May Reilly and her mother packed for college extremely carefully. They went through her tiny closet with the aim of donating one-third of her clothing. The task had the triple purpose of creating more space for May’s little sister June to move in to the bigger room in the fall, getting rid of anything dingy, ill-fitting, or simply too high school, and providing for New York’s homeless. The rest of May’s wardrobe was neatly folded away in the sturdy luggage set her father had purchased and gifted to her for her eighteenth birthday, his mustache twitching slightly, a single tear threatening at the corner of his eye. The bulkier items—bedding, spare sheets, winter coat—were stored in a trunk that fit neatly under the beds native to the dorms of King’s College. Her mother added potpourri, bundled up tightly in the spare fabric from the decorative pillowcases she had sewn in the week leading up to May’s departure. Her husband had suggested the project as a form of stress relief, concerned his wife might take drastic action, such as adopting a dog or a needy child. May now had pillowcases, curtains, chair cushions, and a new sundress. May’s father had a dog.
May’s roommate had packed by herself, and it showed.
“It smells like a dog rolled in shit and wandered into the perfume department at J.C. Penny’s,” Olivia said, throwing her duffel bag on the floor. Several things clanked loudly. May eyed the bag. It was one of those scuffed-up green ones that, left alone on a subway platform, would probably merit immediately flagging down the nearest police officer.
“I don’t smell anything like that,” said May, who had already privately admitted that the potpourri had permeated more deeply into the duvet than either she or her mother had anticipated. They had made her bed and hung the curtains immediately upon arriving at Mallorn Hall, and the smell was overwhelming. Her mother, teary-eyed, hadn’t seemed to notice, but May was relieved when June (fifteen, too cool and adult for feelings) and her father (mustache quivering alarmingly, still unwilling to miss the baseball game) vetoed the plan to wait around for Olivia (name posted on the door in script so obscured by curlicues as to require a family-wide effort at decryption) in order to introduce themselves to the Octaviuses and ensure the girls were settled in. May forced open the creaky window as soon as her parents were down the hall, ignoring her mother’s dire warnings and father’s subtle placement of newspaper articles about crime on college campuses by her seat at the breakfast table.
“Do you have, like, nose blindness?” Olivia demanded. “It smells like someone emptied a dumpster inside a Yankee Candle.”
May blinked. She had mentally rehearsed meeting her freshman year roommate, who, according to the books about college she had read and her two-years-older friend Sarah, would be her dining hall buddy, her receptacle of late-night confidences, and the Lewis to her Clark as they navigated campus. Nose blindness had not factored into her rehearsals. “I’m May Reilly. I don’t have nose blindness,” she said, improvising.
“I read the door,” said Olivia. “God, it must be coming from outside.” She went over to the window and hauled in shut with a single, powerful turn of the crank, which May was immediately resentful of.
“I loosened it for you,” said May.
“The— nothing.” Olivia had sat down in the middle of the floor and begun to pull off her heavy boots, which released a different, also-bad smell. “Are your parents coming with the rest of your stuff?”
“What stuff?” Olivia asked. “God, that’s better. I was on that bus for fucking seventeen fucking hours.”
“Seventeen hours?” said May. She had lived in Queens her whole life, and was plenty familiar with the bus, but she couldn’t imagine what would compel a person to ride one for seventeen hours. She tried to think of somewhere the appropriate distance away. “What are you, from Nebraska or something?”
“I’m from California,” said Olivia. “I just had to be in Georgia for a while and so I took the bus from there.”
“Oh, okay,” said May, who didn’t have strong feelings either way about Georgia.
“I’m not from there. I’m from California.”
“I’m going to bed,” Olivia announced abruptly, and stood up. May, who kept needing to pull her trunk halfway out from under the bed for use as a stepping stool, was struck suddenly by how tall she was. She had a lot of hair that went everywhere, and it made her seem even taller.
To May’s continued astonishment, Olivia undid the closure on her bag and, with magician-like flair, pulled out a ratty sleeping bag. This was followed in short order by a fitted sheet, which she laid across her mattress without actually pulling it over the corners. Olivia then removed a flattened pillow from the sleeping bag and tossed both on top of the sheet.
“There are probably so many sex germs on that mattress,” she said, gleefully, before turning back to rummage through her bag. There were more clinking noises, and she removed a plastic bag before drifting off to the bathroom that connected May-and-Olivia to Jennifer-and-Paige. May followed behind, a small fish caught in the eddy of a speedboat.
“I talked to Jennifer and Paige, they share the bathroom with us? And like, they seem super nice.” Olivia had dumped her toiletries across the counter, and seemed to generate more toothpaste through the act of brushing than most people did. “They both are on swim and dive—all of swim and dive is in this hall actually, the girls are on even floors and the guys are on odd? And they have morning workouts so we were thinking they could shower in the mornings and we could do the evenings and that would. Make sense mostly. The most sense.”
Olivia spat vehemently into the sink. “Swim and dive?”
“Jennifer is swim and Paige is dive. Or, maybe it’s the opposite?”
“Okay,” said Olivia, and shut the door. May stood awkwardly for a moment, until she realized she was basically listening to her roommate pee for no reason and went back to sit at her desk, staring at her word processor, pencil cup, Post-it notes, and desk lamp, all laid out at neat right angles. The toilet flushed. The sink ran. Olivia emerged.
“Do you want first shower or should I…?” May asked, and instead of responding Olivia pulled her jacket off and tossed it on the floor, where it was promptly joined by her pants. May squeaked. Olivia glared. She did not shave her legs, apparently.
Olivia climbed up onto the bed and shimmied into the sleeping bag. It clearly originally belonged to a child, and her long torso stuck out comically far. After a brief and fruitless struggle, she rolled away to face the wall.
“Well,” said May. Olivia was silent. “Good night,” she finished, flipped off the desk light.
Twenty minutes later, both girls were lying still, neither one asleep. The quiet was pierced occasionally by the whoops of freshly unsupervised teenage boys on the floors above and below. After one such occurrence, Olivia sighed and rolled onto her back.
“The smell is worse,” she said.
“Yeah,” said May, and got up to open the window again.
May was sitting in the dining hall with Tracy, Charlie, Lindsey, and Ben, whom she had met during the small group introductions at orientation and liked fine, thus proceeding to join their default clique at mealtimes. She saw Olivia from across the long table. It was the first time she had seen her roommate outside of their shared room, and she waved tentatively. Olivia did not wave back.
“Who is that?” asked Tracy. Tracy was May’s least favorite of her orientation friends. She was hoping that Charlie, Lindsey, and Ben agreed, and that they would start doing things without Tracy soon, but she did not know everyone well enough yet to judge whether that suggestion would be well-received.
“It’s my roommate,” May said. “Olivia.”
“I am so sorry,” said Tracy. “What is she even wearing.” Olivia was wearing the same thing she was always wearing, which was a pair of ratty jeans with holes in the knees, heavy combat boots, a t-shirt with an obscure logo, and a leather jacket covered with even more obscure pins. It was a terrible outfit for the warm months. The dining hall was a large, airy room, with ceiling fans on long supports suspended from the high rafters, but it wasn’t air-conditioned, and Olivia was visibly sweating as she picked her way down the aisle towards the condiment bar.
“I really don’t think what she’s wearing is her biggest problem,” May said, absently, watching Olivia absolutely obliterate the hot dog on her tray with a barrage of condiments.
“Ooh, spill,” said Lindsey. Lindsey’s gossip radar was extremely sensitive and not very specific. She kept a running tab of all her classmates likely to be sleeping a professor, which included every girl over a B cup who had been to office hours already, and she had only been right maybe one time so far.
“It’s not like she has a problem problem,” May clarified. “She’s just. Intense, I think?”
“You’re intense,” Charlie told her. “How intense is she?”
“I’m not intense, I’m serious,” said May. “I don’t know, she— you know how we’re all taking A Whole And Balanced Life?” A Whole And Balanced Life was a mandatory and utterly useless course for freshmen, which was designed to reinforce the importance of having hobbies and interests outside of the rigorous academic environment at King’s College. It accomplished this through a series of classroom lectures and eight-page essays on the importance of life outside the academic environment.
“Yeah, did she not turn in that Sports, Sportsmanship, and the Power of Team Athletics paper?”
“No, she’s not even taking the class.”
Ben’s head shot up so fast he choked on his mozzarella stick. “How? Can she show me?”
“It’s not worth it, she has to take it next year still. But she showed up at the registrar’s office every day for like, three weeks to make her case. Said it was a waste of her time.”
“It’s a waste of everyone’s time,” Charlie pointed out.
“I know! But she felt so strongly about it that the assistant registrar just gave up. Told her she could validate it if she got the head RA in our hall to sign a thing that says she’s attained a whole and balanced life on her own, but otherwise she has to take it next year, with next year’s freshmen. But Olivia’s in like seven classes, and now our RA comes by all the time, so she has to shove all her problem sets into her desk drawer and pretend to be on her way to clarinet practice or something. She doesn’t even have a clarinet.”
“This explains so much about your room,” Lindsey said thoughtfully.
“Do tell,” said Tracy.
“My room is fine,” May said, silently willing Lindsey to drop it.
“No it’s not, May, it’s weird. It’s like one side was decorated by College Barbie—no offense, girl, I love your bedspread, but it’s very pink—and the other roommate just got released from the gulag. She has a sleeping bag just like, sitting on the mattress,” Lindsey told Tracy conspiratorially.
“There’s a fitted sheet,” May said feebly.
“Even the bathroom is weird,” Lindsey continued. “It’s so obvious what’s Olivia’s. Like— normal towel, normal towel, normal towel, stolen gym towel. May’s shower caddy, Jennifer’s shower caddy, Paige’s shower caddy, Olivia’s plastic bag from Walmart.”
“She’s probably here on scholarship,” Tracy said, archly.
“I’m here on scholarship,” Ben said mildly, and the topic of Olivia was put immediately to rest.
When May got up to scrape the remains of her chicken quesadilla into the garbage (it had been okay, since it was a quesadilla, but May suspected any food more complicated than a quesadilla would be somewhat iffy) and deposited her tray and utensils onto a conveyor belt that carried dishes back into the kitchen with the air of mystery usually reserved for airport luggage conveyor belts, Ben came with her.
“You know,” he said, letting the rice pudding ooze off his plate and fall into the trash can with a solid glop, “there’s a show about Spacelab at the Hayden Planetarium this weekend, and the student office is selling discounted tickets. You wanna get off campus, maybe check it out? See the Natural History Museum too?”
“Sure,” said May, who had seen that museum dozens if not hundreds of times, but desperately wanted to get off campus for a while. “I can write about it for that Emotions, Locations, the City, and You paper.” Then, reflexively: “Plus, my boyfriend won’t be in town until next weekend.”
“I know Noah,” said Ben. “We met over Labor Day, remember? Seems like a cool guy.” May laughed, slightly embarrassed with herself.
“Yeah, he is. A cool guy.”
“Can I tell you something?” asked Ben, and May nodded. “I was going to ask you and Charlie and Lindsey individually because, well,” and he lowered his voice so far it nearly disappeared under the sound of the freshman crew team, which had just walked through the door in its entirety, “I don’t really want Tracy to come.”
May came through the door one afternoon in December to find the space in front of her desk occupied by her roommate, who was positively vibrating with rage.
“What do you think you’re doing,” Olivia said. She was peering very hard at the piece of paper May had taped carefully up on the wall beside her desk, underneath the map of campus and over her assemblage of Post-it note to-dos.
“Uh, taking my coat off?” said May, shaking the snow out of her hair before it could melt.
“No, why are you in PH256 and MA394 next semester?” Olivia demanded. “Those are my classes, why are you taking my classes.”
“They’re not yours, they’re for my major,” May said. “They’re literally required. Why would I take your classes?” She came around to peer over Olivia’s shoulder at her schedule for the next semester, but the course numbers all seemed to be in order.
“No,” Olivia insisted. “You need to tell the registrar you made a mistake. Your major is like, French Literature or some shit. Sociology. Is it Philosophy? PH is for Physics, not Philosophy. Go back and tell them to undo it.”
“Uh, I would,” said May, “but my major is physics, so that would be counterproductive.”
Olivia whirled around to look at her. “Stop it.”
“Stop it. Stop it. Why are you trying to ruin my life?”
“Why would I try to ruin your life?” May said, baffled and a little angry. Olivia was nearly shouting.
“Are you stalking me? MA394 is a nuclear engineering req, why are you taking nuclear engineering reqs?”
“Stalking you? We live together. MA394 is a mechanical engineering req.”
“Aha! But you said you’re a physics major!” Olivia brandished her finger wildly in May’s face, which was almost intimidating because of how tall she was, but wasn’t, because of how irritated May was.
“Physics is my first major,” said May, “which you would know, if you literally asked me anything about my life ever under any circumstances, instead of like, spending all of your time either pretending I don’t exist or monologuing at me!”
“I don’t monologue!” yelled Olivia, who had been muttering about intermediate vector bosons for fifteen minutes before May went to shower two nights ago, and when she came out twenty minutes later had moved on to light neutrinos. “And you can’t double major! Literally all of your credits last semester were bullshit, it’ll take you at least five years to graduate. Maybe six. You don’t have any of the fall-only 100-level prereqs.”
“My credits last semester were core courses,” May said, “and I didn’t take the fall prereqs because I got college credit for them in high school, which means I will graduate exactly on time.” You raging bitch!, she did not add. Olivia looked apoplectic. Her face was turning red, and her mouth was twisting up into an ugly kind of expression that May didn’t have a word for. Olivia, May had noticed, always had her emotions hanging off of her. In the whole time May had known her, she had never seemed to push anything back down under the surface.
“You always need to have everything!” Olivia said, dragging her hands through her tangle of hair, then turned around and kicked her desk chair.
“What in the world,” May said.
“You can’t just— you can’t just join a fucking sorority with fucking Jennifer and Paige? You can’t just let me have this one thing?”
“What are you talking about?” May said. “Jennifer and Paige aren’t in a sorority.” Jennifer and Paige were in fact not speaking to one another, and hadn’t been since before midterms. It was making things very awkward on swim and dive, as both Jennifer and Paige had told her independently when the other was out.
“But they should be,” Olivia said. “They look it. Is your boyfriend even going to let you double major?”
“Noah,” May said, “doesn’t get an opinion on what my major is, but if he did, he would be supportive of my goals.”
“What, it’s not going to get in the way of all that time you need to spend twirling your hair and learning to ice skate? Packing picnic fucking lunches?”
“The ice skating is— actually, no. I don’t even know what you’re fighting with me about.”
“Your idiot friends are in here all the time being super loud, and your boyfriend thinks it’s okay to stop by on freaking Sunday mornings, and I have to look at these fucking flowery curtains every day, and now you want to be in all my classes? You and your credits from your fancy fucking high school are going to waltz right in? You didn’t do any fucking work this whole semester, and now you can’t just leave me alone?”
“Fine,” said May, “I’m leaving you alone,” and stormed off to see whether Lindsey had any extra space for her to sleep.