Hold Up

By Wren Brennan
Volume 1//Personal Essay

On cleaning charts, mandatory house dates, and sometimes staying home from the party to be with the women you love.

Paige sits with headphones on, nodding her head and typing fervently on her computer. Her feet, propped up on the arm of the couch, match the beat.

Zoey has already retreated to her room, but not before leaving a stack of notes on the table, fanned out and dog-eared for the next morning. Even this small task is done with such care. Hannah, meanwhile, is sprawled out on the floor, tracing a complicated-looking diagram on oversized, translucent paper. Her pencil is a blur across the page, shading geometric shapes that might be trees. She and Paige work side by side, but occupy different worlds.

Without asking, I know Paige is listening to a new song she loves (probably on repeat) and writing something new (something for fun, not for work). I shift from my seat at the table, collect my mug of tea and my book, and nod in her direction. She knows without asking that I decided not to stay up to watch a show with her. She nods and gives a small smile before tuning back in.

—————

“Wren… Hey, Wren.” Now Paige is whispering, trying politely, but urgently, to wake me up. “Do you hear a weird noise? Because I hear a noise.” She knocks softly on my door and comes in without turning the light on. “There it is! Wren, what is it?”

“I hear it.” It’s a sharp, chirping sound, and it’s not friendly.

“It’s probably the smoke alarm,” I say, glancing at my phone. It’s two-thirty in the morning and I’m certain my body is moving in slow motion. I follow her out of my room. In the hallway, the noise is blaring. “OK it’s definitely the smoke alarm. Out of batteries maybe.”

“Oh my god. Good. I thought it was the carbon monoxide thing.” She is talking faster than usual. “Wren I was freaking out. It sounded like it was coming from inside my room.”

The hostile chirps are back, this time longer and more insistent.

“Um. Ok. Shit. I’m turning the light on.”

For a few seconds, we squint at each other in the hallway. We’re both in our underwear and big t-shirts. My hair must be as messy and lopsided as hers is. The smoke detector above our heads lets out another, louder cry. We glare up at the thing, indignant that it had decided to make a scene in the middle of the night.

“What the fuck.”

“It’s got to be the batteries.”

“I’ll get a stool!” She disappears into the kitchen.

“I’ll Google,” I call after her, thumbing half-nonsense inquiries into my phone. How to make smoke detector stop shouting. What if batteries are dead but no off switch? What if smoke alarm wired to wall?

Paige stands on tiptoes on a wooden stool, aimlessly prodding the smoke detector. I steady the stool with one hand while scanning my search responses.

“Ok do you see a reset switch?”

“Maybe. There’s a button.”

The third bedroom door opens and Zoey appears, pushing her glasses onto her nose and wrapping herself in a bathrobe. The three of us huddle at the end of the long hallway.

She sighs. “I’ll call Calvin tomorrow and have him come up.” Calvin, our elderly landlord, is usually helpful with these things. “You guys got this,” she says, part question, part affirmation.

I turn back to Paige. “How about the fuse box?”

When I pull open the grey panel on the wall, Calvin’s carefully handwritten labels cover the switchboard corner-to-corner. “If I flip the breaker we can just cut the power on this side for now, right?”

“Maybe?”

“Should I do it?”

More malevolent bleeps from the ceiling.

“Do it! It’s a good idea.”

The light above us snuffs out along with the noise. Order, and quiet, is restored.

—————

It was one of those momentary crises that after the fact feel trivial. As it turned out, Hannah had slept through the entire ordeal at the other end of the hall.

“Yikes. It sounds like that time someone left the stove on and I woke up thinking you were all dead!” she’d told me the next day. “Glad you’re safe.” Hannah is an optimist at heart, but she tends to imagine the worst-case scenario. I know and love this about her.

Our run-in with the smoke detector may have been incidental, but it was not insignificant. I woke up feeling grateful for the company of my housemates, glad that they were there to keep me on my toes. It was a reminder that breaks in routine are important sometimes. They force us to be more creative with what we have to bring us closer to what we want.

If we had known how unrealistic our plan was at the time, we probably wouldn’t have driven to San Francisco, the most expensive city on the map, with no jobs and no apartment. But we didn’t know, and at the time, having each other was enough.

Everything was unknown then, so everything felt better, and worse, than ever before. We sought each other out as tethers to steady the ground beneath our feet. There was the excitement of packing up and moving to a new city, of finding new hobbies and work and ways to challenge ourselves. The pain of losing loved ones too early. The hopelessness of unemployment. The relationships and flings that introduced us to new friends or unexplored neighborhoods. When one of us grew from a new experience, we all benefited from the exposure. By that logic, we all had a stake in each other’s well-being. And we trusted each other immensely because of it.

It’s common, in the Bay Area at least, to have roommates throughout your twenties. But when I tell people that I’m living with three of my closest female friends who I’ve known for a decade, they are usually surprised. A lot of people, especially women, have told me that I’m lucky.

These days, we all have separate schedules, separate lives. We are more distanced from one another than when we were 22 and living in a forced two-bedroom behind a garage with no heat and no natural light. We’ve grown apart in other ways as we’ve become more independent and embraced communities of our own.

That’s why, when the smoke alarm goes off in the middle of the night, we’re momentarily surprised that a simple intrusion requires us to come together. But before long, we can’t help but be proud of our collective success. Every now and then, there are those small moments when we hold each other up. It feels like being wrapped in a warm blanket before you even realize you’re cold.

Like so many other emotions, it appears when I least expect it. It’s when we make a last-minute call to skip the party and go see a movie together. Or when we argue over the cleaning chart, then throw in the towel and order Thai food instead of vacuuming. It’s sneaking in small words of advice and comfort for one another without asking or being asked.

Our latest house outing was a welcome break in routine. We went to see Broad City’s Abbi Jacobson in conversation with Carrie Brownstein, who gave us Sleater-Kinney and Portlandia. The two artists spent the evening discussing comedy, growing older, and the importance of trying new things. It was a celebration of female friendship. It was quiet radicalism. It was the blanket feeling, times a million.