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by twddn 2 months ago in health
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Dormitory life - lonely, insipid and full of institutional repression

I noticed Eugene before I really knew him. It was impossible not to notice him. As our train pulled out of New York, Eugene stepped into mine from another car and got stuck in the door, sandwiched between his two huge suitcases. I watched him struggle to free himself, mesmerized by his hat, a green mountain hat with a brim of feathers. He grinned in every direction, and I wondered if he was hoping to make his situation less ridiculous. At last, somewhere loose, he flung himself into the carriage. I hoped he wouldn't sit next to me, but he did.

He began talking almost as soon as he sat down, and stopped only when he reached Wallingford. Am I going to Choate? What a coincidence -- so was he. I'm in the first grade? He is also. Where am I from? Oregon? No kidding? It's a long way off, isn't it? He's from Indiana -- Gary, Indiana. I know that song, don't I? I know, but he sang it for me, all the way through, including the difficult ending. There are other boys in this carriage, and they're staring at us. I wish he'd shut up.

Do I swim? That's too bad. It's a good sport. I should swim more. The year before, he had set a Midwestern school Conference freestyle record. Which subject do I like best? He likes maths, he thinks, but he is good at every subject. He offered me a cigarette, but I refused.

"I should quit myself," he said, "but if I do, I'll be finished."

Eugene went to school on a scholarship. One of his teachers told him he was too smart to go to a regular high school, gave him a list of prep schools, and Eugene applied to them all -- "just for fun" -- and they all wanted him. He chose Choate School because Choate was the only one who offered to reimburse him for his travel expenses. His father was dead and his mother, a nurse, had three other children to support, so Eugene felt it unfair to ask her for anything more. When the train pulled into Wallingford, he asked me if I would be his roommate.

I was not thrilled to hear the proposal. First of all, I don't like looking at Eugene. His head was too big for his tall, thin body, and his skin was so oily I thought it reminded me of a seal. And then there's the scholarship thing. I went to school on a scholarship, too. I don't want to burn my Bridges before I even get to be roommates with someone else, like a fat girl going home with a fat girl. I knew the world Eugene came from, I came from that world myself, and I wanted to leave it behind. To that end, I spent the summer practicing the kind of quiet complacency that I think represents aristocracy, which I've drawn from British film actors. I studied the boys in the prep school journals, and now my hair looks like theirs, and so do my clothes.

I want to know the kind of guy whose father is a banker, a cabinet member, a writer. I wanted to make friends with them, go home with them on vacations, marry their sister one day, and Eugene Miller had no place in those plans. I told him I had a friend in Choate, and I was probably going to be roommates with him.

"Never mind," he said. "Maybe next year."

I vaguely agreed, and Eugene talked about trying to decide whether to join the baseball or lacrosse team. He's better at baseball, but lacrosse is more fun. He thought maybe to repay the school, he should join the baseball team.

It turned out that our dormitory arrangement had already been decided. My roommate, a Chilean named Hayme, said he was a Nazi. He had a poster of Hitler pinned up above his desk until a Jewish boy in our hallway complained and the dean asked him to take it down. Haime keeps a copy of Mein Kampf by his bed like a Gideon Bible, which he likes to read aloud with a German accent. He likes to play practical jokes. Our dormitory overlooked the entrance to the principal's office, and Hayme used to whistle at the principal's elderly secretary when she came home from work at night. On school day, he sneaked into the kitchen and threw a number of condoms, all stretched and disgustingly knotted, into the sweetmeats soup for guests to spice up. The next day in the chapel, the headmaster stumbled over the subject, but he mentioned it in such a coy and indirect way that no one could understand what he was saying. In the end the matter was dropped and never mentioned again. Just before Christmas, Hayme's mother was killed in a plane crash, and he left school, never to return. I lived alone for the rest of the school year.

Eugene was put up with Talbot Nevin. The Talbot family has donated the Andrew Nevin Memorial Hockey Rink and the Andrew Nevin Memorial Library to the school, as well as funding the Andrew Nevin Memorial Lecture series. Talbot Nevin's father finished second in the Monaco Grand Prix two years ago, and magazines covering celebrity life often feature pictures of him with the likes of Gil St. John, along with the words, quoting one of the two as saying, "We're just good friends." I'd like to meet Talbot Nevin.

So one day, I went to their dorm. Eugene met me at the door and shook my hand. "Well, I didn't expect that." He said, "Tabu, this is my friend from Oregon, which couldn't be more remote."

Talbot was sitting on the edge of the bed, putting white shoelaces on a pair of dirty sneakers. He nodded without looking up.

"Tabu's dad won a big game last year." Eugene said, "It makes me feel bad." I did not want Talbot to know that I had heard about him. I wanted to approach him as if I knew nothing about him, so that he would not suspect that I was interested in him for any reason other than his own.

"He didn't win. He came in second." Talbot dropped his shoes and looked up at me for the first time. His eyes were a very pale grey-blue, his eyelashes and eyebrows were almost invisible, his hair was white and straight on his forehead, and his face was cast, like that of a doll, delicate and unhealthy.

"What game?" I asked.

"The Grand Prix." "He said, taking off his shoes.

"It's a car race." Eugene said.

I think not having heard of the Grand Prix would seem to be a sign of profound ignorance. "I know. I've heard of it."

"The people who live down the corridor are talking about it, and they're saying he won." Eugene said, winking at me; He blinked repeatedly, as if everything he said was part of a routine one-liner that he didn't want a novice like me to take too seriously.

"Why, when I say he came in second, who the hell knows better than me?" By now, Talbot had changed into his tennis shoes. He stood up. "Let's go smoke."

Smoking is prohibited in Choate Middle School. "Anyone caught using tobacco in any way," the student handbook says, "will be immediately expelled." Before that, this smoking rule wasn't a problem for me because I don't smoke. Now it's a problem, because I don't want Eugene and Talbot to have a relationship that I can't be a part of. So I followed them downstairs to the music room, which is where choir practice is. There was a long, narrow storage room behind the podium, where the choir clothes were kept. We huddled at one end of the storage unit, Talbot sharing our cigarettes. It was risky. It was stupid. We chuckled.

"Welcome to Marlboro country." I said.

"It's the first part that matters." "Talbot responded. We smoked Marlboros, not Winston, which was not a good quill, but I had a good laugh.

"Better keep it down." "Eugene whispered." Big John might hear us."

Big John, the senior housemaster, wears a three-piece suit and soft-soled shoes and often pops out when he's not supposed to. He likes to grab guys by the neck, twist it between his thumb and forefinger, and pinch them until they cry. "Fuck Big John." I said.

Talbot and Eugene are both unresponsive. We finished the cigarette without talking, and I felt uneasy. Did I try to make Eugene look timid, but instead I made myself look flirty?

I saw Talbot several times that week, and he barely nodded. I was reckless. That's what I wanted. I made a bad impression on him. But as we left the restaurant on Friday night, he asked me if I wanted to play tennis the next morning. I doubt I have ever felt so thoroughly satisfied as I did that evening.

But Talbot stood him up, so I went to his room to find him. He is still in bed, reading. "What's the matter? "He asked, not looking up from his book.

I sat on Eugene's bed, trying not to overstate my disappointment. "I thought we could play some tennis."

"Tennis?" He read for a while in silence. "I don't know. I don't really want to."

"Never mind, I thought you might want to. We can just take a couple of swings."

"Damn it." He put the book on his heart. "What time is it?"

"Nine o 'clock."

"Now the court will be occupied."

"There's always a few empty Spaces behind the science building."

"It's asphalt, isn't it?"

"The concrete floor." I shrugged, not wanting to appear eager. "As I said, it doesn't matter. We can fight another time." I got up and went to the door.

"Wait a minute." Talbot yawned, not covering his mouth. "What the hell."

Sure enough, the court is all occupied. I sat with Talbot on the grass, and I asked him questions I already knew the answers to, such as where he was from, where he had gone to school the previous year, and who had taught him English. He perked up at the latter question. "In English? Parker, the bald guy. I got straight A's in school, and now Parker tells me I can't write. If he's such a great William Shakespeare, why is he teaching here? '

We sat for a while without talking. "I'm from Oregon," I finally said. "Near Portland." I don't think we were close enough to call it a neighborhood, but at the time I naively assumed everyone had heard of Portland.

"Oregon." He heard the name and thought for a moment. "Do you hunt?

"I went to fight a few times with my dad."

"What kind of weapon do you use?"

"Marlin."

"30-30?"

I nodded.

"Good wood rifle," he said. "It's useless beyond a hundred yards. Did you hit anything?"

"You mean deer?"

"Deer, elk, whatever you shoot in Oregon."

"No."

Talbot had killed many animals, and he told me all about them: deer, moose, bear, elk, even a baby alligator. There are more. Lots and lots of them.

"Maybe you can come out west and hunt with us sometime."

"Where, Oregon?" Talbot looked away. "Maybe."

I didn't expect to be humiliated on the field. My brother coached me four summers. He played varsity for Oregon. I have a great serve, and my brother calls my ball at the net "cut-throat." Talbot puts me to shame. I've never seen him play tennis like that. He doesn't sweat, not like I do, he doesn't pant, he doesn't swear when he misses, and he doesn't smile faintly, like I do every time I serve straight to a point. He hardly seemed to notice me, he didn't seem to be playing at all, but twice he called out and I thought it was quite a long way off line, but maybe I was wrong. After he won the second game, he suddenly walked off the court to where we kept our jerseys, and I followed him.

"It was a good fight." I said.

He tugged impatiently at the sleeve of his sweatshirt. "I can't play on this bad pitch."

Eugene made a name for himself on campus. You don't wear a leather jacket in Choate, you don't wear white moccasins, and you certainly don't wear a mountain hat with feathers on the brim. Eugene wears all three.

Those of you who don't know Eugene will know who he is by the middle of November. Life magazine published a series of interviews and photos to illustrate what it was like to be a student at a typical Eastern prep school. Their manuscript was based on a survey in five schools, ours being one of them. Eugene was interviewed, his words printed in boldface beneath a photograph of students glumly buried in books in the evening study hall. The quote was: "First of all, no one ever seems to smile in Choate. If you smile, they'll think you're weird or something. You are mocked all the time."

That's a good point. We're just a bunch of dull people, and it's only acceptable to laugh in the sappy space of the movie every other Saturday night. Everyone longs to be put in the "most sarcastic" category in the yearbook. The competition is in the dining room, and Eugene's words in Life magazine won't make him feel any less stressed.

However different Eugene may be, he is not unpopular. I never heard anyone say anything worse about him than "weirdo." He was doing well academically, and when the swim team started training, word got out that Eugene had vowed to make Choate a champion. So despite his hat, his overenthusiasm, and his endless grin, Eugene escaped the fate I envisioned for him. The other students taunted him, but did not ignore him.

On the eve of the Christmas break, I went looking for Talbot and found Eugene alone in his dorm room, packing. He sat me down, poured a glass of Hawaiian punch and added something dark from a prescription bottle. "Tabu got some codeine from the clinic," he explained, "to make the Christmas log burn."

It was disgusting to drink, but I put up with it, just as I had drunk all the stuff that was popular at school, such as aspirin and coke, aftershave and the rush cream that you plug in your nostrils, all of which were supposed to give you a high, but never did. "Where's Talbot?"

"I don't know, maybe in the library." He reached under the bed and pulled out a trunk the size of a car trunk -- made of cardboard, but packed to look like leather -- and began to fill it with floral shirts with a loop collar. The collar reminded me of when my sister complained that she had to wear clothes that my mother had outworn. My mother always said, "You never know. You might start a new trend."

"Where are you going for Christmas?" Eugene said.

"Baltimore."

"Baltimore? What's in Baltimore?"

"My aunt and uncle live there. How about you?"

"I'm going straight to Boston."

This took me by surprise. I thought he was going back to Indiana for the holidays.

"Who do you know in Boston?"

"I don't know anybody. It's just Tabu."

"Talbot? Are you staying with Talbot?"

"Yes. And his family, of course."

"The whole holiday?

Eugene grinned slyly, his eyes rolling back and forth in a revealing tone that almost whispered to me: "This guy, Tabu, made himself a key to his dad's liquor cabinet. No one knows. We're going to have a drink, and I mean a lot of it."

I went to the door. "If I don't see you in the morning, merry Christmas."

"Of course, old sport. I wish you a merry Christmas too." Eugene held my right hand in both hands, his fingers soft and damp. "Take it easy with those Baltimore girls. Don't do anything I wouldn't do."

The week before, Hayme had been called home because his mother had died. The bedding on his bed was pulled up, the mattress folded in half. There were so many pictures on the walls that when he left, they were gone, and the yellow walls were bright. I turned off the light and sat in bed until the dinner bell rang.

My aunt and uncle, whom I had never seen before, met me at the Baltimore train station with their four children (three girls and one boy), and I took an instant dislike to them. On the drive home, my aunt asked me if my poor father had learned to cope with my mother's emotions. One of the girls, PAM, fell asleep in my lap and spat on me.

They lived in Sherwood Park, a suburb of brick buildings a few miles from the city. My aunt and uncle went out almost every evening and left me to look after some of the children. That means I'm going to turn the TV on and then turn it off when they're all asleep in front of it. It was impossible to give them even a little time to go to bed, and they grabbed whatever they could -- carpet, wire, table legs, chair legs -- and when they couldn't catch anything, they scratched and dug at their faces, trying to hurt themselves.

One night I broke down and cried for almost an hour. I tried calling Talbot, asking if I could be with him in Boston, but the Nevin house number wasn't listed. After I washed my face, I thought twice about the idea and decided not to.

When I went back to school, my aunt and uncle wrote a letter to my father, and my father sent it to me. They said I was selfish and unenterprising. They welcomed me as a son and treated me with all their heart, but I showed no interest in them or their children -- my Cousins and Cousins -- and they adored me. They also gave the example that I was reading in the kitchen and my aunt's laundry blew off the clothesline. I didn't even ask if I could help. I just sat there and continued reading and eating peanuts. Finally, my uncle lost a pair of cufflinks, which were of great emotional significance to him. All things considered, they didn't think my trip to Baltimore worked out so well, and they thought I'd be happier going somewhere else when I had a vacation.

I wrote back to my dad, denying all the charges and making a few in turn.

Talbot and I spent a lot of time together after Christmas. We both made the basketball team, but neither of us contributed much to it -- Talbot because of a sprained ankle, me because I couldn't put the ball in the basket -- and we spent most of our time on the bench together. He told me Eugene ruined his stepmother's Christmas: he sat back in an antique chair and broke it. Since then, I've considered Mrs. Nevin a friend, but I've enjoyed this sense of alliance for almost a week, because at the end of January, Talbot told me that his father and stepmother had separated.

Eugene is crazy about swimming. I seldom see him. Most of Talbot's and my friends were school malcontent: some, like Talbot, disagreed with every school rule; Some miss a girlfriend or a car; Others, like me, feel something is wrong but don't know what it is.

Because I am not rich, my grievances cannot take on a truly combative form. I dabbled, rebelled a little by writing stories for the school literary publication, The Unquotable. The story I wrote took place at the "Hotch School" and was about a student from the West whom I called simply "This boy."

The boy's father came from a prominent family in New York. When he was in his early twenties, he went to Oregon to inspect his family's vast wooded area. He married a beautiful young girl, and his family turned against him when they found out that she happened to be part Indian. The Indian girl was of noble blood, but the boy's father was rejected by his family.

Nevertheless, the boy's parents made a fortune and produced several gifted children, the boy being the most prominent among them. His father sent him back east to attend Hodge High School, where it was a family tradition. What he found there disheartened him: the students cared only about money and social status, and the teachers were hypocritical and petty. The only friends the boy made were a beautiful young dancer who served as a waiter in a cafe near his school and an old tramp. The dancer and the tramp were called "This girl" and "this tramp." The boy and the girl were always helping the homeless man get out of trouble for something like painting pretty colors on the trash can.

I doubt Talbot ever read any of my stories -- or if he did, he never told me about them -- but somehow he thought I was someone who could write. He came to my dorm room one night, threw a notebook on my desk, and asked me to read the essay in it. The topic was "Why is Literature Worth Studying?" ", scribbled four pages, and the last paragraph was this:

I think literature is worth studying, but only in a certain sense. People in our country should know how smart people were in the past. They should recognize the talent these people have in creating such great works of literature, so I think literature is worth studying.

On this essay, Talbot got an F.

"Parker says if I don't pass this final, I'll have to go to summer school." Talbot said, lighting a cigarette.

"I didn't know you flunked last time." I stared helplessly at the cigarette. "Maybe you shouldn't smoke. John might smell it."

"When I came here, I saw Big John go into the library." Talbot went to the mirror and looked at his profile out of the corner of his eye. "I thought maybe you could help me out."

"How?"

"Maybe give me some ideas. You should have seen the titles he gave us, like this one, "he pulled folded sheets of paper from his trouser hip pocket," 'Write about the most Interesting Man you ever knew.'" He swore and threw down the paper.

I picked it up. "What is this? You wrote the outline?"

"More of a rough draft, I suppose you would call it."

I read the composition, which was terrible, but what really surprised me was his utter lack of interest in writing about the most interesting person he had ever known. This man turned out to be his English teacher of the previous year, and his most outstanding virtue, it seemed, was that he often suspended classes to allow his students to study by themselves, not expecting them to become William Shakespeare, and handing him a novel every week.

"I don't think Parker will like this one very much." I said.

"Why? What's wrong with it?"

"He may think you want to criticize him."

"That's his problem."

I folded up the composition and handed it back to Talbot, along with his notebook.

"Do you really think he'll give me an F on this essay?"

"It's possible."

Talbot crumpled up the composition. "Damn it."

"When is it due?"

"Tomorrow."

"Tomorrow?"

"I should have come earlier, but I've been busy."

We spent the next hour or so talking about interesting people he knew. There weren't many, and the only one that interested me was a maid named Tina, who masturbated Talbot when she came to tuck him in at night. Then she got arrested because she tried to set fire to the Nevin house. But Talbot couldn't remember anything else about her, not even her last name. We finally gave up hope of writing about Tina.

In the end, it was I who got up at 4:30 the next morning and invented an interesting man for Talbot. This man's name was Miles and he was supposed to be one of Talbot's uncles.

I gave this article to Talbot outside the restaurant. He read it with a deadpan expression. "I don't have any uncle Miles," he said. "I don't have any uncles," only aunts.

"Parker doesn't know."

"But a composition is supposed to be about an interesting person." He frowned at the composition. "I don't see how this person can be interesting."

"If you don't want to use it, I will."

"All right, I'll use it."

Over the next few weeks, I wrote three more essays to Talbot: "Who's worse? Macbeth or Lady Macbeth?" "Is there a God? "Describe a fountain pen to someone who has never seen it before." Mr. Parker also took the last essay as an example of clarity, read it aloud in Talbot's class, and stuck a note on the back of it saying how pleased he was to see Talbot working.

At the end of February, the dean posted a notice on the bulletin board: Students who wanted to be roommates for the next school year had until Friday to sign up with him. Without delay, I went to Talbot's dorm room.

Eugene was alone in his dorm room, loading dirty clothes into a canvas bag. He came up to me, blinking, grinning and snorting. "Hey, buddy, how's it going? Is it for comfort or is it back-to-back for speed?"

We had been sitting across from each other at breakfast, lunch, and dinner for three weeks, and every time we met, he acted as if we were two brothers who had been forcibly separated by the Arabs and had just been reunited after twenty years. "Where's Talbot?" I asked.

"He's on the phone. He'll be back soon."

"Aren't you supposed to be practicing swimming?"

"Not today." He smirked mysteriously.

"Why not?

"Yesterday I broke the school league butterfly record against Kent High School."

"It's great. Congratulations."

"Butterfly is not my best stroke yet. Hey, I'm glad you're here. I was just coming to see you."

"What for?

"I was wondering who you were planning to be roommates with next year."

"Oh, well, you know, I could say yes."

Eugene nodded, still smiling. "Fair enough. Someone asked me. I just thought I'd ask you first. Because we didn't get a chance to live together this year." He stood up and went on filling the bag. 'Is it three o 'clock yet?

"Another quarter of an hour." "I think I'd better drop them off before they close. See you later, buddy."

Talbot returned a few minutes later. "Where's Eugene?"

"He's taking the clothes to the cleaners."

"Oh." Talbot pulled a cigarette from the pack, hidden under the sink, and lit it. "Here." "He said, handing it to me.

"Just one puff." I took a puff and handed it back to him. I decided to cut to the chase. "Who are you going to live with next year?"

"Eugene."

"Eugene?" he said.

"He'll have to ask the other guy first, but he doesn't think it'll be a problem." Talbot picked up his squash racquet and hefted it. "What about you?"

"I don't know. I kind of like living alone."

"More personal space." 'said Mr. Talbot, taking a wide backhand swipe.

"Yes, more personal space."

"Maybe the guy from South America will come back."

"I doubt it."

"You never know. Perhaps the old man is better."

"It's his mother. And she died."

"Oh." Talbot still swings his racket. Now it's a forehand swing.

"Well, there's something I wanted to talk to you about."

'What?

"I can't help you with your essay anymore."

He shrugged his shoulders. "All right."

"I have enough homework on my own. I can't do all my homework with you."

"I said it was all right. Parker's not gonna be able to flunk me anyway. So far I have a C+ average."

"I just thought I'd tell you."

"You told me." Talbot finished his cigarette and hid the end in a tin soap dish. "We'd better get going. We'll be late for basketball."

"I'm not going."

'Why not?

"Because I don't want to go, I don't." We left the building together, went down the steps and parted, never speaking to each other again. I went to the infirmary to make an excuse for not going to play, and the doctor wasn't there, and I waited an hour before he came back, and he gave me some pills and pills for loose bowels. By the time I got back to my dorm, all hell broke loose.

I found out from the guy in the next dorm what had happened: Big John had caught Eugene smoking. He went into Eugene's dorm room and found him alone, smelling smoke. Eugene denied smoking, but Big John turned the room upside down and found cigarettes and butts everywhere. Eugene's at the principal's at the moment.

They told me the story in a sad tone, as if their hearts were broken, but I could see how excited they were, as always happens when someone gets fired.

I went into my dorm room and pulled a chair up to the window. Just before the dinner bell rang, a taxi came up the driveway. Big John dragged two large cardboard suitcases out of the dormitory building and helped the driver put them in the trunk. He gave the driver some money and said something to him. The driver nodded and got on the taxi again. Then the principal and dean came out of the office, Eugene behind them. Eugene is wearing his hat. He shook hands with both of them, and then with Big John. Suddenly, he bent down and covered his face. The dean reached out and touched his arm. The four of them stood like that for a long time. Eugene's shoulders jerked up and down, and I couldn't watch. I went to the mirror to brush my hair until I heard the cab door slam. When I looked out the window again, the taxi was gone. The principal and dean were standing in the shadows, but I could see Big John clearly. He rocked back on his heels, his hands on his hips, and said something that made the principal laugh, not really laugh, more like a giggle. I could only hear one word, "feather," and I thought they must be talking about Eugene's hat. Then the bell rang and the three of them went into the dining room.

The next day, I walked by the dean's office, almost walked in, and told him everything. The problem is, if I tell him that Talbot smokes, he'll find out about me, too, and the school rules don't distinguish between penalties based on how much you smoke. I even considered sending an anonymous letter to the dean, but I doubt it would be of much concern. Choate High School puts a lot of emphasis on acting like a gentleman.

Talbot came up to me at basketball practice Friday and asked me if I wanted to be his roommate next year.

"I'll think about it." I told him.

"Names must be in before dinner tonight."

"I said I'd think about it."

That evening, Talbot handed our names to the dean. There's really not much to think about. Anyway, Eugene had been smoking when Big John walked into that dorm room. If you look into it, his crimes are a hundred times greater than the school's allegations. It is not as if there has been any great injustice.

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twddn

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