In over a decade of apartment living, I’ve had my fair share of nightmare roommates. There was one man, whom I can only describe as a dish tornado. He would use clean dishes until the sink was full — overflowing and beyond.
He used every single clean dish available until there were no dishes left. No joke, I once caught him drinking coffee out of a gravy boat. In order to cook anything for yourself, you’d have to wash an entire home’s worth of dishes just to see the sink.
After a bit of polite nagging and no results, I tried instituting a dishwashing strike. Though I quickly learned, as you may have already guessed, that a person who doesn’t wash the dishes won’t notice when no one else is washing the dishes either.
Finally, after yet another marathon wash-and-dry session, I was at my wit’s end. I grabbed a couple of clean plates and stashed them in the tippy top kitchen cabinets, the ones you need a stepladder to get to.
I waited a few days to see if he’d notice. When the confrontation never came, I kept hiding. A couple of plates here, a cereal bowl there, a set of water glasses after he’d left for work. After a few weeks, we were left with just enough visible dishes for one housemate and a couple of guests.
While he still didn’t wash his own dishes, the pile was now manageable, and I saved myself from the Sisyphean task of teaching a 30-something man who spent the majority of his paycheck on weed and the rest of the month mooching my leftovers how to properly clean a kitchen.
A few years later, I sublet a spare room in a cheaply renovated landlord special. Included in the rent were paper-thin walls through which I could hear my next-door neighbor practicing his acoustic guitar, and in the bedroom next to mine, a live-in part-time blogger/bartender/model/DJ.
She seemed to work “unconventional hours,” aka she never left the apartment during the day and would regularly stay out all night, returning home at near dawn to make herself (and her occasional gentlemen guests) an elaborate late-night snack. Amnesia from drinking would cause her to entirely forget last night’s smorgasbord, and, in the light of day, she would scold us for being such a mess. Seriously.
About a month into our cohabitation, I passed her in the hall as she was running out the door, late to work, wearing what looked like one of my favorite shirts. A week or so later, a friend and I went out for a drink, and who was at the bar? My lovely roommate in yet another one of my garments. It turned out that she was “borrowing” my clothes after I’d left for work, sometimes laundering them, sometimes not, and returning them back to my room.
This realization came to me like a scene from a horror movie, looking into the mirror and seeing a stain on my unwashed blouse staring back at me. I wanted to scream. I wanted to move out. I was lucky to get out of the first nasty roommate situation pretty quickly, but in this case, due to waning finances and a busy schedule, I knew I was trapped.
What do you do when your right mind says to run for the hills but your bank account says to stay put? How can you balance your mental health against the stress of having to train a fully grown adult? I remembered my trusty old trick and stashed my most precious apparel in a carefully hidden box on the top shelf of my closet.
It’s not that I don’t believe in standing up for yourself or fighting the good fight to make a living situation more habitable, but in some cases, you truly have to pick your battles. While I wasn’t allowed to add an elaborate series of padlocks to my bedroom door, I could safely stow away my favorite little black dress, the one that fits just right.
This freed up my weekly complaint of “Where did you get that?” to make room for “If you’re going to bring someone home from the bar so late, please, try to keep it down… I can hear everything.”
When, between work and binge-watching and art and life, you don’t have the energy for yet another showdown with the problem roommate, it’s OK to single out your sentimental belongings or pet peeves and take any step necessary to avoid the annoying conversation surrounding them. Even if that means hiding things from your roommates.
Do you have a favorite sweater, one so cozy and so flattering that you went back to the store to buy one in every color, only to find out they were out of stock?
Did you splurge on the expensive olive oil your bougie recipe email subscription keeps insisting you absolutely can’t live without?
Does it seem like you’re the only one buying toilet paper, and even though it isn’t that much money, and even though you’re actually doing pretty well financially at the moment, it still drives you crazy to see yet another empty roll go unfilled?
Not all living situations are going to be ideal, and not all roommates are going to be so agreeable. When possible, I suggest getting away from your least favorite ones as quickly as you can, but life doesn’t always permit, and temporary situations have ways of dragging on past their expiration date. In my case, hiding stuff from my roommates saved my sanity. It may not have been courageous, but it was very effective.
Andrea McGinty is a writer and artist based in Queens, NY. She writes about home, wellness, and relationships. Her work can be found at andreamcginty.xyz and her every thought can be found @lifecreep.