ROOMMATE FROM HELL - September 2013
A She Code Rule: Protect your friends from other people who will surely ruin their lives.
For the first time in my life, I kind of wished I could be someone else.
That’s not really as sad as it sounds, though. Anyone would probably think the same thing after they saw my roommate Juliette strolling toward us on the sidewalk that night, giving me and my new neighbor a little wave hi.
Catie leaned toward me and whispered, “She makes me feel like I’m so raggedy.”
Catie was right. Juliette was wearing a slim, elegant, sleeveless dress that reminded me of something an old-school actress like Grace Kelly would’ve worn back in the day. The lightly flowered material gave her this classy/innocent sheen, but her long, straight, black hair and dark eyes made her exotic, especially with her light tan skin bringing out what she’d already told me was her half-Brazilian, half-white heritage.
It would’ve been real easy to be jealous of Juliette, mainly because, no matter what she was wearing, she always managed to look good in some way that girls like me were born to envy. But Juliette was the type you couldn’t even hate since she was so damned nice all the time. She was what I would call Girl Perfect.
Right behind her, my other roommate Dena followed, a petite, beige shadow in her ruffled shirt, shorts, and a chin-length brunette bob. As she and Juliette pulled up to me and Catie, she ran her gaze over my faded jeans and cowboy boots paired with a pink blouse—no Girl Perfect wardrobe here—and when I caught her looking, she smiled sweetly at me, like she hadn’t been checking me out at all.
I smiled back.
“Sorry we’re late,” Juliette said over the loud rock music coming from the bar behind us. “It’s my fault.”
Dena spoke up. “We’re not that late.”
I’d known my roomies for just a week, after I’d moved in for fall semester, so I wasn’t sure if lateness was a habit or not. From the way Juliette offered an apologetic glance to me, though, she seemed truly sorry.
At this point, I pretty much only knew that Juliette was a worldly English major and Dena was her child development girl sidekick. See, I’d answered an online ad for their three-person apartment. I was a newbie on campus, a senior transfer from a smaller college in a rural part of California about three hours away from Cal-U, Spring Ridge, and I also didn’t run in their social circles, what, with being an ag-business major who’d come from a walnut farm back home. But Juliette had suggested that we all go out this morning when we’d seen each other outside our apartments on our way to class, and I was sure the get-to-know-yous were just about to start.
Catie gestured to Juliette’s dress. “Did you just come from church?”
“I know, right?” Dena said. “She looks like an angel!”
Juliette smoothed down the material. “I don’t even go to church. I had this thing with the Students Who Care Club. We had a community service speaker, so we put on a tea for her and I came straight here.” She grinned at Dena. “Credit goes to Dena, though. She made this dress.”
It wasn’t that Juliette needed handouts—hell, no. Not a girl from swanky Woodside, near San Fran. If anyone could’ve used free dresses, it was probably Financial-Aid me. Dena just used her as a “muse” for her sewing hobby, a sideline she was damned good at.
Juliette smoothed her long fingers down the material. “Gorg, isn’t it?”
No denying it. And Dena kept beaming. A blush even covered her cheeks.
“It’s the model,” she said. “Not the dress.”
Catie piped up. “Both are great.”
Subtly, Dena turned her gaze to Catie’s cool but skimpy outfit—a short blazing pink miniskirt that should’ve clashed with her long red hair but instead made her come off like a bad-ass fashion statement. Catie raised a brow right back, like she was daring Dena to comment on the length of her skirt or something.
I didn’t know if Juliette caught Dena’s sneak snobby peek, because she was looking into Spuds’ front window, where a bar crowd had gathered to the beats of a Justin Timberlake song.
“Should we go in?” she asked.
“I’ve got a better idea,” said Catie, gesturing down Main Street. It was like half the students in Spring Ridge had turned out for the weekly Farmer’s Market. Besides the noisy crowd going from barbecue stands to produce stalls, music from a live band traveled down the street, competing with Catie’s voice and the song from the bar behind us. “Let’s do something more fun than Spuds!”
“We like Spuds,” Dena said.
Catie laughed. “Maybe you’ll like my idea, too.”
Stepping in, I said, “Catie and I were talking about going to the Lotus Room for some karaoke.”
“Yeah,” Catie said. “I found out the new girl here likes to sing. I told her if she’s any good, I’d buy her first couple of drinks. It’s worth the entertainment value!”
Dena gave me the same look she’d given Catie’s clothes. “You sing?”
“A little.” So she didn’t know this tidbit about me. No big thing. We were all just getting to know each other.
But...Well, it was just that Juliette and Dena were always together, and getting to know each other seemed to be taking longer than I’d thought it would. Maybe that was only natural, though, seeing as this was the start of the quarter and things were chaotic, anyway. Life would settle down soon enough, and then we’d all be great roomies, just like the ones my mom had said she’d had when she’d gone here twenty years ago. She’d met Dad at college long before he’d had the heart attack and passed on, so she had some pretty romantic memories of school.
I’d bought into them all the way, too, saving up my money to go here ever since I was old enough to write Cal-U, SR! with a crayon. When I’d graduated to a more adult life, I’d decided to get my GE courses out of the way at a smaller college, living at home so I could sock away enough money to finally appear at Mom’s alma mater, shiny and ready for life to really start. I’d finally hit the magic money number last year, better late than never.
Juliette had turned away from Spuds and to Dena. “Come on, Deen. I’ve always wanted to go to the Lotus Room! Let’s do it.”
Dena shook her head. “You guys, I heard they don’t like...you know. Other people to be in there for Thursday karaoke night. They dedicate it to...the community.”
Catie loud-whispered over the music from the bar. “You mean those Japanese-American people in there don’t want whites like us interrupting their singing?”
When Dena flushed, Catie laughed it off. I didn’t know what to do, and Juliette was obviously with me when we traded “whoops” glances.
“Off we go,” Catie said, taking my arm and leading the way into the street.
A band of drunk fraternity guys roared by us, shooting appreciative looks at Juliette. Dena took her girl’s arm protectively and pulled her out of the frat boys’ line of sight. I’d learned early on that both of them were independents, even if Juliette seemed like the exact type to be in a sorority. She’d mentioned something about her older sister having a bad experience in one, though, so she’d gone the indie route, even if she had a lot of Greek friends.
Dena put some distance between us and them, like this was a race.
“Ah Dena,” Catie said with a sigh. Now that we were getting away from the music, it was easier to talk freely. “Have you noticed yet that she’s…Well, hard to get to know?”
“I figured she’ll come around some time.”
“You’ll be waiting a while. If you’re feeling a certain distant vibe from her, it’s because she’s Juliette’s girl all the way. You know how small dogs attach themselves to one person and devote their entire lives to them? That’s Dena.”
I turned her comment over in my mind. I’d never had any quality moments with Catie until now, after Juliette had brought us together for the night. I’d never heard her two cents about my roomies at all.
“You and Dena don’t get along?” I asked.
“We’re fine with each other. My sister Amber isn’t a fan at all, but…” She trailed off.
“What?” I asked.
“It’s just that I wouldn’t hang out with Dena on my own. I came tonight because you seem cool and I thought it’d be fun. What I’m trying to say is…Have Juliette and Dena mentioned anything about Alyssa, the old roommate?”
“No. I thought she graduated.”
“No. She lives in another apartment complex now.”
Before Catie could go on, she swerved us both away from an oncoming skateboarder with dreadlocks who came so close to us that he left a trail of...Well, something pretty aromatic.
I followed him with my gaze, sniffing.
“Whoa, someone’s been making it with Mary Jane,” Catie said, laughing. “Maybe we should chase him down for some of that ganja.”
Even though I was wondering about Alyssa, I figured now wasn’t the time to get into a discussion about the former roommate—Dena and Juliette had slowed down up ahead and we were getting close to them.
“I think my mom would freak if she was in my shoes right now,” I said, choosing a safer subject. “She likes to think that this campus is still like it was back when she went here—all cowboys, country music, and conservative attitude.” We were passing a politically inclined booth full of Young Democrats with rainbow knit caps. I suspected the skater had come straight from here. “Things change, though.”
And I was hoping for some of that change to happen to me. Not in a pot-smoke-y kind of way. But this was a time to explore, to find myself, after all these years of saving up for the opportunity.
“God,” Catie said, tweaking my cheek. “I could just eat you up—you and your blondie corn-fed cuteness. And I don’t say that in a condescending way. I like you, Lori. I can tell you’re good people.”
“Thanks.” It was nice to know that, little by little, I was making progress on the friends front. I’d just have to be sure that Catie knew I wasn’t Kellie Pickler or anything. The corn-fed line bugged me, even though I was sure Catie hadn’t meant anything bad by it.
My gaze landed on Juliette in front of us, walking onto the sidewalk in her trendy, strappy heels plus a starlet dress that might’ve made anyone else look like overkill in the Farmer’s Market. She attracted a ridiculous amount of attention: every guy watched the long-limbed way she moved, and when we passed a cluster of girls who lit up when they saw her, they waved and called, “Jules!” One guy up ahead even had a girlfriend who took his chin in hand and snapped his gaze back over to her.
I sighed to myself. Juliette? Was so not corn-fed.
We’d come to the Lotus Room, its front tinged with blue with yellow lanterns framing its doorway. Down here, away from the thick of the market, the thud from all the music was softer.
“Are they even open?” I asked. “It seems so quiet.”
In answer, Dena pulled at the doors, and a barrage of melody came out—something Japanese that I’d never heard before, with violins and melancholy notes. The woman singing had a sweet voice.
All heads in the dim, crowded place turned to us as a huge karaoke screen filled the front of the room with lyrics.
“Ever feel watched?” Catie murmured.
But as the woman sang on, a hostess strode over to us, bowing and smiling, showing us to a table near the back.
After the server brought us a bowl of popcorn and took our orders, leaving behind a menu of karaoke songs, I leaned over to Catie.
“No way I’m singing here.”
“Live a little, Lori!” Catie whispered. “Besides, I actually got here early before I met you guys and signed us all up for a few slots.”
I thought I heard Dena muffle a laugh, but when I looked, she was dedicating herself to scanning the songbook. Juliette was doing the same, tracing her finger down the music menu. A young Japanese man at the table in front of us snuck a peek back at her, then ducked to the front again as the singer finished. As everyone politely applauded, Juliette smiled to herself like she’d seen his temporary gawking.
Our server returned with the drinks, and Catie had a word with her, and the woman nodded, smiling again and going over to Juliette and Dena.
“What did you say to her?” I asked.
But the server was already gone, and Catie was raising her plum wine in the air, prompting me to do the same. The other girls joined us.
“Here’s to getting to know my new neighbor,” Catie said during the lull in the music.
Dena joined in. “To Lori!”
“Yes!” Juliette said. “To our new roomie!”
I felt the love, and I pushed everything Catie had said about Dena to the back of my mind.
We went through one round of wine, then another, listening to sentimental songs and old standards, clapping sincerely for all of them, because nobody in that room was there to mock each other. I’d been to an American karaoke bar once, and it was brutal. But here, there was a sense of decency and respect that got me in the mood.
Still, when the hostess came over to give me the microphone and the lyrics to Carrie Underwood’s “Good Girl” appeared on the big screen, I almost killed my new neighbor out of complete embarrassment.
Almost. Because there I went, singing anyway, just like I’d done during a few county fairs in front of the people I’d grown up with.
When I was finished, applause washed over me, and I shrugged modestly, handing the mic back to the hostess and sitting down.
“From now on,” Catie said, “I’m calling you Reba, mainly because she’s the only country singer I’ve really heard of. But also because you’re the queen!”
She raised her hand for a high five, and Juliette put her arm around me from the other side, hugging me emphatically.
“That was great!” she said.
I couldn’t stop grinning. There was just something about Juliette that made me want to please her. There’s always a cool girl like that, though, isn’t there? It could be the girl who led the games out on the playground in grammar school, the princess who sat at the head of the lunch table in junior high, the queen of the prom, and now this.
Juliette, my new roomie and friend.
I basked in the glow of the moment until the hostess handed Juliette the microphone and she put her hand to her chest, shooting Dena a well-here-goes-nothing look, then standing up to the encouraging applause.
Dena glanced at me, smiling wide, just before Juliette wiped the floor with me.
Hell, who’d thought she’d whip out some Mariah Carey the way she did?
That’s what I told myself afterward as I tried not to feel like a smashed tin can in the presence of Juliette’s golden lungs. Sure, having Catie in the Lotus Room, patting me on the back and winking at me like I had nothing to be ashamed of, propped me up ever so slightly. And, really, I couldn’t dislike Juliette just because she’d blown everyone’s pierced earrings off.
So the next day, I went about my regular business, going to class, then walking back to the apartment with my backpack slung over one shoulder. And when I saw who was coming out of the door, I almost tripped over my boots.
His name was Brian Flannery, and he had thick, dark hair, blue, blue eyes, and cheeks that got a red flush on them every once in a while, making him look boyish, even though he was for sure built like a man. I suspected, though, that he was incredibly out of my league with his designer wristwatch and a Mercedes-Benz that his parents had given him for his twenty-first birthday.
He headed for his car now as he smiled at me, loose-limbed and carefree. “Hey, Lori. Need anything from the store? I’m on my way there.”
“Nothing for me.” It was a miracle I could speak, what, with the frog in my throat. I even wondered if he’d heard me, because of that pesky, huge universe that separated me and him. He was one of Juliette’s hometown friends from Woodside. At first, after I’d found out Juliette’s pedigree, I’d wondered why she was sharing an apartment with me and Dena. But then I’d found out that her parents were making her earn her own way through school, helped by a gig at her uncle’s publicity firm during the summers.
As I said. Girl Perfect.
Brian pulled open his car door, leaning on it, his shirtsleeves pushed up to reveal muscled forearms. “You sure I can’t get you anything? It’s no problem. I’m coming back here, anyway.”
Should I ask why? Too intrusive? Too none-of-my-business?
“Why?” I asked, going for it.
He hesitated for some reason, then smiled at me. “Juliette’s making dinner.”
Then he got into the car, no more details, just another charming smile that had my heart loop-de-looping.
But had he paused in answering me because Juliette and Dena hadn’t invited me?
That wasn’t the only question barking at me. Another one was about Brian, who wasn’t Juliette’s boyfriend. I wasn’t sure what he was to her, because whenever Dena teased Juliette about her and Brian’s friendship, Juliette always brushed her off and said there was nothing to it. From what I’d seen, she didn’t act like she wanted him as a boyfriend, just a friend, so there wasn’t much cause to think that something was going on. Hell—I’d even caught Dena giving him the once over then getting a dirty, special grin on her face as her brain went to Naughty Town. He was on the market.
It’s just that he was all Whole Foods and I was the corner fruit stand.
He drove off, waving at me through the open window, and I sighed, walking into the apartment.
Immediately, I could hear the TV. Dena and Juliette seemed to like the white noise, especially when it came to the Bravo channel. Screeching housewives. What could I say, because my mom and two sisters-in-law watched that stuff, too, whenever we got together for weekend barbecues. Sometimes I even got sucked in.
As I came into the kitchen, I found Juliette and Dena drinking martinis at the small table. They always ate together, so a happy hour didn’t seem odd. Their private dinners didn’t actually bother me, because I was a master at mac and cheese and all kinds of assorted pastas on my own. But maybe one day we’d have enough time to cook together.
“Happy Friday,” I said.
Dena was fooling around with an iPad, but she lowered it, like she didn’t want me to see what was on it. Juliette perked up when she spied me.
“Hey! How were classes?”
“Not bad, but I was raging to get out for a couple days off. School just started—you’d think I wouldn’t have weekend-i-tis yet.”
“I hear you.” Juliette motioned to the martinis. “You in the mood for a cocktail?”
“I’m good, but thanks, anyway.”
Juliette gave Dena a long look, and I knew it was about the dinner they were throwing. Great. Life as a fifth wheel. I almost even lied right then and there, telling them I had plans tonight so they shouldn’t feel like they needed to invite me.
Dena looked away, and Juliette stood and then sat partway on the table, her long legs emphasized by her white tennis shorts.
“We were thinking, Lori...What’re you doing tonight?”
Okay. “No big plans. I do have a Food Retail Management project to start on, though.”
Dena was navigating away on her iPad, and Juliette waggled her eyebrows at me.
“We thought we’d throw a little dinner party. Martinis, steaks, baked potatoes, boys. What do you think?”
Brian, was all I could think.
Juliette added, “We haven’t gotten to bond with you yet, and this is a perfect time to get on that. I mean, who even knew that we were both songbirds until last night?”
The same muffled sound I’d heard just before Juliette had taken the microphone for karaoke came from Dena. At least, I think it did. Juliette didn’t react, so I wasn’t sure. Besides, the Bravo housewives were making their own strange sounds from the TV as one went after another for saying something “mean.”
“Actually,” I said, “dinner with you all would be perfect.”
“Great! You’ve already met some of the guys who’ll be here, too. Like Brian.”
Yes. Yes, I had.
“He’s got three friends from his fraternity coming with him.” Juliette glanced at Dena. “And someone in this room has got the hots for one of those friends. Let’s see if she blushes when I say the name ‘Ed...’”
Dena stuck out her tongue at Juliette, smiled, then went back to her iPad. Her bobbed hair barely hid her blush.
“Anyway,” Juliette said. “I’ve invited Catie and her sister Amber, just to add more liveliness. Their roommate Steph has something going on with her boyfriend, so she can’t make it.”
Dena rolled her eyes, and I started to do the math. Four guys, five girls. Would I be a fifth wheel?
“Not that we’re pairing everyone off or anything,” Juliette said, catching onto my hesitation.
“It sounds great,” I said. But...was this going to be a pairing-off dinner? It wasn’t that I was a total newbie when it came to guys or dating. I wasn’t a virgin—those days had passed me by a long time ago after wild junior and senior years—but I wasn’t liking the odds here.
Dena pushed back her short hair. “Can I just point out that the twins are sluts, so we might as well put aside two guys for them?”
“Come on now,” Juliette said. “You know I’ve wanted to get to know the twins for a while. Let’s give them a chance. They seem so fun.”
Looked like Juliette had no idea how Catie and Amber felt about Dena.
She sighed and went back to her iPad. What was that in her gaze, though? She was hiding whatever it was well, but was there some...I don’t know. Anxiety? Was she afraid that Ed, her crush, was going to go for one of the twins and she was the one who’d be out in the cold?
Juliette came toward me and, much to my surprise, smacked my butt, sending me toward the stairs.
“Steak’s on in two hours, Lori!”
On a burst of energy, I ran for the stairs, pounding up them. Finally, quality time with my roommates. My true college experience was finally beginning.
And Brian was going to be here to make things even more interesting.
From the e-novella: Roommate from Hell
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