The ten-minute tax

It was early and I wanted to sleep a little longer, but I needed to pee. My bedroom piss-pot was close to being full, so instead of risking overflow I walked to the actual toilet. Between me and the piss-pot with plumbing, Robert was cooking his breakfast in the kitchen.

This is not Robert,
but it's close.

Ah, so Robert is home again. He'd been out of town for a week and a half (family business, he said, and I'll spare you the details, though he didn't spare me).

"Good to see you, man," said I, and he said howdy but that's all, and let me walk away to pee. That's the mark of a quality flatmate. Dean would've told me the history of butter.

In the bathroom I did my dribbling business, and on my way back to my room Robert gave me a recap of his life since last Tuesday, when he'd left town. I had to listen. The only path between the bathroom and my bedroom passes through the kitchen, and there he was.

In a shared house, you gotta say "good morning" when you'd rather be a grouch. Sometimes you have to listen to people talk, and say a few words yourself. I think of it as a ten-minute tax. It's a social necessity, keeps people happy, prevents the house from becoming a screaming soap opera. Robert is almost entirely a stranger but we share the space, I don't actively hate the guy, and who knows, maybe he'll be a friend eventually. So I feigned interest, and pretty soon I was interested.

To visit his family a few hundred miles away, he rode Greyhound, he said, and they'd found new ways to make going Greyhound difficult. His father's health is skittish and they were never close, but they had a long conversation that ended with a hug. His nephew is flying to Korea to teach English as a Second Language, and hey, my brother did that for a few years, a long while back.

Here's what makes Robert endurable: When he tells a story, it has an end. It's a story he hasn't told me before. His stories are funny, or sad, usually not boring as hell, and then I'm allowed to leave.

All I had to do was say, "Gotta take a shower." Robert said OK, and tended to his potatoes on the stove as I walked into my room. When I'd made myself naked and emerged in my bathrobe, he let me pass unhindered. That's what you want in a flatmate, and ten minutes is a small tax to pay.

This is not Dean,
but it's close.

My other flatmate, Dean, is Robert's opposite. He talks whenever there's anyone to talk to, and sometimes when there isn't. Dean always has another story to tell, and each story leads nowhere except to the next story, and the only escape is to walk away and close the door behind you.

An example of this was provided, when I'd finished showering and turned off the water. What's that deep droning sound from the next room? Why, it's Dean. He'd stepped into the kitchen, and he was talking at Robert, and I could hear all of it through the bathroom door. Toweling off and combing my hair, I listened because there was no choice, as Dean talk-talk-talked about a difficult banquet service he'd worked. He's retired, so the banquet must've been years ago — which, I believe, ought to make it not newsworthy in the kitchen at 6:30 in the morning.

When I opened the bathroom door and walked to my room, all I said was "Hey again, Robert, and good morning, Dean," but my primary function was walking to my door, turning key in lock, and reaching safe solitude.

Dean had a great deal to say to me as I walked, but he always does. Ignoring him is the only way to survive, so I smiled politely and stayed on the straight line, nodded, unlocked my door, walked in and closed it behind me. Dean finished whatever story he'd been telling me, telling it to my door (something about cream cheese). And then he resumed talking at Robert.

I've been in my room typing all this for almost half an hour, and Dean is still talking at Robert in the kitchen. Other than Robert saying "uh-huh" occasionally, it's a monologue from Dean, and that's what always happens.

Robert's been away, has some fresh stories to tell, so when he wanted to talk, I listened. If he wants to tell those stories to Dean, though, he'll have to wait until Dean's told a few stories, or maybe until Dean's told all of Dean's stories.

"Gotta take a shower" was all it took to end talk-time with Robert, but that line has never worked with Dean. He'd follow me to the shower door to tell me more about Restaurants He Has Worked At. He'd follow me right into the bathtub, I think, if I didn't close the door.

In my 20s and early 30s, I lived with a parade of flatmates, two or eight at a time, in several different houses, so I'm no greenhorn, bub. You can have all sorts of problems with flatmates — someone who brings "guests," or spills beer and doesn't mop it up, or smokes and his tobacco floats in through your window… I've had a lot of weird and/or annoying flatmates, but talk-talk-talkers are the worst.

At this house, Robert doesn't talk much, and the mysterious L is never seen at all. They're exactly the flatmates I'd choose. Anyone but Dean, is the flatmate I'd choose.

For a few months all those years and houses ago, one of our flatmates was a drug addict and an idiot. He was always stoned, and always stupid. He made coffee and boiled the pot dry, repeatedly. He wore the same shirt for a month, til his sweat burned holes in the armpits. One hot summer night, he dragged his blanket to the fridge and slept there on the floor, with the fridge door open. He never washed a dish, and didn't think twice about blocking your car with his when he parked. I don't even remember his name, only hating him.

He didn't have much to say, though, and I'd rather have that schmuck living down the hall again, than a flatmate who won't shut up.


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