Why I Sometimes Miss My Disaster of a Dorm, Even Though I Keep a Clean Home Now

published Jul 8, 2019
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Credit: Joe Lingeman

The table cost $8, and it was the perfect height to collide with our shinbones on a regular basis. We bought it from the Ewing, New Jersey Goodwill in September 2006, and for the rest of the year, its surface was never clear. Hosting notebooks and empty coffee cups, the table was the centerpiece of our junior year dorm. My roommate, Devon and I had one of the largest rooms in the building, and it quickly became the de facto gathering place for our group of friends. Our place was often crowded with both people and things—full to the brim with laundry, loose change strewn about, unfinished homework. It was a treasure. 

My roommate and I also cherished our room for its prized location. It was located in the same building as our dining hall, and since our window looked inward, we could glance down and ascertain both how long the lines for the salad bar were, as well as whether anyone we were actively avoiding happened to be eating lunch at the time. From our vantage point on the third floor, we would gather before heading out to parties or hunker down between classes, sharing space on a Walmart futon and catching up on reruns of “Judging Amy” instead of reading for class.

The messiness of life and of the dorm was symbolic of a larger reality that swiftly changes in later adulthood—time belonged wholly to us, to spend as we saw fit, and quite honestly we often spent much of that time doing a lot of nothing.

We had the opportunity to move off campus for our junior year, but for the most part our friend group stayed, mostly concentrated in one building. We would move on to townhouses with individual rooms for our senior year, but junior year was still for roommate life. As an adult, I now have a tidy Colonial (and the help of a much-appreciated cleaning service to keep it that way). I also have a young son who is inclined to put whatever he finds in his mouth, so I no longer have the option of leaving random stuff on the floor.

But that dorm room was different—just two college kids existing in occasional haphazard conditions, because who did we have to answer to? We didn’t have to meet a spouse somewhere in the middle, we just got to accumulate what we wanted on our respective sides of the room, in two extra-long twin beds that never got made. I realize now that the beauty of carefree dorm life was the people we got to do nothing and be carefree with.

Fast forward 10 years and while I know we’re lucky to live in an age of texting and FaceTime, when your college roommates and friends are easily accessible digitally, it’s never quite the same, is it? As “real” adults, we have kids and jobs and deadlines that aren’t just analyzing the gender politics of the most recent season of the “Real World” (Key West). Actually that was terrible, adult life is much better than that. Most strikingly the weight of the world hadn’t hit us yet. Even if we experienced personal hardships, we could wander back to our room, spend time on the futon with dining hall nachos, and get lost in the company of our best friends—all available in the bed or room next door. We didn’t have dinner to make—the dining hall staff did that. No small child crawled on our floors so it didn’t matter if we dropped our bags at the door, with their capless pens and cruddy pennies. 

Credit: Joe Lingeman

If we’re lucky, we’re married to our best friends now, maybe even the ones we shared drinks and secrets with in undergrad. But the time just doesn’t feel the same. Eickhoff Hall 312 holds memories just as surely as it held all the discarded solo cups we kept neglecting. Days we spent nursing iced coffees in the sun outside the library, nights when we carefully winged our eyeliner and adjusted our going-out-tops before heading to the swim house. I have my own house and family to care for now and no matter how much I love them, I still sometimes ache with longing for the years I got to spend side-by-side with my best friends. 

I think it boils down to missing the closeness of friendships that only come with sharing living spaces. Dorm life is simply an encapsulation of the most intense times of our lives—plus all the times we spent eating nachos and playing cards together. 

While I often think while spending time with my husband and young son that I am in fact living the “good old days,” there were even older ones before these. Something about the close quarters of a dorm leads to the kind of close, intense friendships that become hard to replicate in adulthood. 

From a 30-something perspective, I would never actually want to go back to living in the dorm. I married a much neater spouse and there is something to be said for coming home to a clean three-bedroom house instead of a slightly disastrous one room dwelling. But when I find myself missing that messy third-floor room, I realize that I’m actually missing what it represented—total freedom to spend my time as I saw fit, and my closest friends to do it with at a moment’s notice. Unless I pull off a “Golden Girls” style retirement (and I’m not ruling that out), I will never again experience a lifestyle of carefree closeness like I did when I was 21. That dorm was gross. I miss it dearly. 

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