The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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My roommate, Ingrid, loved rich pastries, iced German cakes, thinly sliced deli meats, sweet gherkins, and other delicacies. Unfortunately, I loved them, too.
I would steal one thin piece of cake or one slice of deli meat and eat it miserably in my room, always measuring, plotting, sweating: Is the absence noticeable now? Could I take one, two more spoonfuls of jam without being found out? If I ate too much of something, I would run out the next day, buy a replacement, and eat it back down to the same point. But then I would want just another little bit — surely one more slice wouldn’t be missed — and then another, and another.
I remember once I drank a beer of hers and immediately ran out and replaced it, then drank it again the next day and replaced it again, and drank it again that night and replaced it once more. When Ingrid finally drank it herself, I stared at the innocent-looking bottle, thinking how many incarnations it had been through.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. I apologized for all the food I had taken, promised never to do it again, and gave her twenty dollars to cover all the scraps, slices, and spoonfuls I hadn’t replaced — which, in my mind’s eye, formed a small mountain of food on the kitchen table. What dumbfounded me was that she had never missed any of it.
When I think back on that time in my life, I see myself alone at night in the apartment, standing in the white rectangle of light in front of the open refrigerator, eating orange marmalade and changing spoons after each bite so as not to contaminate the jar, my throat burning with that sweet orange jam and the little bits of rind that held so much bitterness.
When I came to this prison in 1980 to serve a twenty-five-years-to-life sentence, the inmates were housed singly in six-by-nine-foot cells designed to accommodate one person each. As the prison population grew, some prisoners were assigned cellmates. We were assured, however, that women serving life sentences would never be “double-bunked.”
But as time went on and the prison population continued to expand, the emphasis shifted from rehabilitation to punishment, and in 1985 we lifers were informed that we would soon be getting cellmates. In a placating gesture, we were allowed to request a particular person, if we so desired.
The idea of sharing what was essentially a bathroom with bunk beds with another woman for an indefinite length of time horrified me. I discussed the situation with my best friend, also a lifer, and we decided that our friendship was much too precious to risk by living together under such unnatural, stressful conditions. So we each found a roommate we thought might do.
The day before the moves were to take place, however, my friend’s potential roommate won her appeal and was released, and my potential roommate was discovered to have severe mental problems and taken to the psychiatric unit. If we didn’t find replacements within the next twenty-four hours, the prison staff would simply assign us each one. Bunking together now seemed the only alternative to living with some perhaps uncivilized stranger. There was no other choice. We assured one another this arrangement would be temporary, just until a better solution could be worked out.
That was more than twelve years ago. My best friend and I are still roommates, and are closer than ever. The difficult times we have faced and the misunderstandings we have resolved have cemented, not destroyed, our friendship. If the prison were ever to revert back to single cell occupancy, I would choose my roommate over solitude in a heartbeat.
I had just split from my husband of twenty years. Scared, yet optimistic, I rented a large house in a good neighborhood near my children’s school. Having been married since the age of eighteen, I had never actually rented a house on my own. I also had never had a roommate, but now I needed one in order to pay the bills.
I placed an ad in the paper and was busy unpacking and hanging pictures when the first applicant arrived. Wendall had sounded shy and sincere over the phone as I informed him of the house rules, the fact that I had both children and cats, and the kind of environment I was trying to create. In person, he was soft-spoken and polite. I liked him right from the start. He immediately challenged my two sons, ages nine and eleven, to an arm-wrestling contest, which he let them win — barely. He said he preferred a family atmosphere and wanted to concentrate on landing a job in his field: computer programming. In the meantime, he assured me, he had enough money to pay the rent.
Wendall had passed all my tests and felt right to me, so I told him he could move in as soon as he wanted. That was when he told me he was out on day leave from a halfway house, having just been released from a federal prison where he’d served seventeen years for murder. He had been a drug dealer and, while high, had shot his wife’s lover. Now that he was out, his ex-wife had obtained a restraining order to prevent him from moving back to San Diego County, where he had family. So he needed to establish himself in a new place and get a job using the computer training he’d received while serving time.
After a moment of stunned silence, I bombarded him with questions: Do you still like to get high? No. Are you sexually attracted to children? No. Are you violent anymore? No. How can I feel safe? How can I be sure my sons will be safe?
He said that he understood my fears, and respected my right to ask those questions, but he was not the same man he had been seventeen years ago. He wanted to make a new life for himself.
For some reason I still liked Wendall. He scared the shit out of me, but I liked him, so I asked him for references and a week to think it over. He gave me his brother, a chiropractor; his sister, a nurse and mother of four; his attorney; his probation officer; and his prison computer instructor. They all said he was a good person, and my intuition agreed, but the stakes were unbearably high if I was wrong.
I thought of calling my ex-husband across town to ask his advice, but figured he would jump down my throat for even considering such a thing; besides, I needed to make this decision myself. Part of me wanted just to say no and make the problem go away. I rediscovered praying and spent several sleepless nights before I telephoned Wendall and told him to pack his bags and come on over.
I had to chuckle when he soberly informed me that, due to his strict probation, I could not have any liquor, drugs, or guns in my house. I told him not to worry; he’d come to the right place. I was squeaky-clean and struggling just to keep things stable for my boys, who were still pretty shaken up by the divorce. Having Wendall around helped them adjust. Each day he took the time to talk to them, and also to arm-wrestle or go for a splash in the pool. At night he would share his ice cream with them and read them a bedtime story from his collection of old comic books. He fixed anything that broke around the house and once picked me up from work when my car died. He was meticulously neat and clean, and followed a precise daily schedule — the lingering effect of seventeen years of forced habit.
He had trouble finding a job, though, and I noticed he wasn’t trying too hard. Finally, he admitted that, after all those years in jail, he was fearful of people and change, and felt safest with complete predictability. I told him I understood, because I had always allowed my husband to call the shots. Even when his decisions hadn’t felt right to me, there had been a certain comfort in having someone else take responsibility. Life has all kinds of jails.
The day came when Wendall landed a good job working on computers and relocated a hundred miles away. We kept in touch, and he came down once to take the boys to a baseball game. Eventually, Wendall met a woman and was hired by another computer company at twice his previous salary. Looking back, I think I may have been a fool to take such a chance, but now I’m awfully glad I did.
I grew up in a family with mixed religious heritage. To avoid choosing between our different traditions, we practiced them all with an impartiality that bred contempt. As a result I was fascinated by any exhibit of strict religious observance, and would follow nuns down the sidewalk and gaze in wonder at yarmulkes worn in public.
So when I went away to college and was assigned a Mormon roommate, I was thrilled. A Mormon! I ate up every delicious detail of her church’s numerous arcane rules, such as no caffeine (“But there isn’t much in Coke, so I drink it anyway”), and her tantalizing description of a garage filled with bulk supplies of toilet paper and paper towels (because “our church tells us to”).
Most fascinating of all were my roommate’s sacred underclothes, which, she explained, had been sanctified in a ritual forbidden to heathens, and thereafter were not to be seen by a soul save herself and her spouse. “Please don’t look,” she said as she hung them up to dry, but I could not keep from staring into their creamy, silken folds. I swear, however, that I never touched them. I swear.
When I was a college student, a few guys from the dorm and I decided to get an apartment off campus. Fed up with the “beer police” and the most recent crop of water-balloon-throwing freshmen, we were ready to leave the world of prepaid food plans and collect calls, and get our first taste of landlords, groceries, and phone bills. (“Hey, who called New Jersey for fifty-six minutes?”) My friends and I pooled our money for the deposit on a furnished two-bedroom garden apartment not far from campus. The honeymoon didn’t last long.
One night, Fred, the country boy among us, walked into the woods behind our apartment complex to shoot his dinner and returned home with a few squirrels slung over his shoulder. While I never actually saw Fred eat these trophies, he did hang the fresh hides out to cure over the wrought-iron railing of our terrace — in full, grisly view through the sliding glass doors.
Fred shared a bedroom with Jake, who smoked a bong and listened to the Doors all day. I shared the other bedroom with Arnie, whose complete lack of independent-living skills repeatedly amazed us. He’d struggle with a can of tuna fish for five minutes, until one of us took it from him and opened it. We had to set the oven controls for him to heat his TV dinners, and, when he was driving, one of us would hop out to spare him the trauma of pumping gas at the self-service island.
Our apartment-cleaning schedule was soon abandoned, and the condition of the bathroom on any given day was strictly a matter of individual tolerance levels. Because our kitchen trash was always filled to overflowing, each new addition had to be carefully placed atop the precarious pile. Garbage was banked artfully up the wall in a spectacular display of skill and sloth. The person whose beer can caused the avalanche would have to haul away the whole disgusting mess. In warm weather, the ripening trash and the stale bong water on the rug created an aroma I can recall to this day.
Once, returning home late from a night of drinking with friends, I noticed a dim light coming from the kitchen. It was the refrigerator: the door would no longer close because of the iceberg creeping out of the tiny freezer compartment. Having no more money for food that month, I couldn’t afford to lose the groceries on my shelf. So, although it was 2:30 in the morning and I was drunk, I began to defrost the refrigerator.
Transferring the contents of the freezer to a cooler that usually held extra beers, I pulled out a box of frozen hamburger patties, a bottle of Stolichnaya, and various mysterious leftovers, including something lumpy and pink in a plastic bread bag. When I reached for the bag, I felt tiny claws poking through the thin plastic. For a horrifying second I thought it was a cat, but then I saw the tiny heads and eyes. Holding that bag of frozen, skinned squirrels, I knew it was time to move.
Shokan, New York
We were two boys from opposite sides of the country attending a conservative denominational school in the Southwest. By second semester, our roommate had moved out, leaving us with a three-man room all to ourselves.
Each night, my roommate and I played the “lights-out” game: we raced to see who could be in bed first, and the last one under the covers had to get back up and turn out the overhead light. It was silly, of course, but we took the challenge seriously.
One particular night, my roommate lost and got up and turned out the light, as usual, but I could sense in the dark that he had not moved from the doorway. I waited, and when there was still no sound I slipped from my bed, pillow in hand. For the next few moments we silently stalked each other in the pitch black. Finally, I felt his presence nearby and swung out with the pillow, making a direct hit. He quickly grabbed his pillow, and we flailed at each other until I fell to the floor, exhausted. Immediately, he was on top of me, swinging away.
“Enough!” I said, and he sat back across my hips while we both caught our breath. Then, to my horror, I felt myself begin to harden beneath his weight. There was no other movement, and no sound but the pounding of my heart in my ears. I didn’t know what to do. Suddenly, I felt his fingertips on my chest, making a slow zigzag downward until they reached the waistband of my shorts, where they hesitated before continuing.
In a panic, I grabbed his hand, saying, “No, we can’t.”
His answer was not quite a sigh or a groan, but a sound like a question. Still, I didn’t let go of his hand. Slowly, he got up and climbed into bed. I did the same and, to my wonderment, felt the tears begin, both from the fear of what had almost happened, and from some vague sense of regret.
We never mentioned that night. On the surface our relationship did not change, but now there seemed to be a secret bond between us. We’d stood together at the threshold of a terrifying unknown.
I had come to college with a plan: to have sex with a variety of men so that after graduation I could happily settle down with just one, satisfied I wasn’t missing anything. To me, sex was like bowling or playing pool — something fun you shared with someone you liked a lot. I didn’t plan to fall in love. And I certainly didn’t plan to fall in love with my roommate.
She and I met at the snack bar after classes each day and shared gossip over coffee or fries or ice cream. Every night, we were up past midnight smoking reefer and lying on the floor, absorbing every note sung by Laura Nyro, Phoebe Snow, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. We went to all the dances and danced each song together: the fast ones with plenty of hip knocking and pelvic rocking; the slow ones, pressed against each other, turning hypnotically in tighter and tighter circles. Then on weekends, my roommate would leave me to my sexual adventures and go off to visit her boyfriend at a nearby school.
Late one night, in the kitchen, I told her I was in love. I was perched on the counter, swinging my feet against the cabinets; she was leaning against the sink, flicking her cigarette ashes into the drain. When she asked who the lucky guy was this time, I grinned and said, “No, honey, I’m in love with you.”
She smiled, seeming flattered, and said, “Oh, dear, I love you, too, but not in that way.”
That was twenty years ago. My roommate and I haven’t kept in touch. I’m married and have a family, but hardly a week goes by that I don’t think of her, usually while I’m stopped in traffic or waiting in line at the grocery. In my memory, my roommate and I are nineteen years old and slim-legged, our long hair parted in the middle. We dance for hours, then make our way back to our apartment, leaning on each other for support. When we reach our front door we wordlessly part, going to our separate rooms to sleep, deeply, in our own beds.
I walk into my apartment after six hours of cocktail waitressing, kick off my spike heels, strip off my nylons, and collapse into a chair to rub my aching feet. My roommate enters from the kitchen, a scowl on her face and a pan in one hand. Great, she’s about to launch into one of her lectures, reminding me in cold, diplomatic, academic terms that my waitressing job is a legalized form of prostitution. Elitist feminist that she is, she feels that, by using my sex appeal to get tips, I’m exploiting my womanhood. Well, I’m a feminist, too, but I don’t have a father who pays my tuition and sends me a rent check every month.
“What’s up?” I ask, trying to sound as if I care.
“We have a mouse,” she announces, and wrinkles her nose in distaste.
God, I wish I could afford to live alone.
“I was cooking,” she says, “and I saw it under the sink.” She looks fearfully back into the kitchen. “It’s still there.”
Cooking? I didn’t think she knew the kitchen was for anything except dumping dishes for the elves to wash.
“What do we do?” she whines. “I mean, what are you supposed to do about a mouse?” She stares at me expectantly.
In my best take-charge manner, I say, “Here’s what we do.”
She watches raptly, relieved that I know the proper procedure.
I stand on top of the coffee table, raise my hands in mock helplessness, and in a flat voice say, “Eek.”
Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts
My grandmother Eleanor is the repository of my family’s optimism. Only one week after she lost her daughter to a senseless death, her house burned to the ground on the coldest night of the year, and she and my grandfather escaped barefoot into the snowy night, leaving behind eyeglasses, dentures, and the family antiques. Yet, the day after the fire, when Eleanor uncovered a soggy but intact wallet in the smoldering remains of her house, she sighed, “What a blessing — I won’t have to cancel my credit cards.”
When they rebuilt the house, Eleanor rejoiced at the opportunity to add a screened porch and admired the donated clothes and furniture. “Everything has a part in the planet’s loveliness,” she chimed. And later, when her husband died, while I wailed and painted dark pictures, she drew her religion about her like fleecy bedclothes and told me that when all else is taken away one can still sing.
Upon returning from a year of shoestring travel around India, I moved in with Eleanor for a while. Weary of sleeping on straw mats, I lounged in her soft bed with its view of the Chesapeake Bay, feeling exhausted and self-congratulatory.
One day, as we sat down to a simple meal on her screened porch, she asked, “What was India really like?” Dredging up the dark images from my trip, I told her about the pilgrims and disciples who prostrated themselves and fasted. I told her about the unkempt cities, the blank stares, the filth. I told her about traveling fifteen miles in a camel cart.
Eleanor gazed out over the water, as if thinking about how much of the world lived without screened porches and ocean views, and how even our toast and cottage cheese would have been a feast for some people. Then, after a sip of lemonade, she said simply, “I’m so glad for them that they have the wheel.”
The trouble with being a closeted lesbian is that none of your straight friends, neighbors, and co-workers know the truth about your life. To them, your lover — the woman who means more to you than anything else in the world — is just your roommate. They assume she sleeps in that second bedroom, the one that’s always so incredibly neat. You learn not to say “we” so much, to hide the fact that you and your “roomie” are together all the time. People tell you you’re lucky to have such a good friend to help with the rent.
But all that is not so bad compared to when your lover leaves, and you can’t reveal how your heart is breaking, how your life has suddenly turned empty and gray. You don’t even tell anyone she’s gone until, one day, someone happens to ask about her, and you say something like “Loni? Oh, she moved out. I’ll miss her, but I have a lot more space now.” You smile as you say it, so everyone will believe you’re thrilled to have the apartment to yourself. You don’t mention how all that space is pressing in on you, how you wonder if you’ll ever feel alive again.
“I could be dying, and you’re worried you’ll be late for your next appointment!”
My roommate at the drug-and-alcohol-treatment center spat these words at me, hitting the mark so accurately that twenty years later I still remember how the truth in them stung. She’d just told me she had taken an overdose of pills, and I had checked my watch to see how much time there was before my group meeting.
I ran and got a nurse, and the somewhat unsympathetic staff took over from there. They were used to her cries for help and attention. After pumping her stomach, they figured out a new way to keep her from saving up her meds.
What kept me from answering my roommate’s cry for help — besides my need to look good by being on time for group — was my fear of spanning the large chasm of difference between us. She and I were a painfully odd pair, placed together because the staff was trying to undermine my holier-than-thou attitude by pairing me with someone from a radically different background. I was a conforming, overachieving member of the Establishment with no clue as to the depth of my alcoholism. She was a troubled young woman from the streets — large, unkempt, cunning, aggressive, and full of violent anger due to a childhood of abuse and abandonment. Both our charts read, “Poor prognosis for recovery.”
One night, she and I walked to the pizza parlor next door to the treatment center. As we returned along the road, my roommate picked up an empty beer bottle and threw it against a lamppost; the sound of breaking glass echoed through the quiet night.
To me, her casual act of destruction looked like freedom. Mired in convention and brought up to be a “good girl” — though my insides churned with conflicting desires — I wanted to be that spontaneous, that free.
Having been kicked out by my original roommate, I ended up sharing a dorm room with Donna. Leery at first, I set up a bookcase down the middle of the room to delineate the boundary between us. But during the next three years our furniture arrangement changed to reflect the shrinking boundaries in our relationship until, even when we got two adjacent rooms, we decided to keep our beds where they were.
But we didn’t go places together, didn’t have any friends in common, didn’t attend the same class even once the entire four years. Maybe it was our shared dark sense of humor that made us enjoy each other’s company. Or maybe it was our tolerance for one another’s eccentricities. She didn’t mind my abstract art hanging from the ceiling, and I got used to living in sauna-like heat. She didn’t blink an eye when she came home at midnight to find me simultaneously dyeing my hair, listening to the Sex Pistols, and writing a feminist essay. I didn’t protest when she brought radioactive pennies back to our room.
She had boyfriends named Chuck and Bud; I had a fondness for men with green hair and long fingernails. We knew everything about each other’s sexual intimacies — and sufferings: Donna was prone to painful urinary-tract infections; I had more yeast than a loaf of bread.
She watched me find religion, then lose it again. I watched her fall in and out of love with a cowboy from her hometown. She supported me when I decided to experiment with lesbianism, and surprised me with tales of her own similar experiments. I helped her wean herself away from her overprotective parents. We were only roommates, and yet we each knew more about the other than anyone else: parents, lovers, or friends.
As our senior year drew to a close, Donna met a computer programmer at a country-and-western bar, and they got engaged. I was in the wedding. They bought a house and had a baby. We don’t talk anymore, and our relationship is still a mystery to me.
Claudia C. Miller
Miami Beach, Florida
At age seventeen I was raped in my parents’ house, and for many months afterward I was unable to sleep alone. My bones felt as though they were weakening a little more each day. I wanted to start anew someplace safe.
I was planning to go to college, but on my eighteenth birthday I eloped to Washington, D.C., with H., a Moroccan karate champion. I was too naive to question his motives for pressuring a teenager into marriage. (Later, I would discover that he had married me for the green card that would allow him to remain in the United States, far from his violent father.)
I did not want a husband, or even a roommate. H. was supposed to be my protector, my savior, with his strong hands and muscled arms. I expected him to sweep away my fear. Instead, he used his strength against me.
H. broke my nose and wrist, damaged my left kidney, and knocked out my teeth. I came from a “nice” family; things like rape and domestic violence weren’t supposed to happen to people like me. I didn’t know about battered women’s syndrome, only that I couldn’t bear to be alone. So, despite his beatings, I begged H. on my knees not to leave me by myself at night in our apartment. Any kind of violence was preferable to the terror of an empty room.
H. nearly killed me. Somehow, seven months after we eloped, I escaped to California to live with my sister. He called me and threatened me, but I refused to sign the INS paperwork. Instead, I got a dog, lifted weights, and got a restraining order against him. I went back to school and began to love the solitude of reading and writing again. After three years with my sister, I moved out and learned to live utterly alone, without a TV or a radio; without a husband, a boyfriend, or even a roommate. In the quiet, I learned to be whole.
Rebecca Jane Stanfel
There are seven of us in this big, old house where I moved a year ago to escape the cramped apartment that held too many memories of a failed relationship. All but one of my roommates drink daily. The first arrives home from his woodworking job around three, cracks open a beer, and sits on a stool in the kitchen with his long, gorgeous legs stretched out in front of him. His eyes are gray and circled — he’s grappling with despair over losing his girlfriend of five years due to his own indecision.
A second roommate comes in about an hour later. She drinks ten to twenty beers a day and eats infrequently, behind the closed door of the room she shares with her boyfriend, who works as a sous-chef. They watch a lot of television — rented movies, The Simpsons, the Food Network — and she takes long, scalding showers, sometimes two or three a day; her hair seems always to be in some stage of drying. Her skin is as white and thin as paper; her arm, which looks as if it could snap like a bean, floats in a cloud of cigarette smoke. The flattened cardboard boxes from the beer they drink rise into weird skyscrapers on our back porch.
Sometime between six and midnight, the nondrinking roommate gets back from his job as a metalsmith, changes immediately into a short, clinging skirt and heels, brushes on some makeup, ties his hair into a curly ponytail, and comes down to the kitchen, where he sits — happy, relieved, himself — and takes the first of many hits from the house bong. He plays haunting bluegrass guitar and bakes cookies and cakes. When the monthly bills are due, he posts on the refrigerator drawings of miniskirted, badass women demanding our money. He is usually paid on time.
Another roommate stays in his room all day working on his dissertation and grading his students’ papers, popping out only occasionally to get a glass of ice water, a sandwich, or a bong hit. In the evenings he disappears to visit his girlfriend, but he’s back after midnight, pouring pints of dark beer with a steady hand. He keeps up a running commentary about how well his body is holding up under x number of beers and y number of bong hits, divided by the meals he’s eaten and the hours he’s slept. I’ve stopped paying attention.
The remaining roommate drinks all night at his job waiting tables. Then, after getting off, he heads for a bar, where he’ll stay until it closes. In the ten months I’ve known him, he’s gashed open his leg and his forehead and broken an ankle in drunken falls. Angry and belligerent, he slouches upstairs at five or six to his darkened room to sleep until afternoon. Sometimes, though, I’ll find him lying twisted on the couch in the gray light of morning.
When I lived in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in the early eighties, the town’s lesbian community was tiny and hard to find, so it was a difficult challenge to create a congenial lesbian household. (Actually, I would have welcomed supportive straight women, too, but none were interested.)
I decided to put an ad in the paper, as I’d done when I’d lived in the San Francisco Bay Area: “Forming lesbian household. . . .” It generated an extraordinary response — from men. Along with all the heavy breathers and dirty talkers, one of whom persisted for months, there were several who seemed to equate lesbians with dominatrixes. One pleaded with me quite desperately to let him clean the house — for free, as long as he could wear a maid’s uniform, sans panties, and get “bossed around.” I politely declined.
So I was thrilled when Lou called. She was a writer in her late twenties and sounded smart and reasonable. I liked her immediately. A few months after she moved in, however, her girlfriend moved in as well. Jennifer was eighteen, and Lou had been her instructor at the local community college. First they took to making love, loudly, with the bedroom door wide open. Then the fights started. It soon became apparent that Lou was hitting Jennifer, although both of them denied it until the day they moved out.
My next ad attracted a pair of nineteen-year-old lovers, June and Bessie. They were born-again Christians struggling with the question of whether their relationship was a sin. Bessie had a small gray kitten that tried to nurse on everything. Actually, the kitten reminded me of Bessie herself, who was equally needy, especially after she and June decided to make their relationship platonic “for Christ’s sake.”
Then Monica moved in. She was recently divorced, and older, which I thought would make her more stable. But she spent hours on the phone with her girlfriend in Detroit, and hid her alcoholism so adeptly that I was taken totally by surprise when she moved out to enter a residential treatment program, sticking me with a four-hundred-dollar phone bill.
After two years of such slim pickings, it was a relief to move back to San Francisco.
Ruth L. Schwartz
When you’re selecting a roommate, the initial interview is important. After all, you’re determining the psychological makeup of your home for months or years to come. Some people you know right away won’t work out. When my roommates and I were searching, one candidate claimed that he never laughed. Always up to a challenge, we spent the rest of the interview trying to make him laugh — and succeeded, perhaps saving him from a life of deadly seriousness. But somehow we knew he wasn’t for us.
One night, a man who had recently emigrated from Iran came over for an interview, during which he told us at length how much he hated the U.S. When we tactfully asked why he didn’t just return to Iran, he said that he opposed the current regime and was waiting for it to fall; it wasn’t tough enough, he felt. “At one time,” he shouted, “the entire world trembled beneath the foot of the Persian soldier!”
Needless to say, I knew this was our man. Somehow my roommates disagreed.
San Francisco, California
I moved into an apartment when I was still in high school. My mother was happy for me to leave; she said that in most cultures girls move out when they’re thirteen.
My apartment building was a cross between a haunted house and a drug den, complete with addicts and ghosts. There were about twelve residents, but only one kitchen. Each floor had six smoke detectors, and at any given time several were beeping because their batteries were dead. Many strange people lived in my building — like Daniel, who talked to angels. He would break the windows in the kitchen and bathrooms by throwing his old shoes through them, and leave bunches of broccoli in a vase on the kitchen table. Then there was Hakim, whom I once found in the kitchen viciously stirring noodles and yelling at them: “Fuck you! I hate you motherfuckers!” I walked out before he mistook me for vermicelli.
When my friend Art told me he needed a place to stay, I said he could move in with me. We split the rent, each paying only a hundred dollars a month. The room was tiny, but I was going to high school during the day and working at an ice-cream parlor in the evenings, so I wasn’t around much. On the walls, Art tacked up a Salvador Dali poster and a tapestry with Jesus tending his flock.
Everything was fine, except that Art’s feet smelled like a dumpster full of rotting cabbage. I would make him take off his shoes and socks in the hall and go wash his feet before coming into the room. Sometimes Art would hide his socks underneath the dresser, and in the morning it would smell as if something had died in the wall. When I found the socks, I’d throw them out the window.
Art and I had fun together, breaking into the swimming pool across the street and sneaking into the frat house next door to steal beer. Often, when I got off work at midnight, I’d run into him skating or “tagging” — spray-painting his name on walls. I was never sure whether he was just hanging out, or waiting for me.
After I graduated, I went away for a week, and when I came back Art was gone. I kept some of the clothes and pictures that he left behind.
Later, I heard that Art had gone to jail for nine months for spray-painting “Capitalism Is Murder” on banks. I saw him the day he got out. He had crazy, curly hair and looked older. He said he wasn’t ready to be back in the world again. He felt as if he were sitting under a six-hundred-watt bulb, when all he wanted to do was crawl back into the comfortable darkness.
Sasha Gabrielle Hom
When light is glowing through the rice-paper blinds of the front window, I know David’s home. He might be puttering around the kitchen with the phone under his ear, or pouring pasta twists into boiling water, or hunched over last Sunday’s Times. He unlocks the door, takes a bag of groceries from my hand, and says, “Hey, how was work?” I hang up my coat, wash a few tomatoes, and slice them at the kitchen table. We sit opposite each other, in the seating arrangement we have silently maintained for ten months, for no clear reason. I drink chocolate milk while he eats lettuce with vinegar out of a bowl I inherited from a great-aunt, and we update each other on the latest developments in our searches for caring mates.
After dinner, David leans against the wall he decorated with stove irons and teases me about my tendency to overpack the dishwasher. I ask if he wants help painting the doors to his room. We pull on sweats and paint without speaking, listening to his stereo, each following our own thoughts.
“Should we have Jake and Gio over for brunch on Sunday?” I ask as we rinse our brushes under the faucet.
“Yeah,” he says, “and let’s buy some marigolds for the window box.”
I sleep with my door open and wake in the morning to the sound of David shutting it to protect me from the racket of his coffee grinder. We have never fought, and we have never kissed.
I desperately needed a new roomie. Abby had snuck out owing me three months’ back rent, and, as a secretary making just above minimum wage, I was struggling to pay both the mortgage on the trailer and the rent on the lot — not to mention Abby’s surprise long-distance phone bills.
Lu was also a secretary and worked in the same department as I did on campus. She mostly kept to herself, reading romance novels at her desk during slow times, but she seemed normal enough, and she needed a place to live. My extra bedroom wasn’t much bigger than a walk-in closet, so I could only charge dirt-cheap rent, but I had to have that monthly pittance.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that Lu was a far cry from normal. For one thing, she confessed that she’d once been a wrestling groupie, driving for hours to meet the fighters after a match. That was before she’d met Dwayne, of course. Dwayne was Lu’s boyfriend; he lived with another woman, but he assured Lu he really loved her and slept with that other woman only when she pressed the issue. He said he’d move out as soon as he found a good job.
One evening, when my boyfriend and I were taking refuge in my bedroom, Lu knocked and entered dressed in nothing but a sheer negligee. She twirled around and asked if we thought Dwayne would like it.
When Dwayne came over, things got especially cozy. He illegally rigged the cable to get the Playboy Channel and snapped his fingers every twenty minutes or so for Lu to fix him a snack or get him another cold beer. When I disconnected the cable, he said, “Now I’ve got nothing to watch but you.” And while Lu was at the store, he ordered me to get him a beer. “Your legs don’t look broke to me,” I told him, and he said I was cute and sassy, and that he’d like to “break me in.”
I asked Lu to start looking for another place to live, and began avoiding her as much as possible.
One day, Lu’s boss asked me if she was OK; she hadn’t shown up for work and hadn’t called in. When I got home, she wasn’t there, and Dwayne called looking for her, too.
In the following week, a car-rental agency left increasingly nasty messages on my answering machine. It appeared Lu had rented a car and not returned it. Later, I learned that Lu had run off with the boys in a band she’d met at a bar. I never heard from her again, and you know what? I’m glad.
In 1975, my roommate Judy and I were “Jesus freaks,” those glassy-eyed fanatics who hand out pamphlets to warn sinners about the Apocalypse and the Second Coming. We were typical cult members — young, confused, idealistic suburbanites who had moved to the inner city to help the poor. We’d joined to prove we weren’t afraid to “get our hands dirty for God,” and because we wanted to belong somewhere. I was a child of divorced parents, a victim of physical and sexual abuse, and an escapee from the drug scene. Judy had just had her heart broken by a fellow folksinger and, being blind from birth, was having trouble finding work. As cult members, we at least got room and board.
Sharing a room with a blind person was a learning experience for me. Judy could tell when her mom had stopped by to hang curtains in our bedroom by the different echo. She could guess what type of food a can contained by shaking it and listening to the sound: green beans slosh; corn rattles; dog food doesn’t make a sound. And she washed dishes by touch, teaching me that a plate that looks clean is often dirty. When it was cold — which was often, as the group’s director saved money by keeping the thermostat at fifty-eight degrees — Judy would read her Braille Bible under the covers to stay warm, teasing me because I needed a light to read by, and so had to sit in the cold.
Our worst experience together was not sharing our bedroom with a psychotic homeless person, or getting sick from eating moldy leftover bread, or working all night on pointless publicity projects. No, the worst was when I was forced to take Judy to a faith healer, who prayed for her eyes to be miraculously healed. She was so disappointed.
At home, I never hung up or put away an article of clothing, instead draping clothes on chairs, the bed, the dresser knobs, and so on, until my room looked like a yard sale. My mother caustically informed me that I’d be in deep trouble when I had a roommate, one day.
Now, in my freshman year of college, I had five. We shared two dorm rooms with a bathroom between them. My bed became the receptacle for all my books and clothes, and the pile grew higher daily. Hutch, the suite mother by silent consensus, made it clear that no one else was going to pick up my things, and that my mother did not live there, but I didn’t get it; what was the big fuss? I put the pile on the floor at night and put it back on the bed in the morning — no problem. It was my bed, after all. When my roommates’ complaints turned to threats, I’d pick up for a day or two, and then go back to decorating the doorknobs with underwear.
One late-fall afternoon, slipping wearily into my room loaded down with homework and books, I stopped and stared in disbelief. The room had been ransacked, my belongings strewn everywhere: on lamps and in the bathtub; hanging out of desk drawers and spilling out of the closet; draped over the door and crumpled on the floor. In a final insult, my mattress was flung against a far wall, with a note pinned to it: “Are you with us or against us?”
My mother never did understand the change that had come over me when I returned home for Thanksgiving.
When I moved back to Portland, Oregon, to live with John in what we thought would be the last year of his life, I had all kinds of romantic notions about caring for the dying. Dogeared copies of books by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and Stephen Levine filled my bedside table, and I anticipated long talks about old times, moments bathed in poignancy, and holding John’s hand as he took his last breath. I believed that, through proximity to death, I would come to terms with my own mortality and perhaps even grasp the meaning of life.
I wasn’t expecting TV twenty-four hours a day at full volume, explosive bursts of anger, and childish neediness. Often, a commercial would trigger John’s memory of a favorite food from his childhood, and he’d insist that I run to the grocery store for Spaghetti-Os, or chunky Skippy peanut butter, or lime Jell-O. One day, he became irate when I didn’t know what he meant by “biscuits”; I assumed he was talking about the Pillsbury kind. In his dementia, he couldn’t find the words to describe what he really wanted, and he screamed until his fragile body collapsed in a ball on the couch. The next day, I realized that he had meant those butter cookies in round metal tins.
The morphine drip John used for pain heightened his sense of smell, and he demanded I stop burning incense and candles in the house, and that I not wear perfume. The requests themselves were innocuous enough, but he delivered them with the same bile he directed at TV talk shows. He often screamed at the television, his pale complexion turning purplish crimson with anger. John was angry at the whole world — still, I never saw him get angry at having AIDS.
One Sunday morning, feeling unusually strong, he wanted to go out for breakfast. We met friends at Kornblatt’s, a noisy Jewish deli with a crock of pickles on every table. As we were waiting for our food, John wrinkled up his nose and said, “What’s that smell? What’s that smell?”
None of us knew what he was talking about. The deli was full of rich, delicious aromas.
“Dill!” he screamed. “It’s dill! I can’t stand it! It’s going to kill me!” He hobbled out of the restaurant, drawing stares from waitstaff and customers. We asked to have our food wrapped — minus the pickles — and left without explanation. John didn’t go out much after that.
I don’t know if I learned anything about the meaning of life that year, or glimpsed my mortality in any useful way, but I do remember one day in particular: Coming home early from work, I found John asleep in my bed. I climbed in beside him, held him close, and cried because that was all there was left to do. When he woke, he confessed to getting into my bed every morning after I left for work. “It feels good in here,” he said, the tears running down his face, “and it smells like you.”