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The first time I saw my new roommate in person, it was after waving him down in front of my apartment building on a muggy August night. He had just driven hundreds of miles from his mother's home in New Jersey to live with some eccentric 31-year-old lesbian (that's me!) in Ohio, someone he had never met outside of the then-hugely-popular online game World of Warcraft.
It was a big, crazy risk for both of us. And everything worked out perfectly. More or less.
When we met in the online world, we were both on an RP server –- a little subset of the over 10 million-player population that rejected character names like Mahballz or Pwndu in favor of using the game's environment and community for storytelling and role playing. (The RP community was and still is pretty heavily female. Anyone who thinks women don't play WoW has never been on an RP server.)
He was smart and emotionally mature in a way teenagers rarely are. I was an aspiring fiction writer looking for a creative outlet who tended to click best with guys who weren't trying to sleep with her. He joined my guild and the two of us realized pretty quickly that our creative styles meshed perfectly: We delighted in dramatic but psychologically realistic stories that made our characters absolutely miserable. His PTSD-suffering elf knight and my twinkish zombie boy burdened with a cursed sword (just go with it) became fast friends and then lovers as we became comfortable enough with each other to trust things not to be misinterpreted.
Within a couple months, we were online best friends.
We were close enough friends for me to be worried about his home situation. He was 17, a senior in high school, and the last of his siblings living at home when his parents divorced. Things had been bad before –- he'd had to leave a big in-game multiplayer raid once because of his brother pulling a kitchen knife on their father -– but once he was alone with his mother things got worse. She moved them down to the Jersey Shore, where he had no friends and no real job prospects. For a couple months he had to commute over an hour each way so he could finish school without transferring, and the distance effectively cut him off from his local friends.
He also bore the brunt of his mother's emotional problems. Once he turned 18 and graduated from high school, he realized how hopeless things were for him. He was miserable, and he's told me since that if he hadn't moved away, he might have become suicidal.
In Ohio, I was facing my own problems. I had been living with untreated anxiety disorder all my life and it had led me to make some terrible decisions. Anxiety made me terrified of being single, and, not yet able to come to terms with my own homosexuality, I was stuck in a relationship with a guy a friend of mine later described as "not even close to your league."
I'll admit I was kind of terrible to him just from sheer lack of interest, but I was too scared of being alone to just end it. He hated my friendship with Zack because he was the sort of guy who couldn't imagine two people of the opposite sex NOT wanting to bang. He hated our characters' relationship even more because he couldn't comprehend a world in which it was not PROOF that we just wanted to bang.
I didn't care enough about him to change anything. He was a placeholder, a symptom of my mental illness, and so, regardless of whether he had any right to police my friendships, I didn't really listen.
Eventually, though, we reached a tipping point, and his jealousy toward my online friendships became a catalyst for constant fighting. I started feeling hopeless. I didn't want him or someone else like him to be my future, but I couldn't see any other path. I was still holding myself to society's timeline for life and success and all that crap, and being 30 and unmarried made me feel like a horrible failure.
I never quite reached the point of suicidal ideation. It was enough to lie down with a case of heartburn and find myself genuinely hoping it was a heart attack, or to stop looking when I crossed the street because I was simply out of fucks to give about my own continued existence. I knew I had to make a change before I became actively suicidal.
I helped Zack endure his mother, and he gave me moral support as I broke up with my boyfriend, kicked him out, got psychiatric help for my anxiety disorder, and accepted myself as a lesbian. I couldn't have done it without Zack's constant presence online reminding me that I had at least one very good friend out there, one who would be there for me without expecting access to my vag.
But when the dust cleared, I had a two-bedroom apartment all to myself and enough anxiety still floating around that living by myself in a ground-floor apartment where the window locks didn't work still freaked me out. It was a nice-ish neighborhood, one full of grad students from the nearby university, but a few of the adjacent apartments were vacant and I'd lie awake at night wondering if anyone could hear me scream if someone did break in.
My newly adopted pet ferret was a good companion but a terrible watchdog –- partly because he was stone deaf, but mostly because he was a ferret. So, even though I'd never met him in person, I took a chance on Zack. I wired him gas money, gave him super-detailed directions, and waited for him to show up on my doorstep.
I've never had children, but I imagine the way I worried over him as he drove further than he ever had before in a little Saturn with too many miles on it was a lot like a mother worrying over her kid's first road trip. I was working at my office job that day, but I gave him my phone number and he texted or called me at every stop.
That night, I talked him through the last few turns right up to my -– now our –- building. Once he arrived, I buried any nervousness over first impressions and focused on getting him settled. I ordered pizza, I scared him a little with my comic collection and sheer alpha-nerdiness, I helped him carry in the few boxes he'd brought with him, and then I stood around and listened while his mom threatened to call the police.
Zack hadn't actually told his mother he was leaving, not to her face. He didn't have it in him to deal with all the drama and criticism and accusations. So he left a note for her to find when she got home from work, which was shortly before he arrived in Ohio.
Once there, he had to deal with all the drama and criticism and accusations anyway, just with the benefit of being several hundred miles away. She did call the police, too, under the pretext of wanting the car back, and I paced around trying not to freak out at the idea that I might have some unpaid ticket out there that'd be pulled up and I'd end up spending a night in jail. But the poor cop just humored her, and after a good hour or so of shouting, things settled down enough to call it a night.
I got flak from the ex-boyfriend, too, who wanted to “just be friends” right up until I destroyed the last shred of hope he had that we could still have sex (which was several weeks after I told him I'm not actually sexually attracted to men, and even then I'm not sure he got the point). He had a key to the apartment because some of his stuff was still there, but I told him he could only keep it so long as he only came over when I told him it was okay.
The morning after Zack moved in, the ex thought we were both going out to run errands, so he decided to sneak in. I can only assume he was dying to prove to himself that Zack and I had totally spent the night going at it like wild monkeys. In reality what happened was that he scared the fuck out of Zack, who was there alone unpacking, and then literally ran away. At least I got my key back.
It's been nearly three years since he moved in, and Zack is still my best friend. There're a lot of things we don't see eye to eye on: He automatically assumes anything from the '80s is terrible until proven otherwise and I'm very much a child of the '80s, I can't stand most of his music and he calls The Cure “old people shit.”
But I've enjoyed introducing him to the best of everything from Fawlty Towers to craft beer (*cough*now that he's 21*cough*) and he considers me his Zombie Survival Plan. He realized after leaving New Jersey and his mother's Catholicism that he's gay (or at least gay-leaning bi, because we both agree that breasts are pretty amazing), and I fully supported him.
We love each other in a way that has nothing to do with sex or possessiveness, just pure friendship, and I wouldn't trade that for anything. I took a chance on him and it was the best thing that's happened to me.