Dear Aunt Acid,
My roommate for most of the last decade (through college and grad school) recently moved away, to a new city and an amazing new job. I miss her tons, and am both proud of and mad at her for her new beginning, but this letter is not about her, or not directly. This letter is about how to make myself be nice to my new roommate.
My new roommate is, in theory, great. She’s funny, a good communicator, pretty clean, and has put up with the thin walls in our apartment and the annoyances that they represent. My problem is that I can’t seem to warm up to her. She’s almost… too friendly? Always asking me about my day, sitting down with me in the living room to have a chat, sharing lots of details about her life, and as soon as she starts talking to me I almost always feel this inner shrieking urging me to go hide in my room and never make eye contact with her again. What the hell? I’m usually a warm, chatty person but I sometimes can’t manage to say more than “Fine.” before leaving the room when she asks me about my day. I feel like a terrible human, or like a regular teenager.
Do you have any advice for how to turn off my inner dirt bag? Or at least how to fake it until it becomes easier? Or even advice for how to effectively appear invisible within one’s home? I appreciate it.
Clear Eyes, Cold Heart
Dear Clear Eyes,
Clear out. Haha just kidding! But you wish you could, don’t you? It’s understandable. You don’t want this new person in your life. She’s fine, whatever, but like a stepmom who was brought in to replace your actual mom, she will never measure up. You love your mom—or, in your case, your original roommate, who was the best.
Here are some things you can do:
1) Let yourself mourn your roommate. You two had a relationship! It ended while you were still happy with it and without your explicit, wholehearted consent. That sucks. You have diagnosed your actions correctly—you are behaving like a teenager—without diagnosing the root cause, which is that you are acting sullen because you are experiencing hurt and betrayal. What if you let yourself feel the hurt and betrayal? Sure, it’s uncomfortable to be angry at your friends, especially close ones; it is also inevitable, and it doesn’t make you a bad friend/person/female. Say, out loud, I feel abandoned. It might not be objectively “rational,” but fuck you, voice in your head that tells you which feelings are “rational” and which you should be ashamed of. Say Fairly or unfairly, I feel abandoned. Say it to your ex-roommate. Process. Process like 13-year-old lesbians at summer camp in the mountains with no distractions and nothing else to do.
2) Give yourself a deadline. Tell yourself, If I am still unhappy with this living situation after some period of time, for whatever reason, I will change it. You have agency. You are not trapped. You know the first and best reason to leave any relationship? Because you feel like it. Unless you have signed a lease or some other contract with a person, you are allowed to act in your own best interest period no matter what exclamation point. As Lizzy Bennett said when ambushed by Lady Catherine de Bourgh, “I am only resolved to act in that manner, which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness.” Crochet that on a sampler.
Even if you have a lease, you can find a way out. My very first living situation in New York City became untenable quickly, and I found myself hiding from my terrifying, erratic housemate in my bedroom, the only safe place. I even stopped eating dinner because I was scared she might accost me in the kitchen. Though I was as timid and conflict-averse as only a hungry, lonely, 22-year-old liberal arts college graduate with a shitty, low-paying day job working a secretary for profane misogynists can be, even I figured out that whatever it cost me to break the lease would be worth it for my sanity. And goddamn it, it absolutely was. My boyfriend and I squeezed into a tiny upper-floor studio in a different borough and it still vastly preferable to sharing any amount of space with that latter-day Miss Minchin. (I was always scared she was going to lose it and box my ears.)
A deadline by itself can accomplish a lot. Freed from needing to like your new roommate, you might find her growing on you. Be open to that. She’s not your old roommate, but she has her good qualities; you have grudgingly conceded that much already. Maybe you can figure out how to live together. It will take work, though. It will take Processing. Relationships always do. Did you and your original roommate seamlessly become one toilet-paper-buying-and-almond-milk-drinking entity? Or did you have conversations early on about the frequency with which you’re comfortable bringing paramours over, and how often you like to clean the shower, and whether it’s okay to make bacon on the weekends even though the whole apartment then smells like treyf for thirty days?
Call a house meeting. Acknowledge that you’ve been acting a little chilly because, though Current Roommate is great, she is not Old Roommate, and you’re still adjusting to that. Make one or two requests: simple things that Current Roommate could do, or do differently, to make your home feel more like yours again. Offer to make changes yourself.
Nothing works like a bonding activity: go and out do something exciting together. Studies show that sharing a novel experience brings people together—that’s why experts recommend that married couples go scuba diving or salsa dancing rather than just dinner at Denny’s.
If she still rubs you the wrong way after all that, and you can’t talk yourself into at least a civil relationship with her, then, however objectively super she is, she’s not the right roommate for you. Maybe your inner sulky teenager is trying to tell you you’ve aged out of living with roommates and should try your own far-flung studio. Before Miss Minchin, I had a Who’s Who of crazy roommates: the one who set her rooster alarm clock for 6:20 AM every day no matter what; the one who veiled our lamps, moved her mattress onto the radiator, and told me she could only fall asleep to Marilyn Manson or the Wallflowers; the one who put nothing at all on the walls and, when I asked her what music she liked, said vaguely, “Whatever’s popular.” (She was probably a spy.) After Miss Minchin, I have never lived with a roommate again, and I have never looked back.
Illustrator: Liana Finck’s work has appeared in The New Yorker, Lilith, Tablet, and The Forward. Her first graphic novel is called A Bintel Brief. Her webcomic, Diary of a Shadow, can be read on her website.
The role of Aunt Acid is played by Brooklyn-based know-it-all Ester Bloom.