Scenes from a rooming house

I live in an ancient Idaho Victorian whose splintering floors creak
when the wind blows. A new couple moved into the apartment next
door. They are using the same bed as the previous couple, Nicole
and Peter, whose dramatic lovemaking I could hear when their
headboard pounded my living room wall. Sometimes I could hear
Nicole moaning and I felt comforted, although it was always hard to
face them in the lobby just after one of their interludes.

Their replacements — newlyweds — moved into apartment 1
without any furniture or boxes or luggage. Both of them are smokers
with loud barroom voices and heavy footsteps. The woman is blond,
maybe 23; the man wears an old army jacket and his age and hair
color cannot be determined. He seems affected. When he says hello
he talks much too loud, as if there are other people around that
only he can see.

My daughter Rose and I have lived in this house for five years.
Rose falls asleep to her AM station on the clock radio I gave her
for her 13th birthday. My bedroom shares a wall with apartment 1’s
bathroom. They have a shower. We don’t. Our cold water faucet
handle falls off when the bath is running, and we have an
infestation of carpenter ants and ladybugs. Rose is almost six feet
tall and will need a new bed soon. She likes the fan kept on in her
room all night, even in the winter. I stay up until dawn making
lists. And listening.


Sometimes for dinner I make popcorn laced with brewer’s yeast
and soy sauce, and I swear it tastes like steak.


Our neighbors always move out after about six months, seeking a
better standard of living. When Nicole and Peter left I found a
snotty handwritten note in my mailbox concerning my attitude toward
Bunny, our calico Manx, whom I don’t care for. The noted ended,
‘Have fun in Chin’s slum.’ Mrs. Chin is our Chinese landlady; she
lets me pay the rent late and rarely does any maintenance on the
house or the 30 others she owns in town.

We are quite poor. We have no savings and my checking account is
one big historical overdraft. Sometimes for dinner I make popcorn
laced with brewer’s yeast and soy sauce, and I swear it tastes like
steak. I think of coffee as food. I spent my last two dollars at
the new espresso cart.

I hope I don’t smell the cigarette smoke from apartment 1. I
hope they make love a lot and that their fights don’t involve
hitting each other. The new woman is quite striking. The man —
like most men — intimidates me. Both of them stomp across the old
wood floors like characters from Invasion of the Body
Snatchers
.

I ran into Nicole at the co-op. I was visibly cool. She was
surprised to see me. She probably had no idea how small a Western
town is, that snooty notes concerning the treatment of cats
eventually come around in aisles of instant split pea soup and bins
of organic menstrual sponges. I wanted to tell her that despite the
ants and ladybugs I am not raising my daughter in a slum, that home
is what you make it, that humility comes with age and sometimes
wisdom never arrives. I wanted to tell her that their lovemaking
sessions were shorter than average. Instead I said nothing, saving
the soliloquy for the drive home.

I want to take Bunny for a long ride in the country and dump her
in a wheat field and drive off in a cloud of gravel. But I’m
terrified of picking her up and she’s only ridden in a car
once.

If I ever have a girlfriend again it will be one of those
idealistic 20-year-olds at the co-op who never shave or wear
foundation garments, who tie their long hair in scarves and talk to
everyone like they’re an old lover parted with because one of them
got a job at the Farm in Tennessee. I look at them and think in
this order: big hair, breasts, arms, bracelets, ankles, smiles,
Sufi dancing, gardens, tea, children, breasts, Central America, new
age, space, heartbreak.


I wanted to tell her that despite the ants and ladybugs I am not
raising my daughter in a slum, that home is what you make it, that
humility comes with age and sometimes wisdom never arrives.


The new neighbors — the woman’s name is Rita — have lived here
a week now and I don’t think they’ve made love yet.

My therapist suggests I volunteer at the co-op. I could meet
someone and get the 18 percent member discount. When the phone
rings after 10 p.m. I get frightened and my heart beats abnormally.
The answering machine is on all the time, but no one ever
calls.

I asked Rose this summer when we were camping in Montana if she
knew how scared I get sometimes. She shrugged and said she didn’t
notice anything particularly strange.

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