Wednesday, August 04, 2010

queen of the desert

my roommate looks dead when she's asleep. by day she smiles easily and smokes heavily and has all the wrinkle lines to prove it but while asleep her skin is smooth and waxy, yellow like jaundice.

suddenly her eyes snap open.

"you have to go get the head nurse!" she shouts. "you have to tell her to call 911 and go outside because tim is swinging from a pole!"

this is a fine how-do-you-do.

i'm still sleeping when she wakes up, and by the time i wake up, she is just coming in from downtown. this is a little disorienting to me. for starters, when i am this messed up i am accustomed to being in places where the inmates aren't allowed to take a bus downtown.

and my roommate, as bizarre as she is, has almost undoubtedly just come back from downtown. it is one of the few things she says that when fact-checked a little turn out to be true.

the room is covered with her stuff. there is furniture enough for two people, but she has filled all the drawers and every flat surface (including the real estate at the foot of my bed) with her clothing, her shoes, her books, her personal dishes, her seemingly endless collection of purses, her immense selection of costume jewelry, and goodness knows what-all else.

she offers to empty out a drawer for my things, but i'm happy living out of my bag.

the social worker offers to have her move her stuff from the foot of my bed, but really there's no place else to put it, except the middle of the floor.

my roommate seems to change clothes every hour. i think (although i may be wrong) that she has on a different outfit every time i see her, which is a lot. if what she is wearing is not predominantly animal-skin prints or gold lamé, it is almost certainly something in hot pink or lavender, sometimes both at once. her costume jewlelry (a pound or two at a time) is not entirely balanced by one each from her collection of once-fashionable sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats.

she is unsteady on her feet, and her voice is gravelly from years of heavy smoking. she keeps her right hand poised in the air as if she is the queen or the pope and may be called upon to wave from the motorcade or bestow a blessing on the crowd.

she is very elegant, or wishes to appear to be very elegant, as if this place is just a stopping point between polo matches or that her condo in west palm (as she calls it) is being painted.

she is fluent, she will tell you, in french, spanish, italian, russian, latin, and sunni.

"sunni?" the social worker asks.
"you know, the language they speak in ahghanistan." she says dismissively.
"yeah, that."

nevermind that latin is not spoken conversationally anywhere anymore, even though my roommate insists that it is the primary dialect of her favorite city, rome.

i am not fluent in any language except english, but i have studied enough of the others to know that she speaks none of them. she wishes to converse with me in french, but her command of the language does not go beyond "comment allez-vous?" and "n'est-ce pas?", which you can pick up easily enough if you only watch enough tv.

her ex-husbands, which number four, are all rich and famous, and two of them left her all of their money, which is why when her disability check comes every month she gives it all away to important-sounding charities that either do not exist, or do not exist as she imagines them.

much of her money goes to the revlon foundation; joseph revlon, the cosmetics company founder, invented the pink breast cancer ribbon. he is a good friend of hers.

go ahead, google it all.

she will tell you the street addresses of her many elegant homes and the famous people who frequent them.

"of course," she says, "money is never a problem", but in the next sentence she is trying to sort out the bus schedule so she can get on the proper bus to go to the salvation army thrift store in order to buy winter clothing (she has never wintered anywhere but florida and hawaii) using the voucher they gave her for free clothing.

the bottom line is that she is homeless and all that stuff piled in that room she shares with me is all her stuff in the world. she is desperately trying to be a gracious lady of some means and a gentle life but the truth is she's looking for some cheap rathole that she can afford to live in on her small disability check.

the fictions she composes are the remains of a broken mind trying to hang on to some shred of dignity and grace and the gulf between who she is and who she wants to be is far too wide and her delusions go spinning out of control, her mind trying to attach to any detail that seems rooted in reality but maybe not the harsh reality of her broken-down life and she can't actually tell the difference between what's real and what's not.

so she reinvents herself out of whole cloth and wraps herself in this other life that she cannot possibly sustain. she is not well enough to see who she is, and the paradox is that if she could see her life as it is, the pain of it might break her open like a sack of flour on the railroad tracks.

are you who you want to be? how great is the gap between who you are and the person you want to think you are? if you had to face the truth, would you break open? are you better off not knowing?

my roommate is afraid people will see through her. she is afraid that if she asks the bus driver how to get to the thrift store that he will announce for all the world to hear that she is too poor to buy her own clothes.

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