First Apartment (St. Paul, 2013)
I met an FBI agent once. Tess and I opened the door to find a woman in a grey peacoat and a low ponytail. She looked about mid-20’s, medium height, and frazzled.
“Hello?” Tess said. The floor creaked as I peered over her shoulder.
“Hi, I’m with the FBI?” she said, showing us an ID on a lanyard.
“Um, I was wondering,” she continued, cringing a little at her own phrasing, “If you know anything about the woman who lived across the hall?”
“No, I’ve never seen her,” Tess answered. I shook my head in agreement.
The agent glanced at her notepad. “Are you sure? You haven’t seen her coming or going? Or talked to her in the hall?” she asked.
The three of us looked at the closed door down the wallpapered hall as if someone was about to appear there.
“I really don’t think so,” I said. Tess and I looked at each other. My memory started to falter, “I don’t know, maybe I saw her in the hall once?”
The agent left, and we never saw her again. We often mused about the encounter, how she wasn’t like FBI agents on TV. She seemed timid. She didn’t come with a partner. She wore a peacoat. No one we knew had ever met an FBI agent before, but we had within our first month of living in this apartment. Already we were learning new things.
“You look like an FBI agent,” Tess told me the next morning when I pulled on my peacoat to go to class.
The day our landlord showed us our new place, he said we were lucky. It happened to be the biggest apartment in the building with plenty of cabinet space and cute built-in bookshelves.
“My wife is jealous,” he said while we marveled at hardwood floors.
There was an electrical outlet in the shower and one L-shaped bedroom with no closet. There were sinkholes in the hallway carpeting. Tess whispered to me about the layers of white paint pulling away from the walls. We made our deposit on paper checks, feeling very adult about the whole thing.
Tess and I had lived on the same floor our freshman year of college, the year prior. I mistook her for an upperclassman for the first month I knew her because she didn’t have the frantic freshman vibe of I-need-a-friend-group-ASAP. We bonded over the fact that we were both still dating our high school boyfriends and once spent an afternoon watching 27 Dresses in the basement. Other than that, she wasn’t a core friend of mine. I wasn’t used to having close female friends, but that year I had found a cliquey group of Catholic girls and knitted myself into their group. They were the only ones I cared to impress, which is to say I didn’t expect anything from Tess.
We decided to live together because we both needed to live somewhere cheap. Neither of us were getting much financial help from our families—my father was an electrician and Tess’ was a philosophy professor. While most of our friends would be living in fresh smelling on-campus apartments, Tess and I would be in the grimy brick building across the street. We thought ourselves mysterious and bohemian in comparison.
Tess set up the WiFi. She figured out how to pay the utilities. Before moving in, she emailed me about furniture, appliances, and room layouts. She wanted to discuss the chandelier she was making out of cupcake liners and pushpins. I could feel her annoyance at my disinterest in the planning and shopping, but I liked giving in and being taken care of. Cooking utensils, plates, and appliances appeared when we needed them. She contacted maintenance dozens of times to my one. When we divided up chores, I told her I would never be able to take out the trash because I couldn’t stand the smell of the dumpster. I really said that, and I never took it out.
It was sweltering hot until it was freezing cold. Winter air shook the thin glass windows and seeped in through the cracks. Every so often, we were hit with a cold gust of air, and I would check to make sure the windows were actually closed. They always were. Tess shoved paper towels between the window and the sill.
There were a few reasons why that year marked a time of anxiety. I was lukewarm about my college major and my long-distance boyfriend. I would have preferred living with my friends on campus, but I couldn’t afford it. And that was the year I spent $40 a month on groceries. I would often wait to eat until my shifts at the restaurant, where I could eat for free, and I would eat Tess’ food: cereal, ramen, grapefruits, and Thai peanut sauce. Tess would eat my restaurant leftovers: grilled chicken, packets of salad dressing, and orange juice brought home in water bottles. I complained to my friends about her eating my food.
We were confused about how to live on our own. We paid for cable TV, even though we only watched Netflix and streamed America’s Next Top Model. We bought cable because we thought the Internet came “through” cable. Like you couldn’t have one without the other. When I set up Internet for the next place I lived, I was surprised to find out I could purchase Internet alone for half the price.
As we got into our semester routines, Tess made me coffee in the morning. We pretended to be old-fashioned housewives—“Oh I’m just pulling cookies out of the oven! Let me slip into a fresh dress!” We never actually made cookies; it was just something we said. She joined choir because I was in it. We walked to rehearsal together but never sat next to each other. I told her everything without a second thought because whatever, it was just Tess. We talked about getting a cat together and complained about our boyfriends. We applauded ourselves for finding this cheap gem, right across from the manicured lawns of our private university.
“I could live in a mansion for that much!” Tess would say about the cost of on-campus housing.
“That has to be the highest rent in the state of Minnesota,” I agreed.
When we ranted together, it warmed my insides. Like here was this person who understood my problems and could articulate them so smartly. Finally, someone who gets it.
“We should start a compost pile,” Tess announced.
“Where?” I asked. “In the alley?”
“No, like here.”
“Inside the apartment?” I said. “What? Tess, no. There would be fruit flies.”
Tess’ eyes drifted in thought.
“Tess, literally no. That’s not happening,” I said.
Several weeks later I swatted fruit flies away from my ear while sitting on the futon and couldn’t figure out where they came from.
Tess liked science, sports, agriculture, animals—everything I couldn’t care less about. She was a foot shorter than me with blue eyes and freckles. She got better grades than me without trying and had jobs like “Research Assistant” with flexible hours while I worked in food service. She could type emails in class then raise her hand to ask a super relevant and well-phrased question a second later. She was a tomboy and a daredevil. She had purple hair. She was messy, leaving coffee grounds in the sink and letting her betta’s fish tank go from yellow to green to darker green. “But they always do the same thing,” she would sigh when I invited her to hang out with my other friends. She barely slept more than five hours at a time and usually fell asleep on couches at parties while everyone was yelling and drinking around her.
I was studying business in lieu of wanting to be a writer. I made calculated decisions. I over-studied for exams. I erred on the side of safety in finances and opted to work weekends instead of going out. I was tall and lanky, and Tess made me feel like a disproportionate giant. I liked girly things, like reality TV and sweater dresses with tights. I rarely spoke in class and hated talking to people I just met, but around my friends I talked like I had no control over my mouth, spouting jokes, gossip, bad impressions, and secrets I’d promised myself not to reveal. I even talked in my sleep. I prioritized sleep over everything.
At some on-campus event, my friends were standing in a cluster cracking jokes at each other when I noticed Tess chatting with a group of strangers about existentialism. When I left for the night, she was talking to them about Descartes or Dante’s Inferno. There was something about Tess that I both envied and was disgusted by.
I was alone in the apartment the first time I saw a mouse. Cooking noodles with my bare feet against the speckled linoleum, I saw a skitter under the cabinets and a tail disappear under the radiator. I screamed like I saw a ghost.
“We need mousetraps,” I told Tess later.
“I don’t want to trap it,” she protested. She stuck out her lower lip like she was thinking of something cute and harmless. “I want to like, put food out and see if it comes back.”
“Tess!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
We compromised by doing nothing. A few weeks later, we were cooking omelets in the kitchen, and a little brown mouse scurried across the floor towards our feet. We both jumped on a chair, screaming and hugging as it disappeared under the cabinets.
“See!” I yelled, still clutching her atop the chair.
“Uhh, I can’t believe I got so scared,” Tess said, her face red. “I usually don’t get scared like that.”
We both had boyfriends until we didn’t. We were dating our high school sweethearts attending colleges hours away. Our breakups were long and drawn out, punctuated by tearful make-out sessions and wondering if we’d made a mistake. In the late winter gloom, we decided to bounce back. We made a deal to pick new guys to have crushes on and focus our shared efforts there.
I chose this choir boy, whose roommate happened to like Tess. It was the perfect storm for spending a lot of time together with no productive outcome. After weeks of banter, the guys invited us over to their on-campus apartment for dinner. It felt good having a friend to go with. I doubted anyone else in the world would go somewhere just to help me flirt with a boy.
They made us French bread stuffed with layers of meat and cheese and mayo slathered from a gallon-sized tub—“This stuff never goes bad!” I was given the crusty end of the bread. There was no fathomable way to eat this in front of a crush, so I picked at it.
I wasn’t in the right mindset to be there, heartbroken, trying to flirt through a game of chess, and watching Tess show pictures of her trip to Costa Rica. I wanted to turn the choir boy into a loyal boyfriend like the one I’d lost. That night, Tess and I watched America’s Next Top Model on one side of her laptop screen while she typed an assignment on the other side.
Tess’ crush would be a guy from her rowing team. We devised a plan to start a beach volleyball team where they could get to know each other, but it snowed in late April, and by May all anyone cared about was finals.
It rained hard one night, which was how we found out about the leaks. Water sloshed all over the kitchen floor. Water dripped onto the top bunk where Tess slept. Wind rattled the windows by our heads. The next day Tess reported the leaks to maintenance, and they gave us a tube of caulk with instructions to return what was left over. We took turns filling in corners and cracks on the ceiling, knowing it wouldn’t make a difference. The ceiling sagged and dripped from nowhere in particular.
After the rain, Tess had a cold for three weeks straight. She rattled about the apartment, hacking her lungs out and dripping from her nose. Nothing could stop her though. When Tess was sick, she still did all the things she would have done if she was feeling normal. I marveled sleepily as she got up early for rowing practice. I watched the clock as she stayed out late with study groups at the library.
“Just so you know,” Tess had said during one of our first weeks living together. “Sometimes I get sick of people.”
“Oh,” I said.
“It hasn’t happened with you,” she smiled. “But sometimes it might be too much and I’ll have to leave or go on a walk or be like, I have to get out of here.”
“That makes sense,” I said.
For some reason, her telling me this made me feel loved. It sounded like she was saying I was different to her. Like, “I get sick of other people, but not you, Lizzie.” Now I realize that wasn’t what she said at all.
We were both fine until we weren’t. Several months after our breakups, we started to unravel. I barely left my bed for a week. I attended most of my classes, tearing up on the walk and sinking into bed the moment I returned. I called my friends, but they said not to come over because there was too much drama at their place. Tess cut her hair into a pixie and started staying out until four o’clock in the morning. She was never around, and even when she was, she was talking on the phone or falling asleep watching TV.
As we unraveled we grew further apart. We had no tolerance for the other’s crap. One of her chickens died at her childhood house, and I told her, “It’s just a bird, not a person.” Her words had a sarcastic edge or a dismissive, “sure, Lizzie.” She invited people over and served them my food in front of me. I began feverishly writing letters to my ex.
The morning of our choir concert, I woke to find the water off, the bathroom sink sputtering out its last drops. Tess was already gone. I threw on clothes and left for rehearsal, smelling like the dishes I’d washed at work the night before. Luckily I was able to shower at my friends’ place before the concert.
When I got back to the apartment, it was late afternoon, and I was feeling a little better. The water was just another funny thing, like the mice or the ceiling leaks. In a rare moment of confidence, I decided to talk to maintenance myself.
“Um, our water is turned off?” I said when I found the maintenance guy.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “We had to shut off the water.”
“Well, do you know when it will be back on?” I asked.
“By the end of today,” he said. I waited for him to explain further, but then his voice changed, “I think your girlfriend was down here earlier.”
“Tess?” I asked.
“Yeah.” He looked at me curiously.
It didn’t occur to me until halfway up the stairs that he thought we were a couple. I smiled to myself.
“Tess, I think maintenance thinks we’re like, together,” I said, flopping onto the futon next to her. I liked the idea of us being such close friends that someone might mistake us for lovers.
“Well did you correct him?” she snapped. “Did you say we’re just roommates?”
Tess was right. We hadn’t acted like friends in weeks. Maybe months. We just lived together.
What I most remember from our last days in the apartment is that we didn’t have money for toilet paper. I started stealing toilet paper rolls from work and only shared them reluctantly. At some point the apartment lost its charm. It no longer felt like a whole unit, only pieces: bunk beds, a futon, empty mousetraps, and Tess’ fish in dirty water. Her stuff and my stuff. We stopped talking about getting a cat together, and I got back with my ex-boyfriend. I complained about that apartment and Tess. I think she complained about me too.
Tess continued to live there after I moved into a house with my other friends. Our goodbye was overly pleasant, as if we realized too late that time would run out and the way we treated each other would be how things were. We promised to hang out over the summer, knowing we wouldn’t, and she had a new roommate by the fall. It took me a while to realize she had been hurt. Maybe it was the comments I had made or the times I dismissed her ideas. Maybe she heard how I talked about her to my friends. Maybe I relied on her too much to take care of me. I’d thought of her as an elevated person, unbreakable, the kind of person I wished I could be. I didn’t feel like apologizing until long after our year living together—after graduation and weddings, after my friends started calling her crazy over some guy drama, and after I’d stopped talking to all of them. But by then, I couldn’t think of anything specific to apologize for.
About a year after I moved out, I saw Tess at a karaoke night with this guy I heard she’d been dating. She looked pretty and happy, her hair still in a pixie. She wore a strapless dress and a new tattoo on her shoulder.
“By the way,” she said mischievously. “I had a secret compost in our apartment.”
“What?” I said. “Where?”
“Under the sink,” she shrugged with a smile.
“Seriously?” I laughed. “That actually explains a lot.”
We looked at each other a moment.
“Tess, you look amazing,” I said and touched her shoulder. Her eyes were icy blue and full of life. I wondered what I looked like to her.
Lizzie Lawson’s essays have appeared in The Rumpus, Identity Theory, Atticus Review, Gravel, and others. She is an MFA student at The Ohio State University and can be found at lizzielawson.com or on Twitter @lizziedoos.