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Learning to Deal With a Planned Marriage

By Colin F. Boyle

It won't seem so at first, but after a while you'll realize that your first year at Harvard closely resembles a planned marriage. Out of the blue, you're forced to live with someone you don't know. The other person will expect you to do your share of the housework and complain loudly when you take too long in the shower.

Like some marriages, you gradually may grow tired of your spouse/roommate, preferring instead to spend your time outside the room in hopes of more pleasant companionship. These "affairs" may be the only way to make your Harvard experience bearable if your roomie is too annoying, but be careful...Glenn Close may be out there.

In some cases, you and your roommate will have what divorce courts call "irreconcilable differences," a euphemism for "I hate you--DIE!" In some cases, you will plot to kill, or at least maim, the person who has been inflicted on you. In some of those cases, rare though they may be, you will succeed.

You'll meet people--a lot of people--who claim to live with the Roommate from Hell. And not all of them are lying.

But before you start to think that all Harvard rooming groups are doomed to endless fighting over who ate whose Doritos, you should know that some folks are able to keep that special flame alive. Better stated, they are able to keep from strangling each other.

Like my first-year rooming group in Holworthy 9, for example. We were a strange bunch, with very little in common: a boisterous Jewish comic from New Jersey, an Italian football player, a WASPy athlete from Massachusetts and an Irish thug from Brooklyn.

In spite of our differences, or maybe because of them, we got along great all year. I honestly cannot recall us having a single fight the whole time we lived together.

It all started when Glenn, my New Jersey roommate, called me to introduce himself. Since I was too lazy to get in touch with the other two roommates, Glenn's objective analysis was all the information I had about them.

Glenn told me that Philip from Beverly was a very large offensive lineman who really didn't like being called Philip. Instead, he wanted to be called "Duke." And, Glenn said, Mike from Wayland was doing something in China for the summer.

Although Glenn said they seemed kind of strange, at least Duke and Mike weren't as bad as the roommate one of his friends got, a guy who warned Glenn's friend that he "liked to wear capes."

Roughly 45 minutes into our conversation, Glenn said, "Colin, I'm glad you seem normal. I was getting concerned about who I'd be living with."

At that point, I asked Glenn if he was bringing up a record player so I could listen to my Metallica albums. Glenn paused, then said he had to go.

When I arrived for Orientation Week, I was surprised to find Duke asleep in the room. He was about as big as I thought he'd be, which is pretty impressive since I was conjuring up the image of Mighty Joe Young all summer.

Duke had moved into the room early because he was on Dorm Crew the week before, and he had already claimed a bottom bunk. I was not going to object, given the nasty squint he gave me when I introduced myself. I didn't realize that he couldn't see without his contact lenses, but I felt a little more relaxed a few minutes later when I helped him escape after he had locked himself into the bathroom.

Duke didn't quite fit the jock stereotype. Sure he wore sweats and a baseball cap all the time--the standard jock outfit (he soon stopped wearing the cap after Glenn started a rumor that it covered his bald spot). But Duke had a part-time job, spent more time studying than anyone I knew and went to bed no later than 12:30 a.m. on weeknights. The only bad part is that when I slumped into bed an hour or two later, Duke was already snoring gale-force winds.

If Duke could deal with my ever-growing piles of laundry lying about the room, I figured I could deal with a little snoring.

Mike, who shared a bunk-bed with Glenn, may or may not have snored--no one knew, since he was never around the first few weeks. Glenn dubbed him "The Phantom," in part because Mike would not appear in the room until after 2 a.m., in part because Mike could do things like exit through the front door and re-emerge seconds later from his room.

What made Mike's disappearing and reappearing acts so dramatic was the fact that for a while he had to do them on crutches. A top-notch wrestler and pole vaulter, Mike recently had blown out one of his knees on a bad vault and had stitches in his knee from the surgery. It was easy to tell that Mike, the quintessential athlete, was getting impatient with the healing process, because whenever he had a few drinks, he went jogging, crutches and all.

Suddenly the word "phantom" became a verb. As the year went on and the academic load grew, Mike phantomed more and more frequently. After the night Mike and Ben, the nut from Santa Monica across the hall, decided they were going to run around the Yard dressed only in shaving cream and shorts, we initiated a Phantom Watch. People would call on Friday nights: "Is he doing it? Can we come over?"

The funny thing about Mike was that he gave everything he was doing his full concentration--whether scaling the Widener Library walls or reading Samuel Johnson. One night, he and Glennwoke me up at 4:30 a.m. with their discussion inthe common room on Eliot's "The Love Song of J.Alfred Prufrock."

That's Harvard, I guess, but the Phantom wasdefinitely not the most normal Harvard type. Buthe was fun to be around, and he didn't break toomany things.

Glenn sometimes got a little out of controlwhen he drank, too. At some parties, he wouldquote Beowulf and demand that everyone callhim Grendel. Then he would get sick on the carpet.

Still, we encouraged Glenn to drink becausewhen he was drunk he became hystericallyobnoxious. He'd make rude comments about everyone,and crack some of the funniest non-sequitorsyou'll ever hear. And if he got drunk enough,Glenn would start to dance, which was far funnierthan any of his jokes.

Glenn was, and is, a very neat person, so Idon't know how he dealt with living in our room.Holworthy 9 is on the first floor, which meantthat everyone in the entryway would stop by for awhile on their way upstairs. Many would bringfood, some of which inevitably ended up on ourrug. The food that didn't hit the rug insteadwould hit the piles of pizza boxes and newspapersthat lasted for weeks on our floor.

It was squalor, pure and simple, and Glennhated it. You could tell that by the way herefused to walk on the carpet in his bare feetbecause he was afraid of catching a disease. ButGlenn never let his revulsion of the way we livedaffect the way he dealt with those of us whocaused the mess. Instead, he just got even byplaying his Broadway show tapes after we had allgone to sleep.

I have some great memories of my first year:our wine cooler' and cheez whiz party whichevolved into a pineapple fight that nearlydestroyed our room; Duke singing "Hey Jude" infalsetto in time with his walkman, unaware thatothers could hear him; the Mets winning the WorldSeries over the Red Sox; Ben participating in hisfirst-ever snowball fight.

I also have some less-than-pleasant ones:sobering up much too late one night at LesleyCollege; sleepwalking and sleeptalking withincreasing frequency; watching people throw dartsat the Gary Carter poster over my desk; winningthe Great Chickwich Eat-Off against Duke (eight in32 minutes). But the year was easily the best oneI have ever had.

They say that you learn more from the studentshere than from the professors. That's trueespecially if you luck out like me and get greatroommates. It helps, of course, if you're laidback and tolerant of the people with whom youlive. After all, it takes some people a whilelonger than others to get used to marriage.

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