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Faith and the Freshman Roommate

As our 25th reunion for Brown University crept up, an important question emerged: What really stuck since college?

The crushes on musicians in black turtlenecks came and went. The impact of Beowulf and Bio 6 class, unfortunately, faded too. But lessons of tolerance, first learned through my freshman roommate, left a lasting impression. She expanded my cultural horizons, and stretched my comfort zone.

My side of the room had stripes. Hers had pastels. I brought cassette tapes of Foreigner and Phil Collins. She brought Madonna and Tears for Fears. I brought Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. She brought Kentucky Derby shot glasses. I graduated from a small parochial school in Boston. She came from a large public school in Kentucky.

We decided to meet at the food court in a mall the summer before freshman year. Why wait ‘til September? Let’s end the mystery. Who’s bringing the mini-fridge?

I chose the veggie pocket; she chose the meatball sub. I broke the news that I was “kind of kosher.” She stopped chewing mid-meatball.

By orientation, we hardly crossed paths. I hung out at Hillel House. She hit the frats. At the dorm icebreaker, we stood on opposite sides of the lounge. Our resident counselors advised us all to look beyond our differences. There’d be exams, papers, and other storms ahead. No one should have to deal with the freshman 15, the first heartbreak, or a B- paper alone, not without the support of roommates, late night “credit” at the Ivy Room, health services, or Ben & Jerry’s.

As if on cue, Hurricane Gloria hit Providence our first semester, testing our freshman resolve with category-three gust winds. We hunkered down in Jameson House, the heel of the west quad dorm, smacking down window tape to cover any leaks, and, of course, taking inventory of our prized mini-fridge — microwave popcorn, squeezy yellow mustard, chunky monkey, check, check, check. Then we danced out the rest of the storm, along with the rest of our freshman unit, to the chorus of U2’s “G-L-O-R-I-A.” Anyone for post-apocalyptic ultimate frisbee on the green?

By Christmas break, my roommate invited me home to Kentucky. The smell of homemade chocolate bourbon balls wafted over and greeted me at the door. Then shiny bells, bows, and ornaments — the first Christmas tree I’d ever seen up close. Out of my element, I wasn’t sure where to set my tiny aluminum travel menorah. My roommate suggested the windowsill upstairs, a sacred space of its own, so others could admire it from the street.

I went along to Sunday mass, mouthing the words to hymns I’d never heard before, but mesmerized by their comforting harmonies, and by the sit-and-stand choreographies everyone just seemed to know.

Likewise, I invited my roommate home for Passover. She at the Seder table, speechless by the oversized burnt crackers, and the jiggle of the gefilte fish. Then, as her elbow accidentally hit the table, spilling her first, second, fourth cup of wine, she turned as beet-red as the bitter herbs.

Later that spring, genuinely puzzled, I looked across the room and asked: “What’s with the schmutz on your forehead?”

“It’s Ash Wednesday,” she replied, as if explaining herself to an alien.

“Ash what Day?!” I repeated.

“Ash Wednesday. Much easier to pronounce than challahhhhhhhh,” she said, clearing a few fur balls from her throat, trying to pronounce the Sabbath and holiday bread.

And just like that, our deadpan dialogue broke into doubled over laughter. Without even knowing, we’d become the ecumenical odd couple.

Sophomore and junior year, we traded in our Jack Klugman and Tony Randall routines for going separate ways. We were studying abroad in Israel and Kenya, respectively. And by the time the postcards of romantic escapades, waterfalls, temples, and safaris had come undone from so much sticky putty on cinderblock dorm walls, it was time to come home.

Senior year, we decided to be roommates again. But this time, we filled an off-campus apartment at #9 Pitman Street with half our freshman dorm. And we’d give our first apartment — our first grown-up apartment — a fresh coat of paint. My room had stripes. Hers had pastels. Our first major investment? Chunky monkey.

Fast forward 25 years to the Kentucky Derby party I look forward to every year. This year, I show up with a blender under my arm, and 7-year-old twin boys in tow. I can’t wait to share a recently discovered recipe for bourbon milkshakes with my old roommate, her Jewish husband, and her two daughters. The kids climb under the coat pile, entangling themselves in crafts until the race begins.

“How was your Passover?” I ask her, peeking out from under my ridiculously wide-brimmed hat.

“The brisket was kind of tough,” she admits. “Next year, I told my mother-in-law it would be at my house instead. You’re invited too.”

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