Grown-Ups

I.

One September day, about a month into my sophomore year, my roommate became suddenly, terribly convinced that she was going to die. Her reasons for believing this were both very personal and totally illogical. She spent several weeks sitting in our otherwise airy apartment withthe blinds drawn, drinking cheap Chianti out of the bottle and wearing an ancient rusty red taffeta dressing gown I’d found in the bottom of a bin at a filthy Salvation Army in old money Virginia. It was festooned with dejected ruffles and printed with diseased-looking roses in grisly shades of red. black and jaundiced gold, which more or less matched her hair after a failed experiment in home bleaching required an iffy black dye job. The time we spent together mostly consisted of me listening to her make mixtapes as she imagined grimly humorous conversations between exes at her funeral.  Sometimes I would ride with her over to the closest cemetery. Hope Sandoval warbled about turning into dust through tinny Hyundai speakers. My roommate would park in the grass and wander between broken statuary and Gilded Age mausoleums. “Don’t you ever think about dying?” she’d ask.

“Sure,” I’d say. I suffered no illusions about my mortality. I would kind of just stand there looking at her, half-entranced, half-annoyed, as she posed dramatically by a broken cherub on a sunny, 80 degree late summer afternoon, framed by the undistinguished skyline of the shitty, third-tier New South city to which we’d reluctantly relocated. Death would certainly come to all of us. Such was the human condition. Unfortunately for the two of us, death would not come before the phone bill was due.

We owed $400. Millennials will wonder —How do you get a $400 phone bill? Were you guys, like, regularly calling Japan or what? We weren’t, but such was the state of things pre-unlimited calling, pre-calling plan, pre-10 cents a minute, prep- 25cents a minute. We’re talking about a landline  connected to pushbutton phone with an extra long curling cord that we kept on a rickety, band-stickered, secondhand  tv-tray in the hallway. I’d covered the receiver in checkerboard contact paper one night early on in our tenancy because I wanted to listen to The Specials and my yet-to-turn morbid roommate and her Subhumans-fan boyfriend were on a three day bender of obscure Canadian hardcore. She’d called him a lot–probably 75$ a lot, if you’re doing the math.

I certainly wasn’t. We’d given our first phone bill a sort of cursory looksee, then paled and slid it under a stack of newsprint magazines in the living room so a follow-up consult would both literally and figuratively get our hands dirty. It was a clever conceit that would prove disastrous, as we promptly forgot it was there and spent our bill money on important things like records, hair dye, cigarettes and takeout curry. When the next bill came, we were distressed to find it included the past-due first bill as well as a vexing late fee. I put it with the other phone bill, out of sight, out of mind, under the MaximumRockNRoll.

My roommate had taken the previous year off between high school and college. She’d rented an apartment and worked two different mall jobs in order to support herself and the criminal she’d been dating at the time. That gave her a slight advantage in worldliness.  I had not paid a bill before we moved into our apartment. I’d spent my freshman year at a Womens’ College, where, if you put off paying your phone bill for long enough, they’d just  bill it to your Dad. I didn’t really know what would happen if we didn’t pay the bill. I suspected the phone company might take punitive action. But what sort of action? Would they send out goons? Would they send the police? Would they send us to debtor’s prison? Do they still have debtor’s prisons?

“They’ll turn off the phone,” she said.

“Astonishing,” I said. It seemed so simple, yet so mericiless. “And will they let us turn it back on again?”

“If we pay the balance and a reconnect fee, probably.” She stood back to admire a couple of black and white Margaret Keane knock-offs she’d found a thrift store and hung on the wall over her bed. “When I die, I’ll make sure you get some of my stuff.”

I looked around her room. Morbidity had crept into the decor. Can you just become Goth? Is that a thing that can happen to people?  She didn’t have that much I wanted in the way of tangible objects, save a couple of 7”s and some Russian novels. It was her sharp-angled, seemingly impervious cool that I coveted. I tried to communicate that, in the least-poser way possible, hoping she might cue me into some ritual, some album, some ur-text to guarantee that I would emerge out the other side impossibly tough and edgy and completely out of fucks to give.

She either completely missed my point or understood me better than I understood myself. “You should read up on eastern religion,” she said, and pulled a paperback Bhagavad-Gita off the shelf. “Maybe start here.”

I tried to hide my disappointment–I’d hoped at least she might hand over something political, like “The Communist Manifesto” or a book with small print and  Revolution in the title– as she fetched the phone from the hallway. When I drifted off to sleep a couple hours later, trying to figure out what exactly Lord Krishna had to do with being more  punk rock, I could hear her through the wall, still talking on the phone.

The next day, the power was cut off.

II.

I took a job as a tea girl for an English furniture importer at the fall 1995 iteration of the International Home Furnishings Market in High Point. I didn’t apply for the job. It came to me because 1) the importer had a business relationship with my grandmother  2) one of the vendors[1] was family friend and 3) there were evidently no English girls with the necessary visas and travel time to do the job.  As it happened, I was a reasonable candidate. Not only had I a weirdly extensive knowledge about high-end British home furnishings of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries (Thanks, Nana!), I suffered an incurable case of hopeless Anglophilia, probably attributable te to both genetics and environment. It had plagued me throughout my childhood, a condition both consuming and isolating.  I would have just withered and died from embarrassment had anyone suggested I suffered from it, even as I obsessively familiarised (<—–see what I did there?) myself with parliamentary government and the  various regional dialects of the United Kingdom.  I could make a decent pot of tea and I had at least one Laura Ashley-ish floral frock left over my Desperate To Be Pre-Raphaelite,  Let’s Talk About Shakespeare and Aesthetics Some More high school days, which at the time already seemed like ancient history, but was really just  eighteen months previous.

The job was temporary and required a full half-mixtape commute, but you are in no position to turn down any job right now, Alison. My parents were wholly unsympathetic to my rapid descent into dire poverty. My mother believed I was asking for trouble living in an apartment two-and-a-half miles off campus near no other students or people my age.[2]  My father believed not having money would make me a better person,[3] or something to that effect. I believed I would soon have to use Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs as cribsheet for some seriously hard choices. At least two of us were probably onto something.

Whatever the case, I needed the money. The day of my first shift I’d come home between class and teatime to exchange my ripped fishnets for pastel florals and discovered that none of the lights were working. Puzzled, I scrubbed off eyeliner in the dim light of the bathroom and left a Yo, Something is definitely up with the power. Feelings? Thoughts? Inspirational Quotes? Heart, Moi taped to the wall over the phone. When I arrived home several hours later, brimming with hilarious tales of European Interior Decorators getting into fistfights with redneck locals over stolen hood ornaments.[4] I found the apartment pitch dark save a shard of yellow light from the cracked bathroom door. My roommate perched on the edge of the old porcelain tub, hair wrapped in plastic and stinking of ammonia. She fixed me with a hard, level gaze that would have silently communicated you owe me a hundred dollars for the power bill, you frivolous, irresponsible asshole even if she hadn’t said it. “I’m going to get a job tomorrow,” she said. “You should get one too. I don’t want to have to bail us out again.”

I thought about protesting. I have a job. I have a job that pays me $7.50 an hour. That is $3 more than minimum wage, comrade. But it was only ten days of three hour shifts behind an ersatz Victorian canopy bar. My sole responsibility consisted of setting out plates of snacks and watching the mostly American representatives of chain furniture stores try to figure out what to do with Devonshire cream–What the hell is this? Mayonnaise?–while the superficially gracious British staff snerked at them in the most subtle and devastating way possible. So calm. So cool.  I wished I could do that. I could spend a whole shift trying to stiffen my upper lip and raise one eyebrow in sublimely haughty, amused toleration but I’d still look like I’d been cruelly insulted by a spiteful kitten. It hardly seemed fair. And here I found myself standing in a dark hallway with my pockets full of day-old scones, turning myself in knots to keep from freaking out and telling my enviably taciturn roommate I think I’ve made a terrible mistake coming here. I think you hate me. Do you hate me? I kind of hate me. Do you want to drop out of school and move to New York? How about drop out of school and run away to California? I’m willing to make whatever sacrifices necessary because that life holds a glimmer of something that might be more worthwhile than whatever the fuck we’re doing here? What are we doing here?

I didn’t say that. Instead I handed her the twenty-one dollars in cash I had on me and upended my bag to count out another four in silver change. I added a plastic baggie of leftover Digestives I’d liberated from the tearoom kitchen and attempted a weak smile. “I’ll get another job. I swear.”

She stood and gave me a weary sigh as dismissal. I wondered if I should return her copy of the Bhagavad-Gita, but I heard Nick Cave crooning from the living room and knew she was busy planning her funeral again.

 III.

We both got jobs

My roommate cut class the next day and returned after lunch with a an unimpeachably cool, nearly-impossible-to-get job at a record store. “How do you just go get a job in a record store?”

“I dunno.” She shrugged and lit a cigarette. “You know. They just gave it to me.”

I sat beside her on the fire escape in gobsmacked awe until she asked how I got my job. “What are you doing again? Like, babysitting?”

The blonde suburban mother who hired me preferred the term nanny, as had my own mother. As if just calling the college student you pay to drive your overachieving progeny to all of their extracurriculars a “nanny” would magically imbue her with some Mary Poppinsity and an encyclopedic knowledge of both the Ivy League admission process and Emily Post. I found the listing in one of those Giant Binders in the campus Career Services. It was, if I’m honest, the tenth job I applied for (after a rogue’s gallery of depressing retail and no-dignity food service) and I wouldn’t have applied for it at all, but for the fact that the kids were 10 and 13, well past the age of needing any sort of “care.”

The mother herself said the same thing in the interview. They’d go to their rooms and do their homework when they weren’t at soccer or whatever. She didn’t imagine it would be too difficult. I agreed. She was an evangelical Christian and a republican, who lived in an ugly McMansion and worried that her daughter was going to hell because she was growing boobs. She didn’t like  the color of my hair or the fact that I wouldn’t tell her what church I went to. But she she offered me the job, probably because I was white and had an easily pronounceable last name and a diploma from a prep school and didn’t really look like an anarchist or a drug addict (despite my best efforts). Also (and unlike her ungrateful ex-housekeeper Gloria)  because I agreed not to demand extra gas money on top of the flat weekly fee she’d pay under the table.

“It’s a job,” I said. Because it was. I’d resigned myself to it as soon as I realized that neither the coffee shop nor the frozen yogurt place were likely to call me back.

“Nannying,” she said. “So lame.”

The way she said it felt like she was talking about me. I was lame. If I were really cool, I would definitely be doing something gritty and dangerous, probably involving manual labor and traditionally gendered male. Or else I would be able to get a cool  job at the record store or at Kinkos or that place where they sold raver pants and Manic Panic. Nannying was so bourgeoise.  One of the first steps in rebellion, my roommate had told me earlier in the fall, is to rebel against your social class.  I had taken that that to heart and tried to join to Communist Party. And let me tell you, that was easier said than done in the Piedmont Triad in 1995. I sent off for newsletters and badges and tried to work dialectics into ordinary conversation with the people on the front porch at house shows or the woman at the Quik Mart who sold me cigarettes. My roommate had been thoroughly unimpressed

She leaned back in her perch on the metal railing and sent a shower of smoldering ash into the parking lot. The robe fluttered out behind her like a cape. If I sat like that, I’d be afraid of falling. She looked too poised to be truly reckless, although given the recent conversation, I decided to crack wise about potential suicide just in case.

“Throw myself off a fire escape?” She laughed. “Please. Credit me with more imagination than that.”

IV

The tearoom was closed on Sundays. I slept until noon and waded through a flood of clothes and books and half written journals to make coffee. My roommate had already been up for a couple of hours–maybe she hadn’t been asleep at all She sat on a tall stool in front of the stereo, her thin, pale legs swinging, as she made another mix-tape.

“This one really reflects the darkness of my soul,” she said, joking but not joking. I sat for a while, smoking and writing in a notebook, listening to her relentless, furious, angular songs. I wanted to be like the music, all fierce angles and hard edges. I wanted to make people uncomfortable, not in a desperate and eager sort of way, but in an inciting riots kind of way.  I wrote a list of adjectives I wished would describe my personality and realized at least half were synonyms for skinny. How on Earth could I be edgy if I was entirely made out of curves? That is a good question, I thought. I underlined it twice in my journal. Sometimes I just wish I were a boy, I wrote, then crossed out boy and wrote man. I felt revulsion and increasing horror-Ew. Seriously? — at having even thought it and blacked it out.

After a while, my roommate got frustrated with the tape making and stormed off to her room. I took that as a sign that I should be working on something important and tapped out two more pages in my terrible  work-in progress.  The sun started to blind me through the windows on either side of the desk and I realized it was late, almost time to dig through the cabinet for whatever off-brand, boxed pasta meal our trendy vegetarianism and reduced financial circumstances would allow for dinner. I hadn’t heard a peep from my roommate’s room for something like hours. As I was trying to think of a good excuse to barge in– hiya, pal, just making sure you’re not dead–she burst through the bathroom door, wearing a stained old t-shirt and ancient blue pajama pants. “So I just did this,” she said.

For a moment I thought she meant taking off the dressing gown, because she had. That signified something. An embrace of life? A less fraught understanding of her own mortality? Whatever. It seemed worth celebrating. I didn’t have enough money left for anything fancy, but I might be able to scrounge some change for samosas and we could take a long, scenic smoking drive down past the abandoned mansions on the street where the murders happened. Fun. She cleared her throat and pointed at her bottom lip, which had a safety pin through it. I blinked.

“Wow,” I said. “Did that hurt?”

“Of course,” she said.

I bit my own lip. Yes, it would hurt.

“Any particular reason?” I asked.

“Bored,” she said. “Wanted to feel something.”

I marveled at that. I was damn near overwhelmed by feelings all the time. It was exhausting.  Not feeling things? That seemed like a pretty sweet deal. So tough. No wonder they hired her at the record store.  I sighed, trying to appear as indifferent as possible. “Are you worried about infection?

Her expression was ruthless, practically mythological. Like another ten seconds and I would have been forever transformed into a frowsy marble bust.

“You know,” she said, slowly. “ I would have paid someone to do it. But that costs money. And I spent all of my money on the power bill.”

Noted.

I waited until she was gone to walk over to my mirror. I dunked a safety pin in a bottle of rubbing alcohol and tested the sharp end against my right nostril. I looked at my unkempt purple hair, my fat belly, my ill-fitting thrift store pants and Am I really dumb enough to do this? I  made a perfect score on the verbal section of the SAT.  I’ve read Ulysses and I mostly understood it. I know just enough psychology to be boring at a party and this is just about the stupidest thing I could ever do for the stupidest reasons and if I really want a nose ring, I can be grown-up about it and pay someone to do it maybe after I pay my roommate back for the rest of the power bill and then I’ll

I screamed.

Or I would have screamed if I weren’t biting my f t-shirt. I stared at myself in the mirror, half-amazed, half-horrified. Please God, please don’t let my nose fall off, it is one of my only decent features. I wiped away residual tears and swaggered into my roommate’s room. She looked up from her book as I entered.

“I did this,” I said, pointing at my nose and the safety pin through it.

She rolled her eyes. “Whatever.”

V.

I had to take my nose ring out for both of my jobs the next day. This was not recommended by professionals, but if my nose was going to become diseased and fall off, it would do so with or  without professional advice.

My mother drove to town to meet my grandmother for furniture market. She stayed in a hotel just down the street and took me out to dinner at a restaurant with actual, non-plastic cutlery.  She asked me about school, which I hated and wasn’t going to and my apartment, which I loved but couldn’t afford and my friends, who were, save my roommate, all seemingly content and happy in other area codes. I don’t remember what I exactly I told her, but it wasn’t the truth.  I would have died before I said:  It’s possible that I’m profoundly depressed. I think this place is making me worse. So, let’s cut our losses with minimal fanfare. I’ll move home and we can reassess college next semester. That sound reasonable?

Sometime in the early morning, the people at Bellsouth were like, “Oh, right! Chekhov’s phone bill!” and turned off our service. My mother came by on her way out of town to suss out why we weren’t answering her calls and found a short stack of ink smudged documents on the coffee table and my roommate and I bickering over who called Brooklyn on August 29th for 17 minutes (I still contend it was her).

Mom took stock of the situation, probably died a little on the inside at the sight of our filthy apartment, our terrible hair, our collective, palpable misery that had mixed with the permanent haze of cigarette smoke and coalesced into what my then-journal would have described as a fetid miasma of fatal ennui or something to that effect. She offered to spot me some cash.

Our bailout was conditional upon our compulsory attendance at the lengthy, emphatic lecture on immaturity and  personal responsibility she would deliver over the next ninety minutes or so. I believe it concluded with a rousing call to “Get your shit together” and then took me to the bank so my roommate and I could drive to the seedy Western Union/Payday Lending joint  that also served as a utility payment one-stop. I thought to myself, Look at all these sad people. I‘m sure I will never need to come here again. Hoo boy,  I’ve definitely learned my lesson.

I was, of course wrong.

VI.

On my last day in the tearoom, Donna Summer dropped by with a fleet of interior decorators and the English Furniture Importer himself. They hummed around her, all frantic smiles and ingratiating chatter. She was amiable and quiet. She smiled at me when I poured her tea, thanked me for the scones and seemed like a genuinely nice lady.

I got a bonus when I left . It was maybe $70 bucks, but for me, at the time, it felt like a fortune. I filled up my tank, bought a pack of cigarettes and took off driving. Who knew where I would stop? I made Durham by nightfall and then headed North on I-85. I did mileage math in my head. I could be in DC by 11. New York by 4 or 5 if the traffic held up. I’d never driven in New York. I’d never parked a car in New York. I shuddered and realized I was still wearing my floral dress. That was unacceptable. I turned the car around at the Virginia line and drove back to Greensboro.

My roommate was watching a vampire film  when  I came in under the dining room arch. “The fuck have you been?”

“Took a drive.” I slid onto the disgusting loveseat. The pages of the phone bill were still strewn across the table. I should really pick those up, but I didn’t.

I risked a glimpse at my roommate. She was eating macaroni and cheese out of a black coffee mug and wearing jeans, not the robe.  When we’d moved in together, I thought she was my best friend, maybe the best of best friends I’d ever had.  I wanted to be with her to be like her. I thought together we could change the world or make great art or at least make ourselves happy.  She’d sent me this letter (one of many) the year before when I was marooned in Virginia. “I have no idea why we still live in the South. We are too fabulous, too brilliant for it and it’s complete bullshit. Let’s renew our spirituality walking down filthy New York sidewalks soaking in this glorious paradox of life. Let’s blind all the fuckers with our sheer magnificence.” This hadn’t panned out. It wouldn’t pan out at all, actually, but I still swooned for her in this  “Anne of Green Gables” bosom friend sort of way, because she had written that to me and she could write that to me. I loved her, even then, even though I knew she didn’t love me, even though she would be repulsed if I said it and maybe horrified if she knew.

“I’m really sorry about the power bill,” I said.

She tapped the coffee table with the toe of her boot.  “I think the phone bill makes us even”–and went back to the fangs.

After a minute, I turned again. “If things have been weird or bad, I just wanted to say, I’m sorry.”

She looked at me. Her eyes were a pale silvery blue, but in the dim living room, they looked darker and full of something I desperately wanted to believe would accept and forgive me. She shook her head. She seemed disappointed. “You’re always sorry, you know that?”

I did. And I really was.

)

 

[1] He would report years later, in an embarrassing anecdote told to great general amusement at a fancy hotel in Brighton, that I showed up on that first day with a hangover, in Dr. Martens and leather jacket, with wild purple hair and giant sunglasses. That’s probably mostly true.  My hair was sort of purple and I probably did wear boots under my pastel floral gowns (they were both more comfortable and more respectable than my brokedown mary janes). And I did love that leather jacket.  But I rarely drank in those days (I was nineteen, with no ID, no older friends and no money).

[2] She was right

[3] He was wrong

[4] True!

 

Standard