When you’re a backpacker – namely, one who’s just graduated from college – living accommodations in your budget range aren’t exactly plush. From overbearing landlords to hostel rooms stuffed with bunk beds, sometimes it’s enough to make you nostalgic for that cramped dorm room, socks on doorknob and all.
Imagine my delight, then, upon finding an ad for a large, affordable room right next to a park in a nice part of London, directly after returning from an unsuccessful visit with a landlord who had proclaimed cheerily, “At night it gets a little dodgy, but don’t worry, the prostitutes will look out for ya!”
Now take that delight and square it, as I visited the flat and found the man who owned it – let’s call him Rajiv – to be pleasant and respectable. As we drank tea together at his kitchen table, I learned that he was a lawyer and that his wife had taken the kids back to Malaysia for six months, which is why he wanted to sublet a room. Perfect, I said. I had planned on staying for six months and I excelled at subletting.
Perhaps I should have taken his wife’s conspicuous absence as a red flag, or, too, the way he insisted I remove my shoes before entering the flat, but ex pats have a tendency to miss home (this I knew too well myself), and removing shoes is only polite, especially in non-Western cultures. So, I knocked by those flags like an expert downhill skier, moved my things in the next day, and Rajiv and I entered into the 5 Phases of a Roommate Relationship That’s Bound to End in Tears.
Phase #1: Polite Accommodation
One of the things I had loved so much about the flat was just how clean and orderly it was. I found, however, when I attempted to add my own meager possessions into the mix, that things were so in the right place, there wasn’t much room for anything else. In fact, it almost seemed like I had moved into a display flat. There were no towels on the towel rack, no dishes in the dish rack, and no toothbrushes in a toothbrush holder.
“I guess I’ll just leave this on the side of the sink,” I said to myself as I unpacked my toiletries.
The next day, a knock came on my door.
“Oh yes, Leah,” Rajiv began, as if he had just remembered he wanted to tell me something while he was in the process of knocking. “A couple of things. I have decided that the toothbrush holder is making a mess, so I am taking it out. I installed another rack for your shower things, so I expect you not to put them on the side of the tub any longer, as it makes things too cluttered. Also, I noticed you have been using the towel rack, but do you see how I do not do so? That’s because it marks up the metal, and we cannot have the metal marked up.”
“Okay,” I said, wondering if he was familiar with the concept of, “Chilling out, dude.” Still, I didn’t feel like any of this was a big of a deal. Everyone has their own degree of neatness, so maybe this guy just had higher standards than me. Plus, I had been trying to get better at picking my battles lately. Having just graduated college, I was on a confidence high, and I figured, what does it matter if I accommodate him here and there? If that’s what makes him happy, fine.
I couldn’t anticipate the hit to my confidence, the shift in the power dynamic, or just how awful it is to live in a place where you must watch your every move – to live in a place that’s anything but a home.
Phase #2: Passive Aggression
Problem was, my conditioner didn’t fit in the new rack. And the toothbrush holder wouldn’t stay stuck to the wall (do those little suction cups ever work?). But Rajiv was not to be disobeyed. Morning after morning, I found my shower things jammed into the shower rack, sometimes so violently the whole thing had slid into the tub, which, in my mind, defeated the point of the rack.
And it didn’t stop there. Soon, it seemed like he was always hovering my shoulder, waiting to say, “OMG I just thought of this critique right now! I totally haven’t been stewing over this all day at the office!” (Though perhaps not in those words).
The kitchen table – where we had not so long ago shared a blissful cup of tea – was not to be pulled out from the wall unless he said so, rendering it pretty much unusable. The dish cloth was to be folded in a certain way before being hung. Dishes were not to be left to dry in the dish rack. The microwave door was to be closed in a discreet manner. Obviously, the sponge was for the right side of the sink. How could I not have known this?
That Zen, what will be will be attitude of mine? Yeah, that petered out in the second day. Naturally, I ranted to my girlfriends about the situation at every opportunity, yet soon I began to feel bad about myself, like I was a petulant child who couldn’t get anything right. Like I’d never be respected as a newly minted adult.
I didn’t help any by enacting my protest in the most passive aggressive ways possible. I stubbornly continued to store my shower things on the side of the tub and my toothbrush on the side of the sink. As Rajiv ate his dinner on the nearby living room couch, I made a show of ringing out the sponge with grand arm movements. To hang the towel, I threw my body dramatically towards the stove, sighing all the while.
We would have gone on like this until I moved out, except that, suddenly, he decided he wanted to visit his wife in Malaysia earlier than he had first said and he was invoking his right as the landlord to kick me out at any time for any reason as long as he provided two week’s notice. In fact, he was being generous in offering me a month. On this issue, at least, I argued, but that contract I had assigned had me cornered.
For days, I fumed alone in my room – the one place he didn’t poke his nose into – fuming at the injustice of it all. My heart clenched with fear every time I heard his key turn in the door.
What could I do to get back at him? I could take all of the dishes out of the cupboards and hide them around the apartment. No, he’d find that out before I was gone. I could leave the sponge on his pillow with a note that said, “Is this the proper place for the sponge?” No, he locked his door. (I knew, I’d checked. Judge me if you will).
And then, it came to me: I was going to use. That. Dishrack. I was going to make a mess of the kitchen, and then clean it up so he had no idea what had happened in his very home. I was going to make a kitchen cuckhold of him.
And I knew just the way to do it: Thanksgiving.
Phase #3: Subterfuge
Before the cooking could begin, I scoured London for the essentials – hard to find in a city that saves its prime turkeys for Christmas. I went and bought myself a nice new food processor for the occasion. I had no idea whether or not any Thanksgiving dishes would actually require blending, but I figured I’d find a way. Because what would be more rebellious than – whoopsies! – knocking the top off mid-blend?
My girlfriends cheered me on over email.
“You use that dish rack, girlfriend!”
I gathered my materials and waited. And waited. And waited. Until finally, he went away on a day-long business trip. I took off from work, pulled on my red, pleather ballet flats, blared the Kooks from my laptop, and set to work.
Oh, anarchy in the kitchen! What a pleasure, what a joy! How I waltzed across that kitchen, throwing flour haphazardly over my shoulder, soaking spotless spoons in cans of cane syrup, dropping eggs on the floor and “forgetting” to clean them up, and dance, dance, dancing in my little red Dorothy shoes.
Then, when the pies were all baked and the sides properly crisped, I scrubbed a pan clean, rinsed off the suds and placed it in the dish rack. Heart pounding. Throat dry. Rebellion.
When Rajiv returned that night, no signs of the mess remained. Just the suspicious smell of baked goods, and a fridge filled to bursting.
Take that, neat freak.
Phase #4: Direct Confrontation
Of course, I had forgotten one detail. The towel that I had used to clean everything up was filthy, so I got a knock anyway. Soon, we were locked in a screaming match. This time, however, I didn’t back down, telling him that he made me feel like I was less than human, that I couldn’t breathe without him criticizing me. To that, his eyes fell to the floor.
“My wife says that, too,” he said. And then, I felt like a terrible human being all over again.
Phase #5: Amends and Moving On
Things with Rajiv settled down after that. Sure, my heart still pounded like crazy every time I heard him enter the flat, but I was able to balance my anger and fear with a deeper understanding of who he was without capitulating to him. As we neared the end of our time together, I could sense an apology coming, and I mulled over what I should do about it. I could accept it gracefully, sure, and be a real adult. But what had I done throughout our time living together butapologize? And every time I did, he took that as license to be worse to me, take more power away. I couldn’t say, “It’s okay, Rajiv,” because it wasn’t, and I wanted him to know that.
On my last day, I struggled in the privacy of my room to pull the 100+ pound backpack of my accumulated junk onto my body, weaving my arms through the straps as it balanced on the edge of my bed, hooking a second heavy backpack onto the front to counterbalance, and waving my hands wildly to pull myself into a standing position. Then I trudged into the living room, where Rajiv and three of my overstuffed shopping bags sat, waiting for me to skedaddle. Rajiv took one look at me, and offered to drive me to my friends’ flat, where I would be staying for the next couple of weeks. I politely declined – I wasn’t taking any of his charity – at which point Rajiv’s face began to contort.
“It’s coming,” I thought. “It’s almost here.”
“Leah,” he said. “I’m…I’m sorry if I ever did anything to upset you.”
There. The moment of truth. Would I take his admission of wrongdoing, be an adult, and move on, even though he’d take forgiveness as an absolution?
“Well,” I said, with a tone of finality. I waved my arms wildly and arched my body painfully down towards the shopping bags, struggled to reach my hands around the bulk of my front backpack, gripped the bags desperately, and struggled back into a stand. “Goodbye, Rajiv.”
I think my backpack knocked a plant over as I left the flat, but I didn’t care. Not even as I found myself jammed in the door and Rajiv had to unhook me, nor as I had to wait while several elevators passed before I could cram myself inside. I was doing this on my own. I was winning.
When I arrived at my family friend’s house, I struggled up the stairs to deposit my bags in my new bedroom. To my surprise, on my bed there sat a dish rack with a note on top from my new hosts.
“Here is a dish rack all of your own,” it read. “It is yours to use as you please. Just don’t use the microwave.”
Finally, I’d found home.
Leah Kaminsky studied and worked in London in 2005 and 2007, and took a round the world trip after college. She writes blogposts, web copy and white papers for marketing companies and small businesses. She is also the founder and head writing consultant at Just Start Applications, a company that helps high schoolers, college and graduate students tell their unique stories. Her fiction writing and terribly drawn comics are available on her blog.