Rich was a long-time friend. Rich wanted to watch "The Royal Tenenbaums." He wanted to watch it the first night he moved in. It meant so much to him.
Rich had agreed to sublet my previous roommate’s bedroom for the year. Despite my opposition to all things Wes Anderson, I agreed to watch it in the interest of roommately camaraderie.
I met Rich around my freshman year of high school. He was a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend and his Livejournal was stocked with personal anecdotes and funny pop culture observations. We became close over instant messenger and email.
We supported each other through college in different states. He told me about his homophobic family and his bout with stomach cancer. He had just been told he was in remission when we’d met. We didn’t talk about his illness much. The subject made me nervous and he often said he just wanted to put it behind him and live.
One summer, he took the train into the city and I dyed his black hair blue. We saw dozens of concerts together. I got my driver’s license eventually and we drove aimlessly. We got lost a lot. We called each other best friend.
After I dropped out of college, I moved to a crappy apartment in a not yet gentrified neighborhood. I took writing classes, drank a lot of bad wine, worked a lot of laborious menial jobs. It was a great deal of fun but I was cold and tired all the time. I was incredibly broke; I stole most of my groceries from my café job and my Internet access from my neighbors.
I needed a roommate. Rich had just graduated and all he talked about was getting out of suburban hell. We had an informal agreement, so if he was a shitty roommate I could give him an easy boot. He, in return, never had to deal with our laissez-faire landlord or any of the interesting ways the apartment was falling apart. I put duct tape on the leaky windows and had to scream at the landlord to cash the five months of rent checks piling up in my bank account.
The first month was delightful. He didn’t have much stuff, mostly books and a very welcome TV/DVD player. The first night, we cooed over each other’s fantastic literary taste. We both collected pretty vintage children's books and hardcover poetry. We called out for pizza. We hooked up his TV, got stoned, cracked a box of wine and I gave Wes Anderson’s masterpiece another chance.
The next five months were a nightmare. Rich spent all day in the living room eating pizza he wouldn’t share and watching medical dramas and sad movies about drug addiction and disease. He never threw out his trash.
To be fair, I was a selfish roommate too. I spent hours soaking in the tub after work with the bathroom door locked. Neither of us did the dishes but we blamed each other. We did a decent job of talking about these issues and we both tried to be more considerate. He got a bedroom TV and I didn’t take my long soaks unless he was out of the house. No one did any dishes.
But it was the abysmal parties Rich threw that ruined everything. Every weekend he’d invite six or seven of his self-described “fag hags” over to watch Showgirls at top volume and binge-drink. I’ve honestly never seen anyone drink so much before or since. When they got drunk and bored enough, they would pound on the walls all night and trash the apartment.
During the weeks between parties, I could hear him gossiping with these girls about how I looked and talked through the bedroom wall we shared. I realized that I was a running joke among them on social media.
One night, around 4 a.m., I woke up to a bunch of bottle-blondes snickering over my sleeping body. I screamed at them to get out of my house. I woke up that Sunday morning with shards of broken glass in my sneakers.
Before, we had talked about most of what came up. But this was out of control and I no longer felt safe in my own home. This is exactly why I preferred there be no formal lease, now I could just tell him to leave.
I waited around for him all day Monday, luxuriating in the cuttingly mean but adult way I would tell him I’d had more than enough of his evil, childish bullying. Rich hadn’t had a job since the second month and I had no idea where his rent came from, but it always showed up in cash and on time so I wasn’t worried about his safety. He had so many friends. Let them take care of him.
Rich finally showed up looking pale around dinner time. All the air had gone out of my speech hours ago, so I just sighed and asked him what was up.
“Beth, it's back.” he sobbed.
He touched his stomach.
“Oh my god, is it the cancer?”
“I start treatments next week. I’m so scared!”
We hugged, we cried, he needed me. His friends were party girls. They didn’t understand what he was going through. He asked me not to tell people about the cancer; he wanted to keep it private. He needed to be alone for a while. We went to our separate bedrooms.
An hour later, a pizza guy knocked with large pizzas and six-packs. Two hours later, the girls were in the living room and "Starlight Express" was blasting through the cheaply built apartment.
I let the months pass, wracked with guilt, haunted by my own mortality and distracted by trying to make ends meet through a snowy winter. Rich drifted in and out of the apartment, to what I assumed were chemo treatments. The parties slowed in the bad weather, but they didn't stop.
I was losing my mind. How could I evict a man who was going through chemo? What kind of a person does that? I cried on the phone to my mother a lot.
“I can’t deal with it, Mom. They’re ridiculous; it’s all night, every weekend. He told me he drank a whole bottle of vodka on Saturday. I have to get up at 5 a.m. on Sunday but he just doesn’t care.”
“That’s just terrible, Beth.” My mom got these phone calls every week and I knew she wasn’t really listening to my ranting; I just needed to blow off steam. But I had to tell someone why I couldn’t kick him out.
“Mom, I don’t know what to do. He’s got people in here almost every day. There’s trash from parties everywhere. And I don’t’ know how to kick him out Mom, he has stomach cancer. He’s in chemo and his parents won’t let him move back home.”
Both of my mother’s parents died of cancer when she was in her twenties. My mother knows damn well what a person suffering through endless rounds of chemo looks like. She was paying attention now.
“Beth, there’s no way a person with stomach cancer can drink any alcohol, or eat anything even similar to pizza. There’s just no way.”
He lived on pizza and booze. I knew he never threw up because my bedroom shared a painfully thin wall with the bathroom; we had absolutely no privacy in that regard. I understood, with terrible clarity, what had been happening all year.
“Mom, I have to go. I have to deal with this.” I hung up before she could even say goodbye. I was shaking. I felt holy and righteous, like Joan of Arc. All year I felt that my gross habits and radical politics had ruined a meaningful friendship. There had never been any friendship. There had never been anything between us.
I marched down the long hallway, ready to kick him out into the night. He sat on the couch, back lit by the blue light of the TV. Had he heard me on the phone? Or did he watch his movie every night; rewinding the scene he liked the most, the one where it's revealed that Royal Tenenbaum's stomach cancer is a lie?
Gene Hackman’s voice filled up my house: “Look, I know I’m going to be the bad guy on this one, but I just want to say, the last six days have been the best six days of probably my whole life.”
I kicked him out the next day, but I never exposed him as a liar. I believed the dishonestly would catch up to him eventually. I never had to feel sorry for him again.