My roommate admitted to me that he did not need glasses and only wore horn-rimmed tortoiseshells in order to affect a more bookish look.
A few months later, he started dating a junior literary agent with two fat cats whose names were Artemis and Apollo.
It’s a long story, but then the pandemic began and they all moved in with us.
And it turned out that the junior literary agent was someone I had matched with months earlier on a dating app, before she & my roommate had themselves matched and subsequently started dating.
I discovered this all only when she took off her mask in our living room and we made what felt like extended eye contact.
She had never responded to my messages even though I knew she had read them.
I knew she had read them because in a low moment I had paid a small but symbolically humiliating sum of money to unlock an in-app feature that told me so.
I had written, “Hi there . . . I also love Terry Gross!”
which I knew she had seen and ignored.
And now we were roommates in a cramped apartment made smaller by her gargantuan cats and their five-story cat tree that took up half our kitchen.
& because the airborne virus meant we had nowhere to go,
the junior literary agent and I did not discuss our history.
We did not even have a history. But also, we did not not have a history.
Nor did my roommate and I discuss this history or non-history.
He and I didn’t really know each other like that.
I mean once we did MDMA together in a bathroom stall, but I don’t think he knew how many siblings I had.
We were tangential outer-circle acquaintances turned roommates only out of convenience & timing.
Living in the city then felt mostly like that.
This never-ending emotional sinusoid ornamented by increasingly unfamiliar faces.
Maybe the difficulty of the place accounted for what felt like an inevitable retreat into ironic detachment.
The shitty apartments & broken infrastructure & the increasing abundance of luxury condos with inexplicably oversized rooftop chessboards was all very funny and good, actually.
& the people who were moving to California or Vermont or going to law school were suckers.
Here’s a joke: How do you make God laugh?
You make a plan.
During the start of the pandemic, my roommate mostly stayed in his room working or maniacally riding his Peloton exercise bike.
He did something for a start-up app that delivered prescription medications to its customers’ doors.
He liked to talk about all the money they’d raised from angels during various rounds of funding.
Very nice, I liked to reply.
His favorite writer was Robert Caro.
Meanwhile, the junior literary agent and I stayed up late drinking natural wine & watching romantic comedies.
On several occasions, we also split the edibles her parents in Ojai had sent her in a pandemic care package.
Artemis & Apollo sat in our laps and cooed.
Why are they so fat, I asked her during Dirty Dancing.
They have a thyroid condition, she said.
Very funny, I said.
I’m serious, she said and turned up the volume.
Artemis & Apollo were so large and immobile that they needed help jumping from the couch to the floor.
This made me wonder why she had bought them a five-story cat tree, which had never been used.
I knew it had never been used because I had become obsessed since their moving in with witnessing them use it & they hadn’t.
I mean not even once.
I considered asking the junior literary agent about this, about the series of decisions that had led her to purchase this thing for her animals and to then include it among the items she elected to bring to the apartment of her boyfriend during the beginning of an unprecedented global pandemic, but I decided not to.
I wanted her to like me.
I wanted her to like me & I spent much of my time imagining some alternate universe in which she and I began an affair in the apartment while my roommate unknowingly read The Power Broker and rode his exercise bike in the glasses he did not need.
And if he ever found out, I would say: Maybe you should have upped your prescription, dude.
After some weeks, our apartment took on a particular smell that to me was both familiar and unfamiliar.
One night when it was particularly strong and the edibles particularly effective, the smell transported me back to my oldest friend Tim Wiltern’s childhood home.
He grew up in a decaying north Jersey McMansion with his Grand Theft Auto-obsessed younger brother & their mother & a handful of her adopted cats.
That house & my apartment now smelled the same.
On other occasions in my life when I had come across this scent, I had always thought of Tim’s house & particularly of his mother, Mrs. Wiltern.
She had platinum blonde hair and claimed to have once kissed Tom Petty and for a while was unable to drive because of a DUI she’d picked up on her way back from a Bruce Springsteen show at the Meadowlands.
Needless to say, I was in love with her.
• • •
TO READ MORE FROM THIS STORY, PICK UP A COPY OF VOL 56 No. 3
EMMETT KNOWLTON is a writer from Montclair, NJ. He is a graduate of Amherst College, where he won the Peter Burnett Howe Prize for fiction, and of the University of Montana’s MFA program. His stories have appeared in The Masters Review, MAYDAY Magazine, Writer’s Digest, and elsewhere. He is currently the visiting writer at Interlochen Arts Academy.