No-one Told Me Life Was Gonna Be This Way.
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
by Jennifer Greenberg
As the cast of Friends officially confirmed their reunion show, I leafed through the copious roommates I’d had since leaving home. While Joey and Chandler had hit it off by season 1, I had yet to happen upon the same fortune. Sure, I’d traded in a dinner table for a foosball table, and I’d had too many housemates bring home one-night stands. However, I could not hold onto an apartment for more than three months — a semester at most. I could not hold onto a roommate either.
At 20, I left my music studies behind to try my hand at a new curriculum.
“Why not live in the dorms?” my dad insisted. “They’re reasonable, close and include a meal plan.”
“There’s laundry in the building. Plus, I’m sure the pods will be freshly cleaned. I know you like to keep things organized,” she hovered over the four-letter word.
I decided to punt for the full-blown college experience, despite being the only dorm dweller in the province of Ontario old enough to buy alcohol. My first semester roommate profited from my legal agedness, until she dropped out. I was sad to see her go, but mildly relieved to reclaim my bathroom ritual privileges.
An exchange student from France arrived after the Christmas Break. I was excited to practice my fading Quebecois French with her. Unfortunately, she never quite adjusted to the jet lag and spent all day in her room — or so I thought, until I stopped hearing movement. Three concerned knocks opened her door to a stripped bed and abandoned suite.
She had quietly fled back to Europe while I was blasting bebop and furiously scrubbing my room with Lysol wipes.
The following year, I moved into a run-down townhouse off campus. It was nestled behind the McDonald’s parking lot, which was occupied by a white line of unmarked vans to match a white line of whatever its drivers were selling. Happy meals make for happy deals. The red flagged sink, overflowing with dirty casserole dishes (“we had a potluck last weekend”), the hairy bathroom (“our previous roommate shed”) and clutter in the living room (“she’s taking most of it with her”) begged me to make a mad dash in the opposite direction, while steering clear of the parking lot, of course. I couldn’t function without a tidy, manageable living space where objects were arranged in pristine groups of three; otherwise, I was certain that I’d miss my deadlines, fail all my exams, drop out of university, possibly implode, and my family would die for some irrational reason. Thanks to a shrewd shrink, these thought patterns were later labeled as symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. This Hogs Back town house was an anomaly for any Type A personality, let alone Type OCD. Nonetheless, I attempted to ignore the mold figuring three girls couldn’t be that dirty. They were.
Come winter I had sublet my room for a semester abroad where I wound up in an equally unkempt Scottish household. This time I was graced with three 18-year-old free spirits (four if you counted Tommy, the eccentric neighbor that treated our apartment like his own). This zany cast of artists believed a communal kitchen should naturally be clad in glitter — my arch nemesis.
I returned to Ottawa the summer before my final semester. This time I found a 15-story building overlooking the university at which I would army crawl across the finish line. I bypassed its chipped paint and depressing façade, despite being depressed myself. What it lacked in luster, it made up for in character. At least from my conservative parents’ standpoint. Stable, dignified, well-rounded.
This apartment ticked all the boxes my hopeful Jewish mother imagined my future husband would. It was lovely — recently renovated; a beautiful view; a balcony to enjoy that view. It almost had it all. I dreaded the roommate situation, though, especially given my past. I moved in my boxes and took the bigger bedroom. Then sat there, and waited. Maybe she was out of town. And waited. She could be shy. And waited some more. Perhaps she worked doubles.
Then, that ghost of a roommate started leaving Post-It Notes around the apartment while I was in class.
First in the kitchen: “You better scrub that dish three times, or you’ll fail Brit lit.” Then the bathroom: “If you don’t wash your hands for 33 seconds exactly, I’ll make sure that Beowulf essay mysteriously disappears.” She even snuck into my bedroom, set my alarm to 3:03 a.m., as if I’d even be asleep given my chronic insomnia. A neon wardrobe hung by my front closet — suspended warnings on wire hangers against my family’s wellbeing: “If you step on that crack, you’ll break your mother’s back.” And my own. She painted the town red. Well, Post-It Note yellow. But still, it made me ill. I was eager to meet this compulsive creep. Unable to sleep, I called my guarantor.
“Dad,” I said. “She’s leaving sticky notes around the apartment and I don’t know what to do. It’s driving me insane.”
“Who is?” his voice cracked.
“My roommate. She won’t stop posting passive aggressive threats everywhere in red ink.”
“Jenny, you don’t have any roommates. You live in a one-bedroom.” I heard the quiver in his lip 200 kilometers away. That was when I noticed it.
The distinct illegible handwriting resembled that of an ex-jazz pianist with tendonitis.
Scribbled in red ink were the obsessive threats only my brain could conjure up; the compulsions were mine too. Lying on my desk was a red pen and half-finished Post-It Note pad. These notes were mine. Similar to all of those other horrid roommate situations, I chose to stay quiet and accept the painful reality that the worst roommate in my adult life, was me.
Jennifer Greenberg is a Montreal-born writer and editor based in New York. Formerly an editor for Time Out Israel and Atmosphere Magazine, she has written for such publications as The Forward, The Jerusalem Post, and The Canadian Jewish News. You can find her work at jennifergreenbergwrites.com.