I moved from Michigan to Alabama in January of 2003 as a naïve 18-year-old. I didn’t have much of a plan besides get the fuck out of there. I didn’t have any money, I wasn’t enrolled in college, and I wasn’t on great terms with my family. Furthermore, I was a Northerner now in a Southern state and the culture shock ran deep: I understood very little of my surroundings, the language, or the people. Yet despite these factors, which would have put me into existential terror (and did much later on), I took everything in stride.
All because I had M with me.
A few months earlier, I met M online. This was back before it was cool and common to meet someone on the internet. In fact, it was downright scary. There weren’t dating apps on your smartphones because there weren’t any smartphones and there weren’t any dating sites because YOU DID NOT DATE ON THE INTERNET. What if someone was a serial killer and stalked and murdered you?! Yeah, that could and did happen! Everyone had a friend of a friend that got stalked and murdered! You heard it on the 10 o’clock news! Being super paranoid as it was, I had no intentions of meeting a person online, especially one who lived in another part of the country as me!
Well. The story of how we met is for another time, but the short version is we started talking online, then we talked on the phone, then we decided to move in together. I moved away and never moved back.
M was in college at the time and lived in a quad-partment off-campus. You know the type: shared living space and kitchen, but separate bedrooms and bathrooms for each resident. M took up almost no space in their own bedroom and bathroom, meaning I had plenty of room to spread out. They even set me up with my own computer — a cute little HP desktop — so I could take advantage of the T3 connection while they were in class. When they weren’t in class, we would spend time together, explore that awful college town1, grocery shop with the tiny bit of money we had, or eat ice cream from Sonic (the Southern equivalent of A&W).
But M had three other roommates. All were men: Rick, Anoush, and Doug2.
Rick was the first roommate we met. Rick, mid-fifties, had a seasonal job that required a lot of travel and work in the summer and fall, but none in the winter and spring. Lucky me that I came down in January, so he was home all the time. But, I was the guest and this was Rick’s home, so I had no say in his apartment habits. And when M wasn’t home, I stayed in our room, quiet as a mouse, watching tv or on my computer, not bothering a soul.
Anoush was a grad student in his early-to-mid twenties. A Muslim from Turkey (put a pin in that, it’s important), Anoush was almost never home due to his schedule…and likely another reason. Occasionally he popped by the apartment to grab something and say hello. Super nice guy who taught us about Turkish coffee (it will make your head explode). All in all, the perfect roommate. A++ would room with again.
Then there was Doug. We’ll get to Doug.
Back to Rick. He was tall, grizzled, and soft-spoken. Polite and courteous. Former military, though I don’t recall what branch. Most of the decorative items in the living space were his, including the tv and selection of DVDs on the entertainment center. One day when Rick had slipped off to Walmart or his lady friend’s house, I looked at the spines of the DVDs and saw at least two Girls Gone Wild collections. Being an 18-year-old, I thought, Obviously, Rick likes to share the wealth! Today, I think, Rick kept the harder stuff in his room and only brought it out by request.
Aside from the porn, something else was just…off about Rick. Rick gave me Ted Kazinsky vibes the first time I met him despite being a computer hobbyist and talking to M about different coding. I never saw the inside of Rick’s room in part because I didn’t go near the men’s bedrooms, but M did and said they saw an AR-15 propped up next to his door. Later on, I asked, “Was that all you saw in the room?” M responded, “…No,” and left it at that.
But what really should have set off alarm bells was Rick’s obsession with our third roommate, Doug.
Before we even met Doug, we got the low-down on his behavior. Doug was cheap and stingy. He took light bulbs out of the lamps — “My lamps!” Rick bemoaned — and stored them in a drawer in the kitchen. He messed with the air conditioning because electricity was expensive. “He tiptoes around the apartment bumping the A/C back when I change it!” Rick complained. “Then he leaves notes asking not to touch it! Obviously, he ain’t from around here!”
That, we learned, was true. Doug was not from the South. Doug was from New York. Doug worked in Florida, where he either crashed with friends most of the time or had a second residence. We could never figure out why he had the apartment in Alabama. But either way, for the first month of two of my stay, we only heard about Doug from Rick. As far as the other items go, we weren’t sure.
Then Doug came home.
Physically, Doug was a short, thin guy: a bit bald with weather-worn skin. I had never met anyone from New York before, so when I spoke with him I wanted to know about his life in “the city.” Despite being from New York, he was terribly friendly and accommodating. Doug loved Walmart, which was the only store we could afford back then. “Duuuuudes,” he cry out when he saw us come back from a shopping trip. “Walmart’s the shit! I see you got a haul!” And we’d laugh and pull out our French fries and six bags of rice to eat for the next month.
However, Doug complained about the price of everything in New York: the subway, rent, taxis, groceries, cigarettes, alcohol — you name it. “Everything down here is so cheap,” he declared. “Where else can you get an apartment this nice for this price? It’s perfect!” He couldn’t get that in New York. He couldn’t get a lot of stuff in New York. I certainly didn’t mind talking to him as he was ten times more talkative than Rick and I liked hearing his New York-isms.
Eventually, we’d glance over at Rick glowering in the corner and suddenly things began to click for M and me.
To Rick, Doug wasn’t just from New York. Doug was a New York Jew.
I was familiar with New York Jewish stereotypes from movies and TV. My mother, for her part, made sure to point them out to me whenever we saw them together. But being both Catholic and not from New York, the odds of me running into a situation where I had to confront anti-Semitism (and at an absurd level) seemed unlikely. And here I was, trapped with one roommate who didn’t like another roommate based on bad behaviors and attributed those behaviors to some Jewish stereotypes. How had my life changed so much in a matter of months, and how did I have to move to Alabama for that to happen?
The dynamic in the quad was uncomfortable but not hostile. Again, M and I kept to ourselves for most of the semester and for the most part Doug worked in Florida. Anoush dropped in every so often and left. Rick stayed in his room and came out for coffee or to do his laundry. Technically, I wasn’t on the lease and if management dropped by, I could say I was “just visiting.” I knew to keep quiet lest I get both M and I thrown out.
Then the semester ended. M, not having summer classes, stayed home during the day. Then Doug came home for longer and longer periods of time. Being college-age, M and I kept later hours. going to bed very late and sleeping until noon. This worked out great because we had the nights to do our laundry while our other roommates slept. After a week or two of this, we noticed Doug actively keeping the same schedule as us. He would leave his bedroom around 8pm, camp out on the couch, put in a DVD and watch a movie while we were just beginning our night. Our bedroom was against the living room wall where the couch sat propped, so we could hear him coughing or clearing his throat. We could also hear the tv, though he did turn it down after 9pm.
At this point, I’m no longer defending Doug because the next set of incidents have absolutely nothing to do with any stereotype and have everything to do with him being an absolute creep. Let’s go in order:
The Laundry Incident
At night when we did our laundry, M would go out to the shared washer and dryer to bring it back into the room to fold. One night, they came back to find it out of the dryer and folded, even though we had not left it in the dryer past it’s drying time. We only had shirts in that first load, but in the second, we had pants. M went out and found Doug actively folding our clothes.
“Hey Doug,” they said. “You don’t have to do that.”
“Oh, sorry,” Doug said. “I saw it in there and wanted to help.”
“Nah, it’s cool. We got our own laundry.”
We thought that was the end of that. But the third incident had our underwear. We knew this and set a timer to go get the load just as it was done. As soon as M walked out, they found the laundry already folded on the dryer.
I was livid. And violated. A stranger, a man, had touched my underwear. Shaking with fury, I told M: “We’re going to your parents to do laundry from now on.”
Fucking disgusting. I don’t let men touch my underwear without my permission; if I did, you better be sending money to my OnlyFans, first.
The Eaves Dropping Incident
After the Laundry Incident, M and I chose to withdraw even more from our roommates. Doug still came out at night to watch a movie, though he didn’t have any of our clean clothes to paw at. We spent the weekends at M’s parents’ house with our laundry and getting a home-cooked meal. Or we puttered around the Wiregrass area with friends looking at old cars. There wasn’t much else to do pre-smartphone/social media days.
When we were back at the apartment…well, make a guess at what we were doing: New relationship, lots of bonking.
Having sex with three roommates isn’t impossible. Be respectful and courteous with whom you live. I know that if I were single, I wouldn’t want to hear one of my roommates fucking their girlfriend at all hours of the day. So M and I…well, I won’t get into it. Let’s just say, we were much better about it when we were younger than we are today.
Again, subscribe to my OnlyFans for more.
One afternoon, we woke up to Rick in the kitchen, drinking coffee with a stern look on his face.
“Just wanna let y’all know,” he warned, “Doug has been listening to you.”
M and I looked at each other. “What?” M asked. “What do you mean?”
“He’s been listening to you.” Rick nodded. “That’s why he’s been sitting in the living room couch. It’s so he can listen to you…” He trailed off.
Of course, I was mortified. I wanted to curl up into a ball and blow away in the wind. I did not want to picture Doug, sitting on the couch against the our bedroom wall. I also did not want to ask how Rick found out Doug was listening in on us. The horror of someone touched your underwear, plus the gross, oily sensation that someone now spied on you during acts of intimacy, sent waves of nausea through my stomach. I remember storming into our bedroom and pacing around, nearing a panic attack, with M right behind me trying to give me words of comfort.
“Hey,” they said. “We should probably take Rick with a grain of salt.”
“What? Why? I think he caught Doug jerking off!”
M hesitated for a minute, then told me about the assault rifle — the firearm choice for the Randy-Weaver-Did-Nothing-Wrong crowd for years. When I heard about that plus the other possible items in Rick’s bedroom, I knew we weren’t dealing with your average white-trash racist.
“We’ve got to move out,” I threatened. “We can’t live here anymore.”
“I know,” M said. “Let’s start looking for a place.”
The Mail Incident
Throughout the summer of 2003, M and I searched for another apartment in the same city and put more effort into avoiding both Rick and Doug. Missing from the apartment (and ultimately, the narrative from this story) was Anoush, who was probably safer not in the apartment anyway. He still did his occasional drop-ins, but stayed gone. At the end of the summer, he announced that he and his friends were going to move into their own quad-partment together. Good for him, we decided. He was much better off not re-leasing with Rick and Doug.
M and I found an apartment across town — two bedrooms, one-and-a-half bathrooms, and zero roommates. We lost the washer and dryer and the rent was more expensive, but if anyone listened to us having sex it was on accident and no one touched our laundry because we dragged it down to M’s parents’ house for the most part.
Also, we had our own mailbox3.
We didn’t get a lot of mail back in those days. So when mail did come, we knew it ahead of time because we were expecting it. It wasn’t much — small items my parents sent down that I had forgotten to pack with me or tiny computer parts M ordered online. But we waited patiently for our mail and expected things to come on specific days.
Over the summer, while we waited for our new apartment, we sold a few things over eBay to finance our trips up to see my parents. We also bought a couple of car parts to make sure we had the transport to get up North. This was a pretty economical little business we had going on, and we checked the mail — a shared mailbox for the whole apartment — daily. Doug never got much mail, and neither did Anoush; it was mostly just us and Rick.
One day, Doug started to get the mail. He started doing this in the spring, but we really noticed it around summertime right after the laundry and eavesdropping incidents happened. It happened with Rick first — one of his letters ended up with a slit or a tear on the side, as if someone took their thumb and casually popped it open. Rick was furious, but according to Doug, “it came that way.”
“I’ll bet he opened it,” Rick seethed. “He thought it was his and stopped when realized it weren’t!” But having no proof other than his own suspicions, Rick couldn’t say or do anything about it.
Then, it happened to us. One day, Doug came back with a delivery — a small USPS First Class envelope — fully opened. He immediately launched into a tirade about the Post Office. “This is the second time this has happened!” he cried, fist in the air. “They obviously have some incompetent and overpaid workers! How much of our tax dollars are going to fund these morons?! I’m going to talk to the front office!”
I was upset, but again, no proof. The package, if I can recall, was a small computer or car part — inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but still another act of violation in the last few months. Complicating things further would be that months and months later, we would meet a really incompetent and possibly senile old letter carrier at our new apartment complex who could not sort mail to save his life. We got neighbors’ mail and mail went missing. Mail never came to us opened, but it does put Doug’s claims of malfeasance into new light.
Still. There is one final strike against Doug.
The Electric Bill Incident
Our final day in the apartment happened to be the best day in that apartment. M’s mother helped us pack our belongings into a few dozen cardboard boxes and haul them into our new place, where we didn’t even have a bed to sleep on. Though Doug was gone (thankfully), Rick was there to occasionally step out for a cup of coffee and thank us for being excellent roommates.
“I was nervous about you moving in,” he told me. “Quite frankly, I wasn’t so sure how that was going to go down. But you were so quiet, I forgot you were here most of the time. You stayed out of the way. No question about who you belonged to.”
Um. Sure. I smiled awkwardly and stepped back. “Thanks, Rick.” To this day, I’m not sure how to respond to benevolent sexism. Thanks for assuming I know my place? Should I make you a sandwich for that compliment?
As we were talking, the power went out. That included the air conditioning.
In July. In goddamn Alabama.
We exchanged looks, but knew exactly what happened. The apartment complex, rather than charge 4 units for electricity, charged one apartment. They didn’t want 4 separate checks, they wanted one regardless if you split the electric bill equally or by ampere. Rick had claimed that Doug would passive-aggressively leave notes and sneak behind him to bump up the A/C — well, we got to see this fight first hand when we woke up to a sticky note on the thermostat with Please keep it lite scrawled upon it. After figuring out what we did about both of them, we decided to withdraw from the A/C war and literally sweat it out with a fan in our bedroom.
Because the complex only wanted one check, we pooled our collective money together to pay whatever the bill was each month. That was fine. Our mistake was then entrusting Doug to take it up to the front office — 90 meters away — to then pay it off.
The panic attack I didn’t have a few months before rose in my chest. We had just spent our last dime on moving expenses for the new apartment. We didn’t have enough money to pay the electric bill on an apartment we technically didn’t live in anymore.
But Rick held up his hand and calmly told us, “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of this.” Then he walked out.
Here’s what happened: Because of the stupid air conditioning dispute, Doug felt like he was “owed” money from all of us because he “used a lower percentage of electricity.” Because of this, he refused to pay the bill. He never brought this up with M or me, nor am I sure how Rick figured this out. All we managed to learn was that the money we gave to him for our share of the electricity (one quarter) went nowhere. Naturally, when the complex didn’t get the money for the electricity, they shut it off.
When Rick came back and told us what happened, the lights, air conditioning, and major appliances kicked back on. Apparently, he paid the bill and straightened everything out with the front office. How things would go down with Doug when he came back home would be a different story, but we wouldn’t be there to see it.
We packed the last box into the car and said goodbye to Rick. Once again, he told us what good roommates we were and wished us good luck in the future. “Get married and have lots of babies,” he said. “The world needs ‘em!”
We did one of those things.
The conclusion to this is a downer.
First, let’s talk about Rick. I think you know where this is going but if you connected the dots on Rick, you’re going to make a swastika.
Shortly after moving, we poked around a bit online and found his blog. Not only did his online handle have an “88” in it (no, I’m not going to explain that to you — go look that up somewhere else), but in one of his entries he outright praises a certain mustache-having dictator. In other entries, he trashed Doug as cheap, weaselly, sneaky, and conniving but stopped short of using any slurs or epithets. However, the implications were there.
Then there was Doug. We never saw him again and we only know what happened to him based on Rick’s side of the story (via his blog).
After the Electric Bill incident, Rick and Doug went their separate ways. There’s no reconciliation after that, I’d imagine. Rick moved somewhere out of town and Doug chose another apartment in the same complex, just with different roommates. His new apartment happened to be two floors above one of M’s friends. Whenever we went over to see this friend, we cautiously looked around before we ever got out just in case we ran into Doug again.
Rick, by his written account, ran into Doug at the gas station in town around the middle of Fall. Both men stood at neighboring gas pumps, filling their vehicles. Doug had a new car, according to Rick, and as the car filled he cleaned off the windshield with the squee-gee. Rick, still angry about the electric bill and the bevy of misdeeds Doug committed during his year-long lease, decided to take one act of revenge against him. As he drove by Doug’s car, Rick took his full “piss bucket” — the bucket long-distance travelers use to collect up pee, garbage, and other viscera — out onto the parking lot and Doug’s car.
Yeah. I’m really hoping that’s not true because that came off as really hate-crimey. There’s a lot I have to say about Doug, and not a lot of it is positive. He was a creep and a passive-aggressive asshole. But he didn’t deserve that.
He was also a pretty broken guy.
I left this out of the story because I wanted to end with it: Doug left New York not long after 9/11. Remember, this was 2003, when the events were fresh in everyone’s heads. In a conversation with M one day, Doug revealed he was near the towers when the planes hit. He didn’t go into detail, but he said it got to him.
Post-traumatic stress affects everyone in bizarre, unfortunate ways. I’m not saying it excuses behavior (the underwear-touching, the sex eaves-dropping, I mean), but it does contextualize it. For all of Rick’s complaining about Doug’s stinginess around the electricity bill and unscrewing light bulbs, and fiddling with the A/C behind his back — I’m almost certain all of this was either completely made up, an exaggeration, or a slant-truth at best. Furthermore, I don’t see any reason to be worried about the cost of electricity in Alabama. If you’ve ever had to pay for A/C in the South, you’ll know the pain of $200-$400 power bills. I can’t and won’t fault Doug for being cautious.
We never saw any of those men again and we intentionally forgot about Rick’s blog. I still think about them over the years when I fold laundry, get an expensive power bill, or drive by quad-partments in our current city.
I don’t miss that year at all.
1 I’d eventually go to college in that college town and live there for about 13 years.
2 Names changed obviously.
3 Funny thing about the mailbox. Months and months later at the new apartment, we would encounter the worst mail carrier in the world. He was a grizzled old man with a long white beard who was either senile or deaf and constantly screwed up our mail with our neighbors’. We would approach him on occasion, asking him if he had seen our missing mail, and he would either give us some garbled story that wouldn’t make any sense or just hand us mail out of his truck. You know, mail belonging to other apartments. We complained to the post office who said they’d “look into it.” Eventually we stopped seeing the elderly mail carrier. So perhaps Doug wasn’t entirely to blame for our mail issues.