First Person / A real-world roommate
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In my fictional world, where I create and control characters and plot, Anita and I are lifelong friends. We stood up at each other's wedding, and we share annual vacations with each other and our husbands. Once every year, she and I meet in Vegas or at a spa for a "girls' getaway" weekend. Our children -- her two daughters and my son and daughter -- built sand castles on the shore of Anita's Maine summerhouse. We were there for each other when our mothers died.
In the real world of it is what it is, Anita and I spent 47 years in silence -- a silence broken only when I finally tracked her down and mustered the courage to call her.
Contacting Anita to apologize for being the roommate from hell during our freshman year at Pitt had been on my to-do list for years, but only after I turned 65 last summer did I determine to tie together the many loose ends in my life by turning my intentions into actions. While some ends still dangle, my call to Anita was a success story of renewal, not a tragic drama of recrimination.
As Anita and I talked, I realized that her memories of 1965-1966 were more nebulous than mine. She did recall -- correctly -- that I had refused to share the chocolate chip cookies my mother had baked and given to me when I returned to the dorm after a weekend home. What Anita did not remember, or perhaps successfully blocked, was that I had erected an invisible wall between the two of us. I sat on my side of the wall, studying, reading, going to bed early and getting up even earlier; I did not commit mean-girl acts, but my silence and withdrawal created a suffocating setting that squelched any hope of sisterhood.
Anita told me that she had returned to Pitt sophomore year but transferred to Temple her junior year. She then met a pre-law student from Penn; the two recently celebrated their 42nd wedding anniversary.
Anita had the financial security that allowed her to use her social work degree as a volunteer at her daughters' school, at not-for-profit national organizations and at many local charities. With a smile in her voice, she said that she always used humor to deal with adversity.
My conversation with Anita left me in a reflective mood. I marveled at how two people can share the same setting and circumstances, but have very diverse reactions to them. I have spent decades dissecting, analyzing and obsessing about my freshman year; Anita, on the other hand, tossed it aside like a toy that turned out to be less enjoyable than she had hoped and moved on.
I also thought a lot about the role fate plays in our lives. In fact, as I listened to Anita, another voice kept buzzing in my head, as if a third party were intruding in our conversation. It was the voice of my literary idol, William Shakespeare, who was reminding me through the character of Hamlet, "There's a divinity that shapes our ends; Rough-hew them how we will."
Perhaps Anita and I were meant to be passive players in our own destinies. Perhaps our fates were determined when some anonymous person in the Pitt housing office paired us as roommates.
That action produced a domino effect that led Anita to Philadelphia to meeting her husband to having daughters and grandchildren and to living the more traditional yet rewarding life of wife and mother.
That action led me to the alternative life of graduate school, divorce, teaching and a single status that allowed me to return to Pittsburgh and become caregiver for both my parents. Maybe my hoarding the chocolate chip cookies and creating a roommate environment weighed down by silence were part of a larger plan.
I may never know the exact dynamics that molded Anita's life and mine, but I do know that the phone call provided me with a sense of inner peace. I had neither permanently scarred Anita nor prevented her from finding happiness.
If I could really control people and events, Anita and I would now be email buddies and Facebook friends. She would be planning a visit to Pittsburgh, and I would be planning our itinerary: a tour of the expanded Pitt campus, a very different setting than the one we knew in 1965; an incline ride to Mount Washington, the same place I took her and her parents when we first met so many years ago; a stroll through Squirrel Hill, Shadyside and some of the other neighborhoods that make Pittsburgh so unique; and a pleasant interlude at a cafe where I would treat Anita to a cup of tea and a platter of chocolate chip cookies.
The past, however, is too real to recreate; Anita and I cannot build a friendship on such a faulty foundation. All I can do is live with if-only regrets or move forward with lessons learned. My choice, like Pittsburgh's weather, can change from minute to minute, but more often than not, I find myself detecting rays of sunshine among the clouds.
First Published February 9, 2013 12:00 am