Before he had moved back to DC, Reed’s best friend Drew gave him some advice: Don’t fuck your roommate. Reed didn’t plan on sleeping with her. He wasn’t the type of person to cross boundaries. But Mallory, his roommate, was also interesting and funny. And he was very lonely, having been dumped four months ago by the love of his life—Beth Gardener.
The light in the evening dwindled and the sky darkened. As he brightened the lamp inside of his apartment, the mood seemed to turn from downcast to exuberant. The light was dim and on the lamp shade, B. G.—scribbled in blue sharpie—stained the lower brim. He traced both letters of his ex’s initials and sighed. He missed being around her. It didn’t matter that they weren’t together. He still cared about Beth. She was his first girlfriend. This week had been horrendous and heartbreaking. He got fired from his job at the state department. And now, he needed to find a new job.
Rent was past due. Reed was the one who handled things with the landlord, and after he begged his landlord, he was given a week’s extension. Only because he promised to give interest on the next month’s rent. He didn’t have much in his savings account, but he just needed another hundred dollars, so that he could pay the rent. However, utilities were also required and he didn’t have all of the money put together for the cable and internet bill. But tonight, he couldn’t think about that.
Tonight, he planned on telling Mallory that he liked her. She was leaving for Thanksgiving Break the next day. Before she left, he wanted to hold Mallory in his arms and share a kiss with her. And the late rent, well, he would have to tell her about it sooner than later.
Reed turned on the gas stove. The kettle boiled the water. It sounded like someone gurgling mouth wash. Or maybe it was more like an animal shrieking. A fox wailing in the woods, before it exhaled its last breath. He left the kitchen, walked to the living room, and sat on the futon. He opened his laptop. His eyes narrowed as he concentrated on the screen. And then he heard a Snapchat notification.
He glanced over to his right. Mallory was checking her phone. “Don’t judge me,” she said, looking at Reed. “I’m a millennial. Phones are life.” Beth had been obsessed with her phone as well. However, Beth mostly would take selfies. When Reed and her used to go get Brunch in Georgetown, Beth would pout her lips and wink at her phone. The server would be explaining the menu, and Beth would ignore her and take pictures. Reed would sit there, drinking iced water, and be fuming. And then Beth would smile at him and he would forgive her vapid actions. Again, she was his first girlfriend; he cut her slack because of that title.
Reed grabbed a bottle of jack and two glasses. He mixed Diet Dr. Pepper with the liquor and handed Mallory a glass. “Full-disclosure. Totally judging you.”
Mallory laughed. “I was being facetious.”
“You were being clever. But like in a snarky way. Which is cute.” He took a sip from his drink.
“Is that a compliment?”
“Thank you. Don’t stop now. Keep giving me compliments,” Mallory said with a smile.
Reed laughed. He drank some more. “Hold on a second, I want to show you this song.” He turned back to his laptop and went on YouTube. He searched for a Kanye song and picked: All Falls Down. The music video popped onto the screen. A singer was crooning. “Oh, when it all, it all falls dow—”
A whirling buffer sign rotated clockwise. Reed covered his face. “Well this sucks.” Was the internet going to shut off, because he didn’t pay the bill? He hoped it hadn’t turned off yet.
“Oh no! What happened? That was a great Kanye song.” She swirled the ice in her glass with her pinky.
“You know it?”
“Obvi. Dude, College Dropout was my soundtrack in high school.”
Reed clicked on the Wifi icon. For the second fucking time, the Internet had disconnected. He screamed into his hands. He left the futon and scrambled over to the TV. The Internet Router was beeping. A column of neon green lights blinked from up to down. He pulled the cable plug from its wall outlet. Immediately, the router died. “Kiss my ass Verizon,” Reed muttered, plopping back on the futon. He made himself a second drink.
“Someone’s mad.” Mallory chuckled.
“Mad like a mental patient.”
Mallory grew quiet. She looked away and put her chin in her hand. “That wasn’t funny Reed.” She put the glass to her lips and drank.
Shit, he thought. What did he do wrong? “Mal, I apologize. I didn’t mean to offend yo—”
“It’s okay, you didn’t. But I did feel triggered. As a caveat, you don’t even know the story. No worries, though.
Reed nodded. He wondered if she’d been a mental patient. He didn’t know Mallory that well, not well enough to know information like that. She still looked upset, and this made him feel guilty.
He saw Mallory opening up the Snapvideo on her phone: her older sister Erin had cooked a green bean casserole. And now Erin was taking it out of the oven. The food looked charred and flimsy. Erin gave the camera a straight face and said: Adulting goals.
Mallory nudged him in the shoulder and laughed. Reed chuckled. She seemed to be feeling better, which gave him some relief. He hated to see her sad.
“My sister Erin. She had a mental breakdown at a Kanye concert in Sacramento. She got diagnosed with clinical depression. Which is weird because she always seemed happy on the surface. She always made me laugh. But yeah, she was there in the hospital for three months and just came back about a week ago.” She smiled at Reed and then went back to typing a message to Erin. Her thumbs drummed against the screen.
Reed felt even more guilty now. He desperately wanted to take back what he said. He hoped he didn't ruin things with Mallory. He took a drag from his E-Cig. “I can’t imagine what that must have been like. She seems like an awesome person. Her video is hilarious.” He blew a smoke cloud up to the ceiling, then turned to look at her.
She was still typing a response—something like: Looks delicious; or, Do you have goals, because you gave up on your dreams?; or even, I miss you sis. Reed waited for Mallory and tried to act like he didn’t care. He did care. But then again, Mallory had been waiting for him.
For nearly fifteen minutes, Reed had been sitting on the beat-up futon next to Mallory hoping to find an awesome song on a YouTube playlist, so that he could impress her. He had just moved into the townhouse and when he had met Mallory she offered him a beer and they bonded over Kanye West’s My Beautiful, Dark, and Twisted Fantasy. “I know, right? She’s so funny. I love her to death.”
“I can tell. Your face shows it.”
Mallory smiled at him. “Thanks Reed. That’s really nice of you to say that.”
“I mean it,” Reed said, as he shuffled back to the router, hunching his back. He placed the cable plug into the outlet. The column of green dots blinked again. And the router beeped again.
“I have a feeling it’ll work this time,” Mallory said.
Reed sat back on the couch. “I got this.” He opened up a new Chrome Browser.
A T-Rex icon emerged.
This webpage is not available.
“Fuck me.” Reed grabbed his glass of jack and guzzled it.
Mallory preferred old Kanye to new Kanye. That was when Reed knew he wanted to get to know her. Because the difference between liking old Kanye as opposed to new Kanye was akin to fighting for Net Neutrality, instead of losing control of your internet experience. For this reason, Mallory seemed like a person who Reed could get along with.
She was still texting on her phone. Act aloof, he thought. That worked, right? Beth had always been a fan of new Kanye. She always played Life of Pablo on her record player. And she never turned the volume down.
“Looks like someone forget to pay the internet bill.” Mallory said.
Reed looked at her. He hadn’t paid the bill and now he felt ashamed. He thought about being unemployed. He needed money, he needed another job. “I never forget bills.” He hated lying to her.
“Reed I was kidding. Jeez louise.”
“I know you were. Sorry about the connection, usually it’s fast,” Reed said and clicked on the WiFi icon. He joined another network: JUDGMENT FREE ZONE. It belonged to his neighbor Tory who worshiped the caps lock button.
The kettle whistled. Reed hurried over to the kitchen. A thin layer of steam rose, as he poured the hot water into two mugs. From the wooden cabinet, he grabbed two pomegranate tea bags. The bags bobbed up and down on the water. And then they settled to the bottom of the mugs, like anchors.
Reed clenched his jaw as the WiFi reception undulated. He felt embarrassed and his teeth were sore. He typed in the password for Tory’s network: Hoobastankstillrules. The Wifi icon’s bent lines rose to a clear signal. “Success.” Reed smiled at her. She blew him a kiss. The pain in his teeth was melting away.
Reed brought the two mugs over to the living room. As he placed the teas on the coffee table, Mallory looked up from her phone.
“I’m so hungry. Want to make some food?” She spun around on the futon and faced Reed.
He remembered that he had forgotten to take out the cheese and steaks from the fridge. They had to be moldy and rotten by now. Mallory always hated it when he left old food in the fridge. He hoped she wouldn’t notice. Later, he would throw that trash out. He stopped staring at her; looked back to his screen. His tongue checked to see if he had any food sticking out from his teeth. His foot bounced against the floor. So, he knew his anxiety was getting the best of him.
Mallory got up from the futon and headed to the kitchen. He followed her to the fridge and put his hand on the door. Reed said, “Let’s just order food. It’ll be easier.”
“You sure? I can make us sandwiches.”
“Naw, it’s cool. I’ll order us some Thai food.”
“Okay, Thai sounds good to me.” She left the kitchen and went back to the futon.
Reed sighed and walked to the futon as well. He touched the mug. The steam was still rising from the water. He could wait. He didn’t need to rush the process.
Mallory blew into her mug, then took a sip of the tea. She and Reed had known each other for a solid three weeks. They ate their meals together. He cooked the food—pizza bagels and pasta Bolognese. She put the dirty plates in the dishwasher. They smoked together. He copped them weed. She rolled the joints. They were a good pair.
“Have you found another song yet? Maybe you can hurry it up.” she asked. To him, she sounded impatient. But there was also a softness in her voice. She frequently would sing at music open mics in Adams Morgan. On stage, holding a microphone, Mallory would wield power over the audience. And now, at 12:15 a.m. on a Friday night, Reed could feel her using that power over him. He kind of liked it, and this made him uneasy. He didn’t like the loss of control, but he did appreciate being guided. The direction she was leading him, seemed preferable to not moving at all.
Mallory had giggled and pulled his hand and said: Catch up to me, you won’t be disappointed. And he had followed behind, putting his trust in her. Beth used to go up on stage at open mics too, but she never sang. She was always afraid of being off-key. She did play the keyboard and she was great at it, specializing in Jazz, influenced by Thelonious Monk. She would never lead him down a path, she would always drag him along.
Reed went back onto YouTube and played Kanye’s Father Stretch my hands.
“Mal, you’re rushin’ me… like Putin,” Reed said.
Mallory gave him a blank stare.
“That was the beginning and end of my comedy career.”
She burst out laughing. Her laugh made him feel alive. “Don’t quit your day job.”
Reed frowned and thought about his shitty week. “I got let go yesterday.” A piano sample fluttered and drums pounded from the speakers.
“Wait, your job at the State Department?
“Yeah they were paying me as an intern. I was going to get my security clearance.”
He looked at Mallory.“My bosses did a background check on me, ran a poly, and I failed.”
“Reed, I didn’t know. I’m so sorry, I feel like a bitch now.”
“Don’t feel that way. It’s not your fault.”
“Okay. Hey, I hate to ask, but did you pay the rent?”
“Yeah, of course. Don’t worry about it,” he lied.
They didn’t talk for a minute, the music filling up the space in the room. Mallory hummed along to the melody. She closed her eyes, smiling. “I really dig this. Where’d you find it?” she asked.
“YouTube,” Reed said.
“Really? YouTube is so 2005.”
“You’re so 2005.”
Mallory rolled her eyes. “Good comeback.”
“I go to high school, can’t you tell?”
“I used to teach at a high school.”
Reed grinned. “I would have aced your class.”
“I taught at an all-girls school.”
“Are you saying, I’m not pretty enough to be a girl?”
She threw her head back and cackled.
Father Stretch my Hands stopped playing from the laptop speakers. The screen showed that the song was buffering.
Reed leaned over his knees and clicked the play button on the screen. Nothing happened. He refreshed the Google Chrome browser.
“Fucking great.” He picked up his E-Cig from the coffee table. He smoked some more. The laptop was silent. He looked at the screen again, as though his stare could change the outcome. The screen stared back at him. He sighed deeply.
“Reed, hey, it’s not a big deal.” Mallory sipped on her tea. “You can show me some songs another time.” She sounded like she was telling the truth.
Reed nodded and tried to smile. “That’d be nice. I mean, I’m really busy, but I guess I can squeeze you into my calendar.”
“Such a gentleman.” Mallory said.
An electric guitar chord rang out from the speakers. Tame Impala’s List of People (To Try and Forget About) began to play. Hearing this song made Reed feel sick. He closed his eyes. This was Beth’s favorite song. The first time, Beth told him she loved him, this very song had been playing.
He looked into his roommate’s eyes. “I can be an asshole. You barely know me.”
“Tell me more about yourself. I want to know.” Mallory looked back at him. “But first…” She closed her eyes, leaning in.
Reed saw Beth looking back at him. He scooted away from Mallory, to the other side of the futon. He froze and knew he had feelings for his roommate. As he looked away from her, he also knew Mallory reminded him of his ex.
“Are you okay?” Mallory reached over and touched the top of his wrist.
A jolt of warmth ran through Reed’s bones. He dropped the mug. She swooped forward. She yanked the laptop off the table. The tea spilled onto the carpet, the cup shattering into pieces.
Reed stood up bolt-upright. “Shit, shit. Fuck, I’m so sorry Mallory,” he said, wiping his pants.
She looked disappointed and confused. And then she just looked sorry for him. “It’s fine. But I think I’m going to pass out.” Mallory stood up from the futon, setting the laptop on a cushion. She walked out of the living room and didn’t look back.
“Mallory. I’m sorry,” Reed said, standing up.
“For what? I’ll see you in the morning,” Mallory said as she slammed her door.
Reed sat back on the futon, feeling miserable for thinking about Beth while he was trying to hook up with Mallory. He hunched forward and closed his laptop. Tame Impala stopped playing and Reed fell back in his seat and absorbed the quiet and emptiness in the room.