“Check this one out,” Martin says, angling his cell phone screen toward me, using technology to distract from the surrounding patch of nature in the city park.
I look at the small photograph of an orange armchair, being sold second-hand on the internet for two thousand dollars. “Can you afford that right now?”
“I could, but then I need to put off buying a dresser until I can save up a little more.”
“So, no.” I look back at my feet, watching the discolored toes of my brown boots shuffle and carry me across the pavement.
“You don’t have to be a bitch about it.”
Martin used to live with us: four of us all together, until he got a pay raise and decided to lease a one-bedroom like he had always wanted. Now that he is perpetually packing and shopping, it’s gotten hard to remember a specific positive memory from our cohabitation. I rack my brain for the communal dinner preparation or anything that feels significant. I come up blank.
“Why are you always staring at your shoes?” He says, sliding the phone into his breast pocket.
“It’s just easier to walk this way. I don’t step in dog shit.”
“You didn’t use to do that.”
“I just like them, I guess.”
Silence billows between us, and he eventually says, “Just seems kind of materialistic for someone so judgey about furniture shopping.”
“I’m not obsessing over what I’m going to buy,” I say. I try to choose my words wisely to avoid offending him. This is surely going to be one of the last times we spend time together. I know how these relationships devolve: someone makes a subtle change and we fall into differing habits, growing increasingly busy and less likely to reconnect. If anything, I want to avoid leaving him with a sour taste in his mouth for when he gets bored and lonely and is contemplating who to call for sympathy. “I just like the way they look.”
Martin pulls his phone back out and I continue to watch my boots. I remember their arrival from a discount retailer online, unwrapping them and deciding if I needed to take advantage of the free return shipping policy. I steal a glance at Martin, a little disappointed that the boots hold crisper memories and less conflicted sentiments than our relationship.
The boots never dated me for a couple weeks then decided getting closer wasn’t worth “losing our friendship entirely.” They hadn’t drunkenly locked themselves out and banged on my window at four in the morning until I let them in. They lacked the ability to be spontaneously selfless, but everything kind Martin had done was tainted by now.
Martin’s phone dies and I watch him watching the screen from the corner of my eye. A small wheel scrolls amid the sea of black and Martin waits until the dim light extinguishes, when his safety blanket burns out and forces him back into our conversation.
“So do you get worried about bumps in the night and stuff at your new place?” I say.
He shakes his head, “I think the first couple months are going to feel a little weird. But it’ll be good for me. I don’t want to be one of those people that goes from roommates to a marriage to a family and is never just alone in a space. You know?”
I don’t know. My fantasies involve the security of a long-term relationship. I fear everything. I still have nightmares on a fairly regular basis and I never remember to buy basics like butter and eggs. Without the roommates, I imagine myself starving to death, incapable of leaving the apartment because I can’t find my keys to let me back in. I envision the utilities being shut off after I forget to pay them. The fictional alternate universe that involves my living alone stresses me out too much for the idea to take on any more detail. I involuntarily picture a criminal busting into my one bedroom and kicking them swiftly in the groin with my boots. I click the daydream off in my mind.
“We should institute some sort of weekly family dinner.” He says, “Where I can come by and bring dessert or something and we can all hang out.”
I nod because I know that is the easiest response in these situations: to acquiesce because it is unlikely to ever come to fruition. A large loose dog runs down the sidewalk toward us and I feel a pang of panic. I look for an owner, or someone carrying a leash. The dog approaches me and sniffs my leg. I scratch its head and flip its collar around and look at the tag, “Taylor Sniff.” I smile and contemplate telling Martin we should capture the animal and call the number before it gets hit by a car. Yet I know such an activity will involve more time spent together, just the two of us, and in a city so large surely someone else will find the dog and get it back into the right hands. The dog runs off. I’ve heard of people training their pets to walk themselves. I convince myself the dog is already on his way home.
“Are you going to be around this weekend? I’m thinking of throwing some kind of moving party because I need a hand getting my bed and stuff up to the new place.”
I shake my head and say I am working, a partial lie.
Two weeks earlier, the roommates and I had been standing in the kitchen with our bodies conveniently angled so no one faced anyone else. It was rare for all four of us to be home, rarer still in the same room. I was washing a small stack of plates, leaving the fleet of water glasses and baking paraphernalia for their rightful owners. “You aren’t going to knock those ones out while you’re at it?” Martin said, looking up from an IKEA catalog.
“They aren’t mine,” I said.
“I made cookies earlier this week, but I promise I’ll get to that. I just really need to go to work in like five but I promise I’ll do those ones later.” Whitney braided her hair at the kitchen table, her purse and its contents scattered in front of her.
“I just do all the dishes at the sink whenever I start doing them. I don’t keep track of whose are whose,” Gregory said.
“No you don’t,” I said. We stood there staring at each other, waiting for someone to throw the first punch of petty bickering, to switch the mood of the household from peaceful to tumultuous for the rest of the night.
Gregory said, “Really? You have nothing better to do than note how frequently I do dishes? I don’t even eat here most of the time.”
“You made pasta last night,” I said.
“Yeah, and the pot I used is in my room because I don’t want someone else to end up dealing with it. Stalker.”
“Why would you be hoarding cookware in your room if you were into doing all the dishes whenever you got to them? I thought we were in this free-flowing bohemian utopia here where we all get out much more than we put in? And how does being observant make me a stalker?”
The tension built around us. I clenched my jaw, prepared for Gregory to bring up my tardy rent payment. “I’m moving out,” Martin said.
I heard a distant door slam somewhere else in the building.
“Come on, Martin. No you aren’t.” Whitney said.
“I’ve been planning on it for a while. I signed a lease last weekend.”
I turned the sink off and dropped the fetid sponge into the standing water, knowing it was Whitney’s pet peeve. I left the room and once in my bedroom realized there was nothing waiting for me there. I wanted to one-up Martin’s dramatic announcement. I grabbed my headphones and cell phone and left, wandering the city blocks until I got too cold and bored and began to feel silly. The entire process took less than fifteen minutes.
We quickly found Martin’s replacement, a girl named Morgan. We interviewed upwards of twenty people, and sat in a semi-circle on the floor with the candidates’ names on post-it notes. “We should get another girl.” Gregory said, “Women are less likely to make major life changes. She’s not going to ditch us for her own place.”
“That’s sexist,” I said, “and what if she gets married?”
“Men marry, too,” he said.
“But not as early.”
We went with Morgan because she seemed fairly quiet. We were shying away from the idea that all roommates had to be best friends. We had switched from watching sitcoms to dramas and the Friends model faded from the forefront of our inspiration.
Martin told us he wanted to meet Morgan, that it was only right that he spend time with the new denizen of his room. I told him I didn’t think that was a good idea. Morgan was pretty and I worried they would end up in some kind of relationship. I knew how jealousy worked. I wasn’t immune – especially if it was regarding something I certainly didn’t want.
“Can I use your phone for a minute?” Martin says.
I shake my head and tell him I’m almost out of data, the contemporary excuse for phone hoarding. I remember back to when the excuse involved minutes and I smile to myself.
“What’s so funny?” He sounds flirtatious and I shake my head and look around, watching the dedicated city joggers shuffle by, plumes of breath trailing from their mouths.
“Let’s get a donut,” Martin says, and he pulls on my elbow in a mediocre attempt to redirect me out of the park. I feel a tiny surge of familiar electricity from the contact. “My treat,” he says, “filling and toppings and everything.”
I throw him a skeptical look, as though I’m onto his act. I assume he’s remembering my drunken confession, that I would be around if he ever changed his mind about me. The literal sugarcoating of our interaction feels unfair.
“I’m not hungry.” I pull my elbow away by reaching into my purse, trying to come up with something I could need from my bag. I remove a tube of lip balm and offer it to him, questioning my actions as they happen. He patiently rubs the chapstick on his mouth and offers it back. “Keep it,” I say. He looks confused and maybe a little hurt. I feel something between petty and smug.
“Do you remember when we first met?” He says.
I think back to when I showed up to interview for the room. I had just graduated and moved my things from university housing to storage. After they buzzed me in, I climbed the stairs and contemplated what a great opening sequence this would be for a movie. The fresh chapter/transformation period made everything feel more significant than it was. That anticipation when I was climbing the stairs was probably the most enjoyable moment of living there.
I interviewed with Martin, Whitney, and Gregory, who I found to be respectively attractive, charming, and vanilla. I remember wanting the apartment itself, adorned in wall tapestries, more than the people it came with. I was desperate for a place to live and grateful they had gotten back to me. I carefully avoided mentioning how terrified I was of moving back in with my parents, and when they offered me the room I took it on the spot. I’ve since learned that it’s best to pace one’s self before making any kind of long-term agreements.
I began moving my things the following day, filling a rental Honda with boxes at the storage facility. I made countless trips to the apartment and schlepped endless boxes up the stairs, cursing the lack of an elevator. Gregory offered to help, and I told him I had it under control. I didn’t want to start out owing anything to anyone. Hours after the sheer volume of my possessions began to feel particularly over-the-top, Martin squeezed past me on the staircase with a box. “What are you doing?” I said, my hair sticking to the sweat on my forehead.
“This isn’t yours,” he said, smiling, “I’m heading to Boston for the weekend and I don’t own any bags.”
I smiled and thought, What a free spirit. Not owning luggage.
In the park, I look over at him and say, “I can’t really remember,” and contemplate what a lazy douche he was for refusing to invest in a backpack. He borrowed and lost a duffel bag of mine a few months into our roommatehood.
“It was cute,” he says, “you showed up all young with bad posture and frizzy hair and you so desperately wanted to move into the city.”
I regret pretending I don’t remember the interview. I realize I have indirectly deleted my own version from history.
“You practically begged us to give you the room. You didn’t know how lazy we were. You were the only person we had arranged an interview with in hopes that it would work out. Then you came by the next day with this sedan packed with boxes and brought them up the stairs one at a time. I only saw half of it, but I walked by you on my way out and told you I was off to Alaska and that it was going to be cold and asked if you wanted to dump a bucket of ice on me to help me prepare for the trip. You laughed so hard you dropped a box down the stairs. It was like a cute romantic comedy moment.”
The memory sounds fabricated. I’m too careful to drop things down stairs.
The conversation has fizzled out, and we meander in momentary silence. He says, “When did things start to change between us?” I mentally scroll through the negativity I’ve accumulated toward him over the years. I picture him six months ago when he was drinking more beer than usual and developed a slight paunch, when the last inkling of attraction or chemistry I felt toward him submerged itself beneath the truth of who he was.
“I think it was when I was in the bathroom, like eight or so months ago while I had that guy over from work?”
He looks at me quizzically.
“I came out and everything seemed more or less fine and you were really nice to me for the rest of the night. Which was weird, because before that you were telling me that you had never dated a girl who weighed over one twenty, and then immediately asked my weight in front of my friend. So I assumed you were on this rampage of being mean, and then I left the room and came back, and it was like when technology misbehaves and you turn it off and back on. You reset to totally normal. A few hours later I was walking my friend home and he told me you said something about me being unstable while I was in the bathroom. Like you were trying to bait him into saying something bad about me.”
“I don’t think that’s how it happened,” he says. I hear a car screech and honk in the distance, a block or so away. “I wouldn’t say something like that to a friend of yours. I’m not that mean.”
We leave the park and walk down the sidewalk in silence and I watch Martin check out a jogger in yoga pants after she runs past us. We get to the intersection and a police car is blocking traffic.
The loose dog I failed to capture has been hit and a small crowd of people gathers around it. The scene takes on a hazy blur, the cause and effect of my actions too painfully logical for real life. I feel nausea, followed by an overwhelming desire to burrow into the ground beneath me, like a vole. I wonder what will happen next, if there is anything I can do. Will the owner be called? Who disposes of animal bodies?
I look at Martin, wondering what he’s thinking. He seems minimally curious about the crowd. He says, “Is that that dog?”
I nod and exhale.
“That’s a shame,” he says.
Martin tells me he needs to get home and get his phone charged. I let him hug me and we go our separate ways. He rounds a corner and I’m alone. I feel exhausted and relieved and a little bit older. I picture a little girl printing posters for her lost pet and think I might throw up. I eye a public trashcan. As time passes and the sheen of beauty wears through various pockets of my universe, I hope I’m getting better at learning what to do next time.
Hillary Jane Woolley lives in northern California with her fiancé, grandmother, and dog. Her day job is on the winemaking team at Gundlach Bundschu Winery. She is a hot yoga enthusiast, a voracious reader, and a coffee lover.