Khue (the spelling of which I eventually managed to painfully extract) and I didn’t talk at all for the first two days. I admit I’m not the chattiest fellow when in uncomfortable company – but the negative vibes firing out of his pores were forcing me back into my shell – before rebounding back at him. Perhaps I could have tried a little harder, but it's tough when your housemate doesn’t even acknowledge your existence. Eventually, though, I decided it was time to break the ice.
“So, how you finding it here?”
“It’s OK I guess,” he replied.
Breakthrough! Khue had spoken. It may have only been four
words, but it was a start. I would have cracked open the champagne, if I’d had
any (it was slightly outside my price range as a student). The ‘breakthrough’
turned out to be a false dawn, however. Within hours we were back to
dishing out the mutual silent treatment.
After two days of taciturnity, I plucked up the courage to
have another stab at conversation with the Laotian one – and actually got him
to open up a little.
He had moved to the United States with his family in
1989, around the age of eleven (he told me he was now 25 – though still looked
about 11). His family home was now in north Wisconsin and he had seven siblings – five
brothers and two sisters. From that statistic, I gathered television had been a
luxury his family couldn’t afford.
Having thought I’d made some significant progress, in terms of our
house-sharing relationship, I was left feeling like I was back to square one
when he completely blanked me a few days later in college.
My initial reaction
was that this was just ignorance, but I later deduced it was more to do with a
chronic fear of interaction with others. I imagined he must have had a tough
time fitting in at school when he’d initially settled in America, retreating deep into the
bowels of his shell as a result. Enticing him to come out of it now, 14 years
later, was going to be hard work; but I was willing to give it a shot.
Khue was now most comfortable not talking at all. In the
early days of our house-sharingship he spent a huge amount of his time watching
TV. I should reveal at this point that we only had one channel, even if it was
a good one (Fox – The Simpsons, The OC, Arrested Development, to name but three), though the reception was
lousy, with permanent fuzzy snow. That minor detail didn’t stop Khue, though. I
once arrived home to find him watching blue – not porn, but a blue screen. He
was transfixed, mesmerized by it. I wondered whether he’d switched to the video
channel and forgotten to press play.
When he finally got bored of watching a
version of Derek Jarmon’s cult classic Blue
(roughly three days later), Khue decided to amuse himself by reading the
telephone directory. He was genuinely fascinated by it. Such was the intensity,
focus and stellar concentration he displayed, you’d have thought he was
studying for finals.
Over the best part of four months we toughed it out under the
same roof. I felt like Khue’s mum; always clearing up after him; picking up
errant chicken bones; de-plastering the microwave after more sessions of
exploding cheese and vegetable ravioli; and flushing the chain on his behalf. I
don’t think he was intentionally lazy, but just always seemed to forget to do
On one occasion he left me an early morning present. Sometimes Khue managed
to get some pee in the pan, but this time his homing radar must have been
completely on the blink. For me, it was a step too far and I dragged him out of
bed to mop it up. I don’t think he actually used hot water (or any water) or disinfectant;
just the mop – soaking it up into the head, then leaving the latter on the
side. I gave him 4 out of 10; barely a pass.
Khue’s toiletry habits never failed to amuse me. I’d never
known anyone (and still haven’t) who spent a penny (or a pound – he did drink
gallons of water) at such breakneck speed: in; sound of urine hitting water (on
occasion); chain-flush (on very rare occasion); and out – all in about five
seconds. He’d got it down to a fine art; his pitstops as time-efficient as those of Formula One motor racing teams.
Despite all of the above, I found myself developing a soft
spot for the vertically challenged one.
One day something made me hire the film Rainman from the local library – and it dawned on me that I
appeared to have my very own version as a ‘room-mate’ (American students didn’t
seem to be able to distinguish between a room-mate and a house-mate – so just
referred to both as the former).
Someone had commentated Khue may be a little
autistic and, following a bit of internet surfing, their hunch seemed to ring true. The chronic fear of interacting with people; rigidly repeating
habits, such as eating the same food and watching TV for hours on end; being
absent-minded; and having a tendency to spin things (such as key-chains). It
all started to make sense now.
TO BE CONTINUED...