Saturday, August 3, 2013

The Ice Queen

"Sarah Byrd, Riverside, California," said the card BYU had sent. Sarah, nice name. Riverside, nice town. Oh God, plesae let her be a nice girl. In three weeks she would be my roommate. I was nervously curious. Luckily, Sarah's phone number was included on the information sheet. I called immediately.

Mrs. Byrd answered the phone. I quickly told her who I was and asked to speak to Sarah. Mrs. Byrd enthusiastically introduced herself and began to detail Sarah's lineage. The Byrds, it would seem, were an important family in Southern California, very successful, spiritual, wealthy, and very well-known. For a half an hour, she recited the family résumé. Eventually, she sidetracked to the decor of our dorm room. Matching bedspreads, she thought, would be charming. Purple, that was Sarah's favorite color. On and on she babbled. I listened, amazed that anyone could talk so long. My brain calculated the cost of a daytime rate call. My mother would kill me. Our budget simply wouldn't cover the unexpected expense. 

After what seemed to be hundreds of costly minutes, Sarah got on the line. She sounded normal, a great relief. We chatted amiably, shallowly, for a few minutes. Then, out of necessity, I mentioned my budget situation to explain both the impossibility of buying matching bedspreads and the necessity of ending the conversation. She understood completely. She was thrilled I was from California. I was thrilled that she was thrilled. Our conversation lasted for about five minutes. I hung up delighted (despite the phone bill) to have met the girl who would soon become my friend, roommate, and confidante. 

The next time we spoke to each other was at BYU. I arrived after Sarah. Her belongs lay in neat piles on her bed. A dozen red roses sat on her desk. I dumped my things on the bed, the floor, and my desk and headed for freshman orientation. That evening I returned to find my room half immaculate. My side of the room sharply contrasted with Sarah's neat, organized side. Scenes from The Odd Couple flitted through my mind. I made a mental note to straighten things up as soon as I could.

Sarah matched her side of the room, very neat.  She looked like a Sourthern Californian. Her body was a curveless size five, her clothes neat, pressed, flattering, and very expensive. Her face was neither gorgeous nor plain, merely passably pretty. Her hair feathered back from her face in perfectly uniform sheets of layered, over-processed hair. 

We said our hellos, tacitly decided each other trustworthy, and began to share details of our high school love lives and tidbits of our family lives. The next day we ate all our meals together and went shopping. We could tell we were going to be the best of friends.

School started and our differences became apparent. She was a business major. I was a theatre major. Our schedules differed greatly. Rehearsals often kept me out past eleven while Sarah went to sleep at nine-thirty. Unfortunately she was a light sleeper; I always woke her up when I came in late. No matter how quiet I was, no matter how dark the room was, I was always greeted with a snip of a rude, sleepy remark. And since I interrupted her sleep every night, she mutilated mine every morning in retaliation.

At six every morning, she awoke, showered , and came back into the room to blow-dry her hair. The hair ritual lasted forty-five miutes. Then for twenty minutes she would stare into a lighted mirror applying layers of expensive cosmetics to transform herself into a moderately pretty girl. Overall, we shared more than an hour of loud, bright would-have-been sleep together every morning. 

During the days she made her displeasure clear chiefly through the skillful use of silence. She had perfected the art of icy stares in response to greetings, comments, or questions. The room began to develp a noticeable chill. My friends and I dubbed Sarah "The Ice Queen," and I began to spend the night elsewhere whenever possible. I would come home, change clothes, and leave as quickly as I could. 

One of the more noticeable results of this tendency to leave was the development of an enormous pile of dirty clothes on my bed and floor. Sarah broke the icy silence to complain about "the stench," with a meaningful look at the conspiciously piled clothes. I was offended. The stench, in fact, came not from my mess, but from the vase of rotting slime-water and the remains of her once-lovely roses sitting on her immaculate shelves. An arched brow and a silent removal of the offending flora was her only response to this discovery.

Shortly after the rose incident, a series of misunderstandings, which neither of us could have coherently related a week later, occurred. The situation exploded. Our silence was broken by a torrent of accusations. Through tears of anger and of frustration, Sarah told me of her dream roommate. She had wanted a Californian, a  real Californian. She wanted a friend who would shop with her, double-date with her, share expensive, size five clothes with her. Visions of summers of dashing back and forth between Sourthern Californian hometowns, hitting the beaches, and breaking hearts, clashed with the reality of a slovenly Northern Californian roommate. She wanted another roommate, another chance for fun that coming summer.

She demanded that I move. The phone was in her name: I was to move. My stubborn streak flared; I refused to move. Sarah's carefully lined eyes narrowed and she softly growled, "If you think I've been a bitch so far, just wait . . . I'm going to make your life a living hell." I did not care to take her up on the offer. She was more stubborn than I; I had no doubts of her abilities to carry out the threat. I was gone by that night.

Periodically, I saw her during the next few weeks. We passed by each other as if we had never met. She left in the middle of the semester. I did not miss her. Still, I think about her every now and then, and about how childish we were. And sometimes when someone is from Riverside, I'll even ask if she is familiar with the notorious Byrds. Amazingly enough, sometimes someone is.


{My oldest daughter has just gone off to Berkeley and I told her I'd post this twenty year old essay in honor of her own, much more pleasant, roommate experience. If I had been tempted to use Sarah's real name, the temptation was squashed by a Google search that revealed that she is unmarried, still living in Riverside, and a lawyer—part of a family with an infamous estate feud. Yeah, I think I'll pass on naming her. Twenty-eight years later, I still wouldn't want to cross her.}