It happens. People die and their rent checks bounce.
Not because their mortal records, checking accounts and all, are suddenly stricken from existence the moment the voltage overwhelms their hearts, but because they’re generally sloppy with money and that last check was always going to bounce anyway. Not to mention your favorite mug, the one from that college you fell in love with while visiting, but never attended, is currently crusted with foreign tea leaves under the unwashed dishes cluttering the sink—a bright red lower lip imprint at its rim. The same mug you’ve loudly been looking for whenever your roommate was within earshot. Though none of that actually matters now because, well, Jesus… death. Life ended.
So the check, and the mug, and your favorite bottle of wine—which tastes lighter, looks thinner and waterier than before when you hold it up to the light—none of those things are relevant anymore. Death excuses it all, makes you conscious of the forest and not the trees. Et cetera and whathaveyou.
It’s always a loss, this death business. But for your peers, for young people—young people with flawless skin, bright eyes, and even features—a deeper sense of tragedy follows. The-could-have-been of it all. You tell yourself that this self-reflexivity is your version of mourning.
It’s in the liver spots she’ll never get, in her hair that will stay bright auburn and never dull, and in the breast exams she won’t have to learn to keep track of. It’s both the trip to France she won’t half-plan and quarter-enjoy, and the latest episode of her favorite show now buzzing in your TiVo, that she’ll never get caught up on. Small, inconsequential facets of this tragedy that only you will ever know about. It’s not loud or bright, no chest will be clutched or candle lit, but you believe this still counts.
The unopened tub of Nutella, a pink “NOT FOR SHARING!!!” Post-It stuck to its side, feels heavier in your hand somehow. That’s it, you realize. The difference between what it weighs now and what it weighed when hastily picked up from the corner market shelf a month ago when she last did the groceries; that’s the exact weight of this tragedy.
~ ~ ~
If someone’s life was to be assessed in the ripples generated by their sudden plucking from the world, you think hers would be a three—three ripples. Important but localized; irreplaceable only to those who already loved her. Family, obviously, and close friends, no more than four or five of those, and then immediate co-workers—those who saw her face every day. And only if she was chatty, made herself known, which you suspect, on account of her chattiness at home.
The roommate, the cohabitant, ought to be next in line for grieving. You were the last person she saw on most days. You knew her smells. Her hair still lingers on your cushions and feels familiar between your fingers. You could mechanically answer intimate questions about grooming habits, eating habits, and toilet habits. Yet for all of this intimacy, the ripples stop dead with you. There is no grief here.
On the phone, her Grieving Mother sobs. There are wet pauses, tangents, mentions of generic traits you find yourself nodding along to without having ever yourself witnessed. She was unafraid as a child and had ridden horses at an early age. Sure. Even when her cousins were too afraid, content with feeding the huge beasts, she herself hadn’t been frightened. She was eager to ride on the very first class, and this impressed the teacher. She was just that kind of girl, full of life. “That sounds like her,” you say, nodding.
When you feel like it’s your turn to drive the conversation, you aim to say something uplifting, something that’ll bring her peace, comfort, if only so she remembers you fondly. You share a saying from a grandmother that you invent on the spot. “Death is its own graduation,” you say. “You throw your hat in the air and it just keeps floating upward, like a feather going back where it belongs and taking you with it.”
She hums across the line, confused but wanting to capture the meaning underneath. You always stumble under pressure. The rest of the thought takes shape in your mind but crumbles in your mouth and all you’re left with is the sucking of air between your teeth, which you hope will come off as a sob. “She was so kind,” the grieving woman says. “She was,” you agree. “We were like sisters.”
She lists all the things she has to do for the funeral. She says the state will ship the remains. It’s a reverent word. Remains. What does remain now, you wonder, of her even features, striking eyes, and shiny hair? She invites you to the funeral, of course, but it’s a long way to Minnesota and there’s no obligation, really. You say you’ll check in with work and let her know as soon as you can. You hang up with a “God bless.” And why not? He just might.
All in all, you believe you’ve played your part well in this exchange between Grieving Mother and Unknown Roommate. You didn’t mention anything about her daughter’s bounced rent check. It would have been cold, and you didn’t want her to think her daughter died living with a heartless person. You’ll dig into your savings like you would have had to anyway. It’s your own way of suppressing the image of your roommate’s pulpy viscera spread across the subway tracks, mopped up by weary city workers in the night. You wish you could cry, that the impulse was even there. You want the ripples, you realize.
~ ~ ~
You use two of your Sick Days at work and plan to spend them sleeping, processing. An acquaintance of The Pretty Roommate stops by, waking you in the process. It’s already dark outside and, slim as the chances were, you had hoped to sleep right through the afternoon, night, and most of the next day as well. The voice across the intercom is male and rings uncertain, optimistic, and eager all at once. It’s almost offensive; too much for you in your sluggish state. Eight p.m. on Thursday. A date probably. A date she would have met downstairs in the lobby, as was standard pre-mortem practice. You never met her guys.
You knew the ring of their voices only by way of the hushed whispers and late night giggles that came through your closed door. Occasionally, these would accompany the tinkering of dishes, uncorking of beers, one then another, and the low hum of the microwave.
“She’s dead,” you say. After a beat, the man’s voice garbles at the other end of the line, confused by what you believe to be a very simple statement. You picture him downstairs, wearing a stylish pea coat and scarf—generic but elegant in the winter chill. A touch above the occasional plastic parkas and Mets caps that litter your own romantic history. He’s travelled by subway—maybe even the fateful R train—but from here they would have taken a cab to the restaurant, and something in her eyes would have glittered at the disposable income in his hail.
“It’s Richie. From the site?” the voice insists. The inflection of his voice makes you want to squash this coiffed, peacoated man from five floors up, spit on his head as he backs away dejected.
“She’s fucking dead. Don’t come back here!” you enunciate, louder, clearer. You want to sleep some more, unbothered with putting on displays of false grief. You need your rest. Your roommate is dead—it’s a very trying time for you. The buzzer whines some more as you walk away, and only with the covers over your head does the noise eventually stop. A man too easily rattled by rejection, you think.
You try to fall back asleep, imagining her sounds coming from the kitchen. The weight of her socked steps or the clacking of her heels, the order in which she went from right-hand pantry, left-hand pantry, fridge, and microwave. Maybe this is your grief, you think. Or maybe it’s just the smell of these unfamiliar sheets, playing with your brain.
~ ~ ~
She might have been a smoker, you think the next morning, reading a magazine that does not interest you, still sprawled on this bed that does not smell like you but now belongs to you. Or maybe the man you heard sneak out into the hallway four nights before the incident was the smoker. Maybe it’s his ashy scent now clinging to your skin. You think about ashes and look up state crematories. In any case, that box of nicotine patches you’d come across in the medicine cabinet now seems like a cruel joke. ‘Smoke up, girlfriend’ you want to say to her.
Between the sobbing and the awkwardness, her Grieving Mother had said, “I’d really appreciate if you could maybe box and ship us her things? We don’t care about the furniture. But anything you can. Please. We’ll mail you a blank check for the expenses.” She spoke in the plural, making it sound as though there was an entire estate out there in Minnesota waiting to go through The Pretty Roommate’s trinkets with shaky hands, eager to share anecdotes and imagine the last time this or that outfit was worn in the city. The Grieving Mother’s grief had focus to it; you admired that.
You think The Pretty Roommate would have liked her death had she read an article about it, or seen a news segment covering the ditzy young woman who fell onto the subway track while peering down the tunnel to see if the train was coming, and who, after dusting herself off, embarrassed and presumably distracted by the various substances now staining her coat, had accidentally stepped on that fateful third rail—the one you absolutely must stay clear of as the stories go. Oh, yes. She would have laughed that delightful laugh of hers reading about the improbable death of a girl so airheaded that she managed to do herself in twice: first electrocuted, then pulverized by the oncoming train, which was actually running on time.
Or she might have sighed, solemnly shook her head, and given you that scrunch face, her Midwestern sensibilities wounded by your callousness. Who knows what her moral line was; she was a roommate, not a friend. And although it had taken you four years in the city to grasp it, you knew the distinction by now.
Friendships were things built on the progressive breaking of boundaries. Kisses on the cheek, hugs, arms around the shoulders. The borrowing of a stick of gum, then clothes, then lipstick. ‘Roommates’ however, was a status that defined itself in the exact opposite manner, in the irrigation of limits.
‘Could you not do that?’ The Quiet Roommate from two years ago, about turning the radio on while you cooked.
‘I’m going to need you to maybe keep that in your room. Allergies,’ the Julliard Roommate, here for a year, regarding your fuzzy orange blanket thrown over the couch.
‘You should still go sleep in your room. I really don’t want to complicate things.’ The Boy Roommate, your head on his pillow.
It was geometric cohabitation you realized, nothing more. They rented their room, half of the kitchen cabinets and alternate usage of the bathroom alongside the transversal that was the hallway. A third of the living room also went to them—a third only because most of your furniture was already in place and you didn’t mind sharing your electronics. This was a concession that, two bags at her feet, and one blue milk crate of toiletries in hand, The Pretty Roommate hadn’t minded. ‘It’s a relief actually. My last living room was literally just a mattress in the corner,’ she’d said upon moving in. ‘Maybe we can have movie nights or something.’
~ ~ ~
The Pretty Roommate is also not the name you would have picked for this one.
The ‘Fresh-Off-The-Greyhound Roommate’ was your first thought, upon meeting her at the corner deli after a few e-mails in response to your Craigslist ad. The Effortfully Beautiful Roommate, maybe. The Girlie Roommate and The Olympic Dater Roommate were also early contenders. These names were usually signatures that only revealed in due time, as things were ending.
But the world saved you the trouble of having to wait this one out. You stepped out of the shower that one morning, curls wet and legs unshaved as you were already running late for work. You’d found Carlos, the building’s super, in your living room, along with an associate whose face you recognized, but whose name you didn’t know, both sweating at the neck and speaking animated Spanish. Your couch was pushed into a corner, exposing the screeching thermostat that had been sending bursts of rusty dust into the air for days, which stung your eyes when you walked into the living room. Carlos was trustworthy, friendly even, but also walked around in full awareness of the access the set of keys dangling at his gut granted him.
“Ah, miss! We thought we would get to it today, yeah?” Carlos had said looking away in an assumed shame that his partner didn’t bother mimicking. That it was fine so long as they put the couch back when they were done was all you’d managed to say before withdrawing to your room. From the corner of your eye, you’d seen the man make a face.
“It’s not for her. It’s the other one, the pretty roommate. This one, I don’t even know. She never smiles,” said Carlos. Like that, ownership of the space you had brought her into had shifted to the more pleasant shape of her face, and the thicker hips she used to rest her hands on. You, the Strong Chin and Weak-Nosed roommate. Her, the Pretty Roommate.
~ ~ ~
Away from the sheets, the space smells like any other unkempt bedroom. There is no warmth to the desk chair, no lingering aroma to be romanticized. On the small Swedish-made and floor-assembled desk, is her laptop, which tells you that it hasn’t been turned off in sixty-seven days, twenty-two hours, and nine minutes. It was the last thing you had seen her touch in the room, coming back one last time, coat on and scarf tied, dragging thin wet lines of sidewalk snow into the hallway to check alternative routes, her usual train shut down for the weekend for repairs. Her browser opens to its home page, some blog called Things Organized Neatly.
You recognize it, having often glimpsed the passing sight of her in curlers and sweats, cocooned in front of the bright screen, seemingly mesmerized by the sight of these household items positioned neatly and photographed artfully—occupying the exact space they were meant to and not an inch more.
Something about it must have soothed the disorder—yes, disorder you would say—of her own life. The clear disappointment of having been in the city for months now and not yet fallen in love or met those lifelong friends she was promised on Sex in the City. The fact that her roommate was not a partner in crime, but merely a presence, off-putting and judgmental, who stayed in and kept to herself. Every morning and every night, The Pretty Roommate sat at that desk, putting on her coat and scarf. You understand the ritual, having witnessed it enough times through her open door to badly mimic it and browse the pictures for a few minutes, hoping to tap into something, but ultimately failing.
Her email is still open. Twelve unread emails. Somehow, you expected more. You draft a letter, a note really, informing all acquaintances of the passing, creating ripples elsewhere, maybe even a few tidal waves. You believe your two paragraphs to be long enough for a devastated roommate, a friend unsure of the boundaries of propriety. You try to finish on a sincere, if not borrowed note.
The girl I knew found beauty in simple things. She lived unencumbered and unafraid.
One particular piece of correspondence, 11:28 pm the previous night, catches your eye. Subject line: “RIP”, I guess.
What happened? You didn’t have to pretend to be someone else. Coulda just cancelled.
COMPLETE MISUNDERSTANDING you swiftly type, offering seven exclamation points. What comes after is more impulse than logic. The lengthy reply writes itself and after hitting ‘send’, you also change her password, preferring numbers to words. 19852014. A tribute of sorts. It’s easier this way, you believe: just streams of data and numeric interacting in cyberspace.
~ ~ ~
Very early on, you had concluded that she was of a more reckless breed than you could like. The type that lived their lives like a performance for an audience that was not there. The one time you had tried to bond over drinks at a bar down the block, she had complained about the atmosphere—low-key by midtown standards, perfect for conversation—and proceeded to get drunker than necessary. Eventually, she’d garnered the interest of two suited men, one table over. One spent the night with his hand on your knee, and the handsomer one had taken The Pretty Roommate home to his place in Morningside Heights, playing up the fact that he could afford a one bedroom in the city. They had been in their late thirties at least, but she only referred to them as “those boys,” for weeks on end. We should go out again. We had so much fun!
After that night, you lived mathematical, parallel lives, and mostly only interacted when you bumped into each other in the kitchen, or as she would get ready for her dates in the living room, using the floor-length mirror she’d found in the building’s laundry room, but that she had no space for in her own bedroom.
My clothes would look so much better on me if I had your body, she’d once said, pressing and pushing at the sides of her midriff in front of the cracked glass. Like, I see them in magazines, online, on girls in the streets and I think, yes, that right there, that’s my palette. I see it so clearly, y’know. But then when I put them on, it’s all wrong. And it’s not just the size. Even when they fit, they don’t fit, y’know? It’s a concession. These amazing clothes lose something when I put them on. It’s like, fine, I’m an eight tonight, but the dress is a perfect ten, so really, doesn’t that make me a negative? Does that make any sense? She held her hair up with one hand and turned back to you expectantly. You shrugged, said nothing as you returned to your room. In bed, you felt guilty. Why could you not bond with her? Was lack of compatibility really a transgression to be punished?
~ ~ ~
Her makeup feels lighter on your face than your own and you’ve taken note of the brand.
You order what you think she would have ordered—a small salad, flavor on the side—hoping it will be enough to remove the processed aftertaste of the Nutella you had while getting ready. He smiles and says something about girls always ordering salads on dates, but doesn’t suggest an acceptable substitute meal before moving on to talking about his work, something on the low-end of the finance spectrum. He isn’t rich, but sees himself getting there.
She liked salad, going by her side of the fridge. Lettuce, kale, greens of any kind: foods she could enjoy without counting. She read labels carefully and you knew which food items belonged to her in the pantry because she kept their packages facing inwards, nutritional factoids then available for her perusal. ‘That’s three of this,’ she would say about your breakfast, holding up a bowl of gruel when you pulled a Pop Tart out of the microwave. But, who knows, maybe that was her being friendly. There was only hindsight now.
“I was worried I had screwed it up before you even saw me!” he laughs. The sleeves of his peacoat, grey, hang off the sides of his chair.
“That’s my roommate,” you say. “She’s a complete freak.”
“But that you were dead though? That’s pretty morbid,” he says.
You repeat yourself, weighing the words. A complete freak.
“I have to admit, I already was pretty nervous about meeting you in the first place,” he continues, throwing a perplexed glance your way that you try your best to smile through. “Not a lot of people do the whole blind date thing these days. A picture doesn’t really show anything, y’know? Why don’t you video chat, by the way?”
You know the answer to this.
You had brought the ironing table to the living room, and was greeted by the spectacle of The Pretty Roommate giggling and flirting with a blurry guy somewhere across the city, a hand teasingly glued to her laptop’s camera, occasionally removing it at lightning speed before he could get a look. Why don’t you just have a regular conversation with him? you had asked her, just the once. Oh, I hate that angle, she had said, looking scandalized by the very notion. The camera is right up your nose. It widens the jawline. During that exchange, she talked more slowly and with an audible stupidity, every other syllable inflected upward, ringing.
“I prefer to go by real life chemistry,” you smile at him. “I want a real connection.”
Your salad arrives shortly after. Your water is topped off, and his has to be completely refilled. You wonder if he gets this thirsty on every first date or if it’s talking to you that is so parching.
“Plus, I hate the angle of the camera,” you say as the waiter walks off. “It’s right up your nose.”
He laughs at this, and his shoulders appear to loosen. “I’ll raise you one,” he says proceeding to tell you the story of a video interview he had in which the Senior Vice Something had a dangling booger in his right nostril throughout the entire conversation. You laugh. You laugh again when a woman accidentally knocks a waiter’s tray. When he mimics a coworker. Your face hurts. He doesn’t ask any questions about the haircut you said you’d just gotten. Or mention that your nose seems bigger than the picture he saw. It was a good angle, he must tell himself. People put their best foot forward online. Why ruin a good evening by asking too many questions? Maybe he lied about his own picture, you think. It might have belonged to his own roommate, now lying dead in an alley somewhere.
~ ~ ~
You fumble with your keys and then shush him when he chuckles at your nervousness.
“Is your roommate around?” he asks.
“I don’t know. Probably,” you whisper loudly. “She never goes out.”
You kiss against the wall by her bedroom. You haven’t slept in yours in days now. You keep your back arched and your knee high, your heel resting on an electrical socket. You think it looks better this way; at this angle he can enjoy how skinny you are. His lips occasionally detach and linger above yours. He doesn’t smell the death, doesn’t pull you off in a frown, sensing something wrong.
You turn the doorknob behind you, and back into the dark, like you imagine she does, kicking off her heels one after the other. You feel the dead cells of clipped toenails dig into your feet as you step onto the shaggy pink carpet at the foot of the still unmade bed.
“I’m a mess,” you say, excusing the chaos you’ve made of this room. It smells like you don’t even know what. He says he likes your mess. He liked your dress, liked your eyes, liked the neighborhood and liked your living room; of course he likes your untidiness too. He seems to like your neck also. You wonder if you are better than she would have been and then realize the pointlessness of those questions that will never be answered.
I love you, you suddenly want to shout. I love you so much that I hope you never leave. You imagine him impregnating you right then and there. We’ll name him Cedric. You’ll hold my hand in the delivery room. Afterwards, I’ll take Pilates, do the Kegel work, and two months later, we’ll be right back here, all because we love each other so damn much!
The Pretty Roommate might have had issues.
Just like she might have deserved the thrill of saying ‘I love you’ one more time from beyond the grave as opposed to simply hearing it through the sobs of family and friends she already knew loved her. Her ripples would continue if you did that. He’d tell the story for years to come. But you say none of these things, of course. You bite your lip against his and even in the dark you can tell that he takes it as a compliment. He comes in sputters, repeating her name a few times, filling each syllable with however much intensity he thinks she deserves. To your ears it sounds only like a moderate amount. You come. Ish. There’s pleasure somewhere in your middle, by the pancreas, over the intestines.
Afterwards, he caresses your back, looking at you like a puzzle that’s just been solved. “You didn’t have to use someone else’s picture,” he whispers. The lamp has been turned on and there’s now dead air to be filled. He gets up and slips on his underwear as he continues. “No really, you’re gorgeous, babe.” Under the light, you now see pudge amassing in his folds as he brings his foot up to the side of the bed to put on his socks.
“Thanks,” you say, wondering what he would do if you told him he had just slept with a dead girl. “You should go.” You nod towards the door. “The roommate’s a real bitch about overnight guests.”
“That’s the worst,” he says, now buttoning his shirt. “Mine’s all right.”
“Sure, he’s a bartender downtown. We hang out. We could check out his bar,” he says and then stops with a frown, catching up to his words. “Well, I’m out of town next weekend.”
“It’s okay,” you say. “Don’t worry about it. I had a good time.” You’re not a pillow sharer anyway.
“Me too,” he smiles. Relief makes people smile.
He kisses your cheek and disappears into the hallway, breaking into a mischievous grin when he turns back and finds you wide eyed with a finger at your lips in a way that says quieter still, my roommate is fucking insane, remember. He closes the door behind him and you lean back into your dirty sheets, stare at the ceiling, and listen to him tiptoe down the hallway, shoes in hand.
You hear the bathroom door open, the toilet lid rise, a weak, though steady stream followed by a toilet flush. The water runs, but there’s no interruption or weight under it, nothing rinsed. Eventually the front door closes, and this man that death had stood up has slipped out into the night with unwashed hands. You can’t sleep after that. There’s a filled condom in the garbage can a few feet away from you that needs immediate clearing. What this room smells like, you finally understand, isn’t her or you or sex or Nutella. It’s dirty, the exact fragrance of the thing. The sheets are rank, stained all over, and damp to the touch. You’ll wash them and they’ll get rank again, of course.
You brew some tea, enough for two, with half probably going to waste. You start look for boxes and packing tape. You quickly decide on what to send and what to keep. Anything that could belong to any girl anywhere but still holds an air of individuality, of essence, send. Your jewelry box and most of its content. A few teddy bears. A bathrobe. You strip your former room bare and close the door. Your next ad will say that you’re looking for someone adjusted, open. Not just a roommate, but a friend. A girl who will playfully rap at your door after nights like these and plop herself on your bed, asking for all the details. That will be a nice change.
Ben Philippe is a New York-based writer whose Culture coverage can regularly be read on Thrillist Entertainment, Esquire, BuzFeed, Vox, and others. He is also an MFA graduate of the Michener Center for Writers.