After the first few weeks of burned kimchi and undercooked daals, my housemates felt free to speak about the local dearth of foreign females and about their discovered means of caressing the egos of certain professors we had in common. Yet, they remained stymied in their attempts to optimally navigate certain cross cultural events, such as football games and ballet recitals, and certain cross cultural venues, such as Pam’s Bar and the health food store tucked inside of the student union.
That said, those men fortified themselves with stashes of blue magazines and with articulated anxieties about actualizing their cultures’ marriage customs. They spoke nothing, however, at least among us co-op members, about how, on the one hand, our media held up their nations as settings supporting noble moments, while, on the other hand, their governments engaged in ongoing campaigns to displace more and more of their villages’ populations.
When Thomas, the Brit among us, suggested that it was gracious of their rulers to cart off entire communities and to relocate them within the modern conveniences of urban centers, Chou punched him squarely in the face and recited, above Thomas’ prone form, that the majority of minors thusly relocated were never again reunited with their parents. Ti-Ji spat at Thomas as he addended that refugee camps bred worse horrors than typhoid, especially for adolescent girls like his three younger sisters.
What’s more, Ti-Ji’s two older brothers and two younger ones, if not enlisted by force, were likely serving as human shields. Thomas’ life might be as climate-controlled as those of the undergraduates we tutored, i.e. arranged in tempo to the extent of abundance left by wind and rain, but Ti-Ji’s rural family’s life had been syncopated by louder sounds.
To change the topic, I iterated, “Initially, I trained to be a technical writer.”
Ti-Ji removed his radio’s ear buds long enough to glaze me with his eyes.
“My undergraduates thought I was a fellow student,” he replied. “One even made a pass at me when I turned her down as a study partner.”
Chou put in, “My first advisor went on leave when he got caught with his hand in one of my student’s pants. I guess he swung both ways.”
“Random,” Thomas retorted.
My Korean housemate was a year older than my Pakistani one, who was three years older than me. Thomas, the fellow who had pointed out the house’s last vacancy to me, was an Oxford man. He had abdicated his European heritage in exchange for residence in our department’s prestigious graduate program. Although his scholarship proved to be second rate, he was esteemed, on both sides of the gender divide, for his studied accent. Students, faculty and office staff were enamored of Her Majesty’s English.
Yet among all of the boys who lived under our roof, it was Thomas’s mouth, from which I had to wipe too many drops of bourbon, one night, in an ambulance that was en route to Mercy Iowa City Hospital. In the emergency room, I dabbed at Thomas’ orifice when I ought to have been completing, instead, an essay on the relationship between Protagoras and Pericles. The Brit would have to compensate me later by helping me clean up my footnotes.
When a tall, perhaps six and one half foot, bunny suit-clad fellow, who was bleeding from one paw, sat down near us, took off his mask and made bug-eyes at Thomas, I realized I was in the wrong geography. Later, when Thomas was admitted for observation for possible alcohol poisoning, that contrary cony continued to haunt us. Even after Thomas was safely tucked into his hospital bed, his hydrating IV dripping into his arm and the smell of ammonia inviting him to either sleep or to vomit, that hare continued to stalk us.
In the end, that furry fiend desisted because he was smacked over the head by the overnight suitcase belonging to a gal admitted for a significant, infection-filled, laceration on her big toe. An intern said something about an accompanying concussion, but that feisty gal only confessed to saving a young brat from falling head first down a flight of concrete stairs. She had gotten a little banged up during her heroics, she claimed. Interestingly, only a rumpled prostitute in neon blue eyeliner visited the woman.
Once the night nurses took over making sure Thomas wouldn’t choke on his puke, I returned to Ti-Ji and to Chou. The former was burning beans in a small pot and the latter was chiding him while smoking something that reeked worse than incense. Ti-Ji complained about Chou’s pipe, while Chou let out all sorts of sentiments about Ti-Ji’s toothpaste and conditioner. Personal hygiene products, Chou contended, ought to taste and to smell good.
Ti-Ji, all red-faced and tight lipped, turned away from his legumes and toward our housemate. I noticed, as he spun, that he had helped himself to my favorite fuzzy slippers. Without so much as a grunt, Ti-Ji flung the magazine he had been reading. Glossy pages filled with sulky pouts and questionably posed ladies hit the wall, landed on and killed a cockroach and then crumpled unceremoniously.
Chou responded with a volley of puffed cereal. He had reached for the box closest to him, my personal stash. Thereafter the friends hugged. Ti-Ji turned off the beans. The two proceeded, coatless, into the Iowa night and down the lane, which, a little more than two miles later, would bring them Pam’s cheap beer.
The next day, I brought Thomas dinner in bed. He had been discharged and had been ordered to stay off of the booze. I tucked the pint, which glistened on his nightstand, into his drawer and spooned some of the pabulum I had concocted from Chou’s grains into his mouth. Thomas grumbled, but I rubbed his forehead anyway. My boyfriend was jetting in later that week and only a happy housemate would acquiesce to cleaning the bathroom.
“Life ought to consist of many types of exigencies,” Thomas gifted, as I gathered his personal trash to add to the community pail. “As for fish, I have neither food nor money to buy some. Do you think that Lewy might like plain chips?”
I smiled at the friend who was sweating while gust of Midwestern winter leaked into his room through our house’s eaves. My Lewy would eat only hamburger and would do so while repeating, in detail, how lackluster the scenery was from the window at the top of the Ikea building, where he ordinarily sipped coffee before crossing the interstate for a flight. He would then, as was his habit, drone on about how, from the window in the airport waiting area, too, the invariable tarmac, storage buildings, fields, warehouses, and refueling depots constituted the view.
Every visit, Lewy stated those grievances. Every visit, Lewy tried to teach Ti-Ji and Chou the finer points of Boiler Makers. Every visit, Lewy reserved time to speak with Thomas about vintage brandies. Every visit, Lewy remained dispassionate about Chou’s bulletins on displaced persons and about Ti-Ji’s notices concerning academic seminars. Every visit, Lewy let all of us know how important he was and how value his minutes were.
When not jetting to visit me, Lewy was tasked with helping move items between the in and out baskets of a fistful of executives. Unlike those sorts who answered calls from behind desks crafted of deciduous woods, Lewy’s post was fabricated from plastic and steel. He had been moved up from the corporate mailroom when a female clerk failed to smile at her lewd supervisor’s “joke.”
Annually, Lewy promised me that he was saving enough money, working in that position, as a lackey to big birds, to buy me a proper engagement ring. After four years of listening to such remonstrations, I began to smile and to nod at that claim. I accepted an assistantship in a graduate program half way across the country.
Lewy’s forthcoming visit would likely be his last; Lewy was growing frightening. It was not so much the hours he spent, in his cups, at Pam’s or the lack of interest he manifest in my conference papers that dissuaded me from continuing with him. Rather, it was his fascination with raw eggs and with comestibles created thereof. I was no more fascinated by drinking an orange and cold yoke shake than I was by the thought of having to wait four more years to see if my sometimes boyfriend intended to get hitched. I envisioned marking his mail “return to sender,” and then basking in the knowledge that such script would cause his letters to move to his boss’ inboxes. I planned to keep his high school class ring, though, since he was long overdue in birthday gifts and in acknowledgements of any of our shared significant moments.
Two years later, when Ti-Ji had already graduated, when Chou could no longer get his student visa renewed and when Thomas had left the field of human communication to pursue a degree in film studies and to live with a graduate student specializing in feminist literature, I cleaned the house and prepared, at last to return the keys to the landlord. Thomas and his lady love came by once to help. The former was considering returning to the Green Isle and the latter was beginning to be convinced that she was a closet lesbian. Thomas had recently subcomed to worries, not about grades or about publications, but about accepting a position in a warm climate, far from his rainy, native shores. It would be unsuitable for him to have to spend the greater part of his income buying tickets home to visit his suddenly ailing mum. As for Thomas’ lover, although she relished their bedroom time, she felt her trek to truth necessitated her exploring gender at a nearby womyns’ farm.
While scrubbing long ago dried lentils off of the wall behind the stove, Thomas intoned that graduate school was nice for delaying adolescence but did nothing to bolster character. He lectured that the four of us original housemates had deluded ourselves into thinking that terminal degrees would bring happiness.
I offered him the sponge we used to clean the toilet, but he shook his head. He had become elevated and would no more scrub urine stains than he would submit his research to second-rate publications. Self-dishonesty had become as loathsome to him genocide and ethnic prejudice. What’s more, he considered himself as to have been too hasty to leave his white bread nation to slog among my country’s indigenous and imported savages. Thomas pulled a crinkle sheet, which featured a picture of the private portions of a woman, out from behind the refrigerator. He shook h is head, balled up the page and commented that life is about waiting. Then he reached into the back of a particular cabinet, pulled out a dusty bottle of rum and poured himself two fingers.
Meanwhile, I returned to mopping first the kitchen and then the bathroom tiles. I had accepted a post at a modest school and was looking forward to paying back loans. Thomas’ lover, meanwhile, found the photo, uncrumbled it, examined it, and blushed, a little. Setting out for the farm might prove to be premature.
Kj Hannah Greenberg‘s a verbal vagrant, who gave up a academic hoopla to chase a hibernaculum of imaginary hedgehogs. Some of the homes for her writing have included: Alien Skin Magazine, AntipodeanSF, Bards and Sages, Big Pulp, Morpheus Tales, Strange, Weird and Wonderful, Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and The New Absurdist.