I found out that my new roommate was dead from Facebook.
I was sitting at my kitchen table around lunchtime, scrolling through clever status updates and cute baby photos, when I saw it. Someone had tagged a recent photo of him grinning in a plaid shirt and written: “Taken far too soon. RIP Paul.”
I froze. I hadn’t seen Paul in about two days. I had assumed he’d been with his ex-boyfriend, whom he was still seeing. But not dead. Of course not dead.
As similar messages began to flood my news feed, irrational thoughts wrestled for control of my confused brain.
I looked over at the Mexican ingredients he had stacked in our pantry. “No one buys that much salsa verde and then dies, right? Facebook is lying.”
Leaping up from the table, I ran through the living room and down the hallway to Paul’s bedroom door. I even knocked and called his name, half-expecting him to answer and sheepishly apologize for that silliness about Facebook pronouncing him dead.
Silence. I swung the door open. The room was quiet; the carpet still had the tracks of a vacuuming from days earlier.
Denial turned to panic. Surely there is a series of very important things you’re supposed to do immediately when Facebook announces your roommate’s death. I couldn’t think of one.
Several hours and a handful of frantic Facebook messages later, details emerged. Paul — a cheerful 35-year-old Irish guy who worked for a nonprofit and melted at the sight of a Dachshund — had been hit and killed by a car not far from our apartment two nights earlier. While I had assumed he was spending time with his ex-boyfriend, his body had been in the city morgue.
Paul had moved into our flat in San Francisco’s Cow Hollow neighborhood just a month earlier, and during most of that time I had been overseas for work. We had exchanged emails and talked on the phone a bit. The day after I came home, we sat in the window of a crowded Starbucks and laughed about how we would burn sage through the apartment — or whatever it is you’re supposed to do to expel the bad energy of departing roommates. We talked about his upcoming trip to Ecuador and promised to speak only Spanish at home. I asked if he’d walked up to the marina to watch our stunning pink-sky sunsets, and his face lit up like I’d just cut his rent in half. “Oh my gosh, I have to do that!”
Paul was an almost-stranger who was becoming a friend. I was completely unprepared for how his sudden death would unravel and reshape my life.
For weeks following the crash, it felt like my world revolved around the dead roommate who no longer lived on the other side of my bedroom wall.
I helped his friends sift through his things in search of a funeral suit. I walked up to his open casket and said goodbye to this wax-figure version of a guy whose face I’d last seen in my bathroom mirror a few days earlier. I sat wedged in the corner of a wooden pew as the chapel emptied and tried to compose myself before standing up to be introduced to Paul’s ex-boyfriend. How could I cry in front of someone who had lost so much more?
Exhausted from sleepless nights in an apartment that suddenly felt like a shrine to my dead roommate, I declined sincere invitations to join his friends at a pub after the funeral. Instead I clicked down the street in heels I wasn’t used to, left a message for a friend who didn’t pick up, and took the bus home to sit in Paul’s room and stare at a throw pillow with a Dachshund on it. The next day, the ex-boyfriend came over and tearfully asked if he could have the pillow, saying they had bought it at a flea market together.
I didn’t know what to do with the rest of Paul’s things, so for weeks I did nothing. His electric shaver stayed in the medicine cabinet, the cans of chipotle peppers on his shelf in the pantry. I watered the chiles he was growing in a green plastic container on a shelf in his room. On top of his dresser sat the tin of hair pomade he had been grabbing out of the medicine cabinet the last time I saw him.
That moment ran on a loop in my head.
“Sorry, I didn’t even see you there!” he had exclaimed, bursting into our shared bathroom as I stood at the sink, groggily coaxing my curls into a ponytail.
“No worries, see you later.”
“See you later!”
Instead of working at the kitchen table, I went to coffee shops and generally stayed out of the house-slash-death-shrine as much as possible. But there was no escape. My heart pounded every time I waited to cross the street where he’d died. Our conversations played in my head like a movie — or perhaps a short film. An imaginary clock ticked down the remaining seconds of his life as we naively chatted about the best websites for plane tickets and how he was definitely going to start going to the gym again.
If my reaction to the death of an almost-stranger seems dramatic, perhaps it’s because Paul wasn’t supposed to be one more Craigslist roommate through the revolving door. He was a piece of a life that I was determined to deconstruct and rebuild from the ground up.
My rapidly approaching 30th birthday had prompted a determination to sculpt my existence into everything I wished my 20s had been. That meant reconnecting and disconnecting, thinking about the space between who I was and who I wanted to be. It meant surrounding myself with people who cared about the world, who woke up every day and did things that mattered. Whatever that meant.
A translator for a nonprofit empowering small business owners in the developing world, Paul moved in seeking a fresh start after a breakup. He was mastering his fourth language and talked about trying to revive neglected friendships. His life, like mine, was under construction.
Until he died, of course.
Paul was 35, about five years older than me, when he stepped off the curb at the wrong moment. Watching tearful friends approach his coffin one by one, I imagined myself lying in that varnished box with wax skin. Did I have five years? Two? A week? Was I living the way I would if I knew that ticking clock was closer to zero than I wanted?
A few days after the funeral, I walked up to the marina to watch that pink-sky sunset. As the sun bled fuchsia through the sky and the Golden Gate Bridge reflected in the tide, I thought about Paul’s body buried in the ground in Northern Ireland while his belongings were just as he had left them in our apartment a few blocks away. I imagined a parallel existence where he had never stepped off the curb that night, where I would come home and find him studying his Russian notes in a kitchen that smelled like chipotle.
Weeks later, I finally summoned the will to clear out Paul’s room. As I carefully packed away the roommate who was gone almost as soon as he arrived, I came across a dresser drawer stuffed with crumpled, recently worn clothes. I pulled out a T-shirt. It read: “All we have is now.”