The German Expressionistic Life of My Roommate, With Swastika Table

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07/19/2009

South Park Slope, Brooklyn, NY 11215

Neighborhood: Brooklyn, Park Slope

The second time I met Michele she wore a similar get-up as the first. She showed up at my office to pick up her set of apartment keys wearing a pink and blue Indian floral tank dress layered over green army pants with the fly held together by safety pins and bright orange clogs.

Her henna-ed brick red hair with unevenly trimmed bangs was pulled pack in a loose ponytail, and she wore thick black plastic framed glasses. Adult acne speckled her hollow cheeks and traces of burgundy lipstick were smeared on her two front teeth, golden from years of black coffee and Camels.

“I have so much to tell you,” she said. “I found out last week I was adopted. So I’m changing my name to Laurel–what my real mother was going to name me.”

“Umm, what about your last name?” I asked, cursing myself for not interviewing another 25 people to take the spare bedroom.

“I’m changing that too, to Roach, my real mother’s last name.”

I half listened to the details of how she discovered her biological mother and severed ties with the adoptive one. I handed her the keys and told myself not to think about what happened, it was too late to find another roommate, and she already signed the lease–as Michele.

Besides, no one else had been willing to take the 10 by 10 room in a not quite gentrified corner of Brooklyn. My previous roommate had only given me three weeks notice that she was moving in with her boyfriend. I was terrified that if I didn’t find someone soon, I would be stuck paying the entire rent, which was impossible on my Publishing salary. And I was tired of spending evenings screaming over the box fan interviewing potential roommates, when I could be sitting in the frigid air-conditioned Barnes and Nobles on Seventh Avenue.

“Smallish room available with decent closet and window in cute South Slope apartment,” I posted on Craigslist. It was technically in Gowanus, one block South of Park Slope, within earshot of the BQE. I discovered the neighborhood from a guy I was dating who lived up the street. He dumped me a week after I signed the lease.

It was August 2001 and I was 23. Michele certainly wasn’t my first choice for roommates, she looked about 35. I assumed people her age could afford to live alone. She was a former movie set decorator who had lived in Los Angeles her whole life, but came to New York for a job as a Webmaster.

For the first few weeks we lived together, I had to correct myself from calling her Michele. Later, she asked me to take her name off the answering machine message, “just in case my adoptive mother tries to find me and kill me.” Sometimes I envisioned her adoptive mother finding our red brick row-house via a private detective and greeting the two of us with a round of bullets.

She wasn’t difficult to live with and abided by my rule that she could only smoke on the fire escape, and she kept the litter for her 19-year-old cat in her miniscule bedroom. I had few complaints aside from the occasional pair of bunched-up leopard print underwear she left on the bathroom floor. She got home from work later than me, sometimes after I was asleep. When she had a deadline, she would often sleep under her desk, so I wouldn’t see her for days.

I listened to Laurel’s stories like I was watching a German Expressionist film. She said that all the bank accounts she tried opening in New York cleared her paychecks too slowly, so she gave up on banks, and stashed her money somewhere in her bedroom, giving me money for utilities and rent in cash.

One reason she moved to New York was to be closer to her married long-distance lover, a B-List actor. She preferred dating married men, who were “less likely to cheat.” He stopped returning her calls when she got here. He agreed to meet her backstage at a show he was performing in to give her his apartment keys to retrieve her resume which was saved on his computer. She came home one evening, dragging his Apple desktop up our two flights of stairs. “If he tries to get it back, I’ll threaten to tell his wife,” she said, her skinny frame shaking with laughter.

One Tuesday morning, I awoke to a loud bang that sounded like thunder. I looked out the window and saw a thick plume of smoke billowing against the cloudless blue sky. I called my boss. “Don’t come in,” she said. “Thousands of people are dead.”

I sat on my couch terrified, watching the buildings fall down over and over again on television.

I couldn’t see any of my friends who all lived in Manhattan since the subway was closed. I didn’t know anyone else who lived in Brooklyn other than Laurel.

Finally she came home that evening, covered with soot from walking home from her Tribeca office ranting about how George Bush had orchestrated the whole thing.

For the next few days, neither of us could get to our offices below 14th Street, so we spent the days eating falafel on Seventh Avenue and walking through Prospect Park.

“Let’s paint the walls lavender,” she suggested. We walked to Home Depot on Third Avenue. The air still smelled sour and I felt guilty for enjoying the 70-degree weather, while the country mourned, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do.

While we painted, she told me stories about how as a child her fake mother would cook chicken baked in ketchup so that her father would take them to a restaurant instead. How after she divorced, she brought Laurel with her on dates and made her sit in the back seat of the car while she made out with strange men. How she tried to kidnap Laurel as an adult while she lay in a coma in the hospital after a car accident, her foot infected with gangrene.

We both returned to work a week later, and suddenly the purple-walled apartment became her canvas. Almost every day she brought home another treasure found in the South Brooklyn garbage: A lobster crate from a seafood restaurant that she propped the TV on, a wooden board she attached wheels to for a makeshift desk for the stolen Apple computer. I missed the way it looked when there was only IKEA furniture and hand-me-downs from my cousin.

One day she came home with a mosaic-tiled table covered with a thick coat of yellow paint. She scraped the paint off with an Exact-o knife revealing a swastika composed of black and white tiles underneath. She started laughing. I forbid her to put it in the living room.

One day in December I woke up in the middle of the night with no heat and food poisoning. I huddled in bed under my down comforter, wearing my winter coat, a space heater pointed directly at my head, vomiting into the plastic bucket we used to mop the floor.

Laurel came home at 10am. She walked into my bedroom telling me how she had flown back from a weekend trip to Los Angeles the day before, went directly to work, and fell asleep on the subway going home last night. She woke at the end of the F Line in Coney Island, got back on the train and fell asleep again, waking up on the other end of the line in Queens.

“Can you please get me some Ginger Ale,” I interrupted. “And can you please call the landlord and tell him there’s no heat?”

A few days later she said she was moving out: The commute from Park Slope to Tribeca was “killing her” and she found an artist’s collective in the Garment District for less rent.

This was it: I had it with crappy roommates, no heat, panicking about running into the ex. I had it with this apartment. I called the landlord and told him we were moving out.

Laurel moved out several weeks before me, using her security deposit as her last month’s rent. I called her several times asking her to mail me her share of the last month of utilities. Weeks went by, and she didn’t return my calls. Finally I called her office number. Her coworker asked who was calling.

“She says she doesn’t owe you any money.” I asked to speak to her directly. She transferred me to Laurel’s line and I got her voicemail.

I sucked it up and paid for her share of the bills. Two weeks later I moved to Manhattan.

Seven years later, hipster bars and trendy restaurants have replaced the bodegas and discount stores of our old neighborhood. The other day, I Googled Laurel. The New York Times ran a profile of her. She works as a set decorator for Off-Broadway shows reworking furniture from the garbage into set pieces. I wonder if anything with a swastika ever made it into the mix.

 

Rachel Zuckerman is a writer and publicist living in Manhattan.

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