Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Knowing things that you shouldn't

I had a roommate in college. Actually, I had several, but this one was easily the most memorable. Mark* was a bit taller than me, lean-bordering-on-skinny, and basically a nice guy. Unfortunately, he was intensely ADHD: he couldn't sit still to save his life, and he had the attention span of a mosquito on crack. He wore on your nerves after a while, not because he was mean or inconsiderate, but because he was so perpetually wound up that it was impossible to relax around him.

Now, I didn't have much room to criticize him; I was a bit of a mess myself, though for different reasons. I was just getting over the discovery that my first serious relationship was an utter failure, and that in trying to keep it going I had not only made some mistakes, but actually behaved quite badly.** I was isolated, nearly nocturnal, and - if we're going to get technical - clinically depressed. The only real upside was that I finally had my feet under me again, and I was trying to rebuild my goals and self-image. I was majoring in Spanish at the time, mainly because the University had forced me to pick something, but instead of doing the usual study abroad (in Spain) for my senior year, I decided to join the Medieval Studies trip, which would visit more or less everywhere in Europe except Spain.

So when I say that I was less than thrilled to discover that Mark was also coming on the Medieval Studies trip, it's important to understand that I didn't really dislike him. It was more that having him around was hard on my peace of mind, and peace of mind was something of a rare commodity for me. I asked for - and received - a guarantee from the organizers that I wouldn't have to room with him, and that was good enough.

Or, well, it should have been.

There were two Universities involved in the program. The one I was attending was a fairly high-powered academic environment, with a heavy emphasis on the liberal arts, populated mainly by upper class and upper-middle class students, and set on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee. The other was fairly similar, but set in a more urban environment: Memphis. The students were about evenly split between the two colleges. The program would begin in the summer, on my home ground atop the mountain, where we would spend a month going over background and history before we left for Europe. This was designed to give us some context for, and understanding of, the things we would be seeing later.

It also gave us time to get to know each other. So, during that first month, we spent our days on academics and background; and we spent our evenings and weekends on beer, camping, and related activities. I was recovering from a case of mononucleosis (among other things), so I didn't participate too much. Mostly, I kept my distance.***

I paid no attention whatsoever to what Mark was doing. In fact, I only noticed that he'd missed a couple of days of class because I happened to overhear someone else asking about it. I was aware that he showed back up, and that his story about why he'd been he'd been absent changed a couple of times: at first, he said he'd been camping and rolled over onto the fire; later, he retracted that and said that a waitress at the local all-night diner had accidentally poured coffee in his lap. Again, I only learned about this because other people had remarked on it; it existed way out on the dim periphery of my awareness.

Until I talked to one of my friends... let's call her Robin. Robin was not part of the program; she was up at the college over the summer as part of her own studies. Robin asked me if I knew what had happened to Mark, and (after some consideration) I realized that, yes, something did seem to be going on with him.

So Robin told me a story. One of Mark's fraternity brothers had run into him just after we'd all arrived, and found Mark hanging out with a couple of girls from another college. A bit later, the same frat brother had found Mark lying on the couch at their frat house, with an ice pack pressed to his... crotch. Mark's explanation was that he had slept with one of the two girls, and that she had later told him that she had genital warts. In a panic, he had gone to the Health Center, and gotten something that was supposed to help.

Now, I don't normally put much stock in thirdhand stories. (Everybody knows the game of whispers - somebody whispers something to the person beside them, who passes it on the next person, etc., and by the time it goes around the circle it's something entirely different.) But in this case, the story had been passed on almost verbatim; the details were so precise that I recognized the two girls. On top of that, the whole thing was so perfectly in character for Mark that I couldn't really doubt it.

I could almost see him showing up at the Health Center in a panic, and hanging around until they (probably out of sheer exasperation) finally gave him a cream for genital warts. I could picture him rushing home, thinking that if he had caught something, it would be better to treat it early. It was no stretch at all to imagine him smearing himself with cream, and hoping that would take care of it. And, of course, he wouldn't have read the label; he wouldn't have listened to (or remembered clearly) any instructions he'd been given. It would never have occurred to him that the cream was designed to remove genital warts, not prevent them; that it was, basically, an acid.

His frat brother had asked how bad it was. The answer involved skin grafts.

My first reaction was a sort of appalled disbelief, with an edge of (slightly hysterical) humor. Seriously? He'd... Seriously? But I could see it. I could see it so perfectly. And it explained not only why he'd been out, but why his story kept changing.

(So how did Robin know this? Her roommate, who was down in Texas, was dating the frat brother. So, to be clear: frat brother had gotten the story from Mark. Robin's roommate had gotten the story from frat brother, and Robin had gotten the story from her roommate... and passed it along to me.)

So there I was, in possession of a very interesting bit of information which I had no desire to share with anyone else. I'm sure Robin thought it was okay to tell me, because I'd been Mark's roommate for the previous year; normal people would consider that some sort of social connection. That didn't apply to anyone else on the trip, so I decided not to mention it - partly because I felt like it wasn't any of my business, but mostly because I just didn't want to get involved.

At the end of the preparatory study, there was short break. (After that, we would get on the plane and fly up to Yorkshire for the next phase of study, and after that we would mostly be traveling.) The break was about four days long. It was enough time for people to go home, and most of them did.

Three of us stayed at the University: me; a tall, likable fellow whom I'll call "Pete"; and The Girl. Yes, that girl: the one Mark had slept with, the one who had told him she had genital warts.

So, being the only three students remaining - and lacking any sort of wheeled transportation - we decided to walk over to the beer/burgers/pizza joint in town. And as we were walking down the hill, Pete - who happened to be walking in the middle - asked whether anybody knew what had actually happened with Mark, because "that whole thing was kind of weird, you know?"

And before I could stop myself, I said: "Yes."

I was acutely aware that, on the other side of Pete, the girl had just stopped breathing. Honestly, if she hadn't been there, I probably wouldn't have said anything; but the setup was just too tempting. The impish part of my sense of humor just couldn't resist. Pete was walking between us and looking at me; I don't think he noticed her reaction.

So we walked down the hill, and I told them an abbreviated version of the story. I left out identifying details, and I warned them that I hadn't gotten it firsthand. Pete listened attentively, but that was nothing like the level of attention I was getting from the girl beside him. She was... taut. Somewhere in there, I met her eyes, and I could see her sort of relax as she realized that, yes, I knew it was her; and no, I wasn't going to say anything if she wasn't.

And we finished our walk and had a very nice dinner, talking about other things entirely.

The next day she came to my room and gave me her side of the story. This struck me as both odd and funny, since I felt that if I'd made anything clear in the previous night's story, it was that I really didn't care. She said, basically, that after sleeping with Mark she realized that she'd made a mistake; and that she wasn't sure how to get rid of him (Mark was neither subtle nor quiet). In mild desperation, she'd looked up a list of STDs, chosen the one that seemed the most harmless, and told him that she had that. She assured me that she didn't actually have anything (which was ironic****, if true), and I assured her that I believed her.

And that was more or less it. With one exception, I don't know what became of any of these people, and there's no larger point to this story. It's just something that sticks in my mind, an especially strange part of an already-strange time in my life.

Well, okay... I know a little more about events during the trip, and for the sake of completion I'll add what I know. Later in the trip, while we were staying in Oxford, Mark met and slept with a French girl, thereby establishing that he hadn't done himself any permanent harm. A little while after that, Pete and The Girl became a couple, and seemed pretty happy about it. Whether they stayed together after the trip was over, I couldn't tell you; I transferred to another University for the following semester... but that's another story.

* Names have been changed to protect the guilty.

** Badly enough that if I ever run into that particular girl again, I need to offer profuse apologies from a comfortably safe distance.

*** This was actually a deliberate strategy. I was trying to see if I could live without people, and I was considering the possibility of transferring to another college. I wanted to see if I could go through life without dealing with people. So I made a rule for myself: I would only speak under two conditions. The first was if someone addressed me directly; the second was if I felt I had something reasonably important to contribute. Greetings, casual exchanges, gossip, trivia, and anecdotes were right out. My eventual conclusion was that while I could live without interacting any more than necessary, it wasn't pleasant enough to be worthwhile.

**** In the colloquial use of the word.

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