By Sophie Panzer
I met Brynn in an online housing group after the breakup. My ex and I decided we would sublet our one-bedroom in East Passyunk and move to different parts of the city. She moved in with a friend in Fishtown and I started looking for a cheap room anywhere else.
The pictures of Brynn’s place were cute – hardwood floors, renovated bathroom, big windows crowded with houseplants. Looking for a FEMALE roommate to share a gorgeous 2-bedroom apartment!! $550 a month for the smaller room. LGBT-friendly and 420-friendly!!! LGBT and 420 always went together in these posts, as if gay people and weed were basically the same thing.
I messaged her and she invited me to tour the apartment, which was on the second floor of an ancient Victorian in West Philly. I asked her why the room was available and she said she had just broken up with her boyfriend. I told her I was going through something similar and she asked me how soon I could move in.
It wasn’t until after I signed the lease that I learned the finer details of her situation. I came home from work one night to find her sprawled on the living room floor, wine drunk and crying. It turned out her ex was her fiancé , not just her boyfriend, and she hadn’t broken up with him – he had left her for one of his coworkers and moved to Arizona.
“It was two months before our wedding,” she sobbed. “We had a registry and everything.” 1
“Men are trash,” I said, taking the wine glass from her gently.
“We were gonna have babies!” she wailed before suddenly falling asleep.
We were missing a lot of furniture and appliances after losing the items we had shared with our exes. I started browsing our local Buy Nothing for replacements.
“What are you looking at?” she asked me after coming back from the grocery store one day.
“It’s this online group for people to give things away for free,” I said, turning my laptop screen toward her. “Here, this woman up the block from us wants to get rid of a dining room table.”
I messaged the owner and arranged a pickup time. Brynn and I managed to lug the table down the street and up the stairs by ourselves. Once we had positioned it in the corner, she covered it with a light blue table cloth and placed a vase of tulips in the center.
“Beautiful!” she declared.
We brought home an armchair, a coffee maker, a food processor, and a living room rug. Our home was complete – at least, I thought so.
One day Brynn came home with a mosaic-top side table. “Look what I found!’ she said triumphantly.
We already had side tables on both ends of the couch. “Pretty,” I said. “But where are we going to put it?”
She placed the new side table next to a current one. “We can just put it here!”
“Is there a reason you want three?” I asked.
She shrugged. “It looks like the one my fiancé and I had on our registry. I figure I shouldn’t miss out on nice things just because my wedding got called off, right?”
I made a vaguely affirming noise and went back to stalking a girl who had appeared in my ex’s Instagram story.
The next day Brynn came home with a blender. “Perfect for smoothies!”
I reminded her we already had a blender – I had brought one from my old apartment.
“Yeah, but this is a Vitamix,” she said. “My fiancé and I always wanted one of these. It will seriously change your life.”
I asked her if she wanted me to get rid of my blender.
“No, no, we can have two! Always good to have a backup, right?”
I had no idea what kind of blending emergency she was anticipating, but I didn’t resist — I was too busy editing an email asking my ex for joint custody of our monstera plant.
I began to feel annoyed when Brynn asked for my help lifting a bright yellow West Elm armchair up the stairs a week later. “Is this for your room?” I asked, panting.
“No, the living room!” she said cheerfully. When we got the chair through our door she pushed it into a corner next to the chair we already had. The egg yolk color clashed violently with our plum-hued couch.
“I don’t think we need this, Brynn,” I said, wiping sweat from my cheek, but she acted as if she hadn’t heard me.
Over the next few weeks Brynn brought home a writing desk, two waffle makers, a Samsung TV, a velvet ottoman, four teapots, a coffee table, and a toaster. She dragged six carpets into the living room and layered them on top of each other. One day I opened our kitchen cabinet to grab a cereal bowl and a stack of mismatched plates she had snagged fell to the floor, shattering around my feet.
I was angry. I could barely maneuver around the apartment and had just been attacked by ceramics. Whenever I tried to talk to Brynn she responded with some cheerful nonsense about her old registry. If I tried to point out we were running out of space, she ignored me entirely.
One day I caught her dragging a crib through our front door.
“What the actual fuck,” I said.
“Don’t worry, it’s for my room!” she said. She pushed the thing over the lumpy layers of carpet covering our floors, nudged it into her bedroom, and shut the door.
That night I heard Brynn talking to someone. I couldn’t make out any words but I could hear vague murmurs and crooning. At one point she began to sing something that sounded like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.”
I didn’t sleep.
The next day she left for work early and I crept into her room. It was full of crap I hadn’t even seen her bring home – bean bag chairs and dressers and floor lamps and an electric keyboard poking out of her closet. The crib was crammed at the foot of her queen-sized bed.
I walked closer, peered over the bars, and met the glassy blue gaze of a baby doll. It had a tuft of blonde hair, plump plastic limbs, and a stained pink onesie. It looked like it had been rejected by a five-year-old.
Maybe it was the sleep deprivation. Maybe it was resentment that my ex wouldn’t grant me access to our jointly purchased plant. Maybe it was a defensive reaction to learning that I was living with a deranged person. All I knew was that the sight of the doll sent me into a rage so overwhelming I tore the plastic head from its cloth body. A weak mechanical cry emitted from a noisemaker lodged in its cotton guts.
I took the dismembered toy out of the apartment and down the alleyway at the side of the building. Our landlord kept a dumpster there. I lifted the lid, tossed the doll parts inside, and went to work.
When I came home I was so tired I fell into bed with my clothes on. A few hours later, I felt myself being shaken awake.
“What did you do to her?” Brynn demanded. She had turned on the light and grabbed me by the shoulders. Her eyes were so wide I thought they would roll out of their sockets.
“Get off me!” I yelped, shoving her to the ground.
She started screaming incomprehensibly. The only words I could make out were “my baby” and “thief.” She grabbed a glass paperweight from my desk and threw it at the wall.
I grabbed my jacket, pushed past her, and ran out of the apartment.
It was two in the morning. I ran until I reached Clark Park and sat down on a bench, trying to decide what to do. Could I call the police? Her parents? My parents?
For the first time since the breakup, I had the desperate, vulnerable urge to call my ex. I took out my phone and stared at her contact photo, wrestling with myself over whether to tap the little green button.
I managed to convince myself there was no way she would pick up; she had always slept like the dead. I could never wake her for comfort after a nightmare back when we shared a bed.
An hour passed, then two. I was getting cold and concerned about murder. I decided I would go back, lock myself in my room, pack a suitcase, and take a train to my parents’ house in Connecticut. I had just gotten up to leave when I heard the sirens.
I arrived back at the building to see flames billowing from the second floor windows. Firefighters were spraying the walls with hoses and occupants were huddled on the street. I approached my downstairs neighbors, a group of college students.
“Is everyone ok?” I asked a 19-year-old wearing a bathrobe and hugging her cat to her chest.
“I think everyone is out except your roommate,” she said.
Later, the firefighters said they found Brynn dead on the floor of her bedroom. In one hand, she held a book of matches. In the other, she cradled the charred remains of another doll.
Sophie Panzer is the author of the chapbooks Survive July (Red Bird Chapbooks 2019), Mothers of the Apocalypse (Ethel Press 2019), and Bone Church (dancing girl press 2020). Her work appears or is forthcoming in New World Writing, Heavy Feather Review, MAYDAY, hex literary, The Lumiere Review, and others. She lives in Philadelphia.