Every now and then I remember the time I was blackmailed in college and I think, “Huh, that was weird.”
When I enrolled at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, I was assigned to Bennett, a men’s residence that had the reputation of being the campus Animal House. The reputation was deserved.
Bennett was famous for its parties. These included the annual beach party, which entailed filling the hallway with sand and wading pools. Add several spilled drinks and other fluids and this was not looked upon fondly by the administration or the cleaning staff.
Another activity was the sauna, a jerry-rigged steam room made by sealing off the washroom entrance with garbage bags and then running the showers on full hot. Keep this scene in mind.
Why the admissions people thought Bennett would be a good fit for an insecure, virginal band geek, I don’t know, but, after a few weeks of living in fear, I learned to embrace the shenanigans, so much so that I re-enlisted for a second year.
During that second year, there was a guy in the house we’ll call Merv. Merv was a pretty cool cat, and he and I got along well, though I couldn’t say we were close. I think Merv might have been a Fine Arts student, for reasons that will soon become clear.
One day, our floor set up a sauna. As was often the case, alcohol was involved. Steam, beer, youth – things got quite blurry for me that day.
About a week later, I found an envelope in my mailbox. I opened it right there in the mailroom. Inside was a black-and-white photograph of me coming out of the sauna. Starkers. A full-frontal portrait. It might have been titled, “Naked Youth With Beer.” The beer was for scale.
We’ve all looked at ourselves naked in the mirror, but seeing a photo of yourself naked is an entirely outside perspective. It’s like hearing your voice for the first time and discovering your voice is skinny, pale and hairless. I looked like one of those featureless, smooth-skinned aliens stumbling out of the mother ship. Remember, I was only 20 years old and had not yet reached my physical peak, which I am still waiting for.
Shocked and horrified, I shoved the picture back in the envelope. I was, after all, in the mailroom. There was also a note of some sort, demanding cash or something and if I didn’t respond… what? It’s weird that I can’t remember the nature of the extortion yet the image itself is burned in my mind (as I’m sure the mental image is now burned in yours).
To make a nude story short, I eventually deduced that the prank was the work of Merv. Whether I paid some kind of ransom, I don’t recall, but I know I eventually got and destroyed the original negative along with the print.
It was all a joke, of course. Yet somewhere along the way Merv had to develop that negative in a darkroom, and if you’ve ever developed prints, you know it takes a lot of studious eyeballing to make sure you get the shadows and (ahem!) highlights just right. (Insert “enlarger” joke here.) In other words, Merv spent more time than I’m comfortable with staring at my Heineken.
Merv left school not long afterwards, for completely unrelated reasons. I assume.
Today, I take it for the thing it was: a prank. But then I think, man, that was weird. Who does that? Even if I never felt violated, some kind of line was crossed.
And yet, and yet…
This whole incident popped into my head this week, on the morning of my 55th birthday. Maybe it was the realization that all that smooth skin has now become spotted and crepey. While I can guarantee you that I am much less likely to wander naked into a hallway, with or without beer, part of me misses the days when I did.
Such is the curse of chronic nostalgia, that middle-age yearning to reconnect with the past now that time has worn the edges off all its complications and pain. All we’re left with are those rosy memories of vigorous youth. It’s why we pull out old yearbooks and photo albums, why we reconnect with long-lost friends.
So part of me wonders if I should have hung onto Merv’s photo, just so I could remember, ever so faintly, what it was like to be 20 and have a 20-year-old’s body.
Naaah, gross! Yuck!