She opens the door. Her blouse comes down just far enough in the front so I don’t have to try very hard to imagine what her breasts look like. We step into the apartment. Her name is Pam Kittredge and she immediately tells me about other rentals she has access to. I tell her I wish to see them all.
“What do you do for a living?” she asks as I follow her to the kitchen, which is separated by an island counter from the living room.
“I’m a teacher.” It’s only half a lie, and it doesn’t matter anyway, because my financially crippling student loans and barely existent salary prevent me from having anywhere near the sum needed to sign the lease, which would require me to pay the broker’s fee, security deposit, and first month’s rent up front.
“That’s great,” she says. “The landlord is definitely looking for someone responsible.”
“I’m that person,” I say.
“And what do your parents do?”
“Well, my father is sort of out of work at the moment,” I tell her.
“He was laid off?”
“More like disability.”
“I see,” Pam says. She sees nothing.
I sum up my mother’s existence with a vague “She makes sure the bills get paid.”
The place is cavernous. Exactly what I had in mind. Giant raw space with exposed piping overhead and colossal paneled windows looking out on an industrial park across the street.
“These lofts are getting popular,” Pam tells me. “Like a blank canvas. You can do whatever you want in here.”
The previous tenant constructed a corner bedroom with drywall, the sides of which don’t quite reach the ceiling.
“The building is full of artists and musicians,” Pam says. “All sorts of creative people.”
“Sounds like my kind of crowd,” I say. Yes. Creativity. Artistry. These are the things missing from my life, keeping me from achieving wholeness and contentment. These are the kind of people I want to associate with. The kind of people I know I can ingratiate myself with if only given the chance. They will surely give me the push out of postadolescence I apparently refuse to give myself. They will show me something other than the America-as-high-school I have come to inhabit.
Easter is two weeks away, but my mother is in the living room, delicately lining the mantel with her treasured collection of elaborately painted ceramic eggs. I see two giant boxes of decorations at her feet. I start to open my mouth to ask if and why Pam Kittredge took her to look at houses, but think better of it. My mother gets extremely agitated when I bring up the subject of my moving out. She thinks I want her to lend me money.
“Little early, isn’t it?” I say to all the ornaments.
“You never know who’ll be stopping by to judge,” she says. “Helene Miller’s had her decorations out for weeks.”
“I’m starting dinner,” my mother says, but I’m halfway up the stairs. I pass Inez, our maid, on the landing. We exchange greetings. She has a duster in hand, no doubt on her way to the TV room to embark on her weekly cleaning of the entertainment center while my father lies supine, himself a piece of furniture in need of dusting.
I find two envelopes on the mattress in my room. The first, a monthly statement from Sallie Mae. I try to pretend it isn’t there. The second is a letter from my father, who’s fond of leaving notes instead of initiating direct contact. Messages from the next room.
I lie on the floor, listening to old country records. I have always held the slide guitar in high esteem. It sounds to me like wild animals crying atop windswept plateaus. A nameless city where there is no language, only intense glances and stares. A place where nods and gestures convey all human emotion.
This is what the letter says:
I always wondered why old people read the obituaries. Perhaps we are hoping to see other people’s ages when they bite it. I’m not afraid to die. I’m actually getting prepared. I’ll be fifty-five next year and all of this is tiring. I have a theory that as human beings get older, chemicals are released into the brain to prepare us for the end. Sort of like how the nurse lubes your ass up before the anus-cam. It makes the whole thing a lot easier to swallow. Easier, not enjoyable. We don’t remember birth. I don’t think we will remember our own death. Dying. What petrifies me about dying is the aloneness of it. I have always thought about dying in some hotel room, a million miles away from home. Utterly alone. I have spent more time in hotel rooms than I have at home. I need you to promise me, just you and I. Promise me that you will be with me, maybe holding my hand, when I go. I don’t care when or where, just get there and see me off. Don’t let me go alone. I promise I will try to wait for you. Find me. You’re the one that understands me.
I roll onto my back, look up at the ceiling fan.
Our house makes noises. It always has. The walls creak and settle. Wood splinters without warning. There are footsteps at odd hours of the night. Pipes sound symphonies from behind the drywall.
Sallie Mae has informed me my loan payment is due in two weeks. I am someone who does not like to delay pain gratification, so I write out a check immediately. It’s startling how much of my salary is sucked up by this debt. Four years in the undergraduate incubator plus the four-month failed social experiment I like to call “grad school” plus off-campus housing plus many, many burritos equals over $45,000 to repay. At my current income, I’m looking at full financial independence at around age sixty-seven. Between music (I try to buy only vinyl records these days) and weed and pharmaceutical drugs and movie tickets and cell phone bills and credit card bills and video rentals and trying to have a normal social life, I struggle to save a few measly dollars a month.
I navigate the computer’s Internet browser to my online bank statement and assay my current finances. I shuffle fifty bucks from checking to savings, bringing the total up to a whopping $567.88. I consider moving another fifty but quickly remember the list of albums I want to purchase over the weekend at the record fair at SUNY Purchase and how happy this will make me. How it will help to (briefly) make me forget just exactly where I’ve wound up living once again. I need to maintain some level of quality of life in the present, in addition to saving for the future. I vow to buy all the records on my list
ASAP. Mental health is crucial. Not just for the children. This is something we are told at John W. Manley School staff meetings all the time.
I delete a few out-of-date porn bookmarks from the toolbar and play online Scrabble for ten minutes before quitting in disgust at a string of extremely low-scoring word combinations.
I resume lying on the floor. I listen to records. I listen to Jailbreak. I listen to Peace Sells . . . But Who’s Buying? I listen to Shake Some Action. I grab the Moleskine notebook from its place under my pillow and flip it open. The first ten pages are dedicated to the ever-growing list of movies I’ve watched. Since college, I’ve recorded, in high OCD fashion, the date and name of every film that passes before my eyes. I flip past this part. I flip past the section of notes concerning my father, all the bizarre things he’s done in the past eight months:
1. Watering the flowers in front of our house at three in the morning.
2. Crying during telephone commercials depicting long-distance romances.
3. Twenty-one-hour-a-day sleep cycles.
4. Sitting at the kitchen table staring at old flight logs for hours.
5. Unfurling massive Jeppesen aeronautical charts across the living
room floor and following navigation lines with his fingers in delicate, precise increments.
6. Constant proclamations of “I’m dying” and “God help us.”
7. His encounter with one of the immigrants working for our landscaping company: “If they have to put me on dialysis, I’m going to shoot myself with this gun.” “Sí, señor.”
I flip past these passages. Past the section listing, verbatim, every forehead-slap-inducing thing my brother has recently said in my presence, along with estimated dates.
- “Don’t worry, the woman I marry won’t be allowed to work.” — 9.25.04
- “What do you think about these cowboy boots?”— 3.29.05
- “How much would I have to pay some faggy artist to do a portrait of me dressed like a samurai?” — 8.10.05
-“Calvin is such a liberal.” — 10.14.04, 11.2.04, 12.23.04, 12.24.04, 12.25.04, 2.13.05, 7.16.05, 11.01.05
- “I need to hit the gym double-time from now till Halloween so I look authentic in my Spartan costume.” — 9.08.05
- “I know my sneakers are a size too small. It’s because I don’t want my feet to get any bigger.” — 6.18.04
My mother knows a sage, this truly bizarre woman who goes by the name Brigitte DeMeyer. Since the illness started, she comes over a few times a week for “wellness sessions” with my father. At her request, they’ve begun to tape pieces of paper, marked with elaborate drawings of the letter S, all over the house. S’s on the washer-dryer, S’s under paintings, on the toilet. S’s above every light switch. Fancy red S cards dangle on the chandelier in the dining room, float above the dashboard GPS system in the SUV, stare out from ornate mirrors.
“When you see an S, it means smile,” Brigitte has told us. “It means you
can feel safe. Secure. These are words to embrace, to live with,” she says. “Shelter,” she says.
My dad walks around the house forcing his mouth to react to these little scraps of paper. I’ll find him in front of the flat-screen in the family room watching reruns of Law & Order.
“Real murder trials are just like this,” he’ll tell me.
“Don’t forget to smile,” I’ll say, pointing to the large purple S hanging from the television.
He’ll turn his head, look at me for a moment, and do this weird thing where he smiles, then frowns in rapid succession, his mustache twitching above his lips. Then he’ll usually fall asleep at the commercial break.