Three years ago I moved to New York City with two suitcases, no money, and a month-long sublet with a burlesque dancer named Cherry Bomb. I was two months out of undergrad and had lined up a gig working in Queens at the NY Hall of Science, but on the day of my flight, I received an email explaining that the state had just cut a half-million dollars of funding for the museum and that they would no longer be able to hire me, but best of luck in the city. I paid my rent by withdrawing cash from my credit card for the next few months.
After that was a 10-person loft with a live-in landlord. It was advertised on Craigslist for $500/month, which I at first thought it was a scam, or a certain kind of shit hole, but it turned out to be a spacious, windowless room with cool roommates. The catch was, I was there illegally because the landlord didn’t permit tenants to sublet (a little fact he informed me of right in the middle of a party I was hosting). I stayed there for only a month, but a few months later I learned that everyone had been evicted because of fire code violations, or something like that. Not long ago, I ran into the landlord at a punk rock show and he gave me a ride home in his Jaguar.
The next place I moved to was the apartment where I live now: a 2-bedroom on the gentrified borderline of Williamsburg, somewhere between the pocket affluent, white, perpetual teenagers we all have come to know as “hipsters,” and the Puerto Rican and Dominican family zone. I was subletting from a girl I’d befriended after she’d spilled her latte on me in a coffee shop. She was going to Abu Dhabi, and was only supposed to be gone a month, but she never came back.
For that first month, I shared the place with a bi-polar DJ. He would sleep until 5pm every day, then wake up, head to the corner bodega and return with a $1 tall boy of Coors Light in small, black bodega bag. He would spend the rest of the evening watching old B-movies and going on bodega runs between films, when the credits began to roll. He told me that those black plastic bags triggered his depression because they were symbolic of his inability to break this daily routine.
I was making $8/hour working at The Internet Garage, hardly enough to cover my $900 share of the rent, so after finally realizing that my clumsy friend wasn’t coming back from Dubai, my best friend from childhood, June, moved from the city from Michigan and shared the room with me. There was a queen sized-bed, big enough to share, but June was a dancer, which meant I’d be jolted awake, nightly, by a graceful high-kick to the head.
Sometimes we would take turns sleeping on the lumpy futon in the living room.
The plan was to live like this until something more affordable turned up, with sufficient room for the both of us.
It was fun for a while. June and I would go out to the local bars, where our tabs were often generously cut down by kind, chatty bartenders. And when we came home, our DJ roommate would throw us dance parties that lasted till the sun came up.
After a few months of that, the DJ told us he’d decided to pursue his career in Los Angeles and that he’d be leaving in a week. June and I knew we couldn’t come up with the money for a down payment on such short notice, so turned to Craigslist to find a new roommate who could fill the DJ’s absence.
Her name was Ruby. She was 20 and had just moved to NYC from England. She was pretty, friendly and gave us rent up front, which was good enough for me, since this arrangement would be only temporary. The night she moved in she told us about the Ketamine addiction she developed at age 15, the subsequent breakdown of her family, her trip to rehab, and her obsession with some skinny hipster Brit in a bad emo band whom she needed to get away from, which was why she came to the US. Of all the revelations about Ruby we would come to learn, this day contained the most benign.
At that time, my pseudonymous blogging career was at its height; I would work from home on my laptop, blogging away. Ruby would sit in the apartment all day as well, also at her computer, but her online activities were far different from mine. Ruby was a MySpace celebrity; a “scene queen,” if you will. And when I say that, I don’t just mean she was someone who really liked to use MySpace. Ruby was someone who people wanted to marry, screw or kill on MySpace. At one time she showed me a page with at least 40 fake accounts created by internet strangers using her name and her photographs.
Ruby was a professional master of online illusion. But IRL, it didn’t hold up so well. Yes, she was pretty—pretty enough to turn heads on the street. But, to quote Cher from Clueless, she was a full-on Monet: “It’s like a painting, see? From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess.”
Looking at Ruby up close, the first thing you’d notice is that she wore A LOT of makeup. In all my time living with her, not once did I see Ruby’s face completely scrubbed clean. She bleached her hair blonde with DIY dye kits so diligently, I have no idea what color her hair naturally was. She had extensions, which she bleached as well, and they would fall out all over the apartment. Sometimes June and I would be sitting on the couch and feel something brush our skin. We’d instinctively jump and swat it away as though it were a bug or something, then cringe to find a limp hank of faux Ruby hair. I once watched her ruin a perfectly good sheet while she let spray-tan chemicals soak into her skin for 18 hours straight.
But it didn’t stop there. I learned that what she did all day on the computer, what she “worked on,” was distorting her image into an even more pixelated product of perfection via Photoshop. She would show me how she’d use different tools on Photoshop, tools I hadn’t even known to exist, to expand her breasts and smooth out the fat rolls around her waist. Ruby spent almost every waking hour of her days working to produce pictures to put on MySpace.
Then I learned about the bulimia––and by learned, I mean I had to wipe it off the bathroom floor. This came after the three of us roomies went out for a drink one night. I tried to have a heartfelt conversation with Ruby, to help her. We were talking about guys, and life, and drinking white wine, and I asked why she does it all. Why she goes through all the effort just to put pictures on a screen so that people will like her. “What would happen, Ruby, if you were to put your hair back to its natural color, and you went out one night with no makeup at all, and you met someone who liked you, the real you, in real life?” She burst out crying and we went home, and then the next morning when I went to the bathroom there was vomit all over the floor. She’d had only one glass of white wine.
When her month was up, she asked if she could stay for two more weeks. June was in favor of it, because she didn’t really look too deeply at Ruby, and money was more of an issue for her. But I told her she had to go. All things considered, what really pushed me over the edge with Ruby was her tea consumption. She would drink close to 10 cups of tea, daily. I think she only capped it at that because she ran out of mugs, which she would never wash. And every morning when I went to make coffee there was a sink full of dirty mugs and tea bags and it all became too much.