Ohio Portrait no. 198

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We chose the Maynard house in the winter. Ashley and Erik had finally deigned to live again with Tom and I, after months of us wringing our hands and feeling rejected. Ashley and Erik had a friend, a red-headed, spirited girl who studied art therapy, whom they wanted to have live with the four of us. But she needed her parent’s approval. They were uncomfortable with the fact that Tom was a straight man, that their daughter would be living with a straight man. That I was his girlfriend didn’t allay their concerns. Eventually the parents put their foot down, so the friend was out, and Erik and Ashley were with us.

We looked at a few rotted-out garden apartments near the stretch of fraternity housing. The ceilings were low and mottled with mildew; the lawns were graveyards of red Solo cups and coupon books and remnants of frozen puke. We looked east, across the river, and found towering apartment complexes, all dingy white, all constructed in 1980 or 1978 and looking very much like it. We contemplated a condominium closer to the Short North. Ashley came from money and didn’t understand how the rent bugged our eyes out.

We’d already all shared a tiny four-bedroom on Kinnear, by the agricultural campus. It was furnished with a kitchen and a small common area. Downstairs there was fooseball, a gym, a pool, and a hot tub. Supposedly in one of the closets there was a tanning bed, but you had to request time with it at the front desk, and I was afraid.

I loved that tiny cheap apartment. 300 a month, two bathrooms, two dressing areas with big mirrors and a set of two sinks. Tom and I turned one bedroom into an office and slept in another. The office turned into a place where I made mosaics and Tom played Madden when he didn’t want to talk to me.

I hated how he’d get drunk and stagger away from conversation, or conflict, and plop into the sticky grey gaming chair. I could stare at him and harangue him for hours while he played and he’d never answer. Never acknowledge me. I felt like I was shattering.

Other days in that apartment were blissful. I remember waking up and seeing the light caught in his tufts of disorganized hair and feeling the need to grab my camera and take a picture. I held onto that image of him — face peeking from under a comforter, hair askew, eyes bright but sleepy — for years, long after I’d started hating him. I remember long nights drunk in the hot tub in the courtyard, half-nude and staring up into our neighbors windows. I remember long walks in the corn fields, frisbee golf in the late afternoon. I remember any moment that was benign with fondness, the way a splitting headache can make you long for your usual brain.

I don’t miss those days, but I do miss paying $300 a month for that much space; as small as my roommates believed it to be at the time, it was actually perfect. Four beds, two baths, beds, desks, chairs, TV, microwave, in-unit laundry all included, amongst my oldest friends? I could never find that now. I will never find that again.

But Ashley and Erik had momentos and books they never read and a four-poster bed and mounds of clothes and ideas about decor, so we had to move. We searched and I fretted and then we found the house on Maynard. It was huge, and the same price, so I guess they were in the right.

The Maynard house was built from a Sears Roebuck catalogue in 1918. Three stories, three bedrooms (if you included the repurposed attic with the bathroom built in), an office, a parlor, an eat-in kitchen and a back yard. It was owned by a married couple, who’d bought and refurbished the place so their own children could use it for college.

When we visited the apartment, the owners were struck by how I slid down the stairs and no one else took note of it. My spill was silent-movie catastrophic, over-the-top, but Erik, Ashley, and Tom took no note of it. They were completely nonplussed. The owners took this (rightly) to mean that I was a total klutz, and by the time we moved in, they had painted every staircase in anti-slip, anti-ice, anti-moisture paint.

It was easy for us to get the apartment. We were well-spoken, pre-law type kids, a mix of girls and boys. The owners could project their own children onto our faces. They told us they got a good vibe, which is just a suburban Columbus way of saying we were white and well-educated and not drunks.

The woman said something about how, among renters, girls were the messiest and boys were the least responsible, so it was best to have variety. They didn’t even balk at Tom and I being together, usually a portent of doom among college renters. We’d been together almost three years, and from the outside everyone saw a steady course into marriage.

So we got the house, and it was lovely at first. Erik dreamed of filling the garden with perennials, and discussed planting schedules with the owners. The man brought mulch and the woman gave us coupons she had printed online. Ashley brought in her mounds of clothes, as well as an array of lamps and bedding and a massive white dresser. Tom’s parents forced us to use our attic room as a storage facility for their old soundsystem and massive desk.

My dreams of a perfect workspace were felled by the massive, scratched thing. I’d been shopping for desks and LED lights and desktop organizers since the day I’d escaped the dorms, but now that was all ruined by the hulking antique. Tom and I had to sit side-by-side at it, him always blaring Take a Load Off Fanny and playing Bloons, a Flash game where a cartoon monkey shoots arrows at brightly colored balloons. I never got any work done.

In the mornings I’d wake, drink a cup of International Delight instant coffee, eat a bowl of off-brand Lucky Charms, and fix Tom a plate of toast with strawberry jam. I’d leave the toast on a plate with a love note or a drawing next to his filthy computer. It was usually 8 or 9 am and he would not be awake for hours to come. But the desk was scattered with beer tabs and Banquet meals and old German papers and Ashley’s TV was blaring the Gilmore Girls while she tried to write a paper, so I’d have to leave if I wanted to be at all productive.

I spent a lot of time fuming in the attic. I spent a lot of time singing angrily in the shower, so loud Erik could hear me from his room below. If I had work to do, I had to leave, had to walk a mile to a campus library and hole up with my books and an iPod loaded with Ratatat. This was how I graduated early, applied to 20 graduate programs, and set off for Chicago the next fall. By avoiding everyone and cursing their noise. The home was beautiful and spacious but my every last nerve was continually tweaked.

Erik and Ashley were always chatting and cackling; Tom was always burping Keystone into my face and scattering the floor with empty cans. The house was too noisey and messy for me to ever focus, and there were centipedes slipping through the cracks in the walls. Once, they crawled out of the AC and onto Tom’s face in the night. I was horrified but glad to have him out of my way, retired to the couch.

Then came the mice. I bore them no ill will; didn’t want to kill them, and neither did Tom, because he was taking a philosophy class that had rendered him briefly bleeding of heart. Erik was too disgusted with vermon for that, though, so he set up a bunch of fatal traps, divided their cost by 4, and wrote what we “owed” him on the whiteboard in the kitchen. Our friend Heather, a pacifist Christian then embedded in a cultish home church, came over and threw the traps out. Erik complained. Tom threatened to move out, suddenly indignant and principled. I had to broker the peace.

In the winter, the attic room Tom and I shared was freezing cold, and we wore full sweatsuits, hats, and three layers of socks to bed. Seinfeld was playing on the television as I tried to sleep and Tom tried to negotiate the layers so he could have sex with me. I’d been disinterested in him for quite a long time. I felt guilty but didn’t have the wherewithall to dump him yet. Every night was a tense battle of shame and need, him asking for and usually not getting something that it nauseated me to give. I was glad for the cold weather; it kept me covered up. Blankets could become walls to keep me from his groping.

And then that night, rebuffed again, he cried and drank and put on Seinfeld and he dumped me. I shouldn’t have been devastated but I was. I clung to him through blankets, begging forgiveness for having boundaries. We could still live together, he said. We could be like Seinfeld and Elaine. Friends. I could still be his girlfriend, of sorts, and not have to have sex with him.

He told me this and I sobbed and moaned like I was drowning and he passed out, arm on my torso like a hunk of cold meat. In the morning he didn’t remember. That was always how it went. He was always making threats or ending things and then he’d wake up with a hangover and not remember.

So perhaps it’s not so surprising that the prevailing thought I remember having in that quaint, cold, loud, vermin-infested house on Maynard was I have to get out of this place, I have to get out of here, I have to get out.

I dreamed of living alone. The silence! The cleanliness! The freedom to walk around nude without being harassed into sex! It didn’t work out quite that way, of course. Solitude was its own nagging pain, at least for the first two years. But then I finally found the quiet and self-recognition I’d always longed for, tucked away in a Chicago studio, the culmination of all the days I’d spent locked away in the library in Columbus, battering a keyboard, applying to graduate programs, digging my way out.

Originally published at erikadprice.tumblr.com.

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