Clean Living

I’d been living in a closet. No kidding, a closet. I had a bunch of friends who went to Bryn Mawr College, which was, at the time, an all girls school. I spent so much time there that I’d often crash on someone’s couch or window seat. The problem was that it was dangerous. I could be easily found by one of the house parents and then all hell would break loose. So one day my friend Marcia suggested that I just take up residence in her walk-in closet. It was big, larger than a couple of bedrooms I’ve had, so I figured why not? It was a pretty cool time, music was in its heyday, or at least that’s how I felt about it. The sixties was a time of change and experimentation. So my friends and I would sit around, maybe smoking a little dope and watching Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In. Then, with background music like the Beatles White album or Janis Joplin’s Cheap Thrills, we’d talk late into the night about just about everything.

It was a little after two am when I decided I needed to take a shower. There was little chance of running into anyone else in the bathroom at that hour. It was, in retrospect, a risky proposition. In spite of the fact that  I was a fixture at the all girls college, there were some, student and faculty alike,  who wouldn’t appreciate a guy in the shower. Of course, there were a few of the girls who’d be flat thrilled about it too. Anyway, I grabbed some clean jeans and one of my trademark button down collared short sleeve shirts and skulked into the bathroom after making sure the place was empty. The school had really great water pressure, a fact I liked for the massaging deluge and the volumes of steam created by the spray.  Anyway, I was in one of the stalls and the water was beating down on my back while steam roiled around creating a thick misty fog in the room. Which is about when one of the house mothers dropped by to take a shower. She was a docent of fifty-plus years, slim and a bit hatchet faced, who kept her hair pulled severely back into a bun. She always looked at me and the other gentleman callers with obvious disdain, her attitude embracing the concept of summary castration as nothing short of ecstasy. The girls referred to her as “the Hawk,” and would give an involuntary shudder at the invocation of her name. To say she was strict would be like calling a billion dollars petty cash. She was known for trying to chat up the girls conspiratorially, and finding the admission of some offense, would pounce and invoke some form of restriction.

I watched in horror as her robe dropped into a heap atop her slippers and she stepped into the next stall to mine. I heard her start up the shower and doing so, she starts talking to me about how she just had this really great night with her boyfriend. She rattled on for about five minutes before she said something that required a reply. I wanted to make a break for it, but there was no way that I could do that, I’d have to pass her shower, and none of the stalls had any kind of curtain or door, just the dividers that made up the stalls. I don’t remember what it was she asked me, but I remember shoving my face into the stream of water coursing from the shower head and bubbling a high pitched “uh-huh.” She asked me how I’d spent my evening, and I replied in the same high pitch bubbling that I’d “just hung around.” She started telling me how I should get out more, take advantage of my time at college and how it would be the best time of my life. I just kept “uh huh-ing” in what I figured had to be the world’s worst girl imitation.

Now, it was the end of the sixties, October 1969 to be exact, and I had hair that hung down to my shoulders. I was pretty thin, weighing in at a svelte 135. Anyway, I heard her water shut off and I faced the wall and buried myself in the spraying water as she peered through the steam and around the stall divider. She told me to sleep tight and then I heard her dry herself and saw her pick up her robe. A moment later, the door clumped shut and she was gone. I imagined her thinking that poor girl in the shower had the ugliest rear end she ever saw and maybe even felt pity as she returned to her own room. I finished my shower and snuck back to my closet. I told Marcia, “you won’t believe what just happened.” She listened wide eyed as I recounted the close call.

The following day I returned to the dorm, walked into the room and a group of the girls were sitting cross legged in a circle and laughing so hard they had tears on their cheeks. Apparently the house parent had told Denise, a girl of my very general size and hair color that she meant what she said, that Denise really should get out more. When Denise asked her what she was talking about, the house mother said “Wasn’t that you in the shower last night?” Of course, Denise said no, that she’d spent the night with friends off campus. Failing, of course, to mention that she spent the night with one of the guys from neighboring Haverford College. The house parent got a confused look and went off muttering to herself. Of course, word of the strange conversation met up with the tale of how I almost got caught in the shower, and the girls were having a pretty good hoot over it all. From then on I would be occasionally referred to as “Denise.”

I lived in and about Bryn Mawr College for the better part of the winter, about two and a half months, until I decided to move to California in the early spring. In that time, I never had another close call in spite of regular showers and a virtually constant nighttime presence in the dorm. The thing is, there was nothing creepy about it. The girls and I were friends, and I was more of a brother image than boyfriend. That’s not to say that I didn’t take a romantic interest in a few of the college ladies, and when I did they were residents of other dorms. But it was always on the up and up and when bedtime came, I was always the gentleman –a fact I sometimes lament, especially under the disbelieving stares of some I’ve told about my stay at Bryn Mawr. But one of the common conversations in the dorm was what parents and faculty might think –had I been discovered. Of course, there would be an assumption of the worst. No doubt my recent departure from the military would have only added to the angst and ire that informed parents and faculty would feel. But the experience was a good one and came in handy when I had my own kids who, in their late teen years, stayed out all night. I didn’t immediately jump to conclusions, but looking back on my own life invested my trust instead. In talking with my kids and looking back, they told me they appreciated my faith. They also told me that there was never really any reason for me to have been concerned. A part of the reason being they didn’t want to betray my trust.

Parenting is a tough road. The recent marriage of my oldest son has caused me to peruse memory lane, and recall many of the moments from my children’s lives. I did feel anxiety about their safety at times, but those were occasions of their first departures from home and their home town, their first flirtations with adulthood. Any parent who claims to have no feelings of fear on those occasions is either a liar or a sociopath. But as my kids grew up, I did my best to give them a good value set. When they grew and began to make forays out into the world, I had to have faith in them. After all, out in the big wide world, there would never be any way for me to know who was using their showers.