My Last Roommate

September 22, 2011

The pajamas were Santa-red, a green stripe running through making them christmasy and familiar. The pants had an elastic waist, which would slip down around my hips if I didn’t make a little knot out of the excess material. They were too big, the pajamas. Yet, I wore them all the time, my favorite red flannel pajamas, pulling myself out of my teaching clothes as soon as I got home.Over the next eight years, I slowly grew to fit them, filling the outline of another girl who had owned them before me.

Lisa was my last roomate. Teaching together at the ECC Children’s Academy in Bundang, we were placed together in an apartment when she came to replace my other roomate, a conservative, intensely focused Calgarian named Diane. Diane and I had become best friends over the year we lived together, and I wasn’t sure I had the energy to put into getting close to somebody new.

Lisa made it easy to be around her. She was a larger-than-life American, a big, fair girl who smiled her way through all the newness. Her footsteps were heavy and comforting, as were her homemade garlic mashed potatoes – a true treat for a girl like me who couldn’t cook but loved to eat.
Lisa had taught in one of the toughest school districts in the States – The Watts district in LA, and was deservedly proud of having done so. And that completed the first impression I had of her- she was a wave of soft mothering flowing through our apartment, centered by a surprising core of toughness. She was everything I had secretly admired about America – smart, curious and yet so sure of her place in the world. Ever the polite Canadian, I envied her ability to claim her space. Later, when we travelled to Bali together, I remember being impressed by how she chided the flight attendant for forgetting to bring our drinks – polite and yet firm. I would have waited another hour, hoping to be noticed.

She was with me the night I met my husband. I had taken her out to see Sinchon, my favorite Saturday night stomping grounds. We went to a bar called Woodstock, and there he was – wearing red Chuck Taylors, eyes closed, moving quietly to “All Along the Watchtower” – the Jimi Hendrix version – and owning the most beautiful face I had ever seen on a Korean male. He opened his eyes, looked and me and smiled. I was claimed.

Over the next months, I felt bad for Lisa. I was supposed to be her partner in weekend crime, her guide through all that Seoul had to offer. I was instead consumed, engulfed in the love affair that was to define my life. My love for Bong, especially in those early days, made me selfish, addicted and ecstatic. We wanted only to be together. Everyone else in our lives were collateral damage, pushed out of the way of our grand affair. Sometimes, I wish I could say to Lisa, ” Look, I married him. I didn’t sacrifice our friendship to a fling. He was the love of my lifetime.” She already understood that, though.

I remember the night everything changed. I came home, my classes finishing later than Lisa’s, to find a half-cooked pot of something still on the stove. There was no sign of Lisa, no note. Within 30 minutes, I was at a hospital. Lisa, who had been going out on weekends with other friends, had been complaining of losing her balance when she was drinking. We had laughed it off, blaming the soju. She had taken to long, tearful phone calls to her family – odd I thought for a tough lady who had taught in the Watts district. A Korean friend had introduced an accupuncturist, who she thought might help Lisa through her discomfort. Coming home after the treatment, Lisa had collapsed. The tests showed a large brain tumor, an angry golf-ball sized thing which had changed her personality and her body from solid and sure to something more vulnerable.

We teachers tried to do our best for her. We took turns at her bedside, trying to lighten the mood, waiting for her Mom to come for her. Korean hospitals, at the time, bordered on nightmarish. The technology of care was there, but family members often took on care usually done by nurses in the West, and therefore camped out in the rooms all night. There was no such thing as “quiet hours”. The doctor could barely state the facts in English, never mind having a bedside manner. The nurses, when asked a question, would giggle out of nervousness of having to talk to a foreigner, giggle as Lisa tried to understand what was happening to her.

There I was, going through the motions of being a “good friend.” The truth is, I was in the most alive stage of my life. I was in love to the point where I could smell colors and taste feelings. I was in love with myself, in love with life, and most of all, in love with the long, caramel-colored boy in my bed. I had to wrench myself from my joy to go to Lisa’s bedside. We were two sides of a coin, she and I. I would never be more alive in my life. She had begun a long leave-taking of the physical. When I said goodbye at the airport, Lisa drugged and in a wheelchair, her beautiful mother, bravely navigating her way through a foreign hell with the same calm smile I loved Lisa for, I have to confess and say I was relieved. I could turn away from death, away from the slippery reality of the unfairness of life, and turn back to the beautiful picture of myself I saw in the bones of my lover’s face.

It has been 10 years since Lisa’s death. I was still a girl then. The woman I am now wishes I had been a better friend. I remember reading a Murakami novel, called “After Dark”. The short novel was the story of two girls- one mysteriously fast asleep while the other crashed her way through the night, having one dark adventure after another. When I read the novel, Lisa had been dead several years. I recognized us.

I am now about the same size Lisa had been. When I finally let go of her pajamas, they fit me perfectly. I dress in black and make myself less of who I am, to compensate for my size. Yet, I am reminded of shopping with her. She was drawn to a fuzzy leopard-print hooded coat – something I never would dream of wearing for the attention it would draw to me. Lisa was fearless in wearing it – that weekend in the club, the silver leopard print around her face, I knew she was beautiful. She sparkled under the lights, a big, blonde, soft creature whose warmth was as clearly inviting as the coat.

I continue to learn from her, my larger-than-life American last roommate.


  1. Reminds me of a friend back in India. We were as different as black and white, yet I didn’t know how close and unseparable we were until I left for Korea. Thanks for the lovely and deeply touching post šŸ™‚

  2. beautiful shelley, and now i’ll read “after Dark”

    john in cow head

  3. I teared up while reading this. Very well-written and touching.

  4. Your writing moves me, Shelley! You capture the intangible just as beautifully as your father takes pictures.

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