I couldn’t decide if my first college roommate was Mexican or Middle Eastern, and I
needed to figure it out quick because she was standing in front of me, a slim, black-clad
figure with 1-inch buttons dotting her messenger bag strap like a bandolier. My money
was on Mexican and she was, but taller and darker than I expected. Later she would
laugh and say she was mistaken for a different race, sometimes Indian, and I felt slightly
less like a relies-on-physical-stereotypes asshole. I realized I had never seen a photo of
her, even though I had been reading her Livejournal for months.
And then we lived together for a school year in a small dorm overlooking Sheridan
Road, about halfway between the Loyola and Granville Red Line stops. It was a rough
year for both of us, but in some ways we were lucky. There weren’t a lot of girls like us
in Simpson. There weren’t a lot of guys like us either. We had written down “comics”
and “music” as interests on our housing preferences form. We had written down “nerds”
in invisible ink, and the great wheel of roommate matching was ever in our favor.
Comics and cartoons brought us together. We were both kind of gothy (this would fade
somewhat with time, as it often does post-high school), and bonded over a love of
Jhonen Vasquez and Roman Dirge. I lent her Sandman trades, she introduced me to
Invader Zim. We watched a lot of Invader Zim. Other favorites included Clone High and
the occasional anime, all from her laptop screen. We could watch this way because we
bunked the beds almost immediately, craning our necks slightly to laugh at awkward
teen Joan of Arc bumbling in front of equally inept teen Abe Lincoln.
She had a boyfriend. He was tall and quiet and Polish. He was nice. I felt bad when they
broke up, even though his veganism annoyed me and I wasn’t super into his band.
Years later I ran into him on the train, and we had five minutes of mildly excruciating
small talk before fleeing to our tech jobs.
Music was trickier. I listened to a lot of Top 40, goth, and industrial. She listened to
bands with names like Bright Eyes, Death Cab for Cutie, and Small Brown Bike. She
talked about some guy called Steve Albini a lot, how he really wasn’t that big of a jerk. I nodded. She was speaking crazy moon language as far as I was concerned. But I was curious. She was an intern at MP Shows, and would sometimes take me along as her plus one. I’d never really been into music in high school. I’d seen maybe three or four live shows. I hadn’t realized how
much was out there beyond the radio, and how wonderful it could be.
Not everything was good. She was hard to live in some ways. She was kind of a slob.
Her eating habits were appalling: she was really into Doritos, hard-boiled eggs, and
adding packets of sugar to Minute Maid apple juice, then wondered why she was
gaining weight. She was snobby about music and made me feel stupid sometimes,
which to be fair wasn’t hard. I prickled with embarrassment when she exasperatedly
corrected me that no, her name isn’t actually Rilo Kiley, that’s not the singer’s real
name. She listened to music at 4am without headphones. She ate my Reduced Fat Cheez-Its, then complained about the taste (too much cheese, not enough it).
I was hard to live with in some ways. I drank a lot. I put whatever I could in my mouth, down my throat, or up my nose and didn’t care that the person I lived with might not want to deal with me in a chemical state, or the inevitable crash. I was uptight and terrified, with a side of self-righteous that I can only imagine came off annoying and naive even if I was right, and I wasn’t always right. I was oversensitive and high-strung, sobbing inconsolably if I got a B on a test. When she did something that pissed me off I stewed silently for days until lashing out, scalding the room with bursts of anger that probably appeared to come out of nowhere.
We didn’t speak much after the beds were debunked and our things were packed away.
We didn’t discuss living together. I think we both knew it wasn’t on the table.
But then, maybe about a year later, we began to talk again. At first it was through
Livejournal, that late 90s/early 2000s medium that gave us our first preview of each
other. We moved to email and text, and eventually became friends again, staying in
touch through apartments and boyfriends and jobs. We never lived together again. Our
friendship waxed and waned, but persisted.
A few weeks ago we got together for dinner. Over giant plates of bi bim bap, we talked
about what we were doing. It was mostly about work, a little bit about dudes, and it
continued while she waited with me for the Damen bus. As I rode home, I thought about
how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go – what we have locked down and
what we’re still figuring out. I thought about more than a decade ago when she logged
into hardcore forums under her boyfriend’s name and posted stuff about girls, and how
hard we laughed at the douche responses.
I don’t have a lot of long-term friendships. I’ve moved around, cut ties, drifted away. I
can count the college friends I talk to semi-regularly on one hand. We will never hang
out as much as we did that year, forced into proximity and closeness by a random
lottery. Now we choose to be in the same space, which doesn’t happen often. But it
does happen. And we continue.