With college in the air, I have been doing more thinking about the home vs. away question. I still think that whatever Ben wants is the best choice (assuming we can afford it, as Father of 4 pointed out in last week’s comments), but one facet of going away to school has particular resonance for me: the experience of developing intimacy through living with someone long-term.
I have a brother who is 4 years younger than I am; we vacillated between being allies and being sworn enemies when we were young, but we were never good friends, as we are now. It was more like we were trapped in the same household, each longing to go his or her separate way.
I went to sleepaway camp every summer, and loved the friendships I formed — one lasting to this day — but camp was an escape from everyday reality, not a confrontation with it. In college, I had to learn to make compromises, to keep my corner of the room neat(ish) because my messiness drove others crazy; to look past superficial similarities and differences and make decisions based on what was revealed about another person through constant rubbing of elbows through weeks and months of togetherness.
I had more than one roommate in college, but Nancy, the person I refer to as “my college roommate,” remains my closest friend to this day, despite a highly inauspicious beginning.
I already had a roommate, whom I’ll call “Lola.” Lola was a bright, gifted, and funny young woman who was also highly eccentric. We were both theater and English majors, had acted together, and enjoyed each other’s company. However, everything about Lola’s presence — from her “hippie” Indian-print dresses to the way she sang in the communal shower and responded with (seeming) non-sequiturs to their (seemingly) innocent questions, which were actually loaded — annoyed our hallmates. We didn’t know the word “preppie” at that time, but these were young women who routinely bleached and rolled their hair, never left their rooms without makeup, and could not understand a woman who didn’t shave her legs and happily spent Saturday nights reading Chaucer. They complained to the dorm mother about such infractions as whistling after midnight; played “pranks” on her, and otherwise harassed her in ways that would be actionable now; then we just referred to it as “people acting like idiots.”
Over winter break of our junior year, Lola wrote to me that she had reached a breaking point; she couldn’t take the abuse anymore and was moving off-campus. I was welcome to join her, but she was never setting foot in our dorm again.
I couldn’t afford to move out of the dorm. I dreaded the arrival of a new, unknown roommate, who was bound to be either another “idiot” or a strange person who would be a target and then leave me, too.
On returning to school, I told our dorm mother that I didn’t want another roommate under any circumstances, and that I would be willing to pay extra to have the room to myself for the rest of the semester. (I didn’t know how I was going to make good on that promise, but I was desperate.) She agreed, but said, “We’ve already assigned a returning student, Nancy L, to your room. It will take a few days to reassign her.” I agreed to let her stay for a few days, but that was it.
When Nancy arrived that afternoon, I was sure my decision had been the right one; that she was one of those “idiots” — a stunning blonde who wore, as they did, carefully pressed jeans, loafers, and a Villager blouse under a cashmere cardigan. We exchanged brief bios; she told me she had been the captain of the drum majorette corps in high school, and had taken a year and a half off from school because a broken engagement had made it difficult for her to concentrate on her schoolwork. I assumed that she must be wealthy and entitled, to be able to take time off like that, and then just float back into school.
She was nice, though. She had brought homemade chocolate chip cookies, which we munched as we sat on her bed and talked — all night. I learned that she had actually been working at a highly stressful social-welfare job during her dropout period; that she was also a drama major; and that she had dreaded returning to dorm life because of unpleasant encounters with idiots like the ones on our hall. The next morning I visited the dorm mother and canceled my order for a private room, and we haven’t stopped talking since.
We have lived together in cramped quarters, not only in our dorm, but in an apartment we shared with several others one insane summer; and then with both of our husbands for 6 months in an experiment that failed for reasons that had nothing to do with any of the principals and everything with the vagaries of the job market. I was the maid of honor at her wedding; she, four months pregnant, was the matron of honor at mine.
We remain completely different on the outside. She is a born-again Christian; I’m a lapsed Quaker agnostic. She has four grown children, whom she home-schooled; and grandchildren who are older than Ben. She and her husband, whom I also adore, live on a farm and only brave the city periodically to visit me. And she is the person I have turned to in every moment of heartbreak, joy, or fear since that January night in 1973.
The chances of meeting a Nancy are not reason enough to go away to school — she is one in a million, and Ben has lots of close friends already. But I was not as sophisticated as he is, and I am intensely grateful to the universe for arranging it so that I had to confront my prejudices and gain a sister/best friend all in one amazing night.
(In case anyone is wondering what happened to Lola, she is now a beautiful and successful actress in California, happily married to a respected actor. And she remains smart, funny and weird. Take that, Mean Girls!)
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