In the early ’80s, at 19, I enrolled in a culinary school in Hyde Park, New York. I’d planned on finding an apartment off campus, but after getting lost and stuck in a traffic jam in downtown Poughkeepsie, I lost my nerve.
The woman in the housing office was miffed that I expected a room in one of the dormitories after having neglected to turn in my application in a timely manner. She huffed and puffed around and finally handed me a questionnaire which was to indicate the type of roommate I would be. I suspected that — no matter how I answered — she would try to find the most unsuitable roommate possible for me.
No one was in the dorm room when I moved in. The cluttered space was about 200 square feet. It was furnished with three beds, two dressers, and three desks. The bottom bunk was made up with a frilly white bedspread and covered with stuffed animals. The top bunk was serving as a storage unit for a lot of rumpled clothing. The single bed was unmade. I unpacked my suitcases and piled my possessions onto the empty desk.
Muriel showed up later that afternoon; Shelly breezed in after dark. Neither woman seemed pleased to meet me. Muriel was a short, rotund woman with granny glasses, frizzy hair, and a fiancé who called her every night at 8 p.m. She would talk to him on her pink princess phone. Shelly was a petite, busty, bleached blonde with a boyfriend that she visited every weekend in New Jersey.
I started off on the wrong foot with Shelly when I asked for permission to remove her clothes from the top bunk. She glared at me and then marched off to go wash her chef’s whites for class the next day. I guess I was clueless as to dorm etiquette; I assumed that I was entitled to one of the beds.
I was still on California time and tired and anxious about starting culinary classes the next day. I piled Shelly’s clothes on her side of the room and went to sleep. There was no going back after that bold move — my very existence seemed to enrage Shelly.
At least Muriel was cordial. She would tell me these saccharine stories about her fiancé, Jeffery. Apparently he made a ton of money working for the FBI. The stuffed animals on her bed were all presents from him, each one prompting another tale of how perfect and wonderful Jeffery was. He was a god who walked the earth. I feigned interest but did appreciate her attempt at friendship. Muriel assured me that Shelly would come around eventually. And maybe she would have — if I hadn’t pissed off Muriel, too.
My second week of school, Muriel informed me that Jeffery was visiting and that I’d need to find someplace to spend the weekend. I hadn’t made friends with anyone in my class, and besides, out of 32 students, only 6 were women. I told Muriel that I didn’t feel comfortable asking any of them to let me sleep on their floor. I didn’t have a car or money for a hotel room. Angry, her wire-rimmed glasses balanced on the end of her nose, Muriel declared that I was being unreasonable.
After hearing of my dilemma, several of my male classmates offered to let me stay in their dorm rooms (wink, wink). I declined. On Friday, Muriel gave me a piece of paper with a room number scribbled on it. One of her classmates was going to be out of town, and I was to stay in that person’s room. It was my problem to figure out how to gain entry — no key was provided. After my night classes let out, I reported to my assigned room of exile. No one answered the knock. I went back to my own room.
Muriel was furious — I’d interrupted a candlelit night of romance. Muriel’s girth was barely covered in her pink nightie. Her frizzy hair was in neat, little-old-lady curls and her face carefully made up. Jeffery was a giant man; he had to twist his head sideways to sit on the edge of the bottom bunk. What else could I do? I scaled the frame to the top bunk and hunkered down under the covers.
After some grumbling about what a thoughtless bitch I was, Muriel turned her radio up full blast, and the two lovebirds got busy. Their combined weight and movement caused the flimsy metal frame to buckle and roll. The noisy mattress springs squeaked for what seemed like hours. I was horrified that the bed would collapse and I’d end up pressing flesh with Muriel and Jeffery. They finished, and their snoring accompanied the tinny sound of the radio until dawn. I crept out of the room at first light.
I spent the day sleep-deprived and resentful, alternating between studying in the library and wandering through the woods along the Hudson River. I overcame my embarrassment and asked a classmate for refuge for Saturday night. I don’t think the lovers left the room all weekend. When I returned at one point to get a change of clothes, I saw Jeffery in his tightie whities. It was a frightening sight that is still burning my retinas 25 years later.
After that weekend, Muriel joined forces with Shelly, reminding her at every opportunity that I was a worthless human being. The bulk of their two-woman act was performed as they would get ready for morning classes, complaining in loud whispers, slamming drawers, and flipping the lights on and off while I pretended to be asleep. Then I had the room to myself until noon. Muriel was too fat to hike back to the room between classes, but Shelly popped in occasionally to smoke a joint or pop some pills with her drug buddies. I tried to be out of the room in the one- to two-hour timeframe between when their day classes ended and my night classes began.
Jeffery wasn’t scheduled to visit again for several months, and Shelly began entertaining night visitors. She came up with a combination of pills that allowed her to stay up all night, get to her morning classes, and then sleep all afternoon. At first the parties consisted of a group of men who sat on the floor drinking Jack Daniel’s, passing a hissing green glass bong, and listening to Jimi Hendrix or the Doors on the record player Shelly kept on her dresser. They engaged in the kind of chatter that seems profound and witty when you’re wasted but is annoying as hell to listen to when you’re not. I could never come up with the courage to drive the inebriated imbeciles out of the room, so I fumed in silence and choked smoke. On the occasions that I went to my room during class breaks and woke Shelly up at two or three o’clock in the afternoon, she would complain bitterly about my lack of consideration.
But Shelly’s late-night parties weren’t as bad as her late-night make-out sessions. After an exhausting day of being screamed at by the European chefs that I was paying to teach me how to cook, I’d be awakened in the dark of night by the smacking, sucking sounds of drunken lust from Shelly’s side of the room. The woman apparently had magnificent breasts; that was the most frequent compliment slurred in her honor.
After six weeks I begged the woman in the housing department to let me switch to another room. I was sick of making eye contact with all of Muriel’s creepy stuffed animals while I did homework. I was mad at having to keep my toothbrush and hairbrush at my desk so that they wouldn’t be knocked to the floor by my roommates every morning as they competed to see who could make the most noise. And even though I asked them not to, they would turn off the heater every morning. On top of all this, Jeffery would soon be arriving for another visit. The opportunity to witness him streak across the room, the majority of his pudgy self exposed, was not something I wanted to experience again.
Even though a class graduated every three weeks and the parking lot was jammed with moving vans on those days, the housing director claimed that she couldn’t honor my request until I’d been at the school for an entire quarter. I had about ten dollars’ spending money per week. During the weekdays I ate all my meals in the campus dining hall and collected soft rolls and leftovers from the dessert buffets to eat on the weekends. I had no choice but to wait. Living in Poughkeepsie wasn’t an option.
When the arbitrary deadline came and I was allowed to switch rooms, I was elated. I didn’t tell Muriel or Shelly. I enlisted several of my classmates to help me move my stuff to my new dorm room while my roommates were in class. I was tempted to exact vengeance by doing something juvenile, such as putting all of Muriel’s stuffed animals on Shelly’s semen-stained bed, but I didn’t.
All six of the women in my cooking class kept the same roommates for their tenure at the school. They knew each other’s secrets and went to bars and celebrated holidays together. I was a little disappointed that my new roommate and I didn’t become good friends, but I was grateful that she let me put my clothes in the closet and my toothbrush in the bathroom. She didn’t have a hissy fit if she found a hair in the bathroom sink. Best of all, I never saw her boyfriend naked.
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