Published in Trachodon, 2012
There was no mistaking who was in charge that night, one of the many, many evenings I spent interviewing for a new place to live in the five boroughs. Jacob paced the large Oriental rug, dictating rules and expectations of the home, speaking in stentorian solidity and exuding a quiet sense of control. But while most of us sat tight-lipped and rapt, the forty-something male to my left decided to flirt with rebellion and break the stillness.
As Jacob walked down to the other end of the living room, my restless neighbor snuck a quick sidelong glance at me and whispered, “Is that a dame or a dude?”
I smiled at the look he was giving me, thinking that only a forty-something would whisper such a word as ‘dame.’ His charcoal-toned shoes and cellular snugly shoved in his little belt-holster wiped clean any doubts.
But as our house interviewer walked back towards us, her light brown hair paralleling her light khaki shorts, I carefully released my little grin. Jacob stepped casually but deliberately, and she didn’t look to be the kind that minced her words.
And Jacob, a union negotiator, was clear in what she wanted, evinced by her firm, consistent tone, her eyes that evenly met the gaze of others. If you live here, your rent will be on time. You will keep the kitchen clean. No excessive noise. And no riffraff.
But friendly, still, friendly, even lively, conversational. I wondered just how friendly Alison was—was that her name, Alison? I wasn’t really listening but rather staring when we all gave our introductions, staring at her as she sat there on the big red Victorian sofa with the others, her Natalie Wood bob and exotic eyebrows accentuated by the sprawling green ferns behind her.
The others, yes, the opera singer, the seminary student, the bartender from Billings, the quiet kid from Albania. All of us grinning like idiots, fellowshipping, lusting at the great rent and the wonderful location, right by the train and an all-night bodega. All of us wanting to be part of this house lorded over by Jacob. Opera-boy made a quick joke and I glanced around and laughed, lost in this little dinner party of an interview, locking looks for a quickie with Alison, yakking it up with forty-something. Someone mentioned how much fun Jacob would be as a roommate, and the night and the laughter moved on.
But then the honeymoon was over. Jacob’s countenance became as dark as death itself, and when she, er, he, replied icily, “I prefer the pronoun he,” the mood of the little room struck a new tone.
I cannot begin to chronicle how quickly joy bid us farewell, how any small talk was suddenly self-conscious, how routine questions such as what’s your policy on pets? instantly became forced and contrived. We’d gone from Friday night football to a no-funnies funeral; the fervor and the chit-chat tiptoed away, and it was a different moment.
We eventually filed out, all of us, hoping we’d be the one. Gurgling black clouds incandesced by flashes of buried lightning surrounded the buildings of northern Manhattan, and as we stepped out onto the sidewalk we picked up our pace, a good storm almost a certainty. I’ll let you guys know was the usual closing mantra of such evenings, but with my Southern accent and McCain sticker plastered to my backpack, I knew I was a goner. What to do, some of us were surely thinking, with only a week left in the month, a week to find a new place to live.
But I knew what I was to do, especially given the electric opportunity the ancient neon of Marvin’s presented me, the beckoning blink of OPEN that chanced before me and a few of the others as we trudged our way to the subway. Would you like to get some coffee? had never been an opener for me but Dad always said there was a first time for everything. As it turned out, her name was Alison, and the oncoming downpour was but one more reason for her to join me in the diner.
I didn’t know where I was going to be bedding down in just a week from now, but I did suddenly know of one of those simple hours that stand out in time. Alison and I shared a multitude of laughs over the clink of coffee and the taste of warm pie, reveling at how a good night had gone sour. I swam in the outdated sheen of Marvin’s, liberated in fresh conversation with my new friend with the Natalie Wood hairdo and the fashionable eyebrows.
The rain outside power-washed the sidewalks and purged the dank humidity from the night air as we sat, dry, hidden in our tattered little booth, giggling, sipping, and sharing. She laughed when I asked her if she’d ever heard someone use the word dame and then voted opera-boy as the most likely candidate to be chosen. I looked out the window at the splat of the angry rain, unsure as to whom I thought Jacob would wind up picking. Alison’s laugh, though, was like that of a morning puppy, a thought sufficient enough. I swirled in her chatty exuberance, freefalling in the sound of showers and the warmth of coffee shop haze.
Thank you, mister forty-something, for the humor this evening, and thank you, mister Jacob, for this opportunity. I may never have felt as relaxed as I did in that café at that moment. And I knew I could wait until tomorrow to hop back on the computer, comb the apartment listings, and worry about where I would soon be watering my own ferns and baking my own pie.