Risa Hartley-Werner and Gina Moody were strangers as freshmen year roommates, but several years in the same room allowed for the best of friendships to form
By LAURA KELLY
Assistant Scene Editor
Freshmen roommates meet for the first time surrounded by over-emotional parents, knee-deep in boxes of their worldly possessions, their heads swirling with new names and faces. They exchange quick handshakes and smile nervously as they gaze around the eight-by-10 foot closet they will call home for the next nine months. Once the families are finally pushed out of the door and the stream of orientation activities lulls for a moment, two strangers are left alone in a single room.
A year of firsts lies ahead of them. They may become the best of friends or the worst of enemies, but for now, they know nothing about the person sleeping in the bunk below them. As the weeks begin to roll by, the strangers slowly get to know each other. Annoying habits sneak out in the open. Tensions can flare as the stress of college classes piles up. Shared fears and excitements give them common ground. They learn to share; they learn to compromise; they learn each other. And sometimes, late at night, when the room is dark and quiet, they open up their hearts and let the other in.
Sometimes roommates decide to live together again for sophomore year — they get along, know they can live with each other's faults and figure it's a pretty decent situation. But sometimes, the two become inseparable. Best friends who can read each other's minds. Soulmates who can't believe that a random computer selection brought them together. And this is a story of two roommates like this.
Gina Moody came to Notre Dame from Youngstown, Ohio. She had exchanged letters and photographs with her roommate, but when she passed through the doors of Pasquerilla East for the first time, she had no idea what to expect.
Risa Hartley-Werner had driven to South Bend from Fort Wayne, Ind. She lugged her boxes up to the second floor of PE and opened the door to room 612 eager to put a face with a name.
The room was nothing extraordinary, the same size as all the others (though the girls now claim it was four inches bigger than the rest, and still no one believes them). That first night, Gina and Risa climbed into bunk beds just like every other freshman "Pyro." And they soon began to form a friendship, much like all the new roommates around them.
Gina and Risa shared much in common from the beginning. Both came to school with boyfriends from home, something they look back on now and laugh. Both girls were night owls, staying up all night and then sleeping late into the day. Their sleeping habits earned them the nickname of "The Vampires" from the other freshmen in section 6A. Gina and Risa liked to leave the lights on all night, once prompting their friends to steal all the lightbulbs and leave a sad note from the bulbs lamenting their overuse.
Pranks like these became their signature. "It was the strange pranks that made us click," Risa says. "All the funny stuff we did, even when we didn't know each other that well."
The two claim their only point of contention is Gina's beloved childhood doll. Erica is either the ugliest or the cutest doll ever, depending on which you ask, but regardless, fights over the doll have become a source of many stories. One night Risa and a friend stole Erica, stuck forks in her wild blond hair and tied her hands behind her back. In turn, Gina stole and hid all of Risa's underwear — a revenge Risa didn't notice until franticly dressing for class the next morning.
Beyond practical jokes, the girls discovered a shared true love, one that would bring them together every Thursday night. Promptly at 9 p.m. they would lock the door and take the phone off the hook — a sacred ritual they never missed. It was "Must-See-TV," and the man that brought the two roommates together was George Clooney.
"George became a priority early on," says Gina.
The two often dreamed up plans to drop out of school and move to LA in hopes of stalking the "ER" hunk. Their shared obsession says to this day — Clooney's smile beams from a wall full of pictures in Gina's room. When the star left "ER" in February of 1999 (a date Gina recites from memory,) the friends wore black for a week to show their mourning.
"It was very hard on us," Gina says. "We didn't go to class all day Thursday, and I even sent in a note to my Core class explaining why I couldn't attend."
As freshman year went on, Gina and Risa discovered more quirky similarities — a love of Mary Tyler Moore on "Nick at Nite" and a craving for Reckers food at all hours of the night. Both are very close to their families, and understood the many phone calls from home. One day Gina's parents called up to wish her a happy "half-birthday," a family tradition she bashfully admitted to her roommate, only to learn that Risa's family celebrates half-birthdays as well.
Freshman year was a difficult transition, Risa says, but having such a fast friend eased the change. When the time came for room picks, the freshmen of 6A had formed a group that wanted to stick together, but the gods of housing yet again controlled Risa and Gina's fate.
"We were asleep," admits Risa. In characteristic fashion, the roommates slept through the deadline for returning housing contracts. When Gina finally realized what had happened — at dinner later that night — it was too late. Both were dropped to the bottom of the room picks list.
As 6A was one of the least popular sections in PE, and as room 612 was one of last available, the roommates found themselves in the same room for another year. The coincidence seemed funny, but it wasn't until they planned to stay in 612 for their junior year that people started to notice and comment on the strange choice.
Gina and Risa realize how unusual their situation is. They admit that finding such an incredible friend through random computer selection may be more that just luck of the draw. But they don't take the friendship for granted. After three years of waking up with the same roommate, many people couldn't stand the little idiosyncrasies any more.
"Clicking with someone in this way is rare," says Risa. "But we have been through so much together. It's all the little moments we share that mean the most."
Among their favorite friendship stories is the road trip they took this summer from Maryland through Ohio and Indiana to Chicago for a Jimmy Buffet show. Not only did the trip thrill die-hard fan Gina, but both girls look back on that week as a time of fun that reflects everything their friendship is about.
"Two things we love are pajamas and "T.G.I. Friday's," Gina says.
And this trip combined both, as the girls walked down the streets of Chicago in pajamas to reach their favorite restaurant.
"Our moms were appalled at the thought of us walking around the city in pajamas," Risa laughs.
The girls confess this affinity for pajamas was another shared trait they discovered early on in the friendship.
"Some days we would wake up, shower, and then change into a new pair of pajamas," Risa says. "I don't think anyone but us could understand that."
The roommates' only real fight was on a spring break trip to Miami — something inevitable when traveling with 10 friends.
"We didn't kill each other, and that says a lot," laughs Gina.
"Even now, if we disagree, we always have common ground to come back to," Risa says. "After three years, we're almost like sisters."
Like a well-rehearsed duet, the two tell stories in tandem. They finish each other's sentences and laugh back and forth with the ease of childhood friends. Yet this year the girls are physically farther apart than they've ever been at Notre Dame. Gina is a resident assistant on the third floor of PE, while Risa has chosen to move off campus — representing opposite sides of the senior year experience.
The girls admit the transition has been strange for them. They still talk often, and their group of friends tries to meet every Friday for lunch. But although Turtle Creek isn't far from PE, Risa admits to feeling far-removed from campus. She stayed in Gina's room for a few days at the beginning of the year before she could move into her apartment, and says it felt odd to know she wouldn't be staying.
"Senior year is bitter sweet," Risa says. "It's not as carefree as junior year. I think I'll always remember junior year as the true college experience."
The girls laugh that their mothers seem to be having the hardest time adjusting to the separation. Every time they call home, their moms ask about the other, concerned about the well-being of their pseudo-daughters. Family ties like this will keep the girls close long after the dreaded graduation day has come and gone. Risa's boyfriend is a hometown friend of Gina, so holidays will always bring the friends back to Youngstown.
The girls are confident they'll stay good friends no matter where they end up after this year. Their dedication to each other is evident in their dedication to room 612, where they stuck out three years despite one incident sophomore year that almost changed their minds.
Early in the first semester, their sink started to give off an overwhelming stench, which they fondly compare to sewer gas.
"The smell was so bad it gave us headaches and we couldn't sleep some nights," says Gina. But the smell gradually wore away, and the friendship was all the stronger for it.
Room 612 houses sophomores this year. Gina and Risa nostalgically wish it had gone to freshmen, but such is the fate of housing, as they well know. They have plans to mount a plaque outside the door, celebrating how 612 brought them together and reminding the current residents of what strong friendships can take root in this hall.
Gina's room on the third floor still speaks to this tight friendship — pictures of the girls share wall space with George Clooney. Gina still sleeps under the comforter that the girls bought to match each other; her room is decorated in purple, the color she and Risa both love. And her loft is half of the structure she and Risa shared during sophomore and junior year.
But the girls understand that what they share is more than an address.
"When you live with someone for three years, you take the time for granted — it's not all quality time. Now we make the most of being together," Gina says.
Risa agrees: "It's nice to know we can be apart and still be friends."
They laugh and joke, always smiling, always with another story to follow up the last. But there's a sadness behind their eyes when they think about graduation and the uncertainty of next year. Being a few streets away is nothing like being states apart. It's all still a way off, but it's on their mind. They joke that they'll stay friends as long as they have something new to talk about after "Friends" and "E.R." get canceled, but it's more than George Clooney's good looks keeping this friendship together. The walls of 612 Pasquerilla East stand as four witnesses to that truth.
All Scene Stories for Friday, October 13, 2000