. Everything in their room coordinated like something out of a catalogue. The bedspreads, shams and dust ruffles were Ralph Lauren. The clothes, too. They hung tapestries from hip urban boutiques and placed vanilla-scented candles on their shelves, every whim funded by their wealthy parents. After the room was perfectly arranged, they no doubt treated themselves to matching manicures and salads. The catalogue room inspired both awe and nausea among the rest of us.
But there was one thing the Roommate and I had wholeheartedly agreed upon. We were casually perusing posters at a store downtown, looking for something and yet nothing in particular, when suddenly we let out simultaneous gasps of joy.
Even better, Tom Cruise in "Top Gun" -- Maverick smiling gloriously from the cockpit as he gave his thumbs up.
"Who'll get to take him home?" my Roommate asked with a mischievous smile.
"We'll have to flip for it," I replied teasingly. "It's only fair."
WHILE THE SOILED CARPET WAS AGGRAVATING and the Chair was embarrassing, nothing could compete with the bunk beds. For me, bunk beds lost all appeal after age 8. Back then, I didn't mind bunking with my sister. I generally liked her, and the prospect of sleeping on the top bunk was strangely exciting. But at 18, I was fairly certain I disliked my roommate, and the endlessly squeaking springs as she shifted her weight above me made it worse.
Add to that the older boyfriend, who drove down from Upstate New York nearly every weekend. They would lounge around all day, snuggling on the Chair in front of the television, kissing and talking baby talk.
"He'll be able to stay in the U.S. if he gets his work visa," the Roommate explained brightly. "And we'll be able to spend more time together." I envisioned myself altering his resume to include a lengthy stay in prison.
During the week, she'd take the phone up to the top bunk with her and murmur late into the night. There were really no words for my torment. The phone kisses, the "I love you, Bunny" invaded my dreams. I would wake at 6 a.m. for lacrosse practice, eyes swollen from lack of sleep.
"What time did you go to bed last night?" my teammates would ask as we stretched our hamstrings.
"Two words: Bunny Wabbit," I'd respond, and they'd laugh.
The Roommate also didn't clean, leaving her clothes scattered everywhere. Of course, she chafed at my early "lights out" and my rowdy, obnoxious friends. But the squeaking of the upper bunk bothered both of us and made the situation even harder to tolerate.
"I think we should un-bunk the beds," she offered in December.
I rejoiced. I'd finally get some sleep. But just as delicious would be the disposal of the ruinous Chair-ottoman combo, which would no longer fit. I had to pinch my leg to restrain my glee as I watched the Roommate struggle out the door with the Chair.
The end of the bunk bed era improved the atmosphere, at least for a while. In December we welcomed the spirit of Christmas, stringing lights around the perimeter of the ceiling and festooning the bedposts and door with garlands and Santa decals. It was the first time we'd agreed on decorating -- really, on anything -- since we'd bought Tom.
Civility became something like friendliness.
But during the second week of January, my friend passed out on my roomie's bed. Then the Roommate clogged the toilet again and didn't plunge. The hatred seeped back in, and we both enacted revenge. I'd surreptitiously disconnect the phone, and she'd leave her dirty underwear under my bed. We couldn't find a way to live peacefully, and the room fell once again into disarray. We were two roommates living the hard way, inflexible and bent on breaking each other down.
We both wanted the hell out, but the Roommate acted first.
When spring arrived, she began to make herself scarce, staying with friends in other dorms. Her absence let me satisfy my predilection for cleaning, and when the room was neat, the mismatched bedspreads and cream carpet were almost lovely.
Yet I was shocked when I walked in after a weekend trip in early May to find the room half empty. The Roommate's bed was stripped, and her desk was clear. She had left without a goodbye.
That was fine by me. She had hoisted her white flag, and the war was over. I had won. I felt like taking a victory lap.
But at that moment my eyes fell on the wall between our beds. Something was missing. Rather, someone was missing. And it wasn't just the Roommate.
Tom. Tom had left with her.
Kristen Louise Mascia is a senior at Georgetown University.