JAR OF COINS
Days after I signed the sublease on my apartment, I ran into my soon-to-be roommate, William, at a neighborhood bar. I wasn’t moving far from my current place, just blocks, so it made sense, but we marveled at the coincidence. “It’s weird,” he said, “because I’ve never seen you here before. And I know I’d remember seeing you.”
I was there with a book, drinking a cider while I waited for my clothes to dry at a nearby laundromat. He was there waiting for his weed dealer, but he told me he was waiting for a friend because he was embarrassed. It was only after our second drink that he told me the truth. We ended up staying for four drinks each, priding ourselves on both the serendipity and on making such a great choice in a roommate—and from Craigslist! we exclaimed. We left at twelve-thirty, when I remembered my laundry and realized it had been dry for hours. I was fairly drunk, and Will insisted on walking me to the laundromat, then dropping me off at my old apartment, waiting until I’d unlocked the door to make sure I was safe.
I pride myself on being good at reading people, which is why the coda of this story—because there isn’t an end—hits me particularly hard. But I wonder if a more accurate way of describing my abilities would be to say that I am good at getting people to tell me their secrets, but with one major caveat: only the ones I want to hear, only the secrets they themselves are aware of. I can coax something out of anyone—but only if I’m looking for it.
There were blips in the narrative of our time together, things that didn’t fit into the story I was telling myself, so I omitted them in favor of the narrative that made sense, a narrative that satisfied me: a new beginning in a new home with a new roommate. The apartment was an upgrade from my previous place, and I wanted that to be symbolic, to mirror a quality-of-life upgrade that was sure to follow. I’d just broken up with my ex, for good (another narrative in which I have left out the blips), and I’d had to move out of my old apartment quickly. This new place would be somewhere I could nest, and I was determined to have it happen exactly as I’d planned it. Who knows what this blind determination could have cost me?
When I saw the room for the first time, I felt that stomach-clenching combination of desire and competition that I believe is unique to searching for real estate in a competitive market. I wanted to live in that apartment. The rent was just higher than I could feasibly afford (that is to say, obscenely high for anywhere but New York) but oh—the windows. The parquet floors. The space. I was already envisioning a desk, a bookshelf, a bedside table, sheer white curtains fluttering in the breeze. I was far gone.
Hunting for a sublet in New York City is a bleak affair—even more so for those on a publishing salary. There is always a concession to make—a long walk to the subway, a window that looks out onto a brick wall, a sloping ceiling, too many flights of stairs. If your budget is similar to mine, and you can’t spot the concession you’ll have to make, chances are it’s something worse than anything obvious might be—a neighboring bar whose backyard noise is audible from the bedroom, thin walls that let the cold seep in throughout the winter, a weak trickle of water from the shower head and a toilet with a finicky flush. This apartment bore no obvious imperfections.
The room had been empty when I looked at it—empty for months, apparently. Someone had lived there briefly the previous summer, but the last occupant had been Will’s ex-girlfriend, who’d moved out the year before. I worried that Will wasn’t going to take well to sharing his space with another person again—it was always ‘his space,’ in my mind and in his—but he insisted it wouldn’t be an issue. “I don’t want to live alone anymore,” he said.
And so—what I included in the narrative. The smoothies he made in the morning before work and left for me in the fridge. The bottles of wine we shared at the table in the living room. The frankness of our conversations. Will was the first person to hear that I had gotten an agent—I’d run into the living room at 11:30 on a Sunday night after hanging up the phone, bursting with my good news. He was willing to bring me Gatorade when I was sick. When I had a seizure, he was there to catch me as I fell, called the paramedics, and accompanied me to the hospital, where he sat with me in the emergency room for hours.
What I didn’t include in the narrative. When Will told me that he’d almost picked someone else for the room, because he didn’t think it was wise to have an attractive girl move in. The time I heard him on the phone with someone from work, screaming at them for being so stupid. The time he came home from dinner, stumbling and clutching his chest, and asked me to call 911 because he thought he was having a heart attack, and how, seconds after I hung up the phone, he dashed into the bathroom to flush what I later discerned was a bag of cocaine. “I’m so sorry,” he said as I fumed, letting the paramedics in as he pretended to have just been drunk and scared and I, complicit in his lie, went along with the story, heart pounding in my chest. The time I came home from a long weekend out of town and found his baseball cap on my desk chair, and he said he couldn’t remember how it had gotten there.
The time I woke up at two in the morning to find him sitting beside my bed, rocking back and forth, saying, “I don’t know what to do,” over and over again.
I left all of that out of the narrative.
When I moved into the dream apartment, I was fresh out of a toxic relationship with a man who made me feel as if nobody would ever love me because there was nothing about me that was worthy of love. Yet I hadn’t spent more than a few nights without him in over a year. Will didn’t want to live alone, even though he could afford to.
We were both lonely. Was I looking for someone to take care of me without giving anything in return? Did I treat our living situation like a sitcom; was I too cavalier in my own behavior? Maybe all of these answers are yes, maybe not.
I keep thinking, what did I do? But I don’t know that there’s an answer for that. There certainly isn’t one that justifies his behavior, and that’s ultimately what I’m looking for.
Six months went by in my dream apartment. I went on a couple dates. I packed away my winter clothes. I bought an AC unit. I got a weekend New York Times subscription, and started reading the paper on my stoop on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
July 23rd: I’d just showered and climbed into bed for the night. I was texting Vivian, about a new bar she’d just been to, something inconsequential. Will was traveling for work, which he’d been doing more and more lately. He’d been gone for a couple days, and I’d texted him that morning to see when he’d be back. I always felt uneasy being home alone—I think I would have been fine living alone, but not knowing when I’d be the only one in the apartment put me on edge. At 11:19 PM, I received a series of texts from Will:
You’re out of my house.
I want you out
Fuck out of my house
I don’t know whether it says more about our relationship as roommates or my perception of his sense of humor that I assumed it was a joke.
The texts continued.
I’ll evict you.
Not a joke you cunt.
Get the f out of my house.
I need to know when and how.
I will definitely wreck your shit.
You’re a cunt.
Get out of my house.
I’m not joking.
I called Will. He was not joking. “I don’t want you in my house,” he said. “I don’t want you around. I don’t want anyone around, I don’t want my friends, I don’t want my family. I just want to be alone.” I realized that this was much bigger than me, and also not about me. “I’m in a car on my way home,” he said, “and I don’t want to see you in my fucking house when I get there.”
Terrified, I texted Vivian again. I’m really scared. She told me to pack a bag and came to get me. I spent the night on her couch, lying awake until four. In the morning when L left for work, I went to a nearby coffee shop. I sat there, shell-shocked, browsing apartment listings on the internet and vacantly checking my work email.
How quickly the new normal settles in: I already knew I would never be entering that apartment alone again.
I emailed my therapist that weekend, stunned and reeling. “I’m no expert,” I said, “but this seems like a psychotic episode.”
He responded, “Yes, that sounds like psychosis. But psychosis just means a break with reality testing—it doesn’t tell us the cause. It just describes the symptoms. It could be due to the onset of schizophrenia, the onset of a manic episode, drug induced, or an organic cause (e.g., brain tumor or some other pathology affecting his brain). Impossible to say at this point.”
I want something clear-cut, something definitive. I want someone to give me an exact diagnosis. I want someone to tell me that Will struggles with bipolar disorder, or that he’s developed (relatively late in life) schizophrenia. I want to know what it is. There’s obviously something awry. He’s obviously hurting deeply. But not everyone reacts like that when they snap. I believe there is a seed of misogyny, of deep anger inside him that was there even in his most sane and lucid moments. This episode just exposed it.
I am aware of the stigma associated with mental illness, and I like to think I do my part to withhold judgment regarding those who are suffering. I’m sensitive to it on a personal level—I have struggled with anorexia in the past, with depression and anxiety that may again rear their heads long into the future, but I am lucky enough to recognize this about myself, and privileged enough to be able to afford a therapist with whom I can discuss these things. I know that not everyone has this luxury. But I have trouble extending my empathy this far—I cannot put myself in Will’s shoes, no matter how hard I try. I cannot separate his mental illness from his fundamental personality traits. I don’t know how.
The day after I was kicked out, my friend’s boyfriend, Andrew, picked me up to accompany me to my apartment. I doubted Will would be home, because it was a Friday, and therefore a workday for him. But I needed to grab a few days’ worth of clothes and underwear, and I didn’t want to take the chance that I would end up alone with Will.
Will was home, and pacing the living room. “What are you doing here?” he asked angrily, but also—and this was more terrifying than the anger—as if he really didn’t know why I would be there. “I live here,” I said, as calmly as I could, though my hands were trembling. Andrew stood quietly behind me. “I’m just here to grab some clothes so I can stay with friends until I move out.”
“Well, hurry up,” Will said. “Come on. Hurry up. I don’t have time for this.” Shaking, I packed a duffle bag, sloppily and quickly (later I’d discover I’d packed four skirts and no shirts to go with them). I left without saying goodbye.
It’s funny what you choose to protect, what you leave behind, what things you value most when faced with the very real possibility that your roommate might destroy them [In his words, “wreck your shit.”]. I took my laptop and my journals. Andrew took with him, at my behest, my vintage fur coats and leather jacket—the only other things of objective value that I owned that would be impossible to replace. I had visions of returning to the apartment to find them slashed, fur leaking out of the plastic covering like stuffing from a teddy bear.
Later, Will would accuse me of bringing a stranger into his home to intimidate and threaten him. He couldn’t understand why I would have been scared of him, what there was to be frightened by.
What I include in the narrative when I tell it: the genuine fear I had for Will’s own safety the first few days afterward, the internal debate I had about whether or not I should contact his brother to get him help. My friend Annie, who complimented me on what she considered to be my overwhelming and improbable ability for empathy, to be kind and open in the midst of a shitty situation.
What I don’t include: the day before I finally moved out, when I’d become so frustrated that I sent a text to my friend Kristen saying, I’m not going to contact anyone. Someone else can take care of it. I just hope he doesn’t take anyone else down with him.
Could Will lose his job? Has he? I don’t know. Should I have said something to the landlord? I don’t know. Should I have contacted his family? I don’t know. He said he had people coming to see the room the last day I was there. Did he? Should I have—somehow, impossibly—warned them? Was it my responsibility?
I did have a large amount of genuine compassion for him at first. I was willing to weigh my potential safety against his potential to harm himself or others. But in the end, I chose safety. Save yourself, boo, texted Annie. He’s lost.
After I left Vivian’s couch, I stayed with Kristen, who lived off the same subway stop as I did. At night, walking back from the train on a quiet street near the apartment, I saw a man crouched on the ground, digging through his backpack. He had the same build and dark hair as Will, and I reacted instinctively, recoiling and scurrying out of the streetlight to hide in the shadows of a parked car. The man stood up and revealed himself to be a stranger, and the adrenaline leaked out of me like a popped balloon.
It took my me and my friend less than an hour to pack the entire contents of my bedroom. It’s a sobering exercise, to see the impermanence of the life you’ve created, the minimal amount of effort it would take to effectively erase all traces of your existence if someone so wished.
It took even less time for Will to turn my life upside down than it took to pack my room.
A list of what I left behind: My shampoo. My conditioner. My face wash. An economy-sized box of Q-tips. My dryer sheets. My detergent. An expensive eye cream that I never used. My jar of coins. Five pairs of old sandals. My plaid flannel bathrobe, which I’ve thought about every day since I left that apartment, a thoughtful gift from an ex-boyfriend that I left hanging unceremoniously from the back of my door, invisible to me while the door was open, which Will requested it be the entire time I was packing. All of my hangers. A device for shaving lint from sweaters. Four bowls. My Tupperware. A bag of expensive cacao powder I’d used once, to make a vegan dessert for a friend’s party. Half a freezer bag of potato wedges.
A list of what I spent: an obscene amount of money on Uber rides, carting my suitcase from one friend’s couch to another in 90 degree weather. Money on every prepared or restaurant meal I ate instead of cooking for myself. Money for a monthly storage unit in which to keep my things until I found another apartment. Money on movers to take my things to the storage unit. Personal days. Cancellation of an Amtrak ticket to visit relatives for a trip that had been planned that very week.
My friend Annie takes me to her apartment the day after Will kicks me out and sets me up on her couch while she cooks, bringing me a bowl of pasta with pesto and tomatoes and parmesan cheese. A few days later, while I’m crashing at Elizabeth’s apartment, Elizabeth’s boyfriend cooks dinner for four while Elizabeth, Vivian, and I watch a reality show called Dating Naked on VH1. I sit in the middle.
Elizabeth and her boyfriend have made a home for themselves.
Have I ever really made a home for myself? Does it count as making a home for yourself if it crumbles apart in an instant?
I have never really made a home for myself.
A stays in the apartment with me while the movers take my things down to the truck. Will gives me a check for my security deposit, but tells me he won’t give me my prepaid last month’s rent back because I didn’t give him thirty days notice. The absurdity of this statement astounds me, and I tell him so. “I gave you a chance to stay,” he says. “You could have stayed.”
“You threatened me,” I say. “You told me you would ‘wreck my shit.’”
“No I didn’t,” he says. I pull up the screenshot from the week before on my phone, show it to him. He looks genuinely confused. “Well, that doesn’t matter. So I called you a cunt. That’s not threatening.”
Annie’s been quiet until now, but she speaks up. “Dude,” she says, “she has it all right here. She told you she felt unsafe.”
Later, Will will also cash a lost rent check from months earlier that I hadn’t bothered to cancel, assuming it was actually lost. I will wake up to a text alert from my bank, letting me know that my checking account is overdrawn by more than $700. I will sob in the glass-walled office of the Chase branch across from my office building, and the woman who cannot help me but so wishes she could will ask if she can give me a hug.
Later, Will will also text my father—telling him that I was stealing, that the reason for my seizure must have been all the drugs I was doing, that I was bringing disgusting men back to the apartment—that last one actually makes me laugh. In the six months I lived with Will, the only man who slept in my bed was my friend Jordan, who is gay, and was visiting from out of town.
Later, Will will also text me, delusional things like: “I have video footage of you defacing the property with a marker. You’ll be hearing from a lawyer.” My concept of reality is so damaged at this point that I will rewind the last six months in my brain just to confirm that no, of course I didn’t do that. There is no footage. There will be no lawyer.
The amount of money Will owes me isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, but when I think about the reasons I didn’t get it back, the unfairness takes my breath away. I could take him to small claims court; in fact, I could easily bring harassment charges against him. But I would rather do none of that. I would rather never see him again.
Months later, I wake up to my phone ringing—it’s Will. I’ve kept his number so I have a record of every communication he’s attempted to make with me, in case I need evidence. Everything comes soaring back—I’m frozen in bed. The killer is in the house, I think. He’s found out where I live, he’s broken in, and he’s calling to find out which room is mine. I am going to die.
I lie still until it stops ringing, as if holding my breath would be a sufficient defense. He leaves a voicemail. As I listen to the jumbled message from his accidental call, just snippets of noise from a bar, my heartbeat returns to normal. I turn on my light, all the lights in the apartment, check under the couches just to be sure. Then I fall back asleep. I haven’t heard from him since.
Save yourself, boo. That’s what I’m doing. I will no longer alter my life’s narrative to preserve my idea of the present, because to do so is a reckless—and potentially dangerous—way to confront the future.