It was a small place, right off campus in an area they called the University Village. “Off campus” but the school surrounded it on all sides. All the usual stuff was here; the pizza joints, the combo undergraduate/biker bars and the unofficial book stores with the “Ball U” shirts.
This place was dimly lit, quiet other than the soft hum of conversation, and they checked ID. So it was frequented mostly by professors and staff, a few denizens of the local neighborhood and grad students. It was a place we went with our friends to solve the problems of the world, complain about our love lives and talk sports. We had real conversations over Molson and Moosehead: sometimes inane, sometimes deeply intimate.
We were a clique of ex-pat New Yorkers, a few folks from Jersey and Connecticut, a couple of international students and some like minded Hoosiers. Drifting around the fringes were girlfriends and boyfriends who came and left depending on the vagaries of our romantic entanglements. And yes, being a coed group, we became entangled with each other. But those relationships started and flamed out during the first few months of knowing each other. It’s complicated when you all basically live together. So most of our amorous activities were directed at people outside the group; other grad students in the dorm, or older undergrads. Occasionally, we would wind up together but it was always a passing thing. We mostly lived in two suites of 12 people each…one male and one female, across the hall from each other. So everyone would know; but on the other hand, no one would care.
Back at the pub, this was all fodder for analysis and speculation. What’s up with Claire and Stevie? Nothing. Was Enya with Jeff last night? Ha! What do you think? It was just an accounting, nothing more…no judgement; necessary to maintain the equilibrium of the group. Everyone got their space..
We were intensely cool (just ask us), worldly (we’d tell you that too) but also insular. It was like we took Long Island and transferred it to Muncie, Indiana and anything that didn’t fit that mold was deemed of little value, love interests excepted. Those outside boyfriends and girlfriends were welcomed but judged with critical eyes. Little was held back, and no, it was not always negative.
I don’t want to over-romanticize it…not everyone liked us and a couple of the women on their side of the hallway wanted nothing to do with the lot of us. Still, I have kept a few letters and cards that we exchanged during special times, and they remind me that the affection among us was real. We also had each others backs in a variety of ways.
One time I brought an under-grad into the graduate student dining room. She wanted to study together, even though we had no similar classes and it seemed like a good place for someone I had only gone out with once. One of the other graduate women hissed an objection “she doesn’t belong here.” We both heard and my study date turned beet red. I glared at the big mouth. But Lydia, one of us, was there too and overheard it: “he can bring whoever the fuck he wants in here. Butt out.” For good measure, she threw in a few choice insults as well. My date went from almost crying in embarrassment to trying to suppress her giggles.
Our little group was together for two years. But in the vibrant intensity of youth it seemed like it went on longer and it imprinted deeply. We commuted to New York and back together, we visited each other at our homes back east and we carried on for awhile after we got our graduate degrees and went our separate ways.
Stevie, making his dates identify the different types of saxophones…which of course could only be done in his room with his records. Our resident Sikh who acted mysterious to impress undergrad girls. The Greek who we never saw study but got straight ‘A’s. Lydia, who we never saw without perfect hair and makeup. Enya, who had lots of drama but was super sweet and always up for hanging out. And finally, Dow, who we swore would get us all killed in a bar fight.
When I grew up a little more, I thought of all the relationships and friendships we might have missed out on because of that insularity. But then I grew up some more and realized we would have never had the deep connection, the intimacy and the craziness without it. I am pretty sure if I ran into any of them again, we would pick up right where we left off.
The graduate dorm is gone now, along with the entire complex of eight other dorms, the cafeterias, snack bars arcades and common areas. Our dorm was ahead of it’s time with coed suites, private bathrooms and very little keeping young men and young women apart.
I wish I had been a picture taker at that point in my life. Although I still remember all of them and exactly what they looked like. I miss them all.
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