I made them laugh, shared my cookies, and generally was, I thought, a great friend, even if I did leave a trail of stuff in my wake
As told to Devorah Grant
"Ita! Phone for you! Again…” Akiva rolled his eyes as he handed me the cordless, which he’d answered for the fifth time that day. Baruch Hashem I always had a lot of friends. Extroverted and bubbly, with a great sense of humor, I was used to being the center of attention, and honestly, I thrived on it. I got by in my schoolwork, just about, and I’ve never been particularly talented, but friends? Those I always had.
The other thing I always had was a perpetual mess. I’m disorganized by nature, easygoing as they come, and I’m not particularly bothered by heaps of clothing on the floor, or papers or photos (or files or folders, for that matter). Once upon a time my mother used to beg me to pick things up and make my bed each day, exasperated by the sheer chaos as she walked through my bedroom door. But as the years went by, she got fed up nagging, until eventually I was given an ultimatum: Clean up, Ita, or the cleaning lady won’t touch your room. I tried. But not hard enough. And the mess grew bigger….
At that time, I also shared a room, and a cold war, with my sister, Esty. Neat-as-a-pin, my-wardrobe-is-color-coordinated Esty, did not take kindly to my mess. While her shirts stood primly folded like soldiers on her shelf, mine bounced between the end of my bed, the chair, the desk, the floor, and any available surface. While she was up and out the door by 8 a.m. daily, I was still frantically searching through the piles of papers on the carpet to find the homework I was missing. And when she found a pair of my dirty socks on her pillow one evening (how they were both there is a weird miracle), she convinced my parents that either she moved to the guest room, or someone cleaned the room each day, because this was not sustainable.
That night, after a long discussion, Esty moved out of the room.
In school, my seatmates varied from amused to mildly frustrated with my disorganization. Though people liked sitting next to me for my running commentary and entertainment value, my friends would get increasingly exasperated at me for borrowing their possessions because I couldn’t find my own. Still, I made up for it, I felt. I made them laugh, shared my cookies, and generally was, I thought, a great friend, even if I did leave a trail of stuff in my wake. But it could only go so far.
Here in England, many of us go to seminary at the age of 16, and that’s what I did too. A fairly sizable group of classmates joined me, including my friends Naomi and Chava, which cushioned the blow of arriving in a place filled with hundreds of unfamiliar girls. It was overwhelming at first, watching people dash through mazes of hospital-like corridors, plunged into darkness each night at lights-out. I wondered if I’d ever find my way to my own bedroom. Still, as a camp enthusiast, I quickly jelled with the sleepless nights and action-packed days. I thrived on the craziness, the adrenaline, the laughing and crying, even though it took three coffees to get me through class each day. It was also fun getting to know my roommates, their habits and quirks. Imitations come easily to me, and many nights found a crowd sitting on my bed as I waved my hands around the way my French roommate did, or brushed my hair like the one from Amsterdam. But it wasn’t only their mannerisms which were being noticed.
“Ita,” Yael, the sweet girl from Manchester, said one Sunday afternoon in a delicate tone, “do you think you can, umm, I mean, umm, do you mind to, umm… take your clothes off the chair?” I looked at her in surprise, then shrugged, picked up the armful of clean clothes (to be folded one day), and dumped them on my bed. She looked at me quizzically, then shifted the chair over to her closet. Oh. Organizing.
“Happy cleaning!” I grinned, then dashed out the door. Sundays were for socializing. Not for dealing with the dangerously high pile of towels and bedding which came crashing out of my closet when I opened it.
And so it went.
As the winter term stretched into Chanukah, my roommates and I became a clan. I started doing chesed with Yael, ate Shabbos meals with Tzippy, and studied with Sara Leah for exams. My roommates got used to plonking random items of mine back onto my bed, and it became a room joke that I had to search to find my pillow each night. But sometimes, they lost their cool too.
“Ita! This is the SIXTH time I’ve found your hoodie on my bed,” Sara Leah shouted, her half-blown hair billowing as a sudden gust came through our window.
“Oops!” I said cheerfully, “sorry! Maybe it likes you better?”
Sara Leah didn’t laugh.
“Your closet door keeps falling open, Ita,” said Yael, reproach in her eyes, as she tried to squeeze past mine to get to hers. I looked at the bulging shelves and inwardly groaned. I didn’t have time to fold all those things and put them away. Instead, I plonked a heavy suitcase in front of the door, and ran out. I don’t think Yael was impressed.
Still, despite the tension here and there, and the veiled comments about the state of my bed and closet, my sem experience was going well. Room change was on the horizon, and I was looking forward to rooming with some of my newfound friends. When we heard that request slips were coming out one night, I went to find Tzirel.
“Hey, Tzirel!” I said, bursting through her door and plonking myself down on her bed, where I spent most of my evenings. “The big day’s arrived! Want to request each other?” Tzirel looked surprised, then gave me a funny look, her eyes shifting weirdly.
“Uh, yeah, maybe?” she offered, question mark dangling in the air between us. I smiled with my teeth, and stared at Tzirel’s leg, nervously shaking up and down. Huh? Noticing my bewilderment, Tzirel spoke, her words coming out in a strangled kind of tone.
“Umm, Ita, I’m sure it would be great fun to be roommates….” Again, her sentence dangled, as if it was a missing just one word: “but.” What was going on? A minute of polite small talk later, I left her room kind of weirded out, and went to find Naomi. Naomi was a school friend, and I had wanted to branch out, but we shared the same circle, and we could have fun as roommates, couldn’t we? Yet Naomi, like Tzirel, seemed to think otherwise.
“Ita, you sure you want to be my roommate? I go to sleep super early.”
My eyes narrowed. Even Naomi, the figure of tact, was being much too nice about this. She wasn’t worried that I didn’t want to be her roommate. She, evidently, did not want to be mine. Suddenly, rejection filled my stomach with nausea. I was always the one with a gaggle of friends and admirers. Why were my friends abandoning me? I turned away before I could cry. Naomi shifted.
“It’s okay, I get it,” I heard myself say bitterly, staring at a green spot on the wall. “I’m not good enough to be your roommate. Or Tzirel’s. Probably not Bassi’s either. That’s fine, I don’t need any favors from you.” Turning to leave, my eyes starting to tear, I grabbed the door open. A hand pushed it closed again. Naomi.
“Ita, we love you. All of us! Chas v’shalom that you’re not good enough, and we’re so lucky to have you as our friend!” Her tone was genuine, like the Naomi I knew.
“So why are you all being like this?” I blurted.
Naomi sighed. “I want to tell you, Ita, but I don’t want to hurt you….” I felt dizzy. I wanted to run. I was so terrified of hearing what Naomi would say next, the reason behind my friends’ attitudes. And at the same time, I knew already.
“It’s the mess, isn’t it?” I said, facing Naomi dejectedly. All Naomi could do was nod.
It was a long talk, the one we had then, cross-legged on Naomi’s bed. Naomi told me how much my friends cared, but also, how none of them could bear the state I lived in and the way it impacted those around me. I wanted to shout that she didn’t understand, that she was born neat for heaven’s sake. But I swallowed it. Because it was true, all of it. And it dawned on me that unless I nipped the problem right then, maybe I’d always be that person, who people loved, but kept at a safe distance. I had to change.
Change is never easy, and in my case it was painful. Used to treating my spaces with abandon, I had to learn from scratch how to do basic things, like fold my tops, hang my dresses. I didn’t get the room I wanted that term and it hurt, but my friends faithfully supported me as I morphed into Ita 2.0. Not exactly neat, but at least somewhat organized. It was hard, but good. I was getting there.
Fast forward a few years, and I’m married now, with a bunch of lively kids who baruch Hashem leave trails of their own. My house gets messy, and I do sometimes (okay, often) leave the mess to pile up a bit as I play with my kids on the floor, or rest instead of cleaning. But only for so long. I want my home to be a safe haven, a good place to be, and sometimes, that involves picking things up from the floor and folding the laundry. I know, I’ve been there.
I am blessed now to run a beautiful, functional home, and for that, I thank Naomi. Naomi, your words hurt, but they were also the first step in helping me get out of a dump and start living like a human. Before it was too late.
(Originally featured in Teen Pages, Issue 865)
Oops! We could not locate your form.