Small, Safe Places

by A. D. Ross

I can’t stop changing apartments. No matter how nice the view, I’m always tempted away by the promise of some impossible place fit for Plato’s perfect forms.

When I was eighteen, I signed my first lease, a twelve-month rental in Richmond, VA. Eager to live in one of the historic, decaying city apartments, I pushed the honey hair away from my eyes and signed over the next year of my life. The apartment was cheap and walking-distance from the university where I attended art school. I didn’t bother over flooring, window treatments, or updated kitchen appliances. All I cared about was surviving on my wage working at the University Community Center. When I saw the high ceilings, the rustic wooden floors, I signed the papers without regard for the neighborhood’s reputation. Located in a notoriously bad area, my section of the street was referred to by the locals as “hell block.”

Within weeks I discovered that the ceilings were warped, bending up and down throughout the tiny apartment. The dry wall protruded at certain points, almost like it was threatening to bust open. One morning my roommate ran in screaming, “The dry-wall is coming apart.” To our horror, we found our neighbor’s toilet water leaking through the ceiling.

Even after the pipes were fixed by our skinny, slack landlord, the house remained inexplicably dirty. Despite daily mopping, a layer of sticky film mysteriously covered the misshapen floors. I tried to stay away as much as possible, coming home late from work or study. Since our front door was rusted shut, I had to use the fire escape in our alley, where homeless men roamed, brown-bagged bottles in hand. One guy perched directly on my stoop. I waved awkwardly and stepped across. Another day in the city. Content to keep to themselves, the homeless staid at a distance. In a gesture of appreciation, I set out bags of food whenever I left town. By the time I returned, a day or two later, the bags were always gone.

But, oh, the hideous cockroaches! Brazen creatures that survived at all costs, even on the flesh of their own kind. Cannibals in my very kitchen. While I cooked on the gas stove, they scurried out as if to say “Hey lady, what’s cooking?” I found their brown bodies arched over on the linoleum countertop. Some dead, some squirming, sickeningly alive.

After a year of wading through bugs, I decided to temporarily move back into my mother’s house, less than an hour outside of D.C., while I continued looking for a more adult exit strategy. Months passed and – as her unfamiliar closeness began to trouble me – I decided to rent a room in a large townhouse near my new university. I’d given up on art school in the city. Commitment was a concept that eluded me. But I figured six months is nothing; I could definitely agree to this. My room was only big enough for a futon bed, but the neighborhood was sweet and seemly with tall, wooden fences separating each townhouse. The community was studded with thick holly bushes and strategically placed pine trees that blocked out traffic noise. People weren’t afraid to walk their dogs late at night. I’d increased my station, moving from the slum to the suburb. I shared the place with a few other housemates – another college student, a poor Jamaican woman, and a recently divorced middle-age man – all who kept to themselves.

Things went fine for those first few months. I hauled books up to my small room, studying cross-legged on the floor and eating microwave dinners in front of my laptop. The whole time I lived there, I only shared a meal with one of my roommates – the forty-something Jamaican woman whose name I can’t remember.

I’d taken a new job, about an hour’s commute, working the night shift at a residential community center. It paid well and hardly anyone came in during nights, which meant I was free to read on the plush couches and peer out of the 15-foot-high window onto the moonlit blocks of empty houses that trailed down the hill. Most of the houses didn’t have owners yet because the community was newly developed. It was very quiet. I liked being alone there, but the large, echoing room became disconcerting during the darker hours.

The job was great, except for the occasional dead resident. Thinking back, it seems strange that I would’ve had such morbid responsibilities at such a young age, but I was the only employee on site, with no night guard or police patrol. One evening I got a call from Building B complaining of a “terrible odor.” I phoned my superior and the non-emergency line (having the good sense not to go up there myself). Sure enough, officers found one of my residents, who I hadn’t seen at the community center in over a month, decaying on his white, linen sheet. He wasn’t even old, maybe in his late forties. He was a tall, African man and I suddenly remembered how he’d started walking with a severe limp. I wondered if he had an untreated condition that caused his sudden death.

I never found out, because he had no family here in the States. He was alone. His brother still lived in Africa, and I guessed that he didn’t have any close friends. Could someone have helped him if only they’d been there? I never would know.

I didn’t feel like eating in my room that night, so I ventured into the kitchen. I started to pull something out of the freezer when the Jamaican woman yelled in partial Patwa, “Put dah down, gyal, and eat som real food.” She handed me a bowl of rice and fish stew, seasoned with spices I’d never tasted before, nor ever again. The smells made me want to forego the fork and tip the bowl to my mouth. Noticing my hunger, she laughed and said, “Take it easy, gyal. Deres plenty more of dah.”

As I scooped the brown gravy and bits of flaky fish onto a piece of bread, she told me her story, how her daughter was now sixteen and had been taken away from her. She missed her desperately, was planning to get her back, to move her in here with the rest of us. I was an intent listener, and I’d learned not share my own problems. In fact, I’d been quietly collecting people’s stories for years, an almost-malicious habit that would only heighten into adulthood.

After dinner, I felt the black cloak of death lifted, and I was able to resume my usual solitude without the scratchy wool weighing on my shoulders.

It wasn’t long after I moved in that the landlord started making unwarranted appearances. I soon learned that he was hanging around to have sex with the Jamaican woman. She now refused to pay rent, feeling that her “relationship” with our landlord was payment enough. I blushed at the recall of her former kindness. After a while, the landlord began staying in the guest room, too close for comfort. The whole situation was unnerving, but not enough to make me leave. Only when the power shut off did I begin packing my bright red, rolling luggage (a gift from Mother). The landlord was clearly in financial trouble. Sacrificing my three hundred dollar deposit, I broke the lease a month early and moved back in with my dubious mother and her cynical cohort.

By now my family was used to seeing my furniture come and go. I began building a wall in the basement with my stepfather’s begrudging help. After the wall was finished, I painted a mural of the ocean using a palate of three colors, an exercise in reservation. With my stuff settled again, I continued to search for a more flexible living situation. Mother’s extra-large, green eyes bobbed quietly along, following my steps in and out, but her mouth remained closed. She was letting me work it out on my own, so I came and went without a word.

After a year of sneaking boys into the garage, evading introductions with my parents, I found another rental. This was housing without commitment, a month-to-month lease in a suburb geared towards low-income families. I’d collected some assorted roommates over the years, but this batch was the most foreign by far. They were all from Thailand, two men and two women of varying ages. I could get along with almost anyone, a trick that had led people to call me a “chameleon,” which wasn’t always a compliment. Though my surface color changed to fit, I had trouble connecting deeply with people, forming a more intricate bond. Identifying with my new roommates was particularly difficult, because I had little experience with Thai culture, except that I often craved the dish phat si-io (pad see ew). I developed the strongest friendship with my thirty-something, female roommate, Roong, who made me food in exchange for a few English lessons. She’d left her family and moved to America to marry, but soon after learned that her husband was seeing a younger woman.

She was such a minute, meek woman, and it amazed me that she was brave enough to leave him and be alone in a foreign place. She cooked spicy coconut soup and her specialty, shredded-ginger chicken. On sharp winter nights, we practiced pronunciation – sep-ar-ate, sin-cere, sel-fish – in between sips of her milky, sweet soup. Something about that soup made me feel clean and strong, giving me another good story for my bad attempts at poetry:

No looking for a rusted locket, blue faded book. Instead locate, like air, the invisible, infinitesimal voice, stilted whisper, faint cry that you must resolve to amplify and repeat like echoes in a rippling cave. Help chef find chorus and she will pay you in kind. Stone bowl, she will silence desire. Fair trade. Steam coats face before you can even begin tasting. Heat opens skin, sticks to lip. Hot pulp worked from the hard, green fruit-nut. Again stentorian, chef hammers coco like a cracked head on the countertop, skull leaking white blood on the bamboo cutting board.

My room in Burke was huge, practically double the size of every other place I’d been. It even had a separate entrance that led out into an empty backyard. It was great, and yet, after three months I decided to leave. I didn’t know why I felt such an urgency to keep moving, but my instincts told me that it had something to do with my sparse interpersonal relationships. I only kept one close friend from childhood, who I visited a few times each year. Although I dated frequently and had recurring sexual partners, at twenty-two I’d only ever called one person “boyfriend.” But I was on the verge of giving this title to a second. Nate was in his late twenties, charming and barely balding. We’d been dating for several months. I’d accidentally said, “I love you” one night when we’d taken a trip to Ocean City, Maryland. Lying in bed, he made me laugh so hard my hair shook, and the phrase came so easily, floating in the air like notes from a plucked string.

“I didn’t mean it like that,” I said, flushed.

“Yes, you did,” he laughed, pushing up his glasses.

I was glad that he didn’t say it back that night, but instead waited for a moment when the words came naturally for him too. A few weeks after he uttered those famed words, he proposed an idea that surprised me. He suggested I move in with him and his mother so that we could be together and save money to buy a home. It was an idea that I liked, as remote as it was from my non-committal sensibility. Moving in with him was a financially responsible choice, but that wasn’t enough to convince me. Desire was what ultimately made the decision. His sticky breath near my skin, his voice calling out close behind. And like most decisions made in the midst of desire, it didn’t feel like a choice at all. It felt more like the pull of the sun on the first days of spring, impossible to ignore. But it was even more than that. An ancient biological drive, a genetic predisposition to keep us from dying alone.

The months I spent there were probably some of my happiest, despite the presence of Nate’s three-times-divorced, Mormon mother, who called me the “I girl” when I wasn’t around. She warmed up a little after I’d lived there for six months, but she never asked about my new work as a teacher, and, although I listened to her stories, I felt equally disinterested in her most recent divorce and attempts to convert her children. She wasn’t fond of keeping house, a product of modern feminism that I secretly despised. Dirty plates spread across the counter and stacks of laundry littered the floor. We cleaned up after her, most times. Other times we left the mess to rot and went down to our tiny room to sneak glasses of red wine, wrapping our legs together in bed. After I had my wisdom teeth extracted, I spent several days in that room – with just enough space for a full bed and dresser – while Nate fed me sweet, tropical sorbets to help with the swelling. I wondered if I would always feel the safest in small places.

We spent a year that way, tangled up in that new closeness. I was enamored, and my career was going well; I was finishing my Master’s degree and teaching writing classes at a local university along the DC metro line. Even in this strange, new intimacy – a beginning toward sharing my inner thoughts with another person – I once again felt that familiar itch.

I was ready to move. Then came the ache in my head, the scream in my brain to get out and find my place. But this time was different. This time I wanted to take someone along. There was a financial incentive; that was the year the Obama administration issued the first-time homebuyers’ credit of up to $8,000. For a poor writer in new lust, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. I was twenty-three then, the year of my father’s stroke, when I tried to trick myself into being a different sort of person.

After a few months of searching, we found our house. It was a shabby, clean townhouse that backed to an open field. My neighborhood was not a white-picket-fence kind of place. The houses were aligned and looked similar with the exception of the color, which ranged from brown-trimmed with bright olive tones to basic cream. The families, like their vibrant houses, were also diverse. There were a few white families, but most of my neighbors were Hispanic or Middle Eastern. Yes, I could be happy here.

When we bought the house, it was missing light fixtures and ceiling fans. The toilets were clogged and the heating unit appeared to be broken. But we would fix it. We would fix everything. A whole, vast home of our own. Rooms that smell of us.

The problems started when Nate got overzealous with the restored claw-foot tub, and the slate tiles from floor to ceiling, and the bright-white crown molding, and the refinished cabinets with Japanese sinks, and the customized fence with partial deck and, and, and, and I can’t stop changing now.

It seemed impossible, but it was done. After all the ands had passed, and we’d made a perfect house, I looked out of our bay window onto a quaint view of the trim lawn and decided definitively to take a new apartment.

 

A.D. Ross was born in Guntersville, Alabama, but spent over a decade in Metropolitan Virginia. After abandoning art school in Richmond, she went on to pursue writing. She now holds an MFA from George Mason University and is currently working on her PhD. at Auburn University while teaching American Literature. Select readings are available at www.alyssarosswrites.com

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