Saturday, April 25, 2009


I hadn’t had a real roommate in an awfully long time.

I was at a conference that was held at Asilomar down in Monterey. Asilomar is owned by the government and ends up being something like a Best Western crossed with NIST. But it’s in a beautiful setting—on the sand dunes by an unspoiled stretch of coastline.

The clerk at the registration desk warned me that I had a roommate. She told me my roommate’s name and waited for a reaction. But I was prepared: that’s the way facilities like this work. You either come in with a roommate (which I didn’t), or you’re assigned one (I was). I didn’t really recognize her name, but I didn’t NOT recognize her name either; it sounded vaguely familiar.

Because Monterey’s a short drive from San Francisco—2 hours if you’re not worried about speeding tickets—I didn’t pack carefully. Instead, I just threw stuff into the car as I thought of it. My swell new red overnight bag with a change of clothes. A black grocery bag with some apples and a camera. A plastic bag with some wool socks and a t-shirt. My big lumpy briefcase. My clogs. An extra sweatshirt. An extra bottle of Snapple. Another extra sweatshirt. Some miscellaneous power cords and chargers. Books, papers, magazines, half-finished crossword puzzles. My favorite pen. Flip flops. Did I remember the Tums?

Soon the back of my little white Honda looked like I was planning to hold a mobile garage sale. Or like I was homeless and living out of my car.

I put one more sweatshirt in the backseat. Maybe I’d be moved to run into the surf. If that were the case, I’d most certainly need dry clothes. Never mind the fact that I haven’t done that since I was 21 years old and on acid.

I’m better off flying: I’m more apt to pack a realistic amount of stuff. And I’m more apt to put it in a single suitcase.
Transferring all that crap from the back of the car to my room in Willows Lodge was no mean feat. If I’d have been able to put it in a shopping cart, my look would’ve been complete.

When I opened the door to the room, I knew right away that my roommate-to-be and I had lucked out. The curtains were wide open – we’d scored a room with an unobstructed ocean view. The sun glinted off the whitecaps. Beautiful.

My roommate wasn’t there yet. I dropped my numerous bags onto the floor in an ambiguous (but thoughtfully out-of-the-way) heap and looked around. Two beds. A great big king-sized bed and an itty-bitty single bed. The great big bed afforded the better view: you could see the broad expanse of Pacific Ocean when you woke up. The small bed was set at an angle to look out onto the other low slung Asilomar bungalows.

I decided not to deploy any of my belongings until she arrived. Surely my roommate and I would have the obvious discussion about who would take which bed. We’d laugh about the hilarious “after you, Alphonse” way we were both being too polite to take the obviously much larger bed with the fabulous ocean view.

I’d say, “Oh, I’m so much smaller. I’ll take the little bed.”

And she’d say, “I feel awful doing that. Are you sure you don’t want the big bed?”

And I’d say, “You must! I insist!”

And she’d say, “Thank you so much! I adore looking out at the waves.”

That’s not what happened. I left the room and dutifully went off to a conference session. I wasn’t giving my talk until the second day, but I thought I might get a sense of the audience. Besides, it was a little cold and windy for walk-taking—it was a better day for lying on a great big bed and looking out a picture window at the wind-whipped ocean.

When I returned to the room at the afternoon break, I discovered that my roommate had arrived. She was sitting on the unmade king-sized bed, facing away from the ocean, propped up on all the pillows, reading. Her toiletries were on the counter by the sink. Her bags were on both chairs by the little coffee table. She’d made herself at home. There was to be no “after you, Alphonse” discussion after all.

I was mildly surprised.

She looked up from her novel and introduced herself. A flicker of annoyance crossed her face when I asked her where she was from. Clearly I was supposed to have recognized her name, especially since her job title was President.

My mind works slowly. It wasn’t until the second day that I remembered the gossip I’d heard about her. It had to do with her divorce from someone whose name was actually a household word (at least in geek circles). Right. It was a bitter divorce if you believed those rumors. She’d gotten everything. Her ex-husband was destitute.

Oh, right.

The conference proceeded as most conferences do. My roommate and I were reasonably careful around one another: we neither became BFFs nor attempted to poison one another’s toothpaste. I doubt she put sand into my contact lens case, and I don’t remember spitting into her hair rinse. We negotiated nothing. She set an early lights-out hour and I made my way around the room in the dark using my flashlight as if I were a cat burglar. I scrabbled through my heaped belongings looking for my sweatpants and t-shirt by dim blue LED light.

In true passive-aggressive fashion, I took a sleeping pill at bedtime, and passed the nighttime hours snoring with profound vigor, my mp3 player's earbuds snugly in my ears.

On the last day, when I returned to the room at checkout time to gather up my things, she had already left. All her stuff was gone. The bathmat lay crumpled on the bathroom floor, still damp from her morning shower. She had left a single crisp dollar on the bedside table for the maids.

A one dollar tip.


I didn’t share a room while I was growing up. My brother and I each had our own rooms, and as a substantially older sister, I was able to enforce my own share of arbitrary rules about my bedroom. For example, my brother was not to touch the beads that hung in my doorway, beads that I believed lent my room a sophisticated opium den-like aura. I was especially sensitive to the idea that he might chew on them, since he was a late-teether. He might even pull them down. If he looked at them too long, I pounced.

But really I had nothing to worry about. As a toddler, my brother was placid and easy to intimidate.

So I was completely unprepared for college roommates.

My first college roommate was a guy who’d been to boarding school. He was mature and had excellent study habits; he went to bed by 10pm and was wide awake for his 8am chem lab. A sober fellow, tall with a neatly trimmed beard, the kind of roommate you’d want for your son. I’ve googled him, and he’s still a solid citizen, a doctor, the head of a blood bank at a major university’s teaching hospital.

We’ll call him Bob.

I don’t know what Bob made of me; it didn’t occur to me at the time that he might be the least bit disturbed by a female roommate.

Rooming together wasn’t his idea.

He’d left campus on the night of room choice, and he’d entrusted me with his proxy to pick him a room and a roommate.

For fairness sake, room choice went by seniority, then by card draw, aces high like in poker.

We were freshmen. Single rooms were out of the question. It’d be a matter of picking a roommate and choosing which double the two of us would live in.

There were only three girls, which theoretically gave me only two choices for a roommate. Then one of the girls, the precocious one among us, a pretty blonde girl, decided she’d shack up with her boyfriend RIGHT AWAY.

That left one other girl. One other girl. Not much of a choice. I probably would’ve gone with that, but this remaindered girl was a social leper. She was a smart girl—I think she’d been on the team that won the Putnam and was planning to be a math major—but she was also a scary girl, an outcast. A girl so loud and annoying that even at Caltech (which at the time had a gender ration of 10:1) she was shunned. And I did not have an open mind: I could not envision myself rooming with this girl. I knew it. (What I did not understand was that I had universal sympathy, and I probably would’ve been able to get myself a single if I’d just said something).

My turn to draw came around. I drew a Queen of Spades for Bob and three of hearts for me.

I chose Bob a good room, a big room with a sleeping porch and no immediate neighbors. The upperclassman who was running the show asked me who Bob’s roommate was going to be. Roommate? Right! I was supposed to pick him a roommate. I looked around at the other freshmen and panicked.

“Me.” I said.

“You? Does Bob know that?”

“No.” I said, “But I’m sure he won’t mind. He told me to pick someone for him. And I did. Me.”

Indeed if Bob was unhappy with this whole arrangement, he hid his displeasure well. Looking back, I’m sure he was just good-natured and his temperament had been shaped by an adolescence spent at East Coast boarding schools. He’d probably dealt with any number of undesirable roommates already and wasn’t about to get upset by something this minor.

My parents, on the other hand, surprised me with the vehemence of their displeasure. I was too naïve to realize that they’d be unhappy with this set up; I somehow thought they’d congratulate me on my ingenuity. I’d turned my unlucky three of hearts—a card so low that I would’ve surely been left with the worst room in the house, a tiny double painted a depressing shade of olive drab with military-style metal bunk beds overlooking the driveway where the dumpsters were emptied at 6am two mornings a week—into a Queen of Spades and a big desirable room with a sleeping porch. And my roommate was an absolute peach, a guy three years my senior who could help me with my physics homework and who didn’t turn every weeknight into an occasion for drunken revelries.

We were not to be roommates for long.

My parents threatened to intervene. Fortuitously, before they did, the lovely blonde girl dumped her hastily-chosen freshman BF, and she and I were thrown together into the tiny olive-drab double with bunk beds. Sure enough, the dumpsters were emptied at 6am two mornings a week. It was noisy and depressing and my roommate was not much better at the physics qualifier problems than I was.

She’d already picked the top bunk. That left me with the bottom bunk, and she had the temerity to entertain gentleman callers in our room. Naturally I was supposed to find some other place to hang out during the naughty part of the visit, but she’d have her guests sleep over, and the mattress would sag down low invading the depressing cave-like space offered by the lower bunk.

There’s something about lower bunks anyway that connotes younger siblings, and sleepers too inept or too fearful to sleep high in the air. The daring, the skillful, the free-spirited sleep in top bunks; the fraidy-cats, the clumsy, and the weak sleep in lower bunks.

“Don’t touch my stereo when I’m not here,” my new roommate warned me.

“I won’t,” I said, looking around for something of mine I could ask her not to touch. There wasn’t anything cool enough. Nothing to protect. What, don’t touch my manual typewriter? Even my stuff betrayed my lack of promise as a roommate.

“And don’t play my records. Especially not on your stereo,” she added. She had a shelf-foot of LPs, good ones, cool ones. Allman Brothers and Mothers of Invention. She had a real turntable too. A stereo with components. A separate receiver and power amp. Speakers with real wood cabinets.

I still had my geeky kid stereo, the moral equivalent of a close-the-top-to-play record player. I’d loved my stereo when I lived at home, but now here I was, embarrassed by the thing. Of course I wouldn’t be so stupid and thoughtless as to play her copy of In Memory of Elizabeth Reed on it. I knew that the way I weighted the needle arm with a penny so it still tracked the grooves would spoil her pristine LPs.

Soon after that, I dragged home a discarded mustard-and-white striped rug to cover our cold cement floor. She wrinkled her pretty nose at what I saw as my newfound resourcefulness. The next day, one of her gentlemen callers burned a hole in the rug with a fumbled Winston.

“It was old anyway,” I said. I felt miserable. Before the wrinkled nose and the burn hole, I’d thought it was a pretty nifty rug; I’d never furnished anything with found household goods before.

By winter term, we had singles.

To be continued...


Blogger Adam said...

One dollar. Jesus Christ.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

She was evidently longing for a simpler time (when a dollar would spring more than 5 sticks of stale gum out of the vending machine).

6:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Someone took pity on meat college for having no record player and brought me a refurbed one that used rubber bands to move the spindle! Variable speed for the 33rpm. Neil Young and Jefferson Airplane sounded fine.

11:49 AM  
Blogger Adam said...

Oh my god I just remembered who girl #3 was...

10:27 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Indeed. If you google her, you'll find she's done a yeoman's job of putting her undergrad years behind her. She's now an active member of the Asperger's community, which makes a lot of sense if you remember her very well; unsurprisingly too she published with Erdos. (assuming we're talking about the same girl #3.) No links for obvious reasons.

11:19 AM  
Anonymous Jim said...

I wonder if "Bob" would have tipped more than a dollar?
I had the Alley Five single next to that double (in 1980). I recall the trash being emptied at 7AM.
My frosh roommate was Frosh Rep so we got a good pick. We nicknamed each other "Roomate" (me) and "Asshole" (him). Too bad he has too common a name to effectively google.

10:30 AM  
Blogger Cathy said...

Hi Jim,

I'm thinking 'Bob' (not his real name. Really) would've left a good tip. Remember, he was kind enough not to object to the unusual roommate setup.

If I remember correctly, the smallest double in the house--the one that was painted olive drab at the time courtesy of Mark Johnson--was Room 37 at the far end of Alley 6 (I can't believe I still remember this). It was tiny. Alley 5 is the only alley I never lived in.

12:06 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home