My freshman year at college, Parents Weekend rolled around the end of September, and since my folks lived in Virginia Beach and St. Bonaventure University is on the Southern Tier of Western New York, they were not coming; neither were those of my roommate, Steve. He hailed from Auburn, NY, but he said they were busy and he had asked them not to make the drive.
Friday evening Steve asked if I wanted to go to the Skeller. The Rathskeller was a bar under the campus dining hall, conveniently the building next to ours. A few particulars made the skeller the most popular place on campus. First, the drinking age back then was eighteen. Second, there was absolutely nothing—nothing—to do on the Southern Tier of Western New York. Third, there was (Youth: Read this twice to grasp it) no such thing as a computer available to the average person, phones were still connected to the wall, each dorm floor had one payphone to be shared by ninety drunk floormates, who were more likely to cover the earpiece with shaving cream as they were to answer the phone and find you, the dorm had one television and it was in the lobby, cable was brand new so most dorms didn’t receive more than a few channels, and pitchers in the skeller were $2.50 each.
So Steve and I went down there that Friday night. Understand, no one who went to Bonas knows exactly what the skeller looks like since it was always packed from wall to wall with students, shoulder to shoulder, with a small wooden raised, enclosed DJ booth in the back, and a bar running down the right. Tables throughout. It was always hot and walking down the stairs from outside meant taking your glasses off if you wanted to see without being steamed up. Music blared all the time—Springsteen, Joel, Stray Cats, the Clash, Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” which had its airtime nearly every two hours. If “Born to Run” came on, everyone stood up and sang, standing on chairs, screaming in unison, “ONE TWO THREE FOUR” at the exact moment. If “Piano Man” was on, the room swayed and pitchers of Genny Cream Ale slopped over their sides.
The smell of pizza, wings, and beer soaked our clothes.
Steve got a pitcher and we found a rare empty table since so many students were with their parents eating at The Castle Restaurant across the street. It was late-September cold out, with a crisp and refreshing chill in the air, and hot as hell in the underground bar.
Two women saw the empty seats at our table and asked if they could sit there. We all introduced ourselves, I got up and retrieved two more glasses from the bar, and we talked about where we were from, what dorms we lived in, our majors. Finally one of them asked if our parents were around for the weekend.
I went first. All of this had to be hollered over the music. “NO! IT’S SO FAR AND THEY WERE JUST HERE IN AUGUST, SO I WON’T SEE THEM UNTIL THANKSGIVING!!”
Both of the women’s parents would be there on Saturday. Then they asked Steve. He took a sip of beer, sighed, and said, “NO! MY PARENTS WERE KILLED IN A CAR ACCIDENT ON I-90 THE WEEK BEFORE CLASSES.”
Both women apologized profusely, moved about in their chairs for a minute, clearly uncomfortable after being quite settled in to our company, and then they said they had to leave since it would be a big day on Saturday, and they squeezed their way through the crowd toward the door.
Steve took another sip of his beer and smiled. I looked at him. “WHAT THE FUCK?!”
“THEY WERE DRINKING ALL OUR BEER!”
“I WOULD HAVE BOUGHT MORE.”
“OH!! RIGHT! WELL….SORRY!”
He was a good roommate. We got along fine that year, and while we traveled in separate circles, different interests, I don’t remember ever quarreling. He was there during some significant events in my life, and we talked about them often. Still, after that year I don’t ever remember seeing him again, even in a hallway anywhere. I never really thought about it since we did have such different interests.
Time jump thirty-four years.
A new hire at the college liked to talk. I forget her name as I left there five years ago, but I can picture her—always talking. One day in the copy room I stood quietly while she moved from subject to subject until she bounced into a few sentences about her home in Auburn, New York.
“One of my college roommates was from Auburn.” I told her his name.
They were next door neighbors their entire lives. Turns out Steve left Bonas, received a master’s from UNC-Chapel Hill, and has coached sports his entire life, currently golf at an Upstate NY community college. His son lives in Boston, and everyone is doing fine. I just had no idea.
I forgot he existed. Somewhere through the years I stopped thinking of some people from there, from then, as humans out living lives and just characters in a play that took place in the early ‘80s. I forget sometimes that out there, just over the slight curve of the earth, are those people who are now, four decades on, at the other end of our ambitions and hopes. They traveled their own narrative arcs and ended up wherever just like I did, and they, too, have memories of that time.
But when we last see someone, it is easy to think of them as “then” more than “them.” In The Big Chill, William Hurt says poignantly, “A long time ago we knew each other for a short period of time. It was easy then. I grew up.” All that is true, but these were people we lived with, day and night, shared bathrooms, showers, tragedies, and heartbreaks. Those four years were like dog years.
But look: Social media has refriended so many of us, closed that gap. I have colleagues at my job I’ve worked for five years making comments to friends I haven’t seen in forty, and conversing with childhood friends of mine who I can’t even remember. Time is out of joint and linear measure of memories is up for grabs.
And then you run into someone who knew someone who knew. This colleague spoke of Steve and I could smell the stale beer, the must of the dorm room. The cold of the hallway where all the windows to the outside were always broken. I could, just for a second, almost name every single person on the floor. Then it’s gone. But in that sudden flash of not-so-great memory, is some ghost, waving at me, awoken for a brief because I happened to look that way, and just when I realize I thought I saw something, it’s gone.
But it haunts me like a dream that wakes you up in a sweat but you can’t remember.
I stopped looking back in recent years. Still, when I do, I “look back carefully, because there’s still something there for me,” as Jackson Browne wrote. And I was wondering what that is; like going away and forgetting something you just knew you meant to bring along but can’t put your finger on it.
Thinking of that story in the Skellar brings me closer to remembering what it is that I feel like I should not have forgotten, but then it slips away.
Everyone we ever knew is out there somewhere, if they’re still with us—and even if they’re not, I suppose—living their lives well beyond the shared grey space of our Venn Graph that overlapped during the end of the Carter Administration. Now we’re senior citizens, have lived our lives, and no matter how much time we have left–hopefully a good deal–we wonder most about those we lost somewhere along the way. I wonder how many times I walked past someone I used to know so well—maybe on a city street or in some café somewhere.
Well, it really was easy back then.
One thought on “The Chill”
Bob…..please send this to my wife Susan who is battling ovarian cancer. Her email is: email@example.com. Susan is a retired English teacher.