My Tragic Little Friend
When I was in college, I had a roommate who was a lost little soul. We had known her throughout childhood; she grew up in our neighborhood, but we didn’t thoroughly realize what an awful childhood she’d had until we were grown. She had spent some time in high school living with my best friend and her family, which seemed an odd arrangement, for a child living just around the corner with her own family to suddenly move in with another.
We learned in college what a nightmarish childhood she’d had. Her father beat her mother and the three children often. When the brother got big enough, he started handing out beatings too. The police were always being called to the house, and the mother took her abuse out on the kids as well. This little girl had lived in fear of her life. And all this time, in high school, while she was a twinkling little Goldie Hawn, and Miss Congeniality, she was harboring this terrible secret.
When we took her in in college we knew she was a bit troubled. She was only in college because of huge amounts of student loans; her family (college professors, both of them) had done nothing to help her out. We discovered that her problems went a little deeper when she moved in.
She was bulemic. If we ever got it together and cooked anything, she choked it down and then vomited it back up so that none of us got any of it. And her wiring was very, very broken. She was a full blown type I bipolar who would not take meds. She had been prescribed some antidepressants, but instead of taking them as described, she took them “once in a while, when she didn’t feel good.” For days she would be up up up and she would be awake for all hours, waking us up and calling friends on the phone to talk about brilliant art and music plans she had. Then she would crash down down down and lie in her bed for days at a time, neither showering nor attending class. This was a real problem because she was sharing a bedroom with someone else.
She had hallucinations. She used to read William Blake, and Revelations, and then she would have waking nightmares. One night her roommate found her standing over the bed with a knife. She would lock herself in places and be unable to work the lock to get out. This finally resulted in my poor roommate taking the bathroom door in the back bedroom off its hinges so she wouldn’t come home to find our little roommate locked in the bathtub again. She tried taking the doorknob off first, but somehow our pitiful roomie managed to get herself trapped in there anyway.
Our relationship as roommates ended when she and her roommate had a knock-down, drag-out fight. We threw her out of the apartment and packed a truck with her things. We just couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t think I would see her again, and I didn’t for about six years.
I moved to New Orleans about six years later for my residency program. I had not been in town long when I was riding my bike back to my house and heard a familiar cute squeaky voice calling out to me. I pulled over to the side of the road – it was her. She had somehow moved to New Orleans by catching a ride there with some friends, and she just stayed. Maybe they wouldn’t let her back in the car. I just don’t know.
Somehow, she worked her way into being a part of my life again. I liked a good many of her friends; she was once again living on the pity of others. The bipolar disorder was worse. She took no meds at all. She was in a cycle of employment that went something like this: find new job, wax lyrical about bounteous goodness of new job, describe delightfulness of employees at new job, and that they understood her like no one else ever had. About six weeks later the rot and paranoia would sneak in. She would start to talk about how awful the people at work were, and about how they talked about her behind her back, and she would stop going to work at all, and she would lose her job. Lather, rinse, repeat.
I tried to help her. I made her come to the free clinic to get birth control and her pap smear done. When it turned out she had a hernia, I got her into the free surgery clinic to have it fixed. She was in beauty school at that time, having long ago defaulted on and run away from her student loans. I let her dye my hair (although I would never let her cut it) and my nails were always brilliant practice shades. One time I wound up with eggplant colored hair. I had to scrub it out with dishwashing detergent over and over again so I could go to work the next day without being fired.
When she was manic, she was up all hours and roaming the streets of New Orleans. One day she caught a ride home when she found herself in a bad neighborhood and brought a guy called “Eight Ball” home with her. I could just see him eyeing my stereo system. She met some interesting people: a lot of famous musicians for one thing, given her nocturnal habits, but she also met some real creeps. She got raped not once but twice, and now had PTSD on top of her severe bipolar disorder.
She had also become a hard-bitten alcoholic. She was dating a very nice man, but unfortunately he was an alcoholic too, and they fed off each other. She would call me at three in the morning, wanting to know if I wanted to go out for a drink. She didn’t have a car, so when she got the hankering, she just called her friends until one gave in.
She was living with a lovely woman, an artist who seemed to overlook all her many tragic shortcomings. She even used her a bit as a muse. Our friend also earned spending money posing nude as an artist model, and in fact I have a painting of her head and upper torso painted by an artist I was dating. She had introduced us.
When the house she was living in burned, she became my roommate again. She and her artist friend moved into my big old house with me and there she was, with all her bad old faults and many more new ones. It was a given that she didn’t pay rent. We just covered for her, and fed her when we could. I used to go visit her at her many jobs waiting tables, and would sip drinks, eat and do crosswords, just to leave her some tips.
Finally, her problems eclipsed us all. She broke up with the nice alcoholic and started dating an abusive one. She moved out and followed him to a coastal Mississippi town. We all lost touch with her then; I admit I was glad to, and I have heard very little about her or her life since. Even her artist friend drifted away. She, too had had enough from her muse. I wonder to this day if she is even alive, although I would fight tooth and nail to keep her from ever coming into my life again.