Getting wrapped up in YOU is a human prerogative.
We tend to think of ourselves first and assume the way it is for us is the only vantage point from where we can make any judgments. In fact, I never really thought about how other people were brought up or how they could have different viewpoints than me until I met October.
Of course, I had met people who disagreed me before. But I always had the luxury of assuming they were wrong and then dismissing them and their ideas.
But October was inexplicable. We had completely different world views. Completely different ideas of how the world should be run. How people should be treated. How crime and punishment should meet. And we had long, drawn out discussions where we talked about it.
I liked October. Probably because I’d never (and haven’t yet) met anyone like her. She was self deprecating, yet flirtatious. Mostly quiet, then she’d explode with dialogue on topics I’d never even thought about before.
She was an unusual roommate. And we were strange friends. But, since I could (and still can) name my true friends on one hand, I wasn’t about to leave this truly interesting person just so I could find a boring one who agreed with me.
Besides, living with Tob (her nickname) was an adventure. I’d come back to my dorm room and never know what to expect.
Tob and I became roommates by default. My roommate (and my soul mate at that time) and I had a falling out, and she was moving out. I was in a brand new dating relationship and my security blanket was leaving me. I was unstable and unsteady but amazingly stubborn.
Tob’s roommate was moving out to room with her best friend who was coming from Michigan. All the other rooms were unchanged or otherwise arranged. Tob and I were the only two singles with double rooms. So, it was either each other or an unknown entity – incoming freshmen.
I still remember how it happened. My roommate (who was not speaking to me) was moving her stuff out while Tob was in the hallway. Tob and I had made the transition to friendly-say-hi-and-how’s-it-going-while-waiting-for-the-elevator relationship.
She eyed me tentatively and then took a long look inside my room which was dominated with a giant James Dean poster and various magazine cutouts of Tom Cruise. I took in her green sweatshirt with the yellow Tweety-Bird and tired expression. It was a strange sort of moment. It was as though we accepted each other in a way that we couldn’t even understand. Even in light of our amazingly different personalities.
So, Tob and her one suitcase moved into my room.
She’s told me that our friendship saved her life that year. Unbeknownst to me, she’d spent the previous year in deep depression after a dating relationship ended badly. She’d barely made it to class, had a D average, and gotten several unexplained rashes that the doctors attributed to stress. So, she wasn’t the happiest of campers when she moved in with me.
In spite of that, I still liked her. She was so different from me that I couldn’t help but notice. My previous roommate and I had been on the same wavelength. We didn’t agree on everything, but it was like we looked at life from the same big, happy kaleidoscope.
October had one suitcase. I had five. My closet wasn’t big enough to hold all my clothes. She used a third of her closet space. My dresser was stuffed with hair and make-up accessories. Tob didn’t wear make-up and kept her hair bands in a plastic sandwich bag.
She liked to sleep on the hard floor at night occasionally. I’d be snuggled up in bed and look over in the morning, and there she’d be – on the floor, under a single blanket, feet uncovered and resting on the radiator for warmth. I’d shake my head in wonder.
Sometimes, when she was feeling less flagellated, she’d sleep in the bunk above me. She’d tell me about bumps on her leg and how she thought it was cancerous.
“I think I have cancer,” she’d say and flip her head over the side of the bed where she could see me.
“You don’t have cancer.” I’d assure her and go back to reading my textbook.
“I really think I do. How do you know I don’t?” She’d flip back over and stare at the ceiling in concentration.
“People our age don’t get cancer.” I’d say, firm in my belief at that time that bad things don’t happened to good people.
“Sure they do,” she’d say and then list cases of where they, indeed, did get cancer. “So, do you think it is?”
“No,” I reassured her.
“Well, if it is, then it’s my own fault,” With a martyred sigh, she closed her eyes.
I put my textbook down, stood up, and studied her. “How is it your fault?” I’d ask, leaning over the side of the bed.
She turned toward me. “I’m a wicked person and probably deserve it.”
I spite of that dire prediction, I couldn’t help smiling. She was so depressed, so worried about something that wasn’t even happening, and already blaming herself. I never blamed myself – for anything.
“You’re not wicked,” I assured her. “Let’s go eat something.” And she’d haul herself off the top bunk, and we’d venture out into the city.
If it hadn’t been for October, my Chicago life would have been safe and boring. Her penchant for the unusual took me to some interesting places. We went to dinner in truck stops where we were the only women and everyone stopped eating when we came in. We ventured to places in the city where I’d never have gone on my own.
Tob also taught me about myself. She’d worry about immigration and life on the mission field. She’d notice the kids in class that no one else did. I was mainly concerned with getting good grades and my high profile internship with a prestigious Chicago company.
One night, we talked about the world. Tob expounded on immigration and on the increasing mission field. She talked about the sacrifice needed. I disagreed. If people chose to go to the mission field – that was their choice, and I shouldn’t be expected to feel sorry or bad for them – they made the decision. As for immigration, I could have cared less. It didn’t affect ME, I told her.
It affects all of us, she told me then sighed. “Who do you think you are, Miss Ethnocentricity, where the world revolves around you?” She asked me. It was a long nickname, a clever insult, and one of the funniest things I’d ever heard. I laughed for a long time. In fact, we both did. And the nickname stuck!
After that, I tried not to be so focused on me and my life. I didn’t know how NOT to be friends with my roommate, so it was easy to incorporate Tob into my life. She was still recovering from her break-up, so she felt a little funny when I asked her if she wanted to go out with me and Brett. But she did.
Pretty soon, she went out with us all the time. Brett loved it. He was amazed and pleased to discover there were two women out there who enjoyed his company. So, he not only gained a girlfriend, but a new friend as well. And I got to know my new friend even better. And Tob didn’t have to stay locked up, in self-imposed solitude, in our dorm room. It was a good situation for everyone.
Over the next year and a half, Tob and I became extremely close. She’d make rice for dinner and sit on the floor studying her linguistics books, and I’d eat granola bars, sit on my bed, and sketch out assignments for my creative writing assignments.
She’d point out interesting linguistics patterns to me. “Have you ever noticed that ‘chruck’ sounds like ‘truck’ to the untrained ear?”
I’d try out new story ideas. “I’m thinking a Laura Ingalls-type meets Steven King. What do you think?”
We became as comfortable as old shoes and bathrobes - as different as could be, but totally accepting of each other eccentricities. By our last semester together, people were coming to us for advice. We answered questions on roommate etiquette, soothed troubled waters, and tried to maintain the peace.
One girl even confessed to us that she had snuck into our room, when we weren’t there, and just lay down on my bed. When we laughed and asked her why, she said that it was just so peaceful in our room. “I needed good vibrations.”
Tob once gave me one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received. She said I always affirmed her. That I believed that she could do it and could do it well. I told her it was because I was always affirmed growing up. My parents always told me how proud they were of me. And when people are proud of you, you naturally try to do better.
When she eventually graduated, she was scholastically a full year and a half ahead of me, she was worried about who I was going to end up with for a new roommate. When I told her I was going to room with Jeannette – the girl who came in our room to find peace – she knew it would be a great fit. And it was.
I hated to see Tob go, but I knew it was the right thing for her. We are still good friends, perhaps even best friends, able to pick up where we left off.
Tob’s life has not been an easy road, and I know she would say the same about me. Together, we’ve weathered great heights - proposals, marriages (she was one of my bridesmaids), children – and low valleys – death (my father’s), unexpected pregnancies, and more.
But she’s my rock. We still don’t agree on everything. But we still love and need each other – and each other’s viewpoints – desperately.
And, isn’t that what friendship really is? I know it is, especially for Miss Ethnocentricity.