During my third year of university, I had to find a roommate. I couldn’t afford a place of my own. So I did what most people do: I looked at the walls of the Student Union Building (which, at McGill University, was called the William Shatner Centre, and no I am not making this up) where there were housing ads taped alongside the fliers for protests marches and student social clubs.
I was embryonically stupid then. I wouldn’t say I was a genius now, but I’m surprised that back then I didn’t need an artificial lung to take over when I forgot to breath. I met a fellow I’ll call Murray, and despite the filth of his apartment (where we would live), I agreed to live with him.
I arrived to begin school in September and the horror started.
I might have been stupid, but he was barely human. He went through terrible marijuana binges where he would shut himself into an the airtight front room (the door would be closed and the door to the balcony was sealed off with insulating plastic), smoke himself into a stupor, and watch TV all night. In the morning before I went to school, I would sometimes look through the window on the door to the front room to see what lay beyond: Murray sprawled on the floor in an insensate heap amidst his twisted sleeping bag, his rear end more often then not poking out from his partly pulled-down shorts. Grapefruit halves with dead cigarettes stubbed out inside them and upside down pizza boxes littered the floor around him. It was almost exactly akin to the scene in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre when a young women enters a murderer’s house and sees a living room so terribly, insanely messy that it seems to ooze evil and menace.
I often got ready for class as quietly as possible so I didn’t wake him up. If he did wake up, he would emerge from the fetid depths of the front room, the sleeping bag wrapped around his upper body but his bare legs and sagging underwear exposed, to shuffle into the bathroom and pee, farting like an old man. Then he would shuffle back to go asleep. I never understood why he slept in the front room like he was a stoned and hibernating bear; his own bedroom was four feet away.
When I got ready for class, I often put the phone off the hook. Otherwise his mother would call, wake him up, and I would have to look at him. His mother was rightly worried about him : Murray’s little brother was in his first year of Engineering; his older sister was doing her MBA at Yale. She was worried about her disappointing middle child. So she called every morning if I let her. When Murray would answer the phone, the conversation went like this (I heard this almost every morning so it’s burned into my head. You have to imagine his Montreal urban anglophone accent, which sounds a little like a New York accent. You also have to imagine that she owned the building and he was sort of this half-assed disaster landlord who did absolutely nothing, for himself or anyone.)
“Hi mom. Yeah, I was up. No, I’m going to head out and look for a job. Yeah. I have to go. I have to go. Good-bye. Good-bye. Good-bye. I have to… Good-bye. Okay, I’m hanging up the phone. Good-bye. Good-bye.” This went on for many minutes, and sometimes happened several times in a morning. Sometimes, on snowy days, she’d arrange for him to clear the walk in front of his uncle’s Jewish tombstone store. That was all he ever did when I lived with him. He was a perversely fascinating creature, and like Gollum, he didn’t know how hideous he had become.
But somehow, somehow, through those twists of fate that happen to stoners and the unfortunate idiots who live with them, our female roommate left (understandably - she probably would have killed him if she hadn’t left), and Murray rented a room to someone even worse that he was.
Joey was in his early thirties and psychotic. By psychotic, I mean he talked and screamed to himself, and kept a long line of pill bottles on the mantle of his room. Thank God he was smaller than me, or else I would have been terrified of him. Murray hated him, and for a while we sort of bonded over our fear and loathing of this chaotic and doomed man.
Then the inevitable violence happened.
Joey liked to smoke when he wasn’t coasting on his many suppressants. The deal he had struck with Murray was that he would smoke with his door closed, since I hated the smell. But Joey began to smoke with the door open, and the cigarette smoke reached me. It was the end of the year, it was getting hot in that Montreal way, and the apartment was on the third floor.
One day I charged into the living room, hot, angry, and infuriated that the smell of cigarettes had come into my room. I yelled that he had to close his door. He came out.
“I need the fresh air, fuck!” he yelled (the use of the word ‘fuck’ is at the end of a sentence is a Montreal thing, and it comes from Quebec french)
I charged and he met me in the middle of the living room. For a few seconds I had him in a headlock, him grunting in rage, and then I was saying: “Joey. Stop. We have to stop. Jesus Christ, we have to stop.” I let him go.
After he rose, I held out my hand, he held out his, and we shook. He went back into his room. I looked at my arm, where there was a gash that had somehow opened during that encounter. When Joey came out to the kitchen to fix himself a snack and smiling as if nothing had happened, he had a flap of skin two inches long hanging from his arm.
Beyond my initial and heat-driven rage at Joey, I wasn’t angry had him. He was ill and couldn’t be anything else. I was angry at Murray for renting a room to this man.
I moved two days later, Murray screaming at me as I carried my stuff to a rented van. He said I owed him money, and I insisted that he’d made my life hell and that I owed him nothing. I probably should have payed him something, but hate is a powerful motivator when you realize you can effect revenge through money. I wanted his parents to be angry at their 26 year-old son who couldn’t run their investments and rented to psychotic welfare cases. But more than anything I just wanted to be finished, to not contribute a single cent more of my worth to sustaining what I realized was a rotating door system of college kids and crazy people who lived with this useless man-child.
This happened a long time ago, but I still think of it from time to time, and wonder if Murray (who would now be in his mid-forties) is still offering himself as a roommate to bewildered college kids, or if the great wave of money and gentrification that swept through downtown Montreal swept him up as well, along with his parents’ apartment buildings and the tombstone store up the street. I almost hope not. He added some clownish colour to that great city and I learned a lot when I lived with him.