Connect-the-dots handouts were a daily part of kindergarten life. It only seems logical: five-year olds are learning to count and draw straight lines. I loathed this activity. For one, I was troubled by the proper technique for actually connecting the dots. Should I draw straight lines? Because that resulted in an angular, digitized-seeming picture. It seemed that curving arcs were more natural, but sometimes even this seemed wrong. I spent a week using intentionally shaky, squiggly lines, only to be pulled aside by my teacher to be asked “Is everything okay at home?” A few months later, my poor mother was called in for a conference because I was giving all the people in my coloring books purple hair and green skin. Although I would like to attribute this to a latent punk sensibility, I was really just frustrated with the limited offerings of my 8-pack of crayons.
My other issue with the connect-the-dots involved the final stroke: drawing a line from the last number–let’s say 50 for conjecture’s sake–to the very first number, one. This seemed completely ridiculous to me. One never follows 50. I realize that some might argue that all of nature travels in circles. For instance, all of my budding philosopher friends in college liked to argue the irony of beginning life as a baby, only to return to a similarly helpless state in old age. I disagree with this. Sure, maybe both babies and the elderly require help in feeding and dressing themselves (and I won’t even broach the subject of incontinence), but a senior citizen is still the polar opposite of an infant. A few spins on the pottery wheel, several coats of paint, and time spent in the kiln transform a lump of clay into a bowl. And that bowl can never again be a simple mound of clay. Tragedies and triumphs, sun damage and surgeries, rejections and embraces, scraped knees and broken bones…all of these shape the original person into something new.
No individual returns to one after fifty.
But I will agree that one moves to fifty as a result of one addition after another. The simplest action can lead to one result, causing another action and yet another effect.
A peek out my bedroom window reveals trees, hippies, and intentionally overgrown herb gardens. Kids on skateboards. The occasional bicycle sailing past. This place and this moment might be called Number 25. Thousands of miles and countless thoughts from Number 1. Surely a huge jump from Number 20. Review of the tapes from the last few years reveals the positions of the previous numbers. And the connecting lines are neither straight nor curved.
It all started with the three bedroom apartment on Paulina.
Something about the third bedroom was making people crazy. Well, not the general population, just anyone daring to sleep in there most nights. Stephen and I had watched it happen several times in the past year. Seemingly normal, upstanding individuals would move into this average-sized room just off the kitchen. Within a month, they would begin exhibiting odd behavior. A sudden–and sickening–predilection for underage girls. The need to masturbate outside the bathroom while I took a shower in the morning (oh yes). Binge eating. Cutlery hoarding. The newfound conviction that ghosts not only existed, but held cosmic parties in our apartment.
At first, we forced ourselves to overlook the transformation of the third roommate. I bought more silverware. Stephen avoided eye contact with the sixteen-year old girls tiptoeing down the stairs in the early morning. Loud music drowned out the marathons of vomiting held in our purple bathroom.
But the craziness always intensified. Stephen and I would once again find ourselves holding a secret meeting at the Bucktown Pub. “This one has to go. He’s really creeping me out! I can hear him moaning and panting outside the door while I’m trying to shave my legs.” We would request a “talk” with the roommate. It would be awkward. I would feign an air of apologetic resignation. Stephen would stand three inches taller as he explained the terms of this roommate’s dismissal. They could finish the month. We would cover the utilities, so there would be no need to contact us ever again.
We were concerned. There was no way we could afford our apartment in Bucktown without a third roommate. Stephen was living off of financial aid and his barista job. A large portion of my income was earmarked for records, comics, and clothes. And so, after yet another member of our household moved out–with all of my dirty underwear, no less–we found ourselves placing an ad in the Reader.
We were familiar with the process. Half of the calls/emails we would receive would be entirely unlikely candidates for residence in Apartment 3-4F: middle aged loners (Ack! We were both 22 years old!), former inmates looking to move out of the halfway house, and the already severely mentally ill (they would email us long mission statements and diatribes filled with government conspiracies and dubious scientific theories). We would schedule interviews with anyone seeming remotely “cool” (an intangible quality somehow involving liberal politics, good taste in music, and vintage clothing). Half of the scheduled interviewees would never show up. This would leave five, maybe a maximum of seven, potential roommates.
The agenda was always the same. First, I would give the potential roommate a tour of the apartment. I was assigned this task because Stephen and I agreed that I was the most gregarious resident. I would point out the features of our apartment: Dishwasher. Fireplace. Spiral staircase. Extra storage. I made the most inane small talk. “This is the bathroom. You will have to share it with me. I painted the walls a color named ‘Fairydust.’ Isn’t that adorable?”
Then I would lead the either incredibly uncomfortable or ultra-enthusiastic individual up the staircase to the living room. Nate and I would sit on folding chairs, facing the interviewee on the sofa. First we would ask questions we deemed “professional.” “So where do you work? Where do you live? Why are you leaving that place?” And then we would shift to the more important issues at hand. “What kind of music do you like? Do you go to a lot of shows? Are you in a band?”
This particular round of interviews left us with two options. The obvious front runner was Eric. He was in art school (score 15 points), he loved Nirvana, outer space, and Madlibs (score 55 points). He seemed genuinely nice, yet appropriately shy and awkward. The second runner-up was a girl named Ashley. Her story was complicated and confusing, but she was gregarious and funny. She worked at Pearl Paint (my eyes were filled with visions of discounted art supplies) and she dressed kind of like a 70s mom. She revealed far too much in our first conversation–gory tales of her eating disorder, shocking details about her family…nothing was held back. We decided this was charming.
But then Stephen decided that we could not have a male roommate. “I just can’t deal with another guy getting all pervy and weird with you.” I had to agree with him. Even though I tended to wear at least seven articles of clothing at any given time, somehow our male roommates DID develop creepy obsessions with me.
Stephen was immune to my inexplicable charms. Furthermore, he was an amazing roommate. Sure, his side of the refrigerator was filled with strange meats purchased at the German butcher shop near his work. And he even had one of those George Foreman rotisseries. But other than that, he was a dream. He patiently listened to my endless litany of boy problems–and then usually threatened some sort of implausible retaliatory violence. He was cool about changing the cat litter and emptying the dishwasher.
Living with me wasn’t always easy. My tendency to play the same song no less than 20 times in a row had frayed the nerves of others in the past. And my frequent dangerous impulsiveness sometimes made it hard to be my friend. I would go out for coffee and return two days later, with stories about some serendipitous trip to Michigan with strangers. “Well, we started talking about sledding, and before I knew it, we were taking off in a rental car.” If I returned home from the bar, I was never alone. Weird drunken pseudo-writers. Boys with glasses. New insta-friends. And then I was always losing my keys and forgetting to mail the electric bill.
So when Stephen proclaimed “No boys,” I had no choice but to respect his wishes. I sadly called Eric and said, “Sorry, we chose someone else. But will you be our friend? Can you come over and hang out?”
Ashley moved into our apartment a few days later. And after a few weeks of “we’re all new best friends,” suddenly the cursed third room got the best of her.
She liked to burst in my room at three AM to detail a dream she had just had.
Most of her stories started with “back when I was really anorexic and a size 2…no wait, a size 0….no wait, kid-sized with two thermals underneath…”
I’m pretty sure she once tried to push me out of a moving taxi.
Her prescriptions of psychotropic meds came in huge economy-sized bottles that I thought were reserved for use in pharmacies and hospitals (think: 10000 tablets/bottle…seemingly gallon-sized).
She ate a huge deep dish pizza (delivered) each day.
She disappeared three months later, when her father dragged her back to his mini-mansion in Highland Park. We were left with a $500 phone bill. Yet another roommate gone. She was instantly replaced with a student from Zimbabwe.
I can’t even remember the names of half of the inhabitants of the third bedroom. But Ashley is unforgettable, only as the final pencil stroke connecting 20 and 21. If she hadn’t done one particular thing on one specific night, many aspects of my reality would be very different right now.