People sometimes accuse me of being overly obsessed with manners. I have my reasons.
I was reminiscing the other night with my friend Chloe. Her birthday was the next day, and I brought up celebrating with her back in 2005. A bunch of us sat on grass next to the East River in Brooklyn, watched the sun go down over Lower Manhattan, and drank copious amounts of wine. I brought a bottle of Smoking Loon Viognier. That day Chloe was turning 23; I had turned 39 three months earlier.
I remarked how wonderful it was that I was able to become such long-term friends with someone so much younger than me. Well, the fact that she was dating and eventually married one of my best friends certainly helped. However, I would have gladly been friends with Chloe regardless of that. (Though that would have probably involved a 39yr old man hanging around the Pratt campus).
“I just wasn’t into the typical college bullshit,” she said.
“True. I remember telling someone I had found a 35yr old 22yr old friend.”
“Yeah, I didn’t do crap like fuck in front of my roommate.” Well, that was out of nowhere, but I understood.
It’s all about manners, and nothing says ill breeding like fucking in front of one’s college roommate. College is the first time many people are away from the manner-enforcing mommies, and sometimes they go insane with improper etiquette.
Manners exist for a reason.
During my first term at Wittenberg after transferring in, they existed for the very necessary reason that I needed to be able to walk into my dorm room or fall asleep without seeing my new roommate Sheldon and his girlfriend Denise having sex.
It began the very first night I spent in North Hall. One of the main reasons I chose to transfer into Wittenberg during my sophomore year –after a breakdown freshman year at Cornell –was that Wittenberg required freshmen and sophomores to live in the dorms. Juniors and seniors lived off-campus for the most part. I just didn’t want to have to hunt for off-campus lodgings when I didn’t know anyone or be the only sophomore among all freshmen. What would people think? What’s wrong with this person who lives among people a whole year younger than him? I spent a whole year not fitting in at Cornell, I wasn’t about to start anew as a square peg.
My new roommate Sheldon was a junior. He neither helped me unload the car (even though he was in the room, just sitting there with Denise), nor did he ask me to join him for dinner (even though he knew I was alone). Luckily, I found some guys down the hall who seemed nice enough, and I ate with them. I bade them goodnight a little early because I felt I had been hanging out and discussing Jesus with them long enough. I was in a good place because I stayed and chatted with the Jesus guys long enough to not seem rude but not too long where the subject would turn to my specific faith. The Jesus guys would become part of the cast of cordial background players that fill one’s life. Manners involve a lot of threading the needle, and there is a certain well-deserved bump of pride when you get it right.
I went to my room, and it was locked. I fumbled for my key, found it, and inserted the key into the lock. It slid in with only a slight hesitation, and the lock yielded.
(I’ll take clumsily obvious metaphors for $800, Alex.)
And there, bathed in the fluorescent glow of the vanity was Sheldon’s glutinous ass going up and down atop an unmoving lump I assumed was Denise. I was frozen out of shock long enough for the thought “Seriously dude, vary the pace” to go through my head. I assumed they never heard me, so wrapped up they were in their mutual silence. I quietly shut the door, and wandered around the dorm.
I gave them thirty minutes. When I returned, they were both studying… two days before classes began. I said hi and tried to act nonchalant. Sheldon looked up from his book. “Sorry about that,” he said.
“Hey, my bad,” I chuckled. Manners require balance remember.
“You really need to learn to knock.” Denise nodded in agreement.
I would soon learn that, despite North Hall being a single-sex dorm, I had a third roommate named Denise.
How, you ask, did Denise manage her nightly toilette if women had to be out of the dorm by 10pm? First of all, she made sure to visit the girls’ restroom on the first floor before ten. There usually was a line. All subsequent visits involved Sheldon standing guard outside the floor’s bathroom. She didn’t go right to bed at ten, and usually snacked on salty things in a crinkly bag until midnight. That’s when Sheldon would go to the bathroom, fill a Big Gulp cup with water, and bring it back to the room. Denise would then brush her teeth using this water and spit into another, empty Big Gulp cup.
At first I applauded them for their ingenuity. Then I realized the second cup was never emptied despite Sheldon getting fresh water every night for his lady.
I assumed the stench of rotting toothpaste spit water mixed with chips functioned as some sort of erotic aromatherapy for Sheldon and Denise as my two roommates spent an awful lot of time, um, making love? No, that’s not right. Copulating? Having relations? Engaging in coitus? Whatever it was, it wasn’t fucking. Fucking implies pleasure or at least sounds that could pass as pleasure.
“Fucking” or not, it was an egregious lack of manners. Had I woken up to their strangely silent rutting once or twice that term, I’d have been fine. Sometimes when making out, certain body parts get past the goalie. Except there never seemed to be foreplay. Just stillness then the bedsprings squeaking like a metronome set to bore-peggio. This happened on average four times a week.
And it’s not like it was an accident. Most nights, the last thing I heard was “Do you think he’s asleep yet?” If I replied “No,” would that make me seem rude? If I said nothing, would I be forced to listen to their rote recitation of the missionary position again? Either way, they were putting me in an awkward position, which was a breach of manners.
Manners exist so people know what to do, so they’re not put in a state of uncomfortable ignorance, so they don’t lay frozen in their loft bed.
Once I got over the conundrum of whether to stop them or not, there was the issue of whether or not to watch. I tried not to, but then again, I also try not to look at wrecks on the interstate or Donald Trump. How much easier Sheldon and Denise would have made it for me had either one of them been even nominally better looking. But they were so fiercely average that, in the darkness, it was honestly hard to tell if they were naked or somehow doing it through the pleated khakis that were their daytime uniform. They also had roughly the same build, haircut, and back acne. If you’re going to be an exhibitionist about things, have the manners to at least have something worthwhile to exhibit. Manners are a give and take. Seriously dude, vary the pace.
Nothing feels worse to me than having to resort to what I consider bad manners to counter someone else’s bad manners. For example, my heart aches every time I am compelled to flip off another driver on the road, but people must be made aware that others wish they would follow the rules of the road. My first opportunity to flip off Sheldon and Denise came one night when their pillow talk turned from whether or not I was asleep and to what I must have eaten. Yes, I was especially gassy that night, having had cheesy broccoli for dinner and about eight Schaefers for dessert. I began a chemical weapon campaign of non-soluble fiber, dairy, and yeasty bevvies. I didn’t care –like everyone else, I think my own farts smell like jasmine. They began to study in the lounge. But they still reluctantly returned shortly before ten to hump while avoiding breathing through their noses.
Sadly, I also had to stop being polite to Denise. Not only would she spend the night, she also felt she had the right to take naps in the room during the afternoon. Did I mention that Denise in fact had a bed in a sorority two blocks away? One hungover afternoon, I returned to my room in need of a rock nap –one of those naps where you drift off to loud music. However, when I returned, I saw Denise sprawled out and snoring on her stomach. (Funny, I thought she was only capable of lying on her back.)
I had had enough. I popped in a John Mellon Cougarcamp tape, turned it up to around 7, and serenaded her with “Paper in Fire.” Then I crawled up to my loft, put on my eye mask, and ignored her choruses of “What the hell?”
Sheldon tried to say something that evening, but I walked out of the room. Again, I felt bad doing that. One should really give one’s adversary a forum to speak their mind. Then maybe some common ground can be reached. Conversely, I didn’t sign up for a snoring potato woman during my rock nap times. Also, my Beta pledge brother John had just been bragging about a new bong. It would’ve been even ruder of me to not accept John’s invitation to visit his room to shove wet towels under his door and exhale through Bounce sheets.
But still they boinked.
One advantage of joining the Betas was that my RA, Jeff, was also in the frat. He suggested that every night at 10:05, I walk down to his room, knock on his door, and report Sheldon and Denise. But what’s ruder than snitching? Snitches not only get stitches, they also get nagging self-doubt. How come I couldn’t be cool? Sheldon and Denise might not be attractive, but don’t they deserve a space to share their love?
Manners exist so people don’t have to spend night’s awake in self-doubt wondering if they handled a situation correctly. Turning things over and over in their head. Manners are really important to bipolars like me. We thrive on order because there is so little order in our own brains. I have to know what to expect going into a situation, so I can ready my reactions. It’s not an over-developed sense of justice. It’s not trying to be a control freak. It’s not a Downton Abbey re-creation.
Manners are the only way I can navigate the world.
In the end, snitching worked. At the end of the term, Sheldon and Denise moved into an apartment off-campus.
And I had a single room in which I could come and go as I pleased, take rock naps, exude my jasmine-y gasses.
*Sadly, there was no fucking.