My reading habits are changing, for lately I open the newspaper to the obituary page first. I’ve always been a rather morbid man, but there’s a kind of pride in seeing familiar names and knowing that after seventy-some years I’m still here.
This morning, though, was a shocker. Ed’s name was on that page. There was even a photo, the bizarre habit newspapers have these days of including a smiling picture of the person who has – usually reluctantly – departed.
I stared at the face trying to see some vestige of the Ed I had known. He looked older, of course, jowly and all that, yet still a hint of the cynical humor he wore like a favorite suit.
He was my first roommate in college. I had been specific about what I wanted, filling out the questionnaire. Someone with a preference for classical music, a non-smoker, white, of course.(I’m embarrassed about my younger self.) What I hadn’t listed was that I hoped my roommate would have the confidence I lacked to attract girls to our dorm, but not be so dashing that I became invisible.
I first saw him when I staggered into the room carrying a pile of books. I tripped on the doorsill and the heaviest book landed on the floor loudly enough to waken the figure, half buried under the blankets on the bed nearest the window. I remember that detail because I thought it was nervy of him to usurp that bed. We should’ve tossed a coin to see who got it. A face emerged from under the blanket and my first thought was, what a large head.
“Hello, there,” a baritone voice declared. “I’m Ed.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I mumbled. Did I mention that I was excruciatingly shy in my youth? First time away from home and all that.
The next few minutes unroll past me like a remembered film. He yawned, pushed off the blanket and with what seemed like great effort, slid out of bed and stood up. I stared at an apparition. The upper part of his body was muscular and broad, but this upper part ended in abbreviated legs. He was no more than four-and-a-half feet tall.
“Let me help you with those books,” he said.
I couldn’t speak. Of all the qualifications I had carefully listed, I had never thought to say, please assign me a roommate who’s a normal size.
“I’ll go downstairs with you,” he said. “Help carry up the rest of your stuff.”
“Not necessary,” I muttered.
He looked at me – looked up at me, rather – and I knew he knew.
“Well, since we’re going to be roommates,” he said, “why don’t you tell me your name?”
I rushed to the Admissions Office and waited in an interminable line that snaked down the hallway. When I finally got to a window that looked like a cashier’s in a movie theatre, I asked to be given a different room.
“All the rooms are the same,” said the clerk.
“I mean . . . roommate. . . . “
I fumbled for an answer. But it didn’t matter, no changes could be made now. Apply next semester.
The rest of that day is a blur. How Ed produced a coin so we could choose which of us had the bed near the window, though really it didn’t matter; how much space for each of us in the one closet, and so on.
“I don’t take up much room,” he said, grinning as though it were some kind of joke. “Let’s grab something to eat. First things first, you know. I located the cafeteria already.”
We walked together across the campus. I tried to slow my pace but he was actually a faster walker than I was. The campus seemed unbearably large because so many other students were passing by and staring at us. I’ll always be stared at now, I thought grimly, as long as I’m with him.
Ed seemed unaware of the stares. He was chattering away, pointing out the various buildings. ”There’s the History Department,” he said, gesturing at the ivy-coated stone building. “That’s mine,” he added as if he owned it. “I’m planning to major in history, a subject full of falsehoods and illusions, but what can you do? The only subject that tells the truth is mathematics and I’m bored by numbers. Know what I mean?”
But I was distracted by the shortness of that gesturing arm, the hand as small as a child’s.
“And you?” he was asking. ”Do you know what your major will be?”
“I haven’t decided,” I said sullenly.
“You’re smart to take your time.”
How dare he talk to me as though he were some wise elder? I’ll just ignore him, I thought.
When we got back to the room two schedules had been slipped under the door, each of our names on one. That’s how I discovered his name was really Edmund.
“Guilty,” he said when I asked. “My mother had a notion that Edmund was a romantic name. I guess she didn’t know he was the bastard son in Lear. My father just calls me Ed. ‘Ed for short,’ he always says. Get it?” He lay back on the bed laughing.
Well, that’s how it began. I felt tension filling that claustrophobic room; a tension compounded of rage that had no exit. My rage, I mean. He, on the other hand, seemed relaxed and cheerful. Though you never can tell what that hides. For on the first evening he opened his suitcase and brought out a bottle. “I could use a bit of brandy,” he said. “How about you, Thomas?” I had told him my name was Tom, but he insisted on calling me Thomas. It sounded patronizing.
“We’re not supposed to have alcohol in the dorm room,” I said.
“We’re not?” he asked, eyebrows raised in mocking surprise. “Are you one of those rules boys?”
It wasn’t the “rules,” that got me, it was being called a boy.
“Not at all,” I said. “I’ll have a drink with you. A small one.” Then I actually blushed, because innocuous words like ”small” suddenly seemed to have subterranean hostility.
He poured drinks, carried one over to me on those absurd legs. ”To our being roommates,” he toasted.
“Roommates,” I mumbled.
I looked at him – straight at him for a change, for I was sitting on a chair and he was standing, so we were level. He had the oddest smile, the kind that heroines in movies of those days affected to show that their hearts were secretly breaking.
“It will be all right, Thomas,” he said.
I wish I hadn’t seen the obituary this morning. It’s too distracting. I can’t concentrate on anything except images of that dorm room, with Ed and me circling around each other — mentally, that is. I found ways to keep my distance, for he was, I’m ashamed to admit, repellent to me. I’m sure he knew it, which makes this gray morning, the newspaper on the breakfast table, a merciless pull into the past.
I plunged into an effort to make friends with the boisterous young men in my classes. Lounging together in one of the other dorm rooms – for I never asked them to mine – our conversation turned one day to the subject of roommates. I remember one boy complaining that his had a habit of dropping his dirty clothes on the floor. When he ran out of fresh clothing, he’d turn the pile over and begin over again:
”Anyone care to change roommates with me?” he asked.
“I will,” I called out.
“You’ve only got half a roommate!” There was a burst of laughter. I hate to remember (but I’m being honest with myself today) that I joined in the chorus. I would have done anything to be accepted by my peers.
Even to the point of trying to satisfy their curiosity about Ed’s penis. How small was it? they wanted to know. I said I hadn’t seen it but when I did I’d let them know. So I stole furtive looks when Ed was getting dressed or undressed. But he – sensing what I was after? – kept his back to me. So I was never able to satisfy the curiosity of my fellow students. Nor my own curiosity, I admit.
And what about girls? Had he ever. . . ?
Sex, of course, was the main topic in my meetings with those boys. Have I mentioned that this was an all-boys school? In those days, it was considered civilized to separate the genders in colleges. It’s a thing that my own son could never understand when he shared a room with three other students – two of whom were female. ”Bizarre,” he said when I told him about the segregation.
Bizarre. A fancy word for how Ed seemed to me. If he guessed how much I resented him he never let on.
Some evenings we got into political discussions, politics being more or less neutral territory. I was an Eisenhower man, too young to vote in those days when 21 was the required age, but still staunch in the Republicanism inherited from my father and his father.
Ed, on the other hand, announced, “Part of my post-adolescent rebellion is to be on the opposite side of everything in my family.” He idolized Adlai Stevenson. “A brilliant bird no one understands or appreciates.” I wonder now if those words didn’t say more about Ed.
He complained that his birthday was one month too late for him to vote. So I knew he was older than me, though at 18 I resented his older-man attitude. He had taken off two years after high school to “grow up,” he said. I had a surprising feeling of envy.
“We’ll draw a line in the middle of the room,” he told me. “You on your Republican side, me on the Democratic – though I’m more temperamentally suited to being an anarchist.” He proceeded to arrange his clothes – shirts, pants, pajamas – in a row across the floor.
“After Election Day, we can be friends again,” he joked.
He went on ignoring my coldness, my distance, my excuses not to have dinner with him. I never saw him in the cafeteria. Where did he eat? What did he do?
“The guy’s a loner,” one of the boys told me.
Loner? I thought. Or lonely? It was the first time it had occurred to me.
Since we were both freshmen, we shared some of the required classes, like an Art Survey course. I remember that one because of a famous painting by Velazquez: Las Meninas.
“The title means Maids of Honor,” the professor explained, as a projector flashed the painting on a screen. “The Infanta – the princess – is in the middle, surrounded by her maids. Note the dwarf in the lower right-hand corner.”
The wooden pointer tapped against the small man who was looking into the distance with an inscrutable expression. “Dwarves,” said the professor, “were once the playthings of royal children.”
I heard barely smothered titters, almost felt the glances shot in our direction, for Ed had sat himself down beside me. But if Ed was aware he gave no sign. His head remained bent over a notebook, where he was inscribing something.
My rage at his sitting beside me, linking me with him, turned into embarrassment – and a darker feeling: shame.
When the bell rang I turned toward him. “Care to go for coffee?” I asked. The first invitation I’d extended. We walked across the campus in silence. I tried to think of something to say.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out. “About the class I mean.”
“One should never be apologetic about art.”
That was all he said. The subject was never brought up again.
After that day I began to want to know him better. How terrible was it, I’d wondered, to know you’re so different from other men? In my awkward youth I felt that way myself.
So we became, if not exactly friends, sharers of various confidences.
“Have you ever – you know – known a girl?” I blurted out one night.
“Known, as in the Biblical sense?” He waved his brandy glass at me. “Have you, Thomas?”
He had caught me in my virginal pretentiousness. I didn’t realize he hadn’t answered my question.
Another night we got to siblings. “I wish I weren’t an only child,” I confided. “All the family expectations rest on me. At least if I had a brother, I’d have a permanent friend, a champion.”
“Ah, yes, like Cain and Abel,” he said, with a mocking smile. “How about those other loving brothers, Esau and Jacob? A mere accident of birth deciding who would emerge first from the womb. Of course Jacob clutched his brother’s heel in a vain effort to be first. Anyway, he never got what we all want – to be Daddy’s favorite.”
Ed for short, I thought.
“Do you have siblings?” I asked.
“Two older sisters. Normal sized,” he added casually. “My father longed for a son he could brag about. Then he got me.” He lifted his glass in a toast. “Cheers.”
“I’m sure he’s proud of you,” I muttered inanely.
“Sure,” he echoed, bitterness lining his voice for the first time.
Of course I wanted the stamp of approval that came from being accepted by a fraternity. Ed said that was the last thing he’d want. I wondered if his scorn was genuine or a protective layer because he wouldn’t have a chance. I told him if I got into a fraternity I would propose him for membership. Knowing even as I made my fatuous offer, how condescending – and unrealistic – it sounded.
“For God’s sake, don’t!” he said.
One day a boy in the most desirable fraternity jeered, “I saw you having coffee with the midget.”
I swung at him, knocked him down, told him he was never to use that word in my presence again. Ed stood nearby silently saluting me.
No. That only happened in a dream I had afterward. I said nothing. I wanted that fraternity membership.
The only thing I wanted more desperately than a fraternity was a girl.
One of the boys introduced me to a coed from our sister college. I fell instantly in love with her, or thought I did. I can’t even remember her name anymore. I went to a dance with her, kissed her afterward.
“Her lips tasted like strawberry from her lipstick,” I informed Ed.
“Ah, strawberry.” He lay back against the cushions, eyes closed. His tongue licked his lips.
I didn’t tell him she had seen him crossing the campus one day and asked, “Who’s that?”
”Actually, he’s the guy I room with.” I heard the apology in my voice.
“Weird,” she said.
Soon after she jilted me for a football player. I knew it had nothing to do with Ed, but I was angry at him.
“I can’t compete with a six-footer,” I told Ed brutally. Aware of the cruelty of my words. If I was hurting, he had to hurt too – only he would never show it.
“There will be other girls for you,” he said gently.
In the unspoken postscript and the hollowness of his voice, I heard the magnitude of his loneliness.
The obituary says he was a Shakespearean authority, had written a “groundbreaking” text about the subterranean currents between parents and children in the plays. I hear echoes of our late night discussions when I was taking a course in the Tragedies. I wish I had taken notes of Ed’s comments, for he illuminated the plays far more than the routine explanations of the professor. I do remember one thing Ed said:
“Hamlet’s famed indecision was more likely the universal ambivalence between love and hate of one’s parent.”
I started to protest that one couldn’t possibly “hate” . . . but I was silenced by his mocking smile.
I wonder if he used that line in his book.
One day Ed announced that he was switching his planned major from history to English literature. “I might as well study what’s unabashedly fiction.”
He seemed quite pleased with himself.
Near the end of the year a notice was slid under the door, addressed to me.
“What’s up?” Ed asked, as I stood staring at the words.
“Nothing,” I muttered.
“Oh, ho. ‘Nothing’ sounds full of something. Share, friend.”
“It’s just a stupid. . . .They’re assigning me to a different roommate next semester.”
“I see.” There was silence for a moment. “At your request?”
Damn his brilliance.
“Well, yes, but that was before. . . .”
“It will be all right.” he said, as he’d said that first day.
“I’ve changed my mind. “
He waved me away. “It will be good for you. Change of scene, different cast of characters. And, frankly, I’m thinking of asking for off-campus lodgings. Rather be by myself, you know.”
He downed the brandy in one gulp.
That’s more or less the end of it. I went home for summer vacation, wondering what Ed was doing. I sent him a postcard. “Miss our talks.” There was no response.
Returning to college I looked for Ed, but couldn’t find him anywhere. I checked the student registration. He wasn’t listed.
“I think that guy went somewhere else,” one of the boys told me. ”Maybe a training school for the circus?”
I walked away without answering.
My new roommate was genial, adequately bright, utterly dull. We got along fairly well in a kind of beige relationship.
After graduating I became a high school math teacher – hadn’t Ed said that mathematics was the one subject that tells the truth? From time to time I’d wonder what he was doing, think of getting in touch with him somehow. When I was promoted to Principal, I wanted him to know. But I let the years slide by.
I thought one day I would write a novel about the friendship of two young men, one of whom would be based on Ed, but I never did. I became one of the hordes of people whose “Great American Novel” remains unwritten.
I’d like to think that because of Ed I became a more tolerant person. That I stood tall – so to speak – against all forms of bigotry. That’s how it would be in a movie. Often I did stand firm against the bullying of students who were in any way different. But too many times I kept silent, afraid of disrupting the placid surface of my life. After all, I’m only human, which Ed once called a synonym for cowardice.
Perhaps that’s why I never tried to contact him. For despite a sense of loss after he left, wasn’t there also a feeling of relief?
I wonder if he remembered me in the years afterward. The thought that I might have faded from his mind feels intolerable, as I carefully cut the notice out of the paper.
The obituary says he’s survived by a wife and two sons. I look him up on the Internet, find a picture of him with his family. His wife is by his side, equal height. They are flanked by their sons, who tower over them. How did he feel about his sons being “normal” – whatever that means? But I never knew what Ed really felt.
I wish I could tell him I’ve never found anything to match the friendship I had with him. I didn’t realize, you see, how much I had lost.