I. Landlord & Tenant
Fresh out of college, I rented a tiny two-bedroom in the slums of San Jose. It was a cold, lonely house. In the winters, to get warm, I had to turn on both the heater and stove.
Still, it was a steal at $650 a month. “Why should I charge more? I’d just have to hand it over to Uncle Sam,” said Ron. His wrinkled face and jowls made me think he’d had enough tenants to just be straight with me.
Ron also owned the small one-bedroom in the back lot, and several other houses throughout San Jose. On the first of the month, he’d roll by for his check. I heard he was a millionaire, but he drove an old Ford truck and lived in a house badly in need of a woman’s touch, or at least some modern fixtures.
He often came by with his handyman, Gus, who was just getting into rental properties. In front of the one home he owned, Gus had used a chainsaw to carve a tree trunk into the shape of a penis. The women in the neighborhood complained that it was offensive and inappropriate considering the number of children that lived on that street. He and Ron buckled over laughing the day they cut it down, saying things like woody and castration over the sound of the saw. They told me the story, and in the same breath complained they didn’t have women in their lives. It was my first realization that the notion there’s someone for everyone wasn’t true.
II. Terms & Conditions
In Los Angeles, we live in boxes. I’ve moved frequently to different parts of the sprawling city, hoping for better feng shui, but a box is a box, no matter how you arrange the furniture.
I rented in North Hollywood, a stone’s throw from the pool. In the summer, shouts and screams invaded my living room, as people performed belly flops and bottom bombs into the crisp chlorine. I was dating a divorced man, who claimed his wife cheated on him. He was paranoid I’d do the same. After we broke up, I found a baby monitor under my couch. The batteries were long dead, but I whispered into its microphone, “We could have had something special.”
I had a one-year lease in Brentwood that turned into three years. The kitchen and bathroom were tiny. Not even a tub. Even the assigned parking was tight, causing me to scratch my car door several times on the support beam and concrete wall. One morning, I caught my boyfriend staring out the window at the neighbor girl, who was topless. Even when I walked in, he continued watching, behavior that signaled our end. But I was still unprepared for the moment I came home and found every trace of him gone.
After that, I shacked up with a man in Valencia, paying half the rent. On the outskirts of LA, I hoped for more space and possibly love. It was expansive but lonely.
It surprises me that out of all the apartments I lived in with their units bunched close together and their walls paper thin, I rarely heard people having sex. I’ve heard sneezes, coughs, even farts, and held my ear against the wall to eavesdrop on fights. But never hanky-panky.
III. Maintenance & Alterations
I own a unit now, intended as a rental. I painted the walls a neutral color. Potential residents came to see if the posted pictures on Craigslist lived up to the unit’s advertised plain-vanilla presence. I did not expect so many people to want it—and for so high a price.
I am nothing like the walls here—a blank canvas someone can easily project a future and persona upon. If this condo were a place to make my own, I’d take my brush and paint my varied palette upon it: overripe blueberries about to burst into black-and-blue bruises; toenail polish a shade of crimson red called, “Girls Who Love Cowboys” (and on whom the girls love to ride bareback and backwards); and a shade of tropical rainforest-green men want to explore, being lured by lush, unkempt territory.
After the breakup with the man in Valencia, I was forced to take up residence within the very walls I had painted an insipid beige to pimp the place out. Of course, my residence here is temporary; my future love will require more than 784 square feet. Only a five-bedroom, two-story mansion upon a hill overlooking the sea will do. I’m greedy that way.
I try to perk things up, at least superficially, and keep the slate neutral underneath. I’ve bought and hung several landscapes and portraits, except for one of a lone woman with her long face, which seemed too much like a reflection.
IV. Condition of Premises
My window faces two other apartments in our garden-style building, except there’s no garden, only a single potted palm and a patch of cement.
One of the apartments is vacant. In the evenings, the owners, a man and wife, show the place. I can tell they’re married by the way she frets over the cleaning, spray bottle and cloth in hand, and the way he readies the pens and applications on a foldout table; they do this in silence, years of experience in their roles. After they finish and pack up, they leave the lights on. Beyond the sheers, I see bamboo floors, and I imagine dancing to country western songs doing the two-step, cowboy cha cha, and electric slide unencumbered by furniture or a partner.
The other unit is occupied by a woman and her fat tomcat. She feeds him in the mornings before she leaves dressed in nurse-green scrubs. She always leaves the light on above the stove. I see the cat pacing back and forth during the day, as if looking for his owner. When she finally comes home, in a coy game of cat and mouse, he runs and hides. I hear her call, “Here Kitty, Kitty.”
Sometimes the sun gets through to our little rectangle of the world.
V. Right of Entry & Inspection
I’m a freelance writer, so I work from home, a cork bulletin board my only companion. On it, I place encouraging notes to myself. Great article. Good job on the marketing plan! You are a light in the world. Shine!
Other times, I pin pictures of friends, who think they can best me, like Mel, who seduced every boy I had a crush on in high school, and now works as a high school English teacher, and last I heard was sleeping with a married man. Every time I see her, she asks me how much money I make. Sometimes on the board, I conjure word captions coming from her mouth, “Why don’t you have some cake?” or “Potato chips won’t make you fat.” Sometimes, I stick a thumbtack through her forehead.
When friends come to visit, I hide the board behind my bookcase. They wouldn’t understand what it takes to stay motivated when you work from home alone.
VI. House & Laundry Rules
When I lived with my family, my father had wonderful sayings that I can’t shake so they move from place to place with me: Do as I say, not as I do. Buck up and be a man about it. If you want a job done right, do it yourself. If you’re going to do something, be the best or don’t bother.
Other gifts from my father: a penchant for hard liquor (tequila, whiskey, and scotch); his tendency to drink too much (and unforgivably, to drive afterward); his quick temper when inebriated, but also his ability to apologize profoundly and profusely for everything the next morning, and to swear he’ll go on the wagon.
Back then, my father provided preferential occupancy to certain foods in our refrigerator: mango pickle with li hing mui (my mouth waters just to think of it); homemade guava jam strained through a pillow case; pasteles made with green bananas and wrapped in ti leaves; lau lau with its fatty pork, beef, and salted cuttlefish; and my grandfather’s pork dinuguan, made with the pig’s belly, blood, and liver—which we called chocolate meat for its appearance.
In my refrigerator, guests overstay their welcome and mark relationships gone to ruin: shrimp, peeled and deveined; bottles of wine started but unfinished; a bunch of asparagus gone soft and limp; salmon, tilapia, and catfish, this last always the first to smell; bags of salad gone the way of green primordial soup; and a fuzzy white cucumber infected with boils filled with vegetable pus. I always put the good-for-you foods in the bottom drawer to be forgotten.
A friend of mine gave me a large slice of lasagna. At first, I thought this was an act of generosity, but when I warmed the lasagna up in the microwave, there was a slightly rotten scent, as though the ground turkey was starting to turn in its mozzarella grave. I moved the pasta to the freezer to remind me what people are capable of.
VII. Possession & Abandonment
My new boyfriend rents in Hermosa Beach. I stay with him on the weekends, a brief getaway from the city. We walk five minutes and we’re on the beach. It’s warm, beautiful, and spacious. I feel like I should leave a tip when I pack up and head home.
I like to weigh myself everyday. I rely on this ritual to tell me how much I amount to—blood and bones, flesh of flesh, meat and muscle. But he has no scale, so on the Sunday mornings when I enjoy the sand and sea, I miss my weigh-in.
Later in the evening, my boyfriend calls to catalog the items I left behind. I left them there intentionally to take up space in his home. I say, “I wish we were closer.” He says, “I call you when I feel like talking.”
I know he didn’t mean the words the way I hear them, “I don’t call because I don’t like talking to you” and “I don’t like you.” I wish I had my morning weigh-in to fall back on; it would make me feel like I amounted to something, however little.
Boyfriends are like tenants or landlords, depending on the lighting. In the moonlight, they’re like tenants wanting to occupy you; and in the morning light, they’re like landlords ready to evict you for the slightest transgression.
My father and stepmother’s home never felt like my own. The rules of their living arrangement were not written, rarely spoken, and were continually negotiated, coming down to what the tenants could and could not bear. I was a cautious guest, picking up after myself. Stepmother was the housewife with no other occupation except the forced labor of taking care of our home and family. My father, the breadwinner, expected dinner to be cooked by the time he got home, household expenses to be managed within the means of his salary, and laundry to be done just the way he liked it. Stepmother wanted a job to have her own money, her own say, but my father had the say, and in regards to her finding a job, it was always, “Later, when the kids get older.”
Trash bags accumulated under the stairs to our backyard, filled not with garbage but unpaid bills and unwashed clothes. Caked-on pans and pots found their way into the crawlspace under our house. My father never seemed to notice, was merely puzzled when his favorite work shirt or saucepan disappeared.
On Friday nights, my father brought beer and drinking buddies home. From my bedroom window, which looked out at their party in the front yard, I eavesdropped. One night, I overheard an uncle telling a joke about a newlywed couple so in love they went several nights without eating, instead running upstairs to their bedroom. In the joke, the husband came home one evening and found his wife straddling the staircase banister and sliding down. He asked what she was doing, and she replied, warming up your dinner.
My uncle laughed long and deep. Stepmother was busy bringing out sweet and salty short ribs for pupus; father, who’s never had a sense of humor, managed a quiet smile. From my room, I smiled, too, although my ten-year-old self didn’t understand. Where was the food? How long could they go on in this way?
Eventually, my father and stepmother divorced. Of all the homes I’ve shared with men, the end was always the same: Love did not last. When we went our separate ways, someone was left with the empty space where the other once resided.
But here I am again, faced with the age-old proposition: Let’s move in together. How many rooms do we need? Whose bed do we keep? It’s a time of smiles and laughter, and, of course, passionate sex. That’s how these arrangements always begin. I remember back to my uncle’s joke. I’m none the wiser. How we’re supposed to live and take up residence with one another, it’s still a mystery. And yet I’m compelled to try.
Tammy Delatorre is a writer living in Los Angeles. She was a winner in the River Styx Micro-Fiction Contest, a finalist for the Montana Prize in Creative Nonfiction, and recognized in various other literary contests. Her writing has appeared in Los Angeles Times, Salon, and Many Mountains Moving. She enjoys paddleboarding, photography, and culinary delights. In previous lives, she’s worked for a Nobel-prize-winning biochemist; helped to design, build, and race a solar car that won the World Solar Challenge in Australia; and danced the hula despite being teased of stiff hips. More of her writing can be found at www.tammydelatorre.com.
Image credit: ciadefoto on Flickr
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #7.