Ode To A Roommate

by Mara

Last week, after nearly two years living together, my roommate Jessie moved out. There wasn’t a falling-out: she had just been wanting her own place closer to her jobs for a while now. As is my way, I want to commemorate this life change by telling a story.

In the oh-so-long-ago Summer of 2010, I was living in an apartment on St. Marks Place. It’s one of the busiest streets in the city and has a colorful past, but these days it’s cleaned up a bit. My fellow NYU alum Minq Vaadka (who should open for the Dresden Dolls, if they ever tour again) calls it the “graveyard of punk.” It’s still a strange place, and even when I lived there, I had mixed feelings about it. I loved the twenty-four hour grocery store, the “pay what you can” yoga studio, the amazing food at all hours of the day and night, the close proximity to the subway, the street musicians, the historicity of the neighborhood, the smell of damp wood and beer from every tavern (which I will forever associate with my early twenties), the friendly lady at the cleaners, and even the Hare Krishna parading down the street playing music. I did not love the exorbitant rent, the lack of space, the mice, the people eating pizza and leaving their trash on our stoop, the neighbors who let their dogs urinate in the foyer, people screaming “YOU LOOK UGLY!” and worse at me, the smell of car exhaust mixed with the scent of dollar pizza wafting through my window every morning, and the constant noise all day and night. It was getting tiresome.

When my lease was ending, I had come to realize that, despite my contempt for moving, I couldn’t return for another year on St. Marks. I knew it when I saw an unpunctuated sign outside a grocery store that said “SPECIAL STRAWBERRIES” and thought “How did someone manage to infuse strawberries with THC?”* (Living above a pipe shop had gotten to me.) I knew when I walked up the stairs and saw a clean, but clearly well-loved, sparkly purple sex toy shoved into the stairway window grate. But mostly, I knew it from the profound longing I felt when visiting a friend’s place in someplace like Park Slope or Astoria. They had quiet streets and twenty-four hour grocery stores. By the time my lease on St. Marks was up, I knew I didn’t need a hip neighborhood, I needed a home. In the meantime, though, I was going to need a temporary place to live.

Jessie and I had met in high school when she saw me wearing a Weezer shirt and asked if I’d heard the string tribute to Weezer. I had not, and after further conversation she burned me a copy as well as a copy of Madonna’s Immaculate Collection, our shared guilty pleasure. In high school, Jessie was much cooler than I was: she was the kind of girl who didn’t have to try to be stylish, who would scoff “That’s not what it’s like!” while we watched the sex scenes from American Pie in the common room. I was awed. We drifted apart, mostly because we were a grade apart and busy with our different majors, but we always liked each other. When I posted a note on Facebook saying that I needed a temporary place to live, she responded right away. She said that she had just moved from San Francisco and broken up with her boyfriend, so she now needed someone else to split the rent. I met with her briefly to catch up, and decided we could make this work.

My first roommate at Idyllwild and I were incredibly close, which set a precedent. After that, when I wasn’t getting along with a roommate, I was heartbroken. Good roommate relations were something I had taken for granted. Eventually, I learned to separate “roommates” from “people I live with.” The “roommates” were friends so close they were practically siblings, and I’m very close with my siblings. (It’s a relationship I probably could have had with all the people I’ve lived with, but time, space, pet peeves, and respective boyfriends always seemed to get in the way.) Jessie was a roommate: our interests and taste were very different, but we understood each other. We fit into the same clothes and had similar neuroses. People often thought we were a couple. If I’d had the chance, I would have explained that she and I had both gone to an arts high school and to arts colleges in San Francisco and New York: if we had been gay, we would have “out” a long time ago.But I did understand the confusion: we were two girls sharing a one-bedroom railroad apartment in Chelsea, the most historically LGBT-friendly neighborhood in New York, after all. There was nothing but a shelving unit with no backing between our two beds. When my friend Max came to our apartment for the first time, he saw the very permeable barrier between our beds and asked, “Do you guys hold hands through that at night?”

Chelsea is a nice neighborhood, but ours was not a nice building. Back on St. Marks I’d had a friendly and forgiving Superintendent — once I called him because I was locked out and he took time away from a dinner party to help me. At the Chelsea apartment, our Super was curt and condescending, and not at all helpful. I tried to be respectful, but after many uncomfortable meetings I had him saved in my phone as “Not So Super.” When I told Jessie this, she laughed. She told me about her worst experiences with him and punctuated it with “…And that guy downstairs is his brother!”

She was referring to the man who ran the bodega (corner store) next door to our apartment building. He had what popular culture might call “The Crazy Eyes”: a look in the eye that triggers some prehistoric-borne impulse deep inside the observer to run far away, immediately. Jessie went to his bodega once — exactly once, because she was unsettled when she asked for “smokes” and he opened up a drawer full of marijuana. When she came upstairs I explained that “smoke, smoke” is what certain pot dealers (or undercover cops pretending to be dealers) in Washington Square Park say when they’re trying to find buyers. We laughed it off: neither of us smoked pot, but living in San Francisco and the East Village for four years had desensitized us. Like I said, I had lived above a pipe shop. Besides, even if he was selling anything harder, we had already noticed NYPD cars and vans routinely parking on our street.

We often saw him standing outside the bodega, arms folded, following every passerby with his eyes. But one day I came home from work and I noticed, to my relief, that he wasn’t standing outside. “Billie Jean”  was playing from inside the bodega, loudly, but I didn’t mind. It’s “Billie Jean”! It’s a classic! But when I went upstairs, I realized I could still hear it, and that it had just started over.

It played again.

And again.

And again.

I’m used to listening to the same song multiple times. A few months ago I listened to Brian Eno’s “Needle in the Camel’s Eye” for a week, and for the latter half of seventh grade I listened to nothing but Pinkerton. However, I always used headphones. I didn’t want to be like the one “person I lived with” who played the maudlin Gary Jules cover of “Mad World” all night. After the third “Billie Jean”, I put on my iPod and tried to block it out. But it was playing when I left the next morning, and when I got home that night, and the next morning. It did not stop playing for the next two weeks.

For the first few days, every time Jessie or I came home, we would greet each other by saying “can you believe he’s still playing it?” But the oddest part of oddness is how quickly one can become accustomed to it. A week into constant “Billie Jean” replays, we were still annoyed when we wanted to sleep and could feel the bass line through the floor, but we had become resigned to it. We knew the bodega owner was beyond reason, the Super wouldn’t be any help, and the police were already parking across the street every weekend.  When we did acknowledge it, we were mostly wondering why he was doing it.

“Maybe it’s a code for some drug he’s selling,” I said. At that point in my life I had not yet watched The Wire.

“I think he’s had a psychotic break,” said Jessie. “He’s probably hallucinating hidden meanings in that song.”

We soon found out the truth from our upstairs neighbor. “He’s sending a message. You know that crazy lady who lives on the first floor?” He said. He was talking about a woman I had once passed on the first floor: she seemed disheveled, disoriented, and possibly dangerous, with the same wild look in her eyes. “Well, I saw him leaving her apartment a few weeks ago. He said she was his wife, but she’s obviously not. But I guess they broke up and it was bad. And now she’s pregnant, so… ‘The kid is not my son.'”

Ten days in, one of the tenants who had been in that building since the Stonewall era announced he was going to make a noise complaint. I’m not sure if he made the complaint, but one day “Billie Jean” was gone. I couldn’t believe it. I kept waiting for the familiar drum and bass line to start up again, but it didn’t. It seemed to be too good to be true.

It was. A few nights later I was on my computer, looking up apartments in Park Slope and Astoria when I heard someone yelling something outside. Always the eavesdropper, I paused my music and took off my earbuds. Nothing happened initially, but a few minutes later I heard it again. It was a long, drawn-out scream, the kind that makes the screamer hoarse. For the first time in that apartment, I felt scared for my own safety. It happened again, and this time I heard what he was screaming: “BAAAAAASTAAAAAAAAAARD!”

After a few more repetitions, Jessie came through the front door. “It’s him,” she said. “Yeah, I figured.” I said. “But why?” “He’s yelling at the guys passing by. It’s only the guys, though. I guess we’re safe.” We lived near two nightclubs and, for reasons we did not and knew we would never understand, he had decided he hated the men who went to them. He took to doing this every night the clubs had a lot of business. Once I saw a passerby trying to calm him down. “What’s wrong with you, man? I’m just passing by. What’s with the hate?” In response, the man screamed “BAAAAAASTAAAAAAAAAARD!” in his face. The passerby threw up his hands and moved on. He had realized he was attempting to reason with the unreasonable. Jessie and I soon became used to it, too. “There he goes again,” I would say, and she would laugh. We would do impressions of him and put up statuses about him on Facebook. If I had been living with someone else, I probably would have just been frustrated. If I had been living by myself, I would have been terrified. But with Jessie, I knew I was safe and I knew it was funny.

And she knew it, too. One of my last clear memories of that apartment is a winter night I came home and found Jessie doubled over with laughter. “Did you see it?” she said. I had heard a noise (in addition to the now-familiar “BAAAAAASTAAAAAAAAAARD!”) outside, but I hadn’t seen anything. “Someone from one of the higher floors dumped a bucket of water on his head!” I looked out the window. He was screaming obscenities in two different languages, pacing back and forth, shaking the water off himself like a wet dog. He was completely humiliated: no longer threatening, just pathetic.

“Jessie,” I said, as soon as I’d finished laughing, “If we can share a single room in a place like this, I’m pretty sure we can live together anywhere. Want to move with me?” She said yes.

In the next few weeks, the NYPD finally found a reason to arrest the bodega owner, and Jessie and I looked at apartments. (Incidentally, I went past the bodega a few months ago and it’s a completely different store now.) We laughed when a realtor sent me an e-mail that started with the sentence “It was lovely meeting you and your girlfriend yesterday.” We moved, and she used her design skills to make it a home that fit us both. For two years, we went through everything together, weathering figurative storms–and sometimes literal ones, like when we decided to go dance in the rain during Hurricane Irene. I lost count of how many times I said “My sister–I mean, my roommate…” I will look back on these years as the end of our post-college years–adjusting to work, attempting to pursue our dreams, realizing that our dreams might not have been what we thought they were, and identifying what we wanted out of life–and the beginning of our slow, ongoing ascent into adulthood. We both changed, and for the better. She is now living on her own for the first time in her adult life, and I’m proud of her. I am sure we will stay close, and I can’t wait to see what else happens in the coming years.

But I do know one thing will never change: neither of us will voluntarily listen to “Billie Jean” ever again.

*(For the record, I have never smoked pot. My attitude is similar to my friends who aren’t on Facebook: first they were vehemently opposed, then they were curious but worried they’d like it too much or become paranoid, and eventually it had become such a novelty that they hadn’t used it that they kept it that way. Additionally, all throughout college I had a boyfriend who was allergic to the smoke. The Facebook analogy falls apart there, though it’s probably only a matter of time before the Daily Mail publishes something about a Facebook Allergy.)