Where I Slept
I once read that the singer Lionel Ritchie returned to his alma mater and, with the enormity of wealth that doesn’t quite know what to do with itself, bought his old college dorm room. He decorated it in the fashion of his youth and, from time to time, went back and maybe spent the night but, more likely, just sat for awhile on the edge of his bed and looked around at his past. It is a kind of self-indulgence that I can both mock and long for at the same time. Yes, college was about the classes and teachers, papers written and books read, but it was also where I slept. The rooms themselves, with their shared bathrooms and overheard music, probably shaped me as much as the conference system.
I did not have a single scrap of luck in love during my years at Sarah Lawrence; but where housing was concerned, no one even came close to my spectacular level of achievement.
My rooms were so consistently stunning that the idea of taking my junior year abroad was absurd. My freshman year, when I thumped my suitcase up the stairs at Tweed House, teary-eyed and alone, I unlocked the door to a room that made me feel like the girl in The Secret Garden. There were leaded glass windows (which in those days, and I will surely date myself here, turned outward with the twist of a crank), built-in bookshelves, and a dreamy sleeping alcove. It was all wood floors and slanted ceilings, character, personality. “This,” I said to my roommate, “is exactly how I pictured college.”
I was a long way from home. We didn’t have e-mail or phones in our rooms. I wanted a good education, but I also wanted my mother, my sister, my dog, my house. The crank windows that let in bees and curling tendrils of ivy might not have been home, but they were certainly homey. There was a kitchen downstairs; and so, a few days after my arrival, I decided to bake cookies for my new don, Chet Biscardi. When the oven failed to heat, leaving me with two pans of doughy balls on newly purchased baking sheets, I simply walked them across the street to a house so large that I suspected, correctly, there was more than one available oven on the premises.
I was not an especially nervy kid, but I had more than unbaked cookies to propel me to that door. I wanted to be let inside. I wanted to be in a house where I could sit at the table while the cookies cooked and pretend that I was exactly where I belonged. The woman who answered the door was both gracious and genuinely puzzled by my request, but she ushered me inside. She had only just moved in herself and didn’t know where I might find things like pot holders and cooling racks. She introduced herself as Alice Ilchman, the new president of the College. In my humble attempt to meet the neighbors, I had stumbled into the big time.
I left behind a plate of cookies and a thank you note written on a paper towel. Because of my nerve or my baking skills, or because I was the only student Alice had actually met at that point, I was invited back to work at dinner parties. And because I was polite and knew to serve from the left, and never ran off before washing all the dishes, I was invited back to baby-sit for her daughter, Sarah.
I wasn’t savvy enough to have calculated such an outcome when I first rang the president’s doorbell, and yet I had gotten exactly what I wanted: I had both the prettiest room in a lovely house full of girls who had become my friends, while at the same time having full access to a real family who lived across the street. The Ilchmans all had pale skin and straight blonde hair, and I liked to think that I could have passed as a cousin or maybe even an older sister. I was never so happy as I was late at night, sitting by Sarah’s bed, reading her to sleep. After she had drifted off, I would tiptoe through the house with Sophie, the family dog. I would marvel at the size of the living room. I studied the cream soup bowls and salad plates and the shapely cups hanging from tiny hooks in the china closet. (I had never seen a china closet before.) I walked up the narrow back stairs from the kitchen, careful to be utterly silent, cut through a guest room, and went down the hall to check on Sarah again. I pretended I was home, albeit home on a significantly larger scale.
Every memory is saved. It goes into a vast compost pit of experience and mulches down through years of forgetfulness, but still it all remains. Fifteen years later, when I needed a house that would be stately enough for a South American vice president and compelling enough to sustain a large group of terrorists and diplomats through an extended hostage crisis, I brought my characters to the president’s house at Sarah Lawrence, Alice Ilchman’s house, and dropped them all down in her living room. Then I started to write my novel Bel Canto. When the Japanese translator fell in love with a young rebel named Carmen, I arranged their midnight trysts in the china closet, beneath those hanging cups; and when the businessman, Mr. Hosokawa, fell in love with the soprano, I had him use the narrow back staircase to go from the kitchen, through a guest room, and down the hallway to her door. I remembered one night when I served at a dinner party at which Chet Biscardi was a guest; and after all the food was put away and the dishes were washed, I came into the living room and laid back on one of the huge couches, and Chet played the piano for me. It was late, and all the other guests were gone and the Ilchmans were upstairs; and I listened to the music with such complete happiness, you would have thought I’d never heard anyone play the piano before. The beautiful night, the lingering notes, the dream that you are someone else entirely, all of that went into the book as well.
Picture now a different kind of dorm room on the other side of campus, one that is not in a house and did not have an oven so that cookies would have never crossed my mind. Had I been assigned to this alternate bed, I very well might have graduated without having met Alice and Sarah, whom I still count as friends. I might never have gone inside the president’s house, never have seen a china closet, and so would have been forced to have my characters kiss in a mud room, an idea so unromantic that it could have caused my novel to fail and the course of my life to end up quite differently. I like to think that’s why certain old hotels have placards on their doors that promise, “George Washington slept here.” It isn’t to assure us he had a good night’s rest. It is to make us think of whom he could have met in the hallway, which might have led to a conversation over brandy that possibly shaped the future of our country and the way we are living now.
Not only did my luck hold out through my college career; it steadily improved through the drawing for the housing lottery at the end of my junior year, in which I was awarded number one—the very first pick of any bed I wanted for my senior year. It was my triumph, my finest hour. Everyone knew the best room was on the second floor of Perkins. It had its own bath, a big tub, a walk-in closet. I took it immediately. I was no fool.
I remember reading Tale of Genji in Mason Gentzler’s Japanese literature class but, frankly, not with the fondness that I remember the places I lived, the blue flannel sheets I carried over from year to year, the posters from MoMA that I tacked to the walls. The friends I made in those different houses, how there was always someone awake late at night to talk to, always the smell of coffee in the morning, those are the things I remember first. Twenty years later, I am still calling Erica, who lived in the room next to mine at Tweed House. She would take me home to spend weekends with her parents in Philadelphia, and I would bring her left-over slices of cake from the Ilchmans’ dinner parties. We were an essential part of each other’s education, along with the rooms we slept in.
Novelist Ann Patchett ’85, of whose writing The New York Times counseled readers to “expect perfection,” is the author of Bel Canto, winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize. Her other novels include The Patron Saint of Liars, Taft and The Magician’s Assistant. A Los Angeles native who now lives in Nashville, Patchett studied at Sarah Lawrence with noted writers Grace Paley, Allan Gurganus and Russell Banks, and sold her first story to The Paris Review while still an undergraduate at the College.