On my first and longest roommates: my sisters.
By Daniel Blas | My pregnant mother gripped a dripping-wet two-year-old with one hand and darted into the hallway.
“Grab the shelf!” she called as my little sister squirmed. I ran and started dragging. “Hurry!”
I rotated the white bookcase until it blocked the bathroom entrance. Sheva, naked, pulled away from Mom, skirted around our blockade, and jumped back into the bathtub.
“Elisheva!” Mom cried out from behind the bookshelf, going full-name now. She was one month away from being a mother of four and couldn’t squeeze through the gap. “Bath time is over.”
Mom had already run me and Abigail through the soap-and-shampoo-and-recycled-bathwater assembly line, and sent us back to our shared room in towels—“like mummies,” she liked to say, wrapping us. We waited, as well-trained six- and four-year-olds do, to be changed into pajamas. But Sheva had different plans.
Mom maneuvered past the barricade and flipped the bathtub drain. “I put you into this world,” she joked as the now-cloudy water began to drop. “And I can take you out of it.”
A few hundred baths later, Hannah entered the mix. Now it was four of us who needed to be cleaned, dressed, and rounded up to start the communal bedtime routine.
“I like the way that Daniel is sitting,” Mom would sing, to the tune of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush.” “I like the way that Abigail is sitting. I like the way that Sheva is sitting; you’re ready for a snack.” Her voice made our stomachs grumble. Hair still wet from the bath, we’d salivate like Pavlov’s dogs in anticipation of a graham cracker, a few carrot sticks.
She’d hold a storybook in one hand and balance four plastic snack bowls in the other—blue bowls that years of dishwasher cycles have now turned translucent. A rectangular graham didn’t sate my post-bath hunger, but Mom didn’t care. I didn’t get seconds. As long as she was in charge of putting us to bed, her four kids would be on the same schedule.
Lights Out was at 7 p.m.: the “lowest common bedtime denominator,” according to Mom. I went to sleep at the same time as my younger siblings well past my 10th birthday, regardless of how light it was outside.
“I never go to sleep before midnight,” bragged Ben, my camp friend. Summer was the only time he shared a room. Back home, he had two bunk beds to himself.
“Which one do you sleep in?” I asked the first time I saw his room.
“Either one,” he said.
“How do you decide?”
“Wherever I feel like,” he said.
Incredible. I had top bunk year-round. Below me was Abigail. Across the room were Sheva and Hannah’s twin beds, arranged head-to-head. The carpet in the middle was our gathering place. We met there to discuss important issues: What should we write on Mom’s birthday card? Where should we hide when Grandpa visited? Which board game should we play on Shabbatafternoon?
Ben didn’t play board games. He had a mini basketball hoop hanging over his door.
“Who do you play against?” I asked.
“Myself,” he said.
I had no such option. There was always someone else to play with in my—our—room.
I remember Hannah as a baby—maybe she was six weeks old—lying on a blanket mid-room, a pile of cards placed a few inches away.
“Go Fish,” said Sheva, barely able to play herself. Hannah didn’t stir. “Okay,” Sheva continued, reaching for the deck. “I’ll Go Fish for you!” And she put a card beside her younger sister.
Even deep in sleep, Hannah couldn’t find personal space. None of us could.
Before school each morning, we changed quickly, efficiently. Sheva found private space in a corner with three bookshelves. I dressed in the closet, where my button-down shirts were sandwiched between pencil skirts and summer dresses.
Sometimes, I’d get dressed in the bathroom.
“Don’t come out yet!” Hannah would shriek. “I’m naked!”
As I grew older, the nighttime routine changed a little bit. I’d climb up my ladder in a towel and slip into flannel pajamas under the covers. That space up there was mine. And though I could not have articulated it when I was nine, I liked my position of looking from on high. I liked observing Sheva read by her nightlight, and I liked seeing Hannah cuddle with her Red Bear. Seeing my roommates through the one-way mirror of a top bunk somehow reinforced the sense of importance that comes naturally to eldest siblings. I could monitor which sister tossed and turned, which sister went to the kitchen to get one last goodnight hug from Mom. Yet even in the privacy of the top bunk, my life was equally exposed to my sisters. Nothing I did was truly private.
I’d read sports novels by flashlight before bed, sometimes bursting into unintentional laughter.
“Why are you laughing, Daniel?” Sheva would ask from under her covers. “What’s so funny?”
“You wouldn’t get it,” I’d say—not because she wouldn’t actually have understood, but because I wanted a semblance of solitude.
Other nights, I’d listen to Yankees games on my Walkman radio. I’d plug my headphones in and tune out my sisters, the world. For a few minutes, in the company of 50,000 screaming fans and John Sterling’s color commentary, I could create a mental space of my own. The play-by-play, public to the world, was private to me.
But real privacy was hard to come by. If one of us vomited, the rest smelled it, vomiting involuntarily in response. If Abigail broke down into tears, Sheva was sure to follow—even if she didn’t know why Abigail started crying in the first place.
In that sense, living with three sisters in one room for nearly a decade felt a lot like college feels now. One sister was always in the midst of a minor crisis. Another sister, without warning, might decide that she could not stand to be around anyone else. And I, by virtue of living in tiny apartment 6N, was caught in the crossfire.
After almost 10 years in that shared room, Mom and Dad informed us that we’d be moving to the suburbs.
“Some of you might even get your own rooms,” they said.
Immediately, I set to work drawing my ideal space: a big bed, two windows, two closets—one for clothes, one for sports gear—and my own carpet. Plus, a desk and lots of wall space to hang pennants. We moved that summer. I got everything but the second closet. I even got a boom box to blast Yankees games.
Most importantly, I gained privacy. I could speak freely on the phone to camp friends and girlfriends. Bedtime was no longer determined by my youngest sibling.
Only that privacy wasn’t as liberating as I had hoped. Before our move, I’d looked forward to falling asleep when I was tired—not when Hannah was getting cranky. Yet perhaps out of habit, or perhaps due to a connection that started when I first became a brother, I found myself drifting off at the same time as my siblings next door.
I still shared a wall with my sisters. I still shared a bathroom. And while I had thought I’d want to cut myself off completely, I couldn’t resist chatting late at night on the floor of Hannah and Sheva’s shared room.
“OK, stop talking now,” I’d tell them when I couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore. I’d walk out their door, pause, and peek my head back in. “Don’t say anything interesting!”
For the past two years at Penn, I’ve lived in an off-campus house with seven other guys. I have my own room, but the walls are so thin that I know when someone’s breaking up with his girlfriend, ordering a pizza, or lying to his mother over the phone. So the privacy I gained by leaving home may be illusory—or at least limited.
As I write now at my desk, music blasting from the other side of the wall, it occurs to me that maybe my parents had hoped to teach us all a lesson: There is no such thing as personal space in families, or there is no such thing as personal space in New York City. Or maybe that space does exist, and Mom and Dad were challenging each of us, in a crowded room, to find it. I’m not sure if I have, or if I ever will. I’ve grown more comfortable living without it, though—which may turn out to be just as valuable.
Soon I will graduate and move in with my newest—and oldest—roommates: my parents. Roommates isn’t the right word; apartment-mates is more accurate.
“That’s not a bad gig,” an older friend tells me. “At least you’ll save money on rent. But it might cramp your dating style.”
Yes, bringing home a girlfriend—or even a friend who’s a girl—will be complicated. But rest assured, Dad: if she wants to sleep over, we’ll do just fine in the same room.