I WOULD NEVER HAVE AGREED to room with Birdie for the year if I’d known he intended to pick up every stray that wandered across his path. The cat (which had shown up on the fire escape) had already shredded my favorite sweater, the puppy (from a box at the farmers’ market) was a crotch sniffer, and I had put my foot down at the first glimpse of that smelly ferret crossing the threshold. But I was too dumbfounded to come up with an appropriate response when he showed up with a lost human being.
I’d taken Noodles, the pug-poodle mutt, out to pee, so I was already late for my shift at the Mug when Birdie appeared in the doorway with a gorilla looming over his shoulder.
“Oh, great, you’re still here!” Birdie said. “I wanted you to meet my new friend, Damon. Damon, Marisol.” He flipped his hand between us. “Damon is in the theater department at Emerson too!” Birdie exclaimed, as if it were miraculous that he’d met someone from his own program. “Don’t let Marisol fool you,” he continued. “She’s small, but she bites.”
Damon smiled nervously and extended a large paw in my direction, but when I clasped it, there didn’t seem to be much life in it.
“Damon is brilliant,” Birdie continued. “Oh my God, every word out of his mouth!”
There didn’t seem to be all that many words in his mouth, but he was cute in a blushing, bearish sort of way, so I assumed “is brilliant” was Birdie’s euphemism for “turns me on.” Whatever.
“Listen, I’m late,” I said. “I already peed the dog, but both animals need to be fed. I should be back around nine tonight.”
“Okay,” Birdie said. “We’ll be here!”
We? I gave him a questioning look; he knew what I meant.
“You know, Marisol, living in a dorm is so hideous. We are really lucky we found this apartment in Somerville.”
“Your mother found the apartment,” I reminded him.
“You just don’t know!” he continued. “I mean, you could get anybody for a roommate—it could be an absolute abomination.”
I waited impatiently.
“Poor Damon here lost the lottery. I mean lost it. He has been put into a room with a creature from the hellmouth; I am not kidding. You can smell him before you open the door.”
Damon nodded, then actually spoke. “He’s a pig. He threw up in my shoes last night.”
“That’s too bad, Damon,” I said. “I guess you’ll have to put your shoes in the closet from now on.”
“Well, the thing is,” Birdie said, smiling at his new buddy, “I thought Damon could just move in here. And be my roommate!”
“I’m your roommate,” I reminded him.
“There’s plenty of room for three of us. Damon has a futon, and you’re out half the time at your job anyway, and we’ll be in classes . . .”
I glanced at Damon, whose eyes now seemed slightly watery. Birdie sure could pick ’em.
“Damon, why don’t you go make yourself some tea?” I suggested. “The kitchen is right through there, and the kettle is on the stove.”
He nodded and left the room, hunching his shoulders just a little to fit through the kitchen doorway.
“I can tell you didn’t meet this one at the gym,” I whispered.
“Abs are not the only thing I look for in a man,” he said, running a hand fondly over his own clothed six-pack.
“No? Pecs too? Biceps?”
“Birdie, if I wanted a bunch of roommates, I’d be in a dorm. Do you remember why I deferred college?”
“I know, you want to write, but—”
“I want to write in this apartment. Which is nice and quiet because there are only two of us in it. Which means, if you’re not talking to me, nobody is.”
He shook his head vigorously. “Damon is very quiet.”
“How do you know? You just met him!”
“He hardly even speaks! Besides, he’ll be in my room, not yours.”
“Birdie, I can just barely stand having you and your two neurotic pets as roommates. Now you want to bring in some weird guy you hardly know?”
“He’s not weird; he’s just shy.”
I peeked into the kitchen at Damon. He was backed up against the refrigerator, staring in terror at Peaches, the pussycat, who was sniffing his flip-flops and fat toes.
“Who ever heard of a shy actor?” I said.
“He’s not an actor. He’s a director.”
“I suppose he’s gay and you like him?”
He tipped his head so his blond forelock fell into his eyes, and he grinned. “I’m not sure yet—of either thing. But I find him intriguing, don’t you?”
“No, Birdie, I find him large and odd. And I don’t want another roommate! This is a very small apartment. You should have asked me before you offered him sanctuary!”
Birdie wrinkled up his face in that stupid pout that has worked on his mother for the past eighteen years. But I am not his mother.
“I’ll be back at nine o’clock. He better be gone,” I said.
There were times I wasn’t sure I’d made the right decision: taking this year off before going to college, moving in with Birdie, trying to write a novel between my tours of duty at the Mug and at my parents’ house, reassuring them that deferring college for a year was not the first step toward receiving my bag lady certification. My high school friends had left for carefully chosen schools all across the country, but I felt like I needed this year off. Stanford University would still be there next year.
I’d gotten the idea when I went down to New York City after graduation to stay with June and her friends for a week. I’d met them in the spring at a zine convention in Provincetown on Cape Cod, that I’d gone to with my friend Gio. I liked June and Sarah and B. J., so when they invited me to go back to New York with them, I didn’t hesitate. I was also trying to prove a point to Gio, which must have been successful, because I hadn’t seen or heard from him in the four months since. I stayed in New York for a week and then went back for another week later in the summer. But it was a little problematic, because I knew June had a crush on me, and I didn’t feel that way about her. By the end of the second week I figured I should just leave for good.
In the meantime, though, I’d met some of their New York friends, one of whom was Katherine, an editor for a large publishing house. June had showed her copies of my zines, and she seemed to actually like them. She gave me her card and said, “If you ever write a novel, send it to me.”
A novel? Just like that the idea lodged in my brain and wouldn’t go away. Suddenly the idea of starting college and taking Freshman Composition, Literature in Translation, and Existential Philosophy seemed like the most stultifying way I could imagine to spend the next year. It’s not as if Katherine had made me any promises or anything. I wasn’t doing it because I thought I’d get published. It just became the thing I most wanted to do. Just to be able to say, “I’m writing a novel.” I’m writing a novel! Oh, my God. I wanted to be able to say that! I wanted to do it!
So I deferred my entrance to Stanford and moved from my parents’ house into an apartment with Birdie. My father said that if I wanted to stand on my own two feet, I should see what that really meant, so I got a job pouring coffee and hustling cheeseburgers at the Mug in Harvard Square. As it turned out, waitressing at the Mug only allowed me to stand on one of my two feet, since rents in the whole Boston-Cambridge metropolitan area are higher than the Hubble Telescope. My mother, always a pushover, helped me to remain upright by stealthily contributing an extra couple hundred bucks a month to my survival fund.
And then it was September, and all the schools and colleges started up again. The Square was full of students buying books and meeting new friends. Actually, the whole city was full of students buying books and meeting new friends. Even Birdie wasn’t immune to the excitement of it. I, however, was living with my best friend since sixth grade, twenty minutes away from the home I grew up in; I wasn’t feeling the thrill.
Not that I didn’t want to meet new people. In fact what I wanted more than anything—though I wouldn’t have admitted it to anybody—was to meet a woman I could fall in love with. I’d been out and proud for almost two years, and the only love interest I’d had (if you don’t count Gio, and I don’t) was a girl who kissed me for a couple of weeks and then took off with the first guy who gave her a second look. That did a job on me—I got scared about trusting people, letting anybody know I liked them.
But I knew I had to get over that if I was ever going to have a girlfriend. My mother had this line about how “you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince.” Or princess, in my case. I was eighteen years old, for God’s sake. I had to put myself out there and start kissing frogs unless I wanted to be alone for the rest of my life.
So, I had two goals for the year: fall in love and write a novel. How hard could that be?