Friday, September 10, 2010
by Pamela Johnson
In October of 1996, my first husband and I decided to call it quits. Unlike the four tumultuous years we'd spent together, our last few days together were calm and surprisingly void of screaming and histrionics. I don't remember much about the day he left other than the fact that he looked kind of small and vulnerable amongst the boxes of clothes, tapes and musical equipment that reached the head liner of his electric blue Ford Aspire. Guy left me with pretty much everything we'd accumulated in our years together, including our one bedroom Bernal Heights apartment and the four cats we'd adopted together.
At the ripe old age of 26, I was a divorcee, basically a complete failure in the eyes of the general population. In addition, I was attending college on the ten-year plan and peddling drinks to a smattering of early rising alcoholics at a local dive bar to pay the rent. I knew I'd never be able to find an affordable place to live that also allowed a small menagerie of pets. This was San Francisco during the Internet boom. About to give up hope, my mother informed me that I had a cousin who had recently moved to the Bay Area and was in need of someone to rent the basement apartment in her plush suburban home. I had never met my cousin Becky, but I jumped at the prospect of low rent and animal tolerance on her part. On Halloween
day, I loaded up a U-haul and moved my belongings to her house.
My new in-law apartment, and I'm saying that word generously, was a tiny, one-room studio with a kitchenette, a small bathroom, a wardrobe for a closet, a couple of windows that looked out at the siding of the neighboring house, and a front door, which opened out into the garage/laundry room. After loading in the last of my stuff, my cousin and her roommate Vicky descended the stairs to welcome me. Laughably, they asked if I needed any help. Both women were impeccably dressed in business attire, a bit tipsy, and even if they really wanted to give me a hand, they would have probably broken a nail or tripped on their three-inch Prada heels. I imagined they watched me from an upstairs window, as I wrangled my uncooperative mattress from the truck. After a quick exchange of pleasantries they clacked back up
the stairs, leaving me to survey the motley collection of boxes and bags
that summarized my existence. Lethargic and sad, I flopped onto my queen-sized mattress on the floor. Married life had been less than stellar, but at least there were two people to deal with all the hassles, not to mention stereo and VCR assembly. Now all I had were my cats. Waiting stoically in their carriers, I opened the doors, freeing them into the giant litter box of a home we now all shared. They sniffed the familiar smelling boxes and crouched low to the ground like feline soldiers preparing for battle.
As the days passed, it became glaringly obvious that my affordable rent was a lure to entice me into babysitting Becky's two children. The first few weeks I was more than happy to oblige. The holidays were coming and I wanted to feel part of a family unit. The problem was, I didn't want to be the adult in this family unit. I wanted to be the child: a chain smoking, hard drinking child with a severe dislike for waking before noon. It didn't take me long to grow weary of grilled cheese sandwiches, screaming toddlers, and Disney marathons. I needed the company of an adult, but neither Becky nor Vicky had much interest in spending any time with me.
Becky passed most of her nights with her boyfriend Paulo, a younger man who fancied himself an artist. I guess in fairness, I must acknowledge his prodigious output, which filled every nook and cranny of Becky's house. On the rare occasion that I saw him, he would insist that I come upstairs to check out his latest jester inspired masterpiece. Being a horrible liar, I would respond with a simple "wow," or "interesting," trying hard not to offend him with my actual opinions, which leaned more toward, "Don't quit your day job." Luckily, Paulo was a man of few words, most of which were about himself. He was a handsome guy with stiffly gelled black hair, who wore tight fitting Italian shirts, designer jeans, and shiny black shoes. Becky must have thought she had won the hottie lotto. In exchange for his company, she bought his interestingly bad art, and he got to ride in her black convertible Mercedes. There are worse arrangements.
I rarely saw Vicky, as she spent most of her time at work as a bank manager, or out on dates with her rich boyfriend. When I did see her in the garage or the laundry room, she would offer a quick, snippy "hey" and trot back upstairs to her bedroom, which was situated right above mine. The sound of her heels hitting the hard wood floors reverberated throughout my room.
Once the New Year started, I declared to Becky that my babysitting days were over. This did not go over well, and the alienation that ensued was palpable. I became the horrible hobbit who resided at the bottom of the stairs in a cat-infested hole in the wall. In order to avoid confrontation with Becky, I stayed inside. It was bad enough that I worked at a dead end job while attending classes with students who were almost a decade younger than me, but now my only social companions were four furry cats, who in their confined space began to misbehave.
The naughtiest cat was Larry, an 18 pound orange tabby who was trying to achieve alpha male status by scratching, spraying and fighting with my oldest cat Pooty. I would come home to find the place a wreck and Pooty riddled with battle scars; tufts of his black hair scattered around the room. While I was at work or school, Pooty would spend his days nesting on top of the kitchen cabinets, a permanent scowl affixed to his face.
After doling out hundreds of dollars to treat an abscess on one of Pooty's nastier wounds, I began to take out my frustration on Larry. Whenever he veered towards misbehavior, I screamed at him to assert my authority.
"Larry! Get out of there."
"Larry, Stop it."
"Larry, leave Pooty alone!"
I felt horrible for yelling at the poor animal. He too was in hell. But, I still did it. The once majestic male animal would turn into a cowering, compulsive grooming fool at the sound of my raised, angry voice. I tried to make it up to him by brushing his fur while he rolled around in ecstasy on my bed, or speaking to him in a loud baby voice that would make him drool.
"Larry. Larry. Larry. You know I love you. Come here. Oh, you're a good boy, Larry."
It was a constant struggle to keep the peace at my house. Larry was high maintenance. Every day, I had to shower the gargantuan, red-headed maniac with a verbal combination of undying love and top of my lung screaming. It got to the point that I was communicating with Larry more than real adult people. He loved the attention, even the yelling, but I was slowly losing my mind.
As my isolation grew, my self-esteem began to plummet, and I fell into a weird sort of hibernation, confined within the four tiny walls of my studio. If I heard footsteps coming down the stairs, I would wait and listen until the garage door was closed before I attempted my exit. Larry could sense that something was up, and would try to gain my attention with more mischief and destruction. The yelling continued, as the other cats cowered under the bed.
"Larry, STOP IT!!!"
"Larry, Larry, Laaaaaarrrrrryyyyyy!!!"
"No, no, no!"
Within minutes, we would make up. I would coo like the crazy cat lady while he basked in the glow of my adulation. On the rare occasions that I encountered my housemates, they would look at me with strange disapproval, especially Vicky, who regarded me with an evil eye that was unmistakably pointed at my lifestyle. I couldn't understand her cold demeanor. I had never been anything but nice to her.
But one night, it all came to a head. I heard loud, stomping footsteps descending the stairs and then an assertive knock on my door. My heart raced. I was overwhelmed with a sense of impending doom. I had rarely seen Becky in the past month and now she was standing outside my door. I figured she was going to kick my ass to the curb, as my rent was late and my babysitting days were over. I opened the door with great hesitation. Becky eyed me with a stern, serious expression. I could tell that she was about to let me have it. Her forehead wrinkles were in full on crinkle mode and her skinny arms were folded tightly across her barely existent chest.
"Hey," I said as friendly as I could muster.
"Can I come in?"
I stepped back and offered her the uncomfortable wicker chair. I sat cautiously on my unmade bed. The cats scattered under the frame, afraid of the Obsession-wearing intruder.
"We need to talk." She paused and looked at me with an expression that could melt a glacier.
"This is really difficult," she continued.
Oh, shit, here it comes. I grabbed a pillow and placed it on my lap as some sort of softening for the ensuing blow.
"This is really none of my business, but Vicky can hear you."
I sat there silent and confused, unsure of what to say. Can hear what? Loud music? Late night TV?
Becky uncrossed her legs and leaned towards me. She whispered.
"You and your boyfriend."
"Huh?" I replied.
I was at a loss. I didn't have a boyfriend. In the months that I'd lived there I hadn't ever brought a single person into that apartment, it was too fucking small.
"She can hear you and Larry. Her room is right above yours and she says it gets pretty loud."
"Larry? My boyfriend Larry?"
I burst out laughing and rolled back onto the bed. Becky stared at me like I was mad or drunk or both. I couldn't contain myself, as this was the most hilarious thing I had ever heard. I imagined Vicky pressing her ear to the floor as I yelled at my boyfriend to "Leave Pooty alone," and then cooing that I loved him in a weird baby voice. She must have thought I was a very strange and abusive girlfriend to a poor mute man named Larry. No wonder she avoided me.
"Larry," I called out in my sweetest come-hither voice. Larry poked his head out from under the bed.
"Come here, Larry." Larry jumped onto my lap. I scratched his chin as reassurance that everything was okay.
"Becky, I want you to meet Larry. My boyfriend."
A smile lifted Becky's face with the wacky realization that things weren't as they seemed. The tension broke and we laughed with abandon in that smelly apartment until tears streamed down our faces. In the days that followed, I ventured out into the garage, but I never bonded with Becky or Vicky. Six months later, I left the suburbs and moved into a spacious, renovated crack house in the Bay View with a man who would later become my second husband. I was crazy about him. Thankfully, so were my cats.