When I came to college, people gave me one consistent piece of advice: Get along with your roommate inside the dorm, but don’t try to be best friends.
From the start my freshman roommate, Jenn, intimidated me: She is British, rich, and has a cool accent. She didn’t bring a single stuffed animal to school with her. Her posters are of foreign movies, and she is never in bed before 3 a.m.
Next to her, I felt like a dud. I am from rural New Hampshire. My clothes come from the Gap. My posters are of sappy 1980s movies. Jenn brought a sheepskin rug to decorate our room. My family used to breed and eat lambs.
“Is your friend a neat freak?” I asked one day during mid-terms. We were lying on our beds, in our respective corners.
She looked up from the work she hadn’t been doing. “Who, Cordy?”
“Yeah.” I nodded.
“Yeah. I mean, his room is clean,” she said.
The day before, I’d spent two hours picking up my side of the room. That night Cordy had commented on how dirty it was.
Jenn and I are hardly the Odd Couple; we’re more like Oscar and Oscar. The first week of school we were as neat as pins. Then our lives got busy. Slowly jeans gathered on the floor, and papers scattered. Then midterms came. As soon as I had to study desperately, I noticed the piles of clothes, the dirty dishes, the fine layer of cereal dust covering everything. Suddenly, I needed to clean. Jenn thought I did a wonderful job. Apparently, though, clean is a relative term.
Jenn closed her book. “You know,” she said, “we would have so much more space if we rearranged the furniture.”
I eagerly pushed aside my archaeology textbook. “Yes, definitely. I was thinking of putting my desk by my shelves, but I don’t know where to put my dresser.”
She hopped up. “I was thinking about that, too. You could put it at the center, at the foot of my bed. But what about the fridge? We’ll move your dresser to the middle first.” She shimmied it to the center. Then she moved my bed where my dresser had been. Moving my desk required untangling a mess of cords and then figuring out where they went again. I switched her dresser and desk.
She stood back and admired our work. “This is lovely. There’s so much more space.” The new floor we’d revealed was sticky with juice that had somehow missed being absorbed by the piles of dirty laundry. Gobs of wet cereal had dried and cemented themselves to the surface. Reese’s Bites rolled around like pool balls searching for a pocket. “We need another rug,” I observed.
I also pointed out that this was the most interaction we’d had all year: we’d never gone to the library or a meal together. “Oh, my gosh! You’re so totally right!” Jenn exclaimed.
I pointed to my doll, lying on my bed. “I know it’s dumb to have him here, but I just couldn’t leave him.”
“I know. I miss my teddy so much. I’ve had it since like birth.”
Her teddy? “Why didn’t you bring it?”
“I don’t know. Just thought it was time to grow up.”
I felt myself grow uncomfortable again, ready to separate. “Oh, man. It’s getting late,” I said. “I’m going to go grab a rug and then get to practice.”
“You’re going already?” Jenn asked. “You won’t be back until … ?”
“Seven o’clock or so.”
“We did do a great job, though, didn’t we? Now you can study without knowing I’m here. I bet we’ll be clean now, too. We’ll turn over a new leaf.”
The former was true. The dresser blocked my view of her desk.