The Difficulty of Living with Others

During my first year of university I was given a nickname by new flatmates, which if not the first nickname I had received, was the first one I had been informed that I had be given. Taken out of context, this nickname sounded inappropriately cool for a person whose social life consists of minimal interaction with the supermarket self-checkout machine. In fact, it sounded so cool that one may have even suspected that I had coined it myself, like some sort of zany boss who insists his staff refer to him as “Ludichris” or “Mattman” or “J-Dawg”. But this was not the case.

The nickname was “Ghost”, which was given to me due to my apparent ability to glide spookily and silently out of a room without my flatmates noticing. The name seemed to me more of an insult rather than a term of endearment: it implied that I was so hopelessly unmemorable that to be in my presence was to seem totally alone; that I was as inoffensively forgettable as a song by Mumford and Sons; that I was the sort of person one might describe as “whatzhisface”, accidentally, to my (i.e. to whatzhisface’s) face.

But in spite of not caring much for “Ghost”, there was probably some truth to my unwanted nickname. I was particularly shy at this time and terrible, as is still somewhat true, at dealing with a large group of people. I could speak perfectly well to people individually—when they were on their own or in pairs—but when they formed a unit, a pack, I became overwhelmed with nerves. I had at this point never lived away from home, and was really just worried about getting it wrong—and so I became “Ghost”.

The name might not have lasted long, but the reputation, along with my tendency to keep living up to it, has been hard to shake off. Even today I struggle not to be the sort of flatmate who would more gladly chop off his toe than make a noise by accidentally stubbing it on a chair leg. I have to force myself to make my displeasure known when a flatmate starts a small fire in their bedroom or forgets not to put bleach in the fridge or builds a living room fort out of soiled tissues and toenail clippings. I have to try, often to no avail, not to be a ghost.

In most other situations, I’d like to think that I am much less of a pushover, but living with another person works on a completely different set of rules to regular social interaction. It is always fraught with difficulty, irrespective of how nice the person may initially seem, and this is the reason why: nobody wants to offend a person who could very easily pee in one’s milk, debase one’s toothbrush or defecate in one’s Cornflakes. Alas, it is this unfortunate anxiety, this horribly unpleasant thought, that makes one reconsider bringing up a complaint or concern with an inconsiderate flatmate.

Fortunately, up until now, no one—and I say this with no way of conclusively knowing for certain—has spoiled my cereal. Yet the worry that someone might remains forever in my mind, silently consuming me. I suspect one of my former flatmates may have tried, but his irrepressible awfulness was such that I simply stopped buying cereal, milk and even toothbrushes, just in case. Of all the flatmates I have ever lived with, this person stands above the rest as the absolute worst. He was a person whose dedication to losing brain cells through alcohol consumption would have been startling, if not for the fact that he had so few to begin with. He was a slob and a quite possibly a psychopath. He was someone who seemed to take great pride in the stenches he produced and the misery he brought into the lives of those he encountered.

Never before or since have I so openly detested a person. For close to two years, he behaved appallingly and I, a silent, spineless ghost, more or less did nothing to stop him. Almost every day that I lived with him brought to light a new level of vileness. If he wasn’t masturbating with a mouldy sock that lived permanently in the shower, he was contracting chlamydia in his eye; if he wasn’t forgetting to flush the toilet, he was listening to an insufferable electric guitar rendition of “Cannon in D”—the classical music equivalent of Robbie Williams’ “Angels”— at 4 o’clock in the morning.

On one occasion I returned home to find that a scented candle I had bought had been thrown across the living room. The glass that surrounded the wax had smashed and the tiny shards were left scattered across the carpet. I could only conclude that he must have thrown the candle against the radiator in some sort of attempt to light it, perhaps in order to oust the smell of fatty meat and human excess from the house. But as this had not worked, he presumably felt it better to leave the cleaning up of the glass to me, lest he somehow cause any further damage.

I cleaned it up and said nothing, although I have regretting doing so ever since. With the benefit of hindsight I should have really asked him about it. I should have politely enquired as to why he had smashed the candle and left tiny shards of glass on the living room floor. But there is also, in addition to the fear of discovering some suspiciously yellow milk in the fridge, the fear that one complaint be the catalyst for many more. It’s the fear that a simple reminder to a flatmate about not slamming the door when they arrive home at 4am could lead to a merciless rant about every wrongdoing they have ever committed.

It might seem that the best thing one can do is to speak to a housemate politely every time they do something inconsiderate, unwise or downright monstrous—such as masturbating with a grey sock that has permanently taken up residency in the shower. But then a flatmate who is forever bringing up problems soon becomes an ex-flatmate. And so a healthy relationship is needed if one wishes to raise a complaint or a concern with a flatmate—a strong relationship that is close to a friendship, but also distant enough as for it to not seem a tragedy if the relationship were to ever break down.

Due to my moving flat so frequently, I have lived with many people over the past five years. Most of these people have made sharing a space with somebody else reasonably comfortable, while others—a small minority—have caused me to fantasise about propelling them via rocket into the sun. It’s people in this latter group who make for the most memorable flatmates. They’re the people who transform a flat from a home into a place more unpleasant than the toilets at a motorway service station. They’re the people whose unashamed awfulness makes one reconsider whether it is worth living in a society that puts up with such blatant douchebaggery. They’re the people whose names never cease to make one shudder, even years after they’ve moved out.

I would not consider myself one of these people. Yet I don’t doubt that, in spite of my eagerness not to offend, there are individuals out there who might describe me as such. The problem with being a ghost is that I all too often assume that I am rarely the problem in a living arrangement. I tend to believe that my actions have little affect on those with whom I live, even though the fact that my old flatmates used to call me “Ghost” may suggest otherwise. “Ghost”, as I said above, is by no means an encouraging nickname. It suggests that I am a sort of freakish loner who can stealthily enter and exist a room without anybody having realised. And, I suppose, if anyone were to have complained about strange tasting milk during my first year of university, this creepy ability would likely have made me a prime suspect.

As time passes and as I move reluctantly from place to place, from city to city, the more I understand what is required to live amicably with another person. Yet, for every experience I have tried to take on board, things never seem to get any easier. People with difficult personalities always make for difficult flatmates, no matter how much one understands their inner workings. Because of the unpredictable nature of people, it is hard to give truly good advice on the subject of flatmates. But I believe it’s fair to say this: select your flatmates wisely, speak frequently to your flatmates and always try to keep the peace. Don’t be antagonistic or inconsiderate and—perhaps most importantly of all—don’t be a ghost.

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