She was just the roommate I needed. So determined was I to leave it all behind – my childhood, my rural home state, my teenage resentment with the conventionality of my high school and my narrow life– that I had applied and been accepted into a college I knew nothing about but for an offhand comment of a favored teacher “you should apply to Brandeis – it’s the Jewish Harvard.” Not only would this be so different from everything I knew yet craved due to my close reading of Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, but I would be different too: a gentile from New Hampshire. At its best, college does open up new worlds for its attendees and Brandeis certainly fulfilled its mission. But is was Kathy, from Teaneck, NJ who guided this stranger through that strange land.
As freshman randomly assigned to Reitman 315, it did not take 24 hours for us to realize that we were kindred spirits. We were alike in more ways (we had the same SAT scores!) than we were different, but it was the differences that made it work. I was a military brat who landed in Gilmanton, NH (population just north of 1,000.) Kathy’s father was both a doctor and lawyer. The population of Teaneck was around 40,000 and a mere 15 miles from NYC. My high school was farther than that from my house.
I was a taller stick-straight dirty blonde and she was a short extra curly brunette. Blue eyes/brown eyes. Lapsed catholic/non-observant Jew. I was 18 to her 17 because she precociously started school early. I was a typical middle child, one of three sisters and a single brother. Kathy was doted on as the baby of her family and only daughter.
Kathy was as outgoing as I was introverted. She was talkative with a infectious giggle. She was analytical, insightful and her emotions were an open book. She would ask you anything, but in a way that made you want to answer. She fit into Brandeis and probably knew what to expect when she arrived. I masked my social awkwardness with aloofness and a quick study of the mores and dress code.
We ate our meals together, took classes together and attended campus events together. But our real bond was formed in our dorm room. Every night, in bed and in the dark, we talked for hours, often under the influence of my home-gown pot (there are some benefits to living in the country), sharing everything about ourselves and deconstructing the minutia of our days. We plumbed our pasts, our families, our love lives, our dreams. For two teenagers, when the talk was not merely entertaining or dispensing fashion advice, it was deep stuff. And in the way that narrating one’s life allows one to make sense of it, I began the long road to self-awareness.
With her influence, I was able to ditch the disastrous boyfriend by whom I had been foolishly talked into signing up for a weekday-only meal plan. He was certain I would be spending weekends with him. Every weekend thereafter, Kathy made sure I had food, sacrificing her own ability to linger leisurely over brunch. We collaborated on décor, achieving dorm room chic with matching pastel bedspreads, a peach accent wall and Mucha art prints. If we ventured off campus, it was together – and often to Harvard Square. She introduced me to Bruce Springsteen which is enough to leave me ever in her debt. We went to back-to-back shows when Bruce came to Boston and we dragged home a random free-spirit to sleep on the dorm floor (dark brown shag rug). She took me to New York City and my first Broadway show. I was in love with one of her brothers and had a deep crush on the other. I first had caviar at her father’s house in Scarsdale on New Years Day.
Our friendship was so all-consuming that in the spring semester Kathy, appropriately, recognized that in our exclusivity, we were forgoing other social opportunities. She instituted rules whereby we had eat to lunch separately. Although I knew she was right, I was hurt and returned to my default shyness. But, I found a little nugget of bravery within and plopped my lunch tray across from a cute boy. I was rewarded with a new friend and a uptick in confidence.
Kathy cut my hair. We took funny cheesecake photos of each other (pre digital photography – I wonder what became of those prints). We sunbathed on the quad. We OD’d on corn chips when the school provided pre-finals study snacks. We walked into town to shop at CVS and get Chinese food. She visited my family’s home in New Hampshire and loved our dog as much as we did. We fasted for Rosh Hashanah and broke our fast with a cheeseburger, the deliciousness of which has never been matched.On the last day of school that year, I sobbed. My parents thought I was being dramatic and were perhaps offended by my allegiance to a place and a person so foreign from what they knew.
The tears were prescient. I could not know it at the time, but I never returned to Brandeis. Kathy and I did our best to retain our friendship in the days of letter-writing, costly long-distance phone calls and occasional visits. The last was 15 years ago when I met her infant son and she met my preteen daughter.
I am approaching 60 and there is but one other year (a story for another day) in my life I remember as intensely as my freshman year. Certainly, this is partly due to how vulnerable and open to influence and experience one is at that stage of life. And how eye-opening and marvelous Brandeis and Boston were for me. But I would not discount the power of my roommate and the particular brand of girl talk that Kathy and I perfected. And for the sheer intensity in the shortest period of time, no friendship can compare.A few weeks ago, Kathy found me on Facebook. We have spoken at length on the phone, have begun an email correspondence and are planning to meet later this summer. Many years have passed and our lives have diverged in significant ways. I am not sure about her, but I am far from the person I was at 18. However, I knew all was secure with our friendship when, in the course of a wide-ranging conversation, we covered careers, families, aging, relationships and what we weigh.