1 The Roommates
The first thing Nat noticed when she awoke was the taste in her mouth: metallic, burnt, chemical. Jesus . . . What had she drunk last night? The pounding in her head answered: too much. She reached for the glass of water sitting on the floor next to her mattress. The tepid liquid soothed her parched throat but made her stomach churn and roll. She flopped back down, willing the nausea to abate. She didn’t want to vomit into her overflowing wastebasket. And she didn’t want to stumble through the apartment to the tiny bathroom she shared with her two roommates. Her insides were just starting to settle when she noticed Miguel, sprawled on his back, snoring softly beside her.
Nat must have been really wasted to have brought her coworker home. Again. She had made a vow not to hook up with Miguel anymore. Not because he wasn’t sweet, and funny, and hot—he was. But he was also a little in love with her, and she
didn’t want that to turn into a lot in love with her. They were just twenty-one, both students who worked at the same bar. A relationship with Miguel would be complicated, was bound to get messy. Nat had already been involved in one toxic, twisted, ultimately catastrophic relationship. She wasn’t going to do complicated and messy again.
She lay there, for a moment, observing her sleeping partner. Next to Miguel’s warm, brown back, Nat’s naked body looked fish-belly pale. Her father’s Gaelic genes, the dismal winter weather, and her poor diet were to blame. When Nat was properly nourished and getting adequate sunshine, her skin was peaches and cream, in pleasing contrast to her thick dark hair. When she was perpetually bundled in a winter coat, hat, and scarf, subsisting on packaged ramen and frozen pierogies, her pallor became ghostly, her hair a flat, mousy brown. She needed sunshine, citrus fruit, and protein. But Mother Nature, and her bank account, were conspiring against her.
The third thing she noticed that morning—after the toxic taste in her mouth, the pounding in her head, and the bartender in her bed—was the noise from the kitchen. A cupboard door banged aggressively. Pots and pans crashed together as they were dropped into the sink. Her roommates were pissed about something and were relaying it in their usual passive-aggressive manner.
“I’m so fucking over this.”
The muffled voice belonged to Mara, an angular, ginger-haired NYU student. She was getting her master’s in economics. Or was it political science? Something dry, dull, cerebral—at least to an art student like Nat. Mara was intense and easily irritated and
borderline OCD. What normal college student organized her canned goods by expiration date? Cleaned the fridge and sink twice a week with a bleach solution? Carried her toiletries back and forth from her bedroom to the bathroom, because, if left there, they’d be contaminated, with . . . what? Mildew? Urine? Feces?
“You were right,” Toni grumbled, loud enough for Nat to hear, “we shouldn’t have let an artist move in with us.” The jab smarted. Toni and Nat had been friendly when Nat first rented the spare room in the Bushwick apartment, a couple years ago. Unlike Mara, Toni was funny, messy, normal. Nat had felt an instant affinity for the girl with the bright smile, dark skin, and thick mass of braided hair. The pair had stayed up late drinking wine on a few occasions, had bonded over their love of salacious reality television and their adulation of Mariah Carey. But they’d grown apart recently. Toni was a fourth-year nursing student now, who kept long and grueling hours. Apparently, she no longer had time for trash TV. Or a sense of humor.
There was another bang, a jar being slammed onto the countertop, and more cursing from one of the roomies. Nat knew she had to get up, had to apologize, had to make things right. The rent for her tiny bedroom in the rundown apartment was straining her budget, and she was already on unofficial probation after breaking Mara’s Crock-Pot. A note had been slipped under her door after she’d attempted to cook a frozen pot roast and cracked the ceramic vessel.
If you can’t respect my appliances and use them as per instructions, I’m going to have to reconsider your tenancy.
Mara’s name was on the lease, which gave her the power to choose her roommates. It was obvious she wanted rid of the messy, hard-partying art student in the third bedroom. Nat wasn’t even sure what she had done to anger them this time, but she hoped it wouldn’t constitute a second strike. Her Bushwick home was affordable (just), safe (relatively), and accessible (forty-two minutes by subway) to the Manhattan campus of the School of Visual Arts. Nat had to get out there and kiss some roommate ass.
Ignoring her throbbing head and roiling belly, she dragged herself out of bed. Miguel didn’t stir. How could he sleep through the ruckus? Nat’s yellowing terry-cloth robe hung from a hook on the door, and she grabbed it, wrapping the musty garment around her. She noted then that she was still wearing panties. Maybe she and Miguel hadn’t had sex? She felt disgusted with herself for not remembering. The night’s events were hazy, blurry, jumbled. She’d gone to her job at Donnelly’s bar after her illustration class. Her lover had slipped her a few shots of vodka to get her through her waitressing shift. After closing, they’d shared a bottle of wine, and maybe a few Paralyzers. Or had they been White Russians? She definitely had to cut back on her drinking.
She stumbled into the kitchen and spotted the offending mess. A couple of pots were stacked in the sink. An open jar of tomato sauce, its contents dripping down the side, sat in a red ring on the table. It came to her in a flash of remembrance: pasta. She and Miguel had been hungry when they got home. Nat had made them rigatoni with jarred marinara. They’d sat at the tiny kitchen table and ate. And then Miguel was touching her, and kissing her,
and they’d ended up in bed. Clearly, they had not halted their foreplay to wash the dishes.
“Sorry, guys. I’ll clean this up.”
Mara whirled around, her ubiquitous bleach spray in hand. “You should have cleaned up last night.”
“I know. I screwed up.”
Toni, pouring coffee from a French press into a chipped mug, didn’t look up. “If you’re hungry at four A.M., go to a diner.”
Nat remembered Miguel’s suggestion to that effect. But she barely had enough money to cover her next tuition installment, and it wasn’t looking good for her rent. Even a burger would have broken the budget. Miguel would have paid, she knew, but his finances had to be tight, too. She hadn’t wanted to feel beholden to him, so she had offered to cook. And then, they’d ended up in bed.
“Toni and I aren’t comfortable with all the guys you’ve been bringing home,” Mara said, attacking the tomato sauce on the table as if she were cleaning up a chemical spill.
Nat felt her cheeks flush, a combination of humiliation and anger. All the guys? She could count on one hand the number of men she’d brought home since she’d been living there. Nat was not promiscuous; she was twenty-one. And her roommates weren’t exactly virgins. Mara had had a fling with one of her TAs just last year. And Toni used to have noisy sex with a hot computer science student, back when she drank wine and watched The Bachelor, and laughed, on occasion. Both her roommates needed to lighten up, probably needed to get laid.
Nat kept her voice calm. “I don’t bring home many guys.”
Toni smirked. “Really? Isn’t there a guy in your bed right now?”
“No,” Nat lied.
“We heard his voice last night,” Mara sniped.
“It’s not what you think,” Nat retorted. “A friend from work walked me home. Friday nights are crazy at the bar, and we were hungry and exhausted, I made us some pasta and invited him to crash.”
It might have been true. She was still wearing her panties, after all.
She watched the other women exchange a look. Was it doubt? Skepticism? Or guilt? Yes, that’s what it was. They felt bad for accusing her when they didn’t have all the facts. Nat hammered the nail in.
“I’d appreciate not being slut-shamed when I was only helping out a colleague.”
“Sorry,” mumbled Toni, dunking her lips into her coffee.
Mara kept scrubbing, probably formulating an articulate apology.
That’s when Miguel walked into the kitchen—rumpled from sleep, hungover, handsome. And stark naked.
“Is everything okay out here?” he said, hands inadequately covering his crotch. “I heard banging. . . .”
Nat observed the expression on her roommates’ faces. This time, it could not be misconstrued.
Validation. And disapproval.