We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
Not so long ago, I was a 25-year-old with an intravenous drip and a visiting nurse.
While visiting family in Connecticut in 2003, I contracted Lyme disease, an enigmatic tick-borne infection linked to a gamut of maladies. I had a headache every day. My throat was sore. My muscles twitched. I got dizzy spells and grasped for hand railings. My feet felt like magnets, sucking me down toward the Earth’s core.
A month after becoming ill, I moved into my father’s basement apartment in Arlington. I needed some heavy-duty TLC, and the party house I shared with three college buddies in Brookland wasn’t the place for it.
Despite my dad’s support, our living situation was not ideal. The one-bedroom Charlie Bucket apartment was glazed with dust, and sunlight barely penetrated a few windows best suited for an airplane cabin. By winter, an extended family of crickets had moved in, at night ceremoniously hopping around my bed and into my dreams. I became claustrophobic, and I missed having roommates my own age. By the fall of 2004, I knew it was time to move out—even if I was far from cured.
One problem: My doctor had just prescribed a two-month course of intravenous antibiotics, meaning a peripheral IV cord would be inserted into my biceps and threaded up to my heart. My room would quickly resemble a medical ward, littered with drip lines, saline syringes, alcohol swabs, and so forth. I was to assume freak-of-nature status, forced to carry around a 2-foot tube dangling from the inside of my punctured, blood-stained arm. The tube would need to be tucked into a severed elastic sock, and if I was lucky, it wouldn’t poke too far out of my T-shirt sleeve and disgust all those unfortunate enough to see me.
Logging on to Craigslist, I scoured its hundreds of postings and quickly met a handful of potential roommates, all fun and sophisticated. But I had to turn them down. I couldn’t bear to shatter their pleasant living environments with my gruesome condition. The more affable and social they appeared, the more I envisioned lonely nights in an apartment feeling sorry for myself. What if they wouldn’t accept me? What if they wouldn’t tolerate me? I was a complicated, disgusting medical case.
Finally, I discovered two women, “Kim” and “Hope,” 25-year-old friends renting an old town house on the outskirts of Columbia Heights. They were perfect. They greeted me at the door wearing old sweats and no makeup. The floorboards of their house creaked and the radiators gargled. The girls had the low-maintenance attitude to match my high-maintenance lifestyle.
In the living room with a ’70s-vintage rug, a tiny TV with rabbit ears, and a few old pieces of sheet-covered furniture, the three of us got to know one another. Hope and Kim were fresh out of a multiyear stint with a volunteer organization—I’ll call it “ExtremeCorps”—that required them to live in community residencies with scant resources—try $85 a month for food—in order to gain empathy for the poor.
In addition, they had a large room to offer, perfect for the daily IV injections I was to begin in two weeks. Given my psychological frailty and immediate need to create a makeshift infusion center, I quickly agreed to move in. Almost certain the girls would accept me, I decided I’d wait until later to disclose my medical condition.
It didn’t take long to learn that Kim and Hope were suffering intense ExtremeCorps withdrawal. Unable to cope with a life devoid of affliction and poverty, my new roomies decided they would re-create an ExtremeCorps atmosphere in their house.
The day after I signed my first rent check, which occurred during the week of Halloween, I strode downstairs to engage the girls in an awkward “now that we’re housemates we have to try to be friends” conversation. Groping for a way to break the ice, I broached the subject of house décor and complimented the Halloween decorations—which included a baby pumpkin on our toilet.
“Why, thanks,” came Kim’s response. “Oh, and just to tell you now—”
Just to tell you now. These would become words to dread.
Glancing at Hope with a giggle in her eyes, Kim explained, “See, while we were in ExtremeCorps, we learned how to utilize our resources efficiently. So, to conserve water, you’ll notice that we usually don’t flush the toilet.”
Suddenly I longed for the crickets in my father’s basement.
“But don’t worry, if you want to flush that’s totally fine. We’re not going to tell you that you can’t,” Jill said to reassure me.
Earlier that day I noticed, while using the bathroom, a few squares of toilet paper floating in water that wasn’t crystal-clear. Suddenly I found myself putting two and two together. And let there be no more discussion of the number two.
The next morning, I woke up determined to embrace the household doctrine on water conservation. Noticing the kitchen garbage needed to be taken out and eager to begin chipping in with household chores, I casually asked my new housemate where we stored the trash bags.
“Oh, I’ll show you,” Kim chirped, bending down in front of the sink where we stood. A split-second later she shot back up, capturing my glance with hers. “Umm, just to tell you now—”
My gut fluttered.
Kim winced and said, “We kind of have a bit of a mouse problem here.”
At our feet was a black plastic box out of which a thick, wavy tail protruded.
“How often do you catch one of these?” I asked, jerking my gaze upward and sealing up my roiling stomach.
“I’d say about once a day,” Kim replied, ho-hum, as if rodent-catching was just another household chore. I glanced back down at our furry intruder. Kim assured me she would take responsibility of disposing of the mice until I adjusted.
Later that week, I gave the girls a just-to-tell-you-now moment of their own, revealing my illness and that I would soon be undergoing serious treatment. I told them they would need to adapt to home-delivered medications occupying refrigerator space, longer waits for the bathroom as I struggled through showers, and the sight of a bloody gash and external IV line hanging out of a severed tube sock.
As I expected, Kim and Hope took the news beautifully, never cringing at the details of my sickness or complaining about the complications it wrought. I almost got the sense they were proud to have discovered me and taken me in.
That week, we took another stab at becoming friends. “Our parties are so fun,” Kim said in her trademark way of emphasizing the last word of every sentence, sounding like Keanu Reeves making a stump speech. “The house next door is totally vacant, so we can be as loud as we want.
“By the way, just to tell you now—because we share a backyard with an empty house, we’ve allowed a homeless man to live on the porch next to ours.”
From there, the situation continued to spiral faster and faster downhill, and so did my own level of tolerance. Assimilating conditions of poverty was taken to the nth degree. Everything in our house was deemed reusable—to the point that the girls would wash and air-dry (by clipping to the refrigerator) the small squares of aluminum foil in which they had wrapped their food days earlier. As December hit and the weather got colder, the thermostat stayed locked at 57 degrees. “Fine, I’ll suffer through a night of 65 degrees, but I’ll have to open my window,” Kim once sniped as I stood by her door in layers of heavy clothes, pleading for a night of heat.
Meanwhile, I was learning to live with a tube sutured into my arm and the nasty side effects that accompany intravenous antibiotics. I snickered at my nurse’s order to maintain a clean living environment. Sanitizing my bedroom was pointless with grimy mice and housemates scampering around on the floor below me. Before long, the kitchen developed a stench that made me want to move in with my neighbor on the porch next door.
By Christmas, I had learned that our cushy furniture was draped in bedsheets because our cushy furniture had been acquired from a local dumpster. If Santa Claus came, he certainly didn’t stay for milk and cookies.
On a later occasion, I noticed Kim wrapping a large picture-frame mat with Spandex material colored hot orange with big black polka dots. (Think Wilma Flintstone at spin class.) She explained that the material came from a pair of stretch pants one of her homeless acquaintances had recently outgrown. The next day, her creation adorned our wall.
Three months after the toilet-flushing revelation, I moved out. The departure was smooth; my reason for leaving, I explained, was because I simply wanted to live by myself. I never could bring myself to tell Kim and Hope how their grotesque living habits made my life miserable. The situation, I had decided, was partly my fault; I sought out tolerant roommates, and an übertolerant lifestyle is what I got.
Now I rest in a warm Southwest studio where my Reynolds Wrap bears no traces of last week’s lasagna and the only mouse in the joint lives on my desk, connected to my laptop. My health situation is significantly improved, and I’ve sworn never to have another roommate again.
But for readers who are mulling a move into a group home, I have some advice: Don’t bother quizzing your potential housemates on their politics, personalities, or jobs. Forget about questions of sexual orientation, religion, and class. Toss aside such factors as musical taste, dietary preference, and smoking habits. Don’t even worry about whether you want to be their friends.
Just ask them one question: “Do you flush?”CP