When I first moved to New York, I did not have roommates. I lived in a studio on the sixth floor of a former tenement on east 78th street. A rectangular lock box above 48 stairs.
I was a teacher at the time. After school, I’d come home to that empty white room and order translucent cylinders of Thai, opening them up and rubbing the contents all over my face and chest until I was a limp carcass splayed on a wooden floor, surrounded by empty plastic bins. There were no dreams in that room, yet. No fears, either. Just me, spooning with some Pad See Ew.
After my initial year on east 78th, I moved downtown. A three-bedroom on 14th street. Three closets. One toilet. One door to enter. The same one to get out.
When you live in a place long enough, your dreams/fears/incomplete to-dos start to live there, too. You can smell them. You know when they’ve taken a shit. You can hear them walking around at night, going to and from the bathroom, turning the faucet on and off. Even just one undone to-do will begin rifling through your clothes at night, and you’ll wake up not knowing where all the clean underwear went.
And when you have roommates, you watch your dreams/fears shaking hands with everyone else’s. You get to know each other like that. Watching from the edges of rooms as your inner bits make small talk in the middle.
It’s not about who is dirty and who is clean. Not about who cuts the avocado and lets it rot on the kitchen counter. Rather, it’s about who screams when they drop a can of tomato sauce. Who sighs when they come home after work, and who just glowers. Within a month, your personal mantras are etched into your bedroom doors: the roommate who Sees Each Day As A Mountain To Climb; the one who Lives Much More Fully On The Weekends Than On Weekdays; another who Venerates Gandhi And Wants To Be Truly Good.
But, no matter the mantras, you still use the same toilet paper and sit on the same toilet seat and stand naked under the same spray of chlorinated water.
A year ago, I came home from work and saw one of my roommates crying between two potted plants and a hundred small unopened packets of soy sauce. Something had happened that day. I think. But her face looked like that smiley face babies make when they cry. She was holding onto one of the soy sauce packets like it was the bottom rung on a fire escape ladder.
I hugged her and rubbed her back and we picked up all the little packets of Kikkoman. We cut avocados and ate them with spoons that had felt the full force of our salivas for two whole years. We sat on chairs that had been caked in our sweat and dead skin cells for so long that they radiated with a new smell/feel that was more than either of us individually.
This is what happens when you live with people in locked boxes.
I still live here, with these roommates. We jigsaw ourselves together in the kitchen at dinner time, alternating between the sink and the stove and the trash can, unwittingly rubbing our butts against one another. We hear each other in the bathroom or on the phone and tell ourselves that we are quieter or better or more hard working. We look at each other when we’ve had a long day, too long, and just need someone to tell us we are ok and we have toilet paper and what did you use this pan for, should I clean it?
The Romans lived in apartments. They fought with eachother and laughed about underwear stains and sighed when they came home from work and put their leather bags on the kitchen table. They moved out. They cried in the living room at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday.
Roommies of the world, I summon you to come under the covers with me. Confess all of your dreams/fears/incomplete to-dos – draw them out on pieces of paper and tape them to the walls of our living room. Tell me how much you appreciate my purchasing the toilet paper. How grateful we all are that we have these seven walls and three beds to sleep in, walking to and from the bathroom each night, just like sleepaway camp. Smiling at one another with our hair all poofy in the mornings, seeing each other in nothing but a few diaphanous fragments of cotton.