Thursday, January 17th, 2019

That One Time I Lived With 12 Roommates (And 5 Cats!)

Published on July 6, 2015 by   ·   No Comments Pin It

“You like cats, right?” V asked me, as a black Siamese clawed at the tight X’s of my shoelaces.

“Oh, totally,” I said, terrified. I had just moved to Boston and V was showing me around her home, which had been in her family for years. The Craigslist ad for the house hadn’t been too promising — “12 tenants, 5 cats, 2 giant turtles and a depressed dog” — but I was too debt-ridden and cash-thin to care. Lately, I had been letting my standards sink to the pit of me, where I thought they belonged, or at least where I wouldn’t be able to find them. As I watched V’s cat spew up orange-yellow puke onto the kitchen counter, I just shrugged and told myself, “It’s fine. This is completely fine.”

I helped V mop up the orange clumps with a towel. “His vomit looks like Saturn,” I observed and V smiled politely. She introduced me to the other roommates, most of whom were medical interns from overseas. One of them worked at Harvard Medical and I expected to hear that lilt in his voice — Haaaaarvard — but he merely mumbled the word. The housemates were lighter and more unguarded then I expected. They joked around a lot, usually at each other, but in a loving, clubby way. Did you guys know that Oren doesn’t know how to use the microwave? Hahahahahahahaha.

V asked me to stay for dinner and since it seemed better than the alternative — a half a bowl of whipped cream — I did. I watched on, as the housemates prepared the food, the dueling flavors from different cultures melding into one. I figured my own culture’s cuisine (kosher-style deli?) might be the only fare that couldn’t kick it with the other flavors, the fatty Jewish lard surely rubbing out the zing from the other spices. But I wouldn’t want to impose anyway. The housemates seemed to have their cooking cadence down to a science, sliding seamlessly in and out of their various roles — Oren stirring the curry, Elena whacking at the meat — without even really discussing anything. It was like a lyrical dance. Perhaps this is what my dad had meant when he said I needed a “sense of community.”

A few weeks before, I’d been watching the episode of Friends where Phoebe was singing about her mom lying dead in the kitchen, her trusted gang cheering her on. I was instantly jealous. “Is this a real thing?” I asked my friend Ariel, “Six friends who are all friends with each other?” I was used to having a collection of friends who were scattered like dust motes across the city. Some of my friends knew each other and a few of them even sometimes hung out without me. But the concept of “community” still seemed elusive, like it was just drifting in from some other dingy dimension.

Which is not to say I didn’t crave it. When I was a child, I used to imagine being the youngest of eight children living on a farm across the street from Anne Shirley (the kicky heroine of the Anne of Green Gables series). In these fantasies, I’d be even more of a “bad seed” than the plucky Anne. I’d break out of the house at night to build forts made of branches by the creek, never once afraid of getting my pinafore dirty. There’d be other incarnations of this daydream; I’d be causing trouble in a medieval orphanage, or in one of those “reformatory school for girls,” which I’d read about in a novel reimagining the life of an adolescent spy.

But in all these flights of fancy, I’d still be living with a heap of people. There’d still be a structure to the way we lived, a rhythm. We’d be confined not just by rules (and there would be rules) but by the boundaries of having an entire community depending on us, judging us, loving us. I was drawn to these boundaries and, also, to breaking them down. But I think what I was most drawn to was being watched. Is this what sparks belief in God? Even for the most solitary among us, we don’t want our existence to be in vain. If we live alone, who is going to witness that we existed from 6:00 pm to bedtime? Do we need email time stamps to prove: “We were here. We were alive.” Even if all we’re doing is hate-watching Dance Moms, doesn’t our trash-viewing matter more if someone saw us do it? If a tree falls, etc.

I was single without kids at the time, but that seemed beside the point. I wanted to have a family someday but that circle of trust seemed narrow as well. We spend so much time at home doing these tiny stupid tasks — making tea, adjusting the thermostat — for, like, 1 to 4 people. It seemed limiting. Why not make tea for 15 people? Fifty-five even?

V told me I could move in that night. “I’ll get the cawwwwwr,” she crooned. I complied, even though I hadn’t yet discussed the terms of my lease or mulled over my aversion to cats or large crowds. It was just this very matter-of-fact, no-duh instinct: Yes, I should give this a try.

A week after moving in, the housemates were telling me about this jerkbro next door (Carter) who once paintball-gunned V’s cat green. The cat had rambled into Carter’s yard and instead of carrying him back to our house, like a normal person, Carter decided he was going to teach this punk feline a lesson. Though a year had passed, my housemates still got red-faced heated at the mere mention of Carter, which I found touching. Sure it was an anger bringing them together, but it was the most palatable of angers, anger on behalf of those around you.

When you live with so many others, emotions get transferred around. You take on each others’ emotions and forget which emotions started in you. This rarely happened when I lived with one or two people. In these scenarios, small misunderstandings would, on occasion, flare up into reality show-sized duels. No, you left the decomposing veggies in the fridge. No, you. Sure, issues arose in the house but they would swiftly vanish into a vapor, get lost in the blur. Living with so many other people helps gives us a sense of proportion and humor about ourselves. It helps us separate the Real Issues from the self-prioritizing gruel.

Even so, I knew my living arrangement was far from “cool.” Since college, I’d been coveting the lives of the artist-poets I’d see on the Selby, with their impossibly cool lofts, their flat, impersonal wall art. These girls never had roommates, especially not 12 of them. Having multiple roommates was firm evidence — like Live, Love, Laugh posters or cliquey friends — that you hadn’t quite yet reached that hallowed level of life called adulthood.

My friend Nina was convinced the house was just a phase. “So this is just this temporary thing, right?” she kept asking me, “You’re looking for a more permanent…situation, right?” I wondered why Nina was so quick to dismiss communal living when she complained of feeling alienated in her studio in New York. Most of my friends in the city complained of feeling lonely, cut-off. Even the ones who were coupled up felt rootless. Friends bragged about not knowing their next-door neighbors’ names as if that was the ultimate emblem of chicness. I’ve never even met them! I’m never even home! Why did we insist on holding up our alienation on a pedestal? Why did my friends give so much currency to something they didn’t even wholly want?

Two years later, I moved out. I found a job in DC. I snagged a studio in the city. My friends and family were beyond thrilled I’d left this “weird hippie commune.” That I was now a real-life adult. A real-person. My brother kept telling everyone I was on an “upward swing.” I admit I didn’t miss having to break into defense mode every time someone brought up my living situation at a dinner party. “I promise it’s not as cult-like as it seems…” But I missed the manic mayhem and possibility of the house. I missed the in-built connection. In my new studio, I struggled to settle into the stillness. I could still feel the blitz of action and energy of the house around me. My studio was oftentimes sound-less, conversation-less but I could still hear these low-level buzzing sounds, like I had just returned home from a rock concert. There were, of course, no distinct words or phrases or accents or inflections in these sounds, it was just an unplaceable murmuring. But I knew where it came from. Whenever we meet new people or ascend from new experiences, there’s a shift in our circuitry. We create new grooves in our memories and new links in our wiring. Usually, the impact is so subtle we have no idea it’s happening. But other times, it’s so pronounced it emerges in our consciousness like a sixth sense. We can feel it somewhere in the atmosphere of us, though we can’t always quite place exactly where that is. Those faint fizzy sounds, those after-rock concert sounds; maybe I’d be hearing those sounds forever; maybe it was okay that I did.

Names have been changed.

Rachel Ament is a writer in DC and the editor of the anthology: Jewish Daughter Diaries

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