There I was in the grocery, pressing the ends of a cantaloupe and sniffing it, trying to decide if it was ripe. Across the produce section, I spotted my landlord. I waved, a normal courtesy I extended the two times a year I happened upon him in real life. He left his cart, and came rushing towards me. As he came closer, I realized he was mad. “Why haven’t you paid your rent in four months?” he yelled.
I felt adrenaline surge through my body. What was he talking about? I always paid my rent. Never so much as a day late. Every month, a week before it was due, I wrote a check to my roommate and best friend, Leah*.
She would cash my check and make out one for the full amount of our rent — $1,400 — to our landlord since, when we moved in two years before, he had requested that the rent be paid to him in a single check.
And that’s when the light bulb went off over my head. I knew for sure that I had paid my rent money to Leah. But I had no idea whether she actually passed the money on. I started to shake as I realized that my best friend might be stealing from me. For months.
Let’s back up.
Leah and I met in the 9th grade, instantly bonding the first day of “Human Health and Anatomy” when it became obvious that our teacher was afraid to say the word “penis.” We were close friends all through high school. While we went to college at schools states away, we always kept in touch. After graduation, we were pumped to move to San Francisco together and get an apartment, just the two of us.
The first few months were great. We made dinners together. We watched TV on DVDs into the wee hours of the night. We threw theme parties. We both stuck to the chore wheel, and the place stayed surprisingly clean.
Then things started to change. Dishes piled up in the sink. The music she played late at night started to drive me nuts, since I got a full-time job that required me to get up at the crack of dawn. She started dating a guy who, for lack of a better word, was a smug prick. He basically moved into our place, too. And since she only worked part-time, there were all the more hours in the day for them to systematically distribute their stuff into every corner of the apartment. I started holing myself up in my room to avoid them. I’d even volunteer to stay late at work.
My friendship with Leah was seriously strained. I questioned why I hadn’t just found a roommate on Craigslist rather than move in with her. People always warn you not to live with your good friends!
Luckily, the pendulum swung back. A year and a half into our roommateship, Leah finally broke up with the guy. We quickly returned to being best friends. We’d hang out virtually every night, whether we went out to our local bar or stayed in and did face masks. My apartment started to feel warm and welcoming again.
And then came the confrontation with my landlord in the grocery store. His tone quickly changed from angry to concerned when he realized that I had no idea what he was talking about. “I paid Leah my rent, every month,” I said.
“Talk to your roommate,” he replied.
My pulse started to race when I heard Leah’s key in the door that night.
I mean, maybe she started sending the checks to the wrong address?
I decided to go with the latter. “Hey,” I said. “I ran into our landlord at the grocery store. And he says he hasn’t gotten our rent in four months?” I twirled the words up, as if they were a question.
I saw tears well up in Leah’s eyes. “I am so, so sorry,” she said. “My job has never paid enough to cover my living expenses, and in January, my parents cut me off.” She burst into tears. “I’ve been trying to find a second job, but haven’t even gotten a call back from anywhere I’ve applied.”
“So you’ve just been pocketing my rent money for months?” I said, flabbergasted at the truth that was coming out.
“I am so sorry,” she said. “I thought for sure I could get another job and catch up. And before I knew it, four months had gone by.”
“That’s called embezzling,” I said. “If you needed money, why didn’t you just ask?”
“Because you’re always so on top of everything. I’m sick of always being the f**k-up,” she said. “I wanted to fix it on my own.”
My face felt red. I was so angry at what she had done. And yet, I didn’t want her to think of herself as the “f**k up,” because that wasn’t how I saw her at all.
I moved out of the apartment a week later. Before I left, I went to our landlord’s office and paid him my half of the rent for the last four months, $2,800. It was all my savings. Leah promised that she would pay me back.
We didn’t speak for three months. While I was still angry, I did miss her. My new roommate was clean and quiet, but also boring. Hardly the kind of girl to start a Madonna sing-a-long on a Sunday morning. Finally, Leah broke the silence with an email. “I wanted to tell you that I got a new job and am making much more now,” she said. We worked out a payment plan. I was hugely relieved when she stuck to it.
For another year, we were just acquaintances. I’d see her at parties, and we’d say hello, but there was an obvious white elephant in the room. Still, I’d get a check from her every month, paying back some of the money she owed me.
I don’t remember the exact moment that I realized I wasn’t mad at Leah anymore. But eventually, I decided to forgive her. I realized that we had too much history and too many good times to let a few thousand dollars end it forever. Even in that first confrontation we had, I could tell that she was truly sorry and realized she had done a messed-up thing. I believed that she would never do anything like that to betray my trust again. And in the grand scheme of things, what is money compared to someone who gives you love and support through job changes, breakups, deaths, and all of life’s other turbulences?
I realized that, while I hadn’t done anything “wrong” in the situation, I played a part in what went down, too. If I’d ever really asked Leah what was going on—with work, with her family—she might have told me that she was in a financial bind. I hadn’t noticed that anything was up at all, and friends should pick up on these things. I also realized through this whole ordeal that I am someone who expects perfection from my friends. When I feel they “fail me,” I shut them out. I realized that I can’t do that—that I have to accept people for their flaws, too. Or else I’ll have friends who aren’t comfortable coming to me with their problems.
I decided to call Leah for the first time in forever. I asked her if she wanted to go out on Friday night. When we met at a bar, and gave each other a big, long hug, I knew I’d made the right decision.
It’s been several years and I’m happy to say that Leah and I are still great friends. I’ve learned to trust her again, to the point where it even feels funny to write this essay because this chapter of our lives has been closed for so long.
Leah is true blue. I know we’ll be friends until we’re little old ladies. I realize now that even a great person can do a crappy thing in a moment of weakness. And that, when the damage is done, you have to just forgive them.
*Names have been changed.