The Lantern Books Blog: Lantern Books 2005 Essay Contest Runner-Up, Alexandria Peary
April 11, 2006 9:45am
by Alexandria Peary, Milford, New Hampshire
Roommates create much flotsam and jetsam in their wake. In addition to the CDs, pets, futons, cobalt rimmed margarita glasses, bookshelves, half-burnt candles, winter wardrobes, and weeping girlfriends that are left behind when roommates move out, in my experience there are the ideas.
The roommates I selected to share a two-bedroom apartment in a student-ridden town brought with them unusual habits and passionate convictions about dating, diet, recycling, and religion. At our roommate interviews, I agreed to change my daily lifestyle to accommodate their different requirements out of what I believed at the time was a sense of polite experimentation. I didn’t anticipate how several of their ideas—in particular ideas about vegetarianism and recycling—would become permanent fixtures in how I live my life. What would also surprise me about that time is how the most strident of the roommates would carry the largest impact. I wonder about these matters now because, eight years later, I am faculty advisor for a recycling group on a conservative campus. Each Friday, in the wedge of remaining daylight, these students and I haul cans, bottles, and paper from administrative offices and dorms, facing the perplexing and often frustrating passivity of the rest of campus as we “take care of their trash for them.” Last semester, a student tossed her Pepsi can into a classroom trashcan even as I, a six-months-pregnant professor, was stooping to collect items from the recycling bin. When I wonder about what it would take to shake the campus from its passivity, I recall my own oblivion to the blue bins when I was an undergraduate, and how it took an education in the most intimate and daily of spaces to change me.
Several years ago, I lived in a two-bedroom apartment in a tenement located behind a dildo shop and a bar that boasted the World’s Largest Beer Can Museum. Instead of more expensive siding, roofing material covered the outside of the three story boxy building. The kitchen led onto a soggy deck with two rain-drenched couches from previous tenants, and occasionally a rabid-looking raccoon gestured with manic friendliness from the more mildewed of the two. My room had a view crowded by a catalpa tree, which leaked sticky puddles onto the cars parked below.
During the course of three years, I would come to see a stream of roommates, roommates’ sexual partners, roommates’ friends, roommates’ pets, roommates’ family members, loved or not, roommates’ lover’s homicidal, homophobic brother just out of jail, and roommates’ bill collectors. I was in graduate school and, seeking a modicum of continuity in order to concentrate on my studies, I requested that roommates stay a full academic year. Despite the request, it seemed that I needed to find a new roommate each semester and sometimes even twice a semester. The colors of the walls changed constantly with different color schemes for each room, such that the apartment as a whole resembled a Victorian painted lady. At one point, the shared living room was orange, the kitchen yellow and white with blue wainscoting, the bathroom merlot, and my own room had dappled deep green walls with Chinese red sills. The furniture, mostly mine and mostly thrift store, remained constant.
Boundless are the rules to being a roommate. Whose name goes on the bills (and is thus responsible when not paid)? Will there be a TV in the house or not? (I abhor even the blue static of a TV in another room, so its prohibition was one of the two requirements I had for a roommate.) Pets: reptile? Smoking? Drinking? Shared sexual partners? Incense in the morning? Food restrictions. I have never experienced such an array of restrictions on my diet as when I had the many roommates. Number of dietary accommodations made for roommates: 6. Number of dietary accommodations made by my large gray tomcat for roommates: 2. Through roommates, I was also introduced to recycling, and the pantry flooded and emptied, flooded and emptied.
Roommate Number 4 was a vegan who lied when we met, claiming she was a recycling vegetarian, and then gasped whenever I drank milk. Roommate Number 7 existed on a special, stinky diet of exotic meats, including ostrich and bison because he had a blood disease. Roommate Number 3 insisted that we recycle but left it up to me to haul a pantry full of food-rimmed cans and crushed boxes to the recycling facility at the edge of town when he broke the lease. He kept a landfill in his bedroom, and even my tomcat, who unabashedly opened closed doors with the crow bar of his paw, refused to enter Roommate 3’s room. Roommate Number 9 seemed to subsist on Diet Coke but had renounced coffee for geo-political reasons.
Of all the roommates, Roommate Number 4 was the most influential—as well as the most unpleasant. She waged a ceaseless campaign on the politics behind my diet. Roommate 4 seemed to know the environmental record of every commercial product. She knew that Bon Ami was more environmentally friendly than Comet, that a certain yogurt was not vegetarian because its food coloring was derived from crushed insects. She once emerged from our shared bathroom holding my bottle of L’Oreal nail polish, announcing that she would appreciate it if I kept this company’s products in my bedroom, since in France L’Oreal had been shown to be affiliated with anti-Semitic groups. Even benign items such as honey lost their ethical standing, as she pointed out that honey was actually less ethical in some senses than regular granulated cane sugar since bee keepers exterminated the hives after each season in a sort of bee genocide.
She used interesting products bought in the health food store in the basement of the building with boutiques. Her food tasted better and her skin products smelled better; all of it organic and cruelty-free. She ate things like kale, which she prepared in a cast iron skillet to obtain iron. In every sense, she took excellent care of herself. I was far less cautious with my diet. Although I didn’t eat junk food per se, my annual income of under $9,000 as a graduate student directed me to lower quality bulk products. Even her cat ate better than my tomcat. Her cat exclusively ate Iams [food], while mine, confined to a no-brand menu, would twist his body like a pole-vaulter to negotiate the shelf blocking his way to the delectable Iams.
She was angry at the state of the world and was dramatic about it. She once wrecked a brand-new car, news that stunned me—car-less and penniless—by swerving off-road on the Washington D.C. Beltway in order to avoid a skunk. While I can certainly imagine instinctively slamming on the brakes to avoid an animal, it was hard for me to comprehend that for Roommate 4 her action was a conscious political choice that she proudly raised in conversation. Her anger at the world, however, seeped into our personal space, and often blended with a more self-focused anger at the cards life had dealt her. I once came home to have my telephone—the see-thru kind with all of its organs visible—hurled at a spot on the kitchen wall two inches to one side of my head as I opened the door, because she had had an upsetting conversation with an official at Amtrak. The phone, which I had had since college, didn’t last long after its tossing; its mortality did a Star Six.
The final straw occurred when she burst into my room because the shoulders of her eco-friendly laundry detergent were touching the shoulders of my Tide in the pantry. With shaking hands, I had to ask her to find another living arrangement.
Eight years later and long after the shared lease with Roommate 4, the food on my kitchen counter often resembles that of Roommate 4: organic, cruelty-free, and equal exchange. On my first date with the man I eventually married, recycling was enough of a shared priority in a romantic partner to be featured in our conversation. As an educator for recycling, I reflect on my own confused start toward awareness. It’s not possible to know when—or through what means—a person will change and become more eco-friendly. A person may make changes that they frame as temporary but which may crop up later in their lives and then remain. After all, we are all roommates on this planet. It’s the raft of life, my friend, and we are all on it, no matter how large our apartment.