By the time I graduated college, I’d had somewhere close to 37 roommates: the first two in the triple room my freshman year, the next two in another triple when I changed dorms after one quarter, my solo roommate all of sophomore year, then the string of roomies after I moved into the sorority. Every quarter we would get new suite assignments as a way to get to know all of our sisters. I already two biological sisters with whom I’d shared a room for my entire childhood.
I felt as though I was an easy-going sort after all of those different personalities. I roomed with my college and travel buddy for one year after we got back from Venezuela and got my new principal to hand her an interview at the school where I’d landed a job. That roommate relationship went south (see One Flood, Two Fishermen) near the end of our rookie year as teachers. Then I moved to Omaha and lived alone for three years.
It is expensive to live alone. A member in my group of friends, buyers at an Omaha department store and whom I met through a sorority sister, introduced me to Jan. She was looking for a place, and we decided to rent an apartment together. Jan was a couple years younger than I was.
The place we picked had one big bedroom with a tiny bathroom attached, and one small bedroom plus a hall bath. We agreed that I would take the big bedroom and that I would store my large couch in it. We would use Jan’s flowered couch and matching love seat in the living room. She would have full use of the hall bath.
I didn’t know I’d just signed on with the roommate from hell.
Jan was the opposite of easy going. She alphabetized her cosmetics. She ironed her jeans. She embarrassed me in front of friends when she thought the dishrag needed changing, carrying it over to us with the tips of two fingers.
“Have you smelled this lately?”
Her boyfriend was there all the time unless Jan was traveling for work with the railroad. He was quiet and nice, but she wanted to make out with him on her couch while I sat on the love seat. It was a stand-off. How far could they go before I’d get up and leave? I had a stack of papers to grade from my English classes after being on my feet all day. I had my fave TV sitcom on, my good reading light, my diet Coke. They could grunt and sigh all they wanted. I wasn’t moving.
“Don’t get red ink on my love seat,” she said.
Jan cooked dinner for her guy a lot and never offered me a bite of anything. That was okay. I cooked my own food. One day I reached in the cupboard for the pans, and they were gone.
“Where are the pans?” I asked.
“Oh, I put them away,” Jan said. “I am saving them for marriage.”
Seriously? We were eating off my dishes. I later packed them up.
“Where are the dishes?” Jan asked the next day looking for a plate.
“I am saving them for marriage,” I said, making my point.
The pans came back to the kitchen, and I unpacked the dishes.
“Aren’t you going out tonight?” Jan asked one Saturday winter’s eve when it was below zero with the wind chill factor.
“No, too cold,” I said.
I sat at my sewing machine in the middle of a big project, my boom box blaring.
Jan and Dan ate dinner inches from me, offered me nothing, and went into the living room to lie on the couch and neck. The blue-white light from the kitchen where I sewed must’ve been a mood killer.
Her thought: Go to your room and let us have our romance.
My thought: Go down the hallway and shut the bedroom door.
I finished my project that night, determined not to be pushed around.
This continued for months. One Sunday near the end of the semester I had all the 8th grade English papers sorted into piles on my dining room table by classes. After grading all those late papers, I took a break and was sitting on the couch having a diet Coke with my feet up.
Jan and Dan stomped in from church, and Jan proceeded to go over to the table and push everything off of it so she could set two place settings for the two of them. I was ten feet from her. She could’ve asked me to pack up the papers. I jumped up to salvage my morning of sorting.
Jan had fire in her eyes. Clearly she was a neatnik, and I was pushing her buttons.
During that year Jan had her jaw realigned to correct her under-bite. This was accomplished by the orthodontist breaking her jaw and wiring her mouth shut. Drinking her calories for six weeks did not improve Jan’s mood.
But the absolute worst episode was when I stood at the front door, pounding on it because I had just smashed my thumb in the garage door. I had pulled it down and missed the handle as the metal sections came together. It was 7:30 in the morning, and blood was running down my hand. I couldn’t get the key into the keyhole with my left hand.
The neighbor across the hall heard the pounding, opened the door, retrieved a white towel and gave it to me. He disappeared back inside his apartment.
Jan opened the door and saw the blood stains and me standing there in pain.
“Is that my towel?” she demanded.
“What? No! Hey, I just smashed my thumb, and I think I broke it.”
“Don’t get any blood on my furniture,” she said, turning away from me.
Then the neighbor came out with his car keys and said he’d drive me to the ER.
It was the Monday after Thanksgiving. I told the neighbor I had to call my principal, so he waited while I dialed the phone with my left hand.
“You’ll be docked a day of pay since it is in the contract regarding Mondays after holidays.”
“Whatever,” I said. “I am on my way to the ER.”
The ER doctor thought I was overreacting until he saw the x-ray. I had shattered my thumb bone at the tip. He splinted me up, told me to change the dressing every day and to soak my thumb in Epsom salts.
“You’re probably going to lose the nail,” he said.
Fast forward six months. The nail had fallen off and was slowly growing back. I learned how important the nail is, to prevent bumps to all the nerve endings in the tender thumb. Without a nail, I was constantly hitting the thumb of my dominant hand. It was the worst pain I’d ever felt (hadn’t given birth yet). It killed me to write on the chalk board, to cook, wash dishes, etc.
When our lease was up, I moved out and said good-bye to Jan. I never saw her again, and that’s fine by me.
Couldda Wouldda Shouldda
Jan and I should’ve hammered out a roommate agreement, Sheldon Cooper style. But we didn’t, and we didn’t discuss anything. We did childish things like pack up our pans and dishes and play chicken with the living room.
My thumb accident killed any career I might have found as a hand model. Now, every time I look at my deformed nail, which grew back crooked and with ridges, complete with a dent down the middle, I remember that Monday morning in Omaha.