By Malena Steelberg
Danish thinker Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophical discourse describes how he who lives purely for the purpose of aesthetics lives a pointless life devoid of meaning. Worshipping solely the cultivation and appearance of beauty is ultimately narcissistic in its heavy emphasis on the personal, and only a momentarily satisfying veil for a more pervasive boredom.
I am a twenty-one-year-old college student living in a shafted, linoleum-floored, New York City, suite-style dorm that has three singles: a double I share with my roommate Lucy, a small kitchen, a bathroom with crusty, pus-yellow tiles (a shade I appreciate for its grimy qualities), and a long, narrow hallway connecting all the rooms. I moved into this suite knowing only Lucy and my good friend Julia, who occupies one of the singles. The other two singles belong to Kyra and Helen, two girls I had been told were clean and cared about creating a comfortable living space, which seemed like reasonable characteristics for suitemates to have, characteristics I have come to understand the implications of over the course of the past few months.
Helen is stunning. Tall, extremely thin, a pale girl with thick, healthy eyebrows and long brown hair that often conglomerates into a big knot by the end of the day. Her feet are slender and delicate and arched in such a way that I am surprised she is able to hold her tall frame. She moves with a certain ethereal, gentle, breeze-like quality, and has a Los Angeles-bohemian-fairy style that emanates a magnetic attraction she might pretend to be oblivious of, but is most likely not. She is a visual arts major and a vegan. All of her belongings are beautiful and precious, much like her.
Kyra is a very petite, perfectly-proportioned girl from Philly. Her skin is remarkably flawless. Her bone structure is unique. A friend who had never met her, but kept seeing her around campus, once described her to me as “one of those people who generates warmth and kindness and beauty and that I aspire to be or at least have around me for the rest of my life.” She is probably one of the most empathetic people I have ever met. Her ability to feel heated and authentically angry at whatever is causing you to feel heated and angry has profound healing powers. I put tangerines and chocolate truffles in my roommates’ shoes to celebrate Saint Nicholas; she was so warmed by my gesture that she cried. She is a creative writing major. Like Helen, her possessions are beautiful.
Both Helen and Kyra live deeply curated lives—at least externally. Their aesthetics, though not exactly identical, have developed in similar veins and adhere to similar criteria. Though I am grateful for the existence of these two girls, living in close proximity to them and watching the careful, intricate ways in which they dissect and present themselves and their space to the outside world has made me somewhat miserable.
Helen and Kyra emerge from their bedrooms every morning wearing vintage silk slips that cling to their bodies in all the right places, and satin robes that drape perfectly across their frames, like women out of a Renaissance painting. Julia and Lucy have caught on and also thrifted beautiful silk nightgowns and robes in which to emerge every morning like post-slumber goddesses. I sleep in a giant navy t-shirt that reads Fitch Falcons and was purchased seven years ago at the Walmart in Austintown, Ohio next to Fitch, my mother’s high school. One morning, as I am placing a teabag into a mug, Kyra says to me, “I love how you wear that big T-shirt. It’s like you don’t care what anyone thinks!” Her words are daggers. I smile and laugh and slowly exit as fast as I can without seeming off-put.
Lucy and I go thrifting in Brooklyn because we see how meticulously Helen and Kyra have arranged their respective rooms. Helen has covered every surface of wooden dorm furniture with fabrics reminiscent of the Southwestern parts of the United States. She hangs dustbowl-era images on her walls, rolls out an antique carpet to cover her linoleum floor, and arranges small porcelain dishes for her jewelry and trinkets on her dresser next to thick art books. She burns incense: a distinct, thick, musty scent meanders through the rest of the suite. Kyra’s bed sheets are white, fluffy, and beautiful. She has vintage lamps, a vintage vanity set, and vintage glassware set up around her room. She buys three or four plants and plays around with how they look in different spots. Some of them end up dying, because our suite lacks natural light. Julia also buys three plants. When Julia’s plants start to die, she purchases a special light source that mimics the sun to save them. The artificial sun works. It saves her plants.
I am moving my toothbrush and toothpaste into the cabinet above the sink. I notice a tiny tin that says Healing Salve, a thin paintbrush next to an organic, made-in-the-U.S.A., plant-based toothpaste and a wooden toothbrush with an engraved, carved handle. I look at my Arm & Hammer tube and very normal looking brush. Later, I see Helen applying the Healing Salve to her one pimple using the paintbrush with precise, careful strokes. Lucy comes home and tells me she went to Whole Foods and bought a tortoise-shell toothbrush with natural bristles because she was tired of having an “ugly” teeth-cleaning implement. We brush together, and I watch as she picks out the fallen natural bristles from her foamy saliva, threatening to choke her like the slender fish bones you accidentally miss before taking a bite.
There are two lights in our bathroom. The one that works is connected to the cabinet above the sink. It is dim. We put an order in requesting that the second light, located on the opposite wall, be fixed. Someone finally comes and fixes it three weeks into the school year. I am sitting at the kitchen table with Lucy and Julia when Helen and Kyra appear, screwdriver in hand, and ask if we would possibly mind if they tinkered with the newly-fixed lamp because its light is “harsh,” “fluorescent,” and “ugly.” Julia says she doesn’t care, Lucy shrugs, and I am silent. Helen and Kyra break the fixed lamp. We shower for the rest of the semester in semi-darkness. I consistently miss a patch when I shave my legs because there isn’t enough light to see the blonde hairs.
Our kitchen light is also “harsh,” “fluorescent,” and “ugly.” Julia places twinkly lights against the wall above the highest cabinets so that they are not visible but still deliver a warm, yellowy glow. She adds a standing lamp in the corner, but the bulb goes out and no one can be bothered to replace it. We place candles on the table and light those instead. Helen and Kyra, who often dine together, refuse to use the overhead light, choosing instead to eat in the cozier atmosphere of dimness reminiscent of the trendy restaurants my parents sometimes go to, where they have to pull out the flashlights on their phones to read the menu. I respect this decision. However, Helen and Kyra don’t turn the lights on when they are doing dishes either, preferring to remain in the more pleasant—less harsh, less fluorescent, and less ugly—semi-darkness. I find bowls in our cupboards still caked in vegan curry and dried cilantro filaments, spoons still stained with bits of Helen’s homemade chocolate.
I start to notice Helen and Kyra’s eating habits. Helen does not eat breakfast. Occasionally, she will have tea. Occasionally. If she does, it will be brewed in a metal pot on the stove even though we have an electric tea kettle. She will place a teabag in water and sometimes sprinkle some herbs or rose petals as the tea begins to boil. Kyra drinks drip coffee and eats one healthy hump of almond-oat-raisin-date-unsweetened-coconut-flakes-nut-butter-mashed-withbanana that she makes herself. Kyra is not a vegan nor a vegetarian, but subscribes to much of the same meal behaviors as Helen: mostly vegetables, roasted or in soup form, with lots of cumin. No carbs. I see their designated shelves in our cabinets and compare them to mine: their seven different kinds of teas, almonds, cashews, walnuts, raisins, coconut oil, mystery herbs and petals, a can of tomato paste, a glass jar of gifted honey; versus my three different varieties of pasta—each sauce requires a different shape—olive oil, chickpeas, canned tuna, Trader Joe’s trail mix snack packs, Skippy crunchy peanut butter, chocolate, crackers, cereal, mac and cheese (at least it’s Annie’s and not Kraft brand.) I watch Helen make her own almond milk, Kyra make her own cashew butter. I eat my processed Skippy when I know they’re not around. I start to plan my meals around their schedule to avoid eating and cooking at the same time as them in our tiny, cramped kitchen—to avoid hearing them ask what I am making, what I am putting into my mouth and body.
I voice my distress and anxiety about our living situation to Julia, who understands, since she lived with Helen and Kyra last year as well. I ask her how she managed to be in a space so hostile to differences, even if unintentionally so. She reveals that though Helen and Kyra live such meticulously constructed and seemingly perfect lives, it is very much a mask for their deeper troubles. Kyra was bulimic for eleven years. Helen’s veganism is also a disguise for eating difficulties.
Lucy goes on runs. She runs along the river all the way to the Whitney and back. She shows me how her pants do not fit anymore, how they sag. I see the skinny girls waltzing in and around and out of my life. I start going on runs. I run every day. I do not change how much I eat. My appetite dwindles despite the increase in activity. I lose weight but am not really aware of it until I realize that I’m curling my fingers around the belt loops of my jeans while I walk to hold them up, and that the crotch of all my pants has fallen significantly lower. I go home for Thanksgiving, and my mom tells me she is worried I’m not eating enough. She thinks I’m stressed about my classes and internship. She knows nothing about my suitemates, about the environment I go back to every day. Two weeks later a friend from high school visits and comments on how I have lost weight. “You haven’t looked this good since high school!” I was seventeen in high school, 5’9,” and weighed barely 119 pounds.
One evening I come home from work with a fresh baguette. I spread salted butter onto its soft inside, and it melts in my mouth as I chew. I think of how, growing up, my dad would come home after work with warm bread for dinner. Kyra and Julia enter the kitchen as I eat. Julia prepares her food. I notice Kyra staring at me. I look at her and apologize for eating bread and butter. I apologize. For eating bread and butter.
Julia tells me about how much Helen vehemently despises yogurt. Julia and I eat yogurt almost every morning. Helen once walked into a classroom with Julia and made a disdainful comment about how it smelled disgusting because someone had been eating yogurt. I am sitting at the kitchen table, trapped in the corner doing homework but thinking about yogurt, while Helen and Kyra eat their dinner. Helen brings up dairy, and how it is addictive, like a drug. I hear Kyra agree: “It’s so addictive, you’re so right. I put a splash of milk in my coffee and now I can’t stop.” Helen suggests alternatives such as almond or coconut milk. “Not only do they taste better,” she says, “but they look better too.” (What this means, I do not know.) Kyra, passionate as she is, fervently vows to only buy non-dairy milk options for her morning coffee. Throughout the semester our fridge door alternates between sporting soy milk, cashew milk, macadamia milk, hazelnut milk, and coconut creamer. Julia still has half-and-half.
Food. Lighting. Objects. I have never been so hyperaware of what surrounds me and how I might appear to others. Sometimes I play a game with Helen’s wardrobe: thrifted, or new and expensive? One day she wears a gorgeous cable-knit cardigan with batwing sleeves. Thrifted, or new and expensive? I remember a brand Julia mentioned that Helen likes. I see the cardigan on their website: $285. I think of my Walmart t-shirt. Part of me suffocates. I think of Kierkegaard. I feel marginally better.