What makes a dorm a home? Familiarity, perhaps, but a familiarity that’s very different from the one I’ve known in my parents’ house. There are the stairs, first of all, so many more than I’m used to. And the smells. The stairwell close to the first floor is always warm and smells like laundry detergent and fabric softener. The odors make me think I could live in the laundry room, content in its warmth and cleanliness.
Yet the actual sight of the laundry room is sad and full of peril. I’m never sure which machines are working from week to week. The dryers are particularly mercurial. If they do happen to be working on laundry day, the handles may have been broken off. When I close my eyes, I imagine how this might have happened: I see a thick-necked future frat boy, overzealous about warm, dry clothes, pulling the plastic handle so hard that it snaps. As his glance ricochets between what is in his hand and the empty space on the dryer where it should be, he begins to weep in spite of his size.
The laundry room is a place of abandonment. Socks without mates line the window sills, fall between washers, and are thrown recklessly on top of the wall that separates the two rows of machines. At times I find angry notes taped to the walls demanding that someone’s stolen clothes be returned.
As I climb the stairs from the laundry room to my room on the fifth floor, various hallway smells travel past me in the opposite direction. The most potent is that of burnt popcorn. How is it that some of the world’s best and brightest minds have lost the ability to monitor a kitchen appliance? As I pass the second-floor entrance to the building, the burnt-popcorn smell blends with whatever odors are coming in from outside. On the third floor someone has had a pizza delivered; the air smells of tomato sauce and burnt popcorn. On the fourth floor someone has spilled a bottle of juice, adding a touch of citrus to the ubiquitous odor of burnt popcorn. On the fifth floor, past the first row of double-occupancy rooms, popcorn mixes with marijuana and, farther down, cinnamon. My room faces the women’s bathroom, so the hall outside my door smells like a vaguely unpleasant combination of body odors and Pantene Pro-V.
Unlocking the door to my dorm room, I prepare for what might be inside. There could be any number of things going on in there. Sometimes my roommate has given herself a pedicure, and I am greeted by an acidic whiff of nail polish. Sometimes she has heisted and heated one of my individual applesauce cups, and I realize that the cinnamon smell was coming from inside. Sometimes she’s not there and the room still holds the ginger and lily smells of my own Suave body wash.
These smells are not like those back home. No one here shares my mother’s affinity for curry. But I’ve grown to love these dorm aromas. When most of the inhabitants of the fifth floor leave for the long Presidents’ Day weekend and I stay behind, the silence combined with the absence of that scorched-butter smell create a blanket of melancholy heavy enough to muffle a scream. The janitors have come by and the bathroom is a sad, cold place where the sharpness of ammonia has replaced the mingling of floral-scented soaps. The new smell sterilizes the heart as well as the tile. Then Wednesday rolls around, my dorm mates return, bringing their fragrances and the promise of burning corn kernels. I inhale deeply to take it all in, then let it out in a sigh of relief.
Eve Bates, of Chicago, plans to concentrate in linguistics.