Live Alone, But Die in a Very Large Group If You Can

And other answers to questions you didn’t ask.

Image: kbcanon via Flickr

“I’m having trouble with my roommate. What should I do?” —Troubled Terry

Human beings were never meant to live with one another. We’re just not built for it. Adam and Eve, look how they fucked that relationship up. Blaming each other, listening to snakes. Their sons killing each other. All we do is get on each other’s nerves, constantly, for almost no reason. Basically all American sitcoms are about how impossible it is to cohabitate with anyone, including our families. If we were smart we would have long ago adopted those Japanese Hotel Pods everywhere. Make them sound proof, so I don’t have to hear my neighbor’s Creed CDs on full blast. Lock yourself in and everyone just live and sleep in dark, soundproof, lonely silence.  We think humans are the cure for loneliness. But the cure is probably robots. Or at least, talking boxes.

Have you ever tried sharing a bed with someone? It’s practically damned near impossible. They’re always stealing your blankets and pillows, complaining about your snoring, pushing your stuffed animals off the bed, eating your Pop Tarts, messing with your porn. They want to be held all night, which basically involves them crushing your arm with some part of their body. I used to have six arms! Most have fallen off. Because they got crushed by people sleeping all over me at night.

Sleep is really one of the last pure joys in my life now that I’m 44 ½. Eating tacos is second. Sex is like 10th on that list. All I really want is to walk around my apartment naked, watch old cop show re-runs, and occasionally work on my left-handed wiffle ball swing. Thankfully I have a roommate who understands and nurtures these activities in my life. I’m very lucky. I was introducing Ben to an old friend of mine, and Ben said one of the sweetest things anyone has ever said about me. “Jim’s trash,” he told my friend, “but he’s mine.” The other sweetest thing Ben ever said about me was that I could pass as an Eastern European mobster.

Ben took me in out of some kind of wild mix of pity and bewilderment. And we’ve been thick as thieves ever since. But we have our troubles. Ben likes the kitchen sink clear at all times. Which is hard to maintain, because I used to love to keep dirty things in there, in the hope they would disintegrate. Now I have to hide all my dirty dishes in the dishwasher. Which Ben doesn’t like but I think he can respect. I run it once in awhile, sometimes just as a distraction during a roommate squabble. “I can’t hear you over the dish washer! Let’s talk about this later!” That kind of thing. “Are you talking to me? I can’t hear you over the dish washer!” And so our lives roll forward.

People are going to tell you that communication is the best quality to have with roommates, but that usually means leaving little passive aggressive notes for each other. “PLEASE DO NOT DRINK MY BEERS AND EAT MY CHEESE.” That kind of thing. The “please” is just there to mock you.

I had a big blow-up with Ben about cheese. I like to leave cheese out. I like the idea that cheese is but a knife motion away, in another room, waiting for me whenever the whim to eat it arises. Ben thinks that cheese should be eaten in an orderly way and refrigerated whenever the cheese-eating is completed. It’s definitely two different ways of looking at the universe. In one of the universes, cheeses can be eaten at any moment. At others cheeses must be constantly unwrapped and rewrapped. And the eating of cheese is regulated by the swinging of the refrigerator door.

How long should cheese sit out, being ready to eat? That’s between you and whoever you live with. And be prepared for some erudite debates on the matter. They key to living with anyone is having your own space. Is there someplace you can hide, close your eyes, and pretend that no one is around? I do this on the subway all the time, standing there in a crowded train car imagining I am in a very large field populated by fireflies under a huge curve of stars. Sometimes I imagine the field isn’t grass, it’s flannel sheets. Anyway, if you carve out a little mental space just for yourself, get a indoor tent or some kind of closet you can scream in, you’ll be cooking with gas. Which is good.

You can get some of those headphones that just block out everything, sit cross-legged in your tent with the lights out. I learned this breathing thing in yoga, blocking one nostril and trying to breathe in and out using the other one. It really calms me down. Do that in your tent. Emerge from your tent only when you need cheese. Understand that you’ve never felt truly complete outside of the womb and that you will probably never completely trust anyone ever. It really puts things in perspective, with this stranger you’re living with listening to Tori Amos just over there in the other room. But they could be miles away with the darkness you’ve made, the breathing you’re doing and the silence that completely envelopes you.

You may need to live with people just to pay your bills. But you create your own understanding of the world. Walls, buildings, yards, fields: these are all perceived constructs. Things we’ve created to mitigate how connected we are to everyone else. And humans are only fun to deal with in bits and pieces. So let them in when you need. Ride out their rants about cheeses. Try to see things from their point of view, a point of view that is inherently wrong because it is not centered around you. Understand their point of view, identify something unspeakable about that person, and then slowly use it against them for as much time as you can stand to be together. At some point they will completely give up on trying to change you. Just as, eventually, a river turns a mountain into a fjord. Hang in there, Terry! Unless you win the lottery or something. Then you can buy an island! Full of cheese!


Jim Behrle lives with Ben in Jersey City, NJ.