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House of Culture

It was a week before my last semester when I packed my bags and moved into the university’s Intercultural House. I was studying for a Masters Degree in International Affairs, and events had conspired to bring me to the stone steps of the ‘IC House’ as it was affectionally called.

I’d spent the three previous semesters of the first year of grad school living in a bright, spacious, two-bedroom apartment in a high-rise building in a tony neighborhood.

Why didn’t I simply extend the lease, you ask?

I had a final semester of classes left during which I would also complete a part-time internship with an international non-governmental organization (NGO) in downtown Pittsburgh. I’d be graduating in December, and had no idea where life would take me or what I’d be doing other than pounding the pavement trying to find a job – any job – during a particularly pernicious recession.

The last thing I needed was a large monthly rent bill coming due on the first of each month.

I also needed to escape my edgy, kohl-rimmed, punk-emulating, neurobiology doctorate-seeking, California girl apartment-mate who’d taken to bringing unknown men home on a frequent basis.

You’d think that walking in the door to be introduced to ‘Seth’ with the safety pin in his pale cheek would have been the wake-up call to move out.

‘He’s going to be staying with us a couple days,’ she explained as she wrapped herself around his skinny frame, a boa constrictor casually sizing up its prey. ‘He’s either registering for classes or else he might catch up with Romeo Void on tour.’

Ah yes, they of the telling line ‘I might like you better if we slept together…maybe say maybe but never say never’.

It could have been my being forced to make small talk with the embarrassed young Saudi man who suddenly appeared one evening in our living room as she made a beeline down the hallway to her bedroom to ‘entertain’ his friend.

‘This is Mohammed Al-Salah,’ she giggled, nodding toward the tall man trailing after her. ‘And this is Ali Al-Wa…Wa… Wa something, but we just call them Mo and Al.’

But no.

It was the pounding on the front door a week later by the enraged wife of the unemployed steelworker my roommate had met (read: picked up) while moonlighting as a parking valet temp at the upscale French restaurant nearby.

Listening to the scorned woman’s vividly graphic threats as her fists pummeled the metal door sealed the deal for me. I’d be seeking other accommodations, thank you very much.

And so I found myself on the front porch of a stately, three-story brick home on the edge of an iffy neighborhood that couldn’t quite decide when it would be tipping over into downright downscale.

The house was in surprisingly good shape for having seen a parade of ‘interculturalists’ over the years. I qualified for tenancy by virtue of my degree program, the rent was cheap and I could stay as long or short as needed.

Even the fact that I’d have to share a room for the first time in ages didn’t dissuade me. Valerie was a pensive Jamaican woman who’d had to leave her fiancé and two year old daughter behind while she attained a Masters degree in Library Science on her government’s dime.

‘Ya come here now, Miss Leenda,’ she said, grabbing the handle of my smaller suitcase and drawing me into the front hall. ‘Come. Sit. I a make you salted cod fritters and peas, and we talk awhile.’

Her regal bearing and kindly manner told me I wouldn’t be dealing with the likes of Cali Girl’s shenanigans with this roommate.

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To be continued…

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