The air was as thick with tension as it was with the reek of my roommate Herbert’s new cologne, described generously on the bottle as “aromatic”. As I sat on my bed, wiping sweat out of my eyes and trying to concentrate on the comic book spread out on my drawn-up knees, I wondered if mustard gas had ever been described as aromatic.
It had all started when Herbert burst into our apartment with tears running down his muscular cheeks. Herbert was the only person I had ever seen actually work on building up their cheek muscles. He has special weights and everything.
The problem was obvious and predictable. Herbert had gone out half an hour before for his blind date with Jane_lovergurl333, a (presumed) girl he met online. That part was fine, but I was nervous because he had just gotten the half-gallon bottle of Eau de Mystique in the mail that day and was dying to try out its claims of instant romantic attraction. The funk cloud surrounded him in a ten-foot cloud, like a security team you could buy on Craigslist.
This is why I wasn’t surprised to see him turn up again a few minutes later, looking like his tender heart had been dropped off the side of building, then hit by a cab. He threw himself on his bed, which groaned a threat to collapse. The miasma of Eau de Mystique began to fill the apartment.
“That was short,” I said, trying not to cough.
“Was it the cologne?”
He turned, eyes red. “Why would you say that?”
“Because if you were the German army, she would be the French at Ypres,” I said, cleverly shoehorning in a reference to the first major use of chemical warfare. But Herbert was not a World War I buff and only glared at me.
“Get away from me,” he said.
The only problem with that was that our apartment had been built by a guy who once stayed in a Tokyo capsule motel and described it as “a little roomy”. Probably. I don’t actually know who built it, although I am sure Shaquille O’Neal has shoeboxes that were bigger. The end nearest to the door was the living room. That had the chair and the TV on the upside-down milk crate. The middle of the apartment was the bedroom. It had enough room for two twin beds with about six inches between them, through which you could get to the “kitchen”, which was the creative way of saying half a card table nailed to the wall with an antique hotplate perched on it. Opposite that was the stall that held the toilet, sink and shower, perfect for the go-getter who wanted to shower, brush his teeth and take a dump, all at once.
“I am not going to go sit in the bathroom again,” I said. “Besides, it’s still wet from my shower.” I flipped a page on my comic. “This is my home.”
“It’s mine too. Move out if you don’t like my cologne.” We had this conversation at least once a week, replacing “my cologne” with basically any other intersection of two wildly different personalities that were confined in a tiny space with not enough money to move.
However, this time was different. The smell slowly grew until it was a physical force rabbit-punching my lungs from the inside. Finally I got up and left.
I returned an hour later with a bulky package. “For the last time, will you get rid of that ungodly cologne?”
“It’s starting to grow on me,” Herbert said.
“It’s starting to burn off your scent receptors,” I said. I unpacked the tarp I had bought and began stapling it to the ceiling, right down the middle. And just like that, instead of sharing a 120-square-foot apartment, I had my own 60-square foot apartment, all to myself.
Well, almost. For one thing, while I had the TV and chair, Herbert now had the front door, which mean I had to cross over if I wanted to leave. I just weighted down the tarp at that end with a dusty Organic Chemistry book. At the other end, I had the “kitchen” but he had the bathroom, so I put up another wall between my bed and that end, as a sort of airlock. Still, I was proud of my ingenuity in roommate segregation and went to sleep fairly happy.
I woke up in the middle of the night to a rhythmic rustling, like a rat sashaying around the room in taffeta. In the gloom, I could make out tarp moving.
It was Herbert’s elbow, I realized. I don’t know if it’s a documented thing, but Herbert had restless sleeping elbow. Whenever he slept, his arm started twitching–jabbing his elbow out sharply like he was really trying to get the attention of the person next to him. Unfortunately that person was always me. With only six inches between our beds, I had often been woken up by a wicked elbow strike in the middle of the night.
Bam! The tarp was hit again. Normally I tried to ignore it but not tonight. I hit back with my elbow, pushing the tarp the other way. Herbert hit back even harder. I couldn’t tell if he was still asleep or not.
I sat up and swung an arm out, hoping to shut him down for a bit. Through the tarp, I felt my arm connect with something round and solid. There was a sharp crack and the sound of shattering glass.
“Wha?” I heard Herbert sit up and saw the light of his phone go on.
“Herbert? What happened?”
“Oh, oh wow.”
“What is it?” There was the apocalyptic thump of a 300-pound man collapsing. “Herbert? Then I smelled it.
The ambulance arrived ten minutes later. I thought that was pretty good time, until they said they had just been responding to a murder in the building next door. They came in with gas masks as I had cautioned. I explained that I had accidentally knocked the bottle of Eau de Mystique off Herbert’s nightstand. They revived him with oxygen and after smelling the stench of cologne, said Herbert probably wouldn’t lose too many more brain cells, for what it was worth.
Herbert went to the hospital, and I went to a hotel. The next day the landlord discovered that the cologne had seeped into the concrete of the building. Eventually the building was condemned and gentrified into a crack house. Herbert moved back home with his parents in Tallahassee, and I sold the story of what had happened for a thousand bucks, which let me pay the security deposit on a brand new 160-square foot apartment. It was fifteen minutes closer to work and my new roommate was an amputee who took his arm off at night, so there were no sharp elbows attacking me in the middle of the night. So I guess Herbert’s Eau de Mystique was good for something after all.