The Perfect Roommate
I have three true queer ghost stories. I know they’re true because they happened to me. This is one of them.
Winnipeg, 1982 - Carlyle Apartments
Back when I was eighteen and still living at home, an older friend--a tall slim well-travelled teacher in a French Catholic school--offered me his apartment while he went on a European vacation with his boyfriend. This was an ideal opportunity for me, as I would be able to get away from my family for a week or so, and would be able to see what it was like to live as a young gay man on my own. Plus Don was an audiophile with an enviable music collection, and in particular was an avid fan of Roxy Music. I had visions of sitting down with a homemade breakfast while Don’s brand new copy of Avalon played on his finely tuned Marantz stereo system. ‘Maybe I could have someone over!’ I thought wildly before remembering I had the social skills of a ficus.
Don lived in a building not far from the Manitoba Legislative Buildings, a stone’s throw from the Assiniboine River, in a lovely old apartment on the second floor with white walls, hardwood floors, high ceilings and wooden mouldings and doors, some with their original stained glass. Don’s only request was that I not sleep in his bedroom but in the twin bed in his spare room, which he also used for storage. He showed me his bedroom--which had a king-sized bed, a nightstand with a brass gooseneck lamp, and, nearer the door, a child’s school desk with a tall slender Chinese vase and, above it, a framed Harvey Edwards photo poster hanging on the wall. He pulled the heavy wooden door shut with a decisive click, then took his luggage down to where his boyfriend Matthieu was waiting in his tiny red sports car with its bright sharp bleating horn.
I spent the night in the spare room. Skis and poles, snowshoes, tennis racquets and balls, an old dresser cluttered with childhood photos, and nestled among it all the faintly musty bed on which I lay. The mattress was old and worn with springs that squeaked, the sheets and pillowcases were all mismatched, the coverlet had tiny holes where the speckled batting poked through, but: It was not my childhood bed in my childhood room in my mother’s house, and for me that’s what mattered the most. In the morning, I awoke a little late, hurried through a shower in his old white tiled bathroom, rushed down some toast and juice, checked to make sure everything was off and clean and closed before I sped out the door, locked it tight behind me and made my way to work. That evening I stopped at a few stores along the way to pick up some extra food for the week--Don, like many gay men, seemed to live by shopping day to day or ordering in, as his refrigerator served as storage for vodka, ice and condiments. By the time I arrived at his apartment the sun was setting and I opened the door to darkness.
Well, almost darkness. A thin shaft of light sliced across the hallway from Don’s bedroom. The heavy wooden door, so solidly shut that morning, was now open.
I dropped my groceries onto the hallway floor. “Hello?” I called. Nothing. I closed and locked the door behind me, peered around to the bathroom, kitchen, living room--all empty--then approached the bedroom doorway and looked inside. Everything was as it had been: nightstand, dresser, school desk, vase, poster. I reached in, grabbed the doorknob, pulled the door shut with a click, pushed and pulled. Solidly shut. I stared at the knob for a moment, then turned and retrieved the groceries and carried them into the kitchen.
That night, I listened to Laurie Anderson’s Big Science as I ate grilled chicken, steamed broccoli and pasta tossed with oil and pepper and parmesan, then re-read a few chapters of The World According to Garp, and I glanced up at the door to Don’s bedroom every time I turned the page. I again slept in the spare room, fitfully, first with the door open, then with the door shut, dozing then waking to watch the light from passing cars splash across the ceiling, then dozing again until the sunlight struck my face like a slap. I showered quickly, wolfed down some leftover noodles and a half-cup of tea, threw on some clothes--checked Don’s bedroom door which was still firmly closed--then rushed out the door, locked it, tugged on it just to be sure, and then raced down the stairs and out into the day.
That evening, I came straight home from work, exhausted from the lack of sleep and the busyness of the workday, clomped my way up the stairs, unlocked the apartment door and opened it wide, and stopped, and stared. Don’s bedroom door was open once again.
I stood still. I listened. Beyond the windows I could hear the lightly chirping birds, the sigh and groan of the Sherbrook bus as it pulled away from the stop across the street. I closed and locked the door behind me. I glanced around the rest of the apartment, then steeled myself and looked through the doorway into Don’s bedroom. The framed Harvey Edwards poster that had been on the wall nearest the door was now face-up on the floor across the room right in front of the nightstand, smashed. Glass everywhere. The vase, the school desk, both undisturbed. I looked from the wall to the vase to the floor then back to the wall. There was no way it could have fallen off without knocking down the vase, and even so, there was no way it could have traveled half as far as it did. I reached in, grabbed the doorknob, pulled the door shut with a click, and then did the only thing I could think of to do: I called my mother. I described the situation as best I could, then asked her what she thought I should do.
“Well,” she replied, “I sure as shit wouldn’t spend another night in that place.”
That night I lay awake in my mother’s house, in my too-small childhood bedroom, wondering what--if anything--was happening in Don’s apartment. Eventually, I fell asleep.
I had Wednesdays off, so after an uncharacteristically silent breakfast in my mother’s kitchen, I went over to Don’s to check the place over and pack my things. I felt like I had failed somehow but I wasn’t sure at what. I unlocked the door, pushed it open, peered around. Everything was as I had left it, including the firmly shut door to Don’s bedroom. I went to open it--my hand actually touched the knob--and then I thought better of it. Instead, I went directly to the spare room and shoved my clothes and books into the large brown Aramis gift-with-purchase duffel bag that I used for everything back then. I went into the bathroom and gathered my toiletries into a plastic Safeway bag, stuffed them into the duffel and zipped it shut. Then I ran some water in the kitchen sink and did the dishes that I had left the night before. The whole time I sensed Don’s bedroom door--behind me, across from me, off to the side--and I felt like I was orienting myself around and against it. When I finished in the kitchen, plates and cups dripping in the wire rack, I called a cab, then pulled on my jacket, threw the duffel bag over my shoulder and said to the empty apartment, “I’ll be back later.”
I stepped out into the hall, locked the apartment door behind me, and finally allowed myself to breathe--then jumped a foot as a screen door slammed somewhere below me and a big booming voice shouted: “Are you the guy that called a cab?”
I did come back that evening, and every evening for the rest of the week, playing my way through Grace Jones, Talking Heads, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Japan, Human League, Ultravox, Marianne Faithfull and Stevie Nicks, and my copies of Prince’s Controversy and The Rocky Horror Picture Show that I could only play at home if I wore headphones. The door to Don’s bedroom remained shut tight, and I stayed well away from it, walking briskly past with my breath held tight whenever I had no choice.
Don returned early Sunday afternoon and I was there to greet him, to help him carry his bags up the stairs--and only then did I realize that not only did his boyfriend Matthieu not want to come up to the apartment, he didn’t want to leave his car. As we brought his bags in from the hallway, I saw Don glance at his bedroom door. “Um, something happened while you were away,” I said, then pointed to the knob. His brow furrowed, then I could see that his heart sank a little. He turned the knob, opened the door, looked inside. I looked past his shoulder to make sure I hadn’t hallucinated it. Nope: Schooldesk, vase, poster with smashed glass, nightstand. He looked back at me, then pulled the door closed with that sharp smart click.
“Well,” he sighed, “there’s something I should have told you, There’s--a lady.”
“A lady,” I replied. “What kind of a lady?”
“Ohhh, a grey lady,” he answered, exasperated. “But honestly, I didn’t think you’d have any problems or I wouldn’t have let you stay here, I assumed she just didn’t like Matthieu. Listen, I’m going to put some tea on, I’ve been in the air all day and I’m tired, and this is a bit of a story.”
I followed him to the kitchen and stood to the side as he ran some water into an old tin kettle and set it on the stove.
“So, I have to start by saying that I’ve never actually seen her. I was never even told about her really, though the woman who lived here before me, she left here a wreck and I’m wondering if maybe that’s why. The landlord won’t talk about it, but apparently we have a few things going on in the building, in some of the other apartments, and down in the basement. He says it’s mice.” Cue droll homosexual eyeroll.
“So, even though I never saw her, I often felt there was something here, just beyond the corner of my eye, late at night, when I was tired, sitting and reading on the couch or marking papers at the table. But it always felt warm and welcoming, like it wanted me here. Like it was happy with the colours I’d chosen, with how I’d arranged the furniture, the smells of my cooking, the plants in the window, the music I played. In a way it was like having the perfect roommate. There were times where I would come home from work and talk to myself about my day, about what was happening with each of the kids in my class, about what I was planning for the weekend. I thought I was talking to myself, but really I was talking to whatever else was here. I was talking to her.”
Don pulled the kettle off the burner just as it was about to whistle, then filled the blue ceramic teapot he had waiting.
“She’s listening to us, you know. She listens all the time. That’s all she does really, or at least that’s all she did--until about four months ago, when I started dating Matthieu. Before then I had instinctively known not to bring anyone back to my place, I always either went back to theirs or would get a room at the baths. I told them that I was living with someone, and I told myself it was because I liked my privacy, but I was also kind of uneasy. Maybe I was afraid, though I probably wouldn’t have admitted it. But then I met Matthieu at the club, and he actually does live with someone, his mother and father who are both quite old, so if we were going to go anywhere, it would have to be here. I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I was an adult and that whatever else was happening, I had a perfectly good bed that I just used for sleeping, and so I invited him over. And he spent the night. Itt was a very good night. And nothing happened, or so I thought at the time. I realized later that there was this one thing, this odd little thing, and it was what happened with his clothes.”
Don poured us each some tea in large white mugs emblazoned with the crest of his school. I added some milk and sugar to mine and we made our way to the living room.
“When he got undressed to come to bed, he left his clothes on one of the chairs at the dining table. And when he got up in the morning, he asked if I had a cat because something had knocked his clothes off the seat of the chair and dragged them around. Now, I didn’t see this because I was already in the shower when he was getting dressed, so I couldn’t really picture what he was talking about. I just assumed they’d fallen off the chair and onto the floor, which could happen for any old reason. And it was no big deal, he was a bit rumpled looking but he was cute and we’d had a nice night and a nice morning, and really I thought that was it. He asked me for my number, and then called a few days later to ask me out. I said yes, but the only free night that week was a school night, so we just went for dinner and then a walk down by the river until the mosquitos drove us away. The next week he was away on a camping trip with friends but the week after I decided to make dinner for him and we spent the evening in, first on the couch and then in the shower and then in the bed. And again he stayed the night.
“I woke up before him and left him lying face down on the bed, the sheets over his back but showing off his cute little bum. I was going to make some breakfast but when I stepped out into the hall I could see his clothes had been flung, literally flung, all over the apartment. Pants, shirt, socks, underwear. I didn’t even want to think about it, I picked everything up, folded it neatly and set it back on the chair--and just then he let out a scream.
“I ran to the bedroom and found him sitting back at the far corner of the bed, pillows pushed aside, the covers pulled up over himself. ‘Did you see her? Did you see her?’ Of course I said No, there’s no one here but us, what are you talking about? ‘The lady, the lady, there was a lady!’ And I told him I hadn’t seen anyone, and could he tell me what happened.”
It was then that Don took a deep sip from his tea, and stared into his cup for a moment.
“Anyway, he woke up and felt like someone was watching him, so he turned over expecting to see me, and in the doorway was this tall pale woman in a long dress with a shawl over her shoulders and head, all in grey, and she stood there with her arms crossed just shaking her head at him. That’s when he screamed. And then she vanished. And then I appeared and ran in to him.
“He refused to believe me, he’d seen her with his own eyes, he jumped out of the bed and ran around the apartment naked trying to find her, and of course she wasn’t there. I offered to make him something to eat, to try to calm him down, but he was too agitated, he just couldn’t stay, he pulled on his clothes and he grabbed his jacket and stormed out the door with a slam. Ever since then he’s refused to come up, he refuses to step into the building, he’ll sit outside and honk until I appear. We’re always eating out, seeing movies, going to shows, but we’re only able to be together when we travel. He wants me to move, but I can’t--it’s only been four months--and, really, it’s a great apartment. Isn’t it?”
I nodded. It was a great apartment. All these years later, I still think about it.
“What are you going to do about…?” I asked, gesturing vaguely towards his bedroom.
“Oh, it’s no big deal, it’s a cheap poster in a cheap frame with cheap glass. She probably did me a favour. I’ll just have to be careful when I’m cleaning up. I’m sure she won’t do anything now that I’m back. She likes having me here with her, I know she does. I guess she just wants me to herself.”
I finished my tea, gave him a hug, and returned his key. I set the mug in the sink and he saw me to the door, opened it for me, ushered me through, and then he locked it behind me.
It was a busy year after that, and a painful one too. After a series of stinging arguments with my mother, I moved in with my best friend and his brother. It was around then that the first few cases of HIV/AIDS appeared in Winnipeg, and one of them was our housemate. I did see Don out at the bar a few times, and here and there with mutual friends, and then heard through the grapevine that he and Matthieu had broken up, just before Christmas. I didn’t run into him much after that, and then a few years later I left Winnipeg for Toronto. I’ve tried looking him up, through Google and Facebook, but I was never able to find him. My friends back home barely remember him, and can’t think of where he might be. I wonder from time to time if he’s still alive, if he’s still in that apartment with her.
David Demchuk has a special interest in queerness and monstrosity. His debut horror novel The Bone Mother was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the Toronto Book Award and a Shirley Jackson Award in the Best Novel category. It won the 2018 Sunburst Award for Canadian speculative fiction. His Cabbagetown back yard is home to a hive of curious but quick-tempered bees. He is quietly at work on a troubling new novel.