Where I used to live, there was no coast. Where I live now, there are seagulls and a ship-studded grayness called the Long Island Sound. In my neighborhood, there are crosswalks that don’t make sense, and a hospital supply store, and a Missing Kid poster that shows a dingy security-camera photo of a little boy with Asperger’s. He’s marching down the street with a briefcase. Where I live now, things happened in sixteen-something. Persecuted lawmakers hid in caves. They found safe haven. People say New Haven isn’t quite safe but It’s Better Than It Used To Be. French troops once camped in our park on their way to defend Yorktown. Buildings on my block have little plaques saying they are historically significant and any fool can see they are beautiful. One is salmon pink with blue trim and jewel-toned windows. Mostly they are brick, with archways and strange circular portals and hidden balconies. My own building has a Mansard roof and I never knew that word before but I love how they look anyway, like attic steeples, or dark square hats on the deep red bodies of our brownstones.

Deena entered our lives at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday our first fall in Manhattan. We were a bit distracted when she rang because our bedroom ceiling was leaking water, and not a small amount of it. My husband had muscled the mattress out into our living room, along with my childhood dresser, and tipped our IKEA bed frame up one side. We had only moved in a week earlier, had just unpacked our final box yesterday morning.

“I’m Deena,” she said, when I opened the door. She wore a red terry cloth bathrobe and faded slippers. Her wiry auburn hair rested on bony shoulders. “What’s happening in there?”

“We have a leak,” I explained.

“Well, I’m not surprised. The renovations they’ve been doing are shoddy and frankly” – she leaned in conspiratorially – “some of them are illegal.”

As she spoke, I tried not to stare at the thin film of saliva coating her yellow teeth, evidence that seemed to suggest she and her toothbrush had had a disagreement many years ago and been unable to resolve it since. Although I hadn’t been in NY long enough to recognize it then, Deena was an example of a particular type of elderly woman living in the city. They aren’t the aged dowagers able to maintain impeccable residences in the fancy parts of the UES. They aren’t the active ones in track suits who glow with vitality or those who project a contented aura of being well-cared for by family members. No, these weathered broads are women on their own. They board the bus with bulging plastic shopping bags and wild hair that looks like it has been styled by the nearest electrical socket. They seem to have overstayed their welcome in this hard city.

“Can I come in?” Deena asked, one foot already over the doorstep.

“Oh, well, sure,” I said, exercising my never-ending inability to say no to people, even when I desperately want to. Deena shimmied over to the bedroom to assess the damage, noting that, funnily enough, the source of the water was her apartment. Appearing pleased with herself for contributing this information, she settled in on our new beige couch, whose bland color I was already starting to resent. Tyler, our fat Beagle, launched his considerable heft up beside her. She stroked his floppy ears. “Your ears are so soft,” she whispered to him. He leaned into her robe. Tyler, you traitor, I thought.

She stayed until midnight, when Martyn announced there was nothing more to be done until the morning and we should get some sleep.

“Sleep where?” Deena said. “I’m afraid that bedroom of yours is a no-go.”

“We have a pull-out,” I told her wearily.

This seemed to satisfy her, and she waded back through our personal belongings and out the door.

In the morning, a team of repair men arrived. Some faulty pipes needed to be attended to

and the job required access to both Deena’s and our apartment. That evening, she rang our bell again. “I can tell you this much,” she said, now fully dressed, sporting a cream sweater with a small brown stain on one breast. “They are only doing the work when I’m home. I don’t want them snooping around. I’m pretty put out, to be honest, because I’ve been living here for twenty years and they haven’t done a stitch of work on my place in over a decade.” They’ve been trying to drive me out of this building for years. We tenants need to stick together.”

I didn’t want to stick with Deena. My husband and I were paying $600 more in rent that we had in Hoboken, NJ, where we had just moved from. Our new apartment was renovated. It had a dishwasher and, miracle of all miracles, a washing machine and dryer. It had an exposed brick wall, something I had coveted ever since discovering it was possible to get brick inside one’s apartment. It was perfect, a symbol that we were moving up in the world, and I didn’t want Deena spoiling it with her talk of the big bad management company. Although I considered myself a hippie at heart, power to the people and all that, when it came to our apartment, I simply didn’t want to hear it.

Because of Deena’s obstinacy, the repairs, which should have taken three days, took ten, and our backs creaked angrily from too many nights on the pull-out. By then, Deena had started complaining about other things: strong cooking smells coming from our place, the inappropriate volume of our television. Soon enough her missives began indicating issues we had nothing to do with, like the front door to the building being left wide open so that any person off the street could just wander in. She grumbled that our music woke her up at 5 a.m. No matter how many times I calmly explained that we weren’t guilty of these particular offenses, the notes kept coming, like she hadn’t heard me at all.

“I’m afraid the outfit you wore the other day quite upset me,” I mocked her in a high-pitched voice to Martyn. “I’m afraid the heels you wore made an awful clacking on the staircase as you came and left the building. I’m afraid you and Martyn might one day have a child who will cry.” I tore up one of her notes for dramatic effect. “That woman is a nutjob.”

“She’s just an old lady,” he reasoned. “She’s got nothing better to do.” It should be noted that my husband is a far nicer person than I am. “Just let it go,” he said. Oh, I hated when he said this because, honestly, if you have to tell someone to let something go she is probably precisely the kind of person who doesn’t know how to do that.

One day, Deena filed a complaint on our behalf to the city of NY, claiming our apartment violated building codes because the window near the fire escape was partially obstructed by the oven. Our super called to reassure me.

“I’m going to look into this fire-escape situation right away,” he said, sounding a bit frantic.

“What fire escape situation?” I asked.

“Your complaint that the fire escape is blocked.”
I knew instantly. Deena.

I’m not entirely sure why the note we received a few days later was the one that sent me over the edge. It was no more or less infuriating than the others, this time requesting: “kindly stop using chemicals in your apartment because I’m afraid they are affecting my asthma.” After five months, it had become painfully obvious that our shiny, new apartment was more like an old woman with a taut face lift, fairly pleasing on the surface, but still housing a decrepit eighty-year old body inside. After the ceiling leak, we discovered that the pipes hadn’t been properly insulated so once winter hit and the heating got turned on, they clanged all night long. The renovations the management company continued in the building as they slowly kicked out every old tenant except Deena unleashed a torrent of dust mites into our living space that destroyed the flesh of both my legs while I slept. These major inconveniences were supplemented by a list of smaller appliance breakages that seemed never to end.

So maybe it was the apartment itself that wore me down, or maybe it was the fact that the only neighbor who actually acknowledged our existence was a raving loon, but the chemical note finally forced me to act. I tore it off the wall and marched upstairs. I banged on Deena’s door, using my fist instead of the knuckles, like I’d seen angry men do in the movies.

“We are NOT using chemicals,” I said, when she appeared. “We are NOT playing loud music. And we are NOT leaving the door open.” Inside her apartment, I glimpsed stacks and stacks of plastic bags, filled with who knew what, occupying every corner of the tiny space. It was where plastic bags went to die, in that apartment. I could see that Deena did not have exposed brick and, I admit, this pleased me. I was willing to bet there was no washing machine tucked away in the corner of the bathroom, either.

“Well, my asthma really gets aggravated by chemicals,” she said. I was used to this by now, her ignoring what I said and simply circling back to her own argument.

“We are NOT using chemicals,” I repeated. “Do? You? Understand?”

“Well, I can smell them.”

“Well, well done, you!” I shouted. “But the fact remains it isn’t us. Here’s the deal, crazy lady. Don’t ring my bell. Don’t leave notes. Don’t call the city. Just get a life and stay the hell out of mine.” With that I stormed back down the stairs and slammed the door. Even though I never play loud music, I turned some on, just this once, just to make my point.

I told Martyn what happened later that night.

“Whoa,” he said, looking at me a little sideways, like he didn’t quite recognize me, his wife who wasn’t even able to return the wrong coffee to a Starbucks barista for fear she might have to argue with him.
“I really lost it,” I said, feeling strangely giddy.

On my way downstairs the next morning, I paused outside the 2nd floor apartment directly below ours, the one that had actually been playing thumping dance music until 5 a.m., using asthma-inducing inhalants, and having who knows what other mysterious and fun-filled adventures behind their closed door.

Stuck to their door was a note on the same flowery paper that Deena used to upbraid us. I tell myself I made a snap decision to read this note not addressed to me, but in reality I took a careful look around the building to make sure no one was present before delicately peeling back the tape, trying not to make a sound as I unfolded the paper: “I’m afraid your music is still too loud and it is keeping me awake. Kindly turn it down or off in the evenings. Deena.”

I should have felt triumphant. Yes, I had gone overboard with the yelling and the stomping and the telling Deena she needed to “get a life” but it had worked. She had found someone else to annoy. But instead sadness welled up in me. Deena had moved on. I had thought we were her reason for getting up in the morning, little old us in apartment #3B who in her mind were waking up each and every morning with some new plan to upset her. But, no, the couple in #2B would do well enough. When they left, which they would, and so would we, eventually, she would make her presence known to the people who took their place, and so on and so on, until she expired, because her apartment was rent-controlled and she was never, ever, ever, ever going to leave. But us, we were replaceable; her outrage could successfully be directed at any interlopers who passed this way. I didn’t like feeling expendable, and there was nowhere to more clearly learn that lesson than in a city like NY, with a neighbor who once felt she knew you well enough to wander into your home at 11 p.m. in nothing more than a bathrobe, but who no longer even meets your eye when you pass her on the stairs.

 


We moved to Shanghai on a wintry day in March, my husband and I and our two dogs. We arrived for a job, sight unseen, and bedded down in a swank hotel on the company’s dime while the dogs were quarantined and we went apartment hunting. The company had provided us a relocation specialist, whose job it was to pick us up at our hotel thirty minutes before scheduled and midway through our buffet breakfast, then hurry us into a waiting car where we would drive back and forth through the grey, freezing sleet answering questions like, “Do you think it is necessary that you have both dogs?”

We spent several days searching through a variety of spiritless and expensive flats, whose grandiosity came in two flavors: Opulent Court of the Sun King or Decadent Sultan of the Orient. Did we see ourselves as more marble-cupids-and-crystal-swans-type people? Or more carved-wooded-dragons-and-enamel-phoenixes? Either way, the agent was at our disposal. She did have some suggestions, though.

What all the apartment buildings had in common was that they were new. Stunningly new. Glossy and gleaming and in some cases, still wrapped in a cocoon of scaffolding. When I mentioned that I might like to have a second look at one place, with carved wooden moldings and a cozy window seat, the agent spat, “But it’s five years old!” in much the tone you might use to say, “But it’s full of centipedes!”

I was thoroughly charmed by a small, modern nook furnished from floor to ceiling with IKEA products, all of which still bore their original price tags and labels, creating the effect of simply moving into an IKEA showroom. Even the posters on the wall were mounted in their original shrink-wrap, their non-committal BILD label obscuring the last few watercolor daffodils in the lower-right-hand corner.

In the end, we decided on an apartment on the 29th floor of the Century Metropolis building, a compound as endearing for its ample green spaces and generous views as its comic book name. The Chinese name of our building, optimistically, is “the Oriental Manhattan.” Our building is one of dozens in our compound, each housing thousands of residents in a ring of 30-story towers covered in bathroom tile under the easily-disproven assumption that tiles are “self-cleaning.”

The apartment came decorated in a style I like to think of as “Apathetic Modern.” It appeared as is someone got tired of carrying furniture down the hall about halfway through and thought, “Minimalism.” We had a glass dining room table, a quirkily asymmetrical end table, and the ugliest sofa you have ever seen. It may not have been lovely, but everything was gleaming new and clean. Not a spot anywhere. Everything worked, every time, no fuss, no bugs, nothing. New might not be much to look at, but it’s easy to live with.

Of course, there was some trouble. We would often come down to find a posted notice in the lobby that began, in English, “IMPORTANT MESSAGE! MUST READ!” and then followed with the body of the warning written exclusively in Chinese. The few signs we could decipher made casual mention of the risk of fireworks setting our balcony clotheslines on fire, of plummeting satellite dishes from the upper floors, and of the terrible poisons regularly sprayed throughout the building’s charming green spaces. Still, we had one easy year. Then everything, quite literally, came crashing down.

We had chosen a place in Xujiahui, a riotous commercial neighborhood southwest of the graceful old French concession and an ever-growing collection of shopping malls, fast food restaurants, and real estate offices. One street a few blocks from our apartment now runs real estate office-massage parlor-real estate office-massage parlor, right on down the avenue until it’s capped at last by a bank on the corner, a handy encapsulation of new Shanghai. We picked Xujiahui because of its proximity to the subway and more importantly, to the company shuttle stop that finds my husband every morning at seven sharp ready to be carried forty-five minutes southwest into the digital suburbs, to great swathes of land where Dell, Microsoft, and Intel are colonizing former rice paddies and steel mills. We came to know and love our neighborhood, from the combination barbecued duck and pirate DVD store across the street to the Abusive Flower Vendor who would hurl invective every evening at us, his best customers.

You can find our apartment compound just a tad west of the Xujiahui intersection, a collection of colossal steel towers and LEDS blinking out “Welcome to the Terrifying World of Tomorrow” in colored lights. You can have coffee at the Starbucks perched beside a giant glass sphere ringed in orange rope lights and look down on the manic Sunday shopping crowds who cover every inch of sidewalk, undeterred by snow, wind, or rain, to watch noisy demonstrations of various up-and-coming digital products. There is a constantly changing parade of live demos, video billboards, product pavilions, costumed mascots, and picketers. The first time I saw a line of shouting students marching through the crowds with picket signs hoisted over their shoulders, I thought I was witnessing a rare example of overt Chinese political protest. Turns out, the signs were advertising a sale on Hewlett Packard printers.

Almost all the buildings in Xujiahui are new or at least tricked out to pass as new. The pace of construction in Shanghai has already provoked a lot of breathless commentary in America and abroad but it’s still something you have to see to believe it. There are cranes and work crews everywhere, and the nights are lit up with the welding arcs that glimmer beneath my living room window at night. Everything is very thrown together, impromptu and impermanent. Contractors, developers, and speculators here know that whatever goes up today will come down tomorrow. Nightclubs, bars, restaurants, and boutiques may have less than a month between the opening party and the wrecking ball, so there’s not much point in squaring every nail. The expatriates here, too, their lives and commitments are rushed and temporary. For me, living in a furnished apartment had a temporary feeling. Why should I bother to clean the awful sofa when next month I might be gone, and the sofa, and maybe the whole tower, gone too? No, none of these things were exactly built for the ages, but after living in a lot of ragged places in the U.S. and elsewhere, I was getting used to sleek efficiency.

And then, like Cinderella after the ball, at the stroke of one year, everything fell apart. It was another March night, a year since we’d moved to Shanghai. I turned down my street, past the Abusive Flower Vendor’s cart. Tonight his daughter was manning the cart. She is sullen, but not abusive. I passed four or five security guards helping to wave a Lexus into a narrow parking space. I got to the door at the same time as a group of three maintenance workers in matching blue coveralls. They asked to be let in, but with my limited Chinese I couldn’t figure out why. Once inside they rushed to the bathroom and began busying themselves with my toilet.

“What are you doing?” I asked, and couldn’t understand the reply. “The toilet is not broken.”

I called my building manager and put him on the phone to translate.

“They’ve come,” he said, “to take your toilet.”

“To take my toilet?”

“Yes. They will try to bring it back in four hours. Maybe tomorrow.”

That was only the beginning of the problem. The weather turned warm, then hot. The air conditioner poured buckets of filthy water onto our ugly sofa.

I came home soon after to find the apartment dark and sweltering. The dogs were lying on the badly soiled sofa in pools of drool, the windows were covered over with mist, the flowers on the table wilting from their vase. The air conditioner wasn’t on. I was so upset to find my cool, orderly apartment turned suddenly steaming and primeval that I didn’t notice at first that nothing else was on either. No power. I called the building manager.

Meiyou dian!” I exclaimed. “No electricity!”

An electrician came to the apartment, unlocked our wiring closet, and uncovered a jumble of dangerously inadequate wiring with several small smoking explosions in the switchbox. He hastily taped together a makeshift solution which he himself deemed “very dangerous!” and promised to return tomorrow with a safer one. We never saw him again.

The electricity would be a perennial problem, but not the only one. When the electricity worked, the water didn’t. For four days we were without hot water, and had to trek across the town to shower at the newer home of a gracious friend. The drains didn’t drain. The water cooler developed a steady, pooling leak. A friend put one too many coats on our coat rack at a house party and the whole tower came tumbling down, scattering splinters of wood into every corner. The kitchen door wouldn’t open; the closet door wouldn’t close. One early morning we awoke to a crash as the dining room light fixture exploded in heat and came shattering down onto the glass table below. The clothesline fell. My built-in desk began a process of slow collapse, punctuated by the occasional outburst. When I pulled open a drawer to get a pen, the bottom of the drawer fell out. The bathroom was overrun with mildew. Mosquitoes bred in the shower drains and circled the house while we slept. The bank of elevators that served our tower began to rear, plummet, and stall. We kept track of which elevators that week were safe and which iffy, but we used the iffy ones, too, just the same. Then it was winter again and the heater didn’t work. We wore knit hats to bed. Now I understood what the agent meant: everything was old. Maybe it would be better to just tear it down and start again?

At least Cinderella was recycling. When midnight had come and gone, she lost her coach but at least she gained back a pumpkin. After two and a half years in China we moved away: where did all my shattered light fixtures and soiled sofa cushions end up? Is my compound still there? There are still plenty of investors in Shanghai, developers, speculators, and residents who haven’t had their midnight moment yet. Not everyone has noticed the expiration date stamped on the city, on its exuberance, on the wild life there. Be warned, new renters, and maybe invest in a space heater now.

After an extended period of contented real estate monogamy, my family and I have outgrown our one-bedroom Brooklyn floor-through (it’s not you, it’s us!) and so, despite its great location, lovely landlords, double exposures, and adorable mice, we have been looking for new place. And by that I mean, we have looked at about fifty places. At least. Over the course of this search I have come to two conclusions: 1) There are no deals in New York realty, and 2) Apartment-searching is a bit like dating. I say this having never really dated, and so I am open to the idea that this analogy might be absurd, but follow me, if you will:

Because we are not desperate to move, we (much like serial daters in New York) have the luxury/curse of getting to be really picky. You look at a place (go on a date). You think, eh, it’s okay. It has some slightly ridiculous problem as most NYC apartments, and people, do – no tub, or no closets, or it’s on the fifth floor (real estate equivalents of an annoying laugh, or being too short or too tall– all things you could overlook if you were really in love, proving that you aren’t). So you think, eh, I’ll wait. Something better might come up next week. And you look at some more places (go on a few more dates). You start to forget that you yourself are not perfect either. After all, you want to receive a lot and give a little. But it’s easy to forget this because you are in New York City after all, and while there are a lot of duds (dank basements for $2500 a month/drooling hobos peeing into milk jugs on the subway) you know that there is also the possibility of perfection (gorgeous brownstones with jewel-box backyards/surprisingly humble models who really just want to work with children).

And thus, we have become the real estate equivalent of the dater who just can’t settle down because she always suspects there is something better right around the corner. Because there probably is. There must be! There just MUST be a non-crappy, large 2+ bedroom in a decent neighborhood near the train within a young family’s budget…right? With room in the hallway to store a stroller? And if it could possibly not be a directly beneath the freeway/adjacent to a housing project or live poultry shop/actively on fire, that would be super sweet too.

(Dear non-New-Yorkers, know that what I am asking for is roughly the equivalent of hoping to see a unicorn making love to a liger while sliding down a rainbow. Realtors have literally laughed at me.)

(Oh, and by the way, Dear Realtors. Please stop telling me that a “cozy little room” is a “perfect nursery” when it is clearly a closet. And that door-less “bedroom” leading into the kitchen? That’s called a dining room. I’m not that stupid.)

If only I could cobble together bits and pieces of the 50-some places we’ve seen. The windowed sunroom of the Windsor Terrace tempter; the two large, separate bedrooms of the wackadoodle co-op; the backyard with cherry tree of the crazy people’s place in Kensington; the elevator and pristine laundry room of the Ocean Parkway condo; the PS 10 school zone of the livingroom-less wonder. The most perfect apartment would rise like Frankenstein’s monster and shuffle-step over to our current abode, gathering into its guts all of our belongings and placing them just so. Then it could lurch back to its quiet, tree-lined street with ample parking and a cute, never-crowded, baby-friendly, inexpensive café/bookstore/organic fruit stand right by the park. “Dang,” we would say to each other, “it’s almost too sunny in here!” And, “Sheesh, what are we going to do with all this closet space!” And, “Darn this spare bedroom, now everyone we know is coming to visit us.”

Sigh.

On the upside, house-hunting does provide a unique treat for a writer and/or nosy person: the opportunity to boldly snoop where you would otherwise never go. How else would we ever have visited the Sunset Park apartment with the room dedicated entirely to collections of crystal and its bedroom display of hardcore gay porn? Under what other circumstances would we have seen the Queens haunted-house foreclosure with its friendly squatters, or the Crown Heights edifice that’s become affectionately known in our household as “the murder house,” or the dramatic decorative stylings of Alexei, he of the space-ship-Jacuzzi-shower, circus-tent-ceilinged-living-room, and belanterned “wine cellar” closet with its brick-veneer-wallpaper? We’ve dated oh so many homes and though we’ve had our hearts broken more than a few times at least, like a commitment-shy ladies’ man (or man’s lady), we have some stories to tell.

There is no fairytale-wedding-style-ending to this tale–not yet, anyway. But the other we did measure the baby’s crib to see if it would fit in my office. Which is really a closet. And you know? It just might.

[Ed Note: But then that night a leak busted a hole through the ceiling of that room, breaking the plaster and ruining many books! It has not been fixed! And to that I can say only: HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!]

The first thing I did after you moved out was rearrange the furniture.

Before your moving truck even made it down the hill to the interstate I was back upstairs, calculating the new equation of chair/couch/bed/desk that redefined “our” home as “my” home. It was easy; the strength I wasted trying to keep us together was more than adequate to the task. With all of your junk gone there was at last room to move, room to breathe. You took away so much but at least you left me with that.

Next I cleaned. Every spill, every stain, every unwashed surface you spent months ignoring I attacked. Your laziness towards housework had accreted in buildup behind the toilet, under the microwave and in all the little crumbs of half-eaten cat food scattered around the edges of the carpet. I swept and mopped and scrubbed, down on hands and knees with a toothbrush where need be. I mauled the carpet with the vacuum, running it back and forth, over and over, siphoning up piles of fur left behind by two cats I hope never to see again and the dog I’d give anything to have back.

I found the ashtray stuffed full of cigarette butts you left for me out on the balcony. Thank you for that.

When that was done I stripped the bed like a carcass, collecting the worn sheet set you’d left behind and hauling it down to the dumpster. A waste, yes, but it was too worn out to be donated to Goodwill. I warned you about that in the store, tried to tell you that the pets’ claws would hook on all those embroidered flowers and tear the comforter to shreds. “But it’s pretty,” you insisted, as if this were the principal criteria for the purchase of any household item, and I chose not to carry the fight further. When the animals proved me right you hated me for it, even while we lay as pages between those covers.

I organized the DVDs and the books and cupboards, discovering in the process that my copy of Shaun of the Dead was missing. My posters and decorations were repositioned and re-hung, liberated from the tyranny of a single bedroom wall. I did this all while playing CDs by Tori Amos and PJ Harvey on my stereo system, thrilled I could once again listen to them without hearing your endless complaints of “Ugh! Chick music!”  

Every photograph of you and I, every image that suggested we had been together in any sense at all, I collected into a shoebox I shoved into the back of the closet, where it remains. I could have burned or shredded them, tossed them in the dumpster along with your sheets, but like it or not you are a part of my past, and I cannot burn you out of my memory. But I saw no need to leave reminders of that lying about.

When all this was done, when the apartment finally looked like a place where I lived rather than where I merely existed, I was still buzzing, blurry around the edges with unspent energy. It was early dusk, the sun still up in the air, and I doubted you’d even made it to the Arizona border. I went for a run, making sure to listen to my iPod so I wouldn’t have explain to the neighbors out walking their dogs why mine wasn’t jogging with me this time. On the way home I bought dinner from that Hawaiian barbeque place you hated, even though you only ever tried one dish.

After dinner I took a long shower, since there was no one around insisting she had to take a bath. I scrubbed myself the way I scrubbed the floor, and made a note to throw out all of those various little bottles of bath oils and emollients you left behind. When finished I chose to stay naked, faint steam rising off my skin in the apartment’s cool January air. I walked around the living room aimlessly, reveling in the freedom of my unclothed body. The lights were on and the blinds half-open, and I could hear you in my head, yelling at me about how someone would see, how embarrassing it would be.

“Fuck it,” I said to you-in-my-head, “anyone spending their time staring in through my windows gets exactly what they deserve.” And that was the last word on the matter.

I watched my DVD of Blade Runner, the film you always said you “don’t get,” because it is how I’ve christened every solo apartment I’ve ever had, and because it is my favorite, and I don’t give a fuck if you don’t like it.

When I finally felt tired I stretched out on the bed, now fitted with my old flannel sheets from college, and marveled at how much space there was, and how relaxed I felt in it. I avoided looking at the empty spot at the foot where the dog should have been curled up in a little fuzzball.

I thought about how much time I would have to write, without you around to constantly interrupt.

I decided to take up learning the guitar again, and to exercise more.

I wondered about the next person I would date, and the next person I would sleep with, and which would come first. 

The last thing I did after you moved out was send an email to my friends, everyone I should have called individually but just didn’t have the patience to, to bring them up to speed on the day’s events. Instead of paragraphs I wrote only two words:

“It’s done.”

Pockets

By Brin Butler

Essay

I was watching a girl’s reflection try on a winter coat in front of a mirror the other night. What made her interesting was how interested she was in what she was doing. She was inside a bright, hygienically-lit department store with puddles of squeaky light gleaming off the ground beside her feet. The cosmetics section and a large window divided us. I was outside in the cold watching my white breath fog up the view against the window and frantically wiping it off while a street light hung over me on Howe Street, drooling its sad creamsicle-glow into a puddle in the gutter that’d be frozen before I’d get into my front door that night.

The girl’s reflection swiveled her hips a helluva lot of degrees in one direction then swung the other way just as far, and both times she looked over her shoulder with a downward glance that didn’t betray a result. I felt less cold when she took another crack at it and bit her lip. She stood on her tippy-toes and tucked a strand of hair behind an ear. She arched her back a little, leaned over; kept tabs of the results but never tipped her hand to me by the expression on her face. Without even once shoving her hands into the pockets of the big puffy coat she discarded it, returned it to the rack, and abandoned the whole mission for a few squirts of free perfume over in the cosmetics department and started talking up some cosmetics female atrocity of a salesperson and I went on my way.

Even a winter coat is all about a girl’s ass looking okay.

Don’t get me wrong, the concern has plenty of merit. My theory on fidelity is firmly planted in the conviction that a man needs a face he can marry and an ass roughly 36 inches beneath it that makes an enticing idea and practice to cheat on it with enduring satisfaction. Lingerie has a similar cheating element built into fidelity thing, too. It’s still you under there all right, but it’s covered in pink for the 3.4 seconds it takes me to see it and tear the motherfucker off. Next time blue! Shucks…

But the girl’s reflection kinda got to me. Mostly because I’ve never tried the pockets of a coat in my life when I was looking around for a coat to keep me warm when it’s cold outside. And I’ve never bought a coat other than when it was, that day, that hour, that minute, way too fucking cold to not impulse buy—in cold blood—a coat. I’ve gone for plenty of girls that were like coats without pockets. No comfy place. No foxhole to bury to cowardly depths.

That girl’s reflection kinda reminded me a bit of this girl I used to watch at night through a telescope when I had an apartment in the Westend. When I moved in I didn’t have a TV so I borrowed a telescope off a crazy neighbor of my mom’s whose dad was shot in the face with a 44-magnum and who for the last thirty years had packratted several lifetimes’ worth of various shit he mostly never got around to using.

One of those things was a really impressive, expensive telescope complete with a laser scope thingamabob.

To make the telescope into my evening entertainment I needed dependable story lines. Over a few evenings I cased about 400 windows for activity and bought some different colored pieces of scotch tape and made a constellation of all the interesting rooms on MY window so that I could easily point the telescope to the tape and, in turn, the room, and tune in.

I never once caught anybody fucking.

Which, at first, was VERY irritating. Until after some examination I discovered that I barely caught any couples even TALKING to each other. Even LOOKING at each other. Not too many people live alone, but everybody just ignores each other. She watches TV, you go on the computer; after a while, SWITCH, shower separately, phone call, leaf through US magazine, go to bed.

I’d kinda hoped there’d be something kinky out there in the world of apartment life, but nothing prepared me for how perverse the reality actually was.

Then it got way more creepy: this one girl became the star of everything. A Japanese girl of 20 or so who arrived home to her apartment around 1130pm and went about trying on 20 dresses or so from her closet in front of a tall mirror. One after another just working herself up and tearing herself down until a big fat breakdown against her bed, fists plunging into the mattress, bawling her eyes out. And all of it like clock work every weeknight (weekends I have no idea where she went). She always tried on the same red dress last every time.

But that was over a year ago. Maybe in another 15 minutes or so she’s somewhere or other near that red dress working her way up to it. Or maybe she’s wearing it right now with somebody she loves who doesn’t even suspect there’s any particular significance to what lies in her closet. Who knows. Not me. The stars were out tonight—and maybe hers’ were too—and I was just another pervert walking over a bridge to get home with the water calm and checkered like a dance floor, the moon fat as Orson Welles’ cheek buttering the sky.