When I was at Trinity College, Oxford University, we had all sorts of ways of passing the time when we should have been writing and relieving the stress that we brought on ourselves for not sitting at our desks and writing. We walked or biked to Marks & Spencer’s for snacks then took the long way home by the Isis – really just an alternative name for the Thames which derived from its ancient name, the River Tamesis – snapping photos of nervous punters in wobbly rented boats as we complained about the grad school work load. Every Thursday we went to karaoke night at The Bulldog Pub. On Friday afternoons Staircases Five and Six were filled with the sounds of whooshing slamming doors as we rushed about collecting toiletries and clean laundry and paperbacks, hoping to reach the rail station in time to catch a decent train to London, one that would allow us to buy show tickets and have dinner at a pub on the Strand.
On regularly scheduled sunny weekday afternoons, the porters opened the enormous black wrought iron gates and allowed tourists in to view the quad. Often on these days, we chose to avoid writing by playing Hollywood Squares.
To play the game, people who lived in Staircase Six whose rooms faced the quad hung out their windows on the first, second, and third floors – like the stars in the boxes – and Jon Levin played Peter Marshall asking idiotic literary questions of whoever walked past (from dons to Japanese tourists) who was willing to play with us. Because we had no light boxes under our windows we had to remember whether we were X’s or O’s and some of the most raucous laughter ensued when Patti or I forgot our letter and leaned dangerously far out the jamb to shout “airhead – how did you get in this school, anyhow?” insults at one another. If we liked the looks of the “contestant” we would just lie so he or she would “win.”
It barely mattered as there was no prize for the victor, anyway. And since I lived on the first floor, my room was one of the ones that tourists most peered in after shoving aside the hydrangea bushes so now I was there to explain the velvet-covered window seat, the narrow bed with a stuffed Eeyore on it, a gas fire that only worked with the insertion of pound coins, and the desk piled precariously with books and an open laptop whose cursor cursed silently at me for my sloth.
I left Oxford well over twenty years ago: I had forgotten all about playing Hollywood Squares until I came across a photo of myself framed by the casement window of my residence hall room, dusty velvet drapes shoved to one side and a pale blue wall behind me. The memory makes me laugh even as a lump fills my throat. It was such fun being a grad student. We didn’t know that the future held the breakup of the group of friends, destroyed partly by the responsibilities of adult life – marriages, childbirth, distant employment opportunities – and mostly, by the crack of the murderer’s bullet as it entered the base of Jon’s skull.
But I don’t want to think about that now; I want to smile at the young woman with the tangled blonde hair, wearing a white Gap button-down, framed by pink hydrangeas as she waits patiently to spew forth a comedic answer to Jon’s silly question about Pyramus and Thisbe.