In the year we lived together as friends, we broke each other down to build ourselves back up. (Part 1)
“Let’s play a game,” she said, bringing a cigarette to her lips. I took a sip from my beer and asked her what game she meant. She leaned forward in the green sofa chair. “First, I’ll tell you what I hate about you,” she said. “Then you tell me what you hate about me.”
It was our first weekend as roommates, the ink still fresh on a one-year lease agreement. We sat on the porch that had already become our sanctuary—part clubhouse, part therapist’s office. We dressed it up with a shaggy red carpet, sprinkled Christmas lights around the perimeter and tucked the sofa chair in the corner. That night we started a dialogue, a series of conversations that began with tearing each other down, so that perhaps later we could build each other back up.
Our paths had crossed in the marketing department of a global research corporation. She—I’ll call her Jade—operated a phone in the call center, and I wrote marketing copy. Jade was attractive with long dark hair, which she joked was “G-rated,” because it was long enough to cover her breasts. Her stormy disposition was often matched by her dark wardrobe, and I noticed that in meetings she didn’t snicker at unfunny jokes—while everyone else faked it, she seemed unable to laugh unless she was sincerely amused.
I think she found my sunny temperament and vanilla exterior annoying at first. I was some Golden Boy, who, generally speaking, got what he put his mind to. But when we chatted in the halls there was a resonance, the alchemy of kindred spirits. A defensive banter drew us together, the somewhat sarcastic humor that meant that we played by similar rules. In that banter, though, there was also a resonant sadness, as if we had both been “cool kids” once, but somewhere along the way, we’d lost our mojo.
That summer I popped the question. Since our leases were both ending, would she be my roommate? We scanned apartment listings on Craigslist and then spent the weekend crisscrossing Worcester in her Lexus, meeting real estate brokers. “We’re going to write our memoirs about this,” I remember saying in jest, perhaps subconsciously recognizing that she had already become my muse. We found an apartment with a porch, which seemed like a fine place for cold beers and cozy books. A place for retreat, reflection. It was home.
I broke the news to some of my work friends the next day over lunch, and I got some news in return. Apparently, my new roommate’s dad ran one of the departments at the company; her uncle was the CEO, and her grandfather founded the now-billion-dollar enterprise. My boss seemed particularly skeptical of the proposed arrangement, saying, “I’ll get the popcorn ready.”
As the summer progressed and our September move-in date approached, the friendship blossomed. I met her mother at a party held by her grandmother, who lived in an affluent neighborhood. I could tell “Mom” thought our decision was hasty, impulsive. Our connection whiffed of puppy love. She asked her daughter, “You sure you’re still going to feel the same way in a few months?”
Jade’s father was an easier sell. In her online dating profile(s) she never fails to note that her dad is the funniest man she knows. The embodiment of cool, he can always make her laugh, often in the most peculiar of ways. One running joke implies his daughter’s promiscuity. “You know how you get,” he’d say with a smirk, even if she was telling the most prudish of stories about a recent date. To him, if you weren’t cool, you were a dweeb. And he wouldn’t have his daughter shacking up with a dweeb. When I first crossed paths with him in the company’s cafeteria, we shook hands and exchanged pleasantries. I didn’t appear to be a dweeb, so I had his blessing.
Weeks into living together, we had hundreds of inside jokes. We bonded over horror films and fast food runs. We made obscene jokes. We had “giggle parties.” We both liked the band Queen. We had lengthy discussions about why candy corn was only sold in the fall. She began referring to me as “Dustball.”
Everyone waited for the announcement that we had coupled up. Or, at the very least, that we’d given each other “sensations,” a term she used for “hooking up.” But sensations were not exchanged, and an announcement never came. We openly discussed how “something” might happen and even played married when we went to bars. Sometimes we hugged, but on her terms only.
More so than her father, the man on Jade’s pedestal was her grandfather, a noble, highly successful founder of the company for which we both worked. He had spent his long life deeply in love with a wife who freshened her lipstick every day before he walked through the door after work. He gave her everything, using his wealth to protect her from the inconveniences of daily life by making sure everything was taken care of. They were happily married for 60 years. Jade’s soul mate needed her grandfather’s button-up ambitions, as well as a rebellious exterior. Tattoos? Sure. Drugs? I’m not ruling it out. Tall, dark and sexy? Wouldn’t have it any other way. Good Boy meets Bad Boy… with an MBA.
There were stark differences in Jade’s and my New England upbringings. My origins are decidedly blue-collar, rooted in a middle-to-lower-class existence in New Hampshire’s White Mountains. She came from a middle-to-upper-class household in the suburbs of an affluent town in Massachusetts. Her dad showed great affection for sports cars and luxury watches. My dad adored mountain bikes and motorcycles. Jade’s a fashionista. Dressing rooms make me sweat. To me, life is an adventure. To her, life is absurd. I talk about things I love. She talks about things she hates.
Our differences did cause friction. Sometimes a stuck-up princess squabbled with a simple-minded brute, over splitting the cost of the television, painting the living room, buying furniture—I insisted that we find used items on Craigslist, she needed brand new. A toxic cloud would descend upon the house and we’d go days without talking. Doors would bang with extra force. Shared TV time would cease. We would scoot through communal areas, and observe radio silence at work. And then someone would mutter something sarcastic, and the love would return.
We found common ground in weirdness. Our gift was improvisation and we used our talents to go to absurd places. If a screen door shut on its own, it was the clever work of a “demon.” Before we left the apartment, even though it was only us, we would ask if “everyone” was ready to leave. “Ready to go, guys?” I would grin at her. “Guys?” We assembled strings of ridiculous ideas that I’m sure no one else ever thought of, which brought on deep belly laughs, part surprise, part admiration. We were masters of deadpan and we used our best stuff on each other often. It was the driest kind of humor, and it was given free rein in our home.
Sometimes silly insights revealed profound truths. Jade’s idea about “bursting someone’s bubble” led her to announce that bubbles are precious. “All we have in life are our bubbles.” That launched a discussion on the nature of hope. Often, silliness led to analysis. Whether it was a text, a reality TV show or a social norm, we excavated the underlying truths, often finding absurdity.
Much of this happened on the porch. I drank IPA’s and she knocked down Red Bulls, sometimes four at a sitting. She burned through cigarettes and supplemented with popsicles. In one sitting she might eat ten or more of them. I learned about her days in rehab, the “broken people” she had met. I learned about Adderall and Klonopin. It seemed that she had made an art of rumination, and typically believed everything she thought. It was a habit that fueled bouts of depression. She told me about her years in therapy. I had little tolerance for therapy at that time. It seemed pointless, even self-indulgent. Let the past be the past, I might say. She detested this, of course, dismissing it as naïve, and perhaps a rejection of her experience and life.
Eventually, she relaxed her own no drinking policy, and would have a glass of wine for our sessions on the porch. It wasn’t falling off the wagon, she thought. Rather, our new home had provided a warm, safe place to develop new habits with old substances.
Jade and I discussed dark sides. At the time, I wasn’t so sure we all had one. I was fresh out of graduate school and heavy into the personal development literature. I was a few years past my New Age phase as well as the “spiritual texts” phase and was fresh out of the Ancient Greek philosophy phase. Puffed up on timeless wisdom, I might respond to Jade’s confessions with axioms such as “change your thinking,” because, as most great luminaries have noted, “We are what we repeatedly think.”
She rejected these quips as intellectual crutches. Perhaps, she mused, these clichés were defenses against going too deep within myself? A way of avoiding real feelings? For all of our differences, I came to see us as two sides of the same coin. She was depressed, admittedly; I was grandiose, blindly. When we played The Hate Game it forced me to acknowledge flaws I didn’t know I had. It urged me to confront a self that often took itself too seriously, that could be at times patronizing, that had an elevated sense of self-worth and perhaps required admiration as emotional fuel. Whenever I rooted myself in a platitude, the game would begin, and Jade would sling arrows at a dark red bullseye on my chest, at the self that I had stitched together with self-help books and ancient knowledge.
The catharsis often gave way to antidotes. Whenever I lifted off into illusions, Jade injected realism, reminding me that there was a ground beneath my feet. Whenever daily struggles overwhelmed her, I suggested taking action, and if no action was possible at that time, to try and dismiss the disturbance. We kept each other in check, and the sadness we first noticed in each other’s eyes began to melt. We were getting our mojo back.
And then I fell in love. With someone else.
This is Part One of a Three-Part Series. Read Part 2 here.