Tuesday, March 29, 2011


What You Are I Was
(Part 5 of 9)

By Miriam Rosenberg Rocek

I had just slept at the Temple three nights in a row, when I returned to my apartment to find my last room-mate with his belongings halfway packed. It had been some weeks, I realized, since I had last spent any real time there, so it was only then that I learned that he had finally successfully completed his dissertation defense and was moving on to a job at a university out west. I congratulated him, and helped him move out.

He was the last of three roommates to leave. We had all been philosophy students, and had christened our apartment The Tub, in honor of Diogenes. Once alone, I found I genuinely missed the late-night arguments over the dishes and bathroom-cleaning rotation. I missed those arguments as much as the ones about existentialism. I could actually, if I were so inclined, spend all night working on my thesis without anyone bursting into my room with a bottle of cheap vodka and a compelling argument in favor of psychological egoism, and I wasn’t used to maintaining a work ethic without those interruptions. After a night or two in the empty Tub, I went back to sleeping in the Temple. Both were silent at night, but the silence in the Temple felt more natural; appropriate, not like the silence of a place that had once been filled with people. At least in the Temple I could be sure of visits from my Predecessor; my apartment had become the sort of depressing single-person dwelling that only the tenant and the occasional delivery person ever sees. I would be paying the full rent on a three or four person apartment I rarely visited except to change clothes or pick up my mail; I couldn’t afford it, and it didn’t make sense.

I was told when I began as the Elder that rent-free living was one of the financial perks of the job, and it sounded easier than trying to find a replacement roommate or three. I seemed to have been in grad school for so long that most of the people I had met my first year were gone, and I suppose I stopped making new friends sometime along the way. Living with a stranger sounded a bit too freshman-year to be appealing, and no one could replace the inhabitants of The Tub; you can’t just put an ad in the classifieds seeking people to share a Diogenian dwelling with you. It made sense to take advantage of the free housing at the Temple. Besides, I did like the little, sparsely furnished room on the second floor. It felt like somewhere a philosopher ought to live, more like a hermit’s cave, or like Diogenes’ tub, than anywhere else I’d lived. The radiators barely reached body temperature most of the time, and the water came out of the sinks a sickly brown that reminded me of gas station coffee. It wasn’t so bad, though; as the winter came on it stayed a little warmer than I expected, and I easily got into the habit of wearing layers of socks and sweaters at all times. Without having to pay rent, I soon realized that I was even making just enough money to be able to begin, slowly, to pay off some of my student loans.

There was a tiny grocery store a block away, run by an immigrant family that spoke no English and never smiled when I came in, but they kept me supplied with the dehydrated noodle dishes and cold cereal on which I mostly lived. The only cooking appliances in the Temple were a hotplate, an electric kettle, and a broken toaster, and I’ve never devoted a lot of attention to what I eat anyway; spending more than ten minutes cooking a dinner that would be gone as soon as I ate it always felt like a waste of time. There was also a telephone in the Temple, but it never rang. I used it exclusively for ordering pizza and letting my Predecessor know when a prayer needed to be rewritten. I suppose I was embarrassed to invite anyone I knew to such an odd little dwelling as the Temple of the Childless, where the air was so often tinged with smoke from burnt offerings to Ancient Greek household gods or Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican harvest deities. Even for a philosophy student, it would have seemed eccentric. The idea of people coming in and walking around on the floor above the cellar where the machine sat, prayers cradled at its center, was as upsetting as the idea of my friends learning of the rituals I performed was embarrassing. I spent a few nights a week at Lisa’s, but I tried not to have her over to the Temple if I could help it, and I never invited over anyone from the philosophy program. I was so used to the Temple as a silent, solitary place, my voice, the voice of my Predecessor, and the creaking and clanking of the machine the only sounds that existed there, that I was reluctant to open the doors to the loud, argumentative conversation of a group of philosophy students. When my Predecessor came by, we never debated, the way I always seemed to with my friends from graduate school. We just talked. The first time I spoke to him, I remember thinking that it felt like years since I had last had a conversation that didn’t involve orations.

Lisa made no secret of the fact that she was delighted when I moved out of the Tub. She’d never liked spending the night there. She held a deep, mutual enmity for Nietzsche, (the allergy-inducing cat that moved out with my last roommate, not the philosopher, though she wasn’t really a fan of him either. Said Uberkitty’s tendency to shed, and on one occasion, urinate, on her coat if she failed to hang it up has been interpreted by some scholars, notably Lisa, as a manifestation of his namesake’s misogyny) No matter how many times I vacuumed after the cat was gone her eyes and throat still swelled up if she was in the Tub for longer than five minutes. Lisa spent one night with me in the Temple after I moved in, in my little upstairs room.

I couldn’t sleep the night that she was there. I lay next to her, trying to pretend that the sound of her breathing was soothing, instead of distracting, when I heard a single, prolonged groan of metal from the basement. The building was probably just settling, I told myself, or creaking under the weight of the snow that had collected on the roof, but I couldn’t shake the image of the machine stirring under the floor, reacting to the presence of a visitor. I ended up slipping out of bed and going down to check. The machine was still, shadowed in the light of the dusty bulbs, and even after a thorough inspection I found nothing that looked out of place. I went back to bed, treading cautiously on the creaky stairs, but I spent the rest of the night like a new father, waiting in a fitful, half-awake doze to be called out of bed. Lisa slept soundly, but that was the last night she spent at the Temple. It was drafty, it was in, as she put it, a shady part of town, and the bed was lumpy. A week later, when I turned down her offer to move into her apartment, the relationship was over, abruptly, with less emotion on both sides than I would have expected. No one had ever said that the Elder had to be either solitary or celibate, it felt natural. I never heard the sound that had come from the machine that night again, though I dragged my mattress down to the basement and spent the next few nights sleeping there, just to be sure.

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I am a graduate of Northwestern University with a BA in creative writing. Since college I have worked as a nanny, and as a tall ship sailor, helping to sail old-fashioned, traditionally rigged sailing ships from the Caribbean to Nova Scotia. I was born in New Mexico, raised in Delaware, and currently live in New York City.


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