Whatsapp At first, the quiet girl from Craigslist seemed like a great match—we had just the occasional tangle over cats and cleanup. And then the men started coming over. It was late morning, and I was putting up a fresh pot of coffee when I heard the first meow.
It sounded awfully close, as if from inside the apartment instead of the backyard one story down. Then I heard it again, and there was no doubt. I texted my roommate. You got a cat?!
I suffer from allergies — through spring and summer I have a persistent itch in my nostrils, and the lightest bit of pollen or dander or even a freshly mowed lawn sets off sneezing spells that leave my entire body sore. I was also concerned about the smell. And besides, the landlord forbade pets. I have a tendency to overreact, to exacerbate conflict. Instead I went for calm and firm, and maybe slightly paternal. We need to talk. Later that afternoon, in the kitchen between our bedrooms, we talked, leaning on opposite counters.
I was left somewhat unsettled. In the end, I told her she could keep the cat, but she better take care of it properly.
We were unlikely roommates, a Craigslist arrangement: I, a near-middle-aged man, several years divorced, with adolescent children of my own. She, a twenty-year-old recent college grad. At first, I had a parade of eccentrics, men who seemed to have something to hide, smelling of whiskey, with slurred speech, crooked teeth, telling me about jobs as investment bankers or corporate accountants, claims I found dubious.
He left just as I was about to call the cops. So when Jenny showed up, I was inclined to like her. She looked like a typical post-college young woman: Her speech tended to the monosyllabic.
I showed her the room. I showed her the bathroom. I assumed this meant she had all those things, and at first, it appeared that she did. She told me she worked two jobs, as a clerk in a stationary store in Midtown Manhattan and as an art-school model. Several days later, she brought documents attesting to her claims, and it all seemed to check out. She moved in a couple weeks later, with the help of her dad, whom I found affable in a way that put me further at ease.
Some time after she moved in, I met her boyfriend, who seemed about my age. I did have some mild concerns. I wondered why she would choose to live here — a part of town where she had no friends or family — and with me, a man twice her age. But I needed a roommate, and for the most part, she matched my criteria: There was something familiar about her, almost bland, like an unremarkable extra who might appear repeatedly in so many movies, which meant she was safe and normal and predictable — exactly what I needed if I was to share my home with a stranger.
It was soon after the cat incident that I began to notice she was home more. In fact, she rarely seemed to leave her room. She was always on time with rent, and she appeared to have enough money to buy groceries and order in meals. One afternoon, a couple weeks after Jenny took in the cat, I heard her voice and then a male voice I did not recognize.
It was definitely not her boyfriend, whose voice was high-pitched; this one was deep, almost gruff. I was in my room, working, and I heard someone enter the bathroom, and then the toilet flush, and so I opened my door a crack for a glance. In the hallway, emerging from the bathroom, was a short, squat man, gray-haired with a bald temple.
I felt a kind of indescribable rage, almost like a personal affront. How dare she — in my home?! An hour later, I watched her escort the man to the door. Another part of me was so angry I wanted to evict her immediately. The rest of the day, I wrestled with my thoughts, my mind feverish with indecision: Should I say something? Should I tell her boyfriend?
Should I call her dad? Was it any of my business anyway? I decided to wait, see if it happened again, and just a few days later, it did.
This time, it was a tall black man wearing an ill-fitting suit and tie, like thrift-shop formalwear. He, too, emerged from the bathroom and disappeared into her room, and after an hour or so she escorted him to the door, again in the blue pumps and rumpled ivory dress. I took to Google: What to do if my roommate is a prostitute? More than what to do, I was seeking clarity on why it bothered me.
Who was I to judge if Jenny chose an unorthodox profession? Why would I care if she used her room to ply her trade? On Yahoo Answers and in Google Groups and various other forums people wrote about similar experiences, and the consensus was: I wondered about the practical aspects of her work: Does she have a Backpage ad?
Did she use Craigslist? Could I find her on The Erotic Review? Sit her down for a talk. Point her in the right direction. Instead, when we met in the kitchen the next afternoon, passing between the refrigerator and the trashcan by the sink, I decided to bring it up. I was washing a dish, the water running lightly, and she was behind me, waiting for something in the microwave. She turned slowly to face me, nonchalant, with a thin smile. What are you going to do about it? Let us, as adults, discuss this situation.
In return, she took me for a fool. The words infuriated me, and I began to plot her eviction. Several days passed, however, and still I did nothing. We had just finished dinner at a SoHo restaurant, paid the check, and were about to head to her place when my phone rang. It was my landlord. There was trouble at the apartment. My thoughts went to the men.
My date raised an eyebrow to me. We were outside the restaurant, in the cool night air on a quiet street, a jittery yellow cab passing over the uneven cobblestone. Landlord says someone called The response came a few seconds later. She had been dead, in fact, for the past twenty-four hours, in her bed, in our apartment. My thoughts in those moments would later seem incongruous with the event itself, but at the time they were automatic, a cascading stream of impolitic ponderings.
I hung up the phone and looked at my date, who was gripping my arm and staring. My date reacted as I expected. Mostly I was just annoyed that her death was getting in the way of my evening plans. Jenny and I had lived together for four months, but I barely knew her.
An overdose of what? I called my landlord, and told her what I had learned: No, she need not worry about a thing. The police will take care of it all. I was out of town, I said — not a lie, although not entirely the truth either.
My date gripped my arm tighter, as if the news of death created some erotic charge, at once frightening and gripping, and we went off together to her apartment a few blocks away. My roommate was dead. It felt surreal, and I found myself ruminating on the nature of death, and youth, and the way we often know so little about the people living just several feet away from us.
It appeared that someone had taken the cat. Later in the afternoon, my phone rang. She had seemed like a rootless child, unattached, unaffected.