My Freshman Roommate & Her Parents
Sixteen hours into our ride to Istanbul on a bus with forty Turkish smugglers, my freshman roommate Harper averaged a complaint every thirty-nine seconds.
“These seats aren’t clean enough.” She hip-checked me, but there wasn’t any budge room between us. We were both generously proportioned. If I had a knife, I’d plunge it into her thigh, which jammed against mine at a vicious angle. Harper shivered like a wet dog.
“Those guards sprinkled everything with itching powder.”
That was all the grime plastered to our sweat. The A/C gave out about an hour outside Varna. A few hours later, our bus stopped in the woods before the Bulgarian-Turkish border. Men draped in white—who looked, at first glance, like that old toilet paper prank from junior high—emerged from the trees, scaled the bus, and unloaded a pallet’s worth of hidden sacks and boxes.
At the border, we spent seven hours watching the bus get disassembled and rebuilt by guards who intermittently fired questions in at least five languages we didn’t speak. Our American passports were a novelty. Western tourists arrived via ferry at three times the price, which in retrospect we should have paid. I never expected luxury, but we bypassed spartan and went straight to sketch. It took six hours to convince Yusuf, the smuggler who spoke French well enough to chat, that we were the cash-strapped tourists we claimed to be.
“I travel with you, I get criminals,” Harper hissed behind her teeth. Her parents had taught her their favorite party trick: the ability to spew insults without seeming to speak. They were my future in-laws. Maybe. After almost four years with Mick, I still thought of his family as my freshman roommate and her parents. This endearment, however cold, was kinder than their assorted terms for me.
On graduation night, Mick spread lavender across my bed and proposed six hours before he left for Guatemala to spend his summer between undergrad and film school vaccinating babies. He’s that guy, the one only a madwoman would hesitate to marry, if not for my freshman roommate and her parents. I told him maybe, and regretted it before his flight left the gate. I should have vaccinated babies with him, but I wasn’t going to graduate school. I used the dregs of my student loan money to spend my last true summer backpacking through Europe before I began work in the development office at the Museum of Science back home in Queens.
“If you must ignore me, could you at least not engage the hoodlums?” Harper asked.
Yusuf said, “My English is not pretty, but this word I know. She thinks I can’t hear this, your friend? That I never see the Starsky & Hutch from American television?”
I laughed, although I knew it was the wrong move. Harper had this post-nasal yip that kicked in when her neuroses went into overdrive. “It’s a family quirk. They think they can talk all the merde they want as long as they never actually part their lips.”
When Harper bolted from her internship with Daddy’s bank and tracked me down at a hostel in Krakow, her connection to Mick short-circuited my sanity. His hazel eyes and round cheeks lived in her face. Harper’s doubts about her parents’ expectations seemed encouraging, and sisters-by-marriage traveled together even if freshman roommates did not. Sometimes optimism was a shitty friend.
“Stop acting as if this is some fun anecdote in the making.” Harper fixated on things, such as my clear advantage when it came to treating other people like human beings worth engaging. It filled her with pub-envy, because God forbid she spent ten minutes quietly sipping a cocktail while I talked to someone else. “Petty thieves aren’t exciting.”
The insult flickered across Yusuf’s face and stole away his smile. Had I known I’d be traveling with Harper, I would have packed a gag. “Stop with the mean words. Our companions don’t like it.”
Harper tried to self-soothe for eight whole seconds, then crashed her shoulder into mine. “Why do you have to act like this isn’t hard?”
She wasn’t the only one who wanted this trip to end. The bus was supposed to arrive at 8 pm. It was now 4:30 am. I tried to strip the anger from my voice. “Yusuf said we’re almost at the depot.”
She slammed her hip into my side again. “I don’t need your pity.” Kinder was clearly not the way to go.
“Your friend, she is worth this?” Yusuf’s Turkish accent would make the French jealous. With his inflection, every question he asked already sounded answered.
“I might marry her brother.” I twitched toward Harper, checking for signs of comprehension. Mick’s proposal was our summer secret. Harper spent junior year in Nice, but absorbed little French, although she claimed to be fluent.
Yusuf had the stone-faced demeanor a smuggler needed, but I detected a pinch of horror. I threw my arms out, desperate for validation. “Crazy, right?”
Yusuf tilted his head. “He is like her?”
My certainty fizzled. “Not even a little.”
“The mother and father?”
Yusuf delivered an authentic French huff, using both the power of his broad nose and that back-throated hum English didn’t require. “They are…” Yusuf puffed out his chest and pointed his chin upward. “The big big people?”
“Your family, maybe not so big big?”
“Not even a little.” Mom was the lunch lady at my elementary school, and Dad drove the B58 bus from Bushwick to Flushing and back again. I found my job at the museum through the career office at school, but Nancy in Human Resources rode the B58 from Elmhurst to Flushing. She practiced her Italian with my Dad and told everyone on the grants team that my name meant butterfly. I knew I had the job before the interview started. The bus driver’s Princeton butterfly? It was too good a story to go wrong. Except maybe now I’d follow Mick to Stanford. He wanted me in California, not Queens.
“You must haves the great love,” Yusuf said, in a tone reserved for the damned.
I nodded. I never even liked science. When the career guy asked me where I’d be living, I said Queens, and that was the job that popped up on his screen. Fundraising seemed interesting, but Stanford probably had a hundred development offices spread across campus. Princeton certainly did. Everyone everywhere needed to raise money. Mick might need to raise money, if his parents cut him off because of me, which was a real possibility. Money was one reason I never considered graduate school, although I wasn’t like Mick, who saw his future so clearly. I could work and support us both, if I had to, although Mick would hate that for sure. He saw my life as so deprived, when it really wasn’t. My parents both worked. We had enough. That wasn’t always true in my neighborhood.
“He is lucky man,” Yusuf said.
“Are we here?” Harper steamrolled past my legs and stumbled up the bus aisle to the door. “I so need a bath.” She left her backpack behind for me to deal with.
Yusuf said, “Look window.”
More men in white surrounded the bus, mostly crowded by the door. How could they possibly have more goods to smuggle? “But, they took the bus apart.”
“Is also the Natasha bus.”
Yusuf’s eyes were expressive, even if his face was not. This triggered an involuntary gulp. “Natasha?”
“Whores from no more big Russia.”
“Harper, don’t get off the bus.” She waved me off. “I mean it.” She barreled down the steps as soon as the driver opened the door, and the men outside jockeyed to meet her at the bottom step, their hands full of Turkish lire. They liked her hair, ice-blonde from an expert colorist. They grasped strands and Harper’s shriek buzzed from my ears to my fingertips.
Yusuf swung the emergency window open and jumped down to help, a leap that could break an ankle. He chastised the most persistent men back, but not before Harper was yanked around by the hair, twirled for inspection, and groped from behind. The money returned to their wallets, but there was a second surge forward. I listened for common roots or phrases, but Turkish was a guttural mystery.
I grabbed our bags and used them as armor as I made my way off the bus. Men circled me, cash in hand, but their uncertainty was clear. My dress had a slight V-neck, but the hem skirted my ankles. Their eyes kept shifting back to the blond with the mid-thigh hemline. Harper ran up and spooned me for safety.
“You told them we’re American, right?”
Yusuf shrugged. “They think you might be like British.”
Yusuf brought a fist to his chest, the universal sign for tragedy. “They come here because Turkish men always good for the woman.” His eyebrow undulated. “American men…they are disappointing this way?”
“Jamais,” I said firmly. Yusuf answered with another barrel-chested laugh.
“Let’s get a taxi already,” Harper pleaded.
Yusuf shook off that suggestion. “Only Natashas this time of night. At the border, guards thought your passports very great forgery.”
“I want to go to bed,” Harper snapped. “Why are you still talking?”
“He’s warning us.” The station was enormous. Like a glass-paneled mall with a mosque attached. “No middle-of-the-night rides from men who believe we’re hookers.” There was a well-lit fountain near the entrance, and I pointed toward it. “The metro opens in an hour. We’ll sit near the conductor.”
“It’s a nightmare out here.”
Yusuf said to her, in English, “Listens to your friend! Trust no person.”
“I’m going,” Harper insisted.
I considered letting her head off solo. Mick would understand. She irritated the crap out of him, too. He asked me out that first time just to piss her off, and to be fair, I accepted for the same reason. We were so different we expected to flame out, but we had that complementary magic where our faults and our touchy zones were non-convergent. Before Mick, I thought forty was the right age for marriage. I wanted to have adventures—like being stuck on a smuggle bus—with a sultry Bulgarian lover at my side, instead of my freshman roommate, with her unfortunate ties to the do-gooder who gave me the sapphire engagement ring Velcroed inside the lining of my bag.
“I still have all our money,” I warned Harper, landing firmly on the side of not risking her plunge into white slavery. In Romania, she had been too easy to bribe.
Harper turned to Yusuf. In wretched French she said, “Je voudrais aller Sulta—”
Yusuf shrugged. “Come, if you like.”
Harper lunged for her backpack, and I was tempted yet again. If something happened, poof went the main impediment to marital bliss. Mick’s parents would be a nightmare up until the ceremony, but once he and I were husband and wife, their interference would fade. They were too self-absorbed to be truly invasive. Still, Mick was tenderhearted. He would feel compelled to grieve his sister, even after he made it clear he wanted us to be a one-child family when the time was right. He blamed overpopulation and scarcity of resources, but I wasn’t fooled.
“If I have to tie you up with a bungee cord and sit on you, I will.”
“You’ve been talking to him for hours,” Harper screeched.
“I’ve been listening, too. He said, ‘trust no one’ two minutes ago.”
Yusuf’s pompous laugh was starting to grate on me. He said, “In Turkey, s’il vous plait. Listens to friend, oui?” Yusuf gestured toward my hand, and I offered it to him. He clasped it only with his fingertips. “It would be honor to bring to friend hotel in Sultanahmed.”
I was just as ragged as Harper, but it felt like a street-cred test I was too smart to fail. “Thank you, but we’re going to wait for the metro.”
Yusuf seemed giddy with happiness. “You, with those dark eyes and sharp bones, are Turkish.” He salaamed with an upward flourish. “Allah knows this to be true.”
I waved Harper forward, but she shook me off again. I knocked on her skull, my mother’s go-to response to stupidity. “Do you want to end up dead in a country nobody knows you’re visiting?”
Harper sucked on her teeth, but she walked toward the fountain. Yusuf and I followed behind her. “Ayip means shame. Very great insult. Use it only if you must.” Yusuf salaamed to us both and was gone.
We sat on our backpacks, backs flush against the base of the fountain. The men, now more of a gang than a crowd, moved closer after Yusuf left but maintained a reasonable distance. “You better marry my dumbass brother before he joins the Peace Corps and ends up surrounded by desperate, underprivileged women even prettier than you are. Or has a film at Sundance, where all the women will be better looking and desperate.”
Jaws actually can drop. I was so tired I had trouble getting my mouth to re-align.
“Of course he proposed,” she said. “He’s worried about poor little you and all those student loans.”
Never forget that Harper was the least obnoxious member of his family. Do not imagine that vintage wedding dress with the silky fringe you put on layaway in Budapest, only days before Harper crashed your trip and triggered all your doubts. “I can’t understand why those clowns want to pay for sex with you when all that mango body butter has rotted on your flesh.”
“Well, the odor of skanky toe jam has hijacked your entire body,” Harper replied, without missing a beat. Her mother would see this crudity as my influence gone horribly wrong. I couldn’t help but feel a little proud.
I nodded. “I think I smell it.”
Truth was, I imagined the dress, and the Quaker wedding ceremony Mick had his heart set on. No man of God to officiate. No awkward conversations with a minister about my atheism. Just us, alone with our guests standing one-by-one to celebrate, share stories about our union, or offer advice. So oddball his parents wouldn’t invite 500 of their closest friends, provided they didn’t boycott the wedding entirely, as Mick and I preferred. Toe jam might be the appropriate metaphor for how his parents viewed me. As much as I wanted to channel my inner Eleanor Roosevelt, their disdain got the best of me. Stick me in a bus station surrounded by men looking to pay for sex, and I’ll emerge unscathed. Seat me at a formal dinner, grill me about my ancestry, and the first veiled insult about my table etiquette will have me choking back tears. Courage was always situational. I couldn’t help but glance at Harper. “I know today was rough.”
She sighed and leaned against me, a completely un-Harper-like gesture. “I would be really frightened if you weren’t here.”
That completely un-Harper-like admission compelled the same from me.
“Could you help with your parents?” I asked. In four years I had never brought it up, but I had to stop pretending they were a temporary challenge. As much as they gave me pause, I wasn’t a madwoman, and I was going to marry Mick. My freshman roommate and her parents were mine for life.
“You don’t stick out as much anymore, but you’re proof he’ll never be a broker or a Republican candidate for senator. Just be bitchier and they’ll back off.”
“I don’t exactly shower them with warmth.”
“Don’t pretend you don’t have enough badass to make them squirm.” She elbowed me in the ribs, which for some reason encouraged the men to take a synchronized step closer, and then another, too quickly. Nobody had tried to speak to us in English, but maybe ass was a known word and sounded like an invitation. I sprang up, and Harper tried to do the same but her front foot caught on her pack, plunging her forward. I steadied her shoulder, but she was in the perfect position to pitch into the hovering men, and I couldn’t help but grin as I adjusted my grip.
“You wouldn’t,” she said, but her over-wide eyes gave her doubts away. This summoned a slideshow of Harper’s meanest hits, all the moments she watched me fumble unspoken rules and stew in the shame of my ignorance. Eventually, I learned to read her glee and proceed with care. In that way, she was my social tutor, more so than Mick—who thought the best of people—could ever be.
I let go of her shoulder. Harper teetered, but found her feet, glaring through her hasty release. She used her anger to turn tiger and storm the circling men, fingers curled like claws, her growl convincingly savage. They retreated, but only a few steps. She charged them twice more, forcing them further back each time. When she sat down again, her smile was the largest I’d ever seen cross her face. “That was awesome,” I admitted.
“I lived with this gutter snipe from Queens. That’s what she did whenever I tried to make her feel bad.”
I laughed so hard I snorted. “I wish.”
She tsked my skepticism. “Bored now.”
I recognized the vibration of the metro under my feet and pointed Harper inside. “It’s here,” I said, and she followed me down the escalator without her usual commentary. It would never be an easy peace, but we were stuck with each other, here in Istanbul and back with Mick, wherever home turned out to be.
Lisa Ferber creates whimsical paintings that celebrate glamorous eccentrics and objects of indulgence. She has exhibited at the National Arts Club, Mayson Gallery, the Painting Center, and other locations. Her self-portrait was the marketing face of Estrogenius 2016, and she will have a solo show in February 2017 at New York City's Art Bar. She sells her pieces to private collectors in New York City, Los Angeles, and Paris. Lisa wrote and starred in the feature film The Sisters Plotz, which premiered at New York City’s Anthology Film Archives and received its Hollywood premiere at Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre. www.LisaFerber.com
Valerie Fioravanti is the author of Garbage Night at the Opera, winner of the 2011 G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction from BkMk Press. Her fiction, essays, and prose poems have appeared in many literary journals, including North American Review and Cimarron Review. She was a Fulbright Fellow in Creative Writing, and is at work on a novel set in Italy. www.valeriefioravanti.com