On Roommate Living

Since I went to college at age 18, I’ve had a total of 16 roommates. I recently moved into an apartment where I live alone, and it is a completely different experience. Radically different, in fact. I’m not used to home being a place where I am alone, and I’m slowly absorbing that reality.

My reality for 33 years has been communal living, first with my parents, then siblings, then a series of college roommates, a French host family and two other foreign exchange students, and another, longer series of roommates. Until now. Now, my kitchen is clean, my television is as loud as I want it, and since I moved in two weeks ago, I’ve filled only one and a half trash bags, which is shocking! My furniture and decorations are where I decided they should go, and there are no shoes to trip over on the floor. That is all nice, but there’s just something about living alone that is deeply disconcerting to me after being around others day and night my entire life. It is an entirely different way of living, one that I don’t think I care for just yet.

Not that I haven’t had my share of sad, scary, annoying, maddening, and disturbing communal living experiences. Two separate roommates have attempted suicide while I was home, and I had to take a knife out of one of their hands. I’ve driven two roommates in great pain to the hospital with kidney stones and stayed with them while they were treated. I laid in bed in the dark with one after she had her heart broken and witnessed her profound sadness, disappointment, and tears. As a professional with regular work hours, I laid in bed awake night after night hearing one student-roommate’s annoying cackle at late-night TV through the vents, exhausted when morning came all too early. I lived with a girl who loved Al Gore and listened to her cry herself to sleep the night he “lost” the election. One roommate (one of my favorites, in the long run, actually) hated my little pet water turtles and would remove things of mine from the apartment and simply put them on my bed when she decided she didn’t want them around anymore. She also threw away my mother’s antique blue mixing bowl because the guacamole in it had turned brown from oxidation on top. Another roommate nearly ruined my cast-iron skillet by dishwashing it. Freshman year in college, I actually heard my roommate utter the phrase, “Can he stay the night, Janie? He’ll keep his pants on.” I also had to talk to her boyfriend (not the one with his pants on) over the phone and receive coaching on how to tell if she was overdosing or not. That was the same year as the night the paramedics came to take one of the suicidal ones to the ER while we were all in the suite trying to study for our first round of college finals. I had a roommate move out with 24 hours’ notice, withdrawing her financial responsibility for the cable and Internet and leaving me in a very suddenly-quiet house alone for a month until I could find another place to live. I lived with one girl who was simultaneously planning a wedding in another state and watching her father slowly waste away from ALS; she was taking protein supplements to keep the anxiety from dropping her to an unhealthy weight.

But I also shared beautiful moments with people, like the morning after one Valentine’s Day, when my roommate excitedly told me about being proposed to the night before in front of her whole family, and she showed off her beautiful ring. I got to witness the day another roommate decided to put her whole heart into the relationship with the man who would become her husband and father to her two amazing children. I’ve eaten food roommates brought me when I was too sick to make it for myself, and sometimes we would share food and meals together just because. I bonded with two of the sweetest dogs on earth and got to enjoy doggie parenthood without all the work and commitment. In college, I had three suitemates every year, and there was always someone to walk to the dining hall with, always someone to keep me company in the wee hours of the morning while I was up studying, always someone to borrow some Ramen noodles from when I was hungry. I helped girls hurriedly do their hair minutes before a date arrived. My French host mother stood at the helm of a huge, amazing family, and I got to experience an entirely different yet very similar existence on another continent, one that included aperitifs and fish served whole, with their heads on. One roommate had a son who lived with us about half the time, and witnessing someone’s childhood unfolding from inside their home was an amazing experience. Sharing living expenses my whole life has been a very big deal, one that allowed me to avoid working in a restaurant to make more money at the expense of spending time networking and building my career carefully, block by block.

I have not been the perfect roommate to any of them, I will be the first to admit. I’m sure I can be pretty annoying myself. But as annoying as they have been, and as wonderful as they have been, I learned things about the world and about life’s wide experience bank right in my own home that I might not have come to on my own. I learned from an African missionary how to fry plantains (and how to boil water without fear, for that matter – that was a big hurdle and turning point for me), how Jiffy pop worked (you mean you can cook popcorn without a microwave??), and how to treat people with the grace they always deserve, no matter how they are acting. I learned from my French host mother that is is possible for a single mother to simultaneously (take a breath…) raise five children, host three exchange students at a time, cook brilliant meals for a variety of taste palettes, teach weekly pottery-making classes at the dining room table, reupholster furniture on the living room table during the week while wearing heels and pearls, keep a very chaotic household clean and running, and teach me French, all at the same time; the woman was indefatigable AND stylish, and I aim to be even just an eighth of the woman she is. I learned what it’s like to be shunned by your family when your life has just fallen apart, just so they can prove a point. I learned what it’s like to break up with a man you don’t love even though he’s the heir to one of the largest diamond fortunes in the world. I learned what it’s like to reinvent yourself (successfully!) after moving across the country with only what will fit in your car. I learned what the real face of depression looks like, not just the poker face. I learned what kinds of things (and wise investments) money can buy when you make a large salary straight out of the college gate. I learned how comforting it feels to have a toiletry stockpile as an adult to guard against the feelings of lack you experienced as the child of a poor, single, working mother.

I’m so thankful for every one of my 16 roommates, for the good, the very bad, and the in-between, because they helped inform who I have become. I truly don’t think I would have such a wide worldview today without any of them. People keep telling me to enjoy the quiet while I can, to embrace living alone, to make my small space my own homey haven. And I’m trying. But “my own” is made up of echoes of all these people, all these experiences, and that’s a lot to fit into 644 square feet.