Back in spring of 2003, when jeans hit low, patriots ordered freedom fries and suburban teens argued about the best live version of "Two Step," I was a high-school junior on the college-tour circuit. Over spring break, I browsed newly wireless student centers, Hogwarts-y dining halls and statues of college namesakes galore. And, I got my first taste of co-ed living quarters. While touring the school I'd end up attending, I followed an upbeat English major into a dorm room that rivaled anything I'd seen on TV. The first-floor quad had bay windows, an en-suite bathroom, lacquered wood floors and enough space to host a kegger and an improv show — at the same time. Sign me up, I thought. This is college.
But, it wasn't college. At least not for me. When I arrived on campus as a freshman, I opened the door to a room that in no way resembled the palatial, "Saved by the Bell: The College Years"-ian digs from my tour. Instead, I'd been placed in a cramped, institutional cube with all the charm of a rest-stop entryway and barely enough space for school-issued furniture, let alone my bendy lamp. It wasn't that I'd expected luxury. But, I'd seen the nicest freshman dorm the school had to offer and didn't realize it was an outlier. I felt like I'd booked the honeymoon suite and ended up in the broom closet.
Still, I was in college: home of parent-free-everything, land of offensive theme parties. At last, I could forget everything I knew about differential equations and take a hard pass on morning classes. I could sleep where I pleased, drink what I pleased and spend my time with people, including senior men, who hadn't been in my class photos since kindergarten. A dorm room was just a place to store my polos and make calls on a landline. So, I unloaded however many pairs of colored khakis fit in my half-closet and got acquainted with my new roommates.
There was Kaitlin, who'd kicked off our roomie email chain and found me on facebook over the summer. (In 2004, the incoming freshman class was the first one to start college with thefacebook.com, as we called it back then.) I'd learned from Kaitlin's profile that she played hockey and grew up in Vermont. She'd learned from mine that I liked "classy cocktails."
Next up was Kerry, a hockey player and sophomore transfer who moved out within a few weeks. In her place we got Olivia, yet another hockey player who liked math and kept responsible hours. Finally, there was Christina, an Indiana native who came to college with her best friend, Mary, and went hard on anthropology classes.
The four of us didn't become a clique, but we were friendly enough. Compared to roommate horror stories I'd later hear, my living situation wasn't half bad. And soon enough, we residents of room 412 fell into our first-year rhythms: chatting over homework, trading stories of Saturday-night sloppiness and occasionally playing "Dance, Dance Revolution." Privacy was on short supply, but with help from headphones, campus study rooms and patience, we made do with the tight squeeze. Then, after a few months of maintaining our friendly-enough status, we made a change that cut down on the little personal space we had.
Our quad had two rooms. The hallway door opened into the common room, which contained all desks, seating and ancillary furniture (see: bendy lamp). We walked through the common room to reach our bedroom, which was set up in a standard way, with two bunkbeds and dressers lined up against opposite walls. And that's how it stayed until one day in November, when we decided to unite the beds to create one, big bed. This unibed, as we called it, would be a quirky upgrade for our little home.
It might be a stretch to say we "created" anything, because we did nothing other than push two twin bunk beds together and throw our bedding on top. The resulting sleeping quarters, a bi-level sea of pillows and mismatched duvets, harbored few, if any, rules. Whenever possible, we slept in the same beds we had pre-unibed. Two of us slept side by side on the bottom bunk, and the other two took the top. We didn't, however, lay claim to any designated unibed territory. Often, we passed out wherever sleeping bodies weren't. The rest of the room, meaning two wardrobes and enough floor space for two people to get dressed, stayed as it was.
Most nights, the unibed was a four-person ordeal. But a few times, five or six sets of toes peeked out from underneath its covers. One weekend, a high-school friend of mine drove four hours in a blizzard and crashed on the bottom bunk while my roommate and her long-distance boyfriend curled up, and hooked up, on the top bunk. Neither visitor complained about the accommodations. I hope, in most cases, we made use of the common-room futon when we brought people home or hosted prospective students, but I only have a few distinct unibed memories. Over time, my nights spent sleeping-as-four have blurred into a composite flashback.
With 12 years of hindsight behind me, it's easy to see that the unibed made no sense. It prevented two people from entering and exiting their beds freely. It created tons of dust. And it only made our sleep environment less conducive to, well, sleeping.
So why did I agree to it? Maybe I embraced the unibed because I was ignorant about the expectations of communal living and assumed college was a perma-sleepover. Maybe we were all drunk when we put our hands in and shouted “unibed!" on three, and kept drinking until we didn’t realize our bunk beds hadn’t always been a single entity. Maybe 18 year olds who live in a polished first-draft of the real world say "yeah, sure" to anything because the leafy, liberal-arts college experience is engineered so quazi-adults can say "yeah, sure" without facing many repercussions.
The unibed didn't last until the end of the year, but it did make it through winter break and into second semester. Overall, we logged about two months in our adult pillow fort. I don't remember the details of the dissolution, but I know that my behavior was part of the reason my roommates pulled the plug. Something about hockey season, early-morning practice and the odd hours I kept, courtesy of a sisterhood that took over my schedule. Somehow, I'd managed to break the rules in a system without any.
Looking back, unibed-snoozing fell into a collection of freshman-year choices that now seem entirely out of character, such as pulling all-nighters to pledge a sorority and getting a pageboy haircut. For the record, I also helped form a "JV Streaking Team" (varsity already existed) and, let's not forget, listed "classy cocktails" as an interest on thefacebook.
When I think about on myself at 18, I feel like I'm watching someone else — and it rattles me. I know I didn't say "yeah, sure" to anything radical, like freegan-ism, or hitting the bottle and going straight to the rock. But, collectively, my freshman-year digressions of character, however silly, throw a wrench in my sense of self. What makes me in 2016, a wine-and-enchilada devotee who tends to over-analyze, the same person as me from 12 years ago, or 12 years from now?
The difficulty of pinpointing the essence of "the self" is an age-old challenge. Towards the end of the 17th century, John Locke grounded the existence of a stable self in consciousness. Regardless of what happens to my physical body, according to Locke, I'll be Theresa Fisher so long as I remember the experience of being Theresa Fisher. Though, the theory doesn't rely entirely on my subjective claims. I could declare, and believe, that I'm cool-teen Malia Obama, but I wouldn't be her unless I actually knew her thoughts and behavior from her perspective.
Plenty of big-deal thinkers, however, have rejected the idea that consciousness over time translates to possession of a stable self. A few years after Locke floated his thoughts, Scottish philosopher and world-class skeptic David Hume argued that we can never be aware of any theoretical, unchanging self that rides out the years with us. He acknowledged that experiences must be experienced by something (or someone), and allowed for the possibility that the same essential something (akin to a self) racks up one experience after the next. But he also suggested that a different self may pop up and die with each new experience. In Hume's view, we can only be conscious of our current self-perceptions. And they change constantly.
Have I put too much existential weight on an eight-week-long sleeping arrangment that's hardly a blip on the life-experience radar? Yeah, sure. But, I can't deny some Hume-ian disconnect between how I see myself today and what I remember of myself at 18. I don't understand the mindset of the unibed-sleeper who seemingly rolled with the punches. In some ways, I cringe for that girl. Then again, I think she had a lot of fun.