My New Roommate
by Krista Ahlberg
I found my new roommate on Craigslist, and right away I knew there was something different about her. I could tell as soon as she walked into the apartment, sniffing the air. She was wearing sandals even though it was December, and I watched her toes curl as she placed her feet ever so carefully, one in front of the other.
She sat on the edge of my couch and politely sipped at the water I gave her, and steam rose from the glass. I looked at her mouth and she looked back at me, and I turned away, feeling rude for staring. She answered my questions about what she was doing in the city, and where she had lived before, and what she was looking for in a living situation, and if she minded that the heat in the room didn’t work very well.
She said nonprofit, Hawaii, somewhere private, no, and not much else, her voice measured and clear in a way I knew I never could have duplicated. I envied her silences even as I babbled to fill them. I offered her the room on the spot, knowing in my parched throat that I’d regret it if I didn’t keep this woman in my life for as long as I could.
When she was gone, I saw that there was a small burn mark on the couch where she’d been sitting. I flipped the cushion.
She moved in the next week, and brought with her slippery black tarps that she put over all the furniture I’d provided for her bedroom. I never saw her sit on the couch again, or lean against the plastic countertops in the kitchen. In fact, she didn’t use the kitchen at all. I never saw her eat, but sometimes she would come in with boxes from the sushi place around the corner and pace into her room with them. Once she was carrying a plastic bag that I swear I saw a tentacle flop out of just before she closed the door.
She spoke to me infrequently, but when she did she was always full of questions about my job, or was I dating anybody, or had I seen any good shows lately—all the stuff I liked to talk about, so usually it was only after the conversation had ended and the giddy rush had left me that I realized she hadn’t said anything about herself.
I continued to gather suspicions: the hall between her bedroom and the bathroom was strewn with tiny dust-like gray pebbles, and when I picked them up they were porous and crumbled in my hand. Every day I swept them up, but every day after she took a shower and locked herself in her room, there were more, and the bathroom smelled of sulfur. The scent followed her wherever she went, and we finally had to take down the smoke alarm after it wouldn’t stop blaring whenever she stood near it.
One night, she asked me if I wanted to go clubbing and I had to google the names of clubs because neither of us knew any. There, I watched her gyrate under the flashing red and green lights, watched the way they captured the curve of her face and left the rest in darkness, her black hair whipping across her back, her legs kicking out strong and wild.
I gyrated with her; I couldn’t help it. She caught me up in the tornado of skirt and hair and sandaled feet, and I felt joy twist through me like fire, the heat pushing up and radiating out through the ends of my hair.
In the midst of a turn, she stopped, and her stillness seemed to increase the movement around her, like a whirlpool or a black hole, the last drops of water rushing down the drain, and I kept turning and stumbled into her. She grabbed me with both hands, and her fingers sizzled into my flesh and her breath tingled on my face. She said, “I’m so empty,” and I had to lean in to hear her over the music. Her lips cupped my ear and she yelled into my head and this time I heard, “I’m so hungry.”
Then she let me go, and I stumbled back, bringing my hands to my upper arms, covering where hers had been, where my skin was scorched, shiny and red in the shapes of fingers.
I watched her spin away from me, and I watched the crowd spin after, people coming close and reaching for the hem of her skirt, her trailing sleeves. Like supplicants, ready to sacrifice everything just to touch her for a single moment. I wanted to warn them not to, but I could only clutch my own arms. She raised her hands above her head and watched them coming, and I saw the blaze of her eyes, saw her tongue dart out to lick the sweat from her upper lip.
She dipped one arm down to point at a boy—sharp-chinned and round-shouldered, milky and virginal and breathing fast. He slid across the dance floor like lava over broken ground, slow and inexorable, and she curled her fingers into his hair, bringing his head up, bringing his mouth to hers.
I left then, but I heard them come in later, and the boy was laughing quietly and my roommate wasn’t saying anything at all. I crept down the hallway and stopped outside her door, listened to the shush of thrown T-shirts and the snick of a belt buckle dropping. Then there was an intake of breath and the longest sigh I’d ever heard, an exhalation that seemed to go on for minutes. The floor under my feet grew warm, and when I reached out and tested the door with the backs of my hands like they teach you to do during a fire, the wood was bright-hot. I dropped to my knees and crawled to my room, then pressed the backs of my hands to the tops of my arms, the red soreness aching between them.
I fell asleep waiting to smell smoke, to hear the floorboards splintering, to see the walls turn black with soot. When I woke up in the morning, the boy was gone, but his shoes were still lined up neatly in our entryway, and my roommate was standing there staring at them. Her skin was lush, almost glowing, and her hair seemed to have grown in the night and now reached past her hips.
She looked at me and smiled. “He must have left his shoes.”
I looked at her smile, top teeth biting her bottom lip. She leaned forward to pick up the shoes, and as she did her hair swung around and brushed the hand hanging by my side, and it flowed cool over my burned skin. She stood up and gestured toward the hallway with the shoes. “I’ll take them to the trash chute. If he left them, he clearly doesn’t want them anymore.”
“Clearly not,” I said, and smiled too. When she stepped out, I brought my hand to my mouth and felt the heat against my lips, the momentary coolness gone but her sulfur smell lingering close.
After that there was a new boy or girl every few weeks, one who disappeared into her bedroom with her and whom I never saw again. I fingered the starfish-shaped scars on my arms, which had faded to mottled pink and felt softer than skin should be, and wondered if I should kick her out. But I had just started a new job and didn’t have time to interview people again, and she never ate my food or left hair in the shower, and honestly she was the best roommate I’d ever had.
Besides, on nights when we were alone in the apartment, I’d linger outside her door on the way back from the bathroom, listening to the thick, still silence inside and wondering when it would bubble over. Wondering if she’d ever invite me in to see for myself what happened on the other side of that door, never sure if I was relieved or hurt that she didn’t, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to remove the possibility entirely.
Eventually, though, it was pretty clear she never would, and I told myself the jump of my stomach had to be relief, and stopped listening at doors. I started dating a guy I met at work who was perfectly nice and talked as much about himself as I did about me, and I told myself that the heaviness in my chest was contentment. I slept over at his house most of the time, and I stopped noticing when my roommate brought people home and what happened in the apartment when she did.
But some nights, she’d call me up and I’d meet her at the club and we’d dance, her hips twirling me around in their vortex. I’d hold my breath and wait to feel that alive thing crawling up from my insides, filling me with fire. I’d look up at her face glinting with light and shadows, and when she smiled I’d finally exhale.
About the Author:
Krista Ahlberg grew up in Colorado, spent a few years in the Midwest, and now lives in New York City, where she works in publishing and keeps her eyes peeled for everyday magic. She has stories published or forthcoming in Rose Red Review and F(r)iction.
About All Accounts:
All Accounts and Mixture is an annual online feature celebrating the work of LGBTQ writers and artists. For this series, we seek work from authors who self-identify as "queer," while acknowledging that this designation is subjective and highly personal. Our goal is to provide a forum for writers whose voices might be mis- or underrepresented by the literary mainstream. Submissions open May 18th and run through June 19th. Poetry, prose, visual art, reviews and interviews will all be considered.