My Craigslist write-up was sprinkled with the usual hooks: Female professional, early thirties, seeks temporary roommate. In the heart of the West Village, this beautiful pre-war apartment is fully renovated with high ceilings, exposed brick walls, and incredible light and views!
When my husband, Niklas, proofed the ad, he burst out laughing. “Early 30s?” he said. “What’s that about?”
“A few years ago I was in my early 30s,” I said. He still questioned whether the white lie was necessary. But a friend told me that in order to get a good roommate past the age of 35, you simply had to lie. Like online dating.
I don’t care about age, I explained to Niklas, but sadly, not everyone is as open-minded as I am and we are living in a world of ageism directed specifically toward women. Niklas had never lived in New York. It was four months before he could join me in our two-bedroom railroad, which is why I needed the temporary roommate in the first place. “This is the big city, baby,” I said. “And you’re going to have to buck up and learn to play the game to get ahead in this town, let me tell you.”
Only in New York City is having a roommate well into adulthood socially acceptable; in other cities it’s just plain creepy. After having my own small place for eight years in the East Village of Manhattan, I wasn’t excited by the prospect of sharing my space with someone who was not also sharing my bed. But it was a financial necessity.
I found a roommate without much trouble. She was 33 “too,” so we had a lot in common. An attractive, friendly Colombian who had a good job and a strong social network, Maria seemed like an ideal roommate. Over 6 feet tall in heels, she was a powerful woman who worked for a nonprofit AIDs awareness organization and was always attending charity and cultural events. Yet she radiated warm energy and had a new-agey, Zen-like positive outlook.
The problem wasn’t her. It was me. Living alone I felt perfectly happy and considered my lifestyle healthy and fulfilling, but her presence in my apartment made me see my life in a whole new way.
The amount of television I watch: too much? The shows I choose: too stupid? During the week, if it’s past 8 o'clock, I can be found in the same position on the sagging sofa, flipping between the Kardashians, Access Hollywood, and teenage moms on MTV. I was mortified she might catch me watching “The Bachelor” on Monday nights. But it was even more embarrassing when she came home from work to find me watching “Bachelor Pad,” a sub-par spinoff of a sub-par show.
So I decided to go out more. Get some culture. Get a life. Have a drink. But then I started worrying about how much I imbibe. It might be OK to live alone, stumble home and wildly scatter the contents of your purse all over the floor while digging for a lighter; it’s not OK to perform that inebriated dance in front of a roommate. It’s not OK to strip off your clothes item by item from the bathroom to the living room floor on your way to falling into bed.
And there was the exhausting task of being nice all the time. I don’t know when I got so ornery, but for me these little pleasantries took a real effort. I wasn’t used to sharing. I wasn’t used to smiling. And I wasn’t used to small talk.
Although talking to myself, apparently, I did all the time, even with her around. “Stupid machine,” I said to my computer. “Mmmm, delicious,” I said to my dinner. I tried to stay conscious of it, but I wouldn’t catch myself until after it had already escaped.
Recently she took the week off from work and I sighed unnaturally loudly and often during the day. It didn’t help that I was plagued by an extra slow week in the freelance front, and I could just feel her thinking, “What does this chick do all day?”
It’s the economy, stupid, I wanted to say to defend myself. And so I started to contact Niklas to complain, but then felt guilty about the hours a day I spent online video-chatting with him, so I'd sent a quick text instead: “She’s cramping my style.”
It wasn’t like living with a good friend, or a boyfriend, whose quirks and routines become familiar and charming. I didn’t even know what boundaries were acceptable. Can one, say, take a Q-tip from a full package sitting out in the open on a bathroom shelf? Certainly. Can one use the other’s umbrella in a flash flood if it’s returned within a few hours, when the other isn’t even home? Perhaps. Can one borrow a piece of Tupperware without asking in an emergency when on one’s way to a dinner party? Apparently not.
About an hour into the dinner party, I got a text. “Have u seen my Tupperware w/ green lid?”
“Took it to dinner party down street cuz running late and couldn’t find another. Will bring back later or u need now?”
“Just clean thoroughly because that’s what I use 2 put my raw organic foods in.”
Oops, I used it for the gravy.
I was too old to spend two hours stressing over a damn piece of Tupperware, yet I spent 15 more minutes scrubbing it in nearly boiling water.
Recently she asked me, via Post-it note, not to open and close her window, even though it’s the only way to let light and air into the apartment since we have a railroad and I gave her the room with a view. Now, I was expected to live and work out of my own apartment without a single beam of natural light, rebreathing the same recycled, stagnant air without proper ventilation?
Things could have been worse. Well-balanced and well-dressed, she was usually friendly. She was down-to-earth and had a healthy lifestyle. She called me “hon” and “sweetie.” She was responsible, considerate and kept the common areas clean.
When I first passed through her room to put mail on her desk, I couldn’t help noticing a number of feminine products scattered around her cluttered room. Massengill and Summer’s Eve — hygienic ointments that I thought went out of fashion with my grandma’s generation. I wasn’t snooping, because they were impossible to miss, lying all over the place: one by the modem, one on the dresser, one by the window, three, four, five of them in plain sight. Maybe Little Miss Perfect’s not so perfect after all, I thought. There were brands I didn’t know existed: Skintimates shaving cream. Kotex Feminine Deodorant Spray, Vagiscrub. This, along with a family pack of baby wipes. I wondered how she could put only healthy, organic foods in one end and all of these synthetic products in the other?
But the thing about roommate embarrassment is that it goes both ways: I wasn’t the only one with issues here. Or maybe neither of us had issues, just your average human weirdness that had to be gently tolerated.
There are no secrets when living with someone. I came clean about my age eventually. She admitted to eating my pasta when she raided the refrigerator after a long night out. And last week we both found ourselves hung over — she skipping work and me having none — bonding over really bad daytime TV.