When I was nineteen, someone knocked on the door of my basement dorm room, and I opened it, ducking under the exposed water pipe on the ceiling, to find Bob. Blond, smiling Bob in a bow tie, a junior boy I didn’t talk to.
He cleared his throat, then extended me an invitation: “Randy’s heard you write plays. We have a salon in our room every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights. We’d like you to join us. 32 B. Come after dinner. Please dress up.”
The B was for basement. My room, the second in the span of a year, after the first—an undesignated triple with two other girls, one very tall, one very short, both of whom conspired to rearrange my stuff into the corner when I went home one weekend— didn’t work out, was by the back door. When drunks forgot their keys, they would bend down and bang on our window, which was over my bed. I learned to rise, leave the room, go down the hall and open the back door with my eyes closed. One night I slept through the banging, and the drunk shattered the glass door with his fists.
Randy and Bob’s room was different. Bigger, down at the end, the window cracked open to let out the sweet smoke of cigars. The streetlight hung over the road, stem-like and silver, the way I imagined the lamps did in Paris. I remember so many nights leaning, my head along the back of the couch, looking out at this sky. It seemed always to be almost snowing. The moon seemed always to be full.
I had noticed Randy months ago. He stood out on the small, Ohio campus. He looked like Orson Welles, though I didn’t know about Orson Welles then: black glossy hair, round face and body, and those clothes!
The story went: When Randy was in fifth grade, his uncle had died and left Randy all his possessions. The clothes fit—already they fit—and so Randy wore them. And when he wore them out, he bought others at vintage shops and estate sales: gray flannel suits, and double-breasted jackets, trench coats, patterned sports jackets, slip-on leather shoes. I never saw him outside without a fedora. He carried a briefcase instead of a bag. Often a cigar was clenched in his lips or waving in his hands.
The story went: When the chair of the theatre department told Randy he was failing, Randy stood up to leave the office, sticking a cigar in his mouth. The professor stood up and said, “Please. Let me,” and lit Randy’s cigar with his gold-plated lighter, right there in the office.
They may have sat back down together and smoked.
This was a decade before Mad Men. Randy was weird, and I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Was he pretending? He never stopped, never stepped into the present, never drank a beer or wore jeans. Before I had been invited to his room, I had heard the sound of his parties at night when I was brushing my teeth. They seemed like living to me, real living, and so different from the other college parties with their watery beers and their red cups and their groping boys in shorts. You had to be somebody to be invited to Randy’s room, I thought: an artist or a filmmaker or a beautiful girl. You had to have ideas.
My first night, I was nervous, pulling down my short skirt. My new roommate came with me because she was an actress, a poet and lovely. She had been invited too. She kept a picture of Lauren Bacall beside our mirror. Every morning she plucked her eyebrows just so, like Lauren’s.
32B was full of music and dancing. Randy played Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, Perry Como. He and Bob had a bar on their mirrored vanity with liquor, glassware (no red plastic cups here), and martini shakers. Bob made the drinks, Randy spun girls around the room.
In 32B, I first drank vodka—first drank anything, really. I learned to mambo. I sucked a cigar. I met the theatre crowd, the film crowd, music majors, DJs, international students, campus stars. Once, during an electrical storm, the lights flashed off and in the darkness—suddenly silent all through the building—someone kissed me, grazed my chest; I still don’t know who.
Once, only once, the TV in the corner was on, a blue screen that buzzed over the room like the sky stuck on twilight. “It’s ambience!” Randy said, when someone asked. Once, only once, we watched a movie: The Shining, on Halloween night. We were all in costumes, but Randy said, “Pajamas!” clapping his hands like an emperor ordering an entree, like Welles directing a scene, and everyone ran back to their rooms to change.
Was he really only twenty? He seemed much older, aged by the clothes, the cigars, his slicked back hair, his early paunch. He was our leader. He was the jazz man, the disco ball we all swirled around. He danced and dipped girls and kissed them on the cheek, but he was never linked with anyone, not that I knew about. He seemed sexless, as well as timeless. He seemed to want for nothing and to want no one.
Randy had a floor lamp made out of a dressmaker’s dummy: plastic legs, torso, arms, and a fringed lampshade where the head might be on a mannequin. He called the lamp Lolita, and she wore a black nightgown. “Goodnight Lolita,” he would say when he turned out the light.
On pajama night, he wore a red velvet smoking jacket and sat beside me, under a blanket, and I thought something might happen between us, but I was no Rita Hayworth.
Once I was the last to leave the room. Bob had climbed to his loft bed, was already snoring, and I thought—but Randy said, “Goodnight, Lolita. Goodnight, Alison,” and reclined back on the vintage, horsehair sofa, tipping his boater hat over his eyes.
Randy had no bed, I realized. He had gotten rid of his bed. That was what made the room so big, big enough for dancing.
I think I spent that night—or another one like it—on the floor of Randy and Bob’s room, too tired, too drunk, too hopeful, to crawl back to my own room. What was it I was hoping for? What was it I had wanted?
A salon, like Bob had promised. A meeting of minds and booze. Something like the Algonquin Hotel, where Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley would flirt and say smart things, where everyone would be remembered. Something exclusive, a club where you had to be asked in, and you had to defend your intelligence, your beauty, your ideas—your right to be there.
And what did we do in 32B? We talked about books instead of ever writing them; we argued about movies and music instead of making it. We frequently left the party to go to the bathroom down the hall and be sick. 32B smelled of vodka, cigars—and vomit. We were too tired to make it the next day to our classes.
Once, in the middle of the night when the dorm had to be evacuated because of a fire alarm, I saw Randy strolling on the patio, fully dressed—tie, suit, wool pea coat, and fedora—a tall redhead on one arm, a drink in his hand. He sipped from a martini glass on our dorm patio, and no one stopped him, none of the security officers that were milling around. Randy seemed to have a pass, an unspoken agreement with security, one of his many powers. They never bothered him.
Randy drank. He tipped his hat to me. “Lovely evening, Alison,” he said, and he and the girl strolled on.
Behind his head, I saw through the window of the dorm a couple that hadn’t evacuated. They were naked.
My roommate started dating a rich boy and stopped going to the parties. Her best friend broke up with an actor who lay his head on my lap in Randy’s room and sobbed, “I don’t know what she wants. I don’t know how to be that.”
Maybe that was what attracted me to 32B, to the parties, to Randy himself, like a moth to a light bulb. Randy knew what he was, already. He had known since the fifth grade: a throwback, a figurehead, a magnet around which we all swirled, happy and oblivious.
At the end of the year, the parties were over. Randy flunked out of college. The last I heard he was bartending on a casino boat, which sank.
Even as an adult, I’ve never found that kind of glamour, that kind of romance, that kind of sheen, again. Those parties gave me something to look forward to, gave me a reason to dress up. I use to shop specifically thinking about them—Would these heels work for dancing? Would this skirt flip up too much if I twirled?—but the last time I entered a vintage shop and I reached for a flimsy party dress, it ripped. My fingers slipped right through the fringe.