Friday, April 24, 2009

I smelled the chemicals and that's how I knew

I had this roommate in college, Gwen, who was this really unusual mix of trying too hard to be different and genuinely being different. She was pre-med, very scientific mind. But she also wore this long red velvet cloak all the time and hung out at the Renaissance Festival. She also claimed to be a wiccan, which frankly has colored my impression of all other people I've met who claim to be wiccan. It didn't seem to be so much an identity or a religion, so much as a thing she could call herself when she wanted to stand out: "Don't mess with me, I'm a witch," and so on.

But the thing that always amazed me was that in addition to all this trying to hard to be different, she was genuinely different in some of the most amazing (though not always good) ways. I first met her when I was a freshman in college and a friend of mine had had it with her assigned roommate, so she moved into the on-campus apartments. She was assigned three roommates there, two other freshmen and Gwen, a sophomore. Gwen was a whole year older than us and way more experienced in just about everything. She was an EMT and worked odd hours and knew boys and stuff. So she was the one we went to with all our problems. For example, one winter morning Gwen had worked late the night before and was passed out in the bedroom. Her three roommates were up and around, making toast for breakfast. Suddenly, the toaster caught on fire. It was placed under the cabinet in the kitchen and flames were shooting up out of the toaster and touching the cabinets. In a fit of terror, the girls ran into the bedroom and started screaming, "The toaster's on fire! The toaster's on fire!" Gwen rolled over, said, "Put it out," and covered her head with the pillow. They ran back into the kitchen and, seeing the toaster still shooting flames, turned around and ran back into the bedroom, screaming. Gwen realized they weren't going to stop, so she got out of bed, stumbled into the kitchen, ripped the toaster out of the wall, walked out onto the balcony, threw the toaster off the balcony and into the snow, and went back to sleep. Saved the day, classic Gwen style.

A few years later, Gwen and I shared a house near campus with three other friends, five of us there altogether. And by this time, she had developed some truly strange habits. Now, granted, we were not the neatest people you'd want to meet. I don't know that we vacuumed the entire year we were in that house, and the dishes just piled up until we ran out. Then it was an entire day (there were A LOT of dishes in that house) of washing disgusting smelly dishes. But Gwen had her ownthing going on. A favorite was that she liked to keep her cheese in the couch. I'm completely serious. She would buy a block of cheddar cheese and stick it in a zip-loc bag, then she would shove the plastic bag between the cushions of the couch. She insisted, "I like my cheese warm." And that in itself wouldn't have been so terrible if she hadn't always included a knife with it. So you never knew, when you sat down on the couch, whether you were going to be stabbed in the ass by a cheese knife.

She also had a propensity for falling asleep on the couch and just staying there. One night our roommate had been bartending all night and was finally coming home. But this night was special, because she'd had a long-term crush on a friend of ours (who had been briefly, painfully engaged to another one of our roommates). He'd hung out at the bar all evening with her and was now coming home with her. This wasn't so unusual since many of the people in our large group of friends often ended up coming over after the bar closed, but this was the first time it had been just the two of them. When they walked into the house, there was Gwen, asleep on the living room sofa. She was wearing a peasant dress and nylons, nothing else--and the dress had hiked itself up to her armpits. So my poor friend grabbed kitchen tongs and used them to lift the blanket back over Gwen while she slept; it did not turn out to be the most romantic evening. (In case you're wondering, yes, they did get together eventually; it was always rocky and he finally broke up with her via email.)

Another time she was sleeping on the couch, we decided all of a sudden to pln a party--a themed party. So as we were coming up with storybook characters for people to dress as, we thought of the Seven Dwarfs, from Snow White: Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Sleepy, Doc, and someone else. I always forget the name of the other dwarf, and neither of us could remember it. So we ran into the living room to ask Gwen. We shouted at her, "Gwen, what was the name of the seventh dwarf?" The logical question would have been, "Which six have you already named?" But that wasn't her style. She definitively announced, "Pinchy Smurf." And that was her nickname for years.

But the best ever sleeping-on-the-couch quote was heard by me alone. I had been tending bar and came home later to find her passed out in her usual spot. I probably said hello or "Are you ever going to get off the couch?" or something like that. And she mumbled, "10... 9... out of 10 birds are dead. I smelled the chemicals... and that's how I knew." It seemed to sum up something, although I've never been certain what it was.

It's been more than 10 years since I last saw her, and I still think of that quote all the time. My husband, whom I met years after losing touch with her, will sometimes repeat it. I hope she no longer keeps her cheese in the couch and that she sometimes sleeps in a bed these days. But I hope she still offers up such entertaining nuggets of wisdom.


Aunt Becky said...

My favorite quote "It's a Schweaty Family recipe."

And Gwen? Sounds like a piece of work.

LuLu and Moxley's Mom said...

At my first job out of college there was a guy who dressed in purple velvet every day. I once commented on it and he said I was criticizing his religion. Gwen's brother perhaps?