Roommates by Jeff Bender
I've taken my roommate to court so many times since moving to New York. Sometimes I’m there, at the trial. Sometimes it’s my parents representing me because I’m dead.
Already I sued her for putting fish eggs in my cereal bowl. They looked like poppy seeds on my spoon. I smudged them off with a paper towel and kept eating. Soon we were in court again. I ate during the trial. The jury attributed the cause of the black eggs to “negligence.” But we settled because I had no proof that the negligence was not mine. We walked home together after the trial and disappeared into our rooms.
A week later I had lung cancer and tubes in my neck on the witness stand because my room reeked of smoke. I had evidence: My roommate had been coughing. Forensics investigated and determined that my roommate did not, indeed, smoke—and we settled out of court.
But when I came home the next day, there was more smoke in my room, and in a follow-up trial, they determined the smell was coming from the retirement home next door to our building and that it was not smoke but carbon monoxide. My roommate was asked why we didn’t own a carbon monoxide detector. She was arrested for knowing about the carbon monoxide and not telling me when I’d signed the lease. They sentenced her to five years. For five summers I got to come home to an empty apartment and take off my shirt.
In another case she had to pay my court fees and all the milk she’d taken in the past year. My lawyer had sent a chemist to our apartment. The chemist discovered that—just as I’d thought—my milk supply had been cut with water. My roommate didn’t buy milk, didn’t “need” it—but diluted my milk so it stayed the same level in the jug. (I’d started measuring every day.) By the time of the trial, they were checking my orange juice for mucus content that matched her DNA.
A shame, I thought, walking home, to see her getting read her rights and carted away. A bird’s-eye shot in the Times has me in an overcoat and scarf, my body clenching from the cold as I walk north on Columbus Avenue, past the crepe place.
“How did you suspect the perpetrator?” they asked me outside our building on 108th.
“In our sink every day I found empty cereal bowls but no milk in her part of the refrigerator. Meanwhile the levels held steady. Something was amiss.”
“Are you glad she got convicted?”
“I think it’s time she pays.”
“What do you know about the orange juice investigation?”
“What will you do with the money?”
“One at a time,” I said.
The courtroom is never empty during our cases. It is packed with people I don’t know. A close-up in the Times reveals the back of a man’s bald head and a roll of fat over his collar. He sits dutifully in a wool sports coat and watches the judge. They all watch the judge. I watch them. Another is black woman in her fifties in a tan raincoat. She rests her chin on an umbrella. When the case is over, they gather their things, nod to each other, and walk out. I sit alone in the courtroom and drum my knuckles on the desk.
These cases started in October 2008, when my roommate took me to a swank party. It was book-release party for her friend who had written a book. Tens of people were there. I spent time talking with a very tall man about Phillies baseball and a play we’d seen called The Homecoming. (Neither of us could remember the playwright.) This man later testified in court but was only asked to state his name (Mark Dye) and his height:
“Six four,” he said, “six four and a half.” He pinched his fingers together. “Gotta add that half.”
The courtroom laughed.
I testified after him, saying that when my roommate and I had entered the party, she took my coat and hung it on top of hers, on the same hanger.
“Shouldn’t I put it in a closet?” I’d said.
The coat rack was in the hall, outside the apartment door.
“It’ll be fine,” she said.
And it was a fine. It was a fine party. They served fine hors d’oeuvres. I read later, in the Times, that the girl throwing the party had a lot of family money.
We hadn’t planned on staying long, my roommate and I. At eleven p.m., I approached her to say I was going. She said if I stayed another fifteen minutes I could walk her home. After forty-five minutes—she was talking with a psychology professor from NYU—she said, “Five minutes.” A half hour later I interrupted to say that my jacket was missing. She called me a liar. I showed her. We scoured the apartment together. The book writer’s husband offered me a fleece for the walk home. (More on this later.) Two court cases emerged:
(1) In which the jury acknowledged my roommate’s negligence (which I liked) but determined it ultimately the fault of the person who’d stolen the coat (which I disliked). We settled again and shared an umbrella on the walk home.
(2) In which my parents won a lot of money because I died walking home from the party without a coat. The doctors determined the cause of death to be pneumonia. Her lawyer pointed to evidence that the book writer’s husband had lent me a fleece. For a moment the case swung in her direction. The fleece arrived in a plastic bag. My lawyer unsheathed it. He held it up to the jury. The jury took notes, such as, “patterned,” “magenta,” and “Aztec.” They deemed the fleece dangerous and unwearable, saying it would put me “in further jeopardy for a late walk home in Manhattan.” They handcuffed the book writer’s husband. He growled at me on his way out of the room. “I was trying to be nice,” he said. I whispered in his ear. He tried to bite me. The bailiff shoved him forward. I rose as he exited.
Outside the courthouse the press bullied me about the whisper. For a while there was a big stink about it in theTimes. People magazine ran a feature on it. I appeared onLarry King Live for about ten minutes. But I never told anyone what I’d whispered because, really, it was between us—me and the book-writer’s husband—and it still is. To this day nobody knows except him and me.
Here’s what I said. It’s from West Side Story: “Tell it to the judge—”
I had four apartments to see the day I saw my roommate’s apartment. I looked at her place first. I said I’d think about it, walked down the block, and stopped. I was seized by the idea that somebody was going to get it before me. I imagined somebody walking up the stairs at that moment . . .
“I’ll take it,” I said.
She laughed. “It’s not going anywhere,” she said.
The “Sponge Trial” you know about. But let me explain.
I was having a great time staying home while she carried out a two-week sentence in Broome County Correctional Facility for not flushing the toilet. The day before her release I called my lawyer saying I was ill again. With what? I didn’t know. Relapse pneumonia? He was on his way.
When he arrived I buzzed him up and unlocked the door. On the nightstand my diary was open to the following page:
I figured out the problem with the dishes—and a significant fear of mine: she has a spongy metal scrubber that’s a review of everything she’s eaten in the past ten years. It has little pink things in it. She uses it whenever she washes dishes. I worry that my food, mixed with chunks from her sponge, will make me sick. I worry that I’ll get sick and die.
Next to my diary I lay (comatose?) in bed.
We sued. My lawyer sued. I couldn’t move. A lapse in the coma had me
advising my lawyer to contact my parents and have them appear for me in court. The trial lasted eight days. The sponge was delivered to the courtroom. When they came for it, I was sleeping on the couch in front of Will and Grace. They carried me back to bed.
The trial concluded sharply on day eight because I was found sitting in the courtroom. I’d gotten bored of screwing around at home and wanted to see what was going on. I didn’t think to bring a disguise. Maybe it was the illness speaking. Before they discovered me, I got to watch fifteen minutes of the trial. I saw my dad cry for the first time. Then a flash went off in the back of the courtroom, and everyone turned.
I hustled out of the courtroom and into the rain. I did a lot of thinking as I jogged home. I thought maybe I should give my roommate a break. She was older than I was, and she was single. She had more at stake for making it in New York—which was what we were all, privately, trying to do. Maybe I should start examining my own shortcomings as a roommate, I figured, before suing her again. I shaved my head fortnightly in the bathroom. That had to put a lot of stress on the sink. I didn’t clean up great. I also stole into her room and rooted around her stuff when she wasn’t there. Sometimes I sat naked at her desk and read from her computer diary. Maybe suing was hypocritical, I figured. Maybe all judgment was hypocritical. Maybe I should do what Jesus said to do and settle with her on our way to court. That would save us a lot of money for rent.
The trouble was, though, it was all getting to be a lot of fun. I was enjoying the media attention. I’d gotten an email from Mick Jagger, who surprisingly was on my side, and a call from David Lee Roth, who surprisingly was not. Al Sharpton had taken out ad space in the Village Voice asking for justice in my favor. Julianne Moore appeared on the cover of Elle wearing the Aztec fleece.
Crossing 96th Street, I noticed a flash go off in my periphery. Was it the Times? People? Then I heard thunder. When I got to the door to our building, no one was waiting to interview me. I undid my tie and wrung it out on the street. On the third floor, I dropped my belt on the banister. It slithered down the stairs.
My roommate came home after me and closed the door. “Hey,” she said.
I was eating a bowl of cereal in my briefs. “Hey.”
Somebody rang up. She pressed Talk: “One more question,” she said.
“Eli,” I said, passing her on the way to my room. I patted her on the shoulder. I could hear the clamor of the media through the intercom.
“One at a time,” she was saying.
© Jeff Bender, 2015
Jeff Bender is an alum of Columbia University's School of the Arts. He is a former college wrestler and wrestling coach, and his work has appeared in Guernica, First Person Arts, and the Monarch Review; he was a winner of Richard Hugo House's New Works Competition in Seattle in 2012. He lives in northwest WashingtonState with his fiancée Catharine and is finishing his first novel. www.jeffbender.net
Roommates was read by Alex C Ferrill on 4th February 2015 for Entrances & Exits