Sunday, January 18, 2009

To Hamilton - 703

Over the next few weeks and months I am going to be periodically posting stories I've been writing recently about my home - Hamilton. The stories are drawn from experiences I've had in this city, as I've spent the better part of the decade learning to love the place. This is the first instalment in the series, and the unveiling of what I've been working on as of late.

When his final exam was finished the young man returned to his room to start the process of packing. He had less than twenty-four hours to vacate the room – such was the cold efficiency of an administration that eagerly wanted the room back. Roughly fifteen hours were left to celebrate the end of first year, sleep, and move out of the room that had been home for the past eight months. Even though they both knew they would be fined for vandalizing, he and his roommate - whom he sarcastically referred to as “the mayor of MW” that year – inscribed their names with magic marker on the corkboard on the walls, along with their date of residence. The charges showed up three weeks later in the mail.

This room had been a formative one; it was rich with meaning and memory. It had been the first true expression of independence from his family, the first of many places that would be called home, and the birthplace of one of his more lasting friendships. Both the roommates had gone through much transition in that short period of time and certainly did not leave the same people. There had been different girlfriends – he had come in with a long distance one he left without, and the mayor proved effectively over the course of a month why “Don’t-Date-Your-Floor” was a wise axiom. There had been moments of extreme irritation that resulted in days of silence, and once the mayor unconsciously rose from his sleep to swear at him for staying up late studying (the mayor denied this charge vehemently, and who could blame him since his sleepy state inhibited his memory).

In the wintertime their seventh floor window would be opened as they went to bed, and each morning at six one of them would leave their respective cocoon of blankets, complete with a numb and runny nose, to close the window before going back to sleep. Amidst the rounds of all-nighters working on papers there would be a healthy dose of movie watching. Either they waited up until three to watch The French Connection II in the common room on cable, or watched downloaded films from their computers. The awkwardness one feels in high school when his or her parents walk in on the worst part of a film, often the gratuitous sex scene, didn’t remain as a high school experience as their floor mates entered at the “interesting” part of Desperado. They swore they weren’t watching porn, but news spread quickly. Once those same floor mates entered to see the two roommates, unaware that they both had eyes closed and were reclined in their chairs, escaping the stress of school through Sarah McLaughlin’s "Angel" out of a laptop’s speakers.

Their end of the floor had a unique character to it. Their neighbours to the right were a devout Protestant and a pot-smoking Jew. When the Protestant went home for the weekend, a burning aroma leaked from their doorframe and scented the area. Across the hall were two eccentric engineering students, one of which was from Dubai and adjusting to North American culture. The latter talked openly about the impossibility of 9/11 being carried out by Muslim’s because “not enough Jews died.” It took him a while to adjust to North America. Only one near-physical fight broke out on that end of the floor, as a liquored-up young woman felt slighted by another young woman and needed to be restrained. It was the nature of many residence relationships: intensely involved near the beginning and broken by second term. So often friendships start out of a need for belonging, but go the way of the tyrannosaur when social claustrophobia kicks in.

Speaking of the tyrannosaur, this leads to one of the many humorous moments on the seventh floor that year. The two roommates had decided the floor needed some entertainment and as such set into motion one of their more noteworthy schemes. The mayor held a viewing of his favourite film, Jurassic Park, in the common room that gathered many of the floor mates – the eccentric engineers included. By the time the first helicopter had headed to Isla Nublar, the young man and his floor recruits had entered the room of the engineers – a room that was notoriously left unlocked – and set to work. Over the course of forty-five minutes dressers, beds, closets, desks, garbage, computers, and the multitude of interesting things found in that room were flipped from one side of the room to the other. Anyone familiar with the room would have been impressed with the attention to detail that was given to make sure that everything was in the exact opposite place it was found. Everyone was careful to respect the privacy of the roommates. There was little prying into private things, and nothing left the room, save for a large butcher’s knife that was found in one of the closets; that would be kept across the hall until the inevitable shock and anger of the victims wore off. The floor never found out what the knife was doing there in the first place, and a case of curiosity lingers to this day.

For many who were in their first year at university, moving away meant getting a personal laptop or computer. Some also had the added bonus of what were then technological perks, like web cams. This factored into the prank rather well, as a web cam was set up to stream live video of the engineers’ responses upon entering their room. As the small cluster of survivors escaped Jurassic Park and the common room crowd dispersed, a new crowd gathered a few doors down form the engineers to witness their shocked reactions. There was silence as everyone waited impatiently, and then rapturous laughter as the door opened for the first time, and revealed the shocked face of one of the engineers. If there had been streaming audio it surely would have broadcast a tapestry of profanities, beautifully woven into an image of flailing arms and the pulsing veins of one’s forehead. Everyone was glad the butcher’s knife was in safe hiding. The second engineer entered five minutes later, and with wide eyes beheld the wonder of being pranked for the first time. He was more civil in his response, and only asked that the perpetrators help return the room to its original state. The roommates were proud of their masterful achievement.

Similar little jokes came and went throughout the year, and made the time in residence a bit easier to handle. For as much joy was found in these experiences, there was equal if not more anxiety and pain shared throughout the hall. The two roommates were in different stages of their own faith experiences: the young man was reacting to the newness of the “worldly university” and clinging to the remaining remnants his conservative-Christian upbringing. In the face of new understandings of sex and sexuality, and a community of active and willing women around him, he immersed himself in books promoting prototypical Christian patriarchy, and what it “really meant to be a man of God.” In a way there was less guilt this way, and in other ways the guilt-complex was strengthened, and years later he would cringe at ideas he had soaked from those books. The mayor, in his own right, was in the midst of lapsed-Catholicism and had little time for the God he had grown up with. He would take in mass from time to time, but for the most part it wasn’t a priority. Both of the roommates saw the faith of their childhood changing, and much of it dying away for better or worse. To a large extent, God was unimportant.

As the year went on their room became more of a hiding place than an actual place to live. Both hid from the pressures of the classroom, though incredibly unsuccessfully: The lights in the room were rarely off due to long nights of essay writing and midterm studying. They also hid from their girlfriends there – who coincidently became ex-girlfriends in the same first week of the January term. The mayor had stirred up quite the storm of awkwardness on the floor through his failed romantic endeavour and found it safer to stay on their end of the hall at all costs. The young man, on the other hand, was so confused about what was going on with his relationships that he found himself stuck in their room. He had gone on a “break” from his hometown relationship amidst the uncertainty of juggling feelings for her and the temptations of a milieu of new women he was meeting. There was the lacrosse player, the mystery girl from the second floor, and, more challengingly, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan who been the recipient of the mayor’s earlier heartbreak. Most of these were passing thoughts, but troubling thoughts at that because of the young man’s continued affection for his long-held childhood love. As such, he stayed in his room, and close to the watchful eyes of his ex-girlfriend whose pictures remained on the corkboard beside his bed. Every day ended with either a glance of longing at those pictures, or a glance of shame for being in the confused state he was in. There was no grace.

This was the first year that each of the roommates lived in Hamilton, and very little exposure to the greater city took place. To them Hamilton was still a mystery that neither had great desire to uncover. Though the end of the year saw the sense of adventure and trail blazing that had surrounded their newfound independence fade, there was still the sense of accomplishment of making it through their first year of university. While the first term had seen the two roommates shy and reserved, often not speaking to each other, the second term in all its hardship had brought out a new friendship that in itself was an accomplishment. This led to the sentimentality of their final day in residence when they decided to write their names on the corkboards.

For all they knew it would be the last time they would see each other in such close proximity. The mayor was moving home to Oakville to install air conditioners for the summer and had decided to commute rather than live in Hamilton the next year. Similarly, the young man had decided to commute from Brantford, in an attempt to reconnect with the place he had known for nineteen years as home. He also left intent on rekindling things with his ex-girlfriend after experiencing a brief taste of life without her and resolving that it wasn’t all it was thought to be. This narrator thinks there was a connection between these two prevailing thoughts.

As they left their room, there was the reminder that no longer would they eat cafeteria food. No longer would they watch the sunset on the escarpment outside their seventh floor window, or sleep with window open in the winter. No longer would they have to deal with the smell of the less-than-hygienic engineers across the hall. No longer would there be musings on gods and girlfriends in their small double room. Their first year was complete as they took the elevator down, walked to the Commons building, and handed in their keys to room 703.