Eighth Times the Charm

On a scorching day in August 1992, I was sitting with my mother on a stout concrete wall outside of Bruce Hall, waiting for the building to open and move into my home away from home for the first time.

I wasn’t alone outside, as quite a number of other students loitered about the front entrance. I passed the time by observing some of my fellow freshman. Sitting across from me was one of the loudest country bumpkins I’d ever heard — a beanpole of a boy crowned with a Gilligan hat, his face decorated with freckles and a goofy grin that seemed permanently etched on his face. He spoke with the thickest country accent this side of the Mason-Dixon Line, and I remember thinking that I’d feel sorry for whoever is stuck with him as a roommate.

Around this time, the front door was unlocked and the staff welcomed us inside. Mother and I went through a gauntlet of paperwork required to get my key, then we went upstairs to inspect my new new room — and call dibs on the bottom bunk. While inspecting the room and completing paperwork, I heard that familiar loud twang once again. But instead of being across from me, it was now directly behind me. “Well, you must’a be my roomie!”

I turned to look, and there was that freckle-faced kid that I made fun of — my first college roommate Greg.

Greg was from Lewisville and was majoring in jazz performance. He played saxophone and led a life of 24-7 music. His dream was to hook up with a band and become successful as soon as possible. Down the hall were another pair of newly-paired roommates, Mark and James. After a few weeks, Greg and Mark were fast buddies, James and I had discovered some common interests, and eventually we swapped roommates. Greg moved out, James moved in, and I was now on my second roommate. Almost immediately, Greg dropped out of school to take up with a travelling country band. Mark was now in a private room and James was my second roommate.

As a roommate, James was interesting (insert understatement here). He was older than me yet still only a freshman. He was also a very public drug user — oftentimes I would return to the room while he was in the middle of turning on, tuning in, and dropping out during one of his routine acid trips.

During the semester, James met a Maple Street Hall freshman named Karen. As he got to know her, he discovered that she and her roommate were not getting along. So James invited Karen to move into our single-sex dorm room without asking me first. Then again, I wouldn’t have objected — after all, what horny 18-year-freshman wouldn’t want a cute freshman chickee sharing his living space? So in less than a semester, I was now on Roommate #3.

Despite such behavior, James and I got along well. I learned that he was a philosophy major with minors in psychology and Japanese. I also found out that his ultimate plan was to get a job in Hawaii as a therapist to Japanese tourists as a cover for perscribing drugs to himself.

To satisfy his minor, James utlized me as an unknowning subject for his psychological experiments. Many people confirmed that while I was out cold sleeping, James would pull a chair up to my bedside, lean close to my ear, and whisper over and over, “Matthew, you’re a cucumber. You’re a cucumber.” His primary goal was to convince me I was indeed a cucumber — once that mission was accomplished, he would start whispering, “Matthew, you hate cucumbers!” until I started to hate myself.

I never saw James read a textbook, but he was a prodigious reader. His private library consisted of such anti-establishment authors as Timothy Leary, Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, Robert Anton Wilson, and J.R. “Bob” Dobbs. He both worshipped and feared the Illuminati, living in a constant state of paranoia.

James was convinced that the CIA was reading his email, so he would send them encrypted — and never tell the receipients how to decrypt such messages. Because of that, my inbox would fill with gibberish.

He didn’t maintain a P.O. Box at the student union — instead, he used “The Dumpster Behind Sack n’ Save, Denton, TX 76201” as the return address on his mail. In the city phone book, his number was listed under the pseudonym “Frodo Baggins.”

As the school year ended, Karen moved out and back to her parent’s house. As for Mr. Government-Is-Out-To-Get-Me, James did the only sensible thing: he enlisted with the Air Force. I never saw him again. As for what he’s up to now, my guess is that he was discharged from the military, signed up with the CIA, and is now spying on himself for the rest of his life.

Photo credit: Reaper the Simpsons

“Sorry, Gotta Go!”

Although this story is ancient, it’s received a fair number of encores over the past few months. And it’s appropriate to tell again, since some of these same thoughts and experiences are being relived, not just by me but by some of my more artistically-tuned friends.

In retrospect, the year 2000 turned out to be the hardest and most amazing year of my life. At the beginning, I was dating Rebecca, a girl that I thought might be the one — it turns out that she had other ideas, as just two days after our anniversary she broke up with me. On February 2nd, Groundhog Day ironically enough, a day that is dominated by stories of shadows and seems to repeat itself over and over.

My heart was crushed, and more trivial plans of mine were screwed. The most-immediate of these was my plan for the weekend before Valentine’s Day. Because my own car was not road-worthy, I had plans to borrow Rebecca’s car a quick weekend visit to Austin. Micha had secured some tickets to a comedy club, and I was going to spend a day or two with her before heading back up to school. When said girlfriend was removed from the equation, so was her car and my plans were shot. So the Friday of that aborted weekend, Ellen invited me to a party her crack house being hosted by her and the two roomies. Ellen was well-aware of how devastated I was and rightly thought I could use the distraction of company.

At the party nursing mixed drinks from bring tumblers, I lamented to Ellen about my loss of love and vacation; Ellen told me how she wished to be down in Austin as well, for a good friend of hers was having a birthday party that weekend. We were quiet for a brief moment. Then, we looked at one another and our thoughts connected simultaneously: “So…why not go to Austin?” And with that, Ellen had a bag packed quicker than a speeding bullet and we abandoned the party she was hosting. One quick trip to Bruce Hall to gather my things, then we were on the road screaming south in the middle of the night.

Our first stop was Midlothian, TX–the Cement Capital of Texas–to pick up her two girlfriends Crissie and Cassie, two of the most-gorgeous sisters I’ve ever met. We switched to their vehicle, our own little partymobile, and with breathtaking swiftness the four of us are lead-footing it to Austin with the hopes of getting me there in time for the comedy club show.

We helped push the homo sapiens species into new evolutionary heights that night, going from the mortal pursuit of driving to flying down the highway towards Austin — beers in hands, foot on accelerator, cares left behind. All sorts of laws were broken that night: state, local, federal, physics, relativity, gravity. I commented that when (not if!) we get busted, it is going to equally epic and bad. Ellen turn to me, smiles that lazy smile of hers, and says, “Honey, you’re in a car with the three most beautiful women in North Texas — ain’t no way we’re a’gettin’ a ticket tonight!” Hard to argue with that logic in Texas.

Do I still have a ticket to the show? I remember to call Micha at this time.

“Do you still have the ticket?”

“Umm, yeah.”

“OK, great — see you there in an hour.”

“Huh?”

I hang up.

We arrive at the Capitol City Comedy Club just minutes before the show is to start — a line of people snakes around the building await entrance. We spill out of the car to Micha’s astonishment. I fetch my bag. Ellen in turn fetches Micha…into her open arms and declares via drunk-voice, “I’m so glad to finally meet you!” Micha is still scarred by this, I believe. The girls jet, I get in line with my big stupid suitcase and small smart sister, suffer the grumpy comments that people made about having to share space with both me and my luggage, and proceeded to laugh my ass off that night.

The next morning, Micha and I are driving along one of the most-beautiful stretches of road ever paved, the Capital of Texas Highway. I’m staring out the window at the breathtaking views: hills and horizons to the west, the distant skylines of Austin to the east, high radio towers on low buttes which do not seem possible to have been man-made. I break the silence with the following epiphany:

“You know, I think I’m going to move to Austin.”

Micha pulls over and her eyes get big. “Really?”

“Yep…I think I’m going to move here ASAP.”

Micha gives me the biggest hug. It was going to mean so much for her best friend to live nearby.

So early the next morning, Ellen picks me up and we made the long drive back to Denton. I would discover in the near-future that this drive will always be slow because I know what I’m leaving behind by leaving Austin.

The next morning, Monday, Valentine’s Day, I woke up at 7am refreshed as never before. Got to work at 8am and promptly called our central housing office in order to meet with our chief of housing, Betsy. Receptionist says that 4:30pm is her earliest free opportunity, which is cutting into both my 4pm one-on-one meeting with my boss Kelly and my hall’s 5pm staff meeting. I decide to take it — if I miss any of my meetings to turn in my resignation, what are they going to do…fire me?! I idle away the rest of the day, smug in the knowledge of my little secret.

At 4pm, Kelly and I meet like usual. Earlier in our professional relationship, the two of us argued many times about the best direction for the hall. By this time, we’d ironed out some of our differences and learned to accept the strengths within one that made them carry out decisions that frustrated the other. I had intended to begin the meeting with my news, but Kelly had a subject more urgent to speak about.

“There are these great head hall director positions opening up, I found out, and I think you should apply because I think you’ve got a lot of what they’re looking for,” she says. I chuckle, not believing how this is going to color what I need to tell her. But I roll with it. I lean back in my chair, place my fingertips together, and ask her, “Like what?” So I listen for a little bit as Kelly waxes about all sorts of my positives, about how she thinks I’ve grown a lot during out time together, that my charisma and smarts will take me far, what I mean to the residents, etc. I soak it all in, then check the time: 4:25pm. Gotta go! So, I cut her off with, “Kelly, that’s great! But…I’ve got to go. See, I’ve got a 4:30pm appointment with Betsy to turn in my resignation, but we can continue this conversation when I get back.” Kelly’s jaw drops and her eyes bulge out — this is the basis for a whole future generation of animated shorts, I believe. “No, you can’t quit yet!” she squealed, as she wasn’t ready for me to go (wanted to keep working with me, but was also about to take off for maternity leave). Sorry, gotta go.

I speed across campus to meet with Betsy. I wait for a short moment, then get called in. Betsy greets me with her standard nickname for me, “Hey there, Spamster! Didya hear about these head hall director posit–” I cut her off: “Betsy! I’m here to quit!” And in one of the rare moments when anyone has caught her using such language, Betsy says, “Well…shit. Nevermind.” So the two of us talk for a little bit, and I explain to her what happened between Rebecca and I, and more importantly how I needed to make myself move on before I became trapped in the Denton life. Betsy is smart enough to understand everything I said, for I was going through what all hall directors eventually go through. The difference is I was doing something about it before I was there too long to escape.

To make the rest of the story short, I headed back for our hall staff meeting. During our normal segment of “Things that suck/Things that don’t suck!”, I spilled the beans to my eleven resident assistants. For the most part, they were stunned, as would anyone who went into the weekend thinking one thing about the goals and ambitions of their boss and find out on Monday that they have radically changed course.

My decision quickly spread across campus and I was besieged by students and phone calls. The general opinion was shock: “Holy crap, Matthew’s leaving UNT! Matthew’s is leaving Bruce Hall!” Perhaps they were shocked because I was such an institution, but perhaps they were blown away by the fact that I proved it’s possible to leave school (Bruce lings have a terrible habit of staying long after they graduate).

And so began in my life a course that took me to Austin, across the sea, and back to Dallas in one short year full of amazing excitement, deafening pain, and oceans of indecision through which I’m still wading. Including today, one day before I turn 30.