Andrew left a small opened jar of Kroger Dijon in the fridge and two big jars of mayo, unopened, in the cupboard. One’s traditional Hellman’s, and the other is an olive oil blend. A Ziploc of sandwich meat waits in the crisper, the deli paper soft with ham water. I’m used to sharing the fridge, but even with his big move-in grocery trip, Andrew’s food barely filled his half. I open the freezer and find a selection of Lean Cuisine: beef tip this, green bean that. I drink his orange juice. The kitchen is about the size of a large bathroom stall. There are no outlets or drawers, which is as much as I can expect from a 1932 home split into three apartments. It’s hard to believe we both fit in here.
Our Chapel Hill summer lasted about two weeks. I’d watch him drink tea in the good wooden chair, silent, preserving energy for one of his coughing fits. That’s my tea, I’d think. Now, I open his red tea tin that still sits on the windowsill. It’s full of assorted bags, not just the Bentley’s Rooibos of its label. His tea. It makes me feel guilty. When Andrew first left, before I learned how sick he was, I was secretly a little excited. At nineteen, I imagined living alone as a luxurious dream waiting in the distance after college—all the dishes would be mine, all the space mine. Instead, I feel alone and infested. I return one night and yank on the pull-string light in the kitchen and cockroaches scatter under the fridge.
I took a trip over Memorial Day weekend. Andrew had moved in two weeks before. When I landed back at Raleigh-Durham International I turned my phone on and had a text from him:
hey, my back hurts. I can’t pick you up from the airport, but my mom is on her way.
I felt sheepish but also grateful. I’d never met his mother, but I knew they were close. As we drove up East Franklin toward campus, Andrew’s mother began to weep. The little dog on her lap nestled closer.
“I’m coming to pick some stuff up because Andrew is taking this summer session off. We’re going to try and get him back for Summer Session Two,” she said. “You know, it means so much, his friendships with all of you. You all mean so much.”
I smiled, but I wasn’t a part of all that. I knew Andrew just okay because I’d dated his best friend, Charlotte. We were long broken up, though. In retrospect, it was a self-destructive decision to live with an ex’s best friend. The three of us were members of the art and literary fraternity and one day after spring break, sitting in its hodge-podge living room, Andrew asked if he could be my summer roommate while my usual roommate was away. The prospect had thrilled me. Not only was he wicked funny; he was generous with his own laughter.
In mid-May, I went to see Andrew’s play. It was a local production of the dark comedy The Cripple of Inishmaan. I’d listened to him perfect his Irish accent on the deck at the fraternity all month. (“There’s this theater study abroad in Dublin,” he’d said, waving his screenplay, leaning back in the plastic chair as he spoke. “If it ever worked out credit-wise I’d go.”) He was brilliant and energetic onstage. During intermission, I found Charlotte smoking a cigarette outside, her back against a brick wall. She smiled and nodded me over. We came together and she kind of held me, and I could feel us building up again. Afterward, Andrew told jokes as he drove us to Time Out diner where we ate biscuits and mashed potatoes and I could feel us all building.
At the house that day, Andrew’s mother and I went through the bathroom together. I pointed to what he’d left and she picked up the fancy Old Spice deodorant for “cunning minds,” his body wash. She took his remaining prescriptions from his room, littered with needles, pill bottles, tissues. Sickness. I held up a bottle of contact solution and his nettipot. “I’ll leave those here for now,” she said. “For when he makes trips back. We have those at home in Durham, too.”
A week later, I was at the mall getting my computer fixed and Charlotte, who was now falling in love with another girl, texted me:
Two weeks later, I was invited to the at-home reception after his funeral. Charlotte and I went together. She held my hand, said she didn’t know what she’d do without me. A few days after that she left town, said she couldn’t stand to be here anymore.
I take out the jars and line them up on the wedge of counter. I throw out food until the trash bag is stupidly full. I take the shelves out of the fridge and haul them down the exterior wrought iron stairs, line them up in the grass. Mosquitos swarm, but there is no swamp, no nutrient fester. It’s just gravel and an old grill. I untwine the hose and thumb over the nozzle, feeling the mist kick back onto my leg as it washes away a streak of jam.
It’s July now, and I’ve called an exterminator. When she arrives, the bug lady does not knock—they never do—and I wonder how many repair people have keys to my apartment. Pulling her graying ponytail tight into place, she strides across the buckling hallway floor into the kitchen. She nods at me and takes out what looks like an oxygen tank crossed with a fire hydrant.
“So, can you tell me what to do about the microwave?” I ask, gesturing to the stack of appliances piled on a cupboard in the living room, the satellite kitchen—kitchen everywhere and kitchen nowhere. There are little scratch marks on the microwave timer. Somehow, the roaches have crawled in though the ventilation.
“I know, Dave.” She shakes her ruddy face and points to her Bluetooth. “That’s what I told him.”
I can see their underbellies through the dark plastic, their legs scuttling against the countdown backlight.
“I’ll call you back in five.” She clicks the headset off.
“The microwave, they’re in there too. Do I throw it out? How do I make them leave? What am I doing wrong?”
“Nah, you can keep it,” she says, and sprays bait around it. These are German cockroaches, apparently. “They don’t much have to do with food or dirt, but the type of wood, the building itself. But those paper grocery bags you have stored, they like them. Get those out.”
Okay, I think, I can do that. No more paper bags. Besides, I’ve barely shopped or cooked since I saw a line of roaches in the fridge door seal. I can get along fine without use of the kitchen. They can have it.
One week my sister visits. I learn how to lift weights. North Carolina politics go to hell. I stumble through a job, a summer class, and a vague internship that seldom requires I leave the house. I don’t know how to tell people I’m living alone because my housemate died, or that I feel—more viscerally than grief—an angry heartbreak over his best friend. It takes practice living in an abandoned house.
By fall, the roach situation has calmed. Charlotte is back, but we’re not speaking. I’ve gone inactive in the fraternity. In September, I cook pasta for a date in my kitchen and the space feels small in a different way.
Emerson, my long-term roommate, has returned from biking across the country, and we’ll finish out the last year of our lease together. When we hear squirrels romping inside our wallspace, chewing the house’s rotten wood, I make another call to pest control. This time, a man comes. He affixes a trap to the exterior wall, and I listen to a squirrel thump back and forth in the cage until its body stills.