Table of Contents



Mary Biddinger



Summer school is like a bikini worn in the place of underwear, so we both enrolled. It had something to do with loans, or preservation of health clinic privileges, or expedited graduation, or our resolution to combat ennui with extreme productivity. At first we decided on a poetry workshop, then changed our minds and took advanced memoir, which appealed to the one of us who was an extrovert much more than the introvert who blushed when a sliver of underwear was visible at the back of summer trousers. Around this time the abnormally large butterflies were spotted in various parts of our city, including the rooftop deck that made me cry every time I climbed up there, west side steeples being too much even without three glasses of Rioja on an empty stomach. My roommate wasn't from Chicago so it was just another deck with a view, but the butterflies evoked something primal, and we vowed to read Love in the Time of Cholera aloud to each other every evening before bed like mother and child. I was wearing my mint green sundress to death, despite my roommate's advisement. When we distributed the first round of workshop essays mine had a strong effect on several classmates' gag reflexes, which signaled success. But it was my roommate's essay that caused our professor to blast a round of hot tears onto the seminar table, like how my Polly Potty doll of yesteryear leaked with enthusiasm. Jack, who always sat by the door, stood up and put on his leather jacket—my roommate's essay was that compelling. The only other workshop triumph would be a case of contagious diarrhea experienced—I hoped—thanks to my second essay ("How to Blow Time"), but my roommate figured it was due to the undercooked dumplings Sondra brought as a sort of reverse ice breaker. On the way to class we'd observed one of the enormous butterflies deceased in a drained memorial fountain. It made me want to get plastered in its honor.



My roommate follows my boyfriend down an alley and it isn't pretty. Actually, both of them are quite pretty, but please don't tell them I said that. There's undue competition. My roommate stacks the bar jukebox with do-me-wrong songs, leaves the alcohol out of my alcohol. Angry-irons pleats into my work pants. Conducts research on bath bombs that cause urinary tract infections (so I can avoid them), research on my boyfriend's whereabouts at a funeral with his wife (but not for his wife). Do not question my roommate's intentions, which exceed the weak gestures of my parents, who created me as yet another bucket of experimental horticulture that didn't live up to the promises of the packet. My boyfriend is a self-taught craftsman, my roommate a doctoral candidate in aesthetics. One of the two was starting quarterback in high school. One of the two won a blue ribbon for a potato-battery clock at the age of five. It doesn't matter this July night in little Italy, as the lyric poets carve a square out of the narrative poets in the parking lot of the disappeared Rigby homes project. When a few ladies in leather pass by, it's my roommate that they commend me on, and noise of the brawl leaks through the Italian-style front windows. When the police arrive they're the junior police, armed with slim pen flashlights. I explain to them that a boyfriend is replaceable, just like a pair of black polyester trousers.




You know the type: can't wait for Christmas, and even on Christmas can't wait for the next Christmas. Neither of us were like that. I always found presents strangely embarrassing. My roommate was more of a giver than a receiver, devoted more time to elaborate wrapping than I spent delirious in the aisles of Filene's Basement. Afterwards I required a cinnamon roll and a cider, but instantly regretted both and spent an hour on the Stairmaster. In the mirror I watched my roommate pair socks with unbridled fervor. I'd put a sweater in the dryer again. Basically unteachable. I stepped harder. Fell asleep in the bathtub and dropped my cherished hardback of Anna Karenina into the suds water. Was it an autographed copy, my stupid boyfriend asked, thankfully out of earshot, roommate juicing a particularly resistant handful of beets. We estimated that 75% of our mutual friends would be giving or receiving engagement rings or other commitment tokens that Christmas. Flex commissioned a mini pair of nuptial handcuffs to surprise Gary with on Christmas Eve, or so my roommate claimed with disdain. Something about a helicopter ride, honey-dipped strawberries (shouldn't that be chocolate or goat's milk, I queried without response), a payphone handsomely bedazzled with stick-diamonds. My roommate paused to lift an ice cube from the bottom of my platform boot—I'd walked through tar and gum on the same afternoon and was not allowed on the carpet. The next day was Christmas. I endured a feverish dream that was both Dickensian and flecked with subtext from Lost Highway. Woke to something hot and wet in the bed, but that was just me. A light shuddered at the base of our trompe l'oeil fireplace, forming a Tolstoy-shaped shadow. For my roommate, on this Christmas and every Christmas, the inscription read in loopy glitter script.




Yes, sometimes we drifted into the fray of the parade and wound up kissing strangers and not in the way learned in French class, which wasn't "French kissing" but something akin to a vigorous handshake. Another stranger might offer beads or a bite of a cruller—warm from the bakery or from being transported via décolletage: nobody knew, and both were considered sanitary. When we visited the new dance club ("Imagination Cabaret"), a woman in the bathroom exclaimed my cuteness (just like Bjork!) then transferred the purple wig from her head to my head. We purchased previously-worn negligées off the rack. Department store testers offered complimentary licks. My roommate started an apple cinnamon Nutri-Grain bar on the Brown Line then tired of it and passed me the stump. Philosophy professors employed the universal term "sloppy seconds" when explaining concepts to general education undergraduates. If you wanted to entice someone you'd fellate the drinking fountain and hope they were watching. Overnight taxi seats were wet when you sat on them and equally wet when you left. So when we gather around the tablet this evening to scroll the latest, I can't help but think of all the roommates in their current confinement, half glad that they now constitute an official household, half wishing they had splurged on an extra set of emergency forks. I recall the winter that we nicknamed The Long Winter. Was it even that lengthy? My roommate helped me shimmy my feet into plastic bread bags before we shoved our rickety cart up Broadway to the Jewel-Osco in the snow. How would we entertain ourselves, we both wondered, and located the most complicated spritz cookie gun available to the general public of 1999. I didn't begin crying until my roommate discovered the chick peas sold out, all marshmallows flattened, and every copy of People damaged in transit. The busses still weren't running, but a guy we vaguely recognized let us squeeze into his car between salvaged recyclables and packed sharps containers. We vowed to start marking the days by the volume of our knitting.



Sunday morning, and I was up early crying over a carpet shampoo named The Final Touch. Even the aggressive windowsill pigeons couldn't cheer me. People still had their flags out. I'd fallen asleep in full stage makeup. My roommate situated a heap of stargazer lilies in a vase and they were bleeding pollen onto untouched copies of The New Yorker. The issue on top boasted a dreamy purple cover but nobody wanted to read the story by Jonathan Franzen. We were collecting enough volumes to make a footstool. I wanted to wash some grapes but had trouble turning on the lamp, which had been recently bedazzled and then stripped of bedazzling. My roommate was blasting Prodigy and I uttered something about the security deposit, which might as well have been a sword, but then I needed my roommate to assist with removing the enormous set of adhesive eyelashes we'd experimented with the night before. Students kept bragging about opulent foam parties downtown and I wanted in. Ever the buzzkill, my roommate insisted on being my "date." The foam-shooter erupted on a dais and my flimsy shift turned into the skin atop a forgotten pudding cup. Ian with the omnipresent pack of Big Red passed me a weird unlit pipe. The rest was fuzz, but somehow I made it into my duckling pajamas and removed my contact lenses (even wearing the skullcap of smack and bleeding from the mouth into a snowbank in high school I remembered to take out my contacts). So there I was, nauseous in the utility closet, cradling a bottle of The Final Touch like a dehydrated elderly cat. Many graduate students would need to explain such tears to a roommate: Dear Roommate, the name "the final touch" speaks to the liminality of existence, as one day we will deposit our last rent check in the red metal box, and hug each other before departing in separate directions, or maybe you'll be on a train and I'll be standing on the platform and realize oh fuck, this is it, and slap the glass but with gloves on so it makes no sound. My roommate knew this without a word, however, and never purchased that brand of carpet shampoo again.





I was kind of obsessed with the turn of the century. This mutated into an interest in the late 1990s, and what happened shortly thereafter. These stories are part of a book-length project with two main characters: roommates who are living what might be their best lives, while experiencing the messy exhilaration of graduate school in Chicago. The duo navigates the world at a time when the internet is just a fad, and strangers still sip from each other's well drinks on the dance floor. They have no idea that they might be living their best lives. Thank you for taking a peek into their apartment window.