“Are you having your period this week? In college I always matched up with my roommates after a couple of months of living together.”
“You’re not pregnant, are you?” “Your cheeks look funny.”
“I like shadows, don’t you?”
I really should move, I thought. It wasn’t as though moving would be a protracted ordeal. I had so few things I wouldn’t even need to label my boxes. Yet I couldn’t summon any real energy around the idea. The sour aroma of Jorie’s ever-simmering vegetable broth made me feel lethargic. Although the second I had that thought – the crazy broth thought – I realized it was something she would say, which made me want to run screaming into the street.
Yet my flat in Jorie’s house was nicer than the average apartment and I paid lower than average rent and I was allowed my one cat, Topaz. My credit sucked and I lived more or less paycheck to paycheck, making my student loan payments and falling further and further behind on the credit card bills that had eventually found their way back to me. Jorie hadn’t checked my credit and had let me move in without a deposit.
I’d stayed for two years and she expected more. “You’ve been so loyal,” Jorie said, daring me to contradict.
Our mothers had failed to survive – a double blow to their breast cancer support group. They had died within a week of each other, one-breasted, gallant, hospiced. “You two should be friends,” my mother, usually a keen judge of such things, urged. Jorie’s mother’s advice was surely more helpful. “Seize her,” I could imagine Nora rasping. “Use her.” Mom-inspired or not, Jorie had made it her job to bend me to her will and her will was that I would remain a tenant in her house until she’d finished her dissertation on the sociological implications of the Jamestown Flood and subsequent relief efforts, a project whose date-of-completion estimates ranged from six months to the advent of the second coming.
Every time I flushed I felt Jorie wincing downstairs, imagining the no-good I was up to.
“You’re not flushing tampons are you?” “I told you about Angel Soft, right?”
“You tell your guests, don’t you? About only flushing little bits of toilet paper?”
What guests? I had one local friend, Suzette – friend by coincidence, default, and her insistence. We had lived on the same floor of Busey-Evans during my first two years of college in Urbana, but I hadn’t seen her again until I ran into her at Target shortly after I moved to Edwardsville. I remembered her as a shy girl who changed majors every semester.
“I taped a note on the toilet seat lid,” I told Jorie.
“Loco landlordus,” Suzette said. “As gruesome a species as rattus rattus.”
“She’s just being careful,” I told Suzette. “Not every tenant is harmless like me.” It wasn’t hard to understand how the picture of human excrement and hygiene products bobbing in your basement might impede your concentration.
“What do you think about me planting some marigolds?”
“Marigolds are okay,” I said.
“It doesn’t have to be marigolds. If you have a bad association with them or something.”
“Do you know how rare it is for a landlord to not raise the rent every chance she gets?”
The thing was to not ask any questions, thus avoiding a disquisition on menstrual synchronicity or toilet paper dissolvability statistics or the symbology of bedding plants.
“How about this – I’ll give you a two-year lease for the same rent?”
As per the previous year, she amplified the attention she paid me as the day approached when I would either give notice or sign another lease. I only had a month left to dither.
“You don’t owe her anything,” Suzette told me. Suzette’s basement apartment was entirely carpeted – walls, ceilings, and floors. Just enough light came through the dirty half-windows to appreciate the carpet’s stains. There was a rodent problem, too. Her only perks were free cable and day-old bagels from the shop where her landlord baked. But I was the illogical one for sticking with Jorie.
“You’re like two miles from the bus line, right?” Suzette asked.
“More like two blocks.”
“Two long blocks. You feel sorry for her, don’t you?” Suzette asked. “Wake up – she’s using you.”
“You can’t tell me it wouldn’t screw up her plans if I left now,” I said.
“I’ve got three words for you: not your problem.”
It’s not that I was fond of leases. I could see for myself where promises led.
Meanwhile, I knew Suzette would pounce on my apartment if I moved out.
That vestibule! If only I could enter my apartment through a back window. Awful and unavoidable, with its nostril-tickling stuffiness, grubby white octagonal floor tiles, and intricate green paisley wallpaper, the latter of which so often mesmerized me as I stood holding my single piece of junk mail, the cue for Jorie to swing open the door.
“Any big checks? Love letters?”
This was hardly the only opportunity for entrapment. Disposing of a toxic tub of cottage cheese and hanging soggy clothes on the line in the basement suited Jorie’s purposes just as well.
“Your hair is so curly.”
“Your cat’s eyes give me bad dreams.”
“It’s not true that fresh air is good for you, you know.”
“There’s nothing wrong with the dryer. I did two loads last night and it was fine.”
“You’ll never find a place better than this, not even for $200 more a month.”
“You look like you could use a bowl of broth. I heard you sneezing last night.”
Not only did Topaz have “spooky” golden eyes, he was mischievous as well. Paperclips, lipsticks, pens, and flash drives were all a source of great merriment. He’d knock a matchbook off the counter and bat it across the room like a star soccer forward until losing it beneath the refrigerator or a closet door. If I cared to, of course, I could have tucked these items away in drawers or cupboards.
“What does your cat do up there?” Jorie asked.
My needling Jorie would have disappointed my mother, but I was always happy for an amusing distraction. Not only had I told my mother that I would try to be friends with Jorie, I had promised I would have myself genetically tested for the BRCA mutation and, if it turned out I had it, take “the next logical steps” such as having my breasts and ovaries removed.
“This needs to stop now,” she’d said, referring to the string of deaths in our family due to breast cancer. She’d lost her mother, three aunts, two great aunts, and her grandmother. Two cousins and her sister, my aunt Marti, had already been through one round of lumpectomy- radiation-chemo. This latter group was a staunch lot. They weathered the harsh treatments pretty damn cheerfully and then marched forward, going years cancer-free, though no one had yet to reach the magic seven-year mark. Mom’s pronouncement carried a lot of authority, being issued as it was from her goddamned deathbed, but. . .
“There’s always a but with you,” she would scold if she could speak from the grave.
But why was I to be ruled by probability? She was the one who’d finally prodded me from the nest, told me that life was all about taking chances. And what did it really mean, to be friends with Jorie? Couldn’t an argument be made that having me as a stable tenant actually made it easier for her to procrastinate on her dissertation? Would a real friend be such an enabler? Besides, the equation could be flipped. If Jorie was a real friend wouldn’t she kick me out, urge me to get on with my life?
I set my alarm clock volume to low, I didn’t shower after 10 p.m., and I never wore shoes in the apartment, but once a week or so I banged my cupboard doors open and shut, to keep Jorie on her toes, to make a sound louder than the thud of my heart in my chest.
“You don’t look thirty,” Jorie said.
“Those are interesting boots.”
“How would you feel about new carpet on the stairs?”
“This month’s tea is incredible – an organic Emperor’s red from the Fujian Province. I’m about ready to put on a pot.”
“It’s cool how we’ve got this symbiotic relationship going.”
“I think we should decorate the outside of the house this Christmas.”
It made me nervous how she studied my face. “I know you like it here,” she said. “You can’t tell me you don’t.”
She’d ease up, I knew, if I just said yes, yes, sign me up. But for some reason – because she wouldn’t ease up? – I couldn’t.
Jorie was a scrappy little woman with scrawny, muscular arms and a flat chest. She parted her limp dishwater blonde hair in the middle and pulled it back with tiny plastic barrettes. Did she feel like her body was a time bomb waiting to go off? Did she feel that there was more to her destiny than genetic code? Was it possible she’d had her own breasts lopped off, her ovaries yanked? Or was her interminable research on the Jamestown Flood a way of putting off the inevitable – a life in service to Ten Things You Can Do to Improve Your Odds Against Breast Cancer?
We all die. We all die, Mom.
She fought to the death but I had often wished she’d been less tenacious. Her sickness had disgusted me, her chemical and human smells, her diminishment, her blotchy, puffy skin and pink scalp. Inside I was all grimace and gag, all day every day. She was a shrewd woman. In retrospect it was hard for me to believe she’d been taken in by my meek ministrations. I wondered if she had ended up regretting her request that I move in with her so she could spend a few more months at home. Perhaps my mother’s insistence that I befriend Jorie was a form of punishment. One way of looking at my situation was that I had exactly what I deserved – just desserts for my insincere bedside manner and reluctance to keep a promise. Another way of looking at it was that I had far more than I deserved.
“Are you unhappy?” she asked. “Is there something you want to talk about?”
“Jorie! I’m fine. Where do you get this stuff?”
“You’ve been drinking more wine lately, have you not?”
“You’re keeping track?”
“When you drink wine your walk is heavier. And you scuff.”
“I scuff?” I made my voice as menacing as I could with a word ending in ff.
She blinked. She’d momentarily forgotten her mission. “Do you want to paint? Your walls, I mean. I’ll supply the paint, of course.”
I vowed to collect my empties and dispose of them elsewhere. I wondered which would be worse – if Jorie really did know everything about me or if she didn’t know one damn thing.
“I’ll help you paint,” she rambled on. “Did you know that if you buy high quality paint you don’t usually need a second coat? Provided you choose a light color. A pretty pale yellow would be cheery, especially in the afternoon. But whatever color you want is fine.”
“I’m not talking that toxic crap. I’d buy ultra-low VOC, you know? So you won’t get high or nauseous or anything.”
Paint was one of Jorie’s new areas of expertise. She’d recently begun a romance with another grad student – a painter who worked weekends at Burkmenter’s Paint Store.
“He just loves paint!”
“He’s really into blue right now.”
Stuart the painter was ostentatiously paint-spattered. I was suspicious of his artfully blue- flecked bangs. Stuart’s fucking blue period – ha!
“Do you like this color? Do you think Stuart will like it?” She thrust a skein of shimmering azure yarn into my face, as if I needed to smell it.
“You have a lovely chin.”
“Clara Barton was 67 years old when she arrived to help the flood victims.”
“Do you eat a lot of bananas?”
“Bananas?” I asked, in spite of myself.
“I’m getting a really strong whiff of banana peels. If you put the peels in little plastic bags before you throw them away they don’t get all stinky in the garbage can.”
“You should come to Knit Night with me. I think you’d find it very therapeutic.”
“I’m not much of a craftswoman.”
“You don’t have to knit anything complicated. You could start with a scarf. Or a washcloth.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Topaz licked the inside of my left arm while I drank bitter, over-steeped Earl Grey tea. Below, Jorie’s teapot whistled shrilly, ten seconds, thirty seconds, a minute, and then thump, thump, thump – sturdy Stuart ran to cut off the burner. Before Stuart, I hadn’t noticed how quiet a neighbor Jorie had been. Now I heard murmur of conversation throughout the day, chairs squeaking against the linoleum, NPR playing in the morning while Stuart clanged about in Jorie’s kitchen, Stuart bellowing for his lover from two rooms back, “Jor-reee!” I hadn’t even known Jorie’s teapot had a whistle, having never taken her up on her invitations to share a pot. I was coming to understand that these sounds were part of our negotiations – Stuart’s brand-new presence a reminder that I wasn’t indispensable.
“I hope I didn’t offend you the other day,” she said.
Which time? “It’s forgotten.”
“I care about you, you know.”
The vestibule was a convection oven in the summer. I could feel sweat from my fingertips seeping into the envelope containing my phone bill.
“How’s the dissertation coming?” I surprised myself by asking.
Jorie picked at a curled up corner of the wallpaper just above the mailboxes. “Stuart’s landlord won’t let him use refrigerator magnets. She says they can scar the surface.”
How did she ever expect to finish her dissertation with a boyfriend and a new hobby? I knew for a fact – because I wasn’t above doing a little mail-rifling – that below-market or not, my rent covered Jorie’s mortgage payment. Jorie had inherited a literal asset that was also a roof over her head, whereas I’d quit my job as assistant development director at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma and moved back to where I’d set out from at 18 as the skinny, bookish, underconfident daughter of a single mother. I spent eleven months sleeping in the fetal position on my mother’s loveseat, depleted my nest egg-lette, and landed in a less lofty, less remunerative, but related job at the community arts center. Instead of helping mastermind fundraising campaigns and courting rich connoisseurs of glass, I planned small-town fundraisers and held the hands of volunteers. It was no great fall, mind you. But.
“So,” Jorie said.
“So.” It was two days before the deadline. The flowerboxes in front of the house were still empty.
She gave my face a once-over, but if she saw a blemish or a flaw in my cosmetics she kept mum.
“You could just tell me what you plan to do.”
What if she actually wanted me out? What if Nora had made Jorie pledge fidelity to me? I wondered if I still had any leverage. Would she have the bathtub reglazed? Replace the goddamned clothes dryer? Knit me a scarf for my birthday?
I did want marigolds, I thought – big, fat, orange and yellow ones flecked with red. And Granny Smith green walls in my bedroom. And lots of fat-bulbed multi-colored lights hung on the bushes for all of December and January.
Suzette had grown tired of my dithering, too. “This whole ‘will I stay or will I go’ refrain is a sham,” she’d told me over a pleasantly cool but tasteless $8 a glass Pinot Grigio at the local wine bar. “It’s pretty obvious you’re not going anywhere.”
“What are you waiting for?” Jorie asked. She kicked at the wooden staircase. A small patch of grey paint fell off. She sighed.
Suzette had asked me the same question about dating. Undeterred by a .100 second date record, she had just renewed her online matchmaking service membership. “I don’t remember you being the type for the nunnery.” Which pointed to the point, kind of. Drinks with a man led to dinner, which eventually led to sex, second dates or not. My current day-to-day life allowed me to entertain the illusion that I was little more than an abstract idea of a woman. Embarking on any sort of anything with a man required concreteness, and my body didn’t feel like a going concern.
“Have you had the test?” I asked.
Jorie’s eyes bugged. She crossed her arms over her chest. “Fucking genes,” she said.
“Tell me,” I said.
“I’ll tell you in two days.”
Mom lived in a crummy, small apartment, just a few quality steps above Suzette’s. It smelled stale and vaguely uric even before she got sick and I moved in with Topaz and his litter box. She’d worked for years as a secretary for an old-timey real estate investment firm. Her employers were three bachelor brothers who chomped on their cigars and whistled show tunes and dictated their letters to my mother, who sat with her taupe pantyhosed legs crossed neatly at the ankles, hand sliding deftly across her steno pad. What I’m saying is that I could never figure out what my mother was fighting for. Another luncheon with the brothers Razykowski at Bella Milano on Administrative Professional’s Day? Discussing Ian McEwan’s latest with her book club? Her annual visit to Aunt Marti in Tampa?
The men in my family were itinerants and alcoholics. The women led puny, truncated lives: associate degrees, church group memberships, craft hobbies, 3-day cruises, clerical jobs – the kind of life you might make if you didn’t much count on hanging onto it. (As compared to the vast, rich tapestry that was my life!) But then there was that wondrous tenacity, their fierce hanging onto the puniness, just in case or just because.
“It’s sort of like renewing our vows.” Jorie seemed giddy. Well, why wouldn’t she be? She bobbed in her chair like a toy boat, buoyant at the prospect of our two-year future. Then she went serious. “You should get the test,” she said. “I’ve got to think it makes a difference to know what you’re up against.”
“What about you?”
“I’m going to put on the kettle. Stuart’s holed up painting all weekend. He’s got a group show in a couple of weeks.” She gave me a sort of pleading smile. “You could stay for a cup, at least.”
“What’ve you got?”
“As it happens, I just received Oolong Symphony #18.” She cocked her head toward the ceiling. “Do you have a new clock? I keep hearing this loud ticking, like Captain Hook’s crocodile.”
“Nope. No new clock.” Just new batteries for one of my mother’s old clocks.
“That’s weird,” she said. “I swear I never heard it before a few days ago.” She looked at me squarely. “Your blusher is too pink,” she said. “You should go with something peachier.”
Above us came the skitter-skitter-skitter-whump of Topaz batting what sounded like a tube of lip balm across my front room and under my coat closet door.
I shrugged and shook my head: what can I do? “That cat,” I said.
I’d paint the living room walls a deep shade of amber, an amber that matched Topaz’s eyes. I’d have the last word.