My roommate, the neo-Nazi – Bret Serbin

I was camping when the shooting started. As I inched back into cell phone service, I learned that it had taken place in Pittsburgh. Then Squirrel Hill. Then a synagogue. I was too scared to ask my father about our family there.

I eventually learned that our great aunt had stayed home sick from services that day, narrowly escaping the deadliest attack ever against the Jewish community in the United States.

As I drove out of Pittsburgh eight months later, she was one of many people I realized I was leaving behind. I was headed west, approximately 2,000 miles, to a Montana city of just 20,000 people—and no synagogue.

That was hardly a concern for someone with Jewish ties as tenuous as the fraying bungee cords strapping my bike onto the rack behind my car while I sped westward through Ohio, then Indiana, then Illinois. But as my path crawled north and the familiar midwestern scenery was relegated to my mirrors, I began to feel out of place.

A circle of ominous billboards sporting Jesus iconography and damnation messaging greeted me as I chugged into the city, but I hardly noticed them amid the looming mountains and bright yellow canola fields.

When I arrived at the apartment I had rented from Craigslist to serve as my summer stopover, I brushed off my feelings of displacement, hauled in my few belongings, and collapsed into my basement room.

It had taken me three days and thirty hours driving by myself in a green VW Beetle before I made it to Montana, and when I woke up there on my first morning, I felt relieved. The energy coursing through me made itself known in the way my impossibly curly hair poked out around my head, but I didn’t bother to fix it before bounding into the shared kitchen for breakfast.

There I found the first of my three roommates, all strangers, with his back to me as he bent over the sink. He was tall and thin, clad all in black with a meticulously shaved head. He turned around when he heard me come into the kitchen and cheerily asked, “How do you like Montana?”

I grinned. “I just got here,” I admitted, “but it’s beautiful.”

I had moved for a newspaper job, my first, but I had truly been drawn my Montana’s unparalleled natural wonders. Skiing. Hiking. Camping. The possibilities stretched before me like the unending yellow lines on U.S. 2 that had guided me to my new home.

“There’s a lot of neo-Nazis here,” said my roommate, who called himself Noah.

I felt myself recoil, the bouncy curls on my head springing with the suddenness of the movement.

“Oh,” I stammered. “That’s not good.”

“Actually, it is,” Noah deadpanned. And with that, he left the room.

Despite the odd introduction, Noah quickly faded from my focus that first week in Montana. I moved in my things, went to my first day at work and walked around the quaint town with its sculpture of a rock climber ascending the brick façade of the independent sporting goods store on Main Street.

I called to find a new doctor and listened as they listed off the religious affiliation options at the office: Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist. I rode my bike on the rail-trail that stretched west of town, then turned around and noticed the wooden sign at the entrance of the city limits: “The churches of Kalispell welcome you.”And I read, with growing trepidation, as a coworker at the paper identified seven organized hate groups across the state, including four within 15 miles of my apartment.

When I got home from work during my second week, Noah was waiting for me in the kitchen.

He innocently asked me what about my day, and I frantically sought a safe topic. I told him about the electronics manager I had interviewed and his array of televisions broadcasting the latest Marvel movie.

Noah scoffed. “Don’t you know those movies just tell you what they want you to think?”

He said “they” like a person who had just learned about gender-neutral pronouns, with heavy, disdainful emphasis. I swallowed and made my way past him.

“I saw that green bug of yours,” he called after me. “You must be very liberal.”

“I…I just like the aesthetic,” I mumbled.

I didn’t dare turn around to see the expression he was wearing underneath his gleaming shaved head. “It’s okay,” he assured me. “I’m working on my anger. I can’t afford to get into any more trouble with the law.”

I hurried into my room and closed the flimsy door.

After that encounter, I slept with my bear spray on my night stand and tried to avoid Noah as much as possible. It wasn’t hard, since he was nocturnal, but the few times our paths crossed I learned more than I ever wanted about the firearm arsenal stashed in his bedroom and his supposed love for outdoor activities, even though his translucent skin begged for vitamin D.

Noah didn’t tell me, however, about the neo-Nazi march planned just around the same time he arrived to town three years earlier, in which a cadre of Noah types organized to descend upon a Jewish real estate agent’s home to make her feel monstrously unwelcome.

When I told my mom about the event, she begged me to leave the apartment, even though I had sunk a six-week deposit into living there. Still, I wavered.

It wasn’t until swastikas began appearing in public spaces and I started reporting on them for the paper—listening, inexplicably, as local Christians took it upon themselves to explain the imagery to me—that I decided to leave.

I packed my bags with as little ruckus as possible, stacking them delicately in my small basement room until I was almost certain Noah had left for the night. I met the landlady to explain, haltingly, why I was leaving, then heaved my possessions up the stairs and out into the growing darkness where my Beetle waited.

Though I had carried little to Montana, it still took a few trips, and I was anxious and panting before I finally came back for my skis. I surveyed the small room with its single rectangular window, closed the thin door behind me and began padding up the final set of stairs.

I suddenly stopped just below the landing, where an interior door opened from the basement. Behind it, I heard a male voice mumbling. I looked back down the stairwell behind me, realizing with dread that I could never maneuver my bulky skis down the steps before the person behind the door would see me fleeing.

I stood paralyzed on the top stair, trying to remember which bag contained my bear spray, and listened as the mumbling stopped and the door handle clicked.

There stood my fourth roommate, a young man I almost never saw, with his headphones plugged into each ear.

“You leaving?” he asked quizzically.

I just nodded, sliding into the space he vacated for me at the top of the stairs. And like my Ukrainian immigrant ancestors, my great aunt in Pittsburgh, and millions of Jews before me, I escaped.


Bret is a journalist in Montana. Her nonfiction has been featured in Deep Wild Journal and Bi Women Quarterly. Her work is also forthcoming in Archer Magazine and Decolonial Passage. She graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in English. She’s originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.


2 thoughts on “My roommate, the neo-Nazi – Bret Serbin

  1. Pingback: Selected Nonfiction – By Bret

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