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Imperfect Strangers

By flammable before noon, Tom 'a most incompetent bachelor' Waters
September 16 2003

Having a roommate is like being married without the sex. You get the fights, the feuds, the fits, and the neglect without the motivating physical rewards.

It's been well over a year now since I've had an apartment, and it's really taught me to appreciate the simple things. That's because I can't afford anything other than the simple things. A roof over my head, a five pound brick of cheese, and a cigarette out on the back porch during dusk. It's been a learning experience. I can't budget for the life of me, I've learned to tolerate having another person around all the time, and I'm still trying to avoid learning how to cook. Without any conscious decision on my part, I've grown up a little.

There's an impending collision with my 28th birthday in two months, and this is the first flat I've had proper. When I was 17, I ran away from home and rented a room in a strange old man's house with my girlfriend at the time, but that doesn't really count. That lasted about ten months, and it was a catastrophe. Aside from that, I've never really been on my own. I commuted to college (when I did attend) and lived at home until 26. I was the momma's boy who lived in his parent's basement. I'd seen the metropolitan hell-holes my friends had and wanted no part of it. I'm either sociable to a fault or so withdrawn that I can't stand the company of others, so I didn't want to cohabitate with anybody. But last year I also came to the decision that I didn't want to be living at home by the time I was 30. I pictured myself skulking around the house in sweatpants, talking to the family cat and turning into more of a geek than I already am. So I packed up all my crap and moved in with my friend Chuck at his posh townhouse in the suburbs. The rent was cheap, the place was really nice, and Chuck was quiet and reserved when we hung out. A perfect fit. Sort of.

Having a roommate is like being married without the sex. You get the fights, the feuds, the fits, and the neglect without the motivating physical rewards. Chuck's a decent guy; a bit scatterbrained and a bit of a slob, but nothing to have a brain hemorrhage over. To his benefit, I'm nearly impossible to live with. I've monopolized the television, I've managed to avoid cleaning either bathroom since I moved in, and I have a habit of peeling my socks off after work and piling them up into a smelly pile next to the others just to the right of my favorite chair and leaving them there until I do the laundry, which is a once-a-week chore on good weeks. We get on pretty well, but it's tough to put up with someone else every day, all the time.

Little things magnify and get to you. Chuck washes his hands for forty minutes in the bathroom and from the outside it sounds like a walrus is having an epileptic fit in the sink. Being Italian, he's got a temper that goes from calm to psychotic in 0-2 seconds. Once, he spiked a ravioli can in the sink screaming obscenities at the top of his lungs because he spilled some sauce on his clean shirt. If he can't find his car keys or if he's in a hurry, he'll stomp up and down the stairs like a four year old without dessert. He leaves hair in the shower drain. He brings home newspapers and lets them pile up for months in the kitchen. Why does he hang on to them, I wonder? In case he needs to re-read his horoscope from February of 1998? He's half deaf, so when he watches television after I've retired the remote for the night, it sounds like Dharma and Greg are traipsing through the kitchen with a bullhorn. Cohabitation is an exercise in tolerance. The key is making some alone time for yourself. That, and reminding myself that I'm a massive pain in the ass.

I pitch fits when he picks up the phone before the answering machine gets a call and it's for me. I'm not always in the mood to talk to whoever's calling. I had my parents schooled really well on the subject, but it's taking him a while to get past the training wheel stage. I'll pile up seventy beer cans in the kitchen before I get around to putting them in the basement. I use up all the toilet paper. I go through an alarming amount of paper towels. I leave game controllers strewn across the living room floor. I have terrible gas in the morning that, aside from forcing Chuck to navigate past when he wakes up, has probably ruined the mint condition of his furniture forever. You learn terrible, disfiguring, horrific personal things about people when you live with them.

I'm getting by in the everyday chore department. I never did the laundry before I moved out. For the first couple of weeks, I took to it with gusto. Hot water with whites, cold with darker colors. I folded, I threw things up on hangers. A real dynamo, I was. Now I dump the whole laundry basket into the washer in the morning, set it to dry before I go to bed, dump everything back into the basket and fish out the cleanest items I can find before I leave the house. I wash my sheets when the ketchup and hot sauce stains get too starchy.

Grocery trips are made out of desperation or critical states of malnutrition. I spent an entire month eating drive through tacos and salt and vinegar potato chips. This might contribute to the gastrointestinal problems mentioned earlier. There's a freedom with independence that takes some adjustment. I fly through the supermarket like it's a timed giveaway, and I err on the side of cheese, cheese flavored products, or foods that you can melt cheese on. I like to buy food that a)doesn't spoil after four months, b)can be microwaved in less than five minutes and c)tastes better with multiple condiments. I have a stock pile of macaroni and cheese that could carry me through three world wars. I've used the stove twice, and one of the occasions was during a dinner date when I catastrophically tried to boil steak in a large casserole dish.

It's more expensive than living at home, but it's freedom. Aside from my ineptitude and total lack of self sufficiency, I've managed. And it's nice to come home, peel off my socks, and collapse in front of the T.V. It feels like home now. When you're the one actually paying for the roof over your head, you take a bit of pride in it. There's one day off out of every week where I'll wake up, suck back a pot of coffee, and lounge around the house smoking cigarettes, eating cheese, and catching up on the laundry while Chuck screams obscenities and drowns his hands in the bathroom sink. It's ordinary. It's not spectacular. It's simple. And I've learned to appreciate it.