“Well, here we are,” my mother said, slowing the car to a stop in front of the dorm. “Your home away from home for the next four years.”
“That it is,” I smiled. “Thank you for driving me all this way.”
“Your luggage should already be in the room, I’ve received confirmation by text,” she continued. “Try to get along with your room-mate.”
I nodded in acknowledgement. “Of course, mother,” I said. She’d always been overprotective. After a moment of silence I said, “Alright, I guess I’ll see you at Thanksgiving then.” I opened the car door and started to get out, but she put a hand on my arm, stopping me.
“Theo, are you really sure you want to attend this college?” she asked. “It’s not too late, I can still put in a good word with the dean of admissions at Vanderbilt and get you a place there.”
I rolled my eyes. “Mother, please, we’ve been over this,” I replied. “Bradford McKinley has one of the best triathlon teams in the country, and tuition is quite affordable too. You know money has been tight ever since father passed.”
“Yes, but… The team captain was caught doping just a few months ago,” she said. “And besides, the quality of education has been slipping ever since they started letting just about everyone attend.”
I sighed. There it was.
Mother was a good woman deep down, but she harboured an irrational dislike for those she considered to be “not respectable” – which of course meant people of colour, gay folks, immigrants… We’d often butted heads regarding this, as I did with my father when he was alive, but to no avail. I’d just taken to ignoring it whenever possible, it was no use arguing about it every time.
“But it’s still ranked in the top quarter of all colleges,” I rebutted, instead of acknowledging her bigotry. “And the doping was just one case. Also, I managed to get a scholarship for triathlon, so I don’t have to pay as much. I will not risk going into deep debt just because you don’t like the school I chose, mother.”
She looked at me for a moment, then sighed and removed her hand from my arm.
“You’re right, of course,” she replied. “It’s just… The thought of not being able to see you every day…”
“I promise I’ll call often,” I said. “And besides, it’s not like you’ll be alone at home, Peter and Leah will be there too.” Peter and Leah were my younger siblings; they were twins, and were going to start their sophomore year of high school soon.
“You’re right, you’re right,” my mother repeated. Then she looked deep into my eyes and caressed my cheek. “I just wish your father could see you now, all grown up.”
I grasped her hand and squeezed it. “Yeah, I miss him too,” I whispered.
We were quiet for a few moments, then she smiled and said, “Well, I better get going if I want to get to Cleveland before it gets dark.” She had been planning to sleep at her sister’s house in Ohio for the night, spend a couple days visiting her, then continue home.
I nodded. “Be careful on the road,” I said, getting out of the car and grabbing my suitcase from the back seat.
“I will,” she replied, still smiling. “You be good.”
“I will,” I said. And she drove off.
I stood there for a few moments, then turned around and looked at the dorm building, trying to commit every detail to memory; blocky and functional, it loomed before me like a giant poised to crush an ant. Built in the sixties, it was one of the few examples of brutalist architecture in New England – apparently the architect had been a refugee from the Soviet Union, and he sought to recapture the feeling of home in his work. He’d managed that.
I took a deep breath, enjoying the freedom; it was the first time in the eighteen years of my life I wouldn’t be subject to my parents’ control on every waking moment of my day.
Here we go.
I walked into the building and looked around; a folding table had been set up in the lobby, and a man who looked to be about twenty to twenty-five was sitting in a chair behind it; when he saw me he smiled, and beckoned me to come closer.
“Hello and welcome!” he said cheerily. “You must be one of the new students for the year, are you not?”
“That I am,” I replied, nodding and returning the smile.
“Well then, nice to meet you! I’m Darrell Brewster and I’m in charge of this dorm,” he continued. “And you are?”
“Okay, let me just see here…” he said, and started running his finger down a printed-out list that was lying on the table. “Parker, Parker…” he mumbled, then paused and looked up at me. “John Duncan Theodore Alan Parker the Sixth?”
I cringed at the sound of my full name; it always sounded so pompous, so formal, so manly. I much preferred using just one of the names, or better yet, a diminutive.
“Yeah, that’s me,” I said with a sigh.
Darrell didn’t miss a beat. “Perfect!” he said, still in his cheery tone of voice, handing me a couple of items. “Here is your room key and your orientation package, your room’s number 206, on the second floor, right wing. You’ll be rooming with Patrick Liam Murphy. My number and e-mail are on the welcome letter in the orientation package should you need to contact me.” He looked straight at me, still smiling. “Any questions?”
“None for now, I think,” I replied. I was a bit overwhelmed by the torrent of information, but I thought I’d gotten everything I needed. “Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome,” Darrell said. “Have a nice day!”
“You too,” I said, then turned around and walked to the elevator. Second floor, right wing: finding room 206 wasn’t difficult. I opened the door and stepped inside. It was… A normal dorm room: two beds, two wardrobes, two desks for studying, and a door which I guessed led to the bathroom. A bit small compared to my room back home, but it was mine. Well, mine and my room-mate's.
On the far side of the room, under the window, a few cardboard boxes were stacked: I recognised some of them as the ones which contained my clothes and other stuff, and which I had sent over by courier; there were also a couple others, which I guessed were my room-mate’s. I was about to start unpacking when there was a knock at the door; I turned around and opened it.
In front of me was a big, beefy black man: he was tall, three or four inches taller than I was, and his shoulders were very wide – he looked like he was easily over two hundred fifty pounds, of pure muscle. He would have made a good football linebacker, I thought.
“Hello, may I help you?” I said.
“Hi,” he replied, “I’m Patrick, your room-mate, nice to meet you!”
He extended a hand towards me, and I reflexively shook it. “You’re… My room-mate?” I asked.
“Yeah, unless I’m mistaken and this isn’t room 206. This is room 206, right?” he said.
“It is,” I confirmed.
I held his gaze for a couple seconds, until he asked: “Is there a problem?”
I shook myself. “No, no problem at all, sorry. Come in,” I replied, stepping to the side so he could get into the room. “It’s just… Patrick Liam Murphy. I was expecting…”
“Someone whiter? On the Irish side of things, maybe?” Patrick said, stepping inside. When I nodded he laughed and continued, “Don’t worry, I get that a lot, I won’t hold it against you. And you are… The guy with like seven names, right? What was it, John…?”
I sighed. “John Duncan Theodore Alan Parker the Sixth.”
“Damn,” Patrick said, blinking. “That’s a lot of names.”
I shrugged. “Old family name, passed down from father to son. The first man to bear it was a veteran of the Civil War.”
“Oh really?” my room-mate asked, raising an eyebrow. “Which side?”
“The wrong side,” I replied. When Patrick gave me a blank stare, I elaborated: “The Confederacy.”
Patrick nodded. “Okay, cool. So, do I have to remember all of them or what?”
It was my turn to laugh. “Nah, don’t bother, just pick one of them and use that.”
He put his finger to his chin and gave me a pensive look. “Hmm… What do your friends call you?” he asked.
“Theo,” I said. “That’s usually my nickname.”
“Well then, nice to meet you, Theo,” Patrick said, extending his hand towards me once more; again, I shook it.
“Nice to meet you too, Patrick,” I answered with a smile.
“Pat,” he replied.
“Pat, then,” I repeated, nodding. “So what do we say we get settled in, and then head to dinner? I bet there’s some pointers regarding where to eat in the orientation material.”
Pat nodded in return. “Sure, let’s do that. Which bed would you like? I’m a light sleeper, so it’s probably best if I get the one farthest away from the bathroom door. You know, so if you have to get up during the night you don’t risk waking me up.”
“Fine by me.”
We were quiet as we opened our cardboard boxes and put away their contents; we were quite busy finding the right place for everything, and putting everything in the right place. It only took about half an hour, though: the room was quite small, and we didn’t have lots of stuff – it was our home away from home, true, but it was just a dorm room after all.
“Okay,” I said, straightening up from sliding the empty boxes under my bed. “I think I’m just about done here. How about you, Pat?”
“I’m done too, I just need to hang the last of my clothes,” he replied, grabbing a few hangers from his wardrobe and starting to thread his trousers through them. “Oh, when we go out for dinner, do you mind if we stop by a store too? I realised I forgot to bring a toothbrush, and I also need to buy some shampoo and stuff.”
“Yeah, no problem,” I said. Thinking about it, I also needed to bring some basic toiletries – I had some in my suitcase, but those were small, hotel-sized samples that would last me a couple days at most.
Patrick was done in short order, and we walked downstairs. When we passed through the lobby Darrell waved at us. “Evening, guys!” he called out. “How are you two getting along?”
“We’re good, Theo is a nice dude,” Patrick said in response.
I grimaced. I’d always disliked being called a dude, it had, I don’t know… A frat boy kind of feeling. It brought to mind images of muscled, shirtless guys, chugging down kegs of beer.
Darrell noticed my expression. “Is something the matter?”
“No, nothing, it’s just…” I sighed. “Sorry, maybe I’m just being touchy, but I don’t like that word.”
“What word?” Patrick queried.
“Oh really?” he said, his eyebrows raising in surprise. When I nodded, he continued: “Huh. Okay then, I’ll avoid using it in the future.”
I smiled. “Thanks, man.”
“Of course,” he replied, smiling in return. “What are friends for?”
Well then, apparently we’d gone from complete strangers to friends in the space of about an hour. Not that I minded, Pat seemed really nice.
“I see you’re getting along fine,” Darrell said. “Heading out?”
Patrick nodded. “Yes, to dinner, and to buy some stuff. And maybe to do a bit of exploring.”
“Alright,” Darrell continued. “Please remember that the front door gets locked at ten PM, you’ll have to use the key to get in if you come back after that. And that time is also the cut-off for loud noises, so please mind that too.”
“Okay,” I replied.
We waved goodbye to Darrell, and headed out into town. According to the information pamphlet we’d received, the closest grocery store was about a twenty minutes’ walk from the dormitory. Pat and I didn’t talk at all, except for pointing out some buildings we recognised from the orientation material and from having perused the college’s website. Soon we reached the store, and we each grabbed a basket and started browsing the shelves.
“What do you think about this, Theo?” Patrick asked, handing me a bottle of shampoo. I unscrewed the top and smelled the contents: soapy (of course) but also musky; it had a hint of thyme, maybe? I frowned inwardly, I’d always disliked strong scents like those, but I knew from experience not to let my dislike show – I’d been teased mercilessly in junior high for thinking Axe Body Spray smelled terrible.
“Not bad,” I replied, replacing the cap and giving the shampoo back to Patrick, who nodded and placed it into his basket. As he moved on to the toothpaste section I took a look around the shelves, and my eye was drawn to a pale pink bottle with light blue flowers printed on it. Maybe…?
I grabbed the bottle and opened it; the scent was very faint, almost non-existent, but it smelled slightly like flowers and roses. Yeah, that would do. I put the shampoo in my basket, and started browsing the shelves for a couple other things.
“Shampoo, conditioner, and body soap?” Patrick remarked when we’d paid and left the store. “Isn’t one product enough?”
“It’s not,” I replied. “They all have different compositions, shampoo is good for hair but terrible for your skin, and conditioner is essential to keep your hair healthy. You’ll end up bald and wrinkly as a prune by the time you’re forty if you don’t use the right stuff, especially if you’re a swimmer like me: chlorinated water is terrible, you want to properly wash it out as soon as you can,”
“Oh, do you swim?” he asked.
I nodded. “Yeah, I do triathlon actually, it’s one of the reasons I picked this college, it has a really good team.”
“Huh. I’d noticed you look really athletic, but I never would’ve thought that’s your sport of choice.”
“And what about you?” I queried. “Any sports you like?” I paused, then smirked, and continued, “Football, maybe?”
He smiled in return. “Ha ha, very funny,” he said. “Yeah, I know what I look like, but I’m actually terrible at sports. I’d tried out for the football team in high school at my friends’ insistence, but I didn’t make the cut.”
“Not surprising at all. Body type doesn’t necessarily mean aptitude for a specific sport.”
“If you say so,” he replied, shrugging. “Between us, you’re the expert in these things.”
“So, where do you want to eat dinner?” I asked. “According to this guide, there’s a café not far from here. Let’s see… Coffee PB, I think it was.”
“Sure, let’s try that,” he said.
We kept chatting through dinner; from our conversation I learned that Patrick was going to be majoring in astronomy (I, on the other hand, had chosen chemistry), and he’d even gotten a scholarship, which was fortunate because otherwise there was no way he could’ve managed to afford college. While we talked I looked around, and I found myself really enjoying the atmosphere and the décor of the café: it was clearly a place for sportspeople to hang out, and according to the map it was quite close to the athletic facilities too.
We came back to our room at about nine PM, and I went straight to bed: I was quite tired from the day, mother and I had woken up in our motel room halfway between here and my home quite early in the morning to avoid being late; after consulting with Patrick, I set my alarm clock for five AM, so I would have time to go for a run and shower and rest a bit more before it was time to go attend the first lesson of my college career.
Thinking about what the future had in store for me, I turned off my bedside light, turned over, and was asleep before I knew it.