Between the Lines / Roommates
Besides being green and unsophisticated, one of the things that complicated my first year at college was that I am an identical twin.
For seventeen years I had the closest of roommates -- my twin brother, Brian. Now, at the University of Hartford, I would be rooming with a total stranger. I was paired with another freshman athlete, who happened to be the center of our college basketball team.
My dorm wasn't ready on move-in day, so for a while I shared space with two sophomores from Long Island. Let's put it this way: we didn't know what to make of each other. They were light years ahead of me in every kind of experience, so we made a pretty odd threesome.
This was the 1960s, so, of course, I had heard about things like LSD and marijuana. But back home the strongest thing we ingested were fireballs from Jim's News Room. I had no sooner set up my bunk when I was asked to vacate the room so my new roommates could have a "special meeting" with a few friends. I sat in the lounge and smelled the acrid smoke leaking from under the door. I may have been naïve but I wasn't that stupid. They were good guys and I liked them, but they may as well have been from another planet.
When the new dorm was finished, I moved in a with a 6-foot, 5-inch tall guy from Hartford. We had both come from Catholic schools and we had basketball in common, too. I always felt that because I am a twin, new friendships weren't easy for me to make. Twins tend to live through each other in various ways. It is a unique relationship as durable as stone and very hard to supplant.
Greg and I hit it off pretty good, though. Like Brian, he enjoyed talking across the room at night in the dark and philosophizing about life. When he learned that I had been in the seminary, he made me his brother confessor. I reluctantly accepted the role he assigned me, demurring any moral superiority on my part. I knew that the difference between the two of us wasn't virtue, but simply the fact that I hadn't yet started to live.
Greg was handsome and full of life, a very social person. I was an introvert who tended to like my own company best. Up till that point, my life had been ruled by sports in an all-boys school. So when it came to girls, I had no experience and little confidence.
Greg had paid attention in his senior religion class, though, and was struggling with a moral dilemma. His girlfriend wanted to have sex, but his conscience was uneasy about it. In those days Catholic schools preached abstinence with a vengeance, and the lines were clearly drawn between chastity and sin. The price of failure was the loss of your soul. I listened to him anguish about his desire for his girl with his conscience holding him back. It occurred to me as he went back and forth, that I would've gone with the girl. I have a strong moral sense but I also know that life is rarely black and white. We have to live our way into knowledge sometimes.
We both worked together on the basketball court, but neither of us would start for the first team. Greg was strong with a springy vertical jump but he didn't have a real sense of the game. After breaking my foot I lost my speed, and the coach wasn't interested in me anymore. I admired Greg's good nature, and he was genuinely impressed with my ability to read and study for hours. With all his energy and plans, he simply couldn't sit still. One day he told me that he had decided to pledge a fraternity. It was the last thing I would ever think of doing, but I was intrigued by the stories he told me about being a pledge.
The fraternity was a free pass to women, beer and general collegiate fun and games. Greg suddenly took to wearing a beanie. He was never alone anymore and sometimes didn't come back to our room at all. He called his fraternity brothers, "Mister," and waited on them hand and foot. He described the girls who hung around the frat house and hinted at things that piqued my curiosity but were still outside my experience. There were hell nights that he vividly detailed. During one of these his frat brothers poured Tabasco sauce on his private area. I couldn't imagine why anyone would do such a thing or why Greg allowed them to do it. The fraternity meant a great deal to him and he was pleased with himself for passing all the initiation rites.
Despite my dislike of fraternities and confusion about their behavior, I realized that Greg was growing in ways that I wasn't. It was easy for me to study, but socializing was difficult. And there were times when we totally misunderstood each other, as guys sometimes will.
One evening he came in tipsy as I was studying at the desk by the window. He was stumbling around and talking to himself. I made a dismissive, critical remark. It must have stung him because the usually easygoing Greg bristled. He knocked the book out of my hand onto the floor. "You think you're better than everyone, Wallace?"
I shoved him away from me as he leaned into my face. It was like pushing against a brick wall. Before I knew what happened, his big hand smacked me right in the kisser. He squared off in a boxing stance and glared at me. I looked him in the eye, went to my side of the room and got into bed. It wasn't so much the mismatch I feared, as the absurdity of a fight with a friend.
I realized that night that Greg and I weren't really friends; we were just roommates. Realizing that subtle distinction was curious, but certainly a part of my own growing up in my first year of college.
Barry Wallace writes a weekly column for the Fairfield Citizen.