“I’d like not to see you again,” I told Marcy. She laughed and continued washing dishes she then loaded into the dishwasher. “Did you hear me?” Sucking at my grape gum, and concentrating on the swirling of my saliva around the gum and the smell of the sugared-up grape and the sound of the chewing inside my head (I could only hear it because I always chewed with my mouth closed), I opened my eyes wide and glared. I feared my glare would be wasted because her back was turned to me, but luckily Marcy turned around just as I was in mid-glare.
“I don’t like living together. I find you too cheerful,” I said without smiling. I liked to laugh, but this time I was humorless and ready for business. “I think you’re a nice person, but I don’t want to see you again.”
“Too bad,” she said in her insensitive way. She was lucky in that nothing much penetrated her skin. She kept everything she had on the outside of her skin like body makeup she could just wash off at night. Nothing stained her and nothing seeped into her skin with permanence. “We have a lease that I’m on with you, and you’d have to find another roommate, and I’d have to agree to move out.”
“That’s what I’m asking—for you to agree to move out,” I said. You’d be surprised how comfortable I was with this exchange, and even how good it felt. I enjoyed fighting it out once my passive aggressive default mode was pushed past its limit. I tended to erupt in such anger at that point that I needed the catharsis of a good fight. I even sometimes picked fights with strangers on the street. Most of those strangers were a lot bigger and nastier than me, too. I hit the jackpot in that none of them had yet raised a hand (or foot) to me.
I disliked a lot of the things Marcy was guilty of, like whistling, which happens to be one of the public offenses I’ve fought over with strangers. There were these Cheese Whiz looking Midwesterners in town for the Thanksgiving Parade lumped in a sidewalk-tromping group with my mother and I. And the man was whistling that annoying non-harmony that people usually tend to whistle in varied, unmelodic tones. I didn’t know where it was coming from, so I said loudly, meaning to be overheard, “Who’s whistling? I keep hearing whistling coming from somewhere. Who’s whistling?” Just then a big, burly corn-fed looking man, blond, and his also big and burly, also blond, wife or girlfriend strolled past and the man said, “I’m the one whistling.” “Well, it’s bothering me,” I said. “Too bad,” he responded. Of course I couldn’t leave it at that. So: “You’re very rude.” “Thank you,” he said, and then turning to his wife or girlfriend: “Did you hear that? She thinks it’s rude that I was whistling?” “Oh, that’s funny,” the wife or girlfriend said. What I wanted to say looking back on the exchange, but didn’t think of at the time, and would have been dumb to say anyway is: “Go back to your cheese.” They looked like the kind of people who put cheese on everything. They probably thought I was a New York snob, though I didn’t actually have enough money or any connections (not even one) to be considered a snob.
I bring this up because I told Marcy this story to hint to her how much I hate her whistling, and she took the side of the cheese-born couple. “Those are just your crazy rules. Anybody is free to whistle on the sidewalk.”
Another thing that bothered me about Marcy was she had enough energy to clean properly. I was obsessive compulsive, but about troubling thoughts—like picturing bumblebees or car wrecks. Marcy, on the other hand, cleaned the apartment every morning before leaving for work and looked askance at the dust piling up on the dresser in my room. Some would consider it a benefit to have a roommate eager to clean, but it annoyed me because it connoted a person with so much energy she needed to expend it doing superfluous housework. The reason she had so much energy was she didn’t take anything within her. There was nothing inside her sucking at her energy, and I considered that a character flaw. Her happiness and bounding energy to me meant she didn’t have adequate inner anxieties.
“Why aren’t you more troubled?” I asked one morning after her vacuum woke me up. “If you were more troubled I bet you wouldn’t be so eager to wake up early.”
“Yes, I guess I’m just lucky. I’ve always been a happy person,” she said.
One of the things about Marcy—happy or not—was she always had to be in a romantic relationship. She was a “people” person (I personally preferred cats and other fur-laden mammals to humans, but go figure). So, she treated her boyfriends like jobs. When one looked like it was winding down, she would look for another one to avoid time alone. The idea was an unbroken, seamless transition between boyfriends. I suggested she come up with a way to find them and keep them in reserve—that she could can them the way you would can extra produce.
Steve Slumberts was the latest of them. “How’s it going with Steve, by the way?” I bated her, knowing she was keeping her eye out for someone new (I liked eavesdropping). “He’s good, but we don’t actually see each other as much as we used to.”
“You know, it might be good for you to spend some time alone,” I said. I loved seeing her usually vacant face filled with terror. She thought there was no worse fate than spending the day—let alone months—without a person whose function it was to be called on whenever she needed company.
“I’m a relationship person,” she said, quoting some woman she liked to listen to on the radio.
“But you don’t have a relationship with yourself,” I said. I had already lost her concentration by that point, as she turned on her heel heading towards her room. She often didn’t stick around to listen to me complete my thoughts, and sometimes would ask a question, like “How’s it going? What’s up?” And then shift on her legs back and fourth and dash off, too impatient to stay to listen to my response.
I suppose she was about to get ready to go out—to a place I would loathe, no doubt. Probably one of those dance clubs where there’s no place to sit down and no way to talk above the pulsating music. For a person who claimed to like people so much it was funny that the music she liked best sounded like it was created by robots. Generally there were no words and no discernable instruments played. It was exactly like it would be if a computer were programmed (by a human?) to make a calculated succession of sounds, guided by a mathematical formula.
What if I were a missionary, I wondered. I had no religious affiliation, relying for spiritual salvation on my sense that whatever there was of a God lived inside of ourselves instead of in a church or temple or through an appointed religious representative like a priest or rabbi. But I wanted both to get rid of my roommate and—more out of arrogance than humanitarian reasons—show her the folly of her ways. I remembered stories of Christian missionaries who traveled all over the world “saving” the natives. I betted my vacuous roommate could use some help.
“What she needs,” I thought as I heard the shower droning, “is an in-house religious retreat.” When the water switched off and I heard her bedroom door click shut, I slipped off my sneakers, and crept in my socks to her door. I was the one who asked her to move in rather than the other way around, so I knew things about the apartment we rented that she hadn’t heard about. She wasn’t one for history, so I doubt she would have been interested anyway. The apartment dated back to Victorian times, and came with keys that locked from the outside of the rooms. If you locked the doors from the inside, they didn’t require a key and locked just by pushing in a button. The thing was, the keys the landlord gave me just as a point of interest, or a novelty he thought I’d enjoy, overrode the internal locks, so that you could lock a person in her room! The landlord told me the family who lived here years ago had unruly children, and the parents were such Victorian disciplinarians, they had the peculiar locks and keys made to lock the children in their rooms when they misbehaved.
Marcy hadn’t misbehaved, but she could learn a lesson about self-reflection and meditation. I bet she hadn’t spent more than 10 minutes alone her whole life. Imagine preferring people to quiet reflection! At the very least, she needed to know what it meant to spend time with only herself. I would be doing her a favor. I retrieved the key from my room as fast as I could (as fast as I could, that is, on tippy-toe), and, as quietly as possible, turned the key in the lock, shutting her in—for as long as I felt she needed to experience solitude.
I felt no ethical qualms about what I did. My only regret was she had a clock in there so she wouldn’t lose track of time. I felt sure a person like her not only needed a dose of first-time-in-her-life aloneness, but also that she needed to divorce herself from the clock and its connection to her “activities.” Why are people so consumed with filling their days with activities? I’m happy just dreaming with my eyes open out the window.
Now the fun began. I heard her bare feet pad across the wooden floorboards and try the doorknob. “What the heck!” she said. Marcy didn’t use swear words, so “heck” or “Oh, fruit” was about as bad as it got. “Hey, Amanda,” she said to me. “I can’t seem to open this door. Can you help?” I stifled a laugh and, leaving the key in my pocket, twisted the knob vigorously. “Huh, that’s strange. I can’t open it either.” I heard her laughing, and knew the right thing to think was “Gosh, I really admire how she always keeps her spirits up.” But, instead, I thought it was time she learned how not to be cheerful. Could I lock the shallow laughter out of her?
“Well, unfortunately, I guess you’ll be stuck there a while. It’s Sunday, so the super isn’t around, and it’ll be hard to find a locksmith,” I told her, making my voice serious and somber even as I smiled broadly. “It’s a shame that you’ll miss your date tonight.”
At that point, it seemed as if her laughing, which continued, morphed from that grating social laugh of hers into a nervous laugh. That suited me fine. It was time she experienced a little anxiety. “No need to panic, of course, I’m sure since you have a half-bath in there you’ll be fine. I can always slip you some thinly sliced cheese or cold cuts under the door, I suppose.” Now I was having fun.
She laughed, of course. “Well, I’m sure we’ll get in touch with someone soon who can help. Or, I mean, you will. I just realized I don’t have my phone in here.” Another piece of luck for me. This could go on quite a long time indeed. It’s a rare opportunity when you get the chance to cordon off a troublesome person in your life, so I meant to make the most of it. “Oh, yes, I’ll be sure to do that. I wouldn’t want you to have to stay in there too long. I think I’ll go now and see if I can find someone.”
I had no intention of finding anyone to help, so I took a walk around the block, looking for popsicle and ice cream sandwich vendors. I wanted something I could eat at her door, but which I couldn’t slip under the door, so I wouldn’t have to offer her any. My chocolate and vanilla ice cream sandwich in hand, I felt empowered. The only wrinkle in my plan was Marcy’s sure request to push some finely cut vegetables under the door. I have no idea why cheerful people usually like fruits and vegetables, but they do. I’d take a plastic roll of Hostess Cupcakes over roughage and apples any day. Apple pie and other dessert tarts was the closest I got to health food.
Returning, I heard the word-less, rhythm-ful, bass-heavy music she liked reverberating from her room. I forgot about that. Since she moved in I had been tortured by the pulsating throb of robot communications she called music. The worst part was when I put my head on my pillow at night, I could feel the vibrations of it beating against my head, even after I dulled the sound with earplugs. I had spoken to her about the need to turn the music off at some point during the night, but to no avail, so I gave up trying, and, instead, used earplugs and the whirring of a ceiling fan to blunt the disturbance. But the officious beat she projected, I could do nothing about.
I knocked on her door several times as loud as I could. “Hi there, I’m back. Unfortunately, we have no vegetables, but I have some cold cuts—all red meat, unfortunately—that I can fit under the door.” Oh, yes, so unfortunate, as Marcy tries her best to lead a healthy lifestyle. She says red meat gives you a greater chance of having heart attacks and cancer. Though I say her brain has been shriveling up for years, so why worry about it?
“Do you have anything else?” she asked, giggling. “How about some of those thin wheat crackers? I bet those would slide under the door OK.”
“Yeah, alright,” I said. After I retrieved the crackers and slid them to her, I thought about unlocking the door, but came to the conclusion again that it was for her own good to stay put. A person needs to find out what it’s like to be alone. I had spent my whole life alone, so why should she get away with never experiencing solitude?
“It must be a change of pace for you to have so much time to yourself,” I said.
“Yeah, it’s kind of sad. I don’t know how you spend so much time hidden away in your room, as if you were locked in there yourself. What do you do in there anyway? I’ve been going crazy in here,” she said.
“I think of my room with the door locked as my sanctuary,” I said. “It’s the rest of the world that makes me feel crazy.” I felt as if I had done her a great favor locking her in her room, enabling her to experience what it’s like to have a sanctuary, but she wasn’t capable of appreciating the experience. True, the loneliness was a part of the experience, and it could be difficult, but what you gained in exchange for the loneliness—the richness of an inner life—was worth the discomfort. One thing I hadn’t considered before occurred to me—what if Marcy was incapable of having a rich inner life? Were some people born without an inner-self, so that when left alone, they had nothing inside themselves to draw on?
“I just like getting to know new people. Whenever I meet someone new, I feel like I’ve just discovered a new TV show,” she said.
I would have laughed except it was touching that she knew herself well enough to describe what “new people” could be most accurately equated to; but, on the other hand, she wasn’t conscious enough to feel embarrassed about the analogy. She didn’t realize there was anything funny about new friendships seeming like TV pilots.
“Are these people generally good new shows?” I asked, “Or the kind of shows that go off the air without getting picked up for the regular season?”
She didn’t laugh immediately as I expected—since she was one of those people with a tittering social laugh that was similar to the canned laughter of a stage audience. I think she was puzzled that I thought her metaphor was funny. “Yeah, mostly good,” she said. “They’re company anyway.”
“You know what’s funny to me?” I said, “The way you need someone to study with you at the library. If you’re studying, and you’re studying for different classes and different subjects, what’s the other person there for?”
“I like knowing someone is going through the same things I’m going through even if their version of it is a little different,” she said.
I had always looked at suffering as a solitary trial, and even though I knew about “support groups,” I didn’t think they made any difference—at the end of the day, your suffering was your own. If a thousand other people felt the same pain, what difference did it make to your own pain? I could see if by gathering enough co-sufferers together you could dilute the pain or make a deal whereby you all share the pain by taking different shifts, or signing up for different months or years to endure it. But just knowing of the shared pain wasn’t enough for me.
“You’re never going to figure anything out on your own,” she said.
“What are you talking about?” I snapped. “If you’ve got a problem, the last thing you want is a group of people arguing with each other about the right thing to do. You need time for quiet reflection—especially since, in the end, you’re the one who’s going to have to make up your mind about it.
It sounded like birds outside her window, rapping against the glass, and I could smell fresh air seeping from under the door. I felt my planned casement threatened. Her window was too high up for anyone to scale in, and even if it were possible, her cell phone was sitting on an end table in the sitting room, so she had no way of alerting anyone but me to her problem.
“What’s that funny sound I hear?” I said. “It sounds like in desperation you’ve put a bird and squirrel cocktail party together.”
“No, nothing that creative,” she said. “Remember, I don’t have an inner-life or creativity, so I can’t do stuff like that.”
“That’s true,” I agreed. “And animals don’t seem to like you too much.”
“Yeah, but Jasper, Susan and Igor do,” she said.
“Who in the world are they? Let me guess—you couldn’t restrain yourself, and became friends with homeless people living below your window.”
“Kind of. Do you remember the fair I went to with Chip last week? And how Chip got me the puppets? Well, I just put them on the shelf over my desk and forgot about them, but with all this boring alone—that is, self-reflection time, as you call it—I’ve gotten to know them better. I hung them from my window pane and we’re having drinks” she said in an even voice.
I always thought Marcy lacked enough self-awareness to understand irony, so I felt certain it wasn’t a joke. I had never known her to make any jokes outside of repeating lines from sitcoms or comedy club shows her latest boyfriend took her to.
“Yeah, Jasper was just telling me the funniest story about this bar, The Sacrosanct, he went to last week—the bartenders were all male models and there were free Jello shots,” she said.
“Was it Puppets night?” I asked, laughing. She stayed silent. “You know, like ladies night, where bars think they’ll get lots of women for men to hit on by offering the women free drinks? So, I guess there’s a new puppet fetish I didn’t know about.”
Marcy often had little intelligent to say, but she usually offered up enough vacuous conversation to avoid silence (a thing on her list of most dreaded), so I found it odd the way her long pause just kept continuing.
“Well?” I said.
“Of course, Igor and Susan have been going out for a while, so they’re not really into The Sacrosanct,” she said.
“The Sacrosanct isn’t for everybody,” I said. “I guess you have to know the right people—or puppets—to get in.”
“Igor has an in, and, of course, he got Susan in, who begged him to then get Jasper in, too.”
Hmm, talking puppets heading to nightclubs, getting their puppet friends in past the velvet rope. This sounded like an endeavor for me. I fished the key to her bedroom door out of my pocket.
“Well, what do you know?” I said, opening the door, “I found the key, after all. Turns out it was at the bottom of the draw near the sink in the kitchen, Marcy.”
I expected her to run to the door like a puppy released from a pen (to think of her more kindly I usually needed to pretend she was a cat or dog), but she didn’t acknowledge my entrance or the opened door. She didn’t bother to turn around to look at me. Instead, she stayed in a crouched position over her puppets, making them dance over the floorboards under her. “Looks like Jasper’s really having a good time tonight,” she said. “I’m so glad they came to visit me tonight. I hate being alone.”
“Well, it’s your lucky day, Marcy,” I said. “Did you hear me? I found the key, and was able to unlock your door. You can go run around town now, the way you like.” I snickered at that, thinking of her continuous, thin conversation as she trotted from one trendy club to the next, partly soothing herself, partly social climbing.
“It’s just that Jasper isn’t ready to go yet, and Igor and Susan want to dance some more,” Marcy said, turning to look at me, but only peripherally, looking more to the side of my face than directly at me.
She seemed enthralled, and even happy, similar to how she seemed when I ran into her on her way to her room after a coming home late on a Friday or Saturday night. I would be turning over on the sofa with my book, and in would come Marcy exhilarated about all the stuff I couldn’t stand being around—masses of people jumbled up together in a relatively small space with “music” so loud you couldn’t have a conversation.
Now the puppets she dangled in each hand enthralled her. She was socializing with them.
“So, you’re really enjoying their company, ha? I guess they’re not so different from your other friends, right?” I laughed, and walked over to her side to see if she heard me. I was waiting for her (irritatingly) good-humored reciprocal chuckle.
“Igor, Susan and Jasper aren’t ready to leave yet, remember?” she said.
It was the oddest thing the way she didn’t seem to hear me, or that she heard me but didn’t care now to escape from her room and her animated puppets.
“The door is open, Marcy. You can go about your business now. Isn’t that lucky that I finally found the key? It was in the back of one of the drawers in the kitchen. Isn’t that funny?”
Well, it was the oddest thing, but the little twit didn’t seem to care. Should I have felt horrible about continuing to think of her as a little twit? I didn’t think so.
“The door’s open, Marcy. It’s wide open. You can leave now. I’ve managed to unlock the door.”