Fairytales are for kids. I thought I already knew that but it seems I could use a refresher course. The buildings depicted on the Cadensis brochure did exist but I would not be resident in any of them. Instead I was introduced to an ugly eight-story concrete box where I was assigned a room on the top floor. I was relieved to see two elevators –they couldn’t both be broken at the same time. One of them was a freight elevator which I didn’t require for my move-in because I didn’t have any stuff; a fact that had its good side as the reason my mother and sister allowed me to come up alone on the train. Goodbyes all behind me, I wheeled my black case into the Hadleigh Hall elevator looking – with my black hair and black coat – like a burial plot salesperson. Sprinkle Garden, anyone?
That must be why Aleksa, my new roommate, seemed so taken aback by my appearance. She was all about color. I‘m talking pinks and purples; she had grown up in the Fluffernutter tradition. So astonished in fact at the sight of me that she almost choked on the pushpins sprouting from her mouth.
“Here, let me help you.” I rushed forward to center the poster she was affixing to what could only be my side of the room. My side, because her wall was already a-frenzy with music and TV stars. Oh, goody. Now I could try to sleep under the gaze of a thousand googly eyes. .
“Interior design major?” I asked and could have bit my tongue right off. There went my New Person Resolutions! I’d vowed to do everything differently – be a finer, nobler, more get-along kind of human being and my ruthless fount of inner sarcasm was blowing it already. Especially since I actually kind of liked this poster. The one on my side of the room.
“Business major, actually,” she said. No harm, no foul. “I’m Aleksa. My dad sells cars so I had to take either accounting or business. And I hate math.”
“That must be why they put the two of us together,” I offered. “I hate math too.” I have to keep reminding myself other people have it rough too. Can’t judge their insides by their outsides. Look at this poor girl forced to be a Daddy clone. Consider the pity party permanently cancelled. “I’m Jazz.”
Aleksa stepped down from the rickety desk chair. She seemed honestly concerned. “Do you know your bangs are uneven?”
Poof! There goes a lot of goodwill right there! However I made a massive effort not to pretend surprise. Instead I said, “Yeah, but this poster is perfectly straight. Kudos!”
She waved her hands around my head. “I think I see what you’re going for, but then shouldn’t the hair on the right side of your head be longer than the other side?”
“Nah. Because that would be symmetrical. And I only wanted to break the rules this one little way.” Because I’m a coward. Face it. I want to draw just a tiny little bit of attention to myself and then run out the door. That’s all.
“Yeah,” said Aleksa. “I so get that. I hate rules, too! Plus nobody’s eyebrows like, match. Right? Like, really!”
Aleksa had tried to solve this eternal problem by drawing hers on. Freehand. Distracting attention from her strangely buggy eyes. I tried so hard not to stare. I was already in serious danger of failing Roommate 101. Let’s concentrate on something we could agree about.
“This is such a cool poster,” I said. Not, repeat NOT the old me who usually looks the gift horse in the mouth and demands an orthodonture upgrade.
“I’m glad you like it,” said Aleksa “I got it in Italy. It’s supposed to be all the circles of hell from Danté. You know, The Inferno.”
Poetry! I did know. Was that why they put us together?
The poster showed Hieronymus Bosch-type, grab-bag, do-it-yourself monsters sprinkled through a brick maze leading down from a gaily pennanted fortress into a dark dungeon of grasping roots and hungry serpents. So much detail. You could look for hours and still find new stuff; just the kind of thing I adore. I cocked my head to read the writing along the side. See me so ready for instruction? I have always treasured maps and guidebooks. Comes from always wanting to be elsewhere.
“Limbo,” I said, reading the first circle. “That’s where all the unbaptized babies go.”
“You’re not a Catholic, are you?” Aleksa asked nervously. Like I would try to convert her.
“Not hardly,” I said. “But I did go to a Catholic high school.”
Didn’t say it was because I was kicked out of the public one! After limbo, the circles were listed as lust, avarice, gluttony, heresy, deceit, rage and violence. According to Dante, lust, the sin high schools make such a big deal about, is practically nothing, just a mite bit more serious than being an unbaptized baby, while the worst sin is treachery. Makes a lot of sense to me! In fact, it’s just like high school. In high school the teachers all want you focusing on your faults, not theirs. Isn’t “treachery” pretending to be someone’s buddy, then delivering them over to disaster? Sound familiar?
“Danger,” I quoted, “Here be dragons.”
I could have used some psychic powers at that moment, but like a lot of fair-weather friends they’re never around when you need them. Intuition is like oxygen – it goes in and out – and you really miss it when it’s not there. That’s when everything goes wrong.
Aleksa was still looking at me like I might sprinkle holy water on her in her sleep. We all have our prejudices. Me, I was terrified Aleksa would sell me a used car.
“I’d love to go to Italy,” I said. See? Seizing and building. It was true enough. It’s my Mom, really, who’s the ultimate tourist. She just wants to stare at everything. I want to actually become what I’m looking at, like a chameleon. Aleksa helped me heave my suitcase up to my bed.
“We were only there a week and everyone was drunk,” said Aleksa matter of factly. “They give kids wine in Italy. I bought this at the airport for my Dad and he didn’t like it at all.” She shrugged her shoulders. “I thought it was cute.” No accounting for tastes! She asked me politely, “How about you? Do you have a major?”
“Really? Then how come Dr. Corso is your advisor?” She sounded envious. When I looked questioning she gestured to the pile on my desk. Books and packets! Homework already!
“He dropped that off for you,” she said. “He’s the only professor I’ve seen at this place who’s hot.”
I was revolted. “Eeeew. He’s old and married and bald.“ “Bald like a gladiator,” she sighed.
“Everyone old and hot is married. By the way, your boyfriend called.”
Suddenly winded, I collapsed on the bed with a plop. Seems like my old life was not going to let me go so easily.
“I don’t have a boyfriend!” I insisted. “I did have, but I broke up with him to come here! Did you talk to him?”
“I was rushing to orientation. But he sure sounded like he didn’t get the message.”
She bugged her buggy eyes at me and tossed artfully ironed blonde hair. “I have a boyfriend at home but I didn’t break up with him to come here.” She shook her finger in my face. “Insurance. You know?” Then, at my expression – treachery, remember, is the lowest of the low – “Oh, he’s probably doing the same thing. My Dad says playing the field is how you find your position – you don’t stay stuck in the first corner they give you! What people don’t know won’t hurt them.”
In my opinion it’s just what people don’t know that hurts them the very worst – I mean they would avoid the gaping sinkhole if they knew it was there. However, agree to disagree. Roommate 201. It’s pass-fail. I was determined to pass.
“My ex lives hours away,” I said hopefully. I had given up my cell phone – partly because it was so expensive, partly because the school gives you a landline with automatic voicemail, and partly because I hoped to distance myself from Bex’s frenzy. But when I checked my email I felt no better. Because there he always was.
“A stalker!” She seemed respectful, as if this increased my status. “What’s he look like?” She propped herself up onto one elbow and regarded me speculatively, as if casting us all in Movie-of-the-Week. She even sounded envious.
“Big and tall. Dark. Lots of dark messy hair and a three-day beard. Full sleeve tattoos. Usually wears a black leather jacket with silver studs.”
Aleksa shivered visibly with pleasure. “I’ll take him!”
“I wouldn’t wish him on my worst enemy,” I insisted. And of course a roommate could never be that. Roommate 301. I comforted myself as best I could – thinking of money. “I think he’s too cheap to actually do anything. He just doesn’t like losing an argument.”
But the niggling worry was, how much doesn’t he like it?