Taru and Matches are characters from my first comic, 'Slightly Off Campus,' that I drew for the George Mason University Student Newspaper. I thought it'd be fun to put 'em in prose and see what happened.
At the dawn of his second semester, Taru Hibokusha was of two minds about college. One the one hand, he was away from his mother; he couldn’t stand the woman. Taru’s mom was as exacerbating as she was manipulative. There was a distinct lack of compassion or understanding in Mrs. Hibokusha. She had a special brand of carefully cultivated ignorance that came from years of prejudice, paranoia and absolutely no sense of humor. She was the sort of person who stood outside the men’s room in a public place and shouted comments to you through the door like,
“What’s taking so long? Remember to wash your hands! Don’t let your bottom touch the toilet seat – that’s how you get AIDS! Are you playing with yourself?”
A young man could only endure that for so many years before he lost it. Taru knew it would come down to his applying for a college that was at the other end of the state, or murder. His acceptance to Hubris University had successfully quelled any impulses to smother his mother while she napped on the couch. Instead he’d rented a truck and moved himself onto the campus. He had switched majors from pre-med to digital arts behind her back and changed his mailing address to that of an obliging Uncle so she’d never find out. Despite the guilty pit in his stomach, he was enjoying his new classes in Art History and learning which end of a charcoal stick to use (as it turned out, you could use either end). He was finally living his own life.
The other hand of college consisted entirely of his roommate, Matches. Which wasn’t to say he was necessarily a bad guy. He was just… weird. Taru had always thought that he liked weird things. After all, he’d watched every episode of Monty Python and Kids in the Hall. Those were weird, right? Taking photographs of bathroom fixtures and drains that looked like faces and sending them to happychair.com was weird, right? Hell, even Taru’s roommate last semester, Dan the lacrosse-player, kept calling him “weirdo.” Matches, however, was like a black hole of common sense that warped all space around him. Talking to Matches for more than three minutes gave Taru vertigo. He’d always be lying on his back on the top bunk, or sprawled on the make-shift couch (made of piles of newspapers and laundry) just spouting nonsense.
“If we had a spaceship, we could visit the Planet of the Apes. I think It’d be more fun to be an ape than a human on the Ape Planet though. But if they think humans are dumber than monkeys, it’ probly be okay to fling your poo and scratch your balls all day. I bet the apes had evolved beyond the poo-flinging thing. Oh wait. The Planet of the Apes was Earth right? Damn. There goes that idea, which is too bad ‘cause I know a guy who could hook us up with the spaceship thing.”
That was the weird thing. Matches always used “we” in his little speeches, like he’d already included Taru in his plans. This baffled Taru since Matches only seemed dimly aware that Taru existed. He never used his name; Taru was “Roomie,” “Hey You,” and occasionally, “Hey Dumb-ass.” Taru got the feeling that roommates were a constant presence in Matches’ life, to the point where their actual identities were a minor quibbling detail. He acted as if he’d had a lot of roommates.
Nobody knew how old Matches was. He was a skinny scarecrow of a guy with knotted brown hair, which he kept back in a greasy ponytail. His eyes might have been brown if they weren’t constantly bloodshot and a little jaundiced. He looked about twenty-two, but according to rumor, he’d been twenty-two for some years now, which didn’t explain why he was still a freshman. Nobody knew what his real name was. He was called Matches because he smoked constantly (which Taru was sure was against the rules) and instead of using a bic lighter, like everyone else, used actual matches. Nobody knew what his real name was. After three weeks of rooming with him, Taru still didn’t know where he kept them, or his neverending supply of cigarettes.
Matches never bathed. There was a constant funk hanging around him that smelled of dirty hair, stale pizza rolls, nicotine and feet. He only appeared to have one set of clothes, which included; a stretched out wife-beater that might have once been white; baggy torn jeans that were so coated with grime that they were waterproof; and flip-flops which he never took off. The flip-flops made Taru nauseous just looking at them. They were the cheap $5 kind that you got at Walmart; they were plastered allover with the logo for Corona beer, which was barely legible through the thick patina of brown foot creosote. To say he never bathed was not exactly true, but what little time he spent in the shower did nothing to kill his musky stench. Soap was probably not involved. He would emerge from the bathroom smelling of wet dog and Taru would have to go for a walk suddenly. Taru had lived with the persistent Eau du Matches by spraying his roommate with Febreeze while he slept.
Matches slept seventeen hours a day, or so it seemed. Taru would get up in the dark, get dressed, go to his job at the campus bookstore and Matches would be asleep. If Taru came back some time in the afternoon to grab his books or a forgotten lunch card, Matches would still be asleep. Later in the evening when Taru got back from his last class and after eating his nightly dinner of Pringles, SlimJims and Code Red Mountain Dew, he’d return to the dorm to find… Matches still asleep AND it would appear that he hadn’t moved all day! Matches would roll out of the top bunk at about 10:45pm and would then torment Taru by playing his PS2 all night. It didn’t appear that he went to any classes, but then how was he not expelled or on academic probation?
One day, Taru decided to find out if Matches really was as sedentary as he appeared. While the morning was still young, Taru retrieved from his pocket a length of twine he’d taken from the Art Department. He tied one end securely to the foot of the Matches’ bed. The other end he looped gingerly through the thong of Matches’ filthy flip-flop. He felt a knot harden in his stomach. This was potentially a very stupid stunt. He’d yet to see Matches get really mad, except at some virtual enemy in a video game. He’d seen enough though to know that he didn’t want to be at the receiving end of those swears and threats. Curiosity won out in the end, however, and Taru left with his trap in place.
When he returned to the dorm that night, a cold feeling seized hold of his insides and squeezed. The room was empty. The fetid top bunk was abandoned as was the ‘couch’ and the Playstation. Taru fumbled for the light-switch and upon its illumnation, Taru saw that the room contained a single sheet of paper in the middle of the floor. Taru approached the piece of loose leaf with the extreme caution usually reserved for undetonated warheads and envelopes containing white powder. With shaking hands he retrieved it from the barf-colored carpet and examined it. It was a page torn out of one of his notebooks, he knew this because it contained some of his notes on Brunelleschi and the Florentine Chapel. On the reverse side, which Taru had left blank, was a single sentence written in ballpoint pen.
“I am going to get you.”
It was written in a slanted cramped hand, like that of a serial killer. Taru shuddered. He stared at the paper until well after midnight. He wasn’t sure when, but he must have fallen asleep while he was still dressed. He knew he was in a deep comfortable sleep because he remembered being rudely awoken from it by an air horn being fired directly next to his ears. He jumped upwards like he’d been spring-loaded and knocked his head on the metal support bar under Matches’ bed. The next few seconds were consumed by his ringing ears and his throbbing head. Then a familiar odor penetrated his nostrils and he looked to his left. There was Matches, holding the air horn and looking deadly serious. Cowed by his expression, Taru was afraid to return his stare.
“Look, I’m sorry about the flip-flop thi–“ he started but was interrupted.
“You had stopped breathing,” said Matches in his croaky voice.
“What?” asked Taru in alarm.
“Yeah. I think you might have sleep apnea or something. You might want to get that checked out. Don't’ worry, I’m a light sleeper, I’ll keep an eye on you.”
“You saved me?” asked Taru aghast.
“Pretty much,” said Matches with a shrug.
“This wasn’t some revenge for the flip-flop thing?”
“Well I suppose I didn’t have to use the air-horn,” conceded Matches.
Taru didn’t know what to say, he could only stare in surprise at this strange smelly man who’d saved him from dying in his sleep.
“Thank you,” he managed after a moment.
“No prob,” said Matches lightly as he jumped back into the top bunk.
“I thought you were still mad over the flip flop thing,” said Taru, determined to probe the issue.
“Nah, I got over it,” was Matches muffled reply as he hit the lights using a coat hanger and flopping into his bed.
Taru relaxed a little.
“…Especially since I poured a bottle of Grape Soda into your CPU,” added Matches.