Someone told me once that if you put a frog in a pot of cold water, then slowly turn up the heat, the frog won’t notice the change, and suddenly it’s boiling. Like my college roommate, who one day started working as a Denny’s waitress and then ended up in a mental hospital. It all happened slowly. I was like the frog in that pot.
It started out innocently enough. We were friends from the same dorm in college, she’d just broken up with her boyfriend, and my old roommate had gone back to Indiana. We rented this really nice condo behind our favorite coffee house in Costa Mesa
Indiana. We rented this really nice condo behind our favorite coffee house in Costa Mesa
Perhaps my first warning sign should have been Denny’s. It does seem like everyone who works there gives off a similar vibe—a certain kind of sad desperation that can be found only at all-night restaurants where you can get both a steak and a breakfast burrito. It’s all just a little too much—a little too much makeup, a little too much artificial cheer in the voice. My friend stayed too long, and Denny’s got to her.
First, it was the graveyard shift. My friend already had a job, working at Charlotte Russe in South Coast Plaza.
She was some kind of manager, or at least had some position that required her to carry a see-through plastic purse and wear a green spirally coil with keys around her upper arm. She put in some pretty long hours there, so when she accepted the 9pm to 5am shift at our local Denny’s, I was a little surprised. How, exactly, does one work 9am to 5pm, then from 9pm to 5am? This seemed impossible, and though I admired my friend, I had my doubts. But, she said, she had “responsibilities,” and debts to pay off, and it was only for the summer. She could handle it. Looking back, maybe that was the time to intervene.
South Coast Plaza.
It was a few weeks before signs of wear really started to show. Then I started to notice she had gained weight, and began constantly swearing and drinking nothing but coffee to stay awake. Word to the wise—there is a certain coffee level required to work two full time jobs, and any variance can set you off the edge. Taunt an under-caffienated Denny’s waitress, and take your chances.
The next thing to go was housework. A person who works 16 hours a day does not care about cleanliness, I soon learned. I started cleaning the entire house every Sunday, including her room. After awhile, I started charging her $20 a week for this service—I figured it was a discount off my rent for having to clean up five-day-old bowls of Lucky Charms eaten in the middle of the night then abandoned in the living room, or washing two week’s worth of Denny’s uniforms all at once because I couldn’t stand the smell. This system actually worked for awhile, maybe because I had my own job, summer school, and other friends to keep me occupied. Or maybe the water was just getting hotter, and I was adapting. Just like the frog. Summer came and went. My friend enrolled in one class instead of sticking to her original plan of returning fulltime to school, saying that she still needed to “get her head on straight.” Because two full time jobs and school were impossible, she chose the job she thought would be more flexible.
That’s right. She chose Denny’s. They gave her the day shift, and she began a cycle of school, Denny’s, homework, more Denny’s. Even this seemed normal, until the day I went to see if she was in her room, and found this sign on the door:
“ALL NON WICCANS KEEP OUT.”
Since I didn’t know what this meant, I opened the door to find a large chalk circle drawn on the carpet, spanning the length of the room. “Wow,” I thought. “Now we’re never going to get our deposit back.”
I soon learned the cause of the circle. Her name was Carrie Something, and the first time I saw her, I knew the situation was much worse than I had originally suspected. Carrie Something had a big ass, bad skin, and stringy, permed hair. She chain-smoked menthol cigarettes. She was, as my mom would say, “not a class act.” A fellow Denny’s graveyard shift waitress, Carrie had apparently turned my friend on to the magic of Wicca, and to the magic of crystal meth.
She and my friend were inseparable. Soon, college courses were dropped in favor of lengthy discussions about “bad vibes,” and Carrie could usually be found at our kitchen table or in my friend’s room, which I was now not allowed into. More people followed—two assuredly underage boys who might have also been members of the Denny’s cult, and a black dog named Shadow with a penchant for crapping in the living room.
In case you’re keeping score, we’re now up to the following:
Condo: 3 bedrooms, 2 baths.
Before Denny’s: 3 roommates, 2 cats.
After Denny’s: 6 roommates (4 in one room), 2 cats, 1 dog, 1 chalk circle, many scented candles.
In the midst of all this, I tried to keep it together. I attend my classes and went to my after-school job, pretending like everything was going to be okay. But the water was getting hotter. Something was definitely wrong. I started staying at school for as long as I could, coming home when I thought the fewest people would be there, and then running upstairs, and locking the door. But then there was the note.
One day, I tacked a note to the refrigerator (which by now was filled solely with beer and herbs) in which I had carefully divided the utility and phone bills. My note was discussed at length by the group, which then sent Carrie as their emissary.
“Lori, do you know what a 5150 is?”
“No, Carrie. Enlighten me.”
“A 5150 is when you call the cops and you say someone’s trying to break in your house, so you killed them. That’s what we’re going to do to you if you don’t watch out.”
My first thought: “Did she just threaten to kill me over the Electric Bill?
My second thought: “Is it even possible to break into your own house?”
My third thought: “This situation is insane. Get out! Get out!”
I started looking for new apartments the next day, but in the middle of the semester with no money, housing options were slim to none.
One night, right before finals, I realized I’d waited too long to get out, and I’d been cooked like that frog. With a paper to do and nowhere to plug in my computer, I locked myself in my room, and listened as the group downstairs discussed ways to “smoke her out” and “not let her sleep till she leaves again.” When 3 A.M came around, a note appeared under my door, in what appeared to be my (former) friend’s handwriting.
I dreamed that you are an evil spirit named Sara, and that you manifest in a swarm of bumblebees. Stay out of my dreams.
That was it. I left the next morning and never slept there again, returning only to move my furniture. A group of ten of them were living there at that point, and they watched and laughed as another friend and I struggled with furniture, boxes, and clothing. If we dropped something, they cheered. If they saw us straining, they laughed. We were their entertainment that night.
I ended up sleeping one night in my friend Brian’s garage, couching surfing for awhile, then moving in with my pseudo-boyfriend, who was about as thrilled as I was to be taking our relationship to this next level. What could I do? I was desperate. I’ve heard the same thing happens when you try to quit Scientology.
Later, like maybe six months later, I was reading a book at that same coffee house, when my friend came up and sat down next to me. She looked like herself again—a world away from the beady-eyed, stringy-haired speed-freak hippie Wiccan girl who kicked me out of my own apartment. I didn’t know where to put all the feelings. She told me a short, sad story about how it had all ended, and I imagined the details were far worse than the summary. There was mention of her parents getting involved, a brief stay at a mental institution, and now AA and an engagement to a plumber named Lenny. She looked normal enough. Not normal enough for us to bridge the chasm of weirdness that had formed between us, in which lie the death of our friendship. But normal.
To this day, Denny's still scares me a little.