I’ve had my share of hits and misses with roommates. There was the college dorm mate who decided to leave an open jar of curry paste right next to my milk over and over (gag, curry cereal milk) and had me lie to her mom for her when she was out having sex with her boyfriend. And the girl who was some brand of Christian that didn’t believe in birth control who often had her 12 siblings over for prayer circles. Let’s just say that I was anxious for a shot at living on my own.
When a good friend of many years, Mandy, told me she lived in an affordable complex in a nice part of town, I leased my own unit there. And two years later when the neighborhood got a little rough, we started talking about getting a two-bedroom lease together somewhere a little less sketchy.
Mandy was a hoarder, although I didn’t know the word for it at the time. The two of us had known each other since my freshman year of high school and her senior, when I noticed she had a brand new Sailor Moon RPG book in study hall.
She had been messy back then, but what teenager wasn’t? She tidied when she was forced to, often with a groan and a grin as she just shoved most of her mess under her bed, but it was when she moved out on her own that I really saw that it went beyond messy and into problem territory.
So when we first started talking about moving in together, I was really wary. At 30 I wouldn’t have even considered it; the way she kept her place should have been a huge red flag. But in my early 20s I was much more of a doormat, especially for long-standing friends. She and I had weathered quite a bit. She had stuck by me start to finish after the murder of my partner, and was one of the only people that I felt I could trust at this particular point in my life.
So I did. I made her promise to keep her mess contained to her room and to work to keep our mutual space clean for when I had people over. Beyond that, so long as we got the deposit back, I was fine. So we signed a lease, moved in together, and for a few months everything was OK.
The thing about dealing with grief is it comes at you in pieces, and it can manifest in ways you don’t expect. I was prepared for the crippling sorrow, the seemingly random urge to hunch down in a ball and cry just because I got a quick whiff of cheap strawberry perfume, and the extended periods of utter emptiness. I hadn’t been prepared for the sudden onslaught of self-loathing.
It was a hateful, gripping thing that told me I wasn’t worth anything from anyone, that I didn’t deserve to be treated well. That I’d lost the only person who I’d ever manage to trick into thinking otherwise.
Thankfully, I’d been seeing a therapist since the murder, and she encouraged me to start setting boundaries with people. Setting boundaries is really, really hard, guys. Setting boundaries means telling people, telling friends, that you aren’t going to do things for them sometimes. It means saying no. It means admitting to yourself that you have some kind of value outside of what you can do for other people, which is something I still struggle with on my bad days.
I started with the safest place -- close friends. I knew there’d be an adjustment period, but these were the people I loved and trusted beyond any others. The people who were there with me through thick and thin. Mandy was an obvious choice. When I told her about it she was completely supportive, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
But anyone who’s started to set boundaries with people can probably tell you this next part: Everyone’s real supportive right up until it’s them you have to say no to. We worked very different schedules, and sometimes she’d call me up late at night to ask me to pick her up from a bus stop so she didn’t have to walk or take a second bus.
In emergencies, this was fine, but it had turned from an occasional emergency into a car service scenario. So I told her in advance that I wasn’t going to do it anymore. Between the two of us, I was the only one who had a car, so she’d ask me to take her grocery shopping. At 11 pm.
I told her that I did my grocery shopping at 2 PM on Saturdays and if she wanted to come she was welcome to. So when she woke up and stumbled out of her room after I’d already gone and come back and acted like I’d just take her anyway, it was a pretty rude awakening for her to find out that I really wouldn’t. Little changes like these were fueling my confidence, but they were killing my friendship.
Things never really improved from there. She started having other friends over as late as 3 AM on nights when I had to wake up early for work, blasting the television or talking loudly right outside my window.
And the mess started to get even more out of control. It bled into the living room by way of mud-caked bikes rolled across our carpet and week-old dishes sitting in the sink. I’d let her know that I was having someone over several days in advance so she’d have time to do the dishes, and she’d make her promises and promptly ignore them.
They started to grow things, and I remember at one point moving a dish of what I think was once moldy tea to one side and finding tiny white squirming things clinging to the sides of the sink. I almost threw up, but instead I hurriedly poured an entire container of bleach down our sink and scrubbed it down until it shined.
After that particular confrontation, dishes never got that bad again, but the state of things was always pretty abysmal. Rather than clean up after her, I’d pile her things, including dirty dishes, in a box and place them in her room so they’d be out of the way. Sometimes it would take her upward of a week to even notice the box was there.
Over the holidays, she accidentally left her apartment key at her mother’s house. So she decided rather than get up an hour earlier than her usual 1 PM wake-up time to go by the leasing office and pick up a new one, it’d be easier if she just left everything unlocked all day in the middle of one of the largest cities in the country.
The fact that all the things in our living room (and almost everything of value in the apartment) belonged to me probably played a part in how little she cared. Two weeks later, when she still hadn't gotten the key, it took me finally putting my foot down and locking her out for her to finally get it replaced.
It was only a handful of months after that before things really hit their peak.
It’s worth mentioning at this point that Mandy wasn’t the best at waking up on time for things. She’d just landed a steady job with a well-respected company in their call center, a job that started in the early afternoon.
She’d been doing this kind of work for a long time now, and in her late 20s you’d think she’d have managed to work out how to set an alarm clock. But day after day she would be scrambling for the door in a panic, late for work again. She stayed up late watching anime, reading fanfiction, and buying doujinshi of her favorite pairings from Japan over the Internet.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge nerd, and at the time I was super into anime. But when you have a job, that stuff’s gotta come first. It's hard to feed your habit if you don’t have any money, which was a lesson Mandy was about to learn because she managed to get herself fired over being late one too many times.
I still vividly remember the phone call. She was in tears, stressed and beyond freaked out. Rent was due in two days, she said, and now she didn’t have a job anymore. Despite the numerous issues we’d had recently, I tried to calm her down if for no other reason than self-preservation. I reminded her that she should still have the money for rent this month, so we’d get that out of the way then worry about the next. There was an awkward pause.
You see, there’d been a big anime convention a weekend or so before. She’d gone, along with her friends, and on top of paying for the entrance ticket she’d bought plush toys, doujinshi and other little knick-knacks. In essence, she’d burned through all her cash on stupid shit and needed me to cover for her.
Even if I’d been able to, I wouldn’t have done it. I was beyond livid. She’d lost her job because she couldn’t get out of bed before noon and now she wanted me to pay for her mistakes?
Something inside me snapped in that moment, something that’s stuck with me all these years later. A kind of confidence, a sense of self worth that I’d never been able to give myself before. I’d been mad like this on behalf of my friends when they’d been treated poorly before, but never for myself.
My trusted friend of nearly a decade thought this was what I was good for? This was what defined our friendship? No. Fuck that. I was done. After months, years of telling myself that I deserved better, I finally believed it.
I told her I wouldn’t be paying her way, and she acted like I’d just told her that I’d thrown a sack of kittens into a river. Lots of heated words were exchanged and at the end of them, we decided we needed a little space apart to calm down so we could talk about this again later.
I was about to go out of town on a business trip for the weekend and she was going to be staying with a friend. I’d suggested that we split the fee to sever our lease and go our separate ways as a kind of last ditch effort to repair our friendship, and I was hoping that we’d pick up there when I got back. As it turned out, we wouldn’t be picking up anywhere.
When I got back from my out of town meeting, she was gone. And I mean gone. All of her things were packed, she’d left the keys on the table along with a couple of movies she’d borrowed from me forever ago. But none of the money. Not that month’s rent, not the severance fee, nothing for our shared household bills. She’d ditched me with all of her responsibilities when I’d refused to lay down and take them on for her willingly.
In total she cost me around $2,000, and when that’s roughly 1/12 of your annual salary, it’s not an amount you can afford to lose.
So I nagged her. Relentlessly. I’d worked at a law firm before and knew how to file in small claims court, so I made sure everything was documented. To my surprise, she started to reply. At first just with sob stories about how I was a terrible friend who was trying to “squeeze blood from a stone,” but eventually pockets of money would trickle in.
My response to each of her messages was a simple “Thank you for paying me, here’s how much you still owe.” And over the course of several months, I dragged every penny out of her. I was ready to wash my hands of the whole thing and move on.
Around six months later, I got an e-mail from Mandy. It was long, and at first looked like an apology letter. The further in I got, the more I realized it wasn’t really. She took no responsibility for ditching me, instead choosing to place the blame at the feet of friends who she said talked her into making a poor choice. She said she regretted ruining our friendship over it.
My reply to her was simple. I was also sorry that our friendship had been ruined by this, and I wished her the best in the future. And I really do. I hope she got out of her dead-end job and the small town she hated, I hope she found great friends and built up a life for herself that makes her glad every day for the choices she’s made.
I hate carrying around baggage. If there’s one thing I learned from my partner’s death, it’s that baggage just isn’t worth it. And Mandy had given me an additional lesson that’s just as crucial -- letting go. I knew then that I didn’t want to carry around Mandy’s baggage ever again.
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