by Darrah Le Montre
When I was eighteen, I allowed my then-girlfriend to move into my furnished-upon-request one bedroom apartment on Newcastle Avenue in Encino. I had badly wanted to move to Sherman Oaks, which I valued as “much cooler” and told my father so, from the back seat of his SUV. My mom rode shotgun, nervously applying and re-applying liberal amounts of rhubarb Clinique lipstick in this way she does. She makes a blowup doll O with her lips, then drags that wine red stick over into the crevices of the O where it slims at the sides. Drag stick, repeat. Drag stick, repeat. She pulls out a box of sugar-free spearmint gum. Before I say anything, she extends her arm over her headrest and drops a naked slice onto my sweaty palm. I toss it into my mouth. We both share a gum and Diet Coke addiction. She knows about the boys I’ve fucked, the STD scare, the pot and even the speed — but only somewhere. Somewhere in the back of her mind, like those secret veins I’ve seen leering behind her eyelids; popping out like a Jack-In-The-Box at only two distinct times: when she’s trying to make me laugh or is so angry she resembles the last human standing during Zombie Apocalypse. She won’t ‘fess to knowing, and years later, when I admit to relapsing, she repeats like a Hare Krishna sixteen round chant, “I didn’t know! I really didn’t know!” I’m not sure I believe her, but it really doesn’t matter too much anymore. I’ve already blamed her.
“No! Encino is nicer. How many times do I have to say this? Diane, you tell her,” my father shouts from the driver’s seat.
“She wants to live in Sherman Oaks. It’s cooler there.” My mom offers, then shoots me a look in the side mirror.
“It’s not that far from Encino! It’s the same degree of heat. Sherman Oaks is not Santa Monica!” he determines, then smiles at me from the rear view mirror, like Paul Ryan assuring old folks at Jewish Home for the Aging, ‘See, we’re on the same page.’
“Not cooler like hot and cold. Jesus, David. Cooler, like, COOL. Cool, fun, hip.” She opens her purse again, shuffles its contents, then re-zips it.
I sit back in the seat. Leaning forward is a nervous habit that puts me in false control. I even push their seats like a zealous teenager kicking the chair in front of him at the cinema. Except I’m pushing with my hands in a metaphorical Atlas Shits type position. Pushing them out out and away from me like a bad turd that’s wrecking my bowels, my intestinal fortitude slipping. Thinning, paper pliable, every almond I eat shreds my insides and I’m downing Tums several times a day to ease the pain.
“Are you OK?” My mother asks.
“She’s fine, Diane. Stop babying her.” My father lectures paternalistically.
There, ready and willing to be right, but when it comes to the actual protecting part, he dodges the draft and hides out in Canada, or rather, his makeshift office in the garage.
The hum of the dryer is one of the only sounds, even still, that calms me to the point of utter saturation. I melt into the moment, and a sort of Holy Spirit-like glee comes over me. I glide aimlessly around the house, and feel God like I used to when I ate my mother’s homemade white rice with mushroom soup splashed on top. All the while avoiding the big piece of hard meat she stuck in the corner of the plate. Dinners were spent begging me to eat the meat she’d prepared, that the rest of the family gleefully gobbled down. They never stole my piece because half the family had germ phobia (which I now have) and the other half was teased mercilessly by my father at dinners, and they feared reaching over and having him slap their hand.
The garage where he hid out was dubbed (by me) as The Dungeon. “The dragon’s in the dungeon,” I’d say, as code to my sister or brothers that he was home.
If I walked through his office and into the laundry area of The Dungeon, sometimes I wouldn’t even know he was there. I would get so lost in my imagination as a child that while my mother begged me to eat my meat and hurry for school, he begged me to “Pay attention! Look around! See what’s happening around you!”
“HELLO!” he’d shout from his desk.
“AAAAHHH!” I’d scream, and jump from my lithe teenage body like a Halloween cat narrowly escaping a satanic ritual.
“How do you not know I’m here? Why do we do this every time? This is my office, is it not?”
“Yes, sorry. I don’t know.” I’d laugh nervously and try to push the basket through the narrow entryway.
“Why do you startle so easily? What’s wrong with you?” he’d ask, while I’d shut the door between us, and hope he didn’t follow me in.
Turns out, I had PTSD when I moved out of my parent’s home. Like, literally. The same shit Vietnam Veterans and prisoners of war and abused wives and yadda yadda yadda get. I had that. Or so my shrink said. The nightmares that my father was chasing me with a gun, the stomach aches that lasted all day and were both an aperitif and the dessert parfait to a meal. The fact that I got startled about five to ten times a day. The intense dreams, oversleeping, under sleeping, binge eating, overexercising, drugs, abusive relationships. This was the never ending cycle of my years from eighteen to about twenty-eight. Suddenly, I stopped having to eat papaya after every meal, because I gave up Tums when I went organic.
We were parked in front of a building on Newcastle Avenue. A bucolic tree-lined cul-de-sac that bragged rows and rows of ritzy apartments that were hopefully in my price-range.
“If I go in with you, they’re going to think I’m paying your rent. If you go alone, you might be able to negotiate a lower monthly rate,” my father advises.
He’s turned around in his seat. I’m listening, but as usual, amped like a Ferrari at a stoplight, innards purring, just in case I have to dodge something. My heart is beating fast and everything scares me. Including talking to this rent lady that will surely be strange and mean and ask lots of questions like adults always do and sometimes I tell the truth and sometimes I tell somebody else’s truth. His eyes are icy, and I watch his hands to make sure they aren’t going to accidentally smite my face when he makes a point.
“Go in with her David, Jesus. She doesn’t know what she’s doing,” my mother says.
He shoots her a dirty look. We all get out of the car and buzz the manager. She’s an older lady, gray-haired, about 76. She speaks with a Long Island accent and walks around with a long curly rubber cord dangling to the side of her Bermuda shorts and flip-flops. We pass a forty-something Latino professional barbecuing asparagus at the public grill. He smiles as he removes his tie.
“Hi Ricardo,” she says. The ‘a’ sounds like Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting telling his girlfriend, Minnie Driver’s character, that he doesn’t love her.
My favorite scene was that one. Where she cries and begs the bad boy to stay with her and he hijacks her heart and, too scared to give in, leaves. But, his last glance tells her it’s only pride and that he’ll be back… She’s crushed, but she’ll survive. Because she’s in college, and because Matisse’s The Dance hangs above her bed. Another favorite of mine.
Mickey, the landlady, leads us up the cobblestone stairs. I hear the familiar creak of my mom’s “dancer’s knees” as we make our way to apartment 15. Upper unit, new linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom…
“Refrigerator comes with the unit, gas stove, lots of cabinets and storage, an extra hall closet to make up for no walk-in in the master bedroom, fully furnished, paid utilities, and eat-in kitchen. Nice, quiet building, mainly seniors, a few professionals, a small gym, pool, grill, and the neighbor next door is senile and delusional. Five sixty a month,” Mickey spouts like a veteran announcer at a veal auction.
“Can you help at all with the price?” I ask, my voice just audible.
She freezes. Looks to my mom and dad. “Are you helping with the rent?” she asks my father, who is dumbfounded.
“No, no, I wish, but no.”
“I can knock five dollars off the rent. Five fifty-five a month.” She says, and lifts her curly cord of keys.
They remind me of my own endeared-to chain when I assistant managed a candle store in the mall at thirteen. I like her. And I like this apartment. And, given I have no car, I can take the bus to work. What I can’t take is driving around with my father and mother another day looking at apartments in the sweltering heat, listening to their sentiments laced with lust and malice both. I count the paces from work to Sherman Oaks’s Tower Records. Close enough.
“I’ll take it,” I say. Without consulting anybody.
“It’s not for sale,” Mickey guffaws, “you know that, right?”
I let a low-level noise rumble in my throat. I walk out the front door, down the stairs, out the security door, and stand on the sidewalk to get some air and gaze into the moon. Trying to suss out the Man or the animal or the eye or the upside down orange wedge.
I jog to a pay phone and call my then-girlfriend at the dirty video store where she works as a cashier.
“I found a place. It’s in Encino.”
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