Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dear Intertubes

I admire people who manage to resist posting about the people in their lives . Not so much when there are nice things to say, although perhaps such things need to be said publicly and more often, but in those cases when there are terrible things to say, when the relationship between the blogger and the family member, friend, acquaintance, colleague or flatmate has reached such negative proportions that the blogger is bursting with the injustice of it.

I admire restraint in such circumstances because I am not capable of it. I am far less restrained--as many of you will already have observed--to the extent where I feel messy and excessive. Perhaps this sense of being faulty in my judgement about these matters, leaky, embarrassing and not properly contained, accounts for my undergraduate fascination with Julia Kristeva's concept of the abject? I am not the 'machine' that a former colleague once informed me was an appropriate description--not even a metaphor--of the human body, and 'mechanical' or 'mechanised' is certainly not an appropriate characterisation of the gush of emotion that bursts forth when I am upset.

So, all of this is a prelude to yet another post that I know is likely inappropriate, but where any sense of appropriateness in regard to speaking about someone from my off-line world is superseded by the enormity, the impact of the events that have recently taken place. Again there is some part of me that wonders whether I am so thoroughly interpellated into the discourse of the confessional that telling of these incidents feels like the only recourse amidst a very real experience of disempowerment: through this lens my indiscretions are brave rather than foolish, I am speaking a truth rather than indulging in potentially defamatory gossip.

I have just had to move again. You might recall that I moved only 7-8 weeks ago from somewhere I had lived for 11 years. I was hopeful about my decision to share with someone for the first time in 13 years. I knew it would present a challenge, but one born simply of having not had to share for so long. I was confident that I was house trained, that my natural tendency towards the ways of the pig-sloth could be curtailed, that I would be suitably accommodating of another person's habits and ways.

The town house I moved into 7 weeks ago was wonderful. I blogged about it here, showing you a picture of the view from my laptop as I sat on the small patio outside my room. There was a small garden and cable internet connection, I had my own bathroom with a bath to soak in. In contrast to the place I had left, there was a big kitchen with plenty of bench and cupboard space. It was such a well designed town house--well except for the bizarre absence of a clothesline and the even stranger body corporate edict that one could not be installed.

What I didn't tell you in that post, however, was that I was experiencing already twinges of doubt about my new flatmate.

What can I tell you? It was too early to admit even to myself that I might have made a mistake. I did have to leave the place I'd lived in for 11 years because it was bad for my health, not simply because of the lack of maintenance undertaken by the landlord and agent, but due to its position on the edge of a major bypass and the noisy and drunken nocturnal habits of my neighbours and visitors to the sports venue precinct nearby. So, I don't regret moving from my old place, but as soon as I began to move into the new place there were clues that perhaps this new arrangement wouldn't work either.

I had hired removalists, a firm that includes an insurance clause in their agreements to cover any damage they might cause to property and belongings in the unlikely event of an accident. Even with this reassurance, my new flatmate wouldn't let the removalists take a large bookshelf and chaise lounge into the upstairs area. She asked that they leave them on the verandah and that she and I would move them in later. The flatmate cited a bad experience when she moved from her former abode two weeks earlier: the removalists she had hired had scraped a wall taking what she described as 'a chunk' out of it. (It should be noted that the 'chunk' became a 'barely visible scratch' when she was charged the extraordinary amount of $200 by her former agent for the damages incurred). Given that incident, I could understand her worry, but tried to reiterate that my removalists were insured and that since they were professional removalists and I was not, then they were likely to be more able than I in moving the unwieldy pieces of furniture into place. She did not accept my reasoning and, while I thought it was strange, I didn't press the point.

The next inkling that I got that all might not be well was when I began moving things into the kitchen. I had told her that I liked cooking and that I had a fairly well equipped kitchen. I was lead to believe that she had 'everything', so I was prepared for my things to go into storage. It turns out that from the perspective of someone who enjoys cooking as much as I do, she had far from 'everything'. This disparity didn't seem so bad, surely she would be pleased that I had brought a sharp knife set with me that she could now use instead of the small broken (blade swinging) knife that she had been using?

It was not the case. She was very clear, if not necessarily in words, that my crockery and appliances were an infringement on her kitchen. When, in an attempt to keep the number of my saucepans to a minimum, I used one of hers, she asked me to retrieve one of my own of around the same size, for my use. I brought my saucepan out of a box and into the kitchen, whereupon she declared that it was too big and couldn't possible go into the kitchen. I was puzzled. I said that it was exactly the same size as hers, merely that it had a steam insert. I asked her if she felt that I was taking up too much room in the kitchen, because she seemed to be reacting negativley to my belongings, constantly rearranging them when I wasn't there. I got a bit teary, at which point she snapped 'You're over reacting! I've got more important things to worry about! I'd never have brought it up if I'd known you were going to react like this!' Suffice to say, I think it's important to make time to negotiate boundaries in a shared living situation and there's nothing worse than being told that your boundaries are not worth any consideration. I was pissed off, but really tried to remain calm, reasoning that this was part of sharing with someone.

As well, from the beginning the contents of my kitchen seemed to offend her. She expressed distaste over the amount of food I had. She said that my grocery bills must be enormous. I said 'Not really. It's all condiments that I don't buy every week.' I appreciate that 5 different kinds of oil and 6 different types of vinegar probably does seem excessive to someone who isn't aware of the different uses of Chinese black vinegar, red and white wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice wine vinegar and tarragon infusedvinegar, but her expression of disgust made me feel very uncomfortable. In the end I thought she did have a kind of eating disorder--she embraced anaemia--that adversely affected her moods, and was compounded by excessive exercising--she walked manically for about four hours per day in addition to walking to and from work.

I can't condemn someone for having an eating disorder or any other mental health illness or disorder, but this flatmate's behaviour was so unreasonable, intrusive and controlling that I was driven to scream and cry and rage at her, just to convey my point of view which otherwise didn't seem to penetrate her consciousness. Even that embarrassing behaviour on my part didn't shift her from her absorption in her own view of the world. It merely served as evidence that I was 'aggressive'.

The occasion of my unseemly outburst was on the eve of my holiday to Melbourne. I had come home to find her moving my washing, hung on a fold-up wash stand, from the front downstairs patio to the back one near my room. Immediately, the flatmate started to say that she was moving it for my benefit because in order to get to the front patio I'd had to squeeze past the bed in the spare room. She was right, it was tiresome to do this, but that isn't what was going through my mind at that point. I had noted that in order for her to shift my washing to the patio off my room she would have had to use the key to undo the deadlock to the back door. This is a key which also fitted the deadlock on the front door, a key which she had said she hadn't been able to get to work, as a way of explaining why she wouldn't lock the house up when she left it. I said to her, 'You do have a key to the front door that works?'. To which she said she had just been able to figure out how it worked. I noted that she had used it before to unlock the downstairs door, since I had been sure I had locked it on previous occasions and come home to find it unlocked. She denied this and soon the snapped accusations began. They were about the washing at first, something that I didn't really care about in the face of the greater issue of her ongoing refusal to lock the house and close the glass doors and windows when we were out, and now the revelation that she had effectively lied to me about the keys.

She explained to me that she had a phobia about dying in a house fire. Now I wasn't talking about locking doors and windows while we were in the house, just when we were both out for the day. I guess that's the thing about phobias, they aren't logical. I had even had a key cut for her, a red one, so that she could locate it on her keyring easily, because she told me of how she had once come home after I had gone out and locked the house and had become 'hysterical' because she couldn't figure out the front door keys. She'd had to enter the house using the electronic remote to the garage. In spite of my efforts and attempts to urge her to take the time to familiarise herself with the keys and become confident using them, she resisted my attempts to negotiate, including my expression of concern about the safety of my DVD and CD collections.

She also denied lying about the keys. She said she was a truthful, loyal, sensitive person. All of this was in response to my cry that I didn't know if I had made the worst mistake of my life moving in with her. In the heat of the moment, I expressed my sister's misgivings about her. V had picked up on my flatemate's manic energy, her obsessive neatness, and her sense of propriety over the placing of my belongings from the very beginning. V had wondered 'How's Kirsty going to cope with this person?' My flatmate was more worried that someone had made a negative judgement about her than the issue at hand: household security. She said, 'Your sister's wrong!'

My flatmate wasn't truthful. She didn't lie exactly, but she was very manipulative with the telling and retelling of versions of events. For example, while I was moving out, she regaled my friend, whom I had asked to accompany me to run interference, with glowing reports about homestay students as a way to help pay the rent. Whereas to me she had reported the inconvenience and unreliability of homestay students: it was like having a second job, you had to cook and clean for them, take them on excursions and so on. They also tended to move out after six weeks to live with friends they had made since they'd been in the country. Yes, I should've listened more carefully to what she was telling me. The timetable is consistent, four weeks of being scolded and cajoled like an incompetent child and two weeks to find alternative accommodation and move.

'Loyal' is one way, I suppose, of describing someone who seeks to probe and control every area of your life: I came back from my holiday in Melbourne to discover she had moved and rearranged everything I had in the kitchen. She had done the same with boxes of items that were in storage in the garage. She had gone into my room and turned my DVR and television off at the wall, thereby cancelling the recording programme I had set in my absence. I'm a television scholar, damnit! And then attempted to cover up her trespass by turning it on again before I returned. I could tell because the display is different when it is turned on at the wall or if it is in stand-by mode between recordings.

I had battled with her over using the dishwasher. I would often put crockery in it, only to come home and find she had taken it out and washed it up. I said that I would like to use the dishwasher. She said that we could only use it when there were enough dishes to fill it up. I said there wouldn't ever be enough dishes in it if she kept taking them out, and I asked her when she could envision that I could use it. She said when I cooked and used saucepans etc. I said that still wouldn't generate enough dishes in any one meal to fill the dishwasher, wouldn't it be better to fill it over a period of time, a couple of days at most? She said that it would take a long time. She said now that we were on level 6 water restrictions we had to be conscientious. I contended that using the dishwasher on an economy cycle every two or three days was more water efficient than filling a sink of water four times a day. She would not budge. She continued to 'wash' my dishes. I used scare quotes there, because she never washed them properly, certainly not the way a dishwasher could. One of our last discussions before we decided to part ways was on an occasion when I put the dishwasher on before I left for work one day. She leapt out of her chair at her laptop and turned the dishwasher off immediately. She said most people put the dishwasher on at night. I said that it was full and I needed the dishes for when I came home. She contended that it wasn't full, even though it had three days worth of dishes in it. She lectured me again about water restrictions as if I was a backward child who hadn't started using a 4 minute shower timer long before they were delivered to our doorsteps. Then she said if I needed the dishes I should wash them up.

*Imagine a tirade of expletives here*

I have so many stories like this, gathered in only a few weeks. In the end I couldn't bring myself to even look at her, never mind speak to her. She seemed genuinely puzzled by this, which genuinely puzzles me. I couldn't behave the way she has towards someone unless I despised them. She had always maintained that she liked me and cared for me. Well that was more than a bit creepy since we hadn't known each other long enough to develop any kind of friendship, never mind affection. Still, if she was genuine in her own mind about her sentiments then I don't understand why she would feel the need to contest everything-- EVERYTHING: from the washing powder I bought, to the way I walked to the grocery store, and which grocery store I went to; from which uni I went to on which day ,to whether I worked on my thesis or did paid research work for which she wanted me to recommend her to those for whom I worked (snowflake--hell). Of course there is no logic to any of this except perhaps to note that for her caring seemed to be synonymous with controlling.

Anyway, if you've managed it, thanks for reading this far. As for whether this has been a foolish or a brave post, I'll leave that judgement up to you, but personally I'll be taking my cue from dogpossum who has said to me in our offline conversations that this is the kind of thing people want to read in blogs.


Tim said...

Wow. That sounds like not very much fun at all.

genevieve said...

What rotten luck, Kirsty. So sorry to hear it, I thought that place sounded great. I do hope things look up quickly.

Kirsty said...

No, it wasn't much fun, Tim. I do think I've been a bit lucky since, Genevieve. I found a place not far up the road that was a bit of a bargain considering that it's 2 bedrooms with separate dining and lounge areas. It has hight ceilings in that Queensland way and it has a dash of the art deco about it, including hard wood floors. There's a spot for me to potter and create a small garden too, which makes me very happy.

Oanh said...

Your ex housemate clearly is no good at house sharing or self awareness.

Brave or foolish, I won't comment, but I enjoyed reading - even as my brow and mouth scrunched up in worried sympathy.

I hope this current place works out!

And, in reference to your Twitter, the Circle Line is notoriously unreliable :-)
(not that I caught it very often when I was in Brissie - because after it did not show up a couple of times for me to get to uni from my then-boyfriend's place, I gave up and caught tended to catch the bus into the city and then out again)

lucy tartan said...

OMG, bad. And yes, I think this is one of the things people read blogs for.

Kirsty said...

Oanh, yes, I do think she has no business asking anyone to share with her, doing so amounts to a misrepresentation of herself, willful or not, I don't know, but certainly harmful.

I had another good experience with the Great Circle today as well--both ways! Perhaps they've picked their act up? I'm sure I'll be cursing loudly the moment I have a bad run.

You said it, Mz Tartan. In another obscure reference that you'll likely get, I've been thinking about the difference, if any, between sincerity and authenticity in blogging. Having recently been charged with naivety over my apparent desire for authenticity--a charge which I refute and think is the most self-serving thing I've ever read by any blogger--I wonder whether sincerity is a better description of this kind of post? Or is that just semantics?

Ariel said...

Hell, Kirsty, that sounds like a nightmare. Well done on putting up with it as long as you did. I loathe being micromanaged, so would likely have conspired to kill her.

And yes, I enjoyed reading this post. I like this kind of 'slice of life' post, especially when it's as well written as this one.

Your ex-flatmate doesn't sound like the kind of person you'd want an ongoing relationship with anyway, so if she reads this, you won't have lost anything.

Kirsty said...

Hi Ariel. I wasn't far from conspiring to inflict some kind of bodily harm, but then I checked myself. I think what was so frustrating for me about the charge of 'aggression' was that her modus operandi was passive aggressive par excellence and it allowed her to delude herself that she was innocent, that my reaction was entirely unprovoked.

Also, I'm glad you liked this post. I did edit one sentence out which was to the effect that while I admire people who don't have to do this, you are one of the bloggers who I think does this frustrations of life type post particularly well. You've moved me to tears on occasion.

And yes, I think I can be grateful that I have been able to move out without regret. It's not like I've lost a friend.

Mark said...

I had flashbacks to my 'housemate-from-hell experience' – from my last year of undergraduate life. *shudder*. She threatened to punch me, once.

Great reading, Kirsty, but I hate to think it was at the expense of your peace of mind.

Did you just wish you had a voodoo doll, by the way?

Kirsty said...

Mark, you shouldn't give me ideas : )