I met Russ* during my first weekend in Thailand, where we were both selected to teach English in a small town in Phetchabun. Two other young women were also chosen to live and teach with us. There were over 200 teachers in that semester's program, who, based on the preferences listed on their application, were divided into groups to teach and live all over the Land of Smiles.
I knew that this experience would introduce me to people I wouldn't normally encounter in NYC. Maybe that's a stretch, since NYC is pretty eclectic. Either way, I expected to meet some adventurers, hippies, wallflowers, teachers, older people facing a mid-life crisis, post-grads dodging and delaying their student loan repayments and the poor employment in the States, some deep thinkers, and free spirits.
Where did I fit? I am just a curious young black woman striving to build up my résumé of life by traveling, bridging cultural gaps, and writing a bunch of lyrical personal essays that one day would lead to a book.
Russ struck me as a funny white dude who, similar to me, enjoyed reading books, watching cartoons, and indulging in sweets. Plus, he is from my lover's town, so I gave him three brownie points. Then, I found out we're both Scorpios, so I tallied two extra points under his score board. Oh yeah, he's a certified yoga teacher, too. What, what? That meant free personal yoga lessons. I quickly lost track of his score.
But I must admit, I felt dismayed when, during our seven-hour car ride from Bangkok to Phetchabun, the head of the English department looked back at us from the passenger's seat and said, "Female Teacher Number One and Number Two, you both will be living together in the new house we just fixed up; Russ and Alisha will be in the other."
She didn't even ask me if I would be okay living with a male. My parents wouldn't have been too comfortable with that, and, thankfully, my boyfriend was understanding and didn't ponder it. But I instantly had a bad feeling about it — a bad feeling I had to disguise in that moment.
As Female Teachers squealed with joy, Russ and I played it off after learning our soon-to-be house was made for three people and more spacious. His optimism quickly rubbed off on me. Perhaps living with him would be a good thing.
After all, we would be living on a campus that was surrounded by bamboo forests, animals, ponds, and the woods. Our houses were also vulnerable but sturdy — vulnerable because it had open slits in the walls (for ventilation) that allowed dust and all kinds of insects and animals to enter, but sturdy because it was the most peaceful and pleasant place to be when it rained. So having a male presence that can get rid of scary insects for me wouldn't be a bad thing, right?
Living with Russ was okay for a while. As expected, he got rid of spiders, scorpions and other animals that greeted me downstairs or near our bathroom. We awkwardly tried the whole "your food is my food" idea for a while but that had its downfalls. (Once I ate a box of his Kraft mac and cheese that his family sent to him from the States. Maybe I am the worst roommate ever?) We watched cartoons together from time to time. I even had my moments when I needed to confide in him, because in the beginning I felt so alone and misunderstood. After all, he was my roommate, the one I had the easiest access to.
And yeah, he wasn't clean. But when he did clean, it was the most random of things, like our walls but not the obvious places, like our filthy, gecko-shit-littered bathroom.
So what's the big deal, Alisha, you ask? I started to notice that he didn't respect black culture, and ultimately, he didn't respect me as his roommate.
This disappointed me because I try my best to give people the benefit of the doubt. I also genuinely enjoyed Russ's company at one point, which makes his insensitivity even more upsetting.
I knew that Russ enjoyed blasting rap music and talked about his black friends from Baltimore. But I generally wrote him off as a typical white guy who enjoys rap music and has black friends. Nothing unusual.
Then one day, we were both talking about a scene from one of our favorite shows, "The Boondocks." As he began reenacting a line made by Riley, the gangster rap-loving eight-year-old, I experienced this burning sensation in my ears when the word "nigga" rolled calmly and comfortably off his tongue.
The way that he said it let me know that this wasn't the first time he used that word, and sadly not the first time he used it around a black person. I stopped laughing along with the joke and told him to never use that word. "I don't even use that word," I said. "You definitely shouldn't use it."
He shook his head in agreement, but from the look on his face, I could tell he had simply made a mental note to himself to never use that word around me, not to never use it again.
Russ used that word once more, on one of the many days when we came home to find an animal in our house. It was one of the mother cats who snuck in — a grouchy, old cat who unsurprisingly was not nurturing with her offspring. Russ was moving her off the dining table, but she wouldn't budge.
"Move little nigga," he said, as he gently pushed her. I turned from him and stomped up the stairs, a heat rising inside me.
"Oh, sorry," he mumbled.
. . .
At the end of the semester, I decided to do some solo traveling before heading back to the States. Our school granted us a grace period to leave our stuff in our homes while we travel, unless a new teacher is moving in. Russ had fallen in love with a fellow English teacher in another province, who decided to transfer to our school to be with him. She was moving into the house and would take my room.
I asked Russ — on two occasions — if he needed me to move out before my departure date. Both times he told me I could stay for as long as I like, because his room was big enough for him and his girlfriend and they planned on traveling anyway.
So I packed a small suitcase and went to Southern Thailand for a week. I left my keys with a fellow teacher who lived on campus, a woman we called Momi because she is so kind and loving.
Upon my return, I knew I would be arriving campus late at night, and didn't want to disturb her, so I asked if she could leave my key with Russ. Neither of us could get in contact with him, so she left my keys hidden in a desk in our backyard.
When I came home that night, I rummaged all over my small backyard area looking for the keys. They were nowhere to be found. Thankfully, the back door was open. I walked in and looked in the kitchen, thinking that maybe Momi gave my key to Russ and he left it somewhere there. I still couldn't find it.
I went upstairs and found my room door wide open, my key hanging from the lock. Russ and his girlfriend had found my key and went into my room.
I didn't know what was worse — their audacity or their negligence to cover up the crime.
At this point, I had had enough of my name-calling, arrogant, sleeveless tie-dye shirt wearing, sleeping during class roommate. I wanted to bang down his door and demand an explanation. But it was 3 a.m., I was exhausted, and I needed to make sure that no scorpion or cat had entered my room.
I ran to my armoire to ensure that the thousands of baht that I had stashed in my underwear bag were still there. Thankfully, they were. And yes, I kept an underwear bag for fear that gecko shit would land on my panties.
The next morning, I got a text from Russ asking if his girlfriend could leave her luggage in my room. I started to feel relieved, thinking that maybe he sent me that message the night before and that's why he went in my room. Sometimes I got messages late on my Thai phone. I told him she could leave her stuff in my room, and asked if he sent that message the previous night.
“No,” he texted.
Moments later, I heard him and his girlfriend walking up the stairs. "It's not fair, I should be able to move into my own room!" she exclaimed. Before I knew it, the two of them bust my door open.
I rose up in bed like a hungry vampire. They had no idea I was home, and stared at me in shock. "So you two went into my room yesterday?" I asked. They began stuttering and fumbling over their words as they tried to explain.
"We found your key out back!" Russ exclaimed.
"No ... I asked someone to put it there," I replied. "I thought you didn't mind if I stayed longer?" I continued, looking at his girlfriend as I said this, letting her know I heard exactly what she said.
They started showering me with politeness and talking in that high pitched voice people have when they're uncomfortable. But what was the point? They used an opportunity to go into my room and failed to even cover up their mess. And on top of that my roommate referred to cats as ... well, you know the word.
I was out within the week. And then I sent Russ this article.