Essays share tales of unbearable roommate

08/24/2014 12:00 AM

08/23/2014 11:08 PM

Parents across the country are filling their minivans with hope and some stuff from Target and driving their amazing kids off to college. Some of their young men and women will study business and English, while others will simply major in beer. But every one of them will gain an appreciation for comedian Bridger Winegar’s recent tweet, “Roommate wanted. We would split rent 50/50, utilities 50/50, cable 50/50, groceries 50/50. Ideally, you would live somewhere else.”

Stephanie Wu captures that spirit in her new book, a collection of anonymous housemate horror stories that draws a “picture of a twenty-first century household and how it’s changing impossibly quickly.”

And changing it is. After all, did your first roommate keep a dead hamster in her freezer so she could “perform taxidermy on it and hang it in a hot air balloon”?

Wu employs a light editorial hand in The Roommates, which delivers raw stories that feel honest and authentic, if a little clunky. Many give flesh and blood to the nightmares that lurk in Craigslist’s darkest corners.

One recent grad’s unbearable New York roommate, for instance, claimed he suffered from a muscular disease that would leave him dead within a year. “We later found out Jimmy was never sick — he never had anything physically wrong with him and it was completely psychosomatic,” the 26-year-old says. “He was essentially hungover for about four months.”

Another writer hopes someday to find the roommate who staged a robbery in their place to make a fraudulent insurance claim.

“Because we’re both in the entertainment business,” he writes, “I’ve daydreamed that somewhere down the line I'll be in some position to ruin Grant’s life without him knowing.”

Some of the book’s most dramatic stories involve mental illness. They’re by turns tragic and bizarre. “In the two years we lived together,” one narrator recalls, “I probably met five or six of her personalities.”

The American college party scene the book describes is familiar. A 24-year-old reports that she and her fellow students threw St. Patrick’s Day “Kegs and Eggs” parties at Boston College to “drink and have some food in our stomachs before we went out.” (It keeps you soberer — duh.) Others recall those lovely roommates who suffered from alcohol-induced incontinence. “I tried to doze off as well, but all I could hear was bzzzzt,” one survivor recalls of a hard night years ago. “ Drip — the sound of her laptop short-circuiting.”

But never does The Roommates resonate more than when one woman remembers the delight that came with the keys to her first place. “It had bars on all the windows, and it was tiny, damp, and on a horrible block,” she writes. “But because it was ours, we were so proud of it.”

John Wilwol reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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